Fair and Balanced


This is the message I gave on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 12 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.

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“Fair and balanced” seems to the phrase of the day. It certainly seems to be what gets people’s attention. But I will state categorically that the one thing this sermon probably will not be is fair or balanced.

In all honesty, I do not see how any preacher can be fair and balanced when preparing a sermon. When we look at those factors that give us concern in today’s society, it is very difficult to be fair. Poverty, homelessness, sickness, discrimination cannot be treated fairly. To speak out against injustice or war cannot be balanced against a case for injustice or war. Jesus made it very clear that our responsibilities were towards the homeless, the sick, the needy, those in prison.

“…for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25: 34 – 46)

Yet against the demands and the very nature of the Gospel, we find that many congregations do not want to hear what their responsibilities are; they do not want to be reminded that the fulfillment of the Gospel comes through what they do. I came of age, as it were, in the late 60’s.

Though each of these ministers was of a different denomination, they all showed the same concerns for justice and peace. It wouldn’t seem so important to note that today but I don’t see the same concerns in many of today’s preachers. It would seem that people today want church to be the one time when they are reminded about the problems of the world. But a church cannot be a successful church if there is no outreach, if the people of the church do not take the Gospel with them from the sanctuary into the outside world.

Yet against the demands and the very nature of the Gospel, many congregations today do want to hear what their responsibilities are. They do not want to be reminded that the Gospel is only true because of what they themselves do. A few weeks ago, I quoted the Baptist minister Tony Campolo, and I again remind you what he said,

… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (Tony Campolo, quoted in Christian Week magazine (reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03)

It would seem that people want churches to be a safe place, a place where they are not reminded about the problems of the world. But a church cannot be successful if it has no outreached, if the Gospel message isn’t taken past the boundaries of the local community.

One reason for this is that technology has brought the outside world in closer to our own daily lives. Yet, the church as not adapted; for many, the church is till remembered as the place where they grew up. It gives them a sense of order to remember the days past in a world seemingly full of chaos. In the past, one knew who needed help, one knew who were the “outcasts” and problem people in society. Society only reached the limits of the community. It was easy for the church of old to reach these people and draw them directly within the ministry of the congregation. But in today’s society, those with needs no longer have names. Life has become too complex and local congregations no longer “see” their responsibilities as clearly as they once did.

This change in society makes many people uncomfortable, if not down right frightened. And people do not want to be uncomfortable or frightened. Our whole political system is based not on developing progressive ideas but on frightening people. Campaign slogans today are more “vote for me because the other candidate will take away everything you have” that “vote for me because my ideas or plans are better.” And churches seem to be the same way.

We have retreated to the Old Testament mentality that the ill fortunes of one’s life are because one has sinned or done something terribly wrong. Churches denounce the sin and then denounce the sinner, casting them out from the church body rather than bringing them in. People flock to churches because it makes them safe, but only because the world outside is locked outside and cannot come in. Inside the safety of the sanctuary, they cannot see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the needy. “Lord, when did we see you?” is never asked in the safe, fair and balanced churches of today.

It seems that as the world changes, the church seems to be holding back, not easily adapting to the needs of society. And at a time when people need the church the most, the church seems to be closing its doors to them. The people of today’s churches do not want to go out into the world where there this trouble and chaos nor do they want to let it in to their safe world. For to do so would bring the wilderness into their lives.

In this wilderness, they would be like Job was in the Old Testament reading, wandering and looking for God. But Job was wandering and looking for God for a reason. People today are afraid to look for God. People today do not have the trust in God that Job did. Job knew that he had done nothing wrong nor had he done anything to cause the discomfort, pain, and misery that had been brought into his life. He simply wanted to present his case to God because he trusted in God to do what was right. We are not willing to trust in God as Job did because we are not willing to take the extra step.

We are like the rich young ruler; we expect to be rewarded for what we are expected to do. Anything beyond that is beyond our rationale belief because it requires risk and stepping out of our comfort zone. But as people close the doors of the church to the outside, they are also forgetting what the promise of the Gospel is.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we have in Jesus the one person who can take away the fears that come with being in the wilderness. In Jesus, we have someone who has experienced life as we have and can take our case directly to God. We do not need to find God as Job sought God because Jesus is that single connection to Him. No longer do we need fear the wilderness because Jesus has been there before us and can take us through it.

It is clear that life is neither fair nor is it balanced. Even Peter recognized the inequity of serving Christ. He, like the others, gave up everything to follow Christ and had done so without any hint of what they would get. The disciples even fought over their own place in the kingdom, expecting that their views of society would be the views that would set the rules for the heavenly kingdom. But Jesus pointed out that though they may not see it on earth, in the end, there would be a reward for all that they had done.

And we are reminded today, as we come to the table this morning, that no matter how scared or frightened by the prospects of what the world has to offer, no matter how reluctant we are to let the world come into our safe sanctuary of quiet and rest, it is nothing when it is compared to what Jesus was about to go through.

If things had been fair, Jesus would not have died on the cross but would have lead a long, healthy, prosperous, and successful life as a teacher. But then His ministry would have failed. His sacrifice on the cross, remembered by our communion today, was so that we could live.

In a fair and balanced world, there would be no need for a church. But the world outside is neither fair nor balanced. It is a world that brings despair and exclusion; it is a world that strips those without the dignity it gives to those who have; it is a world that says the word of God is only for a select few.

But as we open the table to all who come, we also open our church and our hearts to all, saying that there is hope for those in despair, there is no longer an exclusion from the world, there is dignity, and there is a world in which all are welcome. Life in the world may not be fair or balanced, but a life in Christ surely is.



The Future of Education


This started with a discussion on the Chemical Education Discussion List (CHEMED-L) about what the internet will do and is doing to traditional colleges (to see the discussion go to http://mailer.uwf.edu/listserv/wa.exe?S1=chemed-l and enter “Will the Internet Kill Traditional Colleges” in the search for string box).

It was pointed out by one individual that the Internet has been with us since August 6, 1991 and every freshman entering college this year has never lived in a world without the World Wide Web (for other revelations about this year’s incoming freshman class see, “Mindset List for the class of 2013”). It was also noted that these students often understand the latest technology implicitly while older generations struggle to with it. Today’s freshmen class is in a comfort zone with technology while many college faculties have to move out of theirs. (“Will the Internet Kill Traditional Colleges” – Irv Levy, Chemical Education Discussion List, 23 September 2009).

My response was

But what is the students’ comfort zone? Granted, they have had this technology since "day 1" but does that mean that they can use it? From my perspective, students who use instant messaging and twitter their lives away cannot write complete sentences or use the proper rules of grammar. They may be comfortable with the technology but not for the uses that perhaps only we see.

And they come to our classes with the notion, especially at the freshman/introductory level, that the class will be a version of what they have done in high school. And, for the most part, it is copy what the teacher says, do the problems in the book, and write it all down for the test.

Most of the students have the capability to take photos with their cell phones but very seldom do they take photos of the work they do in the lab for inclusion in their lab reports.

They willingly accept what they read on the Internet as the "truth" but do not understand the verification process. In my assignment on academic integrity, I routinely get statements that one individual who won a Nobel Prize was guilty of fraud (based on an incomplete page somewhere and a congressional investigation that was later repudiated). (The assignment is at An Assignment on Academic and Scientific Integrity.)

From our standpoint, the academic world, there are great opportunities for this technology but all that has been done is move drill-and-practice from paper on a desktop to the video screen. The key thing about many of the current on-line colleges is that they are not accredited and their courses only transfer to other schools in the same corporation. The reason that so many administrators in the schools where we work want to move to an on-line presence is that they see the success of the on-line schools and the large number of students that are enrolled in such schools. They are not concerned about the delivery methods or what happens to the students after they graduate.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in a discussion with a local community college about teaching there and it seemed like every other question they asked was about my ability to teach chemistry courses on-line.

I said that I thought there was no problem with the lecture and there is a lot that you can do in that regard. But I also pointed out that I didn’t think that you could do laboratory work on-line or "at home" for safety, legal, and educational reasons. There are plenty of ways to simulate the laboratory on-line but that is not the same thing as doing the lab and we want the students to have the experience manipulating the materials as well as looking at the materials. You cannot get that experience moving a mouse to open and close a stopcock.

What we, the academics, have to do is create ways to expand the on-line presence. Many years ago, I wrote a paper about how two elementary school classes could collaborate on a science project (see Was Eratosthenes Correct? A Multi-class science Project).

When I wrote it, the only means of communication were by regular ("snail") mail and telephone. Then the Internet was "born" and other means of communication were created. As I noted in the "Eratosthenes" piece that is exactly what happened in the measurement of the earth project.

We have to beyond simply putting PowerPoint presentations on-line and setting up our exams so that students can take them anytime they want. We must also put in an interactive mode – setting a time to meet and chat with the students, to hear what they are saying, not merely read what they type.

Many of us already do that, it is called a classroom.

What is happening in terms of on-line instruction is a mirror of what is happening in society. Society wants their children to be educated but they want the education to come at a low cost. They do not want their students challenged but then they wonder why there is no creativity.

I hate to say it but there will be an on-line presence in our colleges and unless we find ways to put the creativity back in the classroom, be it on-line or through a real-time physical presence, it will be what it is now, not what it can be.

Since that was posted to the CHEMED list, I have had an opportunity to read a book by Bill Moyers (Moyers on Democracy). I respect Bill Moyers because he is honest and his principles have always come first. Trained as a Baptist minister, he went to work for Lyndon Johnson in the 1950’s and then through the 1960’s. But when the conflict between his soul and his call to duty (which many called the Viet Nam War), he left Washington and began his career in journalism. This book highlights several of the speeches he has given over the past twenty years. This includes the speech that he gave on 15 November 2006 to the cadets at the United States Military Academy. But I am looking at his comments on education at the moment.

In his message to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (March 3, 2007) he said,

Educational Testing Service recently concluded that a perfect storm is brewing, with our colleges and universities right at the center of it. Three powerful forces are converging: wide disparities in skill levels (reading and math), widening wage gaps of seismic proportions, and sweeping demographic shifts of more people with less education and fewer skills. If we don’t confront these changes with new thinking and new policies, we will find it difficult to sustain a vibrant middle class. The American dream of decent jobs and livable wages could vanish in our time.

To read these words from a man who grew up in Depression-era Texas and for whom college was the escape, is to read words that echoed in the discussion about the Internet. As I pointed out in my note to the CHEMED list, administrators want on-line courses because they are cheaper and a more efficient means of presenting information. Let’s ignore the fact that many of the on-line schools that we hear so much about are not accredited by the same agencies that sanction regular colleges and universities. They are bringing in the students and that is all that administrators desire to know.

But what are they learning. Again, as I noted in my note, many on-line classes are nothing more than drill-and-practice lessons transferred from paper to video screens. And while many instructors have transformed their lectures from overhead projectors to Power Point presentations, the informational process is still read the book, copy the problems that the instructors gives you (whose answers may be in the back of the book) and recall all that information for the next test. And many book publishers are simply transforming the textbook materials into on-line presentations. And if there are errors in the book, those errors are likely to be found in the on-line course. (And often times, the on-line material is prepared by a programmer who knows little or nothing about the course material so he or she is not in a position to determine if there are any errors in the material.)

The problem is our use of the Internet merely mirrors what we do in the classroom. The driving force behind the development of on-line courses and on-line colleges is to eliminate traditional costs, i.e., the classroom costs. And this makes it easier for administrators to justify cutting teaching positions and increasing the workload of those who survive the cuts while still maintaining hefty salaries for themselves

We should be using the Internet in creative ways, utilizing the power to circle the globe in new and inventive ways, not merely putting the text on the screen. In 1991 Marcin Paprzycki and I began a series of papers on computer networks and how to use such networks in education. In our first paper, we noted how it was possible to use a utility known as NOTES on the VAX/VMS system as a bulletin board. Students in my science education methods class were able to update and maintain a readings list for the class. They were also able to develop a book of demonstrations and experiments which they could take with them when they began student teaching. The NOTES utility also allowed students to keep in communication with other students with regards to class and group assignments. ("An Overview of Computer Networks in Education: Computer Networks and Network Services", with Marcin Paprzycki, Proceedings of Second Annual South Central Small College Computing Conference, St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas, Journal of Computing in Small Colleges, 6 (5), 1991, 1.) These are now common features in many on-line classrooms.

But with this approach to utilizing the college computers system came problems. Resistance to change is always evident in society but I think sometimes it is more resistant in education, especially when it is something that many people do not understand. Shortly after I began using the computer system in my classes, I received the following e-mail message from a sympathetic colleague,

I hear these rumblings that your ass may be in the fire over your creative application of computer technology in some of your classes. It has been my experience that the people who most need to be exposed to the technology are also the people who are most unable to overcome their fears of the technology and also the people who bitch the loudest when they are forced to overcome their phobias.

If there is anything that I can do to improve the situation, say by documenting the fact that your efforts represent innovative and creative application of available technology, please let me know. I think that efforts such as yours (efforts that force the education industry into the 20th century) are essential to this university’s mission and to this nation’s future.

It isn’t that we need to be more creative in our use of the computer, the Internet or the World Wide Web; it is that we have to be creative. If we are not creative, we risk being unable to fight the enemies of democracy. As Bill Moyers has noted, the Internet may prove redemptive for democracy but the results to this point are mixed. In a society where the only thing tested is one’s ability to recall where one bit of information is stored in a multitude of rooms in a storehouse of information rather than one’s ability to utilize that storehouse of information, the threat to democracy is more real than any single terrorist.

If we are incapable of being creative, we are incapable of any sort of advanced thinking. And if we cannot think beyond simple things, we cannot expose the ignorance of our leaders or would-be leaders. For Socrates, the wisest of men is the one who is most conscious of his own ignorance, most aware of the limits of knowledge which are introduced by our limited methods of obtaining knowledge.

It has been said that Meletus, the main accuser featured in the Apology (as told by Plato) was a young religious fanatic who charged Socrates with believing in deities of his own invention rather than the state-recognized gods. But some scholars now believe that Meletus was simply a front man for political interests, put forward to stir the public against Socrates and not unlike so many of today’s modern political pundits. (From Bill Moyers’ speech to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on 7 February 2007)

I have often said to my students that the most curious creature on this planet is a two-year old. Each one of you who has had a child knows the curiosity that two-years old have because as soon as they can start walking, they are exploring everything and everywhere. (Our own two-year old granddaughter is sufficiently computer literate to the point that she has taken apart her father’s computer and we are still looking for several of the keys from the keyboard that she has pried off; we can only imagine what our one-year grandson will do when he begins to walk.)

But where is this curiosity when these students finish high school and begin college? Students are now acclimated to simply recall the information and not process it; they rebel at the notion of having to think independently since there is no reward for doing so. And perish the thought if we want them to think critically.

Our system is devoted to driving intellectual curiosity from our children’s souls and replacing it with something far worse than George Orwell could have thought of when he wrote 1984 or Animal Farm. And the problem is that far too many people see little use for courses or programs that expand creativity or intellectual curiosity.

Critics will tell us that such programs teach no one how to bake bread or build bridges. In one sense they are right – despite all that we do, there is still crime; divorces still occur; politics are still corrupted by the lure of power and money; corporations will still cook their books and liberals are still loose in the world to do the work of the devil.

Mr. Moyers pointed out that “All human beings have this burden in life to constantly figure out what’s true, what’s authentic, what’s meaningful, what’s dross, what’s a hallucination, what’s a figment, what’s madness. We all need to figure out what is valuable, constantly.” (From Bill Moyers’ speech to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on 7 February 2007)

We are a country and a society that seems to value intellectual curiosity but, on the other hand, we are unwilling to put forth the effort to insure that our students have that curiosity, that creativity. It will, if it hasn’t already done, show up.

In 1980, if you obtained a graduate degree you earned about an average of $50,000; by 2000, the average was about $70,000. Over the same period those with bachelor’s degrees saw their income rise from about $40,000 to $50,000. In contrast, high-school graduates saw no gain in income and those without high-school diplomas saw their income drop.

At one time, there was a 20 percent chance that your income would be determined by your father’s income; now the research suggests that the father’s level of income determines 60% of a son’s income. In other words, children no longer have an equal chance of success regardless of economic status. As Bill Moyers put it, your chances of success are greatly improved if you were born on third base and your father has been tipping the umpire. And there is additional evidence that says that there is also a technological gap that roughly resembles the economic gap in our society.

This started out when someone asked if the Internet would kill traditional college. In the end, the present use of the Internet or World Wide Web will probably not do anything to traditional colleges that we haven’t already done ourselves. At worst, it will simply magnify the end.

But, if we push to get creativity and curiosity back into the classroom, whether or not it is a traditional classroom or an on-line one; if we push to find ways that expand the Internet beyond what we are already doing, we can do things that right now seem impossible.

And if we do that, we are the road to making education what it once was and what it can be, a means to equality and a means to restore and maintain democracy.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Who Shall Serve


This is the message for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 15 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 23: 1- 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.

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A young man comes to Jesus and asks what it will take to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds that to inherit eternal life he must obey the commandments and then he lists seventh, sixth, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments. “Of course I have kept these commandments,” the young man replies. “Then,” Jesus said, “sell all that you have and give your money to the poor.” The young man leaves, grieving, for he cannot or would not do that which he was asked to do.

As much as this Gospel reading is about money, I think that it is about much more. For the commandments that Jesus listed dealt with the ethical and fair treatment of people. To paraphrase another saying of Jesus, what good are the things that you own if they cannot be used to help others. What Jesus was saying, at least to me, in this Gospel reading, is that you must reorder your priorities and that when you do so, the rewards, that which you gain, will be multiplied.

Albert Edward Day wrote,

I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought out the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we so often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, with their grief. On Calvary he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Black Friday, by the desolation of the common people. “In all their afflictions, he was afflicted.”

Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go on our way. We give our charities but we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives. (From The Captivating Presence by Albert Edward Day)

There has probably been no greater act of defiance in the history of the Christian church than when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. In making his complaints with the Catholic Church known publicly, Luther knew that he was putting his career in the church on the line. But Luther also felt that the direction of the church at that time was not the direction it should, that it did not put the people first, and that people were in danger if no action was taken.

Similarly, John Wesley’s declaration to the Bishop of Bristol represented a major decision about his faith and his career:

Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay” (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal.)

Such actions require that you have an understanding of what is needed at that time and place in history. It also means that you be willing to accept what comes. The young man in the Gospel was not willing to accept that the idea that to keep the commandments required deeper action than simple lip service to the commandments.

John Wesley understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all that seek it.

And when you take actions like Luther and Wesley did, you have to be prepared to face the consequences. For Luther, it was excommunication; for Wesley and the other preachers, who choose to follow him, it meant being barred from preaching in the churches.

To the elders of the Church of England, Wesley’s call for action was unconscionable. How dare a pastor call for such radical action. Yet, instead of supporting the work of Wesley and his followers, people in the Church of England barred them from preaching in the churches. Yet this did not stop the Methodist Revival. Wesley and the other early Methodist ministers simply began to preach wherever they could find the space. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

In the Old Testament reading today, Job asks where God is. Job’s “comforters” try to tell him that what is happening to him is because he has sinned and lost favor with God. All Job wants is to hear directly from God why things were happening to him. It was not a complaint because Job knows that he hasn’t done anything wrong; all Job wants is quite literally a fair shake in life.

The same cry of where is God is heard today. But the cry today is that is one of loss and despair. In a world where violence is quickly becoming the norm, where the concern for others quickly gives way to concern only for oneself, it is easy to ask where God is in the world.

In Wesley’s time poverty was thought to be a reflection of one’s sinful life. If you were rich, it was because you led a good life. If you were poor, it was because you were not living the right kind of life. This was a time when more and more people were getting wealthy every day so it was permissible to ignore those few who were not quite so fortunate. It wasn’t the church’s fault that people were homeless and hungry; that medical care for the lower classes was almost non-existent; that only the rich could afford to go to school. Wesley would have felt right at home in the United States these last few years when concern for one’s own well-being was more important than a concern for members of society.

The arguments given for poverty were a lot like those that Job’s “comforters” used. Job must have sinned because one is not afflicted with all that he faced if he had not sinned. It is far too easy to talk about sin and to cast doubt about a person’s own righteousness than it is to take action in this world.

We can study all we want to about God and what Christianity is. But until we take action, we are like the young man who kept all the commandments but kept his money as well. Nothing has been gained. Until such time as we allow Christ to come into our hearts and allow Him to guide and direct us, we will never come to really know Christ.

The theme of the Book of Hebrews is a simple one. Jesus came to be with us so that we may know God firsthand. No longer would we have to search for the priest in order to make our thoughts known to God. With Jesus in our life, the doorway to God is always open.

Today is Laity Sunday. It is the one Sunday in the year where the efforts of the Laity are recognized. But each Sunday should be considered Laity Sunday because it falls to each and every one of us to take the message from the safety of the sanctuary out into the world.

Our actions do not have to be dramatic ones. To many times, people try to emulate the success of others, only to fail. The failure of a program to be successful is not because people didn’t undertake it but rather because it was the wrong idea for a given time and place.

Our challenge today is the single most difficult task we will ever face. We may not do much, just a simple smile. But such a smile, when it comes from the heart, is a sign that God is still here.

The call today is a very simple one. On this day when we honor those in the laity who serve God, who shall serve Him?



The Needs of the Many


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10, 9: 20 – 22; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.

I encourage you, the gentle reader, to read Allan Bevere’s thoughts in “On Why The Church In America Cannot Speak Truth to Power”, “Are We Being Too Clever By Half?”, and “Political Visions and Illusions: Preface”. In those thoughts and the following, we have the possibility of a new dialogue.

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If I were to ask him, Mr. Spock would reply that it was a logical assumption to say that the needs of the many outweigh the wants and desires of the few. I am aware that that is not the basic tenet of Vulcan philosophy but it is the phrase that came to mind as I was thinking about the Scriptures for this week and what is transpiring throughout this country.

The actual line is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and come from one of the final scenes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where, in order to save the Enterprise and its crew, Spock has sacrificed his life.

But someone, in response to a question asked in the vastness of the Internet, replied that the originator of the phrase was not Spock (or the writer who wrote the phrase) but rather Caiaphas, the High Priest, who said,

Then one of them—it was Caiaphas, the designated Chief Priest that year—spoke up, “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see that it’s to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?” He didn’t say this of his own accord, but as Chief Priest that year he unwittingly prophesied that Jesus was about to die sacrificially for the nation, and not only for the nation but so that all God’s exile-scattered children might be gathered together into one people. (John 11: 49 – 52 – The Message)

Whether or not, we are quoting Spock or adapting something that Caiaphas said so many years ago, it seems to me that our discussion these days is not about the many but the few and we have put the wants and desires of the few over the needs of the many.

Let me first state that I am not arguing for a government-run or private enterprise form of health care. That debate has taken on the nature of “what I want and what I should have”, not “what does everyone need.” And as George Barna pointed out in his recent editorial, “Jesus’ Health Care Plan”, the people of America have taken on the attitude that each one of us should have certain government services but that someone else should pay for them.

His survey data points out that two-thirds of the adults in this country look to the government to solve the problems related to poverty (include health care deficiencies) but only one out of very five adults believe that they should be involved in the process and a mere 1 out of 25 assign that task to non-profit organizations and another 1 out of 25 assign the task to the church. In other words, we may pray about it but we do very little to make sure that the prayers are put into action.

Secondly, we want it done in such a way that it does not involve us, does not cost anything, and does not hinder our lifestyle. Barna writes, “It’s not my fault and it’s not my job, so let the paid professionals deal with it.” I can almost hear Bart Simpson and his plea for leniency, “I didn’t do it, no one saw me do it, there’s no way you can prove anything.”

And yet, when someone does something and comes to us for help, we are like the disciples in the Gospel reading for today, angry that someone usurped what they felt was theirs and theirs alone. We willingly and quickly proclaim that we are one nation under God and we will fight anyone who would suggest anything else. Yet are more a collection of individuals living in communities and we do not want others intruding in our community.

We see any suggestion that we can be one community as somehow a usurpation of our individual self-identity. But we were never expected to discard our own identity in becoming this country and we are not expected to cast aside our uniqueness when we enter God’s Kingdom. God’s kingdom is for all, independent of race, color, creed, or lifestyle; yet our own notions of Christianity make such things (race, color, creed or lifestyle) the basis for entering God’s kingdom.

The readings from the Old Testament for today and for the next three weeks are part of what has been called the “wisdom” literature of the Bible. It offers a different insight as to the path we walk. With these selections, we are given an alternative way to see the world around us and the path we may walk. This literature offers us two paths, the path of society and the path of God.

The book of Esther is a very interesting book to read; for it is the only book in the Bible in which there is no mention of God at all.

On the one hand, the author of this book may have wanted to explain the meaning of the Jewish celebration of Purim. This celebration reminds the people of Israel of God’s presence in the community of believers, even when the believers are far away. And for the believers far away from Israel, such as those in exile in Persia, to be far away from God was to be cut off from God.

But the absence of God or even God’s name may have also been a way for the author to express God’s distance. But, at the same time, the book clearly reveals God’s surprising protection. In the end, the people are saved because it is clear that desires of the one cannot outweigh the needs of the many. And it was not simply the Jewish community in Persia acting against the intentions of a government but the community and the government against the intentions of one whose only goal was power for himself.

The community of believers may take many forms. We know that members of the early church were not all identical in heritage, economic status, or identity. Yet, they all believed in Christ. They were a community of believers and together they worked for the betterment of the community.

But today, we proclaim that anyone who is not a part of our own self-proclaimed community is somehow against us and working against us, even if their own beliefs mirror our own. If nothing else, the discussions that have ripped this nation apart should show us that we have no coherent definition for “church”, “state”, “nation”, or “society”. We are much more willing to proclaim that ours is a society where we are free to believe, free to choose, and free to do our own thing. And we argue that someone else should pay for these freedoms.

But the essence of the Bible, from the very days of Genesis to the visions of John the Seer, spoke of a community of people united in one vision and one belief, of a people working together for the good of all people. When I read what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I cannot help but think of the words that I hear spoken in today’s society. They are words that put stumbling blocks in front of those in need; they are words of anger and hatred, not love and compassion. They are words that belittle and humiliate. They are designed to build up walls, not tear them down.

How can we enact the words we read in James, of praying for those who suffer or celebrating the successes of others if we are not a community of believers? How can we sing songs of praises when we speak words of hatred and exclusion? And how can we pray for one another when we reject God’s children from our own community?

There is a great challenge before us today. It is not to say that my way or your way is the right way; it is not to argue that only one of us knows the way to and into God’s Kingdom. It is not to say that one is not welcome in our community when Jesus Himself welcomed all who sought Him into His. It is to say that we who believe must open up the community and bring the true message of the Gospel into play. Yes, we may disagree with how this will be accomplished; that is the nature of our being. We are not asked to lose our individual identity in Christ when we proclaim Him as our Savior; on the contrary, we gain a new identity.

If we treat the least of those among us with disrespect, how can we expect to be treated when we stand before the gates of heaven? If we put the wants and desires of the one before the needs of the many, how shall we answer when we are asked that final and ultimate question?

Some Basic Chemistry Definitions


Here are some chemistry definitions that probably will not be very helpful in chemistry but perhaps explain a lot about the subject.

A chemical is a substance that

  1. an organic chemist turns into a foul odor.
  2. an analytical chemist turns into a procedure.
  3. a physical chemist turns into a straight line.
  4. a biochemist turns into a helix.
  5. a chemical engineer turns into a profit.

Chemical engineering is the practice of doing for a profit what a chemist does for fun.

Grignard compounds are a fictitious class of compounds often found on organic exams and never in real life.

Organic chemistry is the practice of transmuting vile substances into publications.

Physical chemistry is the pitiful attempt to apply y = mx + b to everything in the universe.

Inorganic chemistry is that which is left over after the organic, analytical, and physical chemists get through picking through the periodic table.

Quantum mechanics are a crew kept on the payroll to repair quantums because they decay frequently to the ground state.

Playing By The Rules


This is the message that I gave on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1 1 – 4, 2:5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.

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On October 20, 1983, an event occurred in Southhaven, MS that was little noticed then and probably did nothing to change the course of events in the world. But it mattered to a few people then and it is worth noting today. At the start of the Thursday evening session of the Southhaven Football Association, the announcer read off the names of the game officials for that night.

“The officials for tonight’s games,” the announcer proclaimed, “are referee, Bob Mitchell; head linesman, Tim Mitchell; clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2, Tony Mitchell; field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2, Terry Mitchell.” On that night, and for the only time in our respective careers as football officials, my two brothers and I worked a game with our father. Now, the three of us had done games with our father individually but it was the first and, as it turns out, the only time we ever were a game crew. It was one of those things that we knew was significant but was probably barely noticed by those attending the games that night.

And as several officials have reminded me, that is the way that it should be. Most officials will tell you that a well-officiated game is one in which the officials are not even noticed. You will note that when people do complain about the officiating, it is because a particular call went against the team they were rooting for. And I have also noticed that the main reason that people complain about the calls made by officials is because they, the viewers of the game, do not understand the rules or use rules that are outdated or inappropriate for the level of play. In fact, it has been said that the most common call by an official at an elementary game is “This isn’t Sunday, coach!” The problem is that most adults who work with the players at the elementary level don’t understand the rules and only remember the rules that were in force when they played. And they want to try things with their elementary age players that they see seasoned professionals do on Sunday afternoon.

I enjoyed being a football official and most of the time it was fun. I saw plays in games at the elementary and junior high level that most people watching televised games would never see. By working various games at the elementary, junior high, and high school level I was getting ready to move up to the college level. And I must admit that doing college games would have been really a great way to spend a fall afternoon. But then I hurt my knee and my career was over.

Still, the role of a football official, no matter what the level, is not to have fun but to insure that the game is played safely and according to the rules. And no matter what others might think, the rules are there to protect the players, not hamper the game.

The thing about rules is that they are meant to help or protect, not limit or prevent. The Pharisees are raising the issue of divorce in today’s Gospel reading. They are seeking to trap Jesus into contradicting what Moses said or to offend Herod Antipas as John the Baptist had done. They wanted to make sure that his response would justify their view of the world that men had rights that women could not have.

Jesus indicates that divorce was a concession to the hardness of one’s heart and immediately turns the argument of marriage to God’s original intentions. Rather than justify the views of the Pharisees, which put the man above the woman in marriage and society, Jesus forces men and women to bear equal responsibility in the case of divorce and remarriage. God’s design was that men and women would be equal in value and worth, even if they had different roles in the overall design.

This reading is the basis for most Christian churches’ teachings about divorce and is based on the assumption that Jesus was speaking about individual men and women. But if we view this passage from the aspect of gender rather than from that of individuals, we see that Jesus was looking at the full equality of men and women. This equality is so profound that “no one” has the power to separate them, much less make one of them less than the other.

Because, with both persons made in God’s image and as one flesh, they will have equal rights and bear equal responsibility for their actions and decisions. In this way, both are full heirs to the gifts that God bestowed upon them; both are “a little lower than God,” and crowned with “glory and honor” as the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 8:5. Finally, both are equal in their rights and responsibilities as co-creators with God. (Adapted from “Living the Word” – Reflections on the revised common lectionary, Cycle B by Michaela Bruzzese)

What the writer of Hebrews is saying is that our chance, if there ever was such a chance, was lost when we allowed sin to control our lives. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the rights and responsibilities that we were given with the Creation of the world, as depicted in the early chapters of Genesis. We were given control through Adam and Eve of all of God’s creation, but that control was delayed because of sin. But, in verse 9 of today’s reading, we read “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2: 9)  This means that humanity regains through Christ what Adam and Eve lost, control over God’s creation.

But we have to remember that in creation, we are all created equals. Nothing in the creation story gives us dominion or control over others in society. Yet, society is quick to forget this. The problem that we have is that we don’t want all people to be equal. We want to be able to say to someone that we are better than they are. We want to be able to say to someone that we have the right, by whatever reason it was granted, to tell someone what they can or cannot do.

One point that Jesus constantly stressed was the equality of everyone in God’s eyes. Everything that Jesus did questioned the rules of society. The Pharisees had a view of marriage that did not fit the view of equality that God intended it to have. Society had rules about children that would have kept them away from Jesus; yet Jesus commanded His disciples to let the children come to Him.

It is our nature to have rules in our lives; the problem is that we try to structure the rules so they favor a particular viewpoint. We have a hard time with life when there are conflicts between what we know is right and what the rules state. This is especially true when it comes to our relationship with God.

Jesus through his actions questioned the rules of society. In the verses following the Gospel reading, which we will hear next week, Jesus points out that the Ten Commandments lay out the rules for the fair and ethical treatment of people.

The book of Job is about the relationship between man and God. It also brings to question how can the justice of an almighty God be defended in the face of evil, especially human suffering and even more in terms of the suffering of innocents.

In this regard, there are three possible assumptions. First, God is not almighty; second, God is not just; and third, man may just be innocent. But, in Israel, there was no doubt that God was almighty; there was no doubt that God was just; and thirdly, no human was ever wholly innocent in God’s sight. These latter three assumptions are fundamental to the theology of Job and his friends. Simple logic dictates the conclusion that every person’s suffering comes because of his guilt in the eyes of God. Those were the rules of life and there was no way to change them.

The Book of Job, written soon after the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, offers an example of a subversive wisdom, an alternative to the traditional wisdom of ancient Israel. The core of the book, dialogues between Job and his “comforters”, is a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will wither”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom states that those who play by the rules will be rewarded, those that do not will suffer. This is the wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs. In that regard, both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of this easy confidence and conventional wisdom. In the book of Job, those who would “comfort” Job are defenders of these notions; Job vehemently attacks them. Society demands that we follow the rules, no matter how inequitable or unfair they may be.

In the passage that we read for today, Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of Job’s character and actions are highlighted. Blameless and upright, meaning “straightforward” and “ethically straight” emphasize his spotless character. Like Daniel, Job was blameless before his human critics, but not completely sinless before God. In Job 31: 5 – 6, he (Job) testifies of his personal integrity. That Job feared God and shunned evil was an indication that his right relationship with God motivated him to turn away from evil. This descriptive phrase was also an indication that Job was the epitome of wisdom.

In Job 2: 9 – 10, with his wife’s taunts, “to curse God and die” Job faces his most severe trial. Her question, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity,” employs almost the exact same wording that the Lord used in verse 3. The wording emphasizes Job’s perseverance, which his wife misconstrued as religious fanaticism; she thought he was blindly refusing the reality of his desperate situation.

Job’s response to the second test, the loss of his health and alienation from his wife, was once again commendable. His rhetorical question, urging the acceptance of both good and adversity from God, anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job, that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even while unable to understand why bad things happen.

We are able to trust in God when we have a first-hand relationship with Him. Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced, that of one who knew God personally. This is a challenging message for both secular and Christian forms of conventional wisdom in our time.

Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit. The only reality our society is certain of is the visible world and our ordinary experience. This leads us to seeing Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, a journey, conventional wisdom says that God has already done what has to be done.

It is a vision that has God as lawgiver and judge. God’s requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet, in this view of God, new requirements are created: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and He will not forgive those who do not believe. God’s forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.

But, just as Jesus changed how society should view itself, so too does He challenge and change our view of God. No longer is God a lawgiver or judge; rather He becomes our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we have met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it.

We live in a society that still holds to the view of conventional wisdom. Our works and how we live under the law justify our lives. But Jesus showed that God’s grace was freely given to all and not just a select few. This alone removes us from a life from anxious strife and the self-preoccupation that goes with it.

Simply put, a life in Christ sets us free. It removes us from having to play a game by rules so complex that no one can win. It gives us a new set of rules that insures that our lives have victory over sin and death.

So, we must play by the rules. The question is, and will always be, whose rules shall we play by? The rules of society which lead ultimately to death or the rules of God which lead to Eternal Life?



And How Shall You Be Known?


This is the message that I gave on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 8 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1 1 – 4, 2:5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.

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There is a saying in the South, “I am an American by birth but a Southern by the Grace of God.” And since I was born in Virginia and spent the major part of my life in Southern states, I guess that saying would apply to me. A Southern mother raised me, I like most Southern food, and I can talk, if it is not obvious, with a Southern drawl. I even understand many of the reasons for the place football has in a way of life that confuses people who have never lived in the South.

But I don’t hold to all the traditions of the South. Somewhere along the line I came to believe that there was equality among men and women and that any attempts to divide people because of their race, their creed, their color, or their sexuality was wrong. I came to this belief in part because of what I learned in school and in no small part because of what I learned in Sunday school and church.

Traditions are fine but sometimes traditions have to be changed. When Jesus put that child in his lap, as we read in the Gospel this morning, he changed traditions. When the people questioned him about the nature of divorce, he challenged their traditional views of the relationship of marriage.

In verses 5 and 6 from the Gospel reading for today, Jesus declares that divorce was a concession to the hardness of the heart but also states the God’s intent was that man and women would be equal in value and worth. The manner of divorce at that time was that it was possible for a man to divorce his wife but that a wife could not do the same.

Jesus, throughout his ministry, sought to change the ways things were viewed, from a strict interpretation of the law to a better understanding of what God intended for people to do.

The Old Testament reading for today and for the next few weeks looks at Job. The Book of Job, written soon after the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, is an example of subversive wisdom, of alternative wisdom in the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. The core of the book, dialogues between Job and his “comforters”, is a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will wither”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Indeed, both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of the easy confidence of the conventional wisdom found in Proverbs that if one lives right, all will go well. In the book of Job, those who would “comfort” Job are defenders of these notions; Job vehemently attacks them.

In the passage that we read for today, Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of Job’s character and actions are highlighted. Blameless and upright, meaning “straightforward” and “ethically straight” emphasize his spotless character. Like Daniel, Job was blameless before his human critics, but not completely sinless before God. In Job 31: 5 – 6, he (Job) testifies of his personal integrity. That Job feared God and shunned evil was an indication that his right relationship with God motivated him to turn away from evil. This descriptive phrase was also an indication that Job was the epitome of wisdom.

In Job 2: 9 – 10, with his wife’s taunts, “to curse God and die” Job faces his most severe trial. Her question, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity,” employs almost the exact same wording that the Lord used in verse 3. The wording emphasizes Job’s perseverance, which his wife misconstrued as religious fanaticism; she thought he was blindly refusing the reality of his desperate situation.

Job’s response to the second test, the loss of his health and alienation from his wife, was once again commendable. His rhetorical question, urging the acceptance of both good and adversity from God, anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job, that a person of faith will trust in the God through prosperity and adversity, even while unable to understand why bad things happen.

This represents what I have, over the past few weeks, characterized as a first-hand relationship with God. As one who knew God personally, Jesus invited those who followed him to the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message for both secular and Christian forms of conventional wisdom in our time.

Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit; the only reality of which our society is certain is the visible world or our ordinary experience. This leads us to seeing Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, a journey, conventional wisdom says that God has already done what has to be done.

It is a vision that has God as lawgiver and judge. God’s requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet, in this view of God, new requirements are created: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and He will not forgive those who do not believe. God’s forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.

When you read Hebrews, you read how Jesus is both the chief priest and the principle sacrifice. No longer are sacrifices needed since Jesus Himself was the sacrifice that was given to cover all the sins of the world, both now and in the future. What I personally got out of the passage from Hebrews that we read today is that we are caretakers of the journey that was begun so many years ago in Israel.

The New Testament is about a journey — a journey of discipleship. The meaning of the world disciple is not “a student of a teacher” but rather “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is a following after Jesus, a journeying with Jesus.

Discipleship means, among other things, eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. That banquet is an inclusive banquet, including not just me and not just us, but those we tend to exclude. It means being nourished by him and fed by him. That was the point when Jesus fed the five thousand and as Israel was fed in the wilderness during the exodus. If we think of our communion today like those meals in the wilderness, it becomes a powerful symbol of our own journey with Jesus and being fed by him on that journey. “Take, eat, lest the journey be too great for you.”

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual path, but a journey in the company of disciples. It is a road that is less traveled yet done with others who remember and celebrate Jesus. Though not the only role of the church, it is the primary role, it is why we are here today, to “gather the folks, tell the stories, break the bread.”

And discipleship involves being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen)

We, Protestants, are an undisciplined people. Therein lies the reason for much dearth of spiritual insight and serious lack of moral power. Revolting, as we did, from the legalistic regimens of the medieval church, we have forgotten almost completely the necessity which inspired these regimens, and the faithful practices which have given to Christendom some of its noblest saints.

Without discipline there would have been no Francis of Assisi, no Bernard of Clairvoux, no Teresa of Avila, no Brother Lawrence, no William Law, no Evelyn Underhill, no Thomas Kelly (no John or Charles Wesley?).

Without discipline there will be no such rich legacy of sainthood bequeathed by us to succeeding generations, or revitalizing the church and redeeming the society of this generation.

The spiritual vitality of the church depends, not on complicated organization or creative administration, important as these are; not on eloquent preaching or adequate theology; valuable as they are; not on unlimited financial resources or cultural maturity; helpful though they be.

What the church primarily needs now, as always, is the presence within it of God-conscious, God-centered soul. Even a few here and there would mean very much to a church confronted by the chaos of this age.

A multitude of men and women, pressing “on to the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” would confront the secularism and skepticism of our time with a challenge not easily laughed off or shunted aside. (From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day)



A Simple Act


Here are my thoughts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Proverbs 31: 10 -31; James 3: 13 – 4:3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9- 30 – 37.

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This is not a pro-union piece even though I am decidedly a union man (I have been a member of the UAW and SEIU as well as the American Federation of Teachers). I have seen enough instances where union leadership was in bed with management to not trust the “paper” that they both sign. And there are many unions today where the leadership has been corrupted by the same allure of power and greed that, to me, dominates upper levels of management in most companies.

I have worked for at least one boss who would have busted the union at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t that he was against the workers but he resented the intrusion of union management into the operations of the plant. I also know that even without the union, the working conditions in that plant would not have deteriorated and our benefits package would have been a good and reasonable one. But when the union protested this manager’s policies, the company fired him and brought in a new manager. The plant was closed within a year because it was no longer productive and I will always attribute that move by management to the discord that existed between the new management and the union leadership. I have seen other companies close their plants rather than work with unions as well.

But, were it not for unions, working conditions in this country today would probably be no different from working conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries and children would still be working in the mines and factories like they were when John Wesley first began his ministry. Were it not for the union movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, there would probably be no middle class in this country today, merely peasants and serfs working for the lords and ladies of the manor.

I have relatives who worked in the mills of North Carolina where anti-union tactics were used to maintain segregation. The white workers were told that unions would bring in black employees and put them out on the street, so the white workers blindly followed their management and said “no” to unions. Of course, management didn’t do anything to make the working conditions in the mill any better (and believe me, working in the mills in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not an easy job). When the white workers began to find out that they were being used by management, things began to change. Now, of course, to keep from unionizing the plants and the mills, companies have closed the mills in the south and shoe factories in the small towns of the mid-west and sent the work to factories to Mexico, Taiwan, and even mainland China where working conditions are reminiscent of the “good old days”, where the workers are legally exploited and the workers in this U. S. are just plain out of luck.

I suppose it could have been worse if Crystal Lee Sutton hadn’t held up that sign the day they fired her. As the stories on Truthout noted (“You Probably Knew Crystal Sutton” and Real “Norma Rae” Dies of Cancer After Insurer Delayed Treatment”), you probably wouldn’t recognize that name but she was the union organizer that Sally Field played in the movie “Norma Rae”. She was fired for trying to organize a strike and get a pay raise from $2.65 to $2.73 in 1973. But before she left, she stood up with a sign saying “union” and the workers went on strike. A simple act was all it took and the nature of workers’ rights in a mill in North Carolina changed.

Crystal Lee Sutton died last week of brain cancer and she was engaged in another struggle. This time, it was with over health care. The battle for workers’ rights is more than wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is for the right of the individual, any individual, to be treated fairly and equally. Her act of holding up a sign was a simple one but it changed a system.

Another individual walked to the Indian Ocean one day and picked up a few grains of salt from the beach where the water had evaporated. This was a violation of British laws that prohibited Indians from owning or processing raw salt. But this simple act by Gandhi, of picking up grains of salt on April 6, 1930, would ultimately bring down the British Empire and result in independence for India and Pakistan.

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

On February 1, 1960, four young black college students sat at the lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter. Normally, we would think that the simple act of sitting at a lunch counter or in a booth at a diner was nothing special. But then and there, the seats at the counter and in the booth were for “whites only”; blacks had to stand if they wanted to eat there.

The four young men were refused service and told they had to leave, they politely said “no” and remained seated. This simple act of defiance was the first successful sit-in; six months of peaceful, non-violent protests would ultimately lead to the counter and seats being open for all customers, regardless of their color. It would spread throughout the south and helped to end segregation in public facilities. This simple act of civil disobedience brought attention to the differences between people when we create laws and rules that control what we can do.

The sad part about this is that we haven’t learned yet that all humans are the equal. Many people today still treat people in accordance with the color of their skin, the nature of their religion, their sexuality or their economic status rather than the content of their character.

By the simple act of holding a child on His lap, Jesus would change the nature of society. In the Gospel reading for today, we are told that the disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest, who would hold the seat of power in the God’s Kingdom on earth after Jesus was crucified.

Jesus put a child among them and said that who ever would welcome a child would welcome Me. How many times in the Gospel have we read where an act of Jesus ran counter to the traditions and mores of society? And how many times did the powers-that-be and elites of society rebel at that thought and reject those actions?

It is not immediately clear what the disciples thought when Jesus did this. The whole purpose for Jesus putting the child among the disciples was to show the nature of what they were getting into; that society would not remain the same in God’s Kingdom. This little demonstration was prompted by Jesus because the disciples were arguing about who would take His place after His death.

Was Jesus’ act of holding the child spontaneous? Or was it a wise use of the moment? Did Jesus use this simple, singular act to illustrate a point that went beyond traditional or normal thinking?

As James points out in the second lesson, you cannot follow the rules of the world if you expect to be wise and understanding. Everything about the rules of this world is counter to the rules of God’s Kingdom. Why is it that the writer of Proverbs so vividly rejoices in the wisdom and virtue of a woman? And notice also how the woman in that reading is hardly the model that so many fundamentalists today say women should be.

Our use of wisdom is to keep the worldly ways and wonder why nothing seems to work. The ways of the kingdom are not often easily understood. To take on the world, to make that one simple act, you must be prepared and you must be prepared. If we are to face the world, if we are to change the world, then we must seek the wisdom that God offers us.

Gandhi told those who marched with him on the salt march that Britain wouldn’t cave in when they picked up the salt crystals; Rosa Parks knew that she would go to jail for her act of disobedience and the black people who rode the buses had to work together to get people to work without the busses during the boycott. David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil, the four young men who began the Woolworth sit-in knew that what they were doing and what those who would join in their protest would be meet with very stiff resistance. You cannot make that simple act without wisdom, the type of wisdom that James speaks of in the second reading, the type of wisdom the writer illustrates in the reading from the Old Testament.

We are challenged today to see beyond the limitations of this world, a world in which the rich, the powerful, the economic elite dominate. We are called to see beyond a world in which there is little hope, where justice does not flow like a river and only those with money are entitled to care. We are called to bring forth a message of hope and equality, of righteousness and justice; we are called to bring forth the message that offers health to the sick, compassion to the dying, and justice to the oppressed and downtrodden. Injustice in all forms need not be accepted just because that is the norm. Justice must be pursued and established authority be confronted. One person can make a difference. (Adapted in part from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244)

That is what Gandhi did; that is what Rosa Parks did; that is what David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil did, and that is what Crystal Lee Sutton did.

On March 11, 1930, a group of people began a march to the sea, solely to pick up some grains of salt. And though they were beaten and some were killed, in the end, the British Empire began to crumble and the world changed.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white woman and the Montgomery bus boycott began. In the end, the laws that segregated the busses of Montgomery, Alabama were changed.

On February 1, 1963 four young men sat at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat there patiently, waiting for service that never came. And when the store closed for the day, they went home only to return the next day. But this time, there were fifteen others and then 300 and then 1000. The world changed with one simple, purposeful act.

In May, 1973, a young mother held up a sign on which she had written “union.” She had been fired for even thinking that to unionize was a possibility. But in the end, her efforts brought about change.

Each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference. All it takes is one simple act; to open one’s heart and mind and accept Christ as your Savior. With that act, things begin to change. The world can no longer be seen in the same light as it was before.

Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair?


This is the message that I gave on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 28 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10; 9: 20; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.

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It sounds very simple but it is a puzzle with some interesting considerations.

A barber posts the following sign in his window, “I cut the hair of all those men in town, and only those men in town that do not cut their own hair.”

This is a paradox for if the barber cuts his own hair, then he belongs to that group of men who cut their own hair. But that is the one grouping of men whose hair the barber does not cut. If someone else cut’s the barber’s hair, then he does not cut his own hair and the sign says that he does. Either the sign is wrong or nobody, including the barber, can cut the barber’s hair.

This paradox, which we should not and will not spend a lot of time discussing, was developed by the mathematician Bertrand Russell and is related to set theory and logic. Much has been done with this problem, both in jest and serious study of what constitutes sets and groups. Paradoxes are those special problems that intrigue us by defying all logic and reason. There are many paradoxes in life but only because we try to apply logic in situations where logic is the one thing that cannot be applied.

It would seem that we are faced with a number of such paradoxes in today’s Gospel and Epistle readings. James says in the Epistle lesson for today, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” (James 5: 13) and the disciples are grumbling that others are saving people in the name of Jesus, which to them is a clear violation of the notion that only they, the chosen twelve, can do the work of Jesus.

But the problem is that when we limit ourselves or force our thinking from a limited viewpoint, we are never going to see the whole picture. The problem for the disciples, at least at this point in the Gospel story is that they have lost sight of the true kingdom and think only instead of their own power and territory. Like the early Israelites during the Exodus who reacted to the dangers of their journey with fear, the disciples have reacted with fear and jealousy to the notion that others can heal in Jesus’ name.

Remember that during the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were constantly complaining. At points along the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they complained about the lack of food and the lack of water. Each time God responded with the needed items. The transition from slavery to freedom was not the easy step they, the Israelites, felt it would be. They would have accepted the comforts of slavery rather than the nourishment of God; they would have traded their freedom for a few leeks and cucumbers.

Even Moses was getting upset with them. “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at one… and do not let me see my misery.”(Numbers 11: 15)  And when God responds to Moses’ pleas and empowers others to assume the responsibility of leadership, Joshua gets upset. Joshua is Moses’ chief assistant and the heir apparent to the leadership role of Israel; yet, he begs Moses to stop this sharing of power and responsibilities. Here is an opportunity for a community in which all are prepared and willing to share the burdens of the communities. But the one who should most want the additional help is the loudest to complain.

Jesus reacts to the disciples’ complaints by noting that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9: 40)  Obviously, our desires to limit the work of God to only our hands or our church or our faith are nothing new. But egoism and territorialism were rejected from the very beginning. God’s prophets will not always speak our language, pray our prayers, or look like us. And we can be sure that spectacular examples of blindness and ignorance will come from our ranks just as easily as they come from others. Only when we assume responsibility for our own faith community and discern together can we hope to see clearly and act rightly.

The prayer that James calls for in the passage that we read today is not a prayer of hopelessness, nor is it a paradox. For we have to look beyond the call of those who are suffering to pray. We need to see that it is a call for the community to act, to come to the aid of those in need.

That is the whole reason for the story of Ester that we read today. From one standpoint, the Book of Ester is in itself a paradox. There is no mention of God or His name Yahweh found in the entire book. Some say that this is because of the author’s chosen point of view.

The author of this book may have felt that the Jewish people who remained in Persia and did not return to Israel (remember this book comes after Nehemiah and the return of the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian captivity) were people cut off from the principal blessings of God. Thus, the absence of God’s name is a way of expressing God’s distance from them. At the same time, the book clearly reveals God’s surprising protection.

The second view is that it is written to explain to the Persian people what the Jewish celebration of Purim is about. It explains the emphasis on the Persian king but writes about the Jewish people in a detached manner. This also may explain why the book is in the only one in the Bible that does not directly mention God.

The Book of Esther is a story of a young orphan girl who rises from obscurity to become queen while hiding a deadly secret. It is a story with romantic love, power, intrigue, and a startling exposé at the end. It is the type of story that could be one of those less memorable made for TV movies. But through the twists and turns it is a story about God’s character. At a time when He seemed so distant, God was preparing to deliver His people.

The celebration of Purim reminds the people of Israel of God’s presence in the community of believer, even believers far away. I think that what we have to remember today is that our community is not a limited one but rather one with many members in many places. And because there are so many who are not here, we must make the effort to reach out to those not here, as a reminder that they are not forgotten.

I would hope that each and every member of the community that is called Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church will join in the birthday celebration when it is their turn. Perhaps we can also include anniversaries as well as birthdays. It is a way of saying thanks to God. And the monies collected will go to Habitat for Humanity, an organization devoted to building communities.

But I also think that we should take the opportunity to send birthday cards to those who are not here. This would serve as a reminder to them that they are not forgotten and they too are a part of the community of believers.

Too often, many churches say to those who are not here that they are not wanted. Sometimes it is a subtle statement; other times it is a bold and brazen one. It sometimes is stated by not sharing tasks, by stating that a particular task is the property of one person only. Sometimes it is said by having the person take on a task without any help from others.

Many churches today seem to be like the disciples, feeling that certain parts of the church and its work are theirs and theirs alone. We also send out messages that Christianity is limited to only a few people. It is limited but those who choose not to hear the word of the Gospel place the limits. Unfortunately, many Christians today feel that they are the ones who can define the limits.

There are many reasons why people are driven from the church. And in a time when membership is declining, it may be that we need to find ways to bring people back. There isn’t a marketing scheme developed that will do this. But if people want to hear the Gospel, there should be a place where they can hear and see the Gospel in action.

If a church is to have a vision of the future, it must see the future through the present. In the words of James, whom will they call if they are sick? For some the answer that James gives means the elderly of the church, those advanced in years. But the Greek term for elders also means those holding positions of authority in the community or in the local congregation and, since our particular congregation has adopted the council as a whole concept, that would mean everyone. The final verses of today’s reading are the final verses of James’ letter to the congregation; they are reminded that what the congregation does will be the final determination of whether or not someone is saved.

If the congregation does nothing to help one person who is lost, then that person is lost. But if the congregation works together to help bring that person back, then the soul is saved.

It is the question that perplexes mankind to this day. In a community where the barber cuts everyone’s hair, who cuts the barber’s hair? In a community where there are believers, who will watch out for the believers if they do not watch out for the lost, the sick, and the troubled?



Tarawa


This was supposed to be a piece questioning the motives of those who marched in Washington last weekend. At best, they have a selective memory; at worst, they are representative of days past when the police set the dogs on the children in Birmingham, state troopers beat the marchers on the Edmund Pettis bridge outside Selma and a church with four little girls was bombed during Sunday services.

Let me first say that I am in agreement with them about the nature of government but probably for a whole different set of reasons. There is a limit to the size of any organization, be it a government in general, a government agency, or even something like a church.

When you do not know the people who are the beneficiaries of the work that you do, your organization may be too big. But if one were to ask me “how big is too big?” I am not sure that I would have an easy answer.

The problem for those who marched last weekend is that, at least from my viewpoint, they see any government as too big. It is one thing to cry out against big government and its associated cost but where were these people when the deficit was being run up during the previous administration’s watch? And what will many of these people do if they achieve their goal of no federal medical insurance program and they turn 65 and there is no Medicare, a government-run program?

What are they going to do when the water that they drink and the air that they breathe is so polluted that drinking the water or breathing the air poisons the body? How are they going to travel if there are no air traffic controllers to make sure that planes don’t crash into each other while taking off, landing, or going from point A to point B? It would be nice to know that our money is safe and protected as well.

And what will they do when we must contract out our military obligations to firms like Xe (formerly known as Blackwater)? Who will pay the contractors?

The cry of so many of the people in that march was that government was too big but what parts are they going to cut? For sure, the cries of the Republicans over the years have been to cut social programs but the two biggest bureaucracies in the government are the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security. If there is waste in the Education Department, how much waste is in the Defense Department?

There has to be a government and it seems logical to me that it be a federal government. The whole rationale for the Constitution was that a confederation of states, independent in thought and mind, wouldn’t work. But if a government is to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, it must be responsive to the needs of the people.

In one sense, I agree with the protestors who marched last weekend. The government does not respond to the needs of the people. Whatever form the healthcare reform bill takes, it will be thousands of pages long and filled with paragraphs that will bedazzle and baffle even the most experienced legal scholar. And buried in the countless paragraphs will be money spent, not on healthcare reform, but on pet projects of representatives and senators, otherwise known as “pork” and all but designed to benefit political benefactors in their districts.

It is one thing to say that monies are needed in a district to fix the roads and repair the bridges. Lord knows, the road in front of my house could use some work and maybe, just maybe, with the money in the stimulus bill, it might get done. But no one on our street is a major campaign donor and there are some of us who have opposed some of the local politician’s pet projects, so I don’t think we will get the money any time soon.

And while these people are protesting any attempts to reform the healthcare process in this country, they are probably also calling for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. With the fighting in that country seemingly endless in nature and with the number of dead and wounded seeming to increase, it would only be logical to say that if I don’t care if someone lives or dies in this country because of illness, why should I care if they live or die in some far-off land. And we have already gone on the record that we really don’t care for our veterans when they come home.

It appears that there will be a report out this week (if it hasn’t already gone out) indicating that many of our military leaders wonder what our strategy, what our goal in Afghanistan is. It also appears that there will be some sort of report this week stating that we need to raise the number of troops in that part of the world. Those two points suggest Viet Nam all over again. But they also ask another question.

Where are they going to get the troops? We can forget the draft. If we were to reinstate the draft, it would have more and bigger loopholes than the ones presently in the tax code. So, we must recycle our troops, our strained and exhausted troops! It turns out that a tour in Iraq is different from a tour in Afghanistan, and you are not exempt from being sent to Afghanistan just because someone has done a tour or two or three in Iraq.

But what do we care? We are safe and sound at home as long as the fighting is somewhere else. I hope that those who are against any type of social programs in this country but want to send our troops overseas make sure that their sons and daughters are sent off to front-line duty. Let’s make sure though that they don’t get some sort of cushy jobs in Indiana or Alabama.

I truthfully pray that all our military personnel come home, safe and unharmed with no lingering effects from combat and scenes of death and destruction or watching their friends, buddies and comrades die.

But we, the people of this country, need to know that the policies of the last administration are still in place and no one will ever see the pictures of dead soldiers and marines killed in some far-off land. And there will be no one to welcome the bodies of those killed when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base at midnight. And no one responsible for sending those young men and women overseas will be there when the family has to bury their child and they receive the flag that draped the coffin and they receive the thanks from a grateful nation. It seems to me that such thanks are hollow thanks.

Why did I name this piece Tarawa? Because Tarawa was one of the first of many bloody engagements that would mark the war in the Pacific and the pictures of dead and dying Marines on the reefs of that island were so shocking that the War Department didn’t want them published. They didn’t want them published because to do so would be to show people what war was like. We tried to do the same thing with Viet Nam but when the bodies started coming home in increasing numbers it became impossible to deny the truth. But we have done so in Iraq and we have “sanitized” the war to make it safe. But war is not safe; war is not clean. War is too dangerous and too dirty for the truth of war to be hidden or kept from the people.

What I want is a government that can tell the truth to the people and the people will know that it is the truth; I don’t want my children or grandchildren fighting in a war in a far-off land for a cause that was invented and twisted and then long ago forgotten. I don’t want to worry that my wife or mother or I might have our healthcare cut off when we get sick because it will put a dent in some insurance companies profit margin.

I want a government that is of the people, for the people, and by the people. I want a government that cares for its people all of the time. What I want is a government that cares for its people, its healthy and its sick, its rich and its poor, its soldiers and its civilians.

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Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian