Sermon: June 10, 2018 – Claiming our Identity

Claiming our Identity

Text: Luke 4: 17-19

 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.”

I had an interesting conversation the other day. A delivery driver was delivering some materials for that little construction project I have going on down the hill. It went something like this:

Driver:             Are you the builder here? Do you build a lot of houses?

Me:                  Yes, I’m the builder, but I’m not a commercial builder. I’m just a guy building his own house.

Driver: That’s cool. How did you find this lot?

Me: The church owned it and I was able to buy it. (Pointing to the church behind me)

Driver: I’m not sure I’d buy anything from a church.

Me: What do you mean?

Driver: Oh, I don’t know. Churches just give me the creeps. They seem like a weird group of people. I’m just not religious.

Me: I know what you mean, but not everyone is the same you know. I know a number of people in that church and they are really OK.

Driver: Didn’t mean any disrespect, just the way I am. I’m sure they’re good folks. Where do you want this stuff anyway?

I didn’t have the heart to tell this guy that I was the spiritual leader of this weird group of people…

I mention this conversation because it is all too common and it happened again this week. I don’t know if you picked up on this in the news or not, but the Supreme Court upheld a bakery’s right to not make a cake for a same gender wedding.

Now everyone can relax because I’m not going to take a stand or have an opinion one way or the other on this Supreme Court ruling. I can actually see both sides and I would think it a hard decision to know what the right call is in this particular circumstance.

What I really want to focus on today is how the story about this appeared in the Lewiston Tribune this week and what that means for us as we try to move forward with our revitalization efforts.

If you take a look at the headline in this story-I hope most of you can read this from the picture I took of the actual newspaper, but if you can’t, let me fill in some of the blanks. The headline actually reads: “High court rules for Christian Baker”. Just in case you are not completely familiar with what is going on here, let me begin by saying that Christian Baker is not the man’s name. It is how he is described in the media. The man’s name is Jack Phillips. It is his Christian belief that he would not want to support a gay wedding in any way, and he is a baker, so he is described in the article as a “Christian Baker”.

I’m not sure how I feel about his right to legally oppress someone else, but it is his business and he can believe what he wants, even if it is misguided in my opinion. I find this story similar to cafes and restaurants in the 1950’s and 1960’s that refused to serve African Americans. Eventually that kind of discrimination became illegal. But that’s not my topic for today.

What I want to call your attention to is that there isn’t any mention anywhere in this article that Christianity is divided on this issue. There isn’t any mention anywhere in this article that many churches support equal rights for the LGBTQA community and this particular man’s opinion does not reflect all of Christianity.

And yet the headline reads: “Christian baker” as if the fact that he represents one sect of Christianity clearly defines all of Christianity.

I’m not sure there is much that we can do about this, but awareness of the problem and learning how to combat the problem, I believe is a key ingredient to our future growth and sustainability.

As the conversation I had with the delivery driver reveals, there is a lot of suspicion, distrust and just bad information that is very common among the younger generations. I believe that a lot of those attitudes are formed by news stories like the one I am pointing out. If you knew nothing about this church or about Christianity, you would be led to believe that Christianity as an entire religion is anti-gay rights. You would believe that all of Christianity and all Christian churches would be willing to oppress another human being based on their sexual orientation. You would believe these things to be true because you have never been told otherwise.

Unless we assume ownership of who we are, what we believe to be true, and celebrate our attitudes of diversity and allowing people to think for themselves, we will continue to get lumped together in the minds of those who do not know us. I would not expect that delivery driver I was in conversation with to recognize the church I pointed to happened to be United Methodist. I would not expect that delivery driver to recognize that as United Methodists we have a history of social action, social justice and a commitment to “think and let think.” I would not expect that delivery driver to recognize that the “church” he had in his mind in no way was an accurate picture of this church. The delivery driver had only one opinion of church – and it wasn’t very positive.

It is my belief that much of the reason for these attitudes is how Christianity is portrayed in the media. Stories with headlines like this one are all too common. The nuttier the TV evangelist happens to be, the more media attention he or she seems to garner. I saw a story last week on NBC News about a TV Evangelist raising money for a newer and larger and faster private jet; the one he had just wasn’t good enough.

If we want to attract a new generation of people to this church, if we want to engage the minds and imaginations of LCSC students and young families and persons active in our community, then we must find a way to stem the tide of inaccurate and negative media coverage. We must find ways to tell our story; we must find ways to set ourselves apart from the myriad of churches who do fit neatly into the media stereotype.

I believe this is one of the key ingredients to our revitalization efforts. We are not your typical church. We do not offer a typical church experience. When you come to church here, you will be challenged, you will be asked to think about your faith, and you will be pushed to reconcile your belief system with a global vision. This is who we are and we need to be proud and loud about this identity.

There is a tsunami of misinformation that we must fight against every day. If we fail to get the word out to others, we will fail to achieve any growth. If we fail to take ownership of our identity, we will have no clear identity that stands apart from the masses. If we hesitate to take up the banner that not all Christians think alike then our window of opportunity will close.

My conversation with the delivery driver and this headline are just two examples of the misconceptions that are out there and reinforced every day. I believe our best chance for long-term sustainable growth is to clearly define who we are as often as we can. We need to talk to people. We need to show up at events. We need to write letters to the editor. We need to become activists for the Christ we follow.

The ministry of Jesus is summed up in the text I read at the beginning of this sermon. This is what Jesus was called to do and it is what we are called to do. To bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free; to offer release for those held in their own captivity and to offer enlightenment to those who are blind. This is our mission, this is our calling.

Hopefully, this is food for thought, but also a call to action. Answer the call. We need your help.

Go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: June 3, 2018 – “Ancient Contemporary Wisdom”

Ancient Contemporary Wisdom

Text: Matthew 5: 4

Last week I mentioned that three or four of the beatitudes seem to really stand out as authentically Jesus. Part of that determination from Bible scholars comes from looking for certain characteristics that a teaching of Jesus will often contain. One of those characteristics is often a reversal of thought and often very concise, even though it contains a lot of information. With this particular beatitude, these things are present, but there is also source information which leads scholars to believe that this particular saying is authentically from Jesus. . Today’s beatitude – blessed are those who mourn, or grieve has all of these same qualities.

That being established I want to first look at the word “Blessed” and offer a few interpretations of that word that may be new information for you. Many scholars believe the word could be translated into modern English by defining it as “congratulations”. Another way of interpreting the word “blessed” is an inner-awareness, or a special knowing; things of this nature. One thing is consistent, and that is the intent of the word “blessed” does not reflect any kind of special blessing from God. The word choice and sentence structure in the original Greek tend to exclude this as a Divine blessing. This is an important element toward our full comprehension of this particular saying of Jesus.

One of the things which make this saying of Jesus authentic, as I mentioned earlier, is that it contains a reversal of thought, or a challenge of the status quo. Jesus was doing this all the time, most of us are familiar with sayings when Jesus says the first shall be last, the poor are rich and other sayings like these. The reversal of conventional wisdom in this beatitude, I believe, revolves around the idea of the type of God which can offer comfort. The Old Testament is quite full of a vengeful and angry God, and the concept of a compassionate God would be somewhat new for the audience that Jesus was originally teaching. There are a number of references in the wisdom literature, the Psalms and so on, about God as being a comfort, but the context of most of those references is a God that is mighty and powerful and we take comfort in the protection of that power. Even the famous 23rd Psalm indicates this with the reference of ‘thy rod and thy staff they comfort me’ – the rod and the staff representing the power and control of a shepherd.

What is different in this beatitude is the personal nature of the comfort of God-meeting you where you are in your grief and offering comfort in a spiritual or personal way. For ancient Judaism, this was quite a new concept. Today we think of this type of presence as the work of the Holy Spirit, but we must remind ourselves that this teaching took place prior to the formation of Christianity and much before the idea of a Trinitarian God had ever been thought of.

One possible interpretation of this beatitude is a very traditional interpretation which I am not fond of at all. It puts forth the idea that those of us who become aware of our own inadequacies and our own sin then become sorrowful and full of grief – and with that realization then comes the comfort of God in the form of grace and forgiveness. I don’t find this interpretation particularly helpful; I prefer a more positive approach and perhaps a more pragmatic approach to the interpretation of this beatitude. I believe the beatitudes are designed to help us live life here and now, to help us deal with everyday challenges and everyday problems. To be reminded of how inadequate we are in the eyes of God generally, at least in my opinion, is not that helpful.

My personal take on this beatitude you might be able to find a few commentaries, but as far as I have been able to determine, this interpretation is fairly unique to my own personal thought. So, once again, it may be time for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer, these are my thoughts and they don’t have to be your thoughts-I offer them simply as an opportunity to think about things, ask questions and arrive at your own conclusions.

Back to my interpretation of this particular saying of Jesus.  There is an old saying which I think has application as we begin to unpack this beatitude, and that saying is this; “all sunshine makes deserts”. The idea here is that we must experience some rain if we are to stay alive or expect to grow. I think the key ingredient here is growth. Sorrow and trouble offer us that opportunity and it is an opportunity to walk closer and to better understand our God. This concept that hard times grow character is not a new concept; what is new, I believe, is the thought process that allows us the opportunity to see this “up” side of sorrow or grief or hard times much sooner than in the past.

I think many of us have had the experience of 20/20 hindsight where we realize that a particular spot of trouble or some hard times may have been beneficial for us in some way. Almost everyone I think is able to remember a time that was hard, but proved to have a silver lining, as they say, after a decade or two has passed. My concept around this beatitude is to provide us the chance to see that silver lining much sooner.

There is also a principle at work here that some people refer to as ‘contrast’ – this is a very common tenet in some of the eastern religions. The idea of contrast is that there must be hot in order for us to experience cold, there must be soft if there something hard is to be experienced, there must be something rough if we are going to experience smooth, and so on. Jesus also echoed this teaching in a number of the parables and stories he told. If we apply this idea of contrast to this particular beatitude, we could include a more contemporary translation of the word “blessed” and come up with a new way of reading this saying of Jesus. In this beatitude, we could think of a different translation as saying something to the like: “congratulations, for now that you have experienced sorrow, you are better equipped to appreciate joy; and that knowledge will bring you comfort.”

I have been told and have read from a variety of sources that our human psyche is only capable of experiencing one emotion at a time. In other words, we cannot be happy and sad simultaneously; we are either happy or sad, but we cannot be both. We can often ping-pong from one to the other, but our human emotional response system is set up so that we can only actually experience a single emotion at a time. This is a key thought.

If we can recognize sorrow or grief or suffering as an opportunity for contrast, this changes our emotional response to the immediate situation. Because we can see hidden in the sorrow an opportunity for comfort and an opportunity for growth and as an opportunity for developing a greater understanding of God in our lives, then we can begin to actually offer thanksgiving for the experience of sorrow. Remember what I said earlier about the human psyche only experiencing one emotion at a time; with that offering of thanksgiving, will come a different set of emotions and the emotion of sorrow or grief will be mitigated and we will experience comfort.

If we place this idea in the context of the beatitude, we come away with a perspective that those who begin to understand this concept are to be congratulated because they know that in their grief there will be wisdom, learning, and a new appreciation of joy and happiness-so their natural response to sorrow and grief is to embrace it and actually give thanks for the experience. As they do, the emotions of sorrow and grief begin to fade and the emotions of love, thanksgiving, gratitude and joy rush in to take their place. That transformation of emotional response brings great comfort.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Food for thought.

Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: May 27, 2018 – “Is the Bible Trustworthy?”

Is the Bible Trustworthy?

Text: Matthew 5: 1-9

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

These first 9 verses in the 5th chapter of Matthew are called the Beatitudes and the context of this particular group of verses is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is considered by many Christians to be the best synopsis of how we are to be in the world. For some, the Sermon on the Mount is considered to be the finest sermon ever preached and these words of Jesus are absolute hallmarks of our Christian tradition. There are 9 beatitudes in Matthew and they are often considered foundational to our understanding of who Jesus was.

Because all of these sayings are considered “soft” sayings of Jesus, they tend to not be very controversial and the general population has little to argue about when it comes to the Beatitudes. This is all very warm and fuzzy and even if life in the present moment isn’t all that great, the Beatitudes promise a different future. Each one of the sayings has a shift in tense that is it pronounces a blessing on groups of people based on what they are experiencing in the present moment. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, etc that is who they are now, but each of the sayings then proclaims a future blessing as well. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. This shift from present tense to future tense is also foundational to our Christian heritage and our understanding of death and resurrection and themes of eternity and so on.

I’m offering all of this background and generally positive information about the Beatitudes simply to make a point; and that point is that as good as they are, in Biblical scholarship, only about 4 of the 9 sayings are actually attributed to Jesus. The balance of the Matthew text appears to have another source other than the actual sayings of Jesus.

Now I could spend the rest of my time explaining why this is the case, but I’m not going to do that. What I want you to realize is that the Beatitudes have been accepted almost universally as truth and actual sayings of Jesus, when in fact, the evidence of that is really very weak. Jesus probably said something similar to what we find in about 4 of the 9 beatitudes listed in Matthew 5.

For me, this isn’t a big problem. If we as a society want to coop the beatitudes and attribute all 9 of the sayings to Jesus, so what? It is all very positive and no one gets hurt. For the most part, I believe our culture and our society will function at a higher level if the attitudes and premises on display in Matthew 5 are adopted as universal truth. For me, it is a non-issue; but only in this particular case.

The problem is that most Christians don’t really understand Biblical scholarship and they lack the skills and education to go and find out for themselves what Jesus did or did not say. They are left to the influence of whatever teacher or pastor or interpretation they happen to hear from a position of power or authority. Here in lies the real danger because you can make the Bible say almost anything you want. If there is a person in power or that has a position of authority and he or she tells you that the Bible says thus and so, most people will accept that as truth. This pattern of scriptural abuse is devastating enough with regard to the New Testament, but it holds the potential to get completely out of hand when we introduce the Old Testament into the mix.

For example, we have strong New Testament evidence that Jesus condemned divorce. But our society and culture has managed to work past this particular problem. I generally support our current understanding of the need for some couples to divorce, the need for women in particular to be able to free themselves from abusive situations. I fully understand that in some cases both parties in a divorce are better people as individuals than they are as a couple. I fully understand that there are times that a divorce actually creates a more positive environment for the children than if a couple stays married. I view divorce as not an ideal solution by any means, but also as a necessary part of our civilized culture. In spite of New Testament condemnations about divorce, we have been able to move past this.

We have also moved past a number of other more brutal condemnations that can be found in the Old Testament. The Levitical code of law is full of some truly barbaric and sometimes puzzling ideas. It is an abomination for us to produce mules, for example, because it involves mixing the breeds of a horse and donkey. It is also considered sinful to wear a garment created from two different kinds of cloth or to sow two kinds of seed in the same field. This is all found in Leviticus 19, right next to some of the laws about human sexuality. I think almost everyone ignores all of these prohibitions, except the ones they are told not to ignore by someone in authority. We also have Levitical laws about trimming a beard, or about how long you have to wait before you can harvest the fruit from a fruit tree. A fruit tree, really? Yep. Leviticus 19:23 spells it all out for you; you’re free to look it up.

If we move out of Leviticus and into Deuteronomy for example, we can find texts that tell us to take our rebellious teenagers to the edge of the city and stone them to death if they will not listen to reason. Heidi and I have raised 3 boys that were all once teenagers. If I followed the advice of the Bible, none of them would have made it out of their teens.

We have moved past for the most part the New Testament commands for women to keep silent in the church; this is found in First Corinthians, and of course the many references to slaves. In three different places in the New Testament, Romans, Ephesians and Colossians we find a reference to slaves being obedient to their masters. We no longer accept slavery as a norm in our culture or society, and yet it is very present in the Bible.

The Old Testament is full of polygamy, misogyny, and all kinds of abuse to women, daughters and children in general. Although not entirely successful, I do believe we have made some progress in these areas in our current culture. However, if we wanted to, we could build a case justifying some of these behaviors based on what we read in the Bible. This has certainly been the case in the past. Even within semi-mainstream denominations like Methodism, the acceptance of women as clergy is only about 65 years old. In the 2,000 plus year history of Christianity, this means women have been recognized as equal for about 3% of our history-not exactly a stellar track record.

My point is that we need to be careful with scripture. In my sermon title I asked a question; “Is the Bible Trustworthy?” While this question demands a contextual answer, the short answer is no, the Bible is not trustworthy. Without proper scholarship, without an adequate understanding of culture or context, without a willingness to change ideas and attitudes-the Bible is very, very dangerous and damaging to many individuals; thus it is not trustworthy.

Unfortunately, the scholarship and the interpretation of this book is left to a few individuals in power who hold sway over millions of others. I hate to admit this, but many of those in power, at least in my opinion, are not qualified to interpret scripture. As a matter of fact, they don’t even try. Evidence of this is the often popular quoted mantra among strong conservative Christians that says “God said, I believe it, that settles it.” I don’t know if you have seen this in print, or on a bumper sticker or perhaps heard it on TV, but this makes absolutely no sense. None. Zero. Zip. If you hear this from a person in power, don’t walk away, run.

So that brings me to the question of what the Bible has to say about our current issue facing the United Methodist Church regarding full inclusion of the LGBTQA community. You might find this surprising, but I don’t think it matters what the Bible says about this issue. Do I care that the Bible tells me to stone my rebellious children to death? Not really. Do I care that the Levitical laws say something about this topic right along with wearing two different kinds of fabric or sowing two kinds of seeds in a field? Not really.

The question that I think we need to be asking is after some good scholarship, after a logical interpretation of context and culture, after a serious inquiry into the actual words of Jesus, what are we left with?

What we are left with is absolute silence on the part of Jesus with regard to this particular issue. And what we are left with is an overwhelming mandate to love one another, to fight oppression of any kind and to show preferential treatment to the poor and marginalized. This is good scholarship and accurate Biblical interpretation.

If you want to debate this issue using scripture, there is only one obvious conclusion. Nothing else makes any sense whatsoever. We cannot allow one more human atrocity to take place under the banner of scripture. It has already happened enough. It is time to stop abusing people by hiding behind what the Bible says. It is time to stop dealing with our fear through oppression and marginalization based on weak Biblical interpretation. It’s past time for the human carnage to stop because we can’t interpret the Bible.

But it begins with you. It is your responsibility to read and interpret and try to understand. It is your responsibility to not let the oppression and discrimination stand. It is up to you to make the oppression stop.

Food for thought. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon: May 20, 2018 – Pentecost Sunday – Leaning a New Language

 

Text: Acts 2: 1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

There are a couple of things happening in this text that I can really relate to. The first is what is described here as the rush of a violent wind. I remember the day like it was yesterday; but in fact it was 18 years ago, to this very day. It was May 20, 2000. We were in Denver and on a Sunday afternoon a very pleasant day suddenly turned very ugly. In about 20 minutes time a rush of a mighty wind swept over us and the temperature dropped from a very pleasant 75 degrees or so, to around 35 degrees. The skies went from bright blue to a dusty gray and then to almost black. At first it began to rain, but soon the rain turned to snow. Before it was all over, this mighty wind and dropped the temperature more than 40 degrees and had dropped about 8 inches of wet, heavy snow. It was an event that sticks with you.

There is also something happening in this text with regard to language. As the story goes a lot of people were speaking a lot of different languages, but somehow in all that chaos, those who needed to hear a specific language were able to do so. I can relate to the different language issue, having travelled in some foreign countries you do hear some different languages. Even here in the United States, if you visit a National Park, for example, chances are you will hear a few different languages being spoken by visitors to the park. But what is really frustrating, at least for me, is when something seems like it is in a different language, but it is still English. As technology invades more and more aspects of our lives this seems to be happening more and more frequently. I remember the first time I heard the term “e-mail”. I didn’t have any idea what it was or how it might work. It was English, but it may as well have been in a foreign language. Has anyone shopped for a new TV recently? It used to be you had a couple of choices, black & white or color and 19” or 25” and that was about it. Now there are numbers and LCD’s and LED’s and some other kind of CD and 1080 this and 2040 that, I can’t keep track of it all.

What I also find interesting is that it seems like, at least at times, that a whole new language arrives on the scene all at once. So thinking back to our text, it is like a whole new language descends upon everyone like a rush of a mighty wind. It happens that suddenly, and you are expected to keep up and somehow know what everyone is talking about. I know that has happened to me on a number of occasions; I mentioned e-mail and TV’s, cell phones are another one, I’m just now figuring out what an “app” is, and computers, well let’s not even talk about computers. You just get one termed figured out and it is obsolete before you have a chance to apply it to anything.

I have had this same experience with a whole new language suddenly showing up like a rush of a mighty wind with the topic we have been discussing recently that is currently creating some waves of discontent in the United Methodist church. What I’m referring to is the issue of homosexuality, or as the new language likes to put, the issue of full inclusion of our LGBTQA sisters and brothers. I remember when I was just figuring out what LGBT stood for and what it meant, when all at once, like the rush of a mighty wind, another few letters were added. I remember thinking it won’t be long and we will have to recite the entire alphabet!

I’m hoping to be able to help you with this language interpretation a little bit today, but to just tell you what each letter stands for doesn’t really help your understanding. It still leaves you thinking; “why do we need so many letters”? And simply knowing what a letter stands for doesn’t mean you understand it. I know what the letters stand for in the equation E=MC2, but that doesn’t mean I can explain it to you.

As I have thought about this, I have decided that maybe a good approach is to help you with what might be another language problem. I mentioned computers a couple of minutes ago. Now I need to make a disclaimer here; I am not a computer technician and only understand the basics of a computer on a very elementary level. So as I explain some parts of the computer language, it may be that I understand some parts of the system incorrectly. But I think I’m close, and for this example, close is close enough.

You may have heard that computer language is binary. This means that almost anything a computer does can be broken down into 1’s or 0’s. These are the two numbers of computer language. There are only two, so it is “bi” meaning two, and they are numbers so it is binary, meaning two numbers.

What is fascinating is how the options of all that code expand with just these two numbers and a few choices about the numbers. If you consider just one little piece of information, say a letter for example, that one bit of information has four options. It can be a 1 or a 0, and it can be on or off. If you introduce another bit of information, now you have 8 options, and then 16, or 32, or 64 and then 128 and 256 and so on. It’s possible some of these numbers sound a little familiar to you. This is the result of binary code, and it all starts with something being either a 1 or a 0 and then it is either on or off.

I don’t know if you remember the first computers that were monochrome, or just one color on the screen, but it wasn’t long and you could get a computer that had 16 colors, and then it was 64 and it seemed like overnight the color combinations went to six million. Now we don’t think anything about it. It is just normal; in fact the image on the screen exceeds reality in many cases. That’s true of your phones now as well. But the important thing to remember is that all of this technology is possible with binary code; just two numbers, and two choices, either on or off.

There are many people who view human sexuality as binary code. In other words we are either male or female, and like magnets, opposites attract. If that’s all there is, then it remains pretty simple, but it isn’t all that simple, it is much more complex; even more complex than a computer. As research and science have discovered, human sexuality is not binary code.

As I understand things, there are at least four different elements that combine together to create what we now call our sexual orientation. For most of us, that sexual orientation is what we refer to as “straight”, meaning that we are either male or female and we are attracted to the opposite gender. But there is more to it than that.

The four elements of our sexual orientation that I mentioned a minute ago are these four items: our physical gender, our gender identity, our gender attraction, and the strength of that attraction. In computer language, that means we are now dealing with 0,1,2, and 3’s but it is even more complex. It is more complex because each of those things is not an “either, or” situation, or like a computer, “on or off”. Each one of those four areas is in reality a sliding scale that moves from 100% on each end to neutral position in the middle.

For example, you might be aware that every day there are babies born that have non-developed gender organs so it is impossible to determine gender. There are also babies born with both male and female organs and everything in-between. This means our physical gender is not always 100% male or female, it is sometimes on a sliding scale, and sometimes it is mixed.

Gender identity is not physical gender identification. Your gender identity is what you are between your ears, in your mind, and how you think about and how you interpret the world around you. For most us, our physical gender matches our gender identity, but that is not true for everyone. There are those who are born one way, physically, and yet think another way. Once again, this is not simply on or off, it is a sliding scale. All of us have some attributes of a different gender identity within our experience of the world.

The third element of our sexual orientation is the question of attraction. Once again, what most of us experience is that opposite genders attract. This is made more complicated because this aspect is also on a sliding scale, some individuals are attracted to only one gender and some are attracted to both. For some individuals this attraction is the same gender they happen to be physically, and for others it is the opposite gender they happen to be physically, for others it is both.

The fourth element of that comprises our orientation is the strength of that attraction. This is true of all of us that the strength of our attraction ranges from very strong to very weak. In what we consider to be a straight male, the attraction toward the opposite gender female would be strong, while the strength of the attraction to another male would be weaker, or non-existent. There are individuals who experience zero attraction to either gender regardless of what gender they happen to be. These individuals are A-sexual, and that is what the “A” stands for when we speak of the LGBTQA community.

I’m hoping that you can begin to understand that given the complexities of this topic, it is difficult to categorize all people in just a few broad sweeping groups. The truth is that to do so with just six letters is still probably extremely inaccurate for many individuals. But I think it is important for us to understand that all these letters are not designed to irritate us, or to call attention to themselves or even to try to be different. All the letters are intended to do is to communicate that this is a very complex subject; more complex than even computers.

To reduce our human sexuality to a single expression is like saying that even though computers are able to accomplish all sorts of tasks, we should only use them for addition. Any other use of a computer is sinful and an abomination, which is just crazy.

So the next time it feels like a rush of a mighty wind has swept over you and the new language of the LGBTQA community causes you to struggle, just remember how complicated this topic truly is.

Food for thought and go in peace. Amen.

 

 

 

 Sermon: May 13, 2018 – “Enabling a Dangerous Addiction”

“Enabling a Dangerous Addiction”

Text: Thomas 47: 1-2 (Matthew 6: 24, Luke 16:13)

Jesus said, “A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a servant cannot serve two masters, or that servant will honor one and offend the other.”

There has been a lot in the news recently regarding the opioid epidemic. It appears that some prescription painkillers and other types of drugs are very addictive and easily abused. I want to talk a little bit this morning about another form of opioid, one that is often overlooked, but is just as addictive and may actually cause more human casualties than the current opioid epidemic that is dominating the news at the moment. This opioid is what I call egopioid.

Here’s how it works; the ego is fed an addictive drug when we practice certain behaviors. Behavior like feelings of superiority, being judgmental, a severe attachment to being right, self-righteousness and a pious attitude are behaviors which top the list of contributing to the egopioid epidemic. Once your ego gets a taste of these drugs, it is very hard to not become addicted to the euphoric feelings.

One noteworthy difference between the standard opioid and the egopioid is that a common opioid is used as a painkiller for ourselves, while the egopioid acts as a painkiller for other people’s pain. It seems the person addicted to the euphoria induced egopioid is unaware of the pain inflicted on other people in certain circumstances. If you think I’m making this up, let me assure you that I am not. All we have to do is look at history and it will tell the story. People have been addicted to egopioid for centuries.

About 1,000 years ago people suffering from an egopioid addiction were willing to kill about 3 million other human beings because they would not convert to Christianity. In history, this egopioid epidemic is called the Christian crusades. Much more recently a group also suffering from an egopioid induced stupor killed about 6 million other human beings who happened to be Jewish. This group is known to us as the Nazi Regime in Nazi Germany and the historical event is commonly called the Holocaust. I could go on; there isn’t a shortage of historical examples where people seem to lose their moral compass while under the influence of egopioid.

But it’s not just history, it is happening again. There is a group of United Methodist currently involved in this Christian epidemic of egopioid. They are exhibiting the classic behaviors of superiority, being judgmental, self-righteousness and an extreme attachment to being right. I am of course referring to the group of United Methodists, both in this country and other countries, who for decades have stood in the way of full inclusion in the church for our LGBT sisters and brothers. Another classic symptom that is being displayed in this epidemic is the group seems to be immune from other people’s pain. It doesn’t seem to matter to them their chosen position is discriminatory, often hate-filled, and inflicts human suffering on millions of people. Like I said, this particular drug makes you numb to other peoples’ pain, and that is currently on display.

So the question becomes for the rest of us how do we actually help those afflicted with this addiction?

If you do a little research on substance abuse and addiction, you will soon realize that one of the most common mistakes made by loved ones that surround an addicted person is that instead of helping, they are enabling. This can be a difficult concept for someone in the middle of a crisis to see and understand. All they want to do is help, but instead, they make the situation worse. Much worse.

Let’s take a look at enabling, shall we?

The first and most glaring behavior that identifies enabling is that the enabler protects the addict from the consequences of the behavior. The enabler shields the addict from the natural progression of the deviant behavior, sometimes making excuses or blaming other people or other circumstances rather than forcing the addict to face the true consequences of their behavior.

Another classic sign that someone is enabling rather than helping is avoidance. They sometimes avoid the person altogether, or when they can’t avoid the person, they avoid the subject and simply don’t talk about it. The lack of confrontation creates an impression of normalcy when everything is far from normal.

In short, according to many mental health professionals, enabling is very different from supporting or actually helping because it enables the addict to be irresponsible in many aspects of their lives. The professionals at Al-Anon, a group dedicated to helping those addicted to alcohol, practice what they call detachment with love. Detachment with love simply means caring enough to allow the addict to learn from their own mistakes.

Another sign that someone is enabling rather than actually helping an addicted person is that they ignore the unacceptable behavior. They make excuses for the behavior, saying things like “we are all different in our response to stress” or the high-pressure work environment causes them to drink like that, or even blaming a boss or some other relationship that is the root cause of the alcohol addiction.

Recently the Council of Bishops met together to make an attempt to resolve the conflict surrounding the question of full inclusion for LGBT persons in the United Methodist church. The plan that ultimately will be recommended is probably the best of three different options they were considering. The problem is that even this best option plan, still isn’t good enough, at least not in my opinion.

It seems the primary goal of all of the meetings and the planning and the prayer time and the discernment and everything else that has taken place since General Conference in 2016 – two full years now of planning and discerning and praying, the primary goal all of this time has not been to solve the issue. It seems to me the primary goal has been to make certain the church stays together. This is a noble goal. We have heard a lot about unity, and difference of opinion and tolerance of another’s viewpoint and the fact that we are a global church and very strong in our representation all across the planet. We accomplish a lot of good as a unified, strong, global church.

But as our text stated earlier, it is impossible for someone to serve two masters. I used the text from the Gospel of Thomas because it uses different examples other than serving God and money like the texts in Matthew and Luke do. The Thomas text reminds us that it would be impossible to ride two horses at the same time, or to draw the string on two different bows simultaneously, and reminds us that a slave cannot serve two masters. I believe that the work so far by the Commission on the Way Forward has been serving two masters. One master is the concern for unity, and the other master is attempting to actually solve the problem. Since you cannot serve two masters, in this case, the master of unity has received the attention and we still have the problem.

But to make matters worse, I believe this lack of focus on the actual problem facing the United Methodist Church has led to the Council of Bishops and others in leadership roles to actually fall into the trap of enabling those addicted to egopioid.

By promoting unity at all costs, the way forward is shielding the addicts from the consequences of their beliefs. Rather than taking a stand, the way forward is avoiding the confrontation necessary to make clear what the problem really is. There are also a lot of excuses; different cultures, different customs, different understandings – and that may be true, but it doesn’t make it right.

To be tolerant of discrimination and hate in any form removes any chance of us actually moving forward and reduces all of our efforts to nothing more than enabling the addicts. I believe it is time for us to use a tactic from the Al-Anon playbook and practice some love with detachment.

Obviously, food for thought.

Go in peace, Amen.

 

Sermon: May 6, 2018 – “What We Choose”

What We Choose

Text: John 15:16

“You did not choose me but I chose you.”

When I was growing up in Iowa I became interested in professional football.  My cousin and I used to watch the NFL on Sunday afternoons and then go throw the football around during halftimes.  In my small town during the 1960’s, no one had ever heard of a satellite dish, cable TV or even ESPN – the games you watched on TV were the games chosen by the networks in your area.  Our TV programming came out of Sioux City, Iowa – much like how some of our local programming here comes out of Spokane.  Geographically, the closest NFL team to Sioux City, Iowa is the Minnesota Vikings – and so the Vikings was the team I watched the most on TV.  Consequently, I became a Minnesota Vikings fan in my youth.

Actually, the Vikings had a pretty good run during those years – they had a talented team and were led by a star quarterback named Fran Tarkenton – you may recognize that name.  There was only one serious drawback to being a Vikings fan during those days; the team went to the Super Bowl four times during the course of those years….and lost four times.  Good grief!

Eventually I was married and we migrated west and a new quarterback was on the scene; a sensational new talent out of Stanford that ended up playing for the Denver Broncos – his name was John Elway.  The same thing was still true about local programming and so I became a Denver Broncos fan – Ironically, nearly the same thing happened again.  A few trips to the Super Bowl and all losses – it was déjà vu all over again.

Then came the 1997 season; the Broncos made the play-offs and found themselves again in the Super Bowl, playing the Green Bay Packers.

It was January of 1998 and the outcome of this Super Bowl hung in the balance until the final seconds of the game when Green Bay failed to get a first down and possession of the football went back to Denver.  As the final 20 seconds or so began to wind down, it became obvious that Denver was going to win their first Super Bowl ever.  We went outside and you could hear shouts and cheers all across the neighborhood; people were setting off fireworks and honking their horns.  If you were in Denver on that January evening it was obvious there was a great celebration taking place.

That was a memorable event.  The Broncos won the Super Bowl again the next year, but it wasn’t the same as that first one.  But as I reflect upon the memories of that first Super Bowl win, great as it was, I am intrigued with the process of how one becomes a fan of a particular football team, or any team for that matter.  Do we actually choose to be a fan of a particular team, or is that choice made for us?  Does the scripture I read a few minutes ago describe this process?  The idea is presented by Jesus to the disciples that they did not choose Jesus, but rather Jesus had chosen them.  Perhaps this idea is more universally true than we recognize at first glance.  How many of the things that we consider to be a part of our lives, things that we consider to be part of our personality, things that help define us as individuals, are actually chosen for us?  Do we really choose?  Or are many of the things we practice chosen on our behalf.  I’m not sure I chose to be a Broncos fan – it happened by osmosis.  I know I didn’t choose the Vikings as a kid – it was by default I became a Minnesota Vikings fan.

I’m wondering if the same thing is true of religion.  Have you ever thought about how you have chosen Christianity as your faith tradition?  Did you choose or was it chosen for you?  Did you go to the library and check out books on all the major religions of the world, make a detailed study of each faith tradition, and then based on your research make an informed choice?  I didn’t think so…neither did I.   Truthfully, I am Christian by default; following the same process as how I became a Vikings or a Broncos fan, it was simply the thing to do.  You may not want to admit that to yourself, but I’ll bet if you are honest, you will discover that you didn’t choose Christianity at all, it was chosen for you.  Further, I’m willing to predict, that if you think about the process, it would have been extremely difficult for you to be anything but Christian.  It would have caused great strife among your family and friends and perhaps great conflict from which some families never recover.  This requires you to be very honest with yourself, but if you are, I believe you will discover that what I’m describing is true. At least for most of you.

How is it then that we as Christians want to believe that God only recognizes one faith tradition and we hear preached that only those who accept Jesus are able to share in the eternal kingdom of God?  Can we not recognize that those of other faith traditions have had the same experience as us?  Did all of the Buddhists and Muslims in the world actually choose those religions?  Or were they, like us, born into a system where the religion is chosen for us?

I ask these questions because I feel like many of the things that we think we are, actually are chosen for us, or are simply chosen by default. Did we choose to be Americans, or was that something that happened by default because of where we were born? Did we choose to learn to read and write or is that a choice that was made for us? If you think about the choice process, many of the major influences in our lives have been chosen for us, or we were simply born that way. Did you choose to be male or female? Did you choose to have brown hair or black hair or in some cases no hair? Did we choose to consume a majority of the natural resources available to the world, or did that happen by default?

Consider this example; if the world were condensed into just 100 people the diversity of the population might look something like this; these numbers are from the internet and are a composite of several sources so they may not be 100% accurate, but this just gives you an idea:

24 of the 100 would be from the Western Hemisphere

About 10 would be from the United States

70 of the 100 would have a faith tradition other than Christianity

94 of the 100 would be heterosexual, while 6 would be homosexual

33 would be unable to read, 26 would live in sub-standard housing

13 of the 100 would suffer from malnutrition or starvation while 22 would be overweight

When God considers humanity what portion of the 100 would God consider?  Only the 30 that are Christian?  Only the 10 from the United States because God has blessed America?  This raises some interesting questions for me….questions like does God really choose a people?  Does God actually bless certain nations?  Is your connection to God greater because of your race or religion or sexual orientation?   I think not.  For me, one foundational element of the nature of God must be egalitarian.  I don’t believe the world is in this condition from God’s own choosing, I believe it to be a human condition and a condition to be resolved by humanity.

The church is presently trying to find a way forward with regard to the question of full inclusion for our sisters and brothers that have a different orientation than most of us do. Of the 100 people I mentioned a minute ago, about 6 of them would not be heterosexual. Is that something that they chose? I don’t think so. When did you choose to be straight or did it just happen?

I believe that our language, our attitudes and or level of inclusiveness speaks volumes about our theological maturity. When I hear someone speak of the Israelites as God’s chosen people, or I hear the phrase “God Bless America” or I hear something about Christianity being the only true religion, or I hear arguments about why the church should continue to oppress the LGBTQ community, it not only makes me sad, but it causes me to wonder why we are so theologically immature.

We cannot choose for ourselves many of the things we are. But we can choose our own level of theological maturity and our own level of spirituality. The fact that much of the church going population continues to be theologically immature signals to me, at least in my opinion, many of the clergy out there are not doing their jobs. That is why over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the issues facing the United Methodist Church with regard to human sexuality and sexual orientation.

I believe one of the best starting points for this discussion is to fully recognize that sexual orientation and gender identity are not choices made by the individual. I do not believe that anyone chooses to be gay or transgendered, it simply is the way they were created; and God honors what God has created.

To consider any other option; perhaps a God that does choose a people, perhaps a God that does bless certain nations or perhaps a God that only connects with a certain faith tradition, or a God that would condemn a specific sexual orientation makes God a co-conspirator with humanity in the glaring inequalities and injustices found in our world.  In my mind, that creates an immoral God.

The God that I am in relationship with is not an immoral God.

Go in peace and go with God.  Amen.

Sermon: Sunday, April 29, 2018 – “Pruning the Vines”

 Pruning the Vines

Text: John 15: 1-2,4-5

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

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Every once in a while I get surprised by a familiar item in my life. I don’t know if anything like this ever happens to you, but there are some things that you think you know all about and then something happens and you realize that you have been missing something this whole time. That happened to me about a month or so ago with my truck.

About a year ago when we decided that the house project I was planning was actually going to happen, I decided at that time, and rightly so I might add, that it would be necessary for me to have a truck rather than the SUV we had been driving. In the past year the truck has proven to be very useful and I think a wise investment.

When we first got the truck I read all the manuals and became familiar with some of the gadgets. It has a blue tooth connection for my cell phone which I really like, but it honestly doesn’t have nearly as many bells and whistles as some of the vehicles now days. After a time you become familiar with your vehicle and feel like you know it fairly well. Then one day I got really surprised.

I was working outside near the truck one day when it just started all on its own. The engine started and all the doors locked and no one was in the vehicle, it was just sitting there in the driveway running for no apparent reason. This, of course, was a bit of a surprise, because I really didn’t have any idea what was going on.

In the past I knew I had set off a panic alarm on vehicles when I carry the key fob in my pocket and somehow when I bend over or get in an odd position one of the other keys pushes the button and the darn thing goes off. This went through my mind when the truck started all by itself and I had no idea why. I pulled out my key fob and looked at it, this time looking a little more carefully than I had in the past. There it was, down in the lower left hand corner, a little key icon. I unlocked the truck, turned the engine off and tried it again. It worked. I didn’t realize I had that feature until I ran across it entirely by accident, even though I had looked at that key fob several times a day for the last year. I never noticed the remote start feature, and no one ever pointed it out to me. I felt a lot like the little boy in our commercial must have felt; really surprised!

This happens periodically with scripture texts as well. When there is a text that you think you are familiar with and you already think you know what it says, when you read it again, you don’t really read it, you just sort of take it in quickly, because it is so familiar. When this text in John that I read a few minutes ago came up in the lectionary readings for this week, I looked at it again, but failed to catch something that has been in there the entire time. I needed someone else to point it out to me.

I’ve been following a blog recently that is being published by the conference in coordination with our health insurance. This blog recently has been all about wellness and finding ways to make us clergy accountable for our own well-being. They have recently asked us to start tracking our vacation days, for example, to make sure we take off as often as we are supposed to. The blog last week began by asking some interesting questions, they asked about the number of hours of sleep, if we have been eating a healthy well-balanced diet, the amount of time we spend in spiritual disciplines; questions of this nature. Then there was a question that sort of threw me a curve ball; they asked how many times this week did I say “no”?

They then elaborated a little on this question and referenced the text I read a few minutes ago. I had to go read it again to see exactly what they were talking about. For all this time I thought I knew what the text said, and basically understood the pruning process to be the deliberate elimination of things in our lives that are not helpful, not productive or not positive. In other words, the branches that bear no fruit get the axe.

But there is a follow-up text that is a little more obscure. It is right there in the second half of verse two. Even the branches that do bear fruit, still get pruned, so they can bear even more fruit. I had not ever looked at the text this way in the context of saying “no”. In other words, if you are a person who likes to volunteer, for example, you are bearing fruit. But if you volunteer too many places, and have too much going on, and can’t really focus on one or two things that you are doing because of everything else that is going on, then you are bearing less fruit than you could.

This article went on to say that the importance of being able to say no, the importance of us being able to limit our involvement to a few things, ultimately makes us more productive. It is like taking a branch that is already bearing fruit and cutting it back so it can bear even more fruit. This was a new way of looking at this text for me. And I think it makes some sense.

If you think about it, there are certain professionals that have had this idea figured out for a long time. In the medical field, for example, many doctors specialize in certain areas. If you have sinus trouble, there is an ear, nose and throat doctor that can help. If you have knee trouble, there is a specialist for that as well. Musicians, I think, are also great in narrowing a focus. A great musician generally doesn’t play every instrument, they play a particular instrument amazingly well. We all know this to be true, but have you ever really thought about how it applies to your daily living?

Asking yourself the question “how many times this week have you said no” I think is a really valuable way of measuring if you are spreading yourself too thin. We want to do everything, we want to help everybody, we want to bear as much fruit as we can; but the thought of bearing even more fruit by saying no is not something that seems obvious. I think for most of us, if we feel like we want to do more, if we want to help more people, then we have to respond when asked in the affirmative. We have to say yes. How can we say no?

I believe this text points out that with a little pruning of our own lives, we can eventually do even more than we are doing right now. It’s just that we will become more effective and more focused on what we are doing, rather than having our attention and energy spread out among too many different things.

There is another point to all of this that I think is equally important. When our lives become overly chaotic, for whatever reason, that chaos robs us of our joy. Life is no longer fun, it becomes a series of one obligation after another.

I find it very interesting that in the very same Gospel, in the very same chapter, just a few verses later, we find a text in John about joy. Many commentaries don’t connect these two scriptures as having any level of continuity, but I’m not so sure. In John 15: 11 we find these words: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Give this some thought; think about the idea that your joy might be directly connected to how effectively you prune the areas of your life that currently bear fruit. I’m not talking about pruning away the bad habits or the major things you want to change. I’m talking about learning how to say no even in the areas where you currently bear fruit. Learning how to say no even when it is for a good cause or it is important work; we cannot do it all. No one can.

Connect these two scriptures in your mind. Jesus tells us to prune the areas of our lives that currently bear fruit, so we can bear even more fruit. Then Jesus tells us that he said this to us so that our joy may be in us, experienced by us and that our joy may be full or complete. I think there is a direct connection to learning how to say no, or learning to prune, and experiencing full and complete joy.

So go in peace, go with God, learn how to prune, learn how to say no, experience your joy and may the force be with you!

Amen.