Sermon: Sunday Morning, December 24, 2017 – A New Look at Advent-Part 4

A New Look at Advent-Part 4

Text: Mark 16:20

And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

Over the past few weeks we have been engaged in a new way of looking at the symbolism of the Advent candles. For review, most of us are aware that the candles normally are symbolic of things like Joy, Hope, Love and Peace and those symbols are always appropriate for the Christmas season.

But this year I have been asking you to look at the candles in a new way, with new symbolism. Part of that new way of looking at the symbolism of the Advent candles is to look at the symbols as a progression, or a pathway, one building upon the other to reach a final goal. The first symbol we considered was annunciation and we spoke of the power of the spoken word. Last week I had some fun with the second symbol, preparation. I spoke about how in some cases preparation is critical, but sometimes Jesus comes to us in ways that are impossible to prepare for. Preparing for Jesus can be a little oxymoronic in that way.

Today I want to move to our third symbol, which is confirmation as we explore our new way of looking at Advent candles and the symbolism behind those candles. As we continue to explore this idea, I want to remind you that this exercise serves two different purposes. The first purpose is that through these new symbols I am hoping that the Christmas story itself takes on new and deeper insights for you. Perhaps you gain a new perspective on the Christmas story because of this series. But I also want you to be able to apply these symbols to your own lives. As we consider these symbols as a progression, or a pathway to follow, this can lead us to great accomplishments in our own spiritual disciplines and other places in our lives.

This is particularly true with our symbol of confirmation today. Looking at confirmation through the eyes of the Christmas story is a very different experience than looking at the presence of confirmation in our own lives. I will try to keep the two approaches clear for you, but be aware there is also a substantial amount of overlap between the two.

That being said, I want first to address the notion of confirmation with regard to the Christmas story. I believe that many individuals within Christian circles when asked about how the word confirmation may apply to the Christmas story, they would respond that Christmas is confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. That Jesus fulfills all the prophecies of the Old Testament and the coming of the Christ child is the salvation of the world as foretold by prophets in antiquity. This is a really big deal for some people. It must be confirmed by the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus is and was what the Christmas story claims, and their belief and their faith is grounded upon that belief.

I searched a little bit on line about all the prophecy that Jesus fulfilled. The best example of this exercise I found was on a web site called “According to the Scriptures”. On this web site they conclude that Jesus filled no less than 353 different prophecies and this confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jesus is who he says and the Christmas story is absolutely true.

Now I don’t want to attack anyone’s faith or burst any bubbles, but this borders on the side of ridiculous. Perhaps this is a good place for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer, which I throw into the mix with some regularity, saying that these are my thoughts and ideas, and they don’t have to be your thoughts or your beliefs. But I do ask that you at least think about it.

Here’s the thing, at least for me. First of all, it is pretty easy to write a story about Jesus fulfilling all the required checkpoints of the Messiah 100 years or so after everything has already happened. You can place Jesus anywhere you need him to be and you can have him say whatever you need him to say.

The second item is that I wish that Christianity could someday learn to play nice with others. You know when you are in kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher sends home that first evaluation being able to play well with others is a big deal. You would think that what five-year olds can learn and figure out Christianity could learn as well. But alas many of us do not. What we don’t realize is that in our efforts to make certain we are always right, we alienate a good portion of the rest of the world.

With regard to the Christmas story, I would like to suggest that we look for confirmation beyond our own borders and beyond our own perspectives. Here is just one example, there are many others.  I have spoken before about the ancient sacred text of the Tao Te Ching. This document was born out of the eastern religious traditions and an individual by the name of Lao Tzu is credited for the actual text of the Tao. The Tao itself rivals the age of our own sacred text, the Bible. It is considered to be about 2500 years old, which places it older than our New Testament, but younger, perhaps, than portions of our Old Testament.

I want to read a few verses from the Tao in the 25th saying in this collection of sayings. There are 81 different sayings in all, and this one is from saying number 25.

“There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the Mother of the Universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao. I call it great. Great is boundless; boundless is eternally flowing; ever flowing, it is constantly returning.”

Now listen to the prologue of the Gospel according to John. This is chapter one, verses 1-5 of the gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Is it just me, or do these sound a lot alike? Is the basic premise not the same? Are not both of these texts recognizing that there is a Divine presence that has orchestrated the design of the universe since the beginning of time?

For me, this is the kind of confirmation I seek. A common experience of the Divine. A common understanding of the human condition and how our human response to our Divine creator shapes our everyday lives. This is confirmation. This kind of confirmation confirms for me that our understanding and our legends and our myths support what has been known for millennia. This is confirmation, at least for me, with regard to our understanding of the Christmas story.

But I have also asked you to consider what confirmation looks like as we apply these constructs to our everyday lives. How do we know we are on the right track? How do we know that what we are doing is working? Sometimes this is pretty easy, other times it is much more elusive. If we have a goal to exercise more or lose some weight, that is pretty easy to measure. If, however, we have a goal to become more spiritual, that is less precise.

I want us to look again at the text I read a few minutes ago. This text from Mark talks about the signs that accompanied the message. Here again is the actual text; “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”

The text states that the message will be confirmed by signs that accompany it. In the case of our own self-development, that message is predominantly to ourselves. We want to learn a new spiritual discipline, we want to understand spirituality better, we want to learn to control our anger or overcome a bad habit. Our message to ourselves can be any number of things. As we pursue this, we can watch for signs.

I have a unique interpretation of this process and it works for me. It may not be appropriate for you, and it may not make any sense to you, but I offer it as just one example of the kind of confirmation I am talking about.

In all areas of my life I try to remember to be sensitive to the ways of the Spirit. For me, and I stress that this is for me, it may not be for you, there are three things I try to always keep in mind. First, I try to receive everything with thanksgiving. Even when it seems bad or not what I want or it is a hassle, I try to remember to be thankful. An attitude of gratitude works miracles.

The second thing I try to remember is to pay attention to resistance. Sometimes you get really focused on something and you decide that is how it needs to be. Let’s just say, for example, that you have decided you need to buy a new refrigerator. But when you go to make the purchase, something happens that makes it difficult or impossible for you to get it done. So you try again at a later date, and you encounter difficulty again. This experience is what I call resistance. At that point, I back off from an idea and try to just wait for some confirmation. In the case of the refrigerator, at least for me, it became apparent we did not need to make that purchase.  That is confirmation. I can’t offer an explanation of this other than to say it has taken decades of practice to become sensitive to this thing I call resistance. When I feel it, and I ignore it, I am almost always sorry.

The third thing I try to pay attention to is becoming attached to a particular outcome. In other words, sometimes we feel like there is only one solution to our problem. There is only one thing in the world that will make us happy. There is only one path forward, and we become attached to that particular outcome. It has to be a certain way or else it won’t work.

I have heard often that sometimes when we pray for something, God says “no”. I don’t believe that to be true in the way we understand it. I don’t think God ever says yes or no, what changes is our acceptance of what is, and how we interpret that event in our lives. When we have become attached to a particular outcome, any other path forward looks like a “no”. I try to guard against becoming attached to a particular outcome.

I’m certain that most of us have had the experience of wanting a particular thing to happen and it doesn’t for whatever reason. It might have been a new job or something else, but it just didn’t work out. Then, perhaps a year or two later, you remember the incident, you remember how disappointed you felt, but you now realize that what happened was actually the best thing that could have happened. Has anyone else had this experience? Yeah, me too. That is confirmation. Confirmation that we need to accept all things with gratitude, confirmation that we pay attention to resistance and confirmation that we need to avoid attachment to things. This attachment can come in the form of being attached to a particular outcome, but we can also become very attached to the need to be right. This of course can create myriad of troubles and relates directly to what I was saying earlier about our understanding of the Christmas story.

I have covered a lot of topics this morning and have not given each subject as close or thorough an investigation as I would have liked. But we have only so much time and a limited attention span to boot. That is one of the reasons I like to make every sermon available in print. This is one of those you might want to read again because this wasn’t just food for thought, this was an entire Christmas dinner for thought.

Go in peace, and if I don’t see you tonight, Merry Christmas! Amen.

 

Sermon: December 24, 2017, Christmas Eve – “The Prince of Peace”

Christmas Eve Homily
“The Prince of Peace”

Text: John 14: 27

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”

Peace is a word we hear a lot around Christmas. There are cards and decorations and all kinds of things that bear the name of peace. But this raises a few questions for me. What kind of peace are we talking about and how do we recognize it if we find it?  Obviously, world peace is not the promise given, or at least not a promise that has been kept.  Personal, inner peace is what some would say, and yet I know of many examples where the Christmas season just takes the inner turmoil some experience and makes it worse.  There are many who struggle to just get through the Holiday season without experiencing some sort of mental, emotional or physical breakdown.

What kind of peace are we to receive from Jesus?  If not world peace and not inner peace, what other kinds of peace are there?  Certainly the Christian church does not have a history of peace.  One might think that when someone becomes a Christian, then they immediately become a peaceful person.  History, both in ages past and recent events have proven that to not be the case.

What peace is Jesus referring to in the text I read a few minutes ago?  What is this promise of Jesus?  Is it an empty promise?  Are they just nice words, but without any true substance?  Is it something we can hope for, but not always receive?  What is this elusive, mysterious peace to which Jesus refers?

How often do we hear the term the Prince of Peace around Christmas time?  But what does it mean?  What is this peace to which everyone so anxiously talks about but no one seems to experience?  I wonder…..

I wonder how we define this mysterious peace for ourselves, and how we can take the promise of Jesus and make it universal.  For me, when I’m considering a promise or a teaching of Jesus, one of the questions I ask myself, is does it apply to everyone?  In other words, for a saying or a teaching of Jesus to be truly valid, for me, it must be of a universal nature.  It must equally apply or be able to be experienced by all.  I don’t believe Jesus played favorites.  This mysterious peace that we are so ready to point to all the time, or sing about or light candles about seems very elusive indeed.  At the personal level, I believe, most of us struggle to experience true peace and certainly the world at large struggles as well.

Now that I have asked a lot of questions, let me try to answer a few of them from my perspective.  I believe it is likely the peace to which Jesus is referring to in this scripture and most of our other references as well, is an eternal peace; in other words, the status of our eternal relationship with the Divine.  It is what some would define as salvation, or being saved.  In more general terms, the idea that when we leave our physical bodies at the point of our death, there is a relationship waiting for us with the Divine in a spiritual sense.

From that perspective, this saying of Jesus passes the egalitarian test.  At least it does until we begin to mess with it.

Jesus claims to leave us with peace and to give us peace in this scripture.  Then he goes on to qualify the gift.  Did you notice that the scripture says he gives not as the world gives?  Have you ever wondered what that meant?

In my mind the world is a place of trade and commerce.  I give you something; you give me something in return.  We trade.  We broker.  We exchange commodities.  In our culture, that commodity has become money.  We trade money for our food, clothing, shelter and things we want and need.  This is the basic foundational tenet of all cultures, trade.  We learn to trade one thing for another.  The path to becoming a fully developed culture always includes the ability to trade.  This is a universal truth.

So I believe it is safe to say that is how the world gives.  We give with the understanding that we really trade.  I give you something; you give me something in return.  It is a trade.

So how does this eternal peace come to us from Jesus?  It is a gift because he states that he is giving it to us, and yet there is a qualifier attached.  Jesus says he gives, not as the world gives.  In other words, the gift of eternal peace is ours for the taking and we are not required to trade anything in return.

It seems to me the church universal has missed this concept.  All the Christian denominations differ slightly, but each of them have their own checklists of what the individual must do to attain eternal peace, or salvation.  We still want to make it a trade, in spite of the fact that Jesus clearly says it is not a trade.

Jesus said I give; I don’t trade.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”  Receive the gift of Christmas, it has been there – All the time, and for everyone. No exceptions.

Amen.

Sermon: December 17, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent – Part 3”

 

A New Look at Advent – Part 3

Text: Matthew 3: 1-3, Isaiah 40: 3-4

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Today we continue our conversation around the concept of looking at this Advent season with new eyes. For the past two weeks we have been looking at new symbols of meaning for the Advent candles. Normally, as you probably already know, the Advent candles are symbolic of things like Joy, Hope, Peace and Love. These ideals are perfect for the Christmas season and to have these symbols as part of our Advent celebration makes total sense.

But this year I have asked you to look at the symbolism of the Advent candles in a new way. To think of them as a progression, or stepping stones and allow one concept to build upon the other as we progress through this season. Two weeks ago I introduced this idea to you and identified the four candles of Advent as being symbolic of Annunciation, Preparation, Confirmation and Transformation. Last week we explored the power of the spoken word and the power of our own self-talk as we took a look at the symbol of annunciation. This week I want to move on to the symbol of preparation.

The text I read a few minutes ago from the Gospel of Matthew is about John the Baptist. John the Baptist is considered to be the one who prepared the way for Jesus. He was, of course, the one who baptized Jesus, and was preaching repentance and so on prior to the arrival of Jesus on the scene. The Gospel of Matthew has John quoting the prophet Isaiah, and the second text I read from the 40th chapter of Isaiah is where this quote comes from. I have to say that this text from Isaiah has taken on new and greater meaning for me recently.

I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but there is a pretty good sized hole in the ground out at the end of the church property where our driveway intersects with Broadview. Not only is there a hole in the ground, but there is also an impressive pile of dirt next to the hole. In case you are not aware of what is happening there, that hole in the ground is the beginnings of our new house. As you might remember, a few years ago the church decided to sell the two residential lots that are there along Broadview, which we did to help finance some of the revitalization efforts. One house is nearly complete, and Heidi and I purchased the other lot. Now we have started the building process. I plan on doing most of the work myself, so it will be long project.

I’m telling you all this because one of the first things that happens when you begin to build a house is you have to think about the foundation. A foundation for a house has to be on solid ground and it has to be level. The lot as it was had a bit of a slope in it, so the slope needed to be made level to accommodate the foundation. It has taken a little while, but I think I finally have the ground prepared to actually begin to work on the foundation.

With that in mind, look again at this text from Isaiah.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

That is exactly what I have been doing to prepare for my house project. I have been lowering the high points and trying to level the ground; all this to prepare for the coming of the house project.

I can’t stress the importance of this preparation enough. It is absolutely critical that the foundation be on undisturbed soil and the foundation be perfectly flat. We have tools that help us keep things level and concrete and steel bars that help keep a foundation solid. All this is in preparation for the building of the house. When you are going to prepare for a project of this type, solid level footings and foundation are a must.

A few week ago I mentioned that in 2009 Heidi and I had the opportunity to travel to Italy where we visited the city of Assisi. This is of course the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi. One of the other places we visited on that same trip was the city of Pisa. Does anybody remember what the city of Pisa is famous for?

That’s right. The leaning tower of Pisa is in the city of Pisa in Italy. Now I want you to really look at this structure. It is now basically worthless for anything other than a tourist attraction. This is what happens when you don’t prepare properly. There are a couple of things about this particular project that caused the tower to lean the way it is. One of those things is that it didn’t start out perfectly level, and the other is that the soil under it was not solid either. So the preparation for this project fell way short. When you don’t prepare properly, you end up with a leaning tower of Pisa.

I have to tell you that when you climb the stairs in this tower to get to the top it is a weird experience. Even though you are going up toward the top of the tower, you spend about half your time going down. The same thing happens as you descend from the top, you spend a lot of energy going up some steps, even though you are on your way down.

I want you to think about that experience for a minute. Some people describe a struggle as one step forward and two steps back. Or if you are making a little bit of progress, it can be two steps forward and one step back. In the case of the leaning tower when you are trying to get to the top, it is one or two steps up, and then a few steps back down, then a few more steps up, and then another set down. Eventually, you do get to the top of the tower, but it takes a while and it is not very efficient. All this points to the importance of preparation and laying a strong and solid foundation.

As we evaluate a new look at Advent and the symbolism of the candles, I can’t over emphasize the importance of the step of preparation. I have asked you to think about this symbolism as a progression, or stepping stones. As you consider your own place in life, if there is anything you would change, anything that you would like to be a little different, then these are the steps you must follow. The first is to announce what you intend to happen; the second step is to prepare. This is mandatory. We must prepare. I hope I have convinced you that preparation is important.

Now try to forget everything I just said.

Does anyone know what an oxymoron is? According to the dictionary an oxymoron is two words that appear to be contradictory with each other that appear in conjunction with one another. We have all heard many of these before. Jumbo shrimp is a favorite of mine. There are many others.  A fine mess, a silent scream, alone together, pretty ugly, the list goes on and on.

I bring this up because it occurs to me that to prepare for Jesus is a little oxymoronic.  When we want to transform our own lives, I think preparation plays a role in that. But when we talk about Jesus, I don’t think we can prepare, nor do we have to prepare for the coming of Jesus. To prepare for Jesus I think is an oxymoron. Let me explain.

When I began to think about building our house, I had to plan and prepare what would need to happen to the building lot. We talked about getting things level and flat. Everything has to be in order and perfectly prepared for us to move to the next step.

When we talk about Jesus, we will never be fully prepared for Jesus. Our lives will never be perfectly prepared for Jesus. As a matter of fact, the bigger the mess you happen to be in, the more apt you are to need a “come to Jesus” type moment. Think about this.

When the prodigal son finally “came to himself” and started to think about going home, that was the moment when Jesus was present. There wasn’t any preparation; there wasn’t any planning. Everything wasn’t neat and tidy and perfectly level. Quite the opposite; things were a mess.

When the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery before Jesus and said that the law demanded this woman to be stoned to death there wasn’t any preparation. Jesus commented that the one who was without sin may cast the first stone and slowly, one by one, the accusers all went away. At that moment, Jesus was present with that woman; present in that precise moment as the accusers began to back away. There wasn’t any planning, there wasn’t any preparation, there wasn’t any indication beforehand to this woman that Jesus was about to intervene. He just sort of showed up; unannounced, unplanned and unscripted, Jesus just shows up.

When Jesus had a conversation with a woman at the well, the pattern was the same. The woman at the well didn’t get up that morning thinking I’d better prepare for my meeting with Jesus. Jesus just showed up.

That’s what Jesus does. He just shows up. Sometimes unannounced, unscripted and unplanned, Jesus just shows up. In a way the more unprepared we are for Jesus, the more prepared we are to receive the message of Jesus. The more unprepared we are, the more our lives are in chaos, the more in crisis we seem to be, the more prepared we are for the message of Christmas.

Unconditional love requires no preparation. If the love of God required preparation, it wouldn’t be unconditional then would it?

So preparation is a “both and” type of proposition. When we apply this symbolism and process to our own lives in one sense, we can see the need for preparation. When we talk about the actual coming of Jesus into our lives, especially in times of crisis, not only is preparation not required, it may be impossible.

Preparing for Jesus is a little oxymoronic.

So is food for thought, now that I think about it, so I’ll just say “go in peace” instead.

Amen.

 

Sermon: December 10, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent – Part Two”

 

A New Look at Advent – Part Two

Text: Luke 7: 1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

You might remember that last week I introduced to you a new idea around the symbolism for the Advent wreath. I suggested we might look at the four candles as being a progression or a process through which we can better understand the story of Christmas, but also maybe better understand our own lives and how we might improve certain aspects of our lives. This symbolism can be thought of as a pathway or stepping stones to an enhanced spiritual discipline for example, or any other area of your life where you might want to make a change.

This symbolism begins with the first Advent candle being identified as symbolic of “annunciation” or to announce something. This is the topic for today’s discussion, but for review the other three candles in our pathway are “preparation”, “confirmation” and finally “transformation.”

But today we are looking at just “annunciation” and why that is important. The text I read a few minutes ago might seem like an odd text for the Christmas season, and I suppose that is an accurate observation. But I have chosen this text because it demonstrates better than any other text I looked at the power of the spoken word. In the story, the centurion tells Jesus that all he has to do is speak the word, and the healing will be accomplished. Jesus comments on this man’s faith, but his clarity of understanding, I think is also commendable. The power of the spoken word has many levels of influence.

One thing that I think is often overlooked when we begin to think about the power of words, is how that power impacts our own minds. In other words, your self-talk, or the words you use in your own mind, carry the same power as those words that you speak. This concept is huge, and I don’t want you to miss it.

When I was a kid growing up in our town we had an old sand pit that the city tried to convince us residents that is was an OK swimming pool. It really wasn’t OK, but we swam there anyway. It was an old sand pit and the water was kind of gross and not clear at all – but we had a good time. One of the things that was very common around the shores of this sand pit, in the sandy beach type areas away from where all the activity was, you could find a particular species of cricket. I don’t know the actual name of this particular bug, but my buddy and I called them “jumping jacks.”

They were a very small bug, which looked like a miniature cricket, except the color was a very light tan, almost translucent in color. We could dig around in the sand and find these little guys and when we found one, we usually put it into an empty jar with a lid of some sort. The lid was very important, because as I said earlier, we called these little bugs “jumping jacks” and the reason we called them that is without a lid, they would jump out of the jar.

The reason we often collected a few jumping jacks is that the fish seemed to love them. They made great bait and we could sell them to almost anyone we discovered fishing along the shores of the lakes or rivers around town.

Now this is where the story gets really interesting. We would collect 10 or 15 jumping jacks and have them in an empty Miracle Whip jar or something similar and then we would begin to search for someone fishing that we could sell them to. Of course my buddy and I are on our bikes and I had a newspaper bag that I used for my paper route that worked well to put the jar in while we searched for our fisherperson.

While we searched, an interesting thing always seemed to happen. When we first started out on our bikes, I could hear the Jumping Jacks hitting the lid of the jar as they jumped trying to get out. There was a fairly constant tap, tap, tap, as they hit the underside of the jar lid. But by the time we had ridden to the local fishing hole on our bikes, the noise had stopped. I always thought they were just tired.

The significance of this childhood experience didn’t really begin to dawn on me until decades later. I believe that those Jumping Jacks that we had in the jar began to realize that they could not jump out of the jar. Once they convinced themselves that they could not jump out of the jar, we could actually take the lid off and none would escape. They would still jump, but not one of them could jump out of the jar. They believed they could not, so they could no longer jump high enough to get out of the jar. When I think back on this experience as a kid, I find that to be quite remarkable.

Just in case you think I’m completely crazy I have another similar story. This isn’t from actual personal experience, but I know it to be true. One of the ways that the circus trained the elephants that it used in the performances was that the elephant was chained to a huge cement block. This worked particularly well with baby elephants, because they learned faster, but it also works with adult elephants. For a time the elephant would test the chain and the concrete block. They would tug and tug and tug but would never be able to get free. After a time, the elephant would stop tugging.

In the elephant’s mind there is an association with the feeling of the chain around the leg and a knowing that meant it could not move away. Once the circus went on the road, this became very helpful, because to travel with a huge cement block is not very convenient.

Once on the road, if the animal trainer needed to secure the elephant for a time, he would wrap the chain around the leg of the elephant and then attach the chain to a wooden stake he had driven into the ground. The elephant could easily pull that stake out of the ground, it would hardly even notice. But because of the training in the mind of the elephant, the feeling of the chain around the leg was enough to convince the elephant that he could not move. The elephant could not pull the stake out of the ground because it didn’t believe that it could.

Just in case you are missing the point here, let’s get back to our original thought. I think there is power in words, there is power in annunciation, and there is power in self talk. What we tell ourselves about our experiences may be the most important form of annunciation there is.

From a certain perspective both the jumping jacks and the elephant had some form of self-talk that eventually convinced them that they could not do what they normally could have done easily. Once the lid was off the jar, the jumping jacks could not jump out of the jar because they believed they couldn’t. Once on the road, the elephant couldn’t pull the stake out of the ground, because it believed that it couldn’t. These beliefs were formed through the self-talk of the prior experiences.

This is critical to understanding the power of annunciation and the power of what we tell ourselves about our experiences or what we tell ourselves about our own goals, our own hopes and our own dreams. When we set a goal, for example, and then begin to tell others, that process of annunciation also helps to convince us. The practice of annunciation is a powerful tool in realizing that to speak the word is a critical first step.

The centurion which contacted Jesus and told him to simply speak the word recognized the power of the spoken word. We should also recognize that power. Have you ever told yourself things like “you’re too old to do something like that” or maybe it’s something else, like not being good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, or healthy enough? What you tell yourself and what you tell others has a huge impact on your odds for success.

If you remember the Christmas story, you might remember that after the first annunciation where the angel visited Mary, she began to share the experience with a few others. Joseph was a little harder to convince. Joseph had some self-talk that sounded a little like “maybe I should just quietly divorce Mary and we could go our separate ways.” So another dose of annunciation was necessary and an angel visited Joseph in a dream. After a time, Joseph’s self-talk began to be more positive and I think we all know the rest of the story.

So pay attention to all the forms of annunciation. Because when you announce to others you are also announcing to yourself. And that is food for thought.

Amen.

Sermon: December 3, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent”

“A New Look at Advent”

Text: Isaiah 43: 19

 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

For a couple of decades now every time Advent rolls around I gravitate toward the obvious-that being the Advent wreath, the Advent candles and some historical perspective on where Advent came from, why it was started and what symbolism lies at the heart of the season. Almost always I come around at some point to identify the candles in the Advent wreath as symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. There isn’t anything wrong with this and there are many sermons that can spring from these four ideals. But this year I wanted to do something new. I wanted to make an attempt to be faithful to the tradition and yet offer a new way of thinking about Advent and perhaps a new perspective for each of us that is applicable to our own spirituality.

That being said, I want to introduce you to a new way of thinking about the Advent candles and a new way of applying that symbolism not only to the Christmas story, but to our own spirituality and our own way of being. As I said earlier, the Advent candles are often portrayed as being symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. I have not ever paid any attention to any specific order or which candle is which. On some Advent wreathes the candles are all purple, sometimes, as is the case with this Advent wreath, there is one rose colored candle. This is more symbolism and yet another layer of story and tradition which sometimes actually works against us rather than for us.

What I would like for us to think about is an idea that the Advent wreath could represent for us a practical guide by which we could structure our lives and increase our own level of spirituality or connection to the Divine. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the symbolism of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. These are great ideals. They are just a little non-specific, I’m not sure they are all that helpful, particularly when someone is struggling. You know the Christmas season is not always full of joy for everyone; often it is a bit of a struggle just to endure the season for some people. For those who struggle, or those who have doubts and questions, for those who are uncertain of where they fit in the big picture or for those who reject the basic Christmas premise, this symbolism is not really helpful. In many ways, it adds to the problems rather than leading someone to a new place or a new way of thinking and being. If someone is not joyful during the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to just tell them to be joyful. If someone is not experiencing love in the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to simply say that it is the season of love. I think we may need to think about this in new ways; we can do better. We can actually help people and lead them to a new understanding and a new experience of Christmas.

I think that is what Christmas should really be about. Leading people to a new way of being. If you are not 100% pleased with where you are, Christmas should provide a pathway to reinvention of who you want to become. Christmas should offer ways to increase our spirituality. Christmas should revive and strengthen our connection to God. Re-imagining the Advent wreath I think may offer us that guide we are looking for.

So over the next four Sundays we will be looking at a new set of symbols for the Advent wreath. We will also be looking at new ways that symbolism relates to the Christmas story, but also how that symbolism reminds us of how we might make changes in our own lives. The Advent wreath can become a symbol by which we can understand the Christmas story on a new level and actually apply that new understanding to our own Christmas experience.

These four candles can become symbols of our own choosing; there isn’t any law that states the four candles of an Advent wreath must be symbolic of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope. This is just what the tradition has passed on to us. The tradition has also given us the concept that the center candle is the Christ candle, and represents the person of Jesus, but also represents the idea that Jesus is at the center of everything else that we do. So that gives us a good place to begin, with the center candle, because in my new way of viewing an Advent wreath, that part stays the same. In other words, the center candle is still the Christ candle, it still represents the person of Jesus and it is still symbolically in the center of everything else we do.

But let’s move on. I would like for us to begin to think about the Advent wreath and the four Sundays of Advent as more of a progression rather than four facets of our Christian lives. You see the four topics of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope are huge concepts. We could take the next four years to unpack each one of those topics. They are not very specific and the broad generalities are hard to apply to our daily living. So I’m offering a new alternative.

As a linear progression of how we accomplish most of what happens in our lives, I think the four candles of the Advent wreath could be symbolic of Annunciation, Preparation, Confirmation and Transformation. Not only do these symbols tell the story of Christianity, I think they also can lead us forward into a stronger personal spirituality.

We can look at these four steps in a broad sense by simply defining the four words in this way: “Annunciation” means you announce what you are going to do, what is going to happen or what you are going to pursue. Setting a goal and making it public is another way of understanding “annunciation”.

Secondly, we “prepare” to do what we said we would do. This is the second step in our process called “preparation”. If our stated goal was to build a larger vocabulary, our preparation would be to locate the resources necessary for us to do that. If our annunciation involved a personal spiritual goal, like learning to meditate for example, then our preparation might include classes we could attend our books we might read about meditation.

The third step in this process is “confirmation”. This is the time when you actually begin to do what you said you would. It is confirmation of your commitment and desire to build a larger vocabulary or to learn to meditate. This confirmation possibly comes in the form of waking up one day and realizing that you are actually doing what you said you were going to do. “I’m actually learning new words” or a self-realization that “I’m learning to meditate and have practiced this 3 times this week”. These are all confirmations that things are beginning to happen.

The last step in the process is “transformation”. Transformation comes when we begin to reap the benefits of our stated goal. When our life changes because of the positive influence of learning to meditate or learning to use a larger vocabulary, then we experience transformation.

With regard to the Christmas story, I think you can probably easily see the parallels. The angels make a number of annunciations. They announce to Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph what is going to happen. The angels announce to shepherds what is about to take place or perhaps what has just recently happened.

The next few years are preparation. We have one story about when Jesus was 12 years old preparing for his ministry. John the Baptist is often identified as one who prepared the way.

Once Jesus begins his ministry around the age of 30, we have approximately 3 more years of confirmation. The three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke, record the story of this confirmation. In a sense, the gospels are a record of Jesus doing what the angels said he would do.

After the execution and resurrection of Jesus, we have had about 2,000 years of transformation. That is the process displayed in the Christmas story; annunciation, preparation, confirmation and transformation. It is also the process by which we can transform our own lives. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding our thoughts around this idea of a simple Advent wreath serving as a step-by-step guide to our personal transformation.

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: November 19, 2017 – Learning to Give Thanks

Learning to Give Thanks

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Text: 1Timothy 4:4

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.

This is a rather iconic photograph. I know many of you have probably seen this image, or something like it before. It is a very popular subject of photographers and artists from all over. This particular location is in Colorado, not that far from Aspen, where I appointed as pastor for a couple of years.

Many refer to this image as the old crystal mill, which is sort of ironic because it is not in crystal and it wasn’t ever a mill. This building is located in the ghost town of Marble,  Colorado and it was used in the late 19th century and early 20th century as a hydro-electric facility. During the gold rush in Colorado Marble had been a booming town and a place that was ahead of its time, partly because it had electricity. The confusion comes because this building looks like a mill and it sits on the edge of the Crystal River, which flows through Marble. So it somehow got named the Old Crystal Mill and I guess the name stuck.

The reason I wanted to show you this photograph goes beyond some of the interesting history and the fact that it is an awesome location. I want you to notice where this structure is actually located and how it is constructed. Notice how the building itself is right on the very edge of the cliff which forms the waterfall of the river. If you were looking for prospective building locations to build a structure, this certainly would not be at the top of the list in normal circumstances. Generally, it is nice if a building location is relatively flat, has good soil that’s not too rocky, perhaps a nice southern exposure to catch some solar energy in the winter and easy access is always a bonus. That’s what you look for if you are going to build something. This location has none of those things. Generally it’s not a great idea to build on the edge of a precipice.

But the builders of this structure were not looking for what would make the construction easy. The builders were looking for access to the power of the water. This makes a huge difference. Everything else became secondary, because the power of the water was the primary concern. If you really study the structure, you can see that the actual construction process must have been quite a feat of engineering and probably required nerves of steel. Being in a location that provided access to the power of the water was the primary concern. Stick a pin in that idea because we will be coming back to this in a few minutes.

A few years ago there was a book released called “1,000 Gifts”. The author’s name is Ann Voskamp and I believe this particular book spent a few weeks on the NYTimes Best Seller list. It is a true story about this woman’s struggle with her special needs son. They tried everything but nothing seemed to work. The son had a number of mental and physical issues which caused behavioral problems all the time and relationships were hard and the stress in the family was almost unbearable. Then in an act of desperation Ann Voskamp turned to her faith and began to give thanks for everything. She kept a diary and would write down everything she could think of to be thankful for. Her goal was to find 1,000 things every day to be thankful for. These didn’t always have to be good things, or at least things that she perceived as good. She gave thanks for everything. Over the weeks, months and years after she began this practice of giving thanks, remarkably things began to improve with her son. It is quite a story and a very good read. I would recommend it.

This brings me back around to the text I read a few minutes ago. This is not a new idea. We are told repeatedly in the New Testament to give thanks for all things. Take another look at the words that Paul had written to his understudy, Timothy: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.”

Of course there is a context to this scripture and the historical context is that there was a conflict that had developed about certain customs and traditions particularly around food. The response was to give thanks for the food and not worry too much about the customs and traditions.

But the implications and wisdom of this scripture go far beyond just food. The text actually says that everything created by God is good. So take a look at your world as you understand it and tell me what was not created by God. Anything?

So often we look at our worlds, we look at our circumstances with such judgment; all we can see is the evil or the things that go wrong or the people we wish were different somehow. Most of us would change the world in certain ways if we could. As a matter of fact, you pay someone a huge compliment if you tell them they are going to change the world someday. That is everyone’s goal. We all want to change the world.

Well, here is something to think about. God created the world as it is.

This isn’t easy and it is not our first reaction when something goes wrong, but to give thanks in every circumstance is an approach to spirituality that most of us avoid. It is easier to complain and allow ourselves to feel bad or to express fear or anxiety and to just sit around and wish things were different. I’ll let you in on a little secret; your connection to God will never grow stronger until you truly begin to comprehend and practice this simple, yet difficult, technique. Give thanks. All the time.

I cannot offer you a sound theological explanation of what happens or why this works. There have been many explanations in the past that frankly, at least for me, have been huge failures. The story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity from Grace is one such failure. And there are many others. So I feel compelled to offer my own story, my own metaphor if you will, as to how we can experience full connection with the Divine through thanksgiving.

I have spoken before about the importance of how we personally construct an image of God in our own understanding. If your image of God is of a being, or anthropomorphic, then this metaphor will be difficult for you to truly understand and implement into your life. If on the other hand you can image God more as a spirit that moves and flows and is present in all things, like energy, then I think this will make some sense to you.

Let me first say that it is my belief that the presence of God is in all things and in all people. This doesn’t explain why some people can be so far removed from the presence of God that they act in abhorrent ways, but I still believe it to be true. The presence of God is there.

I think the difference can be found in an individual’s access to the power of that presence. Let me say that again. The presence of God can be found in all people, but not all people respond to that presence, or use the power available in that presence.

So here is a metaphor for you to think about. God is like a river; you have heard this before, a river of life or living water as Jesus said. All of humanity is mostly water; our bodies are mostly water, we all know this. So, like water, God is present in all of humanity. The difference is how the power of that water is used. The difference among human beings is how that water is accessed and how the power of that water is utilized.

Remember the Old Crystal Mill? The decision to build this structure where it was built had nothing to do with finding a nice comfortable building site. The decision to build this structure where it was built had everything to do with access to the power of the water. Was it a difficult place to build? Of course it was. Did it require extra time and planning and perhaps was a little risky? I’m certain of those things as well. Did the location provide access to the power of the water? Indeed it did.

Here’s the lesson. When we give thanks in every situation, when we adopt an “attitude of gratitude” as the saying goes, when we take the risk to offer our non-judgmental thanks for every circumstance, that process moves us to a location of access to the power of the spirit.

Imagine your life as a building in the middle of a meadow somewhere. It might seem less risky to build there, but when you begin to give thanks for every situation, that building is lifted up and transported to the very edge of the cliff. On the edge of that cliff you might feel insecure, you might feel vulnerable, you might think that it is risky; but on the edge of that cliff you also have access to the power of the water.

Giving thanks in all things moves us to a place where we have access to the power of the presence of God that is within us. It doesn’t always feel secure and it isn’t always comfortable, but that is where we need to be. For this season of Thanksgiving, where food is on our brains, the power of giving thanks is food for thought.

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: Nov 12, 2017 – Ancient Cultures

Ancient Cultures

Texts: Exodus 21:12-17, Matthew 9: 2-8, Matthew 11: 28

12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

This may seem like a hodge-podge of unrelated texts and in some respects I guess it is, but if you will bear with me for a few minutes, I hope to be able to draw all of this together in what I hope is a sermon that makes some sense. It has been a struggle all week to come up with the right things to say.

Let me begin with the shooting, another one, in Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday. For many of us, while we were in church, the victims were also in church. This is almost incomprehensible. I must say that I am growing weary of attempting to craft a theological response to events like these. I’m not entirely certain what is going on, but it scares me a little. We seem to have zero control over thousands of people who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses who at any moment may decide to enter a place where people gather and simply begin shooting. It may be a church, it may be a concert, it might be a school or college campus, it might be a shopping mall – it doesn’t seem to matter. Adults, children, elderly; it seems everyone is a target. If it’s not a mass shooting, then the deranged person drives a vehicle through a crowded area. We have seen all this in a matter of a few weeks.

What are we to think? How are we supposed to respond? Thoughts and prayers just don’t quite cut it any longer. We need to do better. But how? What is our understanding of God? Where is God when the bullets begin to rain down? What is an appropriate theological response to pure insanity?

When I was in seminary I had the honor of taking several classes from an Old Testament scholar who is simply outstanding in his field. His name is Dr. Peterson, and he is widely regarded as one of the leading authors and scholars regarding the Hebrew Bible, or what we call the Old Testament.

During class one day we had been looking at a text, I honestly don’t remember what it was, but much like the text in Exodus I read a few minutes ago, it was very violent. I asked Dr. Peterson why the Old Testament was so violent and the New Testament was not. How he responded surprised me a little; this was early in my theological education and I had not yet been exposed to a lot of higher theological thought. Dr. Peterson simply said that the God in the Old Testament wasn’t the same God as the God in the New Testament. Like I said, this surprised me a little.

He then went on to explain that the God in the Old Testament is a human construct. It is an interpretation of a people and a culture struggling to understand the Divine and what that Divine presence means in their lives. The New Testament is essentially the same thing, but it has a different cast of characters, a very different message and is a reflection of a very different people and culture.

What my professor was saying is that even if God didn’t change, the interpretation of God had changed significantly from the days of the Old Testament to the days of the New Testament. God may stay the same, but the experience of God can change dramatically.

He also went on to explain that the sanctity of human life had not yet taken root in much of the culture that is reflected in the writings and the stories of the Old Testament. The people in this culture saw death every day, you became desensitized to it, and families always had lots of children, because only half or maybe even just a third of the kids would survive to adulthood. This is part of the reason the Old Testament throws around the penalty of being put to death like it is a slap on the wrist. It just wasn’t viewed as that big of a deal because an attitude of preciousness toward human life was not yet a mainstream tenet in that culture. Death was everywhere. This attitude is reflected in the text I read from Exodus a few minutes ago.

I believe we are experiencing another cultural shift. It may not be as severe as was present in the days of Exodus, but I do believe the sanctity of life is being threatened in our thought processes. At least here in the United States I believe this is true. This cultural shift seems to be happening with remarkable speed. Historians would confirm that a cultural shift normally requires several centuries to impact a culture in any significant way. But I’m talking about cultural shifts like language or the use of tools or even transportation. But cultural shifts have been accelerating in the last few decades. Particularly around communications and electronics; we are now seeing significant cultural shifts in a few decades that would have taken centuries a thousand years ago. Everything is moving faster.

I can see a significant difference in our attitude as a country just in my adult life. I fear we are returning to the attitudes of the Old Testament; a human life is just not that important any more. There are acceptable losses in certain areas of our approach to things. People die because they can’t afford health care, and we refuse to fix it. People die because some don’t have access to the mental health care they need, we could fix it, but we don’t. People die because some who should not be in possession of a firearm are able to get one anyway and we can’t even have a conversation about it. Refugees die as they flee portions of the planet where violence, climate or disease have forced them out. We could do better in caring for these displaced persons, but we don’t. People go hungry in this country because they can’t afford to eat well and eat nutritiously; we could fix it, but we refuse. Instead we cut benefits and make it harder. Storms are stronger and more frequent and more people die, yet climate change continues to be a hoax according to some. I could go on.

We can do better. We must do better.

I want to back up now and take another look at the text from Matthew 9 I read at the beginning.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

As this story unfolds, we find that a group of people had brought someone who was paralyzed to Jesus for healing. When Jesus first sees this man, he greets him with the words “your sins are forgiven”. This strikes me as an odd greeting, the man was there for healing, not forgiveness and yet that is what Jesus seems to focus on.

This text could be an entire sermon all by itself, but my point is that I think the paralysis of this man was both physical and mental. Perhaps it was his fear that paralyzed him. We have all heard about or perhaps even experienced the deer in the headlights phenomenon; where the deer can’t seem to move due to the fear it is experiencing at the moment. I think Jesus sensed the fear in this man; we still talk about the fear of God today, so Jesus addresses that first. It is clear to me the paralyzed man must have had a very Old Testament type of image of God in his mind. Maybe he thought he had done something wrong and was paralyzed as punishment from God. Jesus tries to calm the fears by saying to the man, you have nothing to fear, and your sins are forgiven. Of course the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like this, but Jesus did it anyway. Once the fear was gone, the physical healing of the paralysis followed right behind.

All the issues I raised a few minutes ago where I said we could fix them but we have failed to do anything about it I think are examples of paralysis. Our congress is paralyzed, our leaders are paralyzed, our local governments at times are paralyzed – it seems like all progress is at a standstill. It is one big log jam. Everyone and everything is paralyzed.

I think the paralysis is a result of fear. Fear of re-election, fear it might cost too much, fear of too much government, fear of diminished campaign contributions, fear of raising taxes; all this fear has a paralyzing impact on our democracy. And until we can deal with the fear we will be unable to deal with the paralysis. And until we can deal with the paralysis, we had better just get used to more mass shootings and people dying. For the moment, it appears that fear is winning.

So now it is time for us to look again at the final text I read a few minutes ago. This one is also from Matthew, and is found in the 11th chapter.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly weary of watching the news and hearing about another mass shooting or another terrorist attack or another assault on humanity of some kind. I’m ready for a respite from all of this. The text says ‘come to me’ and we will experience that rest, we will be able to let go of our burdens. The key to understanding how this helps is dependent upon understanding the function of what it means to ‘come to Jesus’.

When the words were written by Matthew “come to me” I don’t think he meant some kind of mental exercise; I think Matthew’s intention behind the words ‘come to me’ implied action. Perhaps ‘follow me’ might have been more descriptive, but the implication of action is still present.

There is only one thing that overcomes fear and that one thing is love.

If you are weary or hearing about mass shootings, if you are weary of paralysis of our democracy, if you are weary of people being tossed aside like garbage in the streets, if you are weary of witnessing a cultural shift that turns your stomach, then you, like me, need rest.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

I think the only thing that will make a difference is we must act out our love. We must attach a physical action to the words of Jesus “come to me.” It’s not enough to send thoughts and prayers. It’s not enough to feel bad or light candles or hold vigils and sing songs. If we are to experience any rest and if we are to free the paralysis, the only thing for us to do is put our love into action. We can’t afford to sit around and feel depressed or fearful. Love is what saves us and love in action is what will save the world now more than ever. Find a way to put action behind the words of Jesus “come to me” and you will feel better and if you are experiencing fear, perhaps it will subside.

“Stand up-take up your bed and walk” Jesus told the paralyzed man. We need to do the same.

Amen.