Living with God and Money

September 25, 2022              16th Sunday of Pentecost

1 Timothy 6:6-19        Luke 16:19-31

            From Timothy we get one of the most mispronounced sayings in the Bible: The love of money is the root of all evil.  How many of you originally learned it as: Money is the root of all evil?  I learned the incorrect phrase from a young age, and it colored a lot of my thinking about money.  It was all right to make money, but you shouldn’t make too much money.  Rich people were inherently evil and shouldn’t be trusted.  It’s bad to be too interested in money because you’ll become greedy.  

            Looking back I can see the irony in my little-kid thinking, because my grandfather was the vice-president of a bank, and my father was an economic analyst, and stockbroker on Wall Street.  In middle school I learned the correct phrase that the LOVE of money was the root of all evil and that changed everything.  (Correct words do matter for meaning.)

            I was able to see that the acquisition of money or the amount of money wasn’t evil – it was how you used it that was evil or good.  

            I know of a lot people who think that religion shouldn’t be talked about with money.  But the Bible, and our Judeo-Christian ethics, recognizes that money, wealth, and possessions are a hot topic.  There are over 2,000 scriptures that deal with money, tithing, treasures, general wealth, and possessions.  Money is also a hot topic for Jesus: Sixteen out of thirty-eight (or 42%) of his parables deal with money.  Jesus emphasized that the way we handle wealth is a reflection of our faith, our personal ethics, and is an indication of how we deal with other people.

            I came across a very interesting blog which analyzed a lot of the monetary scriptures, and distills everything down to nine important points.  Don’t worry – I’m not going to talk about them here, but looking at those points, and at our two scriptures today, and looking at how Jesus wants us to be and become, I realized that it’s all about relationships.

            The Christian religion essentially boils down to each of us having four relationships that we operate from, which come from our Three Great Commandments:  To love God with all your being; to love your neighbor as you love yourself; and to love others as Christ loves us.  We have a relationship with God, a relationship with ourselves; relationships with our neighbors; and a relationship with Christ.  But we also have a fifth relationship with the physical world.  And a huge part of our relationship with the physical world is reflected in our relationship with our possessions, which are acquired by using money.  That relationship is complicated because money is not only the tool, but also the paradigm and language that we use to speak of the value of things and often the people around us.  

Paul a senior pastor, in his letter is giving advice to Timothy, a just-starting pastor, about how to be the best Christian example for his flock.  Paul knows that Timothy is going to have to deal with money and its use in the congregation.  There are going to be stewardship campaigns for church expenses and missions for the poor.  Anyone who has ever worked with any budget, church or personal, knows that you can become obsessed with balancing your needs against income.  You can start to think: If only I had another $1,000 a month, all of my worries that I’m facing on this balance sheet would go away.  I would be so much less stressed and so much happier.  This can easily grow into an obsession and – it’s like the frog in the slowly boiling water – gradually your focus on money starts to take over your life to the exclusion of your other loving relationships: your family and friends, yourself, God, and Jesus.  

How many times have we heard: Once I’ve got X-amount of money I’ll be able to spend time with my family and friends.  Where’s that person’s focus?  It’s not focused on the family and friends.  If you challenge them the person might come back with: The long-term goal is to have loving relationships in the future, after I get all this financial stuff straightened out.  

Where we focus on is where our lives are going to go, and often our focus shows the world what we love.  If a person focuses too much on money the family and friends might not hang around for them because they don’t see evidence that they love them.  This is why Paul warns Timothy not to fall into the focus of money and its acquisition, over his relationships with the people around him. 

The parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus is not about a man who is sent to Hades because he has money.  The Rich Man is sent to Hades because he didn’t see the poor man at his gate and didn’t try to help him by sharing the wealth that he had.  Lazarus was his neighbor in need, and he was ignored by someone whose focus was on his wealth and enjoyment and not on helping his neighbors.     

The Rich Man implies the excuse that he didn’t know better or didn’t believe that heaven and hell were a reality by asking Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so that they won’t share the same fate.  If a person from the dead will travel back to the material world, THEN they will surely believe.  Proof positive, right?  But Abraham reminds all of us that we’ve all had a lifetime of instruction from past prophets, living saints who have given us examples; and we, as Christians, can include Jesus – who DID come back from the dead – in that list.  We’ve been told!!  The Rich Man was told!  His brothers were told!  At some point free will kicks in and it’s up to us to listen to the telling and act!  

We make the choice that Jesus gives us in this parable:  We are either going to worship wealth or we are going to worship with wealth.  So how do we do that?  We need to get our wealth lined up with our heads, our hearts, and our actions towards others, in a healthy loving way that supports and strengthens our relationships in love.

First, we need to acknowledge that God owns everything.  Everything we have is a blessing from God.  We can work because we are healthy enough to work and that is a blessing for our lives and families.  It’s through the grace of God that we are able to do what we do, and able to have what we have.  We need always to first give thanks to God for what we have, before we start to complain about what we don’t have and focus on getting more.  Counting our blessings and thanking God for them keeps God as our main focus, and the money to the side.  

You know when I went to Japan, except for some books and treasured items which I sent home, I sold everything I owned: My car, dishes, pots and pans and the few articles of furniture I had.  My life was paired down to four suitcases and two boxes of winter clothes to ship ahead.  It was the most freeing experience of my life, and I learned a valuable lesson: You don’t own things, things own you.  Every item you own comes with a responsibility.  The less you have, the more mobile you are, and the more time you have for others.  

Second, we need to remember that money is not the objective – it’s only one of the tools that we use to cultivate our relationships.  So how are we using that tool?  Are we using it in a loving way that will renew and expand the goodness in people’s lives, or are we using it to cheat and oppress people?  Things will not buy happiness – a bigger house isn’t going to make you happy if you don’t nurture loving relationships in it.   

John Wesley recognized the need to make money and preached: Earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.  Honorable work that provides people with the necessities of life is a tenet of Methodism.  Methodism started as a working-class denomination in a society where being so wealthy that you didn’t work was seen as the ultimate goal of achievement.  But Wesley preached that if you could afford not to work then you had a responsibility to build God’s Kingdom.  There was nothing wrong with a wealthy Christian, as long as they helped society for the greater good and they didn’t exploit others.  Many wealthy Methodists in the 17 & 1800’s took this to heart and built much needed hospitals and schools that still stand today. 

And this leads to a final thought: Get and give money with integrity.  Financial integrity doesn’t just mean that we are responsible with our money it also means that our money is supporting our spiritual goals.  What are the missions that are close to your heart?  What do you want to do to build God’s kingdom?  How do you want to, and are able to, nurture your soul, and the souls of the people around you?   Good stewardship is the integrating of our physical self, and how we relate to the physical world, with our hearts and minds focused on the spreading the love of God through generosity, regeneration, and compassion.   

We don’t have to look far to find ways to grow God’s kingdom with loving actions.  The Rich Man wasn’t expected to help people in another town or country, but he was expected to help Lazarus who was living right outside his gate.  Who is right next to you, right now, who needs a loving, helping hand?  Reach out to them, and you will be storing up for yourself and others the treasure of a good foundation for the future Kingdom of God.  

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Dealing with the World

September 18, 2022           15th Sunday of Pentecost

1 Timothy 2:1-7          Luke 16:1-13

It almost seems, in this Gospel reading, that Jesus is praising the dishonest manager or steward for his actions instead of condemning his obvious exploitation of his master’s wealth.  One commentary that I read said that this is a story of rascals:  The rich man is a rascal because he is neglectful of his estate and then praises the steward for his deviousness; the steward is a rascal because he’s only looking out for himself; the debtors are rascals because they agree to the dishonest payment reductions; and society is a rascal because it sets up and goes along with the corrupt system.  That’s a lot of rascals.  

This commentary also pointed out that besides the rascals, there are actually four lessons to be learned in this passage, which show how the followers of Jesus can deal with the rascals of the world.  

Jesus’s audience would have recognized a typical business set up in this passage.  A rich man owns an estate which one of his servants manages, and as the Steward he’s using his position to skim money for himself.  This wouldn’t have been difficult since many wealthy people at that time were absentee landlords or business owners.  You might have a business in town and a farm in the country.  Or if you were a merchant, you had a number of estates that you traveled to and used for trading centers within an area. 

But eventually things are found out and the owner realizes the embezzlement and fires the Steward.  The Steward thinks that he’s headed for a life of poverty, so to give himself a cushion he decides that before he leaves, he’s going to cut some deals with the businessman’s debtors.  He calls in the debts that they owe but tells them that they can pay them off at half-price, which they are happy to do.   He does this so that in the future he can call in a favors from these people to help him find future employment or living arrangements.  Then the owner praises the Steward – and you might think: Why?  But the owner saw that he might not have gotten all of the debt back, but he got some of it.  And if those debts were long overdue, or he was ready to write them off, well, some was better than none.   The businessman also recognizes a kindred spirit of exploitation.

Jesus then says: for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.   Jesus is setting up a comparison here:  The children of this age are the people who are out to get everything they can.  Rome, being an international power, had created miles of connected roads so that it could trade its goods and services, and all the nations connected to Rome also had a boom in trade.  Rome by protecting its trade routes, protected everyone else’s.  Trade within and without the Empire had become a way to earn big bucks very quickly.  And a lot of people were putting all their efforts into this and succeeding.  

The children of light are Jesus’ followers or anyone who decides on a spiritual path.   The shrewdness of people like the steward is connected to their paying attention to the detail of their business and their constant searching for more ways to make money.   They are committed to living business and making money, and they’re succeeding.  Jesus wants his followers to have the same level of commitment in their own pursuit of spiritual growth.  He wants his followers to be all in on their commitment to praying, studying, and living spiritual actions that show their love of God, themselves, and their neighbors.  He’s saying that if they apply themselves with that same level of commitment, they can do great things for God’s kingdom.

The second lesson comes out of the Steward’s actions of calling in the debts for favors.  This is the kind of relationship that the children of this age have with each other – I do something for you, and you do something for me.   Maybe it’s not the healthiest of relationships, but still the Steward is maintaining his relations with others.  

Jesus however didn’t preach transactional relationships, he preached loving relationships; relationships that were founded on generosity from the heart, and faith that the generosity would come back to you in some way.  Not as a favor to be called in, but as an act of grace that gets passed on from one person to another.   Think of how that shifts a relationship: Rather than expecting quid pro quo from people we believe that what we give will be returned to us from another direction.  It allows us to give outside of our usual circle of expectation, and also to accept help when we need it from a place we wouldn’t expect it.

Third: Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.   How you fulfill small tasks is going to give people an idea of how you can fulfill big ones.   If you are dishonest in little things, can you be trusted in big ones?  Jesus wants our actions to be reflections of our faith.  If we are mean and petty, why should people think we would be kind later in a crisis?  Why would people think that we can be someone who they can turn to for help?   If we are kind to others in little things from the beginning, if we live with generosity, a goal to renew and heal, and compassion to others, then people can trust us in times of crisis and needed help.  

Lastly: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  This saying ends by juxtaposing wealth and God, but actually the original terms were God and Mammon.  Mammon can mean money but it specifically means material wealth and possessions.   Whether you are going to believe that your goal in life is to be the most spiritual person that you can be or to be the most materialistic person that you can be. 

Jesus is saying to his disciples: Where is your focus?  If you’re focused on materialism then, like the steward, you are going to do whatever you can, however you can, to whomever you can, to make money and live in luxury.  If, as Christ wishes us to, you are focused on developing your relationship with God then you are going to pray as much as you can, love your neighbors as much as you can, and build the kingdom as much as you can.  

There is one more line from Jesus that we need to explore: And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  Jesus is saying to his followers: Look, I know that we live in an imperfect world.  Life is full of rascals.  People are going to lie, not help you when you need it, downgrade your religious beliefs, and generally call you an idiot because you are not playing the game the way they think you should play it.  But you have to “make friends” with that and learn to live and to deal with it.  Don’t close your eyes to it; just figure out how you can hold onto yourself, your integrity, and follow your spiritual heart as best you can. 

Let’s face it – the person who dies with the most toys is dead.  They don’t take any of their toys into the afterlife.  What we do take with us is our loving relationships, and the experiences of goodness or badness that that are imprinted on our souls.   We are welcomed into our eternal home not because we lived in a big mansion, but because we live with a big heart.

So, to deal with the world live the four lessons of this Gospel.  Decide on your spiritual path with Jesus, commit to following it, and give it your all.  Develop your relationships and base them on love and grace, not on you-do-for-me-what-I-do-for-you.  And let your spiritual life be reflected in the little and big things; let every aspect of your life reflect your love of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  And finally, remember that the person you are working for is God.  

If we make this commitment to deal with the world as Jesus would have us deal, with love and grace, then we make the world a little more like God’s Kingdom.  And we make it our home, one that we can dwell in eternally. 

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Being Lost, Getting Found

Sept 11, 2022             14th Sunday of Pentecost

1 Timothy 1:12-17      Luke 15:1-10

            Once again Jesus is being challenged for hanging out with the wrong kinds of people.   You might wonder why this is such a big thing for the pharisees and scribes.  It’s because Jesus is bucking not only tradition, but also the conventions of what were considered to be pure and impure behavior for a holy man.  

If you were trying to live a life of holiness you weren’t supposed to come in contact with people who were questionable in word and/or deed, because this would contaminate your holiness.  Now of course no person lives a totally perfect life, but in every culture and age there are people who are considered to be unclean.  In many oriental cultures people who handle dead animals and humans are a separate cast unto themselves and ordinary people only interact with them if an animal needs to be removed or a body needs to be prepared for burial.  In our own culture we consider criminal choices such as being a drug dealer or a drug user to be someone who we need to stay away from. 

In scripture tax-collectors are often singled out as the lowest of the low as far as sinners are concerned.  But why tax-collectors?  Well, they were considered to be the worst type of sinners because they voluntarily took the job of collecting taxes for the Romans, Herod, and the Temple.  

  If you were a Hebrew, it was expected that you would pay a Temple tax, which would go to supporting building construction and maintenance, salaries of all the priests, and also the funding of sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Sounds reasonable as far as religious institutions go, but Herod’s father had instituted the expansion and rebuilding of the temple so the tax had continued to rise over the years.  Plus, the priests lived very comfortable lives, while many people who were paying their salaries starved.  

The Herod tax was for Herod’s living and his army, the local Israel-Palestine police force.  Since Herod was considered to be a puppet-ruler and enforcer of Rome and not a legitimate king, his taxes weren’t considered to be legitimate.  Finally, Rome’s taxes maintained the occupying army, funded all the building projects, plus duty taxes for goods were collected when someone transported sellable items to another town or area.  These three taxes combined created an immense burden on the average citizen.  A tax collector was considered to be part of the oppression of the people, and they also regularly handled money with images on it, which was an act of blasphemy.  But to top all this, tax-collectors weren’t paid a salary; they charged an extra commission on a tax which became their salary.  Some collectors were probably fair and collected a living wage, but most were considered to be corrupt and exploited the system.  

Jesus, as a recognized holy man, is welcoming and eating with people who are so sinful that they are considered to be beyond redemption.  Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin to illustrate that lost people are always welcomed when they are found by God.

Jesus uses these two stories back-to-back to show different aspects of being lost and found, or redeemed.  First of all, notice that one story is about a shepherd, who everyone would assume to be male, and one is about a female housewife.  Yes, of course, you might say, a man would be working and the woman would be tending house – but if you think of the status of women in society at that time the fact that he includes a housewife is a big deal.  One of the debates at the time was whether or not women actually had souls and were worthy enough to go to heaven.  Some traditions even stated that women would only get into heaven if they were approved by their husbands to do so.  Jesus actually is granting equal status to women in this story and, as the shepherd is a common metaphor for God, Jesus is also making her a metaphor for God, thereby granting a woman equal spiritual rights.  

Jesus is also showing us two different types of being lost.  The sheep has lost direction; he’s wondered off and doesn’t know how to get back to where he’s supposed to be.  When I was a junior in high school, I reconnected with a friend who I had known as a very brilliant senior.  I was surprised to find out that he had dropped out of engineering school after his first year, had taken a gap year, and was now planning on starting school again.  It turned out that in his freshman year of college he had fallen in with a party-hardy crowd who basically spent most of their time around the keg (and other stuff) and very little time in the classroom.  He went from being a straight A student, to being on probation, to being asked to leave the school.  He told me that getting kicked out was the best thing for him because it showed him how much he lost his way from the path he wanted to be on.  He said to me, “Peg, I thought I was taking a little detour but actually I got on another freaking road all together.”   

Sometimes, like the sheep, we lose our way, and we need help getting back.  In my friend’s case it was a voice that said to him when he was kicked out: Is this really what you want to be doing?  Fortunately, he listened and got back on the right path.

The lost coin is a bit more subtle.  The woman has put something away of hers that is valuable, but she forgets where it is.  In the 1st century coins could symbolize your talents, natural gifts, or abilities.  This makes sense when you think about the fact that often our talents, etc., point us to what we will do for our work in our lives.  But sometimes circumstances force us to put away our talents and do other things to survive.  Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull wrote his first story and sold it when he was in high school and discovered how much satisfaction writing gave to him.  But he went into the military because he didn’t have a lot of money, and this was the way he could learn to fly.  Writing was put away and then one day when he was feeling very unhappy, he picked up his pen and started writing again.  The rest was best-seller history.  

Life is like that though – we put away parts of ourselves because of our situations, but those gifts and abilities never really go away.  And if they’re parts of us that give us joy and we can use them to give joy to others, then they can get us closer to God.  The woman was unhappy because she felt that she had lost something valuable that meant something to her.  So she worked on it – she looked for it – she found it and became happy.  

At the end of both these stories the shepherd and the housewife share their joy with their friends.  And I used to think that maybe this was a little over the top because shepherds are supposed to go and look for sheep and if a housewife loses a coin of course she’s going to hunt for it.  What is the big deal of doing your job or straightening out your house?  But don’t we go to work and share the good time that we had at the barbecue that weekend?  Don’t we like to share the silly story of looking all over for our glasses and they’re on our heads the entire time?   Don’t we like to tell people about a new and wonderful hobby that we’ve started and we’re really enjoying it?  Don’t we like to share that fabulous new place to eat? 

The author Spider Robinson had a catch phrase that he used a lot in his work: Shared sorrow is halved, and shared joy is doubled.  And that’s what the Shepherd and the housewife did, they shared and doubled their joy.

            Just like those sinners that Jesus is talking to, we all sometimes lose our way or sometimes lose parts of ourselves.  But unlike the scribes and the pharisees, Jesus and God believe that we can be found and redeemed no matter how lost we are.  Jesus preached that God is always looking for us, and that we can also look for ourselves and find that which has been lost, because God is trying to help us find out who we are and how we can get back to being in relationship with Him.  Jesus understood that life is tough and that for some people, just because they went off in a wrong direction or have lost a part of themselves, that doesn’t negate their worth as children of God.  They just need help getting back to their best selves.

            Jesus was willing to reach out a hand; he was willing to sit with people, listen to them, and break bread with them.  He wasn’t there to tell them that they had strayed – they knew that already.  He was there to tell them that God still loved them, was looking for them, and once they reconnected to him, that God was going to rejoice with them because of them.

            Is there somewhere in your life that you’ve gone astray?  Is there something about yourself that you once had that you want to find again?  The shepherd finds the sheep when it calls out to him, the coin gets found when the housewife goes looking.  God is waiting for you to call and to start looking so that he can be there to help you out: to take you back to the right path and home, to help you find yourself again.  So ask God to help you out – no matter how far away you are or how confused you are about yourself.  He’s waiting to be there for you and to help you.  

            You are loved by God, you are of worth to God, and you are always redeemable, and there is always joy of you with your Father in Heaven. 

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Counting the Cost of Your Choice

September 4, 2022     13th Sunday of Pentecost      Communion

Deuteronomy 30:15-20          Luke 14:25-33

            Well, here’s another uncomfortable piece of scripture.  Jesus is talking to a large crowd and begins his sermon with the line: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Really?  After all the love-your-neighbor stuff he starts out with this?  What is going on?

            Well, fear not.  There is a method behind Jesus’ madness.  Plus, there are a few things that are happening in the narrative of the Gospel of Luke and in the events of Jesus’ life that can put this into context before we get onto the theology of what he is saying.

              Let’s look first at the Gospel of Luke as a piece of literature.  Now some people get offended when I use the word literature with the Bible.  They assume that I’m classifying the Gospel as a piece of fiction.  But remember that literature encompasses both fiction and non-fiction writing.  The author Luke sat down and wrote this history of Jesus to share with the world.  And he stuck to the sequence of events that happened, but he also made choices about what events to emphasize because he felt they were important to the overall narrative of a story.  

At this point in the Gospel, Jesus is at the end of his three years of ministry.  Luke  structured this as a stopping point – a warning to the reader that from here on things are going to get serious in the story.  For the next 4 chapters he gives us a collection of Jesus parables and teachings until chapter 19, which begins his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  So, Luke is saying to the reader: Okay if you are serious about learning about Jesus then here in the next few chapters are the parables that really show what his theology is and how you can think about applying it to your life.  He’s telling the reader that at some point, as you read the rest of this story you are going to have to make a commitment, or not, to follow Jesus. 

Next, in the sequence of events of Jesus’ life: He has started to become very popular as a prophet and as a teacher.  When he first started out, he attracted people who were seriously looking for a spiritual path.  But as he got to be more popular, I am sure that a certain amount of people got on the Jesus bandwagon just because it was the thing to do.  Jesus was becoming the spiritual fashion of the day.  

But this wasn’t what he wanted.  He wanted people to commit to the idea of who he was, and the idea of his message, and apply his teachings to their lives.  He also knew that things were going to get very dark for his followers in the future.  So, Jesus uses hyperbole, a common oratory technique in 1st century, where you exaggerate a situation to get people to think about what you’re saying. 

But there is in that exaggeration a truth to a problem that some people would have if they chose to follow him.  Family was very important to a person’s social structure.  In the 21st century, we are used to children leaving the nest and establishing their own independent lives.  That almost never happened successfully in the 1st century – which is why everyone expected the prodigal son in the story to fail.  Your family was your support system, and you in turn were part of the support for others.  People didn’t go off and get their own houses, they lived in or around the family compound, so there had to be a certain baseline of harmony in beliefs.  And a big binding factor was religion.  

I have believers and non-believers in my family.  There are Methodists, Catholics, and Presbyterians; I suspect that my son is Buddhist, and I have a sister-in-law who acts as a shaman.  I suspect that many of you could say that your family has variety and that you all still care for each other.  But that wasn’t the case back then.  You were either Jewish and followed your family traditions, or you were not a part of the family.  So, people who would accept Jesus’ teachings of more tolerance and forgiveness, and his questioning of the stricter laws of Judaism, might come up against a time when their family would say, “Either get out of this Jesus cult, or leave the family.”  And they would have to make a choice, and if they left, they would be living with the hatred of family rejection.

This still happens today.  A music director at one of my churches told me that his father was a firm atheist and declared religion to be total nonsense and a waste of time.  He was shocked and dismayed when his son declared that he was going to become a Christian.  His father didn’t speak to him for years, and the only way he saw his mother, who continued to talk to him, was outside of the family home.  He told me, “My father would have accepted me as an ax-murderer before he accepted me as a Christian.”  I never did find out if he reconciled with his parent before he died.  It was too much of a painful subject for him to talk about.  

There are points in each of our lives when we have to make the choice of how we are going to live our beliefs.  Moses says to the people in Deuteronomy that they have the choice to follow the laws of God, which will lead to life and prosperity for individuals, or the laws of other gods, which will lead to tyranny.  Remember most other god-pantheons propped up imperial systems where the rulers had all the power.  The God of Israel allowed for a much more equal opportunity system.  But it was still up to the people to make that choice – God isn’t going to force you, but he will accept you.

Our choice is a gift of free will.  In our creation myth we are made in God’s image – and like God, we have been given the ability to choose our actions.  And sometimes we have to make the choice that isn’t popular.  The columnist Bob Green once wrote about how he lost some high school friends because they declared that they were going to go buy some cocaine.  He got out of the car at the next traffic light knowing full well that his action was ending some friendships.  

The way we evaluate the belief systems of ourselves and others is to be a bit dispassionate and count the cost of our actions.  This requires us to not be reactive but thoughtfully responsive. 

When we are reactive, we go for the immediate action that we think will solve the problem.  Bob Green wrote that his first reaction to a cocaine deal was: I don’t want to make my friends angry or have them reject me if I say no.  But then he thought about several possibilities that could happen if they went into the seedy part of NYC to pick up some coke; what would happen if he got arrested (he would probably lose his job); and finally, what doing cocaine meant to his body; and he decided that the cost was just too high a price against his friends’ disapproval.    

We make a lot of decisions every day, but do we really stop and think what the cost of those decisions are for us in the long run?   Jesus’ example of building a house is an illustration of building your domestic life.  Jesus wants us to plan carefully how we want to live on a daily basis; how we want to structure our life and create a good and sturdy loving home for our family.  But it requires planning and a commitment to see it through.  And anyone who owns a home knows that you need to constantly maintain it to keep it livable.  It’s not a one and done thing.   

The illustration of fighting a war gets us thinking about the conflict that we have in our lives.  Too often we react to conflict emotionally instead of taking a step back and thinking about the best way to meet the difficulty.  Instead of grabbing our weapons and launching into an assault that might damage us, the other person, and the people around us, we should be looking for a peaceful solution that benefits everyone.  But that also takes thought and planning and a willingness to try something that might be new and different, and not what everyone around you thinks you should do.   

Counting the cost means that we’re going to examine what is good and bad for our lives.  In Christianity we put on the good side of the sheet the attitudes and behaviors that will give us grace.  What will produce a generosity of love for us and the people around us.  What will give us renewal?  How can we act with compassion?  And how can we sustain these attitudes and behaviors every day?  And on the bad side: What inflicts negativity on ourselves and others and prevents us from being the best that we can be?    

Jesus doesn’t want people to follow him because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.   He wants us to follow him because we’ve thought about how we are going to live our lives in this world, and we’ve come to the conclusion that to be one of his followers is the best thing we can be and do.  Jesus wants us to freely choose a life with him.  So don’t be afraid to count the cost of being a Christian in both your long and short term decisions.  I’m sure you will find that the balance sheet ends up in Jesus’ favor.   

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What Good Does It Do?

August 28, 2022         12 Sunday of Pentecost

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16           Luke 14:1, 7-14

            This story about seating arrangements always reminds me of the times I would attended a formal occasion like a wedding or funeral in Japan.  You see in Japan seating arrangements at these functions depend on the rank in your family.  The patriarch and/or Matriarch sits in the most prominent position.  Then the first son, his wife and unmarried children, in order of age.  Then the second son and his family, and so on through the sons.  Then if a daughter is unmarried, she comes next, but if she’s married it doesn’t matter what her age is, she has to be after the unmarried daughters.  After the sons and unmarried daughters, the married women and families also line up by age, with their husband and children.  Now here comes the sticky part.  If a child of the sons and daughters gets married, they have formed their own family unit, so instead of sitting with the parents, they come after the generation of parents and aunts and uncles.  And again, they go by the rank of their parents.  So, the sons of the first son, along with his wife and children, are going to come before the sons of the second son and his family.  But on this level female grandchildren who are married can sit with their brothers, but you still have to honor age ranking. 

            Got all that?  It’s actually not as difficult as it sounds because everyone’s used to this and knows where they fit in the hierarchy, but it would still take us about 5 – 10 minutes to figure out where everyone would sit.  And God forbid anyone came late because then you had to move everyone over to fit that family unit in.  The purpose of this system is to give people outside the family a basic map of who is what within the family group.  

            I can actually see something like this being applied at the banquet that Jesus is attending.  There was a social assumption of hierarchy of where people would and wouldn’t be expected to sit.  Even today the guest of honor at an important dinner is supposed to sit at the head of the table or to the right of the host.  But, the thing about the Japanese system that I described is that it focuses on family structure and age so it’s impersonal.  You can’t help when you were born in the family, you just sit according to your birth rank.  

However, in this scripture it looks like people are trying to grab positions at the banquet according to what theyperceive is their social standing.  It’s quite possible that Jesus, watching this, observed some noses being put out of joint and some people becoming rather huffy about people sitting in “their” spot.

So Jesus tells a parable and uses the wedding banquet as his example because it would have been a celebration in which you would have an expanded guest list.  Unlike a regular gathering of people within a town or territory, relatives and friends of the bride and groom would be coming from out of town, perhaps from many miles away, and the local people wouldn’t know who should be given prominence of position or who should just sit at one of the lower tables.  So, the local big-wig, who would assume that he should sit at the table next to the wedding family, just might find himself being displaced, after he took his seat, by an important rabbi from out of town who he had never even heard of before.  This was something everyone could relate to since they had probably seen it happen.  

Jesus is subtly reminding the Pharisees that rank is relative and in the long run doesn’t really matter with God.  What matters is that you keep a humble heart, you keep your ego in check, and you focus on how to be a kinder person to others.  

But then Jesus says something really outrageous.  And this is the thing about Jesus’ parables – there is always a “WHAAAT?” moment in them, something outrageous and strange in the story that makes you stop and think about the layers of what he’s saying.

Jesus tells the host that the next time he holds a banquet that instead of inviting all his friends and the prominent people, knowing that they will invite him back in return, thereby boosting his network, he should invite the poor and the needy of the town, fully knowing that they will NOT be able to repay them.  His payment instead will come in spiritual rewards because God looks for generosity of a different sort and for a different purpose.

You see Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees, or anyone who has attained a position of power and social standing, to see their actions in a different light.  The guests at this banquet are all feeling that they are entitled to the deference and treatment that they think is their due.  But as pharisees they are scholars and teachers of the Torah, the prophets, and other texts, so they should know that God is not interested in social position but in how well you served God on this earth by being kind to others.  Paul, who was trained as a pharisee, says: Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.  This is a Jewish ethos that can be found in the time-honored concept of the Mitzva: an act of human kindness done in keeping with the law of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  

Jesus is posing in this parable the question of: What good does it do?  Now there are two ways to approach the meaning of this question.  The first is to ask: What good do our actions do in the world as a way to make the world a better place to live?  

People might ask you: What good is your food pantry doing for the people who come for food?  I have heard many arguments against food pantries: People who use them are too lazy to work; people are just looking for a handout and don’t really need the extra food; people are going to use the money they don’t spend for food on beer, cigarettes, or drugs; people should get a second job if they can’t make ends meet or should cut out something else in their life so they can eat.  I agree that there will always be some people who take advantage of the system.  But if you talk to people who use pantries you realize that most of them are in severe economic straights and this really helps them to get through the week.  Many of them do have jobs, most of them have cut back on extras, and a lot of them don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs.  What we say to them with our gift of food is that we care about them as human beings.  Many people who have come to us have found better times and have stopped coming – we have given them a support to live until they can get back on their feet.  Everyone needs help every once in a while.  I’ve had times in my life when I was one step away from needing a food pantry and I know how stressful it can be to not know if you will have enough money to feed yourself next week.  

The second question is: Does your action produce good or grace as opposed to sin?  Now if you remember I’ve defined SIN as Spontaneous or Strategic or Systemic Inflections of Negativity.  Jesus probably viewed this scramble for seats as a strategic inflection of negativity.  These pharisees were trying to impose their seating positions on each other to gain a little social power and status over each other.  I think that Jesus felt that this was a colossal waste of time.  

While they were all bickering over who should be sitting where, they could all have sat down anywhere and started to enjoy the meal and each other’s company.  Instead, when everyone finally sits down, they all have these minor slights that they’re feeling, and probably aren’t relaxing and enjoying the meal.  And then they’ll go home and complain to their wives about how so-and-so thinks he’s such a hot-shot claiming the best seat at the table, thereby ruining her evening.  

Really?  Do any of us want to give valuable real estate to something so small when we have a limit amount of time to enjoy life?   This sort of focus takes time away from the moments we can spend with people loving and enjoying their company.  Like that husband who was complaining about who sat where instead of enjoying his time with his life partner.

There is one other point that Paul makes, which is about entertaining angels unaware.  This is an old concept meaning that when you meet someone you don’t know who they are – they might even be an angel sent by God.  It’s a beautiful thought because it challenges all of us to see the divine within each person that we meet.  Unfortunately, once you do get to know someone you probably realize that they aren’t an angel, so we might not treat them as well as we should.  Yet what good does it do to treat people as if they are angels?  Well, if we do treat people with respect and love, even if they are annoying us a little, it does help all of us to live calmer and more intentional lives, and gets us a little closer to God.  

What good does it do? – is the question we should asking each of our actions.  Is our action getting us closer to God with grace, or is our action getting us farther from God by inflecting negativity on others?  And yes, sometimes you do have to complain when thing aren’t working and inflecting negativity, because that’s how we bring attention to things that need to be changed.  But: Is our complaining helping or hindering?  And are our action making the world a better place and showing that we care for our fellow humanity and the world we live in.  The world is never going to be perfect, but we can be forgiving when it isn’t and still show our love and respect for each other as an offering to God.

So don’t neglect to do good, for as Jesus says, your sacrifices of good will be repaid at the resurrection when you will be among those who chose the right-living.

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Lift the Yoke and be Healed

August 21, 2022         11th Sunday of Pentecost

Isaiah 58:9b-14           Luke 13:10-17

            Last week Isaiah emphasized the destruction and the breakdown in society that was happening because people had gotten away from following the commandments of God.  This week Isaiah gives a promise of hope that will happen if the people of Israel will stop their evil ways and return to God and keep the Sabbath.  Yet, in our Gospel reading, Jesus challenges the elders of the synagogue who berate him for not keeping the Sabbath by healing a woman, an action which they classify as work.

            All this back and forth is confusing.  We are told to keep the commandments and the Laws, but on the other we are told not to worry and to go ahead and break Sabbath tradition.  

            This tension between two opposites reminds me of a sequence of events in the life of the Buddha.  When he was born a great seer predicted that he would either become the greatest warrior-king the world had ever known, or the greatest holy man.  His father, a powerful monarch, wanted him to be a warrior-king and figured that best way to keep him from becoming religious would be to keep him from knowing all the nasty things in life, like disease, old age, and death, so he created for him an ideal life while training him to be a great warrior.  Hmm – more extremes: Warrior or Holy Man; Ideal or Real Life.  

Of course, eventually Siddhartha did learn about disease, old age, and death, and he set out on a quest to understand how to conquer them.  He traveled around the country learning from different spiritual masters who taught him different ways to view life and how to pray and meditate.  One group that he stayed with liked to seriously party because they followed the adage, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”  This didn’t make him happy or give him the answers he sought.  He also got involved with a group of ascetics who pared their lives to the absolute bare minimum that a person could live on.  This didn’t make him happy or give him the answers he sought.  Party or No-Party, neither worked.

            Then one day he was sitting by the river, and he heard a musician giving a lute lesson to a child.  The musician said, “If you tighten the string too much it will break.  If you make it too loose it won’t play.  You must find the middle tension that will allow you to create music.” Siddhartha realized that this was the middle path, and he started to live his life according to this principle.  He ate enough to keep himself healthy; kept his body in good working shape; and he gave himself time to meditate and pray, but also time to talk to others and learn from them.  Instead of wandering all over the place looking for answers and opinions he sat under one tree and used that as his place of meditation.  At the end of three years, he experienced enlightenment and then began to teach others his method, which is how Buddhism started.

            The Bible has a lot of tension with extremes.  On the one hand we are supposed to follow the Ten Commandments and Laws in order to develop ourselves as spiritual being and to create a just society.  But throughout the Bible people are also being admonished for only following the letter of the law without applying mercy and compassion.  

Jesus was teaching at a synagogue on the Sabbath, saw a woman who needed to be healed, and promptly healed her.  The elders immediately classified this as “work” which you are not supposed to do on the Sabbath.  Jesus reminds them that there are exceptions to this law: you are supposed to help animals or people in distress or if their life is in danger.  The woman was definitely in distress, but the elders probably thought that Jesus could have waited until the next day to cure her.  But Jesus wasn’t doing regular work – he was doing God’s work: Healing someone who was in great distress, and probably a lot of pain.  If you think about it, this woman is a visual interpretation of what it is like to have been carrying a yoke, or heavy burden: She was all bent over double and couldn’t straighten up.

            Think of what a yoke is like for a moment.  A yoke is sturdy and solid; it’s not going to break.  It allows people to carry heavy objects like milk cans and keeps oxen and horses going on the right path.  Like a law or rule, a yoke is a very useful item, but it can also be a very heavy burden if you are forced to wear it all the time and can’t take it off.   

There are a lot of heavy burdens going on in these stories.  Isaiah is telling the people who are pursuing material wealth and power by whatever means they can that this is a stressful way to live.  He tells people to remove that burden and to start to live for and serve their community with love and compassion.  He tells them to keep the Sabbath so that they can connect again with God and their better natures.  

            The elders of the Synagogue are trapped under another heavy burden.  Jesus is constantly coming up against Pharisees, Sadducees, and Elders who tell him that he has a nice viewpoint, but he’s not doing things right.  They are so worried about keeping the letter of the law that they are not applying the mercy and compassion that the law is supposed to lead them to.  They are so focused on doing the thing right that they’ve forgotten how to do the right thing.  

            Anytime you go to an extreme on something – whether it’s a viewpoint that must be adhered to, or a set of rules that must be observed in a certain way, you lay a heavy burden on yourself.  You don’t allow yourself the flexibility of dealing with the messiness of life.   Siddhartha’s father, because of his decree that his son could not encounter disease, old age, or death had a terrible time with employment because he had to keep cycling older people out of the palace.  He also had to spend several hours a week making sure his hair was dyed so that no grey would show.    

            Christianity grew because of two heavy burdens that the Jewish religion was carrying.  The first one is illustrated in our story.  People had become so weighed down by the rules and regulations of being a good Jew, and the complicated rules and structure of repentance, that in practice no one could be a good Jew – everyone was failing.  When Jesus offered his much simpler salvation of repentance and forgiveness, without a lot of complicated sacrifices, people breathed a sigh of relief and went for it.  

The second is only subtly mentioned in the Bible but is a historical fact.  There were many pagan/gentiles who were fascinated by and drawn to the Jewish religion with its one universal God and its ethical standards of living.  But because they were not “children of Abraham” they were not allowed to convert to Judaism.  Christianity accepted pagans into their new branch of Judaism.  I would bet you anything that the elders of that synagogue wouldn’t let “impure” gentiles in.  By referring to this woman as a “daughter of Abraham” Jesus is reminding them of their exclusivity but also pointing out that they don’t even treat their own people with the respect and kindness that God demands.  

But don’t we also sometimes live in the extremes?  Don’t we burden ourselves with rules and regulations that prevent us from being flexible and lock us out of opportunities?  Look – I have nothing against basic rules.  A lot of laws keep us from hurting ourselves and others.  Rules of etiquette exist so that in a social situation I don’t inadvertently say something that is going to make someone uncomfortable.  Human society can’t function without rules, but when the rules become all, and life gets messy, which it does, and we need to bend or change the rules, we create huge burdens on ourselves and others when we can’t adapt to the stickiness of life. 

Plus, we burden ourselves with inflexible rules about ourselves.  The only way to exercise is to do 20 minutes a day.  The only way to pray is every day at the same time.  The only way to show that I’m a good student is to get straight A’s.  The only way to be a success is to bring home X amount of money a year.  The only way to celebrate Christmas is to give bigger, better, and more expensive presents each year.  If I make a mistake, I’m a failure; and if I don’t meet all my goals then I haven’t done well enough, and I am not a person who is worthy of being loved.  I tell you that perfectionism is the biggest and heaviest yoke that we lay across our shoulders, and it will make us sick unto death and break us faster than anything else combined.

Finally, let me ask you a few questions.  If you aren’t perfect is God NOT going to love you?  If you make a mistake is God going to cast you into the outer darkness forever?  If you’re calling yourself a Christian, you better NOT be believing that, because the whole point of God getting incarnated was to prove to us that He understands our imperfections and the sticky-messiness of life since he lived it.  He knows our burdens and flaws and loves us anyway.  

The people who Isaiah were talking to believed that they had to be successful in order to be loved by God.  When all they had to do was to start to keep the Sabbath, connect with God, and learn how to be kind human beings.  The elders of the Synagogue needed to stop being the rule-police and start being loving to the people who they were supposed to help in their community.  We need to remember that rules are there to help us connect with people, not keep us apart, and that our internal rules should be getting us closer to loving God, our neighbors and ourselves, not making us feel unloved.  Like the Buddha we need to find our own middle-way.  And for us the middle way is Christ who wants us to live in and for his love.  

So figure out what your yoke is that’s weighing you down, lift it off your shoulders and give it to Christ.  He’ll exchange it for one of love and salvation.  And that burden will be light.

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God is In the Change

August 14, 2022         10th Sunday of Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7                 Luke 12:49-56

            Chinese philosophy has many schools of thought, but probably the earliest school is the Taoist school, which is the seed of most of the other schools that developed after it.  A basic premise of Taoism is that life is made up of change and to be happy and successful in life you must learn to first, accept change; then learn to recognize when change is happening; and then learn to change yourself so that you can adapt to the change that is happening around you.  A true Taoist master will be able to foresee change from the circumstances around them and be able to prepare him or herself accordingly.  

For the Taoist there are three types of change to look for.  The first type is no-change – a fixed point around which all change revolves.  This is anything that is incredibly steady and constant in a situation.  In science we might say that the speed of light is a constant no-change that we can measure all things against.  In personal relationships it might always be someone you can go to, who you can talk to about anything.  

The second type is cyclic-change.  Think of the seasons – spring, summer, winter, fall – that keep circling around in the year, or even our own church liturgical year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, to Pentecost.  This is a rhythm that we can plug into and measure what we need to do when.  And finally, we have sequential-change.  A seed is planted, sprouts, grows into a small, then a larger, tree and finally dies, and perhaps in the dying becomes something else like our table on our altar.  A Taoist will examine a situation and evaluate it according to the three types of change and try to move forward into and with the change the in the most effective way.  

Some of my classmates didn’t like this philosophy because they felt it was a bit too much go-with-the-flow and that it to accept it meant that you had to abandon a self-determination that is very strong in western philosophy.  And yet, I felt that it was a refreshing acknowledgement that there is a lot in our life that we have no control over.  And instead of beating our heads against walls, and moaning and groaning about the unfairness of things not being the way they should be, it encourages us to accept things that we can’t control, and then to do what we can in the moment to get on with things and to try to make them better.  

Taoism doesn’t say: You have no control over change.  Taoism simply acknowledges that change is going to happen and says: Your control is how you meet the challenge of change.  You don’t have to like change, you don’t have to agree with it, but it is a very face-the-facts attitude of how to deal with it.

Now these scriptures that we read today are uncomfortable because they deal with a very real aspect of change that we don’t like to talk about and that is destruction.  Look at the word destruction – it literally means that the structure is coming undone.  

Isaiah uses the metaphor of the vineyard to talk about the structure of the nation of Israel, which has neglected to follow the rules given to it by God so that it might create a just and equal society for everyone.  God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments and the laws that developed from them so that everyone had a chance to do well.  But people started to exploit people.  People in power, instead of working for the good of everyone, started to work for only themselves and their families.  People in power structured the laws so that they would get more power.  Instead of a well-tended vineyard of neatly fertilized rows, the people who were supposed to be taking care of the grapes went off to do their own party-hardy-thing and now you have wild grapes; grapes just growing on their own and trying to survive.  

This is a warning that the structure of society is collapsing.  It has gotten to the point where the wild animals outside of the vineyard are moving in and taking over.  And if you look at this point in Israel’s history, there were a lot of concessions that the government was making to foreign countries which were weakening the power of Israel and the people.  For God the vineyard has gone beyond repair; the people made their own choice by turning away from God and now they are going to have to live with consequences which would be the invasion of the country by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians.  

Jesus also warns his own people about the destruction that is going to come to them eventually with the invasion of the Romans in 70 CE.  I need to tell you that at this point Jesus isn’t talking to a large crowd of people – he’s talking to his disciples privately and giving them a fair warning.  A lot of people were promoting Jesus as the Messiah who would bring unity to the people and who would lead them to their own nation independent of Rome.  Jesus didn’t see his movement in that way.  

Jesus came to teach us a way to socially and spiritually grow and support ourselves and others.  Christianity eventually became the basis of our societies throughout Europe, the Middle east, and northern Africa, but before it got there it was a movement that caused families and friends to be divided.  Following Christ demanded that people and society think about God and others in different ways.  For pagans it demanded that we think of God as an all-powerful being that encompassed the universe, not a multitude of powers to be appeased.  For tribal/family centered societies it demanded that we think outside of the family unit and accept our neighbors as people like ourselves.  And although we like to think today in terms of “traditional values” Christianity is still demanding that we think of all races, genders, and social strata as equal in the sight of God.  And that we fit our actions accordingly.  

The problem with people in Isaiah’s day, and Jesus’ day, and today, is that we like to stay in our comfort zones of the familiar no-change.  In fact, we want the security of no-change so that we will know what to do and be able to predict what is going to happen.  But anyone who reads history knows that this is not going to happen.  Physical phenomenon like earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, that destroys homes and communities happen and we need to made decisions on how we will start things over again.  

Throughout history disease has restructured societies.  In the United Kingdom there are at present 3,000 known villages that were abandoned during the Black Death in the 1400’s.   Their populations were wiped out so effectively that they were taken over by nature.  Centuries later people were finding them while walking or hunting in the woods.  In Lancaster the economy shifted from grain production, because there weren’t enough people to till the fields, to wool production, which required less people.  

In the last two years our world has undergone enormous change brought on by the pandemic, but also by climate change, social change from the demands of equality under the law, and the ability of humanity to move and trade around the globe at an incredibly fast rate.  Like the people in the first century who experienced Roman invasions and the eruption of Pompeii, and the people in the 1400’s that experienced the Black Death, we also seem to be at a point of great change in our own society.

But as Isaiah and Christ both tell us, this is only the change of the world.  We cannot use the world as the point of no-change – our fixed point in the universe must always be God.  Our fixed point is to adhere to following the Three Great Commandments of loving God with all our being by loving our neighbors and ourselves as Christ would have loved us.  By following this ethos we can grow ourselves into strong beings spiritually, mentally, and emotionally so that we can live with and support each other no matter what the physical world throws at us.  

Our scriptures today don’t mention God’s promises after destruction.  Isaiah promises that once the people have lost their structure and kingdom that God will help them to build up a new one.  Jesus promises that a new kingdom of God will be built after the destruction that Rome will bring.  During the Plague Years many people in Europe were convinced that the world was coming to an end, but the Renaissance with its new social and political structure emerged, which gave us our more equal and modern world of science.   These promises are part of God’s Blessed Assurance that He is making all things new and that we can be a part of it.  

I believe that we will also have a new world out of this one that seems to be a little shaky right now.  And I believe that our message can be the same one: Of God’s love, of the love we give to ourselves and each other, with the love of Christ for all humanity.  We have handed down that message for 2,000 years and it’s a message worth continuing to hand down.  Our job is to live into the change with the no-change values that Christianity gives us.  This is how we bring out of the destructive-change something that is new and better for all of us.  Through all the change at any time, this is how we build and live into God’s world.

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Leaping Into Faith

Due to a death in my family I wasn’t able to preach for two weeks.

August 7, 2022           9th Sunday of Pentecost

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16                 Luke 12:32-40

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  This is how Paul describes faith – something that is almost indescribable.  We hope that things will happen, but we don’t always have the assurance from the evidence in our lives that they will happen.  We can be convinced that something will come into being, but until it does manifest itself, we don’t really know what it is going to look like.  So, we step out on doing and action in faith, hoping and convicted that it will all turn out to be alright.  And since we take a lot of actions that we don’t know if they will or won’t succeed, without faith humans cannot act within the uncertainties of life. 

Sometimes those faith steps are huge and sometimes they’re small.  My nephew, who is going to be junior in high-school, has announced that he wants to go to college in Colorado.  My brothers, who live in Colorado, told my sister-in-law that he can come visit and between the two of them they will show him around to whatever school he wants to check out.  I was listening to the conversation, and I said, “You know, I never went to see the University of Denver (my alma mater) before I attended school there.”  She was pretty shocked.  But I had read all about the programs, I corresponded with some people, and I even made a long-distance phone call to someone who was going to school there.  But essentially, I went to my college sight unseen.  

Some people would say that was a calculated risk, and it was, but it was also a leap of faith.  I hoped to find a school where I could learn certain things, and I had the assurance from people that this hope would be realized.  And because I had that assurance, I had the conviction that even though I hadn’t seen the University of Denver, that it would be the right school for me.

Most of our stepping into the unknown on faith involves what I did: Research; matching goals and desires to what is available; looking at the physical and social environment to see if we can work with it, and also if it seems that things will help us to become what we think or feel we are growing into. 

Stepping or leaping into faith should be a positive forward momentum.  Paul talks about Abraham, who goes into a new land at God’s direction.  Abraham was looking to better his life, and God sent him to a place where he could increase his flocks and his family, although it took a few generations to do that.  As the Abraham story demonstrates, there is often a spiritual component to faith.  

Abraham believed that he was following God’s directive.  In the Bible, Abraham talks directly to God and because of his faith in God he goes from his home area, which we know today as Iraq, to Canaan.  Even though Abraham was only a herdsman, with a small family, he had faith that God would increase him and have him be the father of the nation.  He believed that someday he would have descendants that would be as numerous as the stars.  He believed that if he entered into a covenant with God, to dedicate himself and his family to following God, that in the end his dreams and God’s promises would be fulfilled.

You see I didn’t tell you one part of my decision about going to the University of Denver.  All during the time I was looking at colleges I was thinking: Where would God want me to go?  And I was asking: God, do you want me to go here?  I looked at six schools and applied to four, and I gave all of them the same scrutiny that I gave the University of Denver.  But with two of them, and they were perfectly acceptable schools, I had this gut feeling that God didn’t want me there, and that I shouldn’t be there.  There was some connection lacking on a spiritual level.  I actually got into three schools, but whenever I would line up the three schools and pray about which one I should go to, the University of Denver just kept surfacing as the one.  

Faith is what makes a Christian, or a dedicated spiritual person, different in their decision process, because even though we apply logic and project possibilities, we also listen to a voice inside us that is telling us a direction for our spiritual being.

Jesus tells his disciples to act in their faith; and he challenges them to not fear in a very radical way.  Right after he tells them that God wants to give them the kingdom of heaven, he tells them to sell their possessions and give their money to the poor.  Now I don’t know if that’s a more challenging statement for us today or for his disciples.  Most of his disciples did not have a lot of money, in fact I would call them working poor.  Each of us in this church lives a standard of living that they could not even comprehend.  I could easily let go of the equal amount that Jesus’ disciples would let go of and not even feel it.  

And yet, thinking about it, why do I put my faith in my possessions?  What security are those possessions going to give me?  Yes, there is a certain amount of value in creature comfort; I do not enjoy sleeping on the floor.  Yes, there is a certain amount of resale value that might help me out if I am in financial difficulties; but I know it’s not much.  And except for a few pieces that have a special meaning to my life, most of my stuff I could let go of easily.  

Jesus says though that he wants us to accumulate treasures in heaven.  Okay, so what are these treasures that we are supposed to accumulate.  Well, when I do go to heaven I can’t take this body.  And I can’t take anything material.  But we believe that the mind, the memory, along with our soul, continues on.  And memories come from experience.  So, what we are collecting to take to heaven are the memories of our actions on earth. 

Some memories of actions are really not good, and we might not want to take them with us.  But the good memories, the memories that we make with loved ones, that we share the good and the bad times with, those I want to bring with me.  I want to bring with me the memories of my friends and the experiences I shared with them.  I want to bring with me the memories of helping people who were in need.  I want to bring with me the memories of some hard lessons that I’ve had to learn.  Those are tough memories, but the results were important to my life.  I want to bring with me the knowledge that I grew into a better person over the years.  I want to bring with me my connection that I feel I have with God. 

Our faith is manifested in our actions.  Jesus says that we will know good people by the fruits of their labors – in other words the results of our actions.  He taught his disciples to build the kingdom of God on this earth by committing loving actions to their neighbors and themselves.  To love each person with the love that Jesus gave to each of them.  

We can grow our faith and our love by practicing.  That is the final key to faith – it is like practicing the piano, or anything.  The more you practice the better you get at it.  The more you practice showing your love to people the more loving a person you will become.  The more you practice connecting with God when you make your decisions, and putting your trust that your efforts are working with God to a positive end, the better you will get at it and the greater leaps you can take into the unknown.  

It might not work out the way you think it will, you might receive some unexpected benefits or experiences, but you will always be ready for what God gives you.  So take a small step in faith into something.  Then take a bigger one.  Then a bigger one, until finally you will be ready for a leap.  Don’t worry, God is going to be with you, and is waiting to catch you on the other side.  

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Finding the Better Part

July 17, 2022       6th Sunday of Pentecost

Colossians 1:15-28     Luke 10:38-42

            The Bible isn’t a purely historic document; rather it’s an Epic: A large story that combines history, mythology, tradition, allegory, and metaphor to illustrate the story of a culture, the human condition, and how humans and the culture react to the world around them.  The story of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Odyssey are epics.  The Bible is one of the largest epics in the world because it covers four to five thousand years of Jewish history along with mythology, law, and tons of metaphor and allegory.  

I like the Bible because it is an honest book.  It shows the human condition at it’s best and at it’s worst.  Defeat and victory; frustration and triumph; despair and joy are all present.  And because of its honesty there are times when we aren’t comfortable with its stories.  

I’ve always had a problem with the story of Mary, Martha, and Jesus.  Martha kind of comes off as being the bad girl, almost the shew, because she wants Jesus to tell her sister to get up, stop listening to him, and help her with the housework.  But while I think that there is a valid point to Jesus’ gentle criticism of her, I can sympathize with Martha.  We can all get so caught up in the job that we think we are supposed to do, or the way we are supposed to do it, that we end up in a very frustrating place when things don’t happen the way we feel they should. 

       If you sit with the story, you realize how many layers there are to it.  First of all, this story is about family dynamics.  Most scholars agree that this is taking place in the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  This is the same family whose brother Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus.  We know that Jesus was very close to this family and that he often stayed here when he was in Bethany.  We can assume that Lazarus was the older brother and head of the household.  Martha is probably the next eldest, since she is the one managing the household and preparing the dinner for everyone.  Mary is the youngest.   

            Now I can tell you that as an oldest sister you are often called upon at an early age to be the “responsible one” in the family.  And I’m sure that this dynamic hasn’t changed for 2,000 years.  I can imagine Martha from an early age being taught how to manage the cooking and cleaning, being told the proper things to do when you have company, and also being told that she had to supervise her younger sister.  Mary probably grew up with a little bit of learned passivity just because her older sister always told her what to do.  

            Also, we don’t really know what the personalities of these two sisters are, but I think that they’re very different. Martha is the energetic, get things done type, and Mary seems to be the quieter one, maybe a little bit of a dreamer, who wants to listen to stories and think about what is happening.  You could classify them as an extrovert and an introvert.  

So here we have a case of a sister who is used to having a helper who does what she is told, but finds that her helper is all of a sudden wrapped up in listening to Jesus.  Martha wants to get the dinner done and have it just right for everyone, but her sister is over there sitting at Jesus feet, with all the other people who have come to listen to him, and not helping.  Martha probably gave Mary the benefit of the doubt at first – surely my sister will come over and help me, like she knows she should be doing – but Mary just continues to listen.  Finally, Martha can’t take it anymore – I can see her frustration building – and instead of gently pulling Mary aside and asking her to help, she publicly asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her.  There is a bit of deliberate shaming going on there.  

But Jesus doesn’t shame Mary, nor does he really shame Martha.  Instead, he gently acknowledges that Martha is worried and distracted.  And that’s because she’s set herself up to be the hostess with the mostest for Jesus and his disciples.  

Now I think that Martha started out with good intentions as well as a good heart.  I’m sure that Jesus liked to visit this family and kept coming back because they made him feel so welcome and because he liked them as good people.  But I know that there is a trap that you can fall into when you entertained someone regularly.  The first time they visit you give them a nice dinner and maybe take them to see a pretty site.  The second time though you want to do something a little bit bigger and better, so maybe the meal is a little bit more extravagant and the entertainment a little more detailed.  Unfortunately, that one-upmanship of yourself can put stress on you to keep outdoing yourself.  And after a point the fellowship is no longer fun, merely stressful.  

I think that might be what was happening to Martha.  She was really worried that what she was giving to Jesus and his disciples wasn’t good enough or had to be better and she was distracted because she had given herself too much to do and set the bar too high.  Jesus didn’t want extravagance or perfection.  What Jesus wanted to do was to sit down with this family and have a nice relaxing time together.  

So he tells her: Relax, there is only one thing that you need to do.  Mary is doing it.  She has chosen the better part.  

Okay – so now we come to the main point – the better part.  But what does that mean?  What is the better part?

Most of the commentaries I read defined this as the fact that Mary has chosen to listen and learn from Jesus over her work of daily life.  She has chosen to put God first in her life, whereas Martha has chosen to put her work first and God second.  And in some ways I think that’s valid.  We can all get so caught up in our responsibilities in our material world that we don’t make time for our spiritual world.  I’ll pray, read the Bible, work on my journal, when I have the time.  The spirit becomes secondary to the physical.  Jesus wants his disciples to manage their lives by putting the spiritual first and having it lead the physical by the discernment that we get out of our spiritual time.  And he’s right.  It has been shown that people who take their time in the morning (or any time during the day) with 10 – 15 minutes of prayer or meditation are better able to prioritize and focus on what they have to do and they don’t get distracted by non-essentials.  That doesn’t mean they don’t take care of the little stuff – they are just better able to manage when to do it.  

There’s another layer though that I want to introduce.  Mary is probably not sitting alone.  She’s listening to Jesus with a bunch of people, and the majority of them are men.  It was a very patriarchal society and a woman’s place was definitely in the home.  Women were allowed in the synagogue and could listen, but they had to sit at the back, in a special section, and be silent.   By sitting at Jesus’ feet, right in front of him, Mary is defying convention, but Jesus allows it.  And by acknowledging that Mary is doing the right thing Jesus is challenging the conventions that say that women aren’t worthy enough to be spiritual or to learn about their spirituality.  The better part, to develop as a more spiritual person, is for everyone, male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free; we are all one in Christ.  

There is something else though connected to The Better Part, and that is fellowship and relationship.  It’s not enough for us to just sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him with the idea of developing ourselves into better people who honor God.  We need to become better people to and for other people.  We need to establish the better part of our relationships.  

Martha had a relationship with Mary that was very dominate – she was the older sister who told the younger sister what to do.  Like I said, she didn’t take Mary aside and ask her to help, she attempted to publicly shame her into helping.  Not a nice thing to do whether you’re a relative, friend, or acquaintance.  And what is with the triangulation?  The issue isn’t between Martha and Jesus, or Mary and Jesus, it’s between Mary and Martha.  Martha needs to see her sister as an equal, not someone beneath her to be ordered around, and she’s got to quit it with the manipulation tactics.  It was probably why Mary was choosing Jesus; he was treating her like an equal.  I’m not saying that Mary shouldn’t be helping, but Martha needs to lighten up.  And both of them need to consider what their actions are doing to each other, and they need to work a bit on their communication with each other.  

But don’t we do that?  Don’t we consider our actions, needs and desires to be more important than those around us, instead of equal to our own?  It’s in learning what others value that we learn why they do what they do.  It is in askingwhat they need and want that we learn what they need and want.  Guessing can sometimes get you there, but it’s not a sure thing. 

Like Jesus said: We should all be striving for the better part.  We should be putting our spiritual development first and allowing our material development to flow from that.  We should be letting go of perfection and allowing ourselves to enjoy our work and have fun with it.  We should be considering how we can understand and be kinder to others, and how we can be better friends to the people around us.  And when we do all that, no matter how crazy the world gets, the better part will not be taken away from us.

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What Have You Got to Lose?

July 3, 2022       3rd Sunday of Pentecost        July 4th Sunday 

2 Kings 5:1-14            Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

   Okay – let me start out with some historic context.  So, there’s this commander of the Aram army named Naaman.  Arman was a nation to the north of Israel in the 800’s BCE that encompassed what we call Syria, Lebanon, southern Turkey, and western Iraq.  Off and on this region was part of the Assyrian Empire, but during the time of our story the Assyrians were going through an unstable patch and the Aram nation had regained its independence through some decisive battles, led by Naaman.  We always hear about the Assyrians, since they were for many centuries the big bad boys of the middle east, but a lot of western middle east culture comes from the Arameans.  In fact, they are the people who developed Aramaic, which was the language that Jesus spoke.  

            At this point the Arameans are powerful enough to be conducting raids into Israel, the northern Jewish state.  Naaman is obviously a brilliant commander who has everything he wants: Political position and power, money, and a lovely wife, but he is inflicted with the most dreaded disease of the age – leprosy.   

            Today we understand leprosy better.  We know that it’s caused by a bacteria that has existed with humanity for probably as long as humans have been around.  It only affects about 5% of the people who come in contact with it, but it’s very insidious because it can be dormant from anywhere from 1 to 20 years so people can carry it without knowing it.  Some people are mildly affected and can live for years with only uncomfortable skin.  This was probably Naaman’s condition.  He probably started out as a brilliant soldier, was promoted through the ranks, became an invaluable commander, and then presented with the disease in his later years.  His position insured that he wasn’t sent off to a colony in the desert, but he was probably living a semi-isolated existence helped by his family.  

            So, when his Israeli servant tells his wife about Elisha, who lives in the territory of Samaria in Israel, about his ability to heal, Naaman grasps at the chance to get rid of this horrible disease.  With the Aramean king’s permission, Naaman takes money and expensive goods to pay the prophet who he hopes will cure him.  Of course, a general of a hostile nation does not cross a boarder without observing diplomatic niceties, so he takes a letter of introduction from his king to the Israeli King.  We are not sure which king this was – Elisha served under four of them – but the king was nervous enough about his very powerful neighbors to the north to see this as an entrapment into war.

            But Elisha averts an international incident by telling the king to send Naaman to him.  Naaman with all of his chariots and gifts shows up at Elisha’s small house, but Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him.  He just tells him to go and wash in the river Jordon seven times.  

            This is not what Naaman is expecting.  He probably had in his mind that Elisha would be suitably impressed by all the gold and gifts, and then preform some amazing and complicated ritual that might be painful or even mind altering.  Naaman is used to a certain amount of deference and certain level of treatment.  Plus, the Jordan river isn’t exactly overwhelming as a geographical landmark.  It’s only about 156 miles long and 50 – 100 feet wide.  Compared to the rivers that Naaman mentions, it’s a pretty dinky river.  He has expectations that are not being fulfilled – go wash in that little river?  What good is THAT going to do him?

            But his servants say to him, “Boss, what have you got to lose?”   

            Naaman is stuck on his position, in which he envisions things are supposed to happen a certain way because of who he is; his expectations of how things are supposed to be; and his cultural bias that his rivers are better than Elisha’s rivers.  So how could Elisha’s river possibly help him?

            Fortunately, his servants say, “What have you got to lose?”  And the answer is – he can afford to lose quite a bit.  He can afford to lose a little of his pride; a smugness that he carries with him because he thinks he knows everything and how everything should work; and the assumption that his cultural way is the best way to be.  Naaman needs to exchange a closed mind for an open one.

            And he does.  What has he got to lose?  He goes bathing in the river.  Once, twice, three times.  He’s probably feeling a little ridiculous but he’s going to keep going.  The man is a military commander and he’s going to see it through.  Four, five, six still nothing, but Elisha did say seven, so seven it is – and then the miracle happens.  

Naaman is cured, and now he knows that there is a prophet in Israel, and there is a God of infinite possibilities.  In fact, Naaman is converted.  We don’t read the rest of the story today, but he goes back to Elisha and declares that there is no God, but God.  

Sometimes we are given challenges in life that seem to be impossible or solutions that seem to be improbable.  How often do we shrug them off as impossible because we are trapped in our own preconceptions of how things are and should be?  How often do we limit ourselves to the possibilities of what could be, simply because we think we know better?  

I was doing some fundraising for a silent auction and there was a new coffee/sandwich shop in town, so I called the owner and asked if they would consider donating a gift card.  I did not expect a Yes, because the owner of the shop did not live in our community.  But they said Yes.  I figured the gift card would be a reasonable $25.00; enough for one person to have a coffee, sandwich and maybe a brownie for dessert.  The gift card was $75.00.  And I said to one of my fellow organizers, “That is God whacking me upside the head for making assumptions about someone’s generosity and how much they care about our community.”   

God works large miracles; God works small miracles.  The one thing we should never assume is that God isn’t going to work a miracle. And yes, sometimes it takes some time.  And yes, sometimes it takes some perseverance.  Naaman was given a simple task, but he had to persevere and see it through.  He couldn’t just walk in and out of the river, he had to dunk down seven times.  There had to be commitment that was acted on. 

Now I admit that are times when things don’t work out.  We bang our heads against circumstances and situation with great ideas that never come to fruition.  But even when you have to abandon something don’t think that your time is wasted.  Experience is never wasted, and God is going to use it somewhere down the line.   At one time in my life, I had a really bad relationship with an alcoholic and after it was all over someone made the comment that they felt sorry that two years of my life had been wasted.  And I replied: That was two years of my life that I learned about addiction and what you can and cannot do with someone with that affliction.  And that experience, as painful as it was, taught me a lot and has served me well, when I have been presented with opportunities to help others.  Sometimes God gives you bad experiences so you can pass miracles onto others.     

So maybe the question isn’t only what have we got to lose – but what do have to gain?  Naaman, by letting go of all that pride, expectations, and assumptions, gained his health, a spiritual well-being, and life that he could look forward to.  From both of the experiences I mentioned, I gained the knowledge that you should never assume that people are who you think they are, and that I needed to have a more open and decerning mind.  

Things are not going to turn out the way we think they are going to, but with perseverance they are going to turn out the way they need to turn out – and sometimes we’ve just got to give it to God and ride the wave wherever it takes us.

What pride, expectations, and assumptions are you holding onto, and when you lose them, when you let go of them, what possibilities will open up in your life that you will gain?  What healing will happen?  What spiritual awakening and strength will you be given?   How will you know yourself and God better?  What wonders will we be able to accomplish in His name?   

And perhaps when we lose what we need to, we will find ourselves in the place where Jesus says to us: See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.  Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. 

 That, right there, is something worth gaining.

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