Sunday, August 28, 2016

Quid Pro Quo

Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 28, 2016

            The movie, Finding Neverland, tells a romanticized version of the story of J.M. Barrie, the author and playwright of “Peter Pan.” In the movie Barrie meets George and Michael Llewlyn Davies, two of the five sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, in London’s Kensington Park. George, Michael and their three brothers were Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan. Barrie befriends the family and becomes a guardian for the boys after Sylvia’s death.
            In the movie, Barrie instructs the play’s promoter to save 25 seats on opening night. Scatter those seats around the house, Barrie told him. Barrie won’t explain why he wants those seats saved, but he insists. The promoter does so reluctantly. On opening night show time arrives, but the mysterious theater goers who were supposed to occupy those seats have not. Barrie and the promoter, Charles, are standing outside of the theater, waiting. Charles is upset and tells Barrie that those 25 seats could have been sold to actual customers. He walks back inside to tell them to begin the play. Barrie still looking out at the street sees the seat holders walking up the sidewalk. 25 children from an orphanage are making their way to the theater, the littlest ones holding hands with the older children. Barrie calls Charles back and tells him that the 25 guests have arrived.
            “Excuse them for being late. It takes them longer to walk, shorter legs.”
            Charles is not happy about the arrival of orphans. Neither are the other members of the audience. We know “Peter Pan,” as a children’s story, but it debuted in one of London’s grand theaters, playing to an even grander adult audience.
            These well-heeled, well-to-do theater goers were not thrilled to be sitting next to orphans. As the ushers show the children to their seats, one gentleman is heard saying to his companion, “Well, at least we got one of the cleaner ones.”
            No one but Barrie wanted the orphans there. They were the unlikeliest and most unwelcome of guests. But as the play began, it was the presence of these little children that produced the real magic. Their delight in the magic and mystery and fun of the play was contagious. The adults, who at first were appalled that they would be sitting next to some parent-less ragamuffin, were laughing and clapping along with the little ones. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces gave them joy as well. Barrie’s writing, the actors’ talent, the crew’s skill all made “Peter Pan,” a brilliant play, but it was the children in the audience that gave the play life.
            I don’t know if this story is based on truth, or if it was only in the movie, but real or not, it is a lovely scene in a lovely movie. I like to believe that it did occur, yet it’s hard to imagine that this kind of generosity to such unlikely recipients would happen in real life – then or now. Giving away free seats would have financial consequences. The children would never be able to pay for them. I doubt the orphanage would have had the financial means either. At first glance, there was nothing that the children could do to return the favor of those seats and that experience. Any thought of quid pro quo was out the window. (Rhyme intended)
            Quid pro quo is doing a favor in order to receive a favor and/or giving something with the expectation of getting something in return. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll do this for you, but you have to do something for me. I assume that quid pro quo is an underlying factor in most of politics. But quid pro quo isn’t confined to the political aspect of our society. Quid pro quo, doing something for someone else in order to receive something else, is a tenet underlying our daily lives. Whether I am aware of it or not, I function with the expectation that when something is done something else will be done in return. This expectation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Returning favors is a way of thanking someone. You helped me out, now I want to help you out.
            However quid pro quo also seems to be a way of keeping score. I invited the Smiths over to dinner five times, but they’ve only invited me once. I win. I did this for that person, but they have yet to respond in kind. I’m going to give them the cold shoulder or hound them or be angry with them or whatever … until they do. Quid pro quo: I do for you; you surely should do for me.
            At first glance, these verses from Luke’s gospel – especially the beginning parable – seem to be more about proper etiquette at a dinner party than parable. Unlike other parables, Jesus did not tell a story about some third person or persons. In this parable, Jesus used second person; you.
            “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
            It’s only in verse 11 that this parable seems to have a theological point. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
            Then Jesus turned to the host and said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
            Outside of the fact that both sets of Jesus’ instructions focus on dinners and banquet tables, I struggled a bit with how the two fit together. If you are a guest, don’t choose a place of honor for yourself. If you are a host, don’t invite anyone to your banquet who could invite you back.
            It seems to me that the common denominator is not just about dinner parties; it is about expectation. When you are a guest, don’t expect that you will occupy any place but the lowest seat at the table. Implied in that is the idea that you don’t expect a seat of honor even if you gave a seat of honor at your table to the person who invited you. Don’t expect to be honored. Choose the humble place.
            And do not invite guests who can do anything for you. Choose the humble ones. If you invite those who can do something for you, you will expect them to return the invitation. Invite those who can do absolutely nothing for you in return. Invite them, fill every seat with the blind, the lame, the crippled, the poor, the least of these.
            In either scenario, do not go into the dinner party with a need for or assuming quid pro quo. As I already said, quid pro quo is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be used in bad ways, but the idea itself is not bad. That is, unless it drives the work and ministry of the church.
            Do we seek out new members because they can help us keep the lights on and salaries paid? Or do we seek out new members so that we can widen our ministry, so that we can share the love of God with an ever-widening circle of people? I know. I know. Without people in the pews, the church will not survive. I know that without people in the pews, I cannot expect a salary. This is the fine line I walk as a pastor. It is my call and my vocation, and it is my job. Quid pro quo.
            Outside of members, do we serve others because we feel called to do so, because we want to live and love as Jesus did? Or do we put conditions on serving others? Do we serve only those we believe deserve it?
            One of my saddest moments in ministry was in a conversation I had with some church folks a long time ago. They were not members of my congregation, but I knew these people well and our ministries merged. A member of their church was starting a brown bag lunch program for children in their community. As you probably know, weekends and holidays are some of the hungriest times for kids who live in food insecure and poor households. School breakfast and lunch programs are often the only substantive meals a child may get in a day.
            I was awed by the fact that this member was starting this program, and I said that to the folks I was speaking with. Their response shocked me. They didn’t want the program to happen. They thought it was terrible. Sure, there were some needy kids out there, but a program like this made no distinction as to who got the lunch and who didn’t. They thought it was a terrible ministry because children who were not actually in need might get a brown bag lunch. They didn’t deserve it. They didn’t need it, so if there was even a possibility that undeserving children might get a free lunch then no children should get a free lunch. Quid pro quo.
            Jesus made it clear that expectation of repayment – whatever shape that repayment might take – was not to be a part of the banquet. There was no room for quid pro quo at the dinner table Jesus described. The only true quid pro quo was from God. Here’s the thing, even God does not respond in kind. We call that grace.
            May we show the grace and love and mercy to others that God shows us, whether it is returned or not. No quid pro quo, but just because.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bending the Rules

Luke 13:10-17
August 21, 2016

            A book series that I devoured as a child was the autobiographical Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all of them, but my favorite—then and now – is Little House in the Big Woods,” which was the first book in the series. In these books, Laura Ingalls Wilder told the story of her life and her family’s as they moved from Wisconsin, then westward. Little House in the Big Woods is about her early childhood in Wisconsin.
            Wilder wrote about daily life in a small house in the big woods of Wisconsin. While you wouldn’t assume that descriptions of making maple syrup candy in snow or churning butter or listening to Pa play his fiddle were interesting, Wilder made the stories of her childhood fascinating. One of the days she described in detail was Sunday.
            Sundays were difficult for Laura anytime, but they were especially challenging in the winter. They were already stuck in the house most of the time, but Sundays were worse. On Sundays Laura and Mary were clean from their baths on Saturday night. They wore their best dresses and had ribbons in their hair. The girls had to sit quietly all day. They could not run or jump or play any games. Mary couldn’t sew on her little quilt. Laura could not knit the little mittens she was making for her baby sister, Carrie. They could look at their paper dolls, but they could not sew on any doll clothes for them. The girls could hold and talk to their rag dolls, but no playing with them. They could listen quietly while Ma read Bible stories, or stories about exotic animals from Pa’s big book , The Wonders of the Animal World. Laura and Mary were allowed to look at pictures, and Laura liked looking at the pictures in the Bible the best. One of her favorites was the story of Adam naming the animals. Laura liked this picture because Adam was so comfortable, sitting there without any clothes on. She envied Adam not having clothes to keep clean and tidy. I remember reading this description of Sundays as a child and thinking, “I am so glad I live now and not then. Our Sundays aren’t nearly so bad.”
             Our Sundays aren’t nearly so bad. Looking back, I realize that’s a sad way to view the Sabbath. Although I didn’t have the same rigid restrictions that Laura Ingalls Wilder had, I dreaded Sundays when I was a kid. I had to wear a dress. Sunday school wasn’t too bad, but I had to sit through an unending church service that I didn’t understand. I had to be quiet. I couldn’t fidget. There was an altar call every Sunday, but my parents never let me go forward when Brother Bob invited folks to come down. For Laura and for me, Sunday was a day to be endured not embraced. It was a day of rules and regulations. It was more about what you couldn’t do, then about what you could.
            That’s the essence of what we read in our passage from Luke: what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. Only Luke’s gospel tells this story of a woman bent over for almost two decades. It was the Sabbath day and Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. As Luke described it, this crippled woman, bent over from a spirit for 18 years, appeared. There is no indication that she came looking for healing. It would seem she came for the same reason everyone else did – to worship and to obey the laws of the Sabbath.
            But Jesus saw her. He called out to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He laid his hands on her and she stood straight for the first time in a long, long time. When she did, her first response was to praise God. We might expect that this would be the end of the story. Jesus healed; the woman praised, the people rejoiced, the end. But the healing was just the beginning. When the leader of the synagogue saw that Jesus healed the woman, he became angry. The text tells us that he was “indignant,” that Jesus “cured on the Sabbath.” Instead of confronting Jesus, he turned to the crowd and said, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The irony of this is that the leader did not question Jesus’ healing. He did not question the fact that Jesus had the power to heal, instead he questioned when Jesus healed.
            Although the man did not speak directly to Jesus, Jesus spoke directly to him.
            “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham who Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
            When Moses brought the Law down from the top of the mountain, there were Ten Commandments. But when the people finally began to obey them, they took them from ten to approximately 600; 600 rules and laws and requirements that the people were to strictly follow if they wanted to remain in God’s good graces. Some of the most elaborate rules were the ones that dictated the ways people were to keep the Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath meant no work. However, letting animals starve and thirst was not acceptable either, so they could be tended to without being violation of the Law. But curing this woman would have been seen as work. After all, she had been crippled for 18 years, what’s one more day?
            Yet Jesus called the leader’s reprimand hypocrisy. Whether the Pharisees and the other leaders of the day realized it or not, they had put the well-being of their animals over and above the well-being of God’s children. Jesus called the woman a “daughter of Abraham,” a stark reminder that this woman was an inheritor of the covenant and the promise of God the same as the religious leaders, the same as anyone else. What’s one more day?! Why should this woman wait one more day when she could be cured of an illness that had robbed her of so many years? Jesus was not going to let her wait one more day, no not one more second, when healing could be hers immediately. It was the Sabbath, true, but what better day to cure her, to heal her, than on the Sabbath day?
            This is a healing story, but it also brings up a larger question. What is the Sabbath actually intended for? Is it merely a day in which the rules of what to avoid are even more strenuous? Does keeping Sabbath only mean what you cannot do?
            Most of Jesus’ ministry was about not just bending the rules, but about upending people’s expectations: about the Law, about God, about the messiah. This story is no exception. Jesus not only forced the religious leadership to face their hypocrisy, he turned upside down the meaning of Sabbath. After all, where did the example of Sabbath come from? From God. God created for six days, but on the seventh he rested. Does this mean that God needed a break? Was God tired? Or was this an illustration of God taking what I call a “divine pause.” It was a moment of rest and of pausing, after time spent creating and making and life-giving.
            Nowhere does it say that God rested so that rules and regulations could be fulfilled. Nowhere does it say that God rested so that God might avoid doing the wrong thing. The Sabbath was a divine pause, a chance to exhale, a chance to enjoy what had been created, and perhaps even to imagine what would come.
            But in trying to follow God’s command to keep Sabbath, the people had only created more and more rules. They saw the Sabbath, not as a pause, but as a day of requirement and avoidance. Jesus said, “No.” The Sabbath was not just a day for avoidance; it was a day to be filled. It was a day to be filled with worship, with thanksgiving, with praise for God and God’s good gifts. It was a day to be filled with life. Jesus filled that day by giving life back to this woman who had been bent over for so long. Jesus filled that day by freeing this woman from bondage. And if anything goes against God’s order it is bondage, whether that bondage is physical, emotional or spiritual. Jesus did not reduce the Sabbath to mere avoidance; instead he filled it with life, with freedom, with love. Jesus bent the rules, but he fulfilled the Law. This brought his opponents to shame, but the crowds of people rejoiced.
            What do we fill our Sabbath with? We’re here. We’re worshipping. We are giving praise and thanks. But I wonder if we’re not being called to reexamine our own understandings of Sabbath. I made the point earlier that the leaders, wittingly or not, made the care of animals more important than people. I love animals. I hate animal abuse. I hate seeing any animal, pet or otherwise, harmed. Yet on social media I often see more outrage about the harming of animals than I do about the harming of people.
            I despise animal abuse, but what about the children who are being abused? What about the children who are dying in the ongoing genocide taking place in Syria? What about the women and men who experience violence here and around the world? What about the families that are torn apart? What about the people, God’s people, who are dying without sense or reason? Why should they wait one more day for healing, for freedom, for life?
            I know that we cannot leave here on this day and change the world. But perhaps we can leave it with changed intention. Perhaps we can leave it with new found resolve and determination to participate in God’s work of creativity and giving life. Perhaps we can leave here determined to fill the Sabbath day and everyday with God’s peace and justice by helping to bring God’s children, daughters and sons of Abraham, out of death and into life. Why should anyone wait one more day to live full and healthy lives? What better day than today, the Sabbath, to recommit ourselves, we followers of Christ, to being instruments of God’s peace, justice, wholeness and life? What better day than today to bear God’s love into God’s world?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Running the Race

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
August 14, 2016

            Have you ever watched five-year-old kids playing soccer for the first time? If you haven’t, you should find an opportunity to do so. They are so much fun to watch, because they’re just playing for the fun of it. At that age scoring isn’t an issue. There is no sense of one team winning and the other team losing. The kids learn to kick the ball towards one end of the field or the other. And they run. They do a lot of running. All the kids, regardless of team, chase the ball up and down the field. That’s the fun part. They just love to run, and if the ball happens to go where it is supposed to, great. But what is really fun is the running.
            When I was a little kid, I liked to run. I didn’t run with any purpose, other than it was fun. I was a child on the go. My mother used the word, “busy,” to describe me. I was constantly doing something, and running was often the quickest way to get from one activity to the next. Back then, running felt good. There were a lot of kids on my street, and we were always playing games like hide and seek, freeze tag, kick-the-can, etc. Running around in those games, I never worried that I was a fast or a slow runner. I didn’t care if I was caught or if I was ‘it.” I loved to play. I loved to have fun. And I loved running. It was fun.
            When I got older, especially when I hit adolescence, running stopped being fun. I still liked playing games, but running went from something you did just because to something you had to do for points and grades. With adolescence came physical and hormonal changes, and I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – run as fast as other kids. I was generally one of the slower runners. That shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when we had to run the mile in gym class and our times were tracked, you didn’t want to be a slow runner. There were physical standards that you had to meet. Other kids noticed who was a fast runner and who wasn’t. Running became more about the competition than about the joy. I still had to run, but it no longer felt good.
            A few years ago, I tried to start running for exercise. I do a lot of other exercising, but I really wanted to complete a 5K. However, I soon discovered that running at an older age presented a brand new set of problems. I was not as self-conscious about how I looked running as I was when I was a teenager, but I quickly remembered that I was not a teenager in a whole of other ways. Back in the old days, I would not wake up the next day after a run stiff and sore, practically unable to move. In my childhood, I didn’t worry about bone spurs or other foot problems. I never considered the reality of charley horses waking me up during the night, or shin splints. I felt immune to the tiresome ailments and aches and pains that pop up as you get older. When I was a kid, I ran without worrying about the effects of running. It wasn’t for exercise. It wasn’t to compete. It wasn’t for a grade or to measure up. I just ran to run.
            It would seem that over the years I have developed an antipathy toward running. So why would I choose to preach from our passage in Hebrews? It’s one thing to talk about the heroes of faith, but the last two verses we read are about running; not just any kind of running, but running the race. The preacher in Hebrews seems to be making the analogy that this is a foot race of faith. We run it because we look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” who went before us.
            An initial reading of these verses suggests that our faith is a race we either win or lose. That is the struggle that I have had with these verses, and it is one reason why I considered preaching another passage. It would seem that the preacher is exhorting the Hebrews and us to win this race, win no matter what. The problem that I have with that is not what the preacher said, but with the way these words are interpreted. If faith is a race we run, than is it a competition? Are there winners and losers? Do those who run fastest win the greater prize? Do they reach heaven first? And those who can’t run as fast or can’t run at all? What happens to them? There doesn’t seem to be a consolation prize.
            The trouble is with that word, “race.” It has so many connotations. We talk about life as a “rat race.” The world seems to thrive on competition. Business is a competition. Education is a competition. Climbing that so called ladder to success is a competition. If I reach the top first, I win. Our whole model of success is based on the belief of there being winners and losers. Surely no one wants to be considered a loser, right?
            Yet I’m not convinced that this idea of a competition is what the preacher had in mind when he offered these words. Preacher and scholar, Tom Long, wrote in his commentary on this book that the preacher was preaching to people who were exhausted. They were trying to be faithful, trying to keep going, to keep believing, to keep trusting. But their energy was flagging. Some may have been falling away from the faith, because they were just too tired to go on.
            So, as we read last week and today, the preacher lifts up example after example of people who ran the race of faith before them. They endured hardship and uncertainty. They trusted God, even when it seemed foolish to do so. Some were tortured. Some of the faithful were mocked and flogged. Some were imprisoned. Some suffered grisly, brutal deaths because they refused to be anything but faithful. There are so many examples of faith that the preacher wants to list, but he runs out of time. There are too many of them. But here’s what he wants his congregation to understand. All of these faithful people endured. All of them ran the race, and they didn’t stop running. They ran and they didn’t give up. They ran, even thought most would never see the promise of faith fulfilled – at least not in their lifetime on earth. But still they ran. They ran the race, and now they are the “great cloud of witnesses.” I get the sense that the preacher saw this great cloud of witnesses sort of as divine cheerleaders. They ran their race with faith and perseverance, and now they cheer on the next generations of runners.
            It’s almost as if the race of faith that the preacher describes is not a race where some win and some lose. It is a relay race. Those who have gone before pass the baton of faith to the next set of runners. Each generation takes the baton from the one that has gone before. That baton keeps being passed on and down from faithful to faithful to faithful and so on.
            It would seem that running the race of faith is not about winning or losing, it is about finishing. Sometimes I think I would rather give up and lose, than finish. Finishing takes endurance. Finishing takes perseverance. Finishing requires putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how exhausted I may be.
            And yes, being faithful, remaining faithful, can be exhausting. There are days when I would gladly stay in bed, leisurely read the paper, go to brunch. That’s not just on Sundays either. Being faithful is not just physically exhausting. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Being faithful requires mindfulness and intention. For me, being faithful means that I have to really think about what I do and what I say. Am I being the person God created and called me to be? Am I responding to others as Jesus did? Am I living out my faith, I mean really living out my faith – not just in word but in action?
            It’s exhausting. I want to trust that God’s got this; that I am moving in the right direction. But as I said last week, there is too often a dearth of signs affirming that. Sometimes being faithful is exhausting.
            How fortuitous that this passage falls in the middle of the summer Olympics. I know it may seem that I’m against competition, but it has been exciting seeing the amazing athletes competing in the different sports this past week. And I am exceedingly proud of the Americans who have won medals – especially those in swimming and gymnastics. I have to be honest, watching the women win has been incredible, but all of it has been exciting to watch.
            But one thing has made these Olympic Games are different than in other years; for the first time refugees of different nationalities have competed as one team. They carried the Olympic flag and marched to the Olympic anthem. They are athletes from different places in the world, with one thing in common: they had to flee the country of their birth and now live in no country. They are not only without home, they are without nation. The Olympics did this to highlight and emphasize the plight of refugees, and that the world has not seen a refugee crisis like this since World War II.
            If there are people who understand exhaustion, it is them. If there are people who understand perseverance and endurance, it is them. Some swam to flee the danger and violence in their country. Now they swim at the Olympics. Some ran to flee that same danger and violence. Now they run in the Olympics. These are people who understand that it is not about winning or losing, it is about finishing.
            That’s what we are about today. This race that we are running is not a competition. Running this race does not meant that if the Presbyterians win, that must mean the Baptists lose or vice versa. No, this race we are running is about finishing. We are just trying to run faithfully, to run with trust, to run with hope. Yes, we are exhausted at times, and it would be easy to give in and give up. But we hear the words of the preacher, and we see cross in front of us, and so we keep running. It doesn’t matter if we’re fast or slow, what matters is that we endure. What matters is that we persevere. What matters is that we finish. There is joy in the finishing.
            Let all of God’s children, all of us who are called to run this race, say, “Alleluia!”


Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 7, 2016

          There’s a sound that tires make on the highway. It’s a steady thump as the wheels roll over the endless pavement. I associate that sound with the car trips of my childhood. When it was dark, and everyone but my dad, the driver, was asleep, I would listen to that thump, thump, thump and know that we were getting closer to where we were going. When I was a little girl, our main vacation destination was Minneapolis, Minnesota. That was my parents’ hometown, and that’s where the majority of our extended family lived. Because we were the rebels who went south, we were the ones who would pack up the car every summer – and sometimes at Christmas – and head the car northward.
          Getting ready to leave town was an elaborate ritual. My father was the primary driver, so he would sleep. My sister and brother would both sleep. As a treat, I would get to sleep downstairs on the couch. My mother would stay up doing every scrap of laundry she could find and finish packing. Then at about 5:30 am, we would hit the road. We weren’t even out of Nashville before everyone would fall back asleep; except my dad, thankfully. Then sometime about the middle of Kentucky, we would get to stop for breakfast.
          These were long car trips, about 14 hours. With rare exception we would make that drive in a day. I remember only one or two times when we actually stopped at motels – and that was because we got stuck in a terrible thunderstorm one summer, and hit icy roads one winter. Along with the sound of the wheels on pavement, I also could generally guess how close we were to Minnesota or Tennessee by what I could see outside of my window. Even before I could read the road signs, I could sense our location. And it wasn’t because I had memorized specific landmarks or could pinpoint exactly where we were in any given state. I knew because of the shape and contour of the land that flanked either side of the road. If we were driving through what seemed to be one enormous, never-ending farm, that was Illinois. The flatter the land became, the closer we were to Minnesota. On the return trip, I knew we were getting closer to Tennessee, because by Kentucky the land would get hilly again and the roads would get curvier and twistier. I didn’t have to read any signs to know that we getting closer to our destination.
          I wish I could read the landscape of my life that easily; especially in terms of following God’s call. Am I doing the right thing? Am I not? Was this the direction I should have chosen? How nice it would be to look at the scene around me and think, “Yep, I’m getting closer to where God is calling me. I can see it.”
          I don’t know about you, but when it comes to following God, I could use some clearer signs. I don’t need them all the time, but every once in a while it would be nice to see some indicator that I’m going where I’m supposed to. Maybe the clouds could periodically reshape themselves into an arrow pointing in the direction I should be heading. Perhaps a road sign or a billboard with specific instructions could pop up periodically. Or why can’t God email me or send me a text?
          “Amy, go here. Amy, do this.”
          It would make life and being faithful so much easier. But that’s not how it works is it? That’s not how God works. If God did work like that, we wouldn’t be talking about faithfulness, we’d be talking about certainty. Those are two different things entirely.
          In these well-known and beloved words, the preacher in Hebrews offers a description of faith, as well as a long list of folks who had the kind of faith described.
          “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith, our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
          Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for. As I understand it, the Greek word translated as “assurance,” hypostasis, denotes a foundation. The assurance of faith is our foundation. We stand firmly on the foundation of faith, we build our lives on the foundation of faith. How firm a foundation is not just a hymn we sing. According to these verses, it is the essence of faith. That is our assurance.
          The verse continues with the words, “the conviction of things not seen.” We believe, we are convinced that God is present though God cannot be seen. We are convinced that there is more to this world than what meets the eye. We are convinced that God’s kingdom is here in our midst, even though physical evidence suggests the opposite. When we are faithful, we are convinced about the truth of God even though we cannot see God.
          And just in case we think that this kind of faith is impossible, the preacher gives us a roll call of, as one commentator put it, the hall of fame of the faithful. These folks serve as examples of this kind of faith. We don’t read all of those examples in our verses today, but we do read about Abraham. Abraham had a good life going. He had property and possessions. He and his wife Sarah were well-off. Their great sadness was not having children, but when it came to riches, they had those. But God said, “Go. Leave. Leave this land and go to a land, a place that I will show you. You will receive an inheritance greater than your wildest dreams. You have no children? Look at the stars in the sky, look at the sand below your feet. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sand.”
          So Abraham obeyed. He went. He followed. He left all that he had, all that he knew, all that was familiar and safe behind and he followed God. He lived as a stranger, as a foreigner in the land of promise. He never again had a home with a foundation. He never actually saw the fulfillment of God’s promise, but still he followed.
          Many thoughts come to mind when I read Abraham’s and Sarah’s story, especially through the lens of these verses in Hebrews. First, their faith overwhelms me. God said, “Go,” and they went. That’s amazing. But here’s the thing, God said, “Go.” I can’t say for sure that I’ve actually heard God’s voice telling me to go somewhere. I’ve discerned that voice in other ways, but have I heard God’s voice echoing from the sky? No. But apparently Abraham had those kinds of encounters with God. Yes, God took the form of visiting travelers, but still there seemed to be a real voice relaying definitive instructions. My first thought, then, is that surely it was easier for Abraham to be faithful because he heard that voice.
          But we don’t get the day-to-day description of their journey. I would suspect that there were times when God seemed to be taking a break from the task of leading them to this unseen land. I think it was Frederick Buechner who wrote that if you had a chance to talk with one of these faithful hall of famers, if you could tap them on the shoulder and ask them how following God was going, they might have shared a different version. Were they convinced every single day that God was leading them? Was Abraham convinced that Sarah would have a child? I mean, really? How does the preacher of Hebrews put it, “Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born...”
          This one as good as dead? I suspect that even Abraham had days when he wondered and struggled and worried if God was leading them, if God’s promises of descendents and land would actually become a reality. While the birth of Isaac was the fulfillment of one promise, Abraham would never see the fulfillment of the other. He died, as did Isaac and Jacob, without seeing the entirety of God’s promises come true.
          But still, even when he may struggled, even when he may have found it all but impossible, Abraham had faith. Abraham was faithful. Abraham followed when God said, “Go.” Abraham was willing to do what God asked, even if that request was heartbreaking, terrifying and made no sense: think of God’s asking for Isaac to be sacrificed. Abraham was faithful.
          That is the challenge of faith. If we are faithful, then we are assured that we have a foundation that cannot be destroyed. If we are faithful, then we are convinced that even though we cannot see God or see in the visible world what God is doing, God is still there, acting, loving, creating. In fact what we see in the world may seem completely opposite to what we believe God is doing, nevertheless, we have faith that what we see does not negate what we don’t.
          It would seem that faith and being faithful is about trusting. William Sloan Coffin referred to it as “trusting without reservation.” Being faithful is about trusting in God’s promises. It is being assured and convinced that there is more to this world than what our senses can take in. Faith is holding fast to God’s nevertheless.
          We may hear the news each day and see the violence and the heartbreak and hatefulness that seems rampant, and wonder how God’s kingdom could possibly be in the midst of all this; but nevertheless we put our faith in the promise that it is.
          We may struggle with whether we are doing the right thing or going the right way; after all, the signs are not always easy to spot. But nevertheless, we trust that God is leading us, that God is calling us, that we are following even when we stumble and drift off course.
          It seems to me that when we trust God without reservation, we trust God’s nevertheless. I’m not saying that it’s easy. No one seems to struggle with doubt and worry more than I do. But then I remember Mother Theresa. When she died, her journals revealed that she doubted, that she wrestled with God and faith and trust. But never did she stop doing what she believed she was called to do. Never did she give into that doubt. She just kept on, being faithful, living faithfully. She lived and loved based not on what she could see but on God’s nevertheless.
          God’s nevertheless is our good news. It is our assurance. It is our conviction. We may feel that God is absent, that God has forgotten us, or that we can no longer hear God’s call, but nevertheless God is with us; God remembers, God keeps God’s promises. God is faithful to us. So may we be faithful to God.
          Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”


Monday, August 1, 2016

An Alternative Treasure

Luke 12:13-34
July 31, 2016

          Last September I received a letter in the mail. I had been told by friends to expect this letter, but I was still not prepared for it when it arrived. When I saw it in the mail that day, my face flushed. My hands shook slightly. I had to sit down and collect myself before I could even open the envelope. I could not believe that my time had come to receive such a letter. Its arrival meant that I had reached a turning point in my life; a new chapter. But was I ready?
          The letter was my invitation to become a member of AARP: the American Association of Retired Persons. I was turning 50 in October, half a century, and that meant I could now join the same association that my parents belong to. Perhaps we could pool our senior discounts.
          I’m making this moment sound a wee bit more dramatic than it actually was. I had been told by friends that you get an invitation when you turn 50, so I was expecting it. I hadn’t really considered whether I would join or not, but when I read that the cost of joining wasn’t that much and I got a free gift, I signed right up. (I also got a free gift for renewing my membership. Thanks AARP!)
          Even with this invitation from AARP, turning 50 was not as traumatic as I had once believed it would be. In fact, it was fun. Being 50 hasn’t felt any different than being 49 or 48. But hitting mid-century does bring certain truths into the light. One of those truths is the reality that at some point in the somewhat nearer future, I will have to consider retirement. It’s not that close yet, but it’s much closer than it used to be. I would like to say that when I look ahead to retirement, I just focus on all the cool things I’ll be able to do – things that I don’t have the time or the means for right now. You know, traveling, taking up hobbies, learning new skills. But the truth is, when I think about retirement I don’t imagine its potential possibilities. No, when I imagine retirement I worry. I worry about being able to survive. I see those ads on television about planning for retirement, and I worry that I’m not taking that kind of planning seriously enough. I worry that by the time I am ready to retire, the cost of living will be so high that only the excessively wealthy will have the means to live comfortably.
          I worry that I’ll have to work long past retirement age, not because I want to but because I have to. I worry that I’ll need to work long past retirement age, but that I won’t be able to because of health issues or other factors. I worry that I’ll be like someone who finally retires, then dies within a month or weeks or a day of retirement. I worry that I won’t have enough. I worry that there isn’t enough time. I worry and worry and worry. My worry drives me, and not to a happy place, but to an emotional and spiritual cliff’s edge. I worry.
          Although the man Jesus described in this parable was in vastly different circumstances from my own, there is a sense that worry drove him as well.
          Jesus was once again surrounded by a crowd of people. Someone in that crowd asked Jesus to tell this person’s brother to divide the family inheritance with him. When I hear something like that, I think of the bitter disputes that can ensue between siblings over an inheritance after a family member dies. I wonder if it was this kind of rancorous fight that pushed the man to ask Jesus for arbitration. But if the man looked to Jesus for help, he did not receive it. Jesus not only told him, “No, that’s not why I’m here,” he went onto warn the people about greed and putting stock in an abundance of possessions. Then he told them a parable.
          Remember, Jesus didn’t tell parables to give people the warm fuzzies. He told them to make people think about familiar ideas, people, situations, etc. in new and unexpected ways. This parable was no different. It was about a rich man. This rich man had land that produced abundantly. As he surveyed his abundance the man thought to himself,
          “'What should l do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
But God had other plans. God spoke to this man and said,
          “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
          Think back on the man’s words. Who was he talking to? What pronouns are used consistently throughout his monologue? The answer is I and my. What should I do? I have no place to store my crops. I will do this. I will pull down my barns. I will build larger ones. I will store all my grains and my goods. I will say to my soul.
          I, my, I, my, I, my. Not once does he refer to anyone but himself. Jesus’ description was of a selfish man, true, but it was also a telling picture of a sad man. I know Jesus never used the word sad. The man didn’t seem to think of himself as sad. But I think he was. After all, he amassed all that wealth in grains and goods, but at the end of his life he only had himself to talk to. When God demanded his life, the man was alone. Jesus ended the parable with the words, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
          Why would this parable have shocked Jesus’ listeners? The obvious answer is just what Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” The man put a lot of energy and time into storing up treasures for himself. But storing up grain for a future date would not have been that unusual. Think back to the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis. Joseph received visions of famine in the land, so he made sure that plenty of grain was stored in preparation. He and his brothers were reunited because of that famine. They came to Egypt seeking food so they and their families would not starve to death.
          Surely a person who was able to store up grain was wise not foolish. That person was preparing for the future. But what did all of the man’s wealth of grain and goods do for him? He never even had a chance to use it. He amassed it, then he died. What I find particularly sad is the man’s address to his soul. Hey Soul, we’ve got this! Now we can sink back into an easy chair. Now we can eat and drink and have a great time. We’ve done it. We have secured our security.
          Except his security did not ward off death. Nothing wards off death. Death is the great leveler, the great equalizer. No matter how rich or poor, we all die. I think Jesus wanted the people around him to understand this, to realize that no amount of treasure, no amount of wealth can secure any of us from death. The man, the “barn guy” as one commentator put it, spent a lifetime building wealth, but in the end he had not built relationships. He had not built community. He was not rich toward God. That poses another question. How are we rich toward God? God does not need our wealth. God does not require money or things. How are we rich toward God? We are rich toward God through our relationships. We give offerings and tithes to this congregation, not because God needs it, and not solely for keeping the lights on – and yes, the staff paid. We give because through our offerings, through the sharing of our treasures, we are able to reach out to God’s children. We are able to do the work of God’s kingdom.
          But the barn guy Jesus spoke about did not understand that. He built his wealth, he built his barns, but he built nothing else. When he died, he was rich in stuff, but not rich in relationships, not rich in community.
         Nowhere in this text does Jesus say that wealth is inherently bad. But he warns against greed. He warns against thinking that life only consists of an abundance of possessions. Jesus’ words were not so much a diatribe about too much stuff or too much money, it’s about our tendency to believe that those things make us secure, safe. They don’t. Jesus warned against greed because it distorts our priorities and it keeps us from being in real relationship with God and with each other. Ultimately, what good is our wealth if there is no one to share it with? What good is our abundance if stays stored in barns? What good is our worldly treasure if it keeps us from claiming the alternative treasure that God gives us in abundance?
          So Jesus said, don’t worry. Don’t worry about what you will wear, what you will eat, how you will live. God clothes the ravens and the lilies of the field. They don’t sow or reap. They don’t stockpile for the future. They just live. Don’t worry.
          But herein lies the rub. We are not the ravens, nor are we the lilies of the field. The primary needs of life – food, shelter, and clothing – require some amount of money. It is hard not to worry, at least a little bit, that we will or won’t have enough to meet even those basics of life.
          Country singer and songwriter, Brandy Clark, has a song on her first album called, Pray to Jesus. The refrain goes,
          “So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto, cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow. And there ain’t no genie, and there ain’t no bottle. So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto. Like a bumper sticker, like a poor man’s motto. Our time is short and our time is borrowed, so we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto.”
          I think she is saying that even the most religious of us hedge our bets. We pray to Jesus, yes. But we also do whatever we can to stay afloat and stay safe and stretch for some security in this world. Yet Jesus told the people around him, and his message still speaks to us, that we should not worry. Life, abundant life, is not to be found in treasures or possessions. They cannot provide security or safety. Don’t worry. Worrying adds nothing. It will not give us one more day, one more hour.
          I know that we won’t leave today not worrying about something. Well, at least I won’t. I’ve turned worrying into an art form. But I hope that this is a reminder of what is truly treasure and what isn’t. The building on Beard Street and this building are not where our treasure lies. We do not find treasure in stuff or things. Our treasure is here, in us, in this congregation, in our relationships with one another. Our treasure is in the people we love, and even more in the people we serve. Our treasure is out there, walking down the sidewalk, queing up at the Salvation Army. Our treasure is most truly and most deeply found in the abundance that God so extravagantly gives us; the abundance of love, hope, and joy. That is an alternative treasure to the treasure of the world. That is our true treasure. That is where our heart must lie.
          Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”