Occam’s (Twin-Blade) Razor

(sermon 3/18/18)

my razor-resized

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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This is my razor. I bought it when I was 18 years old, just a week or two before I went off to Penn State for undergraduate studies. It’s followed along with me ever since, wherever I’ve gone, whatever I was doing. I’ve shaved with this razor pretty much every day for almost 40 years. I’ve never replaced it with some newer, better one because as far as I was concerned, it did its job just fine and it wasn’t broken. To some people in our society, for me to not have bought a number of fancier, upgraded razors in all those years makes me not just a little odd, and not just cheap, but a troublemaker. Not a team player. A rabble-rouser; a dissident. I am the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of shaving. Because since the end of World War II, our economy, our society, has been built on the concept of continuous consumption. We’re taught from almost every direction that we should always want more than we already have. And once we have it, we need to buy a nicer, newer version of it just a year or two later. We’re told – and more often than not, we internalize – that our own worth is dependent on our “stuff.” If we have the newest of technology, the nicest furniture, the most current clothing, then we matter; and if we don’t, we don’t.

This isn’t just my opinion; it’s reality, and it isn’t just coincidence that this is the way things are. It’s intentional. After World War II, when we had a huge workforce coming home from the war looking for work, and a massive industrial structure needing some new purpose, a well-known economic analyst named Victor Lebow advised the government and industry leaders that our enormously productive economy required that we make consumption a way of life – making buying and selling of goods our formative social rituals, the rituals that give shape and meaning to our lives. Society needed to be altered so that we sought our actual spiritual satisfaction in consumption. The government and industry were all too eager to implement this strategy to keep a robust economy going, and now, for many people, their sense of self-worth is entirely wrapped up in the stuff they possess.

And yet, despite having more and better and nicer stuff than any other society in the history of the world, we aren’t content. We aren’t spiritually satisfied at all. In fact, at the same time we’re the generation that has the most material stuff, we also have the most psychological stuff. Generally speaking, we are  the most spiritually unfulfilled, dissatisfied, depressed, anxiety-ridden generation in history. How can this be?

Well, I introduced you to my razor earlier; now I’ll mention a more famous one – Occam’s Razor; the philosophical principle that when you’re trying to determine the solution to a question or problem, the most likely answer is the simplest one; the one that relies on the fewest assumptions or what-ifs. In this case, the simplest answer to the question of why we’re so unhappy even with all this stuff, is that the whole idea that stuff can make us happy and fulfilled is wrong from the very outset. We *can’t* find happiness through obtaining stuff. We can’t derive a sense of self-worth through consumption. We’ll never find spiritual satisfaction through material goods.

Even though all of us sometimes fall victim to this big lie that our society tells, in our hearts, and especially as followers of Jesus, we know that stuff isn’t a real solution. We’re reminded throughout the scriptures, and throughout Jesus’ teaching as we heard in today’s reading, that God has a better idea for us – that our peace, our fulfillment, our happiness, comes entirely through God’s mercy and unending love for us, poured out on us every day.

Of course, we all need some stuff, in order to get by and enjoy our lives, but because of this covenant relationship that God has made us a part of, we don’t have to be enslaved by it. We don’t have to be emotionally and spiritually impoverished by the pursuit of more and more things. Because of our covenant relationship with God, we can relax. We don’t have to get caught up in the constant burdensome cycle of working harder to buy more stuff, and then throwing 99% of it all out within six months’ time and having to work harder to replace that stuff that was perfectly fine that you just got rid of.

And the problem here isn’t just physical stuff, either. Here, as the church, for example, we can fall victim to what I’ll call the “consumption of concerns.” There is just so much need in the world – so many projects to do this good thing, or to work to stop this other bad thing, or to help this person, or to support this group, and we can fall victim to the idea that we have to just keep doing more and more and more stuff in order to get God’s approval or to really show that we’re good Christians. And sometimes, it can all just become exhausting.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, all of those things are important expressions of faith that we all need to be involved in. But sometimes, we also need to slow down, and relax. To realize that Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and in me you will find rest.” He didn’t say “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I’ll pile some more on your shoulders.”

Some of the subjects during our Lenten series have called us to action in a number of good and important ways. Today’s focus is in a different direction. It isn’t a call to more, but rather, to less. To buy less, and yes, from time to time, to also do less, in order to refocus on God’s immense, unending love. To remember how loved we are by God, and how God wants us to be at peace. To have contentment and fulfillment. To remember that in Christ, we find our peace. In Christ, we have our contentment. In Christ, we recognize just how immense our value is in God’s eyes.

So if that’s true – and I believe it is  – then take time during Lent to focus on where, and how, you feel a closer, deeper connection with God, in order to build on that sense of contentment. Were and when do you feel most connected with God? Is it a particular place? Is it with particular people that you love? Is it being *away* from other people, enjoying solitude? Is it in times of prayer and meditation? Is it a particular time of day, or doing a particular activity? When you do think about wherever and however you feel most connected with God, you’ll likely recognize that that connection really isn’t dependent upon your “stuff” at all.

And once you recognize how you connect more deeply with God, follow through with it. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to society’s big lie; become a bit of a countercultural dissident yourself – find your self-worth and your spiritual satisfaction with God, and not a gift card. Take that personal “quiet time” in your day. Carve out more time to be with whoever the special people are in your life. Make that trip to that wonderful, special place where you always intensely felt God’s presence. And when you go, remember to pack your razor.

Thanks be to God.

*For more detail about some of the things I refer to in this sermon, see “The Story of Stuff,” a wonderful short video, at https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/

Written on Their Hearts (sermon 3/22/15)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:31-34

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Every so often, ministers have step into their pulpits on the Sunday after some big event that has some major and lasting effect on the church that has to be addressed. Maybe think of the Sunday after 9/11, or the Sunday following “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. Or maybe not something that big and bold; maybe think just from our own Presbyterian viewpoint, the Sunday after our very own Presbytery voted to ordain Margaret Towner as the first female Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, and the uproar that caused – even leading to the formation of a new splinter denomination of Presbyterians who thought ordaining women was contrary to the clear teaching of the scriptures. I’m sure that there are at least a few members of our congregation who have personal memories of that.

Well, maybe this is another “Sunday after the Big Event,” at least as far as Presbyterians are concerned. Our denomination has been voting on a proposed amendment to our Book of Order that would affirm that Christian marriage isn’t limited exclusively to one man/one woman, but that it also includes same-sex couples, too. By now, most if not all of you have seen in the news that although the Presbytery voting is still going on, there have been enough Yes votes that the amendment has passed. The voting will continue, but all along the measure has been passing by more than a 2 to 1 margin.

This is very big news, for our denomination and for our society at large. This change, and the one a few years ago that permitted ordination of LGBT deacons, ruling elders, and ministers of Word and Sacrament, is the culmination of a debate about the place of LGBT Christians in the life of the church that’s been going on in our denomination for more than thirty years. It might not seem to be quite as big a deal to us here at Westminster. We’ve been welcoming to the LGBT community for several years. Our wedding policies were already revised to accommodate marriage equality. And you showed you weren’t just paying lip service to inclusivity when you welcomed a gay pastor to serve the congregation.

The whole issue of full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT Christians is obviously something that I have a personal stake in. Of course, I believe that these recent Constitutional changes in our church are a good thing, a great thing – a thing that moves us all as the church closer to Christ’s message and the truest meaning of the scriptures. This vote makes me want to forget about this dreary, penitential purple stole that I’m wearing for Lent, and to slip on my spiffy new rainbow stole, and get out of the pulpit and laugh, and clap, and jump up and down and pump my fist in the air and say “YEAH BABY, YEAH!!!”

But I can’t do that – well, not much, anyway. I can’t, because I know that as happy as I am, and as happy as many of you are, celebrating this as a great step forward for the church, I know that in other congregations, and in this congregation, there are brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with this vote. People who think this is going in the wrong direction. Good, decent, deeply committed Christians – people we worship with; fellowship with; serve with. People who don’t hold their views out of hatred for LGBT people, but who are just trying to be faithful to God and the written scriptures to the best of their understanding.

I know these brothers and sisters don’t harbor hatred in their hearts. I know that because for most of my life, almost up until the time I realized my own sexual orientation, I shared their understanding, and I knew that my beliefs weren’t based in hate; they weren’t intended to be hateful. I know that there are good, sincere brothers and sisters on both sides of this issue who just disagree. So what do we do with that? How are we supposed to continue moving forward, united, as the body of Christ?

I think that today’s text from Jeremiah gives us a clue. It was a message sent to the people of the nation of Judah, whose country had been overrun, who were living in captivity in Babylon, and who had lost all hope for their future. They thought that even God had deserted them. They didn’t think there was any way forward from the dilemma they were in.

But through Jeremiah, God told them to take heart; that a day was coming when God would make a new covenant with them, when God’s Word wouldn’t just be written on tablets of stone, but directly in their hearts, Everyone would know the heart and will of God, and want to live into it. As Christians, we believe that we’re living at least partially in the time of this new covenant. That the fullest and truest revelation of God is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and that through God’s Spirit, this same Word is written onto our hearts.

So what do we do when we disagree about God’s Word that’s written on stone tablets, or on high-quality paper with gold leaf edging? We look to God’s Word that has been written onto our hearts. But what happens when we disagree about what God’s even written on our hearts? When people are equally convinced that what God has written on their hearts are two totally different things?

Maybe the answer in times like that – times like these – is to focus on the part of God’s Word, written on our hearts, that we agree on. The part that says we’re called to love and accept and be in unity with one another, even when we disagree. That through the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re supposed to share peace, goodwill, and hospitality with each other, treating each other with the love, dignity, and respect that we want for ourselves. Doing this in spite of our differences – and hopefully, not even spiting differences at all, but rather, celebrating them as being a witness to the incredible greatness, and diversity, and wonder of God’s creation.

He was a gay man who had quietly listened to the rejection offered by the church for years. He disagreed with all of those church positions and doctrines directed against him and others like him, but he still stayed faithful because he loved God and felt called to serve God, and called to love and serve the people of Christ’s church. And that included this man. He knew that this man strongly disagreed with the idea of gays and lesbians in the church, and same-sex marriage, and especially the idea of them serving in ordained positions. But as much as he disagreed with the man, he knew that his heart was in a good place. Together, they’d served meals at the soup kitchen, stocked shelves at the food pantry, cleaned up debris in the wake of a flood. Prayed together at the bedside of a dying friend. This man was a good and faithful servant of God, and he felt blessed to know this man. And as the two of them stood together, he felt God’s Word written onto his heart, and he stretched out his arm and held out the plate in front of him and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.”

As the man took the bread, he thought about the man who’d handed it to him. For the life of him, no matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get his head around how he could interpret the scriptures to say that being gay isn’t a sin, and same-sex marriage is okay, and that gays should be eligible for ordination. It just didn’t compute. But as much as he disagreed with the man, he knew that his heart was in a good place. In a huge leap of faith, he’d begun preparing for the ministry at a time when the church still banned him from ever being ordained, but he’d trusted in God and moved forward trusting that somehow, it would all work out. Together, they’d served meals at the soup kitchen, stocked shelves at the food pantry, cleaned up debris in the wake of a flood. Prayed together at the bedside of a dying friend. This man was a good and faithful servant of God, and he felt blessed to know him. And as the two of them stood together, he felt God’s Word written onto his heart, and he stretched out his arm and held out the cup, and said “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Amen.