Universal Truths

I came across these “truths” back in1997. I think that they are still true.

  1. If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all the evidence that you ever tried.
  2. A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.
  3. He who hesitates is probably right.
  4. No one is listening; that is, until you make a mistake.
  5. Success always occurs in private; failure is in full view.
  6. The colder the X-ray table, the longer you will be required to lie on it.
  7. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. (I posted something similar back in 2008- “Interesting tidbits of sports trivia”)
  8. To succeed in politics, it is often necessary to rise above your principles.
  9. Monday is an awful way to spend 1/7 of your life.
  10. The light at the end of the tunnel is usually caused by the headlight of an approaching train.

The site where I got these doesn’t appear to be “there” anymore so I guess it is safe to put these up.

“A New Set of Guidelines”

I  am preaching at the United Methodist Church of the Highlands (341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928) this morning, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 20 February 2011.  The service starts at 11 am and you are welcome to be a part of the worship.  The Scriptures for Sunday are Leviticus 19: 1 – 2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23; and Matthew 5: 38 -48.


I am beginning what I hope is a new path in my ministry. It comes amidst what some see as great changes in the ministry of the church.

Now, for some, any change in ministry, be it at the denominational level, the local level, or one’s own ministry, can be a traumatic event. Any change in one’s life, for that matter, will have consequences that may not be immediately evident. All we have to do is look at what is transpiring in the Middle East to understand what the threat of change and actual change can do to a country and to its people. There are those, of course, who will resist change. Such resistance can be, as we have also seen, violent and repressive. But it can also be done in soft and subtle ways.

But what I find interesting is the role that the church, be it an entire denomination, a single church, or individuals from a single church, can be as an agent for change. Of course, it can also be an instrument that prevents change.

Dan Dick started one of his recent blogs with a note about a conversation he had recently.

I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world.  My argument was simple:  if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills.  Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?”  I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known.  Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few. (Adapted from http://doroteos2.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/are-you-serious/)

Dr. Dick was looking at another issue but what this conversation shows is that unless we are willing to make some changes in our own lives, we will not be able to make the church viable and relevant to the needs of society.

When the church began, it met in secret in people’s homes, mostly out of fear of arrest and persecution. It was a gathering of people who opposed the status quo, both the religious status quo and the status quo of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome enforced by military might.

And the Methodist Church began in response to the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As machines began doing the work of humans and humans became part of the process, the people called Methodists stood in opposition. This was not a Luddite movement where people rebelled against machines taking away their livelihoods but rather concern that people, no matter their place in society or where they were born or what they did, still have status in society.

What I find interesting is that the establishment, be it the religious establishment or the political establishment, did not take kindly to either the new church some two thousand years ago or the Methodist revival of the 18th century. But the changes that came from that opposition still echo throughout the years. It has noted on a number of occasions that the interaction of the people called Methodists in the 18th century allowed England to escape the bloody revolution that marked the French revolution of that same time period. Can a church change the world? It would appear that it can.

And now, as we are well into what some call the third great industrial revolution (see “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”) we find the role of the church changing. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (and I will use the translation as written in The Message), “Don’t fool yourself. Don’t think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times.”

But this new revolution, or rather the adaptation of the technology of the revolution, shows us how easy it is to reach people. But you must do more than reach people. The Egyptian government tried to quell the rebellion in the country by shutting down Internet access. But once contact had been made between people and they had met, such an act was a futile gesture.

It is one thing to say that the church has a website or a Facebook page. That is not where the ministry lies. You do not meet people on a computer screen; you meet them somewhere. The failure of the Mubarak government to keep the people from gathering together is what brought about the change in Egypt, not the fact that they were using Facebook and other forms of social networking. The same is true when it comes to churches.

Will Cotton, the pastor whose words and actions were instrumental in my beginning this journey, wrote that he sees a different ministry for the church in the coming years.

The 21st century (for at least the rest of our lifetimes) in ministry will not be primarily about the local church.  Churches and denominations will be wise to train people for ministry in secular situations.  The gospel is returning to the streets, the marketplace, the classrooms, the chat rooms, the homes and even the bars.   My job description (he is currently Senior Pastor at St. Barnabas UMC in Arlington, Texas) has shifted in response to the leading of the Spirit.  I am not just a performer of ministry; I am a leverage person, equipping people for ministry in places I will never be able to go.  I used to lead Bible Studies with up to 80 people in them and they were enjoyed.  But two years ago, I moved to more intensive studies that prepare leaders who then start classes, small groups, and even lead “in the marketplace” studies and support groups.  My favorite book on this shift is Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal.  My two CLMs came out of those classes.  If I train 15-20 people (which I do at near seminary level with some texts actually from Course of Study for local pastors) and they lead groups of even 10 people, then the yield is three times what I was doing in the large studies before.  The Church you and I are a part of will be so different in just 20 years from now, and the truth is, no one knows what it will look like (nearly every Bishop worth his or her consecration will tell you that).  But the shift form church-centered ministry to community-centered ministry is part of it.

I think that there will be a place for the local church in this ministry. There must be a place where things can happen; there must be a place where one can, if you will, recharge one’s soul. But the local church and those who are part of it must understand that they are a part of this process.

One might say, as the title of this message implies, that we need a new set of guidelines for living. Actually, we don’t need a new set; we just have to understand the set that we are supposed to be working under.

First, we have to understand the other thing that Paul was telling the Corinthians; we are the builders of the house where people will meet. If this house that we are building is up to God’s standards, if we use cheap or inferior materials and slip-shod methods, we will quickly find out what many people already know. As Paul wrote, if the building that we build doesn’t pass inspection, then it will be torn down. We may survive but it will be only barely. And that’s not the life we would like to be living.

We have to do more than simply insist that others follow the teachings of Christ. We must also live the teachings. It is why so many people look at the church and then leave it, or as I mentioned earlier, cannot see how the church, the very organization that changed the world two thousand years ago and was instrumental in preventing a bloody revolution in England yet was able to make major changes in social policy, can even begin to think about making changing today.

But we don’t want to live by Christ’s teachings. We have no desire to have our lives be a mirror of Christ. It isn’t that we can’t live that way; it is that we don’t want to make the effort to do so.

We have forgotten that the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is not about retaliation but rather the measure of punishment. And then Jesus comes along and says that we should turn the other cheek when we are hit. In this world where we see peace enforced by military might, this is a totally unacceptable action. When we are asked to take someone an extra mile, we complain about having to even go the first mile. And we certainly aren’t going to give someone our best coat when they are suing us. We are not even crazy about Old Testament rules that tell us to leave something for the poor and the widows.

It just isn’t right that we should share our wealth with others; we earned it and we should keep it. We can still follow Jesus, even when He said otherwise. And we can forget that part about loving our enemies as we do our friends. Let’s face it, there is a part of us that finds joy when our enemies suffer and we often take great joy in spreading rumors and gossip about them.

We have succeeded in somehow transforming the Gospel into a description of the world when we were supposed to change the world into a description of the Gospel. When we view the Gospel in light of the world, we will find it difficult, if not impossible to make changes in the world. We have to see the world in light of the Gospel.

Christ did not come into this world as the revealer of an ideological system that was to be superimposed on society but as one who, in the manner in which He gave of Himself, affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. Jesus came as one prepared to risk His truth and life within in the openness of a secular world. We have to be able to do likewise; we cannot claim that we have no established right over other views but in which we accept responsibility to witness for Christ by seeking to point to his presence as He works within history. But this also requires a certain degree of readiness on our part to recognize both the creative and destructive forces surging in history. And, while we would much rather focus on the creative forces; we also have to realize that destructive forces lie close at hand. This means that while we may readily accept the responsibility to witness, we must also be ready for the struggle against the forces that always gather in opposition to Christ (adapted from “Faith in a Secular Age” by Colin Williamson).

I have somewhere in my notes a story about Clarence Jordan and his daughter. It seems that there was a young man in school who had taken to giving Clarence Jordan’s daughter a hard time. Now, despite his aversion to violence (he sought non-violent means of opposing the Ku Klux Klan), Clarence Jordan was prepared to face this young man in a manner that was decidedly not non-violent. But his daughter said that she would take care of it in her own way; which is what she did.

When he asked her how she resolved the issue, she said that every time this young man came close to her, she simply began gushing with an over-abundance of adolescent love. Pretty soon, he was getting ribbed by his friends about his friendship and that was enough to keep him away from her. As she told her father, I simply did what Jesus would have done and loved my enemy.

For each one of us, there comes a moment when the words that we studied in Sunday School and committed to our hearts and minds through confirmation and membership class must become more than simply words. They must be the core of our lives, our new guidelines for living in this world. As Jesus puts it bluntly in the Gospel reading for today, it is time that we grow up.

His call from the very first day of His ministry was to repent and begin anew. He echoes that today when He tells us to live out our God-created identity, to live generously and graciously towards others, the way that God lives towards us.

We are called this day to a new life, to a new set of guidelines. To ignore them, to continue in our present live is to say that we desire no better future. To cast aside our present life and seek a new life in Christ is to say that we seek a better future. We have been given the guidelines for that new life; shouldn’t we seek that better future?

“Will Someone Please Explain This To Me?”

Okay, President Obama has proposed his 2012 budget.  Among the cuts are those for home heating bill assistance to poor families.  That would be fair provided that areas where rich families were affected were also cut.  But the rich got tax breaks, not cuts in support.

So explain to me how we are going to survive when the rich can keep what they have while the poor, who have nothing, have support taken away.  Oh, I know that the Republicans in Congress are all for jobs – it is one of the mantras we hear so often today.  But what kind of jobs are we talking about?  Not the kind that will move this country into the future – President Obama is for jobs as well but his budget doesn’t support the jobs that we need.  And education is getting cut as well – as I wrote the other day (“Who Will Be The Innovators?”), if we don’t support education, innovation and creativity are impossible.

And I seem to recall that the Republicans in the House proposed increasing defense spending while wanting more cuts in social programs.  Another mantra that we have heard is “stability”.  But it is just another word for repression and control.  We have watched our freedoms be stripped away and we have forgotten what it is that this country is about.  Or we have decided that it is our best interest to rewrite history.  We have already rewritten the history of Christianity to make it subservient to the political and economic powers of this country; we might as well rewrite the total history.

At some point, someone is going to have to explain this to me – how we can keep pouring money into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while taking money away from the poor and needy at home.  At some point, perhaps in the very near future, the imbalance between rich and poor in this country is going to explode.

Forget labels – just tell me how we can justify what we are doing?  Who gains in all of this?

I will also say this – I voted for Obama but I will not make that mistake again.  I will not vote for any of the possible or potential Republican candidates for the simple matter that they are worse than the Democrats.  I have the application to change my political affiliation sitting on my desk and I will move from Democrat to something more progressive in the coming months.  I am looking for a progressive candidate and hoping that I will find one.

So explain this all to me.  Explain how by pouring money into military-industrial complex and by allowing the rich to keep what they have stripped and stolen from the rest of the country and then telling the poor and middle class that they must pay for this and cannot expect anything in return, this country will be remain in existence.  We saw what happened in Tunisia and Egypt – what will we see hear?


“It’s About Commitment”

These are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 3: 1 – 19, and Matthew 5: 21 -37.

This is also Boy Scout Sunday and Evolution Sunday. Evolution Sunday is a project of the Clergy Letter Project; this will be the third year that I have participated in this project (see “The Differing Voices of Truth” and “That Transforming Moment”).

Now, I have to first begin with that same thought that John Meunier had last Tuesday (“Laity Lectionary Blogging – Mt 5: 21 – 37”). How do you write about murder and divorce, the two main topics of the Gospel reading? Those that know me that the latter of the two is especially uncomfortable for me as well. But when I looked at what Paul wrote to the Corinthians and I considered what was being said in Deuteronomy, I saw a theme of commitment.

The three scriptures spoke to me of a commitment, a commitment to know who I am and a commitment to know something about the world in which we all live. It is a commitment to show and lead others so that they can discover who they are and know more about where they live.

Sadly, there are many people who do not wish to know more about the world in which they live. They have no desire to seek the world beyond the horizon nor do they want to know anything about what may be on the other side of the road.

It would seem to me that this was an issue that Paul was facing when he wrote to the Corinthians. It would seem that they, the Corinthians, were quite comfortable with letting someone else do the work, of accepting Christ as their Savior but then not doing anything once that was done. We have that same mentality in our world today. We basically let others tell us what to think and we have no desire to determine if what we are being told has any degree of truth to it. As we watched the developments in Egypt over the past two weeks, we also heard many people warn us that great danger will come out of all this.

And as I read the words of Paul, I read Paul literally saying that it was time for each of those who heard his words to begin doing the work. And doing it at a level far beyond what we might do on our own. To reach such higher levels or to meet higher expectations means that we must be committed to the task.

If we say that we are Christian, then we are saying, at the least, that we are committed to walking a path through life with Christ. But do our words echo that same commitment? Over the past few weeks, I have talked about the feeding ministry at my home church and how some members of that church are resentful or angry that those that they feel are lesser than them are allowed in “their” church. But it is interesting to see some of those who come to the ministry and feel that they are somehow entitled to take all they wish, knowing that there are others who will not receive anything because of their greediness but seeming to not care. Do we turn away those who abuse the system? We have made a commitment in the feeding ministry to not turn away anyone; we do not ask that you meet some sort of criteria. But we have decided that we will, as it were, call their bluff, to point out that they have received their fair share and that others have the same right. If they get angry, so be it. Their poverty does not grant them the right to expect more just as the relative wealth of others does not grant them the right to deny as well.

What is expected is that each person does what Jesus calls us to do in the Gospel reading today, make sure that what we say and what we do are consistent. If our lives need to change, then now is the time to make that change. There is a new land on the other side of the horizon, the Promised Land of the Israelites. But one cannot, as the writer of Deuteronomy noted, survive in that land unless one is willing to make the necessary changes in one’s life.

I will always acknowledge that my life changed when I made the decision in 1963 to pursue the God and Country Award while I was a Boy Scout. And I realize that there was a time in my life where I did not keep the commitment that reaching that goal meant. I saw it in my life and I knew that I had to make a change.

Similarly, I made a commitment to a life of searching for truth when I told Wray Rieger that I would major in chemistry when I began my studies at Truman State University. No one told me that one could not follow Christ and also be a student of Robert Boyle or Joseph Priestly (though I didn’t know that I would walk such a path at that time – see my notes on Boyle and Priestly in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”).

And just as Boyle and Priestly were determined to understand what it was that God did with this universe, I find myself amazed by the wonders as well. And I know that God has given me the ability and the opportunity to delve deeper into that realm. Am I to say that is beyond my vision?

There are those who will tell me that I must; that I must choose one path over the other. It always strikes me that when someone tells me this, they are trying to lead my life for me and they have no desire that I understand the truth for myself. The one thing Paul wanted us to do was see the truth for ourselves and not rely on what he or others might say.

We stand at the beginning of a new century, just as the Israelites stood on the banks of the River Jordan so many thousand years ago. We can, if we desire, stay where we are, just as those who stared at the Promised Land did. But time will not stop for us, no matter how hard we try and we must make a decision.

Shall we be committed to a life in Christ? Shall we accept the idea that this commitment requires great things from us? We do not have to see beyond the horizon but to not do so will mean death. If we commit our lives to Christ, we can see beyond the horizon and we can find ways to get to the land beyond the horizon.

Our decision to follow Christ means finding the truth, of understanding who we are and where we are in this universe. It is an exploration of the depth of one’s soul and the width of one’s world. To decide not to follow Christ is to say that one wants a very small world. To make the commitment opens the world and that is what we are invited to do today.

Who Will Be The Innovators?

Recently President Obama spoke of a new era of innovation, of finding ways that will allow this country to go green and develop alternative sources of energy. Now, I am all for this idea. But then again, who wouldn’t be?

First, it follows a topic that has dominated our political and cultural conversation for at least three decades. Resolving the issue of our reliance on foreign energy resources has been a key point of both our foreign and domestic policies for just as long.

It is the same old discussion – we use too much oil; that oil is overseas; and we need to develop alternative sources of energy. Many people ignore the third point and say that all we have to do is to expand and exploit the resources that we have in this country (both oil and coal). This argument does little to resolve the first point and ignores the balance between the environment and where these energy resources may be located.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there has to be a consideration for the environment in the discussion of energy. Those same people who will drill for oil anywhere and anytime also seem to echo the same mantra that our consumption of fossil fuels has nothing to do with climate change (not global warning, but climate change!). The sad fact is that there is a correlation but because of what so many people have done to cloud the issue, it is hard for many people to realize that.

From a political standpoint, it is so easy to simplify an issue when, in fact, it can be very complicated. The problem is that many people do not have the capability or desire to wade through the issues. It is so much easier to chant a mantra than seek alternative solutions. But alternative solutions would allow us to reduce our present consumption, stretch our resources, and resolve environmental issues. There is a need for innovators who can see this picture and create solutions. But I ask the question again, “where will the innovators come from?”

They will, of course, come from our schools. Didn’t President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, call for 100,000 science and mathematics teachers in the next ten years? With that many science and mathematics teachers, we clearly will be able to produce individuals who can come up with innovative and creative solutions, can’t we?

But how is that going to work? First, if there are high school seniors graduating this year who are thinking about become science or mathematics teachers, it will be six years at least before they can begin the job. Even without a consideration for the current legislation, it takes at least two years past the baccalaureate degree to become a certified teacher. And that is not a guarantee that one will be hired. Most schools today seem to want generalists, individuals who can teach a variety of subjects rather than a single one. Within the framework of this six-year time frame, one can get an understanding of the basics of the subject matter and the mechanics of teaching the subject matter, but not the nuances of each subject that will allow one to be creative. And if the teachers are not creative, then how can they teach their students to be creative? (More on this later in the piece)

Now, if an individual desires to focus on a single subject and delve into it so that they can are able to understand the nuances of the subject, the chances are that they will find better paying positions outside the classroom. It is a fact that has been demonstrated time and time again that individuals with a talent and understanding of the subject area (such as chemistry or physics) often find better paying positions in the private sector. It is sad but our schools lose too many qualified and talented individuals because the pay they receive for work in the classroom is often below what they can receive for using the same knowledge and skills in the private sector.

And even if such individuals can find a way to stay in the classroom and utilize their capabilities to foster creativity and independent thought, they often find that the classroom is not the incubator of creativity but a killer of creativity.

I tell my students something that one of my advisors once told me many, many years ago; the most curious creature on this planet is a two-year old. To the dismay of their parents and later, their teachers, they are into everything and they have questions about everything. Yet, when these same children graduate fro high school, they are no longer curious and have no desire to seek what is beyond the horizon or even cross to the other side of the road.

These are not anecdotal statements! A recent report 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?

And there is additional evidence to suggest that our present system of teaching (created by the “No Child Left Behind” law and reinforced by its successor, “The Race For The Top”) is behind this lack of creativity – see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/education/26test.html and http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/01/is-no-child-left-behind-to-blame.html

When you focus on testing as a measure of success and your tests focus on nothing more than memorization and recall, the lowest part of the thinking hierarchy, you will do little to foster any sort of analytical or creative thinking.

I am not saying that there are those who come out of our present schools incapable of such thought. But they find themselves in a system that reinforces the present system instead of developing a new system.

And there are teachers out “there” who do foster creativity and independent thought. And contrary to what I heard Bill Gates tell Charlie Rose last night on PBS (2/8/2011), we do not need to determine what it is that makes a good teacher just that. We have done it – go back thirty years when we had this discussion of creativity and innovation before and see what the NSTA saw (see my notes for “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”) I am not saying that innovation is not possible but if we are to foster innovation and develop innovators, the present system must change.

During the 1980s, when creativity and innovation were the buzz words of industry, it was discovered that innovation comes, not from the top down but from the bottom up. As I noted in my 1990 piece, the NSTA showed that it was the classroom teacher, supported by their school administrators, who fostered the same creativity and innovation. Under the present system, supported and driven from the top down, this cannot happen.

The present system, which focuses on testing, only requires a textbook. This, in part, explains the rise in the development of on-line courses. Read the textbook and answer some questions and you will have an understanding of the subject matter. There is also an attitude among administrators and many policy makers that all that is needed to teach is a textbook and an annotated key.

But teaching science requires laboratory work. And laboratory work requires equipment and supplies. The opposition to laboratory work is related to these costs. There is talk that we need a “Sputnik moment”, an event that will galvanize the public into action. We really don’t need such an event for the event is staring us in the face.

What we have to realize is that our answer to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a support for laboratory-oriented science programs. Monies were provided for new labs, new lab equipment, and new lab supplies. Teachers were taught how to use these new materials and given ways of teaching that foster not only knowledge but thinking skills. But over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, as the demands of the Viet Nam war sapped our resources this support disappeared and ultimately ran out.

We already know what works; we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The projects developed in the 1960s fostered creativity and independent thought; let’s bring them back and support them.

The solution lies in several areas. First, Congress must realize that education spending is part of the key and spending on education cannot be cut but must actually increase. There is this call, a mantra if you will, for the creation of jobs in this country but jobs require training and training requires funding. If you cut such funding, you cannot in any way create jobs. Of course, if Congress were to first cut funding for the military-industrial complex that so dominates our government spending and thought today, they could easily find the funds to support education. There was a bumper sticker several years ago that spoke of the day when teachers had the funds for the classroom and the Air Force would have to hold a bake sale to buy a new bomber.

Second, revise the salary structures of the local schools. Reduce the salary of administrators so that they are more in-line with their jobs and the time it takes to do their jobs. Pay the classroom teachers equitable and fair salaries, representative of what was required to become a teacher. Put money into the classrooms, not the offices.

Since this is all about jobs, maybe the CEOs of America’s companies should be contributing as well. The differential and disparity between the salaries of the top 10% of America’s companies is so far out-of-line with what the workers of those same companies are making, it surely wouldn’t hurt them to contribute some of their salaries and bonuses for the betterment of this country.

It will require major and bold decisions, now and not later. It isn’t just that we need innovators and creative thinkers, we are looking at the future and security of this country.

Our forefathers understood the role of education. They knew that an educated populace was a necessary component for fighting tyranny and injustice. And in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, they created public support for education. Dictators and tyrants fear an educated public, for such a people can see what is happening.

Freedom comes from an educated mind. A person with an educated mind seeks what is on the other side of the road and what is beyond the horizon. Innovation comes when one is challenged to do that; it is time we meet the challenge.

What Is Our Focus?

I was at Dover Plains UMC this past Sunday (Location of church) this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, are Isaiah 58: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.


In 1966, following their 51 – 0 loss to the University of Notre Dame, John McKay, the coach of the University of Southern California football team told his team “that it didn’t really matter. There are 750 million people in China who don’t even know that this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, ‘What happened, Coach?’’’

A few months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in what was billed as the “NFL – AFL World Championship Game.” The term “Super Bowl” didn’t get attached to the game until the 1970 game, when the Chiefs met the Minnesota Vikings and beat them. And while Super Bowls are a virtual sell-out once the game site is announced, there were plenty of empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum for that first championship game. By the way, tickets for that game costs upwards of $12.00; that might get you a parking place at today’s game.

Interestingly enough, there are no video tapes of that first game as the tapes were reused because no one thought that the game would have the status that it does today. Clearly, that didn’t happen. The game is no longer just a game between league champions on a Sunday afternoon; it has evolved into a multi-hour spectacular with companies spending millions and millions of dollars for a few moments of advertising time (even when research suggests that the return for that moment is miniscule at best). Half-time at a Super Bowl has taken on a life of its own, with entertainment superstars vying for the right to headline the half-time.

Today’s Super Bowl game will be broadcast to practically every country on the globe that has a radio or television station and probably in most of the languages that people speak. It will almost certainly be broadcast on the Armed Forces radio and television networks so that serviceman abroad can have a taste of home. But it will also be broadcast to countries where football is played by kicking a round ball; it will almost certainly be viewed as curiosity to many of those viewers.

I have nothing against football but I no longer care about professional football. I have, on occasion, noted that the most common words uttered by a football official at an elementary, junior-high or high school game is “this isn’t Sunday, coach.” Too many coaches spend all their time watching the professional games in hopes of finding a play that will bring their team success instead of focusing on the fundamentals of the game.

Against the backdrop of glitz and hype and the possibility that a football game might be played, some youth will gather cans of soup in the “Souper Bowl of Caring.” Last year, some 14,000 organizations collected over $10 million through this organization (see www.souperbowl.org). I am appreciative of the fact that the Dover Church has decided to participate in this project this year.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t have the Super Bowl; I am just saying that the focus, the effort, and the energy that is put into it all are in stark contrast to what else is happening in this country. Our focus is on a game when it should be on the problems of this country.

How much more could be done if all the money and energy that were put into producing the Super Bowl were directed towards the problems of hunger, homelessness, and health care in this country? How ironic that Isaiah’s words, written some three thousand years ago, are that the bottom line is profit. How ironic that we are spending so much money on a game that has turned into a business.

This is not one of those statements that so dominated our society in the first years of the game where we would say, “well, if we can put a man on the moon, we can do such and such!” This is a statement about where our focus as a society, as a culture, as individual beings lies.

When we say something like if we can go to the moon, we can solve other problems, we make it easy to ignore the problem or think that sufficient funds could resolve the problem. But you cannot cure the problem by simply giving those without food or shelter or clothing food to feed them, shelter to house them, and clothing so that they will be warm.

You have to change the attitudes and mindsets of people who are more interested in the football game than the condition of their fellow human beings. We are reminded of the ancient proverb that states that when you give someone a fish, you feed them for the moment but when you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.

It is one thing to say that we are a Christian nation. It would be an entirely different thing if we lived as if we were Christians. Go back and read the passage from Isaiah again; how ironic that words written some three thousand years ago can speak so loudly in the 21st century.

God, through Isaiah, called the people’s bluff; He pointed out that their attempts at fasting were charades. The people of Israel were absolutely convinced that if they said the right words and acted appropriately in the temple, then God would find favor with them. But such acts are hypocrisy when the world outside the temple walls doesn’t change.

What did God want from the people of Israel? What does God want from each one of us today? Share your food, invite the homeless into your house, put clothes on the ill-clad, and be available to your own families. Break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed and cancel debts. Those were the words of God three thousand years ago; do we not think that those are His same words today?

Ah, do we not think? You can almost hear Paul writing to the Corinthians about the new wisdom found through Christ. Didn’t Paul point out that the message of Christ is still true today while the words and thoughts of experts disappear over the years? Didn’t Christ point out that God’s words will last long after the stars burn out and the earth wears away?

Again, we hear Paul pointed out the fallacy of the so-called experts being able to offer a solution. Isn’t the current mantra of society to cut government spending and things will get better? Aren’t there those who espouse that attitude also telling you that spending money of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and bringing healthcare to the sick is some sort of socialism? I agree that our government is spending far too much money but I think that the areas that need to be examined are in what we might as well call the military-industrial complex.

Listen to the experts who will tell you that the poor get more than they deserve and that many stay on unemployment because they make more money that way. Since what one receives in unemployment benefits is based upon what one earned, I don’t see how that logic prevails. I can only imagine what Paul would say today in response to what the experts in society and in the church are saying today.

But, there is that light. It was a light that began to shine when Isaiah wrote his words. It was a light that became brighter when Jesus spoke to the multitudes and offering not only a vision of hope but a means of achieving that hope. It was a light than began to get much brighter when the message was carried by Paul and the disciples to lands beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Israel.

It is a light that begins to burn bright when a small church sends messages to soldiers overseas to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten. It is a light that begins to shine brighter when a small church takes part in a nationwide gathering to remind us what our focus should be.

When the light is burning bright, it is hard to not focus on it. As Paul also wrote, your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not what others would have you to do. If you have allowed the Spirit to be a part of life, it will shine through all that you do.

Our society, our culture has focused too long on the superficial. We put great stock in what happens in the moment called now. We tend to ignore or not even care what might happen tomorrow. The words of Isaiah, the words of Paul, and the words of Christ all call us to shift, to not focus on the superficial or the self but to focus on all the people.

It begins when we take that first step of opening our hearts to Christ and then allowing the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives. It begins at the table that was set for us that one night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago. It begins that night when the authorities tried to extinguish the light that shone through Christ. We have the opportunity to change the world, small and remote though we may be. We have that opportunity because it was given to us at that supper in the Upper Room. We have allowed our focus to shift from that time and place. We have that opportunity to regain that focus.

My friends, what is our focus this day.

“To Change Our Lives”

This is the message that I presented at the Neon UMC (Neon, KY) for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 7 February 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 58: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.


During the 1960 Presidential Election, then Senator John Kennedy said that all was needed for civil rights legislation was a “stroke of the pen.” When he failed to act on proposed legislation after he was elected, activists from all across the country sent him pens to remind of his failure to act.

But John Kennedy was a political realist and he realized that he did not have the votes in Congress to pass any legislation that would have had any real power. He knew that the time for the legislation was still to come. As it turned out, it took more than just the stroke of the pen to get civil rights legislation out of the congressional committees and into law. And when the laws were passed, I think we all remember the scene of President Johnson signing the bill with countless pens to give to all those involved in the process.

We tend to think that we can solve problems through our own willpower and intellect. But we have to be careful that such actions come from our hearts as well as our minds. The difficulties that this country have endured in creating a society that would match the words of the Declaration of Independence have as much to do with how our own actions compare with our own thoughts. For if our thoughts do not match our actions, if the rationale for undertaking actions lacks the commitment of the heart, then any actions undertaken will be shallow and meaningless.

Many times we hear people complain about having done the “right things” but that God did not answer their prayers. But should we be surprised by this? In the Old Testament reading for today, God spoke to the Israelites. “Why,” he asked, “did they, the Israelites, seek him out and ask for help when after asking for help, they would go back to their original behavior?” God was simply pointing out that fasting and prayer that was not followed by commitment was meaningless – “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

Jesus pointed out, in the New Testament reading for today, that unless your heart is right, your actions will not be. Jesus spoke of the “salt of the earth. But if the salt of the loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” When he spoke of coming to fulfill the law, he was talking about the deep, underlying principles and total commitment to the law rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience. In Matthew 5: 18 – 20

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was not saying that obedience to the Law should be forgotten but rather to avoid hypocrisy and legalism. To resort to legalism was to avoid keeping the details of the law and attempting to gain merit before God while breaking the laws inwardly. To follow the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit was hypocrisy and Jesus said it more than once in his ministry. He also repudiated the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law and the view of righteousness by works.

Righteousness can only come through faith in Christ and his work, not by anything that we can do. This has always been the question that has confounded mankind. If our good works cannot get us into Heaven, if good works do not provide the key to eternal salvation, then should we even think about good works?

When we think that good works are all that is required, we fall for the legalisms that Jesus spoke against. For the act of doing good works as a means of upholding the law is simply an action of the surface of things, done because it has to be done. Luther rebelled against the church because they implied that very thing. But if good works don’t guarantee our salvation, then should we even think about doing them.

As John Wesley pointed out, having come to Christ, it is our duty then to seek the perfection of life through what we do. And as God told the Israelites, how could you believe that fasting would insure that your prayers are answered when the hungry go unfed, the naked without clothes. And Jesus himself told his followers that they would find Him in the lowest parts of society.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 35 – 40)

The question then is what do we do? We must first realize that Christ’s presence in our lives means more than we can conceivably understand. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”

but God has reveled it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.

We cannot expect to understand God’s wisdom or Christ’s meaning to us if we stay within the boundaries of an earthly understanding. Though God has given each of us the abilities that make us who we are, those abilities are not enough for us to gain an understanding of Him. On the other hand, if we allow God to be the central focus of our life, if we allow Christ to be our Savior, then we can begin to see God.

The difficulty for the Pharisees was that the world was bounded by the strictures of the Law. It was necessary to keep the Law and all its fine points, no matter how contradictory such points might be. In doing that, as Paul wrote many times, one could get trapped in the law.

But this can only be done when our hearts are open to Christ. We have to see Christ as He came to this world, in humility and as a servant, not as an authority imposed from above. He came prepared to risk His truth and life; when asked to identify himself openly, by displaying his authority (such as in the temptation by the devil in the wilderness) or by giving a sign that would convince man by its supernatural power (at his trial and crucifixion), He refused.

There is a hymn in the modern hymnal that states that that they will know we are Christians by our name. By that it means that by our actions, it will be clear who we are. In Isaiah, God pointed out that the actions of the righteousness

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

would lead to a better life. Such actions would be done without thought to the rewards but rather done because that heart guided by the Savior demands that it be done.

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

Christ is that light and as he stated in the New Testament reading for today,

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

When we accept Christ as our Savior, we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by pointing out his presence in this world. We become the light of the world. And, in pointing out Christ’s presence and action in this world, the world becomes open to us.

We look around at the world today and we see confusion and hopelessness. We hear the prophets of the modern times proclaiming that the end of the world is possibly at hand. We fear the darkness that surrounds us. Yet, if we accept Christ as our Savior, there is a light in the world, a light promised to us by God even before Christ was a part of this world. By allowing Christ into our life, into our world, our world becomes a place of hope and joy. We cannot change our lives when we rely solely on meaningless actions but our lives will change when we accept Christ.