“Where Are You From?”

This will be the back page for the bulletin of Fishkill UMC on Sunday, July 15, 2018 (8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B).

Every time someone asks me where I come from, I tend to ask, respectfully, “what year?”  As the son of an Air Force officer growing up in the 50s and 60s, I tended to move around a lot.  In fact, the longest that I have ever lived in one place has been these past 19 years in New York.

One result of all this travel was that I attended 10 different schools.  And because I attended so many different schools in so many different settings, I saw things that conflicted with what I was being taught.

It’s not that hard when you hear people sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and then see them profess support for segregation and the hatred of others.  As you may recall, from what I said a couple of weeks ago (“Generations”), because of these conflicts, I began to question “the powers that be.”  It also becomes very easy to see where one’s heart lies.

Herod very much wanted the people of Israel to like him as their king.  He initiated the rebuilding of the Temple and other massive public construction projects, all designed to win the hearts and minds of the Israelites.  But when John the Baptizer publicly rebuked him for his marriage, his heart began to harden, and it became quite easy to accept the request of his daughter and order the execution of the Baptizer.  His mind was there but his heart wasn’t, and the people knew where he was coming from.

And even though Paul had an academic background and phrased much of his arguments for accepting Christ from that background, you knew that he spoke from the heart as much as he spoke with his mind.

We live at a time when we must deal with many of the matters as much with our hearts as with our minds.  And the response of too many people shows that Christ may be on their lips but is not in their heart.  Is Christ in your heart?

~Tony Mitchell

“Finding A Sanctuary”

A Mediation for 19 July 2015, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) based on 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56.

This is an incomplete mediation because I wasn’t sure how to end it. It sometimes seems to me that we seek sanctuary only for ourselves but we end up making it a fortress. We need to find ways of making the world a sanctuary and not a war zone.

There is an episode in MASH where a young soldier wants to get out of the Army and he seeks Father Mulcahy’s assistance. In this episode, Father Mulcahy invokes the role of the church as a sanctuary from war; but the problem is that Father Mulcahy’s church also happens to be the camp’s mess tent and there is a problem resolving the difference in those two roles. At the end of this episode, the young soldier grabs a gun and this causes Father Mulcahy to get very angry. As he points out, you cannot use a gun in a place in which you have sought sanctuary.

What is the role of the church and those who call it home in today’s society? Is a church a place of sanctuary from which one can seek protection for all that is wrong with the world? Does that mean that what goes on inside the walls of a church should insulate its members and protect them from whatever is going on outside the walls?

Or should a church be a sanctuary from which all people, not just the members, can find solace and peace, protection from those who would do them harm?

I think it is quite easy to build walls around us that block off the world and prevent us from seeing what is happening and call that a sanctuary. But when you build such walls, it becomes very difficult to make it so you cannot get it. In trying to keep the world from getting into your life, you make it very hard for you to get back into the world.

But there has to be a place where people can seek solace and peace, to find protection from those who would seek to do harm. In another MASH episode, Father Mulcahy notes that warring armies always left a particular monastery alone, recognizing that it was a sanctuary and place of peace.

So what is a sanctuary? Is it a place where one can feel safe and protected from the outside world? Or is it a place where the outside world can feel safe and protected? If the answer is the first one, then what happens to the world? And how does one accomplish anything if you are inside your sanctuary?

But we can’t make the world a sanctuary? Or can we? I was reminded the other day that hospitality in the Old Testament was a matter of making all people, strangers and friends alike, welcome in your home? The distance between places and the lack of things that we take for granted today made almost a requirement that you welcome the stranger into your home.

“Can You Imagine?

I am preaching at Zion’s Hill UMC (Wilton, CT) this morning. The scriptures for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 July 2012, are 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 14, Ephesians 2: 11 – 22, and Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56. The services starts at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.  (This has been edited since it was first posted.)

In the e-mail that Pastor Steve received telling him that I would be the lay speaker for today, I was described as a well-seasoned lay speaker. Now, I don’t know if this referred to my cooking abilities or my predilection for Lexington, NC, style barbeque or something entirely different. I suspect, of course, that it has more to do with the fact that I have been a lay speaker for over twenty years and have said that I will go just about anywhere I am needed. At least, I wasn’t described as “half-baked”.

To be honest, I never imagined that when I heard the call from God (or rather felt the call from God) some forty-seven years ago to begin working on the God and Country award that I would be a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church or that I would have done or be doing anything similar today. Of course, forty-seven years ago there was no United Methodist Church but the Evangelical United Brethren Church (I was a member of the First Evangelical United Brethren Church, now the First United Methodist Church, of Aurora when I earned my God and Country award) and the Methodist Church, and the merger of the two denominations was just beginning to take place. But when you answer God’s call the only thing that limits what you do is a lack of imagination.

And even when I began a series of assignments in 1995 for the Parsons District of the then Kansas East District and could see the possibilities of being a pastor in the United Methodist Church I could not imagine that someday I would be the 21st century equivalent of a circuit rider traveling the same paths that Francis Asbury, Jesse Lee, and many other circuit riders rode some 250 years ago. I will admit that I have troubling imagining how long it took for them to travel on horseback from church to church, charge to charge when I can get to most of the churches in the New York/Connecticut District from my home in Beacon in an hour or so.

I cannot begin to imagine the troubles and turmoil that the early circuit riders went through. Often times, a stormy night was described as so bad that only crows and Methodist preachers were out. As noted on one web site, life on the trail in 18th century America was so rugged and exacting that half of the early church’s circuit riders died before the age of 33. But their devotion to God and America kept them going. It was a demanding life, as one early preacher wrote,

Every day I travel, I have to swim through creeks or swamps, and I am wet from head to feet, and some days from morning to night I am dripping with water. My horse’s legs are now skinned and rough to his hock joints, and I have rheumatism in all my joints. . . what I have suffered in body and mind my pen is not able to communicate to you.

As the preacher continued, he tells why he suffered as he did,

But this I can tell say, while my body is wet with water and chilled with cold, my soul is filled with heavenly fire, and I can say with Saint Paul, ‘But none of these things shall move me. Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy. (“Nothing But Crows and Methodist Preachers”)

But I have experienced the joy and celebration that those early riders must have experienced when they came to a church but that was only because the church changed the starting time without telling me and I arrived thirty minutes late.

Still, when I see all the Methodist Churches throughout this district and conference I can only begin to imagine and appreciate the sense of purpose and dedication that each circuit rider had when they brought the Gospel message to the people.

It had to have been similar to the sense of purpose that Jesus had when he saw the people coming to him in the Galilean countryside. It had to have been the same sense of purpose that John Wesley had when he saw how the Church of England, his church, the church in which he had been raised, ignored and neglected the lower and working class people of England. There will be some, I know, who might not like the following statement and there will be some, I know, who will be uncomfortable but I fear that one of the problems with the Methodist Church today is that we no longer have that same sense of purpose, that same sense of hurt when we see others hurting in both body, mind, and spirit.

Through both my own upbringing and study, I have a sense of the history of the Methodist denomination and its parallels to the history of this country. One of the first thing that struck me when I began visiting churches in this district as a lay speaker were the numbers stamped or carved into the ends of the pews. Now, from my studies, I knew what those numbers meant but I never had actually experienced such a setting. I know that such numbers were a way of recording which families had rented or paid for that pew (and when someone says that you are sitting in their pew, they are not necessarily joking). I also know that if you could not afford the price of the pew, you and your family stood in the back of the church or in the balcony. It was a very subtle reminder that, in a country dedicated to the notion that all men were free and equal, some men were more free and equal than others.

In that period of time when I was beginning to discern the call God gave to me I taught at a community college in Illinois. A colleague of mine at this community college happened to belong to the Free Methodist Church. I do not recall if we ever discussed just exactly what it was about his church that made it free or why the United Methodist Church that I attended was not free. I would later discover that the Free Methodist Church began as a protest against the purchasing or rental of church pews as well as the unwillingness of the Methodist Episcopal Church to speak out against slavery.

As it happens, the particular United Methodist Church that plays such a prominent part in my life, especially at a time when I was struggling with the very nature of being a Christian, not just the call from God, has carved in stone above the side entrance to the church its original title, “First Methodist Episcopal Church, South”. Since I am a Southern boy, this should not be surprising but this particular church is in Kirksville, Missouri, and is about thirty miles south of the Iowa state line.

But when I joined 1st UMC in 1966, I was not aware of that particular part of the history of the church or the denomination. In fact, I would not discover that particular stone carving until many years later (always remember that you have to live with the words you carve in stone). Truth be told, I would rather have gone to Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church but it was a few miles further away and when you had to walk to church, such things are important. (I had the opportunity to preach at that church, now Faith UMC, a few years ago and told the congregation about my decision; a member of the congregation came up to me afterward and said, “You could have called. We would have come and gotten you.”)

Were it not for my own experiences growing up in the South, I cannot begin to imagine how a church, which began as a ministry to the least of society, could ever be divided and be so against the words that we heard Paul write to the Ephesians today. And it is equally difficult for me today to imagine that words so similar to that which divided the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1840s into the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Episcopal Church are again being spoken in this day and age. You may disagree with me but the words that I hear being spoken today about who can and cannot be a member of this denomination bear a striking resemblance to the words that divided this church in 1840 and so dominated our society in the 1960s. We are a denomination that placed reason and experience as cornerstones, along with scripture and tradition, in arriving at theological conclusions, yet we are willing to be willfully ignorant about humanity.

Were it not for the fact that I cannot even begin to imagine not being a Methodist, let alone a lay speaker, I might have quit the church a long time ago over similar issues, notably civil rights and the war in Viet Nam. When I was a sophomore at Truman State (then known as NE Missouri State College) in 1969 I saw a world in turmoil. I had grown up in a church that used the Bible to justify segregation and glorified war, where poverty, homelessness, and healthcare issues were non-issues, where one’s decision to follow Christ was literally an order to follow made by church elders and where, if you chose to dissent from their orders, you were ostracized and cast out. Perhaps it was the college environment but it was as much my parents who allowed and gave me the opportunity to think for myself and I had to wonder if I even needed to be in church.

Now, I have said it before but when I began going to college, it was an opportunity to sleep in late on a Sunday morning. But no matter how much I wanted to sleep in late, I couldn’t do it; I had to be in church on Sunday morning. And so it was that I went. And as much as I learned in my classes during the week, I also learned much in church. Not book learning per se but learning nonetheless. I learned that one could do good but that it wasn’t what would open the doors to heaven for you; it was only Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and my acceptance of Christ as my Savior that would do that. But I also learned that, having accepted Christ as my Savior, I had to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity as well.

What I remember is that forty years ago I saw a world in disarray and without hope and no means to bring hope. But through my experiences in the small chapel at First United Methodist Church some forty years ago I learned that hope did exist and I could have that hope if I followed Christ with all my heart, all my mind, and all my being. It was a lesson taught to me some forty years ago and a lesson that I have kept in my heart all these years.

I was lucky.  There were churches where I could find the answers to my questions.  I had pastors like George Eddy at 1st EUB and Marvin Fortel at 1st UMC who taught me and guided me.  Without their teaching and guidance I may never have understood the nature of God’s call or realize that one day some years later I needed to do more that simply say that I am a Christian and a Methodist. 

Others of my generation may have had the same questions but could not find the answers.  And in today’s world marked by more violence, where wars are waging and poverty, homelessness, and sickness are more and more part of our lives, there are more people asking the same questions.  Can you imagine where they will find these answers?

The call that I received from God that day in Montgomery, Alabama, that led to my receiving my God and Country Award in 1965 continues to this day, whether it is by traveling to wherever I am needed or just staying at my own church helping run the Saturday morning breakfast ministry or Vespers in the Garden program. I don’t have to get up at 3 in the morning on Saturdays and struggle with a gym that has no air conditioning but if I don’t some people might not get a decent meal. I don’t have to deal with those individuals who suggest that it is alright to serve the hungry low or poor quality food on paper plates and have them eat with plastic utensils. But how would I feel if Christ were one of those who came to our breakfast and he didn’t get the best I had to offer.

I was lucky to have a pastors who helped me to see what the future might be, even if I could not imagine it then. I can only imagine what might happen if I did not answer the call to go somewhere and preach or if we found it necessary to shut down Grannie Annie’s Kitchen.

And so it is that I ask you, can you imagine what your life would be like if you had not accepted Christ as your Savior? And what if you haven’t done so at this time? Wouldn’t it be better to accept Christ as your Savior than to imagine the alternatives that not doing so offers? Wouldn’t it be better to let the Holy Spirit empower your life and let you do things that your imagination can only tap into? Or would you rather imagine the alternatives?

This is an important time in the life of the United Methodist Church. It is an important time for each one of us as well. Can you imagine what will come if we don’t put Christ into our lives?

Solving Problems

This is the message that I am presenting at at Germantown UMC (Wilton, CT) on July 26th; services are at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11 1 -15; Ephesians 3: 14 – 21; and John 6: 1-21

I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church next Sunday (August 2nd); services there are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

(This has been edited since first posted.)


Back in 1965, when the country’s space program was going full blast and I was a freshman in high school, I had to have a science fair project.

For any science fair project, you must have a problem to solve. You cannot simply prepare a demonstration (such as growing crystals); you must present a problem and a potential solution (such as “what are the conditions for optimal crystal growth?”).

Now, for some reason, as I prepared for school in the morning I would watch an educational television program. I don’t remember the name of the show but I do remember that the topic one morning was Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation (clip_image002). I then began to think of a problem that I might solve utilizing this mathematical law. Ultimately, with the aid and prodding of my father, I came up with the question “What is the effect of the earth’s gravitational field on a spacecraft on a journey from the earth to the moon?”

The problem statement that I developed read

“Assume that we have successfully launched an Apollo spacecraft. At exactly the mid-point between the center of the earth and the center of the moon, the spacecraft loses its velocity. Considering only the gravitational force, where would the spacecraft fall?”

Now, I had a problem that I could solve using Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. I determined what would happen at the mid-point of the flight and at what point the moon’s gravitational field would dominate. If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall the flight of Apollo 13 which suffered a catastrophic power failure on April 13, 1970.

Now, the purpose of today’s message is not to discuss science fair projects or trips to the moon (for a related discussion on the process of science, the reader is directed to “The Processes of Science”). Granted, the Apollo 13 mission is often called the “successful failure” because of what transpired to bring the crew home safely and how it illustrated the need to think a problem through in order to find a solution.

And in that regard, that is what both the Old Testament reading for today and the Gospel reading for today are concerned with. In the Old Testament reading for today, the story of David and Bathsheba is recounted; in the Gospel reading, we hear John’s version of the feeding of the five thousand.

For David, the problem is that he has gotten Bathsheba pregnant while she is still married to Uriah. For the disciples, the problem is that there are between five and twenty thousand people who have been listening to Jesus preach and now they are hungry. This is right after the disciples have returned from their first mission trip, joyously recounting all that they had done in preaching, teaching, and healing.

So Jesus asks them, specifically Philip, what they are going to do to feed the people. As John indicates, Jesus asked Philip in order to stretch Philip’s faith because He (Jesus) already knew what He (Jesus) was going to do. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, in accepting Christ, we are able to expand our limits. We are able to push the boundaries of what we can do.

And in challenging Philip, that is what Jesus is doing. For the disciples, the solution to the problem is to send the people elsewhere in order to get food to eat. But Jesus knows that some of the people have brought food and that with that food, it will be possible to feed the multitude.

David has a problem, a problem brought about by his own failure to do what he should have been doing. Whether or not you believe that war is an acceptable solution to any problem, there is a war being fought at the beginning of the Old Testament reading and David is involved in the planning of that war.

But when the troops are sent off to battle taking with them the Ark of the Covenant, David elects to stay at home. In his failure to lead his troops, David sets the table (as it were) for his own destruction. In contrast, Uriah stays with his troops while they are in the field along with the Ark of the Covenant. (And I wonder how different the past few years would have been if our leaders would have lead with the truth instead of lies and had acknowledged the military personnel who came home injured or dead instead of neglecting their care and bringing home the dead late at night.)

David realizes that he must marry Bathsheba before it becomes obvious that she is pregnant but to do that she must also be a widow. Now, as has been pointed out by others, David has already broken two of the commandments (he has coveted his neighbor’s wife and he has committed adultery), so breaking a third (ordering that Uriah be killed) really isn’t a stretch.

David’s treachery and willingness to trash the Ten Commandments merely reflect what happens to each one of us when we put our interests and our desires before those of God. Philip’s inability to see a solution to the problem before he and the other disciples merely shows that, despite what they have already accomplished, they still see things from the perspective of the old ways.

Paul makes it very clear that accepting Christ in one’s life changes the view one has of life. We are faced with a number of problems, not the least of which is our own inability to see beyond the future. While I may have seen the space program of the 1960’s and 70’s as opening the gateway into the universe, most people saw it only as a race between our country and the Soviet Union. And when the race was won, there was no reason to go any further. And while there are at least two generations who have never lived in a world where mankind did not walk on the moon, we have at least one generation who can only see that in the context of history rather than actuality.

For people who have been created in God’s image, we seem to have forsaken the curiosity and inquiry that are part of the human psyche. And this failure manifests in too many other situations. We have a healthcare crisis in this nation today but all of our efforts to find a solution have been focused in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on the people (as Jesus did when he challenged the disciples to feed the people), we have focused on the cost (as Philip responded). We are more interested in how the solution to healthcare will benefit each one of us individually rather than we as a community. Instead of treating people, the discussion is about cost; yet Jesus fed the multitude without worrying about the cost.

David’s failure to lead and his subsequent efforts to resolve the problem to his best advantage should tell us plenty about when our focus is not on our duties and more on our own interests.

In preparing for this morning, I came across Dan Dick’s blog for 4 July 2009 in which he talked about the issues that are dividing the church

Without weighing in on one side or the other, I want to pose a question: Are these the most important things that Christians in the 21st century should be focusing on?  People are starving.  People are dying.  People are being subjected to indefensible violence.  People are being abused and hurt and robbed of a basic minimum standard of existence.   Is personal comfort and a personal bias toward who is acceptable and who isn’t really the point?

Our world is broken and in deep need of healing and help.  Most of the issues that divide and sometimes destroy our local congregations are truly insignificant — worship styles, leadership styles, preaching styles, and other selfish demands.  Oh, certainly these are symptomatic of deeper issues, but we never get to the deeper issues.  We often can’t get to the important stuff, because we are bogged down by the selfish, narrow-minded, and insignificant issues of the nominally Christian.  Cranky Christians rule the roost.  We can’t deal with truly important issues because we are divided over such earth shattering disagreements such as music styles, copier contracts, and the way the pastor chooses to dress.

How the worship bulletin is designed, where the baptismal font is placed, who gets to choose the hymns — these are only important issues to those who have no real understanding of the gospel.  Those who reduce our faith to such insignificant issues are those who have no real desire to be the body of Christ — laity or clergy.  How to make a difference in the world, how to save a person’s self respect and dignity, making sure a person has a safe place to sleep or a warm meal — these are the things our faith tells us God is interested in. (“Cranky Christians”)

We have a momentous opportunity staring at us at this time. We can let this opportunity pass us by, being more concerned with our own self-preservation as David was when faced with the results of actions. Or we can use the talents, the skills, and the creativity open to us through our acceptance of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that will lead to changes in society that will benefit all those on this planet, not just a select few.

This is the opportunity that was given to the Ephesians two thousand years ago. This is the opportunity that Jesus showed to the disciples that afternoon when their own self-doubt prevented them from seeing the solution.

The Gifts We Have Been Given

This is the message that I gave on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 August 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11: 25 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35.


I may not have mentioned this before but, in the history of my family dating back to Germany in the early 1600’s and Martin Luther, I am the thirteenth or fourteenth person to preach the Gospel. I am unique in that I am probably the only one of the group who is not originally a Lutheran. But the ties that bind me are still there as I come to this place today through the German brand (as it were) of Methodism.

But it should be noted first and foremost that I began this path of my life long before I ever knew where I was in the history of the Schüessler family or even that there was a Schüessler family outside of my grandmother and the family of my great-uncle. And it wasn’t until I went to my first reunion back in 1995 that I met my three cousins, Paul, Karl, and Deane, who were ministers.

Being a minister cannot be something genetic nor is it hereditary, though each of my cousins will tell you that growing up in the house of a Lutheran minister was as much a factor as any other in their own decision to enter the ministry. Still, the ability to be a good preacher and the call to be a preacher come from God, not from family pressures or genetics.

As Paul noted, we are given many gifts. And it is through those gifts that some of us are called to be apostles, prophets, or evangelists. Others are called to be pastors or teachers. Both to the Ephesians and to the Corinthians (in 1 Corinthians 12), Paul pointed out that each of us has some unique gift to bring to the community. And though each of us has unique gifts, we should not be envious of other’s positions or gifts nor should we boast in what we have and what others do not have. Rather, we should work together to maintain the church and build up everyone in order that good works can be done.

It is when we use the gifts given to us for our own purposes or when we try to hold what we have given as being more special than what has been given to others that we run into trouble. In today’s Old Testament reading David is reminded of what he had been given by God.

“Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! 2 Samuel 12: 7 – 8

Not only did God say to David what he had been given, He told him that he would have given him even much more.

But because David “despised the commandment of the Lord” (2 Samuel 12: 9) all of that would now be taken away from him. Because of his actions, his adultery, his covetousness, his murder of Uriah (and the innocent soldiers that died in that action undertaken to kill Uriah), there would now be bloodshed through all of David’s life. Because of his action, David’s own family would bring him troubles and adversity. And because of his actions, David would see that which had been given to him taken by his own son. And though what David had done was done in private, his suffering and shame would come in public. David would not be able to hide the punishment that he was to receive.

The gifts we have been given are to be developed, not hidden. The gifts that we have been given are to be used so that others may grow and come to know Christ, not simply used for our own benefits. When the people followed Jesus to Capernaum, they were still interested in the food that Jesus had given them. But they saw only the food as life for the present; they were not at all interested in what the future would hold.

We live in a society where now is the key. Let us not worry about tomorrow because that time will take care of it. We have a society that says we need to worry more about ourselves than others. We have leaders that get elected by dividing us rather than uniting us.

Those who hold to a conservative viewpoint deny the reality of structural injustice and social oppression. They blame the victim while ignoring the effects of poverty, racism and sexism. But those with liberal viewpoints are no better. They espouse a viewpoint that is unable to articulate or demonstrate the kind of moral values needed for serious change or transformation. There is no link between personal responsibility and societal change. Everything around us tells us that God has forsaken us. We do not know where to turn.

We easily allow those who claim to know the answer the right to tell us what the question is. We hunger for justice and righteousness but settle for quick settlements that never fill us, that never solve the problems. Those that were following Jesus wanted the quick fix, the bread that fixed the immediate hunger and were not interested in any long-term thoughts.

Jesus warned those who were there that day that His words were not quick fixes as long as what they sought were such, His words would not be the answers they sought.

Jesus reminds us that His words bring us a long-term answer. His work reminds us that we are not working for any kingdom on earth but rather for God’s Kingdom in Heaven.

What we do on earth is not for us but for others. We are not to work for our own benefit, we are not to work for the present. Rather, we are to work for the future, for that which carries us beyond the present. Jesus was trained as a carpenter. A carpenter then was an artisan rather than the tradesman we know today and it was a pretty good life. But He knew that His life was more than that. As he told his parents when He was twelve, “Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2: 49)

God encourages us to take what we are have been given and move to a higher level, to be more than we can be. God encourages us to take what we have been given and help others move with us.

Now, you may say that you don’t even know what your gifts really are. It then falls to the rest of us to help you find what those gifts are, not limit what you or anyone else can do. By taking the gifts that we have been given and using them to the fullest, we are able to help those who do not know what their gifts are to find them. By sharing our gifts with others, we are able to help others see Christ.

The basis of our faith is not a feeling that we have within us; it is a revelation that Christ is real, that he died for us. This was the gift that He gave to us, a gift that enables us to live long beyond the time we spend here on earth. Through us, others will come to see Christ, but only if we use the gifts that we have been given.

What If

I am preaching at Mt. Hope United Methodist Church in Mahopac, NY, this morning. The regular preacher, Will Porter, had surgery a couple of weeks ago and I got the call to cover for the next couple of weeks. Let us pray for Will’s recovery and return to the pulpit.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts for this the 8th Sunday after Pentecost. It is a lengthy post, I know, but some things have to be said.

A number of years ago I came across a book “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born” by James Kennedy. It was an interesting book that outlined a number of situations that would have changed had Jesus never been born. It is always an interesting exercise to consider the impact of various and sundry things.

I doubt that the young man who is the central focus of the New Testament reading for today (1) realized or understood the impact that his presence would have on the multitude gathered that day on the mountain side. But that is often times the way it works out. How many times do we see what is before us and fail to make a decision. Often times, it seems that what we do will not make much of a difference in the affairs of the world; but then, there are those singular times when one decision does make a difference.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I had a lot of traffic on my blog concerning war. Two individuals have, it seems to me, argued for the inevitability of war, saying that no matter what one’s thoughts are, war is inevitable because there is evil in the world. One individual basically suggested that I would have allowed the Nazi war machine to roll over Europe.

There are those who will say that Israel has the right to respond as they have. Are the Israeli responses the responses of a nation seeking peace or just responding in kind? How long will it take before we realize that violence only leads to violence and unless someone makes a major break in the circle of violence, it will continue to grow? It is not just simple acquiescing to the wishes of the other side; it is by demonstrating that peace is possible. It can be done by feeding all who are hungry, not starving them; it can be done by building homes, not destroying them. It can be done but it takes a commitment to do what is not done, not simply wait on the other person.

The problem is that we should not even be in this mess in the Middle East. We knew in 1948 that there would be a bloody conflict but we, the rest of the world, stood aside and let it happen. What would have happened if world leaders had sought viable solutions that meet the needs of all the peoples of the Middle East?

What would have happened if the German pastors, instead of supporting the Nazis, had spoken out against the wrongs that the Nazi government was doing in the 1930’s. Would we have had World War II if these men of God had spoken out against war, violence, and evil then? Unfortunately, these men of God were more interested in their own well-being and establishing that they were just as nationalistic as everyone else in Germany.

It is hard to think that so many people died because the church turned a blind eye to the plight of the people. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain. (2)

I cringe at the thought that was written about Germany in the 1930’s is again happening in this country at this time. How long shall Christians allow people to kill other people in the name of their country because it is correct? These are days which challenge the very soul of the church; these are days which cry out for each church to speak out and think of their responsibilities to mankind, no matter how they pray to God. Yet, we have pastors argue for war when the One for whom they “work” is called the Prince of Peace? We walk a fine line indeed when we say that our actions are acceptable because they are in the best interests of the country but which go against the moral teachings we supposedly learned in Sunday School and church.

Our Old Testament reading for today (3) again offers a choice of seeing and doing. What would have happened if David had led the army into battle, as he should have done, instead of staying back in Jerusalem? There are no reasons given in any of the commentaries that I read for why David stayed back; but it does say that it was the time that kings took their armies into battle and David was the king but he did not lead the army.

And in retrospect, David himself would have agreed that probably he should have done so. Then he would not have seen Bathsheba on the roof top and he would never have had the affair with her.

But he didn’t do what he was probably supposed to do and, as a result, had to cover up his mistakes. He tried everything he could think of to get Uriah to spend one evening with his wife, Bathsheba. But Uriah was an honorable man and a loyal soldier and he would do nothing that his own men would not have the opportunity to do as well. In the end, David sends Uriah back into the battle zone with sealed orders that instruct Uriah’s commander to put him in the forefront of the most intense battle. In doing so, David deliberately ordered Uriah to his death. And in killing Uriah, David also killed an untold number of young men as well, for what battle ever has only one casualty.

If David had taken responsibility for what he had done, then he would not have conspired to kill Uriah in order to cover up his lies and mistakes. If David had taken responsibility for his actions, other young men would not have died needlessly. How long will it be before we determine that we cannot send young men and women off to war because of a leader’s lies or mistakes? How long will it take for us to realize that our actions have a profound impact on others, often in ways that we cannot foresee or imagine?

What would happen if, in this country today, businesses saw their employees as people and not just as some sort of commodity on the profit/loss sheet? What if our major employers were to treat people with the same compassion as Jesus felt for those on the mountain side?

Of course, when you read or listen to the news today, you have to wonder if people are paying attention to this lesson. The Chicago city council voted the other day to require Wal-Mart and other similar stores to pay their employees a living wage of $10.00 per hour with $3.00 per hour in benefits by the year 2010. Wal-Mart has suggested that if this ordinance is passed, they will pull out of the Chicago market. Other business leaders have suggested that paying such salaries will do more harm than achieve any good. But right now, workers at Wal-Mart make somewhere on the order of $16,000 per year. This is an interesting statistic since anyone earning under $8.20 an hour or just over $16,000 per year is considered under the federally defined poverty level. (4)  And we have the wonderful disclosure that Exxon had record profits during the second quarter (but we are not to find any correlation between the price we pay for gasoline and those profits).

The House of Representatives did pass legislation this week that will raise the Federal minimum wage for the first time in almost ten years. But they put in a rider that will give another tax break (the elimination of inheritance taxes) that will benefit only the richest of the rich. How long before we learn that we cannot treat the poor, the lower and middle classes with disrespect? This is not what the Gospel said.

In the 1950’s the laws of many Southern states forced minorities to sit in the back of the bus, even when there were seats in the front. What would have happened if Rosa Parks had obeyed the law and gone to the back of the bus instead of taking the first available seat in the front? She knew full well what the consequences of her actions that day would be but I doubt that she understood how far those actions would reach. If nothing else, her action brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of the beginning Civil Rights movement. So, if Mrs. Parks had decided not to fight the system, it is most likely that Reverend King would not have risen to the prominence he did.

Then maybe he wouldn’t have come to Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968 and he would not have died by an assassin’s bullet. Maybe he wouldn’t have come to Memphis anyway. The sanitation worker’s strike was a small one and it didn’t have much coverage; after all, who cares about a bunch of garbage men other than the people who need their garbage picked up. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were even aware of this strike when it began. A similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended and the media of the day did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.

And weren’t the sanitation workers way out of line asking for a raise from $1.70 to $2.35 per hour? The city’s offer of 8-½ cents per hour seemed reasonable enough. But, there was more to this strike than just wages; it was about working conditions and respect given for doing the job that others would not do.

This strike began on February 1, 1968 when two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. In a separate incident on the same day, 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay when it began to rain while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay.

On February 12th, 1375 workers (mostly sanitation workers but with other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. (5) 

Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes.

Dr. King came because the worth of someone’s soul is not determined by the job they perform each day or the color of their skin. Dr. King came to Memphis because the importance of a person comes from who they are, not where they live. Even though he initially did not want to come, even though he didn’t have to come, Dr. King came to Memphis, even though he didn’t have to. And as history points out, maybe he shouldn’t have come. But would our respect for other people have gotten better if he hadn’t?

He came because Jesus taught us to care about other people as much as we care about ourselves. What is the central point of the New Testament reading for today, if it is not that we should care for others as we would care for ourselves?

What would have happened if the people had been sent home to get something to eat? What would have happened if Philip’s argument that they didn’t have enough money to buy food to feed all of the people. Remember that though the Bible says that there were five thousand present that day, the actual total was probably much, much larger because they only counted the men that were there that day. With the women and children that were there, the crowd may have been about fifteen or twenty thousand.

Are we to even think that the disciples had any other option available to them there on the mountain side some two thousand years ago? It states clearly that Jesus knew he was going to feed the multitude so there never was another option. Why do we think that there is an option today; why do we think we can keep cutting the costs for taking care of people while raising the amount of money spent on war and other forms of legalized killing?

What if we, the people, were to cry out and proclaim that poverty is not simply the consequences of sin but rather a marker of society’s lack of concern for people? If nothing else, it would make us what we say this morning, Methodists.

It was the issue of poverty and the lack of concern for the lower classes by the church and English society that made John Wesley seek a better way.

John Wesley preached a lot about money. And with probably the highest earned income in England, he had the opportunities to put his ideas into practice. What did he say about money? And what did he do with his own?

John Wesley knew grinding poverty as a child. His father, Samuel Wesley, was the Anglican priest in one of England’s lowest-paying parishes. He had nine children to support and was rarely out of debt. Once John saw his father . . . marched off to debtors’ prison. So when John followed his father into the ministry, he had no illusions about the financial rewards.

It probably came as a surprise to John Wesley that while God had called him to follow his father’s vocation, he had not also called him to be poor like his father. Instead of being a parish priest, John felt God’s direction to teach at Oxford University. There he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, and his financial status changed dramatically. His position usually paid him at least thirty pounds a year, more than enough money for a single man to live on. John seems to have enjoyed his relative prosperity. He spent his money on playing cards, tobacco, and brandy.

While at Oxford, an incident changed his perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. he reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward”? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid? (6)

It is clear that this single incident changed the way Wesley viewed his life and what he was to do in his ministry. His income rose from 30 pounds a year to 120 pounds in four years, yet he learned to live on 28 pounds a year. Now, 30 pounds a year may not seem like a lot to us today in 2006 but in 1731, it was a major income. It is noted that Wesley had one of the highest earned incomes in England, making one year on the order of 1400 pounds. But he continued to live as if he were earning 30 pounds and gave away the excess. This lifestyle even got him in trouble with the English tax authorities who felt that he was hiding his wealth somewhere or somehow. They figured that anyone with income such as his who did not have the trappings of a rich lifestyle must surely be hiding their money somewhere. Wesley told the tax people that he had given away most of his wealth and that he had sufficient income to live on even though he was wealthy. I only wish that Wesley’s modern day colleagues, the ones with the thousand dollar suites and smiles to match, could say and do the same.

Another way Wesley limited expenses was to identify with the poor and needy. He had preached that Christians should consider themselves members of the poor, whom God had given them money to aid. So he lived and ate with the poor. Under Wesley’s leadership, the London Methodists established two homes for widows in the city. They were supported by offerings taken at the band meetings and the Lord’s Supper. In 1748, nine widows, one blind woman, and two children lived there. With them lived John Wesley and any other Methodist preacher who happened to be in town. Wesley rejoiced in eating the same food at the same table, looking forward to the heavenly banquet all Christians will share.

We live in a world where respect for other individuals is limited; we do not care where the bombs fall when we are engaged in a war against terrorism. In a world where the “bottom line” is more important, we do not care that people cannot live on the wages they earn. What if we lived as the Christians did some two thousand years ago, sharing and caring for others as much as we cared for ourselves?

So if we respond as we should, we can begin seeing a change. After all, when the people finished eating, there was more in the baskets than when they started. Surely others not mentioned in the Gospel reading for today were fed as well.

What if the Ephesians had not responded to Paul’s encouragement? (7)  What if they had not allowed Christ to dwell in their hearts?Then where would we be today?

We are here today because those who came before us heard the word of God and took it into their own hearts. We are here today because others before us allowed the Holy Spirit to enter into their lives and the work of one became the work of many? As Paul noted, together we are able to accomplish far more as a group than we could do as separate individuals.

We are asked to change a system that seemingly dwarfs our ability to do so. Even within a singular community of faith, the task seems too daunting to even consider. But what if we invested our energy into retelling the Bible stories we grew up listening to and reading. Did not those stories we enjoyed have many of the same issues that we deal with today? Did they not overcome those issues back then? When simple stories begin to crystallize our imagination, history shows that they are more powerful agents of change than we can imagine.

Whether God does it or we do it ourselves, when the social system fails and we leave people without hope, when the religious establishment becomes part of the problem instead of the solution, the stories that we grow up listening to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that it is time for those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” to stand with Jesus. It is time to tell and retell our stories, driving them as deeply as possible into the popular imagination, letting our stories of faith and faithfulness inform our action.

So we are asked today if we will open our hearts and allow Christ to come in. We are asked today if we will open our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to use us to do things that we could not possible do otherwise.

(1) John 6: 1 – 21

(2) http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm

(5) http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/

(6) http://rescomp.stanford.edu/~georgie/money.html – An article written by Charles Edward White, assistant professor, Christian thought and history Spring Arbor (Michigan) College

(7) Ephesians 3: 14 – 21