Gratitude

(sermon 10/13/19)

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Photo by Marcus Wökel – used with permission    http://www.pexels.com

 

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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There are some people I know who do something important every day. It’s something simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Every single day, in some way or another, they set aside time in their day, which is just as busy as my own, to take stock of what they’re grateful for. They keep “gratitude journals,” or just observe a bit of quiet time to intentionally reflect on the day that’s just passed, and actually name the things that they’re grateful for. Some of them take this a step further and actually jot a note, or maybe more often now, an email, to reach out and acknowledge their gratitude to someone who had something to do with it.

I wish that I were more like these people. I want to be, because there is so much that I really am grateful for. But at least up until now, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the discipline to do this, and I’m the worse off for it. Because without doing this in some way, it’s easy to forget, or at least to take for granted, the things that mean so much to us, the things that we’re so grateful for, and the people responsible for them.

This comes into play in today’s gospel text. Ten suffering people come to Jesus for help and healing. All ten receive that help, but only one takes the time to thank Jesus for having been healed. I’m pretty sure the other nine were grateful, too, but ultimately, only one of them actually expressed it to Jesus.

Except for some people who have serious psychological and emotional issues, feeling gratitude is a natural, involuntary human emotion. But taking it the extra step, and expressing that gratitude with our words and actions, is a choice – one that can have a huge effect in our own lives, but that also can have a remarkable effect on the people around us. A simple “thank you” is something far more powerful and transformative than would seem possible from just two little words. Just think how you feel when someone takes the effort to just say thank you, or does something nice for you, because of something you’ve done for them. Even when you think that no thanks is necessary, and you mean it, it’s still powerful when that thanks is offered.

There are all kinds of different emotions that we feel in any given day. Whether it’s because of things going on in the news, or some family situation, or a work thing, or a health or aging issue, our emotions can run the full spectrum from joy to sorrow to worry to fear to shame to rage, and everything in between. And there are certainly appropriate times to express all of those emotions. Sometimes, we’re just in a place where we just can’t express gratitude for something even if we’re actually very grateful for it. Our other emotions can come into play and tongue-tie us, even when we can see it happening, and many times, we can’t. It’s OK; we’ve all been there at some point or another. We all understand that. In those times, we see the importance of this, the whole church family, when together, we can help carry one another over those patches; we can lift one another up and offer emotional support and compassion for one another until we can get through those times. Until we can work through those other emotions and get to the point where we really can choose to express gratitude and to live gratefully again.

Like most things, expressing gratitude is something that gets easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the better you feel – the more grateful you are. And the more you help others. You become an illustration, and example for others.

These days, expressing gratitude is truly a counter-cultural idea. Anger, hostility, violence, distrust, transactional tit-for-tat vengefulness, tribalism, rage – these are the emotions and things that are shaping our culture at the moment. But just imagine how much of that could be defused if we “choose to refuse”. To refuse to play that game. To refuse to express those knee-jerk emotions, and instead, to take stock of the good and to express gratitude to God and others in our words and actions. Expressing gratitude has the power to change the world – it’s the ultimate weapon, the ultimate game-changer, that can defeat virtually all of the ugliness that we find ourselves knee-deep in. We just have to choose to do it.

So I’ll start: I’m grateful to be alive and a part of this amazing, beautiful creation of God’s. I’m grateful that I have two wonderful daughters. I’m grateful for the love of family and friends. I’m grateful that I have a good education, a reasonable measure of good health, a roof over my head, and food on the table. I’m grateful that I’m here in Louisville, and specifically here at Springdale. I’m grateful that I’m your pastor, that God drew us both  together; and that I’m not only your pastor, but that, at least to the extent it’s possible between pastors and parishioners, we’re friends. I’m grateful that I get to work every day with the remarkably gifted, talented, and caring staff here at the church. I’m very grateful for George, that God allowed us to find each other, and that we’re together now. And I’m grateful that you’ve welcomed and accepted him and made him a part of all of this as much as you have with me. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey of faith and life that we’re all on together. I’m grateful for all of this, and so much more.

So, if I never said all of that before, I have now. And now, I invite all of you to do the same. Decide, choose, commit, to sit down daily and take stock of what it is that you’re grateful for, large or small. And then, choose, commit, to finding some way, just as the leper in the gospel story did, to express that gratitude in your words and actions. Maybe it will take the form of making a batch of cookies for someone. Or fixing a storm door, or offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe it’s dropping someone a card, or finally getting around to a thank you note that you’ve been meaning to send out forever. Or maybe it will just be taking a moment to offer a simple, face-to-face thank you. Whatever it is, it will make you feel better, and it will make the person you offer it to feel better, and it will definitely please Christ every bit as much as the thank you he received on that road all those years ago.

Thanks be to God.

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Grow a Pair, Neil.

we the people t shirt

Yesterday, nine Supreme Court Justices heard arguments that will have a major effect on the lives of LGBTQ+ people, and our society in general, for probably a generation. Based on the arguments made in a surprisingly small amount of time far out of proportion to their import, these Justices are going to determine whether under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is Constitutionally legal to fire a person simply because they are LGBTQ+.

Currently, almost half of the people questioned in a recent Reuters survey actually believe it is already illegal to do so. Further, “The poll indicates that most Americans do not think religious objections should be a reason to deny service to an LGBTQ person, whether in business (57%), healthcare (64%) or employment (62%).

The unfortunate reality is quite different. While the federal Equality Act, which would ban all such discrimination independent of any interpretations of Title VII, remains in a years-long state of Congressional limbo, only 21 states currently have enacted laws that provide full non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ+ individuals.

What that boils down to is this: there are currently some 11.3 million LGBTQ+ people living in the United States; about 8.5 million of them are currently part of the workforce. Roughly half of us live in states without non-discrimination protection. So in an odd twist, the Supreme Court has ruled that LGBTQ+ people have the right to marry as a matter of basic human dignity, but under current law, exercising that human dignity by getting married on Saturday can – and often does – result in our getting fired from our jobs, thrown out of our apartments, and/or denied service in commercial and retail settings, on the following Monday for having done so. Doesn’t sound very dignified to me.

It pains me to know that there is a substantial minority of people in this country who believe that a.) I am somehow a less important, second-class citizen of this country compared to them based solely on who I love; and b.) they have a Constitutional, and in many of their minds, a God-given right to discriminate against me by withholding the same civil rights that they enjoy as a matter of course.

These justices are set to decide whether my full equal rights as a citizen of this inherently secular, pluralistic republic will be protected; whether the rights afforded to all citizens by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to equal protection under the law will be protected for me, too, or whether they won’t, merely on the basis of the gender of the person whom I love.

To be honest, it’s almost unthinkable that we even have to have such a debate. The entire dispute really originates in that a particular subset of a particular religious group believes that LGBTQ+ are sinners in the eyes of God, and that because of that particular religious belief, the federal government should ensconce their particular religious opinion into federal law. Their argument is that their group has the right not only to hold those beliefs, but that they have the right to a Constitutional exclusion that allows them to impose those particular religious-based beliefs onto our larger, secular society that its founders took great pains to prohibit any establishment or endorsement of any particular religious group.

To be clear, our country has offered tacit – and frankly, unconstitutional – privileged status to adherents of the Christian faith since its very beginning. As a nation, we have always played fast and loose with the actual words and clear meaning of our First Amendment position regarding religion, paying them lip service but always giving a wink and a nudge when applying them to Christianity and Christians. We Christians have enjoyed the privilege of a usually unspoken, sometimes explicit “Yes, but” stance in applying the concepts of non-establishment and especially non-endorsement of any religion on the part of the government. A large part of the current problem is that a particular subset of Christians is upset, seeing parts of their inappropriate privilege crumbling away as the country gradually lives more fully into the words of our founding texts. I suppose I could find a more diplomatic words of comfort to offer them in their time of perceived loss, but all I can come up with is tough shit. Literally millions of people, all of them citizens of this country fully equal to you, have suffered for far too long because the government has unconstitutionally permitted your particular sectarian religious beliefs to be imposed on all of society. It’s high time we came to our collective senses, and stopped allowing ourselves to be led around by you as you like, as if we’ve got a ring through our nose.

And yet… here we are, with these nine individuals hearing arguments and deliberating  whether I will, in fact, be treated as a full, equal citizen of this country, or whether the religious opinions of some members of society – somewhere between 25 and 30% of society, according to surveys – may legally make me a social, cultural, and Constitutional, less-than.

Reports from inside the chamber during those arguments say that based on the questioning by the Justices, the vote will end up being close, and that it may be decided by one swing vote made by a Justice who openly fretted about the “major social upheaval” that a decision favoring the LGBTQ+ individuals would supposedly have.

I’m sorry – actually, I’m not – but numerous surveys about this subject, including the one previously referred to all show that to a large extent, this is a cultural ship that has already sailed. It’s highly doubtful that a decision confirming full LGBTQ+ equality would cause anything resembling “major social upheaval.” To begin with, just look at some mathematical facts: Roughly 70% of the American public identifies as Christian of one sort or another. At the same time, as seen in the Reuters survey, almost that same percentage of the public favor LGBTQ+ non-discrimination law. This means that there is already a huge amount of overlap of the two groups “Christian” and “Supports LGBTQ+ Equality.” There would most assuredly be some social consternation, limited to those people who believe – just as previous generations believed regarding racial and gender discrimination – that they have a right to discriminate against other citizens because of their own particular religious beliefs.

And that gets us to the larger point, which is that this way of thinking about “social upheaval,” major, minor, or otherwise, is the fear of a coward, or the excuse of a scoundrel, or both. And social upheaval to whom? Why is there more concern for social upheaval that will be experienced by the oppressor in this case (and many similar previous battles), than the existing, massive social upheaval that the oppressed have been suffering all this time?

Even more important than the concern being misplaced is the reality that every single advance made in this country living more fully into the promises of its founding documents and principles has caused social upheaval, sometimes truly major social upheaval. It is inevitable. If avoiding social upheaval were a legitimate reason to not advance our society, nothing would ever improve.

It’s delusional to think that progress can be made without some kind of social upheaval. It’s disingenuous to use that as an excuse to deprive millions of people their Constitutionally-protected civil rights and equal protection under the law.

I speak as a married gay man, and as an ordained minister and pastor in the Presbyterian Church. The mere fact that that can even be possible caused no small amount of “social upheaval” in itself, and thanks be to God for it. I have come to believe that a large part of why God called me, a person whom God knew was gay long before I knew it myself, into pastoral ministry at all, was to be a witness – an illustration – to people inside and outside the church that God does indeed call and equip LGBTQ+ people into the church and its leadership. Another, even broader, part of that is to illustrate to people who don’t yet understand, possibly because they’ve never knowingly had a relationship with an LGBTQ+ person, that gay people – people like me – are really no different from them. At least, I’m no more different from them than they might be from another straight person, and maybe there are more significant differences between them and the other straight person than between them and me. In short, I believe a part of my divine call is merely to illustrate my equal humanity to others who don’t understand that. To show those who don’t yet quite understand that as an LGBTQ+ individual, I have the same dreams, fears, worries, aspirations, goals, loves, that they do. I laugh, I cry, I hurt, I mourn, I celebrate, I contemplate. I am your brother, your son, your father or uncle or cousin. I am your neighbor, your coworker, and yes, in my own case, your pastor. I have the same need as you to be a valued, respected, equal member of the society I was born into. I am not scary; I’m not something other. I am you.

But I have the same demands, too. I demand that the equal rights and equal protection under the law that I’ve been assured of based on my citizenship be protected and respected. I demand that the government not permit a particular minority within a particular sectarian religious group to have veto power over those rights, and my equality in our nonsectarian, secular, pluralistic republic. I’m not asking the government to grant these rights to me; I’m demanding that they protect these rights that I already have as a birthright, and that are being denied me. I demand that my government live into the principles ensconced in its founding documents, the same principles that are so widely given lip service to but so frequently ignored.

This one Supreme Court Justice who seems to be the swing vote in these cases was put in place by a conservative power block who frankly, expect him to be nothing more than a guaranteed knee-jerk vote to support their own political agenda. Now that he’s been appointed, he finds himself at a crossroads of history, about to make maybe the single most significant ruling by which history will judge him. I do not humbly ask for special consideration, favors, scraps from the table of full equality from him. I demand that he live into this historic moment; that he not serve as a lap dog to political partisans. I demand that he protect my rights, and my equal protection under the law, that all full citizens have. I demand that he understand that doing so will cause some social upheaval, and that it will be worth it. I demand that he not allow a sectarian minority to hold millions of citizens hostage to their chosen religious beliefs. I demand that he use his own brain, and heart, and that he grow a spine, and a pair of testicles to go along with it, and once and for all do the Constitutionally and morally right thing.

Come to the Table

(sermon 10/6/19 – World Communion Sunday)

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Photo used with permission – pexels.com

Isaiah 25:6-8

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, and will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and will take away from all the earth the disgrace of the people, for the Lord has spoken.

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There’s just something special about the idea of sharing a meal together. When we’re happy, we throw a feast, a party. When we’re in mourning, we share unspoken love and compassion through the sharing of a casserole or some other comfort food. Every holiday, every milestone, every major occasion in our lives, is usually marked by sharing some special food. It’s universal, something that’s common to every human culture and across all times, and it’s something that goes far beyond simple biological sustenance. And just as a particular smell can instantly take us to another time and place and memory in our lives, a particular food can immediately transport us to some other time and place in our lives, too. It can remind us of where we’re grounded, what are our roots, and where we’ve been along our life’s journey. Speaking for myself, I grew up in an area where there were many Polish and other eastern European immigrants, so even though I don’t think I’ve got a bit of Polish heritage myself, a lot 0f that special food for me is Polish – pierogi, and halupki, and kolachi, and so on. And I’m sure that all of you have your own particular “soul food,” too, that you might be thinking of right now. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the finest Japanese beef, or a humble bowl of chili, the taste is important, of course, but what makes it really special, what makes it deeply meaningful, even sacred, holy, it that we’re sharing the experience, preparing it, eating it, even cleaning up afterward, with other family, friends, people who we love and care deeply about. Sharing that common meal at a common table draws us together and creates a special bond among us.

Given that universal reality, it shouldn’t be any surprise that one of the defining sacraments that Christ instituted within our faith is the reenactment of a shared meal. Really, what better way could there be to illustrate the kind of relationship, the bond, the unity, that God has made with humanity, and that God wants all of humanity to have among itself, than to use a common meal at a common table? In both of the testaments in the scriptures, God uses the imagery of an eternal banquet, a feast, to represent eternal life in God’s presence. It makes perfect sense that in order to remember and live out this common bond, this unity, that we have with God and one another, we come to the Lord’s Table for the Lord’s Supper; Communion.

Of course, this is World Communion Sunday, when many Christian denominations and traditions serve Communion on the same day as an even greater sign of this unity and common bond. And most of us have heard on previous World Communion Sundays that the whole thing got started by a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, and that the idea really gained traction when then-President Truman plugged the idea in a radio broadcast. It’s a nice bit of Presbyterian trivia that we can all take some pride in, I guess.

So it’s a good thing to observe World Communion Sunday, to take a stand for unity within the church, and to observe Communion in general. But it’s only a good thing if we’re using it to represent and participate in the kingdom of God as God sees it, and not the way we see it. If we understand that we come to this table as deeply flawed individuals, all of us, and as people who, no matter how much we might try to sincerely understand and follow God and God’s ways, are going to get at least as much of our understanding wrong as we get right. If we come to the table realizing that we haven’t done anything to have earned or deserved our being at the table any more than the person sitting next to us – if we recognize that we’re just as flawed and imperfect and undeserving as they are. If we recognize that  everyone at this table – at this eternal banquet – has been invited by God, on God’s terms, using God’s logic, and not ours.

Observing the Lord’s Supper that way is a very good thing. But it isn’t a good thing at all if we see it as something used to exclude. Something to limit. Something that says that we think we’re better than others, or that we’re God’s favorites or God’s chosen people over against everyone else. It isn’t a good thing if we use this sacrament intended to enact divine and human unity,  and to represent God’s vision of that eternal banquet, eternal life, as a club to beat other people over the head with to say that we’re part of God’s in-group, and they aren’t.

In Isaiah, God says that all people, all nations will participate in the eternal banquet of God’s kingdom. In the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that he has “other sheep” that those disciples didn’t know. And his teachings about the nature and basis of the final judgment make a pretty bold statement that when considering what will be important in that judgment of whether or not we’ll be welcomed into that eternal banquet, the question of whether a person was or wasn’t a professing Christian never seems to come up. I have to think that John Calvin had these and other scriptures in mind when he wrote about what he called the “visible church” and the “invisible church” – that the visible church was the institution and its people that we see in the world and think of as the church; but the invisible church was the actual, true church, known only to God – and that many in the visible church weren’t really a part of the true, invisible church, and that many not in the visible church actually are part of the invisible church.

That should keep us very humble. It should also keep us very mindful of who we might or might not welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper. In the past, and in some cases in the present, the church has been very restrictive about who is welcome to participate in the sacrament of Communion. Here, we practice what the church calls an “open table” – that is, any person from any Christian faith, regardless of whether they’re Presbyterian or not, are welcome to participate in this sacrament with us to the fullest extent of their own conscience. We don’t have to hold the same theological beliefs about what, if anything, is happening within the sacrament. We don’t have to hold the same beliefs about how, or even if, Christ himself is present in the sacrament. We hold this view of Communion in large part because Christ said simply “Do this in remembrance of me.” He didn’t say “Only do this after you understand it perfectly, and everyone agrees on that,” and it’s a good thing, because frankly, we never will. He simply said to do it. And so we do.

But I will share with you that personally, I also believe something else about this. I am a firm believer in the visible and invisible church. And I believe Isaiah’s imagery of all people being a part of the eternal banquet, and I believe Christ when he teaches about the nature of the final judgment and welcome into the kingdom.  And because of that,  my own view of the “open table” is this: If you feel God drawing you to participate in this sacrament; if you understand that the good news from God that Christ proclaimed in the world was the message proclaimed by the angels when Jesus was born, a message of God’s favor and love for all of humanity; if you understand the importance of living out love of God in your life, and extending that love to your fellow human beings – then to me, you understand the gospel as well as anyone. You are a part of that invisible church, and you are just as welcome at the Lord’s Table as anyone else. Not only that, but, as the apostle Peter said in the Book of Acts, if God has given you the same Spirit that was given to me, then who am I that I would be an obstacle to you taking your place at the Lord’s Table? To be frank, I believe that I would actually be sinning if I obstructed you or in any way discouraged you from participating along with everyone else.

So today, whether that special food you love to share with loved ones originated in Scotland, or England, or Italy, or Poland, or Iran, or Taiwan, or Korea, or Puerto Rico, or Mexico, or anywhere else, today, we come together to share a simpler common meal – a little bit of bread, and a little bit of wine or juice. But in reality, it is so much more than that. It’s the physical manifestation of God’s love itself. It’s the physical taste of the joyful sharing of our lives together with God, and with one another. So today, on World Communion Sunday, let’s enjoy this meal, this sacrament, and let’s enjoy it together with love.

Thanks be to God.

The Gospel according to Deeds and Scrooge

(sermon 9/29/19)

 

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Alastair Sim in Scrooge, 1951 – Photo: YouTube

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

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For the past several weeks, the Lectionary has focused on this section of Luke’s gospel, which is a series of Jesus’ teachings that deal directly or indirectly with wealth and possessions – how to prioritize them, and how to use them. This theme starts in the 11th chapter of Luke, but it really ramps up in chapters 15 and 16, where we’ve heard about risking what we have safely in hand to do the good of saving something that’s lost, in the stories of the shepherd’s lost sheep and the widow’s lost coin; and even though we skipped over it, immediately after that in the gospel is the parable of the prodigal son; then comes the parable of the dishonest manager, which we heard last week; and now this parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the rich man’s torment in the afterlife because of the way he kept his wealth to himself and ignored the suffering of Lazarus. Apparently in an attempt to drive his point even further home, Jesus names the suffering man in this story – actually the only time he gives a character in his parables any name at all – Lazarus, which literally mean “God helps.”

This whole extended section of Luke can be troubling for Western Christians in general, and us American Christians in particular, because it offers some harsh assessments and warnings for affluent people, and we all recognize that even the least financially secure among us are actually wealthy by global standards.

And this particular story can also be a bit troubling for most of us Protestants in traditions that originated in the Protestant Reformation, who profess that we’re saved by grace through faith, and faith alone, and not by works – but the only two times that Jesus offers any detail about what the final judgment would be like – in Matthew 25 and here – what we do in this life seems to be a major factor, if not the only factor, in that calculus.

Taken together, these stories remind us that while we should all strive for a reasonable amount of comfort and financial stability, each increasing level of that that we attain comes with increasing moral expectations, and an increasing potential for us to develop skewed priorities. We all know the old saying, the more you have, the more you want. We strive to achieve some level of wealth and possessions that we think will make us happy, and if we’re fortunate enough to achieve that goal, we immediately reset the goalposts and think that if we only reached that *new* goal, then we’d be really happy. And at every level that we achieve, we become more concerned about protecting and preserving what we have, and not necessarily using it to help others – and there is the real risk that Jesus hones in on in this parable. The rich man saw Lazarus, and his suffering, every single day, and he had the means to do something about it, but didn’t. He was too interested in using his wealth strictly for himself and his own priorities.

This gradual ratcheting up of working to preserve our wealth, our stuff, isn’t any real surprise to us. In fact, we’ve all experienced it in our own lives, in one way and at one time or another. Still, it is worth reflecting on, and examining ourselves from time to time, and asking ourselves if that attitude of overvaluing our wealth, and our comfort, and our stuff, over the lives and well-being of others has crept into our mindsets.

In this parable, Jesus frames the issue in terms of judgment and eternity. But eternity dwells in the present, too, and that judgment that Jesus refers to deals not only with whether you treated others well in this life, but whether you treated yourself well, too – and by that, I don’t mean in terms of material comfort and enjoyment, but rather, if you lived a life of spiritual wellness and shalom that God designed you for, and intended for you to enjoy and be grateful for.

It doesn’t matter if you believe that God has laid out a specific, detailed path for your life, or if you believe that God gives us a bit more agency than that, but then guides us and helps us after we’ve decided on our path. In either of those options, it seems pretty clear that God wants us to live that path, whatever it is, in a certain way, a way that’s best for others and is best and most fulfilling for ourselves, too. Just as racism, or any other -ism, hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor, living life in a way that’s best for others ends up being best for ourselves, too.

In 2002, Adam Sandler starred in the movie “Deeds,” a remake of the old Gary Cooper film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Sandler plays a simple, good-hearted small-town guy who suddenly inherits a controlling interest in a huge multinational corporation, and he’s forced to swim in those unfamiliar, shark-infested waters. It was a silly, lightweight movie, some feel-good cotton candy for the brain, and while it had its funny moments, it wasn’t nearly as good as the original. But in one scene near the end of the movie, Sandler’s character is speaking to a roomful of rich, powerful, and cynical stockholders at the corporation’s annual meeting, and he asks them to think about their lives and how they’d turned out. He asked them to think about what they’d always wanted to be when they were a kid – what they wanted to do with their lives, before they’d allowed themselves to become consumed by just making a lot of money. One by one, they shared their real life’s dreams, of what they wanted to be, how they wanted to do something good and meaningful and constructive in the world, independent of the money they might earn from it. Of course, it was just a sappy movie, so everyone had a change of heart and they all voted the way Sandler wanted them to.

Well, Jesus’ words in this parable are a warning, but they’re an invitation, too – an invitation to look at our own lives, no matter what stage of life we’re in and no matter what level of wealth we have, and to ask if our current priorities are the ones that we believe would please God – priorities where we love God, show compassion to others, and proper stewardship of creation – and that, in the process, will lead us into that life of shalom for ourselves. And if the answer that we arrive at is that no, we don’t have the priorities that we should, we can have hope, because with God’s help, we can fix that. The script of our lives isn’t finalized yet. Borrowing from the storyline of a much better known story than Sandler’s movie, our lives are like Ebenezer Scrooge learning that the images that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him aren’t images of what will happen, but what *could* happen if things didn’t change. Maybe call it the Gospel according to Scrooge – things weren’t cast in stone; he could rewrite them. And so can we.

So sometime, maybe today, maybe later this week, I invite you to do that exercise. Think about your life. Have you allowed the pursuit of wealth, of security, of comfort, of stuff, to cloud your vision, your sense of purpose, your understanding of what a truly fulfilling life would be?

If you conclude that it has, don’t worry. God has promised to help you; you can make the changes you might need to make to have that fulfillment in life. In some cases, it might not be easy. In some cases, it might take courage. But don’t be afraid to try to make that change, because Christ himself has promised to help guide you through that, to give you the strength and courage you need to pursue that life of fulfillment, contentment, shalom, both in the here and now, and in the life hereafter.

Thanks be to God.

The Awkward Moment

(sermon 9/22/19)

awkward

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

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. “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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

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We’ve probably all been in a situation where we’re in some social gathering and someone is talking, maybe telling a story, and you’re pretty sure you know where the person is going and what they’re going to say before they even say it – but then there’s this awkward moment where they say something completely different. It isn’t at all what you expected; it catches you off guard, and sometimes, depending on what it is that they said, you really aren’t sure how to respond to it. I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what happened to the people who had gathered around Jesus when he told them this parable, what’s become known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Jesus’ audience was almost exclusively people who had grown up within the Jewish faith, and Jewish traditions, and one of the fascinating recurring themes in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore, of our own, is the concept of the Trickster – usually, the trickster is someone who has been the victim of an injustice, who uses their wits and their creativity to come up with a way to get justice from their oppressor through deceit and trickery. As just one example, Tamar, in the Book of Genesis, would be an example of the trickster in the way she used trickery to get justice from her father-in-law, Judah. Jacob played the part of the trickster in a number of stories; so did David, and a host of others. Whoever it was, and whatever the circumstances, there are many biblical stories of a trickster obtaining what they want over against an opponent who was more powerful and unbeatable using conventional means. In these Even when they were seriously breaking the rules and norms or society, the trickster was always highly regarded, the hero or heroine of the story, because they provided validation. They offered the hope that a powerless person, or a powerless people, as the Jews have been many times in history, could still triumph over their more powerful oppressors.

So Jesus’ listeners were totally familiar and comfortable with a story that would be about a trickster who used deceit and intelligence to correct an injustice. But as Jesus tells this trickster story, his listeners heard something very different. They had their own awkward moment. In this story, we hear about a manager who uses trickery and deceit for a very different purpose.

In the way that most of us have heard this story, and we’ve all heard it many times, it seems really jarring. Unfair. Completely at odds with what we’ve probably been taught to expect Jesus to say.

Let’s take the story apart for a moment. The characters in the story are the rich man, his manager, and a group of people who are in debt to the rich man. When we think about the story from the viewpoint of the rich man – and as people of relative financial comfort and well-being ourselves, we often do – the manager’s actions were obviously, clearly unfair and unethical. The manager was giving away debts that people owed to him; how could that be right? Many biblical commentators have suggested that the rich man was dishonest, and was cheating his debtors, so when the manager cut the bills, he was only adjusting them to what they should realistically have been. Other people have suggested that the manager essentially worked on commission, getting a percentage of each of the transactions, and that he wasn’t really giving away any of the rich man’s money, only the money that would have been his. There have been any number of similar explanations to get the manager, and by extension, Jesus, off the hook for what he says in the story. Personally, I like looking at stories from multiple angles, and using imagination to fill in gaps to come up with creative ways of looking at and understanding them. But I’ve got to say that as valuable a tool as that can often be, I don’t really buy any of those explanations in this case. And I’ll be honest; I’ve preached on this text before offering up explanations similar to the ones I just mentioned. But for some reason, when I read the story this time around, I heard it differently. As I read it again this time, I thought that those explanations were a stretch with little of no evidence to support them, and that I think end up denying or at least obscuring a couple of points that I think Jesus was really trying to make.

The first of those points has to do with Jesus’ comment to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” That might just be the most jarring comment Jesus is ever recorded as saying anywhere in the gospels. Unless… unless Jesus was speaking from the standpoint of understanding that in some way or another, *all* wealth is somehow inherently dishonest. Now bear with me here; I’m not losing my mind, and I’m not suggesting we all stop trying to earn a living or working for financial stability, far from it. But I don’t really think it’s a stretch to admit that, no matter how personally ethical or socially responsible we might be in how we earn and spend our money, somewhere in the grand, overall web of interrelated economic transactions that ultimately result in our income, our wealth, there have been, and continue to be, dishonest practices, unethical dealings, unjust treatment of people in order to maximize profit, at any number of places along the way, and in both past and present. And no matter how aware and careful we are, or what retail stores  we might not shop at, or whose chicken sandwiches we won’t eat, or what brands we avoid for unethical business practices, even though it’s good to do all of those things, none of us can ever really, completely avoid it. All of our income is ethically tainted in some way or another, and we really ought to admit it. It’s inescapable. Unavoidable. It’s just a reality of living life on this side of the gates of Eden. So now maybe Jesus’ words don’t sound so harsh, if those words are based on his presumption of that reality. Of course, then, we’re called as Christ-followers, to use that “dishonest” wealth to pursue the principles of the kingdom of God. So that’s point one.

As important as that point is, though, I think the second point is even more important. Maybe the biggest difficulty that we have with this parable is that we’re looking at the situation through the wrong person’s eyes. Maybe we need to have an awkward moment of another kind, one where we realize that instead of looking at it through the eyes of the rich man, or the manager, maybe Jesus intended the story to be heard from the viewpoint of the people who owed those debts to the rich man. I mean, really, the odds are that the people who were listening to him that day were a lot more likely to have been debt-owing poor people than rich ones. And if you’re one of the debtors in the story, wouldn’t it sound wonderful to have big chunks of your debt erased? Not because you didn’t really owe the debt, you did, but for some reason completely out of your control and not because you actually did anything to earn it, to just be taken off the hook for it? Imagine if you woke up one morning and discovered that somebody had just paid off half your mortgage, or your student debt, or your credit card bill, for no reason at all, and no strings attached – just because. A complete gift. Clearly, someone who’d had a person do that for them would be very grateful, and very loyal to the person who’d given them that gift, just as the debtors in the story were grateful to the manager. Well I hope it doesn’t seem too offensive, but I think that of we look at this story from that angle, the character that we’ve come to call the “Dishonest Manager” is actually a representative of Christ himself.

Simply put, I think that what Jesus is trying to teach in this story is the concept grace. The manager extends grace, unearned mercy, to the debtors, and for doing so, the rich man is pleased with the manager, in spite of the fact that it would seem illogical for him to do so. And Jesus extends a similar kind of unearned mercy to us, and God is pleased with him for having done so – causing reconciliation by way of unilaterally forgiving a debt owed. And Jesus instructs his listeners to extend that same kind of unearned mercy to others, and that it’s the extension of this kind of grace to others, through whatever means we have available to us – “dishonest wealth” or otherwise – and that that pleases God.

Now, I realize that looking at this parable in that way has its limitations. Like any parable, it isn’t a perfect one-to-one analogy, and it can certainly be stretched too far. I realize that God was never upset with Jesus, like the rich man was with the manager, and I know Jesus wasn’t extending grace to debtors in order to feather his own nest, like the manager in the story did. And I know that we don’t teach that Jesus came to take away fifty percent of the sins of the world, or twenty percent, like the manager in the story did, but all of them. Still, I think the most important thing we can all do is listen to this story, to really hear it, from the standpoint of the debtors. Because don’t we pray, every Sunday morning, that that’s exactly what we are in the eyes of God? “Forgive us our debts…”? And if we really think that we are debtors to God, then this parable shouldn’t make us feel awkward – in fact, maybe it should be our favorite parable of all.

Thanks be to God

The Right Way

(sermon 8/25/19)

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Photo by KML. Used with permission

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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So there she was – hunched over, unable to stand up straight for almost two decades, in pain all that time, and you know there are few things worse than back pain – and yet she still managed to find a way to get to the synagogue most weeks. This week, she was running a little behind and didn’t get there until after things started. One person shifted a bit to make room for her to sit down there in the back, trying not to disturb anyone while she got settled in. That one busybody that every synagogue seemed to have looking over at her judgingly because she’d come in late; most people not even really noticing her at all.  But Jesus noticed her, and because he did, this would be the day she went down in history. It’s a shame that we don’t even know her name; we really should, but in any case, on this day Jesus healed her from eighteen years of discomfort and misery. Her pain, her burden, had been lifted. And the story tells us that all the people were amazed and rejoiced at what had happened – except for one.

The head of the synagogue wasn’t impressed at all. For some reason, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, he couldn’t see the goodness of helping this woman in need for what it was, because of the way Jesus did it. It broke the rules. Things have to follow the rules, or they obviously aren’t right. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things, even good things, and this wasn’t the right way.

It’s a claim that has run down through history to our current time just as much as the story of the woman’s healing itself. It’s been a continuous point of discussion and debate within the church, and beyond the church, for that matter: what is the relationship of obedience to established laws versus breaking them for what’s perceived to be obedience to a higher moral and spiritual law? When do we obey the laws that govern us, and when do we refuse to adhere to them? This has been the center of the debate whether looking at the way the first Christians were supposed to respond to the persecution they received from Rome, to whether it was right to protest and even separate from the church during the Reformation, to whether the Church should support the Nazi regime in Germany or fight against it, to whether it was right for Dr. King and his allies, including our own Stated Clerk at the time, Eugene Carson Blake, to break the law in their protests for civil rights – was a Christian supposed to obey an unjust law out of respect for the established governance, or was a Christian required to disobey an unjust law as being invalid because it was unjust? I remember being a little boy and hearing my family members sitting around at family functions discussing the events of those times, the mid- to late 60s and the civil rights movement, and saying that yes, there should be civil rights and equality, but the protestors had to stay within the law – that they went a literal bridge too far when they disobeyed the law; that was unacceptable. And I’ve been through Blake’s papers. The letters he got, the personal attacks, were brutal, with people bashing him because as the head of the church he’d had the nerve to break the law and get arrested while protesting to desegregate an amusement park in Baltimore. We think that the social media age has made us all meaner and harsher toward each other, but looking at those letters to him, I can tell you the language was the same back then; the only difference is that back then it came with a postage stamp. And of course, we hear this same issue come up in the current refugee and immigration debates, when people say that migrants need to “do it the right way” when entering the country fleeing for their lives and safety. What’s the answer to this question?

From the standpoint of the scriptures, Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And throughout Christian history, people who have argued for unquestioned obedience to the established order have quoted this passage as a definitive answer – even while they forget that it really can’t be quite that definitive, since the man who wrote this was himself sitting in a prison cell for defying the laws of the government, and who wrote that he was proud to have done so as a matter of faith, and who urged other believers to stand fast just as he had. Even more significantly, it’s no small thing to remember that at the very center of our faith is the crucifixion of Jesus, which was a direct result of his civil disobedience of Roman authority.

But let’s go back to the woman in the synagogue who was healed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been there in the synagogue that day? Everyone having come together from all the different events and cares of their own week, all of their problems, all of their setbacks, the continuous stream of bad and bizarre news showing up on their Facebook feeds to the point of emotional exhaustion – and then this. Something pure, and good, and right, happening before their very eyes, giving them hope that despite all the rest, God was with them, and that God was good. Jesus healing this woman was inspiring, joy-causing proof that there was indeed a right way and a wrong way to do things, and when it came right down to it, to do good – to be kind, to be compassionate, to be helpful, to love, is always the right thing, regardless of what any rules or regulations or laws might say to the contrary. Any rule or regulation or law that didn’t help to offer love offers hate, and any rule or law that offers hate is an immoral and invalid law that in God’s eyes doesn’t need to be obeyed; *should not* be obeyed. To always act in this way is, in fact, “doing it the right way.”

In this story, we hear that the people there rejoiced when Jesus healed the woman. In that moment, all the negativity they were experiencing off their shoulders and they felt refreshed, renewed, inspired.

I believe that it’s the same with us, too.  When we’re faced with questions of whether a rule or regulation or law is good or proper and to be obeyed; or whether to disobey it favor of a greater moral, spiritual good in the kingdom of God; when we have to decide what “doing it the right way” really means, all that we have to do is follow the simple theology of Mr. Rogers – “Just be kind.” Always choose to do the kind, compassionate thing, and we will *always* be doing the right thing. We will always be doing it the right way. And we should do it out of gratitude, knowing that God has been kind and compassionate and loving to us in our own lives, even when the rules and regulations and laws have opposed it. So out of that gratitude, we too are called to do things this right way, regardless of what the rules and laws say. Because it isn’t just Mr. Rogers’ theology, it’s Christ’s theology, too, so it should be all of ours as well?

Thanks be to God.

Stress and Shalom

(sermon 8/18/19)

plastic army men

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

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Watch this sermon online: https://bit.ly/2Mqe7PM

There was a Washington state representative who’d gotten himself in some trouble a while back when a manifesto he’d written was leaked to the public. The representative is an extremist conservative Christian, and his manifesto was titled “The Biblical Basis for War;” it was all about how people who shared his religious and political views needed to prepare themselves for a coming holy war between them and Muslims, liberals, and pretty much everyone in the world who didn’t hold to their specific extremist beliefs. This man found himself back in the news this past week because it was discovered that he was connected with a group that runs camps for adult men, teens, and even children, to teach them actual combat techniques to prepare for this supposedly coming religious holy war.

The representative is far from alone. He’s just one person in a growing extremist movement within Christianity that espouses what’s known as Dominionist Theology. There are different strands of it, but they all agree on the idea that they have been specially appointed by God to exercise complete dominion over society by taking control of all religious, political, and cultural institutions, in order to implement their interpretation of God’s will on society as the law of the land – essentially eliminating the idea of democracy or representative government, and replacing it with an extremist conservative Christian theocracy.

These people are a very real threat to our country and our society, and their dangerous beliefs are increasingly being put into violent action. They believe that God ordains and blesses the idea that Christians – their kind of Christians, at least – are called to take control of government and society by force if necessary. They believe that Christianity isn’t supposed to be humble, or meek, or peaceful, but instead, it’s supposed to be strong, and powerful, and take the world over for God by force. It’s the same twisted concept that was used to justify the Crusades, and the so-called German Christian movement in Nazi Germany, and that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, and any number of other harmful movements within Christian history, and now we’re seeing it rise again. In each case, these people will point to certain snippets of scripture to justify their militant mindset – and today’s gospel text is one of those.

In this passage, Jesus seems on the surface to be looking forward to, he almost seems to be longing for, the violent divisions that his coming into the world would cause. So what are we supposed to make of this? Are these Dominionists right? Well, in a word, no; in fact, their twisted biblical interpretation borders on crazy. They’re actually so kooky that if they weren’t so dangerous, they’d be laughable.

But really, with all the divisiveness in the world today, it would seem like the last thing we need to hear  are words from Jesus that seem to glorify and encourage this kind of violent division as being God’s will, and that would give these extremist groups any cover. Still, here are the words that Luke attributes to Jesus, and these are the words that we have to deal with. So what’s he talking about here?

It’s really undeniable that Jesus is saying that his coming into the world, and the message of the gospel he was proclaiming, was going to cause great division, disagreements, stress, as people wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ life. Trying to understand the gospel that he proclaimed has certainly split families, and nations, apart; we all know that; and it’s done that on its own without any added help needed from half-baked pseudo-Christian paramilitary groups trying to start another holy war, or any addle-minded politicians who cozy up to them. If you just consider your own life, your own beliefs, I’m sure that you can identify some difference of belief, probably a strong difference of belief, between you and some relatively close family member. Parents; children; brothers or sisters, who just operate on a different religious belief system than you do. The division is real; the stress that it creates is real. And most of us don’t like or want confrontation and division; most of us would be much happier if we could all find a way to avoid that. But Jesus tells us that we really can’t ever totally avoid it. Sure, we need to work at being a peaceful, unifying presence; this is an important command that Christ has given us – but at some time or another, we’ll be unable to reconcile with someone else, and it’s going to cause division, and stress. The truth is, there are simply times that we’re going to have to take a stand for some aspect of our faith, and speak out against those who would have a different or opposite view. There will be times where we have to speak truth to power, and stir the pot, and even cause discomfort to some, in order to work some change for the betterment of God’s people. And sometimes, that will make us unpopular. It might cause people to say unkind things about us. Sometimes, it will probably lose us friends. It might even break family relationships, as Jesus mentions in this gospel text. I’m sure that most of us has experienced that in some way or another.

So we have to take Jesus’ promise that the gospel, and living it out, would cause division, seriously. But we shouldn’t take these words more seriously than many other promises that Jesus gave us. Most importantly, we should take seriously Jesus’ words that even when we face problems, divisions, stress, as a result of taking a stand to live out the precepts of the kingdom of God, and especially working to help make the kingdom real in the lives of others, not to fear – that as bad as those stresses might be, God has also promised us a life of joy, and complete, utter contentment and peace in every aspect of our present and future being, physically, spiritually, emotionally – a life of the all-encompassing peace described by the Hebrew word shalom. So here again today, we’ll eat bread together, and drink wine together. We’ll do it together recognizing our differences, even celebrating them, and praying for difference without division. We’ll come to this table as a sign of our desire to be in relationship with God, and not only with God, with one another. Coming to this table is a sign to the world that we offer a different way, a way of peace, a way of unity, a way of compassion; not a way of division, violence, or war. We’ll come to this table, this meal, proclaiming the good news of that time when God will end all divisions, end all stress, and draw all of us into unity with God’s self, and unity with all people, in the great eternal banquet prepared for us, and in the great shalom that we’ve been created to enjoy. That’s the dominion that we look forward to – a dominion that won’t be ushered in by a militia of violence and stupidity, but rather, by the incarnation of God’s eternal Wisdom, the Prince of Peace.

Thanks be to God.