The Days We Remember


As I began this piece, I thought of a piece by the Beatles, “There are places that I remember.”  This is a very appropriate song for someone who has grown up in so many places and met so many people along the way.

But I also see my journey through time and space in terms of dates, days of special importance to me.

We all have a set of dates that we remember.  Birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions are a part of our memory.  They are dates on the calendar that mark the high points (and sometimes low points) of our lives.

I will always remember that December 23, 1950, was the date of my baptism.  I will always remember that on February 14, 1965, I became a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the 1st UMC) of Aurora, Colorado).

And I have the letter dated March 7, 1966, that told me that I was accepted into the High School Honors Program at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).

I cannot forget July 7, 1973, or June 7, 1976, as those are the birthdays of my two daughters (Melanie Mitchell-Wexler and Meara Lee Mitchell).  And I had better not forget April 22, 1943, as that is Ann’s birthday or July 17, 1999, as that is our anniversary.

Despite their importance in my life, I do not remember the date of my high school graduation in 1968, my graduation from Truman in 1971, or my graduation for the University of Missouri in 1975.  I remember that it rained the night of my high school graduation, so our after-graduation celebration was somewhat muted.  I remember that my graduation from Missouri was on a Saturday afternoon in August and how there had been finals that morning and there were perhaps a few people in attendance who really hadn’t graduated.  I suspect that I do not remember those dates because I was expected to graduate.

I would like to say I remember receiving my doctorate from Iowa but the administration of the university where I worked wouldn’t let me travel to Iowa City, so there is no ceremony to remember.

June 6th has a double meaning for me.  If the notes I have concerning my grandfather’s military career are correct, he was going to be promoted to brigadier general and would have commanded a unit that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944.  But a recurring ulcer forced him to retire in 1943 and I would get a chance that many did not to know him, if but for a few years.

Senator Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet on June 6, 1968.  I was in school at Truman, so the impact of his death was not as direct or powerful as what had transpired two months earlier on April 4, 1968.

On that Thursday, four days before the beginning of Holy Week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.  His assassination had perhaps a bit more of an impact on me as I was living in Memphis at the time.

Slightly over one year later, I would be standing next to the leadership of the Association of Black Collegians during a sit-in of the administration building at Truman (an act that did not please my parents).  I had experienced the effects of segregation while growing up in Alabama and Tennessee, so I could not stand by when some of my college friends were treated in the same manner (see Side by Side).

It was also at that time that I began to gain a better understanding of what it meant to be a Christian (see “The Changing of Seasons”).

In a few days (depending on when you read this), we will begin Holy Week (Palm Sunday is April 10th and Easter Sunday is April 17th).

These dates are on our calendar because someone two thousand years ago wanted us to remember what happened.

They wanted us to remember the joy and celebration that occurred when Jesus entered the city on the day that we now call Palm Sunday. 

They wanted us to remember the anger that Jesus expressed when he threw the money changers out of the temple on Tuesday of that week.

They wanted us to remember the bewilderment they felt when they heard Jesus speak of His broken body and shed blood during their last meal together.

They really didn’t want to remember how the crowds that cheered on Sunday jeered on Friday or the sadness they felt as they saw Jesus crucified.

They really didn’t want to remember watching Jesus die on the Cross or the fear they felt because they thought that the political and religious authorities would now be looking for them.

And they really did not want to remember the feeling of hopelessness that engulfed them on Saturday as Jesus lay in the tomb and it appeared that all they had worked for the past three years seemed to be for naught.

But most important of all, they wanted us to remember the joy and excitement that came with hearing that Jesus had risen from the dead that Easter Sunday.  And they wrote this all down so that those who were not there then and people for years to follow would know what had taken place those three years in the Galilee.

They wanted us to know about the people who were healed, of the people brought back to society after being cast aside, of bringing hope and a promise to those who were lost and forgotten.

Each generation has taken the words written down some two thousand years ago and added to the story.  What will we be adding?

Will the people of the church remember what Jesus said that day in Nazareth when he began his ministry?

“The Lord’s spirit is on me;

He has ordained me to break the good news to the poor people.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the oppressed,

And sight for the blind.

To help those who have been grievously insulted to find dignity;

To proclaim the Lord’s new era.”

(Luke 4: 18 – 19, The Cotton Patch Gospels)

Will the people of the church remember that Jesus came, not to enforce the law, but to bring life to the law?  Will they remember that what Jesus offered gave them a path to God that the religious authorities denied them?

Will the people remember the church as being people-centered or for maintaining the status quo?

Today, some two thousand years later, I am not sure that people remember that Jesus turned no one away, that he felt compassion for all, and that he forgave those who persecuted Him.  There are many who call themselves Christian, but they do not fear the religious and political authorities for they have sought to become those individuals.  Their only desire is to persecute those who do not believe as they do or might question the tenets of faith that they hold dear.

Today, I am not sure what my classmates remember about that April day in 1968.  From comments that I have seen from some of them on Facebook, the death of Dr. King had no effect on their lives.  All the work that was done to achieve equality for all is slowly being taken apart by those who believe there is no equality among people, and they are superior.

And yet the equality the Civil Rights movement sought, and for which many died, has its very roots in the equality that Jesus sought.

Will the church be remembered for preaching that the Gospel message was for all the people and or for preaching a message of exclusion and hatred?

Will the people of the United Methodist Church remember that it was the early Methodists who started the first schools for children, who created credit unions to help the working class, provided free health care clinics to people who could not afford health care, or that they fed the hungry and visited the prisoners in jail?

Will the church be remembered for welcoming immigrants because we were once immigrants, or will it shun the immigrants because it does not want to remember?  And will people remember that those who laid the foundation of our faith were once immigrants as well?

Will the church of today be remembered as the church that fostered scientific inquiry or the church that stifled it?  Will the church be remembered for caring for God’s creation or will be it remembered for allowing it to be destroyed through war and neglect?

We have spent the last forty days preparing for this time. 

We stood at that altar at one point in our life and gave our lives to Christ.  Are we disciples of Christ or merely admirers of His work?

Are we willing to stand before the world and say, “I am a Christian!  I may not want to do the work before me, I may not want to feed the hungry; I may not want to find shelter for the homeless or clothes for the needy; I am in no position to give comfort or support for those in pain and I certainly do not want to fight oppression and persecution.  But that is what I am called to do and that is what I shall do.

On the day when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, how will you be remembered?


Notes:

Dreams of the Present, Visions of the Future | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/dreams-of-the-present-visions-of-the-future/

“This Is the Place” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/this-is-the-place-2/

Where Were You On April 4, 1968? | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com)https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/where-were-you-on-april-4-1968/

“Let Us Finish What We Started” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/let-us-finish-what-we-started/

“This First Easter”


Here are my thought for this Easter Sunday,12 April 2020 (Year A)

This piece is entitled “This First Easter” because it is, for me, one of many “first” Easters. 

For most of us, this will be an Easter where we will not be in our church but, because of technology, we will still be able to celebrate the Risen Christ.  We will know that our friends will be celebrating with us, but we will not be with them to celebrate. While I appreciate the technology that allows us to celebrate Easter, I miss the interaction of the people that comes from meeting together and, perhaps, gives more meaning for the day.

And as I thought about this being a “first Easter”, I also thought about other “Easters” in my life.

My first Easter would have been March 25, 1951. As I was just six months old, I really don’t know much about that day.

There was the Easter that I celebrated in 1969.  As I describe in Our Father’s House”, I was a student at Northeast Missouri State College and about to go home in Memphis for spring/Easter break.  I knew that I would be in church with my family on Easter Sunday, it was not my church (it was the church I attended while in high school) and that didn’t feel right.

So I went to the pastor of 1st UMC in Kirksville, Marvin Fortel, and asked if I could take communion before I left town for the week.  He agreed to do that and we met in the chapel of the church. And it was then I began to have a better understanding of what my faith meant.  It was a conversation that I have remembered over the years (see my notes in “The Changing of the Seasons”).

A few years later I was in Lexington, North Carolina for the funeral of my maternal grandmother, Clatie Hunt.  I flew out to North Carolina on Maundy Thursday and stayed for the wake and the funeral on April 3, 1972.  The next day, April 4, 1972, was Easter Sunday and I flew back to St. Louis and drove back to my home in northeast Missouri.  This was, to the best of memory, the only time I was not in a church on Easter Sunday.

In recalling these two Easter Sundays, one where I celebrated Easter on the day of the Last Supper one where I could not be in church, I realized that there were many Easter Sundays where I don’t remember if I was in church or not.  But this was the period that I have come to call my “wilderness years” so it is understandable that I would not remember.

But as I wondered in the “wilderness” I also began to remember the covenant I had made with God in 1965 when I earned the God & Country award in scouts.  And so it was that I began to be more active in the church, making sure that, at least on Boy Scout Sunday, I was the lector. I began to sing in the choir again and, in 1991, received the call to be a lay speaker.

On Palm Sunday in 1997 (March 30), I became part of a pastoral worship team serving two small rural United Methodist Churches in Mason, Tennessee.  In 1998 I would move from Memphis to Whitesburg, KY. I was asked to become the lay pastor for the Neon UMC in November, 1998.

On April 4, 1999, I would celebrate “The First Easter” as a lay pastor.  In the message I gave for that Sunday, I would use a story written by Thomas G. Pettepiece that was in my Prayer Guide.

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of a dead girl came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

This was Pettepiece’s first Easter in jail.  I do not know why he was in prison or where he was in prison, though the use of “gaol” suggests he was in Ireland.  I would use this same story a few years later in “The Message Is Clear”.  Thomas Pettepiece’s daughter discovered this writing of her father but could not offer any information about what he might have been doing.

So on this First Easter, we are much like Pettepiece and the other prisoners, separated from our church and our family.  And in our separation, we cannot even celebrate the “Communion of the Empty Hands.” On a Sunday when we should be celebrating the Risen Christ, we have a sense of sadness and our view of the future is shrouded in a cloud of gloom and despair.  We have to ask ourselves if there will ever come a time when we will again be a physical community of believers.  As we gather collectively on the Internet, we have to wonder what the future will be.

And if we stop for a moment, we can realize that these are the same feelings that the disciples and followers had some two thousand years ago.  Two thousand years ago, the disciples were in hiding, knowing that if they were seen in public, they were likely to be arrested and suffer the same fate as their Teacher and Friend; as they woke up that first Easter morning, they must have thought that there was no future.  After three years with Jesus, how were they ever going to go back to the old life?  What will the future hold?

Today, as we watch the sun rise over the eastern horizon, we know that the Tomb is empty and the Son of God has risen.  It would take a few hours on that First Easter before the disciples got the word from Mary and the other women of that news.

And because we do know that the Tomb is empty, we can, even separated, celebrate the Risen Christ.

Whether this is one’s First Easter or one of many, it is beginning of a season.  As I thought and pondered about these words, I also realized that there will be days when in the solitude of our own room, we will feel the presence of the Lord, just as the disciples did in the Upper Room.  Some may say that this is a simply a hallucination but then again, I am pretty sure that people said the same thing back then.

And as we find ways to take private walks in the woods, we are most likely to encounter Jesus in much the same manner the disciples did on the road to Emmaus. 

In the coming days and weeks, as we begin to return to the world, we will, as the disciples and followers did, discover Jesus Christ is here, with us.  We approached this First Easter with caution and possibly fear.  We asked ourselves how we could celebrate the Risen Christ when we ourselves have been separated.  And yet when this day is over, we know that we have been given the opportunity to reconnect with Christ, much in the way the disciples did two thousand years ago.

And no matter when it might occur, we will have a gathering of family, friends, and neighbors, much as the followers celebrated the Day of Pentecost.

The world tomorrow will not be the same as it was two months ago.  Much has been discovered about our society and our world that has long laid beneath the surface.  The cry for the Presence of Christ, so long quiet, has become very loud.  Some will try to return to the “old days” and quiet the voice, just as their predecessors tried to do two thousand years ago.

Even as we are apart from family, friends, and neighbors, we are again one with Jesus and we will hear the call that came to the followers at Pentecost to take the Gospel message, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and free the oppressed.  Take this “First Easter” to reconnect with Christ.

“The Jerusalem Weather Forecast”


Some thoughts for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019 (Year C)

It has long been said that if you did not like the weather in Missouri, you should just wait a hour or so and it would change.  It very well may be that the weather in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago was like that.

In the homes of the religious and political authorities, the day beckoned bright and early.  The trouble maker from Nazareth was dead and buried in a tomb with guards around the entrance to ensure no one bother the body.  One more threat to their power and position had been dealt with; order and the rule of law had been restored and all was right with their world.  It was going to be a bright and sunny day.

But in other parts of Jerusalem, in the homes and places where the followers of Jesus were hiding, it appeared that the day was going to be dark and dreary.  Their leader, their teacher, their friend was dead and buried in a tomb with guards around the entrance .  Denied a proper burial two days before, the authorities were ensuring that Jesus would never get a proper burial.  And they, the followers of Jesus, were almost certain to be arrested, tried for the same charges as Jesus, and just as easily crucified.  This day was most definitely going to be dark and dreary.

But within one hour of sunrise, the forecast for the day and perhaps the future changed.  Fostered by the hope that accompanied the ministry of Jesus, some of the women went to the tomb, hoping to complete the burial process.  And then they discovered the empty tomb, they discovered that Jesus was not dead but had arisen.  A day that might have been dark and dreary was going to be bright and sunny as the Son had risen.

Today, the weather forecast might be very similar.  For the traditionalists in the church, the rule of law has been restored.  No longer is the church in chaos but in order.  No longer are there threats to the traditions of the church.  But the laws that have been passed are laws that restrict and deny; they are laws that are contrary to the very nature of Christ’s mission.

But, just as two thousand years ago, the Son rose and illuminated the world, so too does His Resurrection illuminate the world today.  The voice of the oppressed and the rejected cannot be silenced just because a set of laws has been passed that say the oppressed and rejected must be silent.

The law said that Jesus was dead but Jesus was alive; the law that said the body must die has been rejected by Christ.

The women who came to that Tomb that morning two thousand years ago could not be silenced, even the laws of society told them to be silent.

Those who followed Jesus then were considered outlaws, subject to the laws that would lead to crucifixion.  Today, just as then, the outlaws are telling the traditionalists that Christ defeated their attempts to silence Him and they could not be silenced.  Even as the traditionalists claim victory, we know that it is the outlaws who triumph.

Today, the Son is rising and no matter what clouds might be in the air, it will be a bright and shiny day.  For in the brightness of the Son, we see a newer and clearer world, a world in which all are welcome, that the oppressed are set free, the rejected welcomed, the sick healed, the hungry feed, and the homeless find shelter and sanctuary.

The statement of the Resurrection is that one can no longer hold onto the traditional view of life and death, of sin and freedom.  We are reminded that laws designed to restrict and oppress never work.  The rules and laws of God’s Kingdom may be hard to understand but we have been given the freedom to seek that understanding and not rely on the whims and nature of others.

On this day, no matter what it may be, this day will be bright and sunny because the Son has risen.

Across the Universe: Redating Easter? – The Catholic Astronomer


This column first ran in The Tablet in January 2016 The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has recently [2016] announced discussions to redefine the date of Easter. Pope Francis and various leaders of Eastern churches have also expressed interest in a common date that all churches would celebrate together. Easter was originally the Sunday following Passover, the first full moon of the Hebrew year. But the start of the Hebrew year varied from year to year. Jewish months, 29 days long, mirror the phases of the moon, and so every three or four years an extra month is needed to keep that lunar calendar in phase with the seasons. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, there was no central Jewish authority to determine when to add that month. Instead, Jews of the Diaspora relied on a Greek formula (devised in 432 BC by Meton) to add seven intercalary months over a repeating 19 year cycle. It was … Continue reading →

Source: Across the Universe: Redating Easter? – The Catholic Astronomer

“What Do We Do Next? – Thoughts on Easter, 2017


There are two parts to this message – the first being random thoughts on the preparation of a message; the second being the actual thoughts.  I think the first is needed to set the tone for the second.

Random Thoughts on The Preparation of a Message

The first few times that I gave a message I used specific scripture readings.  I was only preaching once or twice a year so this method worked (and it is something that I suggested beginning lay servants do as well).  This works well when you have sufficient time to prepare and think through what you want to say and do.

But I quickly found out that this didn’t work as well when you had to do it on a weekly basis.  (The first lay speaking assignments that I received were on a multi-week basis and not spot assignments; not the assignments a typical lay servant would receive today.)  So, I turned to the lectionary for the basis of my scriptures; first using the Common Lectionary outlined in The Guide to Prayer (published by the Upper Room) and then with the Revised Common Lectionary.

But whether I was using specific readings or readings from either lectionary, I wanted to make what I said a connection between the readings and what was taking place at that time and place.  I also made the decision to use all three of the lectionary readings (which is something that I have suggested beginning lay servants do not do).

But the Holy Week readings have always been, for the lack of a better word, a dilemma for me.  Over the years, I have begun to understand how it is all set up and the need to know what is happening at the church where I am to work out what I shall say.  And I came to the decision that works for me is to look at the complete story, not simply the story expressed by the Gospel writers.

I have, with unspoken thanks to others, also seen that there are other ways to give the message and have tried on occasion to take the message outside the confines of the pulpit.

And so, it is that I come to this Easter Sunday.

Thoughts on Easter Sunday, 2017

I assume that you, dear reader, are familiar with the Gospel readings for this Sunday (if not, the lectionary readings for today are Acts 10: 34 – 43; Psalm 118: 1 – 2, 14 – 24; Colossians 3: 1 – 4; and John 20: 1 – 8) so I am going to focus on the setting and the thoughts of those that were there and try to put where we are today, socially and spiritually, into that context.

Keep in mind that this day is a nexus.  It marks the end of one story and the beginnings of a new story.  We have the benefit of knowing this; those that were there that day do not.  But even today, we are faced with as much of an uncertain future as those who had followed Jesus two thousand years ago and, perhaps, we are, just as they may have been thinking then, wondering what it is that we do next?

Easter Sunday begins in a cloud of doubt and fear.  Jesus is dead, buried in the tomb, and the disciples are in hiding, fearful for their lives and not certain what, if anything they can do.  Everything they have done for three years has been destroyed.

Can they go home and pick up where they left off three years before?  Will they even be welcome?  What do they say to those who question their friendship and devotion to one now considered by religious and political authorities to be rebel and a criminal?  Can it ever be safe to talk about what they did when someone asked them where they have been or what they have been doing?

And what of all the people with whom they worked or encountered?  What do they say to all those people who were healed, fed, or comforted?  Was it a trick or a con?  What will they say to those who come to them now, seeking the same healing, the same comfort, or seeking to be fed?

Right now, the only answer that they have is that HE is not here anymore so you must go somewhere else.

Is this not how so many of us feel today?  We see our world being destroyed.  Our land is being taken away by corporate and political systems our water, our air is being poisoned, often with the support of religious authorities.  Religious and political authorities seemingly want to tell us what to think and how to act (all while they themselves think they are immune to the same laws).

And the church, which in the past was a sanctuary of hope for those without hope, a refugee for those cast out by society, has become a mirror of the church two thousand years ago, exclusive and restrictive, saying to many, “go away, you do not belong here and you are not welcome.”

The person who is called Jesus in these churches is not the Jesus who lives in me.  I do not know the person who would say to any person, “go away or you are not worthy.”  I do not know the person who would say that wealth is good and one should see all one can, even if it means that others go hungry or become sick or have no place to live.

The Jesus that I know, the Jesus that is in my heart and soul is the one who let the children come to Him at a time when children were ignored.  The Jesus I know feed the hungry, even when it seems as if there was not enough for one person.  The Jesus I know healed the sick, even when doing so would make it impossible for Him to enter the Temple because he had become unclean.  The Jesus I know looked at the person and not the law; he gave meaning to hope.

And somehow, I think those where the thoughts that had to have been in the minds of the disciples and the followers that first Easter morning.  And yet they were probably also asking what they were going to do next.

And then it happened.  The word came, first with uncertainty but then with clarity that the tomb was empty and Jesus was not there!  The word was passed from one to the next that He was alive and all that He had said and done for three years was did, in fact, have meaning.  And it meant that there was a future.

It would be a future that became a vision and then a reality, first by the Twelve and those that were there at the beginning, then by Paul, and then by generation after generation of believers until today.  It would be a message that reached the limits of the known world.

It would be a future expressed by John Wesley.  In a world of danger and despair, of revolution and revolt, John Wesley would gather together a band of friends and work out a system that would offer hope.  It has been said that England at the time of John Wesley was on the verge of the same violent revolution that swept over and through France.  And yet, England remained calm, perhaps because John Wesley saw that the way to avoid violence was to remove the causes of violence.

How is today not unlike the world in which Jesus began His ministry or the world that John Wesley saw when he began what became known as the Methodist Revival?

And, on this day, when our doubts and fears are removed as easily as the stone was rolled away from the tomb, is it not clear what we must do?

It will take more than one day (remembering that Easter is a season and not just a single day on the church calendar).  It will take a lot of effort; even if Jesus had not predicted the violent deaths of all but one of his disciples, I am sure that they knew it would not be easy.

It will make us outcasts in society but no more so than John Wesley who would be barred from preaching in churches or even the early Methodists in this country who could not build churches of their own.

But we who know the truth know in that truth we will be set free.  And we know that what we do will change the world, even if we are not here when that change comes.

So, we remember why Jesus came and we remember that death could not keep him imprisoned.  We remember that the lives of people were changed two thousand years ago and through the ages until today.  And then we will know what we must do.

Would You Go? An Easter Meditation


A Meditation for 27 March 2016, Easter Sunday (Year C).

For me, the Easter story begins just before Sunday on Good Friday. It is the beginning of the Sabbath and Jesus has died. Jewish custom dictates that the dead need to be buried before sundown. Normally, it takes a few days to die, but even so, the Roman authorities preferred to keep the bodies of those who were crucified on the crosses for several days as a subtle reminder to the population of what happens when you provoke the authorities. Tradition says that Joseph of Arimethea asked for and received permission to take Jesus’ body down so that, in accordance with Jewish burial customs, He could be buried.

What would you have done if Joseph of Arimethea had asked you to go with him to take Jesus’ body off the cross and place Him in the the tomb? Would you have gone with him? Would you have climbed up a ladder and help take the bloodied and broken body of your friend, your master, your teacher off the cross?

Keep in mind that if you did this you would have become ritually unclean and not allowed in the Temple until you were declared “clean” by the religious authorities, the same authorities who conspired with the Roman political authorities to condemn and execute Jesus. Would you have been willing to go with Joseph if you knew that it meant you would become an outcast in your own society?

And what if the one of the women had come to you that Sunday morning and asked for your help in completing the task of burial? In the rush to meet the rules that stated Jesus had to be buried by sundown on Friday, the body was not properly prepared. So the women’s role in burial was not completed and could not be completed until Sunday morning, after the Sabbath was over.

That is why the women went to the tomb that Sunday morning, to complete the burial tasks that should have been done two days before. Would you have gone with the women that Sunday morning to help in the task, perhaps to roll away the stone that closed the tomb, lift the body or other myriad little tasks?

And just as the men would have been ritually unclean because of what they had done, so too would the women have been ritually unclean. Would you have been willing to undertake tasks that would have made you “unclean” and would have kept you out of society until authorities allowed you to come back in?

Would you have been willing to help your friends do the “normal” things when someone died, especially when the one you were burying had been labeled, for all purposes, a radical, a reactionary, and a criminal? Would you not have worried that your actions would mark you in the same way. Would you have gone even if it meant you might be arrested and executed as well?

What would you have gained by helping your friends, for doing the right thing?

When I was in the Boy Scouts back in 1964, our Scoutmaster, Major Smith, was trying to find ways to increase Boy Scout related activities. The idea that he came up with was the “Scout of the Year” competition. It was a competition based on the accumulation of points for doing a variety of things (hiking, camping, riding one’s bike, community service, that sort of thing) that Boy Scouts typically did.

Now, some of the points one earned came from the normal schedule of the troop – regular attendance at troop meetings, camping trips, and so forth. But other activities were to be done outside the framework of the regular schedule.

But you could not simply go for a five-mile hike or a ten-mile bike ride on your own; you had to have someone go with you to verify that the task had been completed. Steve, a member of the troop who lived near me, decided that he wanted to win that award. So he enlisted my help. So, every time he wanted to ride his bicycle out to the missile sites outside Denver, he would ask me to come along. As it happened, I didn’t particularly care for such competition and probably wouldn’t have done much more than what I would normally do. But Steve was a friend and he needed my help, so I helped him out.

Now, while this is going on, I and two others were studying for the God & Country award at my church (which happened to sponsor the troop I was in). Part of our class responsibility was to serve as acolytes Sunday mornings.

So when the “Scout of the Year” competition began and we began reporting our activities, I and the other member of the class who was in the same troop (the third individual belonged to a different troop) reported that we had been an acolyte and got our points.

In effect, I was getting points without even trying (if one can consider doing two services on a Sunday morning not trying). This worked pretty well for me until other guys in the troop realized what I was doing and they began to ask about being an acolyte as well. As a result, my own point total started to drop as others began actively serving as acolytes. But, when that first God & Country class ended, a new class began with those who had been serving as acolytes being the members.

When the year was over, my friend Steve received the “Scout of the Year” award. Interestingly enough, I finished something like 5th which I thought was pretty good since I really didn’t try to win. Yes, I know that if I had put a little more effort into the process, I might have finished higher. I had received most of my points for doing things that I normally did.

Consider this – When the competition began, I had already begun my own journey with Christ and it was that journey that I was more interested in completing. The points I received in the troop competition were secondary. But those who saw the work that I was doing and what I received wanted to share in that reward as well. And in serving as acolytes, they all in one way or another began the decision about what journey they wanted to take. And when the competition was over, they continued on the journey with Christ.

Yes, I would much rather have kept the points I had earned for doing two services a Sunday two out of every three weeks. But it was also easy sharing the duties.

Now, when the summer of 1965 came, my family moved from Colorado to Missouri and a new path on my own personal journey opened up. I do not know what happened to those who I journeyed with during 1964 and 1965 or those whose journey began after mine. But I know that because of what I was doing, others began their own journey with Christ.

What does this all have to do with Easter Sunday? We know that the tomb is empty, that Christ has risen. In one sense, we were there with Joseph of Arimethea and the others when Jesus’ body was taken off the cross and laid in the tomb. In one sense, we were there with the women on that First Easter Sunday morning when we discovered that the tomb was empty. We made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, even knowing that it could make us an outcast in society.

We know that He is very much alive in our hearts, our minds, and our lives. And what we know is that our lives are very much different because of this. Our lives have changed in a way that others will see.

And now, on Easter, we are asked to continue the journey, to go from this place into the world, to show by what we say and do that Christ is alive. Some may think that we must make that special effort, that extra step to do this. But all we are asked to do is lead this new life in Christ.

Some think that we must push our friends to accept Christ, that we must castigate them and tell them of all the bad and terrible things that will happen to them if they don’t accept Christ as their Savior. But that wasn’t what Jesus did when He walked the back roads of the Galilee.

Jesus never asked those He healed or gave comfort to who they were or if they were somehow qualified to accept His blessings and touch. He never said that they had to follow Him once they were healed, though many would do so. His was a life that restored hope and promise to the people. His was a life that lifted people out of despair and turmoil.

Does your life reflect that same opportunity? Do you, because Christ is in your life today, help to lift people out of despair and turmoil? In the end, all we are asked to do is live our lives in such a way that it is evident that Christ is a part of our life. That is all Christ ever wants us to do when we walk with Him and to love others as He has loved us.

On this day, when we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, we are asked if we are prepared to continue the journey that began when He asked the Twelve to follow Him. Are we prepared to go beyond the cross and the tomb, out into the world, to lead a life that shows that Christ is alive and that there is victory over sin and death, that there is hope in a world that doesn’t offer hope?

And so the question comes from a friend, from a teacher, from Christ, “Would you go with me?”

“The Meaning Of This Day”


Today is April 4th. It is that day between Good Friday and Easter. Some call it “Black Saturday”, others don’t call it anything at all. I have never understood why, from at least a liturgical standpoint, we don’t do anything on this day. I wrote a piece entitled “The Missing Day” a few years ago that tried to put into words what I thought took place that day (I have since tried to turn it into a play and if you are interested, let me know).

But the significance of this day is not just in its place on the liturgical calendar. Next year, because of the uniqueness of the Easter calendar, this missing day will March 26. It will still be the day between Good Friday and Easter but it will not have the same significance as today, April 4th, might have to some, myself included.

On this day in 1969 I would have been either on my way from Kirksville, Missouri, to Memphis, Tennessee, or already in Memphis for Easter/spring break. I would have in my possession two books, Letters of a C. O. from Prison (Timothy W. L. Zimmer, The Judson Press, Valley Forge, 1969) and Faith In A Secular Age (Colin Williams, First Harper ChapelBook, Harper & Row, 1966).

These books were given to me by Reverend Marvin Fortel, my pastor at the 1st United Methodist Church of Kirksville, after our meeting and communion the day before I left for Memphis. I have read and used the Faith book so much that is has fallen apart and is held together by a strong paper clip. Reverend Fortel gave these books to me to help me understand some questions I had about the role of faith in society and what path I might take. ((I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in <Our Father’s House”.)

But the meaning of this day goes back one more year, to April 4, 1968, when I was a senior at Bartlett High School in Memphis, Tennessee. It was on this day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, shot for speaking out for the sanitation workers on strike in Memphis and for speaking out for equality, both racial and economic. As I have written elsewhere, I have no doubt that Dr. King would have also spoken out for gender equality as well. (My thoughts on this day are posted on “Where Were You On April 4, 1968?” and “On This Day”).

The meaning of this day in 2015 is perhaps an understanding that we haven’t moved towards the goals that were so clearly envisioned that spring in 1968, both in what took place in Memphis, and on the political trails with Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Sadly, the political vision that Robert Kennedy offered this country that spring will also be cut down by an assassin’s bullet some two months after Dr. King was assassinated.

We live in a society where the rich demand favors and politicians are so quick to give. We live in a society where many people think that the rich will share the wealth with them so that they too can be rich. We have accepted as economic truth that the wealth of the view will somehow trickle down to the masses but we fail to see the flow of money only goes one way and that is to the rich and not the poor.

We live in a society where you are not allowed to be who you are and often times assumed to be less than others because of the color of your skin or the nature of your relationships with others. We are quickly finding out that bigotry, racism, and inequality are the norms of society and not the outliers.

We live in a society where many people see religion and faith as either superstitious or antiquated thinking and others do everything in their power to ensure that view remains. I am not sure where we are going when faith and what one believes does more to harm than it does for good.

In 1968, we were just beginning to understand the role humans played in the care and upkeep of the environment. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River would once again catch fire and while as damaging as an earlier fire in 1952 (it turns out that the Cuyahoga River has had a history of catching on fire, dating back to 1868), would help us to understand, what it was that we were doing to the environment.

And yet today, there are those who would refute the evidence that shows what mankind is doing to its home planet, for to accept the evidence would mean a change in how we live.

As 1968 ended and 1969 began, we were on the verge of walking on the moon. There were those who envisioned the possibilities of moving beyond the moon and to the planets and perhaps the stars. But we stopped going to the moon and the vision of traveling to the stars is often only seen on television and in the movies.

We seem unwilling to create schools that produce thinkers and visionaries because such processes open the eyes of the youth to the truths of society. Education was once the means by which we could move forward; I am not sure what it has become today.

How long can we continue to live in a world where ignorance and greed dominate our thinking and, in the end, destroy not only mankind but the world on which we live?

What is the meaning of this day in 2015? For some, this day is the beginning of Passover and marks the beginning of the path to freedom. For some, myself included, this day is the day before Christ’s Resurrection and the triumph over sin and death. It too is the beginning of the path to freedom.

I hope that you will pause this day and begin to think about how it is that you can work for freedom and justice. This is not a day to keep the past as the present but to work so that the future can be reached.

How Come Easter Isn’t the Same Date Every Year?


Here is a very interesting discussion on why Easter is never the same date two years in a row (and a challenge to remember your math skills before there was a calculator).

A Grace-Filled Life

Since we have the date of Jesus’ birth (December 25) as a set date on the calendar, why isn’t Easter handled the same way? I am sure that for almost everyone it is a real challenge to figure out the month and day for our Easter celebration. Maybe the following will help clear it up. This comes from the web site of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod:

Q:  During our Bible study this past Sunday, someone asked how Easter can be on a different Sunday every year. Pastor said it had to do with the aligning of the moon, but didn’t know the exact reason why. Can you please explain how Easter Sunday is selected every year and the theological reasoning behind it?

A:  When it comes to figuring out the date for Easter, there is really no simpler way than just looking at the calendar for the upcoming year. But…

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“Meditations on an Easter Sunrise”


Here is the message I gave for the Easter Sunrise service on April 20, 2003, at the Tompkins Corners (NY) UMC. I used Mark 16: 1 – 8 as the Scripture reading.

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There is something about a sunrise that amazes me. Each sunrise of a given year will be different, perhaps because of the particular calendar date, perhaps because of the weather that day, and no doubt because of the location. A sunrise on the plains of Kansas will have characteristics and a beauty not found in a sunrise in Eastern Kentucky on the same day. And the sunrise of one day will have no indication of what the one tomorrow will be like.

And surely it must have been that way that first Easter some two thousand years ago. The women of Jesus’ ministry came to the tomb that morning in sorrow, for Christ had died on the cross some thirty six hours before and it was their task to complete the preparation of the body for burial. You must remember that Jesus had died at the end of Friday and there was not enough time that day for the proper preparations. So Mary and Martha came to that tomb to finish the task of preparing the body for burial.

They knew that there would be guard over the tomb, for the Pharisees and chief priests feared that someone would try to steal the body. They knew that there would be a stone in front of the opening to the burial chamber and they had no way of moving it. Coupled with the sadness they felt, it must have been a very emotional time for them on the occasion of sunrise.

But grief and sadness quickly changed to amazement and dismay when they came to the tomb and found the stone had rolled away and there was no guard. And there was greater dismay and perhaps even greater grief when they discovered that the body of Jesus was no longer there. For now, the task of completing the burial was impossible and the grieving could not be finished.

But the women are met by an angel who tells them not to fear or worry, for Jesus has risen, as He said He would. Now, their task is not to complete the burial but rather to tell the disciples what has happened. As John reported in his Gospel, Jesus then comes to Mary so that she will know that He is alive.

In the quickest of moments, the grief that began that day has changed to joy. Each of the disciples and all of the people in the ministry that Sunday must have felt the same way. The grief that they felt when their best friend died on Friday changes to joy and celebration. For some the change comes quickly, for others it was slow to occur. But through that day and through the coming days of the week, Jesus appears to each disciple, individually or in groups, to show that, yes, the resurrection is true.

No matter which of the Gospel readings you choose, there is that sense that this day will never be like any other. For the sorrow that began on Good Friday with the death of Jesus has now changed to joy with His Resurrection.

We gather here this morning in fellowship and celebration, with friends and family. We gather as a community united in our belief that the resurrection is the triumph of righteousness and a victory for life over sin and death. As we go out into the world this week, we take with us the joy that comes with the sunrise of this day, the celebration once again of Easter and Christ’s resurrection.

The Missing Day


This is not a “normal” Easter sermon.  First, I gave it on Saturday night at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY); second, I used the reading from the Psalms for Good Friday (Psalm 22) as the basis for part of the message.  I present to you today as the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew, a disciple and friend of Jesus Christ.  I have created a four-person play based on the reading from the Psalm and this manuscript (contact me if you would like to see a copy).

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This is a night of questions, questions that often do not have any answers. In the darkness, we feel lost and afraid, more afraid than anything else that there is no hope, no promise. It is a night in which God has counted the people and we feel as if we have been missed in the counting. Hear now a story about that first missing day.

We hear the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew as he sits alone.

The Sabbath has ended and though it is dark outside, people are making plans to return home. They have come to Jerusalem and celebrated Passover. Now it is time to return home, rejoicing in the celebration of God’s redemption of His people, of His delivering the people from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance to the Promised Land.

But in other, darkened corners of the city, there are some for whom there is no celebration. Followers of Jesus, they are fearful that they too will be hunted down and executed in the manner in which their Master, their Teacher, and their Friend had been.

Jesus had spoken of the cost that following Him would take and it was becoming apparent that it was a deadly cost. The disciple Judas Iscariot, angry over Jesus’ refusal to sell the ointment the woman had used to anoint Him, was now dead. Having realized what His betrayal of Jesus really meant and that the religious and political authorities had been him played for a fool, he killed himself.

There is a rumor that Peter was also dead. Peter, known for his strong will and impulsive character, had denied Jesus three times during the night that Jesus was arrested. No one could predict what the leader of the disciples, the man who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah but then just as quickly and meekly denied he had ever known Jesus.

And so the disciples hid in fear. Twelve hours after Jesus cried out, “My God! My God! What have you forsaken me!” they too wonder where God may be and if He had forsaken them. Has God abandoned them as He appears to have abandoned Jesus?

Where are you, God! Why did you let this happen? What is to become of us? Why have you left us in our time of need and despair? Where is the hope, the promise that we were told would be coming when we left our homes, our families and our livelihoods to follow Jesus? Did we not enter Jerusalem six days ago amidst shouts of acclamation and celebration? Why did the people turn against Jesus so quickly? Where are you, God? Am I among the missing now?

We believed He was the Messiah but now He is dead, buried in a tomb somewhere.

I feel like a fool for ever thinking that Jesus was the Messiah. I should have known there was some sort of trick involved when He told me He had seen me sitting under the tree studying the Scriptures that day three years ago.

What do I do know? Where do I go? Surely, I can’t go home. My family and friends will all laugh at me. ‘Nathaniel, how is that this Jesus could save others but he couldn’t save Himself?’ they will ask me. Surely a king would have an army to fight for him; where was Jesus’ army?

And you and those others you have been with, why you didn’t even try to stop the soldiers from arresting Jesus! You were asleep and then, when you awoke, you ran away! This Jesus of yours was no better than some of the magicians who travel through this town using their magic tricks like changing water into wine to amuse the people. I bet all those people who you say Jesus healed were fakes. We’ve seen them before, faking illness to extract money from the passers-by. Your Jesus was a fake but you are afraid to say it.

But He did heal the sick. I saw Him give sight to the blind and I saw how He helped the lame to walk; I was there with the crowds and I helped Him feed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. I saw Him change the lives of so many people; people whom were scorned and cast-out, people barred from entering the Temple because there was something wrong with them.

And He taught me how to do the same. He sent us out into the world and we did all the things that He did. But now He is dead, consider a rebel and radical, a threat to society. Can I even think that I can do all those things without Him by my side?

And I suppose that I will be barred from the Temple now because I chose to follow Jesus. Perhaps it is just as well; if Jesus was truly God’s Son and God left Him to die on that Cross, then why should I even think that I could go into God’s House, the Temple again? I wonder if God is even in the Temple anymore. Could it be that God let Jesus die because we kicked God out of the house?

Wasn’t that what it was all about? Didn’t Jesus cleanse the temple a few days ago because it was no longer God’s House? Maybe God isn’t in the Temple? If He isn’t in the Temple, then where is He?

How many times did Jesus speak of His Father and being with Him and He with Jesus? Did not God speak to the people when Jesus’ cousin baptized Him and say that this was my Son in whom I am well pleased? Were we as blind as all the others? What clues did we miss?

What was He said last week when He rescued Lazarus from that tomb? What were those words that He said the other night when we were gathered for the Passover meal? Could it be that Jesus is the Messiah as we have always believed? Could it be that Jesus is the Christ and we have not been forgotten?

But how do I find out? My friend, Thomas, would probably want proof that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead. And the only way that can be is if we see the empty tomb and we perhaps see Jesus, just as we saw Lazarus walk from his tomb. But with soldiers guarding the tomb, that won’t be easy.

Suddenly the cock crows and the sun rises on the third day. And a voice cries out, “Nathaniel, have you heard the news!”

It was my friend and fellow disciple, Peter. He was alright. It was obvious that his denial of Jesus two days ago and the death of Jesus had really shaken him but he was still the confident leader of our band. But I saw that he had changed, perhaps in ways that only time would be able to show. And then He gave me the good news; Jesus was not in the tomb! He had risen! He told me that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women in our group had gone to the tomb to see if they could properly prepare the body, since it was taken down in haste before the beginning of the Sabbath.

They had no idea what they were going to say to the soldiers or how they were going to roll away the stone that closed the tomb. But when they got there, the stone had been rolled away and the soldiers looked as if they had seen death itself.

Mary said that an angel was sitting on the stone and told her to not be afraid, that she wouldn’t find Jesus in the tomb because He was not there. As He had said, He had been raised from the dead and if she looked into the tomb, she would only see the where he had been laid. She and the others with her were to go and tell us, the disciples, what she had seen and what she had been told and that He would be with us in a few days. And as she ran to tell us, Jesus met her and confirmed all that the angel had said.

We would meet Jesus a few days later. In fact, we would meet Him several times in the coming days. And slowly, each of us, the disciples, our friends, our families, all who had been with him these three years would begin to understand just what it was we have been a part of and what we were being asked to do.

There is a day in my life that I wish were missing – it is that day that began when Jesus cried out in pain and agony and gave up His life; it ended on the third day when He arose from the dead and conquered sin and death so that we might live. It was a day of private pain and anguish; it was a day of loss and grief. It was more than the loss of a friend; it was a feeling that I had lost every thing.

Perhaps there has been a day like that in your life, a day in your life, a day when you think that God has forgotten you and thrown you to the world. It may be that you have felt this loss and you have come here tonight thinking perhaps you can find what you are missing. Understand what tomorrow, Easter Sunday, means.

It means a new beginning for all, not just a few. It means that God cares about each person, no matter where they are in life, how old they are, or even who they are. It means that no one need live a life with missing days, where there is no purpose or form to life.

With the rising of the sun to mark the new day and to illuminate the empty tomb, the Risen Son can say to all that there is a new hope, a new promise to one’s life. The call is made to all to rejoice in this new day, to see the Risen Christ.

The call will be made to others, like Nathaniel Bartholomew, Peter, James, John, Thomas and even Mary Magdalene, Mary and her sister Martha, to seek those who are missing, to go out into the world and tell the story. It is a call to let everyone know that no one should be missing in God’s world.

And though the world may be dark as we leave this place tonight, we know that the sun will shine tomorrow and the Son will rise. We rejoice in the day that tells us we no longer must endure missing days.