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Sermons

Sermons

 

First Christian Church

Sacred Supervision”

John 10:11-18

The Tillamook County Fair is an annual occasion of some import in the home of my birth. At the fair are the usual carnival rides, games, horse races and something peculiar to this fair is the pig and Ford races. In these races the men drive jeep like open vehicles and transport a greased pig around the race track. The one who first transports four separate pigs around the track is the winner.

 At the Clallam County Fair, the barns are opposite the entry point to the fairgrounds and on the far side. Not so at the Tillamook County Fair where you must pass through the barns to enter the fairgrounds proper. The barns come with a wide assortment of animals including pigs, cows, horses, rabbits, sheep, goats and lambs. It's hard not to notice the odor of the barns which helps to create a unique environment, and it wouldn't be the Tillamook Fair without the barn experience!

The 4H kids are everywhere taking care of the animals, and if you're paying particular attention, you might see one of them tending to the sheep on the outside of one of the barns. There you might spot a 4H kid washing and trimming a sheep or a lamb. At such times you may hear one of the sheep or lambs going “Baaa” just like they do in the funny papers. They really do go “Baaa!”

The reason I'm talking about sheep and lambs this morning is because our text today is about the Good Shepherd. This is the fourth Sunday of Easter and we're now making the transition from the risen Christ to Christology itself. By that I mean we're beginning to try to understand what and who this risen Christ is and most importantly what does he mean to the flock that follows him.

To begin with let us consider the audience that Jesus would be speaking to and teaching in his day. This audience would be well acquainted with shepherds and the animals they took care of. If they didn't work with sheep and lambs directly than they indirectly made contact by watching the shepherds. They also would have drunk the milk and eaten the cheese from the goats, and there were religious rituals that involved these animals, and they would have eaten the meat of sheep and lambs.

In this way they would have known on an everyday basis what shepherds did and could make fair judgments about who was a good shepherd and who wasn't.

It's also important to note that Jesus is not simply describing what a shepherd does but is going much further in making the actual claim that he is the Good Shepherd. This may have been challenging for the people since they would have had notions about good shepherds from hearing scripture read. They would have been familiar with the Good Shepherd from both the psalms (Psalm 23:10) and the prophets (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

In these texts the Good Shepherd is God and in this sense Jesus would be understood as making the claim that he is God! In the twenty-first century us followers of the Christ take this information for granted, but in the first century no one had ever done that before, so the claim itself would be startling and even shocking to many!

We need to also take a moment to consider the critical comments made about the “hired hands” at the opening of the text. Though it's not plainly spoken we can safely consider the “hired hands” to be symbolic of the negligent religious leaders who are suppose to be shepherding the flock. Jesus describes them as basically cowards who run away at the first sign of danger. On the other hand, Jesus not only cares for the flock but is willing to go the next mile and even lay down his life for them!

One way in which we are cared for by the Good Shepherd is in times of grief. It is during times of prolonged grieving that we may turn to the Good Shepherd frequently for comfort and reassurance. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) In contemporary terms the approach is somewhat different, “You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (Matthew 5:4; The Message Bible)

Let's focus on the word “feel,” in that latter version since grief is first about feelings. We only need to consider Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: denial, depression, bargaining, anger, and acceptance – where powerful emotions encompass all five stages. So, at least on the surface during periods of grief we're trying to manage our feelings.

At a deeper level the person or precious thing that has been lost is not a feeling. It is something that was once there and it has left a big vacancy in your soul. There is an emptiness now that was not there before, and the emptiness longs to be filled. Jesus is saying that at this point in the experience of grief an opportunity arises. Now, one can be embraced and comforted by something that is permanent. Something that can be counted on to always be available.

This is why the Apostle Paul tells us that: “...we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) In times of prolonged grief the faithful turn to the unseen Spirit, and the turning itself can be the beginning of a spiritual transformation. It is the Good Shepherd that leads us step by step through this process of transformation.

Of course, we don't want to experience grief because its painful and we fear where it may take us. Sometimes it feels bottomless, but it isn't. What we need is to learn how to let go and trust the process. To allow the Good Shepherd to lead us to the green pastures and the still waters as is described in the twenty-third psalm.

In the following psychotherapist and author Francis Weller tells us we must welcome grief into our lives in order to be transformed by it:

As we begin to pay attention, we notice that grief is never far from our awareness. We become aware of the many ways it arrives in our daily lives. It is the blue mood that greets us upon waking. It is the melancholy that shades the day in muted tones. It is the recognition of times passing, the slow emptying of our days. It is the searing pain that erupts when someone close to us dies – a parent, a partner, a child, a beloved pet.

It is the confounding grief when our life circumstances are shattered by the unexpected – the phone rings with news of a biopsy....our partner decides one day that the marriage is over. We tumble and fall as the ground beneath us opens, shaken by violent rumblings, grief enfolds our lives, drops us close to the earth, reminding us of your inevitable return to the dark soil....

It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is the common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us to everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.

When grief is upon us Weller is encouraging us to open up to community. The tendency is to want to find a cave to hide away in and some people accomplish that with alcohol and drugs, though any addiction will provide some escape. Unfortunately, addictive behavior only prolongs grief and allows it to manifest with various psychological and bodily dysfunctions. Better to face grief head-on and that takes courage which in this case is another word for faith. Weller is suggesting we do that in community.

When my brother, Randy, took his own life it was an absolute shock to everyone. No one saw it coming and given a speaking role at his funeral is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. I drove up from California to find my family in the basement of a friend of my mothers. In the midst of our pain and disillusionment we embraced and supported each other as best we could.

That was the last time my entire immediate family was ever that close because in the long run the horrible event was like a bomb going off scattering us in all directions. Not that we were that close to begin with never-the-less the effect was palpable. Now after the passage of many years both of my parents and my other brother, Jay, are gone.

Though this amounts to a considerable amount of loss, since my sister, Vicki, and I are the only ones left we are enjoying a renewed and closer relationship.

When I returned home from Randy's funeral in Albany back to Red Bluff, California the Presbyterian church was offering a grief group, and it was happening right across the street from the church I led as a pastor. In this way, I entered into community and with them faced the pain and agony head-on.

It has been many years now and though the emptiness longs to be filled it seems that will never entirely happen. Instead I've learned to live around the vacancy, and find reassurance of God's love through my faith and the many stories I've read about the afterlife. Though Jesus spent little time talking about the afterlife it has since been well documented by others. It appears our soul or consciousness is not limited by the physical universe.

It is highly likely that our loved ones, including our pets that we have lost will be encountered again after we die. As scientists now theorize that there could be an infinite number of physical universes, so wise people have been telling us for ages that the soul or consciousness or the True self, whatever you want to call it, goes on after death. Barbara Homes is a teacher at the Center for Action and Contemplation where she recently spoke to this subject:

I'm an ordinary, everyday mystic. I'm not claiming special powers, just a life steeped in mystery. My family was comfortable with mysticism, spiritual discernment, and the use of spiritual gifts such as healing and words of knowledge. My aunt Lee, a Gullah (pronounced Gull-luh and is a subgroup of African-Americans) shaman Catholic, was my biggest influence. She saw dead people and mediated mystery for our family. She could tell you who was coming and going and how they were when they got to the other side, she would tell us the age they had chosen to represent their physicality.

It seems that at least in her understanding, you could choose your age in the life after life. So, when you saw people in dreams, you would see them embodied at the age that best reflected their spiritual joy. My dad chose his 50's, and when I see him in dreams, that's what he looks like.

My mom chose her late 30's. I'm not familiar with that look for my mom, so I always hesitate, because at this point on the spiritual side, she's younger than I am. There were all kinds of rules about dreams and encounters. My aunt's messages always included what they called “verification.” She would seal the deal with information that no one would know except the loved ones who had gone on. She'd tell you where a piece of lost jewelry could be found, or the content of a few last words spoken in private.

To believe that all that exists is what we can see is the height of arrogance and a direct product of a culture that's both fascinated and captivated by science and the power of technology. We are inundated with our own accomplishments and it blinds us to the truth. The truth is we know nothing and wisdom finally means to know that you don't know.

Rev. Mitch Becker

April 21, 2024

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

Without A Doubt”

John 20:19-31

On Easter morning Mary was distressed and sad because she couldn't locate the body of her Lord and teacher. Peter and John look into the tomb to confirm that indeed the body is missing. But later in that same day Mary shows up to tell the eleven disciples that she has seen the Lord! Now it's time for Jesus to make his own appearance with them.

This happens in a house where the disciples had been holding up locked in for fear of the Jews. It seems odd since we might expect them to be celebrating upon hearing the good news from Mary, but instead they're hiding out. They're not afraid of the Jews in general since they're all Jews themselves, but they are afraid of the Jewish religious leaders that put Jesus up on the cross.

The commentary suggested they might be afraid of Jesus himself. When you think about it that's not too much of a stretch in that they miserably failed Jesus on several occasions. Peter denied him three times, and the others had deserted him except for “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John was at the cross with his mother of whom he took home. Perhaps the last person in the world they wanted to meet was Jesus who might be looking for a confrontation with these wayward disciples.

Though the disciples are behind locked doors Jesus, who is the “door,” has no problem whatsoever entering the house. And he's not there to scold or confront, rather he comes to bestow peace upon them. It is a peace only Jesus can give, and is not to be found in the world, and it has to do with wholeness and a deep sense of well-being.

Then comes the tangible proof of one who was dead but now is alive. He shows them his hands and feet and as far as they're concerned it amounts to undeniable proof that the Lord is really with them. It is not a ghost or some kind of apparition – it is their Lord in the flesh! After Jesus blesses them they are sent out into the world to continue in Jesus' mission, but not until he gifts them with the Holy Spirit.

They need the Holy Spirit to accomplish the tasks set before them, so Jesus breathes the Spirit into them. The Holy Spirit is now in Jesus' place teaching and guiding them in the ways of truth. Immediately following this is the admonition to forgive and how they must do this for others to be forgiven. It's interesting to note here that in the Gospel of John sin is more about not receiving the revelation of God in Jesus, rather than being about moral infractions.

For some reason Thomas was absent and missed out on the initial appearance of Jesus. Labeling him as “doubting Thomas” is a bit unfair because he's only asking for the same thing the other disciples have already been given. He wants to see the wounds too!

A week later Jesus shows-up again to grant Thomas his request and Thomas responds in the most faithful way of all and exclaims: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus' response is not a rebuke but rather a blessing for all who come to believe in him without such flesh and blood appearances.

Easter with all it's alleluias and proclamations of Jesus rising from the dead tends to eclipse our own fears, pain and anxieties. It causes us to forget that these first disciples went through a considerable amount of pain and suffering before they arrived at the understanding of what had happened and the resulting joy that came with it.

We're not unlike these first disciples as we have heard the good news of the resurrected Christ but may struggle to fully grasp it due to our own fears, pain, and anxieties. At our age we're all dealing with health concerns to one degree or another. We may wake up in the middle of the night anxious about an uncertain future and wonder why prayer doesn't quell our anxious thoughts. The following from Author Cole Arthur Riley shows us how fear and rest are related:

What do we do when our fears are in fact rational? When fear and wisdom are enmeshed? When we would be foolish not to fear? More often than we realize, fear is a protective intuition. It is what stops you from driving with no headlights on, from touching your hand to flame, from going outside to meet the coyotes. We don't have to demonize our fear to survive it. For this reason, I have an aversion to language of “conquering” our fears. We are not at war with ourselves; it is better to listen with compassion.

As a child maybe you were told there is nothing to be afraid of. As adults, when we're most honest, I think we know we have everything to be afraid of. This world, which has been so unsafe to so many of us, cannot be trusted not to harm us again. This isn't pessimism, it's confession.

Still, to live in a constant state of fear will keep you from the rest you were meant for. They are near opposites, fear and rest. It is not likely that you'll relax those shoulders if somewhere within you the house is on fire. I want us to honor our fears without being tormented by them. Sacred intuition without restlessness.

Ms. Riley closes with this breath practice:

INHALE: I will not be silenced by fear.

EXHALE: A quivering voice is still sacred.

INHALE: God, my soul trembles.

EXHALE: Steady me in your arms.

INHALE: I will meet this fear with rest.

EXHALE: God, steady me in your arms.

There was an article on the front page of the Daily News that said the Department of Transportation is planning on putting in 4 round-a-bouts on 101 between Sequim and Port Angeles. Of the four one is at Walmart and another is at Old Olympic Highway. At this time, they don't have the money for the project, but what immediately comes to mind is the lack of availability of alternative routes.

This isn't Los Angeles where you have maybe 2 or 3 or more alternative routes you can take around any impediment to your travel. Walmart is at the entrance to Port Angeles where we have one way in and one way out along Highway 101. A round-a-bout where Old Olympic Highway intersects with 101 presents a similar problem. Often, Old Olympic Highway is the alternative route! Obviously, some solution has to be found.

This presents an interesting metaphor for fear. Fear is a lot like running up against an impediment on a pathway in your mind with no obvious alternative route to take. Fear is the feeling that comes with being stuck on the pathway. The solution is that you must find one or more alternate routes to take to get your consciousness moving ahead again.

The following quote from The Cloud of Unknowing, which is an ancient anonymous work of Christian mysticism, illustrates one way of dealing with fear. It describes contemplation and its purpose:

The higher part of contemplation is wholly caught up in darkness and is the cloud of unknowing, with an outreaching of love and a blind groping for the naked being of God, himself and him alone.

When I wake up in the middle of the night with my consciousness stuck and obsessing upon something I'm afraid of the first thing I must do is get up, and that's typically the hardest part.

Next, I need to shake-off the drowsiness with some Tai Chi, so I turn on the electric fireplace and begin the familiar ritual. Five minutes is usually enough, though sometimes a bit more is required. After I'm more so awake I sit down in the folding chair and pray the psalms or The Lord's Prayer or Marcus Borg's Jesus prayer or whatever helps me to focus on God's presence.

What varies is the clarity in which I perceive that presence. Sometimes its distinctly clear that I'm in the presence of “the naked being of God.” Most of the time his presence comes and goes within the darkness of contemplative prayer. I feel connected and then I don't, but its all “good,” as one of my parishioners in Lancaster used to say. Just being in the darkness or “the cloud of unknowing” is enough to open up alternative pathways.

At some point I emerge from the obsessive thinking and I am entertaining other thoughts. These other thoughts don't necessarily have to do with the original obsession, they're just other thoughts because my consciousness is flowing again and that's the whole point. The fearful thoughts are still there in the background, but by God's grace the flow has returned.

We've now entered the season of Easter-tide that remains with us until Pentecost Day. Easter-tide is comprised of the seven Sunday's following Easter where each of those are considered as important as Easter Sunday itself. The reason for that is because the resurrection of Christ is so powerful and central to our faith that we can't keep it confined to one Sunday!

The joy of Easter Sunday continues along with proclamations of the risen Christ. Rest in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit that was breathed into the disciples is still with us teaching, lending guidance, giving strength and providing comfort. God's Spirit has the ability to breakthrough our fears and anxieties as long as we're willing to be open to its influence and empowerment.

We each have to find our own ways to create Holy scenarios in which that can happen. We're all different, but its the same Spirit that ministers to us all.

Rev. Mitch Becker

April 7, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Letting Go”

John 20:1-18

Mary has arrived at the tomb early in the morning, but unlike the synoptic gospels she is not joined by other women. Mary comes to anoint Jesus' body, and her grief is given emphasis as she is walking alone and in the dark. Since grave robbing was typical in antiquity it's not hard to imagine that she's thinking the body has been stolen when she sees the tomb open.

Oddly enough, Mary does not look inside the tomb, but runs away seeking help from two of the disciples. Peter, and presumably John, go to the tomb and they look inside to confirm the body is missing. In the midst of this there is no recognition of Mary's distress and no words of hope shared by either of the disciples. Even though John is identified as one who “believes,” yet no words of comfort are given.

Mary stands there weeping while the other two return home, and as the text points out: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” It seems what the disciples believe is the body has been stolen, since it would be cruel indeed to simply return home without giving Mary a word of comfort.

God has not forgotten Mary and soon she is joined by three enlightened beings. First, two angels acknowledge Mary's emotional state by asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Unlike many other encounters with angels in the Bible Mary is not in the least frightened by their appearance and simply responds with a question.

Then Jesus speaks and because he uses her name, she recognizes him and refers to him as “teacher.” Next comes a particularly interesting part of the story where Jesus tells Mary she must let him go because he has not as yet ascended to the Father. All along Jesus has been telling his disciples, both men and women that they must follow him, but now he's telling this disciple to “let go!”

And so we arrive at that all important aspect of a healthy spirituality which is learning how to let go as opposed to acquiring and holding on. It should not surprise us that Mary's initial reaction is to desire to physically embrace her Lord and teacher, but its simply not allowed, and the message resonates down through the ages. There comes a time to let go and for Mary that time has arrived.

Last week I was visiting Jim Read at Olympic Medical Center as he was letting go of his life after many years of faith and service to our Lord. This particular process of letting go is different for everyone and its hard to know how conscious people are when in this final state of their lives. On Tuesday morning I performed my version of a Protestant last rites assuring Jim that God was with him and that he can let go whenever he is ready.

The end of someone's life is something to be greatly honored because it is the end of a long and noble journey. Jim has been in close relationship with God and this was apparent in the way he always appreciated my visits, and his deep, sincere interest whenever we prayed together. He often wanted to know how things were going at the church even when he was struggling with his own personal challenges. He was married to Celia for 60 years and her care and well-being was always of great concern as well, and his hope was to return to Park Villa and his wife.

The cancer in his bladder took the remaining vestiges of his health, and two days before the process began I was able to be with him, and we prayed together and spoke of the church and, of course, Celia. He looked physically different and when his son, Mark, called me about his dad being in the hospital I wasn't surprised that he had begun to let go of his earthly life.

When I visit someone to do my Protestant version of the last rites there is always a reluctance to do so. Like most everyone I've been trained by the culture to avoid death. Even though I've been a pastor for more than 30 years having seen this countless times and have received formal training as a chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital I'm still reluctant to make the visit.

But following this visit with Jim I felt a sense of liberation. It's hard to explain, but when you look death in the face everything else sort of pales in comparison. The problems I was dealing with suddenly seemed to lose there importance, and I experienced an enhanced appreciation for life that was happening all around me. When I saw the red-winged blackbird at the pond again and he stretched his wings to reveal his glory it seemed almost magical.

The culture trains us to hide from death which makes it very scary, but when we look at it head-on death loses its potency and becomes an important part of life. From this vantage point it is possible to accept death and, in this acceptance, comes the liberation I'm trying to describe.

Jesus spent his earthly life confronting things that people typically try to avoid and even hide from including illness, demons, the powers-that-be, and death.

Over this Holy Week we've observed, acknowledged and celebrated confrontational situations including the introduction of a new revolution on Palm Sunday that continues to this day. It all ends with a shocking display of disapproval at what is going on in the Temple and some very perturbed religious leaders.

We gathered together on Maundy Thursday for a reenactment of the Last Supper and heard the command to love one another the way he loves us, which moves directly into Good Friday where, if we were willing, we confront death itself. We look death in the face as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane. He told his disciples to stay with him in prayer, but they couldn't do it, and hopefully we did better.

Now, its Easter morning and all of that is behind us because this morning is about new life. This morning is about accepting the promise given so long ago for those who take Jesus seriously and follow in his footsteps and are willing to be open to his Spirit. The promise is for new life in him.

In the paper last week there was an article about the YMCA building a state of the art facility for the purpose of providing childcare. It was described as a multi-million dollar project and when built will be able to accommodate 96 children. That's a lot of money and a serious commitment to make toward the betterment of the community.

On our own doorstep ICI Construction has completed their work on the new pathway that leads into one of the premier attractions in our area the Olympic National Park. We've watched them do this over the course of many months and have participated in our own way by providing them a launching platform they could use free of charge.

With these projects and others there seems to be a concerted effort to make our little community out here on the northern peninsula attractive to both tourists and potential permanent residents. Somebody wants to see new life in Port Angeles and is working hard to make that a reality. Maybe those of you in Kiwanis Club and closer to the movers and shakers in our community are more savvy to what's going on than I am, but it seems apparent that something is afoot.

I have to wonder on this Easter morning how our little church at the gateway to the Olympic National Park is going to participate in this movement toward new life? Joe DeScala is something of a celebrity in the town and he'll be here with us at our next board meeting. As a man of faith I don't believe in coincidence or happen-chance. In my world, and perhaps in yours as well, God is behind it all guiding, inviting and making all things possible.

As most of you know Karen and I just spent 18 months living in a 42-foot trailer waiting for our log home to be built. They say you have to go through hell to get to heaven and that would be one way of describing what it was like. Now when I go into the trailer to adjust the two heat sources, I notice how the trailer bounces when I walk through it. I didn't really notice that when we lived in it.

Even my massage therapist once made the comment that living in a trailer may be throwing my hips out of joint a bit because of the bouncing. I thought about that but didn't pay a great deal of attention to it, because when we lived in it I chose not to think about the bouncing. That was just one more thing to worry about, and there was already enough to deal with including making a bed in a cramped space, the steep metal steps leading into the trailer, and thin water pipes that would freeze whenever the temperature dropped below 32 degrees.

To not think about the bouncing trailer was an unconscious choice that I made every day we lived in it. I just ignored the bouncing, and that's what we all do. We unconsciously ignore that which we don't want to deal with and that includes illness, demons, the powers-that-be, and death. We just don't think about these things until they're in such proximity that they can't be ignored any longer.

This type of lifestyle is like going through life comatose. We wake up in the morning but we never really wake-up, even though we're convinced that we're fully awake and with ample vision. Jesus is telling us otherwise and he does this in a lot of different ways with parables and healing episodes and raising people from the dead and in the Garden of Gethsemane when his disciples, who often don't have a clue go to sleep on him in his hour of desperate need.

The two, Peter and John, don't have a clue that poor Mary is standing over there in obvious distress, weeping because someone has taken the body of her Lord and teacher, and she doesn't know what to do. Why don't they share with her a word of comfort? It seems apparent to me that they can't give away something they don't have.

On this Easter morning it is right and proper for us to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior because this is the center-point that our faith revolves around! While we're doing that, we might also ask ourselves if we would have had a word of comfort to share with Mary, or would we have simply, unconsciously returned home like these disciples? Jesus wants us to wake-up.

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 31, 2024

Easter Sunday

Port of the Angels 

 

 

First Christian Church

Loving at Full Speed”

Mark 11:1-11

On Palm Sunday I like to go beyond the Working Preacher commentaries and look again at Marcus Borg & Dominic Crossan's book “The Last Week.” This time I came across their ideas about aristocratic rule by a few over the masses beginning about 5000 years ago. This type of rule by elite persons and families continued through medieval and early modern societies right up until the last few hundred years with the advent of democratic revolutions. The paragraph ends with this comment: “And one could make a good case that in somewhat different form it (it: referring to the few ruling the many) remains with us today.” (p.8)

In our text Jesus introduces a spiritual/religious revolution of his own that still remains with us but as yet has only partially impacted humanity. It is a revolution in the works, and its expressed in a couple distinct ways by the gospel writer in this chapter. The first way is in the presentation of Jesus as a king riding not a warhorse, but a donkey. The donkey is a counter-cultural image suggesting Jesus is a very different type of king.

The other distinct image of this spiritual/religious revolution happens a few verses after our text where Jesus enters the Temple referring to it as “my house,” whereas its suppose to be a house of prayer but the money changers and those buying the animals for sacrifice are making it a “den of robbers.” The religious leaders take offense at Jesus' actions in the Temple, and its not made clear whether its the declaration that the Temple is “my house,” or the disruption of Temple business that upsets them. It's probably all the above and after this they're plotting to kill him.

Lenten devotional John Pavlovitz speaks to the nature of Jesus' revolution when he describes it as “an economy of generosity.” He contrasts this with the present day consumerist economy we live in where “dog eats dog” and most are in it for personal gain. He continues his description as being invited to run a race where the winner is the last to cross the finish line. Beyond this, the goal is to be in service to others and doing the service is its own reward.

Jesus' revolution turns our everyday, ordinary world upside down, which explains in part why it is taking so long for it to have a comprehensive impact on humanity. To be able to consistently behave in a counter-cultural manner requires a different way of seeing the world, as well as the willingness to keep trying to do things differently.

For example: On Good Friday the church will begin a prayer vigil at 6am that will continue until 6pm that day. It will be accomplished by church members taking turns praying for a half hour at a time, but Good Friday prayers have a specific focus to them.

They are about going deep into our inner selves to touch upon places we typically avoid.

The Good Friday Prayer Resource sheet I make available is designed to provide guidance to help you come up against the darkness of the day. Human beings typically avoid such confrontations, but avoidance in this case means to deny yourself the joy of Easter. The resurrection will be toned down considerably if you haven't adequately prepared yourself through prayer.

Through prayer we find the courage we need and may be given guidance as to how we can best contribute to the revolution. There are Christians who have taken the revolution very seriously and some that come to mind is Joe DeScala and the 4PA organization here in Port Angeles. Joe and 4PA have accomplished great things for Christ including helping us with the homeless residents on our property and cleaning up the debris in the ravine left by them. It was a huge project!

At the last board meeting I was instructed to contact Joe to see how we might fit in with 4PA and do our part to care for the homeless. In response Joe suggested he might attend one of our board meetings and talk with us about our possible participation. I accepted his offer and he'll be joining us on Sunday, April 21. The following thoughts from Richard Rohr can help us to be prepared for Joe's visit and most importantly help us respond in faith:

Without a constant infusion of the Holy Spirit, without a constant desire and trust – Lord, give me your Holy Spirit! – we all close down. We do! It's the nature of life to circle around the smaller and smaller self, to take fewer and fewer risks, and to never go outside our own comfort zone of people who are just like us.

Friends and siblings in Christ, don't do that! We're all going to be gone in a few years. We only get one chance to live this life of love. Every day is a lesson in love, learning how not to bind ourselves and our neighbors, but in fact to free ourselves and others...We are Jesus' emissaries. As Saint Teresa says, “We are the only hands and feet, the only eyes and ears that Jesus has.” Jesus has handed over the mission and the mystery and the wonder of the realm of God to each of us.

Until we can live every day of our lives motivated by love, rather than fear or by people in authority, this Gospel will not work. It will not change you or me, and it will not change the people around us. Let's begin anew.

There is a great deal packed into that short meditation and the phrase encouraging us to not be motivated by fear or authority seems especially appropriate for our time. It's pretty clear to me that not only our nation, but many nations in the world are moving toward more authoritative governments which should be troubling for us people of faith.

You might say this is a counter revolution to the Jesus revolution, and its this counter revolution that gets all the press. The reason for that is it plays on peoples fears bringing them to the fore where its hard to not become preoccupied with them. In fact, without the presence of the Holy Spirit its nearly impossible to function outside of the fear with any degree of rationality let alone compassion.

As Richard Rohr just shared with us, “Without a constant infusion of the Holy Spirit, without a constant desire and trust – Lord, give me your Holy Spirit – we all close down. We do!” As we look out into the world, we're seeing this “closing down” happen on a massive scale due to a protracted absence of the Holy Spirit.

This all ties into Palm Sunday with the introduction of a new kind of king, and at first just a look around the Temple later followed by a shocking display of disapproval. To understand what Jesus is doing in the Temple we need to look at what happened to the Temple prior to Palm Sunday.

Before the Roman Empire took control of Israel the Temple was primarily religiously important. When Rome began to use it for its own purposes it eventually became the central socioeconomic institution for the country. The defining features were now rule by a few, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation. The few who rule at the top our gospel writer, Mark, calls, “the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes.”

The wealth of these few at the top came primarily from land ownership. Because of laws in the Bible more land could only be acquired through confiscation. There were two ways confiscation occurred: The first way was the king could create “royal estates,” by taking land from the peasants. Herod did this and sometimes gave the land to other ruling elites.

The second form of confiscation was foreclosure because of debt. Sometimes a peasant would use land as collateral for a loan. If the loan could not be repaid the land was confiscated. These are the two primary ways the ruling elite accumulated land and thus wealth. This represents only one aspect of the type of corruption and misdeeds the elites imposed upon the peasant class.

Jesus came from a little backwater village named Nazareth, and the people who followed him were mostly from the peasant class. We don't often think of Jesus as being a peasant but that was his background and the people he is mostly concerned about. You might be thinking, “What's the point pastor of examining the socioeconomic dimension of the gospel?”

To that I'd say though I've identified Jesus' revolution as a religious/spiritual

phenomenon it was, in fact, more than that. It also had socioeconomic implications for the first century in Palestine and it still does for us in our time. Though nowadays kings and queens do not populate the earth, yet not much has changed in terms of the few holding most of the power and wealth. There is a middle class these days, but there is also a marginalized class who are being discounted and suffering considerably.

It is these folks that Joe is going to come and talk to us about to see what we can do to help balance out the scales. We need to consider the socioeconomic aspect of society because Jesus did far more than we typically credit him. He taught parables that involved the rich and landowners, and in the only prayer he left us he included the forgiveness of debts.

Something else that happens when we don't consider the socioeconomic dimension of the gospel is it appears irrelevant in a culture such as ours. We live in a consumerist society where peoples worth is often measured by the amount of things they own and the size of their bank accounts. In a culture that holds the economy of central importance a solely religious/spiritual revolution can be easily disregarded.

We're going to talk to Joe DeScala about what we can do to show compassion for those left on the outer margins of society; but by Jesus' actions in the Temple and his frequent confrontations with the ruling elites he is also demonstrating the importance of going to the heart of the matter. People don't just end up living on the streets for no reason. It is the consequence of an unjust system that cares not for the suffering of those on the margins.

Without question the prophet Isaiah had a significant impact upon Jesus and he could have been thinking of this passage as he entered the Temple that day to strike at one of the key sources of injustice in his time:

This is the kind of fast day that I'm after; to break the chains of injustice, get rid of the exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad...Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage...If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

(Isaiah 58:6-8,10; The Message Bible)

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 24, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

One”

John 12:20-33

The Gospel of John labors hard to convey the message that Jesus and the Father are one. By that I don't mean they're one in the same mind or they have the same message or anything like that – I mean when you see Jesus you see the Father. That's why Jesus says to Phillip, “You've been with me all this time, Phillip, and you still don't understand? To see me is to see the Father. So how can you ask, 'Where is the Father?'” (John 14:9; The Message Bible)

That conversation with Phillip happens a little later in this gospel, and our text actually opens with Phillip who is approached by some Greeks. By implication these Greeks are already believers, and they want to see the source of their belief. We don't know if they actually get to see him, and their cameo appearance is probably to show Jesus' growing popularity in the world.

Jesus then talks about his death because the time has arrived for him to disclose the way he's leaving this world. From here until his arrest there is an urgency that permeates the story, and Jesus tells his disciples on the way about as much as they can bear to hear.

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) one of Jesus' requirements for his disciples is for them to be willing to take up their own crosses, and in this respect John hops right on board. But with John something is added and that is the notion of “abundant” or “eternal life” that is an ultimate consequence of bearing your own cross.

We also need to consider the usage of the word “hate.” Typically, that word for us means to despise or detest something or someone, but here a closer definition would be “reject.” This is important because when Jesus tells them: “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” he's telling them to reject the world's values and follow the values of the kingdom of God.

To return briefly to that all important message of the Father and Jesus being one, in this gospel the two are always on the same page even as Jesus' death approaches. What binds the two together is the love they share, which is the same love Jesus shows his disciples when he washes their feet or lays down his life for his friends.

 The central problem in the text is that few have the ears to hear or the eyes to see the truth of Jesus' disclosure about his death – let alone the requirements of discipleship. But still the story offers hope that soon people will begin to recognize him. As Jesus is lifted up and resurrected to ascend to the Father people will then begin to understand that the Father and Jesus were always one.

This hope is realized because the disciples do remember with increasing clarity after his death about who he was and his mission. The end of the story helped them to see the whole truth, and the same will hold for us. John writes, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

In terms of the big picture another problem arises in regard to the other enduring religions of the world. For example: Islams “Jesus figure” is Muhammad and he's a prophet or messenger of God, and in Buddhism there is no God. Buddhist follow The Way or the practice of the Buddha. The Buddha is the enlightened One, but not God. In Christianity Jesus and the Father are one, therefore, Jesus is God!

Some Christians view this as an indication that we have the true religion, and the other enduring religions of the world are somehow lacking. This results in Christian hubris or an arrogance that looks down upon other religions making them less credible then Christianity. Obviously, a Muslim or Buddhist would not share such feelings about their own religion.

It can lead to feelings of anger or resentment and ultimately division in a world that desperately needs to find inroads to peace. When the Christian faith leads to enlightenment and the tearing down of inner boundaries then ways to solve the problem begin to appear. It all begins when we find the courage to look within as Richard Rohr explains:

Only people who have done their inner work can see beyond their own biases to something transcendent, something that crosses the boundaries of culture and individual experience. People with a distorted image of self, world, or God will be largely incapable of experiencing what is really real in the world. They will see things through a narrow keyhole. They see instead what they need reality to be, and they're afraid it is, or what they're angry about. They'll see everything through their aggression, their fear, or their agenda. In other words, they won't see at all....

When we touch our deepest image of self, a deeper image of reality, or a new truth about God, we're touching something that opens us to the scared. We'll want to weep or be silent or run away from it and change the subject because it's too deep, it's too heavy. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Since ICI Construction has vacated our premises, we have been left with a large open parking lot. It's very inviting with the fresh gravel and smooth entry way off Race Street. It seems like almost everyday I come to work there is a different car parked out in our lot. Its almost as if we have a big, bright reader-board that says: “If you're looking for a place to park your car this is it!” Our parking lot is now an inviting open space that almost begs to be filled, and so it is nearly every day.

Likewise, as our spirituality deepens, we come to know God as a open space or a void within us that paradoxically desires to be filled with God. In fact, God is the only thing that will satisfy the desire. As the saying is attributed to Saint Augustine: “Our Heart is restless until it rests in you.” Even the void itself can be considered as God since entering the void results in a spaciousness and contentment radically different than ordinary, everyday consciousness.

When I was in seminary at the Pacific School of Religion I frequently found myself at the prayer place in my room. This was because in seminary I was bombarded with a wide range of differing ideas about God. Of course, I had been exposed to varying ideas about God in college as I minored in religion, but this was far more intense and finally quite confusing.

I'm not sure how my fellow students managed the deluge of ideas, but I did it by returning time and again to the quiet void. In the void there is no competitive ideas because ideas no longer hold any particular importance. In the void all things become possible and all ideas are relative. No one idea is any better than any other because all judgments have ceased. In the void the ground is leveled, and all is equal.

The challenge then is to bring this peace or “the peace of God” (Philippians 4:7a) as the Apostle Paul calls it, up from the depths of your being out into the world at large. Peace in the world will be accomplished when enough people have reached this level of spirituality and are committed to raising consciousness (as Eckhart Tolle calls it) in the world.

However, not everyone who has attained a higher degree of spirituality is necessarily committed to raising consciousness. In Buddhism such a person is called a Bodhicitta (Bow-dee-cheat-tuh). In our own tradition Jesus and his disciples including Paul have laid the foundation for this holy activity.

Thankfully, there are many in our present-day culture devoted to raising consciousness in the world some of the most notable being Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, Eckhart Tolle, and countless others whose names we'll never know. Of course, these people don't share their “secret” because they're seeking fame or fortune. They do it because they cannot contain the goodness and grace of God they know in their hearts.

When its cold out as it often is here in the Port of Angels I go to the “Beam Me Up” coffee stand and buy a hot latte usually once a week, and typically on sermon writing day. I now have Oreo with me three days out of the week because she needs to walk with me at noon. She's getting old and arthritis is setting in so we want to keep her moving, but there's another more important reason she's with me, and the gals at the coffee stand keep pointing it out to me.

The week before last the gal said, “And. of course, you want a dog treat for your hunny.” Well, I can't say as I often think of Oreo as my hunny, but the phrase did get my attention. Then, last week the other gal said as she brought the dog treat, “And here's the important part.” The implication being that what was important about coming to the coffee stand was the treat for Oreo, not the coffee itself.

Being the dense male that I am I had absolutely no response to either comments made by the two women. I just robotically retrieved my coffee devoid of any awareness, until later, of these relational oriented comments. What both women are saying to me, whether consciously or not, is that its not the coffee that matters but the love I'm showing for my dog.

The reason I'm sharing this little story with you is to demonstrate that there are many ways to raise consciousness. You don't necessarily have to be a Bodhicitta. These gals at the coffee stand are raising my consciousness, whether they're doing it intentionally or not is beside the point.

It's a bit different for us Christians. We are all called to share the love of God with a desperate, struggling world largely devoid of love. We are to be very intentional about it and to do so even at great sacrifice. That's why Jesus is making bearing your own cross a requirement of discipleship, and spending quality time in the void serves to increase our ability to fulfill this calling.

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 17, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Pole Preservation”

Numbers 21:4-9

The people of God narrowly escape the Egyptians grasp at the Red Sea, and after that they undoubtedly looked forward to the promise of a milk and honey land, but what they got was wilderness.

Moses initially goes out into the wilderness and ends up at Mount Sinai where he's gifted with an astonishing religious experience complete with an incombustible burning bush! God directs him back out into the wilderness and as one of the commentaries put it: “Into the jaws of the wilderness, where demons howl and messiahs are tempted, where familiar resources are taken away, and lifelessness is the only order upon which one can depend!”

They heard the promise, but it takes more than words to inspire a people. The words have to match up with a reality they can identify with, but the promise keeps disappearing with each sandstorm they encounter. In time, faith in God begins to erode and the result is anger that eventually becomes resentment.

Resentment then leads to God's judgment which comes in the form of snakes, and we're catapulted back into the Garden where Eve is taken in by the clever serpent. But in our text the serpent image is turned on its head transformed into an image of divine healing for a poisoned community, and all at God's command!

Now we're challenged by a God who uses snakes to deal with sinners. Indiana Jones hated snakes and we do too! Maybe we'd even prefer hell over snakes because then we'd only need to rely on God's good grace to deliver us, but snakes bring up all sorts of gory details.

The story evolves into one of healing offered, and the healing image used is that of a snake placed upon a pole. God hears the protests of the people who are tired of bland manna and a serious lack of water. God lends credibility to their lamenting and offers a movement from death to life where the people must look in the right direction to be healed.

Much later in Jerusalem the pole reappears and is placed high upon a hill. On this pole God has placed himself for all those who come to realize they too are wandering in a desolate wilderness. And another divine promise is made – if only the people will embrace the truth of their self-inflicted sinful isolation and accept salvation offered. We must look up to him to live...in the wilderness.

The people of God can't get out of the wilderness, but they have been given a vision of a Promised Land. We too are stuck not in a literal wilderness, but like them we've been given a vision of a promised land of sorts where God meets human needs and provides rest for weary souls. The people of God are angry and for good reason because at this point they've been wandering around thirsty and eating bland manna for forty years!

Actually, being angry is a good sign because it means there is still some life and sensibility in them. The surprising thing is they haven't all gone completely insane! We can reach a breaking point at times as well, and maybe we get angry about it. Anger is actually a sign that you care. The really scary stuff comes when you stop caring because then your devoid of love and without love you're really lost.

Sometimes we get angry because we're unwilling to face our pain and the real reasons we're hurting. That's what therapy is designed to do to help us out of denial and face our pain. Let's listen to Anglican theologian Maggie Ross to consider her point of view:

Most of the time our anger is due to an unwillingness to face the hurt we feel and the real reasons behind it. To learn to weep in order to be free of anger and know “rest” does not obviate (ob-vee-ate) self-respect and is not related to putting oneself down. On the contrary, if we are struggling to seek God single-heartedly, to learn to weep the anger out of ourselves is a matter of self-respect.

The idea of tears washing anger from us is alien to the mores of power-oriented Western society. We are conditioned to justify our anger, to find the right place to put the blame, and to always feel good about ourselves. Most of us associate anger and tears with tears that spring from anger, not tears that cleanse us from anger. But...tears of anger are themselves...a sign of choice, of potential change.

The Israelite's get mad at God and God responds by sending snakes. The text doesn't say that God sent the snakes because he was angry – it simply says he sent snakes and they bit the people and many died. Then the people suddenly become aware of their wrongdoing. The anguish and fear the snakes provoke force them to acknowledge their sin against God. Prior to this their bad-mouthing of God was oblivious to them. God wants them to wake-up, and he knows how to do it, and it comes at great cost, but it works.

And God being God doesn't acquiesce to their wishes but does provide a merciful way to deal with the situation. God provides healing for these snake-bitten sinners.

Something of a similar experience happened to me. After rolling my Volkswagen van completely over once in a field I drove it to a “girlfriends” house and parked in front. My car looked like a smashed up accordion with grass still sticking out of it. Rightfully so, she called the police and they took me to jail. I spent a night in a large cell with some pretty shady looking folks and found a quiet corner to read a Gideon's Bible.

I didn't wake-up to the sin of my addiction solely because of this anguish ridden experience in the county jail, but it moved me ahead considerably. After that, denial of my sin and where it was taking me was nearly impossible. My “girlfriend” and the police were the instruments God used to get my attention and it worked!

God provided healing for me in the form of First Christian Church in Albany and a call to ordained ministry. Now I had something more important to pursue than an alcohol addiction. God showed he cared about me and wanted to enlist me in his good cause. As the people gazed upon the serpent on top of the pole, so I gazed upon Christ raised up on another pole and found The Way to the healing of my soul, and it didn't happen overnight. It was a long-drawn-out process that continues to this day.

The reason the cross is the best way of describing The Way of healing is because at its core the cross represents death that leads to resurrection. Of course, we resist all forms of dying because its painful and scary. But that's the thing about faith since faith helps us to trust the process and with the knowledge and experience, we gain it becomes ever easier to trust.

That's why it's better to be old. We don't remember much of our youth and tend to recall the things and events that conform best to our imaginary False self's. Faith is something you gain in increments, and often after making mistakes and suffering because of them. Like trying to drive your car after you're plastered. We old folks know the drill and even when things are falling apart, we know in our heart of hearts that the light is on the way.

Here's a bit more on the subject:

The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart – disruption and chaos – invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore.

The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart. -Richard Rohr

We see this in our text for this morning, and in my story about jail and eventual redemption where God “forces the soul to go to a new place.” The Israelite's had allowed their souls to sink into perpetual lamenting and finally outright complaints against God. God hears their cries and responds not as the Good Shepherd but as an authoritative shepherd might with a rod and staff.

In ancient times the rod was a symbol of authority, and a shepherd would use his rod to keep the sheep on the right path. The psalm says it all:

I've become wiser than the wise old sages simply by doing what you tell me. I watch my step, avoiding the ditches and ruts of evil so I can spend all my time keeping your Word. I never make detours from the route you laid out; you gave me such good directions. Your words are so choice, so tasty; I prefer them to the best home cooking.

With your instruction, I understand life; that's why I hate false propaganda. By your words I can see where I'm going; they throw a beam of light on my dark path. I've committed myself and I'll never turn back from living by your righteous order.

Everything's falling apart on me, God; put me together again with your word. (Psalm 119:100-107; The Message Bible)

I like that last verse in this section of Psalm 119 because it shows that being on the righteous path doesn't mean you're not going to encounter hardship. Quite to the contrary, when we're following the path God sets before us hardship is a given. Because God's path is the path of love and love takes us to places we might otherwise avoid.

Love gives us the courage to try new things and to explore new places and to meet different people. As the Apostle tells us: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) So, in the end it's all about love.

We might feel that God's being unnecessarily harsh with his people this morning, but they did make it to the Promised Land. I certainly thought God was being tough on me sitting in that jail cell reading the Gideon's Bible, but here I am!

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 10, 2024

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

When Fools Know Best”

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

A professor that wrote one of the commentaries said that many of his students associated Corinth to places like New York and Los Angeles. They saw these cities as places where the world was happening, and Corinth was a happening city! It was located between two seaports making it a crossroads for ideas, traditions and commerce. But it was also a place filled with vice and immorality and prostitution was rampant. There was a great division between the rich and the poor, and it was a place where people made their fortunes.

The Apostle Paul had recently been in Athens speaking in the midst of the Areopagus (Air-ee-op-puh-gus). The Areopagus is a rock outcropping off to the side of the Acropolis. Karen and I had the privilege of standing in the midst of the Areopagus when we visited Greece. It was fun to imagine Paul standing there addressing the “Men of Athens” as the Book of Acts puts it. (Acts 17:22a)

Corinth is about 50 miles from Athens and if The Apostle walked it would have taken him a couple of days. By the time he arrives he's probably tired from the long trip, and he also had little success in Athens. There were a few converts, but people also laughed at him. This was partly because Paul doesn't have the eloquence and skill that was expected of Greek orators, and Christ crucified would have sounded like nonsense to the Greeks.

In spite of the difficulties mounted against him by the time he leaves for Ephesus (F-heh-sus) he manages to bring together a small band of converts. This fledgling church is a fair representative sampling of the city complete with rich and poor people, Jews and Gentiles, male and female. Now the challenge is to maintain the unity of the church in the midst of a morally degenerate culture.

Paul's worst fears come to the fore after he leaves and the letter to the Corinthians is an attempt to bring them back into line with the Gospel. It's a sort of grocery list of infractions including suing each other and refusing to eat together at the Lord's Table. Some were being haughty about their spiritual gifts, while others were giving there allegiance to Apollos a Jewish Christian teacher.

What Paul must do is bring their allegiance back to the kingdom of God in order to establish unity. He begins the task in our text, and it culminates with the famous love chapter (1 Corinthians 13).

Paul realizes that to outsiders Christ crucified sounds like nonsense, but he also knows that the wisdom revealed by God through death and resurrection stands apart on its own. He knows in his own experience the strength that comes from God in our weakness. The Lenten season offers us opportunities to explore and learn more about this Godly wisdom and heightens our awareness to the worldly seductions that surround us.

The season of Lent can reveal to us the mystery of the cross when we faithfully read the Lenten devotional and think deeply about what its describing. John Pavlovitz (Pav-low-vitz) has struggled for years with depression and he has articulated the fruits of this struggle on each page. We can benefit by paying close attention to the way he develops his ideas, and the many insights he shares. Following is a description of the mystery of the cross:

Neither the liberal pattern nor the conservative pattern can deal with disorder and misery. Paul believes that Jesus has revealed the only response that works. The revelation of the cross, he says, makes us indestructible, because it says there's a way through all absurdity and tragedy. That way is precisely through accepting and even using absurdity and tragedy as part of God's unfathomable agenda.

If we can internalize the mystery of the cross, we won't fall into cynicism, failure, bitterness, or skepticism. The cross gives us a precise and profound way through the shadow side of life and through all disappointments. -Richard Rohr

Jim Read returned home to Park Villa and more importantly his wife Celia on Wednesday of last week. He has endured quite an ordeal beginning at Olympic Medical Center and a lengthy stay at Crestwood Health and Rehab. When you visit someone in facilities such as this you really can't know the whole story. Jim told me about some very difficult situations he found himself in at both places, but through it all his faith clearly upheld him.

I know this because after I pray with him, he is always deeply and sincerely thankful for both my visit (or our visit if Karen is with me) and my prayer. There was not one visit where I sensed any cynicism, failure, bitterness or skepticism. This and other indications suggest that Jim knows something of the mystery of the cross and the way we find Godly strength in our weakness. Once again: “The cross gives us a precise and profound way through the shadow side of life and through all disappointments.”

For all of our Christian lives we have depended upon the mystery of the cross to carry us through the absurdities and tragedies, and this “training” is all the more important in the winter of our lives!

In the commentary I relied on for this sermon the author explained why the mystery of the cross was nonsense to the Greeks:

For the Hellenes (Hull-lanes) this was clearly nonsense. Since the time of Plato Greek philosophers had been wary of any certainty associated too closely with the world of change. Ultimate truth, they argued, must necessarily rise above the flux of nature. It must be immutable in its perfection. Gods did not take on human form to be crucified and resurrected, this was precisely the kind of “rubbish” that sent Paul packing in Athens.

- Donald G. Deffenbaugh

I don't know how many of you have been to Washington D.C. (show of hands?) but if you have you know that everywhere you look the buildings display Greek and Roman architecture including the White House. And without Greek philosophy the science dominated culture we live in would not be possible. Further, Gus Portokalos (Port-tow-cal-luss) in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” showed us time and again how you can trace most everything back to Greece!

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that truth took on a permanence that was not characteristic in nature. Transformation which is Change with a capitol “C” does not describe, nor can it lead to, ultimate truth as far as the Greeks were concerned. Christ crucified reveals that transformation happens when the old gives way to the new. Death and resurrection lead to the truth that God resides within us, and this is the wisdom that is foolishness to the Greeks and largely to our own culture.

In another one of Pavlovitz' devotions he wrote about the forty-first day. As illustrations he used the forty years the Israelite's wandered in the desert and Jesus' forty days in the wilderness as examples of periods of great struggle and temptation. He said one of the great lies of such experiences is when they happen to us, we think that they will never end. That there will never be a forty-first day of resolution.

But a forty-first day is exactly what the mystery of the cross assures us. When we come to know both through faith and experience that there will be an end to suffering and new life follows death. This is the wisdom of God that Paul knows so well and is trying to share with the Greeks and the rest of the Gentile world.

For further edification we might turn to the psalms to read:

God is fair and just; He corrects the misdirected, sends them in the right direction.

He gives the rejects his hand, and leads them step-by-step.

From now on every road you travel will take you to God. Follow the covenant signs; read the charted directions. (Psalm 25:8-10; The Message Bible)

What we need now is a story to bring all this home to us:

Amelia had recently left home to establish her own home in a house of considerable disrepair. She didn't mind since it was good to be out on her own free of the strife and instability of her childhood home. She grew-up having to cope with her parents dysfunctions though there was no addictions or marital neglect involved. Her parents just didn't handle their problems well, and for Amelia there were emotional consequences.

She coped with her internalized anger and anxiety with excessive eating, and was – well, let's say – wasn't height and weight proportional. For short periods of time, she was able to control her eating habits, but then she would binge and lose all the progress she'd made disciplining herself.

Now on her own without her mom's support and with few friends she began to slowly sink into a chronic depression. At first the symptoms were mild with feelings of irritability, guilt and shame. In time these feelings intensified and anxiety became more the norm than the exception. Restless nights replete with bad dreams and nightmares became increasingly difficult to deal with.

She reached the end of her rope when she started looking at people not in terms of their outward features or personality, but in imaging what they looked like without their skin. As if people were walking skeletons and this was very troubling. She went home one day and in tears told her mother about it, and her mom suggested she see a local psychologist of some notoriety in the community.

She made an appointment with Dr. Ackerman, and he kept encouraging her to work on a form of psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Therapy. Though she did read parts of the book he gave her it didn't really interest her, but something else that Dr. Ackerman was telling her about did. Dr. Ackerman was a running enthusiast who ran several miles every day.

He also told her about the importance of responsible self-care such as eating well, drinking water, and getting plenty of rest. He told her such self-care along with a daily exercise routine could help immensely to bring her out of her depression. Because Dr. Ackerman walked the talk she was duly impressed and began to wonder if she couldn't do the same.

 One day as she drove past the local YMCA Amelia decided to go in and check out the swimming pool. They had a Olympic size pool with public lap swims in the morning, evening and at noon seven days a week. She decided on the evening swim and began a routine of swimming for thirty minutes three times a week. She stopped eating hamburgers and french fries with Coca-Cola and began to eat healthier foods.

But it wasn't the exercise routine and better eating habits nor the support from her mom and therapist alone that helped her emerge from depression. She also began to develop a practice of delayed gratification by doing the opposite of what she wanted to do. For example, instead of going to McDonald's for fries and a coke she might take a walk through the park or swim a few laps at the pool.

And she brought the law of opposites into other aspects of her life as well. When she'd wake-up in the middle of the night instead of laying in bed ruminating she'd get up and do yoga or sometimes even walk around the neighborhood. She also took night classes at the community college in subjects like assertiveness training and holistic nutrition.

She found that though the law of opposites was difficult to do in the beginning that in the long run it made her feel better about herself, and about life in general. She learned that depression is not a given but can be overcome by having the audacity to try new things and by following the law of opposites.

Another way to describe the law of opposites in religious terms is death and resurrection. When we die to the egos desires we are redirected toward God's desires for us: “From now on every road you travel will take you to God. Follow the covenant signs; read the charted directions.”

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 3, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Dismayed Devotees”

Mark 8:31-38

In a word what our text is about this morning is discipleship or what it means to follow Jesus. Just prior to our text Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, but he isn't commended for this, rather he and the others are told to keep mum about it. Then Jesus informs them about his pending suffering and death. Peter totally gets this in that he comprehends the despairing difference between Jesus being killed and the Messiah coming to free them from Roman oppression.

Jesus responds to Peter with a blaring contrast between the way people do things as opposed to the way God does things, whereas Peter appears to be invested in the former.

Quickly jumping to a wider perspective we see this is the first of three predictions about Jesus' own death. The last prediction, and the most graphic, comes a couple chapters later (Mark 10:32-34), and after each prediction the disciples have trouble grasping the troubling news.

We in modern times may fall far short of appreciating the terror and sheer absurdity of his crucifixion since the cross has been largely “tamed” in our time. We see it on churches, jewelry and tattoo's which removes it far from the reality the early church experinced, and really any Christians prior to the fourth century. In the fourth century after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire the faith became a means for world domination. The Church led by Constantine could even amass armies to make sure it got its way in the world.

To bring the message of God's unconditional love home not only will Jesus be subjected to torture and death, but his followers will also be expected to pick up their own crosses! This is where that most puzzling of paradoxes enters where if one is to save their life they must first lose it for the sake of the gospel. From a literal point of view that doesn't make much sense, so what exactly does it mean?

Usually, it is understood to mean that the faithful follow Jesus by doing countless acts of compassion and other acts of service. These acts of service typically look similar to the way Jesus serves others through healing, teaching, and making food available. At a deeper level it is the giving up of the identity we've worked so hard to accomplish for our real identity in God. This is often described as entering the second half of life and is our ultimate spiritual goal.

You may have been reading in the paper about the young woman who stole the Clallam transit bus from the Sequim transit center. She actually paid the ferry fee in Bremerton, but didn't board the ferry and turned-around to resume her journey making it almost to Shelton before she was stopped by the police. Tuesdays paper said she pleaded not guilty in court, and the judge told her she can ride the bus and get on and off at bus stops, but no loitering on county property! The bus is her only means of transportation, so the judge is trying to help her be an active, responsible member of society.

The judge isn't being simply punitive but is walking that fine line between punishment and rehabilitation. Jesus does something of the same thing with his premier disciple, Peter. Jesus' response to Peter's protest is not to punish, embarrass or control his beloved disciple, rather he looks past the man to the evil intentions that are influencing him. Jesus says, “Peter, get out of my way! Satan get lost! You have no idea how God works.” (Mark 8:33b; The Message Bible)

One way to understand what Jesus is doing with Peter is he's looking right past him and addressing the Devil. At the same time Peter and the others can't help but get the message, because we too often have no idea how God works. I've been enjoying this year's Lenten devotional written by John Pavlovitz (Pav-low-vits).

In a recent devotion he talked about the way we identify with the heroic or most faithful people in the Bible rather than the liars and scoundrels. He suggested that by putting ourselves in the place of the less desirable that our notion of God would expand accordingly. Karen asked me what less desirable person in the Bible I might align with and Judas came to mind. Probably because that's who I acted like during my recovery from alcoholism constantly telling myself I'd stop drinking only to betray myself time and again.

Peter might be a more desirable person to align with though he had his dark moments especially when he denied Christ three times. His protest following Jesus' disclosure of his pending death is another negative portrayal of the chief disciple, but in the big picture he does redeem himself though heroic acts like walking on water, and in the Book of Acts he clearly matures to become a key leader in the early church.

Hopefully, we too, mature in faith as we become ever more honest and self-deprecating (deh-pruh-kay-ting) revealing our less desirable traits and ultimately letting them go – allowing them to be replaced by better attributes. As the Apostle puts it: … “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18a)

Part of this journey of self-discovery, which often involves discovering things about us we'd prefer not to know, is to see what degree we project our inner consciousness on the outside world. By that I mean our conscious selves are what we first see, and after projection this largely determines how we feel about things. One very important aspect of growing-up in spirit is to realize that we see what we're predisposed to see, and that's why it's so important to get our inside world, our hearts and minds, aligned with God. Richard Rohr can help us with this:

Here is the mistake we all make in our encounters with reality – both good and bad. We do not realize that it wasn't the person or event right in front of us that made us angry or fearful – or excited and energized. At best, that is only partly true. If we had allowed a beautiful hot air balloon in the sky to make us happy, it was because we were already predisposed to happiness. The hot air balloon just occasioned it – and almost anything else would have done the same.

How we see will largely determine what we see and whether it can give us joy or make us pull back with an emotional stingy and resistant response. Without denying an objective outer reality, what we are able to see and predisposed to see in the outer world is a mirror reflection of our own inner world and the state of consciousness at the time. Most of the time, we just do not see at all, but rather operate on cruise control.

It seems that we humans are two-way mirrors, reflecting both inner and outer worlds. We project ourselves onto outer things and these very things also reflect back to us our own unfolding identity.

Who of us hasn't noticed that when we begin the day in a bad mood the world looks ugly. We take note of the dirty dishes in the sink from yesterday and it irritates us. The cashier at the grocery store fails to smile when we make a silly joke and we take it personal. Not for a moment considering that they may be having a bad day too. This is what Rohr means by having a “predisposed consciousness.”

You're already primed for problems and are creating them from person to person. This is the source of most of our problems, bad moods and infantile attitudes. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us,” or something to that effect. By saying this I don't mean to imply that evil doesn't exist and that there aren't forces in the world dedicated to our destruction. There are such forces. What I'm saying is for the most part we're already doing a pretty good job of it, and if we're to grow-up in spirit we need to wake-up to our self-destructive tendencies.

It's time for a story:

Atochenay (A-taj-ah-nay) grew-up in a family where conflict and meanness were more the rule than the exception. Often it was her mother that would begin the arguments, but it was her father that was prone to coming home late and in a disagreeable mood. His excessive drinking with his buddies after work contributed to the problem, and her mother was as emotionally dysfunctional as her father.

Because of her troubled family environment Atochenay learned to emotionally withdraw, keeping the resulting anger she felt hidden deep inside. That proved to be the safest route, but little did she know it would all catch-up with her one day. The anger itself was fear-based because children's worst fear is that their parents will die and leave them orphaned without anyone to care for them. For the child the parents dying, or even symbolically dying through divorce, is a death sentence.

Atochenay was a survivor and as she grew into adulthood she learned ways to cope with her emotional unrest. She had a lot of help especially from one very competent therapist, but because of the latent anger she struggled with an inherent meanness. She often looked for this meanness in the world, and just as often found it. Some days it seemed to be everywhere and in everyone.

Then, one day, it all caught-up with her and she sat in her living room thinking about ways she could kill herself. Wisely, she called the therapist and told him of her intention, and he told her that he wanted to meet with her at a local Starbucks. She did so, and after the meeting he drove her home and she felt as if she were in a dream. It was hard to except that someone would care about her in one of her ugliest moments.

It proved to be a turning point in her life and she began to understand how she had taken in the fear and anger of her family home. She began to see first in the kind therapist, and later in herself, a desire to love and be loved. This desire proved to be more powerful than meanness and thoughts of self-destruction. She saw that love was greater than fear and by seeking it within herself she could be healed.

After that brief encounter with thoughts of suicide she never looked back, and kept seeking ways to enhance the love she discovered within. Now, after many years of healing when she looks out onto the world she mostly sees kindness and beauty, and realizes this has much to do with the state of her own healed consciousness.

We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. (Anais Nin)

Rev. Mitch Becker

February 25, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Starting Over”

Genesis 9:8-17

We may wonder what this particular text has to do with the Lenten season, and to understand that we must consider the bigger picture. Our text focuses on God's covenant not only with humanity but with all living creatures on the earth. This particular covenant is unusual in that God does all the “heavy lifting” in it. By that I mean there is no reciprocal conditions involved and because of this it can be understood as a divine promise.

In regard to Lent, we must consider the entire flood narrative and that means going back to chapter 3. In this chapter we first see the disruptive effect of sin, and in chapter four disruption increases with the first murder (and between siblings at that!), and in chapter 6 there is some sort of violation between heavenly and earthly beings resulting in a shattering of the two realms. Evil is running rampant and the entire cosmos is in disorder. The situation is so bad that God regrets having ever created humanity!

This regret begins with God's observation that, “every inclination of the thoughts of human hearts was only continually evil.” Yet God doesn't respond with anger or revenge but is sorrowful over the whole matter. God sends the flood as an act of grief, and because the destruction isn't total there is a re-creative nature to it. God washes the earth clean in order to start over.

God doesn't begin again from scratch but with a remnant of the earthly beings, which brings us back to the covenant. Again, God is taking full responsibility in this new relationship between God and his creatures, and is fully aware of the all-encompassing sinfulness of humanity. The flood doesn't cleanse the human heart, and God is well aware of this and enters into covenant with us anyway.

It seems that God, rather than finishing us off, is going to try some different approaches to connecting with us to find a more satisfactory relationship. The rainbow in the clouds represents a warrior hanging up his/her bow to retire from battle. What the bow means is God will no longer use destruction as a way of dealing with human evil and is not going to give-up on us.

We see the Lenten season in this text by first noticing the pervasiveness of human evil, and the desired endpoint for us is to see this evil within ourselves. The next six weeks of Lent show us how determined God is to get through to us; but also stressed is our need to be fully honest about our own sinful predicament.

Though the situation is rather grim God's grace will be made available through the suffering of his son. The Way to Salvation is hard, but through steadfast faith and persevering in our spiritual disciplines we can be brought back to our true home in God.

It is sin, and owning up to it, that we must make our primary concern in the season of Lent, but that prospect alone is a bit too gloomy. We need a positive goal or a preview of where we're headed to keep us on the path to wholeness.

In that regard, I offer you the thoughts of Sister Ilia (Ee-lee-ah) Delio (Duh-lee-oh) who describes spiritual maturity as growth in consciousness and a lifetime process of surrendering into divine love. She begins by talking about the first half of our lives where we build an identity (the False self). She characterizes this first-half as operating on lower levels of consciousness where many religious people get stuck in a law-and-order mentality.

This also involves looking for one's center on the outside rather than on the inside. When you're looking on the outside the way you understand being in relationship with God is to follow the rules and regulations of your religion. In addition to this you also recognize authority in people who are perceived as “better” or more qualified than yourself. To sum up: you're following the law established by outside authority rather than the inner law of the heart. Delio continues by saying:

What creates a breakthrough in consciousness, whereby authentic growth shifts from attention to authority outside ourselves to the inner law of the heart, is not simply growing old but, rather, it is growing inward in freedom: “If you make my Word your home,” Jesus said, “you will learn the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32) Freedom requires a breakthrough into unitive consciousness, a radical surrender and a complete letting go, trusting the spiritual impulses of life....

Life still breaks down as matter weakens and expectations fail, but the one who lives on the level of integrated consciousness lives in moments of failure or disruption with a lightness of spirit, a sense of openness to divine love, which appears like light shinning through the cracks of darkness. Suffering is where divine love radiates in hidden darkness, where God is fully human; the power of life itself in the midst of disruption. We live into our divine nature when we cling to the power of life, finding that this power within liberates us beyond the threat of death because “fear is driven out by perfect love” (1 John 4:18). Living into our divine nature is the source of our freedom and happiness.

To achieve this breakthrough into a higher level of consciousness, what she describes as a unitive consciousness, requires “a radical surrender and a complete letting go.” This is where Lent becomes crucial in spiritual development.

Because in order to “completely let go” we must first identify with the False self the source of our sinful nature. We resist this with every fiber of our being since no one wants to face their inner demons. That's what therapy is designed to do, but most people don't enter into therapy unless they're forced to do so due to life becoming in some way unbearable.

During Lent we're given repeated opportunities to engage in this process of self-discovery through the practice of the spiritual disciplines, and we all need encouragement. Sometimes a story can be helpful:

Carrie had been unemployed for two years, and though she'd been looking for work, and doing occasional interviews nothing had panned out. Then one day her husband was working when he suffered a severe heart attack and was taken to the hospital. The doctors told them it would be 3 to 4 months before her husband could return to a normal work routine. This only after cardiac rehabilitation and a considerable amount of rest.

Now finding a job was crucial since her husbands income would cease because he was a free-lance plumber. Carrie's expertise was in accounting, but there had been few opportunities in the area they lived, so she turned to the internet and began to consider employment in other parts of the country. Among several possibilities one promising position was as a staff accountant, and by God's grace she got an interview.

Unfortunately, it was located in Charlotte, NC which was around 3000 miles from their home, and Carrie had a fear of flying. She could drive to Charlotte, but she wasn't too keen on doing that alone. Her mother had recently passed and she'd been attending a grief group where she often unloaded her burdens. She told them about her fear of flying and the desperate need of a job, and in the midst of sharing she began to cry. As the tears flowed she told everyone she felt like a dirty worm, and she felt like she didn't fit in anywhere.

When she was finished the leader of the group who was also a trained psychologist got up and walked over to her. He embraced her and said, “I want to be the first to welcome both of you to the group.” She didn't know what he meant, but as the days past she began to understand that he meant both her False self and True self.

What followed in the days after were experiences of remarkable emotional and mental freedom. It was hard to explain but religious phrases she was familiar with like “I was blind but now can see” and “I feel as if I've awakened from a deep sleep” took on new meaning for her. It was as though all her life she'd carried a hundred-pound sack of potatoes on her back and now it was gone!

She began to have private sessions with the psychologist, and he acted as a spiritual guide and helped her to fully grasp what had happened to her. She came to understand she had surrendered her ego or False self and was now in relationship with her True self. She now enjoyed a consistent mental and emotional expansiveness that seemed to have no limit. She had begun the journey of what some call the second half of life.

In finding placement as an accountant her newfound freedom allowed her to fly to North Carolina, but she didn't get the job. She ended up as an accounting clerk in a paper mill in a much closer state and her husband and her now live in Port Angeles, Washington.

The biblical text tells us God wanted to start over again, hence the rainbow signifying God hanging up his bow. What God is going to do is try some new and innovative ways of connecting with us of which one way is what Carrie's story illustrates.

There is a part of God in all of us, but its buried deep and is difficult to reach. It typically takes years of preparation, study and self-discovery before one is ready to make the great leap into the mystery of Christ within. The leap itself usually happens not by decision or will, but by the grace of God.

The preparation and self-discovery requires a commitment that few are able to make because it is difficult to own our own crimes and misdemeanors. Most just point fingers and blame others and think of countless excuses for their bad behavior. The Apostle Paul tried to help out the church in Rome by sending them this instruction:

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point fingers at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in our own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn't so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you've done.

You didn't think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think because he's such a nice God, he'd let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he's not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change. (Romans 2:1-5; The Message Bible)

Rev. Mitch Becker

February 18, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

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