The Times Are Changing; Shouldn’t We Be Doing The Same?


These are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Lent; the Scriptures are Genesis 9: 8 – 17, 1 Peter 3: 18 – 22, and Mark 1: 9 – 15.

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This is going to be as much a political piece as it is a religious piece. But the signs of the times demand that it be so because the politics of the moment are bound up in how we see each other and how we treat each other and that, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other religion, is the central point of religion.

Every time I read the passage from Genesis that is the Old Testament reading for today (Genesis 9: 8 – 17), I cannot help but think of the many conservative and fundamentalist preachers who claimed that the hurricane that ravaged and destroyed New Orleans and the floods that devastated the Mid-west in 1993 were signs of God’s wrath and displeasure. Perhaps I am not reading this passage properly but every translation that I know of says that God promised not to destroy the earth with a flood and that the rainbow would be a sign of this promise. And I know that after the rains came and poured down on New Orleans, there was a rainbow.

It isn’t that God couldn’t destroy this earth if he wanted to do so; he wouldn’t bother warning us again because He sent His son and we aren’t listening. By the same token, when we look around us today and we see wars ravaging this earth, the economy of the entire society that we call humankind faltering, with people starving and dying because there is no medical treatment available (and I am not speaking of just this country but the entire world), should we begin to think that these are the times that John the Seer did not prophesize in the Book of Revelation.

Those who proclaim that these are the end times and Jesus is soon to come again do not get those words from the Book of Revelation; they get them from a 19th century preacher named John Darby. But the words have been refined and polished to the point that everyone thinks they come from John the Seer.

We live in a time when the words we speak to each other are more often hate and anger. In a time when we need to be working together for the good of all, we offer solutions that are best entitled “what’s in it for me?” We live in a society of winners and losers; we live our lives as if they were pick-up basketball games where the winners stay and losers walk. We hear and read the words of many who want to see their political opposition fail because they think it will make them look good, even though they don’t have anything to offer in return and the plans that they did offer have only exacerbated the present situation. At a time when we need new ideas, we get old ones; at a time when we seek leadership, we get others whose call is not to follow.

We don’t need God to destroy this earth; we are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves and we must wonder if God is not contemplating the destruction of this planet but rather weeping at what His children have done to the world that was given to them to take care of. We have to wonder if Jesus doesn’t look around at the world, the world in He suffered, and wonder if it was all worth it. How many times has Jesus gone to God in our defense and on our behalf? And what must He be thinking now as He looks at what we have done to his church and to this world.

I think the one thing that bothers me the most about what I see happening in this world and what I hear is that the church, in all of its myriad forms and voices, is remarkably silent. There are people destroying the earth, God’s creation, and the church is silent. There are people making money, more money in one day perhaps than many people earn in a lifetime, while others go hungry and sick and naked and the church is silent. There are people being killed in the name of God and for the name of God and yet the church remains silent. The church is remarkably silent, except for a few whose voices have encouraged the death and destruction of this planet and the people who inhabit it because they are among those who are getting rich. The church has remained silent when politicians lie and cheat, except when the politicians and the charlatans who call themselves religious lie in bed together.

It isn’t that all those involved in church work are silent. But they are too busy trying to do the mission of the church, a mission that grows larger everyday, to say anything about what others are not doing.

I see a society that calls itself Christian but has absolutely, positively no clue what Christianity means. Now I will admit that my knowledge of the early church, the church that formed in Jerusalem at Pentecost and spread throughout the land, is limited. I knew, of course, of the prosecution of the early Christians and the need to meet in secret and use symbols to tell others who they were and to identify their brothers and sisters in other cities. To me, for many years, the early church was simply an earlier version of the church that I attended every week with a women’s group doing outreach and service and the men’s group fixing up the church building and painting the parsonage.

It has only been recently that I have gained a clearer picture of what that earlier church was like and how much of an agent for change it really was. And, of course, my introduction to the mission of the church in society came at a time when the church was on the front lines of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. But I don’t see the church in those roles any more; I see, as I wrote, a quiet church seeking to again control and dictate life, a corporate body that competes with the corporate giants of the business world to tell us what to say and what to buy and how to live. There are very few churches in the world today that espouse the words and actions of our Christian ancestors.

As Bob Dylan wrote and sang, the times are changing. We can no longer live in a world of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. We live in a world where each one of us has to recognize that every other person on this planet has an equitable and equal right to be here and that violence and war, poverty and homelessness are not the ways to demonstrate that equality. We have to realize that this world in which we live has only a finite set of resources and we cannot keep wasting what we have been given nor expect to find other resources.

This is the season of Lent and, for many, it will be forty days without their favorite candy or their favorite television show. And when Easter comes and they have met their Christianity responsibility by going to church in their fancy new clothes, they will watch all the television shows that they taped during Lent so that they don’t miss anything and they will snarf down a bag full of Easter bunny chocolates to make up for all the chocolate they didn’t eat for the past forty days. And then they will continue their lives as if nothing had changed because nothing will have changed.

But that is not what Lent is about; Lent is about changing, changing what you have done in your life and beginning anew. Lent is about what you do in preparation for Easter and what you do when Easter comes and what you do the day after Easter. Lent is about bringing hope into world as Christ brought the Good News. I do not doubt that there will be those who question what I have written here and who will attack my words; every time I have suggested radical ideas like fulfilling the Gospel message, that has happened. But those who would say that war is a part of life or that there is nothing we can do to insure adequate health care for all the people of this globe are among those who live in the past, fondly recalling the good old days that never were and wishing somehow that change would just go away.

I will admit that I don’t have the answers. But right now, every sign that I see around me says that we are headed in the wrong direction and if we expect to move deeper into the future, we need to stop and change our direction.

Some may question my use of a Bob Dylan song from the 60’s as a way to see the future but many times the great words were spoken before and need to be spoken again. And so it is that I remember the George Bernard Shaw quote that Bobby Kennedy used in the fateful campaign during the spring of 1968, “some see things as they are and ask why – I dream things that never were and ask why not.” We have too many people asking why and not enough people dreaming. We have too many people trying to keep the times as they are when the times are changing. The times are changing; should we be doing the same?

Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Treading Water


This is the message I presented on 1st Sunday in Lent, 9 March 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Genesis 9: 8 – 17, 1 Peter 3: 18 – 22, and Mark 1: 9 – 15.

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For many, I am sure that Bill Cosby is known more for his role as the father on the Bill Cosby show. But I knew of Bill Cosby when he was just a struggling comedian in the early 60′s. Because of his wit and humor, I quickly became a fan of the first of the many 60′s spy shows, “I Spy”. But it was still his humor and his description of things that I enjoyed then and still enjoy now. I saw him deliver the monologue about “Driving in San Francisco” and the images of his problems with a parking brake on the hills in that city came quickly to mind when I later visited and drove the streets myself.

But it may have been his rendition of the telling of Noah and the ark that made the deepest impression on me. For it was not simply a recitation of the Bible story we all learned in Sunday school but more of a dialogue that might have taken place between Noah and God as well as between Noah and his neighbors. The Bible doesn’t say much about how Noah’s neighbors would have reacted to the building of the ark and I am sure that words were passed between them. In fact, I am sure that at least one of Noah’s neighbors must have asked him what he was building and why he was building it. But, as Cosby pointed out, Noah wasn’t in a position to tell him.

As Cosby tells the story, the neighbor wanted at least a hint. And Noah’s reply, in the Cosby version of the story, was “How long can you tread water?” For a while, this reply became a way of telling others that they were on the brink of impending doom.

But there is more to the telling of the story of Noah, the ark, and the Great Flood than the by-play between Noah and his neighbors. There is the reason for the flood and the covenant that God made with Noah, and by extension, and we today.

The Great Flood of the Bible was God’s way of cleansing the world in a time when corruption and evil were greater than the efforts of the righteous of the time could overcome. God chose Noah and his family because, amidst the evil and corruption of the time, they remained righteous and loyal to God.

God’s promise to Noah following the flood was that He would never again destroy the earth by flooding and His sign to mankind of that promise would be the rainbow. It is important that we remember this, the first part of the covenant, because there are those in the Christian community today who claim the floods that ravaged the heartland of this country back in 1995 were a sign from God. The floods may be a sign of our stupidity and greed in trying to control the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers but they were not a sign from God or a punishment. God’s covenant with mankind, through Noah, was that until the ends of the earth there would be seasons for planting and harvest, day and night. Even though mankind had rebelled against him and caused him great anguish, God promised to Noah that the rhythms of the earth necessary to sustain life would always be maintained.

God’s covenant with Noah was a sign of a fresh start, a new beginning. With the new beginning following the Flood, God gave power over the earth to Noah and his descendants. It was a power that could easily be misused and many times has been. The people of this planet have long held the power to destroy this world, without the help of God. But it was also a power for good. The same powers and abilities that can lead to death and destruction are also the powers and abilities that can foster good and peace throughout the world.

But it was marked with the knowledge that God knew that the conditions of mankind had not changed; that the evil that was present before the flood still existed in the hearts of some. But the covenant also came with a warning. God warned mankind not to shed the blood of any person. And if someone did shed blood, there would be a reckoning. It has long been assumed that before the Flood, people were responsible only for themselves; now, God holds the community responsible for punishing wrongdoing.

If the community is to be responsible for punishing the wrongdoing, then it is also the community who should be responsible for the care of the people. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to reach out to the oppressed, the downtrodden and the rejected of the earth. Yet, we look around and see that we ignore those to whom we should be ministering. (1) There must be at this time clear statements made, not by politicians or public leaders, but private citizens asking where the care of those less-fortunate will come from. Can questions concerning poverty, health care, housing and jobs be answered when the drumbeat of war drowns out all other sounds?

There is a collective responsibility to insure that this planet remains safe to live on; yet, we reward polluters and ignore the consequences of our own anti-environmental actions. We have allowed monies that should be going to the assistance of those in need to be slashed or eliminated; we have put the burden on those without to provide for their own well being.

This is a country that, on the outside, expresses a belief in God. This is a country that claims to have been founded on the values and traditions of Christianity. Yet, our actions speak against those values and traditions. The dignity of each individual and the respect for the well being of individuals are tossed out the window.

We have to ask ourselves what values and traditions we hold dear to our hearts. How can we claim to be a nation of peace when we espouse violence so easily? How can we speak of the freedom to dissent, publicly or privately, when the United States Congress passes laws that take away the most basic and fundamental rights, rights established in our Constitution?

Jesus treated everyone as an individual, even when society had cast him or her out; yet, we seemed to have forgotten this lesson. We are willing to treat an individual with less respect, simply because he is of the “wrong” ethnic background or because he doesn’t believe as we do. Those who speak out against the administration are called unpatriotic, even though that was one of the rights we sought for this country some two hundred and forty years ago.

We find ourselves rushing to the store and buying duct tape, simply out of fear but not knowing what to fear. Hope is no longer the motivating force in our lives; it has been replaced by anxiety and fear of the unknown.

But it was hope that Jesus gave to the downtrodden, it was freedom from fear that Jesus offers to us. Instead of reacting to fear and giving up hope, perhaps we should reflect on the lessons that Jesus taught us. Instead of creating situations that create fear, that take away hope, perhaps we should be working to bring hope back and take away the chance for fear to grow.

This should be a time when we should be building bridges – bridges of hope, understanding and cooperation around the world, bridges of fairness and equity, bridges of respect for the integrity of each individual, bridges of human and civil rights? These are the values that over the years that has made this nation great. Now we are isolating ourselves with massive shifts in foreign and domestic policy. Is it not in our best interest to be building bridges across the chasms that now separate us by shedding our arrogance and emulating the true heroes of September 11 who gave their lives helping others?

Nearly fifty years ago President Eisenhower warned us that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” (April 16, 1953) We should do well to consider his words.

The purpose of Lent is to prepare for the coming of the Lord. It is not a time of sacrifice, of giving up something that we will regain after Easter. Rather it is a time when we should give of ourselves. Peter reminded us that just as the Flood cleansed the world, so did our baptism cleanse us of our sins and allow us the opportunity for salvation. Now we know that Jesus, who was without sin, did not need to be baptized. But he was baptized because it gave him identity with the preparatory work of John the Baptist and it showed us that Jesus was willing to die for our sins.

As we come to the communion table today, we are reminded that the reason for this supper was to commemorate that evening when Jesus’ ministry was passed to the disciples and to us. Jesus gave of himself so that we could live, free from fear and free from sin. We need to ask individually and collectively if we are willing to act in such a way that we give of ourselves as Jesus gave of himself. If not, then I am afraid that we may be simply treading water.



(1) Portions of the following paragraphs were adapted from the e-mail “Called to be Peacemakers” written on February 27, 2003 by Mary Lu Bowen and distributed to pastors in the New York Annual Conference on March 4, 2003.

The View From The Mountaintop


Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, 22 February 2009. The Scriptures were 2 Kings 2:1 – 12, 2 Corinthians 4:3 – 6, and Mark 9: 2 – 9.

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There is something about the view from the top of a mountain that is always awe inspiring and breath-taking. We stand on the summit of even the shortest of mountains and marvel how clear the air is and how far we can see. And as anyone who has ever traveled in the South knows, you can see six states from the top of Lookout Mountain, though you have to imagine that the signs are there on the horizon telling you which state you are looking at.

And our journey to the mountaintop is also interesting. Sometimes, it is a clear day and you can see things as you move up the side of the mountain; other times, it is a cloudy day and you drive through a fog. But when you break through the clouds and into the sunlight, the clarity and brightness overcome you.

Perhaps it was that sort of brightness and clarity that overcame Peter, James, and John when they stood on the mountaintop and watched the Transfiguration of Jesus. And too many times, it is that vision that we see on the top of the mountain that we want to keep in our minds, clear and unobstructed, unfettered by the noise, grime, and pollution that inhabits the world far below us.

Each step that we take up the mountain takes us further away from where everything is taking place. And when we get to the mountaintop and look back at where we came from, we can barely see the people and the problems that are so much a part of our world.

Too often we are like Peter at that moment of the transfiguration who wanted to build a monument to the moment in order to remember it forever. Building a monument to the moment makes it easier to forget what you left behind and what you must sooner or later return to.

Unfortunately, too many times in our society, the mountaintop is where we want it to be. We don’t want to be reminded about the problems of the world; we don’t want to be reminded about what is happening outside the walls of our safe enclave that we call the church. We have put the church up on the mountaintop where we have a wonderful view of the world and where it is safely out of reach of the people who need the presence of the church in their lives the most.

Maybe that’s what Paul is writing about in the passage from Corinthians for today. There are those outside the church who do not see the message of the Gospel. They see the vision and hear the message but call it superstition and irrational thought. They believe that good and evil are fixtures in this world and it is best if one looks out for themselves. But there are as many within the church also blind and deaf; they do not see the vision, they do not hear the message.

It is not easy to see the vision if you are trapped by the boundaries placed on you by society; it is not easy to hear the message when society drowns it out with a cacophony of other sounds and noises. And that is why there must be a church; there must be a place that offers the peace and quiet often times only found on the mountaintop.

But sooner or later, you have to leave the mountaintop and return down the mountainside. Keep in mind that Elisha had to go to the mountaintop in order to see Elijah be taken away; in return, he was granted a double share of Elijah’s inheritance.

But he could only use that inheritance if he were to leave the mountaintop and return to doing the work that Elijah was doing. The same is true for each one of us; we can visit the mountaintop and we can find peace and solitude there. But we need to use that time not to escape from the world but to come back into contact with Christ. When we return to the real world, we will have regained that which the world seeks to take away from us and we will have the strength and courage to move on.

We live at a time when the old visions don’t work; the old messages have grown old and stale. And until we go to the mountaintop and have that same experience as Peter, James, and John did, we will never gain a new vision of the world around us.

Go to the mountaintop and look around but bring that new vision down and put it to work in the world so that everyone can have the new vision.

That Moment In Time


This is the message I presented on Transfiguration Sunday, 2 March 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were 2 Kings 2:1 – 12, 2 Corinthians 4:3 – 6, and Mark 9: 2 – 9.

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Our lives can easily be seen as a journey. It is a journey that for some takes them to faraway places while others stay within reasonable distance of where they were born and grew up. But no matter whether your journey through life has involved great distances and various settings, it is a journey that has passed through time.

Each of our own journeys is marked by certain moments in time. Some of these are private moments, shared with those close to us. Others are public moments that allow us to be part of the world around us. Others are internal, that only we know and choose to share when we desire.

We mark our journey through life with private moments in times such as our own birth or the birth of our children and grandchildren, our marriage and the marriages of our children. Our yearly journey through time is marked by that singular day, though as we grow older the celebrations often grow more somber and less announced. We all remember the approach to our 16th birthday when we knew the independence that it would mark. Somehow, as parents, we view the 16th birthday of our children will a little less celebration and much more trepidation.

Public moments in time are those moments when others come to know who we are and what we are. You cannot make such moments in time happen but the moments in time that do happen will define who you are. Those who try to force time to march to their own tune often find their efforts futile.

In 1857, John Brown led a raid on the armory at Harpers’ Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia) with the intent of inciting the slaves of northern Virginia to rebel against their owners. But the raid was a failure and though some in the anti-slavery movements of the time may have considered him a martyr, it is hard to see how. John Brown chose to use violence as a means of fighting violence. No matter if one feels that their actions are correct, when you use the same methods as those whom you oppose, you are more likely to fail. John Brown’s actions did not solve anything, if anything they hastened inevitable conflict between the North and the South and brought more bloodshed to that period in time when blood was being spilled; in fact, in one of those interesting sidelights to history, the first casualty in the John Brown’s raid was a freed black.

But there are times when the moment is decided by other events. When Rosa Parks got on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the cold December 1st in 1955, she had no intention of becoming a landmark in time, a moment to remember for years to come. It had been a long day of work and she was tired, so she sat down. But she sat down in the front of the bus, an act that, according to the laws of Montgomery at that time, was illegal for her to do. Rosa Parks was black and the laws of the time required that she go to the back of the bus. It made no difference if there were empty seats in the front or there were no empty seats in the back, the law required that she go to the back of the bus.

But she was tired, so she sat down and shortly thereafter was arrested. Her arrest led to the boycott of the Montgomery bus lines by the blacks of Montgomery (who represented the majority of the riders on the bus system at that time). This boycott was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., a young preacher, fresh from seminary and new to Montgomery. This single incident is marked as the watershed event in the struggle for civil and human rights and brought Dr. King to the forefront of black leadership. It was the beginning of Dr. King’s work to bring equality to all and led him to Memphis in 1968 where he helped the sanitation works in their efforts to earn a living wage. That is where, of course, Dr. King’s journey through life ended, killed by an assassin on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

The reading from the Old Testament today also represents a moment in time, a passage from the old to the new. Elijah had been the Israel’s major prophet but his time had come and his journey was ended. The reward for his journey was a trip to heaven, one of such spectacular nature that it is memorialized by its early position in the 2nd Book of Kings. Now it is someone else’s turn. For Elisha, Elijah’s student, this is a moment of uncertainty. Elisha repeats three times that he will stay with Elijah no matter what happens, even though Elijah cautions him to stay where he is.

But at that moment when Elijah departs, Elisha wants an assurance that he will receive a double portion of the ministry’s gifts. When a father died, the principal heir received a double portion of his father’s goods (remember the trick Jacob played on Isaac in order to be the principal heir). Elisha wanted this principle to apply to spiritual goods as well as material goods. There were a number of people who could be the spiritual heir to Elijah’s ministry.

If Elisha were to be the true heir and follow Elijah’s model of life and mission, he was going to need the God-given spiritual gifts that Elijah possessed. It was not out of pride that Elisha wanted a double share of that ministry but rather out of a sense that he could not meet the goals of the ministry alone. History shows that Elisha accomplished twice as many miracles as did Elijah and one can assume that his request was granted

Paul writes about the gifts that God has given to him, gifts similar to those that Elisha wanted and received. Paul acknowledged on many occasions that it was God’s mercy and not his own ability that directed his ministry and provided the impetus for its success. But he points out that the basis for his success is not often seen by all. In a discourse before the passage from 2nd Corinthians for today, Paul defends his preaching as the preaching of the truth and not self-promotion. He, as he writes in verse 5, is not preaching for his own sake or proclaiming his ministry but rather the ministry of Jesus Christ and the salvation that it brings.

There is that one moment in time that is unique to each one of us, one that is internal and only shared with others when we chose to do so, either by our words or our deeds. And that is the time that we like Peter, James and John, meet Jesus, not as a figure in a historical sense but rather as the Christ, our Savior. It may not come on a mountaintop as it did for the three disciples, it might not come with thunder and lightning as Elisha’s encounter did but it will come. And when it does it will change our lives. Paul speaks of the light of understanding, that moment when the Gospel is revealed to each one of us individually. It changes our lives, it changes the path that we are walking, and it changes the way we see life itself.

And despite what others may say, it is our moment in time alone. Though others will come to know Jesus in the same manner, the way in which they arrive at that moment in time is unique to their lives. There is no way that others can tell you how it will happen but you can tell others that it did happen. Jesus did not want the three to discuss what happened that day on the mountaintop because it was not the time nor the place. But when he died and rose from the grave, then it was the time.

For each of us there is that same moment in time. That time when we come to know who Christ is and what he means for us. Paul himself knew that Christ was the light that would lead him out of the darkness. It is the same for us. In a world of darkness and turmoil, where it is easier to be self-centered than it is to share, where war and violence seem to be the answer, Christ is the light that shines the brightest.

Some have come to Christ and know the peace and strength found through Him. It was the strength that Paul used when the days of his mission work seemed futile and hopeless. Others are still looking for the light, a way out of the darkness.

This is that moment in time when the light is found and shines out of the darkness. This is that moment in time when Christ speaks to you individually and says to you, “Peace I bring to you.” And for those, who have heard the message of peace, it is that moment in time, as it was for Elisha, that the ministry begins.

Our life is a journey, marked with moments in time. What moment in time does today represent for you?

One By One


I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany.  The Scriptures are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

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A couple of years ago I posted a piece on my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it I suggested several pieces of music from my high school and college days that could serve as the backdrop for scripture readings (“Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds and “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane among others). Each of these pieces has some basis in scripture, though I believe that “Turn, Turn, Turn” was the only one knowingly written with the scripture in mind. This merger of modern music continues today as the group U2 does allow its music used in a particular type of service.

Now, my purpose in posting “A Rock and Roll Revival” and its follow-up pieces (“The Rock And Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” was to show that one could have a “modern” worship service with music that provides meaning and inspiration. When I listen to so much of what passes as Christian music today, I hear nothing that moves my soul or inspires me to seek a higher plain. Too much of today’s Christian music is of the “7-11” type, that is seven words repeated 11 times.

Now, it has been pointed out that some of the Psalms contain this type of repetition and the repetition adds meaning to the Psalm. But there are other times when the repetition offers no support or meaning to the song and is merely a substitute for substance. If we are to have modern music in our worship services today, then we have to have music that engages us and challenges us, not simply fills a portion of time in the service (adapted from “7-11 Songs and the Use of Repetition”).

I bring this up because I think the church today is at a crossroads. It is a crossroads much like the one that mentioned in Jeremiah 6: 16

Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.

But they said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’

I even provided watchmen for them to warn them, to set off the alarm. But the people said, ‘It’s a false alarm. It doesn’t concern us.’

And so I’m calling in the nations as witnesses: ‘Watch, witnesses, what happens to them!’ And, ‘Pay attention, Earth! Don’t miss these bulletins.’

I’m visiting catastrophe on this people, the end result of the games they’ve been playing with me. They’ve ignored everything I’ve said, had nothing but contempt for my teaching. What would I want with incense brought in from Sheba, rare spices from exotic places? Your burnt sacrifices in worship give me no pleasure. Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.”

Now, I am not offering an apocalyptic view of these times but I do see a warning in these times that we, the people who call ourselves Christians, are ignoring. And while there are those today who would argue that these are in fact the End Times and that God is going to destroy the world, these same people seem to me to be cheering for the destruction of the world in hopes that they will be the first ones taken from this earth when it happens.

But when I hear these people cheering for the destruction of the world because they believe that they will be taken up, I am reminded of the words of Christ from Matthew 25:

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

“Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

The church must decide in which direction it wants to go and the decision must be made quickly. It is a decision by the institutional church; it is a decision by individual churches; and it is a decision that must be made by each individual member.

The church as it is today is based almost entirely on the past, that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected. To put the church in a modern setting requires more than just concessions to the times; you cannot say that the church has modernized itself just because it has replaced organ music with guitar music.

And while it must look backwards in time to the life, death, and resurrection, it must also look forward in time. It must be prepared to anticipate where the footsteps of Christ are and where it is leading the church and its people.

The church must respond to the needs of the people, no matter whom they are or where they may be. It is a challenge that many churches are not well-prepared to face, let alone meet.

The problem may be in that the church has created an attitude that its way, whatever it may be, is the best way. The church and its members has projected their self-interests unto the view of history.

If we read many of the sermons of pastors in England at the time of the Wesleyan Revival, we see a real and genuine concern for the lower and working classes. But this concern is tempered with a feeling that the only way they, the poor and working class, are going to obtain salvation is by taking on the culture of the upper classes. What John Wesley did was not to make people feel that they had to be like their betters but help them to find Christ in their own worlds and lives.

When we re-read the story of Naaman, we see that same replacement of God’s will with our own. Naaman is afflicted with some sort of skin disease, often translated as leprosy. We now know that leprosy (or Hansen’s disease) is caused by a bacterium and, when identified, not very contagious. But the very nature of the disease and its affects on the body in its extreme (it can cause the loss of fingers and toes and the disfigurement of the face) lead to those infected with the disease becoming outcasts in society. Rightly or wrongly, people feared contact with an infected person. When Jesus told the leper to see the priest, it was as much to mark his re-entry into society as it was to proclaim the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the Old Testament reading for today, we can sense a degree in Naaman that a cure must be found for his illness, for the consequences of the illness will drive him from society. He is told that there is someone in Israel who can offer a cure. We can see in his efforts to obtain this cure the ethos of power; he is powerful in his own right so he will only deal with the powerful people in Israel. Thus, he sends a letter of introduction to the king of Israel asking for help in this matter.

Quite naturally, the king of Israel panics when he receives this letter. After all, he doesn’t know the answer nor does he know who might know the answer and he fears what might happen if he does not provide Naaman with the response Naaman wants. Perhaps Naaman does not have that inclination; then again, the fear of what might happen if he doesn’t find a cure may suggest to him that he keep an open mind. As we read, the word gets to Elisha, and Elisha sends word to Naaman as to what he must do in order to be healed.

And while Naaman is obviously open to suggestions as to what he needs to do, the suggestion that Elisha provides does in fact offend Naaman and his sense of power and position. What I read in Naaman’s response to Elisha telling him to bathe in the waters of the River Jordan seven times is that powerful and wealthy people require elegant and sophisticated solutions. Naaman saw his life in terms of his position and his power, not as an individual; he saw his problem as a reflection of his position and that any solution would require an appreciation for that position and the power that comes with the position.

Yet, as one of Naaman’s own servants commented, if the task had been difficult to accomplish, he would have easily undertaken it. How much more difficult would it have been to do something easy? In other words, because of his position and power, Naaman was looking for a complicated solution when a simple solution was right in front of him.

We have transformed the church today into our own image. Granted, it is a transformation that has taken place over time and one that most people are not aware. They grew up in the church and are comfortable knowing that it is the same today as it was yesterday and that it will be the same tomorrow. They do not care that the membership of the church is aging and that fewer and fewer younger people are coming to church. They are not worried that there are youth out there who would like to come to church but know that they will feel unwelcome because of the way they dress or the lifestyle that they have adopted. They are not worried that too many young people today see the message of the church as exclusive and hateful, contrary to the very words of Christ that they were taught in Sunday School and confirmation class.

Some have begun to worry about the church and so they have created newer and alternative worship services. But many of the services were created in rebellion to the old ways and the intransigence of the older members to change. Their worship service is simply a newer version of the old and soon it will have the same effect on the membership that the old worship service did. You cannot expect better results by changing the appearance but keeping the same message.

Whether they worship in a traditional or a modern setting, too many Christians today are comfortable in their safe and protected sanctuary; they believe that attendance on Sunday will enable them to enter heaven with trumpets sounding and angels singing. The problems of the world are outside the door of the church and that is where they will stay.

But there are those, both old and young, who see the problems of the church today and wonder what they must do to bring the community back into the church. In the portion of the letter to the Corinthians that we read today, Paul offers a hint to the solution. First, he points out that when we watch a race, we think in terms of who wins and who loses. That is the nature of competition but it is not what we should be doing.

Too many times I hear pastor’s speak of competing for the people on Sunday morning. Let us forget competition but let us also offer an alternative; an alternative with Spirit and substance. It will take some doing; as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it takes hard work to prepare for the race and it will take hard work to offer the alternative. It will take reaching deep into the soul to find the ways that you can offer the alternative but it can be done.

When Jesus cured the leper, He told him to go to the priest and receive the appropriate blessing for returning to society. He also told the man not to tell others about what had happened; but like so many other times, the person who Jesus cured could not keep silent and they told their friends and their friends told their friends. No matter how hard the establishment worked against the mission of Jesus, it grew.

When John Wesley spoke out against the establishment and its view of the church in society, the establishment barred him from preaching in the churches of England. But he kept on preaching and the movement grew (otherwise, we might not be here today as we are).

Our task is not to fight the intransigence of those who oppose the growth of the church, those who say the church is dead or outmoded; our task is to engage in a dialogue with those around us and frame the mission of the church with the needs of the neighborhood. It is inevitable that we will be impatient or worry that we cannot accomplish this task. It is inevitable that we will worry more how shall we accomplish this task that we will the task itself? How shall we organize our efforts when there are so few of us? These are good and proper questions but they have to be framed within the context of discovering the ways Christ calls us from the world and into the world.

Questions of how we will accomplish the tasks before us are too often associated with the standards of today’s society. Time and time again, as we face the need to replace the old methods with newer ones, we find ourselves thinking that if we could only find the right and relevant method then we will soon be successful. We must change our view of the world from who wins but who competes; we must not worry about whether or not there are enough of us to complete the task before us but whether or not we understand what we have been called by God to do.

When Paul speaks of preparing for the competition, he is just as much speaking about preparing for the tasks ahead. We must understand the world around us as much as we seek to understand what Christ is calling us to do. And as Paul speaks of the joy in what he is doing, he is speaking of the opportunities that have been presented, not the success of his ministry.

So we begin, just as the single individual, be they the leper, the woman at the well or any of the countless others who came to Christ one day and asked to be healed, did. After each was healed, they went out into the world and told all those who would listen what happened. One by one, the Word was passed and one by one the church grew. So it will be today; as each one of us goes out into the world today, we will pass the Word to the next person and one by one the church will grow.

To Publish or Perish


This is the way I “heard” the story:

“There’s this desert prison…. with an old prisoner, resigned to his life, and a young one just arrived. The young one talks constantly of escape, and after a few months, he makes a break. He’s gone a week and then he’s brought back by the guards. He’s half dead, crazy with hunger and thirst. He describes how awful it was to the old prisoner. The endless stretches of sand, no oasis, no sign of life anywhere.

The old prisoner listens for a while, then says, `Yep, I know. I tried to escape myself, twenty years ago.’

The young prisoner says, `You did? Why didn’t you tell me, all these months I was planning my escape? Why didn’t you let me know it was impossible?’

And the old prisoner shrugs, and says, `So who publishes negative results?’” (Jeffery Hudson, in “Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative.”)

Just a passing thought


“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common:  instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the fact to fit their views, which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”  Dr. Who

Intelligent Design


I first posted this on November 16, 2005 on my old blog and then re-posted it on last May (May 13, 2008).  In that time, I have discovered that certain links do not work (a fact that I am trying to correct).  I have updated some of the links and added some additional information.

The issue of “intelligent design” in the science curriculum may turn out to be as divisive an issue as any other issue that church and community face. It is clear that there is very little common ground on this topic. Part of the problem is, in my view, that we cannot see that there is a place for science and faith in our lives. This is due, in part, to the fact that science and faith are mutually exclusive and I don’t think that many people realize this.

We have already heard what Pat Robertson thinks about the people of Dover, PA and their decision to remove the local school board.  A link to the PBS NOVA broadcast “Intelligent Design on Trial” can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/ .  The ruling in the actual case, “Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover School District, et al.” is at http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf.

We know that the Kansas Board of Education has changed the definition of science in their new science curriculum. As noted in The New York Times, 15 November 2005,

On Tuesday, fueled by the popular opposition to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the Kansas State Board of Education stepped into this fraught philosophical territory. In the course of revising the state’s science standards to include criticism of evolution, the board promulgated a new definition of science itself.

The changes in the official state definition are subtle and lawyerly, and involve mainly the removal of two words: “natural explanations.” But they are a red flag to scientists, who say the changes obliterate the distinction between the natural and the supernatural that goes back to Galileo and the foundations of science.

The old definition reads in part, “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” The new one calls science “a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

Adrian Melott, a physics professor at the University of Kansas who has long been fighting Darwin’s opponents, said, “The only reason to take out ‘natural explanations’ is if you want to open the door to supernatural explanations.”

Gerald Holton, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, said removing those two words and the framework they set means “anything goes.”

The authors of these changes say that presuming the laws of science can explain all natural phenomena promotes materialism, secular humanism, atheism and leads to the idea that life is accidental. Indeed, they say in material online at kansasscience2005.com (as of 31 January 2009 this link does not work), it may even be unconstitutional to promulgate that attitude in a classroom because it is not ideologically “neutral.”

But many scientists say that characterization is an overstatement of the claims of science. The scientist’s job description, said Steven Weinberg, a physicist and Nobel laureate at the University of Texas, is to search for natural explanations, just as a mechanic looks for mechanical reasons why a car won’t run.

“This doesn’t mean that they commit themselves to the view that this is all there is,” Dr. Weinberg wrote in an e-mail message. “Many scientists (including me) think that this is the case, but other scientists are religious, and believe that what is observed in nature is at least in part a result of God’s will.”

I have published my views on this topic on this site before and may add some more thoughts in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I encourage people to look at the following sites. The recent issue of American Scientist contains a three-page article on the topic entitled “Being Stalked By Intelligent Design” (used by permission)

Another person whose opinion I value in this debate is Stephen Gould. One might look at “Evolution as Fact and Theory” for additional information.

The journal Science & Theology News contained a number of links to this topic; unfortunately, Science & Theology News is no longer published and the links that I had found do not work (I am hoping to recover those links in the next few days or so).

I hope to add some more thoughts to this topic in the coming week. In the meantime, I hope that you will examine some of these links.

Order Out Of Chaos


In the beginning there was nothing. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. (From The Message, Genesis 1: 1) For cosmologists, in this nothingness before the moment of creation through the Big Bang, there was nothing but chaos. There was disorder and from the chaos and disorder came order.

And in the days following the American Revolution there was chaos and disorder, there was no order in the land. Yes, there was the Continental Congress and this organization that had attempted to provide civilian control throughout the Revolution was attempting to discern the proper way to govern this new country, or rather this collection of thirteen states each seeing itself as an independent body in a confederation of like-minded states. But it became clear that the Articles of Confederation would not provide the organization that was necessary to govern this new country. And so the founding fathers gathered again in Philadelphia, ostensibly to make corrections to the Articles of Confederation. But it was clear to this select group of individuals that simply correcting the Articles would not work; it was necessary to create a new document and a new government. And from their deliberations through the spring and summer of 1787 we gained the Constitution.

Now, this is not a discussion about rewriting the Constitution nor is it about what the writers of the Constitution and those involved in its creation meant. This is also not a call for a new Constitutional Convention. First, the Constitution has proven to be a remarkably stable instrument for the design of the government; it has withstood the test of time. To fiddle with it or markedly change it in any way would be to destroy the one thing that has marked this country and its government.

But, perhaps we need to remember why it was written and for what purpose it was written. Consider the following words, the words of the Preamble to the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Much has been said about how later Congressmen, Senators, Presidents, and Justices of the Supreme Court would read these words and I don’t doubt that the members of the Constitutional Convention were equally in agreement about what those words meant. As Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said when he signed this document,

“There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. … I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. … It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies…”

Now, in 2009, we find ourselves in chaos and disorder. The answer does not lie, as I stated earlier, in a new Constitutional Convention because there are too many issues that people want to stick in the Constitution that have no business being there. But, when we look at the world around us, when we see people losing their jobs and their houses, when we see people sick and unable to get medical attention because they have no health insurance, when we see wars around the globe and threat of more wars, we must wonder if the system is broken and cannot be fixed with simple band-aids and old solutions.

Let me make this clear: I do not think that many of the solutions being offered at this time are going to work nor do I think that any of the solutions offered during the past eight years worked. For all the talk of change, nothing has changed and if a new set of ideas is not offered real soon, we are going to find ourselves on the edge of anarchy and chaos, the likes of which this country has never seen but have appeared throughout the ages of history.

And those distinguished colleagues of mine on the right side of the spectrum who argue that their way is the better way have got to explain how it was that we got into this mess in the first place. All I have heard from the right side is that the left doesn’t know what it is doing and is simply increasing government spending.

What exactly was the government doing over the past eight years? And don’t tell me that it was protecting my family and this country. Because I do not feel safe, I do not feel secure and the threat that I will lose my house is greater now than it was at any time in the past eight years. I don’t care what you call the economics, be they supply side, Keynesian, or voodoo; the system is broken and we need new fundamentals.

We need to remember what drove the men of the Constitutional Convention to meet and throw out the old rules and write a new set of rules. If we are going to argue that the individual should come first, then let’s make sure that it is all individuals, not just a select few, who come first. If we are going to say that the government should downsize and get out of the business of the people, then let’s make sure that government gets out of all the business of all the people.

No matter what belief system one may adhere to, there is an ethical component to it (if there are no ethics in your belief system, then I suggest that you get a new belief system). And that ethical component says that people cannot go hungry, people need to have shelter and healthcare, and there needs to be peace in the world and the world must have drinkable water and breathable air.

When one person suffers, we all suffer; when one person is oppressed, we are all oppressed. The fundamentals of life are that we are all one race and we all live on this one planet. As long as our discussions are going to be us versus them, we cannot to solve the problems that plague mankind.

It is time to bring order to chaos; it cannot be done by holding on to the old ways but rather looking for new ways.  If we do not find new ways to solve the problems that we face, we will simply bring chaos to what little order we have in our lives.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Following Directions


This is the message I presented on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 13 February 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45.

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It is not very often that I can use examples from chemistry in my sermons, but today is one day where that is possible. When I was working on my doctorate, I was faced with the synthesis of a particular platinum based compound. This synthesis involved a procedure that I had learned in organic chemistry. The only problem was that the procedure that I was to follow was actually backwards from what I had been taught in organic chemistry.

The reason for this switch was that the reaction was extremely exothermic, i.e., heat producing, and would have resulted in the destruction of what I had prepared up to that point, rather than creating the desired next step in the synthesis.

The problem with following directions exactly is that they don’t give you the flexibility to adjust to the situation that you are faced with. In another experiment, I saw the students through away the very material they were trying to produce because, in previous experiments, that was what the directions said to do. Each experiment is slightly different and requires that we prepare in advance.

The reading from the Epistle for today deals with the very issue of preparing. Paul drew a direct comparison between the Christian life and athletic competition. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian games, an athletic festival very similar to the Olympic games. Contestants in these games underwent ten months of very rigorous and mandatory training. If you failed to complete the training, you were not allowed to compete in the games.

The race that Paul prepared himself for, the race that all Christians are preparing for, was the calling of God. Paul taught that Christians are rewarded for the calling that God gives them. Paul had an apostolic ministry for which he sacrificed just about everything. He knew that if he was faithful to his calling he would received a reward from the Lord for his service. Paul also knew that if he ignored or treated lightly his mission he would not receive from God the victor’s crown of service.

Paul’s spiritual training was the very best available. Yet he never assumed that he would automatically persevere to the end of the race. He continued to discipline himself, to fight and to follow his calling from God.

One might see the same thing in the days when John and Charles Wesley were beginning the Methodist movement, it was this concept of discipline that Paul was referring to that lead them to the daily routine of prayer and bible study. This was done in spite of the taunts and jeers from the fellow college students. As has been pointed out many times before, the name “Methodists” was used to insult Wesley and the other members of the bible study group.

I think it must have been confusing for the Wesley’s, to endure this suffering as Paul would have done, yet to miss the joy that was to be theirs for following in Christ. For, just as it is well known that they were taunted, it is also well known that both John and Charles Wesley felt dissatisfaction with their lives.

This dissatisfaction went with them after they graduated from college and came to America as missionaries. Here was the chance to put into practice all the things that they had been working for while undergraduate students. Yet, when it was all said and done, they both returned home to England with a feeling of failure and disillusionment. For Charles Wesley, the feelings of depression were so severe that he became very ill and almost died.

Why is it that, despite their preparation, despite their adherence to a specific set of guidelines, they would have this feeling of loss and despair? After all, to have spent your whole life preparing for a ministry and to return home feeling that all that had been done was futile, must surely be the most hopeless feeling that we can have. Perhaps it was the same feeling that the Naaman, the king we read about in today’s reading for the Old Testament.

Understandably, his first reaction must have been one of anger and disbelief. Here was this great commander being told that all he had to do was something as simple as standing in the river Jordan, a minor river when compared to the great rivers of his own country. In verse 11, Naaman suggests that all God has to do is wave his hand and the leprosy would disappear.

Now, as we know for the Gospel reading for today, that is all God had to do, for Jesus merely commanded that the leper be healed and it was accomplished. But, by having Naaman go and stand in the river Jordan, Elisha was showing him the need to put his trust in God and to obey God. It is to Naaman’s great credit that he listed to his advisors and servants and did as he was told and was cured.

For Wesley, the great moment came when he realized that he had failed because he had not put his trust in God. When he knew that Christ had died for him as He died for each one of us. It is that moment at Aldersgate when John Wesley came to know the Holy Spirit that his preparation was complete. It is interesting to note that Charles also had a similar experience separate from that of John’s.

So, today, are we to simply wait for that moment in our own lives when the Holy Spirit comes to us. Jesus asked the man whom he had healed not to tell anyone who had healed him because it was not time for Jesus’ ministry to become well known. Obviously, that is not what the man did, nor do I think that such a healing could have been kept under wraps. Even Wesley’s friends could not help but notice the difference in Wesley’s life and demeanor after Aldersgate, such is the powerful affect of the Holy Spirit.

No, what is important for each of us to recognize today is that how we come to Christ is an individual thing. What works for one may not work for another.

In the Gospels themselves those closest to Jesus still retained their own individuality, even as they chose to follow him. Throughout history, those men and women who have been most successful in imitating Christ, those whom we called the saints have been one-of-a-kind individualists. Jesus ensured that there would be no mold to produce Christians. As Methodists, we fell that the central point of religion is one’s own personal relationship with God.

Jesus said that if we loved him, we would keep His word. Those directions are ones to follow, this day and always.