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 http://www.theharbinger.org/articles/rel_sci/gottlieb.html)

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?

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.

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.

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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.

Following Directions


This is the message I presented on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 13 February 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were 2 Kings 5: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27, and Mark 1: 40 – 45.

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It is not very often that I can use examples from chemistry in my sermons, but today is one day where that is possible. When I was working on my doctorate, I was faced with the synthesis of a particular platinum based compound. This synthesis involved a procedure that I had learned in organic chemistry. The only problem was that the procedure that I was to follow was actually backwards from what I had been taught in organic chemistry.

The reason for this switch was that the reaction was extremely exothermic, i.e., heat producing, and would have resulted in the destruction of what I had prepared up to that point, rather than creating the desired next step in the synthesis.

The problem with following directions exactly is that they don’t give you the flexibility to adjust to the situation that you are faced with. In another experiment, I saw the students through away the very material they were trying to produce because, in previous experiments, that was what the directions said to do. Each experiment is slightly different and requires that we prepare in advance.

The reading from the Epistle for today deals with the very issue of preparing. Paul drew a direct comparison between the Christian life and athletic competition. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian games, an athletic festival very similar to the Olympic games. Contestants in these games underwent ten months of very rigorous and mandatory training. If you failed to complete the training, you were not allowed to compete in the games.

The race that Paul prepared himself for, the race that all Christians are preparing for, was the calling of God. Paul taught that Christians are rewarded for the calling that God gives them. Paul had an apostolic ministry for which he sacrificed just about everything. He knew that if he was faithful to his calling he would received a reward from the Lord for his service. Paul also knew that if he ignored or treated lightly his mission he would not receive from God the victor’s crown of service.

Paul’s spiritual training was the very best available. Yet he never assumed that he would automatically persevere to the end of the race. He continued to discipline himself, to fight and to follow his calling from God.

One might see the same thing in the days when John and Charles Wesley were beginning the Methodist movement, it was this concept of discipline that Paul was referring to that lead them to the daily routine of prayer and bible study. This was done in spite of the taunts and jeers from the fellow college students. As has been pointed out many times before, the name “Methodists” was used to insult Wesley and the other members of the bible study group.

I think it must have been confusing for the Wesley’s, to endure this suffering as Paul would have done, yet to miss the joy that was to be theirs for following in Christ. For, just as it is well known that they were taunted, it is also well known that both John and Charles Wesley felt dissatisfaction with their lives.

This dissatisfaction went with them after they graduated from college and came to America as missionaries. Here was the chance to put into practice all the things that they had been working for while undergraduate students. Yet, when it was all said and done, they both returned home to England with a feeling of failure and disillusionment. For Charles Wesley, the feelings of depression were so severe that he became very ill and almost died.

Why is it that, despite their preparation, despite their adherence to a specific set of guidelines, they would have this feeling of loss and despair? After all, to have spent your whole life preparing for a ministry and to return home feeling that all that had been done was futile, must surely be the most hopeless feeling that we can have. Perhaps it was the same feeling that the Naaman, the king we read about in today’s reading for the Old Testament.

Understandably, his first reaction must have been one of anger and disbelief. Here was this great commander being told that all he had to do was something as simple as standing in the river Jordan, a minor river when compared to the great rivers of his own country. In verse 11, Naaman suggests that all God has to do is wave his hand and the leprosy would disappear.

Now, as we know for the Gospel reading for today, that is all God had to do, for Jesus merely commanded that the leper be healed and it was accomplished. But, by having Naaman go and stand in the river Jordan, Elisha was showing him the need to put his trust in God and to obey God. It is to Naaman’s great credit that he listed to his advisors and servants and did as he was told and was cured.

For Wesley, the great moment came when he realized that he had failed because he had not put his trust in God. When he knew that Christ had died for him as He died for each one of us. It is that moment at Aldersgate when John Wesley came to know the Holy Spirit that his preparation was complete. It is interesting to note that Charles also had a similar experience separate from that of John’s.

So, today, are we to simply wait for that moment in our own lives when the Holy Spirit comes to us. Jesus asked the man whom he had healed not to tell anyone who had healed him because it was not time for Jesus’ ministry to become well known. Obviously, that is not what the man did, nor do I think that such a healing could have been kept under wraps. Even Wesley’s friends could not help but notice the difference in Wesley’s life and demeanor after Aldersgate, such is the powerful affect of the Holy Spirit.

No, what is important for each of us to recognize today is that how we come to Christ is an individual thing. What works for one may not work for another.

In the Gospels themselves those closest to Jesus still retained their own individuality, even as they chose to follow him. Throughout history, those men and women who have been most successful in imitating Christ, those whom we called the saints have been one-of-a-kind individualists. Jesus ensured that there would be no mold to produce Christians. As Methodists, we fell that the central point of religion is one’s own personal relationship with God.

Jesus said that if we loved him, we would keep His word. Those directions are ones to follow, this day and always.

Seek the truth


Ordinarily, with this being the second Sunday in February, I would be writing about the Boy Scouts and the God and Country award. It was the study for and the completion of the God and Country award in 1965 that started me on the path that I have walked this past 41 years.

But the Scriptures this week don’t lend themselves to talking about the Boy Scouts. Second, the decisions of the Boy Scouts about who can be an adult leader and who can earn the Eagle award (which, by the way, I never did) have lead me to disavow any association with that once proud organization. The decisions that the Boy Scouts of America made were made out of fear and ignorance and have very little scientific validity. And that is what the Old Testament reading (2 Kings 5: 1 – 14) and Gospel (Mark 1: 40 – 45) for today are about. Leprosy was once one of the most feared diseases of the ancient times. Like all disease, people had no idea what caused it or how someone got sick. But leprosy added to these fears the additional stigma of disfigurement. A leper was feared because they were not only sick but hideous and frightful to look at. Fear was often the most common reaction by the public.

But, like most diseases today, we know the cause of leprosy and how to treat it and cure it. But there is a disease, perhaps a virus, that runs through all of society that produces the same results as disease did in Biblical times. It is the disease of fear and ignorance and it produces great amounts of hatred and intolerance.

Think back to the early 1980’s when the AIDS epidemic was first beginning. We knew nothing about the disease and we made comments that it was God’s retribution for the lifestyles of those affected. Then Ryan White got sick. Ryan White was a twelve-year old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS. He and his brothers did not fit the profile of the typical AIDS patient and we had to wonder why God would inflict such a punishment on a family. Then we learned that one could get AIDS through a blood transfusion. But that didn’t help Ryan, who was ostracized by the parents of the other children in his elementary school. These parents, out of ignorance and fear, demanded that their children be protected from Ryan and his disease. Yet, it should have been Ryan’s parents who should have called for protection from the other children; for children bring all sorts of maladies and illnesses to school with them each day and any source of infection was a threat to Ryan’s health, not the other way around.

Parents are fearful that their children will not get into the right schools. But instead of working to make sure that their children learn, they demand that the schools bend to their wishes and insure that their children will pass. We now have children who spend more time preparing and taking tests than we do learning and critically thinking about the world around them. We are becoming expert test takers but we know nothing about the world in which we live.

We do not understand the violence in the Middle Eat that has occurred over the past few days because of the Danish editorial cartoons. We think of the right to free speech as automatic and do not understand that not everyone has that right. In addition, because we hold such a laissez-faire attitude about religion in this country, we cannot understand how someone would react in the manner that many Muslims are doing right now. I am not condoning violence by anyone; I think it is wrong but the responses over the past few weeks point out how much fear and ignorance play in our lives.

We view other cultures warily simply because we do not know anything about them. We see their responses in our eyes and cannot understand why they do not react like we do. And our reaction turns to hatred because other cultures refuse to act as we would. We cannot accept the fact that not everyone believes in or understands our Western concepts of freedom and democracy.

Our own day-to-day lives are dominated by fear. We are conditioned to believe that we could be attacked any day by any group from any direction. And we are told that we need to sacrifice our rights and liberties in order to placate this fear.

We need to stop and think about what is going on in this world. We need to look around us and see what is happening. Instead of acting negatively or out of fear, we need to pause and consider what we are going to do. Look at how Naaman reacted when Elisha told him to go wash in the River Jordan seven times. He could not believe that the waters of the River Jordan were sufficient to cure him; there were other rivers far greater and better suited for a man of his importance.  His was a reaction of ignorance, not one of a man seeking to be cured of a major illness. But his aides and servants pointed out that, if Elisha had commanded Naaman to do something difficult, Naaman would have done it without questioning it.

In this world where hate and ignorance so dominate our lives, it is time to stop spreading the virus. It is time to break away from what has dominated our lives and walk another path. The leper came to Jesus seeking that new chance and sought to become clean and free of disease. He came of his own accord and he sought Jesus; that is what we are called to do today.

Repentance is to begin again, to denounce the old way and begin a new way. Paul writes of running a race that only one can win. In the old world, that is true. But in a world in which Jesus has entered, all can win. But it is up to us to work for that goal. We cannot allow ignorance to define our lives; we cannot allow hatred to grow because we are afraid.

In the Gospel of John, we are reminded that it is the truth that will set us free, free from sin and death. The truth is found in Jesus, not in the darkness that surrounds hatred and ignorance.

Listen to your heart this day and open your heart for Jesus. Let the Holy Spirit come into your life so that your work and direction are guided by the flame of the Holy Spirit, not the darkness of the world.