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You are Worthy of Love; You are God’s Beloved Child

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 5:08 pm on Sunday, February 18, 2018

A sermon preached on the First Sunday in Lent, February 18th, following the massacre in the High School in Florida, based upon Mark 1:9-15

A lot happens in this short reading from Mark’s Gospel. There are three distinct parts.

First, Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan, and as he is coming up out of the water, he has this glorious vision of heaven torn open, and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.  And then the voice of God:  “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Another translation has it, “in you I take great delight.”

He has always been this. It is not something he has somehow earned.  (He hasn’t really done anything yet.) But this moment is altogether new in that for the first time he experiences the truth of this affirmation in every cell of his body.  His deepest identity is as God’s beloved child. As such, Jesus is declared altogether worthy of love.

In the second part, the same Spirit that descended on Jesus in his baptism drives him out into the wilderness for the specific purpose of undergoing  40 days of temptation by Satan.  Mark doesn’t tell us the details of the three specific temptations described in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. But the gist of it is that Satan tries to mess with Jesus’ head — to induce insecurity about his identity as God’s beloved child.

“Worthy of love, Jesus? Hold on right there.  You’re only worthy, Jesus if you prove yourself worthy in the eyes of the world.”

That’s the gist of the three temptations: “If you really are God’s son, prove it.  Turn these stones into bread and thereby take away the problem of hunger and problems like it.  Don’t bother involving people in finding a solution that involves sharing and caring.  Just wow them by fixing their problems. Then people will judge you worthy of love.”

The second temptation is for Jesus to jump off the top of the Temple so the crowds can be dazzled by the sight of the angels catching him. “That’ll prove to them that you are somebody, Jesus!”

“Not interested in those, Jesus?  Well let me tell you who is truly worthy.  It’s Caesar in Rome, who controls the flow of all the money and and has the biggest military budget of all the world’s nations, with his cronies like King Herod ready to carry out his orders to squash any little uprising. That’s the kind of power that makes a person matter in this world.   And I can make you even bigger than Caesar, and then the whole world will recognize just how significant you are!”

He turns that down too.  His worthiness – the love that is his birthright as God’s child – isn’t conferred upon him from the world. It comes from God who works on the inside through the Spirit.

It’s important that Jesus go through this time of testing because every step of the way in the course of his ministry he will encounter the world’s seductions to lose his bearings and look to the world to affirm him as being worthy of love – to be the kind of savior they want and not the savior they need.

So Jesus comes forth from the wilderness having gotten clear about this and in the third part of our reading he comes forth totally on message about the “good news of God.” Now is the time for us to repent, he says which means to “change our minds,” to bring our minds in line with God’s mind.

The good news is this:  everyone of us is worthy of love, because everyone of us also is God’s beloved child, in whom God delights. Being worthy of love is the starting point, not the end point of the journey.  Out of our innate sense of worthiness, we can love freely.  The moment we grasp this the kingdom of God is present. Life becomes what God intends it to be:  a great joyful cooperation — a great sharing of love and life.

On some level of our being though everyone of us struggles with the question of our worthiness, because the world tells us that our worthiness is based upon how we do in a never ending competition, and this message takes up lodging deep within us.

We believe the world’s lies that our worthiness is dependent on how we stack up in comparison to others.

Are we inferior or superior to others?  There are an endless list of possible ways to render these judgments:  Whether our physical appearance resembles the world’s current definition of what makes for  “good looks.”  The size of our bank account, the size of our house, the cost of our car.  The grades we get and whether we possess a certain sort of intelligence.  Whether we possess particular abilities that the world counts as significant. The world manages to warp religion into another kind of competition.  Are we more righteous than others?

The world also ties our worthiness to “fitting in” – to belonging to the “right group.”  If we veer off from what the society we live in considers normal in terms of race, religion, personal style, or sexuality – or if we march to the beat of a different drummer – we will be judged unworthy of love. The pressure to conform becomes intense in order to fend off feelings of unworthiness.  It’s dangerous to be yourself – be the distinct person God made you to be.

The question of worthiness arises more intensely for some of us than others.  If we happen to be given a set of genes the world considers desirable it is easier to feel like we “measure up.” It helps a great deal if we were blessed with a set of parents who loved us well.

But good parents don’t make us immune to feeling unworthy, partly because our parents also absorbed the world’s way of judging value, and because it is not only our parents who raise us – the larger world raises us as well, training us to constantly compare ourselves with others. The current crisis of opiate addiction demonstrates this.  A great many of the young people addicted to opiates have had parents who loved them deeply but their love didn’t keep them from becoming casualties of the Great Competition having sought refuge in the temporary relief opiates provide from the constant pressure to measure up.

Even if our lives haven’t been broken the manner of an opiate addict there lurks in the background of all of us when the comparisons turn the wrong way the specter of shame awakening within akin to that experienced by Adam and Eve in the garden. It is the voice of shame that sometimes whispers in our heads, “if people really knew me – the thoughts I have – the things I’ve done in secret – they would reject me.” It’s the thing that makes it so very hard for us to be vulnerable with one another – to allow ourselves to be truly known as we are – this fear of rejection and found unworthy of love.  It’s the same thing that makes us loathe to venture outside the little tribe in which we “fit in”, or to try something new we at which we might fail: the terror of feeling unworthy.  It’s what drives us, often quite unconsciously the need to view others as beneath us to proper up the air superiority we require to feel worthy of love.

It’s a powerfully destructive force that is ultimately based upon a the evil one’s lie because our deepest, sturdiest form of worthiness isn’t conferred from the outside but comes from within where our souls commune with the God who delights in us. It comes from knowing we are, in fact, God’s beloved children in whom God delights.  This is our birthright.  We proclaimed this truth in our baptism, but we so easily lose track of our real identity as wander in the wilderness of this world.

One of the things Satan offers Jesus to prove his worthiness is the power to commit violence. Our passage this morning makes passing reference to the violence that maintains the status quo of society. We hear that Herod has John the Baptist arrested and a little later in the Gospel we will hear the gruesome act of violence by which his head ends up on a platter.

So taking note of the ever present threat of violence in the Gospel story, I want to turn now to this week’s horror: The shooting in the High School in Florida by a young man who could legally buy a semi-automatic rifle and use it to kill 17 people leaving thousands of hearts broken, and a nation in a collective state of dismay.

I want to say again what I said the Sunday after the massacre at the country festival in Las Vegas and that is that it is undeniable that there is a need for congress to pass sensible gun laws.  Something is terribly wrong when semi-automatic rifles are available to an 18 year old boy with a secret rage inside him.  I hope and pray that our leaders can find the courage to pass the laws that restrict access to such guns.

But although gun laws are very important, the problem of violence in our culture won’t disappear with better legislation.    Violence, as the story of Jesus  clearly conveys, is knit into the sin sickness of this world.

I want to talk briefly about the young man who committed this horrific violence — the young man that evil took possession of on Valentine’s day.

The little we know about him indicates he was deeply wounded.  He was twice orphaned, first at birth, and then by what from all reports were the loving couple that adopted him. His adoptive father died of a heart attack when he was only six, and then his devoted adoptive mother succumbed to an extended sickness just this past November 1st.  His only family member, a half-brother went to live elsewhere.

In the news reports it was also mentioned that they young man had been diagnosed with ADHD and also somewhere on the autism spectrum.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having ADHD and autism.  They are not sicknesses. They are simply a different way of being that is out of what the world defines as the norm.  The problem is with the world and the judgments it renders about the unworthiness of people with ADHD and autism.

People with ADHD have a distinct set of weaknesses and gifts, just like the rest of us and the world lacks the imagination to appreciate these gifts or the collective love to make room for their uniqueness.

Too often people out of the norm end up feeling rejected, isolated.  They get the message loud and clear from the world that they are not worthy of love.  They don’t belong.

When the world leaves a person feeling like they really aren’t worthy, that they are essentially invisible, that they don’t really matter, well, there’s a very sick, a very evil way available in this world to suddenly matter a great deal – to suddenly become very visible – and that is to commit violence.  Particularly when semi-automatic rifles are available to take the lives of a great many people, the world suddenly is compelled to stand up and take notice.

The problem of rampant shame and unworthiness, of feeling isolated and abandoned, is directly correlated to the problem of violence.

Back at Christmas I came across this sweet story about a first grader named Landon.  Landon has autism and there were times  when Landon got the message having autism made him a bad boy.

His mother took Landon to see Santa at the mall.  He told Santa what he wanted for Christmas, and then after he began walking away, he suddenly ran back to Santa and blurted out, “I have autism!” He was afraid having autism would put him on Santa’s naughty list.

This wise, kind-hearted mall Santa put his arm around Landon, and drew near to emphatically tell him he was in fact a “good boy” and that it was good to be exactly who he was.

The season of Lent is a good time to seek the inner healing of these wounds of unworthiness which is the work of the Holy Spirit. There are basically two ways to access this healing.  The first is to be a part of a group of people (which is what the church is meant to be) who get to truly know us – the good and the bad, the strength and the weakness, the grace and the sin – and knowing this, stand firm in loving us, calling forth the best within – the good stuff we may not fully realize is there.

The second is through prayer.  The image of little Landon sitting on the lap of Santa who purportedly knows everything there is to know about Landon is a helpful one to bring to prayer, except in our case, it’s not Santa.  It’s Jesus.  Using your God-given imagination, take time to sit in silence in the presence of Jesus, who knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us unconditionally.  Bring forth into his presence the wounds hidden in the darkness of your hearts and let his love heal those wounds.  Make a habit of doing this regularly, and you will find in time that the voice of shame will begin to lessen, that the compulsion to do things in order to be considered worthy will be replaced by a freedom to love like Jesus loves, joyfully, generously — the love that naturally flows through you as God’s beloved child.

The Transfiguration of Jesus: Shut Up and Listen

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:19 am on Monday, February 12, 2018

A sermon preached on February 11th, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday – based upon Mark 9:2-9.

If you have heard me preach for a time you know of my long standing obsession with the accounts of Near Death Experiences.  If you would like to learn more about them I have a book or eighteen I can lend you.  I’m something of a succor for the newest book about Near Death Experiences.

I am convinced that throughout history  many people  have been given a glimpse of a life beyond this one as they have drawn close to death, perhaps when for a time their heart stops beating.  More and more people are having such experiences because medical technology now has the capacity to bring people back from the edge where in the past they would have proceeded on into death.  They often speak of encountering light brighter than any light from this world, and that the light contained the purest love they had ever known – truly unconditional love.  They say that the words we possess from life in this world are wholly inadequate to express the beauty of what they saw and experienced, and describe a reluctance to come back to this life.  Consistently such people say that what they saw and felt was absolutely real and not some kind of hallucination, regardless of what beliefs they previously held about God and the afterlife.  They say they no longer fear death.

Part of the appeal for me of these testimonies is that to my ear they are a confirmation of the truth of Christianity as I understand it — that the message of Jesus wasn’t just wishful thinking — a sweet but ultimately deluded dream.

What particularly strikes me is that people who have undergone such experiences say it transformed their value system in a manner consistent with what Jesus lived and taught.  They no longer see life as a race to the top, a competition to win, but rather as a gift to be embraced.  They realize that it’s not things that matter — it’s people – all people. The experience humbles them – leading them to embrace a posture of humility that is in tune with the reality they glimpsed.  They realize how little they really know, and an innate curiosity is awakened — an openness to learning that is connected to their deepened desire to share love.

As I said before, I’ve been sort of obsessed with these accounts.  I’ve been guilty of what you might call “Near Death Experience envy.”  Part of what I hear in this story of what we call the “transfiguration of Jesus” is that this obsession if misguided.

Over thirty years ago I noticed that this story has a lot of similarities to the Near Death accounts:  The bright light, the presence with Moses and Elijah of people long since dead, the desire Peter seems to have to stay up on the mountain in the beauteous light – that’s what his offer to build the three shelters suggests – rather than to go back down the valley.  In a similar way to the experiences that fill these books I read, in this story for the three disciples the veil between this world and the next was briefly lifted.

As we took note of last week, the Gospel of Mark starts off as if Jesus’ ministry would be all sunshine and light.  For the first 18 hours or so of his “ministry” he heals every sickness and casts out every evil demon he comes across, and understandably people get pretty excited.  With Jesus around, pain will soon be a thing of the past!

But quickly Jesus makes it clear that although healing is a part of his ministry, it’s not the center.  This week we have jumped forward to the midway point of Mark’s Gospel.  In the passage immediately before the mountaintop story, for the first time Jesus has begun to talk about what is, in fact at the center, and at first hearing, it doesn’t sound appealing to the disciples in the least. After Jesus affirms the truth in Peter’s confession, “you are the messiah,” Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples that as the messiah, he will go to Jerusalem where he will suffer greatly, dying at the hands of the religious authorities, and after three days rise again.

Peter is the disciple who most often stands front and center, and the one we are invited to identify with in the Gospels.  One thing that Peter demonstrates here for the first time is that his brain spews out a lot of words – he is quick to run off at the mouth without necessarily giving much thought to what he is saying. And here he goes off on a rant, trying to convince Jesus that this suffering and death thing need not be his fate.

Even if we are by nature quiet – not a big talker — in all likelihood we still resemble Peter in terms of the number of words that race out of control through our heads. And who likes the idea of seeking out suffering?  Yuck.  If we’d been there we too would have been tempted to try and convince Jesus he’s got this wrong.  He doesn’t have to go get himself nailed to a cross.

In response to Peter running his mouth, Jesus rebukes him as harshly as he ever rebukes anyone. “Get behind me, Satan,” he famously snaps.

It is right after this that Jesus takes the hike up the mountain for a little overnight retreat in the company of Peter, James and John and there that this extraordinary experience happens.  It’s a little glimpse of what’s to come in the reference he had made to “rising in three days” after his death, but it’s all just too much for Peter and the others to comprehend.  They just know that what they are witnessing on this mountaintop is beautiful and it’s far removed from the suffering that awaits them down in the valley.

And once again, Mark tells us, Peter starts babbling.

Instead of simply standing in silent awe before this great mystery, Peter’s brain is doing what brains do, trying to make sense of it all with the pre-existing categories the he’s acquired over the couse of his lifetime. Words starts to pour of his mouth.

Obviously this is a major God revelation, with Moses and Elijah appearing from heaven, and so Peter figures he and the other disciples will do what people did at such times in the past: They’ll build shrines — three of them where this holy trinity of Moses, Elijah and Jesus can hang up here on the mountain permanently if they choose, and if not, well at least the shrines can be a place they can encourage people to make pilgrimage to in order to draw close to God.

And then suddenly this cloud overshadows the mountaintop, and now Peter can’t see a thing, which seems to finally shut his mouth.

Back in the 14th century a writer on the spiritual life coined the expression, “Cloud of Unknowing” with a nod to what Peter goes through in this moment.  In order to experience God directly, sometimes we have to let go of everything we thought we knew about God.

In the darkness of that Cloud of Unknowing, God speaks.  “This is my beloved son.”

There are two echoes here.  The first was another ecstatic moment when heaven and earth touched, the time at the beginning of the Gospel when after John baptized Jesus the spirit descended and the voice of God spoke directly to Jesus:  “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Here, midway through the Gospel, similar words are spoken, but this time the words aren’t for Jesus’ benefit — there for the disciples.  Later in the Gospel similar words will be spoken one more time.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

To the words, “This is my beloved son…” God adds this:  “Listen to him.”

It’s a little like God saying to Peter (and to us) with all the words, spoken and unspoken that race through our heads, “Shut up and listen.”

When the cloud passes, Moses and Elijah and the bright light are gone.  There is only Jesus, the ordinary Jesus who gets hungry and tired and sometimes irritable.  He is the one they are to listen to.

And then Jesus leads Peter and the others down the mountain, back to the valley, where you suspect they weren’t anxious to go.

But as they go, the message of “shut up and listen” is reinforced when Jesus “orders them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man (Jesus) had risen from the dead.”

Don’t talk about what you don’t yet understand.

Think of it:  if they had talked about what they had witnessed, the inevitable reaction would have been:  “Forget Jerusalem and the cross that awaits there. Let’s go back up the mountain!”

But that would have been the wrong direction.  Jesus is leading them towards human suffering, not away from it.   He’s leading them to the cross.

There is one more time that Peter will demonstrate his tendency to run his mouth without thinking. It will be after the last supper when Jesus will tell the dsiciples they will all fall away.

Peter can’t keep his mouth shut.  Once again he assumes he knows more than he does, and in this case what he thinks he knows is himself:  “I’m brave.  I’m loyal.  I’ve got the right stuff.” He compares himself to the others into whom he presumes to have insight, saying that even “if they abandon Jesus, I never will.”

In short order he learns what his pride had resisted knowing:  that he is no better than any one else. There is the same frailty inside him that is inside everybody else.  We’re all in this together.

And then Jesus dies upon the cross.  In Mark’s Gospel he dies experiencing utter abandonment, an experience that sooner or later we all experience as human beings.

It is then that the third naming of Jesus as God’s son occurs, and it comes from the most unlikeliest of people, a Roman centurion tasked with overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus. Who would have guessed that such a man as this would be the mouthpiece of God in this moment? As Jesus cries out in death, the centurion declares, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” He perceives what the disciples have missed.  God is here in this midst of this extreme suffering.

So this is why I think my obsession with Near Death Experiences is misguided.  Mountaintop experiences are wonderful – it’s important to go up on the mountain from time to time – to retreat from the world — but in this life a mountaintop is not the primary place we are intended to encounter God’s presence.

God is down in the valley, in the midst of the suffering.

Like Peter we like to think we know what’s what, that for the most part we are in control of our destinies, but life has a way of humbling us just like it did Peter.  We find ourselves in the thick of the suffering of this world, overwhelmed, our old certainties slipping away.  In the cloud of unknowing, the time comes to shut up and listen.

So the Sunday before we begin our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross, we are invited to climb up the mountaintop to catch a glimpse of the glory of God revealed in the resurrection.  The vision is intended to sustain us on the journey.

The crucifixion and the resurrection go together.  If what was seen on the mountaintop is real – if Easter is true – then when times come to us and those we love when problems are encountered that just can’t be solved and suffering that can’t be avoided, if we can trust the reality of the resurrection we can let go of our need to find a solution, and simply be present to the mystery of God’s presence in the brokenness of this world.  We can forgo the need to compulsively search for a solution and instead devote ourselves to listening deeply:  To the deepest longings of our hearts.  To the whispers of God in the depths of our soul.  To the words spoken and unspoken by the people we encounter in the course of our lives that reveal their souls.

So if you haven’t decided upon something to do for Lent, here is a suggestion that probably all of us could benefit from.  Spend Lent trying to talk less and to listen more.  Strive to be a better listener.

There is this man named John Francis who on his 27th birthday decided to stop talking.  He had no particular plan, but he ended up going without speaking for the next 17 years.  This is how he described his decision to shut his mouth:

I decided, because I argued so much and I talk so much, that I was going to stop speaking for just one day — one day — to give it a rest. And so I did. I got up in the morning and I didn’t say a word. And I have to tell you, it was a very moving experience, because for the first time, in a long time I began listening. And what I heard, it kind of disturbed me. Because what I used to do, when I thought I was listening, was I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say and think that I could — I knew what they were going to say, and so I stopped listening. And in my mind, I just kind of raced ahead and thought of what I was going to say back, while they were still finishing up. And then I would launch in. Well, that just ended communication. So on this first day I actually listened. And it was very sad for me, because I realized that for those many years I had not been learning. I thought I knew everything. I didn’t. And so I decided I’d better do this for another day, and another day, and another day…”

Now we don’t need to copy John Francis, but I would argue there is no mistaking him as a prophet for our age.  We live in a time when talk is cheap, and falsehoods are spoken as often if not more than the truth, and words are used to avoid going into the depths of life – to that space where the soul lives.

I want to finish with these words written by a theologian named John Carmody as he was dying of a terminal illness.  They call to mind the babbling of Peter, and the need to be silent before the mystery of human suffering:

“When you deal with people seriously ill, either yourself or others, try to honor the eloquence of God’s silence.  Babble if you must, as I have babbled here, but accept every invitation to desist.  If the illness is your own, go for a walk, sit in a chapel, or just hold the loved ones you most cherish.  If the illness is another’s, listen for the time to stay silent, as well as the time to speak.  There is a time to speak, but also a time to hold silence — to take it to your bosom like a love… Well or ill, but especially ill, you are part of something much greater.  You did not make yourself, and you cannot raise yourself.  But what you cannot do, God can.  All things are possible with God.”

Mark 1:29-39 “Wow. Thanks. Help.”

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 2:14 pm on Sunday, February 4, 2018

A sermon preached on February 4th, 2018 based upon Mark 1:29-39, entitled “Wow.  Thanks.  Help.”

Jesus brought about a whole bunch of miraculous healings in what was essentially his first day of ministry.  We hear these stories, and we in turn are inspired to pray for healing, for ourselves and for others.  Reading through the healing stories in the Gospels we may look for a formula to follow in the hope of assuring our prayers will evoke the healings we desire.   In certain places there are instances in which Jesus commends people for their faith with the implication seeming to be that it was their faith that brought about healing.  So, we wonder is receiving the healing we pray for a matter of having great faith?  But we know too many instances where all kinds of people — presumably many with “great faith” — have prayed for the healing they longed for and did not receive it.

And conversely, in these very first stories of healing, there is no mention of faith at all.  Jesus just decides to heal people.   Jesus casts out an unclean spirit, leaving him calm and whole, and at Simon Peter’s house Jesus takes the initiative to go and heal his mother-in-law in bed with a fever.  When the sun sets marking the end of the Sabbath dozens of people are brought to Simon Peter’s front porch and Jesus heals them, again without any mention of faith.  These miracles simply occur out of the blue as surprising signs of God’s grace.

At this point in the story if you were reading along for the first time it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Jesus’ primary mission was to heal the sick.  Considering all the suffering that takes place in this world as a result of sickness and disease, who could argue with that?

At some point late in the evening Jesus dismisses the crowds.  Perhaps he said “enough is enough”.  It seems likely that he hadn’t healed everybody in town because the next day you get the impression there were more yet waiting to be healed.   But then a peculiar thing happens.

Very early the next morning, well before the sun comes up Jesus quietly gets up careful not to wake the others asleep in Simon Peter’s house and slips out of the house.  He goes beyond the edge of the town into nearby wilderness where he can be confident of being alone, undisturbed. There in the silence of the wilderness he spends the next several hours praying, until finally the disciples find him.  Apparently along with the rest of the town ever since the sun rose they’ve been searching for Jesus.

They clearly have come to the conclusion that Jesus mission is to heal the sick, cause they want him to come back into town so he can continue laying hands on more sick people. But Jesus says no, that’s not what they’re going to do.  He tells them that they are leaving Caperneum to go to the other communities in Galilee to proclaim their message and to cast out demons.

As this Gospel proceeds it becomes clear that although Jesus’ healing ministry is a part of what he does, it’s not the center. His healing work was a sign of God’s love for the people, but it wasn’t the thing on which he wanted people to focus.

And what was the message?  That you and me and every single person are loved by God more deeply than we know, that we are here to be a part right now of God’s blessed community which is all about God’s overflowing love that inspires us to love God in return and to love our neighbor who God cherishes. That the most important thing is to live out of this wondrous love, to trust this love, to share this love.

My attention is captured by the extensive time Jesus spent alone in prayer in this story, which I think we can assume was a pattern for him throughout his ministry.  What specifically was Jesus doing during that time of prayer?  How did he pray?  Mark doesn’t tell us so we can’t say for sure.

But since Jesus was fully human like you or me, even though he was uniquely Spirit-filled I think we can assume that the series of encounters with people that he had experienced that called forth his power to heal left him exhausted and depleted.  He needed time to be restored, to reconnect with God and God’s will for his life.  Perhaps the words of the psalm guiding him, “You maketh me to lie down in green pastures, you leadeth me beside still waters, you restoreth my soul.”

So I’ve been thinking about prayer particularly as we are approaching the season of Lent, a season that calls us to prayer.  In relation to this passage, one of things that occurs to me is that for most of us, the thing that most often moves us to pray is the same thing the people were looking for Jesus to be all about –  sickness, often for others, sometimes for ourselves, and problems, our own, and also of others.  This is appropriate and understandable, particularly given all the pain in this world.

But there is more to prayer than this.

When the primary focus of our prayer is crying out to God to heal sickness or to solve problems we or somebody we know is having, something can go awry in our relationship with God.  We can begin to feel as though God needs to be persuaded to care – to be talked into relieving the suffering of the illness or the distress caused by the problem.  It is as if we imagine God as far off in heaven and we need to coax God to come down to earth and be present to us in our suffering.

But God already does care, and God already is present.

We do believe that mysterious blessings are wrought when we open up our hearts in prayer, but what is easy to lose sight of is that the primary purpose of prayer isn’t to change God, it is to change us.

The author Anne Lamott provides a very simple way to think about prayer that is based upon three simple words. The first word is “Wow.”

If we are paying attention, there are these moments that come to us in the course of our days that lead us to say, “Wow!” — moments that evoke speechless awe and wonder before the mystery of God’s presence in this world.  These moments come in an endless variety of forms, big and small.  By definition “Wow” moments are out of the ordinary, breaking the unavoidable times of monotony and boredom that is a part of daily life.

The invitation to experience these moments can easily be overlooked so a certain curiosity is required on our part – a willingness to let our attention be carried along by our curiosity. The classic story in this regard is the story of Moses and the burning bush.  Moses, going about the monotony of the daily grind of his job shepherding his sheep through the wilderness notices an unusual sight in the distance, a bush that appears to be burning but isn’t being consumed.  He could just keep his mind on his job and keep on walking, but he decides instead to take a little break from his job to turn aside and investigate, and in doing so he encounters the great mystery of the living God who identifies God’s self as the great “I am”

Most Wow moments are less dramatic than Moses’ burning bush, and yet there is nonetheless something very important involved in our openness to these moments.  In the book, which was also made into a movie, “The Color Purple” the title comes from a line of one of the characters in the story who says it pisses God off if we walk pass a field of purple flowers and don’t pause to stand in wonder of the beauty.  I don’t know about the pissing God off part, but the point being made is true. God gives us invites us to experience “Wow” moments that can help restore our souls, and it is our job to notice them and allow the natural awe and wonder arise within us.

Maybe it’s

…an unexpected rainbow appearing at a particular moment when you need a sign of reassurance.

…a bird that lands near you to pay a visit.

…the face of a little child enchanted by the world.

…a peculiar coincidence such as a friend calling at just the right time which when noticed and responded to with wonder becomes a God-incidence.

In the story of Jesus’ first day of ministry, wow moments occur rapid fire:  Jesus heals the man with the unclean spirit bringing him to a place of quiet calm followed by his healing of Simon Peter’s mother in law of the fever that has confined her to bed.   Soon after that Jesus heals all those people who came to the front porch.

These are “wow” moments, the proper response before which is one of awe and speechless wonder, but sometimes our temptation is to quickly move past the “wow” in order to try and figure out how we can take control of the experience and reproduce it on command.

That seems to be what the disciples and the people of Caperneum try to do.  They move from the realm of wow before the extraordinary mystery of Jesus’ healing power to trying to figure out how they can make these healings routine, ordinary.   Let’s get Jesus to open up a walk-in clinic in Simon Peter’s house so that whenever somebody gets sick, all we have to do is take them over to Jesus and he can fix them up good as new.

Tunnel vision – that state of consciousness we get into when all we can see is the next thing that needs to get done — makes it hard to be open to “Wow” experiences.  I expect that one of the things that led Jesus to rise early to go out into the wilderness alone is that after having been presented with this non-stop stream of sick people placed in front of him to cure was the pull of tunnel vision. He goes out to pray to restore his capacity for “wow!”

So part of prayer is restoring our capacity to notice the Wow moments in life, and to give ourselves to these moments of awe and wonder without moving on to the “next thing” too quickly.

Anne Lamott’s second word in prayer is “thanks”.

It is said that evolution has hard-wired we human beings to pay attention to what might go wrong — what might present a threat to our survival — in a word, to be worriers.  In a simpler time, this was particularly important. If there was predator out there on the Safari looking to eat you, it was important to see it early so you didn’t end up its dinner.

When the instinct is in control there is no time to count our blessings.  As the centuries passed and life got more and more complex with the potential dangers out there more subtle and more numerous time for blessing counting becomes all the less frequent.  The result of this is we take on a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset. Our cup may be overflowing with abundant blessings, but with ten things going right our brains get stuck worrying about the one thing that could go wrong.  We never reach a posture of gratitude for all we have received and a confidence we will encounter abundance in the future.

So the prayer of “thanks” essentially re-wires our brain as we intentionally take time to take note of the good things we’ve received, intentionally resisting the gravitational pull of the survival mode — the scarcity mindset – in favor of an abundance mindset.

And the third word is “help”.  Pretty simple.  It is perhaps the place we most often turn to prayer.  All the sickness and problems out there.  And it is right to reach to God for help.

But again, it is important to remember that the God we know in Jesus isn’t one who has to persuaded to care about us.  So when we find ourselves facing something scary, something that threatens to overwhelm us or the people or the world we love, it’s not God we’re trying to change.  It’s ourselves.

In the act of reaching out to God for help in the scary places, we find a little trust, and a little courage.  Our cry of “help” to God pokes some holes in the wall of darkness that is the fear that threatens to overtake us.  We resist the temptation to close down our hearts and minds so we can pay attention to the leadings of the Spirit and resist the compulsion to blame someone, whether ourselves or others. We ask for help to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.  We reach out for the capacity to see the blessings hidden inside this hard thing we are facing, the opportunities to be — like Jesus — an instrument of blessing in the midst of suffering.

When we cry out for help, perhaps we catch a tiny glimpse of the truth that the worst thing isn’t that the feared thing will come to pass – the worst thing is to lost soul, our connection to God and the love in which we live and move and have our very being.

Wow!  Thanks!  Help!  It’s not complicated.  The primary thing to remember is the purpose of prayer is that we are changed.  God is already more near to us than breath itself.

Mark 1:21-28 — Making sense of the Unclean Spirits

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:06 pm on Sunday, January 28, 2018

A sermon preached on January 28th, 2018 based upon Mark 1:21-28.

So Jesus and his first four disciples come to the town of Capernaum and on the Sabbath, they gather with the community in the synagogue.  As a visiting rabbi, Jesus is invited to teach.  People are amazed by his teaching but it doesn’t seem to be so much the particular words Jesus spoke because Mark doesn’t bother to tell us that.  Rather, they sensed the presence of the Spirit of God in him – an innate inner authority.

Suddenly there is a man – presumably just some guy who was there every Sabbath, who up to then had appeared normal enough — who begins to scream crazy stuff at Jesus.  Mark tells us that it’s not the man himself who is screaming – it’s an unclean spirit inside the man – an evil demon if you will.  Jesus sternly addresses the unclean spirit:  “Come out of him!”  The man convulses and screams, and suddenly he is calm – restored to his right mind.

What are we to make of this?

For most of us the notion of demon possession – so common in Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, but less so in other parts of the Bible – is very strange by our way of thinking – an idea long ago discarded as merely part of the superstition of primitive people.

But as I suggested last week although the human race has made incredible strides forward in all manner of realms of knowledge, the one realm in which we haven’t necessarily progressed is “soul wisdom”.  We may be smarter about many things, but often people today tend to be dumber when it comes to understanding the mystery of our souls.

Whether we take them literally or metaphorically, the language of unclean spirits calls our attention to questions we don’t usually give much thought to.  For instance, when we speak of ourselves, exactly who is this “self” of which we speak?  We assume we know ourselves – that there is a consistency to what we refer to as our “self” – but is there really?

The spiritual wisdom of Christianity says that each of us is made in the image of God – that there is an inherent goodness in all of us – a sacred value – which we often refer to as our “soul”.  But Christianity also speaks of the possibility of losing this soul – our essential selves.

Years ago I came across this story about a woman named Velma Barfield who was executed in a North Carolina Penitentiary.  At the time she was the first woman executed in 22 years in this country.   Her heinous crime was murdering four people with poison in an attempt to divert attention from some forged checks she’d written.

The article struck me so poignantly because it described a remarkable transformation that took place in Velma through meeting Jesus in prison during the time she spent awaiting execution. Many of her fellow inmates said that they didn’t know how they would have made survived life in prison if it weren’t for the support they received from Velma.  One inmate called her “a living demonstration of the grace of God.” In the words of the prison chaplain, “God reached out and touched and loved through Velma.  Lives were touched and lives were changed.”

Not surprisingly, Velma was no stranger to suffering.  She had an unhappy childhood growing up with a physically abusive father and a passive and emotionally distant mother.    Her first marriage deteriorated when Velma developed a serious back problem that led her to become addicted to pain medication.

In a letter written towards the end of her life Velma compared the accumulation of anger and frustration in her life to snow piling up on a roof, eventually causing to the house collapsing. She wrote, “How I wish I had shoveled my roof.  Instead, I drank from a bitter cup, which is Satan’s cup, and tried to drown my sorrow in a handful of pills.”

I am struck by these words.  As Velma looked back over the course of her life she could see the way evil found an entry way into her heart through the wounds she had suffered.  A point was reached where on her own she was powerless to choose right rather than wrong.  In saying this, she wasn’t absolving herself of responsibility for the evil acts she committed.  Well before she reached that point she should have “shoveled her roof” – reached out to find help in healing for her wounds. She made bad choices in regard to how she responded to her wounds – for instance, drowning her “sorrow in a handful of pills” — that allowed the evil to take possession of her.

In prison her soul – that innate goodness that had been locked up in the basement what she called her “self” emerged when she was set free through her encounter with Christ.

Velma is an extreme example of what happens to some extent in all of us.  To greater or lesser extent, unclean spirits can take possession of us as well.

It may be more of a male thing, but perhaps you’ve had an experience like mine:    I’m driving my car, feeling relatively sane when out of the blue somebody in a car behind me starts to tailgate, followed by a honk of his horn (it seems most often to be a man), or he cuts me off without the courtesy of using his turn signal.  Maybe he gives me a dirty look or a certain hand gesture.  Instantaneously a red hot anger rises up inside me which could aptly be described as “possessing” me.  I am consumed with a loathing for this person I’ve never met.

Fortunately, by the grace of God when this sort of thing happens I’ve always managed to reign in my anger enough to keep some kind of serious road rage incident from occurring.

Eventually when I calm down – when I return to myself — I realize the intensity of my response was wholly out of proportion to the slight done unto me by this stranger who doesn’t know me from Adam.

When I ask myself, “where did all my anger come from?” I can’t really provide a clear answer, but I suspect that in a similar though far less severe manner I too have wounds buried inside me from my distant past – experiences long forgotten by my conscious mind of interactions with people that left me feeling humiliated and worthless.  There’s an insecurity hidden inside me that most of the time I keep hidden away that is triggered in moments like this.  I trust that as time passes this insecurity – these wounds — are being healed as I strive to stay connected to Jesus who loves me unconditionally.

Now it isn’t that anger per se is bad or an indication we’ve strayed from our souls.  Anger against true injustice is appropriate, but somebody failing to use their turn signal doesn’t really qualify as injustice.

Anger can provide energy for taking action when action needs to be taken.  But when anger takes up permanent residence inside us – when we become our anger – that’s when we are in danger of losing our soul.

Last week I talked about Jonah, the guy who resisted God’s call to go preach to the Ninevites, the people Jonah utterly despised, leading him to spend three days in the belly of a whale. The language of “unclean spirits” is much less common in the Old Testament than in Matthew, Mark and Luke but Jonah could easily be described as having had an unclean spirit take possession of his heart. Jonah’s soul got buried under the anger, hatred and self-righteousness that has become his identity.  He has come to believe he is his hatred, and that to lose it would be to lose his very self.

The story about Jesus setting free the man with the unclean spirit reveals how radical his approach is.  The Holiness Code by which the Pharisees lived – the dominant expression of religion in those days, and still present in certain forms today – required people to avoid contact with everything that had been rendered “unclean.”  By this understanding, as soon as the unclean spirit began screaming, the man should have been cast out of the synagogue – a boundary set between him and all righteous people.

But Jesus rejected the notion of such a boundary.  Rather than move away from the man with the unclean spirit, he went towards him.  Jesus recognized that imprisoned inside that man there was something redeemable — a soul of infinite worth.  The same point is made in his parable about going in search of the one lost sheep.  Every one of God’s sheep are worthy of love even those whose behavior has rendered them truly bad company.

Only the powerful love of God can cast out the unclean spirits.  This is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pointing out when he famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Dr. King emphasized that it couldn’t hate that motivated them in the movement against bigotry and racism. It had to be love, and this was for two reasons.

First, if the people in the movement gave themselves over to hatred, they themselves would succumb to the unclean spirit that is hatred.  They would be in danger of losing their souls.

And second, deep inside every Klansmen who was actively oppressing Black people there really was a soul imprisoned by the unclean spirit of racism. It was only by appealing to that soul with a fierce love – the love of Jesus – that they could hope to change the Klansmen.

This is a truth that unfortunately is largely missing in our prison system.  There are people who like Velma have their lives transformed in their time behind bars through the work of prison ministries and such.  But more often time spent in prison has the opposite effect.  With the focus on punishment, the wounds inside the prisoners never receive healing.  Their bondage to unclean spirits simply deepens.

It was within the life of a spiritual community – the synagogue in Capernaum – that Jesus set this poor man free from his personal demon.   I want to conclude by talking about what all this means for life lived inside a church, or in a family for that matter.

This is what we believe as Christians:  that within each of us there is a soul of infinite worth — a great capacity for goodness that makes us each worthy of love.  We also believe, however that in each of us the power of sin is at work which means we are all struggling with our own personal demons though to a large extent these unclean spirits are hidden from view.   These demons entered us through the wounds we have endured in the course of our lives.

There are a couple of things this means.  First off, there will be occasions when we will get stung by the unclean spirits with which somebody else is struggling, and there will also be times when our demons rise up to sting another. It happens, and it shouldn’t surprise us.

But the thoughtless, unkind acts we commit against one another do not define us.  When we get stung, however our temptation is judge them as though they did.  If we can hold onto our conviction that there is far more to each of us than our personal demons – that deep inside each of us there is an innate goodness – the healing that is forgiveness becomes possible.

And secondly, each of us is on a journey of healing, and it is within a community gathered in the name of Jesus that this healing can take place.  The wounds we carry around inside us limit our capacity to love, and wounds that are buried so deep they never see the light of day don’t have the opportunity to be healed.

But if we have come together in the presence of Jesus, then we can be trust one another enough to be vulnerable, acknowledging our wounds, and in doing so we can find the deep healing of our hearts we long for.

We come to church — to use the language of Velma – to shovel our roofs. We confess our brokenness, our bondage and in doing so we live into the freedom that allows us to love like Jesus.

Is This All There Is? The Fishermen By the Sea

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 11:07 pm on Sunday, January 21, 2018

A sermon preached on January 21st, 2018 based upon Mark 1:14-20 and the Book of Jonah.

This is a strange story.  A stranger appears beside the Sea of Galilee where four fishermen are at work in the shallow water.  The stranger says to them, “Come, follow me.”  Immediately, they get up and leave everything behind to do exactly that – follow him.  How could they do such a thing?  It makes no rational sense.   Our tendency is, I think to see their willingness to leave everything and follow Jesus as an indication that the fishermen possess exceptional faith.  Such trust!  But in light of what we know about the disciples from the rest of the Gospel, we know they weren’t really exceptional people in the least.  They constantly don’t understand what Jesus is telling them, and on a number of occasions are called out by Jesus for their lack of faith.

If there is a way in which they are exceptional I think it was in terms of having reached a certain depth of despair in the midst of the routine drudgery of their daily lives that made them willing to entertain such a wild invitation.  Day after day they spend their night out in the boats, over and over lowering their nets and raising them back again, then every morning afterwards going through the tedium of repairing and cleaning their nets.  The same old thing, day after day.

When I read this story this week a strange story from 1947 came to mind that occupied the news cycle for a period of time.  Our country had every reason to feel good about itself.  With a great collective, national sacrifice we had defeated the forces of Fascism.  We were clearly the most powerful country in the world, both militarily and economically ready to enjoy peace and prosperity. On the surface, all seemed well.  But without the great cause of the War to unify our country and give it a great purpose, beneath the surface all was not well.

One morning a New York bus driver named William Cimillo climbed into the bus he drove each day to begin his daily shift.  At a certain point, however without any prior planning William decided that instead of turning left to follow the route he drove each day he would turn right.   He drove over the George Washington Bridge and headed south leaving behind a wife and son. After a couple of days of distressed searching, William and his bus were located in Florida.  A couple of police officers were flown down to Florida to take William into custody and bring him and the bus back to New York.  They couldn’t drive it, so they let William take the wheel.

Upon arrival in New York he was informed he’d lost his job and worse faced serious charges in court.  The peculiar thing however was that William’s highly publicized escapade had turned him into something of a folk hero for the common man.  He had actually done what tens of thousands of worker in their daily grind of making a living had imagined doing.  There was such a public outcry on his behalf that the charges were dropped and he was given his job back.

A hundred years earlier Thoreau had put into words the experience of many:  “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”

In 1962 a similar sentiment was expressed in the song “Little Boxes” made popular by Pete Seeger that pictured a suffocating life of conformity in the lives of people moving out the suburbs to inhabit the new homes all identical built in neat and tidy rows. In 1967 Peggy Lee tapped into this undercurrent of despair with her hit song, “Is This All There Is?” And then the Woodstock generation came along, rejecting the “quiet desperation” they perceived in the lives of their parents, causing their parents terrible heartache.

I read what I thought was an insightful opinion piece in the New York Times this week by David Brooks in which he talked of the power of touch to effect in both profoundly positive and destructive ways.  The last paragraph in particular struck me:

“It seems that the smarter we get about technology, the dumber we get about relationships.  We live in a society in which loneliness, depression and suicide are on the rise.  We seem to be treating each other worse.  The guiding moral principle here is not complicated:  Try to treat other people as if they possess precious hearts and infinite souls.  Everything else will follow.”

Human beings today know vastly more than any past generation about almost every field of inquiry except one, and that is knowledge of the soul, often referred to as wisdom.  We live in an age in which such knowledge seems to be actively disregarded as we ignore the life of the soul.

There is a symbolism in the story to the fact that the fishermen are in the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus comes along.  Elsewhere in the Gospels we hear of Jesus instructing the fishermen to “Cast your nets out into the deep waters.”  The soul – our connection to God — lives in the depths of life, but if we let it this world will carry us along shallowness and superficiality.  Peggy Lee’s song – the fishermen’s song – will be our song.  “Is this all there is?”

The bus driver William Cimillo gave expression to the emptiness if the tedium of modern life, but he offered no real solution.  But the fishermen intuitively recognized in the mysterious stranger who met them that day by the lakeside a person who possessed what the very thing for which they were longing, though they would have been at a loss to explain their actions that day.

The fishermen didn’t know the back story to the man who appeared before him:  how Jesus had come to the River Jordan humbling himself to be baptized by John with the masses who had responded to John’s invitation – submitting himself to a kind of symbolic death as John dunked Jesus down into the depths of the water, arising to new life.  It was then that Jesus experienced heaven being “broken open”, and the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, entering his body.  How the Spirit then drove him out into the wilderness for forty days to go down into the depths of his heart, to understand fully what God was calling him to do in this world.

He emerged from the wilderness with his soul on fire, announcing the kingdom of God breaking into this world.   Late he would tell parables of this kingdom, including one about a pearl of extraordinary beauty and another about a treasure buried in a field, and in both instances the one who finds these things happily leaves behind everything they own in order to possess them.

The fishermen, leaving behind their nets and all that was familiar, are the embodiment of these parables.

These days it is common to hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” There is validity to this distinction.  By “spiritual” they mean the longing to live life out of the depths rather than the shallows, and it is a valid critique of “organized religion” that often it doesn’t lead a person into the depths – to an experience of the living God.

But the sentiment expressed in the saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious” is misguided when it suggests that a person can pursue the spiritual life all alone without a community to support them on the journey.  The saying also can express an arrogant disregard for the soul wisdom that has been passed down through the ages.

At the center of Jesus preaching was the kingdom of God, which speaks of a life lived in community – a community where everyone’s soul is honored and valued.  Jesus invited this fishermen to be a part of a small, intentional community that together would go on a quest for life lived in the depths  – the little band of twelve disciples with Jesus as their guide and mentor.

The “spiritual” vs. “religious” distinction is imbedded in the book of Jonah, our Old Testament reading this morning.  Jonah has a soul, but it’s gotten buried somewhere that he can’t find it.  He’s all in for religion – a proud member of what he believes to be God’s chosen people.

Through his “religion” Jonah has staged a coup taking over the position of final judge of all people that by all rights is God.   He has chosen the perverse pleasure of hatred and self-righteousness over God and a life lived out of his soul.  It is as if he has become his hatred and in his mind letting go of his hatred would be to lose his very self.  Although Hebrew scriptures speak of a God whose love extends to all people, there are nonetheless ample scriptures for him to quote to back up his hatred and self-righteousness.  When God speaks directly to him, calling him to go preach to the very people he hates most in this world Jonah would rather God shut the heck up and leave him with his neat and tidy religion.

So Jonah hops on a ship headed away from Ninevah, but when a storm threatens to capsize the boat, he volunteers to be thrown overboard, apparently preferring to die rather than surrender his hatred.  But mercifully God has Jonah get swallowed by a big fish that spits him up on shore, at which point God speaks to Jonah again calling him once more to go to Ninevah.

This time Jonah obeys, and a miracle occurs far greater than his surviving inside a big fish for three days.  The people of Ninevah – all 120,000 of them – immediately repent and turn back to God in response to his pathetic, little sermon (a miracle that perhaps provides some hope to those of us despairing over the present state of our country) Jonah goes outside the city to sit and pout.  God asks Jonah what’s up with his attitude, and Jonah talks about how he’d just prefer to die rather than watch the Ninevites receive God’s mercy.  The book ends with God challenging Jonah’s hard heart and his refusal to feel compassion for the people of Ninevah.  It’s much like the way Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother ends, with the father inviting the elder brother to let go of his resentment and come into the party.  How will he respond?  How will we respond?

In some sense, the fate of our souls are at stake.  We don’t get to enter the kingdom of God without letting go of our hatred and self-righteousness.

So with the season of Lent approaching, let us prepare to search out our hearts and the attachments we have made to old hatreds and resentments.  The invitation stands for us intentionally enter the spiritual life in the company of fellow pilgrims seeking together the grace of God that will melt our hardened hearts.  God wants to heal the heart wounds we carry.

Please consider being a part of one of the small group opportunities available, that you may delve down into the depths where God would heal the hearts wounds you carry.

Faith and Doubt

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:26 pm on Monday, January 15, 2018

A sermon preached on January 14th, 2018 based upon John 1:43-51.

Inside all of us, there is faith and there is doubt, and the two wrestle together, and that is not a bad thing.  Frederick Buechner said, Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

This means that inside the most adamant of atheists a little child lives repressed within that looks at awe at the mystery of the universe and intuits a loving creator to whom gratitude is due. Inside the most fundamentalist of believers there are doubts that a crammed down deep inside, leading to all kinds of sinister consequences.

You may be aware of the scientific discoveries about the basic structure with which God has designed our brains.  There are two hemispheres and it’s an oversimplification but useful nonetheless to attribute our analytic, rational thought to the left side and intuitive, emotional, creative thought to the right side.  Several decades ago, surgeons in a desperate attempt to cure a severe seizure disorder severed the connection between the two hemispheres.  The surgery was successful in stopping the deadly seizures, but in time disturbing, unintended consequences of the surgery came to light.  It was if now there were two distinct people living inside the peoples’ brains, neither fully whole.

Scientists designed experiments to study these peoples’ brain activity.  The right, intuitive hemisphere has no capacity to speak words, but with the left hand it could express itself through writing.  Questions were asked of these people with split brains and commonly they would get conflicting answers.  One person was asked, “Do you believe in God?” and the left, analytical side said, “no” but the right intuitive side wrote out the word, “yes.”

Fascinating, right?  The two sides are meant to be in communication with each other.  Wholeness involves input from the entire brain.

I learned about this experiment from a podcaster who caught my attention last summer named Mike McFargue.  “Science Mike” as he calls himself focuses on the connection between science and faith.  He has a fascinating backstory which he describes in his book, “Finding Faith on the Waves.”

Mike grew up in the south deeply involved in his Southern Baptist Church.  As a young child he felt a strong sense of Jesus’ presence, particularly when as an overweight boy he was often bullied.  He remember going off to hide and that when he did he strongly felt the loving presence of his best friend, Jesus. He grew up, met his wife in church and had two daughters. He served as an elder in his church as well as a Sunday school teacher.

Mike was blessed with a powerful left hemisphere in his brain, which meant he had a strong capacity for rational, analytic thinking and in turn a powerful attraction to science.  Quietly in his private thought he struggled with his inability to reconcile what he was learning from science with the doctrines of the church, particularly the notion of the inerrancy of the Bible.  His doubts eventually led him to conclude that there was no God.   She stopped praying, felt a sadness regarding the loss of the closeness he once felt to Jesus, and suffered from a feeling of being a fraud.

Eventually he shared this truth with his wife, and she was greatly disturbed, but he assured her his love for her was as strong as ever, and he would continue to raise their daughters in the church, keeping his atheism to himself.  His wife confided this truth to his mother, and together they committed to praying for Mike that he might find his way back to God.

On the internet he became active in the online atheist community.  It troubled Mike that the people he encountered online often misrepresented believers — the people he had known and felt authentically loved by in his church — but he greatly appreciated the freedom he to explore his thoughts without trying to make them fit into the doctrines of the church.  He worked in advertising and wrote a blog, and eventually somehow word got back to his church that he now identified himself as an atheist.  The church leadership asked him to resign his positions as elder and Sunday School teacher – essentially kicking him out of the church.  This was hard for Mike, because he had always experienced a lot of love in his church.

Time passed.  Out of the blue an invitation came to fly to Los Angeles to visit the headquarters of NASA, because NASA was interested in getting some publicity out about what they were working on. This was a science geek’s dream come true, so he booked his flight and then by a peculiar coincidence an invitation arrived from an old friend who had moved to LA to attend a weekend retreat on the theme of creativity that was scheduled for the weekend immediately following his visit to NASA.  The retreat was being led by Rob Bell, a famous pastor and author who had moved away from fundamentalist Christianity to a form of faith that was far more open to mystery and exploring all manner of questions of inquiry. In exchange for a little work testing Rob’s website, Mike could attend the workshop for free.  The subject of creativity was appealing to Mike, but his initial response to put himself back in a group of “believers” was skeptical – like Nathaniel’s response in our Gospel story to Philip’s invitation to come meet Jesus said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When his wife and mother heard of the odd coincidence of the invitation, an opportunity for Mike to spend a weekend with a famous preacher, they saw the hand of God at work.  Reluctantly, Mike accepted the invitation.

On the first night of the retreat, Mike found himself impressed by Rob Bell and the openness expressed by him and others to a range of ideas, but when Rob began to say things he couldn’t agree with, he felt compelled to raise his hand and come clean.  He revealed to Rob Bell and this group of eighty who identified themselves as Christians that he was living a secret life a Southern Baptist who had concluded through his study of science that there was no God.  “Well, that horse’s out of the barn,” Rob laughed.  Rob didn’t try to argue him out of his present convictions, simply inviting him to keep an open mind to mystery that might not fit inside any of the thought categories he dealt with.  Rob affirmed the vulnerability and honesty it took for Mike to speak his truth, and the whole room broke out in applause for Mike and his sharing.   To be loved this way was amazing to Mike.    Someone in the group shared Brene Brown’s idea that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  Faith and doubt need each other.  The opposite of faith is certainty, for certainty is intolerant of of mystery and the risks that faith allows us to embrace.

For the rest of the retreat Mike felt fully at ease and enjoyed himself thoroughly.  On the last evening of the retreat, as the group gathered for a closing session Mike realized that Rob intended to conclude with Holy Communion and Mike’s initial reaction was a feeling of distress.  He wasn’t sure he was ready for this.

Rob proceeded to talk about how the night Jesus first shared the bread the cup he went around the room and washed his disciples’ feet.  He talked about how the bread and the cup were ordinary — made up of common molecules, when we bless the bread and cup, they become holy. In a similar way, he said we too, although made up of ordinary molecules can be blessed and set apart for a holy purpose – to be poured out like Jesus for others.

When people began to come forward, Mike wasn’t going to, thinking it would be fraudulent for him to do so, but all of a sudden he heard a voice say, “I was there when you were a boy hiding from the bullies, and I am here with you now.”  He went forward, and with tears in the eyes of both of them, he received the bread and the cup from Rob.  Something broke open within him, and he felt that old familiar sense of the closeness of Jesus.

The retreat concluded, but the evening wasn’t done for Mike.  He went out into the darkness of the beach.  The unseen waves of the enormous Pacific Ocean seemed like a good metaphor for God is there ever was one.  He proceeded to pour out his heart to God, saying how he had missed this closeness, but he couldn’t let go of the things he had learned in science, or the questions he had about how God could allow all the suffering of this world.  He had the impression that the ocean was a good fifty yards in front of him, but when Mike spoke the name of Jesus, and suddenly a wave washed over his feet, and he remembered what Rob had said about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

And so Mike has proceeded on, intuitively grasping the reality of God and Jesus, seeking to serve them in this world by serving others, while at the same time asking hard questions and continuing on the quest of science.

In the Gospel of John we hear stories describing the process by which people come to faith.  In the first chapter, John the Baptist describes a vision he received in which he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus, and bears witness to his students that Jesus is the one for whom they have been waiting.  Two of John’s students see Jesus pass by and begin to follow him, and he asks, “What are you looking for?” They don’t seem to know for sure, but ask, “Where are you staying?”  He says, “Come and see,” and the go and spend the day in his presence.  There is no description of what, in anything they talked about, but after a day spent simply being in his presence, the two are convinced that Jesus is indeed the one that God has sent to save the world.  In this morning’s passage, Philip witnesses to Nathaniel that they have found the anointed of God, one Jesus of Nazareth.  Skeptically Nathaniel answers, “Can anything good come of Nazareth?”  Phillip simply says, like Jesus before him, “Come and see.” Nathaniel accepts the invitation, and when he meets Jesus he is blown away by the fact that Jesus seems to know all there is to know about him, and suddenly Nathaniel is all in with believing Jesus is the one.

There’s a couple of things stand out to me from these stories.  First, most commonly other people are involved in the process of coming to faith.  Somebody extends an invitation to “Come and see.”  Secondly, there is no debating or arguing that takes place regarding the truth of the beliefs being considered.  The invitation is simply to come and experience Jesus for yourself.  See what you think.  Third, once the invitation is accepted and people begin to have experiences that confirm the truth of Christ.  Nathaniel experiences Jesus’ seemingly supernatural knowledge of him.  Science Mike had an experience of the reality of Jesus that was beyond the realm of the rational.  And fourth, the journey of faith isn’t over at the point of coming to belief.  Nathaniel and the others have come to believe that Jesus is the one sent by God, but what this means will get rocked with a thousand questions later on when they realize that the savior sent by God must die upon a cross.

I’ve been thinking lately about what is called “evangelism.” Evangelism is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and drawing people into the life Jesus’ body, the Church.  It seems to me that a major obstacle to evangelism is the tendency people have to divide the human race into two categories:  Believers and nonbelievers.

People outside the church assume that to be a part of a church you have to be clearly in the category of “believer,” which leads them to assume they don’t belong here.

But all of us here know that we have both faith and doubt, and that at any given time one side is ascendant and the other descendent.   There is room in the circle for those who at the present moment are more aware of the doubts than their faith.

I listened to this interview with Mary Karr an English professor, poet and author of the best-selling memoir, “Liars Club that describes growing up in a highly dysfunctional family in Texas where telling lies was a way of life.  Her mother was an alcoholic and suffered a nervous breakdown when Mary was a child, ending up in psych ward. Mary said she kept assuming she too would eventually end up there too.  And sure enough, when she was forty, abusing alcohol with a young child to take care of an a marriage breaking down, she ended up in a psych ward.  There was a sense of relief to this.  “I had confirmation it is hard being me,” she said. “They are keeping sharp instruments from me because I am a danger to myself.”  There was no mistaking the fact that the way she was living her life wasn’t working so she was open to new possibilities.  She began attending AA groups.  A friend there talked about praying every day, and Mary asked her, “What do you pray for?”  The woman answered, “I pray that I will have a day full of joy and sobriety.”  Mary was astonished:  “You can pray for that?”  So she started praying and meditating every day and it made a difference in her life.

Nonetheless, she stayed clear of church, that is until one day her eight year old son surprised her when out of the blue he declared, “I want to go to church.”  And rather coolly, Mary responded with, “Why?” And her son said, “To see if God is there.”  Mary said there was probably nothing her son could have said that would have gotten her up from her newspaper and bagel on a Sunday morning to go to church.

Do they began attending church, which apparently her son took to pretty well going off to Sunday School as she sat in the back row of the church, remaining skeptical, a cup of latte and a stack of papers to grade.

But slowly over time church began to work on her.  What really struck her was the ordinary people who gathered together in that place to share their prayer concerns.  People finding themselves in the scary places of life embracing the vulnerability to reach out for help praying aloud for concerns like their sister who was undergoing cancer surgery and in the process finding courage both from God and from the other ordinary people gathered there.

So eventually she converted, affirming the faith of the church and becoming a member.  Many of her friends and colleagues from academia thought she had lost her mind. “How can you believe all that stuff?” they asked. She explained to them that she still had plenty of doubts, but that for her believing a bunch of doctrines wasn’t what being a Christian was all about.  It was a set of practices – a way of life.    It was about going to church each week with this particular group of ordinary people trying to live out the faith.  It was about engaging in a life of prayer.  It was about trying to day by day take seriously central teachings of Jesus, about forgiveness and love of enemy, of trying to help those less fortunate.  By doing these things she could say with certainty that she was better for it.  The chaotic, dysfunctional noise in her brain that had put her in a psych ward had quieted.

Growing up in a highly dysfunctional family, there was a profoundly judgmental voice in her head.  This voice judged others but the one who suffered far and away the most from this voice was herself, because the voice routinely condemned her most of all.   As the years passed, this voice became quieter.  She became kinder to herself and kinder to others.

Do now she says to skeptical friends so determined to cling to their atheism, “Why don’t you give prayer a try?  What do you have to lose?  Even though you say you don’t believe in God, why don’t you just try a little experiment and pretend for a time that there is a God who loves you and all people, and spend some time at the beginning of each day trying to be in the presence of this God?”  She said she expected that if they would give it a try, they would probably find that their lives improved.

Somewhere along the way Christianity became about giving ascent to a set of doctrines.  But this wasn’t what it was about for the earliest Christians.  It was about following the way of Jesus.

Tomorrow we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  You might be interested to know that when he was in college, King found a lot of the traditional doctrines of the church hard to swallow.  But he concluded that there was essential spiritual truth in the Bible, so he enrolled in seminary, and later in divinity graduate school.  King realized that what mattered was following the way of Christ, and there is no better example of what that means from recent history than the life he lived.

So returning to the subject of evangelism, here is what I think you all can say with some confidence:  Your lives are better because you made a decision to be a part of the life of this church.  Life is never struggle free, but this is what I think each one of you can say with to people you know who don’t go to Church:  “I am a more loving, joyful, grateful and humble person because I make a habit of going to church.  Would you care to join me in giving it a try?”

Believe it or not, Lent starts a month from today.  It is time to start thinking now, how might you like to use this season of renewal to walk more closely with Jesus? In this ongoing dialogue between faith and doubt, how might you go deeper?

Herod, the Magi and the Importance of Staying Connected to Our Souls

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:50 pm on Sunday, January 7, 2018

A sermon preached on January 6, 2018 – Epiphany Sunday – based upon Matthew 2:1-12.

This very familiar story of the Magi following the star to Bethlehem has a unique capacity capture our imagination. Although the word doesn’t occur in the story its theme is the mystery of what we call the “soul.”  The soul is the capacity that is deep within each of us to truly love and experience joy — the place where we are connected to God.  In this sense, our souls are all alike, and yet in another sense each soul is unique, because each of us is gifted in ways that distinguish us regarding how we express love, and each of us has a different destiny that calls to us from our souls — our own path to follow.  Our souls are our truest self – the self God made us to be.

Apart from the baby Jesus, there are two basic characters in this story, one representing life lived out of a connection to the soul, and the other expressing life altogether cut off from soul.

Let’s first consider the second character: Herod.  To reference the saying of the grown up Jesus, Herod has “gained the whole world” in the sense that he has come to be the most politically powerful man in his region, but he has lost his soul.  He carries the title of “king of Judea”, but he is a fraudulent king, a puppet placed in power by the emperor in Rome.  He does not have the soul of a king and so his life is a kind of play acting.

His is a joyless existence.  In spite of his great worldly power, he is filled with insecurity, requiring others to defer to him – to tell him how great he is – to prop up his false sense of self.   Since he is not rooted in his soul, the arrival of the Magi with news of the birth of a child destined to be king fills Herod with fear, throwing him into a tail spin.

This world that Herod is so attached to and which can be so seductive to us doesn’t encourage “soulful” living.

Spending a few days home recently with a cold, I’ve watched more television than usual, and there is this reoccuring commercial that has really irritated me.  Perhaps you’ve seen it.  Two next door neighbors – clearly affluent women – encounter one another as one woman is unloading newly purchased containers from her car.  To mark the New Year she is excited about her resolve to bring order and beauty to her home.  The other woman condescendingly gestures to her new possession to mark the New Year – a $50,000 car – completely deflating the first woman.  In a world where a person’s value arises from the status projected by her luxury possessions, how can the other woman ever measure up?  The commercial tempts me to throw something at the television.

The alternative example in the story is that of the Magi.  They are not taking their cues from the world, from the approval of others.  To their neighbors back in Persia, their notion of setting off on a long, arduous journey following some otherwise overlooked star made absolutely no sense.  But they are confident in the truth that has arisen from their soul.

On the surface, they have far more reason to be afraid than Herod, leaving the familiar for unknown territory.  But they aren’t fearful because they know the path they have taken has been given to them by God.

The journey leads them to a profound experience of joy:    “When they saw the star the rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

For the first time in 36 years of preaching a detail in the story caught my attention.  Herod specifically asks the Magi for the specific time of the mysterious star’s rising, but there is no indication Herod or for that matter anybody else ever saw the star.  This is peculiar given the fact that a star capable of leading people to a specific house would certainly be one that would capture the attention of plenty of people.

The suggestion here is that the star is not a physical reality.  It is specifically the star given to the Magi to guide them towards their particular destiny — some sort of vision, arising from their souls.

In this sense there is a unique star to follow for each of us.

Soulful living doesn’t mean a pain-free life, but it brings a clarity that is otherwise missing to our lives — a sense of being fully present to the gift of our lives.

Rachel Naomi Remen is one of my favorite writers.  She is a medical doctor now in her eighties who in the course of her early life dealt with life threatening illnesses.  Midway through her life she shifted the focus of her work to the spiritual dimensions of healing often overlooked by the medical profession.

In one essay by Remen she takes note of the curious fact that many people in the midst of what would seem like extremely stressful life circumstances – for instance dealing with a life-threatening illness – often report feeling less stress and more joy because the crisis provides the opportunity to reconnect to their souls.  She writes:

In the midst of her treatment, a woman with breast cancer told me how surprised she was to notice this change in her stress level:

“For the first time I am sailing my boat by my own star.  My God, have I sailed it by everything else!  And allowed everyone else to take a turn at the tiller.  All of my life I’ve headed against myself, against my own direction.  But now I have a deep sense of my way, and I am loyal to it.  This is my boat and it was made to sail in this direction, by this star.  You ask why I seem so much more peaceful now?  Well, I am living all in one piece.”

Each one of us has such a star.  It is called the soul.  Unfortunately it is often easier to see it and follow it after it has grown dark.

The Magi received guidance in following their path by paying attention to their dreams, which speaks to the truth that our souls often express themselves through our dreams if we are willing to pay attention.  Remen describes a woman who received similar guidance in connecting to her soul in the midst of chemotherapy for breast cancer:

A self-made woman of considerable means, one night in the middle of her rigorous chemotherapy she dreamed that she was watching a woman build a mountain.  Sweating and straining, the woman put rock on top of rock, climbing as she went, working night and day, until she had constructed a magnificent snow-capped peak and stood on its very top.

“A remarkable image,” I commented.

“Yes,” she replied, “and familiar.  It was my life, my old life.  Working, always working, building my beautiful homes, my corporation, my increasingly powerful role in the international business community.  Watching her standing there at the top, I felt such a familiar thrill of pride.  How competent she was!  How disciplined and determined!  How powerful!

“Then, to my horror, I saw a great crack began to open in the mountain close to the base.  From where I was standing, I could see it begin to collapse in on itself.  Terrified, I tried to call out a warning, but I had no voice and could only watch.  Finally the top of the mountain itself began to give way.  The woman stood frozen, paralyzed.  And then, at the very last second, just as the whole thing crumbled beneath her, she found that she knew how to fly.”

To fly is to live out of one’s soul, rather than from the dictates of this world.  Sometimes in “losing the whole world” a person can rediscover their soul.

The story of the Magi and Herod invites us as we begin a new year to reflect on the question, “Am I living out of my soul?  Am I on the path God has for me?  Am I following my own star?”

In some cases the answer may be a clear no with the recognition that certain significant changes need to be made in one’s life that involves risks similar to the risk embraced by the Magi.  Negative, abusive relationships may need to be brought to an end if they can’t be transformed.  A job that is “soul-killing” may need to be left.

But sometimes reflection on these questions may lead to the conclusion, “Yes, for the most part I am following my star.  I really am where I am intended to be.” In this sense the heroic journey far from home of the Magi can be misleading.  Sometimes living more fully from our souls simply means more fully embracing the life we are presently leading.

Remen describes a mystical experience of a neighbor she called “a down to earth and practical person” that awoke the woman to the reality of her soul in midst of the most mundane of activities:

She had been cleaning her house, mopping and waxing a floor and thinking of nothing in particular, when suddenly it was as if her life were passing rapidly in front of her and she became aware of something she had not recognized before, that there was a coherence and direction that ran through it like a thread.  The choices and events of her past, which at the time had seemed quite random, fit together seamlessly in an entirely new and purposeful way.  Though she had never experienced this direction before, it was familiar to her.  It was as if she had been following something unseen for many years and she had not known.

The woman went onto to describe her sense that there was a similar but vastly larger direction guiding all of life:

Suddenly she knew that, despite external appearances, life could be trusted, and she began to weep with joy.

“You know,” she said, “I tried to share this with several people, but it was very hard to talk about.  Funny, when it’s so real for me.”

“Is it still real for you?” I asked.  “Oh yes,” she replied instantly.  “It’s not as strong, but it’s still there…  It seems to me that I have own star to follow – you know, like the old sailors.  Perhaps we all do.”  She smiled at me.  “Makes no sense, does it?  But I feel less stressed and alone.”

Sometimes the reality of the soul is witnessed indirectly by the quality of life lived out of contact with our souls.  At such times life seems purposeless, lacking in joy and full an overwhelming feeling of stress.  Life seems superficial and shallow.  We feel irritable because taking our cues from the external world we become frustrated because we don’t find the approval we have come to rely on.

When you become aware of yourself living in such a state of mind, try and turn your attention inward.  Listen for the whisper of God’s voice.  Wait for the rising of your distinct star that shines in the darkness, and move towards the light.

A Prayer of Invocation for the Inauguration of Michael Sorriano as Mayor of Parsippany

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 3:36 pm on Friday, January 5, 2018

A Prayer of Invocation for the Inauguration of Michael Sorriano as Mayor of Parsippany

Michael Takes Oath

O God of grace and wondrous creativity,

We thank you for this day, and for the gift of life lived in community, and in particular for the gift of our common life here in Parsippany.   Thank you for the rich diversity with which you have blessed us.  Allow us to be a shining example to our troubled country of how people from varied races, religions, political views — and every other way we distinguish ourselves — can come together for the common good.

We thank you for the vision you have cast in this world through the great spiritual traditions – one in which every human being is recognized as possessing inherent value, worthy of care and compassion – a vision that calls us to acknowledge that at the deepest level, beyond all our differences, we are knit together by a common thread — that we are put here to love one another as you have loved us.

Before you we would also acknowledge the paradox of our human nature — that within each of us there is both the capacity for great good — for creativity and love — as well as the capacity for evil — for destruction and self-centeredness.  On this day of new beginnings, we would ask for your Spirit to call forth our “better angels.”

We would ask your blessing upon Michael Soriano as he would embrace the challenge of leading our community.  Grant him a spirit of wisdom, of courage and of humility as he would strive to overcome the divisions that separate us.  Save him from the intoxications and vanities of power.

Bless also his wife Jennifer and daughter Eleanor who are essential in keeping Michael grounded.  In the midst of the many demands upon Michael’s time that come with being our mayor help him to make time to joyfully embrace his roles of husband and father.   May his spirit be nourished by the time he spends with those most precious to him.

We thank you for all those who have come before Michael in holding this office and for the good they have done.

This day we would also ask your blessing upon Janice and Emily as they take on their duties as council members and upon each returning council member that they may work together for the sake of our community.  Bless each of us that we may be good citizens who embrace the gift of democracy.   Help us to hold one another accountable to be our best selves. Grant us also a spirit of gentleness to recognized our common frailty and the capacity to learn from our mistakes, that our community may thrive.

We ask this in the name of all that is good and holy.   Amen.

Christmas Eve: The Emperor Has No Clothes

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:41 pm on Monday, December 25, 2017

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve, 2017 based upon Luke 2:1-20.

Christmas Eve candle

As I listened again to this oh, so familiar story, I thought of another story that is likely familiar to most of us — a story generally not associated with Christmas – but to ear it seems appropriate to tell.  It is a story that involves nakedness.

Once upon a time there was a rather vain emperor who had a particular fondness for the most beautiful clothes money could buy.  There came to the city where the Emperor lived two con men who knew how to appeal to such vanity. In the city streets they passed themselves off to the Emperor’s subjects as great tailors famed throughout the world for weaving the most beautiful clothes the world had ever seen, made from the finest, most expensive of threads.  Not only was there craftsmanship distinguished by its beauty, but also by the fact that it possessed the remarkable capacity of revealing the true character of those who looked up it.  The clothes they wove, it was said, were invisible to any person who was either unfit to hold their station in life, or simply stupid.

You know how the story progresses:  In short order word reaches the emperor of the extraordinary tailors who have come to town, and his vanity quickly draws him into the con men’s web.  He simply must have a set of their clothes for himself, and he commissions the tailors to begin weaving an outfit suitable for the man who towers over all others.

The con men set up shop in a room in the Emperor’s palace, demanding that the most expensive and colorful thread be brought to them. In the days that follow they pretend to be hard at work on their looms carrying the Emperor’s requests, while at night secretly smuggling the costly threads out of the palace to secretly sell for big hunk of change.

The Emperor is dying to know how the clothes are progressing, and so he sends a trusted aid to check on tailors’ work.  The aid succumbs to the deception.  He can see nothing on their looms of course, but horrified by the notion that the truth be revealed that he is, in fact either unfit to hold his post, or simply stupid,  he pretends to see what is not there.  Prompted by the descriptions provided by the two swindler tailors he appropriately “oohs” and “ahs” over the bright colors and elaborate patterns of the emerging clothes.   Afterwards he departs to make his report to the Emperor, carefully repeating the con men’s detailed descriptions, which in turn strokes the Emperor vain anticipation of how good he will look when he finally gets to put on the extraordinary clothes.

Two days pass and the Emperor sends a second aid to get another update on how the work is proceeding, and since the first aid had previously returned with such convincing descriptions of the clothes, he is even quicker to doubt himself and fall for the charade, and he too brings glowing descriptions of the progress being made by the tailors.

And so when the day finally comes for the Emperor to put on the clothes and process through town in his finery, he is horrified to discover that the clothes are invisible to him, but assuming there are real and visible to others and he alone cannot see them, he goes along with the con men’s charade as he strips naked to put on the non-existent garments.

And so it came to pass that the Emperor paraded through town stark naked, but the crowds of onlookers – having heard of the clothes well publicized capacity to reveal incompetency and stupidity share in the charade.

That is, until finally a child cries out the truth, “The emperor has no clothes.”

Here is how Hans Christian Andersen concludes his little fable:  “The words of the child made a deep impression upon the Emperor, for it seemed that they were right.  But he thought to himself regardless, ‘Now I must bear up to the end.”

Returning now to our Gospel reading, Luke begins with these words:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

Before telling the story of the birth that brings us here tonight, Luke pauses to make passing reference to the most powerful man on the face of the planet, Emperor Augustus — a man who claimed for himself the title of Son of God, requiring that he be worshipped by his subjects.  From the comfort of his luxurious palace he utters a command and, as Luke tells us, to the far ends of his empire the masses fall into line, including a poor peasant couple in a particularly remote corner by the names of Joseph and Mary.  Though young Mary is already eight months pregnant, they set out on the grueling fifty mile trek to Bethlehem.  Shortly after arriving Mary goes into labor and in the very barest of accommodations – a stable surrounded by farm animals – she gives birth to her naked baby boy, wrapping him not in the finest of fabrics but in common swaddling clothes.

A striking contrast is drawn between the seemingly all powerful Emperor in his palace and the poor helpless baby in the manger.

What did the Emperor look like? If you Google image him, you will find statues like this one carved to honor him portraying an impressive figure for sure, a muscular, trim self-confident man at the peak of his powers, adorned with gold plated armor and surely the finest silk fabrics money can buy.

But alas, Emperor Augustus was born all the way back in 63 BC, and so on the night the peasant couple’s baby is born the statues misrepresent him.  Now the Emperor is a man of approximately my age — long past his prime — his hair gray, his hairline and energy receding.

At night alone in his bedroom when the Emperor takes off his gold-plated armor and silk garments to prepare for sleep his wrinkled and sagging body marked by liver spots betray his age.  His enlarged prostrate interrupts his sleep with frequent trips to the bathroom to relieve his bladder.

Within ten years of the poor baby’s birth the Emperor will be dead — his body going the way of all flesh, returning to the dust.

In spite of his claims to the contrary, the Emperor was not the Son of God.  But the baby whose arrival into this world went largely unnoticed – only certain poor shepherds came to celebrate his birth – is, in fact the real “Son of God” – the great mystery of God taking on human flesh – our human flesh.

Another story you likely know well, involving nakedness.  Once upon a time there was another couple that lived in a beautiful garden full of trees with sweet tasting fruits.  They were naked, but their nakedness in no way troubled them, for they were like little children, free of self-consciousness.

And then one day they found themselves growing dissatisfied with life in the beautiful garden and decided they wanted to in the ones in charge of the garden, to be the Emperor of the garden so to speak, and something went terribly wrong and they were filled with a crippling self-consciousness, and lo and behold, they noticed for the first time that they were, in fact naked, and they were ashamed and ran for cover.

And we’ve behind hiding our nakedness ever since.  And we’ve been afraid to own up to the fact that we can’t see the Emperor’s clothes when everybody else seems to see them just fine.  And sometimes we feel like a fraud, but like the Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s little fable, we figure, “Now I must bear up to the end.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way said the God who gave us life. And so this God out of the great love this has God has for us came among us as a helpless little baby, embracing the nakedness that reveals just how vulnerable we really are.  You don’t have to pretend to have it all together, or that you’ve never done anything that puts you on the naughty list, or that sometimes you lie awake at night feeling overwhelmed.  You don’t need to be afraid, like the angel said.  You are loved more than you know.  You don’t need to hide anymore.

The little baby in whom God lived grew up to be a man who would reach out in compassion to those people living on the edges, paralyzed by their shame and their need to hide out in the shadows, to declare to them that their sins have been forgiven and they were in fact God’s beloved and cherished children, no matter what those who would condemn them might say.

And on the last night of the life of the man born in a barn, he would accept the humiliation of being stripped naked as the day he was born by soldiers under the command of an old man pretending to be divine, and he gave his body to be broken, his blood to be shed, that we might know the love that penetrates all darkness, every compulsion we feel to hide out in the shadows.

We are loved, and we are set free to love, in all our frailty and vulnerability, for love in the end is all that matters.

Advent 4: Embracing the Gift of Our Lives

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:39 pm on Monday, December 25, 2017

A sermon preached on December 24th, 2017, the 4th Sunday in Advent based upon Luke 1:26 – 37.

Maidie and laughing Ryan

At the nursing home this past week at the monthly service we lead Carmella who is approaching 100 and always so faithful and grateful, insisted that the baby Jesus had golden blond locks of hair.  Others of us tried to persuade her that this was highly unlikely that he was a Jew in ancient Palestine, but Carmella wasn’t having it.  Golden blond hair is how she was determined to picture him.

In the same sense that the baby Jesus throughout the centuries of European art has commonly been portrayed as a fair skinned, fair haired child of radiance, something similar is present in the portrayals of his mother Mary.

This particular story that Bob read for us has been a particular favorite of artists through the centuries.  It is known as the “annunciation” of Mary in which the Angel Gabriel surprised her with a visit.  Typically she has a book – presumably the Bible — that she was reading when the angel interrupted her. She almost always looks serene, clothed in long elegant fabric, with an undeniable piety and an ethereal spiritual quality.

She is, in other words extraordinary – quite different from us.

And although we don’t really know what Mary looked like, as you probably are aware of we can say with some confidence that these depictions from affluent European artists bear no resemblance to what the actual Mary looked like.  Not only was her skin surely darker, but she was also probably only 13 or 14 because in the tradition of those days that was the age that a young woman would become engaged, typically to a much older man.

An awkward age indeed, midway between a child and a woman.

The real Mary was a poor peasant girl, unable to read and certainly without any expensive fabric draped around her.  She was, in a word, ordinary.

And yet through the centuries Mary has come to be seen as anything but ordinary, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition, where she seems elevated to a status almost on the level of that of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The motivation in doing this is understandable.  When the dominant images for God are masculine, Mary offers an appealing contrast, a mothering God who tenderly holds us in her arms.

But in actuality Mary was ordinary, a frail human being like you and me, even though the words with which the angel greets her can easily send us in the direction of viewing her as exalted above us.

“Greetings, favored one of God,” says Gabriel.  When Mary, quite understandably is stunned and bewildered by the appearance of the angel and the peculiar way he addresses her, the angel repeats himself: “You have found favor with God.”

So that does this mean, that Mary has found favor in God?

Our first inclination is to think there is something about Mary — certain qualities she has honed in the course of her short life — particular good deeds she has performed — by which out of all the young women of the world she managed to catch God’s eye and earned a place as God’s “favorite” — a teenage girl who has worked up an extraordinary resume of piety winning an acceptance letter from the Harvard College of Blessedness.

But this whole line of thought is misguided, because we don’t earn God’s favor.  It is a gift.  It is what we call “grace”.

If there was a quality that somehow distinguished Mary, I think we would have found it in the opposite direction in a humble recognition on her part that she wasn’t better than anybody else — the knowledge that one her own she was lost and wouldn’t make it without a whole lot of help.  This is the very mindset we tend to flee from as we grow up – preferring to cling to an image ourselves as self-reliant, capable of earning our place in this world.

But Mary was one of the blessed “poor in spirit”.  She owned her emptiness, and in that sense she was favored by God, an open and empty vessel for the Spirit of God to move through.

Unlike Catholics and some other denominations, when we Methodists celebrate the Lord’s Supper as we will this evening we practice what is called “open communion” which is to say that not only is there no requirement of “membership” or a required creed to give assent to in order to come to the Lord’s table, but even little children are welcome as well.

This is surprising to some people:  “Why do you let children receive Holy Communion?  They have no idea what they are receiving!”  And my response is, “oh, so you do, do you?”  There’s an incomprehensible mystery of divine grace present in the sacrament, and we don’t earn the right to receive it by figuring it out, or by putting on the appropriately “reverent” face.

Generally speaking, children get it better than adults that we can’t make it on our own.  We need help.  And God has come among us to do just that.

So when the angel appears to Mary and makes his announcement that she is to give birth to God’s child, she is taken back, to say the least.

“How can this be?” she asks, and maybe if she hadn’t been quite so floored there were several other questions she might have wanted to ask as well: Will Joseph stick around?  Will my parents still love me?  Will my friends stand by me or will I get dragged into town and stoned for sleeping around? (Which the Law said was the appropriate thing to do in such cases.) Will the pregnancy go all right?  Will the labor be hard?  Will I survive his birth? (Not something a pregnant woman could assume in those days.)

And that’s just the next nine months.  She surely didn’t have the where withal to wonder much further down the road, but what exactly will it mean to be the mother of the son of God — the king whose kingdom will last forever.  It sounds like an honor for sure, but who we know far more of what lies down the road for Mary as the mother of this child know she has good reason to be concerned.  There’s that story of her 12 year old son wandering off in the crowd and scaring the living daylights out of her for three days until she finally found him in the Temple.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch the pain she would know with the growing incomprehensibility of this child, and the most terrible thing of all, the fact that the day would come when Mary would witness this son of hers die a horrific death nailed to a cross.

If she could have foreseen all this, it makes you wonder just how “favored” she would have felt. The interruption in the plans she had made was going to open Mary up to a great deal of pain and heart ache in life.

The angel doesn’t ask Mary for permission regarding this mysterious pregnancy.  It’s going to happen, that much seems clear.  But still there is a choice Mary has to make as to whether she will embrace the life she has been given, or to resist and resent it, which would be quite understandable, since it wasn’t the life she had planned.

It is interesting that it is precisely this moment of decision that the artists have focused on throughout the ages.  The angel has delivered the message, and now he waits for the young girl’s response.  What will she say?

(Except in the fictional world of my Christmas play) Mary was the only person drafted to give birth to God’s baby, which encourages that notion that she was extraordinary – altogether different from us.  But on another level this choice she must make is the same one every one of us is called upon to make:  to say yes or no to the life we have been given.

There is a lot of talk these days about choosing life goals, creating the life we want.  But more often than not, the fact is: “Life is what happens when we’re making plans.”

More often than not we don’t choose our lives – they choose us.

Our best laid plans are interrupted by life’s own plans for us:  by sudden illness or surprise babies, or unexpected deaths.  By downturns in the economy that leave ourselves or somebody we love unemployed, or by aging parents that require our care.  Terrible things happen and wonderful things happen, but seldom do we know ahead of time exactly what will happen to us.

The serenity prayer sums life up nicely: 

God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

If we have the wisdom to know which is which, a great deal of how we will experience our life comes down to how we will respond to that which isn’t going to be changing any time soon?

Which is precisely the moment portrayed in these paintings – the moment at which she says,

“Let it be to me according to thy word; I am the handmaiden of the Lord.”

We too are the favored ones of God.  Like Mary, that doesn’t mean we are being handed an easy, pain free life. But it does mean that if we can say a whole-hearted “yes” to our lives, we will discover that our lives overflow with grace.

(Here I went on to describe conversations of some profundity that I had with strangers in public when I opened myself up to the possibilities that the interactions might hold.)

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