The Differing Voices of Truth


I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.  The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

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This was my contribution for the 2009 Clergy Letter Project. (Updated on 14 February 2011)
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When I started thinking about this message, it was in the context of what was going on in Texas. I watch what goes on down there for a number of reasons. First, I have lived in Texas for two distinctive times in my life. Second, what happens in Texas often has a very definitive impact on what happens in the other states.

I have found growing up as I have in so many different states that many people do not have an understanding of what goes on outside the boundaries of their own state. They may assume certain things about people that aren’t necessarily true and they may assume that things are done in other states just like they are done in their own home state.

We might have saved ourselves a lot of grief over the past eight years if more people had known that the governor of Texas is not the most politically powerful position in the state. In the words of former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, the Texas governorship is the weakest in the country (see As Alaska governor, Palin has more power than Bush in Texas). To quote Molly Ivins, one of my favorite writers,

The single most common misconception about George W is that he has been running a large state for the past six years. Texas has what is known in political science circles as “the weak-governor system.” You may think this is just a Texas brag, but our weak-governor system is a lot weaker than anybody else’s. Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising, by constitutional arrangement, the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office: behind lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. Which is not to say it’s a piddly office. For one thing, it’s a bully pulpit. Although truly effective governors are rare in Texas history, a few have made deep impressions and major changes. Besides, people think you’re important if you’re the governor and in politics, perception rules.(Shrub, The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose)

But we assume that governors of the various states all work in much the same way and we figure that if one can govern one state, then they can govern a country.

But it is in terms of education that we need to know what is happening in Texas (and California as well). Because of their size and the number of textbooks used in those two states, these two states have an extraordinary larger say in the development of textbooks used in elementary, middle, junior high and high schools throughout the whole country. Publishers are reluctant to change the content of a textbook if such changes are not accepted in either state. In effect, the State Boards of Education in California and Texas are deciding the textbook policies of the other forty-eight states. It is possible that the other states may choose to select another textbook but if it is not on the California or Texas list, it is not likely to be marketed very heavily.

Presently, the Texas Board is debating whether to change a line in the state science curriculum requiring students to critique all scientific theories and to explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of each. Now, this line has been in the official curriculum for the past twenty years and most teachers have ignored it.

And to that end, there is an attempt this year to revise the curriculum by dropping those words and urging students to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using “empirical evidence.” (“In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate”) While this may seem like a meaningless debate about a few words in a state document that will get put in a file in a cabinet in an office somewhere, it is more than that. It is the tip of an argument that has occupied the minds of scientists and theologians for most of the past 150 years.

Social conservatives want scientific theories to be examined for their strengths and weaknesses so that they can attack Darwin’s theory of evolution. But, in making this argument, they are ignoring the basis upon which science operates and how theories are developed.

By definition, a theory is the best explanation for what has been observed and what might happen next. (See “The Processes of Science”) Theories are developed from observation and evidence; you cannot develop a plausible theory if you do not have the evidence and you cannot fiddle with the evidence in order to fit a theory (the problems with the orbits of the planets in terms of geo-centric solar system show this). What present social conservatives are trying to do is find a way to introduce “intelligent design” as a plausible and acceptable theory for the creation of life on this planet. But to make their theory work, they must either change the processes of science and eliminate the need for empirical evidence or suggest that the evidence can be changed to fit the theory.

The problem is that there are some teachers who teach theories as if they were facts and are often not willing to accept alternative ideas in their classroom. Critics of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists tend to take this refusal as some sort of academic totalitarianism. But the evidence suggests that the reason why many teachers teach evolution as a fact, impervious to change or discussion, is because they do not know what a theory is and are only following a discussion outlined for them in the textbook. Their refusal to hear alternative ideas is more a reflection of their own lack of knowledge and a rather inflexible curriculum. Right now, most teachers teach from the textbook because the textbook drives the tests and the tests are the items that determine the success of the teacher and the school system. And because society has stated that teachers and school systems are accountable for what the students learn and such accountability will be measured through tests, if it is not on the test or in the textbook, it will not be taught.

But it should be also pointed out that many of the secular fundamentalists who cry out against the influence of the sectarian fundamentalists in schools don’t have much in the way going for them either. They see religion in terms of the church that tried Galileo for the supposedly heretical belief that the Sun was the center of the solar system. These modern day secular fundamentalists see religion as only superstition and evidence of an unknowing society. They would rather we place our belief in rational thought and the truth of empirical evidence. But in doing so, they have created their own religion, the religion of scientism.

Rabbi Michael Lerner put it this way

“Science, however, is not the same as scientism — the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification — all these spiritual dimensions of life — are dismissed by the ‘scientistic’ worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.”

“Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it’s a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives, therefore, insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.  (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060424/lerner)

We live in a world where we hear differing voices of truth, each insisting that the version of the truth is the only truth and all other versions are false. Those who claim to speak the truth refuse to acknowledge that others may see the truth as well and their refusal to allow dissent is as much a form of totalitarianism as they claim the opposition to be.

Dennis Overbye, in response to President Obama’s inaugural address (“Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy”), argued that science cannot operate in a dictatorship. Neither can religion. For both science and religion to survive, there must be an environment that fosters questions and free thought. If one’s belief cannot exist in such an environment, then it is probably not a very good belief system. Countless times in the Gospels, we read of how the authorities would not challenge Jesus for fear that He would show the weakness of their positions and thoughts.

Moses, in the passage from Deuteronomy for today, warns us about prophets who presume to speak for God when they are really speaking for themselves. The test of a true prophet, one who speaks for God, will come through the fulfillment of the prophet’s words, not through intellectual foresight masquerading as prophecy or coincidental fulfillment of the prediction.

And the fulfillment of the prophets was seen in the words, deeds, and actions of Jesus. When He began His mission, he brought a new vision into the world, one that questioned the voices of the establishment that had for so long controlled and dominated the people. Jesus challenged the people to see the truth for themselves. And as Mark told us in the Gospel reading for today, the very nature in which Jesus taught underscored the authority of His Word.

We live in a world of many voices, each claiming to tell us the truth. But the truth is a complex thing, not easily told and not easily learned. If our world is to be a world of either faith or reason and not both, then it will be an incomplete world and our knowledge of the truth will be limited and incomplete as well.

It is clear that this incompleteness is having a profound impact on our lives, far beyond a few days in a high school biology class. We are faced with problems of hunger, illness, violence, and repression both in this country and across the world. We seek new ideas but can only express old ones. We seek the answers to our problems in the past because we are more comfortable looking to the past and seeing where we have been than we are looking into the future and imaging where we could go.

As Jim Wallis noted (“The Wrong Question”) the crisis that we are in is not just a crisis of the economy or politics but a crisis of values. Shall we simply try to use the old ways and go back to business as usual or shall we try to find a way to avoid repeating the problems all over again sometime in the next generation? Michael Lerner put it this way,

[We need] to embrace a “new bottom line” in which corporations, social practices, government policies and individual behaviors are judged rational, efficient or productive not only if they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to treat others as embodiments of the sacred and to respond with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe. (“Verse and Voice” for 30 January 2009)

It is time that we begin using both our faith and reason to find the truth and to use the truth in the way it was meant to be used.

Our age abounds in information and technology, but it lacks godly conscience, Christ-like compassion, and Spirit-enabled commitment, the traits of our Methodist heritage. It can be said that the early Methodist church in England had an impact on the social condition of the day. The key to that early church’s influence was found in the traits of conscience, compassion and commitment.

If we are to be faithful to our age, then we must bring the riches of our heritage to our social responsibility, using what ever tools our age affords us that have moral integrity. The in-groups of our culture will not always approve of our agendas or our choice of methods. For that we will suffer their censure, as did Jesus in His day and Wesley in his. Yet both served many well by serving God most of all. That is what faithfulness to one’s age meant then, and it is what it means today. (”John Wesley, the Methodists, and Social Reform In England, Luke Keefer”)

On that night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago, twelve disciples gathered with their friends, their families, and their teacher to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. It was a meal framed in the truth of the past but it was a meal that would herald the truth of the future.

We gather together this day knowing the truth of that meal. We know that Jesus spoke the truth and was the truth and that his death on the cross freed us from slavery to sin and death.

And just as we know the truth through Christ, so too will others find the truth through what we say and do. When Christ spoke to us some two thousand years ago, he spoke of a hope, a promise, and a truth that was missing in the lives of the people. We can choose to be Christ’s voice in this world or we can let others be the voice. What shall it be?

The Power of Information


This is the message I presented on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2 February 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28.

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When I first started working on today’s sermon, I was thinking in terms of computers, information technology, and how information is so much a part of our lives. But yesterday’s tragic event quickly made that approach mute. But it doesn’t change the idea that information and how we use information, the power of information, are so much a part of our lives and our understanding of God’s role in our lives.

The seven astronauts aboard the Columbia died in the pursuit of information. And it is at times like these when we find ourselves, with all the knowledge we have gained throughout the years, struggling to explain this event, not only to ourselves but also to those who depend on our judgement. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do at this point is understand that we don’t have all the information that we need, that we are at the beginning of an exploration. And despite our desires for quick and immediate answers, we will find that answers come only with time.

There are some things that we do know. We have grown rather blasé about the nature of space travel. We must remember that we are still in the infancy of space travel and that efforts like Star Trek or Star Wars are still works of fiction, possible in the far future but still fiction today. And for any manned space mission, the launch and landing of the spacecraft are still the most dangerous parts.

It is almost a certainty as well that we are going to be hearing many things, from the completely absurd to plausible. The most immediate thought of course is that it was a terrorist activity but that would mean that our security systems failed before the shuttle launched. And if there were any thoughts that it was shut down, remember that the shuttle was 39 miles above the earth, traveling at 18 times the speed of sound. Our own missile technology can’t hit objects that high moving at that speed, so I personally doubt that anyone else can.

We may also hear that this was a sign from God. But if it was a sign from God, what was He trying to tell us? Signs from God are clear and unmistakable and God does not take the lives of innocents for the wrongs of others. It brings us back to the question of understanding God and the nature of wisdom. We are wrong to assume that we can fully understand what God wants us to do. The nature of our own knowledge is incomplete and it would be futile to try and speak for God. But this much is certain, at least to me, if God did not want us to explore and push the nature of the universe, then why did He give us the brains and wherewithal to do so?

The need to explore, the need to find answers to our questions will only lead us to more questions. And as we gain more knowledge about the world around us, it only causes us to have more questions about the nature of the world. Sooner or later that means that questions about God and His role in this world will be asked. Some would say that we shouldn’t ask questions about God. But if we don’t ask such questions, it becomes harder for us to know who God is and what His role in our lives is, what it should be, and what it can be.

It should be noted that education has always been a tradition in Methodism. The early circuit riders were encouraged to read and study the Bible during those hours spent riding their horses between churches and assignments. This was an easy thing to do because the horse pretty well knew the way between stops and this gave time for the preacher to read and study in the saddle. I know that the encouragement still exists today though the method by which it is done, I hope, has changed.

John Wesley also saw the need for the children and adults coming to church to study the Bible. The first organized schools in England were Methodist Sunday schools, designed to provide basic literacy training for children and adults at a time when education was limited to the upper class and landed gentry of the time. Wesley understood that an illiterate populace would never advance in life. Nor could they even begin to understand the nature of the Bible and the meaning of salvation.

There is no limit nor can there be a limit to knowledge. For to put limits on what we know or can know can only limit what we do or can do. But we must be aware that in our desire to gain knowledge, we never lose sight of who we are and the limits that knowledge put on us. We must always be aware that when we feel our knowledge takes us beyond the scope of God, we are asking for trouble. The tower of Babel was the epochal story of mankind’s thinking that it had the capability to be equal to God.

We are in an age where information and the ability to use information is the key to power. One of my favorite sayings, one that I use as part of the screen saver on my computers comes from John, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. (John 8: 32)

So we seek the truth, in whatever forms it might be. But we must be reminded that the ability to use information and the power that comes with such knowledge must always be tempered by the fact that it can be abused. There are those who will be quick to say they have the only true understanding; that they speak for the Lord. But the Old Testament reading for today, in verse 15, reminds us that one does not become a true prophet by self-will or desire but because they were raised up by the Lord.

Earlier, in chapter 13 (verses 1 – 5), the writer of Deuteronomy wrote

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods (god you have not known) and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeem you from the land of slavery’ he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.

This was the same basis upon which it was written in today’s Old Testament reading, “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18: 20) In short, the Lord warns us to beware of false prophets, those who would speak in the name of the Lord but only seek gains for themselves.

I think that the difference between the false prophets of old, and some of the newer ones as well, is that they are not really teachers. Jesus was first and foremost a teacher. Forty-two percent of Mark’s gospel deals with some mention of teaching. In almost every instance, the reports of such teaching are accompanied with reports of astonishment and amazement. But that was because the people of Israel had never encountered a teacher who did not rely on his own past experiences or the past experiences of others for their own knowledge. Jesus had no need to do so for his authority, his understanding came from who He was and is and will be. His teaching was designed to help people understand who God was and is and what God meant for each of us. His teaching, his knowledge of the world was never designed to be an exercise in personal power. The demon in the Gospel reading for today knew who Jesus was but Jesus would not acknowledge that testimony because it came from a disreputable source. Mark noted that this miracle brought a great deal of recognition for Jesus.

Mark contrasts the people who received Christ with the Pharisees and rulers who worked against Him. The sad truth is that too many times the religious of the world do more to keep people from Christ.

I think this was part of Paul’s problems with the Corinthians. It appears from what Paul wrote that many in the church at Corinth saw knowledge as more than wisdom. The statement that “we know that we all have knowledge” appears to have been a slogan used by certain Corinthian believers as an arrogant statement against weaker Christians. Those weaker Christians believed that eating food offered to idols was a sin. Others believed that such concerns were ridiculous. They argued that if the idols were worthless, then the meat offered to them was fine to eat. Paul agreed that such food was not contaminated but he wanted the knowledgeable Christians not to flaunt their point of view.

Paul’s statement that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” is one of his five attacks on the arrogance of some of the members of the church. These individuals belittled the weaker members with their knowledge. Paul wanted them to know that they were missing the point; instead of belittling someone, they should have been using their knowledge to help others.

Paul pointed out that the more knowledgeable members were correct in their views about idols. But that wasn’t the point. If those who felt that eating the food offered to idols was sinful saw someone eating that food, then they might be tempted to eat it anyway. This would be in clear violation of their conscience. And to go against one’s conscience was, in fact, sinning. By their knowledge the stronger ones caused the weaker ones to stumble. Paul exhorted the strong believers to show love to the weaker ones by refraining from offending them.

The most difficult thing about knowledge is that others are always involved in the pursuit of it. There must be someone there to help us, in some way, find the knowledge that we seek. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. But as Paul pointed out, there are problems when such knowledge is abused. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were meant to remind them that their gifts came from God and were meant to be used in ways that unified the church and spread the Gospel.

It is the Gospel message that frees us. As Jesus said, when we seek the truth and find it, we will be set free. We are reminded again that the pursuit of freedom is not always easy, nor does it come cheaply. Seven individuals seeking more knowledge that can be used to provide a better life have given their lives in that pursuit and we mourn their loss. But I, like others, hope that their loss will not put a damper on the efforts to better know this world and this universe. We should not stop our search simply because there has been a tragedy. To do so would dishonor the memory of all that were lost in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is through the power provided by the information that we gain in our exploration that drives us onward. Our efforts to better know this world should never end, for to do so puts an end to our existence. We have come to know God through our searches; and through our searches our knowledge of God, His role in our lives, and our role in this world becomes stronger. That is the ultimate power of information.



Truth In Labeling


This is the message I presented on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28

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The Scriptures for this week come at what I think is an interesting time. Last Tuesday, the Iowa caucuses were held and this coming Tuesday the New Hampshire primary will be held; the long-awaited campaign for the President of the United States 2000 will finally have arrived. Though I am not sure that this campaign did not start shortly after the completion of the election in 1996.

Now, for all the complaining about the system and how we choose our leaders, it still comes down to the fact that our system of electing leaders through essentially a popular vote has lasted over 200 years and that countries who have tried similar approaches have failed. And without belaboring the point, let me add that if you have the chance to vote and you do not use that chance, then you really can’t complain about the outcome of the election.

The main point that I saw in the Scriptures for today was about leadership. The one thing that disturbs me about the election process is that leaders today will not take difficult stands. One definition of a professional is one who does things even when they do not feel like them. In other words, a professional is not blown about by the winds of the moment. Professionals stay focused on the successful accomplishment of their mission, and do the difficult things.

Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. He sensed danger there, and he was right. However, Jesus knew that it was part of the larger plan. So, he “set his eyes towards Jerusalem” (Isaiah 50: 7) knowing what the consequences of his actions would be.

It was that resolve and that focus on the task at hand that the people at the temple in the Gospel reading today saw. As the Gospel reading pointed out, he taught from the Scripture as one having authority, and not as the scribes. It was that same authority that was spoken of in the Old Testament reading for today.

The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the prophets that would follow Moses. As Moses is about to leave, the people of Israel are told that another spokesman will take his place and that one will follow for each generation, with Jesus being the ultimate fulfillment.

But caution is given that the people should listen to what the prophets have to say. For if the prophet presumes to speak of things that God has not commanded them to say, they will be held accountable. In other words, don’t say what the people want to hear, say what it is that God wants you to say.

In the reading from Corinthians, Paul is speaking about the eating of certain foods. The Corinthians had written to Paul concerning what to do about meats that had been cooked on pagan altars. The leftover meat was either sold at the public meat market, or eaten by the priests, or the person who brought the offering and his friends at a feast at the temple. Some Christians felt that if they ate such meat, they participated in pagan worship and thus compromised their testimony to Christ. Other Christians in the Corinthian community did not feel this way. As Paul pointed out, there is only true God and so foods that were sacrificed to a minor god, who is really nothing, could be eaten. But Paul also pointed out that, in exercising their freedom to eat this meat, that the Corinthians not become a stumbling block to those who felt that such an action was sinful. Paul said that he, himself, would not eat meat sacrificed to idols if his actions would cause someone else to sin. I am sure that stand was not well taken by those Corinthians who wanted Paul to take a stronger stand but it was the proper thing to do.

Taking a stand that is different from the desires of the people is often the mark of a true leader. It must have been difficult for Jesus to say no to people. The whole essence of his being seemed to say yes. But there were times when he had to say no. He said no to the young man wanted to follow him but who was also not willing to let go of his earthly riches. He said no to his mother and family when they tried to interrupt his teaching. He said no to Judas about turning to politics. He said no to the temptations in the wilderness. And he said no many times to himself, “No, I will not run from this. I will drink the cup that has been placed before me.”  (John 18: 11)

Leadership has never been something for others to do. We are all leaders in some way or another. Some day we may be faced with a difficult choice and the question will arise as to what we should do. Often times, we make the choice on whether we shall stand alone or follow the crowd. But when we think of the choices that Jesus had to make, that his choices gave us a freedom we would otherwise not have; then our choices become quite evident.

Shall I follow Jesus today? That is the only choice you have to consider.



The Choice We Have To Make


Here are my thoughts for this 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 25 January 2009. The Scriptures were Jonah 3: 1 -5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7: 29 – 31; and Mark 1: 14 – 20.

I will be preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church next Sunday (1 February 2009); the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

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Many years ago, when I began teaching at the college level, the faculty of the college where I was employed was exploring the wonders and joys of collective bargaining. And in this process came the discussion of a strike.

It was not clear to me at that time, nor even today, if a strike was necessary or the faculty wanted one just so that they could have the thrill of walking a picket line and showing that they were true union members. As a former member of the UAW, I wasn’t that thrilled by that concept because I remember what was going on when my union discussed a strike at my former employers.

And to complicate this thought about a faculty strike at a community college was the visit I received from the Department chair. She calmly informed me that, in the event of a faculty strike, I, as a non-tenured faculty member, would be expected to be in my classroom performing my duties. One has to realize that even though I was paying dues into the teacher’s union and I was on the tenure track, I did not have the same rights and privileges as my tenured colleagues. In fact, while there are those who see tenure as protecting the incompetent and lazy, tenure does offer a certain degree of freedom and legal protection; beginning instructors do not always have that protection.

So I was faced with a dilemma, do I cross the picket line and protect my salary and potential future or do I show my solidarity with my union brothers and sisters? Fortunately, the talk of a strike was just that, talk, and I was not forced to make that choice. I probably would have tried to find a way to cross the picket line without actually crossing it (as my father had done when the major union at his employment struck but agreed to leave one gate to the site open for the professional employees to enter without physically crossing the picket line).

Sometimes we have an option but many times we do not. We have to make a choice and go with whatever happens next. In the Old Testament reading for today, we hear the completion of the story of Jonah. Jonah had been told by God to go to Nineveh and warn the people of that city of what was to come. But Jonah saw the people of Nineveh as beyond hope and redemption and he didn’t want to go there. So he went somewhere else and we all know what happened to him.

After Jonah’s experience with the fish, he did go to Nineveh and he did warn the people and the people heeded his warning. And as the Old Testament reading for today tells us, the people of Nineveh trusted God and repented. Of course, their actions were short-lived and the city was ultimately destroyed and what Jonah felt would happen did in fact happen. But the people were given the opportunity to change because Jonah understood what he had to do.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were also given a choice one day and they chose to follow Jesus. Now, we know that Andrew and probably John were disciples of John the Baptizer, so they knew the message that he had been telling and they knew that Jesus had come to the River Jordan to be baptized. It was not like they didn’t know what was coming when Jesus showed up and essentially told them it was time to make a choice. And we know that this message must have resonated through the community as Andrew told Philip and Philip told Nathaniel and others were told. And they all followed.

We don’t know today how many were there in the beginning though we have to assume from later information that there were more than twelve. How else do we explain how Jesus was able to send out seventy people on a mission trip? We know that the twelve disciples represented the core and we also know from the records that many left as the mission went on.

We know that many came to Jesus expecting one thing and upon not finding it left; that is true today. There are those today who expect to find in Jesus quick and easy answers and who expect that nothing will be required from them. This isn’t what Jesus said to them at the beginning nor is it what we should expect. There are going to be those who are like Jonah, who don’t see how it will work and won’t do the impossible. There are those who expect quick rewards for tasks that will take many years and use resources that they don’t have.

We know this. We see it in the world today; we see it in our own churches today. We live in a world where to say that one follows Christ is to encourage derision and many negative responses.

We see people and we hear people who are in church on Sunday but whose words, thoughts, and deeds the rest of the week are totally different. Once they heard the call but, like Jonah the first time, they went another way.

There are many who claim to be Christian but whose words, deeds, and actions belie the image of Christ that is known. You cannot preach words of peace when your own thoughts and actions are those of violence and war. You cannot preach words of brotherhood and community when your own thoughts and actions are those of exclusion. You cannot preach words of love and redemption when your own thoughts and actions are those of hatred and suffering. You cannot speak of the power of the Holy Spirit unless you are willing to use the power to help people.

You have to be more like Jonah after he was fished out of the water and who understood that even if the people of Nineveh didn’t heed his call, he still had to make it. You have to be willing to put down your present tasks and do what God asks you to do, even if that brings uncertainty into your life.

The disciples followed, leaving behind certain things because they understood that the promise was greater than what was certain. Yes, they didn’t totally understand what they were being called to do and the exuberance of youth probably hid the fears that might have come from venturing into the unknown. But still they followed.

Paul tells the Corinthians in the Epistle lesson for today that there is no time to waste and that one should not complicate one’s life. Paul echoed the words of Jesus when he sent the seventy out carrying only the basics materials.

It is not easy making the choice to follow Christ. We see the world and know that it is a tough task; we know what happened to the disciples who followed and we don’t want that to happen to us. We see and hear the words of the critics in the world today and we don’t want those words applied to us. Se we are afraid to follow. But we also know what lies ahead if we do not make the choice.

We have the benefit of knowing what the disciples did not know; we know that a life free from slavery to sin and death is ours if we choose. We can choose to ignore Christ’s call or we can choose to accept His call. We know the outcome; so we have to make the choice.

The Dilemma of Science and Faith


First, Jesus said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6: 24)

But he later said,
The Greatest Commandment

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6: 5) This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18) All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 34 – 40)

A report was released the other day by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) – “Faith, Science, and Academic Freedom” – charging two colleges with religious affiliations with violating the academic freedom of two professors who had tenure.

The first case reported in this article focused on a biology professor and evolution at one college while the other case focused on a theology professor and a doctrinal issue. I will leave the question of the second case to others more versed in the issue of tradition and its relevance to theology, though perhaps that does have some impact on the first case. But the first case is a question of science and faith and what it means in today’s society.

Richard Colling, a tenured professor of Biology at Olivet Nazarene University wrote a book entitled Random Designer in 2004. In his book, Dr. Colling put forth the proposition that one could believe in both God and evolution. He did so because he wanted to help students see that one did not have to make a choice between science and faith and that one could easily walk a path that included both. Dr. Colling suggested that such a decision was neither needed nor necessary, that one could believe in God and in evolution without conflict.

As one might expect, the more conservative elements of the denomination immediately demanded that Dr. Colling be fired. At first, the university administration backed Dr. Colling and resisted such efforts but, as the pressure from outside the university mounted, they gave in and barred him from teaching General Biology and they barred the Biology Department from using his book in their courses.

Now, it is not clear if Dr. Colling has violated any rules or statement of faith in this problem. If the university has a policy that specifically states what can and cannot be taught, then Dr. Colling was wrong. But nothing in the reports (“Faith, Science, and Academic Freedom” and the related article “Academic Freedom and Evolution”) suggest that he did violate any stated policy. The efforts to remove him from the classroom apparently came from outside the university environment.

Interestingly enough, and perhaps thankfully, they did not ban the book or prevent students from reading it. It is almost as if the college administrators wanted a 21st century version of Genesis 2: 16 – 17:

God commanded the Man, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”

In other words, the book is there but you cannot read it.

But can a college or any institution prevent someone from teaching what they believe to be the truth if it conflicts with the beliefs of the faith? For some, faith and science are two entirely separate entities, each demanding total allegiance and rejection of the other.

What Dr. Colling tried to do was put this into the proper perspective. How do you use the evidence before you? Do you “fiddle” with the evidence so that it matches your theories or do you frame your theories in terms of the evidence?

I noted last October the problems that Michael Reiss had when he argued that the beliefs of students should not be ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. (“The Challenge of Education”) In this case, it was the secular fundamentalists who pushed for Dr. Reiss’s removal. In Dr. Colling’s case, it was the sectarian fundamentalists who pushed.

And as I implied in “The Challenge of Education”, they are both wrong. In “Academic Freedom and Evolution”, Dr. Colling noted that “you cannot check your intellect at the door of the church”. He also noted that institutions which frame science and faith as incompatible will lose some of their best minds.

In Matthew 22: 34 -40, Jesus speaks of honoring God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. But if we force ourselves or our students to differentiate between science and faith, then we are not honoring God with our heart and our mind but only one of the two.

As Dr. Colling said, you cannot check your intellect at the door of the church. You cannot say to a student that they must accept one viewpoint as the truth when the evidence suggests otherwise. And you cannot live in a world where the truth is one thing on Sunday and an entirely different thing the other days of the week (though many people certainly try to do just that).

It seems to me that fundamentalists, be they sectarian or secular, have a hard time with the other side of the faith and reason issue. They would much rather throw out the side they disagree with and force individuals to accept their view. We are reminded that the Church literally banned Galileo from believing in the heliocentric theory of the universe. Galileo accepted his punishment but it has been said that he muttered that it didn’t change the facts.

Faith is not meant to challenge science and science is not meant to challenge faith. Yet that is what we are doing right now. The consequences of this effort are, at least to me, troubling.

It cheapens our faith because it presents faith as a monolithic monument to the past, to days when the church tried to control the thoughts of the populace. And such control, be it secular or sectarian, is anathema to the very notion of who we say we are.

It limits our ability to use science as science is meant to be used because it imposes on science skills and thoughts science cannot provide. We risk alienated many students who are struggling with their own identity and the ability to characterize their own belief. The debate today is framed within the notion that it is one or the other.

That is why I included the second passage from Matthew at the beginning of this piece. If we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we cannot split the difference between faith and reason. Faith and reason are two parts of one mind and you cannot exist without both parts.

The difficulty arises when we use one side (faith or reason) and exclude the other. I will say this: A belief, be it sectarian or secular, which cannot stand scrutiny, is not a very good belief and stand the test of time or the mind. By the same token, we live in a world that demands exploration. Our boundaries can only be limited if we do not have the ability to reason and analyze. To deny either side of the faith/reason boundary is to limit our ability to grow in both.

We have to ask ourselves this question, “Why did God give us an inquiring mind if He did not want us to use our minds to explore the question of faith and science?”

Life is both science and faith. Attempts to differentiate and divide the two will destroy life. That’s not what we are about.

Not Another Fish Tale


This is the message I presented on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 26 January 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Jonah 3: 1 -5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7: 29 – 31; and Mark 1: 14 – 20.

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I am not a fisherman, at least when it comes to catching fish for dinner. I think in all the time that I have spent outdoors, I have gone fishing once. More to the point, I attempted to drown some worms on one occasion and I don’t think I did very well. So it is that I don’t have any fish stories to tell.

At first glance, it would seem that a fish story is needed because we are talking about Jonah, then Peter, Andrew, James and John. For Jonah, the whale that swallowed Jonah tells the fish story. Surely, this mammoth creature went around telling his buddies in the sea about the one that got away.

But the focus of the three readings for today is about time and I am reminded of a classic line from the first of the great surfing movies, “The Endless Summer.” This movie was made back around 1966 and it was about some guys from California who went looking for the best places in the world to surf. They started by checking the spots in California and Hawaii and other spots in the Northern Hemisphere between May and September, our summer time. Then they went into the Southern Hemisphere between September and May, the summer months “down under”; hence, the name of the film. And each time they came to a new spot to surf, they were meant by the same line, “Man, you should have been here yesterday.” The premise of this line is and was that the surfing was better yesterday.

That is how we see life a lot of times. What happened yesterday or in the past always seems to be better that what is happening today or what will happen tomorrow. It is almost like we do not want to go into the future, presuming that what we might have then can never be better that what we might have now or had yesterday.

This was something of the attitude the Corinthians had at the time that Paul wrote them. Paul’s words say to us even today that we should not be concerned with material things because they change and disappear. Life is fleeting enough as it is and when we concentrate on what we have now, we have little time left to do God’s work. Paul’s concern then was and our concern today should be for the future and the work of the Lord, not a focus on what we have now or in the past.

Against that we can contrast the actions of the people of Nineveh, who heard Jonah’s proclamation and took action to save their lives and their city. But the actions that they took were only superficial, designed for the moment and not for the future. If we look closely at how this passage was written, we see that the writer used a general term for the deity rather than a specific term for God. This may be a reflection of how the message was heard, a statement that the people of Nineveh only had a shallow understanding of God, fearing Him rather than trusting Him. The historical records show that there was never a lasting period of belief in Nineveh and the city was eventually destroyed in 612 BC.

And history tells us that the disciples, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, cared nothing for the present moment and that their beliefs and actions went beyond the immediate future. Each and every one of the disciples, when first called by Jesus left everything behind. The command of Jesus to become “fishers of men” was a call to change their own lives, not just for the now as inhabitants of Nineveh did, but rather permanently.

With the exception of John, we know that all of the disciples died violently and brutally. Of course, Judas Iscariot died by his own hand disillusioned that the message of the Gospel was not a call of action now. Peter went on to be the spiritual leader of the early church, dying in Rome as a martyr, crucified (as legend would have it) upside down. Andrew, Peter’s brother, took the Gospel message into the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia where he also died by crucifixion. James, the twin brother of John, died by decapitation on the order of Herod Agrippa just before Paul became the leading missionary. Only John is said to have escaped the scepter of violent death, instead dying quietly in exile as a prisoner of Rome in Ephesus.

So what does this all mean for us? What does it mean for this church? We have to be careful that we don’t make the issue of the church in the future our future, nor do we make our own future that of the church. But what we do, how we act will most certainly define the future, both for us individually and for this church.

The future for Putnam Valley is certainly promising. Over the next five years Putnam Valley by itself, not Putnam County, should grow by 7% as compared to a nationwide average of 4%. 86.3 % of the local households are likely to express a preference for some particular religious tradition or affiliation, a number above the national average of 85%. But, at the same time 39% of the households in this area have no faith involvement. This is, if you will, frightening because the nationwide average is 35%. The population of Putnam Valley is a boomer type population with incomes far greater than the national average ($101,000 to $61,200). This is an area where the thoughts and concerns are for the future and not protection from the present.

In my mind, this suggests that there are people in this area to whom we should be reaching, though knowing how we should be reaching them is confusing. In response to a question that asked which general church programs or services are most likely to be preferred in this area, 40% of the local population indicated that programs related to recreation were preferred. The other areas are spiritual development (19% of the local population), personal development (9%), and community or social services (20%). This interest in recreation is slightly over the national average of 38% but, to be honest, I haven’t a clue at this time what this means or how to deal with it. I hope that an upcoming workshop sponsored by the conference will enlighten us on what this and all the other data means.

There is clearly a place for this church in the future of this area but the question must be asked, “Will the church be here when people need it?” As you know I sent out over 80 surveys at the beginning of the year, asking people to define where they saw this church in the coming years. The results in terms of responses were disappointing, with less than ten responses. And even the responses that I did get were not exactly thrilling. Half of the people who responded saw this church in the coming years in a positive note (to some extent matching some of the concerns of the general population in the study that I have alluded to). But the other half felt that the recent events of the past would spell the doom of the church. It is possible to balance these definitely conflicting thoughts but that would not remove the attitudes that have been expressed to me over the past few months, attitudes that speak of hatred and prejudice.

Excuse me if I hurt your feelings but it must be said. As long as one person or one group expresses a view that runs counter to the message of the Gospel, then it is going to be very hard to see the future. And it is not just one person who has expressed these thoughts; it has been a number of persons. And even if these expressions happened to cancel, the thoughts and feelings generated go beyond the immediate level. People, be they members or visitors, know when there are feelings of ill will, distrust, and discord among the members of a church. And if those feelings are present, a person seeking peace and comfort will not want to come here for they fear that they will not find what they are looking.

Why were more surveys not returned? Why are there so many members of this church not coming? Can it be that they do not see the future expressed by a few hopeful souls? Can it be that they feel the past is the present and will be the future?

Not only should we reach out to those who are not members, we should be reaching out to the members who are not here.

There is no doubt a need for change but any changes made must be more than superficial. Paul’s word should echo in our minds. Is our concern for the present and what we have now more important that what we can be in the future? Consider the people of Nineveh who heard Jonah’s call and responded. Even though they expressed a belief in a god, it was not God. Though they did change for the moment in order to stave off the immediate threat, the city eventually died and is only a marker on the map of the world because the people did not hold to the change.

Changes must be deep, done in the soul, not on the surface. Jesus called the disciples to service, to leave their present lives and take up a new one. We are called to do the same, though we will never be asked to suffer or die as they did.

We must realize that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Holy Spirit. But when our own personal concerns are sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, there is a hope for the future. It is through hope that we can look beyond the present into the future; it is through hope that we can see beyond the pressing demands of everyday life. Christians are individuals whose strength is based neither on self-confidence nor on specific expectations for the future but on a promise given to them.

It was this promise of the future that allowed Abraham to travel from his homeland and all that he had there to an unknown territory. It was the promise of the future that inspired Moses. For any Christian, it is that promise that speaks of a new life even in the face of corruption and death.

Hope and the promise of the future prevent us from clinging to what we have and it frees us to move away from the safe and secure into unknown and fearful territories.

Hope is not another fish tale, a description of something that we thought we had or something we wished we could have. It is inspired by the same belief that allowed Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and go forward with a new life. The truly hard work has been done. It is our call today to help others find a place where the hope of the future is promise of what is to come and not just another fish tale.

Thoughts on the Transition from Yesterday to Tomorrow


I approach January 20, 2009, with mixed emotions and ambivalence. I sense the historic nature of what is about to happen but I also remember what happened forty years ago.

You have to understand that I have two hometowns – the place where I was born and the place that I identify with. I was born in the Washington, D. C. area so that is my home town. But I graduated from high school in the Memphis, TN, area and that is also my home town. As one who grew up in the South during some of the darkest days of this country’s history, I can rejoice in what is to come. But I also know what happened when another man first spoke of and then worked for change and I wonder if we, as a nation, are prepared for the future.

We are still a nation of firsts, the first to do this, the first to do that. We rejoice in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and say that we have achieved that which he dreamed about forty-five years ago. But we still measure people by who they are and not what they are; sometime in the next twelve to twenty years, we will elect a woman to be President of the United States and we will spend countless moments talking about how this unnamed woman is the first of her gender, not that she is the best qualified person for the position.

The inauguration of Barack Obama is historic and will, perhaps, bring the change that this country so desperately needs. But I hear the voices and read the words of those who have advanced the level of nay-saying to a new level (or would it be better to say lowered it to a new level). It is clear that there are those in this country who do not want Barack Obama to succeed and will seek to undermine his efforts to seek change.

There are those for whom the change cannot come quickly enough. We have become a nation of immediacy, we want things done right now! And I think that many people are going to quickly become disillusioned if the change that they anticipate does not come quickly enough.

I also have to wonder if the change that is expected will be a change for all people or only for just a few. There are many for whom that change that this occasion represents is only a change in the identity of those in power. There will be change but it will not be the change that this country needs.

While it is possible that change can come from the top and filter down to every person in this country, it will not come quickly unless each and every person works for the change. When John Kennedy intoned the words that were the centerpiece of his inaugural address (“ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country), they were the inspiration for action. But the action did not come from President Kennedy nor could it come from him. It came from the people who heard the call and believed in the call.

It is certain that Wednesday will follow Tuesday and it is just as certain that there will still be violence abroad and violence at home and there will still be people without food, without shelter, without healthcare. The problems of this world will not go away just because someone is inaugurated as President nor will they go away because there is a rush of legislation in the first 100 days. To quote again from President Kennedy, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

The inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, marks not only a transition of power but a chance, a chance to bring the future into play, to make tomorrow the day we look forward to, not to dread. It marks a chance to try new things and seek new solutions. And while it is Barack Obama that will take the oath of office, it will be the opportunity for the people of the United States to say that the time has come to make the future a reality.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian