Sermon: August 27, 2017 – “Everyone’s Looking Up”

“Everyone’s Looking Up”

Text: Psalm 19:1

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

The eclipse mania has been a fun thing to watch this week. One of the things which I particularly enjoyed were the many puns and jokes that began to circulate with regard to the eclipse. You have probably heard some of these but a couple of my favorites are things like how does the man in the moon cut his hair? Eclipse it. Another was a little boy asked his dad if he could explain the eclipse and his dad responded, “no sun.” But my all-time favorite is the man who was praying; “Dear God, if I am supposed to buy that new boat, send me a sign. Like blot out the sun for a couple of minutes.”

The jokes were fun, but it was also nice to see the nation have a positive experience for a change. For the first few days after the event, the news seemed to be – uh – overshadowed – by the eclipse. Sorry, I can’t help myself. But seriously, I heard news reports about what a spectacular event it was and people were moved to tears and others spoke about what a spiritual experience it was. It was nice to see the country united around an event and it was nice to hear about all the positive experiences everyone was having. It feels good to have something unique and positive going on. It feels good to hear about people talking about spirituality and connecting with the universe and paying attention to how things have been designed. People didn’t always say it, but the underlying theme of all this, at least in my opinion, is a recognition that the universe has an intelligent design and it is remarkable.

Another thing I find incredible about the eclipse is the notion that our sun and our moon appear to be about the same size. The probability of that happening doesn’t seem random to me; it almost seems intentional. Think about it. Our sun is approximately 400 times the size of our moon. The sun is 93 million miles away from planet earth. The moon is just under 300,000 miles from earth. The distances from earth to moon, earth to sun, our angle of view, all those variables need to line up perfectly in order for those two bodies to appear to be about the same size. Pretty remarkable, really.

Overall, I would have to say the eclipse was a remarkable event and I think had a positive impact on anyone who participated on almost any level. We had a small eclipse viewing party here at the church and it was fun. I didn’t planet, (sorry) but the party just sort of happened.

In the days since the eclipse I have been reflecting on all the experiences and all the news reports and all the hype leading up to the event. As I thought about things, I began to notice something about all the news and all the reports. Something was missing that often is in the news. What was missing is there wasn’t anyone claiming the science was wrong, there wasn’t anyone saying the eclipse was fake news, there wasn’t any hint of a counter information effort at all.

Of course how could there be? The eclipse had been forecasted for decades. Everyone knew where and when and how it was going to take place. If anyone had challenged the science, they would have looked foolish on Monday when the eclipse actually took place, exactly as predicted. Everything happened exactly when and where and how it was predicted. In our location I had looked up the times when it was supposed to start, and it began at the right time. I had looked up the time of most totality for our area, and again it was right on schedule. Everything was absolutely predictable and verifiable and proved to be the case. Science won the day.

I bring this up because we are victims of a lot of misinformation that is passed off as being scientific or accurate or even true that is simply not the case. Last week I mentioned the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky. This is just one example. Some attacks on science claim the earth is just 6,000 years old, some attacks on science want to discredit the evolutionary process, and other attacks on science question the origin of the universe or even the existence of dinosaurs. There is even a flat earth society. Most of these things are harmless and fall into the category of personal opinion or belief and no one gets hurt and no real damage is done. But that isn’t always the case.

What we may not recognize is that in this country we protect free speech. Which is a good thing, generally. But along with free speech comes the ability to say anything you want about almost any topic and pass it off as truth. It becomes the responsibility of the hearer to determine if what they hear or see in print is true or not. There are organizations that abuse this freedom of speech to enhance their profitability or to protect an industry that is already profitable and they don’t want to lose any ground.

In the big picture, I think this is a fairly recent phenomenon, but with the increasing number of ways that we have to communicate, I think it is getting worse. Misinformation campaigns are a real thing.

One of the first examples of a misinformation campaign happened in this country when cigarette smoking was first linked to poor health, lung cancer, and breathing problems. The large tobacco companies actually hired advertising firms to create information that would undermine or discredit the claims of science that cigarettes will kill you. Some of you may remember some of these ads. There were ads proclaiming the health benefits of smoking. There were ads that stated things like “more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand” and similar claims. All in an effort to protect profits and keep a good business good. This kind of attack on science does matter and it does have consequences. I would venture to say that the scientific community was as certain about the harmful effects of smoking as they were certain of the eclipse. But in spite of the science, the misinformation campaign went on for decades.

You may not be as aware of this as I am, but we are in the midst of another huge misinformation campaign. The attack on science this time comes to us courtesy of big oil and coal companies attacking the science of climate change. Let me say the same thing about climate change as I said about the science of smoking; I believe that the scientific community has the same level of confidence about climate change as they had about the eclipse. In other words; there isn’t any scientific debate about the existence or the cause of climate change. The science is pretty clear.

There is a bulletin insert in the bulletin this morning that I want to call your attention to. You may remember that Cody Stauffer, the pastor over at Clarkston UMC, he and I cooperated last year on a series of discussions around inclusiveness. We called this series the inclusive experience. We read a book, watched some films and had some really good discussions over the course of several weeks.

We have decided to repeat this idea again this fall. This time we are building the experience around different environmental issues, climate change, pollution of our oceans and some of the misinformation campaigns that impact our attitudes and decisions about these issues. We have decided to offer it as a time release film festival; so over the next few months you will have the opportunity to meet with others and view different documentaries or feature films that deal with some of these topics. The insert in the bulletin gives you more complete information, but one documentary that will be shown on September 21 deals specifically with the topic I was mentioning earlier. This documentary is called “Merchants of Doubt” and it promises to be an educational and informative event.

The film festival will begin this Thursday, August 31 at 6:30PM and we will be viewing a documentary called “Chasing Coral”.  All of the films will be shown in our Fellowship Hall. This one is fascinating as well and I encourage you to give it a try. I can promise that the films and the discussions before and after will always be food for thought.

Go in Peace,

Amen.

Sermon: August 20-, 2017 – “The Search for Certainty”

The Search for Certainty

Text: John 3: 1-10

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I don’t know how many of you remember a slapstick comedy movie that was released I think in the 1980’s called Airplane! If you remember the movie you may remember that it isn’t exactly church material, so I won’t be showing any clips from Airplane this morning, but there are several dialogue exchanges that are worth mentioning.

As I said, this particular film is what I would consider slapstick, or just silly comedy. There are a lot of jokes and just craziness throughout the entire film. One of the themes that runs from start to finish is a fairly constant misinterpretation of what has just been said. This is hard to explain, so I will just give you a couple of examples.

For example, one character says to another, “surely you can’t be serious?” To which the other character replies, “I am serious, and quit calling me Shirley.”

Or on another occasion, one character who is a doctor states “we need to get this man to a hospital!” Then an onlooker says, “a hospital? What is it?” and of course the doctor replies that “it is a big building with lots of beds and medical equipment in it, but that’s not important right now.”         And so it goes, pretty much throughout the entire movie.

I mention this because if you stop and think about it for a minute, these kinds of misinterpretations of dialogue are grounded in a literal hearing of what has just been said. The mind isn’t allowed to fill in the blanks or contextualize a statement, the statement is taken at face value only. In the example of the onlooker responding with a surprised “a hospital?” and then followed by the question “what is it?” almost anyone would be able to decipher rather easily what the intent of that statement was.

First there is an expression of concern; “a hospital?” they are thinking to themselves this must be quite serious. Then an expression of inquiry; “what is it?” meaning they want to know what the ailment is that is so serious that it would require a trip to the hospital. Of course the literal interpretation hears the two inquiries as a single question and totally misses the point. In the case of Airplane or slapstick comedy, this can be sort of funny. When it happens in real life however the humor fades quickly.

The text I read a minute ago I think is an example of someone hearing the literal and as a result, completely missing the point. Here we have Jesus, the master storyteller, trying to give Nicodemus a metaphor which is concise and accurate in terms of what it means to follow Jesus. In a single sentence Jesus is able to communicate that when we follow Jesus, almost everything we have ever known, we need to forget. The way we used to think, the way we used to act, our priorities in life, the way we treat other people – all that has to be worked out again in the context of a new point of view. All the old habits, all the old ways of being and doing, even the old outdated religious customs and traditions need to be reworked. Following Jesus requires an entirely new paradigm, a whole new set of values.

Now rather than saying all of that, Jesus simply says that one must be born again, or be born from above as the text says. Nicodemus misses the point, hears the statement in a literal sense and asks how can someone old enter into their mother’s womb again?

So Jesus tries again. He tells Nicodemus that he’s missing the idea. He tells Nicodemus that what he’s talking about is being born of the flesh, like every one of us has been born. But what Jesus is talking about is being born of the spirit, which is a different thing. To which Nicodemus responds “how can this be?” He responds that way because he is still mired in the literal; he wants to understand from a position of what makes sense in the world.

I think at this point Jesus sort of gives up and tells him, “you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” I can just see Jesus shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders in frustration.

I would like to say that this story with Jesus and Nicodemus is an isolated event and it happened just that one time and no one ever made the same mistake again. Like I said, I would like to say that, but I can’t. Unfortunately it happens all the time.

So I have a theory around the thinking which drives some to only a literal interpretation of what they read or hear. It is my theory that the force which propels others toward a literal interpretation is essentially the fear of ambiguity or the fear of interpretation. Some are so afraid of getting it wrong, the only thing that brings them comfort is certainty. The only path to certainty is the path of the literal.

For example a few months ago an amusement park of sorts opened somewhere in Kentucky called the “Ark Experience”. This life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark is designed to help convince people that the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible is a factual account of what actually happened. If it were not so sad, I would think it was another attempt at comedy; instead of Airplane! The topic now becomes Ark!

Ultimately I think the fear of allowing story to be story and metaphor to be metaphor drives people to seek certainty where certainty cannot be found. I’m going to give you a quote that I have seen credited to both Anne Lamont and theologian Paul Tillich. Here is the quote for you to think about:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”

In the case of the Ark Experience, I can look past this and trust that most people of normal intelligence can decide for themselves what they want to believe about the story of Noah’s Ark. It is unlikely that anyone will get seriously hurt or killed as a result of the Ark Experience.

What we do need to realize, however, is that this same mind set, this same need for certainty and this same level of arrogance also fuels riots and demonstrations like we saw a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. The very concept of white supremacy is grounded in the lack of confidence, a lack of self-worth and a lack of understanding with regard to the human condition. By claiming certainty in the superiority of one race over another, or one color over another, or one religion over another simply underscores the insecurity that ultimately drives the need for certainty. I would not hesitate to guess that many of those demonstrating with torches and swastikas and signs of white supremacy would also profess the Christian faith. If and when this is true, and I believe it is, the rest of us Christians have a problem.

We can debate the significance of the story of Noah’s Ark and search for facts if we choose and it remains relatively harmless. But it escalates into something far more evil, far more destructive and far more dangerous. To be certain of something bolsters the confidence to a point where common sense is no longer employed and human atrocities are simply passed over as a necessary sacrifice or collateral damage.

If we are truly followers of Christ we hold in our hearts a moral responsibility to not allow this to stand. We must speak and we must act. Even if we simply express our concerns in private to another friend, that is a start. We have been quiet too long and have allowed this certainty to creep into the main stream where it does not belong.

It is my belief the mindset of white supremacy or any other expression of extremism is ultimately traceable to a literal interpretation of a text or scripture or ideal. So when we see literalism in that context, we must call it out for what it actually is; the absence of faith. For the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.

Go in peace,

Amen.

Sermon: August 13, 2017 – Construction Projects

Construction Projects

Texts: Job 10: 10-12, Hebrews 11: 1

Did you not pour me out like milk
and curdle me like cheese?
11 You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.
12 You have granted me life and steadfast love,
and your care has preserved my spirit.

1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

If you have been around here for the last couple of weeks you may have noticed that I have not been. Around here, that is. Heidi and I have been in Denver for the last couple of weeks for a couple of different reasons. On the surface they may not seem to be related at all, but as I reflected on the experience, it offered me the opportunity to make some observations that I’m not certain we often think about. So let me explain.

The first reason we were in Denver was the anticipated birth of our 3rd granddaughter, who was born on July 30th.  We had been in town just about 24 hrs when we received the news that the trip to the hospital had taken place and later that day Amber Lillian arrived. We swung by the hospital for a brief visit of the family and found everyone to be in good health and great spirits; and of course we had the chance to hold Amber when she was about 2 hours old. There just isn’t another experience that mirrors the miracle of a newborn baby.

But there was a second reason we were in Denver. Our youngest son Zac, and his wife Sara were in need of a bathroom remodel. Not just a light cosmetic brushing up, but they really needed a serious overhaul. So serious that I rented a U-Haul trailer to carry all the tools I would need to complete the project.

What I found so interesting is that as the bathroom remodel project went on during the day, I found myself thinking about how differently we as humans approach the creation process; much different, for example, than God approaches the creation process. Let me see if I can make this a little more clear for you.

Long before I even arrived with my tools, I had been in touch with Zac and Sara about the planning process for their new bathroom. We had measurements and drawings, we had diagrams and sketches, we had pictures of new fixtures and specifications about how big the new fixtures were so we could make sure they would fit in the new space. In other words tons of planning took place on this bathroom project before anything else happened. Of course if you have ever seen the blueprints for a house or a commercial building, you know what I’m talking about. Everything needs to be thought of in advance and you need to have a plan to follow, and we did have a plan and we followed it pretty closely.

But I have a question. Where are the blueprints for a newborn? This little human body is so much more complex than a bathroom remodel, and yet it seems to just happen without any plans. All the organs are in the right spot, the little nervous system is functioning as is everything else. This simply cannot happen by random accident, there absolutely must be a plan. But where is it and how is it followed? I guess the obvious answer is DNA, but that only satisfies my curiosity a little bit.

The next thing that had to happen for the bathroom remodel to take place is all the old stuff needed to be removed and where necessary, we also needed to remove the sheetrock. You see, if you are going to make changes in wiring or plumbing which are both found inside the walls, you need access to the inside of those walls. This means the sheetrock has to be removed, leaving you only with the studs or floor joists or other framing members to work with as you make the changes. As it turns out, we were making some changes to both the plumbing and the electrical, so in this smallish bathroom, most of the sheetrock had to go. What a mess! But that’s a different story.

This got me thinking again about Amber and this little human body that appears to be functioning, yet changing constantly. When you can’t see the inside workings of everything that lies beneath the skin, how do you know what is going on? I read that a baby’s skin is so well developed that fingerprints form sometime during the second trimester. So after just 4 or 5 months, the baby is totally enclosed in skin, and yet development and construction still takes place. That is a little like building a wall, covering it with sheetrock and then finishing the electrical and plumbing through the sheetrock. So how does that work?

Now I have a confession to make. Plumbing is not my favorite thing. As a matter of fact, I’m not even very good at it. Often in a project, if I have trouble with anything, it will be plumbing. From a certain perspective plumbing is my nemesis.

So, if I hate plumbing so much, why would I choose to remodel a bathroom? That’s a good question, but they say to face your fears, right? Let’s just say that at times I struggle a bit with getting all the plumbing to work exactly as it is supposed to. It is not as easy as it looks. There are drain pipes and water pipes and fittings and elbows and fall and all sorts of things that create a bit of a nightmare. In the big picture, this plumbing was not all that complex. We had to run two new drains and add some water in a new location for the washing machine. Not a big deal, really. But it was still a bit of a challenge.

In spite of all the challenges and yes, even the plumbing, the bathroom remodel project was a great success.

But have you ever really thought about the plumbing of a newborn? I mean not only is it overwhelmingly complex, it is tiny to boot! When I was holding Amber for the first time in the hospital when she was just 2 hours old, I noticed that the distance from her wrist to her elbow was about the length of my little finger. Think about that. Consider all the blood plumbing, both blue and red, kind of like hot and cold water, but more complicated. Think about all the other plumbing, the HVAC system that transports oxygen to the blood and somehow learns in seconds how to breathe air. Then there is the obvious plumbing system that requires diapers, but even that is very complex.

I could go on but I think you are beginning to get the picture. While I’m working on one construction project it is constantly reminding me of the absolute miracle of a different kind of construction project.

The text I read from Job this morning says that God has knit us together with bones and sinew. Even with all our modern understanding and medical science, I’m not sure there is a better description of what takes place. It is a miracle.

The other text from Hebrews talks about faith. Convictions of things not seen? You bet. If you ever feel your faith start to dwindle, find a newborn and hold them for a time. Your faith with be restored.

But that isn’t the end of the story. You see we were all newborns at some time in our past. Everything I have said today about Amber, is also true of you. Each and every one of us are remarkably and wondrously made. Not a day goes by that your body is not growing, changing, replacing skin, producing new cells and it all seems to happen without a blueprint or a plan. Your body just knows what to do.

Take a deep breath. Feel your body work. Think about how that air was processed. And thank God that the Divine Spirit has breathed into us the very breath of life.

Amen.