Category Archives: Sermon Archives
“Humble Pie” – October 27, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
(Knock on the pulpit). It’s a dark and stormy night. The date is October 31st . All Hallows Eve. The year is 1517. As we look off in the distance, we see the light coming from a solitary lantern. Closer and closer and closer it comes. Weaving its way from house to house, from tree to tree, until finally it comes to rest at the doors of the church. There, we see the solitary figure, their face shielded from view by their cloak. They quickly place the lantern on the ground, grab a hammer and some papers, and start nailing. Bang. Bang. Bang. Quickly, they pick up the lantern and retreat the way they came. Who was this? Why all the secrecy? What did they so clandestinely nail to the Church doors?
Fast forward to today and we know that this person was none other than Martin Luther and what he nailed to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany was his infamous 95 theses. Truth be told, it was probably not a dark and stormy night but rather the middle of the day. The nailing to the doors was done with no more fanfare than you or I thumb tacking a flyer to the community bulletin board at Beeston Hill fitness, inviting everyone to attend Jazz Vespers next Sunday. The door was like a community bulletin board and what Luther wanted was to invite the powers that be to a theological debate.
Standing on the shoulders of reformers who came before him, Luther wanted to engage discussion with those in power so as to “reform” what he saw as abuses going on in the church. He was not interested in starting his own breakaway church. He just wanted to fix what was wrong with the current one, or at least have some good discussion about it. Well, the church at the time was not interested. Luther was excommunicated.
Not to be discouraged, with the power of the newly invented printing press, Luther began to write. And just like our internet blogs and posts that can soon take a life of their own, Luther’s writings did the same. They went viral! The rest we can say, “is history”. So today, WE stand on the shoulders of men and women who constantly looked to reform what were seen as abuses within church and society. And while I am happy to be on this side of the reformation; happy with the Reformed mantra of scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone; I am saddened by the all the divisions.
Luther may not have intended to start the Lutheran Church, but it happened. As did the Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, and so on. And it continues to grow today. Just Google ‘Christian denominations’ and you will see that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000. Now I am all about diversity, but it seems that every time differences arise, one group will shun the other; leave; and start a new faction. Maybe there is something hard wired in our DNA as human beings, but we sure like to take sides. Whether it is catholic verses protestant; democratic verses republican; tea party verses progressive; National league verse American, we like to take sides; differentiate ourselves; try to get others to join us; and put God on our side and our side alone. It’s tempting with today’s parable too.
As we read in today’s scripture lesson, we have a Pharisee and Tax Collector, both going up to the temple to pray. Now I am getting pretty used to these characters from Luke so my mind quickly fills in the scene. The Pharisee is going to act all righteous and pompous; while the tax collector will be more down to earth, more like me. Right? But then I have to remember that this is a parable and a parable is meant to shock us a little, to give us a bit of a jolt, to make us look at things from a different perspective. It has been said of parables, “they are like fishing lures with bright colors and decorated feathers, with a sharp barb on the end”! But by becoming too familiar with it, I’m like the sneaky fish who always snatches the worm from the hook without ever getting caught. So let’s reframe this parable a bit to get our ears to hear it like those from the 1st century.
The Pharisee’s were all about observing the law as laid out by Moses in the Torah, but they were also about trying to make Torah observance available to all. Today, if we were to put a label on it, we might call them progressive or even evangelical. He does what is expected. He fasts, tithes, goes to the temple. So instead of a Pharisee, let’s substitute someone who we think of, someone who is a great example of a follower and doer of the teachings of Christ. How about Mother Teresa?
Now for the tax collector. These guy’s, and I am sure they were all guys, were not cut from your typical IRS agent mold. No, these guys would have been ruthless. They would have been members of the local community who were working for the oppressor state of Rome. They would be assigned to gather the required tax, keep a little cut for themselves, and return the rest to Rome. How they would gather this tax was in there discretion. I’m sure that some used beatings or the fear of beatings to get the required tax from some people. Unscrupulous and dishonest would have been the order of the day. They were NOT liked. So instead of a tax collector, how about Osama Bin Laden (*see sermon note).
“Two people went up to the temple to pray, one was a Pharisee: Mother Teresa and the other at tax collector: Osama Bin Laden”. Mother Teresa prays, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, or even like this terrorist. I fast twice a week, I help the poor in places no one wants to go’. Osama Bin Laden, standing far off and not even looking up to heaven , beats his breast and says, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. I tell you, this man went down to his home made right with God rather than Mother Teresa, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”.
Let that register for a second. Can you feel the shock factor a bit more with those characters? Feel the challenge to our preconceived notions? As I hear the story, I’m pulling for Mother Teresa. Certainly, she will be justified in her prayer. Just listen to her litany of achievements. How can she NOT be made right with God? But it’s not her, its Osama Bin Laden, the ruthless terrorist who is justified . . . how can this be? What kind of lesson is this parable trying to teach us?
It appears that humility is a virtue that is being rewarded (just keep on eating that humble pie). And while that is hard to argue with, to say that the moral of this parable is simple “be humble” is difficult. Humility is this kind of two-edged sword. First, humility can keep us from putting our best foot forward. I have struggled with this in the past. Using this scripture as my example, I have forced myself to be humble, almost to the point where it began to impact my own self-esteem and confidence. “Don’t want to put myself out there because then I won’t be humble”. But does not Scripture also tell us, “don’t put your light under a basket . . . let is shine for all to see”. Failing to acknowledge and use the wonderful gifts that God has given us is not humility, it’s a sin.
Second, humility can lead us into a trap. Can you see it in this parable? Once I start focusing on being humble, not prideful, not puffing up my own feathers, then I risk becoming prideful in my accomplishment that I am being humble and not prideful. Our prayer becomes “thank you that I am not like this Pharisee”. So, if humility is not the main message of the parable, what is it? When the Pharisee, or in our case Mother Teresa, began to pray, they listed their litany of achievements. As the parable is first unfolding, I find myself agreeing. Are they not just stating the obvious? As a Christian, can’t I be thankful that I am not like a terrorist? Can’t I be thankful that I am not like that evil person over there or that deceitful person over there? It’s those divisions again. The “who is in my camp and who is out” that we so love to do. We so want to be on the winning team. Winners and losers. It is an easy trap to fall into.
I remember when the charismatic movement blew through our town in Oklahoma. Many churches and ours in particular got caught up in what was called “spiritual renewal”. The spirit was moving again, just like at Pentecost. Liturgies began to change. New music and patterns of worship began to evolve. All that was fine, but attitudes began to change too. All of a sudden, if YOUR church was not “spirit-filled”, in the way that “I” define it, then you are just missing the boat. Can you hear it? “God, I thank you that we are not like those Baptists and Methodists and Catholics down the street”. It’s the Pharisee’s prayer. We become the judge and not God. We decide who is in or out.
Who do WE think is righteous? They can’t be righteous, look at what “I” am doing. I did this. I do that. There is a lot of “I” in there and not a lot of “God”. That is the point this parable is trying to drive home. It is not about us, it is about God. That is the point that Luther and other reformers were trying to make as well. It is only by God’s grace and mercy that we brought into wholeness . . . that’s it . . . nothing that we have done or will do can get is justified or right before God. Faith alone and Grace alone. What this parable wants us to realize is that it is ALL ABOUT GOD!
This parable, in fact, the crux of the whole Reformation, was an attempt to shift our attention away from ourselves and back to God. To shift the focus away from our own piety our own works our own successes, and back on to the Grace of God. To remind us that any status we claim, comes from God alone; a God who delights in dining with tax collectors and turning our preconceived notions upside down.
To set our focus again on the one who “in the beginning created the heavens and the earth”. The one to whom Moses and the Israelites sang, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? ”Who David proclaims, “is our shepherd, we shall not want”. The one Isaiah proclaims, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you”. Who John tells us loved us so much, that he sent his only son; God incarnate; to live and to die so that we might live! Who Paul proclaims that though the power of the Holy Spirit, “we were all baptized into one body, so that there is now neither Jew nor Gentiles, slave or free, but we are all one in Christ”.
With this focus, perhaps we can look at our neighbor, both those we agree with and especially those we don’t, not with judgment but with a more generous eye and recognize a fellow forgiven sinner for whom Christ died.
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray: God, we thank you for your Word which goes before us to lead, to guide, and to illumine our path. Help us to be doer’s of your Word and not just hearers. In Christ Name, Amen.
*Sermon Note: Substituting Osama Bin Laden for the tax collector in this parable by no means lends support to the activities of Osama Bin Laden or to any terrorist organization. The objective is for the 21st century listener/reader to have their preconceived ideas turned “upside down”; in the same way that the 1st century listeners would have been challenged.
“Outrageous Acts” – September 29th
Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15
“Let the Words of my mouth . . . “
It’s been a few years ago now, but I can still remember with great detail when Tracie and I moved to the Appalachian foothills of East Tennessee and decided that it was time to stop renting and to “take the plunge” into home ownership. We did what I’m sure many of you have done; we connected with a realtor, searched the classifieds, read all the “Home” publications, asked around about the schools, and did a lot of due diligence. We found a bank that was willing to give us a loan and we and began to fill our Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoons, and weekdays after work, looking at houses and more houses.
For us, one of the locations that seemed really promising was on one of the local lakes. How cool would it be to live on the water we thought? The old saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is really true and in our case, it was true regarding our realtor. Please, no offense to any realtors here this morning. She was nice enough, but a bit on the, how should I say it . . . pushy side. All seemed good at first, but as time went on we could tell that she was used to showing just a handful of houses and then pushing her clients to a decision. Maybe her title “million dollar producer” should have been our clue.
Anyway, we found a house on the lake that we liked okay, and she strongly encouraged us to make an offer, which we did. We left a bit excited but soon wondered, what have we done! We liked the house, but did not love it. The location was okay, but it was a part of the lake that would go dry in the winter, our commute might be long. OMG, what have we done!
Well, the sellers accepted our offer, with the contingency that they be allowed to keep their refrigerator. That was our out. We said no; have to have the fridge, so we walked away. Whew! I’m sure to this day, those folks still talk about the time they “almost” sold a house but lost the deal over a refrigerator!
In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear about the prophet Jeremiah and a real estate purchase that, on the face of it, just does not make a lot of sense. In fact, instead of an outrageous act, it seems more like a stupid act. Catch the setting.
It’s 586 BC and the Kingdom of Judah is on the brink of a takeover. The Chaledean armies have already taken most of the land and they are now starting to lay siege to the city of Jerusalem. King Zedekiah has tried to rally the citizens with various propaganda efforts, but it’s to no avail as most of the citizens are now in total despair. Some will die in the takeover but most will be taken away from their homes and into captivity in Babylon.
Now I can imagine that cash or even jewels, which could be used to buy food or maybe even stashed away until order was restored, might have had some value, but I sure that real estate was worthless, especially since the Chaldean armies have already taken it over!
But here is Jeremiah, being approached by his sly cousin Hanamel. Now Hanamel knew that Jeremiah had a right to this land, so he takes a gamble, hoping that his “religious nut” of a cousin, will bite. He offers a price that, before the Chaldean’s were tearing down the city walls, was probably quite reasonable. And Jeremiah accepts! Is he out of his mind!
We are treated to a long litany of details as the land deal is completed. The contract is written, witnesses are secured, the payment is carefully weighed out, and finally copies are carefully sealed in clay jars to be buried for safe keeping. This was not just a private transaction. Just as our closings become public records, Jeremiah’s prophetic act was being witnessed and I’m sure being talked about in the community.
“Did you hear what the crazy prophet just did”. “I can’t believe he is buying that land. What an idiot”. But Jeremiah knew what God had promised. He knew that exile would eventually end and that someday . . . maybe not in his lifetime, but someday, God’s promises would prevail. And he was right!
So what can we learn today from this “crazy prophet”? Is this a message for us to all go out and do some crazy real estate transaction? Probably not. Is it a message for us to be a little outrageous with our actions? Maybe. But what does that mean?
Outrageous actions can mean different things to each of us. I think it would be pretty outrageous for someone to go bungy jumping off the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge in Colorado. Sitting just over 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River, the idea of jumping off a perfectly good bridge for an 800 foot plunge qualifies in my book as outrageous.
I also think that it would be outrageous to hike the whole Appalachian Trail in one season. Hiking 15 or so miles per day; sleeping on the ground or in a shelter every night for 4 months; eating reconstituted food; enduring all kinds of weather; is pretty outrageous.
But danger or pushing oneself to the extreme is just one aspect. Outrageous acts can also be those actions that fly in the face of what society would call NORMAL or APPROPRIATE. And that is what we as Christians do. We are in a counter-cultural movement. We are asked to do things that the normal conventions of society often frown upon.
Think back to some of the lessons we have heard from Jesus in our journey though Luke’s Gospel. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”. “Sell all you have and follow me”. “Don’t sit at the place of honor”. And “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. We see this upside down aspect in today’s Gospel reading.
Our story has two characters representing polar opposites. The rich man is not given a name, but is told to be dressed in Purple, so we assume that in the convention of that time, he is in an extremely high position. The poor man, named Lazarus, is so bad off that dogs are licking his sores, which would be as low as you could be in Jewish Society.
Both die and their status is reversed . . . the Rich man is in Hell and Lazarus is in heaven. Now we are not told that Lazarus was especially virtuous in any way or that the Rich man was evil or unjust. All we can glean is that he neglected to see, really see Lazarus and he let him go hungry. After pleading for a drink of water and being denied, the rich man wants Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers but Abraham says that he can’t . . . that the message is already there . . . they just have to hear it.
And what is that message? It’s that God loves the poor, the widow, and the orphan. It’s Amos telling us to “let justice roll down like living water”. It’s Micah telling us that that we are to “have mercy and walk humbly with our God”. It’s Jesus telling us that whatever we do to the “least of these” we are doing to God. And to do this . . . justice, mercy, caring for the needy; often means we have to fly in the face of convention . . . we might just have to be outrageous.
Jeremiah was outrageous. To begin with he spoke the truth in the face of adversity. Remember, this is the same Jeremiah who earlier told God, “I can’t speak for I am just a boy”. Now he is speaking up against the King; telling him that his policies were wrong and that the country would eventually have to pay for his mismanagement. Speaking up got him placed under house arrest.
All this week there has been talk about a government shutdown for failure to pass a funding extension. Party lines have been drawn, but once again it’s the poor and vulnerable that get caught in the middle.
Coming this November, 47 million people who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known by the acronym SNAP), 22 million of them children and 9 million elderly or disabled will see their benefits decreased. Here in the VI alone, this will be a decrease in close to 4 million dollars. What will this impact be? Are we letting our voices be heard or are we like the Rich man . . . not seeing and not acting?
Outrageous acts. They go against the grain, but they don’t have to be huge like buying a piece of property like Jeremiah. They can be as simple as a phone call, letter, or email to a legislator.
Deciding to fast one meal a week and give the money that you would have spent on food to an agency that fights Hunger can be outrageous. Staying out all night on sea turtle watch, helping to protect an endangered species, is an outrageous act.
Committing to tithe 10% of your gross income to the church, putting your money into its mission and ministry, especially in these difficult economic times, is an outrageous act.
Taking the time to see, really see a homeless person can be an outrageous act. In San Francisco, a seminary student started sharing a McDonald’s hamburger and a cup of Starbucks with some of the homeless that he passed every day in the city. He was interested in not only giving them a meal and something warm to drink but in hearing their stories, of really seeing them.
Before you know it, others became involved and soon a hair stylist was donating time for haircuts. A dentist began offering some much needed dental care. Another helped with teaching and practicing interviewing skills. A full-blown ministry came from simply listening. Conventional . . . no. Outrageous . . . yes!
The parable of the Rich man and Lazarus is just that, a parable. It’s not intended to give us a systematic theology of what heaven and hell is like. But what is does do is tell us that as Christians, we need to be committed to social justice because God is committed to social justice. And this cause pushes us to do what society might just call outrageous acts.
There is so much more going on in the world than meets our common sight. God is alive and active, bringing new ways and new contexts in which to engage our insights.
Jeremiah invested in God’s future . . . he bought his field. What are we going to do?
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray:
God, we thank you for your Word which goes before us to lead, to guide, and to illumine our path. Help us to be doer’s of your Word and not just hearers. In Christ Name, Amen.
Sermon: Church. What is it Good For?
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
I was reading the other day and I came across this article that said “Chinese Engineers Invent Self-Cleaning Clothes”. Seriously, I’m not making this up. I wondered if it was written as a joke for college students or lazy bachelors, but seriously, clothes that will have the capacity to clean themselves. How you might ask? Good question. According to the study, dunking cotton into a vat of specially crafted “nanoparticles”, whatever those are, creates a material that self-cleans whenever it becomes exposed to sunlight.
In a test, the engineers treated the fabric and then soaked it in orange dye for 30 minutes. They then hung the clothes under simulated sunlight; and after a short time, the dye released and was able to be rinsed off with water. Amazing but true. I’m not sure what it does with regard to various “odors” that get in our fabrics, but at least the material would always look clean. However, it’s not a total excuse for laziness. One still has to hang them up in the sunlight and rinse them off. Some work still has to be done. This is a bit like what Isaiah is saying to Israel in our passage this morning. To be restored or “washed clean”, Israel is going to have to do some work.
Hear again what was read in our assurance of pardon this morning. “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool”. Washed clean from all sin and unrighteousness. Visualize that imagery. As clean as freshly fallen snow.
It’s been a while for me now, but when Tracie and I were living in the foothills of the Appalachians in Tennessee, we used to get some really nice snowfalls. Because of our jobs, we usually did not have the luxury of just sitting by the fireplace and drinking hot coco all day long. Unfortunately, we had to go and shuttle people to and from work in our 2-wheel drive, wannabe Explorer. However, there was something about being outside in that clean, pure, snow, where all of the sounds of civilization just seemed to melt away. You really do get a sense of total purity. That is what Isaiah is saying. As clean as snow and as soft as pure wool. But there is some backstory.
In our passage, Isaiah is writing in Jerusalem during the reign of four different Judean kings, probably around 700 BCE. He is speaking for God who is basically bringing a lawsuit before the nation of Judea for their failure to keep the covenant. Not only have they turned away from YHWH to worship other gods, they have forgotten their roots as a people who were once enslaved and exploited in Egypt. In short, they have gone from being oppressed to being the oppressor and God is not pleased.
“Hear the words of the LORD you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah”! Words to both those in charge and to the people they govern. One caveat about Sodom and Gomorrah. Because of all the issues in the church today surrounding homosexuality, we have a tendency to categorize Sodom and Gomorrah with sexual sin. For the people in Isaiah’s time who heard these words, that was simply not the case. Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked cities that exploited the poor, the widow, and the orphan. It was not about sex but rather a failure of the people in these two cities to show genuine hospitality to both the stranger in their midst and to those in dire need.
That is what Isaiah wants the Kings and the people of Judah to hear. They are on the same path of destruction as those cities, if they don’t change their ways. But can’t you hear the King saying, “But Isaiah, we perform the rituals; we offer sacrifice to atone for our sins; just as we have been instructed; we are fulfilling the law”. To which God replies, “I have had enough of your burnt offerings . . . trample my courts no more . . . incense in an abomination to me”.
These are really strong words. Earlier I had asked that you either write down or just think about one of your favorite items of worship. These words from Isaiah, if they were being said to us today might sound like this, “I hate your worship. Your prayers make me sick. I loathe your music. Your sermons are a sacrilege. Who asked for your offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it!” [tear up your order of service]
God does not want any of this? But wait a minute. Isn’t this how we are supposed to worship. While it is not found in its entirety in our Bibles, the framework that we follow closely resembles how the early church set their worship. We have a GATHERING; we offer a time of CONFESSION and PARDON; we PROCLAIM the WORD; we RESPOND to the word with communion, baptism, our offerings; and then we SEND ourselves out into the world. It’s all very Reformed . . . Right!? [tear another order of service]
Okay, maybe we need to move to a more contemporary service. We will sing praise songs, have a shorter sermon, use PowerPoint presentations to share the message; and send out the service on a podcast and the internet each week. We will rock on Facebook and Twitter and we might even set up streaming or Skype so people from far off places can watch and see and share in our worship. [tear up another order of service]
Okay, we can do what some people are doing in other parts of the country and start having church in other places. We will go to bars during Sunday morning when they are not being used to try and reach those who don’t want to actually come to “church”. We will find the unchurched and bring church to their turf. We will go where no church has gone before! [tear up another order of service]
So, what the heck are we doing here? Why do we sing and pray and preach? Maybe we should just pull in the tables; stack up all the chairs; close the hurricane shutters; and head home. What’s the point of all this?
Well, according to our Reformed tradition, the reason we come together every Sunday is to Glorify God. It is our response to the Divine. It’s our response to all that God has done, in the world and in our lives. We praise, we proclaim, and we remember God’s claim on our lives and the ultimate redemptive action of Jesus Christ. It is where we offer ourselves to God and become equipped for God’s service in the world.
Here again the words from Isaiah. “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood”. Your hands are full of blood.
What Isaiah was dealing with was blatant hypocrisy. People were going through the motions of the various rituals. They were making sacrifices for the atonement of their sins and then were going out and exploiting the masses. They were washing the outside but the inside remained unchanged. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow”.
When the prophets speak, you will often hear of the widows and orphans. In ancient Near Eastern societies, this was the group of people, because they were no longer attached to a male provider, were easy to exploit. In our day, while it might be the widows and orphans, we have to think about all the people, who for numerous reasons, get pushed out to the margins of our society and exploited. The homeless; the mentally ill; the immigrants; the uninsured; those basically “different” than us.
What Isaiah was proclaiming against was that disconnect between our worship and our actions. All those various ways of worship . . . traditional, contemporary, modern, post-modern, in this space or out of this space . . . can all be fine. They can all be appropriate ways of responding to God. But if we leave it here; don’t allow it to change us; don’t carry it outside of the door and into the world . . . then it’s for nothing!
James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his Epistle, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearer who deceive themselves” . . . “if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”. (James 1:22; 2:15-17)
Martin Luther, one of those in the Reformation Hall of Fame, hated James. He called it the “Epistle of Straw”. It is difficult. It creates a tension that can be hard to reconcile as we live into it. On the one hand we know that we have been called and claimed by the Grace of God. Not because we were good enough, or said the right prayers, or did the right things. Nope. Only by the Grace of God though the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. It’s God who says, “I will make you white as snow”.
On the other hand, we have been called to service and to action. We hear it in Isaiah and we hear it in the Gospels, and we hear it in James. Go. Do. Serve.
Maybe Grace is a little like that self-cleaning shirt. The shirt is us and the dirt on it is our sin. Instead of soaking in “nanoparticles” we are soaked in the blood of Christ. Our sins wash off based on nothing that we have to do. But maybe like the shirt, we still have to act. We have to take off the shirt; we have to rinse; and we have to put it back on.
Our challenge is to live into our new life. That was what Isaiah was proclaiming. That is what Jesus taught. That is our message. Worship is community transforming and world altering, IF we allow the Spirit to move us and change us. Don’t leave it in here. Go and Do.
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray, “Most gracious and loving God. We thank you for your Word which goes before us to lead, to guide, and to illumine our path. Help us to be doer’s of your Word and not just hearers. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.
What’s In Your Barn? – Sermon August 4th
Luke 12: 13-21
In reading our Gospel text for today, I continue to marvel at how Jesus handles all of his interruptions. As we spoke about a few weeks ago, Jesus has ‘set his face to Jerusalem’ and is now journeying with his entourage from village to village. They are traveling over hill and dale; past shepherds and farmers and fishermen; all the while gathering these huge crowds, probably in the 1,000’s, who are eager to hear his teaching or just ask him a question.
Earlier we heard from a lawyer who wanted to know how to get eternal life. We heard from Martha who tried to put Jesus in the middle of a sisterly confrontation, “Jesus, tell Mary to get in the kitchen and help me”. And this week, we are hearing from a random person, probably a male with an older brother, who wants Jesus to arbitrate in an estate matter. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide up our family inheritance”.
Now under Jewish law of that time, it was common for the eldest son to keep 2/3’s and divide the remaining 1/3rd among the other siblings. Just as today, conflicts arise with the different parties feeling that they are not getting their fair share of the pie. Rabbis were often called in to settle these disputes. So the question today is really not as random as it might seem. Jesus though will not be sucked in and uses this as another teaching moment.
He dismisses the question and tells the crowd, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”. But wait, I thought our motto was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and isn’t happiness about having a few things? Come on Jesus, this inheritance is due to me and I want what is rightfully mine! Come on, I worked hard for this. Jesus is warning us about greed. All kinds of greed. But what does that look like? What is “all kinds of greed”?
Many of you might have seen on the news this past Monday, when hundreds of fast food workers, mostly from Wendy’s but including a few from KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King and McDonalds, went on strike demanding an increase in the minimum wage. Currently, the minimum wage is $7.35/hr. These workers were demanding that the wage be doubled to $15/hr. Strikers were apparently chanting, “We can’t survive on $7.35”. But isn’t doubling the wage in one fell swoop being a bit greedy? And aren’t we talking about whiney teenagers anyway, who don’t really seem to care if they get my order right?
According to an economic report out from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute, today’s average age of a fast food worker is not 18 but 32, which carries with it different implications. This are all not just part time jobs. Quoting, “If a worker today is employed full time for a full 52 weeks, she or he is making $15,080. This is 19 percent below the official poverty line for a family of three”. Hummm.
One the other hand, just two years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission noted in their annual filing, that Wendy’s President and CEO Emil Brolick, the former CEO of Taco Bell, earned total compensation valued at $4.6 million. That’s a lot of hamburgers and Frosty’s. Is this greed? Isn’t he just receiving what the market has determined is a fair wage for a CEO? Is that wrong? What would Jesus say?
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “what should I do, for I have no place to store my crops. I know what I will do, I will tear these barns down and build BIGGER barns . . . that’s what I’ll do”. So he does it. He tears down the old barns and hires a local contractor to build a bigger barn. He opens up a 401(k); put’s the windfall in an “irrevocable trust” and tells himself . . . ahh! “Soul, now we can relax . . . eat, drink, and be merry. We have it all saved up now”. Then he dies the next night.
Okay, is Jesus telling us that saving for a rainy day is greedy? What about the story of Joseph that we have read about in Genesis chapter 41. Remember that Joseph was sold off by his brothers and ended up in Egypt. He became known as the interpreter of dreams so when the Pharaoh was troubled by these terrible dreams about cows eating other cows he called on Joseph who realized that the dreams were from God and that they predicted 7 good years of crops and 7 years of famine so let’s save a bit in each year of plenty so that we will be okay during the famine. And that’s what happened, so isn’t saving in times of plenty a good thing?
Listen again to the parable, “I have no place for the crops; I will do this; I will pull down my barns; I will store all my grain; I will say to my soul”. Do you hear it? I, I, I. It’s a totally egocentric conversation that he is having with himself. This is why God call’s him a fool. Not because he was saving but because he was only focused on himself.
We heard a couple weeks ago about Martha who was distracted. Jesus told her that she was distracted “about many things”. This rich man is distracted too. But he is not distracted about many things. No, he is distracted about one thing and one thing only and that is with accumulating more possessions and then hording them for himself. But I wonder if there is more. Maybe he was distracted by his past experience or by his own insecurity of life.
Context is important and I find it interesting that Luke has placed this story in-between telling us about the Lord’s prayer where we “ask each day for our daily bread” and right before where Jesus will tell us not to “worry about what we will eat or drink; that worry will not add a single minute to our life”. Maybe the reason that we build bigger barns is because we are filled with anxiety and worry. We worry about yesterday and fret about tomorrow to the point that we can no longer be present now. How did we get this way?
I remember having a couple conversations with my Grandparents about living during the depression. It was interesting in that they never really perseverated on it with story after story. Oh, life was so hard or it was so terrible. No, the stories were few. But what was really interesting was to see how their lifestyle grew out of that experience. You bought something and you used it forever (so much so that Tracie and I still have the waffle iron they got as a wedding present!).
Nothing was ever thrown away because you never knew how you might reuse it again. My grandmother keep closet’s full of old stuff. I still can see my Grandfather using his pocket knife to open a present on Christmas Day. It would take him a full 5 minutes to carefully remove the tape so that the paper could be folded up and used again.
So, experience in the past might be one factor that leads to our anxiety about the future. Another culprit is Madison Avenue. Just watch T.V. for a short time and you will see what I mean. We are constantly being fed a message of insecurity and how to solve it. Some have called this type of marketing, the deadly two-step waltz. First, they identify something that you are insecure about; say how your body looks or your social status. This gets exaggerated so that you really start to feel bad and then they hit you with the solution. Try this new weight-loss plan or enhancement pill. Or buy this new car and you can race around at be the envy of all your neighbors. This will make you feel good again.
It’s a vicious trap. As soon as we start to feel bad again we start searching for the next thing that will fix it. Before we know it we are basing our self-worth on what we own and possess, instead of who we are as human-beings, created in the image of God. And this I believe is the crux of the matter. Our possessions begin to own us and we become inseparable from them. Now does this mean that we all need to develop a “Franciscan” lifestyle and give up all of our earthly possessions? No, I don’t think so. Jesus told the rich young ruler to “sell all he had and follow him” which he was not able to do. The lesson was not about selling his stuff that Jesus was concerned about. It’s about not being possessed by your stuff.
The late comedian George Carlin once said that the meaning of life is trying to find a place for your stuff. “Houses”, he said, “are just piles of stuff with a cover on it. They are places where we can keep our stuff while we go out and buy more stuff.” He pokes fun at our building more and more “barns” for all of our stuff. Bigger houses, bigger garages, and storage units . . . all for our possessions. I think Jesus would chuckle and say, “right”. Don’t store your treasures here on earth but be rich toward God.
Jesus does not define specifically what being “rich toward God” means at this time. But I think we get some pretty good clues from other things he has said. Being rich toward God is using one’s resources for the benefit of one’s neighbor in need as we saw in the story of the Good Samaritan. Being rich toward God might mean being present in all that we do. Being rich toward God might be realizing that we all are in this together, as a community. Not lone rangers, greedily hording everything for ourselves. Maybe being rich toward God is going on strike so that you and your family might be able to have a living wage. You might be able to think of some others.
Is 4.6 million a year too much money for one person to make? I don’t know. I think it’s easy for us to hear this parable and only hear the words, “a rich man”. That can set our bias. We might say, “I’m not rich, so this does not apply to me”. This guy was a huge landowner, what we might call a corporate farmer today, so it’s easy to just write is off as a lesson for someone else. But the temptation to build a bigger barn and to fill it with our treasured possessions belongs to all of us, young or old, rich or poor.
Jesus will say that it’s easier for a camel to get thorough the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven. Dramatic imagery when you picture a camel, loaded down with possessions heading to the eye of the needle or city gate. Then all of the belongings are unstrapped and taken off. Then the camel gets down on its knees to be led through the gate. It’s not the possessions themselves, but an attachment to possessions.
The rich man in our story was not greedy because he was rich and had a field full of barns. He was greedy because he was saving for all the wrong reasons. He has forgotten about stewardship; about helping those in need. We don’t know why, but for whatever reason, he had lost sight of the one “from whom all blessings flow”. He adores the idea of success thinking that his possessions will satisfy his soul. He becomes a barn-building fool. So, what’s in your barn?
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray,
God, we thank you for your Word which goes before us to lead, to guide, and to illumine our path. Help us to be doer’s of your Word and not just hearers. In Christ Name, Amen.
Say What? Sermon July 28th, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
According to the papers, it was not hard to catch ski-mask wearing Floyd Brown while he robbed a Holiday Inn in Anchorage, Alaska. Forty police officers were in the lobby of the hotel attending a law-enforcement training conference, which ironically, was advertised on the huge neon sign out front.
Closer to my hometown of Richmond Virginia, a young man was arrested after he was found screaming in a car that did not belong to him. Apparently his hand had gotten stuck in the dashboard when he tried to steal the stereo, and he was forced to cry for help through the pain of three broken fingers.
Both of these unfortunate individuals are in the running for the “not so prestigious” Darwin Awards. Named in honor of Charles Darwin who developed the theory of natural selection, the Darwin Awards commemorate those people who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it, usually doing so in an extraordinarily stupid manner.
And though I never won this award, I must admit that I too have done a couple things in my lifetime that would have at least qualified me for honorable mention. One of my most embarrassing came when I was a senior in high school working on my neighbor’s farm. I was working by myself in a barn building a stand for a tank that would then be mounted on a trailer to use for spraying. I was using an acetylene torch to cut a piece of metal that was going to be used for the frame. Lost in my work I began to notice a burning smell. I turned around and realized that a piece of hot, cut metal had caught some loose hay on fire and was starting to burn. I quickly put this out and was pleased that a larger incident was averted. Feeling confident with my luck and with my piece of metal cleanly cut, I now needed to bend it upwards so that it could hold the tank. Not wanting to wait for help, I decided that I would just use a hammer to bend the heated metal. One hit . . . two hits . . . I think you might be able to see where this is going . . . three hits . . . and then BAM . . . the hammer clanked off the metal bar and hit me right in the head. Just like a scene from the 3 Stooges. Needless to say, I waited for help before finishing the job while deciding that “what happens in the barn can just stay in the barn”! Well, another potential candidate for the Darwin Awards comes to us this morning from our scripture passage.
Had CNBC or FoxNews existed in 8th century BCE Israel, you can almost hear the headlines . . . “Crisis in Religion . . . Hosea, a prophet to the nation of Israel, has been ordered by God to marry a prostitute . . . is this the end of Religion as we know it!” Pretty dramatic stuff. And yet we have to wonder, what was God and or Hosea thinking? At a time in history when the purpose of marriage was for the production of legitimate children to carry on the family name, why in the world would Hosea marry a prostitute? Is he becoming a candidate for a Darwin Award or is something else at work here?
The 1st chapter of Hosea which we read this morning is not a biography, but is rather an interpretative retelling of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the birth and naming of their three children. The traditional take on Hosea is that he was an 8th century prophet who was calling Israel to repentance and reform in the religious sphere . . . a turning away from the worship of Baal. But was it just the religious sphere that Hosea was concerned about or was it more than this?
One of my favorite radio programs used to be the late Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”. On this program, Harvey, with that wonderful distinct voice of his, would skillfully weave a narrative that would connect something that you were familiar with in the present to an event in the past. When he was finished you would have this connection that would make you go “wow . . . so that is how that came to be.” In our story this week, a voice that is missing that might be helpful in providing us some insight into the life of Hosea is from his wife, Gomer. If you all will allow me some literary license, I would like to share a letter that, if she were alive today Gomer might have written to us as a reflection on her life.
Dear friends of St Croix Reformed Church. It is with both joy and pain that I share with you from the story of my life. As you probably know, Hosea and I lived in a very tumultuous time. Our country of Israel was going though Kings just as fast as we could produce them. One would take power and then would quickly die in some dramatic fashion . . . usually by assassination. Eventually our country was overtaken by the Assyrians and we had to flee with our family to the South. Fortunately, we were able to resettle and I do have joyful memories of my children marrying but as many of you may know, it is always sad to leave one’s place of birth. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
First, to set the record straight, I was not always a prostitute. In fact, the translation in your Bible might be more accurate if it read, “one who is prone to be promiscuous”. Maybe it would be better to say that “it was in my nature”, but that was not who I was. Hosea and I were married when I was just 16. I was still living at home with my father, mother, and 3 siblings. Hosea was working in the city as an established baker. He would get grain from area farmers and would provide bread for the village and the royal court. I think that this was where he first began to see problems with our country. But again, I am getting ahead of myself.
You must remember that marriage in our day was much different than marriage today. While we might fall in love, we did not marry for love. Marriages were about extending the family unit by providing heirs for the transfer of property. Hosea approached my father; a deal was struck; a dowry delivered; and we were married. It all happened so quickly, I can barely remember it. But I do remember our wedding night because having never been with a man I was both nervous and excited about starting our family. And it did not take long. Within our 1st year of marriage, our 1st son was born. This is when life for me with Hosea began to change.
Generally, when naming a child, a positive name is given. As far as I know, it is a tradition that goes back forever. In fact, you all do similar things today. Noah means “Rest or Peace”; Benjamin is “son of my right hand”. But when it came time to name our son, what does Hosea say . . . “Jezreel”! While it sounds pleasing enough and means “he sows” it is a name with a bloody history for it refers to a location in the Israeli countryside where an extremely bloody battle for power took place. It would be like naming a child born immediately after your Civil War “Gettysburg” . . . everyone would know what this meant. “Why”, I asked, and Hosea said that those currently in power took it through a bloody coup. Now, they were not being faithful to the covenant that the God of Israel had established. They were taking the money earned by the farmers and laborers and filling their own coffers. They were neglecting the poor, the widow and the orphan. Hosea said that when they heard the name Jezreel, they would realize that they needed to change their ways. Unfortunately, they did not listen.
When our second child was born, I was so excited to have a daughter. I know that sons are important, but I had such a good relationship with my mother that I was excited to share the same with my very own daughter. I would teach her to cook, and to weave, and would share with her all of the stories from our tradition. But when it came time to give her a name, Hosea cried out, “her name is Lo-Ruhamah”. My heart sank. In your language, Lo-Ruhamah is often called “No Pity”, but it is probably better translated “Not Motherly Loved” or “Neglected”. Hosea said that God was no longer going to have pity on Israel for what they had done. I said that I did not care what God thought or what the King and his royal court had done, how can I call my daughter “Not Motherly Loved”: a daughter that I loved more than life itself? I was screaming and crying . . . but Hosea was silent. For months I cried myself to sleep. I cried until the tears stopped coming and I just felt numb. All of the dreams that I had for my daughter were dashed again and again every time I said her name.
When our third child was born, the excitement from the previous births was over. Hosea said that this boy would be named Lo-Ammi which in your language means “Not My People”. Hosea said that the covenant with God was over. After the Exodus, when Moses spoke to God in the burning bush he asked God, “what shall I tell the people your name is”? God replied “I am”. Now, whenever anyone uttered the name of our son, it would remind them that “you are no longer my people” or “not, I am to you”. It was over. It was over with God and Israel, and it was over with me and Hosea. I was mad. I was mad at the God of Israel, mad at Hosea, and mad at the King. So, as soon as Lo-Ammi was weaned, I took matters into my own hands and I left.
Where did I go? I left for the temple of Baal. In the preceding year, an extremely long drought had overtaken the land and grain was scarce. Because of the Royal policies that Hosea had been complaining about, those in power were taking it all and there was not enough grain available for the farmers and the working class. As a result, people were starving. It was an awful time. Baal was the storm God who controlled the rain. Our annual ceremonies were performed in the temple so that Baal would return and bring the rain. If I could worship as a temple prostitute, could participate in the rituals of old, then maybe, just maybe, we would get the rain that we so desperately needed so that grain would be available to feed the starving. Additionally, it would help me forget. Forget the names; forget the pain; forget Hosea; forget it all.
I will spare you all the details, but the rain did not come and I could not forget. Because I was now an adulterer, by law I was chastised and eventually taken to be sold at auction as a slave or servant. When the day of the auction came, it started off like any other day for the past 12 months . . . hot, dry, and dirty. It was just as I felt. Dirty for what I had done and dirty for what I was becoming. When it was my turn to stand on the auction block, clouds started rolling across the horizon. At one point, I thought I heard thunder but knew it was probably in my imagination. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him . . . Hosea. He was here! And not only was he present, he was bidding for me! When it was over, he was the one who paid the price for my freedom. He had taken the meager money that we had saved and bought me back. I was both happy and ashamed. After he paid the money he came to me. My clothes were tattered and I was scared. What would he say? He put his arms around me and simply said “I love you”. It was too much for me and I just broke down and cried. And as we stood there in our embrace, weeping tears of joy, it started to rain.
That is my story. Hosea’s prediction came true and our country eventually fell. We fled to Judah to raise our family and as you know, Judah eventually fell as well. But though it all, God has stayed true to the covenant. During the Babylonian captivity; though the return and rebuilding of the temple; and through Jesus his son and beyond. Thank you for listening to my letter. Gomer.
P.S. Remember those awful names? As a sign of God staying true to the covenant with Israel and Judah, Hosea changed them. Jezreel really is “God Sows” for God’s people are everywhere; Lo-Ruhamah is now just “Ruhamah” for God will show pity and compassion on the World; and Lo-Ammi is just plain Ammi, for we all are God’s People!
“And now you know the rest of the story”. But in reality, this story continues. As I struggled with this passage this week I truly wondered, “Why would God command Hosea to marry a prostitute? What would be the purpose in that?” Then I realized that Gomer was just like the rest of us . . . prone to sin. She reacted to her situation in a way that showed her humanity. When challenged with a difficult situation, she attempted to take matters into her own hands to solve it. She did not look to God, but rather to other outside sources. As a result, she fell into sin. But, it was Hosea’s response to Gomers infidelity that allowed this story to become a metaphor. A metaphor to show God’s perfect love for humanity.
Under the rules for marriage in the 8th century, regardless of the reasons involved, Hosea was under no obligation once Gomer committed adultery. But he bought her back. Within that culture, this was unheard of and it spoke volumes, especially in a male driven, patriarchal system. In our Gospel stories, Jesus also challenges us to behave or act beyond what are considered “normal” expectations. For example, when asked how many times we should forgive, the disciples said that the law requires 7. While Jesus response was to forgive not 7 but 70 times 7.
One caveat to remember . . . stories or metaphors in the Bible are designed to illustrate divine truths and are not to be used as literal interpretations. Therefore, this story is not meant to provide license to sin or commit adultery. Neither, does it necessarily condone a patriarchal view of God.
While in this story, it was in fact Hosea who forgave Gomers sin, Gomer represents all of humanity, male and female, with all its weaknesses and shortcomings . We are all represented in Gomer. We are all prone to sin. We all have a tendency to stray from our covenant responsibilities which are, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God”.
Hosea went past all cultural expectations to forgive Gomer for her sin; God continually forgave Israel for falling away; and God forgives us for our imperfections. And Jesus models for us to do the same . . . “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The good news is that in our shortcomings; our failures; our sins; God is right there with us; not abusing us or punishing us, not leaving us to fend for ourselves; but as Hosea did with Gomer on the day of the auction; God is their hugging us; holding us; and whispering to us those 3 little words . . . I Love You.
Thanks Be to God!
“Just One Thing” – Sermon July 21, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . .”
One of the things that make’s the Gospel of Luke the favorite of so many people is how this writer is able to place us smack dab in the middle of real life situations with amazing realism. With just a few words, we feel like we are riding on the stormy sea in the boat with the disciples; or that we are sitting on the hillside with the shepherd’s on a nice pleasant evening, enjoying a warm cup of Chai as our sheep bleat softly in the distance when all of a sudden we get scared out of our wits when the sky lights up and angels start singing.
I think the words “and they were sore afraid” says it all, though I think in today’s vernacular, I might use a slightly different phrase. This morning’s story is no exception.
Here is the scene. As we have heard earlier, Jesus has “set his face to Jerusalem”. He knows that Jerusalem, and all that will happen there; the teaching, the betrayal, and his ultimate death, is his destiny. That is the destination. In the meantime, he is journeying from village to village with his disciples.
We heard last week how he was interrupted on this journey by a lawyer who wanted to check his theology or belief on how to get eternal life, to which Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself”. When asked, “who is my neighbor”, Jesus challenged us by pushing us “out of the box” with the story of the Good Samaritan. Leaving the lawyer behind to ponder his new revelation, Jesus and his disciples continue on their way and have now come to the house of Martha and Mary.
We find that Martha and Mary are being very faithful to the tradition of hospitality that we heard earlier in our Genesis reading with Abraham and Sarah. In that story, Abraham breaks out, not just any flour but the finest flour. He instructs his servants not to prepare just any meat, but rather to prepare the choice calf or veal for the guests. This was hospitality at its finest. I can imagine that Martha and Mary were preparing to do the same.
“Okay Mary, Jesus, the disciples, and several other guests will be here in 2 days. Let’s head to the market to get the ingredients for our best some of our best recipes. We will get our uncle to slaughter our best lamb. We will have hummus, beans, and lamb kebobs”. I can imagine if this scene took place today that she might would Google “lamb, rice, grape leaves, and olives” and come up with a dozen different ways to prepare them.
On the day of their arrival, I’m sure that there was plenty of last minute cleaning and scrubbing and table setting. Everything would need to be just right. And as the travelers get to the house we read that Martha “welcomes Jesus into her home”. But then an interesting thing happens. Mary stay’s out of the kitchen. Instead of helping her sister with the final cutting, chopping, boiling and serving, she is “sitting at the feet of Jesus”.
She stayed out and listened to Jesus talk with the other disciples and guests while Martha, juggled everything in the kitchen. I have visions of one of the chef’s on the Food Network show, “Chopped”, when the host announces 1 minute and the chefs have yet to plate a thing. Its last minute chaos with food flying everywhere!
At this point, I think Martha started to do a bit of banging with the pots and pans. “I can’t believe this”. “What is she doing”. (bang the pots). I’m sure Jesus and the disciples heard it and kept on talking. (bang a little louder). Finally, Martha has had enough and goes out to speak to Jesus. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand”.
Now, this is some classic triangulation. I don’t know if any of you did this with your siblings, I know I did. With my sister standing right beside me I would say, “Mom, tell her to stop doing this”. “Mom, tell her to go play with her own friends”. Sound familiar?
Jesus was not sucked in. From the Message translation, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it. It’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her”. Honestly, if I was in Martha’s shoes, I’m not sure how I would have taken this. I think I might have stormed back in the kitchen, thrown the serving towel to someone else, and said, “that’s it . . . they can feed themselves”!
We don’t get to hear “the rest of the story” and over the centuries, Bible scholars and theologians have agreed and disagreed on what to make of this story. Some have said that Luke had an agenda against women leadership in the new developing church. That he wanted women to model Mary and be quiet and passive. But this does not really match how Luke treats women in the rest of the Gospel where they are not passive and silent, but rather prominent, powerful, articulate, and celebrated. Remember, that it is Luke that gives us the parable about a poor widow who so strongly challenges a powerful male judge that eventually he caves in to her requests. Definitely not a model of passivity.
Still others have said that this is a good critique against Martha and what has been called “busy work Christianity”. Here we have the ones who are characterized by being so busy baking pies, cleaning the church, serving on committees, that they have no spiritual life. The argument would be to stop being so busy being religious and start being more spiritual like Mary. Don’t spend your time in all this busy work, but rather spend it in quiet contemplation. Develop your spiritual self. But is Jesus really criticizing Martha for her busyness?
Here these words again. “Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things”. Literally, “she is distracted by her many tasks” or even more literally, “she is with much serving”. The word used for service is the word where we get “deacon” (one who serves). Jesus was not criticizing Martha for her service; for her generous hospitality; for what we might say, “being a good deacon”. No, Jesus was reminding her that she needed to be present. Present in the act of serving.
Because she was not present in the moment, Martha issued value judgments on what Mary and Jesus were doing. “Mary should be helping me; Jesus should tell her to help me”. Hospitality that is not present in the moment becomes distracted service. It becomes service to yourself and not service to the other. How often have we done that? I know that I am guilty. We see what we think the other person needs and we go about working and hammering and fixing when maybe all the other person REALLY wanted was some of our time for a heart-felt conversation. “But wait, didn’t I just make you a great dinner. Didn’t I just do all of your laundry and clean out your attic”. “Yes, but I just wanted you to sit here with me and talk”.
We love to be busy. I would say that we are probably addicted to busyness. Just listen to our conversations. “Hey, how you been”? “Busy”. “How’s work going these days”? “Oh, it’s been really busy”. We seem to think that it’s a badge of honor to be so busy. Martha was busy. Busy doing good stuff, I mean, heck, she was cooking dinner for Jesus!
But what did Jesus tell her? “Martha, Martha, you are so distracted that you are not present to what is really going on here, right this minute. All you need is this one thing that Mary has chosen. What is this one thing”? Being present to the Words of Jesus.
As was noted earlier, this story follows immediately after Jesus tells the lawyer that the way to life eternal is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and Love your Neighbor has yourself. We learned about our neighbor with the story of the Good Samaritan. Today, we are learning about loving God and the challenge is to see that it is more than just doing service.
Jesus was not trying to put Mary and Martha against each other as if we have to make a choice, be busy or be contemplative, with contemplation being the better choice. No, he was reminding Martha, and us, that the service we do comes out of hearing and being present to God’s word. They are not opposite but rather two sides of the same coin.
Bible scholar Eugene Peterson reminds us of a scene from Herman Melville’s classic tale, Moby Dick, in which a whaleboat is being rowed though rough seas while chasing the great white whale. Sailors are rowing with all their might, with everyone in the boat intent on catching and harpooning Moby Dick. Captain Ahab shouts encouragement to his men to row faster and faster; then he berates them to get them to row faster and faster.
Yet, all the while, in the midst of all this chaos, there is one man who does nothing. He is just sitting there. No shouting. No rowing. Just sitting. This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised, waiting. Melville writes, “to insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil”. Sitting makes all the other activity possible.
Remember the words of the Psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God”. Be still. To be still is to be present to God and to yourself. And in being present with God we get to know God and what God would have us to do. There was nothing wrong with Martha fixing the food. This is a way people show love and welcome and hospitality and care. In fact, it’s in our acts of service that we show a love of God and of our neighbor.
But our faith is more than being the perfect host or the perfect servant; it’s about being open to relationship. Relationship to God and relationship to others. It’s about being willing to listen and be changed by that relationship. This is the one thing that is needed. To be present.
Present with God so that we can then be present with others, not caught up in busyness for busyness sake, distracted by everything around us, but being present . . . present to the true needs of others. That is genuine hospitality.
So did Martha run out of the kitchen? I don’t think so. I think that Jesus put his arm around her and said, “Martha, this has been awesome. I have never tasted such delicious food. Next time though, just do one dish. Come, come sit with us for awhile.”
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray:
Gracious God, open our hearts and minds to hear your Word. Help us to understand that hearing your Word is not enough. Sharing your word is what you truly desire. Help us to be present so that we might share your Word with the world in our words and in our service. Amen.
“Community 101” – Sermon June 2, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
Welcome to Ordinary Time! We are now back in the season of the church calendar that is commonly called “Ordinary Time”. Not the same fanfare as Easter with the “Hallelujah Chorus” or Pentecost with “Come Holy Spirit”. Sounds a bit on the dull side doesn’t it . . . “ordinary”. You can almost hear Eyore’s voice in it. “Hey Eyore, how’s it going”. “Nothing out of the ordinary”. Actually, with no specific name, the Sundays are just marked with “numbers” therefore, it’s ordinal or ordinary. You might here “9th Sunday in Ordinary time or 2nd Sunday after Pentecost”.
It’s the season where the primary color in the church becomes GREEN; not because it’s summer in the northern hemisphere but rather that Green is the color that represents growth, so the theme during “ordinary time” is growth. How do we on this side of Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, continue to grow and develop in our Christian Faith and discipleship? It’s a long season, kind of like Hurricane Season here on the Island, that will go from now until December when the church calendar starts over again with Advent. And while the time will be marked as Ordinary, we know that we live in a world that is nothing but ordinary and this was especially true in our scripture lessons this morning.
In Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, his newly founded church was struggling. We hear this loud and clear when Paul forgoes the usual long rhetoric of his letter introductions and at verse 6 notes, “I am astonished”. He will go on with the rest of the letter working to further refine and define the Gospel of Christ for these new church communities so that they can grow in the grace and freedom of Christ.
In Luke’s letter, the struggles with his community might be more subtle but they are still just as challenging as Paul’s. To set the stage, while there is not 100% consensus, most scholars will put the writing of Luke’s gospel somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 AD. This would put it about 15 years after the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the 2nd temple by the Romans in the year 70. Since less than a generation had passed, I am sure that these events were still quite present in their collective memories.
His community would have been very diverse. You would have had Jewish Christians (Christians with Jewish roots); Christian Jews (Jewish Christians still attached to Judaism) and all others that we commonly call Gentiles. Because of certain themes in Luke, many think that, in the standard of that day, it was probably a fairly wealthy community. So, what were they struggling with? Probably a lot of the same things that we struggle with, but one thing in particular was how to be a community. Not just any community, but a diverse community seeking to live out what had been revealed to them in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ..
With that as a backdrop, I think it is helpful to both see and hear how Luke stages today’s lesson. In the last half of Chapter 6 we get Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” which is similar to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”. Here is where Jesus challenges us to “love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us”. And “If you just love those who love you, what good is that”. Hard words to live out. So what does Luke do . . . he shows them being lived out!
Chapter 7, Verse 1 and 2 . . . “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave, whom he valued highly and who was ill and close to death“. Whoa! Wait a minute! A centurion!
Now, when my ears first hear centurion, I must confess that I first think of John Wayne. Does anyone remember the scene in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” where at the crucifixion, John Wayne, playing a Roman Soldier, looks up and says, “truly, this man was the Son of God”? I also think of Russell Crowe in “The Gladiator” all buff and sweaty and strong. Listen to a 5th century description: “a centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly . . . he is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak.”
So while the Russell Crowe imagery fits (and maybe John Wayne too), they have also been described as “not to brainy and often abusive of the citizenry”. I’m sure that Luke’s audience is thinking that this guy represents all that is wrong with their country. They shut down our revolution; they destroyed our temple; they are messing up our economy; they are ruining our kids; they personify everything that is bad; in a nutshell . . . they are “the enemy”.
But Luke turns this upside down. Here is a centurion, an enemy occupier, who; is seeking out Jesus to help another AND the Jews are helping AND Jesus is going to go to him. WOW. I did not see that coming. What the heck is going on here? You mean that we need to “really” love our enemies? I did not think that you meant that guy over there. Maybe I could love some of my enemies, but not THAT person. All of a sudden, this centurion is seen, not as ruthless and heartless, but as human. Not as an outsider, but one inside the community. A person of great faith.
In verse 4 we read that the Jews in the community found this centurion “worthy” and even though he declared that he was not so, Jesus affirmed it. He was worthy. So I wonder, who do we look at this way? Who in our society do we exclude from “our community” based on old stereotypes. They don’t look like us or talk like us or maybe share all our beliefs. We accuse them for causing all of the problems of today. According to Luke, loving your enemies means looking past those stereotypes and inviting them in. That’s what the Jews in this story did. And they did more than that, they spoke up for another.
The centurion spoke up for his slave. Now, to our 21st century ears, this word slave can be a challenge for us. The issue of slavery and the Bible is one of those “elephants in the room” that we don’t want to talk about, but there it is. It’s hard for us because we are not that far removed from the hurt, pain, and injustices that came from the practice of slavery. Now while it is true that slavery in Biblical times was different, I am not about to gloss over it and call it something that it is not . . . the centurion had a slave . . . plain and simple.
Our text said that he was “valued highly” which some scholars feel could have been related more to economics than actual feelings. But, that word in Greek is probably better translated “esteemed” or “honored” or “precious”. I like, “he had a slave who was very dear to him”. He was special . . . BUT . . . he was a slave and so the point we need to focus on is that he had no voice. So the centurion speaks for him. And as we read, the centurion does not speak alone.
I think I probably read this passage over two or three times before it hit me that the centurion never actually speaks to Jesus. In Matthew’s version of this story, the centurion and Jesus have a one on one encounter. But not so with Luke. Why. Why did Luke tell the story this way? I believe that it was to show his community and ultimately us, that this is what community does. It speaks out for the other who has no voice.
And in this story, we have two extremes. We have a slave, a marginalized one, who has no voice. And we have a centurion, one who can speak and people do what he commands. When he says go, people say where; when he says jump, those in his command ask how high. Yet, Luke shows us that BOTH have a need for the community to speak for them.
Community means that we don’t have to go it alone. What can be hard about this is that at times, we have to ask for help. And speaking as a man, this can be difficult. I personally am not one who will ask for directions and I am not one who always seeks the advice and counsel of others. We are taught, and I think especially MEN are taught, that we can “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” or that “God helps those who help themselves”. And while these sayings are not bad, in and of themselves, we are not meant to go it alone. Our faith, while personal, is more than personal, it’s communal. That message is clear from Luke’s story.
But it is scary to ask. It shows a vulnerability that can be very frightening. We think that it shows us as weak; that we will beholden to another for their generosity. But true faith is lived, not in our solitary world, but in the community of others.
When our faith is enacted on behalf of another, it celebrates our web of human connectedness, especially in times of illness and tragedy. This is the imperative of faith living in the world. Today’s story ends with the servant being healed. But I think for Luke it was more than this. It was about his community being on the road to healing. Healed from stereotypes about other people; healed of not reaching out to those with no voice; healed of not asking for help. In a few moments, we are going to gather at the Lord’s Table. Here we will remember the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us and at the same time we will also share in communion with each other. And the question that we need to ask ourselves is . . . who is at this table with us? Who might be missing? Who should we be reaching out too? Who needs me to speak for them? Does someone need to speak for me? Friends, this is community. This IS the Body of Christ . . . Thanks be to God!
Let us pray:
Almighty God, grant that the words we have heard this day
may, through your grace, be so grafted within our hearts
that they may bring forth in us the fruits of the Spirit,
to the honor and praise of your name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
“God’s Mindfulness” Sermon April 21st “Earth Day Sunday”
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
One of the joys of being able to go back to seminary, beyond learning all those good seminary things, was being back on a school calendar. You would have all this busyness with lectures, papers and exams and then just when you thought that your brain could not hold another piece of information. . . the semester would end and you get a break. And, fortunately for me, on a couple of these breaks, I was able to accompany Tracie on one of her out of town consulting assignments. One of these that really stood out for me, was a trip to Utah.
Tracie’s assignment was with a hospital in Salt Lake City. Having never been before, it was fun soaking in all the sites and sounds of a new city. And while it was all pretty impressive, what I remember most from that trip, was not the Salt Lake Temple of the Morman Church but rather the hiking adventure we had in Moab in Arch’s National Park.
For those of you who have been to Arches or to other similar destinations in the Southwestern United States, the first thing that hits you, especially if you come from a place like Central Virginia or St. Croix, where things are generally green, is that everything there is RED. All the rocks are red; the dirt is red; even the people are red from the dust. It is like there was a 50% off sale on red paint at Home Depot when God created the world, and God decided to just put it all there. Red, red, and more red.
Yet, what was interesting, the longer you stayed; the longer you allowed yourself to be captivated by the scenery; the more you began to pick up the subtle differences in color. Just like our taste buds learn to pick out the various flavors in foods, our eyes began to discern the subtle shades of Red in the limestone rocks. Rust, Burnt Sienna, Terra Cotta . . . all blending into a palette that creates a feast for the eyes.
And as we stood there among these arches, spires, and monoliths . . . massive structures that look like they have been carved out; chiseled; and stacked together by a master stone mason; I was totally awestruck by God’s creation. And I became even more blown away when a park ranger began explaining that these arches were somewhere around 300 million years old! What once was an ancient sea had ebbed and flowed leaving these salt deposits that eventually (eventually as in millions of years!) crumbled away leaving these massive structures!
Honestly, it is hard to wrap my mind around so much time. And I must say, looking up at these enormous structures, I started to feel very small and insignificant. I could TOTALLY resonate with our psalmist today. While sitting on a hillside, looking up into the vastness of the night sky, it is clear that he too felt insignificant when he wondered aloud to God . . . “what are human beings that you are mindful of them”. Or as Eugene Peterson translates in the Message, “then I look at my micro-self and wonder. Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way?”
I’m sure many of you have probably had some similar experiences where you pondered the meaning of life. Maybe it was on a sailing trip out in the vast ocean away from land and civilization. Or maybe it was while walking in the heart of a big city amongst the hundreds and hundreds of people. Or maybe it is just from watching all the news stories about such tragedies as earthquakes, explosions, or senseless acts of violence.
It makes me ask “Do I matter”? “Am I significant at all on this HUGE planet that we call Earth”? Today’s psalm answers these questions with a resounding “YES”. Verse 5 and 6 of this morning’s scripture says, “You made humanity a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.” When we listen to that, we can here parallels from the creation story in Genesis where we are told that humanity is made “in the image of God” and “given dominion over every living thing”. But what does this really mean, especially this idea of dominion?
Today, one might argue that interpretation of these passages of scripture has allowed some people to see dominion as, “the God given right to rule and control the world and all that it contains”. In other words, all of the planet’s resources, be they plant, mineral, or animal, become a resource for me as I exercise that God given right to rule.
We can see this played out today as we the largest and more powerful nations consuming a much larger share of the world’s resources. Little worry is given to the long range impact on plants, animals, and other human-beings, as our economic engines churn ahead, satisfying our short-term needs and desires. Dominion has become DOM-ination. But we must ask . . . “Is this a faithful interpretation”?
Obviously, the psalmist had no idea that the resources on this planet would be limited. There were no hillside discussions about carbon emissions, deforestation, or the science behind climate change. What is shown though is the awareness that in making us in the image of God AND in giving us the gift of dominion, God was charging us with managing the resources of this world in the same way that God would manage them.
The psalmist realized that our dominion over the planet is in fact not dom-ination . . . but stewardship. A steward is . . . “one who acts as the agent for another”. We, as Gods stewards, should echo the love, care, and responsibility that God has toward the created world. In the vision of the psalmist, civilization is meant to be one vast project of stewardship.
Psalm 72, gives us some insight when we read that effective ruling or stewardship is about “defending the cause of the poor”; “bringing abundance for all”; “striving for righteousness”; and “working for peace”. Stewardship is about exercising responsibility for ALL aspects of God’s creation. God’s dominion is founded on love and justice; not exploitation and abuse. And, God’s concern for the poor, the immigrant, the widow and orphan extends also to other vulnerable members of creation . . . the plants, the birds, and the animals.
Not too long ago, Tracie and I were faced with a difficult decision to euthanize our dog and long time companion Casey. Fifteen years earlier, Casey “found” Tracie at a retreat center in the woods, and “adopted” us to be her family. Years of running, jumping, and playing eventually took their toll and it reached the point where she would just cry out in pain at the slightest touch. Rather than have her continue to suffer, we made the decision to let her go in peace. For any of you who have been there, even though it is the right decision, it is one that is not made without difficultly.
Dominion is not easy. But it is OUR responsibility; not just with our pets, but with how we treat all the animals of this world, each with their distinctive roles in the complex web of life.
Ecological writer and minister Peter Sawtell notes, “We distort reality, and we develop misleading ethics, when we pretend that humans are qualitatively different from all other creatures. When we think that our kind is especially blessed, especially gifted, and totally unlike any other animal, it becomes all too easy to exploit and exterminate the other. It is important to remember that after the flood, God made a covenant both with humanity and with the animals”. Our role as steward is to be responsible for the welfare of ALL creation.
And with our responsibility comes accountability. When difficult issues or problems arise, it is easy for us to point fingers of responsibility at the government, the Republicans, the Democrats . . . but what about our own stake in these issues? A wise person once said, “When you point one finger out, you have three pointing back at you”.
We have to ask ourselves “Am I mindful that the lifestyle decisions that I make have an impact on the world and those who live in it”? How are the decisions that I am making for myself and my family impacting the “common good”?
Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh offers us an exercise in mindfulness that can help us make these connections between our lifestyle decisions and their larger impact. He suggests that we meditate on a simple everyday item that we might take for granted . . . like a juicy orange. What do you see when you focus on this orange? What did it take for this orange to come to be? Do you see the leaves of the orange tree that brown and decay? They will become the nutrients for the soil that will continue to nourish the tree. How about the rain that fed the soil and the sunlight that provided the energy for photosynthesis.
Looking even closer, we can see the migrant worker who picked the orange in order to support his family; the truck driver who transported this orange across the country; the cargo ship that transported it here; the grocer who stocks the oranges for us to meet our “year round demand for fruit”; even the teenage check out girl at the Plaza Extra who rings up our purchase’s . . . simply put, “the orange IS because all other these other things ARE”.
And what about this (hold up water bottle). Water is an important commodity cause without it, we will die. One gets used to just turning on the tap and thinking that there is an endless supply;
that it until you move to an island and start learning of droughts and cisterns and you suddenly realize that there is NOT this endless supply and that you have to conserve.
And then there is the plastic bottle that the water comes in. It’s been estimated that we American’s use about 30 BILLION of these a year. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 MILLION barrels of oil are used to produce them all. And, unfortunately, since only about 20% are ever recycled, some 24 BILLION end up in our landfills, our oceans, and along the sides of our roads.
Yet, it’s true that for many, getting water in a plastic bottle is the only way they can get it. But for many of us, we have other choices. This is challenge of stewardship.
The psalmist sat on top of that hillside and wondered “why am I here”. Why does God give me a second look? The answer from God was that “you are the steward of this planet. You have a job to do” . . . and so do we. But it is not easy.
God did not just hand over the keys to the planet and say “enjoy yourself”. We have to be responsible AND accountable. God was mindful in giving us dominion, we too have to be mindful in our decisions, realizing that what we do has an impact on others.
Each of us, created in the image of God, has been given wonderful and amazing gifts. Our role as stewards is to use these gifts in our own unique and individual way that honors the Creator and ALL of creation by “striving for righteousness, defending the cause of the poor, working for peace and abundance for all” as well as taking care of “all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas”. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Thanks Be to God!
Let us pray:
God, you call us to be faithful stewards of your world. Help us to hear your word and to respond in ways that honor you and all of your creation. Amen.