A Brief History of Atomic Theory


The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, are Acts 2: 14, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 – 31. My post is tentatively entitled “Faith and Vision”. But some of what I want to say or write for Sunday requires an understanding of what we know about the atom and I didn’t feel like putting a theory of the atom into a Sunday piece. Of course, if I were to get called to preach somewhere this Sunday, I would have to figure out a way to condense this.

Should people in the pews have some understanding of the basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology? Should a pastor or a lay speaker focus on scientific theory when speaking of the Gospel or other passages in the Scriptures?

One would think that the answer to the first question should be yes, if for no other reason than such information is covered in basic courses taught in high school and college. You know that there is a problem when many people still hold onto the Aristotelian view point that heavier things fall faster than light while they were taught in school that all things fall at the same rate. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry but there is other evidence to suggest that there are quite a few basic ideas that are taught in school today but not really learned. And the same applies to church as well; it is well documented that the majority of Americans claim to be Christian but cannot provide basic information about the Bible, Christianity or their denomination.

Clearly, there is a need to reform our educational processes, both in the sectarian schools and in the secular schools as well. And that is one issue that I want to address. But in the meantime, let me offer these thoughts on atomic theory.

To understand the history of atomic theory, you need a basic understanding of the processes of science. Some of this was covered in “Processes of Science”; I may expand on that later.

The simplest way to start is to say that the “universe” is composed of matter and energy. As a consequence of Albert Einstein’s work on relativity, we know that matter and energy are interchangeable.

Generally speaking, we break down matter from heterogeneous mixtures into homogeneous mixtures (or solutions) and then into compounds and elements. The separation of mixtures is done mainly through physical changes and processes. The separation of compounds into elements is done through chemical changes and processes. (See “Matter Chart” for a pictorial explanation of this.)

Elements are the simple form of matter and atoms are the simplest form of an element. The Greek philosopher/scientist Leucippus and his student, Democritus, developed the first atomic theory in the 5th and 4th century (B.C.E.). The word “atom” is derived from the Greek for “indivisible” and the premise of the theory was that atoms were indivisible particles. The theory that Democritus developed from his studies with Leucippus was not easily accepted at the time and there are suggestions that Democritus’ works were destroyed or people were discouraged from using them.

But Issac Newton would find references to these works and use them developing his ideas on optics. (In the preparation of these notes, I found a reference that said that Newton believed the idea of atoms was first developed by a person known as Moschus or Moses of Sidon; Newton believed this to be the biblical Moses – references: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atomism-ancient/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democritus. The foundation for this linkage may be more theological in nature but if you understand Newton, this is totally understandable – see “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”.) Other contemporaries of Newton’s, including Robert Boyle and John Dalton, would use the idea of the indivisible particle to explain some of their observations.

Dalton would codify his thoughts in what we called the first modern atomic theory. All matter consists of tiny particles called atoms that are indestructible and unchangeable. Elements are characterized by the mass of their atoms. When elements react, their atoms combine in simple whole-number ratios; though sometimes there may be more than one possible ratio.

Dalton also included a postulate that when atoms combine in only one ratio, it is a binary one, unless some cause appears to the contrary. Now, Dalton had no experimental evidence to support this postulate and it led him to assume that the formula for water was OH and the formula for ammonia was NH. This in turn lead him to incorrectly determine the mass of oxygen and nitrogen. These incorrect values would lead to conclusions that were not supported by the experimental data and would prevent many from accepting his theory. (A Short History of Chemistry, J. R. Partington, MacMillan (London), 1937)

In the end, his basic statements about the nature of the atom, though modified, are still true today.

Now, if science is absolute, which some people believe to be the case, then the activities of the18th and 19th century will cause them grief. In addition, if one is not able to see the connection between two sets of data, it is also possible that what happened in the 18th and 19th century will also cause them grief.

It may be true today that what transpires in chemistry today often times has little impact on what is happening in physics or biology. And it also may be true that there are many chemists, physicists, and biologists who have no interest in what transpires in the other fields. And we certainly teach these subjects as if they were independent of each other. But that was certainly not the case in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

The discovery of electricity would lead to the discovery of the electron and suggest that the atom was, in point of fact, divisible. And because the electron carried a negative charge (although this was an arbitrary decision), it implied the existence of a second charged particle which was ultimately called the proton.

The discovery of radioactivity also brought into doubt the stability of the atom. Wilhelm Röentgen’s discovery of X-rays would lead others to seek other sources of radiation (though, as I pointed out in “The Strange Case of Mr. Piltdown”, not with the same results). In 1896 Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie would identify and characterize what we call radioactivity (the three would share the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics).

Ernest Rutherford, working with Paul Villard in 1899 and 1900, characterized radioactivity as alpha (α) and beta (β) rays. A third form of radiation (gamma – γ – rays) would also be discovered. The names of these rays were chosen in order of their discovery. Later experiments would show that these were not alpha and beta rays but particles. A side note – in 1948 George Gamow would suggest to Robert Alpher that Hans Bethe be added as a co-author for their paper on the synthesis of the elements that they (Gamow and Alpher) had been preparing for publication. This paper (Alpher, R. A., H. Bethe and G. Gamow, “The Origin of Chemical Elements,” Physical Review, 73, Issue 7, (1948), 803-804) would provide data and thoughts on how the various elements (from hydrogen to heavy elements such as uranium) were synthesized in the universe. The details in this paper would provide the first suggestion of what we now call the “big bang”. Because of the inclusion of Hans Bethe’s name on the paper, the paper became known as the Alpha – Beta – Gamow paper and because it was published on 1 April 1948, it was seen more as a joke or an attempt at humor than real and ground breaking physics.

With the discovery of radioactivity and the knowledge that some atoms emitted alpha and/or beta particles, the notion that the atom was indivisible and indestructible was pretty well destroyed. This discovery would also lead to the discovery of isotopes, atoms of the same element but with different masses. This was obviously in clear violation of one of John Dalton’s postulates that all atoms of the same element have the same mass.

Isotopes are atoms of the same element with different masses. This discovery meant that further study of the atom was necessary. It required the refinement of the atomic theory and an explanation for the makeup of isotopes in terms of atomic masses and atomic numbers (for explanation of isotopes from the 1930’s, see “Thoughts on the Nature of Teaching Science in the 21st Century”; this explanation was in print at the same time as the discovery and confirmation of the existence of the neutron).

In addition, the idea that some nuclei of atoms (the nucleus was first identified by Rutherford while working on and with alpha and beta particles) were unstable lead to experiments which resulted in the splitting of the atom (nuclear fission, first proposed by Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard in 1993 and confirmed by Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassman in 1939).

This work would ultimately lead to the development of the atomic bomb but it would also open the door to the creation of man-made elements and an understanding of nuclear decay and ½-life.

Decay in this context is meant to describe the physical and chemical breakdown of an unstable atom by the emitting of one type of particle; ½-life is the time it takes for ½ of the material to decay. These terms can and are equally applicable to other materials such as plastics. One reason for recycling plastics is because the ½-life of many plastics is extremely long and unless the material is biodegradable, unlikely to decay in a land-fill somewhere.

The discovery of the neutron doesn’t mean that the development of the atomic theory is complete. Further work has shown that protons, neutrons, and electrons can be further subdivided. Each step in this process is increasingly more complex. But complexity does not preclude solvability and the work goes on.

At this point, one can see that the postulates first proposed by Dalton are no longer valid as written. The idea that the atom is indivisible has been replaced with the notion that there are some other basic particles which cannot be divided. And physicists are working on that idea as this piece is being written. Perhaps one day there will be an ultimate atomic theory – that is what Democritus was seeking and what Dalton was seeking and what drives the exploration of the world of sub-atomic particles today.

Fortunately, for most chemists, the atomic theory of the proton and neutron in the nucleus and electrons in “clouds” around the nucleus provides a nice working model that explains most, if not all, chemical reactions.

Similarly, the idea of nuclear decay and ½-life become very useful in other areas of science; areas perhaps where the collisions of faith, logic, reason and belief collide.

In the next part of this discussion, I want to look at the measurement of the age of something – “How Old Is Old?”

“What Would You Say?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2005. 

The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 14, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 – 31.

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And Thomas said, “Until I see his hands and feet and feel the wound in his side I will not believe.” So Jesus showed him where the nails had been placed in his hands and feet and then He let Thomas feel His side. And Thomas declared, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus said, “You have seen and you believed. Give glory to those who believe though they have not seen.”

As Peter tells the crowd, they can believe in the resurrection of Christ because there were witnesses still alive who saw Christ crucified on Good Friday and then came to know that He had in fact risen from the dead on Easter. And you could trust the witnesses’ account because there were several witnesses, not just one or two. Later, as we read in today’s second lesson, it is our faith that enables us to believe in the resurrection.

But what can be said today about the resurrection? No longer can we rely on eyewitness testimony; no longer do we have the actual words of the disciples or the first believers to tell us that what we believe is in fact true. How can we say to someone that the resurrection is more than just a story passed down from person to person, with all of its embellishments, additions, and subtractions?

How will someone react when you invite someone to be a part of this worship community? How will someone react if you tell someone that you are an evangelical believer? Will the images of Christianity that have been so dominate in our media these past few weeks bring people to the church? Or will these images drive people away?

We live in an era reminiscent of Europe in the 16th century. The evangelical church is doing everything it can to repress scientific and creative thought. It is almost as if we want to turn the clock back to days when the earth was the center of the universe and medicine was more magic than an organized science. No matter what the physical evidence might suggest about the age of this planet and the life that exists, we are supposed to accept the notion that this earth is only some eight thousands year old and that Darwin was a fool. I am not discounting the notion that God created the heavens and the earth. But God created mankind in His own image and He gave us the ability to think. So why are we supposed to stop thinking when the subject of religion comes up? Why are we supposed to stop thinking when science contradicts the Bible? Shouldn’t such contradictions help us to better understand who we are and what God would have us do?

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, states very clearly that my "faith is in an omniscient and benevolent God who created the universe out of nothingness, and whose purposes included the ultimate appearance of createrus who would desire fellowhips with him. God then provided the inestimable gift of Jesus Christ to teach us how to live, and to be a bridge between our own imperfect humanness and God’s perfect holiness." Dr. Collins adds that his own work does not take away from His belief in God but rather supports and prove His being and presence.

These thoughts are an interesting contrast to those who, in the name of Christ, would stifle research that would help cure the sick and prevent the study of how this world came to be. (From Context)

And in this day and age, you have to be careful about how you express your belief. For some, especially on the liberal side of life, to be religious is to believe in superstitions and age-old tales. Even worse, you cannot express the thought that you are a true evangelic Christian.

I was baptized in the Evangelical Reformed Church of Lexington, North Carolina, and I was confirmed in the First Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado. So, by action I am an evangelical. And if evangelism is to believe in the Gospel message, to believe that Jesus came to this world to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, let the lame walk, and set the oppressed free, then I am an evangelical by belief as well. And if that is what I believe, then I must also be willing to take the Gospel message into the world, telling others of what I know.

But today the word “evangelical” is associated with “bigot”, “homophobic”, “chauvinistic”, and “reactionary.” And in the same breath, individuals will describe Jesus as “caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and empathetic.” How can the description of Christ be so different from those who have been asked to tell the story? (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo)

I am afraid that the church, in its classic sense, is in a crisis that it has not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. We already see some of this in place today. Each year we hear reports about how the traditional denominations, including the United Methodist Church, are losing members. It is also becoming apparent that this loss is more than just a loss of older members; it is the loss of younger people seeking answers elsewhere. And while there is growth in the non-traditional denominations, I fear that the negative images that are associated with preachers of these non-traditional denominational churches will soon start to drive people away.

It is painfully clear that the leadership of traditional denominations did not pay enough attention to the people in the pews that were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness. It has become painfully clear that these individuals longed for a message of deliverance. But this message, so much the centerpiece of the Gospel message, has disappeared from the message of the traditional church. The traditional church has failed to give recognition to a person’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism and did more than address the painful social crises of the times. Too often, such churches overlooked the fact that people crave a connection with God that gives them a sense of being inwardly transformed. These people wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being “filled with the Spirit,” but they cannot find it in traditional churches. These people also do not want to hear a message that makes them feel guilty (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo). They tell the pastor that they don’t want to hear about the outside world on Sunday, they get enough every other day. In a world with complicated problems, today’s church going public want simple solutions; they want the problems of the world to disappear for a few hours on Sunday.

Now, everything I read about the churches in this country that are growing today tells me that such churches are giving the seekers exactly what they want. They are giving them a sense of “being filled with the Spirit”; they are giving them a sense that their sins have been cleansed. And they are certainly giving them messages that bring purpose to their lives without making them feel guilty about what they have done. They hear that the poverty of this world, the death and desolation that come to this world are only signs of God’s return, of Christ’s Second Coming. They find in these new churches comfort and sanctuary.

But the message of such churches is devoid of the Gospel. It is a place where the signs of Christ are missing for fear of scaring away sinners. In many of these modern day churches there is no cross to remind you of Christ’s sacrifice, so there is no need to ask you to make the sacrifices that Christ asks of you. You can feel good in these churches because they are designed to make you feel good.

But the Gospel message is not meant to make you feel good; it is meant for you to hear and to seek to do good for others. Each month I receive a newsletter from Barbara Wendland, United Methodist layperson, in Texas. In her quiet way, she offers thoughts about the nature of the church. She points out that many of the things that make us comfortable in church often times make us less effective as a church. Patriotism is effective if it reminds us of our nation’s commitment to justice for all people, yet flags and martial hymns in worship tend to glorify war rather than remind us that we have been called to be peacemakers. We may find that tradition provides a sense of continuity but it can also make it difficult to bring about change. Emotion can inspire us to do God’s work in the world, but wrapping one’s self in a blanket of emotions can often block critical reasoning. The church can only be effective if it keeps reminding us how far we have to go before God’s will is done on this earth. An effective sermon on poverty and disease in our own community may leave us feeling rightly uneasy about not doing more to help and inspire us to do that little bit extra. (From Connections, April 2005)

Thomas sought the truth. That is what we all want. We do not want a faith of smoke and mirrors. Like Thomas, we were not there that afternoon when Jesus met with the disciples. Those that seek the truth are not willing to accept the words of those whose actions belie their beliefs. Jesus’ reply to Thomas is not meant to belittle Thomas but rather to remind us to seek the truth for ourselves and to find ways to help others find the truth for themselves.

If we are to be true to our heritage as Methodists, then we are true evangelists. Evangelism means more than just persuading people to accept Christ; it means helping people change their lives and the world (important that we note that) by living out a mature faith as Jesus taught and modeled. It means that we are called to imitate Jesus’ example by meeting people’s needs and acting in their best interests, as described in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 25, and elsewhere in the Gospel. ((From Connections, April 2005)

I cannot help but be amazed by how non-Catholics around the world have reacted to the death of Pope John Paul II. But it should not be that surprising; he more than anyone understood the nature of modeling Christ here on earth. He was first and foremost a parish priest, even when He was the Vicar of Christ. His was a mission to bring Christianity and the message of the Gospel to the world, no matter where that might take him. Rightly so, he is given credited for the fall of Communism because he knew that the truth lie in Jesus Christ. We may disagree with his theological thoughts but we cannot disagree with someone who was willing put the message of the Gospel at the forefront of his own life.

The challenge that lies before us today and tomorrow will be to find ways through our lives, our words, our thoughts, and our actions to make it known that Christ has risen from the dead. The challenge before us today and tomorrow will be to fulfill the Gospel message that the sick will be healed, the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the lame will walk and the oppressed will be set free. The challenge today will be to answer those who will not believe until they see the wounds in Christ’s hands and side; what will you say?

“Believing Isn’t Necessarily Seeing”


This is the message that I gave for the Second Sunday of Easter, 11 April 1999, at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 14, 22 – 32; 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; and John 20: 19 – 31.

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If there ever was a passage on the meaning of faith in everyday life, I think it has to be the Gospel reading for today. All the disciples except for Thomas are gathered in a closed room when Jesus appears to them. I think it is very easy for us today to imagine how the disciples must have felt on that day when Jesus appears to them, seemingly out of nowhere.

Easter and the resurrection of Jesus is just a week past and the disciples still fear for their own safety. That is why the room was locked and the meeting somewhat secret. And how are the disciples to feel upon seeing Jesus again? After all, to the greatest extent, they abandoned Him at the time when He needed them most. If the disciples were not scared, they had every right to be that way.

Yet, Jesus’ first words to His disciples were “Peace be with you!” Though this was a traditional greeting, Jesus has always used this in a slightly different manner. No longer a simple greeting, it becomes a means of speaking about the salvation that Christ’s redemptive work will achieve for the disciples – total well being and inner rest of the spirit, in fellowship with God. When Jesus greeted his disciples, he sought to calm their fears and tell them that there was a true peace.

But, as the Gospel reading tells us, Thomas (the Twin, as the Greek word Didymus tell us), wasn’t there. And despite the joy that must have been in the voices of those who spoke to him, Thomas wasn’t buying it. Now, for us today, just as it is easy for understand the fears of the disciples on seeing Jesus appear without warning, it is just as easy to understand Thomas’ reaction to his friends’ exclamation of joy. Don’t we want to see things before we too believe?

Several years ago, the junior bowling program that I directed held its awards program. Earlier that year, the manager of the bowling center had hosted a dinner for his two grandsons’ basketball team. At that dinner, he had given the coach a plaque in appreciation for the work that he had done that year.

Now, as we were gathering for our awards ceremony, I saw that he had brought a box about the size of an appreciation plaque. As we ended the evening, I challenged Claude to give me the plaque that I was certain he had brought with him.

To make the story short, Claude pulled a fast one on me and gave me the empty box. That, of course, deflated me, for I was certain that he had a plaque to give me. Of course, after playing the joke, he did give me the plaque to honor me for the work I had done that year. How many times do we think we are getting something, only to come up short? And how many times do we get something when we least expect it?

My commentary noted that hardheaded skepticism could hardly go father than Thomas’ response that day. But Jesus response to Thomas is a response to all of us who feel the necessity to see the resurrection in order to believe, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

If we do not believe in the empty tomb, then Jesus’ task on earth was in vain. It is interesting to note that action of the Pharisees when they were told that the tomb was empty. Remember that they had put a guard on the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body

“The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 27: 62 –65)

After the Resurrection, the Pharisees circulated the story that the tomb had been robbed.

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling the, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. (Matthew 28: 11 – 15a)

As is the case in many things, it is easy to understand why the Pharisees would feel this way. After all, they did not believe in what Jesus said to them. As Jesus pointed out, “the blind cannot lead the blind.” If you do not believe, then you cannot understand.

There are those today who do not believe that the tomb was empty that Sunday morning one week ago. They look around and see the wars, the poverty, and the crime and ask where is God in this world. If God so loved us, why does this all occur? I cannot answer the question of why God allows bad things to happen other than to say that the answer to the question lies in what we do after we come to Christ.

But I do know that we have to come to Christ; that we have to believe that Christ died for our sins. For the hardest part of being a Christian is not what we do in our lives but simply believing. When Christ came to this world, salvation was seen in terms of following the rules, of obeying the laws. What makes Christianity stand out from all the religions in the world is that replaces one’ behavior with one’s belief and it replaces rulekeeping and rituals with the single, all-embracing motive of love.

Christ’s presence in the world changes how we view the world. It is interesting to note that the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus reported that their hearts were burning when they talked to Him. Did not John Wesley report the same burning feeling in his heart when he came to realize that Christ died for his sins?

As Peter spoke to the people, he quoted David

“’I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope,

Because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

Peter continued,

“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

We know that Christ died to save us from sin. We do not need to see the tomb to know that it is empty. For we know in our heart that it is so. When Jesus came from the tomb, even His disciples did not recognize Him. When He came into the room, they did not recognize Him. But when the Spirit guided them, the disciples recognized him. It is the same for us today.

Like Wesley at Aldersgate, we must come to know that Christ died for us. And we know that by a simple act of faith, our lives will change. What did Peter write in his letter?

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even thought refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him know, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of you faith, the salvation of your souls.

Our lives change because Christ died for us. We do not need to see the empty tomb to know that Christ is alive for we know he is alive in our hearts.



The Missing Day


This is not a “normal” Easter sermon.  First, I gave it on Saturday night at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY); second, I used the reading from the Psalms for Good Friday (Psalm 22) as the basis for part of the message.  I present to you today as the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew, a disciple and friend of Jesus Christ.

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This is a night of questions, questions that often do not have any answers. In the darkness, we feel lost and afraid, more afraid than anything else that there is no hope, no promise. It is a night in which God has counted the people and we feel as if we have been missed in the counting. Hear now a story about that first missing day.

We hear the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew as he sits alone.

The Sabbath has ended and though it is dark outside, people are making plans to return home. They have come to Jerusalem and celebrated Passover. Now it is time to return home, rejoicing in the celebration of God’s redemption of His people, of His delivering the people from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance to the Promised Land.

But in other, darkened corners of the city, there are some for whom there is no celebration. Followers of Jesus, they are fearful that they too will be hunted down and executed in the manner in which their Master, their Teacher, and their Friend had been.

Jesus had spoken of the cost that following Him would take and it was becoming apparent that it was a deadly cost. The disciple Judas Iscariot, angry over Jesus’ refusal to sell the ointment the woman had used to anoint Him, was now dead. Having realized what His betrayal of Jesus really meant and that the religious and political authorities had been him played for a fool, he killed himself.

There is a rumor that Peter was also dead. Peter, known for his strong will and impulsive character, had denied Jesus three times during the night that Jesus was arrested. No one could predict what the leader of the disciples, the man who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah but then just as quickly and meekly denied he had ever known Jesus.

And so the disciples hid in fear. Twelve hours after Jesus cried out, “My God! My God! What have you forsaken me!” they too wonder where God may be and if He had forsaken them. Has God abandoned them as He appears to have abandoned Jesus?

Where are you, God! Why did you let this happen? What is to become of us? Why have you left us in our time of need and despair? Where is the hope, the promise that we were told would be coming when we left our homes, our families and our livelihoods to follow Jesus? Did we not enter Jerusalem six days ago amidst shouts of acclamation and celebration? Why did the people turn against Jesus so quickly? Where are you, God? Am I among the missing now?

We believed He was the Messiah but now He is dead, buried in a tomb somewhere.

I feel like a fool for ever thinking that Jesus was the Messiah. I should have known there was some sort of trick involved when He told me He had seen me sitting under the tree studying the Scriptures that day three years ago.

What do I do know? Where do I go? Surely, I can’t go home. My family and friends will all laugh at me. ‘Nathaniel, how is that this Jesus could save others but he couldn’t save Himself?’ they will ask me. Surely a king would have an army to fight for him; where was Jesus’ army?

And you and those others you have been with, why you didn’t even try to stop the soldiers from arresting Jesus! You were asleep and then, when you awoke, you ran away! This Jesus of yours was no better than some of the magicians who travel through this town using their magic tricks like changing water into wine to amuse the people. I bet all those people who you say Jesus healed were fakes. We’ve seen them before, faking illness to extract money from the passers-by. Your Jesus was a fake but you are afraid to say it.

But He did heal the sick. I saw Him give sight to the blind and I saw how He helped the lame to walk; I was there with the crowds and I helped Him feed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. I saw Him change the lives of so many people; people whom were scorned and cast-out, people barred from entering the Temple because there was something wrong with them.

And He taught me how to do the same. He sent us out into the world and we did all the things that He did. But now He is dead, consider a rebel and radical, a threat to society. Can I even think that I can do all those things without Him by my side?

And I suppose that I will be barred from the Temple now because I chose to follow Jesus. Perhaps it is just as well; if Jesus was truly God’s Son and God left Him to die on that Cross, then why should I even think that I could go into God’s House, the Temple again? I wonder if God is even in the Temple anymore. Could it be that God let Jesus die because we kicked God out of the house?

Wasn’t that what it was all about? Didn’t Jesus cleanse the temple a few days ago because it was no longer God’s House? Maybe God isn’t in the Temple? If He isn’t in the Temple, then where is He?

How many times did Jesus speak of His Father and being with Him and He with Jesus? Did not God speak to the people when Jesus’ cousin baptized Him and say that this was my Son in whom I am well pleased? Were we as blind as all the others? What clues did we miss?

What was He said last week when He rescued Lazarus from that tomb? What were those words that He said the other night when we were gathered for the Passover meal? Could it be that Jesus is the Messiah as we have always believed? Could it be that Jesus is the Christ and we have not been forgotten?

But how do I find out? My friend, Thomas, would probably want proof that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead. And the only way that can be is if we see the empty tomb and we perhaps see Jesus, just as we saw Lazarus walk from his tomb. But with soldiers guarding the tomb, that won’t be easy.

Suddenly the cock crows and the sun rises on the third day. And a voice cries out, “Nathaniel, have you heard the news!”

It was my friend and fellow disciple, Peter. He was alright. It was obvious that his denial of Jesus two days ago and the death of Jesus had really shaken him but he was still the confident leader of our band. But I saw that he had changed, perhaps in ways that only time would be able to show. And then He gave me the good news; Jesus was not in the tomb! He had risen! He told me that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women in our group had gone to the tomb to see if they could properly prepare the body, since it was taken down in haste before the beginning of the Sabbath.

They had no idea what they were going to say to the soldiers or how they were going to roll away the stone that closed the tomb. But when they got there, the stone had been rolled away and the soldiers looked as if they had seen death itself.

Mary said that an angel was sitting on the stone and told her to not be afraid, that she wouldn’t find Jesus in the tomb because He was not there. As He had said, He had been raised from the dead and if she looked into the tomb, she would only see the where he had been laid. She and the others with her were to go and tell us, the disciples, what she had seen and what she had been told and that He would be with us in a few days. And as she ran to tell us, Jesus met her and confirmed all that the angel had said.

We would meet Jesus a few days later. In fact, we would meet Him several times in the coming days. And slowly, each of us, the disciples, our friends, our families, all who had been with him these three years would begin to understand just what it was we have been a part of and what we were being asked to do.

There is a day in my life that I wish were missing – it is that day that began when Jesus cried out in pain and agony and gave up His life; it ended on the third day when He arose from the dead and conquered sin and death so that we might live. It was a day of private pain and anguish; it was a day of loss and grief. It was more than the loss of a friend; it was a feeling that I had lost every thing.

Perhaps there has been a day like that in your life, a day in your life, a day when you think that God has forgotten you and thrown you to the world. It may be that you have felt this loss and you have come here tonight thinking perhaps you can find what you are missing. Understand what tomorrow, Easter Sunday, means.

It means a new beginning for all, not just a few. It means that God cares about each person, no matter where they are in life, how old they are, or even who they are. It means that no one need live a life with missing days, where there is no purpose or form to life.

With the rising of the sun to mark the new day and to illuminate the empty tomb, the Risen Son can say to all that there is a new hope, a new promise to one’s life. The call is made to all to rejoice in this new day, to see the Risen Christ.

The call will be made to others, like Nathaniel Bartholomew, Peter, James, John, Thomas and even Mary Magdalene, Mary and her sister Martha, to seek those who are missing, to go out into the world and tell the story. It is a call to let everyone know that no one should be missing in God’s world.

And though the world may be dark as we leave this place tonight, we know that the sun will shine tomorrow and the Son will rise. We rejoice in the day that tells us we no longer must endure missing days.

“What Will You Say?”


I do not know about you but I have the distinct impression that were Christ to have been crucified last week, the protestors surrounding the hospice in Florida where Terry Schiavo is staying would be surrounding the cross demanding that Jesus be taken down from there. "He is in too much pain and suffering to be up there," they would cry. "He doesn’t deserve to die like that," they would say. "Even though He cannot speak for Himself, we know that His wishes would be to be with us," they would pronounce with all solemnity and ardor. But, were this to have occurred, the protestors, like the disciples in the New Testament, would not understand what transpired that Friday afternoon at Golgotha.

I am amazed at what has transpired this past week. But I am more amazed by what did not occur last week. If the protestors put so much value on one life, why are they not in Minnesota calling for the redemption of the lives of the individuals killed in Red Lake. Why are they not calling for support for school professionals to intercede when the warning signs tell us that a young man or woman is about to do something terrible. Are our concerns about the lives of individuals only important when a state has a large number of electoral votes?

The people who are fighting to keep Terri Schiavo alive have enough political power to force Congress into passing bills of questionable constitutionality and getting the President of the United States to intervene. Yet, while they will protest when nourishment and water has been taken away from one individual, they are not on the steps of the capitol in Washington, D. C., screaming at the congressman who voted to cut the food stamp and other support programs for the poor. Is it easier to fight for one person who has a name rather than the countless poor and homeless who have no names in society? In a time when the fight seems to be over values, what are the values of the protestors?

If life is so dear to these Christians, why are they not fighting to stop the war in Iraq and the killing in Northern Ireland and the genocide in so many regions of Africa? Is it because there is no political capital to be gained; there is no money to be raised to support their efforts?

I do not mean to be cynical and I am certainly do not want to diminish the pain and anguish that all concerned in this case must be going through. As Christians, we value and cherish life and, over the years, we have found ways to make life last longer. But, as Christians, we know that our time on earth is limited and that efforts to continue that time can often be meaningless and futile. It is not up to us to judge what others may do; it is not up to us to determine what others can or cannot do. We can and should give comfort and support, aid and assistance. But, if we believe that each individual makes the choice to follow Christ, then we must also believe that each individual has the right and the ability to choose for themselves the path they wish to walk into heaven.

As Christians, we hold to the belief in eternal life after death. Are we going to deny Terri Schiavo the right to decide that she would rather enter the kingdom of Heaven and say to her that she must live the life that she now lives? What in our faith says that we can make such decisions?

It is thus up to us to insure that others know what our choices are, especially in situations like what has transpired in Florida this past week, and it is up to us to honor the choices that others make in this regard. We cannot presume to know more than they nor, like some of the pronouncements that have come out of Florida, presume to know better than God what God is thinking or planning.

Our faith gives us knowledge of God, not a guarantee of knowing God’s wishes. As believers, we live in a dark world and we seek a path to the light. That light and the path to the light, as has been said many times, is Jesus Christ. We seek the knowledge of God, not God’s knowledge. We cannot claim to know God’s wishes, only that we know God through Christ.

This is the dilemma that the disciples faced that first Easter weekend some two thousand years ago. They watched their teacher, their friend struggle and die on the Cross. But they could not know that the sky was turning black because the sins of mankind from ages past and ages yet to come were covering the light. They could not know that Christ’s cry of anguish, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!" was the culmination of the sacrifice that Christ had to make in order for our lives to be free.

It was clear that they did not know what was to come that first Easter weekend. For if they knew, why were they so surprised when they found the tomb empty?

Mary comes to the tomb that first Easter morning more in grief than in expectation. What have the past two days been for her and the others? Perhaps she was angry at the Romans for killing her friend and teacher. Perhaps she was angry at the Sanhedrin for orchestrating the whole think and cooperating with the Romans. She may have even been angry with God.

And what were the disciples doing that morning? Their teacher had been declared a common criminal, an enemy of the state. Their own lives were in jeopardy and it was best that they hide for a while. And with the mission gone, what were they to do? As they secretly gathered somewhere around Jerusalem, did they make plans to return to the previous occupations such as fisherman and accountants?

And how that grief and anger must have multiplied when Mary found the tomb empty. Now she could not even complete the rituals of death that brought comfort to a soul; now she could not see to it that Jesus was properly attended too. And the disciples, upon hearing that the tomb was empty, surely they feared for their lives. For if word got out that the tomb was empty, would the authorities hunt them down as thieves as well as followers?

It is clear that the understanding of what today represented back then did not come that morning. It is clear that over the period of the next few weeks and even years, the disciples will struggle to understand what it is that they were a part of and what it is that they will be asked to do.

It would be one thing for us to grieve at the loss of Jesus; it would certainly be the most natural thing to do. After all, what man, woman, or child has not experienced grief in their time? Our lives most certainly have their frustrations; too often war, hunger, injustice, poverty, disease and natural disasters prevail. We have to ask ourselves what shall we say this morning? How can we explain this morning to our friends, our neighbors, those we meet on the street?

How can we explain what drove the prophets of the Old Testament to pit their lives against their society and their culture? How can we explain what drove Jesus to the cross? If we understand that Jesus loved us as His Father loved Him, then we can explain it. We can explain and tell others that we come to the tomb this morning because of love. Yes, we come because we mourn the death of Jesus; we come out of emptiness in our lives; we come because we are faithful. We come to the tomb to be there.

But when we get there we find that there is nothing there. There is no reason to feel empty; there is no reason to be in mourning. There certainly is no reason to be sad. What we find is that love is there, a love that transcends anything we can possibly know. We find a love that is capable of defeating the darkest spirits and rising from the dead. The darkness of Good Friday is replaced by the brightness of Easter morning; the mourning of death is replaced by the celebration of victory of death.

We also find that we have no time to linger in this moment. We have no way to hold on to or hoard this moment. It is a moment that must be shared; it is a moment that must go beyond the boundaries of our own souls. It is a moment that brings us back to the words we heard in Matthew 10: 27 – "What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops."

So, this morning, as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, of God’s defeat of sin and death, what will you say? I hope you will carry the words of our hymn of invitation with you out into the world this week.

“The First Easter”


This is the message that I gave at Neon (KY) UMC on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1999.  The Scriptures that I used were Acts 10: 34 – 43, Colossians 3: 1 – 4, and John 20: 1 – 8.

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A few years ago, my mother gave my two brothers, sister, and I photo albums for Christmas. She had took all the photos that she had taken or collected of each of us, both individually and with each other, and arranged them in a year by year story of our life. There always seemed to be one or two photos of the four of us taken at either Christmas or Easter. You could always tell the Easter photos because it was spring like outside and it seemed like my sister had a new dress and my two brothers and I had new suits or sports jackets.

I think that is one thing we always remember about Easter. It is the time that we got new clothes. Easter has always been a celebration not only of Christ’s resurrection but also of springtime. I think that the celebration of springtime sometimes takes precedence over the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Still it is important to think of some of the first Easters that we have taken part in.

Today will be one of those Easters for me because it is the first Easter sermon I have had to write. I also remember the Easter back in 1969 when I went to the pastor of the Methodist Church in Kirksville, Marvin Fortel, and asked if I could take communion early that year because I wasn’t going to be in Kirksville for Easter that year. I think it took Reverend Fortel by surprise when I asked him because he wasn’t used to students asking to do that. But Kirksville was my home church and I didn’t want to miss that part of Easter.

But while we celebrate Easter, either by the gathering of the family or a special dinner or some new clothes, we have to remember that the first Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection didn’t start off as a celebration.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

For while Jesus had been telling his disciples that he would rise from the dead, they didn’t quite believe him. But like many things, this is a moment when everything that we are taught suddenly all clicks and we understand. The other disciple, after first afraid to go into the tomb, went inside and then when he saw that Jesus was not there, he understood and believed that Jesus had told them truthfully.

In the movie “Field of Dreams”, only those that understood what the baseball field was about saw the players playing baseball. If you did not understand what it was all about, you did not see the players. Interestingly enough, the players could see everyone. But people came to see the field of dreams because they wanted to believe. As Peter said in Acts,

but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

But what about those of us who were not there? How is it that we know that Christ overcame death and arose from the dead? There comes a time in our journey when we simply have to believe that Christ is our Savior. We have heard the stories, we know the message but are we ready for the truth behind the stories and the message?

How can we believe when around us, things look so sorrowful? When Mary came to the tomb that morning, she was distraught because Jesus was not there. Are we not like that? Are there not moments when we wanted Jesus to be there for us and it didn’t seem like He was there? But at those times, when the world seems the darkest, all we have to do, like Mary, is turn around and find that Jesus is standing right there.

This first Easter offered the believers hope for the future. In my prayer guide is a story about an Easter in prison. I don’t know the reason why the author was in prison, where he was in prison, or when he was in prison.

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of a dead girl came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)   — This was probably the first time that I used this story but it is not the first time that it was published – see “The Message Is Clear”, especially the comments.

To those who did not know what Christ’s death was about, this was a sign of hope. To those who knew but were not sure, it was a sign of renewal that their faith is true.

If Christ had not risen from the dead, there can be no hope for us. If Christ had not risen from the dead, then sin would have be victorious and we would have been in the prison of sin, without any hope. But Christ did rise from the dead and the hope is given that life is more than what it might seem.

But, for the tomb to be truly empty for us, for Christ, we must understand that Christ can rise from the dead, we must have faith in Christ. Like Wesley in Aldersgate, we must know in our hearts that Christ died for our sins, our sins alone. When this occurs, we will know it. For Wesley, he felt his heart strangely warmed.

We called those who came to the tomb that morning his disciples. We often think of disciples as “students of a teacher” but the word better means “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament means following Jesus, taking the journey with him.

To be on a journey with Jesus means to be a itinerant, a sojourner; to have no single place to call home. It means taking our lives from a day-to-day existence, trapped in sin to that of a life in and with the Spirit.

As Paul told the Colossians, we must no longer live in this earthly world but rather to set our lives above.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is in your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

This journey means listening to Jesus’ teaching – sometimes, like the disciples, not quite getting the message but then understanding it. It is not an easy road that we travel. Like Peter on the night of the crucifixion who denied Jesus three times, there are going to be times when we too will deny or even betray him.

But being a disciple of Jesus also offers the opportunity for us to eat at his table, to experience the banquet. Peter told the people in Acts “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” To sit at Christ’s table, means that we will be fed and nourished by Him. The journey may be a long one but like the five thousand Jesus feed, it becomes easier when Christ eases the journey by His presence in our lives.

The journey may be a long one but we know that we are not alone. Nor is the journey complete. Having come to Christ, having accepted Christ as our Savior, we must do as Peter spoke to the people in Acts:

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

On day in Israel some 2000 years ago a group of people gathered. At first the gathering was one of sorrow because Jesus was dead and all that they had sought for three years was gone. But the sorrow changed to happiness and joy when the disciples learned that He was alive and that all He said came true.

It is that way for us. This is a day of celebration, of knowing that the first Easter was still true today, that Christ has risen and that He lives today.



What is a Vital Congregation?


I finally got a chance to read the Call To Action that the Council of Bishops have published.

I will echo a comment that Jay Voorhees made about the definite need for training and educational processes.  To achieve what is being called for in this document speaks to educational process.  And I am going to make a serious proposal about how that can be done.

But the other thing, and the basis for the title of this piece, is what is a vital congregation?  From the report itself, we read that the key drivers of vitality are:

  • Effective pastoral leadership including aspects of management, visioning, and inspiration
  • Multiple small groups and programs for children and youth.
  • Mix of traditional and contemporary worship services
  • High percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles.

Now, I will be honest.  When I read this characteristics, i saw the description of a mega-church and practically the antithesis of every church that I have been a member or where I have visited as a certified lay speaker.  I cannot help but think that those churches in rural areas where there are very few children and where the membership is perhaps 20 or 30 are going to see this report as telling them to close the doors to the local church and go to the nearest city for services.

Such churches can’t have a mix of contemporary and traditional services; they are lucky if they have someone to play the piano.  They can’t have small groups because the whole membership is a small group.  Are we saying to these churches that we are going to cast them aside because they cannot help the cause?

Don’t get me wrong; I know that we have to preach the Gospel where the people are but we can’t ignore one area just because there aren’t a whole lot of people there.  If a church happens to be dying because the people aren’t there, look at where they are.  If the population of the whole town is dying, maybe there is a reason why the church is not as vital as it should be.  And that is why that church is needed in that town; because the town needs to hear words of hope and promise.

If a church is in the midst of a growing population and is dying, then we had better look at what is happening there.  The vitality of a church can never be expressed in terms of numbers because sometimes there aren’t enough numbers to get a true picture.

Maybe we should ask what would happen if we took a particular church out of its area.  What would happen to the people and the town then?  Perhaps that will give us a better picture of the church’s vitality?

And if the church is the midst of a lot of people and is dying, then we can look at how that church is responding to the needs of the community.  After all, wasn’t that what the early church was about two thousand years ago?

Random Thoughts on the Political Process


Here it is April of 2011 and yet politicians on the left and right are preparing for the 2012 elections.  Well, we knew this was going to happen and I know that in one of my blogs from back in 2008 I even wrote that the 2012 election would start the day after the 2008 elections were completed.

What I know at this point is that Republican process is going to be messy and bloody.  The so-called experts will point out the ultimate nominee is probably not one of the many whose names are being bandied about at this time but I am not so sure.  Then again, I really don’t care who the Republican nominee will be.

It is clear that whoever he or she is, they will hold a distorted Biblical-view of the world; they will be very much anti-science (and by extension, very much in favor of limiting free thought in this country).  They will definitely be seeking the elimination of the EPA.

They will once again propose the elimination of the Department of Education but this time will seek the privatization of this country’s school systems.  They have already changed our schools into factories; they might as well make them for-profit as well.

They will be beholden to the corporate interests of this country and have absolutely no desire to help any one else. They will want to privatize Social Security and Medicare and totally and absolutely gut whatever safety systems are in place in this country.  But they won’t say that; they will say that they are lowering our taxes and reducing government spending, all the way seeking to increase military spending and advocating sending our troops overseas to fight wars that no one wants to fight.  They may even want to outsource our military to various contractors.

They will be anti-union and will probably propose finding ways to eliminate OSHA.  After all, their mantra lately has been that corporations know best how to treat their workers and can be trusted to clean up the environment.

And they will seek to create laws that will allow government to spy on the citizens of this country in the name of national security while all the while saying that they want to get government out of our lives.

What is also clear is that President Obama will probably run a campaign of glorious rhetoric and lofty statements of platitudes and ideas that say “me, too!”

And it may all come down to which candidate has the most money.  Right now, I am probably going to vote for “none of the above” or the political equivalent.  There isn’t a plausible Republican candidate that I would even think of voting for.  And I would like some progressive soul to challenge President Obama but right now there is no one willing to take up the challenge.

No one in the Democratic Party would ever think of challenging President Obama because they are flat out afraid to do so.  They are afraid that if they did engage in a primary fight, it would be dirty, messy, and bloody.  And while the Republicans tend to have the same sort of political wars, when it is over, they have the political loyalty to bind together.  The Democrats don’t have that sort of loyalty.  Sometimes that is a nice thing but not when the future of the country is at stake.

The problem is that if there are any progressive candidates out there, they have to move right now.  They will have to put together grass root organizations across the country and work, right now, to get their name and idea out.  And they will have to really work to put forth their ideas.  In an environment that lives with the sound bite, it will take perhaps twice as much effort to get good ideas out.  Good ideas require thought and consideration and we have created a process that does not like thought and consideration.  I know this is going to sound crazy but think about it, how do you explain the circus that American politics has become if it weren’t for a lack of thought and consideration?

If there is a candidate out there who is willing to put forth the effort, I would like to know who they are.  The future of this country is being decided right now and the progressive voice that should be leading the way is strangely quiet.

Those are my thoughts this afternoon.

 

Thoughts on an Uncompleted Journey


Here are my thoughts for Palm Sunday, 17 April 2011.  I have been rather occupied with the feeding ministry that we do on Saturdays and Sundays and with everything else going on lately, I have found it difficult to post my Sunday posts on Sunday.

I really don’t have any particular scriptures in mind except, perhaps, for the story of Jesus walking on the water (as I will explain in a few paragraphs).  One thing that I have struggled with over the years is whether or not I should be using the Palm Sunday lectionary readings or the Passion Sunday readings.  There is also the issue of how we should understand the role of Palm Sunday in the scheme of things.

Besides not being able to post my thoughts on Sunday like I would prefer to be doing, I have found myself not attending either of the two morning services that we hold at church.  But on Sunday mornings, after feeding some 30 or 40 people, it is necessary to clean up.  I have come to believe that the Gospel writers left a few lines out when they wrote about the feeding of the multitudes.  Depending on which of the Gospels you read, Philip is identified as the disciple who wonders where they will get the food to feed the people.  But it doesn’t say who cleaned up after the people were done eating.  And I can imagine Bartholomew asking Jesus, “Who is going to clean up this mess?”   So while everyone is going to one of the services, I find myself cleaning up the community room and kitchen.  But I don’t mind, if for no other reason that I am reminded that the ministry is never done until all the work is completed.

As it happened, someone wondered how it was that I could “survive” without going to Sunday worship?  I thought that was an interesting comment in that it suggested that one must attend a regular service on Sunday morning in order to be a “complete Christian.”  I know quite a few people who would say that is what one must do but worship can take any form and occur at any time.  And I am not completely without worship.

First, I do review the lectionary readings for each Sunday so that when I get the time, I can write down my thoughts.  And second, during the past six weeks, I have coordinated the Lenten School.  And at the beginning of the school, we have had a 20 minute worship service, with music and thoughts.  Two of the six weeks, the worship service was conducted by one of the advanced classes in preaching as they (the six students and their instructor) explored different ways of presenting the message.  Now, as the coordinator, I have the opportunity to prepare the opening worship service at the beginning of the school (see "This Journey Into Lent" for the thoughts I expressed).

And as the coordinator I also had to prepare the closing worship which involved the commissioning of the new local lay speakers (we sent some 17 individuals out into the mission world this year).  I invited the District Superintendent to join us and, using the passage where Jesus walked on the water and Peter tried and failed to do the same, she spoke about the challenges that lie before us as lay speakers.  Her message focused on one of the questions that was put to her when she was seeking ordination, “Can you walk on water?”

It is also a tradition that we close the Lenten School with communion and I was allowed to write part of that liturgy.

Two thousand years ago, Christ’s disciples, along with all people celebrated the coming of the New Messiah into Jerusalem.

Two thousand years ago, Christ’s disciples were simply students, learning as they went.

They gathered together with their friends and family to celebrate the Passover meal. Little did they know what lie before them as Christ’s disciples.

Today, the students of the Lenten School gather in celebration of the completion of a journey of learning and exploration.

Today, we gather as those first students, those first disciples did in celebration of that first Lord’s Supper. We know what lies before us in the coming days and we have accepted the call to walk that path.

Though we may go our separate ways after today, we are bound together by the same spirit, the same friendship, and the same love that each of the disciples had for Christ.

And we are bound together by the love that Christ has shown for each of us.

Thus prepared to walk with Christ and present Christ to the world, renewed by your Word and Sacraments and fervent in prayer and works of justice and mercy, we come to the fullness of grace that You have prepared for those who love You.

Now, I knew when I wrote those words that two of the classes that met for the six weeks were exploring ways to continue the learning process after the completion of the Lenten School.  And that to me is why Palm Sunday is an important part of the Lenten Journey.

We have to see that while Lent leads up to Palm Sunday, the journey does not stop there but continues through this week to Good Friday and onto Easter.  And then it continues beyond Easter.

We are in the midst of an uncompleted journey, one that begins in celebration but is tempered by sorrow and heartbreak.  Some would have the journey end on Palm Sunday so that all we have is the celebration. But if we do not have the somber nature of Thursday and the sorrow and heartbreak of Good Friday, we cannot have the even greater celebration of Easter.  Ours is an uncompleted journey to the cross and beyond. I hope that this week, you will begin that journey.  And if you have begun that journey, I hope that you will bring some friends along to see what lies before you.

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This Saturday, I will be at Drew United Methodist Church (Carmel,NY); their Saturday services are at 7 and you are welcome to come and attend.  The message that I will be presenting, “The Missing Day”, will be about the time between the crucifixion and the Resurrection as told by Nathaniel Bartholomew.

Victory or Defeat?


This is the message I presented on Palm Sunday, 20 March 2005, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures that I used were Matthew 21: 1 – 11, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Matthew 26: 14 – 27:  66.

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In October 1957, America awoke to find a new star in the skies overhead. This new star was called Sputnik and was put up there by the Soviet Union. That the first man-made satellite was Russian caused a great deal of concern in America and it was thought that this country was losing the space race. The problem was there really was no race and this country was not in any danger at that time. But the perception that the Soviet Union could do what this country was unable to do was of great concern to the people and the politicians of this country.

So, the resources of this country were put into improving the mathematics and science education of this country in order to close the technology gap between the two countries that had allowed the Soviet Union to put the first satellite into orbit. While I am appreciative of the time and energy that was put into education (of which I greatly benefited), the only reason that the Soviet Union put its satellite into orbit before any of our satellites is that they used brute force. Also, we never did know how many failures the Soviet Union experienced before the success of Sputnik I, simply because the Soviet Union never told us. We, on the other hand, publicly showed all our failures and the American people became quite used to seeing potential Vanguard and Explorer satellites tumble to the ground in flames as the booster rockets exploded on the launch pad.

The reason for failure was not superior technology on the part of the Soviet Union but rather because we were developing the technology as we went along. If we had used the brute force technology that the Soviet Union employed, we could have orbited a satellite first. Ultimately, of course, we did win the race as President Kennedy following the successful orbital flight of Colonel John Glenn defined it.

The interesting thing is that has been thirty years since we last walked on the moon and over two years since Americans have been in orbit. The only lasting presence in outer space belongs to the Russians who man the orbiting International Space Station. We may have won the space race but the victory was short-lived.

I think it is possible to see the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in the same vein. The people are celebrating the victory of their King but it is a victory celebration that will be short and one that is misunderstood.

The people were celebrating the presence of a king but they were expecting a kingdom here on earth. They were willing to celebrate Jesus’ entry into the city but they also were expecting that He would overthrow the Romans or, at least, relieve the heavy burden of life off their shoulders. His message had been one of relief and comfort but they did not hear the part of the message that said it would be in heaven, not here on earth.

But when the end of the week came, those who cheered so loudly to welcome Jesus Christ as King were calling for His crucifixion. When the end of the week came, those who sought to have Jesus crucified were celebrating because they had beaten and killed the most serious threat to their presence and power. And when the week had ended, two men faced failure head-on.

For Judas, the beginning of the week must have been real reason to cheer. Most people have always assumed that Judas saw Jesus as the political liberator of the land. Judas saw Jesus as the one who would form an army and drive the Romans out of his homeland. But when it became clear that the kingdom that Jesus spoke and the message that Jesus gave was not a message for now but rather for now, he sought to find a way out.

This required that he betray his teacher and friend. But he found that those who welcomed his betrayal were not going to simply scold his friend and set him free. Rather, they used Judas to capture Jesus. In one sense, the Sanhedrin, who merely sought to use him as the means of capturing Jesus, betrayed Judas. Having deserted Jesus, Judas found himself alone and without hope. His choice then is the choice that too many people today face.

We also know too well that Peter denied Jesus, not once but three times. We know that Jesus predicted that Peter would do this, and despite Peter’s denial that he would never betray the Lord, that is exactly what he did. I have no proof but I think that Peter’s change from the temperamental, volatile, quick to act individual began that night when he experienced first hand the power of the Gospel. Though he said it so many times before, that Jesus was the Messiah, that night in the face of his own death through association, Peter understood in his heart that Jesus was and is the Messiah. It would be some days later that Peter took on the mantle of leadership but it was that night that Peter understood what the past three years was all about.

At the beginning of the week, the people of Jerusalem celebrated the victorious entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But theirs was an empty celebration, based on things that they felt were important. Jesus knew that the real celebration would come at the end of the week and the beginning of the next one. When the disciples gathered in the Upper Room for the Last Supper that week, they wondered why He was not manifesting himself to the world, why He was not declaring the establishment of His kingdom. "Why," they asked, "were they ones, his closest friends the only ones to hear the words of fulfillment?" In other words, why would Jesus not declare His kingdom to the whole world then?

Jesus’ reply to them echoes now to us, "Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him." If we are not willing to let God come into our lives, then it becomes impossible to see the victory that will come next Sunday.

Too often we think of Christianity in terms of Palm Sunday rather than Easter Sunday. We celebrate the presence of Christ the King in our lives but we want the kingdom here on Earth; often times. We are not ready to make the journey to the cross that comes at the end of the week. We want the trappings and benefits of Christ’s kingdom but we are not willing to make the sacrifices that are needed. What we do not realize that this day is not the end of the journey but only the beginning.

For the celebration to be complete, we must complete the week. We must go to the cross. That is where the victory truly is. Any celebration today, celebrating the presence of Christ without the cross, is a hollow victory. It takes away from the true meaning of the day and leaves alone and without hope or consolation.

If we go to the cross, if we let the journey be complete, then we find that victory is truly assured. Peter may have denied Christ three times but he also never left. He was able, in his despair, to come back. That is the promise found in the cross. In the darkest moments of our despair, in the darkest moments of our life we are able to find Christ. And if we can find Him then, how hard will it be to find Him in the brightness of an ordinary day?

As we go into this week we are challenged today to think about whom we will be like. Will we be like Judas, tied to a victory that is hollow? Will we seek victory before we have gained it, only to find death? Or will we find our victory in Christ’s death?