Sermons

Sermons

 

First Christian Church

“Spiritual Smorgasbord”

Colossians 1:11-20

Our text this morning is a spiritual smorgasbord of theological ideas and is probably the richest and densest collection of high Christology in the New Testament. There is far too much here to cover in one sermon. The only reasonable approach is to pick and choose as one does at a smorgasbord.

Justin is the president of the Sequim Community Orchestra that used our fellowship hall to practice in last week. Justin left the timpani (tim-pan-knee) drums in the church and had to return the next morning to take them back to the high school. When he was here, we had a lengthy discussion about community support the orchestra receives including the timpani drums on loan from the school, and our church providing space for them to practice. We also talked about the Narcotics Anonymous groups that use our fellowship hall.

He said he realized that people don't always recover from their addictions, but the ones that do have a real potential to go far beyond quitting the addiction and can grow considerably in the Spirit. I said that was absolutely true when a recovering addict finds the courage to let go and follow the Spirits lead. And all this ties into our text today at verse 13 where the Apostle Paul tells the church in Colossae (Cola-say): “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son.”

What this verse is suggesting is a new kind of Exodus where the Colossians can consider themselves citizens in Christ's spiritual realm. Remember, these Christians were suffering due to persecution of their faith, which often had life or death consequences. They sought refuge from this persecution, and Paul is assuring them they can find that within Christ's kingdom.

Though we do not require refuge from persecution for our faith, we do seek refuge from what The Message Bible translates as: “...dead-end alleys and dark dungeons.” That is an apt description of where addiction always leads, but our culture provides a host of other forms of darkness including rampant greed, sexual promiscuity, the notion that violence can resolve problems, all manner of narcissistic behavior including gluttony, envy of others, and apathy.

Not unlike the ancient church, we too require deliverance from our own self-centered behaviors, and like the ancient church we are assured deliverance when we genuinely seek the mystery of Christ's kingdom on earth. And one need not look far to discover the whereabouts of this kingdom because: “....nor will they say 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom is here, but God must open our eyes and heart to its presence. Eckhart Tolle explains in his wonderful book, “The Power of Now” how this takes place, and I'll paraphrase by saying:

A common addictive practice, though people don't think of it as an addiction, is that of compulsive thinking, and this applies to practically everyone. What happens when you cannot turn-off the thinking processes is you become convinced that you're a separate entity from all that is around you including other people and nature itself. Because of this immersion into separateness the world seems insanely complicated, and full of dissension and strife.

When you wake-up to Christ's kingdom one result is a new-found awareness of the unity of all things, and that the previous notions about separateness were just an illusion. What results is a new-found peace or what the Bible calls, “....the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7a) This peace comes from a freedom not only from the illusion of separateness, but from the incessant thinking that you've known all your life and is so prevalent almost everyone thinks of it as being “normal.”

The way the mind creates this mental fog is it identifies with the stream of ideas, labels, images, words, judgments and definitions that one has been enculturated with, and have been using to make-sense of the world. The primary effect this has is the mental fog makes true relationship impossible. It's effect is comprehensive as it applies to all relationships whether between others, yourself, God or God's creation.

One of my favorite analogies to describe the outcome of addictive, incessant thinking is it so limits your perception that it's much like looking through a knothole in a fence, and only seeing what the knothole allows. Yet, one believes you're seeing everything, when in reality your only seeing a small portion of what is. After one is “born again,” in the sense of the true psychological/spiritual transformation – the illusions begin to fall away, and ultimately, you're left with the “feeling” of oneness with everyone and everything. It's the feeling that people have lost and need to recover.

Recovering the feeling of oneness is what the text is getting at in that last verse: “...and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross.” There are a variety of ways to interpret that verse, but since I'm the preacher I'll offer mine. Jesus went to the cross to show us The Way to be reconciled to reality. Another way of saying that is – so we could regain the feeling of being connected to God, ourselves, other people, and the creation.

The Way is through death and resurrection, and to use modern day ideas – to die to the ego so that the True self can come forth, and this is a process that occurs over a lifetime, and for a few people one can wake-up quite suddenly. But that's rare, and even for them the process had been going on for some time prior to enlightenment. The few who wake-up overnight, so to speak, need someone to be there for them to help guide them through the new terrain. To have so many illusions fall away that quickly could be challenging, and even fearful.

This is one reason why enlightened minds are more the exception than the rule, because most people are happy to live in their illusory world. Even though living in a way that you feel disconnected results in anxiety and fear. The outcome is anxiety and fear because when you feel your totally separate from others and the creation you're always on the defense! You've always got your guard up, because you never know where the next attack is going to come from.

Most of the time people and nature are not in attack mode, but the detached ego is always fearful of it. The greatest fear of the ego is what it's always waiting for – which is annihilation. It thinks reality is trying to kill it, and it doesn't take an enormous cognitive leap to understand when someone feels that way that's how they then see the world. They see it as a dangerous place where you'd better stay alert and watch your back!

Jesus is trying to give us a better way to live, by simply sharing with us what he discovered through the prophets, and possibly Greek wisdom, and maybe other Eastern religions. He wants us to learn how to be “....careless in the care of God.” (Matthew 6:26; The Message Bible)

Since this is Thanksgiving Sunday, we need to look at verses 11 & 12 which read: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints of light.” It's not uncommon to hear Paul speak in these terms of being empowered and joyful and thankful for his inclusion with the saints.

We're typically thankful for our blessings, for family and friends and food and a place to sleep and worship and our inclusion with the saints. But have you ever thought of being thankful for the challenges of old age, or relationship struggles, or the pandemic? This is what the Letter of James is getting at when it says:

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so that you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. (James 1:2-4; The Message Bible)

The pandemic changed everything for us. I remember seeing on the Internet a funny video someone put-together, as there were a lot of people trying to lighten-up the situation with humor. They had made-up this song about being confined to their home and wanting to eat all the time. So they walked around eating potato chips and pretzels and popcorn and singing about the joy of eating stuff all day long. It was pretty funny, and the song fit the occasion well. Do you remember wanting to eat all the time?

When confronted with a challenge of this nature you can go one of two ways. You can either give-in and eat to your heart's desire, or you can find ways to discipline yourself and not eat so much, or even get more exercise and burn-up the food you're in-taking. If you go the way of discipline then “your faith-life is forced out into the open,” and you grow in Spirit. Your conscious awareness is expanded, and you sometimes drop into the peace of God. To the extent you continue to face challenges with discipline is the extent you continue to grow in spiritual maturity.

We all avoid challenges because they call on us to be brave, but courage comes from faith in God, and we'd rather be independent and self-sufficient because that means we're in control. We don't like being out-of-control since that feels like suffering. Here's a story about being out of control and having to call upon faith to receive enough courage to care for oneself.

Virginia Mason Medical Center is in the heart of Seattle, perhaps you've visited there? More than ten years ago Doctor Hefty removed a 5-centimeter cancerous tumor from my left kidney. I remained in the hospital for four days following the surgery as they kept an eye on me making sure my body didn't rebel in any way. In those four days I was taken care of by more than one nurse, and one I vividly recall.

She was on the day shift and was reasonably friendly, but she had this habit of finding things that were not quite right. That would have been fine except she would make comments to me about what she'd discovered, and then look concerned about it. Like my blood pressure might be up a bit, and she'd look worried and say, “Your blood pressure is too high. That's not very good.” It's been so long I can't think of any other examples, but she would say something negative nearly every-time she came into the room!

When you've just had major surgery on a significant organ, and you can't do anything but lay in a hospital bed and think you don't want to have to struggle with anymore anxiety than necessary, and she was adding to my burden on a daily basis. Finally, and mostly through prayer, I mustered up the courage to confront her. It was the last thing I wanted to do in my fragile condition.

Long before this I'd learned the use of “I” messages when confronting people, because that helps to keep them off the defensive, and more able to hear you. So, I told her the truth, but with a lot of “I” messages. I said, “I'm already feeling pretty anxious about recovering from major surgery, and I don't have any effective way to deal with anxiety laying in this hospital bed. I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't tell me about things you discover that are “off” or don't look quite right.” She looked up at me and said, “Oh, okay.”

Now, it's been a long time so I may not remember exactly what happened, but it seems to me after that confrontational moment I didn't see her again. I know that was the end of that particular source of anxiety in the hospital. Because her response lacked any drama or defensiveness I felt as though she'd never heard that from any other patients; and this is why Jesus said from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34a)

It is customary during the Thanksgiving season to feel grateful for the ways God has blessed us, and I don't want to discourage you from doing that because counting our blessings does help keep us in a positive frame of mind. But when you read through the Bible most of the stories are about people being confronted by life and finding faithful ways to overcome the challenges. Can we be thankful for the challenges themselves, and see beyond the fear and anxiety to the “true colors” of our faith?

That is a challenge in itself, and may the Lord grant you courage through faith, and many victories by grace:

 

God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him.

We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom, courageous in sea storm and earthquake,

Before the rush and roar of oceans, the tremors that shift mountains.

Jacob wrestling God fights for us, God of the angel armies protects us. (Psalm 46:1-3; The Message Bible)

 

Rev. Mitch Becker

November 20, 2022

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Gateways to Empathy”

Isaiah 65:17-25

What usually happens as the church year comes to a close is we start seeing scripture about the end times. Isaiah isn't necessarily heavy apocalyptic material like The Revelation, but the visions and images are about God bringing something to a close to create something new.

In our text this morning we're going to see a conflict taking place between the exiles returning from Babylon and the remnant that remained in Jerusalem. The exiles returning make-up the former leadership in Jerusalem who were selected by the Babylonians to go into exile. Upon return to their homeland they want to assume positions of leadership, but the remnant that has been in Jerusalem all-along aren't ready to be led, since they've figured out some ways to get by on their own. What ensues is a struggle between these two groups.

Let's begin by looking at the hardship the remnant had to endure, and this is best described in verses 21 and 22. These verses describe a people who've been building houses for the foreign occupiers, but in the prophet's vision they'll be able to build their own houses and live in them. As well, their children have suffered malnutrition because the Babylonians have eaten the food they planted for themselves. These two verses describe only a portion of the strife and suffering they've had to endure under occupation.

The prophet is attempting to help the remnant cope with the trauma of occupation by creating visions of a more promising future. The culmination of these visions are found in the final verses of the text where the wolf and lamb will feed together. At first glance, you might think that is a reference to the Jewish people learning to coexist with the Babylonians, except the Babylonians will be leaving.

The vision of the wolf and lamb together is actually a depiction of the returning Judean leadership coexisting with the remnant that was left behind. The prophet creatively introduces the Garden of Eden to serve as the primary image of peace and harmony. We know it's the Garden of Eden because of the reference to the serpent who will no longer be nourished, meaning it is no longer a threat. The prophetic imagination sees the Garden of Eden restored as the new leadership and the remnant learn to get along and work with each other.

This is an incredible vision which will require considerable work for the two parties to create together. One reason it will be difficult is the remnant has had to learn how to cope during these years of exile with the oppressive occupiers. Through many decisions, hard work and courage they've managed to survive. We've done something of the same thing in our response to the oppressive pandemic that in many ways threatened our survival. When you endure that kind of hardship, over an extended amount of time, you're not likely to want to take direction from others.

But that's exactly what the new leadership wants to do. They want to return to Jerusalem and assume their former positions of leadership, and the remnant is saying, “Hold on a minute, we've learned a thing or two ourselves.”

 One way the two parties could begin to create this new world of peace and harmony would be to learn how to be empathetic with each other. Empathy certainly means to make the attempt to see what the other person is talking about, but empathy goes even further to attempt to feel the feelings of another.

To explore empathy a bit more Karen and I have been watching a series on Netflix entitled Extraordinary Attorney Woo.

This is a South Korean television series about an autistic young woman named Woo Young Woo who has an extremely high IQ, and gifted memory recall, and is remarkably creative, but she struggles with everyday interactions. She has trouble going through revolving glass doors and can sometimes take-off on tangents in the midst of conversation. One of her favorite digressions is to start talking about whales, which absolutely fascinate her.

Attorney Woo also has trouble coping with people who are emotionally out of control, and especially due to anger. Recent research has shown that not all people with autism spectrum disorder lack empathy or the ability to feel other feelings, but some clearly do lack empathy. Attorney Woo just sort of shuts down when confronted with anyone who is “losing it!” Whereas people without the disorder are better able to sense or feel the anger of the other and possibly come to understand its source.

By grasping the situation in a more holistic fashion one can come to understand the source of the anger, and possibly even forgive the person for the angry outburst. By being empathetic it becomes possible to depersonalize the situation understanding that the angry person is trying to come to terms with their own inner struggle. With this realization an empathetic person can respond in ways that can help the angry person find a resolution.

Helpful responses can include trying to connect in ways other than verbal communication with touch or maybe a symbolic gift. When these responses aren't an option, which they often aren't, one can always follow the advice of Jesus Christ:

I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and the bad, the nice and the nasty. (Matthew 5:44b-45; The Message Bible)

It doesn't take much of a cognitive leap to realize that building gateways to empathy could serve our country greatly at this time of social and political division. Robert Frost begins his poem “Mending Wall” with these words: “Something there is that doesn't love a wall,” but the poem ends like this: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Boundaries are good for people because they help us determine appropriate behaviors and allow us to respect individual needs. Without boundaries society would be utter chaos.

But when boundaries are taken to the extreme, and people can no longer engage in fruitful discourse, let alone be sensitive to each other's feelings, what ensues is a cultural coldness without regard for the matters-of-the-heart. This is the present predicament we find ourselves struggling with on a daily basis. People are identifying with their own camps, all the while disregarding the concerns and cares and feelings of other camps.

By taking Jesus' advice seriously and responding to adversity and other forms of social discord with the energy of prayer, God can move us into an inner spaciousness that enables us to open the gateways to empathy. Garrett Galvin in his excellent commentary on our text puts it like this:

“We overcome polarization and hatred when we can see the world as God sees it....If we see humans as God does, we will be able to live with the gladness, joy and delight of verse 18. We will only be able to construct empathy bridges if we have that gladness, joy and delight of a grace-centered view of the world. The world of sin constructs empathy walls, modern day Towers of Babel (Baa-bull). (Our text today) is a clarion call to tear down these empathy walls so that we can see what another person feels.”

Garrett suggests that we need to “tear down these empathy walls” in order to get the empathy flowing, and this is hard work, and it's especially difficult since construction of the walls have been going on for some time. It's hard for people to change their behaviors after they've become so accustomed to them.

Karen pointed out the other day that I don't pick my feet up when I walk. Something that should have been corrected during childhood, now has to be done as a 70-year-old adult. What happens if I don't pick my feet up is I wear out the heel of my shoe well before the rest of the sole is worn through. By picking my feet up I may be able to make my shoes last twice or even three times longer than usual.

When I go for my afternoon walk it often takes at least 10 minutes into the walk before I remember to lift my feet. Sometimes I'm half-way through the walk before I remember! It all depends how preoccupied I am with other thoughts and problem solving. The saying, “You can't teach an old dog new tricks” comes with some truth to it, but thankfully it's not set in stone. It may take several weeks or even months but eventually I'll start picking up my feet consistently.

That's how difficult it is for an individual to change a behavior, now imagine how much more difficult it is for a society, and in our case a society made up of millions of people. Once again, the words from Carrie Newcomer's song “You Can Do This Hard Thing,” speaks to our situation: “Here we stand breathless, And pressed in hard times, Hearts hung like laundry, On backyard clothes lines, Impossible just takes a little more time.”

When considering all the returning leadership and the remnant that remained in Jerusalem had endured including the terror of the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of the Temple, the forced exile of the leadership, and we'd probably better include whatever personal sinful behavior the Judeans themselves practiced, along with the enormous degree of patience required for the two groups to work together – the task of rebuilding the city must have seemed hopelessly impractical.

This is why the prophet is creating a vision informing them that God is going to introduce something brand new, but the implication is that they'll need to cooperate. Not only with God, but with each other as well. Jesus will later explain to his disciples how the impossible is accomplished as he answers their question about how a rich man gets into the kingdom of God:

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26)

Jesus then tells his disciples of how they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel in the new world. As Isaiah shares the vision of the wolf and lamb feeding together, he is assisting in God's creation of a new world where the “former things shall not be remembered.” Isaiah, the remnant, and the returning leadership all occur eight centuries before Christ. The seed for the new world has been planted, and Jesus continues to nurture the seed now calling it the kingdom of God.

It has been 20 centuries since Jesus shared his vision, and the work continues through us. Now, we are charged to work with God to create a new world where the “former things shall not be remembered.” Obviously, this new world is a long-term project!

You've noticed the poor people pushing their carts or walking down the street talking to themselves while the temperatures continue to drop. The Episcopal Church in Sequim functions as a warming shelter, but I'm not sure what is available in Port Angeles other than Serenity House, but that's like 9 minutes by car outside of town. When I see the poor, cold people it sometimes brings to mind the work of Joe DeScala and the 4PA organization.

They returned the ravine behind the church to pristine condition, and that area was a real mess! Of course, that's a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done in the city as a whole. But Joe, like Isaiah or Jesus, has a vision and you can read about it on the 4PA website. If you go to the website you'll soon notice that Joe doesn't talk about God. My hunch is he's trying to be as inclusive as possible by not alienating anybody with a lot of God talk.

What you'll see on the website is descriptions about projects that have been accomplished, and projects they look forward to accomplishing, along with long-range plans to house the poor. But Joe is a man of God. If you were to get down to brass tacks about what has moved him to take on this enormous project he might say something to the effect that God has given him a vision, and he's fleshing it out.

The next time you see a homeless person on the street think about Joe and 4PA and what they're doing to flesh out the vision of God, and the vision has been around for a long time:

God created human beings, he created them godlike, reflecting God's nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill the Earth! Take Charge! Be responsible for the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of the Earth. (Genesis 1: 27-28; The Message Bible)

Be responsible means we have a God given ability to respond. So let us build the gateways to empathy, and work in every way we can to continue to bring about God's new world.

Rev. Mitch Becker

November 13, 2022

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Neither Pride Nor Despair”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Theologians have been trying to explain why Jesus hasn't returned for the last two thousand years, but for the early church the second coming of Christ was something that could happen any minute! They're on the edge of their seats waiting for Jesus to descend from the clouds.

The text opens with Paul telling the faithful in Thessalonica (Thess-ah-lawn-knee-cuh) to not be shaken or upset by the teaching they've recently received about the Parousia (Paa-roo-see-uh). Apparently this teaching claims the second coming has already happened, and it comes to them from someone who is pretending to be Paul, or at least has his authority to teach the church. Paul is telling them to not get excited, because the Lord has not returned yet, and something needs to happen first anyway.

What needs to happen first is a rebellion needs to take place, and it will be led by what Paul calls the “son of perdition.” (per-dish-shun) This is a somewhat vague character, not the devil, but someone in contrast to the Son of Man, a term often used to describe Jesus. This is someone who is in opposition to God, and ready to be combative with not only God, but anything that is sacred. Ultimately, the son of perdition will attempt to assume God's place in the Temple.

The core of this text then describes how this “lawless one” will lead the rebellion against God, but the Lord Jesus will eliminate him when he returns in glory. Again, this is not Satan, but it is someone in Satan's charge doing his bidding on the earth. Paul continues by explaining to the church that those who have not accepted the truth of the gospel will be susceptible to the “lawless ones” power. And even God plays a role in their deception in encouraging the non-believers in their illusions! Finally, the fruit of such misbehavior is condemnation, which doesn't sound good.

Paul apparently goes into this description of the “lawless one” and the consequences of following him to contrast it to the good folks in Thessalonica. Paul holds them up as the chosen ones of God who have received that all important gift of salvation because they've accepted the truth. This all means they'll be able to share in God's glory, and then he comes full-circle again and tells them to “stand their ground” and not be fooled by competing teachings.

The text ends on a familiar theme of finding comfort and hope through God's grace. For the Apostle Paul it's all about finding grace through faith. What we have been given by God is not of our own doing, but comes as sheer gift from God. Paul says: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is in me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

For many people the notion of the end times is a sobering topic that results in discouragement and even fear. But for Paul the end times was a source of encouragement, and an opportunity to reassure the people of God. Listen to what he says in his second letter to this church:

 Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus. And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence – we have the Master's word on it – that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they'll be ahead of us.

The Master himself will give the command. Archangel (Ark-angel) thunder! God's trumpet blast! He'll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise – they'll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we'll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; The Message Bible)

Paul in no way tried to tone down his teachings to the church, and would candidly remind them of the opposition and persecution they would encounter, but he also tells them to not be afraid. Both then and now when people talk about the end times the conversation is often dominated by fear of present possibilities. On the other hand, people who avoid such discussions often focus upon their own self-sustaining efforts.

But for Paul it's all about God's grace, therefore the faithful can rest assured that God has chosen them to be a kind of first fruits of the Spirit. He puts this beautifully in his gospel – the Letter to the Romans:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, grow inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

The way the Apostle Paul sees things is there's no room for being puffed-up about our own ability to save ourselves or this world we inhabit. By the same token, we should not be distressed about the state of affairs in the world. For him, any discussion about the end times both reinforces the notion that we are surrounded and cared for by God of the angel armies, as well, the coming end should motivate us to take our spiritual lives very seriously.

Typically, when I talk about our spiritual lives I'm thinking in terms of what happens when we pray with great sincerity or read God's word and take it to heart. Paul would say: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed in the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2a) But here's another way to think about our spiritual lives, and the Apostle Paul is thinking in those terms today.

When he describes Jesus coming down out of the clouds to gather us up with him we enter a spiritual realm that takes a bit of imagination to grasp. In these post Enlightenment times where the scientific method has been conditioning us all our lives to accept what we know by the senses to be real – it takes a leap of the imagination to embrace the spiritual realm. Eventually, as we learn of others encounters with the spirit world, and accumulate our own experiences it gets easier to accept what at first seems impossible.

The following story told by minister and scholar Dr. Walter Fluker tells us about his own experience with the spiritual realm and his father who had died:

 I was involved in a grief ritual on Cortes (Core-tez) Island off Vancouver, British Colombia (about 7 hours North of Port Angeles). On this island, all of these people from around the world were just going through these rituals. One evening....during what the Dagara (Day-gear-ah) people call the grief ritual, where we pay our debt to the ancestors through grief, through weeping and moaning that universal moan....So (my friend Malidoma Some') said just be free, so they started playing the drum and Sobonfu (Saw-bond-few) (his wife) was hitting some sort of shaking instrument. I just started getting down....I fell to my knees, and I cried. I said, “Daddy, we miss you.” He had died in 1984.

I had performed a eulogy but never mourned him. I was too busy being me. I said, “Daddy, we miss you. Mama misses you, B. misses you.” I just went through the whole family. When I came to myself, all of the women had taken me to a corner in the room and they were rocking me. This Japanese woman whispers in my ears. She says, “You're only five years old.” I didn't know what that meant then. It was years later that I discovered, when daddy left Mississippi in a hurry, he sent for us, thanks be to God. I was five years old. I was still grieving my daddy's departure.

This story depicts the spiritual realm, and also touches base with our All-Saints Sunday recognition of the saints in our own lives that have passed. Like Dr. Fluker's father who had died, so our loved ones live on in our hearts, and at times we may encounter them again. This can be a moving emotional experience, but it is also a coming into contact with the spiritual realm beyond this earthly plane. The Apostle Paul attempts to do this with the church in our text today, and he expresses it wonderfully in one of his other letters. He says:

There's far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can't see now will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:18; The Message Bible)

The saint I chose to remember and honor was Rev. Ray Lindley. Ray was the co-pastor with Dick Busic at my home church in Albany. After Dick left pastoral ministry to work in administration at what was then Northwest Christian College – Ray stayed on as the senior pastor of the church. I had gone on to Oregon State University which was only 10 miles away. On occasion I'd take the regional bus back to Albany and visit with Ray. In that way I could stay in touch with my home church as I tried to cope with a big, strange institution all the while living “far” from home.

But probably what endeared me most to Ray was the way he handled the funeral service of my brother Randy who left this world by suicide. The service took place at my home church because no one in my family went to church, and it seemed the obvious place to go. Ray did a beautiful job with the service, and went into considerable detail about how to cope with a loss of this nature. It was very sensitive, and thorough, and most likely I knew better than anyone how much work had gone into putting that funeral service together.

I felt he did it as much for me as for my family. I remember in one part of the service he played music that probably my little brother, Jay, thought would be special to Randy. It was this loud and aggressive heavy metal song that Ray allowed to play for a bit, and then quietly turned it off long before it had finished. It was one of those really awkward moments in pastoral ministry where you have to take charge, because no one else is going to do it!

 When I first joined the church Ray was going through a difficult divorce. I remember him struggling through the sermons when it would come his time to preach. Ray was an intellectual man, but also could be sensitive, and his thinking traveled the depths of his soul, which was also appealing to me. Dick was my primary mentor and friend, but Ray was always in the background, and in the end became the enduring connection I needed to help me stay grounded in what was familiar.

It seemed to me that most of your choices for All Saints Sunday were closer to home like parents, husbands, sisters and brothers, and friends too. I didn't see any pets remembered, but pets can become very dear to us, so we might keep that in mind for next year.

In these somewhat heartless times we're living through it's important for us to keep being a refuge from the political polarization and violence by holding onto and celebrating matters-of-the-heart. Carrie Newcomer has written many moving and powerful songs and one in particular expresses well this age we're passing through in her song, “You Can Do This Hard Thing.” She sings: “Here we stand breathless, and pressed in hard times, Hearts hung like laundry, on backyard clothes lines.”

And that stanza ends with a poignant message: “Impossible just takes a little more time.” What we're doing here each Sunday, and especially with heartfelt celebrations like All Saints Sunday, is we're doing the impossible. This church, in particular, continued to meet in-person throughout the pandemic. We only took a few weeks off during times when transmission of the disease was most threatening. We are one of maybe two or three churches in the entire region that was able to keep gathering in this way.

Now we're on the other side of the pandemic, (footnote: by saying that I'm not suggesting not getting boosted or ignoring sanitation practices) and we are whole, and display many of the elements of a happy family. If you were at Jerrie's birthday party last Sunday you know what I'm talking about. We've made it through this awful pandemic in a way many other churches were not able to do. Go ahead and commend yourself for a job well done! Stop and take account of all the decisions, hard work and courage that it took to get through this thing.

But also keep the words of the Apostle Paul in mind, because that's what helps us stay humble, since we so easily get carried-away with ourselves. Remember these words: “But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I'm not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven't I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then, my work didn't amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it.” (1 Corinthians 15:10; The Message Bible)

Rev. Mitch Becker

November 6, 2022

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

“Impossible Possibilities”

Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus (Zuh-key-us) is short. He's short in physical stature, but also in moral standing. The Jewish people despise him because he's in league with the powers that be who are oppressing the people with unfair and burdensome taxes. But something he isn't short on is spiritual desire. We know this because in the border town of Jericho where Jesus has just entered Zacchaeus has done some reconnoitering and has determined where Jesus will walk. Because he's physically short he can't see over the crowd, so he climbs a sycamore tree, or as the camp song goes: (Sing this) “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he, He climbed up in a sycamore tree, The Lord he wanted to see.”

Now you have to stop and think about that for a moment. Zacchaeus is not only a tax collector – he is the chief tax collector, which means he's rich. So, though he was despised and deplored he most likely surrounded himself with things of wealth and social status. Things like a nice house, clothes, servants, and maybe a horse to ride. What would it take for a man of prosperity and contrived outward appearances to climb a tree like a child to get a better view?

Something is driving Zacchaeus to risk humiliation to get a look at Jesus. It seems to me that Zacchaeus has acquired a good bit of spiritual desire. Spiritual desire is a strong inclination to want to either see or experience God in some significant way. It's not something you're born with, so its not in your genetic make-up; it comes by grace, and its something you can ask God for. Perhaps Zacchaeus is simply fed-up with being despised and is looking for a way out. Maybe he feels by participating in the celebration he'll get a clue or some insight into a different lifestyle?

Certainly, he has no notion that Jesus is going to want to stay at his house for the day: (Sing this) “The Lord passed by and said, Zacchaeus, you come down from there, 'Cause I'm going to your house today, 'Cause I'm going to your house today.”

In regard to impossibilities here two are presented back to back. First, it seems impossible that a tax collector, let alone the chief tax collector who stands a great deal to lose, both in terms of image and wealth, would even want to see Jesus. On the other hand, maybe for us who've become accustom to Jesus' often improbable behaviors may not surprised by his desire to stay with Zacchaeus. But the crowd watching Jesus is going to be stunned by this display of unbiased inclusiveness. As the text tells us: “Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, 'What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?'” (Luke 19:7; The Message Bible) Have you heard any grumping lately?

Then Zacchaeus turns to Jesus and pledges to give half of everything he owns to the poor, and for anyone he has cheated he'll restore their finances four-times-over! What's really interesting about this is unlike the tax collector in the parable last week who outright identifies himself as a sinner – Zacchaeus simply states his willingness to make restitution to those he's taken advantage of. It's a generous and selfless act for sure, but it is not a verbal confession that indicates remorse or any sense of guilt.

Notice also that Jesus doesn't require any penitence or asks for a show of faith or a change of heart; Jesus does however recognize him as a child-of-God, or as the text states he's a son of Abraham. Wedged between Zacchaeus' generosity and his being a son of Abraham comes salvation which is freely given, not only to Zacchaeus, but everyone associated with him within his household. The gift is comprehensive.

Okay, with that overview of the text lets go on and look at what all this may mean for the faithful, and I'll begin with another parable that is similar in some important ways:

There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man's table. His best friends were the dogs that came and licked his sores. Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also dies and was buried.

In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, “Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I'm in agony in this fire.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It's not like that here. Here he's consoled and your tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.

The rich man said, “Then let me ask you Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won't end up here in this place of torment.” Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.” “I know Father Abraham,” he said, “but they're not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.” Abraham replied, “If they won't listen to Moses and the Prophets, they're not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31; The Message Bible)

The teaching: “You cannot serve God and wealth,” is just prior to this story about Lazarus and the rich man. All his life the rich man ignores Lazarus' suffering, but then in Hades in the midst of torment he looks up and sees Lazarus with Abraham. He pleads for mercy and comfort, but doesn't get it. Then in an act of selflessness, something he never showed poor Lazarus, he asks that Lazarus be sent to his family to warn them. The story concludes with a sobering thought that if his family won't listen to the scriptures they're not going to listen to someone that's been resurrected either. Which is possibly some sort of commentary on Jesus' own resurrection.

Similarities to this story and our text today include Zacchaeus also being wealthy, and he has his moment of selflessness in the way he seeks restitution with the poor, but also in the unusual way Jesus responds. Jesus grants salvation to Zacchaeus' entire household, but he also identifies Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham. Meaning he's a child-of-God and this brings hope to even the rich in the world who are also children-of-God, but they still need to do something about the poor who sit at their gates. This even holds true for the most despised and deplored in the world like the tax collector. They, as well, have a place within the kingdom of God if they respond to the poor and marginalized in a righteous manner.

There are some theological problems that arise out of these stories. The first being the Apostle Paul makes it clear that we receive salvation not because of the things we do, but because of faith and God's grace. He says, ”For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) According to Paul salvation is a sheer gift.

Also, the whole notion of hell is hard to swallow in the light of the compassionate God that Jesus often speaks of and demonstrates in his own ministry, Where does hell fit into that scenario? Karen was telling me over lunch about a television program called “Lucifer.” She said one of the story lines in the program was that hell is a place we create for ourselves, and mostly because of guilt.

People are often aware of guilt feelings, but are not sure what to do about them. My understanding of guilt is that it's self-punishment for perceived wrong doing, or actions that somehow fall short of personal values. And depending upon your upbringing and to what extent your parents inflicted punishment often determines the extent somebody punishes themselves.

The path to forgiveness comes from first becoming aware of the self-inflicted punishment, and then going to the source, which would mean getting in touch with hurtful events in the past. Something that continues to be a source of pain for me is the time I took my dog, Omar, to the vet to be euthanized. Sometimes when I look at his picture in my office it still hurts, but other times its okay. The pain tells me not all is resolved.

Omar was 14 when this happened, and that is pretty old for a German Shepherd/Elkhound mix, and he'd been suffering from nose bleeds and lethargy. He also lost his balance and rolled down a short embankment when I took him for a walk. But the real issue was I was in seminary in Berkeley, and mom didn't want to take care of him any longer as it was getting difficult. There was no way to keep him at the seminary, and he was too old to be given away. To have him put-down was the only course of action I could think of, though he was not terminal in any sense.

When my brother and I took him to Doctor Brat, Randy had built a really nice wooden box for him, and we sat him in the box, and Doctor Brat injected him with something, but it didn't go right and Omar struggled some. The procedure took longer and was more painful than it should have been – at least that's how I felt about it. The doctor ended up walking away without saying a word, and he seemed to be upset. I don't know if he was upset about the way the procedure went, or upset about what he may have considered a senseless euthanization? All I know is it was awkward and unsettling.

Of course, putting Omar down wasn't his decision to make, and he did agree to do it, though he had me wait three days before going though with it. I'll never know what was going on in his head, but I know what was going on in mine, and more importantly what my heart felt. The quality of Omar's life had been reduced substantially since my leaving for seminary. I even put off seminary for a year working at the gas station just so I could spend it with Omar before I left. I wouldn't have gone through with the procedure if I didn't think it was for the best.

So, why do I keep punishing myself for it? Why does the guilt persist? In the parable of the Prodigal Son the father forgives the wayward son even before he reaches the father on the return path. The father isn't thinking about how his son has abandoned the farm and family, or that he's squandered his inheritance, because he's caught-up in joy. He is overwhelmed with joy because his son was lost but now he's found. All that seems to matter to the father is that his son is coming home.

The message of the parable is that our being found is what matters to God, and it is also the ultimate message of the Zacchaeus story, and Lazarus and the rich man. All these stories are about the lost being found. The closing sentence in our text this morning is: “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

There are a lot of ways to be lost. When we're caught-up in punishing ourselves for perceived unloving acts we too are lost to ourselves and God, and wander in a kind of wilderness. In such situations we're not caring for ourselves or paying attention to our genuine needs. Maybe what God wants from us when we're caught-up in guilt creating our own hellish experiences is to remember that we are loved not because of what we do, but God loves us anyway!

God is like the father in the Prodigal Son parable who just wants us to come home, and is ready with open arms to receive us. There are no conditions. There are no requirements. Because God's love is unconditional and always available. Hell is somehow not trusting that, and therefore living in a state of separation from what sustains us.

In the following excerpt Desmond Tutu's daughter, Mpho Tutu (Mmm-pho Two-two) talks about a way to find the forgiveness of both ourselves and others:

We are all members of the same human family....In seeing the many ways we are similar and how our lives are inextricably (in-uk-strick-a-blee) linked, we can find empathy and compassion. In finding empathy and compassion, we are able to move in the direction of forgiving. Ultimately, it is humble awareness of our own humanity that allows us to forgive.

We are, every one of us, so very flawed and so very fragile. I know that, were I born a member of the white ruling class at (a certain time) in South Africa's past, I might easily have treated someone with the same disdain with which I was treated. I know, given the same pressures and circumstances, I am capable of the same monstrous acts as any other human being on this achingly beautiful planet. It is this knowledge of my frailty that helps me find my compassion, my empathy, my similarity, and my forgiveness for the frailty and cruelty of others.

Zacchaeus finds empathy for those he's taken advantage of after Jesus tells him he wants to stay at his house, though what immediately precedes this change of heart is the murmuring of the crowd. They're grumbling about Jesus wanting to get cozy with this sinner. It's almost as if Zacchaeus wants to prove to the grumbling crowd that he's not the sinner they make him out to be. Maybe both of these things contribute to his change of heart.

What it all boils down to is if we're to stop creating our own hellish wilderness experiences we've got to accept God's forgiveness. This means being uncomfortably truthful with ourselves. To see our own flaws and frailty, and know we're all in the same boat.

Rev. Mitch Becker

October 30, 2022

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“A Gospel of Desperation”

Luke 18:9-14

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is a quote from Thoreau's “Walden” and applies to our text today in that it attempts to lead us to a place of desperation. It does this by giving us first an example of what it means to be ego inflated. The state most of us are in much of the time, though usually not to the degree the Pharisee is displaying. The Pharisee shows us what not to do in a couple of ways. He begins by making a comparison of himself to crooks, racketeers, sexual exploiters, and finally to the hated tax collector. If that wasn't enough, he further inflates by playing-up his religious practices of fasting and tithing.

He then compares himself to the tax collector who's apparently feeling desperate. The tax collector is not able to look God in the eye because his guilt so weighs him down. The obvious source for his guilt would be his practice of collecting unjust taxes that create a financial burden for his people. A burden imposed upon the population by King Herod and the Roman oppressors. He is socially ostracized because of it, and probably feels lost and alone. In his desperation he cries out to God for mercy.

This was probably shocking to the disciples who first heard the parable, because the Pharisees were seen as the righteous ones aligned with God and his will. The tax collectors, on the other hand, were seen by the general population as traitors, but Jesus is holding the tax collector up as the one worthy of God's favor!

In high school there were kids who were known as the “high guys” who drove the GTO's and the souped-up Mustangs, and often had a girlfriend. These were the guys who were looked up to, and you wanted to emulate, and they would make you feel worthy and special if they took the time to talk with you. Then there were the guys who looked funny. They were too tall or too short, physically unattractive and often socially awkward. Stories were told about them that weren't true but were believed because it kept them at a safe distance, and they were made fun of.

They were useful because they became a vehicle for the fragile egos of young, developing males who often felt small and insecure. It was a dysfunctional, hurtful way to rise above the doubt and anxiety that comes with adolescence. You know in your heart that you don't have clue, but you have to keep up the facade, otherwise somebody may see how frightened you are. It takes a lot of energy, and hard work to keep up the outward appearances not unlike what the Pharisee is doing in our story. Look at how hard he's working to look justified in God's eyes.

What Jesus is saying in this parable is the people you ought to be paying attention to are the guys who look funny and are made fun of. The social outcasts. These are the ones who in their humility we should be trying to emulate, because they don't have the inflated ego that distances them from the truth. The truth is that God is on the side of the desperate ones. The marginalized, the socially excluded, the ones talked about and made fun of...these are the ones in God's favor. That is made clear as crystal in the gospels.

The funny thing is that the facade goes on long after high school, and continues until a different, alternative lifestyle is embraced. And you don't really get there by thinking about it. You get there by doing it, and after a while you're able to put into words what you've been doing all along. In a recent meditation Richard Rohr said this about what it takes to change us at a soul level. He begins:

The form of learning which most changes people in lasting ways has to touch them at a broader and deeper level than the thinking mind....here at the Center for Action and Contemplation we will continue to say: Try this, go here, change sides, move outside your comfort zone, make new friendships with people of a different race or class, let go of your usual role and attractive self-image, pedal, or roll instead of drive, skip the tourist visits and spend time in local neighborhoods, go to the jail or to the border, help a food pantry or literacy center, attend another church for a while, and so on.

Then we can live ourselves into new ways of thinking, and we will wonder how we could have ever thought in any other way! Before new experience, new thinking is difficult and dangerous. Afterward, new thinking is natural and even necessary.

I forgot my lasagna for lunch last week, so I walked down to the college to buy a sandwich. When I got to the little cafe, I ordered a quesadilla and began to walk back to the church. But on my way out I changed my mind and decided to eat my lunch in the commons. While there I noticed a lot of things like the flags of the different countries representing the wide range of international students at the college. I noticed the soda vending machines and thought about buying a soda, and then thought better of it. There were a couple students playing ping pong, and the work crew removing worn out pavement on campus finished their lunch and returned to their respective jobs.

Not a big deal, as I've eaten in different college commons over the years, but never at Peninsula College and it felt awkward. A part of me felt like I didn't belong there, though I recently officiated at a Celebration of Life for Tom Hostetler in the Longhouse, and I've bought a latte or two from the little cafe, but I still felt like a stranger in a strange land. As if at any moment someone was going to walk up to me and say, “What are you doing here?”

This is a small, insignificant example of what Father Rohr is getting at by doing things differently until we have a change of heart. Notice I say, “change of heart” and not a change of mind. Our minds change all the time. We may think of our spouses in a host of different ways in the course of one day. At one moment you may look at them and think how I could live a day without them, and within an hour you may wish they were visiting a different country. Our minds change constantly, but Jesus is far more concerned with the heart.

Jesus is trying to change our hearts, and that takes a long time and a lot of hard work, because the heart is down there real deep, and the biblical notion of the heart is far more complex and foundational then we typically think. Marcus Borg has more to say about the heart in his book “The Heart of Christianity,” and I'll put this into my own words:

Marcus begins by describing the heart as a metaphor for the self at a very deep level. In our cultural we often think of the heart in terms of romantic love or a source of courage or strength, and in the Bible, it can mean these things as well, but there are also deeper meanings. A few examples include: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10) and “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” (Psalm 139:23) Those are both from the psalms, and just one from the New Testament: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Marcus goes on to say that these scripture verses and others show the heart underlies basic human functions like the way we see the world, and the way our minds work, and determines what we feel, and the choices we make. The heart influences all these things and more. The heart is foundational to our beings.

It is this heart that Jesus lives from and is trying to help us get to so we can become like him. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he says: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) These, by the way, are my favorite scripture verses I'll bring to the Thanksgiving dinner.

The reference to “unveiled face” comes from Exodus chapter 34 where it describes Moses as needing to veil his face to protect the people from God's glory that shone from it after he visits with God. Paul is suggesting we don't need to veil our faces anymore.

It's all about changing the human heart, or a better term is transformation, because we're talking about thorough and dramatic change which alters everything you see and do. The theological concept Jesus uses to describe this level of change is to become “born again” or “born anew” found in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John. (John 3:1-8)

This Tuesday I'll be leading the pastor's that make up our Zoom group in a discussion of what it means to be born again or born anew. I'm a bit intimidated by this presentation to the group because pastors don't leave you much theological wiggle-room. If I misrepresent scripture or say something controversial, I'm liable to be called-out on it. In this way my “authority” may be challenged! This causes me to be more comprehensive in my research and preparation and helps me to grow in deeper understanding of the topic. I'll do fine.

On my walk Wednesday afternoon I came across a large spider on the path, and it was thankfully so large that I saw it and was able to walk around it. What struck me most about this Arachnid (Ur-ack-nuhd) was its color. My hunch is (though I don't know for certain) it wasn't born that way but has been transformed into that color so as not to stand out in its habitat. In that way it can avoid predators and is less conspicuous to its prey.

The transformation the spider underwent was not initiated on its own but was built into its genetic make-up. Another way of saying that is it was outside of the spider's control. The transformation of a human being into our true divine nature happens in much the same way. It is ultimately outside of our control, but unlike the spider there are things we can do to help the process along. Jesus says at one point in the gospel that: “The gate is narrow, and the way is hard that leads to life.” (Matthew 7:14) We can help keep the gate open through the practice of any type of prayer, but especially through listening prayer or contemplation, because this effects the gate in a direct manner.

If one is persistent in in-depth, listening prayer the gate will stay open, and access to one's soul becomes relatively easy. I like to say it is possible to become hardwired to your soul. Obviously, there are people who are more capable in achieving this than others. People like Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, The Buddha, Lao Tzu (Loat-sha), Saint Francis, Martin Luther King, Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg and others seem to be particularly good at keeping the gate open. I don't know if this is because of their genetic make-up, or the way they were raised, or educated, or all the above.

All I know is we're to follow their example, and to allow ourselves to be transformed into the same “likeness” as them. To me, this is the central purpose of the gospel message, since there is no other way to fully understand the teachings, let alone emulate the behaviors of these enlightened ones without having the same “heart.”

This brings us full circle back to our text, because the process of transformation is best allowed to happen when a person is in a state of humility. This is the spiritual and psychological state of the tax collector who sees himself as nothing compared to God, and also in desperate need of God's intervention in his life. In a state of abject humility, one needs God so much that the ego defenses come down and the Spirit is allowed to flow in or flow out.

Contemplation is simply a way of training the ego to drop its defenses. In that way, you don't have to wait until you're desperately in need of God, but God is willingly and repetitively allowed access to the undefended heart. In the beginning contemplation is hard because the ego does not want to feel exposed, and it's very clever in the ways it finds to avoid communion with God. But in time, and with great perseverance it's possible to reach a point where opening up to God becomes the most desirable thing in your life.

This is what it means to love God. When you're in love with someone you want to be with them as much as possible. When you're in love with God you want the same thing. Jesus says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Or from The Message that reads: “It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you'll most want to be, and end up being.” (Matthew 6:21; The Message Bible)

Lately, I've been spending time on Facebook just scrolling through what I think is known as the news feed. I typically do this after Karen has gone to bed, and the dogs are lying quietly in their respective chairs. On the news feed are different stories and posts of often people I know, and sometimes the stories bring-up uncomfortable subjects for me.

The other night my pastor friend Eric had pictures of his baby girl, who was exceedingly cute, and it reminded me that is a boat I've completely missed. Unlike most of you I'll never raise a child or know what it means to be a parent. Perhaps looking at your child through the window in the maternity ward for the first time is as close as one gets on this earthly plane to spiritual new birth?

Do you remember standing at the window with the other new parents wondering which one is your child? Maybe saying something like, “I know Bobby is in one of those hospital cribs, and he probably looks a lot like me, but I'm just not sure.” And, of course, you can't read the little arm bands wrapped around those tiny reddish colored wrists. So, you sort of stand there wondering which one is yours?

There is a clear parallel here to new birth in the Spirit, because we may wonder what God is going to do next. When is the transformation going to happen, or how will the transformation continue to happen? Like the new parent wondering which one is their child, so the spiritually devoted, with great fidelity, waits for the child-of God to come forth not knowing when or how exactly it will happen. Maybe faith is trusting that it will happen.

Rev. Mitch Becker

October 23, 2022

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“The Conversion of a Trickster”

Genesis 32:22-31

Steve Harvey is the host of Family Feud on television and perhaps you've seen the show. He begins each show nearly the same way which is: “We got a good one for you tonight.” Well, I got a good one for you this morning. Because this is a story about a solitary man who fights with an adversary all night long and comes out of the ordeal transformed. This is a common experience for all of us since who of us has not spent nights struggling with something troubling and maybe deeply troubling? This is an ancient story that speaks to something so familiar to us we could say it is timeless.

As I told the elders in my original critique of the story there are a host of questions that emerge and far too many to cover in one sermon. I'll begin with an obvious one which is who is this stranger Jacob is wrestling? It might be helpful at this point to consider another Bible story where Jacob encounters Yahweh, and that's when he falls asleep out in the wilderness and dreams of a ladder that reaches to heaven. Upon the ladder the angels are ascending and descending, and the Lord stands above it and tells Jacob he's the God of his father and grandfather.

The ladder story is quite different in that there is no conflict involved, and Yahweh clearly identifies himself and his intent to affirm the covenant promise he made to Abraham and Isaac. In our story today the identity of the antagonist is obscure. Though the narrator says it's simply a “man” who wrestles with Jacob there are suggestions throughout the story that this is more than a man. He throws Jacob's hip out of joint by simply touching it, and like a vampire he wants to avoid the light of day.

Also, there is something about the man that moves Jacob to ask a blessing from him. The narrator does make an attempt to identify the man when he refers to him as Elohim (El-low-heem). In Hebrew Elohim can refer to Yahweh, but not necessarily. It's a fairly common term that can describe any divine being, and a divine being other than God makes some sense since why would God be afraid of the daylight, and why would God need to ask Jacob his name?

As the wrestling match continues and Jacob clings to his adversary, he asks the divine being for a blessing, and this is when he asks Jacob his name. When Jacob tells him his name the adversary renames him “Israel.” He received the name Jacob because he held on to his brother's heel at birth. Jacob means “supplanter” which means someone who seizes. Now he receives a different name with an entirely different meaning. The name “Israel” means “someone who has striven with Elohim and with human beings and have prevailed.”

Jacob is blessed and not because of trickery in the way he stole the blessing of his brother Esau (Ee-saw), but he's blessed because of his ability to overcome all obstacles in his way. Here he earns the blessing, and the new name indicates a transformation has occurred.

As he limps back to his family, he must be stunned by what has happened, and considers it so important that he wants to name the place. This is the same thing he does when he witnesses the angels going to and fro on the ladder, and there he names the place Bethel. Here he uses the name “Peniel” (Puh-kneel) which means “the face of God.” He's not dwelling on his injuries, but rather amazed he has survived the night, and in the morning he's ready to take on any new challenges.

To sum up: There is a great deal in this story that is foreign to us in modern times, yet there is a timelessness about it in that who of us doesn't struggle with unknown adversaries in the middle of the night. These nocturnal battles are common whether it be with health issues or loved ones or some other fearful situation. What this story tells us is that even those nights we get little sleep there can still be a blessing when the dawn comes. There is nothing to assure us that these nights won't leave us wounded in some way, and we may be truly tested, but as we endure in faith there is the real hope we can be transformed.

The more of these nights we endure the more we come to understand the way God works. As it says in the Book of Job: “This is the way God works. Over and over again he pulls our souls back from certain destruction, so we'll see the light – and live in the light.” (Job 33:29-30; The Message Bible)

There is much in this story that can be talked about which is why it's one of the most preached stories in the Bible. Let's take a closer look at the end of the story where Jacob doesn't hang around and mope about what just happened to him. In no way does he seem to consider himself a victim even though his hip is severely out of joint, and he is limping back to his family. He's on his way to meet his brother Esau who has wanted to kill him, and he has no way of knowing his brother is going to forgive him. Jacob is ready to face whatever comes his way.

This is a good example for all of us people of faith who need to learn about adversaries and the gifts they have to give us. Remember, Jesus said, “...love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44b) To the average person in the secular world that makes little sense, but for the enlightened soul it's the only thing that does makes sense.

Eckhart Tolle (Tull) in his book: “A New Earth” attempts to explain why Jesus wants us to embrace our enemies, and I'll do the best I can by putting this into my own words. He says the things we really care about are not expressed so much with our words and beliefs, but more so with our actions and reactions. This is what tells us what is of greatest importance to us. For example, if it's just little, insignificant things that trouble you that reveals how you feel about yourself. What it discloses is you feel small.

You might say to yourself something like, “I'm a child of God” or “I know I'm a living spirit” or “I like to stay centered through practicing quiet prayer.” But then you get a text and learn that your trip to Peru has been canceled, or the man putting in your septic tank has got COVID, or you slice your index finger trying to put stuff away in storage, and now you're upset! You may feel anger or anxiety or sadness, but the point is that a moment ago you believed you were a spirit at peace with God.

Apparently, something is more important to you than the peace you were previously claiming you possessed. Suddenly, the Spirit of God is nowhere to be found, and you may even tell yourself you've reached the end of your rope! Such experiences can be educational if you're paying attention to what is happening. It becomes possible to see the small self that is now so upset over some little thing that was always transient anyway. Trips get canceled, and people get sick, and a sliced finger is a common occurrence.

If peace was really the most important thing to you, and if you truly perceive yourself to be a spirit then you wouldn't react to these occurrences at all. Nor would you separate yourself from them, but you would fully embrace each situation to become one with it. Now, instead of acting out of the small self you think you are – you can become fully aware of what has happened.

When you respond with this type of alertness you have moved into your conscious awareness. Now you've become “The Watcher” and this is who you truly are. This is the child-of-God that is excepting what's happening without judgment, and this is what Jesus is getting at by “loving your enemies.” Anything that gets in the way of the ego getting what it wants can be considered an enemy. But the child-of-God within you sees no situation and no person as an enemy.

This is what the psalm means by: “From now on every road you travel will take you to God.” (Psalm 25:10a; The Message Bible)

Okay, that's probably less than perfectly clear so let's see if this story can help:

“This story finds its origin in a small town in New England where Sally, a girl of nearly 12 years of age, grew-up with Christian parents who took her to church every Sunday. She also had a grandfather, Frank, who she felt very close to, but he didn't think much of the church, and this bothered her. Her grandfather would say things like, “Oh, all they ever do there is gossip about each other” or “All they want is your money so the pastor can go golfing, and the ladies can have their parties.” Her grandfather always talked like this about the church, and it upset Sally.

Then one day she learned Grandpa Frank had been taken to the hospital. Apparently, he had become very sick. She wanted to visit because she loved her grandfather. Her parents took her to the hospital, but her grandfather was so sick he couldn't even talk, so they just stayed for a while and then left. After a few days he began to improve some, but it was now known by her parents that her grandfather was dying. She didn't know this, but she did notice a change in his behavior, but she had no idea what was going on with him.

After a week in the hospital and several visits later he was trying to get the wrapper off the top of a container of pudding, but it was factory sealed and he was getting nowhere. Sally asked, 'Can I take that off for you Grandpa?' He was an independent, self-reliant sort, as many grandfathers are, so he was reluctant to ask for help and especially from his granddaughter. But his condition was such that he gave in and she was able to remove the top off the container.

He stared at Sally for a few moments and finally he spoke, and what he said both surprised and pleased her immensely. He said, 'I know now that I've been too hard on the church, and I'm really sorry if I've hurt your feelings. I can see how much the church means to you, and I hope you can forgive me.' She had never heard him talk this way before, and felt a little embarrassed, and a lot unsure about what to say to him. After a few moments she finally said, 'That's okay Grandpa I'm just happy you've changed your mind about my church.'”

It is very sad, and also well documented, that many people never grasp the difference between who they think they are and who they really are in God's eyes until they're on their deathbed. For reasons unexplained, and for some people, transformation happens at the end of the road, and at that point they become an entirely different person. Whereas, before they may have been harsh and critical some people allow the ego boundaries to fall away, and they become open to the world in a whole new way.

This is what has happened to Grandpa Frank who now becomes remorseful about being critical of the church and is asking forgiveness because he knows he's hurt his granddaughter's feelings.

One reason Jesus came to earth was to show us The Way to wake-up to the child-of-God within us long before our deathbeds. Undoubtedly, and much like Jacob, we are going to wrestle with our adversaries, and it is in the wrestling itself that we learn The Way. The surest way there is to never learn is to stay in our comfort zones and avoid engagement with what we perceive as the enemy. It is because Jacob wrestles all-night with the “man” that he emerges from the conflict not only with battle scars, but in the end is transformed into an entirely different human being and receives an entirely different name.

It's interesting in the story that it is the divine being that realizes he can't get the best of Jacob and that's when he puts his hip out of joint, but Jacob never gives up and perseveres to overcome all obstacles. We too, as a church, must persevere and stay awake to the new possibilities God brings forth for us. David Jacobson says it like this:

As for us, contemporary hearers have themselves been traumatized enough of late. Though we live our lives in relative twenty-first century comfort, some of us have known the oppressive trauma of race, gender, and class in North America. Many of us in the mainline church have been set on our heels as a once culturally ensconced (in-skaanst) church is becoming disestablished. All of us know the wrenching impact, albeit in different ways, of the post 9/11 security state that causes us to lurch from crisis to crisis and ever evolving forms of public violence.

Jesus speaks to a church whose desire for justice, sense of identity and very future seem fragile and unfinished. We early twenty-first century Christians may just benefit, even to situations of relative or differentiated privilege, to overhear the kind of promises that allow us to live forward amid the fragments and ruins to watch for the new thing God is doing...

Jacob wrestles with one “man,” but we as a church wrestle within a culture that, as Marcus Borg told us last week, has become indifferent to God. As the trauma and crises unfold perhaps things will begin to change, and the culture will begin to wake up to a new transformed way of being. As the song says he's got the whole world in his hands, and we are challenged to hold that vision before us. Though we are being disestablished, like Jacob we will not play the victim.

Jacob's story is our story and though may limp away after the battle we will be ready the next day to meet whatever challenges come our way.

Rev. Mitch Becker

October 16, 2022

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

“Faith As Seeing”

Luke 17:11-19

There is a story about Saint Francis, who is arguably the most Christ-like person that has ever lived, and as a young man experienced a profound conversion. He was on his way to fight in the Papal army (the Pope's army), but was told in a dream to return to Assisi to receive divine direction. He did as the dream suggested, but it left him in a state of confusion and despondency. Then one day out riding on his horse he encountered a leper, and something told him to get down off the horse and give the leprous man some money. As he put the coins in the mans hand he was also moved to embrace him. When he did Saint Francis was “filled with an indescribable sweetness,” and at the same time felt he had embraced the Christ. From then on his confusion and despondency left him, and he knew he could find intimacy with Christ by embracing the poor and marginalized. Though the poor had once repulsed him, he now saw them as the pathway to God.

No doubt our text today was formative for Francis as it is about Christ healing ten lepers, and how one of them returns to give thanks. One of the first things that might strike you as odd is the manner in which Jesus questions the leper that returns. He asks, “Where are the others?” This seems odd in that he just told everyone to go see the priests and they will be healed. The others did what they were told, but the one that returned chose a different route; and it turns out that returning to give thanks results in an even greater blessing than the healing of the disease.

In the text I just read to you which is from the RSV of the Bible it says, “...your faith has made you well.” But in the KJV it says, “Your faith has made you whole.” In The Message Bible it says, “...your faith has healed and saved you.” It turns out that if you translate from the original Greek that the KJV and The Message are more accurate interpretations of the passage. This all begs the question if salvation or wholeness is a consequence of disregarding a command of the Christ – what does that say about faith, and how we respond to God's commands?

If the leprous man that returned had simply continued on with the others he would have been healed of the disease, but he would not have received salvation. As I explained in The Connection this week, salvation is the great gift of our faith, and could be construed as the most important product of faith in the Bible. Salvation amounts to a transformation of the core of our being bringing forth the child-of-God we are called to be. As the Apostle Paul puts it: “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children-of-God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19) Paul is saying all of creation is counting on the salvation of humanity!

What the leprous man did runs counter to what many people understand faith to be, which is to follow the commandments of God. But the leprous man clearly chooses his own course with a very desirable outcome. As Christ himself was a rebel who often ran counter to the expectations of the religious authorities maybe we too must at times be rebellious and in so doing emulate the Christ.

There is some risk involved in plotting our own course as the ego is constantly directing our efforts. But keep in mind that the leprous man does not use his return as an opportunity to sin, but rather returns to give thanks. It's hard to think of thanksgiving as being contrary to the will of God. Therefore, if our rebelliousness promotes spiritual gain through thanksgiving, or some other means, then there is certainly a precedence for it.

There is something else in the text that may strike us as odd, because it opens with these words: “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” The problem here is there is a border between Samaria and Galilee, but there is no region between them; and it would be a strange route to Jerusalem anyway. It may be that the gospel writer is less concerned about topography and more concerned about theology. Jesus is on his way to the cross and what he encounters on the way reveals something of the kingdom of God he will establish there.

This in-between notion that the text opens with suggests something about what Jesus is bringing to all of us. This kingdom of God exists in the midst of established boundaries, or is in a kind of no man's land where not everyone will be willing to go. To venture there requires an extra measure of faith that can only come by grace. We cannot get there by our own merits, but we can make ourselves available to God's grace by making ourselves available to the mystery of Christ.

Allow me to tell you a personal story about crossing boundaries and venturing into the unknown. I ran into Toni in a Fred Meyer store about seven years out of high school. She wasn't a close friend, but I knew her, and we struck up a conversation. She told me she was a Christian and she held a Bible study at her home once a week and invited me to attend. Of course, as a young man I was more interested in Toni than her Bible study, so I told her I'd come to it.

I showed up at her house and the living room was full of young Christians, and she had a boyfriend, but in those days that never stopped me. But what happened in that first meeting, and the ones that followed was unexpected. Being a would-be scientist, I argued with them about how the Bible couldn't be factually accurate. I would challenge them by saying the creation had to be more than a few thousand years old because the fossil record suggests it's far older than that. But they needed the Bible to be literally true, and though I was allowed to state my case I never “won” an argument, and I didn't get anywhere with Toni either.

But I ended up joining their church anyway. I put my scientific arguments aside, because I wasn't really looking for affirmation of my ideas. I was looking for a new community, because I knew in my heart that I needed help. To put it succinctly, I needed new friends that weren't drinking buddies, and I needed a new way of life. I found it with these Pentecostal Christians who seemed to be sincerely interested in me. I felt accepted, though intellectually we were far from each other.

Eventually, I had to reckon with this fundamental difference between us, and about nine months later had something of an emotional breakdown. I returned to my former lifestyle, and that's when things began to really go downhill. Once the demons are exorcised you have to fill that space in with something better or even more and worse demons will return to fill it. By the grace of God, and three arduous years later I entered First Christian Church and became a Disciple of Christ. This new church gave me the community I needed, and at the same time kept my feet on the ground. That was forty-two years ago with no regrets.

There is an in-between place that God wants to take us to, and the best way I know how to prepare for that is quiet, centering prayer. That is the kind of prayer that opens-up that place within you. Ultimately, it is God's grace that creates and takes you into this space, but some things depend on us. We have to make the effort to be quiet. You don't necessarily have to do that by taking a meditative sit, but you do have to be willing to cross the boundaries to venture into this inner spaciousness. You have to find a way to stop the mental processes whether that be Tai Chi or Yoga or focusing on your breathing or using a mantra or music or observing nature or guided meditation or dance or some other way that suits you. 

Another aspect of our text to consider is faith as seeing. To examine this I'll contrast seeing to believing, whereas belief has become the most common way of understanding faith in modern times. In our text the leprous man sees what faith has done to him, and because of his vision he can see Jesus' kingdom and power. Also, because he sees what has happened he returns to give thanks. Finally, because he sees he has the gumption to turn around and go back to the source of his healing.

Therefore, how we see becomes of paramount importance. To pursue faith as seeing I'm going to rely heavily on Marcus Borg's best-selling book “The Heart of Christianity,” and in my own words attempt to contrast faith as seeing to faith as believing.

In his book Marc talks about two ways in which faith as belief has become the primary way people understand faith in the modern age. We'll begin with the Protestant Reformation which occurred roughly over a 150 year period beginning about 1500 AD. During this time a number of things happened including the development of denominations. Each denomination distinguished itself by holding to certain doctrines or confessions. The Presbyterians held different beliefs than the Baptist and the Methodists had their own set of beliefs, and, of course, the Roman Catholic Church had its own.

This all continued right up to 1801 in the revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sees it's beginning. In this way believing the “right” things became of paramount importance.

Something else that helped to steer the church in the direction of faith as belief was what ironically became known as the Enlightenment. This happened during the seventeenth century and was fueled by modern science and the scientific approach to understanding reality. One way this effected the church was truth had to be verified with facts. An interesting aspect of this that Marc makes note of is Modern Western culture is the only culture in the history of the world that has done this.

When I used to sit in Toni's living room with the other Christians most of them held deep convictions that their beliefs about the Bible were indisputable, and biblical truth was confirmed by cold, hard facts. There was literally an ark which Noah built and herded animals unto so God could start over again after he killed every other living thing on earth. There was literally a Garden of Eden where two people named Adam and Eve walked around and talked to God and are ultimately cast out east of Eden due to their disobedience. For these Christians truth was identified as factual.

I won't spend a lot of time going into the kind of problems this approach to faith creates other than to say seeing God as a disciplinarian, or worse, as a mass murderer does not make me want to be intimate with God. Jesus gave us an entirely different sort of God through his parables, teachings, and most importantly in the way he behaved. He depicted for us a God of compassion and forgiveness, and that is a God I can sit in quiet meditation with for extended periods of time.

Now lets look at faith as seeing, and again I'll rely heavily on Marc's work. He says that faith has to do with seeing the whole, and further the way we see determines how we respond.

He then describes three ways we can see the whole, beginning with we can see it as hostile and threatening. When we see “what is” in this manner we know we're all going to die, and there is no way to escape our fate. If you really want to get carried away with this viewpoint, I once saw a picture of two galaxies colliding blowing each other to smithereens! To make that more local – the sun will one day expand into a red giant and envelop the entire earth.

When this is your primary worldview then your life is filled with anxiety, and things like disease, accidents, violence and such are often on your mind.

A second way of seeing the whole is to see it as indifferent. Reality isn't out to get you; it just doesn't care very much. Marc says this is the most common secular viewpoint. The universe is made up of stars and planets, and there's lots of empty space, and it's neither hostile nor supportive. By the same token, it can be seen as rather spectacular, and even strikingly beautiful, but it doesn't give a hoot about you and yours.

The third way of seeing reality is to see it as “life giving and nourishing.” We can see “what is” as bringing us into existence, and it sustains our lives giving us what we need to get by each day. Reality can be viewed as both spectacular and incredibly beautiful, even though at times it can be terrifying such as we just saw with Hurricane Ian. To use a theological term we would say reality is gracious. Maybe the best parable I could cite to suggest this is a way Jesus saw reality is the Lilies of the Field (Matthew 6:25-34).

In that parable the birds are “careless in the care of God.” What is being said is we can relax and focus on God's giving, rather than being anxious about the next thing we have to have. When we see we're being taken care of it totally changes the way we respond to reality. Now we can trust God, and desire to do the things that brings us into closer relationship with our Creator.

In a recent meditation I saw the air I was breathing in this manner. I realized that the air that sustains me was coming from outside of me. It is not me, but it becomes a part of me as I breathe it in. Maybe Jesus wants us to think of God in the same way? That we have to allow God into us if we are to be sustained be God's graciousness. Sometimes I wish Jesus would have told us more about prayer, and I'm sure he did talk about it, but it just wasn't recorded. That means we have to figure some things out for ourselves.

Let me begin to close by trying to illustrate how important it is that we see the world the way God wants us to, and how fouled up we get when our worldview is flawed. Last Thursday I went in the direction of the high school for my daily walk. When I reached the school there was a police officer out front talking to people. There is often a police car at the high school, but rarely do I see an officer. This day it was different, and being someone who has been incarcerated, not for any length of time, but has been in jail the sight of a police officer is less than comforting.

When I see a police officer, or especially if I see police car lights flashing in my rear-view mirror at first, I don't wonder if I have a taillight out or fear a potential citation – I see the inside of a jail cell!

It's not too much to say that your worldview is everything. So, by all means we've got to get that right!

Rev. Mitch Becker

October 9, 2022

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

“A Little Goes A Long Way”

Like 17:5-10

If we're honest with ourselves there are probably many things in the past we've done or said that we regret. Things if we could do or say them over again, we would do differently – maybe very differently. For the more serious regrets the pathway to peace comes in the form of forgiveness.

The request for more faith the disciples make of Jesus is a result of the teaching which precedes the request, and the teaching is about forgiveness. Jesus tells them that if a friend wrongs them and they say they're sorry – forgive them. Even if they wrong them seven times and repent each time Jesus tells them to persevere with forgiveness. No wonder they're asking for more faith! It's hard enough to forgive the first time let alone seven times.

Jesus' response to the request is two-fold. First, he equates faith with a mustard seed, and this is an excellent metaphor to use. A mustard seed begins as the tiniest of seeds, but it grows to be one of the largest shrubs. What's indicated here is though faith can begin in small proportions it can grow to achieve great things, and this growth is a consequence of putting faith to practice. I love the metaphor but have some reservations about the implications of faith that follow.

To describe the implications, imagine for a moment Jesus and his disciples walking around the countryside or the desert or along the Jordan River or through a small village....it's your choice....and suddenly Jesus turns to a sycamore tree and tells the disciples the tiniest bit of faith could make that tree jump up and go plant itself in the ocean. He might as well say a little faith could turn the tree into a bunny rabbit.

Sometimes I wish Jesus wouldn't talk like this because misinterpretations of the text are a common outcome of such “magical” descriptions of faith. Of course, faith parted the Red Sea and brought down the walls of Jericho, but more often faith looks like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or the Apostle Paul in and out of one desperate situation after another. The quintessential (kwin-tuh-sen-chul) story about faith is Abraham willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on God's command.

Faith is more about learning to see and hear God in the world and then following that path to build upon your relationship with God. Faith implants a desire within us to be closer to God, and to do the things that result in this closeness. This is why I often equate courage with faith, because to be closer to God frequently means facing our fears. It's perfectly reasonable to say that God resides on the far side of our fears.

The other way Jesus responds to their request for faith is a bit more problematic for us in modern times. This is because Jesus uses the institution of slavery to describe what faith is, and we must remember that slavery was a socioeconomic reality in the ancient world. The gospel writer, Luke, is putting the emphasis on obedience, and often in the third gospel obedience results in joy.

Faith has its own rewards, and therefore when we move ahead in faith we can pay attention more to God's giving then out of any concern for getting our needs or wants met. This is beautifully phrased in the Lilies of the Field parable when it says:

“What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving.” (Matthew 6:31; The Message Bible) 

This is a beautiful way to describe the difference between the False self and the True self. Whereas the False self is preoccupied with getting it's needs and wants satisfied – the True self is already filled to overflowing and ready to accept the next gift from God. In this way we become the “proud owners of everything that can't be bought.” (Matthew 5:5b; The Message Bible)

Let's take a closer look at the way Jesus uses the institution of slavery to describe discipleship, and we can start by listening to the text again in contemporary language:

Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing a field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, “Sit down and eat?” Wouldn't you be more likely to say, “Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I've finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper?” Does the servant get special thanks for doing what's expected of him? It's the same with you. When you've done everything expected of you, be matter of fact and say, “The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.” (Luke 17:7-10; The Message Bible)

Here the importance of forgiveness is being stressed and at the same time placing it within the context of everyday discipleship. We are instructed to forgive anyone who sincerely repents of their wrongdoing, and to keep forgiving them without ceasing as long as they're repentant. Jesus is trying to tell us that the work of forgiveness is not something extraordinary but falls into the category of simply doing what is expected of us. The reward comes as joy because this type of obedience results in greater intimacy with God.

So far we've looked at faith, forgiveness and discipleship, but let's focus for a bit on obedience. This term probably comes with negative connotations in that obedience has a parental tone to it, and we see ourselves as grown-up adults. Also, obedience training is something we might take our dog to, so the negative connotation is understandable. What we need is a different perspective on obedience which can be found in Benedictine spirituality. Following comes from the author Esther do Waal (Deh-Vaal):

To listen closely, with every fibre of our being, at every moment of the day, is one of the most difficult things in the world, and yet it is essential if we mean to find God whom we are seeking. If we stop listening to what we find hard to take, then “We're likely to pass God without even noticing him.” And now it is our obedience which proves that we have been paying close attention....so to obey really means to hear and then act upon what we have heard, or, in other words, to see that the listening achieves its aim.

We are not being truly attentive unless we are prepared to act upon what we hear. If we hear and do nothing more about it, then the sounds have simply fallen upon our ears, and it is not apparent that we have actually heard them at all.

That comes in two parts the first being to be obedient means to be able to hear the voice of God. To do that we have to eliminate distractions which are plentiful and requires a certain amount of discipline. The source of most of the distractions we encounter on any given day is our False self that is needy, insecure, and submerged in an illusory (uh-loo-sir-ree) world. It has to be silenced, and that takes both devotion and practice.

The second part defines obedience as responding in action to the voice of God. A prime example in the Bible of someone who hears God's voice and actively responds to what they hear is the prophet Jonah. Jonah's story is a reflection of our own story about the way we typically respond to God's voice, which is to run or hide from it! We run or hide from it because the False self, our ego, is the predominate force in our lives. It wants to be gratified, and until we discover the True self within us it gets most of our attention. Why wouldn't it? Until the True self emerges the False self is only option available.

The True self must become more than an idea. It must become a common experience where one comes to know that the conscious awareness behind our thoughts and feelings is who we truly are. This is the child-of-God within us. This is the salvation the Bible so often speaks of, and it is that which every human being seeks whether they know it or not. This is the part of us that is eternal and will go on with God after these fragile, aching bodies are put into the ground.

The True self, unlike the False self wants to respond to God, and remember what Jonah has to go through to reach his True self. Into the belly of the fish he goes, and it is out of the terror of the unknown that Jonah sings his song to God to finally experience a peace that defies understanding.

The most profound experience of the peace that passes understanding I've ever had was following my Call to the church in Lancaster. I had been in the relocation system of our denomination for some time, but I was restricting my preferred location of Call to Washington State. Though I'd had a few interviews I was getting quite frustrated because nothing was panning out, and then Karen had her terrifying stroke, and everything changed. Now I had to find employment because Karen would be ending her career by retiring.

I expanded my search area to the Western States and various parts of the South where the weather was more suitable to my sensitive Oregon skin that the harsh winters in Ohio had decimated. After a few months of continued search First Christian Church of Lancaster, California contacted me, and set up a Skype interview with the search committee. The interview went wonderfully, and they invited me to visit their church, which barring anything catastrophic means you'll be Called.

When I went to bed that evening I laid my head down and suddenly I experienced a peace that defies understanding. The only way I can describe it is I felt there was nothing in the created world that could disturb that peace. Later that week I told my ministers support group about the peace I experienced after the Call, and the leader of the group, Bryan, said, “Now that's what I call a Call!” Here's how Jonah puts it:

.at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root. I was as far down as a body can go, and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever – Yet you pulled me up from the grave alive, O God, my God!....Salvation belongs to God. (Jonah 2:6,9b; The Message Bible)

Though Richard Rohr tells us that three quarters of the New Testament is in some form or another about forgiveness, and I have no reason to doubt this claim. And though Jesus talks more about the kingdom of God than anything else, if there is any one goal the Bible is trying to get us to achieve – if there is any one focus it advocates it is salvation; or as the Apostle Paul tells us to: “....work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12b)

Salvation offers us the “healing of the wounds of existence.” This healing doesn't take place over-night, but it does occur gradually over time. It is happening. The question is is it happening fast enough and to enough people? Without this healing and the compassion that comes from it we're at the mercy of our own fear-based self-destructive nature. Ourselves and neighbors (the Bible defines neighbors as anyone other than ourselves) and ultimately the creation itself are all in jeopardy.

Many people considered experts in their fields feel that we're losing the battle on almost every front. Whether that be climate change that produces unusually powerful hurricanes, air pollution, deforestation, over-population, political instability or pandemics.

The Dalai Lama tells us that compassion is the answer, and I'd ascribe to this in the awareness that every enduring religion in the world, and that includes the three monotheistic religions which are Christianity, Islam and Judaism – all have compassion right at the center of their religious systems. In our faith this is seen in the first and second most important commandments which are to love God with our whole being, and our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:35-40) Therefore, we should all be working out our salvation in fear and trembling because salvation allows the compassion of God to flow through us into a needy, desperate and seemingly dying world!

It seems only appropriate at this point to close with a story about compassion: In a small city in Ohio there lived an elderly woman with her one pet. Her beloved pet was a bunny rabbit she had cared for for nearly 14 years. Most rabbits do not live that long, so this was a very special bunny she had become hopelessly attached to, and it was really her only companion. Her husband had passed away many years before, and she had no other living family members or even close friends left. There was only this rabbit. So, you can understand her dismay when the rabbit became desperately ill, though for some time it had had trouble walking, and often didn't eat its food. She had no car to drive but could still get around by using the local bus system. She picked the little rabbit up and carried him to the bus stop where she boarded the bus holding her dear friend in her arms all the way to the veterinary office.

While she waited quietly in the veterinary office she could hear the cry of a dog undergoing some type of procedure, and it made her nervous about what type of care her beloved friend might receive. She watched another dog brought in by a man who was pulling too hard on the leash thoughtlessly choking the poor dog. The man by confession told the receptionist he'd never owned a dog, and she felt like taking the dog from him.

When she finally got into see the vet, she had to tell him about the dog being chocked by its owner, and the cries of the dog in the other room, and how it upset her. The vet looked at her with compassion and then said, “Sometimes love comes in ways that are difficult for us to understand.” He assured her that the man choking his dog will learn to do better over time and with experience, and the dog she heard crying had a tumor removed from its leg, and its leg should heal completely.

Then she said, “And what of my old bunny here, will he do better now that you can treat him? Upon hearing this question the vet felt an immeasurable sadness for her because the bunny was near death, and he said, “God loves the animals as well as us, and regardless of what I do today your bunny is in God's care. He'll be just fine.” And that was the most compassionate thing he could think of saying as his heart ached and he wished he could do more.

At the core of all the enduring religions in the world is compassion, and though caring is often painful, and many times we wish we could do more to help, in the end we can know that we are in God's care....a little faith can go a long way.

Rev. Mitch Becker

October 2, 2022

Port Angeles

 

First Christian Church

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

“The Dynamics of Confinement”

Siege (Seeg) was a common method of warfare in ancient times and remained so throughout the Middle Ages, and to some extent is still used today. Our text opens with a description of the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. In Jeremiah's time a siege usually involved enemy troops surrounding a city disrupting the flow of food and water, as well as trade, or any other type of cultural exchange. The longest siege in history was the siege of Ceuta (Suit-a) on the northern coast of Africa. That siege lasted a staggering 26 years! A siege often ends with the troops inside the city coming out to contend with the attacking enemy. However, the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon in 597 BCE ended with the city surrendering, and Nebuchadnezzar (Neh-buh-kuhd-neh-zer) pillaging the city, and sending the people of status into exile.

In our text today the confinement of Jerusalem comes first followed by the confinement of Jeremiah by Zedekiah (Zeh-duh-kai-uh) king of Judah. Zedekiah puts him in jail for preaching that Babylon will take over the city, and the king will be exiled with the others. While Jeremiah is in jail he receives a message from Yahweh that tells him his cousin, Hanamel (Hana-mel) is going to make him an offer to buy property in Anathoth (Ana-thoth), and that he'll have the legal right to buy it. Sure enough, Hanamel shows up and makes the offer, and because Jeremiah has previously received the word from Yahweh he buys the field.

What's remarkable about this transaction is it all takes place while Jeremiah is confined in jail. He pays Hanamel, and writes out a bill of sale, weighs the money on scales, and takes the sealed contract and conditions to someone named Baruch (Baah-rook). All this takes place with Hanamel and other witnesses at the jail looking on. Jeremiah tells Barach that Yahweh is authorizing all of it, and to take the documents and put them in a pottery jar for safe keeping. Jeremiah tells Barach that what this all means is business as usual will return to Judah, and in time conditions of normalcy will be restored. Sound familiar?

The first thing that seems odd is that Jeremiah, though confined in jail, is carrying on business with his family and it seems everyone on the day shift at the jail is supportive. Allowing Hanamel and Baruch unrestrained access to the inmate, as well as Jeremiah to his bank account. Even more astounding is it's all happening during a siege of the city! What we have to conclude is this is not the dairy of Jeremiah, but most likely it's been edited by the exiles after their return from Babylon. They're promoting a normalcy that will return hopefully in the near future.

We can relate to this hopeful return to normalcy since over the last two years we've been hoping for the same thing. But first lets consider the freedoms allowed Jeremiah while he is incarcerated. Imagine for a moment that we gave the same freedoms to incarcerated people. What would happen if those in jail were allowed to correspond, do business, and support their families in the way Jeremiah was allowed? Certainly incarceration is meant to be unpleasant, but the benefits to society as a whole might justify allowing them more privileges.

The pastor of this church may be the only one whose been incarcerated, and no one has been confined in the long-term, but Karen and I have been in correspondence with Marcus whose an inmate in a California State prison. Karen has also visited him along with others from the church in Lancaster. Marcus constantly talks about his hopeful release and return to society.

Marcus is a kind, thoughtful Christian man who is sincerely remorseful of past mistakes and dreams of one day returning to a life of normalcy. To allow him the freedom to interact with his family and friends might help him to prepare for his eventual release and return back into society. He is also actively working on creating a business involving crocheted goods within the prison. What if the prison system assisted him in expanding the business outside the walls?

Do you see what I'm getting at? Instead of the prison system treating Marcus as an object of confinement they could get involved with his creative potential, and encourage him to reach out to society in productive ways. This would require work and cost on the prison systems part, but what does it cost to keep people incarcerated only to release them back into society to become offenders again. What typically happens is they soon fall back into the only lifestyle they have known, and return to prison perpetuating a thoroughly dysfunctional system. The system needs to change not only for people like Marcus who are trying to do better, but for all of us who are paying the cost both financially and otherwise for a system that is utterly flawed.

Lets turn now to that other form of confinement the text describes as a siege of the city of Jerusalem. Though sieges still take place today such as the siege of the city of Homs (Hammz) in Syria that occurred from 2011 to 2014. In this confrontation the Syrian military forces finally withdrew leaving the Syrian rebels in control of the city. Like so many aspects of war we Americans have not experienced due to our relative isolation from the rest of the world protected by two large oceans – siege is far from our personal experience.

But we do know what it means to be separated from family and friends along with institutions put on lock-down and basic needs restricted. The social and psychological toll the pandemic has taken on society is beyond comprehension. People have suffered isolation and loneliness to a degree never imagined. Depression, grief and other forms of stress have sent waves of agony throughout society which we are still reeling from today, and will for years to come. We were not surrounded by enemy forces, but some effects that a siege has on a city were replicated for us during the pandemic.

The good news is that because the pandemic is waning, and we are beginning to return to some form of normalcy those of us who've endured are starting to enjoy the benefits of the resulting spiritual growth. The kind of spiritual growth that is an outcome of having endured adversity over a long period of time, and the ability to endure requires more than willfulness. It has also involved a paying attention to the guidance of the Holy Spirit that would not have occurred without the pandemic.

Richard Rohr wrote a beautiful meditation that speaks to this, and this one in particular carries with it a powerful insight about love:

Love is not given to us to help us solve our problems. Love, rather, leads us into our problems. It's love that leads us on the quest and ultimately to a final, universal, and grounding love. It's a love we can trust because we know it is not all up to us. We do not have to secure ourselves because we are radically secured – we are beloved children in a benevolent universe.

 When we truly and fully belong, it is natural to believe and become. The tragedy of our time is that so very many do not belong – people who have no parents, no family, no community, no tradition. It's no wonder that survival has taken the place of becoming. One true love is all that is necessary. It tells us we do belong, we are connected, and we are at home. We are in, precisely because we have been led through.

Because of the challenges created by the pandemic those of us who embrace faith have learned how to be more attentive to God's guidance. We know in our heart of hearts that we have not endured these challenges on our own. We have been led precisely because we've been paying attention. One way this was done by the leadership of the church is when we had to make decisions about not gathering for worship when COVID was close to home. All of us have had to make many, many personal decisions about gathering with friends or family, when to wear a mask, and when to get vaccinated.

For the faithful these decisions and actions taken are not done alone, but are done in alliance with the Holy Spirit. Because we honor our relationship with God we know that we've been led through these dangerous times. We have also learned powerful and lasting lessons about love which we may have previously believed solves all our problems. But that's not what love is nor what it does. Love provides the gateway into our problems for the very purpose of gaining a deeper, more grounding Love in knowing that we belong to God. Love tells us we have a place in this universe and we are being cared for, and this is absolutely crucial! If more people were assured of God's love in this way peace would be far more prevalent.

This is the one true love that is necessary, and it is all we need. Within this love we can rest, and it's exactly what is meant when we read in the gospel:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn from the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30; The Message Bible)

When we walk and work with Jesus we learn the unforced rhythms of grace, but it takes time and experience for a pastor and laypeople alike to learn how to do this well. The following story illustrates the trial one pastor had to go though in an attempt to reach this blessed place:

Pastor Abigail graduated from seminary with honors, and finally was Called to serve in a church in Northern California after three long years in the relocation system. The church leadership was excited to be Calling a new pastor to fill the pulpit and care for the flock. One of the elders of the church decided to throw a party to celebrate and welcome the new pastor. It was a fairly large church so the elder rented the American Legion Hall Post 62.

The Sunday morning women's Bible study group showed up first with plenty of hamburgers and hot dogs, potatoe salad and chips, and they worked all Saturday morning getting the food ready, as well as decorating the hall for the occasion.

By noon everyone was there including the new pastor, and as a group of the elders and the pastor sat at one of the tables the pastor exclaimed: “I'm so excited to begin my new ministry with you folks, and I feel especially good about everyone voting for my appointment.” One of the elders began to fidget around, and after awhile he spoke up saying, “Well, almost everyone in the church voted to Call you.”

The pastor took a deep breath and asked him what he meant by “almost everyone.” The elder replied, “It was really, really close to everyone.” The pastor had to ask, “Well, what exactly was the outcome of the vote?” And the elder replied, “It was 181 to 3.” “To three?” the pastor said, as she thought to herself, “I wonder who the three are?” Over the next several months by probing the pastoral relations committee, and asking inappropriate questions of various parishioners she finally discovered who these three people were.

Because of the revealing of the three people in dissension Abigail now focused her attention on them hoping to change their opinion about her by winning them over with pastoral care. Unfortunately, this meant that her other responsibilities to the parish suffered. Finally, another vote was taken but this time the vote was about keeping Abigail on or letting her go. When the last votes came in the tally was in some ways predictable. The final count was 3 for keeping her on and 181 for letting her go.

In seminary Abigail learned about the Bible and theology, and after she was Called to her first church she learned about the reality of relationships. Specifically, relationships within the body of Christ.

Like Abigail, none of us can learn the unforced rhythms of grace through study alone. One must walk the walk with Jesus, and that means paying attention to the whole – not just a part. When we over-focus on any one part of our lives the rest suffers due to neglect. What usually causes us to over-focus is anxiety. Anxiety we need to process and let-go of if we're to be truly caring people. God will help us do this, but some things depend on us. Walking and working with Jesus always means taking risks of some nature. If you're not willing to do that then you can forget about being a disciple.

It's really not rocket science. Walking and working with Jesus often amounts to doing the things we're most afraid of doing, and he is always right there beside us helping us along. When we know he's there, and by know I mean in the depths of our being – then we can truly understand the meaning of the psalm when it says: “Those who trust in God are like Zion Mountain: Nothing can move it, a rock-solid mountain you can always depend on.” (Psalm 125:1-2; The Message Bible)

Rev. Mitch Becker

September 25, 2022

Port Angeles