“I Owe You One”

(sermon 2/25/18 – Second Sunday in Lent)

loan approved

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

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When I first saw this week’s theme, debt, I cringed a little, because the first thing it made me think of was the kind of sermons popular in some settings that run something like “Six Steps to a Happier, Wealthier You;” or “Four Biblical Rules to Health and Prosperity;” or something similar. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that Jesus wants us to be miserable, or unhealthy, or whatever; it’s just that I don’t think g that kind of self-help pseudo-therapy is quite what preaching is really meant to do. So that isn’t what’s going to happen this morning.

Still, debt is an important thing for us to consider as God’s people. The scriptures do, in fact, have quite a bit to say about it, both from the standpoint of being a borrower and a lender, and most of the time, what the Bible says about debt doesn’t exactly square with the way our culture tends to understand it or use it.

I admit that I didn’t look this statistic up, and I’m not sure where I’d go to find it anyway, but I’d be willing to bet that in this country, the single largest profit generator in our economy isn’t actually the making of any product, or the provision of a service, but rather, it’s the interest charged on loans to purchase those goods and services. They end up being just a means to the goal of financing the purchases, which is far more lucrative than just selling those goods or services outright. If I’m wrong, I apologize, but I’ll bet I’m not too far off the mark.

Debt itself isn’t inherently a bad thing. When we search the scriptures, we find advice to live modestly and within our means – or to use the terminology of this Lenten series, to “tread lightly” in the way we live, not ostentatiously, or wastefully, or exploitatively. That means that we should only use debt for certain types of things, and as little as we possibly can. I think we all recognize that incurring debt responsibly can be a positive thing. We take on deb for education, to improve ourselves and to learn skills that help us to make a better living. We take out a mortgage to own a home and build up wealth through home equity. These are good.

But there’s a dark side to debt, too. We can use debt to live beyond our means, or to just buy stupid things that we don’t need, and that only feed into our consumer-driven economy – and the idea that we should never be satisfied with what we have; we always need something newer, fancier, better looking, more, more, more. Taking on debt to do that can get us into all kinds of trouble.

This week, as we think about how we can personally tread as lightly and responsibly as possible, our of respect for our stewardship of creation, and of the financial resources God has entrusted to us, we can all examine how we’re using debt unnecessarily in our own lives. I don’t mean to be a complete buzzkill here, and frankly, I don’t think God wants to, either – we can all use debt occasionally to splurge on something special, as an exception; it’s just that we can’t allow the exception to be the rule.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we do have to look at how we use debt in those ways. A lot of conversations revolve around that kind of debt, and often people in the middle of extreme debt are all assumed to have just racked up debt foolishly, so there isn’t much compassion for them. But I think we also need to look at other kinds of debt, and to consider what our faith, what the scriptures say about it.  I’m talking about what I’ll call “desperation debt.” The kind of debt that you have to accept just in order to survive. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and maybe not even that, and you have to pay for some unexpected emergency expense – and you get sucked into the only kind of debt available to you – resorting to so-called “Payday lenders,” who lend money, legally, at an APR ranging anywhere from 500 to 4,000 percent. Or you face overwhelming medical bills to keep yourself or a loved one alive, and even assuming you have health insurance, the remaining balance you have to pay out of pocket is staggering, and you wipe out your savings and max out your credit cards, not because you want to, but because you have to. And under that burden, you struggle to not become another terrible statistic: even by the most conservative metrics, a full 25% of bankruptcies, 250,000 people, every year, are filed because of insurmountable medical debt – and that number may actually be as high as 60% of all bankruptcies, or 600,000 people per year. Christ calls us to be healers, but in our current system, we end up healing a body but destroying a life. Too often, in the end, on balance we haven’t healed anything; we’ve just shifted the kind and cause of death.

The scriptures do have advice regarding being a borrower. But the vast majority of scriptural references to debt have to do with being a lender. Requiring things like not charging interest on any loans. And beyond that, forgiving all debts every seventh year. And to not use manipulation and loopholes to get around the intent of these requirements. Don’t you wish your mortgage lender would practice that kind of “Biblical Christianity”? Can you imagine what that would do to our economy?

Well, I obviously don’t believe that as Christians, we have to call for the overthrow of the whole American economic system. But I do think that as Christians, there are some things that we are called to do, in order to achieve at least some of the goals of those kinds of biblical teaching on being a lender. Things like working to ban payday lender from legally charging interest rates that would make a Mafia loan shark blush. Or finding a way to put an end to people being bankrupted by medical bills, for even relatively common diseases and illnesses. I’m convinced that’s not what God would want from either our medical or economic systems. And I want to stress; this isn’t a political issue. I think we can all agree that the end goal of ending that “desperation debt” is a noble one, and one that our faith calls us to. We know we need to get from point A to point B. The specifics of how we get to point B is political, but agreeing that point B is the end goal isn’t. So however you might think the solution to that problem is best accomplished – whether it’s best done entirely through  the private sector, or entirely through the public sector, or some combination of the two, I think we can all agree that this “desperation debt” situation is not what God wants. I think we can all agree that God doesn’t want someone to be forced into financial ruin just because someone got sick, and that as a part of our faithful living as followers of Jesus, God would want us to work together to put that social brokenness – that social sin – to an end.

I believe that we need to do that, as part of our comprehensive, faith-based, scripture-based approach to debt, because we do know one thing: that debt is really just a softer, gentler form of slavery, and God’s will is that there would no longer be slave and free, only free. And that the only permanent debt that God wants us to have is a debt of gratitude, that comes from knowing that we have indeed been set free; that we are fully loved and fully accepted by God. And that out of that gratitude, we would work to help others, in the name of the one who first loved and helped us, to know that freedom, in every sense of the word, too.

Thanks be to God.

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Make It So.

(sermon 2/18/18 – First Sunday in Lent – Scout Recognition Sunday)

Courier-Journal 2018-02-18

2 Corinthians 8:10-14

And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.

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If you saw the church’s email this week, you know that this Lenten season, our worship will be based on themes suggested by the 2018 Lenten Calendar issued by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Our Creation Care Ministry Team first brought the calendar up for discussion, and after looking it over, it seemed like a good resource for us all to focus on during Lent. The calendar is really very good. Each week, there’s a scriptural reference lifting up a particular theme – some issue of how we might live in ways to help create a more just world, not only in terms of creation care but other related areas of justice, as well. The rest of the days of the week offer thoughts and questions for reflection, easy action items to do, and other things that are related to the weekly scriptural text and theme. Each Sunday in Lent, the preaching text will be that weekly scripture passage from the calendar, so using this Lenten calendar will be an easy way to relate what we get into on Sunday, throughout the following week. I hope that you’ll make use of this calendar; Thursday’s email included a link to download a copy of it, and if you can’t make that work, if you call the church office we’ll make sure you get a copy of it.

This first week’s topic is giving. Helping to create a more just world, in all the ways we talk about justice, is at the core of how we show gratitude to God for God’s goodness. It’s at the core of how Jesus teaches us to be his followers. Short of worship itself, it’s the primary way that we express our love for God. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the actions that we take to create a more peaceful and just world for all of God’s people, and the creation that we’re part of, are themselves a form of worship.

In this part of Second Corinthians that we heard this morning, Paul points out that God wants us to give of ourselves, not out of a sense of burden – and certainly not out of some attempt to buy our salvation through good works – but rather, as an expression of our faith, and out of thanks for knowing that we’re already part of God’s beloved community. Paul lays out some fairly straightforward thoughts, that in this kind of giving out of thanks to God, it’s what’s in the heart that matters, not the actual numbers. He essentially says the same thing here that Jesus did when he pointed out the poor widow who dropped three pennies in the offering plate, saying that she’d given more than all the others who were better off – because they had all given only out of their surplus, but that she’d given all that she had.

When we think of giving, that’s usually what we picture – putting money in the plate. Mailing a check. Automatic Bill Pay. Maybe giving materials in kind. But there’s another way to think about our giving, too. How about the idea of giving to create a more just world, by buying the more expensive Equal Exchange coffee, or chocolate, that you know the producers are being paid fairly for? Or spending a bit more for produce that was grown without using dangerous pesticides that pollute the environment or wipe out the honey bee population, which all our agricultural industry depends on? Or making the upfront investment on energy-saving retrofits, to cut down on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels? Or spending more for clothing or shoes that you know weren’t made by children working as slave labor? I know as well as anyone else that those lower prices are tempting, but it really is important to us, as followers of Christ, to live in ways, including the way we spend our money, that help to eliminate injustice and to care for our creation however we can. And if we don’t act in ways that eliminate or minimize those injustices, then we become complicit in them.

But there’s another kind of giving, as a component of our faith, that Paul talks about in this passage, that I think we have to think about this morning. It’s the giving of our full attention to something. Giving our commitment to see something through. Paul says to the Christians in Corinth that if they’d set out to do something, or had even thought about doing it, that now was the time to follow through and finish it. Stop all the talking. Make it so. I’ll bet that the scouts here today have been taught the same thing in their training – to have the perseverance to see something through to its conclusion. Even if it’s hard, even if you hit obstacles, if it’s the good thing, the right thing, then push through and complete it.

We’re in a time now where we have some major incomplete business in our society. We come here today with our hearts grieving over the most recent mass school shooting, in Florida. We haven’t even fully processed the last school shooting, the one here in Kentucky just a month ago, and now we’re dealing with another one.

You know, in a sense there really aren’t any new arguments to make about this issue. There aren’t any new insights that haven’t been offered, over, and over and over again. After every single one of these tragedies, one group calls for stricter gun control laws, and says that the problem is caused by too many guns being available, and points out that an eighteen-year old can’t buy alcohol because we don’t believe they’re mature enough to use it responsibly; but they can buy an AR-15. Another group says it isn’t a gun issue at all, it’s really a mental health issue – that there were plenty of guns when they were growing up, and every kid had a gun or two and even on occasion brought them to school to show off, and these kinds of shootings weren’t taking place. Another group says it’s all because we’ve lost our moral compass as a society, and that we’ve failed to instill in people an understanding of the value of human life and human dignity, and that the violence that bombards us continually on television and online and in video games has morally desensitized us. We have become morally numb, morally tone-deaf; and if you need any evidence of that, all you have to do is look at the front of today’s Citizen-Journal – the Sunday after this terrible mass murder, they don’t see how morally reprehensible it is to wrap their paper in a four-page wraparound ad for rifles and handguns.

To be perfectly honest, each one of those issues has contributed to the situation. The problem is complex; there isn’t any one single fix – but in the middle of the bickering and arguing, *none* of the problems get addressed. Not only are our gun control laws not reasonably adjusted for better safety and protection of us all, some of the laws already in place have been cut back. And there really is no adequate mental health care delivery system in this country, but in the wake of any shooting-of-the-moment, no one seriously proposes any legislation to fix that problem.  So lines get drawn, and all the ugly stereotypes get dragged out. Gun owners are all a bunch of stupid redneck hillbillies who just want to go around shooting up stuff and don’t care about innocent lives being lost. People calling for better gun regulation are all a bunch of wussified libtards who don’t understand guns, who hate guns, or are afraid of guns, and who want to take away everyone’s guns and get rid of the Second Amendment. And in the end, everyone just gets mad at each other, and everyone keeps talking across one another, and not a single blessed thing gets done.

Stepping into that, you know that tonight we’re hosting a Community Conversation on Guns and Gun Violence – not  because we think we’re going to come up with some new argument, or some easy one-step-fixes-everything solution. We’re doing it so that all of us, who come to this problem from different vantage points, different beliefs, different backgrounds, can have a civil conversation. So we can grant good, noble intentions of the other. So we can honestly hear one another, and maybe, just maybe, as we see the goodness and good intentions and humanity of one another, we can find some common ground, and find some way to move the conversation forward.

Because it’s time – no, it’s way past time, that we come together as God’s people to demand an end to this craziness. This is not a partisan political issue; it’s a matter of being God’s agents of love in this world. It’s a matter of faith. And as a matter of faith, all of us have to demand that our leaders enact sensible legislation that addresses all sides of this complex problem – because the problem has to be solved. Close loopholes and fix problems in the current gun laws. Enact national policy that establishes adequate, affordable, accessible mental health care, and that most definitely makes it impossible for the dangerously mentally ill to have access to guns. As Paul advised the Corinthians, it’s time for our leaders, and for us as people of God, and the people who put those leaders in place, to finish doing this good, this right, this important thing. And Church, if our society is in a state of moral failing, it’s on us – not the government – to reinstill that respect for human dignity and human life, and helping people to see how we’re all created in God’s image, and worthy of love. So if you think the answer is better gun legislation, contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on it. Make it so. And if you believe that this is a mental health problem, then contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on that. We need to do this, because just as with other forms of our giving, if we can do something to help end an injustice, and we don’t do it, we become complicit in it.

God calls us, God leads us, God is begging us to do this – because just as every time one of these tragedies happen, and our hearts break, God’s heart breaks, too.

We need to work toward a time when people remember “active shooter drills” in schools as some odd thing from the past, the same way that we now think of the “duck and cover drills” that came before them. In the name of Christ, whose name we carry, we need to work to make the kind of peaceful and just society where the biggest thing these scouts have to worry about is who’s going to win the Pinewood Derby.  It’s time, and it’s our calling, to make it so.

Thanks be to God.

The Healing Faith

(sermon 2/4/18)

Jesus-Healing-Peters-mother-in-law
An ancient depiction of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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Last week, we heard about Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. This week, we heard about him doing more of that, along with more run-of-the-mill healings while they were visiting Peter’s home, and starting with Peter’s own mother-in-law. I once heard a feminist theologian offer a somewhat tongue-in-cheek criticism of that part of this passage, wondering if Peter was really worried about his mother-in-law at all, or if he was just hungry and wanted her to get into the kitchen to make them all sandwiches. I laughed when I heard her say it, and reading the text I can see how she could get that perception. In the end, though, even though I read the exact same words, I don’t draw the same conclusion. I want to believe that Peter did genuinely care about his mother-in-law’s well-being, and even if he didn’t, Jesus did, and he would have healed her anyway, any thoughts of sandwiches notwithstanding. I know the theologian was joking – at least a little bit – but despite that, the fact remains that we were both reading the same exact text, and were different perceptions were coming to both of us, largely because we were unavoidably reading the words through different-colored glasses – glasses that were crafted by our very different, but both very real, life’s experiences.

Beyond Peter’s mother-in-law, the whole issue of healing is all through the gospels and beyond, through scripture. In fact, the whole idea of healing, in different ways, is at the core of the establishment of the church itself. Healing is one of our core reasons for being: Healing spiritual hurts and wounds. Healing physical illnesses, injuries, birth defects, and other physical ailments through the church’s caring ministries. In fact, do you know that the very concept of a hospital, as we understand it today, was the outgrowth of Christian ministries to the sick? There are other aspects of healing that the church is all about, too. Healing social ills by working to change unjust conditions and systems in society. Healing broken relationships.

Healing is a part of the very DNA of the faith, and the church. We were established by Christ, in large part, to be seen as an alternative model over against the way much of the world exists, which in many ways can be anything but healing.

We’re supposed to be a model for healing kinds of relationships, people being in caring, loving relationships who are from across a broad spectrum of who we are – just as the feminist theologian and I saw things through unavoidably different-colored glasses just based on our own life experiences, neither necessarily being totally right or wrong, and both likely having many common points but some differences. We, the church, are called to be this alternative model of being a loving community made up of people with all those different-colored glasses.

That fact is something that any pastor sitting down to prepare a sermon is keenly aware of. Every pastor stepping into a pulpit knows that there’s a fine line between hearing a sermon and a hostage situation – that no matter how many people are in church on any Sunday morning, there’s likely only one with a microphone. It’s a very sobering thought, a sobering responsibility that, I promise you, I think about and pray about every single week: how do I preach a message based on a given text that will be heard and experienced through glasses of as many different colors and prescriptions as there are people present?

Is this week’s text, laid up against the news of the week and the realities of our time, calling for a message that’s more “pastoral” and calming and peaceful? Or is it calling for a more “prophetic” approach, speaking out against some situation in the world that’s contrary to the core teachings of our faith, and that we need to work to correct, but for whatever reason, we’ve grown comfortable with? And whichever of those routes I feel God is leading toward – how do I even really know that my take on it is right? And how do I proceed from there, being aware of  all those different-colored glasses – and realizing that even faster than sugar turns to fat in our bodies, the theological becomes the political?

Well, that’s always been the pastor’s dilemma, but it’s become a more difficult tightrope to walk in current times – when our society has become so polarized, so hardened, on both the left and the right. We’ve allowed ourselves to become tribalized – we only associate with people who are like us – who look like us, who think like us, who vote like us, who basically live in the same area as us, who make about the same amount of money as us. We only read the websites that agree with us. We’ll only watch MSNBC but never Fox News; or we’ll always watch Fox News but never CNN. Friends, the church is called to be the “anti-tribe.” We’re called to be an intentional community, a family, that doesn’t pretend those differences don’t exist, but that forms a loving, healing community across all those lines, all those different-colored glasses. And preachers are called to proclaim the gospel to that diverse community – that diverse family. Sometimes, that will be calming and comforting. And sometimes, it has to be challenging.

That “preacher’s tightrope” is something that I’ve tried my level best to walk ever since I began pastoring. And believe it or not, in the past eleven years that I’ve been preaching pretty much every Sunday, I can tell you that hardly a month has gone by that I haven’t gotten complaints both that I said something too liberal, and that I said something too conservative – and a few of those times, these complaints were about the exact same comment I’d made.

When I was at that little church I mentioned last week, and wanting to break that “hostage situation” where only I had a microphone, I started something new – an “open mic time” right after every sermon. I invited people to offer immediate feedback to what I’d just said. People could ask for some clarification about something I’d said. Or they could say that something I’d said made them think of something they read in a devotional that week that they thought would be good to share with everyone. And sometimes – and I encouraged it – someone would say “You know, you said X – but I don’t really agree with that. I think that’s completely wrong.” And while we couldn’t take the time right then and there to get into it, we would set up a time to get together to discuss it over a cup of coffee or a meal, or it would spin into a topic for a future Sunday School class.

Some of my pastoral colleagues said my open mic time idea was stupid and crazy. I prefer to think it was gutsy and creative. Maybe it was all of those things at the same time, but in any case, it led to some of the most wonderful and remarkable and memorable conversations, for the people in the church, and for me, too.

The upshot of all this is just to say that it’s inevitable that whoever you are, whatever your theology – and therefore, whatever your politics – and no matter how hard I try to walk that tightrope, some Sundays you’ll hear me say things you disagree with. Maybe even something that makes you mad. And if you haven’t yet, I promise, your turn is coming; I’ll get to you. I’ll eventually manage to tick off everyone at some time or another. And when it happens to you, know that I love you, and I’m not trying to upset you. I’m just trying to go where I sense God is leading me on that given Sunday. And also remember that at the end of the day, no matter how hard I’m trying to say and do the right thing, I’m still just a flawed, imperfect human being, and sometimes, I just blow it. I ask for your prayers that those times will be few and far between.

That “open mic time” wouldn’t be a good idea here for a few reasons. But I still want that kind of feedback. I still want to share that coffee with you. I still want to have, I still welcome, those kinds of conversations, especially if I’ve said something that troubles you. Maybe sometimes, after listening to you, I’ll say “You know what, you’re right – I went off the rails with that comment. I was wrong; I’m sorry.” And maybe the outcome of the conversation will be for the two of us to share our different takes, and we’ll share a prayer and just agree to disagree, but we’ll each have a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s different-colored glasses. And most importantly, maybe together, we can come up with a way to show how, with God’s help, people with different-colored glasses can be that alternative model for the world – because friends,  if we can’t, who can?

Thanks be to God.