The Great Question


This will be the back page for the bulletin of Fishkill United Methodist Church for September 3, 2017 (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A).

The hallmark of the prophets of the Old Testament is their initial refusal to answer God’s call. Moses sought every excuse under the sun to get out of answering God’s call but God always had a response to keep Moses on track.

John Wesley was uncomfortable with the direction his new Methodist movement was going, away from the traditional church/sanctuary message and into the fields where the people were. Before World War II began, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very tempted to stay in New York City but knew that he was needed in Germany, therefore, he left the safety of New York City and went to Berlin.

No doubt, there are those today who would rebel against Paul’s commands to feed our enemies when they are hungry or give them a drink when they are thirsty. We do not want to feed those who oppose; we want to see them suffer.

If we are who we say we are, we do not run away from the troubles of this world but rather, do as Jesus did and commanded us to do; that is, turn our faces to the troubles, just as Jesus faced His Death in Jerusalem.

Last week, Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say I am?” This week, we are asked if we are going to follow Jesus. How will you respond?

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“Taking Time To Do It Right”


A quick note – this replaces an earlier announcement.

I am at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY this Sunday, September 7, 2014. The Scriptures for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20. The service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend.

A quick reminder – don’t forget the pre-Advent Bible Study that we are having at our house on the four Sundays in October; see “Understanding Advent In The 21st Century” or the invitation on Facebook for further information.

I had a thought in place when I began this piece that lead me to entitle it “Taking Time”. But as I looked at things, the title expanded to “Taking Time To Do It Right”, in part because that was more to the point I wish to make. And if you are going to take the time to do things right, one ought to do things right, right?

As one who consciously follows the lectionary reading, it is correct and proper to follow the readings from Genesis with readings from Exodus. But, in one sense, it isn’t logical to include a passage describing the preparation for Passover in readings for September.

With the calendar that was used at the time of the writing of Exodus, the first month of the new year was in April, which explains why it is celebrated then. So why read about the preparation for Passover in September?

Under the present Jewish calendar, the first month of the New Year is September, which is why Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, occurs during this time (this year it will begin on 26 September this year).

So even though Passover is some six months away, we can still look at the preparations needed for that occasion. But note that while the Passover meal is set for the fourteenth day of the month the actual preparations for the meal begin some two weeks prior to the actual meal. There are also instructions for how Passover is to be celebrated after the Israelites ultimately reach the Promised Land.

In His instructions, God places a sense of urgency on the meal, “Eat the meal but also be ready to leave”.

Now, I have been a follower of the legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, for almost as long as I have been a follower of John Wesley. In preparing his basketball players and students for life, John Wooden created what has become known as his “Pyramid for Success.” On paper, it is more of a triangle but it consists of a number of thoughts and maxims that encapsulate John Wooden’s concept of success.

One of those maxims which I feel applies in this case is “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and I think that it applies in this case. And in thinking about Coach Wooden and his UCLA basketball program, I couldn’t help but remember something Richard “Digger” Phelps did prior to the UCLA – Notre Dame game where the Irish defeated the Bruins and ended the UCLA 88-game winning streak on January 19, 1974. During one of the practices prior to that game, Coach Phelps, in having the team anticipate victory, had the players practice cutting down the nets so that they would know how to do it right. And when that victory did occur, the team was ready for the celebration.  (And as a quick aside to the matter, Coach Phelps is a local boy from Beacon.)

Another maxim that came to mind was “be quick but don’t hurry.” If one observed a UCLA basketball practice run by John Wooden, one observed practices run at speeds matching and exceeding game conditions. If mistakes were going to be made, they were going to be made in practice when they could be corrected and not during the game. And more than one player noted that it made the game seem easier.

The instructions that the Israelites were given regarding the eating of the meal were not given for their comfort but, rather, to prepare them for God’s quick and miraculous delivery. The Israelites had to be quick but not hurry when the time for the Passover came to be.

Now, I am not today nor have I ever advocated any sort of “End Times” theology. It has always amazed me that many of those who do espouse the idea that 1) they are going to Heaven and you are not and 2) there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

And while I am not crazy about that first point, especially others have said it to me, it is that second point that bothers me more than anything else.

If there is nothing that we can do about the world around us, if the violence and destruction that seem so prevalent today are the way that it is going to be, then what was the point of Jesus coming to earth the first time? Let’s not worry about His Second Coming, why did He come the first time?

Let me pause here for some thirty seconds while we think about this; you will understand why in a moment or two.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Let us contemplate the words that Paul wrote for today and what it meant then and what it means now. Paul was writing with a sense of urgency, that Christ was coming and we had to be prepared for His arrival. But he also was warning everyone not to get so focused on that task that they forget their regular tasks.

It appears from the historical record that many individuals, convinced that Christ was about to return, had given up paying bills, sold all their possessions, and sat around partying and having a good time. Paul pointed out that they still needed to focus on their daily lives but lead those daily lives in such a way as to let everyone know that they were Christian.

But how do we do that? Do we simply say every now and then “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior” and then go about our business as if nothing happened? Or do we make it a point to let everyone know that we are a Christian and do so in such a way that really just irritates them? Or do we live our lives as an embodiment of Christ, treating everyone, no matter who they may be or what they may believe, in the same manner that Christ taught us?

For me, the words of Genesis and Romans speak of preparation, not for a time we cannot predict but rather to live a life today that will work against the powers of evil, death, and destruction.

I will admit that this is not an easy task, especially in today’s society. There are those today who see the world in black and white, devoid of any color or shading. Some of these individuals would create a faith-based society, guided by their own views of the world and law, but it would be a rather limited moralistic society. Others are just the opposite, placing their values and thoughts in a world in which they claim faith has no place; yet, by their very words and actions, they would create an almost identical faith-based, quasi-moralistic society.

If either of those solutions is to be the answer, then I would suggest we prepare for a rather abrupt ending to life. Because that is what we will get. And it is not the life that I feel that we are asked to live or the way we are to believe.

What is the life that we have been asked to live? How, in a world of increasing sectarian and secular strife can we ever find true peace? How can we make the world that Paul envisioned in his letters to the Galatians and the Colossians be the world of today?

Hear those words again, though perhaps in a slightly different matter. Dr. Clarence Jordan held a degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia in 1933. While in school, he became convinced that the roots of poverty were spiritual as well as economic. As a result, he went to seminary and earned a Ph. D. in New Testament Greek. He then took this background and 1) created the Koinonia Farm in Georgia in 1942 and 2) translated most of the New Testament from the original Greek into what is known as The Cotton Patch Gospels.

The development of the Koinonia Farm, which is still in operation, was an effort to show that a life built upon Christian principles could work and that segregation and inequality had no place in ordinary life. That it survived the 50s and 60s is a testament to the correctness, if you will, of the approach.

The Cotton Patch Gospels are written with references to Southern geography and Southern tradition but they are still true to the words and thoughts of the original writers.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians became the “Letter to the Churches of the Georgia Convention” and Galatians 3: 28 became

No more is one a white man and another a Negro; no more is one a slave and the other a free man; no longer is one a male and the other a female. For you all are as one in Christ Jesus…noble heirs of a spiritual heritage.

Paul’s Letter to the Colossians became the “Letter to the Christians in Columbus” and Colossians 3: 11 became

The pattern for the new man is same for a Negro and a white man, a church member and non-church-member, foreigner, Mexican, employee, employer,…Christ is everything in everybody.

Jordan continued

Wear the clothes, then, that will identify you as a people whom God has selected and dedicated and loved. Your outfit should include a tender heart, kindness, genuine humility, loyalty, persistence. Put up with one another, and freely forgive each other if one has a grip against somebody. You all forgive as freely as the Lord forgave you. Overall all these things wear love, which is the robe of maturity. And let Christ’s peace, into which you were called as one fellowship, order your lives.

And just as Paul called the Romans, the Colossians, and the Galatians to seek a different and newer world, so too are we called to do the same. It may be that we need to reevaluate our thinking process.

When I was working on my doctorate, I was introduced to the concept or notion of “wait time”. This was the time that the teacher or instructor had to wait after introducing something new before proceeding. Research showed that a minimum of thirty seconds was needed for an idea to be established in a listener’s mind. And thirty seconds can be an extremely long time; as you undoubtedly found out a few moments ago.

And in today’s world, we don’t like to wait, even for thirty seconds; we want to respond now and in kind. We have, I believe, taken the thinking of the Bible concerning violence and anger and turned it around. We have become too quick to anger and too slow to think, to reverse the words of James. In James 1: 19, we read,

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage.

Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospels, translated this as,

Listen here, my dear brothers. Let every man of you be quick with his ears, slow with his tongue, and hard to get riled up, because a man’s temper contributes nothing to God’s cause.”

In a world where we are too often quick to anger, we read in Ecclesiastes 7: 9,

Don’t be quick to fly off the handle.
Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head.

But you will say to me that there is a point in time where we have done everything we can possibly do and we are now entitled to treat another person as a pariah for ever after. How can we respond to the world in a manner that will allow us to find peace?

Let us take a second look at the passage from Matthew that is the Gospel reading for today. Matthew’s Gospel was written to a persecuted, predominantly Jewish church, trying to find a way after the destruction of the Temple. They were also trying to find a way to include Gentiles in their new community. So conflict was a part of their beginning and it was probably a life-threatening issue.

But Matthew reminds the readers that Jesus is speaking about reconciliation and He does not allow for a quick dismissal of those who have hurt us or threaten to hurt us. Even His final words, spoken about those for which reconciliation has failed, are a call to seek and include in our love those with whom we are in conflict. It is a story that invites us into an adventure of constant, unfailing reaching out, seeking understanding, and loving sacrificially.

It is a story that tells us that once we make the decision to follow Christ, we are never off the hook of forgiving and seeking reconciliation. We are called to be those who learn to speak, even in our moments of greatest threat and greatest conflict, words of peace, not retaliation, words of compassion, not rejection. (adapted from http://sacredise.com/blog/?p=1473)

At some point in time, we will have to realize that our walk with Christ will not be an easy one but it will be the right way to go. But we knew that it would not be easy and we knew that it would require an effort on our part to take the time to do it right.

There was only one way that the Israelites would get out of bondage in Egypt. The Romans, enduring persecution for their belief, knew that only one way to lead them to freedom. The early church, followers of Christ, understood that there was only one way to go, and that it would take time to do it the right way.

Shall we rush to the first thing that comes to mind or shall we take the time to do it right? Shall we prepare now or just wait?

“How Will They Know?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To Boldly Go”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day – 9 – 11 – 2011


Here are my thoughts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 September 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, and Matthew 18: 21 – 35.

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I have not quite figured out how I feel about this day.

I remember murmurs going through the school building where I was teaching ten years ago but not knowing what exactly was transpiring. After some time, the principal came on the loudspeaker and made some sort of perfunctory announcement that something had occurred but didn’t clarify exactly what.

I remember trying to get home that night on the train and watching train after train roar by the station, packed with people desperately trying to escape New York City. I could only presume that my wife had gotten out of the city and was on her way home. Cell phone communication was almost impossible, as was almost all communication, because the twin towers had served as the primary cell and radio towers.

My youngest daughter would later tell me that she was frantic, not only because she couldn’t reach me and she only knew that I was teaching in New York City (I was in the Bronx), but because she couldn’t reach her sister who lived in the D. C. area. And when I would go to Billings, Montana, to receive my 25-year award at the ABC national tournament (now the USBC Open), I found out that the plane that struck the Pentagon struck the offices where my mother had been a secretary.

Like many who preached, I was also faced with the dilemma of what to say on September 16, 2001. I posted the sermon last year as “Seeking the Truth.” On 9/11/2004, we had a revival at my church that some wanted to be a memorial service for 9/11 – my thoughts and concerns are posted as “There Is A Rock And Roll Heaven.”

Between 9/11/2001 and this day, there has been one other 9/11 that came on a Sunday. I posted my thoughts as “At What Point?”

The extent to which the events of 9/11/2001 extended beyond New York City will probably never be fully realized nor will individuals, families and communities ever recover from the innumerable losses incurred that day. And while we can count our losses, how many people in Iraq and Afghanistan have died? Shall we read their names as well when the roll call is made?

And while we may pause to remember those who lost their lives ten years ago, we seem to have forgotten those who have died or were wounded in the battles fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have only given lip service to those who had died and we cut Veteran’s Benefits at the drop of a hat. And heaven forbid that we would even think of caring for reservists and members of the National Guard. I do not want to cheapen the memories of those who died ten years ago but we cheapen that memory when we consider how we have treated the service personnel who have died or have been wounded.

But that was ten years ago; still, we make it seem like it was just yesterday. Of course, with each news broadcast that speaks of death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of what happened. But we don’t remember that none of those who planned the attack, coordinated the attack, or carried out the criminal activities of that day came from Iraq and Afghanistan. None of the justification for going to war was linked to what happened. In the end, if you want to call the mass murders carried out on 9/11/2001 terrorism, you can. But it was our actions in response that made it terrorism. If we had treated the attacks as a conspiracy and murder, we could have probably resolved this eight years ago.

Look at where we are today. Look at the deficit and tell me what the primary driving force behind the deficit is. Look at the bureaucracies of the federal government and tell me which agencies need to be cut (and, as a hint, they don’t do much in the way of social work).

I think that there will be a number of sermons today that will link the images of the cloud and pillar of fire in the Old Testament reading for today with the two beams of light that were created after the ground around the World Trade Center was cleared. But the cloud and the pillar of fire were reminders to the people that God was present in their lives and that He was protecting them.

The twin beams of light only served to remind us that our master is the dollar and that we will do whatever it takes to make sure that the dollar remains supreme. We invoked God when we went to war ten years ago and we have invoked God at almost every turn over the past ten years. We have stated unequivocally that our god is the better god (and I choose to use the lower case). And we have done so knowing full well that the God that Jews, Muslims, and Christians worship is the same God and that He protects us all.

And before you say anything, remember that 1) the Egyptians that are in the Old Testament reading were not Muslims and 2) their hearts, or at least the heart of the Pharaoh, had been hardened. God’s destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea can never be used as a justification for armed conflict in today’s world.

There are some who will disagree with me on that but I don’t think Paul would be one of them. When you read the 2nd reading for today, you read words of acceptance, not division. Paul’s words to me mean something I have said all along; it does not matter whether one is a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, as long as they hold to what they believe. Just saying that one is a Christian is no guarantee that they will get into heaven. It is how you live your live having said that you were a Christian that will determine the outcome.

What happened ten years ago has done a great deal to change the nature of the church today. We have slowly transformed the church into an instrument of the state, an act that is antithetical to the true nature of the church. I find myself struggling with a church which tries to make God in its own image rather than trying to be the image of God for the people of the community it is to serve.

Today’s Gospel reading begins today with Peter asking Jesus how many times we must forgive someone. We expect mercy but we act like the servant who will not give mercy and what do we think the King will do to us?

I would hope that when all the speeches are completed and the sermons have been preached, that we will think, not about what the politicians and the preachers said, but what Jesus said and what Paul wrote. There is a great opportunity in front of us. There is an opportunity to preach peace and forgiveness, to build newer world in which we may believe as we so choose, not as someone would have to believe. There is a great opportunity to build peace in this world if the money and the energy that were spent on bullets and bombs and hatred were directed toward food and medicine and peace.

The question has to be which direction do we want to head? Ten years from now, will we once again gather in remembrance while a seemingly endless war continues to drag on or will we gather to celebrate that a peace that began on this day. Jesus spoke of forgiving those whom we would rather not forgive; Paul wrote of a world in which differences between individuals would be the starting point for discussion, not conflict. On this day, we have gathered to remember, can we also gather to begin to build a new world and not simply seek to destroy the world we have right now?

On this day, we must make a choice. The road that we walk seems destined to be an endless road of war and violence. But the road with Christ is a road of peace. It is the harder road to walk and that makes the choice that much harder. But on this day, we must make a choice. We speak of the future; now we must look to build the future. That is what this day should be about.

Which Way Will You Go?


This is a message that I will be giving on Sunday, August 10th, at Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am).

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 37: 1 – 4, 12 – 28; Romans 10: 5 – 15; and Matthew 14: 22 – 33.


I have edited this twice, first right after I published it to correct some errors and then on 7 March 2015 to remove a bad link.


Forty years ago, the world seemed to be on the verge of destruction.  There were riots and protests across this country and around the globe.  We were sending our young men off to war in a country many of us didn’t even know existed and of which we knew very little.  Many of those young men that we sent to Viet Nam came back in body bags while others came back wounded and mutilated.  Sometimes the wounds were apparent and easily fixed; other times the wounds couldn’t be seen and haven’t, for many of those veterans, healed yet.

We watched in amazement and joy as the movement for human rights and liberty expanded beyond our horizons to include countries in Eastern Europe.  But then we watched in shock and horror as that wonderful time known as the Prague Spring came to end as Soviet tanks rolled through Prague and brutally silenced the voices of freedom and dissent.  It would be another twelve years before those voices would speak out again in Poland.

It was a year when powerful voices were heard across this land calling for real change in our society and offering substantial hope yet were stilled and silenced by an assassin’s bullet.  It was a year when the politics of this country began its slow and perhaps deliberate slide into what it is today, mud-slinging at its best, fear-mongering and hatred at its worst.

And on the morning of October 16, 1968, we watched as Tommie Smith blazed around the track at the Olympic stadium in Mexico City, winning the race in 19.83 seconds.  But those who watched those Olympics don’t remember that; what they remember is two runners, two young men standing on the metal platform and raising their fists and bowing their heads in protest as the National Anthem began to play.

Even today, some forty years later many people are note likely to remember the names of the men on the medal podium, Tommie Smith in first place, Peter Norman in second, and John Carlos, the third place finisher.  And what many people also don’t know is that Peter Norman was a part of that protest.   Peter Norman, an Australian, had closed the race fast and beat John Carlos out of second place.  If you see pictures of this moment, you see that he is wearing one of the buttons of the group that Smith and Carlos belonged to and had sought ways to bring attention to the racial inequality that was present in our country at that time.  It was Norman who suggested that because they only had the two gloves with them, that they each wear one. And what many people don’t know is that because of his support for their efforts, Peter Norman, raised in the ways of the Salvation Army to answer the call when a human cries out in need, was literally and virtually run out of Australian sports.

Now you will say that was a long time ago and we have come a long way since then.  But we are still involved in a war on the Asian continent, albeit in a different country and supposedly for a different reason.  We are now sending young men and women across the globe to countries that have names that are unpronounceable to many and that many can’t locate on a globe.  We don’t see the dead coming home from this war. And we treat those who come home with striking disregard for their health and their service. We cast aside those who are wounded and tell those whose wounds are hidden in their psyche that their problems existed before they enlisted.  There have been student-led demonstrations in other countries that recall the student-led demonstrations of forty years ago.  The only difference between then and now is that there will be no demonstrations for human rights, equality, and justice at the Olympic Games this year.

As I write these words, I think that protest is possible but not likely.  Just as the police in Mexico City cracked down with remarkable efficiency and brutality against the protests held outside the Olympic venue in 1968, so too will the Chinese political and military authorities refuse to allow any form of dissent during their attempts to showcase their view of China.  And society has changed its ways.  And we have, over the past few years, developed a fear mentality.  If it doesn’t immediately threaten us, we aren’t interested.  And if we are attacked, then we shall strike back in anger and retaliation.

We are so afraid of what is outside the walls of our community that we will allow the suppression of rights and privileges if that will keep the fear out.  We have lost our focus on what equality is; we no longer know what true freedom is.  When we understood what freedom is, when we had our eyes (as the saying goes) on the prize, we did great things, we brought about change that many said was impossible.  But, just like that moment when Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and realized that he indeed was walking on water and he was doing the impossible, we have panicked and sunk in a sea of fear.

And just like the disciples who saw Jesus coming to them across the stormy sea, offering comfort and hope, so too do we see Jesus coming to us.  And just like the disciples did that day some two thousand years ago, we react with fear. We do not trust our vision; we trust only what we can see and all we can see is the good life.  And we will do nothing to disturb the good life, even when the good life and the products it brings are made on the backs of laborers working long hours and for low wages in factories far away from our eyes.

You might say that the Olympics are not a place for protest and that Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos were wrong to have done what they did.  You will tell me that the Olympics are for competition and sportsmanship, not a place for political protest.  I remember Joe Garagiolo interviewing Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, about his decision to join the planned boycott and the differences between them and their view of the Olympics as a sports venue and the role of an athlete in society.  It seemed to me then that Joe Garagiolo still saw athletes as chattel that did the bidding of the owners and management while Abdul Jabbar was expressing his thoughts as a conscientious young man.

I was never a world-class athlete nor did I pretend to be one.  But I had friends back then who were or could have been and through them I came to understand what the reason for that boycott and protest were.  I also saw those who led the Olympic movement back then, and even today, as self-serving bureaucrats who were literal poster-children for hypocrisy (remember the scandals of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics?). 

If the Olympics were truly about competition and sportsmanship, then there would be no flags and there would be no national anthems played for the winners and we wouldn’t care how many gold, silver, or bronze medals a country wins.  We would only care that each person does their best.  But we don’t and we have turned the Olympics into what it was never meant to be and it is doubtful that we will ever see it in its purest form. 

Should there have been a protest like the one that the three medalists participated in?  As Dr. Martin Luther King, one of those voices assassinated that year, once said “injustice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

I was a sophomore in college in 1968 and I was at a friend’s apartment watching the Olympics and the award ceremony that October day.  My friend was one of those that could be called a world-class athlete and he was at that college because of his track ability.  He understood what was transpiring on the medal stand in Mexico City that night and later, in the spring of 1969, would lead the black students’ association in a sit-in of the administration building to protest the discriminatory housing policies of the town and the lack of support by the college administration for the black college students to find decent off-campus housing.

And just like Peter Norman, I was a part of that protest.  I was just one person but I was motivated to be there because they were my friends, their cause was just and it was the right thing to do.  Why should I be allowed to having decent housing only because I was the right color and some of my friends were not? I came of age when the church and the people of the church fought and pushed for equality. I sometimes wonder if we remember that.

And I felt repercussions for my actions, though perhaps not on the scale that Peter Norman did (what parents can say and do is often times greater than the actions of any government organization).  Peter Norman never once said that he did the wrong thing and, if he had too, he probably would do it all over again.  They have made a documentary about his life and his participation and Qantas Airlines, the Australian national airline, will be showing on their flights into Beijing.  I know that were the same situation to occur again, I would stand by the side of my friend to seek justice and equality for all.

But something interesting has happened over the past forty years.  My friend, it is sad to say, decided to walk another and entirely different path.  From what I know, he has chosen to walk a path of riches and glory, of an easy life and political cronies, a path that takes him away from his past and his roots.  It is a path that too many people today walk, perhaps for the same reasons.  A path of riches and glory is a far easier path than one that requires that you stand up for others and seek justice where there is injustice.  But that is the path that this country embodies and encourages; look out for yourself and get what you can even when there are many who have nothing, who are sick, hungry, homeless, or without hope for a better tomorrow. 

And amidst these times, when our economy is faltering and prices are rising, we find the murmurs of discord and dissatisfaction.  It is not something that will be solved by the current political process; it will only be solved when we become who we say we are.  We say we are Christians but are we really?  René Padilla, Argentine Baptist theologian, asked the question “What is the value of a Christianity in which Jesus is worshipped as Lord, but Christian discipleship—”the way of Jesus”—is regarded as largely irrelevant to life in the modern world? (From Verse and Voice for 8/4/2008)

Our society is to a great extent like the sons of Jacob.  We are bound by a common thread, yet we each have our own unique qualities.  We tend to magnify our differences and what separates us rather than what brings us together.

We sometimes forget that while the twelve were sons of Jacob, they were a collection of half-brothers and the relationship between each of them reflected the relationship between their own mother and Jacob.  Joseph, the eleventh of the twelve, was the son of Rachel and while Joseph probably loved Lea, Rachel’s sister, he loved Rachel even more.  And he loved Joseph because he was born when Jacob was old.

In the part of the Old Testament passage for today that we did not read, Joseph speaks of his dream that he interpreted as meaning his brothers and their families would bow down before him.  This, of course, angers his brothers and sets in place the story that we read today.

It is the differences between the twelve that will lead the older brothers to seek the death of Joseph.  Reuben, the oldest will try to save his brother, but only in part to somehow redeem himself for his own actions against their father.    But the other brothers will eventually sell Joseph into slavery and then tell their father that he was killed.

We are like the twelve; we share common interests but we let our differences drive us apart.  We understand that there is a need to do the right thing and that someone must do it but we let society dictate to us what that is.  And when the moment comes that we are called to stand up for justice, for righteousness, and for equality, we turn and walk away.  We are afraid to do the right thing. 

We know that the right thing is found in Christ.  To the greatest extent, that is what Paul was telling the Romans in the 2nd lesson today – we know what is right but we fail to do it.  We fail because we do not think that it is within our power to do it.  We fail because we won’t even get out of the boat and try to walk across the water to the arms of Jesus.

There are ways to bring about hope and justice in this country and in this world.  They do not begin with armed conflict or the use of power; they begin when we accept the Gospel message to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and bring justice to the oppressed.  They begin when we make the words of the Gospel message our words.  Paul concluded the passage of Romans today by saying that many will not hear the words unless someone speaks them; many will not believe unless they have proof.  And Paul asked how people would believe or come to believe unless there was someone to tell them?  When we say that we are Christian, we are saying that we are committed to the ways that Christ taught us.  It is more than saying the words; it is living the words as well.

Joseph had a dream; it was a dream that would lead him into slavery.  Others would have other dreams as well.  And Joseph would rise from slavery to a position of power because he understood the dreams and he understood what needed to be done.

In 1968 the world was changing.  Robert Kennedy would many times during that ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968 quote George Bernard Shaw, Some see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”  He offered hopes and plans but his death in 1968 took away that hope.  In 2008, we have been reminded that we once spoke out against inequality and injustice.

In 2008, we are a world where are responses to injustice, inequality, and oppression are more injustice, inequality, and oppression.  In 2008, we do not seek justice but revenge; we do not seek equality but all that we can get; we do not offer hope but an atmosphere that pushes aside the little ones in favor of the big ones.  The world around us is like the boat the disciples were in that night on the Sea of Galilee, tossed about and about to sink.  There is a glimmer of hope but we are unwilling to reach out for it.  For many, it is a ghost, an apparition and not real.  We are so afraid that we will not reach out; we will not get out of the boat and walk to what we see.  Jesus Christ is not an apparition or a ghost; He is alive and waiting for us.

We have a choice to make today.  We have to decide which way we will go, what direction we want our lives to take.  Do we need to be reminded that Jesus spoke out against indifference and hopelessness and that we have taken His name as our own?  Do we need to be reminded that once some two thousand years ago Jesus Christ walked on a path through a town to a hill to be crucified because society’s rulers did not want the status quo disturbed? 

Do we need to be reminded that in His death we have been set free and in His name we are to bring His words to the world, bringing hope and promise in a world that does not hear it?  You will go home shortly but which way will you go in your life?

Faith and Reason in the 21st Century


As a way of introduction, I am both a chemist and a lay minister. This comes as a surprise to many people because, in today’s society, you are either one or the other but never both. If you declare that you are a scientist, then you are automatically labeled as a god-hater, atheist, and with such derision that you make Commander Spock of Star Trek fame look warm and fuzzy. On the other hand, if you declare your belief in God, then you are apt to be labeled as delusional or other similar terms. In the world of today, there does not appear to be any thought that one might be a scientist and still believe in a transcendent God.

In looking at my life, I have come to the conclusion that I made the decision to become a lay minister long before I made the decision to become a chemist. But I put my skills as a chemist to use long before I put my skills into being a lay minister in the United Methodist Church. Now, it never occurred to me while I was going to college and studying chemistry that there would ever be a conflict between what I read and studied during the week and what I did on Sundays in the church. In fact, when I was in college, I saw many of the same faculty attending the same church that I did and I saw other faculty members attending other churches on the same block. It did not appear to me then that there was a conflict between science, logic, reason, and faith.

So I try to do both and I try to do both equally well. For science and its attention to logic and reason do not conflict with faith. What bothers me is that people do not see that science and faith approach life from two different views but with one goal, and that is to explain the world around us. Science can tell us about how this planet was created and it can explain how life became what it is but science cannot explain why the planet was created or why life is the way it is.

The fundamental question of life is always “why?” Science and faith are both prepared to answer this question; it is just that the answers, like the sources, are mutually exclusive. We, individually and as a society, are not often prepared for answers to questions that are in themselves complicated and confusing.

We need both faith and reason in today’s world. Faith is a belief in things unseen; reason is the result of what you see. Both are clearly needed in this world and yet there are too many people who would willingly sacrifice one for the other. And while there is an historical and justifiable basis for the conflict, it seems to me that today’s conflict is more a conflict between two groups, each representing the extremes of faith and reason, for the control of your mind and your life.

Each group wants each one of us to declare our allegiance to their god. And woe unto you should declare that you will follow neither but will follow the one true God. Those are harsh words, I know, but I hope that they are words of truth.

The church and science have always been at odds with each other. Throughout time, science has always shown what many considered Biblical truth to be false and the organized church would not accept the change. There isn’t a one among us who hasn’t marveled at how long it took for the Catholic Church to declare that they may have made a mistake in finding Galileo guilty of heresy some 500 years ago while at the same time accepting the concept of evolution. Still, we are quite willing today to let so-called Biblical groups attempt to control the direction of science and education.

But that was a struggle between people, not a struggle within one person’s mind. And it was a struggle by a dying church as it attempted to maintain a control on society that was being threatened by the changes in society. When you compare the struggle of the church with science in the Renaissance period with the struggle of the church today with science, you might have to look at the calendar in order to know that it is 2008 and not 1548.

Faith is a belief in things unseen, yet too many people in the church today want to you to accept their version of things unseen and not to question what it is you see. God gave me a mind and a soul and He expects me to use it; I am not a heretic or condemned to hell because I chose to question what God has laid out before my eyes. I should be considered a heretic if I were to accept without question what others tell me to believe.

Some will tell you that the earth is several billion years old; others will insist that it is relatively young. The evidence suggests that it is old so those who argue for the young earth have to invent an answer that explains the difference. And the answer is inevitably that God made it that way. The earth is really very young but God put it together so that it appears to be very old. If that is the case, then either God is playing a trick on us or He is lying to us.

It is not the age of the earth that bothers me. It is clearly older than me and it is probably going to be here long after I am dead and buried and a part of the earth. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that God would not perpetrate a lie about the age of the earth nor would he play a trick on us. For if He put the evidence before us and He wants us to decide for ourselves what the evidence means but the evidence is a lie, then how can anything He said or did be considered the truth. How can we say that God loved us enough to send His Only Son to be our Lord and Savior and save us from slavery to sin and death if it was a lie?

But if it is the truth, and only faith can tell you that; then how do we live our lives? I grew up in a society that used the Bible to justify segregation and the oppression of people. I was just coming of age when we introduced the phrase “under God” to declare our moral superiority over communism in the fifties. Over the years I have seen those who call themselves Christians transform God from “I Am Who I Am” and “Our Father, Who art in Heaven” into “I am what you want me to be” and “your most obedient servant”. Jesus offered us the role of the servant as a model of our life; we are to be the servants for others, others are not to be our servants. I cannot stand by and let people transform the basis for my faith into a reason to control others.

And I am not letting those who proclaim science as the ultimate solution or as a reason to similarly control others. We may trumpet the ability of science to develop vaccines and wonderful energy resources but the same ability to do that produces weapons of mass destruction that cause death and destruction beyond the scope of wars before. Science may offer answers but science cannot explain human nature. And if those who proclaim goodness and justice are inherent in each other, what is the explanation for evil? If goodness and justice are inherent in some while evil and oppression are inherent in others, what shall we do? For everyone who says that the problems of the world are a fault of religion, we can find many problems that come from science and man’s inability to choose the right path.

What we need to do is say that science and faith are a part of our lives. Through science we will find the tools and the means by which hunger, illness, homelessness can be overcome. Through faith we will find the power and the strength to go out into the world and bring food, health, and shelter to the world. When we say that we are a Christian, we say that we seek a world in which the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the naked find clothes, and those without shelter have shelter. When we say that we are a Christian, we say that we will do for others those things that Christ did for us.

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Presented at the Hopewell Reformed Church (Hopewell, NY) men’s breakfast on 9 August 2008