Three People


This will be the “back page” for the Fishkill UMC bulletin this Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent (Year A), 26 March 2017.  The reading is from Matthew 27: 33 – 44.


There were three men on that hill outside Jerusalem.  They hung on crosses where everyone could see them to remind the people there were rules to society and you paid the price when you broke the rules.

Two of the three committed crimes against people directly but the other’s “crime” was simply to question the roles of society, rules that excluded people because of actual and perceived differences.  To question the rules of society was considered as bad as robbery or murder.

We live in a similar society today.  There are those who suggest that there is a standard for society’s membership and if you don’t meet that standard, you don’t belong.  Many people want a society where obedience to the law is greater than concern for the people.

The one criminal echoed the views of society then and perhaps today that Jesus’ mission was to ensure that the status quo was maintained at all costs and that there were people tasked with that maintenance.  He and society see Jesus in terms of earthly power and might, of the rule of law without compassion.

But the other criminal understood that Jesus had sought to move beyond the “law”.  He understood that Jesus’ mission was never about him but about His Father and how people were treated in God’s Kingdom. And in understanding this, the second man asked for forgiveness.

Which of the two are you?  And what will you do?

Rage Against The System


A Meditation for 6 March 2016, the 4th in Lent (Year C). The meditation is based on Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32

I know how some people will read the Old Testament reading for today. Throughout the Exodus, God provided the people with the basic nutrition in the form of manna that they would need to survive. And now, having arrived in the Promised Land, the manna has stopped and the people must live on the food that was produced in Canaan. I am sure that some people will see this as a sign that government has no business helping people and that the people themselves must provide the food.

Okay, I will buy that argument but only if you remember that it is all the people who are involved in the production of the food and all of the people share in the bounty. And remember the statements elsewhere in the Old Testament that widows, the elderly, and orphans are to be cared for by society as a whole. Jesus will refer to that policy later on. And yes, Paul and Luke (in Acts) both pointed out that those who refuse to participate may be left out.

So, let’s break this down. Those who refuse to work (key word being refuse, not unable) will not get anything. If there are no jobs, then society has a problem. And society has a problem if it refuses to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

We cannot arbitrarily decide who is in our community, especially when we all share the same resources of air, water, and food. Paul continues this thought about the nature of society by noting that it isn’t what we see when we look at someone that counts, it is what is inside the person.

Somehow I think we are missing this point. There was a time when we were moving towards a society where everyone was equal, where as Martin Luther King said, one is judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. And yet it seems today that not only do we judge people by the color of the skin, we judge them by their sexuality, their economic status, and perhaps even the basis for their faith.

And the worst part is that you cannot look at someone and know what their sexuality is, what their economic status might be, or even what they may believe.

It comes down to this, at least in my own mind. It is one thing to have a good life that you have achieved on your own and without any help from anyone; that is the best possible outcome in today’s world. But there is something wrong with a system that allows a few to gather all they can at the expense of all the others and then work to keep for themselves and never let others even have a chance.

It seems to me that today many people are angry with the system in which we live. And their anger is directed towards those who, they feel, are the cause of the problems. But who benefits from all of this?

We are told that businesses cannot sustain a living wage, yet in places where there are living wages, businesses thrive. Why do the rich want to keep workers at the minimum wage? Why do businesses send jobs overseas? Could it be that they don’t want to pay the workers and would rather keep the money for themselves?

And these same people push their followers to rail against the welfare system. Let’s face it, nobody should be on welfare, at least as it is today. In terms of what one receives while on welfare today, you cannot survive. And if you are trying to support a family, it is even worse. And if you can find evidence that those on welfare have it better than you, please provide the evidence because, as far as I know, it doesn’t exist except in the clouded, deluded minds of opponents.

And while you are railing against the expense and fraud of the welfare system and calling it a waste of taxpayer money, where is your anger against the military-industrial complex that drives the budget of the Pentagon and Homeland Security Agency? If there is fraud on a massive scale in the various social agencies, then there must be extremely massive fraud in the Pentagon and Homeland Security. But no one says anything about those expenditures.

Casey Stengel once said that the secret of good managing was to keep the players who haven’t decided if you were a good manager away from those who were sure you were a bad manager. It strikes me that those in positions of power would very much want those who do the work to fight amongst each other in order to keep the pressure off them.

If those without have to fight amongst themselves for the few crumbs that fall from the master’s table, we will never have a free and equal society.

In a speech to the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968 (the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated), Robert Kennedy said,

When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

Senator Kennedy also noted that the lives of all those who live and share this planet are too short for the type of spirit which lead to the assassination of Dr. King to continue.

If our rage against the system is a rage against others, we will never change the system. If our anger is directed towards our brothers and sisters, how can we ever expect to change the system?

Did the older son in today’s Gospel reading rejoice when his younger brother came home? Or was he angry that his younger brother, having wasted his share of the family fortune, was now coming home to take his share as well?

Did not Jacob fear the reunion with his brother Esau? But did not Esau, for all the troubles that Jacob had caused, rejoice in the reunion of the family?

How did Joseph react when his brothers came to Egypt? Joseph could have easily had them all thrown into jail for what they had done to him (and I am sure that the laws of that time would have allowed such an action).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.

Personally, I think that we need to rage against the system, the system that says it is alright to hate someone because of the color of their skin or their sexuality or their economic status. We should rage against a system that turns brother against brother and country against country, solely for the dominance of the world.

We should be working for a system where everyone shares, where everyone shares in the produce of the world and no one has to suffer. We have been shown a way to achieve this and we have the ability and the skills to achieve it today.

We have a choice. We can continue on the path that we are walking, allowing the system in which we live to consume and destroy us. Or we can repent of our ways and our past and walk a new path, one in which we work to ensure that all who live on this planet share of God’s resources.

“A New And Darker Age”


A New and Darker Age

I haven’t been posting much lately. Let’s just say that a combination of writer’s block and personal issues have put some obstacles in my way. But things are slowly but surely improving and this should help resolve the personal issues. In the meantime, let’s see what we can do about chipping away at that writer’s block that has been hampering my creativity.

A note to begin this piece – I began thinking about this piece over a week ago. I noticed the other day that the three readings for March 30th, the 4th Sunday in Lent (Year A) would have fit rather nicely into the framework of this piece.

Yesterday was April 4th and it is a day that, while not necessarily a national holiday, should be a day in which we stop and contemplate the direction that we are taking. As I hope you, the faithful reader, know, I am a 1968 graduate of Nicholas Blackwell High School in Bartlett, Tennessee. The school is now more formally known as it always has been, Bartlett High School, and it is a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. That combination of time and place should give you some indication of my thoughts concerning April 4, 1968. If not, please revisit “Where Were You On April 4, 1968?” and On This Day”.

As I wrote then, I think we have turned away from the direction we as a country were taking back then and everything that we were working for then has disappeared. And that is what lead me to write this piece.

If you are like me, the “Dark Ages” were 1) a period of time studied in our high school history class and 2) a period of time where nothing much happened. Wikipedia indicates, in effect, that this was a period of time when human creativity and innovation slowed down. Fortunately it did not come to a complete stop.

The problem with this view of the “Dark Ages” is that it is primarily a Western viewpoint, one that only applies to Europe. Cultures in the Middle and Far East were alive and very productive. This difference in our thinking and actual reality is what I choose to call a disconnect in our thinking.

If every culture on the planet had stopped thinking and being creative back then, it is highly unlikely we would have seen much in the way of advancement. The Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment surely would not have taken place if every thinker on the planet had stopped thinking.

Now, from some of the readings I have done over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that one reason that Western civilization was able to leave the “Dark Ages” was because the churches, monasteries, and convents of the time became the repositories of books and knowledge. Thus, the resources were in place to begin anew.

But as I look around today I am wondering if we are not entering a “Newer and Darker Age”. It has been developing for some time know as our educational processes have moved away from creativity and innovation and our social and political interactions are becoming more and more divided and polarized.

Our vision is no longer beyond the horizon but more and more about what is behind us. My generation was the generation that should have gone from the moon to Mars and beyond. Yet, we have not been to the moon since 1972 and though we did have a presence in space for some thirty years, it is almost non-existent. With the exception of the Mars rovers and some deep space exploration we have virtually no presence in space and, despite some grandiose rhetoric, no plans to return.

How can you see beyond the stars if you not in the stars to begin with?

We, as a society, are unwilling to fund programs for space exploration or the educational processes needed to prepare people to think about exploration. In fact, we as a society seem quite unwilling to fund any program that benefits society but we willing over fund programs integral to the military-industrial complex, programs that are dedicated to the destruction of society in some manner.

Here again, I see a disconnect in our thinking. Many people today call for smaller governments and less spending yet are unwilling to touch those larger program. And while person after person speaks of seeking individual liberties, they are unwilling to help others find the liberty of which they so fondly speak.

How can you say you are for freedom when you don’t want others to others to share in your freedom?

Forty years ago we began to realize that we, the inhabitants of this planet, were merely tenants with limited lease. We began to realize that we were destroying the only home we had. Yet, in that same period of time, we have failed to care for this planet, acting as if we were the owners and nothing was wrong. We see the evidence but because it calls for us to do things we would rather not do, we claim the evidence is false and that everything is fine.

If nothing else, the penalty for failing to teach how to think and be creative means that we cannot find solutions to the problems that we face because we are incapable of thinking outside of the box we have placed ourselves in.

Perhaps what bothers me more than anything else is that it is the people of the church today who are pushing us further and further into this new dark age, not pulling us out of it. The people of the church protected knowledge so that we could know the truth; now it seems that it is the people of the church who want to destroy knowledge for fear that the truth will be known.

I have chosen to be a Christian because I have come to understand how Christ came to give us freedom and hope. Yet, I know so many others who call themselves Christian but are unwilling to help others find that same freedom and hope.

It was the people of the church who spoke out against injustice and repression but know it seems so many people of the church are leading the movement towards injustice and repression.

Understand that my thoughts are in terms of Christianity; but other religions are just as guilty of same reversal of thoughts over the years.

There are too many people who seek to hold onto a view of the past as the way to the future, who seek to limit the opportunities for others and claim all the rewards for themselves. I worry that if these few individuals are able to accomplish this, by limiting creativity and innovation, by shackling people with economic and social chains, then we will truly enter into a newer and darker age. And because the darkness will be worldwide, it will be very difficult for civilization to continue.

It has been postulated that there was a period of time in this planet’s past when it was completely covered with ice. But there was still some life in the oceans and deep within in the core of the planet was a source of heat. Over time, the magma in the core was able to come to the top and crack through the ice, ultimately melting the ice and beginning a new period of geological and biological activity on this planet.

It is my hope that there are enough people who see the coming days as a warning and are able to work towards enlightenment, not darkness, justice rather than injustice, freedom rather oppression, and hope not despair. It is my hope that when you get done reading this piece, you will take a few moments to think, really think, about where you are and what you can do to change the world around you. Perhaps it will take nothing more than saying hello to someone to make the change that allows the light to become brighter.

“The Decision We Must Make”


I am at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY this Sunday morning, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013). The service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. The Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32. Part of this message was given at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, on Saturday, March 9th and entitled “The New Paradigm”.

When I began preparing this message I thought about what I wanted to title it. For me, the title is the key thought that I want to express in the message and also perhaps link the three Scripture readings together.

At the beginning this proved to be a little difficult because there seemed to be no link between the three readings. But the link would appear and I would also find the words that would be the focus of the message I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday.

The link appeared and the title came to me when I saw that “Amazing Grace” was one of the hymns that we could use for this Sunday. The popularity and power of this hymn is such that Bill Moyers once did a one-hour documentary on the song (see “http://www.pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_es_religious.html”) and its popularity as a folk song. The song speaks to me, in part, because the melody comes from our Southern heritage. But it is the story behind its writing that speaks to the power of God’s Grace and what it means for us. It is a story that many people do not know.

John Newton was the author of the hymn and he was a British ship captain in the mid and late 18th century. Like so many other ship captains, he was involved in what was politely called the triangle trade, of sailing from England to Africa with a load of rum which would be sold there. From Africa, he would sail to the Americas with a cargo of slaves to be sold. He would pick up a cargo of sugar in the Americas to be shipped to England and made into rum which would complete the triangle and begin the process anew.

It was a very lucrative business and John Newton became very wealthy. But on one of those sailing trips, the storms that define sailing in the Atlantic were far rougher than normal (keep in mind that it was similar storm that caused John Wesley to begin having doubts about his own life and mission). The severity of the storms began to give John Newton cause to think about his life and what he was doing. When Arlo Guthrie sings “Amazing Grace” at one of his concerts, he tells the audience that John Newton turned his shipped around and began a new life.

However, it does not appear that this is what he did. But it was clear that he began to question the morality of a business that involving the selling and transportation of other humans and he began to change his life. He would leave the sailing business altogether and ultimately become a vicar in the Church of England, a leading anti-slavery advocate, and a writer of many hymns, some of which are in our own United Methodist Hymnal today.

The one question that we might ask today is “which son in the parable of the lost son was John Newton?” Was he the younger son, who took everything he had and squandered it away, whose life was such that he was reduced to eating corn cobs? Or was he the older son, who stayed home and worked for his father and lived the proper and correct life?

And how should we see our own experiences in this story and in the story, perhaps, of John Newton?

The New Paradigm

As some of you know, I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. In my studies, I had to take a course in the philosophy of science and I was introduced to Thomas Kuhn and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this book, Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift.”

I happen to think that this is one of the most abused phrases in the English language today. Everytime someone makes some sort of change in something, they refer to it as a “paradigm shift.” But change alone cannot do that. What Kuhn meant by a paradigm shift was a complete change in thinking.

Too many people today think that any change in the way we do things, especially if it is radical or steps outside the normal operation, is a paradigm shift. The church today, be it the church in general, a specific denomination, or a specific church within a denomination, is faced with the problem of reaching out to many people. So they seek to be “hip” or “cool”, offering upbeat music with guitars and drum or having their pastor wear outlandish Hawaiian-style shirts and blue jeans while preaching from a pulpit-less stage. If you see some of these pastors today, look closely at the stage and tell me where the cross is; I don’t think you will find it because, as I have written and others have noted, the cross scares people away from the church. So churches have come up with ways to bring people back to the church. But I will tell you this; it does not matter if you have the hippest or coolest church in town and your pastor really digs what’s happening, if the message that the church gives is the same old tired message, it won’t work. It doesn’t do any good to change the appearance of things if the thinking behind the changes is the same old stuff.

Consider the following if you will and when you answer the question, think of the answer a child would give – does the earth move?

Now, hopefully we know that the earth is moving around the sun and the solar system that it is a part of is moving through the universe. But when we see the clouds above us move or we watch the stars move across the nightly sky we can conclude that the earth is stationary and it is the universe that moves around us.

Early astronomers were so convinced of this that our first model of the solar system placed an immovable earth at the center. As it happened, this model worked quite well for over 1000 years or so. But as we gained new information about the stars and the planets, it began to run into difficulty. To keep the earth-centered model with all of the information that we were gathering required constant tinkering with the model. All this did was make the model more and more complicated and more complex.

When this happened, the astronomers of that time had to make a decision. It was either try to force the model to work, despite the evidence that it wasn’t, or step back and create a newer model. And this, of course, is what was done; led by the work of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo, astronomers created the sun-centered model of the solar system.

The only way that this model could have been created was to step back and re-think the solution, not merely make force the old solution to work. This is what Kuhn termed a paradigm shift, a changing not in the way we do things but in the way we think about the solution. Such a change is often met with resistance and, some times, hostility. We are quite aware that the 15th century church saw this change in the solar system as an attack on the church. And we know how that turned out.

It was noted in the Gospel reading for this morning that the Pharisees and other religious authorities were very upset because Jesus ate with the sinners and others with questionable reputations. One can understand why; it violated every known rule of social behavior. And it seems that Jesus gave little thought to the purity codes that dictated one’s life in those days.

The mere act of eating with those who were sick or through some action of life were deemed ritually unclean made Jesus and those who sat with the sinners also unclean. And if you were unclean and failed to follow the proper procedures to regain your cleanliness, you would not be allowed to enter the Temple.

And if you could not enter the Temple, how would you ever hope to meet God? In being with the sinners and telling them there was a new way to meet God, Jesus was striking at the very core of religious life in Israel.

The people of that time had been brought up with the notion that only a select few could meet God. And one might hope to meet God if they followed the regimented life of laws and regulations that were imposed on them and enforced by the Pharisees and other religious authorities. Yet here was Jesus telling them there was another way. How many times did Jesus say that when you were with Him, you were with the Father? How many times did Jesus say that the way to the Father was through Him?

Jesus made it very clear that there was a new process in place and this, to me, was a very clear paradigm shift.

The parable of the lost son makes this clear, I think. There are those who are like the younger son, having lost everything (perhaps not physically but most certainly spiritually) and cut off from life.

There was more to the story than the younger son eating the corn cobs that were given to the pigs to eat. The very fact that this son was working with pigs made him an outcast in his own society. His contact with the pigs would have caused his family, his friends, and all in society who knew him to shun him. He couldn’t get anything else to eat because society had cast him aside and wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

But there are many today who are like the older son, the one who stayed home and dutifully did all that was asked of him. They get angry when they don’t get the same banquet that the younger brother got.

But those who react like the older brother don’t get the point. Doing everything by the book doesn’t mean that you get God’s Grace. If you only see Jesus Christ with your mind, you might miss Him. You have to see Him as much with your heart as you do your mind.

And here Paul’s words ring true. Our world is a different world when it is viewed in the light of Christ. It is what is inside our hearts that counts, not what is on the outside.

The Pharisees and authorities saw Jesus eating with sinners but they did not see what was happening to them. What did they discuss with Jesus? What questions did they ask Him? Our Scripture reading tells us that they listened intently; I am sure that Jesus, as a Master Teacher, listened to their cares and concerns as well.

He spoke then and He speaks today of a Hope and a Promise. But it was a Hope and a Promise that could only come when one changed their life.

I sometimes think that the greatest challenge we face today is not the world outside the church walls but what goes on inside. There are so many people who live a life like that of the older brother or the Pharisees. But there are many who live the life of the younger brother. When you think of it, neither life is really worth the living.

There is a new life in Christ. The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the end of the manna that feed the Israelites throughout the Exodus. But now the manna no longer comes and the people must work for their food. We see so many people who expect God to give them everything they have (and it does not matter whether one takes on the role of the older brother or the role of the younger brother) and that is all that they do. If we have truly come to Christ, we must do Christ’s work.

Borrowing an idea expressed by John Meunier, “if the people are faithful, God will see them through the struggle, but they must exert themselves and they must show their faithfulness.” (from “Reading Joshua 5: 9 – 12”)

Repentance is the one true paradigm shift because one is to give up all of the old ways and take on the new life in Christ.

The call to repentance is not for one group of people but for all people. And one group cannot say to another, “you must repent but we don’t have to.” The contradiction of that statement should be self-evident.

And now I return to John Newton and the storm that caused him to change his life. Perhaps I should have entitled this message “The Storms in Your Life”, as I did once before. But there is a time when you will have to make a decision. For some it is a decision to come to Christ; for others who have come to Christ, it is a decision to now go out and live for Christ, to show others what Christ can do.

No one can make that decision for you; it is one you must make for yourself. The Gospel message is a prophetic message and it is a radical message; it is about who has the power in your life. When do not have to commit your life to Christ but then who has the power? There are forces in place that will enslave and destroy you. But a commitment to Christ breaks those bonds of enslavement and destruction and frees you.

The decision one has to make is very clear; are you prepared to make it?

A Door or a Window?


Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 3 April 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.

There were times when I was growing up when all the members of my family (my parents, brothers, sister, and the dog) would be watching television together in the family room. Invariably, one of my siblings or me would get up and walk or stand in front of the television. One of my parents would the invariably say “you make a better door than a window” and we would, sometimes immediately, get out of the way.

Windows are meant to let the sunlight into a house and let the people see what’s outside. Those who built sod houses on the prairies of this country would write about the excitement of obtaining real glass windows that would open up the interior of their homes. The artistry of the magnificent stain-glass windows was only secondary to the need to find ways of illuminating the great cathedrals built in the early days of Christianity. Doors were meant to give access to the outside (my parents were also fond of reminding us when we held the front or back door of the house open too long that we weren’t heating or cooling the outside; and for the record, my parents were saying this to us, even when we were grown-ups, not just as children in the fifties.)

We are meant to use windows and doors in our lives. Windows let us see what is outside the walls of our lives; doors let us explore that world. The problem is that not only can we see what’s outside and use doors to go outside but what is ever “out there” has the opportunity to enter into our carefully crafted lives. And because things outside can come in, we have chosen to close and lock our doors and cloud our windows and shutter them so that nothing can enter our lives. But when we do that, we find ourselves locked in prisons of our own making.

We feel safe inside this sanctuary that we have made, safe and secure that nothing outside the walls can harm us. But because the windows have been clouded and the shutters drawn, we have no clue what is actually out there. The world is changing and we have no way of knowing what is happening.

There was a time when safe and well-built sanctuaries saved mankind. The monasteries of the early Middle Ages were repositories of the accumulated knowledge of mankind and their thick walls prevented the destruction of much of that knowledge that became known, very appropriately, as the Dark Ages. I see in society today a very similar situation except that no knowledge is being protected as the darkness of ignorance and apathy slowly covers the land and the minds of the people. And sad to say, some of that ignorance and apathy comes from within the church. Was the fabled library of Alexandria not destroyed by religious authorities who were convinced that their Holy Scripture contained all the information that was needed and other books were superfluous?

Why is it that even today religious and political authorities seek to stifle scientific and free inquiry with claims of theological superiority? Is the foundation of faith so weak that it can only be supported by book burnings and attempts to control the minds of the people? Are its foundations so weak that democracy will crumble if free thought grows unfettered across the landscape?

We may marvel at the reading of stories such as the one in the Gospel today for we have a slightly better understanding of what causes sickness and death. We cannot even imagine that sin would have been the cause of one’s blindness, sickness or death. But we still believe that a person with AIDS can somehow inflict us with that disease by just looking at us. Even worse, there are those who believe that allowing a homeless person into our church will cause each of us to lose our homes and be cast out on the street. And while we may not wish to admit it, we still believe that the wealthy became rich because God has smiled on them and the poor are poor because they have led sinful and evil lives. We are blind to oppression and exploitation that has taken place over the past few years because we have clouded our windows and closed the shutters.

Let’s admit it. We fear the outside. Once we ventured forth from our shores, first from Europe to America, and then from the coast of America into the vast expanse of its interior. Each time, there were tails of monsters and unbelievable creatures ready to destroy us. We watched as ships sailed over the horizon and were convinced that they had fallen off the edge of the world. And from the days that we became conscious creatures on this planet, we have looked to the stars. Once we desired to go to the stars. So we began to make small steps, by sending people into orbit around the earth and then to the moon. But as the cost of these small steps rose and competed with the money needed to fight wars on this planet, we cut back. And now we have at least one and possibly two generations of children who have never seen a person walk on the moon.

We have shuttered our windows and we have closed the doors. We seek bold and brave leaders to make sure that the shutters are sound and the locks in the doors are strong. We welcome the rhetoric of the brave warrior, be they male or female, but we fail to see the lies and deceit in their heart. We hear their words encouraging each of us to be like them and to support them but because we cannot see and because we do not want to go outside, we do not see that their words and their actions are designed to make their homes safe and secure while destroying ours.

When Samuel went looking for the new king, the one who would replace Saul, he met David’s brothers. Each of the brothers was strong and handsome and brave but their outside belied what was inside of them. And God was more interested in what was in the heart and soul of the person than he was what was on the outside. Are we not like that today, seeking leaders because of what is on the outside and caring very little for what is on the inside?

When John Kennedy proposed that we go to the moon forty some years ago, he said that we did it even though we knew that it would be hard. I don’t hear that today. I hear that we can’t do things because they are hard and that we shouldn’t even try unless we can do it easy and quick and cheap. We would much rather go to war than seek peace; we would rather let people go hungry or homeless or sick because it is easier to do so than spend the money to insure that all people get feed or that homes can be built and people can have jobs that will allow them to afford housing today. Our answer is the 21st century equivalent to why people got sick in Jesus’ time – they are sinners. People got sick back then because they were sinners; people are poor today because they are sinners.

We have closed the door of opportunity and we have no desire to see what is outside the window in our sanctuary.

But it need not be that way. Paul reminds us that there is a different world out there if we allow Christ into our lives. It is a well-lit world in which evil dies because it cannot live in such a world. But it is not an easy world to live in. For in the light of Christ, we see the world and all that is there. We see what we must change. It is not always a pretty world and when we open the door to cautiously step outside, we run the risk of letting the world into our lives.

Many years ago, I received a book (Faith in a Secular Age) that spoke of the problem of the church in today’s world. It spoke of the church that sought to protect itself from the outside world by building walls and shutting its doors and shuttering its windows. It was a safe church but a church without any effect on the world. A former pastor of mine has pointed out that the church of the 21st century will be a church outside the walls of the sanctuary.

Last week, I wrote of the feeding ministry that we have started at our home church (see “How Long?”). It has been an interesting ministry. There are some who say you take the trash out of the church, not bring it in. And yet, they will come to the kitchen table and eat the food that we serve. There are some who will not eat this food because somehow food cooked for the poor is of a different quality than food cooked for Christians.

This past weekend we saw what happens when you open the doors and venture into the community. A young woman, abandoned by her family and perhaps society, came to the kitchen for breakfast and to see if we might offer her some work that would count towards community service and allow her to possibly enter into a drug-rehabilitation program. We found a way to give her some work which she did very well. But, perhaps more importantly, we connected her with other people in the church who understood what she was going through and were willing to walk with her this week as she sought to improve her life.

I cannot tell you today what the outcome of this will be. I hope that this young lady will return to the church as part of the covenant that was made this weekend. I will know this weekend when my schedule brings me back to the church. But I know this. If we were to have closed our minds, we would not have seen the opportunities that lie before us. If we were to have closed the doors and said that “her kind” were not welcome, we might have lost her.

It isn’t a matter of being a door or a window. It is a matter of opening the windows to let the sun shine in and the Son shine out and to have the doors open, not only so that people can come in but that so that doors are open for the opportunities that come your way.

“Seeing Things?”


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners (NY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2005.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.

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When I first read the Scriptures for today, I tried to think of something witty and funny to use as an opening. But it just didn’t come to me. Something pushed me to read the book "The Four Witnesses" by Robin Griffith-Jones. This is his description of how the four Gospels came into being, describing the nature of the church and the world after Christ’s death.

In this book, he calls the author of the Book of Revelations John the Seer. Now, there are some traditions that say that John the Disciple, considered the author of the Gospel of John, also wrote the Book of Revelations. The only problem with this thought, according to some scholars, is that the time gap between the two books is a bit too big and it would have been highly improbable for the same individual to write both books.

But it is more important that we understand why the Book of Revelations was written, not necessarily who wrote it. John the Seer, as Griffith-Jones calls him, is writing and warning about the dominance of the Roman Empire in the world around him. He sees a government taking on the status of the church, demanding the same degree of attention that individuals give God, and the people willingly allowing this to happen.

I bring this up because many today see the Book of Revelation as a description of the downfall of society. But I see a society where the church is trying to become the government and demanding that society simply follow the line that they, the church leaders dictate, much as the Roman emperors dictated the line that the people of John’s time should follow.

Look around and what do you see? I see a nation that calls itself Christian yet uses war as the answer to violence and terrorism. What are the causes of terrorism and violence in the world today? Can war and more violence end violence? Was not the Gospel message of Christ a message of hope and peace? There are those who say wars are inevitable but is any war justifiable simply in the name of retaliation? How can a war be just if innocent people die?

The causes of injustice and terrorism are found in poverty, homelessness, repression, and prejudice. But both sides do little to eliminate the causes. If my cause requires poverty for justification, then perhaps I need to keep people in poverty. But that was not God’s way (as I interpret the Bible and I could be wrong) and it was not Jesus’ message.

I see a world in which millionaires and multi-millionaires swindle millions and pay little for their crimes. When they do serve a prison sentence, it seems to be a short one and they are free to resume their lives. Yet, when a person learns a trade in prison so that they can be productive when they complete their sentence and have paid their crimes, they are barred from using the trade that they learned because they served time in prison. (The New York Times, Friday March 4, 2005, front page of Section B)

I see political leaders invoking the name of God in every message but then ignoring the poor and homeless. I hear politicians say that we need to involve our faith more and more in dealing with the problems of society; yet, when the time comes to put these words into action, there is very little action to back up the words. The gap between the rich and the poor becomes greater each year but the response of our politicians is take from the poor, leaving them behind, and giving to the rich. Did not Jesus ask us to take care of the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, and the ignored members of society? How can we claim that we are Christian when we do not do those things?

I see church leaders demanding the placement of the Ten Commandments in public places but not as a reminder of how society was developed but rather as icons to be worshipped. I always find it interesting that those individuals who want to keep the stone monuments forget that God, in the Ten Commandments, warned against worshipping other gods or images. Remember that the 2nd Commandment says "You shall have no other gods before me and the 3rd Commandment says "You shall not make for yourself a carved image. Yet, that seems to be what church leaders want today.

I listen to church leaders and other arbitrators of morality complain about the nature of cartoons on television today, claiming that they are advocates of gay lifestyles; yet they say nothing about the garbage that adults watch on television today. It seems that it is perfectly all right to denounce certain shows because "liberal" media produces them but shows produced by "conservative" media are acceptable, even if they are the very epitome of bad taste and questionable morality.

It always amazes me that people speak of these being the end times, the times of Jesus’ Second Coming. Yet, if Jesus were here today, the people today would be like the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament reading, and would call Him a charlatan or a fake. Would we know it was Jesus if we saw Him on the street today?

This was the problem that faced Samuel in the Old Testament reading for today. The people of Israel had literally demanded from God a king. When the nation of Israel was first established, God through the early prophets made it plain to the people that they would not need a king, because they were His subjects. But the other countries around Israel had a king, so the people of Israel demanded a king.

God felt that if He could find someone righteous, then it might be possible for a king to rule. That is why in the earlier chapters of 1 Samuel that Samuel anoints Saul as king of Israel. Saul was God’s chosen representative. But Saul let the power of the office corrupt him and it was necessary for another king to take his place. But who would it be?

The Old Testament reading for today describes God telling Samuel to find Jesse of Bethlehem because one of Jesse’s sons is to be the next king of Israel. But none of the sons that Jesse presents to Samuel is worthy of God’s anointing. Though they may have presented external characteristics that would have been find for an earthly king, they did not have the internal characteristics that are not always obvious to those on earth but are clearly evident to God. It was the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David that God wanted to serve as king.

How often in our own lives are our selections of people and things done on the basis of external values and not what is internal? The blind man at the pool could not see Jesus but he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. The Pharisees and Sadducees could see Jesus but could not tell that He was the Messiah.

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly dark. It is a darkness created in part because others have come to dominate our lives and we have allowed them to do so. It is also a world of darkness because we have not allowed Christ to be the light in our life that He can be.

Samuel was stuck for a while when he went out to find Saul’s replacement, in part because he was stuck in the past. He looked to the old ways for new solutions; this can never work. Rather than living in the past and in the darkness of the past, we should move forward, into the light of the coming kingdom. We should be exposing the darkness, not letting it creep over the land. But we do not.

We should be weeping over the state of world, national and local affairs. But instead, many people have picked up the sword of Constantine, a wicked instrument of triumphalism.

We need what John Howard Yoder calls the "politics of Jesus" and what Stanley Hauerwas calls the "peaceable kingdom." Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says it well: "From now on, all that can be said of God’s action in the past or the present must pass under the judgment of this fact (referring to the cross)." He also says, "God is known in and by the exercise of crucifying compassion; if we are like him that, we know him." These theologians are calling us out of the old era of warfare, the Saul era, and into the Shepherd’s era of justice, peace, and love.

"Justice", a word that is fast losing its robust Christian profile, marks this future kingdom. It has, as Flannery O’Connor said of another word, "a private meaning and a public odor." Some use the term in the sense of "retribution" (bring them to justice), and some in the sense of rectification" (give the victims and the marginalized an equal opportunity). Neither of these ideas is adequately Christian. The Christian concept of "justice" is "what is right before God and others." And, according to Jesus’ own creed, what is "right" is to love God and to love others. (Mark 12: 29 – 31)  In the Christian sense, justice means providing our world an opportunity to love God and to love others.

We need to hear the words of the apostle Paul, who said, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light." We need a renewed commitment to listen to Jesus Christ, to let him be the good shepherd who can dispel the darkness of war and bring in the Shepherd’s era. Peace and justice embrace one another because they will be empowered by love on a day when, to quote Samuel Johnson, "we shall not borrow all our happiness from hope." (Adapted from "Move On" by Scot McKnight in Living the Word, Christian Century, February 22, 2005)

In renewing our commitment to Christ, we change how we see things. Instead of seeing the world, we see the Spirit. Instead of just knowing of God, we allow God to become a part of our lives. Instead of just seeing the life around us, we experience a new life. The Book of Job speaks of this change that we seek. At the end of the book, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, he exclaims, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee." (Job 42: 5, cited in Meeting Jesus Again by Marcus Borg) That change – from having heard about God with one’s ears to beholding God with one’s eyes – is what Jesus is about.

As you go through the coming days, as the time comes closer to that moment in time that we call Calvary, you are challenged to open your hearts so that you can truly start seeing things, things that will change your life.


“The Choices We Make”


This is the message that I presented at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday of Lent, 14 March 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 16: 1 – 13, Ephesians 5: 8 – 14, and John 9: 1 – 41.

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About eleven years ago, I got the chance to go through the Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in the Great Smokies National Park. This was special for me because a number of years before that, my family had gone there but there were so many people that it was almost impossible to appreciate the beauty of the park and to just even stop. When I came back, it was in early March and I drove through just after sunrise. I still remember the crisp, cold morning as I could look over the hills of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

I also had the opportunity to walk on the portion of the Appalachian Trail that passes through Newfound Gap. The Appalachian Trail is a hiking path that runs along the Appalachian Mountains from north Georgia to Maine. I have wanted to hike this trail since I was about 12 and while this brief encounter with the trail in 1988 doesn’t quite mean that I have done so, to spend a few moments on the trail was very special. I still want to go back and walk a longer distance on the trail and perhaps someday even walk the whole length of the trail as others have done.

There are a lot of people who wish that life were like the Appalachian Trail, a long journey with a beginning and an end and very few deviations along the way. The Pharisees in the Gospel reading today were like that. They believed that the blind man Jesus had healed was blind because of something he had done, some sin he had committed. Their belief in someone sinning caused them to believed that somehow one could sin while still in the womb or even be punished for sins in a previous life. This idea is not limited to the time of Jesus and the Pharisees.

When John Wesley first began to preach the Gospel, he struggled with why people were in torment because of society. The development of the Methodist Church, later the United Methodist Church, came as a result of Wesley trying to answer two questions: What was the nature of salvation and what was the role of the church in dealing with society’s problems.

England in Wesley’s time was undergoing a series of rapid changes brought about in part because of the Industrial Revolution. We tend to think of the Industrial Revolution in a positive light because it enabled more people to work, earn more money, and, in general, improve their way of life. At the beginning, however, that was not always the case. For many workers, the pay was low and there were no retirement or health care plans. Because there were no child labor laws, it was not surprising to find children as young as 10 working in the factories. People worked from sunup to sundown six days a week and dare not take a day off for any reason because they were likely to get fired. If they owed someone money, they were likely to be put in a debtor’s prison until their family could get the money to pay the debt. Alcoholism was not uncommon. Welfare was dependent on the whim of the rich and the patience of the poor.

Against that background was the belief that being poor was a fate given to you by God and there was very little you could do about it. If you were poor, it was because you lead a sinful life and were to be pitied. To this, Wesley responded

"Has poverty nothing worse in it that this, that it makes men liable to be laughed at?…Is not want of food something worse than this? God pronounced it as a curse upon man, that he should earn it "by the sweat of his brow." But how many are there in this Christian country, that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live at ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give! Were it not that he is restrained by an unseen hand, would he not soon "curse God and die"? O want of bread! Want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself? I am astonished it occasions no more than heaviness even in them that believe." (From John Wesley’s sermon "Heaviness Through Manifold Temptations")

Wesley asked, "How should the church respond?" There were those who felt that the troubles of society at that time – the terrible working conditions, the lack of care the upper classes showed for those less fortunate, the terrible health conditions, the alcoholism – were an indication that God had lost faith in the people on earth.

It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that could make that change. It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school). It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time. Some argue that Wesley’s concerns and actions were one reason why there was no social unrest in England at that time.

The challenge that we face, the choice that we must make is how we are going to react to what is going around us. As we progress into the next century, be it next year or the year 2001, I think we are still a society that feels that poverty and disease are inflicted upon us and that it is up to those who are the victims to seek the solutions for their problems.

I am not saying that they shouldn’t try to solve their problems but rather that sometimes they cannot do it alone. After all, Jesus directed the blind man to go to the pool at Siloam and wash his eyes before he could see. But He also said that

“but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

We are faced with choices, just as Samuel was faced with the choice of finding a replacement for King Saul. Samuel’s first choice was David’s oldest brother, Eliab, who appeared to have the proper characteristics.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider the appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The important thing that we have to consider is not what we see on the outside but what it is in the person’s heart. The Israelites had found out the proverbial hard way that though Saul looked and acted like the King that they desired he did not have the disposition or character necessary.

But when we are faced with a choice, we have to be willing to make the choice. Samuel listened to the Lord in finding the next King for Israel, even if he did not fit the image that everyone had in mind for a king.

So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features.

When Jesus challenged the vision of the Pharisees, they could not see the world as it was but only in terms of their limited vision.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

But the man who was blind saw Jesus in an entirely different light. As the Pharisees questioned him, each time making it more and more difficult for him, he saw Christ first as just a man, then a prophet, and finally as a person to be worshipped. This is something of the path that we often follow. C. S. Lewis wrote

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)

We would like life to be simple journey but we have to make choices. The man at the pool could have accepted his life and believed as others that his life was without hope, trapped in sin. But he chose to listen to Jesus and follow the directions that he gave him. Jesus came into this world to change the vision of those who were spiritually blind. As Paul wrote

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Jesus gave light to the blind man; but for those who could physically see but whose mind was closed, there was not much hope.

When I began working on this sermon and I thought of those brief moments on the Appalachian Trail those years ago, I could not help but think of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”. It is a poem that is a personal favorite of mine in which Frost speaks of choices.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

and sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel about the choices they had to make.

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, you teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30: 19 – 21)

In two weeks we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day that Christ began the final journey. He knew the outcome of that journey and while He may not have wanted to take it, it was a journey that he did for us. It is not a journey that we have to make. But today, we must make a choice. We hear the voice speaking in our ear telling us the way to go; we can see the light shining in the darkness of this world. There is a choice that must be made. Do we follow Christ?