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

 

Letting Life Drain Away

Text: James 1: 2-4

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

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

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

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

What nonsense!

I don’t believe God sends calamity.

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

But I do believe this scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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

Getting to a New Level

Text: Romans 8: 26-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: September 30, 2018 – A Form of Attachment

A Form of Attachment

Text: Matthew 10: 34-36

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Go in peace, and go with God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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

Two Kinds of Law

Text: I Cor 10: 23-24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is perhaps food for thought.

Amen.

 

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

Not For Sale

Text: Psalm 103: 8-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that, of course, is food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: August 19, 2018 – “Listening Well”

Listening Well

Text: Luke 8: 16-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that of course, is food for thought.

Go in peace, Amen.

 

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

Finding Common Ground

Text: I Corinthians 1:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.