Poverty of Goodness – 2016/09/25

Psalm 91:1-6
Jeremiah 32:1-15
Luke 16:19-31

Sermon

https://youtu.be/bIiOPG7bT3Y

     One of those devices in movies that just never gets old is the one in which you think that it’s telling a lot of different stories, but actually everyone is connected. I can think of two movies, both about ten years old now, that did that trick right around the same time. Babel, which was a Brad Pitt movie, was critically-loved and not as much by audiences. Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
     Crash was this movie in which a bunch of different characters are reacting to their life situations, only you find out that they’re all connected. For example, a policewoman and her partner, whose brother is a carjacker, who (along with his partner) rob the district attorney, who hires a locksmith, whose daughter is nearly killed by the shopowner, whose shop is constantly broken into so he looks for help from the police, one of whom assaults the wife of a Hollywood director, who’s later pulled over by the first cop’s partner. Actually, I’m pretty sure that every character in the movie is connected to every other character in two or more ways, so I’m not going to try to re-hash all the connections, but you get the idea. This device is one of those things that audiences love – seeing that these stories, which have been separate in the beginning, suddenly piece together to form a coherent whole.
     *Crash is a lot more about the complex racial realities of 21st century America than it is about how people’s lives are connected, but the way people connect to one another in spite of differences is a theme, if a secondary one, of the movie. I just want to make sure that we talk about the movie as it’s meant to be discussed!
     In Crash, the characters are all different races, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, and ages. What binds them together is living in Los Angeles, and a 36-hour confluence of events that makes them “crash” together. Today’s parable from Luke is a little bit like that, except that it uses only two characters, and is therefore much more manageable!
     Jesus tells this parable: there’s a rich man who wears only the finest clothing. Right outside his gate lies a poor, diseased man name Lazarus. Both of them die, but the rich man only receives a proper burial. We’re not told what happens to the poor man’s body – maybe it’s just left to rot, rather than the nice burial the rich man gets – but we do hear that his soul is taken up to heaven. The rich man descends to Hades – that’s the Greek term, which just means a generic “land of the dead.” While there, he is in flames and burns, but can see Lazarus sitting next to Abraham, the great prophet. The rich man asks Abraham for a drink of water, but Abraham tells him “no” – this rich man and Lazarus are far apart, both in life and in death. And just as the rich man never helped Lazarus, so, too, can Lazarus never help the rich man.
     Then, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his family, so that they can be warned about the consequences of their actions. Again, Abraham denies the rich man. The rich man insists that his family would listen, if such news came from someone returning from the dead. Yet, Abraham is steadfast: he points out that there have been many prophets who have written the word of God, and they are all dead. If the rich man’s family wants to listen to someone from the dead, they should listen to what they already have.
     So, to recap, our story’s two characters are the Rich Man and Lazarus. Interestingly, in all of Jesus’ parables, only one character ever receives a name – and that’s Lazarus in this parable. The Rich Man, therefore, remains unnamed. And that’s just the start of the differences between these two characters.
     Obviously, one is rich, and one has nothing. The rich man is dressed in the finest of clothes, Lazarus is dressed only in sores. The rich man eats the finest food; Lazarus eats nothing, and in fact what little he has – his own skin – is licked up by the dogs. They are both at the same gate, yet one man can walk freely through that gate, and the other lies there, hoping desperately for someone to have mercy on him. Of course, death comes to both – perhaps the one thing they have in common, besides that gate where all the action happens. Yet even after death, the differences between these two men in the parable do not end.
     Their eternal fates are different, too. Before I go on about that, by the way, I just want to point out that a lot of sermons have been given, assuming that Jesus is accurately describing the afterlife. The truth is, though, that there’s really no reason to believe that. He is telling a parable, which is a made-up story with made-up rules to help make the story good. I’m fairly certain that, whatever the next phase looks like for us, you don’t have a window between two different worlds, and Abraham isn’t there shouting at people across a canyon.
     So anyway, these two men have these different fates. The rich man is in Hades, where his body is licked with flames – much as Lazarus’ skin was licked by dogs during life. Here, it’s Lazarus who has what the rich man wants. Lazarus is by a pool. And now it’s he who keeps the finest of company. While Lazarus’ life would have been a lonely one and the rich man’s full of parties, in death the rich man seems unable to find help, while Lazarus has the ear of God’s first great servant all to himself.
     Of course, the very fact that their final destinations are included in this story at all is another duality in the text – there are two worlds, the physical and the metaphysical, and these men (like all of us) are connected in both. In spite of their differences, these two men are eternally linked in Jesus’ parable. And that’s something we should consider.
     It’s easy to see these two men as completely different, because they’re separated by one issue: poverty. At the center of much of Jesus’ preaching is care for the poor and less fortunate. He constantly goads wealthier followers into helping those who have less. Frankly, it’s probably part of why Jesus was so popular with the poor, the crippled, the widows, the orphans, children in general: those were the people with no rights, and Jesus was sticking up for them.
     So this story is impossible to talk about satisfactorily without talking about poverty. In fact, some commentators on this text have mentioned verse 26, which includes the words, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” and debated whether this “great chasm” was the very concept of poverty. But I would venture to say that this text is not just about poverty of goods, but rather that it’s about poverty’s companion: poverty of goodness.
     This reading comes right on the heels of last Sunday’s reading (that I didn’t preach on), which you probably don’t remember. But whether you do or not, that reading ended with, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is a powerful, fundamentally Christian message, the message that was, in some way or another, the heart of much of Jesus’ preaching, and, perhaps, the most difficult, counter-cultural message for an American Christian today.
     Jesus has to be clear about money, because it is far too tempting for us to trust in it, rather than God. But Jesus wants us to know one thing for certain: MONEY CAN’T SAVE US! Either can politicians, media, convenience, ease, technology, or anything else. Only Jesus saves! Yet, over and over again, we put our faith in things of this world, which inevitably let us down. We have all been to a place where we’ve scrimped and saved and worked for one material thing or another – a specific thing, or perhaps just a cushion in the bank account.
     But the fact of the matter is this: when we receive that thing, we’re happy for a little while, but then find ourselves wanting more. If you want a thousand in the savings account, soon you want two. Then five. Then ten, and fifteen and twenty. Then fifty and a hundred. It’s never enough, and wealth keeps us pursuing it. It is a force unto itself, and we blindly follow after it. And though we may not be in poverty of goods, we can easily find ourselves in a poverty of goodness.
     But Jesus forces us, in this passage, to confront an ugly truth about ourselves. Not just that we have this insatiable desire for more wealth, but that we seek after it at the expense of our own goodness, and in fact at the expense of our own humanity. This rich man in the passage had no compassion for Lazarus in life. But then, interestingly, he does show an ounce of compassion in the hereafter. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family about the consequences of his actions.
     Frankly, there’s a whole sermon in the very idea of a man burning in hell still thinking that he can boss around a guy in paradise, just because he used to be more important. But I’m not going to focus on that today, fun though that would be. Instead, I want us to think about the request he makes, and why Abraham denies it.
     When the Rich Man wants Abraham to warn his family about the consequences he faces, Abraham denies him, saying that if people haven’t listened to God’s word by now, what’s someone returning from the dead going to do? And that’s where, as Christian listeners to this story, our ears should perk up. Coming back from the dead… why, we know all about someone who did that! So that’s where we’re reminded that it’s Jesus telling us this story. He’s telling us an important clue here about his own Resurrection that’s key to us understanding his life, mission and message.
     Jesus is saying that his Resurrection, in and of itself, is probably not going to convince anyone of his message if you didn’t already buy it. That’s a fascinating thing for him to be predicting, isn’t it? He hasn’t yet died and returned at the point in Luke at which he’s telling this story, and yet he already knows how people will react, because Jesus gets human nature. Still, he tells us this story, because wants us to know the importance of what we do with our lives, with our time, and with our riches. Jesus is the one guy who’s actually been all the way there, and come all the way back. If you don’t listen to him, you wouldn’t listen to anyone. And what he calls us to is to remember that we don’t have to live with a poverty of goodness.
     Regardless of our financial realities, we can live with an abundance of goodness, and we can share from those riches with everyone we meet. Whether we have a little or a lot, there’s something we can share. We don’t have to just sit back and feel doomed to our fates. Instead, we’re given dominion over our own lives and actions, so that we can help build a better world, in tune with God’s own desires.
     We’re given the messenger from the dead. It’s not a guy who used to lie in front of the gate of our house. Instead, it’s the Savior of the world, God incarnate, Jesus Christ – coming to tell us that we’re able to live abundantly, giving freely to others. We need to be generous, not because we’re being threatened with the flames of hell if we don’t do it – remember, it’s just a story (though I do acknowledge that as a possible reading). Rather, I think Jesus is compelling us to something more. We’re being asked to give because the opportunity only presents itself in this life. In the next, we either have everything we need, or we don’t. No amount of begging and pleading is going to change what we have. But our earthly lives present an opportunity to make a difference, so we’re asked to embrace that.
     Don’t let yourself be poor in goodness. Let yourself feel free to become the kind of person who chases after Jesus – someone so in love with God that he followed what was right, even giving up his own life out of love. May we be courageous enough to give a little bit of ourselves in his honor, so that we might help every Lazarus we meet. Amen.

Who Is Talking? – 2016/09/18

Psalm 79:1-9
Luke 16:1-13
Jeremiah 8:19-9:1

Sermon

     Every once in a while, I have to get on a conference call. Some of these calls have like 10-15 people on them. If you’ve ever been on one of these things, you’ll know that they are the worst. 4-5 people, they work fine. More than that, it starts to become an issue. People’s voices are distorted by the phone, so it’s hard to tell who is who. The talking starts overlapping. People start side conversations, but there’s no way to whisper, so it just derails everyone.
     In one group I work with, we have to identify ourselves whenever we speak. Ugh. It’s the worst, because, by the time each person has spoken a few times, you realize that something like 15 minutes of your life have been eaten up by people repeating their names before speaking. But, I have to admit, as obnoxious as that is, it definitely has its benefits.
     To be honest, today’s passage from Jeremiah could’ve used some of that spirit of introducing yourself before speaking. Perhaps you don’t know this, but ancient Hebrew doesn’t use quotation marks – nor any other punctuation. Therefore, you have to use the context clues to figure out what people are saying. The most famous time this occurs is around the reading of a passage from Isaiah chapter 40. It could be “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,’” or it could be: “A voice cries out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.”
     We sometimes have the idea, when reading our Bibles that everything in them was set in stone. That it’s unchanged and unchangeable, that whoever is putting it down for us is doing so in a way that’s perfectly faithful to the original intent of the authors. But it’s just not possible, particularly in little things like this.
     Today’s passage is an excellent example, because it’s very hard to know when it’s Jeremiah speaking, and when it’s God. Confusingly, English-language Bibles tend not to use quotation marks when God is talking directly to one of the prophets. This is partly practical (because basically all of it would be a quote, then) and partly acknowledges the reality of the situation: we don’t always know who it is.
     So, for example, when Jeremiah writes, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick,” who is it talking? Is that Jeremiah, or is that God? When he writes: “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored,” is it God asking why we have not yet experienced healing that’s already available, or is it Jeremiah asking God when the healing is coming?
     I’m going to ask you to put a pin in that question. We’ll come back to this idea of who is speaking and why it matters. But first, I want us to know what they’re talking about.
     You probably didn’t realize this, but I haven’t preached from the Old Testament in over 6 months. Partly that’s because we’re in the year in the three-year lectionary cycle in which we read from Luke, and that’s my favorite Gospel. There’ve been too many other things I’ve wanted to preach, so I haven’t taken the time! Part of the reason is that I hit many of this year’s Old Testament texts three years ago, during my first year here. Part of it is that Jesus, as God incarnate, the head of the church, and our Lord and Savior, is the person we talk about most in church, and he’s in the New Testament.
     But let’s face it: part of the issue is that the Old Testament is just harder than the New. It deals with a bigger swath of time, it has way more characters, and the world of the Old Testament is even more different from our world today than the New Testament’s world is. So it always requires a little explanation, and that just makes preaching (and, if we’re honest, listening) harder when we talk about the Old Testament.
     Specifically, in today’s passage, we’re dealing with Jeremiah, who was a prophet in the early 6th century. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was falling on hard times. The Assyrian army was coming from the north. The Judeans had never faced such a threat before – a great army, directly in conflict with them. The Assyrians were interested in taking over Jerusalem and Judah for their natural resources, but also for their reputation as unconquerable.
     There were many natives of Judah who believed that Jerusalem was just that – unconquerable. Jeremiah, though, had more of a realistic, shall we say, opinion of the situation. The truth was, as much as God loved the people of Jerusalem, it was perfectly possible for a powerful army to take them out. And as much as he warned the people of Jerusalem, they still wouldn’t listen.
     And this was a serious threat. The army that was coming was not necessarily known to be the most fearsome army in the land. So while some people were assured that nothing could happen, others were fearful.
     In that context, Jeremiah gave us this word we heard today. It was this context of fear and questioning that we hear Jeremiah’s words… or God’s words, or the Judeans’ words, as the case may be. And see, that’s the point. So we return to the original question of who is speaking, and in so doing, what we’ll learn is this: it doesn’t matter.
     You see, it doesn’t really matter who’s speaking, because this passage starts to teach us something about how God reacts when bad things happen. We have a tendency to think of God as causing all the bad things that happen to us, but God doesn’t claim that every bad thing is a punishment. In fact, many things “just happen!” It’s tempting to think that God must be willing our bad things to happen, but that’s honestly not a very biblical approach to how God understands evil.
     Most of the time in the Bible, God is reacting to evil that’s already present, not authoring evil to harm people. So instead of looking at God as a divine tinkerer, orchestrating every single event that occurs, this passage encourages us to look for where God is, when bad things happen.
     Crucially, this reading from Jeremiah teaches us that, when tragedy strikes, it’s not just we who are frustrated. God is, too! It’s hard to know who’s talking – God, the Israelites, or Jeremiah – because, in real life, when tragedy strikes, we’re all in on the pain, the sadness, and the hurt – and that includes God.
     God is just as upset about things as Jeremiah is, and as the other Judeans themselves are. It’s happening to all of them equally. While God sometimes has the ability to save us, we don’t always know the intricacies of how and why God rescues us, although we can turn to prayer. But what we do know, what we are shown beyond a doubt in this passage from Jeremiah, is that God is right there with us in our greatest suffering.
     After all, this is the same God who came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. This is God, who showed us love be showing a willingness to live right alongside us, and experience everything we experience. That includes suffering and dying. We know that when we suffer, God suffers, too, because Jesus has suffered. And from that suffering, he shows us his love through the promise of eternal life, and the promise of his presence in the here-and-now.
     Jesus’ life is instructive in this case because we remember that God suffered alongside us, but also, that God has felt our pain. God has known what it is like to see trials and tribulations, not just in an intellectual way of “knowing,” but in an experiential way of knowing – God has been there, lived through it, and come out the other side. We are compelled to remember that God is not a distant observer, not a cosmic child playing with a bunch of human dolls, but rather actively participating in our lives, struggling, sighing, hurting, and rejoicing with us.
     But just as God experiences the pain of human existence, God works even that pain and suffering for Good. This is probably the most important lesson that we learn from the life of Jesus. Wherever the suffering comes from, whether an approaching Assyrian army from the north as in Jeremiah, from an oppressive Roman government in Jesus’ day, or from whatever demons and dangers we face in our own, God looks to transform suffering into something Good. Certainly, Jesus’ death could have been the end. God could have told us that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for all our sins, and that all was needed was his death. But God shows us more.
     It’s not just about the death. Rather, the death of Christ teaches us about who God is. You see, God doesn’t leave us with just a dead Messiah, but rather God restores him to life. Insodoing, God shows us that all things can be made whole and restored – perhaps not exactly how we would choose to have them made better, and that’s often our barrier to understanding. But nonetheless, God insists on trying to bend all things for Good, even when the situation is as dire as the grave.
     No, we cannot guarantee that everything will be perfect. Things won’t be. But when we suffer, we know that we have a God who suffers with us. And that same God will work all things for good, even when it seems there’s no good to be found. As we weep, God weeps. But God’s tears are tears of nourishment, like rainwater for the gardens of our hearts; and they will bring new life, new growth, and new hope. Amen.

I Lost My Keys – 2016/09/11

Psalm 14
Luke 15:1-10

Sermon:

     On Tuesday morning, I lost my keys. I turned the house upside-down and inside-out looking for them. We all do this when we lose keys. I needed to take Zeke to his very first day of day care, and I wasn’t about to walk two-and-a-half miles each way to drop him off – I’d need to turn around to pick him up by the time I got to church!
     So I looked, and I looked, and I looked. I decided that one place they might be was in the car. I looked on the seat, in the cup holders, in the center console. Couldn’t find them. Since we have a fancy-shmancy car with a pushbutton start, I just hit the button, and – lo and behold – the car started! That meant that the keys must be in there.
     Well, they were pinched between the driver’s seat and the center console. That doesn’t matter for the purposes of the sermon, as it so happens. But since I had already read the Scripture from Luke for this week, I found myself thinking a lot about what my own looking around for my keys meant in a week of lost sheep and coins.
     I thought more and more about the passage, I thought more and more about the frantic looking for keys. When you need your keys and can’t find them, the need to do so becomes all-consuming. You’re driven. You find yourself looking in the same places over and over again, in the hopes that you somehow just missed seeing them somewhere. Even if you have other copies of the key, you don’t just reach for the spares. You’re not after a key – you’re after this key. Once you’ve checked the usual places ten times, you start looking in places you never put your keys: in the bathroom, in the fridge, next to the sink, under the bed. The point is, finding this thing becomes the only thing that matters.
     So, of course, we have to talk about how meaningless, in the long run, our keys are. Our keys are nothing special. But God sees us as a lot more valuable than a set of keys. So what does God do when we’re lost?
     The story from Luke today begins with Jesus in conflict with some of the local Pharisees. If you’ve been paying attention in church the last couple of months, that’s how an awful lot of the passages we’ve read from Luke begin. We’re in a long section in Luke’s Gospel wherein we read about the time when Jesus and his disciples wind their way from Galilee, where Jesus lived his life, to Jerusalem, where he would meet his death.
     In the course of this wandering, we see the “comma” of Jesus’ life. Why do I call it a “comma?” Well, most weeks in church, we recite the Apostles’ Creed. The second paragraph of the Creed tells us about the life of Jesus. It says he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” – then there’s a comma – “was crucified, died, and was buried.” The Creed skips right from his birth to his death. But all of the miracles, all of the teachings, all of the parables… they all fall during that little comma between birth and crucifixion.
     During the summer months in church, we read the stories from the comma. Those stories have many common features, and one of them is this conflict with the Pharisees. It should be no surprise that some of the Pharisees who wanted to have Jesus killed were coming into conflict more and more with Jesus. Jesus was becoming popular, and he was viewed as a threat by some of the Pharisees.
     In the particular story we read today, we see that Jesus is being approached by tax collectors and the generically labeled, “sinners” coming to listen to him. Remember that tax collectors were seen as among the worst of the worst, extortionists who would wrangle every penny they could for themselves while still paying taxes. They were cheats, in other words.
     And, of course, the term “sinners” covers everyone else. And these “sinners” coming to hear Jesus’ preaching meant that the “wrong kind” of crowd was there. The Pharisees didn’t like it. Maybe they were stuffed-shirts; maybe they were judgmental and unable to see the inherent good in groups of people who weren’t like them. Maybe they were just made at Jesus for attracting the crowds that they couldn’t reach. Maybe it was both. But no matter their reasons, they were resentful.
     Hearing their grumbling, Jesus tells them two quick parables. The first is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and loses one. Jesus’ claim is that the shepherd will leave his flock of 99 to go after the one. Now, I’m not sure that’s objectively true – I don’t really think anyone who owns livestock would leave 99% to go after one – but if we trust that things are generally safe, that’s what we do. I remember when my kindergarten teacher left our class outside, unsupervised, because a child allergic to bee stings got stung. She left the 99 (well, maybe 19, but you get the idea) to care for the one. The idea of the passage is that it’s about frantic searching – looking for your keys in the guest bedroom kind of searching, which is what I did on Tuesday. Jesus then says that the man finding his sheep would invite all his friends and neighbors over to celebrate the return of his lost sheep.
     And then, for the first time in the passage, Jesus quits talking in metaphor and gets literal. Jesus says that there is more celebration over one sinner returning to God than 99 who need no repentance. There’s an interesting idea there, which is that there could be 99 who need no repentance. Certainly, the Pharisees would think of themselves as being among the 99. But what if Jesus is revealing a deeper truth here? What if Jesus is forcing the Pharisees to realize that they, too, are lost sheep?
     See, there is no such thing, not in Christianity nor in the Judaism practiced in Jesus’ day, as someone utterly needless of repentance. Everyone has sins that need to be cleansed. So of course God celebrates the return of the lost sheep more, because the only way to return is to realize that we’re lost in the first place! There’s more celebrating for the one than the 99 because the 99 don’t know how in need they are, and the one does.
     We have a tendency, when reading this passage, to think of the one as “someone else,” and ourselves as the 99. We think, consciously or otherwise, of the worship service as the safe pasture the shepherd leaves, and the one as someone who doesn’t come to worship anymore, or someone who has never heard of Christ, or someone lost to drugs, alcohol, or crime. But that’s not a good way of looking at it. Although we’re here, worshiping in God’s glorious creation, we are still lost. We still need reminders to be faithful. We still need the guiding hand of our Good Shepherd to steer us back home. And what happens when we do return? Well, that’s what the second story deals with.
     Jesus follows that story up with a similar story of a woman with 10 silver coins, who loses one. This story, honestly, is a lot more like my key story. She turns her house around just to find that silly coin. And when she does, what does she do with it? She spends it! She takes the coin and spends it on a party to celebrate finding the coin!
     That doesn’t strike us as rational, it doesn’t seem fiscally responsible, and it really doesn’t seem like a good idea for a woman with only 10 coins to her name to be spending any of those coins on a party, but that’s what she does. I’m reminded of a time when I had about $90 to my name, when I was in college. There was this young lady I had my eyes on, and she was in town, so I spent about $50 that day on all the stuff we did. It was very irrational, stupid fiscally, and a poor choice for someone with almost no money to his name.
     Of course, she’s sitting here today with my son, so in retrospect, it seems like it was a pretty good investment to me! This story of the woman with the ten coins teaches us that God is not here just to be responsible in the ways that we may view it. God is not here to give us fair treatment – God is here with abundance! “Fair” treatment, for God, is not enough – we’re given much more! There is more than we can ever need; more than we deserve. God is not out looking for sinners to punish like a predator searching for prey; God is the man looking for his lost sheep to welcome home. God is the woman looking for her lost coin that can be used to host a party.
     God is never a God of scarcity, but a God of abundance. God is out to celebrate, out to save the lost, out to welcome home those who’ve gone astray. And for our part? Even when we believe we are those who have never wandered away, we are. We have wandered in more ways than there are to count. Not because we’re bad people – rather, we’ve wandered because, at the end of the day, we’re sheep. And sheep, as it turns out, are not always that good at knowing what’s best for them. So we wander about. At the same time, God is looking for us, frantically, maniacally. Like a man for his sheep, like a woman for her coin, like a pastor for his keys, God is turning the world upside down, looking to bring us home. May we be ready to share in the holy celebration when we are found! Amen.

One Whole Book – 2016/09/04

Psalm 139:13-18
Philemon

Sermon:

     The great opportunity you all have today is the chance to tell the people who didn’t make it to church today that the pastor went nuts and read an entire book of the Bible today. You don’t have to tell them which one it was, if you don’t want to.
     Anyway, today we’re going to talk about that one whole book of the Bible. Philemon is really the best book for this kind of thing. We really have the chance to dive in kind of deep.
     The first thing we have to know about the letter of Philemon is that it’s written by Paul (with the help of his friend Timothy) to one man – a man named Philemon. What we learn throughout the course of this letter is that Philemon is a very wealthy man who happens to be a pillar of the Christian community. Philemon once owned a slave named Onesimus – but we’ll get to him in a minute.
     Philemon stands as a really interesting inclusion in the Bible, because it really seems, at first glance, that it’s not really that applicable. It’s a letter about three men, really: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. It’s about a unique situation – one time, one group of people, one place. How on earth can this be considered important enough to include in the Bible with Paul’s other letters, which are much more general? Other letters are to whole communities, but this one is only to one man – so what is it supposed to mean to us?
     Well, one of the things we have to keep in mind is that all of Paul’s letters are about specific situations. He’s writing letters to people about their specific situations. That’s what you do when you write a letter – you write to a particular person (or group) in a particular time. Paul’s letters, most of which are addressed to groups, just seem more applicable because of the insight and wisdom they provide. But this letter, this oddly specific little letter addressed to one person a long time ago, can be just as useful for us today as it was for people in Paul’s day.
     The letter to Philemon begins and ends as we have come to expect Paul’s letters to begin and end. Paul gives salutations, wishing grace and peace to the person receiving the letter, and hoping that he passes those greetings on. Similarly, at the end, as he usually does, Paul shares greetings from others, and hopes to soon join the person to whom he’s writing.
     In the middle lies a complicated story, about which we don’t have all the details, but many of which we can surmise. This letter is about Philemon, and his treatment of his slave Onesimus. What we learn rather quickly in the letter, in verse 8, is that Paul was uninterested in beating around the bush. He appeals to Philemon as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” It seems, then, that this is one of the times that Paul was under arrest for his evangelism.
     Paul explains that, in his time in prison, he met a man named Onesimus, and became his spiritual mentor. Remember that, at this time, Christianity was not the default language for many people in the world. In fact, the vast, vast majority of people had never heard of Christianity at all! This letter takes place less than 15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. So Paul begins telling Onesimus all about the Good News of Jesus, and Onesimus becomes a believer.
     Verse 11 then has the best – and maybe only – joke in any of Paul’s letters. Paul explains to Philemon that once, Onesimus was “useless, but now he is indeed useful, both to you and to me.” The joke here is that the word onesimus, in Greek, means “useful.” In other words, Paul says, “He used to not live up to his name, but now he does.”
     And then Paul starts to make his plea, that’s somewhere between a plea and an order. He says that, in place of Philemon, whom Paul would like to have with him, Paul will use Onesimus while they’re in prison, if it’s okay with Philemon (although, writing this in a letter, one assumes Paul was just going to do it whether he had the okay or not). Paul points out that, perhaps, Onesimus “was separated” from Philemon for a while so that he could be there to work with Paul.
     But then, Paul asks Philemon to “have [Onesimus] back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” In other words, Paul was asking Philemon to take Onesimus back… except, when he returned from prison, Paul is asking Philemon to not keep Onesimus a slave, but let him live as an equal.
     This was a big ask. I mean, obviously, some price had been paid for Onesimus. Either he was purchased, or he owed Philemon a debt and was working it off through slavery. Paul is asking Onesimus to willingly give up that price. What makes this more shocking is the nature of Onesimus’ imprisonment.
     Onesimus is in jail when this book begins, which is (as I mentioned) where he met Paul. Why was Onesimus in jail? It has occurred to scholars throughout the ages that the main reason a slave ends up in prison is that he runs away. There’s no guarantee that it’s true, but imagine if it is: Paul asks a man to take back the slave who ran away, and not just take him back as a slave, but welcome him into his home as an equal.
     There have been people throughout the years who have asked the question of whether or not Paul goes far enough in his ask. You’ll notice that he doesn’t call for the complete abolition of slavery. But keep in mind again that Paul isn’t writing to us; he’s not writing to anyone other than Philemon. What can Philemon do to eliminate slavery? Regardless, perhaps Paul should have called for Philemon to release Onesimus on the moral ground that slavery is wrong, but perhaps we’re seeing one of Paul’s blindspots here. Or perhaps Paul doesn’t appeal to Philemon in this way because he knows that his best leverage in this case is deeply personal and individual to Philemon – Paul is the one responsible for saving Philemon’s soul, after all, as he reminds him in the letter.
     Either way, when we think about this letter, I think it’s important to ask ourselves the biggest question – the one that drives every sermon, and the one we should think about whenever we read the Bible: what does this tell us about God?
     In my opinion, there are two ways to look at it. The first is to look at it from Philemon’s perspective. From that perspective, God is asking us to give up on some of our material goods to help others. Even if we’re harmed in the transaction, we’re being asked to put someone before ourselves. When someone does something that hurts us, we’re not allowed to silently hold a grudge forever, but rather we’re asked to go above and beyond, because that’s what Jesus would do.
     The second way of looking at this passage is from Onesimus’ perspective. If we look at it from his point of view, this passage is about forgiveness, about the future, and about reconciliation. Remember, although Paul is asking Philemon to take Onesimus back, there was probably a reason that Onesimus ran away in the first place (if that, indeed, was his crime). He may be just as unhappy going back to Philemon as Philemon is to welcoming him. But nonetheless, when we read this passage through Onesimus’ eyes, we see that this is a passage focusing on getting people together and thinking about what comes next, rather than dwelling on what happened before.
     Like all passages of the Bible, we come to the book of Philemon asking what it tells us about God. And in this case, what we learn is that God is always pushing us. Even when reconciliation is hard, we’re asked to try to work for it. Perhaps to some of the most complicated of human problems, such as domestic violence, this is too much to ask. But either way, Paul is seeing an opportunity here to bring the healing love of Jesus into the world in a relationship between two people. While it may appear to be too wide a bridge to cross, Paul uses encouragement in the name of Jesus, the one who saves, to try to make the impossible, possible.
     That’s the lesson we see over and over again – even those things which seem like too big an ask come to be, through God’s mighty love. Jesus Christ is alive! What once was dead lives again! Alleluia! And if Jesus can return, so, too can those people we deem as “lost” – even when one of those people is you or me.
     So may we have the courage to give forgiveness, seek forgiveness, and push to ever greater justice in the name of the one who makes all things possible! Amen.

Humble – 2016/08/28

Psalm 81:10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1-14

Sermon:

     When I was in high school, I used to co-host a lot of parties at my friend Josh’s house. We had a class of about 370 at my school, so there were always people to invite to things. Every couple of months or so, we would throw some sort of big bash, and I would help make sure everything was settled for the big day.
     In between, we often had smaller gatherings of closer friends, where we really only intended maybe a dozen or so of our closest friends to come, not the 50 or more that sometimes showed up. Our freshman year, this pattern was new, both to us and to the people we spent time with. One night, we were supposed to have a small get-together. Suddenly, things started ballooning out of control in a hurry. People were going places they weren’t supposed to be going, doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing. Josh started getting really upset. In the middle of everything, Josh starts raving to me about what was going on.
     “There are people over HERE, and people over THERE, and they’re doing things they’re not supposed to be doing, and [pointing to one of the guests at his house] WHO IS THAT GUY?!?!” Josh and I were big on nicknames (just ask our friends Lunchbox, Freshman, Sir George, Shorty, Shrek II, Philly, or any of the others)… so the kid (whose name was “Jake”) was called, for the rest of high school, “Who Is That Guy,” at least by us. Today’s passage from Luke is largely about Jesus telling us not to go through life with “Who Is That Guy” as a nickname.
     Our passage begins with a similar story to last week’s reading. It starts with Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. Last week, that happened right in a synagogue – a house of worship, this time in a private home. We talked about how work on the Sabbath was forbidden as a way of giving the time to God.
     However, Jesus points out – yet again – that the teachers who were judging him for healing would help an animal on the Sabbath, so why not help a person? Again, Jesus is presenting the case that, when we’re able to help, we should do all we can to help.
     Specifically, the text notes that these men who accuse Jesus of wrongdoing for healing on the Sabbath were “watching [Jesus] closely.” They were already seeing what influence Jesus had in the community, so they were watching to see him slip up and do something for which they could have him arrested. Instead, though, Jesus turns his own eyes to them and their conduct. Insodoing, he notices something really interesting about where people are sitting.
     Jesus begins telling a parable about a wedding banquet. It’s perfect that he chooses a wedding banquet, because there are honestly so few places where we have “assigned” seats in our culture – but a wedding is one. Jesus talks about guests coming in and giving themselves the place of honor at this banquet. Now, it’s hard to imagine someone making the mistake of thinking that they were supposed to be at the head table at a wedding today. But imagine someone going to a wedding and sitting at the table nearest the head table… only to learn that that table is for the bride’s family. So they move to the next… where they’re told to move again, because that’s the groom’s family’s table. So the move to the next, but that’s where childhood friends are sitting, so the move to the next, but that’s where the family friends are, and on and on and on. It would be immensely embarrassing to do that in front of all the guests at a wedding.
     So Jesus provides us with another tactic. Don’t look for the place of honor – rather, assume you’re the least of people in a room, and let them ask you to move.
     In seminary, Carissa and I were invited to the wedding of some friends of ours. We didn’t know where we were supposed to sit, because every table seemed to be filled with family, or high school friends, or college friends, and we were the only people from seminary invited. So we looked for a table near the back. And then the bride herself took us to where we were supposed to be seated – which was with members of the family! We were given the place of highest honor, and we had thought ourselves the lowliest of the room. That was a wonderful experience, and it’s literally exactly what Jesus talks about. If you are humble and prepared to be considered the least, you’ll either be right, or you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you consider yourself to be the best everywhere you go… well, get used to disappointment, because you’re going to be moved from that place of honor in every room you ever enter. “There’s always someone better,” as they say.
     But Jesus talks about more than just being a guest. I fear that, if Jesus talked only about being a guest, we would forget our sacred worth. We would be prone to thinking of ourselves as lowly, as so much less than others that we would think we weren’t worthwhile. But of course, we are worthwhile, because God loves us. We are part of God’s good creation. So while we are humble, we are never to think of ourselves as worthless.
     And in fact, I think that’s part of the reason that Jesus doesn’t end his discussion at talking about being a good guest. No; Jesus continues, telling us how to be a good host, too. We aren’t merely guests in life – we are also those who gather others around us. And Jesus says in this passage that, when we are the ones celebrating, we need to think carefully about our guest lists, too.
     Jesus reminds us that, when inviting guests to a party, the primary point isn’t to invite those people who can pay us back – our friends, our neighbors, our siblings. The main thing, says Jesus, is that it’s about inviting those who aren’t able to repay us.
     Look, I don’t know exactly why Jesus says we shouldn’t invite those who can pay us back. Personally, I think it’s fine to invite our family and friends. But I think what he’s getting at is that, “Now who might be able to repay me this kindness?” should NOT be our prime consideration – and, in fact, it shouldn’t be a consideration AT ALL. So we shouldn’t be inviting the wealthy neighbor who we know gives the best presents, or the person with the cool TV so they’ll invite us over to watch a movie later.
     Rather, when we’re celebrating – when we’re giving – we need to do so humbly, just as we receive humbly. We need to think, not of what’s best for us or who’s important, but rather, we need to think of who is deserving of a celebration. The ones deserving of celebration aren’t deserving because of their status in the society; they’re deserving because of their status as God’s children.
     That means that everyone, not matter who they are, is deserving of a place at your table, because they’re deserving of a place at God’s table. When we celebrate Communion in this church, we do so with the understanding that you don’t have to be Presbyterian to do so; you merely have to have Jesus in your heart. His invitation to the Table is open; it is we who are there to accept it or not.
     So when we see ourselves in his position, when we’re the ones with the opportunity to share, we need to be humble enough to reach out to others. And when someone shares with us, we need to remember that we are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” because we’ve been invited to God’s party.
     Remember that Jesus himself was God come to earth, to live in a human body and teach us how to live. He came to save us, dying the lowliest death imaginable. God was willing to humbly go to a humiliating death for our sakes. That ultimate act of humility should guide our actions.
     And from that place of humiliation, remember that Jesus was raised up from the dead. The consequence of humility, we then learn, is that we have God’s favor. It may not translate to anything we can see – for Jesus, it certainly didn’t. But we know that we are doing that which God asks of us when we remember to put first those who would be last, and remember to put ourselves last when our culture says we’re first. Amen.

Don’t Tell Me How to Live – 2016/08/21

Psalm 71:1-6
Luke 13:10-17
Jeremiah 4:1-10

     Sometimes, I listen to this book on tape (yes, it’s actually on a tape, and yes, my car is old enough to have a tape player). It’s a humor book about American history called Don’t Know Much About History. It’s actually a pretty good work by a historian named Kenneth Davis. The book is 30 years old now and sorely outdated, but nonetheless is a pretty good refresher on American history.
     Anyway, whenever I listen to this book, I get to this one part that just makes my blood boil, because the author himself obviously doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his own statement. It’s in a part discussing the Civil War. The author claims that, as much as the economic factors and racism inherent in the slave economy of the south was another reason that Southerners just didn’t want to give up on slavery: “Southerners just didn’t want to be told how to live their lives,” Davis offers.
     Every time I hear him say it, I go a little bit nuts. Can you see why? Do you see what’s wrong with that sentence? Think about it again. They didn’t want to give up slavery because they didn’t want to be told how to live their lives. Well I’ve got a question for those Southerners in the 1860s: how do you think your slaves feel?!
     Hearing that section makes me SO angry, because it shows one fundamental part of human existence that makes sense and is good, and reveals another that is one of the ugliest sides of humanity. Yes, it’s only human to not want to be told how to live. We believe in freedom; we believe in our own intelligence and the ability to make our own decisions. These are good and positive things. They are some of the founding principles of America. In fact, they are founding principles of America that are basically lifted whole-cloth out of Presbyterianism, believe it or not. There’s a clause in the Presbyerian Book of Order, the document that governs how Presbyterian churches in this country operate, and it’s called the “conscience clause.” It states that ““God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” In other words, people are free to believe what they feel God has convinced them of! So I don’t have any problem with wanting to be free.
     No, no. The shadow side of what’s revealed here is that, while we want the freedom to do what we want, to believe as we want, to think what we want – we do not want others to have that same right. What that passage in Don’t Know Much About History reveals is that, while Southerners were happy to wave the banner of freedom, they were more than happy to withhold that banner from others. While they didn’t want anyone telling them what to do – well, they were more than happy to tell others what to do.
     This, unfortunately, is not a flaw limited to slave owners, a group of people that’s easy to vilify. Unfortunately, I bet if you pay attention to the conversations of people around you this week, you will hear some variation of this expressed many times over – at least once a day, if you spend a lot of time around other people. And we all give in to this kind of thinking. Of course, the fact that we all do it, doesn’t make it right.
     But this is something we need to keep in mind while reading our passage this morning from Luke. Before we dive in too much further, though, let’s talk about the background of this passage. In this story, we start with Jesus, teaching on the Sabbath in a synagogue. Before we go any further, let’s clarify a couple of terms. First, let’s talk about Sabbath. The Sabbath, of course, was the day of rest. The rules for Jews as to what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath are very strict (and to some of you, who were raised in a little different time, they might sound downright familiar). In a strict Jewish home, you can’t drive a car on the Sabbath (that’s why, in very conservative Jewish communities, all the Jews must live walking distance from the synagogue); you can’t turn on the oven or a light switch. You can open doors, you can walk, you can eat. But you can’t play games or sports, you can’t even turn on the television set (which, by the way, leads some families to turn on their TV the day before and just leave it on, which is maybe cheating, but also pretty clever). The point is to rest. The main thing you can do, though, is go to worship. You honor God by resting from your labor, and you honor God through worship. Those are your main duties.
     The other thing we should be clear on is what a synagogue is, since that’s where Jesus was teaching. Remember that, in Judaism 2000 years ago, there was one Temple in Jerusalem, where people went to make their sacrifices to God. But there were many synagogues, which are more like churches. They’re places where a rabbi (which means “teacher”) would instruct people.
     So basically, Jesus is the guest preacher at a church one week. And in the middle of the service, appears a woman who hadn’t been able to stand up straight for 18 years. Right there in the middle of the service, Jesus heals her, and she’s able to stand up straight. She (and the other people there, as the end of our reading tells us) begin praising God – but we all would, right? That would be pretty great to see.
     Except, there’s one person who isn’t so happy. He’s the leader of this particular synagogue, starts directly undermining Jesus. He starts saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” We can kind of see his point, right? The whole point of the Sabbath is to give it over to God, not to work. So he’s just trying to make sure that God is honored, right?
     Well, sure, we could make that argument. But much like the argument in the book that I mentioned earlier, to be completely on the side of this leader of the synagogue would be to ignore part of the story.
     Jesus points out that these very people to whom he’s preaching would, of course, on this day of rest when basically nothing is allowed, untie their animals and lead them to water. Of course, you’re not allowed to work your animals, but you can keep them alive. The sacredness of life is more valuable than resting, the logic of the Sabbath goes.
     Now, this leader of the synagogue is incensed because – let’s face it – this woman was not in a life-or-death situation. She was going to be fine. She’d been fine for 18 years. What’s one more day going to be?
     But Jesus points out that cattle and donkeys would actually be fine, too. Animals can go one day without water. But we give it to them anyway, because it’s the humane thing to do. If even animals are afforded that amount of dignity, why wouldn’t this woman, someone who shares this man’s ancestry as a Jew (so, basically, his distant cousin) deserve as much dignity as a donkey?
     And, as Jesus points out, isn’t the Sabbath really, on some level, the best day to free this woman from bondage? If the whole point of the Sabbath is to give glory to God, what’s more glorifying to God than a miracle of healing? It inspired praise in the whole gathered congregation, after all!
     See, when it comes down to it, the problem this synagogue leader had was that he wanted God to work exactly as he expected God to work. He wanted to be in charge. He wanted to be free to untie his animals on the Sabbath, but he didn’t want Jesus to be free to do this healing. Basically, this guy did what we all do, in that he was a hypocrite. He wanted the freedom to do what he wanted and needed, but wanted to control what others – including God, in this case – did.
     The biggest lesson here is, I think, that we can’t dictate what God will do or how God will work. God constantly defies our expectations. When God chose Abraham and Sarah, a hundred-year-old husband and wife, to have the children that would be the people we see in the Bible, it was out of the ordinary. When God called Moses, a murderer with a stutter, to lead the people out of slavery, I don’t think anyone saw that coming. When God chose David, a shepherd boy and youngest of his brothers, to be King over all Israel, it was not the choice others would have made. And of course, when God made the very savior of the world a little boy born to a poor family in a cattle stall, it was, to say the least, unexpected. God is always surprising us by asking us to do more than we’ve asked or imagined; God is always surprising us by asking us to sing a new song and make a joyful noise, even when we have to do so defiantly against the pain and evil of this world. God is always surprising us by asking us to do something we see as utterly out of God’s character, or even our own, but that is ultimately going to be for God’s glory.
     We need to have the courage to avoid being hypocrites. God is going to do things, great things, and things that we don’t expect. I remember a pastor of mine talking about declining church enrollment, and talking about it as a great thing. Gone are the days when you go to church because it’s a social club, he said – now church could be about people who are serious about Jesus. And what if that’s what God is doing? What if God is tired of a version of Christianity where all people care about is whether or not the person behind the counter at Target says “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays?” What if God is asking us, not to live in the trappings of a Christian world where we show the Christianity we expect, but rather the service to Christ that God is asking of us?
     Let’s be the Jesus-followers who are ready for whatever God is saying. Let’s be those people who see healing on the Sabbath and embrace it for what it is, not those who stand around and complain that it doesn’t match our expectation of God’s work in the world. Let’s be ready for the radical transformation of the world by a savior who came back from the pit of the grave. That’s the God we serve – the Jesus who upsets expectations, and who stretches us and makes us better, if we truly let him into our hearts. Amen.

Hebrews, Part Two – 2016/08/14

Psalm 80:8-19
Luke 12:49-56
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Sermon:

     I’d like to begin by noting that this week’s sermon picks up with a lot of the themes of last week’s sermon. So if you missed last week’s, you can always go to our website, marionpresbyterian.com, and check the first part of the sermon out there.
     Do you know what an “establishing shot” is? It’s in a movie or a television show, when they show the exterior of a building or a doorway or something, to let you know where people are. The most famous one that comes to mind for me right now is that shot on Seinfeld of the restaurant, the exterior shot in Manhattan of a building that just says “RESTAURANT,” in great big capital letters. That’s a real place. But, of course, this is ultimately a bit of trickery. Movies and shows can get away with showing the outside of one building, but actually being in another. Of course, we all know that, but we understand the grammar of film, so we’ve come to understand that we have to live with certain clichés in order for a movie to make sense.
     We have those “establishing shots” in Scripture, too. As we look at the book of Hebrews, we see a book that takes all of the important stories of the Old Testament – stories that were powerful and meaningful in their own rights – and turns them into establishing shots.
     Last week’s reading was at the beginning of chapter 11, and this week’s at the end. Both of these readings have long lists of people who followed God and what they did. And in the verses between what we read last week and what we read this week? More of the same! This whole chapter is a list of some of the most significant events of the Old Testament.
     In last week’s sermon, I talked about the importance of stories – how they shape us, how they make us who we are. I talked about the ability we have to take stories inside ourselves, and live differently because of them. And I pointed out that the Old Testament stories that most of us learned as children are exactly that – the stories that should inhabit our lives, that we should turn to again and again. They are stories we should be able to see ourselves in, and they are stories that should help us understand how God is active in our lives today.
     But the book of Hebrews insists on specifically framing these stories in terms of the faith demonstrated by the characters in the stories, so Hebrews tells us that faith is significant. And so last week, I also pointed out that “faith,” here doesn’t just mean believing something to be true – faith means “trust.” Hebrews is about putting our trust in God.
So that’s pretty much what we talked about last week. But this week, we get into the point of the book of Hebrews a little bit more. This week, we pick up with why these stories are meant to inform us and our lives. There are some mighty good phrases in here, about the power of trust in God, and about God’s ability to do mighty things for us. Beginning in verse 33, some of the things people have done by faith are listed. Believers have, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
That all sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? The power of faith to give us all these good things is just the kind of story we like to hear. Since it’s Olympics time, I’m always reminded about how much we love to hear those stories about athletes who worked so hard, and then win gold. We love those stories because they teach the right lesson – work hard, become the best. Similarly, this story presented in verses 33-34 of Hebrews 11 is satisfying – have faith, good things come.
But of course we know that the people in the Olympics who DON’T win medals ALSO worked hard. And by the same token, we know that faith isn’t a guarantee that everything in our lives will be perfect. And Hebrews is not shy about telling us. Right after this list of the great things faith has won for people, we have this list, beginning in verse 35: “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release . . . . Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented . . . . They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” In other words, there were (and are) those who keep the faith, and yet don’t see that reward in this world.
Hebrews has an answer for that, and it’s that we’re not made perfect in this world, because we will all be perfected at once, in God’s world to come. And in telling us this, Hebrews points to Jesus, whom the book calls, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We’re reminded that these people who have come before us – the “great … cloud of witnesses” – is there to help us have guideposts, but that we’re ultimately after one thing, and that’s Jesus.
Jesus is the ultimate example of everything Hebrews talks about in this passage. Surely, he was a man of great faith; surely, he knew the stories of the faith and of God’s people; surely, his faith was rewarded; surely, he suffered, as well.
But in Jesus’ story, we see the fulfillment of ALL OTHER stories, too. Jesus’ story, by having all the elements of these other stories, is the culmination of them. They are all pointing and leading to his story. Similarly, for us as Christians, our own stories come from Jesus’ story.
His story reminds us that, no matter how dark our own story gets, God is always planning a resurrection. He reminds us that, wherever we are, even in the depths of the grave, we are not beyond God’s power.
Hebrews reminds us that we learn stories, but that our very lives are stories – stories of God’s power, grace, and love. We get to choose, every day, if those stories include God, or not. And it is our duty as Christians to seek out how God is working in our lives. But whether we do that or not, we are most of all fortunate to have Jesus. He goes before us, giving a story for us to model our own stories on. But he also comes along with us, dragging us back to God, and God to us, even in the pain of the cross or the depths of the grave. And for him and his presence, we can give thanks, today and always. Amen.

Hebrews, Part One – 2016/08/07

Psalm 50:1-8
Luke 12:32-40
Hebrews 11:1-16

Sermon:

     Just so everyone knows right off the bat, in case the bulletin didn’t clue you in, I’m spreading my sermon out over two weeks. We have really good readings from Hebrews each of the next two weeks, so I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about a couple of related but different things. So if you want the whole picture, you’ll just have to come back next week!
     Okay, so you probably noticed that the Olympics officially began on Friday night. I’m a huge sucker for the Olympics. I have basically nothing but good memories associated with watching them. We watch people fulfill lifelong dreams, being at the pinnacle of human achievement – plus I love track and field, and the Olympics is pretty much the only time anyone cares about track and field.
     And what does the TV do during the Olympics? It gives us a bio on every athlete. They tell us the sob story – this athlete lost a parent, this athlete is dealing with a disease, that athlete over there is the first competitor in their country’s history, that other athlete is trying to redeem a bad loss four years ago. It’s all so deliciously wonderful, and pretty much ensures that we have an emotional attachment to the winner.
     And why is that? Why do we get so attached to someone after “meeting” them for only 30 seconds? It’s because we, as human beings, crave stories. Stories are how we interpret and make sense of the world. And these next two weeks, we’re going to be talking about the book of Hebrews, which is a book all about stories.
     But before that, we’re going to need to talk about faith, and what it is to have faith – because that underlies everything that the book of Hebrews says.
     Faith is one of those words we talk about in church that I feel the need to explain, as it’s going to be very important to these two weeks’ worth of sermons. Faith is what you put your trust in. The theologian Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” – in other words, that thing that you care about more than anything else is the thing you have trust in, and therefore the thing you have faith in. For most Americans in 2016, the thing we have faith in is probably the individual – ourselves. For others, it’s our country, for others it’s power, for others it’s money, and for a shockingly small number of people, that thing is actually God. This question of who or what we have faith in is the theme that runs throughout this book – so as I talk, continually think about what it means to trust, to have faith, to be concerned more about this one thing than anything else – because that’s what the book of Hebrews is assuming about its reader.
     The book of Hebrews was, for a lot of Christian history, considered one of Paul’s letters, or at least one of his sermons that turned into a letter. There’s no actual claim that Paul wrote it anywhere in the letter, so where that attribution comes from, I’m not sure. But nonetheless, Hebrews is grouped with Paul’s letters in the New Testament.
     Hebrews’ biggest claim to fame is in its name. Hebrews, as the name suggests, is clearly a book intended for a Jewish audience, familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. Remember that in the early days of Christianity, many of the people who were evangelized were non-Jews, which means they weren’t familiar with any stories from the Bible at all when they came to faith in Jesus. But this letter, in particular, is meant for people who were familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. The book of Hebrews uses the stories that its audience knows to make sense of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
     In the passage we read today, and throughout the book, there are specific references to those stories that we might call “Sunday school stories.” Those are the stories that we kind of assume that people just know growing up – stories about Noah and the ark, and Moses and the ten plagues; about Abraham and Sarah and their child in old age and about Joseph and his coat of many colors. These are the stories that the author relates to the life of Jesus, so that people can connect to them. So a substantial portion of the book of Hebrews is spent recapping those stories.
     So that leads me to a question: have you ever thought about why we learn those stories? I mean, it’s obvious that the Jewish people of the time would learn these stories – they were the only stories about God that they had. But why would Christians today need to know those stories, when Christians believe that Jesus is enough for all of us? Is it as a test, in case we get quizzed by God on entry to heaven? Is it so we see how powerful God is? Is it so we’re scared into obedience? NO! It’s about seeing God’s faithfulness to us, even in the lean times. Even when things are hard, we can see that God is working things for good – and that’s what FAITH is about! We trust in God, because we see that God is good to us. We learn about God’s goodness through the stories that we share – the stories that form the backbone of our lives.
     Don’t get me wrong – these stories have a lot more in common that we can take from them. There are traits all those stories share – the importance of kindness to one another, the willingness to give up the self for service to God, and another one that we so often leave out of our thoughts: seeing God as an active part of our lives. That last one might be most important of all, and another reason that it’s worth revisiting some of these old stories. They remind us that God is actively paying attention to what we do, and how we do it.
     One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 8, which is about this very thing. In a prayer to God, the Psalmist says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” In other words, even though we’re so small, God still cares about us. We often go about our lives as if God isn’t there, as if we are the final judges and arbiters of our lives – but God is there! We are cared for. And that’s what Hebrews is about – a God who loves us, cares for us, and is involved in our lives.
     Then, out of that love and care that God provides and that we see through old, old stories, we respond with faith. Remember again that faith is more than belief – faith is trust. Faith is trusting in God to be with us, even when things seem hard. Faith is about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, still trusting that God would deliver them. Faith is about Daniel in the lion’s den, still trusting that God would rescue him. Faith is about a very old Abraham and Sarah, still trusting that God would bring them their promised child. Those stories are about more than some events that happened a long time ago, and those stories are certainly more important than the questions scholars ask about when and where and even whether they happened – those stories about whom we trust, and how we trust.
     Now I know that it’s a sore subject to talk about, because obviously things aren’t perfect for us, so it’s hard to sometimes see where God is, and how God watches us. But remember, God doesn’t promise a world without pain, and God doesn’t promise that we’ll always get whatever we want. Certainly, Jesus, the very Son of God, does suffer, and does have bad things happen. But what God promises us is to be there for us, no matter what; that whether the things we do go our way or not, we have a constant guide and friend.
     Our stories make us who we are. They inform us, they teach us, and they build us up. They shape us, form us, and help us to think about the world. The book of Hebrews is about embracing those stories. So let us go forth today, wrapped in faith, clothed in God’s love, and remembering and living the greatest story of all: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

You Can’t Take It with You – 2016/07/31

Psalm 107:1-9
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Sermon:

Sorry; no video this week!
     My grandma was a major pack-rat. I’m sure you all have pack-rats in your family… if you don’t, you can find your family’s pack-rat by looking in the mirror. Because it seems to me that every family has that one person who can’t get rid of anything.
     My grandma was born in the USSR in 1923, so, to some extent, I can’t really blame her. When you’re in one of the world’s poorest countries in one of that country’s worst circumstances, and then you move to prosperous, affluent America… well, you learn to not take anything for granted. And that’s a really, really good quality.
     Of course, we also live in a country where money is (relatively) abundant, and where there’s so much stuff that we could drown in it. And we all have that much stuff. The poorest of the poor in America have stuff they don’t need. It’s really incredible how many things we have.
     And if you have a pack-rat in the family, especially if you live with the pack-rat, you really get a sense of just how many things you have. If you’re never allowed to throw things away, you start to see just how much you accumulate. I don’t mean my grandma was a hoarder or anything – we threw away newspapers and stuff. But there was the sense that, if you spent money on something, you should keep it forever. Like I said, I’m sure that rose out of a being a little girl who didn’t have anything, so could really appreciate the many things she had in her new life.
     As I said, in American life, we have a lot of things. And that’s one of the things that becomes really interesting when we start to look at Jesus. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable realizations for many Christians today is that their Lord and Savior was a homeless person. Homeless people are often objects of derision in our society; yet, God chose to come to earth in human form as Jesus, who lived as exactly that.
     Does it ever make you wonder what Jesus thinks of the lives we lead? I mean, what did Jesus own? Sandals, a cloak or two, probably what he could pack in his bag… and that’s about it, right? Maybe he had some things stored up in his parents’ house… but if you’ve ever seen the kinds of houses people lived in 2000 years ago in Judea, there sure wasn’t a lot of extraneous room for stuff.
     So when someone comes to Jesus asking for helping convincing his brother to divide the family inheritance, Jesus is a little nonplussed, and answers a question (as he so often does) with a parable. Jesus tells a story of a rich man who, having good land, had more crops than he knew what to do with. So this rich man pulls down his barns and builds bigger ones. He then decides that he’s going to live off the profits in his old age, and enjoy his retirement.
     Of course, that very night, he dies. And Jesus says, “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 towards God.”
     One of the hardest challenges of being in the church, I think, is that the church relies on people’s money and their good will. But, of course, the Bible (and Jesus in particular) has a lot to say about how people should use their money. Of course, people don’t like being told how to use their money, which means they can always leave if they don’t like how the church is talking about their money… so the church can’t be too pushy, because then the people you’re relying on might just up and leave!
     Well, that’s a problem when we need to talk about what Jesus says. And what’s most important here isn’t that Jesus is against rich people (although there certainly seems to be an implication that maybe being rich isn’t that great). Rather, what Jesus is talking about is priorities.
     Jesus, at the end of the story, sets up a dichotomy wherein how we treat ourselves is directly contrasted with how we treat God. That’s the essential point of the passage. When this wealthy man is storing up his excess, he doesn’t think, “How does what I’m doing honor God?” Rather, he thinks, “What do I want and need for myself?” His plan doesn’t consider anyone but himself… and Jesus reminds us of that classic dictum, “You can’t take it with you.”
     At the end of the day, the man in the parable worked because he wanted stuff… and the “stuff” didn’t give him anything in return. What if, instead, he invested in the things that matter? What if he had given some of that food to the people who needed it? Perhaps he would’ve built relationships that would’ve made his days richer – not richer in goods, but richer in love.
     And that really gets to the essential point, doesn’t it? Because while the phrase “you can’t take it with you” does apply to the things we can buy with money, it doesn’t apply to the things that aren’t things at all, like love.
     We know that God’s love extends beyond the grave. Even in death, Jesus was not beyond God’s reach, and neither are we. The relationships we build, with God and with one another, are the things that last.
     When we go to Sioux Falls, how often do we think, “Will the way I spend my money glorify God?” How often do we think about how we spend our time, and whether or not that’s glorifying to God? It’s very, very hard to be a modern American and to put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals, or to imagine him in our shoes. But our faith asks us to seriously consider that question.
     So what if we go on a fast? What if each of us can decide to go on a fast from something – a time-drainer that isn’t glorifying to God, or a money-drainer that’s purely selfish? What if each one of us took the time to seriously look at what we have, and consider what Jesus might say to us about it? It’s a scary question that we don’t like to ask ourselves, because I don’t think we’d always like the answer we’d get. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to ask.
     God put us on this earth to be givers to one another; to help where help is needed. Sometimes, we do need things, and we can’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes, we’re in a position to give, and we can’t let ourselves be swayed by the temptations of this world into giving up on what God wants from us.
     Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy. It’s downright difficult, actually, and that’s because Jesus doesn’t just ask for simple things: he asks for devotion, for love, and for thoughtful consideration. Our culture asks for us to make mindless purchases, storing up things we can’t keep. Let us instead build barns that hold love, faith, hope, joy, and peace – those things we can share with all the world. Amen.