Saturday, September 21, 2013

18 Sunday after Pentecost, Yr C, Proper 20, Sept 22 2013

I have said over and over that most parables begin with either the words, or the inferred words, the Kingdom of Heaven is like.... and then we have this from Luke. What does the preacher do? A parable has multiple interpretations, a parable has layers of meaning, a parable allows the listener to access it from many entry points. So this preacher finds these verses terribly vexing, but there is one thing I know about the gospel of Luke, and that is besides being the gospel of hospitality, one of the other prominent themes in Luke is the proper use of wealth. Except that it’s not just the use of wealth; it’s more like Luke is concerned with our relationship to wealth and how that affects our relationships with others. With this in mind, we sense a profound change in the rather interesting, if not terribly admirable, character of the dishonest manager. For while he once acted in a dishonest way to enrich himself, he now acts to enrich others and thereby establish a relationship of mutual benefit. 

Wealth itself is not assigned a moral position, like good or bad, wealth itself is neutral, although there are better and worse ways to use money. Luke seems to be concerned with relationship and how wealth affects that. So, lets talk about wealth and money and stewardship and consumerism today, and see where it gets us. Most likely, talk about wealth and money put us right on that slippery slope ethicists and theologians and politicians talk so much about.

But today I want to talk about my theology of stewardship and generosity. Wealth is a word, in scripture, that is much broader than money. Wealth describes everything God has given, and we, God's creations are commanded to be stewards of all of that. We are commanded to build relationships that enriching. And yet, like the characters in our story today, that is not clear or easy, and the slippery slope may get us anyway.

Some of you have asked about my family and my mom in Minneapolis, and I have responded with a little story about the household in which they live. My mom continues to live in the house in which we all grew up, and my sister with her husband and children have purchased the house and are committed to caring for our mother there as long as possible. This is where I smile, and continue, my sister has an overly generous heart, and has taken in a little homeless family that they know, who are now living in the basement, and oh yeh, our son Willie is living there as well. The house is a bit crowded and uncomfortable right now. And some of you will nod and remember, not unlike her sister who took in a homeless family who lived in the basement here at St. Andrew's for a time. Sometimes a theology of generosity is the beginning of that slippery slope, but to err on the side of generosity is the error I choose to make.  Thankfully Willie has a place to go, actually Rick's brother and sister-in-law are having him live with them for awhile. We continue to work to find a place for the little family in my sister's basement. 

So part of stewardship is generosity in all things, and part of it is about consuming less. In the last couple of years of tightened budgets I have noticed news programs doing little spot stories about how to spend less. I tend to talk to the television when I watch, and I say to it, "so which rock have you been living under all these years, those are practices that have been a part of my life, forever, and now they're trendy." Once again, it is practicality that gives birth to great ideas, but consuming less whether it is a result of less income or whether it is a result of a commitment to stewardship, is a good thing. Years ago, as a spiritual practice, I made a commitment to myself, as much as possible, to buy clothes and household goods that had already been used. And that is entirely related to my commitment to the St. Andrew's Rummage Sale as a spiritual practice. Collecting the stuff that we no longer use, and getting it to people who will use it again, and getting to know one another better in doing the work, is important and spiritual work. The king of reuse is my husband Rick, I've never met anyone who can see an object and imagine that object's next use better than him, ahh, the slippery slope.

I tell you these stories because I think sometimes we believe that stewardship and giving are up to someone else, and that other people are so very generous, and yet each of us is already doing this very important spiritual work. But we also need to continue to make our commitment to greet the world with a spirit of abundance and generosity. Each one of you has so much to give, each one of you is so very talented. And the good news is that we are not all talented in the same way. Sometimes I lament my complete and utter lack of art skills, I can't draw to save my soul, but I can replace the zipper in a jacket so that the jacket can be worn again and again. 

Here at St. Andrew's we see stewardship as more than simply contributing money to the church; it’s also about contributing time and talents, and volunteering for ministry and mission. It’s about reaching out to build relationships from a perspective of abundance instead of scarcity. So today, as we begin our new Sunday school year, and as we begin Bible study, and Education for Ministry, and Adult education, and youth group and everything else, we will commission each of you in your chosen ministry of generosity. And, I ask you to imagine something new for yourself. How can you be generous in a new and different way, how can you give of the gifts God has given you?
Thanks be to God. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

17 Sunday after Pentecost, Yr C, Sept 15 2013

My friend Ted Huffman, the pastor at 1st UCC, lived much of his life in Montana, where a lot of sheep are raised. He tells me that he doesn't know one sheep farmer who would leave his whole flock of sheep behind to go find one that was lost. He says any sheep farmer would consider that foolishness. Too great a risk for just one animal. Just foolishness. This series of stories we are reading from Luke, parables they are called, mostly take place with Jesus is the presence of the Pharisees, the law keepers. In this story they are grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. In many of the stories the Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus doing something that is not of the Law. 

You and I know what happens to Jesus at the end of the story, he gets himself killed. So you would think maybe Jesus could hold off on getting the Pharisees all riled up and play it safe. But you and I also know that's not what Jesus does. He behaves foolishly. He eats with sinners and prostitutes and he heals people on the day he is supposed to rest. 

So Luke sets up Jesus telling this parable. Imagine the crowd gathered, people were coming from all over to hear this teacher. So here you are, part of the crowd, and Jesus asks, "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?" Not one of you raises your hand, not one of you shouts "me! me!" Dead silence. You look around the crowd to see if there are any crazy ones among you. Because you know that is crazy talk. That is foolish. No self-respecting shepherd would do such a thing. But Jesus continues, "When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices." 

In that crowd of people listening to Jesus, you think to yourself, that is the stupidest thing you've ever heard. How does this guy keep his job? It's the darn sheep's fault that it got lost. It should have known better. Let it die out in the wilderness, it deserves no better. Why should any resources be wasted on a stupid, lazy, good for nothing sheep. But at the very same time you find yourself wondering what it would be like to be that one, that one sheep who was lost and gets found, that one sheep who is lifted up onto the shoulders of this foolish shepherd and brought home again. What would that feel like? Foolishness. 

That is the Good News, in the face of this kind of foolishness, Jesus lifts up that sheep and brings it home. Well, we all know something about parables. Parables tell us what the kingdom of God is like. In this story, the kingdom of God is foolishness. Where do you find yourself in this story? Are you one of the crowd, knowing full well no shepherd worth his money would do such a thing? Are you one of the Pharisees, knowing that you could throw Jesus in jail for inciting a riot? Are you standing there in silence, knowing you are that sheep, lost in the wilderness, whether because you blew it bigtime and made a pile of bad decisions, or whether because of your own bad luck, and for the first time you hear hope of restoration and healing. My hunch is that at various times and places in our lives we are any one of those people or sheep. That's how parables work.

We talk a lot about what people deserve or don't deserve, what we deserve or don't deserve. And mostly we hear that we deserve what we get. Natural consequences for our bad behavior is a good thing in keeping society functioning properly. And if natural consequences are not enough, then we've got the enforcement of laws. Irresponsible behavior results in losing privileges, or even brain cells or freedom, depending on what it is we've done. And that is the way of the world. 

But that is not the same as who we are in God's kingdom, and it is not the way of God's kingdom. In God's kingdom no one gets what they deserve, which is death. In God's kingdom, the shepherd will bring us home. In God's kingdom love wins. 

And what about the second parable we hear this morning? The woman who searches for the one coin she's lost. Where is the foolishness in that story? She would be foolish not to look for that coin, it is one tenth of everything she has. The third story is missing today, it is the story of the lost son. These three stories really need to be understood as a single unit. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The story of the lost son is full of foolishness, the son is foolish for leaving and throwing away his inheritance, the other son is foolish for feeling jealous, the father is the big fool for welcoming his son home again.  

It seems to me there is a clear call to foolishness in these stories. We are followers of Jesus, therefore, we are citizens of God's kingdom, right here and right now. So we too, act foolishly. In the face of a culture that says you get what you deserve, we believe that in God's kingdom love wins, and with that is grace, forgiveness, and healing. We foolishly fall on our knees, and receive God's love and forgiveness, and like the lost sheep, we are brought home. We foolishly live our lives offering the same mercy and compassion to others, and like the lost son, we are welcomed home. We foolishly know Jesus in the breaking of the bread and invite others to know Jesus as well, and like the lost coin, our wealth is immeasurable. 

Foolishness, that's what this is all about. And I thank God for that. Amen. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

16 Sunday after Pentecost Yr C, Sept 8 2013

Luke comes off a little harsh in this passage, don't you think? Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. That's not really what discipleship is about, is it? That's not really what Jesus asks of us, is it? Well, what do you think? Take up your cross and follow. Know what you're getting into before you get into it. 

I think what is being described in this passage is the cost of discipleship. Discipleship is not cheap, nor is it easy.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knows about paying a price, he was a a prisoner in a concentration camp because he opposed the Nazi's, and wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship, writes, "Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry." 

What Luke describes, and what Bonhoeffer interprets is not any sort of Christianity Lite. A low cost, low buy in sort of Christianity. It's not Christianity only on Sundays, or any days of my choosing. It is not Christianity that is about feeling good and being nice. It is not Christianity that is about getting what I want, or even being successful. The kind of Christianity that Luke describes means giving it all up, laying it all down. Following Jesus means letting nothing, not even our relatives or our possessions get in the way. The cost of discipleship is high, it hits us at the core of our humanity, it is about dying to that which is killing us, it is about rising to the new life that God promises us. Discipleship, following Jesus, demands our transformation.

You see, the Good News is that with Jesus, nothing is the same. It's not about how much you have, or what you can buy, or who your family is. Remember, honor was the highest good in Jesus' time, and the way to garner honor was to whom you were related. So the admonition to give up family relationship, father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, was about finding value and worth in being children of God. 

Following Jesus is about divesting yourself of all of your possessions and all of your relationships that keep you from relationship with God and with others. Jesus is a proponent of the sport’s quote, “Go big or go home.” Jesus does not seek Sunday-only followers or part-time disciples; Jesus expects our full commitment. Rather than giving God our leftovers, we are compelled to offer God our lives. Jesus asks us to take up our cross, by laying it all down. As another of my favorite philosophers so wisely has said, "Do or do not, there is no try." 

That same philosopher, who is Yoda, by the way, also said to his disciple Luke Skywalker,  "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." Fear will kill us, fear ties us up, fear lives deep in our guts and kills us from the inside out. Jesus knows this about us. Jesus knows that it is the fear of losing our possessions that keeps us accumulating more. Jesus knows that it is those possessions that keep us from living fully and completely. And our culture encourages us to accumulate more and build bigger. But the problem is that accumulating more only anesthetizes us to the reality that none of us get out of this life alive, so instead, we live as if we are already dead. It is new life indeed, that Jesus gives us.

You see what Jesus asks of us as followers is to live this life unencumbered. We are to live this life with our pack on our back, nimble and ready to serve. As Rick and I prepared to go abroad, we listened to Rick Steves, the PBS travel expert, on how to pack. He advised, lay everything out that you think you need, and then cut it in half, and cut it in half again. And Rick Steves also says, if you need it, you can get it when you're there. 

That's what Jesus is talking about. What we think we need gets in the way of living our lives wide awake, encountering the amazing world that surrounds us, accepting the hospitality of those whose paths we cross, paying attention to God's gifts, giving thanks for what is right there and who is right there in front of us. When we are carrying too much stuff, we miss the hospitality of the moment, we miss the invitation to rest awhile, we miss the connection to one another and all of God's creation. When we lighten our load, when we divest ourselves of that which we are convinced we must have, when give up our possessions, when we give up our fear and our anger, the world begins to let loose of us, and we are freed to receive the love that wins, the love that blesses, and we are transformed. We are changed into followers of Jesus.

This is your chance. What is it you are afraid to lose? What is it you need to lay down? What is in your pack that you can leave behind? Put it down, put it down. That is the cost of discipleship. And rise up to meet the new day. Rise up to follow the one and only one who can give you the love and life that you yearn for. Rise up to follow the one who loves you.