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.

 

Sermon: September 16, 2018 – “Not For Sale”

Not For Sale

Text: Psalm 103: 8-13

 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for his children.

One of the duties of a pastor of a United Methodist Church is to be the spiritual leader of the congregation.  This responsibility is one that I take very seriously; however, it can be misunderstood and often misconstrued.  Being your spiritual leader by no means implies that I can tell you what to believe or how to think.  Those decisions are up to you.  Each of us must work out our own spirituality and relationship with the Divine in our own way.  That is the only way it becomes meaningful and personal for us, it is the only way we make it our own.  If we simply follow someone else’s formula, it is not our own and lacks the power of creation that accompanies a healthy spirituality.

Being your spiritual leader also does not mean that I simply reinforce all the things you already believe and have already been taught.  If I take something you already believe to be true and offer yet another convincing argument as to its validity, what value is that?  Where is the opportunity for growth?  Where is the opportunity for new insight?

I believe that a leader must lead – be out front and he or she must be one of the first to consider an idea or challenge an assumption.  I believe spirituality is not a destination, but rather a journey.  If we are on a journey, then new territory is mandatory – if we do not cover new ground on our journey, then, in fact, we are going in circles.  Far too many pastors lead in circles because they fear the new ground and they fear new ideas.  I’m hoping to cover some new ground today.  But let me be clear; these are my thoughts and my observations – they don’t have to be yours.  I offer them as an opportunity for you to entertain new ideas and possibly create a new perspective.  It is not necessary that we all believe the same thing or approach our spirituality in the same way.

That being said, I wanted us to take a closer look at this thing we call sin and what that means to us and how we are to apply this term to our lives.  I believe there are many misconceptions around the idea of sin – perhaps you have been told or taught some things that you assume to be true, and I am here today to perhaps challenge some of those assumptions.

The first assumption I want us to take a closer look is about the forgiveness of sins.  Let me begin with what I consider to be a valid definition of sin.  Many relate sin to behavior; in our past, there have been some pretty silly things that have been considered ‘sinful’ and they are all based in behavior.  Dancing was once considered sinful, a woman with her ankles showing was once considered sinful, going to the movies has been considered sinful, (I guess it still may be by some) and the list goes on.  In ancient Judaism, the list was quite lengthy and Jesus spent much of his time teaching that following the list will never get you to where you want to be.  Sin is not behavior.  Let me say that again; sin is not behavior.  Sin is a condition. You might need to mull that one over for a little while, and I will get back to this idea, so don’t panic.

This is a very important concept for us to comprehend.  Sin is a condition.  Think of it as a fever – your body has a fever and is fighting off an infection of some kind.  The fact that you have a fever is your condition; it is not your behavior.  Now there could be some things that you do that could lead to a fever – and that is behavior.  In like manner, there are things which we do that can lead us into a condition of sin, or at least we think we are in that condition, and it is those things which everyone seems to get so worked up about.  But give some thought to the idea that there isn’t any behavior which is sin; there is only behavior that may lead to the condition of sin.

This concept, then, begs the question; what is the condition of sin?  My answer to that question is very simple – at least on the surface – and that is the condition of sin is separation from God.  When we are separated from God, we are in the condition of sin.  Now I need to clarify something – I don’t believe we can be separated from God – it is impossible.  So the separation that exists when we are in the condition of sin exists only in our minds.  We think we are separated from God, we may feel separated from God; we may assume God wants nothing to do with us, but all those things exist only in our minds.  So here is the real challenge – if we cannot be separated from God, and sin is the condition of being separated from God, then sin does not actually exist.  Bad behavior certainly exists, but sin does not.

While you mull that one over for a time in your minds, let me give you another something to think about.  There is a lot of teaching out there, even in mainstream Christianity, which teaches the work of Jesus was to pay our debt of sin.  This is called the atonement theory.  Note I used the word theory.  In order for us to truly believe in the atonement theory, we must first believe that God’s love is for sale.  We must believe that God’s love is conditional.  It is not.  God’s love is neither conditional nor is it for sale – at any price.

As you are probably aware, Heidi and I just returned home from a trip to Alaska, which was great. I had the chance to shoot some great pictures, which I hope to have the chance to share over the next few weeks, and for the most part, we had really great weather, which for Alaska, I’m told, isn’t always the case. Our transportation to Alaska for this trip was by cruise ship-if you have ever cruised, you might be able to personally relate to what I’m talking about, but on a cruise ship, there is a lot that is for sale.

There are gift shops full of trinkets and T-shirts, watches and jewelry, jackets and caps and scarves and all sorts of things for sale. Then there are the pictures. They have photographers everywhere shooting pictures or at least wanting to shoot pictures, and then they print them all and put them out on a giant bulletin board and offer them for sale.

On a cruise ship, they also offer what they call shore excursions that are also for sale. Even if it is something simple, like driving around town and visiting gift shops, they are able to package it together and sell it for a price. There are many things that are always for sale in an environment like this and frankly, that is one of the things I like the least about cruising. It seems like someone is always interested in another way to get your money. In some ways, at least for me, it diminishes the entire experience.

Now I don’t know if you have ever thought about the idea of God’s love being for sale, but that is what atonement means and there is more than one hymn in our hymnal that states Jesus has paid a price or paid our debt or in some other language has essentially purchased our favor in God’s eyes. When this idea is put into this context, does that sound right to you?

I want you to notice a couple of things about the scripture I read this morning from the 103rd Psalm.  The first thing to notice is that it is in the Old Testament – this Psalm pre-dates Jesus and pre-dates the execution of Jesus on the cross.  The second thing to notice is that it tells us that God removes our transgressions from us as far as the East is from the West.  God’s love was unconditional prior to Jesus, and God’s love is still unconditional after Jesus and God’s love never has been nor will it ever be for sale.

You will recall that I said separation from God is impossible.  I believe it is.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t move away from God, it doesn’t mean we can’t build walls that block us from God, it doesn’t mean we can’t feel isolated and apart from God.  We can and we do all of those things, and worship and personal meditation and prayer are the opportunities we have to move closer to God, to tear the walls down we have constructed and to feel connected once again to the Divine.

And that, of course, is food for thought.

Amen.

 

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.

 

Sermon: July 29, 2018 – “The Light Shines”

The Light Shines

Text: John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

I think I have probably mentioned before that this particular text is one of my favorites in all of scripture. While we normally hear this text around Christmas time, I wanted to use it today because I was recently reminded of this text as we toured the Redwoods National Park in northern California recently. More about that later. The portion of the text I want to really zero in on today is actually just verse 5 – the translation that I read from is the NRSV, the New Revised Standard Version, and there it states that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

One of the things I find to be an interesting thing to do, is to take a text and read it in several different translations and see if anything jumps out at me. In this case, if you read several translations, you will get several different interpretations of the light shining in the darkness. Even though they are each a little different, as I think about each one, they are all correct. Let me see if I can explain.

The first text that I read said the darkness has not overcome the light. One of the things I think about when I hear the word overcome, is a total annihilation or complete destruction or a complete and total overwhelming of one thing over another. An image that comes to mind for me is a flash flood. The waters rise quickly and fill an area to the point of overflowing. Anything and everything in the path of the flash flood is in serious danger. This image resonates with me because one of my favorite places on planet earth so far are the slot canyons in northern Arizona. These canyons are formed by flash floods, so the image of a flash flood representing the word overcome has multiple layers of meaning for me.

Whatever image comes into your mind when you hear the word overcome is probably a good one to work with, because the point is that the light prevailed. Even in the midst of a flash flood, or completely overwhelming odds, or whatever kind of disaster you can imagine, the light prevailed, the darkness did not overcome it. And the light of Jesus continues to shine.

But that is not all. If you read the King James Version of this text, you get a slightly different take on things. In the King James it says the darkness did not comprehend it. Now that paints a little different picture. What I think of when I hear the word comprehend is entirely different than what I imagine when I hear the word overcome.

To not comprehend something creates an image in my mind of just being clueless; it’s not necessarily violent or riddled with conflict, the word creates an image of mystery in my mind. One of the things that the words “did not comprehend it” brings into my mind is the distances involved when we speak of outer space and space travel and the far reaches of our own galaxy or of those galaxies comparatively near to us. For example, this image taken from the Hubble telescope just a few weeks ago is of the Lagoon Nebula, which is about 3,000 light years from our own galaxy. Now if you try to get your mind around that number, you might get an idea of what it means to “comprehend it not.” The distance of one light year is almost incalculable; it is the speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, multiplied by the number of seconds in an entire year. That number is hard enough, there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year; so if you traveled 186,000 miles every second for 31.5 million seconds, you will have traveled one light year. This image of the Lagoon Nebula is 3,000 light years away. It is a light that shines in the darkness to be sure, be we comprehend it not.

Now those of you that are here, I believe have some level of comprehension about the impact the life of Jesus has had on our world. But there are still many who are not here, and those are the ones I would say still comprehend it not. They just don’t get it. But the light of Jesus continues to shine, even in the midst of those who don’t comprehend it. But we can help, we can tell them about it.

Getting back to our multiple translations for a minute, I think we have time for one more. In the Contemporary English Version, and other translations as well, you can read John 1:5 and the words will state that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. It doesn’t seem to matter what you do, the light will always shine. This image for me conjures up weeds in the yard. It doesn’t matter what you do, it seems they always come back. You pull, you spray, you mow, you starve, you hack and weed-eat, and yet the weeds prevail. You just can’t ever seem to put them out.

By almost every measure, when Rome executed Jesus, it should have been over. Rome should have been successful in their attempt to put out the light. Yet the light prevails and the darkness has not been able to put it out. This remarkable life of Jesus can be looked at in so many ways.

All of these things came into my mind a few weeks ago as we wandered through the forest of the giant redwoods in Redwoods National Park. If you have ever been there, you might remember what it is like to get out among these giants. If you have not experienced this, it is something not to be missed.

The thing is, we almost put out the light. The greed and seduction of more money logged the redwoods to near extinction. The estimates are staggering; a full 95% of the giant redwood forest that once was, is now gone. But what has been preserved is amazing.

The struggle to save the redwoods reminded me of this passage in John. How the redwoods were not overcome by the greed and the clearcutting. They continue to shine. The redwoods were not put out by the logging, they are now protected and they continue to shine. And when you visit, and you walk into that forest for the very first time, you comprehend it not. How can a tree be so big? How can a tree be so tall? What holds them up? How is this even possible?

Just as the light and life of Jesus continues to shine in the darkness, so do the redwoods. The experience of walking into that forest and trying to comprehend what you are seeing is a mind boggling experience. But the trees stand for more than just a great tourist attraction. In my mind, the trees, like Jesus, stand for hope. The hope that good will prevail. The hope that we as human beings will learn from our past. The hope that our care for each other and our care for God’s creation will increase. The hope that each of us has the potential to stand as tall as a redwood. The hope that we can draw strength and wonder from what we observe around us. And the hope that in spite of incredible odds, the trees will remain and the light will continue to shine.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.

For me, the experience of the redwoods confirms all I believe to be true about the life and light of Jesus. The experience of the redwoods also confirms for me, all I believe to be true about this church as well. This church is a light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it nor will it be put out.

As we wandered the trails in the giant redwood forest, as you might imagine, I took a few pictures. It is a frustrating subject matter for a photographer, because try as you might, one cannot communicate the experience visually. The task is just too big. But you can try, so I wanted to share a few minutes of the giant redwoods with you at this time.

Amen.

Sermon: July 22, 2018 – “The Human Element”

The Human Element

Texts: Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10

Normally I begin a sermon by reading the text and then moving on from there.  Today, before we look at these texts, I wanted to give you a little bit of background information.  First of all, as we read the texts a little later you will notice right away that these two texts tell approximately the same story.  The story in Matthew is slightly different than the story in Luke, but the primary points of story, I think remain intact.

This is the story of the Centurion’s servant.  You might remember the story from your own readings or have heard the text read at one time or the other.  Essentially, what takes place is that a Roman Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant.  Jesus offers to come and see the servant, but the Centurion says that is not necessary, because he knows how being in command works.  He simply wants Jesus to say the word, and his servant will be healed.  This is a great story of faith and the power of the spoken word-but I don’t want to talk about either of those things today. These are also the main ideas of the story; the power of faith, the power of belief, the power of the spoken word. These primary concepts remain unchanged from one reading to the next.

These two texts, taken in tandem, are also a great example of what I call the human element when it comes to the Bible.  You see, there are some who claim the Bible to be inerrant and infallible, that it is strictly the word of God without any human influence.  I do not believe this to be true. You may have encountered relatives or acquaintances that seem to think if something is in the Bible, then the discussion is over. If you can quote a scripture about a topic, then you win the argument and no further discussion is required. I don’t believe this to be true either.

I do believe many of the writers of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament were truly inspired, that is, “in-spirited” and possessed a great connection with the Divine.  But that connection does not prevent you from putting your own spin on a particular story.  These two texts demonstrate a little of the ‘spin’ I am referring to. Further, I also believe that many times when scripture is quoted, the portion that is quoted is more spin than primary concept.

Before we can become fully aware of the spin, it is necessary to have a little background information concerning the texts and how they were written.  Both authors of Matthew and Luke were not eye-witnesses to the events and stories of Jesus they were writing about.  Written at about the same time, these two Gospels were written by authors that were separated geographically by a great distance and the belief among most scholars is that they did not communicate or cooperate in the writing of their Gospels.  Both authors had to rely on other written sources and the oral tradition of the time.  This helps to explain why there are a few differences.  One of the sources both authors used was the Gospel of Mark; this Gospel is one of the oldest of all Gospels and was written about 50 or 60 years before Matthew and Luke were written.

Another possible source is what Bible scholars call “Q”, this source is assumed to have existed, because an actual copy of “Q” does not exist.  When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, it was hoped that the discovery would include this missing document.  What they thought might be “Q” turned out to be what has become known as the Gospel of Thomas instead.  The reason we believe “Q” actually existed is because of texts like these, and others, that are so similar (actually there are some that are identical) that appear in both Matthew and Luke, but do not appear in Mark.  The assumption is that the authors of Luke and Matthew had to have another matching source to work from, and that source is what we refer to as “Q”.

All this is simply background information leading up to the conclusion that I am making regarding the author of Luke and his introduction of the human element into this particular story.

Let’s begin by reading the story as it is found in the Gospel of Matthew. (Matthew 8: 5-13)

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

In the Matthew version of the text, the Centurion comes to Jesus.  He admits that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to his house; therefore he just wants Jesus to speak the word.  There is a lot of speculation around this idea of the Centurion not being worthy to entertain Jesus as a guest of his house, but the most widely accepted theory is that because of the tension between Jesus and Rome the Centurion would be better served to keep his distance from Jesus.  The Roman soldier did not really want to be seen associating with the enemy is a simpler way of understanding what was going on here.

If we read the same story in Luke, we will notice a few differences; the primary differences in the story are how the Centurion communicates with Jesus.  In Matthew, Jesus and the Roman guard speak face to face; Luke goes to great length to make certain the two never actually speak face to face, but rather through friends and mutual acquaintances. Let’s read:

Luke 7: 1-10…

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Can you see the difference in the two texts?  I don’t believe the value of the story is diminished in either telling of the story-the same message still gets through.  But to think that both stories are inerrant and infallible is nonsense.  You would have to be schizophrenic to believe that both stories are the absolute true inspired word of God.

I spoke earlier of the ‘spin’ of Luke’s telling of this story, and I think it may have something to do with who Luke was writing for.  If you check at the beginning of both Luke and Acts, you will discover that Luke was commissioned to write these two books for a person named Theophilus.  Now, the literal meaning of Theophilus is simply friend of God, and so it could be considered a generic greeting, but most scholars agree that Theophilus represents an actual person.  It is also believed this person was a high ranking political figure prominent in the Roman government of the day.  Perhaps even an older brother of a Roman governor according to some historians.

If this tension between Jesus and the Romans was still high when Luke was writing his Gospel, doesn’t it make sense that Luke would show the Roman Centurion in the best light possible and have the soldier make special effort to not actually associate with Jesus?  It is just an idea, but it demonstrates how the human element can enter into the writing of our Bible.  It is only natural to tell someone a story in the best way possible.

I think these two scriptures give us a glimpse of what I call the human element that is present in our Bible.  It is the presence of the human element that is one of the reasons I do not believe in Biblical inerrancy and infallibility In the days to come you are likely to hear a lot of scripture quoted. I believe it is part of my responsibility to you to prepare you for that day. To prepare you to have some knowledge and background concerning the validity, the authority and the extent to which it is safe to rely on scripture alone to guide our way…I think it is valuable information and so now you have it too.

Go in peace, and go with God.  Amen.