Keep Your Eyes on The Prize


Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for June 2, 2019, the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year C)

I don’t know why but, for a while, this past week was not on my calendar.  In something akin to the shift from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, several days just “disappeared”.

As I left the church last Sunday, pondering why I kept skipping June 2nd, I remembered a song from the 60s, “Keep Your Eyes on The Prize”.

While this song was one of the anthems of the goals of the Civil Rights movement, it’s roots come from a time before World War I.

And like so many folk songs, its roots can be found in the Bible, in this case, the lectionary reading from Acts for today.

Paul and Silas were thrown into jail, essentially for disturbing the peace, but for really disturbing the status quo.  In a society where one’s place was defined, Paul and Silas argued that God’s Kingdom was open to all.

We see this today.  There are some who believe that God’s Kingdom is open to only a few and they are the ones who decide who those few are.  But the prize of salvation is not limited to a few but to all those who seek God.

As Paul and Silas found out, as Jesus told the first disciples, achieving the prize is not an easy task.  But when you keep your eyes on the prize, it is within your reach.

Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.

~~Tony Mitchell

“The Gift Of Love”


I am at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) this morning; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend. The message for Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday is based on the lectionary readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter: Acts 16: 16 – 34; Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21; and John 17: 20 – 26.

Monroe UMC is contemplating a program similar to what we are doing at “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen”. While the specifics of such a program are for another time and place, I felt that this message should provide a reason for doing the project. I hope I have achieved that goal.

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I could easily begin this message with a tribute to my mother and/or my grandmother as I have before; for that is what this day is about. But it would be much easier to speak about what my mother gave me and what that gift of love means to each one of us today.

When I was a sophomore in college back in 1969 I was very involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus. Now, I thought that being involved in such things was the right thing to do and I also thought that doing the right things was what would get me into heaven. I still believe that my involvement in those activities was the right thing to do and I would do it again if presented with the opportunity (of course, if you read my blog you know that I never stopped being involved).

I would, however, find out that spring that simply doing the right thing would not get me into heaven and that it was only by God’s grace that the door to heaven would be opened. And perhaps the story could end there but I was also reminded that having said that I was a Methodist I was obligated to do the right thing.

Now, as Mother’s Day, 1969, approached, I sought to find the perfect Mother’s Day gift. What I found was a pendant with the words “War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things” engraved on it. It came from an organization known as “Another Mother For Peace”. Now, admittedly it was not the most elegant piece of jewelry one could conceive; in fact, it was rather clunky and probably very garish. But it expressed my thoughts and what I thought was right; so I bought one for my mother.

Now, you have to understand that my parents raised my two brothers, sister, and myself to be independent, to think for ourselves and to take responsibility for our actions. Our parents and especially our mother laid the foundation so that we could choose our own path, knowing that no matter where it might lead, we would be supported in our efforts.

Also, my mother was never one to get involved in politics and her guiding words to me on more than one occasion were to “not rock the boat”. So it was that this particular gift and my involvement in the on-campus civil rights and anti-war protests didn’t set well with her and she let me, in no uncertain terms, know that she (and my father) disapproved of my actions.

I probably have the letter she wrote to me somewhere in the various files I received when she died two years ago but I don’t really need a copy to remember what it is that she wrote. While she wrote that she did not approve of what I was doing I was still her son and she would still love me.

But I think that is what this day means and what love is about. It is the love that one expresses for another that goes beyond the moment and is unconditional and eternal. I know of too many parents and people today for whom love is very much conditional; people who put conditions on their love.

By the way, my mother would later tell her third granddaughter that she was glad that neither my two brothers or I were drafted and sent to Viet Nam. It should also be noted that the organization from which I bought that pendant in 1969 still exists and has its own website (Another Mother for Peace) and it still sells the same pendant. I guess we haven’t quite learned what the gift of love means on a broader, more global basis.

And as I was thinking about this idea of love on Mother’s Day and what is required of us in today’s world, I remembered Senator Edward Kennedy’s words when he eulogized his brother,

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. (from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ekennedytributetorfk.html)

Edward Kennedy closed his eulogy with the following words, a quote that I have always kept in my mind and my heart,

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”

These are the words that we remember, as perhaps we should. But in finding these words that so many of us remember, I also found words about love and our responsibility to others, words that I think we have forgotten or never remembered.

Senator Edward Kennedy, in speaking of the love he had for his brother said,

A few years back, Robert Kennedy wrote some words about his own father which expresses [sic] the way we in his family felt about him. He said of what his father meant to him, and I quote:

“What it really all adds up to is love — not love as it is described with such facility in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. Our awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, we could not help but profit from it.”

And he continued,

“Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off.”

In one sense, these words from a son about his father echo the words I expressed about my mother this day.

But in today’s society, such unconditional love is funny because it works so much against what we think this world is about and how it works. We expect something in return for what we give; we expect to put strings on our love and concern for others.

The Scriptures for each Sunday are compiled in what is called the lectionary and are designed so that over a three year period it is possible to read through the entire Bible. What this means is that for every three years you get the same set of readings for a particular Sunday in the church calendar.

This Sunday happens to be one of the Sundays where the preacher, pastor, or lay speaker has a choice of two sets of readings. This is the 7th Sunday of Easter; last Thursday, May 9th, was the 40th day after Easter and is the day on which Jesus ascended into Heaven. Next Sunday will be Pentecost Sunday and the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on all those gathered in Jerusalem.

As it happens, I picked the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter because I felt they were more appropriate for Mother’s Day. And as it happened, these were the same three readings I used in preparing the message that I gave for this same sunday, the 7th Sunday of Easter, three years ago.

There is a certain degree of irony in all of this. Three years ago, I offered the following thought:

The reading from Acts today starts off with a young slave girl who offers visions for a price. There were a number of things in this piece that spoke of labor practices and their application to today’s society but I will save such a discussion for later. (from “Should We Explain This?”)

In light of what has transpired around the world these past few weeks, it would appear there is a need for that discussion today.

Let us review what transpires at the beginning of the reading from Acts. We have a young slave girl who sees visions for the benefit of her owners. She follows Paul and Silas around proclaiming that they are servants of God who can show the people the path to salvation.

Now, one would think that Paul and Silas would be greatful for such pronouncements; after all, that is what they have come to Philippi to do, preach the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer a path to salvation. And I would think that they were greatful.

But then again, the people came to this girl because they wanted to hear the truth and they were willing to pay her owners (not her, mind you) for the truth. Though she was speaking the truth, others were profitting from her skills, not her.

So Paul removes her ability to prophesize and then the trouble begins. This young slave girl must have been very good at what it was that she did because those owners go after Paul and Silas for taking away their livelihood. Yet, according to the laws and customs of that time, Paul and Silas did nothing wrong and the corresponding court action is not about the welfare of the girl but rather the loss of income for her owners.

And how can we not see, in light of the tragedies in Bangladesh and perhaps the financial problems of this country today, that our love of money is greater than our love and concern for people.

As a society we turn a blind eye on the working conditions in the 3rd world just along it does not interfere with the production of low cost goods for the people in 1st world. And how is that the rich have kept getting richer in today’s society while the rest of society struggles?

Some 1700 years later, John Wesley would put it this way – it is okay to earn as much as you can but don’t do it on the backs of others.

What happens when we put the love of money above and before our love and concern for others?

As I was re-reading Edward Kennedy’s eulogy I found other words of Robert Kennedy that speak to this time and this moment. They were spoken when Robert Kennedy was in South Africa in 1966 and speaking to a group of young people.

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth — not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.

Robert Kennedy concluded his remarks in South Africa by saying,

*The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.* Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.”

Those words of Robert Kennedy, spoken almost fifty years ago, seem so eerily prophetic when read again today.

Over the past few weeks, as we have concluded the season of Easter and approach the Day of Pentecost, we have journeyed through the Book of Revelation. For some, this book is the culmination of life, with victory in Heaven for a select few. But I have come to understand that this is not the end but only the beginning. The Good News is that God wins and evil is defeated. The vision of John the Seer is one of hope and promise for all, not just a select few. But it is also a call, a call to respond, a call to action.

Who will step forth? Who will answer the call from Christ to offer the drink from the Tree of Life that John the Seer foresaw in his visions recorded in the Book of Revelation?

Who will be the ones that prepare the table for the hungry, offer the medicine for the sick, and comfort for the needy? Who will be the ones to remind and show others the love of God that was expressed by Jesus?

Some fifty years ago, my mother told me that her love for me was unconditional. Two thousand years ago, God sent His Son to this world to die for my sins because of His love for me, unconditional and with no questions asked. How can I not express that same unconditional love for others?

On this day when we express our love for our mothers, how will you show the gift of Love that God has given to you this day?

Should We Explain This?


I am at Gardnertown UMC in Newburgh, NY this morning (Location of the church); services start at 9:45 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, are Acts 16: 16 – 34, Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 1, and John 17: 20 – 26.

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Borrowing a thought from the entrepreneur and philosopher Charles Handy, I believe that our life today is a paradox.

We are asked to live in a world of simultaneous opposites, where the political dialogue calls for lower taxes yet the social dialogue calls for a deeper caring of the human condition. The paradoxes that we encounter confuse us because things don’t behave as we think they should and what worked well before is not guaranteed to work as well this time. The key is to understand where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go from here; yet, such understanding itself is often a paradox.

Without a clear understanding of the process, things will not work as they should. But how do we obtain such understanding? How then do we find the truth in what we seek? (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy)

We live in a world where our acceptance of the truth is predicated on reality but we will readily accept as reality the claims in an e-mail that we receive from the friend of a friend of a cousin who knew someone who might have possibly heard that “so and so” was actually there when it happened. (And I want to thank Dale McClure, a friend, for providing some of the inspiration for this sermon.)

We accept without question the claims of politicians and pundits when they tell us things as the truth; even thought we know that they are not true or too implausible to be true. But we accept them because we have willingly given these individuals the power to tell us what to think. And when such statements are constantly repeated, they begin to take on the aspects of truth and they defy any and all attempts to correct them and remove them from the social landscape.

Similarly, when we speak of things mystical or we read of a prophet having a vision, we dismiss the speaker with phrases like loony, wacky, or just plain crazy. We associate the Book of Revelation with the Apocalypse and well we should because “apocalypse” means “revelation”. But our association with the term is one of death and destruction, of actions that are not necessarily in the reading but in the interpretations of 19th century theologians. What many people don’t realize is that apocalyptic writing was common place writing in the early days of the church (there is at least one other Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of Peter, but it is not part of the accepted canon) and that it was almost a literature for “insiders”; understanding required knowledge of the situation and the symbols that were used. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/)

Our view of the Seer’s vision is clouded because we do not understand what was written two thousand years ago on Patmos. As a result, our own view of Christianity is distorted and clouded. We also have problems with the whole nature of visions. If John the Seer had written his revelation in the 60s, we would have dismissed him as wacky, loony, or just plain crazy.

This “vision thing” is something we do, not something that has any validity. We will accept the results of a visioning exercise if the results are what we want to happen, not just what might happen.

The reading from Acts today starts off with a young slave girl who offers visions for a price. There were a number of things in this piece that spoke of labor practices and their application to today’s society but I will save such a discussion for later. Suffice to say, I grew up in an environment that justified slavery because slavery was in the Bible.

If we are to accept as truth all that is written in the Bible, then we can easily accept the notion that it is right and permissible for one group to oppress another. But this flies in the face of the ideas that are clear and present throughout the Bible; that all of humankind is the same in God’s eyes. And it should be noted that the treatment of slaves in our own history runs counter to the rules set forth in the Old Testament.

So we have this situation where a young girl sees visions for the benefit of her owners. And she must be very good at it because those owners go after Paul and Silas for taking away their livelihood. Yet, according to the laws and customs of that time, Paul and Silas did nothing wrong and the corresponding court action is not about the welfare of the girl but rather the loss of income for the owners.

It does not say how she had the visions but, from the actions of Paul and Silas, we can presume that many would have felt that she was possessed by some sort of demon. Paul is not angry with the girl for following him and proclaiming the truth; Paul is angry that she is viewed as the source of truth (which leads me back to my original thoughts about how we seek and see the truth).

Because of how the young girl is described in the historical texts, there is an association with the Oracle of Delphi in terms of how the young girl in the story had her visions. As I said, she must have been good at what she did, because, why would the owners have taken action against Paul and Silas?

But did she tell the truth as it was to be or did she tell the truth as the listeners wanted to hear? Were her words of prophesy clear and distinct or clouded in mystery and ambiguity? Was she truly a prophet?

Prophets do not foretell the future; what they do is tell the truth as they see it. They point to the way things are, not the way people want things to be. They can warn of dangers ahead if things are not changed (we would call such people “whistle-blowers” today). They can and do point to what they think is wrong, unjust, or prejudiced. (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox” by Charles Handy) This was the way of the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke out against the actions of the people of Israel and the dangers that lie before the nation if it did not change its ways. For the most part, the people of Israel ignored the prophets until it was too late. The words of the prophets only made sense to the people after the fact, not before.

What a prophet cannot and should not do is tell the doers what to do. I get this sense that people came to this young girl so that they could be told exactly what to do. And that is a very dangerous thing.

There is a reference in the commentaries for the reading from Acts to the Oracle at Delphi. This was a shrine to the Greek god Apollo and apparently was built around the entrance to a cave. Those seeking answers would approach the priestess of the Oracle and pose their question.

She then would go into the cave and enter into some sort of hallucinogenic trace caused by ethylene and other hydrocarbon gases in the cave. In this state, she would utter some incomprehensible phrase that the petitioners would have to decipher.

Such a vision/prophecy occurred in 480 BCE. The Persians, under the command of Xerxes (who is mentioned in Ezra and Esther), had conquered and occupied 2/3 of Greece and were threatening Athens. As custom demanded, the leaders of Athens send a delegation to the Oracle at Delphi for instructions on what to do. They received the message, “the wooden wall will save you and your children.” But what did this mean?

To some, it meant building a wall around the city as a defensive measure. This was a logical conclusion. But it was a conclusion based on traditional thoughts. But others were pushed to see beyond the traditional logic. A static defense of the city may not work; after all, the Persian army had already shown its power in battle and it would have only been a matter of time before Athens fell to that military might.

For others, the answer to the Oracle’s pronouncement lie in the strengths that Athens already possessed, its navy. Lining up the ships of the Athenian navy side by side formed a wooden wall and, as history notes, the Athenians defeated the Persians in 479 BCE at the naval Battle of Salamis (http://www.ancient-greece.org/history/delphi.html and “A Whack On The Side Of the Head” by Roger van Oech).

The church today, whether we are talking about an individual church, a denomination, or in general, faces an uncertain future. The question is thus one of how shall we see the future? Should our vision of the future be framed in conventional and logical terms? Or is there an alternative view to seeing what lies ahead?

When John Wesley came to America almost two hundred seventy years ago, he came with a plan, logical in nature and clearly thought out. It was reflective of his life and methodology. But, as he crossed the Atlantic, the plan began to fall apart. The crossing of the Atlantic in the early 18th century was not an easy one and we know that John Wesley was sick during most of the trip.

His illness and discomfort were complicated by the fact that he could not find solace and comfort in God. Yet, there in front of him on that same ship were a group of Moravians enduring the same hardships yet singing hymns and praising God. The logical, methodical plan for salvation that Wesley had developed during his college days at Oxford was slowly beginning to fall apart.

We know that Wesley’s mission to America ended in abject failure and he brought a sense of failure with him when he returned from England. And this failure was not just felt by John Wesley. So affected by the failure of the American journey was Charles Wesley that he was literally on his death bed the night that John went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street.

It has been recorded that on that night when John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and he received the Holy Spirit, Charles began a recovery from the illness or illnesses that had forced him to his death bed. And with the acceptance of the Holy Spirit came the assurance and the power needed to move forward and begin what has become known as the Methodist Revival.

Now, there is no logical explanation for this nor should we try to find one; because it cannot be explained in such terms. For me, the acceptance of Christ as one’s Savior and the acceptance of the Holy Spirit brings about a new consciousness, a new understanding of the world around us.

It is very difficult to understand this when we are constrained by the logical of common thought. We are constrained when the loudest voices today call Christ a myth and religion mere superstition. Those who do think that Christ may have existed two thousand years ago say that our scientific and technological enlightenment have removed the need for such beliefs.

For me, personally, it comes down to this. Two thousand years ago, something happened in Jerusalem. Whatever happened there so profoundly affected a group of people that they began to tell others. And in spite of persecution and unknown dangers, they took their message of what happened beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and ancient Israel.

It wasn’t just the telling of the story that changed the lives of those who listened; it was seeing the changes that occurred in the lives of the people who told the story. The people of “The Way”, as the early Christian church was known, were a loving people, committed to the care of everyone, even those outside the group. And that had to change the minds and hearts of those who saw these changes.

Yes, in the period since those early days, when the church became officially sanctioned, there have been wars fought in the name of God and under the banner of Christ. There have been people and nations enslaved for the same reasons. But were these the actions of God or the actions of people who would have done so under the auspices of any other organization?

For every instance where God has been used as the justification for violence and hatred, there is an instance where people have been feed, people have been healed, and people have been freed from oppression and injustice.

Something inside me tells me that the movement that came out of Jerusalem, spread across the Mediterranean and around the world could not have survived these two thousand years unless there was some truth to it. We must offer a vision of that early church, not just in words but in action as well.

We must speak and act with the same love that Jesus Christ spoke of in His prayer that we read in the Gospel today. We must offer the evidence in actions and deeds as well as thoughts and words spoken.

In a world where truth is often sold, we are faced with a challenge. People are not willing to believe that the truth that will set them free comes without a price; that is freely given to all those who seek it. We need not explain what happens when one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Savior; we merely have to live the life found in Christ so that people will see Christ in us.

So the offer is made this day, not to explain what we do but to live the life that we have proclaimed. For if we live the life that we have proclaimed then others will know that Christ is alive.

Our closing hymn this morning is “Shall We Gather at the River?” As we gather at the river, we are reminded of the people who came to hear John the Baptist call for repentance and renewal; to begin a new life. We are called to gather at the river and begin anew.

That One Moment In Time


This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (23 May 2004).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 16: 16 – 34, Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 1, and John 17: 20 – 26.

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It was the noted philosopher Woody Allen, I believe, who once noted that "time was nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once." And the Preacher, author of Ecclesiastes noted that "for every thing there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." And the authors of the Talmud once noted that "In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader."

Our history is marked by moments in time, moments that define our country, our society, ourselves. September 11, 2001 is once such date. Whether we want it to or not, the actions that occurred on the date and the reactions that followed will define this country for history. I hope that we have not squandered the opportunity presented to us to fight for peace, justice, and righteousness.

May 17, 1954 is another such date. For on that date, when the Supreme Court said that "separate but equal" was no longer an equitable solution, we became a country of one whereas before we were many. It still remains to be seen if the goals set for this country on that date have been met.

There are also moments in time that define an individual in such a way that the choices that they make have an impact on the society and civilization for years to come. May 24, 1738, 266 years ago tomorrow, is one such day.

On that date John Wesley went to a prayer meeting in a chapel on Aldersgate Street in London. There he felt his heart warmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of warmth that he had never felt before. Prior to that night, his attempts at a new way to find God had failed. Wesley wrote, "In vain have I fled from myself to America: I still groan under the intolerable weight of inherent misery . . .Go where I will, I carry my hell about me; nor have I the least ease in anything." Prior to that night and his encounter with the Holy Spirit, John Wesley was convinced that his life was a failure. His brother Charles, of the same beliefs as to the righteousness of their ideas, had returned from America some months earlier and was now broken in spirit and in health, to point of lying in death’s bed.

That one moment in time, separate for each Wesley but equal in magnitude transformed them from legalists, those who would follow the letter of the law, into evangelists, those who would follow the spirit. Their own experience of God’s love gave them the sense of spiritual peace, an impulse for evangelism, and a sustaining, motivation for addressing the evils of society. Having experienced spiritual liberty for themselves, they began a new career spreading the good news of God’s love. (Adapted from The Heritage of American Methodism, Kenneth Cain Kinghorn, 1999, page 12 – 13)

And just as John and Charles Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit, so too did Saul on the road to Damascus. His encounter that day some two thousand years ago changed him from Saul to Paul and allowed perhaps the greatest missionary effort of all time to begin.

Our own encounters with the Holy Spirit are perhaps not so dramatic and the effects that each of us have on others will not be known until long after we are gone and aware that changes occurred. But those moments like those of the Wesley brothers and Paul changed our lives. But that is really a discussion for next week, Pentecost Sunday.

Today is Ascension Sunday, the day forty days after Easter when Christ ascended into heaven. This must have really scared the disciples. Again, Jesus is leaving them, this time voluntarily. Taken away from them on Good Friday and crucified, the disciples rejoiced with His resurrection. Celebration and joy on that First Easter morning replaced the pain and sorrow felt on Good Friday. But now He was leaving again, going where, as He said, "they could not go." But He also said, "that he was sending someone to prepare them, to make them ready for when they would be able to go."

And that is what this particular moment in time is all about, our preparation to receive the Holy Spirit and our preparation so that others may receive the Holy Spirit. We are meeting this day to lay the groundwork for the future of the church. We are not deciding the future of the church today, for such decisions are a little more complicated for one meeting. But we can make a decision today and that is to be ready, if we aren’t already, to accept the Holy Spirit into this place and into our hearts.

I know that what I am about to say will make some people upset or uncomfortable but I think we need to change the way Tompkins Corners is seen. It is right and proper to say that this church is an historic one, for it is. But people come to visit historic places; they do not come to stay. The great cathedrals of Europe were built as monuments to the presence of God in the lives of the people. But now they are now largely empty on Sunday and visited by countless number of tourists during the rest of the week. We need to make sure that is not the fate of this church.

We have a number of social activities that people come and support, but the people who come to the social activities, for the most part, do not come to church on Sunday. No matter how important they were to the well being of the church, Paul did not compliment the Ephesians on the wonderful bake goods the members of the church produced. No matter how important they were to the well being of the church, Paul did not compliment the Ephesians on the linen goods the women of the church wove. No, he complimented them on the most important part of the church, the faith exhibited by the members.

It was the faith of the people of the church in Ephesus that was well known; so too must it be that the faith of the people of the Tompkins Corners church that must be known. The generation of people to whom we must reach out are called "seekers"; they are seeking evidence of faith, evidence that there is, amidst all the trouble and pain of this world, an answer. They are seeking people with faith, faith that shows itself and that allows those who seek to find it.

In trying to come to grips with his own struggles, it was the faith of a group of Moravians that guided John Wesley. It was their faith that gave them comfort in times of strife and faith that helped in their understanding of God. It was their faith that brought John Wesley to the Chapel on Aldersgate Street that evening some 266 years ago. So too is it for those coming to this community, so too is it for those members of this church who have stopped attending – it is here that they should find in those of us here today evidence that the presence of the Holy Spirit is strong.

What I am going to suggest today, you can blame in part on my own Southern heritage. But it is something that I feel must be done today. Instead of ushers coming forward to get the offering plates and passing the plates among you all in the pews, I am going to ask that, if you are able, you bring your offering to the altar rail today. We have stated that as United Methodist members we will be loyal to this church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Today I want you to offer your prayers as well as your gifts and service. After placing your offering in the plate, I would ask that you spend a few moments at the altar rail praying. Pray for those on our prayer list, pray for this conference and its ministers, pray for those ministers going to new charges, pray for ministers beginning the pastoral career or beginning their retirement. But today, this one moment in time, pray that the Holy Spirit will come to this church and that some later day Paul will write that in Tompkins Corners one can truly find the presence of Christ, our Savior and Lord.

AMEN

What Do You Know?


Here are my thoughts for this Ascension Sunday, 20 May 2007
(This has been edited since it was first posted)
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Consider the following situation – what if there was a culture where there was no concept of sin, badness, or evil? Now, the answer to this question is and has been the subject of many a debate in philosophical and theological circles. It is not a question that we will seek to answer today. But it does lead to another question that we can answer.

How do we know that Jesus Christ is our personal Savior? How is it that we know there is a reason for our existence in this world today and tomorrow? Is it because someone once told us and we sought to find out who Jesus Christ was?

Notice the opening words of Acts, the Epistle reading for today. (Acts 1: 1 – 11) Luke writes, “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning.” We are not going to know who Jesus was or what He did unless someone else tells us. No one else is going to know who Jesus was or what He did unless we tell them. It is by what we say and do that people will ever know what we know.

Now, someone will say that the purpose of evangelism is to tell people about Jesus Christ and invite them to follow the path that we have chosen. The modern day evangelist will tell us that our sole role in today’s society is to save souls. But those who limit Jesus to the saving of souls or see Him as merely introducing new ethical principles are wrong.

The problem today is too many evangelists spend their time condemning people for what they do and they very seldom give them the alternatives that Christ gave. Too often, modern day evangelism offers Christ only in the negative, “either accept Christ as your personal Savior or be condemned to an eternal life in death.” The only problem with this message is 1) it is a negative message whereas the true Gospel message is positive and 2) we are condemned to a life of sin and death without Christ; so why should I listen to someone tell me the obvious?

The purpose of God in Christ was neither to simply redeem individuals from sin nor teach them new thoughts. God’s purpose in Christ was to create a new community that pointed to the plan of God in this world.

As we look at the world around us, our greatest need today is neither the preaching of the Gospel nor service on behalf of justice. Nor is it necessarily experiencing the Spirit’s gifts or even the challenging of the status quo. The greatest need is the call to be the church, to love one another and offer our lives for the sake of the world. If we work towards the building of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local level, then we are building the foundation that will answer all the above needs. (Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis)

This, I think, is why Paul can write to the church of Ephesus, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus.” (Ephesians 1: 15 – 23) Paul could not have heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus unless what they were doing was different from what had been happening. When we build a community of faith, when we show others what it means to express the love of Christ, others will see and they will wonder and they will ask and they will come to know.

We cannot simply expect others to know who Christ is or what He means unless we tell others and unless we show others. It does no good to say to others that they must change their ways unless we are able to offer through our words, our deeds, our actions, and our thoughts a reason to make them change.

John the Baptist spoke of repentance, of changing the path of one’s life because there was a better path coming in the manner of Christ. Christ announced that we must repent, we must change our ways but He also told why He had come to this world and what He was offering.

For three years Jesus taught and modeled the behavior that is expected of us. He showed us through His words, His actions, and His deeds what we are expected to do. He did not condemn; He did not challenge. But He did give an alternative. In calling for repentance, Christ calls us to change our lives and to lead a new life.

But, for the most part, these are not the words that are heard today; these are not the thoughts expressed today. Yes, the gospel message many preachers tell the world is a message of hope but it is a self-centered message. It is a message that focuses on keeping the status quo intact and ignoring the world around us.

It is quite interesting to contrast the life of the early church with the life of the church today. It is clear that what transpired in the days that Luke and Paul wrote about no longer take place. It is clear that the message of the Gospel that was first expressed at the synagogue in Nazareth is lost in the medium and message of today’s society. On this day, when Jesus Christ passed on the understanding of the Gospel message, should we not stop, pause, and heed the call to bring the Gospel message into the world?

We are called through repentance to begin a new life. We are called through repentance to reframe the discussion in terms of what we can do for Christ, not what Christ can do for us. Look around you today and ask if the community of faith and nurtures us in a way of peace or does it distract us from that peace?

Look around and ask if the community of faith frees us from bondage to material goods and security. Does our community of faith heal us of our hate, our fear, our selfishness, and our desire for power? Does our experience in the local church root out those things that are fundamental to the system of injustice and violence that so dominate today’s society?

These are difficult questions to ask in today’s society and the answers are very difficult to obtain, let alone understand. They cannot be answered from the framework or view of today’s society because the answers society would provide do not offer solutions but only serve to exacerbate the condition. To find the answers, we must first repent and begin anew. We must open our hearts to Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives. As it stated in the Gospel reading for today (Luke 24: 44 – 53), understanding came from the moment that Christ opened the minds of the disciples so that they could understand.

Today, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. Forty days ago, Christ was crucified so that we could live. In ten days, we celebrate Pentecost and the birth of the new church. Today, we are given, if our minds are open, the understanding that comes from knowing Jesus Christ. We may know that Jesus came into this world and we may know that He is our Savior but we will never understand nor will others see Christ in us unless we repent and begin anew. We have that chance today. Let us take what we know and let us begin anew.
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