Sermon: June 10, 2018 – Claiming our Identity

Claiming our Identity

Text: Luke 4: 17-19

 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I had an interesting conversation the other day. A delivery driver was delivering some materials for that little construction project I have going on down the hill. It went something like this:

Driver:             Are you the builder here? Do you build a lot of houses?

Me:                  Yes, I’m the builder, but I’m not a commercial builder. I’m just a guy building his own house.

Driver: That’s cool. How did you find this lot?

Me: The church owned it and I was able to buy it. (Pointing to the church behind me)

Driver: I’m not sure I’d buy anything from a church.

Me: What do you mean?

Driver: Oh, I don’t know. Churches just give me the creeps. They seem like a weird group of people. I’m just not religious.

Me: I know what you mean, but not everyone is the same you know. I know a number of people in that church and they are really OK.

Driver: Didn’t mean any disrespect, just the way I am. I’m sure they’re good folks. Where do you want this stuff anyway?

I didn’t have the heart to tell this guy that I was the spiritual leader of this weird group of people…

I mention this conversation because it is all too common and it happened again this week. I don’t know if you picked up on this in the news or not, but the Supreme Court upheld a bakery’s right to not make a cake for a same gender wedding.

Now everyone can relax because I’m not going to take a stand or have an opinion one way or the other on this Supreme Court ruling. I can actually see both sides and I would think it a hard decision to know what the right call is in this particular circumstance.

What I really want to focus on today is how the story about this appeared in the Lewiston Tribune this week and what that means for us as we try to move forward with our revitalization efforts.

If you take a look at the headline in this story-I hope most of you can read this from the picture I took of the actual newspaper, but if you can’t, let me fill in some of the blanks. The headline actually reads: “High court rules for Christian Baker”. Just in case you are not completely familiar with what is going on here, let me begin by saying that Christian Baker is not the man’s name. It is how he is described in the media. The man’s name is Jack Phillips. It is his Christian belief that he would not want to support a gay wedding in any way, and he is a baker, so he is described in the article as a “Christian Baker”.

I’m not sure how I feel about his right to legally oppress someone else, but it is his business and he can believe what he wants, even if it is misguided in my opinion. I find this story similar to cafes and restaurants in the 1950’s and 1960’s that refused to serve African Americans. Eventually that kind of discrimination became illegal. But that’s not my topic for today.

What I want to call your attention to is that there isn’t any mention anywhere in this article that Christianity is divided on this issue. There isn’t any mention anywhere in this article that many churches support equal rights for the LGBTQA community and this particular man’s opinion does not reflect all of Christianity.

And yet the headline reads: “Christian baker” as if the fact that he represents one sect of Christianity clearly defines all of Christianity.

I’m not sure there is much that we can do about this, but awareness of the problem and learning how to combat the problem, I believe is a key ingredient to our future growth and sustainability.

As the conversation I had with the delivery driver reveals, there is a lot of suspicion, distrust and just bad information that is very common among the younger generations. I believe that a lot of those attitudes are formed by news stories like the one I am pointing out. If you knew nothing about this church or about Christianity, you would be led to believe that Christianity as an entire religion is anti-gay rights. You would believe that all of Christianity and all Christian churches would be willing to oppress another human being based on their sexual orientation. You would believe these things to be true because you have never been told otherwise.

Unless we assume ownership of who we are, what we believe to be true, and celebrate our attitudes of diversity and allowing people to think for themselves, we will continue to get lumped together in the minds of those who do not know us. I would not expect that delivery driver I was in conversation with to recognize the church I pointed to happened to be United Methodist. I would not expect that delivery driver to recognize that as United Methodists we have a history of social action, social justice and a commitment to “think and let think.” I would not expect that delivery driver to recognize that the “church” he had in his mind in no way was an accurate picture of this church. The delivery driver had only one opinion of church – and it wasn’t very positive.

It is my belief that much of the reason for these attitudes is how Christianity is portrayed in the media. Stories with headlines like this one are all too common. The nuttier the TV evangelist happens to be, the more media attention he or she seems to garner. I saw a story last week on NBC News about a TV Evangelist raising money for a newer and larger and faster private jet; the one he had just wasn’t good enough.

If we want to attract a new generation of people to this church, if we want to engage the minds and imaginations of LCSC students and young families and persons active in our community, then we must find a way to stem the tide of inaccurate and negative media coverage. We must find ways to tell our story; we must find ways to set ourselves apart from the myriad of churches who do fit neatly into the media stereotype.

I believe this is one of the key ingredients to our revitalization efforts. We are not your typical church. We do not offer a typical church experience. When you come to church here, you will be challenged, you will be asked to think about your faith, and you will be pushed to reconcile your belief system with a global vision. This is who we are and we need to be proud and loud about this identity.

There is a tsunami of misinformation that we must fight against every day. If we fail to get the word out to others, we will fail to achieve any growth. If we fail to take ownership of our identity, we will have no clear identity that stands apart from the masses. If we hesitate to take up the banner that not all Christians think alike then our window of opportunity will close.

My conversation with the delivery driver and this headline are just two examples of the misconceptions that are out there and reinforced every day. I believe our best chance for long-term sustainable growth is to clearly define who we are as often as we can. We need to talk to people. We need to show up at events. We need to write letters to the editor. We need to become activists for the Christ we follow.

The ministry of Jesus is summed up in the text I read at the beginning of this sermon. This is what Jesus was called to do and it is what we are called to do. To bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free; to offer release for those held in their own captivity and to offer enlightenment to those who are blind. This is our mission, this is our calling.

Hopefully, this is food for thought, but also a call to action. Answer the call. We need your help.

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: June 3, 2018 – “Ancient Contemporary Wisdom”

Ancient Contemporary Wisdom

Text: Matthew 5: 4

Last week I mentioned that three or four of the beatitudes seem to really stand out as authentically Jesus. Part of that determination from Bible scholars comes from looking for certain characteristics that a teaching of Jesus will often contain. One of those characteristics is often a reversal of thought and often very concise, even though it contains a lot of information. With this particular beatitude, these things are present, but there is also source information which leads scholars to believe that this particular saying is authentically from Jesus. . Today’s beatitude – blessed are those who mourn, or grieve has all of these same qualities.

That being established I want to first look at the word “Blessed” and offer a few interpretations of that word that may be new information for you. Many scholars believe the word could be translated into modern English by defining it as “congratulations”. Another way of interpreting the word “blessed” is an inner-awareness, or a special knowing; things of this nature. One thing is consistent, and that is the intent of the word “blessed” does not reflect any kind of special blessing from God. The word choice and sentence structure in the original Greek tend to exclude this as a Divine blessing. This is an important element toward our full comprehension of this particular saying of Jesus.

One of the things which make this saying of Jesus authentic, as I mentioned earlier, is that it contains a reversal of thought, or a challenge of the status quo. Jesus was doing this all the time, most of us are familiar with sayings when Jesus says the first shall be last, the poor are rich and other sayings like these. The reversal of conventional wisdom in this beatitude, I believe, revolves around the idea of the type of God which can offer comfort. The Old Testament is quite full of a vengeful and angry God, and the concept of a compassionate God would be somewhat new for the audience that Jesus was originally teaching. There are a number of references in the wisdom literature, the Psalms and so on, about God as being a comfort, but the context of most of those references is a God that is mighty and powerful and we take comfort in the protection of that power. Even the famous 23rd Psalm indicates this with the reference of ‘thy rod and thy staff they comfort me’ – the rod and the staff representing the power and control of a shepherd.

What is different in this beatitude is the personal nature of the comfort of God-meeting you where you are in your grief and offering comfort in a spiritual or personal way. For ancient Judaism, this was quite a new concept. Today we think of this type of presence as the work of the Holy Spirit, but we must remind ourselves that this teaching took place prior to the formation of Christianity and much before the idea of a Trinitarian God had ever been thought of.

One possible interpretation of this beatitude is a very traditional interpretation which I am not fond of at all. It puts forth the idea that those of us who become aware of our own inadequacies and our own sin then become sorrowful and full of grief – and with that realization then comes the comfort of God in the form of grace and forgiveness. I don’t find this interpretation particularly helpful; I prefer a more positive approach and perhaps a more pragmatic approach to the interpretation of this beatitude. I believe the beatitudes are designed to help us live life here and now, to help us deal with everyday challenges and everyday problems. To be reminded of how inadequate we are in the eyes of God generally, at least in my opinion, is not that helpful.

My personal take on this beatitude you might be able to find a few commentaries, but as far as I have been able to determine, this interpretation is fairly unique to my own personal thought. So, once again, it may be time for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer, these are my thoughts and they don’t have to be your thoughts-I offer them simply as an opportunity to think about things, ask questions and arrive at your own conclusions.

Back to my interpretation of this particular saying of Jesus.  There is an old saying which I think has application as we begin to unpack this beatitude, and that saying is this; “all sunshine makes deserts”. The idea here is that we must experience some rain if we are to stay alive or expect to grow. I think the key ingredient here is growth. Sorrow and trouble offer us that opportunity and it is an opportunity to walk closer and to better understand our God. This concept that hard times grow character is not a new concept; what is new, I believe, is the thought process that allows us the opportunity to see this “up” side of sorrow or grief or hard times much sooner than in the past.

I think many of us have had the experience of 20/20 hindsight where we realize that a particular spot of trouble or some hard times may have been beneficial for us in some way. Almost everyone I think is able to remember a time that was hard, but proved to have a silver lining, as they say, after a decade or two has passed. My concept around this beatitude is to provide us the chance to see that silver lining much sooner.

There is also a principle at work here that some people refer to as ‘contrast’ – this is a very common tenet in some of the eastern religions. The idea of contrast is that there must be hot in order for us to experience cold, there must be soft if there something hard is to be experienced, there must be something rough if we are going to experience smooth, and so on. Jesus also echoed this teaching in a number of the parables and stories he told. If we apply this idea of contrast to this particular beatitude, we could include a more contemporary translation of the word “blessed” and come up with a new way of reading this saying of Jesus. In this beatitude, we could think of a different translation as saying something to the like: “congratulations, for now that you have experienced sorrow, you are better equipped to appreciate joy; and that knowledge will bring you comfort.”

I have been told and have read from a variety of sources that our human psyche is only capable of experiencing one emotion at a time. In other words, we cannot be happy and sad simultaneously; we are either happy or sad, but we cannot be both. We can often ping-pong from one to the other, but our human emotional response system is set up so that we can only actually experience a single emotion at a time. This is a key thought.

If we can recognize sorrow or grief or suffering as an opportunity for contrast, this changes our emotional response to the immediate situation. Because we can see hidden in the sorrow an opportunity for comfort and an opportunity for growth and as an opportunity for developing a greater understanding of God in our lives, then we can begin to actually offer thanksgiving for the experience of sorrow. Remember what I said earlier about the human psyche only experiencing one emotion at a time; with that offering of thanksgiving, will come a different set of emotions and the emotion of sorrow or grief will be mitigated and we will experience comfort.

If we place this idea in the context of the beatitude, we come away with a perspective that those who begin to understand this concept are to be congratulated because they know that in their grief there will be wisdom, learning, and a new appreciation of joy and happiness-so their natural response to sorrow and grief is to embrace it and actually give thanks for the experience. As they do, the emotions of sorrow and grief begin to fade and the emotions of love, thanksgiving, gratitude and joy rush in to take their place. That transformation of emotional response brings great comfort.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Food for thought.

Go in peace and go with God. Amen.