Sermon: Wisdom

Detail from the cover of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss
Detail from the cover of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss

Two young fish were swimming along and happened to pass by an older fish. The older fish says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and says “What the heck is water?”

Please join me in prayer… 

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s lessons.  May they touch our hearts, and speak clearly to our souls, that we may come to more fully comprehend your eternal and undying love for us and for all of your Creation. Amen.

This Sunday we consecrate our Christian Education Ministry’s programs for the year. So, it is fitting that our topic is Wisdom.

As I was preparing this message, I came across a Commencement Address by the late David Foster Wallace, given at Kenyon College in May of 2005.

Professor Wallace gave the fish story I related at the beginning of this message and then said its point “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Dr. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
Dr. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

He then related another story:

Two guys are sitting in a bar in Alaska. One guy is religious, the other an Atheist. After a few beers, they begin to argue about the existence of God with great intensity. Finally the Atheist says: “Look, I have reasons for not believing in God. Just last month I got in a terrible blizzard. I was lost and couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below. So I fell to my knees and cried out ‘Oh, God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’”  

The religious guy gives the atheist a puzzled look: “Well, you must believe now. After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist rolls his eyes. “Nope, two Eskimos happened to wander by and showed me the way back to camp.”

The lesson here, Wallace points out, is just as obvious as that of the first story: the exact same experience can mean totally different things to different people, because their templates of how the world works are very different.

Google Glass
Google Glass

These “templates of meaning” are the maps we carry inside ourselves, the lens through which we see and interpret everything we experience.

This is an important point: all of our meaning-making depends on how we see and interpret what we witness in the world around us. Meaning and understanding are the result of interpretation. The teachings of our faith – teachings of any sort, in fact – are meaningless without interpretation. Interpretation is the process of taking our own observations or knowledge and making them real and relevant to ourselves or others.

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Sermon: The Right Thing To Do

The Crowd, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter: They all try to do the right thing, and we can see ourselves in them; because they are us in this story.

One central lesson of Palm Sunday is that that no matter how powerful we may be, no matter how well intentioned we are, no matter how wise, or how foolish, or how rich, or how poor, we all constantly make choices that widen the chasm that lies between us and God. We can’t help it, we can’t change it: … it’s part of being human. That is what Sin is: Sin with a Capital “S”; the Sin that has been passed down to us as our share in the brokenness of all existence, the Sin that began with Adam.

…But, God knew this all along…

"The Last Supper" (1494-98); Leonardo Da Vinci
“The Last Supper” (1494-98); Leonardo Da Vinci

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him!” during our dramatic reading of the Passion from the Gospel of Mark this morning?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?

How does it feel?

Let us pray…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls.  We believe your word and your love will rescue us from the depths of our doubt, unbelief, and Sin.  Speak to us now, Lord.  Help us to know you in the way you have wanted us to know you since the beginning. Amen.

Peter really tried to do the right thing.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he really tried to stay awake while Jesus prayed, but failed. We’ve all been there: like many of you, I have a hard time staying awake for my son after a long day of work, let alone during a sermon. Peter was no different!

But then, when Jesus was arrested, Peter ran away, just like everyone else.  He tried again, tried to be there for his friend, the man he knew to be God’s anointed: stumbling along in the dark behind that mob, following their torches to the house of Caiaphas. He then sat in the courtyard, wondering what to do, listening to the voices coming through the window above him, hoping to hear his master speak, hoping that – somehow – Jesus would escape the fate they’d all feared for him.  But, Peter also feared for his own safety, fearing he would be recognized as he warmed himself beside that fire.

He did his best, but it was too much for him.  When the test came, when that servant girl called him out, he did the only thing he could do: he lied.

And then, when he heard the cock crow the second time, he wept.  His failure was complete, his weakness contributed to the death of the man he loved. But Jesus had known this all along, and out of an abundance of compassion and love, had warned Peter this would happen.

We all know how this feels.  We’ve all been confronted by situations we could not overcome.  How many of us are Peters?

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Our Foolish Faith

tiananmenPaul tells us in this week’s Lectionary reading from 1 Corinthians that “the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.…” And, that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world.”

In other words, foolishness (at least in one’s faith) is a good thing. But, can we have too much of a good thing? Are there boundaries beyond which our foolishness should not go?

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The First Commandment

We have all learned to set and achieve goals for ourselves, and to own them. We learn to say “I did that” or “I own that” or “I am that.” We want to be (or have) the biggest, the best, or the fastest, and know how to achieve such things; and there is nothing wrong with this: it is part of our identity, one of the ways we define who we are to ourselves and to others.

But sometimes, we come to want something because in some way we think it will magnify or justify our identity, rather than just defining it. When that subtle line is crossed, a line we are rarely (if ever) aware of, we have begun making an idol of ourselves.

WallStreetBullStatueDelivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA

October 5, 2014.

Scriptures:
   Exodus 32:7-14  (The Message): The Golden Calf
   Acts 16:11-15 (NRSV): Paul Establishes the Philippian Church
   Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV): Paul Advises the Philippian Church

Podcast:


Note: This sermon was presented at the church where I serve is Minister.  It is derived from last week’s sermon, which was given at my boyhood church, where I am from time to time invited to preach as a Pulpit Supply Minister: Centre Church in Brattleboro, VT.  Both sermons in turn have their genesis in a sermon given while I was a Seminarian at First Congregational Church (UCC) in West Boylston, MA.”  While this sermon is almost identical to last week’s sermon (and similar to the original from three years ago) there are some significant differences, partly due to my tailoring each message to address where each congregation was “at” at the time; and partly due to the evolution of my thinking and insights regarding the relevance and implications of the First Commandment for us in the modern world.


I’ve noticed that when young children play, it’s often about the process – or journey, if you will – not the goal.  For instance, when my son builds a tower with blocks and it gets too high, he knocks it down and starts over, and over, and over.

Such play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other measure of success.  It’s about playing – about stacking blocks.  That’s where the fun is, that’s what makes it valuable.  What’s more, as parents, our judgment of the quality of the results is not important. …Well, at least not yet!  – But our participation is.

A couple of years ago, we invited some of our friends and their toddlers over for dinner. Once everyone arrived, we all went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what …  … … The Dads saw the kids playing with my son’s big cardboard blocks!

Well, as good fathers, we had to participate, didn’t we?

But our play was very different.  We didn’t build towers just for the fun of building.  Noooo…  We had to build the BIGGEST tower.  And, so we built a HUGE tower, nearly touching the ceiling, which in that room is quite high.

The Moms held the kids back from participating while we worked, saying they didn’t want them to topple the tower; but I think they were more afraid that someone would get trampled in all that furious activity.

When the tower was done, we took a few pictures, congratulated ourselves, and then the Moms let the kids go.  … … A few seconds later, we had to act as human umbrellas to prevent our little ones from getting seriously bonked as that tower came tumbling down. Continue reading “The First Commandment”

Changing Perspective

The last Chapter of the Gospel of Luke and the First Chapter of Acts are readings that describe the same event, Christ’s Ascension. Both passages are written by the same author (Luke) and both are addressed to the same person (Theophilus). Yet, there are significant differences between the two narratives, to the point where reconciling them (if both are viewed as absolute fact) is difficult to do. The reasons for these differences lie in an existential crisis that Christians were struggling with at that time. In these two readings we see Luke’s thinking on the crisis evolve as he struggles to reconcile his faith with the facts and then portray The Ascension in a way that helps his audience to see their faith and relationship with God in a new light, and so find new hope for their Salvation.

Salvador Dali's "The Ascension"
Salvador Dali’s “The Ascension”

Sermon: “Changing Perspective”
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season: June 1, 2014.

Scripture readings:
Luke 24:44-53 (from “The Message”)
Acts 1:1-11 (from “The Message”)

Our readings this morning both cover the same event, Christ’s Ascension; both are also written by the same author, Luke; and both are addressed to the same person, Theophilus. Yet, there are some significant differences between the two narratives, to the point where reconciling them (if both are viewed as absolute fact) is difficult to do.

Why is this, what are those differences, and why do they matter?

Continue reading “Changing Perspective”

Be Happy

Many have already noted the irony of hardliners in the Islamic Republic of Iran arresting the youth who appear in this tribute to Pharrell William’s video “Happy.”  It seems that happiness is not allowed in Iran, particularly for youth.

Maybe so, but what I also find ironic is the many in the West who claim to be Christian and who condemn Islam – as a whole – for being a cruel and violent religion.  From time to time, we all see videos or screeds (in various internet forums or email) warning us of the evils of Islam.  The thrust of these is that Islam, and usually every other religion that is not Christianity for that matter, are branded as evil.  The authors of such missives usually emphasize that Islam is a threat to Christianity and/or to the United States, and that we must respond in kind.  Usually, the rantings of one or more extremist Muslim clerics or out of context quotes from the Koran or various Muslim prophets are supplied as evidence that Islam is bent upon destroying anything that stands in the way of Islam’s domination of the world.

I have several responses to such drivel…

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The Fabulous Flying Fuzzball

A sermon I presented in 2008 at Payson Park Church in Belmont, MA…

Back in the mid 90’s I bought a home in rural Virginia.  The house had a huge backyard.  I had to keep the grass there under control, but could not afford a rider mower, so I bought three lambs instead.  (I figured I’d eventually get a meal or two out of the deal, but did not tell this to the lambs.)

The Bible often compares us to sheep.  Frankly, now that I’ve owned a few, that’s a scary thought.

I am not sure that sheep are as dumb as many have said they are, but they sure have a talent for getting themselves into trouble (mostly – I think – out of curiosity).  When sheep are frightened, they run.  However, if it is their curiosity that gets them into trouble, they often just sit there until someone comes and rescues them, rather then figuring out how to rescue themselves.  I think of this behavior as a sort of silent whining.

Sheep love to climb.  I remember more than one occasion where they tried to climb onto the two swings hanging from my daughter’s playset in the near corner of the backyard, in the opposite corner from where the sheep’s shed was: I’d come out in the morning and see them standing there, front hooves on the ground, back ends up in the air hanging from the slings, patiently waiting to be rescued.  Every so often they’d somehow climb up on the slide – never did figure out how they did that, but I’d find them standing up there in the morning: surveying the back yard, waiting for me to show up and make it all better.

The two ewes, Heidi and Sally were fairly docile, but we were wary of the ram, Fuzzball, because he became more and more aggressive as he approached his first birthday.

One morning, Fuzzball’s curiosity collided with my own carelessness, and so earned his place in history…

Continue reading “The Fabulous Flying Fuzzball”