Sermon: July 24, 2016 – “Gotta Have the Wristband”

“Gotta Have the Wristband”

Text: Malachi 2:10

Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?

This is an obscure text to be sure; as a matter of fact, many Bible scholars have trouble agreeing on what exactly Malachi is trying to say, although most agree that the main topic is marriage and fidelity in marriage. But beyond that the theories are all over the board. Malachi contains very few historical references and this makes the writing hard to date, although portions of Malachi have surfaced in the Qumran writings which are dated around 150 BCE. In spite of all that we do not know about Malachi, there are a few things we can point out. One obvious fact is that Malachi is the very last book in the Old Testament; we can assume someone at sometime thought that the Malachi message made a fitting finale for the Hebrew Bible and placed it in that position-although we don’t know why. Bible scholars group the book of Malachi with much of the other literature of that general period, commonly called the apocalyptic prophets, but the consensus is that it probably was not the last book written, is spite of its placement in our current Bible.

I wanted to give you some of this background information regarding Malachi because I’m going to be using the text in a very different application but with the same basic idea at its root. Just in case someone were to think I’m taking a verse out of context or manipulating scripture to fit my agenda, let me save you the trouble of the accusation. That is exactly what I’m doing.

Even though I’m fairly certain that this text was not written to validate the point for which I will be using it, but the text does represent a certain train of thought which I think is consistent with my point, so I feel secure in referencing it. Let me see if I can do a better job of explaining what I just said.

Most of the scholarship pertaining to Malachi focuses on marriage, the fidelity of marriage and how infidelity or divorce impacts everyone in the community, not just those involved in the breakdown of any particular marriage. The message here is that we are all in this together, and what impacts the one or the two, impacts everyone. Malachi begins this argument by stating the obvious; that we all have a single creator and all belong to the same God. Because we are all children of the same God, when we treat each other poorly, or as Malachi says are faithless to one another, we are in turn being faithless to God. To translate, if you hate, ridicule, oppress, or scorn another person, you do those same things to God. To hate or fear another is to hate or fear God.

I think this is a message that had been forgotten to some degree within ancient Judaism by the time Jesus appeared on the scene. I’m thinking Jesus may have read this text in Malachi and that could be one reason that Jesus kept reminding the religious leaders of the day that we are to love our neighbors. Jesus told us to pray for those who persecute us, to welcome the stranger, free the oppressed and to care for the sick and the hungry. Jesus even told us to love our enemies; he told us these things because as Malachi says; have we not one creator? Do we not all come from the same God? Do we not all have the same father?

It seems to me that ancient Judaism had forgotten some of this instruction from Malachi by the time Jesus burst on the scene and Jesus tried to correct the thinking. We all know how that worked out for him in the end.

But here’s the thing; we have forgotten again. We are dividing this world into groups of the other. There are people who don’t physically look like us that are scary, there are people who don’t love like us and that is scary, there are people who don’t worship like us and that is scary, and the list goes on and on and on. How easily we forget that everyone is a child of God and the same God that created us, created them.

Does anyone remember the wrist bands that were popular a few years ago with the letters WWJD on them? The letters were supposed to represent the question “what would Jesus do?” I always thought the question was a valid one, but I saw a problem with the wristbands. It seemed to me that many of those who wore the wristbands did so like it was their admission into a special club or something, rather than taking the question seriously. I remember during the hype and the run up to the invasion of Iraq these wristbands were popular and the notion of the Iraq war was just as popular among those wearing the bracelets. The level of hypocrisy on display was mind boggling. I also remember seeing a bumper sticker at that same time that tried to point out some level of that hypocrisy as it asked the simple question; “who would Jesus bomb?” In spite of the problems associated with the bracelets and other trinkets that carried the letters WWJD, it did seem to guarantee your admission into a particular segment of society.

This makes sense, because the wristband has been used quite often as a ticket for admission to a theme park, to concerts, to zoos or a host of other public attractions. I think part of the wristband popularity is that it allows you to come and go from the area without having to keep track of a loose ticket. So wristbands serve a purpose and are useful from a certain perspective, but what kinds of wristbands do we look for on people that are different from us before we allow them full participation in our group, in our club, in our society, or in our church?

Paul Simon recently released a new album called “Stranger to Stranger” and one of the songs on the CD is simply called Wristband. It has a whimsical and amusing side, but it also ends with a punch. I have provided the lyrics on the screen as this makes it much easier to absorb the full message of this song-so let’s have a listen to Paul Simon and Wristband.

 

“Wristband”

I stepped outside the backstage door to breathe some nicotine
And maybe check my mailbox, see if I can read the screen
Then I heard a click, the stage door lock
I knew just what that meant
I’m gonna have to walk around the block if I wanna get it in

Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband
If you don’t have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door
Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband
And if you don’t have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door

I can explain it, I don’t know why my heart beats like a fist
When I meet some dude with an attitude saying “hey, you can’t do that, or this”
And the man was large, a well-dressed six-foot-eight
And he’s acting like Saint Peter standing guard at the pearly…

Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband
If you don’t have a wristband, you don’t get through the door
And I said “Wristband? I don’t need a wristband
My axe is on the bandstand, my band is on the floor”

I mean it’s just…
[Scat]
(Wristband)
(Wristband)
(Wristband)
(Wristband)
(Wristband)
(Wristband)
(Wristband)

The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand whose anger is a short-hand
For you’ll never get a wristband and if you don’t have a wristband then you can’t get through the door
No you can’t get through the door
No you can’t get through the door
Say you can’t get through the door, no

How many wristbands do we have to see the other wearing before full acceptance is possible? Is there a wristband that says I’m not homeless? Is there a wristband that declares my religion? How about race or status or gender orientation or income or education level? Is it true that if you don’t have a wristband you don’t get through the door? I’m sorry to say that in many cases it is.

In response to this situation I have decided to launch a new initiative. I call it the “Inclusive Experience” and through this initiative we will be exploring the lives and the experiences of many people we consider to be other or different from us. We will be exposed to new thoughts and new ideas, we will watch movies and read books, and we will look at scripture and have other experiences as well. Our goal will be to remove the fear of the other; if we happen to change a few minds along the way, that will be great, but the goal is to remove the fear. Some of this will happen on Sunday mornings, but many of the other experiences will take place on Wednesday nights and maybe even in other churches. We are currently making plans with the Clarkston UMC and perhaps Orchards UMC about the participation of those congregations and clergy in our experience.

We will be taking on some contemporary and perhaps provocative topics. We will be looking at Black Lives Matter, questions about Muslims and the faith tradition of Islam; we will be exploring the LGBT issues and questions about homosexuality. We may look at systemic oppression of the poor or the shunning of science by certain sects of Christianity. There is a lot to talk about and a lot of material to discuss. Details are still being formulated, but I can tell you this much:

Many of the events will be Wednesday evenings, hopefully with transportation provided. One of the books we will be referencing is this one – “Fear of the Other” by William Willimon, and there will be a published schedule of events coming out within the next few weeks.

Once again, it will be called “The Inclusive Experience” and it will most definitely be food for thought.

Amen.

 

 

 

Sermon: July 17, 2016 – “A New Tradition”

“A New Tradition”

Text: Mark 7: 1-8, 13

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

 

A few years ago Heidi and I had the opportunity to tour parts of Italy and one of the cities we visited while we were over there was Florence. This city in Northern Italy is historic on so many levels that is can be hard to know what to go see or what to take in while you are visiting. One of the places we did include was what is commonly referred to as the Duomo, or sometimes it is called the Florence Cathedral, or it is also referred to by its true Italian name, but I can’t pronounce that, so we will stick with Duomo for purposes of this discussion.

This cathedral was constructed mostly between the 14th & 15th centuries; it took over 100 years before it was completed. The beautiful marble façade that is now on the cathedral was added much later, sometime around 1875 if I remember correctly. On the inside, the huge dome was one the last projects to be constructed and then it was almost another 100 years before Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to paint a fresco on the inside of the dome. Vasari designed the basic concept of the fresco and painted a large portion of it, but died before it was completed by another artist in 1579. The subject for this fresco was the last judgment and in my opinion, it is one of the best examples of what people believed to be true about our world for centuries.

Historians and theologians and Bible scholars all agree that a tiered universe was the commonly held belief system of most of the world since the beginning of humankind. It was commonly held to be true that heaven was somewhere above us, probably a few miles, and hell was beneath us. Of course with the eruption of volcanoes and the presence of other geothermal phenomenon the idea of hell being filled with heat and fire and anguish also made perfect sense.

In the Duomo, we have this tiered universe laid out for us in very precise ways. At the top of the dome are what historians believe to be the elders of the apocalypse, followed by the disciples and choirs of angels, followed by a few saints and some priests, with perhaps a few normal people near the bottom of the preferred tier. Then things begin to deteriorate in terms of pleasantness, because as the eye wanders lower on the dome, we begin to see pain and suffering, flames and awful looking demons, three-headed monsters and perhaps Satan himself devouring flesh and sinners in gruesome detail.

It’s kind of hard for me to believe that I have some pictures of the inside of a church that I can’t really show in church. They are too horrible; but from what I have shown you, I think you get the idea. Trust me when I say there are others that go downhill from here.

Another thing which I find remarkable is the level of fear that is on display in this fresco. This is literally what the artists and the church goers for centuries thought was the reality of the situation. The image of God, what the believed to be true, and there concept of the universe was very different from what we know to be true today. I think most of us have moved away from an understanding of God, an understanding of heaven and hell and an understanding of our universe as it is displayed on the fresco on the ceiling of the dome in the Duomo in Florence, Italy. We have moved away from that personally, perhaps; but has the church moved and what do we currently tell people? Do we actively offer church goers a new version or a new idea of salvation? Do we even talk about it as a church?

In my experience, not so much.

Let me offer a few examples of what I’m talking about and why I think it should be a concern to us. We continue to sing hymns and read scripture and talk about heaven and hell like they are real places and we speak of salvation as the one thing which stands between us and spending eternity in hell. Even though we have every reason to reject this archaic thinking and general nonsense, we have not replaced it with anything else. If the church wants to begin to understand why people no longer want to attend or believe, perhaps the church might want to look at our doctrine of heaven and hell and salvation. It simply no longer makes sense on a practical level. We need a new tradition.

I know, I know, you’re not supposed to be practical in matters of faith. But I actually don’t believe that to be true either; I think we are called to think and wonder and ask questions. If that process leads us to a point where it challenges our concepts of God, then I think we need to challenge our belief system, rather than pretending the science and thought we have available must be incorrect. That would be a good start on a new tradition, but it’s not happening, at least not in most churches.

There are a couple of places in the New Testament where the ascension of Jesus into heaven is described. In the Gospel of Mark, the text simply says he ascended into heaven; in the Gospel of Luke, there are a few more details, but the gist of the story is the same. There is also a reference to this ascension in the first chapter of Acts, and in this story, Jesus is riding on a cloud. In all the stories, the assumption is that people watched him do this. I make that point, because if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light while ascending into heaven, no one would be able to see or witness that. But for the sake of argument, let’s just say that Jesus accelerated to the speed of light as soon as he was out of sight.

In very round numbers, if Jesus has been traveling for the last 2,000 years at the speed of light, he has traveled less than one-millionth of one percent of the distance required to reach the end of the universe we have explored so far. If anyone wants to check my math, the farthest galaxy that has been discovered by the Hubble telescope is a whopping 13.5 billion light years from earth. Not only that, in all that space, the Hubble has yet to discover anything that resembles heaven. It seems rather obvious that heaven is not where we thought it was for centuries and I think it is also very possible that heaven is not what we thought it was for centuries. But does the church talk about this? Do we offer some alternative opinions? Are we open for discussion?

The silence is deafening. We need a new tradition.

We can of course build the same line of rationale concerning the existence of hell, at least in the location where it was believed to have been for centuries. Science now has a firm grasp on the earth’s core and a solid understanding of geology, thermal and geothermal activity and volcanoes as well and at least so far, nothing resembling hell has surfaced on the science of the earth radar.

Once again, the silence is deafening. We need a new tradition.

This level of hypocrisy or at the very least a complete disregard for science is part of the reason the church has trouble attracting new faces. We all act like we believe this stuff, we talk about it, sing about it and read scripture about it, without ever really clarifying that for the most part, it is metaphor. We need to find new ways to talk about heaven as a state of being and new ways to talk about God as energy and new ways to talk about hell as the absence of love. Until we find a new language around some of these traditions, we will continue to struggle, at least in my opinion.

Consider again what Jesus was up against in his attempt to reform ancient Judaism. In the scripture I read at the beginning, Jesus was challenged by the leaders about why his disciples were not following the rules. His answer speaks volumes to us today; Jesus said that you cling to the tradition of the elders and in so doing, you make void the word of God.

It’s just a hunch, but I’m thinking it is difficult to attract a lot of new people into the church or to get them excited about Christianity if we continually hold to our traditional ideas while making the Word of God void. That’s what we do. We make the message void of any rational thought, we make the message void of science or our understanding of the universe, we make our message void of contemporary cultural shifts. We hold to tradition and we make the Word of God void; I’m not saying this, Jesus said it, and I happen to agree with him.

I don’t know if you noticed or not but the “Ark Experience” opened in Kentucky a few weeks ago. This so called Christian Theme park presents the story of Noah and the Ark, not as a story, but as fact. You really don’t want to get me started.

Where is the rational voice of reason? We need to be reminding the unaffiliated that even though that story is in the Bible, and even though the Ark Encounter is called a Christian theme park they don’t speak for all of us.

Once again, the silence is deafening. We need a new tradition.

It’s time for us to find new ways to be heard. It’s time for us to find new ways to offer alternatives to the traditional messages. It’s time for us to stop making void the Word of God.

Food for thought.

Amen.

Sermon: July 10, 2016 – “Learning to Ask Questions”

 

“Learning to Ask Questions”

Text: Mark 8: 1-9

Feeding the Four Thousand

8 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

One of the things that was mentioned a few minutes ago when Cottie and I were giving our update on the Annual Conference was the award this congregation has received for what the Bishop calls, “Risk Taking Ministry”. When our District Superintendent was introducing the award, one of the things he mentioned about our risk taking ministry were the ads that we have been running in the Lewiston Tribune. He called them openly progressive, if I remember correctly, and I would have to agree with that assessment. Many of you have commented on the ads and I think most have seen some of them at one time or another.

08This is the ad that is currently running in the Tribune; it says rather simply that we have the faith to ask questions. I thought it might be interesting to unpack that a little bit this morning; what exactly do I mean when I say that we have the faith to ask questions?

My first response to what I mean is that I don’t always just settle for the first impression of a text, nor do I just settle for a literal interpretation and take the story at face value and not pursue it any further. By asking questions and wondering a little bit about the text, and using some imagination, you can often get a great deal more from a text than just the surface story. I think the story of the feeding of the 4,000 is a great example of the kind of text I’m talking about.

You see, if we just read the story without asking any questions, we simply are informed about another event where Jesus performed a miracle. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the miracle or not, unless you ask a few questions, nothing really happens with this text. As a matter of fact, it is less than nothing, because in the case of Mark, this is the second time Jesus fed a crowd and the two stories read about the same. So if you simply read and accept, you are missing a great deal.

For example, why do you suppose that in two of the four Gospels, we have two stories where a great crowd is fed, and in the other two Gospels we only have just one? That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? In Mark and Matthew we have both stories; the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of the feeding of the 4,000 which I just read a minute ago.

Just to make it even more interesting, we know that the author of Matthew and the author of Luke both had copies of the Gospel of Mark while they were writing their own Gospels. This means that Matthew made a deliberate decision to include both stories, and Luke made a deliberate decision to only include the one story, the story of the 5,000. Why do you suppose that is?

Here’s another interesting question; do you think there were really two separate events? When we look at the two stories, the number of similarities is remarkable and the language that is used is nearly verbatim in some cases. In both stories the crowd is fed from bread and fish, in both stories Jesus has the crowd sit down, in both stories Jesus gives the bread to the disciples first, and then has the disciples distribute the bread. Both stories involve a boat. In both stories many baskets of leftovers are collected and in both stories it is mentioned that Jesus had compassion for the crowd. That is a lot of overlap for it to be two different stories; it’s not impossible I suppose, although it may be unlikely.

Maybe that’s what Luke thought; these are too much the same, I’m going to leave one out. On the other hand, maybe Matthew thought that there was so much good information in the story that it needed to be repeated, so he followed Mark’s lead and put it in twice.

Maybe it was two different stories, but if it was, don’t you think at least one of the disciples would have said something about doing it the way we did it last time? In both stories the disciples seem a little clueless; in other words they are reported as commenting about how impossible it will be to feed this many people. If they saw it work once, don’t you think they would remember? I know the disciples are described at times as being a little thick or slow, but really, after feeding the 5,000 don’t you think they would remember something? But if you read the story of the 4,000 it’s like the disciples are being presented this problem for the very first time, they have no idea what to do.

So do you think it is one story told twice or two stories reported by only Matthew and Mark? Or do you think that it is one story, but the lessons to learn are important enough that Matthew and Mark wanted to repeat it so it would be certain to get noticed?

See how much fun we can have by asking questions?

But here’s the real truth of the situation. When we read the New Testament and particularly the Gospels, we learn a little bit about Jesus. But if what we learn isn’t applicable to our lives, then it really doesn’t do us much good, does it? I think there is something we should keep in the very front of our thinking when we read the stories of Jesus and it might shock some of you to hear this. This may also be a good time for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer; these are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts and your ideas, but I do ask that you think about it.

So, now I’m going to go back to my shocking news of what we should be thinking about when we read the stories of Jesus. I think we should keep in the front of our thinking that the stories are not really about Jesus, they are about us. Jesus never really said “it’s all about me” but he mentioned many times how it is about us; what we are to do, who we are to become, what example we can follow and how we contain the kingdom of God within us. It’s not about Jesus; it is about us.

If you can think about that for minute, then you will see that we would never unearth how a story about Jesus feeding 5,000 or 4,000 or both could ever be about us, unless we ask questions. Only by asking the right questions can we find the ways to make the stories not so much about Jesus, but about how we can follow the example of Jesus, and make the stories about us. The stories need to be about us; after all, who were they written for? The stories are not there for the benefit of Jesus!

One question you might ask about these stories is how they are similar and what themes develop among them that might be useful for us today in the 21st century. I asked that question and made a list. This is what I came up with.

With Jesus there is abundance.

Give thanks for what you have.

Don’t focus on why it can’t be done.

Use what is available.

The return is more than what you gave.

Have compassion.

Feed the hungry.

Sit down when you eat.

Save the leftovers.

Do what you can, and others will too.

The hungry represents a very large crowd.

Sorry about the unavoidable pun, but that is food for thought.

Amen.