Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Everyday Choices

March 22, 2015
Matthew 7:13-29

At first glance, it seems like there’s not a lot of good news in today’s readings.  Narrow gate, trees getting cut down, houses built on sand.  We did not enjoy talking about this last portion of the Sermon on the Mount at Bible study on Wednesday.  But I forget that I know another way to read the Bible sometimes, and the way I’ve heard it interpreted throughout my lifetime pops up first—do your best to enter heaven through the narrow gate.  The road to hell is going to be crowded.  But I know that’s what the Pharisees and teachers of the law already believed, so that must not be what Jesus is saying.  Let’s see if we can find a stream of logic in Jesus’ message that will lead us to abundant life in this world.  First let’s close hell and say that it’s not an option.  I believe that God’s extraordinary love and forgiveness trumps anything we can do—that’s what grace means.  And let’s put heaven on hold.  This is the life that we have some control over and Jesus teaches practical ways to live abundantly in the gift of this life.
First the narrow door.  My mother used to drag out this age-old adage, which turns out to be a Zen koan, every time I wanted to do something others in my crowd were doing:  “If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you join them?”  Which translates: Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s smart.  How many of you heard something similar?  I may have been asking to go to a party where there was no adult supervision or to go to a movie downtown with another teenager—pretty innocuous stuff, although fraught with some danger.  But consider the consequences of the banking panics of 1930 and 1931.  Or consider, in more recent history, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 2001 that killed 2, 996 people and caused $10 billion in damage to property and the infrastructure.  I was with a group of newly ordained United Methodist clergy in Mexico in the days leading up to the war.  Scores of Mexican citizens told us that Americans were crazy and offered similar advice to my mother’s.  How many members of Congress and ordinary American citizens followed the Bush administration into two ill-advised wars that we are still fighting at an accumulated cost of $814.6 billion in Iran and $685.6 billion in Afghanistan according to the Congressional Research Service?  Over 57,600 Americans have lost their lives or been wounded.  The cost to Iraq and Afghanistan have been greater.  Surely there was a narrow gate in response to 9/11 and we missed it and the loss of lives and resources and the wounds of war will haunt us for a very long time.  Jesus says the narrow gate leads to abundant life for all of us, the wide path sometimes leads to ruin.
How can we recognize wise leaders that can help us discern the narrow gate?  Jesus says that we will know them by their fruit.  That’s just plain common sense.  Ideology can be deceptive, but fruit tells the story.  In Jesus’ day, you could tell the difference between temple leaders, whose observance of ritual purity and strict obedience to the law only added to their sense of self-importance, and someone who would stop and help you.  He told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate this point.  Remember, hell is closed, so no one is going to be thrown into the fire, but every person in Jesus’ audience knew that you get figs from a fig tree and thorns from brambles.  Don’t be na├»ve.  You will know the people of God by the good fruit that they produce.  Pay attention to the fruit!  Just as a good gardener would not waste time and resources on a fruit tree that was not bearing, do not waste your time following or give your allegiance to those who do not bear fruit, or whose fruit is hate, greed, and self-serving judgment.  Remove leaders who are unfaithful in their leadership.  Rise up and demand better leadership.  The saying is true in all parts of our lives.  We can examine our own prejudices and biases by looking for evidence of fruit in other people and systems.  
We can also examine our own lives for fruit to determine if our actions are adding to the abundance of the Kingdom of God here and now for all of God’s creatures or not.  Jesus warns us away from being self-deceptive.  Adhering to a system of beliefs is so much easier that confining our actions to the teachings of Jesus.  There is a profound difference between faith in Jesus and living Jesus’ faith—or living as Jesus lived.  Being co-creators in the Kingdom of God is lived out in our everyday choices, not in a moment of “being saved.”  Our beliefs don’t matter as much as our actions.  I had a congregant once come to me concerned that her uncle did not believe in Jesus and was not “saved.”  I asked her to tell me about her uncle.  She said he was a kind man who was always helping others.  He helped everyone in his neighborhood.  He loved his wife and his children.  He was her favorite uncle because he was such a good man, but he did not go to church.  What could she do to save his soul?  “Why does he need to go to church?” I asked.  “He is already following Jesus’ teachings, whether he knows it or not.”  Like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, her uncle loved his neighbor as himself, which is the most tangible way of loving God.  I may say that I love God, but if my actions to not show it, according to the apostle Paul, I am “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  
The little choices we make each day can lead to peace in our homes, or discord; freedom in our communities or oppression; dignity for our neighbors or prejudice and bias; fair governance or partisanship; feeding our world or famine; war among nations or peace.  We build the home, community and world we want to live in one choice at a time.  Each choice adds to the Kingdom of God or detracts from it.  I want the choices I make to create a healthier world.  

I want to build on the solid rock of Jesus’ teaching.  If there’s anything we know from living along the coast of Washington, it’s the difference between building on rock and sand.  We know the damage storms can do when we build precariously or unwisely.  We know the heart-ache of mudslides.  As followers of Jesus, we build not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors as well.  So let us build wise lives that honor one another choice by choice, action by action, always choosing love, as co-creators in the Kingdom of God.    

A Cure for Crankiness

March 15, 2015
Matthew 6:19-7:12

When I was a young mom, I relied on a book called The Mother’s Almanac.  It described a phenomenon the authors called “arsenic hour,” that time around 4:00 in the afternoon when children melt down.  Their blood sugar is low, they’re tired, and they are cranky!  The cure for arsenic hour was a high protein snack, like peanut butter on celery, and a quiet activity like reading or an art project.  If only it were that easy for adults.
We’ve all had the kind of crankiness that a protein snack and a quiet activity will cure.  But there is a kind of chronic crankiness and dissatisfaction that poisons our political discourse and even damages our personal relationships.  We see it in Congress and in the streets of our cities and, if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves.  We could blame it on the constant change that we live with or technology.  As a society, we used to blame it on the Cold War, and now we blame terrorism, immigrants, or people of other faiths for “whatever is wrong.”  Except that Jesus addressed it 2,000 years ago in the Sermon on the Mount, so this is not a new problem.  Jesus says that we make ourselves miserable by being anxious about meeting our basic needs.  Whether we actually have enough resources to meet our basic needs or not, research indicates that the more we have, the more worried we are that either we don’t have enough or that we will lose what we have in some way.  Jesus is talking to all of us.  If we are not worried about where our next meal is coming from, we are worried about how to store our excess.  We worry about our clothing, how we’ll look, where we will live, and the value of our property.  Can you lose sleep over what might happen to your spouse or children, or you children’s children, or your own health?  Did your worrying help, or did you wake up the next morning a little more tired, and a whole lot crankier?
I wish that more of you could have heard Walter Brueggemann speak Friday night at The Well.  There is not enough time to give you more than a brief taste of his lecture on predatory economics:  how a fear of scarcity leads to accumulation, which leads to monopoly, which leads to financial and/or real slavery, which in turn leads to violence, as detailed in the book of Exodus.  In the account in Exodus,  once the Israelites left slavery Egypt, they immediately missed Egypt and oppressive economy that had made them slaves.  They missed the food and they were afraid they wouldn’t have enough.  But after a few days, they turned their backs on Egypt and faced the wilderness.  That’s when, the Bible says, they beheld the glory of God.  God fed them in the wilderness with manna and quail and gave them water from a rock.  They had enough.  They were no longer bound to an economy that demanded constant production:  more bricks, more bricks, and even when they ran out of straw to make bricks, they had to make more bricks more quickly.  Jesus’ advice to those of us who are anxious is to consider the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air who “neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns and yet God feeds them.” So you may think, “Yeah, yeah, consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, but that doesn’t even make sense in my world.”  And it is counter-intuitive in any anxiety-driven system.  Brian McLaren writes:
[Anxiety] makes whole communities tense and toxic.  Anxiety-driven systems produce a pecking order as anxious people compete and use each other in their pursuit of more stuff to stave off their anxiety.  Soon, participants in such a system feel they can’t trust anybody, because everyone’s out for himself or herself, driven by fear.  Eventually, anxiety driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon.  The result?  Bullying scapegoating, oppression, injustice.  And still they will be anxious.
But Jesus says that we can exit the predatory economy and enter the Kingdom of God now.  We can stop worrying about meeting our own needs and begin to care for each other.  Jesus “makes this staggering promise: if we seek God’s kingdom and justice first, everything that we truly need—financially, physically, or socially—will be given to us.”
It’s difficult to care for each other when, in our anxiety, we judge and criticize one another because we fear that we are ourselves will be the target of judgment.  I love how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message:  “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.”  Isn’t that the truth?!  I really don’t like to hang around critical people and yet I’m one of the most critical people I know.  How dare I call someone else critical?!  What right to I have to criticize someone who is God’s beloved?  But that doesn’t seem to stop me.  It certainly doesn’t make me any happier.  Besides the possibility of hurting someone deeply, I become more aware of the possibility that other people are criticizing me—it becomes more and more a probability in my mind the more critical I am.  If I see the world through a critical lens, all I see is criticism.  If I perceive the world through a lens of fear, the world is a frightening place.  If I see through a lens of scarcity, there will never be enough for me.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Distrust breeds distrust; criticism breeds criticism; fear breeds more fear.  
Phillip Owens calls this kind of thinking “being in the wrong lane.”  But remember, Jesus tells us that we can get off the highway all together.  We can change the way we perceive others by understanding that we are loved.  We can ask for what we need.  Someone pointed out in Bible study this week that Matthew’s gospel doesn’t say that we’re supposed to ask God for what we need.  It simply says to ask for what we need, to search for what we’re looking for, and to knock and doors will open.  That’s how community works.  God gives us good gifts and we take care of each other.  That’s how the Kingdom of God works.  As a demonstration of the power of community, at the Walter Brueggemann lecture, a woman in the audience shared her particular struggle with injustice in the prison system.  At the end of the lecture, as we were leaving, we witnessed a lawyer from the audience introducing herself to the woman and offering to help.  In the Kingdom of God, in the Community of the Beloved, we share each other’s burdens and treat each other the way we want to be treated.  We treat each other as we would like to be treated.  Did you know that this teaching appears in every major religion?  
The way out of being afraid that we won’t get our fair share and judging and being judged, is to claim God’s unconditional love for ourselves and each other.  At the end of this chapter in Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, he offers this cure for anger, and crankiness, and misery based on Jesus’ teaching.  We start with the anxiety and judgment in our own hearts.  We have to get “this mess” in order before we can engage other anxiety-filled people.  Otherwise the distrust, shouting, and blaming continues.  Tell yourself:
My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about.
My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn
    in others.
My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved.

Try repeating this every day until your head believes it, then keep repeating it until the wisdom makes its way to your heart.  Let me get you started.
Your own anxiety is more dangerous to you than whatever you are anxious
Your own habit of condemning is more dangerous to you than what you
    condemn in others.
Your misery is unnecessary because you are truly, truly, truly loved.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Growing Deeper Roots

March 8, 2015
Matthew 6:1-18

When Steve and I owned a home in Kent, many years ago, after a long season of rain, the wind blew down a giant fir tree in our back yard.  The root system stood on end where the trunk of the tree had been.  It was easily 20-30 feet wide, but it had no depth.  With all of its roots on the surface, and without a tap root, it toppled in saturated soil and a stiff wind.  Our spiritual lives are very much like trees.  The stronger and deeper our root system, the sturdier our spirits will become, and the more beautiful our outer lives will be.  Jesus teaches us in this central portion of the Sermon on the Mount, that the part of our spirit that grows below the surface anchors and enriches the part of us that is visible and public.  Last week Jesus walked us back from the grave sins, like murder and adultery, to look at the smaller emotions and moments that lead to them, then back even further to healthy practices that prevent our crossing boundaries into dangerous territory.  It takes a healthy spirit to be fully conscious of our own needs and emotions as well as the needs and emotions of others.  It takes a healthy spirit to recognize a slippery slope within us before we find ourselves on a slippery slope in our actions.
In the reading today, Jesus takes us deeper on that inward journey back to the source of our actions.  He invites us to tend the roots of our spirituality.  If we continue with the metaphor of a tree, he starts at the base of the tree, where the trunk gives way to the roots.  Still partially visible, still engaged in the public sphere, Jesus talks about almsgiving.  Jesus is not talking about our regular giving, our tithes and offerings brought to the temple or church.  Those are thank offerings given in response to our gratitude to God for the gifts that we have received from our generous Creator.  Our tithes and offerings are not secret gifts, but are made in public and used in public ministry.  Almsgiving is just the opposite.  It represents our tangible compassion toward a neighbor or stranger in need.  Almsgiving is a private gift that seeks to protect the dignity of the one in need.  It is a person to person gift based on need, rooted in our care for the well-being of the other.  
We might think of it as charity, but I think Jesus is talking about something that goes beyond charity.  Almsgiving digs deeper and becomes more personal.  It stretches our spirits to see as God sees.  I remember stories in my family that date from the Great Depression when so many people were unemployed.  My grandmother often invited strangers who came to the door looking for work or a piece of bread to share the family’s evening meal.  She would instruct her family not to take a piece of chicken when it was passed so that those who were truly hungry might eat.  The family members would be given something later, but the guests at her table would not know the sacrifice that was made for them.  I’ve heard similar stories from you.  I have been touched many times in ministry by a gift given in secret through me or through the church to provide for another person’s particular need.  
I remember one Sunday afternoon in another church when a homeless visitor to worship was found trying to take a nap on a sofa in the fireside room after coffee hour.  One very gentle woman asked what he was doing.  He explained that part of being homeless is never getting to stay in a warm place long enough to rest.  He was always asked to move on.  She let me know that she was going stay with him at the church that afternoon so that he could take a nap.  Those of us who were left were not going to leave her alone with a person we didn’t know, so we all got out our wallets and gathered enough money to pay for a room for the night.  Our sister in Christ’s quiet offer of her time, another form of almsgiving called out greater generosity from the community.  When we see a need and quietly provide the means to meet that need, our spirits grows deeper and stronger, because our empathy has been exercised. We are tangibly connected to the vulnerability of another of God’s children and to God’s tenderness and desire for justice.  We are changed because we are connected more deeply to one another and to God.
Now let’s go deeper underground to our prayer life.  In his teaching, Jesus is separating private prayer from public prayer.  We don’t see a lot of public prayer in our community, so we are not tempted in the same way that some of the people in Jesus’ audience would have been.  Most of our public prayer comes in the form of worship.  But as important as corporate worship is for our souls, it cannot nurture and strengthen our spirits in the same way that private prayer does.  It is our private wrestling with the issues and the big questions in our lives—whether the issues and questions are personal or public—that leads to greater insight and transformation.
Not all prayer is formal.  Sometimes we sit with a devotional guide at a regular time during the day and add our personal prayer and that is a great start.  But have you ever considered reading the paper as prayer?  Are there big questions that cry out for answers after you watch the news?  Does the news break your heart or cause you to weep?  Stay with those questions in silence and listen.  Listen with every fiber of your being to the story that has moved you, to your own experience, to your own spirit, and listen for something outside or beyond you.  You can be alone in your car, on the ferry, working in the yard, just sitting with the paper.  Open your heart before God and listen.  After you have listened for a long time, you might ask what you can do.  Let the question stay with you.  Listen for God to speak through scripture and other sources.  
The truth, as Jesus tells us, is that God already knows what you need and what you want so you really don’t need to use many words.  God knows.  However, the opposite is not true.  We don’t know what God wants for us or from us; we don’t know what God needs from us or for others.  Raise questions, tell God what you notice in the world, what you see, what you hear, and then listen.  If we can move beyond our own needs and wants to see the world beyond us, our roots of compassion take hold and grow strong.  We become grounded in God’s very being.  And what shows above ground is love and wisdom.
Let’s go deeper still to fasting, down to bedrock.  This is where I should be quiet and sit down, because I have never had much experience with fasting.  You’d have to fast to gain experience, and as I said, I don’t have much experience.  At least not with food.  I’ve never gotten the connection between not feeding my body and growing my spirit, unless I don’t eat so that someone else might eat.  I could give up a meal and give the money I would have spent to the food bank of a feeding program.  But I did find a kind of fasting that makes sense to me, especially during Lent.  One of my friends gave up sugar for Lent because she believes she might be addicted to sugar and she wants to heal her body.  That’s the idea behind this other form of fasting.  But instead of giving up food, we give up something that poisons our spirits so that our spirits might be healthy and strong.  This particular form of fasting comes from Latin America.
Give up harsh words: use generous ones.
Give up unhappiness: take up gratitude.
Give up anger: take up gentleness and patience.
Give up pessimism: take up hope and optimism.
Give up worrying; take up trust in God.   (There’s one that will grow your roots!)
Give up complaining: value what you have.
Give up stress: take up prayer.
Give up judging others: discover Jesus within them.
Give up sorrow and bitterness: fill your heart with joy.
Give up selfishness: take up compassion for others.
Give up being unforgiving: learn reconciliation.
Give up words: fill yourself with silence, and listen to others.
Giving up that which does not feed us or harms us and others, is a great way to fast.  Think of the damage done by anger, stress, complaining, worrying, bitterness, selfishness and/or unforgiveness to our spirits and how harmful these are when directed at others.  But I have to tell you, it’s not easy.  We have to be willing to look at ourselves closely and recognize and examine these behaviors.  Giving them up takes constant vigilance and repeated effort.  That’s why it’s helpful to take on a new behavior in place of the old.  Be patient and keep working at it—it takes time and effort and a lot of grace.  Growing the complimentary virtues in secret will make us not only stronger personally, but more like Christ.  Our roots will go deep into what Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Our Being, Being Itself.  What will grow above ground will be generosity, gratitude, gentleness, patience, hope, optimism, trust in God, joy, compassion, and a reconciling spirit.  That’s spiritual grounding, roots that will help us weather any storm.  

Giving in secret, praying in secret, and fasting in secret are disciplines that form and transform us over time.  What is grown in secret will be revealed in public.  To be generous, wise, grounded people we need to grow our roots as deep as we can.  That’s where we tap into the life-giving underground streams of living water.  And that’s how we remain rooted when the rain falls and the wind blows.  We will remain standing, rooted and grounded in love.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Deeper than the Law

March 1, 2015
Matthew 5:17-48

Wasn’t that a lot of scripture to try to absorb at once?  During the season of Lent, we will hear all of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  So imagine that you are sitting on a hillside in Galilee, listening to Jesus describe what life in the Kingdom of God is like.  Jesus is painting a picture, not arguing points.  Jesus honors the commandments, but honestly, the law is inadequate in the Kingdom of God.  So while Jesus upholds the commandments, he teaches us how to deepen our commitment to living Kingdom values in such a way that the spirit of the law is fulfilled.  We know the saying, “You can’t legislate morality.”  One can be a scrupulously law abiding citizen and be completely selfish, or rude, or judgmental, or un-neighborly, or all of the above.  Living only by the law can help to keep us orderly, but it will not make us happy.  It will not make the community prosper.  It will not care for our neighbor or creation.  

So how should we live?  By attending to the things that precede the necessity for the law. 

What underlies murder?  Anger.  If we can understand how destructive our anger is, we don’t have to worry about a law prohibiting murder.  But let’s go deeper than anger.  What underlies anger?  Often it’s a lack of respect or consideration.  The contempt behind words like “stupid” or “fool” does damage not only to the person with who hears those words, but also the one who speaks them.  That contempt damages our souls.  But if I can make respect and consideration for the other person my aim, my goal in life, I can work at negotiating win-win solutions, avoid angry confrontations, and the community is richer and more peaceful.  Right?  This isn’t rocket science.

If I take care of my marriage, I don’t have to worry about divorce.  That’s easy to say, but it’s true.  I tell couples who are preparing to marry that intimacy doesn’t begin in the bedroom, it starts in the morning with the way that we share our lives with one another.  If I share details of my life, my thoughts and dreams, my hopes and fears with someone other than my partner, without sharing those things with my partner, whether I share with a man or a woman, I have become intimate outside my relationship and started down a path that can lead to divorce.  If I don’t have the time or interest to hear my partner’s thoughts and dreams, hopes and fears, I endanger my relationship.  We don’t have to worry about adultery if we are tending our relationship with attention and love.  

We don’t have to take our neighbor to court or worry about being sued if we learn how to be peacemakers.  If we seek to understand the needs and concerns of our neighbor, we can settle our differences out of court and avoid court costs, fines, and settlements.  If I can rethink protecting my rights to discovering ways for both of us, even all of us, to live together in peace, we’ve all won.  If I can love my neighbor enough to want him or her to be as happy and as fulfilled as I am, then I don’t have worry about the law.  Freedom comes not from protecting rights, but from genuinely caring about the well-being of our neighbor.  It is even possible under the rule of an occupying force to be people of peace through non-violence.  

If we only act out of self-interest, nothing changes.  We will continue to live with violence in our neighborhoods, a staggering divorce rate, young people disinclined to marry, overwhelmed courts and prison systems, and continuous war.  Someone has to act differently.  Someone has to take the risk of going deeper than the law to create a community out of concern for the well-being of our neighbors here and abroad.  I’m going to say something that I hope you can hear, because I believe it’s true.  The Church always critiques its culture.  Just as Jesus critiqued his culture and called it to recommitment to the basics of the commandments—to love God and neighbor, he calls us to critique our culture. 

The American ideal of individualism and its idolization of freedom have created violence in our neighborhoods, a staggering divorce rate, young people disinclined to marry, overwhelmed courts and prison systems, and continuous war.  And our hubris keeps us from seeing that those values of individualism and personal freedom are the very things that are harming us.  Jesus teaches us that we have to care about the other person as much as we care about ourselves in order to be free, that we are dependent on one another to live in peace—we are dependent on one another to have the abundant life that God wills for all of creation.  We’re in this together.  The law can only set some boundaries.  Unless we can live better than the law, deeper than the law, we will not get to experience life as God intended.  If we want the abundant life that Jesus talks about, if we want to live in the beloved community, the Kingdom of God here and now, then we need to live and work at a deeper level which is characterized by love, compassion, awareness, respect, intimacy, generosity, vulnerability, peace, and justice.  I’m not saying it’s easy to live these values.  I am saying that it’s the only way to secure a future for us and for our children and grandchildren, for all the children of the world.  It’s long past time we try God’s way of living in community.