Sermon: November 4, 2018 – “Can You Hear Me Now?”

Can You Hear Me Now?

Text: Mark 7: entire chapter

It seems to me that we live in particularly turbulent times at the moment and many of us have quit listening to the other. We have all developed selective deafness. Hate crimes are on the rise, our political polarization has grown to extreme proportions. We now hear on the news about shootings in synagogues or direct mail campaigns that include pipe bombs. Just this past week there was an article in the Tribune about how we have lost our unity and respect for anyone who doesn’t think like we do. So in light of our current political climate and state of our country I thought it might be a good time to check out if Jesus had anything to say about our current situation.

We all remember this guy, right?  Strolling all over the world, all the remote locations – floating ice bergs, forgotten waterfalls, deserted islands – he always asked the same question: “Can you hear me now?” And apparently, he always seemed to get the right response, because he always said “good.”  I don’t know about you, but I have never had that kind of luck with a cell phone; my experience is usually just about the opposite.  The call is dropped before you even have an opportunity to ask the question!

In spite of the pitfalls of cell phones and the general phoniness (pun intended) of this marketing campaign, what the character in the ads does do for us is remind us of a very valid question; “can you hear me now”, is a very valid question.  It is valid because of the many forms of hearing there are and the many types of deafness there are as well.  It is my opinion that the 7th chapter of Mark deals with some of the many kinds of hearing and the many kinds of non-hearing or deafness we may encounter in our lives.  We need to be reminded sometimes to ask the question of ourselves and of others; can you hear me now?

It isn’t often that my scripture for a sermon is an entire chapter, so allow me to explain this a little bit.  We will not be reading the entire chapter, but I would encourage you to look it up and read for yourself perhaps this afternoon, it is a short chapter and it might take you five minutes.  What we will be doing this morning is working our way through the chapter and dealing with the three different stories we find in chapter seven.  In my Bible each individual story, or pericope as they are called in theological circles, is given a sub-title.  So the pages in my Bible that are Mark 7 look a little like this: Chapter 7, The Tradition of the Elders, The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith, and Jesus Cures a Deaf Man.  Those are the three stories we find in the 7th chapter.

When I was in Seminary, one of the things we were taught to pay attention to when interpreting scripture was something my professor called “structural context”.  In other words, is there a structure or a pattern present in the other stories that surround the one you are looking at that impact the story in some way, or at least inform it with a deeper meaning.  If we look at chapter seven in Mark as an entire unit, rather than three individual stories not relevant to one another, we can find some interesting overlap.  I believe this overlap has to do with the art of hearing and the art of non-hearing, or what I called “selective deafness” earlier.  That being said, let’s take a look at the first story, which is called the tradition of the elders.

In this story, the Pharisees and the scribes are beginning to get on Jesus because he and his disciples have failed to follow some of the traditions and customs set forth in ancient Judaism.  They were eating some of the food without a proper ceremonious washing and perhaps even some of the food was considered forbidden as well.  The disciples were also guilty of not washing their hands properly according to the custom.  So the scribes and the Pharisees confronted Jesus about this; in verse 5 they ask him why this is so.  In verse 8 Jesus offers a very pointed answer: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  In verse 13 Jesus repeats this indictment, with perhaps even stronger language saying: “…you make void the word of God through the tradition that you have handed on.”

Consider these two verses for just a minute in the context of hearing.  Could they not be paraphrased into something like “you can’t even hear the Word of God, when it is spoken to you, because your adherence to tradition has made you deaf.”  You see the scribes and the Pharisees we so certain of their position, so certain that they were right, they could not hear any other ideas.  Do we not encounter that same level of deafness in the church today?  Is not the word of God one of compassion and inclusiveness and of love and yet in our deafness of certainty do we not betray those mandates every day?  Of course we do. I might also point out that this also happens in political circles as well, it is not just the church; this is one of the ways we have become so polarized in this country. By clinging to traditions or clinging to hard party lines or clinging to political rhetoric we make void the word of God.

The second story in chapter seven is equally as interesting because it gives us an example of just the opposite circumstance.  In this story a Gentile woman, a person not of the Jewish tradition, asks Jesus for help with her daughter.  At first Jesus responds negatively; verse 27 is very harsh.  In that verse Jesus says: “…it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Jesus was convinced that his ministry was exclusive to the children of Israel; he was here to minister to the Jews and that was all, and he was going to stick with that position.  He was certain he was right about that.

Then in verse 28 the woman says to Jesus; “…even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Here the woman was challenging Jesus’ position that he could only help the Jews.  She was saying that she didn’t need his full attention, but just a crumb of his attention.  She was saying that he didn’t have to choose one over the other, but both could be fed.

Unlike the scribes and the Pharisees in the first story that could not hear because of their tradition and their need to be right, Jesus actually hears the woman.  Not only does he hear her, but he ponders the words and changes his mind!  Verse 29 says that Jesus told the woman; “for saying that, you may go-the demon has left your daughter.”  This story is a great example of hearing the word of God, even when it challenges your original position.  Something the scribes and Pharisees could not do. It is also something that you seldom hear about in political circles. With the ability to choose our conversations through social media and choose our news through cable TV we can surround ourselves with only those individuals who think just like we do. We are never challenged or asked to think outside of the box by anyone. We live in silos surrounded by the messages that only confirm what we already believe and never challenge what we believe. This woman challenged Jesus and it had a positive result.

The third story in chapter seven is actually about a deaf man that Jesus heals.  But there are a couple of interesting things to point out.  The first thing I noticed in reading this story is that there was a great crowd, but Jesus removed the man from the crowd before ministering to him.  Verse 33 says “he took him aside in private, away from the crowd.”  Then Jesus did something I think is somewhat unusual, the scripture says he stuck his fingers in the man’s ears.

I think most of us are familiar with many other stories where Jesus was able to heal with just the spoken word or if someone touched the hem of his garment.  Jesus did not need to stick his fingers in this man’s ears to heal him; so perhaps the fingers in the ears are symbolic of something else.  I have the thought that a finger in the ears is an almost universal sign of not listening to the outside world.  If you don’t want to hear what someone has to say, you stick your finger in your ear.  Or you at least cover your ears.

What Jesus does next is also quite interesting; with his finger in the man’s ears, he then says “be opened” and they were.  But the phrase “be open” is packed with metaphor; particularly when you consider that Jesus’ fingers were directed not only at the man’s ears, but his mind as well.  Be open to the inner voice, be open to your feelings, be open to what your gut is telling you – and pay less attention to the outside world.  Being open to an inner voice is yet another type of hearing.

The chapter ends with an example of another kind of deafness.  What is implied in the story is that Jesus and the man return to the crowd and the man can hear and speak.  The crowd is amazed and awe struck.  Verse 36 pretty much sums up what happened next; “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”  The crowd was deaf to the words of Jesus.  There is another form of deafness that is often found and it is simply the mob mentality.  When everyone in a crowd gets the same idea, for some reason, even if the idea is preposterous, the crowd mentality will prevail.

To re-cap the entire chapter, we have deafness by certainty of position or political platform and tradition, making void the word of God.  We have true hearing, even when being challenged on our own assumptions, and based on that true hearing, being able to change our minds.  We have hearing and being open to the inner voice, with open ears and open minds, sometimes shutting out the outside world.  And finally we have deafness through mob mentality; unable to hear a voice of reason because the crowd is too loud.  Two examples of deafness and two examples of hearing all in the same chapter; what a remarkable chapter it is.

Go in peace, go with God and go with a new awareness of hearing, and perhaps a renewed sense of understanding how to listen to one another.

Amen.

 

Sermon: October 28, 2018 – Community Defined

 

Community Defined

Text: Galatians 6: 2

“Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.”

If you would head south out of the Denver area and travel almost due south until you were nearly at the border of Colorado and New Mexico, you might find yourself in a little town called Antonito.  This little town must have a population of less than 1,000 people; it is located in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains about 8 or 10 miles from the state line of New Mexico, as the crow flies. There is a pass however, that lies between the two states, Cumbres Pass, and at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet it forms a bit of a barrier between Colorado and New Mexico.

There isn’t much going on in Antonito, except for the local tourist attraction.  That attraction is the Cumbres-Toltec narrow gauge railroad.  This rail line is one of the oldest operational narrow-gauge railways in the United States, with a steam locomotive that still burns coal and spews black smoke and soot all over everything.  The railway, which now shuttles people from Antonito up over the pass and back down the other side to Chama, New Mexico, would have been fairly busy for the last few weeks.  When you ride the train over the pass most of the cars are open to the air and the elements.  As such, the sight-seeing and the scenery are unmatched as you chug your way through the wilderness areas of the San Juan Mountains-especially this time of year as the Aspen begin to turn the color of sunshine.

Some of the scenes from the railway are just magnificent.  Huge areas of the mountainsides are transformed into great patches of gold.  As you look out across a valley or at a neighboring hillside, it can be an awesome sight to see all these Aspen in their autumn best.

One of the things that make the scenery this spectacular has to do with the Aspen trees themselves and how they grow.  You may have heard this before, but Aspen trees cannot grow very effectively alone, isolated as a single tree.  It is a requirement of the Aspen that they grow in clumps and clusters; single trees do not flourish in the mountains.  When you see Aspen tress in the mountains, you almost always see them as a group.  And when the group decides to change color – well, then you get the impact that is the Colorado Aspen in the fall.  Obviously, the pictures can only give you a hint of the real experience, but it is worth doing if you are ever in the area.

This is great, you’re thinking…I come to church and get a travelogue instead of a sermon!  If I had known this, maybe I would come more often!

Well, at the risk of disappointing those who are excited about the idea of a non-sermon, let me see if I can bring a degree of relevancy to what I have shared so far.

Last week I mentioned something about the Pumpkin Patch and how I felt it really helped to define what I considered to be community.  As a product of our church community, we have the valley community coming to us and interacting with us as we reach outside of the walls of this church building and find new ways to be in relationship with the community around us. I think that concept is critical; we must find new ways to be in relationship with the community that surrounds us.

A little more than a week ago we held our annual Charge Conference in conjunction with several other valley UMC churches.  Our District Superintendent was there, Reverend Gregg Sealey, and Gregg reminded all of us that all of the churches present face many of the same challenges for the future. One of those challenges is about how to attract new people to our church. Gregg said that one of the keys to that kind of growth is to create new spaces for new people. I think when we reach into the community the way the Pumpkin Patch seems to, we are in fact creating new spaces for new people.

Some of you have been a part of this community for decades, 20, 30 or even 40 years.  You already know what it means to be a part of a community because you have been doing it for so long.  As a matter of fact, the roles here should almost be reversed – you should be telling me what it means to be in community – because many of you have been in community, and this community, for much longer than I have.

But what I want to say today about community isn’t so much about what it is like to be a part of the community, but rather I want us to consider how we perceive this idea of community.  To help us with this perception I have lined up a movie clip from a movie that is several years old now called Phenomenon.  This movie starred John Travolta as he played a character that developed a brain tumor which was inoperable, but interestingly enough, before the tumor became fatal for the hero it stimulated areas of the brain that most of us never use.  All at once it seemed that our character had almost super-natural abilities to learn and perceive and began to acquire knowledge at a fantastic rate.  Let’s catch up with him as he is meeting with some people from his community.

Play movie clip – https://youtu.be/nxIuMZcblYw

Did you hear how he described how we are to be in the universe-“cooperation” is the word I think he used; and as an example of that level of cooperation, he talked about the Aspen trees in Colorado.  But what did he say about the Aspen?  He described the Aspen as a single living organism; a single living organism – not a community of individual living organisms, but a single living organism.  He said at first scientists thought they were individual trees, but then they discovered that all the trees actually share a common root system and they could be considered a single life-form.

When you considered the photos I was sharing earlier, or as you look at a few more; do you see individual trees or do you see a single living organism.  As I said earlier, my intent today is to offer you another way to perceive this idea of community and this idea of cooperation.  When a community can become like the Aspen, and function as a single living organism, then it is my belief we have arrived at the metaphor we find often in scripture that describes our community as a body.  A body with many members and a body with many different parts, and yet a single living organism.

One of the more interesting facts that I have learned about Aspen trees is that they have a very shallow root system.  That could be one of the reasons they survive so well in the Rocky Mountains, because it would be difficult to develop a deep root system with such rocky soil to contend with.  But as the Aspen grow and thrive, the roots actually intertwine with one another and they begin to share this common root system with other trees then spring up through the ground from the shared root system.  These new trees add to the shared root system and so a stand of Aspen expands and enlarges.  The interesting thing about this shared root system is that any individual tree would have trouble developing enough of a shallow system to keep it alive.  As a single tree, the Aspen is very vulnerable.  But as a community, they survive and thrive.

Another point of interest with regard to this shared root system is that the intertwining of the roots actually helps hold the tree up in the winter.  The Rocky Mountains can be a harsh environment; there are high winds and heavy snow and avalanches to deal with.  Because the roots intertwine with one another, the Aspen trees literally help hold each other up.  They withstand the high winds, they withstand the heavy snow and they withstand the avalanche-because they hold each other up.  When I read the scripture I began with – share each others burdens – I think of the Aspen trees and I think of community.

When we consider the idea of community within the church, we must approach this idea with the metaphor of the Aspen in mind. We must be a single living organism. What that means is a unified effort, a unified support, a unified understanding of what is happening and why.  The Pumpkin Patch is just one example, there are a number of examples of how this church, as a community, reaches out to the surrounding community. But I think it is important for us to recognize that a fractured or divided approach to our projects will not function correctly nor will they thrive. Every event, every ministry, every attempt to reach out beyond the walls of this church will have challenges and will have things go wrong. Those winter winds will blow. Only when we stand like the Aspen, intertwined together, bearing each other’s burdens, and literally holding each other up will we be successful. Our community must be a single living organism if it is to survive.

And that is food for thought; Go in peace, go with God and hold each other up against the storms of life.  Amen.

 

Sermon October 21, 2018

Confronting Paradigms

Text: Ephesians 6: 13-19

13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

There was a man who had been out at a party and he stayed longer than he probably should have and he knew his wife was going to be angry with him for getting home so late.  On the way home he decided to take a short cut through the local cemetery – this would save him at least 5 or 6 minutes of walking rather than staying on the streets and walking around.  As he started into the graveyard, he noticed the light from the streetlights was growing dimmer and dimmer.  It seemed a cloudy evening and there was no moon light, not even a star.  Blacker and blacker it grew until he could hardly see his hand in front of his face.  And then it happened.  He walked into a mound of dirt he could not see, tripped and fell into an open grave.

He picked himself up, not hurt because the dirt was soft –obviously a recent digging – and began to search for a way out.  If it was dark before you can imagine what it was like six feet below the surface.  He couldn’t see a thing.  He felt around the dirt walls searching for a root or something he might grab hold of to pull himself up and out of the open grave.  No luck – the walls seemed smooth as glass in the pitch black of night.  He jumped up, flailing his arms up over the top of the grave hoping to grab some grass, perhaps a weed, anything that he could grasp to pull on; over and over and over again he jumped up trying to grip onto something.  It was no use.  Exhausted and sweating he made his way to the corner of that empty grave, sat down and decided he would just have to wait for morning until someone came along to help him out.  Soon he drifted off to sleep.

He awoke to the rustling and solid thud of yet another wanderer cutting through the same cemetery and falling into the same open grave.  The newcomer jumped and jumped, just like he had done for several minutes.  Finally the first man decided to speak from the dark corner of the grave where he had been sleeping.  “You’ll never make it” he said to the newcomer.  But he did.

Part of what makes this story entertaining is that we understand the situation through a particular paradigm that we have been taught.  Every Halloween people remind us again that cemeteries are supposed to be scary places where mysterious things happen and where the ghosts and goblins roam. Just the thought of walking through a graveyard at night and alone scares some of you right now – in broad daylight.  And when I began to tell the story and had the man cut through the cemetery – you knew right away it was a bad idea.  We have been conditioned to anticipate such things and of course this story fulfilled your expectations.  Then when we put ourselves in the shoes of the second man who fell in and imagined ourselves struggling to get out when suddenly we hear a voice out of nowhere that states “you’ll never make it” – well, we can all understand this would make someone jump right out of their skin – and out of the grave as well.  So of course, this is what gives the story a humorous conclusion – because we can relate so completely to the second man.

The reason we can relate is because of paradigms.  Paradigms offer us a certain structure and a certain way of seeing the world and understanding what is going on around us.  Most of the time, paradigms are very helpful – as a matter of fact, not only are they helpful, but they are also necessary.  They are also extremely difficult to change once they are accepted as truth.  This can be a problem.

There are at least two false paradigms that have become sort of famous over the years.  One such paradigm involved the shape of our planet – everybody knew that the world was flat.  The other paradigm involved a man named Galileo who suggested the earth was not the center of the universe.  We all know what happened to him.  Once accepted as a general guiding principle and understood to represent the collective wisdom of those in power, a paradigm becomes almost sacred – people are willing to die rather than re-think a paradigm.  It’s true – that is what caused the Civil War – people were unwilling to rethink the paradigm of slavery – they chose to kill and be killed rather than to have a sacred paradigm challenged.

I began with a light-hearted story to illustrate how paradigms help us think.  But now we must face up to the fact that they can also be very powerful motivators and we must also recognize that a particular paradigm can also be inaccurate.  Regardless of what we have been told, regardless of who else believes it to be true, regardless of what has been written about it – the chance remains that any paradigm we believe to be true could be not so true.

There is such a paradigm in Christianity.  This is a powerful and deeply entrenched paradigm that has shaped our culture in a thousand ways.  The trouble is, I don’t believe the paradigm to be accurate – and it isn’t just a little out of whack and in need of a slight adjustment.  It is completely wrong.  It is so wrong that the exact opposite of this paradigm is what I believe to be true.  The trouble is – as I said before – once a paradigm is accepted they are very difficult to change.

The paradigm of which I speak is the paradigm of redemptive violence.  Contemporary theologian and Bible scholar Walter Wink identifies it as the myth of redemptive violence.  By whatever name we identify the thinking, it is still the same.  The idea that in some cases violence solves problems and can be used to bring peace and good, sometimes violence can even be used to bring redemption.

The orthodox Christian position on the sacrifice of Jesus supports this thinking.  This position believes that God required a blood sacrifice – an act of incredible violence – in order to save humanity.  The scripture I read at the beginning of this sermon speaks of the Gospel of peace and the sword of the Spirit as compatible elements and all being from God.  The whole armor of God.

Truth is, I believe, this paradigm of redemptive violence that is so often taught as such a good thing, spills over into our culture at large.  Why else would we kill people to demonstrate to people who kill people that killing people is wrong?  Why else would we support wars and military coups that are supposed to bring peace and tranquility to a nation or region?  Why else would we be willing to tolerate the mass casualties of innocent civilians in acts of war?  Is it possible that we are the most violent nation in the world (and we are by far) because we are also the most “Christian” nation in the world?  Think on that one for a little bit.

The paradigm of redemptive violence originates within the Christian and Hebrew scriptures.  The drowning of the Egyptian soldiers after the parting of the Red Sea is redemptive violence.  The forceful taking of the Promised Land recorded in the Old Testament is redemptive violence.  The story of God asking Abraham for Isaac is a story of redemptive violence.  Any sacrifice at all is an act of redemptive violence.  And don’t think it is limited to the Old Testament because it is not.  Every Easter millions of sermons are preached praising the redemptive violence of death on a cross.

The problem is that violence is not redemptive.  It never has been and it will never be.  The teaching of the paradigm of redemptive violence is something we need to confront as the church moves into the 21st century.  It is a paradigm that needs to be challenged and re-thought.  As difficult as it is, it is work that must be done.  The question is; are we up to the task?

Food for thought.  Go in peace and go with God.  Amen.

Sermon: October 14, 2018 – “Letting Life Drain Away”

 

Letting Life Drain Away

Text: James 1: 2-4

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Oh, Boy! I just can’t wait for something bad to happen so I can count it as all joy!  My life is just a little too good right now, I wish some trials would come along…I’m just not yet complete.  I sure miss the good old days when everything was so much more of a struggle……

Is this scripture nuts?  What are we to think about this kind of advice?  How can this be helpful?  When someone’s life has just been turned upside down – this isn’t going to bring any comfort, this isn’t going to help; this isn’t what they want to hear.  I know if it were me that was in the middle of some catastrophe it isn’t what I would want to hear. As I write these words, hurricane Michael is taking aim at the coasts of Florida and Alabama and I’m pretty certain those who suffer as a result of this latest storm would not want to hear about counting it all as joy.

So what are we to make of this?  I’ve heard many interpretations on scriptures like this one – and this isn’t the only one for sure – and I think the most tragic result of these interpretations is the belief that God actually sends calamity for testing and to make us complete.  Maybe in some weird way, people take comfort in the idea that God has caused the trouble, and it is not the result of the randomness of the universe, poor choices or just plain old bad luck.  Having God send the calamity absolves us from any responsibility. I have also heard it stated that God will not give us any more than we can handle. I remember after hurricane Katrina devastated parts of New Orleans that Pat Robertson stated that God had done this because New Orleans was such a sinful city.

What nonsense!

I don’t believe God sends calamity.

I don’t believe God ever gives us something to handle.

But I do believe this scripture.

Now that may surprise some of you….particularly because I’ve just ranted about it for a few minutes, so let me explain.  I said I believe the scripture…in other words I believe there is truth to be found in what is written there.  It can easily be misinterpreted and it can easily be abused and it can be over-emphasized.  But there is still truth to be found.

A number of years ago we spent about 10 days in New England, taking in the fall color and enjoying the spectacular scenery in that part of the country.  We spent most of our time in New Hampshire, but we did manage a brief side trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, near Bar Harbor – or Bah Habah – whichever you prefer.  Acadia is a special place – one of my favorites – I love the diversity that is found there.

If you visit Acadia, one of the places you will see is a spot along the coast that they call “Thunder Hole”.  The pictures don’t really do it justice, and it is hard to capture the entire scene in a photograph, so I will need to tell you about it.  The Maine coast in this area is very rocky and there is a break in the rock right at this spot.  Think of it like a miniature canyon; the sides of the canyon are probably 15 or 20 feet high and it runs a length of 75 to 100 feet.  At the end of the canyon is rock that has been rounded and carved out by the breaking surf.  When a wave comes in, the water moves along this canyon and then smashes into the rounded out hole at the end.  When that collision takes place, there is quite a satisfying “thwump” and thus the name Thunder Hole.

We visited Thunder Hole two times while we were in Acadia – we didn’t really plan it that way, but that is how it worked out.  The first time we were there the sea was fairly calm and it was low tide.  Thunder Hole performed pretty well, but we thought that high tide might be more spectacular.  When we returned the second time, the tide was much higher – but Thunder Hole was not as good.  I found that to be an interesting thing.

As I thought about it, I realized that in order to get a really great sound and a good splash, the canyon that I described needs to be almost empty.  If you can get the timing to be just right, so the space in between the swells allows time for the canyon to drain, then the next swell comes in unimpeded.  Therefore it comes in a little faster and hits the hole with some energy still left in the wave.  During the high tide, the canyon was always full of water and the incoming swell had to work its way through all that water before crashing into the hole, and it wasn’t as spectacular.  Low tide was much better.

I think we experience tides in life as well.  We have times of high tide and we have times of low tide.  The scripture I read a few minutes ago was talking about those times of low tide, those times of trial.  But life is a little like Thunder Hole; there are ways in which life is better at low tide.

Calamity has a way of focusing our energies into the few things in our lives that are most important.  If you talk to someone who has had a scare with a loved one, maybe a heart attack or a stroke or a car accident, for example, they will tell you that the rest of the world just stopped, nothing else mattered at that moment.  They may have had a very busy day planned, but all those appointments and all those busy tasks that had to be accomplished, just drained away.  They drained away, just like the canyon at Thunder Hole had to drain – allowing the wave to come in unimpeded – sometimes our lives need to drain away, so we can see what is truly important.  Calamity and trials do that for us.  They help us drain away all the clutter, so we can see what really matters and in that experience we become richer and more complete.

Last week I spent some time talking about meditation and how the practice of meditation can help our minds begin to let go of some of the debris that is stuck in there. I talked about how meditation can at times allow us to move to a new level of spirituality and a new level of focus and a new level of relationship with God. In many ways, calamity can perform the same function. It can move us to a new level and a greater understanding of the things we should be focused on.

I’m not sure that I would go so far as to claim that all calamity should be counted as joy, but from a certain perspective, there is always something to be thankful for. As the old saying goes, there is a silver lining in every dark cloud. This is the truth that I believe lies in this scripture; that in spite of our times of trial, in spite of our times of low tide, we can still be thankful and we can still learn new ideas and new perspectives.

Low tide comes for all of us at one time or the other.  But knowing that in some ways, life is better at low tide may help us through those struggles.  Remember Thunder Hole when the low tide comes.

And that is food for thought. Go in peace and go with God.

Amen.

 

 

Sermon: October 7, 2018 – Getting to a New Level

Getting to a New Level

Text: Romans 8: 26-27

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I remember as a kid vacationing with my family – I’m not even sure where we were – but there were some locks on a river that helped the barge traffic move from one level of the river to the other level of the river.  We gathered at a look out point high above the locks where we could see the ships come in and then be raised to the new level of water behind the dam.  It was a fascinating process and I loved watching the water pour into the compartment that held the ship and remembering being amazed at the power of the water to lift the ship up to the new level.  We also got to see at least one ship move downstream, where it came into the locks at the high level and was lowered easily to the lower, downstream level of the river.  For some reason, this made quite an impression on me – I must have been all of five or six years old – but I still remember the scene.

Last week during the church council meeting we had a brief discussion about spiritual disciplines and how sometimes we need to help each other to remember to pray. Some accountability to one another is often a good thing. I did make a comment however about the idea that you cannot not pray.  In other words, we are communicating at all times with the Divine – everything we say and do and think is all prayer.  If the Divine Spirit resides within us, and is a part of us, then all that we do, all the time, is a form of communication, or prayer, with that Divine Spirit. So the question really becomes one of intentional communication.

This idea of intentional communication brings me to the point where I want to now take a look at meditation.  Meditation in my mind is different from prayer because it is a little like the locks on a river.  Think about this; locks are designed to take you to a different level.  Consider that for a moment….what does it mean to be taken to a different level spiritually?  Have you ever been there?  Can you describe it?  What made you aware that you had arrived at a different level?

I want us to take another look at this idea of the locks on a river.  For the sake of this metaphor, let us consider the external world to be the full side of the river – this is the reservoir behind a dam.  We are full of all the things the world throws at us-all the stress, all the stuff that floats down the river of life collects behind the dam – the dam in our metaphor is our minds, our anxieties, our fears and our thoughts.  Consider all of the financial news or political news or any news for that matter we have received in the past few weeks and visualize all of that information piling up behind a dam in our heads.

The mind is a bit of a dam.  It stops a thought as the thought passes through and tends to analyze the thought.  We hang on to it; we store it away for future reference.  We stop thoughts all the time and we receive information constantly.  Soon, there is a virtual reservoir of stuff built up in our minds.

The spirit level operates outside of the mind.  It is internal to be sure, but it is a completely different level – spirit represents a completely different part of our humanity.  And it is difficult to access – mostly because of our minds – we want to try to reach the spirit level intellectually – and that cannot be done.  In our locks metaphor, the spirit level represents the river of life that flows downstream after the dam; a new level, with new life and energy.

We are the boat.  How does the boat move from high up in the reservoir to down in the downstream river?  The answer is that a boat must move through the locks.  The boat enters the locks that are filled to the same level as the reservoir.  But then as the gates close behind the boat, the water begins to drain from the lock and the boat floats on top of the lowering level of water until it matches the downstream river level.  The gates re-open and the boat is free to move down the river at the new level.  Meditation works like the locks.  We need a process by which we can empty ourselves of all the things our mind has dammed up; there is a great reservoir of thoughts and fears and anxieties and “should haves” that are locked into our heads.  Meditation is the process that allows the emptying of all those things and then brings us to a new level of spirituality.

Let’s take another look at the scripture I read a few minutes ago.  This is the apostle Paul writing to the church in Rome.  Keep in mind that most of the Romans were Greeks and they had Greek Gods.  Greek Gods are powerful and mighty and as a rule not very quiet; Greek Gods are boisterous and rowdy and tend to call a lot of attention to them.  If this is the kind of God you are accustomed to, imagine how hard it was for the Romans to identify with something like the Holy Spirit.  That still, small voice deep within you that helps you connect with the Divine.  I can understand how they could be confused – how is something this quiet, this small actually a God?  Can you hear the questions?

It is important for us to remember that when Paul wrote a letter to a church, like the church in Rome, normally we believe he had been contacted first by the church and had been asked a series of questions.  The letters that we have in our New Testament are the answers to the questions that people asked.

So as we look again at the scripture, we can only imagine what the questions were, but the answer is clear; we don’t even have to pray with words, all we need do is to focus on the Divine and with sighs that are too deep for words, we begin to empty all that has piled up behind the dams of our minds.  That, for me, is meditation.  And when we have found the space to empty a few things, then the Spirit of God fills that space with new ideas, new found excitement and joy, new connectivity to the Spirit and a new understanding of our relationship with God.

All of this is much easier said than done, however.  I will tell you that meditation takes practice and discipline.  To simply be quiet before God can be a difficult task, to shut our minds down and allow the locks to empty and move us to a new level can be difficult, but it can be done.  One way to get started is to simply find a phrase that you can repeat; this helps to keep the mind occupied as you become quiet.  One of the phrases I like to use comes from the prayer of St. Francis; “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”  I can repeat that in my mind, or out loud, perhaps whispering it to myself and I can begin to empty everything else that needs to be cleaned out and allow the Spirit to enter.

When you first begin, you may want to try for only 2 or 3 minutes.  Then move up to 5 minutes and then 10 and then 15 and so on.  It won’t take too long and you will be able to comfortably meditate for 30 minutes or more without any trouble.  Remember, meditation is not talking to God; meditation is making space in your mind so that God can talk to you.

Go in peace, go with God, and go meditate.  Amen.

Sermon: September 30, 2018 – A Form of Attachment

A Form of Attachment

Text: Matthew 10: 34-36

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

 

I don’t know how many dog lovers’ we have here today; I know there are several present, and I certainly would fall into that category as well.  A few years ago there was a program on TV, I think it was on the National Geographic channel, called The Dog Whisperer.  It is about a man named Cesar Milan who really understands dogs; if you have a problem with your dog that seems unsolvable, you can call Cesar and he often can fix the trouble.  What is interesting, however, is that usually the problem isn’t so much with the dog as with the owner.  Cesar claims that he rehabilitates the dogs and he trains the humans.  When we watched some of those episodes of the Dog Whisperer we would try to implement some of what he teaches on the program with our own dog.  Much of what he said actually works very well!

 

One of the things that The Dog Whisperer stresses very often in his show when he is trying to train humans is how important it is to be consistent.  If the human is not consistent, then the dog has no idea what the human really wants or when certain behavior is acceptable or not.  Before you can even begin to think about successfully training your dog, you must first recognize that whatever you do, you must be consistent.  Consistency is the key to a great relationship with your dog.  Consistency is foundational; it is what everything else builds upon.

 

Now I want to ask a very important question; if consistency is so important between a human and a dog, how much more important is consistency between a human and God?  If inconsistency confuses a dog, how much more confused are we as humans when God appears inconsistent?  If consistency is foundational for a dog, is not consistency also foundational for a human?  Is not our entire faith built upon some things that we consider to be consistent about God?

 

So what happens when we find inconsistencies?  What happens when we encounter a text like the one I read a few minutes ago? What are we to think about things like this?  My guess is that we never actually engage the tough texts, we sort of just look the other way, and we remain confused and delusional as a result.  Until we understand a little bit about some of these tougher texts, it will be impossible for you to develop a true relationship with the Divine.  I don’t believe it is possible to have true faith and trust in a God that demonstrates inconsistencies; for one thing, you are never certain of which God will show up when you ask for help!

 

I believe there are certain texts in both the Old and New Testaments that severely undermine our ability to have a true and trusting relationship with God.  So if a relationship is what we seek, then we must find a way to work past a few of these texts.

 

For example, compare the text that I read a few minutes ago with another one found in the same Gospel of Matthew; just a few pages away in Chapter 5, beginning with verse 43, we can find these words:

 

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

 

So how can we be told to love our enemies and also be told that some of our foes will be from our own family?  Loving your enemies brings peace, and yet the other scripture begins with the words; “Do not think I have come to bring peace, ….I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…”  Let me get this straight; the Prince of Peace has not come to bring peace?  Say what?

Just in case you think I’m overreacting, allow me to share just one other scripture with you.  This one comes from Deuteronomy…chapter 21, beginning with verse 18.

 

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

 

I’m hoping it is not necessary for me to point out all the ways this scripture is inconsistent with the image of God most of us hold.

 

My purpose today is not to convince you that there are gross inconsistencies within the Bible; most of us already know that in one way or the other.  We are just afraid to admit it or to think about it in that way.  My purpose today is to help you let go of that attachment. Remember when I said that a strong relationship with the Divine makes it necessary to work through some of those tougher texts? Well, if you can’t interpret them in a new way, then we have to learn how to let go of them. But that part is hard; that is why I call it an attachment.

 

For some of you, that may be a new way of using the word ‘attachment’ – you have never thought about yourself as being attached to something like an idea or a concept or a belief.  But attachment to those things happens to all of us, and learning to let go of our attachments is the greatest single thing we can learn that will move us toward a place of personal peace.  It is the greatest thing we can learn that will move us closer to God.  It is also about the only thing we can learn to do that will create a consistent image of God for us; and that is fundamental. Learning to let go of our attachments makes room for new possibilities and new experiences to enter our lives.

 

There is something else we need to know about attachments; almost every conflict that has ever existed, either in your own life or the lives of others, is because of attachment.  The conflict results when we encounter our own inability to let go of that attachment.  Some attachments are more important to us than others, some we can let go of easily, others are more difficult.

 

For example, in the 19th century in this country, most of the Southern states had an attachment to slavery.  This was an attachment that was difficult to let go of; the resulting conflict was what we call the Civil War. Brother was willing to kill brother rather than let go of that attachment.

 

Not every attachment we have is as huge or as volatile as slavery.  We can be attached to some things that are much more mundane, but still have the potential to create great pain in our lives.  If you examine the things that you think are creating pain in your life, chances are good that the pain can be traced back to an attachment you are having trouble letting go of.

 

There are many, many attachments that we could talk about.  Today, however, I wanted to talk about just one attachment; most of us, because we have grown up in the church and have been raised in a predominantly Christian nation, have an attachment to the Bible being right.  You might not have ever thought about it that way, but it is true; we are attached to the idea of the Bible being right – and when the Bible is wrong; it creates conflict, because we cannot let go of that attachment.

 

I ask you to just think about that for one minute.  All of the preposterous things that come out of religious circles in the Christian faith tradition can be traced back to that one attachment.  People would rather deny science than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  People would rather oppress women than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  People would rather fight wars than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  People would rather continue oppressive attitudes toward the LGBTQ community than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  In some cases, people would rather die, than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.

 

If you find the inconsistencies in the Bible troubling, it is because you are attached to the idea that the Bible must be right.  If you have found this sermon challenging, it is because you are attached to the idea that the Bible must be right.  If when you read something in the Bible that didn’t make sense, and you said to yourself; “that must not be what it means, I just don’t understand it”…then you have an attachment to the Bible being right.

 

Recognizing the attachment is step one, and then moving to a place where you can allow yourself to let go of that attachment is step two.  Can you let go?  True peace awaits if you can.

 

Go in peace, and go with God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon: September 23, 2018 – “Two Kinds of Law”

Two Kinds of Law

Text: I Cor 10: 23-24

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.

This is another one of those texts that can leave you scratching your head.  Of course, not all things are lawful – and yet that is what it says – and the second part of the text says that not all things are beneficial; well, that is certainly true, but there are times when even that becomes a very gray area.

What we have here, I believe, is a text that requires us to look deeper and a text that is challenging in the way we image and comprehend God.  What is Paul trying to say when he says that all things are lawful?  If you read the entire chapter, you will discover that the majority of the conversation centers around food and what is lawful to eat and what is not.  So we could conclude that all food is OK to consume, or all food is now lawful and leave it at that. But what that does is it makes the entire context no longer meaningful or no longer relevant to our lives today. I resist this idea because I happen to think that we can almost always pull something out of a text, even when on the surface it may seem like there isn’t anything more there for us to find.

I happen to think that if we look hard enough we may find something more for us to understand here than just a green light on whatever kinds of food we want to eat.  Paul says that all things are lawful, not just food, but all things; and then he seems to temper the statement with another observation that not all things are beneficial.  So he makes a distinction between lawful and beneficial, he states there is a difference between what is legal and what is good for us.

Perhaps the place for us to begin looking at this scripture is with the word lawful.  What does Paul mean when he uses this word?

In today’s context, lawful means that we stay within the laws of our city or state or federal government; in other words, there are laws we must obey.  We drive the speed limit, mostly; we stop at red lights, we file our taxes, we don’t rob banks – we follow the laws.  There are those who sometimes do not, and there are consequences for not following the laws.  Those consequences range in severity, but they are consequences none the less.  I’m wondering how far I would get if the State Police pulled me over for speeding and I tried to explain to the officer that the Apostle Paul says that all things are lawful and therefore I can drive as fast as I please.  I’m pretty certain that wouldn’t work too well. Although I did notice last time I went through Boise that the speed limit on the Interstate down there is faster than I want to drive anyway, but I digress…

I don’t think Paul was talking about these kinds of laws.  Perhaps you are thinking he was talking about the religious laws of ancient Judaism; that would be a better guess, but I don’t believe that has to be the case for us today either.  I believe it is possible that Paul was talking about a higher law, the law of righteousness or the law of salvation.

As I began to ponder this question, it occurred to me that there are really two kinds of law.  There are those laws which are designed to control you in some way, and most of those laws you can break if you want to.  The speed limit, the stop sign, the filing your taxes, etc – you have a choice if you want to follow those laws, and most of us do most of the time.  But there are other laws, laws which cannot be broken because they just are.  These laws exist and there isn’t much we can do about them.

The law of gravity is such a law.  We might be able to escape gravity and orbit the earth, but the general consensus is that the law of gravity always is followed.  If you drop a ball 100 times, it is a certainty that 100 times out of 100 the ball will fall to the earth.  The law of gravity simply is, it cannot be broken.   Not only that, but the law of gravity is really cool in a lot of other ways as well. For example, you might remember learning in school about the experiment of Galileo, I think it was, who dropped balls if different weight off a tower. Everyone thought the heavier ball would drop much faster than the lighter ball, but in fact, they hit the ground at the same time. The law of gravity has a built-in equality that is really interesting if you think about it in that way. Another interesting example is that the law of gravity works on an object whether or not it is in motion. You might have to think about this one a little, but a good example is a bullet fired from a gun. If the gun is perfectly level, and you drop a bullet straight down at the same time the fired bullet leaves the end of the gun barrel, both bullets will hit the ground at the same time. That may seem unlikely to you, but it is, in fact, the truth.

Taking this idea with the law of gravity for example; does it matter what object we throw into the air to see if gravity works?  Does an apple work as well as a bowling ball?  I would say yes.  So, from a particular point of view, with regard to the law of gravity, all things are lawful, all things, as I said before, are equally impacted by the law of gravity.

There are many laws of nature and physics which fall into this category; Newton’s laws of motion, laws regarding mass or density, laws of heat exchange; there are all kinds of things that just are the way they are.  They are always the same, never to be broken, and we call them laws.

Let me see if I can bring this around full circle for us now.  Within the Jewish faith tradition, the law had a specific purpose and that purpose was righteousness.  The law was to be followed to insure your righteousness before God and to show your diligence and commitment to God.  This was the purpose of the law.

I believe what Paul is saying here, is that the relationship of God to humanity is never in question; it is like the second type of law that we talked about, it is like the law of gravity.  There are two kinds of law, those that we follow and those that just are.

God falls into the category of law that just is.  There isn’t anything you can do to change the way God sees you.  There isn’t any law you can follow that will cause God to love you more; there isn’t any law you can break that will cause God to love you less.  Your status with God, just is and cannot be enhanced or diminished by anything we do.  In that context; all things are lawful.

Does that mean we go out and do anything we please?  Of course not, because as I mentioned earlier, Paul tempers the statement with another when he says that not all things are beneficial.  The key to a fulfilling life is right there in the text as well – don’t seek your own advantage, but rather the advantage of the other.  Don’t put yourself first, but place the needs of others above your own.

A remarkably simple formula; don’t worry about your relationship with God, it is secure, it just is, it’s like gravity.  Worry about others and there you will find all you need to know about life. If you think about it, you might discover this simple formula from Paul sounds a lot like the one that Jesus offered when he said to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” then Jesus said on these two things, hang all the law.

Two kinds of law; but only one response to the law, God is and you are with God.

And that is perhaps food for thought.

Amen.