Sermon: December 10, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent – Part Two”

 

A New Look at Advent – Part Two

Text: Luke 7: 1-10

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

You might remember that last week I introduced to you a new idea around the symbolism for the Advent wreath. I suggested we might look at the four candles as being a progression or a process through which we can better understand the story of Christmas, but also maybe better understand our own lives and how we might improve certain aspects of our lives. This symbolism can be thought of as a pathway or stepping stones to an enhanced spiritual discipline for example, or any other area of your life where you might want to make a change.

This symbolism begins with the first Advent candle being identified as symbolic of “annunciation” or to announce something. This is the topic for today’s discussion, but for review the other three candles in our pathway are “preparation”, “confirmation” and finally “transformation.”

But today we are looking at just “annunciation” and why that is important. The text I read a few minutes ago might seem like an odd text for the Christmas season, and I suppose that is an accurate observation. But I have chosen this text because it demonstrates better than any other text I looked at the power of the spoken word. In the story, the centurion tells Jesus that all he has to do is speak the word, and the healing will be accomplished. Jesus comments on this man’s faith, but his clarity of understanding, I think is also commendable. The power of the spoken word has many levels of influence.

One thing that I think is often overlooked when we begin to think about the power of words, is how that power impacts our own minds. In other words, your self-talk, or the words you use in your own mind, carry the same power as those words that you speak. This concept is huge, and I don’t want you to miss it.

When I was a kid growing up in our town we had an old sand pit that the city tried to convince us residents that is was an OK swimming pool. It really wasn’t OK, but we swam there anyway. It was an old sand pit and the water was kind of gross and not clear at all – but we had a good time. One of the things that was very common around the shores of this sand pit, in the sandy beach type areas away from where all the activity was, you could find a particular species of cricket. I don’t know the actual name of this particular bug, but my buddy and I called them “jumping jacks.”

They were a very small bug, which looked like a miniature cricket, except the color was a very light tan, almost translucent in color. We could dig around in the sand and find these little guys and when we found one, we usually put it into an empty jar with a lid of some sort. The lid was very important, because as I said earlier, we called these little bugs “jumping jacks” and the reason we called them that is without a lid, they would jump out of the jar.

The reason we often collected a few jumping jacks is that the fish seemed to love them. They made great bait and we could sell them to almost anyone we discovered fishing along the shores of the lakes or rivers around town.

Now this is where the story gets really interesting. We would collect 10 or 15 jumping jacks and have them in an empty Miracle Whip jar or something similar and then we would begin to search for someone fishing that we could sell them to. Of course my buddy and I are on our bikes and I had a newspaper bag that I used for my paper route that worked well to put the jar in while we searched for our fisherperson.

While we searched, an interesting thing always seemed to happen. When we first started out on our bikes, I could hear the Jumping Jacks hitting the lid of the jar as they jumped trying to get out. There was a fairly constant tap, tap, tap, as they hit the underside of the jar lid. But by the time we had ridden to the local fishing hole on our bikes, the noise had stopped. I always thought they were just tired.

The significance of this childhood experience didn’t really begin to dawn on me until decades later. I believe that those Jumping Jacks that we had in the jar began to realize that they could not jump out of the jar. Once they convinced themselves that they could not jump out of the jar, we could actually take the lid off and none would escape. They would still jump, but not one of them could jump out of the jar. They believed they could not, so they could no longer jump high enough to get out of the jar. When I think back on this experience as a kid, I find that to be quite remarkable.

Just in case you think I’m completely crazy I have another similar story. This isn’t from actual personal experience, but I know it to be true. One of the ways that the circus trained the elephants that it used in the performances was that the elephant was chained to a huge cement block. This worked particularly well with baby elephants, because they learned faster, but it also works with adult elephants. For a time the elephant would test the chain and the concrete block. They would tug and tug and tug but would never be able to get free. After a time, the elephant would stop tugging.

In the elephant’s mind there is an association with the feeling of the chain around the leg and a knowing that meant it could not move away. Once the circus went on the road, this became very helpful, because to travel with a huge cement block is not very convenient.

Once on the road, if the animal trainer needed to secure the elephant for a time, he would wrap the chain around the leg of the elephant and then attach the chain to a wooden stake he had driven into the ground. The elephant could easily pull that stake out of the ground, it would hardly even notice. But because of the training in the mind of the elephant, the feeling of the chain around the leg was enough to convince the elephant that he could not move. The elephant could not pull the stake out of the ground because it didn’t believe that it could.

Just in case you are missing the point here, let’s get back to our original thought. I think there is power in words, there is power in annunciation, and there is power in self talk. What we tell ourselves about our experiences may be the most important form of annunciation there is.

From a certain perspective both the jumping jacks and the elephant had some form of self-talk that eventually convinced them that they could not do what they normally could have done easily. Once the lid was off the jar, the jumping jacks could not jump out of the jar because they believed they couldn’t. Once on the road, the elephant couldn’t pull the stake out of the ground, because it believed that it couldn’t. These beliefs were formed through the self-talk of the prior experiences.

This is critical to understanding the power of annunciation and the power of what we tell ourselves about our experiences or what we tell ourselves about our own goals, our own hopes and our own dreams. When we set a goal, for example, and then begin to tell others, that process of annunciation also helps to convince us. The practice of annunciation is a powerful tool in realizing that to speak the word is a critical first step.

The centurion which contacted Jesus and told him to simply speak the word recognized the power of the spoken word. We should also recognize that power. Have you ever told yourself things like “you’re too old to do something like that” or maybe it’s something else, like not being good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, or healthy enough? What you tell yourself and what you tell others has a huge impact on your odds for success.

If you remember the Christmas story, you might remember that after the first annunciation where the angel visited Mary, she began to share the experience with a few others. Joseph was a little harder to convince. Joseph had some self-talk that sounded a little like “maybe I should just quietly divorce Mary and we could go our separate ways.” So another dose of annunciation was necessary and an angel visited Joseph in a dream. After a time, Joseph’s self-talk began to be more positive and I think we all know the rest of the story.

So pay attention to all the forms of annunciation. Because when you announce to others you are also announcing to yourself. And that is food for thought.

Amen.

Sermon: December 3, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent”

“A New Look at Advent”

Text: Isaiah 43: 19

 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

For a couple of decades now every time Advent rolls around I gravitate toward the obvious-that being the Advent wreath, the Advent candles and some historical perspective on where Advent came from, why it was started and what symbolism lies at the heart of the season. Almost always I come around at some point to identify the candles in the Advent wreath as symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. There isn’t anything wrong with this and there are many sermons that can spring from these four ideals. But this year I wanted to do something new. I wanted to make an attempt to be faithful to the tradition and yet offer a new way of thinking about Advent and perhaps a new perspective for each of us that is applicable to our own spirituality.

That being said, I want to introduce you to a new way of thinking about the Advent candles and a new way of applying that symbolism not only to the Christmas story, but to our own spirituality and our own way of being. As I said earlier, the Advent candles are often portrayed as being symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. I have not ever paid any attention to any specific order or which candle is which. On some Advent wreathes the candles are all purple, sometimes, as is the case with this Advent wreath, there is one rose colored candle. This is more symbolism and yet another layer of story and tradition which sometimes actually works against us rather than for us.

What I would like for us to think about is an idea that the Advent wreath could represent for us a practical guide by which we could structure our lives and increase our own level of spirituality or connection to the Divine. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the symbolism of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. These are great ideals. They are just a little non-specific, I’m not sure they are all that helpful, particularly when someone is struggling. You know the Christmas season is not always full of joy for everyone; often it is a bit of a struggle just to endure the season for some people. For those who struggle, or those who have doubts and questions, for those who are uncertain of where they fit in the big picture or for those who reject the basic Christmas premise, this symbolism is not really helpful. In many ways, it adds to the problems rather than leading someone to a new place or a new way of thinking and being. If someone is not joyful during the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to just tell them to be joyful. If someone is not experiencing love in the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to simply say that it is the season of love. I think we may need to think about this in new ways; we can do better. We can actually help people and lead them to a new understanding and a new experience of Christmas.

I think that is what Christmas should really be about. Leading people to a new way of being. If you are not 100% pleased with where you are, Christmas should provide a pathway to reinvention of who you want to become. Christmas should offer ways to increase our spirituality. Christmas should revive and strengthen our connection to God. Re-imagining the Advent wreath I think may offer us that guide we are looking for.

So over the next four Sundays we will be looking at a new set of symbols for the Advent wreath. We will also be looking at new ways that symbolism relates to the Christmas story, but also how that symbolism reminds us of how we might make changes in our own lives. The Advent wreath can become a symbol by which we can understand the Christmas story on a new level and actually apply that new understanding to our own Christmas experience.

These four candles can become symbols of our own choosing; there isn’t any law that states the four candles of an Advent wreath must be symbolic of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope. This is just what the tradition has passed on to us. The tradition has also given us the concept that the center candle is the Christ candle, and represents the person of Jesus, but also represents the idea that Jesus is at the center of everything else that we do. So that gives us a good place to begin, with the center candle, because in my new way of viewing an Advent wreath, that part stays the same. In other words, the center candle is still the Christ candle, it still represents the person of Jesus and it is still symbolically in the center of everything else we do.

But let’s move on. I would like for us to begin to think about the Advent wreath and the four Sundays of Advent as more of a progression rather than four facets of our Christian lives. You see the four topics of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope are huge concepts. We could take the next four years to unpack each one of those topics. They are not very specific and the broad generalities are hard to apply to our daily living. So I’m offering a new alternative.

As a linear progression of how we accomplish most of what happens in our lives, I think the four candles of the Advent wreath could be symbolic of Annunciation, Preparation, Confirmation and Transformation. Not only do these symbols tell the story of Christianity, I think they also can lead us forward into a stronger personal spirituality.

We can look at these four steps in a broad sense by simply defining the four words in this way: “Annunciation” means you announce what you are going to do, what is going to happen or what you are going to pursue. Setting a goal and making it public is another way of understanding “annunciation”.

Secondly, we “prepare” to do what we said we would do. This is the second step in our process called “preparation”. If our stated goal was to build a larger vocabulary, our preparation would be to locate the resources necessary for us to do that. If our annunciation involved a personal spiritual goal, like learning to meditate for example, then our preparation might include classes we could attend our books we might read about meditation.

The third step in this process is “confirmation”. This is the time when you actually begin to do what you said you would. It is confirmation of your commitment and desire to build a larger vocabulary or to learn to meditate. This confirmation possibly comes in the form of waking up one day and realizing that you are actually doing what you said you were going to do. “I’m actually learning new words” or a self-realization that “I’m learning to meditate and have practiced this 3 times this week”. These are all confirmations that things are beginning to happen.

The last step in the process is “transformation”. Transformation comes when we begin to reap the benefits of our stated goal. When our life changes because of the positive influence of learning to meditate or learning to use a larger vocabulary, then we experience transformation.

With regard to the Christmas story, I think you can probably easily see the parallels. The angels make a number of annunciations. They announce to Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph what is going to happen. The angels announce to shepherds what is about to take place or perhaps what has just recently happened.

The next few years are preparation. We have one story about when Jesus was 12 years old preparing for his ministry. John the Baptist is often identified as one who prepared the way.

Once Jesus begins his ministry around the age of 30, we have approximately 3 more years of confirmation. The three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke, record the story of this confirmation. In a sense, the gospels are a record of Jesus doing what the angels said he would do.

After the execution and resurrection of Jesus, we have had about 2,000 years of transformation. That is the process displayed in the Christmas story; annunciation, preparation, confirmation and transformation. It is also the process by which we can transform our own lives. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding our thoughts around this idea of a simple Advent wreath serving as a step-by-step guide to our personal transformation.

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: November 19, 2017 – Learning to Give Thanks

Learning to Give Thanks

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Text: 1Timothy 4:4

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.

This is a rather iconic photograph. I know many of you have probably seen this image, or something like it before. It is a very popular subject of photographers and artists from all over. This particular location is in Colorado, not that far from Aspen, where I appointed as pastor for a couple of years.

Many refer to this image as the old crystal mill, which is sort of ironic because it is not in crystal and it wasn’t ever a mill. This building is located in the ghost town of Marble,  Colorado and it was used in the late 19th century and early 20th century as a hydro-electric facility. During the gold rush in Colorado Marble had been a booming town and a place that was ahead of its time, partly because it had electricity. The confusion comes because this building looks like a mill and it sits on the edge of the Crystal River, which flows through Marble. So it somehow got named the Old Crystal Mill and I guess the name stuck.

The reason I wanted to show you this photograph goes beyond some of the interesting history and the fact that it is an awesome location. I want you to notice where this structure is actually located and how it is constructed. Notice how the building itself is right on the very edge of the cliff which forms the waterfall of the river. If you were looking for prospective building locations to build a structure, this certainly would not be at the top of the list in normal circumstances. Generally, it is nice if a building location is relatively flat, has good soil that’s not too rocky, perhaps a nice southern exposure to catch some solar energy in the winter and easy access is always a bonus. That’s what you look for if you are going to build something. This location has none of those things. Generally it’s not a great idea to build on the edge of a precipice.

But the builders of this structure were not looking for what would make the construction easy. The builders were looking for access to the power of the water. This makes a huge difference. Everything else became secondary, because the power of the water was the primary concern. If you really study the structure, you can see that the actual construction process must have been quite a feat of engineering and probably required nerves of steel. Being in a location that provided access to the power of the water was the primary concern. Stick a pin in that idea because we will be coming back to this in a few minutes.

A few years ago there was a book released called “1,000 Gifts”. The author’s name is Ann Voskamp and I believe this particular book spent a few weeks on the NYTimes Best Seller list. It is a true story about this woman’s struggle with her special needs son. They tried everything but nothing seemed to work. The son had a number of mental and physical issues which caused behavioral problems all the time and relationships were hard and the stress in the family was almost unbearable. Then in an act of desperation Ann Voskamp turned to her faith and began to give thanks for everything. She kept a diary and would write down everything she could think of to be thankful for. Her goal was to find 1,000 things every day to be thankful for. These didn’t always have to be good things, or at least things that she perceived as good. She gave thanks for everything. Over the weeks, months and years after she began this practice of giving thanks, remarkably things began to improve with her son. It is quite a story and a very good read. I would recommend it.

This brings me back around to the text I read a few minutes ago. This is not a new idea. We are told repeatedly in the New Testament to give thanks for all things. Take another look at the words that Paul had written to his understudy, Timothy: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.”

Of course there is a context to this scripture and the historical context is that there was a conflict that had developed about certain customs and traditions particularly around food. The response was to give thanks for the food and not worry too much about the customs and traditions.

But the implications and wisdom of this scripture go far beyond just food. The text actually says that everything created by God is good. So take a look at your world as you understand it and tell me what was not created by God. Anything?

So often we look at our worlds, we look at our circumstances with such judgment; all we can see is the evil or the things that go wrong or the people we wish were different somehow. Most of us would change the world in certain ways if we could. As a matter of fact, you pay someone a huge compliment if you tell them they are going to change the world someday. That is everyone’s goal. We all want to change the world.

Well, here is something to think about. God created the world as it is.

This isn’t easy and it is not our first reaction when something goes wrong, but to give thanks in every circumstance is an approach to spirituality that most of us avoid. It is easier to complain and allow ourselves to feel bad or to express fear or anxiety and to just sit around and wish things were different. I’ll let you in on a little secret; your connection to God will never grow stronger until you truly begin to comprehend and practice this simple, yet difficult, technique. Give thanks. All the time.

I cannot offer you a sound theological explanation of what happens or why this works. There have been many explanations in the past that frankly, at least for me, have been huge failures. The story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity from Grace is one such failure. And there are many others. So I feel compelled to offer my own story, my own metaphor if you will, as to how we can experience full connection with the Divine through thanksgiving.

I have spoken before about the importance of how we personally construct an image of God in our own understanding. If your image of God is of a being, or anthropomorphic, then this metaphor will be difficult for you to truly understand and implement into your life. If on the other hand you can image God more as a spirit that moves and flows and is present in all things, like energy, then I think this will make some sense to you.

Let me first say that it is my belief that the presence of God is in all things and in all people. This doesn’t explain why some people can be so far removed from the presence of God that they act in abhorrent ways, but I still believe it to be true. The presence of God is there.

I think the difference can be found in an individual’s access to the power of that presence. Let me say that again. The presence of God can be found in all people, but not all people respond to that presence, or use the power available in that presence.

So here is a metaphor for you to think about. God is like a river; you have heard this before, a river of life or living water as Jesus said. All of humanity is mostly water; our bodies are mostly water, we all know this. So, like water, God is present in all of humanity. The difference is how the power of that water is used. The difference among human beings is how that water is accessed and how the power of that water is utilized.

Remember the Old Crystal Mill? The decision to build this structure where it was built had nothing to do with finding a nice comfortable building site. The decision to build this structure where it was built had everything to do with access to the power of the water. Was it a difficult place to build? Of course it was. Did it require extra time and planning and perhaps was a little risky? I’m certain of those things as well. Did the location provide access to the power of the water? Indeed it did.

Here’s the lesson. When we give thanks in every situation, when we adopt an “attitude of gratitude” as the saying goes, when we take the risk to offer our non-judgmental thanks for every circumstance, that process moves us to a location of access to the power of the spirit.

Imagine your life as a building in the middle of a meadow somewhere. It might seem less risky to build there, but when you begin to give thanks for every situation, that building is lifted up and transported to the very edge of the cliff. On the edge of that cliff you might feel insecure, you might feel vulnerable, you might think that it is risky; but on the edge of that cliff you also have access to the power of the water.

Giving thanks in all things moves us to a place where we have access to the power of the presence of God that is within us. It doesn’t always feel secure and it isn’t always comfortable, but that is where we need to be. For this season of Thanksgiving, where food is on our brains, the power of giving thanks is food for thought.

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: Nov 12, 2017 – Ancient Cultures

Ancient Cultures

Texts: Exodus 21:12-17, Matthew 9: 2-8, Matthew 11: 28

12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

This may seem like a hodge-podge of unrelated texts and in some respects I guess it is, but if you will bear with me for a few minutes, I hope to be able to draw all of this together in what I hope is a sermon that makes some sense. It has been a struggle all week to come up with the right things to say.

Let me begin with the shooting, another one, in Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday. For many of us, while we were in church, the victims were also in church. This is almost incomprehensible. I must say that I am growing weary of attempting to craft a theological response to events like these. I’m not entirely certain what is going on, but it scares me a little. We seem to have zero control over thousands of people who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses who at any moment may decide to enter a place where people gather and simply begin shooting. It may be a church, it may be a concert, it might be a school or college campus, it might be a shopping mall – it doesn’t seem to matter. Adults, children, elderly; it seems everyone is a target. If it’s not a mass shooting, then the deranged person drives a vehicle through a crowded area. We have seen all this in a matter of a few weeks.

What are we to think? How are we supposed to respond? Thoughts and prayers just don’t quite cut it any longer. We need to do better. But how? What is our understanding of God? Where is God when the bullets begin to rain down? What is an appropriate theological response to pure insanity?

When I was in seminary I had the honor of taking several classes from an Old Testament scholar who is simply outstanding in his field. His name is Dr. Peterson, and he is widely regarded as one of the leading authors and scholars regarding the Hebrew Bible, or what we call the Old Testament.

During class one day we had been looking at a text, I honestly don’t remember what it was, but much like the text in Exodus I read a few minutes ago, it was very violent. I asked Dr. Peterson why the Old Testament was so violent and the New Testament was not. How he responded surprised me a little; this was early in my theological education and I had not yet been exposed to a lot of higher theological thought. Dr. Peterson simply said that the God in the Old Testament wasn’t the same God as the God in the New Testament. Like I said, this surprised me a little.

He then went on to explain that the God in the Old Testament is a human construct. It is an interpretation of a people and a culture struggling to understand the Divine and what that Divine presence means in their lives. The New Testament is essentially the same thing, but it has a different cast of characters, a very different message and is a reflection of a very different people and culture.

What my professor was saying is that even if God didn’t change, the interpretation of God had changed significantly from the days of the Old Testament to the days of the New Testament. God may stay the same, but the experience of God can change dramatically.

He also went on to explain that the sanctity of human life had not yet taken root in much of the culture that is reflected in the writings and the stories of the Old Testament. The people in this culture saw death every day, you became desensitized to it, and families always had lots of children, because only half or maybe even just a third of the kids would survive to adulthood. This is part of the reason the Old Testament throws around the penalty of being put to death like it is a slap on the wrist. It just wasn’t viewed as that big of a deal because an attitude of preciousness toward human life was not yet a mainstream tenet in that culture. Death was everywhere. This attitude is reflected in the text I read from Exodus a few minutes ago.

I believe we are experiencing another cultural shift. It may not be as severe as was present in the days of Exodus, but I do believe the sanctity of life is being threatened in our thought processes. At least here in the United States I believe this is true. This cultural shift seems to be happening with remarkable speed. Historians would confirm that a cultural shift normally requires several centuries to impact a culture in any significant way. But I’m talking about cultural shifts like language or the use of tools or even transportation. But cultural shifts have been accelerating in the last few decades. Particularly around communications and electronics; we are now seeing significant cultural shifts in a few decades that would have taken centuries a thousand years ago. Everything is moving faster.

I can see a significant difference in our attitude as a country just in my adult life. I fear we are returning to the attitudes of the Old Testament; a human life is just not that important any more. There are acceptable losses in certain areas of our approach to things. People die because they can’t afford health care, and we refuse to fix it. People die because some don’t have access to the mental health care they need, we could fix it, but we don’t. People die because some who should not be in possession of a firearm are able to get one anyway and we can’t even have a conversation about it. Refugees die as they flee portions of the planet where violence, climate or disease have forced them out. We could do better in caring for these displaced persons, but we don’t. People go hungry in this country because they can’t afford to eat well and eat nutritiously; we could fix it, but we refuse. Instead we cut benefits and make it harder. Storms are stronger and more frequent and more people die, yet climate change continues to be a hoax according to some. I could go on.

We can do better. We must do better.

I want to back up now and take another look at the text from Matthew 9 I read at the beginning.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

As this story unfolds, we find that a group of people had brought someone who was paralyzed to Jesus for healing. When Jesus first sees this man, he greets him with the words “your sins are forgiven”. This strikes me as an odd greeting, the man was there for healing, not forgiveness and yet that is what Jesus seems to focus on.

This text could be an entire sermon all by itself, but my point is that I think the paralysis of this man was both physical and mental. Perhaps it was his fear that paralyzed him. We have all heard about or perhaps even experienced the deer in the headlights phenomenon; where the deer can’t seem to move due to the fear it is experiencing at the moment. I think Jesus sensed the fear in this man; we still talk about the fear of God today, so Jesus addresses that first. It is clear to me the paralyzed man must have had a very Old Testament type of image of God in his mind. Maybe he thought he had done something wrong and was paralyzed as punishment from God. Jesus tries to calm the fears by saying to the man, you have nothing to fear, and your sins are forgiven. Of course the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like this, but Jesus did it anyway. Once the fear was gone, the physical healing of the paralysis followed right behind.

All the issues I raised a few minutes ago where I said we could fix them but we have failed to do anything about it I think are examples of paralysis. Our congress is paralyzed, our leaders are paralyzed, our local governments at times are paralyzed – it seems like all progress is at a standstill. It is one big log jam. Everyone and everything is paralyzed.

I think the paralysis is a result of fear. Fear of re-election, fear it might cost too much, fear of too much government, fear of diminished campaign contributions, fear of raising taxes; all this fear has a paralyzing impact on our democracy. And until we can deal with the fear we will be unable to deal with the paralysis. And until we can deal with the paralysis, we had better just get used to more mass shootings and people dying. For the moment, it appears that fear is winning.

So now it is time for us to look again at the final text I read a few minutes ago. This one is also from Matthew, and is found in the 11th chapter.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly weary of watching the news and hearing about another mass shooting or another terrorist attack or another assault on humanity of some kind. I’m ready for a respite from all of this. The text says ‘come to me’ and we will experience that rest, we will be able to let go of our burdens. The key to understanding how this helps is dependent upon understanding the function of what it means to ‘come to Jesus’.

When the words were written by Matthew “come to me” I don’t think he meant some kind of mental exercise; I think Matthew’s intention behind the words ‘come to me’ implied action. Perhaps ‘follow me’ might have been more descriptive, but the implication of action is still present.

There is only one thing that overcomes fear and that one thing is love.

If you are weary or hearing about mass shootings, if you are weary of paralysis of our democracy, if you are weary of people being tossed aside like garbage in the streets, if you are weary of witnessing a cultural shift that turns your stomach, then you, like me, need rest.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

I think the only thing that will make a difference is we must act out our love. We must attach a physical action to the words of Jesus “come to me.” It’s not enough to send thoughts and prayers. It’s not enough to feel bad or light candles or hold vigils and sing songs. If we are to experience any rest and if we are to free the paralysis, the only thing for us to do is put our love into action. We can’t afford to sit around and feel depressed or fearful. Love is what saves us and love in action is what will save the world now more than ever. Find a way to put action behind the words of Jesus “come to me” and you will feel better and if you are experiencing fear, perhaps it will subside.

“Stand up-take up your bed and walk” Jesus told the paralyzed man. We need to do the same.

Amen.

Sermon: November 5, 2017 – Healthy Eyes

Healthy Eyes

Text: Matthew 6: 22-23

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

In 2009 Heidi and I had the great privilege to travel to Italy and part of that trip included a day where we toured the city of Assisi. If that rings a bell for you, it is familiar because this is the city in Italy where St. Francis of Assisi was born, lived his entire life and died. In the city of Assisi is an ornate edifice to honor St. Francis called the Basilica of St. Francis and construction on this building began in 1228, so it has been around for a while.

The Basilica of St. Francis is unique in a very interesting way. It is the only church that I know of that houses another church within it. As the legend of St. Francis goes, at one point Francis believed he heard the voice of God telling him to build a church. He interpreted this voice literally, not metaphorically and proceeded to build a tiny chapel. I think it seats about 15 or maybe 18 people on the outside. This is the church that St. Francis actually built. It was very modest.

After St. Francis became a saint – which takes a while- it was decided that to honor him, a new, and much grander church should be erected. Rather than tear down the original church which St. Francis actually built, they simply enclosed it in the much larger, much grander, Basilica of St. Francis.

This being All Saints Sunday, I thought a little history around one of my favorite saints might be interesting. But there is a little more to the story.

While we were walking around the inside of the Basilica trying to take it all in, I overheard part of a conversation that was taking place between a small boy, who was maybe 5 or 6, and what I presumed to be his dad. At first the little boy was asking about all the paintings and the illustrations that were on the walls and ceilings of the Basilica and why they did that. The dad explained that most of the pictures told stories and it was easier for the people who came to church a long time ago to get stories that way because many of them could not read. It is like a big picture book the dad told his son. The boy seemed to understand this.

Then he looked up at these huge stained glass windows that were arranged in a pattern of three at the very front of the Basilica. The little boy noticed that the windows had pictures of people in them and he asked his dad who those people were in the windows. His dad responded that the people in the windows were saints. “What is a saint” the little boy asked.

While his father struggled to come up with an answer he thought his young son might be able to grasp, the little boy piped up again and said: “I know, saints are the people who the light shines through.”

It doesn’t get any better than that.

The text I read a few minutes ago hints at this idea as well. If you remember, the text talks about how we can become full of light and if we are full of light, it is only natural to assume that some of that light leaks out and the light shines through us as well.

But there is another part of this text that I want to look at as well this morning. I’m not sure if you noticed it or not when I read through it the first time, but the part that talks about healthy eyes I think is very interesting. Let’s look at it again.

The second half of verse 22 and the first part of verse 23 reads: “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

What do you suppose the author intended us to take away from this concept of a healthy and unhealthy eyes? Certainly, we can’t take the verse literally, because I think there are lots of people with healthy eyes that are not necessarily full of light. Of course there are others, who could be blind, for example, a most radical form of unhealthy eyes, and still be full of light. So this idea of healthy and unhealthy eyes must be metaphor for something else. I think that something else may have something to do with how we see the world.

You might ask the question if someone has a healthy outlook on life or an unhealthy outlook on life as another way of saying they have healthy or unhealthy eyes. You might assume that healthy eyes translates into a relatively positive outlook, while unhealthy eyes might be more negative. You’ve heard all of these kinds of examples before, the glass is half-empty versus the glass being half-full, that sort of thing. One of the difficult issues around these broad generalities is that everyone interprets the ideas presented in different ways.

It reminds me of the young student who came home from school and told his parents he thought he failed his algebra test. “Why that’s negative” his father told him, you should be more positive. “OK,” the young man replied, “I’m positive I failed that algebra test.”

I’m looking for something a little deeper, something with a little more substance that we can relate to this idea of healthy and unhealthy eyes. I’m looking for a metaphor that I know is there, but might be a little more obscure than our first thought. It’s easy to say someone needs to have a healthy outlook on life or a more positive attitude, but what does that really mean and how does that impact our day to day lives? What does a life look like that has healthy eyes?

With that in mind, I want to go back once again to the text. The opening line in verse 22 says that the eye is the lamp of the body. Obviously a lamp gives light, so if the eye is like a lamp, then the eye acts as a collector and distributor of light. But there is one other thing about this metaphor that we need to pay attention to, in the historical context of this text, we are not talking about an electric lamp. The kind of lamp used in this metaphor would be an oil lamp and an oil lamp needs fuel.

What would happen to the light in the body if the lamp runs out of fuel? There would be darkness. Following this metaphor, the healthy eye is a lamp that has fuel, and an unhealthy eye is a lamp that has run out of fuel. It has no oil and so it has gone dark.

Now I want you to really think about this. So often when we talk about a positive attitude or a healthy outlook on life, it has become so passé that we just kind of brush it off. Everybody tries most of the time to be positive, everybody tries to be upbeat and look on the bright side of things, and everybody knows that a good attitude accomplishes more than a bad attitude. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I think this metaphor goes way beyond those superficial tenets of what we sometimes call positive thinking. I think this metaphor is talking about fuel.

The eye is the lamp for the body and that lamp needs fuel. How do you fill your lamp? What do you do every day to add fuel to your lamp? Without fuel, your lamp will go dark. If we are going to let the light shine through us, like the saints in the windows of the Basilica of St. Francis, then we need to be certain our lamps can burn for an extended period of time. We also need to be aware that lamps need to be refilled every so often. Unless you are making serious and intentional efforts to fill your lamps, eventually they will run dry. And when they run dry, there is darkness and as the text says, how great is that darkness.

So what does it look like to fill your lamp? For some, coming to church and singing hymns and participating in worship helps fill their lamp. For others it may be a walk in the woods or a weekend at the coast. I know that a good hike and the chance to shoot some photographs is one way I fill my lamp. Another lamp filling activity is meditation or prayer. For others it may be service opportunities like serving a meal at the Salvation Army or volunteering for Family Promise. It can be almost anything, but it must be something. Unless you have an intentional lamp-filling activity that you practice regularly, you will run out of fuel.

I think we have all experienced those times in our lives when the lamp runs dry and the darkness descends. Once it is dark it is even harder to finds ways to fill the lamp.

A healthy eye makes sure the lamp stays full of fuel. An unhealthy eye allows it to run dry.

And that is food, or perhaps, fuel, for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: October 29, 2017 – Some Things Never Change

Some Things Never Change

Reformation Sunday
Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany

Text: 2 Peter 2: 1-3

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

Language is a funny thing. There are words in our language today that did not exist just a few years ago. Words like “selfie” or “Google” or I-pad, I-phone, and I-pod are recent examples of new words that we have become accustomed to hearing.

There are also words that are used today as verbs, which were not originally intended to be used that way. Close to 100 years ago as radio communication was just beginning to become a reality here in the United States, we might have heard the word “microwave” as a description of a particular type of radio signal. The word has been around for a while now. But only recently has the word started to be used as a verb, for example, “my coffee was cold so I had to microwave it.” Of course this also happens sometimes with new words as well, the word mentioned earlier “Google” is both a noun and a verb; “I didn’t know what it was, so I had to Google it to find out.”

Then there are combinations of words that when used together mean something entirely new or different than they originally meant. One set of words that are now used together are the two words face and book; when used in combination as Facebook, it has a whole new meaning. There are other examples, the two words smart and phone when used separately mean one thing, but when combined into a single word, “smartphone” has a whole new meaning. This can all be very confusing. Particularly when all these new words are used in combination. For example, one might say something like: “I saw a new microwave on Facebook and didn’t know how it worked so I Googled it on my smartphone to find out.” “It was so cool that I bought one on-line and when it arrived I took a selfie with my I-Pad and posted it on Instagram and had to tweet about it as well!” Yikes! How are we supposed to keep up?

There is another set of two words that we are just beginning to become accustomed to and has been in the media lately and those two words are fake and news. When used together they have started to mean something entirely new. It seems we are now living in an era of “fake news”.

But with the example of “fake news” I would like us to consider the possibility that only the label is new, the existence of “fake news” has been with us for millennia. Not only has it been with us for thousands of years, I think the motivation for most of the fake news that is out there has remained unchanged for thousands of years as well.

I want to take another look at the scripture I read a few minutes ago. This text in Second Peter is talking about fake news in the form of teaching or “destructive opinions” that may be present in what the author considered to be the last days. We now know that the last days may never arrive, but the false teachings and the false prophets, the fake news, have been with us the whole time. What I really want to point out today is found in verse 3 where the text reads: “And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.”

Today we are recognizing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was 500 years ago, almost to the day, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and that act is considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had a number of issues with the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome, but the one thing that pushed him over the edge was the selling of indulgences.

The situation was that the church in Rome wanted to construct a new basilica, or a new cathedral, that would be the grandest of all cathedrals. To build such a monumental structure, which they eventually did, requires a great deal of money. As they began the project, it wasn’t long before the funds dried up and there was legitimate concern that the project would never be finished if a new source of funds could not be found. So the creative and somewhat deceitful heads of the Roman Catholic Church got together and hatched a scheme. They would sell indulgences.

For clarity, let me describe to you what an indulgence actually is. The idea was that for a small contribution the Pope in Rome would have a brief conversation with God and ask God to release a particular person from Purgatory. If this sounds like nonsense to you, I think you are on the right track, but it actually gets worse.

Purgatory, in the Catholic tradition, is a holding place for the deceased until the final day of judgement. Even though it is not a permanent sentence, the understanding was that purgatory was still full of punishment and suffering. If you were not up to standard at the time of your death (and very few were considered to be up to standard) then you went to purgatory to await final judgement. Only the very elect few went directly to heaven upon their death. Everyone else got to hang out in purgatory with the flames and suffering of hell until such time the final judgement either sentenced you to eternal suffering in hell or granted you passage to heaven.

An indulgence meant that the Pope could arrange for special treatment of a deceased love one, but the Pope would only do so with an appropriate contribution to the new cathedral being constructed in Rome. Thus, the selling of indulgences to raise funds for the new cathedral.

Remember verse 3 that I pointed out a minute ago? “And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words” It was really awful. There are excerpts of various sermons and speeches that were given to the common people in the villages all around Rome. This included places as far away as Germany where Martin Luther happened to hear about what was going on. Listen to what was being told these people about their departed loved ones.

Listen now, God and St. Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and those of your loved ones departed. You priest, you noble, you merchant, you virgin, you matron, you youth, you old man, enter now into your church, which is the Church of St. Peter. Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you. Have you considered that you are lashed in a furious tempest amid the temptations and dangers of the world, and that you do not know whether you can reach the haven, not of your mortal body, but of your immortal soul? Consider that all who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? will you delay our promised glory? 

Remember that you are able to release them, for

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise? 

It was at this point that Martin Luther declared “Fake News”! And he nailed his opinions and justifications to the wooden church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Unfortunately, the 95 Theses did not deter the fake news. It continued, indulgences were still sold and the Basilica in Rome was constructed. It still stands today. And fake news also continues to this day.

One important question comes to mind. How are we to determine for ourselves what is fake news and what is not?

Again, I want to reference verse 3 in the text which I read at the very beginning. According to the text, greed and fake news almost always go hand in hand. When fake news is evident, there is almost always a corporation, an institution or an individual that stands to gain financially or otherwise from the distribution and acceptance of fake news. If you ask yourself the question “who stands to benefit the most” before you accept anything as truth, I think you will have great success in deciding for yourselves what is fake news and what is not.

If that question had been asked by the villagers, it’s possible no one would have purchased a single indulgence and the church in Rome would have looked foolish. Remember the fake news campaign during the 1950’s and 60’s that tried to convince us that smoking was healthy and perhaps even good for you? If the question would have been asked who benefits from the acceptance of this fake news, no one would have believed these reports or studies.

You see, Martin Luther had nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring the information from Rome fake news. When you witness that same thing today, chances are good that those who are risking everything are telling the truth. And that truth still stands even after 500 years. Thanks, Martin.

And that is food for thought. Amen.

 

Sermon: October 22, 2017 – When Disaster Strikes

When Disaster Strikes

Text: John 9: 1-7

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The text I read a couple of minutes ago is interesting on several levels, but what I want to focus on today is what this text reveals to us about first century thinking and what that means for us today. If you are like me, over the last few months you might have started to wonder what is happening to our planet. There have been hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires and all sorts of natural disasters that have left millions of people impacted by the devastation. In Puerto Rico alone, there are still millions that are without power and struggling to find food and fresh water on a daily basis.

These are the kinds of events that we find attributed to God in the Old Testament. If we were living 3,000 years ago, the hurricane that battered Puerto Rico would almost certainly have a story tied to it before very long. It might be a story about how the people had strayed from God, or why God was angry with them. There might be a prophet worked into the story who warned the people to repent or the disaster would descend upon them. Of course the people did not listen or heed the advice of the prophet and so the hurricane arrived with all its fury, and the devastation followed.

Insurance companies still call events like these we have experienced over the past few months “acts of God” as if God had anything to do with it. But that is the language, still after all this time, they are still called “acts of God.”

Maybe you have been wondering about the responsible theological position to take when we consider the disasters of the world and the suffering of the persons involved. Maybe you have been wondering “where is God” in the midst of a hurricane or wild fires that destroy homes and families. Maybe you have been wondering how God could allow such things to happen or take place. Maybe these disasters have actually challenged your faith, because in some way, you thought God was in control. If God is in control, then God allowed these events to take place.

You see, we paint ourselves into a corner rather quickly when we begin to make God responsible for everything that takes place. We end up with severe doubt in our faith, or we end up with a blind and mindless allegiance to a faith we cannot understand. Let me show you how this works.

You have seen decision charts in the past where you follow a certain path based on your answers, I’m sure. In this case we could begin with the question “Is God in control of everything?” If the answer is “yes”, then that leads to the conclusion that God allowed the disaster to take place-and that is a not very comfortable position. If the answer is “no”, then that leads us down the path of questioning is God really God. How can a God have limited power and authority? So the bottom line becomes that either God chooses natural disasters, or God is unable to stop natural disasters. Those seem to be the options and neither position is particularly appealing. That is why it is easier for us to blame the victims of a disaster than it is for us to wrestle with the theological implications of a disaster. It is easier for us to say the people of Puerto Rico were obviously sinful and God was angry, than it is for us to actually deal with the question.

But this isn’t 3,000 years ago and we are supposed to have become a little more astute over the years. We are supposed to have learned something. But that doesn’t make the theological wrestling match any less difficult. We still have to engage our minds and our imaginations and begin to think about God perhaps in new ways.

In the text I read a few minutes ago, Jesus is trying to point us in a new direction. Jesus is trying to tell us that our thinking is a little out of date. The disciples that were with Jesus that day were still stuck in the blame the victim and God controls everything mode. When they came across this blind man who had been blind since birth, the natural assumption was there had to be a reason for the blindness; either the man himself had sinned and was being punished, our perhaps his parents had sinned and he was being punished. It seemed obvious to the disciples that it had to be one or the other, but they were not sure which, so they asked Jesus; “Who sinned that this man was born blind?”

I think we need to pay close attention to how Jesus responded to this question. Jesus tells the disciples that no one sinned. That is lesson one. God is not punishing anyone. There is no judgement, there is no reciprocity here, the blind man did nothing nor did his parents. If the story had allowed for Jesus to elaborate a bit more, I could see Jesus telling the disciples that this man’s blindness simply is; it is not punishment and further it is neither good nor bad. It simply is the way things are.

Then Jesus goes on. He says the man was born blind that the works of God might be revealed in him. This sounds like God caused the blindness for another reason. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is trying to say. I think Jesus is pointing out that in all situations we have the opportunity to bring the presence of God into the life of people we encounter. All people, whether they are blind or otherwise. Our experience here on earth is to bring about the works of God through our interaction with other people. What happens here is a shift of responsibility.

The disciples want to make God responsible for the blindness; they assume it is a punishment of some sort. Jesus says no, it is not a punishment and God is not responsible. The responsibility actually lies with you, the disciples, because you are to bring out the works of God and let them be revealed to all the world. Then Jesus says, let me show you what I mean, and he heals the man of his blindness.

So let’s fast forward a few thousand years. We have hurricanes, we have earthquakes, we have wild fires; who sinned that these disasters are crashing in on certain parts of our planet? No one sinned and no one is being punished. These situations simply are. God is neutral in the disaster; God neither causes nor prevents the disasters, they simply are. But with the presence of the disaster comes the opportunity and the responsibility to reveal the presence of God in the midst of the disaster. And haven’t we all scene this revelation? Haven’t we all seen neighbor helping neighbor and stranger helping stranger? Hasn’t the world responded and groups like the Red Cross or our own UMCOR come to the aid of those impacted? Yes, they have, and we have seen the examples of the works of God being revealed in numerous ways.

Does that mean God caused the disasters so that others could help? Not a chance. There is something else here we need to recognize and try to begin to understand. The gospel writers have tried to give us a glimpse of this theological truth, but it is all too easy to not fully comprehend. What I’m talking about is a shift of understanding about the nature of God. This shift of understanding began with Jesus, and the teachings of Jesus, but I think many of us are still stuck in the old way of thinking about God. We are still stuck back with the disciples asking Jesus who sinned.

What began with Jesus is a shift from God as a being that had human-like qualities to a God that was a spirit and flowed in and around all things. Our Christian doctrine of the Trinity with the Holy Spirit is an attempt to understand this image of God, but we continue to hang onto the human-like qualities of God as father and son even as we acknowledge the Holy Spirit.

In all three of the synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, the passion narrative about the execution and death of Jesus all include a reference to something that I consider to be very symbolic. All three narratives include the tearing of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom. This is an important element for us to understand.

In the temple in Jerusalem there was a specific area that was considered to be the dwelling place of God. This area was called the Holy of Holies and was separated from the rest of the temple by a thick curtain. This curtain was probably 60 feet tall according to historians and was 4-6 inches thick. It was woven with a variety of material designed to make it strong and sturdy.

The idea behind this curtain was that the dwelling place of God could not be looked upon by any human being. If you did, you would die. Only the chief priest, or the high priest, could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then the chief priest could only enter the area once a year on the Day of Atonement. On that day, the chief priest would enter the Holy of Holies and place the purified sacrifice of the temple on the altar. This was to appease the God that dwelled in the area. If God was not pleased, it was believed that the chief priest would be struck dead as he entered the space or as he offered the sacrifice. The curtain in the temple kept everyone else safe from this experience. The curtain was a symbol of separation of God from the people.

With Jesus, all three gospels include a reference to this curtain, this separation being torn in two, from top to bottom. This is very symbolic of a shift in understanding about the nature of God. God is no longer a being that hangs out in a particular place in the temple. Rather, God is a spirit that envelopes all places and all things – there is no curtain of separation; God is among us and God is with us.

The reason I think this is so significant is that this shift of understanding should also shift our realization regarding the influence of God when it comes to natural disasters. You see when God is no longer apart and separate from humanity like God was in the temple, but rather God is now in us and among us and integral to each of us, to believe that God causes disaster is to believe that God inflicts the disaster upon God’s self. A natural disaster would be a self-inflicted wound.

This is the shift in understanding that Jesus was telling the disciples that day and it is the shift in understanding that is represented by the curtain in the temple being torn in two from top to bottom. God is no longer a separate being. God is here, God is now and God is present with us. In the midst of disaster we might have a greater opportunity to experience that presence more than any other time.

And that is food for thought.  Amen.