What Happens Next?


Here are my thoughts for this Pentecost, 31 May 2009. The Scriptures are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 22 – 27, and John 15: 26 – 27; 16: 4 – 15.

Pentecost is supposed to be the beginning of the church but what church began some two thousand years ago? It is certainly not the church that we have today, even though there are most certainly movements in the church that emulate that first church. (See “America’s ‘Emerging Church:’ Will a New Post-Evangelical Christianity Reflect More Tolerant Views?”)

But the difficulty in all of this is that most people are not aware of what transpired in those early days of the church and see the history of the church only in the eyes of their own experience. The liturgical color for today is red but most people would not understand why we use red (if, in fact, they even notice such things). There is very little understanding of what the colors means or why we do things other than to say it is tradition. But tradition by itself is meaningless unless it is understood.

What the emerging church does is put meaning back into the traditions of the church and make what is done more spiritual and sacred based than tradition based. And that is what this day should be about. Being a Christian today should be more than a few hours on Sunday. It should be about being a part of the community.

But you cannot be a part of the community outside the walls of the church if there is no community inside those same walls. And there cannot be a community inside the church if the Spirit is not there.

The reading from Acts points out that there were many different people present on that first Pentecost. As many Biblical commentators have pointed out, what transpired that day was a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel.

God gave us the people different languages and made it difficult for them to communicate with each other because the people wanted to be like God. If nothing else, the problems of the world today can be seen in terms of this inability to communicate. And many of the problems with the church and within the church are a result of that communication issue.

Too often, those in the church today insist that the only way to understand what the church is about is to accept their reason and logic about it as the only way. And it doesn’t matter which side of the issue you are standing on; I have seen and experienced churches that have been divided on the issue of music and worship style.

I will freely admit that I don’t see how much of the music that is called modern worship music qualifies as such. I am not moved by it in any shape or form; but there is also some more traditional music that doesn’t do anything for me as well. I also have my own preference for the order of worship and it differs from the order of worship that many of the churches in my area follow. But I will follow the worship service of the church where I, as a lay speaker, am called because I don’t want the message to be overshadowed by arguments or discussions about the change in the worship service.

What I think is missing in too many churches today is the Spirit. It is almost as if once a person becomes a member of the church, they stopped learning about the church. And when you stop learning about something, it becomes very easy to forget what you learned in the first place. Then what you learned has no meaning and simply becomes tradition and “the way things are done around here”. And when that happens, there is no sense of spirituality and no sense of meaning in what is done on Sunday morning.

The church, both generically and individually, is at a moment of crisis and choice today. What the church does tomorrow will depend a great deal on what happens today. If the members of the church, no matter whether we are talking mainline or modern, do nothing, then obviously nothing will happen. But today represents the greatest opportunity to experience not the birthday of the church but rather the rebirth of the people of the church, a people committed to fulfillment of the Gospel message, a fulfillment of the message first brought forth by Christ to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring justice to the oppressed.

It can be done if we accept the presence of the Holy Spirit into our lives this day. It is not a matter of saying that I am a Christian and I need not do anything; it is a matter of saying that I need the Holy Spirit in my life in order to make my life fuller. It means letting the Holy Spirit work through me.

There is much going on in this world today and most of it is not good. What happens tomorrow, what happens next depends on what you do today.

You can walk away from church on Pentecost Sunday without doing anything but the people within the church and outside the church will still be talking in many different languages and many different dialects and no one will understand anyone.

Or you can accept the Holy Spirit and the barriers that separate us will come down. People will still be talking in different languages and different dialects but the opportunity for understanding will also be there. And that is an opportunity that must be taken.

The Colors of the Church


This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for Pentecost, 8 June 2003.  The Scriptures are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 22 – 27, and John 15: 26 – 27; 16: 4 – 15.

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And the Preacher wrote, “To every thing there is a season.” The Preacher in this case is the writer of Ecclesiastes and the phrase is the beginning of Chapter 3 and a definition of seasons and time. Prompted by Jerry’s question last week, I figured that this day, which does constitute the birthday of the church, would be a good one to review for some and explain for others the seasons of the church and the associated colors.

The use of colors as a part of the church service began around the beginning of the 12th century A. D. Now, I suspect but could not prove that the relationship between the colors on the altar and the season of the liturgical calendar come from the days when the congregation could not read. Then it was necessary to provide visual references so that they would know what time of the year it was, at least from a church standpoint.

The church calendar actually starts in late November or early December with Advent. For the United Methodist Church, the color of Advent is purple. Purple stands for strength and is the traditional color of royalty and Advent is the season in which we celebrate the birth of our heavenly king. It also represents a time of penitence and preparation. Some churches have been using shades of blue instead of purple where blue represents hope. Thus, a dark shade of blue is a way to remember that Advent is the season of hope and promise.

The most common color used in church vestments is green. It represents life and growth and is used at times of passage from one season to the next. These times are called “ordinary time.” For the United Methodist Church, one passage of ordinary time is that time between Christmas and Lent. The second passage of ordinary time is between Pentecost, today, and the beginning of Advent. Sometimes in the past and especially in the Methodist Church, the first few Sundays of ordinary time were represented by the red of Pentecost and changed to green in the fall just before the beginning of Advent.

Lent starts with Ash Wednesday and is represented again by purple. Depending on the church and its traditions, Good Friday has no color or is represented by black. This is only day in the church calendar when black, the color of death is used. Easter and the Sundays following Easter are represented by white, the color of purity, innocence and holiness, and is used to represent a focus on the work of our Lord.

Pentecost, today, is red. Red represents the power of the Holy Spirit as it came upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. Red is most definitely a power color and is the way we remember the power and fire of the Holy Spirit as it descended upon the disciples that day in Jerusalem. It should communicate the strength and power that the Holy Spirit gives to us all in order for us, as God’s people, to call on the name of Jesus Christ.

But it was not the colors of the church that allowed people to know that a church was forming that day in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. You have to understand that everyone gathered that day in Jerusalem was there because it was Pentecost, not because the Holy Spirit was going to transform the nature of the church. Pentecost is one the three major Jewish festivals. It gets its name from the Greek word for “fifty” and comes fifty days after the Sabbath of the Passover.

It was a pilgrimage event, so it should not be surprising that there were people from all around the Mediterranean present. What was surprising was that with the presence of the Holy Spirit, each person there was able to speak to the others in their own tongue and dialect and understand what the others were saying. This was truly a sign of the “wonderful works of God.

But those who were not aware of what was transpiring among the disciples that day blamed their exuberance and joy on alcohol, exclaiming, “They are filled with new wine.” Why else would they hear what sounded like gibberish?

But Peter, the first to recognize that Jesus was the Christ, became the first to bear witness of Christ as the Savior. Pointing out that it was only nine in the morning (the third hour of the morning), Peter offered a more rational explanation of the disciples’ behavior.

Peter began his sermon by pointing out that what had transpired was the completion of the prophecy of Joel. Joel’s prophecy was that God promised that there would be a time would all those who followed God, not just be the prophets, the kings, or the priests, would received his Spirit. Peter pointed out that the time had come to pass for God to speak to and through all those who would come to Him, whether in visions, dreams or prophecy. God’s final act of salvation begins with the pouring out of His Spirit.

The passage from the Gospel for today comes right after Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. This was a time when the disciples were still thinking of their place in the kingdom of heaven in terms of power and glory, not service and humility. All of Jesus’ talk of loving everyone as an equal, of being the servant instead of the master really didn’t make sense to the disciples then and it still probably confuses people today.

We hear that we are the forgiven people, the special ones. Yet, Jesus’ words do not give us any vision of such a lofty stature in life. In fact, they speak of the opposite. And when we look at our lives and try to figure out how this will be, we are at a loss. Everything that He said runs counter to what our own minds say and we find ourselves quickly becoming disillusioned and dissatisfied. We find that the tasks before us, the things that we are asked to do to great a hill to climb.

Peter J. Gomes is the minister for the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He recently published a collection of sermons entitled “Strength for the Journey.” In one of those sermons, he spoke about Ernest Gordon, who had been the chaplain at Princeton. During World War II, Reverend Gordon was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and was interred at the camp near the River Kwai. Gomes writes,

“Gordon and his fellow British captives were initially very religions, reading their Bibles, praying, singing hymns, witnessing and testifying to their faith. They were hoping and expecting that God would reward them and fortify them for their faith by freeing them or at least mitigating their captivity. God didn’t deliver, however, and the men became both disillusioned and angry. They gave up on the outward display of their faith; but after a while, as the men began tending to the needs of their fellows — caring for them, protecting the weaker ones and in some cases dying for one another — they began to discern something of a spirit of God in their midst. They discovered that religion was not what you believed but what you did for others when it seemed that you could do nothing at all.

To survive a prison camp requires a special something. The men who Gomes wrote about found the spirit of God was there but not in the manner they initially sought. It came, as Paul said, as the aid when they were the weakest and it was reflected when others needed help.

It is that same spirit that allows us to find solutions to problems when the method that we wanted to use is not available. It is that same spirit that provides a sense of hope to those who would not normally have hope. Most importantly, it is the spirit that transforms lives.

When Jesus was still with the disciples, they were comfortable because they saw the mission of the church in terms of His presence. That is why none of them asked where Jesus was going when He spoke of leaving. It was only when they realized that the mission of the church would be left in their care and that they would be expected to carry out the mission that they began to panic. But through Pentecost and the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the disciples were given a new way to see life.

The same is true for us. We see before us many tasks, some personal and some related to this church. We may find that such tasks are so overwhelming that they cannot be completed or even begun. But, on this day when the Holy Spirit first made its presence known to the disciples, we are reminded that there is a solution to all the problems we face. Perhaps it is within us and we have not recognized it. Perhaps it is that thought in our minds asking to come into our lives.

It is not the colors that adorn the altar and the pulpit that will determine what is inside us. Nor will they help people to know that we are who we say we are. We are Christians, not simply because we say we are but because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to be a part of our lives. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that completes the work of Christ in transforming and redefining our lives; it is the Holy Spirit, the great Advocate that Jesus spoke of that provides the strength and wisdom when our strength and wisdom fail. As Paul wrote, it is that Holy Spirit that helps us when we can pray, as we should. It is that Holy Spirit when helps us when we are too weak to stand on our own.

So it really isn’t the colors that we wear today or the colors that are on the altar and lecture. But it is what is inside of us that is only represented by the colors. The Holy Spirit allows us to know that there is hope for tomorrow, that there is strength when we are weak. We are reminded today as we come to the communion table that Jesus knew that what would come after that his last gathering with the chosen twelve would take more strength and will-power than he could ever hope to have by himself. As we come to the table today, we are reminded again that the Holy Spirit is there, if we open our hearts. And if we accept Jesus as our Savior, if we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, then people will see our true colors and know that Jesus is alive and living through us.

A New Birth


This is the message I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for Pentecost, 11 June 2000.  The Scriptures are Acts 2: 1 – 21, Romans 8: 22 – 27, and John 15: 26 – 27; 16: 4 – 15.

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I don’t know if your family is like mine; but when it comes to birthdays, in my family they tend to come in bunches. Three of my grandparents all have their birthday in September. My father, uncle, youngest brother, and one of my nephews all celebrate birthdays in July, with my brother and father sharing the same date. And from June 7th to July 7th, I celebrate the births of my two daughters and mother. This year, Meara will be 24, Melanie will be 27, and my mother, well — let’s just say that she is celebrating another birthday.

Pentecost essentially means fifty days and this Sunday is the closest Sunday to fifty days after Easter. It was on this day that the Holy Spirit, as promised by Jesus in the Gospel reading, came to the gathered disciples. And by doing so, as we read in the Gospel, the disciples gained the ability to speak on behalf of Christ. As such it could be considered the birthday of the church.

But this day is more than just a celebration of what happened in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. C. S. Lewis pointed out the Church would outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. (From The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis)  So this is a day when we should look as much to the future and to the promises the future brings as we do to our past.

Because of what happened in Jerusalem that day today is as much about bringing hope to others as it is for our celebrating the birth of the church. Paul was speaking of the future when he wrote in the portion of the letter to the Romans that we read today.

For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8: 24 – 25)

The hope that Paul spoke about was the salvation offered by Christ and because of our faith, we are able to wait and endure the present. But because of our faith, because we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, we can do much more that endure.

Jesus told the disciples that “when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.” (John 16: 8)  With the presence of the Holy Spirit, their ability to understand the Gospel message would be enhanced. In other words, the manner in which things are done will change. What the Holy Spirit does is provide the believers with the emphasis needed to convince others. In accepting the Holy Spirit, the disciples back then and we today obtain the ability to show others what Christ is about.

In the secular world, much is made about the power or authority that one has over others. Yet, as much of Jesus’ time on earth was given to preparing the community as it was to proclaiming the Gospel. This was so that the work could continue after He left. But the empowering of the disciples could not take place outside the community of believers. While each of us comes to Christ individually, the work of the church cannot be done individually.

Too often the church is seen as a collection of saved souls when it is really a community of interacting personalities. As a community, we are able to come together and celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives; with Christ in our lives we able to show others what Christ means. Because we are a community of believers, we are able to share in the celebration of Christ’s victory over death. Those who saw the disciples and others gathered together in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost truly wondered about what they were seeing. As Peter pointed out, those gathered there were not drunk but rather infused with the Holy Spirit.

Too often in this world, the church is seen to be a means to the end for transforming society. In doing so, we trample of the uniqueness and infinite worth to God of the Christian community. The most amazing and profound fact about the church is that it does its work transforming society when it itself is growing and being perfected in the love of Christ. When the church is taken as a means for transforming society, very little is accomplished. The uniqueness of the church is denied and the church operates on the same level and in the same manner as other secular institutions.

If the church is seen in the same terms as other institutions, it makes it difficult for us to work as Christians. . Viewing the church as a secular institution means that we see the battle for right and justice as one that can be won by force, by technique, by doing. The transformation of culture and society does not come through force, technique, or doing. Rather, it is accomplished through a Christ-like love, community, and being.

This does not cancel out the responsibility for doing, for acting, and walking in the words of the lord. Being a Christian and doing Christ’s work go together. Being a Christian is a fundamental; doing Christ’s work is a natural result of being a Christian.



Thoughts on Memorial Day 2009


Memorial Day began as a remembrance of the Union dead of the War Between the States. It was not until after World War I that the meaning of the day was expanded to honor all those who died in American Wars. And it was not until 1971 that Congress made the day a national holiday.

Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) picked the day of May 30th as Memorial Day since it was believed that flowers would be in bloom all over the country. General Logan’s orders for that day stated,

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” (From http://www.appc1.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm)

But, for many, Memorial Day is a day of racing, parades, and the unofficial beginning of summer. For many students, Memorial Day is the marker that says school is almost over. It is hardly what we could call a day of memory and remembrance.

It need not be a somber day of memory and reflection for we must honor those who died to insure our freedom and the liberties that we have. But I am afraid that this is becoming a day of celebration of war, not a remembrance of war and what war does. We glorify that which we should abhor and we ignore the consequences of our actions.

The speeches that will be given today will not be about ending wars but seeking to glorify war. The politicians and pundits will speak of making this world safe for democracy but they will not speak of what must be done. They will not speak about removing the causes of war; only in making sure that we win the war. No one will speak of working to insure that this world becomes a truly safe place.

I have come to the conclusion that the loudest voices speaking on Memorial Day should be those from the Peace Movement, not in protest of past, current, or future wars but in honor of those who died in service for this country. But the words that should be spoken should be words that proclaim “no more war” and they should echo the words of those who served and fought and died and saw the horrors of war and what happens when mankind turns against itself.

We should and must honor those who served this country and remember them. But I want to work for a world in which those who died serving this country died at home with their family and friends, not on a battlefield far away from home. The words that we should hear should echo the thought of “no more war”.

We are reminded of the quote first attributed to the Greek philosopher, Herodotus, “in peace, children bury their parents; in war, parents bury their children.” We should not be hearing the cries of parents who have lost their sons and daughters, of husbands and wives who have lost their spouses, or of children who have lost their parents for a cause no one remembers or understands.

Some will tell me that war is inevitable. But if it is inevitable that means that we know it is coming. And if we know it is coming we can let it happen or we can work to stop it. I think that it is far better to work to stop war than let it happen.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

The Next Step


Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday, 24 May 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1:  15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 -53.

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There is an old Chinese proverb that says that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” There is also a corollary to this saying that says that those who can’t teach become administrators but I will save any discussion of that for a latter time and place.

Naturally, I would disagree with that proverb. Up until the writing of this piece I thought that this saying came from many who disagreed with the nature of our educational system. And my own experience suggests that there are many in the educational system who could not survive in private industry with the same education that allows them to be teachers.

Now, before anyone (and especially teachers) gets really bent out of shape with this idea, let me put forth another idea. Are you a practitioner of the subject who happens to teach or are you someone who teaches the subject? I am by training and preference a chemist but I find my interests and desires lie in chemical education. I have a friend who is an artist first and enjoys transmitting the joy of sculpture and painting to his students. But there are many teachers who have the certification to teach subjects like chemistry and art but approach the subject from the standpoint of only teaching the information. In too many situations today, we have people teaching subject matter but who only have a basic understanding of what the subject is about. They have enough information to teach students the subject but not enough so that they themselves can utilize it in other settings.

In today’s world, what this has done is create a situation where we are teaching facts and figures, without any respect to how the information is applied. In a recent discussion on the CHEMED list (a discussion list for chemical educators), it was noted that we are fast preparing students who know how to look up the answer to a question but who cannot come up with a solution through thought and analysis. Our students are very proficient in the use of the modern calculator with its graphing capability (where were these calculators when I was in high school!!) but have no idea if the answer that they come up with has any validity in the real world.

One of the reasons that I was drawn into chemical education research was that I was fascinated by how students learned and what one could do to improve that learning. One of the things that I discovered in preparation for my doctorate was that the majority of experiments in chemistry are designed to prove what was said in lecture was correct rather than providing the data necessary to confirm the theory. And too often, the work that is done in the classroom only serves to reinforce the present instead of providing the basis for students to develop their advanced thinking skills.

Now learning takes many forms but one model (Bloom’s Taxonomy) identifies three different domains or areas of educational activity: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Each of these domains has a specific area of interest; the affective deals with growth in feelings and emotions, the psychomotor domain deals with the development of manual or physical skills, the cognitive deals with the development of mental skills and knowledge.

In the research that was done to identify these three areas, it was shown that there were sublevels in each area. Within the cognitive domain, these sublevels can be identified as:

  1. Knowledge (dealing with the recall of data or information)
  2. Comprehension (dealing with the understanding of the information)
  3. Application (using the knowledge in new situations)
  4. Analysis (separate the parts of knowledge into components so that it can be understood)
  5. Synthesis (building from the analysis and putting different parts together to form new information)
  6. Evaluation (making judgment about the value of ideas)

(Adapted from “Learning Domains or Bloom’s Taxonomy”)

Now, the problem with America’s educational system is not that we have too many unqualified teachers (which is still a problem) but that our educational system concentrates only on the first two levels of this taxonomy. Very little is being done to move beyond the simple absorption of information and its recall for a test; too often, students will memorize countless reams of information for a test and promptly forget it, even if it is necessary for future learning and examinations.

And any learning process that focuses on the lower levels of thinking is not going to create situations whereby the upper levels can even begin to be applied. And they cannot be done through instruction and memorization; there must be an active involvement of the student in the learning and it is something that they must internalize. (For a discussion of this moment in a student’s learning process see “The AHA! Moment”)

If we do not provide those opportunities, then our students are never going to develop the thinking skills that are going to be so needed in the coming years as we find ourselves incapable of solving the problems that we now face and unable to determine solutions for the problems that we do not even know about at this time.

And it is a problem that the church faces as well. Now some may tell me that the church’s problems are more in the affective domain than they are in the cognitive domain (and I would have to agree). But the challenge of the church to find its mission in this world has to be seen in the same light as any other problem that society faces.

The old ways haven’t worked and the new ways aren’t doing the job that they need to be doing. And I think the reason for that is the same reason that we are having problems with our educational system. We are not allowing those special moments that internalize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We are too much like the people who are expecting the 2nd coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Kingdom in the 1st reading for today. With the ascension of Christ into Heaven, the people are already talking about the 2nd coming without having experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The same is, I believe, true today. Too many people in churches today are more interested in establishing some sort of heavenly kingdom here on earth today but they are doing it without the Holy Spirit. It is their kingdom that they want to establish, a kingdom where they can dictate how people think and behave. They cannot stand the thought or possibility that individuals can come to Christ on their own or that they can find the presence of Christ in ways other than what they think are appropriate.

To me, that moment that we call being born again is a personal and internal process; it cannot be accomplished by someone else on your behalf nor can someone else dictate to you how you will receive the Holy Spirit. But others can show you the Holy Spirit and others can provide the opportunity for you to encounter the Holy Spirit.

Harvey and Lois Seifert in their book Liberation of Life wrote,

This internalizing of openness to God and concern for neighbors is what it means to be a Christian, rather than simply to act like a Christian. That the church can produce this kind of person is a persuasive recommendation for the church.

Within the fellowship of the church, we help one another become such Christians. Here we can become comrades of our better selves. We support one another in our highest resolves. An entire searching congregation turns our attention to the liberation of unrealized possibilities as we respond to the upward call of God. Even one other person or a small subgroup within the church can sustain our determination to spend more time at devotions and to act differently in society.

In such a combination, we are to love both God and neighbor. We cannot fully do either without the other. We reach the ecstatic heights of a devotional life only as we also act creatively in society. Full creativity as consumer, worker, citizen, and friend is possible only with the vision and power that comes vital devotion. To “turn on” is to “turn up” toward God and to “turn out” toward neighbor. The two wings of soaring, liberated life are indeed devotion and action.

They also wrote that those two wings were personal piety and community charity.

An ancient saying suggested that there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God. As Allan Hunter has said, “Those who picket should also pray, and those who pray should also picket.” The same combination of devotional vitality and social action is also emphasized in the two great commandments of Jesus — to love God with all one’s being and to love other persons as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36 – 40). (Harvey and Lois Seifert, Liberation of Life)

The church cannot be a community of itself for to do that is to shut its doors to the community outside its doors. A church which shuts its doors to the outside community becomes a collection of individuals who have shut the door to everyone, including Christ. As individuals who have accepted Christ as our Savior, we are part of a community and we are charged with taking the Word out into the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr for the faith, wrote,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to god. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”

But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)

If you believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all and your words, actions, thoughts, and deeds reflect that, then you are an evangelical. If your words harmonize with the examples given to us by Jesus, then you are an evangelical, whether you claim to be one or not. (Duncan) Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that he has heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus. He has heard of their faith, which means that the people are living the faith and they are evangelicals.

Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels, said that evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It was a call to the people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.

We are at a special moment in time with this Sunday. We, through the eyes of history, know what is to come. We also know that we have to each take the next step, the step in which we open our hearts and minds to the power of the Holy Spirit. When we accepted Christ as our Savior, we began that process. Now, we must complete that process and take the next step. The Holy Spirit will come and we must be ready and then we must be prepared to go out into the world and help others to see and feel and know the presence of the Christ in their lives.

The Evidence Before You


This is a sermon that I gave on October 26, 2003,for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52. 

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If one thing has surprised me over the years that I have been a lay speaker, it is that more people have not asked about the possible conflict between being a chemist and being a preacher. I do know that at least one university search committee was not comfortable with my stated plans of pursuing a second career in the ministry while maintaining a career in chemical education. And at least one person openly rejoiced that I was in the pulpit. But he figured that I would somehow give scientific credence to the Biblical story of creation and help lead the fight to remove the teaching of evolution from the local schools.

In both cases, those involved on the other side failed to see that it was possible to have scientific beliefs while at the same time maintaining a strong faith in God. The two are not mutually inclusive; one does not determine the other. Science is based on what you see and the information developed from what you see; faith is about what is in your heart and what you believe. Granted, if you believe that God created the world in seven days, you will have a hard time with the physical evidence that suggests otherwise. But if you feel that the story of creation in the Bible was for the purpose of explaining why we are here in the first place, then there is no conflict. And if you put the story into the time frame and the fact that it was first told to people who knew little of the world beyond the horizon, then there is also no conflict between the Bible and science

The one thing that no cosmologist has ever determined is how the “Big Bang”, the basic notion about how the universe started, itself was started. In other words, we can determine how the universe was started but not who started it or why. And it will be a very long time before we can. But that is the point. We can determine what God did but never can we determine why He did it. God told Job as much last week and reaffirms it this week.

But, even today, with an open mind, we still find people who want to close their minds to other possibilities. We find people who twist and turn empirical data simply in a vain attempt to prove non-scientific theories about creation and the universe.

There is, in the scientific community, a group that awards prizes to people for their novel, if nothing else, ideas. In 2001 the IgNoble Prize in astrophysics was awarded to Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. (ASTROPHYSICSDr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. [REFERENCE: The March 31, 2001 television and Internet broadcast of the "Jack Van Impe Presents" program (at about the 12 minute mark).] It should be noted that the particular broadcast is no longer available.)  I will leave it to you to determine if a Christian fundamentalist and evangelist has the technical qualification to identify and characterize a phenomena that has yet to be determined by even the most resolute of astrophysicists.

Now, before anyone should think that I will limit this discourse to a select few who use the Bible to justify or create scientific discoveries, I also have some disdain, if not disbelief, in those who would use science to justify the Bible.

There is a book entitled “The Passover Plot”. The synopsis of this book is that Jesus was a fact and that He faked His death on the cross. The author builds a case to suggest that Jesus manipulated everything to fool the people. Even the climatic scene on Calvary, when Jesus breathes His last, is faked.

In John 19:28 we read

After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said “I thirst!” Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit. (John 19: 28 – 30)

To the author of “The Passover Plot” this cry of thirst was a signal from Jesus to his disciples to give Him a drug that would make him pass out. I am not sure that were I seeking to create such a conspiracy that I would have let it go that far, especially knowing that crucifixion was the most hideous torture ever developed. But if you believe that the resurrection could not have happened, because rational science does allow for such things, then it is a perfectly reasonable explanation.

More recently, the whole concept of God and the existence of God has come into play. We heard the questions following September 11th; we have heard the questions every time a suicide bomber sets off a bomb in the Middle East. How can there be a God if there is such evil or injustice in the world today. If God is a loving God, how can He allow hatred and intolerance to exist in the world today?

These are questions that mankind has been asking ever since the book of Job was written. The author Lee Strobel has written a very interesting book, entitled “The Case for Faith” and he identifies eight questions that anyone seeking to define their faith must consider:

  • If there’s a loving god, why does this pain-wracked world groan under so much suffering and evil?
  • If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they are true?
  • If God really created the universe, why does the persuasive evidence of science compel so many to conclude that the unguided process of evolution accounts for life?
  • If God is morally pure, how can he sanction the slaughter of innocent children as the Old Testament says He did?
  • If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then what about the millions of people who have never heard of Him?
  • If God cares about the people He created, how could He consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn’t believe the right things about Him?
  • If God is the ultimate overseer of the church, why has it been rife with hypocrisy and brutality throughout the ages?
  • If I’m still plagued by doubts, then is it still possible to be a Christian? (The Case of Faith – Lee Strobel)

These are objections well founded in our attempts to put the Bible in a rational world. And it would make a very interesting series to look at and work on; but time works against that thought at the moment. But as I read the book and looked at the questions, I had to ask myself, “where is mankind in the equation?” Why, if we believe that God gave us the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong, then why do we blame God for the troubles of the world? Where do we fit into the whole thing? If it is all God’s fault, then there is nothing we can do and nothing we do will change things. But if we are God’s representatives on earth, then we are at least partially responsible for whatever might take place on this earth.

Those who seek to blame God for everything, all the cruelty, intolerance, hatred, and evil forget that God gives us the opportunity to work against those forces. And God calls on us to find Him amidst all that is this world.

The ultimate questions are about God and who God is. Job understood that God was a loving God who would not tolerate injustice or evil and all he (Job) wanted was an opportunity to meet God. But there are those, especially in the fundamentalist branches of the major religions of the world today, who do not want us to find God. They do not want us to seek God. The 1999 IgNoble Prize in Science Education was given to the Kansas State Board of Education and the Colorado State Board of Education, for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution any more than they should believe in Newton’s theory of gravitation, Faraday’s and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, or Pasteur’s theory that germs cause disease.

Those on the Kansas Board of Education were openly fundamentalist Christians. Their rationales for dropping Darwinian evolution from the high school science curriculum was that it was false teaching and thus, not appropriate for students to learn. Their thoughts were also that, since alternative theories of evolution could not be taught in science, no theories should be taught. Of course, what they considered an alternative theory of evolution is not an alternative theory, at least, from a scientific standpoint and that is what the courts have repeatedly ruled.

Though the ruling, at least in Kansas, was reversed it still bothers me. It bothers me because it says that Christians do not want free inquiry into the nature of the world. Instead of seeking the truth, we are to accept what a select few individuals feel is appropriate. We are seeing many more examples, even in the United Methodist Church, of individuals seeking to limit what is considered the truth.

But finding what the truth is should be our primary goal. In John 8: 32 Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is the truth that will set us free, free from sin and death. It is the truth that sets us free to work against intolerance, war, poverty, and physical death.

This place, this sanctuary should be a place where the truth is manifested in the way we treat people, both those who are members of this community and those outside this community’s boundaries. We should be able to say to all who come to this place that they are welcome. Those who come into this sanctuary should know that their thoughts are welcome and that we want them to help as we seek to reach our common goals.

I have always thought that was the purpose of the Gospel. Jesus said to all that society was not to be controlled by a few or that the rules of society would be so restrictive that creativity and growth were impossible.

A church that seeks to limit the creativity of its members, a church that seeks to govern by a strict interpretation of the rules is one doomed to die. It will not be a quick death but rather a slow and painful one. It will be a death that comes because there is no growth.

While many churches would say that they are places of solace and hope, they are also places that are closed to society. They are churches that say, “We do not want society to disturb our quiet and solace; we do not want to be reminded of the problems of the world”. These churches say, “We do not want to share what we have with those who do not have”. This too is a church that will die; it will die because the Gospel cannot live in such an environment.

In Jeremiah 31: 8, Jeremiah described the community that God gathered to Israel, “among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together, a great company.” Only in God’s kingdom will we find that the most vulnerable are considered “great company.” In God’s community, all are welcomed and included, even and especially the powerless.

The Gospel reading for today also reflects God’s attention to the vulnerable. Bartimaeus calls upon Jesus to heal him, insisting even though “many sternly ordered him to be quiet. (Mark 10: 48)  His persistence is rewarded: Jesus asks what he wants. “My teacher, let me see again” is his only request. This brief story is in the Gospels to remind us of what a disciple is like. He knows that he is blind and that he wants to see. Unlike the rich young ruler who had everything but was unwilling to give it all up, he is willing to follow Jesus. (From “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners – September/October 2003)

We have marginalized the poor, the impoverished. We have said to those on the outside that they cannot come in. Those that Jesus healed were marginalized by society, cast aside and forgotten. It does not matter that we think of Jesus’ healing as miracles or by some unexplained medicine that He learned somewhere.

Whichever explanation we personally accept limits our vision. And if there is one thing that we must not do, it is limit our vision. For if we limit our vision then we are not able to bring the Gospel to anyone, including ourselves.

If we limit what it is we can do, we cannot do much. And that brings us to the most basic question of all. What type of church do we want Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church to be? It is a question that must be answered and it must be answered quickly.

Whether you believe that the Bible is the complete and only answer or that you believe that everything can be explained by a rationale and scientific process, it is important that you believe. And it is important that you believe that God loved you so much that He would send His only son so that whosoever believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.

The blind man had faith and he saw. John Newton was blind to the evils of the world until he met Jesus Christ in the middle of the Atlantic. But when he met Christ his life changed. John Wesley came to know that there was a Holy Spirit and that through the power of the Spirit was able to create a movement that changed the world.

The evidence before us tells us that faith will endure. Now we must ask ourselves if we have the faith of the blind man. Will we be able to see the future or will we remain blind?



Where Did He Go?


This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (1 June 2003).   The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1:  15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 -53.

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Traveling around the country has given me opportunities to see many things, among them churches. Over the years I have played a game guessing the denomination of the various churches that I drive by. Though it is not a perfect technique, it is getting so that I can spot a Methodist Church from 500 feet away.

Another thing that I have observed is that as you go from the countryside into the city, the nature of the architecture of the church changes. For the most part, this new architecture is not bad. Churches need to show in some way that they are a part of the society in which they exist and that they are in touch with the people of the community.

We certainly have come a long way from the days of churches like the Methodist Church in Cades Cove, NC (part of the Smoky Mountain National Park). There you have a church where the men came in through one door and the women and children through another.

But when churches take on the look of businesses or other buildings and you have to guess what it is, then you are getting away from the concept of what a church should look like. There is a church in Springfield, MO, that, were it not for the windows in the shape of cross built into the front of the building, you would think is nothing more than one of the many businesses along Battlefield Road.

The church has always had a problem being a part of society. By its very nature, it must be separate from the society in which it resides if its message is to have any meaning. But at the same time, as the church stays outside of society, it risks losing touch with those in society who need what only the church and its mission can provide.

You would be surprised how many churches insist on reading the scriptures from the King James Version and not some of the more modern translations. Some even say that the King James Version of the Bible is the only true translation. But a translation written in the essentially archaic language of 17th century England, with “thee”, “thou”, and “thy” is most certainly going to turn away people seeking a message which speaks to them today.

During the 1980′s, there was a movement in self-help philosophy, commonly called “new-age.” It emphasized the self as the solution to the problems around you. Many churches decried this approach because it quite rightly took God out of the picture. But I think that many of the solutions that churches came up with in response were as equally bad and merely designed to package the church in such a way to get people to come to church.

And that is what bothers me about the new churches in this country. What I have seen more and more is that what are clearly churches no longer include “church” in their name. Instead of churches, we see “worship centers” or “life centers”. Many don’t even advertise their denomination.

When you come into the auditorium where the services are held, you see theater type seats rather than the traditional wooden, straight-back pews of the old church. Now I can appreciate the replacement of pews with soft, comfortable seats, having endured my fair share of the hard benches, but the purpose of church is to make you think, not necessarily to make you comfortable.

Instead of an altar, many of these new modern churches have broad stages designed to put on musical productions and utilize other forms of worship. But in creating these new forms of worship, they have thrown out the Gospel music of old and replaced it with “scripture songs” and “praise songs”. Some of this new music is good and should be included but I, like others, find this new music merely repeats the same words and melodies over and over again. Nothing in these new songs shows the beauty and depth of God’s nature in life and again does nothing to challenge the listener or cause them to think about who they are. (From Connections, February, 2002)

Similarly, many of the pastors in these “new-age” style churches present a message that very rarely speaks of the issues of today or how God can show us love and promote justice. And the more I hear some of these preachers, the more I have to wonder if they have forgotten that there is a New Testament in the Bible. They preach a message that brings back the wrath of God and speaks of a way of life that abuses people rather than makes them equal in the ways of the life. If what drove people away was a lack of receptivity to the needs of the world, I do not see how preaching a message that does not include the love of God found in the New Testament will actually bring them back.

But what may bother me the most is that these modern churches, with their emphasis on reaching out to the younger population and encouraging them to come back is that nowhere on the stage in which the worship is held is there a cross. It is the cross that is central to the Gospel message and it is the cross that offers us a visual image of the hope and promise of tomorrow.

But since the purpose of the modern worship service is to help the worshipper feel comfortable, to put a reminder that we are sinners and that Jesus died for us because we are sinners can only make the observer uncomfortable. What we have to realize is that many of those who are not attending church today were turned off to the archaic nature of the worship service of their childhood and the lack of receptivity of the church to modern problems. But simply modernizing the service and making the people comfortable in their worship does not help them answer the question of how to find peace and comfort in a time of stress and turmoil.

People come to the church to find Jesus, the promise of hope and peace. But they do not find him in these modern churches, where style matters more than substance, where the wrapping about the package matters more than what is in the package.

The early Christians didn’t have any of these problems. Meeting in a public place was cause for concern since, especially in the early days following the resurrection, there was fear that the authorities would arrest them for being followers of Jesus. And finding Jesus was not a problem, for He was right there with them, proof that the resurrection was not a rumor and that the promise of the Gospel was true. Their problem was that Jesus was going away and they did not know where He was going or what they were going to do with Him gone.

And that is why we have today. Today is the fulfillment of the resurrection and God’s plan. The suffering of Christ on the cross and the resurrection from the dead are only two parts of the whole story. Christ’s ascension into heaven completes the plan as it was outlined in the Law of Moses and told through the Prophets and the Psalms. His ascension shows that He, Jesus, was truly the Son of God and the fulfillment of all that was foretold. Now the disciples can carry out the mission of preaching repentance and calling for the people to turn from their own selfish ways to follow Christ. From this day forward, the disciples’ preaching would center on God’s gracious offer of forgiveness to all would believe.

The message of the disciples carries through to today. The building in which a congregation meets does not carry the message of hope, promise, and salvation; it is the people in the building that make up the congregation. That is what Paul was telling the Ephesians. The message of faith that was not told by the building in which they met but rather by how they, the members of the church demonstrated the faith that they held.

The challenge before us is to find ways to let people know that the church is here and that there are things being done in which they can participate. There is nothing wrong with a non-church organization holding its meeting or event at a church, just as long as that organization’s goals and objectives are not in conflict with the basic goals and objectives of the church. And there is nothing wrong with a church holding an activity in the church or on the church grounds that is purely social and not overly religious in nature.

For the church, we must understand that such activities are an important part of the church life and that to turn them into worship experiences will turn people away from the church. And those who come to the church for the social activities must also understand that such activities are in no way a replacement for the central activity of the church, worship.

As we go across this country, we are going to see many different churches, each unique in some way. But if the congregation which meets in that church does not exhibit the love and carrying for the people of the community in which they live, the uniqueness of the building is not going to be of any consequence.

We are called, through our faith, to meet the needs of the world by practicing the radical love and seeking the justice that Jesus taught and lived. People are seeking comfort and peace in this world. They will come to the church once in order to find that comfort and peace. The age of a church and its architectural style are not what is important; if there is no promise of hope and peace, then the people will not come again. They will leave still looking for Jesus and wonder where he went.

But, if the people who make up the church are active in seeking the way of Christ in this world, of seeking justice and righteousness for all, and practicing the love that is what the Gospel message about then they will know where He went and where to find what they are looking for.

Have We Forgotten?


There is an interesting thing about this particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar. As I have been writing my blogs for these past few months, I have been posting my sermons from Walker Valley UMC and Tompkins Corners UMC (this was before I began blogging). But this week, there are no sermons from the two churches. On 28 May 2000, I was in Albuquerque, NM at the USBC Open; on 25 May 2003, I was in Knoxville, TN, for the USBC Open. For the 6th Sunday in Easter in 2006 (21 May), I did post my thoughts (see “Opening the Circle”).

I am again bowling in the USBC Open this year in Las Vegas (it will be 32nd tournament appearance) and it will once again coincide with Pentecost Sunday.

So, here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday of Easter. The scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 10: 44 – 48; 1 John 5: 1 – 6, and John 15: 9 – 17.

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Abraham Lincoln once told us that the government of this country was a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But it doesn’t appear to me that we have that sort of government anymore.

In the period from 1995 to 2005, the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten bigger and there is almost virtually no middle class left. (Gap between Rich and Poor Growing) The number of people unemployed keeps getting larger each week and while the number of foreclosures may be slowing down, they are still much higher than one would expect in “normal” times. The people of this country are hurting and, yet, we are not doing much of anything to ease the pain and suffering.

It has been reported that the money for the stimulus bill was going to areas that didn’t necessarily need the money while areas which needed the funds weren’t getting any funds. In a review of 5,500 planned transportation projects, the Associated Press found that most of the funds are going to be spent in areas that most likely don’t need the money. The government, according to the AP review, is going to spend 50 percent more money on projects in areas with lower unemployment rates than in areas harder hit by unemployment. Elks County, PA, with a unemployment rate of 13.8 percent is not receiving any of the funds while Riley County (home of Fort Riley Army Base), KS, with an unemployment rate of 3.4% is receiving approximately $56 million dollars. (STIMULUS WATCH: Early road aid leaves out neediest). It was also pointed out that it will probably cost the states as much money to manage and distribute the money as they will receive over the course of the stimulus package. (Stimulus funds in states: It costs money to spend)

Somehow, this doesn’t compute. I am sure that there is some sort of logic to what has been done has some logic to it but it is logic of a day and time that is out of step with what is happening. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to create jobs in this country and that if major parts of this country’s economy go down, then jobs will go down with them. But you cannot create jobs that are copies of the jobs created in the 1930’s and expect anything less than 1930’s results. And I do not believe that anything that is being currently done or anything that took place in the last eight years has done anything for the people of this country, unless they happen to be richer than most or more connected than most.

Our healthcare system is broken but the fixes offered only seek to enrich self-interests on both the left and the right sides, not the people. There are solutions to the health care problems of this country that do not involve immense bureaucracies or are driven by the profit motive but no one wants them because they mean that some will have to give up so that others may have something better.

Our schools are in trouble and while there is talk about upgrading things like science and mathematics education, when it is done it will not reduce the inequality between school districts and it will simply mean that the high income school districts will have more money and the low income school districts will have less. And the students in each district will reap or not reap the benefits accordingly.

I don’t deny that we need to work on the infrastructure of this country but it has to be done in a manner which is fair and equitable, not one that responds to the political prowess of each area’s representatives and senators. While the mantra of the political campaign was and still is change, it doesn’t appear that much change has taken place. But that is because the culture hasn’t changed all that much anyway.

We do not need the same old thoughts because, quite honestly, the same old thoughts don’t work. We do not need responses from our political leaders that are reflections of the old political methodologies and mythologies but rather are images of what we can be. We need new ideas and we are not getting them.

I don’t want the conservatives to begin cheering out loud or telling me that they told me so. To the greatest extent, all conservatives have been doing lately is offering resistance and negative comments, not real and viable alternatives.

This isn’t about being a liberal or a conservative; it is about being who we say we are. We proclaim that we are a Christian nation, though such proclamations come from conservatives and not liberals. But, as Christians, we need to remember the words of Christ when He began His ministry some two thousand years ago. He proclaimed that he had come to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and bring hope to the oppressed; yet today the only words that we seem to recall are his command to go and make disciples of all the people.

And while saving the souls of people is critical, if the daily lives of the people are in danger, if there is no food on the table, then it really doesn’t matter what the condition of their soul is. As John Wesley put it,

Has poverty nothing worse in it than this, it makes men liable to be laughed at? Is not want of food something worse than this?

God pronounced it as a curse upon man that he should earn it by the sweat of his brow. But how many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat, have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease on this earth, that want nothing by eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God has dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give!

Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon curse God and die? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he has felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe.

John Wesley, Sermons, Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations III 3 (S, II 270-71) (http://www.umc-gbcs.org/site/c.frLJK2PKLqF/b.4452011/k.7E8E/Quotations_by_John_Wesley.htm)

It seems quite clear to me that we have forgotten who we are when we say that we are Christians. We need to remember that those whose actions some two thousand years ago gave us the name of Christian banded together to insure that no one went hungry, naked, or was sick. Yes, they chastised those who did not carry their fair share of the community responsibility but they took care of everyone. And I don’t really care if that would be called socialism today; it is what those who were called Christian did and it is what those who call themselves Christian today should be doing. Society is on the verge of failure, of meeting its collective responsibility to all its members. We cannot blame either liberals or conservatives for this failure; it is a collective failure of all us.

I also know that those early Christians were tortured because of their faith. And yet, the majority of those who proclaim this country a Christian nation have been remarkably silent on the issue of torture and the treatment of prisoners. Have we forgotten that our Savior was tortured? Have we forgotten that crucifixion is one of the most inhumane means of torture and execution ever devised by mankind? Oh, I suppose that we could point out that neither the political or religious authorities were interested in getting some sort of secret information out of Jesus before they nailed Him to the cross; they simply wanted to put Him up there so that others would understand the consequences of going against the status quo. But torture is torture, no matter the reason it is applied.

And now, conservatives are trying to change the discussion from whether or not we tortured the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere and the justification for doing so to saying that those who opposed it knew all about it.

Let’s face it, any discussion of who knew what when is a non-issue; we should be interested in why nothing was said or done to stop it. We tortured prisoners and it really doesn’t matter whether so and so was told or not. What matters is that we did it and many people stood on the sidelines and stayed quiet.

The moment that it became clear that we were torturing other humans, there should have been the loudest cry of protest ever heard on this planet. But somehow we accept the reason that it was necessary for national security and that important information was gained from the process. But what information was gained and why are there reports indicating that torture doesn’t work and that some of those who were tortured were already providing the desired information before they were tortured.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus points out that we were chosen by Him and that we will bear fruit, fruit that will last. If our concern for other humans is such that we can willingly accept the notion of torturing people, then I have no desire to eat such fruits.

In that same Gospel reading, Jesus proclaimed His love for us and that we were to return that love by loving others as we have been loved. How can we say that we love others as Jesus loved us when we treat other human beings as we have been doing, economically, socially, and politically?

Now, some will tell me that we shouldn’t love those who are seeking, in some way, to destroy us or our way of life. But can we truly protect our way of life when we ignore the principles that we say we believe in? Or are we blind to the signs that we see and hear?

Those who are conservative and fundamentalist are quick to tell you that society is destroying itself and that we need to return to God. I would agree but not in the manner that they would suggest. This is not a proclamation for the need to become an even more Christian nation. If anything, our hollow proclamation that we are a Christian nation yet we do little to stop hunger, heal the sick, and treat all people fairly and equally should tell us how much we have failed.

We have belittled and forgotten what it means to be a Christian and we are reaping the “rewards” of that effort. Time and time again in the Old Testament, we would read about how the nation of Israel would forget how it came into being and follow a path that only lead to destruction and desolation. Time and time again we hear the words of the prophet urging repentance and a return to God. This, by the way, is not done by laws governing moral behavior or a return to days long past; it is done by changing our lives and our thoughts.

We do not live in an Old Testament world; we are a New Testament people, a people whose lives should have been altered by the presence of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to this world, as He did, in order to offer salvation and promise. He knew exactly what was coming and He had many opportunities to change the direction of His life. But if He had done just that, changed the direction of His life, then His life would have had no meaning and our lives would be equally meaningless.

We should not live our life in expectation of death nor should we live our life in fear. Yes, there is evil in this world and there are going to be those in this world who would seek our destruction. But I don’t believe that we can ensure the victory of good over evil by using the methods of evil; whatever else is true, if we choose methods that our opponents use, then we are no better than they are.

Now, you have the right to feel that it is proper to torture prisoners in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. But, please, please, do not say that you are a Christian. You have the right to earn as much money as you want and keep that money and do whatever you want with it. But, please, please, don’t tell me that you are a Christian.

If we say to someone that poverty is the fault of an individual while others earn far more than they will ever need, we are going to have a hard time when Jesus calls us to task as He said He would in Matthew 25. You can look at verses 14 – 30 and decide if one is wasting their talents or verses 31 – 46 about the blindness of society to the sin and evil around them.

If we say that homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, and oppression are none of our concerns then we have forgotten the very words Jesus spoke when He began His ministry. If we say that torturing human beings, for whatever reason, is acceptable then we have forgotten what Jesus said about loving others and our enemies.

Christ came into this world to save it, not destroy it. The hymn says that they will know we are Christians by our love. It was the love of the early Christians for each other and their neighbors that changed this world. Let us not forget why we are Christians and what those who came before us did. We who have accepted Christ as our Savior have been given a task; in two weeks, we shall once again receive the Holy Spirit and be given the power to accomplish that task. Let us not forget what we have been called to do.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Two Things To Think About


Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Easter.  The Scriptures are Acts 8: 26 – 40, 1 John 4: 7 – 21, and John 15: 1 – 8.

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I was thinking about two different things this week; one which dealt with the lectionary readings for this week and one that didn’t. But in a sense, they were related.

The one that didn’t immediately relate to the lectionary was about taxes. Now, I supposed that I could have written this when the lectionary includes Matthew 22: 21 (“Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his”). In fact, I have done so on several occasions; see “The Order of Things”, “The Parts of the Church”, “What Do You See?” or “A New Model for the Church”.

But in light of the discussion of these troubling economic times and what the government should and should not do, there comes a time when we have to consider what our taxes should pay for and what they actually do pay for. It is a discussion that goes beyond a simple sermon on Sunday morning or a piece on a blog during the week. But what is the role of taxes in our country and what is our role as citizens when it comes to the needs of the people and the country?

First, let us suppose that those who say we are paying far too much in tax are correct and we were to eliminate all the taxes we pay. This would mean that there would be no federal taxes, no state taxes, no local taxes, no sales taxes, no property or school taxes; no taxes of any kind. There are some who, I have come to conclude, would love that to be the case.

But if we eliminate all the taxes, then we would have to eliminate all forms of government and government services. This would mean not only would there be no welfare programs; there would be no military, no police, no fire-fighters or teachers in the public schools. There would be no government of any sort, be it local, state, or federal. There would be no departments to maintain the roads and bridges. There would be no one to insure that our food was safe to eat or insure the quality of the air we breathe or the water we drink (though I am not sure that is being done right now anyway).

This, of course, is an extreme view of the removal of taxation from our society. But there are reasons for government and reasons for which we pay taxes. And those who espouse a limited role for the federal government and want to see it limited by the reduction or removal of federal taxes fail to see, I believe, that state and local taxes are raised in proportion to the reduction in federal taxes.

Granted, there are many things that we pay for with our tax dollars that perhaps we shouldn’t but that’s the point of all of this. What should we be paying for? I am reminded of the poster/bumper sticker that says “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” But it is more than money spent on the military-industrial establishment in relationship to the money spent on our school systems. It is the fact that the money spent within that establishment doesn’t go for the people in the establishment, the personnel who serve. It always seems as if it goes to the corporations and “trickles” down to the rest of the people.

Should spending on the defense on this country be any greater than the spending on basic services? And shouldn’t the money that is spent on defense be directed towards the individuals who, like the police and firemen, put their lives at risk instead of towards the businesses and corporations that are part of the business.

Whose worth is greater? What should a policeman or a fire-fighter get paid for serving in a vocation where their lives are on the line every day to save ours?

And in one sense, that is the same problem within many of our organizational structures. We tend to pay those at the top more than we pay those who actually do the work. Should an administrator in a school system be paid more than a classroom teacher?

Should some services, such as mass transit systems, be a part of the government or should they be self-sustaining entities on their own, dependent on the revenue they receive from their riders? There is a need for services that only a government can provide; the question is and will always be one of priorities. It is also a question of values and worth? Whose effort is worth more to the future and safety of this country? Isn’t a classroom teacher more valuable to the success of this country because they are teaching the future citizens?

The fundamental question isn’t and shouldn’t be about taxes but whether or not what we receive for the value of the money that is spent. And it also should be about the relative value of an individual’s work. I have no problem with anyone individual making any amount of money as long as 1) it is sufficient to meet their needs, and 2) as John Wesley stated it, it isn’t done through the exploitation of others. If a person makes $1 million dollars a year, then their efforts must be worth it and they must need that sum of money. Right now, I don’t see how anyone can earn that type of salary.

And I think it is time that we seriously reevaluate our priorities and our values. And that brings me to my second point. How do we define success?

Many years ago, a friend of mine and I worked out a scheme of life. We saw the world as divided into winners and players. Winners in this case are not necessarily the ones who win the contest in question but rather win in the ways of life. They see life in an entirely different way.

Players, on the other hand, only see life in terms of who wins and who loses. It isn’t about playing the game but rather what the final score is when the game is over. Players live for the present moment; winners play for the future as well. For a winner, it is more important to have put forth your best effort than it is the final outcome. As John Wooden put it, “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

But how do we become capable; how do we achieve success? It ultimately comes down to what we do as individuals but what if society is such that we are prevented or blocked from achieving any form of success. I grew up in an environment where the color of your skin determined the success of your life; I have seen too many situations where one’s financial worth was the determining value in the success of one’s endeavors. I would much rather achieve success on my own but that requires, if you will, a level playing field and the field on which we play today is hardly what one could call level.

There are people in need today and the level of need that is required by all the people goes far beyond what any one individual can do. The story from Acts that is part of the lectionary today speaks of the actions of one man acting in response to the needs of another individual. And I will not argue that such a response is the best response and one that we have all have to consider. But what happens when the needs of the many are greater than the abilities of the few? What then? What is the role of government to be when the people as a group are crying out in need?

John the Evangelist wrote his three pastoral letters to a community of believers, a community brought together by the belief in what Jesus had done for them personally and for the world. It was a community of believers that was still under the threat of persecution for their beliefs; yet they persevered. I think the one thing that is forgotten today is what the early church was like and its impact on the world around us.

We say that we are a Christian nation but we have forgotten our own roots. Somehow we have forgotten what John wrote in 1 John 4: 20 – 21,

If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.

And we cannot love people if our priorities do not put the people first. We are faced with a major crisis today; a crisis that transcends the boundaries of states and countries. Some would say that the resolution of this crisis is to accept Jesus as one’s personal Savior. But the majority of those who make this proclamation have no desire whatsoever to see others succeed. They see the salvation of souls as a measurement on their own personal scorecard.

By the same token, we cannot do things for others in hopes that those actions will bring us salvation. It doesn’t work that way, either. We individually must make our piece with Christ and we individually must open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But as was pointed out to me some forty years ago when I first confronted this dilemma of what individuals need to do in this world, when I accept Christ as my Savior, I must begin working for Him with all my heart, all my soul, and all my life.

When Jesus speaks of the fruit of the vine, He points out that a branch cannot bear much fruit unless it is part of the vine. And we cannot bear much fruit as Christians unless Jesus is a part of our lives. We cannot preach the saving grace of the Gospel and then turn around and deny others bread to eat. We cannot preach the power of the Holy Spirit and seek power for ourselves, to hoard and manipulate as we desire. Our acceptance of Christ as our Savior and our opening of our heart to the power of the Holy Spirit means that we have a new view of life. It is a view of the life to come and it is a view of the life that is right now.

Just some things to think about this day.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Truth in Labeling


So Arlen Specter is now a Democrat. Or is he? Is it more that what he believes is more in line with how Democrats are identified than how Republicans are identified? Or perhaps he switched parties in order to stay in the Senate because it appeared that the Republican party of Pennsylvania was looking to find someone to replace him in the next election?

Is it so critical that he made the switch? After all, Richard Shelby, the senior senator from Alabama, was originally elected as a Democrat in 1986 but switched to the Republicans in 1994 when the Republicans won control of the Senate. And let’s not forget Strom Thurmon, who switched from the Democratic side of the Senate to the Republican side in 1964 and was the vanguard in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”.

The thing that always amazed me, growing up in the south, was how different Democrats in the north were from the Democrats in the south. On the one hand, you had Democrats who were very liberal and Democrats who were very conservative. And at the same time, you had a similar mixture of conservative and liberal Republicans.

Now, of course, the mixture of liberalism and conservatism is almost gone, though I am not sure that what is left serves the people of this country very well. And that is the point of this piece.

It seems to me that we are more interested in the label we attach to a person than we are the quality of his or her ideas. It is a division that transcends political boundaries. If I should even mention that I am a Christian then my qualifications as a chemist and a chemical educator are considered suspect. And if I say that I am a chemist/chemical educator, then I must be some sort of secular humanist.

Conversely, in saying that I am a Christian, many people view me as a close-minded troglodyte while those who see me only in terms of being a scientist/educator put me in the same vein as a Vulcan.

And our labels of other people are as equally extreme. It makes it so much easier to attack another country if we somehow place “godless” before their name or suggest that they are somehow “sponsors of terrorism”. It makes it so much easier to send our children off to war if we can somehow make the enemy less than human.

What would happen if, on the next form that we had to fill out, we put “human” in the spot where it asked us for our race? Would the people who ask such questions understand what we are saying? Would they accept what we are saying?

I am not certain that we need labels in our lives when it comes to working with other people. We need to know what they think and what they mean; we need to know more about what drives them and what they seek in life (though all people, no matter who they are or where they live probably have the same goals in life).

As I said last Sunday (“The Order of Things”), the world is in a crisis right now. And while I spoke of the crisis of faith on Sunday, I could have added that it is a crisis of thought as well. We know very little about our neighbors and are quick to react because of the labels that we place on them, just as they place labels on us. Perhaps if we took the labels off and looked at each other as individuals, neighbors on this planet, then perhaps this world will be a better place.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian