The Two Important Issues For 2015 And 2016

I was thinking about this the other day but ran into problems with my computer and lost most of the work. So I am going to try and doing it again.

First, I prompted to post this today because I had another chance to review the life of Robert F. Kennedy. This piece will echo some of the thoughts that I posted back in March when I posted “So You Want To Be President?”

The one thing that amazes me are the differences in the 1968 campaign and today’s Presidential campaigns. Maybe it is just me but the campaigns back seem to actually focus on the issues and, while there was negative campaigning back then, it wasn’t to the extent we have today.

And how many of today’s candidates can quote Greek writers, such as Aeschylus, from memory as did Robert Kennedy? How many of today’s politicians, let alone Presidential candidates, would challenge the political system as Robert Kennedy did when he posed the question to white South Africans, “Suppose God Is Black”, or when he spoke to white medical students about serving the poor and needy (see “To Build a New Community” for a link to references of that speech).

Which, of any, of today’s candidates, could do as Robert Kennedy did on the night that Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and go into the poorer part of Indianapolis and speak of the tragedy on personal terms. Let’s remember that night, when violence erupted in almost every city in this country, it was calm in Indianapolis. I do not think that many of today’s candidates would be able to do anything similar, so used to blaming someone when there is a problem.

Both President Kennedy and Senator Kennedy spoke in terms of paragraphs, not sound bites, and they expected those who listened to them to know the references that they made. Today’s politicians merely reflect the current state of learning in this country, which is to say, limited.

That is why I think one of the major political issues in the coming months has to be the state of education in this country today. Instead of moving forward, creating thinkers and people capable of analyzing complex and multiple issues, we are creating a population of followers who have surrendered their thought process to a group of individuals who feel their duty is to do our thinking for us. Instead of providing the information for us to use, this group has taken it upon themselves to tell us what to think and what to do.

Our schools transformed from institutions of thinking and creativity into mere assembly lines, churning out numerous copies of the same product day after day. We argue about what is being taught, more so because I think we can’t do the work ourselves. If we were more involved in the process of learning and understanding what we need to learn, we might be better prepared to deal with those who would say that “they know what is best and we should just shut up and follow orders.”

For me, it would seem that first, we need to be more involved in what is happening in our schools today and we need to push our schools to do more that prepares students for tomorrow. And yes, I know this will cost money.

But we need to stop and look at where our money is going these days and wonder if we can’t stop funding wars and start funding education. We might find that tomorrow will be a lot better that way.

The second issue that we need to face is a moral one. Part of the moral dilemma that we are faced with is that we find it very easy to condemn others while not accepting blame for our sins. We have ignored what Christ said one day, “Listen, you phony, first pull the plank from your eye and then you’ll be able to see better to get the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7: 5 – The Cotton Patch Gospels).

There are as many in the sectarian world as there are in the secular world who have made it their providence to tell us how to live our lives will telling us to ignore how they live theirs.

We cannot begin to build a world of peace when we live in a constant state of war and where individuals who claim to be speaking for God proclaim a message of hatred and exclusion. We cannot begin to build God’s Kingdom here on earth, in what form it may take, if there are those among us who would proclaim that they and only they know the true word of God.

They will tell you, in no uncertain terms that there is only way to achieve true salvation and that if you do not chose that path, you will have chosen a path to total and final condemnation. I have heard that call countless times before in my life and, each time that I have heard it, I have walked away. It is not that I don’t believe in what they are saying but because I don’t think they have the right or authority to tell me what I have to do.

But I know what path I have chosen to walk and I also know that it may not be the path that others will choose. If a person believes in God and what that means, does it matter whether they believe as I do or that I believe as they do?

What I know is that I do not have the power, the right, or authority to tell others that they must walk the same path as I. But if I feel that the path that I walk is the better path, then what I have to do is show them, through my words, my deeds and my actions, what is gaining by walking with me.

What is needed at this time and on this planet is the beginning of a revival to understand why we are here and why we must work with each other instead of against each other.

We must understand what it means to do good and how that is achieved. And let’s face it, if you are doing good because you think it will somehow save you, you need to understand that it doesn’t work that way, no matter what else you may believe. One does good for what others receive, not what one receives.

The first of this issues will be decided at the ballot box but the second one can only be decided individually in one’s heart and soul. And it will take action on both issues if we are to truly make this a better world.


A Different Sense of Community

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday. The Scripture readings for this Sunday (the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) were 1 Samuel 8: 4 – 20 (11: 14 – 15), 2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1, Mark 3: 20 – 35. Services start at 9:30 a.m. and you are welcome to attend.

And then His mother and brothers sent Jesus a message that they wanted to talk with Him. And Jesus responded to the messenger, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, He said, “Right here, right in front of you – my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

There are some who said Jesus rejected His family in this exchange that we read this morning. But it is more likely that Jesus expanded the concept of family and brought a new meaning to the definition of a community.

Now, Jesus said that those who obeyed God’s will would be His brothers and sisters. What does it meant to obey God’s will? Is it how we live or are we to create a separate community apart from the world? This nation is dotted with towns, some which still exist today, where people gathered as a community to follow God’s will. Or is it how we live our lives?

The meaning of community and our obligations within a community are ideas/concepts that have perplexed us from the day Cain asked God if he were his brother’s keeper. It is a thought echoed in the question asked by the lawyer in Luke when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?” It is also the question that John Wesley looked at his world in 18th century England. How we respond today will say a lot about our future as a society and as a church.

I had the opportunity two years ago to go to Annual Conference and hear Kwasi Kena, Director of Evangelism for the General Board of Discipleship. I thought that it was an interesting seminar because the ideas that Dr. Kena expressed ran counter to the current thoughts on the subject of evangelism and it gave me hope that the church as an institution, as a denomination, and individually can be saved.

Now, for too many people today, evangelism is getting people to proclaim Christ as their Savior and it is almost a forced process; either you follow Christ as we have described Him or you are doomed to a life outside the gates of Heaven. But as Dr. Kena pointed out, evangelism is more than just getting people to follow Christ; it is also teaching people about Christ and living the life that you preach and that Christ taught us to live.

But if the church (be it the institution in general, the denomination, or any individual church group) operates more on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the Law, as long as the church today reflects the behavior and attitudes of the church authorities of two thousand years ago, when Jesus walked the back roads of the Galilee, then it will and is a dying church. (Adapted from “The State of Faith“)

Paul offers us, through his words to the Corinthian church, hope. One response to the need to live a biblical based life, one that illustrated and lifted up Christ’s teaching is the Koinonia Farm in Georgia, found by Clarence Jordan in the years following World War II. Clarence Jordan was a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar. Dr. Jordan began the farm as a way of showing God’s love for all and an illustration of Jesus’ teaching. The farm was integrated and pacifist, ideas that were not well received in Georgia during the 50s and 60s. To say that Dr. Jordan and those who helped on the farm rattled the cages of the political and religious establishment of the time would be an understatement.

As a Greek scholar, Dr. Jordan took time to write the Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into English, using as best as he could locations in Georgia to make the reading more relevant. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians become letters to Atlanta Christians.

In his translation of 2 Corinthians, Dr. Jordan writes “I acted, then I talked” where the palmist wrote “I believed it, so I said it.” In 2 Corinthians 5: 1, Dr. Jordan wrote “For example, we are sure that if our external framework of God’s dwelling is pulled down, we still have a house built by God, a house that’s not man-made but spiritual and eternal.” In his notes for 2 Corinthians 5: 1, he noted that “dwelling” or “house” seems to refer to Christian fellowship and not to the individual body. Our community is wherever it may be in whatever form it may be; if we limit the form, we may find ourselves limiting ourselves as well.

What did the church authorities two thousand years ago do when Jesus was healing the sick and offering Good News to the people? They pronounced Him to be an agent of Satan. Many times, what Jesus did was in direct opposition to the rules and laws set down by the religious authorities but well within the scope of the Holy Scriptures. They could not counter His teachings with better examples of their own so they resorted to discredit him by saying He worked for Satan.

But as Jesus said, how could he be working for the Satan when what he did worked against Satan? I also have to imagine what the people, especially the people who were healed, who found hope in what Jesus taught, must have felt. Remember, sickness and disease were thought to be signs of sin and here Jesus was removing sin so how could he have been Satan?

There are too many people today who hold to that idea, that disease and poverty are sinful and those who are sick, homeless, and unemployed are somehow not worthy of God’s grace and should not be allowed in a church. But who did Jesus associate with and who found Jesus’ actions unacceptable? And we wonder why our churches are dying.

The Old Testament reading for today begins a story of what happened to the people of Israel when they decided not to follow God and obey His will. The history of Israel, as told in the history and writings of the Old Testament, tells us that the when the people followed God, things went well. But when they choose to go their own way, to be like the rest of the world as it where, then bad things happen.

The period of history that precedes the Old Testament reading is the period of judges, individuals (men and women) who offer counsel and leadership for the nation. The plan worked when the judges and the people followed God; it failed when they did not.

Now, there are some who would have us return to a Biblical style of government. Do they want us to follow the style as described in Judges and the beginning of Samuel? Or would they have us follow the style of the kings that follow in the history of the nation?

The one thing that a government by a king does offer is the opportunity for individuals to not do anything. The king listens to no one who does not agree with them and makes all the decisions himself. There are a lot of people today who wouldn’t mind it if someone made all the decisions for them. It is very interesting to hear Samuel’s warning to the people, especially in the context of today’s political climate.

Israel will get their king and they will try to be like all the countries around them. But they will lose the essence of their existence. Yes, Saul will give the bold leadership; David will give the nation of Israel credibility and Solomon will offer a new meaning for wisdom and build the First Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. But each will succumb to the temptation of power and glory and their reigns will end in essentially failure. Each king that follows will lead the nation of Israel farther and farther from God, into despair, desolation, and ultimately into the Babylonian exile.

I am sure that that is not the direction that we want to head, nor do I think we need a government or a community that is based on a strict interpretation of the laws that others might suggest. To repeat the past in hopes of improving the future seems rather futile. But that does leave us in a quandary, doesn’t it? How shall we build our community? Who will be a part of our community?

We remember that John Wesley saw people who were disenfranchised by the church but who needed to hear the Word of God. So he went into the factories, the mines, and the prisons. He not only took the Word but the help that was needed. It came in the form of health clinics and credit unions, schools and other forms of assistance. Wesley and those helped begin the Methodist Revival of the 18th century understood that no one will understand or even appreciate the meaning of God’s Word if they were hungry or sick or faced with prison because of their financial problems. So they built schools and credit unions and health clinics and then they preached the Word.

In a sermon I gave several years ago I spoke of the members of the Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who felt the need to respond to the issue of homelessness in their local community. From the simple beginning of offering a few homeless individuals a place to stay for the night, it has become a shelter and home where some 30 individuals at a time find a way out of their homeless and back into society. The interesting thing was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church no longer exists; the congregation voted to disband and become parts of other Presbyterian churches in the area. But the ministry of the homeless stayed in the building that once was the church, continuing the ministry that was begun by the congregation.

There was also the story of the woman who wanted to help local high school students and during a high school assembly gave the students the church’s phone number. If the student wanted to talk with someone about a problem they might be having, all they had to do was call the church and someone would be there to listen. The next day, the church had over 300 calls from local students. (Adapted from “What Do We Need?” – The link to the story about the Clifton Presbyterian Church in my post is no longer working but you can go to “Clifton Sanctuary Ministries” to find out more about this ministry.)

Bishop Will Willimon told the story about two ladies who started a prison minister in North Alabama that began when two ladies went to visit one of the ladies’ grandsons. From a single visit came reading classes, Bible studies, and health care. Some of the ladies from this United Methodist Church in North Alabama aren’t able to visit the youth prison so they bake cookies for the others to take. (Adapted from “Who Goes First?”)

At this point, I mentioned Project VIVID, an community-based undertaking at Old Hickory UMC – I didn’t have a chance to put the details about the project into the manuscript I normally follow but here is a link to a description of the project – “Project VIVID

You have heard me speak of Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. Today, Grace UMC begins another ministry, Family Promise. It is a ministry that allows up to five homeless families shelter during the week while the parents work and the children go to school. When we speak of the homeless, it is often in terms of individuals. Yet the number of families without homes is growing every day. The families that will come to Grace Church tonight are working families who have lost their homes. The process by which they enter the program is very rigorous. At the end of the week, these families will go to the next church in the network. While in the network, they will receive counseling and aid so that they can get back to a place of their own. And the children will remain in their own school.

Each church in the network provides volunteers to prepare a dinner meal each day. Other volunteers will spend the night in the church. This will be the second time that I have been involved with this ministry and I am still amazed by the number of people who are fearful of what this means. I am not certain if they do not trust strangers or if it is that they do not want to see certain aspects of society.

The stories that one could tell abound but they all center on the fact that each individual or group of individuals had a different sense of community. It wasn’t about the building or the property but the people. And it wasn’t just the people of the church; it was the people of the community around the church.

The past few months, with the Arab Spring of 2011, have shown that we can no longer see ourselves as a community, small and isolated from the world. But then again, we were never supposed to be isolated from the world. Jesus looked at those who were with him that day and said that these are my brothers and sisters.

Churches today need not ask who are the brothers and sisters but rather how it, the church, can reach out. It is not about the resources but where the Spirit moves the church to respond. What some churches can do, others cannot. But in the manner of Paul, each church has its own unique set of gifts and from those gifts will come the means by which to reach out to the community.

The community was defined for us many years ago. How we reach out was defined as well. We are charged this day reaching out to the community so that all we encounter will know who Christ was and is and will be.

The Bottom of the Ninth

I will be at Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) on Sunday, June 14th; the service starts at 10 and everyone is welcome.  I will also be there on June 28th.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, are 1 Samuel 15: 34 – 16: 13, 2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 10 (11 – 13), 14 – 17, and Mark 4: 26 – 34.


There is probably no more dramatic scene in sports today than the manager of a baseball team striding to the pitcher’s mound in the bottom of ninth inning with the outcome of the game to be decided. I suppose that one might have the same feeling in a basketball game with the score tied and the outcome decided by the shooter standing at the free-throw line or during a football game with the kicker coming out to kick the winning field goal.

But those events don’t have the question of choice that seems to come in a baseball game. The manager must make a decision about who he will call and the other manager must also make a decision as to whether or not there must be a change in who will bat.

And I think that element of choice comes in handy when one is a lay speaker and the call is made at the last minute for someone to cover the pulpit at a church in a local district (which is why I am here today – I got the call about one hour before I was to leave for Annual Conference). The analogy also holds for the church in general as the church, in general, and the denomination as well are faced with questions of what will happen next.

The recent survey by the Barna Group brings into question the nature of the church in the coming years. While people who responded to this survey indicated that faith played an extremely important part of their life, the church did not. It isn’t how people worship but the message that the present church sends to the people in its particular area. And the message that many people today are receiving is not a good one; it speaks of hypocrisy and exclusion. The only biblical message that the modern church gives to the people today is that the church today is almost like the church that Jesus saw, monolithic, rigid in structure and fixed to the law rather than the spirit.

The question that we face today is very simple. Will the church remain as it is, monolithic, rigid, and more interested in adhering to the law rather than following the Spirit, or will it change to meet the needs of the people? I hope the answer to that question is the latter rather than the former but that will also require some major rethinking on the part of all involved.

There is also a question that is flirting around the cosmos about the nature of the world in which we live. There are those who are convinced, absolutely and without a doubt that we are in the End Times as described in the Book of Revelation. They are equally convinced that there must be a radical restructuring of the world and a return to “Christian” values if there is to be any hope for the world.

Now, it should be noted that in my notes I put the word “Christian” inside quotes because I am becoming more and more convinced that what people are pushing is not what the Gospel message is about nor is it what Jesus sought when he walked the roads and pathways of the Galilee.

The other day, there was letter to the editor in my local paper that took umbrage with something that President Obama said about this country and Christianity. The writer’s reply was that this was a Christian country, founded on Christian principles and that the founding fathers were devout Christians.

There is no doubt in my mind that our founding fathers and founding mothers believed in God but I also believed that it is more proper to say that most of them were deists. Their beliefs in the Creator of this universe came from rational thought and an outgrowth of the Enlightenment period. If truth were to be told, many of our Founding Fathers probably avoided church like the plague but belonged to the church because it was expected.

And while many fundamentalists will tell you of Thomas Jefferson being guided by God in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, they tend to avoid telling you about his Bible and the removal of anything that smacked of “magic or mysticism”. In Jefferson’s Bible, there is no mention of any of Jesus’ miracles because Jefferson didn’t believe in them. (From “Don’t Know Much About History”)

And every time that I hear that this is a Christian nation, I remember what it was like to grow up in the South, where segregation was the law and it was enforced because it was in the Bible that the races should be separated. How can we escape the label of hypocrisy when verses in the Bible are used to justify hatred, exclusion, and even war?

And as a chemist and a chemical educator, you can’t imagine the grief that I get for even thinking that I can walk in the fields of science and religion with ease and comfort. And amidst the fervor and tumult that comes with the debate on the inclusion of “intelligent design” in today’s science curriculum, I came across the following description of someone important to the nature of science today.

He saw no conflict between his Christian faith and his scientific activity. During his forty years as a canon, he faithfully served his church with extraordinary commitment and courage. At the same time, he studied the world “which has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.” He pursued his science with a sense of “loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.” He declared that although his views were “difficult, almost inconceivable, and quite contrary to the opinion of the multitude, nevertheless in what follows we will with God’s help make them clearer than day – at least for those who are not ignorant of the art of mathematics. (From The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)

The individual in this paragraph was Nikolai Copernicus. In reading the short biography that Charles Hummel put together in his book The Galileo Connection I also discovered that Johannes Kepler was also a devout Christian whose interests in science often ran counter to the beliefs of the community. Parenthetically, Kepler, whose work was central to Galileo’s work and the confirmation of the Copernican model of the universe, died without a church. He would not sign a statement affirming a creed in the Lutheran church and so the Lutheran church denied him communion and employment in Lutheran universities. And because he was a Lutheran, the Catholic Church denied him communion and employment. (from the Galileo Connection)

We live at a time when our faith is being questioned and we must decide how we shall respond to the challenge and question of faith in our time. It is not enough to say that we need to return to our Christian values because I am not totally sure that many people know what those values are. We are very much like Samuel in today’s Old Testament reading, looking at Jesse’s sons and seeking the one that will lead us out of oblivion and back into power and prominence.

I find a parallel between Samuel’s efforts to find a successor for Saul with our attempts to find an answer to the problems of the world. We look at the rich, the strong, the powerful but we never think of looking at the internal or interior qualities. Each time that Samuel saw something that he liked in one of Jesse’s sons, God showed him the internal fault that could cause problems later. And this caused confusion for Samuel because he knew that God had brought him to Jesse but could not see why he was brought there. And then God told him about the other son, the one that Jesse would call the “runt.” It was David who had the internal qualities that were necessary for leadership.

Now, I do not believe that we need to look for a leader like David, per se. First, that would keep us in the same loop that has brought us to this point today. Second, we know today that David, despite his anointing and blessing, will succumb to the temptations that often accompany one’s rise to power.

The problem is that we, ourselves, too often seek such a rise in power because we like the trappings that come with the power and, just like David did, feel that we can control the temptations. But just as the answer to Samuel’s search came in an unexpected manner, so too does the answer to our questions. It will not be found in raw power but in our own ability to use what we have been given, both in terms of faith and reason to find the answer.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians today speak of a confidence found through Christ. Our faith empowers us to go beyond what we might think we can do. Like the parable of the mustard see, great results can come from little results.

The challenge to our faith is not because we are no longer a Christian nation. The challenge arises because we do not know what our faith means. And because we do not know what our faith means, we do not know how to respond to the challenges, except in terms that we are familiar with – power and greed.

We seek to control our thoughts and our deeds, where we long for days past when everything was clear and well-defined. We seek a structure of sectarian and secular law. But those days were never as clear and as well-defined as we would have preferred. But what is missing is the message of love and hope that Christ first taught us.

It has lead to what one might call the bottom of the ninth and we are on the losing side of the baseball game. But it need not be the end of the game. Rather, when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, the game begins anew. When we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, we become empowered and able to make the changes in this world that will bring life to the sick and dying, hope for the downtrodden, and freedom to those who are oppressed.

The manager strides to the mound and calls upon the relief pitcher; his opposite number makes a decision about who should come to bat. And the game is decided on the decisions that are made at that time. You have the opportunity to make a decision that will change it from the end of the old game to the beginning of a new one; you have the opportunity to change the outcome, if you will but answer the call. What shall you do?

Facing Goliath

This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 18 June 2003.  The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 17: (1, 4 – 11, 19 – 23) 32 – 49, 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13, and Mark 4: 35 – 41.


There are times when I wish that Thomas Dewey had won the presidential election of 1948. Now it has to be understood that this is one of the events clearly before my time and that I had no chance to vote for Dewey and that I probably would have, if I could have, voted for Truman. But had Dewey won that election, it would have made my life easier. For it would have meant that the “ghost” of Harry Truman would not be following me today. Actually, it is not Harry Truman who follows me but rather his image as the “man from Independence.”

By now you know that I am an alumnus of Truman State University. Truman State is located in Kirksville, MO and when it was known as Northeast Missouri State University, many people thought it was located in a suburb outside St. Louis. This is only natural since there is a suburb named Kirkwood outside St. Louis.

With the change in the school name, an amazing thing occurred. Truman State University, once located in a suburb of St. Louis, was now located in a suburb of Kansas City. Because President Truman was a preeminent Kansas City politician when he was a Senator for Missouri before becoming Vice-President and later President, many people assume that any school named after him would be in that vicinity. But Truman State never moved and is almost as far from Kansas City as it is from St. Louis. The only school in the Independence area named after Truman is Truman High School, where my youngest daughter is assistant Band Director.

And the confusion about Independence goes beyond where I graduated from college. In the course of my career, I lived and worked in Independence, KS. I still have a number of items with the ICC logo on them that cause people to ask me where I am from. When I reply “Independence, Kansas” they more often than not reply, “O, yes. That’s right outside Kansas City,” meaning, of course, Independence, Missouri.

In a manner of speaking, Independence, Kansas, is just outside Kansas City, much like Kirksville is just outside both Kansas City and St. Louis. But both are on the order of a two-hour drive from the big cities and I don’t think that qualifies either of them as suburbs. Not just yet, anyway.

But in what is considered the penultimate political upset, Truman beat Dewey, David beat Goliath, and I must continue to deal with misconceptions about Missouri and Kansas’s geography.

We are a nation that loves the underdog. We looked for reasons to root against the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics during the 50’s and 60’s. When the New York Mets made that wonderful improbable run in 1969, the majority of the world was rooting from them, though in good conscious, we all knew that they did not stand a chance against the mighty Baltimore Orioles.

And who could forget the shock felt across the nation when Joe Namath proclaimed that his New York Jets would defeat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. After all, the American Football League was just a “Mickey Mouse league” in the eyes of the true believers and there was no way that they could even think of playing against any team from the National Football League. When the NCAA Division I basketball tournament is set up in March of each year, we hope that one of the 16th seeds might just win a first round game. Of course, it doesn’t happen but we hope that it will.

We like to root for the underdog in the hopes that there will be an upset but we are realistic enough to know that such occurrences are rare and far between so it is better to pick the favorite and go on from there. And when it comes to our own everyday, rather ordinary lives, we do not want to chase windmills, we do not want to fight battles against overwhelming odds, we do not want the hassle of taking on great corporate giants. We don’t mind going to see the “Man from La Mancha”, we just don’t want to live that life.

We are flat uncomfortable with anything that changes or threatens to change our lives. We may not like our lives as they are about but we are comfortable with them as they are and do not want anything to change them. We are much like the disciples, who when the winds came off the mountains surrounding the Sea of Galilee and started rocking the boat and causing the water to come in, felt panic and fear.

Our own Methodist heritage includes a similar episode of a boat tossed about on a stormy sea and the panic and fears that it created. When the ship on which he was traveling to America encountered rough seas, John Wesley became very seasick and so frightened by the experience that he thought he was going to die. The whole episode challenged Wesley to examine his relationship with God. This uncertainty in his own life was further compounded because he observed a number of Moravian missionaries praying and celebrating the presence of God in their lives. They suffered thorough the hardships of the voyage, the cramped conditions, and bad food but remained calm. The examples set forth by the Moravians on that trip and during the time in America would give many examples to John Wesley about the role of Christ in one’s life.

In turn, he would give them the ground work for setting up a new denomination, the one that ultimately became the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the heritage that I bring to the pulpit.

Wesley came to America in hopes of saving his own soul. He thought that by preaching and learning the Gospel through mission work to the colonists and Indians living in Georgia, he might find that elusive link to God. The episode on the ship only added more questions to Wesley’s life rather than provide answers. In his mind, Wesley was concerned that his own relationship with God was not right, for if it were right, he would not have feared death but rather would have welcomed the chance to go to heaven. For Wesley, the question was one of how they could remain serene and at peace with the world when there was so much danger all around. It was that serenity and inner peace that Wesley would seek throughout his ministry in America and ultimately find in the church on Aldersgate Street in London.

Ann gave me two books for father’s day, both of which deal with faith in today’s world. They posed essentially the same question, “How can there be a God today when there is so much sickness, death, war, and violence in the world?” In one case, the author almost entirely discounts the presence of God because no god would allow the suffering of the world to continue. I am still reading to find out what the other author feels, though I think that in the end his conclusions will be entirely different.

If we are to have faith, we must have a belief that there is a God who can calm the seas, provide peace to a troubled times. By the same token, we must understand that this same God has given us abilities and knowledge over the years, knowledge and ability that will help us to find solutions for the problems that we face.

Thus, it is up to us to see the work of God put forth in this world. Paul was writing to the Corinthians because they were failing to see how faith was put forth in their lives. He had already pointed out that those who live for themselves after having been saved will have received the Grace of God but they will miss out on the heavenly rewards gained through service to Him. Paul continually encouraged those who had been saved to work out or develop their own salvation. (2 Corinthians 5: 15)  For the Corinthians this was a vital point.

For Paul pointed out that they were failing. They were saved, it was true, but they were doing nothing to advance or work out their salvation. And if they were doing nothing, then their faith would fail them eventually. I think that is one thing that we need to critically understand. If we do not continually work with our faith, we will find ourselves quickly falling behind. We are quick to say that God is no longer around but that is because we are not looking for Him.

Paul’s encouragement is very simple. God is always ready to listen to us and to help if only we turn to Him. If we find fault with what we consider the work of God, perhaps it is because we are not doing the work that is expected of us. There is no task too great for us to undertake if we understand that we can rely on God.

But that is the problem. We often expect God to be there in the tough times because we quickly forget him during the good times. The story of David and Goliath is indicative of this idea. Some say that Goliath was killed because the stone that David threw hit a soft spot in Goliath’s skull. Some scholars claim that the description of Goliath suggests a malformation of the forehead and that a stone striking would do bodily harm. But somewhere along the way, David had to use his sling and strike down Goliath. His own personal fears had to be put aside and he found comfort in knowing that God was there with him.

We are going to have to face Goliath some time in our lives. It may be something big and on which several people rely; then again, it could be something small and only important to us individually and privately. But we will have to face him. It will be a time of trouble and tribulation if, like the Corinthians, we have put our salvation aside. It will be a time of turmoil if, like Wesley, we expect things that are not to be.

If our faith is the same faith of the Moravians, we will find peace and comfort when the seas of our lives are tossing us around. If our faith is like that of John Wesley, we will find a warmth and assurance when Christ is present ion our lives. And when we need it most, to calm our fears and steady our nerves in face of the most monumental of tasks, we will find the faith that provided David with the steady nerves and calmness need to fell Goliath with a tiny stone from a sling.

These are things that we cannot find in ourselves but only through God. Our faith lies not in our own abilities but rather in the knowledge that God is there if we look for Him. We do so by finding Christ. We are going to have to face Goliath someday but we do not have to do it alone. If we acknowledge that Christ is your Savior and we accept the Holy Spirit in hearts, then we are able to meet and defeat any challenge before us. The challenge this day is then to accept Christ into our heart and show the world that the Spirit still lives by what we do in celebration of God’s presence in our lives.

Against All Odds

This is the message I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 25 June 2000.  The Scriptures are 1 Samuel 17: (1, 4 – 11, 19 – 23) 32 – 49, 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13, and Mark 4: 35 – 41.


For some reason that is totally unknown to me, I have always, with the possible exception of the UCLA Bruins basketball team and my own alma maters, rooted for the underdog. Though there have been times in the past when Truman State, Missouri, and Iowa qualify as true underdogs. There seems to be something about rooting for the little guy or the small school beating the bigger school in the big game of the year.

When the English driver and world champion Jimmy Clark came to drive in the Indianapolis 500 back in the early 60’s, the experts claimed that he didn’t stand a chance. His car, a Ford-powered Lotus, didn’t have the power and he didn’t have the expertise needed to drive 500 miles. To win at Indy, it was said, required a big, front-engine-powered car and experience on the oval at Indy. That year, 1963 I think, Jimmy Clark finished second. The next year, the team came back with the Woods Brothers from North Carolina, a stock car oriented group, working the pits and providing the subtle difference that gave Jimmy Clark the win that year. After Jimmy Clark won at Indy, the manner in which oval track racing was done was changed forever.

That same summer, the team favored to win the National League pennant was the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies had the pitching, the hitting, the defense, and one of the best managers, Gene Mauch, in the business. But the St. Louis Cardinals put on a closing finish and beat the Phillies for the National League title on the last day of the 1964 season. In the World Series that year, the Cardinals played the Yankees in what has to be considered one of the monumental “David and Goliath” battles. For the Yankees was the quintessence of dynasties and believed to be unbeatable. But the Cardinals prevailed and were the world champions of professional baseball. It is interesting to note that four years later, the Cardinals took on the role of Goliath and lost to a new “David”, the Detroit Tigers.

In 1969, New York saw two teams overcome the underdog label and defeated established and powerful teams. That January, a brash young quarterback from Alabama not only promised but flat out guaranteed that his team, from the upstart young professional football league, would beat the veteran and experienced team from the established pro football league. Of course, Joe Namath and the New York Jets went on to beat the Baltimore Colts in the third AFL – NFL championship game (the Super Bowl designation came later) and pro football as we know it was changed forever.

That summer, as the world watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take the first steps on the moon, another perennial underdog took on the task of overcoming long odds and the established view that they could not win. But as Neil Armstrong took those first momentous steps on the moon, the New York Mets defeated the Montreal Expos and took over first place in the National League East division. Those Amazing Mets as they were known continued to confound the experts as they won the division title and defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first league playoff series to become the National League champions. And in the World Series, the Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles, surprising all the experts except those who had come to know that Mets of 1969 were not the lovable, losing team of the early 60’s. And just like the Jets victory changed the nature of professional football, the Mets win changed the nature of baseball as well.

But none of these events just occurred. In every case, there were individuals who were dedicated to the success of the efforts. Jimmy Clark was already a world champion when he came to Indianapolis and the team organizer, Colin Chapman, were committed to the concept of success. The decision to use the Woods Brothers team in the pits was also a sign of commitment to success. The 1964 Cardinals were a team just getting organized around a foundation of Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Ken Boyer, Julian Javier, Bill White, and Lou Brock. They knew what they were capable of and what it took to win. The Jets were a team committed to winning and Joe Namath knew what his team’s strengths were and how to best use those strengths to defeat the Colts. Tom Seaver also knew that the character of the Mets had changed from the early days and that winning was no longer just an occasional thing but something to be gained through hard work and perseverance.

David’s battle with Goliath is often seen in the terms as these events that I have described. After all, the battle described in the Old Testament reading for today was the original “David vs. Goliath” match. And while we might think it foolish to take on a nine foot, nine inch giant whose armor weighed closed to 125 pounds and spearhead weighed close to nine pounds armed only with a slingshot, David knew what the slingshot could do and how to control it for the best results. And like all those who have lost such monumental matches, Goliath overestimated the abilities of his opponents.

But David was more than just experienced with the slingshot in this battle with Goliath. He also had a deep, abiding faith in God. Rather than trust in armor that he could not wear nor carry a sword that he could not hold David went into battle armed only with his faith.

Paul speaks of that same faith in the letter to the Corinthians. At that time, he wrote this letter many Corinthians were against Paul. The flavor of the passage that we read today is that no matter what was placed in front of him, no matter how long the odds, Paul’s faith in God would keep him going. He also reminded the readers of this letter when he quoted Isaiah in verse 2, “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.”, that God does listen and that He does give help. All they, the Corinthians, all we have to do is turn to him in faith. (2 Corinthians 6: 2 — quoting Isaiah 49: 8)

We may not fully understand this concept of faith that Paul was writing about. We certainly cannot conceive of the power of the Holy Spirit as it was expressed in the Gospel reading today. Like the disciples, we asked what manner of man is that who can calm the seas and cause the winds to calm down. More often than not, we are like the Israelite army, cowering in fear when they first faced Goliath.

But Jesus told his disciples and us to not be afraid but to have faith, to believe in Him who would not forget them.

David went into battle not trusting in his sword and shield but only in God. Paul endured the physical hardships of the ministry and the taunting and words of deceit solely because his faith kept him strong.

Still, while we read these words and hear these great stories, we wonder if God does work. We see the world and wonder where faith is. You have heard me speak of Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN. Here was a church that eleven years ago was facing what some would have considered insurmountable odds. With a declining attendance, an inability to pay the bills and a congregation divided. But this summer, through hard work and dedication of the church members, they are completing the building of a new sanctuary. This was not accomplished because of anything the pastor or the administrative council or even a brash young lay speaker did but rather because the congregation allowed the Holy Spirit to come into their lives and guide and direct them.

But, that’s Minnesota, you say. And besides that’s an old story. This is now and New York. Each month, I get a statement from the District Superintendent showing the current standings of churches in the district with respect to paid apportionments.

This month, this list shows three churches which have paid their 2000 apportionments in full. Another nineteen churches are up to date, that is, have paid 42% of their apportionments. Another twelve churches are only one month behind. There is a fourth category with seven churches in it. These seven churches, while not having paid their apportionments in full, have paid more than 42% of them. Among those seven is a church that probably hasn’t been on the list and certainly not in this category is this church, Walker Valley UMC. I am sure there are some who saw this list and wonder what is going on out there.

But whatever might be said, it is the faith of the members, neither the district superintendent’s pastoral assistant nor the administrative council can take credit for this accomplishment. It is the members of the church who, through their faith and dedication, brought about this accomplishment.

I received one other item in the mail this week with the listing of apportionments. At this time, I would ask Bill Keller, last year’s administrative council chair, and Marty Upright, this year’s administrative council chair, to come forward and accept this certificate showing that we paid our 1999 apportionments in full.

People see many barriers in front of them. Many churches fail because they think that the barriers cannot be overcome. Yet, when the Holy Spirit is present, when people allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, no barrier is that big.

We face many challenges each day, both separately and as a church. The invitation today is to let Christ into your life, to let the Holy Spirit guide and direct you. It may seem as though the odds are against you, but they more than even out when you let Christ into your life.


Our Choices

Here is my post for this day, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost and Father’s Day. This doesn’t have much to do with fathers, though.

I do not remember when it was or how old I was when I first became fascinated with politics. But I remember the thrill of the nominating process, the campaign and, finally, the election. Most of the time it was the Presidential elections that interested me; with all the moving about we did, state and local elections were only sidelights to the real thing. But over the years and most recently, I have become disillusioned by the whole process.

We start the campaigns for the next election almost before the last one is complete. Even though we are not even to the 2006 Congressional elections, our focus is on the presidential election of 2008. The nominating conventions that once were the heart and soul of the political parties have been reduced to two or three hours of orchestrated hoopla with the nominee of each party pretty well known before the convention even starts. And the campaigns, instead of being debates between the candidates on the merits of their thoughts, have and will focus on mud-slinging and negative focus advertisement. No longer do we vote for the best of the best; we vote for the least of the worst.

Our campaigns have become glorified beauty contests in which the candidates compete to show their best side while hiding what is behind the facade. Much like Saul’s replacement in today’s Old Testament reading (1), we focus on which of the candidates we think looks like the candidate we want; we do not dare to delve deep into their souls.

Larry Bowen once quoted Richard McBrien as saying, “politics has to do with the public forum and with the process of decision making that occurs there.” (2)  Henry Skolimowski pointed out that political institutions are a shadow of our soul. Such institutions express and embody the wisdom of the people of the time. If there is no such wisdom among the people, these institutions express their unwisdom. The state of our unwisdom and the state of our soul are closely related.(3)

If my understanding of Old Testament history is correct, the people of Israel sought a king. When the nation of Israel was first established following the Exodus, the nation was governed by Judges, enlightened individuals (both men and women) who resolved the disputes between the people. But because the nations around Israel had kings and courts and palaces and the trappings of glory and power, the people of Israel felt that they were somehow being short-changed. Never mind that their King was the One and True King, God; they did not have an earthly king and they felt somehow left out.

So it was that God commissioned Samuel to seek out a possible candidate for the position of king and Samuel discovered Saul. But even though Saul had God’s blessing, he ultimately succumbed to the lure of the power and the glory of the office and was killed in a civil war. Thus, Samuel has to find another candidate to be king and that is how he found David. But Samuel was going to select one of David’s older brothers because they looked the part, strong and masculine. They looked what a king should be. But when Samuel met David, he saw what was inside David, the intellect and wisdom; he saw the things that a true king really needed. But even David would ultimately fall to the lure of power and glory; even David would lose the blessing of God.

Skolimowski points out that our institutions do not work because our souls do not work. We cannot have good political institutions if our visions are crippling narrow and our wisdom lamentably limited. The road to good political institutions and social institutions comes by deepening our wisdom and by broadening our vision; which is to say, enlarging our souls.

What does Jesus tell us this morning in the Gospel message? (4)  Keep in mind the mustard seed. The mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds we have, yet it grows into a luxurious and wonderful tree, yielding much beyond what was intended. If our faith is like the mustard seed, we are able to go beyond the limits of what we see in today’s world. We are so used to seeing politics as the arena for the greedy and the selfish that we forget that examples of politics can be noble, selfless, high minded and idealistic as well. We let our cynicism block any hope that the latter will overcome the former.

Yet, communism failed, not because of what the conservatives did and take credit for but because there was a better way to express thought and desire. Apartheid failed, not because of some military revolution but because people took words of non-violence and slowly changed the mindset of the people who used apartheid to control people as well as changing the mindset of those who were controlled.

The great non-violent revolutions of this world have come about because we have offered medicine for the sick and ill, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and hope to the downcast. When we choose to use violent means, we find that change is very slow and often does not happen.

And even though that last paragraph is very radical, for it suggests an alternative to our current mindset, it is the very essence of the first great non-violent revolution, the preaching of the Gospel two thousand years ago.

And those who have accepted this message know, as Paul wrote (5), that our confidence in the outcome comes not from what we do but rather from our faith in Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is the love of Christ for each one of us that urges us onward, down paths that we would normally fear to walk. It is the love of Christ for each one of us that urges us onward, allowing us to live beyond the limits of this world.

So we have a choice this morning. Shall we choose the most obvious solution to a problem, knowing that the answers that we get may not result in a true solution? Or shall we look for the Holy Spirit and allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and guide and direct us, showing us the path that brings the fulfillment of the Gospel message to this world?

Some may not know that the Holy Spirit is out there, for they have yet to know Christ. To those seeking Christ, we offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message that comes when you open your heart to Jesus. And, though this choice is fraught with danger and intrigue, it is a choice that leads to the best possibilities, eternal life. You are invited this day to make a choice, to walk with Christ or to walk alone. You are invited this day to make a choice, to allow the Holy Spirit to guide and direct your life or to remain lost in the wilderness of society.

These are the choices for today.

1 Samuel 15: 34 – 16: 13

(2)  Note to the AERA Division L (Educational Policy and Politics LISTSERV) on 6 Jan 1998.


(4)  Mark 4: 26 – 34

(5)  2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 10 (11 – 13), 14 – 17