“Playing the End Game”

I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.  I will be there next week as well.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 24, 2011, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 29: 15 – 28; Romans 8: 26 – 39; and Matthew 13: 31 – 33,44 – 52.


I had a couple of thoughts about the readings for this Sunday and where they may take me. First, it might have been interesting to know what happened to Jacob on his wedding night such that he wasn’t able to recognize who he actually married.

Second, I would like to have had Paul explain to me what he, Paul, meant when he wrote that God knew from the beginning what He, God, was doing. I have no doubt about the omnipotence of God but it seems to me that something is missing in the logic that Paul presents. If God knew the outcome, He might have saved Himself a lot of trouble by just skipping right to the end. And if God does truly know how it all turns out, don’t you think it would be nice if every now and then, He lets us in on the secret about what He is planning?

Now, by the same token, I don’t see God as some sort of supernatural deity who designed and built the universe, turned it on, and then walked away leaving us to figure it all out. But then again, maybe that is what God did. When God laid the groundwork for the Garden of Eden, he planted the Tree of Knowledge, the tree whose fruit would lead to our downfall. Creating us in His image means that we got part of His creativity and intelligence. He had to know that we would use that creativity and that intelligence. The question must be – that knowing that we have this creativity, knowing that we have this intelligence, – what are we going to do with them?

Ours is a history of following God and then rejecting Him; of being destroyed by our rejection and being reborn by our renewal of the covenant. The Bible tells of those times when the people followed God, kept the commandments and upheld the covenants; the Bible also tells us of the times when the people strayed from God, did not keep the commandments and forgot the covenants. When the people did the former, times were good; when the people did the latter, the times were bad. Invariably, when the times were good, many people began to think that it was their efforts and their work and that is when the bad times began to arrive. And when you read the Bible, you note that many times the bad times were worse than the good times were good.

I am not sure where we lie in that cycle of good times and bad times but I have seen enough that leads me to conclude that many see these not as bad times but rather as the beginning of the “End Times.” The sad thing is that there is enough evidence to suggest that many people today go out of their way to find evidence that would support this conclusion so that they can feel as if they will be one of the select few who shall be saved.

The view of Christianity today almost seems to be totally focused on the first few pages at the beginning of the Old Testament (Genesis) and the last few pages of the New Testament (Revelations). It is like reading a murder mystery where we don’t want to be burdened with literary devices such as a cast of characters or a plot. We know that something went wrong in the beginning so we just jump to the end to find out how it all turns out.

If we do bother reading the Old and New Testament, it is read so fast as to forget what it is that we read. Our knowledge of the Bible is shockingly limited and often wrong. We have a limited understanding of how the Bible came into being and why. And I think that what’s worse is that we have virtually no understanding of how we became Christians or even Methodists or why we are who we say we are.

I know that this may be difficult for many to accept but consider this. Look at what is happening in our schools today. My experience is that students are not interested in how we got the answer to a question, only what the answer might be and if that particular question will be on the test.

When I began teaching a number of years ago, I was introduced to the idea/thought of “wait time.” “Wait time” is the time that the instructor needs to wait after asking a question.

In most classrooms, students are typically given less than one second to respond to a question posed by a teacher. Research shows that under these conditions students generally give short, recall responses or no answer at all rather than giving answers that involve higher-level thinking. Studies beginning in the early 1970s and continuing through the 1980s show that if teachers pause between three and seven seconds after asking higher-level questions, students respond with more thoughtful answers and that science achievement is increased. This finding is consistent at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels and across the science disciplines.

However, some research studies have suggested that the benefits of increasing wait time may depend on factors such as student expectations and the cognitive level of the questions. In a study of increased wait time in a high school physics class, students became more apathetic in classes where the wait time was increased. This might have occurred because this strategy did not match students’ expectations of how a high school physics course should be conducted. In a study at the elementary level, a decrease in achievement was attributed to waiting too long for responses to low-level questions. (From http://www.agpa.uakron.edu/p16/btp.php?id=waittime)

What is surprising about these results is that forty years ago, we wanted teachers to wait for the answers. Now, we have become a nation that expects results immediately if not sooner and we do not want to work for the results. And we think that if we get good scores on the test at the end of the year, we have an understanding of the subject.

There can be no doubt that one of the greatest love stories in the Bible is that of the relationship between Jacob and Rachel. That he worked for her father for seven years in anticipation of marrying her speaks to Jacob’s love for Rachel. But how could he work and live with that family for seven years and not know that Rachel was not going to be allowed to marry until her sister, Leah, was married? Was he so focused on the end that he missed the story?

Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, once said that “You must collect things for reasons you don’t yet understand.” You hear this statement practically every time that Jesus told a story or a parable. He is giving insight into what will come but because people want the answers now, they are having a hard time learning what He is teaching. And when they see how hard it was to learn what Jesus was teaching, they quit following Him. They weren’t interested in what Jesus was saying; they were interested in how all of this turns out and where they were going to be when the Kingdom of God became a reality. Could it be that those who began the journey but quit early did in fact understand that it would be a difficult and arduous task to follow Jesus and they didn’t want any part of it?

We know, I hope and trust, that this walk with Jesus will never be an easy one. We do have Paul’s words that tell us that the Holy Spirit will be right there with us, supporting us in our efforts and struggles. But how do we get to the end? What do we do when it may seem like these are the “End Times?”

If you are like me, you were shocked and appalled by the bombing and the mass shooting in Norway on Friday. For my family, it was more than a story on the television. My wife and two of her children lived in Norway for three years; they still have friends in the country. Their friends are okay but friends have friends and in a country as small as Norway, only 4 million people, all of those deaths will reach deep into those friendships.

There is a tendency by many to demand retribution for these acts of violence. And I think that you could hear those calls for retribution when it was felt that these acts of violence came from outside Norway. But it is becoming more and more apparent that the one who did this was a Norwegian, one of their own. But amidst those thoughts came the words of the Norwegian Prime Minister that the people of Norway would respond to this attack on their democracy with more democracy and this attack on their society with more humanity. This is totally in character with the Norwegian people. It is part of their national psyche.

We live in a world where we need to spend more time doing that, responding to acts of violence and hatred with humanity and love, not with more violence and hatred. What we need to do right now is not play the end game and say that nothing can be done. Rather, we have to take that which we have been taught and put it into practice. We have to make the teachings that we were taught in Sunday school more than something to pass the time away. We have to look around and see where we can put them into practice. How are we to feed the homeless? How are we to find homes for the homeless? How do we heal and take care of those who are sick and injured? How are we to remove the injustice and oppression that is so often present in this world?

I know what I can do to answer these questions and I know what I can and am presently doing to answer those questions? These are difficult questions and often times we may not be able to answer them. But then we hear the words that Paul wrote to the Romans, in those times when we struggle, the Holy Spirit is there with us. And we know this, there was a promise made two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem that said that we will never struggle alone. To play the end game requires that we play the whole game.

That means accepting Jesus as our Savior and then letting the Holy Spirit empower you. Are you ready to play the whole game and not just take a peak at the ending?

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