A Particular Point In Time


I was at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, this morning (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scripture readings for this morning were Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; and Matthew 25: 31 – 46. 

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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I began this message with a thought about how this is Christ the King Sunday and not the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The nature of the liturgical calendar always makes the identity of a particular Sunday very interesting. And the changing nature of the liturgical calendar and how it is dependent on Christmas and Easter lead me to a thought more appropriate perhaps for my chemistry lab than the pulpit.

One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that you may be able to determine the position of an electron with reference to the nucleus or you may be able to determine the velocity of the electron but you cannot determine both. This is the foundation for what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. This is also part of the basis for the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Quantum mechanics can take us into some very interesting areas of chemistry and physics, none of which have any immediate impact on our lives today but perhaps might in the coming years. It also leads to some interesting thoughts and possibilities, possibilities that lead Albert Einstein to reject the notion of quantum mechanics and state quite categorically that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Einstein was never comfortable with the uncertainty that came with the development of quantum mechanics, firmly believing in a deterministic model of the universe; that is, there was an underlying reality in which particles, such as electrons, do have well defined positions and velocities and that this would ultimately become known to mankind (adapted in part from “Does God Play Dice?”)

As I was writing this, I began to think that there might be some sort of correlation between the deterministic model of the universe favored by Einstein and first developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century and the deterministic, pre-destination model of theology developed by John Calvin.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564), the 16th century theologian, proposed that everyone is born a sinner and there is no escaping the penalty for sin. A simple way of saying it would be that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people and if you were one of the bad people, then you had no hope in this world. It is a model that has been rejected by most theologians because if it were the operating model for our faith, then there would be no reason to have Jesus in our lives. Our escape from a life of sin and death is predicated on the presence of Jesus in our lives; if we cannot escape sin, then we have no need for Jesus or even God for that matter.

To some extent, this idea, that our lives were fixed and determined by God before we were born, was the basic understanding of the people of Jesus’ time. Illness, poverty, misfortune were all the signs of a sinful life; good health, riches, and a fortunate life were all the signs of a righteous life. How many times was it said that the children suffered because of some sin either or both of their parents did? It was, if you will, the central point of Jesus’ message to say that all had a hope and a possibility, one that came through Christ.

Unfortunately, John Calvin preceded Newton by almost 100 years and if there was any link, it would be in terms of what Newton thought, not what Calvin thought. So I will leave it to others more versed in theology to determine if there is a relationship between John Calvin’s deterministic ideas and those of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There may be such a link because what most people don’t know is that Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible and faith than he did about any other area, including optics, calculus, or gravity (See my notes on Newton – “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Still, some 600 years after Calvin, it is interesting to note that many people still believe that one’s life is determined at birth and riches come to the righteous while poverty comes because one leads a life of sin. Many people today are quite willing to believe that they will be the ones who will receive the stated rewards of heaven because they are, if you will, the “true believers”. But their actions often times don’t reflect their faith.

Oh, these “true believers” do come to church on Sunday but when the sun rises on Monday morning, in fact by the time the referee blows his whistle to start the football game on Sunday afternoon, what has been said and done on Sunday morning is often forgotten. They heard the pastor speak about the equality found in Jesus but practice inequality in their daily lives. They nod with knowing approval when someone gets up to say that the local food bank needs donations and volunteers but they always seem to find things on their calendar that somehow take precedence. They tell all their friends about how they were part of a mission trip to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but they are not willing to help with local missions as it is a waste of time and only encourages the poor to stay poor. Their day to day lives are more reflective of the people of the Old Testament who ignored the sick, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed and were more interested in their own lives.

It takes more than coming to church on a Sunday to be a Christian or giving lip service to the call of the many; to say that one is a Christian is to say that one has a new life, a new view of the world. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

If we leave Christ behind when we leave the church then it is impossible for Christ to be in the world. If our lives during the week are not reflective of the time we spend in the church on Sunday, then we haven’t learned anything. It becomes easy then to not see the hungry or the homeless, the sick or the oppressed. When our focus is not on Christ and His message, it becomes very easy to become blind to the world.

When your life in Christ is limited to a few hours a week in a single building, you are not likely to see Christ as He walks by you on the street each day. When your focus is on the world in which our bodies lie, it is very hard to see the world in which our spirit tries to live. The Gospel reading today is a very stark reminder of what can happen. When our vision of Christ is an image on the wall in a building called a church, it is very hard to see Christ any other way.

It isn’t always about doing mission work far away from one’s home; it is about doing mission work anytime one walks out of the church and into the world. It is about seeing Christ not in the building they left but in the world outside the building.

It is quite easy, then, to understand why the people responded the way they did in the Gospel reading. I am utterly convinced that people today would respond the same as those who read the words in Matthew when they were first written two thousand years ago. They do not see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, or the imprisoned. Christ is viewed only in terms of the building they called the church, not the person who walked the dusty back roads of Galilee and taught others about the love of God the Father, who healed the sick and brought comfort to people who were convinced that they had been forgotten.

I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?

It takes more than a few words and some limited actions one week a year. It takes a change of heart; it takes a new vision. To see each person you encounter as Christ, not just another person on the street.

Some years ago, I took my mother to a new Christian restaurant in Memphis. That was how it was advertised. It was clean, it had a nice environment and no alcohol was served. It was a nice, clean place to take your family to eat. It should have been a booming success. Unfortunately it failed.

Now some will tell me that our society doesn’t like Christian-based businesses. They will tell you that this restaurant’s failure was based on society not wanting anything to do with a Christian theme business. But I will let you in on a little secret; if the food at a restaurant is not good, calling it a Christian restaurant won’t make it better. But the food was lousy and, in the end, a restaurant that serves lousy food is not going to be successful, no matter what its name. If the owners had been more of the Spirit, perhaps they would have understood this. I will be honest; I thought that their attitude was one in which the name would be enough.

What would you serve Christ for a meal? And if you were to serve the best for Christ, what would you serve his children? And that points out something very critical about our lives, do you treat each person that you meet, that you work with, that you encounter as you would treat Christ? Will you know it when you encounter Christ?

I am reminded of a church that one day welcomed a stranger into their midst. But just because he was a stranger, he wasn’t treated as such. He was welcomed as a friend and as a neighbor. It is my understanding that he never returned after that single visit. Some years later, the church received a check from the estate of this man, a check that enabled them to buy some property and build a new parsonage and turn the old parsonage into a Sunday school house. The stranger was welcomed into the church and he remembered that welcome.

I am also reminded of an individual who is a United Methodist preacher today but some ten years or so ago was a bouncer in a local bar. You would never have thought that this individual would become a preacher and even he would tell you that back then it was the furthest thing from his mind. But one day, he came to church because a family member insisted he needed to be there for a baptism. Someone helped him get a cup coffee and he stuck the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket. A couple of weeks later, he discovered that bulletin and remembered the offer about the coffee and he came back. That particular bulletin sits on his desk as reminder that he once was a stranger and he was made welcome in a church.

I recognize that many times we come to church because we are looking for Jesus. In many modern day churches today, that is a hard thing to do. Too many churches today have made that a very difficult thing to do. For one thing, we sometimes don’t really want to find Christ because He will remind us of the things we are supposed to be doing. For another, we want Christ to be in one place when He is very likely to walk through the door as a visitor or a stranger in need. If you leave with one thought it is that we need to see Christ outside this place, not necessarily here.

This day is called Christ the King Sunday. It serves as a reminder of what the focus of our life should be. When John Calvin put forth his brand of theology, he told the people that many of them would lead lives of despair and grief; that was the way it was with God. But Jesus came into the world, not to condemn but to lift up and offer hope, to show that there was another path to take.

We stand at this particular point in time, staring at a choice we must make. We can choose to continue as we have done in the past, hoping against all hope that we will have an opportunity at some other time to choose to follow Christ. Or we can choose to follow Christ, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to Him. And as we leave this place today, we leave knowing that we are going to encounter Christ, not leave Him behind.

Finding the Right People


Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 November 2011. I will be at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, next week (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Judges 4: 1 – 7, 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11, and Matthew 25: 14 – 30. 

This has been edited since it was first posted.


It is interesting that these three Scripture readings would come after the week in which elections were held. Because I see in the readings issues about leadership and the response of the people. I also see issues relevant to the church today (I was going to say modern church but there are times when the church today is simply a 21st century version of the Old Testament and one in which the New Testament has yet to be written).

Consider, if you will, the role of Deborah. We hear from many more conservative church leaders today that women should not be placed in roles of leadership, other than perhaps as Sunday School teachers (which would be a stereo-typical role of women as only teachers). But the Old Testament passage points out that Deborah was one of the judges of Israel, one of those chosen to lead the nation in times of war and peace.

Why did Deborah lead her people? Simply put, she had the skills and abilities and whoever wrote Judges must have been impressed enough with what she could do to include her leadership in the history of the people. Her leadership was predicated on her talents, not her gender. This is a point that I think is often overlooked in a reading of the Bible.

Now, I will be honest; when I read the parable of ten talents, today’s Gospel reading, I see it in a variety of terms. When you read the translation from The Message or Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, it is read in terms of money. But one has to be careful, I think, in putting in terms of money because the idea of a five-fold or ten-fold return on your investment is the foundation of the prosperity gospel and I have no desire to go there.

And as someone asked me over the weekend, what would the master have done if either the individual given the five talents or ten talents had invested it in something speculative or risky? Would they have benefited in the same manner as they did with what one may assume were safe investments? Or would they have been chastised as the individual who took his one talent and hid it away so that it could not be lost?

I realize that there is a risk involved in many investments and I want to be assured of a reasonable return on my investment but I also know, especially in today’s society, that the thrill of a fantastic return on a small investment leads to many penalties. By the same token, if you have some skills or talents and you do nothing with them, then you have wasted those skills and talents. But if you use those skills and talents, you have the opportunity to go beyond your present limits.

I see the parable of the ten talents in that light, especially when you think about Deborah. You take the talents you have and you move beyond the limitations that are imposed on you by society. Deborah should not have been a leader of the Israelite nation but her talents and skills were better than any other possible candidate. I routinely point out to my chemistry classes that the first person to win two Nobel prizes was Marie Curie and both were awarded at a time when women were not exactly welcome in either chemistry or physics. But the work she did could not be overlooked and it is too the credit of the Nobel Prize Committee that she was given both awards.

The same is true for each one of us; we each have a unique set of talents and skills and what we do with those talents and skills that will determine the outcome of our life. As I read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, I since an attitude that may have been shared by the individual who received the one talent. We have what we have and we need do nothing more; we can take it easy. But what will happen then?

The title of the message is “Finding the Right People”. It means that we must identify the skills and talents of each individual that we work with and we must determine how to best use those skills and talents. But we have to push the envelope when it comes to making that determination. For only by pushing the envelope (and my apologies for using that cliché) can we move forward.

The problem right now for the church is that we are afraid to move forward, afraid to use our talents and skills in ways that reflect the mission of the church, afraid to venture outside the safety of our sanctuary and church. We hold to worn-out views of the world, views that say only certain individuals are capable of leadership and others must follow them. We hold to views that say that there are only certain things that a church can do. We have to move beyond those views, look at what the churches of the past have done (and I mean the past, say two thousand years ago) and see how we can make that the church of the future.

Actually we don’t need to find the right people; we have them in the congregation today. We have to find out what their skills and talents are and we have to be able to use all of those skills and talents for the good of the community. It is not easy but doing the work of the Lord never is.

It means moving beyond, not holding back. The question has to be, “are you ready to do so?”

11-11-11


Were it not for the significance of this date, I might be writing about the mathematics of this day. But on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, at the 11th hour, the firing stopped to conclude World War I. I have previously posted what my grandfather, then a Captain in the U. S. Army and stationed in France, wrote in his diary on this day – see “My Grandfather’s Diary entry for this day, 11 November 1918“.

As readers of this blog know, I am the son of an Air Force officer and the grandson of an Army officer. I was raised with the understanding that there was honor in service. But I have always wondered if others feel the same way, especially those who have the power and the ability to do something about it.

I am not quite sure what we as a society think of this day. We tend to glorify combat and we elevate the concept of being a soldier to almost heroic and mythical standards. Yet, when a soldier has completed his or her tour of duty, we as a society tend to ignore them. The recent revelations coming out of Dover, Delaware, speak to the lack of regard we have for those who served and died in service to this country.

When politicians speak of the military, it is often done in glowing terms but it is also done with an eye to the military-industrial complex that dominates this country. Every politician (left or right) speaks for a strong defense but the money they spend goes to the bureaucracy and the companies that build our multi-billion dollar weapons systems. Very little of the money spent on defense these days goes to those who must use the weapons systems; very little money goes to support the veterans after they have completed their service. In fact, when monies are cut from the Defense Department budget, it is often cut first from the Veterans Administration. We have passed laws that say that a veteran, called to active duty, can have their job back when they have completed their tour of duty. Yet many veterans are unemployed and homeless; is that how we say thank you?

My grandfather’s diary gave me insight into the First World War. It allowed me to look at what happened there. The armistice that was declared on 11/11/1918 only meant that the shooting stopped. When the politicians were done, the seeds for the Second World War were planted.

We have been fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan for over ten years now. Yes, the troops in Iraq will all be home by Christmas but that doesn’t mean that when the New Year starts they all won’t be sent to Afghanistan. Or we will find some other war to fight.

No matter what anyone says, peace can never come from the barrel of a gun,. The monies that we spend on war are destroying the economy of this country and yet we are willing to keep spending money we don’t have. And yet we will not cut the funding for wars that cannot be won. If we want peace, we must work for peace, not simply fight on in hopes of victory.

Today, this is a national holiday. Banks and schools are closed, there will be no mail delivered and many government offices will be closed. But the stores are open and there are sales and bargains galore. Against that backdrop, I hope that you will pause and think about what today really is about. I hope that you will honor those who have served this country, no matter where or no matter when, by making sure that their service and sacrifice was not in vain. I hope you will work to make sure that peace is that standard by which we live and that all have sufficient food, housing, and medical coverage.

A Simple Act of Political Protest


As the title of this piece indicates, I engaged in an act of political protest this morning; I voted. I voted because I have the right to do so and because one year I didn’t vote. That one year was, if nothing else, political purgatory. You may disagree with me but if you vote, and it does not matter whether you voted for the winner or the loser, then you have the right to agree or disagree with what takes place in the coming months. But if you do not vote, and it is your choice to do so or not, then you have, in my humble opinion, forfeited the right to dissent.

This country was founded on the right of each person to vote and express their own opinion. There are many who feel that their vote is wasted but I have come to the thought that it is wasted when you don’t use it.

Right now, this country is in the midst of what might be the greatest revival of politics since the American Revolution. The “Occupy” movement is an expression of the thoughts of the people and in great contrast to the “Tea Party” movement that we saw last year. It will be interesting to see how things go in the next twelve months as we know begin in earnest the Presidential campaign of 2012.

I am thinking of posting some thoughts on the issues and not the candidates. Right now, there aren’t too many candidates out there that I will support. My votes today were predicated on contact with the candidates early on.

We are going to get tons of these political robot calls in the next twelve months. Let me put it on the record. If you are a candidate running for an office in this area of the country and you are expecting my vote, then I expect you to knock on my door and introduce yourself. Don’t expect me to contribute to your campaign unless you have serious (and I mean serious) plans for getting this country back to work. Since my unemployment is now past four years, I am not making many political contributions.

I have already told the Obama campaign to quit calling my house and asking for my support. I did so because 1) I really think that they blew it three years ago and 2) the calls are coming as unknown numbers that cannot be identified. Practically every political call that we have received in the past months has come from an unidentified 800 number. I have already pointed out that my Representative in Congress, Nan Hayworth, uses a similar system to let people know of her town hall meetings. But we don’t answer unknown caller phone calls so we don’t participate in Hayworth’s town hall meetings.

I was able to trace a call from my local state senator back to the National Republican Committee phone bank and I let him know that I thought that was really low. I also let the Obama know in no uncertain terms that I thought that using an unidentified number was not the way to go; are you so afraid of the electorate that you won’t put a legitimate name on the caller id?

And you can expect to lose my vote if I get an unidentified political robot call from you or your representatives. I will vote in next year’s election; I will vote for the candidates whose views look to the future of this country and to the future for all the people. I will not vote for any candidate whose views involve turning the calendar back and who believe that some of the people living in this country are more important than others. I will not vote for any candidate who expresses the thought that God told them to run for office or who suggest that their version of religion is somehow better than mine. I am not saying that being a Methodist is the best route but it works for me. And I have said it before that I don’t like it when my decisions about God and faith are questioned. That’s my choice and not yours.

Politics is about the people and the people should have the ultimate say. That’s why I voted today; it is, was, and will always be a simple act of political protest.

The Uninvited Guest


This has been edited since it was first posted.

When I first began graduate school at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) one of my professors spoke of the time you could take the train from the campus to Crump Stadium for the football games. When he spoke of this, we had this image of games in perhaps the 1930s or 40s and not the 1950s when they actually occurred. Those of us who heard him speak of those games knew about the train, or rather the railroad, since the tracks ran right by the campus. We, or some of us, knew of Crump Stadium but we knew it as the place where Memphis high schools played their football games, not the Tigers of Memphis State. (For the record, the Tigers, more aptly named the Kittens for the way they have played lately, play in the Liberty Bowl.)

What I don’t think anyone of us could imagine was the fact that taking the train was more than just a short ride from the campus to the stadium; it was a trip from the country to the city. When the campus of Memphis State was first built, it was outside the city limits of Memphis. Now, of course, the city of Memphis has grown around the campus and, if nothing else, limits the expansion of the campus. The train still runs by the campus but instead of passenger traffic it is mostly commercial traffic. Woe be the student who is on the south side of the tracks when one of those long, long trains pass by and traffic stops for twenty minutes and they have to be in class in ten minutes.

I bring this up because I have to ask if you, the reader, can tell me what the area around your church looked like when your church built its present building. Was it built with the future in mind or was it built to accommodate the present? I think of one of the churches that I was a member of; when it was built, it was in the middle of farm land and was easily accessible. Over the years, the town and the college that was part of the town grew around the church. In one sense, this was good because it gave the church a population from which it could draw (though, to be honest, it never got many college students to attend). But, as the town grew around the church, parking for the church disappeared. And many church planners will tell you, if you do not have adequate parking, you will have trouble growing the church.

What do you do in situations where the area around the church is no longer the area it was when the church began? In the case of my old church, they began looking for another site, realizing that growth was not possible without such a move.

But sometimes the move is made for other reasons. One of the mega-churches in Memphis, long an established presence in the downtown area, saw an interstate go through the center of town. It also saw the decay of downtown Memphis plus the flight of its membership from the city to the suburbs. Ultimately, in light of where its congregation lived and the neighborhood around the church, the church decided to move out to the suburbs and leave its historical place behind. The good news is that the church was bought by another congregation seeking a bigger building.

A few years ago, I wrote of another church that saw the neighborhood change and recognized that with its congregation living elsewhere the mission of the church needed to change (“What Do We Need?”). And if I am not mistaken, there is a church in my area that recognized that if it wanted to maintain its presence in the community, it must recognize that the community around it had and was changing as well.

By now, you know about the “Call to Action” that is to be the guidelines for the future of the United Methodist Church. You also know that I am a little leery of this call, if for no other reason than I am always leery of directives created at the top which call for the ones on the bottom to implement. I am leery because I am aware that true change is initiated at the bottom and embraced by the top. I am worried because the measure of success for the call will be measured in terms of numbers that tell little about the church. The true success of a church can only be measured in terms of souls saved and that is a metric that cannot be truly measured.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago (“Who Shall Feed My Sheep?”) people do not come to a church because of its numbers; they come because they hope to find God and answers to their questions about life. We have to ask ourselves a very critical question, “what exactly did Jesus want to do with His mission?”

Was it merely to get everyone to follow Him? Or was it to make a fundamental change in the world and the way people treat each other? We can easily count the number of people we baptize, who complete confirmation, and become members? But have we changed the world that way?

Are we not changing the world when we do the things that Jesus did – feed the hungry, heal the sick, bring a new hope to the oppressed and forgotten?

But let us be realistic. Feeding the hungry is more than coffee and doughnuts and calling it breakfast or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and say that it is dinner. It is having a meal with real plates and being able to use real utensils instead of paper plates with plastic forks and knifes. It is preparing food fit for a king because the King may be among those who sit at the table.

Too many people today feel that one’s economic status determines how you eat and what you will eat.

Let us also realize feeding the hungry is not the solution to the problem. People are hungry for a reason, i.e., the lack of food. There needs to be an organized distribution of food within each community and ultimately the lack of food for the people needs to be addressed.

The same thing can be said about medical care. I can tell you from personal experience that many who come to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen lack in basic medical care. Some suffer from high blood pressure and/or diabetes; for one or two, the conditions can be life-threatening if not monitored carefully. At one point this summer five of the women who came to the kitchen were pregnant and only receiving minimal care. If I could do it, I would see that there was some sort of free medical clinic in operation on Saturdays so that those who come to the table can be checked out medically as well. This, like feeding ministries and food banks, is a partial solution; there must be a concentrated effort to see that all the people of a community have reasonable healthcare.

And, when you stop to think about it, the response of the early Methodists was to do just that. Provide food, health care, and education to a portion of the population that most of society would just as soon forget.

If we as a people, a church, and a denomination are to respond to the bishop’s call to action, it should be to respond as those who began the Methodist Revival did. It wasn’t about numbers back then; it was about the people. And that is the way that it should be today.

Paul reminds us that the King is coming. He just doesn’t tell us how He is coming. We tend to think that when Jesus does come, He will come in splendor and glory. But what if He were to come in the rags of a homeless person? Would we then welcome Him? Or would we treat Him as some sort of uninvited guest?

The Gospel passage for today speaks of five foolish and five prepared people. Those who are prepared are prepared for any guest, invited or uninvited; if we are foolish, then the important guest will be missed and we will not be ready.

Joshua stands before the people and the people tell him that they will follow God. But Joshua reminds them that they have forsaken God too many times in the past. How many times have our worship services and our church conferences been like the conversation in the Old Testament reading today?

How many more times will we continue to echo the voices of the Israelites, willing to follow God but unwilling to take the steps? There will come a time when we will not have the opportunity that lies before us.

The table has been set and the doors are opened. Are you prepared for all the guests who will come or just the invited ones? What will you say to the uninvited guest who is hungry and homeless?

And Joshua said to the people, “my family and I will serve God.”