Solving Problems

This is the message that I am presenting at at Germantown UMC (Wilton, CT) on July 26th; services are at 11:00 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11 1 -15; Ephesians 3: 14 – 21; and John 6: 1-21

I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church next Sunday (August 2nd); services there are at 10 am and you are welcome to attend.

(This has been edited since first posted.)


Back in 1965, when the country’s space program was going full blast and I was a freshman in high school, I had to have a science fair project.

For any science fair project, you must have a problem to solve. You cannot simply prepare a demonstration (such as growing crystals); you must present a problem and a potential solution (such as “what are the conditions for optimal crystal growth?”).

Now, for some reason, as I prepared for school in the morning I would watch an educational television program. I don’t remember the name of the show but I do remember that the topic one morning was Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation (clip_image002). I then began to think of a problem that I might solve utilizing this mathematical law. Ultimately, with the aid and prodding of my father, I came up with the question “What is the effect of the earth’s gravitational field on a spacecraft on a journey from the earth to the moon?”

The problem statement that I developed read

“Assume that we have successfully launched an Apollo spacecraft. At exactly the mid-point between the center of the earth and the center of the moon, the spacecraft loses its velocity. Considering only the gravitational force, where would the spacecraft fall?”

Now, I had a problem that I could solve using Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. I determined what would happen at the mid-point of the flight and at what point the moon’s gravitational field would dominate. If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may recall the flight of Apollo 13 which suffered a catastrophic power failure on April 13, 1970.

Now, the purpose of today’s message is not to discuss science fair projects or trips to the moon (for a related discussion on the process of science, the reader is directed to “The Processes of Science”). Granted, the Apollo 13 mission is often called the “successful failure” because of what transpired to bring the crew home safely and how it illustrated the need to think a problem through in order to find a solution.

And in that regard, that is what both the Old Testament reading for today and the Gospel reading for today are concerned with. In the Old Testament reading for today, the story of David and Bathsheba is recounted; in the Gospel reading, we hear John’s version of the feeding of the five thousand.

For David, the problem is that he has gotten Bathsheba pregnant while she is still married to Uriah. For the disciples, the problem is that there are between five and twenty thousand people who have been listening to Jesus preach and now they are hungry. This is right after the disciples have returned from their first mission trip, joyously recounting all that they had done in preaching, teaching, and healing.

So Jesus asks them, specifically Philip, what they are going to do to feed the people. As John indicates, Jesus asked Philip in order to stretch Philip’s faith because He (Jesus) already knew what He (Jesus) was going to do. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, in accepting Christ, we are able to expand our limits. We are able to push the boundaries of what we can do.

And in challenging Philip, that is what Jesus is doing. For the disciples, the solution to the problem is to send the people elsewhere in order to get food to eat. But Jesus knows that some of the people have brought food and that with that food, it will be possible to feed the multitude.

David has a problem, a problem brought about by his own failure to do what he should have been doing. Whether or not you believe that war is an acceptable solution to any problem, there is a war being fought at the beginning of the Old Testament reading and David is involved in the planning of that war.

But when the troops are sent off to battle taking with them the Ark of the Covenant, David elects to stay at home. In his failure to lead his troops, David sets the table (as it were) for his own destruction. In contrast, Uriah stays with his troops while they are in the field along with the Ark of the Covenant. (And I wonder how different the past few years would have been if our leaders would have lead with the truth instead of lies and had acknowledged the military personnel who came home injured or dead instead of neglecting their care and bringing home the dead late at night.)

David realizes that he must marry Bathsheba before it becomes obvious that she is pregnant but to do that she must also be a widow. Now, as has been pointed out by others, David has already broken two of the commandments (he has coveted his neighbor’s wife and he has committed adultery), so breaking a third (ordering that Uriah be killed) really isn’t a stretch.

David’s treachery and willingness to trash the Ten Commandments merely reflect what happens to each one of us when we put our interests and our desires before those of God. Philip’s inability to see a solution to the problem before he and the other disciples merely shows that, despite what they have already accomplished, they still see things from the perspective of the old ways.

Paul makes it very clear that accepting Christ in one’s life changes the view one has of life. We are faced with a number of problems, not the least of which is our own inability to see beyond the future. While I may have seen the space program of the 1960’s and 70’s as opening the gateway into the universe, most people saw it only as a race between our country and the Soviet Union. And when the race was won, there was no reason to go any further. And while there are at least two generations who have never lived in a world where mankind did not walk on the moon, we have at least one generation who can only see that in the context of history rather than actuality.

For people who have been created in God’s image, we seem to have forsaken the curiosity and inquiry that are part of the human psyche. And this failure manifests in too many other situations. We have a healthcare crisis in this nation today but all of our efforts to find a solution have been focused in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on the people (as Jesus did when he challenged the disciples to feed the people), we have focused on the cost (as Philip responded). We are more interested in how the solution to healthcare will benefit each one of us individually rather than we as a community. Instead of treating people, the discussion is about cost; yet Jesus fed the multitude without worrying about the cost.

David’s failure to lead and his subsequent efforts to resolve the problem to his best advantage should tell us plenty about when our focus is not on our duties and more on our own interests.

In preparing for this morning, I came across Dan Dick’s blog for 4 July 2009 in which he talked about the issues that are dividing the church

Without weighing in on one side or the other, I want to pose a question: Are these the most important things that Christians in the 21st century should be focusing on?  People are starving.  People are dying.  People are being subjected to indefensible violence.  People are being abused and hurt and robbed of a basic minimum standard of existence.   Is personal comfort and a personal bias toward who is acceptable and who isn’t really the point?

Our world is broken and in deep need of healing and help.  Most of the issues that divide and sometimes destroy our local congregations are truly insignificant — worship styles, leadership styles, preaching styles, and other selfish demands.  Oh, certainly these are symptomatic of deeper issues, but we never get to the deeper issues.  We often can’t get to the important stuff, because we are bogged down by the selfish, narrow-minded, and insignificant issues of the nominally Christian.  Cranky Christians rule the roost.  We can’t deal with truly important issues because we are divided over such earth shattering disagreements such as music styles, copier contracts, and the way the pastor chooses to dress.

How the worship bulletin is designed, where the baptismal font is placed, who gets to choose the hymns — these are only important issues to those who have no real understanding of the gospel.  Those who reduce our faith to such insignificant issues are those who have no real desire to be the body of Christ — laity or clergy.  How to make a difference in the world, how to save a person’s self respect and dignity, making sure a person has a safe place to sleep or a warm meal — these are the things our faith tells us God is interested in. (“Cranky Christians”)

We have a momentous opportunity staring at us at this time. We can let this opportunity pass us by, being more concerned with our own self-preservation as David was when faced with the results of actions. Or we can use the talents, the skills, and the creativity open to us through our acceptance of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that will lead to changes in society that will benefit all those on this planet, not just a select few.

This is the opportunity that was given to the Ephesians two thousand years ago. This is the opportunity that Jesus showed to the disciples that afternoon when their own self-doubt prevented them from seeing the solution.

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