“The Power of Water”

I am again writing the “Back Page”. This will be the back page for the bulletin at Fishkill UMC for this Sunday’s bulletin (January 13, 2018, The Baptism of the Lord, Year C).

The role of water in our lives cannot be overplayed.

From the early days of the alchemists, it was seen that water was the universal solvent, able to dissolve just about anything and everything.  Our search for life on other planets and in the universe is predicated on the existence of water.  Without water, life on this planet would be improbable and non-existent.

And water is the singular mark of baptism.

Baptism is an act of repentance.  John the Baptizer’s famous words to the Pharisees and Sadducees (“you brood of vipers”) remind us that even those who proclaim that they hold the power are subject to the cleansing waters of baptism.  Our baptism reminds us that we have cast aside the secular world so that we could live in the Heavenly Kingdom.

Baptism is an act of unity.  With the water poured over us during our baptism, we are united in one body with Christ.  From the days Jesus began His ministry, baptism has been the unifying act.  We are reminded that Samarians and Jews, long divided by tradition, became one through baptism.

Even today, when someone is baptized in the United Methodist Church, every member of the congregation renews the vows they made or where made from them when they were baptized.

I hope, trust, and pray that you will reflect on your own baptism and what that has meant to you throughout the years.  We are given the chance today to, in part and in some way, renew our vows and walk with Jesus in the coming days.

~~ Tony Mitchell

A Rock And A Hard Place

A Meditation for 10 January 2016, the Baptism of the Lord (Year C), based on Isaiah 43: 1 – 7, Acts 8: 14 – 17, and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22

The title for this week’s message comes from the heading for the reading from Isaiah as translated in The Message. I use this translation (along with Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels) as it offers a more modern reading of the Scriptures without losing its meaning. I think this is critical in today’s society simply because it shows how the Bible is alive today; when you use an old translation or you do not provide for a modern setting, you risk loosing both the meaning of the words and the people who hear the words.

I suggested in last week’s post (“Seeing The Future”) that I felt that there was a need for a fourth great revival in this society. Now, there are some who might feel that having a revival is more the sign of a fundamentalist approach to Christianity than a progressive one but I think that it is just as appropriate.

It goes with the idea of today’s corporate church. Church has, for the lack of a better term, become part of our lives. We expect it to be there for the baptism and confirmation of our children, our marriages, and our funerals but we don’t expect it to be there at any other times. And, sadly, when there are schedule overlaps around 10 am on Sunday morning, we put church attendance on the back burner in favor of the other event.

I always found it interesting that Constantine, the Roman emperor who legitimatized Christianity was not baptized until just before he died. While his actions as emperor ended the legal persecution of Christians and he became, perhaps the single most important patron of the church in all of its history, he waited until the last moments of his life to be absolved of his sins. And I cannot help but think that too many corporate Christians see their baptism in something of the same way. Oh, they were baptized at some point in their life (as a child, a youth, or an adult) but they see only in terms of the end times. Oh, and by the way, I see the actions of too many fundamentalists in the same way. Only at that last moment in their conscious life will they call upon their baptism in a last ditch effort to save their souls.

Oh, they might do it and if they do, so be it; that is the nature of grace.

But baptism is also the sign of a new life, a new beginning. I have told the story before (“My Two Baptisms”) about how I was stuck in the dorm of a Bible college in Moberly, Missouri, during the spring of 1969 and being told by a soon to be preacher that my baptism as a child did not count. And as I said then, were it not for what happened after that baptism, that preacher-to-be would have been right. But I was raised to respect that baptism and, when the time came, to do what was expected of me.

The key points given in the reading from Acts and Luke for today point out that the Holy Spirit was involved. Through the Power of the Holy Spirit, lives change (as Luke noted John saying, it changes you from the inside out).

What I did not mention in the story of the two baptisms was what had taken place about week before that encounter in Moberly. And that was my meeting with Marvin Fortel, a meeting I have written about many times before and one in which I knew that my life had changed (“The Changing Of The Seasons”). While I know that my refusal to do the adult baptism was more me than my soul, I also had a sense that I was living the life one was supposed to be living and I understood why.

Most of you who read this have been baptized so calling for you to be baptized would be along the lines of that student preacher I met in 1969. So I call upon you to think about your baptism and ask if your life today reflects that baptism.

One of the things that I have thought about is where I am being called in my own ministry. And while I will still hold to the teachings of the Evangelical United Brethren Church in which I was confirmed and the United Methodist Church in which I have lived and served for the majority of my life since confirmation, I am beginning to think and believe that I need to be a little more independent. I see a need for something different, something a bit more progressive in nature. I am not entirely certain that the United Methodist Church will survive the upcoming 2016 General Conference; it might but what comes out of the conference may not be in a position to move forward the Gospel message that Christ charged us to follow.

I suppose that when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place (which was the subject heading for the reading from Isaiah for today), you can let yourself be crushed by the rock or you can move the rock out of the way. I am choosing to move the rock out of the way. What will you be doing?

Saturday Morning Worship @ Grannie Annie’s Kitchen, Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)

During the 2012 Advent season, we began a worship service prior to breakfast. As the New Year begins, we are going to continue this worship. If you are interested in participating in the worship service, contact me at TonyMitchellPhD (at) optimum.net. I have included the lectionary readings for the Sundays in January so that you can think about this. Because of the time frame, we ask that you pick one of the lectionary readings and prepare your message on that reading. Looking forward to hearing the many voices of United Methodists during 2013 at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Oh, and you get breakfast

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen will be open from 11 to 1 for soup, bread, and other “goodies”. Come and join us in friendship and fellowship at Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY)

Worship from 8 to 8:30; Breakfast from 8:30 to 9:45

January 5th – Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 12th – Baptism of the Lord – Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22

January 19th – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany – Isaiah 62: 1 – 5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1 – 11; John 2: 1 – 11

A New Understanding” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

January 26th – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; Luke 4: 14 – 21

Parts of the Church” – Tony Mitchell, Grace UMC (Newburgh)

Baptism by Fire

Here are my thoughts for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 10 January 2010.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.


If there is one topic that has positive and negative elements in my life, it is my baptism. I was baptized on December 24, 1950 at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, North Carolina.

Now, for some, this really wasn’t my baptism because I was only an infant and I didn’t know what was going on or what it meant. However, I was raised with the knowledge that I was baptized and I have tried to live my life with that knowledge.

(I first described the following episode in my life in “That First Baptism”.)

But there was that dreary night in late March, 1969, and I was struggling to get back to school after Spring Break. A severe snow storm had crippled travel and instead of making it easily from Memphis to St. Louis, I found myself sixty miles south of Kirksville in Moberly, MO. I was familiar with Moberly but in which I knew no one. Somehow I ended up at the small Bible College located there. The inhabitants of the men’s dormitory found me a space in which I could sleep that night.

In the course of that evening’s conversation, one of the soon-to-be evangelists and preachers asked me about my baptism. I replied that I had been baptized when I was three months old. The young man who asked me this question then informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my infant baptism didn’t count and that I needed to be baptized as an adult if I was ever to see the gates of Heaven.

Perhaps those weren’t his exact words but the meaning of his message was clear and I was greatly disturbed by what he said. First, I was not ready for such words, traveling in difficult circumstances and in a time when my whole future seemed so uncertain. I was struggling with life as a college student and trying to get my grade point average back up after a disastrous fall and winter quarter. (For those readers who attended Truman State University, my alma mater, after 1969, the 1968/69 academic year was the last year the academic year was based on quarter. With the 1969/70 academic year, the school made the change to a semester calendar.) If I messed up the courses that spring, my academic career would take a beating. In addition, Kirksville had a policy that if you were absent the day before or the day after a break, you would lose .5 credits for each course that you missed. This was an additional pressure that I didn’t need at that time.

Since this was the spring of 1969, I thought that there was a good possibility that I would spend the next semester registered as a student of the University of South Viet Nam at a branch campus designated by the United States Army. My request for a draft deferment had been messed up and I anticipated receiving that wonderful letter from my Uncle in Washington at any time.

Just before I had left Kirksville for home and some quiet time, I met with the pastor of First United Methodist Church to have communion. Reverend Marvin Fortel admitted to being surprised by this request (perhaps, because most of the students who attended First Church were from communities nearby and would have taken communion with their parents in the church where they grew up) but he agreed to meet with me before I left. It was just the two of us, meeting in the chapel of the church. Rather than the ritual of communion, it was more of a discussion about communion. And in the process, I came to find out that I did not completely understand what it was to be a Methodist. I had gotten caught up in the “works versus faith” argument that dominates so much of the writing of the Bible and I wasn’t sure which side I was on. But it was clear that my understanding of what it meant to be a Methodist and perhaps a Christian needed some clarification. And as I have written and spoken before, I left that day with a better understanding and a determination to be who I was to be in the eyes of Christ (see “Our Father’s House”).

So it was that a week later, battered by travel and angst, I received another blow when I was told that there was a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t get into heaven, no matter what had happened that Christmas Eve in 1950 in Lexington, North Carolina.

I declined the offer to be baptized that night, perhaps because I wasn’t sure but more likely offended that someone would tell me in the name of Christ that my baptism didn’t count. Even back then I had a dislike for those whose process of evangelism is to tell you, especially when you are already down, how bad your life has been.

I am not going to get into a theological debate about the justification of “infant baptism versus adult baptism”. Too me, it falls under the same category as “immersion versus sprinkling.” Yes, I do not know what was said that night in Lexington, North Carolina by either the minister or my parents on my behalf but I do know that my parents, each in their own way, saw to it that what was done that night was not done in vain.

As I began my confirmation classes in 1964 I also began working on my God and Country award for Boy Scouts. As part of that award, I worked out a way to hold a brief service while my troop was camping in the Rocky Mountains outside Denver. We were a troop that many times camped way back in the hills and that required that we carry every thing in. My father built me a cross that I could take down and fit into my backpack and then put together for the service.

My mother was the rock of my foundation, making sure that Sunday School was a part of my life. Ours was not the most spiritual or religious family but God was present and it was that foundation that got me through those troubled times of 1968 and 1969.

The two scripture readings for today from the New Testament both acknowledge the baptism by water followed by the baptism by the Spirit.

While there have been times when I have put the church on the back burner, it never left my life. But the foundation that was laid with my baptism in 1950, and with the Gospel message and the work of the church would lead me through tough times and good and to this point today.

In one sense that young man in Moberly who told me that my baptism didn’t count was correct. If I had been baptized and my parents had done nothing to raise me in such a way that I would come to know Christ in my heart as my personal Savior, then my baptism would have been meaningless. It would have the same value as the baptism of Carlo and Connie’s baby in the closing scenes of “The Godfather”. Michael Corleone has assumed the role of godfather for his niece and while he is reciting the ritual of baptism, renouncing evil and the powers of Satan, his henchmen are imposing their own justice on The Godfather’s enemies and opponents.

There are those today who were baptized as infants, with great ceremony and members of the family standing around smiling and enjoying the moment, but who didn’t follow the path placed before them that day in their life. For these individuals and their families, this is simply a single moment in their lives and the lives of their family, part of the triad of water, rice, and ashes.

But I do know one person who attended one such event because his family insisted on his presence. And while he had no idea what would happen, his attendance at that event would change his life, for he would find the Lord and later become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. Such effects are what we hope would happen to all who stand as family before the minister and watch the child baptized.

When we baptize an infant, we as the family and the congregation make the pledge to insure that the child before us grows up in such a way that he or she will find Christ when they are old enough. Perhaps we should ponder that thought a little more.

The Gospel reading for today is perhaps the reason why there are those who say that you need to baptized as an adult in addition (or in spite of) to one’s baptism as a child or infant. As John said to those standing on the banks of the River Jordan, “I shall baptize you with water; the one who is to come shall baptize you with fire.” And whether one is baptized as an infant, a child, a young adult, or an older adult, the baptism with water is meaningless unless later you receive the Holy Spirit, the fire that John was alluding to. Perhaps the discussion should be in the ways that one receives the fire, for there are many ways that we encounter Christ and accept the Holy Spirit.

A man died last Monday. His name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi and he was 93 when he died of stomach cancer. That he lived to such an age is perhaps not noteworthy but it is noteworthy that he was the only person to survive both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, Mr. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” on the city. Though horribly burned and temporarily blinded, he was able to return to his home town of Nagasaki and go to work on the 9th of August. His coworkers would not believe him when he described the horror and terror of the August morning and what they should do if such a bomb were to be dropped on Nagasaki. His boss went as far as to say that such words were treasonous and he should be quiet. And apparently at that very moment, “Bock’s Car” dropped the “Fat Man” atomic weapon.

Fortunately, his co-workers and boss, who moments before had dismissed his words and warnings, heeded them and because of the way their office building was constructed, they survived the blast.

It is highly likely that those who survived the two attacks were filled with anger, hatred, resentment and a desire for revenge. They are the same feelings that many people in this country still harbor today, some 9 ½ years after 9/11/2001. They are feelings that no doubt resurfaced following the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

And Mr. Yamaguchi would quite quickly tell you that he had those feelings as well. But out of those feelings came a desire that such an occurrence should never happen again. Throughout the remainder of his life, Mr. Yamaguchi worked for peace and nuclear disarmament.

I cannot say whether he was a Christian or not; the cause for peace transcends religious boundaries. But as one who was truly baptized and transformed by fire, his efforts should strike a chord in our lives as well.

But we hear too many Christians, both laity and clergy, who speak of war as the answer. Their discussion goes beyond Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of a just war and seems bent on the total destruction of those who do not believe as they do. There is fire in their spirit but it is the same fire of death and destruction that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki some 65 years ago.

The fire that John speaks of in today’s Gospel reading is a transforming fire, a fire that cleans our soul much as the water of baptism cleans the “outer dirt”.

You can say that you have been baptized and that you have accepted Christ in your life. There are plenty of people who say that today. But their words, their actions, and their thoughts belie that. They may be a Christian on Sunday morning but they are among the loudest to call for war on Monday; they are among the ones who cry at the plight of the homeless and sick on Sunday but do little the rest of the week in the way of help. They were the ones in church when I was young who sang that Jesus loved all the children regardless of color but worked to keep the same children out of their schools.

The transformation of baptism is more than a single moment in one’s life. It is a moment that should define and begin one’s life. It is not the time in life when this is done; it is what is done with the rest of your life after that moment in time.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit is a life changing event. As you finish this piece today, you need to think about your baptism. Have you lead the life that you and/or your parents promised God you would lead on that day? Have you truly accepted Christ in your heart and with your mind and your soul?

Baptism is the outward sign of God’s grace. And God’s grace is unlimited and never ends. The opportunity is now. Just as Isaiah told the people of Israel that God had not forgotten them, so too is he telling us that God has not forgotten us either. And we have the opportunity, just as the Samaritans did when Peter and John came through to change our lives.

Shall this be the moment that you are truly baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit?

Side By Side

Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 11 January 2004. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.


On my desk is a picture of two guys standing side by side, long after their glory days in college. It is an interesting picture because, at least for the two of them, it evokes memories of another day some twenty-six years before when they stood side by side in an entirely different situation. The two guys are Alphonso Jackson, President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and myself. It was taken during ceremonies at Truman State University in 1995 when the name of the college was changed from Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University.

But the significance of the picture is not what we have become or what we were back then in 1995 but what we were. In 1966, I was fifteen year old whiz kid experiencing college for the very first time; Al was a nineteen year old transfer from Dallas, Texas, seeking to get his grades up so that he could run track for Kenneth Gardner and the Bulldogs of Northeast Missouri State. I have always said that the college should put a sign on the door of Missouri Hall 520 indicating what happened to the occupants of that room during the summer of 1966.

The significance of that 1995 picture is that there is another picture of the two of us. For many years, I thought that a copy of the picture existed in the archives of one of the Missouri newspapers but I have never been able to find it. It may be that this picture only existed in one brief moment of television and I doubt that the cameraman who took the video kept a copy.

In the spring of 1969, the black students at Truman sought to gain the right to equal housing in the city of Kirksville. Though the university had been a part of the city for over one hundred years, the relationship between the two institutions was never the best. The university developed essentially as a regional university with many of its students coming from within 60 miles of Kirksville. This allowed them to live at home and drive to school.

There was a substantial population, however, that came from beyond the regional boundaries of the college and needed to live on the campus. And therein lie the problem. It was possible, if you were a white student, to find a place to live off-campus. But for the black students, however, this was not possible. The landlords of Kirksville, reluctant to rent to white students but willing to take their money, did not want to rent to black students at all. The Association of Black Collegians, the recognized black student organization, first went to the Board of Regents asking for help in resolving this problem.

The Board refused, saying that it was not their problem. The ABC then went to the City Council of Kirksville asking for their help. The Council also refused to help, saying that it was not their problem and they needed to work through the university. With a stalemate fast developing and because it was the season of sit-ins and demonstrations, the ABC occupied the administration building.

I was a sophomore that spring, struggling with the realities of college education. The demands of college had taken me away from college life and I knew nothing of what was happening on the other side of the campus. But either by word of mouth or some announcement on the local radio station, I heard that the administration building had been occupied and a confrontation was developing between the black students in the building and white students outside the building. (Despite its connotation as the state’s liberal arts university today, it was then and probably still is today a very politically conservative area.)

So when I heard what was happening, I immediately went over to the administration building. I was fortunate and able to get into the building. I went because the people in the building were my friends and times like these demanded that you support your friends. That is when the other picture was taken. A news cameraman was taking pictures inside the administration building. The picture that I speak of shows a young, longhaired white boy standing next to Alphonso Jackson and the other leaders of the Association of Black Collegians. It is not the type of picture that mothers, fathers, grandmothers and other relatives (or at least my mother, father, and grandmother) speak of with pride. The news footage was broadcast on the St. Louis stations where my grandmother saw it; she immediately called my parents and told them what I was doing. Now, my family had never easily accepted my political activities and the knowledge that I appeared to be leading a campus sit-in didn’t help matters either. But I wasn’t standing there because of my politics; I was standing there because Al was my friend. Interestingly enough, while some whites were involved in the negotiations, most of the white activists were nowhere to be found. Politics may have motivated me in part, I am sure. But I was raised with the thought that if you accepted Christ, you fought for peace, justice, and righteousness. More than anything else, that is what lead me to enter the building that night.

What are friends for? Do they stand by your side only in times of your success? Or are they there no matter what? If you say you are a friend, are you there when you are needed? The disciples had been with Jesus for over three years, walking by his side, learning from him, and now were faced with the twin shocks of seeing Christ die on the cross and his resurrection. As friends, they were together.

It was that time right after the Pentecost when people were being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. But as the reading for today notes, the baptism had not been accompanied by the reception of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John were sent by the leaders of the Jerusalem church to complete the task of baptism and to bring the Holy Spirit into the lives of the newly baptized people of Samaria.

This was an interesting time for the disciples. The persecution of the early Church was just beginning; it was also a time of strife within the new church. Paul was still Saul and was actively involved in the persecution of early Christians. The passages just before today’s reading describe the stoning of Stephen and Saul’s silent presence at that time. But Saul is about to encounter Jesus on the road to Damascus and be born again as Paul, the great missionary charged with taking the Gospel message to the Gentiles.

In the meantime, Peter is leading the church in Jerusalem and insisting that all those who decide to follow Christ must first become Jews. It was the opinion of the early church leaders that one must first be a Jew before becoming a Christian. This strict interpretation of the conversion process almost killed the early church before it could begin.

But Peter ultimately received a vision from God that told him that the legalistic approaches he was advocating was inappropriate and not needed. If someone wanted to follow Jesus, that was all that was needed. Peter’s vision reminded him that God does not show favoritism. (Acts 10: 34)  God does not favor an individual because of his station in life, his nationality, or his material possessions. He does, however, respect his character and judge his work. The invitation to follow Christ is given because of one’s belief in Christ, not who he is or what he does. When we insist on some legalistic point of view or hold to some strict requirements for success, we lose sight of this important part of belonging to the Christian community.

There are four views of the Christian community prevalent today. The first is the "new paradigm" style. This style, suggested by the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, suggests that mainline churches will grow if they minimize their distinctiveness and offer seekers, those individuals looking for a home church, what they want – an anonymous, symbolically neutral, user-friendly church. The second style is an "evangelical style." This style suggests that growth is found in evangelism based on a conservative theology.

The third style is a "diagnostic" one. Its proponents contend that mainline congregations suffer from systematic problems within the body of the church. Neither the theology of the church nor its traditions are the problems; rather, the institution itself is broken and must be fixed or repaired before the church can begin to grow again.

Each of these styles has its own proponents; each style brings suggestions as to how churches struggling in today’s society can best meet cope. But a fourth style is appearing and I hope that it holds more promise than the three others do.

This fourth style seems to acknowledge that evangelism need not necessarily be conservative. It also acknowledges that a congregation with a traditional worship style and traditional building can provide a significant worship experience. This fourth style is called an "intentional style" and is characterized by a blend of local vision, denominational identity and Christian practice. In congregations, the people have chosen to embrace or recreate practices drawn from long Christian tradition – practices that bind them together and connect them with older patterns of living as meaningful ways to relate to a post-Christian society. This does not come about by birth but rather choice and through reflective engagement, individually and communally. The importance of this style is that it may be the best way for mainline Protestant churches to revitalize their congregations and move forward in mission.

This is a style based as much on the community of believers as it is on one’s individual belief. It is a style that uses the traditions of the Christian church to move forward. But it requires a commitment; it requires nurturing and a willingness to change as God’s spirit directs. (Adapted from "The road to vital churches is paved with good intentions", printed in Context (January 2004, part B; volume 36, number 1)

I think this is what kept the early church together; I think this is what will keep the present church together. But it must be with an understanding that you cannot be anonymous in the church nor can we all be of the same mindset. This is the Sunday that marks the baptism of Jesus. It is a reminder that we are set apart as a particular kind of person – one owned by God. Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.

When a child is baptized in the United Methodist Church, we as members of the community acknowledge that we have a role to play in that child’s upbringing. There will be forces attempted to redefine anyone who is baptized. Commercial messages will attempt to convince that person that a great economic machine whose purpose is to make them a consumer owns him or her, and their sole purpose in life is to keep that machine alive. Other messages will tell them that they belong to no one but themselves, and that individualism is the supreme god.

But the message is that we can be individuals but we are still the children of God. Look at the words of the baptism ritual; until such time that a child is actually baptized, he or she is referred to as "this child." It is only when they are baptized in the name and spirit of God that they have a name.

God, through Isaiah, reminded the people of Israel that He called them by name. And He just doesn’t call us by name, He stands by us so that we will not be overwhelmed by the rivers we must cross or the fires that we may endure. Isaiah reminds us through his words that God places us in a unique position and that He will be there by our side, no matter what may happen. (Adapted from "Naming names" by Jack Good, in Christian Century, 27 December 2003)

If we are to revitalize Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church and I think that that is the proper term, we must remember why people gathered together in those first Methodist societies some two hundred and fifty years ago. We must begin to see that what brought them together was a chance to be part of a community that practiced what it truly believed. The presence of this church in this time must reflect that same belief. It will call for each of us to look at who we are and listen for the call of Christ, asking if we are ready to follow Him.

It begins with our journey to the communion rail this morning. We are reminded that this communion is given to all, not simply to a select group. We are reminded that the only qualification for coming to this communion is that you have an open heart, willing to accept the presence of Christ as your Savior.

Christ gathered with His disciples that evening in the Upper Room, not as a teacher with his pupils but as a friend among friends. He told them that day that as long as they remembered the traditions that he was setting forth that night, He would always be with them. The prophet Isaiah told us that God would be there right by our sides no matter what the problems might be. You are invited to come to the table side by side with your friends and neighbors in this community of Christ. You are challenged to reach out to those not here today and bring them in.

All In The Family

Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 7 January 2001. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.


All through my preparation for this sermon I kept asking myself why Jesus would come to John the Baptist and asked to be baptized. After all, as John himself said, Jesus had no need to be baptized for He was without sin.

To answer this question, we have to first understand the nature of the baptism that John was offering. The Jews of that time were familiar with the baptism of Gentile proselytes to Judaism but what John the Baptist was doing was something totally new and different. John was asking those who were baptized to renounce their old way of life and prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus neither had to prepare His heart nor did He have to renounce His sins. But by being baptized by John, Jesus joined those who had been baptized. In doing so, Jesus also showed his support for John’s ministry and message of repentance. Finally, it fulfilled the Father’s will as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of the Dove.

It is important to understand the importance of Jesus’ baptism to His own ministry. For it showed to the people that Jesus’ ministry was for them.

It is possible that Jesus could have accomplished what He came to do on this earth, but it would not have had the same impact. Leaders who cannot do what they ask their followers to do often are not leaders very long. And the people knew that Jesus was true to His word. And Jesus’ actions were backed by His words.

Jesus sought common ground with us. Walking in handmade leather sandals, scraping his knuckles working with the wood in his father Joseph’s wood shop, he sought the common ground with us. I suppose that he would have impressed more people had He appeared in more kingly attire or draped in armor prepared to battle, or with the halo the size of the rings of Saturn. But those who He converted who have been converted out of awe and fear, not on the relationship of love between the Father and His children, which is wanted he wanted.

He did not come to this earth hurling thunderbolts though his disciples often urged him to do so. He did not point out the numerous flaws, sins, and inadequacies of those around him though they were obvious to many. He sought the common ground with people so that He could reach them, so that He could teach them and love them where they were, not where He was.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus made it clear that his message was for all, not just a select few. The Jewish leadership of that time was particularly incensed that Jesus would preach such a message of openness. After all, they had preached that salvation could only come through a strict adherence to the law and an upholding to common societal values. Only those who understood the law and followed it religiously should be allowed to enjoy salvation. To preach a Gospel message of hope and promise to all was totally out of the question.

And I admittedly say this was a certain degree of sarcasm because it seems that many religious leaders today preach the same message. The church today often fails because it too often holds to its old ways, of telling people that the way to salvation is the way that they describe, not by letting Christ into one’s heart.

Only instead of following the law, there is a rigid belief that you must follow. In parts of the church today, there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life. In doing so, they draw their own sharp boundaries between the righteous and the sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many which very earnestly seek to be faithful to the Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of the Scripture that Jesus Himself challenged and opposed. If we are to interpret the Scriptures in a manner that is faithful to Jesus, it must be with compassion in our hearts, not an adherence to laws and structure.

If we profess that the church is to be a sanctuary for those who seek peace and freedom, how can we then turn around and shut our doors to them? The Samaritans had been shut out of worshipping in Jerusalem because they were not considered pure enough to enter the Temple. Peter and John, as we read in the second lesson this morning, were the official messengers from Jerusalem sent to tell the Samaritans what had occurred at Pentecost. The Samaritans had to know that salvation came from the Jews; the Jews, in turn, had to understand that the same salvation had come to the Samaritans. With the tremendous hatred that existed between the Samaritans and the Jews, God demonstrated to both sides that they could and would be united as one church. The dependence of the Samaritans upon the Jews to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit was the healing sign that the two sides were to become one. When Peter later preached to the Gentiles, they immediately believed and received the gift of the Holy Spirit without the laying on of hands. This served as a sign to the Jews that the same gift was being given to the Gentiles as well. The Holy Spirit was the unifying factor that would bring the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles into one body.

The passage from Isaiah is a good one to begin the year with. It is about the return of God’s children. When we meet at Charge Conference in four weeks, we will set as our primary goal for the coming year, the goal of "remembering" all of those members of this church, of this family of God, who, for whatever reason, have stopped attending.

Some of these cannot attend because they live elsewhere or are physically unable to come. Through visitation and the newsletter, we can still let them know that they are not forgotten.

For those who have stopped attending, we need to make every concerted effort to let the know that they haven’t been forgotten and that they are still a part of this church family.

Those where God’s words to the people of Israel back then; they are God’s words to us this day. Even when you feel lost and forgotten, God never forgot you. Even when everything seemed hopeless and the obstacles too great to overcome, God will be there to help you. And by sending His son, who paid the ultimate price with His blood for our salvation, God showed that He was prepared to pay the price to get us home.

The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.

And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, "I called you our from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life."

The Power of Water

Here are my thoughts for January 7th, The Baptism of the Lord Sunday. I know that they are late but we were preoccupied with the birth of our latest granddaughter, Casey.
A question that I used several years ago in my science methods classes was, “What are the two most important liquids in west Texas?” Generally, my students (being from west Texas) understood that the answer which I was looking for was “water and oil.” For without the one, the other was not possible. I have thought about this question in the context of other localities and I think that one could easily argue that water is the most important liquid in our lives.

From a personal standpoint, without water, we would not live very long. From an historical standpoint, it was the waterways of this country that helped the economic development of this country. And for a long time in our country’s history, it was the fact that our eastern and western boundaries were large oceans that offered some degree of security. Of course, it might be pointed out that these two oceans also lead to a degree of close-mindedness in our country. Having these natural barriers lead us to believe that we were cut off from the rest of the world and that we could use the oceans to cut off the rest of the world from us.

Water has always played a major role in our lives. Abram, before he became Abraham and the father of many nations, lived in the part of the world that we have come to call the “Fertile Crescent”. We do so because it was a crescent shaped land bound by two major rivers of ancient civilizations, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The silt carried by the waters of the rivers led to an abundance of food.

And when individuals such as Abram or later Jacob, Joseph, and the Israelites, would begin their travels to and from the Promised Land, it was the location of the wells that would define their journey. Before the people of Israel cried out for food, they cried out for fresh water. It would be the barrier of the Red Sea that would demonstrate God’s power to liberate people and it would be the Red Sea that would protect the Israelites as they began their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land from the Pharaoh’s armies.

The Old Testament reading for today (1) tells of God’s children returning. God, through Isaiah, reminded the people of Israel that He called them by name. And He just doesn’t call us by name, He stands by us so that we will not be overwhelmed by the rivers we must cross or the fires that we may endure. Isaiah reminds us through his words that God places us in a unique position and that He will be there by our side, no matter what may happen. (2) We may fear the power of the water, remembering how the Israelites felt when they first approached the Red Sea and when they watched the Egyptian armies drown in the turbulent waters. But we are told that God will be with us and that we need not fear the power of the water.

It is the power of the water that allows John the Baptist to baptize people and call for their repentance. (3) Those that heard John’s call of baptism knew that Gentile proselytes who wished to convert to Judaism needed to be baptized. But some were having problems understanding the need for baptism as a way of renouncing their old way of life and as a preparation of the coming of the Messiah.

The people of John’s time would have heard a message that said that salvation came only through a strict adherence to the law and an upholding of common societal values. Only those who understood the law and followed it religiously would be allowed to enjoy salvation.

Now, Jesus did not need to either prepare His heart or renounce His sins before being baptized by John. But by doing so, He joined those who had been baptized. He showed His support for John’s ministry and message of repentance. And it was seen by all that Jesus’ baptism was a fulfillment of His Father’s will as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove.

There is probably no doubt that Jesus could have accomplished what He was going to do on this earth without this baptism but it would not have had the same impact. Leaders who cannot do what they ask their followers to do are not leaders for very long. In His baptism, those who followed Jesus understood that Jesus was true to the Word and that His words were backed by His actions.

Jesus sought common ground with us. He might have impressed more people if He had dressed more like a king than a peasant or perhaps dressed in armor and prepared for battle. He might have made more of an impression if he hurled thunderbolts at those who argued against Him; His disciples often wanted Him to do just that. He certainly would have been more like the leaders of the time if He had pointed out the numerous and obvious flaws, sins, and inadequacies of the people around Him.

But then people would have followed Him more out of fear and awe, not because of the love that exists between the Father and His children. By ignoring the trappings and glory that many wished that He would have, Jesus was better able to reach those around Him. He came to them, not the other way around.

In Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded that His message was all the people, not just some of the people. The leadership of the time would repeatedly complain because Jesus preached a message of openness and inclusion. They preached a message of strict adherence to the law. The message of hope and promise contained in the Gospel was totally out of the question.

It is important for us today to remember what Jesus’ baptism represents. The church fails today because it often holds to the old way, of telling people that the way to salvation is the way they, the leaders, describe and not by letting Christ into one’s heart. The Epistle reading for today (4) reminds us what happens when one group of people exclude another group.

The Samaritans had been shut out of worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem because they were not considered by the leaders in Jerusalem to be pure enough. There was also a disagreement about where the Temple should have been located. As a result, generation after generation had been taught to view the other as incapable of receiving God’s grace.

Peter and John, as we read in the Epistle reading, were sent by the early church in Jerusalem to tell the Samaritans what had occurred at Pentecost. The Samaritans had to know that salvation came from Jesus and that the salvation that Jesus offered was open to all, not just a select few. In sending Peter and John, God was saying that Jews and Samaritans alike could and should be united in one church.

Isaiah’s words today tell us that we are not forgotten by God. Even when everything seems hopeless and the obstacles of life are too great to overcome, God is right here t o help you. By sending His son to pay the ultimate price of His blood for our salvation, God showed that He was prepared to pay the price to bring us home.

In a world that seems to focus more on exclusion and close-mindedness, Christ offers an acceptance. In a world that denies individuals dignity and self-respect, it can be found through Christ. In being baptised by John in the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus showed to us the power of water that allows us to begin anew.

Throughout the ages, communities have been founded on the shores of rivers, lakes, and streams. People came because of the power of water. So too is it the power of water that allows our community to open up and welcome people in, not shut them out.
(1) Isaiah 43: 1 – 7
(2) Adapted from “Naming names” by Jack Good, in Christian Century, 27 December 2003
(3) Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
(4) Acts 8: 14 – 17