“The Balance of Life”


This was initially written for another publication (Fishkill UMC “Back Pages”.  Part of what I have written may be used in another piece that I will be posting shortly.

When I began working on my doctorate, I was introduced to the book “Two Cultures” by C. P. Snow.  Snow presented the argument that we lived in two cultures, one based on the humanities and the other based on science and technology, a division that appears to still be present today.

I think we also have another division of cultures in our time, with some proclaiming the need for a solely secular/non-religious life while other proclaim that what it is needed is a sectarian/religious life.

But life is and has never been an either/or choice.  Ideas presented in the secular world tell us how to solve problems but do not always indicate what is the best use of that solution.  And it is only through the sectarian view of the world that we come to understand our relationship with others in our community and around the world.

Jesus never said that we should totally abandon the secular world for the sectarian world; he merely wanted us to view things with a sense of priority.

And that means that while one works in the secular world, it is important to maintain a presence, constant and on-going, in the sectarian world as well.  A world that does not include time for thoughts about God (be it in worship, prayer, music or communicating with others) can be a lonely and desolate place.

 

“The Master Lesson”


Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Epiphany (Year A), 9 February 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 58: 1 – 12, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 16, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.  This is the message that I will give at the Sloatsburg United Methodist Church this Sunday (I may make some changes in it between now and Sunday but this is essentially what I shall say); services there start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

Today is Scout Sunday and something of an anniversary for me. In 1965 I was working on my God and Country Award in the Boy Scouts. I actually received the award and was confirmed as a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st UMC) of Aurora in May of that year, this Sunday serves as a marker and a reminder of when I began this journey with Christ.

As I noted in my summary sheet for Boy Scout Sunday, there was a period of time when I didn’t do much after earning the award. But sometime around 1984, I felt the need to do something that reflected the choice I had made twenty years before. Since then, I have either been the liturgist or presented the message on the second Sunday in February as a reminder of a choice I made many, many years ago.

My appreciation for the environment around us also began when I was in the Boy Scouts. And when I began my college studies a little over a year after completing my God and Country work, I began a second journey, a journey of investigation of this world.

This weekend is also Evolution Weekend and marks the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday on February 12, 1809. This message marks the 6thyear that I have participated in this part of the Clergy Letter Project, an effort to show that science and religion are compatible and can safely interact with each other. (Here is a link to my previous messages and posts – Evolution Weekend.)

Let me begin by saying that the United Methodist Church has 1) endorsed this project, 2) included a statement concerning the relationship between science, technology, and theology in The Social Principles section of The Book of Discipline (¶ 160 – The Natural World, section F), and 3) this will not be a science lesson.

Now, in one sense, perhaps I shouldn’t concern myself with issues about evolution and the creation of the universe and life on this planet. After all, I am a chemist more than I am a biologist and the issue of evolution and creation is one of biology, isn’t it?

But there is a lot of chemistry involved in the beginning of the universe and the development of atoms, elements, and compounds. And the combination of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen to ultimately form the various components of DNA means that I have to be interested or at least should be interested in how it all works.

So, I participate in this project, not because I don’t believe that God didn’t create the universe, this planet, or the life on it but rather because I do believe that He did create the universe, the planets, and all the life that we see.

It never occurred to me back in 1966 that by declaring that I would study chemistry that such studies would be conflict with my belief in God and that Jesus Christ was my Savior and that I could not be a certified lay servant/speaker in the United Methodist Church. Nor did it occur to me that my acceptance of Christ somehow prevented me from being a chemist and from searching for answers to questions sometimes out of reach.

I hold a view of the relationship between science and faith similar to that expressed by Alan Lightman, the first person to hold dual appointments in physics and the humanities at MIT. In an essay entitled “The Spiritual Universe” (from his book The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew) he writes

If science is the religion of the twenty-first century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. A former member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. Hasn’t modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate—or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls, and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. Our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds. (“Brain Pickings for 15 January 2014”)

And while Lightman and those in his group might see a world in which there is a need for both science and faith, there are those today who would tell you that to be a scientist, or in my case, a chemist precludes one from being able to study and preach the Word of God, just as there are those who feel that one’s presence in the pulpit prevents being in a lab somewhere during the week.

And as a science educator, I have to be concerned about what is transpiring in this world today, when people seek to limit free and independent thought about things both secular and sectarian to the point of being forbidden. This limits what we can do, what we can envision and where we might go.

The title of this message comes from a term often used in fine arts and music classes. A master class is one in which a recognized expert comes and teaches something a topic that everyone knows but in greater depth and detail that normally covered. It is designed to take you beyond where you are and to where you can be.

If as it is written in Genesis, we are created in God’s image, how can I not ask questions? Am I, as some would have me to do, to blindly accept something as the truth when other information tells me otherwise?

What I find interesting is that I have learned more about the Bible, Christianity, Methodism, and my own personal faith in the past few years than I learned in the two years I devoted to earning the God and Country Award and becoming a member of this church. But if I were to accept the notion that such knowledge was fixed, I would not have learned anything. And where would I be on this journey that began almost fifty years ago?

You may disagree with me on this point but telling me that I cannot pursue this information just makes me want to find out what it is you don’t want me to know. And I am fully aware that in some translations of the Bible, it was eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that drove Adam and Eve out of the garden and destroyed their relationship with God. In looking for and finding Christ, we have the opportunity to restore our relationship with God.

I know that when I began my journeys in both the secular and sectarian worlds I probably accepted the notion that the world was created in six days as described in the opening verses of Genesis. But somewhere along the line, I began to ask questions, questions that the Book of Genesis could not answer directly, questions that many people do not want answered or even asked today.

Asking questions about the Book of Genesis or any of the material in the Bible does not necessarily mean that one is questioning their faith. It means that one is trying to understand what their faith means. If I am not driven to seek more knowledge, of what value is my life? What have I learned if I do not know who God is and what He means to me?

The British philosopher and writer Alan Watts wrote a book in 1966 entitled, interestingly enough, “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”. In a sentiment that Alan Lightman (physicist and holder of a joint appointment in physics and the humanities at MIT) would come to echo more than half a century later in his remarkable meditation on science and what faith really means (and which I have expressed on numerous occassions before), Watts adds:

Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness – an act of trust in the unknown. … No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. (“Brain Pickings for 2 February 2014”)

For me, Watts is not saying that because I have studied chemistry that I must abandon God nor because I believe in God and accepted Christ as my own personal Savior that I should ignore chemistry and its scientific foundations but rather that I should use the one to find the other.

But today’s so-called experts don’t do that; they tell you to accept what they tell you as fact and irrefutable. But basis for their knowledge is often limited and incomplete and any challenge to their authority brings ridicule and scorn.

The roots of today’s debate go back almost four hundred years. Each one of us was probably taught that the church did not want Galileo to publicize his ideas about the nature of the universe. But it was not the church, per se, that sought to limit Galileo or the work of Copernicus and Kepler; rather it was individuals within the academic establishment that had based its power and authority on the Aristotlean view that Galileo’s observations challenged.

They were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power as well. (From “The Changing of Seasons”; I believe my original source was The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)

What I fear, perhaps more than anything else in this world, is this same sort of world today. A world where those whose power and status are maintained in a closed environment, a world in which we cannot find the answers to our questions, a world in which we say to seekers and those on a journey that this is the answer and no questions are allowed in either the secular or sectarian world.

Were Paul’s words to the Corinthians an encouragement to seek new wisdom? Were Paul’s words not an indictment of those in power who sought to limit such new wisdom?

We, of course, have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it’s not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene. The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is.

Paul makes this point –– those who crucified Jesus were blind to the message that Jesus gave. They were so fixed on what they had at that moment that they could not see what lie before them.

If we are trapped in the moment that we call today, how can we move beyond the boundaries of that thought. As I read the words from Isaiah for today, I could not help but think about how those words, writen over three thousand years ago, still have meaning today and how we haven’t learned much in that time.

We are still so much more interested in our own well-being that we are others. Our greed and ignorance take precedence over caring for others and making sure that all have a chance. Isaiah makes the point, I believe, that when we are are more concerned with what we have and we ignore the plight and circumstances of others, we cannot expect much in reward.

Even Isaiah points out that when you do God’s work, you begin to shine as a light that shows the truth and the future. Those who find protection in the Law often times find themselves trapped in it.

Are we to be blind to what transpired in the Galilee some 2000 years ago? Are we to ignore the words that were spoken, the actions were taken as Jesus and His followers walked those roads? Would not asking those questions make us more like those who crucified Jesus?

What is that Jesus said to the people in our Gospel reading for today? We are to be the light of the world. Does that not mean that we show others what we have found and help them to find it themselves?

Jesus points out that He came not to fulfill the Law but to go beyond it. Those who would seek to limit what we know want the Law to constrain and prevent, to keep people where they are and not where they can be.

The lesson from the Master is very simple; if we impose boundaries on others, we will find ourselves limited. If our focus is on ourselves, we will find ourselves trapped. Our journey will be over because we can go nowhere.

But if we accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour, if we open our hearts, our minds, and our souls to Christ, we will find something beyond the horizon. There will be meaning and purpose to our lives, meaning and purpose that we cannot find any other way. That is the lesson to be taught, that is the lesson to be learned, and that is the lesson to be shared.

What Is Our Focus?


I was at Dover Plains UMC this past Sunday (Location of church) this morning.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, are Isaiah 58: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.

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In 1966, following their 51 – 0 loss to the University of Notre Dame, John McKay, the coach of the University of Southern California football team told his team “that it didn’t really matter. There are 750 million people in China who don’t even know that this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, ‘What happened, Coach?’’’

A few months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in what was billed as the “NFL – AFL World Championship Game.” The term “Super Bowl” didn’t get attached to the game until the 1970 game, when the Chiefs met the Minnesota Vikings and beat them. And while Super Bowls are a virtual sell-out once the game site is announced, there were plenty of empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum for that first championship game. By the way, tickets for that game costs upwards of $12.00; that might get you a parking place at today’s game.

Interestingly enough, there are no video tapes of that first game as the tapes were reused because no one thought that the game would have the status that it does today. Clearly, that didn’t happen. The game is no longer just a game between league champions on a Sunday afternoon; it has evolved into a multi-hour spectacular with companies spending millions and millions of dollars for a few moments of advertising time (even when research suggests that the return for that moment is miniscule at best). Half-time at a Super Bowl has taken on a life of its own, with entertainment superstars vying for the right to headline the half-time.

Today’s Super Bowl game will be broadcast to practically every country on the globe that has a radio or television station and probably in most of the languages that people speak. It will almost certainly be broadcast on the Armed Forces radio and television networks so that serviceman abroad can have a taste of home. But it will also be broadcast to countries where football is played by kicking a round ball; it will almost certainly be viewed as curiosity to many of those viewers.

I have nothing against football but I no longer care about professional football. I have, on occasion, noted that the most common words uttered by a football official at an elementary, junior-high or high school game is “this isn’t Sunday, coach.” Too many coaches spend all their time watching the professional games in hopes of finding a play that will bring their team success instead of focusing on the fundamentals of the game.

Against the backdrop of glitz and hype and the possibility that a football game might be played, some youth will gather cans of soup in the “Souper Bowl of Caring.” Last year, some 14,000 organizations collected over $10 million through this organization (see www.souperbowl.org). I am appreciative of the fact that the Dover Church has decided to participate in this project this year.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t have the Super Bowl; I am just saying that the focus, the effort, and the energy that is put into it all are in stark contrast to what else is happening in this country. Our focus is on a game when it should be on the problems of this country.

How much more could be done if all the money and energy that were put into producing the Super Bowl were directed towards the problems of hunger, homelessness, and health care in this country? How ironic that Isaiah’s words, written some three thousand years ago, are that the bottom line is profit. How ironic that we are spending so much money on a game that has turned into a business.

This is not one of those statements that so dominated our society in the first years of the game where we would say, “well, if we can put a man on the moon, we can do such and such!” This is a statement about where our focus as a society, as a culture, as individual beings lies.

When we say something like if we can go to the moon, we can solve other problems, we make it easy to ignore the problem or think that sufficient funds could resolve the problem. But you cannot cure the problem by simply giving those without food or shelter or clothing food to feed them, shelter to house them, and clothing so that they will be warm.

You have to change the attitudes and mindsets of people who are more interested in the football game than the condition of their fellow human beings. We are reminded of the ancient proverb that states that when you give someone a fish, you feed them for the moment but when you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.

It is one thing to say that we are a Christian nation. It would be an entirely different thing if we lived as if we were Christians. Go back and read the passage from Isaiah again; how ironic that words written some three thousand years ago can speak so loudly in the 21st century.

God, through Isaiah, called the people’s bluff; He pointed out that their attempts at fasting were charades. The people of Israel were absolutely convinced that if they said the right words and acted appropriately in the temple, then God would find favor with them. But such acts are hypocrisy when the world outside the temple walls doesn’t change.

What did God want from the people of Israel? What does God want from each one of us today? Share your food, invite the homeless into your house, put clothes on the ill-clad, and be available to your own families. Break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed and cancel debts. Those were the words of God three thousand years ago; do we not think that those are His same words today?

Ah, do we not think? You can almost hear Paul writing to the Corinthians about the new wisdom found through Christ. Didn’t Paul point out that the message of Christ is still true today while the words and thoughts of experts disappear over the years? Didn’t Christ point out that God’s words will last long after the stars burn out and the earth wears away?

Again, we hear Paul pointed out the fallacy of the so-called experts being able to offer a solution. Isn’t the current mantra of society to cut government spending and things will get better? Aren’t there those who espouse that attitude also telling you that spending money of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and bringing healthcare to the sick is some sort of socialism? I agree that our government is spending far too much money but I think that the areas that need to be examined are in what we might as well call the military-industrial complex.

Listen to the experts who will tell you that the poor get more than they deserve and that many stay on unemployment because they make more money that way. Since what one receives in unemployment benefits is based upon what one earned, I don’t see how that logic prevails. I can only imagine what Paul would say today in response to what the experts in society and in the church are saying today.

But, there is that light. It was a light that began to shine when Isaiah wrote his words. It was a light that became brighter when Jesus spoke to the multitudes and offering not only a vision of hope but a means of achieving that hope. It was a light than began to get much brighter when the message was carried by Paul and the disciples to lands beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Israel.

It is a light that begins to burn bright when a small church sends messages to soldiers overseas to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten. It is a light that begins to shine brighter when a small church takes part in a nationwide gathering to remind us what our focus should be.

When the light is burning bright, it is hard to not focus on it. As Paul also wrote, your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not what others would have you to do. If you have allowed the Spirit to be a part of life, it will shine through all that you do.

Our society, our culture has focused too long on the superficial. We put great stock in what happens in the moment called now. We tend to ignore or not even care what might happen tomorrow. The words of Isaiah, the words of Paul, and the words of Christ all call us to shift, to not focus on the superficial or the self but to focus on all the people.

It begins when we take that first step of opening our hearts to Christ and then allowing the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives. It begins at the table that was set for us that one night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago. It begins that night when the authorities tried to extinguish the light that shone through Christ. We have the opportunity to change the world, small and remote though we may be. We have that opportunity because it was given to us at that supper in the Upper Room. We have allowed our focus to shift from that time and place. We have that opportunity to regain that focus.

My friends, what is our focus this day.

“To Change Our Lives”


This is the message that I presented at the Neon UMC (Neon, KY) for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 7 February 1999.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 58: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20.

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During the 1960 Presidential Election, then Senator John Kennedy said that all was needed for civil rights legislation was a “stroke of the pen.” When he failed to act on proposed legislation after he was elected, activists from all across the country sent him pens to remind of his failure to act.

But John Kennedy was a political realist and he realized that he did not have the votes in Congress to pass any legislation that would have had any real power. He knew that the time for the legislation was still to come. As it turned out, it took more than just the stroke of the pen to get civil rights legislation out of the congressional committees and into law. And when the laws were passed, I think we all remember the scene of President Johnson signing the bill with countless pens to give to all those involved in the process.

We tend to think that we can solve problems through our own willpower and intellect. But we have to be careful that such actions come from our hearts as well as our minds. The difficulties that this country have endured in creating a society that would match the words of the Declaration of Independence have as much to do with how our own actions compare with our own thoughts. For if our thoughts do not match our actions, if the rationale for undertaking actions lacks the commitment of the heart, then any actions undertaken will be shallow and meaningless.

Many times we hear people complain about having done the “right things” but that God did not answer their prayers. But should we be surprised by this? In the Old Testament reading for today, God spoke to the Israelites. “Why,” he asked, “did they, the Israelites, seek him out and ask for help when after asking for help, they would go back to their original behavior?” God was simply pointing out that fasting and prayer that was not followed by commitment was meaningless – “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

Jesus pointed out, in the New Testament reading for today, that unless your heart is right, your actions will not be. Jesus spoke of the “salt of the earth. But if the salt of the loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” When he spoke of coming to fulfill the law, he was talking about the deep, underlying principles and total commitment to the law rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience. In Matthew 5: 18 – 20

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was not saying that obedience to the Law should be forgotten but rather to avoid hypocrisy and legalism. To resort to legalism was to avoid keeping the details of the law and attempting to gain merit before God while breaking the laws inwardly. To follow the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit was hypocrisy and Jesus said it more than once in his ministry. He also repudiated the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law and the view of righteousness by works.

Righteousness can only come through faith in Christ and his work, not by anything that we can do. This has always been the question that has confounded mankind. If our good works cannot get us into Heaven, if good works do not provide the key to eternal salvation, then should we even think about good works?

When we think that good works are all that is required, we fall for the legalisms that Jesus spoke against. For the act of doing good works as a means of upholding the law is simply an action of the surface of things, done because it has to be done. Luther rebelled against the church because they implied that very thing. But if good works don’t guarantee our salvation, then should we even think about doing them.

As John Wesley pointed out, having come to Christ, it is our duty then to seek the perfection of life through what we do. And as God told the Israelites, how could you believe that fasting would insure that your prayers are answered when the hungry go unfed, the naked without clothes. And Jesus himself told his followers that they would find Him in the lowest parts of society.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 35 – 40)

The question then is what do we do? We must first realize that Christ’s presence in our lives means more than we can conceivably understand. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”

but God has reveled it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.

We cannot expect to understand God’s wisdom or Christ’s meaning to us if we stay within the boundaries of an earthly understanding. Though God has given each of us the abilities that make us who we are, those abilities are not enough for us to gain an understanding of Him. On the other hand, if we allow God to be the central focus of our life, if we allow Christ to be our Savior, then we can begin to see God.

The difficulty for the Pharisees was that the world was bounded by the strictures of the Law. It was necessary to keep the Law and all its fine points, no matter how contradictory such points might be. In doing that, as Paul wrote many times, one could get trapped in the law.

But this can only be done when our hearts are open to Christ. We have to see Christ as He came to this world, in humility and as a servant, not as an authority imposed from above. He came prepared to risk His truth and life; when asked to identify himself openly, by displaying his authority (such as in the temptation by the devil in the wilderness) or by giving a sign that would convince man by its supernatural power (at his trial and crucifixion), He refused.

There is a hymn in the modern hymnal that states that that they will know we are Christians by our name. By that it means that by our actions, it will be clear who we are. In Isaiah, God pointed out that the actions of the righteousness

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

would lead to a better life. Such actions would be done without thought to the rewards but rather done because that heart guided by the Savior demands that it be done.

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

Christ is that light and as he stated in the New Testament reading for today,

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

When we accept Christ as our Savior, we accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by pointing out his presence in this world. We become the light of the world. And, in pointing out Christ’s presence and action in this world, the world becomes open to us.

We look around at the world today and we see confusion and hopelessness. We hear the prophets of the modern times proclaiming that the end of the world is possibly at hand. We fear the darkness that surrounds us. Yet, if we accept Christ as our Savior, there is a light in the world, a light promised to us by God even before Christ was a part of this world. By allowing Christ into our life, into our world, our world becomes a place of hope and joy. We cannot change our lives when we rely solely on meaningless actions but our lives will change when we accept Christ.

The Right Place and The Right Time


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 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, are Isaiah 6: 1- 8 (9 – 13), 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and Luke 5: 1 – 11.

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As I mentioned in passing last week, I post my sermons and other thoughts on my blog. One of my top posts continues to be a collection of sayings that I have accumulated over time (“A Collection of Sayings”).

One of the first sayings that I ever wrote down was “In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader.” (The Talmud) I have always attributed my keeping this saying to my reading of Making of the President – 1960 by Theodore White but I can’t find that quote in that book.

This particular quote came to me because of the events that transpired in the Gospel reading for this morning. The disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) had been fishing but without much luck. Jesus comes along and uses one of their fishing boats as a floating pulpit so that he can preach to the crowd that was following him. Following the lesson, Jesus instructs the four brothers to put their boats in a particular place and they catch more fish than they probably thought was possible.

Whatever knowledge one might have about fishing, Jesus put the fisherman in the right spot at the right time to get the catch of the lifetime. Now, Luke has the four brothers putting down their nets and walking away from the only means of work that they know in order to follow Jesus and become “fishers of men and women.” And there are those today who would wonder why? Could it be that this catch brought enough at the market to let them do this? Perhaps, but that would be speculation on our part. We do know that these four had already encountered Jesus before (see John 1: 40 – 42 and 2: 1 – 2); this event in the history of the disciples provided the basis by which they would later change history.

That is why I used the quote from the Talmud. There is a time and a place when we as individuals will be in a position to change the direction of the world. Now this, in and of itself, may seem to be too great a task for any one individual to accomplish. On the other hand, how are we to know what will happen if we do or don’t do a particular task?

On February 1, 1960, four young men sat at the lunch counter in the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was something that they had been planning for some time.

Now, for today’s reader, just as we find the four brothers walking away from their jobs in order to undertake a mission of unknown duration and an uncertain outcome, to hear the story of four young men sitting at a lunch counter in a department story is highly implausible. First, what is or was Woolworth’s? There are no Woolworth’s in business today in America, though for those who do know remember when they existed, some still exist in other countries. But in the 1960’s, Woolworth was the leader in what were called “five and dime stores”, essentially 20th century general stores were everything, including lunch, was sold. And while we have the third generation of such stores on the landscape today (Target, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart), the era of the general store has gone by the wayside.

And just as this idea of a general store has disappeared from society to be replaced by super stores and buy in bulk warehouses, so too has the idea of a lunch served on a plate in a store that wasn’t a restaurant also disappeared. So, to think of four young men planning on ordering lunch and sitting down to eat that lunch at a lunch counter in a store which doesn’t exist today is perhaps a difficult task.

But, there is more to this story. For the four young men in this story who planned this event were black. In Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1960s, they were barred by law and custom from sitting at such a lunch counter and ordering something to eat and then being allowed to sit and eat their lunch at the lunch counter. White customers were allowed to sit; but if black customers wanted to eat lunch, they would have to stand. It should also be noted that the workers at the counter were white; the black employees were upstairs and out-of-sight.

And they will each tell you that this act of civil disobedience was not done lightly. Reprisals were common against those who spoke out against the rule and custom of segregation and each of the four truly expected such reprisals would be forthcoming, as would occur in other sit-ins that would follow. But to the credit of all the citizens of Greensboro, nothing happened.

The four were told that they would not be served and that they should leave the store. But they would not do so and when the store closed for the day, they went home but told the manager that they would return. They returned the next day and sat at the counter again. And again, they were not served. Nor were they served the next day or the next. But it was different on these following days, for each day others who supported their actions would come and take a seat. And it was not just the black students of Greensboro who sat at the counter in defiance of the law and custom; white students began to take part in the sit-ins, offering support through action against the custom and law.

It would take several weeks of patient sitting and waiting but in the end, not only did the store but the city of Greensboro as well agree to integrate (this story can be found at http://www.sitins.com/story.shtml).

And as the word of the sit-in spread across the South and the country, other sit-ins began. Most were peaceful but there were instances of confrontation and violence (images of these protests can be found at http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgcoll.htm). The four young men were in the right place and the right time and their actions changed history. And the world changed as well.

We might find it incomprehensible today that just a few years ago, there were places in this country where the color of one’s skin could and did determine what you could and could not do, where you could walk and talk and eat and where you would never dare to do such things. There are those who cannot understand how the election of one man can make a difference in this country or even in this world but if you grew up in the South and you saw what life was like, you would understand.

We might find it incomprehensible to know that we could, in this country, divide schools, restaurants, bus stations, rest rooms and churches and still say there was equality in this land. But, as one who grew up in the south and felt the impact of segregation in his life, let me assure that it did happen (see "Lexington, North Carolina"), And what I find frightening is that there is evidence today that some would seek to impose the economic and social structures of segregation once again in this country.

When I hear a politician, Northern or Southern, speak of state’s rights or suggests that literacy tests are necessary requirements for voting in this country, I hear the calls and cries of Southern politicians from the 1870s through the 1970s. I hear the voices of those who would control the lives of others by using fear and ignorance.

A politician will only call for literacy tests as a requirement for voting in this country because they want to frighten those who would listen and are ignorant of the past. Ministers who say that natural disasters are the signs of God’s wrath and anger against people or a nation are ignorant of the world around them. A minister who calls for a government based on Christian principles but includes murder, violence, discrimination, and hatred can only be speaking out of their own fear of the unknown and an ignorance of Christian principles.

Fear has been a tool from the days of Christ and the disciples. The Romans used crucifixion as a tool of fear, to control the populace by saying “this can happen to you if you don’t stay in line.” The religious authorities used fear to extract obedience from the people by saying “we know the proper way to do things and you don’t”. Time and time again, dictators have used the fear of the people to control them and direct them to the dictators’ own selfish purposes.

We are at a point in time when the future is in peril. Our ignorance of the world around us threatens our health and our safety. Our ignorance of other cultures threatens our security. Our fear of the unknown, of what lies “out there” keeps us from learning and keeps us ignorant. The four brothers only knew what Jesus was saying; they had no idea of what was to come when they walked away from the nets and their boats. But still they left.

In Paul’s letter today, he reminds the Corinthians of how they got to this point in their life. Paul lays the basis for faith in these verses and the verses that follow (verses 12 – 34). When a person speaks of Christianity or any religion being only a myth, I believe they are speaking out of ignorance. Faith cannot grow in fear, yet too many people try to use fear as the means to faith. Faith can only grow through knowledge, knowledge found both in the physical world and, for the lack of a better term, the metaphysical world.

To bring the Gospel message into the world is a challenging task, to say the least; and it is a task that many people are unwilling to undertake.

I did not, when I began writing this sermon, intend to be a prophet of doom. The passage from Isaiah has two parts, the second being the consequences of the first. Isaiah is called by God to give a message to the people; it is a message that will harden the hearts and close their minds, it will bring doom to the nation.

And God said to the people through Isaiah, “You aren’t going to get this the first time. You will listen but not comprehend; you will look but not understand. You will become dull and shut your ears and close your eyes. And in doing so, you will become dumb and ignorant and you will die.”

That is not the message that we want to deliver. But we should not see it in those terms, unless we desire to have history repeat itself. All those “out there” who call these the End Times say that there is no hope in this world; that the world shall come to an end and there is not one thing we can do to stop God’s plan. But I never accepted this notion that God’s plan was for the destruction of this world, the world that He created. Why else did He send His Son to be the Hope and Savior of the World?

What I have believed is that we have been warned as to what would happen if we choose to walk a different path, if we choose to let ignorance, fear, and hatred control our lives. God sent His Son, not to condemn us, but to save us. He gave us the tools and the abilities to use those tools for the betterment of all mankind, not just a select few. He put us in this place and at this time to do just that.

We are like Isaiah, presented with a monumental task, a task far beyond our own perceived abilities. Yet God provided Isaiah with the words, the skills, and the strength to undertake the task. Every prophet, every messenger of God, has reacted in the same manner as Isaiah and every prophet, every messenger has received the same message.

In a world where cynics decry the meaning of faith and say that there is nothing a single individual can do, it is hard to be that single individual who takes the first step. In a world where faith is ridiculed or compromised, it is hard to say to someone “come with me on Sunday; I want you to find Jesus.”

We can be like so many who heard the message to come and follow me and say, “No, not today.” And we have many reasons for doing so, “I am too old; I am too young; I have too many things to do; I can’t walk away from the life that I have worked so hard to gain.” Yet, Isaiah went, even though the prospects were not good. And the four brothers put down their nets and walked away from their boats, to follow Jesus for three years, to follow Jesus to a place and time where history would change.

We have that opportunity today; we are in the right place and the right time to follow Christ, to change history. What shall we do?

A Scout Is Reverent


Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2 February, 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 6: 1- 8 (9 – 13), 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and Luke 5: 1 – 11.

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In our journey through life, we tend to mark certain days as being important to the journey. The second Sunday of February, which we call Boy Scout Sunday, is one of those days. For it was on Boy Scout Sunday that I celebrate my Christian birthday.

It was this particular Sunday when I completed the confirmation portion of my studies and joined the First Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado. Later, in May of 1965, I would complete the studies that earned me the God and Country award given by the Boy Scouts. But it was this day that I took that first step as a member of a church. You might say that this day doesn’t qualify me to be a Christian but I think it was the culmination of a journey that had begun some two years before, when as an seventh grader in Montgomery, Alabama, I began looking at my relationship with Christ.

One of the decisions that I made was to begin studying for my God and Country award. I wanted this award because it is one of the few awards in Boy Scouts that is not rank dependent. In other words, you do not have to be a certain rank before you can earn it. And it is an award, which calls upon the individual to make decisions about themselves, and which will have an impact on their lives far beyond the time of study and work towards the award. If you are going to earn this award, you must make a commitment to Christ.

What I remember most about my own studies is what came about because of my studies. I do not remember how it was that I became a part of that first class, other than I approached Reverend Eddy about earning the award. But however it happened I, along with two others, began my classes on Saturday morning.

These studies included the traditional confirmation studies. But service was also a part of the curriculum, so on Sunday mornings, the three of us served as acolytes. Now, the church held two services each Sunday morning so that meant that one of the three of us had to be the acolyte for two services every Sunday.

It was about this same time that the Scoutmaster of my troop decided to hold a contest to get the members of the troop involved in Scouting activities. Most of the activities centered on traditional scouting activities such as hiking and camping. But there was also a service element and when the others in the troop saw that we were getting points for being acolytes, they also wanted to be a part of that process as well. And when our class was over in the spring of 1965, ten members of the troop indicated that they wanted to be a part of the next class.

Now, some thirty-nine years later I cannot say what happened to those who went into that next class; I can only hope that their lives were changed as was mine. But the fact that they wanted to be a part of that next class indicated that they saw something in what was happening to the three of us in the first class and it must have had an impact. Each one of us, through our words and deeds, exposes others to the impact of Christ on our lives and gives others the opportunity to find Christ in their own lives.

And that is the point Paul is stressing to the Corinthians in today’s Epistle reading. Each one of us has come to know Christ first through the actions and words of others. No one in Corinth was present at the resurrection but they had heard from those who had encountered Christ and, in turn, they would transfer this experience to others down the line. We individually come to know Christ because of what someone did for us; our hearts are opened because we have seen or heard what happens to others who have encountered Christ.

But it is not action alone that brings us into a closer relationship with Christ. It is our faith. For some today, this is a very hard idea to accept. They are willing to say that because there is no physical evidence, the resurrection could not have occurred. They are willing to say that a God which allows hatred and violence to exist in this world, then there cannot be a God of love and peace. But we know through faith that Christ died and that he died for our sins so that we could be free. And if there is hatred or violence or repression in this world, it is because we have allowed it to happen, not because God has done so.

We know, as Paul did, that there are those who have encountered the risen Christ. To those individuals, who told others, the resurrection is not a simple folk tale; it is the truth. Our celebration of communion today is more than just a ritual; the words that we say only have meaning because of the faith that we bring with us to the table. Our celebration of communion today is more than just a reenactment of a gathering of friends one night many years ago. It is our connection with Christ through the very act by which He became a part of our life.

Our faith is renewed each time we partake of communion because we, along with countless others today and countless saints who have walked before us, take part in the celebration of life and its victory over sin and death.

Each of us here today holds on to the legacy of faith. By our actions, we reestablish the legacy of faith that has been passed down from age to age and which we shall pass to ages to come. It is true that our faith is being sorely tested these days. There are many who would say that the world around us is falling apart and that our faith is not sufficient to fight the forces of evils. The events of the past week merely show how hard we must work. There have been many that call themselves Christians who are quick to react to the threats of society. But their reactions and responses are repressive and hardly reflect the words of Christ. It is one thing to condemn but you must also open your hearts and forgive those who have wronged; you must also provide a response that reflects a better alternative.

The problem is that those who condemn fail to provide alternatives. Remember when the self-righteous leaders were ready to stone the woman who was caught in adultery? Let us ignore for the moment that they were not going to punish the man who was also caught. They asked Jesus who should throw the first stone but he replied, "let that one person without sin cast the first stone." Those who condemn should be prepared to offer an alternative.

Our faith is tested and often found weak because we are not ready to focus on Christ. We more often than not focus on our own life. Like Peter, in the reading from today’s Gospel reading it is our faith that will move us forward. Peter didn’t think that he could catch any fish; after all, he and the others had been up all night and had not caught anything.

But he listened to Christ and came away with a full load of fish. Peter’s life changed because he heard Christ calling him to be a fisher of men and not just a fisherman. Isaiah was just as sure that he wasn’t the one who should serve God. He was a sinner, hardly worthy of a life serving God. But God granted Isaiah a second chance and changed his life and made him a prophet.

So now God is calling. Perhaps it is quiet and soft like the call heard by a twelve-year-old in Montgomery, Alabama so many years ago. Maybe it is a call through thunder and lightening like that Isaiah heard. Or perhaps it is through the cries of the needy or the moans of the hungry. No matter how God is calling, He is calling you. It is not important how the call is made but it is important that the call is answered.

The twelfth of the Scout Laws is "A Scout is Reverent. A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others." This simple statement was one that has directed my life ever since I heard the call from God so many years ago. It took me a while to figure out how to answer that call. And today, as we come to the table we hear the words of Christ calling to us, inviting us to be a part of the table as well. How will you answer the call?



Whom Shall I Send?


Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February, 2001.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 6: 1- 8 (9 – 13), 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and Luke 5: 1 – 11.

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I found the reports last week about the faith-based initiative for welfare that the present administration is pushing interesting. Not wanting to pursue the fundamental issue of the separation between church and state, I wonder why we have to even think about the need for welfare support in this country in the first place. It should be that in a land of plenty, which is how we see our country, everyone has what they need and no one should lack for anything.

But we know that is not the case for there are countless homeless, hungry, sick, and people in need throughout this country. And the question must be asked as to how we, as a country and as individuals, will respond to the needs of others. This is not a new question, but one that has been with us since time immemorial.

The impetus for the founding of the Methodist Church came from society’s response to the needs of those less fortunate.

The prevalent attitude of the church during Wesley’s time was that poverty was a result of sinful life. 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. In the sermons of that time, one can read of a real concern for those less fortunate but it was assumed that the only way the working class, the poor and downtrodden could be saved was for them to make their lives better. If they lead lives like those who had enjoyed the success of society, then success would be theirs as well.

Wesley felt that it wasn’t necessary for those less fortunate to be like their betters but it was necessary to enable them to find the way to Christ for themselves. But he also understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all that seek it.

The church throughout its history has always been a society of people. But, for many people, this means that the church has taken on the form of a social club where like-minded people gather together and have fun and fellowship and generally support one another. Now, I see nothing wrong with those activities; they are essential parts of the life of a church. But I do see something wrong when people view themselves only in those terms and refuse to look beyond the boundaries of the church. I can remember the horror people had at one church when it was suggested that one week out of every fifteen the church be used to house two or three homeless families and that the members of the church assist in the feeding of the families. Those things were just not done in polite society.

But that is the other side of the coin. Whatever breaks down in society, the church needs to be involved. The church needs to stand up for what is right and good. Over the years, the church has stood for good education, equality among all peoples, civil rights, and stability in society. And the call will go out for people to lead the in this regard.

But many people do not want to answer the call. Locked in their own private pain and troubles, many cannot see how they can help others. But in our own private pain, we find that God will meet us and move us beyond it, to make a difference.

Isaiah comes to the temple in pain, seeking after God. He had this vision from God in the Temple. The revelation that came as part of this vision involves a powerful and majestic display on God’s part. In the presence of God, Isaiah saw himself as he really was. His words were "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." (Isaiah 6: 5)  God’s revelation brings a sense of Isaiah’s unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people.

The same was true for Peter in the New Testament passage we read this morning. Up until this point in the New Testament, Jesus had carried out his ministry alone. Now he begins to enlist his followers, his disciples. The message of this passage is that God calls ordinary people to do the extraordinary and empowers them to do it.

Jesus climbed into the boat and called these fishermen to fish for people. But it was only after they realized Who was in the boat with them that the call came. And that call is just like the one we get — to serve.

But when Simon Peter realized Who was in the boat he fell down in front of Jesus and said, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5: 8) He knew he was in the presence of God ( he had called Jesus "Master" in verse 5 but "Lord" in verse 8) and had no right to be there. He simply wasn’t up to the task that Jesus was asking him to take on.

Like Isaiah, Peter was immediately conscious of his unworthiness in the face of God. None of us, by our own merit, can stand before the God of the universe with our heads held high. Any person who has accepted God’s call as an adult has had this overwhelming sense of unworthiness. The past floods one’s consciousness, and the person will echo Peter, "Depart from me! I am sinful, O Lord." We are all inadequate and unworthy.

Even Paul admitted that he was unworthy to work for the church since he had sought the persecution of the church. But through God’s grace, he was able to change who he was and it was through God’s grace that he was able to work for the church.

Isaiah’s honest admission and confession in the presence of God invoked Gods’ forgiveness. Isaiah also knew what to do with his unworthiness. Are we doing anything with our own unworthiness? Are we in touch with the spirit and movement of God’s own self-disclosure to the point that we can honestly admit who we are and what we have or haven’t done, as God’s person? Such a movement is crucial for us to ever get to a place in our lives where we trust God with all of who we are.

Once Peter realized who was in that boat that day, he feared for his life. But Jesus offered him the soothing words that God has said several times before already in Luke. To a trembling Zechariah, to Mary, to an ordinary Peter, God’s words of serenity were "Do not be afraid." God say to us, when we realize our own undeservedness, "Do not be afraid. My Grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Paul speaks very plainly about the resurrection of Christ and its meaning on our lives. One of the most important facts of the Christian faith is the bodily resurrection of Christ. The very existence of the Christian church bears witness to the fact that something happened to transform a broken, beaten group of losers into men and women who gave their very lives for Christ, whom they witnessed in his resurrection power.

More than all the factual data we could muster in our endeavor to prove the literal resurrection of Christ is the very fact that he, right now, is in the business of changing lives. Before Peter’s empowering, he was no more capable of catching people than he was capable of catching the fish the night before. But God’s enduring presence enabled him, as it enables us, to do the extraordinary and answer the call to discipleship and service.

After God forgave Isaiah, He asked "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" (Isaiah 6: 8). These questions imply God’s concern for Isaiah’s community of faith. The progression of this drama has now moved from the personal need of Isaiah — his grief — to his coming to the Temple seeking after God, to God’s revelation to him as God discloses himself, to the honest confession by Isaiah of his own unworthiness, to forgiveness, and now to God involving Isaiah as God discloses His own concern as to who can go to the people with his Word. It is a sweeping story that describes, in detail, the call of this prophet of God. Some who have received this same call will see their own story here. The power of this call is discovered as Isaiah is moved beyond his own need, through forgiveness, to being invited by God through the petition to participate with God in bringing his Word to the community.

The challenge is like that. It is a challenge that changes us. To Peter, Luke 5: 10, "From now on," was not a time reference but a fundamental change in the state of affairs. After we met God, whether in the boat like Peter or in a vision in the Temple like Isaiah, we can never be the same again.

With God’s help, we are enable to move beyond our own hurts, pains, struggles, doubts, and fears to become persons sent forth in the name of the One who calls. Through our own encounters with this God who loves us, we are able to answer the question put before Isaiah who shall be sent.