“Wooden Crosses by Woody”

A couple of years ago my wife gave me this cross to wear when I am doing my lay speaking work:

Blessing Cross from “Wooden Crosses by Woody”

People comment on the nature of the cross and its workmanship, so much so that I finally got around to putting a link (www.wooden-crosses.com) up on my blog. I also have it list on the “blog roll” on the side of the blog.

Check out Woody’s work; I think you will like what he does!

“Two Stories With Morals”

I present the following as first as a reminder for all graduate students who have to have their research topics and thesis statements on their advisor’s next sometime next week and second in honor of my youngest daughter as she prepares to complete her Ed. S. Her research paper topic is needed this week as well.


(required reading for graduate students)

Scene: It’a a fine sunny day in the forest, and a rabbit is sitting outside his burrow, tippy-tapping on his typewriter. Along comes a fox, out for a walk.

Fox: “What are you working on?”

Rabbit:”My thesis.”

Fox:”Hmm. What is it about?”

Rabbit:”Oh, I’m writing about how rabbit eat foxes.”

(incredulous pause)

Fox:”That’s ridiculous! Any fool know that rabbits don’t eat foxes!”

Rabbit:”Come with me and I’ll show you!”

They both disappear into the rabbit’s burrow. After a few minutes, gnawing on a fox bone, the rabbit returns to his typewriter and resumes typing. Soon a wolf comes along and stops to watch the hardworking rabbit

Wolf:” What’s that you are writing?”

Rabbit:” I’m doing a thesis on how rabbits eats wolves.”

(loud guffaws)

Wolf:” you don’t expect to get such rubbish published, do you?”

Rabbit:” No problem. Do you want to see why?”

The rabbit and the wolf go into the burrow, and again the rabbit returns by himself, after a few minutes, and goes back to typing.

Finally a bear comes along and asks, “What are you doing?

Rabbit:” I’m doing a thesis on how rabbits eats bears.

Bear: “Well that’s absurd!

Rabbit: “Come into my home and I’ll show you!”

As they enter the burrow, the rabbit introduces the bear to the lion.



(required reading for students and supervisors)

Scene: It’a a fine sunny day in the forest, and a lion is sitting outside his cave, lying lazily in the sun. Along comes a fox, out on a walk.

Fox: “Do you know the time? My watch is broken.”

Lion:”Oh, I can easily fix the watch for you.”

Fox:”Hmm. But it’s a very complicated mechanism, and your greatclaws will only destroy it even more.”

Lion:”Oh no, give it to me, and it will be fixed.”

(incredulous pause)

Fox:”That’s ridiculous! Any fool knows that lazy lions with great claws cannot fix complicated watches.”

Lion:”Sure they do, give it to me and it will be fixed.”

The lion disappears into his cave, and after a while he comes back with the watch which is running perfectly. The fox is impressed, and the lion continues to lie lazily in the sun, looking very pleased with himself.

Soon a wolf comes along and stops to watch the lazy lion in the sun.

Wolf: “Can I come and watch TV tonight with you? Mine is broken.”

Lion: “Oh, I can easily fix your TV for you.”

(loud guffaws)

Wolf: “You don’t expect me to believe such rubbish, do you? There is no way that a lazy lion with big claws can fix a complicated TV.”

Lion:” No problem. Do you want to try it?”

The lion goes into his cave, and after a while comes back with a perfectly fixed TV. The wolf goes away happily and amazed.

Scene: Inside the lion’s cave. In one corner are half a dozen small and intelligent looking rabbits who are busily doing very complicated work with very detailed instruments. In the other corner lies a huge lion looking very pleased with himself.


For the record, one of the reasons that I got my Ph. D. at the University of Iowa was because of the faculty and the gentleman who ultimately became my advisor, Robert Yager. Thanks, Dr. Yager!

“The Not-so-Social Gospel”

I got an e-mail the other day from Tikkun entitled “What if Jesus had been a Republican?”  Rather than copy the post (which came from another source, which was attributed in the e-mail), I am supplying the link to the original document – “The Not-so-Social Gospel”.  It presents a very interesting commentary on the infusion of the New Testament with current Republican philosophy.

“What Is The Purpose?”

I am again at the New Milford (NY)/Edenville United Methodist Church in Warwick, NY, this morning. Their services start at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this morning, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, are 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11), 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69.

In 1924 someone asked George Mallory why he continued trying to climb Mount Everest after having failed in two previous attempts. It has been said that his reply was “because it is there.” Mallory and a climbing companion would disappear on what was to have been the third attempt and their bodies would not be found until some 75 years later. Even today, it is not clear whether they had been successful in making the summit of Everest. In 1953 Edmund Hillary (now Sir Edmund Hillary) and Tenzing Norgay would be the first to successfully reach the summit and return to base camp.

Mallory’s comment about doing something because of the challenge it presented has been used numerous times since he first made that remark not quite 100 years ago. It was the allusion that President Kennedy sought to invoke when he spoke before a crowd at Rice University in 1961 and laid out the rationale for a manned space program and the goal of reaching the moon before 1970.

He spoke of the challenges and the dangers that were inherent in such a task. He also asked a question often either overlooked in rememberances of that speech. President Kennedy asked, “Why does Rice play Texas?” Those assembled that day in Houston knew that Rice played Texas every year in football and did so because it was a conference game and with the knowledge that, at that time, Texas would probably win. Still Rice played Texas each year with the hope that success would be theirs one year. If one were to face only those challenges that one could overcome, they would not be challenges; they would be commonplace occurrences.

It is ironic that I choose to use President Kennedy’s remarks on the same weekend that we learned that Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon, died. Mr. Armstrong was a test pilot, chosen for the Gemini and Apollo missions because he had the ability to see the challenges and make the right decisions at the right times.

You may recall his Gemini 8 mission where a thruster rocket misfired and caused his spacecraft to wildly gyrate in space, at rates that threatened the safety of the crew. This mission was the first time this country learned of the dangers and hazards of space. Somewhere along the line, space travel became routine and blasé instead of challenging with risks of danger. The Challenger and Columbia disasters would remind us that space travel is neither routine nor blasé.

It would seem to me that we as a society today no longer seek the challenges before us. We are quite content with the present, hoping and preparing for tomorrow as if tomorrow will be no different than today. One report indicates that our children can expect a life no better than the present; that despite the fact that their parents’ incomes were substantially better than their grand-parents, their incomes will be no better than their parents. It is as if the Red Queen’s comment to Alice, “My dear, here we must run twice as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that” in “Alice in Wonderland” has become a reality of life instead of a line in a fictional story.

Faced with that sort of outcome, we hold onto very tightly to the present, so much so that we cannot even begin to wonder how it was that we got here in the first place and how we will get anywhere in the future. And if we cannot get anywhere, no matter where that may be, then we have to begin wondering what our purpose is for life.

And, of course, that is the reason and the rationale for the title of this message. What is the purpose? Why have we gathered here this morning? What is it that we hope to gain? One could answer with the words from the hymn, “We Gather Together” (Hymn #131). We have gathered here to ask the Lord’s blessing on us; we have gathered here to worship Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

But I am afraid that many, while agreeing with those ideas, may also have forgotten what was the rationale for the beginning of the church and what the mission of the church was and should be. They forget that those who formed the early church, the church before the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity acceptable and legal, often times gathered in fear, fear that their neighbors would turn them into the Roman authorities as enemies of the state. We forget that the symbol of the fish that we sometimes use to symbolize Christ and Christianity is an acroynm derived from the Greek letters ΙχθΥΣ, which meant “Jesus Christ, God’s Savior, Son” and was used so that Christians could identify each other.

We see the church today in a completely different light, one that does not shine well on what it is supposed to be and what it should be. Instead of being the place of refuge for the weak and the needy, it has become a sanctuary for those who wish to escape the fear and turmoil of the world.

We hear the words of Solomon dedicating the temple and announcing that people will come from far and away because they have heard about the God, the One True God, who is now a part of the lives of the Israelite community. And yet today, when our churches are to be open to the community, in honor of this pledge made so many years ago, our churches are often closed to those who are in need, both spiritually and physically..

Just as the early disciples did, we hear the words of Jesus. And it is quite apparent that many of those today who have heard those words today have also chosen not to follow them, choosing instead to build a church that is a temple to themselves more often than it is a place of worship for God.

I have said it before and probably from this pulpit but it is always interesting going from town to town, village to village, in this part of the country and seeing all the Methodist churchs. One can begin to imagine the 18th century circuit rider going from church to church bringing the Good News of Christ to the people. Sometimes he rode to a place and called upon those gathered together but most of the time the circuit rider came to places where believers had gathered. For some Jesse Lee is the name of two churches in Connecticut but I would hope that for others he is one of the circuit riders who along with Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garrettson, brought the Gospel message to these parts. This church, along with so many others in the Hudson Valley, has its roots in the efforts of the circuit riders and the early American Methodist movement to bring the Good News to a thirsty and hungry population, a population that could not necessarily meet in the established Anglican churches of 18th century America. We sometimes forget that being a Methodist at that time made one an outcast in society.

Several years ago, there was a church that was quite known for its support of the Native American community and of its many social activities. It was one of those churches formed from the efforts of the early settlers and the circuit riders. But it had a history that often was forgotten in the course of the church’s day to day existence.

People would come from miles around to be a part of these activities. And while the people would gather on the grounds of the church in friendship and fellowship, very seldom did anyone ever ventured into the church. And no one asked if the church was ever open. The people came for the food and the fellowship but not to worship. And the people who belonged to the church saw the events, not as part of the worship of the church, but as a means of keeping the building open. No invitations were ever made to those who came to the events to return for worship on Sunday and ultimately the church closed. And now, as it sits on the side of the road and cars roar by, it is a monument to days past.

It is a daunting challenge to keep a church open; it is an even more daunting challenge to meet the purpose of the church, the purpose first formed some two thousand years ago when people gathered in secret and in fear in order that they might worship Christ. And even after they were able to meet openly, there was still a fear. I can be like some and read the words of Paul to the Ephesians for today as a call to arms and war; it would only be natural to do so when Paul tells the people of Ephesus to put on the armor of God. And there are those who see daily life as a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan. I am not saying that life should not be seen in those terms but if we say that Christ is the Prince of Peace, how can we use warfare to defeat evil, in whatever form it may take? On the other hand, if as Paul wrote, our weapons are truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation, then God’s armor gives us that single added dimension that will allow us to prevail.

We have gathered here today, in part to be refreshed, in part to be inspired. We are like those who have gathered at this spot so many times in the past. We have to wonder what purpose there is jn our gathering. We have to wonder, as so many others did, two thousand years ago, what path we will take when we leave here. We can be like many, hearing the words of Jesus and realizing that the challenge is too great, that what Jesus is asking us to do is to great a task. Or we can also hear the words of Peter that we are committed to the task that Jesus sets before us, knowing that the purpose of our life comes in that commitment. And we know that from Christ will come that which we need to meet the challenges, whatever they may be, wherever they may lead, in the coming days.

“Tell Me Why?”

First, a disclaimer – there is a song playing on WFUV that includes the line “tell me why” but I am not using that song.

The other day I posted “They Are At It Again, version 2”. Now, I hear that Paul Ryan is illegally using a Twisted Sister song (see “Twisted Sister to Ryan: Stop”). This same article points out that the lead singer for the group “Rage Against the Machine” wrote an op-ed against Ryan in Rolling Stone.

So how is it that the GOP insists on using songs that are probably the antithesis of their image? And why, when they insist that they are for the individual they keep on violating individual rights?

All I want to know is why they can’t speak the truth about what they believe and act the way that they say they believe? Just tell me why?

“How Will They Know?”

This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley (NY) United Methodist Church for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), August 22, 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1 – 8, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.

Well, let’s face it. The year is almost over and soon we will have to deal with the dreaded “Y2K” problem. If you haven’t heard of this problem, then you have been where there are no computers, no radio, no TV, and no cable.

To understand the nature of this problem, you have to understand a little bit about computer history. Today, we speak of megabytes and Pentium chips. A typical floppy disk of today, which is no longer floppy, contains more data than many of the first computers. Now because the operating memory for these early computers was so limited, programmers had to find ways of saving space. One way was to simply use the last two digits of the year. It was assumed that latter programmers would solve this problem.

But many early programmers failed to accurately document where they stuck the code and how they set it up. And as other problems came up, the solution of correcting the date storage problem kept getting pushed back.

So now it is 1999 and people have suddenly remembered that when January 1, 2000 comes around, many computer clocks will think it is January 1, 1900. And since no one can remember how the code was written or where the code was put in the memory and no one bothered to write down anything, many companies are faced with major problems related to the time and date.

Now, I don’t think that this computer problem is going to cause as many problems as every one fears. There are going to be glitches, to be sure, but nothing will shut down and most computers will not suddenly turn back to the end of the 19th century. But it does show us the importance of knowing from whence things come.

From the Egyptian point of view, the Israelites had become a problem. But it was a problem only because the Pharaoh had forgotten and apparently no Egyptian bothered to record why the Israelites where there in the first place.

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.”

We know that the Israelites were welcomed to Egypt because of what Joseph had done. But like the origin of the Y2K problem, we find that people tend to forget why things were done. And because the Israelites had become so numerous, the Egyptians, without knowing why they were there in the first place, began to fear them and take the repressive measures that would ultimately lead to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

When they left Egypt, the Israelites were determined not to forget what God had done for them. That is why each year at Passover, they say

For ever after, in every generation, all of us must think of ourselves as having gone forth from Egypt. For we read in the Torah: “In that day thou shalt teach thy child, saying: All this is because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt.” It was not only our ancestors that the Holy One, blessed be God, redeemed; us, too, the living, God redeemed together with them, as we learn from the verse in the Torah: “And God brought us out from thence, so that God might bring us home, and give us the land which God pledged to our ancestors.” (From “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” by Marcus J. Borg. He is quoting Maurice Samuel’s translation of Haggadah of Passover. (New York: Hebrew Publishing, 1942), p. 27. Borg added the italics and the translation was slightly modified for the sake of gender-inclusive language.)

But over the years, as Israel suffered and rejoiced, these words may have lost their meaning to many of them. So when Jesus asked his disciples who the people said he was, the answers given suggest that while the Israelites knew the words, they did not understand the meaning of what they were saying and hearing every year. They forgot what God had done and what He had promised we would do. In essence, they had lost their relationship with God.

Simply hearing the words or telling the stories does not guarantee that you will believe the stories. Telling the stories about Jesus is important (Hymn #156) but sooner or later, if we are not careful, the stories will become words simply told from generation to generation.

The Greek and Latin roots for the word “believe” mean “to give one’s heart to.” Believing, therefore, does not consist of simply giving one’s mental assent to something but much more, of giving of one’s self.

At some point in time, we must take action, as Peter did and exclaim when Jesus asked,

But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Believing in Jesus means more than just believing a doctrine. If we give our heart to Jesus, we find that our life will change.

As Paul notes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This transforming changes the way we live and the way we do things. If Christ is in our life, then the words we speak must be turned into actions.

Peter was given the keys to the kingdom and so are we when we acknowledge that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God. As Paul told the Romans, we have been blessed with many gifts, according to the grace given us. These gifts may be in the manner of teaching, or preaching, or confessing, or prophesying. But Paul also warned the Romans about taking themselves too seriously, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measures of faith God has given you.”

Paul knew that being a disciple of Christ was more than simply being a follower. Our relationship with Christ should be a personal one, but our journey with Christ, the result of the transforming of the spirit is not done alone. It is a journey that puts us in a community that remembers and celebrates Jesus.

To Paul, being in fellowship with Christ creates a community of believers celebrating and remembering Christ. Like any community, the members of Christ’s community are unique in their own skills, each having one skill given to them by the grace of God. And for the community to survive, each member must use his or her own talents in conjunction with the others, just as one’s own body is many different parts all working together.

So, while we remember the past and tell the stories about Jesus and what he did, we look to the future. And against that backdrop, we ask how will the future generations come to know Christ? They will hear the stories but will they know the meaning of the words. The answer to that question is very clear. They will know Christ because they see Christ today in the eyes and hearts of those around them in the community of fellowship with Christ.

But that is not always an easy thing to see. But it is not an impossible task either. All we have to do today is answer the question that Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” If we accept Christ as our Savior, if we allow him to come into our lives and allow the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, other people will know.

How will they know? They will know because the story of Jesus is not just a story from the past, the origin of which is lost in the passage of time but because Christ is alive and well in the community of fellowship. As hymn #310 tell us, they will know because Christ is alive in our hearts.

“You Knew the Job Was Dangerous When You Took It”

This was the message that I presented at Alexander Chapel United Methodist Church (Mason, TN) on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), August 24, 1977. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11) 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69

When I first read the Gospel and Epistle readings for today, my first thought was that being a Christian was a dangerous thing to be. But then, I thought about what Christ asks of us each day and I knew that I would call this sermon, “You Knew the Job Was Dangerous When You Took It.”

Now I must admit, and it brings embarrassment to my daughters and possibly my brothers and sister, that I am a fan of “George of the Jungle.” Now I am not talking about the movie of the same name, though I hope to see it soon, but rather the cartoon show from which the movie took its name. When I was in college, the only thing that got me out of bed on Saturday mornings was this cartoon show. As I recall, each week one of the vignettes during the half-hour show involved Superchicken and his faithful companion, Fred.

Now, no matter what happened during each episode, you could be assured that Fred would either get run over , blown up, or beaten up while the hero, Superchicken, would always walk away unscathed. And whenever Fred complained abought this obvious disparity in treatment, Superchicken would always say “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

Even with Christians being persecuted in other countries and openly being a Christian bring ridicule in this country, being a Christian today should not be viewed as dangerous. Yes, Jesus warned us and his early followers that it would not be easy when we first go out on missions.

“I send you out like sheep among wolves; be wary as serpents, innocent as doves. Be on your guard, for you will be handed over to the courts, they will flog you in their synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings on my account, to testify before them and the Gentiles.” (Matthew 10: 16 – 18)

But we certainly do not have to face the dangers that either the early Christians nor the early Methodist ministers had to face when they began preaching some two hundred years ago. Stephen was stoned for preaching the salvation from sins through Christ.

Not only were early Methodist ministers barred from preaching in the churches of England, they were also subject to crowds throwing stones at them as they preached in the open fields of 18th century England. Even John Wesley bore with pride the bruises caused by a well-thrown stones. Yet, because these ministers were in the fields preaching the Gospel, more people heard the Gospel.

Despite all this, despite the ridicule, despite the obvious persecution, the dangers we face today come more from within, because when faced with the uncertainty of tomorrow, when faced with what seems to be an impossible task, many people will choose the easy way out.

When Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan tempted him with the easy way out. But Jesus knew, as we know today, that His Kingdom could not be reached by giving in and taking the easy way, will not give us that which we seek. His message is a difficult to hear and understand if your focus is on avoiding the hard path.

This was the case for many of the early followers of Jesus. Jesus spoke of the bread of life and how it brings the gift of eternal life. Many of his disciples could not accept this teaching.

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing this, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

The message of God’s love for us, of our salvation from sin by the Grace of God did not often fit with the desire of some of these early followers for an earthly king who would restore the kingdom of Israel. Wanting freedom from the oppressive Roman government, they were not willing to seek the heavenly kingdom and freedom from sin that Christ offered. Faced with the unknown, faced with the challenge of understanding Jesus’ message, many followers just were not willing to continue following Jesus. So they took the easy way out and left his group.

Understanding Jesus’ message is not an easy thing to do. Sometimes, our best choice is not to leave but to stay. Consider what Peter said to Jesus in response to Jesus’ asking if they wanted to leave as well.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

But Jesus knew that not every one who began following him was going to be with him at the end. The mystery of faith is not always immediately obvious and often times we do not wish to make such leaps of faith. And in a society which likes to see its results now, having to wait is not the desired answer. But faith must be taken as it is. In Hebrews 11:1 we read “Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see”.

Each day, we face some new challenge and we must decide which way we are going to go. When the troubles of the world start getting to us, when it seems like there is nothing that we can do, how will we react?

One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful. (From Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld)

And as Solomon noted in his dedication of the new temple in Jerusalem, God is always with us.

Secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us. (Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld)

When Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he closed with

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name — for men will hear of your great name and your might hand and your outstretched arm — when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people of Israel, and may know that this house I have build bears your Name.

The temple was there for all who heard God speaking to them and the invitation to come to Christ was there even then. If we come to Christ, if we open our heart to Him, then we gain what we need to meet any dangers that we might encounter. Mother Theresa tells us

Put yourself completely under the influence of Jesus, so that he may think his thoughts in your mind, do his work through your hands, for you will be all-powerful with him to strengthen you. (A Gift for God by Mother Theresa)

Paul told the church at Ephesus, in a similar time of trouble and danger

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his might power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand. Stand firm then with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

When we open our hearts to Christ, we find that no matter what we face, we are able to face it with the confidence that the Lord is with us. The invitation to come to the Lord has been here since long before we were on this earth.

There are dangers in the world, even today. Being a Christian will do nothing to change that. But being a Christian, accepting Christ as our personal Savior means that no job will ever be a dangerous one and we can go forward secure in our lives.

“To Boldly Go”

This was the message I gave at my mother’s church in Memphis (actually Bartlett), TN, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), August 25, 1996. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 17: 1 – 7, Romans 11: 33 – 36, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20,

We have all heard the lines “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise” and its closing refrain “to boldly go when no one has gone before.” We know these lines because they touch a part of us which likes to explore, to out there. It is the same spirit which lets mountain climbers to climb mountains “because it is there”. It is the same spirit which let President Kennedy to make the decision to go to the moon and land before the end of the 60’s.

Exploration is exciting; there can be no doubt about that. It offers challenges we do not encounter in everyday life and it takes us into areas where we have never ventured. With new knowledge, new horizons open, our abilities to do things expand. In research, we are often reminded that “the answer to one question often poses two more questions”. The announcement the other week that there may have been life on Mars is an example of what exploration offers. What this discovery mean; what effect it will have on our view of the universe, both physically and spiritually; these are questions only further exploration can answer.

But exploration is a two-edge sword. Even as we celebrate the prospect of exploration, we also sense a certain degree of uncertainty and possibly fear. Do we really want to know if there was life on Mars or if there is life somewhere else in the universe. What if the movie “Independence Day” is not just a science fiction thriller but a prelude of things to come?

Venturing into the unknown frighten us because it requires that we go beyond the comfort of what we know and into areas we have never been. It is very easy to see why people in the past feared the unknown.

Columbus chose to find India by a path never before tried, a bold move in light of the capabilities of the ships of the day. But because it was a different approach, we know that he had to “fudge the data” in the journal his sailors read so that they would not be afraid of this venture into the unknown.

Our own country’s growth was accomplished by bold strokes. Thomas Jefferson took a bold move, both in political and geographical terms, when he made the Louisiana Purchase. No one knew if the Constitution allowed the President to make such a purchase and no one knew what exactly was being bought. And while many looked at this opportunity as a wonderful time for exploration, there were those who questioned such a venture into the unknown.

Exploration can take place in our daily lives as well. We do not need to go to new places to venture into the unknown. The way we conduct our lives, the things we do every day, these are products of our own exploration.

What were the disciples thinking that day outside Caesarea Philippi. How did they view what they had been doing, following Jesus? It is hard to tell from the nature of the text if the disciples knew Jesus would ask them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 15: 13 – 14)

These were answers based on familiarity, based on the world the people knew. People were not willing to take the bold step, to look at what might be and say that Jesus was the Christ. No one was willing to be the first and say that Jesus was who they knew him to be. Better to take the easy route than try something new.

Knowing how the first question was answered, we also have to wonder if the disciples were ready for the next question, “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 15: 15). Here Jesus was asking the disciples to take a step into the unknown. What would you say, what will you say when Jesus comes to you and asks you that same question? It should not be surprising then that the disciples hesitated answer the question which Jesus put to them.

Peter’s response , “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16: 16) to Jesus’ question changed the way we view the world. No longer was the word “church” used to describe an assembly of people. Now, it would describe a gathering of believers.

In giving Peter the keys to this new church, Jesus gave us the keys as well. All we have to do, all Jesus asks of us today, is to make the same bold commitment to a life in Him that Peter made.

Yes, accepting Christ as one’s Savior is a bold thing to do. It seems that everywhere we look in today’s society we see a world and environment that works against the very idea of Christ. There can be no tougher task than accepting Jesus Christ in your heart.

It would even seem that the world is going to get worse in the coming years. There are those today who paint the future in bleak and dark tones. What good will it do us if the future is not worth.

Exploration, taking that bold step into the unknown, requires trust. As we read from the Old Testament, every time the Israelites faced a crisis, they questioned Moses and they questioned God. First, it was the Egyptian army chasing them down; then it was the lack of food; then it was, as we read in today’s reading, the lack of water. With each crisis, God showed them that they had nothing to fear. Yet, they seemingly could not trust God. It is no wonder that Moses seemed frustrated by his efforts to lead the children of God to their Promised Land.

As the time came closer for Jesus to go to the cross, his disciples began to fear the future. But Jesus said,

Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so, I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also; and you know the way I am taking.”

Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14: 1 – 6)

Is it possible that it is that simple? Should we be afraid to take such a bold step?

“One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us.” From Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld

When John and Charles Wesley returned to England in 1738 after their missionary service in Georgia, they both did so feeling as if they were failures. Prepared as he and his brother were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord. Only after that moment in his life, which we have come to call the Aldersgate moment, could Wesley write with assurance,

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Only by accepting Christ as his personal Savior was John Wesley able to understand what direction his life was to take. Only by trusting Christ was Wesley able to gain the confidence necessary to insure the success of the Methodist revival.

Paul’s words of thanksgiving and praise now take on a deeper meaning. Through Jesus Christ, God grants us the necessary wisdom to see into the future and know that we need not fear it. It is not a guarantee that we will know every thing. No exploration ever answers all the questions. Even the Israelites still had to make the journey to the Promised Land.

The keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, given first to Peter so many years ago, have now been handed to us. All we need is accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. It seems surprisingly simple that such a simple step can be so bold. But, when we accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior, we can then go boldly where few have gone before.

“Oppression or Freedom”

This is the message that I will present for the Sunday Vespers in the Garden series on August 19, 2013 (12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) at Grace UMC in Newburgh this evening at 7 pm. The Scriptures used were 2 Samuel 18: 24 – 33, Ephesians 5: 15 – 20, and John 6: 51 – 58 (the Common Lectionary selections for today). We will be dedicating the Children’s Garden Cross this evening and you are invited to be a part of the service (see “A Litany for a Cross Dedication”)

When I was a college sophomore I came across a quote from the Greek Herodotus which essentially said “no one is foolish enough to prefer war over peace; in which, instead of children bury their parents, parents bury their children.”

There are probably very few people who cannot relate to David’s cry upon hearing the death of his son, Absalom. No parent, no child, no sibling wants to know that a loved one has died in war or through some senseless act of violence. We understand that death is a part of life but we want it to be at the end of life, not before its time. Those deaths upset the order of nature.

We can only begin to imagine what Adam and Eve must have felt when they were told that their son Cain had murdered their son Abel. And what must Mary, Jesus’ mother, have felt as she sat at the foot of the Cross on that first Good Friday and watched her son slowly die. How did she feel when Jesus said to John, the beloved disciple, “behold your mother” and to her, “behold your son.” What did she think when she heard others mock her son with “he saved others, let him save himself.”

The people that day saw the cross for what it was, a symbol of Roman power. The people that day saw the cross for it what it was, a sign that this what you can expect when you challenge Roman authority. The cross that day was a cruel reminder that the Pax Romana was established through force and oppression and that resistance or opposition would not be tolerated.

The religious authorities who had conspired with the Roman authorities to place Jesus on that cross must have felt pleased that another of God’s so-called messengers had been taken care of and his disciples and followers would soon disappear back into the Judean and Galilean countryside. In a few more days, their version of heaven, earth, and God’s kingdom would be restored.

But we know that some forty-eight hours later, on that first Easter morning, all of that would change. God’s Kingdom would be re-established, not through oppression and legal maneuvering that upheld tradition but through the power of God over sin and death. The Cross on which Christ died would no longer be a symbol of oppression and tyranny but one of freedom, freedom from the tyranny of sin and death.

Our challenge this evening is to make sure that others, here tonight, in this neighborhood and community, in this town and throughout the state, nation and world, know that the cross, this cross and others like it represents freedom and not oppression, love and not hate, justice and not vengeance.

No longer can we hold onto the views that say this is the way that things are and there is nothing that we can do about it. Paul commanded the people of Ephesus to wake up, climb out of the box of death they had become entrapped in and change their lives. To stand by and live your lives as if nothing can change is to say that you wish to die; but who will cry for you? That is a life lived in darkness.

Paul reminds us that Christ gave us the light that would enable us to see the world, a light which would drive away the evil that can only survive in the darkness. Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote,

Only when we have come in touch with our own life experiences and have learned to listen to our inner cravings for liberation and new life can we realize that Jesus did not just speak, but that he reached out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not so much an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables. Doctrines are not alien formulations which we must adhere to but the documentation of the most profound human experiences which, transcending time and place, are handed over from generation to generation. It is light in our our darkness. (– from Reaching Out by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

That work does not begin tonight; it continues what was begun some five years ago. We remember when we began working on the gardens, first on the prayer garden in the corner and then this garden, the children’s garden that people would steal the statuary and the flowers. Some things have disappeared but not while they were in the garden. There were those who feared for Ann’s safety as she worked in the garden early in the morning but no one has touched her and there have been many offers of help.

I won’t say that these are holy grounds though someone will have to explain why the tomatoes in the vegetable garden weren’t affected by the tomato blight that struck this area a couple of years ago.

This is an area of peace and the people know it. This is the place that people come to find the Holy Spirit, to be refreshed and renewed. People sought out Jesus because He offered them hope, He offered them the promise that there was a possibility to life. He offered the people the Bread of Life, a chance for a better life. That is why these gardens are here.

Eleven years ago, each one of us, directly or through family or friends, cried out as David cried out. There were some who sought to gain revenge, to extract in blood some sense of judgment. To those this cross is a cross of oppression but it is a cross that cannot provide the answers. If we see this cross as such, we will never find the answers because the answers cannot be found in oppression or violence. But if we see this cross for what it truly is, then there is hope, there is promise.

So as this day draws to a close, as darkness begins, let us remember that the light of Christ shines. Let us remember that two thousand years ago, there was a change in life, a change from oppression to freedom.

“What Does the Future Hold?”

I am at Fishkill United Methodist Church (Fishkill, NY) this Sunday; service is at 9:30 am and you are welcome to attend. I will also be at Grace UMC in Newburgh this evening for the Sunday of the Vespers in the Garden series and the dedication of the Children’s Garden Cross. We will start at 7 pm and you are welcome to attend as well.

Note added on August 20, 2012 – Fishkill UMC tapes the sermons and posts them on their web site at “Listen to the Sermon – Fishkill United Methodist Church”.

For those who have a strong sense of deja vu, yes, I have stood in this pulpit before with the most recent time being June 26, 2005. If there is a regularity or a cyclic nature to life, then I, God willing and the Fishkill Creek don’t rise, should again stand in this pulpit for Laity Sunday, October 13, 2019. But it is very difficult to plan, let alone imagine what will happen in the future because such plans are based in part on what we know today rather than what we might know tomorrow. In fact, where we go tomorrow is very much dependent on what we do and where we are today. That can make for a very uncertain future.

Right now, this world, this country, this society faces two distinctly possible, though different, paths to the future. Both are equally plausible, possible and both are based on what is occurring today.

There is the culture of fear that seems to underlie the current campaign rhetoric in this country that seems to get more vicious and less civil with each passing day. We are reminded of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting (a shooting that occurred less than two miles from where I lived and went to church from 1963 – 1965), the shootings at the Sikh Temple outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin and other multiple shootings in Texas and Oklahoma. We would like to think that campaign rhetoric is only words and that words don’t always matter but words of hate, coming from ignorance, have always lead to the worst of outcomes. We would like to think that each of those shootings are isolated and perhaps they are; but when you live in a world where violence is commonplace, violence quickly becomes the answer to the most mundane problems. We wake up each morning to the bloody civil war in Syria and the repeated incidents of sectarian violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Perhaps, again, these are isolated incidents and they certainly don’t affect us, but an isolated act of violence in Sarajevo, Bosnia began a series of actions that lead to World War I.

Against this backdrop of literally constant death and destruction, of hatred and ignorance, a small vehicle, perhaps not much bigger than a Volkswagen “bug”, landed on Mars. Joining its companions, Sojourner (which landed on July 4, 1997), and the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity will seek answers to questions humankind has been asking ever since we first looked up into the night sky and wondered what was out there and if we are alone in the vastness of the universe?

As I said, both of these paths are possible and very much in opposite directions, so much so that we have to be careful which one we choose. While I think that it should be intuitively obvious which one we should choose, there are those who would argue that spending the sums of money that we have spent on space exploration was wasted money and better spent here on earth. To ignore the unknown in favor of the known may be perhaps a wise choice but how will we ever find out what is unknown if we do not seek to find it? If we do not seek the unknown, we are not using what is perhaps the greatest ability God has given us and that is our ability to think.

There is a vast storage of knowledge in this world to be discovered but discovering it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can use it. How we use the knowledge that we have discovered, that we have gained will be the means by which we determine which path we will walk. It is our wisdom or lack of wisdom that will set the path that we walk.

After David had died and he inherited the throne, Solomon asked God for one thing and that was wisdom, the ability to use all that he knew so that he could make the right choices. And with wisdom comes the ability to learn more about the world as well. And God told Solomon that as long as he walked the path with God, wisdom would be his; let the record tell you what happened to Solomon when he left the path. And then God gave Solomon that which he had not asked for, power and wealth.

We look around and we see individuals obsessed with power and wealth; yet our schools are suffering to provide even the basic education and are not developing the skills that lead to wisdom.

Wisdom is more than book learning. Oh, don’t get me wrong; there is clearly a need for good old-fashioned book learning. But I don’t want a surgeon reading a book about a routine operation when I am the patient. I want him to understand what he is doing and what his actions and lack of action might mean to me. I don’t want a bus driver reading a book about how to drive a bus while he or she is transporting a number of children, possibly my grandchildren; I want that driver to understand what they are doing. I want people who understand what they are doing, what’s involved, and what’s likely to happen. You cannot accomplish this if all you do is learn the book. Besides, sometimes the book is wrong.

Some of you may know that I hold a doctorate in science and chemical education. I began studying chemistry in 1966 and many of the textbooks used at that time indicated that the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon) could not form compounds with other elements. Yet, four years before I began studying chemistry, Neil Bartlett looked at the information about xenon and deduced that chemical compounds were in fact possible. In making those wonderfully colored crystals of xenon hexafluoroplatinate (XePtF6) Bartlett transformed the nature of our thinking about elements and compounds. Yet, despite this discovery, many teachers still taught that noble gas compounds did not exist because the book said that they didn’t. Now, it is possible that some of the teachers didn’t know that this research had occurred but others taught what was in the book because that is what you teach.

Note added on August 20, 2012 – The book that I used when I took chemistry in high school was “Modern Chemistry” by Metcalfe, Williams, and Castka.  In the 1970 edition (which I used when I first started teaching in 1971) contains the following statement, “Notable exceptions are the noble elements: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon.  The atoms of these noble gases do not combine with each other to form larger particles.”  It may be inferred from this statement that the noble gas elements do not form compounds either.  “Modern Chemistry” was the basic chemistry text for most of the country during the 1960s and had two counterparts, “Modern Physics” and “Modern Biology”, both by the same group of authors.  Their predecessors were Dull and Dumb.

Now, I suppose this wouldn’t be too bad if our students didn’t leave school with the ideas that 1) if it isn’t the book, it isn’t going to be taught and, 2) all the problems have been solved and the answers are in the back of the book (from The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, 1990). And heaven forbid if an instructor should ask an even-numbered question when the authors only provided answers to the odd-numbered questions. Handy also noted that “Learning is discovery but discovery doesn’t happen unless you are looking. Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is the mother of discovery.”

Let us look again at the Gospel reading for today. The political and religious authorities, especially the religious ones, are having problems with Jesus’ statement that He is the Bread of Life. To them, the bread of life was the manna God gave to their ancestors wandering through the Sinai during the Exodus. That was what was in the Book (the Torah) and therefore that was what was correct. It did not matter what the people saw when Jesus healed the sick or fed the hungry or gave hope to the oppressed, the bread of life was the manna from Heaven and whatever Jesus did was either false, blasphemous, or some elaborate hoax or fabrication (which too many people today feel is and was the case).

If we let ourselves get trapped by that same sort of thinking, we run the risk of becoming a dying church. But wait! We are a dying church. All the numbers, all the evidence suggest that the United Methodist Church is a dying church. The most recent issue of the Vision tells us that while the New York Annual Conference didn’t lose a whole lot of members, there was a major loss of membership across the whole country. All that is left is for some cynic, who will undoubtedly enjoy the task, to toss the last few shovels of dirt over the coffin and put the headstone in place.

But what did Paul write to the Ephesians? “Wake up, climb out of that coffin.” Find hope in the life that you have been given through Christ. And then do something that will let others know what you have found. I don’t know about you but when I read the passage from Ephesians from The Message, my first thought was that Paul was saying to do some out of the box type thinking.

If we don’t, we run the risk of becoming like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes who were trapped in their traditional and legalistic way of thinking. If we say that there is only one way to “do” church and it is my way; if we say that there is only one form of music allowed in church; or we say that only certain things qualify as missions then we are falling into that same trap. I would also add that if the church has no idea who its neighbors are or what their needs are, it is very much a trapped church. If we say that this is what we can do for the community without knowing what it is that the community needs, we are a trapped church. It is like those people who gather up things that they have worn out or no longer need and deliver them to the church so that the church can distribute them to the poor and needy. If items of clothing are worn out, what makes you think that someone else would wear them? I always find it fascinating that people will donate computers that have become obsolete; what makes them think that something that is obsolete will work for someone else? I remember talking with some of the guys in the shop at the Henderson Settlement last summer about a donation of a box, a big box, of nuts, bolts, and screws. This lady had dumped all of the screws, nuts, and bolts in her late husband’s workshop into the one box and sent it down to the Henderson settlement as a donation. Of course, when the box arrived, someone had to sort through all of those screws, nuts, and bolts! This same lady apparently kept and sold all of her late husband’s tools, tools which the guys at Henderson really could have used. What are the needs of the community and how can the church help?

There are going to be some individuals for whom the presence of the church is what they need. They need to know that there is someone who cares that they are a person. The ministry of a church is not going to necessarily be found inside the walls of the church but rather outside the walls in the community. And what the church of today must do, what each one of us must do is something radically different from what we have been doing. And while it is radically different, it is at the same time radically simple.

Let us remember what John wrote, that God so loved this world that He sent His Son so that those who believed in Him would receive everlasting life.

We have been given the Bread of Life today; partaking of this Bread offers something that no other food item can ever provide and that is the gift of eternal life, of a life free from sin and death.

What the future holds, then, is entirely up to us. We can choose to walk the path we are on, believing perhaps that it is a safe path but troubled by where it may lead us, not certain if we can change the path before it is too late. Or we can choose to walk a path with Christ, knowing that at times it will be a rough path, a difficult path, what lies at the end is greater than all the riches and power we might have on this earth.

The choice will always be ours. What the future holds is up to you and you must make the choice