Monday, October 28, 2013

Prayer that Transforms and Heals

October 27, 2013

Luke 18:9-14


Let’s talk about prayer that transforms and heals. Jesus gives an example of two men who go to the temple to pray. One, a Pharisee, gives thanks for what he is not—by comparison he may not be a great person, but at least he’s “better than” a whole lot of other people. Then he gives evidence of his righteousness: he fasts twice a week and he tithes, gives ten percent of his income to God. I actually recognize this prayer. It’s the way I sometimes start my session of spiritual direction when I really don’t want to talk about my own spirituality, or when I want to figure out why some situation is causing me grief (that means I want to talk about someone else’s behavior. For those of you who may not know about spiritual direction, it is holy listening, a practice that is centuries old. The spiritual director helps the Christian seeker to discern God’s presence or leading in his or her life by listening and reflecting back. Spiritual direction and prayer are a lot like computers—garbage in, garbage out. What’s really wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer is that he checks in without revealing either to God or himself, who he really is. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, started class meetings, which we might call covenant groups, with the question, “How is it with your soul?” That’s the beginning question in prayer. The Pharisee checks in with the sins he’s avoided, or perhaps not even been tempted by, adds the good things he’s done this week and, in effect, says to God, “Are we good? Let’s talk about somebody else.”
Jesus contrasts the Pharisees faux prayer with the tax collector who, stood at a distance, would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I believe that God loves each of us and desires an honest conversation with us. And I believe that God loves us more as a loving parent than a harsh judge. However the tax collector viewed God, he was ready to pray. He looked at himself honestly and opened himself to God for forgiveness and healing. It is as if God asked, “How is it with your soul?” and the tax collector said, “I am not who I want to be. Have mercy on me.” Jesus says the tax collector is the one who went home justified or made right with God because God had something to work with. Prayer that transforms and heals begins with honest reflection on our failures, wounds, questions, and longings.
Let me tell you how I see God working transformation and healing in a class that I teach for the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. The class is Ministerial and Theological Integration. It is the supervision class for seminary students who are engaged in their first internship; their first experience of being seen in a new place as a minister. The class focuses on their growing understanding of themselves as ministers. For these adult learners who feel the seriousness of their call to ministry and who want to learn how to live effectively into their call, the temptation is to want to be competent. They naturally want to celebrate their successes and gloss over their difficulties. They want to excel. Unfortunately, we learn more from our difficulties and failures than we do from our successes. My challenge to them is to write about their failures and questions so that they can learn, in conversation with their peers and with me, what they bring to ministry that is not helpful, what gets in their way, what prevents them from seeing and hearing clearly. I have to tell you that the students who jump in and lay their failures on the table with open hearts, ready to learn, experience “aha” moments that lead to amazing transformation and healing in their lives. Each paper that they write, and there are many, is followed by a one page integration paper in which they distill what they have learned from the incident in question, the feedback of their peers and their continued reflection and prayer. I encourage the students to close each of their papers with a prayer—and what prayers they write, laying bare their shortcomings and longing for wholeness and beauty in their lives and in their work. As the year goes by, their work becomes holy ground as they wrestle with questions of faith, with messages from their past that do not serve them well, and images of God that are always going deeper as they listen in their ministries to stories of pain and heartbreak. They are not the same people at the end of the year. I have the privilege of watching God’s stunning transformation and healing as these ministers become more than they ever imagined. It is their honest examination of themselves and reflection on what wholeness means in the grace of God that changes them.
That is the kind of prayer that Jesus invites us to. Of course God wants to hear what our hearts desire and many times what we long for is a change in some situation. It may be healing from an illness or injury for ourselves or for a loved one. We need to bring the fullness of our anguish to God with total honesty. I heard one woman say that in a dark time she prayed and prayed for a resolution to her difficulty and finally added the plea, “Could one thing change?” Her prayer created an openness that allowed for that one thing to be in her.
We begin our worship service with praise for God’s goodness and move immediately to confession. It has become more and more common in churches to leave out the confession because people don’t like it. I used to be one of those people. If the words didn’t speak to my situation, or didn’t address my difficulties during the past week, I didn’t like speaking them. But it’s too easy for me to pray like the Pharisee by not acknowledging my shortcomings and human frailty. Just learning the language of confession helps us remember that it is the beginning of real prayer, and eventually the words will pierce my heart.
The real truth is that transformative prayer does not change others, and it does not change God, it changes us. I love this quote from Clarissa Goeckner, OSB:
In our seeking we know that it is prayer that will awaken our
imaginations; prayer will open our hearts; prayer will keep
us faithful; prayer will sustain our efforts; prayer will give us
courage; prayer will bring us to freedom; and prayer will lead
us to the unknown future where many possibilities await us.
Prayer brings us alive!

So let me ask you, “How is it with your soul?”




Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Prayer that Works

October 20, 2013

Genesis 32:22-31
Luke 18:1-8

You may remember my best friend from high school, the Rev. Mary Gean Cope, who visited us two months ago, from Texas. Whenever I spent the night at her house when I was in high school, I always ate breakfast facing a little wooden sign that hung in their family’s kitchen. In large letters: “All things come to those who wait,” and in smaller letters below, “if they work like hell while they wait.” I was such a church girl that I was always a little shocked by that sign. But I also knew that my friend’s family were strong Christians. It was a puzzle to me, because I thought the first half of the statement was a faith statement—certainly one that I learned in Sunday school and youth group. I equated waiting with prayer. All things come to those who pray, or at least those who pray with great faith. The second half of the sign seemed like an anti-faith statement. I thought it was saying that you couldn’t count on God, so you’d better do the work yourself. You only get what you work for. It didn’t make sense to me when I was a teenager, but Mary Gean’s father was an attorney. By vocation, he fought for justice, and that sign was a reminder that you always have to be prepared and work hard when you seek justice. I’ve heard that called active prayer.

We have two examples of active prayer, or prayer that works, in scripture. But first, let’s talk about prayer that doesn’t work—at least in my experience. God is not a genie in a bottle, there to grant our every wish. God doesn’t magically change situations to our suit our will. Let’s start with the story of Jacob. Jacob was the second twin born and, according to custom, his brother Esau, only a few minutes older, received the birthright, his father’s full inheritance. It’s a fascinating story of parental favoritism, cunning, and deceit. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger one day to get Esau to sell his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew. Jacob and his mother tricked his father into giving Jacob his dying blessing, as well, the blessing intended for Esau. So furious was Esau at being robbed a second time, that he threatened to kill Jacob and Jacob had to run for his life. He ran to his uncle Laban’s house where he fell in love with his beautiful cousin Rachel. He worked seven years to win her hand in marriage only to be tricked by his uncle who substituted Rachel’s older sister Leah. To marry Rachel, Jacob agreed to a second seven years of labor. By the time we pick up Jacob’s story today, he has tricked and been tricked, deceived and been deceived many times, and always worked hard. Twenty years have passed and he and his large family, servants, and flocks are going home. First he sends greetings of peace to his brother Esau. But when he hears that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, he is afraid—and with good cause. So he divides his camp in two hoping to at least save half if he is attacked by Esau. Then he divides out of his many flocks a very generous gift for Esau and sends servants ahead with 550 animals: sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, and cattle. Jacob is praying hard, and working hard toward a making peace with his brother. We find him spending the night before he meets his brother alone on the banks of the River Jabbok wrestling with an unknown man. Jacob simply cannot win. He is between a rock and a hard place, between the wrath of two men: his uncle, a day’s ride behind him, and his brother, a day’s ride ahead of him, both of whom believe that Jacob has cheated them and stolen from them. Jacob, the deceiver and the deceived, begins to pray and finds himself wrestling. As strong and clever as he is, he cannot defeat this stranger in the night, but he will not let go. As dawn comes Jacob finally yields but demands a blessing from the one he names as God. When daylight comes, Jacob limps toward reconciliation, a changed man with a new name: Israel, one who strives, or struggles, with God. Having grown weary of a life of deceptions, he is ready to make amends with his brother so that he can live in peace. Jacob’s prayer did not change Laban or Esau. Jacob’s wrestling in prayer changed Jacob. So did sending ahead, as a gift to Esau, a large portion of the fruit of his twenty years of labor as a way of making amends for stealing Esau’s birthright. Part of the blessing that Jacob received was a new name that acknowledged his new self-awareness. Jacob was a deceiver and he was deceived. Israel was a man who had to struggle mightily within himself to do the right thing—to be in right relationship and to be just.

Jesus tells a similar story in short form. An unjust judge who fears neither man nor God finally grows weary of hearing the persistent demands of a poor widow. There weren’t many in Jesus’ time who had less power than a widow. She had no male in her family to plead her cause, she had no money to hire someone to work on her behalf. But she kept at it, returning again and again after the rascal of a judge refused to grant her justice. She prayed for justice and she knocked on the judge’s door until she wore him down. That’s active prayer—prayer that works. You have to wonder if the judge in this story spent a sleepless night wrestling with God before he finally judged in the widow’s favor. God has a way of working with us when we work for fairness.

If we pray for justice, for ourselves or others, our prayers should call us to some form of action. Notice that Jesus does not suggest that the woman’s persistent prayers to God changed the heart of the unjust judge. No, it was actively pleading her case before the unjust judge that brought the justice she longed for. The way this parable is often interpreted is that God is in some way the unjust judge and that we need to pray persistently to change God’s mind. Jesus never impugns the character of God. Jesus is telling his listeners that if they want justice, they have to be persistent in working for it because justice is God’s will. There is an African proverb that is a part of the image on the cover of your bulletin, “When you pray, move your feet.” That is true whether we are thanking and praising God (really, we can move our feet when we sing) or when we are praying for change in our lives, a relationship, or the world. Prayer that works involves action and commitment. In prayer, God transforms us so that we can transform the world. And when we pray together for justice—with our spirits, voices, and feet—just watch what happens!

Let us pray.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Small Steps, Real Gratitude

October 14, 2013, 4:21 PM

Small Steps, Real Gratitude

October 13, 2013       
2 Kings 5:1-15c
Luke 17:11-21
For several weeks we have been on the road with Jesus as he heads toward Jerusalem for the last time. All along the way he has been relocating the Kingdom of God. It’s not in the temple, it’s not in pious micromanaging of the law—no, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is like a shepherd leaving 99 sheep grazing to look for the one that wandered away. It’s like a woman who sweeps the whole house looking for a missing silver coin even though she has nine in her purse. It’s like a father throwing a barbeque for his son who squanders his inheritance. The Kingdom of God happens when an unscrupulous manager forgives his master’s debtors so that they will welcome him when he loses his job—because you can’t serve God and money. In the Kingdom of God, poor, wretched, starving Lazarus finally finds comfort in heaven, while the rich man with no name is trying to use his influence to get room service in hell. Where is the Kingdom of God? It’s been relocated: outside the fold, in the dust in a corner, among the pigs in a far country, where dishonest wealth is redistributed, and across the chasm of self-interest.
In the gospel story, ten lepers saw Jesus approaching. Lepers were the ultimate outsiders in the ancient world. Because their disease was so contagious, the Levitical law required that they live on the outskirts of towns and villages, that they wear torn clothing, leave their hair uncut, and cover their mouths while crying, “Unclean, unclean,” to warn others to keep their distance. Theirs was a lonely, painful existence. When these ten lepers saw Jesus, they kept their distance, and called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” The job of diagnosing skin diseases had been given to the priests and so Jesus sent them to the temple to be examined. On the way all ten were made clean. But one, when he saw that he was healed, came back to find Jesus. Praising God in a loud voice, he threw himself at Jesus’ feet, face down in the dust of the road and made a spectacle of himself. And he was a Samaritan. An outcast among outcasts throwing himself at the feet of the street preacher. We can imagine the other nine sitting in the synagogue or worshiping in the temple, happy to have been healed. But the Kingdom of God is out on the street where the outcast sees God in the face of another man, one his people might even consider an enemy, and he cannot keep silent.
The story of the prophet Elisha and Naaman holds much of the same cross cultural and political tension. The Israeli king felt threatened and was afraid of attempting a task he couldn’t imagine. Naaman felt dimissed because Elisha didn’t come out to meet him, didn’t wave his hands or speak healing words. Naaman wouldn’t even have been there if his wife hadn’t listened to a young girl. He wouldn’t have been healed if he hadn’t listened to the wisdom of his servants who encouraged him to do the simple thing he was being asked to do.
How often do our fears, resentments, or prejudices get in the way of our taking small steps toward our own healing, or healing relationships, or healing systemic problems?  What are the things we say to ourselves?  Here’s my list: That can’t possibly make a difference. Too little, too late. What if it doesn’t work?  I don’t trust that person. If we don’t take the small steps, we shut down the possibility of healing. Perhaps it’s easier to hear in ancient wisdom from the East: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” or “why curse the darkness, when you can light a candle?”
Yeah, yeah, I know you’ve heard all this before. I wouldn’t be inspired by it, except for the miracle I witnessed this last Friday. I was invited to hear the stories of Palestinian and Israeli families who had last children in the horrible conflict that continues in their divided land. An Israeli mother, who lost her young adult son to a Palestinian suicide bomber, and a Palestinian man whose 10 year old daughter was shot by an Israeli soldier on her way home from school, travel together as representatives of the Parent’s Circle—Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost their children to the violence who work side by side for peace. They started by telling their stories to each other and then expanded their circle to tell their stories to others all around the world.  Robi, the Israeli mother, asked us to pray for peace. Bassan, the Palestinian father, asked us to not take sides, but to be on the side of peace. They acknowledged that their governments’ posture prevents peace, busy trying to promote their own interests. Robi asked us not to be “pro” either side, because it prevents peace. “Be on the side of peace and only on the side of peace,” she said.  Bassan, who served in the Palestinian army and was an Israeli prisoner for 7 years, told us how terrifying it was for former combatants to sit together in the same room and tell their stories so that they could begin to work together for peace.  Robi and Bassan call their work together a miracle, and it is. But it began with unbelievable difficult small steps. The real gratitude that they have for one another is only a foretaste of the gratitude that their people will experience when the scale for justice finally tips towards peace in their land. The accumulation of small actions does tip the scale.
Inspirational stories may help to give us courage to take a small step toward healing. But they are of no use if we do not act in our own lives; if we don’t take the small step that we need to take in our own lives. It may be something very personal with your health or personal well-being. It may be in mending a broken relationship or finding a healthy resolution. It may be in addressing a broken system, in your family, or in our community, or nation. Miracles happen because we take one courageous small step after another. For Naaman the small step was taking the advice of a young girl and listening to his servants, then dipping himself seven times in a foreign river. Ten lepers were told to show themselves to the priest, hoping that along the way they might be healed. Palestinian and Israeli families choose compassion over revenge by telling their stories and sharing their pain. None of these small steps seem reasonable, but each small step led to a miracle of healing. And miracles large and small lead to real gratitude, face in the dust, shout it from the mountaintops gratitude. May it be so for you.

If I Only Had More Faith

October 9, 2013, 4:15 PM

If I Only Had More Faith

Habakkuk 1:1-6, 12-13; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:5-6, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10
   I’m a faith gardener. I’m sure that if I only had a little more faith, my yard could be as beautiful as my neighbors’. I love beautiful yards and gardens and so I ask God to give me more faith. The past few weeks our fruit trees have been groaning under the weight of a bumper crop. Every day I’ve prayed for faith to pick and care for all that fruit. And finally this week, God answered me. Carol Butler and some friends, along with a family of deer, are taking care of all that fruit. I’m also a faith dieter.
   Those of you who are real gardeners know what a wacky idea being a faith gardener is. Truly, though, I’m waiting for inspiration, perfect weather, extra time. . . . I don’t love gardening, didn’t grow up working in a garden—it just looks like hard work to me. Hard work that I don’t understand. And I’m not crazy about sweating. That’s why I’m a faith gardener. As ridiculous as that sounds, we don’t see anything wrong with being a faith disciple.
   When we pick up the gospel reading for today, Jesus has been telling story after story about God’s desire to find the lost and comfort the poor, while painting the wealthy as dishonest, corrupt, cavalier, self-centered, and doomed to torment. Then come two teachings that didn’t make it into the lectionary, which is really too bad. They’re logical conclusions to the parables of the lost and found, the dishonest manager, and the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus tells his disciples that it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their necks and be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones—one of these poor ones—to stumble. And that if an offender repents, re-offends and repents again, they must forgive again—and again.
   And that’s when the disciples become faith disciples. They throw up their hands and cry, “Lord, increase our faith!” Too much! Who could possibly do all these things? What we need is more faith. And Jesus just laughs, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’” Because that’s the first thing you’d want to do with faith—uproot a great big tree and plant it in the sea. That would really be useful. Just imagine a whole church full of people with their little mustard seed bracelets planting a whole forest in Puget Sound. The world doesn’t need faith disciples. The world needs servants—Energizer Bunny servants who keep working, and working, and working even when others wear down.
   My real gardener neighbors have worked hard all spring and summer. I’ve seen the bundles of pruned branches. I’ve watched a neighbor dig a clean border with a shovel, sweat pouring from her brow. I’ve enjoyed a friend’s shady arbor transformed from an old dog house, and admired another’s developing terrace. Creating a beautiful yard involves plenty of hard work, sweat, and dedication—even on less than perfect days. It also involves a financial investment in bark, fertilizer, tools, and new plants and plenty of deer fencing.
   Being a real disciple is no different. It’s a matter of doing, not wishing. Real disciples simply see the next thing that needs to be done and they do it—just like a real gardener. Doing things that are hard in less than perfect conditions, being uncomfortable, sweat or tears stinging their eyes, investing their financial resources, even wishing they could be lying on a hammock drinking lemonade, real disciples keep their eyes on the prize—not a beautiful garden, like the real gardener—but the kingdom of justice and mercy that is God’s will for all creation.
   The world doesn’t need a mulberry tree planted in the sea. God needs servants who will work without expecting to be rewarded simply because it’s what ought to be done. You and I don’t need any more faith to be real disciples. We simply need to keep our eyes open do the next thing that needs to be done.
   The prophet Habakkuk is especially poignant today as we read the papers and watch the news.
          O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
                    and you will not listen?
          Or cry to you “Violence!”
                    and you will not save?
Habakkuk hears God’s answer:
          Write the vision;
                    Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
          For here is still a vision for the appointed time;
                    it speaks of the end and does not lie.
          If it seems to tarry wait for it;
                    it will surely come; it will not delay.
That vision depends on the work of the righteous—the ones who do the right thing. Not the ones who believe the right thing, but the ones who do the right thing. Not the ones who wish the right thing, but the ones who are willing to work for justice and mercy.
The folks in Bible study this week wrestled with Jesus’ parable of the servants who come in from working hard in the field all day. We think that Jesus was challenging the way that servants were treated—after working all day in the fields they were expected to come in, prepare the meal for the master and only sit down to eat when everyone else had been fed. We don’t think that “worthless servant” is in Jesus’ vocabulary, but it was something that the wealthy Pharisees and land owners might say. And it is the Pharisees with whom he has been in conversation throughout this long discourse that began with Jesus being criticized for eating with “sinners.” Who had the power to change such unjust treatment of servants? The servants and “sinners”? In Luke’s gospel that would be like telling a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea. Or in Matthew’s gospel, the same parable imagines moving a mountain. Injustice, whether on a large scale or within a family may seem like a mountain—impossible to move or to overcome. But it only takes faith this small that, with God’s help, we can make a difference to take action. What part of God’s vision could we bring to life if we put one foot in front of the other to do the next thing that ought to be done?
In the second letter to Timothy, a young disciple, Paul counsels Timothy to hang on to his faith and to treasure it. He reminds Timothy that his faith is a gift from God and it is sufficient for what God calls him to do. This much faith is all we need—a belief that, with God’s help, we can work for justice and mercy and that we can make a difference. Think what abundant life there might be on earth—and what joy in heaven.

Missing Treasures

September 18, 2013, 11:35 AM

Missing Treasures

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 112
Luke 15:1-10
I bought a new cell phone while I was on vacation. I wanted a smart phone and I knew that I would need some expanded free time to learn how to use it. I’ve had it for a week now and I am still lost. I learn things pretty easily, but I’ve noticed that I keep doing the same things over and over, hoping for different results. I honestly don’t know how to get the phone to do what I want it to do. Theresa took a look at it my first day back at work and immediately showed me how to work several features. Just like that!
You know what it feels like to be lost. It’s awful. I can remember trying to find my way to Lazy F camp, our United Methodist camp in central Washington. It’s in a box canyon in the Manastash Ridge near Ellensburg. I’d been there once before in the summer, but this time it was late September and the corn had grown so high that it obscured some of the landmarks I was looking for. I kept making the same wrong turn over and over again, driving in a giant circle in farm country as twilight approached and it got darker and darker. No one answered the camp phone. I felt totally alone and a little desperate. Remember what it feels like to be lost as we examine today’s gospel reading.
The gospel lesson today contains two of the three stories that Jesus tells to illustrate why he hangs out with the folks that the Pharisees call sinners. Remember that the Pharisees were very conscious, proud even, of always obeying the law and doing what was “right” in God’s sight. And they grumbled about Jesus’ behavior. That brought me up short. How many times did I catch myself grumbling this week about somebody else’s behavior? Ow!! Caught in the act. But Jesus didn’t see sinners. Jesus saw people; people that had gotten lost. He tells thee parables to explain what he sees. The sheep wanders away looking for the next clump of grass. The coin is lost by the negligence of its owner—coins can’t make decisions and don’t have feet. But somehow they both get lost—that means separated in these stories, not doomed or damned. Separated! What a difference from the Pharisees’ tone of condemnation calling these folks sinners. Jesus talks about things of value, treasures that wander off or get misplaced. Even if there were a hundred sheep in your flock, one lost sheep was worth searching for. Everyone knows the worth of a silver coin. Not only did the Pharisees not see the worth of the lives of the people they called sinners, they openly rejected them—pushed them out of God’s kingdom and said, “Good riddance!” These are stories told to grumblers. The moral of each story is that when one of God’s treasures is found and restored to the safety of the community, there ought to be extravagant rejoicing—not grumbling. So church, listen up!

God is like a reckless shepherd.
Jesus did not spend very much of his time with the religious community—he was out relating to people who were often left out or left behind and restoring them to the Kingdom of God. He was busy loving the very people who made the good people nervous. He loved those people because God loved them. He saw God’s treasures wandering into dangerous territory looking for something to satisfy their hunger. Let me bring this home. The Pacific Northwest is often called the “none zone,” meaning that when asked about a religious preference or affiliation, 75% respond “none.” Only 25% claim to have a preference of affiliation and many of those do not belong to or attend a worshiping community. People in the Pacific Northwest say that they are spiritual, but not religious. They are looking for something to feed their spirits, but they don’t expect to find what they are looking for in houses of worship. They expect to find judgment, hypocrisy, oppressive rules, and boredom. They don’t expect to find love, acceptance, community, direction, and freedom.
If you look at Jesus, he seems to be way more spiritual than religious. Maybe it’s time for us to imitate Jesus and become more spiritual and less religious—I know that hard for Methodists. We like our methods. The truth is that methods are fine for sheep folds, but not much use to wanderers and searchers. People looking for God aren’t looking for rules. They’re looking for love and wonder. We need to become reckless shepherds if we want to be like Jesus. We’re okay without a lot of tending because we know that we’re loved, that we belong here. We have work to do inviting, welcoming, and nurturing God’s treasures who have wandered off searching for spirituality without religion.

God is like a woman who sweeps and sweeps.
There could not be a more counter-cultural image of God than a woman doing woman’s work. The Kingdom of God belongs to women as well as men. And the Kingdom of God belongs to God’s treasures who are lost through the negligence of others. Jesus says that God sweeps and sweeps looking for the treasures that others lost, the ones who have never known love, have not had enough attention, who have been wounded by people who have used or abused them, who have never had a chance. The Kingdom of God belongs to them and God will not stop sweeping until they are found, and loved, and welcomed, and nurtured.
Jesus knew his mission. He knew how he was to spend his time. It was not gathering with the good folks in the church. It was finding people of inestimable value in God’s eyes who had become separated from the flock or the fold.
There’s a two-fold message here. Sheep who are gathered together will be just fine. Coins safely in a purse will be just fine. We don’t need to worry about them because they are already gathered into community. The community will be fine. It’s those who are searching or languishing, who do not have the love and safety of the community that need to be found. They are the ones who need the shelter of community and the wholeness offered by God’s love.

As a church, we have a two-fold mission:                
  1.  Seek the lost
                        I am asking each of you to think of someone who needs the safety and love of God’s community. It may be a person or persons that you know, or it may be someone you don’t know. You might pray for a neighbor and friend, or a child or a single mother. You pray for the person that is in your heart. Pray for them every day and then see what God does. God will not always bring into the community people who are just like us—God brings who God brings and it’s our job to welcome and love them.
  1.  Nourish the community of saints
                        We need to make sure that there are opportunities for searchers to find food for their souls—in small groups or one-on-one conversations. They need a safe place to ask questions; a soft landing when they are hurting.

Read the Tony Campolo story from The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren (printed here from a version on the internet).
I had to go to speak in Honolulu. Well, sometimes you get L.A. and sometimes you get Honolulu. If you go to Honolulu, because of the distance from the east coast where I live, there’s a six‐hour time difference. And I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning and I was hungry and I wanted to get something to eat. But, in a hustling city like Honolulu at three o’clock in the morning, it’s hard to find anything that’s open. Up a side street, I spotted this greasy spoon, and I went in. It was one of these dirty places and they didn’t have any booths, just row of stools at the counter. I sat down a bit uneasy and I didn’t touch the menu. It was one of those plastic menus and grease had piled up on it. I knew that if I opened it, something extraterrestrial would have crawled out. All of the sudden, this very heavy‐set, unshaved man with a cigar came out of the back room, put down his cigar, and said, “What do you want?”
I said, “I’d like a cup of coffee and a donut.”
He poured the coffee and then he scratched himself and, with the same hand, picked up the donut. I hate that. So, there I am, three‐thirty in the morning, drinking my coffee, and eating this dirty donut. And into the place comes about eight or nine prostitutes. It’s a small place, they sit on either side of me, and I tried to disappear. The woman on my immediate right was very boisterous and she said to her friend, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty‐nine.”
Her friend said, “So what do you want me to do? Do you want me to sing happy birthday? Should we have a cake a party? It’s your birthday.”
The first woman said, “Look, why do you have to put me down? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.”
That’s all I needed. I waited until they left and I called Harry over and I asked, “Do they come in here every night?
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “The one right next to me…” “Agnes.”
“Tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think about decorating the place? When she comes in tomorrow night, we’ll throw a birthday party for her. What do you think?”
He said, “Mister, that is brilliant. That is brilliant!” He called his wife out of the back room. “Jan, come out here. I want you to meet this guy. He wants to throw a birthday party for Agnes.”
She came out and took my hand and squeezed it tightly, and said, “You wouldn’t understand this, mister, but Agnes is one of the good people, one of the kind people in this town. And nobody ever does anything for her, and this is a good thing. I said, “Can I decorate the place?”
She said, “To your heart’s content.”
I said, “I’m going to bring a birthday cake… Harry said, “Oh no! The cake’s my thing!”
So, I got there the next morning at about two‐thirty. I had bought the streamers at the K‐mart, strung them about the place. I had made a big poster – “”Happy Birthday Agnes” ‐ and put it behind the counter. I had the place spruced up. Everything was set. Everything was ready. Jan, who does the cooking, she had gotten the word out on the street. By three‐fifteen, every prostitute was squeezed into this diner. People, it was wall‐to‐wall prostitutes and me!
Three‐thirty in the morning, in come Agnes and her friends. I’ve got everybody set, everybody ready. As they come through the door, we all yell, “Happy birthday Agnes!” In addition, we start cheering like mad. I’ve never seen anybody so stunned. Her knees buckled. They steadied her and sat her down on the stool. We all started singing, “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you!”
When they brought out the cake, she lost it and started to cry. Harry just stood there with the cake and said, “All right, knock it off, Agnes. Blow out the candles. Come on, blow out the candles.” She tried, but she couldn’t, so he blew out the candles, gave her the knife, and said, “Cut the cake, Agnes.”
She sat there for a long moment and then she said to me, “Mister, is it okay if I don’t cut the cake? What I’d like to do, mister, is take the cake home and show it to my mother. Could I do that?”
I said, “It’s your cake.” She stood up, and I said, “Do you have to do it now?”
She said, “I live two doors down. Let me take the cake home and show it to my mother. I promise you I’ll bring it right back.” And she moved toward the door carrying the cake as though it was the Holy Grail. As she pushed through the crowd and out the door, the door swung slowly shut and there was stunned silence. You talk about an awkward moment. Everyone was motionless. Everyone was still I didn’t know what to say.
So, I finally said, “What do you say, we pray?” It’s weird looking back on it now. You know a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes at three‐thirty in the morning in a diner. But, it was the right thing to do. I prayed that God would deliver her from what dirty filthy men had done to her. You know how these things start ‐ some ten, eleven, or twelve‐year‐old girl gets messed over and destroyed by some filthy man and then she goes downhill from there. And men use her and abuse her. So I said, “God, deliver her and make her into a new creation because I’ve got a God who can make us new no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve been through.” And I prayed that God would make her new.
I finished my prayer. Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Campolo, you told me you were a sociologist. You’re no sociologist, you’re a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three‐thirty in the morning.”
I’ll never forget his response. He looked back at me. ”No you don’t, no you don’t. I would join a church like that!”[1]       
People of God, it’s our job to throw the party!

Radical Hospitality

September 3, 2013, 5:55 PM

Radical Hospitality

Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm 112
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Radical hospitality is a phrase that United Methodist Bishop, Robert Schnase, uses to describe one characteristic of fruitful congregations. His genius in developing his curriculum to help congregations become more fruitful is in his adjectives. Christian love takes us beyond good. Christian loves takes us even beyond excellent—to grace filled. When what we do is grace filled, our work is imbued with power that changes lives, including our own. Because it begins with God’s grace. God has created a world that not only supports and sustains our life, but also intrigues and delights us. Radical hospitality starts with God.
You’ve had a few minutes to think about it. What are some of the signs that you have been welcomed with grace?
Radical hospitality is an attitude of the heart that reflects a genuine concern for the other person. Years ago, I caught an episode of Martha Stewart in which she was preparing for guests in her home. She placed bouquets of fresh flowers in every room, including the guest bath. She found delicate flower scented soaps. She let us watch her create an elegant dessert. And then she concluded her show by saying, “I can’t wait for my guest to arrive to see all of these things I’ve prepared.” Poor guests. I hope they came prepared to ooh and aah so that they didn’t disappoint their hostess. Martha invited guests to be an audience. Right here, let me admit that it’s easy for me to be more concerned with looking like I know what I’m doing as a hostess that I forget that my intent is to build a relationship. Standards build up in a community. Even in a church. I have never been part of a group, church included, where the expectations didn’t continually go up. I read a book a long time ago by a pastor in Oregon who said that if you want to maintain hospitality, keep it simple. We all want to offer our best when we are in charge of coffee hour, and that’s great. But if one person bakes great cookies, and the next host adds fruit, and the next host adds cheese, coffee hour can become intimidating and expensive. Sometimes the courage to offer a very simple snack like popcorn relieves the pressure and becomes an act of genuine hospitality so that everyone feels free to share their gifts again. It’s a situation of both/and. Sometimes we honor wanting to offer our best, and sometimes what’s best for the whole congregation calls us to lower expectations. Both have their place.
But I digress. Radical hospitality involves more than a good welcome. It needs to attend to the real needs of the guest or newcomer. It is all about the other person’s needs. One of our sons tried the big church near campus and, like Goldilocks, found it too big. So he visited the small church just a little further from campus. He could hardly wait to tell us how they had fussed over him in rushing to make him feel welcome, with a look on their faces that said, “Fresh meat!” He didn’t do back. Sometimes that’s what drives the welcome in churches—a desire to fill the pews with people who can take over the jobs we’ve done forever. Someone else to add to the volunteer list, someone new to teach Sunday school, make coffee, iron the communion linens. Debi Nixon tells the story of being invited to be on the altar guild by an older woman in her congregation. Debi was a young mother and altar guild had never crossed her mind. So she asked the woman why they thought of her. The woman replied, “Because somebody’s got to do this and I’ve been doing it for thirty years and I’m tired of it!” Unbelievably, Debi did take the job and later wrote that she wished the older woman had told her how humble it made her feel to polish the brass candle sticks until they gleamed because they symbolized the light of Christ, and how ironing the communion cloths sometimes made her feel as if she were preparing the meal for Jesus and his disciples—she could feel herself in the upper room. The sense of awe and holiness she experienced preparing for the congregation’s worship fed her soul in ways she could never have imagined. Why had that woman never told her that?
Radical hospitality cares more about the soul of the new person than the job they can take over. It also makes room for each new person and the gifts that he or she brings. I’ve been a member of a number of churches over the years, in several states. After I joined one church, a member of the welcoming committee came to visit in my home and asked about what kinds of things I liked to do and where I thought I might fit in. I told her about my recent degree in theater arts, but she waved her hand in the air and said, “Oh, we already have someone who does that. Maybe you could help her with makeup sometime. What else do you do?” I wish she had asked me how that church could help me grow in my faith. Or how it could support me in raising my children. I did find some other moms and we developed our own support group. In spite of the rocky start, that church made room for me to grow and use my gifts. Think about how this or another church made room for you. How then do we expand our horizons and the scope and depth of our ministry by making room for friends we haven’t met yet? Not just handing over jobs we’ve grown tired of, but allowing new ministries to take shape and new life to grow?
Radical hospitality is at the heart of the Beloved Community. All are welcomed; all are accepted; all are loved. This church is pretty good at radical hospitality, but we can always take it to the next level. In the second half of the gospel lesson for today, Jesus calls us to extend that radical hospitality to people who are outside our social circles, to people for whom our community may be a life-saving ministry. Ordinary hospitality is reciprocal: invitations are proffered with corresponding invitations in a back and forth or circular rhythm. Radical hospitality invites with no expectation of return. Radical hospitality takes the risk of saying to the guest, “My house is your house. Make yourself at home.”
Maybe I’ve told you about my friends who decided that their home belonged to God. Therefore, if anyone needed a place to stay, they would open their home—no questions asked. One of their guests did steal some of their stuff on his way out of town, but their response was that the results were not up to them. Their job was to extend hospitality. They had some great stories to tell as well of single moms who needed a place to make a new start and earn first and last month’s rent before moving into their own apartment and travelers who just needed a safe place for a night. I may be preaching to the choir here—in fact I know that I am. But is worth remembering that when someone new makes their home in our home, we are all changed. We learn new ways of living in our space when we invite others to make the space theirs as well. It’s like a good marriage—never easy, but so worth any tension or conflict that arises, if we find in the tension ways to grow in grace so that we may fully receive the gift of the other.
Radical hospitality can change the lives of those we welcome. And it changes us—all of us together.

Lifted

August 28, 2013, 1:18 PM

Lifted

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17
I love the healing stories in the Bible. The longer I’m in ministry, the more I see how our physical, mental, and spiritual health are intertwined. Our faith is encouraged or challenged—more often challenged—by illness, injury, or disability. Most of those of us over the age of 50 are dealing with at least one health issue. How we feel affects our faith, our theology, our image of God, and our image of ourselves. So when Jesus lifts the woman who has been bent over for 18 years, I find hope that my own physical challenges can be overcome.
And as I was trying to write this sermon, I found myself staring at my computer not knowing where to start or what to say. It was a familiar feeling—the same one I had as I began to write my dissertation which is about the church’s healing ministry. There is so much to say. It’s a complex topic that is so important to our real lives, but it’s also fraught with danger. There are the huge questions that we ask as we try to make sense of our suffering: Why me? What have I done to cause this? Whose sin is to blame? That’s an often repeated Biblical question—to which Jesus definitively answered, “No one.” If others are healed why aren’t I? If we pray for healing, why are some prayers seemingly answered and others are not? If our prayers lead to unrealistic expectations should we pray at all? Doctors and chaplains often encounter patients who refuse treatment because their church teaches that Jesus will heal them. We don’t want to do more harm than good.
These are all valid questions or concerns. The result is that we tend to relegate physical and mental healing to physicians and psychiatrists, and spiritual healing to priests and pastors. But human beings are not that neatly compartmentalized. And we often confuse healing with cure. A cure may happen or it may not and a person may still be healed, may still be made whole. I believe that the church has to embrace its healing ministry 1) because Jesus’s ministry included healing and he instructed his disciples to carry on that ministry and 2) because it a practical way that we love and care for one another.
I have a shelf full of books on healing. The book I come back to again and again is I Am the Lord Who Heals You: Reflections on Healing, Wholeness, and Restoration, a collection of sixteen sermons on healing compiled by G. Scott Morris, MD., published by Abingdon, the United Methodist publishing house. There are fifteen wonderful theological treatises in this book from theologians, pastors, a rabbi, professors, and one sermon that I would disagree with completely. The sermon that captured my attention this week is by the editor. Physician G. Scott Morris is also an ordained minister who has helped create a clinic for those who do not have insurance in Memphis. He writes passionately about the connection between bodies, mind, and spirit. He notes that Jesus is often moved with pity for people who are suffering and asks where the Church’s compassion is and how it is expressed. He chastises the Church for not talking about the bodies that house our minds and spirits. Dr. Morris tells the story of Annie who he treated in his clinic over a number of years. One day he noticed her black eye and asked how she got it. She admitted that her husband had gotten a little mad. He also abused drugs and became the doctor’s patient when he got HIV. Later Annie developed a lump in her breast and underwent treatment for cancer. She finally died as a result of the AIDS she no doubt got from her husband who also died of AIDS not long after her. Dr. Morris raises these questions for the Church:
What does it mean for us to have compassion? Although Annie’s story is a powerful witness to the work of the Church Health Center and the faith community, there are a number of serious problems.
Do you believe that I am the only one who knew that Robert was abusing Annie? Can you tell me that no one in the church even suspected? And if we think that spouse abuse is not going on in the church today then we are fooling ourselves.
Why is it that we can never say the word breast in church? Why didn’t Annie learn about breast self-exam and mammograms in her church? God has given us a precious gift of this body and we must learn to care for it, to cherish it, and to teach our children how to nurture it and protect it from disease and keep it strong if we want to be faithful disciples.[1]
What can we learn from Jesus’ healing of the woman who had been bent over for 18 years? The first is that she was in the Temple on the Sabbath. We ought to be able to find comfort, support, strength, and, yes, healing in the worshiping community. Jesus noticed her. He noticed her pain and her suffering. He saw that she could not have seen his face. So in order to talk to her, he must have gotten down on one knee in order to look up into her face. He gently lifted her up. When he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, he called her a daughter of Abraham, a beloved daughter of God. He spoke to her soul as well as to her body.
That is why we offer healing every week. Anyone who comes to worship should be able to find comfort, support, strength, and healing in the worshiping community. We work in tandem with the medical community in seeking wholeness for individuals and families. That means that we may need to find better ways to create access to medical care for some people. As Dr. Morris s suggests, we need to become better advocates for physical and mental health and put an end to the social stigmas we’ve placed on talking about our bodies. We need to see one another with compassion. We all stuggle with something. No matter what outcome we hope for, we pray for healing. Sometimes we find a solution or a cure, and sometimes our love and companionship on the journey is what brings healing. Sometimes God leads us to wholeness without a cure. Sometimes our illness or disability leads us to wholeness. No matter how we pray, we need to find a way for all people to be able to participate as fully as possible in the life of the church. I believe that when the Church lives into its healing ministry, God is present in each of our circumstances and kneels to look up into the pain of our lives and lifts us into wholeness.


[1] G. Scott Morris, “So You Want to Be Healed,” I Am the Lord Who Heals You: Reflections on Healing, Wholeness, and Restoration, ed. G. Scott Morris (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 27.

Kindled

August 20, 2013, 3:07 PM

Kindled

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Luke 12:49-56
There are days when this preacher would rather not preach from the gospel.  Every time one of these passages comes up, I look at the other readings hoping to find something that will go down easier.  I’ll be honest with you.  I have a hard time with the apocalyptic portions of the gospels—the parts that anticipate the imminent end of this mess, envisioning God’s coming to shut it all down, or snap the world like a tablecloth and set it all right again, or torch it and rebuild (which is the way the winners dealt with conquered peoples in the centuries around the biblical narratives).  And then I watch the news and see what is happening in Egypt today and Jesus’s words make sense.  The underlying cause (usually complex causes) may be different in each conflict, whether it is the American Civil War, the Irish troubles, the Arab spring, the list could go on all day, but the desire for justice burns like fire.  That’s not to say that justice looks the same to everyone.  Those who have power, or land, or wealth, or privilege, or all of the above see justice one way and the have-nots see it another, and that’s what makes situations volatile.
So when Jesus says that, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” he is almost certainly talking about expelling Roman rule from his native land.  Amid a number of factions who sought a similar outcome through wildly differing means, we really cannot be sure how he thought that might happen.  Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God in very practical terms—not after death, but soon, if not now.  And Jesus preached against a corrupt Temple system more vigorously than against Rome. 
This is the undomesticated Jesus that we are reading today, not the Jesus in our Sunday school pictures with a sheep over his shoulders.  This is not Jesus as my friend and savior, but Jesus as radical visionary and table turner, moving to change the status quo.  This is Jesus full of righteous anger.  Is it safe to say that the status quo is what it is because it benefits someone who would rather not have it change?  The question for me is two-fold: what is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God and how to I follow him in making that a reality?
I preach often about what I think Jesus means when he speaks about the Kingdom of God.  It is a just society in which God’s abundance is made available to all of God’s creatures.  It is built on an understanding of God’s love for every person.  It is an ethical social construct that acknowledges God as the center.  And that’s where it breaks down.  Our understanding of God determines whether we are Christian soldiers “marching as to war” or peacemakers who will be called the children of God.  In Jesus’ day, just like in the streets of Egypt, it could go either way.
So when Jesus wishes that the fire were already kindled, is he talking about the fire with which Rome burned whole Jewish towns in order to build lush Roman trading centers and outposts on top of the ashes?  Or was Jesus talking about the constant fire on the altar in the Temple where the offering of countless animals was consumed making the Temple system wealthy and arrogant?  Or was Jesus talking about kindling a flame for restorative justice in the Kingdom of God?   Western civilization has lived with all of these fires.  And we are seeing the fires of violence burn around the world. 
I want to think that the way of Jesus is the way of non-violent resistance.  Walter Wink argues persuasively that Jesus taught and acted against powers that damaged human beings in his books The Powers that Be, Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.  I want to believe that non-violent resistance takes oppression seriously and works to break open unjust systems so that all may thrive.  Passive wishing or hoping will not create the Kingdom of God.  But neither does violence.  The fire of violence only breeds more violence and unthinkable destruction.  Non-violent resistance works slowly and can reveal horrific inhumanity in its opposition, but I believe that it is at the heart of Jesus teaching.  Non-violent resistance is a small flame that must be carefully managed and guarded so that it does not burn out of control.
Jesus says that we should be able to read the signs of our times the same way we read the weather.  What does the Church and her people have to say to our times?  What is the flame that Jesus would have kindled in us today?  I encourage you to read your paper or watch the news this week and pray and/or journal about what Jesus would have kindled in each of us and in all of us together. 

The Treasure Inside

August 13, 2013, 1:29 PM

The Treasure Inside

Genesis 15:1-6
Luke 12:32-40
This is one of those times in history when the gospel seems written just for us.  We have lived at some level on high alert for over a decade.  Just this past week, all of our embassies in the Middle East were closed because of terrorist threats.  For a year the State Department has been under investigation for not keeping the kind of vigil that could preclude a surprise attack.  Truly, if the owner of the house had known what time the terrorists were coming, he would have been ready. 
It’s often helpful to read Jesus’ statements from the inside out.  He begins the teaching for today with these words, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Do not be afraid.  We simply cannot live on high alert.  It will make us crazy.  It will impair our judgment and make us belligerent.
So let’s start with the wisdom of last week’s reading.   We can’t have everything.    A man that I’d never met stopped in the office this week to comment on last week’s sermon title that was still on the reader board.  When his son was little, he wanted everything he saw.  One night he asked his daddy for some outlandish thing and his dad replied, “You can’t have that.  It’s too big to move.”  His son didn’t miss a beat, “We can leave it where it is, but I’ll know it’s mine!” 
We can’t have everything.  But it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.  “What Jesus enjoins, is an orientation toward the whole of life as abundant gift from a generous God—a gift that can, therefore, be given away with abandon.”[1] 
We cannot give if our hands are clenched and our spirits are wary.  What is the radical message that can make this passage come alive with joyful possibility?  Stay with me as I do a bit of exploring.  What if the servants of the generous God, whose good pleasure is to give away the Kingdom, have been working diligently giving away their master’s stuff.  What if, instead of sweeping, cleaning, polishing, and bookkeeping, they have been giving to all who have need while they have been waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet?  Then when it is quite late and the servants are exhausted, their master returns and creates a feast for them.  What would that look like?  Let me show you a video.   
At the end of the day, the servants sweep up and close the doors.  What is there for a thief to steal?  Needs have been met with kindness and joy. 
Which raises the question:  What is the treasure inside that truly needs to be protected?  It is the treasure that is stored within every human being.  Your stuff, the things you own, has monetary value that is fleeting.  But you—you are precious.  Your soul is of infinite worth.  Your spirit is the treasure inside and the way you nurture it will decide whether you live in fear or in peaceful readiness for living. 
Jesus is not contradicting himself in this parable.  If the servants know their master’s values and live faithfully in service to those values, they will always be ready.  If we want to live in the Kingdom of God, we must cultivate a generosity of spirit that trusts that God gives abundantly and blesses our abundant giving.  I can’t tell you how hard that is for me.  But that is where my faith in God has to grow and it grows not from scrunching my brow and thinking or reasoning harder, but by practicing extravagant generosity—generosity with the gifts that I have been given: my natural talents and acquired skills, the financial and tangible fruits of my labor, and—this is perhaps the most important for my peace and the peace of the world—my forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the currency of peace.  Forgiveness for my family, forgiveness for my friends, forgiveness for myself, forgiveness of every kind of debt or trespass.  There were some people of faith who called for forgiveness of international debt at the turn of the century.  We did not forgive debt and we have lived with war and terror for over a decade.  The chasm between the very rich and the very poor expands daily.  It is more important now than ever that God’s servants learn how to manage the world with God’s values. 
The treasure is stored within every human life.  We protect that treasure through a generosity of spirit that is cultivated in an ever deepening relationship with God and one another.  Generosity of spirit trusts that God gives abundantly and blesses our abundant giving.  Forgiveness is at the heart of a generous spirit.
Can we believe that the master’s return is a gracious event, rather than a cause for panic?  Can we hear in this Gospel text an invitation to a more playful, expectant participation in the coming of God’s Kingdom?  Which knock at the door brings the bearer of God’s good pleasure?  What act of generosity or almsgiving frees one to peek through the door of heaven?  What small steps indicate a confidence in God’s good future for you and me or for this congregation?[2]



[1] David J. Schlafer, “Luke 12:32-40,” Feasting on the Word, ed. Bartlett and Brown (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 339.
[2] Patricia J. Lull, “Luke 12:32-40,” Feasting on the Word, ed. Bartlett and Brown (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 338.

You Can’t Have Everything

August 7, 2013, 4:01 PM

You Can’t Have Everything

Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21
Both Jesus and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes raise serious questions about the accumulation of wealth, especially the desire to have more than one can possibly use.  Comedian Steven Wright observes very practically,  “You can’t have everything.  Where would you put it?”
The Hebrew word Qohelet is translated “Teacher” in the reading we heard from the book we know as Ecclesiastes.  It can also mean “preacher”—one who speaks to the assembly.  And he brings a difficult word.  He is an honest and astute observer, but not a particularly comforting one.  As one of the delegates to the Continental Congress muses, in the film 1776, following one of General George Washington’s dismal reports from the field, “That man could depress a hyena!”
The preacher looks at the striving of humans and says it is vanity—a word that can also be translated “breath.”  All of our busyness is simply chasing the wind.  He knows our need to be remembered, to leave, if not a monument, at least our mark on the world.  We create monuments to our leaders, The Washington Monument (he may have been depressing, but he won the war!), the Lincoln memorial, and a thousand statues in cities and towns all over the world.  How important it is in Hollywood or on Broadway to have your name above the title, to have a building that bears your name Trump Tower, or a business that’s identified with your name—JC Penney or Sears, or a product in a million garages—Ford.  But the preacher knows that the business or empire that have been so carefully sculpted will one day be handed to someone else, who may or may not be as wise, or ambitious, or careful of your name and legacy.  What most of us really want is to leave a legacy.  Something that will live after us, a part of us, or a result of our work that will be eternal, so that our lives will not have been in vain—only as lasting as our breath. 
Jesus is no more encouraging than the preacher of Ecclesiastes.  You say you’re all set?  You have storehouses so full of grain that they are bursting at the seams and you’ve had to add storehouse upon storehouse?  You say to your soul, “Relax, it’s time to eat, drink, and be merry?”  That very night, as you celebrate your astounding ability to accumulate wealth and create the good life, your life can be demanded of you.  And whose will all this wealth be?  Because you can’t take it with you.  It is not attached to your soul and cannot comfort your soul in eternity.
There is only one thing that is eternal.  Love.  It begins with your relationship with God who created you in love and created you for love.  Things will never satisfy you.  Wealth will never satisfy you.  There will never be enough to feel safe, to feel secure.  You and I were created for love.  We were created to be in community and in communion with God, who alone can satisfy the longing of our souls—who alone has the fullness of life to fill us to overflowing.
Listen for the activities that will make us rich not only in this life, but in the life to come—throughout eternity:  Hear these admonitions from the letter to the Colossians (3:12-17):
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
What are your most valuable possessions?  The relationships with those you love.  Our resources are best used building and strengthening relationships and community.  That is what will ultimately feed our souls and that is what will last.  But don’t stop with the people you already love.  Expand your circle to include everyone you do business with, your coworkers, your classmates, and neighbors, so that your wealth will extend in every widening circles like ripples in water.  The currency that will have the most impact on our lives, in our communities, and in our world is love in its several denominations: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience—and the most valuable:  forgiveness. 
Our lives will not be lived “in vain, as fleeting as breath,” if we accumulate relationships instead of things.  We will not “chase the wind” if it is God’s very breath that animates our lives.  We cannot have everything, in spite of the bumper sticker that declares that the one with the most toys wins.  I saw a similar bumper sticker in a fabric store, “The woman with the most fabric wins.”  I visited a home once where an avid quilter lived.  Quilts covered beds, hung on the walls and over banisters, were draped over sofas, and were displayed on multiple quilt stands in every room.  Not unlike the storehouses in Jesus’ parable.  She didn’t have another space to put the quilt she was working on at the time.  And I think of the hundreds of quilts laid across our pews to be blessed before they are sent to sick children or service men and women far from home—several hundred every year!  All that fabric and labor placed in the hands of someone in need.  That’s a legacy! 
We can’t have everything.  Where would we put it all?  The things that really matter fit right here, in our hearts.  Our true wealth is the love that we have shared.  Our legacy is not what we have accumulated, but what we have given of ourselves in love and service.  May all that we say, and all that we do, be our offering of gratitude for God’s abundant love.

The Power of Asking

August 2, 2013, 6:49 PM

THE POWER OF ASKING

July 28, 2013
Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13
After hearing Abraham argue with God in the passage from Genesis, I have to wonder what would have happened if Abraham had continued to advocate for Sodom and Gomorrah. God had promised to punish the cities for the sin of inhospitableness. What would have happened if Abraham had asked if God would spare the cities if there were five righteous people—or even one? Abraham stopped persisting in his argument for mercy.  
Jesus encourages us to persist, to ask for what we need. That is a skill that doesn’t come easily to us. It’s often difficult for us to identify what, exactly, we need. Does this sound familiar?
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
“I want to do something fun.”
“How about a movie?”
“Nah, I’m not in the mood for a movie.”
“Something outside?”
“Maybe—what?”
Maybe you’re better at this than Steve and I are. We know several couples that have described the same dynamic. If it’s hard to say, or even know, what we want, it is almost impossible to communicate it. When we come to real needs, the difficulty only increases. Telling someone else what we need makes us feel terribly vulnerable. If we cannot communicate our needs clearly, getting those needs met becomes not only unpredictable, but a source of tension. We think other people should be able to read our minds and see what we need, even if we’re not sure ourselves.
Now try Jesus’ parable on for size. A friend arrives unexpectedly late at night and you have no food. So you go to another friend’s house and knock on his door at midnight. Already we’re in unfamiliar territory. How many of you would knock at a friend’s darkened home at midnight? I wouldn’t. And if that friend told me that he was already in bed and asked me to go away, I would, absolutely embarrassed. In Jesus’ culture, the person who should have been embarrassed is the sleeping friend. Hospitality required that he meet the need of a traveler. These are friends we’re talking about! Jesus says that if the one friend keeps asking, the other will eventually be worn down, not be friendship, but by persistence.
Jesus tells this parable in response to the disciple’s request that he teach them how to pray. We should always be careful reading God into Jesus’ parables as the person who has power, or in this case, extra bread that could be shared. It would be a mistake to read into this a grumpy image of God who turns the lights out and goes to bed. That is human behavior. This is a lesson about how to ask each other for what we need or for what someone else needs. It is about how we treat one another. Notice that the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples has as much to do with human behavior as it does with asking for care and mercy from God.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Asking for God’s kingdom to come commits one to living one’s life fully with God as the authority. Jesus calls for debt forgiveness as part of kingdom living—we ask God to forgive our sins because we have released people’s debts. Is the sin for which we are asking forgiveness holding the debts of others? We’re talking money here—not missteps or errors in judgment.
By way of contrast, Jesus promises his disciples that if they ask God for the kingdom, God will answer. God will give us what we need. But it’s also something that we need to work on. God is pleased to give us the Holy Spirit when we ask for it. I think Jesus is teaching us how to pray towards the kingdom of God instead of towards the kingdom of us. Often our prayers are more honey-do lists than seeking to know God and reveal ourselves to God (and to ourselves). I am in awe of a woman who sits quietly with the gospel reading for the coming Sunday every day starting with the Monday before. She reads it slowly and asks God questions. She listens for a new awareness. She turns the story upside down and inside out. “What if this person represents God? What if this person does not represent God?” She is quiet with the gospel for a minimum of 20 minutes each day. She sees things that others do not take the time to see. She orders her life in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. She would tell you that she was a Martha, until she learned to become a Mary. This way of asking, seeking, and knocking has changed her life. It has heightened her discernment in her extraordinarily generous work with people on the margins and her prayer life has infused her work with astonishing grace.
Jesus tells us that there is power in asking for what we need from one another, and there is power in asking God for what we need spiritually. Let me tell you a true story about seeking God’s direction. I was on the education committee of a church many years ago. Someone had given the church a gift of $4,000 with no stipulation as to how it should be used. That money practically burned a hole in the church’s pocket. We could think of all kinds of things that we needed. The choir had been asking for new robes for what seemed like forever. The organ needed to be repaired. The education committee dreamed of hiring a youth director. There were a number of other seemingly urgent needs.
The chair of our administrative board called a board meeting in order to decide how to use the $4,000. We each came armed with our best arguments. But instead, the chair asked us to pray about how God would have us use the money. He opened our prayer time and then gave us time for our own silent prayers. I told God, on behalf of the education committee, how important it was for us to have a youth director. I listed our reasons and then waited for the prayer to end, and I waited, and waited, and waited. I peeked to make sure everyone else was still praying. Then I waited in silence for 5 . . . 10 . . . 15 . . . 20 minutes! At the end of 20 minutes, the chair said, “I believe we are ready. What have you heard God say?” The first person to answer was the choir director who said, with some surprise, “I think we need a youth director.” Next the chair of the worship committee stated, “I came to tell you that the organ has to be repaired, but I really think we’re supposed to hire a youth director, too.” One by one, each person said they believed we were supposed to hire a youth director. I can’t tell you how that change came about for each person, since that was my original request. But I can tell you that we were hushed before the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into a single decision with no discussion. It still gives me goose bumps when I tell the story.  I believe that God will answer our prayers in ways we never could expect when we pray on behalf of God’s kingdom.
We must be able to identify what we need and then ask boldly. It’s okay to be persistent when we are seeking the kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus directs us to do just that. It is in the asking, seeking, and knocking persistently that we are formed as disciples.