Sermon: October 8, 2017 – “A Good Work to Completion”

“A Good Work to Completion”

Text: Philippians 1: 3-6

I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

In order for us to recognize the full significance of this text for today it is important for us to have a little background information regarding the story behind the text. This is a portion of a letter written by Paul to the church at Philippi. This particular church was one where Paul had a strong relationship and Paul had many friends and people he cared for who were a part of this church. The feeling was mutual as well, as the church in Philippi had been supporting Paul and his ministry in a lot of ways for many years. The church was a major financial supporter of the work that Paul was doing.

Many Bible scholars are a little surprised that we have only one letter in our New Testament from Paul to the Philippians. It is likely that Paul had lots of correspondence with this church and visited them in person quite often. The city of Philippi was centrally located, on many trade routes and was on the way to almost anywhere. When Paul traveled, which he did extensively, it is believed that he visited the church in Philippi quite often.

Many Bible scholars also believe that the letter we do have from Paul to the Philippians is probably what they call a redaction. This means that what we read in our New Testament today is probably fragments of at least three, if not more, different letters that Paul wrote over time to the church in Philippi. Someone, and probably not Paul, combined the letters into the form which eventually became part of our New Testament.

Armed with a bit of background information, I wanted to take another look at this text and fill in a few blanks. The opening sentence where Paul says that he thanks God every time he remembers them is an indication of their long term relationship. Other translations say it a little differently, and it is written that Paul gives thanks for every remembrance of you; I like that language because a remembrance is like a memory, and the indication is that there are a lot of memories for Paul to recall. The church and Paul have done many things together and he enjoys thinking back and reminiscing a little bit.

The opening sentence in our text also talks about the church in Philippi “sharing in the Gospel” from the first day until now. This also indicates the long term relationship, but I really like the concept of “sharing in the Gospel”. The scholarship around this text is that Paul is thanking the church for the financial support he has received over the years. But instead of just saying thanks for donations, Paul identifies the donations as sharing in the Gospel. This language communicates that while the church may have given money to Paul, the money didn’t stop with Paul. The money passed through Paul and was used in ways to impact other people and spread the Good News. In this way, the church in Philippi was sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.

You might say that Paul had a few successful stories behind him and he was letting the church in Philippi know that they had played a major role in those successes. In a word, Paul was celebrating those successful ventures and wanted the church to share in the celebration.

That is what we are doing today. Like the church in Philippi, we too have a few successful stories behind us. We have lots to celebrate and lots to be thankful for. Today we are taking a look back at the last few years and celebrating what has been accomplished on behalf of this church. But as we look back and celebrate a success or two, I also think it’s appropriate for us to consider these successes as part of our sharing in the Gospel. We didn’t do all of these things just to keep ourselves busy. We have accomplished all that has been accomplished to create a stronger ministry and a stronger outreach to the LC Valley. We have accomplished what we have in order to make us more effective as a church. Everything we have done has been done for one reason; that one reason is to create a more effective ministry as we seek to share the Good News with this community. So, like the church in Philippi, with each and every project we have been sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.

And I am here to say thank you for doing that. Without you, nothing happens. It is the church and the people of this church which has made our success thus far possible. You have much to be proud of and much to be thankful for.

But the text goes on. Paul tells the church that he is confident that the good work which has been started will be completed. A modern day translation might have Paul saying to the church; “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”. In other words, there are still plans to accomplish even more, there are still plans to bring the good work which has been successfully started to completion. There is more yet to do.

We also still have much work yet to do. While we celebrate today, it is important for us to remember that we are celebrating the successful completion of phase one of our revitalization plan. There is more to do and more to accomplish. And, like Paul, I am also confident that the good work which has been started will come to completion one day in the not too distant future. Success has a way of building momentum and that forward motion will help us to accomplish even more in the days ahead. I believe we can look forward to more celebration Sundays in the years to come.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to share a little bit on a personal level and offer some personal observations. First of all, let me say it is an honor and a privilege to be your pastor. I am constantly reminding myself of how grateful I am to be here and leading you in this way. Just like Paul, I am also thanking God for every remembrance of our time together thus far.

I also know that for many of you the Methodist tradition of itinerancy has not always been a positive experience. There is a nagging suspicion that as soon as we really get going I’m going to move on to some place new and leave the work that has been started uncompleted. I’ve said this before, but I think it is worth repeating, as far as it is up to me, my plans are to remain here with you.  Heidi and I are putting down significant roots here in the valley and we will be around for as long as we remain effective in this ministry. So like Paul, I’m here for the long haul and look forward to our long term relationship.

But I want to make another related point. I may be the pastor here and I may even be the one out front leading the parade, but I’m not the parade. Our revitalization efforts thus far have been a collective success. This is not Chuck’s plan or Chuck’s project or Chuck’s revitalization; this is our plan, this is our project and this is our revitalization. One person can certainly make a difference, but this isn’t about one person or one idea. This is about all of us; and all of us are sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now. From this day forward we all share in the confidence that the good work which has begun among us will continue to completion and we will celebrate again together one day in the future.

Our good work is just beginning. We have gained a little bit of momentum and are moving forward. There is much to be thankful for and much has been accomplished; there is also much left to do. I invite you to active participation in what I see as a vibrant and exciting future in the years ahead. Today we celebrate, but tomorrow it is back to work.

Our celebration dinner awaits. I often close with a remark about food for thought. Today I will close by saying we will now have food with thought as we join together in Fellowship Hall and celebrate our collective sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now; to quote our recently published cookbook; “Amen. Let’s Eat!”

Sermon: October 1, 2017 – Connective Energy

Connective Energy

Text: Luke 19: 37-40

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

I find this text offers a very provocative thing to think about; what if Jesus was actually serious when he said the stones would shout out. What was he trying to tell us? Why would Jesus say something like this? Like I said, I think it is a very provocative thing to think about.

I also find this text in Luke to be unique in that only the Luke version of this story includes the comment about the stones shouting. So why would Luke include this in his Gospel? Is the idea of the stones sounding off just something that Luke thought of on his own, or is there a deeper thread of thinking that could be uncovered if we dig a little?

The story of Jesus entering Jerusalem is in all four Gospels and there are many similarities among the stories. People shouting and singing, Jesus on a colt or a donkey, people spreading their cloaks on the ground all of these things are in the majority of the stories. What we identify as an event that defines Palm Sunday, interestingly the mention of palm branches in only in one of the four stories.

But only Luke mentions the stones shouting out. I would like to explore this idea a little bit. If it is metaphor, what does it mean, or if Luke thought it could actually happen, what does that mean? It has to be one or the other.

Another point that I find interesting is this rather obscure text caught the interest of lyricist Tim Rice as he was creating the musical opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Andrew Lloyd Weber provided the musical score and together you have a very memorable recreation of what we consider to be Palm Sunday, but Luke’s comment about the stones is included. Let’s have a listen.

When I listen to this text as it was incorporated into Jesus Christ Superstar, it really comes alive for me. I think the concept of the “rocks and stones themselves would start to sing” is something worthwhile to explore and think about.

That being said, I’m not looking for a literal interpretation of this text. I don’t think the rocks are actually going to start singing or shouting. But the rock and stones in the written text and in the song we heard are symbolic of something else. What is the author of Luke trying to suggest to us?

I believe there is a hint about the spiritual understanding that Luke had about the Divine, or God if that works better for you, in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. I believe that understanding of the spirit of God was far more universal and far more accessible than was common in that era. I think Luke believed that the Spirit of God was everywhere and in all things and in all people all the time. I think Luke had a very universal understanding of the Spirit of God – and his reference to the stones actually shouting or singing is a reflection of how he understood the Spirit of God.

So, why do I believe this to be true of Luke and maybe not some of the other gospel authors?

The answer to that question is something I found in the opening chapter of Luke. In Chapter one, verse 15, Luke is writing about the birth of John the Baptist. In that verse 15, Luke says that even before his birth, John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Now wait a minute. John the Baptist preceded Jesus. The Holy Spirit arrived after the life and execution and resurrection of Jesus while the disciples were gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost. This event is recorded in the second chapter of Acts, which was also written by Luke, so it’s not like he didn’t know the story.

This is evidence to me, that Luke had a very open and pervasive view of the Spirit of God – because he declared John the Baptist to be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth, which was many years prior to the official arrival of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts. For most Jews and many other believers and by ancient tradition God resided only in the temple. Perhaps the spirit of God might be found in the Tora, but the actual dwelling place of God was called the Holy of Holies, and you could not enter the space or even look at it, unless protected by God.

For Luke to declare that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit prior to his birth is a fairly radical departure from the common understanding of the day. It is much more aligned with our modern day understanding of the universality of the Spirit of God. I think this also helps explain why he might have Jesus make a comment about the rocks bursting into song as well.

All of this background information about Luke’s spiritual understanding of the nature of God may be interesting, but there is a reason I wanted to call your attention to it. The reason is that this Sunday is World Communion Sunday – and today we celebrate the universality of the Spirit of God and all Christians everywhere come together through the common experience of communion. It is today that we recognize that we have a common bond, a common energy that encircles the entire planet.

While this may seem like an obvious thing for us to celebrate, it is an important step in our spiritual development and it’s worth remembering that it has not always been the case. Far too often and for far too long, different religions, even different Christian religions have been at odds with each other, not celebrating what we have in common. World Communion Sunday was originally started by the Presbyterians I believe in the 1940’s – so in the big picture, this is kind of a new thought.

I also find the idea of World Communion Sunday important to be recognized as a stepping stone to the day that I look forward to when we learn to honor all faith traditions and communicate that we have Divine connections that break the bonds of any singular faith tradition. I do know that Luke was of the opinion that Jews and Gentiles both were welcome and encouraged into the Christian communities. The universality of the Spirit of God that would cause even the stones to shout and sing is a goal for all of us to strive to attain. If the Spirit of God is present even in the stones, how much more present is the Divine Creator in the human lives of all God’s children in all places and in all faith traditions. World Communion Sunday is one small step that we celebrate that moves us ever closer to full inclusion of all people of all faiths everywhere.

With that connective energy we recognize that we are a part of something that circles the entire planet. Allow that connective energy, that Spirit of God, to rest upon you and soak into your very being as we celebrate the sacrament of communion this day. For today we recognize that we are connected to all people everywhere.

Amen.

 

Sermon: September 17, 2017 – “The Vision of Luke”

“The Vision of Luke”

Text: Luke 4: 16-31

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

One of the things that I like to do when I study a text that comes from one of the Gospels, is I like to compare the text with the other places where the same story might be told and compare the stories and look for things that jump out at me. If I discover that two stories are very different then it opens the door for more study, more interpretation and at least for me, a greater depth of understanding about the authors and the context in which they are writing.

So if we look at this text from Luke, we can find a similar story in both of the other synoptic gospels, that is Mark and Matthew. The story does not seem to appear in the Gospel of John in any form. One of the interesting things to remember when we study the text in this way, is that the Gospel of Mark was written first. Most scholars believe that the authors of Luke and Matthew had copies of Mark that they worked from when writing their own gospels. This is very apparent when you read the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown in the Gospel of Mark and then read it again in Matthew. The two stories overlap a great deal; the Matthew account isn’t exactly verbatim, but it is pretty close.

But when you read the story in Luke, it is very different. I like to ask the question why? Why would Luke take this story and expand upon it the way he has. The stories in Matthew and Mark are only about 6 verses long in each case. Jesus shows up, he teaches, they take offense and Jesus leaves. There are not many more details than that in the two other stories.

But in Luke’s story, he identifies the text that Jesus taught from, he creates some drama by saying that every eye was fixed on him and then he has Jesus claim to be the one who is fulfilling the prophecy spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.

The story goes on, not only do those who are listening begin to take offense with Jesus, Luke even includes some of the dialogue that took place. There was a bit of a back and forth exchange; it sounds a little like junior high. You remember the “did not, did too,” exchanges or the more sophisticated “I know you are, but what am I?”

There is an underlying theme here, but you have to dig a bit in order to find it. You also have to use your imaginations a bit and fill in some blanks with what might have been the case. No one knows for sure what is going on here, or why Luke expanded this story the way he did. But I think to try to understand we have to back way up to the very beginning.

If you read the opening of Luke you will discover that Luke is writing on behalf of someone named Theophilus.  We know of some people in history who had such a name and some of them may have been alive at the same time as Luke, but we don’t know for sure. Scholars don’t agree on who Theophilus was or who he might have been. One theory is that Theophilus was a Roman of some importance in the Roman political system that became interested in Christianity. I like this theory for a number of reasons, but this text in Luke is one of those reasons.

In the comparative texts found in Mark and Matthew, the information about why those leaders in the temple that day took offense with Jesus’ teaching is not given. The texts simply say they were offended without any real explanation. Luke takes the opportunity to put some flesh on those bones and lays it out for us to see, if we look close enough.

For starters, Luke has Jesus read the text from Isaiah. This is a beautiful text and I think it speaks to the very heart of the ministry of Jesus. But it can also be taken several different ways. Let’s look at the text Jesus read from the perspective of the leaders in the synagogue that day.

The first item of business is that Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor.

What this means is that for all this time, all these years and years the synagogue had been in Nazareth, the synagogue has not been good news for the poor. I don’t think the implication here is neutral, if the synagogue has not been good news, then it has been bad news for the poor. History supports this idea. The synagogue and the systems that it supported were very oppressive to the poor and designed to keep the poor poor.

So in a way, Jesus was saying; “look you guys, you have had all this time to minister to the poor and you have not gotten it done. They are in pathetic condition. I have come to finally bring them some good news; something you could have done decades if not centuries ago, but you have not.”

The second item of business for Jesus according to the text in Isaiah is that he is to bring release to the captives. Now I don’t see a lot of separation here from the idea of bringing good news to the poor because certainly the poor were held captive by an oppressive system. But this statement could also include another group of people.

There were certainly those in Nazareth who were not destitute and without any means, they were not poor, necessarily but they were not wealthy either. Sort of a Nazarene middle class. These people, many of them Jews, made the commerce of the city work. They ran businesses and shops and kept the trade moving and were able to maintain from day to day and year to year.

I think Jesus was also speaking about this middle class being held captive by oppressive laws and customs and ritual and ceremony. Often there was so much to do to keep the law, it was difficult to run a business. And the temple demanded a lot of attention, but it also demanded a certain level of financial support as well. The leaders in the temple were getting wealthy while everyone else just sort of got by. Jesus wanted to change this system by bring release to those held captive by the temple laws and customs.

Then there was a third group of people that Jesus wanted to speak to and perhaps enlighten. This was the group gathered in the temple that day. This was the group of leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees, the temple priests and all those associated with the system. Jesus wanted to speak to them in hopes they could see a better way. Perhaps they could see for the first time how lopsided the system was and how it took advantage of the poor and the middle class and how the profits of that system lined the pockets of the temple leaders.

So how did Jesus identify this third group of people? He called them blind. The third deed for Jesus to accomplish in the text from Isaiah is recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was hoping that some in the temple that day might just see the light.

The fourth task is to let the oppressed go free – which can be just about anyone. The fifth and final task says that Jesus is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to debt forgiveness, so anyone who owed the temple any money or were behind on their taxes or lease payments for the land they were trying to farm-all of those people should be forgiven their debt as well.

So when we read what Jesus read in the temple that day from a slightly different perspective, it is a little easier to understand why they maybe took offense at what Jesus said.

But here’s the deal. It isn’t what Jesus said, it is what Isaiah had said centuries earlier. In other words, the text in Isaiah is telling the leaders of the temple that this is what should have been going on all along. When the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, as the leaders of the temple claim that it is, then this is what you do. Jesus was just pointing out the astounding level of hypocrisy here; that the leaders in the temple were in essence saying one thing and doing another. No wonder they got upset. So they drove him out of town.

This is the Jesus we follow. Jesus the trouble-maker. Jesus the one who gets those in power so upset they drive him out of town. Jesus the one who eventually made everyone so uneasy that the only response left was to execute him. This is the Jesus we follow.

If we are truly going to follow Jesus down this path, then we must also be prepared to take on the same people in power that Jesus took on. We must be willing to speak the truth to power and live with the consequences. This following Jesus stuff is not for the timid or the shy or the faint of heart. Speaking truth to power is not an easy thing.

And that is food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: September 10, 2017 – “Just Asking Questions”

 

“Just Asking Questions”

Text: Ephesians 2: 14-19

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I want to begin this morning by sharing some personal information about my family and what I think may be a unique experience and perspective because of events that took place while I was growing up. To gain perspective, we have to travel back in time to 1966. This makes me about 10 years old. It is also the year that my oldest sibling, a sister named Shelda would have been graduating from Westmar College. This is the same college in LeMars, Iowa where my dad taught physics and the town where I grew up.

Shelda, if I remember correctly, had a double major in college, one of which was Spanish and with that Spanish major, she wanted to use that education in her career which she did. But before she began teaching Spanish in the public school system, Shelda spent two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, where of course she used Spanish quite a bit.

I remember the day when the acceptance letter arrived from the Peace Corps. Shelda was still in college, but living at home with the rest of the family as she finished up her senior year. I remember that she was in class when the letter arrived, but I was already home from school and other siblings were present as well. It was with great anticipation that we waited for Shelda to come home from class and open the letter with the Peace Corps return address. After it was opened and acceptance into the program confirmed, a great celebration ensued!

Shelda served in the Peace Corps for two years, from what I think was the summer of 1966 to the summer of 1968. While she was in Guatemala City working in a hospital there, she met a native Guatemalan who was also working in the hospital as an orderly. His name was Federico, but everyone called him Lico for short. It wasn’t long before the letters we received from Shelda started to include all the things that her and Lico had done together.

To shorten the story a bit, when Shelda was ready to return to the United States in the summer of 1968, Lico came with her and they were married in November of 1968. When Lico arrived he knew very little English, although Shelda had begun to teach him some. They returned to LeMars and lived there for a number of years.

Now here is what I think is the fascinating part of this story. Over the next couple of years, Lico learned Enlgish well enough that he could start to attend classes in the evenings to earn his GED. Which he did.

Then with a GED in hand he was able to enroll in college, which he did at Westmar where Shelda had graduated and my dad taught physics. In about four years, Lico not only graduated from college, but graduated with honors and proceeded to have his own career teaching in the public school system and coaching soccer on the side.

At some point during all of this, I remember another celebration we had as a family. There was a cake and home-made ice cream and a healthy collection of friends and family and relatives all gathered at our house. This time we were celebrating the day that Lico became a US citizen.

It has taken quite a few years of perspective in order for me to fully appreciate all that Lico accomplished and the magnitude and the importance of that day when citizenship was granted.

With that perspective comes the stark realization that in today’s political climate and attitudes that some hold toward immigration, Lico’s story may not have been possible. Of course we can’t know for certain, but I’m sure the system has changed a great deal since 1968. I’m also certain it hasn’t gotten any easier to accomplish what Lico has accomplished. Today, Lico is retired and recently celebrated his 80th birthday; he and Shelda live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area in Texas.

I wanted to offer this background information from a personal level so you might better understand that I probably have a unique perspective and unique personal experience with the potential upside of positive immigration.

Immigration has been in the news recently and the current administration is seeking to make some changes within our system. Some of those changes I’m not certain are beneficial and I think some of the attitudes of suspicion, fear and outright racism are hiding behind the veil of immigration reform. This is a complicated issue and everyone will need to gather information as they can and come to their own conclusions. You will not hear from me what you should think about this issue; rather you will only hear some comments and observations and questions I have as it relates to this issue. You are free to think for yourselves.

Having said that, I want to return to the text I read a few minutes ago and make some observations about what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians. First of all, I think it is worth mentioning that the political climate and the tensions that we experience today are not all that different from the situation that Paul found himself in. For Paul, there were aliens coming to Christianity that others felt did not have the right to do so. These aliens were the Gentiles.

For Paul, there were only two groups that made up the entire world view from his perspective; there were Jews and there were Gentiles – that was it. In the text Paul says that Jesus has bridged the gap between these two groups, and the entire world, as far as Paul knew, was reconciled into a single humanity. Verse 16 says that both groups have been reconciled into one body; verse 14 says the wall that had been dividing the two groups has been broken down. Paul defines it even further as he says that Jesus came to offer peace to those who were near and those who are far off. In verse 19 Paul summarizes all these thoughts in a powerful closing statement; “So you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

In response to Paul’s statement and example given us in this text, what would Paul’s thoughts be with regard to our current situation?

Last week the Attorney General of the United States made a statement about the end of what I consider to be a positive immigration program known as DACA. As Attorney General, he focused on the law side of the issue. To be exact, and I’m quoting here from his statement:

“To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. Therefore, the nation must set and enforce a limit of how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all cannot be accepted. Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our country at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”

We can look again at the text in Ephesians about what Paul had to say about the law. In verse 15 the text says that “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

So I will ask another question; is what Paul says here about the law applicable in any way to our current situation?

Others have weighed in on this idea since Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians 2,000 years ago. Martin Luther King, Jr is remembered for having said once that “we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’.”

A literary giant and scholar who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union for a number of years and labeled as a dissenter and heretic, Alexander Solzhenitsyn has observed the following: “A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence of society.”

So great thinkers and philosophers that have gone before us question the benefits of a dogmatic adherence to the law, however it is defined. What do you think Martin Luther King, Jr or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or even Paul would think of the argument brought forth by our Attorney General?

The last question I want to ask is what would Emma Lazarus think of our current situation? If that name rings a bell, you might be remembering that Emma Lazarus is the author of the poem “The New Colossus” which is memorialized on a plaque installed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. This poem’s last few verses has become immortalized in our nation’s history:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I will close with just one more observation. Last week I made reference to another sacred text that is more ancient than our own New Testament. It is as old as or older than much of our Old Testament and is considered to be a valued asset in philosophical thought and theological exploration. What I am referring to is what is called the Tao Te Ching; this ancient sacred text is Chinese in origin and is said to have been authored by a Chinese prophet named Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is a collection of observations listed as verses, numbered one through 81. It is verse 17 which I found to be so interesting in our current situation. Verse 17 of the Tao reads:

With the greatest leader above them, people barely know one exists.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.

Next comes one whom they fear.

Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say, “we did it ourselves.”

And that is food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: September 3, 2017 – “Ancient Wisdom; Always in Style”

 

Ancient Wisdom; Always in Style

Text: Isaiah 40: 28-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

I had a really odd experience about a year ago. I had been to the dentist for some oral surgery. I had something like 6 teeth removed and was under the influence of a particular kind of anesthesia that puts you under without putting you under. In other words, I didn’t feel a thing, was completely relaxed, but was still conscious enough to open my mouth when told to do so and help the dentist in any way I could. Obviously, I was in no condition to drive, so when the surgery was complete, they called Heidi and she came and got me and drove me home.

This is where the story gets kind of interesting. After we got home I was awake and not in any pain and Heidi and I had a discussion. After a few hours of sleep and rest, it may have even been the next day, Heidi made reference to our conversation. I didn’t have a clue. I could not remember anything or any part of what we had talked about. I could have agreed to move to Alaska or paint our house purple and would not have known it. The entire episode was a blank. I didn’t even remember being picked up from the dentist’s office. It was an odd sensation to say the least.

I tell this story because I think my mental condition coming out of that anesthesia from the dentist may be a little like what we often experience in our relationship with God. We are maybe awake, but the substance of what we experience is not truly absorbed.

This text from Isaiah I think is a good example of what I’m talking about and I think the prophet Isaiah is trying to explain to us how to avoid this situation. Most of us have heard this text a 100 or more times, but has it sunk in? Have you ever really studied it and asked some questions about it? What is Isaiah trying to say?

That being said, let me ask a couple of questions that pop up for me and you can see what you think. My focus really becomes verse 31 and the overarching question for the entire text, at least for me, becomes “what does it mean to wait for the Lord?”

Most of the text is about how we become tired and fatigued and how God doesn’t experience that sensation of becoming worn out. God is always strong and always present and seemingly never needs a nap. Further when we do experience exhaustion or fatigue and are about to faint, God bolsters us up, God gives us strength and renews our power. To quote exactly verse 31: “but those who wait for the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Ok, so I will ask the question again. What does it mean to wait for the Lord? What does that kind of waiting look like? Does it mean sitting in a corner, twiddling your thumbs and doing nothing? Does it mean patience? Does it mean focus? What is the context of this word, “wait” and how are we to interpret what it is we are supposed to do?

To answer my own question, I think the word ‘wait’ could mean any of these things and more. Actually I think it has many layers of meaning and is not simply explained or translated; actually I think the concept is very complex.

I also want you to remember my dentist experience. Even though I was talking, even though I had every appearance of knowing what was happening – I clearly did not. I didn’t have a clear grasp of what we were talking about and did not remember a thing after the anesthesia wore off. I guess my question becomes how many of us unwittingly have conversations with God while we are in that condition? And if we do talk to God in that state, wouldn’t it be better to ‘wait’ for the anesthesia to wear off before we talk to God again?

So now comes a follow-up question. What causes us to fall into that trance like state? What causes us to become anesthetized to the point of needing to ‘wait’ for the Lord and ‘wait’ for the anesthesia to wear off? What causes that?

The prophet Isaiah speaks in terms of fatigue and growing faint. Isaiah says there are times when we are powerless and even the young fall exhausted. Why would we be so tired? What kind of activity causes us to faint with weariness? Are we all running marathons or what?

If you have been around here for a while, you may know that it is not unusual for me to sometimes look at a different sacred text and look for overlap or a new interpretation of an old idea. Ancient wisdom is still wisdom regardless of the source and there is much to learn from other writings.

One case in point in the Tao de Ching. This manuscript has been translated almost as much as the Bible and is close to being the same age. The Tao is considered to be about 2,500 years old and parts of our Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, are at least that old, perhaps older, but the New Testament is considerably younger than the Tao. The author of the Tao is considered to be an ancient Chinese sage and prophet name Lao Tzu. I think it is interesting that Isaiah and Lao Tzu could have been alive during some of the same years in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

So the Tao de Ching is a respected ancient Chinese sacred text, full of wisdom and is the primary sacred text for a number of Eastern religions, including Taoism, Buddhism and others. The Tao is a collection of sayings broken in to 81 different verses. In verse 12, I found something that I think is interesting.

  • I won’t read the entire verse, but I’m reading basically the last few sentences:
  • “The chase and the hunt craze people’s minds.
  • Wasting energy to obtain rare objects only impedes one’s growth.
  • The master observes the world, but trusts his inner vision.
  • He allows things to come and go.
  • He prefers what is within to what is without.”

I think what Lao Tzu is talking about here is the quest for riches and wealth, the quest for security and fame, the quest for recognition and honor. In a 21st century context, it is the quest of what many call the American Dream. The success of the upper middle class, the education, the good job, the nice house and the 2 and half kids.

It is the chase and the hunt the craze people’s minds – it is the chase and the hunt that is the anesthesia which clouds our connection to the Divine. We waste so much energy trying to obtain rare objects like gold or money or prestige. Consider the overlap of what Lao Tzu says about wasting energy and what Isaiah says about falling exhausted.

Lao Tzu suggests that we allow things to come and go; he suggests that the master prefers what is within to what is without. Isaiah says it another way. Isaiah says for us to wait for the Lord. Perhaps to get quiet before God. Perhaps to leave the material things of this world out of our thinking and focus on a spiritual inner world instead.

I think the two texts are remarkable similar and say the same thing. We are to be wary of the anesthesia that Lao Tzu calls the chase and the hunt. We are to be wary of the anesthesia that Isaiah identifies as weariness and exhaustion. All of these things cloud our connection with God and we must wait for the cloud to clear before we can truly commune with the Divine.

Go in peace and wait for the renewal of your strength by preferring what is within to what is without. Allow things to come and go and you will be lifted up on eagles wings. Ignore the chase and the hunt that craze people’s minds and you shall run and not be weary, you shall walk and not faint. This is ancient wisdom.

Amen.

Sermon: August 27, 2017 – “Everyone’s Looking Up”

“Everyone’s Looking Up”

Text: Psalm 19:1

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

The eclipse mania has been a fun thing to watch this week. One of the things which I particularly enjoyed were the many puns and jokes that began to circulate with regard to the eclipse. You have probably heard some of these but a couple of my favorites are things like how does the man in the moon cut his hair? Eclipse it. Another was a little boy asked his dad if he could explain the eclipse and his dad responded, “no sun.” But my all-time favorite is the man who was praying; “Dear God, if I am supposed to buy that new boat, send me a sign. Like blot out the sun for a couple of minutes.”

The jokes were fun, but it was also nice to see the nation have a positive experience for a change. For the first few days after the event, the news seemed to be – uh – overshadowed – by the eclipse. Sorry, I can’t help myself. But seriously, I heard news reports about what a spectacular event it was and people were moved to tears and others spoke about what a spiritual experience it was. It was nice to see the country united around an event and it was nice to hear about all the positive experiences everyone was having. It feels good to have something unique and positive going on. It feels good to hear about people talking about spirituality and connecting with the universe and paying attention to how things have been designed. People didn’t always say it, but the underlying theme of all this, at least in my opinion, is a recognition that the universe has an intelligent design and it is remarkable.

Another thing I find incredible about the eclipse is the notion that our sun and our moon appear to be about the same size. The probability of that happening doesn’t seem random to me; it almost seems intentional. Think about it. Our sun is approximately 400 times the size of our moon. The sun is 93 million miles away from planet earth. The moon is just under 300,000 miles from earth. The distances from earth to moon, earth to sun, our angle of view, all those variables need to line up perfectly in order for those two bodies to appear to be about the same size. Pretty remarkable, really.

Overall, I would have to say the eclipse was a remarkable event and I think had a positive impact on anyone who participated on almost any level. We had a small eclipse viewing party here at the church and it was fun. I didn’t planet, (sorry) but the party just sort of happened.

In the days since the eclipse I have been reflecting on all the experiences and all the news reports and all the hype leading up to the event. As I thought about things, I began to notice something about all the news and all the reports. Something was missing that often is in the news. What was missing is there wasn’t anyone claiming the science was wrong, there wasn’t anyone saying the eclipse was fake news, there wasn’t any hint of a counter information effort at all.

Of course how could there be? The eclipse had been forecasted for decades. Everyone knew where and when and how it was going to take place. If anyone had challenged the science, they would have looked foolish on Monday when the eclipse actually took place, exactly as predicted. Everything happened exactly when and where and how it was predicted. In our location I had looked up the times when it was supposed to start, and it began at the right time. I had looked up the time of most totality for our area, and again it was right on schedule. Everything was absolutely predictable and verifiable and proved to be the case. Science won the day.

I bring this up because we are victims of a lot of misinformation that is passed off as being scientific or accurate or even true that is simply not the case. Last week I mentioned the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky. This is just one example. Some attacks on science claim the earth is just 6,000 years old, some attacks on science want to discredit the evolutionary process, and other attacks on science question the origin of the universe or even the existence of dinosaurs. There is even a flat earth society. Most of these things are harmless and fall into the category of personal opinion or belief and no one gets hurt and no real damage is done. But that isn’t always the case.

What we may not recognize is that in this country we protect free speech. Which is a good thing, generally. But along with free speech comes the ability to say anything you want about almost any topic and pass it off as truth. It becomes the responsibility of the hearer to determine if what they hear or see in print is true or not. There are organizations that abuse this freedom of speech to enhance their profitability or to protect an industry that is already profitable and they don’t want to lose any ground.

In the big picture, I think this is a fairly recent phenomenon, but with the increasing number of ways that we have to communicate, I think it is getting worse. Misinformation campaigns are a real thing.

One of the first examples of a misinformation campaign happened in this country when cigarette smoking was first linked to poor health, lung cancer, and breathing problems. The large tobacco companies actually hired advertising firms to create information that would undermine or discredit the claims of science that cigarettes will kill you. Some of you may remember some of these ads. There were ads proclaiming the health benefits of smoking. There were ads that stated things like “more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand” and similar claims. All in an effort to protect profits and keep a good business good. This kind of attack on science does matter and it does have consequences. I would venture to say that the scientific community was as certain about the harmful effects of smoking as they were certain of the eclipse. But in spite of the science, the misinformation campaign went on for decades.

You may not be as aware of this as I am, but we are in the midst of another huge misinformation campaign. The attack on science this time comes to us courtesy of big oil and coal companies attacking the science of climate change. Let me say the same thing about climate change as I said about the science of smoking; I believe that the scientific community has the same level of confidence about climate change as they had about the eclipse. In other words; there isn’t any scientific debate about the existence or the cause of climate change. The science is pretty clear.

There is a bulletin insert in the bulletin this morning that I want to call your attention to. You may remember that Cody Stauffer, the pastor over at Clarkston UMC, he and I cooperated last year on a series of discussions around inclusiveness. We called this series the inclusive experience. We read a book, watched some films and had some really good discussions over the course of several weeks.

We have decided to repeat this idea again this fall. This time we are building the experience around different environmental issues, climate change, pollution of our oceans and some of the misinformation campaigns that impact our attitudes and decisions about these issues. We have decided to offer it as a time release film festival; so over the next few months you will have the opportunity to meet with others and view different documentaries or feature films that deal with some of these topics. The insert in the bulletin gives you more complete information, but one documentary that will be shown on September 21 deals specifically with the topic I was mentioning earlier. This documentary is called “Merchants of Doubt” and it promises to be an educational and informative event.

The film festival will begin this Thursday, August 31 at 6:30PM and we will be viewing a documentary called “Chasing Coral”.  All of the films will be shown in our Fellowship Hall. This one is fascinating as well and I encourage you to give it a try. I can promise that the films and the discussions before and after will always be food for thought.

Go in Peace,

Amen.

Sermon: August 20-, 2017 – “The Search for Certainty”

The Search for Certainty

Text: John 3: 1-10

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I don’t know how many of you remember a slapstick comedy movie that was released I think in the 1980’s called Airplane! If you remember the movie you may remember that it isn’t exactly church material, so I won’t be showing any clips from Airplane this morning, but there are several dialogue exchanges that are worth mentioning.

As I said, this particular film is what I would consider slapstick, or just silly comedy. There are a lot of jokes and just craziness throughout the entire film. One of the themes that runs from start to finish is a fairly constant misinterpretation of what has just been said. This is hard to explain, so I will just give you a couple of examples.

For example, one character says to another, “surely you can’t be serious?” To which the other character replies, “I am serious, and quit calling me Shirley.”

Or on another occasion, one character who is a doctor states “we need to get this man to a hospital!” Then an onlooker says, “a hospital? What is it?” and of course the doctor replies that “it is a big building with lots of beds and medical equipment in it, but that’s not important right now.”         And so it goes, pretty much throughout the entire movie.

I mention this because if you stop and think about it for a minute, these kinds of misinterpretations of dialogue are grounded in a literal hearing of what has just been said. The mind isn’t allowed to fill in the blanks or contextualize a statement, the statement is taken at face value only. In the example of the onlooker responding with a surprised “a hospital?” and then followed by the question “what is it?” almost anyone would be able to decipher rather easily what the intent of that statement was.

First there is an expression of concern; “a hospital?” they are thinking to themselves this must be quite serious. Then an expression of inquiry; “what is it?” meaning they want to know what the ailment is that is so serious that it would require a trip to the hospital. Of course the literal interpretation hears the two inquiries as a single question and totally misses the point. In the case of Airplane or slapstick comedy, this can be sort of funny. When it happens in real life however the humor fades quickly.

The text I read a minute ago I think is an example of someone hearing the literal and as a result, completely missing the point. Here we have Jesus, the master storyteller, trying to give Nicodemus a metaphor which is concise and accurate in terms of what it means to follow Jesus. In a single sentence Jesus is able to communicate that when we follow Jesus, almost everything we have ever known, we need to forget. The way we used to think, the way we used to act, our priorities in life, the way we treat other people – all that has to be worked out again in the context of a new point of view. All the old habits, all the old ways of being and doing, even the old outdated religious customs and traditions need to be reworked. Following Jesus requires an entirely new paradigm, a whole new set of values.

Now rather than saying all of that, Jesus simply says that one must be born again, or be born from above as the text says. Nicodemus misses the point, hears the statement in a literal sense and asks how can someone old enter into their mother’s womb again?

So Jesus tries again. He tells Nicodemus that he’s missing the idea. He tells Nicodemus that what he’s talking about is being born of the flesh, like every one of us has been born. But what Jesus is talking about is being born of the spirit, which is a different thing. To which Nicodemus responds “how can this be?” He responds that way because he is still mired in the literal; he wants to understand from a position of what makes sense in the world.

I think at this point Jesus sort of gives up and tells him, “you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” I can just see Jesus shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders in frustration.

I would like to say that this story with Jesus and Nicodemus is an isolated event and it happened just that one time and no one ever made the same mistake again. Like I said, I would like to say that, but I can’t. Unfortunately it happens all the time.

So I have a theory around the thinking which drives some to only a literal interpretation of what they read or hear. It is my theory that the force which propels others toward a literal interpretation is essentially the fear of ambiguity or the fear of interpretation. Some are so afraid of getting it wrong, the only thing that brings them comfort is certainty. The only path to certainty is the path of the literal.

For example a few months ago an amusement park of sorts opened somewhere in Kentucky called the “Ark Experience”. This life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark is designed to help convince people that the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible is a factual account of what actually happened. If it were not so sad, I would think it was another attempt at comedy; instead of Airplane! The topic now becomes Ark!

Ultimately I think the fear of allowing story to be story and metaphor to be metaphor drives people to seek certainty where certainty cannot be found. I’m going to give you a quote that I have seen credited to both Anne Lamont and theologian Paul Tillich. Here is the quote for you to think about:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”

In the case of the Ark Experience, I can look past this and trust that most people of normal intelligence can decide for themselves what they want to believe about the story of Noah’s Ark. It is unlikely that anyone will get seriously hurt or killed as a result of the Ark Experience.

What we do need to realize, however, is that this same mind set, this same need for certainty and this same level of arrogance also fuels riots and demonstrations like we saw a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. The very concept of white supremacy is grounded in the lack of confidence, a lack of self-worth and a lack of understanding with regard to the human condition. By claiming certainty in the superiority of one race over another, or one color over another, or one religion over another simply underscores the insecurity that ultimately drives the need for certainty. I would not hesitate to guess that many of those demonstrating with torches and swastikas and signs of white supremacy would also profess the Christian faith. If and when this is true, and I believe it is, the rest of us Christians have a problem.

We can debate the significance of the story of Noah’s Ark and search for facts if we choose and it remains relatively harmless. But it escalates into something far more evil, far more destructive and far more dangerous. To be certain of something bolsters the confidence to a point where common sense is no longer employed and human atrocities are simply passed over as a necessary sacrifice or collateral damage.

If we are truly followers of Christ we hold in our hearts a moral responsibility to not allow this to stand. We must speak and we must act. Even if we simply express our concerns in private to another friend, that is a start. We have been quiet too long and have allowed this certainty to creep into the main stream where it does not belong.

It is my belief the mindset of white supremacy or any other expression of extremism is ultimately traceable to a literal interpretation of a text or scripture or ideal. So when we see literalism in that context, we must call it out for what it actually is; the absence of faith. For the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.

Go in peace,

Amen.