A Particular Point In Time


I was at the Van Cortlandtville Community Church in Cortlandt Manor, NY, this morning (location of church). The service is at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scripture readings for this morning were Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; and Matthew 25: 31 – 46. 

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This has been edited since it was first posted.

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I began this message with a thought about how this is Christ the King Sunday and not the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The nature of the liturgical calendar always makes the identity of a particular Sunday very interesting. And the changing nature of the liturgical calendar and how it is dependent on Christmas and Easter lead me to a thought more appropriate perhaps for my chemistry lab than the pulpit.

One of the things that you learn in chemistry is that you may be able to determine the position of an electron with reference to the nucleus or you may be able to determine the velocity of the electron but you cannot determine both. This is the foundation for what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. This is also part of the basis for the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Quantum mechanics can take us into some very interesting areas of chemistry and physics, none of which have any immediate impact on our lives today but perhaps might in the coming years. It also leads to some interesting thoughts and possibilities, possibilities that lead Albert Einstein to reject the notion of quantum mechanics and state quite categorically that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Einstein was never comfortable with the uncertainty that came with the development of quantum mechanics, firmly believing in a deterministic model of the universe; that is, there was an underlying reality in which particles, such as electrons, do have well defined positions and velocities and that this would ultimately become known to mankind (adapted in part from “Does God Play Dice?”)

As I was writing this, I began to think that there might be some sort of correlation between the deterministic model of the universe favored by Einstein and first developed by Isaac Newton in the 18th century and the deterministic, pre-destination model of theology developed by John Calvin.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564), the 16th century theologian, proposed that everyone is born a sinner and there is no escaping the penalty for sin. A simple way of saying it would be that good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people and if you were one of the bad people, then you had no hope in this world. It is a model that has been rejected by most theologians because if it were the operating model for our faith, then there would be no reason to have Jesus in our lives. Our escape from a life of sin and death is predicated on the presence of Jesus in our lives; if we cannot escape sin, then we have no need for Jesus or even God for that matter.

To some extent, this idea, that our lives were fixed and determined by God before we were born, was the basic understanding of the people of Jesus’ time. Illness, poverty, misfortune were all the signs of a sinful life; good health, riches, and a fortunate life were all the signs of a righteous life. How many times was it said that the children suffered because of some sin either or both of their parents did? It was, if you will, the central point of Jesus’ message to say that all had a hope and a possibility, one that came through Christ.

Unfortunately, John Calvin preceded Newton by almost 100 years and if there was any link, it would be in terms of what Newton thought, not what Calvin thought. So I will leave it to others more versed in theology to determine if there is a relationship between John Calvin’s deterministic ideas and those of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). There may be such a link because what most people don’t know is that Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible and faith than he did about any other area, including optics, calculus, or gravity (See my notes on Newton – “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”)

Still, some 600 years after Calvin, it is interesting to note that many people still believe that one’s life is determined at birth and riches come to the righteous while poverty comes because one leads a life of sin. Many people today are quite willing to believe that they will be the ones who will receive the stated rewards of heaven because they are, if you will, the “true believers”. But their actions often times don’t reflect their faith.

Oh, these “true believers” do come to church on Sunday but when the sun rises on Monday morning, in fact by the time the referee blows his whistle to start the football game on Sunday afternoon, what has been said and done on Sunday morning is often forgotten. They heard the pastor speak about the equality found in Jesus but practice inequality in their daily lives. They nod with knowing approval when someone gets up to say that the local food bank needs donations and volunteers but they always seem to find things on their calendar that somehow take precedence. They tell all their friends about how they were part of a mission trip to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique but they are not willing to help with local missions as it is a waste of time and only encourages the poor to stay poor. Their day to day lives are more reflective of the people of the Old Testament who ignored the sick, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed and were more interested in their own lives.

It takes more than coming to church on a Sunday to be a Christian or giving lip service to the call of the many; to say that one is a Christian is to say that one has a new life, a new view of the world. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

If we leave Christ behind when we leave the church then it is impossible for Christ to be in the world. If our lives during the week are not reflective of the time we spend in the church on Sunday, then we haven’t learned anything. It becomes easy then to not see the hungry or the homeless, the sick or the oppressed. When our focus is not on Christ and His message, it becomes very easy to become blind to the world.

When your life in Christ is limited to a few hours a week in a single building, you are not likely to see Christ as He walks by you on the street each day. When your focus is on the world in which our bodies lie, it is very hard to see the world in which our spirit tries to live. The Gospel reading today is a very stark reminder of what can happen. When our vision of Christ is an image on the wall in a building called a church, it is very hard to see Christ any other way.

It isn’t always about doing mission work far away from one’s home; it is about doing mission work anytime one walks out of the church and into the world. It is about seeing Christ not in the building they left but in the world outside the building.

It is quite easy, then, to understand why the people responded the way they did in the Gospel reading. I am utterly convinced that people today would respond the same as those who read the words in Matthew when they were first written two thousand years ago. They do not see the homeless, the hungry, the sick, or the imprisoned. Christ is viewed only in terms of the building they called the church, not the person who walked the dusty back roads of Galilee and taught others about the love of God the Father, who healed the sick and brought comfort to people who were convinced that they had been forgotten.

I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?

It takes more than a few words and some limited actions one week a year. It takes a change of heart; it takes a new vision. To see each person you encounter as Christ, not just another person on the street.

Some years ago, I took my mother to a new Christian restaurant in Memphis. That was how it was advertised. It was clean, it had a nice environment and no alcohol was served. It was a nice, clean place to take your family to eat. It should have been a booming success. Unfortunately it failed.

Now some will tell me that our society doesn’t like Christian-based businesses. They will tell you that this restaurant’s failure was based on society not wanting anything to do with a Christian theme business. But I will let you in on a little secret; if the food at a restaurant is not good, calling it a Christian restaurant won’t make it better. But the food was lousy and, in the end, a restaurant that serves lousy food is not going to be successful, no matter what its name. If the owners had been more of the Spirit, perhaps they would have understood this. I will be honest; I thought that their attitude was one in which the name would be enough.

What would you serve Christ for a meal? And if you were to serve the best for Christ, what would you serve his children? And that points out something very critical about our lives, do you treat each person that you meet, that you work with, that you encounter as you would treat Christ? Will you know it when you encounter Christ?

I am reminded of a church that one day welcomed a stranger into their midst. But just because he was a stranger, he wasn’t treated as such. He was welcomed as a friend and as a neighbor. It is my understanding that he never returned after that single visit. Some years later, the church received a check from the estate of this man, a check that enabled them to buy some property and build a new parsonage and turn the old parsonage into a Sunday school house. The stranger was welcomed into the church and he remembered that welcome.

I am also reminded of an individual who is a United Methodist preacher today but some ten years or so ago was a bouncer in a local bar. You would never have thought that this individual would become a preacher and even he would tell you that back then it was the furthest thing from his mind. But one day, he came to church because a family member insisted he needed to be there for a baptism. Someone helped him get a cup coffee and he stuck the bulletin for that Sunday in his coat pocket. A couple of weeks later, he discovered that bulletin and remembered the offer about the coffee and he came back. That particular bulletin sits on his desk as reminder that he once was a stranger and he was made welcome in a church.

I recognize that many times we come to church because we are looking for Jesus. In many modern day churches today, that is a hard thing to do. Too many churches today have made that a very difficult thing to do. For one thing, we sometimes don’t really want to find Christ because He will remind us of the things we are supposed to be doing. For another, we want Christ to be in one place when He is very likely to walk through the door as a visitor or a stranger in need. If you leave with one thought it is that we need to see Christ outside this place, not necessarily here.

This day is called Christ the King Sunday. It serves as a reminder of what the focus of our life should be. When John Calvin put forth his brand of theology, he told the people that many of them would lead lives of despair and grief; that was the way it was with God. But Jesus came into the world, not to condemn but to lift up and offer hope, to show that there was another path to take.

We stand at this particular point in time, staring at a choice we must make. We can choose to continue as we have done in the past, hoping against all hope that we will have an opportunity at some other time to choose to follow Christ. Or we can choose to follow Christ, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to Him. And as we leave this place today, we leave knowing that we are going to encounter Christ, not leave Him behind.

The End Of The Year


I am at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday; service is at 10 am.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, are Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.

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When I first read the Scriptures for today and considered the significance of this Sunday in the church year, I could not help but think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice.”

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

This is the last Sunday in the church year and next week we begin the season of Advent. So it is that today we can truly look forward to the coming of Christ. But these are not the “End Times” that so many people equate with the coming of Christ; it is merely the end of the year.

Still, there are those who say that these are the “End Times”, a time when God will destroy the earth and all of His creation in a fit of rage because of our sins. It seems to me, though, that those who so loudly proclaim this apocalyptic forecast are among those who, into today’s Gospel reading, ask Christ who were the sick, the homeless, the needy and the oppressed.

It strikes me, and I have had these thoughts for as long as I can remember, that those who proclaim the sinfulness of this world and the need to repent are among those who ignore the less fortunate and are quick to cast out from their church any who do not meet their criteria when it comes to race, gender, or economic status. Those whom Jesus said would be cast into the fires of hell are those who proclaim their own self-righteousness and say that those who are less fortunate than they have only themselves to blame.

In today’s world, it seems to me that too many self-proclaimed Christians have no problem equating sin and poverty but will not speak out against those who grow fat from the labors of others. That was the warning that Ezekiel gave to the people in today’s Old Testament reading. Those who had grown fat and lazy off the efforts of the workers were the ones who would feel God’s wrath.

And while it would be easy to find such individuals in the news of the day, we have to be very careful about how we read such news. We are in the process of quickly returning to the same attitudes that dominated society in England and America in the early 1700’s, the time when John Wesley began to take a critical look at his church, the Church of England.

The church of Wesley’s day showed little concern for the poor, the sick, the homeless and the ones caught up in the Industrial Revolution. It was a time of increasing drug and alcohol addiction; it was a time of child labor and no medical care for the lower class. It was a time when people believed that poverty was a sign of one’s sins and that it was your sins, or the lack of them, that determined your success in life. If you were successful in life, then it was obvious that God had smiled on you and rewarded you for your diligence and righteous life; if you were not successful in life, then it was obvious that you had incurred God’s displeasure. It is an attitude that is very much a part of today’s society as well.

We still see and seek riches as a means of measuring success; we are only interested in those things that will bring us wealth and power. But wealth and power will not necessarily gain one’s admittance into heaven.

Jesus told the story of the rich man who was condemned to hell, even though he had led an apparently righteous life. But in his daily passage to the Temple to meet his religious obligations, he ignored the beggar by his door. And because he ignored the beggar by his door, his actions at the Temple carried the mark of hypocrisy.

Jesus told the rich young man to give away everything he owned and to follow Him on His mission; the rich young man walked away because he was unable to give up that which he had and because he was unwilling to walk a different path.

We have lost track of the fact that life cannot be found in riches but in what one does with one’s riches, no matter how much we have or how little we have. We have also lost track that there are many who do not have anything and, as Wesley himself so often pointed out, it is very difficult to think about the Kingdom of Heaven when you cannot put food on the table for you and your children or clothes on your back or your children’s backs.

As we come to the end of this current year and begin to prepare for the true coming of Christ, we have to ask ourselves what this means for us today and what we shall do.

Shall we continue to walk down the path that we have been walking? It is clear that to do so would only end in turmoil, destruction, and death. We do not need for God to destroy this world; we are doing quite a good job of it ourselves.

Those who say that these are the End Times use the words of the Bible as a weapon and as words of hate and exclusion when the words of the Bible are words of love and inclusion. We do not need words of hatred and destruction; we need words of hope and promise.

Last Thursday would have been Robert F. Kennedy’s 83rd birthday. During that fateful Presidential campaign of 1968, he said many things but no words carried more weight than the ones he spoke on April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis.

That was the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN and as news of Dr. King’s death spread across the country, the anger of the people for such an act exploded in rage and violence. What Senator Kennedy said that night in Indianapolis still holds true today.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

Senator Kennedy continued by saying,

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

If we are to make those same words true today, for I think we have forgotten them and what they mean, we must see the world in a different light. And to see the world in a different light, we must have a change of heart.

If we do not change our heart, we cannot change our mind and will find ourselves no better than we are now. Changing our heart will lift us out of our present state, a state of selfishness, arrogance, pride, idolatry, sensuality, and slavery. To change one’s heart is a call for repentance, to begin a new life found in the liberation of the Gospel message.

In the Gospel we find a new path, a path that transcends all cultures, all human constructs, all civilizations and conventions. The Gospel is eternal, while politics and culture, including Christian culture, are fixed in time. (Adapted from I, Francis by Carlo Carretto)

And yes, this is a call for repentance, a call first given by John the Baptist in the Wilderness, a call given by Jesus, by Paul and all the disciples. For to repent is to begin a new life, a new life found in Christ, to go beyond the limits of time.

Yes, Jesus is coming but this does not mean it is the end of the world. It is only the end of the year and it means that we have an opportunity to seek a better world. We do have that chance and we should take it.

How Do We Say Thanks?


This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2002.  The Scriptures were Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1: 15- 23, and Matthew 25: 31-46.

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When you listen to the “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keilor, there is always that moment when he speaks about what has transpired in Lake Woebegone during the last week. It is always nice to listen, especially when he gives the report about what the pastor of the Lutheran Church said during his sermon. Lake Woebegone only has the one Lutheran Church so I can only imagine what the Methodists in town, if there are any, might have heard that week. It seems that this was one of those weeks or times when I could use that type of approach.

First, there was the report of the ossuary that is supposed to contain the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. This revelation has the potential of striking at the central core of the Christianity, especially if one is a Roman Catholic. It seems that the one of the tenets of Catholicism is that Mary was always a virgin and therefore could not have any more children so Jesus could not have had any more natural brothers or sisters. The Orthodox churches get around this by saying that any other children mentioned in the bible were Joseph’s by a prior marriage.

But no matter whether one develops a theory within the context of a scientific or religious context, the rules are the same. And the rules say that when a theory must be stretched or twisted in order to explain an idea, then it might be a good idea to look at the theory again. So maybe we should just take the words of the bible as they are written and accept the idea that Jesus did have brothers and sisters and that James was his brother and that James became one of the leaders of the church upon his death.

With James comes another thought about Christianity, especially at this time of the year. In the letter attributed to James, one gets the idea that service and works can precede faith and allow for salvation, an idea that does not get along well with Paul’s view of faith alone as the source of salvation. How then do resolve this disparity between works and faith.

What first caused John Wesley to question the nature of his church, to label it a “lukewarm” Christianity was its lack of concern for the downtrodden, the poor, and the homeless, those whom the Industrial Revolution had left behind. It was a belief then, and perhaps today, that poverty was a result of sin; that your sins determined your success. If you were successful, then it was because you had led a godly and righteous life.

Wesley questioned those who would forget those who did not or could not benefit from the riches of society. He challenged people by his words and his actions to take the Gospel into the street. It is not a message you are likely to hear from evangelists today.

The message given today is about the one, a “me-first” theology as one writer put it, and when you look at many of the evangelists today, the one they are talking about is themselves. There seems to be no compassion, any caring about others in their message. It seems that people want to find salvation and peace but are not willing to take the steps that make it possible.

Having faith is the first step but remember what Jesus told the rich young ruler, that if he wanted to enter into the kingdom, he had to give up all his riches. And Jesus told the story of the man who was condemned to hell because, though he had led a godly and righteous life, he had ignored the beggar outside his door. Life is not found in the riches one has but rather what does with the riches one have, no matter how many they are.

But that was the message Ezekiel gave to the people of Israel; it was the central point of Jesus’ ministry. It was of little concern to Ezekiel where the lost sheep were or who the lost sheep were; what mattered was that they were lost; and, if they were lost, they must be found. Judgement about who was lost and why they were lost was left to the Shepherd, not to others.

Jesus spoke of the homeless, the sick, the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed as if He were one of them. He challenged his disciples to find His presence among them. Of course, the reply was that they did not see Jesus there. If we do not feed the hungry, help the downtrodden, visit the sick and needy, how then can we ever expect to find Christ. The condemnation came not to those who suffered but to those who would not help.

Wesley knew, as we must today, that works alone cannot bring the peace found in Christ. All we have to do is read of the struggles that Wesley went through, of all the pain and agony that he brought upon himself as he struggled with the issue of what Christ meant, to understand that you must have faith first before you can find peace. Only by trusting in Jesus and allowing faith to be the central part of your life can peace be found.

The one tenet that we have in the Methodism is that having come to Christ, then we must help others.

As I read the notes about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have to ask ourselves how it was that Paul heard of the Ephesians faith and the love that they had for each other. The central theme to this letter is the transformation that the community underwent after the people had accepted the Gospel. But how do you hear of faith and love? How do you hear about the sharing that takes place in a community? If a person is transformed, it is through the actions that he or she makes after the change. And that comes back to the works that we do. That makes the Gospel reading for today so relevant and meaningful for today.

We are in the midst of a stewardship campaign. I want to emphasize that it is a stewardship campaign and not simply a financial drive. Stewardship is more than money. Yes, we need the money in order to maintain the presence of this church in this community but we need to look beyond simply keeping the church in the community. Stewardship means taking the message of Christ beyond the boundaries of our own lives.

Later this week, we shall stop and take time to be thankful. It is a time long fixed in the memories of our country, to pause and remember the difficult start many people had. It was a time of remembrance and thanksgiving to the Lord for His presence in their lives. So too should it be for us. We will gather as families to feast on the turkey and all the fixings that go with it. We hopefully will pause a few moments to thank the cook and the helpers.

As you go through this week I trust that you will give thanks to the Lord for the blessings of family and home that have been given to you. But I also hope that you find other ways to say thanks, that you find ways to take the faith that has brought you safe thus far (to borrow from my favorite hymn) and help others to be thankful as well. We are reminded that others only know of our faith and love through what we do and how we live. As we live and show the presence of Christ in our lives, that is how we best say thanks.