“What’s in A Name?”


Here are my thoughts for the back page of the July 8, 2018 (7th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) Fishkill United Methodist Church.


In my momma’s hometown of Lexington, NC, I am known as “Virginia’s oldest boy.”  Around Memphis, I am Bob Mitchell’s “other son” and Terry Mitchell, Tim Mitchell, and Tracey Rock’s older brother.

I don’t think that there is any one of us who hasn’t experience that sort of comparison at least once in our life.  Until we establish ourselves, we will always be someone’s son, daughter, brother, or sister.  And as parents, we want our children to have their own identities rather than to be subsets of ours.

I am pretty sure that Mary and Joseph felt pride in hearing the compliments of the people of Nazareth and they must have cried at the treatment of their son.  And while the people of Nazareth were duly impressed by Jesus’ knowledge, he was still a carpenter’s son and what can you expect?

The same must be said for the “Twelve”.  Four were fisherman, two were known troublemakers, one was an employee of the Roman government; in fact, only one of the “Twelve: had any sort of academic background.  So, their friends, neighbors, and families probably worried about them hanging around with Jesus.  Each of the “Twelve” may very well have been shunned in a manner like Jesus.

But they understood that Jesus was more than the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.  They knew something special was happening.  And when they were sent out, they went with joy because they knew they were going to make a difference.

We carry the name of Christ, we go out into the world as Christians.  We heal the sick, feed the hungry, and free the oppressed in the name of Jesus.  We do so because God loved us enough to send His Son.

What’s in a name?  When it is the name of Christ, it is love.

~~ Dr. Anthony Lee Gordon Mitchell (that’s who I am).

 

“Remembering the Past Or Seeing The Future”


A Mediation for 12 July 2015, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) based on 2 Samuel 6:1 – 5, 12 – 19, Ephesians 1:3 – 14, and Mark 6:14 – 29

If you are like me, you have to wonder why it was that Uzzah was killed almost immediately after touching the Ark of the Covenant, or as it is listed in The Message, the Chest of God. I mean, we are talking about the Ark of the Covenant and those who were carrying it should have taken all sorts of precautions to make sure that it was dropped or anything like that.

But when you go back in and look at the rest of the story, you begin to understand that the particular episode, you begin to understand that the way the Ark was transported violated practically every single rule that God had laid down when the Ark was first made.

And in the first part of this passage from the Old Testament, David appears to have forgotten every one of those rules, from who was to move the Ark to how it was to be moved. Uzzah may have thought that keeping the Ark from falling was the right thing to do but, in retrospect, letting it fall may have been the only viable option.

I cannot help but think that we have something of that mentality today. We treat certain things with some reverence but we fail to remember why it was that we do so. We give lip service, as it were, proclaiming that this item or that item have meaning in our lives but we don’t bother to know what that meaning might be or what the real meaning actually is.

And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, if you hold up the Confederate battle flag and say this is a symbol of my heritage, then you better understand what your heritage really is. It would be far better to cast your heritage aside and move forward than to simply try to figure out a way to justify living in the past.

In growing up in the South, I met those who did just that, tried to justify living in the past. I began to understand early on what that meant; later on, I would learn or begin to realize that the memories of the South that people wanted to keep in their minds was a limited one, one in which nothing bad happened and in which Yankees were to blame for all the problems. But then I began to see that the only ones who wanted to keep those memories fresh were those who wanted to hold on to power and position; they had no desire to see anyone, whatever color they might be, become equal.

And that is something I think is still holding true today. I see too many people who are like Herod, afraid of John the Baptizer and what he is saying, for it lets people know that he (Herod) is abusing his position and authority. He doesn’t want people to hear the Baptizer’s words of truth for those words damage his position and his power. For Herod, the Baptizer is an outsider (even though, of course, he was a local boy) and outsiders only bring bad news.

And there are those today who call themselves Christian but whose thoughts, words, and deeds show that they give little thought to what it is they profess. They see in the Cross a symbol of power and authority to laud over others and which somehow makes them better people. But they are not willing to see the Cross for what it really stands for, a chance to change your life because Christ died for them.

They are unwilling to put themselves in the place that Christ put Himself, a place where everything was given up so that we could be successful. As Paul told the Ephesians, there was a long-range plan for each one of us in Christ.

And while there are those who would rather remember the past, in Christ we are offered a vision of the future. It is a future that is open to all, no matter who they might be.

“The Church For Others”


Here are my thoughts for the Sunday Vespers in the Garden. This should have been entitled “Continuing the Story” but I didn’t think of that until after the Vespers were over.

I have a secret to share with you this evening; I didn’t pick the Scriptures or the theme for this evening’s message or for any of the Fridays or Sundays. They came from a book that I was given when I began lay speaking over twenty years ago. The readings are based on the common lectionary and developed by some group quite a few years ago. I don’t know who the group was or why they picked the particular scriptures, especially for the weekday readings but I do know that the selections were designed so that over a three year period, one will read the entire Bible.

Now, if the readings for today (2 Samuel 7: 18 – 29, Ephesians 1: 1 – 10, and Mark 6: 7 – 13) see a little different than those read this morning, it is probably because 1) the pastor or lay speaker has their own plan in mind (which isn’t all that bad) or 2) they are using the revised common lectionary.

My pastor when I first began lay speaking was John Praetorius and he would set down early one Saturday every August and lay out a series of readings, hymns, and messages for about sixty weeks and then print them out as a booklet for the congregation. Obviously, he didn’t do all the thinking about it in one night, rather writing down his thoughts as they occurred and then putting them together in one long session. And since he was working on a 60-week cycle, he already had some of the weeks already recorded from the previous year’s session. This was the model that he inherited from his father and grandfather, both preachers and bishops in the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Now, when I began lay speaking I used the basis of this model simply because I would only be preaching a few times a year and it was an easy model to follow. It is also something of the model that we give to beginning lay speakers, pick one or two scripture readings that you are familiar with and write a message that you can use if you are called at the last minute.

When I began preaching every week, it wasn’t easy to use that model so I went to a lectionary based model, first with the common lectionary in my prayer guide and then with revised common lectionary. Following the lectionary is a good idea if because it gives you an outline for the coming weeks and it also allows you to see how other ministers might be using the same three scripture readings. When I was living in Pittsburg, Kansas, back in 1995, practically every pastor was using the same three scripture readings each week but you could easily see that each person had their own take on what the scriptures said.

The downside of the lectionary readings approach is that if you do not read the Bible during the week, you sometimes wonder what or how a particular reading fits into the scheme of things. Also, many of the traditional Bible stories that we learned in Sunday School are not in the lectionary; that is, of course, why we learned them in Sunday School. So, if you only come to a Sunday morning worship and don’t partake in some sort of Sunday School or Bible study, you are likely to miss something. (I bring this up for the most obvious reading and because someone asked me during Grannie Annie’s Kitchen yesterday if there was any sort of Bible study available; the hunger of the soul can be as great as the hunger of the body).

It is not a requirement that the minister or speaker use all three lectionary readings; we encourage beginning lay speakers to focus on one of the three and there are many ministers who will do likewise. I never received those instructions in my beginning classes so I tend to find a way to use all three readings for a Sunday morning service and two readings for the Vespers service on Sunday; it does present some interesting challenges.

I bring this all to you because it helps if you know why we read David’s prayer in Samuel for the first reading this evening. It is entirely possible to read or hear it as it is, without any knowledge about what transpired in the previous section or what is to come in the next section. It sounds as if David is celebrating the presence of God in his life and one might even think, from what he said, that God is going to give a house to David.

I can think of a number of preachers who follow the prosperity Gospel theme that would use that approach.

And while it is a celebratory prayer, it is also a prayer of caution. If we had read the previous section, we would know that the prophet Nathan has told David what God intends to do and that the house of David, David’s family, will play a very important role in the future of Israel and the world. The house that God will build for David is not some physical house but the genealogical house that bring Joseph of Nazareth and his wife Mary to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.

If we read further, we will find that David wants to build a house for God, a massive temple to house the Ark of the Covenant and replace the tent structure that the Ark is presently sitting in. But God will not allow David to build the Temple and it will be Solomon who builds the First Temple.

Thus, the beginning of the story is that God’s promise to build the house of David is the announcement of Jesus’ birth and ministry. But it does not end there; the story continues when Jesus sends out the 12 into the world.

Again, we have to understand that this is a post-Pentecostal mission but a mission within the context of Jesus’ own ministry. And it is direct contrast to the attitudes of many of the prosperity gospel preachers and those ministers who feel the Word of God is only appreciated in a $2,000 Armani suit or those who would much rather have some sort of magnificent edifice in which to worship God.

I will not argue against the need for some place where we can meet and worship God but the command of Jesus was to fulfill the mission where the people were not, have the people come to the church.

I think it is entirely possible that we could read the passage from Samuel as if we were the ones who were thanking God. If we have accepted Christ as a Savior, we have every reason to be thanking God for what He is doing for us and for our family. But we also have to know the pitfalls and dangers that will lie before us if we keep those blessings and good fortune for ourselves. We are the ones, who like the 12, have been asked, in fact told that we need to go out into the world, to send the demons packing, to bring wellness to the sick, to anoint their bodies, and heal their spirits.

It is not enough to thank God for what he has given to us if we are not willing to share it with others.

Where We Gather


This is the message that I am presenting at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church on July 19th.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14; Ephesians 2: 11 – 22; and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56

I will also be at Germantown UMC (Wilton, CT); services are at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.

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“We Gather Together”

The people came to the shores of the lake because that is where Jesus and the disciples were. It always seems that wherever Jesus and the disciples were, huge crowds would immediately appear.

To understand what is happening with regards to today’s Gospel reading, you have to know what has already happened in Mark.

First, in what was the Gospel reading from two weeks ago, Jesus has preached, without success in Nazareth, and sent the twelve disciples out on their first mission. Then, last week, Mark reports on the death of John the Baptizer. In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples return from their mission and they are telling Jesus all that they had done (there is an analogy if you will in what will happen when the ASP team returns today).

After getting their reports, Jesus suggests that they go somewhere to rest, a practice that He often did and which was not unique. After all, even God rested after seven days. What Jesus and the disciples were doing was physically demanding and there were times when they needed to get away, to physically rest their bodies and recharge their souls.

This is something that we need to do as well. We spend so much time focusing on the former that we too often forget that we need to do the latter as well.

But when they had crossed the Sea of Galilee in an effort to get away from the crowds, the people still came. It is noted in the Scripture reading that Jesus felt compassion for the people and he continued to teach. Now, in our reading of the Gospel today, we skipped verses 35 – 52 which are Mark’s account of the feeding of the multitude. This is not necessarily to minimize this aspect of the ministry but so we can focus on another part of the same ministry.

As we also read, the people brought their sick to Jesus so that He could heal them. Everywhere Jesus and the disciples went, there were crowds and in the crowds were people bringing their sick friends so that Jesus could heal them. And, shortly after this passage, a Phoenician woman will try to sneak up on Jesus while He is not looking in order to touch his cloak and hopefully be healed.

Whenever we read a passage from the Bible, we have two often conflicting tasks in front of us. First, we have to put the passage and what it is saying in the context of the lives of the people of Jesus’ time. Then, we have to put the same passage in the context of our lives. And there are many times where these visions of the passage conflict with each other.

If we were to view such scenes as this one in terms of today’s understanding of medicine, disease and sickness, we might be tempted to call Jesus a faith healer. But this would also invalidate our moments when we put our prayers in the book and lift them and ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit to pray for our own friends and family that they might be healed.

But we know that Jesus did heal the sick and the infirmed, that He brought sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, that He gave life to the useless limbs of the lame and He empowered the disciples to do the same. So our prayers count and they mean something.

But we also have to understand that there is a substantial difference between our understanding of medicine and disease today and some two thousand years ago. While I trust that we have a more enlightened view of physical and mental illnesses today (though I sometimes wonder), two thousand years ago many of the diseases that we routinely treat were often sentences of death and/or exile.

Because people did not understand what caused someone to get sick and die, the populace in general quarantined the sick and the dying. While this may have unknowingly kept infectious diseases from spreading, it also served to place a stigma on the sick as well. The result was that many of those who suffered from various ailments were denied access to the temple because their illness (physical and/or mental) caused them to be deemed ritually unclean.

Then, the reality of the moment was that people who were sick were shunned by society. It is why people sought Jesus; He was truly their only hope for redemption and a return to society. How many times did Jesus cure someone of a disease or an ailment and then have the person seek the religious authorities to insure that they were certified clean? It is not a question of whether or not going to the temple would help them be healed but was a gesture that said they were once again part of society.

Still, any discussion of Jesus’ healing the sick must account for the fact that He healed all those who sought His touch and that He turned no one away. It is a part of the healthcare process today that seems to get forgotten. While the Bible does not outline specific public polices regarding the provision of health care it does make it clear that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.

Jesus and the disciples demonstrated that sharing the good news and healing the sick are bound up together (Luke 9: 6; Mark 7: 32 – 35). Physical healing was a part of the salvation Jesus brought. The word “saved” was used throughout the gospels to refer to physical healing. Healings represent a sign of the breaking of God’s reign into the present reality.

So where do we fit into this? This last week, I listened to a discussion about mega-churches and whether or not they were beneficial or not. Now, it should be noted that I am not a fan of such churches and that I would much rather be in a physically smaller church.

But it isn’t the size by itself that bothers me; but as the size of the church grows, it seems to me that the “personal touch” disappears. That may be why the new mode of worship is what are called “house churches”, churches which emulate the early church when believers met in each person’s home rather than in a formal building. Of course, back then, the idea of a formal building for a church was missing because to publically acknowledge a meeting of Christians was tantamount to asking to be arrested.

What I do know is that the personal touch, the idea of a community of believers being together for each other is independent of church size. In that same discussion about megachurches was a comment that the daughters of one individual were going to a more Pentecostal and definitely non-United Methodist church because the United Methodist church did not offering the daughters anything in the way of spirituality (I believe the term “boring” was used as well).

And I still remember that Sunday many years ago when one pastor of the largest church made the invitation to join the church one Sunday. Now, I had indicated that I was interested in joining this church but I wasn’t sure how it was done. This church qualifies as the largest church in which I was a member and I wasn’t sure how you went about joining the church (it had also been several years since I had transferred my membership and this lead to part of my confusion). After the service, I went looking for someone who might tell me what to do; as it happened, the person whom I sought was in fact looking for me for that very reason. I joined the church the next week.

One of the questions that we have to ask ourselves in the church today relates to that very issue. Are we doing what we have to in order that people will seek us out? Or do we view our church as a church for only a select few? This was one of the points that I hopefully made last week and it is one of the major issues facing the church today.

In the Old Testament reading for today, David has settled in Jerusalem and has a fine palace. But the Ark of the Covenant still rests in a tent. So David decides to begin building a fine and impressive structure in which God may reside. But God, through the prophet Nathan, tells David that it is not yet time for him to do that. David must first establish his own house before there is to be a house of God. And we know that in telling David that he must first establish the House of David, we are being given the first hint of the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

It is not that David should not build a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant but those weren’t God’s priorities. David saw the building of the new home for the Ark in terms of the old ways where humans served gods by building temples. God, in his words to David, says that he had raised the rulers of Israel to be the shepherds, to care for the people. God’s plan is to build the House of David, not a physical house.

This goes back to something I said last week. When we are more interested in the building in which we meet, we destroy the sacredness of that place and we go back to the old ways. Now, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t maintain our churches and our homes, but we have to make sure that we are also maintaining the relationship with and between the members.

Let us not kid ourselves; the church today is dying. It is a slow and painful death, brought about by years and years of neglect and abuse. Often times, church members have been more concerned about the physical state of the church when they should have been concerned about its spiritual state. People today are not seeking “modern” services; they are seeking the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t know that is what they are seeking.

We have a generation called seekers because they are seeking something and because of how we have viewed the role of the church over the past few years, this younger generation hasn’t got a clue as to what they are seeking. They don’t have a clue perhaps because the church today has forgotten what it once was.

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.

I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

To meet this challenge, to be what we once were and can still be, we must make some changes. These are not changes in where we gather but in what happens when we gather.

This new community may be in a massive and ornate structure; it may be in a small wooden-frame building built almost 150 years ago; or it may be in someone’s home. But despite the fact that this piece is entitled “where we gather”, where we actually gather doesn’t matter. What does matter is what happens when we gather together. What matters is what we do after we have gathered.

If two or more have gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing, then we have been promised that He will be there with us. But we cannot gather as we once were but as we must be. We must first understand who we are. Paul points out to the Ephesians that they, the Ephesians, were once the outsiders but are now part of Christ’s community. Christ treats us all as equal and as equals we are building a new community.

It is not an easy task to build this new community. It requires breaking down walls built over the years; it requires seeing things perhaps in a different light.

When Jesus began His ministry, He began with a call to repent. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return.” To repent is to return to where we came from. We are God’s children and we have gone astray; if we repent, we return to God. The Greek word from which we get “repent” means “to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” So when Jesus called on the people to repent, He was really saying that one needed to stop what they were doing and return to the way of life that was first in God.

No one has the right to call on others to change their ways unless they have a better alternative. Getting people to stop doing wrong is only half of repentance; heading in a new direction is the other half. The call to repentance is accompanied by the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way for people to live. (Adapted from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Clarence Jordan)

It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be Christ’s disciples if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls all of us to repent of our prejudices and be open to the fullness of life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands for ourselves.

We cannot preach peace or the love of Christ unless it is in our own hearts. So we must change, we must allow the presence of Christ to redefine our views and our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our old systems, old options, and old values, then we cannot even begin to think in new terms. New visions cannot come from old structures; new values will not be created from old assumptions. Visions come when people are renewed, not by their reactions. If we allow our reactions to guide the paths we walk, we will never be able to see as we should and as we can. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

We have gathered here this morning to ask the Lord’s blessing; now we prepare to leave, refreshed and renewed. We have heard the call from God to repent of our old ways and return to the ways that we were once supposed to walk and can again walk. And as we leave this place today, we leave with a new sense of community, open to all and in which all are welcome. We go, taking the light of the Holy Spirit with us to reach out to those around us, inviting them to gather with us next week.

What Is Power?


This is the message that I gave on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 27 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15, Ephesians 3:14 – 21, and John 6: 1 – 21.

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We are a nation preoccupied with power. We fought a revolution so that we could control our own destiny and we fought a bloody civil war to define that destiny.

And it is not only our political history in which the control of power has played such a dominant role. Our social and economic history, the struggles of farmers in the late 19th century, the struggles of workers in the early 20th century have all been about who would benefit from the power of wealth. Perhaps the political, social and economic dissent that dominated our own time was a culmination of that struggle.

As we have struggled to define individual freedom, we have also found that the notion that “all men are created equal” cannot be true if situations exist where one individual’s freedom or ability to succeed is limited because of someone else’s power. Unfortunately, even as we seek a society in which equality is true, we find situations where an individual seeks power for his or her own gain.

We want to hold on to any power we might have, no matter how great or small it might be. It gives us security and allows us a sense of comfort. When we control life, our life is simplified. We do not have to deal with others because we have a sense of mastery over our world. And we get uncomfortable when others threaten our power. We feel threatened when there are others who might take away what gives us security.

The killing of Councilman James Davis Thursday was an example of one man feeling that his own power had been taken away. This past week also brought us reminders of the accounting scandals of last, when CEOs of various corporations sought to hoard the power entrusted to them for their own selfish goals or interests.

And the news of the nation brings into question the motives and interests of our own leaders. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was evil and that the Iraqi people feared for their own safety. That fear is deep since they will not believe that Saddam’s two sons have died until they confirm it themselves. But, was the manner in which the freedom for the Iraqi people obtained consistent with the ideals of freedom expressed by this country or was it merely to further the desires and motives of individuals in the administration?

Power when used for one’s own benefit, even if it should also benefit others, can never be justified. In light of what has transpired in the past few days concerning our rationale for going to war, I found it ironic that the Old Testament reading for this Sunday involves the death of a solider on a battlefield far from home to cover the lies and deceptions of his commander.

There are clear reasons whey the story of David and Bathsheba is in 2 Samuel. David’s place in history should be that he was God’s choice to be the king of Israel and that it was through him that the people of Israel would be linked to the kingdom established by Jesus.

But we also need to be reminded that such anointing did not give David the right or the ability to misuse the power of kingship. One commentary noted that by sending the messenger to Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11: 4) David ultimately breaks the seventh, ninth, and tenth commandments.

And it also shows that David was slacking off as commander-in-chief. In verse 11, Uriah’s statement suggests that the Ark of the Covenant is in the field with the army rather than in its customary place in Jerusalem. Now, the Ark would only be away from Jerusalem if there was a battle going on and if David was at home, he was not leading the army, as he should have been. In other words, he was more interested in his own needs than he was interested in doing his job as king. David’s sins will come back to haunt him, as we will find out next week. But we can see that when one persons abuses the powers given to him, others will get hurt.

By the same token, the Gospel reading for today is also about power. The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle (aside from the resurrection) reported in all four Gospels. It shows Jesus using the power of his position to insure that others gain. One cannot understand what was in the minds of John, Mark, Matthew or Luke when they wrote their Gospels but we know that they were trying to tell people who Jesus was.

To the skeptics, centered as they were in their own sense of the world and trusting in only that same sense, Jesus was not capable of doing any miracles. After all, as they mocked him on the cross, “He saved others but He cannot save Himself.” But the powers that would have allowed Jesus to do exactly that, save Himself, were the same powers that enabled him to feed the multitudes. And it was not just the five thousand as reported in the Gospels or the four thousand that Matthew reported that He fed later but rather the fifteen or twenty thousand that were actually on the hillside that day.

The application of power is still a concept we have difficulty understanding. We fail to realize that Christ offers us a new view of life. As long as we view life from our own prospective, of power enriching us at the expense of others, we can never understand why Christ died to save us.

But when we allow Christ to be the center of our lives, we begin to see life differently. Paul’s words to the Ephesians express this very clearly. Paul is stating his own awareness of all that God is doing for us. The primary gifts from God that Paul speaks of in this regard are the power that He gives to us to do His work and the love He has for us through Christ.

But the power we receive is not power that is hoarded but rather shared. We can never conceive of this power in its entirety because it surpasses all of own knowledge. But we are able to use it so that others may benefit. Leadership means power and that in turn should mean that we help people.

Instead of limiting what we can do, the power given to us frees us. It allows us to expand our boundaries, to see beyond the limits of the physical world. Power in the old sense limited what we could do because we would not give up what we had. And when there are limitations to what can be done, hope diminishes.

There can be no hope if there can be no way to see beyond the present. And if there is no hope, there can be no life. There are too many people in this world who have lost hope; they hunger for life’s basic needs but see no relief; they see too many problems but cannot find a solution. (Adapted from Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)  But when we realize that the solution is not found in the power that we have but rather that power that comes from God, hope can be found.

Power is a wonderful thing but it is absolutely worthless unless others benefit. We are reminded that John Wesley struggled in his early years with his own salvation because he was trying to solve the problem on his own, with his own power. It was only when he turned over the center of his life to the Holy Spirit that he received the answers he so desperately sought.

The same is and will always be true for us. If we try to use whatever power we might have only for ourselves, we will fail. It may not be immediate but it will be the result. By surrendering our lives to Christ, by giving up what we desire the most, we will eventually gain what we seek. We seek power over our lives, the ability to do what we want; but the ultimate power is the power over death. Through Christ, that power is possible.


It’s The Little Things


This is the message that I gave on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 30 July 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15, Ephesians 3:14 – 21, and John 6: 1 – 21.

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The Star Trek movie “The Voyage Home” has two lines that I think are very memorable. The first occurred when the crew had landed in the San Francisco park and where off to find the whales and the materials needed to return home. Kirk told the crew “Remember where we parked,” a line we have all said at one time or another to our children or have been told by our parents.

The second line was when they rescued Chekov from the hospital. When they entered the operating room, it was Kirk, McCoy, and the whale biologists. When they left, it was Kirk, McCoy, the biologist pushing the cart with Chekov on the cart. When the guard noticed this minor discrepancy, Kirk mumbled, “One little mistake.

Life is based a lot of times on the little things. Bill Walton noted that one of the first things he was taught at UCLA was how to put his shoes and socks on. As John Wooden himself later wrote,

This may seem like a nuisance, trivial, but I had a very practical reason for being meticulous about this. Wrinkles, folds, and creases can cause blisters. Blisters interfere with performance during practice and games. Since there was a way to reduce blisters, something the player and I could control, it was our responsibility to do it. Otherwise we would not be doing everything possible to prepare in the best way.” (“Wooden — A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court”, John Wooden with Steve Jamison.)

John Wooden further wrote

“These seemingly trivial matters, taken together and added to many, many other so-called trivial matters build into something very big: namely, your success.”1

David’s downfall as King of Israel began when he failed to keep in mind that it was the attention to the little things that mattered most. Granted, the little things that he failed to remember were the Ten Commandments, of which I think he broke at least three in the passage from the Old Testament we read today. But in reading this passage, you get the feeling that David was beginning to think that he was above the common folk and that being king made him above the little things.

David used his authority as king to take advantage of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba while Uriah was fighting a war for Israel. As a result of David’s sins, Bathsheba became pregnant. David attempted to cover up things by calling Uriah home from battle. In that way, people might think that Bathsheba’s child was Uriah’s.

But Uriah, the ever-dedicated soldier, refused to enjoy the comforts of home while his comrades were still on the battlefield. In doing this, Uriah showed that he was perhaps more righteous than David. It should be noted that while David was the Lord’s anointed, the regent of God on earth, Uriah was a convert to Judaism, not born of the faith. Uriah’s words in 11:11 must have really stung David’s conscience.

“The ark and Israel and Judah are dwelling in tents, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are encamped in the open fields. Shall I then go to my house to eat and drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” (2 Samuel 11: 11)

Uriah was telling David that he would not neglect his duty, as perhaps he knew David had neglected his own. Moreover, David had stolen the wife of one Israel’s best soldiers while his army was risking their lives for the kingdom and their king. Yet David persisted in covering up his sin; he attempted to break Uriah’s resolve by giving him too much to drink. But this was to no avail, as Uriah would not succumb to the temptation.

Failing to cover up his sin, David plotted Uriah’s death. There is no telling why David would do this. Perhaps he could not face the shame of seeing Uriah after he, Uriah, learned that David had slept with wife. As Uriah returned to the battlefront, he carried the very orders that would ultimately lead to his death.

After Uriah’s death, David quickly married Bathsheba in an attempt to make the child legitimate. However, “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” (2 Samuel 11: 27) And while David was able to conceal his sin from the people of Israel, he could not conceal it from God. Later, in the twelfth chapter of 2 Samuel, David will receive his punishment from God.

Not paying attention to the little things is what caused David to lose favor with God. But I am not saying that the Ten Commandments are little things. There are the keystone for our society and the basis upon which society operates. But if you treat the commandments lightly, you are likely to get into deep trouble.

Success depends on the little things. When you ignore the little things, you get into trouble. When you take into consideration the little things success comes easily. The question for us today is how we see the little things. The simple things that we do each day are often times the little things that make a difference in someone’s life.

The money for the first parsonage at Grace Church in Minnesota came from the estate of a person who had only visited the church once. But because the reception that person received had such an impact on them, when they died, they left a substantial gift to the church. No one in the church knew who had made the impression or when; all the letter said was, in essence, “Thank you.”

Jesus was always looking out for and protecting the little ones. He took the time to see the people in the shadows, the wallflowers, the lepers, and the ones nobody wanted to dance with. It could be that Jesus was sensitive to the unlovely and unloved because he knew what it was like to be considered an outsider. He knew what it felt like to be spit at, mislabeled, verbally and physically abused. He knew what it was to be treated like a king one day and a criminal the next.

His compassion for the little ones of society was seen in the beginning of the Gospel reading for today. The thousands who came to hear him came because he was healing the sick.

But were it not for the boy in the Gospel reading today making the offer is his small lunch, then the multitudes would not have been feed. And while the multiplication of the loaves and fishes are a clear sign of Jesus’ deity, it should be noted that he could not have done the miracle without somebody offering the loaves and fishes in the first place.

In the Epistle reading for today, Paul writes that Christ’s love passes all our knowledge and that God’s ability to do things goes beyond anything we can say or do or imagine. Still I think that the mystery of God’s grace is very simple. As long as we are on this earth, we will never know nor should we desire to know why God cared enough for each of us to send us his Son, who by his death and resurrection would save us from sin and death.

It can be that little thing wasn’t that little after all. But when you stop to think about it, anything we do in this world is little when compared to that.

That is the challenge for us this day. We can never know when it is that what we will do will make an impact on someone; when the one act of simply saying hello to a stranger will make a difference in that person’s life. For the players of the countless teams coached by John Wooden, it was a little thing to put their socks on in a prescribed manner, but the results were the beginning of championships. Having been saved by Christ, what little thing will you do this week that shows others?


Where Shall God Rest?


Here are my thoughts for tomorrow, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost.
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It has been over twenty years since I last went camping. Now, we really need to define what we mean by camping. For me, camping is sleeping in a tent without an air mattress and cooking one’s meals over an open campfire. The last time that I did this was during the late part of the spring in 1981 when I spent a couple of weekends canoeing on the Current River in south central Missouri.

The Current River and the Jacks Fork River form the heart of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Down stream from where the Jacks Fork joins the Current River, the Eleven Point River joins. The Eleven Point is classified as a “wild & scenic” river. All three rivers are easy to canoe but if you want to spend the night on the river, you have to be prepared to bring everything you want in with you and you had better take it out with you when you leave. As some of us were taught in the Boy Scouts, make sure that you leave the place in a better shape than you found it.

But this type of camping is not for everyone; if they don’t have a twenty-foot recreational vehicle with a reasonable home-like kitchen and some sort of bathroom facilities, they don’t even want to consider camping.

When we read the Old Testament reading for today (1)we find that God is still residing in a tent out among the people of Israel. Having built himself a fine palace, King David now wants to build an equally fine temple for God. But God indicates through the prophet Nathan that such a place is not necessary nor would David be the one who would build such a temple, if a temple were to be built.

God also tells David that it is not the temple by which the peace of the people will be maintained but rather by those who follows David in his royal lineage. For us, this is the first indication that Jesus will be our one and only true King. It also, of course, begs the question why we have so many mega-churches in this country. Do we really need massive structures dedicated to God if God Himself told David not to bother with such an edifice?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t build a temple or church. There is always going to be a need to have a place where we can gather for worship. Did not Jesus tell us disciples, as they once again gathered together from their mission work, that they needed to get away for some quiet time? (2)

The problem with building such large places is that we get away from why we built the place in the first place. We went camping to get away from life but we demanded that life come along with us. There are times when it would be nice to have an RV, if for no other reason than it insures a nice place to sleep when traveling. But unless you have the money to insure that the bathroom in the RV is the same size as the one you have at home and the bedroom in the RV is likewise the same as the one you have at home, you will find it necessary to accept some limitations to what the RV will provide. The same is true with building programs; at some point, the building takes over and you forget why you built the building in the first place.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t maintain the building you have; that is simply a matter of good stewardship. Right now, most of the churches in this area are really getting “hammered” by rising utility costs. The challenge will be to maintain the present building while not sacrificing funds for the mission of the church. We have to be especially careful not to place the maintenance of the building over the work of the building. After all, even as the disciples tried to rest, the crowds came. And the medical and spiritual needs of the people have to take some precedence over other more worldly matters.

We have to be very careful that we do not place the building over the people. We will quickly build walls that should never be built; these are walls that separate us from people. These walls come when we try to protect our lives from the outside world. We have built this nice building in which to have church and we certainly don’t want strangers or people who don’t appreciate the finer things of life messing up our nice new building. But Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (3), tells us that those were the walls that were torn down by Christ’s death on the cross.

Oh, yes, there are times when we need walls. But those walls protect us from predators or wind and rain. But we don’t need walls that separate us from people, especially if we are the ones who put up the walls. Our efforts at kingdom building should be to bring people inside the walls of the church, not keep them outside.

Last week I wrote about non-violence and the need to see those we call our enemies as children of God just as we see ourselves as children of God. When we label our enemies as terrorists or give them racist nicknames; when we call them anything but children of God, we deem them unworthy of the same gift that we claim for ourselves. We put up walls cemented with the mortar of name-calling, labeling, and prejudice that were some of the very walls that Jesus sought to tear down.

The time was also not right nor was David necessarily the right person to build the new temple. Also, God did not want a new temple built because He was with the people. I chose an analogy with camping because we have a choice as to how we will go camping. When we pick the RV method, we remove ourselves from the primary reason that we wanted to go camping. Similarly, if we build a massive edifice so that we can worship God, we are likely to forget why we worship God in the first place. God does not want to reside in massive blocks of stone and glass but rather to reside among the people.

In Christ, we have been given a wondrous gift. But it is a gift that we cannot hide behind walls; it is a gift that we must share with others. Have we opened our hearts so that God can enter our lives? Or have we built walls that keep the light of God inside where no one can see it? Do we show that God has a presence in our lives? We are asked to be the means by which God comes again in the midst of the people. The question that we have to ask this day is a simple one:” Where shall God rest this day?”


(1)

2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14

(2) Mark 6: 30 -34; 53 – 56

(3) Ephesians 2: 11 – 22