Know The Rules


I am preaching at Red Hook United Methodist Church, 4 Church Street, Red Hook, NY 12571, this Sunday.  The service starts at 9:30 with a hymn sing starting at 9:15.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 29: 15 – 28, Romans 8: 26 – 39, and Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 -52.


Location of church

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Many years ago, in a time long past and a place far away, I was a football official. I officiated junior high games on Thursdays, high school games on Fridays, and elementary school age level games on Saturdays. Most of the time, I enjoyed doing these games. They were fun to do and I would see things happen that very seldom happened in college or professional games.

But it was also frustrating, especially with the elementary school age level teams and coaches. At the beginning of each season, the officials’ group would send officials out to every team and go over the league rules, highlighting the changes and reminding the coaches of the differences in the game since they played. But, as the season played out you could see that many of the coaches had their own ideas about the rules and what the officials could do with those rules.

Many of the coaches coached the game as they were coached when they played the game some twenty years before and, quite honestly, they didn’t know or care that some of the rules had changed since they played their last game. In addition, many of the fans also were not aware that the rules for games played during the week are often different from the games they saw on Sundays. It has been said that the most common words uttered by game officials on Saturday are, “this isn’t Sunday, coach.”

And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?

And, yes, there were instances that challenged my love of the game, such as the time a father of a cheerleader attacking the referee over a call (the father was banned from the games for the rest of that season). I probably would have moved up to officiating college games on Saturday afternoons except that I forgot a basic rule of kinesiology; a knee can bend in only one direction and damage will occur when the knee is forced to do otherwise. I injured my knee trying to get out of the way of a developing play and suffered the proverbial career-ending knee injury.

Rules, especially in football, are meant to protect the players. And those who do not know the rules or seek to bend the rules and find some advantage risk damage that goes beyond the boundaries of the playing field.

The same is true in life as well. It helps if we know the rules, whether they are the rules of sports or the rules of life.

We impose a speed limit on cars and trucks traveling on our roads and highways because there is a safety factor involved and we are required to wear seatbelts for the same reason. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from traveling faster than the posted speed limit. There are motorcyclists who don’t like the laws that require helmets but the reasons for such laws become apparent only after an accident. Not knowing the rules often leads to results and consequences neither anticipated nor welcomed.

Today’s Old Testament reading relates how Jacob worked for his kinsman for seven years in order to marry Rachel. It was only after he had worked the seven years and the marriage ceremony that he discovered it was the custom of the people to marry off the oldest daughter first. Jacob’s life might have been a little better if he had known what the rules were concerning marrying a younger sister. But because he didn’t know the rules, Jacob, who had tricked his brother out of his inheritance, found himself marrying Leah. To Jacob’s credit, because he loved Rachel, he agreed to work for Laban another seven years so that he could marry Rachel.

I am not going to say much about what he must have been thinking when he thought he was marrying Rachel but ended up with Leah. Nor am I going to say much about those who argue for Biblical marriages when Jacob is married to two sisters and has children by both of them as well as their maids.

Can we have a life without rules or laws? Of course we can’t. Laws are the fabric which holds society together. But problems arise when we forget why we create laws or develop rules for behavior.

We speak of the Ten Commandments as being the basis for our laws. But we forget that God gave these ten basic principles of life after he brought the people out of Egypt. God did not pick out a group of people wandering around in the desert and say, “follow these commandments and I will save you.” Rather, He said, “Because I have saved you, these are the rules by which I expect you to live.”

He also explained what would happen when we followed these new rules and what would happen if we chose not to follow them. This was the basis for the Law Covenant, the agreement between God and the nation of Israel as the Abrahamic Covenant was an agreement between God and Abraham. And, as a covenant, it established a relationship between God and the people.

Yet, when the Israelites were first told about the Law, they rebelled and turned against God. And since that day so many years ago, humanity has demanded a rulebook by which to live instead of seeking a relationship with God.

The Law was never instituted to replace our relationship with God. It was meant to increase our relationship with God. But throughout history, people have missed the meaning and spirit of the Law and embraced the letter of the law. So fearful were the Pharisees that they might inadvertently break one of the Ten Commandments that they created 613 additional laws. 365 of these new laws began with “don’t” while the remaining 248 began with “you can do this”. But each law was a degree of control.

The Law was supposed to reveal sin and cause the people to turn to God. Robert Schuller wrote “God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.” Yet more often than not, in our attempts to follow the law rather than the Spirit, we still end up in sin. Instead of setting us free, the laws we create enslave us.

Like the Pharisees before us, we are so afraid that we will lose our access to heaven that we make rules and laws that control our lives and the lives of others. While there is a clear need for laws and rules, it must be understood that laws should never be so constructed as to harm others. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.

When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you needed instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools whose students had parents with the financial resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the financial resources, then the band didn’t get the better instruments, uniforms or other equipment.

The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or societal ones, as the means to achieving success. Obey the laws and success would be yours. Disobey the laws and you fail. And we see salvation as our ability to successfully follow the laws. Salvation can never be determined by how well you follow the laws of society or the church but by your relationship with God.

And while many times the Israelites had the right actions, they still missed the whole love relationship with God. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is not giving us a set of rules but rather an explanation of this relationship. He is moving beyond the simple statement of the law to the idea of what we are to do with our lives.

We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior and that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.

This makes the passage from Romans that we read for today a very interesting passage to read. Paul writes that there is a path laid out before us, a path laid out by God long before we were ever born. This can mean one of two things. Either that the path that we walk through life is fixed and God already knows the outcome of our life or God knows where we are headed right now but there is an opportunity to change that direction.

The first option, a form of what is called Calvinism, is, to me, essentially a “no-win” solution. It says that God already knows who will be saved and who will not; there is no choice in the matter. But we don’t know which we are. If this is true and the outcome of our life is already decided, then we don’t need to worry about the rules for life because it doesn’t matter. We are either going into heaven or we are not and there isn’t a single thing we can do about it.

Personally, I have a hard time with that view. For if there is no choice in the matter, then why did God send His Son? Of what value in our lives was Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? It seems to me that if God sent His Son, it was because He loved us and He was willing to show His love. That is the basic rule of life; that is the rule that we need to be thinking about today and tomorrow. Whatever we do, whatever we say must come from that single fact that God loves us. It brings the Law back into perspective and it shows us the relationship as it is supposed to be.

That is why Jesus used the analogies that we read in the Gospel passage for today. We have to see the world in a new way, with each one of us a part of the kingdom. We are not to go out to destroy the world but to build it up. We are not to be the judge of right and wrong, good and evil; that will be decided at the proper time by God.

Each of the prophets spoke about the relationship between the people and God. They cried out about how God is angry because they have not kept the commandments. The people would always respond that they had kept the commandments and made the proper sacrifices and did the right things. But, as Isaiah proclaimed, God did not want sacrifices done out of habit but rather deeds done out of love. The people then, as now, had trouble realizing that what they were doing did not make the relationship with God stronger but weaker. Their actions did not protect them from sin but made sin more of their lives.

And each of the prophets spoke of the One who was to come, the One who would bring hope and a sense of renewal, the Messiah. There was a chance for the people then to change their ways and prepare for the Messiah. The same is true today.

The task before us is not to create laws or rules that prevent or protect us. For when we do so, we simply put up barriers that keep us from God. Rather, we are to break down the barriers that laws have put between people and prevented people from reaching God.

Each of us says that we are one person and we can do nothing. But Jesus spoke of the mustard seed, one of the smallest seeds in the plant kingdom, growing into one of the largest bushes and one that provided much in the way of shelter and comfort. We may see ourselves as small cogs in a big world and incapable of doing much but consider this.

One individual walked to the Indian Ocean one day and picked up a few grains of salt from the beach where the water had evaporated. This was a violation of British laws that prohibited Indians from owning or processing raw salt. But this singular action by Gandhi was the act that began the movement that would result in independence for India and Pakistan.

A black lady, going home from work one day, was hot and tired. So she sat down in the first seat that she came to on the bus. But the law said that she had to sit in the back of the bus and not the front where the available seat was and if another person, a white person, demanded that seat, she was to give it up. That singular act of defiance by Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four young black college students sat at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter. The seats at the counter and in the booth were for the white customers; black customers had to stand if they wanted to eat there. And when they were refused service and told they had to leave, they politely said no and remained seated. This was the first successful sit-in; six months of peaceful, non-violent protests lead to the counter and seats being open for all customers, regardless of their color. The sit-in movement spread throughout the south and helped to end segregation in public facilities. It brought attention to the differences between people when we create laws and rules that control what we can do.

These were acts of non-violence; they were driven and guided by love. Yes, there was violence but it was violence by those who opposed equality and freedom and who did not understand the use of non-violence as a means of protest.

There are individuals today who take on seemingly impossible tasks. We live in a society today where violence is too often the norm and not the exception. And our response to violence is often violence in return. We seek revenge, not justice.

Do you remember the killing of the Amish children back in October, 2006? Do you remember the response of the Amish community? While some, when faced with violence, would respond with violence, this community chose to offer comfort and support to the family of the gunman who killed their children.

In my message at Dover United Methodist Church (“There Is A Choice”) two weeks ago, I spoke of hearing the message from the Catholic Mass at Fordham University. The priest who officiated that morning, Charles Beirne, S. J., spoke of a friend who sought justice for his sister, a Christian Aid worker, who was killed by government troops in El Salvador in the 1980s. Whether we are speaking of one person or several people, if they are empowered by the Love of God through Jesus Christ and not by the rules that society says that we must follow, they can make a difference.

And I should not have to remind you of one man who spent three years on this earth speaking and teaching about bringing hope to the less fortunate, of healing the sick, of feeding the hungry and bringing justice to the oppressed. And for his efforts He was branded a threat to the state and executed by one of the cruelest forms of torture invented by mankind, crucifixion.

When we say that we are Christians, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Christ and to do what He did. We are not called to die on the cross but we are called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring hope and justice to the less fortunate and oppressed. We are called to do what is right; we are called to know the rules.

The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners


This was published in the May/June, 1992 issue of In Chemistry (the magazine of the student affiliates of the American Chemical Society. In the 16 years since this was published, there have been further changes in the various materials described in the article.

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When you think of bowling, it is very seldom with a consideration for the chemistry that went into its development. Recently, an article (“Predicting the Path of a Bowling Ball”, Edward Zecchina, CHEMTECH) appeared in CHEMTECH, describing the physics involved in rolling a bowling ball. (Note added in 2008 – changes in the composition of bowling balls now need to be considered when thinking about the physics involved.) Whenever bowling appears on television, you are apt to hear the announcers discussing the friction of the lane and the choice of balls used to deal with that friction. The friction between a bowling ball and the lane surface is a direct result of the chemistry of the ball, the lane, the lane coating, and the lane conditioner.

Lane coatings are liquid compounds applied directly to the lane surface and may be composed of urethane – or water-based or epoxy formulations. Lane conditioners (commonly known as oil or dressing) are substances placed on top of the lane surface and coating. Bowlers sometimes refer to the “wax” or “grease” on the lane, but these are incorrect terms. All conditioners are oil-based compounds. Lane conditioners have two purposes, the importance of which depends on whom you ask. From a maintenance standpoint, the primary purpose of conditioners and coatings is to protect the lane surface. For the proprietor, conditioners are used to assure consistent scoring. The role of conditioners in scoring is one of the more controversial topics in bowling. It is possible to place conditioner on the lane in such a manner that it improves the bowler’s score. This obviously is not the intent of assuring consistent scoring.

Originally, bowling balls were made out of lignum vitae, a wood so dense that it would sink in water. These balls were prone to chipping, so manufacturers searched for a suitable substance. In 1905, Brunswick introduced the first commercial rubber bowling balls. As part of their advertising campaign, the manufactures sent the balls, known as “Mineralites” on a tour of YMCAs around the country. At this time, there was no concern for the relationship between bowling balls and lane surfaces.

Until the 1940s, bowling lanes were coated with shellac. During this era, it was rather easy to see where one should roll the ball because a track, easily visible to the bowler, was created in the shellac coating. In part because World War II limited the supply of shellac, and because of the operational requirements for shellac, nitrocellulose-based lacquer-type coatings were developed. Lacquers perform better than shellac, but the fact that they are nitrocellulose compounds is a major disadvantage. In addition to the obvious hazards of flammability and explosiveness, there was also a need for special conditioning agents that would allow the surface to perform properly. The introduction of lane conditioners solved this second problem; safety problems took more time to solve.

In response to the need for safer lane coatings, manufacturers sought to develop suitable alternatives. Among the alternatives developed were urethane, urethane/epoxy combinations, high-flash point solvents, and water-based systems. Each of these coatings was designed to replace the nitrocellulose lacquers and provide an added measure of safety. A discussion of these types of lane coatings may be found in the Guide to Fire Resistant Bowling Lane Coatings (Remo Picchietti, Tech Ed Publishing Company, Deerfield, Illinois, 1972).

The next change in bowling ball composition came with the development of the polyester ball in 1959. Such balls provided more hooking action on the prevalent lane finishes. Originally, polyester balls were transparent, but this allowed dirt to be more visible, so the formulation was changed to make the balls opaque in order to hide the dirt.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a problem concerning these new polyester balls and existing lane conditions arose. For a ball to react properly there must be a certain coefficient of friction. However, the coefficient of friction between the polyester ball and lane conditioning material was too low, casing the ball to skid too far down the lane and not have the proper hooking action. To counter this, some professional bowlers sought compounds that would soften the surface of the ball and thus increase the coefficient of friction. Among the compounds tried were methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), acetone, and toluene.

The use of chemicals to soak bowling balls brought about obvious safety problems. With a concern for the limited supervision and lack of safety such usage would involve, the American Bowling Congress (now the United States Bowling Congress) and the Professional Bowlers Association set standards for the softness of a bowling ball. One professional bowler from St. Louis was overheard to say that “after 10 years of learning how to throw a hook, today I went out and bought one,” referring to the increased hooking action of these new bowling balls.

The next change in bowling came with the increased use of urethane-based lane finishes. As before, these changes were made primarily for economic reasons. However, as lane finishes and conditions change, there is a corresponding change in bowling balls. It was found that bowling balls made from urethane compounds would perform best on these new lane finishes and conditions.

A problem with early models of urethane balls was that they tended to soak up the lane conditioner. As a result, it would be necessary to periodically wash the ball in hot water and detergent to remove the lane conditioner from the pores of the surface. An additional countermeasure taken by many bowlers was to sand the surface of the ball. Doing so improved the hooking action of the ball. Some bowlers originally sanded only the “track” of the bowling ball, but this has been ruled illegal. If a bowler sands any portion of the ball, be it urethane or otherwise, the entire ball must be sanded. Just as soaking polyester balls in selected solvents dramatically increased the hooking action and bowler’s scores, so do did sanding the surface of a urethane ball. The American Bowling Congress is currently evaluating proposals that would limit the number of times a bowler may do this to a particular ball. The purpose of such legislation would be to ensure that a bowler’s score is the result of individual skill and not artificial techniques. This legislation is similar to the standards placed on golf clubs and golf balls by the USGA.

Until the 1980s, bowling lanes were made from maple and pine. The first 15 feet of a lane were made from hard rock maple with the last 45 feet made from softer pine. The harder maple was used because it could withstand the impact from the bowling balls. The rest of the lane was made from pine because it provided a better interaction between the ball and the surface. Also, pine is cheaper than maple. Recently, bowling has seen the development of lane surfaces made from synthetic materials. This change, along with new lane finishes and ball materials, makes the search for optimal scoring an on-going process.

(Since first written, the introduction of newer synthetic lane surfaces has caused a change in the nature of lane conditioners and the composition of bowling balls. Each change in one of the factors forces changes in the others.)

Chemistry has had an impact on the development of bowling balls, lane conditioners, finishes and surfaces (and will continue to do so for the coming years). Unfortunately, simply knowing the chemistry of a bowling balls’ composition or the physics of its trip down the lane will not improve one’s average. That can only be accomplished through practice.

Acknowledgments

I wish to thank Mike Sands of Columbia Industries, Dan Speranza of the American Bowling Congress, Remo Picchietti of DBA Products Co. Inc., and John Wonders, Sr. of Faball Enterprises for their input into the preparation of this article.

The Garden We Plant


I am preaching at two churches, Fort Montgomery UMC and The United Methodist Church of the Highlands (Highland Falls, NY) this coming Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost.

The service at Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church starts at 9:30 am with the service in Highland Falls beginning at 11 am.

Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922
United Methodist Church of The Highlands 341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928

Directions View Larger Map

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 28: 10  – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43.  Note this has been edited since I first posted it.

(I added the link to “The Lost Generation” on 9 November 2009)

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Over the past few weeks and for the next few weeks to come the Scripture readings have focused (and will focus) on growth. The Gospel readings have been the parables of Jesus planting seeds in gardens and the difficulty of getting the right conditions for growth.

The Old Testament readings have been about the family of Abraham and its growing pains from the man Abram living in Ur to the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel living in the Promised Land. Even the Epistle readings, Paul’s writings, have dealt with our own growth as individuals and with Christ.

Against that backdrop, my wife and I have been planting and developing a Children’s Garden at Grace Church (actually, my wife has been doing the work; I get the “fun” tasks of digging holes, moving rocks, rolling up the hoses, and putting the tools away). As we have prepared the soil, we have uncovered stones and debris of every size and shape; we have encountered the remnants of an old foundation, and we have dealt with and removed every sort of weed and unwanted foliage imaginable. I found a rock that I was going to call the “Peter Rock” because of its size until I found one bigger. If nothing else, the work in the garden has made the parables of Jesus come alive. But then again, that is why the parables were told and retold, to make the Gospel message come alive.

It is possible that Jesus could have told the message of the parables from an academic or theological standpoint and without the allegory or metaphors. He could have answered questions about the Heavenly Kingdom and God’s plan for us just has he did with the scholars and priests in the Temple when He was twelve (Luke 2:39-52). But many of those who came to hear Him when He was in the hills of the Galilee would probably not have understood such discourses. They were peasants, shepherds, and farmers; so the stories that they would remember and tell others needed to be stories about peasants, shepherds, and farmers, stories about themselves.

And perhaps that is why the disciples had trouble learning the message. As fisherman, stories about farming and being a shepherd were a far cry from their own lives, background, and knowledge. They understood the call to be fishers of men because they were fishermen. To seek the lost lamb as a shepherd would was a completely different story and one not easily understood by fishermen.

But it seems to me that even today, by the actions and words of the church today, we have forgotten the stories, do not understand those stories, or feel that they are no longer a part of our lives. Recent reports tell us that many people outside the church and even within the church see the church as hypocritical, of saying one thing but doing another. For me, this is not just something that others are saying.

I grew up in the South where people sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” on Sunday and then went out and enforced segregation in the schools and public institutions on Monday.

Nor is it is just something from my past. Reports of young people leaving the church or never coming near it are painfully close to home. One of our granddaughters is not interested in church because of what she sees and hears from those who proclaim to be Christian but who lead lives that are anything but Christian. It used to be that we could say that the reason our children left the church is because they have grown up and are on their own. That is true but it is also evident that the church has driven them away.  (see “The Lost Generation”)

And that can only mean that we have either forgotten the stories, don’t understand them, or they don’t figure into our lives anymore. We may sing “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” but we sing them as songs from our childhood. We are adults now and childhood stories don’t count anymore. They are meant for someone else; we have to deal with more practical things. Many people see what is done and said on Sunday as totally independent of what we do the rest of the week. We prefer to think in terms of the world and what the world calls upon us to do. But the world around us, as Paul so often reminds us, is not attuned to the message of the Gospel.

And that is where we fail. The world may not be tuned to the message of the Gospel because we have failed to do what we have been asked to do.  The Gospel reading for today is to remind us, as the previous few readings have done and the readings to come will do, that we are asked to prepare the fields for planting and, when the time comes, harvest the crops. But, for so many, the garden planned and planted on Sunday begins to wither and die on Monday.

Do we not have people today who sow the seeds that grow into weeds in our churches today? By their inaction, indifference, and intolerance do they not choke the growth of the church and its work in the community? Is it possible that those who call themselves Christians are the ones who sow the seeds of mistrust and discord in the garden that we are trying to plant? Unfortunately, the answer for those questions is too often “yes.”

There are those who offer words that sound like the Gospel message but lack the substance of the Gospel. There are those who offer words of encouragement and hope but give little to bring about actual encouragement and hope. There are those who preach hatred, exclusion, and violence and yet dare to call it the Gospel. There are those who would call on the wrath of God to destroy people while God Himself is calling us to help them. The fruits of these words are the weeds that choke off and kill the flowers that should be growing in our gardens.

It is no wonder so many people are leaving the church today. They cannot see the small blossoms of truth and beauty growing in the church’s garden because the weeds have overtaken the garden.

And it isn’t that there are others working to destroy the garden. We don’t always want to do the work that is required. It is hard working in the garden day after day and we don’t want to do that. We like a Gospel message that is easy to listen to and doesn’t require much from us. And we get angry when we are called to do God’s work; why must it be us? We sometimes express the thoughts that Joseph Donders, teacher and chaplain at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, expressed,

Jesus sowed the seed in our hearts and then off he went. He knew that things would not be ideal. There would be birds, droughts, weeds, insects, parasites and blights. Growing the gardens would not be easy but then He gave us the power of the seed itself (from Verse and Voice, 15 July 15, 2008 – Sojourners).

The power of the seed is the Holy Spirit; just as God promised Jacob that He, God, would be there, so too is the power of the Holy Spirit present in the work that we do. But we ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit and try to do the work ourselves. And it is, as Paul pointed out very hard work and in a culture that expects the results now, the promises of rewards later doesn’t fit too well.

 

We planted the gardens several years ago and we are content with what is growing now. We know what it takes to care for a garden and we do not need anyone telling us what to do. At times, it seems as if we know the answers before the questions are asked. And we hold onto our own ideas, ideas that may have worked years before, but are clearly not working today (see “That’s nice, preacher”). Gardens are not easy to take care of; they require constant work to maintain. Unless you are willing to work in the garden that you planted, it will not grow; the weeds will come back and take over. And all our work is lost.

We can have gardens that remind us of the years past and the ones who have gone on to greater glory (as well we should). But we must also have gardens that speak to the future and what the future offers. As Paul said, our life is not a grave-tending life but one of adventure; our gardens should be full of the anticipation of what will blossom and flourish each year.

We must do like Jacob did in today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau. Esau had threatened to kill Jacob because Jacob had lied and deceived Isaac in order to gain the birthright. When Esau finally understood that he had lost almost everything and nothing that he did would get it back, he vowed to kill Jacob. Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven is a sign from God that he, Jacob, was not running away from God but to God. In renaming the place where he slept as Bethel, Jacob was saying to the world this is God’s place, this is where my journey begins, not where it ends. We must do the same as well.

We must make a statement that God is present in everything we say and do. Paul speaks, not of our relationship with the world around us in the past and today, but of our relationship with God through Christ for today and tomorrow. Our gardens will not always be free of stones or weeds and it will be a constant struggle to let the garden grow. But that is symbolic of our relationship with God. The garden that we plant and take care of is our relationship with God. And it begins here today.

Why do we come to church each week? Do we come out of habit, trying to tend the garden of our memory when life was good and things weren’t so hard? Life, as Paul wrote in the words that we heard today, is always hard and we should not delude ourselves that it was once otherwise.

Or did we come here today because we want to plant a garden for the future? Do we come because we know that God is here, in this place, and this is our chance to once again be renewed and refreshed by the Holy Spirit so that we can go back out into the world and plant God’s garden? We are called to plant and care for a garden but which garden shall we plant?

The Homily for July 6, 2006 – Fordham University Chapel


As I mentioned in my own message for July 13, 2008 (“There Is A Choice”), I often get the chance to listen to the Catholic Mass broadcast on WFUV, the Fordham University campus radio station.  It is an opportunity for me to continue the worship that began that morning.  I heard this one after I completed the worship service at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (“What Exactly Is Freedom?”); the priest who gave this homily, Father Charles Beirne S. J., has given me permission to post it.  It is a very powerful message on what one person can do to bring justice to this world.

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A friend of mine, a Wall St. lawyer, and a graduate of Brooklyn Prep and Fordham, lived the life of any committed Christian, loving his wife and his six children, and going to work on the Jersey commuter train every day. And then the Salvadoran armed forces murdered his sister, two other nuns and a lay missionary on December 2, 1980. This tragedy transformed his life and that of his whole family from that day forward.

Unable to attend his sister’s funeral in Chalatenango, El Salvador, Bill saw his sister’s grave for the first time in slides projected on to the wall of my office at Regis High School in Manhattan. Over the past 20 years he made several trips to El Salvador, often taking some of his children with him, and he badgered officials of the U.S. State Department who did not want to investigate too closely the murder of the American churchwomen, lest the results embarrass some of their Salvadoran allies. He spoke at many events honoring his sister and the others, and he gave a moving commencement address and received an honorary degree from Fordham University in 1990.

A few years after the killing, five foot soldiers, who did the actual killing, were arrested, convicted and served over 15 years in jail, but the colonel who gave the execution order still lives in freedom with impunity. Bill and his colleagues persisted, and they eventually got a conviction in a civil case at a Florida federal court of two generals who presided over massive violation of human rights in El Salvador. One of the generals was a first cousin of the colonel who ordered the killing of the American churchwomen. Since it was a civil case the generals did not go to jail, and the victims will never see the money awarded by the court. But, after so many years, at least some justice was at last rendered in the case.

Bill Ford died last month after an almost two-year struggle against cancer, working in his office up to the end and helping so many of us in justice causes. At the funeral mass Bill’s son, who is now the Principal of the Cristo Rey High School in Harlem, praised and thanked his father for his love, his integrity, and his relentless pursuit of justice. Bill’s wife and their six children continue to work for justice in so many different ways, the greatest tribute they could render to Bill.

When I reviewed the readings for today’s liturgy my thoughts turned naturally to Bill.

The Prophet Zechariah presents to us a king, riding on a colt, a just savior, who will banish the chariots and the horses of war. He shall proclaim peace to the nations, says the reading. Bill Ford, in his quiet, professional way, turned the law on the villains, and insisted on justice which is the foundation for true peace. He reminded civil officials in Washington and in the American embassy in San Salvador about their moral obligations to find out the truth about countless violations of human rights and to achieve justice for the thousands of victims, especially the poor, but his message often fell on deaf ears.

The second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans calls our attention to the Spirit of God in our lives, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. The reading tells us that “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” God’s Spirit enlivened Bill Ford and has now given him new life.

We also find consolation in the words of the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest, for I am meek and humble of heart…For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” When one is motivated by faith and trust and love of God, as Bill Ford was, then all burdens become light. He never tired in his pursuit of justice and we should never let up in our own struggles for justice. For God’s Spirit is in us, when we are our best selves, and open to God’s abundant grace.

Must It Be Business As Usual?


The other day, in response to a question about displays of patriotism during Sunday services during national holidays, I added the comment that peace and freedom are not won on the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of the people.

A blogging colleague responded by saying that this assertion was wrong. He said that war is sometimes the solution and that peace and freedom are sometimes won on the battlefield. He added that imperfect freedom and imperfect peace make for imperfect solutions but that such solutions are sometimes much better than the alternative.

I was tempted to ask what war actually solves and why we must settle for imperfect solutions. But as the focus of the remainder of my colleague’s remarks was on that original topic, so too will the focus of these remarks be on the issue at hand. But his comments are reflective of what I see happening in the world today,

We are in the midst of an economic crisis in this country. It is likely that this crisis will transcend national boundaries and slowly and surely begin to affect the other nations of this world. It is a crisis driven in part by the increasing energy crisis. Because so much of what we use today is somehow related to the price of energy, if we do not solve the energy crisis, then we cannot solve the economic crisis.

Yet, the offered solution to the energy crisis is to drill for more oil and let the supply of new oil drive down the current price of oil. In theory, this is a correct idea. But I see several problems with this solution.

First, drilling for oil takes time and any oil that is obtained through new drilling will not be on the market for several years. Our refining capabilities are, it seems, are at their maximum levels right now, so we would need additional capacity in that regard; again, a process that takes time.

There are some who are opposed to new drilling, especially in the Alaska North Slope fields, because of environmental concerns. Their concerns are valid and need to be taken into consideration. Any new drilling and the construction of new refiners must take into consideration environmental issues and, more importantly, such concerns must remain beyond the simple start of the project. Typically, long-term maintenance is often forgotten and this is where the problems start.

Finally, we have to consider that fact that the supply of crude oil is fundamentally limited. Sooner or latter, it will run out and we cannot produce it anymore. And as long as our economy is based on the supply of crude oil, we are going to be faced with this situation.

Whether it is more oil to solve the energy crisis or war as the solution to war, we have this nasty habit of seeing our solution in current and past terms. When will we begin to think “outside the box” and seek alternative solutions?

There are three ways to see the world – “yesterday was better than today”, “there is nothing wrong with today”, and “let’s make tomorrow better than today.” The problem is that, more often than not, we see the world in terms of the first two views and give little thought to the third. We do not seek alternative solutions because we are either incapable of thinking in those terms (and given the state of education today, that should not be surprising) or we are afraid to think in those terms.

To think in new ways is a frightening experience. We are far more comfortable thinking in the same old ways that we have used all our lives, even when we know they do not work. We long for the good old days when things worked and there were no problems. We are in a comfort zone and we do not want that comfort zone disturbed. And when things like September 11th happened, we do not know how to respond and we become fearful.

Our politics are based on those views. Our politics today are more fear than hope. Politicians on both sides of the spectrum speak more to our fears than our hopes and the only change that may occur is the change when they modify their views to fit the current polling data.

To ask people to think differently is a monumental task but it can be done. It will take time and it will not be easy (both of which are factors that many people don’t want to face today). It will require leaders who are willing to put forth new ideas, not ideas that respond to the polls. And if they put forth these new and radical ideas, they will have to put forth the commitment to hold to those ideas, not matter what happens.

I don’t want my political leaders to be television weathermen, telling me which way the wind blows. I don’t want my political leaders to tell me what is happening and how the other side is to blame. I want my political leaders to lead.

And the American people have to do the same. Instead of meekly accepting politics as usual, it is time that the people start asking the hard questions. It is time that we begin to see the world for what it can be, not what it is, and it is time to say, “enough of the usual processes; they don’t work. Let us begin something new.”

Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian.com

There Is A Choice


I am again preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY.  The service starts at 11 and you are always welcome to attend.

Directions View Larger Map

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Romans 8: 1 – 11, and Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23.

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I don’t know about you but I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Esau had not given away his birthright to Jacob as described in today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 25: 19 – 34). Would the outcome have been any different? Would Esau have become the father of the twelve tribes? Or would Isaac still have been the father of the twelve tribes but without the double share of the inheritance that came with being the first born?

It is hard to say what would have happened but that is not our worry. That question, and the accompanying question of free will versus pre-determination, is for theologians and philosophers.

But if we say that Esau had to surrender his birthright then what we are saying is that we don’t have any free will and that everything is pre-determined. And to say that everything is pre-determined is to say that we don’t have much say in what is to happen to us. That’s good news for some because it means that they never have to take responsibility for their actions. They can do whatever they desire and say that they had no control over their actions.

But the bad news is that if we have no say, then we have no hope. And if we have no hope, then we have no future. And from the very start of His ministry, Jesus said He came to offer hope which means that we have a future.

But along with this future comes a choice. We can choose what we want to do but we have to be responsible for our actions and we have to face the consequences of what we do. We can see the world in terms of the things around us or we can see the world in terms of God’s plan for us and how we fit into that plan, even if we can’t figure out what that particular role might be.

Esau’s problem wasn’t a matter of pre-determination and that his brother Isaac would rule over him. It was that he was more concerned about his need for food and his desire to resolve that problem right then and there. He gave little thought to the future. Paul points out that when we lead our lives that way, for the now and immediate gratification, we are likely to end up in trouble.

We try to use the law to control our lives but as Paul pointed out in today’s reading (Romans 8: 1 – 11), the law is broken and flawed. Still, many people will try to use the law to control not only their own lives but the lives of others as well. Just as those who find in pre-determination the opportunity to do anything and not have to accept responsibility for their actions, so too do people use the law to protect themselves from the realities of the world around them and the tasks that God would have them do.

But, in the end, as Paul so often pointed out, the law and obedience to the law cannot deliver what people seek; the law cannot, in the end, deliver anything but despair and heartbreak. The law ties us to the present with wishful glances backwards; the law can never give us a vision of the future. Just as Esau was willing to give up his future for the present, so too does our reliance on the law prevent us from thinking and seeing the future. And our reliance on this type of thinking may have more to do with the problems of the world and our ability, or rather, our inability to solve them.

James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church & Society for The United Methodist Church, gave the 2008 commencement address at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. While he was speaking about members of Congress and what they intend to do when they come to Washington and what they end up doing, he could have just as easily spoken about many of us when he said

Somewhere along the way many decided to cash in and get their own piece of the rock. We are living in a time of moral crisis. Our values have been systematically subverted since September 11, 2001, and our indifference is not only lethargic but lethal. The quiet acceptance of torture and preemptive war eats away at the soul of American life. Our acquiescence to the big lies told by the rich and powerful—and repeated by the media ad infinitum—is frightening and demoralizing (From http://www.sugrads.org/articles/news_from_su/2008_commencement_address.aspx)

You can say that this is the way the system works and there is nothing that you can do about it. But it is a system that allows politicians to bend and break the laws, to say whatever is needed to get elected without meaning it. It is a system that allows ministers and preachers to preach hatred, exclusion, and violence in the name of God. It is a system that allows merchants and manufacturers to send work overseas in the name of low prices and cheap quality. It is a system that tells our young that money and things that are bought with money are more important that what you think or say or do. It is a system that reduces education to a mindless acceptance of the status quo and that offers little in the way of a challenge for all children.

If the system doesn’t work, then you have to fix the system. Some might say that this will require a violent revolution; I think not. But change will not come if you choose to stand aside and let others take away your rights, your freedoms, and your beliefs. You cannot do this simply by thinking about it; you must seek the solution.

In his book, “Why the Christian Right Is Wrong”, Robin Meyers issued a call for a non-violent response for the problems facing this country and this world. He wrote that faith should be seen more as an action-based verb than as a noun. Faith, he said, should be more than simply believing certain things; it should be about doing those things which need to be done so that the Kingdom of Heaven can be built on earth.

We must, as the prophet Micah wrote, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We may despise injustice but we must do more than shake our heads and say how terrible acts of injustice are. Too often, we stand by and let injustice and oppression take place.

As I was coming home from church last Sunday, I had the opportunity to hear the Catholic Mass broadcast on the Fordham University radio station (WFUV). I don’t always get this opportunity since the broadcast starts at 11 and there are many times when I am out of radio range. But when I do get the chance, it is an opportunity to continue the worship of the morning. And this last Sunday I got to hear the presiding priest speak of a friend of his whose sister was killed by the El Salvador army in the early 1980’s.

She was one of several Christian workers killed at that time because they sought to bring the Gospel message to the peasants. And in doing so, she and her co-workers brought the anger of the El Salvador government. In his homily, the priest did not say whether his friend was angry at the death of his sister or the manner in which it was done; though, it stands to reason that he and his family were angry and upset. He could have done many things but the thing that he did was to channel his emotions through his skills as a lawyer and seek justice. It took a long time and it required overcoming many obstacles, including our own government who was supporting the El Salvadorian government at that time. But in the end, his quiet, persistent and non-violent efforts brought about justice.

But you will say, as others have said, that violence is sometimes necessary and often times the only way. Some say (and have said) that slavery would not have ended were it not for the Civil War some 140 years ago. I am not that certain that it did. Slavery still exists, perhaps not in the physical bondage that we associate with the term, but most certainly in economic terms.

It may be that the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s would not have had its success if it were not for dogs attacking children and water from high pressure hoses tearing away the skin of protestors in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963 or Alabama state troopers beating marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Easter Sunday, March 7, 1965. It may have been the violence and the killings that caused people to cry out but it did not end the racism that was the cause of segregation. As long as one person continues to believe that the color of their skin or the size of their bank account makes them a better person than someone else, then racism will continue. As long as we see others less fortunate than we are as not worthy of the same treatment that we expect for ourselves, then racism will continue to exist in this country and throughout the world.

Peace and justice will not come if people hear the words but do nothing. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus pointed out that there would be those who heard the words but, like the seeds that fell on the rocky soil and did not grow, will do nothing. They sometimes even use the the rocks to build a stand that will give them a better view of what is happening and let them cheer as the parade passes us by. But it moves them further away from the Gospel, not closer, and so the Gospel dies, like seeds scattered on rocky soil.

If we want the Gospel to grow, then we have to get in the dirt. Yes, we will get dirty but if you want the seeds of the Gospel planted right, you have to get in the dirt and there is no way that you will not get dirty. And then you can start removing the rocks that block the future and keep things from growing. We are very familiar with the rocks that block the future. Gandhi called them the seven deadly sins and, if we did nothing, would destroy us: They are wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, and worship without sacrifice.

Each of these sins works to keep the Gospel from growing. But when you work in the field to remove them, that is when the Gospel takes hold and things start to grow. But you have to choose to get off the side; you have to choose to do what it is that you say you believe in. Faith becomes more than a noun, it becomes the verb.

We know there is a choice and we have the opportunity to make the right choice. We can stand by, saying the system will not work and there is nothing we can do. We may believe that our choice affects no one. Or we can choose to accept Jesus as our Savior, knowing that as His disciple, we can make a difference. I have spoken of Thomas Pettepiece before and I used his words today as my closing prayer.

Lord, I already know the best way to alter my life-style to the best advantage for all — live like Jesus. The Christian existence ideally is to imitate what you do. You send the sun and rain on everyone, you want me to bet back to the basic facts of life, to love without reservation, to distinguish between life’s needs and life itself, and seek first your kingdom knowing you will meet all my other needs.

Still it is easy to trust in the “things” of today and feel like it is up to me to see that humanity survives. Keep me from undue worry and pride. Remind me that life is a gift — not a right, and that my attitude toward the ultimate resources and values in life will determine how the earth’s resources will be handled and provided for those who need them. I have already formed many habits of consuming and acting. Guide me in aligning my personal priorities to conform to my awareness of a world hungry. May my life-style become more compatible with our biosphere and supportive of peoples around the world.

Lord, help me choose a simpler life-style that promotes solidarity with the world’s poor, helps me appreciate nature more, affords greater opportunity to work together with my neighbors, reduces my use of limited resources, creates greater inner harmony, saves money, allows time for mediation and prayer, incites me to take political and social action.

May all my decisions about my style of life celebrate the joy of life that comes from loving you. AMEN (from Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

What Exactly Is Freedom?


I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (Mahopac, NY) this Sunday.  You are invited to come if you are in the neighborhood (Directions – View Larger Map).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67; Romans 7: 15 – 25; and Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 -30.

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I think that the hardest sermons to write and preach are those on Sundays, such as today, which coincide with a national holiday. I say this because, very often, the national interest or reason for celebration runs counter to the teachings or interests of the church. And then again, the way people see the particular holiday may differ from the intent or reason for the holiday. This particular Sunday is no different.

We have heard or will hear politicians on both sides of the political aisle and preachers across the similar religious spectrum speak of freedom. But the freedom which is spoken of from the pulpit is supposed to be different than that spoken on the campaign trail.

Politicians speak of freedom obtained through armed force and conflict. They speak of a freedom that comes through the sacrifice of blood and youth. But they see the cost of war and conflict as a plus, not a minus. They do not see war as it truly is. On Christmas Day, 1862, General Robert E. Lee wrote his wife and said,

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace. … My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.”

We should never be so stupid as to prefer war over peace; yet, that is what it seems we do or seek to do. No major politician today who seeks office ever says that the solution to the world problems comes through feeding the people, healing the people, or building them homes. They won’t because it won’t get them elected.

And while conflict is necessary at times to preserve our freedom and it is inevitable that blood will be shed in such conflicts and young men and women will die in that effort, I have to wonder if we should glorify such efforts? Must we continue to create a culture of war that says that only those who have lead young men and women on a field of battle are capable of leading us? If leadership is learned in battle, and battle is the only way to resolve conflicts, how will we ever live in peace?

The sad thing is that too many preachers today do not speak out against war and conflict but rather seek to support it. Last year, when I spoke at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (And What Will You Say?), I made the comment that I saw a parallel between what is happening today, relative to the church and politics in general, and what happened in Germany in the 1930’s.

Then, when Adolph Hitler came to power, one of his greatest supporters was the Lutheran Church in Germany. They heard his nationalistic rhetoric and overlooked his racism and bigotry. It is hard to realize that some seventy years ago people died because the church turned a blind eye to the suffering and pain of the people. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm).

Many religious leaders today still speak of the inevitability of war and the need to fight to win the peace. But very little is said, in either the pulpit or in the heat of a political campaign, about removing the causes of war, or removing the causes of oppression. People seek war because they see it as the final solution. People who are hungry need food; people who are homeless need shelter; people who are sick need medicine; and people who are oppressed seek liberation. And they will listen to those leaders be they in the pulpit or in politics, who promise them everything if they will sacrifice their liberty and freedom and follow them.

Freedom is not won on a battlefield; freedom is earned when there is respect between people. Freedom is a choice made in compact with others.

This is, I believe the message of the Old Testament for today (Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67). The servant in the story is sent from Israel back to Ur to find a wife for Isaac. As you read or hear the words of the servant, you hear a certain hesitancy in his voice because he fears what will happen if he fails in this task.

You know how he feels. Sometime in your life, either as a child or at work, you have been given a task to complete. And with the task comes a feeling of dire consequences should you fail. This is how I think the servant feels. But he is given assurances that nothing will happen if he fails; in other words, he is given the freedom to finish the task.

Too often today we are told that dire consequences will come to us, individually and as a country, if we do not do something. The politics of today and any discussion of freedom today is given within the context of fear. But remove the element of fear and great things can happen.

Rebekah is also given a choice in this story. She can choose to go with the servant and become Isaac’s bride or she can choose to stay with her family in Ur. She did not have to go with the servant but she choose to do so and, in choosing that path, chose to follow God’s plan.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7: 15 – 25 ), also speaks of the freedom to choose. He understands that he is free to choose the path he wants to walk; he understands that he is free to chose to live however he chooses to live. And he understands the consequences of his choice when he chooses the wrong passage. Much has been made of this particular passage and other passages where he speaks of the things that bother him. Paul never does come out and say what it is that torments his soul. But he does say that the conflict is resolved when he views his life in terms of Christ and what Christ did for him, even when he (Paul) sought to persecute the early church.

I have heard it say that war is inevitable and that we must be prepared to go to war. I will not deny that we must defend our freedom but if we do nothing to remove the causes of conflict and distrust, then conflict will be inevitable. So why should we wait until the dogs of war are barking at our door? Why do we not do what we have been asked to do over the years.

The Great Commission states we are to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people. But that is not necessarily the best translation of that passage. It is a convenient translation because it gives us the opportunity to continue a war mentality; if you will not become a disciple, then we will make you one.

But other (and I believe better) translations tells us to have the people follow the ways that we were taught. And we were taught to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build houses for the homeless, and bring hope to the oppressed. The burden of freedom can be a heavy burden; that is why the Gospel reading for today (Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 -30) speaks of a yoke. We have chosen to wear a yoke that we call freedom but it is a heavy yoke and it encumbers us and enslaves us. We call it freedom but in reality it is sin.

But, in Christ, we are offered a chance to remove that yoke. In Christ, we are offered a choice of freedom, freedom over sin and death, freedom from slavery and oppression. And, as those who proclaim Christ as their Savior and Lord, we must bring that choice into the world.

Freedom is a choice, a choice to follow or not to follow. Freedom is an opportunity and we have that opportunity today.