Sermon: April 15, 2018 – “A Family Resemblance”

 

A Family Resemblance

Text: I John 3: 1-2

See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

I wanted to begin this morning with a quick trip down memory lane. This is an old photograph of me in my highchair on my first birthday. I don’t remember the occasion, rather obviously, but it must have been around August 11, 1957. The only reason I share this particular photo, is because it reminds me a little of this photo. This picture is of Zachary, our third son, when he was about one year old as well. I know all of you can probably think of examples like this in your own families where there is an undeniable family resemblance. Sometimes more than others, but people in the same family tend to look alike.

Many of you have met my brother Bruce. We get accused of being twins all the time, even though I’m the younger and much better looking, it still happens almost every time we go out together. I recall one time when Bruce stopped by my work years ago and my boss met him for the first time. My boss was a little bit of a character, so he came over to me and shook my hand, and said something like, “you must be Chuck’s brother, so nice to meet you.”

What I also find very interesting is how some family character traits are also passed down from one generation to the next. It isn’t just that sometimes we look alike, we also inherit a number of other things from our families. There are times when this isn’t such good news, but there are other times when we are happy and proud that some of the best of our families continue to shine through, both in us and our children. That seems to be how it works.

I think it is important for us to consider this carefully when we read something like the text I read a few minutes ago. When we are identified as children of God, what does that mean? What kinds of things do we inherit from the family of God? Further, would we be recognized as children of God based on some outer appearance or activity that we are engaged in? These are important, self-reflective questions.

I’m hoping to spend a few minutes unpacking some of what I believe to be true with regard to this concept of us being children of God. While I believe this to be true at the most basic level, I also believe that this identification is fraught with potential for misunderstanding and misguided interpretation, at least in my opinion. It also raises some very interesting questions that I believe are worthy of investigation.

This is probably a good time for the pastor Chuck disclaimer where I tell you that these are my thoughts and my ideas, and they don’t have to be your thoughts or your beliefs, but I do ask that you at least think about it. That being said, let’s investigate this concept of being children of God.

One of the first things that pops out for me with this text is that it seems to stand in contrast with the widely accepted notion that Jesus was God’s only son. If we all are children of God, then we are forced in a sense to choose one mystery over the other. Either we are all children of God, or just Jesus was a child of God, at least on the surface it seems that both cannot be true. I lean toward the interpretation that we are all children of God including Jesus. But this interpretation comes with another disclaimer, and that is we all may be children of God, but not all of us act like it nor are we all gifted in the same way.

Heidi and I have three boys. Each one of them qualify as our children. Yet they are very different and are all good at different things. Each one has unique gifts and talents and different personalities. I’m certain you have experienced this in your own families as well. We are not all alike.

This is how I like to think about Jesus. I think of Jesus as a child of God who was extremely gifted in spiritual discernment, insight and possessed a unique ability to meet people where they were. I think Jesus was incredibly connected to God. I think Jesus was able to tap into that incredible connection and live a life that was a true reflection of what it means to be a child of God.

So now we have a choice to make. I think for most of us, there is a significant gap between our lives and the life of Jesus. If I take a minute and review my personal past accomplishments and downfalls and then compare that review with the life of Jesus, I find myself falling way short. I think most of us would feel that way. That is why we tend to elevate Jesus to a status that seems for most of us to be out of reach. And it is human nature to just quit trying if we become convinced that something is simply beyond our capability, or beyond our reach. The choice we have to make is deciding for ourselves if we are truly children of God, like Jesus, or are we something else? Perhaps even more damaging are we left thinking we are something less?

It isn’t easy, but I believe that within each of us lies the latent potential to truly live a life that closely mirrors the life of Jesus. I believe it is possible for us to live into the calling of being children of God. Furthermore, I think that Jesus thought so as well. There are a number of scriptural references that we can take a look at, but there are two that really stand out for me.

The first text is one that Jesus himself would have been aware of; it is found in the Psalms and might have been a text that Jesus read and perhaps meditated on throughout his ministry. In Psalm 82:6, we can find these words: “I say, you are godschildren of the Most High, all of you;”

I think it is noteworthy that this text in Psalms identifies our potential as being not only children of God, but actually Gods. That is we embody the Divine spirit and have the Divine presence within us. If we embody the Divine, then we are Divine. I believe that Jesus was one of the rare individuals that actually successfully lived into this pronouncement. Jesus did it, but so can we.

I mentioned there were two different texts that stand out for me, there are others to be sure, but this one from the Gospel of John, I think sums up what I am trying to communicate more than some of the others. In John 14: 12 we can find these words: “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

So what is stated here is the idea that not only can we live a life that is reflective of the life of Jesus, not only can we mirror the life of Jesus, but we have the potential to exceed the life of Jesus. I’m not aware of anyone yet who has accomplished that, but it appears that the potential may exist.

This idea may be creating an uncomfortable feeling for some of you. There may be thoughts in your mind that I am somehow diminishing the work and the role of Jesus. That I am trying to take the divinity out of Jesus and reducing Jesus to just an ordinary person. It is possible to interpret what I have said in that way. But there is also another interpretation; what I am actually trying to convince you of is that we are not diminishing the status of Jesus; we are elevating the status of everyone else.

Give that a second to sink in. When you are identified as children of God, you are elevated in potential to the status of Jesus. In a perfect world and with a perfect life, your life could be in many ways the life of Jesus. I believe that is what we are called to become. It doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly isn’t easy, but I do think it is possible. I think it is important that we recognize this as a process, we are born as children of God, but it takes us a lifetime to become like Jesus. Look again at the last half of the text I began with: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

This is a critical concept for us to fully comprehend. One of the primary reasons I think it is so important is that the person of Jesus is no longer present here on earth. We may need Jesus now more than ever, but he is not here, at least not in a physical form. In the absence of a physical Jesus, that just leaves you and me to fill the void.

This has been the case for over 2,000 years.  There was a spiritual mystic that lived during the 16th century in Spain. Her name was Teresa of Avila and she wrote a poem about this very thing. I want to close with her poem that is titled: “Christ Has No Body”

“Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Amen.

Sermon: April 8, 2018 – “The Spirit of God”

“The Spirit of God”

Text: Luke 17: 20-21

“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, Look, here it is! Or there it is! For in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”

A number of you already know I’m in the process of building a house. When you build a house there are a number of tools that are nice to have, but one of those tools which I’m not sure you could do without is one of these. This is a six-foot level and this particular tool helps you to keep things straight and plumb and square. Don’t worry if those terms don’t mean anything to you, it just means the level is a way to make sure everything lines up the way it is supposed to. Builders from the ancient past used levels of all kinds to build things like the Roman Coliseum or the great cathedrals of Europe. I think something was wrong with the level when they built this tower in Pisa, so you can see how important it is.

The way a level works is very simple. Enclosed in this long straight guide is a glass tube filled with liquid that has a bubble in it. Just like when you are swimming or in the hot tub, the bubbles want to go up. In the case of the level, the bubble moves toward the high side, or up in a sense. If you want a floor, for example to be level, you can place this tool on the floor and see if there is a high side. If the floor is not level, the bubble will move to the high side. If the bubble stays in the center of your glass tube, you know things are level.

I bring this up because every one of us has the same kind of level system built into our inner ears.  This system keeps the world around us level and allows us to walk or climb stairs, etc without losing our balance.  There is a fluid in our inner ear that provides for us an equilibrium and keeps things in what we consider to be a normal state.  This fluid, called endolymph, moves around in our ear canal and when it moves, it sends messages to our brain about the physical position of our bodies in relation to everything else.  All of us have endolymph, there are no exceptions.

We all have endolymph, but we don’t all use it in the same way.  Through practice and training, we can actually get our brains to react to the endolymph in certain ways.  One of these reactions is what we refer to as balance.  I’m just curious, how many of us in here today can ride a bike, or at least used to be able to ride a bike?  Can I see your hands, OK – good, that seems to be almost everyone.  When you learned how to ride a bike, you trained your brain and your body to react to the movement of the endolymph in a certain way so you could keep your balance on the bicycle.  Most of us I’m guessing mastered the bicycle in a day or two – and if we got back on one today, our brain and our bodies would remember, and we would be able to ride.

One of the physical challenges of traveling in space is that once in orbit, gravity is no longer working on this fluid in our inner ears. Astronauts have to go through special weightlessness training in order to train their brains and their bodies how to react when the endolymph in their inner ears begins to float. If you have ever experienced vertigo, you might have some sense about how this feels. I’m certain it is very odd at first, but with training those who travel in outer space learn to adapt.

My point in all this is to simply demonstrate that even though we all possess similar equipment that is the same fluid in our ears; it is possible to accomplish remarkable things through the training and practice of using that equipment in a certain way.  I hope you heard that, because it is extremely important for what I’m about to say next.

The scripture that I read a few minutes ago reminds us that everyone has God within.  God is within each and every one of us.  What we do with that Divine presence is up to us.  We can practice and train with that Divine Spirit, or we can essentially ignore it, or just get by.  We can stay in a pattern of just walking….or we could learn to travel in space – spiritually speaking!

I would like for you to consider a concept that has been brought out in the book, ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle, and in this book, the author talks about the value in turning off our minds and beginning to connect with that other self, that Divine self, that is within each of us.  Many people feel it is nearly impossible to turn off their minds; the thoughts just keep coming and coming, one after the other.

Turning off your mind is nothing more than training.  It may seem nearly impossible at first, but with practice, it can be accomplished. Just like the astronauts or learning to ride a bike.

I believe one of the reasons we find this difficult is because we are seldom asked to do it.  The church for centuries, I believe, has reinforced the idea of God as an external being rather than something which resides within you. I think this point is worthy of further clarification. If you are going to be in conversation with someone, it is rather obvious your mind must be engaged to carry on the conversation. As long as God remains external, any time we pray or try to have a conversation with an external God, our minds must be engaged. Only when God becomes internalized and we focus our attention to our inner-self does the mind get in the way. We find this difficult because we have not practiced or trained.  If the collective mind-set of Christianity had been to focus on the internal God for the last 2,000 years I’m thinking we would not have so much difficulty with this concept today.  But, alas, we have been trained and conditioned to think of God as external – and to make the switch to an internal God will require some training and some practice.

One of the ways to practice this and to get in touch with our connection to the Divine that resides within you is to spend a few minutes each day totally focused on the now, or to say it another way, the present moment.  I realize that sounds like rhetoric, so let me explain what I mean by giving you an example.

I heard a story of a woman who was fighting depression; she was in the midst of a divorce, her teenage son was in trouble with the law, she was in danger of being laid off at work and it seemed whenever she needed it the most, her car would not run.  One morning the feelings of helplessness were almost overwhelming and she went to her window about to have a good cry.  Instead of having a good cry as she had planned, a beautiful blue bird caught her attention.  She had never seen anything quite like this particular bird; the colors were so bright and the bird seemed to be so alive.  She watched as the bird picked up a sunflower seed from the bird feeder and cracked it open with its beak and enjoyed the contents.  First one, and then another and another, the bird was soon joined by a few other sparrows, but the bright blue bird stayed on the feeder for quite some time.  When it did fly away, it only flew a few feet to a nearby birch tree that had lost all of its leaves for the winter.  The bright blue form of the bird nearly screamed out from against the white bark of the trunk of the birch tree.  It stayed in the tree for a time and the woman watched it; the bird would flick its tail, look one way and then the other, it would hop from one branch to the next.  Eventually, the bird flew away and the woman’s concentration was broken.

As the bird flew away, the woman continued to stand at the window for a minute or two.  Then, slowly the old familiar cares of the world came back in to occupy her mind.  She glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall and was stunned to realize she had been watching the bird for nearly half an hour.  It was then she also realized, for the last 30 minutes her pain was gone. For the last half hour this woman had been totally focused on the present moment and had effectively turned off her mind. As a result, she was in complete connection and complete harmony with the Divine presence that was within her.

This 30-minute respite did not solve any of the problems for her. But what it did accomplish is it allowed some time away from the stress and the chaos of her daily living. In this way, when she did return to the thought patterns of the challenges that were before her, she was in a much better position to take on those challenges because of the time spent focused on the present moment. Time spent in the now is great training to help us deal with the anxieties of the future.

When Jesus said the kingdom of God is within us, the only access to that kingdom of God, or that presence of God, is through the quieting of the mind. You have to train yourself to be able to turn off the anxieties of thinking about the future and stay mindfully in the present moment. I think this is what the Psalmist meant when it was written; “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Practice the now.  Develop the Divine within you.  Go in peace and go with God.

Amen.

Sermon: April 1, 2018, Easter Sunday – Roll Your Stone Away

Roll Your Stone Away

Text: Mark 16: 1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

When I was in college, many years ago, one of the general education requirements was an introduction to psychology course. When I say a general education course that meant that everyone had to take this class whether or not it had anything to do with your major. As a result, the classes tended to be large and they were held in an auditorium type classroom. If I remember right, there were probably 35-40 people in my class.

The class was taught by a Dr. Marvin Jost. Some of the students called him “joking Jost” – both spelled with a “J” because he was always doing something unusual in his classes. This kept the classes interesting and I think we all learned better because of Dr. Jost’s unusual teaching style.

One day right after class had just begun, a male student burst into the classroom and grabbed a backpack of another female student. They struggled for a minute over the backpack, but eventually the male student ripped it from her grasp and ran out the door. The female student ran after him.

As soon as the two people had left the classroom, Dr. Jost informed us that this was all a set-up, and no backpack was actually stolen. The two students involved were acting out a mock scene for us to talk about in class. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how our personal histories and biases inform our minds into remembering what we think we saw.

This was extremely interesting. In a classroom of 40 people, we could not agree unanimously on almost everything; including the gender of the two participants. We went through gender, race, build, height, approximate weight, hair color, facial hair, the approximate length of the incident – almost everything you can imagine. What was so interesting is that on some of the details, like hair color for example, many of the students remembered the male student having blonde hair, while others were certain it was dark hair. Even though we all saw the very same incident, the stories about how we remembered the incident varied greatly.

At the end of class Professor Jost invited the two actors back in so we could see for ourselves how close we were in our descriptions. Most of us could not identify the backpack that the two students struggled over when it was presented with similar looking backpacks. It was an experience I will always remember.

I mention this because among the four Gospel narratives that we have as a reference about Easter morning and the resurrection of Jesus there are variations in the stories. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, which I read a few minutes ago, the two Marys encounter an angel at the tomb and they were so terrified, the text states they didn’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid. Well, the other gospels tell a different story on that point. In Matthew there is a severe earthquake that rolls the stone away, while other gospels say the stone was already moved by the time someone got there. If you line all the gospel narratives up side by side and compare, it is a little interesting just how different the stories actually are.

I think this is perfectly normal and should be expected. By the time any of the Gospels were written, it would have been difficult to find anyone who actually lived through the event, let alone remembered it exactly how it happened. In the class I described the event was just minutes old and we could not agree on what we remembered. With the Gospels, I think it is important for us to recognize that Mark was the first written, but it was written 50-60 years after the execution of Jesus. Given the life expectancy of a person in that part of the world at that time was only around 40 or maybe 45, you can see the problem with finding an eye-witness to the events. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew were written 75-90 years after the execution of Jesus and John was written over 100 years after, maybe as much as 120 years after the fact. So there are a few discrepancies in how the story is reported.

One of the things which I find helpful is to not focus on the discrepancies, but rather find some common ground that is present in all of the stories. One of those things is that in all four gospels, the stone is rolled away. Not always in the same way or using the same method, but one way or the other the stone is rolled away. I want to focus on this idea for a few minutes.

Easter means a lot of different things to different people and I would be the first to suggest that there is not a single correct interpretation. For me, I have always loved the idea that Easter represents transformation and a new beginning. I have mentioned before what a great symbol of Easter I think the butterfly is because as a caterpillar it is entombed for a while and then emerges transformed into a butterfly. I think the same can be said about the metaphor of the stone being rolled away.

In a historical context, there are a couple of things that might be helpful to know about the stone that generally blocked an entrance to a tomb. It served a number of purposes. To seal the tomb was important because it kept animals and rodents out and it kept the odor in. The stones which sealed the tombs were large disc-shaped rocks that had been carved for that purpose. Often the stone was in a track of some kind carved into the rock surrounding the entrance of a tomb and the sealing stone was rolled into place on the downhill side. Then it was sealed with small stones around it. To move it, all the smaller stones would have to be removed first and then the large stone would have to be rolled uphill to open the tomb. This would require the efforts of several men.

So to find the stone rolled away on Easter morning is kind of a big deal. However it happened, it wasn’t easy. But it is an important part of the story. I think it is important because the stone represents an effort to keep some things out and at the same time, to keep some things in. In a way, the stone represents an effort to keep things exactly as they are. Nothing comes in, nothing gets out. The stone is a symbol of status quo; the idea that the stone has been rolled away marks the beginning of something new.

Now I want to try to tie all of this together and give you something to really think about. Remember when I described what happened in class that day? Here is what I want you to really think about. When some of the students remembered the staged robbery in a certain way that was their actual experience. It wasn’t that they simply were remembering the event incorrectly, for them it actually happened the way they remembered it. There wasn’t any difference between what they remembered and what they actually experienced. Where there were gaps in the actual recording of the events in the minds of the students, the mind fills those gaps based on our own personal thoughts and experiences. There isn’t any daylight between what actually happened and what they think actually happened. The mind and the memory actually define the experience; that is why many of us can have a different experience of the same event. In a sense, our minds control our realities. What we think shapes what we experience. And what we think we experience, impacts how we feel.

I want to suggest to you today that most of us have minds that are a lot like a sealed tomb. For the most part, nothing gets in and nothing gets out. We think we have it all figured out and what we think or believe has been OK so far, so why would we need anything new?

But let me ask you a question. How do you feel?

Have you ever known someone who lives the life of chronic complaining? Nothing ever works out right, nothing is good enough, they are always suspicious or they think the odds are never in their favor. These people are likely to say things like “if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all” or of course I often find myself saying that “Murphy is alive and well” meaning that what we refer to as “Murphy’s law” is actually a mindset. When we actually believe that if anything can go wrong, it will-chances are good our minds will find something wrong with our experience of whatever we happen to be experiencing at the moment.

I’m not sure I can stress this idea enough. What happens to us isn’t what shapes our reality. What we think happens to us shapes our reality. Two people who think differently can have the same physical experience and yet have two very different emotional experiences that shape their reality.

If you find yourself not feeling good, not feeling optimistic, not seeing the miracle of the world around you; If it feels like you’re stuck or you are out of options, if it feels like you have tried everything and nothing works; If your situation is hopeless and you feel like giving up; Perhaps it is time to roll the stone away.

This is the message of Easter. We can all roll the stone away that blocks our minds and emotions from experiencing the world around us as God intended for us to experience these things. If we can learn to think in a new way, the experience we have will be new as well. As one of my favorite philosophers, Dr. Wayne Dyer, has said; “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

The transformation and new beginnings that are a part of the Easter story are also reminders that each of us has the opportunity to roll away the stone that blocks our tomb-like thinking.

And that of course, is food for thought.

Amen.