Will The Future Be Any Different Than The Past?


Well, the most obvious answer to the question is yes, the future shall be different from the past. But I wouldn’t have anything to write about if that were the case, now would I? But, to paraphrase George Santayana, if I see the future as the past, then my life would be condemned and I would have no future.

The other day I received a series of robot-calls, calls generated by a computer. Unlike so many of these calls that have been plaguing our home phone recently, this one left a message telling us that it was a political survey and that they would be calling again. For those who have registered their phone numbers with the “Do Not Call Registry”, politically-based organizations, charities, and debt collectors are exempt from the rules concerning such calls.

So, as it were, I was left with no alternative but to answer the call and endure whatever message or questions were involved in this survey. It turned out that this call came from Mike Huckabee’s political action committee. When it was all said and done, I found the website for this PAC and sent them a letter indicating that I wanted my name and number removed from their database. As of today, I haven’t heard anything from them so I shall assume they took the hint and will leave me alone.

Here is part of what I wrote in that letter,

. . . “I am going to quote Arlo Guthrie, specifically a statement he made to a sergeant during his draft physical, namely, “you have a lot of damn gall” (from “Alice’s Restaurant”) to phone my home today.  You had even more gall asking me to contribute to your political action committee when my wife and I are registered Democrats.

The only reason that I answered the phone call today was because you have tried to contact us twice before and left messages that you would be trying again later.  Because of my financial situation, I have found it necessary to screen calls and I am not in the mood for more computer-generated junk.

If I thought for a moment that Governor Huckabee and his political philosophy matched mine, I would have supported him during the primaries.  Now, it is clear that he wasn’t satisfied with his results in the last set of primaries and is now going to bombard the landscape with his robot/computer generated calls until he gets the funds so that he can try again.

One of the things that Governor Huckabee implied (and I presume that he recorded the message that accompanied the survey) was that I would be angry at the way the Obama administration was dealing with the economic crisis and that a contribution to his PAC would enable him to find candidates who were equally angry and they would go to Albany and Washington and stop this from happening. But he never offered a solution or counter proposal; only anger and spite. I am not in the mood to hear that from any politician. And as I also pointed out in my letter to his PAC,

Let me remind you that it was President Bush and his administration that began the bailout process; don’t blame the present administration for the errors of their predecessors.

Don’t tell me that it was Democrats who tanked the economy and who’s reckless spending wrecked the budget.  It was President Bush’s policies and lack of concern for the average American that brought about the disaster that we are now trying to dig our way out of.  I have no desire for more of the same from any Republican who wants to return to the good old days.

Of course, I am angry about what is happening in this country and I am not all that certain that the present administration has the proper plans in place to deal with the problems. But they are trying and the Republicans and conservatives are more interested in obstructing those plans than they are in offering realistic and plausible solutions.

If the battle plan of the Republicans for the next few years is to say “no, no, no<” then why should I listen to them? All they are doing is reinforcing the belief that I have had for many years that conservatives don’t want to see change and that they long for the old days. They want to maintain the status quo at all costs. I went to school in those days and I don’t see much that was good back then.

But I am not simply saying that the Democrats have the appropriate answers either. For what I am hearing from the Democrats is that they are going to try the same old stuff, the stuff they tried many years ago. But they are ignoring the reality of the moment in favor of their own glary days and I think that is a big mistake.

As I have pointed out before, the call for increased support for science and mathematics education is not new; it is a call that has been with us for at least twenty years (see “Have We Learned Anything?”), and yet we haven’t really done anything. In part, we have done anything because we have not faced a crisis like we did in 1957 when the former Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik and we felt that our mathematics and science education was not up to the task of meeting the challenge.

The country’s response then was to launch a massive national campaign to improve mathematics and science education. Through that effort, we saw a rebirth in those areas and met the challenge put forth by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before 1970. But when the war in Viet Nam and the social problems at home began draining our resources, we began cutting back on the support for science and mathematics education (see “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century” and “Who Goes First?”). With each cutback in support, we have regressed in what we can and cannot do in regards to science and mathematics education.

Now, we are trying to re-support that education when what we should be doing is to re-establishing what we did and moving beyond that. I understand that that there is money in the stimulus plans to rebuild our schools and I agree that this is a necessary step. But let’s not build the schools so that they look like and work like the ones we have now; let’s build the schools so that they utilize alternative energy resources and let’s make sure that they are cutting-edge technology centers. Right now, education answers to technology and is always behind; we have the opportunity to be pro-active with technology in the schools instead of having schools react to the changes in technology.

It should be pointed out that mankind once walked on the moon but we now have had two and perhaps three generations of students who only know that from history and not present day exploration. It should also be pointed out that should we decide to once again walk on the moon, all of the data that was gathered almost forty years ago is essentially lost; lost because we have not supported the technology that was used to store that data forty years ago and we have not maintained systems that could keep that information available.

This will require that our teachers be brought up to speed with regards to technology and our science and mathematics labs (from kindergarten through college) need to be the focal point of technology change, not one generation removed from the change.

Second, our schools must get back into the business of teaching our children how to think, not just simply reproducing answers. But, for our teachers to teach the students how to think, they must know how to think and that requires some extra effort. We cannot look at the past and say “that” worked, we have to look at the future and figure out what is going to be “there” when we get “there”.

Will the future be any different than the past? If we allow the present day politics to drive our thoughts and processes, no, the future will not be any different and that will be a shame. But if we look to the future and cast off the burdens of the past and move into the future, we might find a better answer than the ones we are working with right now.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Is the Church Old or Out of date?


Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2009.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.

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There are two thoughts behind the title to this message. One is in response to what many non-churched say is the problem with the church today; the other is about the attitudes of many people in the church today. The latter reason for this message may have a lot to do with the former reason.

I know that one day I will get old, if I am not already that way now. But the problem is that I don’t know what old really is. Is it when my bones ache and I creak when I walk? Is it when what’s left of my hair turns gray and then white? If that’s the case, I have been old for several years now.

Do you have to be technological “hip” to be young? Are you automatically “old” if you don’t keep up with the technology of the moment? I don’t twitter (I am not even sure that I could twitter because I don’t think I have the right type of cell phone to do such things) and I don’t text message my friends; I was never an aficionado of instant messaging. Does that make me old? I don’t take photos with my cell phone nor do I gather information from the web on my phone; it isn’t that I couldn’t do it but that my cell phone doesn’t have those capabilities.

We live in a technologically-dominated society, a society in which you have to have the newest gadgets and be hip to the latest and newest changes. We are quick to label someone as out of touch if they don’t have the latest gimmick or aren’t a member of the latest social group. And our churches, no matter the denomination, are quick to incorporate these new changes into their worship services.

But is the utilization of the latest technology really a statement of youth and vigor or just an attempt to market the church in a day and time of mass-marketing. How effective are such techniques when the people to whom such appeals are directed are hip to the message and the moment? Do we think that if we portray the church as young and vibrant we will actually get people to see that we are?

Or is old a matter of what you think? Can it be that there are people who are young, according to the calendar, but old in the mind, set in their ways and not willing to change? Can it be that there are people who defy the calendar and are young in heart and mind and soul?

We all know that the primary concern in churches today is the declining membership of many long-time established churches and many of those churches look at the churches which are growing and wonder why? I don’t think it has anything to do with the age of the church itself, the building in which the congregation meets or the calendar age of the congregation that meets in the church building. Nor do I think that this problem has anything to do with whether or not the church is up to date with technology or music or worship styles. Rather, I think it is that many members, no matter how young or old they might be in terms of the calendar, are old when it comes to their ways. And this “oldness” makes it very difficult for them to make the change or accept the change that is needed for a church to adapt to the needs of the community in which it was first set.

Should churches change with the times and the needs of the community? The answer, of course, is most definitely. But the changes cannot be simply because it is the thing to do; the change must reflect the ability of the church to present a timeless message in a manner more appropriate to the time. By the same token, any opposition to change which parallels “that’s they way we have always done it and others are going to have to adapt to what we do” simply shows what amounts to a closed mind.

What the prophet Jeremiah expresses in the Old Testament reading for today should be the basis for any change undertaken by a church. In announcing a new covenant, Jeremiah is pointing out that there needs to be a new thinking, a new way of seeing things.

If you spend all of your life doing things a particular way, you are not likely to seek new ideas or new ways. If you are part of a system that has done things consistently the same year after year and you have to wait “your turn” before you get to do anything, you are not likely to be ready for change when the next generation wants to do something. It is very easy to fall into a pattern, a pattern that runs counter to the very essence of the Gospel and the words of Christ.

We hear the words of the writer of Hebrews who speaks of Christ’s submission to God and how He learned obedience through submission. We somehow think that submission to the system and maintenance of the old ways is what we are supposed to do. We know that Abraham obeyed God when God told him to sacrifice Isaac. But Abraham didn’t challenge God as to why he should do this.

To challenge God is not wrong, if we are to ask what comes next. Abraham trusted in God to provide what God said He would provide. But to challenge God is not to go against God. We are reminded that Job did not accept the given answer that he had done something terrible and only wanted an explanation for his misfortune.

What we are supposed to do is give ourselves to Christ, not to the system. As Jesus pointed out to the Greeks, if a grain of wheat is to bear fruit, it must first die. Those who seek salvation will only find that salvation if they give up their old lives and begin anew. Our world can quickly become a world in which we grow old when we are not willing to give

The problem is that we think we know the ways of God; we think that we can tell people exactly what God wants us to do. The problem is, as Isaiah pointed out in Isaiah 55 8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (New International Version) or “I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.” God’s Decree (from The Message).

And if we think that obedience to the system is obedience to God, we no longer have a living relationship with God. And without that living relationship, it will be very difficult to even contemplate new ideas or new ways.

The new covenant was the foundation for a new relationship and with the new relationship had to be a new way of thinking. You could no longer rely on adherence to the Law as a guarantee for salvation. The call through Lent has been to repent, to change one’s life and begin anew.

To see the church in terms of the present system is to see an organization and its people growing old and losing its touch with the world. The church is old simply because it has been around for two thousand years.

But the word of the Gospel is not out-of-date; it can be if we are not willing to cast aside our lives in the system and in the world and accept the new relationship established by Christ. The call of Lent is to repent and begin anew.

A Different Place and a Different Time


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 30 March 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.

I have a note that says this is supposed to be the 4th Sunday in Lent but the scripture readings are for the 5th Sunday.  Since I have a message listed for the 4th Sunday in this sequence, I think that I have the date for this message wrong; it should be 6 April 2003.

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The scriptures for the last few weeks have spoken of the covenants God has made with us. God made covenants with us through Noah following the flood, Abraham following his move to the Promised Land and reaffirmed when he was tested at Mount Moriah and then finally Moses during the Exodus. The old covenants demanded adherence to regulations that the people were unable to keep. Above all other commandments, the people were commanded to love and serve God and abandon all other others. This they did not do. The history of Israel as the chosen people is permeated with idolatrous activity, only occasionally broken by periods of true faithfulness to God. The people seemed incapable of acting in sustained obedience.

As I look at what is happening around us, I have to wonder if we are not repeating some of the same mistakes. After all, we presume to be God’s people, our politicians regularly invoke God’s blessing on our actions. But our actions show that our beliefs are only momentary and only when it is convenient for us. In a world in which we have been commanded by God through Christ to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the needy and lift up the oppressed, it seems that we are more concerned with our own self interests than the needs of others. And I am not speaking of the nation as a whole but as a nation of collective individuals.

We seem more interested in what we have now and protecting it than we are in insuring that we have a future. I fear that our actions today, if continued, will destroy any hopes for the future.

Just as in Jesus’ day, those who have power use it for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of all. Just as in Jesus’ day, many of today’s spiritual leaders interpret the scriptures so as to enhance their own positions and power. What I fear is that the religious leaders who dominate the world viewpoint today have done more to drive people away from Christ than to bring them to Him.

These same individuals tell us that the Bible’s words are fixed in meaning and it is a meaning that only they and a select few others can understand. But this view is contradicted by the fact that the words that they say are fixed are written in English so that we can read them. But the English was translated from Latin and the Latin was translated from the Greek and the Greek was translated from the Aramaic, which leads me to wonder just exactly what were the actual words in the first place. We are presented in the world today with a view of Christians who claim Biblical justification for opposing abortion yet seem to almost worship warfare when it is done in the name of God. It is not the words of the Bible which we should be looking at but rather the thought and context of the words.

We must look around us and we must look at ourselves. Are we doing what is required of us or is what we are doing what we think is required? Is our God something “out there” in the great beyond or is He part of our daily life? I wish that today’s reading had included the 11th verse of the 5th chapter of Hebrews, because it goes a long way to explaining who we are and what we have become.

After explaining who Jesus was and why his mission to mankind was so important, the writers of Hebrews chastise us, adding that there was much to say about Jesus’ priesthood but that the readers would not understand because they had become dull of hearing. In this case, the word “dull” means “sluggish” and implies that the readers were not quick to accept God and had grown even lazy in their faith. Thus understanding the truth as presented to them through Jesus would be difficult.

The writer or writers of Hebrews point out that Jesus did not make Himself the Chief Priest but rather that God called him to the office. But this calling, which allows Jesus to be the mediator between God and us forever, required that Jesus experience all that a person goes through in life. Through His life on earth, He came to know and understand how difficult it is to obey God completely and that the attractions of temptations can lead one away from God. But he continued in obedience to God. In doing so, in carrying out God’s plan for Him, Jesus was better able to understand our weaknesses and thus intercede before God in our behalf.

Each of those covenants was made with mankind in general, speaking to the responsibilities of the nations. In each of these covenants, corporate responsibility was emphasized in legal and moral matters, though individual accountability was not overlooked. Now, in Jeremiah, focus is placed on the responsibility of the individual for his or her own iniquities.

The call to the ministry given to the early disciples and to us today is one that calls us to make a choice. It is a choice between what we have done and what we can do. We must now answer for what we have done, both good and bad. Jesus challenges us to make a choice between the life we have lived and the life we are going to live. “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12: 25)  In those words, Jesus speaks of the future for all that would hear his words. Those that love their own life serve only themselves and would lose their life and all that they had gained. Those who hate their life saw life in a different view, choosing to serve God. Each one of us, hearing the words of Jesus, must decide what our priorities are to be. We cannot give ourselves fully to this life and be committed to the life that will come.

That is the most difficult decision that we will ever have to make. No decision that we make will ever come close to matching the one that comes when we decide whether or not to follow Christ. And the longer we wait, the harder it becomes.

When Abraham was first a father, God commanded that he take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him. Abraham had committed himself by covenant to be obedient to the Lord and had consecrated his son Isaac to the Lord. The Lord put his servant’s faith and loyalty to the supreme test, thereby instructing Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants as to the kind of total consecration the Lord’s covenant requires. The test also foreshadowed the perfect consecration in sacrifice that another offspring of Abraham would undergo in order to wholly consecrate Abraham and his spiritual descendants to God and to fulfill the covenant promises. The other offspring was, of course, Jesus and the sacrifice was to be on Calvary. Abraham’s devotion is paralleled by God’s love to us through Christ as related by the Gospel reading from last week, John 3: 16.

But we are not called to make such an ultimate sacrifice for it has been done for us. We are called, however, to sacrifice what we feel is the most important parts of our life for a life in Christ and for Christ. And if we cannot distinguish between what is of this earth and what is of Heaven, then I fear we will not have understood what the coming days, beginning with next Sunday, are all about.

There were those who heard the words of Jesus and left at that time, for they were not willing to sacrifice their lives in order to insure the future. There were those who left when Jesus died on the cross that Friday evening because death was death and there is no tomorrow. But the empty tomb shows that death is not the final statement and that there is hope for tomorrow.

The hope for tomorrow lies in what is done, individually and collectively, today. The church must model a new paradigm of possibilities, not simply a restatement of current thoughts and processes. It has been said that Sundays are for the seeker, for the person seeking a refuge in a world of despair and darkness. And when they come to a church, they should find a revitalized people celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ through community, prayer, and song. What they should not find is a place that mimics society. Because society places more importance on performance than it does substance and where actions contradict the words spoken. “If one thing has become clear in this global society’s advanced age, typical ‘religion’ has become like some kind of college football frenzy, with cheerleaders in all quarters screaming ‘Hooray for our side!’ and with many wolves wearing sheep’s’ uniforms.

Ross Werland wrote in a Chicago Tribune article,

“Most of the major religions are taking one heck of a beating in public relations at the moment, yet spiritual giants inhabit all of them. These people are the ones who daily defer their own wants and needs to help others find their own spiritual bounty.

The real power in churches and synagogues and mosques and temples is the honest-to-God believer whose religion is this simple: love, not hate. (Ross Werland, Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2002)

You can hope that it will be a different time or a different place when you have to make the decision that will change your life. You can try to put off this decision. But that can never be the case. Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Those who put off making the decision to follow Christ, trusting in their own judgement of life and putting their faith and assurance in the material gains found in this world will quickly find that time runs quicker than they can control.

There can never be another time or a different place in which to find Christ and the hope for tomorrow. Jesus came and died so that we would know that God is a part of our lives, here and now. You are here right now and that is all that is needed. And that is the challenge for today.

 


And the Winner is . . . ?


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.

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There are those who proclaim that these days are the End Times and that God will surely destroy the world. But I wonder if God needs to do that; after all, we are doing a great job of it ourselves. As I thought about the Scriptures for today and what they mean in this day and age, a quote from long ago but not far away came to mind, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This was uttered by Pogo, the carton creature created by Walt Kelly. Developed in part to explain part of his thinking, the ultimate quote became the “battle cry” for the environmentalist movement in the early 1970’s (see http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm).

For a long time, we, the people of this planet, felt that we could do what we wanted with the environment of this planet. We felt that we could dump our wastes in the rivers and streams, lakes and oceans of this world and the planet would detoxify the wastes and eventually purify it. When there were very few of us, many eons ago, we could do that. But as the population of this planet has increased and the amount of waste that we generate has increased, the amount of water and air from which we gather the basic requirements of life has remained constant. Not all the water on this planet is drinkable and as we pollute our rivers and streams, we reduce the resources available for fresh drinking water. And without fresh drinking water, life is limited in scope. Remember that any search for life on other planets begins with a search for water.

The amount of air in the atmosphere is also fixed and as we pollute the atmosphere, we reduce the amount of fresh, breathable air. There is a limit to how much “recharging” the planet can do; one day we are going to find out that there is no more fresh air and no fresh, drinkable water and then we will wonder what is going to happen.

From the book of Numbers we read that the people of Israel were impatient, demanding food and water and complaining virtually every step of the way on the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. And their complaints were numerous enough that God basically said that He had enough; “the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21: 5)

But it is not just the environment that has brought us to this point in time and space. It is our relationship with other people and us. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points out that we all have lived among the passions of the flesh, following the desires of our flesh and senses (Ephesians 2: 3).

As long as we walk a path that says that what we want as individuals is more important than anything else, then the path we walk is a path of destruction and desolation. We have long understood that the causes of war are rooted in poverty yet, despite this knowledge, we do little to remove the causes of poverty.

In the end, we are faced with a decision, individually and collectively. We can continue the path that we are currently on; we know where it leads and what we will find when we get there. The problem is that what we find when we get there is not what we expected during the walk.

Or, we can change our ways and the path which we are taking. We have that opportunity. John’s words in the Gospel for today point out that God cares for the inhabitants of this planet. Jesus came to save all those who would believe; the next step is up to us.

As we continue that journey through Lent, to Palm Sunday, and through Holy Week, we are reminded that we are being given an opportunity to change our path, our lives, and the future. We know what the outcome will be if we do not change our ways; and if we do not change, we will lose. That is not a good outcome.

If we change our ways, if we heed the words of the prophets, of the Baptizer, and of Christ, we will repent, we will change and the outcome will be positive.

It Amazes Me


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 30 March 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.

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Whenever I write a sermon, I hope it is based on the Gospel. I also hope that what I write and what I say makes you think. But today I fear that some of you will become angry before you think.

In part that is something that amazes me. As a society, we are quick to get angry before we think. We allow our emotions to guide our actions rather than allowing our actions to guide our emotions. It appears, at least to me, that the society that we have today is one in which intellect and rational thought have given way to emotion and quick action.

I am amazed that while we have stated that this war is about bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq, we have forgotten what we fought for in our own Revolution. I may not agree with what is being said by either side on the debate of war or no war but I would say that our own Revolution was fought to insure that people have the right to express their own thoughts. Our Constitution would not have been ratified had the Bill of Rights not been included. Yet there are those who would deny us the rights given to us at birth simply because our opinions differ from theirs.

You must know by know that I am opposed to war. My opposition is not limited to just the present conflict but to all the wars that have been a part of my life. To some who know of my family background, my being a second-generation military brat, the grandson of an Army Colonel and the son of an Air Force Major, this may come as a shock. The horrors of war are often far removed from our view and we often see wars from only heroic standpoint. It was Robert E. Lee who said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” But it is in part the experiences of my grandfather and father in war that has led me to my opposition.

We speak today of the possibility of chemical warfare in Iraq. In the diary he kept during World War I, my grandfather wrote, almost casually that “Gas is no stranger to us now”. (Diary of Walter L.  Mitchell, Sr.; entry for October 15, 1918) Later, he commented on the number of causalities his unit suffered because of the German gas attacks. Both as an historian and as a chemist, I understood what that comment meant.

He was to have commanded one of the regiments that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 but medical problems forced an early retirement and he did not have to encounter the horrors that section of sand in France brought.

It was a similar casual comment that brought the horrors of World War II close to home. My dad mentioned that he was to have been part of the third wave of troops that were to invade Honshu, the main island of Japan. His, he commented, would have been the first to have the troops come ashore alive as the planners for the invasion felt the first two waves would be literally slaughtered on the beaches as the Japanese began the defense of their homeland. It was, in part, the thought of such massive casualties that lead President Truman to decide that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary.

Some will say that there can be just wars or wars that are justified. I cannot. As long as there is death and destruction, it seems to me that no war can be justified, no matter what the reasons. One historian, Victor David Hanson, has concluded that war is the natural state of mankind. Unfortunately, there are members of the present administration who agree with this assessment.  (Newsweek, 31 March 2003)

But wars bring nothing but death and destruction to combatants and non-combatants alike. For no matter how hard we try, someone is going to die and one death by unnatural causes is one death too many. The ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus once said, “Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children.”

And just the roots for my own ministry were unknowingly linked to my family tradition, so too is my opposition to war unknowingly linked to my own Methodist heritage. We need to be reminded that the United Methodist Church has a long heritage of opposition to war going back to John Wesley in the 18th century.

“War”, John Wesley said, “is a ‘monster’ that cannot be reconciled to ‘any degree of reason or common sense’ — a monster bringing miseries to the warriors and to all those in the warriors’ path. Wesley also said that, “war is too often caused by national leaders, who in disregard to their people, fail to find more creative ways of settling disagreements.”

In our own Revolution, many Methodist preachers were pacifists who declined to take up arms for either side. And because these preachers refused to sign the loyalty oaths required by many of the American colonies, they were viewed as disloyal American citizens and persecuted.

But, at the same time, the church has a strong commitment to minister spiritually to the troops both home and abroad and a spiritual duty to minister to the victims of war. Both the opposition to war and the ministry to the participants and victims of war are direct consequences of the Gospel. You cannot, if you accept the Gospel, stand by idly and watch the world destroy itself; rather, you must use every means within your power to use peace and good to insure that wars do not happen.

And we are a nation that professes to be one nation under God. Yet we quickly forget or don’t understand that the God we worship today is the same God that Jews and Muslims around the world also worship. If ours is a God of peace, how can the God that Muslims worship be a God of war and hatred? Yet, that is how many people see the Islamic faith, forgetting that those who attacked us on September 11, 2001 are not representative of their professed faith. And it is that emotional side of our thoughts, our desire to avenge the deaths of 9/11 that cause us to treat American citizens who have chosen to follow Islam as if they were traitors to this country.

And I am further amazed and perhaps even more bothered by the fact that many Christian ministers profess and preach this message of intolerance and hatred. And it is not just the extreme fundamentalist preachers, who hate just about everything, that are doing so. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church suspended one of their pastors for participating in an ecumenical service following September 11th that included Muslim and Jewish representatives. And last week, one of the Christian networks found on cable TV devoted most of their broadcast to re-broadcasting their coverage of the 9/11 tragedy. I missed the reason for doing so but I can only image that it was to somehow justify our war in Iraq and inflame the passions of their viewers. That is not what the Gospel is about.

Now some will say to me that war can be justified because it is a part of the Bible. And wars are mentioned in the Bible. In fact, in the verses just prior to the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites fought a war with people living in the Promised Land. War and invasion of land was the means the Israelites used to take control of the Promised Land and God sanctioned it. But every time the Israelites went into war by themselves, feeling that they knew what God wanted them to do, they lost the battle and they lost it big. In many of the battles the Israelites fought, they were outnumbered. But they prevailed because of the presence of God. But many times they outnumbered their enemies but they failed to take God with them and they lost.

To me, many of those who use the name of God to justify this war or any war are presuming that they speak for God and not only speak for Him but are telling Him what to do. The Old Testament reading for today is a reminder that we cannot take God for granted nor can we presume to speak for Him.

It has always amazed me that the Israelites would grumble, complain, and question God in light of the fact that they had been enslaved and oppressed for so many years prior to the Exodus.

The entry into the Promised Land as outlined at this point in the Bible story is not the first. The people of Israel first stood outside the Promised Land some forty years before. But instead of trusting in the Lord and His ability to provide for them, they sent spies into the land to find out what lie ahead. Twelve spies went into the country. Ten returned and told stories designed to discourage the Israelites. They doubted the ability of God to fulfill his promise so they returned lying about what the Israelites would face. Only two of the spies with true information about the land they had been promised was their once and future homeland. Thus, the Israelites were barred from entering the Promised Land until those who had lied had died, adding another forty years of wandering. Now, after another forty years, the Israelites are still complaining. The people were again protesting the manna that God provided for them on a daily basis, calling it this worthless bread. In the contempt that they showed for the bread that sustained them, they were actually spurning God.

God does not take kindly to criticism such as this and that is why the fiery serpents came. The venom of these serpents had no antidote and caused those who were bitten to die or suffer in extreme pain. It was this pain and death that caused the people to beg Moses to intervene on their behalf. God had Moses create an image of one of the serpents and set it on a pole. Anyone bitten by one of the serpents only had to look at the image Moses has placed on the pole in order to live. The raising of such a contemptible symbol ordinarily would have caused the people to shrink away in revulsion.

It was this image that Jesus referred to in his discussions with Nicodemus in John (see John 3: 14 and 15) as an analogy to his own execution by crucifixion. For Jews, crucifixion was a sign of a curse. Therefore, just as the Israelites had to look on the repugnant, uplifted image of a serpent in order to be saves, so too do we have to look at an uplifted image of Jesus on the cross in order to be saved from our sins.

And that amazes me as well. That even though we as a people then and now have done so much to forget who God is and what God has done, God has never forgotten us. And even though we often times show no love in our hearts for anyone but ourselves, God loves us enough that He sent his only son to be our Lord and Savior, to die on the cross for our sins so that we may gain eternal life.

Wars are a part of the Old Testament but we are a part of the New Testament. That means that we must realize and seek new responses to the problems of the world, not just the same old ones countless generations before us have tried.

The Gospel is a message of peace, of peace between individuals as well as between nations. But it requires a commitment, an acknowledgement that the way we were is not going to be the way we will be. I hope that we can stop and look around us, look at how we react to one another. It is not just something that our leaders must do, for they react in the way they see us reacting or in a way that they feel we want them to; it is something we must do ourselves, each day as we interact with others.

On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus stopped Peter from taking violent action. Because the price of our freedom was His death on the cross; any other action would have made our freedom impossible. The freedom of others from sin and from evil, from oppression and persecution will only come when we fully accept the Gospel message and take it with in our daily lives.

Today we are faced with a struggle between nations, a struggle that may seem to be beyond our capabilities to resolve. And it may be that tomorrow we are faced with a minor struggle, one between someone else and ourselves.

Those who say that wars are just or that wars are part of nature will say that that freedom can only come by the sword or other harsh and violent means.

But that does not have to be the case. That is perhaps the most amazing thing of all. Paul’s words to the Ephesians today evoke a new answer, a new response to the evil in this world. Paul pointed out that the Ephesians formerly walked according to the world’s way, a way walked before Christ’s presence in their lives. A way characterized by lust or strong desire. And Paul meant more that just the most obvious connotation; he included a desire for fame, power, and riches as part of this path.

Whether it was a path of moral carelessness or the dark alley of evil, it was a path that we no longer and could no longer walk. Believers are saved so that they can have a lifestyle characterized by good works. We, as believers in Christ, are called to walk in a way worthy of our calling, which means to walk in love, in light, and in wisdom.

No matter the size of the conflict, no matter if it is a conflict between two individuals or two countries, the fact that we have chosen a way to walk that differs from the past tells us that there is a solution other than hatred and violence. God has given to each one of us the ability to be a force for good in this world, perhaps in ways that perhaps we do not know.

The amazing thing is that we have a choice as to how we will react, of how we will live. With one choice, we can walk back into the darkness, back into the slavery of sin or death. But with the other choice, we walk in the light, the wisdom, and the Glory of God. Which choice shall it be?



The Quality We Ask For and the Quality That We Get


I had intended to write a commentary about the countdown to the end of President Obama’s first 100 days in office but the thoughts are not coming together for such a missive. However, I do want to make a note that it seems like everyone, on the outsides of both aisles, are setting up this administration to fail.

It isn’t just that certain individuals on the right have already prejudged the efforts and are openly rooting for President Obama to fail; there are those on the left who are expecting something which may or may not be possible in one hundred days. Of course, those on the right who are calling for the failure of this administration would be calling for the failure of any administration, right/left, red/blue, up/down, if that particular administration did not meet their standards.

Rather, what prompts me to write my comments today is the apparent lack of quality in our lives and in the standards that we set for ourselves and this country. After all, when you hear representatives of AIG say that they were legally obligated to pay bonuses, be they for performance or retention, and you look at the meaning of bonuses, you have to wonder exactly what type of standards are being applied.

As I understand it, a bonus is paid for exemplary work. And you might want to pay a retention bonus if other companies are seeking to hire a particular individual. But why would you pay any type of bonus for exemplary work when the work in question causes the company to fail and why would you want to retain someone whose efforts cause the company to fail? If any company wanted to pay the AIG employees retention bonuses, it would be the competitors, not AIG!

But the AIG idea of quality control and reward for work is not that far out of line with the thinking of the American people. We do not demand excellence and while we may expect quality, we willingly settle for second best because we are not willing to pay the price for quality. The standards that we accept are not the standards that we demand.

Several years ago, I took a sermon entitled “Quest for Quality.” It was, in part, about a quality control seminar that I attended and how the topic of total quality management could be applied to church management. As I noted in my blog, “To Search For Excellence”, about halfway through the seminar I had the disturbing sense of “déjà vu all over again”. You see, my father was an industrial engineer and he had worked with statistical quality control all his professional life. In the end, as I noted, I never got an idea of how one applies statistical quality control to the management of a church nor how one can use TQM to help a church grow in this day and age.

And today, as I look at the idea of quality control in our lives and our demands for quality, I wonder if we haven’t forgotten the lessons of the past. We invented statistical quality control and yet we do not use it. And while initial Japanese goods were cheap and poorly made copies of American products, the Japanese took our methods and improved the quality of their products to the point that it was our products that became inferior.

Yet, we clung to the notion that their products were cheaply made junk and that our cars, television sets, and other consumer goods were the top-of-the-line products. The decline of the American auto industry in the 70’s should be a reminder that our perception of the quality of our own goods can have disastrous results.

Our education system today is another example of our inability to think creatively and “outside the box.” While it is proper and good to insist that no child be left behind, we are not moving into the future. In the manner that the Red Queen spoke to Alice, “we are running twice as fast just to keep in place. If we want to get somewhere, we must run at least twice as fast.” (From Chapter 2 – “The Garden of Live Flowers”, Through the Looking Glass)

It would be one thing if, in one hundred days, President Obama and his administration could fix the problems that were created in the past eight years. But it is not likely that is going to happen. But those who expect such results have no vision for the future, just long glimpses of the past and the desire to hold on to the present. And those who are expecting miracles should know that no miracle can take place without preparation.

Quality control is not a top-down phenomena; it is not upper-level management who generate the ideas that produce the products that make a company successful. Time and time again, we have seen that the initiative for quality comes from the bottom and moves up. What the upper-level can do is make sure that the climate for improvement is there so that those who have ideas will be able to implement them. And those in the middle, who think that their only role in the whole process is to point out that such ideas don’t work or that the method is all wrong, should just shut up and begin generating some new ideas of their own.

The problems of this country were not created on January 20, 2009. They were in place long before then and our attitudes as a people for the past eight years and even before that have lead us to this point. If we expect quality work, then we need to demand quality work and that will require that we ourselves do quality work as well.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

First Aid for the Soul


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 2 April 2000.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.

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Back in 1965, the Boy Scout troop that I belonged to was involved in a first aid contest with other Denver area troops. The rules of the contest were very simple. Five guys from a troop would make up a team and be given a number of situations to assess and then perform the appropriate first aid. In each situation, one of the five would be the patient suffering from the symptoms as described by the judge. One of the five would be the directed caregiver who would be responsible for determining the treatment and appropriate action. And in each situation, the remaining three would perform duties as needed by the caregiver. The only person who the primary caregiver could not turn to for advice was the patient. Other than just lying there and pretending to be sick, there wasn’t much the patient could do.

So it came to be my turn as the patient. The symptoms presented were a pale and wet skin with a rapid but weak pulse. It was heat exhaustion, or as it was known back then, sunstroke. Unfortunately, the primary caregiver thought I had heatstroke. So, as he was describing how he would treat this by moving me to a cool and shady place and giving me lots of fresh water, I started to whisper, “salt water, salt water.”

I can’t adequately describe why giving fresh water to a person suffering from heat exhaustion is incorrect but it is enough to say that it would make a bad situation worse. But since I was the patient in this case, anything I said was to be ignored. Besides, the guy doing the treatment was one of those who had his own mind about things and he wasn’t going to listen to me anyway.

So, it was all over and the judge gave the team no points for the situation since the treatment resulted in my death. As he was leaving for his next situation and team, he told the leader that he should have listened to the patient.

The problem with first aid is that many times, you have only one shot at the right treatment and there isn’t much you can do if you screw it up. That is why you practice and hold contests; so that you can get it right the first time.

Life, if you will excuse the rather trite cliché, is like that. Each day we make choices. Sometimes they are the right choices; sometimes, they are the wrong ones. The writer C. S. Lewis offers an interesting view on the idea of making choices. He writes,

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God say, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature; either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven; that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)

It seems that throughout all of the Exodus and the wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites never could get it right. From the moment they left Egypt, they complained about either the food, the water, or the living conditions. Somehow, life in Egypt and slavery always seemed to be better than freedom and living with God.

Yet, when they ran out of food, they complained but God provided them with manna from heaven. When they ran out of water, God gave them fresh water from the rocks. In the Old Testament reading for today, they again are complaining about the food and the water.

This time, God sends serpents to strike at them. With the pain of the snakebite, the Israelites realize that they have done wrong and immediately repent of their mistakes. As a reminder of their repentance and a means for asking forgiveness, God has Moses make a bronze serpent as a means of providing first aid.

I think that we still sometimes see life in the terms that Lewis outlined. If we live a good live, we are rewarded; if not, we are punished. The problem is that we often don’t want to make those choices that are going to cause us pain or anguish. The pain that comes with failure is often too great to accept. It is much better to simply not make a choice rather than have to live with the consequences of a wrong choice. But the problem with such an approach is that it never gets us anywhere. As we begin the new baseball season, it would be appropriate to point out that you cannot run to home if your foot is stuck on third base. We lose too many opportunities because we want to stay in “safe” territory.

But, as Paul pointed out in his letter to the Ephesians, living a good life, making appropriate choices is not necessarily a guarantee of salvation. The only thing that saves us is God’s grace.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, (Ephesians 2: 8)

But, if we make the choice to follow God, the other choices that we make each day become that much easier to make. God does speak to us, though we may not often hear Him, offering us guidance for the choices that we make. Sometimes it is that soft, still voice telling us, “This is the Path, walk in it.” (Proverbs 16: 12)

Jesus, Himself, had to make choices that were extremely difficult to make. Many times, He had to say no to people. He said no to the ambitious young man who wanted to follow Him, yet who would not give up all his worldly goods. He had to say no to His mother when she tried to interrupt His teaching. He said no to Judah when Judah wanted to make the ministry a political one. He said no to the temptations of the wilderness. He said no, at times, to Himself, “No, I will not run from this. I will drink the cup that is placed before me.” (John 18: 11)

Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. He (Peter) sensed danger there and he was right. However, Jesus knew it was part of a larger plan. So, he “set his face towards Jerusalem,” (Isaiah 50: 7) even knowing the consequence. Throughout it all, Jesus turned to God to help make the right choices.

It is important for us to understand that the one choice God made for us was to send his Son, our Savior, so that we could be saved. As much as we remember John 3: 16, it is as equally important that we remember John 3: 17

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3: 17)

There are going to be days when you feel tired and weak; there are going to be days when it seems that everything is going against you. And this happens to the best of people. It is times like these that a little first aid is needed and we can find it in God through our Savior. It could be that you have been searching for something to help through these troubled times. There are some choices that you can make. Fortunately, the first aid that can be applied is sufficient, and, if you need it again, it is there. God’s grace is limitless and the choice of accepting it is ours through Jesus Christ. That is the choice we have today.



Ten Words


I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.

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One of the things that you learn when you study the Scriptures is that the Psalms are often built upon one word with each letter of that particular word starting the first word of a verse in the poem. If you will allow me that thought, you will understand why the title of this sermon is “Ten Words.” The Ten Commandments may be seen as ten words. But the discussion of those ten words goes beyond Moses standing on the slopes of Mount Sinai holding two slabs of stone.

In one episode of the television series “The West Wing” President Bartlett is preparing to debate his opponent in their campaign for the Presidential election. He and his campaign staff are struggling with a ten-word phrase to use as a response to an anticipated question.

These ten-word answers are designed to show how much each candidate knows about the topic while offering a feasible and possible answer to the particular question in a short period of time. It is, if you will, a fancy term for “sound-bite”, that little nugget of information that candidates and elected officials use to satisfy the curiosity of the public without taxing the imagination or intelligence of the public and maintaining a certain degree of credibility. Yet in the sound-bite there is little truth to be had.  The sound-bite is used to fool the electorate by making the candidate seem as he knows what he his talking about.

Now, if someone thinks that ten words constitute an appropriate and simple response to an extremely complicated question, then there is something wrong with the question and our understanding of the situation. It also says a lot about how we, the public, have allowed our leaders to denigrate our abilities to think and how we have allowed the world around us to be judged and determined by short, snappy answers. It makes me long for the sane prose of MAD magazine.

Now, it should be pointed out that President Bartlett, upon hearing the ten-word response of his opponent, quite rightly asks “what are the next ten words? What do we say next? What do we do next?” And that’s how you know that “The West Wing” is fictional; because in real life, our politicians don’t go beyond the obvious and the public doesn’t demand to know what happens next.

Of course, we know what happened after Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai to the people. In fear that the people would break the Ten Commandments, the Pharisees made 613 additional laws, 365 which were negative (“thou shall not”) and 248 which were positive (“thou shall). (1)

It is a fear that we still have in today’s society. We seek rules and laws that will control our lives instead of working to improve our lives. As Kary Oberbrunner pointed out, if we were to look at our own personal spiritual condition, we are apt to find ourselves looking like religious separatists.

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them.

And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic. Laws make separatists feel secure and allow them to have a control on and over their lives. To be asked to integrate their faith with the culture they have to give up such control. But this security prevents them from seeing beyond the walls of the church and reaching out to the people for whom the Gospel message was intended. The Gospel message was meant to free us, to bring hope and liberate us, not to enslave and entrap us.

They are like those who could not understand what Jesus was saying that day in the courtyard of the Temple. They saw the Temple as the embodiment of God; they could not see beyond its walls. As John noted, the disciples remembered this day and understood its significance in light of Christ’s resurrection.

And for those who try to separate their religious life from their sectarian life, there are those who just as easily mix their religious life with their daily lives. In fact, they look quite comfortable living lives as Christians. Yet, it is life which is more appearance than substance which lasts about two hours or so on Sunday mornings. Come Monday morning, they carefully take off their Christianity and put it away, safe from the world, until they next need it the next time.

Such individuals are conformists, conforming to the demands of society. They use their religion when it is convenient and put it away when it is uncomfortable. They see the message of Christ as foolishness.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the world doesn’t have a clue what God had in mind. To the world, the message of Christ was simple foolishness. They will tell you that Christianity is fine for Sunday but doesn’t work in the real world on Monday morning.

I cannot help but think of a 1939 Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”. In the closing verses of this song, Guthrie wrote,

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home. (
http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Pretty_Boy_Floyd.htm)

To many in the establishment 2000 years ago, Jesus was an outlaw going against the status quo of the conformists and the legal structure of the separatists. It does not matter whether we see Jesus as an outlaw or, as Paul suggested, a fool. What does matter is that the message that Christ brought to this world is the message that the world needs to hear today! But it cannot be heard if society sees Christ’s representative on earth (and that would be us), as representatives of a legal monolith that seeks to keep people out of the church through imposition of legal structures and repressive laws. Society will not listen if they see the church as hypocritical, preaching love, forgiveness, and redemption on Sunday but practicing inequality, retribution, and hatred on Monday.

We know that John Wesley started off with a very legalistic interpretation of the Gospel and how to achieve salvation. He saw the path to the cross in a very legalistic and structured life; but it turned into a life that lead to despair and frustration. It was only when he accepted the Holy Spirit, when his heart became strangely warmed, that he was able to ignite the Methodist Revival that changed England.

The world around us demands the presence of the people of Christ. It is time that the Gospel is heard as it was meant to be heard, not as it is being heard. But it will not be heard unless we remember the words that Christ began His mission with. He began with a call for repentance, a call for the people to change their lives and their thoughts. Lent is a season of preparation. It is time to repent of our old ways and begin anew.

It is not about ten words; it is about what we do after we hear the words. No ten words can resolve the problems of the world; no ten words can ever magically get us into heaven. But we have heard the words that will; they are the words of Christ and now we must act on those words.

(1) This and material about conformists and separatists adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner.

Well, at least he was honest about his sources


While in graduate school several years ago, I was part of a team proctoring a General Chemistry exam.  During the course of the exam we observed that one student was using the K-Mart approach to obtain the answers to the questions.

What this student would do is read the exam question and then go shopping for the answer by looking at the answers the students in front of him and beside him were writing down.  After carefully considering his choices, he took what he thought was the best answer.

Now, for one of the questions on the exam, one of the students next to our “shopper” wrote “I don’t know the answer to this question”.  Our “shopper” wrote, “neither do I.”

Knowing the Law


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 23 March 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.

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In what seems many years ago now, I was a football official. It was something of a family business as my father and my two brothers were also officials. It was something I enjoyed doing and up until my career ending knee injury, one with great promise as an avocation.

Most people barely see the football officials during a game and when they do, it’s because a call made went against their team. So they don’t realize that many of these game officials started off as my brothers and I did working the weekend elementary school games. Just as players learn the game at the lower levels, so too do the football officials. The fun part of doing these elementary games is that the officials see plays that never occur during the college and pro games so familiar to weekend television viewers.

Unfortunately the downside of doing these games is that most coaches and the adults who supervise the games do not know the rules for their leagues, trusting in their own understanding of the game gathered from when they played or from what they see on Sunday television. It has been said that the most common call made by an official during a Saturday morning elementary game is “This isn’t Sunday, coach!”

One particular Saturday always sticks out in my mind when it comes to the lack of knowledge coaches can show. The particular play involved an illegal forward pass on fourth down. As soon as I began discussing the options with the defensive captain, his coach started yelling for him to decline the penalty, even though he didn’t know what the penalty was or the consequences which in this case was a 5 yard penalty plus loss of down.

I explained to the captain, who was probably no more than twelve, that he had two options. “Son, if you decline the penalty, it will be your ball right here. But if you accept the penalty, I will walk off five yards (pointing in the direction of his goal post) and it will be your ball there. What do you want to do?” And while I am telling him this, his coach is screaming virtually at the top of his lungs to decline the penalty. But the captain chose the right option and accepted the penalty. While I am walking the five yards, the coach is screaming that his captain is an idiot and doing so in a tone best left not described at this time. But, as soon as I indicated that the penalty is for an illegal forward pass and that it is now first and ten for the defense, the coach’s voice change in tone and words from anger and abuse to joy and congratulations as he told me what a great call I made.

Like so many of the coaches at the level, this one did not know the rules of the game nor the associated penalties. The rules of football were made to insure that the game is played safely and there were too many times in my career when I thought I was doing it solely to protect the kids from their coaches and their own lack of knowledge. I liked officiating but situations like the one I described made it more work than fun and took away the enjoyment that I got out of the game.

It is the same in our lives. We don’t always understand the laws that govern our lives nor are we aware of what some of the laws are about. We find ourselves in a society where the slightest transgression is likely to end up in court or where, instead of protecting us, the law is used against us.

We claim that our laws find their basis in the Ten Commandments; we even claim biblical justification for many of our country’s laws. Slavery for a long time was claimed to be a justifiable act of commerce, simply because slavery is acknowledged in the Bible. Our laws of segregation were based on an interpretation of the Bible that said that the races should not mix. Yet, when put against a moral background, slavery and all that followed simply is a bloodstain that cannot be wiped out. We find ways to justify killing, whether in peacetime or war, simply to get around the basic commandment that though shall not kill.

We have to realize that laws are a set of rules that govern the behavior of individuals in society. The word law reflects the Greek understanding of the Hebrew word “torah“. But torah is more properly translated as “instruction” and the content of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of our Bible, differs significantly from the term “law” as we usually understand it.

The Ten Commandments have always been the basis for Western law but they were not intended to be. We should see them as an instruction guide for life, a way of living with God. The Ten Commandments were and are first and foremost a statement of the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai. The first three commandments relate to our relationship with God, the last seven our relationship with others. But over the years, the relationships expressed in the Ten Commandments became the basis for law and the observance of the law became a characteristic of the covenant. This restatement of the covenant into law was further restated and elaborated, ultimately resulting in what became known as the Law of Moses.

It was the Law of Moses that stated that only unblemished animals could be sacrificed in the temple for religious purposes. It was also the Law of Moses that required every Jewish male over the age of nineteen to pay a temple tax. As a result, moneychangers and sellers of clean animals took up shop in the outer court of the temple. The moneychangers were needed because it was considered sacrilegious to use Roman coins to pay the tax or give as offering. This was because the emperor’s likeness was on the coin and because the emperor was considered a god, it would have been blasphemy to use those coins. So they needed to be changed into acceptable coins. Similar, pilgrims to the temple may have brought the wrong kind of animal or not have brought one at all, so it was necessary for them to get a clean one, either by purchase or trade. But the exchange rate for the coins and the cost of the clean animals was generally exorbitant and the cause for Jesus’ anger, as we read in the Gospel today.

Jesus’ anger came from the fact that the priests were using the law for their own gains and not to help people reestablish their relationship with God. Paul was faced with similar problems in the early church; to some, observance of the law was necessary before salvation could occur. The insistence by some early church leaders that Jewish rituals be obeyed prevented or hindered the spreading of the Gospel among the Gentiles.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism was a highly diversified phenomenon, with various groups interpreting the Old Testament in their own ways and for their own purposes. This pluralism went far beyond the content of the interpretation of particular passages.

But Jesus spoke to a popular and unsophisticated audience that cared nothing for elaboration or deep explanation of the laws. Jesus’ target was not the law itself but rather any style of interpretation that removed its immediacy as teaching to the people. The law is supposed to help people, not hinder them, but the law at the time of Jesus had become so complex and complicated that the common person could not understand it.

The foolishness that Paul speaks of in the letter to the Corinthians is the message of the Gospel, of being in a loving relationship with God and others. This Gospel message does not always conform to the world’s priorities, hence it is foolish to think in those terms. But remember that when someone said that one should exchange an eye for an eye, Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. It was foolishness to some of the Corinthians because it did not fit the logic of life and could not be derived from the law. Paul’s reference to the wise, the scribes and the debaters was directed at those who would use logic to solve the problems of the world. But this logic was a logic that expected violence to be met with violence and one in which evil must be fought with evil. It was a logic that created a world of laws designed to meet every contingency, every possibility but ultimately created a world so complex and confusing as to lose its purpose.

It was our relationship with others that first defined the laws by which we would live but our society has quickly become one where the laws define our relationships. It enables us to view individuals as enemies because they don’t follow our laws or our interpretations of the law. It enables us to use violence as a means to the end because logic demands that the only solution to violence is more violence. But Jesus refused to see any person as an enemy; he refused to believe that peaceful ends could be gained by violent means, and he refused to use violence to overthrow evil.

Thus, we are in the midst of the season of Lent, deciding if we are going to be foolish and follow the path to the Cross or wise and follow the logic of the world. We must decide if we can continue to accept the tired logic of mankind that only brings misery, war and death and which ignores the cry of the needy and the oppressed. Or shall we follow the absurdity of a crucified Christ, who gave up every thing, so that we would be saved. We are called to remember that to follow the cross is to give up every thing yet win everything. This is clearly not a logical idea, but it is the idea of the cross.

Jesus prevents us from thinking that life is simply a matter of ideas to ponder, concepts to discuss, or just a series of rules that must be followed. Jesus saves us from wasting our times pursuing cheap thrills and trivializing diversions. Jesus enables us to take seriously who we are and where we are without being seduced by the intimidating lies and illusions that fill our daily lives. Jesus helps us keep our feet on the ground and allows us to be who we are rather than trying to be someone else or somewhere else.

He keeps us attentive to the children, in conversation with ordinary people, sharing meals with friends and strangers, listening to the wind, observing the wildflowers, touching the sick and wounded, praying simply and self-consciously. Jesus insists that we deal with God right here and right now, in the place we find ourselves and with the people we are with.

When Jesus was asked by a lawyer which commandment was the greatest, He replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all soul, and with all your mind.” And then He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.” We are reminded during this time of preparation that knowing the law is not the same as upholding the commandments. During this time of preparation we should seek to reestablish that relationship between God and us first established on Mount Sinai and then again expressed on the Mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

There are times when we must know the law, especially as it applies to our daily interactions with other people. But it is just as important and maybe even more so that we understand and better know our relationship with God, a relationship that was reestablished on Calvary’s hill so many years ago and perhaps forgotten in our application of the law. As we continue in this season of preparation, let us remember that Christ died for us. Our task in the coming days is not simply to know the law, but rather let others know through our thoughts, our deeds, and our words that there is more to life than the law, that life is itself is found through Christ.