“Achieving Wisdom”

A Meditation for 16 August, 2015, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), based on 1 Kings 2: 10 – 12, 3: 3 – 14; Ephesians 5: 15 – 20; and John 6: 51 – 58

And there is Paul telling the Ephesians to wake up and climb out of their coffin. The last time that I used this reading (“What Does The Future Hold?”) I pointed out that this was a very interesting way to talk about thinking outside the box.

The first thing that Solomon asked for was wisdom; he knew that everything else would come if he had wisdom.

The powers that be could not understand what Jesus was saying. They were so hung up on the the current situation that it was almost impossible for them to see what was going on. And I am not entirely sure that they would have know what to do if they did know what was going on.

It is very much the same today. We focus on the present so much that we have no way of seeing or even envisioning what may take place tomorrow. We have been so concerned about our students not learning anything we have forgotten that the achievement of learning requires teaching them how to learn, not simply understanding untold number of facts.

And we as a society are quite willing to accept the words of a few self-appointed individuals as the truth and we do so without questioning or in face of the fact that what they are saying is not truth.

And quite honestly, many of those who espouse to be our religious leaders today, who tell us we need to live in a Christian society (while they themselves do not), would probably not recognize Jesus or would say that he doesn’t know what He is talking about, just as their 1st century counter-parts did.

And in the end, it does not matter what someone else tells you to think; it is what you decide to think that counts. But that means that you must study, you must seek, and you must be open to the whole world.

As I said, the first thing that Solomon sought when he became King was wisdom because that would give him the tools he needed to achieve other things.

How do we go about achieving that wisdom? It is by asking questions and seeking answers, not simply accepting what others tell you to say and/or do. Granted, if your teacher tells you early on that 1 and 1 is 2, it would be a good idea to accept that as the truth but you can always test the question but using a calculator to confirm the addition. Ultimately, of course, you have to do the calculations and trust the answers but that is part of the process of achieving wisdom.

Wisdom starts with some basic knowledge but to achieve wisdom you have to go beyond the basic information. Jesus gave everyone the same basic information and showed everyone how to get it; it was then and is now up to the individual to finish the task. We are pushed to think outside the box when we seek wisdom, the same wisdom that allowed Solomon to be one of the great Kings of Israel. But more than that, this gives us opportunities to further the Kingdom of God in ways that we may never know otherwise.

“Oppression or Freedom”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What Does the Future Hold?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Litany For A Cross Dedication

On Sunday, August 19th, we are dedicating a cross in the Children’s Garden at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY. This cross is made of steel I-beams from the World Trade Center and was given to the church on 9/11/2011.

My message that evening as we prepare to dedicate this cross is “Oppression or Freedom – Think Twice” and is based on 2 Samuel 18: 24 – 33, Ephesians 5: 15 – 20, and John 6: 51 – 58. I haven’t begun thinking about all that I am going to say but I do know that one theme that I will use is that “this cross is planted in a Children’s Garden and it is a garden for peace, not violence. Those who want this cross to be a symbol of violence and war must find another cross in another garden.”

I mean no disrespect to those who died in the attacks on 9/11 but I also think that the best memorial that we can offer to them is to insure that such attacks do not happen again. I want to remind the people that the Romans used the cross as a sign of oppression, a sign that one had better think twice before opposing Roman rule. I want to remind the people that the religious authorities of that day didn’t mind using the cross to remind those that followed Jesus that disturbing the status quo and the power structure wasn’t a good idea.

And finally I want to remind people that through Christ’s Resurrection, the cross is a sign of hope and freedom.

What I want to do is conclude the message with the beginning of the litany that dedicates the cross. Here are the beginning lines of that litany:

  • Let this cross be a reminder that Christ died so that we may live;
  • Let this cross, meant to be a symbol of defeat, be a symbol of victory;
  • Let this cross, meant to oppress, be a symbol of hope;
  • Let this cross remind us that in and through Christ we work for freedom and justice.I would like to add a few more lines to this. What would you suggest?

Where Can We Go? And How Do We Get There?

This Sunday, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, I am at Red Hook United Methodist Church, Red Hook, NY (location).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Kings 8: 22 – 30, 41 – 43; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; and John 6: 56 – 69.  They have a hymn sing at 9:15 with the service starting at 9:30; you are welcome and invited to attend.

(This has been edited since it was first posted)


And Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? It is a question that we have asked throughout our history. We seek leaders that will take us to our own versions of the Promised Land; we seek leaders who will offer us easy riches and wonderful rewards.

Everyone rejoiced when Jesus first proclaimed the Gospel and how it would bring new hope to the people. But the reality of the message, when the reality that this anticipated new hope would only come through their efforts caused many to quickly leave. We do the same thing today; we seek leaders who promise much but we balk when the implementation requires that we participate and become part of the solution. We want the fruits of the garden without having to do the gardening.

I could not help but think that our remembrances of what happened forty years ago this summer was an attempt to remember the good times, the times when promises made were promises kept. But when I look at what happened some forty years ago and what followed, I wonder if we truly remember what happened.

Some of us probably enjoyed the recent retrospective on what transpired across the river in Bethel some forty years ago. I know that many today still view that musical concert as a travesty and a disaster; others will tell you that it was the promise of a better tomorrow. Perhaps the Woodstock concert was the promise of a better tomorrow, of a beginning of love, peace and understanding.

But the next concert was held at Altamont; marked by violence and death, it was every thing that Woodstock wasn’t. And while those who planned Woodstock might have visions of easy riches, it took them literally the past forty years for that to take place. And every concert since 1969 that was touted as the next Woodstock has been held with an intent to make money, not music.

I will not condone the use of drugs in society that many say Woodstock created; I will say that many used Woodstock as an excuse for a life with no responsibility. If you want a life that is love, peace, and understanding, you have to also understand what is required; it does not come automatically.

We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (From my notes from Tim Zimmer in “This Is That Time”)

And just as Woodstock held the promise of something new, the landing on the moon a month earlier promised to be the first step in a new journey, a journey that would take humankind and civilization beyond the bounds of earth and open new vistas of exploration and knowledge. But too many people saw the moon landings of that summer as the completion of a race, a race to show that our way of life was better than communism. Walking on the moon wasn’t a scientific statement; it was a political statement and it was subject to the whims of political thought.

Yes, we sent other men to the moon but when the cost of the war in Viet Nam became too great, the moon missions were cut short. No one has walked on the moon since 1972 and while we have a presence in outer space with the International Space Station (which is a vestige of the former Soviet Union’s space program), I wonder how long we will keep that presence. Our space shuttles are due to be taken out of service in the next few years and we have nothing in the pipeline to replace them. There is a generation who has never seen humans walk on the moon and who, because of the differences in technology then and now, may truly believe that the grainy primitive images of those who did walk on the moon are faked. And if we do not quickly determine how to make regular space flight possible, we will have another generation who will never know that we once, as the poet wrote, “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

We ended the moon missions because of the rising cost of a war in which the reason was lost in the rhetoric. We kept sending our young men to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia without a clear cut understanding of why, who and what we were fighting and, as we would discover later, lead by political administrations that would lie to us about what was transpiring there.

We cancelled the Apollo program because we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t afford it because our military budget was taking away resources that could have been better spent on peace. It is always interesting that the first programs that are subject to budgetary cuts are programs that help people while those that will kill people keep growing.

I am not saying that we should not have a defense department or a military, to do so would be to deny my heritage. But when we say that we are a Christian nation and we spend more on death than we do on living, there is something wrong with our thinking. When we spend billions of dollars on weapons systems but only dollars on schools, we are going to reach a point where those recruited to fix the systems can’t read the directions.

What came out of that summer forty years ago was the beginning of a new day, but not the one that everyone hoped for. There were too many other things going on that spoke of a different direction.

What I remember of 1969 is that I saw a world in turmoil and disarray. It was still a time of inequality and inequity. That spring I stood side by side with my friends to protest the lack of off-campus housing for the black students who attended the university where I was a sophomore that year. It is fair to say that my parents were upset with my involvement in this protest. But that spring I had a revelation and my participation in that protest was the result of that revelation.

Prior to going to Memphis, my home town, for spring break that year, I met with Reverend Marvin Fortel, my pastor at First United Methodist Church. I have written about this meeting in the past (“Our Father’s House”) and will not do so today.

What I learned that day and have come to understand over the years is that no matter who I am or what I am, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross opened the door to God’s House for me. No matter what the problems of the world may be or are, there is a place in which I can find shelter and solace. I also came away from the church that day understanding that, having come to Christ, I needed to work for Christ so that others could have the same opportunity.

If the Gospel message is to bring hope to this world, if the Gospel message is to bring health to the sick, comfort to the dying and justice for the oppressed, I could not stand on the sidelines and be quiet. I had to, if nothing else, say to my friends that I was with them and so I stood by my friends as they occupied the administration building in protest. It is very difficult for me to judge or state the results of that effort; I do know that one of the leaders of that effort (and someone I once considered a close friend) later rose to a position of power and prominence in the last Bush administration. Like those who sought to make money from the Woodstock phenomena, my friend opted for the good life of money and power. I can’t say that I completely blame him for forgetting his roots and moving own. To think only of one’s self and not care for others is a hallmark of today’s society.

What the reflection of time tells me about 1969 is that it was replaced by the cynicism of the 1970’s and the “me first” attitude of the 1980’s. We have spent and continue to spend more money on ourselves and against people than we do for people. Our budgets speak of our love for war and violence, not hope and humanity. We seek to protect what we have, not allow others to share.

And sad to say, today’s church is guilty of this same attitude of protecting what it has. The church today is lost in the wilderness and dying of thirst and hunger because it has forgotten where it came from and where it should be going.

There are those who look at the church today and remember the good old days, when the pews were full, there were no budget problems, and the preacher offered short vignettes that bothered no one and did little to upset the apple cart. They remember when they had that wonderful youth program that met on Sunday evenings and how once a month the youth would sing in church. It was the church that they grew up in and it is the church in which they wish to live their lives.

They see the church as the last bastion of morality, of putting a stop to the sins that seemingly dominate this world, where everyone believes as they do (even if they themselves do not know what it is that they believe). They want the church to be their protection against an evil and god-forsaken world.

They look around and see other churches growing and prospering, pastors wearing thousand dollar suites, flying private jets on mission trips to Steamboat Springs, Maui and the Fiji Islands, or living in million dollar homes in gated communities and think that they should be able to do the same. They hear pastors speaking with a syrupy-sweet southern drawl promising them how to lead the good life.

And they wonder why their church is dying. They will tell you about the pastor who once preached a sermon on equality and wanted to start some sort of program to feed the hungry and maybe house a homeless family for a couple of nights in one of the Sunday school rooms. They will laugh when they tell you how the PPRC met that following week and literally ran that pastor out of town. They will tell you that she was a nice pastor but she didn’t understand the community.

They look around and wonder where the young people are. They will complain about how the local soccer program should never have begun playing on Sunday. But it isn’t the local sports programs that took the kids and the young people away; it only offered an excuse for them to not come to church.

The youth don’t come to church and the young people leave the church when they move away from home because the church doesn’t offer them anything that has meaning or a reason to stay and participate. The young have no ownership in the church, so they see no reason to stay.

When you ask youth of today why they do not go to church, they will say it is because the church is hypocritical in its words and actions. The church proclaims that it has the power to decide how one is to live one’s live and if your sins are to be forgiven. The church preaches love and forgiveness but condemns those whose lives are somewhat different. These young people have friends who are gay but are afraid to tell their parents because they are afraid of what their parents will and have said. They see parents who proclaim that they are servants of God but disown their children because they are gay. They see a church silent on issues of gender and racial equality, silent on the issue of peace but willing to cheer on war.

The church is dying because it is unwilling to do that what it was supposed to be doing. Like so many of those who walked with Jesus on those dry, dusty roads of the Galilee but went home when it got a bit too hot or dusty, when it became clear that Jesus was calling them to do the work, the church today has quit walking with Him. The church is dying because it no longer adheres to the words of Christ. It no longer calls for the things that Christ called for; instead it calls for its own version of the Gospel, one in which Christ is the servant of humankind who does our bidding.

They wonder why the church is dying because they don’t remember what the church once was. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the church once was a community of believers who gathered together for the benefit and support of all the community. They have forgotten that it was John Wesley who spoke out against the inequities of a society that would cast aside the lower classes and who would not offer healthcare for anyone but the wealthy and upper-class. They have forgotten that it was the Methodist Church that started the first schools because no one else would teach children how to read; you cannot understand the word of God if you cannot read it. And if you cannot read, you cannot have access to power. They have forgotten that it was the Methodist Church that started the first local health care programs, programs for the poor and lower class.

What I remember is that the church forty years ago was the moral voice in the protest against the Viet Nam war. Now, pastors and congregations alike speak of how we are fighting God’s war in the Middle East.

What I remember is that the church forty years ago was the moral voice in the fight for civil rights. Now, pastors and congregations alike seek ways to close the door to the church to all those who don’t meet the congregations self-imposed code of conduct. They have forgotten that Solomon opened the doors to the New Temple to all who sought God, not to just a select few as would be the case when Jesus walked the land.

And there are the words that Paul wrote to the Ephesians some two thousand years ago, “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life.” The church only lives when it is working, when it puts the words of Christ into action.

You cannot carry out the words of Christ if you do not accept Christ as your Savior. What I remember is that I would have left the church forty years ago because I saw a world in disarray and without hope and no means to bring hope. But I learned forty years ago, in the small chapel at First United Methodist Church that hope did exist and I could have that hope if I followed Christ with all my heart, all my mind, and all my being. It was a lesson taught to me some forty years ago and a lesson that I have kept in my heart all these years.

We are headed for disaster and we will get there soon if we don’t make a dramatic change in our lives and our thoughts. The problem is that we, like the disciples, must be committed to Christ and to the path that Christ walked.

We must first remember that we have proclaimed that we are Christ’s disciples. We have committed our lives and our souls to following Christ. Clarence Jordan is best known as the founder of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. Founded in the late 1940’s, it was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South.

As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.

Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.

Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society (From my notes on Clarence Jordan’s brother, Robert, in “What Do We Say”).

In one version of the Epistle reading for today, Paul points out that our struggle in this world is not against the enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. When you let Christ into your heart, you take on the light of Christ and you illuminate the world. It allows you to see where you are headed; it allows you to reach your goal.

Where you go from here and how you get there is up to you. You can just go home, not sure of what happens next. Or you can make the decision to follow Christ, commit your heart, your mind, your soul to following Him. It is up to you where you go and how you get there.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

This is a sermon I gave for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (3 September 2000) at Walker Valley UMC (Walker Valley, NY).  The Scriptures were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.


I will admit that when I knew that the Old Testament reading for today came from the Song of Solomon I had my thoughts. After all, as the commentary notes, because of its explicit language, both ancient and modern Jewish sages forbade men to read the book before they were thirty. This ban probably prevented any women from reading it at any age. We cannot ignore the sexual content of the book but we can appreciate it if we understand the context in which it was placed, that of a godly and loving marriage.

If the Bible is the book about God, then what is the purpose of the Song of Solomon? If you read the whole book, you will find that with the possible exception of the 6th verse in chapter 8 there are no references to God nor are there any references to prayer, worship, or piety. In some respects, it bears a strong similarity to the Book of Esther, from which we will take an Old Testament reading from in a few weeks. Ester is a story of the redemption of God’s people and includes episodes of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, themes remarkable absent from Solomon’s poetic story.

But we have to remember that the Bible not only describes who God is and what God does but also what God desires for His people. The Song of Solomon provides an example of how we are to live in happiness and fulfillment. It would be wrong to suggest that the full experience of humanity is limited to those who are married because that would eliminate the widowed, the divorced, and the celibate. And we have to remember that Jesus was one who was celibate. With its emphasis on human love, the Song of Solomon presents an extraordinary variety of expressions for love.

While some may see in the Song of Solomon allegories describing the love of God for Israel or the mythical relationship of our own Lord Jesus Christ and His bride, the church, it is not necessary to do so in order to understand the book. The Song of Solomon celebrates the beauty and intimacy of married love in a narrative poem. It teaches us that a lasting marriage requires dedication, commitment, and strong loyalty. And for all that our modern society may say about love and sexuality today, the Song of Solomon, taken in its entirety, probably presents the strongest argument for chastity before marriage.

Within in the context of today’s society, in which so many things bring with them a throwaway mentality, it is easy to see why people would have difficulty with this book of the Bible. Concepts like dedication, commitment, and loyalty seemingly no longer have a place in today’s society where everything is throwaway or its value is superficial.

To some extent that was the point Jesus made to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. In speaking to the Pharisees in the Gospel reading today, Jesus warned them about the hypocrisy that they showed.

In coming to see Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were looking to see if Jesus put the same importance on issues as they did. The tradition of the elders that Jesus spoke was a series of rules meant to bolster the ceremonial law but there was no authority for these rules in the scriptures. Jesus pointed out in verses 6 through 13 of today’s reading that God’s law was superior to man-made tradition and there was a great difference between ceremonial and true moral defilement.

. By the time of Christ, the Pharisees’ dedication was not to God’s law but to the laws of man. When the laws of God were first given to the Hebrews, they were held in such esteem that those who studied them would not write down their thoughts on them, lest they tempt later generations to consider such words just as important as God’s Law. But as time went on, written commentaries, collected in Talmud, assumed greater authority than the Torah itself. The meaning and reason for the law got lost in the ceremony and ritual that was attached to each action.

The reason why we do something has to have more attached to it that ceremony and ritual. It is what we do with what we have that determines what we will be. Some people have a hard time with the Letter of James, from which we took our second reading today. If given half the chance, Martin Luther would have dropped it from the New Testament. For the emphasis of James is on what you do with life and Luther, as well as Paul, felt that it was your faith that saved you, not your works as stated throughout James. The Letter of James is far more practical than it is doctrinal. James can be seen as the manual by which we lead our lives.

But faith and works go hand in hand. Faith will bring a person to salvation and works will bring that person to faithfulness. The reality is that if you have faith, then works will be the product of that faith. James points out that faith without works is dead and those who believe will act.

James spoke to the same points that Jesus did. If our actions are not supported by our thoughts and if our thoughts are not guided by Christ, then our actions ultimately will fail.

This is all about how we arrange our lives. Each day we all worship at some sort of altar. It may not be a visible one nor may it actually be in a church. But each day, as we proceed, we worship as some sort of an altar, if for no other reason that it is part of human nature to do so. Wherever we are giving our utmost attention at that moment, wherever our greatest amount of time and energy are, that is where the altar lies. And for many of us, that altar is a cluttered one, pile high with big and little priorities that we shift from place to place, attending to each one with as much attention and devotion as needed.

When Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple, he anger was not directed at their business as such but rather at the manner in which that business was being conducted. Jesus knew that the Temple’s alter was meant to be kept clean for its true business, that of prayer. “My father’s house is a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves!”, He said.  (Matthew 21: 13)

When Jesus first started his ministry, Satan tried very hard to put many things on Jesus’ altar. Though the offer of bread, human adulation, and the keys to the world would be attractive to almost anyone, Jesus swept each one off the altar and kept it clean.

What is on each of our altars? What does each of us worship with our time and our talents? When we leave the house each morning, which god will we be serving today? And when we come home at night, what new gods are dumped on the altar, as if we emptying our pockets and shopping bags? This altar can be a lot like the table that stands by the door, a place to unload everything as we walk into the house and a place which needs daily maintenance to keep it clean and free of clutter.

It’s easy to pick up the gods of the culture we live in. Recall that the golden calf that the Israelites made was an Egyptian god, not one of theirs. Throughout all their time in Egypt, they had become accustomed to seeing various animals worshiped. Many people today, Christians included, worship “success in business” or “self-righteousness” far more that they worship the God Jesus knew and spoke of.

What’s love got to do with it? To borrow from the song that Tina Turner sang, it is more than a second hand emotion. It is perhaps everything. James Allen wrote,

“And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hands will be placed the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts, your Vision, your ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration . . ..

In all human affairs there are efforts, and there are results, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result. Chance is not. “Gifts,” powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of effort; they are thoughts completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.

The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart — this you will build your life by, this you will become. (From As A Man Thinketh by James Allen)

We know that God gave us His only Son because of love. What we do with our lives is to show others what the love means to us.

Do As I Say? Or, Do As I Do?

This is a sermon I gave for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (31 August 2003) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).  The Scriptures were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.


I am a sometime listener to Garrison Keilor’s show, “Prairie Home Companion.” Since I don’t listen to it on a regular basis I don’t often get a chance to use some of what he says. It’s shame that I don’t because he has some pretty good stuff involving the pastor and parishioners of the Lutheran Church there in Lake Woebegone.

Now, I would presume that there is a United Methodist Church in Lake Woebegone (if there isn’t, then there is a great opportunity for some mission work). And knowing the makeup of the people who live there, it is very possible that it was at one time an Evangelical United Brethren Church. But it is still Minnesota and so most of the people, no matter their background or belief, attend the local Lutheran church. And it is the troubles and travails of the Lutheran pastor that Keilor speaks of when he gives the news of the past week in Lake Woebegone.

It does make for great listening and if I listened more often I know I would get some ideas that I could use, especially where the church is involved. Lake Woebegone is the town of our dreams, the place where there are only simple problems and as Keilor states every week “the women are beautiful, the men good looking, and all the children are above average.” The news is entertaining but fictitious.

Unfortunately, the news of the world isn’t. And more often than not, the news is more disturbing than entertaining (even if the news broadcasts try to make it sound entertaining). And the news out of Alabama is just that, very disturbing and not very entertaining.

I spent a year of my life as a student in Alabama and it is a year that I will never forget. I had already been exposed to the horrors of segregation and how the lives of both blacks and whites were controlled by this singularly repressive idea of inequality. But it was as a 7th grader at Bellingrath Junior High in Montgomery, Alabama that showed me that racism and segregation affected everyone, not just one race or ethnicity.

Because the law required that all schools be funded equally, no public school received much in the way of funding. Families had to buy the needed textbooks, no matter what grade they were in. If the schools gave the books to the students, the black students would be on the same plane as the white students. And that was just not acceptable policy in Alabama at that time. And if you could not afford the books, new or used, that was your problem, not the schools. That was in 1962 and it was almost the same when we went to school in Memphis in 1966 (but that is another story).

It was also in Montgomery that I began to see the hypocrisy that existed because of racism and segregation. My grandmother had come to visit us from St. Louis. As we came out of church the Sunday she was there, we lost her in the crowd. We found her and she said she had been escorted by “that nice young man over there.” Later, that nice young man stood in the schoolhouse door and denied duly qualified blacks the right to attend the University of Alabama. Fortunately for the course of history, George Corley Wallace learned that his segregationist and racists views would not serve either Alabama or himself well and he changed his ways. By the time he had died, he had come to peace with those whom he sought to suppress. But I am not sure that many still living in Alabama have done likewise. For the news from Alabama shows that the spirit of hypocrisy, the spirit that Jesus spoke out against in today’s Gospel reading are still very much a part of life there.

There are two news items coming from Alabama. Both are related to God. One concerns the tax code in Alabama; the other a 5,000-pound block of granite.

As most of you know by now, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court placed a 5,000 pound block of granite, on which the Ten Commandments had been carved, in the foyer of the state Supreme Court building. This was the culmination of a campaign he began a number of years ago when he was a local judge and he displayed prominently a plaque with the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Since then, he has had a running battle with the courts over this issue. In fact, if I understand what is happening, he wasn’t supposed to have put that block of granite in the Supreme Court building. All of his actions to this date have been in defiance of the laws that he himself has sworn to uphold.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t so much about the Ten Commandments. After all, the Ten Commandments are part of our own judicial system. But there are other Codes of Law upon which our justice system is based and they should be acknowledged as well.

The insistence that this stone be left alone moves the discussion away from the Ten Commandments and towards the issue of whether God is a part of our life or not. It also moves the discussion away from the topic of whether we will obey the Ten Commandments and more to accepting only one viewpoint about God. Does obeying God mean just displaying the Ten Commandments where everyone sees them or does it mean holding to the laws in your heart?

As was noted in a discussion between Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Jerry Falwell on MSNBC last Thursday, ours is a society where the use of God’s name has almost become passe. We are quick to call on God when it suits our purpose but we are quick to hide when God calls us. There isn’t a politician alive who does not end a speech with a rousing “God bless America!” We are still fighting over whether or not the phrase “under God” should be included in our Pledge of Allegiance, even when we forget why it was put there in the first place. The phrase “under God” was not in the original pledge, but placed there during the 1950’s as a political statement in response to the great Red Scare of that time.

We are reminded that our own United Methodist preacher, Oral Roberts, claimed that God would call him home if he did not build a brand new 650-bed hospital in Tulsa, OK. This despite the fact that a new hospital was not needed and that everyone, on earth at least, knew that it was just a part of Robert’s plan to expand his presence in Tulsa. We also are reminded that Jerry Falwell called on his followers to invoke God’s name in the hope that three United States Supreme Court justices would change their minds regarding a recent court decision. What is troubling about that isn’t that he called his followers to prayer but rather what they should be praying for God to do. Neither of these are examples of following God and keeping his name holy.

Judge Moore would tell you that he has a greater call to follow God than he does to follow the laws of his state. And that is most certainly true. We all do. His followers will tell you that their actions are in the great noble tradition of civil disobedience.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young pastor in Montgomery, he began using the techniques of civil disobedience to change the laws concerning bus passengers. The law at that time was the blacks and other minorities had to go to the back of the bus, no matter if there were seats available or not. It was Rosa Park’s decision to sit at the front of the bus on a day when she was tired and there were no seats in the back that began the Montgomery bus boycott and brought Rev. King to prominence.

But neither his actions of Justice Moore, nor the actions of those sitting on the courthouse steps, meet the requirements for civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is more than just simply refusing to obey a law. Civil disobedience as outlined by Gandhi, can be summarized as the following:

Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless or, which is the same thing, corrupt.

Civil disobedience is the assertion of a right which law should give but which it denies.

To safeguard democracy the people must have a keen sense of independence, self-respect, and their oneness.

Disobedience to be civil has to be open and nonviolent.

Disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation.

Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. (1)

Judge Moore’s insistence that the stone be kept and his resulting actions, as well as the actions of his supporters do not meet those requirements. And I question not only his motives but also the motives of some of his supporters.

At the same time that all of this is going on, there is a debate about the Alabama tax code. Surely, in the scheme of things, the state tax code in Alabama is one of the most oppressive and regressive tax codes in the country. Income taxes begin at $4,600 and tops out at 5% on income levels as low as $12,000. This makes the Alabama income tax a flat tax and the only ones that benefit from this are those with higher incomes. Alabama also allows its citizens to take a full deduction for federal taxes, again a benefit for only those with higher incomes.

To make up for lost revenue, local governments are allowed to add to the state’s 4% sales tax. In some of the poorer counties of Alabama, sales taxes run to almost 10% (and we hear complaints about the sales taxes up here in New York).

Property taxes in Alabama are the lowest in the nation and are generally one-third the national average. Timber acreage is taxed at less than a dollar an acre. With seventy-one percent of Alabama covered in timber, the timber industry has a powerful say in the state government.

Against this, Susan Pace Hamill, a professor of law at the University of Alabama has proposed a new solution, one found in the Old and New Testament. To complete her master’s degree in theological studies at Samford University (coincidentally, a United Methodist college (2)) she wrote her thesis on the reformation of the Alabama tax code. Entitled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics”, it states that “Alabama’s tax structure fails to meet any reasonable definition of fairness and violates the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.” (3)

Many of Alabama’s 8000 churches have come out in support of this tax reform. But this is not a church-sponsored activity. Rather, it is a response much in the manner that James wrote about; a way to put into action what is in your heart. As Dr. Hamill points out, it is an appeal to individuals to act on their own moral convictions. It does not impose his or her views on others but rather is an attempt to show that the nature of Christ is alive in everyone.

But despite the overwhelming support of the churches and church leaders, there are still those who oppose it. Among the opposition is John Giles of Alabama’s Christian Coalition. Now, it should be noted that the national organization does support the reform. But working with the Alabama timber industry, the Alabama chapter is doing everything they can to prevent the tax reform from succeeding. Most recently, Mr. Giles sent out a mass e-mail questioning Hamill’s views on abortion and attempting to undermine her credibility.

These are the classic techniques of today’s politicians. When you can’t get things your way, change the subject and the focus of the debate. Disparage your opponent and bring personal issues into play, tactics that have become all too commonplace in today’s society. But there is one thing that stands out. While Mr. Giles is in opposition to this plan, a plan based upon and built upon the scriptures, including the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ, he is among the loudest of the supporters wishing to keep the Ten Commandments where they are. (4)  How can one be for the Ten Commandments while at the same time working to keep laws in place that oppresses the poor?

I would be hard pressed to find a clearer case of what Jesus was speaking about in the Gospel reading for today. We cannot demand that others follow the law when we ourselves do not. And I will say that Mr. Giles’ actions are no better than those of Pharisees, who criticized the disciples for not following the law while not doing so themselves.

Jesus pointed out that it was not the following of the law that made one righteous but what was in one’s heart. If you try to follow the law but your heart leads you elsewhere, you are worse than one who does not follow the law. It is highly ironic that the words of the Gospel this week related to honor God with their lips but not with their hearts and abandoning the commandments of God while holding on to human traditions. (5)

Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi warned against what he called the seven social sins: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. (6)  If you think carefully about this, these sins are not only an apt description of the culture of our society but also a description of many of the institutions of this country and the way we lead our lives.

What the events in Alabama show is that the expression of our love for mankind is given by the actions that we take. The reading for the Song of Solomon speaks of the love of a man for a woman but it also is representative of the love we have for each other. We cannot help anyone unless there is first love and if there is no love in our hearts, then we will never be able to help.

You may ask why I bring up Alabama. We have no direct concerns when it comes to Alabama and what goes on down there can’t really affect us here in New York. But the poor and oppressed, the weak and the helpless are not necessarily confined to one locality or one state. So we should have concerns not just for the poor and oppressed in either New York or Alabama but everywhere. It is my hope as we prepare the budget for the coming year we will make a concerted effort to use some of our offering, such as what might be collected on the fifth Sunday, for ministry efforts, either here or elsewhere in the country. This would be our mission work and our own concern but not be part of our regular apportionments.

But that means that we must have a more active stewardship and outreach program. It also means we must have a more active membership. Those who protest the removal of the Ten Commandments from the foyer of the Alabama Supreme Court while working to keep a repressive tax structure in place can be rightly be called hypocrites, for their actions belie their beliefs. And those who claim membership but do nothing for the church would also be hypocrites. These are harsh words, I know, but they have to be said. And actually, if you were to call up one of those who hasn’t been here for a while or whose membership was just a convenience in their lives and tell them what I said, I wouldn’t mind it.

For if it gets them to call me or come to church, then we will have taken the first step to revitalizing not only the church but also these inactive members. If they choose to do nothing, then they will get nothing in return and we will not grieve their loss.

We are often told that there is little that we can do; but that is not always the case. Yesterday, Randy Yerkes sent out an e-mail of his own asking for volunteers to help repair the roof over the Phillisport church. If you are interested in contacting him about volunteering, then see me after church and I will give you his phone number and e-mail address.

And here in our little part of the world, there is a lot we can do just by being an active church in this part of the country. People go by here and sooner or later will come to ask what is this place? We will be here to answer that question.

But it starts with us. It is not a case of my saying to you or you saying to someone else like the Pharisees said to the people of Israel, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It is a case of God saying to all of us, “Do as I say and as I did.” We are reminded today that God loved us enough to send his son so that we might live; we can no worse than love and care for those around us.

  1. Gandhi on Civil Disobedience from http://www4.ncsu.edu:8030/~dbthomps/political.html
  2. Actually it is a Baptist school; my thanks to Penny Weaver for noting this mistake in an e-mail sent to me on September 1st.
  3. Information concerning the proposal for reforming the Alabama tax code came from an article written by Bob Allen and posted to Ethics.com on 4/14/03.
  4. This came from e-mail sent to me on 8/28/03 by Penny Weaver of the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, AL. It was in response to a request to confirm the statement in Bob Allen’s article that the Christian Coalition was against the tax reform and to also confirm my suspicion that they were supporting keeping the Ten Commandments in place. She also noted that the uproar over the Ten Commandments was likely to adversely affect the drive to put into place the tax reform bill.
  5. Mark 7: 6 – 7
  6. From The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis

Are You Coming or Going?

Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.  (edited on 19 March 2008; reedited on 16 August 2009)

Recently I posted two thoughts on war and the study of war. (“Study War No More” – 1 July 2006 and “Maybe We Should Study War More Often” – 11 July 2006 ) These two postings generated as many or more comments than any of the seventy-some postings that I have made since I began my blog.

Those comments finally led me to challenge “John the Methodist” and owner of the Locusts and Honey blog (now called the Zeray Gazette) to post his own thoughts about war and response. He did so and his posting (“On Christian Rhetoric and Christian Action” – 16 August 2006) generated more comments than I have ever seen on the Methodist Blog Roll. These comments seemed to be of two types; those who felt that pacifism was a natural outgrowth of Christianity and that pacifism was a viable alternative and those who felt that pacifism was a nice thought but in the end not a really workable idea.

These comments were interesting because, first of all, I never thought I was offering support for pacifism. I am not a pacifist by any stretch of the definition. But I am opposed to war, especially when the evidence of past wars shows us there have to be better alternatives than death and destruction.

I am not interested in discussing past wars and whether or not the solutions that others chose are appropriate. The wars have been fought and the results may or may not have been what we wanted them to be. What remains is that we know what causes wars (poverty, homelessness, sickness, disease, death, and oppression) and we still do not do enough to remove the causes of war.

I was also amazed at the number of postings in which pacifism was belittled or ridiculed. A number of persons felt that pacifism was a nice idea but it had no chance of working in a “real” world. It was as if the only solution to the problems that plague this world comes through victory in war. No matter what our political background, we as a society still agree with Chairman Mao who said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

There clearly was a gulf between those who felt that Christianity can work through peaceful means and those who felt that power must be the expression that ultimately conquers.

Now, pacifism is not the sole province of Christianity nor is Christianity necessarily the precursor to pacifism. But if one says that they are Christian, then one must be willing to see the world through the eyes of Jesus and that is the way of peace. Christianity is not, as many assume, some sort of weasely niceness.

Still, some see Christianity only in terms of this niceness. They see being a Christian in terms of a couple of hours on Sunday morning and simply being nice. And churches today, fearful that they will lose members quite willingly present a version of the Gospel that can be best identified as “Gospel-lite” or “Gospel-nice”. People like to hear it because it doesn’t challenge them; it does not challenge them to hear Jesus’ words and put them into action.

But being a Christian is more than that. It is about talking about real issues of pain, evil, or incompetence. It is about acknowledging that there are differences between individuals on matters of policy, polity, and theology. (Adapted from the September issue of Connections and commentary by Anne C. Ewing (“Church-going Doesn’t Make a Christian”) in the August issue of United Methodist Nexus.)

We are not always willing to do this, to see the world in a different light; we still willing view the world from a world view and not from the view of Christ. We may be willing to say we are Christians at heart but we are not always willing to say that we will walk the way we have been showed. Like many who heard Jesus, at the first sign of difficulty, at the first sign that the path that we will walk is going to be rough, we leave.

There are those who read today’s Epistle reading (Ephesians 6: 10 – 20) as a tacit support for war. After all, Paul uses military sounding language of armor and breast plates and the like. But let’s read Paul’s writing in a different translation.

Lastly, be strong and courageous men for Christ. Put on God’s uniform so as to be able to withstand all the Devil’s tricks. For we’re not fighting against ordinary human beings, but against the leaders, politicians, and heads of state of this dark world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. So, put on God’s uniform so you’ll be able to put up a fight on the day of battle and, having tended to every detail, to make your stand. Therefore, take your position when you have put on the pants of truth, the shirt of righteousness, and the shoes of the good news of peace. Above all, take the bulletproof vest of faith, with which you’ll be able to stop the tracer bullets of the evil one. Also, wear the helmet of salvation, and the pistol of the Spirit, which is God’s word.

When you offer a prayer or a petition on any occasion, let it be truly spiritual. Along this same line, be on your toes as you encourage and pray for all the members. Pray especially for me, that when I speak, the right words will be put in my mouth, and that I may boldly expound the gospel’s secret, for which I am now a delegate in the clink. Pray too that I may lay it on the line whenever I have a chance to speak. (“The Letter to the Christians in Birmingham,” 6: 10 – 20, The Cotton Patch Gospels, Clarence Jordan’s translation of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians)

This is Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch version of the letter to the Ephesians, written as “Letter to the Church in Birmingham.” It is not about armor or military bearing but about being in the uniform of God, of letting the world see you in a different light, wearing the clothes of God, not the armor. God’s clothes are our protection, our ability to face adversity when our own abilities may not be sufficient for the task.

Admittedly, none of us wishes to be a martyr for the faith. No one wakes up in the morning and says that they are willing to die for the faith. Those that do are only confusing themselves about the requirements of faith. But we are not always willing to let our faith be our guide; we are not always willing to take the path that faith shows us. We are not asked to die for the faith but to live the faith. If we should die because of the way we live, then we do so with the sure knowledge that our lives were not in vain.

Jesus puts that challenge before those who are following Him in the Gospel reading for today. (John 6: 56 – 69)  Shall we accept the cost of discipleship or shall we look for the easy way out? As Chris Roberts wrote,

Partial effort didn’t seem to exist in Jesus’ vocabulary. Partial faith was not an option. It is all or nothing for Jesus. (“Full Commitment to Jesus is Costly” by Chris Roberts)

Chris further writes

But Jesus just doesn’t seem to be satisfied with partial commitments. Jesus demands our all. It is all or nothing and there is no in-between. The fact of the matter is we are always moving closer to God or further away from God, there is not standing still. We can just settle down in the middle and say, “Well, I have faith and I do this or I do that. And that is good enough.” Or we can’t say, “I’ve paid my dues. I have served on this and that and done this and that. So I will just step back now.” It doesn’t work that way. We can’t stay in the middle because the spirit is always moving. If we stop and the Spirit keeps moving then we are falling behind. So we are either moving closer to God, by being in God’s presence, by praying for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, by getting involved in the church or other ministries, or we are not doing those things and falling behind. Commitment is key and commitment involves a steep price. (“Full Commitment to Jesus is Costly” by Chris Roberts)

We note in the Gospel reading for today that when Jesus gives the call to make the commitment, many of those who began the journey left. The commitment was too great, the cost far beyond reach. They were not willing, as Anne Ewing wrote, to acknowledge “that it is very hard to become a Christian”. But she also noted that when we accept the call from Jesus, when we decide that the cost is worth it and the effort is worth the commitment, then “the journey is our home” and we are likely to meet some very nice people along the way and we are going to have many wonderful times. (Adapted from the September issue of Connections and commentary by Anne C. Ewing (“Church-going Doesn’t Make a Christian”) in the August issue of United Methodist Nexus.)

The Old Testament reading for today (1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10 – 11) 22 -30, 41 – 43)is about Solomon’s construction of the temple. It concludes by noting that many people, not just the Israelites, will hear the call and they will come because of the call. They will come because they know that what they hear brings hope and the promise of peace.

Now, my question today is very simple. Are you one that left and is going in the other direction? Or are you one who has heard the call and is coming?