Christmas Eve Homily: December 24, 2016 – “The Eagles of Coeur d’Alene”

 Christmas Eve Homily
The Eagles of Coeur d’Alene

 

We have heard the Christmas story as told by the Gospel of Luke as we lit the Advent Candles. Even though we all know the story and could probably recite most of it by heart, it is still nice to hear it again and again. It’s like you never really get tired of hearing it.

I wanted to tell you about something else that I never get tired of. That something is photographing Bald Eagles. I just think they are the most majestic and almost magical creatures. I love to watch them fly, and soar, I like to watch them in trees and there are even a couple of on-line cameras where you can log in and watch them in a nest and wait for eggs to hatch. When the little ones come out it is particularly fun.

So I love eagles and love to take pictures of eagles. Every year there is a unique opportunity to photograph eagles not that far from here. I try to go almost every year, even though I already have tons of pictures of eagles, it is always a unique experience and I almost always get at least one or two pictures that are unique in some way. It is kind of like hearing the Christmas story again each Christmas eve. It is something that I just don’t get tired of.

Now in case you are wondering, each December, usually around the third week in December to be exact, there is a huge increase in the eagle population around Lake Coeur d’Alene. There is a special bay area where the kokanee salmon come to spawn, and of course after they spawn, the salmon die. This large population of not very mobile fish attract the eagles. This stop seems to be on the migration route as a large number of eagles from the interior of Alaska and Canada head south for the winter. The population begins to increase in early December, but by the 20th or so, there can be as many as 200 or more Bald Eagles all concentrated around this one particular part of the lake. It is awesome.

A good friend of mine, who also enjoys photography had never been up to Lake Coeur d’Alene to see the eagles. So as I was telling him about what it was like, he wanted to go and experience it for himself. Of course, I didn’t argue. So last Saturday, even though it was about 4 degrees when we got there, we went to Lake Coeur d’Alene and photographed the eagles.

I can tell you that there just isn’t anything like actually being there. You can tell someone about it, but it is not the same as actually experiencing for yourself. The eagles are literally everywhere you look; they are in the trees, they are in the air, some are hitting the water picking up a kokanee and others are soaring. Sometimes you will see 3 or 4 or more all sharing the best roosting spot for surveying the fishing grounds. Like I said, even with the help of pictures, there isn’t anything that compares to actually witnessing this for yourself.

Which brings me to my first point. You might be wondering why I’m talking about eagles on Christmas. Well, believe it or not, I find a lot of parallels to the eagle experience and the Christmas story.

One of the main ideas of the Christmas message is that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. There wasn’t any substitute for actually becoming human. If God was going to perfectly relate to all of our needs and emotions, our struggles and our anguish, our triumphs and our ultimate lows, the only way to fully experience that was to become human for a time. Just like the eagles; you can tell someone about it, but it’s not like being there.

Another basic message that I hear every time I hear the Christmas story is I her a message of hope and renewal, a message of new beginnings and new ways to connect with God. The Christmas story for me represents a new start.

I feel that way every time I see an eagle as well. You know we almost lost these birds entirely. In the 1960’s and the 1970’s the Bald Eagle population was so low that many feared they would die out and become extinct. I remember being told in elementary school that the symbol of our country was so rare that I would probably never have the chance to see one. At least not in the wild, but maybe at a zoo or game preserve. Our efforts to renew the eagle population have been so successful that in 2007 they were removed from the endangered species list. The have been given renewal, they have been given a fresh start, they have been given a new beginning-and I think about all that every time I see one. And I think of the new beginnings in the Christmas story as well.

One of the things which I find amazing is that all these eagles show up to this particular spot on the planet at this particular time of year. Now think about this; if you were asked to show up at a certain address say in Wasilla, Alaska between December 15th and December 20th you could probably find a way to do that. But what if I were to tell you that for the entire year preceding those dates you would not be able to look at a calendar. What if I were to tell you that when you left for Wasilla, Alaska that you couldn’t use a map? What if you just had to go? How do you think you would do?

Yet, that is what the eagles do. They have no calendar, they have no map, I’m certain they don’t follow a highway or any visual signs and yet they show up at the same place and the same time every year. The eagles are not the only birds that do this by the way, but what kind of guidance system do you suppose they use?

Once again, this reminds me of the Christmas story. There were three wise men that visited the Christ child because they had a guidance system. They were able to follow a star. What do the eagles follow? The eagles have an internal guidance system; and that also reminds me of the Christmas story. It is the internal guidance system which was made available to us all that Christmas day when Jesus was born, it is the internal guidance system which connects us to the story tonight and it is the internal guidance system which will connect us to the Divine spirit in the days ahead. If you doubt the validity of an internal guidance system, just consider the eagles.

There are many other facets of a visit to see the eagles that remind me of the Christmas story and remind me of my relationship with Jesus, but time does not allow me to share them all, so maybe just a couple of quick points.  Eagles have remarkable vision. The eye of the eagle is very complex, it can actually look in two different directions at once out of the same eye. There are two focus planes which allow the eagle to do this. But what is remarkable is that the eagle can also combine the two focus planes into a single vision that allows an eagle to see something the size of a rabbit running from a distance of about three miles. When the true messages of Christmas begin to sink in and we connect with God in new ways, we too, suddenly have improved vision and greater insight.

As I visit the eagles each year I am also reminded of how connected everything is. The life cycle of the kokanee salmon makes the eagle event possible. The end of the life of the kokanee also brings new life to the eagles. The sacrifice, in a way, of the kokanee offers life to the eagles. All these parallel the life and birth and execution of Jesus. It may seem odd to talk about eagles on Christmas Eve, but for me, it makes perfect sense.

Allow me to close this evening with a favorite passage of mine from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 40: 28-31 we find these words:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: December 18, 2016 – “The Hidden Message of Christmas” (hiding in plain sight)

“The Hidden Message of Christmas” – (hiding in plain sight)

Text: Luke 2: 8-11

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

There is a Japanese scientist named Dr. Emoto, who wrote a book called “The Hidden Messages in Water” that I think is a fascinating study of how the properties of water can be impacted by things you would not normally consider. I believe I have shared some of this information with you in prior sermons, so I won’t elaborate too much, but the hidden message is simply the idea that there may be more connections and unity in our universe than we originally thought. For example, Dr. Emoto has studied the way water crystalizes when it freezes, and the formation of those crystals seems to be impacted by negative or positive information. It’s almost like the water has an awareness of the surrounding environment; this is not something we expect, so Dr. Emoto considers the message to be hidden.

I also believe there is a hidden message in Christmas, but it is not what we expect, so we tend to pass right over it without giving it the consideration, that at least I think, it deserves. When we begin to talk about the message of Christmas, the focus normally is centered on Jesus, and this seems appropriate because it is the birth of Jesus that we celebrate at this time of year. When we focus on Jesus we can see a myriad of messages that are all appropriate for the Christmas season. We can talk about love, which of course is a big one. We can mention peace and hope and joy as all being parts of the Christmas message.

Even our tradition of the Advent candles echo these four points; as each of the four candles is representative of those four Christmas messages of hope, joy, peace and love. We could expand our search for a hidden message in Christmas to include the life example of Jesus as well. As we consider the life of Jesus we see many examples of how we choose to treat each other, how we accept those who are different from us and what true compassion looks like. We have parables and stories that Jesus taught from that could also be considered a part of the Christmas message.

I bring all of these things up because they are logical places where you would normally look for a true Christmas message. Now please understand that I don’t think there is a single true Christmas message; there are lots of them and I don’t believe there is one that is more important than the others. All the messages of Christmas are important for us to consider and we should pay attention to all of them.

But there is one message that I believe is prominent in the Christmas story and actually prominent in many places throughout the Bible, which gets overlooked with a fair amount of regularity. We don’t see this message on Christmas cards or spelled out in lights on people’s front lawns. We don’t hear Christmas carols about this message. I would venture to guess that no one here today has a Christmas ornament on their tree at home with this message painted on the ornament or has a glitter covered cardboard cutout of the message hanging on their tree or around the house. Because of the way this particular Christmas message has been overlooked, I consider it hidden – even though it lives in plain sight all year long. Furthermore, we are reminded of this message many times throughout the year and not just at Christmas, but still, in spite of all the reminders, it is virtually ignored.

I think most of us are familiar, at least to some degree, about some of the concepts of journalism. In other words, if I refer to something as a lead story, most of you would know what I mean. In the newspaper business, this is called a headline. If something important happens, it is in the headlines. If you are publishing a magazine, it is called the cover story. There is usually a picture associated with the story on the front cover of the magazine along with a headline of some kind. In the TV business, they call it a lead story; this is the very first thing they talk about.

All of these things have one thing in common and that is the journalists want this story to be the very first thing you hear or read. The very first thing stated is usually of high importance; the first story or the lead story or the headline is the very first information you receive. At least by the journalists’ opinion, the lead story is usually the most important of the evening, so they tell that story first.

I thought it might be interesting to apply the journalist test to the messages of Christmas and see which one is normally the lead story. The results I think are really interesting. If you go back and look at a number of popular Christmas scriptures there is an element which is often the lead story which tends to get overlooked. When the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, what was the very first thing they said?

Do not be afraid.

When the angel visited Joseph in a dream about Mary, what did the angel say to Joseph?

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.

When an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a child who was to become John the Baptist, the very first thing the angel said was “do not be afraid.”

When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, the first thing he said was “greetings favored one”, followed closely by “do not be afraid.”

There is a web site that I use quite often called “Bible Gateway” that has a number of interesting features. One of those features allows me to search the Bible by key phrase or individual words. If I go to that web site and search for the phrase “do not be afraid” you would be amazed at all the references that pop up. If you expand that search to include phrases like “fear not” or “have no fear” then the search really explodes. Almost without exception, it appears that if God has something important to say, the very first thing that is said is something about fear.

When the resurrected Jesus appeared to Mary or to the disciples, the very first thing Jesus said was to not be afraid.

At least for me, this is at least one of the more important messages of Christmas. Do not be afraid. It isn’t a message that you see in lights or hear carols about, but it is an important part of the Christmas story. When God speaks, it seems like the lead story is often, do not be afraid.

You see, fear paralyzes us from action. Fear distorts our judgment. Fear prevents us from hearing what else God is trying to tell us; unless we deal with the fear first, nothing else will get through. That is why in the Bible, dealing with the fear is often the lead story and that is why it is also the hidden message of Christmas that is hiding in plain sight. Fear not.

Amen.

Sermon: December 11, 2016 – “What’s on Your Christmas List?”

“What’s on Your Christmas List?”

Text: I Thessalonians 5:2

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

I can probably guess what a few of you might be thinking about now…what is he thinking? Doesn’t he know what time of year it is? What happened to all the nice Christmas verses? What happened to the shepherds and angels and stables?

OK, give me a minute; I promise this will get around to Christmas soon enough.

You probably know this already, but the text I read a second ago is believed to be about the second coming of Jesus and not the first. For historical reference it is important for us to recognize that some of the letters of Paul are among the earliest of all the writings we have available to us in the New Testament. This is particularly true of the first and second letters to the Thessalonians; these letters are among those dated as early as 20 or 30 years after the execution of Jesus. Now it is important for us to remember that in the very early days of Christianity, most people felt like Jesus was going to return at any minute. It was like the hurricane warning had already been put out and people were just waiting around for the storm to hit. I recognize this about this text. But sometimes I think it is useful to think about a text in a new way.

That is what I want to do today. I want to use this text in a new way to help give us a new perspective on the season of Advent, as we wait for Jesus, and what it might mean to have Jesus come to us like a thief in the night.

So let’s begin with this thief imagery. The idea of Jesus coming to us like a thief in the night is a little like a reverse Santa Claus. You know that Santa comes in the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping, undetected by the household and then leaves the presents for everyone under the Christmas tree. We even make lists for Santa so he will know what to leave.

The image of Jesus coming like a thief in the night isn’t all that different, with one important exception. That exception is that a thief takes things away, a thief steals, and Santa brings more stuff. So this text that I read kind of makes me think about Jesus and this Advent season like we are waiting for Jesus the thief in the night to come and take things away.

Now think about that for a minute. If we make a list for Santa as to what he should leave behind, how about making a list for Jesus about what we would like for him to take away? Have you ever thought about the Advent season as preparation for Jesus the thief who comes in the night? Probably not. But maybe we should.

One of the scriptures we often hear around this time of year is a text about a “voice crying out in the wilderness” and that voice is telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. This is to be the voice of John the Baptist. Now John the Baptist was quite a character. One of the other things that John the Baptist was noted for is the use of the word “repent” – he would stagger out of the wilderness with shoulder length hair, scantily clothed with animal skins and with a piece of locust still stuck in his teeth from lunch and tell everyone to “repent! For the day of the Lord is at hand!” Little wonder he attracted some attention.

You know, I never used to like the word repent. I would hear it used over and over and over again by TV evangelists or hardline Christians. The message always seemed to be focused on bad behavior of some kind. The message seemed to always be judgmental. The message was simply that you are not living your life the way I think you should and you need to repent. You’re doing it wrong! You need to stop this sinful lifestyle and repent! You need to stop doing this or stop doing that and repent! For me, when I heard these things, repent was a call for behavior modification and sounded judgmental and narrow. It was a threat, really. Stop being bad and start being good or else God is going to be so irritated with you that God will throw you into to hell to burn for eternity. Repent!

It just never felt quite right to me.

Then I was introduced to the word “metanoia”. This is the English phonetic spelling of the Greek word for repent. The word metanoia is the word you will find in the Greek New Testament when John the Baptist is quoted as saying repent. In the Greek,  John the Baptist used the word metanoia. The thing is that in Greek metanoia isn’t really about changing behavior, it is about changing your mind and the literal translation is to have a new thought. All of the sudden, John the Baptist is telling everyone that Jesus is coming and it’s time to have a new thought about how we have always done things. Metanoia-to have a new thought. Repent! Stop thinking the way you always have and have a new thought.

Isn’t this interesting to consider that repent actually means to think about things in a new way? You know this would support what Paul has to say in Romans 12 about “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed, by the renewing of your minds.”

What if true repentance means that we are finally freed from the bondage of thinking the same thoughts over and over and over again? What if repentance means we are free to let go of some of the thinking which has held us back all these years? What if repentance means we are to move away from how we have always done things? What if repentance means we are freed from the negative thoughts we have had about ourselves all this time?

Ah, there it is. Repentance frees us from what we sometimes think about ourselves.

Remember the text I began with? Remember Jesus coming like a thief in the night? Remember the lists we make; one for Santa of things to leave behind and one for Jesus to take away when he comes like a thief in the night. What’s on your Christmas list that you would like Jesus to steal from you? What thoughts hold you down and keep you from becoming all you can be?

Maybe John’s call to repentance and preparation for the coming of Jesus is a call to new thoughts and new ideas. Maybe it is a call to let go of some of the things we think about ourselves; things like I’m not smart enough, I’m not rich enough, I’m not young enough, I’m not old enough, I’m not good looking enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not…

Repent and have a new thought! This Advent season is about the anticipation of looking for the coming of Jesus like a thief in the night. A thief to steal away all those old thoughts and ideas and bring us into the light which overcomes the darkness and allows to see with new eyes and new ideas and to illuminate our thinking with new thoughts and a new vision of who we can become.

Repent and do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind as all the old is stolen away and behold, all things have become new.

A new idea and new food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: December 4, 2016 – Mystery of God – Part 5

Mystery of God – Part 5

Text: Matthew 1:23

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Over the past few weeks we have been exploring what I called the mystery of God. I have mentioned that I believe the mystery of God often comes to us in the form of a question. Some of those questions that we have been examining are often asked by individuals searching for that Divine connection that we often find elusive. Questions like why bad things happen to good people, or what is God or perhaps who is God are the kinds of questions we ask and hear. I have also mentioned that I believe sometimes the answers to those questions, or at least the beginning of understanding around those questions can be found in our natural world.

Today, I want to explore a new question; does God answer my prayers? As we begin to unravel the mystery around this question I want to look first at the scripture I read a few minutes ago. The text states that the name given Jesus is Emmanuel, which means God with us. Is that not the very intent of prayer? If you think about it, when we pray, we want to bring God in alignment with where we are and what we are experiencing. We want God to be with us. The phrase to be with us can have multiple meanings; for example, we want to have God be present with us, beside us, like someone went with us to the movies or the mall. We also interpret the idea of God with us, as being supportive and pulling for us, we want God to be with us in the sense that we want God to desire the same outcome for us as we want. Much like we use the term when we describe our interest in an athletic team or a performer, “I was really with them” or “I was sure pulling for them to have a great game” are the kinds of comments we hear. When we think of God with us, I think we look for both of these manifestations of having God with us. We want to feel the personal presence of God and we want God pulling for us as well. I think most of us look to prayer to help us fulfill this desire.

But there is a fly in this ointment. What happens is that our prayers are not always answered in the way we feel they should be. When that happens, God is no longer with us; we feel the absence of God, we feel alone and lost. Sometimes our personal circumstances become so bad that we even feel that God is no longer with us, but perhaps even against us. It is not a good feeling and it can challenge your faith; I know, I have been there.

So I will ask the question again; does God answer your prayers. My answer to this question will probably surprise you, but before you react too violently or shut down completely I ask that you allow me to explain. This may also be a good time for the customary Pastor Chuck disclaimer that these are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts or beliefs, but I do ask that you think about it.

So does God answer your prayers? I would have to say no. But my answer comes with an explanation and perhaps a different question. My new question might sound something like this; did God design a system in which prayer can make a difference? My answer to that question is a resounding yes! So let me see if I can explain the difference I see between these two questions and why I think it matters.

I have often said that I think the image we hold of God is an important part of our personal theological approach to life in general. I have also said that my personal image of God has evolved over the years to where I no longer image God as a being; more specifically, I no longer experience God as what is called an anthropomorphic being. That is a being with human like qualities. Last week I spoke of God as a Spirit and having qualities that resemble light more closely than a human being. The image of God that we hold makes a big difference in how we pray and what our expectations are of that prayer.

Years ago I believe that I did hold a much more anthropomorphic image of God. I saw God as an all-powerful being that had the ability to do anything and perform any miracle. When I prayed about something the answer to that prayer was viewed as a decision that God makes, either God says yes or God says no. The problem with that approach is that when it seems like God says no, it can be very difficult. It leaves you questioning everything.

I had an experience much like what I just described about 35 years ago. At that time my dad was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The doctors told us after surgery that it would most likely grow back and when it did, a second surgery would not be an option and it would be fatal. The surgery and follow-up chemo provided about one more year of life for my dad. During that year we said lots of prayers for healing but God said no. So where does that leave you on a faith journey when God says no? Did you do something wrong? When Jesus told others that their faith had made them well, does that mean I didn’t have enough faith? I had a lot more questions than answers and I was questioning everything.

After that experience I pretty much decided that prayer didn’t make any difference at all. How could God say yes to one person and no to another? What kind of just God would do such a thing? Why did it seem like my father’s death was my fault? Why did it seem like I didn’t have the faith required to have God say yes? What was wrong with me? What was wrong with God?

The anguish I experienced going through this process was quite profound. Over time I began to realize that in other places, in other circumstances, in other peoples’ lives, prayer did sometimes change things. There was no denying that the evidence suggested that prayer can make a difference. There are even double-blind scientific studies that show prayer makes a difference.  So why didn’t it work for me?

Eventually, I began to change the way I thought about God. As my image of God evolved, so did my attitude about prayer. As I moved away from the image of God as a being with human like characteristics that decided either yes or no based on my level of faith I began to feel better. As I moved toward a new image of God as energy or a source that we are allowed to tap into I began to realize that perhaps the answers to prayers are not as much up to God as they are up to us.

To ask the question does God answer my prayers seems to set as a pre-requisite the image of God as a being that decides yes or no. But to alter the question and ask if prayer can make a difference, puts the question in a more flexible state.

I now know and believe things that I did not when my dad got sick. I now know that thoughts and intentions and positive energy can have the power to alter our physical perception of reality. I know that what we believe we will see can influence what we actually see. I perceive God as part of that energy and when we tap into that energy we can share it with others and add to that positive energy. This is how I now think about prayer. When I pray, I am adding to the reserves of positive energy.

Sometimes that energy is just enough to make someone who is sick or dying feel just a bit better. Sometimes that energy is enough to slow the progression of disease and cause someone to live a year rather than just 9 months. Sometimes the energy is enough to actually stop the disease in its tracks.

The mistake I made when I prayed for my dad was that I was not looking for the difference that positive energy was making in the day to day. I was instead focused on an answer that was yes or no, life or death, healed of cancer or not healed and I thought that God made that decision. That concept that caused me so much pain was grounded in my image of God as a being with human like qualities. God as energy makes no such decision.

If you look to our natural world, we can see the same kind of energy flow as it moves and accumulates in one form or another. Just one quick example of what I’m talking about. In a few weeks we will experience the winter solstice; this normally occurs sometime close to Christmas day. That is why in our Christian faith tradition this date was chosen – it was already a holiday of sorts. The winter solstice is the day when the nights are no longer getting longer and the days shorter, but rather we turn that corner and the process of the days getting longer and the nights getting shorter begins.

Even though the days begin getting longer around December 22 or 23rd most years, the coldest months are still ahead of us. January and February are normally the coldest months of the year, even though during those months the days have been getting longer. There is an accumulation of energy, or the lack of energy, that has a bit of a residual impact. If you think about it, the same thing happens in the summer. The summer solstice arrives in the third week of June. From that time on, the amount of sunlight we receive begins to diminish. Yet what are the hottest months of the summer? July and August, right?

So when we pray, I believe we participate in an energy exchange similar to our understanding of the winter and summer solstice; it may take a while before our energy is manifest as something significant that we can observe. But it does make a difference and it does contribute to the whole. In other words, God never says no. We are free to join the flow of energy whenever we choose to do so and for as long as we choose to do so and it will always add to the accumulation of energy which will eventually come to manifestation. But if we are focused on only a yes or no answer, it can be easy to miss those little manifestations and begin to think that our prayers make no difference whatsoever. That, of course, is one of the many reasons I choose to image God as a non-being and that is food for thought.

Go in peace, Amen.