Sunday, February 2, 2014

Like A Refiner's Fire

Sermon for February 2, 2014

Lessons for the Presentation of Jesus in Year A
Malachi 3:1–4
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14–18
Luke 2:22–40

“Well if he’s gonna be there, then I don’t want to be there. I don’t care, that’s just the way I feel!”

Wow. Strong feelings there. This other person must be pretty bad. Who is this guy that’s being talked about, and where is it that our friend doesn’t want to be if he’s there?

It’s everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Everyone’s first choice for the worst person ever on the face of the earth…Hitler. And I’m not talking about Chris Hitler of Chicago. (Can you imagine having to go through life with that last name?) I’m talking about the one, the only, the unforgettable personification of pure evil… Adolf Hitler.

And where is this place that our friend doesn’t want to be if Hitler might be there too?


I’m not making this up. I’ve actually heard this from a fair number of people who are totally scandalized by the Christian idea that Jesus came to save all of us, and not just those who are somehow “deserving.” That’s actually funny, since those who would be most in need of being saved would be those who were the least deserving. These people are scandalized by the idea that this man who was the cause of so much death and destruction, could possibly have any kind of a shot at Heaven as the result of a last minute conversion experience.

They figure that if he’s there, then there’s something wrong with “the system.” And they figure that if he’s there, then they don’t want to be.

And yet…many of these same people have absolutely no problem with the idea of Darth Vader, who ordered the destruction of an entire planet, being redeemed by his actions of killing Emperor Palpatine and saving his son, Luke Skywalker, in the last minutes of The Return of the Jedi.

Go figure.

For he is like a refiner’s fire…

I hear that line and I’m more likely to think of Advent than of Epiphany. That’s because I think of it as being a passage of Handel’s Messiah, which I listen to every year around Christmas time.

But here it is today, on the 4th Sunday of Epiphany, also celebrated as the Feast of the Presentation. And when I saw it, I immediately thought of some of my friends…and the party that they wouldn’t want to go to if a certain other person was there.

For he is like a refiner’s fire…

Now I’m not a metallurgist, and I don’t play one on TV either, but thanks to the kind people at Wikipedia, I now know just enough about smelting, and refining, to be dangerous.

Most of you probably know that the metals that we use in our everyday life: iron, copper, tin, and so on, aren’t just found lying out there in the ground in their “finished” form. They come in ores, which are combinations of the metal that we want with metals that we don’t want. In order to get the metal that we want, you can either smelt the ore or refine it. Smelting is a process that’s used when you need to separate the metal you want from the other impurities that it’s chemically combined with. Usually this involves acid baths, electrolysis, or both.

Refining, on the other hand, is used when the metal you want is simply lumped in with other, unwanted stuff, but has not made any chemical bonds with it. This process involves heat to melt down the ore, since the wanted metal and the unwanted one melt at different temperatures.

In short, smelting and refining are ways of getting rid of the impurities, and retaining the metals that we’re looking for.

With that in mind, the line “for he is like a refiner’s fire” refers to us as being the impure ore that has some trace amounts of a precious metal in it.

In ancient Rome, the process of refining silver from lead was considered economically viable if you could get eight ounces of silver from a ton of lead.

Let me say that again…the process was economically viable if you could get eight ounces of silver from a ton of lead. If you have no idea of the scale we’re talking about here, let me break it down for you. At 16 ounces to the pound, and 2000 pounds to the ton, we’re talking about refining 2000 pounds of lead in order to get a half pound of silver. That's one part in 4000.

Kind of boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

For he is like a refiner’s fire…
Now, if we’re willing to take the effort to find the half pound of silver in a ton of lead, then how much more willing might God be to extract what little is good in any of us from all that isn’t?

All of which brings us back to our unwanted party guest.

The people who say that they wouldn’t want to go to Heaven if Hitler were there make three very big errors. The first is that they assume that the Hitler who somehow managed to get in would be the same as the Hitler that the entire world suffered through for 12 years. They don’t take the time to consider the refiner’s fire. After the refining process, how much would be left of him after the evil, and there was much of it, was melted, or burnt, off? If we compare him to that ton of lead, what would be left after he went through the refining process? An ounce? A half ounce? A molecule? Is the one good molecule of Hitler too much for you to deal with? Would the few good molecules of Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry; the men behind the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls getting ready for Sunday School be too much for me to deal with? I like to think that if any of them did make it to the party, they’d be all of about a half inch tall.

The second error they make is assuming that they’d make it through the refining process themselves relatively whole.

Come on now…really, how much of any of us here is gonna make it through the refiner’s fire? Surely we all have our flaws and imperfections that need to be taken care of. Surely we’re not all as wonderful as we think we are. Surely we’re aware of the fact that a lot of us is gonna have to be melted off before we get to the party.

And I’ll tell you of a guilty little fantasy I have…I want to see those self-righteous people who are so sure that they’re right, while everyone else is going straight to Hell, have all that smugness burned away, and come through as just a thimbleful.

Oh, but darn! That just made me one of them, and now I only get to make through in a thimble…or less.

But really…none of us should expect that we’re gonna make it through whole.

The third, and most glaring mistake these people make is assuming that after they’ve been through the refiner’s fire themselves, they’re still gonna care! Maybe this is one of those things that we’ll all be purged of…the desire, the need, to keep score from our lives here.

And who knows…if this is true…if it’s true that our need to keep score from our lives here is one of the first things to be burned away in the refiner’s fire, then perhaps, just perhaps the very first people to greet what’s left of that unwanted guest will be the people whose deaths he was responsible for.

Scandalous? For those who expect an exact tit for tat accounting of everything, yes, it certainly seems so. At least it seems so from our limited perspective. Perhaps that accounting is being done in ways that we can neither see nor understand from where we are now.

Instead, however, I see this as good news. I see the refiner’s fire as good news…because the refiner sees us…each and everyone one of us…as someone worth refining and getting to the crusted-over heart of, even if it is three…or 300…sizes too small. The refiner sees each and every one of us as someone worth redeeming.

Which leads me, on a lighter note, to a story from my past, and one that I love to tell.

29 years ago I went to Wilson’s Jewelers at ShoppingTown to place a deposit on an engagement ring for the girl I was dating at the time. But things didn’t work out as I had hoped, and she turned me down. Now, as if that wasn’t bad enough, when I went back to Wilson’s they told me that they couldn’t give me my money back because it was a sale ring. The best they could do was to give me a credit slip that I could use at some other time.

“A fat lot of good that’ll do me!” I thought.

But then a year later I met another girl, and as this girl and I were getting to know each other, she heard a lot of stories about my past…including the story about the ring and the credit slip.

Eventually, we decided to get married, and we went to look at wedding bands. As we walked into the mall and I was heading for Zale’s, I felt a tug on my arm pulling me in the other direction. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “You have a perfectly good $200 sitting at Wilson’s, and just because that other girl was too stupid to want to use it with you doesn’t mean that I am. We’re using it for our rings.”

Funny…had I gotten the money back and been able to put it in my savings account, I would’ve had no problem with taking that same amount out two years later to buy wedding bands for someone else with. I guess mixing that money in with the rest of my money would've been like money laundering, and it wouldn't have been tainted. But somewhere the rules say that thou shalt not buy the new girlfriend a wedding ring with a credit slip from money meant for the old girlfriend’s engagement ring.”

Apparently this girl didn’t know that rule. Or if she knew it, she thought it was a stupid one.

The word redeem can have a number of meanings. It can mean something as simple as “to cash in” – like an iTunes gift card. And that day, Cheryl and I redeemed that old worn out credit slip in my wallet for two wedding rings.

But it can also mean to rescue, to make right, to restore to honor. And when Cheryl decided that the credit slip in my wallet was not something tainted that belonged to the old girlfriend, but something that belonged to us, she redeemed it in all the other meanings of the word.

We have often heard Jesus referred to as our redeemer, and quite frankly, that doesn’t mean that he’s cashing us in for something. It means that he has redeemed us along the same lines as the way that Cheryl redeemed that credit slip, claiming us as his own, when others might think that we were too tainted to be worth considering.

Well, on this Feast of the Presentation, when we also celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple, I’d like to think that when we are presented to God, he doesn’t just look at us, say “not good enough,” and give us the old heave ho.

He decides to redeem us. He sees something in each of us that is worth keeping. He knows, with eyes better than ours, that even the best of us has stuff that needs to be burnt off, and even the worst of us has some tiny little something worth saving.

But if you’re still uncomfortable with the idea of even one good molecule of a person like Hitler making it to the party, let me give you the perspective of Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, a professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, who was interviewed on NPR as part of its series What ComesNext.

She says, and I knew this, but had forgotten about it until I heard the interview, that while the Catholic Church has made public proclamations about saints, and who it is confident enough to think they are, it has never…not once…officially declared anyone as definitely being damned for all time.

That leaves the door open for a few good molecules of even the worst of us, which are worth more to God than 8 ounces of silver, to make it through the refiner’s fire.

And really…if you can believe that Anakin Skywalker, who destroyed a planet with billions of people on it, can be redeemed and bring balance to the Force for one merciful act near the end of The Return of the Jedi, then there’s no reason not to believe that God can’t redeem even the worst of us, and have us all at the party.

After all, that’s what the refiner’s fire is all about.

This is most certainly true.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What's Love Got To Do WIth It?

By Keith E Gatling         Sermon for February 3, 2013

Lessons for Epiphany 4 in Year C
Jeremiah 1:4–10
Psalm 71:1–6
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Luke 4:21–30

Ah…First Corinthians, chapter 13. The classic love passage. The one that’s been the mainstay of weddings for as long as I can remember. You know, the old “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not a selfish butt-head.” Is there anything new under the sun to be said about this old chestnut?

Well, if you’ve known me for any length of time, and know that I was a teacher for almost 20 years, you know what the answer to that question is. Of course there’s something new. There’s always something new. Even if it’s something that’s old news to me or even to you, it’s very likely new to someone sitting nearby.

It’s funny what our familiarity with a passage can do to it. It can totally change its meaning. And that’s not even because we intended to do that. Sometimes the language changes over the years, or the culture, so that something that obviously meant one thing to the original hearers is interpreted differently by people of a different era. We’re so used to the words as we use them now that unless we’re historians or linguists, we don’t stop to think that maybe something else was meant.

Take for example Thomas Jefferson’s famous “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” First of all, he didn’t say that we had a right to happiness, he said that we had a right to pursue it. But more important, his idea of happiness is not what most people would consider happiness today. He was not talking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of a hot blonde, a fancy sports car, and a case of beer.

He, and the other Enlightenment thinkers had a different word for that: hedonism. And had he meant that, he would’ve used it. What he meant, according to an article by James Rogers, was the practice of such things as made the Enlightenment mind happy, such as religion, morality, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Or to use the quote from Helen Keller, that just appeared in this month’s King’s Crown:

Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.

So much for the blond, the car, and the beer.

I’ve been reading, or rather skimming, a book called Biblical Literacy, by Timothy Beal. It’s an annotated guide to the Bible stories that everyone should know. In his notes on the book of Proverbs, he talks about the line “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 first coined by Samuel Butler in 1662. In his comments, he writes:

Indeed, many children have felt this verse before ever hearing it! Too bad their parents didn’t know, as most scholars now argue, that the “rod” in this verse was not for spanking, but for guiding – like a shepherd’s staff.

Hmm…I guess that the rod my parents used was supposed to be more like the one referred to in the 23rd Psalm. But as we got farther and farther from an agrarian society that would’ve recognized the context of that passage, many parents used the rod to give discomfort rather than comfort.

And these are just the misinterpretations we’ve made with the meanings of words in our own language.
So then imagine the problem when you’re reading something that was translated from a totally different language. It doesn’t have to be a matter of what some have referred to as the human mind being deceitful in matters of theology. It can just be a matter of us not knowing, or not understanding, or honestly misunderstanding.

Which brings us back to First Corinthians.

When it comes to this passage, Pastor Paul has been saying for years that in Greek there are four words that we translate into English as “love.” Those words are “philia,” which is the brotherly love that Philadelphia is based on; “eros,” which is the erotic love that we tend to think of with romance, and that you can find more of in the Song of Songs; “storge,” which is the natural affection felt by parents to their children; and “agape,” which is often translated as meaning a selfless love that is concerned more with the well-being of the other person.

English really doesn’t have four different terms, and so we have to tell the difference either by the context or by the modifiers used with the words. When I say that I love Cheryl, that I love Sofie, or that I loved my students, you know…or at least you hope…that I’m talking about different forms of love. But when you hear “Love is patient, love is kind,” because you’ve heard it so often at weddings, you assume that it’s talking about romantic love, or eros.

Except that the word used in the original Greek was “agape.” In the Latin version of the Bible, this word was translated as “caritas,” the word from which we get our English “charity.” And indeed, the King James version of the Bible uses “charity” for this passage. Now, if that doesn’t change the way we understand it, then the circumstances under which it was written should.

Beal mentions First Corinthians 13 in the introduction to his book, and says that Paul wrote it to a community that was suffering from tensions and divisions. And in this letter he called on them to get over their childish divisions through love. What kind of love? Well, as we now know, the selfless love that is more concerned with the well-being of the other person. Consider this possible translation:

Agape is patient, agape is kind, agape is not a selfish butt-head…and…agape does not assume that the other person is a stupid butt-head, but ascribes to them the best intentions and motives until proven otherwise… even when they disagree.

Wow. What would our churches be like if we all followed that example? Heck, what would our country look like if we followed that example? And let’s face it, our history, both recent and ancient, has been filled with a lot of un-agape-like behavior, as people jostle to get their own way, or to prove that their particular interpretation, either of the Bible or the Constitution, is the only viable one, while those who hold to any other interpretation are being deliberately pigheaded. And through the ages we in the church would rather divide for the misguided sake of some mythical doctrinal purity than to stay together in a spirit of agape, and consider that the other person might have a valid point or two.

Is this what Paul thought we should do? Is this what Jesus would want?

Somehow, over the centuries, despite its being used elsewhere in Greek literature, agape has become one of those trademark Christian terms. It has come to be almost synonymous with Christian love…or at least the love that we Christians are supposed to aspire to. And yet, as I’ve already mentioned, we know that Christians can be some of the nastiest people on the planet.

I’ve had to explain to someone how it was the “good Christians of Birmingham, Alabama” who turned the firehoses and dogs on people during the Civil Rights marches, and planted the bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls. I’ve had to explain to Sofie how back when I was a kid, and before, it was “good Christian people” that made unmarried girls who found themselves pregnant feel such incredible shame that many felt that abortion or suicide were their only options. And let’s not even talk about the “good Christians” of Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.”

It may be a trademark Christian term, but have famously not always lived up to our trademark.

So with that in mind, is agape strictly a Christian thing? Or to phrase it a little more interestingly, are only Christians capable of “Christian love?”

I’m still active in the lives of many of my former students, advising them on all kinds of things in their personal and academic lives. Often, when it comes to their personal lives, we talk about the characters I’ve written about in my stories. Stories that I’ve written as a way of helping out my former students and other young people of that age.

One of these conversations centered around the character of Jamie Pushkin, a non-observant Jewish girl, who was dating Dan, a guy who was heavily involved with his local Lutheran community. After a three-month relationship, Pushkin decides that they need to break up when she graduates, even though Dan offers to follow her when he finishes a year later.

Why does she insist on breaking up? Not because she feels that Dan isn’t good enough for her; he’s the best thing that ever happened to her. Instead, because she doesn’t feel that she’s the right one for him. She figures that there’s a girl out there who’s a much better match for him than she is, and she doesn’t want to get in her way.

When I wrote that three years ago, agape was the farthest thing from my mind. I needed a way to end this relationship amicably, without either person seeming to use the other. But as I looked at it recently, in the context of the conversation with one of my former students, I was struck by the fact that this Jewish girl who claims that she doesn’t even own a menorah, is showing the kind of love to Dan that we Christians are supposed to show on a regular basis.

Was how I handled this character unconsciously informed by my own Christianity? Possibly. But it’s more likely that I looked at what I was about to have her do as being an example of great love that anyone could demonstrate, Christian or not.

And what is the good news here? The good news is that love is important. Not just any love, but this particular kind of love that puts the well-being of the other person first. But it’s also hard news, because it means that when we disagree with someone, we’re not necessarily allowed to just pick up our toys and storm away. It’s hard news because it means that we have to come to grips with the fact that very often it’s not about what’s technically right, or even about our rights, but about the well-being of the other person.

So where does this leave us? Now that we know the actual background behind the “love chapter,” does this mean that we should stop using it at weddings?

By no means! What Paul writes to the entire community at Corinth is just as applicable to a couple deciding to spend the rest of their lives together.

And if you ask me if I think that what Paul writes to the community at Corinth is something we should all strive for in our everyday lives, you know what my answer to that will be:

This is most certainly true.

Friday, February 1, 2013


If you've checked my old sermon webpage, you've probably noticed that I haven't updated it in a while. That's because as a combination of my being a control freak about formatting both of the texts themselves and the layout of the webpage, I sort of got behind on it about five years ago…even though I was still being asked to do a sermon or two each year.

Then along came this wonderful thing called Blogger, and I realized (but not suddenly, since I had long since been using it for other things) that this was the perfect solution to my "sermon storage" problem. I just copy and paste the sermon into a blog entry, date it, and I'm done. This would solve the problem of a number of people asking for copies of some of my more recent ones.

But of course, being the methodical control freak that I am (is there a reason why I'm a librarian?), rather than starting from the most recent ones and working back, I tried starting from the oldest ones and working forward, meaning that it would be a while before I got to the newer ones that people were asking for.

And then, duh, it hit me. The little lightbulb went on over my head. And this one was an LED bulb. Since I already had the ones up to 2008 accessible the old way, I should just put a link to that page here, and then start working backward. So that's what I'll be doing. My goal will be to post one each week until I get back to 2008, then I'll start finishing off converting the ones from the old website.

Who knows…maybe I'll even get ahead of myself!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sheep and Shepherds

By Keith E Gatling         Sermon for July 22, 2012

Lessons for Pentecost 8 [16] in Year B
Jeremiah 23:1–6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11–22
Mark 6:30–34, 53–56

Today I want to talk about Mrs Olsen.

Now Mrs Olsen is not a pseudonym for some generic Scandinavian Lutheran woman. Mrs Olsen is a real person from my life. She was a substitute teacher, and later a full-time teacher at Ashland School, where I went from Kindergarten through 8th grade. But I also knew her from somewhere else. She was one of the Vacation Bible School teachers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Glenwood Ave. Even though our regular church at the time was Mount Olive Baptist, a block away from our house, our parents signed us up for two weeks of VBS across town at Holy Trinity every summer.

It was from Mrs Olsen that I learned two very important things…which I promptly forgot. But then, when I learned them again later on in life, I remembered who taught them to me first.

The first thing was about church music. She asked our class one day, which was the more important type of music in church, hymns or [Charlie Brown sound]. Now, the reason I make that sound is because I couldn’t remember the other word she used. And the reason I couldn’t remember the other word she used was because I had never heard of it before. Down at Mount Olive, all I ever knew that we sang was hymns, so I guessed that, and DING, got the right answer. She said that hymns were more important because they were sung by the entire congregation, whereas the other type wasn’t.

A few years later, when I was recruited to join the choir at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, a new word entered my musical vocabulary. Actually, a number of new words entered my musical vocabulary, as a whole new musical world was opened up to me. One of these words was anthem.

For me, the working definition at the time was the special music that the choir sang during the offering, while the congregation listened. But then one day, the little light went on and I realized that this was the other word, the other type of music, that Mrs Olsen had been talking about.

The other thing I learned from Mrs Olsen has a direct bearing on today’s readings, because it has to do with the 23rd Psalm.

Now back in the 20th century, before the modern English translation movement of the 70s and 80s, most of us learned the first line of the 23rd Psalm as:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Now this made absolutely no sense to a certain kid from Ashland School. Why wouldn’t I want the Lord to be my shepherd? Seems like he’d be the best person to have as a shepherd. So why are we saying that we don’t want him?

I asked Mrs Olsen about this, and she patiently explained the way that the Elizabethan style of English worked, and that it wasn’t saying that we didn’t want the Lord to be our shepherd, but rather, that because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want for anything.

Suddenly it made sense! For one brief, shining, moment, it made sense to me…until the end of the day, when the explanation she gave me fell out of my head, and landed on the ground, where it shattered into many little pieces. After that, I couldn’t remember what the explanation was, but I knew that it made sense somehow.

Many years later, with a little more experience with the English language under my belt, when I saw that line from the 23rd Psalm, I understood exactly what it meant. I also remembered Mrs Olsen explaining it to me, and what she must have said.

Why is Mrs Olsen so important? Because she was a shepherd. To this kid who didn’t quite understand, but wanted to, she was a guide. And most of today’s readings are about shepherds.

From Jeremiah we have “Woe to the shepherds who scatter and destroy the sheep of my pasture.” The 23rd Psalm gives us the classic, and previously-mentioned “The Lord is my shepherd.” And Mark’s Gospel gives us “They were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Each of those readings talks about God’s people – us – as being sheep. And if you know anything about sheep, you know that they’re pretty stupid. In the piece All We Like Sheep from Handel’s Messiah, the words, taken from Isaiah 53, are “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one to his own way.” This image of us as stupid sheep is much different than the one we so often see of us as willful and premeditated sinners. It implies that most of us do the evil that we do, and cause the harm that we do, not because we intend to, but because we bumble into it.

Make no doubt about it, though, the results are still the same; the person is still dead whether we specifically intended to run them into a ditch in a fit of road rage, whether we avoidably bumbled running into them by texting while driving, or whether we more innocently bumbled into it by getting lost and running into a bridge that was too low.

What is clear, however, is that we need a shepherd. What is clear is that we need to recognize that we need a shepherd. We need to recognize that we are like sheep, that we do screw things up, that our screwing things up, even innocently, has serious consequences, and that we need someone to guide us.
We need a shepherd. But with apologies to Thomas Jefferson, not all shepherds are created equal. Even if we know that we need a shepherd, some of them are pretty bad.

The passage in Jeremiah speaks to that. He uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherds to describe the evil kings who have driven the sheep…the good sheep…away. But he might just as well be talking about shepherds who mislead the sheep. He might just as well be talking about those who take advantage of people who know that they need a shepherd, and intentionally lead those souls onto a path of their own selfish devising. And woe unto those shepherds, of whom we know many, even these days.

Or do we?

As I’ve said so many times before, and will probably continue to say for years hence, we often know where we disagree with our fellow Christians, but we so rarely know where they’re wrong. We’ve all been led by different shepherds…who claim to be following the same eternal shepherd, and not every sheep is going to respond well to the same shepherd or the same shepherd’s methods.

Those of you who are teachers know this from your students. You know that what works for Bobby doesn’t necessarily work for Suzie. Those of you who are parents know this about your children. I have two daughters who are as different as night and day. The one constant about them is that anything I say is a bad idea, but if someone else suggests the same thing, it’s a wonderful idea worth trying. Ah…I see that some of you have been there too.

We may think that some of those people out there who have the nerve to call themselves shepherds aren’t worthy of the term, and deserve to have their rods and staffs taken away from them…after being smacked upside the head with them. But before we do that, it’s important to take a lesson from Mister Rogers.

Yes, that Mister Rogers. You see, in addition to being the host and producer of the long-running children’s television series, Fred Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and his TV show was his ministry, even though he probably never mentioned God once during the entire 33-year run of the show.

According to a story that he told himself, as a seminary student, he had been visiting a church in New England one Sunday, and suffering through what he thought was the worst sermon ever. As the sermon ended, and he thought again about how bad it was, the woman in the pew next to him, said with tears in her eyes, “He said exactly what I needed to hear.” Rogers was a changed man…a better neighbor, as he said…after that incident, and learned that what speaks to him may not necessarily speak to someone else.

Perhaps the shepherd we think is so inept because they’re not reaching us, is doing just the job they need in order to reach some other sheep, and bring them into the fold.

To be sure, there are shepherds who, by their methods and spin on the message, seem to drive more sheep away than they gather up. There are definitely shepherds who seem to drive people away from God. But by the same token, there are sheep who don’t seem to realize that maybe there are other shepherds out there that might be better at guiding them.

Pastor Paul recently passed along a story about Steve Jobs, of Apple, and how as a teenager he asked his pastor…his Lutheran pastor…if God knew he was going to bend his finger even before he did. The pastor replied in the affirmative. Then Steve went on to show his pastor a picture of starving children in Biafra, and asked, “Then why can’t he do anything about this?”

The pastor, not knowing the kind of mind he was dealing with, fumbled the ball, and said something along the lines of, “Steve, you’re too young to understand, but God really does know what he’s doing.”
That was Steve’s last day at church.

Now, Pastor Paul, in his notes on that article, wrote a huge “UGH,” next to what that pastor said. My reaction was much different. My first reaction was to say “Steve, I thought you were smarter than that. You got one unsatisfactory answer from one pastor, and you walked away? You gotta be kidding me. You didn’t ask others? You didn’t research this to death? This is not the Steve Jobs I thought I knew about.”

My second reaction was to cut the poor pastor a little slack, because he probably really didn’t have any idea of the kind of mind he was dealing with. Maybe he had tried to explain this to kids before, and their eyes just glazed over as he tried to explain how theologians had wrestled with this for years, and still don’t understand.

This poor pastor was probably a very good shepherd to everyone except for this one kid who grew up to be insanely famous. And this kid who grew up to be known for being insanely smart turned out not to know anything about choosing shepherds.

And there are more people out there, who, rather than looking for a different shepherd, would rather just walk away and bail on the whole thing. Is that a failure of the shepherds, of the sheep, or is their enough fault to go around for everyone?

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that even our shepherds need shepherds.

Knowing that we need shepherds, and knowing that some of us are shepherds does not mean that we’ll always get it right. By no means!

Knowing that we are like sheep…all of us…means knowing that we need almost constant guidance so that we’re not going every one to his own way.

Fortunately, Jesus took pity on them…and us…because he saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd.

And because of that, even though I understand the explanation that Mrs Olsen gave me, I can say, I will say: The Lord is my shepherd…the one that I want.

This is most certainly true.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Two Eyes

By Keith E Gatling         Sermon for August 21, 2011

Lessons for Pentecost 10 [21] in Year A
Isaiah 51:1–6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1–8
Matthew 16:13–20

If you’re not already doing it, I’d like you to look at me for a minute. And now we’re gonna play doctor…eye doctor, that is.

Cover your left eye. Everything seems just fine, right? OK, good. Now cover your right eye. Same there? Cool.

I like it when Paul talks about the Church as being the body of Christ, and how that body has many members. He talks about it in First Corinthians, chapter 12, which I preached on ten years ago, and he talks about it in Romans 12, which we just heard a few moments ago.

One of the very important things about that body is that each of its members has its own important role. He says:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

OK. That seems pretty straightforward. We each have different jobs, and they need to be done well. In his more well-known passage about the body he goes on to say

…if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?

In both sets of passages Paul talks about how all the parts of the body are needed. Both for our regular human bodies, and the metaphorical body of Christ. And we all understand that each part is important, and that all the parts need to work well with each other, with no part being able to say that it doesn’t need the other.

I can tell you from personal experience that when the parts of the body that you notice the least stop functioning, all of a sudden, everything changes. Some of you may not know that last year I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes and boy, what I wouldn’t give for a working pancreas these days. There are many people sitting right here who are the pancreas of Christ. You don’t really notice them because the work they do may not seem as glamorous as the work done by the hands of Christ, the feet of Christ, or even the mouth of Christ; and it’s done quietly and in the background. But let me tell you, when the pancreas of Christ stops working, all the other parts suffer.

So we know that all the parts of the body are needed, and that one shouldn’t say to the other “I don’t need you because I’m more important.” We know that the eye shouldn’t say that to the ear, or the ear to the nose, or the nose to…the pancreas.

But what about the eye to the eye? Or the ear to the ear?

I was thinking about this one day as I considered the problems we have when people just see things differently. And I’m not just talking about the ELCA here. It happens in every denomination, in every congregation; it happens in every family.

I thought about how it is that congregations and entire denominations sometimes split because two factions see things differently, with each side seeing themselves as right and the other as wrong. Sometimes it takes an outsider, with no history with either side, to come in, look at the arguing, and laugh.

Why laugh? Because the outsider can see that the two sides agree on 95% of the issues, and are talking about splitting over 5%. And so she laughs. She laughs because of the ridiculousness of the situation, and because she sees that the two sides don’t understand just how much they need each other. They think they’d be better off without those people who are so obviously wrong, and who just don’t understand scripture correctly. But she knows that they need each other.

What does this have to do with Paul? What does this have to do with our little eye test of a few minutes ago? Hold on, I’m getting there.

And so as I thought about all of these battles that occur in congregations and denominations between factions arguing that the other side just doesn’t see things the right way, I wondered why God made us so that we couldn’t all see the same way. Wouldn’t that make things so much easier?

And then it hit me. And then I got the perspective that one only has if you have…two eyes.

I want you to do that little eye test again, but this time we’re gonna try something different. I want you to grab a hymnal and put it in your lap. Look at it. OK, no biggie, right?

Now cover your left eye and look at it. The view changes a little bit, doesn’t it? You’re not quite seeing it the same way as you did before, are you? OK, now switch up the eyes. It looks a little different when you’re only using your left eye to look at it, doesn’t it?

Now let me ask you this question: which eye is seeing it the right way? Aha…is there a right way to see it?

Well, let’s say…just for the moment…that there is a right way to see it. I’m left-handed, so I’m gonna go with that. I’ll say that the way the left eye sees things is the proper way. So to get my right eye to see things the way my left eye does, I move the hymnal a few inches to the right. But what happens? Your right eye is seeing the hymnal the way the left eye did a few moments ago, but now the left eye is seeing the hymnal differently because it’s been moved.

In fact, the left eye and the right eye are never going to see things exactly the same way. Ever. They’re positioned in such a way that they’ll always see things slightly differently.

Now let’s not get ridiculous about it. It’s not like one eye will see a horse while the other sees an elephant. But they will always have slightly different views of the same thing.

And this is a good thing.

Because when both eyes see things slightly differently, and work together, we get a sense of perspective…literally. If both eyes saw the exact same thing the exact same way, we’d live in a world that seemed very flat. If you know someone who’s lost an eye, or lost the vision in one eye, think about how difficult it is to move around in three-dimensional space when you’re only getting half the picture.
Ah…does the left eye say to the right eye “I don’t want to work with you unless you see things exactly the same way I do?” Of course not!

We all see things differently. Two kids growing up in the same family experience that family in very different ways; and it’s not just the obvious case of the older sibling remembering a time when there was no younger one, or the sister having a different experience than the brother. It’s been shown that even identical twins have different experiences within the same family.

And our different experiences within our families and communities, the different things we’ve seen and read, and the different people we’ve been loved or hurt by, all make us see things slightly differently, and lead us all to bring something a little different to the table.

Or rather, they make each of us a different eye. One of us is the left eye of a tall person while the other is the right eye of a short person, and someone else is the right eye of a short person who is very nearsighted. We all see things differently, and perhaps are supposed to…so that the body of Christ has a sense of perspective, and is able to more clearly focus on things in the distance without tripping over the things close at hand.

We spend too much time trying to get all the other eyes to see things exactly as we do. We Lutherans take a great deal of pride in the fact that Martin Luther would rather leave than cave to the demands of the Catholic church.

Except that that ain’t how it happened. He didn’t leave. He was thrown out. He was willing to discuss and to be the other eye that helped give the church a needed sense of perspective. But the Pope had other ideas.

Ironically, and sadly the shoe ended up on the other foot later in Luther’s life. Many of you have heard of the absolutely horrible things he had written about the Jews, things that we modern Lutherans officially disavow – especially in the light of the Holocaust. But why did he write them?

There are many theories. One is that he had written them after he had had a stroke and so his mind…and heart…weren’t firing on all cylinders in the first place. Another, though, is that he figured that the reason that the Jews had not accepted Jesus as the Son of God was because of the obvious corruption of the Catholic Church, and that once he explained things to them, they’d be convinced and convert. Surely he could make the right eye see things as the left eye did.

But when he wasn’t successful, he went ballistic, and wrote those tracts that we’re so ashamed of. He wasn’t able to see as the right eye did and they weren’t able to see as the left eye did; and rather than consider that maybe the other eye helps to give us all a sense of perspective about God, he decided that the other eye should be gouged out.

How often do we do this within the church? Too often, I’m afraid.

We are not all going to see things the same way. Two people in the same Bible study group will come up with three opinions. But that doesn’t mean that we argue with each other until one person wins and one person either caves or leaves. It means that when we understand that we see things 95% the same, we also understand that the 5% where we see things differently are part of a greater truth, and help to give us the sense of perspective that we need as the body of Christ.

I have a challenge for you. I want you to find someone who you know you disagree with on an issue – that should be easy, just check out the bumper stickers on the cars in the lot - and I want you to talk about that issue, where you agree, and where you disagree. And then I want you to see if maybe your disagreement is really only on the edges of what you actually agree about. I want you to see if, rather than becoming all defensive about your own opinion, if perhaps the other person’s opinion can give you some needed perspective on your own, and then to see if you can work together as the eyes of Christ.

Because according to Paul, the left eye should not tell the right eye that it’s not needed.

And this is most certainly true!