Find The Cost of Freedom

I am preaching at Pine Plains United Methodist Church in Pine Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost.
Every year, for this particular Sunday, I have tried to write about the idea or concept of freedom. But over the past couple of years, I have begun to wonder if we have forgotten what the true cost of freedom is. We have come to equate the need for war with the need for freedom; we have come to think that we must expend the lives of our young in order to insure our freedom.

Last year, several comments were posted to my blog when I posted my thoughts about war and freedom. (1) The focus of these comments was that war was inevitable and that we needed to meet violence with violence. Perhaps war is inevitable but it is only so when we allow it to happen.

I do not believe military force is necessarily the proper solution to the problems of the world today. When Jesus stood before the people in the synagogue in Nazareth and pronounced the Good News, he had no army and no plans for an army. His message was a transforming message, meant to change the way people viewed and related to other people. The message of the Gospel was certainly not meant to be the domination of one individual over another by physical force. Many of those who rejoiced when they first heard Christ’s words quickly left when they found out He would not lead an army of soldiers to establish the new Kingdom.. They were unwilling to pay the cost for the freedom that Jesus was offering. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ came to set us free and that we should not submit to the yoke of slavery. (2) Yet, in the confinement of slavery, we seem to think that we are free. But it is only an illusion of freedom.

But it seems that, as a society, we have forgotten what the true cost of freedom is. This week we will hear speakers on both sides of the political aisle speak of the sacrifice of the young men and women who have died in the past year to preserve and protect our freedom.

We are in a quasi-state of war, but we are not fighting those who attacked us. We have used that attack as the excuse that we must go to war in order to prevent others from attacking us. And despite what our leaders may say, our young are not being killed in a war against terrorism but by both sides of a civil war. It is clear that there are those in this country (and that includes members of the various religious communities) who feel that war is the only solution to the problems that we face each day, at home and abroad.

I do not think so; our country’s decision to go to war required that we surrender our freedoms, not enhance them. The political freedom that this country has so long stood for has been given away in order to justify war. It becomes very difficult to accept the idea that we must fight in order to preserve our freedoms and remain safe. It angers me that politicians will use the occasion of this week to call for more war and will use the death of so many young men and women as the basis for this call.

Now, before I go on, like so many in this country I grieve at the loss of any one who has died while serving this country. My family was fortunate in that our grandfather, who served this country in World War I and retired as a Colonel in the United States Army, died at home during peace time. We are fortunate because if he had not been retired medically by the Army in 1943, he would have been in command of one of the regiments that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

I am also the son of an Air Force Major, who began his service in World War II. He died in his sleep during a period of relative peace in this world but his service was during the most turbulent period of peace imaginable.

Throughout his service in the Air Force, we lived on bases that were home to both units of the Air Training Command and of the Strategic Air Command. Kids I went to school with during the 1950’s and 1960’s were the sons and daughters of the pilots and crews of the B-52’s that served as the air arm of our nuclear deterrent. We did not discuss their father’s work back then but I do know that later on families were told that in the advent of a nuclear attack the bases that housed the B-52 crews and their families as well as the Titan II and Minuteman missile crews and their families were prime targets for their Soviet equivalents and would have, in the event of a nuclear attack, been the scene of total destruction and devastation.

It was with some degree of dark humor that the keeping of the peace during the height of the Cold War was symbolized by the term Mutually Assured Destruction or its acronym MAD. This quaint little term expressed the idea that each side had the ability and more than enough capability to completely destroy their opposition. There is no better acronym in the history of mankind than the one coined for mankind’s destruction of itself.

From my grandfather’s diary and my father’s comments, I came to read and hear about the horrors of war. Yet, in our news broadcasts today, we see very little of the horrors of war; to do so would only aid the enemy in their cause.

We have attempted to remove the personal aspect from war so that it is easier to go to war. Civilian deaths are called collateral damage; we know that civilians are being killed but we have no idea how many civilians have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since we invaded those countries. Our own military dead come home without fanfare and often in the middle of the night, noticed only by their families. Our wounded sons and daughters come home to a medical system that is over-taxed and under-prepared to deal with the nature of their physical and mental wounds. And after only a minimum of care, they are quickly forgotten, left on their own to find their way in an unknowing and uncaring world while politicians on both sides of the aisle will speak of their sacrifices, the losses of their limbs and lives, so that we may enjoy freedom.

Like so many families today, when my grandfather and my father were buried, my family received American flags with the thanks and appreciation of a grateful nation for their service. Honor guards will convey these same words to the families, to the parents, to the children of those who die this week but will their deaths, will the price that these young soldiers paid really be for our freedom?

No politician will speak about removing war from today’s vocabulary. No one, be they politician or minister, soldier or civilian, will speak of finding ways to remove the causes of war so that we, the parents and older generation, can stop burying our children. The Greek historian Herodotus quoted Croesus, the King of Lydia as saying “no one is as foolish as to prefer war to peace where fathers bury their sons instead of sons burying their fathers.” (3) Rather than remembering what General Robert E. Lee said about the horrors of war, “It is fortunate that war is so terrible, because we could grow quite fond of it,” we seek it out as the solution to our problems.

We are like James and John, the “Sons of Thunder”, in today’s Gospel reading (4) who want to send the wrath of God upon those who disagree with us. Because we see war as the solution, we chose to forget the horrors of war. We do not pursue peace with the same vigor that we do war.

It is not like others have not spoken out against war in the past. President Dwight Eisenhower said,

If men can develop weapons that are so terrifying as to make the thought of global war include almost a sentence for suicide, you would think that man’s intelligence and his comprehension… would include also his ability to find a peaceful solution.

General of the Army Omar Bradley said,

We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.

The recent Time article about the legacy of President John F. Kennedy pointed out that he understood the horrors of both conventional and nuclear warfare. The radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests that both the Soviet Union and the United States were conducting in the 1960’s was landing on grass and becoming part of the food chain. This frightened President Kennedy and led him to seek a different solution to the arms race and global conflict.

While many people during those times called for war of any kind, President Kennedy sought peace. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 1961, he said, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”

In a speech on 10 June, 1963 at American University in Washington, D. C.(a United Methodist school, by the way), he expanded upon that idea by stating,

I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War.

It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.

Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles which can only destroy and never create is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. (5)

It is interesting that those who are familiar with the horrors of war in all of its forms are among those who argue against war. Yet, the prophetic words spoken at the height of the Cold War seem to have been quickly forgotten.

Despite all that we know, we still see war as the arbiter of peace and justice. There are those today who see war as the only answer and are quite willing to utilize nuclear weapons in the pursuit of their goals. But even one nuclear weapon dropped somewhere on the other side of the world will have consequences here in the United States. The fallout from a nuclear weapon will ultimately make its way to this country and will impact us in so many unimaginable ways. I can remember weather forecasts of the early 1960’s giving the amount of strontium-90 that was in the air. This radioactive isotope takes the place of calcium in the food chain; those who ingest this isotope develop bone cancer. And since the most common source of calcium in our diet is milk, the ones most affected by this will be the children of the world. It was this knowledge that led President Kennedy to seek the beginning of the end of nuclear testing. Are we so willing to engage in warfare that we will not only bury our oldest children but began to bury our youngest as well?

War is, if you will, an equal opportunity destructive force. It does not differentiate between a soldier and a civilian, an adult and a child. It creates poverty, misery, destruction and unemployment. And all that can come from this creation is more war

Paul’s words to the Galatians that were part of today’s Old Testament reading (6) become very prophetic. Paul wrote that we are called to freedom but this freedom is not to be the opportunity for self-indulgence. Rather than devouring each other, we are called to take care of each other. Interesting words when we hear others proclaim that only war will set us free.

Are not “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these” (7) the very things that lead to disagreement and ultimately to war?

If we are to remove war from the vocabulary of society, then it must begin with us. We must be willing to take the steps that will bring peace into this world. John Kennedy pointed out that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Paul counsels the Galatians, and he counsels us today, to lead a life of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (8)

Black Elk, a traditional holy man and visionary of the Oglala Sioux, said

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.

Thomas Aquinas said,

Peace is the work of justice indirectly, in so far as justice removes the obstacles to peace; but it is the work of charity (love) directly, since charity, according to its very notion, causes peace.

What cost are we willing to pay in order to insure that freedom through peace, not war, is accomplished in our lifetime?

Contrast the actions of the young man who wished to follow Christ with the actions of Elisha as he sought to inherit the spiritual nature of Elijah’s ministry. The young man was unwilling to give up his present life in order to follow Christ while Elisha was willing to see God is all His Glory and Power. This was at a time when it was believed that to see God in this manner would only insure your immediate and horrible death. Elisha was willing to go against the beliefs of society so that he could continue the ministry begun by Elijah. But the young man was not willing to do the same. He was unwilling to pay the cost.

If we are to find the cost of freedom, we must be willing to look for it in other places. If we are willing to pay the cost of freedom, we must be willing to do the things that bring peace and not continue to bring war. In proclaiming the Gospel message, Jesus spoke of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, bringing freedom to the oppressed. If there is to be peace in this world, should not the Gospel message not only be proclaimed but carried out?

Are you able to bear the burden that comes from freedom? Are you able to find freedom through Christ? Are you able to do the work that Christ asks you to do? If you are able, then you can find the cost of freedom. If you cannot, then you will never know true freedom and its cost will be beyond your reach.
“Study War No More”
(2) Galatians 5: 1
(3) From Herodotus’ “The Persian Wars”
(4) Luke 9: 51 – 62
John F. Kennedy’s speech to the graduates of American University of 10 June 1963
(6) Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25
(7) Galatians 5: 21
(8) Galatians 5: 22

Which Way Will You Go?

I am preaching at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church in South Salem, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost.  This was edited on August 26, 2020 to correct a link.
Two things occurred in the past few weeks that I think have a profound impact on the nature of the church in the coming days. First, the Reverend Jerry Falwell died, and second, several books with an atheist viewpoint were at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. And I think that society’s reaction to the first of the events is one reason for the second.

Now, I will be honest and say that I didn’t like Reverend Falwell very much; I thought his pronouncements and his attitude at times were the very antithesis of what I thought a Christian should be. In his comments concerning the passing of Reverend Falwell and its implication for society, Jim Wallis quoted David Kuo, former special assistant to President George W. Bush. Kuo wrote that Falwell “…helped define Jesus for much of America today.” He further wrote, “…his definition does not do justice to the Jesus of the Gospels. When people hear the word ‘Christian,’ too often they think not of Jesus and his teachings but of Jerry Falwell and his politics. I know a lot of Christians who don’t like to refer to themselves as ‘Christians’ because they are afraid of the Falwellian association.” (“Falwell’s Legacy”, Jim Wallis in Sojourners, July, 2007)

But as William Willimon noted in a recent article in Christian Century (June 12, 2007), Jerry Falwell was not a man to be trifled with. In his conversation with students at Duke University that prompted this article by Bishop Willimon, Reverend Falwell noted that Liberty University’s African-American enrollment was only 12% of the total student population and he was embarrassed by such a low number. But he also noted that the same enrollment at Duke, a United Methodist-supported university, was only 6% and that for many years Duke had a policy of segregation. The students who had booed and hissed at every word that Reverend Falwell spoke at the beginning of this conversation were very, very quiet at the end. As Bishop Willimon note, Jerry Falwell was no fool. If you are going to argue with someone like Jerry Falwell, you had better have your facts straight; otherwise, you are going to be very embarrassed by the outcome.

I noticed that with his passing, there were those who thought that the conservative and fundamentalist forces that seem to drive the American church were going to quietly die out as well, or at least be reduced in demeanor. I doubt that will happen, if for no other reason then that others will step up to take Reverend Falwell’s place. Only they will not necessarily be as talented or prepared and the fights they will fight will be far more “bloody.”

Against that backdrop I also noticed that there were several books, among them “God is not great” by Christopher Hitchens, on the New York Times best seller list. It was almost as if the extreme left of the theological spectrum felt the need to rush in and fill the vacuum left by the death of Reverend Falwell.

As much as I feel that those on the extreme right of the theological spectrum arrive at faulty conclusions from the facts available, so too do I think that those on the extreme left do the same. It is quite easy to conclude when all you read about in the news is war, violence, hatred, and exclusion that there is no God or, if there is a God, it is one who prefers violence over love. It is quite easy for someone to say that churches today are hypocritical when the loudest voices advocating war, hatred, violence, and exclusion are heard in churches throughout the country. For many in society, atheism and agnosticism seem to be viable alternatives when the church seems to turn its back on them. One comment to my blog for last week (“We Are Eating Our Seed Corn”) pointed out that many churches are cutting funding for youth ministries while at the same time showing absolutely no interest in the youth. If there was any wonder as to why so many youth view the church cynically, we only have to look at what we are doing.

But those who profess science as an alternative to religion often times merely replace one form of religion with another. Instead of science, we have what is called scientism, the belief that there exists only one reality and science provides the only trustworthy method for gaining knowledge about this reality. In this view, science has an exhaustive monopoly on knowledge and it judges the claims of religion to have knowledge of supernatural realities as fiction or pseudo-knowledge. But just as fundamentalism is rigid and inflexible, scientism is a sealed off world that has closed its doors to transcendence. (Adapted from; note, as of August 26, 2020, this link does not work.)

Brian Doyle wrote about a conversation that he had had with two philosophy professors and the roots of faith and whether religions are the “biological constructs” and “electrical explosions in the brain” or whether they mean something more:

I have continued to think about that conversation almost every day. I still have faith in faith, despite the philosophers’ evidence that religions are merely nutty hobbies, like being a Cubs fan. I keep thinking that under the rituals and rigmarole, there is in religion a crucial, wriggling sense of what human beings might someday be. It’s what you experience sometimes, for an instant, in patriotism or sport or family; a humor and mercy; camaraderie and ease, a grace and mercy, a warmth beyond all reason and sense. Sometimes, for a second — at a game, a meeting, in line at the bank, at a park by the rive — you get a flash of connective energy with your fellow beings, just a flick of it, a quick shiver of inexplicable peace and joy in the company of your fellow travelers.

That flash is what religions are for. Yes, we gather because deep in our mammal hearts we are in awe of whatever sparks life, and yes, we are desperate for definition so we drape explanations on the Unnameable… (Adapted from Commonweal Magazine, 3 November 2006 – in Context, July 2007)

The philosopher Huston Smith noted,

“…we are hamstrung between the fundamentalists on the one hand, who are locked into a dogmatic literalism that fails to put scripture into context, and on the other side, the liberals, who have conceded too much ground to secularism and the scientific method.

As for the scientific method, Smith noted,

When the scientific method came into being, it gave us a new window on the truth; namely, a method by laboratory-controlled experiments to winnow true hypotheses from false ones. This has yield a great many things — washing machines, microwaves, a significantly longer life expectancy, to name a few.

But those discoveries were so good that we overlooked something. We thought the scientific method was giving us omnicompetence (an understanding of all things). It isn’t.

We are physical beings, but we also have a spirit. Science relies on our physical senses, mostly our vision, for its discoveries. But there are some things that our physical senses do not detect. Nobody has ever seen a thought. Nobody has ever seen a feeling. And yet the world of our thoughts and feelings is the primary world in which we live. (Adapted from Zion’s Herald (now The Progressive Christian,, January/February 2006 – in Context, July 2007)

There is one truth but it is inaccessible if you limit the way you seek it out or try to find it. And that is the very challenge that the church today faces. You see people today searching for the truth, searching for a new path to walk. But where is this new path? In what direction do we walk or take our lives?

With fundamentalism on one side of the theological spectrum and atheism on the other, it would seem that the middle path is the only alternative. But, as is often said in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are dead armadillos. And the middle path in this viewpoint is a compromise of the two extremes.

There are churches today that do offer some sort of compromise. They offer new forms of worship or a softer message. But changing the style of worship doesn’t help if the central message ignores the Gospel. A softer message, one that offers rewards that Jesus never promised or says that poverty, sickness, homelessness are not your fault and it is all right to ignore, is just another form of the hypocrisy that drives so many people away from the true message of the Gospel.

Let me today suggest another alternative. Let me suggest today the way we should go, the direction our life will should take is not defined by the middle of the road and compromise but rather by the simple declaration of our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior.

To follow Christ is to follow a decidedly different path and most definitely not the path that society would have us walk. But it is not an easy path to walk, as today’s readings from the Old Testament (1 Kings 19: 1 – 15) and the Gospel (Luke 8: 26 – 39) show.

In the Old Testament reading, Elijah is on the run for his life. In the previous chapter of Kings, Elijah had openly challenged King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, and their belief in the gods of Baal. Calling upon the power of God, Elijah caused the prophets of Baal in Israel to be killed. Ahab and Jezebel were seeking revenge for the embarrassment that they had suffered in this display of God’s power.

In the Gospel reading for today, a man possessed by demons approaches Jesus. Jesus breaks the power of demons and puts the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. Now, you would have thought that the people would have rejoiced because one of their neighbors had been cured of a debilitating illness. But they were angry that he had destroyed the herd of pigs.

Now, this region of Galilee was predominantly Gentile so it was permissible for them to be raising pigs. It has been suggested that the pigs raised were sold to a nearby Roman garrison and the anger that the people directed towards Jesus was because of the economic loss.

We have to be prepared to go against the grain of society if we are to walk the path that Christ asks us to walk. It is interesting to note that after encountering God on the mountain, Elijah is directed to go to Damascus and take his ministry in a new direction.

Saul leaves Jerusalem for Damascus to continue the persecution of the new Christians. But it was on the road to Damascus that Saul’s life changed and he became Paul. It was on the road to Damascus that a life of persecution became a life of ministry.

Paul also notes in his letter to the Galatians, our 2nd lesson today (Galatians 3: 23 – 29), that a life in the law, such as the one he lead before the transformation on the road to Damascus, was a life imprisoned. And a life imprisoned is a life without creativity, without the ability to go beyond the boundaries of society.

There are two types of persons who will hear or read this message. There are some who do not know what direction their life should take. To them, we remember what God commanded Elijah to do, “go to Damascus!” In this case, to go to Damascus is to take the steps that are needed to encounter Christ much as Saul did and to make the changes as Saul did in becoming Paul.

There are those who have made the trip and have encountered Christ and have changed their lives. They are like the man in the Gospel reading today. They want to follow Jesus wherever He goes but Jesus commands them to return home and tell the people there how much God has done for them.

The question that you must ask yourself today is which type of person you are and which direction you will go.

We Are Eating Our Seed Corn

Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost.
Now that it is the middle part of June, we can look back at the reports of the various annual conferences that bloggers have posted and reflect upon them.

I think the one report that impressed me the most was the one that stated the conference was over and done in two days. Oh, how I wish that the business of all churches could be done in such a short time.

One note that saddened me was the report that an annual conference decided to end its support of campus/college ministries. What was more frightening was the fact that the decision was actually made several months before annual conference and rushed through the annual conference process without much of a debate. This particular conference did decide to transfer part of the money that had been budgeted for campus ministries to some sort of nebulous organization that would take on the role of campus ministry in its jurisdiction. It struck me as I read that as some sort of bureaucratic creation that would not work. Coupled with this report was a report from another conference that they were having second thoughts about a similar decision a year ago.

It seemed as if a number of conferences had voting problems. One indicated that they had more candidates than ballot spots (why can’t we have that problem at local conferences?). There were problems completing the ballots in another conference. I don’t think that voter fraud will ever be an issue in annual conference voting but it seemed like the instructions should have been very clear or some instruction should have been provided

There was also a mention of the problem of getting young people to participate in the work of the annual conference. In this case, my reading of the report indicated that there were young people who wanted to be involved but were prevented from doing so. That is perhaps a sad commentary on the nature of the church today, when people want to be involved and are prevented from doing so by those who have been in position for, sometimes, too many years.

There were probably other reports that I haven’t seen. It should also be noted that I did not go to my own annual conference this year nor have I ever been to one. In part, my regular job prevents me from taking off for four days at the end of the academic year. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, I have never been considered for the position of “Lay Member to Annual Conference.” And though I have served as a lay minister for two churches in this annual conference, I could not represent those churches because of my lay status (plus the problems already mentioned).

I believe that my annual conference took action to remove a church from its “alive and kicking” list. The congregation had made the decision a year ago but the conference tabled any action until this year. I noted as passed this particular church location a couple of days ago that the building is being used by a more Pentecostal oriented church.

With General Conference a little less than one year away, the tone of the reports, the rumblings that I have read in other posts and my own feelings about the direction of the church lead me to some disturbing thoughts and concerns. First, in terms of membership, the United Methodist denomination is slowly dying. Each year it seems that the membership numbers are lower than the year before.

This is not a membership loss due only to death; it is a loss of younger members dissatisfied with the direction of the church and its inability to articulate what the mission of the church is and should be.

The denomination is becoming more mature. And with this maturity comes hesitancy. The denomination is unwilling to take initiatives that would change the direction in which it is headed. I think this is because there is a fear of failure that comes with hesitancy. Failure is always a possibility with new initiatives and you have to be prepared for failure. It isn’t failure that dooms an initiative; it is fear of failure. And it seems to me that the denomination is more afraid of failure than it is not trying.

I cannot help but think that the denomination is eating its seed corn. Seed corn is the corn you save for planting, not for consumption. When you start eating your seed corn, you begin taking away the future for the sake of the present.
There is, I believe, an attitude in the denomination today that is like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading. The denomination has become far too comfortable in its own righteousness and it is forgetting to do the things that are the heart and soul of Christianity.

It was the unnamed prostitute that washed Jesus’ feet, not Simon. But it was Simon’s responsibility and his own self-righteousness that stopped him from doing so. From the discussion between Jesus and Simon, you get the feeling that he (Simon) would not have allowed this women into the room. It is also disturbing to me that one of topics that had dominated General Conference for the past eight years and likely will take up a better part of next year’s General Conference will be who may be a part of the denomination. Why is it that Jesus welcomed all who sought Him but we feel that there are individuals who should be barred from our churches?

The church’s focus on the bottom line is, in my opinion, much like Ahab’s coveting the garden in today’s Old Testament reading. To the best of my knowledge, the denomination has done nothing illegal or unethical, as did Ahab, but it seems to me that it seeks non-church methods to achieve its goals. As long as the church focuses on the bottom line of dollars and membership numbers, it will be like the people of Israel and their leaders in the Old Testament times where materialism dominated and prevented them from seeing the Word of God in action.

The denomination must make a decision, individually and collectively. Will it be like Paul before Damascus, when he was Saul and devoted to carrying out the law? Or will it be like Paul after Damascus, saved by the Grace of God and devoted to bringing the Word, not the law, to the world. Will the denomination remember what it was that drove John Wesley to seek reformation of his church but led to the establishment of this denomination?

We are faced with a great challenge in our denomination. We are using our resources, our “seed corn”, to keep the present church alive. In doing so, we will not have a church in the future. It is time that we plant our seed corn so that we can prepare for the future that Christ promised us. To do otherwise should be unthinkable.

Finding the Truth

I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (it appears that I used the lectionary readings for the week of May 29th to June 4th for this message instead of the readings for June 5th to June 11th).
There is a scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” that has become almost ingrained in our minds. A Navy lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, is questioning a Marine Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson.

Jessep (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I’m entitled to them.
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can’t handle the truth! (“A Few Good Men”, written by Aaron Sorkin – dialogue from

We are a nation that embodies this scene in our search for the truth and our response to the truth. We are a nation that seeks the truth, yet while we desperately seek the truth, we are equally afraid of its consequences. While we may know the truth, we do not seem capable of handling it.

But what is the truth? Jesus said, “seek the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 32) But how do we find the truth?

Our desire to seek the truth and inability to find it has left many people questioning what the truth is. They have become known as “seekers” and many churches have responded by creating “seeker-sensitive” services. The only problem with such services is that they are often devoid of any sign of the presence of the Cross. The cross and other religious trappings are often removed from the view of the congregation in these services because such signs are very disturbing to seekers and will often scare them away.

Even the message of the church has changed. Instead of challenging people to fulfill the mission of Christ, it has been softened and modified into what is derisively called “gospel-light.” It is a message that sounds great but demands little and, in the end, carries little meaning.

It is a message that allows people to justify what they are doing in their search for riches, glory, and self-gratification. The bearers of this message proclaim that the riches of God’s Kingdom belong to the listener if they only ask God for them. It is theirs for the asking because they are righteous and God-fearing. It is a message that allows one to blame others for the ills of society while claiming to be true disciples of Christ.

To readily accept this message, however, requires that we abandon any pretense of reason or logic. This message tells us that the truth that we seek in our attempts to make sense of the world in which we live can only be found if we accept the Bible as absolutely correct. The solution to our search is uncritical obedience and mindless acceptance of the authority of those who claim to speak for God. It is an approach that requires that we abandon critical thinking skills.

But our human needs for absolute certainty cannot be satisfied with this approach nor should they. It would be sinful for us not to want to think, to reason, and to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. But many people do just that because they do not have the faith to trust in the Lord.

And in doing so, the message first proclaimed by Jesus, a message of love for each other, has transformed into a message of fear, hatred, exclusion, greed, and self-interest. We have transformed a God that loved us so much that He willingly sent His Son to die on the Cross for our sins so that we could live in freedom from sin and death into a god who destroys and kills those who displease him. Like the people of Israel in the Old Testament, we have abandoned the God who brought us out of slavery for the god of Baal and its message of self-interest and materialism.

Those who preach this message seek to create a society much like that of Israel of the Old Testament, a society of religious laws. But that society and its laws was a society without hope and one based on fear. The fear came because you didn’t know if you were properly obeying the law and fear of the punishment that you would incur from the authorities.

We may not be a religious and theocratic society but we are clearly a society that lives in fear. We have clearly forgotten that Franklin Roosevelt once calmed this nation by proclaiming that the greatest enemy of mankind was fear. We believe that the answer to fear is power and the more power that we have, the easier it will be to counter and conquer fear.

Yet, Jesus conquered our greatest fear, the fear of death, with a single quiet word. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus touches the young man and commands him to rise. (Luke 7: 11 – 17). Luke writes that the people who saw this were amazed by the power that Jesus had over death and proclaimed Him the next great prophet. They did so because they did not yet understand the differences between prophets such as Elijah and Jesus. This misunderstanding would last through the Gospel, confusing not only the disciples but the people who followed Him.

And one can only imagine what the authorities, both political and religious, were thinking following this demonstration of God’s power. After all, in touching the dead young man, Jesus violated one of the basic religious laws and should have been considered “unclean.” In the eyes of authorities, Jesus’ failure to remedy this violation of religious law was more important than the result of the violation. Time and time again, Jesus would follow the spirit of the law and encounter resistance from the authorities who proclaimed that the law was more important. Time and time again, Jesus’ actions in following the spirit of the law to take care of people first would illustrate the truth and expose the hypocrisy of the leaders.

The Old Testament reading for today was written some 3000 years ago but it could have been written as if it were today. The worshippers of Baal then would have felt right at home with the materialism of today’s society. And the widows of that time would have understood the despair felt by many of today’s society who do not have enough to eat or a place to stay each day.

Richard J. Foster wrote that

People need the truth. It does them no good to remain ignorant. They need the freedom that comes through the grace of simplicity. And if we are to bring the whole counsel of God, we must give attention to these issues that enslave people so savagely. Martin Luther is reported to have said “If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.” Given the contemporary milieu, several dimensions of simplicity seem to me to need careful attention in the teaching ministry of the church.

We must boldly teach the essential connection between the inner and outer aspects of simplicity. We can no longer allow people to engage in pious exercises that are divorced from the hard social realities of life. Nor can we tolerate a radical social witness that is devoid of inward spiritual vitality. Our preaching and teaching needs to mold these elements in unity. If our teaching is centered in the biblical text, we will find literally hundreds of examples — from Abraham to St. John, from the wisdom literature to the apocalyptic writings. (From Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J. Foster)

The focus of the Bible has always been on the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. It has been pointed out on a number of occasions that if you removed every reference to the poor in the Bible, it would fall apart. Yet we somehow think that the Bible justifies a case for privilege, hierarchy and divine wrath.

We have forgotten that the people of Israel were commanded to leave portions of the fields untouched so that those without would be able to have food to eat. The essence of the Book of Ruth focuses on that premise and the meeting of Ruth and Boaz and the beginning of the family tree that would lead to David and ultimately to Jesus. Yet, in the time of our Old Testament reading, widows had become the outcast of society. Israel had forgotten its own laws for the care of the unfortunate.

The story of the widow and Elijah is a reminder of what the true message of the Gospel is. It is a reminder of what it means to have accepted Christ in our hearts. It is a reminder of what we are to do if we say that we are Christian.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 1: 11 – 24), begins by pointing out how he once strictly adhered to the law. But he also showed how he was called to be God’s apostle and how it was through God’s grace that he was allowed to continue.

It was by God’s grace that the widow’s jars of oil and flour were kept constantly full. It is also interesting to note that the widow was not an Israelite and yet was a recipient of God’s grace.

Paul also tells us that the word he preaches came from God, not from men. If the message were to have come from men, then he would have had to go to Jerusalem so that others could teach him what God’s message really meant.

But Paul indicated that he didn’t have to do that because God had given him the ability to understand the message. How different it is today when there are those who proclaim that only they can understand the message of God and we are to accept their understanding without question. We are able to understand God’s message, Paul notes, if we have accepted the Holy Spirit. It was the same Holy Spirit that imparted knowledge to those who gathered that Sunday at Pentecost and proclaimed the message of the Gospel.

We are a nation that seeks the truth. While there are those who proclaim that they are the sole bearers of the truth we, like the widow in the Old Testament reading today, find that the truth of God’s message comes from our faith in God and our trust in God. With our faith in God, we know that fear need not and cannot control our lives. All we need to do is look at the Cross to know the truth in that.

Through God’s grace and love, we have been saved. Through the Holy Spirit, we have found the truth. And now we are able to go out into the world proclaiming God’s message through Christ so that others may find the truth.

The Crisis between Faith and Reason

Here are my thoughts for Trinity Sunday.
It was noted that President John Kennedy, if he had lived, would have turned ninety last week. Discounting everything else, with the medical problems that we now know plagued him, I don’t think that he would have lived to be that old. It would have been an interesting and most likely better world if he had not been assassinated in 1963. From the prospective of 47 years of history and because it is the only way that I can evaluate what might have happened, this country was on the verge of something great.

It seems to me that with the struggles of equality and the attempts to reach the moon, there was vitality in our lives. There was a sense of involvement by the people. It was a country where there was a drive for excellence in all ways, from the arts to the sciences, from social equality to financial equality. Yes, there was the war in Viet Nam and one of the great debates of history will always be whether John Kennedy would have kept us there after the 1964 elections. But that question, like all questions of history, can never be answered because of November 22, 1963.

But today, we have to wonder if any of the greatness that seemed possible back then has been achieved. Yes, we accomplished the goal President Kennedy set forth of landing a man on the moon before 1970 but we have not been there since Apollo 17 returned to earth on 19 December 1972. We have, to the best of my knowledge, no plans to go back to the moon and the plans for the orbital space station are contingent on funding. It is unlikely that we will be returning to space in the next decade because, to paraphrase President Kennedy’s challenge, “it is too dangerous and too expensive, so we will choose not to go.”

Our schools today are no better than they were; in fact, I would propose that they are worse than they were. The space race that began in the late 50’s drove our schools to improve science and mathematics teaching but the funding for these programs dried up when the race ended and now we worry about the quality of science and mathematics teaching. We worry about the quality of all the teaching but instead of improving teaching through support and the education of teachers, we seek to improve our teaching by constantly testing our children.

One thing is certain; in our drive to improve teaching, we have the best tested children in the world. But they know little more than what is on the test. Test skills, while important, do little to improve thinking and reasoning skills. The tests that we require our children to take only test them on the factual knowledge that they have gained in the previous six months; if we were really interested in what they learned, we would wait some six more months and then test the children. Right now, I would suggest that if that were to happen, test scores would plummet because nothing was ever learned.

It is quite apparent that we as a nation cannot adequately think or reason. If we could, would our news broadcasts be filled with stories about which starlet was caught driving while intoxicated or which star did something equally outrageous? If we were a nation that could adequately think or reason, would we have fallen for the lies and half-truths that were given as rationale for invading Iraq? Would we, if we had adequately thought about the consequences, ever allowed ourselves to be in the midst of a civil war that now seems never to end? And, if we could adequately think and reason, would we stand back quietly and let President Bush suggest that we are going to be in Iraq for the next fifty years when less than four years ago, he strutted across an aircraft carrier deck and proclaimed that the mission was accomplished?

There is a crisis between faith and reason in this country. There is also a crisis of faith and reason in this country. Back in January, I wrote

“If you lead a life based solely on empiricism and have no faith, you will lead a life without vision. You may be successful in what you do but you will not know where you are going or if you are ever going to get there.

If you lead a life based solely on faith but ignore the world around you, you will have a vision of what you want to be and where you want to go but you will not have the means to fulfill your vision.

Life is both faith and reason – the day-to-day activities of life hand-in-hand with one’s vision of the future. (1)

To live without reason is to live without the means of creating and solving the problems of this world. By the same token, to live without faith takes away the ability to have a vision of the future. But there are those in the faith community that would limit what we can do with reason.

For some in the faith community, the world is determined by the Bible and all thoughts and ideas that we might develop cannot contradict what is written in the Bible. We are to accept the creation of the world as described in the Bible as fact and accept it without question, even when the physical evidence suggests otherwise. Now, I am not denying that God created this world but I think it was done in a manner that we are just beginning to understand. To limit what we teach in science or demand that science teach in a manner that does not reflect the process of science can only limit our potential, a potential given to us and created in us by God. It was God that gave us the gift of rationale thought and a mind to use.

I sometimes think that those who want an alternative theory of evolution taught in the classroom are afraid. They are afraid that people will see their faith as shallow, immature, or weak. They do not want their children to learn new ideas because new ideas can only cause challenges in their faith.

In the same manner, there are those today who belittle people of faith. They argue and write that there is no God. They choose this line of thought for any number of reasons, among them how people of faith treat other people and the lack of empirical evidence for the existence of God.

But how people treat others is not a sign of the presence of God (if anything, it is a sign that the presence of God is not present) and it is impractical or improbable that one will ever find empirical evidence that God exists. And those who insist on the need to find evidence that God exists are like those who insist on a line of thought that concludes that this earth is only some 6000 years old. It is faulty thinking from the beginning and it can never adequately explain what this world is about and who its people are.

The Old Testament reading for today comes from Proverbs (2). The commentary for the first part of the reading tells us that wisdom wants to reach everyone and broadcasts its message openly. Wisdom’s words can be trusted and will deliver on its promises. The words of wisdom are truth and are open for all to see and hear. This compares to wickedness which hides behind a veil of deceit and lies; wickedness uses privacy and deception to achieve its goals.

The commentary continues by noting that wisdom comes to those who fear the Lord but I have come to understand that such fear is actually knowledge of the Lord. It means coming to God and turning away from all that God hates: evil, pride, arrogance, misbehavior, injustice.

In verses 22 – 31, the commentary tells us that God produced wisdom and brought forth knowledge. A proper study of the universe is a progressive discovery of God’s wisdom; in other words, as our ability to reason develops so too does our faith. If we limit either, then the other will suffer.

It is our faith that sustains us and allows hope to grow in us. These are not my words but what Paul wrote to the Romans in the Epistle reading for today (3). Faith generates hope and hope never disappoints us because hope comes through knowing Christ. It is that moment in time when we come to know and trust in Christ that we receive the Holy Spirit.

And in that moment, when we receive the Holy Spirit, then our lives change. As John noted in the Gospel reading for today (4), our ability to understand becomes clearer in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that will guide us in our search for the truth.

Those who say that we can live in a world of faith alone and who seek to make this a world where faith is all there is will produce a world that does not have the ability to think or reason. It is a world that will die.

Those who say that we can live in a world of reason alone will produce a world without vision. And a world without a vision cannot know where it is going.

We live in a society today where there is a crisis between faith and reason. We must seek to live in a world where faith and reason are equal parts of our lives, for only then are we able to truly know God and be God’s people.
(1) “Just a Thought”
(2) Proverbs 8: 1 – 4; 22 – 31
(3) Romans 5: 1 – 5
(4) John 16: 12 – 15