So Where Is He?


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on Easter Sunday,  11 April 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 19 – 26, and John 20: 1 – 18.

———————————————————————————

This day on the liturgical calendar should be bright and sunny. Even if it is cold, damp, and dreary, there should still be brightness in the area, a sense of joy and happiness. For that is what Easter represents.

But the news this morning probably contained stories about Americans being killed in Iraq and continued violence between Palestinians and Israelis in Israel. And the news at home isn’t any better. There may have been a fire in the suburbs and if no one was injured, at least one family was now without a place to stay. In some city, there may have been an attack on a homeless person or a homeless person may have attacked someone just walking by. And I am sure that at least one professional sport star did something that brings into question his or her motivation and desire. Throughout today, as we speak of the Easter resurrection, politicians will find a way to question the motives of some mid-level bureaucrat and tell us what evil and vile things their opponent will inflect on this country should they be elected.

Now I began thinking about these paragraphs on Tuesday afternoon so I had no way of knowing if it will be true. But I take the chance that the usual news that we start our day with, and it always seems to be bad news, will be the same type of news that starts our day this day. And there will be those, who against the background of Easter and our celebration, will be asking how there can be a God of peace when there is violence in this world? How can there be a God that loves us when there are homeless people living in the streets? How can there be a God that allows us to kill others randomly or deliberately? These people will say that there cannot be a God when there are preachers in this country who preach division and exclusion.

And there are those who say that if there is a God, He would not allow this violence to reign in this world. If there were a God, He would not allow people to go hungry or homeless; there would be no divisions.

But if there is no God, then there cannot be a Son whose resurrection is the central point of this day. If there is no God, then He could not have sent His Son to save us. If there is no God, then this day has no meaning and this church has no reason for being here.

And God is so omnipotent that He can destroy this world or make it right in one swift action of his mighty sword, so there is no reason to send His Son to save us. There is no reason for His Son to die on the cross, so that our deaths would not be in vain. And if there is no reason for His Son to die on the cross, then there is no reason for this church to be here.

But God does not rule this world in an omnipotent manner nor does He ignore this world. We were put on this earth to take care of it, to be its stewards. And, despite any misgivings God may have had in doing so, He gave us the concept of free will. He gave us the ability to choose, to make decisions. And with that ability to choose, He gave us the responsibility to accept the results of our actions.

If there are homeless or hungry people in this world, it is our responsibility to see that they are fed and clothed. If there is violence in this world, it is our responsibility to see that violence is stopped, not with more violence but by removing the causes of violence. If there is division in this world, it behooves us to remove the reasons for division.

Mary came to the tomb that Sunday morning and asked where was Jesus? There are those today who ask the same question. The question is asked because they cannot find Him in the world. But they are not looking.

The problem for many is that they see Jesus in terms of this world. This is a world in which it is possible for the masses to share in the creative life in this world. It is possible for all to eat enough to lead a truly human life, and to learn enough to free their life from imprisonment in the immediate moment so that they can become responsible members of the human race and free participants in history. These changes bring about changes in the old religions, in the old metaphysical systems, and to the old theologies. The changes take mankind away from God and then mankind wonders where God is.

In a world of change the one thing that remains constant is Jesus Christ. Christ is the one who is the same yesterday, today, and not forever (and not the church). Christ is the living one. In a world that changes and brings change the one constant is Christ. He is the same not because He is untouched by our time, but because He is always and unchangeably involved in the events of our time. It is Christ who emptied Himself of all claims to timelessness and freely delivered Himself up for us all – opening Himself to our needs – even though that openness led to His death on the cross. It is He who in His supreme openness to the needs of the world took upon Himself the form of a servant. He was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity in which the faith of the time was so largely imprisoned, in order to be free for the needs of the outcast, the hopeless, the helpless.

And it was He who warned those whom He called to share His mission to the world that they too must be free for the unexpected need by the roadside. And that true greatness is in the willingness to be the servant of all.

But these changes also show us the fulfillment of God’s promises to mankind. Do we not see in the new mobility of life the pressure of God breaking down the walls of race, nationality, and caste? Do we not see in the fearful resistance to these movements demons to be exorcised in the name of Christ? Do we not see in the costly struggle to overcome these demons of prejudice and fear, the need to witness to the costly love of the cross? Do we not see in the rising freedom of the multitudes, a movement towards the fulfillment of God’s promise and commandment to man that he will subdue the earth? Do we not see in the breaking of the age-long chains of oppression, a movement toward the promise that mankind shall grow up into one new man in Christ – into a unity in which all the dividing walls are at last broken down? Do we not see in the resistance – even the terror – that accompanies these changes, witnessing in the world and life to the true hope revealed in Christ and sharing in the costly struggle for the victory of these hopes? (Material in the preceding paragraphs adapted from Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams)

And it translates into what Peter was saying to the crowd that day described in Acts, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one." (From Acts 10: 42)  People are not likely to see God or find God if we do not show Him to them.

Even Jesus commanded us

Go and tell what you have seen and heard – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up; the poor have good news preached to them (From Luke 7:22)

Mary came to the tomb seeking Jesus. Just as she did we find the tomb empty. The Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara feels that the empty tomb itself is the key to both our understanding the resurrection and to living the resurrection in our lives. She writes that the empty tomb "returns us to the manger, the place of the child, the place of the rebirth of hope. The empty tomb returns us to ourselves, women and men capable of giving birth and rebirth to the divine, the essence of our own flesh.

Like his birth, Jesus’ resurrection is an event that is ultimately beyond the confines of our ability to understand or reason. As mystery, the only way we can hope to understand the resurrection is to live it. The empty tomb is thus not an ending to the story but a beginning, an invitation to each us. (From "Living the Word" by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, April 2004.)

We are asked to take the resurrection beyond being a historical event; we are asked to make the resurrection part of our lives. We do this by witnessing to Christ’s redeeming work through our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

We do this through fellowship with each other, in an open community as Peter said, "without impartiality."

We do this through celebration. We come to the table this morning celebrating God’s redeeming work in Christ that allows us to see the continuing presence of Christ in today’s world.

Mary did not find Christ in the empty tomb because He was not there. He was standing right there in front of her. There are people who wonder where Christ is in this world. They know that the tomb is empty and they wonder where he could be. The celebration of today is in the fact that Christ is alive today and we are able to not only answer the question of that morning but show it as well.

"He Lives"



That Morning


This was the message for the Easter Sunrise Service at Tompkins Corners UMC on 11 April 2004 – I used Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 4 and Mark 16: 1 – 8 as the Scriptures.

I don’t think that First Easter morning was any different from any other morning. At least for the disciples it wasn’t; of course, the only difference that morning was that Jesus was dead and the men in the group were hiding in fear of their lives. Peter surely must have been alone with his thoughts that morning, knowing that three days before he had denied Christ, not once but three times. And this denial was made even worse because Christ had said that he would do it.

So Peter must have really been alone that morning, fearful that he would be arrested and angry at least with himself that he had denied the man whom he had followed for three years.

The women who had followed Christ through His entire ministry knew what they had to do. It had been late on Friday when Christ had died and his body had not been properly prepared for burial. There was nothing they could do on Saturday so it was imperative that they get to the tomb. Then they would have to figure out some way to roll back the stone in front of the tomb and convince any guards or security personal there that they meant no harm and only wanted to do what needed to be. So it was a Sunday morning just like any other Sunday morning, except that Christ had died.

And that made all the difference; because, when the women got to the tomb, the tomb was empty. And all the rules, all the expectations for the world changed in that brief moment. Because the tomb was empty and Christ had risen from the dead. Over the next few days, Christ is going to appear to all the disciples, in settings that defy understanding or reason. In just a few days, He is going to remove all the doubt that anyone had concerning the resurrection.

So the day was not like any other day, nor has any day since that day been like those before it. Christ’s resurrection, Christ’s triumph over death tells us that there is more to life than the normal expectations. And the rules and expectations that governed life until that day no longer apply.

We start this morning knowing that Christ is alive, that the tomb is empty and that death no longer triumphs over life. We start this day knowing that the rules have changed and that things long sought impossible can be accomplished. Christ’s resurrection tells us that there is new life, that there is new hope in each day.

That morning started off like countless mornings before it but it did not end like the days before. A new life began that day some two thousand years ago and we are here this morning celebrating Christ’s resurrection because of what happened that morning.

Do You Understand?


I am at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area this Palm Sunday.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Luke 19: 28 – 40, Philippians 2: 5 – 11; and Luke 22: 14 – 23: 56.

This is a dramatization and presentation by Nathaniel Bartholomew.

————————————————————————————–

The video of this sermon is at “Technology Update” – 14 June 2010

———————————————————

It is Palm Sunday; the people are singing songs of praises and shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” As the singing and shouts die down, a man enters.

“Do you understand what you are saying? Do you understand why you are shouting ‘Hosanna’?”

“Do you understand what this all means?”

“Do you understand what is going to happen in the next few days?

“Are you prepared for what is to come?”

I am Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the twelve disciples. Speaking for my friends, I can say that we didn’t totally understand what was to come nor were we prepared at all for what happened this week two thousand years ago. You would have thought that after following Jesus for three years we would have understood, we would have been prepared; but we didn’t and we weren’t.

Maybe I should have understood. All my life I studied the Torah; sitting under a fig tree searching for meaning in the words that we were taught in temple school. It was there my friend Philip found me one day three years ago when he came to tell me how he and Andrew had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

You know, maybe I shouldn’t have answered that call. When Philip told me that the Messiah was from Nazareth, I could not help but say, “What good can come from Nazareth?”

You see, Nazareth was nothing; it didn’t even get a mention in the history books. If it were not for this week and what happened in Jerusalem, no one would have ever known about this little town in the Galilee. To grow up in the Galilee was one thing; the people in Jerusalem would go out of their way to avoid us. Only the Samaritans were treated worse. But if you grew up in the Galilee, you treated the people from Nazareth as the lowest of the low. And when Philip told me who he had found, I let my feelings show.

But I knew that God’s promise of a Messiah was true and that this Messiah could come from anywhere but we would have to look for Him. He would not come boldly with a mighty army but singularly and quietly. And when this Jesus of Nazareth told me how He had seen me, Nathaniel Bartholomew, studying under the fig tree; I knew that He was the true Messiah. And so I picked up my scrolls and I answered the call and joined the others He had called.

Such a group you could have never imagined. There was Simon, who would become Peter the Rock and his brother Andrew, John the beloved disciple and his brother James, my friend Philip who invited me to meet Jesus, Thomas who would go with me to Georgia, Matthew the former tax collector, James the Less (who hated it when you called him that), Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Here we were, four fisherman, a tax collector, a scholar (sort of), two farmers, and two revolutionaries, with nothing in common, nothing that could have brought us together except a call from Jesus to follow Him. It was a call and still is a call that transcends all divisions and establishes a new fellowship, even today.

But we didn’t understand what that call meant then; even today, there are many who don’t understand what this call means. We had no idea what He was going to do, where He was going, or what we would learn from all of this. In fact, it wouldn’t be until this week was over that we would even begin to understand.

But still we answered the call and left our homes, our work, our studies, our families and followed Him. We would walk from town to town, listening and watching and helping. We would be there for all of the miracles; we would watch in amazement and wonder as He healed all those people, gave sight to the blind, gave the lame the power to walk again, returned lepers to society free of disease and infection, and let the deaf here again. We twice helped feed the multitudes. We should have understood; we should have known what was coming.

We were even sent out on our own and did many of the same things, just as He had taught us. But we still didn’t understand.

We heard Him speak in cryptic tones of rising from the dead, just as Lazarus had come back, just as the little girl had come back. But we still didn’t understand.

It was not easy following Jesus. It was a hard life and each day we were reminded that we were an occupied country and subject to foreign laws. We would pass squads of Roman soldiers marching in formation, oblivious to the surroundings and to the cries of the people.

We were not in charge of our own lands or our own lives. And when we came home, we would hear the cries from our families, of how the authorities had raised the taxes and how another family had been sold into slavery because they couldn’t pay the taxes. We would watch as our own leaders, the ones who had taught that the Messiah would come and deliver His people from oppression and hunger and sickness would consort with the Roman authorities to keep their positions of power.

How many times would the authorities tell us we had sinned because Jesus had healed someone on the Sabbath or because we ate with the “wrong” people? The authorities tried to keep us from speaking out against their alliances with Rome that kept them in power. Even today, as the crowds cheered as Jesus entered the city, they were telling us to keep the people quiet.

We were the ones blamed for undermining family life and leading the people astray. We were called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The authorities constantly sought a reason to arrest us for breaking some religious or political law.

Once there were many of us but each day some would leave, complaining and grumbling, expecting great things but never, never expecting that they would have to work for God.

“Turn the other cheek,” they asked, “We’ve turned the other cheek so many times we are spinning in circles.”

“Walk another mile”, they screamed, “We’ve walked so many miles we are almost in Damascus.

“Give our enemies our cloak?” they screamed, “They’ve taken everything else, what’s left for us?”

Each day we would see fewer and fewer people coming to hear the message or following us to the next town. Each day we would hear from the people that “We don’t want sacrifice; we don’t want to be servants; we don’t want the kingdom tomorrow, we want it now. And I don’t see this Jesus doing anything to bring us this freedom that He keeps teaching about. I’ve had it with this movement; I’m going home.”

They would say that it was one thing to have to work for the Romans but to have to work for God was ridiculous; God was supposed to work for them and free them from all of this. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and I am not certain that many people understand today.

And our friends, neighbors, and families would ask us when would this Messiah of ours raise up his army and throw out the Romans and their political allies and set us all free? When, they cried, would this kingdom that Jesus preached about, this Kingdom of God, come to be? They spoke of a revolution and could not understand how Jesus could call for sacrifice or servanthood.

But somehow it made sense to be with Jesus. Even with all of the hardships, even with the rejections, there were those whose lives were changed because they came to Jesus. And each person who came to Christ and had their lives changed because of that single encounter would tell others. And somehow that single person made the effort worthwhile.

But even today, in 2010, there are people calling for a life in Christ where Christ leads a mighty army, imposing spiritual laws that are just another set of man’s laws, not God’s law. They want to throw off what they call the yoke of tyranny but all they really want to do is exchange the power and authority. Let others do the work but give us they power, they cry. There are still those today who don’t understand.

It wasn’t as if we were immune or blind to these cries and these thoughts. James and John came to Jesus and sought assurances that they would have the favored seats of authority in this new kingdom. Simon the Zealot so hated the Romans and so wanted them out of our country that he would have done almost anything to throw them out of our country; he and Judas Iscariot often talked about how they could inspire the people to rise up and throw off the yoke of tyranny that so burdened our country and our people. But Simon would always hold off as if there was something about what Jesus said that made armed revolution seem wrong. We would find out too late that Judas Iscariot never could accept the alternative to armed revolution.

And then there was last week. We had gathered at a friend’s house in Bethany to begin planning for our celebration of Passover in Jerusalem this week. This was going to be the best Passover ever.

Jesus told James the Less and Thaddeus to go and find a room where we might hold a Passover meal. It had to be a place where we might gather in one group. It would not be just us, the twelve with Jesus, but with our families, our wives and children, and our friends. It was going to be a celebration.

He told Thomas and me to go into Bethany and get a young donkey for him to ride into the city on. Now, that didn’t seem quite right. If Jesus was to enter Jerusalem triumphantly, shouldn’t it have been on a proud white stallion? But He wanted a donkey and that is what we got.

And we began to think about what it would be like to walk into Jerusalem to the cheers and shouts of the people, to have the roads covered with palm branches so that the dust would not swirl around our feet and legs. To proudly walk into Jerusalem, to hear cheers instead of jeers, to be welcomed instead of ignored, these were our thoughts. It almost seemed as if a great burden had been lifted from our souls.

And then this woman came into our midst and sought out Jesus. Time and time again, through out our travels, people would come up to us and beg us to heal them or heal their children or give them sight. Some would just try to touch his cloak in the hope that a brief touch would cure them or bring relief to their pain.

But this woman was different; she didn’t say much. She came and knelt at His feet and began crying and with her tears she washed His feet. And then she dried his feet with her hair and anointed his feet with an exotic oil. It was the most expensive oil in the land and was saved for the preparation of the dead; it was not to be wasted or frivolously used and yet this woman gave it so freely.

Judas Iscariot was furious. He came up to Jesus and complained how this was a selfish and wasteful act. The poor would have been better off if she had sold the oil; she could have gotten one year’s salary for what she poured on Jesus’ feet. But Jesus just shook his head and said to Judas that we would always have the poor with us but we would not have Him for much longer. And as we heard Jesus speak of His death as if it were tomorrow, we still didn’t understand what he was talking about.

Judas was the group’s treasurer and he had a right to think about the money but it always seemed like it was the present, never about tomorrow. We didn’t understand it then but that was when Judas decided that he would not be a part of our group much longer.

So James and Thaddeus went to reserve the room where we would eat the Passover meal and Thomas and I went to get the donkey. And we made plans to enter Jerusalem in triumph and celebration.

But instead of being a week of celebration and joy, of one where our burden got lighter; it was almost as if our burden got even heavier. Oh yes, the people cheered as we entered the city! But you could see on their faces a look of confusion. They were cheering for Jesus and they were calling Him the King but you could see that they didn’t understand. What king enters a town on a donkey with a bunch of itinerant Galileans as his entourage? When Pilate entered Jerusalem, it was on a beautiful white stallion and he was accompanied by a thousand Roman troops. Where was the army that would bring in this Kingdom that Jesus spoke of? How could He and his twelve students create this New Kingdom?

On Tuesday, we went to the temple and we watched in horror and disbelief as Jesus erupted in violence against the money-changers and those who had turned the temple into some sort of general store where goods were bought and sold. This quiet, so gentle man from Nazareth, exploded with anger as He watched business men and religious people take the money from the pilgrims and say that their coins were no good, that they must use the temple money.

We knew that the people were being robbed. Matthew had been a tax collector and he knew the tricks that they used; he taught what to look for so that the people wouldn’t get cheated but when you have so many people coming into Jerusalem, it wasn’t possible to help every one of them.

The people would bring a young lamb or a calf for sacrifice but the religious authorities would find some sort of blemish in the skin of the young calf or lamb that was brought for sacrifice. They would tell the pilgrims that only certain lambs and certain calves could be used and you could buy what you needed from the businessman over there. They would buy the one you brought, of course; but it was a deal that always favored the businessman. And we wept as we watched the businessmen cheat the poor; we wept as we watched the religious authorities stand by the side and do nothing but laugh.

And it seemed as if it was only the poor who had to pay. In all the time we were there, we never saw someone rich pay more than they should have; in fact, it always seemed that the more money or power that you had, the better your treatment by the businessman in the courtyard and the priests in the temple. And we wondered and we watched and we began to understand why Jesus cared for the poor and the weak and the old and the hungry. And we began to understand why the poor and the forgotten sought Him out; those who should have done so ignored them and sought to curry favor with God through material goods, wealth, position and power. We began to understand that the Kingdom of God was not about power and position on earth but a new life.

And then Thursday would come and we had our Passover meal. The Passover Meal is a celebratory meal and yet this did not seem like a celebration. What good did it do to celebrate our entrance into Jerusalem when Jesus spoke of His death, of his body offered in sacrifice for us, of his blood sealing the covenant?

And the authorities would arrest Him that night and try Him in a kangaroo court and find Him guilty and then torture Him. And the authorities, religious and political, would parade Jesus before the masses, the very masses that today cheered Him as He entered the city. But now they would call for His crucifixion.

As we hid from the authorities, we watched as they crucified Him and we wondered how soon it would be before they came after us. And we would hear the people say that He saved others but He could save Himself.

As Jesus died on the Cross that Friday, we would remember all that He taught us and the frustration that He had as we never could seem to get it right. We would remember the long, dusty roads that we walked but we also remembered those whose lives were changed because of a brief encounter with Jesus. We would remember the fellowship and joyfulness that surrounded us as we went from town to town.

And now it was all gone. We didn’t understand how it could turn out this week. How could a week that started with cheers and celebration end so sadly and so bleakly? How could a week that started off so triumphantly end in sorrow and shame? Had all we done for three years, all the hope that we had brought to the people, been left to die on a hill outside of town?

What were we going to do? I couldn’t go back to the temple school. What could I learn from the most learned men in all of Israel that I hadn’t already learned from my friend and teacher? How could Peter, Andrew, James, and John ever return to the boats that sat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee or Thaddeus and James L. return to their farms when they had been part of this great movement? Was this movement that we had been a part of for three years and was as much a part of us to end on a hill far away?

But then there would be Sunday Morning and the news of the Resurrection.

We, the twelve and our friends and families didn’t understand what that Palm Sunday some two thousand years ago was about. There are some today who still don’t understand.

There are those today who claim to speak in His name. We hear the words of so many but they are the words of the false prophet, clothed not in the robes of an itinerant preacher or his disciples but the finery of some temple priest. These false prophets use the Bible to affirm and sanctify the present order of things. But Jesus Christ challenged that view. He taught us that we had the power to change the world.

These false prophets say that the answer is to raise up an army and fight the enemy with guns and bombs. But armies cannot feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick or free the oppressed; armies only keep the hungry without food and the naked without clothes and let the sick die and the oppressed still suffer. These false prophets would call upon God to destroy the enemy and bestow riches on all those who listen to them.

God could have easily destroyed the Romans who occupied our land and God could easily destroy our enemies today. But that was never the message nor is it the message today. And that is why people didn’t understand then and perhaps still don’t understand today.

But know this; the moment that Jesus entered Jerusalem on that lowly little donkey, the world began to change. A world that wanted a king to rule over them on earth received a Servant, one who called them and each of us to be a servant as well. People who wanted everything were shown that you must truly give everything up if you wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And the people would see that this Jesus, whom they would crown King on earth was willing to give up His life so that we would be free from slavery and sin.

It is hard to see Christ as the servant when we so much want Him to be some powerful and mighty king leading a might army that will drive away evil and let us live in wonderful luxury. It is even harder to be called to follow the servant and be a servant when it seems so much easier to seek a life of glory and power and ignore the suffering of others. We don’t want to suffer; we want to enjoy life.

Throughout the ages, it has always been the case that those who have never want to give it up or share it with those who do not have. When you are in power, the last thing that you want to do is give up or share your power. And yet that is exactly what Jesus did when He entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

He accepted the cheers of the crowd knowing full well that many in the crowd would call for his crucifixion on Friday. He knew that a call to be a servant before one could be a king would not be acceptable to either the authorities or those who sought power and glory.

We didn’t understand it that Sunday and most certainly what transpired during the week only added to our confusion. But when the week was over, we would begin to understand. We had been taught to love one another and offer our lives for the sake of the world. We were being sent out into the world to offer a new vision that was a visible and concrete alternative to the world of the present. In the Gospel message was the message that those who have been alienated from society were now welcome.

The old ways of power, position and might would no longer work. A world that placed its faith in the power and might of its military and its technology and its economic power was unable to defeat a man who preached hope and equality, who offered the same opportunity to all who would seek Him out and follow Him.

The world was defeated by the One who unmasked the illusions, exposed their lies, and showed them for what they truly were and are. He defeated them by letting them do their worst to him; and then He vanquished them by the power of God’s love and truth, weapons that are stronger than all the weapons of the world.

So today, we celebrate the triumphant entrance of the One and True King into the city, even though we know that He will die and it makes no sense to us that He should die.

But in His death, we will be set free. And if we do not celebrate Palm Sunday today, if we do not acknowledge Jesus as both King and Servant, then there can be no Holy Week, there can be no Good Friday and there will never be an Easter Sunday and a Resurrection.

And if we have no Easter Sunday, there is no hope. Now, do you understand?

Finishing The Race


This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on 4 April 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Luke 19: 28 – 40, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Luke 22: 14 – 23: 56.

———————————————————————————

With the Olympics coming up later this year, we are going to see some interesting competition. For it is entirely possible for a competitor from a small nation to set a national record while not even coming close to actually winning the event. That is not to denigrate the competitor in any manner but it does show that the Olympics is the ultimate level of competition.

Now, it used to be, when running races were held in both English and metric distances such as the 100-yard and 100-meter dash that it was possible to set a record in the former but not the latter. 100 yards is just slightly less than 100 meters and it is possible to set the record for the 100-yard dash while not doing so in the 100-meter dash. I don’t know if that is still true today, since only records in the metric lengths are honored. But it is an interesting thought that one could celebrate setting a record for one’s country or in a separate length and yet not win the event in which they were entered.

In one way Palm Sunday is like that. We celebrate the end of the race even though the race is not finished. We like celebrations; we like the feeling that comes with celebration. And we tend to hide the defeats or the "bad news". If there is no victory, then there is no celebration. We celebrate the homecoming with songs like "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."

When Johnny comes marching home againclip_image002

When Johnny comes marching home again,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We’ll give him a hearty welcome then,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The men will cheer, the boys will shout,

The ladies they will all turn out,

And we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

Their choicest treasures then display,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

And let each one perform some part

To fill with joy the warrior’s heart,

And we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

But we forget that in order to gain the right to celebrate, sacrifices have to be made. The writer of the first of the celebratory songs took the tune from an Irish folk tune, "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye", a tune with a much darker side.

Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo

With your drums and guns and guns and drums,

The enemy nearly slew ye

Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer

Johnny I hardly knew ye

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your eyes that were so mild,

When my heart you so beguiled

Why did ye run from me and the child

Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo

Where are your legs that used to run,

When you went for to carry a gun

Indeed your dancing days are done

Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo

Ye haven’t an arm, he haven’t a leg,

Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg

Ye’ll have to put with a bowl out to beg

Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo

They’re rolling out the guns again,

But they never will take our sons again

No they never will take our sons again

Johnny I’m swearing to ye (From http://www.instantknowledgenews.com/johnny.htm)

And even in our churches today, we see the celebrations but not the work. We like being a member of a church; there is a polite type of correctness in being a member of a church. we, as a congregation, celebrate when someone, child or adult, was baptized into the faith.

Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.

We are all one in Christ Jesus.

With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ. (page 37 of the United Methodist Hymnal)

When then, as a congregation, say

We give thanks for all that God has already given you and we welcome you in Christian love.

As members together with you in the body of Christ and in this congregation of the United Methodist Church,

We renew our covenant faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service,

That in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (page 38 of the United Methodist Hymnal)

And in doing so, we enter into a covenant with that person. Whether we realize it or not, when we joined the United Methodist Church, we entered into a covenant with the other members of United Methodist Churches, you all together as Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, me with the other members of Fishkill United Methodist Church. It is a covenant that says we are together in this moment.

The Discipline says that "when persons united with a local United Methodist Church, they covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep the vows which are a part of the order of confirmation and reception into the church." The Discipline then lists vows made at baptism – renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, confessing Jesus Christ as Savior, and so on, in addition to promising to be loyal to the UMC, to strengthen it, and to participate in its ministries through prayer, presence, gifts, and service.

Elsewhere the Discipline defines our mutual responsibility as UMC members, and here it specifically says that we have a covenant, presumably with the other members of the church. "A member is bound in sacred covenant to shoulder the burdens, share the risks, and celebrate the joys of fellow members." (From the April issue of Connections by Barbara J. Wendland)

But all too often, we quickly forget those vows when the service is over. We like the celebrations, we like people joining the church; we like to see people baptized into the faith. It makes us feel good; it gives us a sign that things are good.

But we don’t follow up; we don’t continue the process. And I am not just blaming one side or the other; the blame goes to all. For those we seek to be baptized or have their children baptized have just as much an obligation to fulfill the covenant as do the members of the congregation who joined in affirming their faith on that day.

Church is more than just making others feel good. It is about reaching out, helping and caring for others. But too often, we focus on the feel good part and avoid doing anything else. Despite all the reminders and opportunities, we try to avoid what comes next.

The people cheering Christ that first Palm Sunday thought the work was over, the kingdom of God would now take effect and the rule of tyranny would disappear. They felt that the hard work was done and the celebrations could begin. But as the week moved on, they suddenly realized that the hard work was just beginning; they suddenly realized that the Kingdom of God was just beginning and the hard work would be theirs to fulfill. Christ did not come in completion of His work but rather to begin his work. And the people did not want to be involved. They no longer cheered for His victory but yelled for His crucifixion because they did not want to face the truth that God’s kingdom required much more from them. With the sudden realization that they would have to get involved; with the sudden realization that they would have to take part, their happiness quickly turned into fear. And their fear turned into hatred.

Should we fear being a Christian, especially in this day and age? Perhaps, simply because being a Christian today is complex. The public image of Christians today is not the one it was back in Jesus’ day. Even today, I have a hard time reconciling the public image of Christianity with those who would, in my opinion, have been against Christ back then. But we have to realize that Jesus back then knew full well what lie ahead; Jesus knew what he had to do so that His mission, His work would be completed. In Luke 22: 42, we hear Jesus pray "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done."

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us that Christ experienced much the same that we did. He was as we are on this earth, capable of celebrating as well as fearing. Jesus was afraid but not so that he would lose his faith in God. Thus, he could accept the full forces of evil and death, and find liberation and redemption for Himself and for us. In confronting, accepting, and then defeating death Jesus gives us the assurance that life will always triumph over all forms of death. (From "Living the Word", Sojourners, April 2004 for April 4th)

We read in Isaiah 50: 4 – 9 that the Lord gives us the skills of a teacher, so that we can sustain the weary with the right word. He opens our ears so that we can hear the words and we are assured that the Lord will help us. We are given assurance that there is no one who can contend with us, if we are willing to accept the Lord.

We celebrate today, not because the race is over or the kingdom is established, though so many thought so some two thousand years ago. We celebrate today because the task we face is just beginning. We know that this task, though it is difficult and rough, can be faced if we look to God for guidance and comfort, just as Jesus did in those darkest moments at the end of the week.

We need to see that today represents not the finish but the beginning, we need to know that the work that Jesus laid before is ours to finish.



[1]

[2]

[3]

[4]

[5]

Just Exactly What Did He Do?


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on Palm Sunday, 4 April 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Luke 23: 1 – 49.

———————————————————————————————

The "fall guy" in the Palm Sunday story, to me anyway, has always seemed to be Pontius Pilate. We blame him for putting Jesus to death but it was he who basically asked what it was that Jesus did that caused Him to be arrested and brought to trial. As we read the story of the trial, we note that the Pharisees and scribes had great difficulty convincing Pilate that Jesus was guilty. For as Pilate himself said, "I can find nothing wrong with this man and I shall set him free." Sometimes I think that Pilate should have set Jesus free but that would not have been part of God’s plan and the Pharisees and scribes would have found someone else to put Jesus to death.

The question this day, as we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the establishment of His heavenly kingdom, must be the question that was in Pilate’s mind and the minds of other that day as to what did Jesus do that cause him to be put to death on the cross — Just what did Jesus do that caused Him to die?

In the earlier portion of his letter to the Philippians, Paul encouraged those young Christians to behave in a manner appropriate to the Gospel they claimed to believe. In the passage from Philippians that was the second reading this morning Paul provides the understanding about what it means to live the Christian live.

Paul points out that first Christ demonstrated an attitude of humility. He didn’t dwell on his own status or position; he didn’t try to grasp at everything that was due Him. Because Jesus was not concerned about exalting himself, about not claiming all the glory and honor that was truly His, God "highly exalted him." This, in itself, is interesting. We live in a society where the thing is get one’s share of glory and honor and where it is perfectly acceptable to let others take the blame when things go wrong. Yet Jesus showed us a different way to live.

Second, even though He was God on earth, Jesus willingly took "the form of a slave." Why would someone who would be king of all do so. By definition, a servant focuses on helping others, not ones self. Jesus, in being a servant, focused on the needs of others. He showed a concern for the hurts of others; he listened to them, showed compassion for them, loved them. In doing so, he gained the esteem from God that He cared little about.

It was not because she gained anything that Mother Theresa worked for the poor in India; it was not for any gain that Albert Schweitzer brought medical care into Africa. It was because God needed someone need willing to serve Him and bring his presence into the world.

Third, Jesus sacrificed everything for the most important thing He loved. We, more than anything, need to recognize that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was for us. He was willing to submit to the will of God and die on the cross so that we could live. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to do the same? Are we willing to be obedient to the will of God, doing what is asked of us? Are we willing to yield our financial resources, our time, our carefully planned career paths so that others might have the same access to the heavenly kingdom granted to us by Jesus’ death?

These are tough questions and we know that even Jesus struggled with those questions. That Thursday night in the Garden, Jesus asked himself if the struggle was worth the effort.

But Isaiah, in the Old Testament reading for today, pointed out that we can stand firm and do that which is asked of us because the Lord God is willing to help us. When we face troubles, when the crisis in our lives is so great that it seems nothing we do will overcome it, we know we can turn to God, just as Jesus did. In our most difficult situations we can always know that God, "the One who vindicates me," is near.

In face of the mocking and beatings that Jesus took that night of his trial, he stood firm. For us, even though it is most difficult to remain steadfast and firm, we can stand firm because we know that Jesus was able to do so. Not because of anything that we do but because of God’s presence in our lives, a presence given to us by Christ.

Finally, as we come to the table this morning, we know that we have been given a kingdom. The first Communion was that Thursday night and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom granted to Him by the Heavenly Father was given to us. By celebrating that Last Supper with the disciples, Jesus showed us what heaven would be like. Heaven is, Jesus was saying, expressed in the idea of friends coming together as a community gathering together.

Communion means something different and unique to each of us. We cannot celebrate communion by ourselves; we need to be a part of a community. As we celebrate as a community, we also celebrate individually because Christ died for us.

For me, this Lenten season has been about renewing one’s covenant with God and one’s relationship with Christ. For me, it is a time to renew that relationship with Christ, of knowing that thought I may been a sinner, I am still welcome at God’s table. Others may see communion as a healing. Communion is one sign that Christ died for each one us.

Pilate asked what it was that Jesus did that? Some day someone may ask you what it was that Jesus did. The challenge this morning is to be able to show others through your words and actions what it is that Christ died and why it is so important to sing Hosanna to the highest on this Sunday.

A New Way of Thinking


These are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4 – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.

———————————————————————————————

First, let me reiterate something that I have said before. I am an evangelical; I was baptized an evangelical, I was confirmed as an evangelical, and I believe as an evangelical. But my belief in evangelism is different from what the common perception of evangelism is. I believe in the Gospel and while I believe that the Gospel message is one best taken individually I do not believe that the Gospel can be forced upon you.

Though I may be an evangelical, I cannot tell you how to think; I cannot tell you how to live; I cannot condemn or judge you because of your actions. What I can do is work to make this a better world by putting the words of the Gospel message into action.

The Gospel message is about bringing food to the hungry, medical care to the sick and dying, and hope and freedom to the oppressed. Now, if that is social justice, so be it. If I make this world a world in which the Gospel message is validated and effective, not merely words spoken on a Sunday morning and forgotten that afternoon, then I will have achieved the goal of an evangelical.

The Gospel message is more than just making disciples out of everyone that you encounter. It is about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to find God in whatever manner they so desire. Being an evangelical does not mean that I can change the words of the Bible or the history of this country so that people are given a worldview of exclusion, hatred, and ignorance. Jesus did not work that way; he operated in the openness of the countryside; He chided those who arrested Him in dark because they would not come after Him in the open and in the daylight.

Yet there are those who proclaim themselves to be evangelical in nature yet preach a gospel of hatred and exclusion, of moral certainty for others while they are free to be immoral. The preach a gospel of control over other’s thoughts and words and actions. And in the end, when the world around them has fallen down and they are left with nothing but their broken pride, they will hope and pray that God will not forget them as they struggle in their own personal Sheol. And they will have no understanding that God’s Grace is given to them as freely as it is to all who seek God, if they will but just acknowledge their sins. But their pride, their arrogance, their self-righteousness will keep them from doing so. And in the end, they will be the ones who receive the punishment that they have promised for others.

The problem is that too many people have a view of Christianity, evangelism, and God that is dominated by the views of these modern day Pharisees. We, as a society, have so transformed Christianity into our own religion that it bears little resemblance to the movement that spread from the Galilee two thousand years ago.

The other day I chanced to hear a discussion by an author about the nature of Buddhism in this country and why he became a Buddhist. I didn’t get to hear the whole conversation but, in essence, he became a Buddhist because he studied the topic and what he studied resonated in his soul. The author pointed out that, for most people in this country today, their knowledge of Buddhism is a conglomeration of facts and thoughts and that they actually know very little about the subject.

The same, I believe, can be said about Christianity today. The perception and view of Christianity today, even among Christians, is very much different from what it really is. And that is the problem for society today. When you do not understand the topic and you willingly let someone else tell you what to believe about that topic, you run the risk of getting a distorted view of the topic.

And I am fully aware that I run the risk of doing exactly that with what I write. But I encourage you and challenge you to study for yourself what I have studied; I encourage you and challenge you to find in your heart and mind the answers to the questions that touch your soul. Do not expect me to answer the questions for you because I, through study and reading, am having enough trouble finding know the answers to my questions. The whole essence of Christianity is found individually; I can show you the way but I can’t make you follow. If faith were found in a strict adherence to the law, then I could command you to find God. But faith is found in the heart and only you have the power to open up your heart.

Paul writes to the Philippians about his past and his present. He writes about growing up in the right family and being taught the law and understanding the law and living the law and enforcing the law. And he points out that everything he did as Saul was legal and acceptable.

But, you see, as Paul points out, when you come to Christ and you accept Christ, your view changes. Righteousness does not come from an adherence to the law; righteousness comes from what is in your heart.

When we read the passage from the Gospel today, we get an insight into not only the thoughts of Judas but John as well. We will come to know later that John is the Beloved Disciple, the one challenged to write down all he saw and all that was done by Christ. So we know that his anger or displeasure with Judas comes after the fact. In fact, John probably thought that Judas was correct in saying that the woman in the story (and this is, contrary to popular belief, not Mary Magdalene) should have sold the oil and given the money to poor. We know that John was as interested in the power that would come in Jesus’ new kingdom; it almost destroyed him as a disciple before he had the chance.

We know from later study that the poor were one of the most oppressed classes of society and that they remain so today. Anything that could be done to help them needed to be done and that is the same today as well. Jesus constantly told His disciples not to take from the people because that would only increase the burden on them.

Judas would, of course, use this instance as the rationale for betraying Jesus because Jesus was not going to enact the kingdom on earth that he, Judas, wanted to see. But Jesus looks beyond the moment and knows that there is a deeper symbolism in this woman’s actions; they are the actions of a woman preparing a loved one for burial.

To see the actions in that light, I believe, requires a new way of thinking. It is the thinking that Isaiah is proclaiming in the Old Testament reading for today. The whole purpose of Lent is not simply a symbolic sacrifice of something for forty days, knowing full well that you are going to take it back the moment that Lent is over. Lent is a time of transformation, of giving up the old ways and beginning a new life.

Repentance is more than just saying that you aren’t going to not do something; it is a statement that your life is going to change

If you hold on to the old ways, if you think in the same ways, then Lent is meaningless. If you are not willing to cast aside the old and see the world in a different light, then your journey through Lent is meaningless, without form or void.

So in these last days of Lent, as the time before Palm Sunday runs down and the opportunity is lost, recall the reason for Lent and take the opportunity to begin a new way of thinking.

The Nature of Academic Freedom


When I began thinking about this piece several days ago, it was with a single item in mind. But then something happened at a college in South Carolina that spoke to the same topic on a little larger scale. And all of this is occurring against the backdrop of reforming education.

What is academic freedom?

I suppose that one could define academic freedom as the freedom of speech applied to an academic environment. But is such a freedom for all on a campus, student, faculty and administration alike? Or is it limited? And if it is limited, who is to decide the limits?

When I was an undergraduate many, many years ago, my college operated on the unstated principle of “in loco parentis” or “in the place of the parent.” Such a principle or doctrine allowed the college to act in what they felt were the best interests of the student. And it was explained to any student who would question that principle as a parent would explain a “ruling” to a child being disciplined, “because we said it would be that way and you have to accept that decision.” And if you do not agree to our decision, then you must accept the punishment for your misbehavior.

A Single Student

Back in October, I reported in my piece “How Ironic” about a student, Jess Zimmerman, at Butler University. As I noted then, Jess was a student at Butler who began an anonymous blog that was critical of the administration of Butler University in their removal of his step-mother as Chair of the School of Music. In an attempt to intimidate Jess, the school also did not renew his father’s contract as the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science.

Then, the university sought legal action against Jess. Initially, the university sued “John Doe” because they claimed to not know who the blogger was, even after Jess acknowledged that he was in fact “John Doe.” If you are like me, this was clearly an attempt to stifle the free speech of an individual and the courts rejected the University’s claims.

But the University was not content to accept this loss; they then proceeded to initiate university disciplinary action against Jess. And when he sought an injunction against these actions, the university demanded a $100,000 bond. The issue has been resolved though some aspects of the settlement are to be kept secret. If you are interested in the details of this wonderful story of academic intrigue and the violation of civil rights, Jess’ blog is www.akadoe.blogspot.com and I encourage you to see what is happening.

If you believe as I do that education is a liberating force, you would also agree that this episode is about oppression. Now, one might argue that students do not have the right to express their own opinion and that they should just sit quietly in their seats and learn what their elders are teaching them.

However, this argument doesn’t hold water. What’s the purpose of higher education if students aren’t allowed to question things?

Perhaps that is the case but this wasn’t about something in the classroom; this was something that happened in the world outside the classroom that Jess was in. And he had every right, in my opinion, to express his thoughts on the matter. And the actions of Butler University clearly represent the actions of people who do not want their actions to be exposed to the light of scrutiny. I do not know if their decision to not renew Jess’ mother’s contract was right or not but their subsequent actions in attempting to intimidate him speak of an academic dictatorship rather than academic freedom.

The actions of Butler University are not a singular episode in the life of this country but reflective of the past few years where actions by the leadership of this country have been done in secrecy and with deceit. If we do not speak out against these actions when they occur in our lives, then each moment of silence takes away the freedom that this country was built upon.

I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and I am reminded that the church in Germany in the early 30s was remarkably silent about what Adolph Hitler was trying to do. And when it came time to speak up, there were very few people left to speak.

It is happening again and we must speak out. And we must continue to seek an educational system and process that liberates rather than oppresses.

Due West, South Carolina

I have no idea how this little town in South Carolina got its name but I passed through it back in 1988 when I was headed to Jacksonville, Florida, for the USBC Open tournament. I went there because my mother knew the president of Erskine College from their days in high school.

And the news out of Due West these days is not good (see http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/01/erskine and http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/08/erskine). It turns out that Erskine College is part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The church describes itself as conservative and evangelical and well to the right of other Presbyterian churches when it comes to political and societal issues.

But there are only 250 or so churches in this group so it is not logical for the church to demand or require that the students and faculty at its only college be members of its churches. It does require that students and faculty be Christian and it does welcome students from all faiths.

But leaders in the church have become concerned that the college has strayed from the faith. And part of the reason that they feel this way is the very nature of education. If education is a liberating force, it is because it teaches critical thinking and it teaches certain subjects that are often diametrically in opposition to teachings of the faith. And, yes, I mean evolution.

But the problem is more than just the teaching of a course or, for that matter, not teaching the course. It is that not teaching the course or not teaching critical thinking skills limits what education can do; it limits the ability of the student to go beyond the boundaries of the classroom and explore the world. And just like the administrators at Butler University were afraid of what one student might possibly do by asking questions, so too are so many churches and faiths today afraid of what happens when the children of the faith begin to question the very tenets of the faith.

When we look at the traditional denominations, we see a significant decrease in membership, a decrease caused by the youth leaving the faith rather than the elders dying. The youth see the church as a dinosaur, failing to adapt to the world around them, failing to answer the questions that society is asking about hope and desire and what the future will provide.

The churches and the faiths that are holding their own or are increasing in membership are those who offer clear cut explanations for all the troubles of the world. But they are explanations that are not easily questioned and the elders of these growing churches do not want questions asked. But the time will come when questions are going to be asked and, unless there are answers for these questions, the youth will leave again, seeking their answers somewhere else.

God created us in His image and He gave us a mind to use; to not use it would be a denial of our creation. There are some who will tell us that the earth is only 6,000 years old because the Bible tells us so. To derive this age of the earth from information in the Bible is false logic and contradicts everything we know from the physical evidence of the rocks and the stars. But, to know who we are requires we ask the question why are there such differences and what are we to do?

When a denomination or a faith creates a college, it does so with specific intentions. If it wants to limit what the faculty can teach, it has that right. But it has to accept the consequences that develop when students begin questioning those limitations; it has to accept the consequences when it can no longer find individuals to teach in what the faith considers “acceptable” ways.

There are individuals like myself who grew up in the South. We were taught certain things about life in the South, what could be done and what was never done. And it was taught with an understanding that the Bible said that was the way it was, end of story.

But as we grew up and we saw the dichotomy in life, of one person oppressing another because of the race or gender or background, we came to understand that the Bible didn’t have it right. And the only way that we learned this was because we had been given the ability to think by and from God and that ability had been honed by education. For any church or faith to deny an individual the right to decide individually what the Bible means and what the message is as much a sin as any of the sins that are listed in the Bible.

In the case of Erskine College, the rules were already in place to allow such freedom. The denomination has decided to change the rules; that is their right. But they have to understand that their decision goes against the very nature of education and the meaning of creation. They will have to live with that for a lot longer than anyone else.

So What Do We Teach?

The whole nature of academic freedom focuses on the idea that an instructor can present information that might be in opposition to current societal thoughts. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to present new ideas. Within the framework of physical science, we can see through the lens of history the opposition that occurred when the Copernican theory of the solar system was introduced.

Now, if you feel that this is justification for the inclusion of “intelligent design” in the biology classroom, think again. The Copernican theory was based on the existing evidence and resolved certain contradictions in the explanations. “Intelligent design” does not offer a new explanation but only tries to assert a theological explanation for the physical evidence.

That doesn’t mean that discussion is automatically limited to what the instructor decides is appropriate. As I pointed out in “The Challenge of Education” instructors too often dismiss their students’ ideas as irrelevant or meaningless to the discussion. And sometimes they are, simply because the students haven’t learned how to present a rational argument. But any time instructors present their ideas with an all-or-nothing approach, as the only option or only choice, we risk alienating the students and those who seek to find answers to critical and crucial questions in their own lives. And that goes against the very notion of what education is meant to be.

And students have the right to present their arguments, as long as what they present is within the context of the information being presented and taught. If either the student or the instructor is seeking a confrontation of beliefs, then take it outside the classroom.

My role as the instructor in the classroom is two-fold, to present the information that you perhaps do not know and to do so in a way that will enable you to use it later in life. Your role as the student in the classroom is to be involved in the process, to make the information part of your life and your thinking. Each of us has to accept the idea that this process will change both of us, in ways that we may not know. If we seek a process in which there is no change, then we have learned little. But the nature of academic freedom means that we will grow and we will change and we will find things that we didn’t know.

————————————————————————————–

Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

The Value We Give


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 28 March 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4b – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.

————————————————————————————–

I have probably mentioned this before but I enjoy watching "Antiques Roadshow". It is not nearly as interesting as one when it first came on the air but that is because most of the "hidden" treasures have been discovered. Still, there are the occasional finds that amaze the owner who never really understood the value of what they owned.

But even with the undiscovered treasures that have been shown and undoubtedly still to be found, I find it amazing that people bring things in that are not as valuable as they think they are. In one particularly memorable spot, this couple brought in an undiscovered Van Gogh painting. This couple was absolutely convinced that they had an uncatalogued, undiscovered masterpiece. But the appraiser pointed out that it was not in Van Gogh’s style, it was not in any sequence of colors he would have used, it was nothing he would have painted, and the signature on the painting was not even his. Still, this couple left convinced that the appraiser was a fool and they were in possession of a priceless masterpiece.

At times we are like this couple, attaching a value far exceeding its true worth to something we own, in hopes that in doing so we will solve many of our problems. We think that if we find the right object or some how win the right contest, all of our problems will be solved or go away and we can have a new life. However, as Archbishop Oscar Romero once said,

"The absolute desire of ‘having more’ encourages the selfishness that destroys communal bonds among the children of God. It does so because the idolatry of riches prevents the majority from sharing the goods that the Creator has made for all, and in the all-possessing minority it produces an exaggerated pleasure in these goods." ("The Church’s Mission Amid the National Crisis", August 6, 1979 – Quote of the Week – Sojourners – 24 March 2004)

Reverend Romero was the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador and a leading reformer in the country. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he celebrated mass in San Salvador. If memory serves me well, the assassins were part of the government and they were not too happy about his role in bringing equality to the people of his country.

We are a people who give value to things that is way out of proportion to what it brings us. And we reduce in value those things that we should value most highly. Judas saw what Mary was doing as a waste of money, feeling that the perfume could have been sold and the profit used for the poor. There would have been nothing wrong with doing that.

In 1964 Pope Paul VI gave Mother Teresa a brand new Cadillac. She had it raffled off and made $100,000 which was used to fund her group’s mission work in Venezuela. In 1979, she asked the Nobel Peace Prize committee to use the money that would have provided for the customary victor’s banquet to use the money instead for the poor and homeless of Oslo, enduring an inordinately harsh winter that year. (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, page 38.)

But there are also examples of the opposite. Dorothy Day, who can truly be categorized as one of the great servants of the Lord, once was given a diamond ring as a donation. Instead of selling the ring, she gave the ring to an elderly woman who took her meals at the shelter Ms. Day was operating. As important as it was for the elderly woman to have money to pay her rent, it was also important that she have her dignity as well. If the woman had wanted to sell the diamond ring, then it was her prerogative to do so. But it was also her choice to wear the ring. "Were diamonds just for the rich to wear?" Dorothy would ask her co-workers.

The value that we place on something must reflect what it is truly worth. Jesus scolded Judas because he knew what lie ahead; Judas saw only the moment.

In one sense that is what Paul is saying today as well. He has everything required for success in the society of his times. He was born into the proper tribe; he had the proper training; and he met the criteria of righteousness as defined by law. Yet, as he says to the Philippians, everything that he has is worth nothing unless he has Christ. And to have Christ in his life, Paul says, that he was forced to give up everything he had gained.

That is the challenge we face. How can we gain all if we must lose all? There is an impression among some that John Wesley, in his earlier days, emphasized giving away everything one had to the poor. The result of this has a negative impact on stewardship in the church, simply because people do not want to give all that they can.

But that was only part of what Wesley said, thought, and did. True, once he discovered what he could live on without too much hardship, everything over that was given away. But his precepts of Christian stewardship were to first earn all that you could, then save all that you could, and then finally give all you could.

And I think that is what we must think about. For in earning all that we can we must also be aware that the manner in which we do so must not harm others or ourselves. We should use our talents and our abilities in the most efficient manner, being careful not to engage in any activities that would be contrary to the laws of God or country. We should not make our living in such a way that it hurts our neighbors or endangers their lives.

Wesley wrote that idea at a time when there was a gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. He sought a new way of thinking, a new way of acting. Today, we might call his concept "socially-responsible." But he understood that earning money could not be done in such a way that you gave up your soul. He understood that you could not treat your neighbor in such a way that your gain was their loss. The same is true today.

As long as we see things as they were or as we wish they would be, we will never truly move forward. We are here today at the end of forty days of preparation. In one week Jesus will enter Jerusalem amid the cheering and shouts of the crowds. At the end of next week, Jesus will be hanging from cross, in pain that we can only imagine, suffering so that we will not have to, dying so that we may live.

In Isaiah, the Lord speaks and says that he is about to do something new. We are asked to look for and see the new thing. Paul speaks of the changes that he underwent upon encountering Christ. At the beginning of Lent, I put forth the proposition that Lent was a time to give up the old ways and begin anew, refreshed in Christ. I contrasted this with the common view that one should give up something one liked for the forty days in penance and denial. But penance does nothing if the old ways return.

Paul saw that what he gained from Christ was far beyond the riches and the value he had when he was Saul, the spoiled young lawyer. But in seeing the new riches, he knew he could not accept the present; he had to move forward.

So it is for us. We are almost at the end of Lent; we are almost at the end of preparation. Have we changed? How do we see ourselves now versus forty days ago? Do we place more value on what Christ means or do we place more value on the things we have? It is the value we give to Christ and the value we give to things in general that will tell us what Lent this year has meant.



Can You Pay The Price?


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 1 April 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4b – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.

————————————————————————————–

I find it interesting that the both the Old Testament and Epistle readings for today are scheduled for the final weekend of the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament. Of course, since the readings were established a long time before the tournament was scheduled, it would be more appropriate to say that the tournament finals were held the same weekend as these two readings.

When I read Paul’s words to the Philippians and the commentary concerning Isaiah’s words, the immediate thought was that Paul was bragging about himself and Isaiah was bragging about the power and abilities of God. And if it seems like Paul is bragging, perhaps it is because he is.

But, as is often said, it isn’t bragging if you can do it. As long as you are able to back up your words with your actions, no one is going to complain. The problem in society today is that, more often than not, we speak loudly and hope that our bragging covers our faults.

Paul was prompted into this uncharacteristic outburst because others had come to Philippi claiming to be superior to Paul and offering a different version of salvation, one based on good works and not faith. We get a good insight into the character of Paul with this passage.

He was not the type easily intimidated by other’s claims. He was able to respond to the claims of others by identifying his own, rather impressive, credentials. He pointed out that, if there was anyone who had reason to believe in his or her own abilities, it was he. As a faithful child of God, Paul was a true Jew with impeccable credentials.

But just as quickly as he listed his credentials and accomplishments, he quickly listed his deficits. Paul quickly pointed out that all that made him what he was worked against him and that what counted the most was what he was trying to do. Paul reminds us that when we put our true and complete faith in what we do, we are very likely to lose sight of our goal.

Paul pointed out that the rightful goal for any follower of Jesus Christ was to be like Christ. Paul said (in verses 12 – 14),

"Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ has made me his own . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press onward toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ." (Philippians 3: 12 – 14)

When we put our faith in what we have, we quickly lose our relationship with God. It is important that we realize that while salvation is free, that doesn’t mean our relationship with God comes easily. There will always be a struggle.

But it is a struggle that we need not face alone. If we listen, we can hear God calling to us, offering words of hope, encouragement and ultimate salvation. When Isaiah proclaimed the message that God is doing a new thing, "I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" (Isaiah 43: 19), he gave hope to all who life closing in on them in some way.

When we struggle to find our way, to find our purpose in things that can never provide the answer, we only need to know that God never will abandon us. Although we cannot know what the future brings, we do know that God will be there with us. When Isaiah wrote that God would provide the water in the wilderness and the rivers in the desert to give drink for His people, he wasn’t bragging about God; he was telling us that we can know that God will be there when we need him.

Lent is a time of personal journey, of renewing one’s relationship with God. It is definitely not an easy journey. A Christian life doesn’t just pop into existence overnight. It is constructed over time, piece by piece, moment by moment.

With each moment, with each piece that is added to this new life comes change and the difficulty arises when we fear the changes that occur in our life. It is those moments of change when we realize that we cannot stand up to the demands of life; we can neither tame nor conquer life. We find that our growth in Christ comes sometimes in conflict with the demands placed on us by society. It is that moment when we come to realize more fully that Christ needs to be a part of our life.

That is what happened to Mary. The Mary of today’s Gospel reading was the Mary Magdalene whom Jesus had earlier rescued from seven devils. Mary’s actions in the Gospel reading came because she was filled with a great gratitude for her own salvation and because she felt a greater need to express her love for Jesus.

Can we pay the price? That is an interesting question to consider this week. Like Mary and Paul and countless others before us, we need to realize that it isn’t what we do but what has been done for us. We don’t have to pay the price for Christ’s death and resurrection paid the price. Those who expect that what they do will bring them rewards will quickly find that the rewards are not there. But those who understand that our appreciation for the price that was paid by Christ will always show that appreciation in what they do and say "Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands — yes, shall have — my soul, my life, my all." (verse 4, UMC #284)

Coming Home


I am preaching at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area this coming Sunday.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.

——————————————————————————

I have written and spoken before about growing up as an Air Force brat and of moving from place to place each year. For some, this was traumatic because you were never in a place long enough to make many friends and the ones that you did make were like you, well aware that their father would be transferred to another Air Force base in a year or so and the process would have to start all over again.

But it was an experience that I wouldn’t have traded for all the tea in china. It gave me a view of the world and the people of this world that not too many people have or get. We spend most of our lives in one place and we see the world from that particular point of view. There is nothing wrong with that, provided you are willing to look or think in other ways. Part of the reason that we have problems in this world, I believe, comes from our unwillingness to see the world as others see it or to envision other views. We are unwilling to leave the comfort of our home and see what is “out there.’

This week isn’t about seeing the world from a different view; it is about our view of this place that we call home. While I will always say that I gained from moving around this country each year while growing up, I have to admit that for many years I didn’t have a place that I could call home. if you were to ask me where I am from, I would reply that I am from Memphis, Tennessee, because that is where I graduated from high school and where my mother lives. But I could and have said that I have roots in Missouri and North Carolina but neither qualifies as home.

But the place that one calls home is more than just a building; it is the place where one feels secure and safe. The significance of the Old Testament reading for today is that Exodus is now over and the people of Israel are now home. What they eat each day will no longer be the manna from heaven but the food that they grow and prepare. For the Israelites, life took on a different meaning that day some three thousand years ago. No longer would they wander in the desert, each day hoping to find security and peace. Now, their activities would focus on building their new home and putting down roots as a people and a nation.

This generation of Israelites knew very little about the time before the Exodus and little of the time before their ancestors had left this same land and journeyed to Egypt. It was all in the stories that were told and the annual celebrations and feasts that were celebrated. But there were no roots for the people. To build in the Promised Land, to harvest crops and raise animals and their families was a new and different life. It was not to begin over but to begin.

For the prodigal one, it is a little different. He does have roots; he does have a life in place but it is a life that perhaps has little promise and no opportunity. As the second son, he was not going to get the land that his father owns; he was not going to get the prestige that comes with the land and the possessions. If he was to make an impact on the world, he will have to leave his home and go out on his own.

I won’t say that this youngest son was wrong in asking for his inheritance when he did. It was his right, but like all rights, it came with the responsibilities. And as we know for so many hearing and telling this story so many times, the youngest son abrogated his responsibilities. He wasted what he had been given and found himself far from home without a future.

I cannot help but think of how the relevance of that moment, when the youngest son found himself far from home, penniless, and without status in life, applies to each one of us. Oh, I know that each one of us can say that our lives are better than that but the way things have been these past months, can we truly say that we aren’t one step away from being in the same place as the youngest son?

The truth is that many of us are only one step away though it isn’t because we have been like the prodigal son. To some extent, we have been like the older brother. We have been careful; we have played by the rules.

But there are many who haven’t and now they expect to recover from their prodigal ways by having someone pay for their mistakes. But, by the same token, I see far too many people who have the attitude of the older son. They see the riches of this planet as theirs to keep and do whatever they so desire with it. They seem to have the law on their side and they use the law, though in ways that it was not meant to be used.

When we hear about the way banks and financial institutions played with the financial market for their own gain, we wonder how they were able get away with it. For the most part, what they did was perfectly legal. And in a time and in a society where ethics take a back seat when it comes to how we do things, the morality of playing with other people’s money and risking their lives and future doesn’t enter into the equation.

The debt of this country has come just as much from the arrogance of some as it has from the slovenly habits of others. We see many who protest the government spending while at the same time putting their hands out for government funds. It was interesting to see how many people were protesting against government healthcare but yet who were received such funds. We see the icecaps melting, not just in the Arctic Ocean but around the world but we hear so many people say that we, the people, are not messing with the climate of this planet. We keep hearing people say that we have plenty of oil left on this planet if we would just drill for it.

The numbers don’t add up. We hear that the recession is over but the number of people unemployed doesn’t seem to go down. The lines at the food closets seem to be getting bigger; the number of people without healthcare keeps increasing. And we hear the older son complaining to the father that the youngest son shouldn’t be welcomed home; that it was his fault that he wasted his money and inheritance, he doesn’t deserve anything or any help.

Yes, there are some, too many perhaps, who are like the youngest son. When we examine the nature of the problems of today, we see a pattern of wanting the future now, of spending what we have now or don’t have a right to spend and leaving little for the future.

Too many people focus on the prodigal son, the one who grabbed what he could and left home and now is left with nothing. But there are a number of people out there who didn’t have anything to begin with, who work for a minimum wage and barely get by, hoping that they won’t get sick because they don’t have health insurance. There are too many people like that today. And there really isn’t a reason that it should be that way.

There are too many people in this world who are like the oldest son, unwilling to share in their inheritance. I will not argue that each individual has a right to an inheritance but it bothers me when you see individuals who have more money and more things that anyone person can ever enjoy and then hear these people say that they have a right to more. How much is enough? When does accumulating wealth just for the sake of having more become nothing more than simple greed?

The older brother doesn’t want to share; the older brother thinks that to spend any money on his stupid and foolish younger brother is wasteful and frivolous. He gave up his life; let him live with the consequences.

It bothers me that there are people out there who still maintain the same attitude that seemed to exist two thousand years ago, that poverty and sickness are the signs of a sinful life and those who are poor and homeless and sick deserve what they get.

That, in my opinion, was the attitude of the older brother and it is the attitude of too many people today. And any attempt to change the world, to bring equality to this world is met with the strongest resistance but no solution. It is as though there is to be no change in the dealings of the world. The rich will get what they consider theirs and the poor will get nothing and that is the way it will be.

And this is a conflict that will not be easily resolved by someone setting a great big banquet with the fatted calf killed or someone else buying the finest clothes.

But hear the words of Paul again, of how the old way of living is gone and there is a new way to live in Christ. Hear Paul’s words of how we should not judge a person by what is on the outside and what can be so deceiving but rather let us look inside them.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians written two thousand years ago still ring true, perhaps even more so today. There is a vision of Christ in this world today that runs counter to the words and actions of the Gospel; perhaps it is time that we cast aside that vision and the words of those who proclaim a world in which Christ is the servant and whose job is to give to those who have and want more.

It is time, whether we are the younger brother or the older brother, to come home, to come back to God. We have been wandering in a wilderness of our making for far too long and now we must come home. Like the prodigal son who wasted his life, we must seek forgiveness from Our Father. And like the older son whose life was locked in the prison of selfish desires, we can gain our freedom by seeking the same forgiveness. Just as the power of grace will welcome home the prodigal son, so too will it see the older brother free.

We are almost finished with this Lenten journey. We have been wandering in the wilderness for far too long. It is time to come home, to the welcoming arms of Our Father.