Working For The Lord – Summer, 2010


I started this particular summer summary when I posted “Who Will Work For The Lord?”  It follows “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” (Summer, 2008) and “On The Road Again” (Summer, 2009.)

June 27 – New Milford United Methodist Church- “What does It Take”

July 4    – Combined services of the Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church of the Highlands – “The Problem With Change”

July 11  – Cornwall United Methodist Church -  “Drawing A Straight Line”

July 18  – Hankins United Methodist Church – “Are We Watching The Same Game?”

July 25  – Hankins United Methodist Church – “To Build a New Community”

August 1 – Ridges/Roxbury United Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church of Springdale – “Time Has Come Today”

August 8 – Van Corlandtville Community Church – “The Answer to the Question”

August 29 – Dover United Methodist Church – "Square Pegs and Round Holes"

September 5 – Dover United Methodist Church – "Hold On Now"

I will also be at Dover on October 24th, December 26th, and January 2nd; the location of the church is included with each post.  If I add any dates to this list, I will also add the locations.

To Build a New Community


I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, are Hosea 1: 2 – 10, Colossians 2: 6 – 19, and Luke 11: 1 – 13.

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The other day, someone (“Kyle”) added a comment concerning the paradox I had placed into my piece/sermon, “Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair?” The paradox is a classic one invented by the mathematician and logician, Bertrand Russell. It states

A barber posts the following sign in his window, "I cut the hair of all those men in town, and only those men in town that do not cut their own hair."

This particular paradox was created to illustrate a problem in set theory and logic. It is related in part to the page in most legal documents that states “this page is intentionally blank.” Of course, there is writing on the page so it is obviously not blank. And that is a paradox; a statement or situation which seemingly defies logic.

The paradox in the Bertrand Russell problem is that if the barber cuts his own hair, then he belongs to that group of men who cut their own hair. But that is the one grouping of men whose hair the barber does not cut. If someone else cut’s the barber’s hair, then he does not cut his own hair and the sign says that he does. Either the sign is wrong or nobody, including the barber, can cut the barber’s hair.

Now, “Kyle” tried to make a big deal out of this problem by pointing out, among other things, that such a situation doesn’t occur in real life. I didn’t say that it did and I pointed out that it was a created problem to deal with a particular set of situations that we might encounter.

Now, as it happens, sitting on my desk is a book by the philosopher and economist, Charles Handy, entitled “The Age of Paradox.” It is a companion to his book “The Age of Unreason” and it speaks to the contradictions of society. I really hadn’t thought that I would be using it this week. But as I began to re-read the book, I encountered some interesting thoughts.

Handy pointed out that we live at a time where it seems that the more we know, the more confused we get. And as we increase our technological capacity, we also seem to become more powerless. And while we have developed some of the most sophisticated armaments in the history of the world, we can only watch impotently while parts of the world kill each other and we are entrapped in wars of our own making (italics added as my own thought). We grow more food than we need but we somehow cannot feed the starving. We can unravel the mysteries of the galaxies yet we cannot understand other humans.

We know that learning takes time but we demand immediate results from education. We call for quality education but we seem to think that funding education is wasteful. We call for an end to wars in this country yet we see the solution as more war. We call for an end to poverty but our solution is to allow the rich to keep their money but over the past few years the gap between the rich and the poor has increased, not decreased. We call for an end to hunger yet the solution of food pantries and food banks only seems to create more problems, such as diabetes. We say we are solving the problems but in doing so only create more problems.

We demand the truth and we will listen to any prophet who can tell us what the future holds. But prophets do not foretell the future. What they do is tell the truth as they see it; they warn of dangers ahead if the present course is not changed. They point out what they think is wrong, unjust or prejudiced. They offer a way to clarify and concentrate the mind.

But they cannot tell the people what to do, despite the fact that is what many people want them to do. It was Jesus who told us that we should seek the truth and the truth will set us free but we are afraid of that truth.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis. There were those who feared that violence would erupt in that city when the news of Dr. King’s death was announced and that the city should be prepared to meet such violence should be met with additional force. These authorities also recommended that Senator Kennedy not go to a planned political rally that night, saying that they feared for his safety and that they could not provide the protection that he needed. It seems to me that the only ones who feared for their safety and unwilling to do their job were the authorities, the ones charged with keep the peace and insuring the safety.

On that night, when violence erupted in 76 cities across the United States, no violence erupted in Indianapolis. And I will always believe that it was because Robert Kennedy spoke the truth to the people that night, just as he had spoken the truth so many times during that ill-fated 1968 Presidential campaign. (See “A Quote from Bobby Kennedy” and “A Ripple of Hope”, a movie about that night in Indianapolis)

But what people probably don’t remember is a speech that he gave earlier that day at the Indiana University Medical School. It was a speech to a largely white audience and they were extremely uncomfortable hearing him speak of his vision for the future. Several students asked the same question, “where would the money for his programs come from?” And he replied, bluntly, “From you. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces who will become doctors. Part of a civilized society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. I don’t see many people coming here from the slums, or off of Indian reservations. You are the privileged ones here.” The students reacted by hissing and booing Kennedy. As one observer pointed out, only Senator Kennedy or perhaps Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith”, Robert Redford as Bill McKay in “The Candidate” or Warren Beatty as “Jay Bulworth” could have responded in such terms. (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/dec2006/bobb-d21.shtml, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-a-palermo/robert-f-kennedys-indiana_b_99363.html, and http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/books/06/06/review.rfk/index.html) I cannot help but think that there isn’t a political candidate who would say what Senator Kennedy said on that day or would have said anything at all without first making sure that the polls agreed with his comments or that a focus group thought they were appropriate. We only want to hear the truth that we want to hear, not the truth that sets us free.

At a time when there should be great opportunities for personal fulfillment, society demands more and more of our time. We have gained many freedoms over the year but it seems that they come with less equality, more misery, and ultimately feeling that success comes with a highly disproportionate price.

Too many people today see themselves as cogs in someone else’s machine, hurtling God knows where, destined to be a nameless number on a payroll or the raw material for some sociologist’s or economist’s statistical report. We try to walk a path that leads somewhere but which ends up nowhere. What others may call progress only seems like an empty promise.

We hear the words of Jesus to ask and we shall receive but we don’t really know what to ask for. We are told to seek and we shall find but we don’t know where to look. We are told to knock and the door will be opened but we don’t know which door to knock.

These are the paradoxes of our age but to call them paradoxes only puts a label on the situation; it does little to solve the problems that have been created.

Could it be that in our search for our own well-being and comfort we have misplaced our priorities? Could it be that in our focus on our own lives we have failed to remember that we are a part of a community?

In re-reading Charles Handy’s thoughts, I discovered that Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations” was a professor of moral philosophy and not economics as one might presume. His theories on the nature of economics come from the basis of a moral community. Before he wrote the book that we most know about, he had written another book, “A Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he argued that a stable society was based on “sympathy”, a moral duty to have regard for one’s fellow human beings. All financial markets are to do is provide a mechanism for separating the efficient from the inefficient; they are not a substitute for responsibility. (Adapted from “The Age of Paradox”, Charles Handy)

What is missing from the equation in this time and place is a sense of responsibility. Perhaps it would be better if I used Genesis 4: 1 – 8 as the Old Testament reading for today. (And for those who have forgotten, this is the story of Cain and Abel.) Are we our brother’s keeper? Do we not have some sort of responsibility to take care of other people? And perhaps I should have used the Gospel reading from two weeks ago and asked who we count as our neighbor?

What expectations do we have in this society today? Are we a community of people or just a collection of people living on the same planet?

If we think about it, the beginning and middle of the Gospel reading for today is about such a community, a community in which, no matter how we may feel, we have an obligation to take care of each other.

The first thing that Jesus did when He began His ministry was to form a community. To follow Jesus meant that one would be willing to share His life. At the beginning, many followed and were willing to join but as it became clear what was expected of them, many quit. And even when the authorities thought that they could disband the community through death and oppression, it continued to grow. We are reminded that the early church was actually a movement known as “The Way.”

It was an open community, known as a caring and sharing community, especially sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. It was a community founded on a love for God, for each other, and for the oppressed. Their refusals to kill, to practice racial discrimination, and to bow down before imperial deities were a matter of public knowledge. Theirs was a life-style based on faith and a testimony to that faith. (Adapted from “The Call to Conversion”, Jim Wallis, 2005)

We see the beginning of that community in the Gospel reading for today. We may not like it when a neighbor knocks on our door late at night but if the request is a reasonable one, we are apt to respond favorably. What good would it do to give a scorpion if a person needed an egg? We would only do so if we were selfish and greedy. But, in the Kingdom of God, our care for others is as great as it is for each of us.

The words of Hosea become strangely prophetic today. We have to wonder what the people thought when Hosea married Gomer, a prostitute. And then he named his son Jezreel. Now, Jezreel was the name of a place and a town in Israel associated with the bloody violence of the power politics that the kings of Israel had used to gain the throne and power. It was to reinforce the message of God’s coming judgment. Similarly, by naming his daughter “Lo-Ruhamah” and his next son “Lo-Ammi”, Hosea was communicating to the people of Israel their loss of God.

Now, I know that there are some who relish in this prophecy; who see in Hosea’s prophecy a justification for their own pronouncement of judgment and vindication of their vision for the future of this country. But their vision runs counter to the vision offered in the Lord’s Prayer, of a community open to all. When we say “grant us” and “free us”, we are not speaking individually but as a community.

But the loss should not be seen as a permanent one because God has rejected His Children. The promise made to Abraham still remains in effect, provided that we respond. In Christ, we are reminded that there is a covenant between God and us. If we are to find our way in this world, we will find it through Christ. As I read Paul’s words to the Colossians, I am reminded that we are responsible for our own faith. We cannot nor should we expect others to tell us what to do or where to go.

Now, there is a fine line between living in a community where one presumes leadership means control and direction and one in which we work together. We live in a world where too many people want the former when what is needed is the latter. The former leads us to a life without direction, without meaning, and down a path to nowhere. It is a life without Christ and one in which, as Paul wrote, one in which we are dead.

But in Christ, we find a new life. And in this new life, we begin anew, to build a new community, a community in which people can find their direction, their purpose, and their life. It is not an easy task, to be sure, but one in which we are called upon to begin today with our acceptance of Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Are We Watching The Same Game?


I am at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, are Amos 8: 1 – 12, Colossians 1: 15 – 28, and Luke 10: 38 – 42.

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This has been edited since it was first posted (among other things, I forgot what time the service started).  🙂

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I grew up as a fan of the St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball team. I can’t tell you exactly why that it is but I suppose that it has a lot to do with my roots being deep in the Midwest and especially St. Louis. Then again, I remember nights back in 1963 and 1964 when we were living in Denver, Colorado, and my father would set up his Hallicrafters radio receiver and stretch the antenna across the family room so that we could pick up KMOX radio. Back then, there were no baseball teams other than the Cardinals between the Mississippi River and the Rockies and if you could pick up KMOX, you listened to the Cardinals’ broadcast.

I would listen as Harry Caray and Jack Buck described the exploits of the team, especially and probably during the 1964 World Series against the Yankees. When we moved to the St. Louis area in 1965, I even got a chance to go to a couple of games. And it was interesting to do so, because if you listened to the game as Harry Caray described it while you were watching it, you sometimes wondered if you and he were watching the same game. Later, when we moved to Memphis and I listenedd to Jack Eaton broadcast the Memphis State Tigers basketball games on radio, I got the same feeling; that he saw an entirely different game than the one that was being played.

It isn’t that Harry Caray and Jack Eaton were bad announcers but rather that they were loyal to the teams whose games they announced. Loyalty is fine and I don’t want an announcer to be rooting against a particular team but, at the same time, I want to make decisions about the game myself.

I say this because, when I read the words of the Old Testament for today and the words of the prophets and I contrast them with the words of many today who profess to believe in the Bible, I wonder if we are reading the same words and looking at the same world.

When you read the words of the prophets, to a man they point out the fallacies of a society that favors the rich and ignores the poor. Despite what those who say that God wants everyone to be rich, provided, of course, that they send the minister the proper amount of seed money, the theme of the Old and New Testament is our relationship with people and more emphasis is given to the needs of the old, the infirmed, the helpless, the poor, and the oppressed.

In the passage from Amos for today, God spoke of those “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, who say, "When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?" Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them — and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.”

But what I see in this world today is such a world, a world in which the poor are exploited by the rich; where those who have so much care so little for those who have nothing. I see a world in which many so-called Christians care little for their fellow man and think that any expression of help is an expression of secularism or governmental interference or some “bleeding heart liberals.”

And it is a world where if one speaks out against the system, calls for compassion and repentance, of changing the values of society, they are apt to be called a socialist or some sort of secular humanist or ever worse.

Such a person is Jim Wallis. He has been writing and speaking out against the direction this country has been headed for many years now. He was asked to present a message to a Christian-based youth gathering in Wisconsin the other day. But from the screams and the outcry from some of the ministers in Wisconsin, you would have thought the devil himself had been invited.

I read the words of Jim Wallis and they ring true for me. Perhaps it is because I understand through my own life what he is describing. There comes a time in everyone’s life when you look around the world and ask yourself, “if there truly is a God, why then is there such hatred, violence, poverty, and despair in the world.” It is a question that demands an answer but it is a question that causes many people to turn away from the church because they see the church as either supporting the status quo or hiding from the reality of the world.

If I understand history and especially the history of the church and Methodism, even John Wesley asked that question. But John Wesley also saw in the Gospel message a promise of hope and renewal. It was the same message that I came to understand when I began to seek answers to the same questions.

But certain ministers in Wisconsin would tell you that Jim Wallis’ words and his thoughts are an expression of secular humanism and the youth of Wisconsin, who he was to speak to, would be in great “spiritual peril” if he was allowed to speak. I would think, as did others, that our youth should hear these words and begin to make up their own mind. The ones in peril are those who would deny individuals the opportunity to decide for themselves.

What I found most interesting in all of this was that this organized outcry against Jim Wallis and the “threat” that he posed to the youth of the state of Wisconsin was an echo of the very thing that they said he represented.

But the threat to the youth is not in denying them the right or preventing them from hearing someone like Jim Wallis speak; it is in the attitude that says that those who are in power know the answers and they will determine what answers will be given and what the people will know. And those who present this attitude also, in my mind, say that free thought and creative thought is not acceptable.

I shall make the assumption that many of those who wanted to deny Jim Wallis the opportunity to speak also openly oppose the teaching of evolution in the science classroom and argue for the inclusion of supposedly alternative theories for the process of life on this planet.

But these arguments are not based on the scientific process and amount to nothing more than (and I wish there was an easier way to say this) mind control. The theory of evolution is treated as a threat to Christianity and can only be opposed by limiting what is said or taught in today’s public classrooms. And while those who seek acceptance of their ideas decry the attempts of others to limit the publication of their ideas, they fail to mention the number of times that they have limited those who oppose them.

Now, I will also state that those who feel that religion is a threat to society are just as wrong as their counterparts who feel evolution is a threat. It is proper and permissible to oppose something that runs counter to what you think and what you believe but opposition through oppression is wrong, no matter what is being discussed. If we do not prepare ourselves and our children to think critically and creatively, then we will quickly find ourselves incapable of having visions. And people without a vision will perish.

And it should be noted that when Jim Wallis challenged his critics to explain why he was wrong, where in the Gospel his words contradicted Jesus or the prophets, but they could not respond or would not respond.

Despite the pressure and threats of those who opposed Jim Wallis and to their credit, the organizers who invited Jim Wallis to speak at their event did not rescind the invitation and Reverend Wallis was allowed to speak.

In the end, the pressure to keep Jim Wallis out of Wisconsin failed and he presented a message of hope and reconciliation to the youth of the state. But the ministers and the churches who argued that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak pulled their support for this Christian festival. (http://blog.sojo.net/2010/07/15/controversy-in-wisconsin/)

What Jim Wallis speaks and writes about is called in today’s society “social justice.” I came to know it as the social gospel, a way to live in today’s society that mirrors the words and actions of the people of the Old and New Testaments. Now, I will admit that what I first saw in the social gospel was the act of speaking out against injustice and oppression and of doing good works in life as a way through the door to heaven. In reality, it is the path that one walks after accepting Christ. There is a big difference and it is one that many people today still do not understand.

But those who oppose this message do so for one reason and one reason alone, selfishness. Oh, they couch their opposition in many different ways but it always comes down to the fact that they are unwilling to share the rewards of life with others. They think it is perfectly alright to take as much as one can and then take some more and not leave anything for the rest of the world. We are reminded that in the Book of Ruth that the people were commanded to leave parts of the harvest so that others would be able to have sustenance.

We live in a world today where we think it is perfectly alright for CEOs to earn more money in a year than many people could even dream of earning in their lifetime. We are more fascinated by the salary negotiations of sport superstars than we are the salaries of the teachers and coaches in high school who taught the superstars how to play the game. And someone needs to explain to me why it is permissible to allow the very rich to keep their tax cuts while the unemployed lose their benefits.

There are those who oppose what has become known as social justice, saying that it takes from the productive and gives to the unproductive. But what happened in the 40s and 50s when blacks sought to earn a livelihood and were denied the opportunity solely because of the color of their skin? What happened when women sought opportunities outside the home and in the traditional classroom? In the world of chemistry and physics, how many women (such as Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, and Lisa Meitner) made discoveries that changed the world but were met with opposition because of their gender?

Justice is demanded when laws are passed to maintain a system that maintains inequalities and injustice. (My thanks to “Liz” whose comment in response to the story at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/07/christian-radio-station-jim-wallis-promotes-secularism-unholy-government-alliance/, assisted me in these thoughts.)

Is a message that speaks of justice for all and hope for all only for a select few, chosen by individuals here on earth or is it for everyone? Is a message which warns of danger if we do not treat everyone equally and fairly, if we do not give everyone an opportunity not an echo of the words of Amos and the other prophets, of Jesus and the Gospel?

Can we in this world even begin to think that these words should be denied or hidden? It has seemed to me for a long, long time that that those who do not want this message out into the world, who would seek to control what we can hear, what we can say, and what we think are the ones who would have agreed with Martha.

Martha was upset with her sister sitting in the living room listening to Jesus. From one standpoint, she had a right to be upset; considering the number of people who were probably visiting their place that day, she needed the help. But Jesus had begun his ministry by not limiting it and by going beyond the standards of the time. He ate with sinners; He broke countless religious-based medical and dietary laws; He treated everyone who sought Him with respect and courtesy. The traditional standards of society were replaced by a greater set of standards, equality in the eyes of God. If Mary wanted to be in the living room, that was her right and privilege in God’s Kingdom.

Too many people are like Martha in that they see each person they encounter as having a proper place in life. And they define what that proper place is. They see Martha’s place as in the kitchen and they want Mary to be there as well.

Now, and don’t get me wrong on this point, there are those whose ministry in this world is in the kitchen. They take the skills that enable them to prepare dinner for 20 or 30 or even 500 people and make sure that people who do not have a meal are fed. We should be encouraging them, not limiting them. But by the same token, when you say that someone’s place is only in the kitchen, then you have placed limits on them that shouldn’t exist. I have had the opportunity this week to hear and read about others who refused to let society’s restriction stop them from them from beginning ministries that reach out and touch the lives of countless people.

Social justice may not be the proper term but it speaks to the desires of each human to reach their potential. Anything done to limit that potential represents the worst that civilization has to offer.

If we see this life as a game, we have to realize that under the present rules it is a game that we are destined to lose. And some people, who understand this, see the only way to change the outcome is to control the players because they cannot control the game.

And the prophet’s words still echo throughout history; that those who control the players will suffer the greatest loss – go back and read the Old Testament reading again and tell me that Amos wasn’t speaking to the doom that faced the powerful and the greedy if they did not change their ways.

Go back and read Paul’s words to the Colossians again. Hear the words of promise and hope of renewal that come through Christ. It is not that we are watching the same game but, rather we are all participants in the game. And through Christ, the outcome of the game has changed.

I don’t want to just be watching the game nor do I want to be denied the opportunity to play in the game. In Christ, I have the chance and the opportunity to be in the game, even when others will deny me that right and that opportunity. The opportunity comes today to accept Christ as one’s personal Savior. The opportunity comes today to allow the Holy Spirit to empower your life and let you be a presence in the world.

A Rock and Roll Revival


I am at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, are Acts 9: 1 – 6 (7 – 20), Revelation 5: 11 – 14, and John 21: 1 – 19.

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A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it, I set down an order of worship based almost entirely on 60s rock and roll music. It was done partially because of a piece that I had written that earlier week (“Are You Ready?”), partially in fun, and partially because of how I felt about the music being passed off today as modern worship music.

Now, let me say that there is some very nice modern worship music in the world today and when it is played properly, it adds to the service as it should. But most of what I hear does little for me and I truly believe it only exists because someone thinks that the only way to get the young people to come to church is with guitars and drums and rock and roll sounding hymns. It doesn’t work for me and I am not certain for how many people it does work.

There is much to be said about the place and role of music in the worship service. Throughout my life I have had an appreciation for music of all ages and kinds. I appreciate the beauty and workmanship of a Bach cantata or a Mozart oratorio as much as I appreciate the guitar work of Eric Clapton. I can hear the power of God as much in a modern jazz piece or rock and roll as I can in a traditional choral piece or an organ composition.

I wrote two other pieces about the use of rock and roll music in worship services and one of the things that I discovered was that the Irish rock band, U2, allowed certain pieces of their music to be used in a music liturgy (see “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” for further information about that liturgy and when it can be used.) As Sarah Breuer pointed out, if you are going to use modern music in a worship service, it helps to see what resonates with the congregation.

And that is part of the reason for my choosing the particular title for today’s message and the change implied in the Scriptures for today.

One of the pieces that I suggested in the original worship piece was “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane. I did it because there are clear references in the song to the Gospel reading today, especially the part where Jesus challenges Peter to “feed my sheep”.

Out of curiosity, I checked out the history of this song. Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, who wrote the arrangement that I am familiar with was introduced to one variant of the song in the late 1960s. It had evolved from a 19th century Gospel hymn into a mid-20th century blues-based folk song. But what was interesting, at least for me, was that the roots of this song come from an early 1800s hymn written by John Adam Grande, a Methodist preacher from Tennessee.

 

Now, I cannot speak to what others hear when the song is played or if they even see the connection to the Gospel passage that we read today. But as recently as 2004 Kaukonen and others continue to find a meaning in the song and other such songs where religion is celebrated in one context or another without preaching. Kaukonen has said this material has given him a doorway into the scripture: “I guess you could say I loved the Bible without even knowing it. The spiritual message is always uplifting.” (Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_(song); see http://mtdalton2.blogspot.com/2008/02/good-shepherd-jefferson-airplane.html for additional thoughts on this song.)

It is interesting to note that some can hear the call from God through rock and roll music. Such a thought is almost contradictory to the ways of the church, or at least the way that many people see the church.

The problem is that too many in the church have a legalistic, formalized view of the church. There is a fixed way to do things and the call that one receives is the same for all, no matter who they are. But the Old Testament reminds us that we were created in the very image and likeness of God. And God will not call us to do something that has nothing to do with what brings you alive in the world today? It may not fit within the category others may have but that is their problem, not yours.

Can we not respond to God’s call through rock and roll music? Are there other ways in which people can even begin to hear God’s call?

Far too many people sit in the church pews across this country every Sunday, the very place where the perception of God’s call and response to it should be of the utmost concern, and have no idea what to do with the experiences they’ve had that bring them alive in this world. They have no idea because, for the most part, the church couldn’t care less what they are feeling.

I think part of the reason is that the church itself doesn’t know how to respond. It is locked into a mind-

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set, if you will, that says there is only one way to read the Gospel and there is only one way to sing the music of the church. And battle lines are drawn when it comes to doing things in new and different ways, so much so that when a new way is created for doing something, it has a way of quickly becoming the old way and not to be touched.

Christianity in this country is a part-time thing, a hobby to occupy our time on Sunday morning. It is something to be stored away during the week and brought out on Sunday for a few short hours.

And in all of this, the message of the church has gotten lost. I came of age during a time when the church was a powerful voice for civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam. But the meaning of this message has, sadly, been lost over time.

The message of the church has become a message of the church that existed before Jesus, a legalistic and controlling entity that told the people what they could and could not do, that created myriad mazes of laws that made it impossible to find hope in the world. That is the church of today as well.

It has been replaced by a Gospel message that requires little but promises a lot. It speaks of exclusion rather than inclusion, of hatred instead of peace, of violence and retribution as the answer instead of peace and justice. It demands an acceptance of knowledge without question; it provides no answer for the myriad questions that many people ask today.

It fosters a belief in the Bible that says the Book of Revelation presents a message of destruction instead of the celebration of a loving God who sent His Son, Jesus Christ. It is lost on many today, Christian and non-Christian, that the total destruction of the world, so often portrayed as the product of John the Seer’s vision is actually the result of several 19th century ministers who interpreted Revelation according to their own world views. If this is the true ending for humanity, then Jesus suffering and death on the cross was for naught. But because the message of the Gospel has been lost, many believe in this final vision of the world.

We expect our music to be traditional music and the reading of the Scriptures to be in the traditional language that we heard growing up. There are many today who say that the only true Word of God is the King James Bible.

Now, I have never understood that reasoning. I am sure that Jesus, the disciples, and members of the early church did not speak in 17th century English nor did they see the “divine right of kings” as an outcome of the Gospel message. If anything, the message of the Gospel spoke against any divine right of any individual to govern the people. What Jesus, the disciples and members of the early church did speak was Aramaic and I doubt that there are many among us today who speak that ancient language. Once again we have someone, notably the monarchy, using a translation of the Bible to validate their own worldview and justify their existence.

What should matter is that we hear the Word of God is such a way that it has meaning for us, not worry about the translation. I have come to enjoy reading the “Cotton Patch Gospels”, a translation of the Scriptures by Dr. Clarence Jordan from Greek into the language of the south. To be honest, if you spoke to me of Corinth, Shiloh, Athens, or Mount Moriah, I am more likely to think of towns and places in the South rather than places in the Middle East and the Holy Land. In Dr. Jordan’s translation, I hear the message in a way that adds a little more meaning. I would have used his translation this morning but he died before completing the translation of the Gospel of John.

And though today’s churches may have lost the Gospel message it has not been lost to the people. God is still calling them and there are people who are striving to hear that call. To hear God means that you need to be open to the moment. It means hearing the scriptures read in a different translation or hearing an old hymn sung in a new way; it means singing with a new voice and seeing with a new vision.

When Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus that day some two thousand years ago, it was with the intent of destroying a movement that threatened the established church. But, on that journey, he encountered Jesus in a way that was truly unexpected. It was an encounter that would change his life so much so that he took a new name.

Our encounters with Jesus, our responses to God’s call may never be so dramatic. We may hear the call in a new song or in a new version of the Scriptures. But it is certain that as we see this unexpected light of Christ, we will find the freedom from the smallness of vision and the limited obedience that strangles us and confines us in this world today. In this revival we find the freedom that we need — the freedom to accept Christ as he comes to us from the world of which He is the Lord; freedom to be with Christ as we answer the call.

The Right Place and The Right Time


I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, are Isaiah 6: 1- 8 (9 – 13), 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and Luke 5: 1 – 11.

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As I mentioned in passing last week, I post my sermons and other thoughts on my blog. One of my top posts continues to be a collection of sayings that I have accumulated over time (“A Collection of Sayings”).

One of the first sayings that I ever wrote down was “In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud) I have always attributed my keeping this saying to my reading of Making of the President – 1960 by Theodore White but I can’t find that quote in that book.

This particular quote came to me because of the events that transpired in the Gospel reading for this morning. The disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) had been fishing but without much luck. Jesus comes along and uses one of their fishing boats as a floating pulpit so that he can preach to the crowd that was following him. Following the lesson, Jesus instructs the four brothers to put their boats in a particular place and they catch more fish than they probably thought was possible.

Whatever knowledge one might have about fishing, Jesus put the fisherman in the right spot at the right time to get the catch of the lifetime. Now, Luke has the four brothers putting down their nets and walking away from the only means of work that they know in order to follow Jesus and become “fishers of men and women.” And there are those today who would wonder why? Could it be that this catch brought enough at the market to let them do this? Perhaps, but that would be speculation on our part. We do know that these four had already encountered Jesus before (see John 1: 40 – 42 and 2: 1 – 2); this event in the history of the disciples provided the basis by which they would later change history.

That is why I used the quote from the Talmud. There is a time and a place when we as individuals will be in a position to change the direction of the world. Now this, in and of itself, may seem to be too great a task for any one individual to accomplish. On the other hand, how are we to know what will happen if we do or don’t do a particular task?

On February 1, 1960, four young men sat at the lunch counter in the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was something that they had been planning for some time.

Now, for today’s reader, just as we find the four brothers walking away from their jobs in order to undertake a mission of unknown duration and an uncertain outcome, to hear the story of four young men sitting at a lunch counter in a department story is highly implausible. First, what is or was Woolworth’s? There are no Woolworth’s in business today in America, though for those who do know remember when they existed, some still exist in other countries. But in the 1960’s, Woolworth was the leader in what were called “five and dime stores”, essentially 20th century general stores were everything, including lunch, was sold. And while we have the third generation of such stores on the landscape today (Target, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart), the era of the general store has gone by the wayside.

And just as this idea of a general store has disappeared from society to be replaced by super stores and buy in bulk warehouses, so too has the idea of a lunch served on a plate in a store that wasn’t a restaurant also disappeared. So, to think of four young men planning on ordering lunch and sitting down to eat that lunch at a lunch counter in a store which doesn’t exist today is perhaps a difficult task.

But, there is more to this story. For the four young men in this story who planned this event were black. In Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1960s, they were barred by law and custom from sitting at such a lunch counter and ordering something to eat and then being allowed to sit and eat their lunch at the lunch counter. White customers were allowed to sit; but if black customers wanted to eat lunch, they would have to stand. It should also be noted that the workers at the counter were white; the black employees were upstairs and out-of-sight.

And they will each tell you that this act of civil disobedience was not done lightly. Reprisals were common against those who spoke out against the rule and custom of segregation and each of the four truly expected such reprisals would be forthcoming, as would occur in other sit-ins that would follow. But to the credit of all the citizens of Greensboro, nothing happened.

The four were told that they would not be served and that they should leave the store. But they would not do so and when the store closed for the day, they went home but told the manager that they would return. They returned the next day and sat at the counter again. And again, they were not served. Nor were they served the next day or the next. But it was different on these following days, for each day others who supported their actions would come and take a seat. And it was not just the black students of Greensboro who sat at the counter in defiance of the law and custom; white students began to take part in the sit-ins, offering support through action against the custom and law.

It would take several weeks of patient sitting and waiting but in the end, not only did the store but the city of Greensboro as well agree to integrate (this story can be found at http://www.sitins.com/story.shtml).

And as the word of the sit-in spread across the South and the country, other sit-ins began. Most were peaceful but there were instances of confrontation and violence (images of these protests can be found at http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgcoll.htm). The four young men were in the right place and the right time and their actions changed history. And the world changed as well.

We might find it incomprehensible today that just a few years ago, there were places in this country where the color of one’s skin could and did determine what you could and could not do, where you could walk and talk and eat and where you would never dare to do such things. There are those who cannot understand how the election of one man can make a difference in this country or even in this world but if you grew up in the South and you saw what life was like, you would understand.

We might find it incomprehensible to know that we could, in this country, divide schools, restaurants, bus stations, rest rooms and churches and still say there was equality in this land. But, as one who grew up in the south and felt the impact of segregation in his life, let me assure that it did happen (see "Lexington, North Carolina"), And what I find frightening is that there is evidence today that some would seek to impose the economic and social structures of segregation once again in this country.

When I hear a politician, Northern or Southern, speak of state’s rights or suggests that literacy tests are necessary requirements for voting in this country, I hear the calls and cries of Southern politicians from the 1870s through the 1970s. I hear the voices of those who would control the lives of others by using fear and ignorance.

A politician will only call for literacy tests as a requirement for voting in this country because they want to frighten those who would listen and are ignorant of the past. Ministers who say that natural disasters are the signs of God’s wrath and anger against people or a nation are ignorant of the world around them. A minister who calls for a government based on Christian principles but includes murder, violence, discrimination, and hatred can only be speaking out of their own fear of the unknown and an ignorance of Christian principles.

Fear has been a tool from the days of Christ and the disciples. The Romans used crucifixion as a tool of fear, to control the populace by saying “this can happen to you if you don’t stay in line.” The religious authorities used fear to extract obedience from the people by saying “we know the proper way to do things and you don’t”. Time and time again, dictators have used the fear of the people to control them and direct them to the dictators’ own selfish purposes.

We are at a point in time when the future is in peril. Our ignorance of the world around us threatens our health and our safety. Our ignorance of other cultures threatens our security. Our fear of the unknown, of what lies “out there” keeps us from learning and keeps us ignorant. The four brothers only knew what Jesus was saying; they had no idea of what was to come when they walked away from the nets and their boats. But still they left.

In Paul’s letter today, he reminds the Corinthians of how they got to this point in their life. Paul lays the basis for faith in these verses and the verses that follow (verses 12 – 34). When a person speaks of Christianity or any religion being only a myth, I believe they are speaking out of ignorance. Faith cannot grow in fear, yet too many people try to use fear as the means to faith. Faith can only grow through knowledge, knowledge found both in the physical world and, for the lack of a better term, the metaphysical world.

To bring the Gospel message into the world is a challenging task, to say the least; and it is a task that many people are unwilling to undertake.

I did not, when I began writing this sermon, intend to be a prophet of doom. The passage from Isaiah has two parts, the second being the consequences of the first. Isaiah is called by God to give a message to the people; it is a message that will harden the hearts and close their minds, it will bring doom to the nation.

And God said to the people through Isaiah, “You aren’t going to get this the first time. You will listen but not comprehend; you will look but not understand. You will become dull and shut your ears and close your eyes. And in doing so, you will become dumb and ignorant and you will die.”

That is not the message that we want to deliver. But we should not see it in those terms, unless we desire to have history repeat itself. All those “out there” who call these the End Times say that there is no hope in this world; that the world shall come to an end and there is not one thing we can do to stop God’s plan. But I never accepted this notion that God’s plan was for the destruction of this world, the world that He created. Why else did He send His Son to be the Hope and Savior of the World?

What I have believed is that we have been warned as to what would happen if we choose to walk a different path, if we choose to let ignorance, fear, and hatred control our lives. God sent His Son, not to condemn us, but to save us. He gave us the tools and the abilities to use those tools for the betterment of all mankind, not just a select few. He put us in this place and at this time to do just that.

We are like Isaiah, presented with a monumental task, a task far beyond our own perceived abilities. Yet God provided Isaiah with the words, the skills, and the strength to undertake the task. Every prophet, every messenger of God, has reacted in the same manner as Isaiah and every prophet, every messenger has received the same message.

In a world where cynics decry the meaning of faith and say that there is nothing a single individual can do, it is hard to be that single individual who takes the first step. In a world where faith is ridiculed or compromised, it is hard to say to someone “come with me on Sunday; I want you to find Jesus.”

We can be like so many who heard the message to come and follow me and say, “No, not today.” And we have many reasons for doing so, “I am too old; I am too young; I have too many things to do; I can’t walk away from the life that I have worked so hard to gain.” Yet, Isaiah went, even though the prospects were not good. And the four brothers put down their nets and walked away from their boats, to follow Jesus for three years, to follow Jesus to a place and time where history would change.

We have that opportunity today; we are in the right place and the right time to follow Christ, to change history. What shall we do?

And How Shall You Speak?


I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road))  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2010 were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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There was a murder trial in Wichita, Kansas, the other day. And whatever your thoughts about the trial might be, it was a murder trial. It was not a platform for a discussion of societal issues, which the defendant wanted it to be. It was not, as I believe the defendant wanted it to be, a platform for the presentation of his views. The defendant admitted that he planned the murder and then he carried out the plan. And the jury found him guilty of murder. And this young man will spend the rest of his life in jail.

I do not want to focus on either the reason for the murder or what the victim did; that is for another time and another place. But I am bothered that this young man basically used Christianity as his defense. His primary argument was that he had the right to murder his victim in order to save the lives of others and that he should not be punished as severely for his crimes as others might be.

His argument was that it is against one of the commandments to kill someone yet it is permissible to kill someone who is killing someone. And while Kansas does have the death penalty, it apparently does not apply to this case and we can also leave this discussion for another time and place. This young man will spend the rest of his life in a version of Sheol that is his own creation. And he will not get to die as a martyr to his faith, which I think he would like to do.

But my bringing this point up is that this young man said that the words of Christ and the words in the Bible were the justification for his thoughts and his actions. What bothers me is that he and those who support him will quote Leviticus 24: 19, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Too many people have taken this as a commandment; that which must be done. In truth, it is a limit.

We as a race and a society have a remarkable tendency to make up our own punishment, to decide the justice that each crime requires. It is our very nature as humans to hurt our attacker more than we were hurt. The phrasing in Leviticus was meant to put a limit to this vengeful tendency of mankind.

But I find something more disturbing in all of this, if it is possible to find something more disturbing than the murder of someone. It is that the word Christian was used in a way that is so contradictory to what it is supposed to mean. This trial and how the word Christian was used only reinforced something else that I heard last week.

Last week I heard someone speaking about the nature of society today in relationship to the Supreme Court decision that essentially confirmed the notion that a corporation in this country has the same rights and privileges as a citizen. This speaker painted a very bleak picture and harkened back to the late 1920s and early 30s when the Weimar Republic in Germany was seized by the Nazis. He spoke of the rich and the powerful gathering up the power, the wealth and material goods of this planet and finding ways of preventing others from sharing or benefiting. It is almost as if this group of ultra-elites seeks a Roman Empire state of mind. There is peace in this world of the ultra-elites but it is a peace enforced by countless skirmishes and wars along the border. There is prosperity in this world of the ultra-elites but it is prosperity for only the few and where the majority of the population is enslaved by economic status. It would also be a 21st century equivalent of Rome in biblical times except for one thing, the church.

Then the church, or rather the church community, was in opposition to the direction of the Empire. They worked for the people who were forgotten and cast aside; they worked for those who had no support.

But the picture that was painted by this speaker included the church as being that part of society that worked against the people. And while he confirmed what I knew and heard from others close to me also say, he didn’t say as others have that the “religious right” was at fault; he said that “Christians” were at fault and he did not differentiate between those who are Christians in what they say and what they do and those who say they are Christians but whose words, whose deeds, and whose lives belie the very word they want to be known by.

It was almost as if this speaker had forgotten that the church was the prime mover for civil rights in the sixties and against the war in Viet Nam. Yes, there were those in the church, pastors and laity alike, who wanted no part of the civil rights movement and were very much for the war in Viet Nam; they were the ones who created the conservative side of the church today. But I could not see then and I cannot see now how you can claim to be a follower of Christ and then find ways to imprison and degrade other human beings, or to use violence as a justification for violence, and turn your hearts against other human beings.

Last week, I spoke of the Bible being a living document, one in which the message remains true over the years. This is especially true when you read Paul’s words about saying things and doing things but saying and doing them with an empty heart and without love. The words and actions of too many Christians today are such words and such actions; they are words of selfish children, interested in their own well-being and outcome. The difference between a child-like faith and an adult-like faith is not situational but expanded. You see more of the world; those with the child-like faith that Paul writes about are limited in their thinking. The problem is that too many adults have this self-centered view of faith.

We cannot expect to find peace in this world if there is no peace in our hearts. And we cannot expect to have peace in our hearts until such time as we come to truly know Christ and the words that He spoke about taking care of people and loving each other fully and unconditionally.

But what this speaker said was true; the shift taking place in this country, the favoritism given to the rich and powerful over the rest of society, the destruction of individual rights, and the marginalization of the individual in general is supported by many who call themselves Christian. There is a distinct correlation between what is happening today in this country and what happened in Germany in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler came to power.

One of the major groups that supported Hitler was the Lutheran Church. For many in the church, his nationalist rhetoric overshadowed his racism and bigotry. And many turned a blind eye to the racism and the bigotry because they felt the same way as well, though perhaps not as overtly.

To turn a blind eye is nothing new. Jesus stood up in front of the people in the synagogue where He grew up, in front of the people who saw Him grow up and pronounced the fulfillment of the prophecy. Yet the people turned against Him when He reminded them of their failure as a nation to take care of people and their self-centeredness.

We who were taught and raised to see the church as the instrument for the salvation for humankind may find it hard to believe that many people died because the church as an institution and individually turned a blind eye to what was happening. But it did and we must not let it happen again. John Conway wrote,

It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm).

But we also need to remember that not all Lutheran pastors went merrily along with the crowd. There were many pastors who stood up and opposed the transformation of the Lutheran church into the spiritual advisor of the Nazi regime. There were people like Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reverend Schneider was a Lutheran minister who consistently and openly spoke out against the Nazi regime and its attempt to subvert the Lutheran church. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald and died from a lethal injection in 1939 (This was adapted from comments about Paul Schneider in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell).

I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to the churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either Schneider or Bonhoeffer say to those whose view of the future does not keep the Cross in plain sight?

I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in college. His name kept coming up in situations related to the anti-war movement of the sixties. But I didn’t know who he was or why his thoughts were so important to that moment in time. When he was in his mid-twenties, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as one of the brightest theological minds of all times. Yet, with his great understanding of the Bible and theology, he wrestled with the idea of what being a Christian was all about. In part, this dissonance between his mental life and his daily life came because of what was happening in Germany at that time, the early 1930’s. He saw a church where many leaders welcomed with open arms Adolf Hitler and many others simply acquiesced to the rise of Nazism, hoping that it would all go away.

Bonhoeffer was living in America and could have stayed here, safe from the troubles in Germany. But God called him to go home. In Germany, he worked to overthrow the Third Reich and help smuggle Jews out of Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was executed for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler four days before Allied troops liberated the prison camp where he was imprisoned.

During those two years he thought and wrote about faith, God, life, and the church. He already knew that grace without discipleship was meaningless. In prison, I think that he began to see why. He wrote of missing worship services though he could not explain why. He wrote of a deeper sense of God’s involvement in our lives. He began to see how we are able to bring good out of evil, much in the manner that Joseph saw through the injustices of his brothers and the plans of a vindictive and rejected wife to the uniqueness of God’s own plan. (This was adapted from comments about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)

Most importantly, Bonhoeffer saw that crisis becomes that edge where change is possible. But such change requires something greater than human nature. That something is our faith in God.

I cringe at the thought that what happened 80 years ago may again be happening in this country today. I cringe because that is not how I came to my own faith and my understanding of what Christianity is about. When I was in college and struggling to learn many things, one of the things that I had to struggle with was the very nature of my faith. My vision of faith was very rudimentary and perhaps false.

I was like the child of faith that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians for today. But I wanted to learn; I wanted to understand how my faith would help me through those tough times then and the tough times now. I don’t have the answers but my faith is still growing as I learn more about it.

But too many people stay as a child when it comes to their faith; they hold onto the simplistic ideas that they were taught as a child. The problem is that we cannot stay as a child when it comes to faith, because to do so is to leave our faith incomplete. I have seen too many people in my time whose faith is like that of a child because they stopped growing. In part, it was because the church did not offer the chance for the faith to grow; in part, because each individual was quite content with a faith that was black and white with no delineation of gray.

It is hard to live in the 21st century with a basis for belief that is locked into the past. It is hard to grow up when you are limited in what you know because you have closed your heart and mind to the message. The message transcends time; it doesn’t matter whether the message was written on a papyrus or parchment scroll or by electrons in an electronic book, the message remains the same. But if you insist that it is only true when read from the parchment scroll, then you lose the meaning of the message, for you are also locked in time.

We have heard the Gospel message. We see the world around us and wonder how we shall ever find an answer. We know that we need to cast aside our childish ways and we know that we must, as Paul wrote, rejoice in the truth. But too many people are perhaps unwilling to do so. They are unwilling to leave the protective cocoon of a child and venture out into the world.

Hear again the words of Jeremiah that “I am just a boy, a child, and I cannot do a thing.” And God said to Jeremiah, as He says to each one of us today that He will give us the words to say, He will give us the strength to act, and He will give us the ability to make things truly right in this world.

You may hear these words today, words written two and three thousand years ago and say that there is nothing we can do. The world is what it is and we are powerless to change the world. Or we can say that we have found Christ in our hearts and we have let the Holy Spirit empower us and though we are like a small child today, we will grow in the Spirit and we will take the Gospel message, first spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth, out into the world. So, my friends, how shall you speak this day?

First, Read the manual; then


I was at Hankins UMC this morning and will be there again next week.  (Location of Hankins – the church is just after the intersection of NY 94 and NY 97)  The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2010 were Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.

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The title for today’s sermon actually started out as something else but as sometimes happens, it changed in the process of the writing. Still, it is a highly appropriate title when you stop and consider what the Israelites did as described in the Old Testament reading for today.

The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon to their home in Israel. This exile took them away, not only from their ancestral home, but from an understanding of who they were as a people. That is why the book was read to them; so that they would understand who they were and what they were to do. This reading wasn’t just the traditional stories; it was also the minutiae of life, the rules and regulations that were part and parcel of their identity.

And it wasn’t read to a select group but to the whole population. It refers to the women, something rarely done in the Bible. It speaks of those who have understanding and I have taken that to mean the youth of the population, those who were in and had attended school being in attendance. To include the women and the youth in the story tells you something of the importance of this moment in time.

In hearing the words and reading the words, the people got a better understanding of who they were and what they were to do. The rebuilding of the Temple could only be accomplished if the Israelites understood who they truly were.

And this is the key for us today. In a country that loudly proclaims at every opportunity that it is a Christian nation, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, it is quite surprising how many people have not read the Bible or, if they have read it, know what is in it.

We are a remarkably literate nation, but only in the sense that the majority of people can read. There is nothing wrong with that but true literacy is more than reading; it is also comprehending what has been read and then doing something with that newfound knowledge.

A couple of years ago I got a book about the speeches President John Kennedy made (Let Every Nation Know, Robert Dallek and Terry Golway). In it, the authors made a very telling statement. They pointed out that President Kennedy did not speak in the sound bites of today’s politicians but rather in literate paragraphs and with references to history that the listener was expected to know and understand. This is a sobering thought, especially when it is viewed in the context of today’s political discourse with sound bites filled with questionable and negative statements. But politicians can make such statements and their supporters quickly repeat them because we are willing to accept lies and misstatements as truth and are equally not willing to push the speakers to tell the truth.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that a nation could never expect to be free and ignorant at the same time; yet, we seem to revel in our ignorance and cannot see our freedom slipping away.

Time and time again, the people of this nation show their inability to remember what we learned in school. This inability to remember basic information and utilize what we know threatens the security of this nation and the continuation of civilization. And whether we wish to accept the idea or not, our lack of knowledge about the Bible and our inability to use that knowledge is part and parcel of this national threat.

This is not limited to one sector of our population. It is spread equally among the people, whether they do not attend church or disdain modern religion as a myth or an opiate of the mind or are among those who regularly attend church every Sunday.

Being a Christian today is hard enough; it is even harder because people do not know the basic tenets and history of their faith or what it is that they are supposed to do.

Consider the following little tidbits of information:

  1. Most people can not name all Ten Commandments; according to one Gallup poll, less than ½ of the born-again community can name five)
  2. Most people can name the four Beatles but cannot name one of the twelve apostles.
  3. Don’t ask too many Americans to identify the four Gospels because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only three out of five Christians can recall the names of the first four books of the New Testament.
  4. Only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34); only ½ of the Christians polled could identify the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  5. 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
  6. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book definitely not one of the four Gospels and one that actually conflicts with the basic message of Scripture.

A 2004 Gallup survey (http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7927) indicated that

  1. Nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.
  2. 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark.
  3. And ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament

Another survey (http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/page/1573625.htm) showed

  1. That less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior.
  2. When given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.

(There is a quiz at http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bl-quiz.html if you are interested.)

In the June 17, 2008, issue of Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the “Introduction to World Religions” course that she taught at Piedmont College (“Faith Matters”). The course spends five weeks studying each of the world’s major religions. At best, only the basic information can be covered but it is enough to often change the thinking of many of the students. Students who completed the course indicate that they feel more at home in the world, they are less frightened by religious differences, and they are more informed and perhaps better equipped to wage peace instead of war.

But, when it came to the section covering Christianity, there were some disturbing results. Until they took the course, students said that they had never noticed that the nativity story in Matthew was different from the nativity story in Luke and that Mark and John have no such stories. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with a copy of the New Testament in their pockets. In fact, they have no concept of how the books of the Bible were assembled. Most of the students assumed that Paul was one of the disciples and that was how he gathered the information that he used to write his letters. And no one told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They have no idea that there are branches to the tree of Christianity. For most students, nothing happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own profession of faith. – “Just What Is The Right Thing To Do?” – 29 June 2008

This lack of understanding of the Bible and its history impacts on our lives in so many ways. It is very difficult to explain Christ and the meaning He has for each one of us when what is said and done in the name of Christ is so contradictory. People may say that Christ is a myth because they hear about this man who walked the paths of the Galilee some two thousand years ago and preached about healing people and freeing the oppressed but they see those who proclaim to be His followers exclude people and work for oppression and exclusion. Why should they not believe?

They hear preachers with syrupy-sweet Southern accents tell them God wants them to be wealthy and have the good life and all you have to do is give their ministry a few dollars because God will return you ten-fold or thousand-fold what you have given to Him. Not only is this not what is in the Bible; it is complete reversal of what is in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that we are to be the servant, to do for others what has been done for us. It is hard to see how, in a world that begs for bread, that someone would assume that God exists solely to meet our desires. But that is exactly what has happened because we don’t know the Bible, we don’t know how we got to this point in time, and we have let too many others tell us what it is we are to know and to believe.

It would have been very easy for Nehemiah and Ezra to tell the people of Israel to simply rebuild the Temple when they returned to Jerusalem. But they wouldn’t have had a clue as to why they were doing it or what to do when it was finished.

That is where we are today as a society and as a people of faith. We have gotten away from the basic knowledge and history of our faith and our denomination. We are like the people of Israel, coming back from exile, coming back from the near destruction of their identity. And like the people of Israel some three thousand years ago, we are faced with two tasks:

1. We must make sure that everyone understands what is in the Bible, what is not in the Bible, and what it all means.

2. We must also make sure that what is truly in the Bible is what we say and do.

When we read Paul’s letters, we must understand that he is not writing to some church on a street in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossi, or Galatia; he is writing to a group of believers who have gathered in someone’s home.

This is a part of our history as a church that most people don’t know. The early church was not some building on a street in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, or Corinth; it was a community of believers. As a community, the people were interested in telling others the Good News about Jesus Christ but they were also interested in the welfare and well-being of the community and the people around the community. And it was these communities, banding together to insure all were fed and clothed and housed that were seen as a threat to the political and social establishment of the time. The threat these communities brought came not just from the message of equality, hope, and promise; it came from the actions of the early church to bring equality, hope, and promise.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians and speaks of the parts of the body, he is speaking to the community of believers as a whole. He wants them to understand that it is together that they are able to do the work that they have been called to do. It is not about everyone doing exactly the same thing but doing what it is that they do best so that the goals of the community are met.

We are faced with many great challenges in today’s society. We may want to close our doors and say to the world outside to leave us alone. But we run the risk of not seeing the world change.

But the actions and thoughts of too many are locked in a world two thousand years ago; this had lead to the creation of a church that excludes and denies, this has lead to many people turning away from the church. The message of the Bible has not changed in over two thousand years; the message of the Bible transcends time.

The key message of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments is that we are to be concerned with the poor, the oppressed, the needy and the sick. The key message of the Bible is that we are to be more than concerned; we are to be the vehicle by which the message is put into practice.

In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)

It is not a message about going to war and saying that war is just because God is our side and not our enemies; it should be about loving our enemy and taking away the reasons for war. If we seek peace in this world, it cannot be a peace enforced by military might or political superiority.

As President Kennedy said in the commencement address at American University (a Methodist supported university) on June 10, 1963, we should seek

“a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.” (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkamericanuniversityaddress.html)

It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not about saying that someone is not welcome in a church because of their race, their creed, or their lifestyle. It is about insuring that all people on this planet have the same rights and that, as Martin Luther King put it, insuring that people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick. It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free.

The message found in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is a message that brings hope to all, not just a select few. It is a message that opens doors, not shuts them. And like the people of Israel, when this message is heard and when the people today see the message in action, they will cry.

They will cry because, like the people of Israel did that day some two thousand and five hundred years ago, they understood that God had not forgotten them and that their lives, lost for so long in exile, were found.

The message for us today is a very simple one. Having read the manual, what are we going to do?

That is the opportunity that we have today. We have come today; we have heard the message. We can now begin the task of rebuilding our community and taking the true Gospel message out into the world.