What Does It Mean To Be Called?

I am preaching this Sunday at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (8 Shady Lane, South Salem, NY 10590-1932 – Location of church); service is at 9.  This is the eleventh church that I have been at in the past ten weeks; it has been a busy summer.

The Scriptures for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28.


And the man known as the Preacher wrote, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Though the words of Ecclesiastes 3 do not say so, I think there are times when we are called to do things and there are times when we call upon others to do the same.

Sometimes the calls come from our children to tell us some piece of good news. They have been accepted into college or they have made the Dean’s list. And sometimes it is to tell us that they are about to become parents themselves.

We get calls from our children in the middle of the night as they struggle with a myriad of problems that all seem to be major problems but which we, as wise and learned parents, can solve with a few well-chosen words. Like the daughter who frantically called her mother one night and asked her to come over. They were moving to a new apartment and needed some help because the car had a flat tire and she also had a term paper due in two days. And all her mother could say was, “I can’t come tonight because you live in Scotland and it isn’t easy to get a ticket at the last minute to fly across the Atlantic.”

And we are called when there is sorrow in our lives, when loved ones become ill or we lose someone special in our lives. Perhaps the saddest words that we must ever speak to a friend or one we love are the words that come at a time of grief and loss. We are always at a loss at times like these and we fear the day when we will receive such a call. At times such as these, we look to our church family and our church friends to bring comfort and aid when we are in pain and grief.

The church and its people have always been the single source of comfort in the lives of so many people. From its very beginning, the church was a community of believers gathering together to share their belief, their resources, their support and comfort. Yet today, the people of the church cry out in pain and anguish. People whom we have grown up with and seen almost every Sunday tell us that they are leaving the church because the church no longer speaks to them or no longer seems relevant to the problems of the world.

And there are those individuals who perhaps grew up in the church but left at the first opportunity. Now they seek solace and comfort but are unable to find it. They cannot find it in the church of their youth because that church cast them aside as quickly as they left. They cannot find it in the church of the present time because the words spoken in such churches speak against their lifestyle, their race, their economic status or their friends. The church of their youth that taught them that Jesus loved all the children has become the church that excludes all but a select few.

It would be nice if I could say that these were only metaphors or bits and pieces of evidence that I have heard. But I have seen too many examples of the church being the private chapel for too many people, open only to those whom they wish to let in. I have seen too many cases of individuals trying to find a church home but being told to go elsewhere. And I have found that I am not alone.

From the days that I first moved to New York, I have subscribed to a monthly newsletter called Connections that is written by Barbara Wendland, a lay person in the United Methodist Church. This newsletter was her ministry, her effort to speak and write about the state and nature of the church today and where it is headed. But it was the very state of the church and where it was headed that has caused her to wonder if she cannot find what she once found in the church someplace else. In last month’s issue, this wonderment led her to believe that she needed to take a sabbatical and view her options. One of those options was to leave the church that had been the centerpiece of her life.

In this month’s issue, she printed notes from people, laity and clergy, who expressed her same thoughts. The church no longer speaks in the voice that it once spoke; the church is no longer relevant or capable of dealing with the problems of society. The church has turned the clock back two or three hundred years and proclaimed that it is the church of tomorrow.

The church that was founded two thousand years ago was founded as a community of believers brought together by a common belief in Christ, a belief that came from being told about Christ, not from reading about Him in a book. They had no rules or any idea of how a church was created; they developed the “rules” of the church as they went along.

We often forget that the early church did not have the Bible that we have. Books themselves were expensive and only the rich could afford to buy books. But even if books were available for the people, it would have meant nothing since most of the people of that time were illiterate.

What they had and what they shared was a collection of stories handed down from generation to generation, from those who were there at the first Easter. They had the letters from Paul and people who wrote letters in Paul’s name, which the literate members of the congregation would read to them.

Somewhere over the course of time, we have trivialized our past. We make assumptions about the early church that are more reflective of later times. The church of the early days bears little resemblance to the church of today.

We ignore how the Bible was developed. We are told that the Bible is God’s creation but then we read about books of the Bible that were not included and the discussions by men of what was to be included.

We hear that the words of the Bible are the way and the truth and that is the way it is and will be. Yet those very truthful words are sometimes contradictory and incomplete. Those who proclaim its inerrancy and validity today fail to appreciate that it is stated in the Bible that men could have more than one wife, that parents could stone a rebellious son or daughter, and those who have visual problems cannot serve as clergy (I guess that pretty well kills my career plans).

We read the words of Paul that he wrote to the Romans and how he applauded the efforts of the women to build the church; yet we later read other words that people say he wrote which clearly deny women a place of authority in the church. We have transformed Paul from the first missionary and door-opener to the first of those who would close the door in the face of those who need the church.

They speak of a moral purity that is more a reflection of their own values than the values written in the Bible.

“In our era of techno-savvy megachurches and postmodern emerging churches, holiness (when it is discussed at all) is often associated with moral behavior such as sexual purity, financial honesty, and commitment to private prayer. While we’ve cast off old, legalistic notions of holiness, we’ve merely replaced them with private, moralistic notions. We act as if holiness were either outdated or something that characterizes only a small (if important) part of our lives.”

“To be sure, biblical terms translated ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ (qadosh, hagios) carry a strong secondary connotation of moral purity. But moral purity is not, first and foremost, what scripture is talking about. Instead the most basic meaning of the words is to be ‘set apart’ or ‘dedicated’ to God—to belong to God. ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ says Yahweh (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Thus, prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.” (From Christianity Today, May 9, 2007 issue reprinted in August, 2007, issue of Context

The idea of Biblical inerrancy is a relatively new concept. It was developed in the 19th century and championed by literalistic, biblically ignorant, self-appointed leaders so that they could control their congregations. But those who proclaim its inerrancy and truth want to lock the truth away, much like the church of the “Middle Ages” prevented people from translating it from the Latin into modern tongues.

We are told that we cannot question the words of the Bible because to question those words is to question our faith. We are told that the moment we begin to question our faith, our faith will have no value. In part, that is true because if the basis for our faith is weak and incomplete, the act of questioning it will destroy it. But if our faith is strong and you understand from where your faith comes, questioning it can only make it stronger.

Over the years the Bible has been transformed from a story of who we are into some sort of factual history book, a book in which we seek to find out who did what, where and when. It wasn’t written that way and it wasn’t intended to be read that way. It was a story that told the people why; why God created the earth and why God spoke to Abram and Isaac and Moses. It was a story to explain our purpose in life and on this planet. It was meant to be a living and breathing document that one could turn to at all times, even in the midst of the turmoil and strife of today. (Adapted from The Phoenix Affirmations by Eric Elnes)

The people today are like the Israelites in Egypt who called out in pain and agony. In slavery, they feared that God had forgotten them and was going to leave them to die far from the lands of their birth.

People today call for a church that is responsive to the needs of the people, for a church that once again stands up for righteousness and justice. They want a church that shows them that God loves them rather than casts them out.

They want the church that was formed two thousand years ago as a community of believers that bound together for the benefit of all and were a threat to the status quo. Yet people find a church today that is institutionalized and rigid and seeks to maintain the status quo.

But where is the Moses of today who will lead the people out of slavery and back to the Promised Land? There are those today who proclaim that they are such leaders and that they know the words of God, even before God has spoken them. Yet today, these modern-day leaders will tell the people that they have only themselves to blame for the pain and agony that they are experiencing; that death and destruction are signs of God’s wrath and anger against a sinful community.

These leaders build walls that keep people out instead of tearing them down so that people can come in. They offer solutions that sound Biblical but yet are not found in the Bible.

People read the words of Paul that he wrote to the Romans but they don’t hear them from many people in the church. They read the words of Paul to feed your enemies when they are hungry or give them drink when they are thirsty, words that echo the words of Jesus who spoke of going the extra mile and giving the cloak off your back. Instead they hear a church that calls for the destruction of people or tells them that others who have never heard of Jesus are automatically condemned to a life in Sheol.

There are some who will tell you that the Devil is a real person and that he may even be walking on this planet today. Whether or not that is true is the subject of another debate, by those more versed in determining the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin? (Nowadays only four angels can dance there. Formerly there was no limit, but OSHA passed the Angel Safety Law recently, which also requires that the pin must be inspected twice each year for structural defects.) But the presence of the “evil one” in whatever form he may take is clearly present.

When Jesus spoke of his impending death at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes, Peter rebuked Him. But Peter’s response was the response of the community, of a thinking that was as ancient and fixed as those who sought to control the lives of the people who followed Jesus. To follow Jesus, to answer the call requires that we see the world in a different light, that we respond to the world in a different way. These are the words that Paul wrote to the Romans, words that we heard again today.

We live in a culture where much that is unholy, superficial and self-indulgent is glorified. As a society, we have become more and more cynical. Our leaders present themselves as idealists and they talk of great things but then they are exposed as charlatans or liars. And even if one amongst us were not like the others, our cynicism says that they too will change.

But there are those who answered the call; whose response was to seek a change. Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were mortified by the rallying of the German churches behind Hitler; Martin Luther King and Clarence Jordan were grieved by the church’s shrill defense of segregation. Isaac Watts was bored in church and our own John Wesley and George Whitefield had to preach outside the church because laws would not permit them to preach inside.

Each of these individuals is a testimony to the power of God to call forth heroes from an un-heroic church. There are those today who feel that you can be a Christian without the church or perhaps a better Christian without the hypocrisy of church life. But it is only in church, engaged with other Christians in prayer, worship, and service that we can gain the power to move mountains. Without the church, we would never hear God’s witness. St. Augustine said that “really great things, when discussed by little people, can usually make such people grow big.” In today’s world, it is often difficult to hear God calling you. The noise of the world can drown out His soft and quiet voice. It is why we come together on Sundays, to hear His voice in our songs and our words. We have been called together as a community of believers to show that God is present in this world and His presence is one of good. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)

What does it mean to be called today? What does it mean to hear God calling to you through Christ over the tumult of life? What does it mean when God calls you to go out into the world and be Christ’s disciple?

It does not mean that we accept sin and evil in our lives but that we oppose sin and evil. We are not called to be martyrs to the faith, at least as we understand the word. But the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word that means “witness” and that is what we are called to do, be witnesses for Christ.

What we have done is turn the remembrance of martyrs into a special cult of saints that can be observed from a safe distance. Martyrs can teach us much about the immense worth of our faith and at the same time the worthlessness of much that others give high value to. We need to see that it is the cause for which a martyr died that is right, not the penalty. Martin Luther King’s words on the higher value of truth, spoken in 1965 at the time of the march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that would be marked by violence, echo the words spoken by St. Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred up a bit – but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.” (From Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell)

It will require that we change our thinking, that we see the church as it was in the beginning, a community of believers bound together for the common good. It will require that we change the church from a monolithic and ancient relic of times long past back into the living, breathing embodiment of Christ on earth. It will take time and effort. In a world that expects things now, where our food is fast and our news comes in short sound-bites, it is going to be a difficult task.

It means extending the love of Christ to all, not just a few, just as Christ Himself extended the Love of Our Father to all. It means living in peace with all, not condemning those who live a life of good but do not necessarily believe as we do.

It means studying the Bible as it was meant to be studied and it means living the life as it was meant to be lived, not just three hours on a Sunday morning but 168 hours throughout the week. It means rebuilding the community that first came together so many years ago and reaffirming the relationship that brought us together.

What does it mean to be called today? It means we are called to build the church; it means that we are called to be Christ’s disciple in a world that may reject what Christ did; it means that we are to do what Christ taught us to do. And while we may feel that we cannot do it by ourselves, we remember the words of God that day some three thousand years ago when he called Moses and told him that He would be with him step by step on the journey.

We are called to begin that journey again today.

How Many Angels Can Dance On The Head Of A Pin?

This question came up as I was preparing my sermon for this coming Sunday.  To me, it is a phrase that implies a discussion for the purpose of discussion only.  However, I did find this answer:

Nowadays only four angels can dance there. Formerly there was no limit, but OSHA passed the Angel Safety Law recently, which also requires that the pin must be inspected twice each year for structural defects.

The Fundamental Question

I think that everyone, at some point in their lives, must answer two fundamental questions. The first must always be “Do you believe in God and salvation?”

There is no right or wrong answer to this particular question, though there will be enough people who will tell you that your answer is right or wrong. Of course, they will define for you what the right answer is and what the wrong answer is. But the answer to this question can only be found in your heart and you have to be prepared to deal with the answer that you come up with.

But it is clear that there are too many people in this country and in this world today who feel that they have the right, the power, and the authority to tell you what the answer is. And they will tell you what will happen to you if you fail to answer the question the way that they tell you.

That is part of the problem in this country and the world today. We willingly let others tell us or try to tell us what to think, what to say, what to do. We willingly let others tell us what our future will be. And when our future begins to unravel and the world around us falls apart, we have nothing to fall back on. When our future begins to unravel and the world around us falls apart, we look around and wonder where we went wrong. We wonder why this country is in the shape it is and we wonder why, for all that this country has in terms of resources and ability, that nothing gets done.

We see people without sufficient healthcare. And I would point out that the older one gets, the worse the ability to provide healthcare gets. And it is not just healthcare; we have limited dental care; we have limited optical care. And we don’t get mad.

We see people living in the streets or under bridges. We read about the rising numbers of foreclosures and we wonder where the land of opportunity has gone. Oh yes, there have been laws passed that are supposed to help people in the current housing crisis. But it is limited help and only for certain people. And it will not necessarily stop the foreclosures.

I am not old enough to have lived through the Great Depression. My father and uncle were teenagers through its later stages and young men as World War II started. My grandfather’s last entry in his diary spoke of the promise and hope that the country felt when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933. My grandfather was a Captain in the U. S. Army at that time and had been a Captain for the better part of the time from the end of World War I and this pivotal moment in American history. In the same entry where he suggested that there was hope for the country, he noted that he was being paid ¾ of his regular pay; the Great Depression extended far beyond the soup-lines and shanty towns of our modern day history books.

And that leads me to the second fundamental question that each one of us must answer at some point in time, “What are your politics?” It is not enough to say that one is liberal, conservative, or libertarian. Politics can be defined as the process by which a group of people make decisions that affect other’s lives.

I have come to the conclusion that labels such as liberal, conservative, or libertarian no longer apply when one is discussing politics. The fact of the matter is that no matter what side of the political spectrum a person may say they are on, it is quite clear that they are only in favor of those things that we get them elected. Politics have become the art and science of determining what the people want and how it can be achieved at the lowest cost for them and for those who seek election. And it has often been said that the basic rule of politics is to get reelected.

Now we can point out many politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who have done great things. And there are those politicians who have brought home the “bacon” for the people of their district. (Remember that rule #2 in politics is that only money spent on government projects in other congressional districts is “pork”; it is for jobs when it is spent in one’s own district). But in the end, it is always what the politician can do to get reelected.

We readily seek labels that will help us identify with the winning political party in hopes that somehow we will benefit from their largesse. How else can you explain the number of working class voters who have voted Republican in the past few years? Nothing in the Republican rhetoric ever suggested anything to me that the working class would benefit from the election of Republicans; oh, there was mention of more money through tax cuts but, many times, when there is a cut in Federal taxes, there is a rise in State taxes to offset the loss of revenue. But the people accepted the rhetoric and the scare tactics that accompanied the rhetoric.

Now, some will tell me that it is better to be a conservative so that you can make the decision about how to spend your money. And I suppose that is true but the majority of conservatives that I have heard or read have no feelings whatsoever for the poor or lower classes in this country. “I got mine; let them get their own,” seems to be the mantra.

And the majority of liberals will say that we have to have the Federal Government involved or the problem will never be solved. But the problems have never been solved and it seems that many of the modern day liberals need the poor or lower classes to justify their existence. But the people accepted the rhetoric and the scare tactics that accompanied the rhetoric.

And the majority of the American people will say that they don’t want money spent on schools or hospitals or roads or anything but they will complain when their children can’t get a quality education, the local hospital closes because it was bought out by a major corporation, and the bridges and roads deteriorate and the cost of a bus ride or a subway ride keeps going up.

At some point in time, we have to stop this process of politics by fear and special interests. At some point in time, we have to stop and say that politics is about each individual collectively and together. At some point in time, we have to realize that we are moving in the wrong direction but that we have the time and the ability to change our direction.

If one’s belief in God is personal, then one’s political beliefs are public. For whether we care to admit it or not, we are all in this together. And that brings up the most fundamental question of all times, “What are you going to do about it?”

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan, 1963)

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.


Building On The Rocks

I  am preaching at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church (275 Church Street, Buchanan, NY 10511 – Location of church) this Sunday, August 24th.  Service starts at 9 am.  The Scriptures for the the 15th Sunday after Pentecost are Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10; Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.


When I first began preparing this sermon and saw the Gospel message for today, my first thoughts were how often I had used that passage or its variants in Mark and Luke to describe my growing up in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. But those thoughts are for another day and time. But, in thinking of Memphis and reading Paul’s words in the 2nd lesson for today, I thought about pyramids; which is why there is a picture of a pyramid on the cover of the bulletin for this morning.

I cannot tell you why or how Memphis came to be called what it is. Perhaps it is the same distance down river from Cairo, Illinois, that Cairo, Egypt is up river from Memphis, Egypt. But for whatever reason that Memphis received its name, there is a modern day pyramid sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River today. And in this modern day pyramid the University of Memphis Tigers play basketball.

But the connection that I saw in Paul’s words comes neither from this pyramid nor from the pyramids that are so much the picture of Egypt today. Rather, it was another pyramid, somewhat related to the University of Memphis and its rise as a basketball power today. While the University of Memphis basketball program is one of the more successful programs in the country today (at least in terms of winning), when you say success and basketball you cannot help but think of UCLA and its coach from 1948 to 1975, John Wooden. And if you think of success and John Wooden, you think of his “Pyramid of Success.”

Much has been said about Coach Wooden and his Pyramid of Success. But just like the success of the UCLA basketball program did not come overnight, neither was this Pyramid created overnight. When you think of the UCLA basketball team, you think of the ten championships won between 1964 and 1975, But it was sixteen years between the time UCLA first hired him as the basketball coach in 1948 and the first national championship team in 1964. It took much effort and change on the part of Coach Wooden; the pyramid of success is a reflection of what it took to achieve success. And while Coach Wooden adapted the play of his teams over his career and he listened to his players, he never changed the core values that were the foundation of his coaching and his life. This core values are identified in the pyramid.

And if you asked any of his players, be they star or role-player, they will tell you that they thought this “pyramid of success” idea and Coach Wooden’s philosophy was a bunch of nonsense or corny at best. But each player will also tell you it wasn’t until later that they understood what he was teaching them. As Bill Walton said, “he didn’t teach us the answers; he taught us how to find the answers.” In a world where success is demanded immediately, true success takes time.

And while the capstone of this pyramid is success, the pyramid is more than success alone. It is built on industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm. There are eight other blocks that sit on these five blocks before you can achieve success and success is supported by faith and patience. It is interesting to note that Coach Wooden’s players all noted that he never equated success with winning. Yet in today’s society, the only measure of success is how many times we win and, very often, by the size of the victory. The same is true for many churches today; success is measured by how big it is when, in fact, the true measure of success can never be determined in our own or anyone’s lifetime. And when we don’t win, it can make life very hard.

To a certain extent, the church of today is much like the Israelites of the Old Testament reading. Our lives have been made hard and bitter by the demands of society; it seems that we are being asked to make bricks without straw. Our churches have lost their vision; no longer do old men dream dreams. Our youth no longer prophesy or see visions. For many churches today, there are no youth upon whom the future can be built and all the churches today can do is think of days long past.

And the sad news is that there is no Moses floating down the Nile, the Mississippi, or even the Hudson on whom the future can rely. But there need not be one, if we recognize what it is that we can do. It took John Wooden almost forty years to develop his Pyramid of Success, but like the other pyramids, it stands today because of what it is built upon.

The church of today is seen as a decaying old relic of days long past, using words that once meant something but are meaningless in today’s culture and society. People see a church that presents an image in contrast with what they studied in Sunday school and confirmation class. And they want no part of it. It isn’t the words that are said that are causing the death of the church; it is the manner in which the words are spoken, it is the way the words are used.

Today’s “seekers” grew up hearing about redemption and sacrifice but saw those who pushed the message living lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They are asking basic gut level questions such as “Do you know God; do you live in 2008; do you have a story?” They do not want our answers to be that we know a lot about God but cannot say whether we actually know God personally. They don’t want to know that while it is 2008 outside the church it is 1952 inside the church on Sunday morning. And they don’t want to hear the story of how the church has been chartered since 1968 and that the budget is $256,000 or that we have had ten pastors and thirteen organists during that period.

They do not want to be a part of that church anymore. They want to know what it means to be a Christian today. They do not want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that because it is there people will come. They would rather converse with their friends at a Starbucks on Sunday morning than drink coffee in a styrofoam cup during fellowship time after service on Sunday.

And the church often doesn’t know how to respond. It adds new music that sounds like the music of the age and it lets its preachers dress casually so that they appear to be hip. The church has so embraced the ways of society that it is no longer what it once was or what it should and could be. And it still holds to a worldview that is out of touch with the realities of the world.

There are many churches that are examining their processes and trying to figure out how the church can be more relevant in today’s work. And from these efforts, a new model for church growth, known coincidentally as the “emerging church matrix” is emerging. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the “seeker-driven, big church” model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside.

For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu is not a native plant. It was introduced to the southern states as a way to cover hillsides and prevent erosion. But after it was planted, it was found that it grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. (Pictures of kudzu) It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours. Kudzu was thought to be a good idea when it was first introduced into this country. But it is clear that its ability was limited to a specific place and climate, neither of which were the southern states. There are good models for church growth available but we have to be very careful that the model that we pick is the model that is applicable to our setting, time, and place.

One advocate of the emerging church model, Sally Morgenthaler, suggested that seekers want to know what it meant to be a Christian 2000 years ago. But more importantly, they want to know how the Gospel and its life changing attributes will affect them and apply to them today. They want to know who Wesley is and why he is so important to the United Methodist Church. They want to know why it is we recite the various creeds. (Adapted from “Worship Transitions: The Road Less Traveled” by Sally Morgenthaler)

Now, I understand where Ms. Morgenthaler is coming from. Many churches do exhibit a time warp, turning back the clock to days long ago and holding services that have not changed one word since the day many members of the congregation were confirmed. Some of have said that we need to “modernize” our worship service, bringing in the new songs and new styles but keeping the same old attitudes. (Adapted from “Where Are You Going?”) And there is nothing more frightening to me than a relatively young person with the same attitude about church that their parents and grandparents had; I am now the leader of the church and we are going to do things my way.

If “seeker services” were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and wine, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on modern technology.

What I found most interesting in this discussion of the emerging church is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more than offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (Adapted from “What Comes Next”)

The “emerging church” or “emergent church” movement is more than the location of the worship or the style of worship. It is the message of the church that differentiates it from other churches, old or modern.

I came across two articles (“John Wesley and the Emerging Church” by Hal Knight and “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” by Scot McKnight) that point out that Methodism, from its inception, was essentially an emerging church. This is interesting because emerging churches are considered a relatively new phenomenon and Methodist churches are considered traditional.

There are clearly differences between emerging churches and the typical Methodist church of today. First, as Knight pointed out, the emerging church tends to be diverse and decentralized and averse to static structures and fixed ideas. It is also driven by an increasing dissatisfaction with the assumption and practices of many churches.

But they also understand that discipleship is meant to closely follow and emulate the person and ministry of Jesus. And while many people express Christianity as being a handful of water at birth, a handful of rice at weddings, and a handful of dirt at funerals, most emerging churches know that there is more to the mission of the church.

Emerging churches also reject many of the dualisms that dominate the traditional churches. They tend to see all of life as potentially sacred and all culture subject to transformation and renewal by the Kingdom of God. Emerging churches are alternative communities, communities who participate in the mission of God in the world. No longer do people go to church; they are the church.

While emerging churches hold to the authority and primacy of the Scriptures, it is more of a narrative than a reading. With a narrative reading, the church is able to draw upon a broad scheme of things and offer more diverse forms of worship. Finally, there is a sense of what some call a generous orthodoxy. By this, truth is not something that is captured and mounted on a wall like a stuffed trophy but rather exemplified by the community of believers.

Each point in this description of the emerging church has a Methodist counterpoint, a point developed by John Wesley almost two hundred and fifty years ago. Wesley developed the Methodist Church of his time in response to the needs and demands of society and the lack of response by the church of that time. (Adapted from “Reinventing the Wheel”)

Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pg 23) In doing so, Jesus challenged the system and caused people to think in an entirely different manner. You cannot be a true Christian unless you are willing to change your thinking and see things in a new way. You cannot do this in a solely rational manner; you must have a vision based on faith. By the same token, you cannot see new things in a new way based on faith alone; you must be able to act in a rational manner.

It seems to me that the United Methodist Church was an emerging church when it was created and it can be the emerging church of today. But it will require that we remember who we are and we need to see things, not through the lens of history, but through the lens of today.

We are reminded by today’s Old Testament lesson that the Egyptians had forgotten how it was that the Israelites had come to Egypt (as perhaps the Israelites themselves had forgotten). The Egyptians had forgotten that it was one of the Israelites, Joseph, who had saved them and their country from almost certain death by his foresight and leadership in the years of feast and famine. And while the Israelites would proclaim the story of the first Passover each year, many of them had forgotten who God was and what God had done for them to bring them out of Egypt by the time Jesus began His ministry.

And if we forget how we came to our faith, we will surely die. There were two men on the crosses next to Jesus that first Easter Sunday. One gained his faith that day and was rewarded with paradise; the other lived in the present and died that day.

We need to say that we are the people we say we are. It is more than simply trying to do things which favor the bottom line of the organization. It is about stating what faith is and who Jesus Christ is in ways that are relevant to today’s world. It is what Jesus did when He was on this earth and it is what He expects us to do today and tomorrow. (Adapted from “A New Order of Things”)

We have the foundation for our own pyramid. The basis upon which we build our church is the faith that we have. In the Gospel reading for today, Simon proclaims that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and because of his faith, Jesus renames him Peter, the rock upon which the church would be built. But faith is a thing which grows, or at least it should grow.

As Paul pointed out in the New Testament reading for today, we all have gifts that we bring to bear in the building of our church. Be they gifts of prophecy, ministering to the people, teaching the people, exhortation, generosity or compassion, we have the things upon which we build our church.

It is important that we remember what we once were, but not because they were the “good old days” to be remembered fondly. Rather, if we remember what we once were, we have the ability to build the church. The church of two thousand years ago was a community of believers, acting together to bring the Gospel message into the world.

Our church today can be that same living and breathing church, one whose foundation was first expressed some two thousand years ago. It will be anchored in faith and it will be built with the stones of teaching, preaching, caring, and ministry. It will not be a stone monument but rather the living and breathing members of the church who go out into the world, taking the Gospel message as a part of their lives each day.

Where Are You Going?

This was the sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 16: 9 – 15, Revelation 21: 10, 22 – 22: 5, and John 14: 23 – 29.


There are some certain constants in my life. It seems that there has always been a major river close by where I lived (though I don’t know where that river was when I lived in West Texas). There have always been, it seems, hills and valleys as well. And there are the highways. I think I mentioned once before that I had driven the roads north of Whitesburg, Kentucky before I moved there but I could not remember where until after I had moved there.

And there is US Highway 6, which runs east and west just south of Tompkins Corners. If you follow this highway westward, you will pass by the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, the places where I lived and worked while working on my doctorate in Iowa City, which is just down the road a bit.

Our highways have a way of tying together the various sections of this country. US Highway 1, the old post road, runs from Boston to Washington and then on south to Miami. It was the first major highway in the country. US Highway 30, known as the Lincoln Highway, runs eastward from Chicago and was one of the first westward highways in this country. And who can forget Route 66, the mother road? This highway, running from Chicago to Los Angeles and passing through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma is famed in story and song as the road that led the families from depression era farms to the riches of the golden west.

I have always thought that it would be a good way to spend a summer or perhaps even a year driving the US highways starting up on US 1 in Maine and driving the highways in numerical order. I would start up in Maine and drive down US 1 until it intersects with US 2 and then follow US 2 to where it intersects US 3, and so on. I know that it is not completely possible to drive all the highways in a consecutive manner but it might be a fun to spend vacation time trying.

I do know that you can start near Columbus, KS (in the southeast section of Kansas) and drive in sequence highways 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. This will put you in Little Rock, Arkansas. There you can pick up US 70 and follow it west to US 69, which, if you head north, will take you to Springfield, MO. But if you stay on US 70 for a little longer, you will reach US 71. So, here in the heartland of our country is the sequence of highways 59 through 71, skipping 68. It happens that US 68 is goes through part of Ohio but don’t ask my why or how. If you go north on US 71 in search of US 52 for a distance, you will find something interesting. All this driving through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma and you end up about 5 miles from where you started.

This is an interesting drive but I am not sure that anyone would want to spend all that gasoline (especially today) driving around the country if all you do is end up where you started. It is the metaphor of our lives that says we want our journey in live to have meant something. We want our journey in life to have taken us somewhere. Even if we never go anywhere physically in our lives, we want to know that our time on this earth was worth the effort.

For some, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is a representation of that completion of the journey. But for others, it is the fear in the hearts of the disciples when Jesus, after his resurrection, tells the disciples that He is going where they cannot come. How can the journey end that way? But more often than not, our journeys have been like Paul’s, going places that we are not sure of, uncertain of what lie ahead. It is that uncertainty that drives our journey; but it may be how we deal with the uncertainty that determines where we go.

The vision of John, expressed in the Book of Revelation, is seen by some as an escape from the outside world. Many, especially those enthralled with current culture, see in his vision a world that has Christians whisked away from the pain and suffering here on earth to the safety of heaven. The coming of the New Jerusalem brings destruction to the present earth, leaving the true believers safe in heaven.

It may be that one reason this version of the end of the earth is so popular today is that it offers individuals an escape from earth and the problems encountered everyday. People do not want to be reminded while they are in church of all the problems of the earth. This is a day of rest, not a day to solve the problems of the world. And many churches today give the people what they want, an escapist view of the world with a soft and palatable Gospel message.

It is almost seems that many fundamentalist churches see the ending of the earth in an Armageddon fashion as the true nature and culmination of the Gospel. This makes it easy to escape the pain and suffering here on earth. It makes no sense to work for the peace of God on earth and to ease the pain and suffering here on earth, because that would only deviate from God’s plan. Despite Biblical admonitions to do so, we should keep our weapons rather than beat the "swords into plowshares" because we will need them in the final days to protect ourselves. (Adapted from "Are liberal Christians phony?" by David Batstone in the Sojourner’s e-magazine for May 12, 2004.)

This may not be a softer version of the Gospel but it is a version that will allow you to escape from the problems of the world. What it certainly does do is allow one to listen to the Gospel and not feel guilty because there is nothing that can be done. All the pain and suffering in the world are merely portions of God’s plan to prepare the "true" believers for the eventually ascension into heaven.

It is a message that fit today’s "lifestyle" of blaming the other person, of not taking the lead. Today’s modern church makes people feel comfortable and safe because it hides them from the world.

But the Gospel is not supposed to fit within your lifestyle; it’s supposed to change it. If the message of the Gospel that Jesus preached were not lifestyle changing, it would have never been carried beyond the boundaries of Israel. If the Gospel message were not life changing, people would not have called on the disciples or even Paul to bring the message to them and to stay with them. Let’s face it, it was the change in people’s lives that came from the Gospel message that Jesus preached that changed this world. If we want something that will accommodate our lives, we will not find it in the Gospel.

John’s vision of heaven is what it can be on earth, not what it is elsewhere. John sees the reign of God coming down from heaven to a wonderful city here on earth. He visualizes, in Revelation 21, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." New Jerusalem is not simply where we will go when we die; it is also the worldwide political and economic arrangement that God is bringing to reality among those who chose to follow the Lamb rather than the Beast. (Adapted from "System failure" in "Living the Word" by J. Nelson Kraybill, Christian Century, May 4, 2004)

This view of John’s vision puts the Gospel into action. And I think that it is finding adherents in many of what are called the "emerging" churches of today. Those that we call "seekers" are not satisfied with the megachurch model of growth. Such models and their size take away the contact with God that they, the "seekers" are looking for.

They ask basic gut level questions such as "Do you know God, do you live in 2004, do you have a story?" They do not want our answers to be that we know a lot about God but cannot say whether we actually know God personally. They don’t want to know that while it is 2004 outside the church it is 1952 inside the church on Sunday morning. And they don’t want to hear the story of how the church has been chartered since 1968 and that the budget is $256,000 or that we have had ten pastors and thirteen organists during that period.

Today’s "seekers" grew up hearing and seeing a of redemption and sacrifice but saw those who pushed the message living lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They do not want to be a part of that church anymore. They do not want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that because it is there people will come. It may be a sign of the times but these "seekers’ would rather converse with their friends at a Starbucks on Sunday morning than drink coffee in a Styrofoam cup during fellowship time after service on Sunday.

They want to know what it means to be a Christian today. One advocate of this new model of worship, Sally Morgenthaler, suggested that these seekers wanted to know what it meant to be a Christian 2000 years ago. But these individuals are of today and they want to know how the Gospel and its life changing attributes will affect them and apply to them. They want to know who Wesley is and why he is so important to this denomination. They want to know why it is we recite the various creeds. (Adapted from "Worship Transitions: The Road Less Traveled" by Sally Morgenthaler)

Now, I understand where Ms. Morgenthaler is coming from. Many churches do exhibit a time warp, turning back the clock to days long past and holding services that have not changed one word since the day they were confirmed. Some of have said that we need to "modernize" our worship service, bringing in the new songs and new styles.

Some years ago, a member of the congregation came up to me and did in fact ask me why we said the Apostle’s creed each Sunday. His challenge lead me to change the creed that we say each week, if for no other reason that it helps us keep afresh in our minds and our hearts what it is that we actually believe. If our argument against changing the way we worship is that this is the way we have been doing it for twenty years, we seriously need to consider changing it. But, in the same vein, we should look at the instrumentation that we play; we should look at the words we say. But any changes that are made in the worship service must be made to enhance and improve the service, not merely serve as window dressing.

The same is true about the music we sing. I happen to like the old time Gospel songs and try to put them in whenever I can. The greatest argument I have heard against today’s "praise music" is that it has no meaning. And meaning is what the songs should have. The songs are part of the worship and for me, at least, are part of what the message for each Sunday is and should be.

But the central point of the message is, was, and will always be the Gospel. It is the Gospel that leads us to heaven; it is the Gospel message that commands us to love others as we have been loved. In loving others, we are shown the road to heaven, the road that Jesus is showing us today.

Interestingly enough, there are now churches forming that are the antithesis of the megachurches that dominated the 1980’s and 1990’s. Instead of large, megachurches with multiple ministers, people are creating smaller communities of believers. In these new, smaller churches people are trying to find their relationship with God, something that cannot be found in the big churches currently espoused as the growth model. In response to the calls for a more culturally attuned liturgy, many of these "emerging churches" are going back to medieval liturgies or practices and even Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox rituals that precede the Enlightenment.

Those involved want a more interactive, demanding role in the way of the church, not an easier involvement. They are redefining the community of believers that once was the norm of Christianity. One person said, "I’d go to churches that were way too judgmental or too ambiguous. At Spirit Garage, there is no question what we’re doing. We’re talking about Jesus. We’re taking communion. We’re just doing it together, as a journey." (Adapted from "Hip New Churches Sway to a Different Drummer" by John Leland of the New York Times (18 February 2004). Posted with permission on Sally Morgenthaler’s web site – in the time since I wrote this piece, the original web site has been removed.)

The world around us is not a safe place these days. There are countless dangers, toils and snares that we will encounter. I cannot help but thinking that there need to be places in one’s journey where one feels safe and comfortable. But that safety and comfort will disappear when you step out into the real world; it won’t go away without somebody’s effort. And, unfortunately, many churches have become places where such dangers, toils, and snares are encountered, because they have allowed the outside world to come inside its walls.

But it was never intended that the Gospel message be kept inside the walls of the church; rather, it was to be taken out into the world. The church was the place where one could find safety and comfort but also to be recharged and re-energized.

John offers a new vision of the church, of a church that brings the reality of heaven to here on earth. Jesus said a lot about how we should live and the Holy Spirit nudges us and pushes us to put that teaching into practice. The church is not a full realization of the New Jerusalem that John envisioned. But those who follow the Lamb and place our citizenship and loyalty there already live in its transforming light.2

We have a choice to make individually, as a local church, and as a denomination. Just as my favorite Bible selection has to be Ecclesiastes 3, so too is my favorite poem "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. There are two paths before this morning. One is the path that most take, the easy one. But it is not a path that necessarily leads to the Gospel. The other path is not taken often, for it is unfamiliar, different, and unused. We don’t know what is down that path and we don’t always want to walk in that direction.

When Paul was told in his vision to go to Macedonia, he didn’t have any idea of what was waiting for him or what he would encounter as he went there. He and his companions just went, knowing that the Spirit of the Lord was with them as they traveled. So too do I believe that the Spirit is calling you, as a member of this church and Christ’s community, asking today "where are you going?"

Who Will Sit At Your Table?

This is the message that I am presenting at South Highlands United Methodist Church, 19 Snake Hill Road, Garrison, NY 10524 (Location of church); the service starts at 9:30 am.  The Scriptures for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost are Genesis 45: 1 – 15, Romans 11: 1 – 2 and 29 – 32, and Matthew 15: 10 – 20 and 21 – 28.


During this summer, when I have preached at nine different churches over the past eight weeks and where I will preach at two more churches in the coming two weeks, I was reminded of something I wrote two years ago (“My Father’s House”).

At certain times during the year, I will be in certain places. And, one of those times, unless I am called to be somewhere else to do our Father’s business, will always be Easter Sunday and that place that I should be is my home church.

It was the Gospel reading for today and the cry of the Canaanite woman “that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” that reminded me of Easter in 1969. Then I was a precocious 18-year old college sophomore. In many ways, it had not been a good year. I was not doing well in school and the specter of the draft was looming over me.

Like so many individuals of that time, I was searching for a meaning to what was transpiring in my life. And because of the political currents of that particular time in our country’s history, I was also trying to figure out how we could live in a world of war and hatred, of poverty and ignorance when the Gospel message was a message of hope and freedom.

As I was preparing for spring break and my trip home, I could not help but think that I would be missing something important. While Memphis, TN was and is my home, my home church that year was in Kirksville and I did not want to miss the Easter services or communion at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville. I knew that there was the possibility of communion at Bartlett United Methodist Church, the church where my parents were members and which I attended while in high school. But it was not my home church and there was a feeling in me at the time that I needed to somehow take communion before I left for the break.

To that end, I approached Marvin Fortel, then the minister at First Church, about taking communion before leaving. He was a little taken back by the request, because most of the students who attended the services were members of churches in their hometown and only attended out of obligation to their parents. But he agreed to my request and we met in the chapel of the church before I left.

It was not a normal communion but rather a chance to talk about the process of communion and what it meant. And while I know I had been through the ritual of communion before, this was the first time that I had ever really looked at the words that were said during communion. The words that we spoke that day in 1969 then were not the words that begin on page 6 of our current hymnal but rather the words that begin on page 26 (we were using the old hymnal, not the present one).

And I, the worldly-wise college sophomore, remember proclaiming and wondering to the pastor, how could it be that I was not so worthy as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table, the words of the Canaanite women. Didn’t Christ’s death on the cross give me the right to sit at God’s table with everyone else?

That is when I began to learn and understand about God’s grace. It was God’s grace that allows me to sit at His table and nothing that I do on my own would ever give me that seat. It was then I began to learn that I could not earn my way into heaven; that my standing up for the rights of others, while noble and just, did little to open the gates of heaven for me. But, because I have accepted Christ as my Savior, then it was expected that I would stand up and speak out and bring the Gospel message to its fruition.

When I left the chapel that day, I left with a better understanding of what communion meant and what it meant to be both a Methodist and a Christian. Communion took on a different meaning for me that day.

What I learned that day in the chapel and have come to understand over the years is that no matter who I am or what I am, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross opened the door to God’s House for me. No matter what the problems of the world may be or are, there is a place in which I can find shelter and solace. I came away from the church understanding that, having come to Christ and taken on the label of a Methodist, I needed to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity.

And that is probably the hardest thing we as Christians must ever do, help others to find the opportunity, the hope, the peace that comes in knowing Christ. We live in a time where the word “Christian” is viewed with contempt and derision. The meaning of the word has been transposed from one who follows Christ and brings people in to one who uses the name of Christ to exclude people and to deny people the very things that Christ brought to this world.

We live in a world where it seems that we must respond to every act of violence against us in kind. We live in a world where people quote the Bible and “say an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a measure of revenge. We live in a world where logic dictates that violence is to be met with violence and one in which evil must be fought with evil. It is a logic that has created a world of laws designed to meet every contingency, every possibility but which has created a world in which hope has been lost and there is no promise for the future.

It is our relationship with others that first defined the laws by which we would live but our society has quickly become one where the laws define our relationships. It enables us to view individuals as enemies because they don’t follow our laws or our interpretations of the law. It enables us to use violence as a means to an end because logic demands that the only solution to violence is more violence. But Jesus refused to see any person as an enemy; he refused to believe that peaceful ends could be gained by violent means, and he refused to use violence to overthrow evil.

We forget that Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Jesus does more than simply deny the spiritual validity of an eye for an eye; he removes the right to engage in violent self-defense when an “evildoer” violates your humanity. Because someone wrongs you, you do not have the right to wrong your assailant. You may have the power to get even, but God does not give you the right to do so. Nor do you have the right to imitate the evil that led to the assault upon you. Again, you may have the power, but Jesus reminds us of what Amos said in calling us away from the imitation of evil:

“Seek good and not evil, that you may live . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (Amos 5: 14 – 15)

We are faced with a dilemma when it comes to fighting anger, violence, and hatred. One’s concept of “rights” easily conflicts with one’s concept or feeling of moral duty. If I am wronged, it is my “right” to do wrong against him who has wronged me. If I am wronged, it is my moral duty to behave not as instinctive reaction would dictate, but only as reason and good sense show — for two wrongs do not make a right, and fire added to fire will surely burn the house down. (Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 25)

We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but let love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 37)

It would seem that it is our human nature to strike back, to seek revenge for the wrongs that others have done for us. Let us consider the scene in today’s reading for the Old Testament. Joseph has gathered his brothers together and it is altogether possible that the brothers fear for their lives. Remember, as this passage begins, they do not know that this is their brother to whom they are speaking and that he has arranged things so it would appear that they have stolen money from him. Joseph is the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt and they are at his mercy. Their thoughts that day must have been that they are about to die.

And what would you expect Joseph to do? After all, the rules of society then, as now, demanded revenge for injustice and no one, not even his brothers, would have said that he was wrong for not seeing revenge. They had sold him into slavery and told their father that he was dead. Revenge, no matter the form it took, would only have seemed right. The Count of Monte Cristo is but one example of such revenge.

But Joseph doesn’t seek revenge; he doesn’t seek justice. For whatever reasons, Joseph had an understanding of God’s purpose first told to him in the dreams of his youth and then in the dreams that he interpreted. His relationship with God would not allow him to seek what society said he could seek. Rather, he was to seek what God wanted and that was reconciliation and renewal.

If the hardest thing for us to do is help others come to know Christ, then the second hardest thing is to understand our purpose and place in God’s plan. Society tells us one thing and it tells us so loud and so convincingly that we can never hear what God is saying.

Paul wrote the Romans and told them that even though there were those who had rejected Christ and were persecuting the Christians, God’s mercy also applied to them. We still have a hard time with that statement for we try to measure God’s grace in our own terms. It is not up to us to decide what God will do.

There are many today who seek God through paths that don’t require Christ. It is not up to me to say to such a person that they are barred from heaven; if they truthfully and faithfully follow the tenets of what they believe, salvation shall be theirs. If they twist and corrupt the essentials of that religion, then salvation shall be lost. Nor can you create a religion out of the best parts of other religions and hope to achieve a good result.

It is not up to us to say to those who walk another path but believe in the same God that our rules apply to you when they don’t. But it is just as true that if you say you are a Christian but your life and thoughts do not reflect the life and thoughts of Christ, then you risk the same result.

We live in a world where many people have taken it upon themselves to decide who gets to sit at God’s table. And when we set the rules that only God has the power to set, we risk our expulsion from that table. We see so many people today who have rejected the words of Christ because of the hypocrisy of the people who twist the words. The theologian Henri Nouwen wrote

The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation as a light in our darkness. (From Reaching Out by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

Joseph, after so many years, invited his brothers to sit at his table, even though we might think that they did not deserve such privileges. Jesus opened the doors of heaven to everyone who would but express their faith. And Paul reminds us that all are worthy of God’s grace, even when they have seemingly turned away or sought to work against Him.

As we go out into the world, we are asked to be Christ’s disciples, to live the life as Christ led His. We go out into the world as Methodists, to live a life as John Wesley would. It has been said that John Wesley was not a systematic theologian but, rather, a theologian of the road. He did not see theology as something to be observed from a distance but rather as a part of one’s life. Systematic theologians see the world as an exercise of thought, cold, and authoritarian, removed from life. Theologians of the road share fully in the hustle and bustle of the streets, giving themselves to the dust, the sweat, and tediousness of travel, and who work out their answers as they walk along in company with others, sharing the burdens.

The core precept here is not about passivity or flight. It is about fighting back with different weapons. It is about resisting evil without showing enmity. It is about responding as Jesus taught us to respond, not how we think we should respond. (Adapted from “Higher Ground: The Nonviolence Imperative” by James M. Lawson, Jr. in Getting on Message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel, Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)

One way of being a Methodist today is to survey human needs and bring to bear on them any resources of the Christian faith that can help, even if this requires new syntheses, new emphases, and the rediscovery of neglected truth. When John Wesley began his work, it was to rescue the poor and forgotten. It brought hope and a promise to a world that was convinced that there was no hope and no promise. (Adapted from Economic Policies and Judicial Oppression as Formative Influences on the Theology of John Wesley, Wesley D. Tracy – http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/26-30/27.2.htm)

For many people today, it is the same. And so it is that we who proclaim to be Christ’s disciples in this world, we who hold the banner of Methodism in our hearts and in our minds should begin again those things which John Wesley did. Let us proclaim the Gospel message of healing the sick, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, freeing the oppressed in spirit and mind, and feeding the hungry. Let us begin by asking who will sit at our table.

The Barometer Story


A discussion that I was involved in this week prompted me to recall the following story.  I first “heard” the story when I was working on my Master’s degree at the University of Missouri back in the 70’s.  I don’t recall if the reason why dealt with exam questions or creativity, but probably a combination of both. 

Even though the student in the story may disagree with me, education is about creative thought.  If all we do is teach singular methods for solving problems, we are going to be hard pressed to solve problems that are complex and unique.  This story should remind us that education is more than simple problem solving and factual recall.

The Barometer Story by Alexander Calandra – an article from Current Science, Teacher’s Edition, 1964.

Some time ago, I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. It seemed that he was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would do so if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

The Barometer Problem

I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question, which was, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student’s answer was, “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

Now, this is a very interesting answer, but should the student get credit for it? I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify that the student knows some physics, but the answer to the question did not confirm this. With this in mind, I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed to this, but I was surprised that the student did.

Acting in terms of the agreement, I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, since I had another class to take care of, but he said no, he was not giving up. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him, and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which was:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S= 1/2 at^2, calculate the height of the building.”

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded and I gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

“Oh, yes,” said the student. “There are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I said. “And the others?”

“Yes,” said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.

“Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of ‘g’ at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of ‘g’, the height of the building can, in principle, be calculated.”

Finally, he concluded, “If you don’t limit me to physics solutions to this problem, there are many other answers, such as taking the barometer to the basement and knocking on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Superintendent, here I have a very fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.'”

At this point, I asked the student if he really didn’t know the answer to the problem. He admitted that he did, but that he was so fed up with college instructors trying to teach him how to think and to use critical thinking, instead of showing him the structure of the subject matter, that he decided to take off on what he regarded mostly as a sham.  (There appear to be a variety of endings to the story.)

This is also found on a number of web pages including, http://www.mrao.cam.ac.uk/~steve/astrophysics/webpages/barometer_story.htm and http://philosophy.lander.edu/intro/introbook2.1/x874.html (this one has a nice picture of a barometer).  It is even mentioned on http://www.snopes.com/college/exam/barometer.asp.

This story has been updated – “How To Measure A Building”

What Exactly Is Equality? And What Do We Expect?

This was edited on 7 March 2015 to remove a bad link.

I gave a sermon on Sunday (10 August 2008 ) in which the presentation probably was not one of my better ones. I forgot that I am God’s representative and Christ’s disciple and that the words that I speak have to be His words, not mine. I have been on a roll lately and I was thinking that it was my ability that was doing it. But it wasn’t my ability and I need to remember that.

But the sermon itself was a good one and I felt that it was appropriate for the Scriptures as well as the moment that is this Sunday. It was the responses that I received from some people that prompt me to post these thoughts. These thoughts are accompanied by some other thoughts from two other venues that I believe are related.

Somewhere in hearing what I was saying, the idea of equality became equated with the idea of affirmative action. I said nothing in the sermon about affirmation action and the idea that these two concepts are equivalent pushes the idea behind both.

After the first service a person came to me and said that I should be careful “pushing the envelope” when it comes to equality. This person told me that they had recently lost their job because someone else (a person of a different race) demanded a job with their company and threatened action if it was not given to them. If this is true, then this person’s company was wrong but, like so many other things going on in this country today, not willing to fight for what is right. A person who is already employed should not be fired or released simply because someone threatens a lawsuit in an effort to get a job. I don’t believe that the affirmative action laws were written that way.

But if this first individual’s claim that they lost a job to someone who threatened a lawsuit because of discrimination is correct, then we have a serious problem. Somewhere along the line, we have equated affirmative action with equality. They are not the same thing and we should not even think that they are.

The purpose of affirmative action was and is to say that companies who have two individuals with equal skills are to hire the one who represents a class of individuals who have been discriminated against in the past. It was not meant to mean that such individuals are to be hired regardless of their abilities or skills or to put someone out of a job that he has held for years. Yet, that seems to be what we have done. Through affirmative action, we created quotas saying that we need so many people of one kind and so many people of another, so that our company or organization represents society. That’s fine and dandy, provided the people have the proper skills and abilities. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t be hired.

Another person came to me after the second service and offered something that was somewhat similar, that their company was giving jobs to foreign nationals in preference to American workers. I am not sure if this was outsourcing or a modification of a training program. But if we are supposed to give away jobs in the name of equality, then we have a serious problem.

As a society, we are demanding quality goods at a cheaper price. I don’t believe this is possible. Quality comes with a price; that is not to say that low cost goods are not good quality but more often than not, low cost brings low quality.

The problems of the American automobile industry come, in part, from their belief that cheap Japanese imports were low quality. They once were but the Japanese borrowed our ideas about quality control and improved the quality of their products. But Detroit held onto the belief that Japanese cars were poor quality and kept producing their traditional models until they suddenly realized they were losing business. Now, it may be too late for the traditional auto industry.

In response to the demand for low prices, American industry created outsourcing. Outsourcing is American business’s response to society’s demands for low prices for common goods and it has been taken to extremes. Now, I am not a fan of outsourcing; as I noted in another piece (“Economics 101”) some creditors have outsourced their collection calls to India and other points overseas.

Both of these comments indicated one critical problem with our response in the 70’s to the demand for equality in the 60’s. We never made the playing field equal. Too many of our students come out of schools with diplomas that suggest they are qualified but they are woefully unprepared because their schools are under-equipped to meet the demands of society. I am not alone in this view.

I subscribe to a particular listserv and the recent discussion has been on student self-esteem. The tone of the discussion suggested that students come into college with the expectation that they need not do any more than show up for class and they will get an “A” in that course. They haven’t been pushed to succeed in their prior experiences and they have never experienced any sort of failure. Failure is not acceptable because it will destroy their self-esteem.

I believe Thomas Edison once said that it took him over 100 tries to get it right; in other words, he failed 99 times before he found the right way. But he never looked at 99 attempts as failures; he always said that he found 99 ways that would not work.

Our problem today is that we don’t allow our students to fail; we find some way to pass them, even when they are not ready. Students enter college expecting the same environment that past them through high school. As a result when they enter college they are not ready for the work that is required nor are they willing to learn the things that they need to learn in order to succeed. In other words, we are setting our students up to fail because we do not demand that they learn what is required at the lower levels which will allow them to enter college and perform at college levels.

A colleague of mine indicated that we needed to take students at the level where they are, no matter what their preparation, and help them along. And I agreed, especially because as high school teacher that was my philosophy. I have always held the view that the goal of education should be to give students the skills needed so they can learn more on their own after each class is completed.

I see too many students who come into college who do not have the prerequisite skills that a traditional high school graduate should have in order to enter college. (See “Teach Your Children” for a list of what a high school graduate should be able to do.) I also argued that it was necessary to tell the students if they need to examine their own options and make other plans. I am of the opinion that we should not automatically accept students in our classes without the prerequisite skills. It may be that their prior education was lacking and we have to do something about that, but that has to come from beyond what transpires in my classroom or in my organization.

One outcome of the 60’s and the changes of that time was a call for equality. Affirmative action was the result but it was really a band-aid where major surgery was required. Across the nation, many of our schools do not have the technology necessary to prepare the students for life after graduation and they do not have the funds needed to gain the technology. There is the issue of teacher preparation as well, but we will save that for another day. We have done very little to make our schools equal and, if our schools are not equal, then our students will never be put on an equal footing.

When I call for equality, I am calling for situations where everyone has an equal opportunity. I am not calling for some people to receive consideration when they are not qualified. But if they are not qualified, then we need to work to insure that they do become qualified. And if anyone thinks that because something happened years ago in the long forgotten past they are entitled to special benefits or recognition, they need to think again. What happened in the past is no excuse for not doing their best now.

But what has happened in the past should tell us that we need to do more in the present so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future. Our schools are preparing student who are ill-prepared and under-qualified, yet we do not try to make our schools better. We demand quality products but we are unwilling to pay for the quality. We expect our leaders to represent the best and brightest yet we are willing to let mediocrity rule (for those who can remember, Richard Nixon nominated G. Harrold Carswell to a seat on the Supreme Court in 1970. Against cries that he was mediocre, Senator Roman Hruska stated “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,942208,00.html and http://www.washtimes.com/commentary/20051005-092022-5265r.htm) That remark is believed to have backfired and damaged Carswell’s cause.)

There are those today who feel that because of whom they are and, solely because of whom they are, they will receive special consideration when it comes to entering heaven. Such individuals will be sadly mistaken when that day comes. On the other hand, those who fail to seek equality in its basic forms will find that the doors to heaven may very well be barred to them as well.

If we seek equality, let us make sure that equality is what we seek and not some action that only gives lip service to the idea. Let us put thinking back into the process of life and let us think about our actions, not simply respond poorly to injustice and the lack of thinking on the part of others.


Can You Follow Directions?

This is an oldie but a goodie.



  1. Read all that follows before doing anything.
  2. Write your name in the upper right hand corner of this page.
  3. Circle the word “corner” in sentence two.
  4. Draw five small squares in the upper left hand corner of this page.
  5. Put an “X” on each square.
  6. Put a circle around each square.
  7. Sign your name under line 5.
  8. After your name, write “yes, yes, yes.”
  9. Put a circle around number 7.
  10. Put an “X” in the lower left hand corner of this page.
  11. Draw a triangle around the “X” you just made.
  12. Call out your first name when you get to this point in the test.
  13. If you think that you have followed directions carefully to this point, call out, “I have!”
  14. On the reverse side of this paper add 6950 and 9805.
  15. Put a circle around your answer.
  16. Count out loud, in your normal speaking voice, from 10 to 1.
  17. Put three small pin or pencil holes in the top of this page.
  18. If you are the first person to get this far, yell out, “I am the first person to get to this spot and I am the leader in following directions.”
  19. Say out loud, “I am nearly finished. I have followed directions.”
  20. Now that you have finished reading carefully, do only those things called for in the sentences numbered 1 and 2. Did you read everything on this page before doing anything?