Are You Ready?


Here are my thoughts for 24 May 2020 – 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday (Year A). This was also Aldersgate Sunday and Memorial Day Sunday. Please note that this summer, the “Back Page” will focus on the back stories for favorite hymns.

When I began thinking about this piece, it was with Ascension Sunday in mind.  Probably because I don’t spend much time in the “outside” world, I had a hard time connecting this Sunday with Aldersgate Sunday and Memorial Day.

The problem with Memorial Day has more to do with the calendar than anything else.  Since Memorial Day on the 4th Monday of the month, it sometime comes before the end of the month and you have to scramble to remember to observe it.  And I wonder if we were, borrowing from the title of this piece, ready for it.

After all, Memorial Day is supposed to be that day when we remember those who have died in the service of this country.  But so much of this country have wanted, in light of the pandemic, for Memorial Day to mark the beginning of summer, we are perhaps not ready to remember those who have died in the service of this country.

And the memories are not just of those who died while on military service but the many people who have died because of the virus that has swept this world.  So I am not entirely sure that we are ready for this Memorial Day.

I do not think that John Wesley was ready for what was to take place on May 24, 1738 when he went to the Aldersgate Chapel.  Nothing he had done seemed to have worked; his plan for salvation was not working and he had returned from America with a sense of despair and defeat.  I do not think he was ready to feel his heart strangely warmed by the experience in the Chapel that night.  But he was ready to understand what that meant and it is clear that, because he was ready, what became the Methodist Revival became a reality.

And how did the Disciples and other followers feel that day, 40 days after the Resurrection?  One has to think that they were not ready for Jesus to leave them and I am pretty sure that they were not ready to take the next step in the mission laid out before them.

But Jesus knew that they were not ready and He told them as He ascended to remain together and the Holy Spirit would be with them.

Were you ready for that moment when the Holy Spirit came into your life?  Are you ready to help others have that moment?

There are many who want to get out into the world right now but it is not the time.  We may not like this imposition of waiting but then many of those gathered that day 2000 years ago probably did not either.  And just as that day for which they were to prepare was unknown, perhaps so too is that date for us.

But, remembering the words of Louis Pasteur that chance favors the prepared mind, we can prepare for that day.

On this day when we remember many individuals, some we knew and many we did not know, we know that memories are best served by what we do.

Are you ready?


24 Hours


Here is the message that a friend of mine, Cheryl Carpenter-Gomes, presented this past Sunday, June 1st, at her church, the Goshen UMC, The Scripture for this morning is John 17: 1 – 11.

Taking a look at the gospel scripture for today, I realize it is probably one of the most amazing scriptures we have. It is one time that we actually hear Jesus praying to God the Father. The bible says He prayed often but this is the one time we can hear how He prays.

We know when the disciples asked HOW to pray he gave them the Lord’s prayer, however this IS the Lord praying himself. He knows the end is near; in 24 hours he will no longer be walking this earth so he prays to his Father. Now, if you learned that you were going to die within the next 24 hours, would you pray? What would you say? What would you ask?

I know I would be praying. I always have a sort of continual dialog going with God through out the day as my prayer but, if I knew that in 24 hours life for me is over, what would I say? Well, it would probably be something like this.

Um. Hey God it’s me, you know I’ve had a truly blessed life, a difficult childhood, I couldn’t “do” things other kids could do like ride a bike or run or even wear cool sneakers till I was 13 due to a bone structure problem, which made me be bullied a lot, but in retrospect, I turned out okay. I lost my dad at 60 and my sister at 36 really much too young, I helped my parents support my sisters kids until they were old enough to help themselves. That was not easy, but we did it. And I have no doubt that they are both with me in spirit daily.

I worked on Wall Street starting at 16, took the subway in to work after school and got mugged on it twice. I graduated at 17 and I was this close to going for my traders license, however in order to keep up with the street in the 80’s it took a lot of controlled substances to play that game and well that could’ve killed me,

I joined the Naval Reserves instead, and I thought for sure THAT WILL kill me, but I made it through and am proud of that accomplishment, unfortunately the only cruise I went on was on a really ugly battleship grey boat, and I spent most of that time swabbing decks, ( I do believe i became very adept at my painting skills however)

I got married and have a beautiful family, I had two kids, 1 boy and 1 girl best of both worlds. And while neither of them were born with instructions, I think they are turning our pretty good.

And for the last dozen years or so, I’ve been working here in the preschool, which I didn’t ever think was in my plans. I had a wonderful mentor for 3 years and then became a teacher, I love what I do, and i believe this is my calling. I have great friends in many walks of my life. heck, I’ve even been for a hot air balloon ride!! so yes, my life has been blessed.

BUT WAIT! I’m only 48! there is so much to do.. My children are only half grown. I want to see them grow older and be happy I want to hold a grandchild (or 2). I want to travel further west than Arkansas! I’m sure there are fine wines I have yet to taste, and sights of your creation I have yet to behold!! There are classic novels to read, great food to taste, more people to meet, I’m really not done yet. I need more time!!!!

Alas, Jesus said nothing like this in his prayer, could you imagine? Hey God it’s me Jesus, I haven’t met the right woman yet, the one in the mohair robe is kinda cute..I want to have a family.. I want to travel more .. No, he didn’t say any of these things. He knew his life was complete as it was. He was born for one reason, so he could die for us and he knew this his whole life.

When he prayed it was for his disciples, he prayed that God’s name be Glorified And Yes, he prayed for us. he was thinking of us way back them.

Jesus prayed that we might all be one. He prayed that the Christians who would come later — you and me — would all be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). He was praying that we would be one so that his work on the cross wouldn’t be wasted. He wanted people to see our love for each other — and to be drawn to Christ.

A person’s dying words tell us what that person thinks is really important. Jesus’ dying words were a prayer for us — that we might be one so that the world would see our unity and be drawn to Christ. That’s what Jesus thought was really important.

So how are we doing? what can we do to make Jesus’ prayer come true? How can we start becoming one with each other and with other Christians?

The solution to our loving problem is to seek God’s help — and to seek each others help.

– With God’s help, we can get past the things that divide us. With God’s help, we can love each other.

– With God’s help, we can love our Christian brothers and sisters down the street — however different they might be — however strange their ways might seem.

– With God’s help, we can become less concerned with the labels and more concerned with what is in a person’s heart.

– With God’s help, we can begin to care about our Christian brothers and sisters who are experiencing persecution in many parts of the world.

– With God’s help, we can become one, even as the Father and Son are one — and then the world will see our witness and believe in Jesus –believe that he was sent by the Father– believe that he came to help them.

And then Jesus’ prayer — his dying request — will be answered. Amen

“What Do We Do Now?”


Mediation for the Ascension Sunday/7th Sunday of Easter (Year A), 1 June 2014

Ascension Sunday

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.

I am beginning a personal study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think I was introduced to this individual when I was in college because of his anti-war stand but I didn’t equate that with his religious writings. In fact, I may not have even been aware, some thirty-five years ago, what he thought in that area.

But now it is a different story. I still am interested in a man who would renounce his pacifist background and work actively against a totalitarian regime, knowing full well that in doing so he risked his own life. And how, in these efforts, he challenged each one of us to examine our own belief in Christ and what it means to be a Christian.

I am aware that some of what Bonhoeffer wrote doesn’t set well with some religious writers and thinkers today. But at a time when Christianity is slowly but seemingly steadily moving towards a more legalistic and rule-bound religion, maybe we should stop and think about what he said. And how does this apply to this particular Sunday, Ascension Sunday?

I get a sense from in reading today’s passage from Acts that the disciples and other followers really didn’t want Jesus to leave. I am not sure if they were afraid of what might happen after He left or if they felt that they weren’t ready. Jesus did tell them that they would receive the Holy Spirit but that they would have to wait. I wonder how that would be received in today’s society with our “I want it now” mentality?

For me, the meaning of Ascension Sunday and the subsequent preparation for Pentecost is that the responsibility for bringing the Gospel message to the people is shifting from Christ to us. For three years, Jesus brought the Good News to the people and taught the disciples how to do it themselves. Granted, the disciples weren’t really aware that was what He was doing but during this period of time, from the Resurrection through this Sunday and on to next Sunday, the “light bulb” in their minds was beginning to come on.

I have said it before but it bears repeating. As much as I am Southern born and Southern bred, so too am I evangelical. I was baptized an evangelical and I was confirmed in the Evangelical United Brethren Church and I have this evangelical nature to me. But just as I do not hold to so many of the Southern traditions that tore this country apart some 150 years ago, I am not an evangelical in the manner that it is used today.

And quite honestly, and this will tick off some of my friends, I don’t think my purpose as an evangelical is to make you come to Christ or condemn you if you don’t. I don’t see evangelism as the imposition of my will on your life.

Rather, I hold to evangelism in much the same manner that Clarence Jordan did. For Dr. Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God was changing people and the world. It was the broadcasting of the Good News that kingdom of God was breaking loose in human history and that a new social order was being created and that we were all invited to share in what was happening. Evangelism required that we declare the Gospel in both word and deed.

Yes, evangelism includes challenging people to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations. But it was much more than than. It was also in proclaiming what God was doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed.

Evangelism was the call to participate in the revolutionary transformation of the world. It required that you live out the Kingdom of God in community and through social action. (notes on evangelism from the foreword to The Cotton Patch Gospel: Luke and Acts by Tony Campolo).

So, if evangelism is our opportunity to show the Gospel as well as speak of the Gospel, shouldn’t it be done on our own. It isn’t that we don’t need Christ to do the work but He sort of wants us to do the work, don’t you think?

And yet, how many people are willing to do that? They are quite willing to speak of what needs to be done but not so quick to take on the task. And what I have gained from reading Bonhoeffer is the distinct impression that we need to be doing what we have been called to do. My early reading of The Cost Of Discipleship suggests that he saw the church more in the streets than in a sanctuary on Sunday.

I don’t think he was saying that we shouldn’t be in the sanctuary on Sunday but that isn’t where we were going to do the most good. And this fits well with my understanding of prevenient grace, that having achieved a state of grace, we need to work to improve on it rather than lose it.

But I don’t think that we can do anything if we are completely and totally focused on Jesus, here on earth. And while it may be presumptuous on my part, I don’t think that was His intention either. We weren’t going to do much with Him around, no matter how much we might want Him to be.

But Jesus reminds us, as He reminded the disciples gathered that day that He would send the Holy Spirit to facilitate the actions that we have to take.

So what do we do now? We proclaim that Jesus is the Christ and then we show the people what it truly means to be a Christian, by not only our words but our actions and our deeds. We open our hearts and receive the Holy Spirt so that we are empowered to bring the Good News to the world.

“To See the World with a New View”


Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday, 5 June 2011. Sorry that it was late but I had to focus on the funeral of my mother. I posted my thoughts at “A Celebration of Life.”

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.

Some years ago, while working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri, I attended a weekly science education seminar. Now, I didn’t have to attend this seminar because I had already received credit for attending in a previous seminar. But it was expected that one attended all of the seminars, so I came, I listened, and I participated.

As it happened, this seminar was held on a Monday and Monday was one of the nights that I bowled, so my schedule was pretty busy. I would teach during the day, come home, grab a quick bite to eat, run over to campus for the class and then get to the lanes for the league.

As it happened, there was an opening in the seminar schedule and they needed someone to fill in so I volunteered to do an extra seminar. It also worked out that it would help explain why I rushed out of the classroom at the end of the seminar. And because there had been a couple of more humorous seminars that semester, I choose as my topic “The Bowling Ball as a Curriculum Tool.” (I wish I had kept my notes on this talk because there may be other opportunities in the near future for me to do something similar.)

The talk went something like this: We see bowling in terms of physical education and the scoring often reminds us of the mathematics involved in bowling. But there is also chemistry (as I would later write about in “The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners”) and physics (referred to in the chemistry article that I published) involved. The dynamics of skid, roll, and hook are determined by the friction between the bowling ball, the lane itself, and the lane conditioner – it is this combination of chemistry and physics (perhaps more physics today than chemistry) that determines the outcome.

What people may not realize is that there is history involved as well. It is said that Sir Frances Drake wanted to finish his game of lawn bowling before setting sail to lead the English against the Spanish Armada. There is American literature with the story of Rip Van Winkle and the reason for thunder and lightning. There is also home economics (hey, someone has to sew the names of the bowlers on their shirts), geography (when I travel to the USBC Open, I don’t always go to Reno; I have been to St. Louis, Tampa, Louisville, Memphis, Baltimore, Niagara Falls, Tulsa, Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Wichita, Toledo, Corpus Christi, Mobile, Salt Lake City, Huntsville, Syracuse, Albuquerque, Billings, Knoxville, and Baton Rouge as well). So, in the end, there are a variety of topics that can be examined with the bowling ball as your primary curriculum tool.

Now, this idea of using an item as the basis for teaching a variety of topics or subject areas is not necessarily new. It is sometimes covered as “writing across the curriculum” but I present my idea in 1973 and I think that was before the idea of “writing across the curriculum” was fully developed. Second, while there are many proponents to this idea now, they tend to see it in areas that don’t often include science and mathematics. There are reasons for this and I hope to cover them in a project I am working on.

When I taught science education courses at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, I always pointed out that science could be taught in terms of water and oil. Those two liquids are key to the success and life in west Texas (and probably many areas as well). I encouraged my students to see beyond the “walls” of the classroom and utilize all the subjects in teaching, not limit it to a particular place and time. (It should be noted that one of the ways that we incorporated art in the curriculum of science was to prepare maps for the field trips that I had my students plan.)

But, in today’s classroom and educational systems, I fear that such across the board and outside the box thinking is not well received. We like our educational process to be simple and neat. It is so much easier to teach each subject separately because then the testing process becomes easier. (See “The Vaccination Theory of Education” in “A Collection of Sayings”).

The same is true with religion and the church. As long as everything is simple and neat, cut and dried, black and white, fixed and inflexible, we are happy. But when the boundaries of church and society are crossed or get mixed, we are uncomfortable.

I can imagine that the disciples and early followers were very happy during those forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Jesus had been with them and teaching them and it was as if nothing had changed. They didn’t have to do anything. I think one can feel of panic creep in as they watched Jesus ascend into Heaven. With one event, they now realized that He was leaving it would be up to them to carry on the mission that Jesus had begun.

Now, it wasn’t so simple; now it wasn’t so easy. Now, it was no longer just Jesus talking about what was come, it was time to begin doing it themselves. But, it should be noted that Jesus was fully aware of this sense of panic that might have been engulfing His followers because He promised help; He promised that Holy Spirit would be come.

I think we forget this, especially when we see the nature of the church today. Many churches today act as if the world was like the first days after the Resurrection; they hide in fear of the world outside, afraid to let the world outside into their safe sanctuary. Their concerns are about the condition of the church and not the condition of their souls. It is almost as if putting time and energy into a building will somehow make it easier for people to come to the building. But only certain people are allowed to come into the building and nothing happens.

If there was more concern about doing the work of the church, it would be easier to meet the needs of the church. Right now, in some of the churches where I serve as a lay speaker and member, opposition to paying apportionments. It is more important that we pay the utility bill and the salaries than it is to be worried about missions and the overall church structure. I think that part of this is due to the fact that those who oppose apportionments have absolutely no clue as why apportionments are even required or what would happen if an individual church were to not pay its apportionments in full.

I have suggested that each church should take 10% of its weekly offering and set it aside for apportionments. In some of the churches I have been involved with, this suggestion has met with opposition. I have pointed out that when this was done, the church paid its apportionments (in fact, was able to begin paying the next year in advance); at least one church that refused to think of doing this is now closed.

I am hoping this summer that the Vespers in the Garden series that we host will lead to an awakening of the Spirit in the people. We are expanding the service from simply on Fridays to Fridays and Sundays. I would like to think that we can continue the Sunday Vespers after Labor Day, the end of the summer series. I have in my mind that 25 people will use the opportunity of the summer vespers to become members of the church. It is perhaps a little bit audacious but I think it is possible.

There comes a time when we have to continue the work that was begun two thousand years ago. I imagine that when the disciples and the early followers watched Jesus ascend, there was a sense of panic. But I think that they also understood that He wasn’t leaving them but allowing the process that would bring the Holy Spirit into their lives.

I think the same is true today. We need a new vision of the world. We should not be focused on the building in which our church resides but on the world in which the building resides. And to have this view, we must go outside and look up to Jesus. And we need to understand that with Pentecost, we will be empowered in such a way that what we seek we will accomplish.

We cannot come to Pentecost unless we first change our view of the world. That is what today is about.

On Eagle’s Wings


I am preaching at Dover UMC again this Sunday.  Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday.  The Scriptures for today are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.


4 July 2015 — This has been edited since it was first posted to modify with a bad link.


 

I have spent the better part of the week thinking about how I could put the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven into a modern-day perspective. How would we have reacted if Jesus had been with us these past forty days as He was with the disciples and the others some two thousand years ago and then ascended into Heaven?

Would we have done as the disciples and followers did back then? Would we have watched in wonder and amazement? Would we have returned to our homes and celebrated as they did? Or would we have cried out in anguish? Would we have reacted with fear and trembling? Just exactly how would we have reacted?

There have been instances in the Bible where someone ascended into Heaven. The first is recorded in Genesis 5: 24, “Enoch walked steadily with God. And then one day he was simply gone: God took him.” The only problem is that nothing else is said. This does not help. But in 2 Kings, we read

And so it happened. They (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking. Suddenly a chariot and horses of fire came between them and Elijah went up in a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it all and shouted, “My father, my father! You—the chariot and cavalry of Israel!” When he could no longer see anything, he grabbed his robe and ripped it to pieces. Then he picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him, returned to the shore of the Jordan, and stood there. He took Elijah’s cloak—all that was left of Elijah!—and hit the river with it, saying, “Now where is the God of Elijah? Where is he?” (2 Kings 2: 11 – 14)

In this passage the prophet’s mantle is transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha’s response could be categorized because of what is happening and because of what it means. No longer will Elisha be the student and follower; now he is the teacher and the leader.

It can be a frightening thing to have to go out on one’s own and to do the things that others have done for you. In Elisha’s case, it was the acceptance of the role that Elijah had played. Elisha was afraid of the change. Elijah was Elisha’s mentor, prophet, teacher, and father-in-the faith. But now it was time for Elisha to move on and take charge of the ministry entrusted to him. Yet, he was afraid to do so. As the student, there was a degree of comfort and a manner of protection. But as the prophet, there was no comfort, there was no protection. Harvey and Lois Seifert put it this way,

In an atmosphere of security and trust, persons are likely to be more ready to change. The child who trusts the mother lets go and takes the first unaided step. A social prophet is better received when listeners have learned to appreciate his or her integrity and friendship. Healthy growth more easily takes place when all participants interact in a mutually supportive environment rather than when some manipulate others to secure the ends of the manipulators. (Liberation of Life)

It is easy to understand Elisha’s response, of not wanting to let Elijah go. Fear makes it easy to cling to the past or to familiar traditions. But that is why faith becomes so strong. While fear would have us cling to the past, faith has us look to the future.

What Elisha was most afraid of was that God would leave him, that he wouldn’t be there. In verse 14, Elisha cries out in despair and loneliness, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When Elisha hits the River Jordan with Elijah’s cloak, the river parts; in effect, God said to Elisha, “I never left. Life goes on. Elijah’s journey may have ended but your journey continues.”

The same is true, I think, for each one of us. What the Ascension means is that we are now left without Jesus physically present – that means we have to do it now – we have to do the work that he has been teaching about and teaching us. We no longer have any excuses; Jesus is not here to do it for us. Jesus’ ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.

The problem, I fear, is that we, as a society do not want to hear about the troubles of the world. If we do not hear about them or are forced to face the problems, we think that they will quietly go away. With the exception of those individuals who make the trip to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast, very few people know that the damage from Hurricane Katrina, some three years ago, is still there. Because it is not in the news, it must not be happening.

It is quite likely that many people do not know how many of our military personnel have died in the Middle East in the past seven years; we certainly do not have any idea how many civilians have died. Yes, our lack of knowledge is because the media does not report the death toll with the same fervor and intensity they reported the dead during the Viet Nam war. Yes, the present administration has gone to great lengths to prevent the public from seeing the dead come home. But, as a society, we are not asking or demanding that the truth be told.

We say that we are a Christian country and that we have strong moral values. But when does concern for the lives of the unborn have more value than the environment into which they will be born and have to live? What are we to say when our “family values” are devalued by the very people who proclaim them to be the most important value in today’s society? Why is it more moral to declare homeland security a priority in life while ignoring or denigrating global warming? Where is the morality in extolling the virtues of democracy while at the same time undermining the right of free speech? How are we to judge those who would exclude many from society because of their religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or racial identity when Jesus Himself walked and ate with those whom society excluded? (Adapted from God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan)

We have become a society where others do our thinking for us and tell us what to say, what to do, and more importantly, what to believe. We are quite comfortable with a religion that allows our fears to dictate what we will do and not do. Instead of resolving our fears, we use our fears to build walls. When faced with the problems of the world, we turn the other way and hope that the problems will go away.

I wrote a piece the other day about the state of education (see “The Bottom Line”). After I wrote, there was a op-ed piece in The New York Times about a report on the state of education in this country today (there is a link to the article in my piece).

This report from Common Core points out that nation’s children are increasingly less prepared for the world outside the classroom than any previous generation. What does it say for our future when fewer than half of the nation’s 17-year-olds can place the Civil War in the correct half century or forty-four percent think that the Scarlett Letter was a piece of correspondence?

But this ignorance is not limited to just high school students and current studies. In a report last year, sixty percent of Americans could not identify five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book that is definitely not one of the four Gospels. But don’t ask too many Americans because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34) And our understanding, or rather our lack of understanding, of what we say is our religion extends into a lack of understanding of the other religions of this world. And the lack of understanding, as history has time and time again shown, leads to violence and mistrust. And violence and mistrust invariably lead to conflict.

It is time that we begin to change the world that we live in. It is time to begin flying on our own, to begin doing what we are asked to do. You cannot be a Christian if you are not willing to lead a life as Christ would live it nor are you a Christian if you are unwilling to share that life.

I have struggled with the idea of evangelism and what that means in today’s society. The meaning that I give to the word evangelical does not seem to match the meaning that society has given it today. And the meaning that society has given it does not seem to match what it meant that day on the hill in Bethany some two thousand years ago.

What does it mean to be an evangelical? There are those today who define evangelism in terms of bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus. But the word evangelical is derived from evangel which means “the gospels” and that means something entirely different.

If you believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all and your words, actions, thoughts, and deeds reflect that, then you are an evangelical. If your words harmonize with the examples given to us by Jesus, then you are an evangelical, whether you claim to be one or not. (Duncan) Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that he has heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus. He has heard of their faith, which means that the people are living the faith and they are evangelicals.

Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels, said that evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It was a call to the people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and, if you will, martyr for the faith, wrote,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to god. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”

But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)

There is a distinct likelihood that what I have written will make some people mad. They want the church today to be exclusive, to deny membership and acceptance to those whose life is somehow different. They would change the community that is found in Christ.

There are those who say that religion is superstition and should be removed from society. No secular philosophy addresses the fact that we are born alone and we will die alone. It is in our nature to seek the solace of divine truth amidst our mortal suffering. To be an evangelical Christian is to offer hope and peace.

The other day, someone posted a comment to my blog in which they say that I offered a “middle-of-the-road” theology. This person identified themselves as one who is on the left side of the Methodist theological spectrum and I thought it was interesting that what I write would be considered middle of the road. I have, in the past, been characterized as conservative and liberal so maybe I am in the middle of the road. But, as I responded to this comment, I thought that the only things in the middle of the road are dead armadillos.

To offer hope and peace in a world of violence and despair is not middle of the road theology; it is a radical new way of life and it forces you to walk another way. But how are we to do this?

The world outside the walls of this church is a hostile world, one not receptive to the thoughts we have. The world of the early disciples was also a hostile world, a world in which a public pronouncement that one believed in Jesus Christ could lead to torture and death.

Because of His own arrest, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus knew what the disciples would encounter. The Wisdom of this moment and this day is that we are not expected to do what is expected right now and by ourselves; rather, we are told to wait ten more days, wait until the Pentecost when the Holy Spirit will come and empower us.

Harvey and Lois Seifert in their book wrote,

This internalizing of openness to God and concern for neighbors is what it means to be a Christian, rather than simply to act like a Christian. That the church can produce this kind of person is a persuasive recommendation for the church.

Within the fellowship of the church, we help one another become such Christians. Here we can become comrades of our better selves. We support one another in our highest resolves. An entire searching congregation turns our attention to the liberation of unrealized possibilities as we respond to the upward call of God. Even one other person or a small subgroup within the church can sustain our determination to spend more time at devotions and to act differently in society.

In such a combination, we are to love both God and neighbor. We cannot fully do either without the other. We reach the ecstatic heights of a devotional life only as we also act creatively in society. Full creativity as consumer, worker, citizen, and friend is possible only with the vision and power that comes vital devotion. To “turn on” is to “turn up” toward God and to “turn out” toward neighbor. The two wings of soaring, liberated life are indeed devotion and action. (Liberation of Life)

When I began working on this sermon, I thought of the song “On Eagles Wings.” It is a song that speaks of the trust that we can have in Christ; it speaks of the empowerment that we will gain through the Holy Spirit.

An ancient saying suggested that there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God. As Allan Hunter has said, “Those who picket should also pray, and those who pray should also picket.” The same combination of devotional vitality and social action is also emphasized in the two great commandments of Jesus — to love God with all one’s being and to love other persons as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36 – 40). (Harvey and Lois Seifert, Liberation of Life)

We have declared our faith in Christ; we have opened our hearts to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we have gained a trust that we cannot find in the secular world. It is the one thing that will allow us to gather together as a community; it is the one thing that will allow us to go out into the world and showing through our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions that Christ is alive and that there is hope and peace possible in this world.

The Faith We Are Taught


This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (8 May 2005).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.

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There is one address, 3603 Union Road in St. Louis, MO, and one telephone number, TW2-7187, that are not in my address book. I doubt that this telephone number, even in its modern configuration of 892-7187, is even used today. The house at this address is still there though it has changed over the years. I never lived at this address though I stayed there on countless occasions. You see this was where my paternal grandmother lived from the late 1940’s to her death in 1985. It was a place that I knew would be there wherever I might be.

For the son of an Air Force officer, an Air Force brat if you will, home does not have the same meaning that it might have for someone who grew up in the same area where they were born. It is true that I am considered from Memphis, TN, but I only call it home since that is where my mother lives and from where I graduated from high school. Throughout my college years and the beginning years of my professional career, my life and times centered more round St. Louis and the house on Union Road than it did on Memphis.

My grandfather served in the army from 1916 through 1943, often separated from his wife and two sons. The burden of raising my father and uncle thus fell to my grandmother. In all the memories of my grandmother, I remember her attending one church, a few blocks from her home in St. Louis. Though the church changed denominational affiliation at least twice, members of the church were descendants of the German Lutherans who helped settle St. Louis and the surrounding area. The church was a central part of my grandmother’s life. And when my father died in 1993, I found out something about my grandmother and the church that was just as lasting a memory as the flowers, the shrubs, and the trees that were her avocation in life.

As the pastor who knew my father from the Boy Scouts was recounting that night just before my father died, he asked my father if he knew Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. My father acknowledged that yes, he did know Christ in his heart. And then they prayed. When they were done, the pastor, a Southern Baptist, said that my father gave the sign of the Cross. The way the pastor said it, you knew that he did not understand my father’s actions. But I knew that my father had been raised as a Lutheran and all I could think was how proud my grandmother, his mother, would be to know that my father was coming home.

It was also through my grandmother that I came to know that my desire to be a minister is as much genetic as it is a calling from God. Thirteen of my cousins were all Lutheran ministers, so my presence in the pulpit is a continuation of a family tradition that dates back to the days and times of Martin Luther.

My mother, Virginia Hunt Mitchell, was born in Lexington, N. C. “several years ago.” It surprises many people when they find out that my mother is not only a grandmother but a great-grandmother as well. That’s because she doesn’t look her age nor does she let her age dictate what she is going to do. That, by the way, was also a characteristic of my father’s mother, my paternal grandmother.

For all the things that I could say about my mother, I think the greatest thing she ever did for me was to lay the foundation for my spiritual growth. She saw to it that I was baptized on 24 December 1950 at the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington. She saw to it that my two brothers, my sister, and myself were in Sunday school every week. Even now, something isn’t right if I am not in church somewhere on a Sunday morning.

Neither my mother nor my grandmother was “easy” and I have many memories, unpleasant though they are, of what happened when I crossed them. But I also have lots of wonderful memories and appreciation for what they did as my mother and my grandmother that allowed me to find Christ in my own life.

It was their faith that allowed my faith to develop. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he had heard of their faith and was enthused by that knowledge. His encouragement to the Ephesians was to keep doing what they were doing because it showed people what the power of Christ was. And he, Paul, would continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would reinforce the work that they, the Ephesians, were already doing. Their work would show others that Christ was alive and that the Spirit of the Lord was present. It was this same spirit that Christ was telling his followers to expect in the coming days as He encouraged His followers to stay together.

When one reads this passage from the Gospel for today, one might think about the formation of a new community. In fact, we know from the historical records that is exactly what new Christians did. They formed new communities for the express purpose of worshipping Christ. That is why we have churches, because they are a way to gather together to worship God. But while we come together in community to worship God and renew our covenant with God, we must also go out into the world.

We should seek to maintain an open secular world in which we claim no established rights over other views, but in which we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history. There are those today who define evangelism in terms of bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus. But Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels offered another definition.

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. Jordan called people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.

As Tony Campolo wrote, Clarence Jordan had a hard time being accepted by the Southern Baptists of his time. Were he to be living today (he died in 1969), he would have an even harder time today with Southern Baptists who embrace the war policies of the Bush administration, bar women from ordination into the ministry, and champion capital punishment. It would be very difficult for anyone who followed Jesus as described in the Gospel to fare any better than Jesus did at the hands of the religious establishment of His day.

Too many people today are like the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day; they believe that that the world outside the church should be excluded. Or, as the report out of North Carolina where members of a church were expelled for not voting according to the dictates of their pastor, the views of a particular congregation should be imposed on the world outside the church.

For those gathered on the hillside in Bethany, the ascension was a political act. In Ephesians, we are presented with a stark reminder of the early church’s understanding of the power of the risen Christ. To the early believers, a theory arose about just who Jesus Christ is and was; that somehow in Christ, the church, the people of God got right-headed. This meant that they, the Ephesians, had achieved some sort of political power over non-believers.

But Christ did not come into this world as an authority imposed from above but as a humble servant who was to be part of the world. He came not as the revealer of an ideological system superimposed on society, but as the one who in the way he gave himself affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He refused to exercise his power or to show His power through some supernatural power. He came as the one who was prepared to risk His truth (and His life) within the openness of the secular world. (Adapted from Faith In a Secular Age)

But, if we see the process of ascension as moving Christ to the head of the body of which we are all parts, we have a different image of the Ascension. For patriots today, this is not the good news they want to hear. If we turn to Paul, we see that he speaks of the “spirit of wisdom” by which to discern these things. If we use that spirit, we’ll be led to proclaim Christ’s absolute rule — not as king, but as one who feeds and sustains.

Giving all other powers their due and their respect, if we call ourselves Christians, then we cannot as a matter of total confidence or supreme trust embrace the flag, support the government, or pledge allegiance to the country for which they stand. Rather we end up having to say with Paul that Christ Jesus is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” (Adapted from “Power Point” by Mark Harris in “Living by the Word” in Christian Century, May 3, 2005)

Those who would have Christ as the political ruler of this society miss the point. We are, to be sure, to follow Christ but in following Him we are to be His disciples, not His enforcers. We cannot follow Christ and then turn around and impose the Christian faith as a metaphysical formula or as a religious or institutional means for providing society with stability and unity.

It is not necessarily a question of asking what Jesus would say if He walked among us today or asking if His message would be heard in the consumer oriented society of today. Rather, the question must be how, we as members of the modern world would react to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. (Adapted from Tony Campolo’s forward to the Cotton Patch Gospels (Luke)) What can we as a church, both as a denomination and as a local church offer to individuals seeking Christ today.

As an Air Force brat, a home is something one never had. Yes, there were places that we lived but more often than not, they were on the Air Force base where we lived and were called quarters. Even when we, as a family, outgrew the base housing, there was no sense of permanency in where we lived. It seemed like the moment we got settled in, Dad would be transferred and off we would go.

But I have come to find that such permanency is not really that critical to one’s life. On the other hand, having a church home was critical. To have a place where I could know that I could find Christ, especially in times of strife and stress, was what I needed.

We live in a time and a society where people no longer automatically live in the same town where they grew up. They have gone away to college and then somewhere else to work and live. They may visit their home town but it is only for brief moments of time. Their lives are somewhere else and the church that may have been a part of their early life is not a part of their present life.

But, having left home and church, many people are finding something missing. These are the seekers, searching for something but not knowing what it is. They seek a peace and serenity that perhaps they knew when they were younger but cannot find in the strife, stress, and turmoil of everyday life. The reason for the success and growth of many churches today is that they offer a sanctuary in which to hide from the outside world. They have created the home church of days past.

But this is not a place where they can find Christ, because Christ is not a part of the past. Christ is very much a part of today and churches need to remember that. Churches need to be that place where people can find the Holy Spirit. They should find that place here. This should be a place where they can find Christ. Our celebration of communion today is an acknowledgement that we are part of a living community that began with Christ’s ascension. We celebrate communion because we are celebrating Christ’s presence in our lives and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We have heard the worlds of the early disciples today; we have heard the words of Jesus telling us not to be afraid or to worry. And as we celebrate Mother’s Day today, we also remember what we have taught. And like Clarence Jordan, we find that the faith that we are taught only means something when we can put it into action. Our challenge today is to bring into action that faith that we are taught.

Dreams of the Present, Visions of the Future


This is a sermon that I gave at Neon United Methodist Church for Ascension Sunday (16 May 1999).  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 13 -23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.  This was my next to last Sunday at Neon.  The following week I moved from Kentucky to New York to start a new life.

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In everyone’s life there are particular dates or periods of time that one remembers. I will always cherish June 7, 1973, and July 7, 1976, as those are the birthdates of my daughters Melanie and Meara. And I will always remember the summer of 1995 when I served as the chief supply pastor for the Parsons District of the Kansas East conference. It was during that summer that I began to feel that I could be a preacher, even if I did not have my own church.

And for the most obvious reasons, I will always remember the period from November, 1998, to May, 1999, when I was the pastor of Neon United Methodist Church. For whatever happens in the coming years, I will always know that this church as the place that I was first called a pastor.

And whether I really want to or not, I will always remember the spring of 1968, my senior year at Bartlett High School in Memphis. For that spring was a time that changed the way we saw things and the way we viewed the future.

Of course, the most outstanding memory of that spring was the labor strike in Memphis that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis. And while I may have no conscious memory of the night when he was killed, I do remember some years later the speech that he gave the night before he was shot.

“I have been to the mountain top,” he said, “and I have seen the Promised Land.” With either prophetic overtones or with a fatalistic view of the threats on his own life, Dr. King then said, “I may not get there with you.” I do not know if Dr. King was using the passage from Exodus where God took Moses to the top of the mountain and showed him the Promised Land that had been promised to Israelites but that was the passage that comes to mind.

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land — from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region form the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” (Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 4)

For because of the transgressions of the Israelites, God required that they wander in the wilderness for an additional forty years. And Moses, though he had himself done no wrong, would not be allowed to enter the promised land but God did allow him to see that when just a dream was for many.

But Moses did not have to worry about getting to the Promised Land because he knew that the mission of the Israelites would be accomplished. Moses knew that he had the individuals, such as Joshua, who can lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

The other event of my senior year that will always stand out in my memory was the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. To many, the problems and difficulties that we encountered throughout the seventies might not have been so hard had Senator Kennedy lived. I cannot speak to that point but I do think that things would have been different had he lived.

Throughout the primary elections of that spring, as Senator Kennedy sought to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, he would often quote George Bernard Shaw, “Others see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I see things as they could be and say ‘why not?’”

To see things as they are is to just dream of the present; to see things are they could be is to have a vision of the future. When Moses stood on the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, he saw the future for the Israelites. Both Dr. King and Senator Kennedy saw a future of hope and promise that were not just dreams of things in the present.

I think that it is important that sometime in your life you have a “mountaintop” experience; that at some point in time, you see the dreams that you have for the present time changed into a vision of the future and that you have that vision transformed into an action. Moses stood on the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land that his ancestors could only dream of yet he knew that Israelites under the leadership of Joshua would soon move into the Promised Land.

It was that way for the disciples as well. For while they were with Jesus, He taught them all that they needed to know so that they could continue His work. And then He took them to the mountaintop outside Bethany where they saw him ascend into heaven – “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

The ascension of Jesus to Heaven on this day can be seen as way of telling the disciples and ourselves that the mission of Christ has now been transferred to us – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The disciples also saw a vision of the future in the Glory of Christ.

”After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into the heaven.”

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians speaks of the “eyes of the heart.” This was an awareness of what was to come; a vision of the future for the Christian church. Paul knew of the faith that the Ephesians had and perhaps of the great things that they were doing in the church and in that area.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Over the past few weeks, I have spoken of the vision that people have for the Methodist Church in Kentucky. That vision applies to the Neon Church as much as it does to any other church, present or planned. The words of Paul are as true for us today as they were for the Ephesians some 2000 years ago.

The coming years offer much hope but only we if have the same vision as the Ephesians had. It is a hope built on the faith in Jesus Christ and knowing that we are saved through Christ.

When John Wesley started the Methodist Revival, he never anticipated the birth of a new church. All he wanted to do was awaken the Church of England to the needs of the people and to preaching the saving grace of Christ. But the success of the revival could only come about when he, Wesley, had accepted Christ in his own heart. Until that time, all Wesley thought was a dream.

When Wesley turned his live over to Christ, the dream turned into a vision because the Holy Spirit was now a part of Wesley, just as it was to be for the disciples. So today, I ask you “do you just have a dream of the present or is it a vision of the future? Is your life centered in Christ?”