I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17 – 27, 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – 15, and Mark 5: 21 – 43. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.
That I am a chemist by training and vocation is a matter of a particular set of circumstances. As I will relate in a few moments, it was a choice made that was based, figuratively, on where I was in time and what I had done in the past.
Now, I have often wondered what my major might have been if I had not had to make the decision at the beginning of my college studies to be a chemistry major. In the words of a Rod Steward song from a few years ago, if I had known then what I know today, I might have been a mathematics and computer science major. As it turned out, when I graduated from college in 1971 I had a mathematics minor to go with my chemistry major and more hours in computer science than the college offered (in part, because I took some courses at other colleges while home during the summer).
But computers in 1971 were still essentially people who performed mathematical calculations but with the aid of big (and I mean big) calculating machines. They were not the small desktop setups that we have today that have more computing power than the computers on the Apollo spacecrafts that went to the moon. And the uses of the computer today are hardly what many people imagined back then. All one has to do is consider the following statements:
- In 1943, Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
- In 1949, Popular Science magazine predicted that computers in the future would weigh 1.5 tons.
- In 1957, the editor in charge of business books for Prentice-Hall stated that data processing was a fad that wouldn’t last a year.
- An engineer in the Advanced Computing Systems of IBM asked in 1968 what good was the microchip.
- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, stated in 1977 that there was no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.
- When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began working on what was to become the Apple computer, they went to Atari and said, “Hey, we got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.” And they said, “No.” So we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, “Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t even gone to college yet.”
- In 1981, Bill Gates proclaimed that 640K ought to be enough for everyone. (see “Some Interesting Predictions”)
Each of these “prophecies” was made with a consideration for the current situation and what had transpired in the past. But prophets don’t necessarily see the future; they merely tell the truth as they see it. They point out the way things are, not the way people want things. They can warn of dangers ahead if things do not change.; they do point out what they think is wrong. (From “Should We Explain This?”)
To see the future requires that we understand the past. But we have to be prepared to move from the present into the future, not merely look contemplatively at the past and say that is where we need to be now. One of the first quotes that I collected was one by George Bernard Shaw which was also used by Robert Kennedy in the fateful presidential campaign of 1968,
“Some men see things as they are and say why – I dream things that never were and say why not.”
While my studies and my inclination at the time would have dictated that I become an industrial chemist; my own decisions lead me into the chemistry classroom. It may be that it was never part of the path that I chose to walk in 1966 but in walking that path I was able to do other things. Even now, I find myself delving into the history of chemistry, especially when faith and science overlap; areas I would never have thought of almost fifty years ago.
I have discovered in the course of things that Robert Boyle, who is considered the father of modern chemistry, and Joseph Priestley, one of the discoverers of oxygen, were also intense men of faith and that their writings in the area of faith were as numerous as their scientific writings. Coupled with the fact that Isaac Newton, more known as a mathematician and physicist, was also a chemist and also intensely interested in matters of faith and religion, I see a new path lying before me that results from the intersection of my interests in chemistry, faith, and religion. (See “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)
Seeing the future is not all that hard, provided one is willing to, and excuse me for using a cliche, think outside the box and go beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking. I think one of the difficulties that we face as a society is that we
are unwilling to make that type of move; to use our background and experience in other areas or to dig deeper into areas which we find interesting.
We can read the Old Testament reading by itself and read a lament by David on the death of Saul and Jonathan. There are a lot of people who do and don’t want to do anything more than that. But that misses the point.
In the verses before today’s Old Testament reading we learn that Saul and Jonathan died in battle and that David was informed of their deaths by an Amalekite. When this Amalekite told David that Saul and Jonathan were dead, he handed Saul’s crown to David, in effect making David the new king. And it was this Amalekite, in at least one version of the story, who helped Saul to die. The Amalekite’s action can be considered an act of mercy though David sees it as an act of treachery.
For David, mercy towards a dying man does not trump the presumption of anyone, least of all an enemy, to kill “the anointed of the Lord” under any circumstance.
It poses an interesting question for us today. The Scripture records David’s decision but it does not record an evaluation of that decision. It presents both David and the Amalekite’s stories and perspectives, shows their conflict and states the results. The text, as is done so many times in the Bible, offers not one right answer but many questions for us to ponder and struggle over with one another and with God.
Are we more like David, committed at all costs to enforcing the social norms? Or are we like the Amalekite, trying to show mercy and make the best of a dreadful situation. Who saw beyond the boundaries?
For me, this is repeated in the Gospel reading for today as well. The woman who sought to touch Jesus went outside the social norms of the day. Whatever the cause of her illness, she was considered unclean and society said, in no uncertain terms, that she was not to be a part of society.
Such an act as hers would have resulted in her being scolded and possibly even being stoned. For those who were the keepers of the norms, her actions could not be tolerated. And yet for Jesus, all she had done was exercise her faith.
Social convention was in play with the death of Jarius’ daughter as well. We hear of the mourners who had gathered to mourn the daughter’s death. We are told in the commentaries that these individuals were professionals of a sort, paid to come and mourn. The “right” thing would be to join in the mourning. Clearly, for Jesus to tell them to stop the mourning because the girl was only sleeping was acting against the social norm.
Now, as I was writing all of this and knowing that for one to see beyond the walls of today to the paths of tomorrow, one has to break with tradition and societal norms, I kept wondering where I was going to put Paul’s thoughts to the Corinthians. The letter to the Corinthians is one we all know too well for it is a discussion of church finances and the obligations of the church in one location to churches in other locations. In reading this letter, we are reading of the connectionalism that is a part of Methodist tradition and practice. And I know too many churches where the conversation always begins with church finances and the argument that if the bills are not paid, there can be no church.
But like the professional mourners who came to mourn the death of Jarius’ daughter or David’s reaction to the Amalekite’s bringing him Saul’s crown, this is also part of the social norm.
Have we somewhere along the line forgotten that the church began in first in hiding and then in people’s homes? How many of us know why Paul had to even discuss the funds that the Corinthians had promised to send to the churches in Jerusalem? Paul does not order the Corinthians to send the payment but he does suggest that it is for their sake that they do so. You cannot begin to see the future when you are focused on the present and/or the past. Paul does point out that if the Corinthians act to help Jerusalem now, Jerusalem will be in a position to help them later should the need arise.
I can imagine what administrative council meetings at the church in Corinth must have been like; I have been to quite a few such meetings in my own time. But I have yet to hear people talk about the future of the church except in terms of the present, of saying that things that cannot be because they are not possible now.
The commentary notes that I used to prepare this message today indicate that we need to seek ways to teach or model ways to build positive community change where we are and for others elsewhere. You cannot do this if your operating model fits within the social norm. And I say that because the social norm for many churches today does not match what Christ was doing two thousand years ago.
For many the church of today is not the church of two thousand years ago or even the church of John Wesley two hundred and fifty years ago. Today’s church is more likely to be one in which the actions of David in killing the Amalekite are applauded or people act in the role of the mourners in the Gospel reading.
In the middle of this week, we will pause to celebrate this country’s independence. There will be many, many celebrations of what has happened; it is only natural. But what I fear is that while many echo the words of the founding fathers their actions seem to reflect the actions of the British crown in stifling the dissent. When we speak of independence this week, I hope and pray that it will be such that we will want to find ways to make the celebrations a way to speak of the future and what possibilities lie before us.
The same is true for the church today. Chad Brooks wrote in his blog about why he became a Methodist. He is in the process of becoming an Elder in the United Methodist Church and, as such, he must answer some very basic questions, one of which is “Why did you become a Methodist?”
Part of his answer was that “I found the practice of a Historic faith that also encouraged continuing to forward movement into contextualizing worship in the 21st century.” (from “Why I Became A Methodist”) When we understand that being a Methodist, no matter the path that one takes, is to take on the persona of a group of believers who saw beyond the social norm and chose a path that included all we are looking to the future. There are too many people today who say they are Methodist but whose actions reflect the actions of David in upholding the social norm and who are more like the mourners in the Gospel reading, proclaiming that the girl is dead and nothing can be done. If we are to honor the future, we must be like the Amalekite, showing mercy to even our enemies, and we must find ways to help those like the woman in the Gospel who sought Jesus.
Today is the day that we begin to honor the future. In our vow to let Jesus Christ be our savior, we are looking to the future. In our acceptance of the Holy Spirit, we are working for the future. Today is the day that we begin honoring the future; let us begin.