Sermon: August 13, 2017 – Construction Projects

Construction Projects

Texts: Job 10: 10-12, Hebrews 11: 1

Did you not pour me out like milk
and curdle me like cheese?
11 You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.
12 You have granted me life and steadfast love,
and your care has preserved my spirit.

1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

If you have been around here for the last couple of weeks you may have noticed that I have not been. Around here, that is. Heidi and I have been in Denver for the last couple of weeks for a couple of different reasons. On the surface they may not seem to be related at all, but as I reflected on the experience, it offered me the opportunity to make some observations that I’m not certain we often think about. So let me explain.

The first reason we were in Denver was the anticipated birth of our 3rd granddaughter, who was born on July 30th.  We had been in town just about 24 hrs when we received the news that the trip to the hospital had taken place and later that day Amber Lillian arrived. We swung by the hospital for a brief visit of the family and found everyone to be in good health and great spirits; and of course we had the chance to hold Amber when she was about 2 hours old. There just isn’t another experience that mirrors the miracle of a newborn baby.

But there was a second reason we were in Denver. Our youngest son Zac, and his wife Sara were in need of a bathroom remodel. Not just a light cosmetic brushing up, but they really needed a serious overhaul. So serious that I rented a U-Haul trailer to carry all the tools I would need to complete the project.

What I found so interesting is that as the bathroom remodel project went on during the day, I found myself thinking about how differently we as humans approach the creation process; much different, for example, than God approaches the creation process. Let me see if I can make this a little more clear for you.

Long before I even arrived with my tools, I had been in touch with Zac and Sara about the planning process for their new bathroom. We had measurements and drawings, we had diagrams and sketches, we had pictures of new fixtures and specifications about how big the new fixtures were so we could make sure they would fit in the new space. In other words tons of planning took place on this bathroom project before anything else happened. Of course if you have ever seen the blueprints for a house or a commercial building, you know what I’m talking about. Everything needs to be thought of in advance and you need to have a plan to follow, and we did have a plan and we followed it pretty closely.

But I have a question. Where are the blueprints for a newborn? This little human body is so much more complex than a bathroom remodel, and yet it seems to just happen without any plans. All the organs are in the right spot, the little nervous system is functioning as is everything else. This simply cannot happen by random accident, there absolutely must be a plan. But where is it and how is it followed? I guess the obvious answer is DNA, but that only satisfies my curiosity a little bit.

The next thing that had to happen for the bathroom remodel to take place is all the old stuff needed to be removed and where necessary, we also needed to remove the sheetrock. You see, if you are going to make changes in wiring or plumbing which are both found inside the walls, you need access to the inside of those walls. This means the sheetrock has to be removed, leaving you only with the studs or floor joists or other framing members to work with as you make the changes. As it turns out, we were making some changes to both the plumbing and the electrical, so in this smallish bathroom, most of the sheetrock had to go. What a mess! But that’s a different story.

This got me thinking again about Amber and this little human body that appears to be functioning, yet changing constantly. When you can’t see the inside workings of everything that lies beneath the skin, how do you know what is going on? I read that a baby’s skin is so well developed that fingerprints form sometime during the second trimester. So after just 4 or 5 months, the baby is totally enclosed in skin, and yet development and construction still takes place. That is a little like building a wall, covering it with sheetrock and then finishing the electrical and plumbing through the sheetrock. So how does that work?

Now I have a confession to make. Plumbing is not my favorite thing. As a matter of fact, I’m not even very good at it. Often in a project, if I have trouble with anything, it will be plumbing. From a certain perspective plumbing is my nemesis.

So, if I hate plumbing so much, why would I choose to remodel a bathroom? That’s a good question, but they say to face your fears, right? Let’s just say that at times I struggle a bit with getting all the plumbing to work exactly as it is supposed to. It is not as easy as it looks. There are drain pipes and water pipes and fittings and elbows and fall and all sorts of things that create a bit of a nightmare. In the big picture, this plumbing was not all that complex. We had to run two new drains and add some water in a new location for the washing machine. Not a big deal, really. But it was still a bit of a challenge.

In spite of all the challenges and yes, even the plumbing, the bathroom remodel project was a great success.

But have you ever really thought about the plumbing of a newborn? I mean not only is it overwhelmingly complex, it is tiny to boot! When I was holding Amber for the first time in the hospital when she was just 2 hours old, I noticed that the distance from her wrist to her elbow was about the length of my little finger. Think about that. Consider all the blood plumbing, both blue and red, kind of like hot and cold water, but more complicated. Think about all the other plumbing, the HVAC system that transports oxygen to the blood and somehow learns in seconds how to breathe air. Then there is the obvious plumbing system that requires diapers, but even that is very complex.

I could go on but I think you are beginning to get the picture. While I’m working on one construction project it is constantly reminding me of the absolute miracle of a different kind of construction project.

The text I read from Job this morning says that God has knit us together with bones and sinew. Even with all our modern understanding and medical science, I’m not sure there is a better description of what takes place. It is a miracle.

The other text from Hebrews talks about faith. Convictions of things not seen? You bet. If you ever feel your faith start to dwindle, find a newborn and hold them for a time. Your faith with be restored.

But that isn’t the end of the story. You see we were all newborns at some time in our past. Everything I have said today about Amber, is also true of you. Each and every one of us are remarkably and wondrously made. Not a day goes by that your body is not growing, changing, replacing skin, producing new cells and it all seems to happen without a blueprint or a plan. Your body just knows what to do.

Take a deep breath. Feel your body work. Think about how that air was processed. And thank God that the Divine Spirit has breathed into us the very breath of life.

Amen.

Sermon: July 16, 2017 – The Story Behind the Story

The Story Behind the Story

Text: Luke 14: 1-6

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

I find this to be a fascinating text because as you begin to ask a few questions, or do a bit of research around some of the details in the story, it becomes even richer than it is on the surface. There are a number of things in this text that I don’t think are there by accident, but in order to reap the full benefit it requires a bit of knowledge around some of the details.

For starters, I think it is significant that this story only appears in the Gospel according to Luke; it is not present in Matthew or Mark. This means the source for this story is either unknown to us, or is simply a story or example that comes to us from the imagination of our author. I think the latter option is likely, that Luke created this story, and I think that for a number of reasons.

The author of Luke, as you may already know is also the author of the book of Acts. Through a careful reading and interpretation of these two works, it becomes known to us that Luke was called on a number of different occasions the beloved physician. One of these references is found in Colossians, 4: 14 where there is just a simple greeting; but it is believed that the reference here to Luke as the beloved physician is the same Luke as the author of the Gospel.

The only reason I bring this to our attention is that in our story that I read a few minutes ago, the man who was healed had a disease known as dropsy. Now, I don’t know about you, but dropsy isn’t necessarily part of my vocabulary on a regular basis. So I think it is interesting that Luke chose a rather obscure disease to have healed when there are many other stories of healing from things that are much more common. In our New Testament we find many stories of lepers being healed, evil spirits being cast out, blind people being healed, deformities of hands and other limbs; but this is the only story of dropsy. The fact that the story comes from a physician I think is significant. It makes me think there may be a reason that Luke chose dropsy for this healing scene.

At first glance, this story appears to be about healing on the Sabbath, which of course it is, but I believe there may be some hidden significance here as well. But in order for us to uncover this hidden significance, it is necessary for us to take another look at this rather obscure disease called dropsy.

If you try to do a bit of research on dropsy, you will discover that this term is really no longer used; it is considered to be an ancient description of a couple of different ailments. The first type of situation that dropsy was used to describe back in the day, is now referred to as edema, or a swelling of a particular area. In today’s medical vernacular the type of edema is usually considered a part of the diagnosis, so you could have lymphedema, for example, which is swelling as it pertains to our lymph system. There are other terms that relate to specific types of swelling, but edema can be used to describe the swelling from a bee sting, and sprained ankle, an allergic reaction and a host of other situations.

I believe it is unlikely that the man in our story was suffering from anything as simple as a bee sting or sprained ankle. Edema can be caused by certain deficiencies in our blood, or certain organ malfunctions like our liver or kidneys, so there are any number of ailments our subject in the story may have experienced that were described as dropsy.

In a similar fashion, congestive heart failure, which is a specific type of edema, was also considered to be part of dropsy. But dropsy in ancient times wasn’t necessarily only congestive heart failure, it was heart trouble of almost any kind. So we actually have two possible ailments from which our man in the story was healed; abnormal swelling or heart disease of almost any kind. I think both are significant to our story.

Luke, being a physician would not miss the irony contained in this story and I believe this is intentional on the part of the author.

The position of the Pharisees and the lawyers in this story were watching Jesus carefully and were looking for a way to discredit him. They were steeped in tradition and strict adherents to the law. They considered themselves to be righteous individuals and probably felt that God looked more favorably on them than the rest of society. They were spiritually elevated, in their own minds, over anyone else.

So in addition to being about healing on the Sabbath, I think this is a story of contrasts. Jesus could heal the physical impact of dropsy on the man in our story. But the man who was healed was not the only person in the story suffering from a form of dropsy. I believe this particular disease was chosen as a metaphor by our physician author, because dropsy also represented what was wrong with the Pharisees that had gathered there that day.

You see, the Pharisees also had unnatural swelling. Their pride was swollen. Their ego was swollen and there self-righteousness were all swollen out of control. But Jesus could not heal this disease. In order to be healed, you must want to be healed.

The other form of dropsy that the man in our story could have been suffering from was some form of heart disease. The Pharisees also had this in common with our man who was healed. They, too, had heart disease. They had heart disease in the form of lack of compassion. They had heart disease in the inability to allow the individual to be more important than the law. They had heart disease in the sense that scheming and conspiring with one another to make Jesus look bad was OK with them. They had heart disease in the sense that power and prestige began to mean more than love and kindness and common sense.

Jesus had no problem healing the physical aspects of dropsy for someone who wanted to be healed. There wasn’t much Jesus could do about the emotional and psychological dropsy that the Pharisees suffered from, particularly when they didn’t view themselves as sick. Yes, this story is about healing on the Sabbath, but I think there is story behind the story.

We may no longer use the term dropsy to describe certain medical conditions. But the dropsy conditions from which the Pharisees suffered are still around today. Swollen egos and heart disease are still present everywhere we turn. Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy and the text said they had no answer. I believe we are charged with the same task. We should not be quiet in the face of swollen egos, swollen self-righteousness, swollen self-importance and the kind of heart disease that continues to oppress, continues to marginalize and continues to threaten the very existence of those less fortunate than the rest of us.

Make no mistake. Jesus gave us clear instructions in Matthew 25 that when we do not give food to the hungry, or drink to the thirsty, when we do not care for the poor or the sick, when we do not do these things to the least of these, we do not do it to Jesus himself.

Even in the Hebrew Bible we have the commandments that lean toward social justice. Micah 6:8 is a prime example; we are to do justice, not just talk about it, but do it. Or as Nike would say: “Just do it”. The text in Micah also says we are to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. This is what the Lord requires of us. It is listed as a requirement, not a suggestion.

It is a form of heart disease that cuts benefits for the poor. It is a form of heart disease that pushes people off of health insurance. It is a form of heart disease that continues to create tax benefits for the wealthy and eliminate safety nets for those who are hungry or thirsty or in need of clothing.  It is also a violation of scriptural mandates that are repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy and they had no answer. I believe we are called to do likewise.

And that is food for thought.

Amen.

Sermon: July 9, 2017 – Jesus as Light & Water

Jesus as Light & Water

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.

A number of years ago I can remember going camping with our kids when they were small and if you were in a campground in a National Forest or State Park or somewhere similar and you wanted to build a campfire, you gathered some wood and built your fire. Well, this is no longer the case. Now you have to go to the gift shop or the visitor’s center and purchase your firewood. Good grief!

I guess I understand the problem with too many visitors to our parks and what might happen if everyone collected firewood naturally, and I guess I even support the idea of no wood gathering and purchasing firewood in the campground office. But it seems a little lacking in terms of the experience. If you are going to have a campfire, getting wood is just part of that process. But I’m old fashioned that way, I guess.

I mention this because when we were camping with our kids when they were young, I used to tease them a little bit by saying that firewood was just stored sunlight. This messed with their heads a little bit; I would explain that the sun is just a big ball of fire. They understood this and had been told this in school as well. Then I would explain that the fire of the sun reaches the earth in the form of light and energy and they understood this as well. Then I would explain that plants and animals and trees and pretty much any living thing must have sunlight in order to grow. The trees that are all around us absorb the light energy from the sun and they store some of that energy in the branches of the trees. When the branch dies and becomes firewood for us, some of that stored energy is still in there and when we burn the wood, we release the stored sunlight.

So the energy that we are talking about begins as fire on the sun, and it gets released as fire from the wood that we burn. So we begin with fire and end with fire; so our firewood is in fact stored sunlight.

Now, I have a question for you which I think is very important to our conversation today as we continue to discuss certain aspects of a creation based theology. The question is this; when I speak of firewood as stored sunlight, am I speaking metaphorically or am I speaking literally?

Is the idea of a piece of firewood being stored sunlight a metaphor in the sense that when we burn the piece of wood it is like the sun? The fire gives us heat and light and is similar to the sun in all those aspects, so it is like the sun. That is what a metaphor is, when something is like something else and you can compare the two things and find the similarities.

Or is a piece of firewood literally stored sunlight? In a literal sense that would mean that the sunlight which struck this piece of wood perhaps 100 years ago is still present in that wood. I think all of us recognize that without sunlight a tree would not grow. As it grows the branches become thicker and grow taller, that sort of thing, so some of that energy that the tree absorbs from the sun must naturally be stored in the branch of that tree, don’t you think?

So my conclusion or to answer to my own question is yes to both ideas. The idea of firewood as stored sunlight I think is a “both and” kind of question. It is a metaphor to be sure, but it is also literal in the sense of understanding the process and the flow and release of energy. This is an important concept for us to grasp that a statement can be both metaphor and literal all at the same time; I don’t believe that metaphor and literal interpretations of a particular statement or text are necessarily mutually exclusive. I believe something can be both metaphor and literal simultaneously.

This leads me back to the text I read a few minutes ago. If you have been around here for a while, you may already know this is one of my favorite texts in all of the Bible. I use it almost every chance I get and you often hear it at Christmas or during the Advent season.

But this time it is a little different. We are talking about creation theology and how God is present in all of creation. This texts speaks to that creation process with the idea that everything that is now was originally a part of God. We can look at verse 3 for example, where the text says that all things came into being through him, and without him nothing could come into existence. The text goes on to say that what was created, in a literal sense, was life.

I happen to believe that this references all life. I understand the text is primarily focused on Jesus, but I want us to think beyond just the life of Jesus and consider this text as it applies to all of creation. All of the life of creation, all of the plants and animals, all of the birds and insects and flowers and trees, all of creation represents life. Then the text goes on to say that the life that was created was the light of all people.

So in a literal sense, and a metaphorical sense, light is life and life is light. Can you see that relationship? The text then finishes with the promise, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

To paraphrase this text you might say that when we observe any living thing, when we observe life at any level, we observe the presence of light. When we observe the presence of light, we also observe the presence of God.

So is the prologue of John written as metaphor or is the prologue of John written as a literal interpretation of the creation process? Yes.

A couple of weeks ago I shared with you a portion of a text that comes from the Gospel of Thomas. The actual text is saying number 77 from the Gospel of Thomas and there we find the words that I think are actually very similar to the words from the Gospel of John. Take another look at this saying from the Gospel of Thomas:

“I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split of piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

So is this a metaphorical statement or is it a literal statement? Hmmm.

Everything that we have been saying thus far about light, we could also say about water. Life itself also is dependent upon water just as it is dependent upon light.

There are two ideas that Jesus used to describe himself more than any other concept we find in the New Testament. These two ideas are also used by the authors of the Hebrew Bible texts over and over again. These two ideas used by both Jesus and all the authors of the entire Bible are that God can be described as light and as water. Consider this for just a minute. There are at least 25 or 30 references in our Bible that describe God as water. There are probably a lot more than that, but it varies depending on how you search and I didn’t have time to read the entire book and make my own list.

If you search based on the idea of God as light, the results are even more amazing. My best guess is that there are more than 50 references in our Bible that describe God or Jesus as light.

So I want to ask my question again about all these references to God and Jesus as light and water. Are all of these references metaphor and simply describe how God is like water and light? Yes, I think they do describe how the presence of God is like light and water. So, yes, these references are definitely metaphor.

But are the references also literal? When we see water or when we see light are we actually seeing and experiencing God? Yes. I believe God is present in light and in water and in all that is.

This is the best explanation of a creation based theology that I can offer. To subscribe to such a theology you must be able to hold in tension the two ideas of metaphor and literal interpretation and be comfortable with the idea that both can exist simultaneously. This thought process also leads you away from the idea that God is a being with human like characteristics, and is more like the energy that is represented in light and water. As a matter of fact, on the literal side of things, God actually is the energy in light and water, and just as light and water sustain all life on earth, so does God sustain all life on earth.

So the next time you have a campfire or burn a stick of wood in your fireplace consider the idea that the fire you see is actually ancient stored sunlight. Then consider the idea that God may literally be present in that ancient sunlight or Jesus may be present in that split stick of wood.

And that is of course, food for thought. Go in peace. Amen.

Sermon: June 25, 2017 – “Creation Theology According to Jesus”

“Creation Theology According to Jesus”

Text: The Gospel of Thomas; saying #77

Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is over all things.
I am All. From Me All come forth, and
to Me All attained. Split a piece of wood, and I am
there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.”

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a few parts of my creation theology as part of that sermon. I received a little bit of interested feedback from that very brief synopsis and so I thought it might be interesting for you to have me expand on that thinking just a bit.

So for starters, I wanted to recap what I said a couple of weeks ago about how I see God and our universe and our planet connected. These are the very same points that I spoke of briefly in that sermon two weeks ago.

*God created it – the how doesn’t matter, but God created it.

*God is present in creation – what we do to the planet, we do to God.

*Creation belongs to God – Creation is God.

*Our relationship with creation mirrors our relationship with God.

*How we care for creation mirrors how we care for one another.

*The pulse of creation is the energy of God and is the source of all that is.

So to expand on these ideas is what I will be up to for the next several sermons. This may be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle over the summer, but that is one of the reasons I always try to make copies available of each sermon. That way, if you miss a Sunday, or as was the case last week, when I miss a Sunday, we can all keep track of what is going on.

Before we begin the expansion of these tenets of what I call my creation theology, I thought it might be good to look back and explore some of the things which I think have influenced the formation of this theology. The text I read a few minutes ago is probably a good place to begin.

Before I entered Seminary I had never heard of the Gospel of Thomas. There were fragments of this Gospel as part of some writings that had been discovered in the 1800’s, but it wasn’t until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we had a complete manuscript in our hands. At first, when the Gospel of Thomas was discovered many thought that this could be the lost gospel that has become known to scholars as “Q”. I have mentioned previously that “Q” is considered by many to be a second source that the authors of Matthew and Luke used in the preparation of their gospels, in addition to the Gospel of Mark. The “Q” theory proved not to be the case, and the Gospel of Thomas was matched up with the fragments we already had and scholars then knew what it was. In terms of Biblical manuscripts, the Gospel of Thomas is very new to us, having been discovered as recently as 1945.

So when I found myself in Seminary I was exposed to the Gospel of Thomas for the very first time. It is an interesting gospel, in that it is a “sayings” gospel. This means that the text does not attempt to put anything in context of a story, it just simply says Jesus said: this or that. Then it goes on to the next saying. The sayings are just numbered 1 through 114; the one I read this morning as mentioned is saying number 77.

This particular saying, when I heard it the first time, confirmed for me much of what I already believed to be true. I have always had a connection with the earth and with nature. I have always felt closer to God in the woods or in the mountains than anywhere else. This saying confirms that Divine presence which I had always felt.

A second confirming experience also happened in Seminary. This came in the form of a book which I read called “The Body of God” by Sallie McFague. This book is an in depth look at creation and the presence of God in creation. Sallie McFague is a contemporary author, so the ideas and the concepts put forth in her book represent very modern thought. Sallie McFague teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity Seminary and here is what one of her colleagues from Harvard had to say about this book.

“A very distinctive and important new option for Christian theology. McFague proposes in a clear and challenging way a theological program based on what she calls ‘the organic model’ for conceiving God. Her model is in keeping with contemporary scientific understandings of the widely accepted common creation story and provides a good basis for reconceiving the Christian understanding of human existence in an ecologically ordered natural world. Very illuminating, with some brilliant insights.”

— Gordon D. Kaufman, Harvard Divinity School

Of course, I think you can see how this book may have had some significant influence in how I view God and how I relate to God in the natural world.

I mentioned that Sallie McFague was a contemporary author with modern ideas and concepts, but some of those concepts are still very ancient. I think the saying from the Gospel of Thomas we looked at mirrors much of what McFague says in her book, but there is another person of interest that also has articulated much of what I believe to be true about God. This person is from the 13th century; you may have heard of him, it is St. Francis of Assisi.

Even before seminary, I had a connection with St. Francis. Having had the opportunity to actually visit Assisi that connection has grown even stronger. St. Francis is well known for his popular prayer, which we recite here often. But he is a much more diverse and interesting character than just his prayer. Legend has it that St. Francis was particularly well connected to animals and some say he could communicate with them. Statues of St. Francis often include birds resting on his arms or other animals around him. When asked why the animals would come to him, he simply said that he tells them he is no danger to them and they listen.

Less famous than his prayer, but still very well-known is a manuscript authored by St. Francis that has taken many forms over the past 8 or 9 hundred years. This manuscript is often called the Canticle of the Earth, but portions of it and other expanded versions have appeared in a variety of names, but generally all are accredited to St. Francis. Just so you know, a canticle is a hymn or a song, often from a Biblical text, but not limited to that. A canticle is most often used in a church or religious setting.

What I have done is I have chosen a variety of the texts I have found attributed to St. Francis and combined them into my own interpretation of the Canticle of the Earth by St. Francis of Assisi. I hope you enjoy it.

Sermon: June 11, 2017 – “All that Borrows Life from Thee”

“All that Borrows Life from Thee”

Text: Mark 12: 1-9

Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

This is a crazy parable. At least that is my reaction to it; as you are reading, I find myself thinking that these tenants are really ignorant. How do they think this episode is going to end? How could it possibly end well? What were they thinking? It’s not like they were in hiding. It isn’t as if the owner of the vineyard didn’t know where they lived. This cycle of escalating violence always leads to a disturbing conclusion. It really makes no sense that anyone in their right mind would act this way.

Yet, the parable rings true on a number of different levels. We have all experienced situations that seem to mirror this parable. Often it leaves us wondering.

As we look at this parable and the scholarship around it there are a couple of things that I think are important for us to know about this particular story. The first thing that I think is important is the level of authenticity that seems to surround this parable. This story appears in varying forms in all three of the synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke. It can also be found in the Gospel of Thomas, which is thought to have been written similar in time to Mark and qualifies as one of the writings we have that is closest to the execution of Jesus.

In spite of the wide acceptance of this parable by the authors of these Gospels, the fellows of the Jesus seminar fail to attribute the parable to Jesus. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main idea is for us to know that all scholars do not agree as to the origin or interpretation of this parable.

This is important for us to recognize because when the Bible scholars cannot agree about source or interpretation, then I find a little freedom in that conclusion to go ahead and find my own personal interpretation as well. It’s not like the meaning of this parable has been cast in stone and any other interpretation is absolute heresy. I think we have a green light to ask questions, to dig deeper and to apply the concepts of this parable to our 21st century lives in ways the original Gospel authors could never imagine.

That being said, I’m going to unpack this parable in a new way with an interpretation I’m pretty sure you will not find in any Bible commentary anywhere. Before I do, let me add that these are my ideas around this parable. You don’t have to agree with me, but I do hope it creates a thought process within your minds as to how we might interpret ancient observations within a 21st century context.

The first observation I want to make about this parable is that much the available scholarship wants to focus on the allegory of the landowner being compared to an apocalyptic return of Jesus. There is certain death and destruction awaiting these wicked tenants and the comparison of the landowner finally sending his son who ends up getting killed, with the eventual execution of Jesus is just too tempting for interpreters to ignore. Everything just seems to line up and fall into place.

But my response to those interpretations is simply to say not so fast. There are other ways of looking at this text which lie outside of any apocalyptic return of Jesus.

For example, I think the parable makes a very valid point about how greed can cloud our thinking. A few minutes ago when I first began to make comments about this story, I said something about the tenants not being all that astute. I mean, how did they think this little episode would end?

So this is an important part of a parable. It is supposed to have certain elements which turn the tables, or turn things upside down or have certain events which don’t make sense. As we read about these wicked tenants, we can’t help but think that these people are a little dim. How could anyone be so cold and cruel and calculated and actually think they could do this and not suffer any consequences? Of course the answer to this question is that they can’t. Of course there will be consequences. The text says they will be destroyed. And yet the wicked tenants persist. They kill and beat one slave after another until the landowner finally sends his son and they kill him as well. What are we to make of this behavior?

I think the parable is really about this lack of vision on the part of the tenants. It is incredibly shortsighted to engage in this level of violence just because you don’t want to pay a portion of the harvest to the landowner. What conclusion I come to when reading this parable is the power of greed has the ability to overthrow common sense and common decency. The power of greed blinds us to the otherwise obvious truth and compassionate behavior. The power of greed propels us forward into events and circumstances that have no possible chance of ending well. All is lost and given up when the greed of the short term is allowed to invade our thinking and dominate our common sense.

This parable is about how greed can color our thinking to the point that we are willing to commit atrocities to other fellow human beings just to increase our bottom line. I don’t think the tenants in this story were stupid or ignorant; after all, they were smart enough to run a vineyard, collect a harvest and smart enough to recognize the son of the landowner. So what happened to this apparent level of intelligence? It was displaced with greed. The intelligence was no longer functional and greed had taken its place.

It is like filling a glass of water. When you begin the glass is full of air; as you pour in the water, the air is displaced because the water is heavier than the air. That doesn’t mean the air no longer exists, it is just displaced out of the glass. Common sense and basic human decency can suffer the same result when displaced by the stronger and heavier components of greed. When our minds fill up with greed, common sense and decency can be displaced, and things which should be obvious, are no longer so clear. Our good judgment is displaced with greed.

I find another parallel with this parable that I find particularly disturbing. That parallel is that we are tenants of this earth. As tenants of this earth have we allowed our greed and economic zeal to cloud our thinking? Has our common sense and human decency given way to economic stimulus and greed for a larger bottom line? I think so.

I want to offer a little perspective on how I view this planet that we call our home. You are welcome to disagree with me, but I don’t think you will. This is what I believe to be true about planet earth.

*God created it – the how doesn’t matter, but God created it.

*God is present in creation – what we do to the planet, we do to God.

*Creation belongs to God – Creation is God.

*Our relationship with creation mirrors our relationship with God.

*How we care for creation mirrors how we care for one another.

*The pulse of creation is the energy of God and is the source of all that is.

Have we been good tenants of planet earth? Has greed blinded us to common sense and common human decency? Can we see planet earth and ourselves in this parable of the wicked tenants?

In our closing hymn one of the lyrics, (which was written over 300 years ago) I believe supports the understanding of creation as I have outlined. Watch for it. In the third verse, there is a line which states that everything in creation borrows life from God. In other words, every living thing and all of creation borrows life from God and eventually returns to God. God is creation and creation is God. Everything is part of the whole.

I was recently in a conversation with someone about climate change and the Paris Climate agreement and issues surrounding all that. The argument was raised that if scientists can’t agree, how are we supposed to understand climate change and come to our own conclusions.

Here’s what I think. There isn’t any scientific debate.

As for understanding climate change; if you have sense enough to know that you don’t leave a pet or God forbid, an infant in a car seat, inside a parked car on a hot day, you understand climate change.

If we read the parable through the lens of being tenants of planet earth can we see ourselves in this story? Does it end well? Can we change the ending?

Food for thought.

Go in peace.

Amen.

Sermon: June 4, 2017 – The Never Ending Story

The Never Ending Story

Text: Joel 2: 28-29

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Welcome to Pentecost Sunday! In our faith tradition this is the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The primary story of Pentecost is found in the second chapter of Acts; in that story Peter is quoted as saying the event fulfilled the prophecy of Joel, which is one of the reasons I chose that text this morning rather than the traditional one from Acts.

I think most of us are familiar with the story found in Acts. The disciples and others had gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost when there came the rush of a mighty wind and tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples and some spoke in other languages and for a few minutes it seemed there was chaos. Some thought that others were drunk. But Peter stood and preached about the coming of the Spirit and what the significance of that as understood through the context of a crucified and now risen Christ.

But I want to back up a bit because there are a couple of things I want us to understand about Pentecost and why we can add even more significance to our story. The first thing I think we need to be aware of is that that the disciples had gathered together with others to celebrate the day of Pentecost. Now we need to think about this, because they had gathered together for Pentecost, before there was a Christian Pentecost to celebrate. They had gathered together as was the custom in the Jewish faith tradition for the day of Pentecost.

Does anyone know what the Jewish day of Pentecost celebrated for that faith tradition? Most of us do not; we think that Pentecost is a Christian holiday, but we have more or less coopted the holiday from the Jewish faith tradition and put our own Christian spin on things. But what I find interesting is that the two holidays are not that different in terms of what they celebrate.

I did a little research and found that the Jewish holiday of Pentecost is the fiftieth day after the Passover and it celebrates when the Torah was first given to the people of Israel. The Torah, in the Jewish faith tradition is the sacred text that we call the Old Testament, or in a more politically correct way, it is often referred to as the Hebrew Bible. I think this is interesting because in the Jewish faith tradition the Torah is considered to be, at least in part, the dwelling place of the Spirit of God.

If you have ever attended a Jewish service in a synagogue you may remember that part of the ritual is around the Torah. When you first enter a Jewish synagogue, you may notice that at the front of the sanctuary, where our altar and candles usually are is a very ornate, highly decorated cabinet. In that cabinet are scrolls of the Torah. Often the scrolls are held in some sort of velvet pouch or bag as well.

Then at some point during the service the scrolls are removed from this cabinet and walked down the aisle. As the scrolls pass the people on each side of the aisle, those seated on the end reach out and gently touch the scrolls, and then press their fingers to their lips, as if they had kissed the scrolls. This blessing is then passed down the pew to others by a touch of the hand and the symbolic kiss.

I would lift up to you the possibility that the two observances of the day of Pentecost are not as different as we might think. In the Jewish faith tradition the giving of the Torah in many ways represents the presence of the Spirit of God. Of course from a Christian perspective the coming of the Holy Spirit is exactly the same thing. Part of me wants to consider the day of Pentecost not as a Christian observance or a Jewish observance, but rather a continuous and never ending celebration that the Spirit of God is always with us. It may have begun 6,000 years ago in a unique Jewish setting, but I believe it continues today within both faith traditions.

I think it is important for us to recognize that our Christian day of Pentecost has its roots in the Jewish faith tradition.  I think we should look at the Christian day of Pentecost, not as a new holiday in the church, but a continuance of an already established tradition of celebrating the gift of the presence of the Spirit of God.

That is the first observation I wanted to make, this idea that we should view Pentecost as a continuance of the Jewish holiday, but the second observation is a little more obscure. Often when we speak of Pentecost we use the term that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at that time. While that is true from a certain perspective, I would like for us to think about the celebration of Pentecost as the giving of the Spirit rather than the receiving of the Spirit. I know this sounds like a subtle difference, but allow me to elaborate just a little.

If we look at the book of Acts, we can find the story of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit in the second chapter. Then again in the 8th chapter of Acts we find another instance where the disciples prayed for someone and they received the Holy Spirit. Specifically, this is found in Acts 8: 15-19 where we find this event;

15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then later in Acts we find another instance where others received the Holy Spirit, this story is found in Acts 10: 44-47;

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

What this implies to me is that we all are continuously receiving the Holy Spirit, but what we celebrate is the giving of the Holy Spirit. In other words we can look to the giving as the event recorded in the second chapter of Acts, but the receiving is something that has been continuously underway ever since that event.

Even as we view the Christian celebration of Pentecost as a continuance of the gift of the Spirit of God, from the original day of Pentecost when the Torah was given to the Jews, we can see the connection of our Pentecost celebration today to those celebrations from thousands of years ago. In like manner, I can say with confidence that I think the gift of the Spirit of God from long ago will continue to be celebrated, the reality of the receiving of the Spirit of God will be an event which continues to happen from this century into the next and the next and so on.

In the 1980’s there was a great movie that was a favorite of our boys when they were younger. You might remember this movie, it is called “The Never Ending Story”. That is how I think we should view Pentecost; it is the never ending story. Because we can remember and celebrate the one time event of the gift of the Spirit of God, but also look forward to the continuing events of receiving the Spirit of God.

So go in peace and receive the presence of the Holy Spirit as we celebrate the gift of the Spirit and the receiving of the Spirit as past, present and future events. May the never ending story of the Holy Spirit continue in your lives from this day forward and for all time.

Amen.

Sermon: May 28th, 2017 – A Parable Revisited

A Parable Revisited

Text: Matthew 25: 1-13

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

As we begin to look at yet another parable, this one from the Gospel of Matthew, there are a couple of things you need to know about this parable that I think are important. Of course, what is important to me, may not be important to you, and as I am accustomed to saying; these ideas and beliefs are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your beliefs. I do ask that you think about it, but if we disagree after a diligent thought process, that’s OK too.

Matthew presents this parable in his gospel as one that Jesus taught. Many Bible scholars doubt this is a parable that Jesus actually used. It lacks many of the structural characteristics of an actual Jesus parable and because of these shortcomings, scholars tend to think that this parable had a different source. Perhaps it is entirely a fabrication from the imagination of Matthew, we obviously cannot be certain of any of this. Another clue, however, is that this particular parable is only found in Matthew.

The three gospels which we call the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are very similar in content and structure and are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar. It would be unusual for Jesus to have used a parable for teaching and have it appear in only one of the gospels. Not impossible, but unlikely. So the current scholarship around this parable is that it probably was not from Jesus. This is confirmed in the book, “The Five Gospels” which is the work of about 75 Bible scholars, all well above my security clearance, and they conclude that this parable is not from Jesus.

That being said, just because the parable did not originate from Jesus, doesn’t mean that it is without value. I think there are some interesting points in this parable, items that can be interpreted that help us to take a positive lesson from a parable that otherwise struggles a bit, in my opinion, on its own merit.

So let’s take a look at this parable, first from the perspective of Matthew and what it was he was trying to accomplish. Most of the commentaries and scholarship around this parable do agree that it is about the second coming of Jesus. This is sometimes called the Parousia, but second coming works just as well. It is also referred to as the eschaton, which is another $100 word that essentially means end times. Just in case you check up on me and do some of your own research and run across either of these two words that is what they mean.

What is fairly obvious in a quick reading of this parable is that Matthew is comfortable with the idea of using fear to motivate people to do the right thing. He clearly identifies the ten bridesmaids as 5 that are wise and 5 that are foolish. The foolish ones do not bring any extra oil with them, so when the groom is delayed, which I read isn’t all that uncommon, the five foolish ones are left out in the cold. Even when they return with oil, they are locked out of the banquet. The parable ends with the warning, you had better be prepared at all times, because Jesus is coming again real soon, and if you are not prepared, you will be locked out forever.

I think it is good for us to understand some of the historical timing of Matthew’s gospel, so we can see some things from that point of view. I think this will help us understand why the parable reads the way that it does. To understand Matthew, we need to first have some understanding of the Gospel of Mark.

Chronologically, Mark was the first Gospel that was written. It is estimated that Mark was probably written around the year 50. It was a very common belief in the years that immediately followed the execution of Jesus that he would return very soon. By the time Mark was written enough years had gone by that expectations were very high that the return of Jesus could happen any day. It was so imminent that you thought twice about how many eggs to buy because no sense in wasting them, right? Many believers expected Jesus within days or weeks of his execution and after it had been 20 or so years, when Mark finished his gospel, expectations were even that much higher.

Another 30 years passed before the authors of Matthew and Luke finished their respective gospels. They were written at about the same time, but in two very different settings and to very different audiences, but are still both quite similar to Mark. Similar to Mark, with one notable exception, and that exception is the immediacy of the return of Jesus. Now that it had been 50 years or so since the execution of Jesus, the idea of Jesus returning any day was no longer as accepted as it was earlier. For Matthew, this set the stage for a parable about the bridegroom being delayed and some of those who were foolish and not prepared get surprised by the return of Jesus.

Just to complete our understanding of the Gospels, by the time the Gospel of John came on the scene, the expectation of a physical return of Jesus had diminished considerably. John was probably written about another 20 years after Matthew and Luke and John comes to a very different conclusion in his Gospel, at least that’s what I think. I believe that John’s gospel takes the position that Jesus has already returned, the kingdom of God has arrived and these events are evidenced in the presence of the Holy Spirit. But that is another sermon. Back to the parable.

So it would be quite easy for us to consider this parable not part of the actual teachings of Jesus and also consider it historically obsolete and to conclude that it has little or no value for us today in the 21st century. I would disagree with that assumption. We can still draw quite a lesson from this parable, if we are willing to keep digging.

One of the things which has always bothered me about this parable is the idea that the five bridesmaids that had extra oil were not willing to share. In a New Testament that over and over again reminds us to love our neighbor, to turn the other cheek, to give our shirts as well as our jackets if someone asks for them, to do all of these things and yet not share oil strikes me as being odd. The five bridesmaids with the extra oil use the excuse that if they share then everyone might run out, but they don’t know that for sure. It is just an excuse. It seems to me to be kind of a “gotcha” moment, if you know what I mean. There could have been other solutions; why not combine all the oil among 9 bridesmaids and just send one to find extra oil? At least that includes as many people as possible. So that part of the parable has never made a lot of sense to me.

Then as I was playing around with the parable in my own thinking I was trying to identify metaphorically what each character or item in the story was to stand for. One answer that intrigued me was that the oil in the parable was representative of preparation. Matthew suggests in the parable that five were wise and were prepared for the delay, and five were foolish and were not prepared for the delay. So perhaps the oil stands for preparation.

This made me think back to when I was in college and preparing for a test. Many of you know that my undergraduate degree is in photography. What you may not know is that there are two different approaches to the degrees available in photography. One degree is a Bachelor of Science degree in photography and speaking in broad general terms, these degrees tend to emphasize the mechanics and manipulation of photography. They deal with the science end of things more critically. The other degree path is a Bachelor of Arts degree. These degree programs lean toward the aesthetic properties of photography, include studies of composition, design, color theory and that sort of thing.

My degree is the BA – the Bachelor of Arts, and as a result, my degree was part of the art department at the university where I was studying. As part of the art department requirements, every student had a core curriculum of art classes that were mandatory; this included art history. AAaarrgh.

Actually, as it turned out, the art history was pretty good and I learned something; but I don’t think I would have ever taken it on my own. The other thing is that the tests were brutal. In order to pass the class I had to devise some way to prepare for those tests. So I found a study buddy. Together we would prepare for the tests and ask each other questions and find creative ways to remember things. From that experience, I find myself still doing that today.

For example when we first moved to the LC Valley, I couldn’t keep avenues and streets straight in my head in Lewiston. The thought of something being on the corner of 17th and 17th just made zero sense to me, so I had to make up something to help me. What I came up with was that avenue ended in an “E” and East begins with an “E” and so avenues run East and West. If I somehow forgot that connection, I came up with another, and that is that street begins with an “S” and so does South and streets run north and south. After that, my navigation skills improved.

So it was in our art history study sessions. I would find ways to remember an artist or a date or something relevant about a work of art that would help us when it came test time.

So here is the point of all this. You can help someone prepare. You can work together in preparation of a coming event; like a test. But when the day of the test arrives, you cannot share your preparation. It would be impossible for me to somehow telepathically share my preparation with my study buddy while we were actually taking the test.

This helps ease my mind a bit around the idea of the bridesmaids refusing to share their oil. Perhaps they didn’t share not because they were unwilling to share, but perhaps they did not share because they were unable to share. The oil represents preparation and you cannot share preparation once test time has arrived.

This parable also reminds me that a lamp is used to bring light and illumination to a situation. I think ultimately we can look at this parable that once was intended to metaphorically stand for something that may no longer be relevant; but it still has value as a metaphor for something far more contemporary.

As I read the parable now, I understand why the bridesmaids cannot share. I can also understand that we never know the time or the place where we will be called upon to have our light shine. If we are unprepared to meet that opportunity we miss out on the blessing that comes from being in service to others and allowing our light to shine so others may see. I believe this parable can now become one of value as we speak of preparing our own lives for the calling that lies before us. Preparing our lives to let our lights shine by example and deed so those around us may see.

Preparation can take many forms. It may be a spiritual discipline. It might be a Bible Study. It may include coming to church and wrestling with new ideas. It may be reading a new book or attending a seminar or lecture. There are many forms of preparation that we can be engaged in. The important lesson from this parable today is that we should always be preparing ourselves for the opportunity to let our lights shine. For without preparation, there is no light, just as without oil, there is no light.

Go in peace and let your lights shine.

Amen.