Sermons

Sermons

 

 

First Christian Church

“Paying Attention”

John 15:1-8

This morning we explore what it means to abide in Jesus as a branch must abide with the vine to produce fruit. This seems a particularly appropriate text for Springtime - that time of the year when branches are sprouting green leaves; and though grape vines won't produce fruit until September it is now that the vines begin to bud. Maybe you've been out in your yard tending to the vines and branches, and noticing the new growth? The author of our gospel today, John, does masterful work applying this metaphor to his church. And the spiritual principles he's using still apply to us in this modern age. In the Hebrew Bible, what we commonly refer to as the Old Testament, the vine was an image often used to talk about both divine love and divine judgment. Listen to God speaking to the nation of Israel:

Now listen to what I'm telling you, you who live in Jerusalem and Judah. What do you think is going on between me and my vineyard? Can you think of anything I could have done to my vineyard that I didn't do? When I expected good grapes, why did I get bitter grapes? Well now, let me tell you what I'll do to my vineyard: I'll tear it down, it's fence and let it go to ruin. I'll knock down the gate and let it be trampled. I'll turn it into a patch of weeds, untended, uncared for – thistles and thorns will take over. I'll give orders to the clouds: Don't rain on that vineyard, ever! (Isaiah 5:3-6; The Message Bible)

Obviously, that's an example of divine judgment. Now let us see what divine love sounds like:

At the same time, a fine vineyard will appear. There's something to sing about! I, God, tended to it. I keep it well watered. I keep careful watch over it so that no one can damage it. I'm not angry. I care. Even if it gives me thistles and thorn-bushes, I'll just pull them out and burn them up. Let that vine cling to me for safety, let it find a good and whole life with me, let it hold on for a good and whole life. The days are coming when Jacob shall put down roots, Israel blossom and grow fresh branches, and fill the world with its fruit. (Isaiah 27:2-6; The Message Bible)

In these passages God is clearly the vine-grower, and Israel is the vine that God prunes. But in our text today the vine is no longer Israel, but now is Jesus. And more specifically it is Jesus' mystical body which the branches must abide in to produce fruit. This idea of the branches (who are the members of the church community) needing to “abide” in the vine is central to the text. In fact, the word “abide” occurs nine times in these eight verses, just so you don't miss the idea! It raises the question why would John feel it necessary to drive home this idea about the need to abide in Jesus?

It suggests there was a problem he was dealing with within the community itself. Maybe it had to do with loyalty or faithfulness? I read a book in seminary that suggested in John's gospel he was trying to convince newly converted Christians to not return to Judaism. As if there was a Jewish synagogue right across the street from his church tempting them. Not only is John driving the notion of abiding in Jesus home, but he's also warning them, with strong language, of the dismal things that can happen if one doesn't abide. Branches that don't abide in the vine get cut off and thrown away and burned!

By the same token, even those branches that do produce will be pruned, so they can be even more fruitful! It's expressed like this: “But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home with you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.” (John 15:7; The Message Bible) Though pruning is usually difficult and painful one thing you can look forward to is getting whatever you ask for!

There are a couple things John wants us to see in this text. The first is to accomplish anything of worth the church must abide in Jesus. This means an attachment to the gospel, Jesus' message to the faithful. We're to take the gospel very seriously, and to try to live it out each day. Not only to do this as individuals who are studying, interpreting, and putting Jesus' ideas into action; but to also do this as a community. The church needs to collectively be trying to understand what Jesus is saying, and find ways to make the teachings real in the church community itself, and the surrounding community with its needs. When the church forgets this the result is it becomes a self-focused institution interested solely in its own self-preservation.

The church also needs to abide in Jesus as part of the mystical body of Christ. Something helpful here is to picture a large tree, perhaps an old Oak with a extensive system of branches and leaves. The solid trunk of the tree is the mystical body of Christ, and the branches come off the trunk creating an magnificent array of branches and leaves. If a branch breaks off and falls to the ground the leaves will soon die, and eventually the branch will decay. Its only when the branch stays connected to the strong trunk of the three that it can produce green leaves.

The same holds true for each of us, and the church as a whole. If we are separated from the spiritual nurture of the mystical Christ then we will soon lose our way in this world of temptation and spiritual immaturity. We stay connected to the strong trunk primarily through prayer. Both intercessory and quiet prayer. But there are also a host of other ways to stay grounded in Christ. You can take long walks in the forest, or practice Tai Chi or Yoga, massage can be a form of meditation, dance puts you back in touch with your body, and music is sometimes called the language of the soul. Staying connected always means to be intentional about it. If we let ourselves go we'll simply drift off into the wilderness where God can be hard to find.

Something else about the tree trunk and its branches is that the branches are nearly indistinguishable from each other. It is very difficult to tell where one branch stops and another begins. They all run together as they sprout forth from the trunk. In this sense there is an absence of hierarchy, and so it is for the church. The branches all belong to the same trunk, and there is no status. Everyone is equal, and all are responsible for producing fruit. All Jesus asks of us is to love each other, but sometimes we lose sight of that in our highly structured church.

One thing I do as pastor to counter the tendency to favor structure and hierarchy is invite members of the congregation to participate in worship. I also try to work closely with the elders rather than just trying to run the show myself. If we are each responsible for producing fruit, than by the same token we each have been given gifts to contribute to the whole. One of my primary tasks as pastor is to help people identify their gifts and bring them forth to serve God. Thank you everyone who has been willing to participate in worship.

In regards to being pruned to produce fruit what exactly would this fruit look like for a community of faith? Would it mean renewal for a dying congregation? Would it mean reconciliation for a congregation in conflict? Could it mean beginning new missions to the poor, hungry, and imprisoned in the community? It could mean any one, or all of these things, but the real question is what does producing fruit mean for First Christian Church of Port Angeles? As I've already stated on the website I have no particular vision for our church, and I have a problem with visions anyway because they can so easily become idols. My approach is to live each day, and each moment, trusting the Holy Spirit is leading us. The challenge left is for us to pay attention to that Spirit.

Paying attention has historically been difficult for the Church. One reason for this is we have tended to misinterpret the scriptures because we don't understand the language, or we project our own needs into them, or we attempt to interpret them through our own limited bias. We see ourselves in the scriptures rather than the messages God wants us to see, and this is an ongoing problem that we have to keep working at. God wants to prune us of our preconceived notions, but this can only happen if we cooperate. Pruning is difficult and often painful, but its the only way to produce fruit. Richard Rohr recently spoke to the problem when he made comments about prophetic and apocalyptic (a-pock-ah-lip-tic) literature in the Bible:

Lets further distinguish the character of apocalyptic literature from prophetic literature in the Bible. Since the Western mind is literal and analytic, it usually misunderstood both types of literature. We viewed apocalypse as threatening and prophecy as foretelling, and our understanding of both missed the point. Prophecy came to mean predicting things and apocalypse came to mean the final destruction of things – both in the future. We projected everything forward, instead of realizing these writings were, first of all, present descriptions of reality right now. We did the same thing with heaven and hell. In terms of the actual Bible message of transformation and enlightenment, this approach is largely useless, In my opinion, and often harmful. They just reinforce our reward/punishment story line which keeps us at an immature level of development.

Through apocalyptic literature, the Scripture writers were finding a language and a set of metaphors that would stir the power of the imagination and shake the unconscious. The Book of Revelation was written almost entirely in the apocalyptic style, with symbols of good and evil such as the Heavenly Woman, the Lamb of God, the Mighty Warrior, and the Red Dragon. The genre (zhann-ruh) we are familiar with that comes closest to what Revelation does is science fiction. The well known Bible translator Eugene Peterson understood the symbolic power of the Book of Revelation:

Peterson writes: I read John's Revelation not to get more information but to revive my imagination. The imagination is our way into the divine Imagination, permitting us to see wholly – as whole and holy – what we perceived as scattered, as order what we perceive as random. John uses words the way poets do, recombining them in fresh ways so that old truth is freshly perceived. He takes truth that has been eroded to platitude by careless usage and sets it in motion before us in an animated and impassioned dance of ideas. Familiarity dulls my perceptions. Hurry scatters my attention. Ambition fogs my intelligence. Selfishness restricts my range. Anxiety robs me of appetite. Envy distracts me from what is good and blessed right before me. And then...John's apocalyptic vision brings me to my senses, body and soul.

Rohr again: To change peoples consciousness, we have to find a way to reach their unconscious. That's where our hearts and our real agendas lie, where our mother wounds, father wounds, and cultural wounds reside. The unconscious is where it lies stored, and this determines a great deal of what we pay attention to and what we ignore. While it took modern therapy and psychology for us to realize how true this was, through apocalyptic literature, the Scripture writers were already there. We can't get to the unconscious logically, literally, or mechanically. We have to fall into it, I'm sorry to say, and usually by suffering, paradox, and the effective use of symbols. Until our certitudes and our own little self-written success stories begin to fall apart, we usually won't touch upon any form of deeper wisdom.

I did a worship service with communion last week up at Laurel Place Assisted Living Community. This was upon Jerrie's invitation, and I made arrangements with the activity director there. I'll be doing a worship service there on a quarterly basis. So my next visit will come in July. We sat around a table in a room off the cafeteria, and there were about 12 of us (Yes, like Jesus and the disciples) and I did a modification of what we do on Sunday morning. We sang hymns, shared God sightings, and I preached. But when I came to the part of the sermon about transformation featuring some comments by Richard Rohr – I just skipped that. I don't think transformation is going to mean much to the folks at Laurel Place.

When we prayed the Lord's prayer together I suddenly I realized I was in church with other believers. We were all there together because Jesus Christ means something to each of us. The specific details vary from person to person, but collectively Christ matters to us. And when we prayed the Lord's Prayer we became one in the Spirit, bound together within the mystical Christ. It was a time of intimacy, vulnerability, and great power. It is the sort of thing that heals people at a soul level, and when your healed at that level the rest follows.

 The Lord has called me to Laurel Place to minister to the faithful, but I'm not going to preach transformation to them. They are at the end of their lives, and I'm going to help them in their ongoing relationship with God. You, on the other hand, are going to hear about transformation, because there is the hope that we are resurrecting. At this point you might say, “Well pastor I thought you didn't have a vision for this church?” And my response would be that I'm not talking about a vision here, I'm describing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Like Rohr said, “Until our certitudes and our own little success stories begin to fall apart, we won't touch upon any form of deeper wisdom.” How do you see your church, and where do you see it a year from now? Where do you see it three years from now? Is the way you're envisioning the church holding it back from moving ahead? This is not Laurel Place. This is First Christian Church of Port Angeles, and God has not abandoned us. The Holy Spirit is among us, as it is at Laurel Place, but I believe God has a different agenda for us. Father Rohr said, “To change peoples consciousness, we have to find a way to reach their unconscious. That's where our hearts and our real agendas lie, where our mother wounds, father wounds, and cultural wounds reside. The unconscious is where it all lies stored, and this determines a great deal of what we pay attention to and what we ignore.”

Rev. Mitch Becker

May 2, 2021

Port Angeles

  

First Christian Church

“Star-struck”

Mark 11:1-11

The Israelite's have been waiting a long time for a king to come and rid them of oppressive regimes, and put their world in order. The people lining the road leading into Jerusalem have decided that he has finally arrived in Jesus. For them this is Jesus' triumphal entry into the holy city, as well as for the disciples who already know he's is the Messiah. At this point we can characterize them as “star-struck” as they anticipate a future of greatness and glory with their master. Though Jesus hasn't revealed his messianic calling to the public in general, having told his disciples to keep this information to themselves, he has engaged in countless demonstrations of healing, and other miraculous acts all in the name of the kingdom of God. So when the crowd sees him they have messianic notions in mind.

We shouldn't be surprised by the time Jesus arrives at the gates of Jerusalem that many people see him as the long awaited Messiah, and this depiction of Jesus also brings with it a strong suggestion of royalty. Those looking on welcome him with the more common greeting of, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But there is also the more royal/Davidic greeting found at the end of our text, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Added to this they're throwing their coats and palm branches out before him suggesting the coronation of a king.

As we look back from the vantage point of 2000 years later we can see the great irony in all of this celebration. Because the end point is not exaltation as the king of Israel, but rather a shameful execution upon a Roman cross. Of course, Jesus has been telling his disciples all along of this fateful ending, and he even tells them it will all occur in Jerusalem. At this point we need to be careful about how we interpret what is happening, because its not Jesus' mission to die, but rather to bring healing and wholeness to humanity.

Jesus knows full well, at this point, that the way he has conducted his ministry has ruffled the feathers of those in power. And it is not death that continues to push him forward in his mission, but rather a love that knows no bounds, and this love tells him that avoiding death is not an option for the Messiah. All Jesus can do is push ahead full throttle, because in his heart he knows this love will overcome death. Though his star-struck disciples could see none of this, we know, from our vantage point, this is not a normal power-wielding, army-raising king. This is something quite different, and unprecedented in human history.

They are expecting a king not afraid to use military means to clean-up the country, but Jesus is using symbolic means to change their point of view. He rides in on a donkey, which echos the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) In doing this Jesus is attempting to climb a mountain, because this notion of the Messiah as a king, and military leader, is prevalent throughout Israel. It is deeply ingrained within the hearts and minds of the people, including his disciples.

Imagine for a moment how deeply ingrained in you are the notions of a people living within a democratic society. We have been taught and trained to value our individual freedoms as citizen of the United States. Since we were small infants these notions of individual freedom for all have become deeply ingrained in each of us.

Now think of the people in Israel at the time of Jesus, and how deeply ingrained are these ideas about a Messiah who will come to save them from foreign oppression, and put their world into working order. To make this comparison is to begin to understand what Jesus is up against, and even to this day we still have to work at grasping a Messiah who values both peace of mind and soul, and peace throughout the land. A king who demonstrates a lifestyle of non-violence, and turning the other cheek when faced with conflict.

Its sad, but even after all this time the mountain to climb still remains, and the whole notion of non-violence seems a difficult pill for society as a whole to swallow. Yet, we have to carry-on and continue this journey Jesus began so long ago, because there is no other hope for humanity. If we don't let go of our violent ways they will bring to an end everything we know and love. He said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) To be meek means to be quiet and gentle, and even submissive, but we can't do this without God. We have to submit to a whole other way of being. Its the only way to arrive at a genuine meekness.

Another way of saying it is as Father Rohr puts it:

Quite simply, both Francis and Therese recognized that you come to God not by being strong, but by being weak; not by being right, but through your mistakes; not by self-admiration but by self-forgetfulness. Surprise of surprises! But it shouldn't have been a surprise at all, because both Jesus and Paul taught it rather clearly. Yet it was just too obvious, simple, and counter-intuitive to be true. This teaching utterly levels the playing field of holiness, so all losers can win – which is everybody – if we're honest. This is pure Gospel, in my opinion, and worthy of being called “good news for all people.”

In the Palm Sunday story we see a depiction of Jesus as king/Messiah, and its clear that the gospel writer wants us to see Jesus as a king, but this is only to help us re-imagine “king” in terms of Jesus' mission. Today Jesus enters the holy city in glory and praise as the anointed one they've been waiting for, but its going to end in mockery: “Then they began their mockery: “Bravo, King of the Jews!” They banged on his head with a club, spit on him, and knelt down in mock worship.” (Mark 15:18-19; The Message Bible) Between these royal moments the gospel writer tells us of Jesus' mission, which is not to divide and conquer, but rather to heal us of our brokenness. To bring humanity the wholeness Christ's shows us in his life and ministry.

But there is a risk the gospel writer takes in emphasizing Jesus' kingship, and that is at the same time he may be promoting the imperialism he wants to subvert. For example, think of the irony involved when Jesus tells his disciples to go and fetch a donkey. He doesn't ask them, or drops a hint, or anything like that, he tells them to go do it. If anyone is to question them about it they're to say, “The Master wants it.” And just to bring the point home the word “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin term meaning “commandment.” When we celebrate Maundy Thursday this week we're remembering Jesus' command to his disciples to love one another.

The irony can't be missed in that the donkey is practically commandeered by Jesus, acting as if he has the authority of a king, when all along the symbolism of the donkey is humility. The same could be said about the Maundy in Maundy Thursday. The command is to love, in the same way a king might command his subjects, but the overall intent is to promote love. But love is independent of commands, in the same way authority is independent of humility. By using imperialism as the context for describing Jesus' mission the gospel writer risks that we may accept, at an unconscious level, imperialism.

Something that's helpful in keeping us on the track of humility and love is to remember the image of the children with Jesus. One day the disciples felt children were becoming a distraction, and Jesus turned to them and told them that they actually had to become like children to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:16) We all have a child within us, and our spiritual health depends upon to what extent we stay in touch with that child. Laughter, dance, playing games all keep us in relationship with the child within. On some mornings I dance with Groucho in my arms typically to rock music. I'm not sure how much Groucho gets out of it, but I sure enjoy it!

If you need a laugh there are a lot of funny movies on TV. Karen and I sometimes watch comedies on Netflix, of which some are very funny, and as Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” A vacation from, among other things, our imperialistic practices where we imagine ourselves to be king or queen.

To say a bit more about children - they know how to stay in touch with wonder, and can be amazed at the simplest of things such as this story depicts:

This is told by a father who describes once walking with his three year old daughter, and they were walking to the car, holding hands. And as they walked across the patio, and down some steps out into the yard his daughter suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. It frighted him because she did this with a sudden gasp, and he thought she'd stepped on something dangerous. To his surprise she simply pointed down and exclaimed she had found something that looked just like the cross Jesus had died on. And, in fact, on the ground lay two pieces of tree branch that were in the very shape of a cross.

Well, this was just amazing to her that they would come across something so important, and she had to run and get her mother and two sisters, while Dad stayed behind and guarded the cross, so nothing would disturb it. Of course, it was nothing but two sticks that had randomly found each other, but to his daughter it was an amazing find!

In a world of over-seriousness, we need to deliberately take time to nurture our inner child, because its all too easy to neglect children. Something that helps us to stay in touch with that much neglected inner child is to intentionally move ourselves out of our comfort zone. Even dancing with Groucho takes a little effort on my part. There is a brief moment of hesitation wondering if I might be seen, and what would people think? We have a lot of windows in our house.

Trying anything new moves us out of our comfort zone. For example, I'm not prone to making jokes with the other ministers at our weekly Zoom meetings. But recently one of the ministers drew an analogy about church being like a restaurant, and while people were talking I typed a comment into the chat room. As he described what he meant I typed in that I thought Colin said, “Church is like a restroom.” Which immediately got a big laugh from everyone. But I knew as I was typing the message that I was taking a risk, because they might not find it funny. I might end up looking silly, but you have to take that risk. Or as Frank Sinatra said, “Dare to wear the foolish clown face.”

A week ago Karen and I moved out of our comfort zone by buying a new car, something Karen had been suggesting we do for some time. And this new car is really different from anything we've previously owned, because this is a Toyota RAV-4, which is more like a truck than a car. And now days such vehicles are like a computer with wheels with radar, mysterious buttons to push, and a viewing screen on the dash that will read your email to you. I'll need to carefully go through the instruction manual. Its a big change that will rearrange my worldview, and call assumptions into question, and will require my full attention to reach some level of comfort when driving it.

These are some examples of how we can move out of our comfort zones, and though I always resist change, and especially big changes; and because Karen has kept up the pressure to make changes throughout the years, I've come to learn there value. The newness results in new ways of thinking about things, and relationships, and my ministry with God. That brings a freshness to my life, and helps to keep me in touch with my inner child. I don't know about you, but though I'm 68 years old I don't feel that old, and I hope I never do.

As we read through the Gospel of Jesus Christ its almost as if he didn't have a comfort zone to move out of, because he was always on the move. He was an itinerant preacher covering Galilee and the surrounding area. Now he is in Jerusalem, the only time he visits the holy city in the Gospel of Mark. And he is on his way to face the cross, but at the same time he believes that love will carry him all the way to the Father. Yet, in the Garden of Gethsemane we know he came up against great fears and doubt about what he was doing.

Its hard for us to imagine the sheer terror he felt that night in the garden, and had probably been dealing with, at some level, throughout his ministry. Something that can help us relate to what is happening to him (and this is important if we're to authentically reenact the last week of his life) is to recall a time in our life that we were really afraid of something we had to do.

For me this is an easy exercise because the most frightening thing I've ever faced was the anticipation of surgery on my kidney to remove a cancerous tumor. I've told you this story before, but some stories are so rich, and descriptive, that they need to be used more than once. So, after the tumor was discovered, and surgery was without a doubt necessary, I experienced a prolonged struggle with fear. There was nothing I could do to transcend the terror I felt about surgery and cancer, and the possibility of losing my life.

I tried centering prayer and journal work, both of which typically help me overcome most mental and emotional challenges, but they were rendered ineffective. There was only one thing which took me beneath the fear, and that was to lay with Karen and hold on to her. And by that I mean in bed where the warmth of her body somehow allowed me to escape the confines of my own self-made prison of fear. This experience had a lasting effect, and returned me to a place of sanity where I could function again, at least for awhile.

Jesus surely feels this level of fear as he looks ahead to the humiliation, pain, and terror of the cross. The people lining the road to Jerusalem are clueless to all of this, and are rejoicing in the Messiah that has come to save them. He came to save all of us, and 2000 years later most of us are still pretty clueless as to how to reach this kind of love that can carry one to Golgotha, and beyond. Holy Week is designed not to entertain, but to instruct and enlighten.

I hope you plan to use the Good Friday resource sheet I handed out, and if you don't have one there is one in the entryway. Walk with Jesus as far as you can, and when you can't go any further ask for help to continue the journey through the darkness to the light of Christ beyond.

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 28, 2021

Port Angeles

(Palm Sunday)

 

 

First Christian Church

“The One Thing That Matters”

The Twenty-Third Psalm

Golfing involves the use of several different types of clubs. There is the driver that you use to tee off, and hopefully the ball travels a long ways down the fairway. You get closer to the green by using a fairway wood, or one of your irons like a four or five iron. When you get really close to the green you may use a nine iron, or perhaps your pitching wedge. And when you're finally on the green itself you use the most important golf club of all...the putter, because 50% of any golf game is about putting.

Now what does this all have to do with the Twenty-Third Psalm? In the game of golf the best players know how to use the putter. Just like the best chef's know how to use a chef's knife, and for the Christian the essential tool is Psalm 23. Of course, you can be a good Christian without ever using Psalm 23, but who would want to try? Personally, I have it memorized and often recite it when trouble arises, or if I simply want to change the direction of my thinking. I start to recite the psalm and soon I'm a little closer to God. My thinking follows, and becomes more positive, more holistic and healthy.

Those of us who've been around for awhile know that things often go wrong. Trouble arises, in various degrees of seriousness, throughout most everyday. Sometimes its like stubbing your toe, or getting a hangnail. Sometimes its more like heartburn and we need to take an antacid. Sometimes its more serious, and we may need to reach out for help from family, friends, or professional help like a doctor or therapist. And sometimes its as if the bridge gets totally washed-out, and then we turn to God. The wonderful thing about Psalm 23 is it is so versatile. It can be applied to any circumstance, minor or major.

You've heard me read the psalm from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, but lets listen to it from The Message, which will give us a different take on this very familiar Bible text:

God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I'm not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherds crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I'm back home in the house of God for the rest of my life. (Psalm 23; The Message)

In this version of the psalm Death Valley is in capital letters meaning its a reference to the place itself. The State highway that runs from LA to Reno, Highway 395, goes right past the turn-off to Death Valley. Karen and I have passed through this intersection many times, but we never took the road that leads into Death Valley, though I've always been curious about it. The pictures of Death Valley show a dry and barren wasteland, though there is a resort there now if you want a vacation off the beaten path.

Maybe you've been through “Death Valley” a few times in your life? I've been spared the experience so far, with one exception. That's when my mother called me in the middle of the night to tell me my brother had killed himself. I was in my first pastorate as the senior pastor in Red Bluff, CA and I went directly to the church. And in the quiet of the sanctuary I cried out to God asking God to forgive my brother for what he had done. I see now that I was beginning to search for a way to forgive him myself.

To forgive him for leaving all of us in such a harsh and painful way.

The psalm as Peterson interprets it tells us much about the way God cares for us. It begins by suggesting when God is in your life you don't need anything else. It brings to mind the passage in the gospel where Jesus tells Martha that Mary has found the one thing needed in life. This is said while Mary is at Jesus' feet listening to him speak, and Martha is upset because all the work in preparing dinner is being done by her. Jesus tells her: “There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42) I take this to mean the only thing we need to be concerned about is the gospel, and where it leads, which is namely the kingdom of God.

The first verse of our psalm The Message interprets as: “God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.” Now that's a really profound statement to make. How could anyone ever reach a state of being where they had no needs to be met? And yet, this is exactly the claim Jesus is making when he responds to Martha. He's saying if you can acquire this one essential thing then you're taken care of. Here's the entire context it comes in:

As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don't you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend a hand.” The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you're fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it's the main course, and won't be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42; The Message)

“God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.” When God meets all your needs you're in heaven on earth. You now live with a kind of contentment that is not easily influenced by outside events, because the source of contentment comes from within. From the kingdom of God within you. Another way of talking about this is to describe it in terms of perception -- as a way of seeing things properly. As a way of seeing things with a kind of singularity. Richard Rohr describes it like this:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8) This may be the most important of all the Beatitudes – from the perspective of wisdom it certainly is. But what is purity of heart? This is another of those concepts we have distorted in our very mortality-oriented Christianity of the West. For most people, purity of heart would almost certainly mean being virtuous, particularly in the sexual arena.

It would be roughly synonymous with chastity, perhaps even with celibacy. But in wisdom teaching, purity means singleness, and the proper translation of this Beatitude is, really, “Blessed are those whose heart is not divided.” or “whose heart is a unified whole.” Jesus emerged from his baptism as the ihidaya (eh-hi-die-ah), meaning the “single one” in Aramaic – one who has unified his or her being and become what we would now days call “enlightened.”

According to Jesus, this enlightenment takes place primarily in the heart. When your heart becomes “single” – that is, when it desire one thing only, when it can live in perfect alignment with that resonant field of mutual yearning we called “the righteousness of God,” then you “see God.” This does not mean that you see God as an object (for that would be an egoic operating system), but rather, you see through the eyes of non-duality: God is seeing itself.

So this Beatitude is not about sexual abstinence; it's about cleansing the lens of perception. It is worth noting that Jesus flags this particular transformation as the core practice of the path. Somehow when the heart becomes single (undivided, whole), the rest will follow.

Something Rohr doesn't point out is that in the Bible the heart refers not to the organ that pumps blood (though at times it may be talking about the actual organ), or the center of feeling that's given recognition on Valentine's Day, but rather it is the core of our being which controls everything including our sight, thought, feelings, and will. That's why if the heart is transformed “the rest will follow.”

So, we can think of it like this: the one thing that we need is a transformation of the heart, or the core of our being. The transformation occurs when we commit ourselves to following the path Jesus is describing to Mary. Of course, this will be different for everyone, because some people invest a lot in terms of prayer, and study, and acts of compassion. While others may be ambiguous or apathetic in their practice of faith, and still others may be struggling with things like addiction, and other self-centered behaviors. The speed the transformation takes place depends primarily on grace, but it also depends upon the decisions we make that help the process along. We can impede the process, or accelerate it, or we can stop it altogether.

The Good Shepherd is going to do all he can to help us move along the path by taking us to green pastures to find spiritual nourishment; and still waters to refresh our souls. But some things always depend on us.

There is a story told of a young woman, a girl really, who was baptized. When she came up out of the water the minister said, “Now you have been raised with Christ, you have died and now you have been raised with Christ. Set your mind on things that are above.” She said as she walked home with her wet clothes wrapped in a wet towel under her arm – she thought about those words, and what they might mean. What do you look like after you've been raised from the dead? Do you sound the same, talk the same, do the same things you did before?

She said she went to school thinking, “Is anybody going to know I've been raised?” She wondered if she should dress-up a little better than she had been before she was raised? She thought other things as well like should she talk in a different manner? Maybe she should throw in a Bible verse here or there. And what about when she went to cheerleaders practice? Are they going to say, “Well, looks like she's been raised from the dead.” She wondered about all these things, about how she should talk, walk, and how she should relate to others now she had been raised from the dead.

 The questions she's asking probably strike us as rather naive and funny, because she's taking the minister too literally. Of course, she doesn't look any different from the outside, but that's not really what's changing. She's not yet mature enough to look within where the real changes are taking place. When we find that singleness of heart the “rest will follow.” The behaviors we express in the world will conform to the new found wholeness that is happening within.

I want to begin to close this sermon with something that's been on my mind of late, and this notion of Death Valley brought it to my attention again. I'm thinking about the way the world is passing through the barren wasteland of Death Valley during this time of COVID. Right now in the U.S. there have been around 569,000 deaths attributed to the COVID virus. In the U.K. The number is 185,000, and in Brazil its 381,000 people have died. In the world as a whole the number comes in at 3.01 million people. A number too big to comprehend, and these numbers don't represent the countless numbers of people suffering from the effects of the illness. People who've been sick and gotten well, and people who can't shake the virus and its effects.

These people and their loved ones continue to cope with challenges and heartbreak; and the grief involved by the people left behind after their loved ones have died is unimaginable. Has the world as a whole ever known this degree of suffering? If there was ever a time we were walking through Death Valley it is now. So why aren't people standing in line on Sunday morning waiting to get into church? Since we're at the end of the sermon I can't even begin to address that question, but in my heart I know God can help these people. And the Twenty-Third psalm is one of those Bible texts most people are familiar with, at least certain verses of it.

For this reason its a good text to have memorized, because you never know when you might be called upon, by God, to recite it. The first time I ever recited this psalm from memory in public was during my first experience giving someone last rites. Just a brief description of last rites is its a cleansing of one's soul before you pass on to eternity. Its primarily a Catholic practice, but we Protestant ministers are sometimes called upon to implement it.

I was in my first year as an associate minister in Bakersfield when someone called the church asking for a pastor to administer last rites. This came as a complete surprise to me, because there are many things they don't prepare you for in seminary, and this is definitely one of them. So I asked the retired minister in the congregation advice about how to proceed, and he said just place your hand on their forehead and recite the Twenty-Third psalm. Fortunately I had it memorized, though I could read it straight out of the Bible, but reciting from memory would be more effective.

I walked into the hospital, and went to the bedside of the dying man. Only his wife was there, and she was very, very happy to see me. Sometimes in this role as a minister of the gospel you can be given a great deal of power by people, and this was one such case. I was bigger than life to her, and I was there for her, as much as for the dying man. I placed my hand on his forehead and recited the psalm without a hitch because the Spirit of God was flowing through me; and it was helpful, and it was healing.

If this world can open its heart to the helpful, healing words of the Bible we can come out of this pandemic better people, and closer to God than we were before it began. That is my hope.

Rev. Mitch Becker

April 25, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Road Trips

Luke 24:13-35

The gospel writer Luke is fond of road stories. His gospel begins with the story of Joseph and Mary on a journey to Bethlehem. The Good Samaritan finds his adventures on a road. It is a road that takes the prodigal son back to his father. And a good portion of the gospel is taken up with Jesus' road trip to Jerusalem. Luke continues in the Book of Acts with the well-known story of the Apostle Paul being blinded in his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. The parable today is no exception, and is most commonly called the Road to Emmaus.

There is something about roads that capture the gospel writers imagination, and we can stop for a moment and think about what roads evoke in us. For one thing they bring us together. We all came to church today beginning on different roads, and ended up following the same roads. On the other hand roads also pose a danger to us, because accidents happen, and sometimes there quite serious. In the Bible roads often represent, in one way or another, faith on the move. And though these stories often hold our interest this story today is especially provocative because of the way the gospel writer includes so many different elements in the story.

In the Road to Emmaus we find table fellowship, hospitality, faithfulness, discipleship, and more. All in all what the gospel writer is doing is telling us what Christ's church of the future is going to look like, and this image is really quite simple. Christ's church will be a church on the move, and Jesus will walk beside it every step of the way, even when the faithful don't think he's there...he is. Lets take a closer look at the narrative.

The “same day” refers to the day the women discover the empty tomb, so we know its the third day following Christ's crucifixion, and these two disciples are on their way to this little village called Emmaus. It's about 7 miles outside of Jerusalem, and like faithful, concerned disciples they're talking about all the recent events concerning Jesus' death. Into the midst of this intense conversation Jesus walks up to them, but they don't recognize him. Jesus wants to know what they're talking about, and their response is kind of curt. Cleopas says, “Are you the only one that hasn't heard what's happened in Jerusalem?” Jesus, seemingly unfazed by this somewhat rude response says, “What's happened?” They tell him about Jesus being betrayed, and killed, and how they were hoping he was the long awaited Messiah.

What is hard to grasp here is the intensity and depth of their disappointment. This is always difficult with narratives, so what's helpful is for us to imagine a time when we were sorely disappointed about something. Here the pandemic becomes useful because it has resulted in many disappointments. Take the 2020 holiday season for example. Margaret told me that her and Harvey often host a Thanksgiving meal and invite people from the church. She told me Karen and I would have been invited to attend, and what a wonderful way that would have been to start getting acquainted with the parish. But with COVID it just wasn't possible. What a disappointment, and an opportunity missed. Can you think of a recent disappointing event? (I'll give you a few moments)

Hopefully now you're in touch with how these two disciples are feeling, and not only are they disappointed, but confused as well. Their confusion is attributed to the stories they've heard about the empty tomb, and angels who claimed Jesus is still alive. And next comes one of those perplexing responses from Jesus where he seems so annoyed, as he does at times with the chosen twelve, and he calls Cleopas and his friend “thick-headed and slow heart-ed!”

He appeals to the scriptures pleading with them to consider what they say, and then he begins to recite passages from the Book of Moses and the prophets. With this scriptural recital he describes the coming of the Messiah, and in the events of recent days he's making the claim that the Messiah has arrived in him. This brings them to the very edge of the village Emmaus where Jesus acts as if he's not stopping, but moving on somewhere. The disciples attempt to convince him that he should stay, because its late in the day, and they're going to have supper. Well, we know Jesus is not one to miss a good meal, so he joins them. And like good Jews the meal begins with bread, and Jesus does a very Jesus kind of thing when he blesses, and breaks, and offers the bread to them. Then it happens! They recognize him, at which point he disappears into thin air.

Once again we need to imagine a time when we were passionately surprised and excited about something. Maybe it was when you first learned you'd be able to see your grandchildren again? Or perhaps you're going to take a trip to some far-away place you've always wanted to go? Maybe you're excited about the possibility of being a church again with potlucks and Sunday School? (Take a few moments to ponder something you're passionately excited about?)

Now maybe you can begin to get in touch with how these two disciples are feeling? The narrative describes them as feeling on fire as he spoke to them, and opened the scriptures for them. They return to Jerusalem to tell the chosen disciples about Jesus being raised, and about recognizing him when he broke the bread; and they fill them in on everything that had happened on the road to Emmaus.

Lets go ahead and look at this story from a couple different directions. To begin with it can be looked at through the eyes of friendship. When they first encounter Jesus on the road they don't have a clue as to who he is. He's a complete stranger, but they engage him in conversation anyway, even though its Jesus who first presents a question. He wants to know what they're talking about, and they go into some detail with him about the crucifixion and the tomb. And even though Jesus is irritated by their ignorance, he follows up by unpacking the scriptures, which they finally appreciate. But all along the way, until they invite him to supper, he's a stranger.

You may or may not invite a stranger to supper, but you certainly would a friend, and friendship seems to be the ultimate outcome. The revelation happens within the context of friendship around the breaking of bread, and up until that point they have no idea they're with Jesus. Somehow the comfort and trust that comes with friendship facilitates the revelation that they are supping with the risen Christ. When we extend ourselves in friendship we're also extending an invitation for God to join us. Here's a story from Brian MacLaren:

Christian mission begins with friendship – not utilitarian friendship the religious version of network marketing – but genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general to knowing, appreciating, liking and enjoying this or that neighbor in particular....

Many new friends have come into my life...Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers and others...including lots of atheists and agnostics, too. One of the most dramatic of those friendships began in the aftermath of 9/11/2001. Like a lot of churches, our little congregation held a prayer service. While praying I felt a voice speaking, as it were, in my chest: “Your Muslim neighbors are in danger of reprisals. You must try to protect them.” The next morning, I wrote and made copies of a letter extending, belatedly, friendship toward Muslim communities in my area, and offering solidarity and help if simmering anti-Muslim sentiments should be translated into action. I drove to three nearby mosques – I had never visited them before – and tried to deliver my letter in person....

At the third mosque, I clumsily introduced myself to the iman as the pastor from down the street...I then handed him my letter, which he opened and read as I stood there awkwardly. I remember the iman, a man short in stature, slowly looking down at the letter in the bright September sun, then up to my face, then down, then up, and each time he looked up, his eyes were more moist. Suddenly, he threw his arms around me – a perfect stranger....I still remember the feeling of his head pressed against my chest, squeezing me as if I were his long-lost brother....My host welcomed me not with hostility or even suspicion, but with the open heart of a friend. And so that day a friendship began between an Evangelical pastor named Brian and a Muslim iman we'll call Ahmad....

It's one thing to say you love humanity in general, whatever their religion; it's quite another to learn to love this or that specific neighbor with his or her specific religion. So, do you have a Sikh neighbor, a Hindu coworker, a Muslim business associate, a Buddhist member of your PTA, a New Age second cousin? Invite them into companionship over a cup of tea or coffee. Ask them questions. Display unexpected interest in them, their traditions, their beliefs, and their stories. Learn why they left what they left, why they stay where they stay, why they love what they love. Enter their world, and welcome them into your world, without judgment. If they reciprocate, welcome their reciprocation; if not, welcome their non-reciprocation. Experience conviviality (con-viv-vee-ality -- the quality of being friendly). Join the conspiracy of plotting for the common good together.

Brian opens his story telling us that “Christian mission begins with friendship.” So as we begin to emerge from COVID and entertain the possibility of reaching out in mission to the surrounding community, it would do us well to keep in mind that what we'll actually be doing is starting new friendships. Brian is focusing on beginning friendships in inter-faith settings – with Buddhists, Hindus, and the like. I'm not sure to the extent inter-faith friendships would be possible here in Port Angeles, but there is an extensive community of homeless, prisoners, drug addicts, and children with various needs. Though our egos recoil at the thought of starting friendships with these folks (though children might not be so repulsive), these are the kind of people Jesus devoted his time too.

My inter-faith story comes out of my last ministry in Lancaster where our mid-week study group decided to visit a local mosque. I called the iman one day and told him the group wanted to stop-by for a visit. He said that would be fine, and what we anticipated was a tour of the mosque. Instead, what happened is we were greeted by a multi-course lunch served by the women of the mosque, and a demonstration of their prayer practices, and an overview of Islamic beliefs, within the mosque itself. It was Hospitality with a capital H, and we were all overwhelmed by their expression of friendship!

No one in tears hugged me or anyone else, but I think we were all changed a bit that day. Humbled by these strangers who, for whatever reasons, wanted to make us feel welcomed, and cared for within this strange new world. I can't speak for everyone who took part in that visit, but it has remained an important experience for me, and has expanded my understanding of faith. Our inter-faith brothers and sisters may see the religious world in very different ways from us, but love and hospitality feel the same regardless of the religious setting.

And in terms of theological and biblical similarities – Islam is grounded in the Old Testament, and though Jesus is only a prophet to them, Moses and the other patriarchs and prophets of the Bible are their religious heritage. They recognize them as their spiritual guides in the same way we do.

The other approach I want to use with the Road to Emmaus story is to explore the manner in which Cleopas and his friend “wake-up.” In this respect these two are us on the road with Jesus. We too are often in the dark, asleep on our feet as we walk ahead to whatever destination our egos are trying to get us to. In the story we find the two disciples disappointed, sad, and confused about recent events, and it takes Jesus and the scriptures to bring them around. The same is true for us, and that's a big reason we show up here every Sunday. The world dissipates our faith, or dilutes it, and it takes Jesus and the scriptures every Sunday to bring us back to solid ground.

Literally, every week out in the world we travel two separate roads. One road Psalm 119 describes as the road to Nowhere, but soon then it identifies the road to Somewhere. It sounds like this: “Barricade the road that goes Nowhere; grace me with your clear revelation. I chose the true road to Somewhere...” (Psalm 119;29-30a; The Message Bible) Where the trouble comes in is when we are on the road to Nowhere, but we think we're on the road to Somewhere. We have to reach a point in our spiritual journey where we can consistently discern what road we're on. Because if you're on the road to Nowhere, but you think its the road to Somewhere you're soon going to get lost. And there are a whole lot of lost people in this world.

The key again is found in the center of that text from Psalm 119 where it says, “grace me with your clear revelation.” Isn't this exactly what happens with Cleopas and his friend? Jesus opens their hearts and minds to the scriptures, joins them for supper, and at the breaking of the bread the “clear revelation” happens. They realize they're with Jesus, the risen Christ. What happens on the road to Emmaus is exactly what hopefully happens every Sunday we attend worship. We hear the scriptures – are invited to supper – and the bread is broken. Why? Because God wants to give is a clear revelation. God wants us to wake-up!

You can't wake up until you know you're asleep, and most people in the world are fast asleep, but they don't know it. They think they're awake. When you are spiritually asleep in the world its like looking through a knothole in a fence. You look out and see a very, very small portion of the world, but it seems to be a vision of everything. Its not, its hardly seeing anything at all. When the scriptures and Jesus wake you up you see God. And what you see is exactly as the scriptures describe: “Light, space, zest – that's God! So, with God on my side I'm fearless, afraid of no one and nothing.” (Psalm 27:1; The message Bible)

The world is full of lost people, and sometimes the most lost of all are the religious people. They are among the most lost because they think they're found. That's what makes one so utterly lost. And if you think about it these were the people Jesus got the angriest with – the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the scribes -- the religious leaders who thought they were righteous, and by righteous I mean right with God. These are the people Jesus holds to task, and it's probably because in their spiritual emptiness they were leading everyone else down the road to Nowhere.

Keep coming to worship every Sunday, study the scriptures, pray with a sincere heart, and try to listen to what God has to say. Think about mission, and how we can help meet the many needs of those around us. And most of all wake-up, because the love of God is the salvation of our world.

Rev. Mitch Becker

April 18, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

 

First Christian Church

“The Art of Dying”

Mark 8:31-38

Lets look at our text today in a holistic fashion. Jesus begins to ask his disciples questions that reveal their ignorance about who he is, and his final question in verse 8:21 is: “Do you not yet understand?” This is also a good question for us trying to understand Jesus two thousand years later. It is this question, “Do you not yet understand,” that results in what amounts to the core of Mark's gospel, which is chapter 8:22 through chapter 10:52. What's especially interesting is the chapters both begin and end with stories about the healing of blind men. Here's the first story:

They arrive in Bethsaida. Some people brought a sightless man and begged Jesus to give him a healing touch. Taking him by the hand, he led him out of the village. He put spit in the man's eyes, laid hands on him, and asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up. “I see men. They look like walking trees.” So Jesus laid hands on him again. The man looked hard and realized that he had recovered perfect sight, saw everything in bright, twenty-twenty focus.(Mark 8:21-25; The Message Bible)

A couple chapters later, and at the end of this core collection of verses Jesus publicly heals blind Bartimaeus, a beggar; and in the middle of all this come no less than three of Jesus' predictions of his crucifixion by the Romans. What's especially interesting is that after each one of these predictions there is some type of story that illustrates his disciples continued ignorance, making it absolutely clear that they “do not understand.”

In verses 8:27-28 Jesus asks them what people in the public square are saying about who they understand him to be, and what the disciples say is in the ballpark in that people think he's either John the Baptist or Elijah. Since Jesus does sound a lot like one of the ancient prophets announcing the coming of God's kingdom, and he hints of John the Baptist as well. Finally Peter comes up with the astonishing truth that Jesus is the Messiah!

At this point we enter into our text for today with this terrible rebuke aimed at Peter. After Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tells all of them of his crucifixion, but Peter protests. Seeing this is confusing the other disciples Jesus confronts Peter in no uncertain terms by saying, ”Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.” (Mark 8:31-33; The Message Bible) Then Jesus turns his attention to the others following him, and uses what has just happened as a teaching moment:

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the drivers seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” (Mark 8:34-37; The Message Bible)

Those verses are pregnant with meaning so lets unpack them. First, Jesus is making it clear to his committed ones, and the rest of us, that he's the sole authority figure. When we turn our lives over to him we're no longer calling the shots. We become the sheep and he is the shepherd.

There is also a strong Lenten theme that emerges here, because to follow Jesus means to learn how to pray in a way that enables one to hear his guidance. This takes practice and perseverance. Throughout our lives we look for ways to improve ourselves, and we may use many resources to do it. But if the paths we take don't lead to the eradication of the egos influence in our lives then its ultimately “no help at all.” We have to keep dying to our own self-centered whims and desires, or as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of Luke: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Note the word “daily” just to drive the point home that he's not talking about a physical death, but rather something that dies a bit every day. The ego. Therefore, “Self-sacrifice is the way, my way of saving yourself, your true self.”

At this point one can begin to understand why it is that Jesus often appeals to people who are in trouble, or people who are struggling with some sort of chronic problem like addiction, or grief that finds no resolution, or chronic illness, or is physically disabled, or suffering in abject poverty, and so forth. Why would it be that these folks tend to open their hearts, and are willing to become vulnerable to Jesus and his ways? The obvious answer is that when people are comfortable, in a relative sense, they aren't willing to submit to any type of radical change, because they don't feel they need it. But if you're suffering, and looking for a way out of the pain Jesus can look very attractive.

Take an alcoholic for example. Here is somebody who may have started drinking at a very young age, before they were aware there were other ways to go about life. By the time they enter young adulthood they're depending on alcohol to set their moods, and to rescue them from bad feelings. But as time goes on it becomes apparent that the alcoholic lifestyle is a dead end, with no redemption, and no hope for improvement. The only way out is abstinence, which is a hard, hard road. One reason its so difficult is that alcoholic's gradually lose faith in themselves. They can't trust themselves, because they have failed to give up drinking so many times. Every time they commit to stop drinking they end up doing it anyway. When you can no longer trust yourself who do you turn to? The blessed one's turn to God, and even that is a gift of the Spirit.

This, of course, applies to any type of addict, whether it be an addiction to street of prescription drugs, gambling, sex, food, whatever. Our self-centered, individualistic culture is breeding addicts. Because people look for ways to cope with their unruly emotions, and the self-made pits they fall into due to their lack of sight. There is a blindness that results from being focused on all the wrong things. It's not a physical blindness, but a spiritual one, which is far more serious. Without spiritual sight there is no way to find God, and without God there is no hope. No way out of the pit. Its like being lost in a desert, and trying to walk out of it. But all you do is walk in a circle because you'll keep favoring one leg over the other. If you favor the left leg you'll walk in a counter-clockwise direction, if the right leg than you'll go clockwise. Either way you'll never leave the desert – you just keep circling. This is the life of an addict.

Some addict's find the way out through organizations like AA, and the truly blessed one's stay on the spiritual path to recovery. They go deeper, and beyond the cessation of drinking to learn the way of self-sacrifice, and the art of dying to one's ego on a daily basis. To amplify my thoughts Father Rohr will take it from here:

We begin with the original blessing of being created in the image and likeness of God. But early in life we seem to forget our origin and who we really are. We leave our original innocence and the proverbial “Garden” to begin the task of the first half of life, which involves building a container, a False Self, and an ego. Dualistic thinking takes over, especially in the Western world, as education emphasizes the left side of the brain, competition, and success....

.the True Self becomes hidden beneath the False Self we have constructed to meet our needs for security, control, and esteem. The goal is personal individuation, and the emphasis is on the individual, and his or her positive self-image. This is fine as far as it goes, which is not very far, I am afraid, but it is all the secular culture knows.

God's goal is always union. “God comes disguised as our life,” as Paula D' Arcy puts it. Life lived fully and honestly inevitably involves both joy and suffering, a path of decent, doubt, and lots of little deaths that teach us to let go of out False Self and to live in the simple joy of divine union – which is exactly the passion and desire of the True Self. Our carefully constructed ego container must gradually crack open, as we realize we are not separate from God, from others, or from our True Selves. Now the ego is seen for the partial but limiting gift that it is. Now it is ready to become the servant of the soul, and is even willing to “die” for the sake of the Spirit.

We now know that God is within us and we are in God. Through grace, contemplation, and experiencing our experiences, our consciousness is transformed. We overcome the splits created in the first half of life. Now we are capable of non-dual thinking and we can forgive and accept our imperfections and those of others. We no longer have anything to prove or protect, so we can let go and surrender to Reality/God, which is now experienced as the same thing...We may appear foolish, or even naive, to those at earlier levels of development, but we are finally free and alive. This is the second naivete, our return to an almost childlike simplicity and serenity. It is the primary goal and purpose of our maturing years.

In the Western world success is touted as the most important of virtues, because it leads to maximum satisfaction of the egos wants and desires. It is dualistic thinking that drives the engine of success. Dualistic thinking is simply the minds tendency to go back and forth between opposing ideas. Have you ever noticed when you make a decision that soon following will be the opposite of that decision. For example: In the dentist office the other day I was given the choice to complete my visit with a cleaning and polish that day at 4pm, or return in a couple of weeks. I initially chose to return in a couple weeks because I had a commitment that day. But as soon as I drove away I changed my mind, turned around, and took the later appointment that day.

We do this all the time, because that's how the dualistic mind works. But that's not the mind of Christ, nor of the Apostle Paul for that matter. They function with non-dual minds, but to reach this ability requires one to be born again or born anew. Which means to let go of thinking, seeing, and understanding the world the way you've been conditioned by your culture to do. Christopher Pramuk defines being born again as: “to break free of the stultifying ((stul-ti-figh-ing)) womb of conventional wisdom.” And before you reach this new birth you will undergo “lots of little deaths.” Jesus points to this process when he encourages us to learn how to embrace suffering. Because we naturally avoid that, but that avoidance keeps us from being born again. It keeps us trapped in our False Self, which as Father Rohr says doesn't get us very far.

We have to learn the art of dying to our egos, and this is the narrow gate and the hard way that leads to life that Jesus talks about in the gospel (Matthew 7:14). One of the things that makes the art of dying difficult is it's so contrary to the way society operates. To live such a lifestyle means to separate oneself from the common mind. It means to be different, and that always takes courage. We learn at an early age how to “fit in.” Indeed, fitting in with our peers may have been the driving force in our lives when we were young. Can you remember what it was like when your Mom took you to school because you were late, and how you dreaded the thought of your friends seeing you brought to school by your mother? 3

Or how important it was that the clothes you wore conformed to the latest fad? Or, worse yet, when the kid who was different because they were poor, or mentally slow, or just looked funny were made fun of, and you joined in simply because everyone else was doing it. We may think we grow-up, but the truth is as long as we're dualistic, and aligned with the False Self, this sort of behavior persists, at least at some level. Here's a story that brings the point home:

One time a third grade teacher presented a multiple-choice arithmetic problem to her class. She then gave them a choice between possible answers to the problem, and she did this by having them raise their hands. First was offered answer “A,” and almost everyone raised their hand when she suggested “A” for the answer. Then she offered another choice and labeled this one “B” and remarkably only one hand shot up, and it happened to be the storytellers twin brother. When all was said and done it turned out that the correct answer was “B,” and out of thirty students her brother was the only one who got it right!

The moral of this story is that we often think that when the majority of people agree upon something that must be the right and true way to go. As well, the compulsion of society can be so great that it can make it very difficult to choose an alternative path. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is offering us, an alternative path, a way that is counter to the values and virtues promoted by conventional wisdom. The story ends by saying truth is not determined by the many, but rather is given to us by the One.

The Bible offers much wisdom, and many stories, parables, and aphorisms that help us to first choose a substitute path that differs from the societal current, and then encourages us to stay on it. Psalm 119 is both long, and generous, with alternative wisdom:

Help me understand these things inside and out so I can ponder your miracle-wonders. My sad life's dilapidated, a falling-down barn; build me up again by your Word. Barricade the road that goes Nowhere; grace me with your clear revelation. I choose the road to Somewhere, I post your road signs at every curve and corner. I grasp and cling to whatever you tell me; God, don't let me down! I'll run the course you lay out for me if you'll just show me how. God, teach me lessons for living so I can stay the course. Give me insight so I can do what you tell me – my whole life long. (Psalm 119:27-34a; The Message Bible)

The gospel is even more succinct in it's expression: “So don't be surprised when I tell you that you have to be 'born from above' – out of this world, so to speak.” (John 3:7; The Message Bible)

Out of this world implies something far removed from contemporary society. Out of this world suggests a way of thinking, seeing, and comprehending that is so different when encountered it's bound to shake the foundations of previous understanding. At first not even the committed ones following Jesus comprehended the message, nor the transformation they were being led into. But in time they got it. They persevered even after their leader and teacher was taken from them. They weren't afraid to be different, and with God's help we too can follow their example.

Rev. Mitch Becker

February 28, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

The Remedy

John 2:13-22

The subject of today's text is unique in that its the only time recorded in the gospels that Jesus went ballistic! Looking at the big picture its not as though Jesus never got frustrated or angry. Who can ignore the comments made to the disciples after they failed to cast a demon out of a boy, and Jesus turns to them and says: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (Mark 9:19) One could see that said with humor or irony, but I think the use of the word “you” suggests something other than Jesus making an attempt at satire.

I don't mind Jesus being human enough to get angry, and I do understand for some Christian's that sort of behavior doesn't sit well with their notions of the Son of God. And I don't want to get hung-up on Jesus' divinity here, so for the sake of argument lets say Jesus gets angry with the disciples, and does go ballistic in the temple. If we can agree on this we can move forward to speculate why Jesus displays such unrestrained behavior in the most important location in ancient Judaism. We can begin by looking at three possible reasons for what happened in the temple:

The first one is the most commonly understood one, which is when Jesus enters the temple he sees his Father's house (making it personal) turned into a shopping mall. Whereas he expected to find people in spiritual preparation through study, prayer, and seeking forgiveness with offerings. Instead he finds this most sacred of places corrupted by self-seeking individuals who are not remotely interested in the ways of God. Though Jesus is the Son of God apparently he can't foresee everything, and the whole situation is just too much to take in. This is the most commonly understood reason for Jesus expressing anger openly in full view of everyone.

The next reason is not widely known among Christians but has gained considerable acceptance among mainline scholars, and progressive Christians like myself. And to fully understand this point of view we'll need to take a more comprehensive look at the temple, and what it had become for the Jews in Jesus day. For this we need to begin with the “domination system.” The domination system is the way civilizations have been run for roughly the last 5000 years unaltered until the advent of democracy in the last two centuries. And even with democracy there is a good argument to be made that the domination system still runs the show.

The domination system is a way of understanding how social systems were ordered in ancient times. Following are the three major characteristics of the domination system:

First, it involves political oppression. In these societies the many were ruled by the few. The rulers were made up of the powerful and wealthy elites like the Kings and Queens, and the nobility that surrounded them, and whatever associates they needed to accomplish their tasks. The peasants, and artisans, and the rest of the ordinary folks have no say in the way society is conducted.

A second characteristic is economic exploitation. This means that most of the revenue, which primarily came from agricultural sources was channeled into the “bank accounts” of the wealthy elites. By most of the money I mean like one-half to two-thirds of it. And how did they accomplish it? Pretty much the

same way they do now days. They set the system up so that it favors their own self-seeking practices through the structures and laws which govern land ownership, taxation, debt management, and so on.

All this was legitimized with the use a religious language. People were led to believe that the King was divine, of which he was sometimes referred to as the Son of God. Therefore the way things were done within the system reflected the will of God. These notions of divine ordination then precipitated down through all the powers that be. Of course, sometimes as with the prophets in the Old Testament the primary source of protest came through religion. But by and large religion was the main vehicle used by the domination system to stay in control.

The domination system throughout the history of civilization has been the primary way the powers that be have ruled, used, and exploited people to their own personal gain. The Book of Ecclesiastes sums it up well when we read.: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Its just that in a democratic society the institutions have been separated. Instead of the political, economic, and religious elements all being in one location – the temple – in modern times the executive and legislative institutions, and the economic center of Wall Street are all in separate locations, with the religious element more or less out of the picture.

When Jesus walks into the temple what he sees is not the faithful in spiritual preparation, but rather a merger of Roman bureaucracy and the temple priests, who were at the time appointed by Roman authorities to serve Roman interests. We can only speculate as to what Jesus was thinking when he walked into the temple. But one thing can be reasonably assured – he could not have been unaware that his behavior would get the attention of Roman authorities.

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the temple incident is located toward the end of the story, and therefore provides provocation for Jesus' arrest, which eventually leads to his crucifixion. In our gospel today the incident is placed at the beginning of the story. Most scholars agree that the placement at the end of the gospel is most plausible, but all agree that this is an account of an actual historical event. Jesus walked into the temple and did something that no one expected, and in so doing left an indelible impression on us all.

With that somewhat lengthy explanation of the domination system lets move on to the third and final reason Jesus may have reacted so strongly in the temple. And this reason has merit in that it reflects what we know of Jesus. We can say that Jesus demonstrated a ministry of radical inclusion, and it was unprecedented. Jesus recognized, touched, and embraced people regardless of age, gender, or ethnic background. Women played a significant role in his ministry, children were valued, and even people like the Samaritan woman were accepted. Samaritan's were hated by the Jews because they were the Jews left behind after the Assyrian exile in 722 BCE, and for some odd reason because of it they were viewed as less than Jewish; and Jesus is blind to this type of bias.

In view of this we may be able to understand why Jesus is so upset. The claim has been made that the area the money-changing was going on in was also the area of the temple where Gentiles were welcome to enter. Remember, that Jesus' Bible was the Old Testament, and God had made it quite clear that the Jewish nation was established for the good of not only the Jews, but for all peoples. As it states in the Book of Genesis God told Abraham that: “All nations on earth will find themselves blessed through your descendants because you obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:18; The Message Bible)

Jesus reached out to the Gentiles, as well as the poor, sick, women, and children because he understood his faith as one of radical inclusion. Later the Apostle Paul worked out an even more detailed inclusive theology for the early church, and pushed harder than anyone to include the Gentiles. Its possible that when Jesus saw this part of the temple, designated for Gentiles, being misused it brought him to the end of his rope. Maybe not unlike the way the disciples got to him after not being able to cast out the demon. We can only speculate, but such speculation helps us move deeper into the story, and eventually the story changes us at a soul level.

In my study of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which spans most of my adult life, there have been three things that I've always found of great interest. The first thing I find fascinating is the incident that our text describes today was even included in the gospel. That Jesus publicly expressed his anger drawing the attention of everyone in the temple including the Roman authorities. There is only one such incident of this in the gospel, but it is recorded in all four of them. God doesn't want us to miss this! What could God possibly be trying to get across to us, and how does an angry outburst fit into what we know of Jesus' teachings to this point? I'll get to this in a bit.

The second thing of great interest to me are the accounts of Jesus going off to pray by himself, sometimes all night: “At about the same time he climbed a mountain to pray. He was there all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12; The Message Bible) Praying all night by yourself suggests a kind of prayer other than intercessory prayer. Because though you could pray for other people all night long more likely one is listening, more so than talking.

A final interesting inclusion is the insertion of the word “daily” when the gospel writer Luke is talking about picking up your cross and following Jesus. The use of that single word is incredibly important because without it the tendency is to interpret picking up your cross means to do it as Jesus did on Good Friday. “Daily” indicates that dying with Jesus is a process that occurs over time, and has to do with something other than a physical death. I can only conclude that God wants us to understand that faithfully following Christ means to be involved with an intentional process that finally leads to new birth. Or as the Apostle puts it, “to the mind of Christ.”

Returning to our text I don't feel God is trying to encourage us to outwardly express our anger in public, but I do feel God wants us to be passionate about some things. And that's what I see in Jesus and in what he's doing in the temple. He is being deeply passionate about human behavior he sees as violating the thing he is most passionate about which is the kingdom of God. What the money-changers are doing, and beyond that the cruelty of the domination system itself, is all too much for Jesus to take-in that day. He reached the end of his rope, and we need to be open to the same possibility in our own life and ministry. But that means to care, and to care deeply.

Which brings us to the opposite of caring and that is denial. Denial is a way of protecting ourselves from what we don't understand, and what we see as potentially harmful. But denial cuts us off from the passion of God, and in the end renders us unable to be cared for. As it is written about the seventh beatitude: “You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'careful,' you find yourselves cared for.” (Matthew 5:7; The Message Bible) Denial is especially dangerous when it results in chronic depression, something a lot of people are struggling with right now. Denial may indeed insulate you from perceived harm, but it also renders you unable to be cared for by others or yourself. In one sense what Jesus does today tells us to feel your feelings!

And there is something else that can result from a lack of passion in our lives, and that is we can become bored. Here is a story to help us understand how all this works:

Boredom can be a preview of what is to come, and what we may see is far less then what God has in mind for us. And if the situation becomes prolonged even the best of us will start looking for a way out, or praying for a way out, regardless of how inappropriate that way may be. Even the most faithful can welcome any type of interruption say at a funeral that goes too long, and includes too many comments not relevant to the deceased, and to what is happening.

Stop for a moment and be perfectly honest with yourself: Have you ever within the recesses of your own being discreetly celebrated a child falling off a pew, or a bird hitting the window, or the lights flickering on and off, or a piano string breaking, or when the audio system picks up police calls, or a cat comes down the aisle to sleep beneath the pulpit. Have you ever heard of someone having been on a long voyage, and after seeing a dozen beautiful sunsets and sunrises and playing 97 games of badminton, approach a crewman asking optimistically if they think a storm might be on the way?

One time there was a man of the cloth who was quiet, and tended to keep to himself, and he went to one of those car races down in Florida. He said that after a couple hours of watching the race, and the same race cars whiz by time and again, that the monotony of it all resulted in the worst part of him coming forth. He began to delve into his own imagination and thrill himself with possible things that could go wrong. Finally, a car exploded in flames, Yay! It was some time after that that it occurred to him being a Christian pastor he should have had some concern for the safety of the driver? But even a car exploding in flame wasn't enough to resurrect him from his state. He needed more drama, more stimulus, and he hoped for a bigger crises, a more spectacular event to occur.

The dark pall of boredom had transfigured him completely. Now take this into the sanctuary or a classroom and know what boredom can do to work against the Holy Spirit, and take us off into wild imaginings, or put us to sleep, or simply cause us to not care anymore. Boredom is the enemy of faith.

Boredom or denial can slowly and discreetly move into our lives if we lack passion. Jesus shows us what passion is in the temple, and the gospel writers obviously do not want us to miss this example. All four of them include the event in their gospels, which brings to mind something else that was included by all four, and that was another passionate expression by Jesus. But this was recorded not as passion, but rather as compassion, and it was the feeding of the five thousand. The only miracle performed by Jesus that is reported in all four of the gospels.

Passion and compassion are related in they're both about feelings, though passion suggests intensity, whereas compassion has to do with feeling the needs of others. Either way both can be antidotes for boredom or denial. This is a much needed message for people who have been suffering through the effects of a prolonged pandemic. Many people need an infusion of passion or compassion in their lives right now, and God willing we can be part of the remedy they require.

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 7, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“You Can't Always Get What You Want”

Numbers 21:4-9

When I was young and foolish in my early twenties I became chronically depressed, and it was a terrible, frightening experience. I was plagued with horrible dark thoughts, and couldn't sleep at night, and was gradually sinking deeper, and deeper into the pit. Of course, I didn't know what was wrong. All I knew is I wanted to be healed, so I went to a healer. He was a local psychologist, and Dr. Ackerman had a good reputation in the community, so I gave him a try. To go and see him was scary because it made me feel like there was something seriously wrong with me, but I was getting more desperate by the hour.

Dr. Ackerman was a nice guy, a little strange as he seemed particularly thoughtful, and methodical, but caring. So I listened to him, and what he offered me was a therapeutic system called Rational Emotive Therapy, which is an approach to therapy that helps you identify irrational beliefs and negative thought patterns. Well, that was a little too left brain for me, though I do posses an analytical side I prefer more right brain activity. This approach never caught on with me, and in that respect God didn't directly answer my prayers.

The answer came from an unexpected direction, because it turned out that Dr. Ackerman was an avid runner. He ran everyday, and though he never offered that to me as a means of therapy its what impressed me the most about him. At that time in my life I didn't exercise much, but Dr. Ackerman somehow impressed upon me the need to be involved in some type of consistent exercise program. I started swimming. Two or three times a week I'd swim for a half-hour at the local pool. And I kept it up for the next 25 years, until I moved to Ohio and couldn't find a pool to swim in.

With a combination of regular physical exercise, and an improved diet (by improved I mean fewer hamburgers and French fries) I came out of my depression. I kept swimming and one time I swam 5 and one-half miles in 5 hours in a Red Cross swim-a-thon, and was awarded a Red Cross T-shirt which I still have. I also ate better food, though Karen would attest that I was still eating too many hamburgers and French fries when she met me. Why am I telling you all this? Because this is pretty much what is happening to the Israelite's in our story today.

They've been out in the wilderness for years, and seem to be getting nowhere, with only this “miserable” manna to eat. Imagine only having white bread to eat everyday for forty years! So, their complaining, and what's different about these complaints from the complaining of previous chapters is now they're complaining and griping to God, or rather at God. Before they just griped at Moses, but now its both Moses and God who are getting an earful of grief.

In the Old Testament you don't want to talk to God like this, because God doesn't take kindly to it. God's response is to send poisonous snakes among them, and the snakes bite people and they die. Many people die. So the Israelite's turn to Moses and beg him to plead with God to take the snakes away, but God won't do it despite Moses' pleading. God answers the peoples prayers not in the way they want, but rather in the way they need. The snakes stay, but God gives them a way to be healed of the poisonous venom if they're bit. The catch is that to be healed you have to look in the right direction.

God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a flagpole: Whoever is bitten and looks at it will live.” (Numbers 21:8; The Message Bible) We all know that the Bible is full of symbolism, and that verse is a typical example, but what does the symbolism represent here? The poem offered by Steve Holmes, the author of “Stretching Toward Sunday,” the scripture commentary I often share with you by email may help us here. He wrote:

You have to look your evil in the face to be healed, the snakes that plagued the Hebrews in the desert were their betrayal come back to bite them, their being Eden's serpent. The cure was to gaze at their sin. So we gaze upon the Crucified one, our victim, and look our awfulness in the eye and only there grasp forgiveness, and only then become truly alive.

On the cross is lifted up our racism, our violence, our materialism, our deep seated me-first-ism. Posted there is our last text to God, “I'll let you know when I need you.” We look at it, look at it hard, to get free of the lie that we're just fine, the lie that keeps us from knowing how deeply we are forgiven, how vastly we are blessed, how infinitely we are loved.

Steve says a lot with those words, and with a little effort we can focus on a theme or two. He's talking about the need for confession, because with honest confession we can begin to emerge from the lie that we're good people. The harsh truth is we all participate in racism because though we see it on the nightly news we rarely do anything about it. It resides deep within each one of us, but how often are we aware of its ugly presence. We all learned it from a culture that has not come very far with notions of equality for all people. We perpetuate racism by ignoring the seeds that have been planted within us, and over time, unchecked, they have taken root.

I could say similar things about violence and materialism, but its not necessary because it can all be summed up with his term, “me-first-ism.” Somehow we've got to get to “other-first-ism,” and that is the narrow gate and the hard way Jesus tells us about. It's narrow and hard because it takes great courage to look at our darkness head-on, but until we do forgiveness and real life remain hidden from our view, and generally unavailable. The way he puts is, “...and look our awfulness in the eye and only there grasp forgiveness, and only then become truly alive.”

When the Hebrews look at the snake on the pole they see their own wrongdoing, and they begin the process of taking responsibility for the ways they have betrayed the covenant, and ultimately betrayed themselves. And we must do the same, but the trouble is we generally won't do that until we're forced to do it. This is the rest of the story for me, and the depression God brought me out of. Exercise and diet were crucial factors in healing, but I was also beginning to learn about confession, and how to venture into the dark recesses of my soul. In other words, I was beginning to learn how to listen to myself.

This all happened long before I walked down the aisle at First Christian Church in Albany to place membership with them. To publicly express my faith in God, and be willing to become vulnerable in community with other Christian's. This is when I found the interstate that leads to forgiveness, but it was back with Dr. Ackerman that it all began. It was when depression forced me to look inward that I began to learn about the narrow gate and the hard way to life, long before I read it in the gospel. In many ways Jesus just told me what I already knew, and never had the courage or faith to out right practice on a daily basis.

Prayer, meditation, journal work, Tai Chi, the study of God's word, are all ways to stay on the path of healing, and such spiritual practice helps keep you from needing to be forced into confession. They keep the spiritual interstate open and ready for travel at a moments notice. After awhile the darkness that we knew resided within us, and that we were so terrified to look at, becomes something we almost welcome with open arms; because we know it will eventually take us to forgiveness, and our True self. The peace that results from the spiritual life becomes the thing we're most interested in. It's something like an addiction, but an addiction that keeps you on the “road to Somewhere” as Psalm 119 puts it.

Not unlike the Hebrews wandering in the desert, when I walked into Dr. Ackerman's office that day I was lost within a deep, dark depression. But eventually I found both myself and God. My story belongs to me, but we have all been lost and found many times. Here's something you may relate to:

Feeling lost is one of the worst feelings there is, and even worse is when a child becomes lost, detached from their parents whether that be at a train station, airport, grocery store, or the neighborhood they live in. The absolute terror a child experiences is hard to describe, and if their not found soon it can leave lasting wounds in their psyche. Its not much fun for the parents either with the feelings of powerlessness that accompany such an experience.

Some of you may have had similar experiences of losing your child, and the feelings of hopelessness that come with it. And we all know what it's like to lose something - like how it feels when we lose our wallet, or can't remember where we parked the car. One of things I dread, because I've done it before, is to open my wallet to discover a credit card missing. I suddenly get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I begin to frantically search my mind for any memory of where I may have left it.

The story I've shared with you today about dealing with a severe depression is a way of being spiritually lost. Such spiritual lostness comes in many forms, and all of us here have been around the block a few times. We all know those feelings of helplessness that come with being lost, or losing something of value, and we all know what it feels like to find what we've lost, or to be found again, even to be found by God. One of the reasons we've gathered here today is because we've been lost and found so many times. Maybe we come to worship because this is the place we feel most found. When we're here we are at Home.

There are a couple question this text brings up that I haven't addressed. The first one is what do you do with a God who sends poisonous snakes among a people because they fail to honor the covenant? The second question raised is what do we do when our prayers are not answered and we continue to endure, say financial hardship, or a relationship that is arduous, or poor health, or maybe we're just dissatisfied with the person we've become? How is it in such circumstances that we learn how to trust our prayers will be answered, and that that may require us to be looking in the right direction?

The first question is the easiest to respond to because its not God that changes, but the way we see God that has changed over the centuries. In ancient Israel God could be jealous, angry, and even violent at times. The God that Jesus gave us changed all of that – and though God can mean business, as Jesus demonstrated in the temple when he turned over the money-changers tables; or when he called Peter out by identifying him as Satan, or the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers.” With Jesus God can be tough, but he's not mean. The God Jesus gives us is not going to send snakes to bite and kill people. What this God gives us is A Way out of the human dilemma, a way out of our “me-first-ism.”

Which brings us to the second question of how do we come to trust that God will give us what we need to endure, and eventually be released into a freedom that knows no bounds. In response to this I'm going to ask you to imagine your life as a journey. In doing that let me ask you: what is the destination of your journey? What is it that you most seek, or another way of putting it is – what is the most important thing to you in your life? I ask this question because the destination determines the way we live out your days.

For many Americans I'm sad to say that the bottom line is how much money, and how many toys they can collect before they die. Such a destination creates a lifestyle that is far removed from the parables, stories, and aphorisms of the Bible. The gospel makes it quite clear what Jesus' destination was called the kingdom of God. It was a spiritual destination that had political overtones, and everyone in his day would have understood it as such. They knew that the kingdom of God was not the kingdom of Herod or the empire of Rome. After he makes it clear what it isn't, he goes on to describe what it is with his words and actions.

During this time of Lent we are asked to renew the journey to the cross, and to the kingdom of God that lay beyond it. Bearing our crosses can mean to quietly endure whatever hardship we may be facing whether that be poor health, or a difficult relationship, or a dissatisfaction with who we have become. The Message Bible calls this “embracing suffering.” To pick up our cross each day and walk forward trusting that God will not give us what we want, but rather give us what we need to reach our destination. Hopefully that destination conforms to the message of the scriptures. And to help ensure we're on the right path here's a story:

Have you ever been to the dog races? They're different from the horse races in that the horses are racing against each other, whereas the dogs are trying to catch a dummy rabbit which is mechanically moved along a rail. They keep the “rabbit” just out in front of the dogs, just out of reach, but close enough that the dogs feel they have a chance. Now these dogs wear themselves out doing this race after race, and eventually they have to be given up for adoption. Hopefully someone with a big heart takes them into their home, and they become a pet. I'm sure you've seen such dogs out on the street.

Now imagine a conversation one of these old dogs might have with a younger dog, and here's how it might go: The younger dog says, “Do you ever run in the races anymore?” “Nope, I'm all done racing.” “Well, don't you miss all the action?” “Not really.” “Well, what exactly happened to make you quite racing, did you just get too tired and worn out?” “No, I might have still had a few races left in me.” “Well, did you get discouraged because you weren't winning races?” “No, I was still coming in first or second place, and winning purses for my owner.” “Well, what was it, were you mistreated?” “No, they treated all of us pretty well.” “Then what the heck happened, did you injure yourself?” “No, no, nothing like that.” “But you don't race anymore?”

The old dog answers, “I just gave it all up.” “Well, yeah I can see that,” says the younger dog. Finally, the old dog says, “It just occurred to me that all that running, running, and running, and for what? What we were chasing wasn't even a real rabbit. It was just a fantasy, an illusion...not even real.

Just make sure your destination is grounded in the Reality of Spirit.

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 14, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Something to Love”

John 12:20-33

This is a good text for the last Sunday in Lent, because it hits upon several Lenten themes. Lets begin with the Greeks, and by Greeks the gospel writer could be talking about Greek speaking Jews, or possibly Greeks who had recently converted to Judaism. Either way they're representing the breadth of interest people are showing in Jesus. In the verse just preceding our text the Pharisees exclaim, “Look, the world has gone after him!” Greeks, Galileans, and Judeans all want to hear his teachings, and see how he works the crowd, and by implication are seeking to believe in him.

Earlier in this gospel we're told that Jesus' enemies are not able to do harm to him, and the reason given is that his time has not come yet; but now the hour has arrived. The rest of the gospel will have an urgency about it as Jesus tries to explain to his disciples about his death and resurrection, and ascension to his Father. Sometimes these explanations lead into instruction concerning self-denial, and what it means to take up your cross and follow him. But in the Gospel of John something new is added, and not only do you save your life by giving it up, you also gain “eternal life.”

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) giving up your life leads to abundant life, or Life with a capital “L.” It's about an enhancement of life that occurs here in real time, but in the Gospel of John you gain both that enhancement, and are welcomed into the heavenly realm. Something else that's different is when Jesus says, “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25b) What he's promoting is for others to follow his lead in hating the way most people in the world have come to define their life, which is to see their life as something separate from creation and Creator.

And just so the word “hate” doesn't throw you, that word would be better translated as “reject.” Therefore Jesus wants us to reject this very limited way of seeing ourselves in relation to God and the creation. To help us grasp this in its entirety lets hear from Richard Rohr who is something of an expert in describing the holistic religious worldview; and because this meditation is about love I'll include the entire text:

Love, which might be called the attraction of all things toward all things, is a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself despite our best efforts to resist it. It is so simple that it is hard to teach in words, yet we all know positive flow when we sense it, and we all know resistance and coldness when we feel it.

When we are truly “in love,” we move out of our small individual selves to unite with another, whether in companionship, simple friendship, marriage, or any trustful relationship. Have you ever deliberately befriended a person standing alone at a party? Perhaps someone who was in no way attractive to you, or with whom you shared no common interests? That would be a small but real example of divine love flowing. Don't dismiss it as insignificant. That is how the flow starts, even if the encounter doesn't change anyone's life on the spot. To move beyond our small minded uniformity, we have to extend ourselves outward, which our egos always find to be a threat, because it means giving up our separation, superiority, and control. Animals can do the same thing for our souls if we will allow it, sometimes better than people.

Men seem to have an especially difficult time with this. I have had the pleasure of presiding at many weddings over the years. Three different times, as I prepared the couple to exchange their vows, the groom actually fainted and fell to the ground. But I have never seen the bride faint. To the well-protected and boundaried male ego, there are few greater threats than the words, “till death do us part.” (I am sure women have their own blockages, but the commitment to love doesn't seem to be one of the major ones for the vast majority of women.)

Love is a paradox. It often involves making a clear decision; but at its heart, it is not a matter of mind or willpower but a flow of energy willing allowed and exchanged, without requiring payment in return. Divine love is, of course, the template and model for such human love, and yet human love is the necessary school for any encounter with divine love. If we've never experienced human love – to the point of sacrifice and forgiveness and generosity – it will be very hard for us to access, imagine, or even experience God's kind of love. Conversely, if we have never let God love us in the deep and subtle ways God does, we will not know how to love another human in the deepest ways we are capable.

Love is constantly creating future possibilities for the good of all concerned – even, and especially, when things go wrong. Love allows and accommodates everything in human experience, both the good and the bad, and nothing else can really do this. Nothing.

When he talks about grooms passing out at the altar I think of the grooms in the weddings I've officiated at with their eyes as large as quarters, and the sweat forming on their brows. One of my colleagues tells the story of a groom who fainted at the vows, and hit his head on the banister in the chancel area, and later died. Not a great way to begin your life together. Love means everything to us, whether we're consciously aware of that or not, and that's why it has the impact it does.

In light of Rohr's thoughts about love, Jesus asks us to reject the worlds small mindedness, and begin to embrace both human and divine love, which as Rohr has pointed out are mutually dependent upon each other. We must know and experience sacrifice, forgiveness, and generosity in our everyday human life's if we're even to begin to grasp “the deep and subtle ways” God loves us. Conversely, if we don't spend quality time in prayer, study, and quiet reflection with God we'll never reach the deep channels of love within each of us.

This requires a significant commitment on our part to even begin to touch upon divine love. I married Karen in 2003 when I was 50 years old. If we use the “great depression” I told you about last Sunday as the beginning point of my spiritual schooling – then it took me nearly 30 years to reach the point where I could make a marital commitment without passing out at the altar! And in that 30 years my spiritual schooling has been nothing less than intense, with quiet centering prayer a focal point for those last 20 years.

We all need something to love to help move us out beyond our own self-imposed boundaries. Father Rohr said something about animals being able to do this, sometimes even better than humans. Maybe one of the reasons animals can do this for us is because they don't hold grudges, and are available in a way people sometimes are not. Most of you know we have a new dog named Groucho because his eyebrows remind us of Groucho Marx. He's a little Havanese puppy that our other dog Oreo has, reluctantly at first, welcomed into our home.

But still, at times, Oreo gets a bit cross with Groucho, especially if he assumes Karen's lap or somehow moves into space that once belong solely to her. She can get angry with Groucho, and growl in a most threatening way. But it never lasts for long, and soon they're romping, and frolicking about on the floor. Karen has said repeatedly that Groucho has made Oreo young again, and its true. Oreo immediately “forgives” (forgiveness is the religious word for letting go) Groucho and accepts him as a legitimate member of the family.

Groucho is easy to love because he's so adorable. One of the ladies at the dog park recently described him as being “stinking cute.” And what I see in both of them is this ability to “reject,” if you will, that small minded way of looking at the world, and embracing a larger picture where everything has its place, and everything belongs. Animals do this in a way that people can't, and I don't know if people were always this way, or we simply learned it over time. By that I mean long ago, maybe in pre-historic times, humans may have been more community oriented and just simply got along better. We all know that many Native Americans posses a much more holistic and connective worldview than Western civilization does. We've all seen “Dances With Wolves” right?

In the Western world the mind has become the dominant organ for humanity, and this leads us into a fragmented way of looking at things. But animals aren't dominated by their mind, and they think and look more holistically. Therefore, they're not always trying to protect their egos by getting angry or resentful. Of course, they do get that way sometimes. We've all seen our pets get angry, or possessive, and even walk away with hurt feelings. But the big difference with humans is they don't hold onto to it. Sure, you can think of exceptions, but by and large, they let it all go. And that's what makes them such wonderful objects of love, because they're so darn available.

Now take all this and consider God's love as its depicted in our text today. Something we see most clearly in the Gospel of John is the way the Father and Jesus are always on the same page. As Jesus says – when you see him you see the Father too. And what they both share is sometimes referred to as “glory,” or another way of saying it is they share the same love. This love then expresses itself in Jesus' actions such as washing his disciples feet, or laying down his life for his friends, which finally results in allowing himself to be lifted up on a cross so that all can be drawn to him.

As Jesus considers his crucifixion he says, “Right now I am storm-tossed. And what am I going to say? 'Father, get me out of this?' No, this is why I came in the first place. I'll say, 'Father, put your glory on display.'” A voice came out of the sky: “I have glorified it, and I'll glorify it again.” The listening crowd said, “Thunder!” Others said, “An angel spoke to him!” Jesus said, “The voice didn't come for me but for you. At this moment the world is in crisis. Now Satan, the ruler of this world, will be thrown out. And I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.” (John 27b-32; the Message Bible)

But this is always the problem, isn't it. They hear thunder, or the voice of an angel speaking to Jesus, but its not thunder, and the voice isn't for Jesus, because its for them. But who has the ears to hear? The Father is bearing witness to the Son, and its all for their benefit, but they don't get it, they don't hear the voice. What is going on between the Father and Son is mostly missed by the crowd. And the world remains in crisis, because Satan has not yet been thrown out. That work still needs to be done, and that's why we're here today. We are the Disciples now, the followers of Jesus, and we're here to finish the story. We're here to make sure Love wins.

Here's an example of how Love wins:

We're all familiar with Apartheid in South Africa which was imposed racial segregation, but back in 1994 South Africa made a transition to a democratic form of government. One of the immediate problems that arose was what to do with all the people involved in Apartheid who had committed crimes against humanity. The new leaders couldn't simply ignore what had taken place in the past, but they also recognized they were trying to put the country back together. And if they were to round up all the guilty parties, and punish them it would only make matters worse in the long run. Desmond Tutu became the first black Anglican Archbishop for the country, and knew they were in a position to bring justice to these criminals, but by the same token he understood if it was done outside of God's love it could destroy the country.

What the leaders did was establish a committee, and called it the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. In so doing this fledgling democracy chose the way less traveled in pursuing truth, justice and mercy. The people who had been involved in criminal acts were given a choice to restore good relations with everyone, but they had to confess their crimes, and then seek a way to make restitution. The first step was to embrace the truth through confession, which always takes great courage, and after that one could find ways to heal.

This provides a wonderful example for all of us to follow. All of us are called to face the truth of our daily sin, which is a consequence of our own self-centered nature, and they include both sins of commission and omission. And after that seek ways to restore our relationship with God. We too are asked to live life's of justice and mercy, but that mercy is often lacking because of an absence of accountability, and justice understood more so as a way to seek revenge. The only way we can realistically throw Satan out is to love in the way that God loves. When we do that we're seeking ways to bring about transformation not only in ourselves, but for our neighbor as well. The Apostle Paul used a phrase telling us to “overcome evil with good.” But that can only be accomplished through the power of Christ's Spirit, which is namely Love.

I ended my commentary on the text today by saying that though the love the Father and Jesus share was displayed in a variety of ways, people often didn't recognize it for what it was. In the text they think its thunder, or that an angel is speaking solely to Jesus, and not to them. But there is more to the text than this, because Jesus implies that when he is lifted up it will gather people to him. And its not just his crucifixion, but also his resurrection, and ascension that will cause people to see him as the Son of the Father. In this Jesus is holding out hope for all of us that in time the truth will be embraced.

When we look at the Gospel of John as a whole we see that this is indeed what took place. His disciples were the first “to remember,” after Jesus was raised, the things he said and did, and to assign a new understanding to each event. At the end of the story, the end we're about to reenact in Holy Week, they began to see what they had been looking for all along. And so John writes that the same will hold true for us. He says, “These things are written down so you will believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.” (John 20:31; the Message Bible)

Rev. Mitch Becker

March 21, 2021

Port Angeles