Sermon: November 19, 2017 – Learning to Give Thanks

Learning to Give Thanks

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Text: 1Timothy 4:4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: Nov 12, 2017 – Ancient Cultures

Ancient Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can do better. We must do better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sermon: November 5, 2017 – Healthy Eyes

Healthy Eyes

Text: Matthew 6: 22-23

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

In 2009 Heidi and I had the great privilege to travel to Italy and part of that trip included a day where we toured the city of Assisi. If that rings a bell for you, it is familiar because this is the city in Italy where St. Francis of Assisi was born, lived his entire life and died. In the city of Assisi is an ornate edifice to honor St. Francis called the Basilica of St. Francis and construction on this building began in 1228, so it has been around for a while.

The Basilica of St. Francis is unique in a very interesting way. It is the only church that I know of that houses another church within it. As the legend of St. Francis goes, at one point Francis believed he heard the voice of God telling him to build a church. He interpreted this voice literally, not metaphorically and proceeded to build a tiny chapel. I think it seats about 15 or maybe 18 people on the outside. This is the church that St. Francis actually built. It was very modest.

After St. Francis became a saint – which takes a while- it was decided that to honor him, a new, and much grander church should be erected. Rather than tear down the original church which St. Francis actually built, they simply enclosed it in the much larger, much grander, Basilica of St. Francis.

This being All Saints Sunday, I thought a little history around one of my favorite saints might be interesting. But there is a little more to the story.

While we were walking around the inside of the Basilica trying to take it all in, I overheard part of a conversation that was taking place between a small boy, who was maybe 5 or 6, and what I presumed to be his dad. At first the little boy was asking about all the paintings and the illustrations that were on the walls and ceilings of the Basilica and why they did that. The dad explained that most of the pictures told stories and it was easier for the people who came to church a long time ago to get stories that way because many of them could not read. It is like a big picture book the dad told his son. The boy seemed to understand this.

Then he looked up at these huge stained glass windows that were arranged in a pattern of three at the very front of the Basilica. The little boy noticed that the windows had pictures of people in them and he asked his dad who those people were in the windows. His dad responded that the people in the windows were saints. “What is a saint” the little boy asked.

While his father struggled to come up with an answer he thought his young son might be able to grasp, the little boy piped up again and said: “I know, saints are the people who the light shines through.”

It doesn’t get any better than that.

The text I read a few minutes ago hints at this idea as well. If you remember, the text talks about how we can become full of light and if we are full of light, it is only natural to assume that some of that light leaks out and the light shines through us as well.

But there is another part of this text that I want to look at as well this morning. I’m not sure if you noticed it or not when I read through it the first time, but the part that talks about healthy eyes I think is very interesting. Let’s look at it again.

The second half of verse 22 and the first part of verse 23 reads: “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

What do you suppose the author intended us to take away from this concept of a healthy and unhealthy eyes? Certainly, we can’t take the verse literally, because I think there are lots of people with healthy eyes that are not necessarily full of light. Of course there are others, who could be blind, for example, a most radical form of unhealthy eyes, and still be full of light. So this idea of healthy and unhealthy eyes must be metaphor for something else. I think that something else may have something to do with how we see the world.

You might ask the question if someone has a healthy outlook on life or an unhealthy outlook on life as another way of saying they have healthy or unhealthy eyes. You might assume that healthy eyes translates into a relatively positive outlook, while unhealthy eyes might be more negative. You’ve heard all of these kinds of examples before, the glass is half-empty versus the glass being half-full, that sort of thing. One of the difficult issues around these broad generalities is that everyone interprets the ideas presented in different ways.

It reminds me of the young student who came home from school and told his parents he thought he failed his algebra test. “Why that’s negative” his father told him, you should be more positive. “OK,” the young man replied, “I’m positive I failed that algebra test.”

I’m looking for something a little deeper, something with a little more substance that we can relate to this idea of healthy and unhealthy eyes. I’m looking for a metaphor that I know is there, but might be a little more obscure than our first thought. It’s easy to say someone needs to have a healthy outlook on life or a more positive attitude, but what does that really mean and how does that impact our day to day lives? What does a life look like that has healthy eyes?

With that in mind, I want to go back once again to the text. The opening line in verse 22 says that the eye is the lamp of the body. Obviously a lamp gives light, so if the eye is like a lamp, then the eye acts as a collector and distributor of light. But there is one other thing about this metaphor that we need to pay attention to, in the historical context of this text, we are not talking about an electric lamp. The kind of lamp used in this metaphor would be an oil lamp and an oil lamp needs fuel.

What would happen to the light in the body if the lamp runs out of fuel? There would be darkness. Following this metaphor, the healthy eye is a lamp that has fuel, and an unhealthy eye is a lamp that has run out of fuel. It has no oil and so it has gone dark.

Now I want you to really think about this. So often when we talk about a positive attitude or a healthy outlook on life, it has become so passé that we just kind of brush it off. Everybody tries most of the time to be positive, everybody tries to be upbeat and look on the bright side of things, and everybody knows that a good attitude accomplishes more than a bad attitude. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I think this metaphor goes way beyond those superficial tenets of what we sometimes call positive thinking. I think this metaphor is talking about fuel.

The eye is the lamp for the body and that lamp needs fuel. How do you fill your lamp? What do you do every day to add fuel to your lamp? Without fuel, your lamp will go dark. If we are going to let the light shine through us, like the saints in the windows of the Basilica of St. Francis, then we need to be certain our lamps can burn for an extended period of time. We also need to be aware that lamps need to be refilled every so often. Unless you are making serious and intentional efforts to fill your lamps, eventually they will run dry. And when they run dry, there is darkness and as the text says, how great is that darkness.

So what does it look like to fill your lamp? For some, coming to church and singing hymns and participating in worship helps fill their lamp. For others it may be a walk in the woods or a weekend at the coast. I know that a good hike and the chance to shoot some photographs is one way I fill my lamp. Another lamp filling activity is meditation or prayer. For others it may be service opportunities like serving a meal at the Salvation Army or volunteering for Family Promise. It can be almost anything, but it must be something. Unless you have an intentional lamp-filling activity that you practice regularly, you will run out of fuel.

I think we have all experienced those times in our lives when the lamp runs dry and the darkness descends. Once it is dark it is even harder to finds ways to fill the lamp.

A healthy eye makes sure the lamp stays full of fuel. An unhealthy eye allows it to run dry.

And that is food, or perhaps, fuel, for thought.

Amen.