Saturday, October 25, 2008

24 Pentecost Yr A

Which commandment in the law is the greatest? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, this is the greatest and first commandment, and the second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees, who were the experts of their day, is straight out of the Hebrew scripture, straight out of the book we heard read, Deuteronomy and again in Leviticus. Jesus knows those scriptures well; he didn’t have them written in front of him, like we do, he had them on his heart, and in his soul. Those scriptures are part of the very fiber of his being. Those scriptures were what each Hebrew boy and girl heard every day of their lives. They knew the dietary laws that we read today in the book of Leviticus, backwards and forwards, they knew the purity laws; they knew the stories of their ancestors.

Wednesday night we had the privilege of hosting Gerard Baker, the superintendent from Mt. Rushmore, here at St. Andrew’s. It was a gift to listen to him. He told us the creation story, he told us where he came from, he told us about his people. We sat mesmerized for almost two hours, listening to his stories. I don’t think anyone who was there even looked at their watch; we could have listened all night.

Knowing our story, knowing where we came from, knowing to whom we belong gives us value and worth. Being created in God’s image is where love is located. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind is about the truth of the story that constitutes us. God’s love for us is not about how we feel on any given day or at any given time. God’s love for us is the in the pattern of action that is the story that tells us who we are. I have told you this story before, you have heard and read this story many times. It is the story of creation, of blessing, of separation and independence from God, of repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection. In this story, God who is the creator of the universe, comes to be one of us, Jesus, lives, loves suffers and dies, and is raised to absolutely new life.

But we usually don’t see the whole story all the time. We catch glimpses of ourselves in the story. It is when we come out of suffering and sadness with hope and joy that we really can experience the love that God has for us. That is a sign of new life. Sometimes, when we listen carefully, we can actually hear God’s love for us in the voices of the people whom we encounter, especially at times of deepest sorrow or quiet joy.

How do you know about love if you don’t know where you come from and who created you? I suppose to many that seems an odd question. Many in our culture would look at me like I have two heads. Love is all about what we watch on TV, and see in the movies. Love is all about sexual attraction. Love is all about excitement. Love can even be about revenge and passion, if you really love someone you have to prove that somehow.

But love in the bible has nothing to do with how we feel. Love in the first-century Mediterranean world was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. The two commandments Jesus gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor. There is no one exempt from the category of neighbor, the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows us that.

So what we read today is a continuation of what we read last week. Last week we heard that everything comes from and belongs to God. Everything. This continuation of that reading demands nothing less than everything, heart, soul and mind. Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. As God has first loved us, we will love others.

This is Jesus’ call to us to ministry. Everything comes from God and belongs to God, and that demands a pattern of action, love God with everything you are, and love your neighbor; remembering that love is not how we feel, but a decision we make, a pattern of action. Love is a pattern of action. The pattern of action that God shows forth is, creation, blessing, dependence on God, forgiveness, and new life. This is how we are to love our neighbors, and our neighbors are everyone, the outcasts and the sinners, you and me.

So what does that look like? We have another clue as to what that looks like earlier in Deuteronomy. We’ve already talked about the first two clues, no other Gods, only me, and no idols, after that comes, keep Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath means that every seven days, every seven hours, every seven minutes maybe, we should stop what we are doing and rest, maybe even pray, “thank you lord for your abundant love and blessings, thank you for this moment to give you glory and praise.” We are to respect the people to whom we are related, and we are all related, we are to not murder, we are not to be promiscuous, we are not to steal, we are not to lie about our neighbor, and we are not to be greedy. These are the actions of love.

The results of all these actions of love are right relationships, and the results of these actions of love are a posture of forgiveness. Because as we all know, we are not perfect, but we are forgiven. This brings us full circle. The original question the Pharisees ask Jesus is which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus answers not with law, but with the pattern of action that is love. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

23 Pentecost Yr A

There are two questions of great importance that the Pharisees ask Jesus, and they are closely related to one another. One of those questions the Pharisees ask is which is the greatest commandment, and Jesus’ answer to that question is: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. The other question of great importance is really a group of questions all around the acquisition and use of wealth. The rich young man asks Jesus who can be saved, Jesus answers, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And the story of the widow who gives all that she has. And the story of the talents, and on it goes. And there is this question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

What we have in Matthew’s gospel this morning is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Entrapment. That’s what the Pharisees are about in this story, pure and simple. They know very well the Jewish law against creating images. We read all about that last week in Exodus. The Israelites took all the gold from their ears, their sons’ ears, and their daughters ears, melted it down and made an idol out of it. Not making and worshiping idols is the commandment second only to loving God. The Pharisees know what they ask of Jesus creates what we today call cognitive dissonance. You can’t act one way without compromising your morals; it’s the slippery slope. We go about rationalizing these things all the time. I do it on a smaller practical scale all the time, should I eat that doughnut, or should I eat that apple? I want the doughnut because I believe it will make me feel good, because I like it, because I deserve it, because it’s fun… But I eat the apple because I believe it’s good for me, because it tastes good, because I need the vitamins, because it will help me in the long run. What we do has to do with the priorities we choose for our lives. If you’re a list maker, you’d list the pros in one column, the cons in another, and make your choice.

But the Pharisees are trying to entrap Jesus, if Jesus says we don’t pay taxes to the emperor he’s guilty of sedition, but if Jesus says we use these coins with an image on them to pay taxes to the emperor, he’s guilty of breaking the commandment. Caesar or God? This is not just a slippery slope, it is a no win situation.

But Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees question, as is his answer each time they ask him questions about wealth is really simple. It’s all God’s. It’s all God’s. There is no hierarchy, there is no priority list, and there are no top ten things that belong to God. It is all God’s. You see, there is nothing that is the emperor’s. All wealth comes from God. And wealth includes so much more than money.

So this is up to you to figure out. All wealth comes from God, you live in a land in which order is kept by a mutual agreement that everyone shares in the responsibility of government and infrastructure and protection. Therefore you pay your share. But all you have still comes from God. The story that informs us and transforms us is that we are created by God in God’s image, and we are related to all of creation. God’s abundance in creation is already bestowed upon us. Our job is to hold it in trust, and to care for it. This then becomes what we call stewardship. God’s abundance, give to God the things that are God’s, and everything is God’s.

Many people I know have been reading a book called The Shack, by William Young. I commend it to you, in fact, I think it is required reading. It is a story that suggests an understanding of the Trinity that is creative, dependent, and joyous. Maybe I’ll preach on that come Trinity Sunday, but today I bring it up because I think the author’s understanding of the first sin, the original sin, bears on our understanding of God’s abundance and wealth. The author contends that what Adam did at the very beginning was to seek independence from God, rather than participation in the interdependence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Our North American religiosity is informed by the concepts of independence and autonomy. We are in fact proud of our independence rather than in our participation in the interdependence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The understanding of wealth in the bible has nothing to do with individual portfolios. It is not about acquisition, and it is anathema to greed. No wonder we have so much trouble talking about money, we hardly know the words to use. The understanding of wealth in the bible has everything to do with God’s abundance, with interdependence and relationship.

So if wealth has everything to do with God’s abundance, with interdependence with relationship and with all of creation, what does that mean for us?

Events in the world around us have been making many nervous lately. The stock market, the housing market, the price of gas. I don’t know what it all means, but I’m sure many of you are feeling much anxiety. So a passage like this, telling us in no uncertain terms, that none of our wealth belongs to us anyway, that we are interdependent, that God’s abundance is clear, may make you more nervous, or it may give you the freedom you need. You see, the real measure of our wealth is how much we'd be worth if we lost all our money.

Consider Richard Semmler:

Semmler, a 59-year-old mathematician, teaches calculus and algebra at Northern Virginia Community College. He can explain how to find the derivative of a polynomial and all sorts of complicated equations. But in his private life, Semmler has reduced his existence to the simplest equation. In the last 35 years, by working part-time jobs and forgoing such everyday comforts as a home telephone and vacations, by living in an efficiency apartment and driving an old car, Semmler has donated as much as half of his annual income or more to charity. His goal: $1 million before he retires.

Semmler said ‘If I didn't do all of the things I was doing, I would probably have a new car every two years and I would have a huge house with a huge pool,’ Semmler donated $100,000 to build a Habitat for Humanity house, which he also worked on himself to build.

Percentage-wise, Semmler's generosity is exceedingly rare among the middle-class -- or the rich, for that matter, say those who study philanthropy. Each year, U.S. households give away an average of 2 percent of their income to nonprofit and religious organizations, according to Giving USA, which tracks donation trends. A household with Semmler's annual income, $100,000, donates an average of $2,000 annually to charity. Last year, Semmler gave away $60,000. Semmler believes life isn't always about multiplying what you get, sometimes it's about subtraction.*

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It’s all God’s.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.

*Jacqueline L. Salmon. “The Washington Post.” Professor Finds Fulfillment in Emptying His Pockets. Saturday, June 11, 2005.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

22 Pentecost Yr A

I attended my nephew’s wedding on the last Sunday of August. It was north of Duluth MN, north of Two Harbors for those of you who may be familiar with Lake Superior’s north shore, just before you get to Gooseberry Falls. The wedding itself was outside, it was an amazing day on Lake Superior’s north shore, it was warm and sunny, quite different than what it oftentimes is, cold and windy. It was really a weekend wedding, people began to gather as early as Friday night, and in the midst of it at sometime, I realized that we were all there, all of my siblings were in attendance. My brother John roasted a pig, and we ate on the shore just about all day Saturday. The wedding rehearsal took place in our midst. The roasted pig from Saturday turned into Sunday’s pulled pork sandwiches, and the wedding took place in the afternoon, with reception and party following. I’d never been at anything quite like it, especially a wedding. My nephew is an actor and is living in New York, there were many New Yorkers there, young like him, 30ish, very well tattooed and pierced. The wedding attire ran the gamut from amazingly dressy to jeans and t-shirts, there didn’t seem to be any expectation of appropriate dress. It was also the first time I’d received a postcard, about 9 months previously, advising me to save the date. I appreciated that little notice, because it really helped me to make plans to be there, about 4 weeks before the wedding we received the actual wedding invitation. People came from far and wide to be at this wedding celebration.

In my life, the invitation to a party is an exciting thing. Part of the fun of a party is the expectation, the anticipation. Part of the fun of a party is being included, belonging. The “save the date” postcard I received for my nephew’s wedding went on my refrigerator door; the date went on my calendar. As soon as I received the actual invitation, I replace the postcard, I looked at it often, imagining the fun, imagining the family gathered, imagining the celebration we would have at the very first wedding of any of my mother’s grandchildren. It’s a bit unlike the response of the people in our story from Matthew today, they made light of the invitation, and even killed the messengers who delivered the invitation. The king may have shrugged and said, well then, if the chosen are not interested in the wedding celebration, then go and invite any one you want, they went to the outer reaches of the kingdom, they went to the margins, and those who came to the celebration were honored to be there.

The God of abundance has made a great offer, come to the feast. The God of abundance has set the table, has prepared a wonderful banquet. The thing about an invitation is that we can choose to come, or not. The thing about this relationship with God is that we can choose to be in it or not, we are never compelled.

As all these people arrived, people from all over the kingdom, people who were honored to be there; the ones who were tattooed and pierced, the ones who were curious and doubtful, the ones who were questionable and the one who were upstanding, the ones who loved and hated, but all people who respected the king and the occasion for which they gathered, these people received a wedding garment, a robe. The people gathered for this wedding banquet mostly were the people gathered from the margins, they were the people who responded yes to the great offer made to them. They put on the wedding garment with honor and respect to the King.

Except the one in our story. He won’t put on the wedding garment. Not putting on the wedding garment is the very same thing as not saying yes to this relationship into which he was being invited. The outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, is of his own choosing.

Putting on the wedding garment, putting on the robe, reveals a willingness to respond to the abundant banquet that is available to us now, and available to us at the fulfillment of time. When I reread this story, I was reminded of the garment each of us puts on at baptism, figuratively and literally. I have here today a baptismal garment, a garment that has been worn by generations of babies. It is a garment that re-presents to us that new creation we become when Jesus calls us over the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, day by day his clear voice sounds, saying “Christian, follow me.” We are dressed as one ready, ready to follow, ready to be a voice in the cacophony, ready to dive into the relationship that is offered to us by the one who prepares the banquet of abundance, the one whose hearts desire is to be in relationship with us.

When we put on the wedding garment, or the baptismal garment, it does not signify that we are finished, that we have arrived, or that we are perfected or done, because we are only beginning. We are saying yes to the abundant and amazing love that waits for us. We are saying yes to the journey of life and yes to the knowledge that the journey is not by ourselves, but with the one who creates us, the one who reconciles us, the one who revives us. Life is not a journey that should be taken by oneself; it is a hard and treacherous journey, as well as a joyful and exciting journey. It is a journey of love and forgiveness; it is a journey of grace and mercy. And it is a journey that our creator God desperately wants to accompany us on. So much so, that God came into this time and space, to be just like you, just like me, with all the joys and hopes, all the pain and the suffering, that human life has to offer. And so much love, that Jesus was willing to put himself in our place, to offer himself to suffering and death, so that you and I are not condemned to pain and sadness and tragedy for ever.

This abundant banquet is there for the taking. Nothing is held over our heads, no strings attached. The love that provides the banquet flows in and through and among us, and we have the opportunity to respond. We have the opportunity to pay that love forward. We have the opportunity to show forth the love that has been offered to us, and to be people of love and forgiveness ourselves. The response to this abundance that God offers to us through God’s son Jesus, is to offer that same love and forgiveness to others. It is not to hoard, it is not to keep to ourselves. It is to offer ourselves, as Jesus offers his life to us, we offer this love to others. The hard part is that Jesus offers this love to everyone, sinners included. Thank God for that, because that means you and I have a place in this amazing kingdom too.

And equally exciting is the abundant banquet that is in store for us at the fulfillment of time. We get a foretaste of that banquet in the bread and the wine that we share together each Sunday we gather. We get glimpses of grace, and those glimpses are powerful. One of those glimpses of grace is that everyone is included. You and I are included, the liar and the cheat are included, the tax collector and the sinner are included.

I think what is hard for us is that we come to believe that the abundance is the reward for right behavior, so that those whose behavior is not up to a particular standard can’t be part of the banquet. But that’s not the way it works. It’s the invitation that changes us. It’s the abundance that transforms us. It’s the anticipation and the expectation of seeing our friends and our loved ones that causes us great joy. Once we put on that wedding garment, or baptismal garment, we are not the same. We are made new, God’s love, God’s power, God’s abundance changes us. We can love others, we can forgive others. We no longer live for ourselves, or for greed, or for power. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live in relationship, and in relationship we find joy and peace.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.