Understanding Advent in the 21st Century


You are invited to join us during the four Sundays in October (October 5, 12, 19, and 26), from 5 to 7 pm, in the tradition of the early United Methodist Church, at the home of Tony Mitchell and Ann Walker for a four week Bible study to prepare for Advent.

Amidst the trials and tribulations of the world today, let us read the Scriptures for each week of Advent and consider the following questions:

  1. Why do we celebrate Advent?
  2. What is the meaning of Advent?
  3. How do we prepare for the coming of Christ in the 21st Century?
  4. What will our response be?

You are welcome to come for one, two, three, or all four sessions. Please let Ann and me know that you are coming.

Guided by the Light


These are my thoughts for January 1, 2012, the Epiphany of the Lord Sunday.

There probably isn’t going to be much reference to the Scripture readings for this Sunday but I will be, as the title suggests, guided by the light of the star that guided the Magi from their homeland to the new born Christ Child.

I have been blogging since July, 2005, which is probably a long time in the blogging community. My blogging allowed me to be part of some other blogs and that was a good thing. I started off blogging as a way to continue the writing that was part of sermon preparation that had been a part of my life since 1998. And I thought that people would take notice of my writing and this would lead to some other possibilities. Sadly, I have come to conclusion that isn’t going to take place.

Yes, my writing lead to my being asked to contribute to RedBlueChristian (link removed on 15 May 2015; the site is pretty much dead) as a voice for the liberal/progressive side of the spectrum. I liked that idea but I am not sure how many people actually visited that blog, especially since most of the contributors, including myself, put the same pieces on our own blog. I fear that this blog, which has not had much activity in the past six months or so, has run its course and will shortly disappear into the vastness of cyberspace.

I am thinking that I need to do something else with my writing. As I have written before, I never bought into the “publish or perish” model of academic success. I published research and other articles that I found interesting. Unfortunately, if you are not connected with a college or university and not putting out three or four manuscripts a year, you are not considered worthy of employment in today’s academic world. I have also come to the conclusion that my thirty years of experience, coupled with the Ph. D., are too much of an expense for many schools that need introductory chemistry instructors. It is far cheaper to take a rookie with a brand new degree and maybe a year or two of post-doctoral experience. And it is better if they can bring with them an active research program.

I am finding that even community colleges are seeking research oriented individuals, no matter if there are research facilities on the campus. Research means grants and grants mean money. If a professor can get grants for research, it means that part or all of his or her salary can be paid from the grant and this relieves the school from that burden.

The only problem is that the research I am interested in doing is related to chemical and science education. To too many “purists” this isn’t real research but something to dabble in late in life. The only problem with this attitude is that ignores problems with chemical education. Right now, it seems to me that our whole basic education process, not just the introductory chemistry process, is to give students a stack of material to memorize for a test and offer no connection between the course and the world. We see it in the vestiges of “No Child Left Behind” where all that matters is the test score. This is now very much a part of the mentality students bring to their college work. Having spent the better part of high school taking tests, they think that all they have to do is the same thing in college.

We have lost our focus on the purpose of education. No longer are we interested in developing thinkers and questioners; rather we want students to come out school blindly accepting authority and doing what the powers-that-be demand. For me, this is especially true in the area where science and religion overlap. There should be no conflict between the two areas but, unfortunately, too many individuals in one area distrust their counterparts in the other area and this is leading to some very bad times ahead. Our misunderstanding of climate change is just a tip of the literal iceberg; our lack of understanding about science in general is far greater than many people would suspect.

And the distrust that many people feel with regards to the church wouldn’t be there if religious authorities were more focused on their real job rather trying to keep their positions safe. There are times when I feel like Job and I want to question God. Some would say that is not possible but if it were not possible, then why is Job included in the present canon? Yes, I know that Job acknowledges he pushed the envelope but all he wanted was the chance to do so. And only a loving God would be willing to let one of His children push the envelope, don’t you think?

So I am going to take a break from blogging on a regular basis. I will continue to add pieces as I find the time and the need; if nothing else, the on-going and seemingly never ending presidential election process offers plenty of opportunities. I will add a piece each week that links my previous posts for the particular Sunday as well.

Now, the reference to Magi – when I wrote “To Return Home Another Way” I pointed out that while we today consider the Magi astrologers they were, in fact, some of the first scientists. I also pointed out that their lives were changed by that encounter with the Christ Child. I also pointed out that Isaac Newton was as much a theologian as he was a physicist. I discussed this in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith” and pointed out that other individuals such as Robert Boyle and Joseph Priestley were also involved in theology as well as science.

I think that I should spend some time this year considering the joint path of theology and science that I have developed over the years. I will, most likely, continue as a certified lay speaker and, on those Sundays, when I am on the road somewhere, you can expect my message to be posted. Each week, I will post a summary of the four or five pieces that I have written and posted over the past seven years or so.

And as I prepare them, pieces on science and religion or chemistry will appear. I also have some obligations that I have let slide and feel that now is the time to get caught up on that. These will also involve the joint areas of science and religion.

As we end 2011 and begin 2012, it is clear that God has been a part of my life. But I need to evaluate the path that I have been walking and see if there is another path that I should be taking in the coming months. Be assured that, just as it has in the past, this new path will be guided by the light.

“In Defense of One’s Faith”


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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In 2005, Lei Li sought political asylum in the United States because he felt he was being persecuted for being a Christian in his home country of China. However, the immigration judge who heard his case decided that Li did not answer certain questions about Christianity correctly. What is interesting is that while he was confused about certain items upon which he was quizzed, Li did say that Jesus did come to save people from sin, that he willingly died on the cross and that he rose from the dead on the third day and 40 days later ascended into heaven and that, in this way, he saves our lives.

I would think that, considering the situation in which he was living and attempting to be a Christian, to acknowledge what Jesus did for each one of us should have been sufficient reason to allow his request. Apparently the judge who heard the case in 2005 did not think so. Though it was denied in 2005 an appeals court has ruled that there is sufficient evidence to review this case and Li will receive a second hearing. (See http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/01/20/33481.htm for a discussion of this case and my thanks to John Meunier for bringing this to my attention – “Chinese Christian Grilled on Doctrine”.)

Now, the most obvious question that comes from all of this has to be, “how would you prove that you were a Christian?” And then, “how would you prove that you were a United Methodist?” Do you understand what it means to be a Christian? Do you understand what it means to be a member of the United Methodist Church?

I have come to the conclusion that many people may say that they are Christian but their understanding of what they say they are is limited. I know many who say that they are United Methodist but cannot give you a clear and concise statement of what it means to be a Methodist. This is especially true when it comes to the policies, rules, and regulations of the United Methodist Church.

There are also many today who say that unless you can quote the Bible specifically by chapter and verse, you are not a Christian. If that were the case, I would fail since memorization of Bible verses has never been one of my strong points. And while I marvel at those who are able to recite various verses of the Bible, I wonder if they understand what it is that they are saying.

From an educational standpoint, memorization is one of the lowliest skills in the learning process. You have to be able to analyze and interpret what you are reading to have a true understanding of what you have read.

The interesting thing in today’s society is the number of atheists who probably know the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity far better than many average Christians. Now, it is only my opinion but it would seem to me that it isn’t their knowledge of the Bible and Christianity that causes them to denounce Christianity or to say there is no God but rather how they observe others who proclaim with no uncertainty that they know the truth found through Christ and God.

If my faith is determined by what others believe or tell me to believe, I am going to have a very, very hard time defending my faith. It has always struck me that when someone tries to tell me that I must believe in a certain way or that one translation of the Bible is the true translation, we are looking at a situation very comparable to the time of the Pharisees and Scribes before Jesus began His ministry.

When I am told that there is only one interpretation to the words of the Bible, when I am told that what I read is the way it happened, no matter how implausible or illogical that may be, I have to wonder if they know what they are saying. When you make faith an inflexible and unchangeable to object, to be repeated by rote and without understanding, you risk losing your faith, not defending it.

Faith comes from within and is unique to each person. It evolves and changes through time. The changes may be clearer understanding of a passage or they maybe radical restructuring of one’s view of the world.

Micah does two things at the beginning of the Old Testament reading for today. First, he tells the people that God is challenging them to defend their faith and He makes it very clear that they need to be prepared to defend their actions.

God points out that what the people are doing as a sign of their faith shows little respect for God. The sacrifices and offerings that the people are making are little more than bribes, attempts to curry favor with God when their own lives speak of disrespect and a lack of knowledge about what God had done for them.

Ask yourself the same questions, “Is God impressed with the gifts we bring or the sacrifices we make?” Or would God rather that we live a life that expresses His presence in our lives as the later verses in today’s reading point out.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Gospel message, he points out that they have to see it in a new way. They cannot live the Gospel message in the way they used to live their lives because it wouldn’t work. The Gospel message wasn’t about one’s place in society or the air of authority that they presented; it was how the Gospel message changed their lives.

How are we to read the Gospel reading for today? If Jesus is teaching the people, if Jesus is teaching us, what exactly is He teaching? For some, the Beatitudes are a set of rules, perhaps difficult to understand and follow but a set of rules nonetheless and if one follows them, one gets into heaven. But as Clarence Jordan pointed out in his book Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God on earth is Jesus’ specific proposal to humanity. But it is the message of all four Gospels and not just the Sermon on the Mount that makes that proposal.

Time after time, in order to make His point, Jesus started His teaching with “You have heard it said but I say to you.” This was the challenge that He gave us so that we would be able to not only come to faith but grow in it as well.

There should only be one time in one’s life that they must defend their faith. Unfortunately there are those today who will demand that you defend it before that time comes. Can you, through not only your words but your thoughts, your deeds, and your actions provide the basis for a sound defense?

The interesting thing is that Jesus never asks you to defend your faith. He asks you to believe in Him and then follow Him. Your choice today is to decide if you shall do just that. If you do, then you will be able to the other. There, truly, is no option.

“What Is The Verdict?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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The events of the past few months have lead me to conclude that there is a crisis within the church. It is a crisis that transcends the nature of Christianity, crosses across denominational boundaries, and filters down to the local churches.

Christianity today, I think, is seen more often in terms of exclusion and exclusivity. It is seen as intolerant and vindictive. How many gays and lesbians will seek solace in a church when the public view of Christianity is that Christians are homophobic? We may have laughed when the Roman Catholic Church admitted that perhaps the church was wrong in punishing Galileo for his views on the structure of the solar system. We may have laughed because we knew that Galileo was right and the church was wrong. But even today, some Christians are pushing to limit the pursuit of scientific knowledge by restricting the teaching of the theory of evolution in the high school classroom. In one sense, I side with creationists because I think that the theory of evolution is incorrectly taught. But creating and teaching an alternative theory that violates the mandates of scientific thought is not the answer.

For some, religion of any kind is bad. Seen in the context of history, religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. But millions of lives have also been destroyed by political strife and by technology and science, yet few advocate getting rid of them. We may want to get rid of religion but we have to know what we seek to remove. If I think good is what benefits my friends and harms my enemies, then my religion may be dangerous. If, on the other hand, I come to think that good is what enables all intelligent and thinking beings to flourish, and the spiritual reality is supremely beautiful, wise, and compassionate, then my religion can be a tremendous force for human good. (From "The Good of Religion", published in Science and Theology News (November 2004) and reprinted in the February issue of Context.)

Somewhere along the line, the nature of the Gospel message has been removed from the nature of Christianity. No longer is a message of hope and promise for those in need; rather, it seems to be a message of greed and intolerance, of exclusivity and closed-mindedness. Jesus spoke of offering comfort and support to those with physical and spiritual needs; the churches of today, at least from the public perception of Christianity, no longer do that.

It is a problem that crosses denominational lines. We have heard the stories and the statistics about the decline in membership in mainline churches while at the same time there is growth and vitality in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Tony Campolo, the noted evangelist, pointed out mainline denominational leaders did not pay enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longed for a message of deliverance. These leaders often failed to give sufficient recognition to people’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism of modernity and addressed the painful social crisis of the times. Too often they overlooked the fact that people craved a feeling of connectedness with God that gave them the sense of being inwardly transformed. In the pews of mainline churches were men and women who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being "filled with the Spirit," but mainline theology and preaching marginalized such dimensions of Christianity.

The growth of the more evangelical churches can be seen in light of those comments. People want the experience and they get it in these newer, younger churches. But that is because these newer churches place a greater emphasis on individuals making a personal decision for Christ. And such decisions require a high level of commitment to participating in the mission of the church. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo)  For many young members of mainline churches, growing up in the church does not lead to such a commitment, so they leave seeking Christ elsewhere.

The problem for these newer churches is that they do not care what others may think of them. No church, mainline or new, conservative or liberal, fundamentalist or advanced in theology, should ever compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community in which it serves. It should, first, make sure that they preach the Gospel message and know what the Gospel means in which they believe. Second, we should care that people in the secular community see Jesus in us. I think, and I have said, that these newer churches will encounter difficulties in the coming years because, as people grow in their faith, they will have difficulty reconciling the views of the church with the Gospel. And it is this difference which has lead to the public perception of Christianity about which I have already spoken.

In the localized world of this century, another religious development is urgently needed — one that takes into full account the moral and scientific advances in the world since the 16th century, when the scientific revolution began. Religions that take this step will be self-critical, recognizing the uncertainty of all human knowledge and accepting that criticism is the most secure path to the truth. This does not mean that they must give up their central distinctive doctrines; there will always be diverse religious beliefs, and believers will have firm commitments to their centrally revealed or authoritatively defined truths. But even firm practical commitment can be allied with humility, with an admission that there are many things one does knot know and many things that are incompletely understood. Self-criticism is openness to learn from others, not a practical hesitancy about one’s own deepest commitments.1

The last crisis is at the local level and, I am not talking just about Tompkins Corners in this regard. It is a crisis which affects all small and rural churches, churches within the United Methodist Church under the "Town and Country" banner.

As Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.

These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.

The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?

The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we are so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.

With all these crisis and with all that is going on in the world, is there hope for the world? I think there is. The job of the church is to tell the truth; this is not an exceptional nation and we do not live in exceptional times, at least as the world describes it. Everything did not change on September 11th; everything changed on the day Christ was born more than 200o years ago. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when Christ was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rosefrom the dead to give us new life — it was then that everything changed. Christ is the exception that becomes the rule of history. We are made capable of loving our enemies, of treating the other as a member of our own body, the body of Christ. The time that Christ inaugurates is not a time of exceptions to the limits on violence, but a time when the kingdoms of this world will pass away before the unbreaking kingdom of God.

The "holy nation" of which the scriptures speak, Exodus 19: 6 (– And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a ‘holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.) and 1 Peter 2: 9 (– But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,), is not the United States or any other nation-state, but the church, the universal body that transcends national boundaries. If the church narrates history faithfully, it will resist the idolatry of the state and resist the politics of fear that makes torture unthinkable (the writer was speaking to the issue of the nomination and confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States). In concrete terms, this means refusing to fight in unjust wars, refusing to use unjust means, and refusing to be silent when the country drifts toward the institutionalization of "exceptional measures." (From "Taking Exception" by William T. Cavanaugh in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)

While the writer of those words was thinking of the atrocities in Iraq and the apparent callousness of the present administration towards our treatment of prisoners there and in Cuba, I think that his words are also applicable to the role and duty of the church in this country in terms of everyday life. We cannot, if we are Christians, stand by and let evil, in what ever form it may take rise up and take the place of good. Rather, we must stand firm, grounded in our faith and knowing that what we have been taught from birth and what we have come to believe is the truth – the Christ is the Lord and Savior.

Paul writes to the Corinthians about the nature of wisdom, of who is wise and who is foolish. He writes about who is called to be the representatives of Christ. It is important that we understand that God’s plan of salvation does not confrom to the world’s priorities. To many it seems foolish. But God used what one might consider foolish and despised in this world to reveal His truth, so that He alone would receive the glory. Otherwise the powerful would boast that they had found the truth. Instead, God sent His Son to become a humble carpenter and to die in the most despicable way, on a cross. Jesus’ life and death reveal God and God’s wisdom.

The Beatitudes place our lives in the context of the whole realm and scope and community of God’s love and justice. More description than instruction, more report than directive, they compose a litany in which all promises point to the same reality. Speaking of those who have already "crossed over," those who even now inhabit the kingdom of God, the first part of each beatitude identifies who is blessed and the second part names the group’s relationship to God. And the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless. A powerful antidote to the contrived happiness of consumerism and mindless entertainment of our day, they are good news to God’s people, the humble of the earth, the strong of heart, those who take refuge in God alone. Yet, this is the way it should be.

The prophet Micah said something quite similar using different words: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (From "Be happy" by Patricia Farris in "Living the Word" in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)

The passage from Micah can be seen as a courtroom scene in which the Lord lodges a legal complaint against Israel. The first two verses are where the Lord summons the people to listen to his accusation and to prepare their defense against the charges that will follow in verses 9 through 16. The Lord speaks in verses 3 through 5 poignantly reminding the people of his gracious acts in their behalf. In verses 6 and 7 Israel speaks and in verse 8 Micah responds directly to the nation, answering the questions of verses 6 and 7.

So, here we are, in God’s courtroom, facing the charges before us. Whether we care to admit it or not, the crisis of the church are our crisis. And how we respond will determine the outcome of the case. We can be like some who seek the glory for themselves. Such a choice will not gain us what we need.

But we can do what is asked of us, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? The jury will now begin its deliberations and the verdict will be known soon.



“The Trial We Have to Face”


This is the message that I presented at the Neon United Methodist Church (Neon, KY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.

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I thought that I would be able to avoid talking about trials and the legal process but after reading the passage from Micah for today, I don’t think that is possible. But it is not the trial and impeachment of President Clinton that is of importance to us today, but rather how we, the people have reacted.

It would seem that for all the hyperbole that has surrounded this event, the majority of American people really don’t care about the trial or the underlying issues that are accompanying the trial. In part, because the economy is doing well and we are at peace in the world, the people are content. It has always been said that when we are at peace or when the economy is sound, the people don’t really care much about what happens in Washington or with politicians in general. Yet, if either of the two should go bad, then we turn to the leaders and demand that they lead.

It is as if we really don’t care. Now, it should be said that I do think that President Clinton has done a great wrong but the judgement of his actions are not for us to decide. I also think that those in opposition to President Clinton long ago turned a noble legal process into a partisan political battle that can only hurt us in the long run. After all, it has long been noted that we cannot legislate morality, which is what President Clinton’s opposition is wanting.

So against this backdrop, I ask how should we live our lives? What will happen to us when some critical issue, something that truly affects us and our place in the world comes about? It is typical human nature to think that we can solve our problems with the skills and abilities that we naturally have. But in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that man’s wisdom, his intellect is nothing more than foolishness.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of the God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

Though our temptation is to always think that we can solve any problem that we might encounter through our own efforts, those efforts are to be doomed because of our own foolishness. And what are we to do when we encounter a problem that we cannot solve or overcome. A gentleman by the name of James Finley wrote

Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said: “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy besides its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us. (From Merton’s Place of Nowhere by James Finley)

In the Old Testament reading for today, Micah asks God, on the behalf of the people of Israel, what can we do? Remember that in this passage, God has essentially put the people of Israel and us on trial for having forgotten him, for having felt that it is possible to solve the problems they face without Him.

Listen to what the Lord says: “Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say,

Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundation of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.

“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.

I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.

My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

So what are we to do? We certainly don’t have the capability of sacrificing thousands of rams and we certainly cannot buy the amount of oil that would be necessary to be considered a worthy sacrifice. But that is the point, you see. We don’t have to make any sacrifices because the sacrifice was made for us. When Christ died on the cross, he died for our sins; Christ was the sacrifice. The think that our human wisdom cannot comprehend is that this is truly possible; tat the Messiah would be like us. In 1 Corinthians 1: 22, Paul writes “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. If you are expecting the Messiah as a worldly king to lead you, then someone who is hanged as a common criminal cannot be that person. And certainly from a logical standpoint, the true Messiah would have the power to prevent such a crucifixion from every happening.

But that is the hardest thing for us to realize; that Christ’s crucifixion changes the way we look at lives.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

God used that which would expect cannot be used in order to save us from our sins. And we have to understand that such an accomplishment goes beyond what our own intellectual ability is capable of doing.

Is this to say that we forgo intelligence and wisdom? I do not think so, for after all, if we do not use our wisdom and skills that God has given us, we would be like the third person in the story of the talents who hid the one talent that he had been given by his master.

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here it what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25: 24 – 30)

So if we forsake our intelligence, our skills, our abilities, we will lose that which we have and we will actually be worse off that before we started. So how then do we live? How is it that we can use our skills, our talents?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid out the guidelines for living. Now, each of the Beatitudes is not so much what we have to do but how we face life.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus started each of these lines with the word “blessed” because the word referred to the ultimate well being and distinctive joy we would share in the salvation of the kingdom of God. We are poor in spirit as contrasted with those are spiritually proud and self-centered. The kingdom of Heaven is our gift from God rather than something we could have ever earned.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Being meek means that we are humble before God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The heart is the center of our being and includes our mind, our will, and our emotions. If we allow things to cloud them, then we are unable to see God

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

In becoming a peacemaker, as far as we can, we reflect the character and nature of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is our goal, both as a present reality and for our future.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

If we allow Christ into our lives, the nature of our living changes. As it was noted, if our heart is pure, we can see God and we can talk with him.

We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit.

That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God.

Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God.

Only God can speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us.

When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here; a crisis of contemplation.

The Church wants to feel able to explain about here spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.

The revelation of a triune God in the unity of a single nature, the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason. It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.

It is so difficult to speak of these things. We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, “Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.”

And we can avoid pretending that knowledge of God could be the fruit of our gray matter.

Then, and only then, shall we be capable of prayer; borne to the frontier of our radical incapacity, which love has made the beatitude of poverty, we shall be able to invoke God’s coming to us, “Come, creator Spirit!” (From the God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

Communicating with God begins with prayer. In the monthly conference newsletter, there was an article about John Wesley and the role prayer played in his live. To Wesley, prayer was the central means to being near God on a daily basis. He felt, as I am sure you would agree, that neglecting daily prayer would leave us, in Wesley’s words, in a “wilderness state”, comprised of dryness and aimlessness.

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the following parable:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7: 24 – 27)

Like Hymn #368 tells us, our hope for the present and the future is built on nothing less that Jesus Christ’s righteousness. It is the rock of our foundation and though there may be storms all around us, we cannot be hurt. That foundation gets stronger every day when we live a life that is God-centered; one like Wesley that starts each day with prayer.

My friends, it is we who are on trial this day. And we may worry about what the verdict will be. As long as a person is self-centered and thinks that they alone can solve the problem, their lives are going to be devoid of any wellbeing, no matter how happy they appear to be. And when some crisis comes that extends beyond their capabilities, they will fall. But when we allow Christ to come into our live, when we allow God to be the center of our soul, such fears are gone because our wisdom and intelligence become tools for God to use in this world.

Are you prepared to receive the verdict of the court?

And How Shall You Speak?


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

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Starting Point


Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 1 February 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.

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For those who are not aware, there is a football game tonight. Now, were it not for the endless hype that proceeds this game, I would not even know which teams were playing. But, nonetheless, I imagine that the coaches at this moment thinking about what they will say to the teams just before they go out to play.

Actually, in my mind, the speech the coaches will say tonight is pretty much the same speech every coach gives in every sport just before the last game. It will not be much of an emotional speech (not withstanding the films of Knute Rockne’s speeches to his Notre Dame teams that we sometimes see) but it will be thoughtful. The words differ but the meaning is the same; the team has reached the goal it set for itself back at the beginning of the season. The coaches won’t speak of winning because that is still in front of them. Rather, they will speak about the hard work, sweat and practice that each player went through at the start of the season.

If we forget how we got to a point, then it is very difficult to value the reaching of that point. You cannot have a goal to reach unless you have a starting point. The Gospel readings for the last two weeks have marked the starting of Jesus’ public ministry. Two weeks ago, Jesus did his first miracle at the wedding in Canaan but that was an unplanned event and not known beyond the few involved in the serving of the wine.

But Jesus’ actions in the temple were deliberate and planned. Jesus fully intended that everyone know who he was and what he intended to do. It was the starting point in his ministry. One would think that Jesus meant for it to be a good start; when doing something monumental or seemingly important, you would like to do it in your home town or in a setting where you are the most comfortable. All you have to do is look at how those seeking to be president make their announcement; most times, it is in their hometown or at a place to which they have a connection.

Jesus was from Nazareth and so it was natural that he come to the temple where he grew up (note that those present knew who He was and who His father on earth was). It is hard to say whether Jesus knew what the reaction of those there that day would be; but the commentaries clearly suggest that He knew that any reaction would not be positive.

From the establishment point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone be the Messiah. And as time went by, Jesus actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the powers that be that Jesus was an imposter and charlatan.

The reaction of Jesus’ announcement that His ministry was a fulfillment of the law was an interesting one. For the most part, it was a reaction that we might find amongst the populace of today. We react to any overtly Christian message with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation should react any differently?

And that is where the problem lies for us today? We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a shirt of hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan)  Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide, we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light that he has lit up with the glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into the fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. While we can determine the intensity of the light, we cannot escape the fact that we are part of the witness, for better or for worse.

As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work. We are like Nehemiah, who claimed that he was only a boy and was incapable of doing things. We are like Moses, who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah who ran away from the call of the Lord, only to be swallowed by the fish.

It has long been noted that

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Thins like this — and they are constantly happening — gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

We don’t want the call because we feel that we cannot handle the challenge and we don’t feel that we have the skills that are needed. But it does not matter what our skills might be or how well we are prepared that will determine our success; rather, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it is our attitude that determines our success.

If we do not use the gifts that God has given us as He gave them to us, that is with love, then our gifts are wasted and unused. God intended that the gifts that He gave us were to be given away in love and not as an expression of power or might. To use them in any other manner, to bolster our own ego or power would destroy the gifts.

Paul insisted that love alone can fulfill the role of empowerment for it was the opposite of ego. Love will succeed because it turns outward, whereas ego turns inward. And it is the outward expression of God’s love that people will see and experience.

We are presented today with a unique opportunity. Today can be a new starting point in our own lives and how we experience and use God’s love. It can be the starting point for someone you encounter this week who is searching for the peace found through Christ. We have the chance this day and throughout the coming days to reach out to all in this community, both those members not here today and those new to the community.

Yes, it is going to be difficult; no one said it would not be. Yes, it is going to be frustrating. Yes, we are going to be rejected and not just once but many times. But the very people who He grew up with rejected Jesus in His hometown. Perhaps it was one of his school friends who was the loudest to jeer Him. But Jesus moved on, going to Capernaum and the next stop in His mission.

It was a mission that would ultimately lead to death on the cross. But His death on the cross would be our starting point of our journey through a life free from sin and death. Jesus would leave Nazareth but he would be free to preach the Gospel, free to preach the Good News that would free the slaves and bring life to the dead. He would preach the Word to a world that might not necessarily want to hear it.

But we have heard the word and now, like Jeremiah, we are asked to take the word into the world. This is our starting point; this is where Jesus’ ministry through us begins. Jesus is calling us; are we ready to start?

UMH #398 — "Jesus Call Us"