Sunday, September 19, 2010

17 Pentecost Yr C

The parables from the Gospel of Luke we have before us today are down right hard. I have read them over and over, and continue to be unsure of what they mean. I have read about them, spoken to colleagues about them, and continue to be unsure of what the message in this is. But then that is the way with parables. The nature of a parable is to ask more questions than to give clear and certain answers. You have to wonder at the wisdom of Jesus, and at the wisdom of those who eventually told these stories, and the wisdom of those who eventually recorded them. I think if I was the editor, I’d try to clear up the meaning, and aren’t we thankful I’m not the editor,because my certainty surely would not be everyone else’s certainty.

And all that is in addition to the entire collection of readings we have today, or for that matter, recently in these last weeks. I wonder how this is sacred scripture, how any of this is really Good News. We have been reading from the prophet Jeremiah, and it seems like the Israelites’ circumstances are getting worse, not better, but I assure you, there is hope, we just need to see them through these very dire circumstances. The Psalmist laments the place the community finds itself, they are feeling taken advantage of, they are feeling embarrassed, and they are feeling that God is angry at them, and yet they continue to look for forgiveness, and for help. The epistle from Timothy actually seems to have some Good News. The writer asks for prayers for kings and all who are in high positions, which is really to ask for good government. Good government brings about good order; good order gives good faith, quiet and peace, so that our savior, Jesus Christ can be at work, which is what seems like the only Good News today.

The parables that we have heard for these last few weeks are parables that call us to faith, and demand that we put our faith life in good order, and that order puts our relationship with God as the priority. Let’s take a closer look at the parables in Luke. I think these parables, although there are some difficulties, continue that theme of priority. This does not set up a duality, it does not say that God is good and wealth is bad. What it does say, is that God’s relationship with humans is the more important priority, and is our top priority. Everything else falls into place, everything else is ordered after that, including wealth.

I think what Jesus is doing in these parables is show us that faith forms, informs and shapes every aspect of our lives. The practice of faith prioritizes everything, first and foremost, wealth. That priority is what we have come to call stewardship. Stewardship is the reality that everything we have, is gift. It is ours only to care for while we walk this earth.

So what does that mean in our lives? When we leave this place, you and I have competing claims on our time, attention, and resources. Time, attention, and resources actually make up our wealth, wealth is not limited to money, wealth is so much more than money. It is education, privilege, genetics, nature and nurture. Wealth is all we bring to bear on our choices and opportunities. These parables tell us that faith in God has everything to do with wealth, and faith in God has everything to do with how we use our wealth. So these parables are about how we use our wealth, how we can be good stewards, in the midst of these competing claims.

What kind of completing claims am talking about? American’s have for about 200 years lived a Gospel of Wealth. That gospel has preached that God’s plan for humanity could be realized in the United States, and Americans could get rich while helping God realize God’s plan. Much of our politics has been built on this dream of self-development and personal growth and privilege. The economic circumstances of our common life in these last couple of years may be teaching us that priorities have been skewed and must be reassessed, in fact, the Kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.

As I was thinking about this I remembered a conversation I had with my brother who owns a construction company, he builds Hom stores, they are large furniture stores. I asked him one day about the furniture business, I see and hear ads encouraging us to buy a whole room full of furniture and that we can finance it and not pay any interest for years. I’ve never been able to understand how that works. I learned from him that the money is made not on the furniture, but on the sale of the note to the bank. The bank charges the interest and collects the principle, and the furniture dealership makes money on that sale, and then is out of the picture and doesn’t have to get their hands dirty in the interest mess. I, personally, question the efficacy of that sort of business, it seems to me that it is really a practice that puts the accumulation of money over and against what people actually need.

There is the claim that accumulation and surplus rather than sufficiency becomes the goal, and the goal comes to justify exploitative means, we have seen and experienced this in mortgage problems. There is the claim to power, and the danger inherent in the worldly power that money brings with it; the power to get one’s own way, to seek to buy people as well as things, to stamp one’s feet and demand immediate gratification. Such power leads to hubris, pride; believing that one is more important, owed more privilege than others; thinking that one is above the law and the ordinary standards of decency and citizenship do not apply, we see this often in the people our culture holds up as celebrity.

There is the claim to relationships, but riches can distort human relationships; the equality and mutuality of love and friendship are replaced with elements of calculation as people almost unconsciously modify their behavior, seeing some self-interest in so doing.

And underlying all of these, as Jesus so acutely points out, is the moral desensitization that occurs; the inability to discern what is actually enough in a world in which there is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed; the ethical obscenity of conspicuous over-consumption when so many suffer such poverty; the spiritual alienation from a human community in which if one part suffers, all the other parts suffer with it, and the consequent loss of belonging to a human community in which if one part rejoices all the other parts can rejoice with it.

So in the end, our true life consists not in our wealth, but in what we value, and in how we attend to what we value, how we practice the priority of God in response to the reality that God values us, that God loves us amazingly and abundantly.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Sunday, September 12, 2010

16 Pentecost Yr C

The gospel of Luke today is incredibly hopeful and joyous. The lost sheep and the lost coin stories that we heard read today are followed by the story of the prodigal, which we don’t hear today, but we probably should. We hear that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. The question I ask so often is where do you find yourself in this story; and the answer for many of us is right here, as one of these lost ones. We find ourselves right here. I do, anyway, often I find my self being carried back into the sheepfold by the Good Shepherd. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. This is Good News indeed. It is never too late to turn around. These lost things stories are stories about God’s amazing grace. No matter how dire the consequences of your actions have turned out to be, they will never keep you from God’s embrace.

There is nothing we can do that will keep us from God’s embrace, from God’s love, from God’s grace. And yet, we are so good at keeping our gaze away from all of that. Repent means to turn around, so sin is when we turn away from God, sin is when we set our sights on that which is not God, sin is when we fool ourselves into believing that God does not care. God cares, God loves, God embraces, all we have to do is turn around and let the embrace enfold us.

That is not to say that there are not consequences for turning away, oh yes there are consequences. You and I know that. Our Old Testament is full of the stories of God’s people turning away from God and the consequences of doing that. We hear from the prophet Jeremiah today about the foolishness of the people. We hear the consequences of that foolishness, the fruitful land became a desert, and the earth shall mourn. The kings of Judah became more interested in wealth and power, those things that are idols, than in shepherding their people. You see, when we turn away from God, we turn toward worshipping idols; we worship that which is not God. We turn toward that which seduces us, that which seems so very very attractive. And in turning, we miss the mark.

And what’s so very difficult about it is that most of the time we are pointing in the approximate direction, we are full of good intentions. You know what this is like, But the reality is that we are human, and we will continue to make mistakes, we will continue to suffer the consequences of our decisions to turn away from God. We will continue to miss the mark. The Good News is that in the midst of our mess, God never gives up on us, God never gives up on us, God takes us back, even when we give up on ourselves, even when we give up on each other.

The gospel writer introduces the stories we hear today by telling us that the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We learn about God’s amazing grace and love by what happens in these stories. These are stories that are told as a response to the grumbling Pharisees, and they are also telling us about why Jesus spends time with people he’s not supposed to hang around with. The Pharisees tend to measure holiness by avoidance. Pharisees are identified by what they don’t do. They don’t touch dead bodies, bodily secretions, unclean animals or wrongly prepared food. These were very clear boundaries, if holy touched unholy, the holy ceased to exist; therefore, it is best to avoid the unholy. And of course it is best not to hang around with questionable, unclean, people.

But, there goes Jesus, hanging around with questionable, unclean people, sinners, outcasts, women and children. Not only does Jesus hang out with questionable people, maybe people just like you and me, but Jesus also tells these stories that seem so odd. Everyone knows that a shepherd would not leave 99 sheep to find the one idiot sheep that can’t seem to stay with the herd. The shepherd leaving the herd would be sure death for the rest of the herd; the wolves lay waiting for the chance to pounce. Besides which, one sheep on it’s own is sure death. Why would the shepherd even bother. It’s an economic matter really. The parable of the lost coin makes a little more sense. The loss of one coin out of ten is an urgent matter, especially since the woman is probably a village peasant. Her coins likely represent the family’s savings, not huge, but the loss of even one coin would be a catastrophic event. Both of these are followed by the story of the prodigal, which is a whole other sermon itself. That’s a story that on the surface makes no sense at all, because the son who took his inheritance and left, really disowned himself from his family.

The commonality of all these stories is twofold. There is celebration in each of them, and there is inclusion of those who are on the margins, those who are outsiders.

So two things become important I think. First, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who turns back toward God. I think this means that there is never a time when we are outside the possibility of God’s embrace. God’s love for us is never-ending, it is amazing and abundant. God loves you, and that love is transforming. That love causes us to respond to God in ways that turn us back, that set our faces toward God.

Secondly, God’s love is available to all, even those who don’t look like us, act like us, sing like us, pray like us. Our job as disciples, and discipleship is Luke’s agenda, is to go out and be God’s light and life in the world. Our job as disciples is to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God’s amazing and abundant love. We must carry into the world God’s love and the reality of God’s forgiveness; we must show that no one is ever outside of God’s embrace.

And, we may invite them to the party. We may invite them to this place where we gather together to celebrate God with us, where we are made into God’s body as we pray together, as we hear the word together, as we turn our sights back toward God, as we stand side by side and receive the gift of bread and wine, the gift of life, and are transformed into the people God creates us to be.

Thanks be to God, Amen, Alleluia

Saturday, September 4, 2010

15 Pentecost Yr C

Hate is such a strong word. It’s a word we hate to use, unless we thrust it in anger, as a weapon to injure. I hate you is used to rip and tear at the one who struck first; it is used by the child to make a deep impression on the parent. Hate is a word that is banned in some households, and yet here it is, right in our bible, read loudly and clearly by (Virginia) (Marty). Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes-even life itself, cannot be my disciple. We may as well get up and leave now, because how many of us are willing to be disciples if this is what we must do? What in the world is Jesus saying?

At the very least Jesus is saying that being a disciple is not easy work. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple, Jesus says. What Jesus is saying is that sometimes you really do have to choose. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t be a disciple and expect the easy path. It’s about embracing a life that constantly and consistently chooses mercy and compassion. Jesus presents in this passage, similar to what we heard a few weeks back, the idea that the kingdom of God is about redefining relationships, it is a radical realignment of family and kinship, of possessions, power, and priority, and it is ultimately about stewardship.

This gospel is a challenge; it is about where God is calling us to, not where we’ve been on our own. It is about the present and future kingdom, the kingdom in which we are citizens, disciples, and what that needs to look like. Discipleship is about changing the way we see the world, and being changed by that radical realignment.

This gospel demands that we change our understanding of ownership and our attachment to things. It demands that we change our understanding of kinship, and it demands that we re-prioritize. The difficulty, the hard part of discipleship, is making this radically counter cultural choice, and turning from the cultural message of possession, of ownership, of prosperity, and of greed; to an understanding of stewardship. Stewardship is a biblical priority. Stewardship is who we are as Christian disciples; it is a way of being. Stewardship does not define any one dimension of the Christian life; it describes the whole of being Christian. It is based on Jesus presented in the New Testament not in the role of owner, but as the authentic and preeminent steward, the Great Steward. And we, who are incorporated into the life and work of the Great Steward have been given much, and our failure to give much in return is especially serious. Stewardship is a function of our relationship with God. Stewardship has to do with the ordering of our lives, it impacts how we set our priorities and how we spend our time.

These verses are so difficult, and others like it as well, because this radical realignment away from possessing and toward stewardship is so not valued in our culture. This is not about getting rid of everything we have; it is about putting what we have in its proper place. This is not about getting rid of our parents, our spouse, our siblings or our children, it is about priority. There are cultures today as there have been cultures throughout history that consider wives and children possessions. The 1st century Mediterranean culture in which the gospels arose was that way. You may chuckle at that today, but we have not moved very far away from that reality. We are not far beyond the language in marriage that asks who gives this woman to be married to this man? This is not a question of sentimentality; it is a question of possession. A woman is transferred from the possession of her father to the possession of her husband. And we often hear reference to our children belonging to us.

The false illusion of our culture lies even more clearly in our relationship with our things and our money. This is the relationship for us that needs to be radically realigned. This is the relationship that needs to have proper priority in our lives. All that we are and all that we have is gift. Taking that reality seriously causes us to realign our priorities. We begin to make our choices and decisions through mercy and compassion, instead of greed and prosperity.

But most importantly, the radical realignment of relationship and priority has everything to do with how the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, the Good News of the cross and resurrection, shapes every aspect of our lives and relationships. It has everything to do with our work and our school and our play. What you do with your work and your life is your discipleship, it is your ministry. How you let the reality of this relationship shape your labor is stewardship. Voters and volunteers, website managers and temp workers, bus drivers and barbers, students and secretaries, parents and payroll officers, ranchers and farmers, teachers and musicians, all of what you do, when you offer your time, talent, and labor to God, is bearing your cross by allowing the whole of your lives to be shaped by your commitment to Christ. That is amazing. What you do, how you arrange your priorities matters to God and makes a difference in the world.

I am imagining all of you our there, in this community, treating the people you work with, you go to school with, you play with, with mercy and compassion, with respect and dignity. I am imagining all of you out there in this community making a difference in your piece of the kingdom.

Amen