Some thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2010.  This was also Mother’s Day, which is for those who are not aware, the result of Methodist activism. I am a little behind in my writing but working to get even and perhaps ahead of the curve.

It is safe to say that no one likes stones.  Stones hurt.  Perhaps that is why the Romans allowed the Jewish authorities to use stoning as a means of capital punishment and saved the other froms of punishment for themselves.

We may not use stones in the manner that the ancients did but we still use them to hurt.  But it is an interesting comment that the same stones that we use to hurt people can be gathered together and make something useful.

In the Old Testament, every time someone encountered God, they gathered the stones together to make a monument to that meeting.  Even today, we still do that, looking for the largest stone upon which we begin building our lives.  On this Mother’s Day, 2020, amidst all that is going on, I want to pause for a moment and remember my Momma, who set down the cornerstone of my own personal journey in faith.

The Romans gathered stones together and built the roads that would unite the Roman Empire.  And those same roads that allowed the Roman legions to maintain the Pax Romana through intimidation and violence were the same roads that allowed Paul and the other disciples to leave Jerusalem and spread the Gospel message throughout the whole word.

Stones come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes we use them to hurt others; sometimes others use them to hurt us.  But we also gather those same stones together and build things.  Our faith is built upon Christ, the Cornerstone.  As our faith grows, we build the roads that allow us to bring others to Christ.

As you wander through this time and space, consider the stones that lie at the foundation of your faith.  How will you use those stones?

What Are You Doing Here?

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin at Fishkill UMC for this coming Sunday, May 19, 2019 (5th Sunday of Easter, Year C)

In August, 1739, John Wesley went  to Bristol, England to begin a Methodist revival. 

Joseph Butler, the  Bishop of the Anglican Church in Bristol and an adherent to orthodox preaching (i.e., the rule of law) told him,

“You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore, I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley replied,

“My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever, therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can –do most good here. Therefore, here I stay.” 

As a graduate of Lincoln College, Oxford, Wesley had a commission to preach the Gospel anywhere in England.  To preach in Bristol did not, in his mind, break any human law.  He also understood that if he adhered to the orthodox and traditional view of preaching, he could not offer Christ outside the church walls.

We again hear the cry of the those who seek the church in orthodox and legalistic ways.  But as the inheritors of the Methodist Revival, are we not the inheritors of the unorthodox and irregular.  Shall we stay safe inside the walls of our sanctuary or trust, as did Wesley, that He will be there when we go into the country?

~~Tony Mitchell

A New Vision Of The World

A Meditation for 24 April 2016, the 5th Sunday of Easter (Year C). The meditation is based on Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1 – 16, and John 13: 31 – 35.

Here are my thoughts for this past Sunday.  Got a little bit behind in my work and struggling to catch up.

Let’s begin by expanding on the thoughts behind Peter’s refusal to eat certain foods. Peter was undoubtedly an observant Jew so he had grown up obeying those dietary laws, rules, and regulations.

But it was very likely that he and everyone else at that time what those laws, rules, and regulations were the way they were. There were foods that you could not eat with other foods and there were foods that you could not eat at all and that was they way it was. The reason or reasons for these laws, rules, and regulations was lost in the passage of time but were based on the early days of the Exodus when food storage and preservation were at a premium. The people who began the Exodus understood this but this understanding got lost over time.

How many of us hold onto attitudes and behaviors that we grew up without understanding why we do? How many times do our actions towards others reflect “old” thinking?

The problem for so many people today is that they remain locked in this “old” way of thinking, often times without realizing it. There are those who read the words of John the Seer in the Book of Revelation and see a fulfillment of the past, of the actions of a vengeful and hateful God. But the Seer’s words are a new vision of the world, a new beginning, an opportunity to begin anew and not a continuation of the old. The Seer’s Revelation was never, as President John Kennedy said in the concluding part of his speech to the nation on 22 October 1962, a victory of might but a vindication of what was right. The Book of Revelation is not a justification of the old ways but the knowledge of the new ways.

But how do we achieve the Kingdom the Seer foresaw? How do we establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth as Christ so many times proclaimed He had come to establish?

Do we create military armies that will destroy our armies? Do we create laws, rules, and regulations that echo our prejudices and hatred, which reap vengeance on those we hate and despise?

Or do we do as Jesus told those who heard Him that day two thousand years ago that we are to love each other as He loved us? Are we to act in such a way that when others see us, they will see Christ?

It is very hard to throw away the old ideas, the old ways. We heard that in Peter’s thoughts written in the Book of Acts. But Peter understood what he had to do.

The assurance and presence of God through Christ gives us the same comfort and strength that Peter received so that we can cast aside the old and claim the new, so that we can have a new vision of the world.

“The Stones In Our Lives”

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10 and John 14: 1 – 14.

My initial thoughts when I read the three readings for this Sunday suggested possible titles of “Rolling Stones” or “Sticks and Stones”.

But I have never been a big fan of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (though I once suggested that the AARP was making a big mistake – see “I Think The AARP Is Making A Big Mistake”). And there is too much violence and discord in the world to even think of using the other possibility.

But there came an image in my mind from many, many years ago when my family moved into our house on Coyle in San Antonio, just down the street from Maverick Elementary School. Our house had just been built and there really wasn’t much grass in the back yard (and the dirt that was made of a rather insidious clay that, after getting wet, hardened into a almost unbreakable rock known as caliche). My dad assigned me the task of clearing out all of the rocks and stones in the backyard so that we could plant grass. I was paid, I believe the grandiose sum of $.25 per 100 rocks!

And there were the rocks that we pulled out of the ground when we were preparing the Children’s Garden at Grace UMC in Newburgh (see “The Garden We Plant”).

The key to all of this, you see, is not that we gather the rocks together but what we do with them afterwards. As best as I can remember, I merely moved all of the rocks in our backyard in San Antonio from all over the backyard to one spot where they probably got covered up. The stones I uncovered in the Children’s Garden at Grace were moved to one spot and marked off a section of the garden.

You get the impression in reading the passage from Acts that the people went around gathering up stones in order to make Stephen the first person to die for his faith. But we are also told in this passage that Saul was there that day and those who participated in the stoning gave their cloaks to him for safekeeping. And while it is necessary that we understand why Stephen died on that day, it is also important that we know that Saul was there as well, for it suggests to the reader that something else is about to happen.

You don’t put someone’s name in a passage from the Bible unless there is a reason for doing so (see some thoughts on this in “The Other Side Of The Universe”).

In his letter to the congregation Peter speaks of the stone that is the cornerstone of faith, Jesus Christ, and like the cornerstone of a building, the most important stone in our life. When I think of Saul going to Damascus to continuing persecuting those who will become known as Christians, I thought of the road or roads from Jerusalem to Damascus that he had to have walked on.

I recall from some history that I read many years ago that it was the roads that the Romans build that linked the places of the Empire together. The primary purpose of the roads was to insure that the Roman troops could get from place to place in order to maintain order. But those roads were built to last and many are still in existence today.

The Roman troops had to have gathered countless stones in order to build each road. But the irony of this is that a road that was built to let troops get from point A to point B in order to put down a possible rebellion or allow a young, angry prosecutor to continue the repression of a new faith group became the site of an encounter between Christ and that prosecutor. Instead of being a path of potential violence and hatred, it became the path that would lead to The Truth and The Way, the very path that Jesus spoke of when Thomas asked Him where they were all going.

What are the stones in your life today? What stones must you gather together for the sole purpose of getting rid of them? We cannot build the Kingdom of God here on earth when we gather the rocks and stones out of hatred and ignorance, when we gather them for purposes of violence and oppression. Such rocks become, as Peter pointed out, something to trip over.

But in choosing to follow Christ, those same rocks can be gathered together and help build a new life.

There are stones in our lives today. The question will always be “What will you do with them?” Shall we destroy this world or shall we build this world through Christ?

A Chance Encounter

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday; their service starts at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for the 5th Sunday in Easter, 6 May 2012, were Acts 8: 26 – 40; 1 John 4: 7 – 21, and John 15: 1 – 8.

I will be at Trinity-Boscobel UMC (Buchanan, NY) next Sunday for the 6th Sunday in Easter and Mother’s Day. The service starts at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

I found myself working in two streams of thought this past week that will merge into one for this message.

One was a stream related to education and my background in chemistry (see “To Offer a New Vision”). In light of much of what has transpired this past week, our ability to learn, to see beyond tomorrow and around the next corner will be critical to our success as a society and as a church.

The other stream is one that I have been in, as it were, for some time now. It is the thought about when one meets Jesus. It is, in part, one of the reasons for the title of this message.

About a month ago, John Meunier, a blogging colleague of mine from Indiana, wrote about John Wesley’s experience leading up to his heart warming experience at the Aldersgate Chapel and wondered whether we are helping people achieve that moment when we know that we have been saved (see “Are we showing the way?”).

I appreciate what John M. blogs about because he offers insights into what John Wesley wrote. He pointed out that Wesley was convinced or thought that the conversion to being a Christian could or should be long and gradual as opposed to an instantaneous conversion. Wesley felt this way, in part, because he did not think he had experienced such a quick conversion.

But all he, Wesley, could find in the Bible was Paul’s three days of blindness. Wesley’s struggles with this came at the time when he had just returned from the colonies and was in what could be politely called a deep funk. Then came what has become the Aldersgate moment when he felt his heart strangely warmed. Coincidentally, Charles Wesley was at home, literally gravely ill because of the colony failures, when he felt the same way. At that moment, the Methodist Revival truly began as the Wesley brothers were empowered by the Holy Spirit and what was a mechanistic approach to religion changed into a heart-felt approach.

Now, I believe that everyone will or has encountered Jesus. For some, it will be like Paul; for others, it will be like Wesley. No matter how it happens, it will happen in way that is reflective of each individual. For Paul, it was a dramatic encounter because of what Paul was seeking to do; for Wesley, it was a quiet and comforting because it was what Wesley needed at that time. Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, described her encounter with Jesus as follows,

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.”

(I first mentioned Laurie Beth Jones’ encounter with Jesus Christ in a message I gave at Tompkins Corners back in 2003 (“And When You Least Expect It”) but I didn’t really explain what happened to her; I would do that in “A New Vision” (which is also a companion piece to what I said last Thursday – “To Offer a New Vision” ) and “By the Side of the Road”.)

We are more apt, as Laurie Beth did, meet him in a casual encounter during the day; in fact, we are probably not even going to know that it was Him until later. The prayer that guides us when we are in “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” includes a statement that one of those who come to be feed each Saturday might well be Jesus.

For myself, I believe that my conversion was like that of Wesley, a moment in time when I knew for certain, as did Wesley that Christ was mine and mine alone. Now, I have encountered many in my life who feel that the conversion moment has to be on the order of Paul, though perhaps not lasting three days.

They understand that it is a life changing experience but for some reason feel that it must be a “big” moment in life. For those whose lives are changed in this way, they want everyone’s encounter to be that way and they are apt to refuse that one can change in the way that Wesley did. And I am sure there are some, as John M. asked, who want desire and encounter a moment like Paul but get one as did Wesley. They may be as disappointed as those who expect Jesus to come to them from the clouds in bright shining robes.

Whatever the moment, however you encounter Jesus, it will be reflective of who you are and where you are in your life at that moment. It is not the church’s responsibility to arrange the encounter; the church’s responsibility is to make sure that you are prepared for the encounter, to offer the knowledge that will let you know that it is Christ you have meet that day.

I cannot help but recall what Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

As an analogy, let me offer some thoughts from teaching chemistry again. Many students struggle with chemistry because they are not prepared for the course. Oh, they have the materials and the tools but their thinking is slightly off. They come into my chemistry class expecting that it will be like their other classes where the instructor puts the notes on the board, gives them pages to read out of the book, and then tells them what will be on the test. There is absolutely no processing of information done; in the words of basic computer programming – garbage in, garbage out.

When I starting teaching chemistry, I became acquainted with the educational philosophy of Jean Piaget and his ideas about how children learn. One thing that research has discovered is that chemistry is taught at one level of learning and often at a higher level than what students are learning at. For students to learn chemistry they must be involved in it or the concepts and ideas presented are meaningless. Oh, you can memorize them and, if the questions are asked in the right way, use what you have memorized to get a good grade on the test and in the course. But this mechanistic approach does not allow you to understand chemistry.

To understand chemistry, you have to do chemistry; you simply cannot open a book and begin reading about it. You may see the words and you may memorize the words but you will not truly understand what the words mean until you do something with them.

For many, church is like that. They know the words; in fact, they probably have them memorized better than most (certainly better than me). But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily know what the words mean. The man from Ethiopia was in that situation. He had the words but they meant nothing to him because he had no clue what was going on. It was only in conversation with Philip that those words began to have meaning.

John M. makes the following comment about John Wesley’s conversion moment:

I know this story, but tonight in reading it I took note of how important it was for Wesley that he was told and taught what to expect. Böhler not only argued doctrine with him, but also he introduced him to people who had been converted and he taught Wesley what he would experience. He tutored Wesley.

Wesley had developed a mechanistic approach to religion, a method that would lead his group at Oxford to be called “The Methodists”. But it was missing something and it wasn’t until he had the discussion with Peter Böhler about the nature of Christ that he was able to complete the process of becoming who is was truly meant to be.

The question for each one of us today should not be about conversion. Our presence here today says that we have accepted Christ. No, the question is one about our ability and our desire to help others find Christ.

There has to be more to being a Christian than being a member of a church who perhaps comes every Sunday. It isn’t what you do on Sunday that defines your Christianity, your belief, your faith; it is what you do with it afterwards.

Jesus used the analogy of the grapevine for a number of reasons. First, most people understood what it took to care for the grapevine. The people knew that a healthy vine was likely to have some branches that bore no fruit or it perhaps bore a fruit that was sour tasting as well as many vines that have luscious, sweet-tasting grapes.

I remember that grape arbor that was part of my grandmother’s property in St. Louis. For my brothers, sister, and cousins, it was more of a place to play than anything else. What grapes that grew on those vines were often small and either tasteless or sour tasting. But we knew that at one time, the grapes were plentiful and sweet tasting. It wasn’t that my grandmother didn’t care about the grapes or the grape vine but she lived by herself most of the time and taking care of the grape vine was not necessarily the priority it was when she first began

To be a Christian is to be part of the Vine that is Christ. How we see that relationship, how we understand that relationship will determine the nature of the fruit that is produced.

There are some whose Christianity, if it can be called that, is a sour and bitter Christianity. I have never understood how that is possible but I have encountered many with that attitude. Theirs is a bitter fruit. An encounter with such a person is likely to lead you away from Christ. Sadly, there are many of these Christians in the world today. Oh, I am sure that when they first joined the church the fruit of their labors was wonderful. But they never cared for the vine and it slowly withered away and now they drive the people away.

Some have a bland, almost tasteless fruit. They will help you but that encounter will bring you no closer to Christ that one was before. It is almost as if they feel that they must suck up any nourishment in the fruit for themselves and are not willing to share it.

But those who have taken to heart the words that John wrote in his 1st letter will love all, without question, without judgment. Theirs is the most delicious fruit of the vine.

One of the tasks before us is to make sure that all members of the church have some role to play in the church. It need not be a big role but any stretch of the imagination but it needs to be something. In this way, the vine that they are never wilts or grows useless but rather continues to produce healthy and tasty fruit for many, many years.

Because, no matter whom we are or how old we are, there will undoubtedly be a moment in our live when we will encounter someone who needs to know about Jesus. Perhaps it has already occurred; perhaps it has happened in a way that you don’t even know. But it is probably going to happen again and this time you know that it will.

So what shall you do? This is perhaps the greatest question facing the church today but again the answer is in the words that have been studied, read, and spoken for almost two thousand years. First, we cannot be afraid to help others find Christ. As John wrote in his first letter, a fearful life, a fear of death and judgment, has no love in it. And ours must be a life of love. We cannot profess to love God but hate our friends. To do so is hypocrisy in its worst possible form.

I also feel that how one is called to respond to this message is unique to that individual. To expect each person to do the same as everyone else is to ignore the uniqueness of the individual. If Christ comes to us in a manner reflective of whom we are, then our response will be in the same way. If we all responded in the same manner, it might prove to be very boring and not very much fun.

There will be a moment in each person’s life where they will encounter Jesus Christ. It might be a deliberate moment or it might be a chance encounter. It will be a moment that will change their lives. And there will be some who will encounter, mostly by chance, who will see Christ in us and want to know what that is all about. It will be a moment that will change their lives. The question then is how we individually and collectively will help others when they have that chance encounter, that opportunity to change their lives.

“Did I Miss Something?”

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) United Methodist Church this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Easter were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.


I must have missed something last night. I was under the impression that the world was coming to an end. It sure seemed like a lot of people thought that it was. And given the state of the news this morning, of floods, hurricanes, and tornados ravaging the land, wars and violence over much of the globe, of greed and selfishness (and our pre-occupation with those who are greedy and selfish), of a separation of the people by economic status, race and gender, it might not have been all that terrible if the world had come to an end last night. If nothing else, such news sort of makes you depressed and crawl back under the bed covers in hopes that it will all go away.

To hear many modern day prophets and doomsayers, such news is an indication that God has forsaken this land, this planet and the people who live on it. They went to sleep last night fully expecting that, this morning, they would find themselves swept up from this world and now safely in heaven while the rest of us are left to our devices and doomed to live in some sort of existential never-never land. I hope that they weren’t terribly disappointed when they woke up this morning. Perhaps I didn’t miss anything at all.

Others will tell you that such news simply means there is no God. And this group woke up quite happy this morning, even if the world still seems like a bad place to live. Because, for all the shouting and announcements to the contrary, nothing happened and it can only mean that there really isn’t a God and religions are a waste of time and superstitious hoo-ha. Sadly, it is such events as this that are the basis for the rejection of Christianity.

Bob Herring, in his blog for Saturday, noted that there are many Christians who don’t have clear understanding about what the Scriptures do say about the end of the world and this will leave them even more confused, perhaps to the point that they will leave the faith and belief in Jesus Christ and try to find some other source of hope in this day and age. (Adapted from “I’m Planning a “We’re Still Here Party” for Sunday”)

It is sad that the public opinion of Christianity and what we can do in this world is hampered by those whose proclamation and prophecy is faulty and illogical and not by the work of those who were actually doing the work of God on this planet.

Now, I have a confession to make. I know that the world will come to an end. There is more to the destruction of this planet, this solar system, and the universe than predictions somehow buried deep within the text of the Bible. Current theories about the life of stars tell us that one day our own Sun will start to expand and engulf this planet. Theories about the creation of the universe tell us that it is expanding but at sometime in the far, far future, it will stop expanding and perhaps even collapse. But both of these events will occur long after our existence has run its course and are, at best, speculation at this time. Whatever may happen, it will be an event that we will miss.

I think that there have been at least five and perhaps more predictions for the end of the world during my lifetime. Each has been expressed with an absolute sincerity and an equally absolute sense of certainty. There have been over 1000 such predictions for the end of the world as we know it made in the 2000 or so years of what is now called the Common Era. You would think that such intensive and exhaustive study of the same data and the same scriptures by so many individuals would eventually yield some sort of positive result.

God did give us wisdom and He did give us the ability to use this wisdom to both create and destroy. It would seem to me that we are more bent towards destruction than creativity. Let’s face the facts! God doesn’t need to destroy this planet; we are doing a good job of it ourselves!

There are many who do not have to be reminded of the unstated horrors of thermonuclear war that dominated our thoughts and lives during the 1950s and 1960s. We can easily visualize what might have happened if our squadrons of B-52 bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, had taken off on their missions of destruction in response to an attack by the former Soviet Union. We were constantly reminded during the 70s and 80s how many cities and targets could be destroyed with the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (or MIRV) on a single missile. I find it ironic that the more complicated the name we give for a nuclear weapon, the more destructive its capability.

Do we need to be reminded that the only thing that prevented a nuclear war in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s was the knowledge that such destruction was mutually assured (what better acronym is there for war than the one for “mutually assured destruction”, MAD)? We now know from the tapes made by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, that we were perilously close to nuclear war and that one wrong move by either side would have triggered Armageddon.

All we have to do today is look around and see what we have done, from the development of more horrific weapons of mass destruction to what we have done to the environment (be it caused by global climate change or not), and how we treat other people and then we can wonder why it is we haven’t destroyed the world already.

What I suppose bothers me most is that people have seen these signs but ignored them. They are resigned to the destruction of the world and hope that somehow, because they are the true believers, they will be the ones that God saves.

They feel they are the ones that Peter called the chosen ones, and somehow this makes it acceptable to be blind to the world around them. They miss or forget the words that follow, that speak of being the instruments of God’s work, of having to speak out for God and telling others what it means to be a Christian, to speak of the difference Jesus Christ has made in their lives. They miss the words that Jesus spoke to Philip of continuing the work that Jesus began.

Instead of doing the work of Christ, they spend all their time pointing out how others have failed to keep this rule or that, or how we have to keep the church clean and proper (and they are not talking about vacuuming the carpet or polishing the brass on the altar). They frown on laughter and applause in the sanctuary because that is not the proper way to worship the Lord. They are so busy working to keep the church that they miss seeing Jesus walk right on by.

They are the ones who encouraged the mob to stone Stephen because he proclaimed a vision of Christ but one they could not see. And since they could not see the vision that Stephen laid out before them, they felt that he was the blasphemer, not them.

I hope that you did not miss the significance of this day as far as being a United Methodist, though. Today is Aldersgate Sunday because it is the Sunday closest to May 24th, the day that John Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit. We should remember that once John and Charles Wesley were both such legalistic Christians. When we say that we are Methodists, and while I hope that we say it boldly and proudly, we are telling everyone that our heritage was once a very strict and legalistic one.

But John and Charles Wesley both knew that this approach wasn’t working. It is said that this same week, when John Wesley went to Aldersgate, Charles was lying on his bed convinced that he was going to die and die a failure. But when they both received the Holy Spirit things changed.

We have to come to believe that the word martyr means one who has died for a cause but it really means witness. Stephen was the first martyr, not only because he died for the cause but also because he spoke of what he saw and what he knew. We are not asked to die for the cause but we are asked to tell the world what we have seen and what we know.

Do we need to be reminded that when John Wesley and the early Methodists began, they were barred from preaching in their churches so they took to the fields? And the religious authorities, much like the authorities in the reading from Acts, encouraged the people to throw stones and rocks at these early Methodists.

I saw a note the other day that Wesley’s early ministry went against the social norm of his day.  He went into the prisons, he fed the hungry, he even found ways to heal the sick.  He did so because that is where he felt he would find Christ and that is where he felt he could show Christ.

People are going to through stones at us when we walk that same path; when we witness for Christ as we do so.

You have heard me speak before about Grannie Annie’s kitchen and the breakfast ministry that we have begun at Grace Church in Newburgh. Our philosophy is that each person who comes in on Saturday and Sunday will receive a breakfast. There is plaque that has hung in Ann’s kitchen for 40 years that says “let all guests be received as Christ.” How do we know that any one individual who comes to our table is not Jesus? Where does it say that Jesus will come either in a fabulously white robe or an elegant suit? Is it not better to feed all who are hungry than ignore the one? Is this not the same work that Christ empowered Philip and the other disciples and followers to do?

But like Thomas, we are uncertain about the direction we must take or even what it is we must do.

Several years ago, I drove from Memphis to St. Louis. I could have taken the easy route north by crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas and heading north on Interstate 55. Under optimal conditions, one can make the trip in 4 hours. But I don’t like driving Interstate highways unless I absolutely have to.

I chose to take a route up the east side of the Mississippi, through Kentucky, across the Ohio River, and into Illinois. It was a little bit longer but more scenic and there were more options to stop. Now, on this particular trip, I was listening to a St. Louis radio station and paying attention to the traffic. What I was not doing was paying attention to the road signs and pretty soon I noticed that the countryside of Illinois that I was passing through bore no resemblance to what I remembered from previous trips. It would be easy to say that I was lost because I did not know where I was other than I was somewhere in southwest Illinois. Having a map was partially useful but also of no help without knowing exactly where on the map I was.

But, for the most part, country roads in Illinois run east-west and north-south; so it was just a matter of driving north on the road I was on and I would soon reach an east-west road that would allow me to go west and eventually run into the road I normally took. I had the basic knowledge and that knowledge would lead me back to the path I was supposed to be on.

In the same vein, Jesus is the basic knowledge, the truth, the life, the way. Peter’s challenge is not just be like babes but to grow and mature, to take the knowledge presented to us and use it in ways that Christ has taught us. We are to show the world who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian.

It is more than simply seeing the world. There is something missing when all we see is destruction and desolation; there is something missing when we see a world destroyed by and through greed and selfishness; there is something missing when people are abused or oppressed. There is something missing when a person is rejected by society because of their economic status, their race, their gender, or their lifestyle.

The one thing that is missing is the love of God and that is what we must provide.

The cynics in the world today want to see God, they want to see Jesus and they ridicule those who believe. It isn’t that they missed seeing either God or Jesus; they have never been shown either the Father or the Son.

Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father and Jesus replied that those who have seen Him have seen the Father. Jesus also told Philip that he, Philip would be called on to do the same work that Jesus had been doing. When we do the work of Jesus, when we feed the hungry or help the homeless find shelter or we heal the sick, people will see Christ in us.

On his blog this week, John Meunier asked who would miss us if we were not here tomorrow. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, quite a few people would miss us – those served by the food banks, those who come to the church for a meeting, those whose lives were helped by UMCOR offering or a VIM trip, those who brought their children to a pre-school during the week. (from “Who Would Miss Us?”) There is a new ministry beginning in the Newburgh area; it is called Family Promise and it offers hope to families where the parents may be out of work or have lost their home because of the economic times. This ministry, like the food bank and the day care center and the UMCOR projects and the VIM trips are not done with the expectation that such actions will open the doors of heaven; they are done because we love others as God has loved us. It is the love that God expressed to us when He sent His Son to die on the cross.

The call today is very simple. We are called to open our hearts and our minds so that we can see, feel, touch, and sense the presence of Christ. Through our words, our deeds, our thoughts, and our actions we are to lead a life that would allow others to know Christ. We are called to bring Christ to the world. We are called today to go out into this world and be the opportunity to show Christ to world. I do not know about you but that is something I do not want to miss.

“The New Cornerstone”

This is the message that I gave at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2 May 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14.


"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

With those words, Jesus laid the cornerstone for his church.

In everyone’s life there must be a cornerstone; there must be a foundation upon which live can be built. Some years ago, as you know, I moved to St. Cloud, MN. The reason for the move was ostensibly to become an assistant professor of Chemistry at St. Cloud State University. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that God wanted me there to be a part of Grace United Methodist Church.

When I first came to St. Cloud, I knew nothing about Grace Church, having only been told about the two other United Methodist Churches in St. Cloud. But one summer day, as I was wondering around the town, I discovered Grace. Later, when John Praetorius asked me on which committee I would serve, I told him that I would serve on any committee except stewardship. I just did not want to get involved in money raising. So John made me chair of the Finance committee and I was involved in the money raising anyway.

As chair of the Finance committee, I was asked to give the first testimonial when the Stewardship drive for 1992 began. In part, I said

I am a second-generation military brat. This means that both my grandfather and father served in the military and that much of my early life was spent traveling from air base to air base. As such, I do not have a home church; a church that I could say to others "This is the church where I grew up."

But having a home church is something that I never worried about. Having a church home has. What I have looked for, especially in the last few years when my life was taking a beating spiritually, was a church home.  (What Grace Church Means to Me – My Church Home, Stewardship Moment, October 18, 1992, Stewardship Sunday; I revised and adapted this piece for later use – “What does stewardship mean to me?”)

As the son of a career military office, I attended ten different schools during my pre-college education. Because of these early family travels and my own professional career, I have made over forty moves. Through all of these moves, it has been Jesus Christ and the church upon which I could base my life. As I look back, I realize that Jesus has always been a part of my life, protecting me as I sought what He wanted me to do. During periods of my live when I was going through some difficult personal troubles, my faith in Jesus Christ and the early foundation that provided comfort and strength. Were it not for this foundation, I do not believe I would have the success that I have had.

I might add that this foundation was actually laid before I was born. In records going back to 1650, the family history notes 13 members of the family who have served as ministers in the Lutheran Church. While I have chosen to follow the path set by Wesley, Otterbein, Asbury, and the many Methodist and EUB preachers rather than that of Luther, I consider the tradition and honor of my family to be an important part of my life. I would also add that I did not know this history until after I had begun to think about the lay ministry.

My mother saw to it that the foundation was laid early. She saw to it that I and my two brothers and sister were baptized as infants. I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina. As I, my brothers, and sister grew up, and though we made many moves, we always attended Sunday School and church. Though later in life, when I found myself straying from the fold, I would sense something was missing on those Sundays when I missed church.

The way we live, the paths that we follow is often decided early in life. As Jesus told his disciples as noted in the Gospel reading today,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

But we can be like Thomas, who had said “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To some extent we are like Thomas. We can get confused and not know where Jesus is going so it is impossible for us to know the way. And to some extent we are like Philip as well. Simply put the proof in front of us and it will be easy for us to believe.

Belief in the Father requires belief in Jesus. For each of us, having come to Christ, such belief is possible. But what of others who have not come to Christ? How do these people come to know Christ, so that they too can know the Father?

The first reading today is an interesting reading in the context of stones and building the foundation of the church. Stephen professed a belief in Jesus and God that many devout Jews felt bordered on being blasphemous. When I read the passage where they covered their ears and yelled at the top of their lungs, I could not help of thinking of how little children act when they don’t want to hear something.

To some people, the next sentence in that passage, “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul,” suggests that Saul was the person who organized the stoning of Stephen. But others simply state that Saul’s presence was simply there so that Luke, the author of Acts, could introduce him. Whatever the reason, Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit and the comfort that it gave Stephen. Saul may have at first felt that the stoning of Stephen was the proper thing to do but I would like to think that it gave him pause to consider just what he himself thought. We all know that shortly after that episode, Saul came to know Christ personally as Paul, became the missionary of the first church.

Peter spoke of “living stones”.

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

This spiritual house that Peter spoke of is the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it was the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable condition and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.

John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, had to go out into the community.

About 5 years ago, I heard Dr. Rose Sims preach at the Red Rock Camp in Minnesota. It turned out that we shared a common bond. While I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, she was working on her doctorate. As it turns out, her major advisor served on my graduate committee. She was asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was in the part of Florida that some have described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the district considered the church closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet when she came to Red Rock that summer in 1994, the church had grown to over 350 members and had become the central strength of a small town. George Lane, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, wrote the best description of her work. He wrote

“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida, America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best. (New Life for Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by the work of the church in the community.

Each day we are reminded of the need for the church and the presence of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. We shake our heads when we hear of children who threaten others because they feel left out. We wonder why it is that children resort to violence to respond to the taunts and behavior of their classmates. To kill someone because they taunted you is wrong, there is no doubt about that. But it is also wrong for someone to make fun of someone for whatever reason. How then do we deal with the problems of society?

I firmly believe that the answer lies in the church. The church’s presence in the community can offer the cornerstone, the foundation that is needed for a life in Christ. Without that foundation, it is impossible to have a stable life. We have a hymn (UMH 529) that speaks of this foundation, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”

As I said last week, there is a vision for this church in the community. It does not matter what the size of the church is, for if Christ is among you and I am sure that it is, the power of the Holy Spirit transcends size. It was the power of the Holy Spirit that transformed the Trilby Church, it was the Holy Spirit that transformed St. Cloud Grace.

As we approach May 23rd and Pentecost, I am asking you to think of someone who needs that foundation in the Lord, that person who lacks the rock upon which they can build their life. Between now and the 23rd, we need to be praying for those individuals. And we need to be thinking about who we can invite to church, not just on the 23rd but next week and the week after that. Just as Saul saw the power of the Holy Spirit in Stephen, so too will people see the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Neon United Methodist Church.

There is someone in this community who needs to rebuild their life. Through the presence of the Neon Church, they can find that new cornerstone in life.

The Rules Change

I am at Dover UMC this Easter morning.  (Location of church)  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 11: 1 – 8, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and John 13: 31 – 35.

(This has been edited since it was first posted.)


The first part of this message today is a little bit of a rant but I trust that you will allow me a few moments to speak out. Trust me, what I am saying does, I believe, have relevance and meaning to the Gospel for today as well as the other lessons and it speaks to the meaning of the Scriptures.

One thing that has amazed me about the past few years is the cry to upgrade science and mathematics education in this country. It isn’t that we are calling for more science and mathematics teachers right now; it is, if you will, nothing new. Back in December, 2008, there was report that called for more science and math teachers (see “Have We Learned Anything?”), And what I wrote then echoed some of the thoughts that I first wrote back in 1990 (see “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”). We see the future but we view it with our eyes glued totally and completely to the past. It isn’t that we are afraid to look into the future; it is more that we are reluctant to abandon our old ways.

The other day, I examined a job announcement that I consider typical for today’s job market, especially in the area of chemical education. This particular institution is seeking someone who has the ability to effectively use all forms of audiovisual equipment (e.g., Power Point, Internet Resources, etc.).  It should be noted that Power Point and Internet resources are not necessarily audiovisual equipment. The successful candidate will also have expertise in curriculum design, technology, program planning, and student engagement techniques.  The qualified candidates will possess excellent computer skills; demonstrate evidence of a career that includes flexibility and willingness to change; open-mindedness, fairness and the ability to see multiple perspectives; a willingness to take risks, and willingness to accept responsibility for professional and personal growth.

The successful candidate’s duties will also include adapting existing chemistry courses for online delivery and then teaching those courses as needed. They should be able to incorporate the latest instructional technologies and interactive learning techniques in course delivery.

Now this is all well and good, except that whoever wrote this job description does not appear to have a clear understanding of the technology used in teaching today. In addition, while the candidate is to be flexible, open-minded, and willing to change, the instructions for applying for this position indicate that you can apply in person or submit your application by fax or regular mail. However, e-mail applications will not be accepted.

This college wants someone who is able to utilize various forms of technology but they themselves will not utilize the same technologies. I also suspect that this desire by the college to teach chemistry online is driven more by the academic numbers game of getting students registered. I was a participant in a discussion about teaching chemistry courses online and emphasized that one could not safely teach chemistry laboratories online. I did so primarily for safety reasons; you have to have laboratory work if you want to teach chemistry successfully and there is no way that you can monitor the conditions under which a student is conducting a laboratory exercise unless it is in real time and in a real place, not some virtual laboratory in cyberspace.

Now what does all of this have to do with the church today? The church today is operating under a set of rules that have existed for hundreds of years. The only problem is that no one understands, let alone knows, these rules. And what is worse, in attempting to “modernize” the church, they simply add on things like guitars and drums and begin singing new music without understanding the meaning of the music in the worship service.

Now, I am not opposed to including guitars, drums and other more modern musical instruments in a worship service. As I mentioned in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, I have laid out a worship service that utilizes several rock and roll pieces (see “A Rock and Roll Revival”). It is just that bringing in any new form of music without consideration for what you are doing is, to me anyway, the same as saying that Power Point is a form of audio-visual equipment.

The greatest problem the new church had two thousand years ago was that one group insisted that you had to follow Jewish dietary laws as a Christian. Peter was one of those who felt that adherence to the old Jewish laws was a necessary requirement for being a member of the new movement. But the vision that Peter received that night some two thousand years ago showed him what Jesus had told the Pharisees before; it isn’t what you eat that causes the problem, it is what you say and what you think.

In this month’s issue of Connections Barbara Wendland addresses the issue of belief and faith. She points out that many people believe because we were taught and told what to believe. If someone did not believe as we did, if their understanding of Christianity was not the same as ours then they were wrong. And we have come to equate faith with belief. And we do not necessarily understand either.

Karen Armstrong points out that the Greek word that is translated as “faith” means trust, loyalty, engagement and commitment. Yet, when we read of Jesus asking the people to have faith, we assume that He is asking them (and us) to believe. This is one of the exciting things about being a lay speaker because I have had time and opportunity to delve into what I have been saying all these years.

There is a person among us who probably hasn’t said that “faith is a belief in things unseen” which is a paraphrase of Hebrews 11: 1 from the King James translation, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” My favorite translator, Clarence Jordan, translated the verse from the Greek as “Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.” And the same verse as found in the Message reads, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.” There is quite a bit of difference in the translation.

And it carries forth in how you understand what it means to be a Christian. If faith is a commitment, then Jesus wanted disciples who

… would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense entitlement, … and trust in god who was their father. Thy must spread the good news … and live compassionate lives, not confining their benevolence to the respectable and conventionally virtuous.” (Karen Armstrong, quoted in the May, 2010, Connections)

Even the meaning of the word “belief” has changed over the years. When it was originally translated from the Greek into the Latin, the word that best described this life of faith was “credo”, a word that derived from the Latin meaning “I give my heart.” But when it was translated into the English for the King James Version, it became “I believe.” And even this word has changed its meaning over the years. In 1611, it meant “to prize, to value, or to hold dear.”

But over the years, it has taken on a more theoretical meaning, to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical and possibly dubious proposition. What it has done has made a statement of faith into a statement that we believe in things unbelievable. And it has caused people to turn away from the church because we demand correct belief as evidence of our faith.

Now, there are some today who are going back and looking at the life of the early church. Some are even learning Greek so that they can get a clearer understanding of what the Scriptures really say. You can imagine that this is not readily accepted by many in today’s church. For to go back and find out what was originally said two thousand years ago is in defiance of the authority of the church. But how can the church have any authority if it is based on faulty reasoning and logic; if it demands things that the early church never even considered?

We run the risk of making the same mistake that the religious establishment made when Jesus walked this earth and when the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation took place, of losing the people. But it need not be that way; we can heed the words of John the Seer who spoke of a new earth reborn in Christ and not destroyed by God.

We have been given a new commandment, a new set of rules if you will. We are called to love others as we have been loved.

This is the same love that was expressed that night two thousand years a go when the disciples gathered together in the Upper Room for that Last supper.

But, for us, it was the First Supper. And we come to the table this morning in a continuing expression of our faith and commitment to be God’s servants in this world.

We come to this place, this table because the rules changes two thousand years ago. We leave this place citizens of the New Kingdom, committed to the mission of Christ.

Who Sits At Your Table?

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 9 May 2004; it also happened to be Mother’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1  – 6 and John 13: 31 – 35. 


I know this is a strange way to start a sermon but I thought I would first discuss the fine art of setting the table. Now this discussion will focus on the simplest possible setting of one fork, one knife, and one spoon. I am quite capable, to the surprise of many, of setting an elegant table though I have yet to do the complete setting of salad fork, dinner forks, dessert spoon and fork, dinner knife, soup spoon, and teaspoon. I mention this because my mother insisted that I know how to do it. But for today, a simple setting will work best.

In the simplest setting, the fork is placed on the left side of the plate with the knife and spoon placed on the right side. This will work for every setting at the table unless someone at your table is like my youngest brother. When we set the table for dinner in our house, we had to take into consideration that Tim, the youngest of the three Mitchell boys, was left-handed. For him, we placed the fork on the right side of the plate with the knife and spoon on the left side. And to avoid collisions and conflicts with my other brother, we set Tim at the right side of the table and Terry on the left side.

Now, not every family has the problem but it was necessary if dinner in the Mitchell household during the fifties and sixties was to be quiet and peaceful. For the benefit of all the mothers here today and for my own mother, I use the term "quiet and peaceful" loosely. The seating of people at the dinner table, the cutlery used and how the cutlery is placed are critical social concerns. But the question of who would even sit at the table was a far greater issue for Peter and the early disciples of the church. At the time of the reading from the book of Acts for today, the church was divided between those who had become Christians after first being Jews and those who had first been Gentiles. Those who had been Jewish felt that one needed to hold on to the Jewish traditions and Jewish law of their forebears before they could be Christian. They insisted that those who were not Jewish first must become Jewish before they could be Christian.

But at the same time Paul was preaching to the Gentiles and telling them that it was all right to become Christian without first converting to Judaism. This difference was not a small difference of opinion; it wasn’t even a polite discussion of the issues. It was a major division, as emphasized by the fact that Luke, the writer of Acts, wrote about Peter’s vision twice, and it threatened to tear apart the church before the church had really even started.

Luke found it necessary to repeat the story because Peter had broken basic Jewish tradition by entering the home of a Gentile Christian and eating dinner with him. For many Jews, Christian or otherwise, this was forbidden by Jewish laws. But the Levitical laws upon which this judgment was based were never intended to teach ostracism. In repeating the account of Peter’s vision, Luke was showing how God had set him free from bigotry.

But, even today, some two thousand years or so after this occurrence in the early days of the church, we are a community of believers whose thoughts about the laws of God threaten to divide and destroy the church. It almost seems as if we have forgotten Jesus’ own words to us, the message of the Gospel for today to love one another just as we were loved by Him and God the Father.

The New York Times yesterday noted that the delegates to the General Conference in Pittsburgh voted against a call to split the church. It seems that conservative delegates to the General Conference had brought a motion before the floor that would split the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations, based on the views of the members on the issue of homosexuality. Though this motion was overwhelmingly defeated, those who brought the motion before the floor have said that they will spend the next few years meeting with disaffected congregations and will probably seek to form a newer and more conservative branch of Methodism. (The New York Times, May 8, 2004)

But even this single issue is but one reason why people do not come to church. They see in the church an organization that excludes people for any number of reasons. Even after forty years, the 10 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is still considered the most segregated hour in this country. It seems that despite all of our intellect, all of our claiming that we are God’s servants, we are not always willing to accept other people’s ideas. It is not to say that we should accept clearly evil or wrong ideas but we should realize that other people have ideas as well. Many of the today’s problems stem from an unwillingness of some to accept the notion that other people have ideas about God and Christ that may differ from our own ideas.

Perhaps instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, we should look at our own lives and the opportunities that are presented to us each day. Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed by those opposed to his work with the poor and underclass, the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of church: "One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus’] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord." Both the disciples and Romero had to rethink their preconceived notions about what – and who – makes the church. (Adapted from "Living the Word", Sojourners, May 2004.)

When we come to the communion table in the United Methodist Church, we are reminded that it is an open table. This means that anyone who is a member of any church, be it a United Methodist Church or otherwise, may celebrate communion with us. The only requirement for coming to this table is that one comes with a open heart, confessing of their sins, and receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit. There was some discussion at General Conference about closing the table in the United Methodist Church but I do not think anything came about from that thought.

And I hope that it doesn’t; because to do so would to take away the very essence of what the Gospel message is about and it is to say to some that they are not welcome in this or any other church. I certainly hope that we never close the table in the United Methodist Church; for to so would send a message of exclusion when openness is needed.

I do not know what your experiences with other denominations are but I have come close to being denied communion on two occasions. The first occurred when I was in college; the second just after I started my preaching career.

When I was in college, I would attend the Roman Catholic services at the Newman Center. I knew the campus priest through other church contacts and the services were very informal. This allowed me the "thrill" of attending church wearing blue jeans. Now, I must admit that I am wholly uncomfortable doing so now but college was a time of breaking away from the old and moving towards the new.

I asked the priest if he would give me communion. He replied that he would not, because I was not Roman Catholic. I also think that he knew that I was testing him and communion is not a test between you and the minister. He was right to say that he would deny me communion because my reasons for coming to the table were not the proper ones.

The second time was in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. The Missouri Synod closes the table to only the members of that church; Lutherans from other churches and others must get permission from the Lutheran minister before coming to the altar rail. In this particular church, the minister had students home from college pulled out of the line because they had not gotten permission before hand. Since I knew the rules and wanted to observe communion, I met with this minister before hand to get permission. Because he knew of my background, his questions went beyond the normal questions asked of others.

Here he was testing me in a manner that would not have been done to others. I knew the answers he wanted to hear and I was reluctantly granted permission. But I said that I would never go back to that church on a communion Sunday because the spirit for receiving communion was not there.

But, having described those instances where I would have been denied communion, I have to confess there have been times when I would have denied communion to someone else. Several years ago, a member of the congregation that I was also a member of was working against those who sought to save and revitalize the church. In one sense, it was a matter of power. For the revitalization of the church would ultimately strip this individual of the power they had gathered over the years. In the confession that is a part of the communion ritual, we speak of opening our hearts and confessing our sins. I could not see how, in light of this person’s actions, how they could come to the table or why they should be allowed to come to the table. But I was reminded that such decisions were not up to me nor anyone else in the church; if this person wished to have communion and not confess their sins or come to the table with an open heart, so be it. Judgment will be made but it will done by an authority more powerful than I.

Communion means three things to me. First, it is the essential reminder in my life that Christ died for my sins, even before I was ever on this earth. He died for my sins so that I would be free. It is a reminder that communion is a community event.

There is no way that one can have communion singularly. It has to be done in some sort of community, even if the community is only you and the minister.

I do not know the circumstances that put Thomas G. Pettepiece in jail but he wrote

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion — without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: "We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet." Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. "We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine," I told them, "but we will act as though we had."

"This meal in which we take part," I said, "reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class."

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our moths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. "Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us."

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: "You people have something special, which I would like to have." The father of the dead girl came up to me and said: "Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road." (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

It was the celebration of the community of believers in the most trying of times that brought solace and hope to one and the promise of a better life to another. I don’t think that such results could have been achieved without the community of believers.

The third thing that communion means to me is expressed by John in his words from the Book of Revelations. Christ represents a new beginning; no longer will the old ways hold meaning. In Christ, we have the promise of eternal life; in Christ, our fears are relieved. But the promises of the new beginning can only be true if we hold to the true meaning of the Gospel.

And the true meaning of the Gospel is to have this table open. You may feel that you are not worthy of coming to the communion table today but that is the one reason you should come. The poet Gary Holthaus wrote,

"The good news is tonight I am going to create a sustaining community among you. It will not depend on your always being faithful or perfect or good, or right, powerful, or unblemished or pure.

It will not depend on your holding an advanced degree or your wealth, your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or religion.

It depends on two things: your willingness to share and your memory of me. (Adapted from "The Sustaining Community" by Gary Holthaus, in Connections, September 2002.)

We did not set this table; rather Christ set it. He, through his baptism, death on the cross, and resurrection invites us to set at His table. Through his baptism, death on the cross, and resurrection brings to us a new world, free from pain and death through sin. We leave this table a forgiven and risen people, empowered to take the Gospel into the world, to share with others what we have gained today. Christ invites us and asks us to have others sit with us. Who will sit at your table?

To Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 13 May 2001.  This also happened to be Mother’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1- 16 and John 13: 31 – 35.


To prepare for this Mother’s Day, I started thinking about what it is that we got from our mother. To often in today’s society, Mother’s Day is often seen in terms of economic opportunities for the greeting card and phone companies. But what is it that we got from our mother.

For John and Charles Wesley, it was very simple. When they were growing up, education was essentially a hit or miss proposition. In the Wesley family, the education of the children was a task taken on by their mother, Susanna. She nurtured their minds and spirits, tamed their wills without crushing their spirits. She taught each child at a pace best suited for his or her own learning style. Later, in their adult years, she encouraged them and counseled them. And it was learning not just for the boys. It is noted that John Wesley’s sister, Mehetabel, was so advanced in learning that she was reading the New Testament in Greek at the age of eight.

The sense of social justice and compassion that John Wesley felt the church should show no doubt came from the heritage of Biblical instruction, academic excellence, and godly examples set forth by their mother.

Knowing the tone of life that was set by Susanna Wesley, I wondered what it was that I received from not only my mother but my paternal grandmother. I hope that as I speak of what my mother did for me, you will take a few moments and think about the person in your life whom you knew or know as Mom.

As I have said on at least one other occasion, my mother laid the foundation for my faith at an early age. From her, I suppose I get the drive to do well in everything that I did as well as the tenacity to see a job done and done right from her.

And it is to my mother’s credit that there is a bond of love between my brothers, my sister, and myself. You will find no more diverse group of siblings than that of my family and though the manner in which it is done may not seem like it, there is a love between us that developed because of our mother.

I know that I did not get my sense of social justice from her and it is certain that I did not get my political beliefs from her. But I did get a sense that it was all right to find my own path as long as I was prepared to face the consequences as well as enjoy the rewards.

I also got a sense of family love from my paternal grandmother. Though my roots lie in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, there is also a part of me that also comes from Missouri. And whenever I go back to Missouri, whether it was to visit friends at Kirksville or go see the my daughters in Springfield, it doesn’t seem right not to go by 3603 Union Road if I have the chance.

That was where my grandmother lived all the years that I knew her. And whenever I was on break from school, I knew that it was a place that I could go. At that house, there was a sense of love and warmth and family, a sense of haven from the world outside.

That is why the passage from Acts seems so appropriate for this morning. At first glance, it is hard to see how it fits into Mother’s Day (and I am sure that there are a few preachers this morning who have decided to pick something more appropriate to preach from today). But on a day when we speak of the family, to hear God speaking to Peter about who should be in that family is highly appropriate.

The early church faced a dilemma about who should be a Christian. There were some those who believed that you must first be a Jew before you could be a Christian. And that part of the Christian process was an observance of all the Jewish rituals. Of course, Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles ran counter to this very notion.

But Peter received a vision from God that showed him that no one who wanted to enter God’s family would be denied because of who they were or what they were. The love and grace of God were open to all those who put their faith in Christ.

The concept proposed by some that made Christianity exclusive also ran counter to what Jesus told his followers to love as others as He had loved them. The love that Christians have for others and the works that illustrate this love will be the ways that others will come to know Christ.

Jesus encourages us to open up our hearts and let others know that God loves them as much as He loves us. John, writing in Revelation, speaks of that love and how through that love a New World is created.

This is a day when we give thanks to those who have helped shape and nurture us, who guided and directed us, who gave us a sense of what love was all about. Since we have that type of love, it is easier for us to know the love that God has for us and it is easier for us to show that kind of love to others.

The task was given to each and every one of us so many years ago. To love as others as we were loved by Christ. In honoring our mothers this day, we honor our Father as well.