Who Sits At Your Table?

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 9 May 2004; it also happened to be Mother’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1  – 6 and John 13: 31 – 35. 


I know this is a strange way to start a sermon but I thought I would first discuss the fine art of setting the table. Now this discussion will focus on the simplest possible setting of one fork, one knife, and one spoon. I am quite capable, to the surprise of many, of setting an elegant table though I have yet to do the complete setting of salad fork, dinner forks, dessert spoon and fork, dinner knife, soup spoon, and teaspoon. I mention this because my mother insisted that I know how to do it. But for today, a simple setting will work best.

In the simplest setting, the fork is placed on the left side of the plate with the knife and spoon placed on the right side. This will work for every setting at the table unless someone at your table is like my youngest brother. When we set the table for dinner in our house, we had to take into consideration that Tim, the youngest of the three Mitchell boys, was left-handed. For him, we placed the fork on the right side of the plate with the knife and spoon on the left side. And to avoid collisions and conflicts with my other brother, we set Tim at the right side of the table and Terry on the left side.

Now, not every family has the problem but it was necessary if dinner in the Mitchell household during the fifties and sixties was to be quiet and peaceful. For the benefit of all the mothers here today and for my own mother, I use the term "quiet and peaceful" loosely. The seating of people at the dinner table, the cutlery used and how the cutlery is placed are critical social concerns. But the question of who would even sit at the table was a far greater issue for Peter and the early disciples of the church. At the time of the reading from the book of Acts for today, the church was divided between those who had become Christians after first being Jews and those who had first been Gentiles. Those who had been Jewish felt that one needed to hold on to the Jewish traditions and Jewish law of their forebears before they could be Christian. They insisted that those who were not Jewish first must become Jewish before they could be Christian.

But at the same time Paul was preaching to the Gentiles and telling them that it was all right to become Christian without first converting to Judaism. This difference was not a small difference of opinion; it wasn’t even a polite discussion of the issues. It was a major division, as emphasized by the fact that Luke, the writer of Acts, wrote about Peter’s vision twice, and it threatened to tear apart the church before the church had really even started.

Luke found it necessary to repeat the story because Peter had broken basic Jewish tradition by entering the home of a Gentile Christian and eating dinner with him. For many Jews, Christian or otherwise, this was forbidden by Jewish laws. But the Levitical laws upon which this judgment was based were never intended to teach ostracism. In repeating the account of Peter’s vision, Luke was showing how God had set him free from bigotry.

But, even today, some two thousand years or so after this occurrence in the early days of the church, we are a community of believers whose thoughts about the laws of God threaten to divide and destroy the church. It almost seems as if we have forgotten Jesus’ own words to us, the message of the Gospel for today to love one another just as we were loved by Him and God the Father.

The New York Times yesterday noted that the delegates to the General Conference in Pittsburgh voted against a call to split the church. It seems that conservative delegates to the General Conference had brought a motion before the floor that would split the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations, based on the views of the members on the issue of homosexuality. Though this motion was overwhelmingly defeated, those who brought the motion before the floor have said that they will spend the next few years meeting with disaffected congregations and will probably seek to form a newer and more conservative branch of Methodism. (The New York Times, May 8, 2004)

But even this single issue is but one reason why people do not come to church. They see in the church an organization that excludes people for any number of reasons. Even after forty years, the 10 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is still considered the most segregated hour in this country. It seems that despite all of our intellect, all of our claiming that we are God’s servants, we are not always willing to accept other people’s ideas. It is not to say that we should accept clearly evil or wrong ideas but we should realize that other people have ideas as well. Many of the today’s problems stem from an unwillingness of some to accept the notion that other people have ideas about God and Christ that may differ from our own ideas.

Perhaps instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, we should look at our own lives and the opportunities that are presented to us each day. Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed by those opposed to his work with the poor and underclass, the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of church: "One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus’] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord." Both the disciples and Romero had to rethink their preconceived notions about what – and who – makes the church. (Adapted from "Living the Word", Sojourners, May 2004.)

When we come to the communion table in the United Methodist Church, we are reminded that it is an open table. This means that anyone who is a member of any church, be it a United Methodist Church or otherwise, may celebrate communion with us. The only requirement for coming to this table is that one comes with a open heart, confessing of their sins, and receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit. There was some discussion at General Conference about closing the table in the United Methodist Church but I do not think anything came about from that thought.

And I hope that it doesn’t; because to do so would to take away the very essence of what the Gospel message is about and it is to say to some that they are not welcome in this or any other church. I certainly hope that we never close the table in the United Methodist Church; for to so would send a message of exclusion when openness is needed.

I do not know what your experiences with other denominations are but I have come close to being denied communion on two occasions. The first occurred when I was in college; the second just after I started my preaching career.

When I was in college, I would attend the Roman Catholic services at the Newman Center. I knew the campus priest through other church contacts and the services were very informal. This allowed me the "thrill" of attending church wearing blue jeans. Now, I must admit that I am wholly uncomfortable doing so now but college was a time of breaking away from the old and moving towards the new.

I asked the priest if he would give me communion. He replied that he would not, because I was not Roman Catholic. I also think that he knew that I was testing him and communion is not a test between you and the minister. He was right to say that he would deny me communion because my reasons for coming to the table were not the proper ones.

The second time was in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. The Missouri Synod closes the table to only the members of that church; Lutherans from other churches and others must get permission from the Lutheran minister before coming to the altar rail. In this particular church, the minister had students home from college pulled out of the line because they had not gotten permission before hand. Since I knew the rules and wanted to observe communion, I met with this minister before hand to get permission. Because he knew of my background, his questions went beyond the normal questions asked of others.

Here he was testing me in a manner that would not have been done to others. I knew the answers he wanted to hear and I was reluctantly granted permission. But I said that I would never go back to that church on a communion Sunday because the spirit for receiving communion was not there.

But, having described those instances where I would have been denied communion, I have to confess there have been times when I would have denied communion to someone else. Several years ago, a member of the congregation that I was also a member of was working against those who sought to save and revitalize the church. In one sense, it was a matter of power. For the revitalization of the church would ultimately strip this individual of the power they had gathered over the years. In the confession that is a part of the communion ritual, we speak of opening our hearts and confessing our sins. I could not see how, in light of this person’s actions, how they could come to the table or why they should be allowed to come to the table. But I was reminded that such decisions were not up to me nor anyone else in the church; if this person wished to have communion and not confess their sins or come to the table with an open heart, so be it. Judgment will be made but it will done by an authority more powerful than I.

Communion means three things to me. First, it is the essential reminder in my life that Christ died for my sins, even before I was ever on this earth. He died for my sins so that I would be free. It is a reminder that communion is a community event.

There is no way that one can have communion singularly. It has to be done in some sort of community, even if the community is only you and the minister.

I do not know the circumstances that put Thomas G. Pettepiece in jail but he wrote

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion — without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: "We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet." Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. "We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine," I told them, "but we will act as though we had."

"This meal in which we take part," I said, "reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class."

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our moths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. "Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us."

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: "You people have something special, which I would like to have." The father of the dead girl came up to me and said: "Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road." (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)

It was the celebration of the community of believers in the most trying of times that brought solace and hope to one and the promise of a better life to another. I don’t think that such results could have been achieved without the community of believers.

The third thing that communion means to me is expressed by John in his words from the Book of Revelations. Christ represents a new beginning; no longer will the old ways hold meaning. In Christ, we have the promise of eternal life; in Christ, our fears are relieved. But the promises of the new beginning can only be true if we hold to the true meaning of the Gospel.

And the true meaning of the Gospel is to have this table open. You may feel that you are not worthy of coming to the communion table today but that is the one reason you should come. The poet Gary Holthaus wrote,

"The good news is tonight I am going to create a sustaining community among you. It will not depend on your always being faithful or perfect or good, or right, powerful, or unblemished or pure.

It will not depend on your holding an advanced degree or your wealth, your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or religion.

It depends on two things: your willingness to share and your memory of me. (Adapted from "The Sustaining Community" by Gary Holthaus, in Connections, September 2002.)

We did not set this table; rather Christ set it. He, through his baptism, death on the cross, and resurrection invites us to set at His table. Through his baptism, death on the cross, and resurrection brings to us a new world, free from pain and death through sin. We leave this table a forgiven and risen people, empowered to take the Gospel into the world, to share with others what we have gained today. Christ invites us and asks us to have others sit with us. Who will sit at your table?

To Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father

This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 13 May 2001.  This also happened to be Mother’s Day.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1- 16 and John 13: 31 – 35.


To prepare for this Mother’s Day, I started thinking about what it is that we got from our mother. To often in today’s society, Mother’s Day is often seen in terms of economic opportunities for the greeting card and phone companies. But what is it that we got from our mother.

For John and Charles Wesley, it was very simple. When they were growing up, education was essentially a hit or miss proposition. In the Wesley family, the education of the children was a task taken on by their mother, Susanna. She nurtured their minds and spirits, tamed their wills without crushing their spirits. She taught each child at a pace best suited for his or her own learning style. Later, in their adult years, she encouraged them and counseled them. And it was learning not just for the boys. It is noted that John Wesley’s sister, Mehetabel, was so advanced in learning that she was reading the New Testament in Greek at the age of eight.

The sense of social justice and compassion that John Wesley felt the church should show no doubt came from the heritage of Biblical instruction, academic excellence, and godly examples set forth by their mother.

Knowing the tone of life that was set by Susanna Wesley, I wondered what it was that I received from not only my mother but my paternal grandmother. I hope that as I speak of what my mother did for me, you will take a few moments and think about the person in your life whom you knew or know as Mom.

As I have said on at least one other occasion, my mother laid the foundation for my faith at an early age. From her, I suppose I get the drive to do well in everything that I did as well as the tenacity to see a job done and done right from her.

And it is to my mother’s credit that there is a bond of love between my brothers, my sister, and myself. You will find no more diverse group of siblings than that of my family and though the manner in which it is done may not seem like it, there is a love between us that developed because of our mother.

I know that I did not get my sense of social justice from her and it is certain that I did not get my political beliefs from her. But I did get a sense that it was all right to find my own path as long as I was prepared to face the consequences as well as enjoy the rewards.

I also got a sense of family love from my paternal grandmother. Though my roots lie in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, there is also a part of me that also comes from Missouri. And whenever I go back to Missouri, whether it was to visit friends at Kirksville or go see the my daughters in Springfield, it doesn’t seem right not to go by 3603 Union Road if I have the chance.

That was where my grandmother lived all the years that I knew her. And whenever I was on break from school, I knew that it was a place that I could go. At that house, there was a sense of love and warmth and family, a sense of haven from the world outside.

That is why the passage from Acts seems so appropriate for this morning. At first glance, it is hard to see how it fits into Mother’s Day (and I am sure that there are a few preachers this morning who have decided to pick something more appropriate to preach from today). But on a day when we speak of the family, to hear God speaking to Peter about who should be in that family is highly appropriate.

The early church faced a dilemma about who should be a Christian. There were some those who believed that you must first be a Jew before you could be a Christian. And that part of the Christian process was an observance of all the Jewish rituals. Of course, Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles ran counter to this very notion.

But Peter received a vision from God that showed him that no one who wanted to enter God’s family would be denied because of who they were or what they were. The love and grace of God were open to all those who put their faith in Christ.

The concept proposed by some that made Christianity exclusive also ran counter to what Jesus told his followers to love as others as He had loved them. The love that Christians have for others and the works that illustrate this love will be the ways that others will come to know Christ.

Jesus encourages us to open up our hearts and let others know that God loves them as much as He loves us. John, writing in Revelation, speaks of that love and how through that love a New World is created.

This is a day when we give thanks to those who have helped shape and nurture us, who guided and directed us, who gave us a sense of what love was all about. Since we have that type of love, it is easier for us to know the love that God has for us and it is easier for us to show that kind of love to others.

The task was given to each and every one of us so many years ago. To love as others as we were loved by Christ. In honoring our mothers this day, we honor our Father as well.

Profiles in (Evolutionary) Courage, Part 2: Choosing Between Dogma and Darwin

But what if the polling data is incorrect? I am sure that the majority of people in Galileo’s time thought that the sun moved around the earth (just ask any child today and they will tell you the same thing). The probably is that the way evolution is taught leads to such a misunderstanding as demonstrated in the polling data.

The evidence is there but it is not clearly understood. Chalk that one up to the way our teachers are prepared to teach.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

An Open Letter to Senator Charles Schumer

This is a copy of a letter that we have sent Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).

Dear Senator Schumer,

Let us start off by saying that you have lost two votes when you seek reelection to the United States Senate.

We have made this decision because of your recent statements to an Israeli political commentator. It is one thing for a Senator to disagree with the President; that happens all the time and each Senator has the right to do so. It is an entirely different thing when the President and the Senator are of the same political party. Unless you are planning to for President in 2012, your comments, made with extremely poor political taste, probably did more harm to the Middle East peace process than any number of guns and bullets could ever do.

In the movie “Thirteen Days”, Kenneth O’Donnell points out to President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy that no matter what members of the Kennedy Administration may think internally, when it comes to dealing with the missiles in Cuba and the missiles in Turkey, the message given to Premier Khrushchev and the Soviet Union had to be a unified message.

Your words the other day rip apart any unified message that President Obama and Secretary Clinton may have sought to send.

In addition, your blatant support for the current and past Israeli administrations brings into question your own political loyalty. Are you the senior Senator from New York or the senior Senator from Tel Aviv?

We recognize that Israel has the right to a political existence. But we cannot individually and we think that this country can no longer support a country which suppresses other peoples as the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.

We need not be reminded of what was done to Jews in the 1920s and 30s, in fact, throughout all of history. But we wonder how it is that a people so persecuted throughout history could even justify the persecution of another group such as the Palestinians? Are human and civil rights limited in their application?

How can we, as a country which sought to throw off the shackles of tyranny, continue to support a country which does the same thing that we fought against?

It is not a question of supporting terrorists. The Palestinians cannot claim to be victims when their own hands are covered with the blood of innocents. The Israeli government has always portrayed themselves as victims and used that as a justification for their actions against the Palestinians. It is time that the Israelis stop playing the victim; to continue to do is to demean their own history.

In fact, this country, for whatever reason, always seems to support any totalitarian government who uses defeating terrorism as a justification for the suppression of civil and human rights. It is time that our representatives speak out against that policy.

In the coming months we are going to seek someone we can support. This candidate will have as their first interest the people of the state of New York. This candidate can and should give advice to the President with regards to matters of foreign policy, as the Constitution allows Senator to do, but will caution against policies which allow the present Israeli government or any government for that matter to pursue policies that are counter productive to freedom and peace in the Middle East.

We will seek a candidate whose interests lie with the people of the state of New York and not the corporate interests. We will seek a candidate who feels that every person is entitled to equitable and fair health care through a single payer plan and not a plan created by lobbyists for the health care industry.

We will seek a candidate who sees the corporate oligarchy that presently controls and seeks to expand its control of this country as a usurpation of the people’s rights and will work to reverse the recent Supreme Court ruling that says that a corporation has the rights of an individual.

We will seek a candidate who will stand on the floor of the United States Senate for as long as it takes to insist, implore, and convince the Senate that the war and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are illegal and ill-advised and must cease, not in some fuzzy two or three year time period but in thirty days. It is time to bring our troops home.

We will seek a candidate who will encourage the Attorney General to seek criminal indictments against any and all corporate executives whose financial policies robbed the American people of their finances, their safety, clean air, clean water, and healthy food. We have seen too many cases where laws have been written but do little except protect big business and big corporations.

We recognize that this country has an immigration problem but building fences is not the answer. We expect this candidate to seek laws and regulations which punish companies whose hiring processes encourage the employment of illegal workers and whose working conditions are based on the premise that workers, illegal or otherwise, will not complain because to do so is to lose their job.

We no longer believe that you, Senator Schumer, are that candidate. We will not vote for you simply because you are the least objectionable candidate.

And to those who read this blog and might be a Republican, do not think of “applying” unless you are prepared to deny and disavow the thoughts, policies, and practices of the present Republican Party.


Cross-posted to RedBlueChristian

Seeing the World from Our Own Neighborhood

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter, 25 April 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 9: 36 – 43, Revelation 7: 9 – 17 and John 10: 22 – 30.

A couple of things are going on this weekend. It is Consecration Sunday at my home church, a Sunday where we think about our individual contribution to the church and its budget. It is more than simply a financial drive or a glorified fund-raiser (which, if you have read some of my past sermons/thoughts, you know I think is a terrible idea for churches to get involved in). It is more than an exhortation by the pastor or a speaker to fund the church’s budget.

It is a call for each individual member to consider how God is calling them to respond to the needs of the church. I think, as I write this in advance of the outcome, this is a difficult thing to do, if for no other reason than most people see the church in terms of the building and not the spirit. It is very hard to imagine the spirit while it is very easy to imagine the building. I still believe, from my own experience, that each United Methodist Church should make it a policy to set aside 10% of the weekly offering for apportionments. It brings to the front the need to think of the church in terms of its mission and purpose rather than as a building with activities inside it. My own experience tells me that it works and when churches say that paying the building’s bills is more important than funding the church’s mission, it is a church that is dying and will die. Fortunately, my church is not at that point and I pray that our focus on giving from a spirit direction will make sure that it never does.

But on this weekend when my local church is focusing on its own future, the United Methodist Church as a whole is focusing on the world and its future. There is a phrase that I have seen that goes something like “think globally but buy locally.” It is a phrase that is most often used in terms of green farming and basic ecological thinking but I think it applies to the ideas of this weekend; in fact, it is something that should apply to the mission of the church in general.

On this weekend, we as United Methodists around the world are invited to participate in Change the World, a weekend event that coincides with World Malaria Day. One outcome of my own home church’s work this weekend would be the strengthening of our local ministries. World Malaria Day is a day to focus on a disease which kills one child somewhere in the world every 30 seconds. It need not be that way because malaria is treatable and preventable.

From our own history, we know that the French failed in their efforts to build the Panama Canal because of yellow fever and malaria. Our own efforts were stymied because of the same diseases. But, in the end, with a better understanding of the disease and how it is transmitted, we have eliminated it from much of the world, but it is still very prevalent in Africa. And that is the focus of the worldwide church’s efforts.

And, well it should be. As John the Seer writes in the passage from Revelation for today, what he saw were more people than anyone could count, from all the nations and all the tribes and all the languages being spoken. It is very difficult to see a church which thinks that it can survive without some involvement outside its own walls. Yet, too many churches today preach a message that is, if you will, for internal consumption only and which makes a church that should be open exclusionary.

It is meant to stay inside the walls of the congregation and it is taken to mean that those outside the walls shall never enter. Now, some may say that Jesus’ message was such a message. Even in the Gospel for today we hear Jesus speak of those who hear His message and understand it. But could it be that those who heard but did not understand were the church members; after all, how many people that were shunned and excluded by the church sought Jesus and His ministry?

And it was more than simply a ministry of words but one of action as well. As Jesus himself pronounced in the Nazareth synagogue, one of the tasks of His mission was to heal the sick. And we see in the passage from Acts for today, the disciples continue to heal after the Resurrection.

We see clearly in the words of the Bible the thoughts of this weekend. We have a responsibility, no doubt, to the church that we attend. But it is a meaningless and futile responsibility if we do not think about the community in which it resides and in which we live. And it is equally meaningless and futile if we do not see the global community as an extended version of the local community.

We are called to a great task. It began when we answered the call to follow Jesus; it continues as we work in our church with our local ministries and it continues as we work to move from the four walls of the church to the street corners of the neighborhood and then beyond to the world. We can see the world from our own neighborhood but we must first move beyond the walls of the church.

The World “Out There”

A couple of things have happened since I started thinking about writing this piece.

First came the announcement that Dr. Bruce K. Watke was resigning his position as a Professor of Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary. In a video that was posted on the BioLogos Foundation website, Dr. Watke not only endorsed evolution but said that evangelical Christianity would face a crisis if it did not begin accepting science.

“If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult … some odd group that is not interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.” (From “The Video That Ended a Career” – Inside Higher Ed)

Now, clearly this statement was at odds with the stated philosophy of the seminary and the resignation of Dr. Watke, though done and accepted reluctantly, was a foregone conclusion. No matter what the seminary may have wanted to do, there are too many others who would have wanted Dr. Watke’s head on a platter. But as I and others have noted before, the seminary was entirely correct in their actions. When you go to work for a particular organization, it is with an understanding that what you say and what you do are consistent with their viewpoint. (See “A Mind for Truth? (RJS)” for other comments on this issue)

If you go to work for an organization whose corporate culture or beliefs are counter to yours, you either sell out your soul or you bide your time until you can get another position. (I remember a friend who was opposed to the Viet Nam war but who ended up teaching in a military high school that required that he wear a uniform. I am not entirely sure how he dealt with that.)

But at the same time that Dr. Watke was announcing his resignation and the particular video was being pulled from the BioLogos web site, there was another announcement; one that brings into play the very idea that Dr. Watke warned the evangelical community about.

A new hominid fossil, Australopithecus sediba, was discovered in South Africa (see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/science/09fossil.html for details) and this drives home the point that we have to look at the world around us if we are to know who we are and where we are headed. As Dr. Watke pointed out, if we deny the reality of the physical world, we are denying the truth of God in this world and that ultimately means that we deny truth and we deny God.

If you believe as I do, you can see the Hand of God in the fossil records and the cosmology of the universe. The complexity of such geological history and the wonder of the stars demands an explanation, an explanation that goes beyond an equation where two protons are forced together under intense pressure and extremely high temperatures to form a helium atom and release an extremely large amount of energy. It is more than simply an explanation of the physical processes; it is an explanation of why we are here as well. What I see is a world in which God has challenged us to find Him and understand what He has done and is doing.

It seems to me that those who oppose the teaching of evolution do so out of fear. They fear that open thinking will lead to a loss of control, of being able to dictate what people can think and say. We have been created in God’s image; yet, it strikes me that those who seek to continue to control what is taught have made God in their image.

If we are to understand God and how we fit within the scheme of things, we must explore this world and this universe. We must ask questions, even if we are afraid of the answers. If we do not use our abilities to their fullest, as God would have us do, then we fail ourselves and God.

Yet, it seems to me that as we move into the 21st century, we are almost seeking to reverse the process begun in the Renaissance. I see people trying to reestablish the church as a dominant religious, moral and political authority while also trying to somehow deny the existence of both a Newtonian and Einsteinian view of the universe. I see people trying to form history and science in terms of their own views instead of letting the facts that are the very essence of history and science outline and shape their views. (See “Almost Spring”)

Education is supposed to be a learning process but we have turned it into a teaching process. Teaching is a one-way process, from the instructor to the student. Learning is an interactive process. If our students learn, they understand. We can teach them the right answer for a question on a test but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand what is being asked.

There is a natural desire to view the world from an Aristotelian viewpoint. If you ask any child if the sun moves or the earth moves, they will reply that it is the sun that is moving. There is nothing in their sphere of reference for them to suggest otherwise. The idea that the earth moves around the sun does not necessarily come from some statement in a text book but rather from an examination of the evidence that is offered.

The same can be said for the classical test of two objects falling from the same height. Even when shown the evidence that two objects fall at the same rate, many adults will tell you that the heavier object will fall faster than the lighter object (see “The Apollo 15 Hammer-Feather Drop”).

There is sufficient research information to tell us that our high school and our college graduates maintain this Aristotelian view of life, even when they can answer the questions on the test properly. And that is because we test for trivia, not understanding. If we introduce an idea as an item on a test but we do nothing to make sure that it is truly understood, then students can answer the question on the test but still not know anything about the question.

In the case of evolution, if we hold to a dogmatic interpretation of the world and we ignore the physical evidence, we run a greater risk than simply losing God in our lives. Now, it should not be the providence of the schools to teach ideas about God; I think that falls to the parents and the church. It is the providence of the schools to teach thinking. If in teaching thinking skills, a child comes to question the articles of faith, then the church must be able to offer reasonable and rational explanations, not merely demand compliance and obedience.

If we are to continue this journey into the 21st century, we have to be able to envision new things, not merely reinvent old ones. But our teaching process is more attuned to an assembly line process than a creative process.

We measure the success of our students, not in what they do later in life, but how they score on a standardized test one week after the material is presented. We are correct in demanding accountability in the schools but society’s fascination with the “sound bite” has corrupted the accountability that we demand. The only true measure of what a student has learned comes later in life and society is not willing to wait that long.

We have transformed what should be a creative and engaging experience into an assembly line where students are placed in molds and quality control is measured in terms of scores on countless standardized exams. Teachers are measured on their ability to deliver high scores, without concern for knowledge or ability to create new information.

In the end, we will have a generation of students (if we do not already) who know a lot of “things” but have little real knowledge. There is a world outside the walls of the classroom. Yet the rhetoric and actions of today tell us that our students (our children) have little knowledge about that world and that they have little interest in seeing what’s out there. In the end, we will have countered everything that has been done since the first Renaissance and possibly reversed a thousand years of development.


“They Hear His Voice”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2 May 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 9: 36 – 43, Revelation 7: 9 – 17 and John 10: 22 – 30.


This is, as the cliché goes, an interesting time. We are well into the third great industrial revolution of this civilization’s history. (From a speech by Mary L. Good, past president of the American Chemical Society, to the Minnesota Section of the American Chemical Society on 18 September 1991 at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.)   The first industrial revolution was one in which man-made production was replaced by machine-based production. The second revolution of our society was the manner in which we think. (Look at www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook2.html)  Our view of the world changed from one of gods and myths to one of rational thought and self-enlightenment.

This third great revolution is one of technology and information rather than machines or methods. As our society becomes more technology-oriented, we gain more and more information. Our resources for processing this information become strained and more and more of what we gain becomes nothing but "noise." We simply are not in a position where we can process all the information in front of us.

These changes in how we work and, possibly even think forced changes in how we live. We first lived in small tribes, where our contacts with others were limited to our family and immediate relatives. We then progressed to small towns, places where friendships and relationships went beyond kinship but were still limited by provincial boundaries and family loyalties.

We are now in the period of the great city or technopolis. This is a society in which people come together for functional reasons rather than traditional ones. These type of societies should be open, free of tribal or racial, class or caste boundaries and allow people to associate freely solely on the basis of the functions they perform in society.

The problem with this evolution in society, both in terms of the way we work, the way we think, and the way we live, is that there is a movement away from God. As the emphasis in the Scientific Revolution forced a change in our thinking, forced us to think things through, the presence of God became less and less important. Now, with the machines being developed that can think faster than we can or even independently, there is a thought that mankind is becoming less and less important. More and more of what we call information is perceived as noise to be filtered out and removed as extraneous.

But at the same time, as the importance of God is diminished by increasing reliance on thought and logic and as the importance of man is diminished in a world growing increasingly complex, the rationale for having God in our lives increases.

Some would say that this is a perfect time for the Second Coming, a time for the Messiah. Those who preach His Second Coming see a world devoid of God, a world in which God has disappeared. For those, this is a good time for the end of the world, for Armageddon.

But I would say that God has not disappeared. Rather, mankind has pushed God aside hoping to save Him for when He is truly needed, when the ground shakes and the sky opens wide, when the graphic dreams of John become reality. But God is, was, and will always be. If anything, now is a chance for liberation and greater freedom. It is a time when mankind can increase the range of freedom and responsibility, deepening the maturation of civilization.

This time gives us more opportunities to see God at work, to hear Him calling us to respond to new possibilities, calling for a new open society of persons. But we must also be careful that we do not become prisoners of our own making, imprisoned by the very technology that we developed, limited by the very thought processes that allowed us to developed the technology that threatens to imprison us. We must see where God is at work and we must be open to myriad possibilities that arise from this time. Literally we must be ready to respond to God’s call; we must hear God’s voice calling to us.

There are those today who see the church as a refuge from the noise and trouble that dominates the world around us. That is a role that the church has long played and a role that it should continue to play. But these people want to shut out the world; they want to leave the noise, the distraction, the troubles behind and escape inside the walls of the church. But if that is all a church does, then nothing will happen. There will be no response, we will become prisoners of our own technology, of our own thought processes.

Yes, there must be places where people can hear God’s call; there must be places where people can hear the voice of the shepherd bringing them home. But such places must also be places from which people can go out into the world, working to remove the noise and the distraction.

The Gospel passage from John that we read this morning is pleasant enough. It is Hanukkah and Jesus is enjoying the feast. But his opponents challenge him to declare whether He is or is not the Messiah. This is not an innocent question for his challengers will shortly attempt to kill him. But his answer shows that those who follow him and believe in Him know that the work that He is doing is the manifestation of God, not an usurping of God. The followers know that there is protection in being the sheep of the fold where Christ is the Shepherd.

The image of sheep is also written in the passage from Revelations for today. But in both cases, the sheep are not the meek and timid creatures that we imagine. Rather, they are images juxtaposed with darker realities. They are images intended to show the trust one finds in God when confronted with terror, enmity and death. (From "Sheepish?" by Mary Schertz – "Living the Word", Christian Century, April 20, 2004)

The sheep of these passages are not mindless or timid. Rather, they are protected, able to go out into the world and minister to the people of the world. I have said before and I believe that the one thing missing in many churches today, especially in those churches who emphasize the caring only for their own members, is the fulfillment of the Gospel, of taking the Gospel message out into the world. It is right and necessary to take care of the members of the flock. But you cannot enclose them in one pasture. It will soon be overgrazed and die; and then the flock will die. The flock must go out to other pastures and then come back to a place where they can hear God’s voice.

Peter is ministering in the area north of Jerusalem that we now call Jaffa. While in the area, one of the early disciples Tabitha (or Dorcas as it can be translated) becomes ill and apparently dies. Her friends, knowing that Peter is in the area, send a messenger to him and ask that he come to their aid. It does not say in any of my resources but I would suppose that Peter’s response was quick and decisive, for that was his nature. As we read, through his prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, he is able to literally raise Tabitha from the dead. His actions, along with the faith of those who called him, brought others to know Christ.

In the midst of gloom and sadness, those who believed in Christ were able to show others the power of Christ. But it does not have to be at such times that the miracle of Christ be shown. In part that is why we are here today. We are celebrating the baptism of an infant. In the midst of all that may be gloom and death and destruction, there is a hope and joy in the birth of a young child.

The baptism of the child is not a solitary event. It is a community event as well. It is not an event in which the parents and immediate family take place with the community only watching. The community also has a stake in the raising of this child. We, as a congregation, will make a vow to raise this child, to see that amidst all the noise and distractions of this world this child will see and know who Christ is.

Despite all that we have tried to, we have allowed the noise and distractions of the world to dominate the church. Instead of doing the work of God, instead of taking the Gospel message into the world, we have allowed the noise and distractions to come into the church. We could find ways to shut out the noise and take away the distractions. But then we would be like the monasteries of old, shut off from the world, protecting what was but not knowing what will be. And if we were to do that, then the vows that we take to shepherd this child and other children like her, to welcome new members into this community of believers will be a false vow. For we have said that we would take the Gospel out into the world, to let people hear God’s call through us.

The church of today must be a place where the noise and distraction of the world is shut out so that people can hear the word of God, so that people can hear God calling to them. But it must be a place where they also hear God telling them to go into the world, acting in accordance with the scripture and message of the Gospel. The people will hear the word because they see the Gospel in our lives.