Ash Wednesday Service Sermon: February 14, 2018 – “Redwoods, Ashes & Energy”

 

“Redwoods, Ashes & Energy”

Text: Isaiah 61: 3 – “The Voice” translation

As for those who grieve over Zion, God has sent me to give them a beautiful crown in exchange for ashes, To anoint them with gladness instead of sorrow, to wrap them in victory, joy, and praise instead of depression and sadness. People will call them magnificent, like great towering trees standing for what is right. They stand to the glory of the Eternal who planted them.

Often when I begin to work with a particular text I look it up on the computer and read the text in a variety of different translations. Every once in a while the different translation will offer a new perspective or a new word that sends my thoughts in a new direction. That is exactly what happened with this text. When I read my text from “The Voice” translation I got to the part about the great towering trees and it reminded me right away of the giant redwoods in northern California. Has anyone else been there and seen these great towering trees?

Well, I thought a short field trip might be one of the best ways for us to appreciate the sheer magnitude of these trees. Now I think it is important for us to recognize that some of the other translations refer to the trees in this text as giant oaks. There are some good sized oak trees out there, but they are not giant redwoods and simply cannot compare. So when I read in the text “great towering trees”, at least for me, they had to be redwoods.

So what we are going to do is take a virtual field trip. Northern California is a ways away, so we are going to experience the redwoods in another way. One of the first things I want to point out about these trees is that a mature redwood at its base can have a diameter of up to 24 feet. I just happened to bring a tape measure with me, so I want everybody to get up and form a circle. We are going to make a circle that is 24 feet in diameter so we can see just how big around these giant redwoods really are.

Ok, now for the really amazing part. Not only do the redwoods grow to be 24 feet in diameter, they also grow to a height of 350 feet tall. I don’t have a tape that reaches 350 feet and we don’t have a building that could accommodate that anyway. So we will have to use our imaginations. We are going to stretch this tape out 50 feet. Now we can see what 50 feet looks like, but we will have to use our imaginations to visualize a tree that is 7 times higher than this 50 feet. These are big trees.

One of the unique things about redwoods that allow them to grow to such great heights is the way they process the environment that surrounds them. You see, most trees absorb water from the ground. They have tiny capillaries beginning with the root system that runs all the way to the leaves on the tree. These capillaries fill with water and when the leaves give off moisture and some of the water evaporates, it new water moves into the capillaries at the roots and everything moves up a little bit. It is the water that brings some of the nutrients to the rest of the tree. But there is a physical limit to the height that the tree can lift all that water. For most trees, the height limit is around 60 to 80 feet in the best of conditions. But the redwoods are different. They have adapted to their environment in an interesting way.

During the summer months in northern California, it is usually quite dry and there isn’t a lot of rainfall and water is a bit scarce. But there is a heavy fog almost every morning. The redwoods have adapted to be able to use the moisture in the fog, and spread nutrients to the rest of the tree through a capillary system that almost works in reverse of most trees. The water flows from the top down, and this allows them to grow to such giant proportions, because the tree doesn’t have to lift the water 350 feet into the air, it allows gravity to do the work as the water flows down from the crown of the tree all the way to the roots. It is a magnificent example of adapting to a particular environment.

You might be thinking about now that is all very interesting, but what in the world do giant redwoods have to do with Ash Wednesday? Well, I’m so glad you asked!

The text indicates that we are to exchange ashes for a crown. The text says that we will replace sorrow with gladness and rather than dwelling in depression and sadness, we will experience joy, and praise and victory. The redwoods, I think, teach us how to do that. They adapt to their environments and use what is useful and they absorb the positive energy that is available to them to grow into such magnificent creations.

So here we are. We have a choice. We can choose to be redwoods or we can choose to be weeds. The primary difference is how we receive the environment that is around us. We have a choice about what energy we are going to absorb, what nutrients we are going to feed ourselves and how we will use the environmental forces around us to either build us up, or tear us down.

Every one of us is exposed to both positive energy and negative energy every single day. We have the ability to choose which energy we will absorb into our beings and what energy we will allow to simply bounce off. We don’t have to take it all in. We can choose to allow some of what we hear, some of what we see, some of what we read and even some of what we experience to just move on past us. We don’t have to absorb everything that is around us. We can adapt to what is available, just like the redwoods have adapted. We can choose to absorb the joy, the victory, the praise and the gladness that surrounds us every day. We just need to watch for it and recognize it when we see it.

One of the fascinating things that I like to think about when I consider trees of all kinds is that from a tree comes firewood. When we go camping and have a campfire or when we light a fire in our fireplace or the fire pit on our deck, we use firewood. This firewood comes from trees. I like to think about firewood as stored sunlight. Have you ever thought about it in that way? You know the sun is essentially a big ball of fire, and when that light reaches the earth, the trees absorb that energy and store it in the form of wood. When we burn the wood, we release that energy once again in the form of heat and light that makes fire. Firewood is stored sunlight.

Once all that energy is released, we are left with ashes. There is some energy still in the ashes, but not much. Ashes represent for me the ‘ground zero’ of energy. Ashes is where energy begins again, ashes are often used as fertilizer or compost and the upside of a forest fire is the ash that is left once the burning is over. Forests recover remarkably fast from a forest fire because of the ash.

Tonight we will be using ash once again as a symbol. As we offer the ash to you this Ash Wednesday, focus on the idea that all the negative energy has been released. Everything that holds you back has been burned up and all that remains of the old is just the ash. This is a new start, a new beginning, the ash is what remains of all the old energy that is now gone. From this moment forward allow the ash to remind you that you can choose what energy you wish to absorb and nourish yourself with only that energy. Become the towering trees you are called to be. Grow to be the spiritual redwood that lies dormant within you. Absorb the energy that surrounds you.

The ash you receive in this moment changes everything; as the scripture says, old things have passed away and look, all things have become new. Your redwood moment has arrived. Grow in peace.

Amen.

Sermon: February 11, 2018 – “God is Love?” Part-1

“God is Love?” Part-1

Text: Romans 8: 31, 37-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It’s almost Valentines Day! I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but Valentine’s Day does have a Christian heritage, at least within the Catholic church. There was a St. Valentine who was honored around 270 CE and there are other theories about Valentine’s Day replacing a pagan holiday and there were other people named Valentine even earlier in Christian history. Fact is, no one really knows the full history of Valentine’s Day or how the association with love and affection ever got started. But it is popular; it is estimated that about 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged this year around the world. That is second only to the exchange of Christmas cards, which is about double that number.

It seemed appropriate to introduce a new sermon series about love close to Valentine’s Day. Of course, I’m going to be focused on the love of God, which is entirely different than the kind of love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. That being said, I do think it is important to point out how different these two types of love really are and how easily we blur the lines that divide the two. In the English language, we have a bit of an inadequacy around the word love. It seems we have only one, while other languages have words that are more descriptive. I think most of us have heard about the Greek word agape and so on, so I’m not going to take any time chasing that idea. To know they are very different is enough for now. What I really want to focus on is the evidence of love.

Because the kinds of love we express are very different, the evidence of that love is also different. I think that many of us, and many who currently are not a part of Christianity, are confused about this thing we call God’s love. That confusion is a result of not acknowledging the right evidence of that love and blurring the lines that divide God’s love from other forms of love. Over the next few weeks we will be exploring this idea. It is my intention to run this series from now all the way through Lent as we prepare for the Easter celebration. It is also my hope that through the process of clearly identifying what the love of God actually entails, it will transform and enlighten our Easter celebration.

I mentioned that many of us fail to acknowledge the evidence of God’s love. This is not because we choose to ignore it or we want to deny its existence, I think it is primarily because we don’t know where to look. Here’s the problem, at least as I see it, the only experience of love we have as human beings is between human beings.

Think about this. When we are children, at least for the vast majority of us, we had parents that loved us. This is a unique kind of love experience, but it is still a human experience. As we grew up we may have had a “crush” on someone in Junior High or High School, but eventually we found someone that we actually fell in love with and we got married. I know that many of us are no longer married or are married a second time or more, but the idea remains the same. When we fall in love as adults and decide to marry, it is a love that exists between two human partners. This is also true of same gender marriages and relationships, the love expressed is a human love.

For some of us the marriage then begins to produce children. This is another experience altogether. It seems like it should be a rare thing to experience the desire to strangle someone you love, but while our 3 boys were teenagers, it seemed like it happened several times a day. Still the experience we have as parents that love our children is a human experience.

Our entire lives have been an experience of love from one human perspective to another human perspective. It’s no wonder that when we look for the love of God that we seek the evidence of that love in human terms and in human ways. That is what we have been taught that love is. That is what our experience has been.

When we look for evidence of God’s love in human terms it is little wonder that we are disappointed a good share of the time. I think most of us have a strong enough faith that these disappointments don’t become huge stumbling blocks, but deep down I think every one of us have had thoughts or questions about the love of God. For example, all the suffering in the world would seem to indicate that the love of God does not exist for a large percentage of the world’s population. If we think of God as a parent, a father or a mother, it seems inconceivable or completely out of character to allow the kind of suffering we see around the world. As parents of our own children we would not allow that level of suffering, or at least we would do what we could to mitigate the suffering.

So we are faced with some important questions about the collective suffering of God’s children. Some of those questions sound like this: Why does God allow this kind of suffering? If God loves us then why are children starving? If God loves us then why are people born disabled or disfigured? If God loves us then why are there wars and ethnic cleansing campaigns and human trafficking?

The conclusions that one can easily come to seem to fall into two categories. Category number one is that God could change all these things but chooses not to. I don’t know about you, but that is not the kind of God I know or understand. That is not the God I am in relationship with. Category number two is that God would like to change these things, but is powerless to do so. Now we have a God that isn’t really a God because that God has limited power. A God that wants to but can’t is a limited, handcuffed God that is of little value. What kind of a God is a powerless God?

About this time in our thought process we have a tendency to begin to recite all the old clichés we have heard ever since our first year in Sunday School when we were five or six years old. Old clichés like “God works in mysterious ways” or “you just have to have faith” or the one that really bugs me is “God will never give you more than you can handle”. I’m sorry but platitudes like this simply are not helpful. We take hard legitimate questions and just sweep them under the rug. To rely on clichés to answer some of life’s toughest questions is a very dismissive attitude. The truth is that if God didn’t ever give us more than we can handle, then no one would ever commit suicide. That is obviously not the case. Mental illness and suicide rates, particularly in Idaho and our part of Idaho are significantly higher than the rest of the country. Once again, we are faced with tough questions. Where is the love of God when someone takes their own life?

I spent some time earlier talking about how our perspective and experience of love has always been from a human point of view. When we begin to think about the love of God, it is easy, even natural for us to interject some human qualities into that though process. We project our humanness onto God. I know I have used this word before and I wish there was a different word that was less intimidating, but there is not. When we project our humanness onto God it is called having an “anthropomorphic” image of God. We change God into a human like creation. I think most of our struggles to understand God stem from this anthropomorphic image of God that most of us maintain.

For example, a few minutes ago I was talking about the suffering in the world. I said that the evidence of that suffering left us with two choices; either God chooses to allow the suffering, or God would like to eliminate the suffering but is powerless to do so. Without you realizing it, what I presented to you were two very human choices. Language like God “wants to”, or God “chooses to” are uniquely human responses. They are emotional responses. God “wants to” eliminate the suffering is an emotional response. It is a human response. God “chooses” to allow the suffering is also a very human response.

If God is not some sort of glorified super-human being, then those choices for God become invalid. If we look beyond our anthropomorphic image of God to something else, then some of our struggles to understand God are diminished. When we attach human emotions and human responses to God, then we begin to set ourselves up for trouble. The trouble we encounter with this super-human image of God is most apparent when we begin to talk about the love of God. Because our experience of love is so deeply steeped in the human experience, it is hard for us to look at the love of God without the human emotion attached to it. Our human experience of love is deeply emotional. What if God has no emotion? What does the love of God look like that doesn’t have any emotion? What does the love of God look like that doesn’t make choices? What does the love of God look like that doesn’t say yes or no when we pray?

There are those who claim to be agnostic or even atheists that say the love of God is non-existent, it is all in our imaginations. I think they reach this conclusion because they are looking for the love of God in all the human places you would expect to find it. It’s an easy mistake to make.

So for the next few weeks we will be exploring this idea of the love of God, but we will be exploring it from a non-human point of view. I would invite you over the next week to explore your own thoughts and your images you have about God. Are they human in nature? Do you attach human elements of varied emotional responses to God? How often do you refer to God as he, or him, or his or even her?

Stay tuned, there is more to come. For now, that is enough food for thought.

Go in peace.

Amen.