“What Comes After Baptism?”


This will be the “back page” for the Fishkill UMC bulletin this Sunday, Palm Sunday (Year A), 9 April 2017.

It should be noted that I have spoken of this incident on a number of occasions in the past.

One week after I found out that my understanding of Christianity was a little bit off (see What Does It Mean to Be Baptized?), I was told that my baptism as an infant didn’t count.  And, if I wanted to be saved, I needed to be baptized right then and there.

Without going into the details, these were not the best times for me and, quite honestly, I didn’t need that type of pronouncement for my future. So, I politely declined the offer of baptism.

Now, in one sense, the person who told me that was right.  Had I not be raised to understand the nature of my baptism or if I had not been given the opportunity to begin my journey of faith, then my baptism would have had no meaning.

But my parents raised me to understand what my baptism meant and gave me the opportunity to choose the path I wanted to walk.  But I didn’t do it alone; I was fortunate to have many ministers and lay people to serve as companions and mentors on this journey.

Our journey begins when we are baptized and we become part of a faith community.  Through our faith community, we find the path that we are meant to walk and because we are members of a faith community, we are there to help other begin and continue their own journey.

~ Tony Mitchell

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How Do We Do Palm Sunday?


A Meditation for 20 March 2016, Palm Sunday (Year C).

Here are my thoughts concerning Palm Sunday this year. I most certainly would like to hear your thoughts about what I have written.

For me, Palm Sunday is an enigma, if that is the right word to use. The theology and scriptures for this Sunday are well known and quite clear; it is how you “do” this Sunday that is sometimes confusing.

Let me begin by saying that I have done traditional Palm Sunday services. Time and place dictated that was what I would be doing. And I know that others, with time and experience on their side, might have a better understanding of what needs to be done.

In one aspect, one’s plans for Palm Sunday depend somewhat on the nature of the church where the service is being held. If you are only doing a Palm Sunday service and an Easter service with nothing during the week, then Palm Sunday actually becomes Passion Sunday and you have to cram an entire week’s worthy of noteworthy activity into one Sunday (something I tried to do with my monologue “Do You Understand?”).

But if you have scheduled services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, then you only have to concern yourself with what happened on Sunday and perhaps Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. And with the exception of what I thought happened on Tuesday (when Jesus threw the money-changers out of the Temple, at least in terms of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the Gospel of John has it happening at the beginning of the ministry rather than at the end), nothing much happens.

And through it all, there is Saturday, which I have come to call “The Missing Day”. I originally wrote this as a monologue but I have since worked on it to make it a short play with 4 characters to be performed on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; if you are interested, drop me a note and I will share what I have prepared.

The problem is that, other that what is written in the Gospels, we really don’t know much about what happened that week. Of course, when this was all happening, no one bother to take any notes and, as the age-old proverb goes, if it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist. So we are left with the memories of one or two people forty or fifty years after it all happened upon we can build our ideas and thoughts.

And that is what I think we need to do, especially on Palm Sunday. We need to put ourselves into the places of the disciples and their friends, of the people who stood on the streets laying down the palms and cheering, of some of the visitors who have come to Jerusalem for the first time in their lives.

Perhaps we need to put ourselves in the role of the political and religious establishment. There seems to be a sentiment in the writing that this was not the first time someone had entered Jerusalem during Passover proclaiming himself to be the new messiah. Some documentaries note that the Roman authorities always seemed to be on edge when it was Passover because that was a time of possible turmoil and unrest. I recall someone saying that while Jesus was entering Jerusalem on the donkey on one side of town, Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem on a fine white stallion in another part of Jerusalem. If this is correct, then the tensions throughout the whole city would have been high and the authorities and their personnel would have been on high alert.

Or perhaps we should do a more modern version of Palm Sunday, having Jesus come into our city or town. How would He be dressed? What sort of entourage would accompany Him? Would there be others, proclaiming themselves as the true messiah? Would others be calling for revolution and the overthrow of the government? And were would each one of us be in all of this? Given all that takes place in our city today, with the whole idea of Christianity under attack, by those who don’t believe and those whose belief is most certainly flawed, would we even care about what was to happen.

In the end, whatever we do for Palm Sunday, we have to understand that Palm Sunday is the first of eight days during which the world changes. Only one person understood that on that first Palm Sunday and many of those who were there that day would never understand.

Our challenge is not to simply “do” Palm Sunday; it is to understand that Palm Sunday begins a transition from simply watching the parade pass us by to becoming participants in the parade and then to become leaders of the new parade. How we do that will determine what Palm Sunday means to us.

Why Are We Cheering?


I received a call on Thursday to preach on Palm Sunday at Rowe UMC (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) UMC. I used Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11 as the Scriptures.

Several years I ago I received a request on a Thursday to fill in on the following Sunday. For a number of reasons I choose to open with the image of a baseball game in the bottom of the 9th inning and the outcome on the line. With the opening of the baseball season, at least from the standpoint of the St. Louis Cardinals a few days away, it would have been quite easy to do that again by using 6th game of the 2011 World Series, when the Cardinals were not one or two but three moments away from ignominious and shameful defeat (hey, I’m a Cardinal fan!). But because this is Palm Sunday I thought of another instance that was and is more appropriate for the moment.

As you can see from the three stripes on my robe, I hold a doctoral degree. If I had worn my hood, it would tell you that the degree is in science and that my school colors are black and gold. To be more specific I hold a doctoral degree in science education from the University of Iowa. And just as I am a fan and follower of the St. Louis Cardinals in victory and defeat; so too, am I a fan and follower of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes in victory and defeat.

In 2009, the Hawkeyes opened the football season with a home game against the University of Northern Iowa (or UNI). This was a typical home game where a big college invited a small college to come and play so that they, the big college, could achieve an easy victory. The small college accepted the invitation, knowing that defeat was inevitable but that it would come with a large check for the privilege and honor of being handily defeated.

That may have been the attitude of the Hawkeyes that day; that they were going to easily win this game and prepare for a more important game the following week against Iowa State University. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell the players from the University of Northern Iowa and, as the game progressed, the inevitable victory of the Hawkeyes over the Panthers seemed more and more unlikely.

And so it was, with seven seconds left in the game, the UNI Panthers found themselves trailing 17 – 16 but with a 1st down and the ball within easy field goal range. VICTORY was in their grasp! The ball was snapped; the holder quickly and precisely placed the ball; the kicker kicked the ball towards the goal posts and it appeared that an upset on the opening day was accomplished. But, wait, an Iowa defensive lineman got his hands on the ball and the ball was blocked. And as the Iowa fans cheered for the fantastic season saving play, the ball rolled on the ground until it was covered by a UNI player with one second left on the game clock.

As I wrote in my blog then (“Plays of the Day”), there was 1 second on the clock and the Iowa fans were jumping up and down cheering and celebrating. Those in the stands from UNI were probably cursing the football gods. But then a hush fell over the stadium.

The referee announced that, by rule, that UNI, not Iowa, retained possession of the ball. And now the UNI fans are cheering and the Iowa fans are cursing and booing. It is announced that the play is under review. Here’s the key to this – you have two football officials who are on the line of scrimmage. One of their responsibilities during a kick (punt, field goal, or try for point after touchdown) is to make sure that the ball crosses the line of scrimmage. If it doesn’t, then the kicking team can recover the blocked kick and retain possession. And guess what! That’s exactly what happened. The ball was blocked before it passed the line of scrimmage and it never crossed the line. So, by recovering the ball, UNI had another opportunity.

Now, with 1 second on the clock, Northern Iowa lines up to try another field goal. Remember that it was 1st down when they tried the first attempt so it is 2nd down for this attempt. And as before, the ball was snapped, the holder placed the ball, the kicker kicked the ball, and the Hawkeyes again blocked the kick. This time, the Iowa players fell on the ball and victory was achieved.

For me, that brief period in a football game some three years ago is much like this particular week in the life of the church. There is cheering and jubilation on Palm Sunday, slowly replaced by anguish, shock, dismay, and anger during the week, but culminating in cheering and jubilation on Easter Sunday. But were those who cheered on Palm Sunday really the ones who jeered on Good Friday; perhaps not.

Some notes that I came across while preparing this message suggested that the events of this day were the only time that Jesus organized the event. In the past, Jesus has always shied away from such celebration. But as Mark pointed out in his Gospel, this time He told His disciples to go and find the young colt for Him to ride into town. It would be logical, I hope, to then assume that those who cheered Jesus on that day were among those whose lives He had touched and changed during His three year ministry. Clearly they would not have been among those in the courtyard on Good Friday calling for his crucifixion and death.

Undoubtedly, there were some on Palm Sunday who turned against Him. There was a substantial presence in Israel at that time who sought a political king, someone who would lead an army in opposition to Roman authority. We know that two of the disciples, Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot, held such beliefs. And it was the realization that Jesus would not be the political king so long sought that may have pushed Judas, already angry at Jesus because of the anointing He had received a few days before, into the plot of betrayal. But Simon, though a Zealot and one who would have preferred the political solution, probably choose to wait and see what would happen. After Pentecost, tradition tells us that Simon would take the Gospel message to Persia where he would be martyred.

There were others as well who observed Jesus throughout the three years and perhaps wondered why He focused His ministry on the least of society, the outcasts and the shunned. We know from the reading of the Gospels that Jesus’ actions in cleansing the Temple on Tuesday of this week will be the tipping point, the time in which the political and religious authorities will seek to arrest Him.

We know, from the Gospel stories, that there were many who questioned Jesus when it came to His association with the beggars, the prostitutes, the poor and other sinners. Surely, in their minds, Jesus could not be the Son of God because God does not associate Himself with those types of people. The temple was for the best of the best, the most righteous and if you did not meet such standards, then you had no business being there. And Jesus worked against that very idea. It would be only natural that they would be in the courtyard on Good Friday calling for the death of Jesus. It would restore the world to its natural order.

Let us move the pages of time from 33 A. D. to the present. Let us put ourselves into the places of the people on the side of the streets as Jesus is prepared to enter the city. Which side will we be on? Will we be cheering or jeering?

Right now, the United Methodist Church has received a Call to Action, a call to restore the church and turn around decades of decline and loss. Staring at the possibility that the United Methodist Church (and other mainline Protestant denominations) may very well die of, for the lack of better term, old age, the leadership of the denomination has called for a revitalization of the church.

There are two groups cheering right now, those who are glad that someone realizes that we have strayed from the path that was laid down by Christ and John Wesley and those who are glad that something is going to be done to save the church that they grew up in. But many of those in this latter group have no clue what means to be Methodist and no understanding of the role Methodism has played in the history of society over the past two hundred years.

They see no relationship between the Methodist church they have been a member of for the past fifty years and the Methodist church in the next town, the next county, or even the next state. They have no idea what drove John Wesley to begin the Methodist Revival in the mid-18th century. They just know that some rabble rousers and troublemakers want to let “those people” into their church. (See Dan Dick’s comments on the new book about Methodism – “God Bless You, George C. Hunter III!” and my thanks to John Meunier for providing the information – “Contagious Methodism”.)

There are many who have left the church of today because the church no longer seems responsive to the people and is more concerned with its own survival and existence. I will admit that there was a time many years ago when I would have left the United Methodist Church for many of the same reasons given today. Everything said and done is so much in contradiction to what Jesus taught and much of what Paul wrote about. But I didn’t leave because there were those who showed me that the church could be a force for good, a force for justice, and that it was possible to be a representative of Christ on Earth. It would be very difficult for me to leave today just as it is very difficult for me to watch others tell the word that the Gospel is about the rich and the powerful, the mighty and privileged.

Pete Townsend, guitarist and singer for “The Who”, wrote a song called “Somebody saved me.” I am not sure why he wrote it but part of the chorus, the part that sticks in my mind is, “Somebody saved me, it happened again. Somebody saved me, I thank you my friend.” For me, that friend is, was, and will always be Jesus Christ. But if I had not had the church and the expression of those in it that the Gospel message was true, I might not have found Jesus. And I would have nothing to cheer about today.

There has been for some years a counter movement (which has become known at the Emerging Church movement), a desire to bring the church back to what it was meant to be, more in line with the movement that spread outwards from Galilee and Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It was the church before Constantine, one that might be in the homes of people rather than ornate and stately cathedrals. It is a church not often known to many people today. It was a church that made sure that all who were hungry were fed, all who were naked received clothes, all those without shelter found a place to stay, all who were sick received medical care, and those who are oppressed receive justice. It is a movement that is found at Rowe with its support of Grannie Annie’s kitchen and at Red Hook with its Sunday afternoon food closet (which for the readers of my blog now supports at least 35 families and is watching its numbers rise each month).

It works through those who have been called to preach the word of God. Yesterday, I was in Ridgefield, CT, for the closing of the District Lay Speaking School. In the closing service in which we commissioned thirteen new local lay speakers, our District Superintendent, Reverend Betsy Ott, offered this benediction, found in the wedding ceremony in the back of our hymnal. Tonight I close the 2012 Lenten School in which seven new local lay speakers will be commissioned. Reverend Ott will be there for that event and will probably use there as well (a note – she did).

Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.    AMEN

We celebrate and cheer that there are twenty individuals who have heard the call to take the word and message of the Gospel out into the world. We know that despite the despair and gloom that will come on Good Friday, that the Resurrection will come next Sunday. And so we cheer.

Thoughts on an Uncompleted Journey


Here are my thoughts for Palm Sunday, 17 April 2011.  I have been rather occupied with the feeding ministry that we do on Saturdays and Sundays and with everything else going on lately, I have found it difficult to post my Sunday posts on Sunday.

I really don’t have any particular scriptures in mind except, perhaps, for the story of Jesus walking on the water (as I will explain in a few paragraphs).  One thing that I have struggled with over the years is whether or not I should be using the Palm Sunday lectionary readings or the Passion Sunday readings.  There is also the issue of how we should understand the role of Palm Sunday in the scheme of things.

Besides not being able to post my thoughts on Sunday like I would prefer to be doing, I have found myself not attending either of the two morning services that we hold at church.  But on Sunday mornings, after feeding some 30 or 40 people, it is necessary to clean up.  I have come to believe that the Gospel writers left a few lines out when they wrote about the feeding of the multitudes.  Depending on which of the Gospels you read, Philip is identified as the disciple who wonders where they will get the food to feed the people.  But it doesn’t say who cleaned up after the people were done eating.  And I can imagine Bartholomew asking Jesus, “Who is going to clean up this mess?”   So while everyone is going to one of the services, I find myself cleaning up the community room and kitchen.  But I don’t mind, if for no other reason that I am reminded that the ministry is never done until all the work is completed.

As it happened, someone wondered how it was that I could “survive” without going to Sunday worship?  I thought that was an interesting comment in that it suggested that one must attend a regular service on Sunday morning in order to be a “complete Christian.”  I know quite a few people who would say that is what one must do but worship can take any form and occur at any time.  And I am not completely without worship.

First, I do review the lectionary readings for each Sunday so that when I get the time, I can write down my thoughts.  And second, during the past six weeks, I have coordinated the Lenten School.  And at the beginning of the school, we have had a 20 minute worship service, with music and thoughts.  Two of the six weeks, the worship service was conducted by one of the advanced classes in preaching as they (the six students and their instructor) explored different ways of presenting the message.  Now, as the coordinator, I have the opportunity to prepare the opening worship service at the beginning of the school (see "This Journey Into Lent" for the thoughts I expressed).

And as the coordinator I also had to prepare the closing worship which involved the commissioning of the new local lay speakers (we sent some 17 individuals out into the mission world this year).  I invited the District Superintendent to join us and, using the passage where Jesus walked on the water and Peter tried and failed to do the same, she spoke about the challenges that lie before us as lay speakers.  Her message focused on one of the questions that was put to her when she was seeking ordination, “Can you walk on water?”

It is also a tradition that we close the Lenten School with communion and I was allowed to write part of that liturgy.

Two thousand years ago, Christ’s disciples, along with all people celebrated the coming of the New Messiah into Jerusalem.

Two thousand years ago, Christ’s disciples were simply students, learning as they went.

They gathered together with their friends and family to celebrate the Passover meal. Little did they know what lie before them as Christ’s disciples.

Today, the students of the Lenten School gather in celebration of the completion of a journey of learning and exploration.

Today, we gather as those first students, those first disciples did in celebration of that first Lord’s Supper. We know what lies before us in the coming days and we have accepted the call to walk that path.

Though we may go our separate ways after today, we are bound together by the same spirit, the same friendship, and the same love that each of the disciples had for Christ.

And we are bound together by the love that Christ has shown for each of us.

Thus prepared to walk with Christ and present Christ to the world, renewed by your Word and Sacraments and fervent in prayer and works of justice and mercy, we come to the fullness of grace that You have prepared for those who love You.

Now, I knew when I wrote those words that two of the classes that met for the six weeks were exploring ways to continue the learning process after the completion of the Lenten School.  And that to me is why Palm Sunday is an important part of the Lenten Journey.

We have to see that while Lent leads up to Palm Sunday, the journey does not stop there but continues through this week to Good Friday and onto Easter.  And then it continues beyond Easter.

We are in the midst of an uncompleted journey, one that begins in celebration but is tempered by sorrow and heartbreak.  Some would have the journey end on Palm Sunday so that all we have is the celebration. But if we do not have the somber nature of Thursday and the sorrow and heartbreak of Good Friday, we cannot have the even greater celebration of Easter.  Ours is an uncompleted journey to the cross and beyond. I hope that this week, you will begin that journey.  And if you have begun that journey, I hope that you will bring some friends along to see what lies before you.

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This Saturday, I will be at Drew United Methodist Church (Carmel,NY); their Saturday services are at 7 and you are welcome to come and attend.  The message that I will be presenting, “The Missing Day”, will be about the time between the crucifixion and the Resurrection as told by Nathaniel Bartholomew.

Victory or Defeat?


This is the message I presented on Palm Sunday, 20 March 2005, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures that I used were Matthew 21: 1 – 11, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Matthew 26: 14 – 27:  66.

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In October 1957, America awoke to find a new star in the skies overhead. This new star was called Sputnik and was put up there by the Soviet Union. That the first man-made satellite was Russian caused a great deal of concern in America and it was thought that this country was losing the space race. The problem was there really was no race and this country was not in any danger at that time. But the perception that the Soviet Union could do what this country was unable to do was of great concern to the people and the politicians of this country.

So, the resources of this country were put into improving the mathematics and science education of this country in order to close the technology gap between the two countries that had allowed the Soviet Union to put the first satellite into orbit. While I am appreciative of the time and energy that was put into education (of which I greatly benefited), the only reason that the Soviet Union put its satellite into orbit before any of our satellites is that they used brute force. Also, we never did know how many failures the Soviet Union experienced before the success of Sputnik I, simply because the Soviet Union never told us. We, on the other hand, publicly showed all our failures and the American people became quite used to seeing potential Vanguard and Explorer satellites tumble to the ground in flames as the booster rockets exploded on the launch pad.

The reason for failure was not superior technology on the part of the Soviet Union but rather because we were developing the technology as we went along. If we had used the brute force technology that the Soviet Union employed, we could have orbited a satellite first. Ultimately, of course, we did win the race as President Kennedy following the successful orbital flight of Colonel John Glenn defined it.

The interesting thing is that has been thirty years since we last walked on the moon and over two years since Americans have been in orbit. The only lasting presence in outer space belongs to the Russians who man the orbiting International Space Station. We may have won the space race but the victory was short-lived.

I think it is possible to see the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in the same vein. The people are celebrating the victory of their King but it is a victory celebration that will be short and one that is misunderstood.

The people were celebrating the presence of a king but they were expecting a kingdom here on earth. They were willing to celebrate Jesus’ entry into the city but they also were expecting that He would overthrow the Romans or, at least, relieve the heavy burden of life off their shoulders. His message had been one of relief and comfort but they did not hear the part of the message that said it would be in heaven, not here on earth.

But when the end of the week came, those who cheered so loudly to welcome Jesus Christ as King were calling for His crucifixion. When the end of the week came, those who sought to have Jesus crucified were celebrating because they had beaten and killed the most serious threat to their presence and power. And when the week had ended, two men faced failure head-on.

For Judas, the beginning of the week must have been real reason to cheer. Most people have always assumed that Judas saw Jesus as the political liberator of the land. Judas saw Jesus as the one who would form an army and drive the Romans out of his homeland. But when it became clear that the kingdom that Jesus spoke and the message that Jesus gave was not a message for now but rather for now, he sought to find a way out.

This required that he betray his teacher and friend. But he found that those who welcomed his betrayal were not going to simply scold his friend and set him free. Rather, they used Judas to capture Jesus. In one sense, the Sanhedrin, who merely sought to use him as the means of capturing Jesus, betrayed Judas. Having deserted Jesus, Judas found himself alone and without hope. His choice then is the choice that too many people today face.

We also know too well that Peter denied Jesus, not once but three times. We know that Jesus predicted that Peter would do this, and despite Peter’s denial that he would never betray the Lord, that is exactly what he did. I have no proof but I think that Peter’s change from the temperamental, volatile, quick to act individual began that night when he experienced first hand the power of the Gospel. Though he said it so many times before, that Jesus was the Messiah, that night in the face of his own death through association, Peter understood in his heart that Jesus was and is the Messiah. It would be some days later that Peter took on the mantle of leadership but it was that night that Peter understood what the past three years was all about.

At the beginning of the week, the people of Jerusalem celebrated the victorious entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But theirs was an empty celebration, based on things that they felt were important. Jesus knew that the real celebration would come at the end of the week and the beginning of the next one. When the disciples gathered in the Upper Room for the Last Supper that week, they wondered why He was not manifesting himself to the world, why He was not declaring the establishment of His kingdom. "Why," they asked, "were they ones, his closest friends the only ones to hear the words of fulfillment?" In other words, why would Jesus not declare His kingdom to the whole world then?

Jesus’ reply to them echoes now to us, "Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him." If we are not willing to let God come into our lives, then it becomes impossible to see the victory that will come next Sunday.

Too often we think of Christianity in terms of Palm Sunday rather than Easter Sunday. We celebrate the presence of Christ the King in our lives but we want the kingdom here on Earth; often times. We are not ready to make the journey to the cross that comes at the end of the week. We want the trappings and benefits of Christ’s kingdom but we are not willing to make the sacrifices that are needed. What we do not realize that this day is not the end of the journey but only the beginning.

For the celebration to be complete, we must complete the week. We must go to the cross. That is where the victory truly is. Any celebration today, celebrating the presence of Christ without the cross, is a hollow victory. It takes away from the true meaning of the day and leaves alone and without hope or consolation.

If we go to the cross, if we let the journey be complete, then we find that victory is truly assured. Peter may have denied Christ three times but he also never left. He was able, in his despair, to come back. That is the promise found in the cross. In the darkest moments of our despair, in the darkest moments of our life we are able to find Christ. And if we can find Him then, how hard will it be to find Him in the brightness of an ordinary day?

As we go into this week we are challenged today to think about whom we will be like. Will we be like Judas, tied to a victory that is hollow? Will we seek victory before we have gained it, only to find death? Or will we find our victory in Christ’s death?

The Unfinished Journey


Here is the message that I gave on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1999, at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures I used for this Sunday were Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Matthew 27: 11 – 54.

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This has been edited to remove some bad links.

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We are a society that most definitely likes a winner. The effort put into the NCAA basketball tournament, the Super Bowl, and the buildup to a NCAA football championship are indicators of this. And with the same fervor that we put in pushing our team to number 1, we often try to get rid of the coach or team when the effort fails.

Back in 1989, one of the high schools in the town where I lived was not only the best in the state of Texas but also ranked as the number 1 high school football team in the whole country. At the end of that season, the head coach moved to a position with a nearby university football program and it was up to the new head coach to continue the tradition of winning.

Unfortunately, when the 1990-football season opened, this team was put on probation for holding illegal practices during the summer. And when the team lost its first game of the season, the anger of the fans boiled over. The Saturday morning after the loss, a number of for-sale signs appeared in the front yard of the coach’s house and a number of realtors, not ware of the lose or the situation, called with serious offers to buy the property.

We do like our winners and we hate losing with the same passion. This is not something unique to our society or our times. The same people who cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were probably among the crowd who called for his crucifixion several days later.

There have always been a number of questions raised about what happened that week in Jerusalem. Why did the crowd change its attitude? Why were those who on Palm Sunday the entrance of the new king willing to doom their own lives for the crucifixion of Jesus just a few days later?

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27: 24 – 25)

Why was Jesus willing to go through the trial without saying anything?

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you? But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge — to the great amazement of the governor. (Matthew 27: 12 – 14)

Why was Jesus willing to die on the cross, perhaps the most painful method of torture and death ever devised by man? Why did Pilate, knowing that Jesus was innocent of the charges, still have him crucified?

The season of Lent is one of preparation, one of a journey. The end to Jesus’ journey began with his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday but it could not end with the celebration that the people wanted. For Jesus knew that His journey could only end with His death on the cross. I think that, for us, this is the hardest thing we could ever conceptualize. Why should Christ give up His life; why should He give up everything in heaven to die for us? As Paul wrote,

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, (Philippians 2: 6)

Jesus did not consider the high position that he held in heaven to be something he could not give up. In today’s society, giving up the ultimate in success, being number one, is something that is just not done. No wonder people, both in Jesus’ time and today have difficulty with what Christ did for us. We are taught from the beginning that success is all that counts and here we have the Son of God giving it up.

That Jesus would give up everything for us explains a lot about what transpired during that week so many years ago. After Jesus challenged those in church authority to be more responsive to the needs of the people. Jesus’ place in heaven was secure but he was willing to be our servant, to humble himself by a death on the cross.

But made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2: 7 – 8)

The idea of being a servant to the people is a very difficult one for us to understand. After all, having fought and scrapped, we want to keep what we have gained; we don’t want to give it up; we don’t want to be the servant for others when we are on top.

When I was a senior in college, I invited the new president of the college to be my guest for dinner in the cafeteria where those in my dormitory ate. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the students and workers when they found out that the man eating dinner with me was not my father but rather the president of the college. The previous two presidents would never have consented to such a thing and it was assumed that all presidents would do this. This president did not play by the rules of his predecessor and it should be noted that changes begun under his administration have lead to Truman State University being a better university today.  (This is probably the first time that I told this story but I first published a more detailed story in “What I See”.)

The crowd could not see Jesus as a servant, one willing to humbly serve the people. They wanted a king to lead them, to show strength and power just as the Romans showed strength and power. Many of the people never understood the message that Jesus gave.

But what can be gained when we seek a life of power, strength, and wealth? All that we gain from a life in sin is death while a life in Christ is an eternal one. There is nothing wrong with seeking what others called the good life but it must be a GOOD life in all senses of the word.

Some years ago, when I received the call to the ministry, I struggled with just what it was to be a Methodist. I was comfortable with the notion that the United Methodist Church was a liberal church with a progressive social policy. Now, I can’t say that the United Methodist Church is as liberal as some might think because I know quite a few preachers who are very (very!) conservative.

And I have come to learn that the social awareness of the church is only possible when we have first come to Christ. As Wesley pointed out, once one comes to Christ, it is our duty to become more like him. While can actually never be like Christ, the Christ-like qualities he showed are still something to be attained, like a prize we do not yet posses.

Christ’s death on the cross changed the world and the way we look at things. By accepting Christ as our Savior, we can know God as a loving father, accessible to us all. It was noted in the Gospel reading today,

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. (Matthew 27: 50 – 51)

The tearing of the curtain in the temple is symbolic of the removal of the barriers that would keep us from God. And in knowing God, we gain the strength we need to overcome obstacles. Jesus said nothing during His trial because there was nothing He could say. After all, the authorities wanted Him dead and were going to do it, no matter what. When we are faced such pressures, what can we do. The Old Testament reading tells us what Jesus was thinking that night so many years ago.

The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!

It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.

What would have happened if Pilate had had the strength to go against the crowd. Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent but he also knew that if he had done what he knew was correct, the Jewish authorities would have complained to his bosses and not only would Jesus still have been crucified, he (Pilate) would have also be punished. Just like today, Pilate took the action that was the safe route rather than the correct route.

For us, this week can mark the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one. By accepting Christ as our savior, our life in sin is over and a new life can begin. Christ’s commitment to us, his desire to save us from sin and death, was so strong that even in the pain of his own death, he sought to save others.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t’ you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 39 – 43)

It has always been a mystery when the centurion was included in the story of Christ’s death.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27: 54)

Did the centurion begin to understand the truth of who Christ was? Or did he take the next step in his own journey of life and become a Christian knowing that Christ died for his sins, just as he died for our sins?

That day some 2000 years ago, the centurion began a journey. That journey is our journey as well. But while there may be doubts as to what the centurion did, there are no doubts about where that journey will lead us. Christ died for us; our journey can be finished when we accept Christ as our Savior. Christ’s journey had only one ending, the cross. But His journey changed the way our journey could end. What path will you take; how will your journey end?

Do You Understand?


I am at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area this Palm Sunday.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Luke 19: 28 – 40, Philippians 2: 5 – 11; and Luke 22: 14 – 23: 56.

This is a dramatization and presentation by Nathaniel Bartholomew.

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The video of this sermon is at “Technology Update” – 14 June 2010

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It is Palm Sunday; the people are singing songs of praises and shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” As the singing and shouts die down, a man enters.

“Do you understand what you are saying? Do you understand why you are shouting ‘Hosanna’?”

“Do you understand what this all means?”

“Do you understand what is going to happen in the next few days?

“Are you prepared for what is to come?”

I am Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the twelve disciples. Speaking for my friends, I can say that we didn’t totally understand what was to come nor were we prepared at all for what happened this week two thousand years ago. You would have thought that after following Jesus for three years we would have understood, we would have been prepared; but we didn’t and we weren’t.

Maybe I should have understood. All my life I studied the Torah; sitting under a fig tree searching for meaning in the words that we were taught in temple school. It was there my friend Philip found me one day three years ago when he came to tell me how he and Andrew had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

You know, maybe I shouldn’t have answered that call. When Philip told me that the Messiah was from Nazareth, I could not help but say, “What good can come from Nazareth?”

You see, Nazareth was nothing; it didn’t even get a mention in the history books. If it were not for this week and what happened in Jerusalem, no one would have ever known about this little town in the Galilee. To grow up in the Galilee was one thing; the people in Jerusalem would go out of their way to avoid us. Only the Samaritans were treated worse. But if you grew up in the Galilee, you treated the people from Nazareth as the lowest of the low. And when Philip told me who he had found, I let my feelings show.

But I knew that God’s promise of a Messiah was true and that this Messiah could come from anywhere but we would have to look for Him. He would not come boldly with a mighty army but singularly and quietly. And when this Jesus of Nazareth told me how He had seen me, Nathaniel Bartholomew, studying under the fig tree; I knew that He was the true Messiah. And so I picked up my scrolls and I answered the call and joined the others He had called.

Such a group you could have never imagined. There was Simon, who would become Peter the Rock and his brother Andrew, John the beloved disciple and his brother James, my friend Philip who invited me to meet Jesus, Thomas who would go with me to Georgia, Matthew the former tax collector, James the Less (who hated it when you called him that), Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Here we were, four fisherman, a tax collector, a scholar (sort of), two farmers, and two revolutionaries, with nothing in common, nothing that could have brought us together except a call from Jesus to follow Him. It was a call and still is a call that transcends all divisions and establishes a new fellowship, even today.

But we didn’t understand what that call meant then; even today, there are many who don’t understand what this call means. We had no idea what He was going to do, where He was going, or what we would learn from all of this. In fact, it wouldn’t be until this week was over that we would even begin to understand.

But still we answered the call and left our homes, our work, our studies, our families and followed Him. We would walk from town to town, listening and watching and helping. We would be there for all of the miracles; we would watch in amazement and wonder as He healed all those people, gave sight to the blind, gave the lame the power to walk again, returned lepers to society free of disease and infection, and let the deaf here again. We twice helped feed the multitudes. We should have understood; we should have known what was coming.

We were even sent out on our own and did many of the same things, just as He had taught us. But we still didn’t understand.

We heard Him speak in cryptic tones of rising from the dead, just as Lazarus had come back, just as the little girl had come back. But we still didn’t understand.

It was not easy following Jesus. It was a hard life and each day we were reminded that we were an occupied country and subject to foreign laws. We would pass squads of Roman soldiers marching in formation, oblivious to the surroundings and to the cries of the people.

We were not in charge of our own lands or our own lives. And when we came home, we would hear the cries from our families, of how the authorities had raised the taxes and how another family had been sold into slavery because they couldn’t pay the taxes. We would watch as our own leaders, the ones who had taught that the Messiah would come and deliver His people from oppression and hunger and sickness would consort with the Roman authorities to keep their positions of power.

How many times would the authorities tell us we had sinned because Jesus had healed someone on the Sabbath or because we ate with the “wrong” people? The authorities tried to keep us from speaking out against their alliances with Rome that kept them in power. Even today, as the crowds cheered as Jesus entered the city, they were telling us to keep the people quiet.

We were the ones blamed for undermining family life and leading the people astray. We were called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The authorities constantly sought a reason to arrest us for breaking some religious or political law.

Once there were many of us but each day some would leave, complaining and grumbling, expecting great things but never, never expecting that they would have to work for God.

“Turn the other cheek,” they asked, “We’ve turned the other cheek so many times we are spinning in circles.”

“Walk another mile”, they screamed, “We’ve walked so many miles we are almost in Damascus.

“Give our enemies our cloak?” they screamed, “They’ve taken everything else, what’s left for us?”

Each day we would see fewer and fewer people coming to hear the message or following us to the next town. Each day we would hear from the people that “We don’t want sacrifice; we don’t want to be servants; we don’t want the kingdom tomorrow, we want it now. And I don’t see this Jesus doing anything to bring us this freedom that He keeps teaching about. I’ve had it with this movement; I’m going home.”

They would say that it was one thing to have to work for the Romans but to have to work for God was ridiculous; God was supposed to work for them and free them from all of this. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and I am not certain that many people understand today.

And our friends, neighbors, and families would ask us when would this Messiah of ours raise up his army and throw out the Romans and their political allies and set us all free? When, they cried, would this kingdom that Jesus preached about, this Kingdom of God, come to be? They spoke of a revolution and could not understand how Jesus could call for sacrifice or servanthood.

But somehow it made sense to be with Jesus. Even with all of the hardships, even with the rejections, there were those whose lives were changed because they came to Jesus. And each person who came to Christ and had their lives changed because of that single encounter would tell others. And somehow that single person made the effort worthwhile.

But even today, in 2010, there are people calling for a life in Christ where Christ leads a mighty army, imposing spiritual laws that are just another set of man’s laws, not God’s law. They want to throw off what they call the yoke of tyranny but all they really want to do is exchange the power and authority. Let others do the work but give us they power, they cry. There are still those today who don’t understand.

It wasn’t as if we were immune or blind to these cries and these thoughts. James and John came to Jesus and sought assurances that they would have the favored seats of authority in this new kingdom. Simon the Zealot so hated the Romans and so wanted them out of our country that he would have done almost anything to throw them out of our country; he and Judas Iscariot often talked about how they could inspire the people to rise up and throw off the yoke of tyranny that so burdened our country and our people. But Simon would always hold off as if there was something about what Jesus said that made armed revolution seem wrong. We would find out too late that Judas Iscariot never could accept the alternative to armed revolution.

And then there was last week. We had gathered at a friend’s house in Bethany to begin planning for our celebration of Passover in Jerusalem this week. This was going to be the best Passover ever.

Jesus told James the Less and Thaddeus to go and find a room where we might hold a Passover meal. It had to be a place where we might gather in one group. It would not be just us, the twelve with Jesus, but with our families, our wives and children, and our friends. It was going to be a celebration.

He told Thomas and me to go into Bethany and get a young donkey for him to ride into the city on. Now, that didn’t seem quite right. If Jesus was to enter Jerusalem triumphantly, shouldn’t it have been on a proud white stallion? But He wanted a donkey and that is what we got.

And we began to think about what it would be like to walk into Jerusalem to the cheers and shouts of the people, to have the roads covered with palm branches so that the dust would not swirl around our feet and legs. To proudly walk into Jerusalem, to hear cheers instead of jeers, to be welcomed instead of ignored, these were our thoughts. It almost seemed as if a great burden had been lifted from our souls.

And then this woman came into our midst and sought out Jesus. Time and time again, through out our travels, people would come up to us and beg us to heal them or heal their children or give them sight. Some would just try to touch his cloak in the hope that a brief touch would cure them or bring relief to their pain.

But this woman was different; she didn’t say much. She came and knelt at His feet and began crying and with her tears she washed His feet. And then she dried his feet with her hair and anointed his feet with an exotic oil. It was the most expensive oil in the land and was saved for the preparation of the dead; it was not to be wasted or frivolously used and yet this woman gave it so freely.

Judas Iscariot was furious. He came up to Jesus and complained how this was a selfish and wasteful act. The poor would have been better off if she had sold the oil; she could have gotten one year’s salary for what she poured on Jesus’ feet. But Jesus just shook his head and said to Judas that we would always have the poor with us but we would not have Him for much longer. And as we heard Jesus speak of His death as if it were tomorrow, we still didn’t understand what he was talking about.

Judas was the group’s treasurer and he had a right to think about the money but it always seemed like it was the present, never about tomorrow. We didn’t understand it then but that was when Judas decided that he would not be a part of our group much longer.

So James and Thaddeus went to reserve the room where we would eat the Passover meal and Thomas and I went to get the donkey. And we made plans to enter Jerusalem in triumph and celebration.

But instead of being a week of celebration and joy, of one where our burden got lighter; it was almost as if our burden got even heavier. Oh yes, the people cheered as we entered the city! But you could see on their faces a look of confusion. They were cheering for Jesus and they were calling Him the King but you could see that they didn’t understand. What king enters a town on a donkey with a bunch of itinerant Galileans as his entourage? When Pilate entered Jerusalem, it was on a beautiful white stallion and he was accompanied by a thousand Roman troops. Where was the army that would bring in this Kingdom that Jesus spoke of? How could He and his twelve students create this New Kingdom?

On Tuesday, we went to the temple and we watched in horror and disbelief as Jesus erupted in violence against the money-changers and those who had turned the temple into some sort of general store where goods were bought and sold. This quiet, so gentle man from Nazareth, exploded with anger as He watched business men and religious people take the money from the pilgrims and say that their coins were no good, that they must use the temple money.

We knew that the people were being robbed. Matthew had been a tax collector and he knew the tricks that they used; he taught what to look for so that the people wouldn’t get cheated but when you have so many people coming into Jerusalem, it wasn’t possible to help every one of them.

The people would bring a young lamb or a calf for sacrifice but the religious authorities would find some sort of blemish in the skin of the young calf or lamb that was brought for sacrifice. They would tell the pilgrims that only certain lambs and certain calves could be used and you could buy what you needed from the businessman over there. They would buy the one you brought, of course; but it was a deal that always favored the businessman. And we wept as we watched the businessmen cheat the poor; we wept as we watched the religious authorities stand by the side and do nothing but laugh.

And it seemed as if it was only the poor who had to pay. In all the time we were there, we never saw someone rich pay more than they should have; in fact, it always seemed that the more money or power that you had, the better your treatment by the businessman in the courtyard and the priests in the temple. And we wondered and we watched and we began to understand why Jesus cared for the poor and the weak and the old and the hungry. And we began to understand why the poor and the forgotten sought Him out; those who should have done so ignored them and sought to curry favor with God through material goods, wealth, position and power. We began to understand that the Kingdom of God was not about power and position on earth but a new life.

And then Thursday would come and we had our Passover meal. The Passover Meal is a celebratory meal and yet this did not seem like a celebration. What good did it do to celebrate our entrance into Jerusalem when Jesus spoke of His death, of his body offered in sacrifice for us, of his blood sealing the covenant?

And the authorities would arrest Him that night and try Him in a kangaroo court and find Him guilty and then torture Him. And the authorities, religious and political, would parade Jesus before the masses, the very masses that today cheered Him as He entered the city. But now they would call for His crucifixion.

As we hid from the authorities, we watched as they crucified Him and we wondered how soon it would be before they came after us. And we would hear the people say that He saved others but He could save Himself.

As Jesus died on the Cross that Friday, we would remember all that He taught us and the frustration that He had as we never could seem to get it right. We would remember the long, dusty roads that we walked but we also remembered those whose lives were changed because of a brief encounter with Jesus. We would remember the fellowship and joyfulness that surrounded us as we went from town to town.

And now it was all gone. We didn’t understand how it could turn out this week. How could a week that started with cheers and celebration end so sadly and so bleakly? How could a week that started off so triumphantly end in sorrow and shame? Had all we done for three years, all the hope that we had brought to the people, been left to die on a hill outside of town?

What were we going to do? I couldn’t go back to the temple school. What could I learn from the most learned men in all of Israel that I hadn’t already learned from my friend and teacher? How could Peter, Andrew, James, and John ever return to the boats that sat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee or Thaddeus and James L. return to their farms when they had been part of this great movement? Was this movement that we had been a part of for three years and was as much a part of us to end on a hill far away?

But then there would be Sunday Morning and the news of the Resurrection.

We, the twelve and our friends and families didn’t understand what that Palm Sunday some two thousand years ago was about. There are some today who still don’t understand.

There are those today who claim to speak in His name. We hear the words of so many but they are the words of the false prophet, clothed not in the robes of an itinerant preacher or his disciples but the finery of some temple priest. These false prophets use the Bible to affirm and sanctify the present order of things. But Jesus Christ challenged that view. He taught us that we had the power to change the world.

These false prophets say that the answer is to raise up an army and fight the enemy with guns and bombs. But armies cannot feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick or free the oppressed; armies only keep the hungry without food and the naked without clothes and let the sick die and the oppressed still suffer. These false prophets would call upon God to destroy the enemy and bestow riches on all those who listen to them.

God could have easily destroyed the Romans who occupied our land and God could easily destroy our enemies today. But that was never the message nor is it the message today. And that is why people didn’t understand then and perhaps still don’t understand today.

But know this; the moment that Jesus entered Jerusalem on that lowly little donkey, the world began to change. A world that wanted a king to rule over them on earth received a Servant, one who called them and each of us to be a servant as well. People who wanted everything were shown that you must truly give everything up if you wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And the people would see that this Jesus, whom they would crown King on earth was willing to give up His life so that we would be free from slavery and sin.

It is hard to see Christ as the servant when we so much want Him to be some powerful and mighty king leading a might army that will drive away evil and let us live in wonderful luxury. It is even harder to be called to follow the servant and be a servant when it seems so much easier to seek a life of glory and power and ignore the suffering of others. We don’t want to suffer; we want to enjoy life.

Throughout the ages, it has always been the case that those who have never want to give it up or share it with those who do not have. When you are in power, the last thing that you want to do is give up or share your power. And yet that is exactly what Jesus did when He entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

He accepted the cheers of the crowd knowing full well that many in the crowd would call for his crucifixion on Friday. He knew that a call to be a servant before one could be a king would not be acceptable to either the authorities or those who sought power and glory.

We didn’t understand it that Sunday and most certainly what transpired during the week only added to our confusion. But when the week was over, we would begin to understand. We had been taught to love one another and offer our lives for the sake of the world. We were being sent out into the world to offer a new vision that was a visible and concrete alternative to the world of the present. In the Gospel message was the message that those who have been alienated from society were now welcome.

The old ways of power, position and might would no longer work. A world that placed its faith in the power and might of its military and its technology and its economic power was unable to defeat a man who preached hope and equality, who offered the same opportunity to all who would seek Him out and follow Him.

The world was defeated by the One who unmasked the illusions, exposed their lies, and showed them for what they truly were and are. He defeated them by letting them do their worst to him; and then He vanquished them by the power of God’s love and truth, weapons that are stronger than all the weapons of the world.

So today, we celebrate the triumphant entrance of the One and True King into the city, even though we know that He will die and it makes no sense to us that He should die.

But in His death, we will be set free. And if we do not celebrate Palm Sunday today, if we do not acknowledge Jesus as both King and Servant, then there can be no Holy Week, there can be no Good Friday and there will never be an Easter Sunday and a Resurrection.

And if we have no Easter Sunday, there is no hope. Now, do you understand?