Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Gospel for February 18, 2018


“Baptism and Temptation of Christ” by Paolo Veronese is in Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy.

Mark 1: 9-15


Today’s Lectionary reading illustrates the economy of Mark’s Gospel.

The baptism of Jesus is followed by:

  • His affirmation as Son by God the Father.
  • The ordeal and temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
  • The inauguration of his ministry.

The essentials of Jesus’ message are all summarized in just one verse (verse 15).

The simplicity of Mark is one of the reasons that many scholars believe it was written earlier than the others, on the theory that later retellings are usually elaborated upon over time.

The arc of this account leads from the heights of Jesus’ initiation into ministry through baptism, to the depths of his testing by Satan, to his mission as he announces that:

 The time is fulfilled, and God’s Kingdom is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News.

God affirms the Sonship of Jesus; Satan tests it; and Jesus confirms his identity through his ministry.


This is a passage selected specifically for Lent, so we move quickly from the triumphant moment of affirmation in the baptism of Jesus to his temptation.

It is interesting that Mark says:

 Immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.

This language implies that the ordeal in the wilderness for forty days is compatible with God’s plan for Jesus.  Perhaps this experience is almost a kind of “boot camp” for Jesus, preparing him for the rigors of his ministry that await.

Although he has no human company in the wilderness, Jesus is never quite alone.  The Spirit has driven him; Satan tempts him; he is with the wild beasts; and finally, seemingly when the ordeal is completed, the angels wait on him.  The sense is that this is no ordinary man – he is in touch with supernatural as well as natural forces that surround him.

He also seems to begin his ministry as though on cue.  Mark suggests that Jesus doesn’t start his ministry in Galilee until after John is arrested.  A transition has been made.  A baton has been passed.  John has fulfilled his purpose in baptizing Jesus; now Jesus must inaugurate the kingdom of God.

And this is where Jesus begins to impact us:

The time is fulfilled

The word used for time is not chronos, which in Greek is a  measure of  chronological time, but kairos — the “decisive, critical moment.”   Morever:

God’s kingdom is at hand!

The time is fulfilled because the reign of God has come near.  The reign of God is near because the King has arrived!  As a result of his presence, we are made aware of our need to respond appropriately:  

Repent, and believe in the Good News.


As Lent begins, I am made aware that in the baptism and the temptation of Jesus I find my awareness of my sin, and my hope for salvation.

Jesus’ baptism reminds me that despite his inherent nature as the Son of God, he identifies with me in my sin.  His holiness makes me aware of my unholiness and my need to repent.  And in his victory over temptation, he makes me aware of his power over sin.  Because his kingdom has drawn near, I can  believe in the good news!  Sin and Satan have already been defeated, at the very beginning of the story!

Lord, I do repent of my sin.  I thank you for suffering on my behalf — the righteous for the unrighteous.  Not only did you suffer on the cross on my behalf, but also in the battle with Satan in the wilderness and throughout your ministry. Your time has been fulfilled, your kingdom has drawn near, and I believe in your Good News!  Amen.  


"Baptism and Temptation of Christ" by Paolo Veronese is in the public domain.

Epistle for Febuary 18, 2018


Duccio’s “Decent to Hell” is located in the Museum of Siena cathedral.

1 Peter 3: 18-22


This passage is both fascinating and difficult.

Peter proclaims the essential message of the Gospel:

Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.

So far so good. This is familiar ground for most Christians, as Peter describes the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But then Peter embarks on a line of reasoning that is difficult to interpret.  Peter says that having been made alive, Christ:

went and preached to the spirits in prison.

Peter specifically refers to those who were disobedient in the days of Noah! These would be people who had drowned while Noah and his family were in the ark.

Here, Peter becomes a little difficult to follow, to be honest.  Is he saying that after the resurrection, Jesus then went to the imprisoned spirits? Or is he suggesting that Jesus did this between his crucifixion and resurrection? Is this the basis for the doctrine of the harrowing of hell, and the line included in the traditional Apostles’ Creed: he descended into hell?

Peter doesn’t linger on this long enough to give us an answer.  He moves on to consider those who are saved, speaking of the eight persons who were saved on Noah’s ark.  He uses this example as a metaphor for baptism.  Just as the ark saved Noah’s family, so baptism cleanses the conscience of believers from sin.

Ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus follows a heavenward trajectory. Jesus is now:

at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him.


The descent into hell, also known as the harrowing of hell, is a much debated doctrine in Christian history.  Some argue that evidence for it is scant; others find tremendous comfort in the idea that Jesus went to the souls who were in hell.

There are other passages that are cited to justify this doctrine:

Most certainly, I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God’s voice; and those who hear will live (John 5:25).

And Ephesians 4:7-10:  

Therefore he says, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.”  Now this, “He ascended”, what is it but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.

And then there is what Peter himself adds in 1 Peter 4:6:

For to this end the Good News was preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed as men in the flesh, but live as to God in the spirit.

This is where the most cautious Biblical expositor begins to venture into speculation.  Did Jesus descend into hell between his death and resurrection?  If so, what was his purpose? To proclaim judgment on the imprisoned souls, or to actually release some of them from hell? If so, would this provide some comfort to those who worry about those who died prior to the coming of Christ, without the opportunity to be saved?

This is one of those issues to which I have to say honestly “I don’t know.”

This I do know — that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him.  However, when and where Jesus may meet those “sheep that are not of his fold” is well above my paygrade.


I find it safer to stress the essential doctrines of the faith – that Jesus died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous; that he was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and from thence he shall come to consummate the Kingdom of God with the resurrection of the dead.

However, I do admit I find some comfort and hope in the doctrine of the harrowing of hell.  It is a wonderful thought to me that Jesus’ love and grace is so determined that he is willing to descend into the very maw of hell to search for and to rescue those who might have had the inclination to turn toward him had they had the opportunity.

It would complete the trajectory — the God who empties himself of all but love, who leaves his throne to become a human being, descends down, down, down – not only to walk on the earth as a Jewish carpenter, but then to descend as low as he could possibly go, into the realm of the devil himself to rescue souls;  and then returns again – ascending up, up, up to the very highest level possible at the very right hand of the Father.  There is something symmetrical about that.  But even more, there is something hopeful for those who seem to us to be absolutely lost.

Your ways are unsearchable, and your plan of salvation beyond human comprehension.  Thank you for revealing to me what I need to know for the sake of salvation and discipleship. Give me the grace and the light to walk by what I do  know!  Amen. 

 Duccio's “Decent to Hell” is in the public domain.

Psalm Reading for February 18, 2018



Psalm 25:1-10


This Psalm, attributed to David, addresses the issues that a warrior with a checkered past might wish to bring before God.

This is another acrostic Psalm, which begins each new verse with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Unfortunately this poetic device is lost in the English translation.

The first three verses are a statement of faith from a proud man who nonetheless understands that the Yahweh is the source of his strength:

To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.
 My God, I have trusted in you.
Don’t let me be shamed.
Don’t let my enemies triumph over me.

This is a man whose enemies are not merely figurative, but openly and actively hostile.

He asks for wisdom and guidance in the ways of Yahweh:

Show me your ways, Yahweh.
Teach me your paths.
 Guide me in your truth, and teach me,
For you are the God of my salvation,
I wait for you all day long.

He reminds Yahweh of his mercy and love that have been from old times. His faith is grounded in the history of Israel and Israel’s God.

But this is also a personal prayer.  Without listing his sins, he asks for pardon based not on his own merit but on God’s mercy:

Don’t remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions.
Remember me according to your loving kindness,
for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh.

A quick survey of David’s life reveals a man of courage, action and loyalty, but also a man of violence whose sexual indiscretion and subsequent crimes nearly wrecked his life.

As we learn from 2 Samuel 11 & 12, David did repent, and was forgiven.

Finally, it seems fitting to close this particular reading with David’s description of God’s character and benevolence:

Good and upright is Yahweh,
therefore he will instruct sinners in the way.
He will guide the humble in justice.
He will teach the humble his way.
 All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness and truth
to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.

This description of God’s love and faithfulness is conditional:

to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Only those who keep God’s laws will be able to follow God’s paths.


This is a good model of prayer for the believer, especially in times of uncertainty and even danger.

All of the needs of a sound, Godly life are addressed in this Psalm — trust, guidance and teaching, and forgiveness of sin grounded in the mercy and love of God.

It can be said that the fountainhead of the Godly life is trust in God – Abraham:

believed in Yahweh, who credited it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

This theme prevails throughout the scriptures from Genesis to the New Testament.

And the Godly life requires guidance and teaching in order that we may live according to God’s will.  The image of the Psalmist reminds us that life is a journey, and we need a Guide:

Show me your ways, Yahweh.
Teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth, and teach me,
For you are the God of my salvation,
I wait for you all day long.

But there is also honesty and transparency here: we have sinned, and continue to rely on God’s mercy and love.  The New Testament word for this is grace. 

The Godly life, then, is a process, a journey – not an accomplished fact.  We continue to trust, to follow, and to seek grace.


This Psalm actually has a very personal meaning for me.  So many Psalms have been put to music in the English language, but this is one of the first I ever learned after I became a committed Christian at 19.

When I was still in college, I went with a mission team to Puebla, Mexico.  During our times of worship, I taught the rest of the team members this Psalm.  It became our theme song.

This Psalm is every bit as relevant to me now, if not more so, more than forty years later.

It was a reminder that I can repent because of the great mercy of God.  I am to trust God in all circumstances. I can seek his guidance above all else.  Although I am accepted by God’s grace for the sake of God’s steadfast love, my growth in grace is conditional on my keeping the demands of the covenant. And the only way that I can keep God’s commands is with his help:

Our Lord, may I place all of my trust in you.  Please guide my path at every stage of my life.  And as the Psalmist prays, “remember not the sins of my youth.”  And one more thing:  keep me from sin as I grow older!  Amen. 

PHOTOS: “His way {explored}” by Charlotte Tai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Old Testament for February 18, 2018

Genesis 9


Start with Scripture:
Genesis 9:8-17


Everyone who has ever gone to Sunday School knows the story of Noah’s Ark, and God’s righteous judgment on the violence and wickedness of the human race.  As children we tend to focus more on the building of the boat and the collection of the animals.  We write cute musicals about “100% Chance of Rain.”

But there are deeper issues that this passage addresses.

One is God’s justice.  God is a holy God, and he takes it as his prerogative to destroy what he has created when and if his creation rebels against righteousness.  Like it or not, that is a part of the Biblical story.

Second, is the biblical notion of remnant  that recurs throughout scripture.  Even when there seems no one who is turned toward God, God can find someone whom he can use to keep his mission going.  Noah and his small family are the small remnant who keep the human race viable.

The third is the covenant.  God is willing to enter into agreement with creation, with nations, with a family, with an individual.  He makes promises and he keeps them.  In this case, the promise is that he will never again destroy the world with a flood; his “signature,” if you will, is the rainbow – a beautiful reminder of his promise.

This covenant is not only a covenant with humanity — it is a covenant with all living creatures.  The fact that God made provision to preserve a remnant of the animals indicates that he has an abiding love of his creation.


Liberals, conservatives, and secularists like to argue about stories like Noah’s Ark – some describing the story as an antiquated Mesopotamian fable; some making every effort to actually find the literal Ark on the top of Mount Ararat; some scoffing that such an account is scientifically impossible.

I don’t know how to resolve such arguments, but it seems to me that they all miss the point.  The story of Noah’s Ark, and especially this passage, tells me a lot about God.

God is just – he will only tolerate wickedness for so long before there are consequences.

God is also loving – he saves the remnant of the animals and the human family of Noah so he can start over again.  This is an example of God’s grace.

And he is willing to be in relationship not just with us as human beings, but with all living things as well. The covenant here is with all  creatures. God loves all of his creatures!

We should think twice about the rapid extinction rate that seems to be afflicting many species in the world. Although we are not experiencing a deluge of rainfall flooding the world, as Noah did, we are experiencing a slow rise in ocean levels. We are told by  the vast majority of climatologists that this is the result of climate change, which is the result of human activity.  If this continues, we are told, low lying lands will be inundated with water, violent hurricanes will proliferate, and some diseases now familiar in the tropics will creep northward.  If there is even the remotest possibility that this is all true, then we would be wise to listen to the “prophetic” warnings of climatologists and repent of the behaviors that may be contributing to these changes.

After all, this is not our world, but God’s.  We are the stewards of this world, not its owners.


This passage makes me think about my relationship to God’s creation.  My awareness has been raised that global warming is a fact, that coral reefs are dying, as are many species around the world.

Although people debate whether human beings are causing this warming, I’m convinced in my own mind that we do have an influence on the ecosystems around us.

But what am I doing about it?  Recycling cans and plastics and paper is a good thing, but is it enough?

This passage makes me keenly aware that, as the great old hymn says, This is my Father’s world.  Though we humans have been given dominion over this world (see Genesis 1:26),  that dominion also includes careful stewardship — not using up every resource as though there is no tomorrow.

Lord, I acknowledge your justice, but I plead for your grace and mercy – for me and for my struggling planet.  Bring us to the point of global repentance so that we can recognize that this is YOUR world.  You have entrusted this world into our care as stewards. Help us to care for your world responsibly. Amen. 

Justice Remnant Covenant Genesis 9” uses this photo as background:
“Rain 2” by Suika is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Gospel for February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9


The Transfiguration account is a theophany i.e., a vision of the glory of God.  The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Jesus has led all of his disciples north from Galilee into the Gentile region of Caesarea Philippi.  Just six days prior to this account of the Transfiguration, he has asked the famous question:

Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:29)

It was then that Peter offered his famous declaration of faith:

You are the Christ (Mark 8:29).

And it was on that occasion that Jesus first revealed that he would go to Jerusalem to be crucified.

Because they were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, it seems a logical connection to deduce that Jesus then leads Peter, James and John up the slopes of Mt. Hermon nearby:

up onto a high mountain privately by themselves.

Mt. Hermon is 9,232  feet in altitude, and was likely covered by snow much of the year in the time of Jesus.

The Transfiguration seems to accentuate that moment of discovery by Peter when the disciple declares that Jesus is the Christ. What Peter had begun to realize by faith is now confirmed in this extraordinary supernatural experience.

There are several items of note here:

  • Jesus selects an “inner circle” to accompany him to the top of the mountain — Peter, and the Zebedee brothers James and John – the same disciples who would accompany him later in the Garden of Gethsemane when he seeks his Father’s will in fervent prayer.
  • The light that suffuses him in brilliance seems to be “other-worldly”:
    glistening, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.  (This is a good example of the difficulty of trying to describe the indescribable in human terms.)
  • Elijah and Moses appear from beyond the dead and are talking to Jesus – indicating their immortality, but also suggesting that they are representative of the great biblical traditions. Elijah represents the beginning of the great prophetic tradition of Israel, and Moses represents God’s Law.
  • Peter is utterly confused by this experience, and seeks to make sense of it by trying to honor the three great personalities whom he beholds — Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
  • The cloud that envelops them all is reminiscent of the cloud that led the Israelites in Moses’ day – a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
  • The voice of the Father is heard, as it was at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that Jesus is in fact his Son – confirming Peter’s earlier insight about Jesus six days earlier.
  • When the moment of theophany passes, Mark’s Gospel says they are left with Jesus alone. He has been confirmed as the Son of God, and now they are to listen to him, just as the Father has instructed them: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
  • And then, mysteriously, Jesus instructs these disciples to keep what they have seen to themselves until after his resurrection – which is another superlative supernatural event yet to come. This seems to be a part of the famous “Messianic Secret” in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus seems reluctant to disclose his true identity until all is completed.


Knowing who Jesus is and knowing what to do about it are two different things.

Peter and the Zebedee brothers are given a rare glimpse into the true nature of Jesus.  He is not merely the Jewish carpenter and itinerant preacher from Nazareth — he is also the divine Son of God!  Everything that they witness confirms this fact.

However, they aren’t allowed to do anything about what they have witnessed — at least not yet.

Peter’s excited request to build shrines for Jesus and the two great personalities of Jewish history is ignored.

And then, though these three must be bursting with the desire to tell their fellow disciples down in the valley what they have seen, they are instructed not to say anything about it until after the resurrection!  What incredible self-discipline that would require!

Strange that though they were being trained as witnesses by the Master Teacher, they are being told to suppress their witness — for the time being.

Perhaps we can learn from this that some spiritual experiences must await the right moment to be shared.  Timing is everything.  And perhaps this particular experience wasn’t intended for the disciples’ benefit anyway.  Perhaps this was more a matter of confirmation and comfort and confidence for Jesus as he begins to turn his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem – and the cross.


I am deeply grateful for the moments of spiritual insight that I have experienced in my life.  However, I can honestly say that I’ve never had any experience quite as dramatic as that which Peter and the Zebedee’s experienced!

I suppose I can identify more closely with the other nine disciples who remained at the foot of the mountain.  Nevertheless, like them, I have become firmly convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, and has been crucified, raised from the dead, and is alive today. This is not merely because I’ve read about it, or heard it in church, but because by faith I have experienced his resurrection!

As the great old hymn says:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.  (Alfred Henry Ackley)

Our Lord, I confess my own unworthiness to behold what Peter and James and John beheld.  Yet I give you thanks for all that you have shared with me.  I know that you are the Son of God, and that you live forever.  Help me to know when and how to share that with others when it is the right time.  Amen. 

Transfiguration” by Ted is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Epistle for February 11, 2018



2 Corinthians 4:3-6


This passage is a little difficult to comprehend without its entire context. In 2 Corinthians 3:6-18, Paul has drawn a contrast between the Law of Moses and the Law of the Spirit.  The former is a revelation that fades and is insufficient to reveal God’s complete glory; the latter endures and brings transformation to those who believe in Christ. The letter of the law leads to death because it doesn’t also bring the power to fulfill its demands; only the Spirit can bring life because the Spirit brings freedom.

Paul uses the image of the veil worn by Moses in Exodus as an illustration.  After being in the presence of God, Moses put a veil over his face because his face shone with the Glory of God (Exodus 34:32-34). In Paul’s interpretation, Moses wore the veil because the glory of God was fading.  He represents the insufficiency of the law to bring salvation. But because of their faith, the veil is removed from Christians, who behold the glory of the Lord and are being transformed by the Spirit.

So in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Paul continues his contrasts.  The gospel is hidden to those who are lost because they still wear the veil that prevents them from seeing the truth.

But those who perceive the light of Christ now know that his light shines not externally but in their hearts.


It isn’t that difficult to imagine how the god of this world blinds us to the truth in our contemporary culture.  How do we overcome the spiritual blindness that can so easily afflict us? The answer lies in maintaining our focus on the light revealed in the face of Christ.

The answer is not found in what we  have done, but on what Christ has done for us.


I confess I am too easily distracted by the phantasms and flickering images of this world – between television, the internet, social media, and all the rest, I am easily led to believe the “reality” of this world.  It becomes more and more apparent that I must continue to gaze upon the reality of Christ, in his Word, in worship, and in prayer.

Lord, remove the veil from my eyes that I may see your glory.  That is the only reality that will endure, and that will truly transform me.  Amen.  



Psalm Reading for February 11, 2018

Psalm 50:1-6


This Psalm is attributed to Asaph.  Asaph is likely either a Levite who ministered in music, or part of a group associated with the temple.

The Psalmist notes the Lord’s power over the earth as he calls the earth to hear him from dawn to dusk.  But the Lord is not only God of all the earth, he also has a particular interest in Zion, which is the idealized political and religious center of Israel in Jerusalem.

On the one hand, God is a judge who will exact justice like a devouring fire.  On the other hand, God recognizes those who have entered into covenant with him, those whom he calls his saints. 

His righteousness is manifest in the heavens themselves as the work of his hands.


Our understanding of God is never adequate unless we understand his power, perfection, and righteousness.  Sometimes we may have a tendency to reduce God to our level as our “friend” and “companion” and forget that his is a terrible beauty, like a devouring fire.

This is a reminder that we may count ourselves blessed if we are the saints who have kept covenant with God.


I try to keep a balance between my understanding of God as my loving and merciful heavenly Father, and a righteous judge who doesn’t tolerate evil.

Pardon and mercy don’t eliminate the fact that God still requires righteousness from me.  My personal relationship with him doesn’t eliminate my accountability for my actions.  It only makes his grace and mercy that much more precious.

Our Lord, your power and your holiness are awesome.  If you were to judge me based on my purity, I would be burned to cinders by your devouring fire.  I am infinitely grateful that Jesus was wounded for my transgressions and crushed for my iniquities.  And my gratitude for his sacrifice on my behalf brings me to tears.  Amen.  

Psalm 50:3” by Sapphire Dream Photography is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

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