(Another) Unnamed Sermon

(sermon 8/4/19)

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Photo © Ken Chuchu

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “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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Imagine this scene: you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re explaining something in great detail, something important, something they really need to be paying attention to; and then, in the middle of that, the person will ask you about something completely unrelated to anything talking about. And you know that they haven’t been listening; their mind has been somewhere else. It’s all been a waste of time, ten or fifteen minutes of your life you’ll never get back. It’s annoying, and frustrating, and at one point or another, we’ve all been there.

It seems that Jesus was there, too, at the beginning of today’s gospel text. As it opens, Jesus has been speaking with a crowd of people, teaching them about the ways of the kingdom of God. And in the middle of his teaching, someone in the crowd pipes up and asks step into a financial dispute between him and his older brother, to convince the brother to split up the inheritance with him. It probably caught Jesus broadside for a moment, realizing the man hadn’t heard a word of what he’d been saying. And after he shook his head for a moment, he said to the man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Trying to refocus the man’s attention back onto God, the subject of Jesus’ message that day. Then, he essentially offered a warning to the man to be careful what he asked for; that while wealth and personal possessions weren’t an inherently bad thing, it can lead to greed – wanting more and more, and wanting to hoard it all for yourself, and maybe worst of all, eventually leading to a false understanding of where the wealth came form to begin with. For example, if the man in the story did actually get his brother to split up the inheritance, it wouldn’t be long before he’d forgotten that this wealth had been given to him, and he’d be telling people that he’d earned his wealth by his own two hands, his own hard work and smarts.

I say that might be even worse than the underlying greed because not only isn’t it a delusional lie, contrary to facts, it ends up poisoning the mind into thinking that the self is the center and measure of the universe. Greed leads a person to think that they’re a self-sufficient, self-contained system, insulated from needing or considering or caring for anyone else, including even God. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he tells the story of the rich man that he ultimately calls a fool. Did you hear the man’s inner monologue in the story? “What should *I* do?… *I* will do this… *I* will build bigger, taller… *I* will keep more of *my* stuff, all for *me*… it will all be by my doing, without anyone’s help, not even God’s, so *I* will say to my soul, good job; well done, now take it easy – you got yours; let everyone else worry about getting their own….” It’s all about him and his own supposed abilities – it’s a closed system where no one else enters. He’s good at gaining wealth and building things, but his life isn’t connected to anything. His buildings are full but his soul is empty.

Make no mistake: that mindset, regardless of the specific details and wherever and in whoever it’s found, is the complete, polar opposite of the gospel. It is the complete opposite of the precepts of the kingdom of God. It is the complete opposite of Christ.

And make no mistake about this, either: the same mindset that’s embedded within that greed, the wanting to have and to keep more of everything for yourself at the expense of others who are supposedly not as important as you; is exactly the same mindset, taken to its ultimate conclusion, that’s embedded in yesterday’s white supremacist, white nationalist terrorist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso – this man who came to believe that just by virtue of the color of his skin, he had a right to kill or wound 46 people all in the name of protecting the country from the supposed threat of brown-skinned people, and preserving the supposed “whitenesss” and white control of our country. It’s the same self-centered mindset that was behind the shootings in Gilroy this past week, and El Paso yesterday, and then again, not even getting a single night’s sleep after El Paso, early this morning in Dayton. It’s the same damned mindset.

I’m not going to say much about these shootings today, because frankly, I’ve run out of things to say. It’s all been said, over, and over, and over again, and I’m just sick and tired of it. I’m done with trying to craft  another lofty sounding prayer of lament, and asking “How long, O God, how long?” because at this point, I’m pretty much convinced that God’s response to all the beautiful sounding prayers offered up after another mass shooting is to scream at us to just shut up. That our society’s obsession with guns and violence, and using them in order to solve our problems, and that our current lack of common-sense regulation of gun ownership that still respects our Second Amendment rights is just insane. God has given us the intellect and the ability to do something about the problem but for whatever reason, we don’t. So I’m convinced that God’s response is to say stop trying to pin the problem, or the solution, on me; the problem, and the solution, lies with you.

Jesus was trying to get his listeners that day to stay focused on the real truths, the real priorities that he was explaining to them. He was trying to show them that he was talking about an alternative way of living from the insulated, self-focused way the rich man in the story saw life, the way that many people in the world see life.

The way of the rich man – the way of loving self at the expense of others, leads to hatred of the other, and all manner of harm and violence against the other.

Proclaiming and teaching and living out that alternative way, the eternal way of living, is what all this is about. This church family, this building, everything about us, is geared toward proclaiming a reality 180 degrees away from that other sick, twisted way of thinking.

Here, we’re part of a church family that includes people born not only in the United States, but Mexico, Iran, and India, and Hongkong, and England, and those just the examples I can quickly think of. Members of our church family are from all different ethnic backgrounds, and while we’re predominantly white, we are multiracial. Members of our church family are from different religious backgrounds – on a given Sunday, you can find members of all three Abrahamic faiths here in this place. Within our church family and our immediate families, we represent L, G, B, T, and Q. If you aren’t here in the building throughout the week, you may not know it, but with our ESL students and their children, you can often hear laughter and a dozen different languages being spoken. God draws all of us together here, under this roof, which was raised not like the rich fool raising the roof of another barn to hoard his stuff but rather, to shelter all of God’s people under it, to offer the world a witness to the gospel truth that all people are beloved and equal in the eyes of God. We come here, to this Table, to this sacrament, this common meal shared by all, to offer witness to our unity with God and with one another; to say NO to anyone who would preach the evil of separation and division and self-centeredness and the supremacy of one race or one people over another; and YES to the kingdom of God and to the dignity, equality, and value of all of God’s children. Here at this Table there is no room for hatred. There is no room for racism. There is no room for white supremacy or white nationalism. There is no room for xenophobia, for fear of foreigners, immigrants, or asylum-seekers. There is no room for homophobia; there is no room for sexism; there is no room for self-centeredness or exclusion of any kind because here at this Table, Christ says that there is room and welcome for ALL. That is at the core of the gospel. That is at the core of what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners that day. And that is at the core of our response to the evil of white supremacy, white nationalism, and hatred of the other that has become so common in this country today.

Amen.

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/

Being Rich toward God (sermon 8/4/13)

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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Pope Francis was making more news recently, this time with his trip to Brazil, meeting and speaking to throngs of the faithful – but not doing it in the way his recent predecessors have done, staying encased in a bullet-proof Popemobile and separated from the people. Instead, he rode through the city in an open vehicle and at various times inserted himself into the crowds, driving his security people crazy, and offering off-the-cuff interviews and comments, driving the Keepers of Dogma and Doctrine back in the Vatican crazy. Francis said his attitude about going to Brazil was to either do it right; being accessible and open with the people, or not do it at all – to leave it all on the field, as we might put it.

It seems that Francis is a different kind of Pope. When he needs to travel around Rome, he does it in a Ford Focus. He won’t live in the palatial papal quarters, but instead, he lives in much more modest accommodations in an apartment compound occupied by other priests, also. He dresses simply – you aren’t likely to see him decked out in the red velvet slippers with gold braiding that Pope Benedict was so fond of. He feels very strongly that in order to be faithful to Christ’s call, the Church can’t allow itself to fall victim to idolizing material things. That the resources, the blessings that God has entrusted to the Church, are best used in service to the genuine aims of the kingdom of God – feeding the spiritually and physically hungry, healing the sick, caring for the poor, all in the name of Christ.

Offering God a portion of what we’ve been blessed with, in order to carry out these great ends of the Church – in other words, stewardship – is a very important part of our individual lives of faith. And for the church to use those offerings faithfully, in a way consistent with God’s priorities, is an important part of our collective life of faith.

“All kinds of greed” – that’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage from Luke. Wanting more than you need, hoarding what God has given you in order to share it with others, using those blessings in ways that are more attuned to your own goals and priorities instead of God’s – these are all various forms of greed, and Jesus addresses them all in this lesson. As we heard, he gets on the subject when he’s asked to settle a dispute between two brothers over their inheritance.  He tells this story as a response to the greed that he saw as the underlying problem between the two brothers.

Sometimes, people point to this story to make the point that Jesus is anti-wealth. In fact, Jesus does offer us some very sobering thoughts about the dangers of wealth, but that doesn’t seem to be his real point here. The man in Jesus’ story hasn’t gotten his wealth by stealing, or exploiting other people, or in any other inappropriate way. If anything, he seems kind of surprised by his windfall. What seems to be the point of this story, and of a lot of Jesus’ teaching, is that, as more than one person has put it, our possessions actually possess us. Concern for our possessions very quickly make it difficult for us to truly care about what God cares about. Protecting and preserving our wealth and our material possessions distract us from true wealth – from what is really rich in God’s eyes.

God calls the man in the story a fool because he thinks he can hoard his resources all for himself, and because he spends his resources in the way he thinks is right, not the way that God thinks is right. All of his concern is about hoarding and selfishness; and spending money to build bigger barns in order to accomplish that selfishness, only compounds the problem.

In his story, Jesus teaches us the hard lesson that the Kingdom of God isn’t about keeping our blessings for ourselves. That isn’t why God has entrusted us with them to begin with. We’re called to use them in trust and faith for God’s real concerns, not for ours. That’s what Pope Francis is saying in his simpler way of being Pope. The fancy lifestyle, the lavish clothes, the luxury cars – these are all just forms of spending God’s money on bigger barns. They’re all expenses made while justifying them as important to preserve the stability, and dignity, and tradition of the church, while people who could have been fed, clothed, sheltered, exposed to the gospel, went uncared for. As unsettling as it is, each and every one of us – individually, and collectively as the church – will have to answer for the way we’ve used the resources God has given us. Have we been good and faithful stewards? Have we hoarded our resources? Metaphorically speaking, have we built bigger barns for ourselves in order to preserve our priorities over God’s? That’s what Jesus causes us to think about in this story, both individually and collectively. What good are bigger barns, if the grain that’s been stored up in them rots with age, while people go hungry? What good are bigger barns if there’s no livestock to fill them? What good are bigger barns if their cost obstructs, instead of advances, what’s important to God? Because really, God doesn’t want us in the barn-building business, especially if the barns are used to hoard and to hurt instead of to help achieve God’s real priorities. With God, it’s never about the barns; it’s always about trust and faithfulness, and using God’s resources properly.

Ramon lives in a poverty-stricken village in Honduras. Somehow, he struggled to put himself through the training required for him to become a Pentecostal preacher. He started a small congregation in his village, just a few people at first, but eventually it grew. And when it did, Ramon had dreams of building a nice little church building for them in the village, but his efforts were blocked in all sorts of ways, time and time again, no matter what he tried. Eventually, he came to understand that at least there, in that time and that place, God really wasn’t interested in a church building. But God was very interested in being present in the lives of the people of the village. So twice a week, Ramon clears out the living space in his tiny little house, and he sets up white plastic resin chairs in the house, and they spill out into the front yard, where chickens and stray dogs wander between the chair legs. And twice a week, the faithful come together to worship God in a way that’s a bit different than most of us are used to. It’s hot, and it’s sweaty, and it’s loud, and boisterous, and sometimes even chaotic. But God is present there, in the midst of those cheap lawn chairs and stray chickens, just as much as if it were a papal mass being celebrated in the Sistine Chapel. And those same, poverty-stricken faithful share whatever they have, offering a surprising percentage of their income, each week, dedicating it to God’s service. And in return, Ramon’s little church uses that money to take care of the things that God really cares about in the lives of the villagers – not paying off a building, that was really only Ramon’s dream – Ramon’s bigger barn – but it wasn’t God’s dream. Instead, that money goes to help provide clean drinking water. For transportation for villagers to get to the nearest medical clinic, and to pay for medicine that’s needed but that can’t be afforded. To buy shoes. To buy groceries. And doing it all specifically in the name of Jesus Christ, and while offering the villagers the hope and assurance of God’s love and compassion for them.

It’s for those kinds of things that God has given us what we have, and that God calls us to be faithful stewards of. As followers of Jesus, that’s one of our prime commandments.

There’s a principle of preaching that a sermon isn’t supposed to be all Law – all just beating people over the head with things that they’re supposed to do, but that ultimately, we can’t ever really pull off. A sermon is supposed to offer a message of grace. It’s supposed to offer a reminder of the truly good news that God has given us through Christ. It’s hard to find that good news in this passage, a story all about a fool, and what Jesus warns us not to be like. But there is at least one little crack of sunlight in the story, and it’s in the very last thing Jesus says. He mentions us needing to be mindful of being rich toward God. There’s some good news here, in that through Christ, we can at least see and understand what God considers rich and right. Through Christ, we can see and understand what God calls us to be, and to do – both as individuals and as the Church. We don’t have to fumble around or guess about what’s right; all we have to do is focus our gaze on Jesus himself. How he lived; what he taught. That’s the whole purpose of God entering into our world, in the flesh, to see, literally in person, what pleases God. It’s true that even though we can see the right path, we still might refuse to follow it, but the good news continues in that through the Holy Spirit, we can be emboldened and empowered to actually follow that path, as hard as it might be sometimes, as much anxiety and change and transition as it might mean for us. We can follow that path. Not perfectly, to be sure, but we can see it, and know it, and follow it. That’s God’s promise, that’s God’s message of hope and love in this passage, whether you’re a mild-mannered Pope from South America, or a loud, sweaty Pentecostal preacher in Central America, or a good and faithful parishioner in Middle America.

Thanks be to God.