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First Christian Church

May the Force Be With You!”

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

In our text this morning the Apostle Paul is talking about his own experience even though on the surface it appears to be about someone he knows. The reason for this portion of the letter he's writing stems from the tension he's experiencing with the church in Corinth over his authority. Apparently, his authority is being challenged by other preachers peddling an alternative Christian faith. This creates concern for Paul himself, but in the bigger picture the church is being threatened with division in the ranks.

You've probably heard or read in the newspaper that the paper mill is closing, and in the process laying off around two hundred people. Such a massive layoff for a small community like ours will have a significant negative impact. By the same token, the individuals suffering the layoff are probably losing sleep at night. Events of this nature can have the same emotional affect as a daunting diagnosis or the loss of a dear one.

Segue now to Paul being “caught up into paradise.” What exactly Paul hears in heaven is not described in any detail other than its some type of profound mystical experience, and later in the text he reveals an “abundance of revelations.” Again, no specific descriptions accompany these either. But these mystical occurrences and revelations are not really where Paul is trying to take the Corinthians. What he's doing is creating a platform to launch the true message which is about power gained through weakness. He says it like this:

Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan's angel did his best to keep me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! (2 Corinthians 12:7; The Message Bible)

In essence what's being said is that it's not divine revelations that award you with empowerment, rather just the opposite. Physical vulnerability is held up to be a gift because such weakness can result in empowerment to cope with challenges. The central symbol for this vulnerability that leads to divine empowerment is the cross of Christ.

Spiritual power is being sought in different ways in our contemporary society. Some are discovering that contemplative prayer leads to grounding and empowerment, and others find it thorough reading the scriptures via Lectio Divina (Leck-dee-oh Duh-veen-na), and some discover it by walking the labyrinth.

But for congregations, as well as individuals, our spiritual roots may grow deepest as we struggle through challenges which greet us pretty much on a daily basis. For many churches this has to do with financial scarcity, which by God's grace we've been excluded from, or some type of administrative or procedural concern, or the loss of key leadership can result in severe problems.

Out of these possibilities the loss of key leadership, as well as the loss of other church members, is our greatest challenge. In such a time as this we have to risk trusting each other in new ways, and pray with much earnestness, as well as dig deep for God's compassion within. We also must look for new and creative ways to find courses of action to resolve problems. The elders just did this in the last elders meeting, and I'll bring you up to speed on this at the next board meeting.

Sometimes we feel as if the culture around us isn't paying much attention to the church, but that's not the case these days. The culture has its eyes on us often testing our credibility. Sometimes churches feel they must resolve their internal problems before they can reach out in mission, but that's not the message The Apostle is sending us today. It may very well be a combination of communal and individual challenges that force us to dig deep to resolve problems the church faces.

The message today is that in our weakness we most often access the spiritual strength we need to do God's will in the world. Psychotherapist Resmaa (Rez-ma) Menakem (Men-knee-kun) has a bit different approach by describing how one heals trauma:

Healing trauma involves recognizing, accepting, and moving through pain – clean pain. It often means facing what you don't want to face – what you've been reflexively avoiding or fleeing. By walking into the pain, experiencing it fully, and moving through it, you metabolize it and put an end to it. In the process, you also grow, create more room in your nervous system for flow and coherence, and build your capacity for further growth.

Clean pain is about choosing integrity over fear. It is about letting go what is familiar but harmful, finding the best parts of yourself, and making a leap – with no guarantee of safety or praise. This healing does not happen in your head. It happens in your body. And it is more likely to happen in a body that can stay settled in the midst of conflict and uncertainty.

When you come out of the other side of this process, you will experience more than just relief. Your body will feel more settled and present. There will be a little more freedom in it and more room to move. You will experience a sense of flow. You will also have grown up a notch. What will your situation look like when you come out on the other side? You don't know. You can't know. That's how the process works. You have to stand in your integrity, accept the discomfort, and move forward into the unknown.

We all will attempt to avoid discomfort, weakness and repetitively do what's familiar, but Paul is offering us an alternative way that leads to empowerment and a sense of God's Spirit flowing through us. Following is an account of what I did on the morning I wrote this sermon, and though it's a minor example of how one faces discomfort and the unknown it does serve to illustrate the process:

In the previous week when I came into work the internet was down, so I went to the closet and discovered the modem was without power. It didn't take long to find the source of the problem which was the surge protector switch was not staying depressed. This required a simple fix by placing a piece of duct tape over it to hold the switch down. Though it occurred to me that a new surge protector would need to be purchased I also felt the temporary fix would suffice for a time, so no hurry.

On Tuesday of the next week upon entering the office to my disappointment the internet was down again. The duct tape no longer held the switch down, so I placed another strip of tape on it and that worked. I could have done this indefinitely, but the real fix would be to go to Walmart and buy a new surge protector, though that would mean moving into unfamiliar territory.

Never-the-less I went to Walmart and chose a new one from a selection of seemingly countless surge protectors. I could only hope it was going to be a good fit, because once I disconnected the old surge protector there would be no turning back. Thankfully, the new plug fit the old socket on the overhead light bulb, and with a little encouragement the old surge protector came off the wall relatively easy.

The new surge protector sits firmly on the old screw since it's a lot smaller with only three outlets, whereas the old one had six. Since there are only two devices that require outlets three outlets is more than enough, and I feel good about resolving the problem myself. I could have turned the task over to the trustees since its within their jurisdiction, but I'm the one who uses the internet, so I assumed the responsibility.

I tried to avoid or at least put-off a permanent fix for the problem because it meant moving into unknown territory and creating an unspecified amount of discomfort. Because I accepted the challenge and succeeded in making the fix I grew a little in confidence and reinforced a sense that I can resolve my own problems.

From a spiritual point of view, I wasn't sure I could make the fix, and felt uneasy about trying to do it myself. It brought to the fore an awareness of my own limitations, but I moved ahead into the uncertainty. I didn't know how things would come out on the other side but was trusting that all would be okay in the end.

There are a lot of other examples I could use like facing kidney surgery or the shrinking of an artery in my nose to demonstrate the power that is available when we allow Christ to take over. But this more minor example serves the purpose since we are faced with all types of challenges, both major and minor. It all involves the same dynamics. At this point let's quickly look again at a portion of Paul's message put in contemporary terms:

Satan's angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was pushed me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, my grace is enough; it's all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ's strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size – abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10; The Message Bible)

Paul is talking about some kind of long term affliction which could be anything from eye disease to manic depression. He feels he could be a more effective disciple if God would remove it, but since that doesn't happen he finds a way to come to terms with it. He allows it to supplement his spirituality, and in so doing puts the affliction to use!

Rev. Mitch Becker

July 7, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Commanding Creation to Cry”

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

This unfamiliar text comes to us with three primary characters including David, Saul and Saul's son Jonathan. Saul was Israel's first king and helped build the economy up, and even provided some luxury items which is noted in the text. Perhaps Saul's greatest contribution was he defeated the Philistines who were trying to overrun the country. Also noted is that both Saul and Jonathan were fierce warriors.

The biblical account further tells us that Saul and David played a kind of cat & mouse game with Saul intent on killing David. He fails and eventually Saul takes his own life. Jonathan actually dies in a battle with the Philistines and was next in line to become king, therefore his death creates the possibility for David to come forward and assume the throne.

The point of the text is to demonstrate the grief that David had for both of these important figures in Israel's history. Even though Saul was trying to kill David it seems he respects Saul for his contributions to the nation, and for his bravery in battle. Jonathan was both a friend and ally of David's so it's easier to understand the grief he feels because of Jonathan's death.

The text opens with David commanding all of Israel to lament over Saul and Jonathan. He includes even the Creation to join in the lamenting specifically citing the “hills of Gilboa” (Gill-bow-ah) where Saul “fell on his own sword.” The fierce bravery of the two is recognized, and Saul is given credit for improving the lives of his subjects. Jonathan is raised up and acknowledged for his courage, and David feels deeply grieved since he was a close friend.

The closing of the text is interesting as its about God's attitude toward warfare. To further assess this following is an excerpt from a commentary submitted by Ralph Klein:

The Bible is full of mockery over the futility of armaments. God sees them from heaven and laughs (Psalm 2:4). Whatever one might say about Holy War in the Old Testament, its whole point is that wars were fought only under Yahweh's authority and permission. Numbers of solders and the size of weapons was irrelevant. The weapons of war have perished.

You might call this the final or closing lament of the text. We too, have much to lament and need to realize how important it is to do so because new life cannot be welcomed in until the old has been recognized and sufficiently grieved and let go of.

The culture we live in by and large encourages us to avoid grief and lament which is a passionate form of grieving. There are some obvious reasons for avoiding grief since it brings us mentally and emotionally in touch with the loss, which then typically results in an experience of pain. The extent and depth of the loss determines the degree of mental and emotional, and in some cases physical, pain. Mirabai (Me-raw-by) Starr tells us a bit more:

We're an extremely grief-phobic culture, and it doesn't help to have the religions on top of it saying, “Go this way. There lies transcendence. You can meditate your way out of your pain. You can pray your way through relief from suffering. In fact, you can bypass it all together if you buy into this set of beliefs or practices or faith claims.” The combination of grief illiteracy in the culture, and the emphasis of the patriarchal religious structures to get us to rise above the messy realities of our humanity, is a recipe for avoiding grief.

In our own faith community known as First Christian Church we have ample reasons to grieve. We have recently lost Carolyn our pianist and friend as she is moving to Michigan to be close to family. Harvey has had a bad fall and is now at Crestwood no longer able to attend worship. Lisa is confined to a chair at home. As I write this sermon Sharon is again in the hospital. Jo is also healing from a fall with a cast on her arm.

All of these folks are our friends whom we are now separated from and in all cases, it is due to health issues. When I pray for these people, and especially when I visit them, I feel to a certain extent their pain. In this way I share their experience of loss, grief and struggle. I can do that because I too, as well as you, know what it means to lose your health, grieve, and to struggle with pain. In this sense, we're all in the same boat.

Why would anyone want to intentionally share the pain of another? For us Christians the primary reason is because that's the way of life Christ has demonstrated for us. We are to be people of compassion, and in so doing God gives us what we need to be good disciples. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to reach out and to share the suffering and hardship of not only our friends, but with all people. Compassion is to be a way of life for us.

Jesus demonstrates this compassion in the Gospel text for this week. In it he crosses the Sea of Galilee in a boat and is met by a crowd which is a mix of disciples and needy people. Out of the crowd comes someone by the name of Jairus (Ghy-russ) who seeks the Master to heal his daughter. On the way to Jairus's house a woman who'd been hemorrhaging for years touches him and is healed! The point being Jesus didn't have office hours. He went to where people needed him, and that is an aspect of true compassion. You go where you're needed.

Since compassion comes in the form of grief in our text that is our focus for this morning. Mirabai Starr gives us more reasons to be compassionate people. She continues:

Death is complicated and powerful. It's that threshold space that we get to experience sometimes between this world and a larger reality that we've always intuited to be true.

.It brings us into sacred space whether we like it or not. But there are many other losses besides the death of a loved one: the breakup of a relationship, a serious health diagnosis that changes everything, an injury that reweaves the way life used to be. I guess any kind of loss that involves the death of who we used to be is a powerful catalyst for this kind of encounter with the sacred that I'm speaking of....

This reveals yet another reason for avoiding grief in that she acknowledges it brings us into sacred space, but the downside is it does it “whether we like it or not!” This implies a loss of control which Father Rohr interprets as “suffering.” We don't like to be taken anywhere. We'd much rather determine our own course, therefore, submitting to grief means we become followers rather than leaders.

You've probably heard of the book entitled “Good grief,” which implies not everything about grief is bad. The same could be said about death as the following story illustrates:

There was a friend of mine who was very active with children and ran a day care center that was popular in the community. She was a wonderful person, young and full of vitality. She had never married because she was just too busy for dating and had filled her life with caring for children.

One day she was watching one of her favorite TV shows when someone knocked on the door. She went to the door and opened it and there stood the Angel of Death. Actually, it was a very attractive man but somehow in her heart of hearts she knew death had come for a visit. Upon recognition of who this was, she immediately and with some authority, closed the door.

Out of concern she paid a visit to the doctor who used a strange term, “metastasizing.” Surgery was mandatory in her case, and she had the surgery, and recovered well. Soon she was back in the day care center. The parents told her she looks really good, and she responded she felt in the pink! Everything seemed to be going as well as possible!

After some time passed, she was at home watching a movie when someone knocked on the door. She opened it and there was that good looking guy again, and a cold chill went right down through her spine.

She called the doctor and made an appointment. This time the doctor used the terms “radiation and chemo.” This made her feel sick to her stomach and she went home depressed thinking, “This is something I really don't want to face,” but face it she did. The treatments amounted to strangers shooting poison into her system and irradiating her with radioactive isotopes. Her hair fell out, so she bought a wig, and in time, she felt pretty good again.

Then one night after dinner the familiar knock came to the door, and apprehensively she opened it, and there he stood. She panicked and slammed the door shut. She didn't know what to do, so she called her mom, and she came over and they agreed they would not let death enter her home. She called over more relatives and then friends, and they all agreed to keep death out! They took turns at the door watching and listening for the Angel of Death.

But he was persistent and if you were paying attention he could be seen in the yard or behind the hedgerow and even up in the old oak tree. Death had a way of getting around. Then, finally, one day with a heavy sigh she said, “Back away from the door.” At first everyone resisted, but soon the resistance gave way to resignation when she said, “I'm tired, I give up.”

Everyone moved away from the door and the Angel of Death came in and they expected to be afraid, but instead there was a contriteness about him. They almost felt sorry for him because he obviously had a very hard job. He worked for God, and it wasn't a job any angel would want to have. But there was something redemptive about it, because in one hand he held “peace” and in the other “rest.”

It's been a while since she passed, and there are those who say, “Sorry about the loss of your friend,” and I completely understand their efforts to console. But that Sunday at church there was a quiet presence in the background, and the congregation stood to sing the hymn “Abide With Me.” And it occurred to me that not everything about death and grief is bad.

David grieves the loss of both his enemy and his friend. This is God's way of showing us the importance of grieving losses, because we have to let go of what is old before we can welcome what is new.

Rev. Mitch Becker

June 30, 2024

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

Taming the Sea”

Job 38:1-11

In our text God finally answers Job after thirty-seven arduous chapters of complaints, laments and various forms of suffering. Before we venture further lets jump to the gospel selection for today to see what these two texts have in common. In the gospel Jesus is calming the storm at sea. In the Job text God speaks from a violent whirlwind and it ends with a description of the way God has created boundaries for the sea.

In the Near East the sea is a symbol for chaos rendering our text as an example of the power of God over the sometimes violent expressions of nature. God is in charge of even the sea! In the gospel story God is yet again in charge of sea where Jesus commands it to be still! You may have experienced how frightening the sea can appear to us mere human beings.

When I was twelve years old I ventured out of the harbor in Newport, Oregon on a fishing boat with a friend and his brother. His brother was a very young man, possibly a teenager, and he took us out beyond the bar. As we were leaving the harbor I noticed the red flag waving from the pole at the Coast Guard station and brought his attention to it. He felt it was nothing to be concerned about and we continued on our journey.

When we got out beyond the bar the fog closed in around us and soon our visibility was very limited. I could sense that our skipper was concerned, and he turned the boat around and we headed back into port. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick we could no longer see the bar, though we could hear the waves crashing against it. After a few minutes the fog began to clear a bit and the Coast Guard cutter passed us on its way out to rescue other boats. We didn't crash into the bar but if we had been out further before turning around it may have been a different story.

I never forgot that boat ride and the immensity of the sea and how fragile and vulnerable we were out there in the fog. In our text today God is attempting to bring Job to something of the same realization of his vulnerability as opposed to God's greatness. This is done with both sarcasm, “Who determined its measurements – surely you know!” As well as images of the sea being confined at Gods' authoritative command.

In all the Book of Job, represented in part by our text, God is hardly pastoral. There is no answer here to human suffering, but its rather about a change in perspective. Job is made to realize the severe limitations of human abilities and sustainability in a world that can be unforgiving to the point of downright hostile.

In both the Job and Gospel texts chaos comes with a capital C, but clearly God is in charge of it. God has the ability to fence it in whereas even chaos becomes part of God's ordered Creation.

To unpack our text today let's compare it to the Gospel by pointing out that chaos is being used in two different ways. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn't see where the chaos is taking him. This excerpt from Job is the beginning of a long dressing-down by God until eventually Job is humbled to the point of a profound religious experience. Job describes it like this: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)

That is a mystical understanding of the presence of God which we, as well as Job, are always engaged in, though the problem is we just don't know it because our egos blind us to God's presence. We're so full of ideas and preconceived notions about reality that we can't see the really real right in front us. Because the chaos has its way with Job he's reduced to his core-self or his True-self and the reality of God breaks through into his conscious awareness. Now, he sees what the religious teachers have been telling him about all his life. He sees the reality of God not with his eyes, but with his heart.

Jesus, on the other hand, doesn't need to be dressed-down the way Job does, or the way we often need to be. Jesus actually uses chaos to display the power of God to those around him. Jesus uses chaos as a teaching moment to help his disciples move ahead spiritually. After he calms the sea, this is how Peterson interprets what he says to the others in the boat:

Why are you such cowards? Don't you have any faith at all?” They were in absolute awe, staggered. “Who is this anyway?” they asked. “Wind and sea at his beck and call!” (Mark 4:41; The Message Bible)

Jesus challenges them by forcing them to redefine their everyday experience. He does this by exposing them to extraordinarily events that they simply can't explain. They have to stretch their ego boundaries to attempt to grasp what is happening. They essentially are saying, “Who is this that can contain the chaos making it do exactly what he wants it to do.” Many of Jesus' parables are designed to do exactly this: to stretch us beyond our naive ego understandings of reality so we can wake-up to the presence of God.

Later he takes this teaching method to the next level by allowing the chaos to crucify him. His crucifixion and resurrection were such an extraordinary event that it became a central symbol, and an entirely new religion was born. Father Rohr can tell us more:

Death and life are two sides of the same coin; we cannot have one without the other. Each time we choose to surrender, each time we trust the dying, our faith is led to a deeper level, and we discover a Larger Self underneath...It seems we only know what life is when we know what death is...We always wonder, “Will it work this time?”

.So many academic disciplines are coming together, each in its own way, to say there is a constant movement of loss and renewal at work in this world at every level. It seems to be the pattern of all growth and evolution. To be alive means to surrender to this inevitable flow. It's the same pattern in every atom, every human relationship, and in every galaxy. Indigenous peoples, Hindu gurus, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus, all saw it clearly in human history and named it as a kind of “necessary dying.”

If this pattern is true, it has been true all the time and everywhere. Such seeing did not just start two thousand years ago. All of us have to learn to let go of something smaller so something bigger can happen. But that's not a religion – it's highly visible truth. It is the Way Reality Works.

There are a lot of ways that we give up something to discover that “Larger Self underneath.” Since its summer what immediately comes to mind is church camp of which I was a counselor usually to junior high kids for many moons. Of course, you don't have to be a counselor to be making a sacrifice. The campers themselves are making a sacrifice just to be at camp! Following is a story about one such camper and how it led her to the “Larger Self underneath:”

Bethany attended camp throughout her junior and senior high school years. She always went to Camp Christian which is the camp all the Christian kids in Ohio attend, and it's located just north of Columbus. In all her years at camp there is one night she especially remembers and that is when all the campers gathered at the barn. After square dancing everyone took a candle and lit it and headed down to the worship area.

It was quite late following the dance and the dirt road led around the lake and through the forest area. In Ohio, and especially in the summer, the fireflies come out and Bethany had seen fireflies many times at camp and at home. But this night was different because the fireflies were up in the air around the trees and there were millions of them! She had a hard time taking her eyes off of them to watch the road in the dark.

Needless to say, the firefly spectacle put her into a kind of magical/sacred frame of mind so when she reached the worship area and the cross that stood at the altar, she felt God's presence in a way she'd never before. There was all the usual commotion and gossip and horsing around, but for Bethany everything seemed different...more holy...more meaningful. 

On this night the camp leaders had decided to have the campers remain silent until breakfast the following morning. Except for a few campers most did pretty well at remaining quiet. Bethany was absolutely silent for the rest of the night, and she used the precious silence to meditate on the scriptures, and especially the psalms. She couldn't sleep.

Just before they left for their cabins following worship there were a few campers who had come forward to commit their lives to full time ministry. Bethany couldn't stop thinking about them not because she was especially close to any of them, but because God was speaking to her about the ministry.

As already mentioned, it was the psalms in particular that spoke to her as she thought about Psalm 121 that says: “God guards you from every evil, he guards your very life” and Psalm 119: “How can a young person live a clean life? By carefully reading the map of your word.” and she thought of the Apostle Paul's words: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

This went on for the longest time as her mind wandered in the way a young person full of idealism does. It just seemed so wonderful to her that the opportunity to give up her life for something so important as the cause of Christ was being made available. It all seemed too good to be true. It has been a long time since her ordination, and she often thinks back fondly to those early years at camp and the way God Called her to full time ministry.

Perhaps you were a camp counselor or a camper when you were younger, and God spoke to you in some special way? Throughout our lifetimes we have all made sacrifices and given up privileges and desires for the greater good of Christ. We have sacrificed by marriage and childbirth and going to college and making big moves to different parts of the country and undergoing risky surgical procedures and visiting people in need and giving to Disciples Mission Fund and for children and grandchildren and on and on.

There are a million ways to make sacrifices, but what makes us faithful different is when we die, we do it for Christ. We want to be able to say along with the Apostle Paul that: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20b)

Rev. Mitch Becker

June 23, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Sacred Selections”

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Spirituality has a great deal to do with seeing and our text is a biblical story that illustrates the importance of proper seeing. It all begins with Samuel and God depressed about choosing Saul as king. God wants to correct the error and prompts Samuel to come out of his grief and find another king. God commissions Samuel to go to Bethlehem and locate Jesse. When Samuel arrives the town fathers are afraid of him because a prophet's message can sometimes be hard to hear.

Samuel calms their fears by assuring them he's there to worship God, and he tells them to join him in worship and be sure Jesse is there with his seven sons. As soon as Jesse and his sons arrive at worship Samuel is just sure that the eldest son, Eliab (Ee-lie-ub), was the one God had chosen to be the next king. But God says:

Looks aren't everything. Don't be impressed with his looks and stature. I've already eliminated him. I judge people differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; I look into the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7; The Message Bible) Here we see a clear distinction being made between the way God sees as opposed to the rest of us!

Following this Samuel has Jesse parade all six remaining sons before him, but the chosen one isn't among them. At this point Samuel is disillusioned and asks Jesse if there are any other sons. Jesse says, “Well, yes, there's the runt. But he's out tending the sheep.” Samuel tells Jesse to have him come in so he can get a look at him.

Now comes a shift in the text where Samuel and God both “see” in the same way. When David walks onto the scene he's described as good looking and the picture of health. This is how Samuel sees him, and God is in agreement and tells Samuel to anoint him! This is an example, and there aren't too many of them in the biblical text, where God's vision and humanities vision coincide. David is anointed the next king, and the text says the Spirit enters David to empower him for the rest of his life.

The Apostle Paul tells us in one of his letters that: “….we all...are being changed into his likeness...” (2 Corinthians 3:18a) This would mean, among other things, that our vision was being transformed to see the world the way God does. Richard Rohr can tell us more about this as he explains Jesus' transformed vision after his baptism and journey through the wilderness: Jesus announced, lived, and inaugurated for history a new social order. He called it the reign or the kingdom of God, and it became the guiding image of his entire ministry. The reign of God is the subject of Jesus' inaugural address (Matthew 4:17), his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and most of his parables.

Once the guiding vision of God's will became clear to Jesus after his baptism and time alone in the desert, everything else came into perspective. In fact, Matthew's gospel says Jesus began to preach “from then onward” (4:17) He had his absolute reference point that allowed him to judge and evaluate everything else properly.

It is this proper vision that we seek as faithful disciples of Christ, and like Christ once we have that we have our “absolute reference point” in which will determine how we think and what we do in the world. And this proper vision comes to us in stages or increments over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes it breaks through and into our conscious awareness as a religious experience like when a dream or a book speaks to us like God.

Most of the time we're not aligned with the kingdom of God or with God's vision as our text points out that we look at faces whereas God looks into people's hearts. It seems that Jesus had this special vision, and much of his ministry was training the disciples to see in the same way. Curiously, it's a disciple who did not receive the immediate attention the chosen twelve did that really “gets it!” I'm speaking of the Apostle Paul who has a dramatic, life changing religious experience on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:3-9)

From then on Paul has an “absolute reference point” to help him discern God's will and access the power of the Holy Spirit. In someways Paul's ministry is more adventurous and confrontational than Jesus' as Paul ventures out into completely different cultures! His mission is to establish religious outposts in a hostile world. He does this with courage and determination and largely succeeds.

Paul was a Pharisee who were religion scholars, so we know that he had a comprehensive knowledge of the scriptures prior to his conversion. Jesus' religious preparation before his baptism is a bit more vague, other than we know he was a rabbi and probably of the Pharisee sect. From this we can determine that both Jesus and Paul were well versed in the scriptures. This proposes that if one wishes to be gifted with God's vision then prior knowledge of the scriptures is strongly suggested. This especially applies following any type of significant religious/spiritual transformation.

Since any type of immediate transformational experience will leave one with an entirely different view of the world (Jesus calls this “being born anew”). (John 3:7) In this regard, spiritual transformation can happen quite suddenly, as it did for Paul, leaving one wanting for a new way to define everyday experiences. New vision requires new understanding, and the scriptures provide such definition. When you're viewing the kingdom of God it would be good to call it that, enabling you to ground your experience in the scriptures.

We need preparation to help us cope with any newfound situation. Often, we hear on news reports when some lucky stiff hits the Lotto and wins a million or two or maybe a hundred million dollars. Everyone on the news staff is really happy for them, and wonders when its going to happen to them. I'm sure someone has written a book that follows-up on lottery winners and where their new found fortune takes them. There is a fictional work entitled: “The Lottery Winners” about how hitting the jackpot results in a couple becoming caught up in a web of murder, revenge and deceit. Often fiction is not too far from the real world.

It's easy to imagine such things happening since wealth, like success, opens doors that typically remain closed prior to whatever good fortune takes place. There is even a psychological condition called Sudden Wealth Syndrome or SWS that can lead to feelings of isolation, paranoia, guilt, uncertainty and shock. One-way SWS can manifest is through loved ones asking for money, or becoming jealous, or alienating the person in some way.

The point being that new situations, and especially if they're visited upon us in some intense, sudden way require a certain amount of preparation to cope effectively and responsibly. This is true in the physical world as well as the spiritual one. I would say even more so in the spiritual world since the culture itself lends very little assistance in regard to the Spirit.

In a culture that worships success and wealth there are a lot of avenues one can take to get the help you may need. By the same token, in a culture that is largely devoid of spiritual interest or experience it can be difficult to find spiritual direction to help you negotiate the challenges when you “wake up” to the kingdom of God. It behooves us to read our bibles, and to be grounded in a viable in-depth prayer life.

 The text makes it clear that God and human beings see the world in a different way. Reading through Jesus' parables can leave you wondering what in the world he's getting at with mustard seeds that grow into large shrubs and treasure found in a field. Yet it is apparent through a study of the scriptures that the kingdom of God is what he's all about, and therefore what we need to be all about. Richard Rohr has a few more choice words to say about Christ's kingdom:

God gives us just enough tastes of God's realm to believe in it and want it more than anything. In his parables, Jesus never says the kingdom is totally now or totally later. It's always now-and-not-yet. We only have the first fruits of the kingdom in this world, but we experience it enough to know it's the only thing that will ever satisfy us.

When the people doing the news broadcast rejoice with the Lotto winners it gives the impression that if that only happened to us we would be forever satiated. The scriptures don't concur with the notion of satisfaction through material abundance. The most popular rock & roll song of all time is “I Can't Get No Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (or some say the Rolling Bones).

That's the song of the ego as it strives to get its contrived needs met. As the psalm tells us: “God, the one and only – I'll wait as long as he says. Everything I need comes from him, so why not?” (Psalm 62:1; The Message Bible)

Rev. Mitch Becker

June 16, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

 

First Christian Church

Quarantined by Family & Foes”

Mark 3:20-35

If ever a text required unpacking, it's this one with an apocalyptic story at the center about the devil and a strong man getting tied up! On either side of the apocalyptic story are other stories involving Jesus' family who are worried that he has lost his mind! Perhaps they're anxious about his ministry and all the healing and exorcisms going on, and beyond that most everything Jesus is doing simply doesn't fit in with traditional family values.

Enter the religious authorities who come from the home office in Jerusalem. Again, Jesus is upsetting traditional values in being confrontational with the authorities rather than respectful. The religious authorities are unsettled about the influence Jesus is having with the general population and respond by making the claim he's in league with the devil.

Jesus is caught in a pincer move with his family attempting to rein him in due to his eccentricity and the authorities worried about their power being usurped by this uppity rabbi. Jesus responds to neither the authorities or his family, but rather with a apocalyptic story about the devil including the question: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” What Jesus is getting at is if he's in league with the devil why is he casting out demons?

This is how Jesus shows the religious authorities are being nonsensical, and then by expanding upon the story with commonplace notions of how a house divided against itself cannot stand. Then he compares Satan to a strong man who needs to be tied up so his house can be ransacked. This begs the question who is strong enough to bind up Satan, which leads to the best news of all. The one who can bind Satan is the Son of God!

This also explains the notion about not being able to forgive someone that blasphemy's against the Holy Spirit. This is a direct response to the authorities accusations because though they have seen the healing and exorcisms Jesus does, they still deny the possibility of God's reign on earth. How can a people who have witnessed the power of God to make people whole be healed of their own fragmented lives? This is blatant denial of the power of God, and this is what cannot be forgiven.

Here the gospel most presents itself as Jesus right at the center of the struggle to bring God's kingdom to full fruition in our broken world. God is not off on the periphery but is right smack dab in the middle of the fight!

We should all take comfort in the fact that Jesus, who represents the very presence of God, is not satisfied with people being in bondage, subject to illnesses and demon possession, and all the while caving-in to something less than the Life God offers us. For the duration of his ministry Jesus is not going to give in, but will persist in healing, exorcisms and the forgiving of wrongdoing in the ushering in of God's kingdom on earth.

This is being written on the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of the liberation of Europe by allied forces. On June 6, 1944, nearly 160,000 allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. The cost in human life and health was staggering, and it was only the beginning to a protracted struggle against the forces of tyranny. Freedom is not free.

Our text brings us to the early days of Jesus' ministry and like the allies at Normandy he is up against the forces of tyranny, but unlike the allies the weapons he brings are not carbines and howitzers, but rather the power of God. The prophets before him also often faced the powers of evil with little more than prayer and the prophetic word, but what Jesus is doing has really never been done before.

The prophets healed and pronounced the promises of God, but they never confronted evil in the way Christ does by casting out demons in God's name. Jesus takes the devil on toe to toe, and makes it quite clear that though the devil is powerful his power does not exceed that of the Holy One. The light is no match for the darkness. As scripture states: “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness, the darkness couldn't put it out.” (John 1:5; The Message Bible)

In our text today there are three groups of participants and I've mentioned the authorities and Jesus' family, but haven't said anything about the crowd that was following him around. These are the other disciples who play an integral part in Jesus' ministry, and the crowds must have been quite large even at this early stage of the game. Writer Joyce Rupp has something to say about the crowds and how they felt about this new kind of prophet:

What did the crowd following Jesus think when he made that tough statement, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one's own self – can't be my disciple. Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can't be my disciple.” (Luke 14, 26-27; The Message Bible)

Did they wonder what carrying the cross meant? Did they have second thoughts about accompanying him? Jesus wanted his followers to know that the journey they would make involved knowing and enlivening the teaching he advocated.

In other words, Jesus was cautioning them, “If you decide to give yourselves to what truly counts in life, it will cost you. You will feel these teachings to be burdensome at times, like the weight of a cross.”

We can't just sit on the roadside of life and call ourselves followers of Jesus. We are to do more than esteem him for his generous love and dedicated service. We do not hear Jesus grumbling about the challenges and demands of this way of life. We do not see him “talking a good talk” but doing nothing about it. He describes his vision and then encourages others to join him in moving those teachings into action.

Joyce Rupp is talking about a collection of disciples referred to as the “crowd” in the text. We are also a collection of disciples referred to as the body of Christ or the church. We have decided to give ourselves “to what truly counts in this life.” One way to describe what truly counts is to have faith in God and subsequently lead a life of compassion.

I see our church committed to what truly counts in this life. I see a collection of disciples praying together and learning from the scriptures and allowing God to be involved in all levels of their existence. I see a collection of disciples caring for their church and for its members and for past members. This care goes outward like ripples on a pond to encompass so many other people I wouldn't even dare to guess at a number.

One example of this is the way Karen and I (but mostly Karen) assist Mark (Celia Read's son) to care for his mother at a great distance. Can you imagine what this means to Mark, let alone to Celia. To reach out beyond your immediate sphere of concerns to help others is what it means to lead a life of compassion and certainly this is the example set for us by Jesus.

I see us providing a space and facilities for struggling addicts numbering more than a hundred people, and again the total number of people being affected by our compassionate response is hard to estimate. All these folks have families and friends and relationships at work and in their faith communities and in the community in general. All these people receive benefits from the NA folks in recovery from drug addiction.

When we are turning Jesus' teachings into action in the manner I've just described we become the family members he's talking about at the end of our text: He was surrounded by the crowd when he was given the message, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.” Jesus responded, “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, “Right here, right in front of you – my mother and brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God's will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:32-35; The Message Bible) 

The way Eugene Peterson redefines family in The Message is by rephrasing Jesus' words to say: “Obedience is thicker than blood.” This builds upon what Jesus is doing in his own redefinition of family. Jesus redefines family by putting it into terms of discipleship. He's saying in effect that you're my true family when you follow me and do as I am teaching you. Here's a story that hopefully will illuminate:

Connie and Carl had lived in the same house for nearly 30 years and were comfortable in their little 1200 square foot home. One day Carl came home from work to be greeted by a quest who his wife had invited to dinner. She had met her at the senior center she frequented where she played cribbage on Thursday afternoons.

Carl was used to coming home after work and mindlessly falling into long established routines including feeding the dogs and helping prepare dinner and washing the dishes afterward. Connie's invited quests name was Gertrude. Gertrude was so taken with their two dogs that she actually got down on the floor with the dogs toys and played with them. It made Carl think about how long it had been since he did the same with the dogs. He couldn't remember.

After dinner Gertrude told Connie how much she appreciated the hospitality and how delicious the meal was. Again, Carl thought to himself, “How long has it been since I complimented my wife on her cooking?” It was Gertrude's habit to go for a walk after dinner and so she excused herself and said she'd return shortly.

Upon her return she said she had met with some neighbors by the name of Schneider and they seemed like really nice people. Carl had heard about some people from Germany that moved into the neighborhood. After Gertrude left Carl couldn't help but think how her visit had revealed how much he was neglecting because of his routines and mindless redundant practices.

Like Carl, we all fall into routines and comfortable practices because we naturally seek the path of least resistance. That does not describe The Way of Jesus' ministry and teachings. Jesus led a life of ever-expanding consciousness and inclusion of others. Such a lifestyle requires discipline and meeting various challenges in faith with compassion shown to self and others. This is how we live if we want to belong to Jesus' family.

Rev. Mitch Becker

June 9, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Clay Jars”

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Our text this morning is an excellent example of why the Apostle Paul has been such a powerful influence upon our faith throughout the ages. In this excerpt, among other things, Paul tells us what it means to follow Christ with integrity allowing ourselves to be subjected to death in order for the life of Christ to be manifested in the world.

In college I took so many classes with Marcus Borg that I ended up with a minor in religion. When writing a paper in his class he always put an emphasis upon beginning it with a clear and concise thesis statement. The thesis statement should describe what the paper is about as a whole. The opening line in our text today could be described as Paul's thesis statement.

For what we preach is not for ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as servants for Jesus' sake.”

What this means is when we present ourselves to others in the world, we don't do that to bring attention to ourselves or to brag about our achievements; what we need to do is announce that the Messiah is Lord, and if we really mean that in our hearts then we are fully committed to a life of compassion and giving to others for Jesus' sake.

Paul then employs a metaphor comparing our fragile and vulnerable existence as mortal beings to “clay jars.” These clay jars were earthenware vessels often used in worship services in the temple which could easily be broken or contaminated. Everyone would know what he was talking about, and then he contrasts this with the power that comes from God. This power can flow through us when “...we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed.”

Paul may be thinking about the persecution the disciples experienced, or even about Jesus on the cross when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For us, different forms of health challenges come to mind, or the conflicts and hardship that arise from family problems that if severe enough can keep us up at night. When seeking relief from these tests of faith we may turn to prayer.

As we submit to death (prayer is one way of doing that) in all its varied forms our personal defenses and ego illusions are broken down allowing the power of God to flow through us and out into the world. In following the Messiah, we no longer live for ourselves, but we live for others for Jesus' sake. As Paul puts it so succinctly, “...death in me, life for you.” 

Speaking of health challenges on occasion I've had to cope with nose bleeds which is something that has troubled me since my ministry in Ohio. The winters are far more brutal there than in the Northwest and they decimated my skin which this climate has since healed. I learned Wednesday that my nose has also sustained considerable damage. The arteries in the upper part of my nose are compromised to the point they'll need to be cauterized.

This will take place at the surgical center in Poulsbo, and it will involve anesthesia. It has to be done, as the doctor explained if I ever had to take blood thinners or even aspirin I'd be in a fix. There are other reasons to get it done that I won't go into, and I'm not a stranger to surgery and anesthesia, but not particularity thrilled with the prospect of another procedure.

There are a couple initial fears that I'm having to deal with whereas the first being related to a country doctor I visited while in Ohio. He neither had the tools or apparently the expertise to deal with my fragile nose arteries. After attempting to treat the problem he actually made the bleeding much worse. Undoubtedly Dr. Jungkeit (Young-kite) has considerably more experience and far better tools to work with, yet the fear persists that he'll simply make things worse.

The other initial fear can be more easily remedied, and it stems from the notion that if he cauterizes the arteries in my nose how does my nose get the blood it needs? Arteries aren't veins, they are the main source of blood for that area. Obviously, I need to do some research.

Following my visit and learning about what needs to take place I stopped at Latte on the Way and treated myself to a peppermint mocha. The gal in the little coffee house asked me what I was up to that day, and I told her my nose was getting looked into. She said, “Oh, are you having nose bleeds?” I said, “Yes, I am, and Dr. Jungkeit is going to cauterize the arteries.” She said, “He's a great doctor! He fixed my deviated septum. He'll take good care of you.” I left her an ample tip.

I had Oreo with me, so we stooped at Diamond Point Road and walked the Olympic Discovery Trail for a bit, and the Shasta Daisies looked so beautiful, and the hawk circling above spoke to me of the way nature just keeps doing its thing regardless of what's happening to me. My mind and soul were open to the world around me, and I was comforted by being in the presence of something that I could count on. The world seemed unchangeable, though my world felt fragile and my future uncertain.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

The encouragement that came from the gal making my coffee was unsolicited. I only had to be forthright about what was happening to me. It was a bit like a confession and though it wasn't followed by an act of forgiveness her comments did have that effect. I felt, and still do to some extent, a burden being lifted, because my faith allowed me to see the transcendent power of God behind her words of encouragement.

The Shasta Daisies are always there. I have seen them many times as well as the hawk that circles the fields adjacent to that part of the trail. But on this day my sense of fragility allowed the transcendent power of God to breakthrough my worried mind and I saw the flowers and the hawk again for the first time.

It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” And our lives filled up with light and we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful. (2 Corinthians 4:6; The Message Bible)

The phrase, “Let light shine out of darkness” comes right out of the Book of Genesis (Genesis 1:3) and that light reverberates in the coming of a just and merciful Messiah, and it shines in our hearts giving us knowledge of the transcendent presence of God. Theologian Grace Ji-Sun (Gee-Sun) Kim brings this all into the context of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit makes us “spiritually” alive. It inspires and strengthens us and gives us aspirations, inspirations, and intuitions. It opens us to new truths and enables us to integrate these truths into our minds and lives....We want the Spirit to open us to its presence so we may be transformed. We believe that this openness to God's transforming presence will make us truly alive.

She says that being open to “God's transforming presence” is what makes us “truly alive” and that's really what Paul is saying when he talks about Christ's life being manifested in us after we submit ourselves to death. God's transforming Spirit that emerges after dying, in whatever manner that dying takes – resurrects us! This is all made possible when we define our lives in spiritual terms.

Can you see that's what I'm doing following my visit with Dr, Jungkeit? I'm comforted and encouraged by the barista's words and inspired by hawk and the Shasta Daisies because I see all these things in spiritual terms. It is a creative act that my faith enables and my spirit welcomes. In these times we live there are fewer and fewer people engaged in such creative acts and one big reason is a term you're probably not too familiar with: nihilism. (Nye-ill-lism)

Nihilism is the all too prevalent belief that life is essentially meaningless. A large contributor to this pervasive cultural belief is the sciences and in particular the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution leads many people to conclude that there is no intelligence, let alone a divine guiding force, behind the process of evolution. Charles Darwin would not subscribe to that but many in our present culture do.

For many people in our modern culture the process of evolution is totally random resulting in living organisms coming into existence with no godly guiding force behind it. From there the jump is easily made to a meaningless existence. This sense of nihilism is the source of much depression and even drug addiction especially among our youth.

You can see that in a nihilistic culture there is little use or interest in religious beliefs let alone religious institutions like our church. We face a steep mountain to climb and it's important that we're not in denial about such matters. We need to know what we're up against, because there is another side to it all.

I don't believe this can go on forever. It's obvious to anyone that's paying attention that the institutional Church as we've known it is dying. That's the bad news. The good news is that at the heart of our faith is a seed of resurrection. That seed is so deeply implanted, and such an integral part of our theology and religious practice that eventually it will express itself. Today in our text Paul is telling us about this seed of resurrection when he says:

.We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we've been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn't left our side; we've been thrown down, but we haven't broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us – trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us – he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus' sake, which makes Jesus' life all the more evident in us.

Paul is going well beyond the personal health challenges I've been talking about which can lead to spiritual growth if you're willing to define your world in spiritual terms. Paul and the early church were up against persecution from hostile political systems because those systems felt threatened. We're not being persecuted for our beliefs and subversive activity. Our poor bodies are just wearing out.

Life presents numerous hardships for the faithful, but praise the Lord there is life in Christ.

Rev. Mitch Becker

June 2, 2024

Port Angeles  

 

First Christian Church

The Cost of Forgiveness”

Isaiah 6:1-8

Our text today is about little Judea (Jew-dee-uh) up against the premier fighting force of the time the Assyrian army. In every way the Assyrians were superior to Judea including having advanced weaponry, massive economic support and they were even proficient at psychological warfare. In stark contrast Jerusalem had only hastily erected defenses and was filled with refugees from the countryside and other captured cities. A scene from the war movie “Saving Private Ryan” can serve to illustrate their situation.

Toward the end of the movie the Americans led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) are holed up in a bombed-out town low on both armaments and morale. The Germans are making one, last desperate push with both tanks and infantry, and in one of my favorite lines in the movie Captain Miller tells them they can use sticky bombs against the tanks. The men aren't too sure about this, so Captain Miller tells them not to worry because the sticky bombs are in the service manual. At which Private Ryan (Matt Damon) replies, “Were a little short on service manuals around here.”

This begins to give us a feel for the setting for our text, and to bring this home we need to understand something about the opening line. The text begins by stating that it is the year King Uzziah (O-zhi-uh) died. King Uzziah reigned for a remarkable five decades and his death would have raised questions about political and socioeconomic stability as well as who would be the next king. Therefore, “within” they're dealing with widespread uncertainty and anxiety about their future, and on the “outside” they're up against the brutal and far superior Assyrian army.

Enter Isaiah to bring comfort to the people not with reassurance about negotiating political and social transitions, but rather by reinforcing religious convictions. Though the earthly kingship is in transition the heavenly kingship is secure with the Lord sitting on the throne. The imagery continues with seraphs (sare-roughs) which were likely some form of winged serpent flanking the throne.

Then the most curious thing occurs, and Isaiah doesn't address the military crisis, but rather emphasizes the holiness of God as opposed to God's might. The seraphs, who we can take to be angels, exclaim: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The Message Bible translates “Lord of Hosts” as “God of the Angel Armies” which is an apt translation putting the emphasis on God as a warrior fighting in the people's defense.

But this is not where Isaiah is going, because the overall imagery denotes a God of grand holiness who pervades and fills the whole earth. From these opening passages we can make two assumptions: It is holiness, not might, that will protect the people, and God's presence is not limited to any one nation but permeates the entire earth.

Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? The first time you see the Grand Canyon it is so enormous and magnificent it is hard to describe it with words. You just can't take it all in. Karen and her son actually hiked to the bottom of it, whereas I only made it to the first rest stop. Isaiah is having a Grand Canyon experience in the temple, and this comes with an added dimension to it, because to see God was believed to be life threatening. That's why he says:

… “Doom! It's Doomsday! I'm as good as dead! Every word I've ever spoken is tainted – blasphemous even! And the people I live with talk the same way, using words that corrupt and desecrate. And here I've looked God in the face! The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!” (Isaiah 6:5; The Message Bible)

Isaiah feels he'll not leave the temple alive, and then God does something totally unexpected and takes away Isaiah's guilt and shame with one bold stroke:

Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me. He held a live coal he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with the coal and said, “Look. The coal has touched your lips. Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.” And then I heard the voice of the Master: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” I spoke up, “I'll go. Send me!”

Isaiah is forgiven and his soul is cleansed and not solely for Isaiah's sake but to prepare him for a ministry to the people. There is a method to God's madness here, meaning God has a purpose for this cleansing, and Isaiah unlike Moses before him or Jeremiah who came after does nothing to resist the Call.

Moses tells God he's no good with words and Jeremiah gives a similar excuse, but Isaiah is on board from the get-go, “I'll go. Send me!” The big difference between Isaiah and the other prophets is the seraph puts a hot coal to his lips which could not have felt particularly good. Metaphorically, it demonstrates the hardship that can accompany forgiveness.

Forgiveness can be painful which is why a lot of people forgo the process altogether. It can be painful when it involves processing the pain of a betrayal or in some other way you've been wronged. It can feel like you're giving up the right to get even, and it can be difficult to establish trust with someone you formally trusted.

All of these reasons can make forgiveness a painful process and Isaiah undergoes the pain and emerges ready to take on a very difficult ministry. To understand what he was up against we need to look at the rest of the chapter:

He said, “Go and tell these people: “Listen hard, but you aren't going to get it; look hard, but you won't catch on. Make these people blockheads, with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, so they won't see a thing, won't hear a word, so they won't have a clue about what's going on and, yes, so they won't turn around and be made whole.”

Astonished, I said, “And Master, how long is this to go on?” He said, “Until the cities are emptied out, not a soul left in the cities – houses empty of people, countryside empty of people. Until I, God, get rid of everyone, sending them off, the land totally empty. And even if some should survive, say a tenth, the devastation will start up again. The country will look like pine and oak forest with every tree cut down – every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps. But there's a holy seed in those stumps.” (Isaiah 6:9-13; The Message Bible)

I difficult ministry to say the least! It sounds a bit like our own culture with many people who don't seem to “have a clue about what's going on.” Even more troubling is God's intention to so blind people to spiritual matters that they “won't turn around and be made whole.” That is an astonishing thing for God to say since the central point and purpose of the gospel is to bring people to a wholeness of mind, body and spirit.

These closing paragraphs in the chapter would be depressing indeed if it wasn't for the ray of hope in the last sentence, “But there's a holy seed in those stumps.” For Christians the “holy seed” we would assume to be Jesus, and there's another way to look at it, though it requires some spiritual depth and understanding.

I suggested last Sunday during the communion meditation that there is a healing that can precede forgiveness. In the Bible the healing I'm speaking of is called Salvation or Jesus calls it “being born from above” in the gospel. This is the healing of our soul of spirit which occurs prior to psychological healing which takes longer and requires a long term commitment to prayer and/or therapy and other practices that promote psychological healing. Richard Rohr told a story about forgiveness that may be helpful at this point:

I remember when I was jail chaplain in Albuquerque, I would read in the newspaper the stories of criminals in our city, and I would form an opinion about how terrible they were. Years ago, a young woman committed murder to steal a baby. Everybody in the city hated her, I think. I went to the jail the very next day, and they told me she wanted to see a priest.

I didn't want to go into the cell because I knew I wouldn't like her. I knew I would judge her because I already judged her. I can't tell the whole story, but I will share this much: when I left that cell, I had nothing but tears and sympathy for the suffering of that young woman. You see, the One who knows all can forgive all. But all we know is a little piece – the part that has offended us. Only God knows all, and so God is the One who can forgive all.

If we're honest, none of us have lived the gospel. None of us has loved as we could love, or as we have been loved by God. I talk about it from the pulpit much better than I live it. And yet that very recognition – that I have not yet lived love – allows me to stand under the waterfall of infinite mercy. It's only then that I know how to let mercy flow through me freely. That I receive it undeservedly allows me to give it undeservedly.

This story brings us full circle with Isaiah in the temple in front of the Master seated high on the throne with his robes filling the temple and the angels hovering above him. At this point Isaiah is not ready to respond to God's call to ministry, but the humbling holy experience brings him to full recognition of his own limitations and he says, “Doom! It's Doomsday! I'm as good as dead! Every word I've ever spoken is tainted – blasphemous even!”

Following that unreserved confession the seraph applies the hot coal and Isaiah is forgiven from the inside out. As Father Rohr pointed out it is the very recognition that we “have not yet lived love” that allows us to receive the grace we need to attempt to live it. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25a)

This is perhaps the most painful part of the forgiveness process and why so many avoid it at all costs. Because for us to receive forgiveness requires a candid confession concerning our own thoughts and behaviors. Nobody wants to go there but go there we must and by the grace of God it is made possible.

Rev. Mitch Becker

May 26, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

Dem Dry Bones Are Going to Walk Again!”

Ezekiel 37:1-15

This morning, we have the alternative text offered by the lectionary for Pentecost Day because it is also a story about the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Let's begin by looking at the historical context of this famous story in the Old Testament. It takes place during the Babylonian exile in 597 BCE where the armies of Babylon have forcibly relocated the king and many Judean leaders to Babylon.

This initial move happened because Jerusalem had rebelled, and ten years later the city rebelled again resulting in the Babylonians destroying much of the city including the temple. A second wave of Judean leaders were then deported, and among the first group of deportees was the young Ezekiel who was later called by God to prophesy to the people.

For the deportees who were forced into exile the future seemed hopeless and depression was rampant among them. Some of them were aware that a century and a half earlier their sister kingdom Israel had also been deported and had lost their sense of identity to fade into the mists of history. These are the so-called lost tribes of Israel.

The exile amounted to more than just a crisis of communal identity and considerable physical suffering – it also amounted to a crisis in faith. All the key elements of their faith had been eliminated including the temple, the Davidic monarchy and even Jerusalem itself! It's not hard to grasp that with all this loss and destruction the people felt their God had been defeated by a greater god. They wondered if their God cared about them at all anymore.

From a literary point of view, we can understand the text as both a lament and a prophetic message of deliverance. One example of lament is toward the end of the text where the people cry out: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” In this context bones can be considered symbolic for one's deepest self. Think of Adam searching for a partner and when he finally finds Eve he says, “This at last is bone of my bones.”

Considering both the lament and prophetic message of deliverance we see the text as a whole is a response to the people's sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. Though prophets often bring messages of judgment or a call to repentance or a rebuke calling for obedience in this case Ezekiel brings good news. The summation of good news can be found at the end of the text with the proclamation: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” This is good news because it is God promising to reach out and bring the people back from exile!

There are few stories in the Bible that so capture the heart of our faith and the power God possesses to bring us back to life and hope. To begin with the imagery of dry bones is desolate enough, but compound this with the setting which is an open, empty plain and it is desolate indeed. Ezekiel is the vehicle God uses to convey his word of resurrection to the bones, and the resurrection is complete with sinews and muscle and rustling – skeletons coming alive with new flesh!

These are dead people who've been in the ground long enough for the flesh to decay leaving only dry bone. When they're able to speak again what comes out of their mouths is what you might expect from a dead person who hasn't fully realized they've been resurrected. They say, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there's nothing left in us.” They don't get it! They don't get it because God has not breathed life back into them yet.

God tells Ezekiel to share the good news that God is going to complete what he has begun, and he will breathe new life into them, and he will return them to their homeland. This is the great hope of anyone in exile and God has promised to do so. We must listen to this wonderful story from The Message Bible because it so well encapsulates what our faith is all about. Listen closely to the story and try to get a feel for what is happening:

God grabbed me. God's Spirit took me up and sat me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones. He led me around and among them – a lot of bones! There were bones all over the plain – dry bones, bleached by the sun. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Master God, only you know that.” He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones: 'Dry bones, listen to the message of God!'”

God, the Master, told the dry bones, “Watch this: I'm bringing the breath of life to you and you'll come to life. I'll attach sinews (sin-you's) to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You'll come alive and you'll realize I'm God!” I prophesied just as I'd been commanded. As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone.

I kept watching, sinews formed, then muscle on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them. He said to me, prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, 'God, the Master, says, Come the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!'”

So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army. Then God said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Listen to what they're saying:

'Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there's nothing left of us.' “Therefore, prophesy. Tell them, 'God, the Master, says: I'll dig up your graves and bring you out alive – O my people! Then I'll take you straight to the land of Israel. When I dig up graves and bring you out as my people, you'll realize that I am God. I'll breathe my life into you and you'll live. Then I'll lead you straight back to your land and you'll realize that I am God. I've said it and I'll do it. God's Decree.'”

One interesting aspect of the story is though the breath of life is breathed into them and they do stand up on their feet to become a “huge army,” they still don't fully understand what is happening. They now have sinew and muscle and complete covering of skin over their bodies, but their hearts and minds remain in an exiled depression. Which means the full resurrection of their whole self has not yet happened.

Their mind, body and spirit are not yet healed because that is a process, but the holy promise has been made: “I'll breathe my life into you, and you'll live.” But this breathing of life into them, as well as us, requires full participation along with a willingness to be healed. This is where faith becomes a verb. Faith in this case means to be consistently open to the healing of the entire body, mind and spirit.

What sometimes happens is the spirit is healed first, and then the body and mind are healed when faith is lived out as a verb. Faith defined here is the willingness and ability to remain open to the “breath of life.” At this point we can observe a clear parallel with the traditional story of Pentecost Day. On that day the Holy Spirit comes upon the early church as tongues of fire and a mighty wind enabling the disciples to speak in tongues.

Yet, in one sense Pentecost had already happened because the Gospel of John tells us that following Jesus' resurrection when he first appears to his disciples, he breathes the Holy Spirit into them:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19-22)

The resurrected Jesus now has sinew, muscle and skin anew and in the role of prophet acting as a vehicle for the Father breathes unto his disciples to give them the Holy Spirit. We might call this a “Pre-Pentecost” or the beginning of the process of receiving the Holy Spirit.

 The idea of “process' when considering things of the Spirit is crucial because healing happens one day at a time. Salvation comes to us not in one grand event, but many times over many years, and therefore we must learn to be patient. Waiting is absolutely essential to the spiritual life.

As I write this sermon what keeps occurring to me are the folks coming to our church four nights out of the week. The Narcotics Anonymous groups must total somewhere around one hundred people seeking healing. Healing for them is a process that involves at times the same feelings of hopelessness and dread that the exiles experienced.

One of the terrible dilemmas involving recovery is that the thing which is killing you, unlike cancer or heart disease, is something you don't really want to let go of. The ego becomes remarkably cunning and deceptive when it comes to addiction and recovery. A battle emerges between the ego which fights to hold fast to the addiction, while the Spirit attempts to free the person from the egos bondage. It's as if the Devil rests on one shoulder while an angel of God is on the other and the addict is caught in the middle.

The community of fellow addicts seeking healing keeps raising your awareness to the death dealing nature of the addiction, and at the same time its remarkably difficult to imagine life without an addiction. The community assists in the imagining of a new life, and also reinforces your faith in God or a higher power or something that is beyond you and transcends your small minded destructive ego thoughts.

It is a fact that most addicts, 75% according to Google, will recover from an addictive lifestyle. The most fortunate and blessed of these will acquire a lifetime of seeking spiritual strength where God becomes the bedrock of their lives. These are the ones who become “invincible,” and learn as the Apostle Paul says, “....for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10b) Or as it says in the psalms: “I love you, God – you make me strong, God is bedrock under my feet....” (Psalm 18:1-2; The Message Bible)

God breathes into the exiles the breath of life as does Jesus with his disciples and this receiving of the Spirit is a process for them as well as for us. There is no rushing it as the faithful must learn to be patient and not give in to hopelessness, vulnerability or a sense of dread. In time the resurrection of the whole being – body, mind and spirit – will be accomplished. This is God's promise. It is God's Decree!

Rev. Mitch Becker

May 19, 2024

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

Waiting Is The Way”

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

This morning we're looking at the first recorded faith crisis for the early church, and it's interesting to note that at this time the earliest followers of Christ were not yet known as Christians but were identified as “The Way.” These followers have gathered in an upper room perhaps the very room they had gathered in for the Last Supper?

When considering the entire chapter, we can discern three separate elements to this faith crisis beginning with the frustration they were surely dealing with because Jesus didn't turn out to be what they were hoping for. They were hoping for liberation from Roman oppression and the restoration of the nation of Israel. What they got was a brutal crucifixion and the full implications of his resurrection had not yet been revealed. This is the first indication of a crisis when things don't turn out the way you hoped they would.

Also, Jesus had told them they would need to be patient. (Acts 1:7-8) We all know how much fun it is to wait, and especially to wait upon other people. Who of us haven't had to wait for the results of a scan or blood test wondering how bad those results might be, or idly sit at the ferry terminal on stand-by, or (and especially during the pandemic) waiting in a long line of cars at the coffee vendors while the patron chats with the pretty girl. We all know how much fun it is to wait, and that's exactly what Jesus told them to do – wait upon the promise made by God the Father that the Holy Spirit is on the way.

Another significant element in the crisis is this is a major transition in leadership. For anywhere from one to three years, depending upon what gospel you're reading, Jesus was with them leading Bible studies, preaching sermons, and giving them a fresh look at what we call the Old Testament. In all that time they mostly followed his lead, but now he was gone. Somebody needs to step in and assume leadership of this fledgling group of followers.

As Jesus' chosen followers the apostles, as well as probably hundreds of other disciples, journeyed with Jesus through the wilderness, villages and cities following in the way he taught and demonstrated by example. In this way they were in service to one another and to the needy world around them. This is how they lived-into the kingdom of God that Jesus constantly talked about.

They knew Jesus as described in John's gospel as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” because they had seen it with their own eyes in how God enabled Jesus to make a way through death into life again. In these first days following the resurrection they are intentionally and intensely learning about the kingdom of God.

In this first recorded crisis, they must choose a replacement for Judas, and on a broader scale they are on their own in terms of learning how to live into Christ's new kingdom until either the Holy Spirit comes or Christ himself returns.

I'm convinced that a crucial aspect of learning how to live into Christ's new kingdom is the practice of some form of quiet meditation. In my own practice I've reached the point that when I stop for a contemplative sit, which is typically in the afternoon, and often again at bedtime, waiting on God becomes the primary focus.

Jesus told the disciples to wait upon the Holy Spirit and that probably resulted in considerable frustration because no one likes to wait. A quick example is the people once again driving through our parking lot rather than waiting at the stop sign to turn right onto Park Avenue. When ICI construction was occupying the parking lot people couldn't drive through, but now that they're gone the practice has resumed.

It's a good illustration of the way people will do anything to avoid waiting. Our parking lot is not smooth and has at least one pot hole from hell! Yet, some people when coming up Race Street would rather negotiate our bumpy parking lot than have to wait at the stop sign before turning right.

When you begin to take contemplation seriously it involves at its core waiting. What are you waiting on? Simply put, you're waiting on God to show up. The waiting itself happens in the dark, emptiness of the quieted mind. Of course, there is typically interference from competing thoughts and images, but over years of practice you learn to let those thoughts and images pass by like clouds in the sky.

During these times of contemplation God does not typically appear but will come forth later in moments of a deep abiding peace or a burst of insight. And often you're left with a lasting and distinct sense of well-being which is a kind of contentment that exceeds just feeling good. Sometimes God breaks-through with a full-blown epiphany, but these are rare, yet powerful and memorable when they happen.

What this contemplative practice finally becomes is simply waiting on God in the dark, emptiness of your mind, and in time it becomes apparent that this waiting on God is the only thing at this level of existence worth waiting for. We wait for all types of things including coffee at Starbucks or a trip to Wenatchee for a regional assembly, but all these things are temporary. They come and go. They don't last like the Holy Spirit Jesus is wanting the disciples to wait upon.

Let's hear a bit more from James Finley and what he's talking about prior to this excerpt is exactly what I'm trying to describe. He calls it “the essential.”

.that which is given to us in the metaphorical fire of this quiet oneness, never imposes itself upon us, while the unessential is constantly imposing itself on us. We begin to wonder, “How can I learn not to get so caught up in the complexities of the day to day that I keep losing my sense of connectedness with this depth, this fire, which alone is ultimately real?”

.When I was in the monastery, the whole monastic life was carefully designed to protect us from distractions and enable us to experience what I'm talking about. But the world we live in isn't like that, so we have to create a contemplative culture in our heart. We must vow to ourselves: I will not play the cynic, I will not break faith with my awakened heart. I know that in my most childlike hour, the cutting edge of the pain, the sweetness of the glance, the smell of the flower, I was graced by what transcends and permeates every moment of my life.

Therefore, we want to set aside a quiet time of availability to this. We have to stay with it. We have to be patient and calm. We have to be receptively open to this way of being. And at the end of each rendezvous with the deeper place, we ask for the grace not to break the thread of that sensitivity as we go through the rest of the day. Although the thread breaks many times from our end, it never breaks from God's end...

He describes the deep sense of connectedness as that which is ultimately real, and I'm saying something of the same thing that waiting on God in the dark, emptiness becomes the only thing really worth waiting for. God is what's real, and the rest of it, including the person I think I am, is merely illusion.

In order to break through the illusions to see what is real or to see the kingdom of God as Jesus put it, we have to allow God to clear our vision. Animals don't need to practice contemplation to see the real world because their vision is already cleared of clutter and the blindness that language encumbers us with.

Oreo will stare out the window that's next to the door that opens into the fellowship hall. Most windows are too high for her to see out of, but the window in the fellowship hall allows her to see the outside world. She will sit there for extended periods of time not moving a muscle or even twitching her ears. What does she see?

I can tell you what she doesn't see. She doesn't see green grass or a parking lot with a Rav 4 parked in it, nor does she see a stop sign at the intersection of Race Street and Park Avenue. That's what I see when I look out of that window. I see all of these labels that we put upon the things of the world. I can even imagine John or Judy mowing the grass or feel disappointment because the grass hasn't been mowed.

Oreo's not putting any labels on what she sees, nor does she have feelings of disappointment. She is unburdened by language enjoying the freedom that all animals enjoy because they have no use for language. They have no use for a world of symbols. They simply see the world as it is.

The same is true for small children. They live wide-eyed taking it all in without judgment or definition. They are constantly fascinated and feel connected to everything because there is no language or labels to separate them from what is. When we drop into this kind of consciousness – the consciousness of a small child – it feels like love. There is no fear. Only love and connectedness.

The author of first John knows all about this and writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18a) Jesus speaks to the non-judgmental vision of children in this brief excerpt from the Gospel of Luke:

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked him. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:15-17)

Note that they are bringing “even infants” to him. Infants are very small children or even babies and to such belongs the kingdom of God.

Obviously, when Oreo is looking at the kingdom of God she doesn't call it that. She doesn't call it anything and that's the beauty of it. This, of course, is why we love our pets. When we're with them petting them or just sitting quietly with them their unencumbered consciousness frees us, if only momentarily, from our severely, overburdened by language, troubled and stress-filled consciousness.

This is ultimately why we love or pets and why they literally rip our hearts out when they die. Because the gift they give us is so precious and holy. They allow us to touch the face of God. They help us to enter Christ consciousness if only for a few moments, but they are precious moments, and it is enough.

Jesus told his disciples they would have to wait. No one likes waiting, but nothing is more important for the spiritual life.

Rev. Mitch Becker

May 12, 2024

Port Angeles

 

 

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