Sermon: May 28th, 2017 – A Parable Revisited

A Parable Revisited

Text: Matthew 25: 1-13

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

As we begin to look at yet another parable, this one from the Gospel of Matthew, there are a couple of things you need to know about this parable that I think are important. Of course, what is important to me, may not be important to you, and as I am accustomed to saying; these ideas and beliefs are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your beliefs. I do ask that you think about it, but if we disagree after a diligent thought process, that’s OK too.

Matthew presents this parable in his gospel as one that Jesus taught. Many Bible scholars doubt this is a parable that Jesus actually used. It lacks many of the structural characteristics of an actual Jesus parable and because of these shortcomings, scholars tend to think that this parable had a different source. Perhaps it is entirely a fabrication from the imagination of Matthew, we obviously cannot be certain of any of this. Another clue, however, is that this particular parable is only found in Matthew.

The three gospels which we call the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are very similar in content and structure and are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar. It would be unusual for Jesus to have used a parable for teaching and have it appear in only one of the gospels. Not impossible, but unlikely. So the current scholarship around this parable is that it probably was not from Jesus. This is confirmed in the book, “The Five Gospels” which is the work of about 75 Bible scholars, all well above my security clearance, and they conclude that this parable is not from Jesus.

That being said, just because the parable did not originate from Jesus, doesn’t mean that it is without value. I think there are some interesting points in this parable, items that can be interpreted that help us to take a positive lesson from a parable that otherwise struggles a bit, in my opinion, on its own merit.

So let’s take a look at this parable, first from the perspective of Matthew and what it was he was trying to accomplish. Most of the commentaries and scholarship around this parable do agree that it is about the second coming of Jesus. This is sometimes called the Parousia, but second coming works just as well. It is also referred to as the eschaton, which is another $100 word that essentially means end times. Just in case you check up on me and do some of your own research and run across either of these two words that is what they mean.

What is fairly obvious in a quick reading of this parable is that Matthew is comfortable with the idea of using fear to motivate people to do the right thing. He clearly identifies the ten bridesmaids as 5 that are wise and 5 that are foolish. The foolish ones do not bring any extra oil with them, so when the groom is delayed, which I read isn’t all that uncommon, the five foolish ones are left out in the cold. Even when they return with oil, they are locked out of the banquet. The parable ends with the warning, you had better be prepared at all times, because Jesus is coming again real soon, and if you are not prepared, you will be locked out forever.

I think it is good for us to understand some of the historical timing of Matthew’s gospel, so we can see some things from that point of view. I think this will help us understand why the parable reads the way that it does. To understand Matthew, we need to first have some understanding of the Gospel of Mark.

Chronologically, Mark was the first Gospel that was written. It is estimated that Mark was probably written around the year 50. It was a very common belief in the years that immediately followed the execution of Jesus that he would return very soon. By the time Mark was written enough years had gone by that expectations were very high that the return of Jesus could happen any day. It was so imminent that you thought twice about how many eggs to buy because no sense in wasting them, right? Many believers expected Jesus within days or weeks of his execution and after it had been 20 or so years, when Mark finished his gospel, expectations were even that much higher.

Another 30 years passed before the authors of Matthew and Luke finished their respective gospels. They were written at about the same time, but in two very different settings and to very different audiences, but are still both quite similar to Mark. Similar to Mark, with one notable exception, and that exception is the immediacy of the return of Jesus. Now that it had been 50 years or so since the execution of Jesus, the idea of Jesus returning any day was no longer as accepted as it was earlier. For Matthew, this set the stage for a parable about the bridegroom being delayed and some of those who were foolish and not prepared get surprised by the return of Jesus.

Just to complete our understanding of the Gospels, by the time the Gospel of John came on the scene, the expectation of a physical return of Jesus had diminished considerably. John was probably written about another 20 years after Matthew and Luke and John comes to a very different conclusion in his Gospel, at least that’s what I think. I believe that John’s gospel takes the position that Jesus has already returned, the kingdom of God has arrived and these events are evidenced in the presence of the Holy Spirit. But that is another sermon. Back to the parable.

So it would be quite easy for us to consider this parable not part of the actual teachings of Jesus and also consider it historically obsolete and to conclude that it has little or no value for us today in the 21st century. I would disagree with that assumption. We can still draw quite a lesson from this parable, if we are willing to keep digging.

One of the things which has always bothered me about this parable is the idea that the five bridesmaids that had extra oil were not willing to share. In a New Testament that over and over again reminds us to love our neighbor, to turn the other cheek, to give our shirts as well as our jackets if someone asks for them, to do all of these things and yet not share oil strikes me as being odd. The five bridesmaids with the extra oil use the excuse that if they share then everyone might run out, but they don’t know that for sure. It is just an excuse. It seems to me to be kind of a “gotcha” moment, if you know what I mean. There could have been other solutions; why not combine all the oil among 9 bridesmaids and just send one to find extra oil? At least that includes as many people as possible. So that part of the parable has never made a lot of sense to me.

Then as I was playing around with the parable in my own thinking I was trying to identify metaphorically what each character or item in the story was to stand for. One answer that intrigued me was that the oil in the parable was representative of preparation. Matthew suggests in the parable that five were wise and were prepared for the delay, and five were foolish and were not prepared for the delay. So perhaps the oil stands for preparation.

This made me think back to when I was in college and preparing for a test. Many of you know that my undergraduate degree is in photography. What you may not know is that there are two different approaches to the degrees available in photography. One degree is a Bachelor of Science degree in photography and speaking in broad general terms, these degrees tend to emphasize the mechanics and manipulation of photography. They deal with the science end of things more critically. The other degree path is a Bachelor of Arts degree. These degree programs lean toward the aesthetic properties of photography, include studies of composition, design, color theory and that sort of thing.

My degree is the BA – the Bachelor of Arts, and as a result, my degree was part of the art department at the university where I was studying. As part of the art department requirements, every student had a core curriculum of art classes that were mandatory; this included art history. AAaarrgh.

Actually, as it turned out, the art history was pretty good and I learned something; but I don’t think I would have ever taken it on my own. The other thing is that the tests were brutal. In order to pass the class I had to devise some way to prepare for those tests. So I found a study buddy. Together we would prepare for the tests and ask each other questions and find creative ways to remember things. From that experience, I find myself still doing that today.

For example when we first moved to the LC Valley, I couldn’t keep avenues and streets straight in my head in Lewiston. The thought of something being on the corner of 17th and 17th just made zero sense to me, so I had to make up something to help me. What I came up with was that avenue ended in an “E” and East begins with an “E” and so avenues run East and West. If I somehow forgot that connection, I came up with another, and that is that street begins with an “S” and so does South and streets run north and south. After that, my navigation skills improved.

So it was in our art history study sessions. I would find ways to remember an artist or a date or something relevant about a work of art that would help us when it came test time.

So here is the point of all this. You can help someone prepare. You can work together in preparation of a coming event; like a test. But when the day of the test arrives, you cannot share your preparation. It would be impossible for me to somehow telepathically share my preparation with my study buddy while we were actually taking the test.

This helps ease my mind a bit around the idea of the bridesmaids refusing to share their oil. Perhaps they didn’t share not because they were unwilling to share, but perhaps they did not share because they were unable to share. The oil represents preparation and you cannot share preparation once test time has arrived.

This parable also reminds me that a lamp is used to bring light and illumination to a situation. I think ultimately we can look at this parable that once was intended to metaphorically stand for something that may no longer be relevant; but it still has value as a metaphor for something far more contemporary.

As I read the parable now, I understand why the bridesmaids cannot share. I can also understand that we never know the time or the place where we will be called upon to have our light shine. If we are unprepared to meet that opportunity we miss out on the blessing that comes from being in service to others and allowing our light to shine so others may see. I believe this parable can now become one of value as we speak of preparing our own lives for the calling that lies before us. Preparing our lives to let our lights shine by example and deed so those around us may see.

Preparation can take many forms. It may be a spiritual discipline. It might be a Bible Study. It may include coming to church and wrestling with new ideas. It may be reading a new book or attending a seminar or lecture. There are many forms of preparation that we can be engaged in. The important lesson from this parable today is that we should always be preparing ourselves for the opportunity to let our lights shine. For without preparation, there is no light, just as without oil, there is no light.

Go in peace and let your lights shine.

Amen.

Sermon: May 21, 2017 – “Looking for Lost Sheep”

“Looking for Lost Sheep”

Text: Luke 15: 3-6

So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

There are so many scriptural references, particularly in the Psalms, to God as a shepherd that I can imagine how difficult it is to think about this particular parable in a new way. The most famous of those references is, no doubt, the 23rd Psalm, but there are many others. Today, I want us to take a minute and think about what possibilities this parable may offer to us if we can remove the assumptions that God must always play the part of the shepherd.

Once again, I’m looking at a parable in a new way that I find little support for in the conventional wisdom of Bible scholars and commentaries. Everywhere you turn the assumption is always that God is the shepherd in this parable and the lost sheep represents some lost soul that has yet to find God. There are more than just a few shortcomings in these interpretations I would like for us to at least consider and think about. Of course, as I always say, these are some of my thoughts and ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts, but I do ask that you think about it.

Before we dive head first into this parable, I think it might be a good idea for us to refresh our memories just a bit on the state of the human condition. What I mean by that, is often we forget about our priorities, we forget what should be most important in our lives and we forget what our basic human calling is. We simply focus on the wrong stuff much of the time. I’m not pointing any fingers here, other than at myself, because I am just as guilty of this as any of you.

I heard a story once that I think speaks volumes about the human condition. There was a very devout and righteous man who was is prayer and meditation one day when the Lord appeared to him. This man was a hard working farmer and according to the Jewish tradition, he had always kept the Sabbath and had always kept the law. The Lord appeared to him and spoke; God told him that it had been noticed how devoutly he had kept the law and he was to be awarded for his diligence. The Lord went on to explain that the farmer would be granted three wishes. But it was also explained that whatever the farmer wished for, his neighbor, who the farmer had a little trouble getting along with, would also be granted the same wish, but double in portion.

So the farmer thought about this for a minute and figured he didn’t have anything to lose, so he wished for 100 cattle. In a flash his corral was filled with 100 cattle. But he walked to the top of a hill where he could see the property of his neighbor and there grazing in the valley was a herd of 200 cattle belonging to his neighbor. At the sight of the 200 head of cattle, the farmer’s joy of receiving the 100 soon turned to anger and jealousy. “Why would his neighbor who was far less devout than I am be given double what I received?” he thought to himself. “It isn’t fair!”

But the farmer had two wishes left. So this time the farmer wished his farm encompassed 100 acres of land. Immediately he had a deed in his hand that declared his farm was 100 acres in size. He was filled with immense joy and pride at having such a large farm. Just then his farmer neighbor rode by on horseback and announced he had just received 200 acres of land making his farm the largest farm in the area. The farmer’s heart sank and his joy was replaced with anger and jealousy and his inner spirit was in turmoil. There wasn’t any joy left in the farmer’s heart; his passion to be first and be the best and to have the most overshadowed his joy that should have come from the granted wishes. His joy and literally been transformed into anger, greed and jealousy. But the farmer had one wish left.

So the farmer went to the Lord seeking his third and final wish; he then wished for God to strike him blind in one eye.

And the Lord wept.

Sometimes it is a little easier to point things out with humor than it is to just come right out and say it. But often the human condition is such that our own greed and prideful nature gets in the way of an honest and open relationship with our God. We value possessions, we value our accomplishments, we value our status and education far more than we value our relationship with God. That is why I think we have this parable backwards.

Let’s look again at this parable and consider honestly if the shepherd in this story really represents God as you understand God. In the opening verse of this parable it is announced that God will leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness. In the first place, I don’t think any level headed shepherd would do such a thing, let alone God. Not to mention that God should have the ability to be all places simultaneously, so leaving the 99 sheep unattended should not be necessary, if you are God. Further, it is my belief that God treats all of God’s children equally; it is not in the nature of God, as I understand God, for God to be reckless in the care of 99 children while God is occupied searching for just one. The metaphor does not make sense. In this opening verse of the parable, God is proven to be a poor shepherd.

From a practical understanding of God, we have always been taught that God sees all and God knows all and it is impossible to hide anything from God. Does this sound like a familiar teaching to you? Isn’t that sort of the image of God that you grew up with? A God who knows every move you make? With that basic concept of God, does is strike anyone else as strange that God could lose something and have to go search for it? Can any one of us become so elusive that God would have to search for us? It strikes me as highly unlikely.

After the sheep is found, the parable tells us that God then celebrates with friends and exclaims the sheep that was lost has been found. Even understanding that a parable is metaphor, it is hard for me to imagine who the friends and neighbors are of God. I suppose if we believe that God is a being of some sort, and that being is surrounded by other beings that are angels and archangels and God gathers all these beings together for a celebration about a lost sheep. If you want to interpret the parable with God as the shepherd that seems to be the image you are left with.

None of this makes any sense to me. I understand the basic principle of the parable is that we are to understand that God seeks us out and wants to be in relationship with us. But the troublesome images of this parable lead me to the conclusion that when Jesus told the parable, he may have meant something entirely different. My impression of Jesus is that he was far too spiritually connected to just let some of these troubled spots slide. I think we have gotten it wrong all this time.

Remember the story of the farmer I told a few minutes ago? This story points out that we as human beings can at times have trouble with our pride and our possessions getting in the way of more important issues. We all know people who allow work and making a living interfere with family and their own personal spirituality. Some of us may have experienced that ourselves.

What I would like for you to think about is this; consider this parable from the perspective that we are the shepherd and God is the lost sheep. In this parable the 99 sheep represent the fruits of the labor of the shepherd. The 99 sheep represent our worldly possessions and those things we have worked for our entire lives. If finding God, or connecting to God, or finding our life’s purpose in God means leaving the 99 possessions in the wilderness, we should be willing to do that in order to find God. Not the other way around.

Not to mention, when we do find God, we are not to stay quiet about it. Rather we are to gather our friends and neighbors and tell everyone to rejoice with me, because I have found a connection to the Divine that works for me!

To turn the tables on this parable makes a lot of sense to me. I cannot accept that we are ever lost from God. It is one of my foundational beliefs that God is always present and God is always with us; we can never be separated from God and therefore can never be lost from God.

On the same topic but from a different perspective, I also believe it is more than possible, perhaps even likely, that God can be lost from us. Without the presence of knowing, or acknowledging an existence, God is often overlooked, not thought about and in essence lost from our consciousness. In the same way we don’t think much about beating our own hearts or growing our fingernails and yet it happens. The process of beating our hearts is lost to us most of the time, we don’t think about it. In the same way, the presence of God is like a lost sheep that we forget to think about, we forget to acknowledge. This happens in part because we become focused on the other 99 things which draw our attention away from the Divine Spirit that resides within.

Are you willing to leave the 99 things in the wilderness and seek the presence of God?

Go in peace. Amen.

Sermon: May 14, 20-17 – “Does Any One Know?”

Does Any One Know?

Text: Philippians 4: 4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I think I may have mentioned before that I completed my undergraduate work at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. If you don’t know where that is, don’t worry; many people think Marquette is a suburb of Chicago and the home of Marquette University. Not quite, right but sort of the same territory.

Marquette, the town, is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and right on the shores of Lake Superior. This makes it a beautiful spot, but also makes it cold in the winter. When the weather was decent, one of the favorite family activities was to go to any number of the beaches and lakeside parks for some fun or a picnic or on very rare occasions, a swim.

Quite often when we were on the shores of Lake Superior we would notice on the horizon an iron ore tanker heading toward Chicago or Cleveland or other points south. These ships were enormous; you could see them on the horizon, probably 8 or 10 miles out, and they still looked big. If you have ever seen a cruise ship up close, that is as good of a comparison as I can make. These iron ore tankers would load up with iron ore taken from the mines in Upper Michigan and Wisconsin and then deliver the ore to steel processing plants in the bigger cities.

In the late 1950’s there was an iron ore tanker built, which at the time, was the largest tanker ever created. It was called the Edmund Fitzgerald. In November of 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald took on a load of iron ore from a plant in Wisconsin. They loaded over 26,000 tons of iron ore onto this vessel; that is around 53 or 54 million pounds. No wonder they were big!

About 24 hours after leaving port the Edmund Fitzgerald hit a storm with gale force winds and 30 foot waves, perhaps even higher. Eventually the Edmund Fitzgerald lost its battle with the storm and it sank into the icy waters of Lake Superior and all 29 men on board perished.

The waters of Lake Superior are shared between the United States and Canada, so news of the Edmund Fitzgerald had an impact on both countries. In Canada, there was an upcoming singer and songwriter who was moved by the news of this event and his name is Gordon Lightfoot. In 1976 Gordon Lightfoot included a song he had written about the event on an album he released that year; the song was simply titled, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

Hidden in the lyrics of this ballad is an extremely important question. I wanted to discuss this question today, but the story and the context in which this particular question is asked in this song, I think, makes it even more pointed. So we are going to take a few minutes and listen to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. I want you to read along with the lyrics as they are projected and watch carefully for the question I have mentioned.

Before I play the song, there may be a couple of things that would be good to mention. The song opens with the lyric: “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down”. The first time I heard the song, I didn’t know what that meant. The Chippewa are a Native American tribe that have roots in the area and they have legends about Lake Superior which they have handed down through many generations. It is also worth noting the Chippewa call Lake Superior “Gitche Gumee” which means huge water. So you can watch for that as well.

Watch it here, from YouTube

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘gitche gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the maritime sailors’ cathedral
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘gitche gumee’
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early
Who noticed the question? There is more than one in the song, but the question I wanted to pay attention to today is this one: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn minutes to hours?”

I wanted you to experience this question in the context of the sorrow and grief of this tragedy, because it is such a valid question. I’m also certain we have all experienced moments in our lives that are similar to what this song describes. When the waves of life sweep over us and the anxiety rises up within us and our experience can be like the minutes have turned into hours.

Of course there is one major difference between us and the men in this song. We survived our times of peril, and these men did not. But the emotions, the anxiety, the fear and the test of our faith, I believe, can be every bit as real in the moment, even if you do survive.

Even Jesus, at one point, became so focused on his pain that he felt like the love of God had vanished. In his words from scripture Jesus actually asks a similar question; “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I think theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries, no, actually millennia and have not ever really produced what I consider to be an adequate answer. Where does the love of God go when we hit bottom? It seems like, if you have ever experienced this kind of despair, that you are in some kind of a well, all alone, with no way out and the presence of God that you may have felt at one point in your life is no longer there. Even the love of God has left you alone. These are dark times in our lives and sometimes hard to explain; but they seem to happen at one point or another to almost all of us.

So where does God go?

The easy answer to this incredibly difficult question is that God never leaves. God is there with us. But that just seems like lip service when the pain and anguish and the fear begin to take over. If God is there, why can’t I feel that presence, why does it seem like God has vanished?

Maybe it has taken thousands of years for theologians and Bible gurus to answer this question because it requires a 21st century metaphor in order for us to understand what actually happens. At least for me, this is a way of possibly understanding the actual mechanics of this almost impossibly difficult question.

Before I give you the metaphorical answer to this question, I want to take you back to the text I read at the beginning of this message. In Philippians 4:6 we can find a basic instruction; Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Did you notice the two little words that are sort of slipped in with the rest of this text that say we are to ask “with thanksgiving?”

I think that means all the time. In every situation. Even the lowest of the low points in our lives, we are to pray with thanksgiving.

A couple of years ago there was a book on the New York Times best seller list. It is called “One Thousand Gifts” and the authors name is Ann Voskamp. This is a remarkable book that is the product of actual experience. It is based in real life, real situations, most of which have been experienced by the author. When Ann Voskamp was out of ideas and out of options she decided to try gratitude; she became thankful for everything and everybody. Good and bad. The results and depth of understanding she comes to is remarkable. If you have not read this book, I can highly recommend it. The story is inspiring and the author learned what the text in Philippians is trying to tells us; we are to ask in prayer with thanksgiving.

It sounds so simple and yet it is so hard. It is hard because as the anxiety grows within us, we simply forget to be thankful. We become so focused on what’s wrong, we can no longer see what is right. In the midst of your darkest day did you continue to breathe? Of course you did, or you wouldn’t be here. Did you remember to give thanks for that breath in the midst of your chaos? Probably not.

I mentioned a 21st century metaphor that might help us understand more deeply what it is I’m trying to say. This may not make any sense to you, but it helps me think about my relationship with God and it helps me remember to put into practice what this text in Philippians may be trying to say.

I often speak of God as a spirit or an energy that flows through all things, is in all things and can be found among all things. I also believe that spirit of God is within each of us as well. This spirit is invisible to our sight; we have no way of knowing it is there except that on occasion we can somehow connect with that spirit and we can feel that spiritual connection in our bodies. The connection carries emotion with it and we have a spiritual experience.

Now I want you to visualize being at home or at Starbucks or maybe McDonalds, but I want you to visualize yourself someplace that has wi-fi. The wi-fi signal is invisible to us, until we make a connection, right? But in order to make that connection, we need two things; we need a device capable of connecting and we need an ISP or internet service provider.

If we think about God as a wi-fi signal, it seems to fit that the signal is invisible and available to everyone if they can connect to it. We all have the devices required to connect to the wi-fi signal of God; that device is our human being, it is our minds, it is our emotions, it is our essence. But we still need the internet service provider, we need a way to log on.

I think gratitude is that internet service provider, gratitude is the password if you want to think about it in that way. When we become anxious, when we become focused on everything that is wrong, when despair is so deep we see no way out, we forgot to log on. We forget the gratitude password in the midst of our chaos and it seems like the love of God has vanished.

It has not. We just forgot the password.

Philippians 4:6 tells us the password is gratitude.

Go in peace and go with thanksgiving in your hearts.

Amen.

Sermon: May 7, 2017 – “Take Another Look”

Take Another Look

Text: Luke 14: 16-24

16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

This text is a parable. A story similar to this one also appears in the Gospel of Matthew, but some of the circumstances are different, but essentially the story basics are the same from Luke to Matthew. Jesus used parables quite extensively in his ministry; there are about 60 parables that appear in the synoptic Gospels. The synoptic gospels are those first three; Matthew, Mark, and Luke and they are called the synoptics because they are similar to each other. There are not any parables at all in the Gospel of John, and that is one of the things that causes scholars to treat John’s gospel as something different than the other three.

Jesus used parables to teach in ways that are often complex and not so easy to understand. The word parable means to “bring alongside” and the parable format lends itself to comparison of one event or one story to another. A very common way to study a parable is to experiment with the characters in the parable story and to place yourself, or place God, or place others into the different characters and see what fits best for you.

With this particular story there are several things which have always bothered me; all the commentaries and Bible scholars that I have read with regard to this parable I disagree with. That doesn’t mean they are wrong or that I am wrong, it just means I have a different perspective about things than what might be considered normal. But who wants to be normal, right?

So with that being said, I plan to unpack this parable in a little different way that I’m fairly certain you have not ever heard before. This interpretation, as far as I know, does not appear in any written commentary or scholarly work that I have found. It is a unique perspective and because it is, it is time for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer. These are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts and your ideas, but I do ask that you at least think about it.

I believe it is almost universally true that the interpretations of this parable place God or a Divine figure, could be Jesus, in the character of the person hosting the dinner. The interpretations vary about what the rest of the parable might mean, but the fact that God is holding the dinner is universally accepted as far as my research has found. So it should not surprise anyone very much if I were to tell you that this is the first assumption of the traditional interpretations that I have issues with.

I offered a sermon series a while ago that was about constructing your own personal spirituality; you may remember this series, you may not. One of the topics we covered in that series was developing an image of God for yourself; in other words what things for you personally are characteristics of the Divine that are immoveable. For example, my image of God maintains that God’s love is unconditional, if someone asks me to accept a teaching where God’s love is not unconditional, I am likely to reject the teaching rather than compromise my belief about God’s unconditional love. There are several items like that which comprise my image of God. Another facet of the image of God that I hold to be true is that God is not anthropomorphic; that means that for me, God does not hold human like qualities. I prefer to image God more as an energy or a source of our existence rather than a being of some kind with human qualities. It is because of the image of God that I hold that I find it necessary to reject the idea that God is the one holding the banquet in this parable.

Allow me explain. In the parable the host of the dinner only invites what could be considered the aristocracy of the town or village to the dinner. The host clearly does not invite everyone. So right away we have a problem; if God’s invitation is only to a chosen section of the population and not everyone that creates a situation where the love of God is no longer unconditional. In keeping with the parable metaphor, if you didn’t have an invitation you could not come to the dinner. That is conditional and it is not in the nature of God, as I understand God.

So we move on through the text. The people who were invited begin to make excuses about why they cannot attend the dinner. Of course this part of the story fits neatly with all sorts of folks; we all make excuses for not doing some of the things we probably should be doing. But let’s look at verse 21 where it says that the owner of the house, or the host of the dinner, became angry and tells the slave to go into the streets and bring in the poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled.

There are a number of images here which cause me to take exception with the idea that God is the host of this banquet. This is even more true if you want to place Jesus as the host of the banquet. The first thing I notice is that the host gets angry. Having God get angry requires an anthropomorphic image of God, which I don’t accept as part of my theology. If you choose to view God as a spirit or an energy, it would be like having the wind get angry, or a tree get angry or even a river get angry. The metaphor breaks down if you don’t view God as a being with human like qualities.

The second thing I notice is that the poor and the blind and the lame, etc or obviously God’s second choice as attendees at the banquet. They were not originally invited; they were who was invited when the others made excuses and didn’t come. If you place Jesus in the role as banquet host, this becomes even more out of character, because as I read the Gospels, Jesus always gave preferential treatment to the poor. The poor and lame were not an afterthought, they were the first thought for Jesus.

As we move through the text we come to verses 22 and 23. This is the part where the slave did as he was told and brought in all the poor and lame that he could find. But there was still room. So now the host tells the slave to just go find anybody and compel them to come in, because he wants his house to be filled for the celebration.

Two things jump out here. The first point, which we have already covered is why were these last people to be invited to come in not invited in the first place? This doesn’t fit the character of God. The second point is that I hear a little bit of pride and narcissism on the part of the host in the text. He wants the slave to bring people into his house so that it will be full, not because he cares about the people. The banquet host wants to sort of rub it in the face of those who turned him down and prove that it didn’t make any difference; he filled his house anyway.

Again, this is part of the danger of having an image of God that is anthropomorphic. This is certainly a typical reaction of a banquet host that is a human being with all of our human shortcomings; but I don’t believe it is an accurate depiction of God.

So where is God in this parable and if the host is not God, then what part does the host play?

These are two excellent questions. I want to answer the last question first; what part does the host play? The short answer is that I think we are the host. When we apply this parable to our own lives, perhaps we should view from the perspective of ourselves as the host. Not only does the host exhibit some very human tendencies to which we can relate, there is something deeper here that I don’t want us to miss. The deeper idea is the host kept trying to tell others about the banquet; he didn’t give up on the first try.

What the host was offering to those who attended the banquet was food. I believe that God in this parable comes closer to being represented in the food than God does in the banquet host. If we view God as an energy; food is a source of energy. If we view God as unconditional; food has no say, nor does it care, who consumes it. If we want to view God as egalitarian, which simply means that God treats everyone the same, food fits that description as well. Do you think an apple will give more nutrients to one human body and less to the next human body? Of course not, the apple just provides the energy it has without regard to who ate the apple.

So we can reframe the parable of the banquet by identifying ourselves as a banquet host who has an abundant supply of God’s love to give away. When one group of persons ignores the invitation, we remain persistent and fill our house anyway. Then with a full house, we proceed to serve the food of God, the energy of God to all who have gathered. And all are nourished and all are fed; no one is turned away.

Pardon the pun, but that is food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: April 30, 2017 – “A Living Hope” – Part Two

“A Living Hope” – Part Two

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.

Last week I explained that this text from First Peter was part of the lectionary reading for that week and this idea of a living hope really intrigued me. So we began to look at the definitions of what it means to actually be alive, or living, from the perspective of a biologist. What I discovered is there seems to be a remarkable amount of overlap between what science says now and what our text said over 2,000 years ago.

When I began to research this idea, I came up with a list of nine criteria which a biologist might use to determine if something is truly alive or not. Last week we looked at the first three of this list of nine. The entire list of nine looks like this; 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.

So that moves us to the fourth item in our list, which is the ability to grow. Of course we are all aware that living plants and animals around us grow. But growth can be measured in a number of different ways, and spiritual growth is every bit as important as physical growth. So while we as humans may grow taller, for example, it is equally important that we grow deeper in a spiritual sense. The same is true of our hopes and dreams. They must grow stronger, they must grow more detailed and they can grow bigger as time goes by. If your hopes and dreams cease to grow in any way, eventually they will die.

The next item may seem like a bit of a stretch. This item on our list is the ability to metabolize. Just in case it has been awhile since you have been in biology class, let me remind you what that actually means. Most definitions use the words “chemical transformation” to describe the process of metabolism. In other words, we take in food of some kind, and our bodies break the food down into substances our bodies can actually use. I would like for you to think about information and inspiration in the same way. When we receive information or creative ideas into our lives, we break that information into little pieces that our hopes and dreams can absorb. For example, we may have a hope to travel to a particular country or perhaps a particular part of this country. Then we receive more information about the place we want to visit and that new information informs us and helps define our hope more precisely. I have always been a fan of the desert southwest and had hopes of visiting there someday. After I read an article in National Geographic about the slot canyons in the area and saw the photos, then my hope to visit became even greater and more detailed. So my living hope metabolized the information I had received.

I think the next item on our list is very much the same as what we just discussed. Item number six on our list of nine is the ability to respond to stimuli. Well, information is certainly stimuli, but there are other ways our hopes can be stimulated as well. Using our previous example of hoping to visit a certain place, if you have a friend who visits and then comes back and tells you about it, that verbal stimulus can have an impact on your hope. If you hope is a living hope, it will change and grow and become more defined as you receive more information and stimuli along the way.

Item number seven on our list of nine is the ability to adapt to the environment. This is really common sense, but if our hopes and dreams are to survive, they must adapt to a changing world. We might move to a new location or take a new job that impacts our hope. A living hope must be able to adapt to a new situation, or else it will simply cease to exist. I remember years ago I had a hope to one day learn how to ski; this was before we moved to Texas. My first career in marketing and advertising led us to the Dallas/Fort Worth area where we spent a number of years. If you haven’t been to Texas recently, there isn’t a lot of skiing, at least the type I was interested in, available. There were lots of people with boats and water skis, but I really wanted to learn how to downhill ski in the snow. With three kids and quite a distance to travel before any skiing could be found, you might think my hope of learning to ski was over; had we stayed in Texas, it very well might have been over; but the environment changed and we found ourselves in Colorado, so the hope continued and was eventually realized. I guess flexibility is the key ingredient when it comes to environment.

The balance of the list also requires flexibility just as the ability to adapt to a new environment requires the flexibility we just spoke of. At this point I wanted to actually get back to the text because while we may all have hopes and dreams that exist outside of our spiritual lives, I think the text is focused on our relationship with the Divine. It may be our personal prayer life, it may be a spiritual discipline that we are trying to develop, it could be any number of things, but I think most of us have an area of our spirituality that we hope to improve.

If that is the case with you, if you are not yet the person you want to become, if you feel your spirituality could be improved, if you have questions about your relationship with God or if you wonder about any of the hundreds of other aspects of our faith tradition, then your hope is not yet complete. When a hope is not yet complete, it must be a living hope so it can be sustainable until you feel like your dream has been realized. This isn’t always easy, because sometimes our faith is tested, sometimes things don’t always go as planned and we have to adjust our hopes and dreams to match the circumstances we find ourselves in. Without a living hope that can adapt, we would eventually be lost.

Many years ago I had a very different attitude about prayer than I do today. The simplest way to describe how I felt about prayer was that you asked for something and God either said yes or no. You pray for someone to be healed for example, and the person dies anyway. The simple answer is that God said no. But what kind of God says no sometimes and yes other times. What about all those other stories of healing? Why should one person be healed and not the next? Does God play favorites?

Without a living hope that is flexible and adapts to changing environments and changing stimuli and adapts to new information, without that living hope, questions like those I had about prayer would drive you crazy. When it comes to our faith, there are no easy answers and one size does not fit everyone. A living hope with the flexibility we need allows a personal customized hope that can be designed specifically for you.

We all have questions, we all struggle at times to make sense of our faith. There may have been times we want to give up. A rigid and brittle hope is easily broken; a flexible living hope is sustainable through the years and through the ups and downs of life. We have been given a living hope to guide us through; a hope that changes and adapts and grows and lives and breathes with us. I believe a living hope affords us the opportunity to approach our faith as John Wesley has said to “think and let think”. A rigid and brittle hope will soon die; a living hope will sustain us all the days of our lives.

Amen.