Punch Cards and the First Census


This is my message for the Christmas Eve service at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church in Putnam Valley, NY.  The scriptures for this message are Isaiah 9: 2 – 7, Titus 2: 11 – 14, and Luke 2: 1 – 10. 

It was a communion service but I choose not to include the communion as part of the service itself; instead I brought the elements from my home church (Fishkill UMC) and provided the table for thought and contemplation.  (I am sure that I put this together from references on-line but I don’t remember where I got them.)

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Christmas Eve, December 24, 2003

Communion

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.

Our communion tonight is not solely a communion service but also an opportunity to remember the presence of Christ in your life. We begin by taking a few moments for preparation and confession.

You may come to the table when you are ready but you are first asked to prepare and think about this time and this moment.

A Time of Preparation

This Christmas we celebrate with all those who chose to discern the meaning of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Scriptures, Jesus speaks of a Kingdom of God that is coming to pass.

This will be a Kingdom where men and women are honored for their inherent worth and dignity. It will be a Kingdom where the poor and rich alike know justice, equity, and compassion. It will be a Kingdom where people are encouraged to spiritual growth in a community of believers.

In this Kingdom, human conscience becomes the doorway to the spirit. In this Kingdom people choose to share their goods freely. In this Kingdom, peace abides among people of difference. In this Kingdom, the interdependent web of all existence is honored because it rests in the loving arms of God.

Jesus talks about this Kingdom of God that is in us and around us. He invites us to enter this Kingdom and be blessed.

Remember the words of Jesus which speak of the way of blessedness:

Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

During this time of celebration and joy, we also need to take time to remember those who cannot celebrate or for whom there is no joy. Again, we remember the words of Jesus:

I was hungry and you gave me food.

I was thirsty and you gave me drink.

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

I was naked and you clothed me.

I was ill and you came to me.

I was in prison and you visited me.

A Time for Confession

Can we acknowledge that in our lives there have been times when we have spoken or acted carelessly or intentionally to harm others? Have we hurt those we love and care about? Have we ignored the needs of our neighbors? Have we hurt our environment? How do we lead our lives? Can we live in a way that brings blessing to ourselves, our neighbors and our community?

Christmas is a time of change. We honor the birth of the Christ Child and we embrace hope and the power to heal. Let us take this time to reflect, confess, seek forgiveness and resolve to change.

A Time of Communion

The elements for communion were blessed by Rev. Peggy Ann Sauerhoff of Fishkill United Methodist Church. On this evening when we celebrate Christ’s birth, let also remember those who carry out his ministry.

You are invited to come to the altar rail at your calling. The communion table of the United Methodist Church is open to all those who seek Christ.

All that is asked is that you come truly and earnestly repenting of your sins, walk in love and charity with your neighbors and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking henceforth in His Holy Ways. Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort and make your humble confession to almighty God.

You may come to the table whenever you are ready, remembering that on that evening before his death, Jesus took the bread of the dinner, broke the bread and blessed it, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

And when the meal was done, Jesus took the wine and blessed it, saying, "This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

It is the remembrance of these mighty acts through your Son Jesus Christ that we know offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us and confirm the mystery of faith that though Christ has died, He also risen and He will come again, bringing peace to the world.

A Time of Prayer

We give thanks for this communion time – a time to reflect on the meaning of our lives and how we are with those we love and those we do not love. This is a time to reflect on how we could change if we need to, and how by our words and deeds we could usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth.

We are reminded of and thankful for the sacredness of common things, the grapes and the wheat, which have sprung from the earth. We are reminded of and thankful for the many invisible connections that give our lives meaning.

Let us give thanks for this evening of communion and preparation. We are called now to love and sacrifice. May we walk the path of righteousness and blessing.

AMEN

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Christmas Eve, December 24, 2003

The message

What do the following companies have in common?

3M

Alcoa

Arco

BP

Esso

IBM

Nabisco

Sohio

Texaco

To avoid the problem of having you think about this throughout the sermon, I will give you what I think the answer is. Each company’s name is an abbreviation or acronym of the original name of the company.

Company today

Company then

3M

Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing

Alcoa

Aluminum Company of America

Arco

Atlantic Richfield Company

BP

British Petroleum

Esso

Standard Oil

IBM

International Business Machines

Nabisco

National Biscuit Company

Sohio

Standard Oil of Ohio

Texaco

Texas Arabia Company

Each company started with another name but over time went to a more convenient or easier name. There are probably some very unique stories in each of these companies and much could be gained by looking at how they were developed.

For example, Charles Hall was a professor of Chemistry at Oberlin College when he developed the process for refining aluminum ore or bauxite into aluminum metal. He approached the owners of the Wellington Machine Company (located near Oberlin College) about investing in this new process. They were not interested; so Dr. Hall took his process to another group of investors in Pittsburgh. This second group ultimately formed the Aluminum Company of America or as we know it today, ALCOA. With the profits that he gained from this endeavor, Dr. Hall was able to leave $10 million dollars to the general education fund of Oberlin College.

Even though, as a chemist, I find the story of Charles Hall and his discovery interesting it is how IBM, or International Business Machines, was created that relates to the Gospel tonight. I do not think that any of us living in the Mid-Hudson valley can say that we are not affected by the actions or decisions of IBM. It is just that we may not recognize how that is.

As a doctoral candidate, it was necessary for me to declare a foreign language. Had I been working on my doctorate in the 1880′s or even in the 1960′s rather than the 1980′s, I would have had to study German, French or some other traditional written or spoken language. But because it was the 1980′s, I was able to use FORTRAN as my language. Now FORTRAN is an acronym for "formula translation" and it was a computer code developed to help scientists write computer programs. Interestingly enough, just as the study of Latin, Greek, and other ancient languages as a requirement for advance study has gone by the wayside, so too has the study of the early computer languages. Remember the "Millennium Bug", the threat that all of our computers would revert to January 1, 1900, when the clocks rolled over on December 31, 1999? Part of the problem then was all of the code written in the early days of computers was written in a language long forgotten by computer programmers today.

The results of computer programming today, the word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mail applications that we take almost for granted today didn’t exist then (and I am talking the late 60′s and early 70′s). Everything done in the way of computer programming then required a skill that is long forgotten, typing punch cards.

In the early days of computer programming, punch cards were the bane of programmers. You wrote out your program and then went over to a typewriter console and typed in your code, putting one line of code on a single punch card. You then ran the program to see if you typed everything correctly and then finally ran the program to get your experimental results. If there were errors, you had to retype the punch card for each line of code that you had to change. And you also had to check for those wonderful little pieces of punched material that might not be torn from the card after punching the code, the "hanging chad". Do you think that the problem of counting the votes in the 2000 election was a new phenomenon? All of us who ever typed in punch cards knew there would be problems with that method.

It is an interesting commentary that in the process of some thirty years we have gone from punching computer code in line by line on a series of cards to developing and producing thousands of lines of code on the screen of a desktop computer. We forget that the idea of punch cards has been around since the early 1800′s and was the basis for the founding of IBM.

Herman Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, which was to later become International Business Machines. At that time, the data gathered from the United States Census was too complicated to be easily tabulated. It was thought that the data for the 1890 census was going to take over ten years to analyze. Through the use of punch cards and the tabulating machines Hollerith invented, the time for the analysis was reduced to six weeks. The rest, they say, is history.

Punch cards have actually been around since the early 1800′s and were used in the automation of weaving. Workers, not surprisingly, rioted when this change was implemented since it caused a loss of their jobs. When Charles Babbage designed the first mechanical computer or "analytical engine", he included punch cards for input and output purposed.

We don’t remember this history because we are also too familiar with the warning not to bend, fold, or mutilate the punch cards. Punch cards are too impersonal, changing our identity as a person into a number. Like the weavers who rioted against the automation of the weaving process, we rebel (or at least we should rebel) against the notion of losing our identity.

And it was the same for the people in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth. The whole purpose of the trip to Bethlehem was because Augustus had commanded that all people return to the city of the ancestors for the census to take place. It was a census for the sole purpose of taxation. And taxation by the Romans was easily the most offensive thing that could be done to a Jew. The census and resulting taxation took away the identity of the Hebrew people. It was bad enough that the country was occupied by a foreign power; it was insult over injury that they had to pay for the occupation.

I think that it is very possible that we can identify with Mary and Joseph. Treated as if they were simple numbers in a census taker’s notebook, they get to Bethlehem only to find that there is no place to stay. It is not fair to say that they slept in the stable that night because they were poor; in fact, they were probably a typical middle class family of that time. As a carpenter, Joseph was not necessarily the blue-collar worker that we envision today. Rather, he was more of an artisan and more well off than many others.

No, the reason that there was no room in the end that night was based more on the fact that literally everyone and their cousin was in town and there were no rooms available. It wasn’t just Mary and Joseph that had come to Bethlehem; it was anyone in Israel whose ancestral home was Bethlehem and whose lineage traced through the House of David. Jesus was not born in solitude and loneliness but in the midst of a "family reunion".

And when we see that the birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds in the fields outside the towns, we can begin to see that this was just not another birth. If there was a lower class in Israel, it was those like the shepherds. Their very occupation put them at the bottom of the social ladder. If Mary and Joseph were lost in the madness of the crowds coming into Bethlehem that night, shepherds and other farm laborers were lost among the crowds of daily life. Not only were they just numbers on the census rolls, they were lost to society.

When we see the birth of Jesus in terms that we are familiar with, we can see that this was a special birth. To the Romans, this new family was just a set of numbers. But to those in that town that night and even now here in Tompkins Corners we can see the birth as Isaiah prophesized some 2500 years ago.

Christ’s birth brought light into the darkness. Christ’s birth was a statement that we as individuals in this world are more than just a set of numbers in somebody’s book of life. Christ’s birth should be seen as a personal statement from God, that we are not forgotten and not just a number amongst the countless peoples of this earth. We are reminded that Christ came to this world, as Paul wrote to Titus, "for us". And our response should be to show others the same love that Christ showed for us.

Christ came to this world at a time of darkness and oppression. He came at a time when many people were cast aside by society because of who they were or the work they did or some other trivial reason.

Christ brought light into this world so that the forces that caused the darkness would be driven back. Christ’s birth brings hope back into this world; Christ’s birth brings peace back into the world.

Christ’s birth is a reminder to us that God does truly care about us. In the book of Heaven, we are more than simply lines on the page or numbers to be counted. Christ’s birth is also a reminder that our lives are more than holes in a punch card or lines on a census taker’s notepad; to God, we are his children and He will do what is needed to save us.

Our challenge this evening, as we depart to be with our family and friends, is to remember God’s love for us and to show that love to the others we might encounter on this journey. Just as God does note count us as numbers, so too are we challenged to treat others as God treats us. So too are we challenged to walk in peace with the "light of the world."

Why All The Shouting?


If you have been following my postings, you may have noticed that I have been posting sermons/messages/thoughts from the years that I served the United Methodist Church in the Mason City, TN, area, the Neon, KY, area, Walker Valley, NY, and the Tompkins Corners UMC in Putnam Valley, NY. I haven’t figured it all out but when I get them my sermons (which cover the year from 1997 to 2005, the year I began blogging), I will work on some sort of catalog to link them all together. 

December 24th can be a challenge for the preacher and the lay speaker.  Because if it falls on a Sunday, as it did for me in 2000 and 2006, it is both the Fourth Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve.  But Christmas Eve is a night time event so the morning belongs to Advent and the preparation for the Birth of Christmas falls for later that day. 

In 2006, I was asked to cover the services at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY.  The message for that day was posted as the 4th Sunday in Advent for that day at “Words of Christmas” but because the church does not have a regularly assigned pastor, the challenge was also to present thoughts that related to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well.

The first time this ever occurred for me was on December 24, 2000.  That morning we had held our usual Sunday Services and had celebrated the 4th Sunday in Advent (I posted these thoughts last week at “It’s The Little Things”)  That evening we returned to church for a Christmas Eve service.  The following is my Christmas Eve message for that evening, 24 December 2000, at Walker Valley UMC (Walker Valley, NY).  The scriptures for this message are Isaiah 9: 2 – 7, Titus 2: 11 – 14, and Luke 2: 1 – 10. 

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The problem with the birth of Jesus is that it is in the wrong place. Kings are not born in mangers but palaces. Kings are welcomed into the world with the fanfare of trumpets, not the soft looing of cattle.

But Jesus was more than just a King. His presence in this world was to be more than a simple ruler of people. And if he was to meet the goals of God’s plan, if he was to hold all the titles that Isaiah gave him, then he couldn’t be born in a palace.

The society of Jesus’ time was sharply divided by religious, economic, and social lines. Everyone knew their place and what they could and could not do. If Jesus had been born in a castle or with great fanfare, he could never have reached those whom most needed to hear his message of salvation, promise and hope. And that is as true today as it was some 2000 years ago. For Christ to be a part of our lives today, he had to be a part of our lives back then.

It should not be surprising then that the first to hear of his birth where those considered by society outcasts or, at the least, marginal. By the nature of their occupation, shepherds were considered sinners and outcasts. For the birth of Jesus to be announced to them was an important note in telling the world that this kingship would be different from all others imagined.

It is also interesting to note that among those who knew that Jesus was born were the three wise men from the east. Acclaimed scholars in their own right, they had come to know that Jesus was born through their own studies. Scholars among the Jews seemed to have missed this important prophecy. And by telling others outside the boundaries of Israel and Judah, God said that all were welcome, not just a select few.

Everything about Jesus’ ministry was meant to show people that God loved them and that their social or economic status counted little in that regard. At a time when the society around them closed its doors, Jesus opened the doors to the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus ate a meal, he ate with those whom society considered outcasts. Those who opposed his ministry accused him of eating with tax collectors and sinners. In polite society, that just wasn’t done.

The communion that we celebrate this evening is a continuation of those meals of fellowship that Jesus ate. Just as his meal were open to all, so to is this communion. No one asks if you are a sinner or a saint, no one checks your membership card to see if you belong in this place. All that is asked is that you come with an open heart.

What Jesus did was change the view of the world. No longer was salvation and redemption outside the reach of people. No longer was darkness dominant in the lives for whom hope and promise were long gone.

Jesus showed that God’s grace was for all, no matter who they are or where they came from. For us this day, the birth of Jesus’ is a sign that God cares for us. That is what all the shouting is about.

The Final Days


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent, 20 December 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 5: 2 – 5, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 45.

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These are the final days of Advent. In a few days, it will be Christmas and then the shouting and the preparation will all be over and our attention will turned to the football bowl games, the parties and the New Year. And we will begin to wonder what happened to 2009 and what will happen in 2010.

But that is later in the week; right now we aren’t ready for the coming of Christ. And I wonder if we will ever be ready. The sectarian fundamentalists have already started their cry about the war against Christmas, which I think is sort of funny. For the sectarian fundamentalists, those who so desperately want to keep Christ in Christmas, only offer a vision of the world that favors the rich and the powerful.

And if anything, Christ’s birth was a vision for the forgotten and the weak, the poor and the helpless. How many times is Bethlehem mentioned in the Old Testament? That, of course, is one of the wonderful trick questions because of the Old Testament reading for today. The prophet Micah is the only prophet to speak of Bethlehem as the birthplace for Jesus.

Now, if we are to accept the view of the secular fundamentalists, Christmas is an attempt by the church to co-opt pagan winter solstice holidays. To some extent, they are correct; because the evidence provided in the Gospels suggests that Jesus was born in the spring. But it would be rather difficult to celebrate the birth of Christ in the spring when we are preparing for Easter. Can you imagine what it would be like if, because of the formulation for the observance and celebration of Easter, Christmas and Easter were on the same day? It is bad enough when the 4th Sunday in Advent is also Christmas Eve (as it was three years ago).

It doesn’t bother me that Christmas was placed on the calendar to coincide with various winter pagan ceremonies. Christmas is that single moment of hope in a world of darkness. And the one thing that the secular fundamentalists with all their cries about the mythology and falseness of religion cannot offer is a hope for the future. You can place your hope in the material goods but if you are poor or sick or homeless or oppressed, it is very difficult to do so. The world is against you from the very start and you don’t want to hear some pompous atheist telling you there is no god; because he or she cannot offer you the hope that was offered two thousand years ago.

The problem for many people is that Christmas is not a time of joy. The darkness of the season hides the darkness that lies within their soul. This is the time that many counselors and psychologists probably fear because it is the time that everyone’s fears and troubles come out. And all the talk about economic rebuilding and gift giving and love and happiness found in sales merely accentuates those fears and troubles.

I understand those fears for I have had to deal with too many of them. And I know that it was because of the hope and promise that Christmas brings that I have been able to get through these dark times.

And when someone says that this is all a myth, I wonder how it has come that we are still celebrating it today. If it didn’t happen, how did we get to this point?

Secular fundamentalists cannot offer hope to the people and seek to use the actions of the sectarian fundamentalists for their justification in saying that there is no god and that Christ is a myth. By the same token, as much as the sectarian fundamentalists want Christmas to be the center piece of the “prosperity gospel” and as much as they want the Bible to be the justification for capitalism (as well as slavery and the subjugation of women and others), they too have taken the hope and promise out of Christmas as well.

Both sides have sought to make the Bible what is not and what it was never meant to be. It is not a history book; it most certainly is not a science book. Yes, it is full of contradictions but, then again, so is mankind full of contradictions. The Bible is a story about who we are as a people; it is about our journey. It is a journey that is told through the eyes of history and so it is a story about people. It is a story about friendships and relationships (good and bad); it is a story about the balance in society and how, when the balance has been upset, God through Christ has sought to restore that balance.

We live in a time when peace is measured by victory in war. We occupy a foreign land and call it liberation. We worship Mars, the Roman God of war and call it peace. But such peace comes with destruction and desolation. Our young die in lands far from home and yet we call for celebration and rejoicing, not solace and comfort for the families.

And in a small town, mentioned only once, will the true Prince of Peace come, born neither to kings and royalty nor to the rich and powerful but to the lowly and the meek. And we shall deny this King, just as those two thousand years ago.

The writer of Hebrews points out that all that we have done in the name of Christ has been futile, just as the sacrifices made at the Temple two thousand years ago were often falsely done. We have transformed the babe in the manger into a corporate identity, useful for selling things and creating divisions in the land.

For some these are the final days; the days when the world will come to an end and they and they alone will be taken up into heaven on the wings of angels. But they, like so many others, will be surprised when it is they, the self-righteous and condemning people are left behind and they see the poor, the meek, the lowly, the forgotten, and the oppressed being welcomed by the Savior.

Yes, these are the final days. These are the days when the voice is heard crying out in the wilderness, telling us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Even the young Baptizer, still in the womb, could feel the presence of his cousin, the baby Jesus. There is time to repent and begin anew. There is time but time moves quickly when you aren’t prepared. We have had three weeks and are now in the fourth week.

In the darkest part of the year, a child will be born. And this child will bring promise and hope. The season of Advent was meant to prepare us for that moment. These are the final days; people get ready for Christ shall be born among you and for you and to lead you.