Sunday, December 10, 2006

Rejoice! - Luke 3:7-18, Philippians 4:4-7

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to unite the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Dale Carnegie wrote the book on how to win friends and influence people. Really, he did: that’s the title of his book! He developed what he referred to as golden principles to assist people achieve the full potential of their professional and personal development. Today, the Dale Carnegie Training Institute resources people in all 50 states and 75 countries around the world, and graduates claim to have sharpened their skills and improved their performance in order to build positive, steady, and profitable results.

Suffice it to say, John the Baptist was not a Carnegie man. Anyone who opens a sermon to the religious establishment with the words “You brood of vipers!” does not seem to be someone interested in winning friends and influencing people. Can you imagine those words going over well in a comfortable mainline Protestant church today? I know what you would say to a preacher who painted his congregation with a brush such as this. “You can’t talk to us like that – we’re good Methodists! We’re good Presbyterians! We’re good Lutherans! We’re good Episcopalians! Take that sermon down to the Missionary Baptist congregation where it might play a little better.” May we pray.

Thus, the modern-day Baptists claim John as one of their own, and with sermons like these, most of us in the mainline are happy to let them have him. Preaching like this does not happen in our pulpits. It is not taught in our seminaries. What is taught is that good sermons happen in 15 minutes or less, because if you spend longer than that, you don’t really have anything to say anyway. While I appreciate the need for brevity and have heard many good 15-minute sermons given in 45, I also wonder if this isn’t also some commentary on the state of preaching in our churches. I wonder if preaching professors might have been doing damage control for the last 30 years or so, recognizing that if their students didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, at least they could minimize the damage they’d inflict upon their congregations by preaching only 15 minutes. As one of my seminary professors characterized the majority of contemporary Protestant preaching, it is “nothing more than a string of nursery rhymes tied together with baby ribbon.”

While John the Baptist doesn’t have much tact, is pretty low on style, and we might disagree with his methods, we do have to grant him one thing: the boy could preach. If one of the aims in preaching is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, John the Baptist has done it.
Were that the full extent of the preacher’s task, John could stop right there. But, an effective preacher knows there is more to be done. Entertaining as John’s sermon may be, he realizes that he is not the star of the show. His job, and the job of all preachers, including your preacher this morning, is to point to something and someone beyond himself. This is not John’s field. He is simply tending the earth, breaking up the ground, so that when the owner of the field comes, it will be ready to be planted, nurtured, and harvested.

Perhaps the analogy here is over-simplistic, but I see John as something of a babysitter. He’s keeping an eye on God’s people and trying to guide them as best as possible until God is able to arrive. Many of you know that I grew up as one of four kids, and I’m third in the order. My oldest sister is eight years older than I am, and as paying a babysitter was out of the question, was often put in charge of things when my parents went out. Shocked though you may be by this news, I had a bit of a stubborn streak growing up and liked to test the limits of the authority granted to my sister in my parents’ absence. I always knew I had crossed the line when she said, “Wait ‘til Mom and Dad get home.” In that threat, reality came crashing down.

But you can hear the same warning in John the Baptist’s words this morning. “Oh you brood of vipers, wait ‘til the Messiah gets home.” The day of reckoning is coming! The kingdom of God is at hand, and you’ve got to change your evil ways, baby! He gives them some pretty good advice, too – share what you have, don’t rob and steal, be satisfied with what you have. John sent the crowds away, a bit fearful for when the Messiah gets home, carefully conducting their lives so as not to incur his wrath.

There was always one possible consolation when I had misbehaved and was waiting for my parents to come home. I could always hope that my other sister or my younger brother had done something even worse than I had, and THAT would be reported instead of whatever infraction I had committed.

The crowds in John’s day walked away with a similar consolation: as bad as they had been, surely there had to be someone else out there who had screwed up even worse. While those members of the religious establishment were a bit fearful, they rested in the uneasy knowledge that they would squeak by, because the Messiah would focus on greater offenders than themselves – Gentiles – people like you and me. People who were not God’s chosen ones and never could be. People who, like the chaff, would be swept away, or gathered together and thrown into the fire and be burned into nothingness.

You can see clearly this is the type of Messiah the people were expecting. They were waiting for a militant king, who would free the Jews from corrupt leadership, but would also sweep through the world and destroy the Gentiles, leaving the world to the purified Jews to rule.

This is the Messiah John is proclaiming, and warning people to shape up and fly right before he gets home. Punishment is coming for all of us; just make sure you’re not in the group who will receive the worst punishment!

The Messiah is coming all right. He shows up in this Gospel only a few verses later. And to be sure, this Jesus is the long-expected one. There will be an earthquake, the mighty ones will be topped from their thrones, and the least will be lifted up.

But, his approach isn’t quite what we were expecting. When the parents arrive home, we are expecting yelling and punishment. Instead, Jesus walks over to each of us – to you, to me – he puts his arm around us and says “Things aren’t going so well, are they? Let’s take a walk and talk about things. Let’s stop over here and get something to eat.” This Messiah, this Jesus, is going to do an awful lot of walking and talking in this Gospel. He’s going to do an awful lot of eating, too – inviting people to join him at the table and talk awhile. He’s even going to do this with people we thought were complete losers. He’s going to invite them to sit at table, and talk and learn. This is a teacher who is going to teach not through threats and fear and fire, but around a table, as friends and enemies gather together to listen, and to learn, and to be changed.
The change he brings is what allows us to live a life filled with rejoicing, as Paul encourages us to in today’s lesson from Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says. “In case you missed it the first time, I’ll say it again: Rejoice!” Don’t place your security in material things, or the accumulation of stuff, or in securing for yourself a slightly better place at the expense of someone else’s well-being. Don’t worry about those things; rather, focus on Christ and the fact that he will return. And when you think about Christ’s return, rejoice!

John the Baptist has already told us; the Messiah is coming. As he told the crowds, so I tell you, he is also coming again. How will you greet him? With dread, and fear, and trembling? Or, will you rejoice at his return?

Remember the analogy of the child waiting for the parent’s return? When I had done something wrong, I dreaded their return. But, what if a child has done something extraordinarily right? What if the child has done something remarkable they want to share with their parents?
Perhaps they’ve built a city out of LEGOS in the living room. Perhaps they’ve mastered a new piece on the piano. Perhaps they have a good report card to share. Perhaps they finished a long book, or helped in some household task, or have some new work of art to be hung prominently on the refrigerator. Parents, don’t you love coming home when your kids are so excited to show you what they’ve been up to?

How much moreso, then, will Christ look forward to returning and seeing what we’ve been up to! I hope that we rejoice at his return, and can’t wait to show him just what we’ve been up to. “Look – we’ve done what John the Baptist told us to! We’ve shared what we had. We’ve treated people fairly. We’ve been exceedingly generous.” Look, Jesus! Look what we’ve done! Look at the people whose lives have been transformed because we did what you told us to!

In the sorts of lives we are called to live, we begin to experience the freedom and fullness of life promised in Jesus. We find that we are free from ourselves, and from always living to satisfy our own desires. We have been freed from selfishness to generosity, from individualism to community, from despair to hope. We have been freed from thinking of ourselves as the exact center of the universe, and realize that our role may have to do with something larger than ourselves. We find that we’ve been blessed in order to be a blessing, and that the good news really is transmitted through us.

When we realize that, we have a sermon worth preaching, whether we preach it aloud for 20 minutes from this pulpit, or in our daily lives as Christ’s disciples. We have a sermon that points beyond ourselves, as John the Baptist did, and find that maybe we have a little more in common with him than we first thought. But, as we announce that Christ is coming, it is good news rather than a pronouncement of doom. The kingdom of God is at hand, but thanks be to God, we are learning how to live like kingdom people already.

Our job as disciples, as kingdom of God people, is to free the captives and then to begin to equip those who have been freed to hear the Spirit speaking in their lives and in our midst. Because none of us here will always be around to tell others what to do. But God, in his Word, by his Spirit, will be.

Friends, when we say, “Come Lord Jesus,” it is a reminder that God will always be there to guide us into what we can joyfully do, having been saved from ourselves, to set others free and to help them begin to live. Jesus is coming. Rejoice!

Monday, December 4, 2006

Grace Re-born - Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord.”

By noon tomorrow, I’ll have landed at the Buffalo airport and arrived at my parents’ home in Niagara Falls. When I arrive, my three nephews and one niece will already be celebrating, and at this point in my life, I can’t imagine a Christmas celebration without them. You have often heard people express the notion that Christmas is best celebrated with children around. This is usually the point when some religious zealot says “Humbug,” and tells us that this association with children is nothing more than sugar-coated sentimentality.

While I agree that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that we need to put the Christ back in Christmas, I also think our celebrations are most complete when we celebrate with children. Children teach us something about expectation and hope, and they are a living reminder of the wonder with which we too might greet the coming king. May we pray.

The imagination of children
I spend more time shopping for my niece and nephews than anyone else on my list. For one thing, I only see them a few times a year, and I don’t want their only reminder of me to be a pair of socks or some boring educational game. However, I am also aware that my careful selection may be less interesting than the box my gift comes in. Don’t you long for a return to the days of innocent imaginative power? When whatever you imagined became your reality? A box on the floor looks an awful lot like a Formula-One racer, and for the child who sees it as one, it is. Last year, my niece Valerie, who is the very definition of girly-girl, received a beautiful frilly dress. She put it on, looked in the mirror, and said, “Oh, I a princess!” And she was.

We bring children to our holiday celebrations because they are able to tap into the world of imagination so easily. In fact, we need children, we need imagination, in order to even read this story. Take this morning’s biblical text – it is a text pregnant – no pun intended – with imagination. Mary and Elizabeth imagine something beyond the rational – beyond biology, beyond common sense, beyond the limited notions of what most of us take to be realistic – but the very things they imagine turn out to be their reality. Not only theirs, but ours as well.

How many of us have looked for a rational explanation to this text? How many of us have grown up and matured beyond our imagination, and tested this text against our notion of factuality? It makes perfect sense that these two women could imagine the events of this story. Mary, after all, was a teenager – fourteen or fifteen at best. She was poor, uneducated, and otherwise oblivious to the collective wisdom of the world. And Elizabeth – she was an old woman by this time – very well could have been senile or in the beginning stages of dementia.

The rationalist among us, or, perhaps within us, looks at these two women, and can easily dismiss them as na├»ve. They were living in their imaginations. They didn’t have an accurate grasp on the facts.

However, I wonder if we have too narrow a definition of facts. Thinking, rationalistic people like us, products of the modern age that we are, have allowed facts to be determined and tested by provable, repeatable, experimentation. Only those things that can be proved are real. Only those things that can be tested are true. Give us facts – raw, unadorned, uninterpreted, provable facts.

Neil Postman, in his book, Technopology, accuses us of being people with no imagination. Our fascination with computers – fact-churning, data-collecting machines that they are – is evidence of this. We have fooled ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of data in the world, and if we can just wrangle all the facts together, figure out how to sort them out, and line them up correctly, we’ll arrive at the answers to all of life’s problems. The UN sends envoys on fact-finding missions. Our government tells us they can’t decide anything until all the information comes in. Meanwhile, we have so many facts we’re crushed under their collective weight and drowning in a sea of ones and zeros. Postman says it flat out: “We don’t need more data. We have more facts than we can possibly consume. What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve.”

The imagination of Mary and Elizabeth
And yet, those things were exactly what Mary and Elizabeth had. They dared to believe that God would accomplish what He said He was going to do. They dared to dream their dreams into reality. They dared to believe in the irrational and the unreasonable, and lo, the mysteries of God were born within them.

Friends, this is what we mean when we talk about grace. In us, and through us, and on our behalf, God does what we thought was impossible. God is working in ways we cannot explain or understand. He invites us to imagine a reality based upon his extravagant promises, and we find his promises pregnant with possibility. You have to read this text with an active imagination! How else do you explain babies who leap for joy in their mother’s womb? How else do you look your poor, pregnant, unwed, teenage relative in the face and tell her she is blessed among women? This is a world where truth resides beyond what we have come to define as facts, where we will believe that God can do whatever God wills to do.

I thank God for the witness of these two distant relatives. I am thankful for a world of hope and promise beyond the stark reality we have become so comfortable with. These women point to a world of possibility. At the conclusion of this Advent season, as we wait on these last few hours before Christmas bursts in upon us, the door to that world stands cracked open. We peek inside, and even if for only the briefest of moments, we see that world. Not only do we see it, we see ourselves in it. Mary and Elizabeth dared to imagine that world, and they dared to see themselves in it.

Re-birth of imagination as a means of grace
“Faith,” says theologian James Whitehead, “is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way” (“The Religious Imagination,” Liturgy 5, 1985, pp. 54-59). Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, refers to the Bible as “A book of the imagination.”

I have to agree with these two and with Neil Postman that we don’t need more data. We already have more information that we could ever process. What we need is a re-birth of imagination. We need to see the world once again through innocent eyes. We need grace to be re-born in our midst.

If you turn to the Winston-Salem Journal, you won’t find this way of seeing the world. You’ll find more facts, lined up in neat columns, telling you what happened, and to whom, and when, and possibly how or why. CNN is no help; only more data there. Perhaps you’re like me, and you’re thinking there’s GOT to be more out there than this. Perhaps you’re like me, and are looking for hope. Perhaps you’re like me, and longing to imagine a different sort of world.

What richer ground is there for our imaginations than this Advent and Christmas season? While the world is obsessed with statistics, we appreciate the value of symbols. Come to the church in December, and we’ll load you down with metaphors, stir up the poet within you, and teach you to sing once again. We’ll shatter your preconceived notions of reality, and greatly expand your definition of what can and can’t be.

The children already get it; in fact, they’re the ones we need to teach us. Jesus taught us to have the faith of children, and we thought he was just being cute and offering us a ready-made text for Children’s Sunday. But he invites us to be born out of our proud sophistication, with our ideas about reality, and glimpse God’s reality. We see it is a reality full of grace, but we are invited to not only glimpse it, but to live into it.

As I say these things, I realize that many of us gather with the weight of the “real” world on our shoulders. You wonder if the fight with your spouse last night was the final straw. You wonder if you’ll ever get out from under your crushing consumer debt. You wonder if a donor will be found before it’s too late. You wonder if your grandmother will ever remember your name again. I wonder, now that my Mom’s cancer has returned, just how bad it’s going to be. What decision, what pain, what hurt have you put on the shelf to deal with after the holidays? You may recognize that a change needs to happen, but making that change is so risky you find yourself paralyzed by fear. This world, this real world dominated by facts and figures and statistics, comes to a place where it has nothing left to offer, and we find ourselves banging our heads against its wall. We are a people desperately in need of hope, and sooner or later, we all come to realize that this world simply can’t manufacture what we need.

So let’s face facts, but let’s operate in the possibility of God’s reality. We gather here in December, with stories of expectant virgins, and angelic choirs, and babies who leap in their mother’s wombs. We gather and listen to these stories, not because we’ve forgotten them, but because we need that hope to be born in us yet again. And sure enough, every time we open ourselves up to these new possibilities, grace is re-born. Will you, with Mary and Elizabeth, imagine for a moment that God is able to fulfill his promises? Imagine yourself open to the subtle incursions of God’s presence among us. Imagine a God who is not safely aloof from the world. Imagine a world of transformation: from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the natural to the supernatural, from the expected to a world filled with surprise. Look upon that world, enter into it, and find yourself caught up in something bigger than you. Imagine that world, pregnant with the promise of God’s future. Imagine the possibilities.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Faith Friends - Ruth 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Eprathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and even more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

There is one phrase in the English language that is sure to conjure up a whole host of emotional responses. “Mother-in-law.” It makes no difference if you’re male or female, newly married or a seasoned veteran, there is no telling what this title means to you. In our society, we have learned that the mother-in-law is a person to be feared, revered, annoying and unavoidable.

One newlywed bride was preparing dinner for her husband, and wanted to make it a special treat. She phoned her mother-in-law to obtain a list of his favorite foods from childhood, and spent all afternoon slaving away over a feast of livermush and sardine casserole, Brussels sprouts, beet and lima bean salad, and fried SPAM. However, given that we’re in church, I won’t tell you what exactly the husband said when he came home.

Rightly or wrongly, we have come to expect this sort of antagonism in the in-law relationship. Then we read a story like the one in our text today, and it surprises us, and while it’s touching, we have to admit that we find this whole thing a little bit odd. Ruth and Naomi have violated our preconceived notions about what the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship should look like. Then again, perhaps our preconceived notions need to be shattered every now and then. May we pray.

To understand this story of Naomi and Ruth, we need to take a step into their context. Desperate to escape famine, Naomi and her family have traveled from their home in Judah to Moab, which is present-day Jordan. They are Jews living in an Arab state – the very definition of outsiders. But once there, life doesn’t get any better. Naomi’s husband dies, and her two sons, having taken for themselves Moabite wives, also die. Only a few verses after the cutoff from this morning’s passage, Naomi, which means sweet, will change her name to Mara, which means bitter. And, quite honestly, she has reason to be bitter.

But Ruth, Naomi’s Gentile daughter-in-law, also has grounds to be embittered. After a childless marriage, Ruth’s husband is dead. Dead, too, are her brother-in-law and father-in-law, the two men who under Hebrew custom would have been required to provide for the young widow. In the ancient world, a widow didn’t just go out, find a job, and start dating again.

Ruth and Naomi, on first glance, appear to be a hopeless pair. After all, someone might take a chance on a young widow hoping she could yet have children and maybe turn out a good day’s work in the meantime. But Ruth has hitched her star to bitter, old Naomi.

Stubborn Ruth makes one of the most profound oaths I’ve ever seen anywhere, in any context. Despite the fact that Naomi has urged her to return to her people, to seek out another husband, to find security in his household, Ruth refuses to leave her side. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Her statement is the surprise upon which the whole story hangs.

One evening following a party, the Danish theologian Knud Hansen raised his hands over the guests and exclaimed, “The Lord bless you and surprise you!”

That’s exactly what God has done for bitter old Naomi – he has blessed her and surprised with Ruth, a companion along the way, a confidant, a friend. Conventional wisdom would have Ruth return to her own people in the hope that she can carve out a better life for herself. But the surprise of the whole thing is that Ruth sticks around, and in the end, this ends up being a pivotal blessing for Naomi, for Ruth, and eventually, for all Israel.

We have often read this story and celebrated Ruth’s free thinking. We are, after all, consumed by the thinking that we have a choice in most matters, from breakfast cereal to what sort of car we drive to what shampoo we use. But you will notice in Ruth’s response to Naomi that there is no deliberation. The immediacy of her response suggests that Ruth stayed with Naomi because it was simply the right thing to do.

Indeed, family relationships are filled with living reminders of the limits of choice. We do not choose our parents or our children. And we cannot choose to change them in any fundamental way, either. We’re stuck with them. All of us have people in our families who infuriate us or embarrass us or annoy us. I have a theory that everyone has weird cousins (a theory not entirely contradicted by the realization that I am someone’s cousin). I didn’t choose my cousins and they didn’t choose me. We are stuck with each other, and or reasons none of may be able to fathom, we stick by each other.

We stick by each other because we are stuck with each other. That’s true in families, but it’s also true here in the family of God. But in the family of God, we are not cousins – we’re brothers and sisters in Christ. And we stick together for some very fathomable reasons – namely, God has told us to. He has called us from lives of selfish individualism to a life of community, a life where we are all members of his very body, a life shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It all comes down to the covenant faithfulness of our God who keeps his promises. The fidelity between Ruth and Naomi rests in these promises. The fidelity between and among us is possible because of God’s faithfulness to us.

We have a wonderful example of discipleship in these two women. ‘Disciple’ merely means “one who follows.” A Sunday School teacher was asking his class of second graders about discipling one Sunday, and one little girl put her hand up very eager to talk about the subject. “My family really believes in discipling! We disciple everything! My parents talk all the time about the need to disciple! We disciple newspapers, we disciple plastic bottles, we disciple cans. My mom believes that discipling will save the world.”

But saving the world has its challenges. We’re stuck with each other. We’re stuck with people we may not like very much. People whose politics are different. People whose preferences in worship style, music, and liturgy are different. People whose leadership style, or communication style, or priorities are vastly different than our own. People whose age, or social views, or race, or fiscal policies would make them a natural target for us to attack.

But we, as members of Christ’s body, are supposed to be above all that. United with him in our baptisms, we have cast off and put to death our old identities in order that our identity may now be defined by unity in his body. These other issues, the ones that so easily divide us and send us on our own separate ways, are supposed to be minor players in the whole thing. Yet, how many times have we allowed them to dominate the discussion to the point that Christian unity becomes something we talk about in the abstract rather than something toward which we are supposed to constantly strive. While it’s easier to simply divide over these issues, to choose sides and begin to mount a case, Jesus did not call us to walk an easy path. He called us to walk a faithful path, a covenant path, a path where we take up our cross and follow him daily.

Staying together is tough work. It requires compassion. It requires understanding. It requires communication. It requires commitment. Quite honestly, it’s more work than many people are willing to put in.

But quite frankly, it’s what we need to do. Because, if we allow ourselves to be divided by periphery issues – worship styles, music, politics, denominationalism, how the money gets spent, conflicts in leadership – we have announced to the world that Jesus Christ was not powerful enough to hold us together in our petty differences, and the unity he promised was nothing more than a pipe dream. More importantly, we have failed to be the Church. We have taken the course called “Following Jesus 101” and received F’s. While a house divided against itself cannot stand, a church divided against itself is not even the Church. It is nothing more than a mirror of the brokenness in society, when it is supposed to be an instrument of reconciliation working toward the kingdom of God.

Ruth didn’t give up on Naomi. Naomi didn’t give up on Ruth. But more importantly, God didn’t give up on them, and God doesn’t give up on us. So let’s not give up on each other. Our fidelity to those we are stuck with is a powerful reminder of the fidelity of God who chooses to be stuck with us. That is why the story of Ruth – a gentile – has an honored place in the Hebrew scriptures. She reminded the Jews of something important about their God. God does not leave us when the going gets tough, when we are as destitute as an ancient Near Eastern widow. God is not committed to us because it’s in God’s interest or for any other good reason. Rather, God is committed to us because . . . well, that’s the way God is. I look forward to the ways God will continue to bless us and surprise us.

Sunday, October 8, 2006

In Our Care - Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom, all things exist, in bringing many children to glory should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the mist of the congregation I will praise you.”

Anne Lamott has written, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." Indeed, many of us have created God in our own image, using him at little more than a rubber stamp to endorse the sort of life we have already made up our mind to live. When we find that our religious expression has become just a little too cozy with our favorite ideology, it’s probably a fair assumption that we have, indeed, created God in our image.

There is a movement within Christianity – not a new one – but an increasingly popular one that I would like us to talk about this morning. This movement is simply a veneer for a sort of rampant individualism – often expressed in the ideals of consumer capitalism and selfish materialism. Our text today provides a much-needed corrective to this corrosive perversion of the Gospel. I realize that some of what I say over the course of this sermon may not be incredibly popular. But I want to open up and invite all of into a conversation about money, finding its true value and proper place in God’s vision. May we pray.

Visit any bookstore and wander over to the Christian section, and you may be surprised at what is being produced and marketed under the guise of Christianity. Many of the titles contain nothing more than self-help strategies who view God as some sort of celestial ATM, real-estate guru, or financial advisor. If you read the books and buy into the strategy, you too can figure out how to use God to make yourself rich. In other words, in these books, God is simply a tool for obtaining money. The problem is it creates a false idol – using God and forcing God to play second string to the accumulation of more and more wealth. It’s the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism.

To be sure, it’s a very popular mindset. Look at the churches who have been built on this idea that God desires nothing more than to pour an abundance of material blessing into your life. One church—one you have seen on television, and whose pastor’s wide grin you have seen on the bookstands—packs thousands of worshippers into a converted sports arena. However, Britney Spears can pack out a sports arena – but she’s hardly proclaiming the Gospel.

Most of these churches have built their ministries on a theology of ownership. In their way of thinking, God wants us to have stuff – to own property, to have lots of cash reserves, to have nice homes, to sit in business class rather than coach, to drive nice cars, to take lavish vacations. Such prosperity is seen as a sign of God’s favor – gifts from God that he wants us to enjoy. It’s easy to see why this theology is so popular. Not only can we keep the American Dream, but we can even use God to help us achieve it.

But in our text today, we find ourselves dealing with a theology of stewardship rather than one of ownership. All things have been given to us and placed in our care, but ultimately, they don’t belong to us. This goes against Bruce Wilkinson’s best-selling Prayer of Jabez with its rallying cry for God to “increase my territory!” With a proper theology of stewardship, of knowing that all things have been placed in our care but ultimately don’t belong to us, we would be loathe to pray such a selfish prayer. Indeed, we would know that we have no territory. But, for those who have read this book and prayed this prayer, I don’t hold the individual completely responsible. Individuals are part of systems, and systems are designed to produce certain results. Those of us who have grown up as American capitalists default to our money-making mode.

The popular “get-rich-with-God” mindset is particularly troublesome because it has very little to say about what we’re supposed to do with our riches once we obtain them. It’s nothing more than selfish, individualistic materialism. It stops the blessing cycle, forgetting that God blesses us in order that we might be a blessing to others. It forgets that we are not the final destination of God’s abundance. It focuses so much on God caring about me and loving me that it neglects the fact that God also loves the rest of the world. The Prosperity Gospel is one of the most powerful forms of neglect of the poor. Philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not to be one of them.

Even more problematic is the source from which health and wealth Gospellers draw their identity. Just as in our wider society, to which the values of the kingdom of God are supposed to stand diametrically opposed, a person’s self-worth is determined by their net worth. But the church, if we are really to be the church, must sound a definitive “no” to this way of measuring people’s worth. The church is a place where all people find their identity in the fact that they are beloved children of God, marked with his indelible image. We realize, that before a holy God, we are all equal – a fact celebrated in our common baptism, and made real again each time we gather as brothers and sisters around a table lovingly spread with bread and wine. If we are really to be the church as God designed it to function, we have to believe what Jesus said when he said he is the way, the truth, and the life. We have to do what he said to do to the least in our society. We have to go where he told us to go, from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and the ends of the earth. We have no choice but to show radical hospitality toward those for whom he died.

But our culture will resist this. And a version of Christianity that has become all too comfortable, and even overlayed itself with, the dominant culture is going to fight against such truth-telling. Then again, the dominant religious culture was also pretty resistant of Jesus and his teachings. In a letter to Time magazine, one reader wrote, “Were Jesus to come today and attempt to throw from their temples the modern Philistines who preach the gospel of wealth, they would most likely accuse him and his disciples of being Middle Eastern, sandal-wearing, gay hippie terrorists out to undermine the American way of life.”

As long as we place our identity and security in bank accounts, in IRAs, in mutual funds, and in real estate holdings, we will continue to remain insecure. The value of a dollar may be less tomorrow than it is today. But the value of life in Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the only place we can truly and properly draw our security and identity.

He provides us with a richness of life that cannot be expressed in the dominant economic terms of our society. The riches he offers us are lives full of faith, hope, and love – offered freely and generously to the whole world in his name because he has lavished them extravagantly upon us.
Late in his ministry, John Wesley wrote a sermon entitled ‘The Use of Money.’ In it, he outlined three basic principles for the early Methodists – and all Christians, really – to manage their resources by. First, he encouraged us to earn all you can. Second, save all you can. So far, this all sounds pretty good. Work hard, make money, and save up. But his third principle is the one where we run into trouble. After we have earned all we can and saved all we can, he encourages us to give all we can. Everything we have been given is an opportunity for us to bless others – to step out in faith that God wishes us to use what exceeds our most basic needs to help those whose basic needs are not even being met. In other words, we ought to live simply in order that others may simply live.

In theory, I see how this works, and I agree with it. But, I admit that, on a practical level, I have as much as trouble living this out as anyone else in this room. I like my stuff. I like having nice things, more ties than I could wear in several months, driving a nice car, eating at restaurants with multiples forks, playing golf on the lushest grass imaginable, and taking vacations to exotic locations. I come from a family where material things were always scarce, and so whatever opportunity I may now have to accumulate such things is a welcome change.

But I also remember that in the home in which I grew up, a home in which money was tight, the first ten percent of our family’s income was given back to the Lord, in gratitude for what he had given us. This tithe was not the downpayment on further material blessings, or a way of securing God’s favor, or a way of publicly declaring our religiousness. It was our way of saying thanks, of recognizing that though on paper, our family did not have enough to live on, God gave us the strength to make it. Sure enough, mortgages were paid, car repairs were made, and there was always food on the table. It encouraged an attitude of generosity out of what we did have, rather than an attitude of fear for what we didn’t have. It encouraged us to rely fully on God and to think of money as something with which we glorify God. See how different this is from obtaining money by prostituting our faith.

Do I believe that God wants us to be broke? Certainly not. But nor do I believe God wants us all to be rich. The important principle here is that we use what God has given us in accordance with his will. As individuals, we can choose to use those resources selfishly and self-indulgently, in a manner that shows neither love for God or our neighbor, or we can use those resources generously, abundantly, and extravagantly, in just the same manner God has lavished them upon us. As a faith community, we also have a choice. We can be stingy with what we have and greedy to obtain more. Everything we do can be determined by how much it is going to cost, or based on divine profit-to-earnings ratios. We can run the church like a business, bowing before the altar of Almighty Dollar rather than Almighty God. Or, we can operate like a microcosm of the kingdom of God – a place where radical hospitality is shown, a place where we enter into the pain of the alienated and suffering, a place where love of God and love of neighbor are the most important determinants of our existence. All things have been placed in our care. The question remains, however, what are we going to do with all that God has so richly blessed us with?