“Seeing Things?”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners (NY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.


When I first read the Scriptures for today, I tried to think of something witty and funny to use as an opening. But it just didn’t come to me. Something pushed me to read the book "The Four Witnesses" by Robin Griffith-Jones. This is his description of how the four Gospels came into being, describing the nature of the church and the world after Christ’s death.

In this book, he calls the author of the Book of Revelations John the Seer. Now, there are some traditions that say that John the Disciple, considered the author of the Gospel of John, also wrote the Book of Revelations. The only problem with this thought, according to some scholars, is that the time gap between the two books is a bit too big and it would have been highly improbable for the same individual to write both books.

But it is more important that we understand why the Book of Revelations was written, not necessarily who wrote it. John the Seer, as Griffith-Jones calls him, is writing and warning about the dominance of the Roman Empire in the world around him. He sees a government taking on the status of the church, demanding the same degree of attention that individuals give God, and the people willingly allowing this to happen.

I bring this up because many today see the Book of Revelation as a description of the downfall of society. But I see a society where the church is trying to become the government and demanding that society simply follow the line that they, the church leaders dictate, much as the Roman emperors dictated the line that the people of John’s time should follow.

Look around and what do you see? I see a nation that calls itself Christian yet uses war as the answer to violence and terrorism. What are the causes of terrorism and violence in the world today? Can war and more violence end violence? Was not the Gospel message of Christ a message of hope and peace? There are those who say wars are inevitable but is any war justifiable simply in the name of retaliation? How can a war be just if innocent people die?

The causes of injustice and terrorism are found in poverty, homelessness, repression, and prejudice. But both sides do little to eliminate the causes. If my cause requires poverty for justification, then perhaps I need to keep people in poverty. But that was not God’s way (as I interpret the Bible and I could be wrong) and it was not Jesus’ message.

I see a world in which millionaires and multi-millionaires swindle millions and pay little for their crimes. When they do serve a prison sentence, it seems to be a short one and they are free to resume their lives. Yet, when a person learns a trade in prison so that they can be productive when they complete their sentence and have paid their crimes, they are barred from using the trade that they learned because they served time in prison. (The New York Times, Friday March 4, 2005, front page of Section B)

I see political leaders invoking the name of God in every message but then ignoring the poor and homeless. I hear politicians say that we need to involve our faith more and more in dealing with the problems of society; yet, when the time comes to put these words into action, there is very little action to back up the words. The gap between the rich and the poor becomes greater each year but the response of our politicians is take from the poor, leaving them behind, and giving to the rich. Did not Jesus ask us to take care of the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, and the ignored members of society? How can we claim that we are Christian when we do not do those things?

I see church leaders demanding the placement of the Ten Commandments in public places but not as a reminder of how society was developed but rather as icons to be worshipped. I always find it interesting that those individuals who want to keep the stone monuments forget that God, in the Ten Commandments, warned against worshipping other gods or images. Remember that the 2nd Commandment says "You shall have no other gods before me and the 3rd Commandment says "You shall not make for yourself a carved image. Yet, that seems to be what church leaders want today.

I listen to church leaders and other arbitrators of morality complain about the nature of cartoons on television today, claiming that they are advocates of gay lifestyles; yet they say nothing about the garbage that adults watch on television today. It seems that it is perfectly all right to denounce certain shows because "liberal" media produces them but shows produced by "conservative" media are acceptable, even if they are the very epitome of bad taste and questionable morality.

It always amazes me that people speak of these being the end times, the times of Jesus’ Second Coming. Yet, if Jesus were here today, the people today would be like the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament reading, and would call Him a charlatan or a fake. Would we know it was Jesus if we saw Him on the street today?

This was the problem that faced Samuel in the Old Testament reading for today. The people of Israel had literally demanded from God a king. When the nation of Israel was first established, God through the early prophets made it plain to the people that they would not need a king, because they were His subjects. But the other countries around Israel had a king, so the people of Israel demanded a king.

God felt that if He could find someone righteous, then it might be possible for a king to rule. That is why in the earlier chapters of 1 Samuel that Samuel anoints Saul as king of Israel. Saul was God’s chosen representative. But Saul let the power of the office corrupt him and it was necessary for another king to take his place. But who would it be?

The Old Testament reading for today describes God telling Samuel to find Jesse of Bethlehem because one of Jesse’s sons is to be the next king of Israel. But none of the sons that Jesse presents to Samuel is worthy of God’s anointing. Though they may have presented external characteristics that would have been find for an earthly king, they did not have the internal characteristics that are not always obvious to those on earth but are clearly evident to God. It was the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David that God wanted to serve as king.

How often in our own lives are our selections of people and things done on the basis of external values and not what is internal? The blind man at the pool could not see Jesus but he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. The Pharisees and Sadducees could see Jesus but could not tell that He was the Messiah.

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly dark. It is a darkness created in part because others have come to dominate our lives and we have allowed them to do so. It is also a world of darkness because we have not allowed Christ to be the light in our life that He can be.

Samuel was stuck for a while when he went out to find Saul’s replacement, in part because he was stuck in the past. He looked to the old ways for new solutions; this can never work. Rather than living in the past and in the darkness of the past, we should move forward, into the light of the coming kingdom. We should be exposing the darkness, not letting it creep over the land. But we do not.

We should be weeping over the state of world, national and local affairs. But instead, many people have picked up the sword of Constantine, a wicked instrument of triumphalism.

We need what John Howard Yoder calls the "politics of Jesus" and what Stanley Hauerwas calls the "peaceable kingdom." Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says it well: "From now on, all that can be said of God’s action in the past or the present must pass under the judgment of this fact (referring to the cross)." He also says, "God is known in and by the exercise of crucifying compassion; if we are like him that, we know him." These theologians are calling us out of the old era of warfare, the Saul era, and into the Shepherd’s era of justice, peace, and love.

"Justice", a word that is fast losing its robust Christian profile, marks this future kingdom. It has, as Flannery O’Connor said of another word, "a private meaning and a public odor." Some use the term in the sense of "retribution" (bring them to justice), and some in the sense of rectification" (give the victims and the marginalized an equal opportunity). Neither of these ideas is adequately Christian. The Christian concept of "justice" is "what is right before God and others." And, according to Jesus’ own creed, what is "right" is to love God and to love others. (Mark 12: 29 – 31)  In the Christian sense, justice means providing our world an opportunity to love God and to love others.

We need to hear the words of the apostle Paul, who said, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light." We need a renewed commitment to listen to Jesus Christ, to let him be the good shepherd who can dispel the darkness of war and bring in the Shepherd’s era. Peace and justice embrace one another because they will be empowered by love on a day when, to quote Samuel Johnson, "we shall not borrow all our happiness from hope." (Adapted from "Move On" by Scot McKnight in Living the Word, Christian Century, February 22, 2005)

In renewing our commitment to Christ, we change how we see things. Instead of seeing the world, we see the Spirit. Instead of just knowing of God, we allow God to become a part of our lives. Instead of just seeing the life around us, we experience a new life. The Book of Job speaks of this change that we seek. At the end of the book, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, he exclaims, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee." (Job 42: 5, cited in Meeting Jesus Again by Marcus Borg) That change – from having heard about God with one’s ears to beholding God with one’s eyes – is what Jesus is about.

As you go through the coming days, as the time comes closer to that moment in time that we call Calvary, you are challenged to open your hearts so that you can truly start seeing things, things that will change your life.

“The Choices We Make”

This is the message that I presented at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Lent, 14 March 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.


About eleven years ago, I got the chance to go through the Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in the Great Smokies National Park. This was special for me because a number of years before that, my family had gone there but there were so many people that it was almost impossible to appreciate the beauty of the park and to just even stop. When I came back, it was in early March and I drove through just after sunrise. I still remember the crisp, cold morning as I could look over the hills of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

I also had the opportunity to walk on the portion of the Appalachian Trail that passes through Newfound Gap. The Appalachian Trail is a hiking path that runs along the Appalachian Mountains from north Georgia to Maine. I have wanted to hike this trail since I was about 12 and while this brief encounter with the trail in 1988 doesn’t quite mean that I have done so, to spend a few moments on the trail was very special. I still want to go back and walk a longer distance on the trail and perhaps someday even walk the whole length of the trail as others have done.

There are a lot of people who wish that life were like the Appalachian Trail, a long journey with a beginning and an end and very few deviations along the way. The Pharisees in the Gospel reading today were like that. They believed that the blind man Jesus had healed was blind because of something he had done, some sin he had committed. Their belief in someone sinning caused them to believed that somehow one could sin while still in the womb or even be punished for sins in a previous life. This idea is not limited to the time of Jesus and the Pharisees.

When John Wesley first began to preach the Gospel, he struggled with why people were in torment because of society. The development of the Methodist Church, later the United Methodist Church, came as a result of Wesley trying to answer two questions: What was the nature of salvation and what was the role of the church in dealing with society’s problems.

England in Wesley’s time was undergoing a series of rapid changes brought about in part because of the Industrial Revolution. We tend to think of the Industrial Revolution in a positive light because it enabled more people to work, earn more money, and, in general, improve their way of life. At the beginning, however, that was not always the case. For many workers, the pay was low and there were no retirement or health care plans. Because there were no child labor laws, it was not surprising to find children as young as 10 working in the factories. People worked from sunup to sundown six days a week and dare not take a day off for any reason because they were likely to get fired. If they owed someone money, they were likely to be put in a debtor’s prison until their family could get the money to pay the debt. Alcoholism was not uncommon. Welfare was dependent on the whim of the rich and the patience of the poor.

Against that background was the belief that being poor was a fate given to you by God and there was very little you could do about it. If you were poor, it was because you lead a sinful life and were to be pitied. To this, Wesley responded

"Has poverty nothing worse in it that this, that it makes men liable to be laughed at?…Is not want of food something worse than this? God pronounced it as a curse upon man, that he should earn it "by the sweat of his brow." But how many are there in this Christian country, that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give! Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon "curse God and die"? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe." (From John Wesley’s sermon "Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations")

Wesley asked, "How should the church respond?" There were those who felt that the troubles of society at that time – the terrible working conditions, the lack of care the upper classes showed for those less fortunate, the terrible health conditions, the alcoholism – were an indication that God had lost faith in the people on earth.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that could make that change. It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school). It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time. Some argue that Wesley’s concerns and actions were one reason why there was no social unrest in England at that time.

The challenge that we face, the choice that we must make is how we are going to react to what is going around us. As we progress into the next century, be it next year or the year 2001, I think we are still a society that feels that poverty and disease are inflicted upon us and that it is up to those who are the victims to seek the solutions for their problems.

I am not saying that they shouldn’t try to solve their problems but rather that sometimes they cannot do it alone. After all, Jesus directed the blind man to go to the pool at Siloam and wash his eyes before he could see. But He also said that

“but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

We are faced with choices, just as Samuel was faced with the choice of finding a replacement for King Saul. Samuel’s first choice was David’s oldest brother, Eliab, who appeared to have the proper characteristics.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider the appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The important thing that we have to consider is not what we see on the outside but what it is in the person’s heart. The Israelites had found out the proverbial hard way that though Saul looked and acted like the King that they desired he did not have the disposition or character necessary.

But when we are faced with a choice, we have to be willing to make the choice. Samuel listened to the Lord in finding the next King for Israel, even if he did not fit the image that everyone had in mind for a king.

So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features.

When Jesus challenged the vision of the Pharisees, they could not see the world as it was but only in terms of their limited vision.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

But the man who was blind saw Jesus in an entirely different light. As the Pharisees questioned him, each time making it more and more difficult for him, he saw Christ first as just a man, then a prophet, and finally as a person to be worshipped. This is something of the path that we often follow. C. S. Lewis wrote

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)

We would like life to be simple journey but we have to make choices. The man at the pool could have accepted his life and believed as others that his life was without hope, trapped in sin. But he chose to listen to Jesus and follow the directions that he gave him. Jesus came into this world to change the vision of those who were spiritually blind. As Paul wrote

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Jesus gave light to the blind man; but for those who could physically see but whose mind was closed, there was not much hope.

When I began working on this sermon and I thought of those brief moments on the Appalachian Trail those years ago, I could not help but think of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”. It is a poem that is a personal favorite of mine in which Frost speaks of choices.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

and sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel about the choices they had to make.

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, you teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30: 19 – 21)

In two weeks we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day that Christ began the final journey. He knew the outcome of that journey and while He may not have wanted to take it, it was a journey that he did for us. It is not a journey that we have to make. But today, we must make a choice. We hear the voice speaking in our ear telling us the way to go; we can see the light shining in the darkness of this world. There is a choice that must be made. Do we follow Christ?


When Did You Learn About Methodism?

The genesis of this began early Sunday morning when the question was asked “When did you learn what it meant to be a Methodist?”

Now, for me, it came in part when I was in confirmation class. But I was in a confirmation class in an Evangelical United Brethren church and we discussed the planed merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. What I remember from that conversation back in 1964 was my pastor saying “we are going to be called United Methodists; they are joining us.” The meaning of his words really didn’t hit home until around 1991 when I was a member of a United Methodist Church that was a former E. U. B. church and my pastor was also a former E. U. B. like me (and whose father and grandfather had been bishops in the E. U. B. system). My pastor pointed out that if the business world ever wanted an example of a hostile takeover, all they had to do was examine the merger of the two denominations.

But, to answer my own question, I learned about Methodism early on and then again when I was a student in college. One individual answered that they had learned in Sunday School and had kept that knowledge in the forefront of their lives since that time some 40 years before. One other person told me that they had learned it in much the same way, as a youth in a Methodist Church and then again in college. What I found interesting was the comment by a third individual who was raised in the Methodist Church but quit the Methodist Church as a teen-ager because the church was teaching them nothing about why it was a Methodist Church! (This person ultimately learned about Methodism in seminary, which is fortunate because they are an elder in the church today.)

Another individual was learning about Luther in college and this knowledge of Luther lead them to consider other denominations which lead them to a study of Wesley and the Methodist Revival.

Two other individuals told me that they learned about Methodism in preparation for marriage to a Methodist.

Granted, eight people do not make a very convincing sample especially since only three of the eight were raised in a Methodist church. But to have only 1 person say that they remembered from their youth what it means to be a Methodist is not very good.

So, I am going to put the question to you, “When did you learn what it meant to be a Methodist?”

And this begs a second question, “When do people in your church learn what it means to be a Methodist?”

And finally, “When do you think this education should begin? Should it be a requirement for membership? (What would happen if a person failed the qualifying exam?) How much should be taught in Sunday school?”

If I get a sufficient number of responses, I will post the comments in the body of the piece.

How Long?

These are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 17: 1 – 17, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.

I am sure that there are some people on this planet who feel the recent earthquake in Japan, the resulting tsunami, and then the nuclear reactor disaster are the harbingers of the final days. Or perhaps they wondered just how much more humanity can take.

We know that people can survive for long periods of time without food, though the actual length depends on the individual’s physical situation and circumstance. But we can only go three or four days without water and even less time without oxygen.

From that standpoint, we need to look around at the world and what we have done to it. Our supplies of fresh water have always been limited and our cavalier attitude about the environment means that what fresh water and clean air that remains will soon be gone if we are not careful.

But how long can the spirit survive when it is assaulted? Look around at what is going on in the world and tell me if the human spirit may have reached such a point. Would the revolutions in the Middle East have occurred if the governments were not more attuned to the needs and cries of the people? Would the protest in Wisconsin have occurred if the governor were more attuned to the needs and wants of all the people instead of one or two rich individuals who want to keep all that they have?

I cannot explain the politics of this country, of people losing their rights and then watching whatever safety net might be in place taken away as well and cheering as it is done. I cannot explain how it is that so many people in this country are willing to cheer on the politicians who stand up and call for the removal of all social programs while allowing the military and defense budgets to keep growing, who stand up and call for less taxes for the rich but not for the rest of the country. I cannot explain how a politician can say that they are for jobs yet support measures and policies that take away jobs. I cannot explain how anyone can say that they are a Christian yet wrap themselves in the American flag and disdain helping the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed.

Look around and tell me that is not what is happening in this country and around the globe today. And tell me why there are not more protests?

I have friends who feel that this country is on the verge of a revolution because a small group of individuals who have virtually all the wealth are trying to take what’s left as well. There are already those who call this country a plutocracy where a few rich individuals own everything and have no desire at all to share with anyone. How long can the human spirit endure?

How long can a church survive in a world where its members do not want to hear that their responsibility is to the people in their community and that the church is a sanctuary against the evil in the world? How long can a church survive when it only gives lip service to the food closet that is open once a week but for which the lines grow longer every day?

As you perhaps know from previous posts, my wife has started a feeding ministry at our church. It is one of two such ministries that take place on the weekends at our church. When she started this ministry, my wife wanted to feed the neighborhood children because many of them did not get a breakfast on the weekends. That hasn’t developed as we thought it might and maybe we should have stopped the ministry when it became apparent that it wasn’t headed in the direction we thought it would go. But that isn’t always God’s plan, now is it?

After all, as the Israelites wandered in the desert, they probably didn’t have a firm idea of where they were actually headed and each day’s journey was predicated on where the next water hole might be located.

So, we have kept this ministry going, giving between twenty and thirty individuals, some out of work, some homeless, some with substance abuse problems a good breakfast each Saturday and Sunday morning. It would appear that other ministries are going to come out of all of this, perhaps directed towards changing the direction of the lives of these individuals. But it hasn’t been easy. It is safe to say that there are individuals in the church who aren’t exactly thrilled that people off the street are coming into “their” church. And while many in the church worry about how the church will keep its doors open, they seem reluctant to let just anyone come through those open doors. I only say that because it seems to me that this is indicative of what is transpiring across the country. We have turned the sanctuary of the church into a safe haven for the members, protecting them from the evil outside the walls, instead of offering sanctuary to those whom evil will consume and whom society will toss on the garbage heap.

There are those who would tell us that we need to stop this ministry. After all, I haven’t had a full-time job for four years and it hasn’t been the easiest road to walk. There are times when we sound like the Israelites screaming at Moses about the lack of fresh water. The desert can be very cruel to people without water but just when the Israelites are screaming the loudest, God tells Moses what to do to get the water. That’s the way it has been with this ministry and I suspect that God will show us where to find the funds that will enable us to continue the journey. (And if you so desire to be a part of this effort, the address is “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen c/o Grace UMC, P. O. Box 2556, Newburgh, NY 12250.)

But Ann didn’t start this ministry for glorification or hope that God would repay us for our generosity. I don’t help where I can and write about it because I am expecting a pat on the back. It is because there are people out there whom society has cast aside and said that, because of one thing or another, they aren’t worthy of anything. But the church has said that each person is worthy and we are trying to put the words of the Gospel into action. And when the woman comes to the well in the middle of the day, Jesus offers her the respect that she is missing in her life.

Perhaps I am wrong about my assessment of the state of the world and the state of the church. But I also know that when society was in similar situations, it was the church that changed the course. When I first began my lay speaking ministry, I would say that England was saved from the violent revolution that overtook France in the years following our own revolution. I had read something about it but didn’t make note of where I had read it. But later on, I would find other documents that said the same thing – that because of the work that John Wesley and the other early Methodists did with regards to healthcare, schooling, prison and work reform, England did not undergo the violent revolution that would engulf France.

Look around and tell me if we are not in the same situation today. It isn’t just what is happening elsewhere; it is what is happening in our own backyards and neighborhoods. And Paul tells us that Christ has arrived at just the right time. When we open our doors to Christ, we find that the same doors have already been opened. And our fears that there is nothing that we can do are cast aside because of what Christ did for us so many years ago.

We are halfway through Lent. That means that there are only twenty days left in this journey. That means that there are twenty days left to make a decision, a decision to follow Christ, to put the Gospel message into action. How long will it take? How long before it is too late? How long, O Lord, how long?

“A Drink of Water”

This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 27 February 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.


There are not too many occasions when I get to use either chemistry or science education in my sermons. Today is one of those occasions.

When I taught science education courses in Texas, I would always ask my students what were the two most important liquids in Texas. Generally, they always got the answer right, water and oil. For without the one, you cannot get the other.

In chemical terms I suppose I could speak of the structure of the water molecule and how it affects the structure of ice molecules and why ice floats in water. I could also speak of the boiling and freezing points of water and how these unique temperature points make water a liquid when other similar substances are gases. These properties of water make it a very unique substance in the universe and very probably the key to life.

The properties of water can be explained by a phenomenon known as hydrogen bonding. It is hydrogen bonding which is the key to the structure of the DNA double helix, the basis for life as we know it.

Yes, water is a very unique substance. But one thing that does not require science of any kind for an explanation and has been known since mankind first walked has explored this world is that we need water to survive. For without water, our chances of survival are limited. The Israelites knew that very well. That is the reason that they were screaming at Moses in today’s Old Testament reading.

There are two things that I find interesting about this incident in the desert. First, it is not the first time that the Israelites have yelled at Moses about their situation.

In Exodus 14: 11 – 12, the Israelites said, in response to the oncoming Egyptian army, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14: 11 – 12) Then, in Exodus 16: 2 – 3, the people “complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly by hunger.” (Exodus 16: 2 – 3)

The Lord’s response to the first complaint was the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army; the Lord’s response to the second complaint was to provide manna from heaven. The first time the people were afraid, for the Egyptian army was powerful and the Israelites were incapable, at that time, of defending themselves. But the manner in which they voiced their complaints showed a lack of faith, not fear. In the second instance, their complaints come after they have seen the power of God destroy the Egyptian army and how God provided fresh water for them. One might think that by the time they had come to this point in their journey, they would known and understood that it was a small thing for God to provide them with water.

Asking for water is not a sin; but what the Israelites are doing in this reading today is complaining. This is a challenge to God’s faithful mercy and evidence of unbelief in His provision. There is also something interesting about this passage. When the Israelites first came to Egypt, they were nomadic herdsman, used to traveling in the desert and seeking sources of water. Now, after all the years in Egypt, they had forgotten the skills that kept their families alive. They did not know how to find the water that would keep them alive and instead of seeking out a means of finding the water, they complained.

There are a many times when we are like the Israelites in the desert. We would rather complain about the situations that we face than seek an answer. And we often forget that the answer that we seek is available if we only look for it.

But Paul tells us that we need not struggle so; our efforts need not be futile. No longer are we trapped in the here and now, suffering and complaining but rather looking forward to the future and what it will bring. The tribulation of life no longer brings us down but rather gives us strength and endurance. Because of Christ, Paul writes, we have access to God. In those days, to gain access to the king was a special occasion and one not many were granted. But, through Christ, we now have access to God. We no longer face judgment for our life as it would if we were to stand before an earthly king. Our presence before the throne of God gives us reason to celebrate and rejoice.

It is the water of the well that ties this reading in the New Testament to the reading of the Old Testament today. Jesus is in Samaria because it is the direct route between Judea and Galilee. Most Jews, who wanted to avoid Samaria and contact with the Samarians, would travel a more circular route, going north along the River Jordan. But Jesus saw no need for that because he held no prejudice against either the Jews or the Samaritans.

To the Jews of the Bible, the Samaritans were a group of people to be excluded. Disagreements had arisen about what were the holy sites; for the Jews, it was Jerusalem, for the Samaritans, it was Mount Gerizim. This difference was one of many between the two groups both of whom descended from the Israelites who wandered in the desert. For the Jews, the Samaritans were beyond contempt and not worthy of any salvation from God. It was this contempt and hatred between the two that allowed Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan and for us to know about the woman at the well.

For the woman of this New Testament story is coming to the well to get her daily water supply. But she is coming at the worst possible day, noontime. It is the beginning of the hottest period of the day and the time when most people were in the cool of their homes. So why does she come then and why did she not come earlier, especially when the well was the social center of the village?

Is it perhaps because her life is the subject of gossip at the well? Is it because she is not welcome among the women of the village? Many of us are amazed, as was the woman, when Jesus speaks of the woman and the person with whom she is living but who is not her husband. But a woman does not come to the well at the worst time of the day unless she does not want to be a part of society.

And while the woman expects Jesus to spurn her as the citizens of the town have and as the Jews have done to Samaritans for countless years, He does not. He treats her with respect in requesting a drink of water and he treats her amazement kindly. More importantly, Jesus offers to her what He offers to all of us, the chance for salvation.

Jesus also gives a chance to see ourselves, for there are times when we are the people being excluded and there are times when we are the ones doing the excluding. The one thing people are doing today is struggling. When we look around the world today, we see people whose hearts are struggling, we see people whose minds are fighting and we see people whose souls doubt. It would be very difficult for us to be anything else but one of those individuals. And then we find that we are like the children of Israel in the desert, judging Moses for his failure to provide them with water. And we find that we are like the disciples, who would have sent the people sitting on the hill listening to the Sermon on the Mount home hungry rather than try and find a way to feed them with six loaves and two fishes.

But we can change the way we see the world, we can ease the doubts that torment our souls, and we can end the fighting in our minds. Like the Samaritan woman, we need to see Jesus, not as an excellent teacher or renowned rabbi, but as the Son of God, a revelation of God. She sees in Jesus the bearer of the Good News, she hears from Jesus that there is new life found in the Spirit, in the Living Water.

And this new life summons her from the ageless racism and divisiveness that was her life and into a new eternal life. When the woman at the well looks again into the well, she sees not herself or others, but the image of Jesus. The same is true for us; for when we see Jesus, when we turn our eyes to Jesus (UMH #349), life changes. For the woman at the well, drinking from the well of the living water will give her life and invite her to love rather than judge others.

The people of Israel found the days of the Exodus a struggle. At every step of the way, they argued with Moses and with God. God chose to love them, in spite of themselves. Many times, we argue with God because we struggle as we journey through the wilderness. Like the woman at the well, we find that we are alone in our struggle, seeking comfort when the times are the most difficult.

During this Lenten season, we need to face ourselves and see where our heart is focused. When we are tempted to judge others or to promote ourselves, we can remind ourselves that we we do not walk this path of love and righteousness under our own power. (Adapted from “Spiritual snobs” by Scot McKnight in “Living the Word” from Christian Century, February 22, 2005) On those days when this walk gets hot and we get thirsty, we should pause and get a cup of water. But not water from the well of daily living, for that water does not quench the thirst we have, but rather water from the Living Water. It is that drink of water that we search for.


Something to think about

I was perusing some of the posts on the Methoblog this afternoon and went to “Hacking Christianity” discussion of the recent Call to Action (“Cleverly Devised Myths in UMC’s Call to Action?”).  I will say that the more I read about what people are saying, the more I am worried about that report. 

But the reason for putting this post up was a quote from Mark Horvath that I think is worth of repeating and then using:

If you make your church the catalyst for change in your community, you won’t have to advertise to get people there. — Mark Horvath, http://twitter.com/hardlynormal

What do you think?

“Testing the Lord”

This is the message that I presented at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 7 March 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 5: 1 – 11, and John 4: 5 – 42.


Have you ever asked God for something? Maybe it was something small, like a particular gift or you wanted Him to solve a small problem. But it could have been something major like guidance in a change in jobs or an improvement in your job situation or some other life-related issue. Now, there is nothing wrong with doing this; after all, we routinely ask Him to take care of those that are sick and injured and we know that He answers our prayers.

But what happens when it seems like He doesn’t answer our prayers? Don’t we get upset when we don’t get the answer that we wanted? And if we prayed hard and long and the person for whom we prayed doesn’t get better, don’t we get mad? Don’t we feel as if God has abandoned us?

The problem you see is that we somehow have to reconcile the reality of mankind’s miseries with that of a good God. There is no completely satisfying explanation to the problem of a good God who is powerful and sovereign over an evil world. After God did not spare his own Son from the pain of death. And did not Jesus himself seek relieve from the anguish of his upcoming ordeal.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14: 35)

It is as if we sought to test God, to put our problems before Him and say “Prove that you are God.” It is times like these when we are like the Israelites wondering through the wilderness, questioning God’s intentions, doubting in our own abilities. In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are again grumbling because they do not have any water to drink.

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to lace as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

This was not the first time that the Israelites had grumbled about God’s plan. In previous chapters, they had grumbled because the Egyptian army was chasing after them and when they did not have any water. Yet, in all instances, God provided the means for them to escape and survive.

As long as it is not too great, as long as we are willing to listen to God, then everything goes well. We might not like the situation but we know that it will come out okay. We just can never understand it when it looks like God has abandoned us.

But we have to understand that God never intended for us to suffer. When Paul wrote in Romans, “but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope”, he used the term “in” rather than “because of”. Life is a joyous and triumphant, not one of morbidity and despair. But it can only be joyous when we understand that Jesus died for our sins.

Paul pointed out that we are not God’s enemies, to be the object of his wrath when we have done wrong. Nor are we to be abandoned should things go bad for us. Our suffering produces the perseverance that ultimately brings us hope. Such hope is not real world optimism but the assurance of our future destiny, of our life in Christ. As Paul wrote, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Note that Paul used the present tense because Christ is present for us now.

The Samaritan woman who came to the well knew first hand the feeling of abandonment. After all, society had not taken kindly to the life style she had chosen to follow. But God and Christ do not abandon someone because of their life style.

The woman was surprised that Jesus knew all about her but should we be surprised? After all, Jesus is always with us, though we might not know it.

God’s presence in our life is best explained by the battle the Israelites fought with the Amalekites. Just after the incident with the water, the Israelites engaged in a battle with the Amalekites.

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

As it was noted in the Scripture, as long as Moses acknowledged the presence of the Lord by holding up his hands, the Israelites were winning. But when he grew tired and his hands dropped the tide of the battle changed. I think this is very much what we encounter when we are under stress.

Did God leave the battle when the Israelites started losing or was it that Moses and the Israelites had left Him? God was always there, waiting for His people to come to him. Yes, Jesus knew everything about the woman because He was a presence in her life, even if she did not understand that.

The feeling of abandonment is like a thirst that cannot go away. You may drink water but the thirst is still there. Christ offers, not only to the woman at the well, but to each of us today, the opportunity to remove that thirst, of that feeling. Life is not going to get easy just because we accept Christ. If anything, it might get harder.

But when we speak of the Gospel, we speak of the “Good News”. God’s will for us involves an ultimate celebration, not on-going suffering and sorrow. In writing to Romans, Paul spoke of celebrating, of the victory that Christ has over sin.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The woman at the well came to know Christ because she understood that she had not been abandoned. After it was all over, after everything that he had worked for was taken away, Job came away with twice as much as he had before because he did not lose faith.

The celebration of life goes on because we know that Christ died for us and yet he still lives. Is there a feeling in you that just won’t go away? The path we walk is never easy and there are times when we might think that life is unfair but as long as we continue to understand that God loves us, that He sent His Son for our benefit, the rewards of life are beyond description. The test for each one of us is to allow Christ into our hearts.


“A Very Simple Lesson”

I was at the Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) this past Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 March 2011).  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 – 4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.  The services at Mountainville start at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  This coming Sunday, March 27th,at 3 pm they are hosting a hymn sing for the Habitat for Humanity project in the Newburgh, NY, area.  There is a flyer about the program included in this post.


Way back in 1963 or so, I got a chance to stay up late one night and watch the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. That night he introduced, at least to me, a rising new comic. I can’t remember, for a variety of reasons, if this was the first time this comic had been on the show. I just know that I found Bill Cosby to be a very funny fellow indeed. Later, when I could, I would buy all of his comedy albums and would use his telling of the conversation between Noah and God for a vespers moment at the Wesley Foundation while a student in college (Truman State University).

But it is something else that he recorded that prompted my recollection of a moment in time almost fifty years ago. He spoke of the time when he began kindergarten and how the teacher taught them that 1 and 1 was 2. And how he and his compatriots all thought how cool it was that 1 and 1 equaled 2. But then they asked that telling question, “What’s a 2?”

I think it is important to think about such moments because they remind us that all of the lessons we have learned in our life have been remarkably simple ones. If you stop to think about it, each time that we have learned something, it has been the result of a simple lesson. Granted, it may not have seemed simple at the time and the topic may have been remarkably complex but the lesson itself was very simple. It was simple because it built upon all that we knew up to that point and utilized the skills and abilities that we were taught as well.

But I think that we have forgotten those early lessons. We seemed bound and determined to make each of life’s lessons a lesson in simplicity, even if the material in question is extremely complex. The events of the past two week, all that has transpired in Japan and the Middle East, speak to our desire to turn extremely complex lessons into simple ones.

If you think about it, much of what has transpired in the past two weeks or so has dealt with energy and how we obtain it. We are an energy dependent society. Take away our energy resources and life would be very, very difficult; we could survive but not as we live today.

We have become a society dependent on oil as the basis for our energy. Because the source of the oil that is so much a part of our lives is located in other countries, we turn a blind eye to governments who suppress the rights of the people. We support the military of such governments because we want the oil supply protected. It would seem, also, that we are willing to go to war if need be to insure that oil supplies are available.

The answer that some offer is to drill for more oil in this country or find ways to extract the oil, natural gas and coal that is underground. We ignore what these processes do to the environment and the drinking water because cheap oil and gas is more important than clean air or clean water. We ignore the scientific results that time and time again show that our dependence on fossil fuels is having a negative effect on the climate of this planet. (Notes from the Union of Concerned Scientists)

We are beginning to see, I believe, what happens when we put profit before safety in the production of energy. We may be shocked that Japan, the only country on this planet to suffer the effects of nuclear weapons, would willingly let nuclear reactors operate within the boundaries of their country. But, if we remember our history, we know that it is a country without energy resources of its own and nuclear power is a reasonable alternative. But the problems with the reactors were not problems with nuclear energy but the short-sightedness of management in putting the profit of the company before the safety of the people.

As it happens, I believe that nuclear power is a reasonable alterative energy resource for the future of this planet. But I am also aware that a commitment to nuclear energy is not simply a fifty-year commitment nor a 100 year commitment but one that will last 10,000 years or so. And it is a commitment to the safety of the people. If you are willing to make that commitment, it becomes a viable energy resource; if you are not, then you must find other alternatives.

And there are other alternatives. But each one requires a long-term commitment. Solar energy is out there right now but how do you store it so that it can be used at night? How about using the wind to make energy? Again, what do you do when the wind is not blowing? Each alternative energy resource has a trail of thought that make the simple lesson complicated. And if we are not willing to make the commitment, we will find out quite quickly that the simple lessons we seek don’t exist.

The church has found itself caught up in that same sort of thinking. We would like Christianity to be very simple. I mean all we have to do is say that Christ is our Savior, come to church on Sunday, try to have good thoughts about people, and be appropriately horrified when evil things occur in the world. Maybe, if we have some spare change or a couple extra dollars, we will give it to the latest UMCOR relief effort. But we will leave it up to the pastor and the missionaries to do the work of God; after all, that’s what they get paid for, right?

Somewhere along the line, we forgot something. Or maybe we never learned it properly. Jesus may have left us with the Great Commission, to go out into the world and make disciples of all the nations. But we forgot what it means to be a disciple.

In today’s society, it means forcing people to believe in Jesus. It means telling them that they are condemned to a live in Sheol if they do not, right then and there, accept Christ as their Savior. It means telling them that there is only one way to believe in God and that is the Christian way, even when they already believe in that God their own way.

But the word “disciple” means more of a student than a follower. If the commission is to go out and make students of the people of the world, then it makes each one of us a teacher; it means that we have to live a life that embodies the life of Christ. It means that we have to take to our heart the words and actions of Jesus when He began His ministry, of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, finding homes for the homeless (see the attached flyer) and setting the oppressed free. And suddenly a very simple statement, a very simple lesson becomes very, very complicated.

(Comment – this church just happens to be sponsoring a hymn sing for the local Habitat for Humanity program – see the accompanying flyer)


It bothers me that we say that we are a Christian nation but we are quick to blame poverty on the sins of the poor. We say that we are a Christian nation but we are not willing to find ways to keep people healthy. We would rather find ways to let a few people gather up all the wealth on this planet instead of making sure that all people have an opportunity. We would rather support dictatorships and oppressive governments if doing so allows us to keep our own selfish interests intact.

We have found a way to make the lesson of Lent a very easy one, not a simple one. We publically announce that we are giving up such-and-such for Lent, knowing full well that once Easter has passed we will resume that habit. We have forgotten that Lent is a season of preparation. And though Lent may be over in forty days, our lives go on after the season is done.

So perhaps now is the time to think about Lent and the lesson that we should be learning. Nicodemus comes to Jesus late one night, fearful of what others in his community might think and say if they knew he was seeking wisdom, guidance, and counsel from this itinerant teacher from the Galilee. He knows that there is something about Jesus that is different from the other teachers who have appeared on the scene and then quickly disappeared from view.

He also knows that something is gnawing on him instead; something that tells him that there is something wrong with his life, that leading a life bound by a strict obedience to the law will not give him what he seeks in life. And when he asks Jesus, he gets a very simple answer, “you must be born again.” But his mind tells him that one cannot be born again, one cannot start life over again as a child; it just isn’t possible. But Jesus offers another alternative, of seeing the world another way.

Look at what Paul said about Abraham. Abraham said that he was the father of us all but if we see that only in terms of biological relationships, as saying that I am the son of Robert Mitchell or that he was the son of Walter Mitchell, then we are seeing it backwards. Paul’s point is that Abraham made a decision to follow God’s command in faith.

Stop and think about it; he was pushing 100 and Sarah was 90-something and God said that He would make Abraham the father of many nations. No wonder Sarah laughed. Abraham began a journey to a place that he did not know by a route that he did not know so that peoples not even born would be blessed. It was and is a journey of faith.

We are at that same point in our own life, to look at where we are and where we are headed. We are being called, not by me but by God to stop and change the direction of our lives, to begin again (to be born again, if you will), to head off into a new direction or to do something that you didn’t think you could do on the simple statement that great things will come because of it.

This is a hard thing for many people to do; it is a hard thing for churches to do. We look around and we wonder what will happen. Through some of the work in my district, I know that there are many churches struggling with their finances. And it is very difficult to make a journey in faith when the finances tell you to stay put. But I also know that there are churches who have made a decision based on faith and have carried out their decision and have been rewarded. I have watched two separate churches in two separate conferences, both behind in paying their apportionments (and I know that the subject of apportionments is a sore subject with many, especially those who do not understand what apportionments are other than a bill from the conference) make the decision to put 10% of the weekly offering into paying the apportionments. And when the end of that year came around, both churches had not only paid their apportionments in full but were one month ahead for the next year. But I also know of a church that would not make that faith journey, who put its hopes in its traditional “fund-raisers” and will soon close its doors.

And we are told of the one single faith journey taking place in our own lives today. It is not the journey that we are making but rather the one that Jesus made for us some two thousand years ago. How many times did Jesus speak of His own death, of His own sacrifice so that we would live? What must have been going through His mind that day when He told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he would send His Only Begotten Son so that whoever believed in Him would have everlasting life.

That is perhaps the simplest lesson we are ever asked to learn. But it is, for many, the most difficult. It means giving up your present life, of leading your present life and beginning anew. And that is the call today. For some, it is to begin anew; to be, like Nicodemus, born again. For others, it is to begin, as Abram did, a new journey or new tasks that will enable others to know who Christ is and will be. The lesson has been taught for today, class is dismissed. Now the learning begins.

Continuing Thoughts on Education

I began writing this a few months ago but put it on the shelf for a number of reasons. Now, because of certain events related to education, I think it is time to bring it back and put it out there.

I once proposed the following as a grading scale for my classes in science education:

A – Applying the ideas presented in class to new situations

B – Applying the ideas presented in class to current situations

C – Simply repeating what the book and/or the instructor says in class

D – Inability to repeat what the book and/or instructor says in class

F – Failure to even come close

It didn’t, as one might suspect, go over too well. But the reasons had nothing to do with the process; they had to do with the assumption about learning and measuring success in learning.

What is success in learning? Is it merely the ability to get a good score on an exam? Or is success something else? Let me list some situations:

  1. A chemistry department requires students seeking post-graduate degrees in chemistry to take a series of monthly exams on a variety of topics in their specialty (analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, organic, and physical). The city fire department has agreed to remove from storage several (actually quite a few) 55-gallon drums of liquid wastes provided each drum is labeled with its contents. Each graduate student is “given” one of the drums and told to determine its contents. This constitutes their monthly exam.
  2. A law student happens to own and operate a restaurant in the town where he goes to school. His wife, mother and father operate the restaurant while he goes to school. His plans after graduation are to become an immigration-rights lawyer and leave the operation of the restaurant to his parents and his brother who will emigrate from China. As it happens, the restaurant is located in a building situated on property owned by the university. Six months before graduation, the school notifies the student of their intent to immediately tear down the building and turn the property into a parking lot in order to increase the number of parking spaces on campus. (Apparently the school felt that parking spaces were more important than destroying the only restaurant in town. We will ignore the fact that the school was also a church-affiliated university.) Student takes the school to court and wins a stay so that he can find a new location for his business and also graduate. The court grants the stay. I still don’t know why the school didn’t give him his degree right then and there.

While both of these situations are graduate-level education problems, I think you can understand that they are situations that one is likely to encounter in the real world. Success has to be more than knowing the right answer to a question on a test; it also involved applying knowledge from a number of different settings.

In the chemistry example, knowing what is in the drum is more a result of knowing what tests to run and how to best understand the results. Success is not determined solely by saying that this drum contains the following items but outlining the degree of certainty behind each answer. The difficulty for some students in a problem such as this would be the fact that no one knows what is the “right” answer, only that there is a right answer.

One of the projects that I was going to do for my doctorate but never did was the preparation of C8H8(Pt(CH3)2)2. I didn’t do this project because I ran into the ban of graduate education – funding. But in the event that I get back to a college teaching position and can do some research I want to try and make this. One of the reasons for trying this is because it involves a reaction called a Grignard reaction.

Now, what you learn in organic chemistry is that you prepare your Grignard reagent (an organo-magnesium halide such as CH3MgI) in advance and under very dry conditions You then add whatever your other reactant might be (in my situation, a platinum compound that was also made in advance) to the Grignard reagent to get the desired product. That’s what the book tells you to do.

But if you were to do that in this case (i.e., add the Pt compound to the Grignard) you would generate so much heat that you would destroy your product and the starting materials. Now, I had the benefit of knowing this and not having to find out for myself. So I had some equipment already prepared that would allow me to add the Grignard reagent slowly to the reaction mixture containing my Pt compound and form the desired product. I could then go on and do the experimental research that I was interesting. For those that are interested, C8H8 is called 1, 3, 5, 7-cyclooctatetrene and we presumed that in the final product, the cyclooctatetraene was in a “boat” configuration with the two dimethyl-platinum groups at right angles to each other across the four double bonds. My experiment was to prove that was in fact the structure. It would have been fun.

But, for the purposes of this dialogue, the point is that had I followed the book, I would never have made the final compound. I presume that those who first made the compound found out the hard way that they had to do something different and left behind the written record for me to follow. But what happens if there is no written record; what if you are doing something entirely new?

Now, let us suppose that you don’t even know if there is a right answer. Suppose, for example, you want to determine the density of nitrogen. (WARNING – Do not go to the back of the book just because you know the answer to this problem!). You begin by taking a sample of air. You assume that the only constituents of air are oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), and carbon dioxide (CO2). You first remove CO2 by a reaction with potassium oxide or potassium hydroxide (or a combination of both:

Then, you react the sample of air with copper. Reaction with copper should result in copper (II) oxide.

The resulting N2 is then dried and its density determined. To confirm your calculations, you repeat the measurements, only this time you use ammonia (NH3) as the source of the nitrogen. Since there is no oxygen or carbon dioxide in the ammonia, the likelihood of error is reduced.

But you discover that the density of nitrogen from the air is slightly higher than the density of nitrogen from ammonia. Does this mean that your experimental process is in error or even possibly that there are different forms of nitrogen?

It is possible to obtain nitrogen from the atmosphere by an alternative method but you find that the results are consistent with the original experiment. Similarly, there are alternative compounds one can use beside ammonia and the results are consistent with the results from ammonia.

So what can you conclude? Since the sources of nitrogen give consistent results and the results for atmospheric nitrogen give consistently higher results than the results for other nitrogen-containing compounds and you know that air is a mixture, you must conclude that there is a previously unknown component in air.

This is exactly what Lord Rayleigh did in the early 1890s and for which he was credited with the discovery of argon. (Now, you can go to the back of the book – http://www.nature.com/physics/looking-back/rayleigh/index.html).

If you stop to think about it, the problem with science education today is that we focus on the answers in the back of the book and students have come to expect that if the answer is not known, it is an unsolvable problem. All questions have answers and all the students have to know is what the answers are or where to find them.

But there a myriad of questions for which the answer is still unknown. Soy beans are one of the major agricultural crops of this country, not so much for what can be done with them (which is a lot) but for what it does when it is in the field. The soy bean plant is one of the few plants that take nitrogen from the air and “turn” it into fertilizer. Right now, the production of ammonia-based fertilizers is very expensive. The process (the Haber process after its inventor) requires high temperatures and high pressures. The cost of production is directly related to the price of fuel; as the cost of fuel rises, the cost of fertilizer also rises. It stands to reason that alternatives to man-made fertilizers need to be developed. (Yes, yes, I have heard about organic farming processes but we will save that discussion for later.)

I tell my students (or I used to tell them when I was teaching) that if they can find a way to duplicate what the soy bean does in the field, they are certain to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry or a life-time contract from Monsanto (and the cynics say the contract is to keep quiet). The solution is out there to be determined and the prize is well-worth the effort. But it requires more than simply testing students every so often and making sure that they have the right answers. It is making sure that they have the ability to determine the answer on their own and not simply by turning to the back of the book or “googling” the question on the Internet.

There is one other type of problem; the one we don’t know about yet. And since we know nothing about this problem, unless we change the methods by which we solve problems, it will be very difficult to develop a solution. If nothing else, the issue with the Japanese nuclear reactors illustrates that; they anticipated practically every possible situation except the one that actually hit the reactor. Our educational process is more attuned to solving the problems that are already solved than it is for solving the problems that we know nothing about.

I once proposed that teaching should be a self-eliminating process. By this, I meant and mean that we should be more interested in teaching individuals how to do things on their own. Granted there are very few 1st and 2nd graders who could survive on their own after completing that particular grade; but, as each year passes, the skills taught would enable each student to become more and more independent. This is not what is happening right now nor is it what most people seemed to want from the educational process. We see each year as a preparation for the next year (or, for some, several years down the road – there was the issue of the mom suing her child’s pre-school for the failure to prepare the child for an Ivy League education). The testing that is so much a part of today’s educational process simply reinforces that notion — you need to do well on the test because you will need the information next year. We may say that we are teaching students skills but the only skill they are learning is how to take a test, not think through the problem and solve it.

And we are beginning to see the repercussions of this approach. More and more schools are faced with cheating on the tests that decide so much in the way of the school’s success and future. And the cheating is not by the students but by the teachers and administrators who are changing the answers or falsifying the scores on the tests. We have told the teachers and the administrators that it isn’t what the students know that counts; it is the score that they make on the test. And if the test scores are too low, then it will be your job that is removed. In a world where only present moment counts, we have surrendered the future.

Can we fix this? Can we change the trend? Can we create a culture in which students are challenged to see beyond the present moment and envision the future? The answer to all three questions is “yes, a most definite yes!” And it can be done right now if we are willing to make the appropriate changes.

First, we need to reschedule the tests. I am not completely against testing students but I think that these “winner-take-all” should be scheduled for six months after the material has been covered. That way, if learning really took place, it will show up. If the students didn’t learn the material, we will know that we have to go back and redo the learning process. It says a lot about the process when you spend so much time on a subject and then, six months later, you don’t remember anything about it. And if you don’t believe me, how is that we spent all most a year of our life in high school studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and we don’t know what these documents are all about. We had to have known something because we graduated from high school and graduation is an implication that we know something, right?

Second, let us remember that we are no longer an agricultural-based society. We no longer need two to three months off during the summer since we (or most of us) don’t have to work on the farm anymore. We should make school year round and allow individuals to be a little more flexible in scheduling the school time. Right now, we tell high school students that graduation can be accomplished in 8 four-month terms but you must take four years to accomplish this. If we scheduled school was year round and gave the student and faculty a little flexibility, we might obtain some interesting results.

Changes in the school year and the nature of the classroom will cost money. I realize that. We have to face the fact that overall this nation’s educational system is one of the most stratified in the world. There are districts where any student can pretty much whatever they want because their school districts have the resources, funds and wherewithal for achievement. But there are far more districts where there are very little funds available and the resources are limited. We must work to make educational equitable, where the individual matters more than the location. This means some changes in who teaches where and the salaries for all teachers. It requires a change of priorities. As long as we spend more money on a plane that we do on educating the people who build the plane, our priorities are out of order.

Finally, we need to look at what have done in the past when faced with a crisis of thought and process, such as we are now. We do not need, as some have argued, a “Sputnik moment.” We do not need a major crisis to create a panic that will drive the change to reform the educational process. We had such a panic in the le 50s and early 60s and out of that we developed programs that encouraged creativity and independent thought. But we let the processes stop because we thought it cost too much money and we were more worried about the threats of other nations and what they might do to this country. Had we continued supporting the changes proposed in the 60s, we would be better prepared to meet the problems of today and we would have a better understanding of the world around us and the people with whom we share this planet.

The challenge is in front of us. The question that must be answered is “are we prepared t meet this challenge right now, in this time and in this place?”

“How Will You Get There?”

This is the message that I gave for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 February 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.


It has been said that the average American moves three times in their life. For my two brothers, sister, and myself, this is an interesting statistic since we made that many moves by the time we were each three years old. As the children of a career Air Force officer, it was not uncommon for us to move each year (a policy that the Air Force and other armed services has changed in the past few years).

Moving a family of four according to Air Force rules was a task that fell to my mother. Essentially all my father did was come home, tell us we had been transferred to another air base and when he had to be on duty at that base. It was up to Mom to pack up the stuff in the house, get the movers over, take the kids and occasional dog to the new location, find the house we were assigned (when we lived in on-base housing), meet the movers and unpack the stuff.

Every time I read the Old Testament reading for today, I am reminded of this process. Abram is told by God to pack up everything and head east to the Promised Land. To do so was not all that difficult because his was a nomadic lifestyle anyway and he and his family could easily make the move. The only problem they had is that they had no knowledge of what would be there when they did in fact arrive; how, would they know when they had reached the Promised Land?

For my family, the move to a new location was a matter of duty. The Air Force said that we had to be there, so wherever it was, we went there. We knew that we would have a house to live in when we got to our new home. Abram’s move was a matter of faith; he, Abram, believed in God and God said move eastward to a new location, so he moved. Since they took their home with them, having a place to stay was not a problem.

But in today’s society, having a home to live in is not an easy task. Homeownership has long been thought to be a right in our society; but not everyone who works can afford a place to live. There is an interesting statistic these days that says that it takes 144 hours of work at the minimum wage in order to find any sort of affordable housing.  (Page 228 of God’s Politics (Jim Wallis) – he cites "Out of Reach 2003: America’s Housing Wage Climbs," National Low Income Housing Coalition, September 2003, http://www.nlihc.org/oor2003/data.php?getmsa=on&msa%B%D=denver&state%B%D=CO)  If you do the math, you can figure out that there are 168 hours in a week.

For New York, someone earning $6.00 per hour, can afford monthly rent of no more than $312. This means that this individual must work 121 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent. The housing wage, the amount a full-time worker (40 hours per week) must earn earn in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent is $18.18 per hour.

We have just completed a political campaign unlike no other in the history of this country. One of the points/issues that people used in deciding how they would vote was something called "moral values." But every time this was discussed, it was described in terms of sexuality and abortion. But the primary moral value cited in the Bible is the care of the poor and the oppressed; and little was done or said during this last campaign in that regard.

I suppose that it is because many people feel that if one works hard and full-time, you need not be poor. But for many working families and many low-income breadwinners, it is necessary to hold down multiple jobs just to survive. The truth is that the safety net that is supposed to protect people has been taken down over the past few years. The number of hungry without food stamps is on the rise; the number of poor and low-income children without health insurance is rising; the disparity between the schools where the parents have a high income and the parents have a low income is constantly increasing. Yet, the treatment of the poor is not considered important enough for a sustained political debate.

In a political debate, where the Bible is used by one side to justify its claim of moral values, there were over eighty references to the poor in the Bible. There is the reference of Jesus rebuking Peter when Peter complained about the extravagant use of oil by the un-named woman in Matthew 26.

And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor."

But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always but Me you do not have always. (Matthew 26: 6 – 11)

It would be nice to say that we are a society that cares for the poor, the needy, the oppressed but the facts suggest otherwise. It would be nice if we could say that we no longer believe that poverty is a result of sin but we cannot, even if that were the case. No matter that we somehow still believe that working hard will get us into heaven, even when we are told that it is only by our faith that such entrance is granted. In a world where we argue for free will, we still seem stuck in a Calvinist concept that sin and salvation are predetermined.

But if sin and salvation are predetermined, then professing one’s belief in Christ, trusting in one’s faith is absolutely meaningless. Because if sin and salvation are predetermined, it does not matter what we do for we are either saved or doomed. But we accept as the basis of faith that Christ died for us and that we can come to Christ, openly accepting Him as our Lord and Savior. It is not who we are on this earth that brings us heaven and salvation; it is what we believe.

And if what we believe is that anyone can get to heaven through the profession of faith, then we must help them overcome that which blocks them from doing so. We are Methodists because we believe 1) that all can be saved, 2) all can know that they are saved, and 3) persons and nations can be saved from the power of sin. In a world that placed a premium on societal standing as the key to heaven, John Wesley refuted and contested that thought.

We have heard this morning about Habitat for Humanity. I became aware of this organization through a book that I had to read for one of my lay speaker courses. In this book I came to know Clarence Jordan, one of God’s "misfits". Just as John Wesley had done some two hundred and fifty years ago, Clarence Jordan saw that there was a difference between the nature of the Gospel as written in the Bible and what people said and believed. Rather than simply accept society’s notion of the Gospel, he chose to let Jesus guide and direct him through the Holy Spirit.

And one day Millard Fuller came into Clarence Jordan’s life; or more to the point Clarence Jordan came into Millard Fuller’s life. Taking the advice of Jordan (that what the poor need is not charity but capital and not caseworkers but coworkers and that the rich need an honorable way of divesting themselves of their overabundance), Fuller created Habitat for Humanity.

Jesus chastised His disciples when they ignored the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. Wesley once wrote that it was impossible for the poor to concentrate on salvation if they were hungry or cold. So too must we look at what we do and how we express our faith. For it is not what we do that determines our faith but rather how we express our faith that shows others what we believe.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night, asking how he can gain the kingdom of God. And Jesus says that he, Nicodemus must be born again. But Nicodemus confuses the physical act of birth with the spiritual act of accepting the Holy Spirit. Locked into an old style of thinking, Nicodemus cannot see that Jesus is calling for a new life and a new way of thinking. In a world that demands a reliance on the here and now, Jesus speaks of something beyond the physical.

It is by faith that we are saved; it is by faith that we are literally able to move mountains. Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to leave his ancestral home and move eastward to the Promised Land? Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to become Abraham and the father of many nations? Paul makes it very clear that those who hold to the law, that is to say, to the here and now, are not going to be saved. What Paul told the Romans, what Paul writes to us today is that it is our faith and the expression of that faith that will gain us our salvation. So, if we give something to charity feeling that this act of kindness on our part will get us into heaven, then we are missing the point.

But does that mean that we should not give to charity? Should we not share with others what God has blessed us with? Too often, we engage in charity without engaging in community. If we are to be servants of the Lord, then we are to be a part of the community in which we live. If we are to bring into focus that which is in our hearts, then we must go out into the community.

It has been said that John Wesley opposed the rich and the powerful. I know that he wasn’t happy about the power structure of the church that seemed more interested in self-preservation than spreading the Gospel but I am not sure that he necessarily opposed the rich. I do know that while he encouraged everyone to give all that they could, he also encouraged everyone to save all that they could and, more to the point, earn all they could. He just wanted everyone to make sure that what they earned they earned fairly and not at the expense of others.

John Wesley wanted to make sure that everyone understood that poverty was not a condition of sin. It is unfortunate that this lesson has still not been learned. Too many people today still feel that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and poverty a sin of God’s damnation. For such, charity is a non-engaging task, designed to sooth their own consciousness. But should we not consider that, as I think Wesley did, put our faith into action.

Some have said that Lent is about giving up something for forty days; I like what Gordon Bienvenue at Van Cortlandtville Community Church wrote in the church newsletter. We shouldn’t give something up, we should add something one. We should begin to be a community, offering ourselves beyond the walls of our own existence. We can better express our faith when we give of ourselves in service to others.

It is not often that I use the Psalter reading in my sermons but this is an exception. I was contemplating a move away from the hills of Kentucky and as I was coming back and driving along the plains of central Kentucky, I could see the Appalachian Mountains in front of me. Literally, I could lift up my eyes and see from where my help would come. The decision to stay in Kentucky then came because I saw those hills and knew that I had been called to that part of the country. Shortly after that came an opportunity to share and express my faith.

The same is true for those of us gathered here today. We have been given a chance to express our faith; to say to others that theirs is not a life of desolation and devoid of hope and joy. By our act of giving, we share with others in our lives and in our journey.

The season of Lent is a journey. It is a journey that we take as reluctant observers, watching Jesus enter Jerusalem and then climb Cavalry. As we watch Jesus complete His journey, we see our journey began. But too often is it a journey not expressed to others. Like Abram, it is a journey of faith. It is a journey that should end at the cross. Today, you are asked how you will get there? How will you express your faith so that others know where your heart lies?