Sermon: January 21, 2018 – “Anxiety, Allowing and Surrender”

“Anxiety, Allowing and Surrender”

Text: Matthew 6: 25-34

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

There are a lot of different directions that one could follow with regard to this text. Personally, I have always struggled a little bit with this one because it seems on the surface to paint a rather utopian picture that doesn’t really exist in real life. So I have decided to confront my struggles and offer what I can in terms of scholarship and personal insight about what we are to take away from this saying of Jesus.

One of the things which makes this text even more difficult to deal with is that I believe this saying also probably appeared in the document we call “Q”. If you are already familiar with the “Q” concept, you will know what I’m talking about, if you are not familiar, let me just offer a brief explanation. Most Bible scholars I think now agree that the authors of Matthew and Luke used two documents as source material for their own Gospels; those two sources were the Gospel of Mark and “Q”. We do not have an authentic copy of “Q”, although it has been reconstructed and published as a close facsimilia to what scholars believe it might have been.

The reason I think this text becomes more difficult because it appears in “Q” is because I have always considered “Q” to be a fairly reliable source for the actual teachings of Jesus. It has always been my belief that the “Q” document contained a greater accuracy of the actual words of Jesus than say the Gospel of John for example, or even Matthew or Luke on their own. This saying of Jesus, however, appears in “Q” and in Matthew and in Luke, so it is a reliable assumption to think that Jesus actually spoke these words or something very close to these words.

Which brings me back around to some of the problems with the text. Jesus tells us not to worry about food or clothing because God will provide those things for us. For most of us here in Lewiston and for most of us for most of our lives this has been true. I don’t think there are very many of us here who have actually had to worry about their next meal. I think most of us have been sheltered from those kinds of hardships.

But that doesn’t mean that we are not aware that the hardships do exist. We collect food every week for the food bank here in Lewiston. There is significant poverty right in our own backyard. But this pales in scope to the kind of poverty that is present on a global basis. The facts are that God does not provide food and clothing for a significant percentage of the world’s population. So I struggle with what to do about this statement of Jesus. It is pretty clear that Jesus states God will provide and it’s also very clear when we observe the world around us that this simply is not true. There are millions in need of food and shelter and clothing. How do we reconcile what Jesus said with what reality seems to be?

There are a couple of explanations which you might find in a commentary if you looked; the most common seems to be that Jesus did not intend for this instruction to be for general public consumption. In other words, some scholars believe that Jesus was telling these things to his disciples about how they should be as followers of Jesus. Specifically, Jesus wanted his disciples to focus on the ministry and not the logistics of how they would provide for themselves.  This makes some sense and I can accept this line of reasoning to some degree.

But even in that limited context, it seems there are still potential problems with the text, so I feel like we need to dig a little deeper.

As I read the text and really study what is there a couple of things stand out for me. First, I don’t think this text is about God providing; the text is about not worrying. There is a big difference. In the 11 verses of this text, we are told not to worry at least five times. That means that every other verse contains instructions for us not to worry. This text is not about the idea that everything will always be OK, it is about not worrying about everything not being OK.

As a matter of fact, the last verse admits this, saying don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will have plenty of trouble all by itself. You don’t need to add any trouble to tomorrow by worrying, there will be plenty when tomorrow gets here. As the text states; “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Some of the commentaries that I looked at treated this text in a very superficial manner. No one suggested that it is a difficult text; no one suggested that at first blush is might seem like Jesus was speaking untruthfully; no one seemed eager to engage the rather obvious downside of this text. Rather the commentaries wanted to talk about faith and trust. Just trust God and everything will be great. Well, sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it; at least not for me.

If we shift the focus of the text away from God always meeting every physical need for every person, which God does not do, and rather focus on the main idea of not worrying, I think we begin to move closer to what Jesus may have intended. The short lesson here is that worrying doesn’t help, it only gets in the way.

So as we dig deeper into this particular text, what comes up for me as a question is how do we not worry? What is the secret to not worrying? Anxiety seems to plague a lot of people, some cases are much more severe than others, but I think all of us have struggled at one time or another with anxiety. Jesus tells us this is futile, anxiety is a waste of energy, we should not worry about tomorrow.

What is missing from this text, and is perhaps implied in one verse in particular is the mental awareness of how receive information about our current situation. Now that is a complicated sentence, so I want to break it apart a little for you. The one verse I mentioned is verse 25b; Jesus asks a question that I think is often overlooked. Jesus asks “Is life not more than food and is the body not more than clothing?”

What do you suppose he meant by this statement? The answer I think is obviously there are more important things in life than what we eat; there may be even more important things in life than if we eat. In other words our connection to the universe, our connection to the Divine, our connection to God is more critical to life than even food. If we worry about material things, it leaves no room for us to contemplate spiritual things. Let me say that again, if we worry about material things, it leaves no room for us to contemplate spiritual things.

This simple idea has taken me decades to even begin to work out in my own mind. The first experience was learning to not judge or worry about things I could not change. In other words, the weather is going to be the weather and no amount of worry will change it. Some people get upset with traffic or when someone cuts them off or when they are late for a meeting. Why? Nothing can change “what is” at that moment and worry or frustration does nothing to help.

What enlightenment comes slower and is more difficult to understand and work with is our own place in the universe and our ability to receive the information about our own circumstances without judgment and without worry. The last step in the process is to receive all that information, not only without any judgment, but with thanksgiving as well.

I think this is the heart of what Jesus was getting at in this text. It isn’t about everything always being okay or at least being judged by you as OK. What it is about is knowing that whatever comes is part of the universal whole and you have a part to play in that unfolding. With a secure knowledge of God and a great connection to the Divine, what happens in the material world is really of little consequence.

One way to look at this is to realize that we are all spiritual beings. We are and always have been and will always be spiritual beings. At this brief moment in time, we are spiritual beings having a human experience; what can we take from this human experience? What can we learn, what can we accomplish, what can we change in this human experience? These are the questions of a higher existence. Most of us consider ourselves as human beings who occasionally search for a spiritual experience. In reality, we are spiritual beings in the midst of a human experience.

Let me leave you with just one more thought. I have read that in some of the eastern faith traditions like Buddhism or Taoism this concept is explained in this way. Pay attention to the emphasis I place on particular words. Before enlightenment one may ask “Why is this happening to me?  After enlightenment one may ask the very same question, but ask it in this way; “Why is this happening to me?” The difference in these two sentences if the focus. One question asks why in the sense of physical and material consequences. The second question, which uses the same words, focuses on the spiritual in the sense that the question asks what can I learn, what experience can I have, how might I help others?

To overcome anxiety and worry means to foster acceptance of what is and to surrender to your current circumstances. I don’t use the words acceptance or surrender to imply resignation or to give up on change. I use the words acceptance and surrender to mean that we don’t waste any more time or energy asking why, but rather focus on what we might accomplish. Food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: January 14, 2018 – “An Ear Tingling Mission”

An Ear Tingling Mission

Text: 1 Samuel 3: 1-11

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.

This is a great story and a great text and honestly, it has been awhile since I last looked at this text. It came up this week in the Lectionary readings so I looked at it again and was intrigued a little bit because I feel like I may have experienced a bit of a perspective shift and maybe even a deeper or renewed understanding of the text. So today, I will be asking more questions than I am answering, but as I ask the questions, I would like for you to answer those questions as they relate to your own life, in your context, and in your own experience.

For example, let me begin with the end. In the last verse the Lord is speaking to Samuel and the Lord says that something new is going to happen in Israel and anyone who hears of it will have both of their ears tingle. So here’s my question; how long has it been since you have heard about something so new, so exciting, and so fresh that it made your ears tingle?

Many years ago before the days of ministry I was at somewhat of a crossroads in my life. My current job was ending, the entire family pretty much hated where we were living and I wasn’t certain of what was supposed to come next. It seemed our options were quite limited. We didn’t have much money, we had three small boys and a dog and employment was a little scarce.

Through the grapevine I heard about a place called the San Juan Islands. We were living in Texas at the time and Texas is a long ways away from the San Juans. But what I heard was that places were growing in the San Juans and one contractor in particular was having trouble finding and keeping good carpenters. This made my ears tingle. It was an option I had never even considered or even knew about for that matter. It was all new and all very exciting. My ears tingled for days.

What came next over a period of time, I’m not sure I would do again. I flew to Friday Harbor, taking almost every cent we had to our name. I found the least expensive hotel. I rented a bicycle instead of a car. I went to the grocery store and bought sandwich making stuff rather than eating out in restaurants. I located the contractor I had heard about and made my pitch. I had already built one house, had some experience remodeling others and really enjoyed being outside. We met in the morning and by that afternoon I had a job.

With Heidi and the three kids and the dog still in Texas, I began to look for an affordable place to live. In less than 24 hours, I found something I thought would work and filled out the paper work and I think gave them a post-dated check for a deposit, which they agreed to hang on to for me.

In what time I had left, which wasn’t a lot as I recall, I explored the islands a little bit. Of course I shot lots of pictures to share with the family when I got home. Which I did. Now, everyone’s ears were tingling!

We sold most of what we owned and packed the rest into a 6X12 U-Haul trailer and everyone piled into our Dodge van and we headed for Anacortes, Washington where we would catch the ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

All this happened because my ears tingled. All this took place because I could hear the voice of others and I listened. All this happened because I had an attitude that embraced new ideas and new experiences. All of this happened because I was more like Samuel than I was like Eli in the story we just read.

I worked as a carpenter on San Juan Island for a time. It was some of the best times for all of us. For my kids they had experiences they still talk about to this day, even though it was over 30 years ago. Without my ears tingling and without the ability to listen and hear, it would have never happened.

I said earlier that I’m not so sure this story would play out the same way today. When I read the story of Samuel and Eli, it seems I find myself identifying in many ways with Eli rather than Samuel. In the past decade or so, status quo has started to look pretty good. I’m not so anxious to hear about new things. It has been awhile since my ears tingled with a new idea and in some cases I simply resist change.

I was a late comer to digital photography. I liked film and didn’t think a computerized image could ever rival good old Kodachrome. I resisted a cell phone for a long time. Then I resisted a smart phone for an even longer period of time. Now when it’s time to learn a new phone I can hardly stand it. If I could, I would still be running Windows 95 on my computer at home, because at least that one worked and I sort of knew how to use it. You get point.

When I read the story of Samuel and Eli, who did you identify with in the story? Did you feel like Eli a little bit? Can you see what is happening here? Had Eli grown deaf to the calling of the Lord? The text says that his eyesight had already failed, what about his ability to listen for the voice of God? Had Eli grown so comfortable with the status quo that he no longer heard God’s voice? The text says in the opening lines that the word of the Lord had grown scarce at this time. I think there is a lesson here.

There are a couple of other items I wanted to ask you to think about with regard to this text. First of all, just because something is new or it is the latest technology doesn’t mean that it is the right or the best thing to do. For example, in the text, Samuel hears the voice of God calling him and he goes to Eli and says “Here I am”. In other words, Samuel was available, willing and he was listening. Samuel was aware of what was around him and what was happening. Then when Eli tells him to go lie down one more time and if he hears God’s voice the next time to listen. That is what Samuel does and when God speaks, Samuel responds with the words; “Speak, for your servant is listening”.

I mentioned a few minutes ago about how much I resisted smart phones and I still don’t enjoy learning a new one when it’s time to replace it. But in the back of my mind I’m wondering about all the younger people, say those that represent the Samuels in our culture, if they are able to say “Speak, for your servant is listening”?

We are so plugged in as a culture, so consumed with screen time, so flooded with news and information, I wonder if anyone can hear the calling of God at all anymore?

I guess I would take these observations away from our text this morning. First, I think that we can all hear the voice of God regardless of our physical age. There may be signs in our life that we have become more comfortable with the status quo, maybe we don’t embrace change the way we used to, but we can still listen. Even if we identify more closely with Eli in the story than we do Samuel, we can still do what Samuel did.

If we look at the text again, there are a couple of things we should consider that allowed Samuel to hear the voice of God. First he was open. He was young. Samuel hade not already decided that God was no longer speaking. He hadn’t given up. He thought it was possible.

Next, Samuel was quiet before God. Eli had told him to go lie down again and wait for God to speak. The scriptures are full of these kinds of instructions; perhaps the most famous of those is the Psalm which tells us to “Be still and know that I Am God.” That is Psalm 46:10 by the way.

The third thing we should recognize that Samuel did was to respond to God by saying “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel wasn’t playing music or checking Twitter on his smart phone. Samuel wasn’t playing a video game or watching a movie or sending a text to his BFF; Samuel was quiet before God and he was listening.

How often in our lives do we intentionally do those three things? Just to be clear; Samuel believed that God is still speaking; Samuel was quiet before God; Samuel was unplugged and listening when God spoke.

Even if our experience tells us that we may have become a little more like Eli and we favor leaving things alone and we don’t embrace change the way we used to, in the midst of our resistance, we can still do the things that Samuel did. We can believe. We can get alone and quiet before God. And we can listen.

God is still speaking. What ear tingling mission does God have planned for this church? We should all be listening for that Word of direction and vision for our future. And when we catch a glimpse of that ear tingling mission, we need to respond by saying “Here I Am, Lord, your servant is listening!”

Our closing hymn is “Here I Am, Lord” so let’s join together in listening for the voice of God.

Amen.

 

 

Sermon: January 7, 2018 – Arise & Move Beyond

 

Arise & Move Beyond

Text: Isaiah 60:1

“Arise, Shine, for your light has come……”

This is Epiphany Sunday, the day we traditionally recognize the coming of the magi or the wise men to the nativity.  As the tradition reads, the wise men followed a star and the star-metaphorically representing light-came to rest over the place where Jesus had been born.  There are some scholars who believe the wise men didn’t find the baby Jesus until he was almost three years old-we’re not really sure when the wise men appeared on the scene-just that they appeared sometime after the birth of Jesus.  In other words they we were late.

I kind of like the story that says you will notice we are talking here about wise men and not wise women – there is at least one school of thought that thinks the wise men wouldn’t have been late if they had stopped to ask for directions…..I guess a star isn’t quite enough to get you to the event on time.

All that being said, it is still Epiphany Sunday and we are recognizing that today.  The word ‘epiphany’ actually means to shine upon, or some translate the word to mean ‘enlighten’ or perhaps what some people call having an ‘ah-ha’ experience.  I have always considered the word to define an encounter with God; because when you experience an immediate clarity of thought, or you understand something more deeply, I believe you have encountered God at that moment.  So an epiphany, for me, can also be defined as an experience ‘to meet God’ or to have a Divine encounter of some type.

These encounters don’t have to be huge events or be recorded in ancient history or involve a star or travels from a distant country.  The Divine encounters can happen on a daily basis and be very simple, yet very elegant.  I would say that most of my sermons involve an epiphany of some kind; I experience a new understanding or a new perspective on a familiar text, or I experience a new way of thinking about something familiar.  An epiphany can be many things to many people.

I wanted to tell you about my epiphany with regard to the scripture text we read just minute ago; ‘arise, shine, for your light has come.’  This text is part of the Lectionary reading for this time of year and as such, most of us have heard this scripture many times.  It is a favorite text for this particular Sunday, even if the lectionary year we happen to be on doesn’t include it in the regular readings, we may still be likely to hear it.  A text that is so familiar can often be challenging in the sense that to really find something new to say can be difficult.  Many of you have been coming to church for decades and have heard perhaps 30 or even 40 epiphany sermons; what can I possibly say that you have not heard before?  What new understanding can I offer?  What new direction or challenge can I provide for you?  These are some of the questions I ask myself when I begin to think about a sermon.  I often challenge myself to not only tell you something new, but to also have you experience something new; I think church should be an experience that involves more senses than just hearing.

So, I am thinking about the text-often I try to meditate on a thought or a text-and I begin to develop an understanding of this text in a way I had never thought of before.  I’m sure someone has, but it was a new thought for me.  As I began to think about the text, it occurred to me that there are two distinct actions, or calls to action, in this text.  The first call to action is the word ‘arise’ and the second call to action is the word ‘shine’.  I think we often overlook this as we read the text; we are to do two different things; first we are to arise, and secondly, we are to shine.

Let’s look first at this idea of what it could mean to arise.  The first thought that jumps into my head is an image of someone getting up out of a chair.  Another image is of a hot air balloon – it of course rises or moves upward.  What gets left unsaid with these images, or even the definitions in the dictionary if you would happen to look the word up, is in almost every case, when a person or an object arises, it also leaves something behind.  When we arise, we move toward something, but we also move away from something.  When we get up out of the chair or off the couch, we are leaving the couch or the chair behind.  When the balloon arises, it is leaving the earth behind.  We cannot arise and take where we have been with us.  Let me say that again; we cannot arise and take where we have been with us.  It is impossible for us to do.  We cannot arise without leaving something behind.

The first call to action in our scripture is to arise; now somehow I don’t think the call to action here is for us to get up out of a chair.  That might be a place to start, but I believe the metaphor here goes well beyond just getting up.  I happen to think the metaphor could also mean that we need to leave some things behind.  We need to let the past be past and arise into the future.  I think this idea of moving away from something as we arise is just as important as the idea that we are also moving toward something.  The moving away, the letting go, the passing away of old hang-ups can be very therapeutic, but I also think it may be absolutely necessary.  In other words, the action of arising must involve the letting go of the past or the willingness to leave a way of thinking or a way of being.  To arise is to embrace a whole new way of living and being and thinking in the world.  To arise in a sense is to experience re-creation, resurrection and re-birth.  All of this is wrapped up in that simple, tiny word; arise.

At this point I wanted to give you another scripture to reinforce what I have been saying; this one is found in Second Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”

I believe this scripture mirrors the idea of ‘arise.’  Because when we arise to follow Jesus, we leave old things behind, and all things become new.  The leaving behind is an important part of this process; the letting go of what holds us is mandatory if we are to move forward. We looked at this text last week as we talked about transformation and I think that transformation and the action implied in the word “arise” or very close to each other. One could say that to arise is to begin the transformative process.

The second half of the equation is, after we arise, we are called to shine.  We have been told to let our lights shine ever since we were old enough to learn the words to “This Little Light of Mine.”  But as is often the case, it can be difficult to put legs under the metaphor – what exactly does it mean to shine?

There was a great African American theologian, professor, author and civil rights activist named Howard Thurman; you may have heard of him.  I believe he died in the early 1980’s after a life dedicated to service to humanity.  He wrote a poem about the days after Christmas, where we find ourselves today, the name of that poem is “The Work of Christmas” and I would like to share it with you now.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

   To find the lost,

   To heal the broken,

   To feed the hungry,

   To release the prisoner,

   To rebuild the nations,

   To bring peace among brothers,

   To make music in the heart.

— Howard Thurman

I’m not sure I have ever encountered a better definition of what it means to shine than this one.

Christmas is over, it is a brand new year, leave the things that hold you behind, let them dissolve before your eyes, and then arise, shine, be about the work of Christmas and let your light shine, for your Light has come.

I believe that far too often our definition of being a Christian or of Christianity in general is about a checklist of beliefs or behaviors that try to limit and control rather than to experience true transformation. This poem, “The work of Christmas” I think gives us a more realistic image of what Christianity should be and what the person who calls himself or herself a Christian should be concerned with. It isn’t about dogma or belief systems or acting in a certain way; it is simply caring for the other, caring for the less fortunate and restoring hope for those who have lost all hope.

That is what it means to shine. I think personal transformation is to shine, and helping others is to shine, but before any of that is possible, we must first “arise”.

So as we begin our New Year with the first communion of 2018, let me invite you to “arise” and as you do, begin to think about all the things in the past you would like to leave behind. As you leave your chair, think of that chair metaphorically representing everything you don’t want to take with you into 2018. Pile it up on the chair. See it there. While you’re gone, it will get cleaned off.

As you receive the elements of communion, may you think to yourself that this is the beginning of your season to shine. This is where it starts, this is the first step. “I will shine from now on” you might think to yourself as you receive the elements. So, “Arise, Shine”, and receive the elements.  Amen.