“What Is An Ebenezer?”

This will be the back page for the 23 July 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A) bulletin of Fishkill United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 32:1-3, 16-20, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 23, 31, and Matthew 16: 13 – 20.

When we sing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” we sing “here I raise my Ebeneezer.”  This refers to a place called “Eben-Ezer” where Samuel built a stone monument to serve as a reminder to the people of God’s help in a time of stress and strife, of God’s faithfulness and His eternal covenant with the people of Israel.  It also represented the beginning of a new life after a period of sadness and trouble.

Stone monuments are not seen by just a few people, they are seen by everyone.  So, everyone near Eben-Ezer saw this monument and knew of God’s faithfulness and help and the opportunity to begin again and renew their lives.

But stone monuments do not stand the test of time; they tend to erode and disappear over time.  But God’s presence and promise does not; it lives through Christ and in our hearts, minds, and soul.

We come to this place today because this is our “Eben-Ezer”, our place of safety and sanctuary.  It is where we are recharged and renewed.  But this “Eben-Ezer”, just like its predecessor 2000 years ago, is also seen by all.  We have raised our Ebeneezer so that everyone can find safety and sanctuary, of being recharged and renewed.

“The Church Present Is The Church Future”

This was the message that I gave at Grace UMC (St. Cloud, MN) for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), 25 July 1993. My scriptures for this Sunday were Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 9 and Matthew 25: 13.


The measurement of time is an interesting thing. The development of our civilization can be marked by how we measure time. While we use watches and clocks to measure the passage of the day, people in John Wesley had to rely on bulky and unreliable clocks. People in Jesus’ time marked the passage of time through the use of hour glasses. Early man had only the movement of the sun and stars. While we have calendars to tell us what day of the month it is, early man had to rely on the changing of the seasons. It was against that backdrop that the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven;

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)

But time meant more to this writer than simply passages through life.

“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 9 – 11)

Against a background of day-to-day life and the struggle to make a living, the writer saw that God was a part of his life and that he was a part of God’s plan for the world. He knew that without God, life held no promise, that there was no hope in the future. The same is true for us today. As we begin to look towards the year 2000 and the new millennium, we ask what the future will bring us. Will the future bring us hope and good fortune? Or will it bring us pain and misery? Will God remember or forget us in the passage of time?

It has long been noted that the coming of a new century brings with it renewed anticipation for the Second Coming of the Lord. There are some who say that the all of the disasters we have endured this summer, the floods in the Midwest, the excessive heat in the East, and the drought in the South, are all signs that God is displeased with us and His return is imminent.

We are not the first generation to say this. Every generation before us has had someone who looked at society and all of its troubles and interpreted it to mean that now is the time for the coming of the Lord. But Jesus told us that we would never know when he was coming.

“Then the Kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’” (Matthew 25: 1 – 13)

Nor will we know how he will come. In Matthew 25: 31 – 46 we read,

“But when I, the Messiah, shall come in my glory, and all the angels with me, then I shall sit upon my throne of glory. And all the nations shall be gathered before me. And I will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and place the sheep at my right hand, and the goats at my left.”

“Then I, the King, shall say to those at my right, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me.'”

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

“And I, the King, will tell them, ‘When you did it to these my brothers you were doing it to me!’ Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.'”

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.'”

“And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life.” (Matthew 25:31 – 46)

Jesus may come this afternoon and we might not know it. After all, even Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him at first after the resurrection. So what can we do if Jesus should ask us what we did to help Him?

There are a number of possibilities. First, we could run away. But then we would be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. In chapter 1 of the book of Jonah, we read

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.”

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Take me up and throw me into the sea; the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried to the Lord, “We beseech thee, O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.” So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1: 1 – 15)

Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when we get trapped by our efforts to escape, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.

Second, we could ignore the problem. After all, if God is angry with this country, He has the power to simply wipe it off the map. But, if we choose to take no action, we are like the servant given the single talent. Turn to the parable of the servants and the talents, Matthew 25: 14 – 30. I want to use this parable in its literal terms, using the word talents to mean the skills and abilities we bring to the church. If you recall, the first servant was given ten talents which he used wisely. Because he did so, he returned twenty talents to his master. Likewise, the second servant, given five talents, returned ten talents to his master because he too had used them wisely. But look at what happened to the third servant in this parable, the one who choose to hide his single talent and not develop it. In Matthew 25: 24 – 30 we read

“He also who had received the one came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ (Matthew 25: 24 – 30)

Just as this third servant lost his single talent because he failed to use it, if we do not use our talents, those skills and abilities that God has given to us, we will die. This death may not be a physical death but it will certainly be a spiritual death, leaving us without any hope for the future. A church which ignores its responsibilities to society, a church which does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.

Finally the third possibility. Instead of running away from the Gospel or ignoring it completely, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)

To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. Stephen was stoned to death because he chose to preach the Gospel and challenged people to choose a life in Christ.

John Wesley understood that challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, it’s heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.

But there are rewards. Because they were kind to three strangers, Abraham and Sara, both in their ninety’s, became the parents of the future nation of Israel. Because Wesley preached the Gospel, because Wesley sought to make fundamental changes in English society, many historians feel that the violent revolution which occurred in France was avoided in England.

We do not know when Jesus will come again nor how he will do so. But how we as individuals and as a church act today determines our tomorrow. If we run away from God, we will never receive rest. We will be like Jonah, trapped and with no hope of escape. If we ignore God, we will be like the writer of Ecclesiastes crying that all our work is in vain. We will have no future.

Accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior will not solve society’s problems. But by placing Jesus in our hearts and in our souls, we gain the power by which those problems can be solved. We can become like the other two servants whose talents, whose skills and abilities multiplied when they did the work of their Master. We go beyond a simple day-to-day existence. Through our acceptance of Jesus Christ, we receive that special guarantee of the empty tomb, the promise of everlasting life as our future.

“Who Sits At Your Table?”

I was at the Bellvale United Methodist Church, 41 Iron Forge Road, Warwick, NY 10990 (service starts at 9:15 am) and Sugar Loaf United Methodist Church, 1387 Kings Highway, Chester, NY 10918 (service starts at 11 am) this morning.

Location of churches

The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 31, 2011, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, are Genesis 32: 22- 31; Romans 9: 1 – 5; and Matthew 14: 13 – 21


I spent the better part of the week trying to come up with some humorous opening that would allow me to address what I read in the Scripture readings for today.  But the troubles of the world and the country would not let that happen.  There are some, I am sure, that would like it if the sermon were light-hearted and somehow allowed us to escape what is transpiring right now but I think that this is one of those times when we have to look at what is happening and ask ourselves “where is the church; where is God in all of this discussion?”

When you look at the Old Testament reading and you know that Jacob is struggling with God, you have to wonder if that is not where we are today.  Are we not struggling with the idea of who we are as a society and what our responsibilities are?  Last week I was told that Pastor Ernie had spent two weeks talking about the feeding of the 5,000 and that I needed to think about what I was going to say.  I would hope that one thing that you learned was that more than 5,000 were fed in that first group and more than 4,000 were fed in the second group.

The one thing that we need to be aware of is that only the adult men were counted; women and children were marginalized and placed on the edges of society.  Did not the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus that one time only to be told that they should let the children come to Him?  How many times did a woman, outcast from society, seek to touch Jesus only to be pushed away by the disciples?

The one thing that annoyed the political and religious establishment more than anything else was the fact that Jesus associated Himself with the very aspects of society that they wanted no part of.  And what is the discussion in today’s society?

There are some who will not like what I am about to say for they will say that I am interjecting politics into religion.  But the root word for politics, I believe, comes from the same root as people.  And if the Bible is about nothing else, it is about people and the relationship between people.

If you read through the Bible and every time you encounter a passage that speaks about the poor, the disenfranchised, or the forgotten people and cut that passage out of the Bible, pretty soon you will have nothing left.  The Bible will fall apart.

The main theme of the Bible is the relationship between people and what we must do to ensure that each other is okay.  We have forgotten that particular point.

We have gotten so hung up on the finer points of the law that we have forgotten what the spirit of the law was meant to accomplish.  Paul speaks to the Romans of trying to heal the rift between the Jews and Christ, of being willing to give up his own salvation if it would mean that the Jews would be saved.  I am pretty sure that there are some who will take this passage to its extreme meaning but I trust that I am not one of them.

I think back to when Paul was Saul and it was his mission, his goal to prosecute and eliminate all of the early Christians.  He did so because he saw what they were doing as a violation of the law and strict obedience to the law was the standard for salvation in his day.  He remembered his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and being asked why he sought to persecute Christ.  I think (and this is only my thought) that he remembered that he was focused on the law and not the spirit when he lamented the loss of his compatriots.  If they were not so totally set on the law as the standard, perhaps they would be saved as well.

And I put that thought into the context of today.  There are so many people today who have a mindset that comes from those days in Israel some two thousand years ago.  Poverty, homelessness, illness – all are symptoms of sinful life.  Wealth and happiness are the signs of a good and righteous life.  If you were born to sinful parents, then you would lead a life of sin and despair; if your parents were rich and successful, then yours would be a life of wealth, success, and happiness as well.  And this attitude did not disappear after Christ was crucified.

It was the same attitude that drove John Wesley to seek a better way.  Wesley would begin to question the attitude of many in the established church, especially when it came to poverty and class distinction.  Both John and Charles Wesley struggled with the idea of what it took to be saved and what it meant to be saved. 

The catch is that we are all sinners, so wealth, success and happiness cannot be signs of a righteous life, no matter what some smooth talking television pastor may say. It wasn’t about who you were but who you would be.

We read the Old Testament reading for today and we marvel at the fact that the man who wrestled with Jacob had to resort to trickery to defeat Jacob.  Yet, somehow we know that this was God and God should not have to resort to trickery to win a wrestling match.  But what I think we have to realize is that there are times when we are the worthy opponent for God, because we are willing to do those tasks that He sets before us.

If we think we can beat God on our own, then I think we had better think again.  We cannot defeat God.  But if we are up to the tasks that God sets before us, then it will be a draw, just as it was for Jacob.  But we must also realize that, just like Jacob became Israel and a new nation began, we will not be the same person that we were when the struggle began.

John and Charles Wesley both struggled with the idea of what it meant to be saved.  All they did before what we call the Aldersgate moment was meaningless and it did nothing to change their lives or the lives of the people they met.  When the two brothers came back from Georgia, they returned in failure and despair.  I don’t think that many people today know that on that night when John Wesley went to the meeting at Aldersgate, his brother Charles was at home dying.  That is how devastated Charles felt because of their failure in Georgia.  And at that moment when John felt his heart strangely warmed and he gained the assurance that God did truly love him, so too did Charles begin to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit renewing his life as well.  It was that empowerment that provided the spark that would enable the Methodist Revival to take hold in England and in America.

We live in a world where there are those who insist on a life of laws and regulations.  It defines their days; it allows them to define who may enter their world and who must stay out.  It is a world that says that military might is the only way to insure peace; it is a world that says security must be maintained at all cost.  In this world of laws and regulations, it is believed that people are unemployed because they want to be.  And if I have plenty of food on my table, why should I worry about those who go hungry every night?  And if I have a place to comfortably sleep each night, why should I worry about those who sleep outside or in a shelter if they are lucky?  Those who do not have homes to sleep in or food to eat are too lazy to find housing or food.  That is what it is like to live a life of laws and regulations.

The other day I stopped by my home church on an errand.  And I was asked where it was in the Bible that Jesus spoke of doing something for the least of these.  The answer is Matthew 25: 31 – 42.  The person who asked was involved in the Methodist and Friends Build, an off-shoot of Habitat for Humanity.  Someone had apparently asked why this group builds a home and one response comes from the passage from Matthew.  When the day that Jesus returns does come, He is going to want to know what you have done for him.  When you lead a life of laws and regulations, it becomes easy to marginalize the least of those in society so that you do not see them.  And then, when Jesus asks, you can only reply, “when did we see you hungry or cold, naked or ill, lonely or oppressed?”

We are struggling with God right now.  It is a struggle that causes Paul to cry out in pain and anguish that he would give up his salvation if it meant that the people who say they are God’s people would be saved.  It is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who go hungry each day because funds for food banks are being cut; it is a struggle when we stop to think about the number of people who have no place to stay or are sick because society doesn’t feel that housing programs or medical care are important.

And the disciples came to Jesus and asked who was going to feed the multitudes?  And he looked at them and basically said that you all are going to do it.  See what you can find and we will go from there.  At that time, the disciples still lived a life that was according to the law and regulations (though they were beginning to stretch those boundaries) and they could not see a solution other than to send the people away.  But then they saw what happened when you lived in the Spirit and how much was left after everyone, not just the men but the women and the children, was feed.

This is the struggle we have today.  The question I posed when I first began this message still holds, “Who sits at your table?” It would seem to me to be an easy choice.  If no one sits at your table, how can Christ be a part of your life?  When you allow Christ to be a part of your life, then you must be prepared to let everyone, those whom you know and those whom you do not know, to share your table, your life.  If you are not willing to do that, I don’t think that you will win in the struggle with God.  But if you let Christ into your life, then, like Jacob who became Israel, you will be a new person and many great things will come.

It is the question you must answer.

Just What Is The Right Thing To Do?

This Sunday, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, I am presenting the message at Dover UMC again.  The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 6: 12 – 23 and Matthew 10: 40 – 42.


Just what is the right thing to do? This, of course, is a question that has been asked by each generation and will be asked by each generation to come. Now, there are some who would say that right and wrong are relative; others say that the ability to discern right from wrong is somehow encoded in our genes; and there are those who tell us that there is a physical law which governs the concept of right and wrong.

If right and wrong are relative to particular places and times, i.e., if something such as slavery can be right 100 years ago but wrong today, then we will have a very difficult time explaining our history and we will have a very hard time deciding what to do in the coming years.

If the ability to discern right and wrong is encoded in our genes, then we are looking at a Pandora’s Box which, if opened, will create more havoc and destruction than anything that was in the original box. The same could be said if the notion of right and wrong are somehow governed by the laws of nature.

The other possibility is that there are clear distinctions between right and wrong and these distinctions can be taught. The question arises as to when and where should they be taught and who should teach them? And what happens when what one person teaches or is taught comes into conflict with the teachings of another?

Now, I started writing this message before the release of the second portion of Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey, which dealt with the extent of religious beliefs and practices as well as the impact of religion on society. The first part of this survey, released in February, showed that many Americans switched their religious affiliations at least once in their life (see “Questions from the Religious Landscape”). Two things that came out of that particular report is that many of the mainline churches, including the United Methodist Church, are losing members and that one out of every six individuals who responded indicated that they did not belong to an organized religion. In other words, people believe but they do not belong. And they are searching for the right place to belong, the place where what they believe fits in.

They are searching because they are confused about God and what they believe. They see churches of all religions whose words and pronouncements do not match what is in their hearts and minds and the Holy Scriptures of each religion. This is, in part, what the second part of the Pew Study tells me.

In the second report, the vast majority of Americans (92%) believe in God, 74% believe in life after death, and a majority says that their religion is not the only way to salvation. On the surface, this is good news. But when you look beneath the surface, things do not appear to be that good. 21% of self-identified atheists said that they believe in God or a universal spirit with 8% “absolutely certain”. If one person out of every five says that they believe in something which by definition they cannot believe in, what does that say about the other results of this study? Other results of this survey are, for me, equally disturbing and confusing.

Many say that the results of this study indicated that we are either becoming more religious tolerant or we don’t completely understand what it is that we believe. The results suggest that we do not know the fundamental teachings of our own particular faith. And this fundamental misunderstanding of our faith is clearly indicated in other studies.

In a recent report, sixty percent of Americans could not identify five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book definitely not one of the four Gospels and it actually conflicts with the basic message of Scripture.

Don’t ask too many Americans to identify the four Gospels because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34)

Another survey (http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/page/1573625.htm) showed that less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior. And when given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.

In the June 17, 2008, issue of Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the “Introduction to World Religions” course that she taught at Piedmont College (“Faith Matters”). The course spends five weeks studying each of the world’s major religions. At best, only the basic information can be covered but it is enough to often change the thinking of many of the students. Students who completed the course indicate that they feel more at home in the world, they are less frightened by religious differences, and they are more informed and perhaps better equipped to wage peace instead of war.

But, when it comes to section covering Christianity, there are some disturbing results. Until they took the course, students said that they never noticed that the nativity story in Matthew was different from the nativity story in Luke and that Mark and John have no such stories. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with a copy of the New Testament in their pockets. In fact, they have no concept of how the books of the Bible were assembled. Most of the students assumed that Paul was one of the disciples and that was how he gathered the information that he used to write his letters. And no one told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They have no idea that there are branches to the tree of Christianity. For most students, nothing happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own profession of faith.

Now, from my own understanding of the learning process, this is entirely understandable. When you are presented with information that conflicts with information that you already have, the new information is often not processed beyond the moment. When it comes time to recall the information, you fall back on the old stuff rather than the new material. This is true whether you are studying chemistry or religion. And for most people, their last true class in religion was their confirmation class; so they are essentially junior high students when it comes to religion.

When you compare Dr. Taylor’s results and those of other studies that showed a similar Biblical illiteracy, the results of the Pew Study take on a new meaning. In the end, it means that we often don’t know what it is that we say we know. And if we don’t know or understand, then our belief will be weak. As one commentator noted, religion in America is 3,000 miles wide and three inches deep (see the “Americans: My faith isn’t the only way”). The tolerance of other religions that everyone says this study indicates is based more on weak beliefs than on a true understanding of each other.

As my colleague Henry Neufeld noted,

While I celebrate tolerance, I’m disturbed by the tendency to identify tolerance with weak beliefs. Unfortunately, that is what is happening. People become tolerant by becoming less committed. The article refers to this as “humility,” but it doesn’t seem so to me. Humility in one’s beliefs would require one to have some beliefs, but to admit that one might be mistaken and to be open to correction. The particular evidence for this is those who try to keep the label “evangelical” while altering the definition.

I would prefer a society made up of people with strong beliefs, who were willing to defend those beliefs, but were also determined to do so respectfully, and to respect–not agree with–the beliefs of others.

As one last note, let me add that I think this is the attitude that fosters hate speech codes. The tolerant in this sense are not really tolerant. Rather, they are tolerant of those who agree with them that their religious ideas don’t matter all that much. They are conformists, but they conform to a culture of apathy and indecision. Thus when they encounter someone who doesn’t fall within that culture, they feel justified in suppressing that person’s expression. (From “Good News and Bad News on Religious Tolerance”

The problem is that we have studied religion, and especially Christianity and Methodism, as if it were a disease for which we must be vaccinated. And once we are vaccinated, we are immune and we no longer have to worry about the material.

But, if we understand what it was that we say we are, perhaps we would be better off. When we study history, it is often with the idea of finding out who did what, when it was done and where it was done. We study the Bible as if it were a historically or scientifically based document because of that approach.

The ancients were not particularly concerned with same sort of facts. They were more concerned with the why. If we began reading the Bible like our ancestor’s ancestors did, then it would come to life and it would have more meaning for us. The Bible is an incredible description of other people’s relationships with God that was recorded so that we could understand our own relationship with God.

But changing the approach by which we learn often comes with a price; you begin to question things. And there are those who tell you that if you question even one fact in the Bible, you will begin questioning others parts of the Bible and suddenly the whole thing will become irrelevant. But there is another possibility; to question your faith is not to disown it but to claim it with a deeper passion, joy, and conviction (adapted from The Phoenix Affirmations – A New Vision for the Future of Christianity by Eric Elnes).

And I believe that God will allow us to question what He asks us to do or what He is doing. The Book of Job is about one’s man questioning of God. All Job wants is a fair hearing and, in the end, that is what he gets. We are reminded that many of the so-called righteous people associated with Job’s story want him to accept the notion that he, Job, did something wrong. And Job will not do that; he will not go quietly. As Henry Neufeld wrote, Job was willing to fight for what he believed and we should be willing to do so as well. It does not make us a lesser person and it does not confer some sort of apostate status on us; it makes us better believers.

The Old Testament Story for today (Genesis 22: 1 – 14) can be read one of two ways. Either Abraham followed God’s dictates blindly or he trusted in God because of what God had done in the past. As many translations tell us, God was testing Abraham. Had Abraham learned the lessons that had brought him to that time and place? Was he going to sacrifice his only son, the sign of the future that God had promised would be Abraham’s? God does not want us to blindly follow Him but to go where He directs us and to do what we are asked to do because we understand.

Glen Clark wrote, in I Will Lift Up My Eyes,

The first lesson God gives us in training our will is in making us go halfway with Him. He first puts us through a series of disciplines to see if we are worthy to make His team. After this lesson is learned we discover that there are many many times that God goes all the way with us. Over and over again He gives us far more than we have any right to ask. We call this “His Grace,” which goes so much farther than “His law” requires that He should go. God’s mercy goes so much farther than mere human justice goes.

And then there are many times when God give us the opportunity to go all the way with Him. He did that with Job. He did it with Abraham. He used it as a school for many of His greatest saints and leaders. One of the great privileges He may give to you – if He is preparing for you great leadership – is the opportunity sometime of going all the way with Him.

As Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, especially what we read today (Romans 6: 12 – 23), if we choose to stay where we are, if we choose not to learn, then we are condemned to a life of sin. If we, like Abraham, choose to follow God and walk the path that God wants us to walk, then we will have the life that we seek. But we cannot walk the path that God would have us walk unless we are willing to open our minds as well as our hearts.

So we are back to the original question, just what is the right thing to do? How will we every know or find out what it is that God wants us to and what the right thing to do is? The prophet Micah told us that God has shown us what to do.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
   be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously. (Micah 6: 8 – The Message)

Second, we need to seriously reconsider how the early Christians, our spiritual ancestors, lead their lives and brought Christianity from a small group in the Holy Land to a world encompassing movement. When Christianity began, there was no New Testament. And even if it had existed at the beginning of the movement, most of the people would not have been able to read it. And if they could read, books were very expensive.

But they told others the stories they had been told and they lived their lives according to those stories. They lived a life in which they loved God with all their heart, their mind, their soul and strength and they loved their neighbor as they loved themselves. It became very easy to see that when a law, secular or sectarian, contradicted the teachings of Jesus, such laws were suspect.

And Jesus reminds that it can begin with the simplest of acts, to give a drink of water to a thirsty person. It is time that we remember what it is that we say we are, to go back to school (as it were) if need be, and then to go out into the world and do what is right and just to bring the Gospel message to the people.

Just what is thing called freedom?

Over the past ten years or so, I have had the opportunity to think and write about this thing that we call freedom. What is this thing that we call freedom? Why should we care what freedom is and how precious it really is?

Freedom, it seems, has a different meaning for each of us. For a sixteen-year old, freedom means getting their driver’s license. It is the first opportunity they have to move beyond the boundaries of the household and explore the world on their own. But shortly after getting their license, many young people find what we eventually learn. With freedom come responsibilities. In the case of the car and the driver’s license, they find that now they must buy gas and take care of the car.

The thing that I think we have forgotten over the years is just that; with freedom come responsibilities. We fail to remember the struggles this country went through, not just in the beginning days of the American Revolution but in the early years of the country as well, in order to insure that we remained free.

It seems to some that our freedom is pretty well secure. The Soviet Union is no longer the great danger that it seemed when I was growing up and we are supposed to be winning the war against terrorism. But is the death of so many of our soldiers the price we must pay? At what point will we see that the death of our youth brings hardship and grief, not joy and celebration?

Paraphrasing the ancient historian Herodotus, “Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children. Our children and the youth of this country are the future, yet we are willing to sacrifice our future for the present. Do we buy our freedom for the moment just to lose in the future?

We must also remember that even the most professional soldier views war as a last resort. Robert E. Lee, commander of the southern armies in the Civil War, once commented that “it is fortunate that war is so ugly, for we could grow very fond of it.”

We use war and violence in an effort to gain freedom. But in doing so, we lose our freedom. Similarly, when we allow others to dictate the course of our lives, all in the name of preserving freedom, we quickly find that we lose our freedom.

Freedom, no matter what we might individually think, is not an individual thing. For if there is one who is oppressed, then we are all oppressed. But you say that you are free to do whatever you please. And to some extent, you might be. But your freedom to do whatever you desire stops when it prevents or impedes my freedom. At some point, we find freedom together.

So, what is this thing called freedom? How do we gain our freedom? We gain our freedom when we help others to gain theirs. In a world of violence, oppression, and injustice, we need to find non-violent means to accomplish our tasks. We have found out that violence only brings more violence and no one is free. We should be working in this world to insure that oppression and injustice no longer have a place in this world. Until we do that, we will never really know what freedom is.

But I would close by encouraging you to think about the freedom that you cherish. Will you stand back and let others take away your freedoms? Or are you willing to seek ways that will help others to find the freedom you have grown accustomed to?