Sermon: August 19, 2018 – “Listening Well”

Listening Well

Text: Luke 8: 16-18

16 “No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. 17 For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. 18 Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”

This is an interesting text in that it seems to parallel a number of other texts scattered throughout the New Testament and even some overlap with the Old Testament as well. The closest text we have appears in Mark 4: 21-25 and it is very similar to this text. As I have said before, most Bible scholars agree that the authors of Matthew and Luke both had copies of Mark that they used as a source for their respective Gospels. When we compare the two, there really isn’t any significant difference between the two, with one exception.

If we look at the text in Mark, we will find that the rule stated about what happens to those who have and those who don’t have relates specifically to giving. Let’s read what it says:

21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

You can see in verse 24, Mark specifically says that the measure with which you give will be the measure with which you receive. Luke leaves that specific example out of his text, and makes it more generic. I am particularly interested in this more generic approach, because I wanted to think about this text in a new way-and I think it is possible that Luke intended for us to expand our thinking around this text as well.

So with that as some background information, I would like for you to forget everything that you think you understand about this text and open your minds for an entirely new perspective as to a possible interpretation of what is actually being communicated by Luke is this passage.

If we begin with verse 16 the function of the lamp is identified to bring light, and therefore it is put on the lamp stand and not hidden away somewhere. There are any number of things we can interpret as light from the lamp, but the metaphor I want to attach to the light today is probably a new idea for you. I want us to think about the function of the light as an attitude or a mindset. So in our minds, when we receive information, do we receive that information in light or do we receive it in darkness? Another way of saying this would be to question whether or not we tend to label certain information as good or bad, positive or negative, or the classic “good news” versus “bad news” scenario. We have all heard the saying that I have good news and bad news, which do you want to hear first?

My thinking around this text, is that all information should be received as good news. We have multiple examples in other texts that tell us to give thanks in all circumstances, to rejoice in the Lord always and that everything works together for our good. In spite of all these other scriptures, we still persist in identifying some news as good, and other news as bad.

One more metaphor before we leave verse 16; in my mind the placing of a lamp on the lamp stand is a form of celebration. We place it front and center for everyone to see and everyone to benefit from; we celebrate the arrival of the lamp by placing it on the lamp stand. I think that is how we should receive all information that comes to us. We should celebrate the information and place it in the center of our minds.

As we move on into the text, in verse 17, it becomes clear that we cannot hide from what comes to us. Everything will eventually be dealt with, everything will eventually come to light. In other words, have you ever found yourself saying something like “well, I just don’t want to think about that right now..” in response to something that we might consider bad news. Have you learned from past experience that ignoring a problem generally doesn’t help? Have you learned from past experience that problems left alone tend to become bigger problems than they would have been if dealt with sooner rather than later?

All of this is to say that we should receive all information with the light of a positive attitude and we should not try to ignore it or hide it away. We should bring it front and center, whatever it is, and deal with what our perceived problem is in the light rather than allowing it to grow larger and more severe in the dark.

If we now look at verse 18, you might begin to see why I keep talking about how we receive information. The text clearly says for us to pay attention to how we listen. What does that mean? How exactly, do we pay attention to how we listen? I think one interpretation of this idea is to pay attention to that voice in our heads that wants to identify and categorize every piece of information we receive as either good news or bad, positive news or negative. We need to pay attention to how we listen and how we receive information. When we immediately label information as bad news or as negative, then everything changes for us and we limit any possibility of a positive outcome for us. Also we may have a tendency to want to put that information in the dark, or hide it away somewhere, but as we were reminded in verse 17, nothing can be hidden that will not eventually be revealed.

Now we can look at verse 18, which I think begins to tie all of this together for us. Taken at face value, or taken as Mark interpreted the text, the idea presented is that when you give, you will receive. This concept is echoed in other passages as well. But Luke changes the wording significantly, Luke eliminates the connection to giving and I think opens the door for us to apply this thought metaphorically to other situations.

For example, when we receive what we call bad news, for some of us we experience fear. If we look at verse 18 in the context of fear, it might read something like this:

Pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have fear, even more fear will be given; and to those who do not have fear, even what fear they have will be taken away.

Or another example is just negativity in general. If we include a reference to negative attitudes or negative thinking or negativity as a general disposition, our text might sound something like this:

Pay attention to how you listen; for to those who react negatively, even more negativity will be given; and to those who do not react in a negative way, even what negativity they have will be taken away.

I feel like these could be accurate interpretations of this text because Luke uses the verb “how” and not what. If we look at the text one more time, we can see that the text says for us to pay attention to “how” we listen – not necessarily what we listen to. Many times we don’t have an option about what we hear or if we will receive bad news or not. We will hear what we hear and often don’t have a choice about that. But we do have a choice about “how” we hear. There is a distinct difference between “what” we hear and “how” we hear. Luke uses the word how, and for me, that indicates we have a choice about how we receive the information.

So we have a choice about how we receive information, or how we listen. If we listen with negativity or fear, that negativity or fear increases. If we listen with a positive spin, and listen with thanksgiving in all situations, then even what fear or negativity we have will be taken from us.

By receiving all information with thanksgiving, we not only eliminate our fear, but we also bring everything into the light. So it is a complete package. Be careful how you listen; if you listen with fear you will remain in the dark and your fear will increase. If you listen with thanksgiving, you will be brought into the light and even what fear you might have had will be taken from you.

And that of course, is food for thought.

Go in peace, Amen.

 

Sermon: August 12, 2018 – “Finding Common Ground”

Finding Common Ground

Text: I Corinthians 1:10

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

When I used to read this text many years ago, I often just laughed at the idea of everyone in a church having no divisions among them. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite stories is sort of about that. I think I may have told this before, but it’s worth repeating-so here goes.

A man was stranded on a deserted island when he finally got the attention of a passing Naval vessel. He had been on the island for several years and wasn’t certain he would ever be rescued-but the passing Naval vessel saw his signal fire and sent a helicopter over to check things out. As the helicopter was lifting off the island with the rescued man on board, the pilot noticed three huts that had been constructed along the beach. The pilot thought it was odd there were three huts, so he asked the man about them. “What’s that first hut there on the left end?” the pilot asked the rescued man. “That’s my house, that’s where I slept and cooked and so on.” The pilot nodded his understanding and then asked about the center hut-“what’s the one in the middle?” the pilot asked. The man responded that he had built that as his church and that is where he went to pray. Again, the pilot nodded indicting that made sense and then he asked about the third hut. “Then what’s the hut on the far right? What was that one for?” the pilot asked. The rescued man scoffed and waved his hands, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to!”

Like I said, it is one of my favorite stories and I do think it reveals a little bit about human nature and this is part of the reason I used to not take this particular admonition from the Apostle Paul all that seriously. It seemed like a pipe dream to me that the church could ever be what Paul describes in this letter to the church in Corinth. The very idea of having no divisions among you and everyone being of the same mind, well, that’s just crazy. You can’t choose a hymn for Sunday morning without making someone pleased and someone else a little perturbed, that’s just the way it is. At least I thought that was the way it is. And I have thought that for a long time. Recently, however I have had the chance to reflect more on this text and have received more input and ideas about what it means to disagree.

So I want to look at this text again and see if we can explore together what I think Paul may have been driving at. At first glance it seems like Paul is asking the church in Corinth to not have any disagreements or differences of opinion about anything. He wants everyone to be united in the same mind.  This is a normal reaction to what is written here; after all, that is sort of what it says. But that is our first mistake when we read the text in that context. That first interpretation sends us down the wrong path, and once started down that path, we never really recover.

One of the things which I think gets overlooked quite frequently in this text, at least I know I overlooked it for a long time, is the last word in the last sentence. Actually, it is the last two words, but take a look at what this actually says again. Paul is asking the church to be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. Did you notice that the word purpose is singular? Paul did not say that everyone needed to be united in the same mind and in all the same purposes, but rather just one purpose, just one idea, just a singular vision on which all can agree. When we begin to recognize the singularity of this calling, it seems to me at least, to become more realistic. If we can find one purpose, one calling, one idea that everyone can agree with, then we can build from there. But I see more in this text than just that. Let me explain.

I don’t know how well you can see these, but these are door wedges and you use them when you are installing a door. The idea behind a door wedge is that if one side of the door is not perfectly straight up and down, you can insert a wedge and push the door jamb out a little bit to bring it into perfect alignment. You probably have had the experience of fighting with a door that doesn’t fit quite right, and usually that means it wasn’t installed quite right or the installer didn’t use wedges or maybe didn’t use enough of them.

This didn’t really occur to me right away, but as I reflected on this text, I began to see a relationship between what Paul was saying in the text and these door wedges. See if this makes as much sense to you as it does to me.

First of all, we need to examine a single door wedge and understand how it is made. One end of this wedge is paper thin and it increases in thickness to about ¼ of an inch thick on the other end. Now the thing is about a wedge like this, is that if you use it by itself, it won’t fit quite right. The door jamb won’t rest against the wedge squarely, because it is at an angle.

Now here is the important part; only when you use two wedges, stacked together, running in opposite directions do the wedges actually work the way they are intended to work. By stacking them together, with the thin end at opposite ends, you can adjust the wedge to the desired thickness and it will lie flat against the door jamb. By working together, with no space in between them, the wedges function perfectly.

So let’s assign some metaphor to these door wedges, shall we? This one, say is thin on the right and thicker on the left. The other wedge then, when placed in the opposite orientation is naturally thin on the left, and thicker on the right. I’m asking you to imagine what this left and right designation might mean on a personal level.

When the two wedges are brought together, with a single purpose in mind, with no division between them-in other words they are stacked together tightly, then they function together perfectly and fulfill the single purpose of perfect door alignment. Even though one wedge leans right and the other wedge leans left, when brought together for that single purpose, the function is fulfilled.

Do you think it is possible for each of us to imagine ourselves as wedges working together for a single purpose, rather than a wedge that drives us apart? It’s all a matter of how we understand the purpose of the wedge.

This is what I think Paul was trying to say in this text. Some can lean left, some can lean right, but when brought together, for that single purpose, with no division between them, the church can fulfill that single purpose, that single calling, that single vision-together.

So how is this accomplished? I hear you ask. I have the same question. It is for certain easier said than done.

One answer that I found helpful came in the pages of this book, “The Anatomy of Peace” published by the Arbinger Institute. In this book, a group of people experience together what it feels like to be in dialogue with others that don’t necessarily agree. It is quite an interesting experiment. It reminds me of the words of the late Mr. Rogers when he said “it is difficult to hate someone once you know their story.”

The fact is that we can come together and we can share our stories and we can learn to view each other as real people, rather than viewing others as obstacles or the enemy. There are times when it is the differences that actually work together to create the best solution for any given problem. We can agree on many things and find our common ground hidden from view in those situations. Problems can transformed into opportunities; enemies can be transformed into allies; conflict can be transformed into celebration and differences can be transformed into desired diversity.

We have an opportunity for the beginnings of that kind of exchange of stories and ideas and personal reflection. Next Saturday we have our Luau scheduled, and I hope everyone will be there. When we gather together outside of the context of church, we often have the chance to meet others in a different way, we learn new things about each other and we learn other peoples’ stories. As we learn the stories, we learn how to work together to achieve those common singular purpose goals on which we can agree.

We are not all alike and we don’t all think the same way. We are wedges and shims that must come together to accomplish that perfect alignment. And that is food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: August 5, 2018 – “Hear the ‘Good News’ – Again”

“Hear the ‘Good News’ – Again”

Text: Luke 18: 35-43

 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

I consider myself to be a casual golfer. I enjoy the game, but I don’t take it very seriously and because of the time commitments, I don’t get to play all that often. Every so often I do like to get out and hit a few balls or play 9 holes with a friend or two. One of the things that keeps you playing golf is that almost every time you go out there are one or maybe two times that you hit the ball perfectly. The shot you intended is the shot you make; that is a great feeling when that happens. Of course the professional golfers have this happen on almost every shot, but like I said, I’m a casual golfer and not a professional.

There is another thing that happens almost every time I go out to play golf and that is exactly the opposite of what I just described. Somehow, and I’m not sure what happens, but every skill you thought you had instantly vanishes. For a period of time, and it varies from game to game, but for me, it normally ranges from a few shots to several entire holes. What happens is that for some unexplained reason, the ball simply doesn’t go where you intended, or it doesn’t go at all. Sometimes you try to hit a nice high arching shot and the ball just snakes through the grass. Other times all you need to do is gently chip the ball onto the green and it instead rockets over the entire green like it’s been shot out of a cannon. This trauma of bad shots will leave you as suddenly as it appeared and just like that, you are back on track.

One of the things I appreciate about the laid back attitudes of most of the people I have played golf with in the past is that they understand this process. They understand because it happens to them as well. So there is an unspoken rule among casual golfers, and that unspoken rule is that every once in a while, it is OK to take what we call a “mulligan.” A mulligan simply means that when you hit a really bad shot you forget that shot and drop a new ball where the first one was and hit again. The mulligan is a great invention. I’m not certain I would be interested in golf at all if it were not for the mulligan. It keeps everybody a little more relaxed. That’s probably why I don’t play in tournaments, because I’m pretty sure mulligans are not allowed in tournaments.

I bring this up today because I have found something in the text I read a few minutes ago that really intrigues me. I looked for some help with this idea of mine in all the commentaries I own and several others on-line, but could not find another commentary that brought out this little detail that I have noticed in this text. So in my search for confirmation of my idea, I started looking at a few other texts, and I found some support in other texts, so I was encouraged.

In the text I read, we have a story of a blind man that is healed by Jesus. Most of the commentaries want to focus on the healing itself and how the blind man identified Jesus and a lot of other stuff, that frankly, for me, doesn’t enhance the text all that much. It’s just fluff.

What I noticed in the text is just one little word that got me thinking. In the text we find a verbal exchange that takes place between Jesus and the blind man. You might remember it, but let’s look at it again. It begins with verse 41; 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight…

What I want you to notice in this text is that the man told Jesus he wanted to see again.

The use of the word “again” implies to me that the man had been able to see at one time, but now had lost his sight for whatever reason.

It doesn’t matter if you look at this text in a literal sense, or take the lesson metaphorically, the idea is that the man who had lost his sight, could see again. From a certain perspective, he was granted a mulligan!

This idea becomes particularly helpful if we look at the text in a metaphorical context. How many times have you felt like you have lost your way? How many times have you made the same mistakes over and over again? How many times has your vision of what is healthy and productive for you grown cloudy over time and you have become blind to what you should be doing? This is essentially the human condition. We grow blind over time to what is good and right and just; the man asked Jesus to be able to see again. His vision had diminished over time.

I think this is an important concept, so I began to look for this pattern in other parts of scripture and once I looked I found it all over the place! Let me give you just a couple of hints. In the story of the prodigal son, the elder son is disgruntled because the father throws a party for the younger who had acted badly. The elder son complains that he has been doing what is expected all this time and the father had never given him a party. The father responds to the elder son by saying that this son of mine was dead, but is now alive again! There’s that word again. The father said they had to celebrate, because he was gone, but now he is back again!

There are lots of references like this, but I will give you just one more. In the Gospel of Mark, we find a story where Jesus is healing a blind man also. This time he touches the man’s eyes and asks him if he can see. The man responds he can see people sort of, but they look like trees walking, so Jesus touches him again… and then he can see clearly. Jesus had to do it twice. This story is found in Mark 8: 22-26.

My take on all this is we don’t always have to get it right the first time; or even the second time. There is great power in the word again. Part of the message of Jesus is that we get to try again when we mess up. We get to ask Jesus to let us see again when we have grown blind to what is really important. We can employ the word “again” over and over and over until we get it right. Jesus grants us a mulligan anytime and every time we need one. All we have to do is ask.

The conversation in the text I read makes this clear. Jesus said to the blind man “what can I do for you” and the blind man responded by saying he would like to see again.

Whatever it was in his life that he had lost focus of, whatever it was that he could no longer see, whatever it was that had caused him to lose sight of his priorities, he asked Jesus to let him see again. And we can do the same.

In a few moments we will be celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion. We, as United Methodists, celebrate this ritual about once a month. Usually, it only takes about a month for some of us to lose sight of some of our priorities, to lose sight of what is truly important, to lose sight of what is our higher calling. Communion is that chance to ask Jesus to let us see again.

Amen.