Sermons

Sermons

 

First Christian Church

"How Low Can You Go"

1 Samuel 3:1-11

The setting for this story is none other than the temple of God at Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant is located. The Ark of the Covenant is a gold covered wooden chest and within it are the two tablets of stone which have the commandants God gave Moses engraved on them. It's also reported that the Ark contained some of the manna that God gave the Israelite's in the wilderness for food. So the setting is indeed a holy one helping to make this story well known and important to the history of Israel. And the story contains irony as Samuel thinks the voice calling to him is that of the high priest Eli, but it turns out to be Yahweh.

The message from Yahweh is a difficult one because it is against the house of Eli, and this is characteristic of the kinds of prophetic messages that Samuel will receive over the course of his life. Samuel is the first prophet of ancient Israel in the period of the monarchy. Throughout this time Samuel will consistently warn of kings who are concerned about their own well being and prosperity, rather than the well being of their people. Samuel's prophetic calling will include not only confronting Eli, who is not a king but someone of great authority none-the-less; as well as king Saul, Israel's first king.

Most of Samuel's prophetic messages are clear and uncompromising, and yet this first one directed to Eli is a bit confusing, because the story begins telling us Samuel is both young, and under Eli's authority. Therefore, Samuel's credibility as a prophet would be questioned by Eli. This is all compounded by the fact that in these days the “word of the Lord was rare.” Meaning God wasn't very active at the time, and making matters even more incredible, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not been revealed to him.”

From here the story moves to Eli and describes his eyesight as being bad, and though this might lead us to conclude Eli's perception of things is compromised; it's actually Eli who discerns God speaking to Samuel. Eli wants to know what God has told Samuel, but Samuel is reluctant to disclose the message because of its critical nature. Eli insists, and Samuel tells him God knows his sons have desecrated the temple. Though the text doesn't describe the details: we know that Eli's sons were eating the best parts of the animals being sacrifices, whereas they were suppose to be given to God. And Eli had done nothing to stop them.

Though we're not dealing with the abuse of power by kings here, the sons are committing offenses on several levels. They are abusing their power, they are offending Yahweh, and their putting their needs above the needs of the people. This tendency of the powerful to take advantage of their position in society is a theme for Samuel throughout his life and ministry. Later in the book when the people cry out for a king, Samuel warns them of the way kings take advantage of their position seeking their own good, rather than the good of the people (1 Samuel 8:11-18).

The best rulers of all are those that seek only the good of their people, and reflect the desires of Yahweh in concern for the poor and powerless. Earlier in the Book of Samuel its notable that the origins of the monarchy begin with the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) where Hannah sings of God's concern for the poor and powerless, and is ready to pass judgment on those who would prey on the vulnerable, and are prone to abuse their power. But when Samuel tells Eli about his sons behavior, though his eyesight is failing, his insight is sharp, and he responds to Samuel's words with dignity and humility, and says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

Though monarchies, and similar forms of government are not common in our day, Samuel's message still applies to us. The poor and powerless are still taken advantage of, and are often neglected, and human self-centered behavior is everywhere sometimes resulting in what can only be described as mass insanity. Because of the behaviors and actions that still exist in our world the church is called to respond in two primary ways: First, we are to cry out against the injustices we see committed everyday; and second, we need to hear and receive, in much the same way Eli did, the message of judgment that challenges our own practices. This is hard for us as we tend to be defensive when it comes to our own personal behaviors.

There are some who would even suggest that in our day, as in Samuel's, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions in short supply. I don't know if I would go that far, but we certainly are dealing with a considerable amount of insanity. There are people in power who need to be held accountable for this widespread madness, but as spiritual people of integrity and honesty, we need to see our own participation in what's happening, and do what we can to seek forgiveness and redemption.

Last Sunday something happened during worship which was a step in the right direction. Stephanie agreed to participate in an anointing service for healing, and most of you were here to witness it, and participate in your own way. If you'll recall I first described the four types of healing as being miraculous, the bodies immune system, spiritual, and finally death which is the transition to perfection. Next came a prayer of thanksgiving. Then just before the anointing itself there was a confession of sins followed by an assurance of God's forgiveness.

Its important to note that forgiveness follows confession, and confession implies that one has with humility, and in all honesty, admitted ones own prideful, selfish behavior. But this is easier said than done, because we resist seeing our prideful ways, and beyond that our own shortcomings and failures. So how do we reach this state of humility where we can receive God's forgiveness? In a recent meditation Richard Rohr spoke eloquently in this regard:

Jesus' life offered an example of humility and self-emptying, but he chose an additional model for his disciples: that of little children. Despite what we see depicted in so much religious art, it was not meant as a “cute” or sentimental gesture! As Albert Nolan shares: “It was a radical revaluing of human dignity, based on nothing that society could see or quantify! Taken seriously, it is still a profound message for us today.

Jesus was uncompromising in his belief that all human beings were equal in dignity and worth. He treated the blind, the lame and the sick, the outcasts and beggars with as much respect as that given to those of high rank and status. He refused to consider women and children unimportant or inferior. This turned a carefully ordered society of status and honor upside down--even more so when he advocated moving down the social ladder instead of striving to reach the top.

When his disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus put his arm around a little child (Mark 9:36-37). According to Jesus, the least or most insignificant persons in the society are the greatest (Luke 9:48). In the society and culture of the time, the child had no standing or status whatsoever. The child was a “nobody.” The implication is that Jesus and those who want to follow him are “nobodies,” right at the bottom of the social ladder. For Jesus, the child was a model of radical humility (or what I am calling “self-emptying” this week). Those who wish to follow him will have to become as humble as little children.”

Richard again: It's difficult to hear, but Albert Nolan is simply quoting Jesus from several contexts – usually when the twelve are all in their heads arguing. We cannot become humble by mere intellect or willpower. Pretending to be humble only makes us more self-absorbed and self-referential. All we can really do is become more aware of our pride or vanity by noticing how we respond to even minor slights or humiliations. That will be more than enough to let us know how self-centered we are and how meaningless our taking offense truly is in an infinite universe.

This, of course, means paying attention to our responses and reactions to things that happen to us throughout the day. The phone call that irritates us because we're trying to get dinner ready, or we're just walking out the door. The gas gauge that reads nearly empty, when it seems we just filled the tank. The phone solicitor that calls for the third time that morning. The computer that keeps freezing up, and its not that old! The dog when he chews up your hearing aid. It keeps raining, does the sun ever shine around here; and its tax time again! Sometimes it takes very little to bother us...a detected sneer on the face of stranger, or a repressed “thank you.”

All these minor irritations bother us. We may point our finger at the perceived source, but we have four fingers pointing right back at us. Enlightenment reveals to us that we're the source of irritation, and it all originates in our own inflated egos. Like the game of monopoly one has to pass GO to collect 200 dollars. And so we have to acknowledge our own prideful arrogance before we can receive the forgiveness of God. Its not easy, but with practice it gets easier.

Last week I was half asleep when I extended my foot in bed to discover Karen's foot. She was in my space, or so I thought. More than likely I had probably moved over to her side, but it didn't feel that way to me. So I pushed on her foot to establish a boundary. She pushed back! Suddenly I was more awake, at which point my Christian instinct kicked-in and told me to turn the other cheek, which meant to get up and do twenty minutes of Tai Chi to redirect the anger back out into the universe. Which I did, along with twenty minutes of quiet, centering prayer. Then I returned to bed and slept soundly for the rest of the night.

When we got up, and were having our coffee and tea in the morning, I told her I was sorry about pushing her foot. She said, “Well, you didn't do it on purpose, did you?” At which point I could say that I was half-asleep, and I might have thought I was pushing the dog away (Groucho sleeps between us). Those explanations are attempted excuses, but what was most important is I led with a sincere, “I'm sorry.” Because I did regret doing it. I tell you all this because I want to emphasize that it wasn't horribly painful for me to disclose my regret for behaving in such a way, but there was a little hill to climb before I could get there.

The temptation, even in such minor incidents as this, is to defend my prideful ego. But I know because of the scriptures, along with life experience, that that's not The Way of Christ. My irritation and anger only reveals how self-centered I am, and how much work remains to be done. It's work that I'll still be doing at the end of my life, but at least I'm pointed in the right direction. Humility comes with a price, and to be followers of Christ means to be paying the price on a daily basis. We like to think of the kingdom of God as a place where everyone loves one another, and there is a peace that pervades existence. Not so, the kingdom is more of a daily struggle to do what is right in God's eyes, along with frequent glimpses, and occasional immersion into heaven on earth.

Sometimes I stand at my window in my office and watch the cars go by, and on occasion someone will drive by with their mask still on. These masks that we're wearing are uncomfortable, awkward, and there is something about them that is outright un-American. They make us look all the same, and we Americans pride ourselves on our individuality. That was something else Albert Nolan shared with us last Sunday about our culture worshiping the ego. We like being different, and this is probably more so true for men than for women. Woman seem to desire family and friendship in a way American men don't, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.

In this respect the pandemic has served to be a humbling experience for all of us, since no one can enter a store without a mask on, and in our case, come to church on Sunday. We'd never put on these masks by choice, it has to be mandatory in some way. But the end result is the same. They are humiliating, and in that way humbling, and that's not a bad thing. Saint Francis welcomed all challenges and events which led to him being humiliated and/or humbled. That's the sign of a saint. One who opens their mind and heart to the extent that pain, in whatever form, is welcomed because they know in the end it will bring them closer to God.

I love the way its expressed in the Message Bible: “My troubles turned out all for the best – they forced me to learn from your textbook.” (Psalm 119:71; The Message). And again in the New Testament

“You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3; The Message)

In our story today Eli somehow is able to humble himself to the point he can hear God's message about his sons self-centered behavior, and his own unwillingness to do anything about it. Eli has an ability-to-respond, but for whatever reasons does not assume the responsibility to discipline his sons. Its often easier to hide your head in the sand, and pretend nothing is happening. The modern word for that is “denial,” and it is common practice that we all need to wake-up to. We are all in denial to one degree or another, and the human race cannot afford to continue on this way much longer.

We Americans, in particular, must wake-up to our worship of the ego, and this is a painful process because it means giving up our self-centered desires for something deeper, and more lasting. It means change at a very deep level of our being. We see change all around us, but most of it is superficial. This is especially true with the changes technology brings. It used to be that one person could kill another person with a sword, but now one person can kill a million people with the push of a button. But is this really change?

What we need now is not change, but transformation at a soul level. We can split the atom, and transplant the human heart, but we're till the angry, hateful, murderous creatures we saw so shockingly displayed at our nations capitol. You can point your finger at that angry mob, but you've got four others pointing right back at you. What you saw is in you too, that's why its so upsetting, and frightening. It's in all of us, and only God can save us. Salvation comes not from science, politics or any other human invention. Salvation comes from God. Salvation comes when we reach the end of our rope, and we're getting there, and even that is possible to view as good news.

Rev. Mitch Becker

January 17, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Oneing”

Mark 1:14-20

This opening chapter of Mark's gospel begins with John the Baptist making the road smooth and straight for God's arrival. It briefly describes him appearing in the wild, and preaching a baptism leading to a changed life. It says that people came from all around to hear him, and that he was a rough and tumble kind of guy dressed in camel-hair, and eating locust and wild honey! And he preached that he wasn't the main attraction, but was only preparing the way for the main event. Jesus appears and John baptizes him in the Jordan, but John says this is nothing compared to Jesus's baptism, because he'll baptize with the Holy Spirit. After Jesus is baptized a voice from heaven proclaims him as the Son of God, and from there Jesus goes straight into the wilderness, as all prophets worth a hoot did.

 The text moves to Jesus in Galilee preaching an urgent Message that the kingdom of God is at hand, and to enter the kingdom you must undergo a radical transformation of the heart. This will later be described in the Gospel of John as being born again or born anew (John 3:1-8). Next Jesus encounters the first four disciples who will follow him, or as Jesus puts it they will become fishers of women and men. All four agree to go with him which suggests that Jesus must have been someone with both authority and charisma.

 It's interesting to note the no frills approach Mark has in writing his gospel. A case in point is his description of the wilderness, which amounts to two short verses describing how long Jesus was there, and the company he kept which included Satan, wild animals, and angels that later took care of him. Compare this to the other two gospels that tell of the wilderness experience. They are comparatively lengthy and detailed describing temptations in varied settings along with extensive dialogue with the Devil. Mark likes to get to the point, and both Matthew and Luke in writing their gospels, ten to twenty years later, will rely heavily on the Gospel of Mark.

 It's also no surprise that Mark introduces the kingdom of God in this opening chapter. Because there's nothing Jesus talks about more than the kingdom. It's central to his message, and in this respect we need to understand what he's getting at with this somewhat mysterious notion. Firstly, its clearly a political concept because it directly challenges the kingdom of Herod, along with the Roman Empire. Jesus is suggesting this kingdom of God is somehow a substitute, or the desired replacement, for those other kingdoms. That makes the concept political, however the nature of the kingdom of God is spiritual/psychological.

We might say that Jesus' kingdom becomes political in it's effect, but is spiritual/psychological in nature. Let me explain. The Gospel of John is somewhat descriptive about how one enters the kingdom of God. Lets look at it as interpreted in the Message Bible: (Peterson uses the phrase: “born from above” rather than “born again” or “born anew”)

There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you're a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren't in on it.” Jesus said, “You're absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to – to God's kingdom.” “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can't re-enter your mothers womb and be born again. What are you saying with this 'born-from-above' talk?”

Jesus said, “You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to the original creation – the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life – its not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person that takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch – the Spirit – and becomes a living spirit. “So don't be surprised when I tell you you have to be 'born from above' – out of this world, so to speak.

You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3:1-8; The Message Bible)

Now, there is nothing especially political about this description of the kingdom of God. It's more so a spiritual/psychological account of it. But as Jesus demonstrates in his ministry it has political ramifications because he consistently challenges the ruling authorities head-on. It was a very dangerous message to be bringing to the people, and in time it's what gets Jesus crucified. The powers-that-be are not going to tolerate an alternative kingdom that, by extension, promotes sedition. My friend Bill would say that Jesus quickly moves from “preaching to meddling” with his concept of the kingdom of God.

To continue our exploration of the kingdom lets see what Richard Rohr has to say:

How do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with the same wholeness and healing love? That's what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It's not about right belief; it's about right practice...

Jesus uses one particular phrase repeatedly: “the kingdom of God.” You can easily confirm this yourself by a quick browse through the gospels; the words jump out at you from everywhere. So what do we take it to be? Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you. (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It's not later, but lighter – some more subtle quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don't die into it; you awaken into it.

The kingdom of God is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place. The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation – not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. And these are indeed Jesus' core teachings, underlying everything he says and does.

When Jesus talks about this Oneness what he more has in mind is a complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other. His most beautiful symbol for this teaching is in John 15 where he says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” (see John 15:4-5) A few verses later he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love” (John 15:9) There is no separation between humans and God because of this mutual inter-abiding which expresses the indivisible reality of love.

...One of the most familiar of Jesus' teachings is “Love your neighbor as yourself”...as a continuation of your very own being. It's a complete seeing that your neighbor is you. There are not two individuals out there...there are simply two cells of the one great life.

Rohr is giving us a spiritual/psychological description of the kingdom of God, and since it's a bit “out of this world” it's sometimes hard to follow. As are many of Jesus' parables, because Jesus is teaching us from a perspective of one who has already been born again. He is an enlightened being as is Richard Rohr, or Martin Luther King, or the Buddha. These are people who see the world not in terms of division, and therefore strife and competition. But primarily see the world as a unified whole, or as Rohr puts it, “The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation – not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans.” And I might add not between humans and the rest of God's creation. Everything is one in the “indivisible reality of love.”

Considering these days of multiple crises we're living through how does the kingdom of God help us to resolve the challenges we face? Simply put, if we don't face them together we're going to succumb to one or all of them. So far, we've been facing them in a state of division. It's truly remarkable that our systems of health care, law enforcement, military and political systems are still functional, and by and large, are still in place fulfilling there roles. Just take the health care system alone. Right now they're vaccinating 600 people every other day in Sequim. Since the onset of the pandemic some health care workers have left their jobs, but most are still at their posts.

In one respect it's scary to think about what we're up against. Teri Hord Owens, our General Minister and President, in a recent letter to the Church, said we're facing “several intertwining crises.” She went on to define them as racial injustice, economic crisis, political unrest, and climate change. Further she said, “As a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, we are called to imagine a church that bears witness to God's limitless love.” In other words, she's pointing to the kingdom of God because that's the place of limitless love. But it's not a place at all – it's a state of consciousness.

It is the most important thing the Church has to offer the world. And if you don't believe that then why did Jesus talk about it so much, and why was it the centerpiece of his theology and practice? If Jesus thinks it's the solution to the world's ills then who are we to doubt it? We followers of Jesus should direct many prayers, and perform countless actions that promote God's kingdom. Even if we don't entirely understand the concept, which most of us don't, we need to, by faith, keep moving ahead deeper into the kingdom of God. In time God will reveal to us it's reality, but in the beginning all we have is faith. In the beginning we have to fake it until we make it.

Jesus, of course, understood this “born from above” talk would initially leave us clueless. He watched his disciples struggle with it. Eventually they would grow into their own understandings, but it took time. Most people don't fall into the kingdom of God and then stay there. For almost everyone it's a very gradual process, one insight at a time, one religious experience at a time. Sometimes during our “God sightings and concerns time” during worship someone will share an insight or religious experience that reveals the kingdom. I look forward to those each Sunday, and always mention them in the Tuesday morning email to the church.

Another problem is sometimes we don't feel like we're worthy enough to be one of God's children in his kingdom, and this can create barriers that we need to cross. If that's a problem for you, and it is a common one, this story can help to remind you of our worth in God's eyes:

The story begins by describing how some people in the royal family don't get much notoriety, and some don't get any attention at all. Specifically, the British royal family has a line of succession totaling nearly 60 people. The one the story cites is Lord Frederick Winsdor. He is forty-ninth in line for the throne. But instead of seeing his picture in magazines, or on the news, he lives his life without fanfare.

He works as a financial analyst, but people don't think of him as a “working royal.” A working royal is someone in the family that is paid for representing the royal's at times. The story points out that David's son Nathan was also a royal that received very little attention. We don't know much about him, unlike David's son Solomon. However, Nathan does show-up in Luke's genealogy of Jesus where he is at least mentioned. Though Nathan never wore a crown, he never-the-less had a role in God's kingdom.

Maybe we don't think of ourselves in this way, but in reality we too are royalty. In reading the Gospel of John we learn that we have been given the opportunity to become children of God. Maybe we're not in the limelight, but as believers we're all children of the King! In God's eyes we all are worthy to be considered as one of God's family on earth. Like Nathan we don't wear crowns, but we are all called to play our part in the kingdom of God.

Like the disciples, we too have a hard time grasping a concept as spiritual as the kingdom of God. Jesus uses parables and anecdotes (ann-neck-dotes) to describe the kingdom: such as the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that begins very small and then grows into a large shrub providing nesting for the birds (Mark 4:30-34). Or it's like a merchant who comes upon a beautiful, priceless pearl and then sells everything he has to acquire it (Matthew 13:45-46). It may take a lifetime until you finally “get it,” and we need to be persevering in our efforts to become fully heirs of the kingdom. To come to know the kingdom inside and out, so to speak.

When I was training at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup to become a chaplain one of the requirements was to gather with the other trainees for instruction and study. Toward the end of our training we were asked to put our pastoral visits to patients into a theological context. What this entailed is we had to describe the visit in terms of scripture and theological ideas. Everyone struggled with this part of our training except me. Because I'd been to seminary, and was accustom to writing sermons, it wasn't hard for me to do. Finally, one day after I described a pastoral visit in theological terms, someone said, “Is that easy for you?” And I said, “Yeah, I've had a lot of practice at it.”

We get good at things if we do them a lot, and its no different in becoming a child of God. With practice, and much thought and prayer the kingdom of God just gets clearer and clearer. This world we live in, and this country we love needs a vision of unity, and people who know how to live-out the vision. We Christians should be right at the forefront of this unity work. Jesus has shown us The Way, and he's speaking to us constantly, because the children of God are everywhere, and the Holy Spirit is using them. One day the kingdom of God will be all there is. It may take one hundred thousand years, but it is happening, as I speak. Why else would Jesus make it so central to what he was doing?

Kingdom talk does not always come in religious words or through religious venues. Sometimes it is conveyed in secular venues, because all is God's creation, and the kingdom of God knows no bounds. At the Inauguration Amanda Gorman inspired us with a vision of unity as she told us, “And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished.”

A vision of unity conveyed to a frightened, fragile people. Take courage, be brave, we have work to do.

Rev. Mitch Becker

January 24, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Meat Lovers Beware”

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The reason I'm using the Message Bible to read the scripture is because the text concerns ethics. Specifically, it's about how our behavior effects other people. Ethical behavior is something we Christians have to pay attention to since we're people of conscience, or to put it into the context the Apostle Paul is using – we're lovers. In this case, Paul is telling the Corinthians the meat which has been sacrificed to these idols is alright to eat because the idols don't represent the one true God. Therefore, it's just like any other meat, and further he says, “You all know this,” meaning the “strong” believers know that the idols sacrificed to don't amount to anything.

Now here comes the catch: There are believers who are in the know (the strong), and then there are believers who don't get it. By that Paul means there are some who won't understand that the meat sacrificed to idols doesn't corrupt. They just feel that if it's been offered up to an idol then it's forbidden to eat. Paul wants those with “knowledge” to be sensitive to those that don't understand. He refers to these folks that don't understand as being “weak.” Therefore, the “strong” have to look out after the “weak” and make sure their behavior doesn't lead the “weak” ones astray. To be conscientious about how the “weak” may interpret the behavior of the “strong” is how Paul defines love in our text today.

In this particular scripture text this is what love is – to be paying attention to your own behavior, so as not to effect someone else, of lessor knowledge, in some derogatory way. By the way, this is how the Apostle Paul primarily thinks about the church. It's almost always about the community, and what is good not for one, or for a particular group, but what is good for everyone. In this case, it's the community of believers in Corinth. This is in strict contrast to how we look at things in modern day America. Here the focus is upon the individual, and what is good for me, and how do I acquire my next object of desire.

Whenever you read the Apostle Paul, or anything in the Bible, your reading something that has been produced from a culture that is radically different from the one we have been raised in. It's important to always have that in the back of our minds, otherwise we tend to project our own understanding upon the text, and try to make it fit into our culture. But it never fits because it's always apples and oranges. Reading the Bible is like a breath of fresh air. It frees us from the confines of our overly self-focused culture. This particular text today is very helpful, because it gives us a specific example to focus on – meat.

Idolatry has been around for a long time. One well-known ancient example of the practice of idolatry is the golden calf the Israelite's made when Moses walked up on Mt. Sinai to talk to God:

When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt – who knows what happened to him?” So Aaron told them, “Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.” They all did it; they removed the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf, shaping it with an engraving tool. The people responded with enthusiasm: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!” (Exodus 32:1-4; The Message Bible)

Our problem these days is not making golden calf's or turning to foreign gods to worship. But idolatry is alive and well, and we need to be fully aware of our participation in it. By knowing what not to do we can determine what we need to do to be faithful to God. One definition for idolatry is: “An extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.” In seminary I was taught that idolatry is whenever we are centered in something other than God. By centered they mean when something becomes the primary concern of your life, and everything you do somehow leads back to that concern.

An obvious example is the practice of an alcoholic who's thoughts and actions always somehow lead back to the next drink. Maybe you know or have known someone with this condition? And alcoholism is only one example. Some modern day forms of idolatry include:

Our Identity: Another word for identity is our False-self which we tend to wrap-up in things like our abilities/skills, position at work or in the community, our achievements, heritage, education. I knew one woman who identified with how many surgeries she'd had in her life which was something like 36!

Money/Consumerism: This doesn't have to do with whether your rich or poor, but more so its the importance you put on the pursuit of money. A lot of people trust their money more than God. I remember a woman, whom I liked very much, who constantly used the phrase: “When our ship comes in.” What she meant by that I'm not exactly sure, but I think it had to do with winning the lottery or some such thing.

Entertainment: Our culture is obsessed with entertainment, and this is a bit unfair because in COVID we have had to turn to the entertainment world to fill-up a lot of spare time. But it's not too much to say that many of us pay far too much attention to the lives of celebrities, and take cues from their behavior, and spend too much time in front of the television.

Sex: I know this is church, but in the list of idolatry in our culture sex has to be included. It is everywhere, and it might be the only thing we're more obsessed with than money. Unfortunately, if we're honest, the Church may have to take some of the blame for this, because we have contributed greatly to the body being alienated from the mind and spirit. Furthermore, a lot of guilt and shame has been heaped onto the body and sexual practices by the Church. The result is a kind of incredulous kickback from society. And look at the way I began this short paragraph about sex with: “I know this is church,” as if I'm leading off with an apology.

Comfort: The next time your watching commercials on television note how many of them have to do with personal comfort. One time I wrote a sermon entitled, “The Sleep Number Bed” and it was about how uncomfortable the pioneers must have been coming across the plains in their covered wagons without shock absorbers. And though its nice to have shock absorbers on our cars, and flush toilets, and heat exchangers to heat our houses, we have none-the-less become obsessed with comfort resulting in a significant loss in terms of the quality of our lives. Picking up your cross and following Jesus has little to do with staying comfortable.

Our Phones: This last one doesn't so much apply to our congregation, but it has become such a problem in society that it needs to be mentioned. Especially for younger people the need to be on your phone, or to have an online presence, has become absurd to the point of insanity. There are many children who stay up all-night because they can't detach from their social media feed. Karen and I knew a girl in Lancaster who was sadly addicted to her phone.

Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list of idols in our culture. I could list thousands, but with that said let me make an important point. None of these things are bad in and of themselves. We all need an identity, and hopefully as we mature spiritually our identities will take there proper place within our whole being. Money, entertainment, sex, comfort, our phones are all gifts that enrich our lives when they're seen and used in healthy ways that make for a balanced lifestyle. The problems arise when they are disproportionately used resulting in addictive/obsessive behavior.

Much of this problem behavior can be associated with the desire to be in control. An alcoholic controls the way he feels through his drinking. The alcohol creates a predictable mood, and a given range of feelings that are desirable for him. It's a way of playing God. As well there is a controlling dimension to the practice of idolatry. The following story tells of a gentleman caught-up in his controlling behavior, and what happened to him to help him breakout of it:

Frank begins by saying when he was in Philadelphia, he came across many people he enjoyed being with, and a few he hoped he wouldn't meet up with again. One of them was a man from a church out West. He was an ill-tempered sort of fellow, manipulative and controlling, and Frank had a hard time with him. Frank had been to his church often where he led Bible studies and gave sermons.

This man he had a problem with was a lay person in the church, and a real controller. He was the type that would always be in the background saying things like, “I'm not sure, or I don't know” always putting on this front of false humility, but in reality he was running the show. And it was like this in every aspect of his life – with his family, kids, grand-kids, the church, and always acting like he didn't know what to do – but he did.

When in Philly he saw this man coming toward him, and he was backed into a corner and had to meet-up with him. So, he gave-in and shook hands with him and asked him how life was treating him. His response was that things were going okay. Frank was immediately taken back by his demeanor, which was unlike what he was accustom to seeing. So Frank asks further, “How are things at the church?” And this response was even more out of character as he replied, “Better than it's ever been.” Frank says, “No kidding.”

And then comes the real surprise when he says, “The Holy Spirit is moving in our church.” Frank thinks to himself that he's never heard anything like this before, only criticism, and senses some kind of transformation has taken place in this man's life. He continues, “We're having a spiritual revival of the like I've never seen before.” Frank says, “That's great. Who's preaching there now?” He says, “There is a woman in the pulpit now.” Frank says, “Oh really.”

He says, “Yeah, my family and I voted against her, but the rest of the congregation voted to bring her on board.” Frank says, “And then came the real shocker when he told me that:” “I was wrong. I was totally wrong in my view of women.” And then he looked directly at Frank and said, “Brother Frank, if I was wrong about her, I was probably wrong about a lot of other things as well.”

Frank concludes with, “Isn't it wonderful. Finally he came face-to-face with the gospel, he broke-out of the pattern, and was finding a whole new way to look at life.”

How does the gospel help us break out of our addictive, obsessive, idolatrous patterns to follow Christ on the road less traveled? My response would be that it does this in a number of ways. To begin with if you read the Bible you'll soon see that it often confronts idolatrous practices. One example I already mentioned is in the Book of Exodus where the Israelite's worship the golden calf, and God sends a plague against the people because of their great sin, and many of them lose their life's by the sword. This is the Old Testament way of showing the consequences of idol worship.

The New Testament has a different approach using reason and spiritual insight: Paul says: So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to it's level of immaturity. God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2; The Message Bible)

The key phrase here is “changed from the inside out.” In the Revised Standard version it reads, “...but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” What I like about the Message Bible is it's more refined and spiritually focused in its interpretation of scripture. It helps us to see how God works. The changes God brings about in us go deeper than our addictive/idolatrous practices. When we're transformed at this deeper level we no longer want to return to the comparatively superficial life practices. The Spirit draws us ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ, and the freedom and joy of our Lord.

Alcoholics use AA to breakout of there addictive patterns. They support one another, and read the Big Book which describes the path to sobriety. The most fortunate of them continue on the path after they stop drinking to further discover and enjoy the benefits of the spiritual life. Drug addicts use Narcotics Anonymous. People addicted to food go to Over Eaters Anonymous, and they all incorporate a spiritual plan for recovery from addiction. To recover from addiction, and all manner of idolatrous behavior, always involves substituting the self-centered life practice with something healthy and life giving. You can't just leave the house vacant – you have to fill it up with something better.

When I went to Linn-Benton Community College I was part of an on-campus Bible study group. Bob Ross, one of the biology teachers, was the leader of the group, and he was also an elder in my church. I remember the day the Christian biker gang came to the study. Bob was so welcoming that it put the rest of us on edge. The first biker through the door carried an enormous Bible with him that looked like it came right out of Medieval times. It must have weighed 10 pounds or more. He lifted that Bible high in the air and dropped it with a loud crash right in the middle of the table! He got our full attention.

These guys lived violent lives fraught with addiction, and all forms of idolatry. But around the table in Christian fellowship they had found something better. They had found a new way to live with a future. Their theology was raw, and their reasoning simple, but there was something genuine about them. They had found God the hard way. I hope they all stayed on the path to freedom.

Rev. Mitch Becker

January 31, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“On Eagle's Wings”

Isaiah 40:21-31

Our text today offers hope to those returning from exile in Babylon to what is left of Jerusalem. For these returnee's the prophet Isaiah offers his poem. But first he must get their attention, because the devastation of the city was devastating to them. On top of this, since they had been gone for fifty years or more it would have been difficult for even the oldest among them to recognize the place. The prophet reminds them of God's presence and power, and that God intends to share that power with them as the he tells them: “...he gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

The text opens with rather strong language directed at the exiles with phrases like, “Have you not known?” and “Have you not heard?” Which really begs the question if they have heard the promises of God at all. And this is a theme which is found throughout the Book of Isaiah, and it implies the hearers are going to have a hard time comprehending God's messages. Indeed, don't we all.

Chapter 40 is a distinct transition from the previous chapters, and speaks to a very different historical situation. It comes probably toward the end of the exile of the people of God, perhaps somewhere around 530 BCE. And the exiles themselves were most likely broken-down into various groups of people undergoing different circumstances, and existing in different places. Some may have been treated fairly well by the royal court, while others may have been confined to what amounted to labor camps.

Regardless how they may have been treated in Babylon the return home had to be difficult for everyone. The city, and the land itself had been devastated with no efforts made to rebuild. Jerusalem had no temple and no walls therefore the comfort and meaning the city provided was gone, and the protection an ancient city needed had been eliminated. The Book of Nehemiah tells us that no one was in a hurry to take up residence in the city, and they eventually ended up throwing dice to determine who would go. Those that won the dice throws and were willing to go were then blessed by the others. As already stated, after being away for so long home would hardly be the term for what they saw. Its obvious at this point that though exile was difficult, returning “home” was no piece of cake either.

It's also important to keep in mind that this region of the world had seen a succession of powerful emperors (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian), so the prophet goes to some trouble to remind the exiles of the incomparable power of the Lord:

God sits high above the round ball of the earth. The people look like mere ants. He stretches out the skies like a canvas – yes, like a tent canvas to live under...Princes and rulers don't amount to much. Like seeds barely rooted, just sprouted, they shrivel when God blows on them. Like flecks of chaff, they're gone with the wind...Look at the night skies: Who do you think made all this? Who marches the army of stars out each night, counts them off, calls each one by name – so magnificent! So powerful! – And never overlooks a single one? (Isaiah 40:22,24,26; The Message)

These verses bring to mind the Book of Job, but unlike Job where the references to God's power is used to challenge Job, and put him in his place; here the references are used to strengthen a fragile people. Again, the notion of God wanting to share his power with his people comes through clearly:

“He energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts. For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall. But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, they run and don't get tired, they walk and don't lag behind.” (Isaiah 40: 29b-31; The Message)

The Israelite's were physically moved from their homeland to a foreign location. This has been a practice of conquering forces since the beginning of civilization. But exile and return is not limited to being forcibly removed from your home. Sometimes we can feel exiled even when we're in a place of our own choosing. Whenever I'm away from the Pacific Northwest for any significant period of time, I can have feelings of being in exile. The last place Karen and I lived for any period of consequence was Lancaster, CA. Lancaster is just over the hill from LA, and its a considerable distance from the PNW.

When my little brother was diagnosed with stage four cancer he called me to tell me about it. At the time he lived in Albany, OR and it took me awhile to decide how to respond to the situation. As Karen and I discussed it finally she said, “You're going to have to go up there.” The minute she said that I knew it that was the right and compassionate thing to do.

The drive is nearly 900 miles and it was late Fall which meant snow was possible in the Siskiyou mountains, a mountain pass in which I once encountered a severe snow storm. Visibility became extremely limited, and it snowed so hard that I could no longer determine where the edge of the road was. We all fell into a convoy like formation and followed the leader hoping they knew where they were going. Apparently they did since we made it to Redding unscathed.

I left Lancaster hopeful that early snow would not fall upon the pass. The drive up until Eugene was uneventful, and when I entered the Willamette Valley the green fields of winter wheat expanded in every direction, and I felt an overwhelming sensation of returning home. Prior to that I didn't realize that I had been in such a state of exile, but the profound experience of homecoming revealed the truth. I felt both a warmth, and a sense of belonging somewhere. This only happens when I've been displaced for awhile.

This experience of being displaced can happen when I have been struggling with an issue – when I'm dealing with stress and fear. After awhile I can feel as though I'm living in exile within my own body. I become detached from my usual sense of being grounded; let alone feeling grounded in God. My thoughts are legion, and I am often conflicted about things. Though the intensity and duration of displacement varies eventually homecoming happens, and this also comes in a variety of ways.

Last week after a long day of grappling with problems I was in the shower. I often use the hot water to relax the muscles in my back, and this time they released rather suddenly, and with the release came an accompanying release of mental stress. Immediately I was reconnected to my environment which felt much like a homecoming! Of course, such events don't happen in a vacuum. They are a result of many hours in quiet, centering prayer. Such prayer practice prepares the way for my mind and heart to be opened at an opportune time, and in this case my muscles followed suit. It's as though a pathway in my mind has been cleared and can be accessed not at will, but through the power of God. It is a doorway for God's grace that is kept open by consistent prayer. In time one comes to trust the doorway, and the healing power of God's grace.

I expect this is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he says, “I'm absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way Jesus our Master has embraced us.” (Romans 8:38-39; The Message) At times we may feel God's not going to be able to reach us, but God is far greater than our little, ego focused, self-centered problems. Which is what the prophet is also trying to convey to the frighted, fragile Israelite's on their way back home.

God's grace is always a gift, but as Jackson Browne says in his song, Hold Out Hold On, “Some things depend on you.” Like the farmer who must prepare the soil for the next growing season. So we too, must prepare the soil of our hearts through prayer, study, and ceaseless acts of compassion if we want God's grace to dwell within us. This is, of course, the great struggle for people of faith since we are under the ravages of an ego that tirelessly diverts our attention away from God, and into our own misguided adventures. Even after we're born again into the kingdom of God the ego constantly resurfaces, but now it's power is limited, because a better way has been found.

The following story encourages us to stay in prayer, and to trust in the “Rock eternal:”

It begins by telling of the diagnoses of a couples first-born son with autism. The parents are disillusioned and despairing over the thought of having to care, for a lifetime, a child with such a debilitating condition. In a book entitled, “Unbroken Faith,” the mother writes about having to give up dreams and expectations concerning the future of their child. But it also describes the way they were able to cope with such extreme emotions like anger and fear.

Their son is now reaching adulthood, and over the years the mother has gained experience and insight which helps other parents to cope with the special needs of their children. She tells others of God's indestructible promises, boundless power, and ever-present grace. She also highlights the importance of grief in such situations when needing to let go of hopes and dreams.

In another chapter of the Book of Isaiah the prophet assures the people they can count on God always, because God is the Rock eternal. God's peace that passes all understanding can breakthrough at any time, and is always there to hear our cries of distress and disappointment. We're reminded that when facing loss or any type of disillusionment to be perfectly candid with God. All and any feelings of loss or doubt are admissible to God. Even when we feel our lives are falling apart God is there to raise us up on eagle's wings!

The commentary which I relied heavily upon for this sermon also mentioned the unique character of this chapter in Isaiah, and how not only does God protect us with his wings, but even gives us our own wings: “The biblical witness is that from age to age, God hears the cries of his people and empowers them – in exhaustion, in oppression, and in other moments of greatest need. In some ways, this Isaianic (eyes-a-an-ic) poetry goes beyond the Exodus accounts, in that God not only protects the people with wings, he bestows upon them wings of their own. Since wings are frequently described as a supernatural attribute they indicate an unusual gift of divine power.”

Considering this entire section of Isaiah God's action of returning the exiles to Jerusalem, at least those that wanted to go, can be understood as an act of creation. This also explains the Job like verses which contain images of God sitting high above the earth, and marching the stars out at night. Further, the statement that the Creator does not faint or grow weary suggests God isn't done creating, that there's more to come!

A portion of this creative work is in the renewing and strengthening of the people. God may not tire easily, but human beings do. Consider the tasks of the Israelite's who had to imagine a new future, and then physically relocate moving toward Jerusalem, and finally being called to rebuild a city that had been almost entirely destroyed. The implication is that those who trust God, the One whose power is incomparable to the great emperors, will have the energy and vision to move forward into the new creation God has in store for them.

Those that did decide to take up the challenge to return to Jerusalem would find there share of struggle and disappointment. The promise of a new creation did not come to them as something they had never experienced. Struggle and hardship was a way of life in exile, but what the creative power of God did was open up new doorways for them where previously there had been none.

Weariness, of course, is not unique to the ancient Israelite's. Whenever we're called to move forward into an unknown future-energy, vision, and strength beyond human ability is often required. Especially if this is to be accomplished with any degree of joy. Many of us here at First Christian Church of Port Angeles may question if the vision and energy needed to move forward in God's creative action is available. It's a valid question of which I don't have a ready and pat answer. All I can say is what the scriptures tell us. That God promises to be with us as we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

But I also know through experience that the vision and power only comes after the effort has begun. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best when he said: “I can believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. I believe that God will give us the strength we need to help us, to resist in all times of distress. But God never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on God alone.” Bonhoeffer said these words as he stood up against the fascist movement happening in Germany at the time.

We also are facing a great evil in our times, and as the Church we have been given the Gospel of Christ to demonstrate in our lives, and to share with others as the opportunities arise. The Gospel is the only lasting, and thoroughly effective way to challenge evil, because it is the love of God that dispels the darkness. It is the love of God that transforms this world of sin into a world in right relationship with the Creator. We have much work to do, and we are not alone in this noble effort. God is walking with us, God is speaking to us, God is love.

Rev. Mitch Becker

February 7, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Lighting Up the Darkness”

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Today we begin in the preceding chapter where the Apostle Paul describes being transformed into the likeness of Christ: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

This text has special meaning for me because its one of the first I ever read in public. Back in 1980 after I had made a commitment to pursue ordination I was asked to read this text because it was being preached that day. What was unusual is my former girlfriend was sitting out in the pews with the congregation. That would be no big deal except I'd been trying to hold on to the relationship, even though she had moved to another town and had found a new boyfriend. She brought her new boyfriend with her in order to convince me of the sincerity of her new relationship, and it was absolutely devastating!

After I saw her sitting out there I turned to Pastor Busic and said, “Do you see who's sitting out there?” And he replied, “Just look out there and see the Holy Spirit.” Well, that was something to go on, and I got up and read the passage beginning at verse 7 and read through to verse 18. The Spirit took over that day and I read it with much conviction and power, and Michelle was noticeably moved. Since that day verse 18 of chapter 3, through chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians have meant a great deal to me. They have remained some of the most meaningful verses of the Bible for me.

It just goes to show you how right on Henry David Thoreau was when he said, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.” The words of the Apostle are just what they are – words that are signposts that point to something. It is we that assign meaning to the words, and the traumatic event of that fateful day drove these words deep into my mind and heart. So I don't mind preaching this text at all, though it only begins at verse 18, and then quickly moves into the themes of chapter four.

First we need to take a closer look at the signposts of this opening verse to grasp its significance. “Unveiled faces” is a reference to the veil that Moses wore when he came down off the mountain after talking with God. Because Moses' shining face frightened the people he had to put a veil over it, so he could go about the day doing more mundane tasks. He only took it off when he spoke to God. Paul suggests we don't need to wear a veil anymore, because we're free of it! But still we are being transformed from one degree of glory to the next into the likeness of Christ.

What I just said is incredibly important, because it reveals our true nature as children of God. And it also tells us that what is happening to us is a work in progress. We are “being transformed” or as The Message Bible puts it: “...our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” I began this sermon telling you why and how this text became so important to me, but these words also hold tremendous import on there own. Because it is crucially important that we understand God is changing us at a soul level, and what is being described here is true for all of us.

As the Apostle continues he tells the Corinthians that there are people who are going the wrong way. That they are “...stone-blind to the day-spring brightness of the Message that shines with Christ.” Further he explains that its the “...fashionable god of darkness” that is blinding them. So lets look at an example of this idolatrous god that is blinding folk, and in this case children.

The story begins telling of a developer in Columbus, Ohio who was a dedicated church member in the Methodist church. He had recently redeveloped the old North Lake district in Northwest Columbus around a golf course. He even revamped the golf course itself, and the housing that initially was around the golf course was a community of crime and drugs. Somehow he was able to get the okay to take all of it down, and to put up new housing in its place. His philosophy was bold and revelatory in that he wanted to not only replace the housing, but he wanted to transform the way people looked at life. With a special focus on the younger folks.

He wanted to influence them, because in the old housing the only prosperous people the children ever saw were the drug dealers. They came around in their fancy cars, and met with other kids to make their drug deals. The kids would say to themselves, “Boy, that guy really has the dough, does he ever have it made!” This is what the younger people saw day after day, with few examples otherwise.

But with the new housing project things came out very differently. In the new project there would be a family that was comfortable and well-off, maybe a retail store owner, or a college teacher, and then someone on a social assistance program. And that's how it went with a successful family alternating with a family on welfare. It was a mixed-bag in the new project, and the result was the kids got to see examples of people, other than drug dealers, who were making it in the world.

This is but one example of the way the “god of fashionable darkness” influences people, and the children are the most vulnerable of all, because they may have few other positive examples to choose from. I remember my first time as a camp counselor at Loch Leaven campground in the hills above LA. I was assigned three wannabe gang members to my cabin (a picture will be on the communion table Sunday) They are the three kids clear to the left on the bottom row, and I'm on the top row in the center just below the camp director who's sitting at the very top. I got angry with her for giving me all three wannabe's rather than splitting them up among the different cabins.

The first couple days it was kind of scary, because they talked tough, and I wasn't sure how to handle them. After a couple days though I began to see they were just kids who needed some better examples of how you could be successful in life. I befriended them by not being afraid of them, though it took a lot of prayer. In the first couple days they talked about drugs, weapons and violence on occasion, but soon it became more important for them to get along not only with me, but also with others in the camp. The girls in particular of which they were somewhat successful.

As you will see from the picture these are middle school children of which most of my 18 camps were. This is the toughest age group of all, and if you compound that with kids under a heavy influence of the god of darkness you've got a lot on your hands. Apparently we made an impact on the wannabe's because the camp went very well, with only one frightening episode where the kids ran off in the darkness while we were around the campfire one night! Something scared them, I don't recall what it was, and they took off. All of us counselors were frantic for awhile looking for them in the dark forest. Thankfully we found them all.

The way we influenced the wannabe's was by loving them. It wouldn't have been enough to try to convince them the god of darkness is a dead-end, or by disciplining them in hopes of it resulting in positive behavior. You have to give them something better, and we managed that by simply accepting them, and doing what we could to help make their camp experience a successful one. This worked with the children, and it works with older folks too.

Moving more deeply into the text lets examine what the Apostle might mean by: “Light up the darkness!” For this I'm going to use a meditation by Richard Rohr:

Alternative consciousness is largely letting go of my mind's need to solve problems, to fix people, to fix myself, to rearrange the moment because it is not to my liking. When that mind goes, another, non-dualistic mind is already there waiting. We realize it is actually our natural way of seeing. It's the way we thought as children before we started judging and analyzing and distinguishing things one from another. As Helen Luke says, “The coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing; it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.” (Pastor's words: And so Jesus would say – “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3)

You cannot experience the non-dual mind without letting go of the dualistic mind – at least for awhile. For most people who have thought dualistically for a long time, it feels like dying, it feels like losing, it feels like letting go of control, which is exactly why Catholic mystics consistently called it 'darkness' or 'knowing by darkness.' (Pastor's words again: Here the word “darkness” is used in a positive sense, unlike the way the Apostle is using it) This is surely why more people don't move to more mature stages of prayer. They'd rather stay in the mind, which is largely commenting and arguing between conflicting and competing ideas. Note that I said you must let go of your dualistic mind at least for awhile. You eventually have to return there to get most ordinary jobs accomplished, but even those you will do in a less compulsive or driven way.

Contemplation leads you to have simple clear eyes, common-sense faith, a combination of humility and quiet confidence, and a loving energy that makes whatever you say quite compelling. It also allows you to deal with complex issues with this same simplicity and forthrightness...

What Jesus is getting at when he says we need to become like children again to enter the kingdom of God is exactly what Rohr is talking about here. When we were little children, even infants, we looked at the world wide-eyed, and just took it all in with a sense of wonderment! There was no analyzing or judging going on, and we weren't labeling everything we saw. Just stop and entertain that for a moment? What would the world look like if you didn't call a tree a tree, or you didn't look at me in the pulpit and say “pastor” in your mind. In other words, what would the world be like without labels?

When this happens to us, and it usually does just momentarily, or maybe for a bit longer, the religious experience is one of tremendous freedom. It's like a heavy weight has been lifted off our shoulders, because it takes a great deal of energy to be labeling, analyzing, and judging everything around us. What the practice of contemplation leads to is it creates new pathways in your brain that bypass the old worn-out ones you have developed due to dualistic thinking. That's, at least in part, is what is happening.

Of course, as Rohr has stated, to get normal things done like writing this sermon or shopping for groceries at the store, you have to return to the dualistic mind to do the work. But Jesus and Paul, and Richard Rohr, and many others, want us to go beyond this mind, because to be like Christ is to love like God, and this is the love that will be humanities salvation. Without it it appears things may go very badly for us, and for many other species God has created. This is the saddest thought I can imagine, and it makes me want to cry, but we must emerge from our mass denial and face the truth. God knows this is hard work, but what alternative is there?

The intertwining crisis of racial injustice, economic crisis, political unrest, climate change, and the present and/or future pandemics that Teri Hord Owen's brought to our attention threaten our very existence. These are all coming together to create an unprecedented darkness that can only be dispelled by the love of Christ. We are the ones who have been called forward to “light up the darkness.” And the way this is accomplished is by making sure that: “Nothing (stands) between us and God, our faces shinning with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” (2 Corinthians 3:18; The Message Bible)

Following is a story that illustrates that this process has far more to do with subtraction than addition. It is all about letting go, which takes great courage with courage being another word for faith:

The story begins with a senior in college who's senior class decided to get involved with a project on campus. When they finished the project they planned to put up a plaque that read: “Gift of the senior class of...,” and so and so. The project they all agreed upon was the total revamping of an old classroom that was a real eyesore. Everybody decided that this project was one they could accomplish within a reasonable period of time, and with much hard work. First they had to put together a committee which decided what colors to use, and how to acquire the needed supplies, paint, etc.. Saturday's would be the day everyone got together to work on the project.

The predominate color of paint was a dark, ugly blue which required a great deal of effort to scrape off the walls. So they scraped off the blue only to discover another color right beneath it which was reddish, and so they scraped that off. But right beneath the reddish color was a yellow-green, and so they scraped that away. When that was gone they discovered yellow paint, and then it was blue again. There were a hundred years of paint, layer after layer to take off.

After all this scraping and hard work they reached the original wood underneath it all, and it was magnificent. When they saw that, as God had created it they were in awe! Everyone who made up the work crew decided to chuck the paint, and simply let the wood be. And they did go ahead and put a final finish on the wood, and the room was simply beautiful. They took it right down to the way God had made it. They just cleaned all the grime and gunk off.

And so we are being called to clean all the grime and gunk away, and for most of us there is a considerable accumulation of unwanted material. The best way I know how to do this is to learn how to quiet the source of mental pollutants which is the dualistic mind. The only mind most of us have ever known. Both Christ and the Apostle Paul keep showing us how to move ahead, and they've been doing it for two thousand years. But we seem to be stuck in the muck of our own making. We can't afford this any longer, we've got to move forward. We've got to evolve. We are being called to move more deeply into the heart of God.

Rev. Mitch Becker

February 14, 2021 (Valentine's Day)

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

“The Do-Over”

 Genesis 9:8-17

When I read a text like this about a story we're so familiar with you may just “ho hum” to yourselves, and pay little attention. But the story of Noah is an important one that gets interpreted in different ways. A common way of understanding it is it's a story for children. Indeed, it's probably one of the first biblical stories you ever learned in Sunday School. There are three ways to see it as a children's story, and that is it's a story about God's love for the animals. Beyond that it suggests we remember God's love every time we see a rainbow (which I saw the day I wrote this), and for a real stretch it tells us there is a good side to every storm.

And there is another way to understand this story, and its not so pleasant. That is to see it as a description of human defiance that so angers God that God releases the flood waters. The flood kills every living thing on earth, and who in the world would want to have anything to do with a God like that! Back in the time when Genesis was written this was a common way of seeing God. Thank God we've evolved since then and Christ has given us a God of compassion, who values life, and loves and cares for his creation.

Of course, neither of these ways of interpreting the text is accurate. Both are lacking in depth and discernment, because God is far more resourceful and infinitely more caring than we can imagine. After all God is God. There is simply no limit to the ways God has of bringing us back to sanity, and helping us to realign with the loving nature of Reality. Strictly speaking, we see in the text that God has established a new agreement, a covenant, calling us back into a loving relationship with him. Beyond that it tells us that God no longer will seek to destroy the creation despite human indifference.

The whole story about the flood begins way back in chapter 3 where we see Adam and Eve not listening to God, and doing as their egos compel them. This is what makes this text a good one for the first Sunday in Lent. Throughout this season we'll be taking a hard look at ourselves, and our own personal rebellion against God. This is hard work because it calls us to be brutally honest. It calls for us to do the opposite of what most of humankind so aptly practices everyday, and that is the practice of denial, which is not a river in Egypt.

Denial is the practice of telling ourselves that the world is not what it appears to be, and our own acts of selfishness happen because someone else made me do it, rather than owning up to our own misguided behaviors. The practice of denial seems to be especially popular in our time as people ignore the intertwining crises humanity is faced with, and follow political leaders who are manipulating them by cultivating that denial. They're very clever in how they do this, but then that's a distinguishing feature of the Devil. This is one reason I suggested reading The Screwtape Letters during Lent to familiarize us with how the Devil works. If you know what to look for your more likely to avoid the trap.

Returning to chapter 3 we see the genesis of human sin or selfishness. At the very outset we see the way sinfulness results in discord first between humans and the animals; then between men and women, and finally between people and the work they do. As we read on in chapter 4 the problem intensifies resulting in murder, even the killing of a brother. Chapter 5 is a genealogy which intends to show how things continue to go South for humanity, and then in chapter 6 there is some type of violation that occurs between the son's of God and the daughters of men. This brings God to the end of his rope, and he simply decides to end it all, and start over.

We see in the story the influence of other cultures, and their own creation stories. And in our story the degree of God's remorse is so great that he's forced to take action. Human evil has gone far beyond anything anticipated, and its important to note that God doesn't end everything out of anger and rage, but rather is deeply regretful – God was “...sorry that he made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6) Also important is that the point of the flood isn't to somehow punish us, but its more so a way to bring about a new beginning. A way to bring humanity into right relationship with it's Creator.

This is where the covenant comes in, because what it is is a way of reestablishing the old relationship, and at the same time making it something new. Note the risk that God is taking, because the nature of love is to step-out and take chances. God still knows that “...the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (Genesis 8:21) The flood hasn't rendered the human heart free and clear of sin, but God moves forward with the covenant anyway!

Maybe God's grief caused him to see there was another way to be in relationship with us. Sometimes pain can open doors, and bring one to see things in a different way. Even for God. So our text today ends with a rainbow. What it means is God is done with such radical restoration attempts, and from now on will try to bring us closer to him through countless ways of loving us. This is most exemplified in the life and ministry of Christ. With Christ its apparent that God is determined to love us back into relationship and restoration.

Now that all of this has been said what can we make of it? Or as the Moody Blues once said: “Which is right and which is an illusion?” I don't believe God is trying to tell us the truth about things in the Bible, as much as God is trying to help us see things in a certain way. In a way that leads us to seeing the love of God in the creation, and within ourselves. That seems to me to be the overall goal of the scriptures. To lead us into right seeing.

The point being that God doesn't do this Do-Over out of vengeance, but its done to bring us back into right relationship with God by giving us new vision. A way of seeing the world not as fragmentation that results in disorder and chaos, but a vision of unity in divine love. God's love is willing to take huge risks in order to save us from ourselves. What is most incredible, and even shocking, is the fact that we live in the first culture which has ever blatantly denied the existence of the unity of all life. People used to be able to see what God has done, but we lost the vision during what is ironically called “The Enlightenment.” This period of time begins at the start of the 18th century.

Before this many cultures knew of the nurturing quality of the earth, and the unity of all things. The following describes the grace filled universe of Native American culture, and its author is Kaitlin B. Curtice, a Native American Christian who says: The bloodline of God is connected to everything...shells on the ocean floor, the mushrooms growing in the forest, the trees stretching to the clouds, the tiniest speck of snow in the winter, and our dust to dustness – we are all connected and tethered to this sacred gift of creation.

To reinforce this view is another Native American from the Potawatomi (pow-tuh-waa-tuh-mee)Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer: The ceremonial giveaway is an echo of our oldest teachings. Generosity is simultaneously a moral and material imperative, especially among people who live close to the land and know its waves of plenty and scarcity. Where the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all.

Wealth among traditional people is measured by having enough to give away. Hoarding the gift, we become constipated with wealth, bloated with possessions, too heavy to join the dance...I don't know the origin of the giveaway, but I think that we learned it from watching the plants, especially the berries who offer up their gifts all wrapped in red and blue. We may forget the teacher, but our language remembers: our word for the giveaway, minidewak, means “they give from the heart.” At the words center lives the word min. Min is a root word for gift, but it is also the word for berry. In the poetry of our language, might speaking of minidewak remind us to be as the berries?

The berries are always present at our ceremonies. They join us in a wooden bowl. One big bowl and one big spoon, which are passed around the circle, so that each person can taste the sweetness, remember the gifts, and say thank you....The generosity of the earth is not an invitation to take it all. Every bowl has a bottom. When it's empty, it's empty...

How do we refill the empty bowl? Is gratitude alone enough? Berries teach us otherwise....The berries trust that we will uphold our end of the bargain and disperse their seeds to new places to grow....They remind us that all flourishing is mutual. We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity,(res-ah-pros-city) a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled....

The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It's our turn now, long overdue....Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world.

This type of worldview can be found if your looking for it. I'm sure its at the Klallam Tribes Art Gallery at Jamestown. We are such an individualistic, self-centered culture that we tend to discount the people who were here before us. Ironically, and for some reason, they still feel compelled to care for us. The Klallam Tribe is responsible for first bringing the COVID vaccine to Sequim, and are seeing to it's distribution. Of course, they've also brought the casino, and considering what we've done to them it somehow seems justified.

The wisdom can be found but with closed ears and eyes what good does it do us? Somehow we need to look with new eyes and ears, and that is precisely the primary gift that Christ has given us. Being born anew reopens our hearts and minds to Reality with a capital R. And this is the goal of the Lenten season to keep us moving deeper into the heart of God. Through prayer, fasting, and generous hearts we are carried into the mystery of Christ. We find what we have always been looking for, and “What you're looking for is what's looking.” A description of human consciousness – the portal to God.

This vision of unity requires a readjustment of our everyday way of seeing things. Take, for example, the surgery done to me to remove a 4 centimeter tumor from my left kidney. It happened 9 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. I can easily attribute my surgical salvation to Dr. Hefty at Virginia Mason in Seattle. But to limit the credit to Dr. Hefty alone is a gross misrepresentation of what actually happened.

The first doctor I consulted wanted to take my entire left kidney! It was only because I was training for chaplaincy at Good Samaritan in Puyallup (another Indian tribe) that I decided to go for a second opinion. It was the head chaplain, Dorothy, who convinced me that since it was a vital organ the whole matter deserved another opinion. The next doctor said he would take one third of the kidney, and when it was all over he stood at my bedside and told me he'd only taken one tenth. And he felt he got the entire tumor out, which after 9 years with no new cancerous growth appears to be the case.

But all this doesn't begin and end with these doctors and Dorothy. Because it all started with my GP who ordered an ultrasound that discovered the tumor, and the technician who did that procedure. Which was then confirmed by a tech doing a cat-scan. This all led to Virginia Mason and the receptionist, nurses, and various employees of the hospital. Not to mention the support of my fellow chaplains, minister friends, and my ever faithful wife who both disciplined and nurtured me from start to finish. It was a community effort, but how often do we take the time to notice the community?

So far this morning we've seen that God didn't destroy his creation out of rage, but rather to begin again. What we might call a divine Do-Over. We have heard the wisdom of Native Americans who have told us that by observing the creation one learns to both give and take with reverence. All of this is poetic and wholesome and pleasant to entertain, but I don't offer it for entertainment. Rather it is an attempt at a wake-up call to help us respond to the intertwining crises. With that said I'll leave you with two final visions, which are not pleasant, but necessary to keep us moving forward.

Of the many troubling scenes we now see on the nightly news there are two in particular that stand out for me. The first was during the terrible wildfires in Australia, which are a direct result of the changing climate of our planet. Climate change that we're responsible for due to excessive carbon emission, and other pollutants. The scene was of a Koala Bear encircled by flames, and crying out in desperation seeking some form of escape. My hope is that the people filming the bear were able to help him, and it caused me to send a monetary donation to help save the Koala's. That scene and the sound of the bears cry are etched in my mind, and there are days I often replay it.

It is symbolic of what we're doing to the planet, and the countless numbers of species that are suffering because of our neglect, and sometimes wanton cruelty. Believe it or not Lent is designed to deal with this negligent and cruel part of ourselves. Through prayer, fasting, and generosity we are molded into the image of Christ. To become like him in word and deed. To love the world the way God does, and as The Apostle tells us: “...for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the Children of God.” (Romans 8:19)

On a current note as I write this people are freezing, and in some cases dying in Texas, because of the effects of climate change. The simple fact is is that it doesn't snow in Texas, or at least snow is a rare occurrence. Because of the snow, and freezing temperatures, and due to the power grid not being winterized it is failing. People have no power, millions of people, and therefore can't turn the heat on. Can you imagine what it would have been like for us after the snow fell if we couldn't turn the heat on? Not comfortable, and for old folks like most of us it would be especially difficult. You know how the old bones creak when it gets cold.

The text tells us that God is finished with Do-Overs. Like Robin Wall Kimmerer we don't really know the origin of the giveaway, but we sense God is with us, and will do all things possible to help us in this our great time of need.

Rev. Mitch Becker

February 21, 2021

Port Angeles