“The Answer To The Question”


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; and Luke 17: 11 – 19.

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If you haven’t noticed, there is something unique about this date. It isn’t that it is a “double” date, which it is. And it isn’t necessarily that it is a “triple” date, which it is as well. There is a “double” date in every month and there are a string of “triple” dates in every decade.

No, the uniqueness in this number comes from another source. Just as 6:02 am on October 23rd can be used to represent Avogadro’s number (NA = 6.02 x 1023), so too does the binary representation of today (101010) have a second meaning.

In base 10, 101010 is equivalent to 42. And, if you are a fan or follower of Douglas Adams, then you know that this is the answer to the question about life, the universe and everything. In the process of hitch-hiking across the galaxy, the hero of the Adams’ novels encounters the ultimate computer which provides the ultimate answer, “42”. Unfortunately, the question for which this is the answer is “what is 6 * 9?” And, as I pointed out in “The Answer to the Question”, this means one of two things; either the universe and life itself are highly irrational, or whoever wrote the original question was very, very confused.

There is probably something wrong in and with society today and this is causing great conflict, grief, and distress in our lives today. Now, there are some who will gladly tell you what the solution is. Some of these individuals will be glad to sell you the secret to the solution for $19.95 plus shipping and handling charges.

Others will merrily tell you that the answer is found in the “Good Book”, the Bible, and all you have to do is send their ministry any amount of money you want and it will be used as seed money and, in no time at all, your money will be returned to you ten-fold and all your problems will disappear. Other religious types will say that the problems of this country are rooted in the moral structure of this country and that the key to finding the solution and leading a better life is found in a rigid, inflexible structure where they do the thinking for you and where one’s ability to think freely is limited to matters of faith and faith alone.

And there are those, of course, who hear the words of the fake preachers and the extreme preachers and say that they are the words of all ministers and they represent the ideas of all the church and are reflective of the Gospel in its basic intent. But the problem with these modern thinkers who proudly bear the title of atheist is that they do not offer a solution either. What they do offer is a non-religion religion, a belief system based on non-belief which is as irrational as those fundamentalists who offer a limited worldview or those prosperity gospel preachers who only wish to line their own pockets.

Now, as a chemist and one who believes in research, I have to think that all problems have solutions, even if the solution is not readily or easily obtained. The critical thing about solving problems is to not limit one’s self in finding solutions. Perhaps this is what Thomas Kuhn came to call a paradigm shift; a radical change in the view of the world because the evidence before you required a different view of the world. We limit our solutions because we have limited ourselves.

I have to imagine that it was that way with the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the Book of Jeremiah. They were in exile in Babylon and Jerusalem was far away in ruins and desolate. The Babylonians had taken the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest and then destroyed their homeland. It was as if the world had come to an end for them.

And then what does God, through Jeremiah, tell them to do? They were to build houses and plant gardens. They were to marry and have children. They were to make Babylon their home. I would have thought that many people would have felt that God would have wanted them to do just the opposite. After all, Jerusalem was their home; it was where the Temple was and it was where God lived.

But Jeremiah states that if things go well for Babylon, then things will go well for the people of Israel. Because somewhere along the line, God has not deserted them; He was right there with them. If I understand the context of these writings and the time of the exile, it is a time when the concept of God having a home is altered. To put God in the Temple and only the Temple limits God to the desires of the people; if the Temple is destroyed, then God is destroyed and the people lose. In a sense, that is why the Babylonians destroyed the Temple; it was to destroy the hopes of the people.

But, if God resides with the people, then the hopes cannot be destroyed. And if the people begin a new life with God in a new place then the hopes will be reborn and continue. It is exactly that which Paul is expressing to Timothy; that our lives are intertwined with God through Christ when we have accepted Christ.

Those who find solace in the words know that there is hope. It may be that they have encountered someone who gave them hope or there was a moment in their own lives when they saw a fleeting glimpse of home.

Ten lepers encountered Christ on the road between Galilee and Samaria. Obeying all protocols, they asked for mercy but from a distance. And Jesus granted them that mercy, cleansing them of their illness. And when they had all discovered that they were clean, one of them came back to say “thank you”. Now, I have written about this before (“Saying Thank You”) but I wondered what happened to other nine. Oh, I am sure they were cured of the disease but did they change their lives so that they wouldn’t get it again.

I don’t think it was necessarily that important that the one who did come back was a Samaritan. It could have been anyone who was an outcast in the society of that time. But Jesus chose a Samaritan to make a point, that the world that He was offering was a new world, a world with room for all and with a new vision. It was not a world limited by place, time, or ability. But it did require that each individual choose to begin a new life in Christ.

And there we are. We stare out at the world around us and we wonder. “What it will take to change the world; to remove the strife and violence; to make the world productive and the people healthy?” I don’t that the world will ever be free of differences; I don’t think that I would want to live in such a world. It is the differences that make this world but it is our inability to accept differences because our visions are limited that make this world what it is today. We want to know the answer but we may not necessarily know the question.

The answers to these questions are not found in some wacky, misguided computer that was programmed improperly when it was built. The answer is not found in some secret sold only in the late hours or early mornings of the day on an obscure shopping channel. They are most definitely not found in the words of a false shaman or preacher who would have you follow his interpretation of the Gospel. And they are not found in those who say there are no words to turn to.

There are words to turn to and they have been spoken over the years. The answers to the questions we ask are found in our heart but if our heart is empty, the answers have no meaning. For me, the foundation of life is found in Christ and it is through Christ that I can offer wisdom and thought, solace and comfort, and the promise of hope for a better tomorrow. If you are seeking the answers, if there is that emptiness in your heart, then Christ can be the answer. And if you have found Christ, then you are invited to share that discovery with others.

The question is and will always be, “will you follow me?” Only you know the answer to that very basic question.

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Now Is The Time


This is the message that I presented on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 31: 27 – 34, 2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5, and Luke 18: 1 – 8.

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When I first read today’s Scriptures, my first thoughts were of a saying that I thought came from the Sixties, “If not now, when?” But, in my preparation for today, I could not find any reference to a time, a place, or a person where this was ever said.

I did find a phrase by Rabbi Hillel, a noted Jewish rabbi and scholar of the 19th century. But it wasn’t the phrase that I was looking for and I wasn’t sure if it even contained the same idea that I originally had. And besides, when I looked at the Scriptures again, I saw that the words spoke of now being the time for action rather than simply a question of when action should take place.

Now is the time when people should be calling for justice in a world that seems to be unjust. Now is the time when the cries for justice will be answered. Now is the time when we should be building, not destroying. Now is the time when people listen to the words of their youth and their heart rather than follow the leadership of those who espouse myths and easy promises for a better life.

We claim to be a Christian nation. Much of the political rhetoric of today’s campaigns is phrased in the aura of Christianity. Yet, how much of what is said today is actually Christian? Consider how this Christian nation is responding to terrorism. Terrorism is a product and an outgrowth of poverty, homelessness, disease, and oppression. Yet, our response to terrorism is more violence, more repression. We ignore the very things that create terrorists in the first place.

As a Christian nation, we should be responding to the needs of the homeless, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet, like our predecessors, we say to Christ, “when did we see thee homeless or sick or in need?” Our faith today seems to be a faith of convenience. We want it there when we need it but we are unwilling to be there when Christ needs us.

It is no longer be a question of when Christ will come. The words of Jeremiah tell us that now is the time of Christ’s coming. Yet, too many preachers today proclaim a false prophecy and speak of the coming of Christ as a future event. They speak of Christ’s coming but ignore the world around them. They speak as if only a chosen few, chosen by them rather than God, will be rewarded. These preachers, not God, tell their followers which path to walk so that one can receive redemption and salvation. In a world that cries for justice, it is the loudest representatives of Christ who act like the ones who persecuted Christ?

The frightening thing in all of this is that people listen to these false preachers. They accept these false concepts of the Gospel because it is easier to do that than to do what we are called to do in the Gospel message. It is easier to blame the homeless, the sick, the oppressed for the problems of the world than it is to build houses, hospitals, and restore justice. It is easier to see a glory to come later than to work for glory now. It is easier today to have a faith of convenience and ease than it is to have a faith of belief and action. But, as Christ said to us today, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Those not willing to walk the path where Christ leads are not likely to find the true faith.

Paul tells Timothy to be wary of those who teach false myths. What would Paul say today about the preachers who preach hatred, division and oppression, intolerance and ignorance, all in the name of Christ? Paul’s counsel to Timothy is to hold to that faith of his youth, to the teachings that were true. Even in the roughest times, hold to the truth that is found in your heart. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, if one holds to the truth found in God through Christ, one will prevail.

And it will not be a long wait. We hear from the prophet Jeremiah that now is the time. Jeremiah tells us that God now has a new covenant, one cast not in stone but written on our hearts. It is a covenant to replace the one that brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt. Jeremiah, in this passage, speaks of the new covenant formed between the people of this world and God through Christ. But it is a covenant that requires that we participate.

Now, you will say that this is all well and good. But violence is sometimes the only response to violence. I will not deny that one has to defend one’s self but should we seek violence. Remember that on the night Jesus was arrested Peter took a sword in defense of Him and cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest Jesus. But Jesus commanded Peter to put down the sword and then healed the one who Peter struck.

You will say that we are only single individuals living in New York. You will say that it is hard enough to live and work here without having to take on the challenges of the world. Besides, nothing we do locally changes the global landscape. And, we have enough to do here at Tompkins Corners so we cannot worry about other things.

But what we do here today does have an impact on what happens elsewhere. Did we not, as a church, give a portion of our offering so that a person from this area could go to Mozambique and minister in the name of the Lord? Do not our birthday offerings go to relieve the homeless problem in this area? Do not our apportionments, along with those of other United Methodist Churches, expand the reach of this church beyond the boundaries of the corners and the county?

And do we not, as individuals, come in contact with countless others each day? Do we not, for brief moments each day, have the opportunity to show the presence of Christ in our lives?

The answer to all these questions is that we do. And each time we do something like that, we make a difference. Yest, it is a small difference but like the mustard seed of two weeks ago, from little differences come great things.

We must do as Paul counsels Timothy today. Hold fast to what you know is true. Hold fast to the counsel and guidance provided through the Holy Spirit. Continue doing what your knowledge of the scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit tell you is the right thing to do. We must listen to what is in our heart and in our mind, not what others might say. It is not an easy task, Paul tells Timothy, but it is the one task that receives the true rewards.

We know that this is the time. Maybe you have been hearing Christ calling to you, asking you to repent. Now is the time to answer Christ’s calling. We know that this is the time where we can fight for justice, where we can reach out and show the power and the presence of Christ as our Savior. Maybe now is the time for you, individually, and we, as the church collectively, to renew the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Maybe the Holy Spirit has been calling you, asking you to reach out to your neighbor and invite them to be with us next Sunday. Now is the time to answer that call.

Jeremiah tells the people that this is the time when God will renew His covenant with His people. Now is the time to put our names on that covenant.

The Lost Generation


Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2007. (This has been edited since it was first posted.)
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It was a time tempered by the First World War and the disillusionment that came with war. It was the time between World War I and World War II when a group of American writers felt that America had lost its identity and become, in their words, the place to go to start a business. It was a country devoid of a cosmopolitan culture. America was no longer a place where creativity was valued more than materialism. Authors and artists such as T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway sought the meaning of life against a backdrop of the First World War. They became known as “the lost generation”. (See http://ok.essortment.com/whatlostgenera_nkj.htm and http://users.rowan.edu/~lindman/lost_generation.html for additional information)

As the fifties began, another generation of writers and authors took their place. Jack Kerouac called it “the beat generation”. It’s not immediately obvious why he chose that term but it was not because of the music of that time. Perhaps it was because the word “lost” can be used to describe defeat, that he coined the term. It quickly became slang for “exhausted” or “beat down”. Still, its motives were the same as those who affirmed membership in the lost generation. There was a rejection of middle-class values, the purposelessness of modern society and the need for withdrawal and protest. (See http://www.rooknet.com/beatpage/index.html or http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/page.jsp?what=LostBeatHip for additional information)

As one born just as the fifties were beginning, I did not participate in either of these generational shifts in culture and time. Rather, my generation benefited from the works of these two generations. Of course my generation also was faced with the civil rights movement at its peak and the Viet Nam war at its loudest. Society was showing its worst at a time when it wanted its best. It seemed clear to me that my future was pretty well going to be determined by what I choose to do and not what society or the prevailing power structure said it would be.

I have written before about being 18 and facing the draft. I took a hit when I characterized the military as a less than honorable profession. (See “Study War No More”) Those that have read my writings and have heard me speak know that I am a second generation military brat. My grandfather retired as a Colonel in the United States Army and my father retired as a Major in the United States Air Force; I was prepared to walk those same steps and would have joined the officer corps of the Air Force. But I was also brought up to make my own decisions and the one thing I objected to the most was being told that I had to serve and if I didn’t choose to serve, I would be drafted. And then when the inequities and inadequacies of the draft became evident, it was clear that the draft was not an honorable path.

To ask me to serve in a military that was fighting a war of questionable outcome and was willing to sacrifice the blood of thousands of young men for a dubious political goal was also not honorable. I was lucky; the bureaucracy didn’t get me and when I got the call for my physical, my acne and what it did to my back kept me out.

There are those today who call for a return to the draft. I am not one of them. The reasons for the war in Iraq not withstanding, if a draft is instituted there will be those who will find ways to avoid service and the same faults that dominated the draft in the 60’s and 70’s will dominate the draft today. Those who can escape the draft will do so; those who cannot will be called to die on foreign soil far away from their loved ones in a war that is fought for reasons no one can recall.

And just as many of the best and the brightest of one generation were lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia, so too will the best and brightest of another generation be lost in the deserts of the Middle East. My concern today is not about a war that is fought without reason or cause; my concern is for the generation that must follow us and who, whether they wish to or not, must bear the burden of decisions that our generation and the generation before us have made for this society and this country.

Earlier this fall, in my message (“Who Shall Be Invited?”) at First United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, I stated that we have lost the present younger generation and possibly lost the next generation as well. Our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions as a church have driven many of today’s young people away from the church.

As I was preparing that sermon and after I had written those words, I added the words that Martin Luther King put into his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King also wrote of a generation that the church has lost because of its actions and deeds, its words and its thoughts.

And now we learn that others are making the same conclusion. The Barna Group has recently completed and published a study that shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than previous generations at the same stage of life. (See http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=280) What is possibly worse is that the percentage today is lower than ten years ago. How can that be?

With the dominance of fundamentalist viewpoints and the call for family values, why are the youth of today turning away from the church? The answer comes from John the Baptist and his encounter with the Pharisees and scribes when they came to the Jordan River to watch his baptisms? (See Matthew 3: 7 if you forgot) What drove people away from the church during the sixties? Very simply, hypocrisy drove them away and it is hypocrisy that is driving them away today.

This is not just a report of nameless teenagers and young adults. The thoughts expressed in the report are thoughts of one of our granddaughters. Despite all the evidence we can show her and our encouragement to see for herself what is going on at our local church, she says she finds the church hypocritical.

For her, church is a lost cause because it hasn’t spoken out against the killing of innocent people in Iraq. She wonders why the people killed on September 11, 2001 are more valuable than the children killed in Iraq. She wonders if the American lives are worth more than the lives of Iraqi citizens or the citizens of other countries.

She also sees the church as driving gays away, excluding them from regular lives and from even entering a church. She knows of one and possibly other classmates who think they are gay but are afraid to say anything because they fear what actions their parents will take.

But what our granddaughter has encountered is nothing new. There were many of us who sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and watched our parents actively and passively support segregation and racial discrimination. You can’t say that we are all brothers and then have us go half way around the world and kill those same brothers.

Those of us who grew up in southern churches where the brotherhood of man and the love of Christ for all was preached on Sunday saw many congregants and pastors fight to maintain the status quo of legalized apartheid in this country during the rest of the week.

The Barna report only puts into words what many of us have understood and spoken about for the past few years. You cannot preach the Word of God and then not live it to its fullest and expect people to listen to you, let alone follow you!

This report will be and is being welcomed with great shouts of joy and acclamation by those on the political left. They see it as the death knell for fundamentalism and the political right’s alliance with the church. I am a little leery of such joy or expressions of glee. The feelings that young people have expressed when it comes to the church may apply to fundamentalist churches and those who attend such churches but the young people do not necessarily make that distinction.

The people being described in the article are leaving the church, not leaving particular churches. They see all churches, no matter what may be happening in individual churches as being close-minded, bigoted, and exclusive. While they may express a belief in the need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build homes for the homeless, and free the oppressed, they do not see those words or thoughts as being at all connected to Jesus Christ or the mission of the church. They speak the words of Christ without knowing that they do. They are seeking a place in which to live lives that they know are right but the church has put up walls and shut the door to them.

We have created a new lost generation and we must work to bring the lost ones home. We cannot do it by creating modern worship services that simply transform church materials into the vernacular of the age, though having modern music wouldn’t hurt. It isn’t a matter of what you wear. It is what is said and how it is said.

When the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people about living in Babylon during their exile (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7), he told them to live their lives as normally as they could.

The Israelites had two choices when it came to living away from the Promised Land. They could accept the lost and meld into the culture around them or they could maintain their own identity even though that meant being treated as “strangers in a strange land.” To meld into the culture around them would mean losing their own identity and almost certainly the loss of their souls. But to maintain their culture was to maintain their identity and when they returned to the Promised Land, as they had been promised by God that they would, they would be able to continue their lives.

The church has always walked that fine line between the secular and the sectarian. The church lives in a secular world and it must fight to avoid being swept up by that world. But, when the church lives in a sectarian world, with walls built to protect and defend the faith, it becomes very difficult to live at all. For walls that protect people from things on the outside also keep the people inside and prevents them from growing spiritually.

But a church (or any institution for that matter) that speaks the truth and encourages people to see the truth for themselves can maintain its identity without being caught up in the world around it. Paul warned Timothy that there would be wrangling over words but if he, Timothy, presented himself to God then he had nothing of which to be ashamed. (2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15)

Some years ago, I wrote a note to myself about today’s Gospel reading. (Luke 17: 11- 19) I was going to call the piece “Did the others say thank you?” Ten lepers, spiritual and physical outcasts of that society, approach Jesus in an effort to be healed. Jesus cures them by having them go to the local priests and be declared healed and ritually pure. Only one, the Samaritan, returns to say thank you to Jesus. In turn, Jesus tells him that it was his faith that healed him. Does this mean that the others were not healed?

I don’t think so. Jesus healed without distinction. Those who came to Him received the benefits of His touch and His words. Would the other lepers lose the healing that they sought? It is possible that they might for leprosy is an infectious disease and it is possible that the other nine might continue to live in the same areas that they had been living and thus were subject to re-infection. The Samaritan chose to walk another way and truly gain his freedom.

The church as a whole has put up barriers and it is these barriers that are driving people away. We may say that “our church does not have those barriers” and it is possibly true. But sometimes we do not even realize that there are barriers that keep people out of our church.

Some will say that the decreasing membership of the United Methodist Church is a failure of the church to be modern; in other words, the church is not up-to-date. Some will say that is a failure to be true to the words of the Bible; in other words, the church is too modern. But the words of Christ are timeless; they mean the same no matter what age we might live in. The question for us becomes one of where are we.

The Barna report is another warning that we are not living in Christ and the presence of Christ is not living in us. It is a call to each one of us to find Christ again and bring Him back into our lives. And then take Christ into the world each day.

We must live our lives so that we show the presence of Christ. It is not easy to do this; ask Paul about the life he lead when he chose to follow Christ. We are reluctant sometimes to do that. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we chose to live differently. We choose to live in a way that breaks down barriers that are built in our society because of nationality, gender, religion, or education.

The lost generation today is not a generation of writers or poets, artists or thinkers. The lost generation is that same generation that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of the shepherd who would go seeking the one lost lamb when the rest of the flock was safe. The lost generation are those who, no matter how old they may be, have turned away from the church. They will not return unless we seek them and they will not return if what we offer is what drove them away. These are not easy words to write; they are even harder to speak. But, if we fail to live with Christ in us only means that we will also be lost.

The invitation today is to let Christ into your heart so that you may be found. The invitation today is to let the Holy Spirit come into your heart and empower your life so that you may live with Christ and Christ may live with you and you may help others to find that singular joy and peace.