Sermon: June 21, 2015 – The Good Gift

Text: Matthew 7: 7-11

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Last week on Sunday, many of you had the opportunity to meet my brother Bruce and his wife, Debbie as they were here for worship on Sunday. What you might not realize is what we did the day before Sunday, on Saturday. We were up early and on our way to the Trail of the Hiawatha east of Coeur‘d Alene on Saturday morning and had a fantastic bike ride along this trail. If you are familiar with the trail, you already know what I’m talking about, but if you are not, let me tell you it is a real hoot. You ride through 9 different tunnels, one of them is almost 2 miles long, and you ride over a number of trestles, some that are over 200 feet tall. The Hiawatha Trail is an old railroad grade, so the hills you might encounter are very manageable, but if you go in the right direction, it is all downhill and you can ride a bus back up!

As we were enjoying the trail, one of the things that we kept saying to each other, is how much our kids would enjoy this ride. Bruce has two boys and you might remember that Heidi and I have three boys-some of them married now and even a few granddaughters sprinkled into the mix. But my point here is that as parents, or since today is Father’s Day, as fathers, Bruce & I wanted to give the gift of this experience to our children. It is a natural thing to think of your kids and how much they might enjoy a particular experience you are having at that moment.

I think this is in part, what Jesus was trying to say when he talked about how earthly parents, who fall short at times, still want to give good things to their children. In contrast, how much more does God want to give the same kinds of good things to us? On the surface, this text seems like a really good idea; God wants to give us things-and all we have to do is ask! Unfortunately, I don’t think it is that simple; there are a number of interpretations of this text floating around out there, and I don’t agree with any of them! It seems I am always stuck asking the hard questions and trying to keep the scriptures consistent with the image of God that I hold.

Let’s take a look here and see what we can find. There has been a rather shallow interpretation of a portion of this text where the assumption is that we can ask for anything and God will provide it. If you want to take the text a bit out of context along with a literal interpretation; that is what it says. Ask and it will be given to you. That is pretty simple and straightforward; then the text goes on, “For everyone who asks receives.” Can that be right? Everyone who asks for anything receives it? Not only does this not sound quite right, it isn’t even good parenting. When I was a young boy I kept asking my parents for a shotgun for Christmas because I wanted to go pheasant hunting with my dad and everyone during the hunting season. They said no for quite a few Christmases that I can remember; and for good reason, I was way too young for a shotgun of any kind.

But that doesn’t seem to matter. There is a school of thought out there that has become known as the prosperity Gospel, where they teach this as a literal truth. If you don’t have the health or the wealth or the new house or the Ferrari in your driveway that you have asked for, then it is not God’s fault-it’s yours. You need more faith. Maybe you need to give more to the church, then everything will begin to show up…when I was in Seminary, we called this the “name it, claim it” game. We also called it for what it is-lousy theology. God is not a vending machine in the sky-and if you thought that coming in today, sorry to have to be the one to break it to you, but that theology is absurd.

There is another school of thought that moderates the position a little bit and identifies the portion of the scripture that states God will only give good gifts, or good things as verse 11 points out. I find this a little bit more tolerable, except that the scripture also says that everyone qualifies-everyone who asks will receive, everyone who seeks will find, and so on. I may not be qualified to decide for God what is good for someone or not, but if somebody is starving and the ask God for food, I would think that qualifies as a good gift. If someone is living in the street and they ask for shelter, that doesn’t seem unreasonable. So how do we reconcile the “good gifts” that don’t show up, when the text obviously says that everyone qualifies? This text is inherently problematic for all of these reasons.

So that leaves us with the challenge to find another meaning for this text buried in there somewhere that actually works theologically and remains consistent with an image of God which makes sense.

I think we need to look at this text as a whole; we really can’t break it apart and look at it line by line, because that is when the problems really begin to pop out. I’m wondering what the text is actually trying to say-sometimes it is useful to think to yourself, what was Jesus actually trying to communicate? I find it hard to imagine what Jesus was trying to say is that anything we ask for we can get, as long as we are current on our tithe or have enough faith. That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.

For me, the biggest clue we have is the use of the word everyone. Whatever Jesus was intending for us to get from this text, it must be available to everyone, all the time. There isn’t anyone excluded. Some say the text in this context may be speaking about salvation, but that doesn’t really hold up, because salvation has no meaning unless there are some who are not saved, and if there are some who are not saved, then that’s not everyone is it? Of course, we can nuance this position into making it work because someone must ask or seek or knock – if they do not do any of those things, then I guess salvation is not open to them. I can acknowledge that point, but I still don’t agree. I still think Jesus intended something else for us to take from this text – but what is the question.

My answer to my own question is what I began with this morning. Remember that I said how as parents all of us were talking about how great it would be to share this experience with our children and maybe even our grandchildren. I think this is what Jesus is trying to say in this text. The experience of God is available to everyone, and it doesn’t matter how you get there. Some experience God by asking, some experience God by seeking, some experience God by knocking, but however you choose to experience God, the promise is that God will be there. This fits into the image of God that I have created for myself; and it fits into a much broader perspective than many of the other interpretations I have encountered along the way. I think it is universal in nature, if you seek God through another faith tradition, you will find God. If you seek God in nature, you will find God. If you seek God in this worship service, you will find God-because everyone who seeks will find, and everyone who knocks will have an open door and everyone who asks will receive.

This is unconditional love and the freedom to experience God in the ways that are most meaningful to you. As I like to say, this is food for thought. Perhaps Jesus was opening the door for Jews and non-Jews, for foreigners like Samaritans and for those we consider other, like tax collectors and prostitutes. What if Jesus was saying whoever you are and however you choose to look, you will find God? No rules, no dogma, no organized religion, just you and God.

Go in peace and go with God-however you choose to look, you will find. Amen.

Sermon: June 14, 2015 – Winds of Change, Pt 4

Text: Micah 6: 6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Most of us have heard this text a number of times and are probably familiar with some of the implications that it has for our own personal lives, but I’m wondering if we have allowed the magnitude of what this text actually says to fully sink in. I’m thinking probably not, because far too often the church seems to act in ways that are counter to this text; so perhaps it is worth another look.

Consider what this Abingdon Bible Commentary has to say about the text: “The combination suggests that social morality is inseparable from and rooted in religion, and that true worship of God is the service of humanity. The Old Testament has no greater word than this.” That is quite a claim-that in all the Old Testament, there is not a greater word, not anything more important than this particular combination. The combination that is given us, as I read the text, is three-fold, to do justice, to love kindness and to practice humility as we walk with God.

This relates directly to the conversation we have been having over the past few weeks as we have been talking about the decline in membership of the church in general, how we might respond to this decline and the new emerging demographic of those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Today, I want us to pay particular attention to our message that is out there for public consumption, some of the bad along with some of what I consider to be good. More than anything else, I would like our collective awareness to be increased around the issues that I believe have caused, at least at some level, the abandonment of Christianity by this new emerging demographic that we will be targeting.

Once we understand some of our own shortcomings and failures, I think it will be easier for us to begin to communicate with this demographic is ways that relate to them and make sense to them. This will be our goal in the coming year, to speak the language of the emerging group that self-identify as spiritual, but not religious, while making certain we are true to the combination of tasks given us in Micah 6 – to promote justice, kindness and humility.

So how have we done as a church on the issue of justice? There are any number of places we could look for answers, but a couple of things pop into my head immediately. The first is our history concerning slavery-the church was slow to condemn slavery, some denominations, including the Methodists, split over the issue during the Civil War era and the Vatican did not even recognize blacks as human beings until just over 100 years ago. Not our finest moments in history, but I have a question; if you did not know a lot about the church, does this sound like an organization you would want to join?

Equality for women came even slower in the Methodist church and has yet to reach some others. There are still denominations which deny key leadership positions to women, just because they are women. I find this unthinkable, and yet it exists; let me ask the question again; if you didn’t know much about the church, does this sound like an organization you would want to join?

The church was equally slow to take a position in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights movement. There were churches that aligned themselves with the KKK, churches who supported the idea of segregation and churches who openly discriminated against people of color. I don’t believe we have made as much progress in this particular arena as we think we have; the racism and prejudice is still rooted deep in our history and still rises to the surface in painful ways. If you knew nothing else about the church, does this sound like an organization you would want to join?

The current church is publicly struggling with the equality and acceptance of our LGBT sisters and brothers. Westboro Baptist Church and the late Fred Phelps used to grab headlines by picketing the funerals of prominent individuals who just happened to be gay, and other denominations while trying to move forward, end up splitting down the middle in a public display of hate and intolerance, and the United Methodist Church has yet to create a resolution that adequately speaks to the problem. Again, if you knew little about the church, would this be an institution or an organization that you would want to join?

Songwriter and performer Tom Paxton has written a song that mirrors our struggle for Civil Rights; it is called “Your Shoes, My Shoes” so as we reflect on our past and future regarding Micah’s call for us to do justice, let’s enjoy “Your Shoes, My Shoes”.

The second element of the combination that my Abingdon Bible Commentary spoke of and the second element listed in the text from Micah is that we are to love kindness. It doesn’t seem that hard as people, let alone Christian people, that simple kindness would be an issue. But, I fear it is.

Historically, if the church was suspicious or fearful of a group or an individual, the response was not usually kind. Just the opposite I am afraid is closer to the truth. Some historians place the death toll of the Christian Crusades, for example, at around 20 million people. Roughly four times the number of innocent people killed during the Holocaust. That number of course does not reflect other dark times like the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition or other less than stellar accounts of Christian history. Does that sound like an institution you would like to join?

Not that many years ago the Christian collective thought revolved around a doctrine that was called Manifest Destiny. This idea was that God was on our side as we colonized the United States and pressed westward stealing land and culture and tradition from the Native Americans. With a history trail of broken promises and brutal battles the church lost its way in an effort to follow the words of Micah to love kindness. We were not kind. Does this sound like an institution you would want to join?

I keep asking the question, because I believe we fail to recognize what others actually think of us. In her book, Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass states that in one survey, the word ‘religion’ was synonymous with these other words; cold, outdated, rigid, hurtful, narrow, controlling, embarrassing, and mean. Anybody feel like joining?

At the very least, I would hope we can find ways to see the humanity in the other, without regard for race, color, religion, or nationality or sexual orientation. Songwriter Junee Fischer explores this topic as a pioneer woman and a Native American woman exchange glances as they perform their chores on the opposite shores of the same river. The song is called “The Same River”.

Item three on Micah’s list is humility. You know humility when you see it; this week coach Jeremiah Robbins of the LCSC Baseball team was named NAIA Coach of the Year. He said all the credit should go to the players and the rest of the coaching staff.

The opposite of humility I guess would be arrogance; and we recognize that when we see it as well. When the Columbine shootings took place in Littleton, Colorado I was serving Washington Park UMC in Denver. I served on an interfaith coalition of pastors who were willing to provide counseling and safe haven for anyone who needed to talk. The community came together in the wake of this tragedy.

At one of the Memorial services held in the weeks after, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, was the officiate. Rather than being sensitive to a hurting community, rather than trying to heal wounds and lift spirits, Franklin Graham spoke about salvation and those who were not saved frying like hamburgers in the pits of hell. I was actually in shock; I could not believe my ears. The arrogance of thinking you posses the single and only truth is stunning. Then to have the arrogance to assume that your truth is so important that it trumps common decency was a blunder so large that I for one have not recovered yet. If Franklin Graham represented Christianity on that day, there were tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands who decided in that instant, they will never join such an institution.

In our own backyard we had an incident where a public servant, an elected official, who is to represent everyone in her district I might add, also displayed mind boggling arrogance as she refused to sit through a prayer offered by another faith tradition. Really? Is that Chrsitianity? It was all over the papers, and if that is all you know, how likely are you to join the cause?

I believe that humility is experienced when we recognize the fallacy of our own position or we recognize that a once long held belief may not have been the best thing after all. We all mature and evolve over the years; we all have the opportunity to rethink our positions. And we often do; except when it comes to our faith, for some reason, we seem more reluctant to evaluate that than any other position we hold. I happen to think it should be the first thing we are ready to re-evaluate rather than the last, but I also think I’m in the minority on that one.

Songwriters and performers Montana Tunesmith chronicle this journey of self-reflection and the discovery of humility in the song “Strips of Wheat”. Here again are Bruce & Debbie with the gift, “Strips of Wheat”.

Our task is clear, but not easy. We must find a way to remain faithful and connected to the positive things our Christian heritage has to offer, while keeping the admonition of Micah in the forefront of our thoughts, our actions and our messages. I struggle with this personally; I find myself at times intolerant of intolerant people, I want to judge people who are judgmental and I must remind myself constantly that God loves them the same as God loves me.

We will begin in small ways; the bulletin insert is an example of some of the messages we will be promoting. Information on our newly designed web site will follow the text in Micah, each Sunday morning the messages will challenge you and push you to think and allow space for each individual to form their own opinions. We will find new ways to connect with our community and strengthen the connections we already have. The Pumpkin Patch will continue, the Salvation Army meal will continue, the small groups and book studies will all continue. But ultimately, my vision is for Lewiston First to be the beacon on the hill that shines as a clear choice. We can meet the needs and spiritual desires of the emerging church, the emerging demographic; we just need to let them know we are here and what we stand for.

Marketing plans and catchy catch phrases can only do so much. By far the most influential and effective marketing tool we have at our disposal is all of you. If each of you could bring one person into our community of faith, our population would double; do it again and our population will increase four fold. We have lots to be proud of, lots to talk about and a greater understanding of why Christianity can be so misunderstood. We are a clear and progressive choice in the Valley – let’s be proud of that and talk to everyone we meet about how important that is.

Go in peace, and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: June 7, 2015 – “Winds of Change-Part 3”

Text: Mark 2: 21-22

21 “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

This is a familiar text which many of us have heard quite often and I think most of us have some idea of what Jesus meant when he said these words. The general consensus among scholars is simply that ancient Judaism may have been too rigid or brittle to accommodate some of the new ideas that Jesus was presenting. Other scholars get more specific and say that the text speaks to a tradition of fasting, but however you choose to interpret the text, one thing is clear and that is that it can be difficult to mix the new with the old.

I’m wondering how many times you may have witnessed this in your own lives, sometimes without even thinking about it or realizing that you are seeing scripture played out right before your eyes.

For example, do you remember going into a restaurant perhaps 15 or 20 years ago and they would ask you if you wanted to sit in smoking or non-smoking? Anyone else remember those days?

Well, here is my take on that situation-we had a new idea, a new way of looking at smoking and our culture and society had really begun to resist the idea of smoking and resisted the idea of being subjected to that second-hand smoke while we were in a public place. And so we passed laws and legislation about smoking-this was a new idea…it was new wine.

When the restaurants were asked to comply, the first reaction was to put this new wine into an old wine skin. The restaurants didn’t truly accommodate the non-smokers, they arbitrarily designated half of the restaurant non-smoking, but it didn’t really work. The smoke still made the dining experience less than ideal if you were a non-smoker. So the laws had to get tougher and we eliminated smoking in public places entirely-so the restaurants were forced to comply, and so were the smokers. If the restaurants had responded with the first set of laws with truly new wine skins, provided an enclosed space, for example, with proper ventilation, so only the smokers smelled the smoke, the first wave of laws might have worked. But putting the new idea into an old framework ended up not working very well and we had to pass even tougher laws.

Sometimes just the opposite happens. When I was in marketing in the Dallas area, I had a lengthy commute to get to work. I would stop at this combination gas station/convenience store most mornings for a large cup of not very good coffee. The place was an absolute dump; it was dirty and messy and paint was peeling inside, the restrooms were ridiculous and the exterior looked like it had not been painted or cleaned up for decades.

Once inside, the theme continued. The person who was normally working there early in the morning I think must have been there all night. Grumpy doesn’t cover it. He would scowl and grunt and never make a friendly gesture. He was generally unkempt, his hair was messy, about a 5-day stubble for a beard, often I could smell he needed a bath and there was always grease under his fingernails. I used to stop there just because of the location; it was right before I got on the freeway and on the correct side of the road, so it was convenient. I also played a bit of a game with myself-when I went in for my coffee I would try to get this guy to smile. It never worked. I don’t think it was possible.

One day I pulled in for my coffee and the place was closed. Little wonder, I thought to myself, I don’t know how they stayed in business as long as they did. Over the next few weeks I watched as the bulldozers leveled the old building and soon a bright new shiny clean store was in its place. I was thrilled!

When they finally opened I went in for my coffee, pleased that the place was new and fresh and clean, it was bright and cheery. I poured my coffee and headed for the counter to pay, and who do you suppose I saw…Yep, same old grumpy clerk-still unkempt, still messy hair, still a five-day stubble and still as friendly as ever. Oh, brother, I thought to myself-some things never change.

This was a case where they had built new wine skins and then filled it with the same old grumpy insides, the old wine, the soured wine.

My point here is that you need both; you need new wine and new wine skins. There are two parts to the puzzle; if you just do one it will not work. You have to have both new wine and new wine skins.

As far as the church is concerned, I have seen many churches that change the wine skins, they change the structure, they change the music, they change the lighting and the stage and they change the paint scheme. Then they proceed to fill that church with the same old message. And let me be very clear-I don’t think it is the physical structures that the unaffiliated demographic are rejecting in such high numbers-it is the message. At first, some of them may have been fooled by the new wineskins, and we saw huge growth in certain churches that followed some of the contemporary trappings. But now, they are losing membership as well, because, I believe, many are finding out that the new wine skins don’t really matter if you don’t get new wine with it.

This is our challenge; we need to make some changes to our wine skins, but we also need to fill those new wine skins with new wine. It is a both/and proposition.

For simplicity, we can think about it in this way; the new wine skins are the building, the style of worship, the music, the liturgy, the coffee fellowship, even the friendliness and welcoming attitude is part of the wine skin package.

The new wine represents what we actually believe. What we actually do in the community. The kind of theology that is put out there, the lyrics of the songs or hymns that we sing, the words in a call to worship or the kinds of prayers that we say. The new wine represents how self-righteous we appear to be, how judgmental we appear to be, how tolerant we are of other viewpoints and other faith traditions; whether we actually practice open hearts, open minds and open doors or not.

As we move through this process, we will be changing both our wine skins and our wine. Some aspects of worship may change, some aspects of the building may change, some of the music may change. We will also continue to plow new ground with our message; the things you have been hearing from me about thinking for yourselves, about asking the hard questions and about Biblical authority will continue.

Let’s look first at some of the new wine skins you may begin to notice. Within a few weeks the narthex area, the area just outside the sanctuary will be re-arranged. You will notice a welcome center where we will greet visitors-and visitors will actually receive some good information in the way of this folder, which is full of all the different ways someone can connect with this community.

You will also notice new name tags and a new location for those tags, to help you remember to put them on. I know in the past the name tags have felt a little redundant, after all most of us have been together for at least 20 years now – but that is about to change. New visitors will appreciate the name tags and you will be encouraged to wear them.

You may begin to notice some different music every once in awhile. We are in the process of obtaining some new playback equipment that will allow us to mix up our musical variety a little bit more and have many different styles available to us.

You may also notice that the coffee has gotten better-it seems insignificant, but it is not.

I have other changes to the worship space planned, but not yet approved or financed, so some things will be left unsaid for now, but make no mistake; we are moving forward and are taking some significant steps in creating new wine skins.

Unfortunately, we have reached the end of our time-so there will have to be a Winds of Change-Part 4, where we will talk about the ways our church will be communicating to the people outside of our walls what is happening within our walls. Next week will include a glimpse of our new web site, some advertising we have planned and other ways we will be communicating our new wine message to the target demographic.

Also just a note; last week some of you had the opportunity to meet my sister and brother-in-law, Sharon & Julian Tuck. Next week, you will have the chance to meet my brother Bruce and his wife Debbie. They have been here once before, some of you may remember, but they will be with us in worship next week and will be offering some special music as well. So tell your friends-this isn’t a service you will want to miss.

So be of good cheer, for we are creating new wine and new wine skins. Go in peace. Amen.

Sermon: May 24, 2015 – Winds of Change

Text: Acts 2: 1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Over the years Heidi and I have lived in a number of different states, and each state has its own unique sayings and jokes and culture. For example, we began in Iowa in the 1970’s and the Iowa slogan at that time was “a place to grow.” One of the favorite jokes was about the definition of a farmer as someone who was out standing in his field. We spent some time in Texas, where there were lots of crazy sayings, one I remember is that you never ask anyone where they are from; because if they are from Texas they will tell you, and if they are not, why embarrass them? I, for one, was glad to leave Texas. We even spent some time in Oklahoma, and I still don’t know what a Boomer Sooner is and of course there is Denver where everything is a mile high. But in all the states there was one consistent saying, like they were somehow unique; everybody thinks their weather is weird. It doesn’t matter where you live, you will always hear something like; “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” These kinds of sayings seem to be universal; everywhere we have ever lived claimed to have strange weather.

Over the years we have experienced a variety of weird weather, but the strangest day of all came one May afternoon in Denver. It was a Sunday, and it was the day the church had decided to get together for an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration – it was later than the 5th of May, actually I think it was the 20th if I remember correctly. The tradition was for the youth to play the adults in a soccer game and then we got together for an evening meal of enchiladas and other Mexican favorites in the church Fellowship Hall.

That Sunday morning was beautiful; it was just the right temperature, bright blue sky and hardly any breeze. After church, we had a brief lunch at home and then I put on my shorts and T-shirt and athletic shoes to be ready for the soccer match. By early afternoon it was pushing 80 degrees and I was beginning to think it was really too hot to play soccer; it didn’t take long and I began to rethink that position. Shortly after the game began, there came a mighty wind; we could even see it coming. There was an enormous dust cloud and the trees were swaying back and forth, there were leaves in the air and trash swirling around that had been picked up by the wind. We watched this cloud of debris approach the soccer field, and when it arrived it was a mighty wind indeed. Turns out, this mighty wind was signaling a major change in the weather; they were the winds of change, to be sure.

Within not more than 10 minutes the temperature had dropped about 10 or even 15 degrees and the wind stayed strong. Then dark clouds began to roll in and the sun was blocked out and the temperature dropped even lower; by now it was about 3:00 in the afternoon and the temperature was probably in the low 50’s – maybe 30 degrees less than it was a couple of hours ago. Then it started to rain and the temperature dropped even lower, then it began to hail, and the temperature dropped even lower, then it began to snow, and the temperature dropped even lower. We tried to complete the soccer game, but everyone was freezing-we were all in shorts and T-shirts and by now it was 4:30 and there was an inch of snow on the field and the temperature was hovering around 29 degrees – a temperature drop of 50 degrees in about 3 hours.

We called the game early and went to gather at the church for our traditional Mexican meal. When we started home from the church, I was still in my shorts and T-shirt; there was at least 6 inches of snow and it was still falling fast, temperature was maybe about 25 at that point. Through the night we received another 6 or 8 inches of snow-that was May 20 in 2001. The winds of change blew into Denver and boy did it change.

I tell this story because the scripture today and the celebration of Pentecost I believe truly represent the winds of change. There are many who consider Pentecost to be the birthday of the Christian church; but however you choose to mark the beginning of the actual Christian church, one thing is certain and that is that when that mighty wind blew with it came huge changes. The rush of a mighty wind on Pentecost was the wind of change to be sure. Think about all the things that had to change as the Christian church evolved. The language had to change, the races involved had to change, the day of the week changed, the food that was acceptable changed, the rituals changed, the tradition changed, the music changed, it all changed-and the change began with the rush of a mighty wind on Pentecost.

Well, guess what? The winds of change are blowing once again. I believe we are living in a time that will see such significant changes to Christianity that it may be called the second reformation. For the last 500 years, Christianity has been fairly stagnant –but the winds of change are blowing and I can see the dust and debris cloud on the horizon. The question for us on this day of Pentecost is will we prepare for these changes, or will we be caught, as I was in Denver-trudging my way through a snowstorm in shorts, a T-shirt and mesh athletic shoes?

So what is coming? This is a fair question and the warning signs have been in place for a few decades, but the change is accelerating. One of the more dramatic indicators is the result of some new research recently released by the Pew Research Institute. I was familiar with this research of several years ago, but new information based on a survey just completed in 2014 was just released last week. Take a look at some of these numbers.

The Pew Research Institute surveyed a little over 35,000 people, all across the United States. They asked them a number of questions, but one of particular interest is a question about religious affiliation. In just seven years, from 2007 through 2014, the percentage of the population of the United States that would identify themselves as Christian in a mainline denomination, has fallen rather dramatically in the last seven years. Evangelicals have also suffered a decline, as have the Catholics, but the one group that is growing are the unaffiliated. As a matter of fact, the unaffiliated group is the fastest growing demographic in the United States at this time. And it is not all young people, either – it represents people from all ages and all income and educational levels.

This research is significant on several levels. At first glance, it tells us that the Christian church, as we know it, is dying. At this rate of change, we only have a few decades left. For many, this research represents bad news and everyone is predicting doomsday futures.

I take a very different attitude. I look at the growing group of those that self-identify as unaffiliated, and think to myself what a huge and expanding market! I follow up that thought with the thought that there is not a church in the Valley that speaks their language or ministers to their needs. They are alone, and alone can be a very lonely place to be.

Think about this; of the top ten largest churches in the Valley, not counting the Catholics, I would have to say that all ten fall into the Evangelical Christian paradigm. From the Pew research we can see that about 21% of the population of the state of Idaho identifies themselves as Evangelical Christian. This means that all ten evangelical churches are filling their auditoriums every Sunday with 21% of the population.

Now look at the percentage of the population that self-identify as unaffiliated-in Idaho that percentage is 27% – in the state of Washington, it is even higher, at 32%. So the bottom line is this, we have a larger percentage and we only have to fill one church-and not ten. But before we can fill our church, we need to understand a few things. We need to understand why someone would choose to be unaffiliated rather than self-identify as Christian, of any kind.

I think the message is clear. The choices are clear. Those in the survey could choose atheist or agnostic if they had no interest in God at all. If they had zero spirituality, atheist or agnostic might be a good choice, but that is not what they chose. If they had a true interest in another religion, many of those were given as options as well, Buddhism, Islam, Hindu, Jewish or other were all options which this segment of the population did not identify with either. Instead, they chose unaffiliated.

It is my belief that because the majority of this demographic would have been raised in the basic context of Christianity, that is what they are now rejecting ; Christianity has become so rabid, so distasteful, so toxic that a huge percentage of the population now no longer wants to affiliate with Christianity. We need to find out why and find out quickly.

I have a few ideas-we will hear about some of that next week. My sister Sharon will be in town and she has recently retired from the ministry within the United Methodist Church, and we are going to have a dialogue about what we both have seen, what we think we are doing right, and what we need to do better. I will be sharing some of my hopes and dreams to reach out to those unaffiliated and Sharon will offer her perspective as well. So stay tuned for part two! Amen.

Sermon: May 17, 2015 – “Infinite Law”

Romans 13: 8-10

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “you shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

There is a symbol used in mathematics, it looks like a figure 8 lying on its side; It sort of looks like a diagram for a race track or a model train track layout or something. Does anyone know the symbol that I am speaking of? And what does it stand for? Infinity – that is correct. The mathematical symbol for infinity looks like the number eight lying on its side.

The mathematical concept of infinity is something to try to get your mind around. Infinity essentially means that whatever is infinite has no boundaries, no beginning and no end, it continues forever. In the big picture, the universe, as we understand it, is thought to be infinite. In other words, you could travel at the speed of light, which is something like 186,000 miles per second, (which is about 7 times around the planet every second) if I remember correctly, and you could travel at that speed for millions of years and never reach the end of the universe. Scientists tell us that as big as it is, the universe is still expanding. If it is infinite, which means it is all there is, then what exactly is it expanding in to? Let me know when you have that one figured out. Like I said, the concept of infinity is really something to try to get your mind around.

The universe gives us a good idea of what infinity looks like in the big picture. But what about the small picture? There is a hypothesis put forth in mathematics that numbers are also infinite. There isn’t a limit to how high you can count – we can always continue to add zeros and commas where necessary and allow numbers to get as big – or as small as we want. Consequently, there is another theory around the idea of infinity that I find fascinating; This is the theory that if you continue to divide a distance by two, you will never arrive at your destination – because the numbers and the distance the numbers represent, are infinite. Obviously, we could not detect such small distances with the naked eye, but the theory is an interesting one.

For example, if I am ten feet away from this table – I could move half the distance, or divide by two, and now I am only five feet from the table. Do that again, and now I am only 2 ½ feet from the table. One more time would bring me to within about 15 inches of the table, one more time after that and I would be only 7 ½ inches from the table. Certainly, you would think, that if we kept going, I would eventually reach the table. Common sense would say of course, you will reach the table; mathematics and the concept of infinity on the other hand, would say no. The distance remaining to reach the table is indefinitely divisible by two. You will never get there.

So why am I talking about this stuff anyway? I’m so glad you asked. I view the scripture that I read just a few minutes ago as an answer to a problem that was present in the time and place it was written. The problem was it seemed impossible to please God in every way. There were too many laws, too many commandments. It seemed like the distance to a relationship with God was always just out of reach – perhaps you perpetually only got half-way there. Follow one set of laws, and another set was waiting for you just around the corner. Follow those laws, and more could always be found. It seemed the law had become infinite; until a man by the name of Jesus came and gave a new law. In that new law there was only one thing to remember, just one thing to do – love your neighbor – that was it. Actually that is still it – just that one thing. The law had gone from infinite to singular practically overnight. Now love was all there was and love was all that was needed. Infinite love could fulfill the infinite law.

That was then; but this is now. We don’t seem to struggle with the law so much anymore. But we do struggle with judgment, with condemnation, with divisive attitudes and an underlying distrust of each other. As a matter of fact, it seems unless someone thinks almost exactly the same way you do, you are just a little suspicious of that person. I personally have been accused more than a few times of leading people astray and my dangerous and destructive preaching goes against God’s will. Sorry about that; but in my own defense I try not to lead anyone anywhere. I do ask a lot of questions, I point out fallacies or short comings in certain beliefs, I do ask people to think for themselves; so if that is heresy then it’s probable we hold different definitions of the word.

But here is the bottom line. As I read the New Testament and in particular the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, I find there a commitment to the person, a commitment to understanding, a commitment to compassion and love-not in any place do I ever find an example of where some law or some tradition or some creed or someone interpretation of a scripture becomes more important than the individual, becomes more important than love. That never happens. Jesus always puts the person first and the law second. Jesus consistently met people where they were; this meant he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, this meant he touched and healed people that were considered untouchable and unclean, he chose his closest friends and disciples from the common working class rather than the educated elite. Jesus met everyone where they were.

How good of a job do we do at meeting people where they are? We seem to have a history of oppression when it comes to certain groups-the women in church are still oppressed in some circles, certainly we have a checkered past with people of color and the current debate raging over LGBT issues seems to be our current hot button. When an issue comes up it seems like our first thought is always toward the law, rather than toward love, our first response favors tradition over compassion.

It seems so often we forget that love is the only law we need. If we continue to divide, if we continue to split hairs, just like my example of trying to move closer to the table, we might get close, but we will never arrive at where Jesus wants us to be. As long as we continue to divide, the law of infinity stays in effect and we never fully arrive. Jesus knew this long before the concept of infinity had ever been brought forth; put simply, law divides and love unites.

So what does infinite love look like? Infinite love never ends, infinite love is unconditional, infinite love trumps the law every single time and infinite love allows for diversity, and includes everyone. Infinite love is what the woman at the well experienced; infinite love is what the woman caught in adultery experienced; infinite love is what Zacchaeus the tax collector experienced and infinite love is what the mugging victim experienced at the hands of the Good Samaritan. Infinite love is what brought the prodigal son home and infinite love is what allowed him to stay. Infinite love is what broke the chains of bondage for the Gerasene Demoniac.

And it can break our chains of bondage as well; if we will only allow it to.

Infinite love replaces infinite law.

Go in peace, Amen.

Sermon: May 3, 2015

Text: Exodus 3: 1-9

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

This is probably one of the more famous parts of scripture where God is identified as fire; God seems to be present in the burning bush and he speaks to Moses. If you want to just offer an example of God as fire in either the Old or the New Testament, it is pretty easy to find a text. There are lots of them. I chose this one because it is one of the few texts where God is fire, but God is also compassionate, loving and sensitive rather than angry and wrathful. Many times you find God linked to fire when God wants to clean house or vent a little bit, but in this text we find God hearing the cries of the Israelites and God claims to know of their suffering. So that is why I chose this text to begin our conversation about God as fire and God as light.

You can probably think of several other famous examples of God as fire; there was the pillar of fire in the wilderness to lead the Israelites by night. There was John the Baptist who said Jesus would baptize with fire, and of course there was Pentecost, where the tongues of fire were present on each of the disciples heads as they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Shadrack, Meshack and Abendigo were rescued from the firey furnace by a fourth figure of flames and the book of Revelation has a fire reference in almost every sentence. There isn’t any shortage of fire in Bible.

That being said, I find it interesting that in our 21st century of understanding what fire is and how it works that so few people really pursue the metaphor. I say this because when you begin to think about fire in a new way the metaphor for God as fire becomes even richer. Allow me to explain.

I heard a funny story once about some of these guys. (hold up plastic dinosaurs) I don’t know if your kids were dinosaur crazy or not – our first certainly was. Matthew loved dinosaurs, he knew all the names and had all the books and when we had the chance to visit a natural history museum, like the good one in Denver for example, where they had a few skeletons assembled, that was a real treat.

Any way the story goes like this; I think most of us recognize the fact that plastic is a petroleum product, we may not fully understand all the chemistry behind how we get there, but we do get plastic from petroleum. Another little fact that most of us already know is that petroleum is refined from the crude oil we pump out of the ground. Those oil reserves are the result of decomposing matter that through the right process of time and pressure have turned into oil. If any of you remember the old Sinclair gasoline logo, a dinosaur, you may also remember that much of that decomposing material that eventually turns into oil is thought to be decomposing dinosaurs.

So the ironic story is this; if plastic comes from petroleum and petroleum comes from oil and oil comes from dinosaurs, then these plastic dinosaurs are made from real dinosaurs! Whoa! Fun to think about, any way…

I bring this up because sunlight and fire work the same way. Consider the small tree out in the forest 100 years ago. Slowly the tree grows and matures and each spring the leaves come out and soak up the sunshine and the roots absorb the rain and the tree grows taller and taller. Eventually the life span of the tree is over and it begins to die. After it has been dead for a few years, along comes farmer John who has a wood stove in his house. That standing dead tree would make some good fire wood he thinks to himself, so he cuts it up and stacks it in the wood shed for next winter. When winter comes he grabs some of that wood and builds a fire in the wood stove. All of this sounds very logical until you begin to consider that the fire that is released as that wood is burning, is actually stored sunlight. The tree when it was alive soaked up the sun’s rays through the leaves and stored that energy in the mass of the wood it was producing as it grew. Now, our farmer is releasing that stored energy, that stored sunlight, as the wood burns. The sunlight that may have been present a hundred years ago when the tree was very young, is now present again in the fire in farmer John’s wood stove.

I think we need to begin to see God in much the same way. Not just in fire, but in light and energy and all creation. One thing which you may not know is that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only transfer from one form into another form. In other words, the fire energy in farmer John’s wood stove is still present in the world, even after the fire goes out. The energy is present in the form of heat, and eventually that heat energy may be transferred back outside where it is absorbed by the atmosphere and causes a thunderstorm. The result of the thunderstorm may be a lightning strike which starts a fire and our energy is once again in the form of fire. This example is a little quick and a little simplistic, but the concept is the same. Energy never goes away. And neither does God.

I have often encouraged you to think about God as energy rather than a being of some sort. This is part of the reason why I believe it is more productive to image God in this way rather than through an anthropomorphic image of God. The God energy that spoke to Moses in the burning bush is still around today – it may even be the energy that is in the candles on the altar, or the energy that is in the bread we will eat during communion. Actually, what I believe to be true is that all energy is God energy, and so the energy that beats our hearts or grows our fingernails is ancient God energy of some kind. Remember, it never leaves, it just changes form.

We have a number of votive candles up here today for you to light if you want to as part of our communion ritual. These candles have a long tradition within Christianity of representing both the energy and the light of God. In Latin, the word “votum” means ‘vow’ and it is the root of what we now call a votive candle. In other words, when you light the vow candle, with the energy of God, you make a vow with God present. That vow may be to pray for someone, it may be to ask for wisdom in a situation, it may be a vow to simply remember someone, but it is a vow you make for yourself and the energy in the flame represents the ancient energy of God.

Today, as we partake of the communion elements, I will be asking you to remember that the energy you receive from the bread and the cup is the same energy that was present when Jesus walked on earth and the same energy that was present when Moses heard the voice of God from the burning bush. If you choose to light a votive candle, that can represent even more energy and a greater presence of God as you make a vow of your own choice.

Come and receive the energy of God.

Amen.

Sermon: April 26, 2015

Text: John 4: 13-14

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

I have a couple of observations and questions regarding this text, which will not surprise any of you who have been around for awhile. My first observation is this idea of never having thirst again reminds me of the 23rd Psalm which opens with the words “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. I see a great similarity between the ideas of never thirsting and the not wanting, in my mind they are nearly identical, one in the same.

My question with the text has to do with how the author of John has chosen to interpret the idea of never thirsting again. The second part of verse 14 says that the water will become a spring gushing up to eternal life. What does that mean? How is that helpful? Does that mean we have to wait around for 20 or 30 years or however long it takes until we finally die, and then we experience eternal life and then we can make full sense of what it means to never thirst? If that is what it means, then I’m not really interested-I think most of us want something that is helpful today, right now, to give us guidance and encouragement in this moment. We want something that will satisfy our thirst right now.

If we continue our analogy for a minute with the 23rd Psalm, it seems that the Psalm does a pretty good job of giving us comfort in the here and now – not the theoretical someday of eternal life. In the Psalm we are led by still waters, which I think speaks to anxiety, and we lie down in green pastures, which I could interpret as peace and rest. The Psalm states that our souls are restored; we are renewed, refreshed, and encouraged – ready to take on the next challenge. These are all very practical, in the now, kinds of examples of the way that the Lord as our shepherd keeps us from wanting.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is reported to have said that the water he offers will enable us to never thirst again; as long as we are willing to wait for eternal life. That’s nonsense. We want our thirst to be quenched in the now, today-it is today that we experience the downfalls and challenges of life; it is today that we are thirsty; it is today that we need the help. This reference to eternal life puts that help that we seek for ourselves into the future, into some theoretical and hypothetical context of something that we don’t fully understand and never will concerning what happens after we die. I don’t find that to be particularly helpful.

This gap between the practical and the theoretical reminds me of a story. It seems that Sherlock Holmes and his faithful partner Watson were out camping and after a nice evening meal and swapping stories around the campfire Holmes and Watson retired for the night into their tent. In the wee hours of the morning Holmes wakes up and proceeds to wake up Watson and tells him to look up. “What do you see?” asks Sherlock and Watson replies “I see millions and millions of stars”. “What does that tell you?” Holmes continues to question, and Watson replies; “well, as a mathematician it tells me the sheer number of stars is incalculable and the millions of galaxies and the distances involved are difficult to comprehend, and as a theologian it tells me that the creator of this vast universe is beyond our imaginations and understanding and that we as humans are small and insignificant. As an astronomer, I can see the rotation of the earth has caused the locations of some of the planets and the constellations to change, and judging by the current location of those planets and constellations, I can deduce that it is approximately 3 AM and as a meteorologist I can see that it is an extremely clear night which means we are under the influence of some high pressure and the chances are excellent we will have a nice day tomorrow”. Then Watson asks Sherlock Holmes, “what do you see when you look at the stars?” To which Holmes replies, “I see that someone has stolen our tent.”

So there is the practical and then there is the theoretical and the hypothetical. When it comes to the teachings of Jesus, if he said that the water which he offers will enable us to never thirst again, I would prefer to take that in the practical rather than the theoretical. I would rather not thirst right now rather than to have to wait for eternal life. In other words, I like the first part of this scripture, but then I honestly think the author of John got it wrong. Jesus intends for us to not thirst in the here and now; of course we will no longer thirst in eternal life that seems obvious, where is the good news in that? I want to know what to do about the thirst I experience today.

Let me see if I can explain. I think the best answer to thirst begins with full acceptance of what is. There is recognition of the way things are and our inability to control most things that can only lead to full acceptance of what is. As long as we resist what is, as long as we fight against what is or feel like the current situation isn’t right or correct or fair, we will thirst. If we can learn to let go of that need or desire to be in control and accept what is, then we can experience full peace and never thirst again.

This is not easy. At some point in our lives we are all likely to be in a situation where we begin to think the world revolves around us; we begin to be a little self-centered and feel like perhaps life isn’t fair and we deserve better than what we have.

Some of you may know something about my past and how I got caught by the system and spent some time in-between churches, spent some time unemployed and more time under employed. We struggled financially, we moved in with one of our children, we couldn’t always pay our bills on time, it didn’t seem fair and it seemed like we deserved better than this. But it was also reality and I didn’t have a lot of control. This experience continues to shape my attitudes and disposition today.

When we are tempted to be self-centered, when we are tempted to think we deserve better; what does Jesus say? Jesus said to put others first, he said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. He said to love others in the way that you would want to be loved, he said if we are to ever find ourselves, we must first lose ourselves. We must accept what is, and go from there, and then we will never thirst again.

A couple of days ago I was in Winco with a few groceries and went to pay the bill with my debit card and it was declined. Don’t you just love it when that happens? We tried the card again, but with the same result and it seemed clear something was not right. The next morning when the bank opened it became clearer that there was suspicious activity on that card and Visa had cancelled it. I had seen on our account the night before a charge for $115 that I had not made, so I knew something was going on. For a few moments I bitterly resisted what was happening; I was thirsty for revenge, I was thirsty to get my $115 returned to me, I was thirsty for the authorities to catch these low lives and throw their collective posteriors in jail. I was thirsty.

But what does Jesus say? Jesus says to let go of anger, to forgive everyone, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute you. Jesus said to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile and that our true treasure is in the heart and not in the bank.

With that in mind, I tried to accept what is, and remembered those things that Jesus had taught; I said a prayer for those who must be so desperate they can only steal from others and my thirst diminished.

I was watching the news the other night and it seems like the presidential campaign season is about to get underway and it seems like we just went through all that. I began to think how divided we seem to be and how frustrated I am with our division, I thought about how so many people seem to chase power and status. I thought about how tempted we are to think in terms of us versus them, to act tribally and create groups of who is in and who is out so that we can feel self-righteous or more superior than the other group. As I thought about all these things I became thirsty once again. I thirsted for cooperation, I thirsted for understanding, I thirsted for more people to see things my way, I thirsted that others might find the same level of wisdom that I obviously have found. I was thirsty.

Then I tried to remember what Jesus said about this behavior. That Jesus told us to not judge one another so that we might not be judged ourselves by the same measure. Jesus told us we might want to think twice before casting that first stone and Jesus tells us to not worry about social status but to meet people where they are, even if it means eating with tax collectors, healing the leper or showing compassion to the prostitute. I tried to remember these things, I accepted what is, and my thirst diminished.

I believe we can experience the thirst quenching water that Jesus offers each and every day if we only will. It requires of us a greater understanding of who we are, who the other may be and how we can apply the teachings of Jesus to our situation right now. It also requires of us an understanding that what is, is not likely to change anytime soon and we may have very little control over our current situation. What we can control is how we will react and respond to each and every circumstance. It is in that response that determines whether or not we will continue to be thirsty.

Control your response. Control your reaction. Accept what is. Practice what Jesus taught and you may never be thirsty again.

Go in peace, go with God and go and thirst no more. Amen.