Three People

This will be the “back page” for the Fishkill UMC bulletin this Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent (Year A), 26 March 2017.  The reading is from Matthew 27: 33 – 44.

There were three men on that hill outside Jerusalem.  They hung on crosses where everyone could see them to remind the people there were rules to society and you paid the price when you broke the rules.

Two of the three committed crimes against people directly but the other’s “crime” was simply to question the roles of society, rules that excluded people because of actual and perceived differences.  To question the rules of society was considered as bad as robbery or murder.

We live in a similar society today.  There are those who suggest that there is a standard for society’s membership and if you don’t meet that standard, you don’t belong.  Many people want a society where obedience to the law is greater than concern for the people.

The one criminal echoed the views of society then and perhaps today that Jesus’ mission was to ensure that the status quo was maintained at all costs and that there were people tasked with that maintenance.  He and society see Jesus in terms of earthly power and might, of the rule of law without compassion.

But the other criminal understood that Jesus had sought to move beyond the “law”.  He understood that Jesus’ mission was never about him but about His Father and how people were treated in God’s Kingdom. And in understanding this, the second man asked for forgiveness.

Which of the two are you?  And what will you do?

“I Dreamed of a Church: Christ’s Representative”

This will be the “back page” for the 19 March 2017, 3rd Sunday of Lent (A), bulletin at Fishkill UMC.  The reading for this Sunday comes from Matthew 25.  I have told this story before but it speaks to the point of our participation in someone else’s baptism.

I have been fortunate to have been directly involved in the baptism of several individuals, both as a pastoral assistant and as a member of the family.  Perhaps the greatest joy was when I presented Casey, my granddaughter, and George, my grandson, to the congregation on the day of their baptisms.

But the story that strikes a chord with me is not my story but rather that of a current United Methodist pastor.  At the time of this story, this pastor-to-be was a bouncer in a local bar (which seems to be the career path of choice these days).  He was present at the baptism as the result of a direct command from his sister.  So, he came to church that Sunday morning after a rather long night at his regular job.  At the end of the service, one of the “saints” of the church saw that he was desperately searching for a cup of coffee and directed him to the church’s Fellowship Hall.

A few weeks later he found the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket.  With the remembrance that someone had shown him some kindness, he returned to that church on his own accord.  Shortly afterwards, he made the decision to accept Christ as his Savior and he was baptized.

As it turns out, there was more to this than simply accepting the call to follow Christ.  It began a journey that has lead to becoming a minister in the United Methodist Church.

We all take part in the baptism of an individual.  In our participation, we welcome friends and strangers.  And while we never know how this will all turn out, we need to understand that one time someone offered a cup of coffee to a stranger and a life was changed.                                                – Tony Mitchell

How has baptism changed your life?

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (A), 12 March 2017.  They are based on Psalm 13.  This is also part of the Fishkill UMC “Back Pages” series.

I have talked and written about my own baptism on a number of occasions; I have also included a discussion about a baptism that didn’t take place (See “My Two Baptisms” for what happened then; I will be addressing that topic again later in this Lenten series.)

To answer the question posted as the title to the post, It is safe to say that had I not been baptized, I would not be here today.  But because of when I was baptized, a path was set before me that I would, sometimes knowingly but often unknowingly, follow all my life.

My parents understood what my baptism meant and they made sure that I walked a path that would eventually allow me to understand it baptism meant.

There was a time in my life that I have come to call “my wilderness period.”  Life was rough during this period but I never felt lost.  Perhaps it was because the Holy Spirit was a part of life, even if I did not know it.

But when I more fully recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, I knew had to do some things, things that have lead me to this place and time.  I was lucky; I knew that God was there and all I had to do was look.

The Psalmist knew what it was like to be lost and out of God’s site.  He welcomed being able to be in God’s Grace once again.

Our baptism is never the end of the journey but its beginning.  For some, it sets the path they will follow; for others, it offers a new path.

Baptism represents an opportunity for all.

“I Saw the Light”

This is an expanded version of what appears on the “Back Page” of the Fishkill UMC bulletin for 26 February 2017 (Transfiguration Sunday [A]).

One of the thing that I was thinking about was the song “I Saw the Light”.  This is a country-gospel song that was written by Hank Williams (which I think most people didn’t know).

When I began teaching, I knew the subjects that I was teaching (chemistry and other physical sciences) and I was learning how to teach.  But as this was all taking place, I found myself thinking about how my students learned chemistry.

We all learn in different ways and at different rates.  And, as an instructor, I am tasked with helping each student reach that point of understanding; that point we call the “AHA! Moment”.  It is that moment, and we all have had such moments in our own lives, when we understand what we are learning.  This is a major moment in our lives because it takes us past simply “knowing” the right answer to understanding why it is the right answer.

I don’t think that it makes a difference whether we are speaking about secular or sectarian learning.  And while I realize that this moment of understanding is different for each person, our educational process, both secular and sectarian, must be directed towards helping each person reach that moment of enlightenment.

And I realize that achieving this moment requires a great deal of effort, both by the teacher and by the student.  How many times did we get the feeling that Jesus was frustrated by the lack of learning exhibited by the 12.  They were his primary students and yet, time and time again, they didn’t seem to get the point of the lesson.

That is, until the First Easter and the Resurrection.  Then they understood and when the Holy Spirit came to them on that First Pentecost, they became empowered to take the Gospel message into the world.

John Wesley knew what was needed but until that moment that we call Aldersgate, he didn’t quite understand how to achieve what he sought.  The success of the Methodist Revival only began when the Holy Spirit warmed his heart and he understood who Christ truly was.

For Peter, James, and John, that moment was on the Mount with Jesus; for Paul, it was that moment on the road to Damascus.

Each of us has that same moment, that point when we understand that Christ is our Savior.  Each person’s moment of understanding, of seeing the light is unique and we should never try to force our moment on others.  But, we can and must help others find their moment.

Today marks the day that the Disciples began to see the light.  Their lives began to change.  Each of us has that moment; that moment when we realize that Jesus Christ is our personal Savior.  And this gives us the opportunity to begin helping others find their moment.

“Leave Room for Dessert”

For some time, I have been writing some thoughts that my church (Fishkill United Methodist Church) puts on the back page .  Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, 19 February 2017, the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A).

Have you ever wondered why we are “the people called United Methodists?”  The “United” comes, of course, from the 1968 merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches but the “Methodist” part is a little bit older.  In 1729, Charles Wesley and some of his college friends started what they called the “Holy Club”.  John Wesley joined shortly after and became its leader.  The goal of this group was to achieve salvation through a rigorous and legalistic approach to faith.  Because of this approach, others would ridicule them by calling them “Methodists”.

Yet, until that time that we have come to call Aldersgate, the plan was a failure.  Yes, things were accomplished that helped others but there was still a feeling that success and accomplishment was lacking.  The plan was not working.

But when one creates a set of laws, one must be careful that you are not setting the conditions that imprison you.

The focus of today’s Old Testament reading is not about a legal structure for a community but on the relationship between the members of the community.  The Israelites were counseled to leave something behind when they harvested the crops so that there would be something for everyone.  It was important that the Israelites see everyone as part of their community and that they treat everyone fairly.

We leave room for dessert because we want a complete meal.  Our relationship with Christ can never be complete if we do not share it with others.

“The Balance of Life”

This was initially written for another publication (Fishkill UMC “Back Pages”.  Part of what I have written may be used in another piece that I will be posting shortly.

When I began working on my doctorate, I was introduced to the book “Two Cultures” by C. P. Snow.  Snow presented the argument that we lived in two cultures, one based on the humanities and the other based on science and technology, a division that appears to still be present today.

I think we also have another division of cultures in our time, with some proclaiming the need for a solely secular/non-religious life while other proclaim that what it is needed is a sectarian/religious life.

But life is and has never been an either/or choice.  Ideas presented in the secular world tell us how to solve problems but do not always indicate what is the best use of that solution.  And it is only through the sectarian view of the world that we come to understand our relationship with others in our community and around the world.

Jesus never said that we should totally abandon the secular world for the sectarian world; he merely wanted us to view things with a sense of priority.

And that means that while one works in the secular world, it is important to maintain a presence, constant and on-going, in the sectarian world as well.  A world that does not include time for thoughts about God (be it in worship, prayer, music or communicating with others) can be a lonely and desolate place.


“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