Sermon: April 23, 2017 – “A Living Hope” – Part One

“A Living Hope” – Part One

Text: 1Peter 1:3

 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This particular text popped up in the lectionary this week; I don’t usually preach from the lectionary, but I do look at it each week and see if something happens to fit neatly with everything else that is going on. This week the text in First Peter really caught my eye; what really jumped out at me was the idea of a living hope. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you think about it, at least for me, the idea of a living hope is extraordinary.

The first thing that comes to mind is that a living hope would be the opposite of a dead hope. Now when hope is dead, I would think that all is lost. There is no future, there is nothing to look forward to. I think a state of non-living can also be applied to many things which we often think about, but end up never quite getting to. Perhaps a couple of those New Year’s resolutions that you made just a few months ago, are those living or are those now dead? We sometimes set goals which eventually die, we may have hoped to get that new job or that promotion, and when the company hires someone else, our hope dies.

But this idea of a living hope I think goes well beyond what we may think about at first glance. In order to fully comprehend what a living hope might look like, I think we need to fully understand what living really implies. What does it actually mean when something is alive?

If we leave the realm of our faith for a moment, leave the theological implications of being alive and venture into the scientific world, or the world of biology for example, we can define living in more precise terms. I did a little bit of research and found some interesting examples of how a biologist, for example, would decide if something is alive or not.

One list of definitions had nine different criteria that need to be met before a biologist would consider something to be alive. These include things like being organized and being made of a single cell or cells, requires energy to survive, ability to reproduce, ability to grow, ability to metabolize, ability to respond to stimuli, ability to adapt to the environment, ability to move and the ability to respire or have respiration of some kind.

That’s quite a list! But I also think it is fascinating for us to take that same list and apply it to this concept of a living hope. As we do, there may be some clarity that develops with regard to what this text actually is trying to say with regard to our hope.

We can’t possibly look at all of this list in a single sermon. But we can take on a couple of the items and begin to think about the implications that lie beyond the simple words of having a living hope.

The first item in our list of nine was that the organism has to be organized and made of a single cell or multiple cells, in order for it to be considered alive.

Think about your hope for a minute. What dreams and aspirations do you have? What do you want to see happen for you or for others before you die? What are those things you still hope to accomplish? Is your greatest hope a closer and more meaningful relationship with the Divine? It can be that and so much more.

Now, as you think about those things, is your path forward organized? Can you think about the different steps required to accomplish your hope? Can you see each step of the way as a cell that is a part of the whole? What cell can you do today that will move your hope forward? What step can you take in this moment, now, today, that will sustain your hope? If you have a living hope you should be thinking about it each day and doing one thing, accomplishing one cell, if you will, toward that hope becoming a reality. That is what keeps it alive, that constant attention and presence of mind. If it is a living hope, it has a presence with you daily.

The second item in our list is a critical one. Biologists have determined that an organism must require energy to survive if it is to be considered alive. Think about us for a minute. We need to eat food and drink water in order to survive. That is our energy intake, we eat and drink for survival. If we are for some reason deprived of food or water, we will eventually starve to death. This is true of any living thing. I also believe it to be true of a living hope. A living hope requires energy in order to survive.

So this begs the question, how do you give your hope energy? We won’t get very far into this list before we realize that one criterion impacts the others as well. In other words, one way to give your hope energy is by doing some of the things we just talked about. But you can also give it energy just by having your hope present with you in a daily routine. To think about it, dream about it, picture it in your mind; all of these things bring energy to your hope. Without the sustaining energy of presence of mind, your hope would soon die.

The third item on our list of nine is the ability to reproduce. Now, all of us are familiar with cell division, and I guess that is the simplest and perhaps purest form of reproduction. But when it comes to hope, I’m confident most of us are not thinking in terms of biology and reproduction. But the ability to reproduce I think should not be overlooked when it comes to a living hope. One example is how hope can become contagious. When you express your hopes and dreams to others, that hope reproduces as life giving hope within the hearts and minds of those you have shared it with. Your hope reproduces as living hope in others.

This also happens within our own thinking. Sometimes our hope begins small; like hoping we can become more dedicated in our prayer life. Once we begin to focus and pay attention to that hope, we move into a larger hope, like learning to meditate, or becoming an expert in intercessory prayer. Often one hope leads to another, and in that way, I think hope really can reproduce.

I have my doubts that the author of First Peter considered all these biological criteria when he wrote the words “a living hope” in our text. But the words are there and the benefit of modern science is with us as well. As one of our slogans states: we think science and theology work together.

So consider your hopes for the future and acknowledge that with the help of the spirit of the Divine, or with the help of the Holy Spirit, or with the help of Jesus, your hope can be transformed into a living hope. And it is through the promise of a living hope that we all move closer to the relationship with God that we desire.

I hope to continue this discussion next week, so stay tuned.

Amen.

Sermon: Easter Sunday – April 16, 2017 – “The Renewal Power of Easter”

The Renewal Power of Easter

Text: Mark 16: 1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Depending on what translation of Bible you happen to be looking at this text in Mark will normally be annotated with some notes about various possible endings for this particular Gospel. The first eight verses of chapter 16, which I just read, is what Bible scholars believe was the extent of the original manuscript. The verses after verse 8 were added later.

The only reason I bring this up is to point out that among the Gospels the stories of the original Easter morning don’t necessarily agree; the original manuscript of Mark ends with Mary not saying anything to anyone and the other Gospels end in different ways. This is not unusual, nor should we allow it to bother us in any way. As a matter of fact, I think this information might actually bring us comfort, if we look at it from a particular point of view.

What I mean by that, is I think most of us have thought about the resurrection in a variety of ways. We might have doubts or questions about the story as it has been told to us over the years. Frankly, some parts of the Easter story raise more questions than answers and it is only human nature to question some of what happened. If you have questions now, or have in the past, I think that is OK. You should not feel bad about asking questions or having a few doubts about certain aspects of the story; you are in good company when you ask questions. As I pointed out, even the authors of the Gospels did not agree as to exactly what happened Easter morning or what the actual sequence of events was.

What I wanted to do this morning, however, is not focus on the differences or the doubts or the questions. I just wanted to establish they are normal. What I want to focus on is what we can be sure of that happened Easter morning. I believe what we can be certain of is enough for us. We really don’t need anymore.

Let’s take a look at what we believe to be true about this Easter story. There is overwhelming historical evidence that Jesus lived and was executed as described in the scriptures. There are very few dissenting opinions about that. During the execution and shortly after it is also almost universally accepted that the disciples and followers of Jesus dispersed and went into hiding. They were terrified.

At this point I think it is interesting to raise a significant question; why didn’t the execution of Jesus and the subsequent scattering of his followers do the job for Rome? In other words, why wasn’t Rome successful in snuffing out all this attention and commotion that Jesus was causing? The short question is why didn’t Rome win?

The short answer to the short question is that something remarkable happened Easter morning. Something took place that gave the disciples and other followers of Jesus the ability to stand in the face of insurmountable odds and defy Roman authorities again and again. I want you to think about this; what could happen that would transform someone who runs and hides into someone who will stand against the Roman iron fist?

It is clear that Rome did not win. Jesus won and the disciples won and Christianity won. We are still here. The Roman Empire has long since withered away. When you want to talk about strength and staying power, the Roman Empire pales in comparison to Christianity. But how did that happen and what transformed those who fled from the execution of Jesus into those who would stand and tell the story of Jesus?

This question brings me to what I think may be an interesting observation. If you really want to understand the power of Easter morning, maybe we should look at what happened to the disciples. Let me say that another way. I think the disciples tell a story of transformation that is every bit as compelling as the transformation of Jesus on Easter morning. Consider what they accomplished and at what cost and personal risk; what would motivate them to do that? If you can answer that question then you can begin to understand more clearly, I believe, what happened Easter morning.

To say this another way, perhaps we don’t need to know all the details, perhaps we don’t need to have the exact sequence of events, perhaps we don’t need all the Gospels to agree. We can simply look at history and know that something extraordinary transformed the disciples and followers of Jesus. They were transformed from fearful people in hiding to bold preachers of the Good News. By every indication and by every measure, Rome should have been successful in snuffing out Jesus and his movement. But we know that isn’t what happened. Quite the opposite, actually.

I believe this is the real story of Easter morning and I believe this is the real story of Christianity and what draws people to our faith tradition today. It is the power of transformation that I believe is the heart of Christianity. It is the power to transform a hopeless situation into one of hopeful anticipation. It is the power to transform defeat into victory, the power to transform ugly endings into beautiful new beginnings. It is the power to transform brokenness into unity, hate into love and fear into confidence. It is the power to transform a checkered past into a clean slate. Easter is all about the power of transformation.

One of my favorite symbols of Easter is the butterfly. I love the symbolism of the cocoon or the chrysalis and how the caterpillar is transformed into a beautiful butterfly or moth by entering the darkness of the cocoon. Without the cocoon, there would be no butterfly.

Have you ever considered the remarkable change of perspective that must take place from a caterpillar to a butterfly? What is the view like when you are a caterpillar? I mean, really, consider this for a minute. What possibilities can the caterpillar see? How much of the world does the caterpillar get to experience? Isn’t the caterpillar destined to just simply put one foot in front of the other? If it is in the grass that is all it can see is grass. If it happens to climb out on a leaf of a tree, I’m not sure it can see beyond that leaf.

What a difference when that same caterpillar emerges as a butterfly and begins to soar and explore a much larger world!

Don’t we often find ourselves in the same situation? Don’t we often suffer the fate of the caterpillar? In our jobs, our relationships, our very existence seems limited; we are limited to simply putting one foot in front of the other and we are focused on getting through just one more day. All of us at one time or another are guilty of caterpillar thinking. We convince ourselves that there isn’t any more to life than what we see before us. Our perspective never changes and our hope for something new begins to fade.

Now the caterpillar has a definite advantage over us human beings when it comes to this transformation business. The caterpillar has an instinct driven ability to overcome caterpillar thinking and to begin to think like a butterfly. As the caterpillar begins to think like a butterfly it begins to realize this life of putting one foot in front of the other isn’t what it is called to be. The caterpillar realizes it is called to be something more, something greater, and something magnificent. So it willingly gives up its life as a caterpillar; it literally dies to the old life in anticipation of something new. It quits thinking like a caterpillar and starts thinking like a butterfly. The caterpillar spins a cocoon and slowly a transformation takes place and soon it is soaring with new wings. And with new wings, everything changes.

Without that driving instinct, however, we humans can choose to stay in our caterpillar thinking forever. It is Christianity that gives us the hope of transformation. It is the power of Easter morning that grants us the faith to believe we are destined to soar. The power of transformation lifts our thinking and fuels our imaginations so we too can begin to soar with the butterflies.

The power of transformation gives us the reason to quit thinking like caterpillars and a reason to begin something new; a reason to begin to think like butterflies!

Sermon: April 2, 2017 – “Bearing Fruit”

“Bearing Fruit”

Text: Galatians 5: 22-23

 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

 

There are a couple of points I want to make about this particular text; each point carries with it a particular story. The first point is that often we find ourselves in situations where the practical application of this text becomes exceedingly difficult. In other words, it is a hard text to live up to. We don’t always show patience and kindness and self-control to the world. On certain occasions, we let other emotions out that get in the way of these items that are considered the fruit of the Spirit.

When we think about the fig tree, for example, that Jesus cursed because it yielded no fruit and then 24 hours later it had withered to the root, we begin to recognize that bearing good fruit is vital to our human existence. I am not suggesting that good fruit or bad fruit jeopardizes our relationship with God or in any way puts our salvation at risk. What I am suggesting is that bearing good fruit makes our own lives bountiful and abundant, and when we cease to bear good fruit, our lives wither away like the fig tree.

But I also recognize that this is not always easy.

A couple of months ago I attended a Spiritual Renewal workshop in Denver at the Iliff School of Theology where I received my Master’s Degree. It is a requirement of my continuing education that I attend a certain number of credit hours each year, and this workshop in Denver met that requirement plus it was convenient because it was Denver and we could visit our kids, etc.

So Heidi & I flew out of Lewiston this time on Alaska Airlines with a connecting flight on Delta to Denver. Well, to keep things brief we were a little late leaving, we were delayed getting to our gate for the connecting flight and we were changing airlines. By the time we got off the Alaska Airlines flight, we had about 15 minutes to get to a different terminal, find our gate and board the Delta flight to Denver.

As you might imagine, our luggage did not keep up with us. When we got to Denver, it was nowhere to be found. Our luggage claim tickets were through Delta, so that is where we started. They checked the computer and said our bags would be in later that night and they could deliver them to us in the morning. That would be great. Thank you.

The next morning we dressed again in our same clothes as the day before. I had to leave and go to my workshop, so Heidi stayed behind to wait for our bags. Noon arrived and there were no bags, no phone call, no information on-line, nothing. I went to my next session at the workshop which was one of two sessions after lunch and got out around 2:30 in the afternoon. Still no bags, still no phone call, still no information on-line, nothing.

About this time patience and joy and peace and kindness and self-control are not the first things that you think about. Quite the opposite as a matter of fact. Bottom line turned out that the missing bag was at the airport, as it had been since the night before, but for some reason it was stuck in a corner at the Alaska desk and never made it to the Delta desk. It would still be there if we had not driven ourselves back to the airport and physically conducted a search for our bag with the help of some very nice Delta agents.

I didn’t get crazy upset or make a scene or come unglued; but I didn’t exactly exhibit the fruits of the Spirit either. But this experience did remind me of how easily our emotions can overshadow who we are called to be and what our lives our supposed to produce. At this point it would be very easy to get discouraged and begin to think that the idealism of the fruits of the Spirit as outlined in Galatians is really a pipe dream. You will never get there. It is an impossible expectation. The bar is set too high. Life is just too hard sometimes to take this text very seriously.

Well, remember when I said I wanted to make two points about this text and each point had a story? You have heard the first story about how it can be hard to live into the fruits of the Spirit and always respond in ways that are appropriate and mindful of producing good fruit. Now I want to share a second story. This one I heard years ago and can only remember the high points, but essentially it goes like this:

This is an ancient Chinese Proverb about a rich landlord who wanted an orchard on his land, so he hired a gardener to create an orchard for him. The gardener went to work preparing the land and planning the orchard. There were rocks to move, soil to prepare and planning to determine the best location for the trees. At the end of the first year, the landlord called the gardener into the mansion and asked him how many apples the orchard had produced. The gardener answered zero and was fired immediately without having a chance to explain.

So the rich landlord hired a second gardener. This time the gardener received the notes from the first gardener and continued his work. He planted the apples trees in the location suggested by the first, he brought in bee hives to help with pollination, and after actually tasting the soil for nitrogen content and ph balance, he began to treat the soil around the trees to make it the best nutritionally balanced soil for the tree that he could. At the end of the second year, the rich landlord called the gardener into the mansion and asked him how many apples the orchard had produced. When he answered zero, he too was dismissed without having a chance to explain.

Now the rich landlord was getting a little frustrated, but he persisted and hired a third gardener. This gardener received all the notes and comments from the first two and he went to work. By now the newly planted trees had started to grow, but the growth was uneven and sprawling all over the place. So the third gardener spent much of his time pruning and shaping the trees. At the end of the season, the third gardener was called into the mansion and asked how many apples the orchard had produced. Only a half-bushel the third gardener said. Before he could explain about the pruning, he too was dismissed on the spot.

The rich landlord was about to give up, but decided one more time to try again; so he hired a fourth gardener. This gardener tended the bee hives for good pollination. He carried water from the stream that ran through the orchard to make certain the trees received the right amount of moisture. Since the trees had been pruned the year before, they began to produce apples at a great rate. The gardener propped up branches that were in danger of breaking under the weight of the apples. After the harvest the gardener was brought before the landlord in the mansion and asked how many apples the orchard had produced. The gardener told the landlord the apples were like the stars, and hundreds of bushels were in the storehouse.

The landlord was so pleased he said that he was going to throw a party in honor of the great gardener. To show his appreciation for the gardener’s fine work, he was also going to give the gardener a gift; it was to be one of the finest bulls from the landlord’s large cattle herd.

The gardener informed the landlord that he would attend the party and be honored to receive the gift, but he required three bulls and not just one. The landlord agreed and the party date was set.

When the day of the party arrived the gardener was there as were most of the other rich landlords and dignitaries from the town where they all lived. It was quite an event. When the time came for the ceremony of the giving of the bulls, the gardener was called to the middle of the courtyard and presented with three great bulls, just as he had asked for. Then from behind the bushes, the former three gardeners who had been fired emerged. “What are they doing here?” the landlord shouted. “I invited them to attend” the gardener answered. The gardener then proceeded to give each of the three former gardeners who had been fired one bull each, and kept nothing for himself.

The landlord was confused and angry. “Why are you doing this?” he said. The gardener told him that only a fool would judge the success of an orchard by only counting apples. Then he quit on the spot and the four gardeners left together with the three bulls.

When we feel like we have failed to produce the good fruit we are called to produce in Galatians, we need to remember that a lot of preparation takes place before good fruit is produced. When you fall short in life, don’t consider it a failure, consider it preparation. And that is fruit for thought. Amen.