“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.

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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)

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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.

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