Sermon: December 2, 2018 -“The Birth of Hope”

The Birth of Hope

Text: Hebrews 6: 18b-19a

“We who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.  We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…..”

There was a basketball coach who found himself coaching his high school basketball team in the state finals.  It was half-time of the state championship, a game of a lifetime, but the coach’s team had been outplayed in the first half.  They were behind by almost 20 points and the coach struggled with what to say to his players during the brief half-time intermission.  He gathered his team together and began to speak;

“Each and every one of you had hoped to win this game.  That hope is now diminished, and may in fact be completely gone.  If you reduce everything to winning and losing, more often than not, you will be disappointed in life.  It may not seem like it right now, but this basketball game is a very small part of your life; but it is a part of your life you will carry with you forever.  I want you to change your thinking about this game.  It doesn’t matter who wins or who loses – that is just the score.  What matters is whether or not you have made a contribution.  In this second half, I’m going to do something unusual; I’m going to play everybody – not just the best players, but everybody, because at the end of the night I want everybody to know that he made a contribution.  Don’t pay any attention to the score, we probably will not win the game, but that doesn’t matter.  I want you to be able to hold on to the idea for the rest of your lives that you made a contribution in the state finals.  A contribution may be a good pass, it may mean making a free throw, it may mean setting a good screen, it may mean getting a rebound, and it may mean scoring a few points.  Just go out this second half and have fun and think about making a contribution, and don’t think about winning or losing.”

As you might guess, the team listened and responded.  Pretty soon they were playing together as a team in the second half.  Each player focused on making a contribution; slowly the deficit began to be made up as the players passed the ball more, set screens for each other and shared the basketball.  True to his word, the coach played every player that night; the entire bench made a contribution.  And the team returned to their hometown as state champions.

The coach managed to shift the hope of his players from something intangible to something tangible.  He moved the hope from something that seemed impossible, like winning the game, to something possible, like making a good pass.  As he gave his team new hope, they could see the single step ahead of them and took that one, and then took another and another and another, until finally they worked themselves back into the game and eventually won the state title.

The coach’s words are important for us to hear today as well.  I believe it is very common for many of us to view the Holidays with a competitive spirit.  We have all these things we need to accomplish, this long list of chores, gifts to buy, cards to send, parties to attend, etc, etc, etc.  It can be overwhelming; and before we know it, we are behind.  Way behind; we will never catch up and we will never win.

Let me ask you to think about this Holiday season in terms of just making a contribution.  It might be just one Christmas card that will brighten someone’s day, it may be just one present for that someone under the tree, it might just be a phone call.  If you can make a contribution this Holiday season, then the season will have been a success.  You will never get everything done, so why stress and fret about it?  Hope to make a contribution and look and watch for those opportunities, and as you do, much will be accomplished.

You don’t have to win the Holiday game.  And it is a game, I hope you realize.  You don’t have to score more points than your neighbor; you don’t have to be the champion of your block.  All you need to do this Holiday season is make a contribution.  Find a way to give someone else a lift; find a way to give someone else some hope.  If you can do that, and I think each and every one of us can; then the Holiday season will be a winner for us.

What is left undone is undone.  What we didn’t get to is inconsequential as long as we took the opportunity to make a contribution.  That is our hope this Christmas season, to make a contribution.  It is a hope we can see, it is a hope we can accomplish, and it is the hope that has been set before us and it is the hope of the Christ Child.  Don’t worry about winning the game this season, just make a contribution and change someone’s life.

If we can do that, it will in fact be the birth of hope.  Amen.

Sermon: November 25, 2018 – Exegetical Exercise

Exegetical Exercise

Text: Mark 5: 1-20

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

I mentioned last week in my Thanksgiving sermon a professor I encountered at Iliff School of Theology. I mentioned that I still use some of the techniques he taught in his classes to this day. I thought it might be interesting for you to see some of those techniques in action.

One of the classes I took when I was in seminary at Iliff that this professor taught was titled: “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics”.  I thought that I should earn a passing grade in the class because I knew what the title meant!  But all kidding aside, it was a wonderful class and stimulated my own thinking around scriptural interpretation a hundred fold.  The professor who taught the class is a wonderful scholar and theologian – as I mentioned last week he was wooed away from Iliff  before I graduated and now teaches at Claremont Theological Seminary in Southern California and is the author of several books on this very topic.

What topic is that? I hear you asking….it is a valid question if you have never been to seminary, so allow me to interpret the title of the class and what it means.  An exegetical analysis of a scripture is a breaking down of the text and looking at each part individually and seeing what you can ‘pull out’ of the text by looking at the individual parts.  The root of the word has a literal translation of ‘leading out’ and is where other words like exit and exodus derive their meanings as well.  The other part of the class title is the Synoptic portion, which are the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Those three are called the synoptic because they are all very similar in nature and share a lot of the same stories.  The Gospel of John is not included in the synoptic because it is such a different text from the other three.

So a translation of the class title might be something like this: “A Close Examination, Comparison, and Interpretation of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke” but I’m sure that “Exegetical Analysis of the Synoptics” intimidated the freshman which is always an important consideration when compiling a class catalog. (just kidding)

As I said earlier, all kidding aside, it was a wonderful class.  One of the things I learned in the class has stuck with me through the years and that is the process by which you can break a text down and begin to deconstruct the text and look for areas that are consistent or not consistent with a basic theological assumption.  For example, if we look at the text I read a few minutes ago with this in mind we may notice a few things.

One of the techniques is to begin your study of a text with a basic theological assumption; you can then place this assumption in the context of the scripture you are studying and see if there are any inconsistencies, if there are, then this offers you a place to begin.  Some assumptions can be challenging, but if we create a broad, somewhat universal theological assumption you can begin to see this process work.  Hopefully we can work the process with this text without demolishing too many preconceived naiveté’s about the Bible in general.

So with those things in mind, allow me to pose a standard theological assumption; when the presence of God is manifest in the person of Jesus, the result is good news for all.

Most people would not find too much fault with this assumption, after all, that is what the word ‘gospel’ actually means, is ‘good news’ and the life of Jesus is all about spreading the good news to humanity.  The only real issue might be the word ‘all’ in the assumption – and there are certain sects of Christianity that resist the inclusiveness required to recognize all humanity as children of God.  But, this is my assumption and I have no such hang-up, so the assumption stands as written.

Given the assumption that when God works in our lives or the lives of characters in the scriptures, the result will always be good news, we can find a profound problem with this assumption in this story.  I am speaking of course of the swine herders that owned the herd of pigs that was destroyed in this story.  When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, a good sized hog would bring $1500 – $2,000 each; by now that figure is probably much higher.  By today’s accounting, a herd of 2,000 swine probably would represent somewhere between 5 and 7 million dollars!  This is the life’s work for these swine herders and represents a huge financial loss that Jesus rather whimsically just tosses into the sea.  This is not good news, it is bad news.  Did you notice in the text of the story that some of the people were begging Jesus to leave? I wonder if this thing with the pigs might have anything to do with that attitude…but I digress.  So we have a problem with the text; either the story is incorrect in some way or our assumption is incorrect in some way.  This is how the process works, and you sort out things you believe to be accurate and things that you believe to be not so accurate within the texts you are examining. This is also why clarity around the assumption is absolutely critical; you must always use an assumption that you believe to be true in all circumstances.

So what do you do when you find a problem with a text?  Throw the whole thing out?

This is a fair question and is the root of so much of the controversies and divisiveness surrounding interpretation of the Bible.  Of course we don’t want to throw the entire text out; but we also don’t want to take the story as a literal event either.  We must find a way to interpret the story as allegory and metaphor staying true to both the text and the assumption.  This is what good exegetical analysis is all about.

One interpretation which I read about in one of the commentaries I checked with about this text suggested that the name “Legion” given to the many demons is a reference to the Roman occupation of the territory.  A legion of Roman soldiers would be a large number, somewhere between 2 and 5 thousand men and historically it is verifiable that Rome did occupy this part of the country at this time and had done so for quite some time.

Taken as metaphor for a Roman occupation, we can then remain consistent with our original assumption and many other theological assumptions, as we see Jesus overpowering and drowning out the oppression and tyrannical rule of a Roman occupation and Roman Empire.  There are clues here as to how America should be present in the world with regard to American Empire, if we are willing to look.

We can also look to the demon-possessed man as a metaphor for the mentally ill and how they are ostracized and alienated from society.  In this case, the man’s answer to Jesus about his name also makes sense, because there is not just one person who is mentally ill, but rather there are many.  So many in fact, that we cannot name them all, they are legion, they number in the thousands or perhaps millions, worldwide.  Once again, metaphorically, we can see Jesus drowning the oppression of the mentally ill with love and compassion.  When the man is healed and wants to travel with Jesus, he says no and suggests the man stay in his home town and re-enter society as a productive member of that society.  There are clues here as to how we should be caring for those who suffer with mental illness, if we are willing to look.

That is the key; we have to be willing to look.  By keeping the story literal and as an actual event that took place over 2,000 years ago….it stays there, in history, 2,000 years ago.  Through exegetical analysis and truly examining the scriptures and looking for the richness that is there, we can bring the lessons forward into the 21st century to guide our thoughts and opinions of the current day.  But we must be willing to look and we must be willing to understand and we must be willing to always find the good news.  Go in peace, and go with God.  Amen.

Sermon, Nov 18, 2018

Text: Luke 17:11-19

Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Isn’t this an amazing story?  Here we have a description of 10 people who literally had their lives totally changed by Jesus, and only one returns to offer thanks.  I can’t imagine what life must have been like as a leper.  I know that there were laws and customs that forced anyone with the disease to remain a certain distance from anyone who wasn’t infected; I have also heard that when it was required a leper enter a public place, they had to move through the area announcing to everyone they saw; “unclean, unclean”.  What kind of life must that have been?  Can you imagine being delivered from a life like that, and then not returning to give thanks?  It is hard to imagine, isn’t it?  Or is it really?

I got to thinking about the people in my life that have formed the process of having me end up here, in Lewiston, Idaho delivering a Sunday sermon.  I can’t imagine anything right now that I would rather be doing, but how did I get here?  What sorts of influences have been parts of my life, what people have changed the course of my life, and how often did I return to say thanks?

Of course, we naturally think of people like our parents or siblings that have major influences in our lives…perhaps a spouse or best friend as well.  And that certainly is true for me as well, neither of my parents are alive for me to thank; but I’m not sure that matters.  I think I can still thank them, and should thank them; after all, this idea of thanksgiving does as much for the thanker as the thankee – don’t you think?

I have credited my sister Sharon in the past for influential conversations that helped me decide to pursue the ministry, and my brother Bruce has given me the confidence to tackle many a project I might never have tried without knowing I could call on him for advice or help, which includes the house project currently underway down the hill.

But what about some of those people you may have forgotten about?  About 30 years ago there was a man, who I didn’t really like all that much.  He was my boss.  His name was Carter Pitts and he was the owner of the daily newspaper where I worked as a Sports Editor.  I say I didn’t like him very much…I didn’t really know him very well, we were not socially active and he kind of scared me, so I avoided him when I could.  But he did give me a job….and it was a job that first opened my eyes to the wonder of photography.  It was a job with virtually unlimited resources of black and white film, darkroom chemistry and photographic paper.  Whatever I wanted to do, whatever I wanted to experiment with, whatever I wanted to shoot, I was always encouraged to do so.  The people there at the newspaper already knew what I was learning, and that was the more pictures you take, the better you get.  I have never returned to thank him for that, and yet, photography has shaped my life from that time on.

There was a teacher I had in high school.  He taught speech and was the head of the drama department; his name was Roger Hallum.  I would say he was the first person to offer me encouragement toward careers in public speaking.  Roger Hallum invited me to Toastmasters where I learned even more about speaking in public. He offered me confidence and wisdom, he offered me the opportunity to fail in a safe environment, he gave all of us tools for life, which I now use all the time.  I don’t believe I ever returned to thank him for that.

I have had two surgeries in my life that could have been life threatening.  One surgery was so long ago it hardly seems real.  I was 14 years old and had a bout with appendicitis.  I have mentioned before that Heidi and I were high school sweethearts; this particular surgery actually interfered with one of our very first dates. If I had not had the surgery, it also would have been our last date. Lucky for me, there were surgeons and doctors who knew what to do and my appendix was removed.  I can’t tell you the surgeon’s name.  I’m certain I never returned to thank him.

I had a professor in seminary that was one of the first to really open my eyes about the New Testament and the many options we have about interpretation of scripture. I found his approach to scripture captivating and enlightening all at the same time. I still use many of the techniques he taught me when I prepare a sermon.  I took every class I could from this man and tried to absorb as much as I could.  Before I graduated, he left Iliff School of Theology and went to Claremont Theological Seminary in southern California as the professor of New Testament theology.  He left before I could thank him.

I learned to ski in 1985 on the bunny hill at Loveland, Colorado. Since that day downhill skiing became a part of our family life for the next several decades. All of our kids still ski to this day – they make it a priority, as we did as a family while they were growing up. The many ski trips we made in Colorado drew our family closer together, we bonded and shared some remarkable and memorable experiences. Skiing has had a huge impact on our family.  I can’t tell you if the instructor was male or female.  I certainly don’t know their name.  Obviously, I have never returned to thank them.

While in high school I had a track coach who was an extraordinary individual.  He taught me a great deal about competition, about winning and about losing.  He often spoke of the individual victories and the team victories.  He often told us that success wasn’t measured in blue ribbons.  He was one of the first to mention that you shouldn’t worry about being the best runner on the track, but rather try to be better than you were yesterday. Cancer claimed Coach Gary Meyer 15 or 20 years ago…I never returned to thank him.

Maybe the story of the ten lepers isn’t so hard to believe after all.  As I thought about all the influential people in my life and how little I have said thank you, it was actually a little embarrassing.  Alive or dead, living close or far away, old or young, I would encourage you to give some thought to those you need to thank.  Write a note or a letter, give them a call, and let them know they did something for you.  Funny thing is, you will be the richer for it.  Go in peace, go with God and go giving thanks.  Amen.

 

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.