Sermon: August 30, 2015 – “Is This Free?”

Sermon – August 30, 2015

Text: Mark 5: 24-34

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Perhaps a year or so ago I was on line looking at our bank balance and debit card activity when I noticed a charge that I didn’t recognize. It had originated in Shanghai, China and I was pretty sure I hadn’t been to China lately, so I knew something was not quite right. It was the week-end so I had to wait until Monday morning to go in a talk with the bank. When they opened I went to a teller at the bank and explained that I thought there had been an unauthorized transaction on my account. She listened, took my information and then retrieved a list from another desk. “You are already on here” she said, pointing toward the list, we already figured this was unauthorized and we have cancelled your current card.

That was pretty impressive, at least to me, that they already knew something was amiss-the unauthorized withdrawal was fairly obvious if you knew what to watch for. There was something that alerted someone, or some computer, to let them know that something fishy was going on. Impressive on one hand, but kind of scary on the other; it kind of leaves you wondering what else they know about you but just are not sharing that information right now…

Any way, we got the mess figured out, I eventually got my money back, ordered a new debit card and all was well.

I tell this story because the text I read a few minutes ago reminded me of this experience. You see Jesus was immediately aware that someone had made an unauthorized withdrawal; the text states that Jesus was aware that some form of power had left his body. There were lots of people touching his clothing, the disciples were a little confused when he asked who had touched him-and they responded by saying, look around, everybody is touching you, how can you say, who touched me?

But of all the people who were pressing in on Jesus and coming into contact with him, only one was able to withdraw the power to heal from him. Only one. Have you ever wondered why just one and what made it possible for that one?

We need to go back to the text and look again, but the woman had told herself that all she needed to do was to touch the hem of his garment. That was it; just touch the garment and she knew she would be healed. This is remarkable, but we have to really think about it before we begin to fully realize the true implications of this text.

You see the act of touching the garment by itself was not the key ingredient. Lots of people were touching the garment without any consequences. It was the fact that the woman had already decided in her mind, she had told herself, if I touch the garment, then I will be healed.

Does this give us any clues about how important it is that when we talk to ourselves we guard the kind of language we use and we pay attention to what it is we are saying to ourselves? Everyone talks to themselves-we are constantly having conversations with ourselves; but what are we saying? Are we telling ourselves how stupid we are, how silly we look in this new haircut, how inadequate we are, how we really blew it at work or how we wished we hadn’t said that one thing? What is our self-talk? One lesson of this text is to watch our self-talk, because it determines to a large extent what the outcome of our actions is. Without self-talk this woman would never have been healed; if she had not told herself what would happen when she touched the garment, when she did, nothing would have happened. That’s exactly what happened when everyone else was touching Jesus, nothing. But this woman was different and that difference was what she had told herself, in her own mind. Self-talk is powerful and we need to pay attention when we begin to tell ourselves things.

But as important as that is, I don’t think that is the truly liberating part of the story. I want us to look at verse 26, where it said she had endured much under many physicians and she had spent all she had. Boy does that sound familiar. As a matter of fact, this story is repeated in the Gospel according to Luke, and Luke says that even though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. I guess in a twisted sort of way there is some comfort in knowing that some things never change.

So this woman tells herself that if she could just touch the cloak of Jesus she would be healed; and then she manages to get close enough and touches his cloak, and immediately she felt in her body that she had been made well. Then it gets interesting, because Jesus knows that something is up-kind of like my bank knew that there was unauthorized activity on my account, Jesus knew there had been an unauthorized power withdrawal from his cloak.

So Jesus stops and starts asking questions. I find it interesting that in all three stories, for this story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman eventually comes forward, but is scared to death. She falls before Jesus in fear and trembling is what the Mark version says. So, why would she be afraid? She had done nothing wrong. Was she fearful that Jesus would be upset; did she consider her power withdrawal to be some sort of violation? Was there an unwritten law somewhere?

One explanation that speaks to the context of the story in terms of history and tradition, is that the woman would have been considered unclean in her condition, and so for her to touch Jesus, would have also made him unclean. So some scholars believe that the woman was afraid that Jesus would be upset because the woman had made him unclean. She didn’t know Jesus very well, if that was the case. It seems that Jesus didn’t pay a lot of attention to that kind of stuff.

With all of the references in the three texts about how the woman had spent so much money on all those physicians, I’m wondering if the woman thought there may be a charge of some sort. I can see her wondering in her own mind; “uh-oh-I been found out, I wonder what this is going to cost?” I can see this woman asking the question in her own mind; “is this going to be free?” She had already spent all she had and we can assume there wasn’t anything she could offer, even as a gift. I think in her poor financial condition and in her poor health condition, she wanted to remain as anonymous as possible. But Jesus calls her out. So there is some anxiety as she approaches Jesus.

All Jesus says to her is that her faith had made her well.

Now we need to think about this a minute and link all of this together. We established earlier that the woman’s self talk was instrumental in her healing. Others were touching Jesus and nothing was happening, but for her, healing took place. Now Jesus tells her that it was her faith that made her well. I want to ask a question: Is faith and self talk the same thing? Have you ever thought about it in that way? Who is that voice in your head and what is that voice saying most of the time? Is it positive or is it negative? Think about what you say to yourself as faith-think about what you say to yourself as the voice of God. Does that change what you might say to yourself in certain situations? I think it might.

With regard to the woman’s financial condition, I want to give you another thought. If there was some kind of financial value to the healing, which the text indicates there was not, but if there were-when Jesus responds to her what I hear in that response is that you already own the healing. It was yours all along. All you had to do was reach out and take it. In other words, all that Jesus has to offer is already ours, it is on the shelf, in stock and ready to ship, we just need to place the order-and shipping is free!

As you begin to think about this, can you begin to see a relationship develop between our own self talk and our ownership position of all that Jesus represents? Can we find the courage to actually speak to ourselves with the same kind of knowing that the woman in our text had? Can we take ownership of what is already ours and make it our own? Can we reach out and touch it and make it part of our lives? Can we listen to the very voice of God in our own self talk and recognize it for what it is?

I’m asking a lot of questions. But when we begin to answer the questions and live those answers to the fullest, our lives may never be the same. And that is food for thought.

Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: August 23, 2015 – Remember the Children

Text: Mark 10: 13-16

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

There are a number of observations concerning this text that I want to make that I think are very critical to our understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward others and I also want to zero in on this word indignant. The word exploration may shed some more light on what we began talking about last week when we dealt with the subject of anger a little bit.

So we will begin first with a few observations about this text. Many of you I’m sure have seen artists pictures of this scene with Jesus surrounded by cute children; if the painting or drawing is particularly outdated, many of the children will be white with blonde hair and blue eyes! Not an exact depiction of reality and to a great extent, I think the scene has been glamorized a great deal. Have you ever stopped to ask the question as to why the disciples would want to keep the children away from Jesus? Doesn’t everybody love cute, adorable kids? What’s the big deal, anyway?

As you begin to try to picture this scene from the disciples’ point of view, there might be a couple of things you should try to think about. The first thing that pops into my head is that Pampers didn’t exist in the first century-I’m not sure what they used for diapers, but I’m pretty certain the diapers were not as efficient or as effective as a modern day Pamper. In other words, sometimes they leak-if you have had kids, you know what I’m talking about.

There was one morning I remember well. Our first born, Matthew, was just 18 months old. I was in college and had an 8 o’clock class and Heidi was working at a day care center that also opened early. It was always a mad dash to get everybody where they needed to be on time. We just had one car, so I would ride my bike to class and the student housing we were staying in was close enough that I could do that. On this particular morning we were just about to leave when we had to deal with a particularly messy diaper-I will leave the details to your imagination, but the extra time it took to change the diaper put us behind schedule. We were a blur of motion, working together, we got the diaper changed, Matthew loaded into the car seat, Heidi on her way and I’m on my bike riding full speed to not be late for class. I arrived at class with a few minutes to spare. I sat at a desk and for the first time in about 30 minutes or so, I was actually still enough to catch my breath. When I did actually come to a complete stop and took a few deep breaths-well…sniff, sniff-there was something on my shirt! I missed class that day.

The text says people were bringing children, it doesn’t say infants, but toddlers could still be in diapers, but the truth is we don’t have any idea what age the children might have been. It could be there was a wide range of ages, and some could still have been in the diaper stage. It could be that some of the kids were not all that pleasant to be around-I don’t know how often you got changed as a toddler in the first century, but I’m thinking not all that often. I know for sure there were not any baby fresh wipes or sweet smelling lotions or powder either.

I was always amazed when our kids were young at how quickly they could get dirty. After a bath the kids would stay clean for maybe 10 minutes, 20 minutes max. Kids are dirt magnets. When they eat something, half of the food ends up on the outside of them someplace and then the food gets sticky. Then the kids find a tree to climb or a dirt mound to roll in and you know what happens then. I’m sure there were incidents and minor accidents for the kids as they played that would cause a few tears and so the tears streak the cheeks in the dust that is already there, and more dust sticks to the tears as they flow. Then the kid wipes the tears and there is a big smudge across the cheek-we have all seen this. Then there was the heat; in that part of the country it is hot most of the time and kids sweat just like adults. So more dust sticks to the sweat and when they wipe the sweat out of their eyes, more smudges and more dirty faces! Just imagine how compounded all of these things would have been in the first century-I’m thinking the kids were not pleasant to be around at all.

Then there is the issue of the runny nose. It sure seems like kids and runny noses just go together; you know, apple pie and ice cream, peas and carrots, sunshine and palm trees, ocean water and sandy beaches, kids and runny noses-it’s just the way it is. It is also a safe bet that in the first century there wasn’t always a box of Kleenex handy or even a handkerchief-but I do know they had sleeves! Chances are that is where most of the dribble ended up, somewhere on the sleeve of the child and of course one more thing for the dust to stick to!

I’m thinking these kids would not have been the greatest example of cleanliness. They would have been highly undesirable, smudged-faced, dirty clothed, probably smelled bad and were a general nuisance; now we can begin to understand why the disciples would be stern with the parents. The disciples were just trying to keep the situation as pleasant as possible.

So with perhaps a new image of a first century child in our minds, we need to revisit the text where Jesus says to the disciples that it is to people just like these children that the kingdom of God belongs. Not the cute, smartly dressed, clean faced and sweet smelling children in the artists pictures, but the undesirable, smelly, dirty and sticky-fingered kids of the first century. What does this tell us about who we are to be ministering to? What does this tell us about who we are to be sharing the Good News? I think the children in this story represent for us the undesirable, the under-belly of society, the outcasts and the people who we would rather not associate with. The text goes on to say that Jesus took them up in his arms and blessed them.

To these belongs the kingdom of God. Wow. Can you see it?

The disciples were just trying to keep Jesus from catching anything awful from one of the runny-nosed kids, trying to keep his nice white robe from getting soiled with smashed dates or whatever the last meal was for these kids. They were just trying to keep the area free from a bunch of kids underfoot and perhaps trying to keep the air around fresh and breathable…and to this Jesus becomes indignant!

That is an interesting word, isn’t it? Indignant. The text doesn’t say angry or frustrated, the text doesn’t say he yelled at them or became violent; the text says he was indignant. I think that is so interesting. The Greek word that is translated into indignant is ag-an-ak-teh’-o. Some of the other meanings in Greek indicate that it is a form of grief, or almost sadness; it is compassion felt so strongly that it creates disappointment or melancholy. Even Webster’s definition I think is helpful-“anger aroused by injustice” is how Webster chose to define indignant. What Jesus felt goes beyond being annoyed or frustrated with his disciples, it goes beyond just being angry with them. To be indignant is to be moved emotionally to a place of intolerance.

This is what Jesus was feeling. He was moved to a place of intolerance and he became indignant. Don’t you dare assume these children are unworthy of my attention. Don’t you dare judge these to be less than others because of age or dress or cleanliness. Don’t you dare think God cares less for these who struggle, or are smudged-faced, or that smell bad. Don’t you dare.

The message can still be heard today. Don’t you dare limit the love of God to a single group of people. Don’t you dare think certain clothes or certain shoes or certain haircuts are the only ones acceptable for church-don’t you dare. Can we welcome those who we would rather not be around? Can we welcome those who make us uncomfortable? Can we welcome those who need the love and compassion of God so desperately? Don’t you dare think the love of God is limited to the sweet-smelling, nicely dressed, SUV-driving, gainfully-employed population. Don’t you dare.

Can you see the children? Can you see Jesus standing in the midst of the disciples explaining to them, it is people like these kids that belong to the kingdom of God. Do not hinder them, but let everyone come to me.

Perhaps we need a little more indignation. Go in peace. Amen.

Sermon: August 16, 2015 – Heap Those Coals

Text: Romans 12: 9-21

 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is so hard. Some days I get the feeling that everyone is angry about something and they are just waiting for the one thing that will push them over the edge. Don’t you think that is how road rage happens sometimes? It is not the one thing that happened on the road, it is just that when the one person cut the other off, it was the last thing that happened; the last thing in a long string of events that we allow to pile up within us. Sometimes I think we are always ready to assume the worst, ready to jump to horrible conclusions and are ready to flash in anger at the slightest provocation.

I am reminded of a story about a young man who had gone out for a Sunday drive in the country-he thought it would do him some good because he knew he was a little stressed out. As the man drove he started around a large curve in the road; on that curve he met on oncoming car that was in his lane. The car was a convertible with the top down as it was a very nice day, and he also had his window down. Because the car was in his lane, the man laid on his horn and gestured toward the woman who was driving the convertible. The woman swerved out of the way and yelled back at the man, “Pig!”.

Well, our driver was furious, “I can’t believe she called me that” he said out loud even though no one else was in the car. He beat his fist on dash board and said again out loud to no one there, “she was in my lane! Who does she think she is?” He was still fuming when he finished going around the corner and had to swerve again in order to miss the pig in the middle of the road.

Sometimes I think that anger helps us feel powerful. It helps us feel like maybe we have some control in the situation when actually we have zero control. When we face overwhelming obstacles getting angry will at times help us to get the courage we need to overcome those obstacles. I also think that getting angry is sometimes just a habit. It is something we allow ourselves to fall into out of habit rather than through thought. I say that because if we actually thought about it, we would realize that our anger in no way changes the situation most of the time. It is only for our benefit that we get angry, it feeds our ego and we become addicted to the drama of the anger. We do this even though it causes us frustration and pain and more often than not it also negatively impacts anyone else who may be around. There simply are not very many upsides to anger-and this is what the scripture is trying to tell us. For the most part, anger is a waste of time and energy and has zero upside. If you really want to change things, you first have to embrace those you want to change.

This is what Jesus meant when he said for us to love our enemies. We must embrace those we seek to change; we must love one another with mutual affection. That can be a tall order and yet that is what the text tells us to do. It really is the only way to affect change in a situation. We know this to be true in history. Nelson Mandela had little success as a radical extremist committed to violence in his youth, but through love and tolerance and non-violence he accomplished a great deal, as did Desmond Tutu. The message of Martin Luther King Jr was always one of love and non-violence and of course the greatest example is Jesus himself. History has proven over and over again that love wins and violence and anger lose. But, alas, we are slow learners.

I have always appreciated the greeting “Namaste” which has its roots in the Buddhist faith tradition. I have heard a few different interpretations of this greeting but generally it means that the Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you. Some say the spirit of goodness in me recognizes the spirit of goodness in you, but however you choose to interpret the greeting, the idea remains the same. Everyone you meet has a level of the divine spirit of goodness that is within them-and we should do our best to try to recognize and see that in everyone.

This is also what this text is telling us; to look for the good, to see the good and respond to only the good. In spite of what our emotions are telling us, in spite of that anger that flashes up through our being, in spite of the fact that we might think someone called us a pig, we are to look for the spirit of divine goodness.

But toward the end of the text it gets really interesting. Verse 20 is a little confusing to me, because it tells us to do all these things and then when we do, we can actually get a little revenge! We can respond in this way and by doing so we are heaping coals upon their heads. There is more than one person out there I would like to heap coals on, this sounds like a pretty good idea to me. I like the thought of these fiery hot coals burning the heads of everyone I don’t agree with. One commentary I checked with about this text said the coals represent the burning shame that will come with the recognition of how poorly they have treated others when they are treated with kindness.

Is it just me, or does the idea of revenge here seem a little out of place? Is that really to be our motivation? To heap coals on the heads of those we would otherwise be angry with? Is there something else we should be able to uncover in this text, but it isn’t real obvious and even the commentaries miss it? I’m thinking we need a new way to see the last part of this text.

A few months ago you may remember that I traveled to Denver to attend the Festival of Homiletics. It was a weeklong event that gathered together some of the best preachers in the world and there were workshops and Q&A sessions that went along with everything else. It was a great experience. One of the preachers I heard while I was there was a black man from Zimbabwe and he spoke of this text. But he had a different interpretation.

One of the stories he told was ancient history of things that had taken place in his tribe for thousands and thousands of years. The story was about cooperation and friendship and how the greatest gift of friendship was shared among the people of his tribe.

During that time thousands of years ago, one of the greatest commodities was fire. It was difficult to survive without fire. The tradition of the tribe was that it was one of the duties of the women of the household to maintain the fire while the men were out hunting and gathering and so forth. On very rare occasions there were times when someone’s fire would go out. At times like these, the woman whose fire had gone out would turn to her friends and ask for help. She would bring a clay pot to her friends dwelling and the friend would bestow upon her the greatest gift imaginable, the gift of fire, because the gift of fire was the gift of life itself. You could not survive without it. Together, they would heap hot coals into the clay pot and the woman would carry it back home on her head. This was considered a great honor to be asked by someone for the gift of fire and it was a great honor to bestow the gift as well.

And so when we heap coals upon the heads of those who treat us with evil, we can think about this story and how when we respond with love, we give the greatest gift that can ever be given. We give the gift of fire, we give the gift of life itself.

When we respond to evil with love, we have the chance to not only change for the good who they are, but we have the chance to change who we are as well. Go in peace. Amen.

Sermon: August 9, 2015 – Why Yeast?

Text: Matthew 16: 5-12

“Why Yeast?”

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ways to interpret scripture and sometimes we have to decide whether or not we are going to look for metaphor in a particular scripture or not. That is not the case with this particular pericope, because there is an obvious use of metaphor by Jesus. He warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees, using yeast as a metaphor. But the disciples miss the point the first time around-they think he is talking about bread; they are looking at the yeast in a literal sense, rather than the metaphor. Finally, when Jesus explains it all, the disciples sort of understand that Jesus was talking about the teachings of the Pharisees and not actually yeast, but I’m not certain they understood fully what Jesus was trying to say.

In order for us to fully perceive what Jesus was trying to warn us about, I think we need to ask a few more questions and then try to apply the answers to those questions not to just this text, but apply them to what is happening now, in the 21st century. With that in mind, let’s begin to explore this text by asking some of those questions.

My first question is why yeast? Why would Jesus use yeast as a metaphor to warn about teachings that he may have considered to be dangerous or off base or just flat out wrong? What is there about yeast that makes this a good metaphor?

In order to answer those questions, I think it is necessary for us to understand a little bit about yeast, about what it is and how it works and what it does. I guess there isn’t any way to know for sure that 1st century yeast was the same as a package of yeast you buy today at the grocery store today, but my assumption is that they would be close to being the same. Or at least work in the same way.

Most of us know that yeast is used in several ways, the most common is when we bake bread or rolls, and we have to add yeast to make the dough rise before we bake it. What does rising bread have to do with bad or false teachings of the Pharisees? Does anyone see a connection here? Why would Jesus use yeast as a metaphor in this way? Are the teachings of the Pharisees puffed up like rising bread? That could be, I guess. Yeast can also be used to help things ferment, so if you are making wine or beer, yeast can help with the fermentation process. Are we to see a connection here? Is Jesus saying that the teachings of the Pharisees can be intoxicating? That is one possible direction we could go, I guess, but it still doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Maybe it would be helpful if we looked more closely at how yeast actually works. Maybe if we look into what happens with yeast, there may be a clue about why Jesus would use this metaphor to warn us about bad teachings. I’m looking for something more than the teachings are puffed up or intoxicating, but I do think those things are true.

Does anyone remember Pac-Man? Anyone ever play Pac-Man at one of the video games you might see in a store or a lobby of some sort? It’s OK, you can admit it – I played a lot of Pac-Man, but Q-Bert was my favorite, but that is another story. I mention Pac-Man because I think it is a good visual for us to think about when we think of yeast.

Yeast is a collection of millions of single-cell organisms, kind of like Pac-Man, that when we dissolve the yeast in warm water, we kind of wake them up. Once awake, these single-cell organisms race around and begin to consume sugar; so instead of Pac-Man eating all those little dots, imagine the dots to be granules of sugar and we will get pretty close to a visual image of yeast at work. As these organisms consume the sugar, they also create a byproduct of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide collects in the fabric of the bread and causes it to rise over time as more and more CO2 is released.

This may not be an exact translation you might find in a science book, but it is close enough for our purposes. The conclusion that I’m looking for here is that the addition of yeast begins a chemical reaction of sorts that actually changes the structure of the material the yeast is added to. The original dough is transformed into something else, it is physically changed. The addition of the yeast also changes the intent or the meaning of the dough. You could think of it in this way; the original dough was to be used for crackers, but you add yeast and now the dough is used for bread. So the intent changes along with the physical nature of the dough. Yeast can transform one thing into something else; that also describes the fermentation process as well. What begins as grape juice transforms into wine. It gets changed-and I think that is the point. That is the metaphor. The Pharisees take a scripture or a teaching and they change it to suit the circumstance or to create an advantage for them.

Now, I think we are getting somewhere-this is something that would make Jesus unhappy, to twist scripture around to make it mean something else. To take a teaching and add yeast so that it is transformed into something else and more often than not, that transformation is to the advantage of the one adding the yeast!

We know that Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees and the Sadducees on any number of points and they were always trying to get Jesus to say something that could be damaging so they would have evidence to bring against him. Often they would add their own version of yeast to a teaching or a scripture and ask Jesus to interpret what they had to say in order to trip him up. This was in part, I think, the warning that Jesus was giving to the disciples. In other words, watch your step fellas, watch what you say, because they will transform what you say and turn it into something else. Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

I think an appropriate question for us to ask is; does this still happen today? For me, the answer is a resounding Yes! I think it happens all the time. I am probably guilty of this to some degree as we all are, but there does seem to be violations that are more severe than others. There are teachings or scripture twistings that become harmful, hurtful, oppressive and downright dangerous-and generally I think most of us know it when we see it.

For example, a couple of weeks ago we received an anonymous mailing in the office here at the church. Apparently someone has decided that they have an inside connection with God and as a result, God has shared with them all sorts of interesting information about the book of Revelation. For example, in January of 2013, the anti-Christ was sworn into office here in the US. Now I don’t know if you happened to vote for Barack Obama or not, it’s none of my business. But even if you did not vote for him, I kinda doubt you consider him to be the Anti-Christ. Seems like yeast to me.

The mailing goes on; On September 11, of this year-a little more than a month from now, we are to experience a global financial crisis and then about a week later the 6th Seal will open and we can look forward to massive earthquakes, meteorites and volcanic activity and tsunamis that will put the East Coast, the West Coast and the Gulf Coast all underwater for up to 100 miles inland. Then this is the one I really like; on October 21, 2015 the First Trumpet will sound, as described in Revelation, and accompanying that event the Yellowstone Super Volcano will erupt. Well, so much for the Pumpkin Patch. It goes on, but you get the idea. Seems like yeast to me.

And we wonder why some outsiders looking in are suspicious of the church?

There are others that are more subtle. How many of you watch football on a regular basis? When there is an extra point or a field goal about to happen and the TV cameras are focused on the goal posts, what do you see in the crowd? That’s right, someone is holding a sign that says John 3:16.

Some of you may think this is an appropriate witness and there isn’t anything wrong with holding a sign for millions of viewers to see as an evangelism tool. You have a right to that opinion and the people holding the signs have a right to do that as well. But I wish they wouldn’t. It seems like yeast to me. Here is the problem; I think the verse is taken out of context and the implication with the verse is that you had better believe in Jesus, or else you are doomed. The verse by itself can be taken as being very judgmental and very rigid and very exclusive. In all the years I have been watching football, not once have I ever seen a sign that says John 3:17-anyone know what that says? Yep, it says that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…but we don’t see that one. Seems like yeast to me.

Then of course there is a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth right now about the issues surrounding the LGBT community, equal rights for that community and so forth. There are many who gleefully quote all sorts of scripture in support of their bias and fear without any recognition that the scriptures they quote appear sometimes right next to others they choose to completely ignore. This is yeast to me. If they quote from the New Testament, citing perhaps some of the writings of Paul, generally they do so without any clue as to what Paul is actually addressing in the text. The meaning of the text is transformed into something it is not and that looks like yeast to me.

These are just three quick examples, but there are many others. What we need to remember are two things that are critically important. The first thing we need to remember is that Jesus issued a warning about anyone who adds yeast to scripture and teachings. The second thing we need to be aware of is that there are many people on the outside looking in. When they are exposed to teachings that contain high levels of yeast, they make the only conclusion that they can. We must be intoxicated.

Unfortunately for us, many people on the outside looking in think all Christians are generally alike. They lump us into the group that keep mass quantities of yeast handy. Because it is the news, they figure it must be true! And that is where you come in. We are not all alike. Each of us has opinions and beliefs and questions that are different from the person we are seated next to, let alone all the Christians everywhere. But if we want people to know about the differences, we have to tell them. No one else will. And that is food for thought. Go in Peace. Amen.

Sermon: August 2, 2015 – The Value of Common Sense

“The Value of Common Sense”

Text: Mark 5: 1-13

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

I remember hearing a story about two doctors that decided they wanted to go fishing in the remote areas of Alaska. They planned their trip carefully and they had to charter a special bush pilot with a sea plane to take them to this remote area where the pilot would land on a lake, drop them off and pick them up again 3 days later. On the way to the lake the pilot encountered some engine trouble which was causing the engine to overheat and eventually it would fail, causing the plane to crash. There wasn’t a lake close enough to land in, so the pilot broke the news to the two doctors. The problem was there were three of them and the pilot only had two parachutes on board.

Upon hearing the dire situation, one of the doctors immediately went into a verbal rant about how great of a doctor he was. As a matter of fact, he considered himself to be a genius and the research that he was conducting would benefit humanity for decades to come. There wasn’t any possibility that he should be allowed to die, he simply was too important and too intelligent. It would be a waste. When he finished his rant, he picked up one of the parachutes, put it on his back and jumped out of the failing plane.

“Well,” said the remaining doctor to the pilot, “what do you think of that?” The pilot answered; “I think we are going to miss lunch, but we will both be OK.”

“What are you talking about?” the doctor asked. The pilot calmly replied, “Our lunch was in my backpack, and our genius just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.”

When I was in seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver one of the classes that I took was titled: “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics”. I thought that I should earn a passing grade in the class because I knew what the title meant! I wasn’t a genius or even all that smart compared to some of the people around the seminary, but I had learned the language and that made all the difference. All kidding aside, it was a wonderful class and stimulated my own thinking around scriptural interpretation a hundred fold. The professor who taught the class is a wonderful scholar and theologian – he was wooed away from Iliff several years after I graduated and now teaches at Claremont Theological Seminary in California and is the author of several books on this very topic.

What topic is that? I hear you asking….it is a valid question if you have never been to seminary, so allow me to interpret the title of the class and what it means. An exegetical analysis of a scripture is a breaking down of the text and looking at each part individually and seeing what you can ‘pull out’ of the text by looking at the individual parts. The root of the word has a literal translation of ‘leading out’ and is where other words like exit and exodus derive their meanings as well. The other part of the class title is the Synoptic portion, which are the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are called the synoptic because they are all very similar in nature and share a lot of the same stories. The Gospel of John is not included in the synoptic because it is such a different text from the other three.

So a translation of the class title might be something like this: “A Close Examination, Comparison, and Interpretation of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke” but I’m sure that “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics” intimidated a few people which is always an important consideration when compiling a class catalog. (just kidding)

As I said earlier, all kidding aside, it was a wonderful class. What is important for you to understand is that you don’t need to be a genius to look at a text exegetically; common sense will go a long ways. One of the things I learned in the class has stuck with me through the years and that is the process by which you can break a text down and begin to deconstruct the text and look for areas that are consistent or not consistent with a basic theological assumption. For example, if we look at the text I read a few minutes ago with this in mind we may notice a few things.

We can begin with a basic theological assumption; this is where it becomes critically important for you to have worked out a sound theological platform for your own belief system. Some assumptions can be challenging, but if we create a broad, somewhat universal theological assumption you can begin to see this process work. Hopefully we can work the process with this text without demolishing too many preconceived naiveté’s about the Bible in general.

So with those things in mind, allow me to pose a standard theological assumption; when the presence of God is manifest in the person of Jesus, the result is good news for all. In other words, when Jesus does something, or says something, no harm will result. This is also a basic theological assumption of John Wesley I might add, who in his foundational documents wrote for us to “first do no harm.”

Most people would not find too much fault with this assumption, after all, that is what the word ‘gospel’ actually means, is ‘good news’ and the life of Jesus is all about spreading the good news to humanity. The only real issue might be the word ‘all’ in the assumption – and there are certain sects of Christianity that resist the inclusiveness required to recognize all humanity as children of God. But, this is my assumption and I have no such hang-up, so the assumption stands as written.

So our assumption is that when God works in our lives or the lives of characters in the scriptures, the result of that working will always be good news. So we can find a profound problem with this assumption in this story. I am speaking of course of the swine herders that owned the herd of pigs that was destroyed in this story. When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, a good sized hog would bring $100 – $200 each; by now that figure is probably much higher. By today’s accounting, a herd of 2,000 swine probably would represent somewhere between 500,000 dollars up to a full million, depending on the market, etc. This is the life’s work for these swine herders and represents a huge financial loss that Jesus rather whimsically just tosses into the sea. This is not good news, it is bad news. So we have a problem with the text; either the story is incorrect in some way or our assumption is incorrect in some way. This is how the process works, and you sort out things you believe to be accurate and things that you believe to be not so accurate within the texts you are examining.

So what do you do when you find a problem with a text? Throw the whole thing out?

This is a fair question and is the root of so much of the controversies and divisiveness surrounding interpretation of the Bible. Of course we don’t want to throw the entire text out; but we also don’t want to take the story as a literal event either. We must find a way to interpret the story as allegory and metaphor staying true to both the text and the assumption. This is what good exegetical analysis is all about. When we find something in a text that is obviously inconsistent with what we believe to be true about God, or about Jesus, that is usually a clue that our exegetical work must focus on the metaphors that can be found in the text.

There are a lot of places we can look for metaphor in this story; we can look at the setting, the crowds, the oppression and treatment of the demoniac and a host of others. But today I really want to focus on the demon-possessed man as a metaphor for the mentally ill and how the people of the village had ostracized and alienated him from society. Our fist metaphorical leap is to identify the man as mentally ill, rather than demon possessed. A second metaphor could be drawn out of the text when Jesus asks the man his name. In this case, the man’s answer to Jesus about his name also makes sense, because there is not just one person who is mentally ill, but rather there are many. So many in fact, that we cannot name them all, they are legion, they number in the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions, worldwide. Our third metaphor then comes as we can see Jesus drowning the oppression of the mentally ill with love and compassion. There are clues here as to how we should be caring for those who suffer with mental illness, if we are willing to look.

That is the key; we have to be willing to look. By keeping the story literal and as an actual event that took place over 2,000 years ago….it stays there, in history, 2,000 years ago. Through exegetical analysis and truly examining the scriptures and looking for the richness that is there, we can bring the lessons forward into the 21st century to guide our thoughts and opinions of the current day. But we must be willing to look and we must be willing to understand and we must be willing to always find the good news.

Go in peace, and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: July 26, 2015 – Jesus & Zacchaeus

Text: Luke 19: 1-10

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

There are a three things I want to call your attention to regarding this text because it is really a much richer story than many of us realize at first reading. The first item that I find very interesting is the bait and switch that takes place in the opening few lines. The text makes a point to let us know that Zacchaeus was rich. Do you remember the movie “Jaws”? Do you remember how when someone would get in the water and the shark would begin to close in, this awesome music would start? Da-dum, Da-dum, da-dum…remember? You knew something was about to happen!

That music begins to play in my head when I read in one of the gospels that someone was rich. Jesus tended to not get along too well with the rich; the story usually ends badly for the rich person. Jesus calls them out, tells them to sell everything they own, says it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, etc-you know the stories. So when the story begins by telling us that Zac was rich, well, you sort of expect this to end badly for our character. But it doesn’t! That’s why I called it bait and switch-I sort of think this was intentional on the author’s part, but we will never know, but it does keep the story interesting.

The second item is of critical importance. There is a literal truth here, but also a very important metaphorical truth and I don’t want you to miss this. The text tells us that Zac was a man of small stature; you remember the song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he”-from our childhood we have been taught that Zac was short. Now, I’m not the shortest person in our family, but I’m not the tallest either-and I’m shorter than all of my sons, and usually a bit shorter than most of the people I have worked with over the years. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t think, but I have had thoughts about it might be nice to be a little taller. When we got married Heidi and I paid particular attention to our shoes so she wouldn’t be a lot taller than me in all of our pictures-so it goes.

I’m making this point because often there is quite an ego involved when we begin to discuss someone’s physical appearance. If Zac was really so short that it was worth mentioning in the story, perhaps there was some ego attached to that as well. The important part of this story is that Zacchaeus put his ego aside and climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. To climb the tree is a public acknowledgement that he was too short to see anything. To climb the tree is to put yourself in the path of public humiliation. To climb the tree is a public confession that your physical stature is inadequate for the task at hand. All of these things mean that Zacchaeus was able to overcome his ego, his personal hang-ups about being short, and doing what was required to see Jesus.

That is the literal part of the story that I mentioned earlier. There is a literal truth here that can be interpreted exactly as it is written. Zac was short, he couldn’t see, so he laid his ego aside and publicly climbed a tree so he could see Jesus.

The metaphorical truth applies to us with the same level of importance-and we can use much of the same language. Our own egos often blind us to the point where we can no longer see Jesus. If we want a clear view of Jesus, it is necessary for us to lay our egos aside, and then we can see.

Many of us don’t recognize the ego when it presents itself; the ego is very crafty. If you have ever thought that things should not be happening to you that are happening to you that is your ego. If you have ever felt like you do things right when everyone else does it wrong, that is your ego. When something you see or hear is offensive to you, it is your ego that is making that judgment; as a matter of fact, all judgments you make have the ego at the source. When you consider one person or one religion or one movie or one sports team to be better than all others, it is the ego that is driving those thoughts.

Let me give you the metaphor one more time; in order for us to gain a truly clear view of Jesus, it is necessary for us to lay the ego aside. When we view Jesus through our ego, there is too much in the way and we cannot see clearly. This is a huge topic, but worth thinking about and worth mentioning as it relates to this story…but we have a third point to consider, so we need to move on.

The third point is that after a brief conversation with Zac, Jesus declares that salvation has come to this house today. My question is what did Jesus mean when he used the word salvation?

You see words create pictures in our minds. Those pictures shape what we hear and how we hear it; the pictures shape the way we receive the information and how we interpret what was said. That is the source of most misunderstandings-when somebody says something, they see one set of pictures while someone else sees a completely different set of pictures-the words don’t have to change, but the pictures in the mind certainly do.

It is also important how you say something. You can say essentially the same thing two different ways and get two completely different reactions. For example, let’s imagine that you are getting ready to go out for the evening and you tell your wife that she looks like the breath of spring. I would imagine that information would be well received and you might score all sorts of points that you noticed the nice outfit and the way the hair was fixed and how great the shoes matched the rest of what she was wearing, and so forth. Now you could also say essentially the same thing, but instead of saying that your wife looked like the breath of spring, you could tell her that she looks like the end of a long, hard winter. I’m thinking the result of that statement may be very different than the first.

Words create pictures and we see the pictures in our mind’s eye and we interpret what we hear or what we read based on what pictures we see.

So my question becomes this; what pictures did Jesus intend for us to see when he said that salvation had come to this house today?

When we hear the word salvation today what pictures pop up in your mind? Do you see an auditorium filled with people all singing “Just As I Am” and the aisles are filled with persons filing forward to accept Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade? Do you see the cross or perhaps imagine the scene of the execution of Jesus? Do you see an Easter morning scene with the empty tomb and a stone rolled away? Perhaps you see a lake of fire or some other torment in hell as you imagine hell to be and you see yourself escaping from that torment. This was a popular topic of many artists a few centuries ago and many of the paintings on the ceilings and walls of the cathedrals around Europe depict this sort of imagery.

The word salvation can bring forth many pictures in our heads. But not one of the pictures that I mentioned is what Jesus would have seen in his mind’s eye. So when we read the gospels and read the words of Jesus, we need to try to imagine what pictures Jesus saw in his mind when he spoke the words we are reading. In this case Jesus said salvation had come to this house; what do you suppose the pictures were that went along with the words?

One thing that can help us to answer questions like these is to look at a history of a word, or follow it back to original languages or original intent. In the original Greek the word is sótéria, and it is pronounced (so-tay-ree’-ah) and it generally means things like welfare, prosperity, deliverance, preservation, or safety. If we look at the Latin, the root is “salvus” and is generally translated as whole, sound, safe or well.

These are more likely the types of pictures that Jesus would have had in his head when he spoke the words salvation has come to this house today. The house had been delivered from greed, the house had been preserved from the anger of the crowds, the house had been restored to wholeness from the brokenness caused by theft or oppression or questionable tax gathering techniques.

This is a very different message than the contemporary understanding most people hold of the word salvation-and it is important for us to recognize that difference and be clear about what Jesus intended when they were spoken. The modern evangelical soul-saving from the pits of hell definition is a very different interpretation than what the text here really indicates-and that is worth thinking about and worth remembering.

What I now find particularly interesting is how related these last two points truly are; that is the idea of our egos getting in the way of seeing Jesus and our collective misinterpretation of the word salvation. You see, I believe, that the interpretation of salvation as eternal life or being saved from hell plays directly into our ego. When we are saved and others are not, that is a very self-identified ego centric type of attitude. That ego clouds our vision of Jesus-so the very thing that we think draws us closer to Jesus, actually separates us further from that goal. When our own ego allows us to believe that we are chosen, or loved more by God, or are a follower of the one true religion or are saved from eternal punishment and judgment because we have done the right things and we believe the right things and we are right with God and that others are not, that becomes problematic. That ego centered attitude which we think defines us as close to God, actually separates us further from the true Divine connection that we seek.

So the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is really about overcoming our own ego-centric behavior and bringing us to a place where we can truly see Jesus, and when we see him, we are then restored to wholeness.

Food for thought. Go in Peace. Amen.