“Three Impossible Things”


This is the message that I gave at Lake Mahopac UMC Sunday, June 9th, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (C); the Scripture readings for today are 1 Kings 17: 8 – 24, Galatians 1: 11 – 24, and Luke 7: 11 – 17. Services start at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

This is about stories and change, of what is and what will be, of what we want and what we need. It is about where we have been and where we are going. Sometimes it seems as if the stories are improbable; sometimes it seems if we are asked to do the impossible. But if we understand what has happened, the stories don’t seem so improbable and what we are asked to do doesn’t seem so impossible.

I started planning this message with a thought about impossible things. But I quickly found out that such an idea was probably one of those three impossible things.

This thought about impossible things had its genesis in the knowledge that there are many people today who feel that the miracles described in the Old and New Testament are either impossible, improbable, or hallmarks of superstition and mythology.

Even today, there are those who say that Jesus is and was nothing more than a myth or legend.

But if Jesus is a myth or a legend, how is it that this story still resonates today? Did those who died during the Roman persecution two thousand years ago die for a myth? Have those who have defended the poor, the homeless, the oppressed countless times over the years done so in the name of a legend? I want to make note of a blog that I read the other day about a pastor in North Carolina who felt that his call to the ministry required that he take part in a civil disobidence protest (see my link to the post, “Why I Stayed”). How was it that he could be true to who he was if he did not speak out, in the name of Christ, for those who seem to have been forgotten by the rich and the powerful? How could he not speak out when that is what Christ did two thousand years ago?

I know that there are other myths and legends, every society has them. For the most part, we have identified them as such and they are no longer an integral part of our life. But we cannot for some reason seem to get rid of the notion that there is a God in our lives and He somehow plays a role.

And for all those who say that religion is some form of superstition or nothing more than mythology on a complex scale, what can you offer in return? What can you offer as a rationale for doing good in this world? What causes evil in this world? And be very careful how you answer this because you either have to have a god of some sort or it has to be a part of humankind. And I particularly don’t want to go down the path that says good and evil are integral parts of humankind’s makeup.

But is religion nothing more than some sort of advanced form of superstition? Is it nothing more than mythology on some complex scale?

The noted philosopher Joseph Campbell once pointed out that there is a bit of truth in every myth. Somewhere way back in time, something happened that ultimately lead to the myths and legends we have today. (“Understanding Mythology with Joseph Campbell”)

Christianity still resonates today because there is an element of truth to it and I would like to offer two reasons for why.

The first way that I know that there is an element of truth to the story of Christ and what transpired on those dusty backroads of the Galilee some two thousand years ago and even further back in time with the prophets and the beginnings of the Jewish people is that it was written down.

As some of you know that I am a chemist by training. One thing about chemistry is that you have to spend time in the laboratory, whether it was a teaching lab or a research lab. And that’s where the fun is! The basic rule of lab work is that if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. One could do world-class, Nobel Prize winning research but if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t mean a thing.

That Elijah’s encounter with the widow is in the 1st Book of Kings means that something happened and it was written as best as the writer could describe it. The same is true for the encounter of Jesus with the funeral process in today’s Gospel reading; someone told Luke about this and he felt it important enough to be included in his writings.

And what were the last words written in the Gospel of John,

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21: 25 – The Message)

So the stories were recorded and we can presume that there is some degree of truth to the stories. And we need to be telling the stories again and again. And therein, as Shakespeare might have written, lies the challenge.

We as a church and a denomination have truly failed to tell the story and when we do tell it, it is often in our own terms and not God’s. Remember what Paul told the Galatians,

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

We tell a very confusing story. We speak certain words that reflect the Bible but actions do not reflect those same words.

We hear that we are a Christian nation but when we look at this nation of ours, we often see a nation devoid of compassion and caring, a nation that divides the people instead of uniting them. We see a nation that pronounces that poverty, homelessness, sickness, and death are products of sin; that riches and wealth, good health and long life are the products of a righteous life. We argue for the order and law found in the Old Testament while claiming to be a New Testament people.

We read of the acceptance of Christ for all people, yet, often behind closed and locked doors, we are unwilling to share the Good News with those who are different in some way from us.

The reading from 1 Kings for today tells us two things. First, God’s grace is for all, not just a select few. The widow whom Elijah came to was a non-Israelite. While the nation of Israel was straying from God and suffering from an intolerable drought, God was supplying the daily necessities to a non-Israelite who gave comfort to one of His prophets.

But she also believed that it was her sins that caused the death of her son. No matter that her flour bin was never empty and her oil supply never ran dry, her belief in God was only confirmed at the time of her greatest despair.

The truth of this story can be found in the fact that it reflects our life in so many ways. We often fail to see God’s hand in what we do each day and only turn to Him in times of our greatest despair. And when someone gives thanks to God for their success, we often ridicule them. We expect God to be there for the bad times so why shouldn’t we expect God to be there in the good times as well.

The importance of the reading from 1 Kings today is to point out the value of personal trust in God, even in the hardest of times, that God will be there and provide. The widow could only see the “value” of God in her anguish but not in her good times.

This is very much what is happening today. As a people and as a society, we are faced first and foremost was a drought of spirit. There is no spirit in our lives, there is no vision of the future. We are unwilling to put our trust in God.

There is, within our modern theology, a notion from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we have come to call “cheap grace.” It is the grace that we feel is ours but it is not the grace that God offers us. We want God’s grace but are unwilling to pay for it with more than a few moments in church once a week. Others feel that they have a right to ask for anything from a church and it will be given to them (and they often get very angry when we ask that they make a commitment in return).

But the grace that we truly need comes with a price, the price of the cross and that simply is a price we are not often willing to pay. Christ gave His life so that we would be free, so that sin and death could never encumber and entangle us. Our freedom is found not in simply listening to the words of Christ but understanding that what Christ taught is what we must do.

The price that we have to pay is that we are called to follow Christ, to walk with Him to the Cross and go beyond it. Those that saw Jesus bring the young man back to life did not just sit there and say “wow!” They went out and told others. It was what drove Paul to go beyond the boundaries of his life and into new worlds. It was what drove the twelve beyond their homeland and into new and uncharged worlds.

It is what we need to be doing in our churches today. We need to be building the community that our church is a part of, not closing the doors to the church and letting the world go by.

If Jesus had not been a part of the world, at least in the Gospel reading for today, he would not have brought the young man back from the dead. We can do little if we stay inside the walls of the church.

It is, I know, very difficult to put your trust in God that things will work out. It is very difficult to put your trust in God and go into places that you would never have gone before. It is very difficult to take on tasks that others say are impossible. The circuit rider, the Methodist clergy and laity who rode from town to town, often never knew what they might find on the road or in the next town. They hoped that there would be a warm bed and a place out of the rain; they hoped that there would be a gathering of believers eager to hear the Word.

But they still went on trusting in the Lord and empowered by the life-changing nature of the Holy Spirit.

And we must do the same; we must go out into the world and tell the people we meet about the stories. And not just tell the stories but show how those stories are a part of our lives and how our lives have been changed by the stories as well. Words by themselves mean nothing if our actions do not speak the same words.

And that is the second piece of the evidence that there is a truth to the story enters. We know the power of the Holy Spirit, its presence in our lives, and its ability to change lives. Throughout our history, we have recorded instances of the Holy Spirit impacting on the lives of individuals and changing the direction that they were headed. We know of Saul from Tarsus encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus and becoming Paul. We read in the Epistle reading for today Paul’s own words about this tranformation.

We know that John Wesley’s own life and the life of the Methodist Church was turned around when his heart was strangely warmed in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred and fifty years ago.

Perhaps you have experienced something similar at some point in your life. Perhaps it was as subtle as the heart-warming experience of John Wesley, perhaps it was as dramatic as Paul’s encounter with Christ. But, most certainly, at sometime in your life, you, as I, have had, experienced the knowledge that Holy Spirit is a part of your life.

Perhaps you are not aware that you have had this experience, perhaps it was not nothing more than a fleeting moment in time but it was there and it was enough to bring you here today, seeking answers to questions deep within your soul.

The answers for those questions that lie deep within your soul can be found if one opens one’s heart and soul to Christ. It need not be as dramatic as Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus, an encounter that left him blind but gave him a new life and a new name. It may very well be a subtle one such as the heart-warming experience that John Wesley had but the impact of that experience was enough to empower the first great Methodist revival.

Part of the story that has been told over the years is that there were those who heard the story and yet did nothing and told no one. But enough people did hear the story and it changed their lives and they told others and the story continued.

I cannot say what will happen to your life if you accept Christ other than to say that it will change. I do not know what world-changing things will happen when you open your heart and soul to Christ and let the Holy Spirit to empower your life.

But I do know that your life will change and you will tell others about the story that changed your life. And that my friends is not an impossible thing!

“The Death of Mark Twain and Other Rumors”


I am at at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (B); the Scripture readings for today are Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52. Services start at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

As perhaps some of you know, I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and I went to college in Missouri and Iowa. Now, I will admit that, even though I have lived in quite a number of different places throughout the years, at times my knowledge of specific local areas can be quite limited.

It was that way when I first began college at Truman State University, or as it was known back then, Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. If someone were to ask me where I was from, I automatically assumed that they knew that when I said Memphis, they knew that it was Memphis, Tennessee. I quickly found out that, for many individuals in the northeast section of Missouri, that when one said they were from Memphis, they were referring to Memphis, Missouri, a town about 4o miles from Kirksville, and not necessarily the home (not home town) of Elvis.

Now, as it happens, Kirksville and Memphis are both in the Mark Twain District of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, just as Mahopac and Beacon are parts of the New York/Connecticut District of the New York Annual Conference. And Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer is also in this district.

And here is where it may get confusing. While Hannibal may be the home of Mark Twain, it is not where Samuel Clemens was born. Samuel Clemens was born, not in Hannibal, but in Florida, Missouri, a few miles outside Hannibal. You can imagine what I think every time I drive over to the Warwick area across the river to preach at one of the churches in that area and I have to pass through Florida, New York.

Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, and he would move to Hannibal when he was about five. Clemens’ birth was during a visit to our Solar System by Halley’s Comet and he often said that he would die when it again visited this solar system. In 1909, Twain is quoted as saying:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” (From Wikipedia)

He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, the day after this most famous interplanetary visitor passed by the earth. Each year, at this time, we are reminded of this by the Orionid meteor shower, an event that occurs when the earth passes through the debris left by Halley’s comet against a backdrop of the constellation Orion. No doubt Mr. Clemens smiles as we are reminded of his actual death and not those occasions where others said that he had died.

It was that line in Job that we read this morning where Job speaks of only knowing God as a rumor that prompted me to think of Mr. Clemens, his life and the reports of his death, both real and rumored. Twice in his life people thought that he had died, which lead him to state “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” After the second of these instances when it was thought that he had again died, he wrote that he would make an exhaustive investigation of the report and he would let the people know if there was any truth to it.

Now, it is entirely possible that I could have gone to school in Kirksville and never learned about Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. It would have been a little bit difficult, I suspect, for the simple reason that I spent almost eight years in that particular part of Missouri and a better part of my life traveling up and down the Mississippi from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Arkansas and Mississippi delta around Memphis making it somewhat difficult to ignore the history and literature of that area.

If someone were to ask me how I would characterize my education at Truman, I would say that part of it was formal and in the classroom and part of it was informal and outside the classroom. But what I learned in the classroom often times gave me the skills and abilities to learn and understand what was outside the classroom. Too many times, we limit our education to a particular time and place and we are quite willing to stop learning when we are not in those formal settings.

In his own way, Samuel Clemens wrote about the nature of humanity, sometimes with wit, sometimes with sarcasm and sometimes with sorrow. Some of Clemens’ works have been severely criticized in today’s society for their lack of political correctness and I know that I would have difficulty repeating some of that language but Clemens wrote about what he saw. And I grew up in a culture that hadn’t changed much in the 100 years or so after Clemens wrote his stories. So I understood why he wrote what he did. I think that those who object to his writing often times have little knowledge or appreciation for other times and other places; I also know that there are many individuals who stopped learning after their formal education ended and it sometimes shows in their knowledge of the world and what transpires today. And sadly, that includes the church today.

Clemens objected to a society that put material well-being over substance of character. So it should not surprise you that Samuel Clemens, who made his mark on American literature with his observations and writings about our society, would have a few choice, and not so kind, words about American Christianity.

There is no doubt that Clemens believed in God but many of the things that drive people away from the church today were things that bothered Twain as well. He would write in an autobiography that was published in 2010, 100 years after his death,

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory as it is–in our country particularly and in all other Christian countries in a somewhat modified degree–it is still a hundred times better than the Christianity of the Bible, with its prodigious crime–the invention of Hell. Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

It would be interesting to delve into why Mr. Clemens characterized the Christianity of the Bible as he did. But that is a topic for another time and place.

But I know that there are many people who see Christianity, the church, and God in much the same way today. They see a vengeful God, willing to strike down any and all who incur His wrath. They see God as one would allow His people to enslave and persecute others in His name. They see a church that closes its doors to all those who seek God, who seek hope and promise in times of strife and need.

They are hard pressed to see God as a loving and caring God who sent His son to save us from being enslaved to sin and death. They cannot see Christ as the one who leads us to a path of peace in a sometimes often violent world.

And they often times back up their beliefs with the notion that what they believe is in the Bible. But they cannot identify where in the Bible it is or they take a particular statement and apply it out of context. Someone said that ours is a society that is so in love with the Bible that we are afraid to open it for fear of damaging it.

And there are those today who say that Jesus Christ was, at the minimum, a rumor, and at the most, a myth. In fact, there are many today who would deny the existence of any god (lower case) or supreme being simply because there is so much death and destruction on earth. What god would allow this to happen, especially if it is a god that professes to love his children.

The vengeful, wrathful God is often the picture presented in the Old Testament but when we say that we are Christians we are saying that we are a people of the New Testament as well and we have to know the difference.

We live in a time when many people hold to the view that we need to return to the Bible and enact laws based on the Bible. But if we are to return to a style of life that is outlined in the Old Testament, what are we to do with the New Testament, the very basis for us being Christian?

Is Christ a myth, a rumor, the product of some vast two-thousand year old conspiracy in which we have been misled and confused? If it is, how is it that we have gotten this far? How is it that this faith has lasted this long? There has to have been some degree of truth to what is said today, otherwise how can we even begin to think about being here?

And that is our problem, we can’t even begin to think of a God that would knowingly and willingly send His Son to live among us and show us a new path, a new life. We are not willing to see among the destruction, the death, the violence, and the hatred that God would love us completely and unconditionally. Unless we are willing to change our lives, it is almost impossible to see beyond the moment; unless we are willing to delve into the material in such a way that it becomes part of our lives, the words of the Bible will only be words and nothing more.

The Old Testament reading for today concludes a four-week study of the Book of Job. It is a part of the Wisdom section of the Old Testament and serves as a transition from the historical and law sections of the Old Testament to the writings of the prophets. It can be a tough book to read and study for it often challenges us to think beyond our own limits. It asks the question, “Is God a remote and omnipotent being who cares little for his children or is He a loving and caring God that will see that no trouble befalls his children?”

Job is identified as the richest man in the country and one who is without sin. Now, some preachers today would say that Job’s riches are the results of his righteousness. Were this the case then the premise of the story, that the loss of one’s material well-being and health would cause one to denounce God, might have some validity. In fact, it is the basis for many of the arguments put forth by Job’s friends.

Throughout the Book of Job, Job’s friends counsel him to either denounce God for all the suffering and pain that he has endured or at least acknowledge that he, Job, must have done something extremely terrible or wrong to receive such punishment. If you stop and think about it, these are often the very responses that so many people today would offer.

But against this backdrop of illness, death, destruction, abandonment, and the taunts of his friends, Job only asks to hear from God why this is all happening. In the reading from last week, God does speak to Job and now Job says to God, “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!”

There is a difference between the experience Job has with God and the experience of Job’s friends. They can only speak about God. Their knowledge of God was limited to what they had learned in school but never applied. They spoke in correct and beautiful terms but they were often words without meaning simply because they were simply words from a book, not from the heart and mind.

God will rebuke Job’s friends for their persistent argument against Job that God always blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that to question this was to question the justice of God, and so to add sin to the obvious heinous sin Job must have already committed to be in the state he was in. This would have been understood as mainstream, everyday, normal theology. God rejects that theology here. He calls it “what is not right” (“right” in the sense here of grounded in fact), while what Job has said is right.

Two things come from this. First, understand that John Wesley rejected this argument when he began his work among the poor and lower classes of 18th century England. Yet, even today, there are people who believe that wealth is a sign of righteousness and poverty the result of sin.

Second, we have to realize that Job’s understanding of God has gone from a routine understanding to a deeper, more personal understanding of God. In a time when many people would rather we not question God, our reading of Job tells us that to question God helps to bring a deeper understanding of faith. Now Job will tell you, as he does in the story, that because he now knows God more personally, he is even more aware of how much he does not know. It reflects a statement about any sort of research that one does, the answer to one question often leads to two or more new questions.

The reading from Hebrews (Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; for those who are interested, here is a link to reading from Hebrews for today) further reflects the personal nature of knowing God. There is a distinct difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally.

I recognize that each person starts off only knowing about God. It is part of the learning process. It is why we have Sunday school and Bible classes. We have to start somewhere. But we must continue the learning or we will find ourselves in very difficult situations. It is like speaking of Memphis, Tennessee, when the other person is thinking of Memphis, Missouri.

I have never had any doubt in my mind, my heart, or my soul that Jesus Christ was and is real and that He died on the Cross to set me free from enslavement to sin and death. As I mentioned last week at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (In Search of Excellence in the Church Today), it was my mother, who through her insistence that my brothers and sister go to Sunday school every week, that put me on the path to Christ. But it is a path that I had to walk alone, though often in the company of others headed in the same direction. And the path that I walked lead me to 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st United Methodist Church) of Aurora, Colorado, where I found a community that would nurture me on my journey.

The Gospel lesson for today tells us of the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. This is the second such healing in Mark and it is a story that is also told in Matthew and Luke. Matthew says that two blind men were healed and the story ends with their healing; Luke wrote that one man was healed but he does not identify the man. Luke does point out that the man, whomever he was, followed Jesus after the healing.

Each of the four Gospel writers has a reason for telling their stories. Each of the reasons is played out in how those stories are told. We do know that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the gospels. Mark may very well be the young man introduced to us in the Easter story. And there is evidence to suggest that Mark accompanied Peter to Rome and that he compiled the stories and doings of Jesus while he was in the Galilee. It is quite easy to see Mark listening to Peter as Peter preached to the people and then questioning him for more details about Jesus and what transpired.

As Robin Griffith-Jones writes in his book, The Four Witnessess,

We certainly should not assume that Mark was the first to tell the story of Jesus’ work “from beginning to end.” Mark’s narrative may very well have grown out of regular recitation at church gatherings. Fewer people in those days were taught to read, and far more instruction was passed on by word of mouth.

That Mark would identify the blind man who was healed and then followed Jesus would suggest that he, Bartimaeus, became a disciple of note and that he was well known in the early church.

The early church, the church before Constantine and its formal organization, was built upon the stories that people told about Jesus. But it was more than the stories; it was about how the people who told the stories had been changed by Jesus. The stories were more than words; they were a continuation of the Good News and what the Good News meant to individuals. There was an acknowledgment that something had happened to them and it changed their lives.

In today’s society, there are those, like Bartimaeus, who seek Christ. And we will be the ones who they will ask. “Is it true what they say about Jesus, that He came to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and bring freedom to the oppressed?”

Some, like the disciples did with Bartimaeus and others before him, will rebuke those who seek. But Jesus always told them to let them come to Him; this time, they understood through Bartimaeus’ cry that he truly sought Jesus and they let him come. How many times have we rejected someone because we felt they were not worthy to be in the church?

Too many others will quote the words of the Bible, saying that you have to know about God and Christ before you can be saved. But words alone will not feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked or bring freedom to the oppressed.

We know what Christ has done for us and it is important that we tell the story, not just to those who will listen but to those who will not as well.

The difference is that we will also show that the words are true, through our thoughts, deeds, and actions. If we speak with words that are hollow, we run the risk of making the story of Jesus Christ truly a myth and his life only a rumor. But if we tell the story as others have, as the encounter each one of us has had, people will know that it is not a rumor and it is not a myth.

That is the way the early church began, telling the story in not only words but in the way lives were changed. The story was told one person at a time. But others heard the story and they saw the changes in the lives and they began to ask why and how.

So we proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive and well, living in each of us. The challenge we face is to know the story, not just in our minds, but in our thoughts, words, and deeds. If you came today seeking Christ, you will find Him here. You are invited to open your hearts and minds. If you came today seeking to know more, you will gain that knowledge. All one has to do is open your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit.

So, just as the meteors that showered the evening skies last week remain us of Mark Twain, so too does that warm feeling that we have in hearts remind us that Christ is alive and living in us this day and for the days to come.

“Notes on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost”


Here are my sermons/messages/thoughts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost:

Sunday, July 31, 1994 (Year B), Grace United Methodist Church, St. Cloud, MN, “Journey To The Promised Land”

Sunday, July 30, 1995 (Year C), Mulberry (KS) and Arma (KS) United Methodist Churches, “We Gather Together”

Sunday, August 13, 2000 (Year B), Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, “Life’s Little Rewards”

Sunday, August 05, 2001 (Year C), Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY, “A Vision of the Future”

Sunday, July 21, 2002 (Year A), No message or post

Sunday, August 10, 2003 (Year B), Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY, What Have We Been Taught?”

Sunday, August 01, 2004 (Year C), Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY, lay speaker from the Gideons

Sunday, July 17, 2005 (Year A), “Tending The Garden”

Sunday, August 06, 2006 (Year B), Mt. Hope United Methodist Church, Mahopac, NY, “The Life We Lead”

Sunday, July 29, 2007 (Year C), Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY, “What Shall We Say?”

Sunday, July 13, 2008 (Year A), Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY, “There Is A Choice”

Sunday, August 02, 2009 (Year B), Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church, Mahopac, NY, “What Do You Do With The Gifts You Have Been Given?”

Sunday, July 25, 2010 (Year C), Hankins United Methodist Church, Hankins, NY, “To Build a New Community”

Sunday, August 14, 2011 (Year A), See “Thoughts for a week in August”

On The Road Again


Last summer I preached at ten different churches over a period of eleven weeks (a summary of that travel is at "How I Spent My Summer Vacation").  After two weeks off in September, I went to four more churches over a five week period.  So it was a busy late summer and early fall for me.

And know, I am on the road again (I am partial to Canned Heat).

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This was originally posted on August 16, 2009, but wasn’t updated so I updated it on 5 July 2010 when I was working on my summer travel blogs.

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June 7

"In The Beginning"

Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY –

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June 14

"The Bottom of the Ninth"

Mountainville United Methodist Church, Mountainville, NY - 

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June 21

"The Storms In Our Lives"

Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (Mahopac, NY)

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June 28

"The State of Faith"

Mountainville United Methodist Church, Mountainville, NY - 

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July 5

"By Whose Authority"

Gaylordsville United Methodist Church, Gaylordsville, CT

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July 12

"What We Receive"

Gaylordsville United Methodist Church, Gaylordsville, CT

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July 19

"Where We Gather"

Gaylordsville United Methodist Church, Gaylordsville, CT

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July 26

"Solving Problems"

Georgetown United Methodist Church, Wilton, CT

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August 2

"What do You Do With The Gifts You Have Been Given?"

Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (Mahopac, NY)

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August 9

-open-

August 16

"Wisdom, Power, and the Way of Life"

Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY –

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August 23

"Where Can We Go?  And How Do We Get There?"

Red Hook United Methodist Church, Red Hook, NY

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August 30

-open-

September 6

“When Are We Going To Learn?”

Dover United Methodist Church, Dover Plains, NY –

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What Do You Do With The Gifts You Have Been Given?


I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (map) this Sunday, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost  (2 August 2009).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 11: 26 – 12: 13, Ephesians 4: 1 – 16, and John 6: 24 – 35.

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The events of the past few months have lead me to conclude that our collective vision of the future may not be what we think it will be. We speak of new technology and how the new technology will change the world. We marvel how dissidents in Iran used Facebook and Twitter to communicate their dissatisfaction with the election results. Of course, this requires that we understand what Facebook is and how Twitter works. But, in the end, the dissension in Iran was quickly shut down because the Iranian government was able to block those means of communication.

The dissension in Iran may yet turn into revolution if the dissidents can harness their collective power and use the creativity behind Facebook and Twitter to bring about true and radical change. Until that time, the changes in that society, like any society which is repressed, will be small in size and slow to change.

Technology can only work if people understand what it can and cannot do; the advent of text messaging (of which I take Twitter to be a form) is proving to be a more serious driving hazard than driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In 1942, this country began what became known as the Manhattan Project. In combination with physicists and chemists from Great Britain, Canada, and many of the occupied countries of Europe, we began working on the atomic bomb. This was done in part because there was a fear that Nazi Germany was undertaking a similar project. It was well understood that this weapon would be one of immense destructive capability and that the first country to create this weapon would dominate the world for years to come.

In the end, it was discovered that the Nazi atomic weapon program was nowhere as advanced as the Allies had believed. And while that may have been sufficient rationale for the suspension or stoppage of the project, the rising number of casualties in the Pacific and the rather conservative estimate of some 1 million casualties in an invasion of the Japanese islands prompted many to think of using the atomic weapon as a means to ending the war. It is also known that President Truman was confident that the United States would be the preeminent power in the post-World War era since it was thought this country alone held the secrets to such weapons. It was not known in 1945 but became quickly known in the years following the war that the Soviet Union, through the efforts of its spies, also had knowledge of the weapons and would build weapons that would match the destructive power of the United States atomic arsenal.

And while those whose creativity could see that the immense power held within the nucleus of an atom could also be used for more beneficial reasons, it was the destructive capacity of the weapons that would dominate our thinking for almost sixty years. There were those who understood what unleashing the genie of atomic energy in the form of weapons meant but their voices were silenced by those who saw power only in terms of brute force and political manipulation.

In my opinion, we as humans and as a society have been given two great gifts. The first is that very gift of creativity, the ability to see beyond the limits of the real world and well into the future, to see things that never were and say why not (borrowing from Robert Kennedy and George Bernard Shaw).

But too often we use the creativity for our own purposes, to gather things for ourselves rather than for all. David was given the gift of creativity and it was evident in his leadership and his ability to compose poems and songs. Yet, he used his creativity to abuse the power of his position and, in the end he paid the price for his greed and arrogance. The prophet Nathan tells David that his child with Bathsheba will die and that his later years will be marked with tragedy and tumult. The glory that David sought and which should have been his will go to Solomon (whose own creativity and insight will be both renowned and reviled).

We live in a world where people are starving and dying, where even living at some minimal level of existence is more often than not hoped for rather than a reality. In an effort to bring food to starving people, we destroy acres and acres of rain forest and turn the lands into grain fields and pasture land. But in doing so, we alter the ecosystem of the planet. The Sahara Desert increases each year, moving further and further southward because people chop down what trees are standing for firewood to cook what food they might have. But in removing the trees, barriers that would prevent the expansion of the desert are removed and what is gained in the short run is lost in the long term.

Even in this country, amidst the rhetoric and debate over health care, we forget that each year the number of individuals without health care coverage of some sort rises. It may be proper to debate the cost of health care coverage but what happens when there are many who have no health care and cannot pay for it?

How can anyone who proclaims themselves to be people of God argue that healthcare reform costs too much when there are so many who cannot afford what is out there right now? How can anyone say that we should not rush this decision because it is too important when each year the number negatively affected rises?

In the Gospel message for today, Jesus rebukes the people for seeking Him out because He fed them for free. They were more interested in what they could get from Jesus for themselves than they were in what they could give in return. Their interests in the bread from heaven were self-centered and selfish while Jesus offered them something more important. But many of the people then and throughout the Gospels would not commit to a path of walking with Jesus if it meant giving up what they had. To each one of those individuals who was given the gift that Christ offered but who turned it down, the present was more important than the future. Their own well-being was more important than the well-being of others; yet when one helps others, we are helping ourselves. We cannot live in a world where some may have and others may not; any plan that provides for one without providing for all is not a good plan and has no vision of the future.

We have been given two gifts, the gift of creativity and God’s grace. With them, we can do wonders. Paul tells us that the gift of creativity takes many forms. We only need to see what God has given us.

And we find that in God’s grace. For it is through God’s grace that our future is secure. But when we reduce what we have been given to our own selfish interests, then we basically say that we have no desire to be a part of the body of Christ. What the gift of creativity does is give us a means to find a way to make a difference in the world, to help people find their own self-respect and dignity, to make sure that people have a safe place to sleep, to have a warm meal today and grow food for tomorrow.

Our faith comes becomes we believe but our faith is nothing unless we use the gifts that God has given us. What are you going to do with the gifts that you have been given?

The Storms In Our Lives


I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (map) this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost  (21 June 2009).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are

1 Samuel 17: (1, 4 – 11, 19 – 23) 32 – 49; 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13 and Mark 4: 35 – 41.  Services are 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

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As I was reading the Gospel passage for this morning, I recalled reading something about the weather on the Sea of Galilee and how it was marked by rapid and severe changes, the type of changes that occurred in the passage. And, if you were in one of the boats typical of that era, you were likely to be like the disciples, very scared.

Now, as you may or may not know I grew up in the Midwest and the South and while I have never spent much time on the water I am used to rapid changes in the weather, especially in the spring and summer. A good portion of my life has been spent in what is called “tornado alley”, a portion of the country spanning Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. On spring and summer days, when hot, humid air moves up from the Gulf Coast and meets dry, cool area coming down from Canada, tornadoes are likely to occur and you spend your time watching the sky and paying attention to what is happening.

I would also add that growing up in Texas and the South made me also aware of hurricanes. Even though I have never experienced first-hand the consequences of a hurricane, I have lived through the aftermath and rain that accompanies a hurricane after it has made landfall and downgrades to ultimately a very large thunderstorm. Even in that state, it is important to watch the weather and see what is going on.

The one advantage that we have today that our counterparts some two thousand years ago did not have is that we can “see” the weather developing hours and days away. We see hurricanes developing off the coast of Africa and can track them day-by-day in order to determine where and when they may land. We know enough about the conditions under which tornadoes develop and our technology has and continues to develop so that we can issue watches and warnings.

Even so, there are times when the watches and the warnings are issued too late and towns and other locations are hard hit by tornadoes late in the evening. Still, if people heed the watches and the warnings, we can reduce the damage and the number of fatalities that accompany Mother Nature’s fury, be it tornadoes in the Midwest and South or hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. But if the watches and the warnings are not heeded or if they are ignored entirely, then disaster truly strikes.

There are signs that storm clouds are threatening the church of today, both in denominational terms and for individual churches. The problem is that while many churches today do see the warning signs, their responses are inappropriate, ineffectual, or ineffective. It is somewhat comparable to Saul outfitting David in a suit of armor that was too large for him. David was both uncomfortable in the armor and unable to move. And while it may have protected him from the Philistine, it did little to help him fight him. David took off the armor and went into battle prepared in the way that he knew best.

The greatest threat to the church today, both at the denominational level and at the local level, is the loss of membership. It is finally hitting home for many people that the church in which they grew up in is a dying church and they are beginning to wonder what can be done to revive it. Some churches think that they can save their church by putting armor around the church and call for a return to traditional values. They feel that if they do so, the people will respond and every thing will be alright.

But too many people outside the church do not know what those “traditional” values are. They are either unchurched (that is to say, they have no idea of the language or history of the church) or de-churched (they used to come but something happened and they have left the church). Those who do understand the history and language of the church see a church which says one thing but does another.

Some churches respond with modern-day marketing techniques. They surveyed the market and decide to give the people what they want. This has led, in some cases, to modern worship services, services with guitars and drums and songs of praise, all designed to show the modern day churchgoer how “hip” the church is. But these packaged services, in my mind, have no feeling; there is no spirit in the worship. And if there is no feeling, if there is no spirit, and especially if the message doesn’t change, then the people will still not come; for they have seen and heard it before and they aren’t buying it.

Now, some ministers and some churches have changed the message. They have made the service “seeker-friendly”. They have taken away the trappings of the church (look at many of today’s television ministries and see if you can find a cross or an altar; they aren’t there) because it might frighten the people away.

Services were made shorter, fewer hymns were sung and the music sung was simplified, preaching time was cut down and the message made easier to grasp. The idea was to get nonbelievers interested in going to church because it would not take up too much of their time and wouldn’t challenge them too much. But what happened is that a lot of people who had been believers for some time suddenly found that the sermons were like milk instead of meat. They were so simplistic. Many were finding that what they were getting was pabulum.

The message in such churches is no longer the message of Christ who called for people to leave behind everything and follow him in service. It is no longer a message of hope for the downtrodden, healing for the sick, relief for the downtrodden and freedom for the oppressed.

It is now a message that Christ will give you everything you ask for. And the problems of this world are somebody else’s problems or the result of a sinful life on the part of the poor, the sick, the destitute, and the oppressed. The message of hope and promise has become a message of greed and self-interest. And while there may be many people who are a part of such churches, there are even more who are quickly finding out that such a message is a hollow message and that it will not quiet or calm the storms that rage in their lives.

The young who grew up in the church (and on whom the elders of the church counted on to keep the church going) are either leaving for another church or just plain leaving. And there are also quite a few individuals who have been in the church for most of their lives but they are also leaving. They are leaving because the message of the church no longer has any meaning for them (see http://www.rutherford.org/oldspeak/Articles/Interviews/Duin.html).

If anything is going to change this decline, it will be when the people look at what the church is and what it isn’t, what it can be and what it should not be. The people who are leaving or not coming at all are looking for something that no longer seems prevalent in the church today, decent preaching, a feel of community, and a feeding of the soul. They are seeking content to the message and a spirituality that is missing in their life; they want to find the truth to the life they live and answers to the questions that cause storms in their lives.

There is one constant in our life and it is the search for truth. The problem is that we often times do not know what the truth is and the messages that we get confuse us. So how do we find the truth and how do we know that it is the truth?

As I have read and re-read the passage from Corinthians for today, I went to a number of translations. Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospel translation, wrote “to keep people from making accusations against our cause, we are mighty careful to give them no openings. Under all circumstances, we conduct ourselves as God’s helpers.” In the New International Version, those verses are “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” In other words, if what we say and do is reflective of the way God is in our lives, our message will be true. It allows people to make up their own minds about what is the truth and what isn’t the truth.

If we speak of God, God’s message, or the truth in an absolutely finality; if we impose our version of the truth on others without exception, then they will not listen. I have come across two examples of how people have come to understand the presence of God in their lives. The first is from Cardinal Avery Dulles. Now, that name should sound familiar to many who grew up in the 50’s for Cardinal Dulles was the son of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Cardinal Dulles converted to Catholicism after being raised in the Episcopal Church; it was a move that was not made without some controversy in his own family. But it was a move that was made by an examination of the information available. As Cardinal Avery put it,

The move toward philosophy was for me the presupposition of religious faith. I don’t know that it always has to go that way, but that is the way it went with me.

The first stage was Aristotle convincing me that the mind was a faculty that penetrated reality, so that when one was thinking correctly one was entering more deeply into reality itself. He helped me see that our ideas are not merely subjective but that they reflect the structure of the world and the universe. The so-called metaphysical realism of Aristotle was a first stage for me, and it gave me a confidence in human reason.

The second stage was Plato, who basically said that there was a transcendent order of what is morally right and wrong and that one has an unconditional obligation to do that which is right, even when it seems to be against one’s self-interest. That set me thinking about where that obligation comes from. It seemed to come from something higher than humanity. We don’t impose it on ourselves. And no other human being can impose it on us or exempt us from it. So there is an absolute order to which we are subject. This seemed to imply an absolute Being—and a personal being to whom we are accountable. And this set me thinking that there is a God who is a law-giver and a judge, who knows everything that we do and who will punish or reward us duly. In this way I found a basis in natural theology.

Then after that I read the Gospels, and it seemed to me that they taught all of this, and more. The revelation given in Jesus Christ was a reaffirmation of all these principles I had learned in Greek philosophy—but the Gospels added the idea that God was loving and merciful and had redeemed us in Christ, offering us an opportunity to get back on board when we had slipped and fallen overboard. That’s a very brief sketch of what I tried to lay out in greater detail in my Testimonial to Grace. (From http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=1851)

And a second such testimony is offered by Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Collins grew up agnostic but became a committed atheist while getting his Ph. D. in Chemistry. While in medical school he witnessed the true power of religious faith among his patients and his worldview began to change. In a recent interview, he noted that

As I sat at the bedside of individuals who were facing death and saw in many instances how their faith was such a strong rock in the storm for them, I couldn’t help but wonder about that. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would handle that situation if it were me lying in that bed, and I was pretty sure I would not be at peace the way these folks were.

And he continued

So it seemed like a time to perhaps look at the question a little more deeply because I realized my atheism had been arrived at as the convenient answer, the answer I wanted, not on the basis of considering the evidence. I assumed there probably wasn’t any evidence for the idea that God exists, but I figured it was probably time to look.

Later in the same interview Dr. Collins noted

So all of that information, I guess, really began to sink in as arguments that made the plausibility of God actually pretty compelling. Then I had to figure out, what is God like? That meant going and looking at the world’s religions and trying to understand what they stood for, and finding that they’re actually a lot alike in many ways as far as their principles, but they’re also quite different in terms of their specifics.

Never having really known much about Jesus and discovering that he was not a myth because the historical evidence for Jesus was actually much better than I had realized – some would say better than the evidence for Julius Caesar – I began to realize he was a person to take seriously. I encountered this particular verse, which I thought was interesting. Jesus is asked, What is the greatest commandment in the law? He replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” With all your mind! Boy, that doesn’t sound like faith and reason are disconnected. If you go back to Deuteronomy, which is where this verse is coming from, the quote is, “With all your heart and all your strength and all your soul.” But Jesus adds the word “mind,” which I think we were supposed to notice.

So I became a Christian on that basis. That was at the age of 27. Now, 32 years later, I find this to be an enormously satisfying way to be able to answer questions that science can’t answer – things like, is there a God, and what happens after we die, and why am I here anyway, which are questions that science basically says, not on the table for us. But they’re on the table, I think, for most of us as human beings. (Francis Collins in “Religion and Science: Conflict or Harmony?” – http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=217)

The storms that rage in many of us are like the storm that raged within Dr. Collins. And, for many people, the answer that they seek, the calming presence that they desire is nowhere to be found because they do not know where to look. For Dr. Collins, his search began with a reading of C. S. Lewis’ works. But, for many, that is not a logical answer if for no other reason than C. S. Lewis can be very difficult to read. But more important to Dr. Collins’ search was that there was someone there to help him as he sought the truth.

And that is where each one of us comes in. We do not need to know the truth that others seek; we only need to know how to help them. And we begin to help them by offering them a place where they might find Christ.

When Wesley began the Methodist movement, he emphasized four things:

  1. A faith that was both informed and warmly experienced;
  2. A religion that was intensely personal but also shared with others;
  3. A concern for the spiritual, physical, and social condition of all persons;
  4. An affirmation of belief in one God as revealed through Jesus Christ, but with an appreciation for a variety of ways in which that affirmation can be expressed.

The Methodist revival was one of the first movements to bring education to all people. This was because Wesley and the early founders of the church felt and understood that one could not understand the Bible unless one was able to read it.

One of the things that I heard at Annual Conference last week was a redefinition of evangelism. To many people today, evangelism is literally forcing people to become disciples of Jesus. I have had a hard time with that approach. I cannot make you follow Jesus; you must want to follow Jesus and you will not want to do so unless you understand who Jesus was and is and will be and what Christianity is all about.

One of the early doctrinal battles of the church dealt with free will and the implications that it had for belief. If there is such a thing as free will, then it is our responsibility for understanding the message of the Bible and ours alone. If we allow others to tell us what the Bible means and we accept their interpretation without question, then we cannot find the truth that we seek and the storms that torment our soul will continue.

Methodism is historically an evangelical religion and it is time that we get back to that approach. It is about telling people about Christ and it is about teaching them about Christ and it is about letting them make their own decisions about Christ, without fear of condemnation or ridicule.

For each church today and for countless individuals, there are storms raging about them. The church today can do a lot to calm those storms. But they must ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Regarding the people you are trying to reach, what do we want to see happen as a result of their coming within the sphere of influence of our ministry?
  2. What are we offering, from their point of view that would make it worth their while to get involved with us?
  3. (And what I think is the most challenging question of all) What price are we willing to pay in order to be able to reach others?

There are storms in our lives; there are storms in the lives of our friends, our neighbors and the people that we come into contact each day. These storms come about because there are questions in our lives and the answers that we are given by society aren’t satisfactory. But we know that there are answers, we know that there are solutions. How shall we find them? How shall we help others find them? Who shall calm the storms in our lives?

I Was There


I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Easter Sunday; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this morning were Acts 10: 34 – 43, 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and John 20: 1 – 18.

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These are the memories of one of the twelve, Nathaniel Bartholomew, of that day long ago.

There is a spiritual sung throughout the south that asks if you were there when they crucified my Lord. (“Were You There?”). Sad to say, I wasn’t there that day. I, with nine of my friends was hiding; hiding because I knew that the authorities, having arrested our teacher and friend, would pretty soon be coming after each one of us.

And as the political and religious authorities arrested and tried him, we ran away and hid. We had failed our Lord, our teacher, our friend. At the time that He most needed us, we weren’t there. One of us had betrayed him; another had denied Him.

But I was there that Sunday morning when I heard the good news of His Resurrection and it is that good news that I wish to share with you this morning.

My name is Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the twelve disciples. I was there from almost the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, of his walk through the Galilee offering a new message, a message of hope and promise to a people forgot by the rich and powerful, the authorities, and even the church. Granted, I should have not been there for I almost dismissed Jesus as another one of those charlatans who wandered the countryside, promising much but delivering little, taking from the people and never returning anything.

When my friend Philip first told me that they (meaning his friends James, John, and Peter) had found the Messiah and that he was from Nazareth, I jokingly remarked that “what good can come from Nazareth?”

You have to understand that we Galileans were considered the lower part of society. The rich and powerful lived in Jerusalem and felt that anyone who did not live there was worthless. And among the Galileans, those from Nazareth were treated the worse. Only the Samaritans were treated worse than those of us from the Galilee. So it was that I first dismissed my friend’s bold claim.

But then I met Jesus and I knew that I was wrong. He told me how he had seen me studying under the fig tree and I knew that the promise of the Scripture was fulfilled in this man from Nazareth (I said then and there that Jesus was the Son of God and the true king of Israel). So I gathered up my books and I began to follow, just as James, John, Andrew, Peter, and Philip followed. Andrew and John had been followers of the Baptizer, the one who spoke of another one who was to come; one who would bring God’s grace to the world.

So with Thomas, James the Less, Matthew, Jude, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot we followed. Such an interesting group we were; with the exception of Judas Iscariot, we were all Galileans. We were young and life for us was like steam in an un-popped kernel of popcorn just before it exploded. We understood that we had a responsibility to our God and to our country and, in following Jesus we had the opportunity to meet that responsibility. We had a chance to make our lives count.

It was a troubling time; beneath the surface of joy that we had were many anxieties. You could not always see the troubles but you could feel the greed and hatred, the selfishness and anger, the lust and the hate that existed between areas of the country, between those from the southern lands and those from the northern lands, between the Israelites and the Samaritans, between all the Jews and the Roman authority.

Our country was an occupied country, governed by a tyrannical military government that imposed its own taxes on top of our own. There were only rich people and poor people and each day more and more people sold themselves into slavery to pay their bills.

Yet in this darkness was this promise of hope, this offer of a better life if we would but choose to follow Him. So for three years, we followed and listened; for three years we heard the words that brought joy and comfort to a people burdened by an uncaring society, increasing taxes, and domination by Roman. For three years, we watched Jesus bring life to the limbs of the lame, sound to the ears of the deaf, and light to the eyes of the blind. For three years we watched one man bring hope and promise to a people cast aside by society and their religious leaders.

In this unfriendly world, the only way many people thought that they could survive was through corruption and abuse of power. You would have thought that the priests and rabbis who ran the Temple in Jerusalem would have cared for the people of Israel; that is what our rabbis at home had taught us. The Torah was very specific about the need to care for people, to show concern for the sick and infirm, the poor and destitute, those without possessions. But when we would go to the Temple, we had to pay the tax and our own coins, carefully saved for that once a year trip to Jerusalem, were judged worthless by the Temple authorities.

“Go to the money changers and get the right kind of money,” they would tell us. And Matthew, wise to the ways of the tax collector and the money changer would catch them every time charging more than was fair or equitable. And we wondered how many men, women, and children came to the temple to bring a sacrifice but were turned away because their lamb was imperfect or their dove had a spot on its wing and no one would sell them the “right” animal without trying to take advantage of the situation. Even with the tricks that Matthew showed us, it was still impossible to help all the pilgrims, even more so when it was clear that the High Priest, his priests, and the rabbis, all benefited from the graft and corruption. We could see Jesus getting angry but we never knew how angry it was going to make Him.

And one day, Jesus sent us out into the world, telling us to preach the Gospel and heal the people. And much to our surprise, we could and did heal the sick, bring voice to those who could not speak, sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf.

But then, one day, things began to change. Mary and Martha received word that their brother Lazarus was dying. We hurried back to Bethany but it was too late; Lazarus’ body was sealed in the tomb. Yet Jesus stood before the tomb entrance and commanded that Lazarus walk out of the tomb. And then Jesus began speaking of His own death. We had never heard those words before and they were confusing. Peter told us about the day that James, John, and he went with Jesus to the mountaintop and there saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah and how Jesus had commanded them not to say anything.

Peter, being Peter, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah but then when it became clear that Jesus was speaking of his own death tried to shut Jesus up. It was a very confusing time.

And then came last Sunday. Jesus told us to go to a house in Bethany and get a small colt in preparation for a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Finally, after three years of traveling across the countryside of the Galilee, we were going to get some recognition.

And the people cheered, shouting Hosanna and waving palms. Three years of frustration, three years of wandering the back roads of Galilee vanished in the shouts of the people. But the joy of the people quickly disappeared. They wanted an earthly king, one who would lead an army and drive out the Romans. Like us, they did not understand the message of the kingdom that Jesus taught.

On Tuesday we went to the Temple and three years of frustration and anger came to a head. We have never seen Jesus angry but here He was, a man who preached peace, throwing out the money-changers and the sellers who overcharged the people. It was clear that what mankind had done in and to the Temple was never what God had intended and Jesus made it clear that things would be different in the coming Kingdom.

We then began to make preparations for the Passover meal. This was to be the best Passover meal we had ever celebrated as a group. Together with our families and our friends, we were celebrating the proclamation of Jesus as our Savior. But this meal, of celebration and promise, quickly became a meal with the pall of death hovering over it.

First Jesus announced that one of us, one of those who had walked with Him for three years, would betray Him that very night. Who among us would betray the trust and friendship that three years had developed? We did not know? Jesus told us of the sign of betrayal but we did not understand what He meant.

And then He told Peter that he, Peter, would deny Him not once but three times before the rooster crowed the next morning. Peter, being Peter, of course denied that and said that he would never do such a thing. Those very words, we would find out, would come back to haunt Peter for many days later.

And then Jesus spoke of His death. He offered the bread and called it His Body, broken for our sins. He offered the wine and called it His Blood, shed for our sins. The Passover is a celebration meal and yet He was talking of death. It was not the first time He had spoken of His death and yet we still did not understand.

As was our custom, we went into the garden to pray that night. Unfortunately, the hours, the days, the week had taken their toll and we fell asleep. Twice Jesus woke us up and encouraged us to keep watch and pray with him but we could not. So, at the hour of His betrayal, none of us saw the authorities coming with the soldiers to arrest Him. And we ran away and hid.

Why shouldn’t we have run away and hid? We feared for our lives. We felt that after the authorities dealt with Jesus, they would come after us and we did not want to suffer the same fate that Jesus was going through.

As we gathered in hiding, we discovered that Peter and Judas were missing. Some of our friends told us it was Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Why would he do this? Did he get angry because the woman bought that oil and had washed Jesus’ feet the week before? Or did he think that Jesus was going to lead an armed revolution against the Romans and the establishment?

Whatever the reason, it was clear that he no longer believed in Jesus as we did. But he didn’t expect the authorities to try Jesus and condemn Him to death. We know that he tried to give back the monies that the authorities had given him in exchange for his betrayal. And now he was missing.

And where was Peter? Peter had tried to stop the authorities from arresting Jesus, taking a sword and striking one of the soldiers and cutting off his ear. But Jesus stopped Peter from further action and then healed the soldier’s wounds. How interesting was it that on the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus took care of an injured soldier who took part in the arrest.

Peter didn’t go with us and we figured that he was going to try and find a way to help Jesus escape. But each time that he was spotted he denied knowing Jesus. And when the rooster crowed on Friday morning, Peter had denied Jesus not just once but three times, just as Jesus said he would. And now Peter was not with us.

Everyone knew that the trial that night was a sham and the people who were cheering His entry five days before were now turning against him. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. When we started three years ago, the crowds were huge but they soon dwindled as people realized that they were being called to take on responsibilities in the new kingdom that Jesus spoke of. How many times did we see some rich man or some Pharisee come to us in secret and profess his belief in what Jesus was saying but leave disappointed because he couldn’t keep his money, his power or the glory of his position.

I still remember that Friday but only as the worst day of my life. The town of Jerusalem, once full of joy and celebration, was now strangely quiet. It was a dark and cold day with thunderstorms in the distance. And each rumble of thunder almost sounded like the hammer hitting the nails that were driven into Jesus’ hands and feet as the Roman soldiers nailed Him to the Cross.

And we could hear the weeping of His mother, Mary, and the other women in our band of followers over the cackling of the soldiers as they gambled for His clothing. How sad it must have been for Mary to watch her son, promised at His birth to be the Salvation of Mankind, die on the cross. And in the pain and agony of His own death, Jesus again thought only of others as he commanded the care of his mother to John Zebedee. But they could do nothing as He cried out in thirst and pain.

And as the sky turned black, He died, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Because it was the Sabbath, they took His body down. How ironic that we had friends who would find a place to bury our teacher but would not speak out in His time of need.

All through that Sabbath, we hid and wondered when the authorities would come for us. All through the Sabbath, we wondered what we would do. Peter, Andrew, James, and John spoke of going back to the Galilee and begin fishing again. I thought that maybe I could find a school where I could finish my studies but I wondered who would teach me as much as I had learned from Jesus. We all knew that we couldn’t really go back to the lives we had left some three years before but what could we do?

And then this morning, the word came. Mary and Martha had gone to the tomb, hoping somehow to find the body and do what was the only decent and proper thing to do. We knew that the authorities had posted guards around the tomb because they thought they we would seek to steal Jesus’ body. They had even gone so far as to place a bigger stone than usual in front of the tomb to keep us out.

How were we ever going to steal His body? What power did we have? They had shown us what they thought of us and it was clear that they were not going to tolerate what we had to say any more than they had tolerated our Teacher.

But then Mary came running in to tell us the tomb was empty. We did not believe her. It wasn’t that her words were false but how could a man rise from the dead and live again? Even though we had seen it happen with Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, we still could not believe that it was true. Even though Jesus Himself had told us that this would happen, we did not believe it.

Peter and John ran to the tomb to confirm this. And Mary then told us that she had seen Jesus and that He was alive. She told us that she was not to touch Him but that she should tell us to return to Galilee and He would meet us there.

Then, it became clear. Everything that Jesus had said over three years, every illusion or mention of resurrection and everlasting life, every mention of what was to come began to make sense. Jesus did escape from the tomb and the movement that He began three years before was not finished but just beginning.

I was there that first Sunday morning. Despite the efforts of many powerful politicians and religious leaders, I saw that the Gospel message that I had heard and seen take place for three years was to continue. And that is why I come to you today. Because Easter Sunday is not simply the proclamation of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and triumph of sin and death; it is the proclamation that the Gospel message continues.

Over the next few days, many and more of our friends, our neighbors and the disciples will become aware of this celebration. We will gather together on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and be with our friend, our teacher, and our Lord. We will meet Him on the road to Emmaus and He will join us in our groups, wherever we are. And we will prepare to take the Good News that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that there is hope in a world where there may not seem to be hope. We will begin to take this message beyond the Galilee and out into the world..

My friend Thomas and I will begin a journey to worlds we never even knew existed before we became disciples. Like John and Charles Wesley later, I will go to Georgia. It will not be an easy life, but we were told that early on. And though we may suffer, we understand what we will gain.

I leave you today with these thoughts. When I first met Christ, it was clear that my most hidden thoughts of my mind and my soul were open to the One who would send His Son to seek us out. And just as God used Philip to bring me to Jesus, so does He use each one of us to reveal Christ to the world. He will find ways to use us in ways that we cannot understand at this moment; He will give us the words and the confidence that we need at those times when our words and confidence disappear.

And as He Himself said on that first encounter, we will see things that will bring the Glory of God to life in this world. We celebrate today because today we know that Christ has indeed risen. Alleluia and Amen!

Ten Words


I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.

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One of the things that you learn when you study the Scriptures is that the Psalms are often built upon one word with each letter of that particular word starting the first word of a verse in the poem. If you will allow me that thought, you will understand why the title of this sermon is “Ten Words.” The Ten Commandments may be seen as ten words. But the discussion of those ten words goes beyond Moses standing on the slopes of Mount Sinai holding two slabs of stone.

In one episode of the television series “The West Wing” President Bartlett is preparing to debate his opponent in their campaign for the Presidential election. He and his campaign staff are struggling with a ten-word phrase to use as a response to an anticipated question.

These ten-word answers are designed to show how much each candidate knows about the topic while offering a feasible and possible answer to the particular question in a short period of time. It is, if you will, a fancy term for “sound-bite”, that little nugget of information that candidates and elected officials use to satisfy the curiosity of the public without taxing the imagination or intelligence of the public and maintaining a certain degree of credibility. Yet in the sound-bite there is little truth to be had.  The sound-bite is used to fool the electorate by making the candidate seem as he knows what he his talking about.

Now, if someone thinks that ten words constitute an appropriate and simple response to an extremely complicated question, then there is something wrong with the question and our understanding of the situation. It also says a lot about how we, the public, have allowed our leaders to denigrate our abilities to think and how we have allowed the world around us to be judged and determined by short, snappy answers. It makes me long for the sane prose of MAD magazine.

Now, it should be pointed out that President Bartlett, upon hearing the ten-word response of his opponent, quite rightly asks “what are the next ten words? What do we say next? What do we do next?” And that’s how you know that “The West Wing” is fictional; because in real life, our politicians don’t go beyond the obvious and the public doesn’t demand to know what happens next.

Of course, we know what happened after Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai to the people. In fear that the people would break the Ten Commandments, the Pharisees made 613 additional laws, 365 which were negative (“thou shall not”) and 248 which were positive (“thou shall). (1)

It is a fear that we still have in today’s society. We seek rules and laws that will control our lives instead of working to improve our lives. As Kary Oberbrunner pointed out, if we were to look at our own personal spiritual condition, we are apt to find ourselves looking like religious separatists.

A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them.

And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic. Laws make separatists feel secure and allow them to have a control on and over their lives. To be asked to integrate their faith with the culture they have to give up such control. But this security prevents them from seeing beyond the walls of the church and reaching out to the people for whom the Gospel message was intended. The Gospel message was meant to free us, to bring hope and liberate us, not to enslave and entrap us.

They are like those who could not understand what Jesus was saying that day in the courtyard of the Temple. They saw the Temple as the embodiment of God; they could not see beyond its walls. As John noted, the disciples remembered this day and understood its significance in light of Christ’s resurrection.

And for those who try to separate their religious life from their sectarian life, there are those who just as easily mix their religious life with their daily lives. In fact, they look quite comfortable living lives as Christians. Yet, it is life which is more appearance than substance which lasts about two hours or so on Sunday mornings. Come Monday morning, they carefully take off their Christianity and put it away, safe from the world, until they next need it the next time.

Such individuals are conformists, conforming to the demands of society. They use their religion when it is convenient and put it away when it is uncomfortable. They see the message of Christ as foolishness.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the world doesn’t have a clue what God had in mind. To the world, the message of Christ was simple foolishness. They will tell you that Christianity is fine for Sunday but doesn’t work in the real world on Monday morning.

I cannot help but think of a 1939 Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”. In the closing verses of this song, Guthrie wrote,

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home. (
http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Pretty_Boy_Floyd.htm)

To many in the establishment 2000 years ago, Jesus was an outlaw going against the status quo of the conformists and the legal structure of the separatists. It does not matter whether we see Jesus as an outlaw or, as Paul suggested, a fool. What does matter is that the message that Christ brought to this world is the message that the world needs to hear today! But it cannot be heard if society sees Christ’s representative on earth (and that would be us), as representatives of a legal monolith that seeks to keep people out of the church through imposition of legal structures and repressive laws. Society will not listen if they see the church as hypocritical, preaching love, forgiveness, and redemption on Sunday but practicing inequality, retribution, and hatred on Monday.

We know that John Wesley started off with a very legalistic interpretation of the Gospel and how to achieve salvation. He saw the path to the cross in a very legalistic and structured life; but it turned into a life that lead to despair and frustration. It was only when he accepted the Holy Spirit, when his heart became strangely warmed, that he was able to ignite the Methodist Revival that changed England.

The world around us demands the presence of the people of Christ. It is time that the Gospel is heard as it was meant to be heard, not as it is being heard. But it will not be heard unless we remember the words that Christ began His mission with. He began with a call for repentance, a call for the people to change their lives and their thoughts. Lent is a season of preparation. It is time to repent of our old ways and begin anew.

It is not about ten words; it is about what we do after we hear the words. No ten words can resolve the problems of the world; no ten words can ever magically get us into heaven. But we have heard the words that will; they are the words of Christ and now we must act on those words.

(1) This and material about conformists and separatists adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner.

One By One


I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany.  The Scriptures are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

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A couple of years ago I posted a piece on my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it I suggested several pieces of music from my high school and college days that could serve as the backdrop for scripture readings (“Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds and “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane among others). Each of these pieces has some basis in scripture, though I believe that “Turn, Turn, Turn” was the only one knowingly written with the scripture in mind. This merger of modern music continues today as the group U2 does allow its music used in a particular type of service.

Now, my purpose in posting “A Rock and Roll Revival” and its follow-up pieces (“The Rock And Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” was to show that one could have a “modern” worship service with music that provides meaning and inspiration. When I listen to so much of what passes as Christian music today, I hear nothing that moves my soul or inspires me to seek a higher plain. Too much of today’s Christian music is of the “7-11” type, that is seven words repeated 11 times.

Now, it has been pointed out that some of the Psalms contain this type of repetition and the repetition adds meaning to the Psalm. But there are other times when the repetition offers no support or meaning to the song and is merely a substitute for substance. If we are to have modern music in our worship services today, then we have to have music that engages us and challenges us, not simply fills a portion of time in the service (adapted from “7-11 Songs and the Use of Repetition”).

I bring this up because I think the church today is at a crossroads. It is a crossroads much like the one that mentioned in Jeremiah 6: 16

Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.

But they said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’

I even provided watchmen for them to warn them, to set off the alarm. But the people said, ‘It’s a false alarm. It doesn’t concern us.’

And so I’m calling in the nations as witnesses: ‘Watch, witnesses, what happens to them!’ And, ‘Pay attention, Earth! Don’t miss these bulletins.’

I’m visiting catastrophe on this people, the end result of the games they’ve been playing with me. They’ve ignored everything I’ve said, had nothing but contempt for my teaching. What would I want with incense brought in from Sheba, rare spices from exotic places? Your burnt sacrifices in worship give me no pleasure. Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.”

Now, I am not offering an apocalyptic view of these times but I do see a warning in these times that we, the people who call ourselves Christians, are ignoring. And while there are those today who would argue that these are in fact the End Times and that God is going to destroy the world, these same people seem to me to be cheering for the destruction of the world in hopes that they will be the first ones taken from this earth when it happens.

But when I hear these people cheering for the destruction of the world because they believe that they will be taken up, I am reminded of the words of Christ from Matthew 25:

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

“Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

The church must decide in which direction it wants to go and the decision must be made quickly. It is a decision by the institutional church; it is a decision by individual churches; and it is a decision that must be made by each individual member.

The church as it is today is based almost entirely on the past, that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected. To put the church in a modern setting requires more than just concessions to the times; you cannot say that the church has modernized itself just because it has replaced organ music with guitar music.

And while it must look backwards in time to the life, death, and resurrection, it must also look forward in time. It must be prepared to anticipate where the footsteps of Christ are and where it is leading the church and its people.

The church must respond to the needs of the people, no matter whom they are or where they may be. It is a challenge that many churches are not well-prepared to face, let alone meet.

The problem may be in that the church has created an attitude that its way, whatever it may be, is the best way. The church and its members has projected their self-interests unto the view of history.

If we read many of the sermons of pastors in England at the time of the Wesleyan Revival, we see a real and genuine concern for the lower and working classes. But this concern is tempered with a feeling that the only way they, the poor and working class, are going to obtain salvation is by taking on the culture of the upper classes. What John Wesley did was not to make people feel that they had to be like their betters but help them to find Christ in their own worlds and lives.

When we re-read the story of Naaman, we see that same replacement of God’s will with our own. Naaman is afflicted with some sort of skin disease, often translated as leprosy. We now know that leprosy (or Hansen’s disease) is caused by a bacterium and, when identified, not very contagious. But the very nature of the disease and its affects on the body in its extreme (it can cause the loss of fingers and toes and the disfigurement of the face) lead to those infected with the disease becoming outcasts in society. Rightly or wrongly, people feared contact with an infected person. When Jesus told the leper to see the priest, it was as much to mark his re-entry into society as it was to proclaim the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the Old Testament reading for today, we can sense a degree in Naaman that a cure must be found for his illness, for the consequences of the illness will drive him from society. He is told that there is someone in Israel who can offer a cure. We can see in his efforts to obtain this cure the ethos of power; he is powerful in his own right so he will only deal with the powerful people in Israel. Thus, he sends a letter of introduction to the king of Israel asking for help in this matter.

Quite naturally, the king of Israel panics when he receives this letter. After all, he doesn’t know the answer nor does he know who might know the answer and he fears what might happen if he does not provide Naaman with the response Naaman wants. Perhaps Naaman does not have that inclination; then again, the fear of what might happen if he doesn’t find a cure may suggest to him that he keep an open mind. As we read, the word gets to Elisha, and Elisha sends word to Naaman as to what he must do in order to be healed.

And while Naaman is obviously open to suggestions as to what he needs to do, the suggestion that Elisha provides does in fact offend Naaman and his sense of power and position. What I read in Naaman’s response to Elisha telling him to bathe in the waters of the River Jordan seven times is that powerful and wealthy people require elegant and sophisticated solutions. Naaman saw his life in terms of his position and his power, not as an individual; he saw his problem as a reflection of his position and that any solution would require an appreciation for that position and the power that comes with the position.

Yet, as one of Naaman’s own servants commented, if the task had been difficult to accomplish, he would have easily undertaken it. How much more difficult would it have been to do something easy? In other words, because of his position and power, Naaman was looking for a complicated solution when a simple solution was right in front of him.

We have transformed the church today into our own image. Granted, it is a transformation that has taken place over time and one that most people are not aware. They grew up in the church and are comfortable knowing that it is the same today as it was yesterday and that it will be the same tomorrow. They do not care that the membership of the church is aging and that fewer and fewer younger people are coming to church. They are not worried that there are youth out there who would like to come to church but know that they will feel unwelcome because of the way they dress or the lifestyle that they have adopted. They are not worried that too many young people today see the message of the church as exclusive and hateful, contrary to the very words of Christ that they were taught in Sunday School and confirmation class.

Some have begun to worry about the church and so they have created newer and alternative worship services. But many of the services were created in rebellion to the old ways and the intransigence of the older members to change. Their worship service is simply a newer version of the old and soon it will have the same effect on the membership that the old worship service did. You cannot expect better results by changing the appearance but keeping the same message.

Whether they worship in a traditional or a modern setting, too many Christians today are comfortable in their safe and protected sanctuary; they believe that attendance on Sunday will enable them to enter heaven with trumpets sounding and angels singing. The problems of the world are outside the door of the church and that is where they will stay.

But there are those, both old and young, who see the problems of the church today and wonder what they must do to bring the community back into the church. In the portion of the letter to the Corinthians that we read today, Paul offers a hint to the solution. First, he points out that when we watch a race, we think in terms of who wins and who loses. That is the nature of competition but it is not what we should be doing.

Too many times I hear pastor’s speak of competing for the people on Sunday morning. Let us forget competition but let us also offer an alternative; an alternative with Spirit and substance. It will take some doing; as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it takes hard work to prepare for the race and it will take hard work to offer the alternative. It will take reaching deep into the soul to find the ways that you can offer the alternative but it can be done.

When Jesus cured the leper, He told him to go to the priest and receive the appropriate blessing for returning to society. He also told the man not to tell others about what had happened; but like so many other times, the person who Jesus cured could not keep silent and they told their friends and their friends told their friends. No matter how hard the establishment worked against the mission of Jesus, it grew.

When John Wesley spoke out against the establishment and its view of the church in society, the establishment barred him from preaching in the churches of England. But he kept on preaching and the movement grew (otherwise, we might not be here today as we are).

Our task is not to fight the intransigence of those who oppose the growth of the church, those who say the church is dead or outmoded; our task is to engage in a dialogue with those around us and frame the mission of the church with the needs of the neighborhood. It is inevitable that we will be impatient or worry that we cannot accomplish this task. It is inevitable that we will worry more how shall we accomplish this task that we will the task itself? How shall we organize our efforts when there are so few of us? These are good and proper questions but they have to be framed within the context of discovering the ways Christ calls us from the world and into the world.

Questions of how we will accomplish the tasks before us are too often associated with the standards of today’s society. Time and time again, as we face the need to replace the old methods with newer ones, we find ourselves thinking that if we could only find the right and relevant method then we will soon be successful. We must change our view of the world from who wins but who competes; we must not worry about whether or not there are enough of us to complete the task before us but whether or not we understand what we have been called by God to do.

When Paul speaks of preparing for the competition, he is just as much speaking about preparing for the tasks ahead. We must understand the world around us as much as we seek to understand what Christ is calling us to do. And as Paul speaks of the joy in what he is doing, he is speaking of the opportunities that have been presented, not the success of his ministry.

So we begin, just as the single individual, be they the leper, the woman at the well or any of the countless others who came to Christ one day and asked to be healed, did. After each was healed, they went out into the world and told all those who would listen what happened. One by one, the Word was passed and one by one the church grew. So it will be today; as each one of us goes out into the world today, we will pass the Word to the next person and one by one the church will grow.

The Differing Voices of Truth


I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.  The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.

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This was my contribution for the 2009 Clergy Letter Project. (Updated on 14 February 2011)
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When I started thinking about this message, it was in the context of what was going on in Texas. I watch what goes on down there for a number of reasons. First, I have lived in Texas for two distinctive times in my life. Second, what happens in Texas often has a very definitive impact on what happens in the other states.

I have found growing up as I have in so many different states that many people do not have an understanding of what goes on outside the boundaries of their own state. They may assume certain things about people that aren’t necessarily true and they may assume that things are done in other states just like they are done in their own home state.

We might have saved ourselves a lot of grief over the past eight years if more people had known that the governor of Texas is not the most politically powerful position in the state. In the words of former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, the Texas governorship is the weakest in the country (see As Alaska governor, Palin has more power than Bush in Texas). To quote Molly Ivins, one of my favorite writers,

The single most common misconception about George W is that he has been running a large state for the past six years. Texas has what is known in political science circles as “the weak-governor system.” You may think this is just a Texas brag, but our weak-governor system is a lot weaker than anybody else’s. Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising, by constitutional arrangement, the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office: behind lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. Which is not to say it’s a piddly office. For one thing, it’s a bully pulpit. Although truly effective governors are rare in Texas history, a few have made deep impressions and major changes. Besides, people think you’re important if you’re the governor and in politics, perception rules.(Shrub, The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose)

But we assume that governors of the various states all work in much the same way and we figure that if one can govern one state, then they can govern a country.

But it is in terms of education that we need to know what is happening in Texas (and California as well). Because of their size and the number of textbooks used in those two states, these two states have an extraordinary larger say in the development of textbooks used in elementary, middle, junior high and high schools throughout the whole country. Publishers are reluctant to change the content of a textbook if such changes are not accepted in either state. In effect, the State Boards of Education in California and Texas are deciding the textbook policies of the other forty-eight states. It is possible that the other states may choose to select another textbook but if it is not on the California or Texas list, it is not likely to be marketed very heavily.

Presently, the Texas Board is debating whether to change a line in the state science curriculum requiring students to critique all scientific theories and to explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of each. Now, this line has been in the official curriculum for the past twenty years and most teachers have ignored it.

And to that end, there is an attempt this year to revise the curriculum by dropping those words and urging students to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using “empirical evidence.” (“In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate”) While this may seem like a meaningless debate about a few words in a state document that will get put in a file in a cabinet in an office somewhere, it is more than that. It is the tip of an argument that has occupied the minds of scientists and theologians for most of the past 150 years.

Social conservatives want scientific theories to be examined for their strengths and weaknesses so that they can attack Darwin’s theory of evolution. But, in making this argument, they are ignoring the basis upon which science operates and how theories are developed.

By definition, a theory is the best explanation for what has been observed and what might happen next. (See “The Processes of Science”) Theories are developed from observation and evidence; you cannot develop a plausible theory if you do not have the evidence and you cannot fiddle with the evidence in order to fit a theory (the problems with the orbits of the planets in terms of geo-centric solar system show this). What present social conservatives are trying to do is find a way to introduce “intelligent design” as a plausible and acceptable theory for the creation of life on this planet. But to make their theory work, they must either change the processes of science and eliminate the need for empirical evidence or suggest that the evidence can be changed to fit the theory.

The problem is that there are some teachers who teach theories as if they were facts and are often not willing to accept alternative ideas in their classroom. Critics of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists tend to take this refusal as some sort of academic totalitarianism. But the evidence suggests that the reason why many teachers teach evolution as a fact, impervious to change or discussion, is because they do not know what a theory is and are only following a discussion outlined for them in the textbook. Their refusal to hear alternative ideas is more a reflection of their own lack of knowledge and a rather inflexible curriculum. Right now, most teachers teach from the textbook because the textbook drives the tests and the tests are the items that determine the success of the teacher and the school system. And because society has stated that teachers and school systems are accountable for what the students learn and such accountability will be measured through tests, if it is not on the test or in the textbook, it will not be taught.

But it should be also pointed out that many of the secular fundamentalists who cry out against the influence of the sectarian fundamentalists in schools don’t have much in the way going for them either. They see religion in terms of the church that tried Galileo for the supposedly heretical belief that the Sun was the center of the solar system. These modern day secular fundamentalists see religion as only superstition and evidence of an unknowing society. They would rather we place our belief in rational thought and the truth of empirical evidence. But in doing so, they have created their own religion, the religion of scientism.

Rabbi Michael Lerner put it this way

“Science, however, is not the same as scientism — the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification — all these spiritual dimensions of life — are dismissed by the ‘scientistic’ worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.”

“Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it’s a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives, therefore, insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.  (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060424/lerner)

We live in a world where we hear differing voices of truth, each insisting that the version of the truth is the only truth and all other versions are false. Those who claim to speak the truth refuse to acknowledge that others may see the truth as well and their refusal to allow dissent is as much a form of totalitarianism as they claim the opposition to be.

Dennis Overbye, in response to President Obama’s inaugural address (“Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy”), argued that science cannot operate in a dictatorship. Neither can religion. For both science and religion to survive, there must be an environment that fosters questions and free thought. If one’s belief cannot exist in such an environment, then it is probably not a very good belief system. Countless times in the Gospels, we read of how the authorities would not challenge Jesus for fear that He would show the weakness of their positions and thoughts.

Moses, in the passage from Deuteronomy for today, warns us about prophets who presume to speak for God when they are really speaking for themselves. The test of a true prophet, one who speaks for God, will come through the fulfillment of the prophet’s words, not through intellectual foresight masquerading as prophecy or coincidental fulfillment of the prediction.

And the fulfillment of the prophets was seen in the words, deeds, and actions of Jesus. When He began His mission, he brought a new vision into the world, one that questioned the voices of the establishment that had for so long controlled and dominated the people. Jesus challenged the people to see the truth for themselves. And as Mark told us in the Gospel reading for today, the very nature in which Jesus taught underscored the authority of His Word.

We live in a world of many voices, each claiming to tell us the truth. But the truth is a complex thing, not easily told and not easily learned. If our world is to be a world of either faith or reason and not both, then it will be an incomplete world and our knowledge of the truth will be limited and incomplete as well.

It is clear that this incompleteness is having a profound impact on our lives, far beyond a few days in a high school biology class. We are faced with problems of hunger, illness, violence, and repression both in this country and across the world. We seek new ideas but can only express old ones. We seek the answers to our problems in the past because we are more comfortable looking to the past and seeing where we have been than we are looking into the future and imaging where we could go.

As Jim Wallis noted (“The Wrong Question”) the crisis that we are in is not just a crisis of the economy or politics but a crisis of values. Shall we simply try to use the old ways and go back to business as usual or shall we try to find a way to avoid repeating the problems all over again sometime in the next generation? Michael Lerner put it this way,

[We need] to embrace a “new bottom line” in which corporations, social practices, government policies and individual behaviors are judged rational, efficient or productive not only if they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to treat others as embodiments of the sacred and to respond with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe. (“Verse and Voice” for 30 January 2009)

It is time that we begin using both our faith and reason to find the truth and to use the truth in the way it was meant to be used.

Our age abounds in information and technology, but it lacks godly conscience, Christ-like compassion, and Spirit-enabled commitment, the traits of our Methodist heritage. It can be said that the early Methodist church in England had an impact on the social condition of the day. The key to that early church’s influence was found in the traits of conscience, compassion and commitment.

If we are to be faithful to our age, then we must bring the riches of our heritage to our social responsibility, using what ever tools our age affords us that have moral integrity. The in-groups of our culture will not always approve of our agendas or our choice of methods. For that we will suffer their censure, as did Jesus in His day and Wesley in his. Yet both served many well by serving God most of all. That is what faithfulness to one’s age meant then, and it is what it means today. (”John Wesley, the Methodists, and Social Reform In England, Luke Keefer”)

On that night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago, twelve disciples gathered with their friends, their families, and their teacher to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. It was a meal framed in the truth of the past but it was a meal that would herald the truth of the future.

We gather together this day knowing the truth of that meal. We know that Jesus spoke the truth and was the truth and that his death on the cross freed us from slavery to sin and death.

And just as we know the truth through Christ, so too will others find the truth through what we say and do. When Christ spoke to us some two thousand years ago, he spoke of a hope, a promise, and a truth that was missing in the lives of the people. We can choose to be Christ’s voice in this world or we can let others be the voice. What shall it be?