What Does It Mean to Be Baptized?


This will be the “back page” for the Fishkill UMC bulletin this Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Lent (Year A), 2 April 2017.  The reading is from Isaiah 58: 6 – 12.

It should be noted that I have spoken of this incident on a number of occasions in the past.


There is no doubt in my mind that my faith was challenged during the season of Easter in 1969.  I didn’t understand (though I thought I did) what it meant to be a Christian and then (as I will describe next week) my own faith journey was questioned.

With the war in Viet Nam and the Civil Rights movement constantly in the news, one could not help but think about the correct thing to do.  I was, as many people know, active in the anti-war and civil rights movements on my college campus (much to my parents’ concern).  My participation was based on the idea that it was the right thing to do and it would open the gates of heaven when the time came.

But I found out that you do not do good things to get into heaven; you do good things because it is what you have been called to do when you accept Christ as your Savior.

I believe only you know when Christ calls you to accept Him.  But I know that I could discern that call because I was baptized and raised to understand that my baptism was more than an event in my life.

The challenge is we must build a community that helps people find Christ and that makes the act of baptism the first step on that journey.

What does it meant to be baptized?  It means that we, individually and collectively, have decided to begin a journey with Christ.

~ Tony Mitchell

Where Is Your Focus?


A Meditation for 13 March 2016, the 5th Sunday in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4 – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8

What did Jesus mean when He told His disciples that the poor would be with us always? Did He mean that poverty was a permanent condition that could never be fixed and that we should just accept the idea that some people will never have enough to survive, let alone live in a reasonable manner?

Or was He pointing out that the political and economic system might be corrupt and that there were those whose wealth and status came at the expense of others. Remember, in the Gospel reading Judas Iscariot wants Mary to sell the oil and give the money to the poor. We also know that John, the writer of this Gospel has a burr under his saddle when it comes to Judas so he proclaims Judas wanted to steal the money from the group’s common treasury, of which he (Judas) was the appointed treasurer.

Not withstanding Judas’ motives, that he saw the need to have money available to give to the poor suggests, at least to me, that the social support system of that time was not working. If it was, there would have been no concern about how an expensive oil might be used.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that their God, the God who brought them out of slavery and exile, has provided for them. In a desert land where water is at a premium, Isaiah points out that God provided them with water so that they could live. And because their basic needs have been met, they, the people of Israel need not worry about that and can be more attuned to what is to come.

We live in a time that probably would have driven Paul crazy. If, as he warned the Philippians, there were religious busybodies running about then, more interested in their own appearances than they were concerned about others, how would he react today. I don’t think Paul would have cared very much for those who say that they are evangelical Christians today.

Those who proclaim themselves evangelical Christians today seem more interested in their own fortune and well-being than they do the fortune and well-being of others. Those who have taken the name of Christ have, in my opinion, taken it in vain.

You cannot say you are for Christ and then say in the same breath that you hate people or that you are willing to go to war and you feel that feeding the hungry or healing the sick or taking care of the homeless is a waste of time. But then again, many of those who say this say it is because the poor will be with us always so why do anything about it.

About six weeks ago, I wrote a piece entitled “I Am A Southern Evangelical Christian! What Are You?” in which I defined evangelism as

declaring the good news about what God is doing in the world today. Evangelism should challenge individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit transform them into new creations. But it is more than that.

It involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It means to call people to participate (nasty word there, don’t you think) in the revolutionary transformation of the world. Evangelism is what Jesus said it was: broadcasting the good news that the Kingdom of God is breaking loose in human history, that a new social order is being created, and that we are all invited to share in what is happening. God is changing the world into the world that should be and we are invited to live this good news by breaking down the barriers of racism, sexism, and social class.

Evangelism requires that we declare the Gospel not just by word but also by deed and we show God’s presence in this world by working to eliminate poverty, prevent unjust discrimination and stand against political tyranny. Evangelism calls us to create a community through which God’s will is done, here on earth, as it is in Heaven. (borrowed and adapted from Tony Campolo’s foreword to Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel: Luke and Acts; for more see “Who Are You Following?” or “What Do We Do Now?” where I consider how to apply the thoughts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as those of Clarence Jordan and edited).

It is not easy to be an evangelical Christian when it requires that you work, perhaps without the glory that you think should come for doing just a smidgen of the work. It is not easy to be an evangelical Christians when such efforts run counter to the expressed nature of society where self comes before community. It is not easy to be an evangelical Christian at a time when society doesn’t seem to care about people.

What was it that Sir Thomas Moore said to Richard Rich (in “A Man For All Seasons”

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

It isn’t a matter of what society thinks; it never was. It is a matter of knowing in your heart that you have accepted Christ, that you cast away all that you were before, and that you walked with Christ. And you have walked with Christ to the Cross and you kept walking afterwards, carrying the message of hope and promise throughout the land.

It is not easy; even Paul knew that. But he also knew that keeping his focus on Christ was what he had to do.

Where is your focus?

 

“This Is the Time”


Here is the message that I gave for the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 9, 2000, at Walker Valley (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.

The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the covenant that God will make with his people. The main difference between this covenant and the others before it are that God initiates it. In doing so, God is assuring its effectiveness. This is also the prophecy that predicts Jesus’ birth and ministry.

And as Jesus pointed out to his disciples in the Gospel reading for today, the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. The time has come to set the covenant into action.

Like all the covenants of the Old Testament, this is an agreement between two parties, In this case the two parties are God and us. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading for today, if the covenant is to be fulfilled, we must follow Him. In verses 25 and 26, Jesus points out that

“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father, will honor. (John 12: 25 – 26)

When I got home Wednesday, Ann told me that I had received a note from my mother telling me of the death of someone. At first, I could not identify who the person was and initially thought it was one of the older members of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. But when I read the article that my mom sent, I realized that it was a classmate of mine from high school who had died rather unexpectedly.

I do not grieve for the loss of this friend of mine from thirty years ago. I know that she led a good life and it was a life in Christ so I do not worry. But death has a way of making us think about our lives and about what Jesus asks us to do in giving up our life.

Only very late do we learn the price of the risk of believing, because only very late do we face up to the idea of death.

This is what is difficult: believing truly means dying. Dying to everything: to our reasoning, to our plans, to our past, to our childhood dreams, to our attachment to earth, and sometimes even to the sunlight, as at the moment of our physical death.

That is why faith is so difficult. It is so difficult to hear from Jesus a cry of anguish for us and our difficulties in believing, “Oh, if only you could believe!”

Because not even he can take our place in the leap of Faith; it is up to us. It is like dying! It is up to us, and no one is able to take our place.

This mature act of faith is terribly, uniquely personal. Its risk involves us down to the core. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

The phrase that Jesus used, “loves his life”, describes those who serve only themselves. Shortly after he spoke these words, he gave his disciples the opportunity to identify this problem in their own lives. This was when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples prior to the Feast of the Passover. The phrase “hates his life” involves serving Christ. Each believer must establish his or her own priorities. We cannot give ourselves fully to a life on earth and yet be committed to the life that is to come. To follow Christ is to follow Jesus example of self-sacrifice when He, the teacher, washed the feet of His disciples. Jesus set the example of “hating” His life in this world so that He could accomplish eternal purposes.

The world needs more than the secret holiness of individual awareness. It needs more than sacred sentiments and good intentions. God asks for the heart because He needs the lives. It is by lives that the world will be redeemed, by lives that beat in concordance with God, by deed that outbeat the finite charity of the human heart.

Man’s power of action is less vague than his power of intention. And an action has intrinsic meaning; its value to the world is independent of what it means to the person performing it. The act of giving food to a helpless child is meaningful regardless of whether or not the moral intention is present. God asks for the heart, and we must spell our answer in terms of deeds.

It would be a device of conceit, if not presumption, to insist that purity of heart is the exclusive test of piety. Perfect purity is something we rarely know how to obtain or how to retain. No one can claim to have purged all the dross even from his finest desire. The self is finite, but selfishness is infinite. God asks for the heart, but the heart is oppressed with uncertainty in its own twilight. God asks for faith, and the heart is not sure of its own faith. It is good that there is a dawn of decision for the sight of the heart; deeds to objectify faith, definite forms to verify belief.

The heart is often a lonely voice in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

The integrity of life is not exclusively a thing of the heart; it implies more than consciousness of the moral law. The innermost chamber must be guarded at the uttermost outposts. Religion is not the same as spiritualism; what man does in his concrete, physical existence is directly relevant to the divine. Spirituality is the goal, not the way of man. In this world music is played on physical instruments, and to the Jew the mitsvot are the instruments on which the holy is carried out. If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God..” (From God in Search of Man by Abraham Joseph Heschel)

That is why we find it so hard to give up everything and to follow Jesus. But if we are to be successful in the coming years, if we are to be His servants, then we need to understand this point. Too often, evangelism is presented as simply bringing people to Christ. Evangelism is about breaking down the barriers that mankind has erected over the years. It is about overcoming prejudice, poverty, political irresponsibility, and international tribalism. Yes, evangelism means to bring people to Christ. That will always be the first and most important part of the job. But we must also be aware that a call for a decision for Christ must be related to a call for a decision in Christ, a call to show Christ working in this world.

The events of the last week reminded me of what the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes 3.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

There is a time and a season for everything. And for us this day, the time is now.

There is a time to be born, a time to die. As it turns out, Sunday, April 30th, when we celebrate the baptism of four children, will also be the day that every United Methodist Church celebrates each heritage. Normally, Heritage Sunday would be celebrated on April 23rd, the day in 1968 when the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. But with Easter on the 23rd this year, the celebration of our heritage will be celebrated on the 30th. And what better way to celebrate such a heritage than to baptize those four children and bring new members into the church.

This is also a time to build up. I received a note from Reverend Winkleblack telling me that Walker Valley United Methodist Church will receive the $22,000 that it requested. The good news is that $4,000 will be in the form of a grant, meaning that the total loan will only be $18,000. That is why the Finance Committee will be meeting on April 30th. Though the Trustees will undertake the majority of the work being covered by this loan, having this loan means that we can do other things as well. And those we must make the appropriate plans through the Finance Committee.

The prophet Zechariah wrote,

“The Lord of Hosts says, ‘Get on with the job and finish it! You have been listening long enough! For since you began laying the foundation of the Temple, the prophets have been telling you about the blessings that await you when it’s finished. Before the work began there were no jobs, no wages, no security; if you left the city, there was no assurance you would ever return, for crime was rampant. But it is all so different now! For I am sowing peace and prosperity among you. Your crops will prosper; the grapevines will be weighted down with fruit; the ground will be fertile, with plenty of rain; all these blessings will be given to the people left in the land. ‘May you be as poor as Judah,’ the heathen used to say to those they cursed! But no longer! For now ‘Judah’ is a word of blessing, not a curse. ‘May you be as prosperous and happy as Judah is,’ they’ll say. So don’t be afraid or discouraged! Get on with the rebuilding the Temple! If you do, I will certainly bless you.” (Zechariah 8: 1 – 14)

God, through Zechariah, speaks of a great future, one that renews the covenant that God made through the prophet Jeremiah. Our celebration of communion this day marks our acceptance of that same covenant, the one that Christ offered to us so many years ago. As he told his disciples, as we drink from the cup, we drink of the new covenant. This is the time that we begin this new covenant. It is a time to celebrate those being born; it is a time to mourn the passing of those who died. It is a time to build up; it is a time to break down. It is a time to accept Christ in our hearts and by our acts and actions show others the presence of Christ in this world. Christ’s actions were to move us forward, to a better life. It is up to us at this time to close the covenant.

A New Life for the Church and in the Church


These are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 10 April 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Romans 8: 6 – 11, and John 11: 1 – 45. I started this last week but didn’t get to finish it because of some other more pressing tasks. The delay did prove to be fortuitous because, in the delay, I was able to find the closure for this piece.

One of the things that happened allowed me to note that some of what I was thinking was not entirely new but rather a restatement of things I had previously written (see “Rethinking the Church” and “To Search for Excellence”). That I reuse my ideas means either I am guilty of what I preach against or we are ignoring the solutions to a problem that has been with us for some time. Let us hope that it is more the latter than the former.

As I noted last week (“The Teaching Fantasy”), I feel that the educational system in this country is slowly being dismantled. In 1963, Clark Kerr spoke of the university (and by extension, all forms of education, as primary producers of knowledge (The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr – cited in http://www.vitia.org/wordpress/2003/09/02/clark-kerr-and-cardinal-newman/). The irony of this speech is that it was used by the free speech movement on the Berkeley Campus to characterize the university as a machine with the students as the workers. Considering the political climate of today, it would seem that is what the whole educational process is today. If current educational reforms are designed to increase productivity and make teachers accountable for what they do, then we have turned our educational process into a machine designed to turn out mindless robots, capable of repeating what they have been told but not capable of any independent or creative thought. And it seems that the attempts to modify this “reform” will cause more damage than is repaired.

We have turned the process of education into exercises of memorization and repetition. All a student needs to do to be considered successful in class is simply repeat, essentially word for word, what the instructor said during lecture. Free and creative thought is discouraged and any class discussion not directed towards the course exams is considered a waste of time, both by the students and the administration of the education factory, whoops, school.

Education should challenge the learner to seek what is not known, to go beyond the boundaries of the horizon. Education should open the mind, not close it. But yet, that is what is happening to so many today. Instead of pushing and prodding us to seek new ideas and new lands, we want education to comfort us and allow us to know only that which we want to know. For too many people, learning stops when the formal education process ends.

Personally, I think it is sad to watch someone who is physically alive yet mentally dead. I have seen countless college instructors, many younger than I, whose only goal in their educational career is to obtain tenure. They use the notes they so ardently wrote down as undergraduate students as their teaching notes and their research has stopped once the Tenure and Promotion Committee has granted them access to the “Holy Grail” of academia. These are the ones who make the argument against tenure a valid one.

But there are many instructors, some who are older than I, who continue doing research and who use tenure as it was meant to be used; for the freedom to seek new things without fearing that failure will cost them their job.

And both sadly and joyfully, I see many in the church, in the pulpit and the pew, who live the same lives. There are those who obtain a level at which they are comfortable and then stop seeking the ultimate truths of life. They learned about the Bible in confirmation class (those in pew) and in seminary (the pulpit) and that is all that they needed to know. One translation of the Bible is good enough for them and anyone who even suggests that other translations may offer new insight are considered heretics. They use the Bible to justify what they believe, even when what they believe is not in the Bible. Those in the pew don’t want those in the pulpit to disturb their sense of the Bible; the Bible was never meant to challenge but confirm. It wasn’t meant to push you into the world but allow the world to be blocked out.

These people often times sound like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and scribes of Jesus’ time. They saw the Gospel message as a threat to their power, their position, and their status.

But there are many (unfortunately, it is a minority of the population) who see the Bible as a living and breathing document. They are like Ezekiel, dismayed at the valley of dry bones that lie before them. They maybe hesitant at first but they have come to know Jesus as part of their lives and they have heard the call of God to prophesy to the dead bones; God has called them to speak out and seek ways to bring those old, dry bones back to life.

It will take more than doing the same old thing, if for no other reason than the same old thing is what caused the bones to dry up and the breath of life to disappear. All the words being bandied about come from those who really don’t have any clue what the person in the pew hears and the person in the pew long ago tuned out the words “spoken from the mountaintop.”

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, there was a movement sweeping the business world to search for excellence. It even came into the science education field (see the reference in “To Search for Excellence”). What came from this movement was the idea that true and effective change came, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Second, even when it didn’t come from the top, it was still critical that those at the top support and commit to the changes brought from the bottom. What happened in too many situations was that upper level management thought of an idea and rolled it out to a big fanfare but then delegated the task of implementing to underlings; it then died on the vine, as it were.

In one sense, that is what God did. He spoke to Moses and Moses spoke to the people. In the end, the people lost interest because the message was filtered too much through the administrators. Ultimately, God saw that wasn’t working and He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live and die with us. And the ones who were picked by Jesus were not the administrators or the powerful; there were not necessarily the best or the brightest but they were willing to listen and learn (though it took them a while). The success of the early church came from the fact that it was first and foremost a community of people, developing ideas on their own. They could not listen to some hierarchical authority because there was no hierarchy.

I have come to a point in my journey where I feel that I am called to prophesy. The other day John Meunier posted a note about some comments that Jay Voorhees had made regarding the Leadership Summit in Nashville (see “A Proposal for Church Development” and the dialogue that Jay and I had at #UMC Lead: The View From Table 9-part 3). Jay’s ideas mirror an idea that I began developing about a month ago to begin a school (only in the sense of an organized collection of classes).

This school will focus on Biblical studies (many of the lay speakers in my district want Bible study), studies on Methodism (you would be surprised how many members of the United Methodist Church do not understand the structure and philosophy of Methodism – see “When Did You Learn about Methodism?” – I would be interested in knowing when you learned about Methodism) and Christianity (each year there is a survey which points out how illiterate we are about what is we say we are) and leadership studies. In his comments, Jay offered some thoughts about books in the area of leadership. What are your ideas? What books have you read that suggest new ways to lead?

I am working with one of the seminaries in the area to find individuals interested in teaching some of the courses; I don’t think that all of them will have degrees in theology and/or divinity. One of the individuals I have contacted about teaching a course in the history of Methodism has a Ph. D. in Pharmacology.

But is the traditional classroom the only way to teach? I happen to like the traditional gathering because I think that the interaction between classmates

Let us bring the dry bones back to life. Let us breathe a new spirit into the body that we call the church. Let us find ways to bring new life and a new breathe in the people who make the church. I would normally say that we should begin that today but it has begun. I am asking that you come along as we seek to bring a new life for and in the church.

“Them Bones”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 13 March 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Romans 8: 6 – 11, and John 11: 1 – 45.

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I know that it will sound like a cliché but our lives are a journey. We are on a journey that begins at birth and ends at death. It may be that we have no control over where or why we are born but it is clear that we do have some control about where our souls will be when we die. This journey that we take is an individual journey but one in which we sometimes accompany each other. Our paths will cross and entwine many times with countless others and how we interact will determine where each path will lead. But there are times when we must occasionally stop and see what direction we are taking and, if necessary, make the changes in that direction.

On this journey, it seems as if fear and hatred dominate our lives. Instead of using the gifts that we have been given, we seek to hoard them. We respond in fear without thought. We let our hatred for others guide and direct us when we should be working to remove that hatred.

We read in the paper that cigarette lighters are banned from airplanes, though only one person has every tried to use such a device in a terrorist activity. Yet, terrorists or individuals believed to be terrorists can go into any gun store in the country and buy just about any weapon they desire, and it is perfectly legal. Are we looking in the right direction?

There are lists in this country that identify potential terrorists or those believed to have links to terrorist cells. But no one knows who is on the list (or else, why is it that so many individuals can still get on airplanes). And, if by chance your name is on the list, there is no way to determine how it got on the list or how to get it off.

The killing of the Federal judge’s father and mother in Chicago, the killing of the judge and courthouse staff in Atlanta point this out. Are we too blasé about the nature of security? Are we too quick to come to judgement when it comes to determining a suspect? Were it not for a simple traffic violation, the Chicago police would have never found out who the killer in the Lefkow case was. Oh, I am sure that they may have eventually determined his identity but they were stumped as to the direction to go and it was only the actions of the individual himself that lead to a conclusion.

The problem is that the various authorities in Chicago were thinking in the wrong terms. Because of the threats made by Matthew Hale and the nature of his beliefs, the authorities assumed that he was somehow involved. This would not have been an unreasonable assumption concerning Mr. Hale’s background and personal philosophy. But there was no evidence to link him to the crime and, when in the light of evidence, you must make some assumptions about where to look. I am not so sure that I would have made a different assumption, given the public statement of the facts. I am not saying that Mr. Hale is not without guilt and his previous actions certainly warrant suspicion but it is interesting how we are quick to judge when we have so little to use as evidence.

Now, we are hearing that the war in Iraq may turn out to be a good thing. How can anyone think that war and violence can be a good thing? Yes, it appears that democracy is gaining a foothold in the Middle East but will it last? Has anything been done to remove the root causes of terror from that area or, for that matter, from any part of this world? Isn’t it interesting to note that the one Muslim nation where the United States is welcomed and wanted is Indonesia? The people there see the efforts to aid their country after the tsunami and they are thankful for the presence of Americans and the United States. But our presence in other parts of this area is not humanitarian and our presence is not always welcome.

In our own country, we make laws that favor the rich and powerful. Tax breaks are given to the rich and the loopholes that give the poor and middle class a break are closed. Congress changed the bankruptcy laws this week and the ones most affected by this will be the poor and lower income individuals and families in this country. The reason that many of these individuals and families are filing for bankruptcy is rising medical costs. But Congress has done nothing to alleviate the rising cost of medical care and then limiting those who can declare bankruptcy removes a solution, albeit not an attractive one, from those most affected. The last political campaign was about moral values but poverty and sickness and oppression must not be moral enough to be considered. There seems to be a call for a spiritual rebirth in this country. But are those who make the call the ones who should be leading it? Is it not about time that we, individually and collectively, change the direction of our journey?

It is the same question that Ezekial was considering when God took him to the field of bones. The people of Israel were in exile in Babylon when Ezekial’s prophecy was proclaimed. The first part of the prophecy was about Ezekial telling the people in exile of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Far from home, the people saw their hope for the future slowly disappearing. With the loss of the temple, the hope of the people in exile to return to their homeland seemed far from certain. And following the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, Ezekial was told that his wife was dying. But God directed Ezekial not to openly mourn the loss of his wife just as he was not to openly mourn the loss of the temple. Rather, Ezekial was to pronounce the judgement of God against all the nations of the area, not just Israel alone.

Following the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s message would be one of consoling hope. There would be a revival, a restoration and glorious future as the redeemed and perfected kingdom of God in this world. But it was not to be the world before the destruction of the temple; rather, it was to be a new one. The bones in the graveyard from today’s passage are indicative of the nature of the people of Israel at the time of this reading. We have a scene of hopelessness and despair. But it is to these bones that Ezekial is to prophesy, to bring hope to the despair, to bring promise of a better future.

The promise of hope and the restoration of one’s life are the theme of the Gospel reading today. But it is also a reminder that a new life in Christ means giving up the old life of the world around us.

First, the fact that Jesus did not go into the tomb should tell us that the new life in Christ requires action on our part. Was it possible that Lazarus did not want to come out of the tomb? How far along the journey after death had he traveled in those four days? How far had he gone down the way of clarity, truth, and reality? How deeply transformed had he become as time and space separated his soul from the prison of blood, bone, and brain?

When Jesus called him by name and commanded him to come out, did Lazarus not want to shout, "NO! Not even for you, my friend and my Master! Please, NO!" With what sense of contempt or ambivalence did Lazarus slip through his grave clothes into his body and back into his troubles? Could Lazarus have refused to respond?

But Lazarus did respond. He came out of the tomb double bound by the winding sheets and the limits of his old life. He brought himself out, burdened with the fetid grave clothes that he would need again and the feeble body in which he would die again. But how can the life that he will now live be anything like the life that he was leading. How can any one who has met Christ lead the same life as before?

We are faced with the irony that in bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was ensuring that His life would end. Following this episode, the Sanhedrin gathered together in the meeting where Caiaphas presents his troubling prophecy. Worried more about what the Roman occupiers would do and the attention given to Jesus by the people, the Sanhedrin ask, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But Caiaphas responded, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." So "from that day on they took counsel on how to put him to death." (John 11: 47b – 50, 53)

Aware that this was happening, Jesus will withdraw to Ephraim. But the people kept coming to see Lazarus. So the chief priests plot to put him to death as well, because many were going away believing in Jesus. (Adapted from "Back to Life" by Suzanne Guthrie in "Living by the word", Christian Century, March 8, 2005)

Meeting Jesus is a pretty dramatic event. It is not always going to be like the encounter Lazarus had but it will be one to change one’s life. And in this meeting we find that we must make a choice about what our life will be like after the encounter.

Paul writes to the Romans that setting your mind on the flesh results in death but setting your mind on the Spirit will result in life and peace. Those who are in the flesh, i.e., those who live in this time and place and find their power in the present, will be hostile to God simply because in accepting God, one gives up any pretense to the present. Those who came to see Lazarus were said to leave believing in Jesus. Believe did not originally mean believing in a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean "to give one’s heart to". The "heart" is the self at its deepest level. Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about Him. Rather, it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at it deepest level, to Jesus the Living Lord, the side of God turned towards us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Sprit.

Believing in Jesus also means that we move from a secondhand knowledge to a firsthand knowledge of Jesus. Believing in Jesus means that we move from simply having heard about Jesus to being in a relationship with the Spirit of Christ. (Adapted from Meeting Jesus Again by Marcus Borg, page 137)  It means that we give up all that we claim here on earth in order to claim a place in God’s kingdom.

We are on a journey, one that takes us from birth to death. We are at a moment in time where we are on a journey from Christ’s birth to Christ’s death. We know that Christ’s death brings eternal life and victory over sin and death. We do not know what our death will bring. But as Paul wrote in Galatians 2: 20, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20)

We have a chance today to make a change in our lives. Our journeys today take us by a graveyard of old and dry bones. Locked in the ways of the world around us, we know that those bones can never come back to life. But we hear an old spiritual song in our minds, "Them Bones", and we hear the last phrase of the song, "now here the word of the Lord". And in hearing the word of the Lord, we see the bones brought back to life. It is not our belief in the world around us that brings us back to life but rather our belief in Christ. We see the bones and know that life is there if we but believe.


A New Way of Thinking


These are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4 – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.

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First, let me reiterate something that I have said before. I am an evangelical; I was baptized an evangelical, I was confirmed as an evangelical, and I believe as an evangelical. But my belief in evangelism is different from what the common perception of evangelism is. I believe in the Gospel and while I believe that the Gospel message is one best taken individually I do not believe that the Gospel can be forced upon you.

Though I may be an evangelical, I cannot tell you how to think; I cannot tell you how to live; I cannot condemn or judge you because of your actions. What I can do is work to make this a better world by putting the words of the Gospel message into action.

The Gospel message is about bringing food to the hungry, medical care to the sick and dying, and hope and freedom to the oppressed. Now, if that is social justice, so be it. If I make this world a world in which the Gospel message is validated and effective, not merely words spoken on a Sunday morning and forgotten that afternoon, then I will have achieved the goal of an evangelical.

The Gospel message is more than just making disciples out of everyone that you encounter. It is about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to find God in whatever manner they so desire. Being an evangelical does not mean that I can change the words of the Bible or the history of this country so that people are given a worldview of exclusion, hatred, and ignorance. Jesus did not work that way; he operated in the openness of the countryside; He chided those who arrested Him in dark because they would not come after Him in the open and in the daylight.

Yet there are those who proclaim themselves to be evangelical in nature yet preach a gospel of hatred and exclusion, of moral certainty for others while they are free to be immoral. The preach a gospel of control over other’s thoughts and words and actions. And in the end, when the world around them has fallen down and they are left with nothing but their broken pride, they will hope and pray that God will not forget them as they struggle in their own personal Sheol. And they will have no understanding that God’s Grace is given to them as freely as it is to all who seek God, if they will but just acknowledge their sins. But their pride, their arrogance, their self-righteousness will keep them from doing so. And in the end, they will be the ones who receive the punishment that they have promised for others.

The problem is that too many people have a view of Christianity, evangelism, and God that is dominated by the views of these modern day Pharisees. We, as a society, have so transformed Christianity into our own religion that it bears little resemblance to the movement that spread from the Galilee two thousand years ago.

The other day I chanced to hear a discussion by an author about the nature of Buddhism in this country and why he became a Buddhist. I didn’t get to hear the whole conversation but, in essence, he became a Buddhist because he studied the topic and what he studied resonated in his soul. The author pointed out that, for most people in this country today, their knowledge of Buddhism is a conglomeration of facts and thoughts and that they actually know very little about the subject.

The same, I believe, can be said about Christianity today. The perception and view of Christianity today, even among Christians, is very much different from what it really is. And that is the problem for society today. When you do not understand the topic and you willingly let someone else tell you what to believe about that topic, you run the risk of getting a distorted view of the topic.

And I am fully aware that I run the risk of doing exactly that with what I write. But I encourage you and challenge you to study for yourself what I have studied; I encourage you and challenge you to find in your heart and mind the answers to the questions that touch your soul. Do not expect me to answer the questions for you because I, through study and reading, am having enough trouble finding know the answers to my questions. The whole essence of Christianity is found individually; I can show you the way but I can’t make you follow. If faith were found in a strict adherence to the law, then I could command you to find God. But faith is found in the heart and only you have the power to open up your heart.

Paul writes to the Philippians about his past and his present. He writes about growing up in the right family and being taught the law and understanding the law and living the law and enforcing the law. And he points out that everything he did as Saul was legal and acceptable.

But, you see, as Paul points out, when you come to Christ and you accept Christ, your view changes. Righteousness does not come from an adherence to the law; righteousness comes from what is in your heart.

When we read the passage from the Gospel today, we get an insight into not only the thoughts of Judas but John as well. We will come to know later that John is the Beloved Disciple, the one challenged to write down all he saw and all that was done by Christ. So we know that his anger or displeasure with Judas comes after the fact. In fact, John probably thought that Judas was correct in saying that the woman in the story (and this is, contrary to popular belief, not Mary Magdalene) should have sold the oil and given the money to poor. We know that John was as interested in the power that would come in Jesus’ new kingdom; it almost destroyed him as a disciple before he had the chance.

We know from later study that the poor were one of the most oppressed classes of society and that they remain so today. Anything that could be done to help them needed to be done and that is the same today as well. Jesus constantly told His disciples not to take from the people because that would only increase the burden on them.

Judas would, of course, use this instance as the rationale for betraying Jesus because Jesus was not going to enact the kingdom on earth that he, Judas, wanted to see. But Jesus looks beyond the moment and knows that there is a deeper symbolism in this woman’s actions; they are the actions of a woman preparing a loved one for burial.

To see the actions in that light, I believe, requires a new way of thinking. It is the thinking that Isaiah is proclaiming in the Old Testament reading for today. The whole purpose of Lent is not simply a symbolic sacrifice of something for forty days, knowing full well that you are going to take it back the moment that Lent is over. Lent is a time of transformation, of giving up the old ways and beginning a new life.

Repentance is more than just saying that you aren’t going to not do something; it is a statement that your life is going to change

If you hold on to the old ways, if you think in the same ways, then Lent is meaningless. If you are not willing to cast aside the old and see the world in a different light, then your journey through Lent is meaningless, without form or void.

So in these last days of Lent, as the time before Palm Sunday runs down and the opportunity is lost, recall the reason for Lent and take the opportunity to begin a new way of thinking.

The Value We Give


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 28 March 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4b – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.

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I have probably mentioned this before but I enjoy watching "Antiques Roadshow". It is not nearly as interesting as one when it first came on the air but that is because most of the "hidden" treasures have been discovered. Still, there are the occasional finds that amaze the owner who never really understood the value of what they owned.

But even with the undiscovered treasures that have been shown and undoubtedly still to be found, I find it amazing that people bring things in that are not as valuable as they think they are. In one particularly memorable spot, this couple brought in an undiscovered Van Gogh painting. This couple was absolutely convinced that they had an uncatalogued, undiscovered masterpiece. But the appraiser pointed out that it was not in Van Gogh’s style, it was not in any sequence of colors he would have used, it was nothing he would have painted, and the signature on the painting was not even his. Still, this couple left convinced that the appraiser was a fool and they were in possession of a priceless masterpiece.

At times we are like this couple, attaching a value far exceeding its true worth to something we own, in hopes that in doing so we will solve many of our problems. We think that if we find the right object or some how win the right contest, all of our problems will be solved or go away and we can have a new life. However, as Archbishop Oscar Romero once said,

"The absolute desire of ‘having more’ encourages the selfishness that destroys communal bonds among the children of God. It does so because the idolatry of riches prevents the majority from sharing the goods that the Creator has made for all, and in the all-possessing minority it produces an exaggerated pleasure in these goods." ("The Church’s Mission Amid the National Crisis", August 6, 1979 – Quote of the Week – Sojourners – 24 March 2004)

Reverend Romero was the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador and a leading reformer in the country. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he celebrated mass in San Salvador. If memory serves me well, the assassins were part of the government and they were not too happy about his role in bringing equality to the people of his country.

We are a people who give value to things that is way out of proportion to what it brings us. And we reduce in value those things that we should value most highly. Judas saw what Mary was doing as a waste of money, feeling that the perfume could have been sold and the profit used for the poor. There would have been nothing wrong with doing that.

In 1964 Pope Paul VI gave Mother Teresa a brand new Cadillac. She had it raffled off and made $100,000 which was used to fund her group’s mission work in Venezuela. In 1979, she asked the Nobel Peace Prize committee to use the money that would have provided for the customary victor’s banquet to use the money instead for the poor and homeless of Oslo, enduring an inordinately harsh winter that year. (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, page 38.)

But there are also examples of the opposite. Dorothy Day, who can truly be categorized as one of the great servants of the Lord, once was given a diamond ring as a donation. Instead of selling the ring, she gave the ring to an elderly woman who took her meals at the shelter Ms. Day was operating. As important as it was for the elderly woman to have money to pay her rent, it was also important that she have her dignity as well. If the woman had wanted to sell the diamond ring, then it was her prerogative to do so. But it was also her choice to wear the ring. "Were diamonds just for the rich to wear?" Dorothy would ask her co-workers.

The value that we place on something must reflect what it is truly worth. Jesus scolded Judas because he knew what lie ahead; Judas saw only the moment.

In one sense that is what Paul is saying today as well. He has everything required for success in the society of his times. He was born into the proper tribe; he had the proper training; and he met the criteria of righteousness as defined by law. Yet, as he says to the Philippians, everything that he has is worth nothing unless he has Christ. And to have Christ in his life, Paul says, that he was forced to give up everything he had gained.

That is the challenge we face. How can we gain all if we must lose all? There is an impression among some that John Wesley, in his earlier days, emphasized giving away everything one had to the poor. The result of this has a negative impact on stewardship in the church, simply because people do not want to give all that they can.

But that was only part of what Wesley said, thought, and did. True, once he discovered what he could live on without too much hardship, everything over that was given away. But his precepts of Christian stewardship were to first earn all that you could, then save all that you could, and then finally give all you could.

And I think that is what we must think about. For in earning all that we can we must also be aware that the manner in which we do so must not harm others or ourselves. We should use our talents and our abilities in the most efficient manner, being careful not to engage in any activities that would be contrary to the laws of God or country. We should not make our living in such a way that it hurts our neighbors or endangers their lives.

Wesley wrote that idea at a time when there was a gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. He sought a new way of thinking, a new way of acting. Today, we might call his concept "socially-responsible." But he understood that earning money could not be done in such a way that you gave up your soul. He understood that you could not treat your neighbor in such a way that your gain was their loss. The same is true today.

As long as we see things as they were or as we wish they would be, we will never truly move forward. We are here today at the end of forty days of preparation. In one week Jesus will enter Jerusalem amid the cheering and shouts of the crowds. At the end of next week, Jesus will be hanging from cross, in pain that we can only imagine, suffering so that we will not have to, dying so that we may live.

In Isaiah, the Lord speaks and says that he is about to do something new. We are asked to look for and see the new thing. Paul speaks of the changes that he underwent upon encountering Christ. At the beginning of Lent, I put forth the proposition that Lent was a time to give up the old ways and begin anew, refreshed in Christ. I contrasted this with the common view that one should give up something one liked for the forty days in penance and denial. But penance does nothing if the old ways return.

Paul saw that what he gained from Christ was far beyond the riches and the value he had when he was Saul, the spoiled young lawyer. But in seeing the new riches, he knew he could not accept the present; he had to move forward.

So it is for us. We are almost at the end of Lent; we are almost at the end of preparation. Have we changed? How do we see ourselves now versus forty days ago? Do we place more value on what Christ means or do we place more value on the things we have? It is the value we give to Christ and the value we give to things in general that will tell us what Lent this year has meant.