I was at Trinity-Boscobel United Methodist Church in Buchanan, NY, yesterday (location of the church). The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany were Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 – 23. Their services start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.
Four things happened this past week that influenced this message. Now, it should be noted that I created the title for this message first, as is my custom. But these events helped guide the writing of this message.
Two of the four things that happened were merely remembrances of things that took place some fifty years ago. The interesting thing is that when we listen to those words some fifty years later, we marvel at how prophetic they were.
But we have to be careful when it comes to visions. For we often make the visions that we see what we want them to be and not what they are meant to be or should be.
And that is the case with the two other things that happened this past week. They speak of what transpired and offer of a vision of what may be to come. But then again, it maybe a vision that we would want to avoid and thus allows us to seek an alternative vision.
Fifty years ago, President John Kennedy stood on the steps of the Capital Building and offered what many saw as a vision for the future, a vision that matched the brightness of the sunlight on that day. It was a speech of hope and promise, of a new direction, of a new path. It was offered to all the people, not just a select few, it was spoken to friends and foes, old and young; it transcended national boundaries and traditional barriers. The words spoken that cold January day gave a new generation hope that the words and thoughts that have echoed throughout this land had meaning.
Earlier that week, President Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, gave his farewell address to the people. In his speech to the nation, President Eisenhower warned us of the danger of a military-industrial complex being created in this country. Much has been said about this and how his own life, both as a soldier and a politician, was deeply entwined in the very thing that he was warning us about.
Now, at the time that President Eisenhower spoke those words, I was living in San Antonio, Texas, where my father was stationed. As the son of an Air Force Officer and the grandson of an Army Officer, I was raised in that same environment. Now, growing up in that environment, I could have easily accepted the notion that the very thing that President Eisenhower was warning us about was normal and that there was nothing to worry about. (The text of President Eisenhower’s speech can be found at (http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/indust.html.)
But my education encompassed five different states and I encountered many different things. And my parents allowed me the opportunity to develop my own thinking, to not be encumbered by society’s norms. But it should also be noted that they made it clear that I was responsible for what I did and if I did wrong, then I had to accept the consequences as well. My faith journey was part of that and perhaps I saw things differently. Still, I am proud of how I grew up and I would not change it for a moment.
But I was not trapped, if you will, by the environment in which I was raised. I was allowed to develop my own thinking and see beyond the present.
What President Eisenhower was warning us about was not just an entanglement of military and industrial interests but such an entanglement that would threaten to devour the resources of this nation. On at least one prior occasion, President Eisenhower lamented the fact that a single jet fighter cost more than most of the workers would built the plane would ever earn in a lifetime.
And in that same speech, he also cautioned against the incursion of Federal funds into academic research. But it would be research used to support weapons research and not necessarily peaceful uses. And we have to remember that the first major Federal legislation for education in the fifties, at a time when the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik and this country was still struggling to get a rocket off the launch pad, was entitled the National Defense Education Act. The funding to improve science and mathematics education came through this act, not because it would improve the education of our children but because it was seen as a part of the national security of this country.
In the words of that farewell address, President Eisenhower saw a need for education. It was a sentiment that would be echoed by President Kennedy a few days later and throughout the Kennedy administration. But the rhetoric of this nation’s politicians, including President Eisenhower and President Kennedy, was still the rhetoric of fear. And people who live in a world of fear can only see the power of the gun, not the power of the book.
Sadly, I believe the same is true today. Our rhetoric continues to border to be based on fear and lies. And our responses are based on hatred and violence, not reason. Instead of seeking the removal of violence from our lives, it is almost as if we are being fed of diet of violence and we have begun to enjoy it. Instead of the hope and promise that was so prominent in our lives fifty years ago, we now are faced with an ever deepening cynicism amongst the young and old alike.
Last week, at one of the three services I did, a father stood up and asked that we pray for his son, a recent graduate of a nationally known fundamentalist religious institution. It seems that his son told his father that he was renouncing Christianity because Christians were some of the most hypocritical people he knew. I received the impression that the father wanted his son to attend that university. So I suppose that this son had waited until after graduation to make this announcement out of fear that he would have been cut off from funds to get his education. Now, to be honest, I would have to agree with the son in his assessment of Christians but as I was a guest in that church, I was not in a position to say much. I have heard too many youth express the same thoughts as this young man and I know that these thoughts are based on the words of their elders and their parents, for I have heard the words of hatred and exclusion that far too many elders in the church speak.
But when I led the prayers that day, I not only prayed for the son but the father as well. And while I would hope that the son will return to the church, I also hope and pray that the father will begin to understand what caused his son to leave the church.
Our churches are dying and many blame society, saying that what is needed is a stricter world, one in which the Bible is the law. But such a world stifles creativity and independence; and it is also stifles faith. If you cannot think about your faith, if your faith is to remain unquestioned and unchallenged, it will die. We need to be able to think about our faith and find ways in which it can grow and develop.
Sadly, that may not be possible. A report was released last week that stated many of our college students are incapable of thinking creatively and independently (http://www.sacbee.com/2011/01/17/3330387/study-many-college-students-not.html); they are unable to see the solution to a problem that is presented to them. And if they cannot solve the problems before them, how shall they solve problems that haven’t even developed yet?
A world that lacks creativity and independent thought is a dark world; it is a sad world; and it is a limited world. But that is not the world that we were promised with the birth of Christ. What was it that Isaiah said some three thousand years ago — a light has been given to the people, a path out of the darkness.
But if we are to receive that light, we must see life in a different way; we must find a new way of thinking. How many of us would put down whatever we were doing if Jesus were to come up to us and say, “Come and follow me.” The answer for many is too often the same answer that so many people gave when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee.
Some will say that they have to take care of their family; others will say that they don’t have the time or the money; others are too busy with whatever they are doing at the moment to think about doing something different. Others would ask what would they gain from this and weigh the outcome against the status and power they have today.
But Peter, Andrew, James, and John put down their nets and immediately followed Jesus. There is no record of what James and John told their father or what Peter said to his wife. But there had to be something about being told that they would become fishers of men that spoke to their hearts and souls. Perhaps it was the words of Jesus that their lives would change. In a world where what one did was almost certainly determined at birth, such words would bring hope.
And as each day passed and they heard the words and saw the deeds, they need that something special was happening. But it required that they find a new way to think, for the old ways no longer worked.
Being Christian means thinking for one’s self, not as other would have you to think. Being Christian means seeing the world differently, not as society would have you see things.
We have allowed others to dictate what we will say and think. We are told that the care and feeding of the military industrial complex is necessary for our security but people will need to go hungry or sick or homeless. And we are told this, not only by our politicians, but by many pastors and ministers as well.
The issue for the Corinthians when Paul wrote that portion of the letter we read today was baptism. It was dividing the church because people were seeing that one method was better than another. That is what people in the church have been doing for the better part of the church’s history – telling others that they way they see things is the only way to see things and not the way the Gospel was written.
We have pastors today who tell us that Jesus was wealthy and we can be too, but only if we send them an offering of, say, $100. We are told that if you are in poverty, hungry, or homeless, you have only yourself to blame. Poverty is the sign of a sinful life; that wealth and riches are signs of a righteous life and that poverty is the sign of a failed and sinful life. It wouldn’t be so bad if these were just the words of Pharisee speaking with Jesus or a 19th century pastor, which they have been. They were the thoughts that drove John Wesley to rebel against his church and find a better way to express the Gospel message.
The problem is that they are the words of too many Christians, clergy and laity, today, who refused to be in the same room with a homeless person or who would prefer that the church’s doors be closed to the hungry and cold.
In the world in which we live, we desperately want some good news; we want someway to make this a better world for all and not just some.
If we but listen we can hear the good news. Isaiah spoke a child being born, of the people receiving a great gift. The people would finally walk in light after having been in darkness for so long. He spoke of the oppressor being defeated but he spoke of a child doing it.
But this was a child without an army, only the truth of the Gospel message. The Good News is that Jesus came to heal the sick, feed the hungry, help the homeless find shelter and free the oppressed. The Good News is found in the light that was turned on when Jesus was born.
It would be very easy to see what is transpiring in the world today as hopeless and beyond redemption. But that is a vision trapped in the old way of thinking. Jesus offers each one us, just as he did the disciples, a new way of thought and thinking. He offers us the opportunity, if we would but just follow him.
I leave you today with this thought. You need not do anything; you do not have to change a thing. But then the world tomorrow will be the same as the world today. But if you should choose to follow Jesus, to accept his challenge to be a fisher of men and women and not perch and bass, if you choose to see the world around you as those early disciples who walked with Jesus did, then the world tomorrow will be different; it will be brighter and there will be hope and a promise for all.