Two Questions

Notes on Evolution Weekend

This will be my contribution for the 2022 Evolution Weekend (11-13 February 2022).

Evolution Weekend is a celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday and is sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project (  I have been a participant in the project since 2006.

As stated on its website, “The Clergy Letter Project is an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue.”

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. The ongoing goal has been to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries. Rather, they look at the natural world from quite different perspectives and ask, and answer, different questions.

The theme for the 2022 Weekend is “The Pandemic, Climate Change and Evolution:  How Religion and Science, Working Together, Can Advance Our Understanding.”

Notes on Boy Scout Sunday

The 2nd Sunday in February is also Boy Scout Sunday and marks the anniversary in 1965 of my becoming a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now the United Methodist Church).  That year, I would complete my studies for the “God and Country Award.”  In addition to being my contribution to the Clergy Letter Project, this also represents my continuance of the journey with Christ that I began that Sunday in 1965.

Lectionary Readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), 13 February 2022

Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6: 17 – 26

Two Questions

Two Questions, Part 1

We are, by nature, curious creatures.  We continually search for a better understanding of who we are, the world on which we live, and the universe through which we travel.  We look around and wonder “why?”  And then we ask “how?”

For many years, we had one answer to both questions.  But the more we searched for the answers to these questions, the more we discovered that when we understood “why”, we did not know “how”.  And we found that knowing “how” could not tell us “why”.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) believed that there were three levels of living in the world: The physical, the intellectual, and the spiritual. He called them the realms of the body, mind, and heart.

We began calling the process of asking “how” science and the process of finding out “why” faith and/or religion. 

We discovered that science and faith were open systems.  It seemed as if the more we discovered, the more there was to discover.

At first, we tried to use the one to explain the other, but this didn’t always seem to work.  It began to seem as if the answer for each question conflicted with each other.  But these conflicts were not conflicts of knowledge or understanding what knowledge was true and what knowledge was not.  Rather, this was a conflict of power, with each side declaring that their understanding was true and the other heretical or false.

But, as expressed in the Old Testament reading for this Sunday (Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10), we need both science and faith to completely understand the world around us.  Note that in verse 10, the author of Jeremiah wrote “I, God, search the heart and examine the mind.

Albert Einstein offered the view that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind” (“Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941).

In a 1959 sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

“There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists,” he said. “But not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different, and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.”

“A tough mind and a tender heart”

Dr. King would add,

“Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism,” he said. “Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr. On Science And Religion (

Ian Barbour, 1999 Templeton Prize winner, suggested that the relationship between science and religion was one of four possibilities:

  1. That they fundamentally conflict,
  2. That they are separate domains,
  3. That the complexity of science affirms divine guidance, and
  4. Finally — the approach he preferred — that science and religion should be viewed as being engaged in a constructive dialogue with each other.

Barbour would later write,

“This requires humility on both sides. Scientists have to acknowledge that science does not have all the answers, and theologians have to recognize the changing historical contexts of theological reflection”

Obituary of Ian Barbour, New York Times, January 13, 2014

We must realize that science and faith use language in different ways.  The language of faith and its use of images, parables, and paradoxes is more that of poetry than of science.  The language of faith should be seen as complimentary to the language of science (from Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World – The Marginalian).

In his sermon entitled “Keep Moving From This Mountain,” King embraced this idea even further.

“Through our scientific genius we made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood, and so we’ve ended up with guided missiles and misguided men,” he said. “And the great challenge is to move out of the mountain of practical materialism and move on to another and higher mountain which recognizes somehow that we must live by and toward the basic ends of life. We must move on to that mountain which says in substance, ‘What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world of means — airplanes, televisions, electric lights — and lose the end: the soul?'”

That the views of science and faith ae complimentary views of the world should return us to the beginning when Adam was tasked with the care of God’s creation.

The name “Adam” has several meanings; it is the name of one individual but within the context of Genesis, it meant to represent the whole of humankind, in other words, our ancestors.

Two Questions, Part 2

What is God’s creation?  Is it just this world on which we are temporary inhabitants?  Or is it how we relate to those with whom we share this space?

Today, in 2022, we are in the 2nd year of a pandemic, we are seeing the effects of climate change, and battles in the classroom over the teaching of climate change and evolution.  We have discovered that these are not merely academic topics but ones that affect all layers of society.

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that…”

Gus Speth, US Advisor on climate change and Yale professor (“Shared Planet: Religion and Nature, BBC Radio 4 (1 October 2013)

How do we respond?  My first response, as a former United Methodist lay speaker/pastor, is to say that we must radically reorient our priorities.  For too long, we, as nations, societies, and as humans, have spent more on destruction than construction.  We have taken Adam’s task to take care of God’s creation to mean that we could do whatever we wanted.  It does no good to speak of the future if we are dedicated to the destruction of the present.

As a chemist and science educator, I would argue that we must have education systems in place that allow the development of new ideas.  This will also be radical departure from the present system that teaches that all the problems have been solved and the answers are in the back of the book.  We must realize that book of answers hasn’t been written yet.

In the end, the world which we see with two views is still one world.

The poet T. S. Elliott wrote,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (Gardners Books; Main edition, April 30, 2001) Originally published 1943.”

Two Questions, Part 3

When I began this manuscript, the two questions were “how?” and “why?”.  Now, at the completion of this manuscript the two questions must be (with respects to Rabbi Hillel “if not now, when?” and “if not me, who?”,

“The Prime Directive”

Here are my thoughts for the “Back Page” of the bulletin of Fishkill UMC for this coming Sunday, February 19, 2020 (6th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A). Our services start at 10:15 am and you are always welcome.

Can Science and Religion Work Together to Deal with the Problems of Climate Change?

In the beginning, God charged humankind with one directive, to take care of the earth and all that was in it.  In one sense, this affirms that science is as much a part of our life as faith, for it is through science that we can find the ways to take care of this world on which we live and with whom we share its resources and space.  And while the Bible should never be seen or taken as a science text, it can be seen as help us to think and even take us outside the box, as it were.

In Deuteronomy, we read of God telling us to look at what He has done for us.  But when we do look around, can we say that we have taken care of what we have been directed to do?

For a long time, humankind has thought that it could do whatever it wished with this planet and its resources; recent events have shown the fallacy of that thought.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks of the Ten Commandments and our relationship with others.  Does this not extend to how we care for this world that we share with so many others?

Despite the claims of some, the problem of climate change is a man-made problem and it will be up to us to solve.  Science can give us the solutions but it will be the church which provides the moral imperative to seek the solution

~~Tony Mitchell

Information about Evolution weekend can be found on my blog at

“Answering the Call of Christ”


The following will be on the “Back Page” of the bulletin for this Sunday’s (17 February 2019, 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C) at Fishkill United Methodist Church.

Last week was the anniversary of the beginning of my walk with Christ.  This journey has never been an easy or smooth one.

It has been a journey that, at time, has been filled with confusion and doubt, times where I felt lost in the wilderness.  I wasn’t always attending church and on a couple of occasions I almost left the faith.

I would have left because I saw a church that seemed in conflict with the words and actions of Christ.  And there were some individuals (both laity and clergy) who questioned my call from Christ.

Now, my call to accept and follow Christ as my Savior was never like Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus and my heart has never been strangely warmed.  But I have always felt the presence of Christ in my life and nothing anyone can say will ever change that feeling.

The good thing was that there were others who understood this and helped me find my way through the wilderness.

The decision to follow Christ is an individual one.  It does not matter where one is from, who their parents are, their economic status, their race, their gender or sexuality.   Yet, today there are individuals who say that, to follow Christ, you must meet a certain set of guidelines and adhere to a certain set of laws. 

Our task has never been to decide who can answer God’s call; our task has been and will always be to help others answer the call and find their path.

                                                                             ~~Tony Mitchell

The Past Can Never Be Our Future

A couple of things about this piece – I am posting this on Boy Scout Sunday, which has a special meaning for me.  This is also Evolution Weekend, the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birth (see Evolution Weekend for a list of my posts.) That this is the same weekend as Boy Scout Sunday is also of special significance for me.

Please note that this post will not be a debate on “nature versus nurture.”  But if we are to have a vision for our future, we must first understand our past; I know it is a cliché but one must remember what the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (“Reason in Common Sense”, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason).

The other day I watching the last part of a show on Public Television dealing with genealogy and DNA.  This, coupled with some other shows that I have watched on this topic and similar television stations, prompted the following thoughts.

First, if you have your DNA tested, you will be surprised by the results.  Because, as it turns out, our DNA contains elements of the past that we would have never imagined.  For example, many people with European backgrounds will be surprised to know that some 20% of their DNA is from Neanderthals (At least 20% of Neanderthal DNA Is in Humans).  This research points out, that genetically, we are a diverse population.  And this will be very disturbing for some people because the purest strands of DNA, the ones with the least number of sources come from Africa.  As I said, some people will have problems processing that tidbit of information.

Now, if it were affordable, I would like to take advantage of that testing, if for no other reason than to prove or disprove some thoughts about my own heritage and ancestry.

When you look at my family tree, there are four branches.  The most dominant one is probably the one that extends back to Germany in the 16th century.  It would appear from the records that were discovered that constructed this branch that we, as a family, may have known Martin Luther personally for the records indicated that some twelve of my ancestors were or are Lutheran ministers.  Perhaps it was this hidden genealogy that played a part in my choosing to be involved in lay ministry through the United Methodist Church.

But I came to this ministry through the Evangelical United Brethren Church instead of the Lutheran Church.  And even though there is a shared German heritage in these denominations, there are those in the Lutheran Church who would view me as something of heretic for choosing a different path.  But that, as you will see in the coming paragraphs, is perhaps one marker of my life today.

The other dominant, though shorter, branch on the family tree leads to the hills and hollows of Appalachia.  I don’t know as much about this branch as I do the German branch but the signs on this second branch say that I am of the Scotch-Irish tradition.

The Scotch-Irish of America are among those whose families moved from Scotland to Ireland because English authorities encouraged Scottish families to move to Ireland, in part because of conditions in Scotland and in part because the English authorities wanted more of a presence in Ireland.  Later, the English authorities decided that to be in a position of authority one had to be a member of the Anglican Church, which many of those Scots living in Ireland were not.  From this began the move to America, a move to escape religious persecution where a government felt it had the right to tell others how and what to believe.  And again, I can see in my past another strain of rebellion.

I would like to write more about the other two branches of this tree but those branches end rather abruptly, clothed in a seemingly impenetrable darkness.  It may be with modern technology and perseverance along with society’s penchant for record keeping that this darkness can be removed and that my siblings and cousin will come to know more about what is for the moment, “familia incognito”.

And while there may be a genealogical basis for my rebellious streak, one can also become a rebel despite one’s genetics or family history just as easily.  And in fact, it is probably easier to do it than one might think (see, for example, “I Am a Southern-born Evangelical Christian!  What Are You?”

My choice to become a member of the Evangelical United Brethren church was not so that my ancestors could call me a heretic; rather, it was a choice of convenience since 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora) was the closest church to where I lived and it fit into the pattern of church attendance my family followed at that time.

My choice to enter lay ministry of the United Methodist Church was made before I knew of my family’s ministerial history.  Perhaps the only part of my own past that directly influenced the path that I would walk was the decision in the summer of 1966 to become a chemistry major at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).  (This, by the way, was also an unconscious act of rebellion because it did not fit the pattern that my father would have preferred; but that is for another time and place.)

The point must be made, and I feel that this is true for everyone, it is not necessarily one’s past that determines one’s future.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

When you look at the river of time, you see a changing image; one that is not fixed in the past.  But what you see can determine what you do.

I grew up at a time of great creativity.  The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik spurred a demand for increased mathematics and science education.  As I noted in “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”, there was development of curriculum materials that focused on experimentation, rather than the traditional method of rote memorization.  It was a process that required the development of higher-level thinking skills.

653px-bloomscognitivedomainFigure 1 – Categories in the cognitive domain (Bloom’s Taxonomy) – Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001

And alongside this change in how science and mathematics were being taught came a similar expansion of what I shall call the creativity aspect of social relations.  No longer was there an acceptance of the traditional social status quo but a demand for an explanation of why people were treated equally in a world which proclaimed equality was the norm.  (Or as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “while all are equal, some are more equal than others.”)

I know that my questioning of Southern traditions began when I could see differences in the ways schools operated during the period from 1962 to 1966 when I moved from Alabama to Colorado to Missouri to Tennessee.

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.  Throughout that campaign, he used variations on the following George Bernard Shaw quote,

“You see things; and you will say, “Why?”  But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”

And in questioning some of those traditions, I began, in my own way, to ask “Why?” and “Why not?”

There are those today who would rather we not ask why but to simply take their word as the final authority on the matter, seemingly in both science and faith.

It should be noted that the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution is relatively modern.  At best, it arose because religious authorities, having accepted the primacy of the Bible, could not accepted a reasoned and developed idea about how life evolved on this planet.  But on at least one occasion in His ministry, Jesus told those around him to look at what they saw.  If we are not to look around us at the world in which we live, how will we ever be able to make this a better place?

And while many will say that it was the Catholic Church that was opposed to Galileo’s depiction of the cosmos (based on what he had observed), it was the academic establishment who opposed his ideas, simply because they were counter to what they were teaching.  This academic establishment pushed religious authorities to declare Galileo a heretic because that was the easiest way to get him out of the way.

It should also be noted that the notion of the “Big Bang”, confirmed by physical observations, was initially opposed by the scientific community because it was like the Creation story in Genesis.

If we are not teaching our children how to think and evaluate, how then can we even begin to envision the future?  And I am fully aware that in doing so, we are encouraging our children to think independently and without our input.  And this causes great concern for some because it brings into question what they have been teaching their children all these years.

My only response to this is that if you have been teaching your children through strict adherence to a set of guidelines and without explanation, you had better be willing to accept defiance and rebellion.  And you had better begin questioning just what it is that you believe.  Is your faith and belief system strong enough to withstand questioning?

My understanding of evolution and the “Big Bang” only enhances my belief in God, for when I see the wonders of His work, I can only begin to wonder how it all took place.  And, as it is written in Genesis, I was created in God’s image, then I was created to be a questioning and inquisitive individual.

I look at my heritage with an understanding that is where I come from.  But my heritage can never tell me where I am going.  Nothing from our past or our present can give us any insight into what our future will hold.  But it is what we do today that will allow there to be a future.

We must be working for a better understanding of the world around us, for a better understanding of the other people with whom we share this world, and for a better understanding of how we came to be on this planet.

The future will always be the last “great unknown” and getting there will not be easy but, with the tools and abilities that we have been given, it ought to be fun.

To Leave the World a Better Place

This is a day of double significance for me. First, as it is Boy Scout Sunday, it marks day that I was confirmed in the church. It is, if you will, my Christian Birthday, and it sounds a lot better to say that I am 47 than 61.

Second, this is also the anniversary weekend of Charles Darwin’s birth. As such, there are a number of pastors and lay speakers participating in Evolution Weekend events. I happen to be one of those participating. This is an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project which is an endeavor that demonstrates that science and religion are compatible and is designed to elevate the quality of debate on this topic.

To quote from “The Clergy Letter Project” web page,

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic – to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letters themselves, which have now been signed by more than 13,000 members of the clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.

As it happens, I come from a chemistry background, and as I have said on a number of occasions, I could easily avoid the debate. My areas of interest and research are in the nature of introductory and freshman chemistry and far from the realm of biology. But my doctorate is in science education and I am concerned, both from a professional standpoint and as a parent and a grandparent, that our science education process is threatened when we purposefully dictate the nature of science instruction in this country.

I am not alone in this thought. Many years ago, when I was teaching chemistry in a high school in Missouri, the Missouri state legislature was thinking of passing a bill mandating the teaching of intelligent design in the biology classroom (legislation similar to what was recently passed by the Indiana state legislature). Now, as a chemistry teacher, I was not affected directly by this proposed legislation. But it was legislation that was designed to circumvent restrictions in place that prevented the introduction of religious topics into the science classroom under the disguise of scientific theory. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory though its proponents would have you think that it is.

Early on in my education and my professional career I had to make a decision. Shall I accept the physical evidence about the world in which I live or shall I accept the notion that the earth was created in seven days? Did God not create me in His image and does that not mean that I look at the world around me with open eyes? I have come to the conclusion that God is demanding that I seek an explanation that matches the evidence that is laid out before me.

Now, to underscore all of this, let me state without hesitation and very clearly, that I do believe that God did create this universe. But the evidence concerning the age of the universe tells me that He did it some 14 billion years ago. What does it say when others say that God made it seem like the world is very old. Is the God that cares for me a liar and a trickster?

I wrote back in 2010,

As Dr. Watke pointed out, if we deny the reality of the physical world, we are denying the truth of God in this world and that ultimately means that we deny truth and we deny God.

If you believe as I do, you can see the Hand of God in the fossil records and the cosmology of the universe. The complexity of such geological history and the wonder of the stars demands an explanation, an explanation that goes beyond an equation where two protons are forced together under intense pressure and extremely high temperatures to form a helium atom and release an extremely large amount of energy. It is more than simply an explanation of the physical processes; it is an explanation of why we are here as well. What I see is a world in which God has challenged us to find Him and understand what He has done and is doing.

It seems to me that those who oppose the teaching of evolution do so out of fear. They fear that open thinking will lead to a loss of control, of being able to dictate what people can think and say. We have been created in God’s image; yet, it strikes me that those who seek to continue to control what is taught have made God in their image.

If we are to understand God and how we fit within the scheme of things, we must explore this world and this universe. We must ask questions, even if we are afraid of the answers. If we do not use our abilities to their fullest, as God would have us do, then we fail ourselves and God. (The World “Out There”

In April, 1997, Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb noted that

. . . when fundamentalist creationists claim that fossils were placed on earth by God to test man’s faith, they are denying a major principle of science, the principle of causality. And they do so without a shred of evidence to substantiate their claim.

If humans cannot trust the evidence provided by the universe, then all science becomes futile; the search for objective knowledge becomes futile; and no scientific knowledge gathered to date can be true.

This religious stance that certain natural phenomena are distorted to give false clues to test human faith is the ultimate denial of science. As Einstein once said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Thus, (a) belief system in which a God behaves according to whim and caprice means that we humans can only live in a world of perpetual ignorance. Fundamentalist religion, especially its derivative, creationism, is anti-intellectual, and it prefers that humans live in perpetual ignorance. (adapted from

If we were, as it is written later in Genesis, created in God’s image then we have the ability to look at the world around us and ask questions about that world. I believe that those questions that lead to the writing of Genesis in the first place. If we are not asking questions about this world and our place in this world, then I truly believe that we are not living up to the standards that God has placed before us. (And when I read and hear some of the stuff in politics and just in general, I am convinced that we are not even close.)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.

I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.

To me, Paul is saying that you have to give your best all the time. And while I may no longer be associated with the Boy Scouts, I still live by the oath that I took when I was a scout over forty years ago.

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

Everything in that oath echoes the sentiment that Paul expressed in his words to the Corinthians. To me, it means that I must go, if you will, beyond the walls of our present existence; we must think outside the box that we live in. We do not need to be scientists in the same way that I pursued a degree in chemistry but we do need to have an open and inquiring mind.

And that is what science is about, the pursuit of knowledge, to find answers to questions asked and unasked. It is about going into new territory, both physically and mentally. Yes, it can be frightening; yes, we may not like the answers that we gain in our search. But is our life better if we refuse to find the answers that we do not like?

In the Old Testament reading for today (2 Kings 5:1-14) we read of Naaman being diagnosed with leprosy. His response was, at first, probably anger because this disease can and is one of the most disfiguring diseases one could think of. And unless he could be cured, he was doomed to a life outside society, a society that feared the person as much as the disease.

And though he was told that there was a possible cure, his approach was one of intimidation and fear as if he could force the cure. He had no appreciation for God’s power or what might happen if he opened his mind to other possibilities.

We live in a world dominated by fear and ignorance. It is ignorance not only of the world around us but of our mind and what we can and cannot do.

We seem to think that we can achieve better results through intimidation. Our solution for so many problems today is the same solution that Naaman proposed. And, just like Naaman, we are often unwilling and unable to accept alternative solutions. We are quite willing to accept the actions of charlatans and false prophets as the truth because they cloak their actions in the name of God and often times what they say and do fit into what we think is the truth.

What was it that Jesus once said, “seek the truth and the truth will set you free”? When you are willing to live within the constraints of what society dictates; when you are willing to accept the pronouncements of others as the truth willingly and blindly, you are not free but enslaved. It is when you begin to question, when you begin to explore that one becomes free. Some may say that science is the enemy of religion; sometime it is when religion is based on falsehoods or demands for total obedience to an individual and not to God. But I also know or believe that you must have both science and religion together in order for the truth to set you free.

What made the leper come to Jesus that day described in today’s Gospel reading? Was it in desperation or was in full knowledge that there was hope? I would think he came because he knew what Jesus had done. Either he had heard or seen the results so he knew that his hope was in Jesus. Yes, it was his faith that brought him to Jesus and it was his faith that was the catalysis for his healing. But Jesus also required that he have the healing confirmed (which too many of today’s “faith healers” do not do). Science will not accept a discovery until it has been confirmed.

And while Jesus may not have wanted the healing announced to the world, what was the leper to do? His friends were sure to ask him how it was that he had been cured and he would have had to tell them. And the freedom that he felt and enjoyed would only make him want to tell others, just as the woman at the well told others what Jesus had done for her.

When I would go camping as Boy Scout, the leaders would always remind us to leave the campsite and the area a better place than what it was when we came. When we come to Christ, be it as a child or an adult, we find a new freedom. And like the leper in Mark, this new freedom cannot be hidden; it has to be told.

We have been a great opportunity this day, to use the skills and powers that God gave us, to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ, to leave this world a better place. It is a great challenge and a great opportunity. How will you respond this day?

Following the Rules

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), 15 February 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12 -20, and Luke 6: 17 – 26.

I believe in my heart and with all my soul that Jesus was a radical and revolutionary. Unfortunately, this view has gotten me into a lot of trouble, especially in my own family.

Some years ago, in one of my very first sermons, I suggested this very idea. That particular Sunday, one of my cousins was visiting. Paul is the patriarch of the Schüessler family, the oldest son of the oldest son of my maternal great-great grandfather. He, along with his father and two brothers, is a Lutheran minister, one of many that dominate the heritage of our family. After the service that Sunday, he commented that I really should not have portrayed Jesus in such a manner. Yet, a year later, in a sermon preached to the entire Schüessler clan, he raised the image of Jesus as a revolutionary. He did acknowledge that this view of our Lord and Savior came in part from what I had said the year before.

One of the reasons that I see Christ in these terms is that He challenged the status quo, He challenged the notions that people had about their relationship with God. The problem then and even now is that much of our understanding comes from what others have said or written. We willingly let others define what Christ should be for us when it should be up to us to make that definition.

When you get home, carefully reread the words of Jeremiah. He is warning us about relying on the thoughts of others to determine what our own thoughts should be. He starts by quoting the beginning of Psalm 1. But the Psalmist was emphasizing that a good life, the keys to blessing came from avoiding the wicked and studying the Torah. Jeremiah emphasized that the keys to a good life and well-being were found through trust in the Lord.

The “tree of life” that Jeremiah speaks of is the symbol of wisdom. Wisdom is meant to be the ability to perceive the order of God in creation, the intelligence to act in accordance with God’s order, and the moral behavior that leads to well being. Wisdom was not necessarily found in the hearts of mankind.

Jeremiah felt that you could not trust in both God and man. If you turned to one, you would turn away from the other. If we were to turn where our heart would lead us, than we are apt to turn away from where God is leading us or where God would have us go.

That might have been the rationale or reason for Paul writing about the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians. There were those in Corinth who argued against the actual occurrence of the resurrection. Among the arguments presented was that it was not a physical resurrection but rather a spiritual one that we all go through.

But, and this is the central point to Paul’s rebuttal, if there is no resurrection, if Christ was not raised from the dead, then there is no hope in our faith, there is no promise in what we do. Even today, there are those in the Christian community who would argue that the basic tenets of our faith are no longer valid. They argue that science and the progress of civilization have made many of our statements of faith meaningless and mute. How can there be a loving God if there is war, violence, and repression in the world? If God so loved this world that He would send His only Son, how is it that we have sickness and death?

But wars are the consequences of mankind’s behavior, not God’s. God gave us the wisdom and the ability to act. If there are wars or violence, if there is hatred or repression in this world, it is because we have failed to be God’s servants, not because God has abandoned us. In sending His son, God said to us that He would never abandon us. Our own propensity for war or violence, repression and hatred; our own desires to put our thoughts first, to make the decision about what we are to do merely indicates that we perhaps have abandoned God. This is a world in which there is a lot to fear but putting the blame on an insensitive God does not remove or take away the fear.

When Jesus stood on the plain that day he knew the fears of the people gathered before Him. They were a people living under a tyrannical and repressive foreign government. The taxes imposed by Rome and their own leaders were so burdensome that there was virtually no middle class. Their own leaders worked hand-in-hand with the foreign governor, compromising their own values solely to survive.

Many felt that life was hopeless and adopted a cavalier, laziez faire, “what difference does it make” attitude. Some felt that it was necessary to fight back, to use the same weapons of violence as were used on them. And the Pharisees felt that only by slavish devotion to the countless, myriad, and often-contradictory laws was salvation possible.

This was the world in which Jesus lived; these were the people who gathered before Him that day. The Beatitudes, whether we speak of the traditional text found in Matthew or the shortened version that Luke wrote about in today’s Gospel reading, were not simply a collection of simple statements designed to comfort different groups of people. And they could not be read alone.

Think about the first time you read the Beatitudes and how you may have viewed them as individual statements. They seemed rather contradictory.

How can the meek inherit the world? Shouldn’t it be the ones that have the spirit in their lives who inherit the kingdom of heaven? But that is our thinking being applied to Jesus’ words. We fail to see the commitment that He put before us in order for us to reach the kingdom of Heaven.

Rather, they were meant to identify the stages of experience each person would go through in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus spoke of the poor but he was not speaking to the financially poor. Some may feel that he was offering pity to those that lacked resources for there were certainly many that did, but that would only give credence to their poverty. Rather he was speaking about those that lacked spirit and acknowledged that they were poor in spirit would find the ultimate in riches. Those were the ones who were more apt to find what they are looking for.

Some might have been hungry but it was not food that would satisfy their hunger. It was a hunger for righteousness in this world and the hunger would be gone when there was no injustice.

When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth, he was not offering to make the people more comfortable in their sins. He was calling them to a new life in the Spirit, to a citizenship in His beloved community. The peace that they sought could be found in this community; it was a community that could bring peace to the world. Each of the Beatitudes was a step in the path towards that citizenship.

Each step was not merely an acknowledgement of what they lacked or what they sought; rather, it was a called to action. You cannot be a peacemaker simply by changing the environment; you must also change your heart.

To those whose loyalties lie with this world, those who are citizens of God’s kingdom are subversive agents, dangerous enemies that cannot be tolerated. They must be persecuted, ridiculed, ignored, or removed.

But Jesus warned those who make such citizenship an act of martyrdom to be carefully as well. It was not our task to go out into the work and deliberately seek persecution. To seek abuse in the name of God is hardly what the Word of God is about. That would, again, be our thinking; that would be our telling God what to do.

What Jesus told us to do then and what tells us to do now is to preach the Word and lead a life in great contrast to the world around us. Look at what Jesus said in the next passage in Luke. When we are struck on the check, we should turn the other check. When we find someone naked and cold, we should give that person the coat off our back.

We have a hard time with this approach because they are new rules and they are rules to a game that we may not want to play. They are not simply rules to follow, they are words of action. And it requires that we see the world in new terms, terms that we do not define.

God did not mean our lives to be solitary devoid of human contact. If others cannot see us, we are just as well hidden from God. Jesus’ words this day are a call to action, to do more than just listen. No matter what the cost might be, the words that Jesus spoke are how we should live. It is not simply a matter of course to preach the words; rather, we must demonstrate that we are living the words.

The Pharisees put forth a series of rules that defined each day. But in defining each day, they thought nothing of tomorrow. Jesus gave a set of rules to follow that would give us much more than today, following his rules gave us eternal life. Which set of rules do you wish to follow?

It’s That Simple

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B), 16 February 2003. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45.

As some of you may know or as I may have alluded to in the past, I am a fan of the Star Trek series. Note that there is a distinction between being a fan and being a “trekkie”. A “trekkie” is easily identifiable by the depth of their knowledge of the original show and its resulting spin-offs as well as the size of their collection of Star Trek memorabilia. By definition, my sister Tracey with her vast collection of Star Trek materials is on her way to being a “trekkie” while Keith Shikowitz, my friend and doubles partner, is the quintessential “trekkie”.

I am a fan, most notably because of James T. Kirk, the captain of the Enterprise that most people know. I am slowly becoming a fan of Jonathan Archer, the captain of the NX-01, the first Enterprise, as the words of Star Trek so vividly remind us, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Archer gets a vote because his explorations in space set the tone for future explorations by Kirk , Picard, and the other captains of the Enterprise.

There are those who would vote for Jean Luc Picard as the best of the captains. In fact, in some management circles today, there are those who strive for the “make it so” approach that Picard uses in command decisions. But I like Kirk.

First, I like Kirk in part because he is from Iowa. And if you doubt that, all you have to do is go to the small country town of Riverside, Iowa. In the town square in Riverside today is a monument that points out that in 2233, James Tiberius Kirk, the future captain of the Starship Enterprise, will be born in that town. I like to think that had Kirk not left Riverside for the Starfleet Academy, he would have journeyed up the road to Iowa City and attended the University of Iowa, as I did. Much to my sister and Keith’s regret, as well as my own, I failed to take a picture of this unique monument when I passed through the town during the summer of 1998.

But perhaps the reason that I like Kirk as a leader is his approach to problem solving. For those not well versed in the curriculum of the Starfleet academy, all graduates must partake in a simulation known as the “Kobyashi Maru problem”. Notice that the requirement is that the graduate take part in the simulation, not pass it. For in the history of Starfleet Academy, only one person has ever successfully solved the problem.

The Kobyashi Maru problem is first and foremost a no-win situation. There is no solution to the problem and every future captain who has taken the simulation has failed, resulting in the loss of his or her ship, the officers and crew. It is a test of how a captain deals with life and death and ultimate failure. But Kirk passed this test and you must be asking how? As he himself said, it was a matter of changing the parameters of the problem so that a winning solution was possible. But as one of his officers noted, he cheated. What he did was sneak into the control room the night before he was scheduled to take the simulation and reprogram the computer to allow for a winning solution. Why did Kirk do it? Why risk an almost sure expulsion from the academy so close to graduation? As Kirk himself said, he did it because he did not want to face death. Nor did he like the idea of losing.

We are all like Kirk at times, not wishing to face death or the end of life. We see life in terms defined by society, measured by how well we do according to society’s guidelines. We have turned life into a race or contest; one in which the contestants have defined the outcome. And in such a race, solutions, the way to win, are often hard to find.

Kirk looked at the problem and came up with a solution that would be considered “outside the box.” We are not always comfortable with that type of thinking, for it puts us in the position of having to push the limits of our own thoughts. Jesus used a similar approach through his ministry.

Don’t confuse creativeness with cheating. It was said that the officers of Enron and WorldCom used similar thinking in their accounting processes. True, their accounting procedures were creative but were done solely for their own gain and done at the expense of the employees of the company. While the officers may have gotten rich, the employees lost everything. While Kirk may have been motivated by his desire not to face death, his actions saved the ship, his officers and crew from death and failure as well.

As we look at Jesus’ ministry, we will see countless examples of thinking “outside the box” and against the current views of society. Everyone who sought Jesus did so because society had cast them out, said to them that their lives were worthless. The choice of a leper in today’s Gospel reading was perhaps a very deliberate one on Mark’s part.

Leprosy was one of the most feared diseases in the Bible. It was not necessarily the leprosy of modern times, a disease better known as Hansen’s disease. But it was one that was contagious and contact with lepers was not advised. Elisha, the prophet, did not want to meet Naaman, the general in the Old Testament reading for fear of infection.

If you were a leper in those days, you were cast out and condemned to a life without hope. And if there was no hope, there can be no future. For those condemned by society and offered no chance for the future, Jesus was their last hope. To them, hearing of this man from Nazareth whose healing powers were indescribable, was a sign of hope. To them, Jesus represented hope and the promise of the future. And in a society where success was determined by one’s ability to fit into a predetermined mold, Jesus showed that there was a better solution.

Note that Jesus’ reaction to the leper’s request to be healed was one of compassion. Here was a soul forgotten not only by society, but also by his family and friends. And not only did Jesus answer the man’s request, he did so by touching him, something most definitely against all rules of society. But though Jesus knew and had no doubts about the correctness of his own actions, he also knew that the religious and political leaders of that time would use the occasion, as they did others, to show how Jesus was working against society. In part, that is why he commanded all those who he healed to remain silent.

It is easy to understand what Paul was writing about in the passage from Corinthians that we read for today. Corinth was a hot bed of athletic competition, highlighted by an annual race. Competitors in the race trained for the ten months preceding the race in order to be ready for it. In referring to disqualification, Paul was referring to the rules that disqualified those who would seek to use inappropriate or unethical means as a way to win the race. And though this race brought laud and honor to the victor, the other athletes received nothing to show for their work and effort over the previous ten months.

If we view life in the terms of the race, as Paul was saying some did, with only one winner, we will quickly find ourselves disillusioned with life. Though there are times when winning is acceptable, to view life in those terms is not. Life may be a race but it is one in which everyone has a chance to win and winning is not determined by how well some do or how poorly others do.

Paul spoke of training to win the race. He knew that any champion must have a dedication to succeed, no matter what the cost. Even a life in Christ required the discipline of a champion. But Paul wanted those that were reading this letter to know that a life in Christ offered all the chance for winning, not just for a select few or the ones with the most talent or dedication.

Each of us has a calling to follow God and how we answer the call will determine if we win the reward that goes with the calling. Paul knew that by remaining faithful to the calling, he would receive the reward but if he ignored or treated lightly his mission, the reward would be lost. And such a loss was a very real possibility for Paul had seen others who had given up their calling simply because the cost was too great and the demands of the life too great.

We are at a point in time where all we see around us are signs of despair and abandonment. We see panic where thoughtful consideration is needed. And we are asking what we should do. Could it be that life has become so complicated that simple answers do not work?

That was most certainly the response of Naaman when Elisha commanded him to bath seven times in the River Jordan. His response was that was too simple a solution. Did not his own position in life, as a powerful general, demand a cure reflective of his stature in life? Were not the rivers of his own homeland just as good or better as the River Jordan?

But it is too his credit that he, Naaman, listened to his servants. They pointed out that he would have willingly done something difficult or hazardous if that had been what Elisha had commanded him to do. So why not think about the simple solution? And once he did so, Naaman knew that the simple solution was the best solution.

Paul wrote that we are runners in a race but it is not a race with only one winner. The race defined by society can only have one winner, a winner defined by economy, politics, and other societal influences. And when we get tangled up with the rules imposed on us by society, it becomes easy to lose sight of what life is about.

But, it is very comforting to know that no matter how complicated life gets, there is a simple solution. And in a time where we are faced with challenges whose solutions seem beyond our comprehension, it is nice to know that a simple solution exists. And when it seems that society has passed us by, cast us out or shut us out, it is comforting to know that a simple solution exists.

It would be just as simple to say that no solution exists; that there is no hope; that we can do nothing. It would be very easy to say to those who society has abandoned that there is nothing we can do for them because there is nothing we can do for ourselves.

We are in a society rushing by, demanding more and more of our time, not giving us time to pause. And while we may think that in a complicated society it will be a complicated solution that saves us, all we have to do is think about Naaman. He wanted a complicated answer but found that it was a simple one that worked best. Jesus was on the road to the next town in order to continue his ministry but he still had the time to stop and answer the cry of a lonely leper needing help. Sometimes during the hectic pace of life, the best solution is something not complicated but simple, to stop and pause, to ask for Jesus’ help. For Jesus promised that no matter when or where, He would always be there to answer our cry for help.

We might be comfortable that Jesus is a part of our life. We may have found the peace that others seek. But then we had better remember that the race of life still requires training and discipline and we cannot run the race if someone else is on the side of the road. Our own race means nothing if we pass by those in need, if we shun others because they don’t fit into a predetermined mold. Remember that after he had been cured, the leper could not remain silent but had to tell others what had happened.

Life may be complicated and there definitely are no easy answers. But life changes when we take Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior. It is that simple.

“Two Roads”

This was the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12 – 20, and Luke 6: 17 – 26. It was also Boy Scout Sunday.


Robert Frost

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 Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poems. I suppose that is because of all that times that I have chosen roads not traveled by others. But though the roads that I have walked have been different from my counterparts, I know that I have traveled them with Christ as my companion.

The same is true for all of us. As we journey through life, we come to points were decisions must be made. One reason we are here today is that, at some time in our life, we decided that the journey we would make, the road we would take would have a singular destination. And just like the tree draws its strength from the stream, so too does the strength we need to complete our journey come from the presence of Christ in our lives.

As Paul said, our faith is built on the singular idea that Christ died and was resurrected for us. Jeremiah stayed true to the task put before him because his roots drank from the deep, life-giving water that assured him of God’s faithfulness to his people.

Paul reminded the early Christian community that this living stream is the firm belief in and commitment to Christ’s resurrection. Without the resurrection, our faith is truly in vain and we are “the most pitiable people of all.” With belief in Christ’s resurrection, the Sermon on the Mount is not just counter-cultural but utterly senseless as well. To claim the resurrection is to know that the least of people will truly will be first, and that our tears truly will be turned into joy. It is the certainty that those mired in death will be raised into new life, that God’s kingdom will reign on earth, liberating the captives and rescuing the poor.

We have to remember that the word “disciple” does not mean “a student of a teacher” but rather “a follower of someone”. Discipleship in the New Testament meant following Jesus and journeying with Him. As a journey with Jesus, discipleship means being on the road with Him. It means to be an itinerant, a sojourner; to have nowhere to lay one’s head, no permanent-resting place. To journey with Jesus means listening to his teaching — sometime understanding it, sometimes not getting it. It can involve denying Him, even betraying Him.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. While the road we take with Jesus may be an individual one, being a disciple means we make our journey in a company of others. Though we may travel a road less traveled, we are part of a community that remembers and celebrates Jesus. That is why we are here this morning; we have chosen to be part of a community that celebrates the presence of Jesus in our lives.

It is a journey in his company, in his presence. There is a joy in his presence. It is impossible to be said in Jesus’ presence. Perhaps one might feel sadness, but not sadness about existence itself. Jesus spoke of the joy that we would receive when the journey was completed and he warned what would happen to those who felt that the rewards they had gathered on this earth were the rewards that they would get in heaven.

As we invite others to join in this community, to walk with us on the road we have decided to take and share in this joy, we have to realize that each of our journeys is unique. Though we share our journey and celebrate our being a community together, we have to realize that we cannot make someone walk the path that we are walking. Each person chooses to walk his or her own road and we cannot command them to walk road that we walk.

The challenge is not to get others to walk on our road but rather to share in the journey, to arrive at that same destination. Like Paul and Jeremiah before us, we cannot wait for the kingdom to come to us. The waters of our baptism, our understanding as Methodists compel us to start construction here and now.

Following Jesus requires a strength, passion, and courage that is not of this world. Without it, we would all be “done for” after the first week. This source of life and strength is the stream which Jeremiah and the psalmist speak, and only when we plunge our roots deeply into it do we have any hope of being God’s instrument of justice and peace in this troubled world.

Being a disciple is also about being compassionate. “Being compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of a follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus. Ours is not to command others to walk on the road that we have chosen to walk but rather to invite others to share our journey with them and to be a part of a community of sharing and compassion.

Discipleship means eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. That banquet is an inclusive banquet, including not just me and not just us, but those whom we might want to exclude. It means being nourished by him and being fed by him. Such seems to be the point of Jesus feeding the five thousand in the wilderness, just as Israel was fed in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. It becomes a powerful symbol of journeying with Jesus and being fed by him on that journey. “Take, eat, lest the journey be too great for you.”

As we come to the table this morning, knowing that it is open to all, we are sharing in that journey and the community who make that journey. At some time our roads may separate and the paths we take vary, but we know that it is the destination that we are headed to that counts, not the path we take.

“It’s About Commitment”

These are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 3: 1 – 19, and Matthew 5: 21 -37.

This is also Boy Scout Sunday and Evolution Sunday. Evolution Sunday is a project of the Clergy Letter Project; this will be the third year that I have participated in this project (see “The Differing Voices of Truth” and “That Transforming Moment”).

Now, I have to first begin with that same thought that John Meunier had last Tuesday (“Laity Lectionary Blogging – Mt 5: 21 – 37”). How do you write about murder and divorce, the two main topics of the Gospel reading? Those that know me that the latter of the two is especially uncomfortable for me as well. But when I looked at what Paul wrote to the Corinthians and I considered what was being said in Deuteronomy, I saw a theme of commitment.

The three scriptures spoke to me of a commitment, a commitment to know who I am and a commitment to know something about the world in which we all live. It is a commitment to show and lead others so that they can discover who they are and know more about where they live.

Sadly, there are many people who do not wish to know more about the world in which they live. They have no desire to seek the world beyond the horizon nor do they want to know anything about what may be on the other side of the road.

It would seem to me that this was an issue that Paul was facing when he wrote to the Corinthians. It would seem that they, the Corinthians, were quite comfortable with letting someone else do the work, of accepting Christ as their Savior but then not doing anything once that was done. We have that same mentality in our world today. We basically let others tell us what to think and we have no desire to determine if what we are being told has any degree of truth to it. As we watched the developments in Egypt over the past two weeks, we also heard many people warn us that great danger will come out of all this.

And as I read the words of Paul, I read Paul literally saying that it was time for each of those who heard his words to begin doing the work. And doing it at a level far beyond what we might do on our own. To reach such higher levels or to meet higher expectations means that we must be committed to the task.

If we say that we are Christian, then we are saying, at the least, that we are committed to walking a path through life with Christ. But do our words echo that same commitment? Over the past few weeks, I have talked about the feeding ministry at my home church and how some members of that church are resentful or angry that those that they feel are lesser than them are allowed in “their” church. But it is interesting to see some of those who come to the ministry and feel that they are somehow entitled to take all they wish, knowing that there are others who will not receive anything because of their greediness but seeming to not care. Do we turn away those who abuse the system? We have made a commitment in the feeding ministry to not turn away anyone; we do not ask that you meet some sort of criteria. But we have decided that we will, as it were, call their bluff, to point out that they have received their fair share and that others have the same right. If they get angry, so be it. Their poverty does not grant them the right to expect more just as the relative wealth of others does not grant them the right to deny as well.

What is expected is that each person does what Jesus calls us to do in the Gospel reading today, make sure that what we say and what we do are consistent. If our lives need to change, then now is the time to make that change. There is a new land on the other side of the horizon, the Promised Land of the Israelites. But one cannot, as the writer of Deuteronomy noted, survive in that land unless one is willing to make the necessary changes in one’s life.

I will always acknowledge that my life changed when I made the decision in 1963 to pursue the God and Country Award while I was a Boy Scout. And I realize that there was a time in my life where I did not keep the commitment that reaching that goal meant. I saw it in my life and I knew that I had to make a change.

Similarly, I made a commitment to a life of searching for truth when I told Wray Rieger that I would major in chemistry when I began my studies at Truman State University. No one told me that one could not follow Christ and also be a student of Robert Boyle or Joseph Priestly (though I didn’t know that I would walk such a path at that time – see my notes on Boyle and Priestly in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”).

And just as Boyle and Priestly were determined to understand what it was that God did with this universe, I find myself amazed by the wonders as well. And I know that God has given me the ability and the opportunity to delve deeper into that realm. Am I to say that is beyond my vision?

There are those who will tell me that I must; that I must choose one path over the other. It always strikes me that when someone tells me this, they are trying to lead my life for me and they have no desire that I understand the truth for myself. The one thing Paul wanted us to do was see the truth for ourselves and not rely on what he or others might say.

We stand at the beginning of a new century, just as the Israelites stood on the banks of the River Jordan so many thousand years ago. We can, if we desire, stay where we are, just as those who stared at the Promised Land did. But time will not stop for us, no matter how hard we try and we must make a decision.

Shall we be committed to a life in Christ? Shall we accept the idea that this commitment requires great things from us? We do not have to see beyond the horizon but to not do so will mean death. If we commit our lives to Christ, we can see beyond the horizon and we can find ways to get to the land beyond the horizon.

Our decision to follow Christ means finding the truth, of understanding who we are and where we are in this universe. It is an exploration of the depth of one’s soul and the width of one’s world. To decide not to follow Christ is to say that one wants a very small world. To make the commitment opens the world and that is what we are invited to do today.

One By One

I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany.  The Scriptures are 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.


A couple of years ago I posted a piece on my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it I suggested several pieces of music from my high school and college days that could serve as the backdrop for scripture readings (“Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds and “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane among others). Each of these pieces has some basis in scripture, though I believe that “Turn, Turn, Turn” was the only one knowingly written with the scripture in mind. This merger of modern music continues today as the group U2 does allow its music used in a particular type of service.

Now, my purpose in posting “A Rock and Roll Revival” and its follow-up pieces (“The Rock And Roll Revival Continued” and “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” was to show that one could have a “modern” worship service with music that provides meaning and inspiration. When I listen to so much of what passes as Christian music today, I hear nothing that moves my soul or inspires me to seek a higher plain. Too much of today’s Christian music is of the “7-11” type, that is seven words repeated 11 times.

Now, it has been pointed out that some of the Psalms contain this type of repetition and the repetition adds meaning to the Psalm. But there are other times when the repetition offers no support or meaning to the song and is merely a substitute for substance. If we are to have modern music in our worship services today, then we have to have music that engages us and challenges us, not simply fills a portion of time in the service (adapted from “7-11 Songs and the Use of Repetition”).

I bring this up because I think the church today is at a crossroads. It is a crossroads much like the one that mentioned in Jeremiah 6: 16

Go stand at the crossroads and look around. Ask for directions to the old road, the tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.

But they said, ‘Nothing doing. We aren’t going that way.’

I even provided watchmen for them to warn them, to set off the alarm. But the people said, ‘It’s a false alarm. It doesn’t concern us.’

And so I’m calling in the nations as witnesses: ‘Watch, witnesses, what happens to them!’ And, ‘Pay attention, Earth! Don’t miss these bulletins.’

I’m visiting catastrophe on this people, the end result of the games they’ve been playing with me. They’ve ignored everything I’ve said, had nothing but contempt for my teaching. What would I want with incense brought in from Sheba, rare spices from exotic places? Your burnt sacrifices in worship give me no pleasure. Your religious rituals mean nothing to me.”

Now, I am not offering an apocalyptic view of these times but I do see a warning in these times that we, the people who call ourselves Christians, are ignoring. And while there are those today who would argue that these are in fact the End Times and that God is going to destroy the world, these same people seem to me to be cheering for the destruction of the world in hopes that they will be the first ones taken from this earth when it happens.

But when I hear these people cheering for the destruction of the world because they believe that they will be taken up, I am reminded of the words of Christ from Matthew 25:

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

“Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

The church must decide in which direction it wants to go and the decision must be made quickly. It is a decision by the institutional church; it is a decision by individual churches; and it is a decision that must be made by each individual member.

The church as it is today is based almost entirely on the past, that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected. To put the church in a modern setting requires more than just concessions to the times; you cannot say that the church has modernized itself just because it has replaced organ music with guitar music.

And while it must look backwards in time to the life, death, and resurrection, it must also look forward in time. It must be prepared to anticipate where the footsteps of Christ are and where it is leading the church and its people.

The church must respond to the needs of the people, no matter whom they are or where they may be. It is a challenge that many churches are not well-prepared to face, let alone meet.

The problem may be in that the church has created an attitude that its way, whatever it may be, is the best way. The church and its members has projected their self-interests unto the view of history.

If we read many of the sermons of pastors in England at the time of the Wesleyan Revival, we see a real and genuine concern for the lower and working classes. But this concern is tempered with a feeling that the only way they, the poor and working class, are going to obtain salvation is by taking on the culture of the upper classes. What John Wesley did was not to make people feel that they had to be like their betters but help them to find Christ in their own worlds and lives.

When we re-read the story of Naaman, we see that same replacement of God’s will with our own. Naaman is afflicted with some sort of skin disease, often translated as leprosy. We now know that leprosy (or Hansen’s disease) is caused by a bacterium and, when identified, not very contagious. But the very nature of the disease and its affects on the body in its extreme (it can cause the loss of fingers and toes and the disfigurement of the face) lead to those infected with the disease becoming outcasts in society. Rightly or wrongly, people feared contact with an infected person. When Jesus told the leper to see the priest, it was as much to mark his re-entry into society as it was to proclaim the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the Old Testament reading for today, we can sense a degree in Naaman that a cure must be found for his illness, for the consequences of the illness will drive him from society. He is told that there is someone in Israel who can offer a cure. We can see in his efforts to obtain this cure the ethos of power; he is powerful in his own right so he will only deal with the powerful people in Israel. Thus, he sends a letter of introduction to the king of Israel asking for help in this matter.

Quite naturally, the king of Israel panics when he receives this letter. After all, he doesn’t know the answer nor does he know who might know the answer and he fears what might happen if he does not provide Naaman with the response Naaman wants. Perhaps Naaman does not have that inclination; then again, the fear of what might happen if he doesn’t find a cure may suggest to him that he keep an open mind. As we read, the word gets to Elisha, and Elisha sends word to Naaman as to what he must do in order to be healed.

And while Naaman is obviously open to suggestions as to what he needs to do, the suggestion that Elisha provides does in fact offend Naaman and his sense of power and position. What I read in Naaman’s response to Elisha telling him to bathe in the waters of the River Jordan seven times is that powerful and wealthy people require elegant and sophisticated solutions. Naaman saw his life in terms of his position and his power, not as an individual; he saw his problem as a reflection of his position and that any solution would require an appreciation for that position and the power that comes with the position.

Yet, as one of Naaman’s own servants commented, if the task had been difficult to accomplish, he would have easily undertaken it. How much more difficult would it have been to do something easy? In other words, because of his position and power, Naaman was looking for a complicated solution when a simple solution was right in front of him.

We have transformed the church today into our own image. Granted, it is a transformation that has taken place over time and one that most people are not aware. They grew up in the church and are comfortable knowing that it is the same today as it was yesterday and that it will be the same tomorrow. They do not care that the membership of the church is aging and that fewer and fewer younger people are coming to church. They are not worried that there are youth out there who would like to come to church but know that they will feel unwelcome because of the way they dress or the lifestyle that they have adopted. They are not worried that too many young people today see the message of the church as exclusive and hateful, contrary to the very words of Christ that they were taught in Sunday School and confirmation class.

Some have begun to worry about the church and so they have created newer and alternative worship services. But many of the services were created in rebellion to the old ways and the intransigence of the older members to change. Their worship service is simply a newer version of the old and soon it will have the same effect on the membership that the old worship service did. You cannot expect better results by changing the appearance but keeping the same message.

Whether they worship in a traditional or a modern setting, too many Christians today are comfortable in their safe and protected sanctuary; they believe that attendance on Sunday will enable them to enter heaven with trumpets sounding and angels singing. The problems of the world are outside the door of the church and that is where they will stay.

But there are those, both old and young, who see the problems of the church today and wonder what they must do to bring the community back into the church. In the portion of the letter to the Corinthians that we read today, Paul offers a hint to the solution. First, he points out that when we watch a race, we think in terms of who wins and who loses. That is the nature of competition but it is not what we should be doing.

Too many times I hear pastor’s speak of competing for the people on Sunday morning. Let us forget competition but let us also offer an alternative; an alternative with Spirit and substance. It will take some doing; as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it takes hard work to prepare for the race and it will take hard work to offer the alternative. It will take reaching deep into the soul to find the ways that you can offer the alternative but it can be done.

When Jesus cured the leper, He told him to go to the priest and receive the appropriate blessing for returning to society. He also told the man not to tell others about what had happened; but like so many other times, the person who Jesus cured could not keep silent and they told their friends and their friends told their friends. No matter how hard the establishment worked against the mission of Jesus, it grew.

When John Wesley spoke out against the establishment and its view of the church in society, the establishment barred him from preaching in the churches of England. But he kept on preaching and the movement grew (otherwise, we might not be here today as we are).

Our task is not to fight the intransigence of those who oppose the growth of the church, those who say the church is dead or outmoded; our task is to engage in a dialogue with those around us and frame the mission of the church with the needs of the neighborhood. It is inevitable that we will be impatient or worry that we cannot accomplish this task. It is inevitable that we will worry more how shall we accomplish this task that we will the task itself? How shall we organize our efforts when there are so few of us? These are good and proper questions but they have to be framed within the context of discovering the ways Christ calls us from the world and into the world.

Questions of how we will accomplish the tasks before us are too often associated with the standards of today’s society. Time and time again, as we face the need to replace the old methods with newer ones, we find ourselves thinking that if we could only find the right and relevant method then we will soon be successful. We must change our view of the world from who wins but who competes; we must not worry about whether or not there are enough of us to complete the task before us but whether or not we understand what we have been called by God to do.

When Paul speaks of preparing for the competition, he is just as much speaking about preparing for the tasks ahead. We must understand the world around us as much as we seek to understand what Christ is calling us to do. And as Paul speaks of the joy in what he is doing, he is speaking of the opportunities that have been presented, not the success of his ministry.

So we begin, just as the single individual, be they the leper, the woman at the well or any of the countless others who came to Christ one day and asked to be healed, did. After each was healed, they went out into the world and told all those who would listen what happened. One by one, the Word was passed and one by one the church grew. So it will be today; as each one of us goes out into the world today, we will pass the Word to the next person and one by one the church will grow.