Sermon: November 15, 2015 – Universal Wisdom

Text: Luke 12: 29-31

29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his[a] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Last week you might have noticed we were having a few issues with this monitor on the right, and I am hoping that I might have figured out what was going on. It seems there may have actually been two different problems; the first was simply a bad cable and I replaced that and then the picture came back…but just for a little while. You may remember last week that it would come on, and then go off again. This intermittent problem was a little more difficult to sleuth out, but I think I may have identified the source of the problem. While I was working on the connections, I put a receiver box that the new cable I replaced plugs into on top of that speaker. I think it is likely that the magnets in the speaker were creating interference of the signal and so the picture would come on for a time, and then it would lose its connection because of the interference. Nothing had changed physically, all the wires were still connected in the same way; but the signal was lost.

I want you to think about that for a minute. Nothing changed physically, but the connection was lost. Have you ever felt that way about God? Does it ever feel like God just goes away? For awhile you feel like you are close to God, connected to the Divine and then one day you wake up and realize the connection is gone, but you’re not sure when it went away; has that ever happened to you? There may have been a time when you were connected to God, but now the connection is gone. When that happens I’m thinking there may be interference with the signal.

I can imagine what some of you might be thinking about right now. What in the world am I talking about…God is always with us, God’s promise is that God is always near. There can’t be any interference with the signal. And I would tell you that you are right about that…the signal is always transmitting and God is always trying to be present with us. The question is whether or not we are in a position to receive or not. The problem with the monitor was not that the signal quit transmitting; the problem was the reception of the signal was interrupted. There is a difference between a signal being transmitted and a signal being received. And when you think about it in those terms, one part of the equation is up to God, that is the transmitting, and the other part of the equation, the receiving part, is up to us.

So what causes interference if we desire a connection with the Divine?

This is the question that I believe has plagued humanity almost from the dawn of time. And in all that time, I’m not sure the answers have changed all that much. I think part of what Jesus was trying to say in the text I read a few minutes ago is that worry about the physical will only hold you back. Jesus said to focus first on the kingdom of God and the physical will take care of itself. As I consider the situation further, I believe we can identify a couple of very specific things which can cause interference with our ability to receive clear signals from God.

One big one is fear or anxiety. Another is guilt or depression. If we could find a way to overcome these two obstacles, I believe our relationship with God would improve drastically. What’s more, this is not a new idea.

We have already explored a little bit about what Jesus had to say on this topic. The text I read was from Luke; it appears also in Matthew with slightly different details.

There are other places in the New Testament where Jesus eludes to this kind of understanding; this idea that we can actually interfere with our own ability to connect with God. Jesus spoke of asking and seeking and finding…he also stilled a storm; that could have been a physical storm or the storm of anxiety, or both. Jesus also spoke about losing your life to find it; and sometimes when we give up anxiety and fear and guilt and depression it might feel like we are losing our lives, but as we do, we will also find them.

This idea of being able to receive what the Divine Spirit is transmitting is really the key to spirituality. The Native Americans would go into a smoke lodge in an attempt to heighten their ability to receive this spiritual transmission. I know the Australians have an age old custom of going on a “walkabout” in order to clear their minds and open the pathways to receive a clear signal from God. Of course many of the eastern religions include specific times for meditation that are designed, once again to clear the mind of all interference and allow the Divine to be clearly received.

What ever method we might discover is beneficial, I still think the basic idea of every custom and every ritual is simply to not put any of our energy into fear or anxiety or guilt or feeling bad, but rather to focus on what is happening now and to find positive ways to interpret what is happening now and to find ways to feel good about what is happening now.

Consider this quote from Lao Tzu;
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Here is yet another example of how ancient this idea truly is and how universal the concept is as well. Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher credited with being the author of the Tao te Ching. The Tao may be the oldest sacred text on the planet that we actually have a copy of and the Tao de Ching predates Jesus by at least 500 years, maybe more and predates our modern Bible by as much as 1,000 years. It is the philosophy of Lao Tzu that is thought to have formed the basis for much of what Confucius taught and is considered to be the central hub of philosophy of many of the eastern religions.

So what I am trying to communicate here is that we have a long history as humanity of trying to find ways to connect with God. For Lao Tzu, one of those key elements was to experience peace and live in the present moment. That is a message made popular by a contemporary author, Eckart Tolle, who wrote a New York Times best seller, “The Power of Now” and a follow-up best seller, “A New Earth”. Both books are excellent by the way.

But there is something else in Lao Tzu message that I think could be overlooked unless we read it very carefully. If you look at the text, there is a strong link between how you feel, and what you are thinking about. In other words, when you think about your past, and you feel guilty or upset or angry or you are feeling depressed, then you are living in the past. When you feel anxious or worried or are nervous about tomorrow or next week, you are living in the future. If you want to experience the peace that Jesus talked about, the peace the goes beyond our ability to understand, then you must live in the now, or as Lao Tzu says, live in the present.

We may not realize it, but we have an emotional guidance system built into each and every one of us. This emotional guidance system has the ability to sound an alarm if the signal with the Divine transmission is about to get interrupted. It is really this simple; if you are feeling good, if you are at peace, then you are fully connected to the Divine. You are hearing God, and God is hearing you.

But when you begin to feel bad, for whatever reason it may be, that is an emotional alarm that the signal is in danger of being interfered with. You run the risk of creating so much interference that the connection to God will be lost. And this is something that we do to ourselves; God has nothing to do with it.

Oh, but I’m fully justified in feeling bad, I hear you say. You wouldn’t believe what happened to me, or I just lost my job, or I just received a bad medical diagnosis or this catastrophe or that catastrophe and I have every right to feel bad. I have a right to feel bad and I’m going to do it!

And you are welcome to feel bad. Just bear in mind that when you do, the interference that those bad feelings create have the potential to create interference and the signal will be lost. Not only that, your feeling bad will generally will not bring your job back or change the medical diagnosis. As a matter of fact, the only person the feeling bad impacts is you, and only you. And it doesn’t change what is.

One of the best ways that I know of to keep feeling good is to keep busy serving others. If you stay focused on what you can do for others, for the most part, you will feel good about what you do. If you counter bad news personally with finding something nice to do for someone else, you will feel better; even about the bad news. Look again at what Jesus says:

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat, or drink or wear or what we might need in the future. Instead worry about the kingdom of God, first, and the rest will take care of itself. And how do we seek first the kingdom of God? By serving others and feeling good about what we are doing. So that is the choice that each of us gets to make every day in every moment; we can choose to serve others and we can choose to feel good, or we can choose to feel bad. When we feel bad the signal is lost and our Divine connection is nowhere to be found.

And that is food for thought. So go in peace and go with God and feel good in the present moment. Amen.

Sermon: November 8, 2015 – Seeking Understanding

Texts: Job 12: 7-10, Psalm 24: 1, Genesis 2: 15

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth,[a] and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

I was having lunch the other day in a fast food joint, something I try to avoid, but every so often the schedule demands it. After I received my food I started looking for a place to sit down and the place was very crowded but I spied an empty corner and went and sat down. This particular restaurant has a lot of plants that separate some of the seating areas; the plants form an effective visual block, but they don’t do much for sound. I ended up sitting next to a table where two other guys were eating their lunch and I could hear every word.

Now, don’t misunderstand; I really wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping in on their conversation, but it was kind of hard to miss. I was alone with no one else to talk to and I found myself listening off and on. At one point I actually got kind of interested because they began to talk about the El Nino and how there is predicted to be perhaps record precipitation for parts of California and the Sierras. At that point one of the two said something that really got my attention…he said that he hoped that there would be record snowfall everywhere in California because then maybe those global warming freaks would shut up.

I sank down in my chair just a little because I didn’t want them to know there was a global warming freak just a few feet from their table…and I stayed quiet as well. I felt a little embarrassed for having overheard the conversation, but it continued to bother me most of day.

A day or two later there was a front page article in the Tribune about climate change and it said that a whopping 65% of Americans now believe it to be true; which means 35% still haven’t gotten the memo. But to my amazement, of the 65% who acknowledge climate change the percentage of people who think it is a moral or religious issue is in the single digits. It was then I decided to try to offer some information on the topic without entering into the political dynamic which often accompanies these discussions. I hope I can be successful.

The other day at lunch was not the first time I had heard someone offer cold weather or heavy snow as proof that climate change isn’t real. It is a common misconception, partly because the language at one time was global warming and anything cold seems to negate that idea. We are much more accurate now describing things as climate change. I thought a brief explanation of one possible scenario might be of interest, so at least you can have a basic understanding of how climate change may actually alter winter weather and make it more severe.

If you have ever visited England in the winter you know that it is wet and gray, but usually it is not that cold. Snowfall in London is rare, although it does happen, but for the most part I think the winters in London are a lot like they have been recently in Lewiston-a lot of rain, some cold temperatures but not a lot and even less snow. There is a reason for the moderate winters in London.

If you look at this map, you can see that London and Fargo, North Dakota are about at the same latitude-in other words they are both about the same distance north of the equator. As a general rule, the farther north you go, the cooler it gets…and yet the winters in Fargo are much more severe than the winters in London. This is due in part to what meteorologists call the north Atlantic Conveyor that is located northeast of the eastern coast of the United States. Out there is what amounts to a giant pump and this pump creates the ocean currents that bring London its mild winter temperatures. This pump is located a few hundred miles south of Greenland and northeast of Maine in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The short story about what happens is this. Cold air blows south over the Greenland ice and out into the Atlantic. The huge amounts of ice on Greenland create some very cold temperatures in the winter; this super-cooled air from the Greenland ice then cools the water in the Atlantic. This cool water then sinks, because it is now more dense, or heavier than the water around it. As the water sinks, warmer water from the south is pulled up along the eastern coast of the US to take its place. The prevailing winds which blow from west to east blow across this warm water being pulled up along the east coast and the warm water also warms the air. This air is still warmer than normal by the time it reaches London and as a result London has moderate winters with fairly stable temperatures.

If that pump were to shut off and no longer pull the warm water up along the east coast of the US, then the winters in London would get much more like the winters in Fargo-with the exception that there would be much more precipitation, but it would all be snow. If that north Atlantic Conveyor were to someday shut-off, many scientists think that London and the rest of England would soon enter another ice age.

What keeps the pump pumping is the Greenland ice; if that ice were to melt suddenly or too quickly, the pump may shut down and it would be very difficult to get it started again.

I thought a short video captured in western Greenland might be of interest. Let’s have a look.

Play Video

As I said earlier, I wanted to simply offer some information about the topic and not enter into the political fray. But I did read some texts at the beginning that I want to revisit at this time. The first text from the book of Job I think is very interesting. It says that if we could ask every other living thing on the planet about stewardship of the earth, the answer from every other living thing would be the same. The earth belongs to the Divine creator; not only does the earth belong to God, but so does everything living in and on the earth. It is God which gives them breath and life. Several thousand years ago when Job was written, it was already clear to the author that perhaps we could learn and teach others this idea. See how the text states that the animals and the plants will teach us? We can learn if we ask.

Of all living things on the planet, I think that only human beings have the power to alter the planet. And it is not ours to alter.

The second text says the same thing. Psalm 24:1 simply states that the earth is the Lord’s and everything that is in it. The earth is not ours to do with what we please.

The last text from Genesis is interesting because of the word “keep”. When you look at this text in Hebrew, the word translated as keep is the Hebrew word “shamar” and it means more than to just keep things neat and tidy. It has a deeper meaning that could be translated as to guard or to protect. So when we are commanded by God to “keep” the earth, we are commanded to care for the planet, to guard and protect the planet and to keep it safe for all the living things God may choose to put here. Us included.

And that is food for thought. Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: November 1, 2015 – The Miracle of Meals

Text: John 14: 19-20

19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

Every once in awhile growing up in Iowa we would get a really good snowstorm and they would call off school. Now understand this didn’t happen nearly often enough, but it usually did happen at least a couple of times each winter. When it would happen, my mother, who worked in the public school system as a physical education teacher would suddenly have a day off that she didn’t expect. I don’t know if you have ever found yourself in the situation where you had unexpected free time, but it is a great feeling-you think to yourself “I have the whole day to spend as I want…what am I going to do?”

When my mother would ask that question, the answer was almost always the same; she would bake. Cookies and breads and muffins and who knows what else were on the menu and as the snow fell and the wind howled outside, the kitchen would fill with great aromas and the warmth of the oven. I have quite a few memories of coming into the kitchen after having been outside playing in the snow or shoveling or running a snow blower; chilled to the bone and then thawing out while basking in the warmth and aroma of that kitchen.

To this day whenever it is stormy or snowy or I have some unexpected free time often my first instinct is to bake something. Isn’t that interesting how the habits and opinions and personality of my mother are still present in me today? There is a part of her that lives within me.

Certainly this is true in part to biology; she was my mother, after all. But I think it is also partly true because of the medium of food. There is something unique and special about preparing and consuming food that binds you together; particularly food that is somewhat unique to your own personal experience. For example, one of the cookies that mom would bake were called oatmeal jobbies; I have not ever seen another cookie quite like an oatmeal jobbie; I think they are quite unique to my experience growing up. I don’t know where the recipe came from so I just attribute it to my mother. But today, when I bake oatmeal jobbies, my mother is present with me; she is there in the kitchen and the smells and the warmth of the oven always take me back to the great blizzards in Iowa as a kid. I don’t think my experience is particularly rare; I believe many others experience the same kinds of family connections particularly through food and recipes and meals while gathered at the table.

A few years ago my sister put together a recipe book that she gave to the rest of the family as a Christmas present. This isn’t just a recipe book, it is also a photo album; there are pictures in here from 30 or 40 of even 50 years ago; family pictures that capture the spirit and the essence of what it meant to grow up in the Cram household in Iowa during that time. It also captures the essence of what it means to share food with one another and in the process to share recipes as well.

Here is one photo from that recipe book. As you can see, it is much better to share a sundae with someone than to just eat it alone. I don’t know who took this picture or where my sister found it; it is a mystery to me. As far as we can figure, this was taken in LeMars, where Heidi and I both grew up, sometime before we were married. It could have been 1972 or perhaps 1973, we are not sure.

There is something else that is very telling in this recipe book. The opening page and the very first recipe speaks volumes about my experience; it reads “first things first” and the recipe is for homemade ice cream.

The ritual of HMIC as we called it in the Cram household was quite a process. The hand-crank freezer was huge – I think it made a gallon or perhaps even five quarts of ice cream. That meant we needed a big crowd to consume all that, so there were always a lot of people present. Every birthday or anniversary or any get together of any kind almost always included HMIC.

This was before the days of ice makers and convenience stores with self-serve 5 or 10 pound bags of ice, so my Dad invented a system. In the basement we had a large chest freezer. Every time we emptied a cardboard carton of milk-I think they were half-gallons-my dad would rinse it out and then fill it with water. Then he would put the carton in the chest freezer in the basement. When it came time for the next HMIC ritual, we always had plenty of ice. The cardboard carton would hold together pretty well even when you broke the ice into small chunks with a hammer-then you could rip the carton open and empty the crushed ice into the ice cream freezer. While the guys were crushing ice, my mother was usually busy washing the freezer and creating the mixture from our now famous HMIC recipe that appears in this recipe book. Once assembled, the cranking would begin and everyone would have a turn. My dad insisted that rock salt worked better than the granulated stuff, so he would always steal some rock salt from the water softener and add just the right amount of salt until finally the mixture was frozen. Then we would indulge.

Keep in mind this wasn’t just about having ice cream to go with the cake. It was much more than that. If we just needed ice cream it was available…after all, this took place in LeMars, Iowa, home of Blue Bunny ice cream-believe me when I tell you good ice cream was available; but that wasn’t the point, most of the joy and most of the memories are from the ritual, not the ice cream.

Today, I have an ice cream freezer that resembles the one we used when I was a kid. We don’t use it often, but when we do, my parents are alive and present in that ice cream freezer. There are connections here, a connection to ritual, a connection to memories and a connection to ice cream, but mostly, there is a connection to family, my parents and my childhood. Ritual and food can bring those connections back to life for each of us.

I believe that Jesus felt these same connections. He often shared meals and food with his disciples and others that he cared about; even the some of the stories surrounding his resurrection include the sharing of food. When the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was in the Father and we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us one of the ways we can experience that reality is through ritual and another way is through food. This is the power of communion.

If you remember I mentioned that our HMIC ritual really wasn’t so much about the ice cream, we could find that anywhere. In like manner, I’m certain you could find a morsel of bread and a little shot of juice almost anywhere-communion isn’t really about the bread and the cup. It is about the ritual and the connections that ritual represents and the connections that ritual can produce. When we partake of communion we are connecting with the Divine in such a way that we can feel the Christ within us and the Divine presence around us. We are connected to the family of God in the same way I am connected to family when I make HMIC or when I bake oatmeal jobbies when it snows.

Our communion table has been set, our communion meal has been prepared and the connections to the family of God are ours to experience.