Which Side Are You On? (2008)

Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Genesis 6: 11 – 22, 7: 24, 8: 14 – 19; Romans 1: 16 – 17, 3: 22 – 31; and Matthew 7: 21  -29


While my two favorite Bible passages are Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13 and John 8: 31 – 32; there is a special place in my heart for today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 6: 11 – 22, 7: 24; 8: 14 – 19) and Gospel reading (Matthew 7: 21 – 29).

Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13

There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth:
A right time for birth and another for death,
A right time to plant and another to reap,
A right time to kill and another to heal,
A right time to destroy and another to construct,
A right time to cry and another to laugh,
A right time to lament and another to cheer,
A right time to make love and another to abstain,
A right time to embrace and another to part,
A right time to search and another to count your losses,
A right time to hold on and another to let go,
A right time to rip out and another to mend,
A right time to shut up and another to speak up,
A right time to love and another to hate,
A right time to wage war and another to make peace.

But in the end, does it really make a difference what anyone does? I’ve had a good look at what God has given us to do—busywork, mostly. True, God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time—but he’s left us in the dark, so we can never know what God is up to, whether he’s coming or going. I’ve decided that there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life. That is it; eat, drink, and make the most of your job. It’s God’s gift.

John 8: 31 – 32

Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”

I used the Old Testament reading from Genesis, or rather Bill Cosby’s interpretation of the Noah story as the basis for my first college reflection (there is a copy of this wonderful piece on YouTube.com but it is soured somewhat by the comments which are more theological and show no appreciation for the humor of the piece). And it was during that same college period that I became aware of that great theological study, The Gospel According to Peanuts by Robert L. Short.

In one passage from the cartoon strip, Linus is outside building a rather ornate sand castle. As he is working on this project, it begins to rain until, in the fourth panel, it is a deluge and all of his work has been washed away. Linus is sitting there saying “There’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere. But I don’t know what it is.” Mr. Short intersperses the panels of the strip with the words from Matthew about the man who built his house upon the sand and when the rains and floods came and the winds blew, the house was washed away.

In telling this story, Jesus was pointing out the difference between those who hear His words and act upon them and those who hear His words but do not act upon them. It is fitting that this passage is paired with the flood story because how many times in the past few years have we heard some pastor proclaim that the flooding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or the flooding of the Mississippi in 1993 was caused because God was angry at this country for a variety of reasons. Perhaps God is angry with us but we are reminded that God made a covenant with Noah that he would never flood the earth again and the sign of that covenant was the rainbow.

The problem is that too many people today want to use the Bible as they see it written rather than seeing the Bible in total. They are quite willing to utilize Biblical passages to justify denying church membership to selected portions of society while at the same time accepting the idea that Jesus dined with sinners and the dredge of society. You cannot have it both ways.

As I read Paul’s comments to the Romans today (Romans 1: 16 – 17; 3: 22b – 31), I hear a man telling a community that all are sinners but that all receive the grace of God. The Good News is the Good News to all, not just a select portion.

And therein lays our own personal dilemma. For what is to be done with the violence of this world; what is to be done with the inequities found in society because of race, creed, economic status, or lifestyle. Will God someday in the future (or any day now, as some would tell it) strike this earth and cause a great cataclysmic event to destroy the world while saving those who profess to believe in Christ?

Why is that Jesus in this passage from Matthew as well as in the passage in Matthew 25: 35 – 45 pointing out the difference between those that do and those that just talk? Is it because that those that do work to bring the Gospel into this world while those who just talk work to keep the Gospel away from the world?

If we know that the world is about to come to an end because of differences between people because of economic status, race, creed, or any other factor and we do nothing, who are we in the story? If we work to end hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, and oppression, what will happen to us in the end?

Paul wrote to the Romans that he was not ashamed of the Gospel. If we are who we say we are, then we should not be ashamed of the Gospel either. The Gospel is the promise that there is hope, that the hungry shall be fed, the naked shall be clothed, the sick healed, and the prisoners set free. But we must do more than simply say that we are not ashamed of the Gospel; we must also live the Gospel.

I have written two sermons in the past that have the same title as this piece today (see “Which Side Are You On?” (2004) and “Which Side Are You On?” (2005)). I have done so because of how society today views Christianity.

Whether we want to accept the notion or not, there are two sides to Christianity. There is the side that in reality opposes the Gospel and works to make the church today exclusive and closed. This is the side that is all too familiar to society. The other side of Christianity works to put the Gospel into action and opens the doors of the church to the unwanted and undesired; it is a side that does not fit well in today’s society.

When we say that we are a Christian, society today automatically puts us on one side of the Gospel whether that is where we really stand or not. Unless you are willing to stand up and be counted for Christ, by your thoughts, your words, your deeds, and your actions, then you will be on the wrong side. It is time to decide which side you want to be on and what you are going to do. So I ask, “What side are you on?”

Do As I Say? Or, Do As I Do?

This is a sermon I gave for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (31 August 2003) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).  The Scriptures were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.


I am a sometime listener to Garrison Keilor’s show, “Prairie Home Companion.” Since I don’t listen to it on a regular basis I don’t often get a chance to use some of what he says. It’s shame that I don’t because he has some pretty good stuff involving the pastor and parishioners of the Lutheran Church there in Lake Woebegone.

Now, I would presume that there is a United Methodist Church in Lake Woebegone (if there isn’t, then there is a great opportunity for some mission work). And knowing the makeup of the people who live there, it is very possible that it was at one time an Evangelical United Brethren Church. But it is still Minnesota and so most of the people, no matter their background or belief, attend the local Lutheran church. And it is the troubles and travails of the Lutheran pastor that Keilor speaks of when he gives the news of the past week in Lake Woebegone.

It does make for great listening and if I listened more often I know I would get some ideas that I could use, especially where the church is involved. Lake Woebegone is the town of our dreams, the place where there are only simple problems and as Keilor states every week “the women are beautiful, the men good looking, and all the children are above average.” The news is entertaining but fictitious.

Unfortunately, the news of the world isn’t. And more often than not, the news is more disturbing than entertaining (even if the news broadcasts try to make it sound entertaining). And the news out of Alabama is just that, very disturbing and not very entertaining.

I spent a year of my life as a student in Alabama and it is a year that I will never forget. I had already been exposed to the horrors of segregation and how the lives of both blacks and whites were controlled by this singularly repressive idea of inequality. But it was as a 7th grader at Bellingrath Junior High in Montgomery, Alabama that showed me that racism and segregation affected everyone, not just one race or ethnicity.

Because the law required that all schools be funded equally, no public school received much in the way of funding. Families had to buy the needed textbooks, no matter what grade they were in. If the schools gave the books to the students, the black students would be on the same plane as the white students. And that was just not acceptable policy in Alabama at that time. And if you could not afford the books, new or used, that was your problem, not the schools. That was in 1962 and it was almost the same when we went to school in Memphis in 1966 (but that is another story).

It was also in Montgomery that I began to see the hypocrisy that existed because of racism and segregation. My grandmother had come to visit us from St. Louis. As we came out of church the Sunday she was there, we lost her in the crowd. We found her and she said she had been escorted by “that nice young man over there.” Later, that nice young man stood in the schoolhouse door and denied duly qualified blacks the right to attend the University of Alabama. Fortunately for the course of history, George Corley Wallace learned that his segregationist and racists views would not serve either Alabama or himself well and he changed his ways. By the time he had died, he had come to peace with those whom he sought to suppress. But I am not sure that many still living in Alabama have done likewise. For the news from Alabama shows that the spirit of hypocrisy, the spirit that Jesus spoke out against in today’s Gospel reading are still very much a part of life there.

There are two news items coming from Alabama. Both are related to God. One concerns the tax code in Alabama; the other a 5,000-pound block of granite.

As most of you know by now, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court placed a 5,000 pound block of granite, on which the Ten Commandments had been carved, in the foyer of the state Supreme Court building. This was the culmination of a campaign he began a number of years ago when he was a local judge and he displayed prominently a plaque with the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Since then, he has had a running battle with the courts over this issue. In fact, if I understand what is happening, he wasn’t supposed to have put that block of granite in the Supreme Court building. All of his actions to this date have been in defiance of the laws that he himself has sworn to uphold.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t so much about the Ten Commandments. After all, the Ten Commandments are part of our own judicial system. But there are other Codes of Law upon which our justice system is based and they should be acknowledged as well.

The insistence that this stone be left alone moves the discussion away from the Ten Commandments and towards the issue of whether God is a part of our life or not. It also moves the discussion away from the topic of whether we will obey the Ten Commandments and more to accepting only one viewpoint about God. Does obeying God mean just displaying the Ten Commandments where everyone sees them or does it mean holding to the laws in your heart?

As was noted in a discussion between Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Jerry Falwell on MSNBC last Thursday, ours is a society where the use of God’s name has almost become passe. We are quick to call on God when it suits our purpose but we are quick to hide when God calls us. There isn’t a politician alive who does not end a speech with a rousing “God bless America!” We are still fighting over whether or not the phrase “under God” should be included in our Pledge of Allegiance, even when we forget why it was put there in the first place. The phrase “under God” was not in the original pledge, but placed there during the 1950’s as a political statement in response to the great Red Scare of that time.

We are reminded that our own United Methodist preacher, Oral Roberts, claimed that God would call him home if he did not build a brand new 650-bed hospital in Tulsa, OK. This despite the fact that a new hospital was not needed and that everyone, on earth at least, knew that it was just a part of Robert’s plan to expand his presence in Tulsa. We also are reminded that Jerry Falwell called on his followers to invoke God’s name in the hope that three United States Supreme Court justices would change their minds regarding a recent court decision. What is troubling about that isn’t that he called his followers to prayer but rather what they should be praying for God to do. Neither of these are examples of following God and keeping his name holy.

Judge Moore would tell you that he has a greater call to follow God than he does to follow the laws of his state. And that is most certainly true. We all do. His followers will tell you that their actions are in the great noble tradition of civil disobedience.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young pastor in Montgomery, he began using the techniques of civil disobedience to change the laws concerning bus passengers. The law at that time was the blacks and other minorities had to go to the back of the bus, no matter if there were seats available or not. It was Rosa Park’s decision to sit at the front of the bus on a day when she was tired and there were no seats in the back that began the Montgomery bus boycott and brought Rev. King to prominence.

But neither his actions of Justice Moore, nor the actions of those sitting on the courthouse steps, meet the requirements for civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is more than just simply refusing to obey a law. Civil disobedience as outlined by Gandhi, can be summarized as the following:

Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless or, which is the same thing, corrupt.

Civil disobedience is the assertion of a right which law should give but which it denies.

To safeguard democracy the people must have a keen sense of independence, self-respect, and their oneness.

Disobedience to be civil has to be open and nonviolent.

Disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation.

Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. (1)

Judge Moore’s insistence that the stone be kept and his resulting actions, as well as the actions of his supporters do not meet those requirements. And I question not only his motives but also the motives of some of his supporters.

At the same time that all of this is going on, there is a debate about the Alabama tax code. Surely, in the scheme of things, the state tax code in Alabama is one of the most oppressive and regressive tax codes in the country. Income taxes begin at $4,600 and tops out at 5% on income levels as low as $12,000. This makes the Alabama income tax a flat tax and the only ones that benefit from this are those with higher incomes. Alabama also allows its citizens to take a full deduction for federal taxes, again a benefit for only those with higher incomes.

To make up for lost revenue, local governments are allowed to add to the state’s 4% sales tax. In some of the poorer counties of Alabama, sales taxes run to almost 10% (and we hear complaints about the sales taxes up here in New York).

Property taxes in Alabama are the lowest in the nation and are generally one-third the national average. Timber acreage is taxed at less than a dollar an acre. With seventy-one percent of Alabama covered in timber, the timber industry has a powerful say in the state government.

Against this, Susan Pace Hamill, a professor of law at the University of Alabama has proposed a new solution, one found in the Old and New Testament. To complete her master’s degree in theological studies at Samford University (coincidentally, a United Methodist college (2)) she wrote her thesis on the reformation of the Alabama tax code. Entitled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics”, it states that “Alabama’s tax structure fails to meet any reasonable definition of fairness and violates the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.” (3)

Many of Alabama’s 8000 churches have come out in support of this tax reform. But this is not a church-sponsored activity. Rather, it is a response much in the manner that James wrote about; a way to put into action what is in your heart. As Dr. Hamill points out, it is an appeal to individuals to act on their own moral convictions. It does not impose his or her views on others but rather is an attempt to show that the nature of Christ is alive in everyone.

But despite the overwhelming support of the churches and church leaders, there are still those who oppose it. Among the opposition is John Giles of Alabama’s Christian Coalition. Now, it should be noted that the national organization does support the reform. But working with the Alabama timber industry, the Alabama chapter is doing everything they can to prevent the tax reform from succeeding. Most recently, Mr. Giles sent out a mass e-mail questioning Hamill’s views on abortion and attempting to undermine her credibility.

These are the classic techniques of today’s politicians. When you can’t get things your way, change the subject and the focus of the debate. Disparage your opponent and bring personal issues into play, tactics that have become all too commonplace in today’s society. But there is one thing that stands out. While Mr. Giles is in opposition to this plan, a plan based upon and built upon the scriptures, including the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ, he is among the loudest of the supporters wishing to keep the Ten Commandments where they are. (4)  How can one be for the Ten Commandments while at the same time working to keep laws in place that oppresses the poor?

I would be hard pressed to find a clearer case of what Jesus was speaking about in the Gospel reading for today. We cannot demand that others follow the law when we ourselves do not. And I will say that Mr. Giles’ actions are no better than those of Pharisees, who criticized the disciples for not following the law while not doing so themselves.

Jesus pointed out that it was not the following of the law that made one righteous but what was in one’s heart. If you try to follow the law but your heart leads you elsewhere, you are worse than one who does not follow the law. It is highly ironic that the words of the Gospel this week related to honor God with their lips but not with their hearts and abandoning the commandments of God while holding on to human traditions. (5)

Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi warned against what he called the seven social sins: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. (6)  If you think carefully about this, these sins are not only an apt description of the culture of our society but also a description of many of the institutions of this country and the way we lead our lives.

What the events in Alabama show is that the expression of our love for mankind is given by the actions that we take. The reading for the Song of Solomon speaks of the love of a man for a woman but it also is representative of the love we have for each other. We cannot help anyone unless there is first love and if there is no love in our hearts, then we will never be able to help.

You may ask why I bring up Alabama. We have no direct concerns when it comes to Alabama and what goes on down there can’t really affect us here in New York. But the poor and oppressed, the weak and the helpless are not necessarily confined to one locality or one state. So we should have concerns not just for the poor and oppressed in either New York or Alabama but everywhere. It is my hope as we prepare the budget for the coming year we will make a concerted effort to use some of our offering, such as what might be collected on the fifth Sunday, for ministry efforts, either here or elsewhere in the country. This would be our mission work and our own concern but not be part of our regular apportionments.

But that means that we must have a more active stewardship and outreach program. It also means we must have a more active membership. Those who protest the removal of the Ten Commandments from the foyer of the Alabama Supreme Court while working to keep a repressive tax structure in place can be rightly be called hypocrites, for their actions belie their beliefs. And those who claim membership but do nothing for the church would also be hypocrites. These are harsh words, I know, but they have to be said. And actually, if you were to call up one of those who hasn’t been here for a while or whose membership was just a convenience in their lives and tell them what I said, I wouldn’t mind it.

For if it gets them to call me or come to church, then we will have taken the first step to revitalizing not only the church but also these inactive members. If they choose to do nothing, then they will get nothing in return and we will not grieve their loss.

We are often told that there is little that we can do; but that is not always the case. Yesterday, Randy Yerkes sent out an e-mail of his own asking for volunteers to help repair the roof over the Phillisport church. If you are interested in contacting him about volunteering, then see me after church and I will give you his phone number and e-mail address.

And here in our little part of the world, there is a lot we can do just by being an active church in this part of the country. People go by here and sooner or later will come to ask what is this place? We will be here to answer that question.

But it starts with us. It is not a case of my saying to you or you saying to someone else like the Pharisees said to the people of Israel, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It is a case of God saying to all of us, “Do as I say and as I did.” We are reminded today that God loved us enough to send his son so that we might live; we can no worse than love and care for those around us.

  1. Gandhi on Civil Disobedience from http://www4.ncsu.edu:8030/~dbthomps/political.html
  2. Actually it is a Baptist school; my thanks to Penny Weaver for noting this mistake in an e-mail sent to me on September 1st.
  3. Information concerning the proposal for reforming the Alabama tax code came from an article written by Bob Allen and posted to Ethics.com on 4/14/03.
  4. This came from e-mail sent to me on 8/28/03 by Penny Weaver of the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, AL. It was in response to a request to confirm the statement in Bob Allen’s article that the Christian Coalition was against the tax reform and to also confirm my suspicion that they were supporting keeping the Ten Commandments in place. She also noted that the uproar over the Ten Commandments was likely to adversely affect the drive to put into place the tax reform bill.
  5. Mark 7: 6 – 7
  6. From The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis

Which Side Are You On? (2004)

This was a sermon that I gave for the 4th Sunday of Lent (21 March 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, New York).  The Scriptures were Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32.  (Edited 17 March 2010)


There is an old union song entitled "Which Side Are You On?".

Its origins come from the bloody union battles to organize the coal miners of eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Back then, and even today, there was no middle ground; you were either a union man or you worked for the coal company.

We are a society that likes clearly defined concepts. We chafe and hesitate when concepts we have spent a life believing in are pushed beyond our capabilities to understand. We like the world in black and white, not shades of gray. But the only time life has such clarity and definition is when we are dealing with a two-year old. Then it is clearly "yes, you may" or "no, don’t do that!"

But our choices are not that simple. There is today a common perception that if you are a Christian you are a political conservative. And if you are a political liberal, you cannot be a Christian. A recent study suggested that individuals who went to church more than twice a week were likely to have voted for George Bush while those individuals who never went to church were likely to have voted for Al Gore.

But as Anna Quindlen, a columnist for Newsweek, stated in a recent column (March 8, 2004), there is a wide range of individuals in the middle of the church attendance spectrum. And because there is, you cannot readily determine a person’s voting pattern from their church attendance. And I am bothered by this assumption that Christians are primarily conservative and liberals are not Christian.

True, the view many people see today is a conservative one but that is because the many liberal Christians have either given up the fight or don’t care. But I grew up at a time when the Bible was used to justify segregation. I went to school when the Bible was used to justify killing in the name of your country.

And today, when people see Christian churches, they see a conservative approach to religion. It is an approach that is exclusive and judgmental. It is an approach that tries to use the Bible, even when there is no real justification, to justifying second class status to women and others.

It is an approach that is rigid and unyielding, unable to adapt to new ideas. And I find that, at least in the scientific community, a hesitancy to accept those with a Christian viewpoint for fear that they will condemn science as anti-religion.

And why shouldn’t people think that way? Did not the Catholic Church of 16th century burn Copernicus and imprison Galileo for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the solar system? Never mind that no one has ever come up with the answer to "why" the universe was created. Or that we are still struggling with "how" the universe was created, we find conservatives today stifling scientific imagination because they are unwilling to accept physical evidence concerning the age of the earth. Our ability to teach in this country is severely hampered because conservative Christians bully and intimidate textbook publishers to publish questionable and invalid approaches. Faith and science are not the same and those who think they are should reexamine their own thinking. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."

And even today, in areas where you would think that Christian ethics should be paramount in one’s daily living, we find conservative Christians holding back, preventing an implementation of the true meaning of the Gospel. Last November (actually, it was in August; see "Do As I Say?  Or, Do As I Do?" – note added 28 May 2008), I spoke about the effort in Alabama to seek true tax reform, reform based in part on an examination of the Old and New Testament, and Judeo-Christian ethics.

The state of Alabama’s tax system has been identified repeatedly as one which is unfair. Though the income tax is one of the lowest in the country and the property tax is as well, there is a tax on just about everything else. The sales tax in Alabama is the highest in the nation and does not exempt even the most basic necessities such as food. Put together, taxes in Alabama put an unfair burden on the lowest income groups and allow the richest in the state to avoid paying any taxes at all. People who own 71 percent of the property pay less than 2 percent of the property tax in the state of Alabama. And if you are paying for schools or healthcare from your property tax revenue, where is the money coming from?

But one of the leading opponents of this reform was the Christian Coalition of Alabama. They argued that there were no problems with Alabama’s tax system; that the lowest income families weren’t overtaxed. They also argued that it wasn’t the responsibility of the state but rather the church to take care of the poor (an interesting argument for a Christian group to make). And when these arguments failed, they turned to attacking the creator of the tax reform plan. It is interesting that a group calling itself Christian would stoop to mud slinging.

Unfortunately for the people of Alabama, the campaign for tax reform failed. Hopefully it is only a temporary failure and the efforts to create a just tax code, preferably one based on Judeo-Christian ethics, will ultimately succeed. There are hopes to take the issue of tax reform from the local and state level to the Federal level (for it has been shown that any tax cuts on the Federal level invariably lead to tax increases at the state and local levels). But as Dr. Hamill pointed out, the special interests at the Federal level that would oppose tax reform are meaner, greedier, and better funded than were her opponents in Alabama. (adapted from an interview with Dr. Susan Pace Hamill in the April issue of Sojourners.)

I became aware of Christ’s presence in my life during a time of great upheaval in this country. It was a time when we were fighting for equality in society. And it was the church that was leading the fight. And then there was Viet Nam. It could be that there are justifiable wars. But a truly justifiable war is hard to define and as I struggled with my opposition to the war, I struggled with what my faith was requiring of me. My own opposition wasn’t so much against the war (how could I, the son of a career Air Force officer and the grandson of a career Army officer be against the military) as I was against the draft. I felt then and still do today that we must be free to choose, to act, and to bear the responsibilities for our own actions. (based in part on Letters From a C. O. In Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer) I felt that the draft took away that choice. And it was quickly apparent that the draft was unfair. There are numerous examples of individuals who literally bought their way out of serving, some by using political and family connections to get into the National Guard. Oh, they served their country but on their terms. One of those people was a roommate of mine in college, who when faced with specter of failing in college and being drafted, got his family to get him into the Missouri National Guard. It became apparent that as the war dragged on, the inequities of the draft mirrored the inequities of society.

I cannot say exactly how it happened but it is most likely that as I looked at my options concerning the draft and service to my country, I began to understand exactly what my faith was. I know that back then I saw faith in terms of actions first. If I did the right things, then I was guaranteed a place in heaven. But the actions the Gospel encourages us to take, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and comfort the poor and needy are actions driven by your faith. It was the inaction of the church that drove Wesley to seek a new way of fulfilling the Gospel.

It is a basic tenet of Methodism that, having come to Christ yourself, you must then work towards the perfection of Christ. It is a task that by definition can never be reached but one that must be undertaken. It is not the enactment of the Gospels in one’s life that gets you into heaven but it is a requirement of faith that you seek to enact the Gospel message in your life. And if the enactment of the Gospel or if caring about righteousness and justice makes me a liberal, then I am proud that I turned out that way.

But before anyone should think that I am just grumbling about conservatives, let me point out that I think those who are liberal have failed. The struggles for equality were lead by the liberals of the church, following in Jesus’ footsteps and showing that all were welcome in the kingdom. But once the legislation to insure equality was passed, the liberals stopped. The battle may have been won but the war was far from over.

The Old Testament passage is an interesting one. The Israelites have finally reached the Promised Land and have settled down, no longer wandering through the desert. And because they have settled down, the manna from heaven that had provided them their daily bread ceased. Now they would live off what the land that they had been given produced. I think to understand this passage you have to read the next one.

In the next passage, the Israelites began the series of military operations that insure that they will occupy the land. But just before the battles begin, Joshua (now the head of the people, replacing Moses) encounters a man dressed for battle. Joshua asked this man, "Are you for us, or for our enemies?" (Joshua 5: 13) The man (assumed by some writers to be God), answers "Neither." (Joshua 5: 14) In this brief encounter, we are told that God is not on the side of the Israelites but that the Israelites must fight God’s battles.

We cannot expect the manna from heaven or products of the Promised Land if our focus is on what is good for either you or I; God expects us to continue working for him long after we find Him. When the Israelites quit working for God, trouble invariably followed. From the Book of Judges to the end of the Old Testament, there are countless passages telling of the calamities that befell Israel when it failed to follow God.

The Gospel reading for today starts off with the Pharisees complaining that Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors. What self-respecting rabbi would ever do that? I see many churches today, or perhaps it would be better to say the people of the churches today, acting just like the Pharisees did back then. And when we welcome a sinner back into the fold, they are like the oldest son, sulking in the corner because the best wasn’t given to them.

The Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the tradition of the Law and they expected rewards for keeping the Law pure and safe. But in keeping the Law pure and safe, they ignored the many people in society who were suffering. Many times Jesus said that he was not the keeper of the Law but rather it’s fulfillment. Every action that He took was predicated on the notion that the riches of God’s kingdom were for all and not just a select few. The celebration of the kingdom was for all, even the lowest sinner, if they repented of their sins and sought God.

Following God isn’t really a conservative or liberal thing. When Jesus selected his disciples, he selected Matthew, the tax collector. Those who were tax collectors in Israel were considered traitors to their people and among the outcasts of society. But Jesus asked him to follow Him. And then Jesus chose Simon the Zealot. (Matthew 10: 4) To describe someone as a zealot might have been a description of their religious fervor; but it also could have meant that they were a part of the Jewish revolutionary group that was violently opposed to Roman rule in Palestine. Such a person would not have been found in the same room as someone like Matthew who worked for the Roman state. Yet Jesus chose these two men, extremes of the politically and religiously polarized society of the day. (From a letter to the editor in the April 2004 issue of Sojourners.) Christ saw that there were no divisions.

When you follow God you become a new person. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Everything old has passed away and we are surrounded by new things." (2 Corinthians 5: 17 ) Paul wrote that in Christ there was no east or west, no Jew or Gentile. In Christ, there was no division, so there is no reason to choose sides.

So the only question would be, "Where are you this moment in Lent when it comes to God?" On that Friday that we have come to call Good, Jesus was nailed to a cross between two men. The man on the left ridiculed Jesus, calling for him to save Himself and echoing the sarcasm of those whom nailed Jesus to the cross. But the other man knew and said that Jesus had done no wrong. And in his own pain and suffering, this second criminal asked to Jesus to remember him in paradise.

In the coming days, there will be many challenges. Challenges to the church and denomination, challenges to Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. Which side will you be on? Will you be on the side that sees no hope in Christ? Or will you be on the side of Christ, working for the fulfillment of the Gospel? The song’s chorus is "Which side are you on?"

Which Side Are You On? (2005)

This was a sermon that I gave for the 5th Sunday of Easter (24 April 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, New York).  The Scriptures were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14. (Edited on 17 March 2010)


Back about a year ago I mentioned an old union song entitled "Which Side Are You On?" (see "Which Side Are You On? (2004))  Its origins come from the bloody union battles to organize the coal miners of eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Back then, and even today, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, there is no middle ground; you are either a union man or you worked for the coal company.

Pete Seeger in an introduction to "Which Side Are You On?" on his record "Cant You See This System’s Rotten Through And Through" says:

"Maybe the most famous song it was ever my privilege to know was the one written by Mrs. Florence Reece. Her husband Sam was an organizer in that "bloody" strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1932.

They got word that the company gun-thugs were out to kill him, and he got out of his house, I think out the back door, just before they arrived. And Mrs. Reece said they stuck their guns into the closets, into the beds, even into the piles of dirty linen. One of her two little girls started crying and one of the men said "What are you crying for? We’re not after you we’re after your old man"

After they had gone she felt so outraged she tore a calendar off the wall and on the back of it wrote the words and put them to the tune of an old hard-shelled Baptist hymn tune, although come to think of it the hymn tune used an old English ballad melody … And her two little girls used to go singing it in the union halls."

There were no questions in Harlan County about which side you were on; as the song goes,

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

But life is never that simple. You may find that you start out on one side of a battle or an issue but as time goes by, you may find yourself moving to the other side of the same battle or issue. There are a number of biographies coming out in the next month about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

He is best known as the administrator of the Manhattan Project, our wartime project to develop an atomic bomb. The project was initially conceived because the Allies in World War II feared that Germany was developing a similar weapon and conceivably would use such a weapon in the same manner that the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 rocket were used, to initiate terror in the closing days of the war.

But as the war in both the European and Pacific theaters progressed, it became increasingly obvious that Germany was incapable of using the weapon. And, as it turned out, Germany’s research in atomic weapons was behind that of the Allies’ effort. So, the emphasis on using the weapon being developed in the mountains of New Mexico shifted from Germany to Japan.

Oppenheimer was chosen to head the project because he had initially shown an appreciation for what such a weapon could do. As it turned out, his selection to head the project also showed that he was a capable and efficient administrator, one who could get a collection of physicists and chemists to work together in complete and total secrecy. But his selection was met with considerable opposition, especially from the F. B. I. who were convinced that he was a major security risk and secretly a member of the Communist party. Still the needs of the project outweighed the concerns, though the F. B. I. continued throughout the latter part of World War II to prove what they felt was the truth.

Later, in the mid 1950’s, as the United States shifted its emphasis from atomic weapons to more destructive nuclear weapons, the concerns of the F. B. I. and Oppenheimer’s own political activity were used to deny him the security clearance he needed to continue working in the area.

During that time period, Robert Oppenheimer shifted his view of atomic weapons as a necessary part of war to one of opposition. He could see that weapons of such destructive force would have far greater consequences on the world than just the simple destruction of one town or the defeat of a country. At the time of the test explosion in the summer of 1945,

He later recalled that while witnessing the explosion he thought of a verse from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…”

However, another verse that he remembered stuck in his mind: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" (http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Robert_Oppenheimer)

Near the end of his life, Oppenheimer expressed mixed feelings about the atomic bombings:

"I have no remorse about the making of the bomb and Trinity [the first test of an a-bomb]. That was done right. As for how we used it, I understand why it happened and appreciate with what nobility those men with whom I’d worked made their decision. But I do not have the feeling that it was done right. The ultimatum to Japan [the Potsdam Proclamation demanding Japan’s surrender] was full of pious platitudes. …our government should have acted with more foresight and clarity in telling the world and Japan what the bomb meant." (Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity, pg. 332-333). (http://www.doug-long.com/oppie.htm)

There are often times when you believe that you are right or the cause in which you believe is correct until you see the consequences of your actions or your beliefs. It is not clear from the passage in Acts that was our first lesson today if Saul, soon to become Paul, was the instigator of the stoning of Stephen, or simply a bystander. But in the next few verses we read that Saul leads the first persecution of Christians in the Jerusalem area. But, even as Saul is beginning his persecution of Christians, we read of some devout men who buried Stephen, perhaps because they recognized the presence of God’s activity in Stephen.

It may be that Luke simply wants to introduce the individual who will take the Gospel out of Israel and throughout the world of his time. But we have to think that Saul’s experience at this incident had a lot to do with what would later transpire on the road to Damascus. Saul saw what happens when Christ becomes part of one’s life and that vision may very well have lead him to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and the event that changed his life and name. And just as Stephen’s expression of faith in Christ affected those around that day in Jerusalem, so too does His presence in our lives affect those around us and in our community.

Peter writes of Christ being the cornerstone of the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it is the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper classes may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable conditions and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.

John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, to go out into the community.

But the problem today is that the church that goes out into the community is not the church of Wesley nor is it anything like the church that began in Jerusalem. There are those in the world today who will tell you what the truth is but it is a truth that excludes and denies. It is a truth that is limited to a few, not to everyone. Yet Christ opened his arms and said that anyone who believes would be welcomed. Stephen characterized those who were to stone him as stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit. (Acts 7: 54) What would these modern day Pharisees say?

For many individuals in today’s society, it makes things very confusing. Like Thomas, they cannot find the house that Jesus promised them would be there.

Others are like Philip, confused about what to look for. They would like someone to simply put the truth their in front of them. But like the men who stoned Stephen, it is often difficult to know what the truth is.

As Pheme Perkins, professor of New Testament at Boston College reminds us; too many Christians see local churches as human institutions and forget that it is God who builds God’s churches. But how else could such a wide variety of people from all walks of life, social positions and family structures become a dwelling for the Holy Spirit? Though we are introduced to Paul as Saul and the persecutor of Christians because of their perceived threat to the faith Paul later writes

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually in dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2: 19 – 22)

If the flesh of Jesus could break down the dividing wall between both Jews and Gentiles and make them into one, then surely the resurrected Christ can build farmers and stay-at-home parents and mechanics and doctors into a dwelling place for God. How odd that the rock of ages, in whom we seek sanctuary, fashions us into a living sanctuary for the rest of the world.

What makes the gift of the church astonishing is that none of us, save Jesus, is necessarily striking in our singularity. And even Jesus does not stand alone. He offers himself to be the building material that anchors the rest of us in place. (From “Precious Stones” by Jenny Williams in “Living by the Word”, Christian Century, April 19, 2005.)

At a time when Christian voices call for exclusion and denial, it is time that we stand up and welcome those who seek Christ. In the union song that is the basis for this sermon, the verse says,

Come all of you good workers

Good news to you I tell

Of how that good old union

Has come in here to dwell

But it is not the union that has come but the Holy Spirit. Which side are you on? Are you on the side, watching and letting others drive away those who need to be here? Or are you on the side of Stephen, Philip, Paul, the prophets, the disciples and the apostles proclaiming the Good News that Jesus is Christ and that he has come to bring salvation to the earth. Which side are you on?

Counting Down

You will notice that I put my stat count up at the top of my blog. As of Saturday, May 24th, I have had 9,900 visitors. I never thought that I would be approaching 10,000. Now, the question will be “who will be the 10,000th visitor?”

Sorry, there are no prizes other than what ever satisfaction you gain from being that person.

Have a safe Memorial Day weekend. If you drive on the highway (and can afford to do so 🙂 ), let the pros do the fast driving at Indianapolis.

In peace,
Dr. Tony

Consider the Lilies of the Field and How They Grow

I am in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this weekend to participate in my 31st USBC Open tournament.  I have discussed this aspect of my life in several previous posts, including “Bowling and the Church”.

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost; the Scriptures are Isaiah 49: 8 – 16, 1 Corinthians 4: 1 – 5, and Matthew 6: 24 – 34.

I find an interesting pairing of the Gospel reading for today with the fact that it is also the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is supposed to be a day of honor and remembrance of those who have fallen in battle.  Though created for the purpose of honoring the dead of the Union army during the Civil War, it has become or it is supposed to be a day to remember the dead from all the wars.  But, today, many people today probably have no idea of this day’s beginning and only see it as a marker for the beginning of summer and a time for major sales.  In fact, we have been bombarded with advertisements on television and radio and in print to buy things that we probably don’t need.  We are even getting subtle hints from the present administration, just as they put forth following September 11, 2001, to spend our economic stimulus check on things.  This is done with no apparent regard that our economy is sliding into recession and possibly depression and that single checks for $300 or $600 are not going to do much to change the direction of the economy.

And while we consider whether we are to serve God or wealth, we must also consider the lilies of the fields.  As it states in the Gospel reading, we are to consider the lilies of the field and how they are to grow.  Of course, what Jesus is talking about is that we should only be seeking that which is needed in order to live and survive; this is quite a contrast when we hear of CEOs earning sums of money in one year that exceed what many of their workers would earn in a lifetime.

And as we read this passage, if your church was like mine, we can see the lilies from last year’s Easter services begin to bloom (the traditional lily that we use is forced to bloom earlier in order to be ready for Easter; if you plant them, they bloom in late May or early June).  But, on this Memorial Day, we pause to consider the lilies that we are planting this year.

As the war in Iraq continues on and on, the number of young men and women killed climbs.  And so our military cemeteries have more and more white tombstone markers.  Consider the lilies and how they grow.  And what makes this climbing death toll so disturbing is that our young are being killed by guns and violence in our cities, often for the flimsiest of reasons.  We are killing our youth by war, guns, violence, and indifference (see “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “The Lost Generation”).

Have we not learned that what a society who seeks to gain through the accumulation of power and wealth actually gains?

Hear the words of Isaiah as he proclaims to the nation that all will be fed and clothed.  But also hear the word of the people who proclaim that God has forgotten them.  God has never forgotten us but we may have forgotten God.

When we pursue economic policies that drive down the less-fortunate and reward those who have with more, we are forgetting that the Bible’s focus has always been to remember the less and the oppressed.  When we pursue military policies that are more often than not seen as preserving our political and economic interests, then we are forgetting why Jesus brought the Good News to the people.  When we seek to judge people for their beliefs, their economic status, their gender, their race, or their lifestyle and we do so in the name of God, we forget that we are not called to judge but to be judged by God.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are called to be God’s servants through Christ, not his judge.

Let us also remember that John Wesley had no problems with anyone earning as much as they could.  But he warned us against doing so on the backs of the labor class and the less fortunate.  He also encouraged each of us to save as much as we could and to give as much as we could.

So on this day, let us consider how the lilies grow and work to make the field a field of life, not death and despair.  Let us consider how the lilies grow and, as Christ spoke to us, “work for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”