Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Does Jesus Have a Preference for the Middle Class?  

As a pastor I have been involved in many weddings. It is common for the planners to spend as much time selecting the seating chart for the reception, as the bride and groom do thinking about being married. There's just so many ways that you can go wrong with seating. People have high expectations and hope to be treated with respect in these formal settings. 
It makes you wonder how things will be when we go to the big banquet in heaven. How on earth will folks get sorted? What can we begin to expect? We know that grace comes without qualification, and yet how can God fail to honor the Saints and martyrs who gone before us? 
I suppose the word of praise about the new ballpark might be especially true in heaven, “There is not a bad seat in the house.” Better to be in the lowliest place among the saints, than a place of honor among the damned. 
Even as I say all of that, we know that a good reputation is a valuable and functionally useful part of human life. That may well be even more true in small town America. It is just easier to get along, if you have the respect of your neighbors. 
As we talked about social status, it quickly became apparent that at least in this area, folks have their own perspective on status. The bridge club people are admired for their brains. The various competitions at the Sandwich Fair each have their own favorites. I asked if the various men’s coffee gatherings; the barbershop, Country Kitchen, the Body Shop are the ones I know about, I wondered if there was a hierarchy to those gatherings. All I got was nervous laughter. 
My wife Martha has had a shift in her sensitivity to people’s opinion through this season’s bout of the teacher and School Board salary negotiations. Both the Board and the teachers have had cantankerous individuals complicating what - in the past - has often been a relatively simple process. I think it is a sign of the times that some folks feel they are not able to make their point unless they use confrontational language and pose as if compromise were the same as losing all of their integrity. 
In these situations Martha is prone to say, “I don’t care what people think. I just have to do what I understand is right.” 
Here the point is not that she does not care what people think, it is that she prefers to be known for her integrity and not spend extra time worrying about each person’s emotional reaction. The focus is on integrity and not courting the favor of the loudest voices. This points us at the message of Luke’s gospel this morning, and reflects the intent of the passage from Hebrews. 
Let us not chase after prestige for the sake of flattering our egos. It is easy to poke fun at the vanity we see in the news each day. It is hard to try to pray for those whose behavior demonstrates not just bad taste, but proposes to make America into a place where compassion and equality are no longer valued. 
I admit that in my own mind, I have felt the political process of the last 30 years has been corrupted by the influence of big money. It seems apparent that both major political parties have manipulated the laws so that corruption and bribery are now legal, at least for big business and its movers and shakers, even though it remains unethical. 
I am a child of the 50’s, a baby boomer who believes that the culture was at its best when the sense of civic pride was right on the surface in our communities, and that a strong middle class provided the tax base to do great community projects and create opportunities for advancement. The compression of the Middle Class is at the core of our unbalanced budgets, fear of immigrants, failure of the American Dream. 
This week, my personal bubble with its USA sticker got pierced by a well written article in the Washington Post* that I encountered on Facebook, written in part by Miroslav Volf, a Catholic theologian, that reminded me that true Christian values begin with promoting the needs the poor, the homeless, the outcasts and refugees. 
To run a political campaign promising to restore the middle class and middle class values appeals to the baby boomer in me, but it truly does fall short of Christian values. Like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge of a couple of years ago, I was startled by the obvious truth in the article, and also startled that I had appropriated the claim for honorable intentions for my middle class - first world woes - and missed the big picture of the gospel. I might be the pastor, but I still need a helping hand to see past my own self interests. 
What can we do as a people to feed the hungry, rescue the refugees, and protect the Dakota Indian Tribes from oil pipelines that threaten their reservations, and fail to bring them any benefits - while they absorb the risks? What can we do to give hope to communities where minimum wage jobs only promise a lifetime of debt and lack of status? How can we call American Christianity back from the trap of the Prosperity Gospel, to the good news of Jesus the Christ? 
To reclaim our integrity as Christians, we have to stick close to Jesus and the message he gave us. “ 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.” 
When we let those words sink in, we leave ourselves little room to prioritize our self-interests. Our self-interest might best be expressed in our opening hymn, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?” That would truly put us on pace to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is our greatest need, to find a means of service that benefits others, and makes use of the gifts God has given us. 
Our greatest need we have as a congregation, is to identify closely with the gospel’s call to serve those who are not able to help themselves. As we collectively identify and share missions that meet the priority of the gospel, we grow in the power of the Holy Spirit. 
One of my favorite examples of a generous spirit comes from the Ottawa UCC church. One of the church leaders was a man, who owned a carpet and drapery store in town. He was a kind and gentle man. At one point in his life, he decided to open an office to give financial advice. Martha and I asked to talk with him, and began a better relationship with him. 
His business office was in one the bank buildings in town. I later learned, he was the major stockholder in the bank. I also learned he had been teaching a night class on business practices at Northwestern University for many years. He was also the Chief Financial Officer for a significant urban ministry designed to give poor African-Americans help in achieving educational and cultural goals. 
After he and his wife died, they established a fund to support the cost of seminary that was administered by the congregation, and directly benefitted me. In life and in death, he and his wife generously provided new ways for me to understand what service might look like when you use the gifts God gave you. 
At one point in another church, the congregation received a contribution from the estate of a former member. The Council was asked to consider “tithing” this unexpected windfall. It turned out to be a great educational moment for the congregation as they wrestled with the thought. It took a couple of months before the Council was ready to make that decision. 
They ended up taking 10% of the gift, and dividing it among the charities that were already supported in the budget. The checks were in addition to the budgeted amounts. It was a bonus or windfall for the charities, just as the contribution had been a surprise to the congregation. The conversation at the Council, and around the congregation, helped folks to understand tithing in a whole new way. 
When the gospel says that Jesus cares for the poor, it is a not too subtle reminder that we are expected to give, not from the left-overs, but from the first fruits of the harvest. We put charitable organizations in our budget, in order to give them priority, a rightful place in our financial life as a community of faith. Our personal budgets should do the same kind of thing, although in my own practice, the lion’s share of the tithe is dedicated to the church to support the work and mission of the church. 
I encountered this snippet of poetry from William Blake that brings home the blessings we are afforded when we stop trying to make the world revolve around our own personal interests. “I sought my soul but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.” Amen. 

*By Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Miroslav Volf - August 15 Washington Post 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

It's About the Relationship

It is Not About the Law, It Is About the Relationship  

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17 

In my reading for this week’s sermon, I have bumped into several admonitions to be aware of how prone we all are at judging against others, and taking joy in feeling superior. I have already detailed for you my history of sarcasm, which is rooted in self pride and disdain for others. 
It takes work to recognize snap judgments as sin, it is hard to call it sin when it feels so good and so natural. I have excused it pretending that it demonstrates intellectual awareness. I have tried to justify it, as an exercise of artistic expression. I know at least a hundred ways to try to fool myself, but sin is sin. 
Why is it a sin to aim fun at those who have different opinions, especially if those opinions seem dangerous and offensive? Each of these souls, misguided or not, are children of God. I am wholly unable to positively influence those who are astray, if I put them down and put them on the defensive. I cannot begin to understand the anxiety that drove them to their fear/hate of immigrants, or blacks, or gays, if I dismiss them out of hand. 
The book of the prophet Isaiah, is generally regarded as the work of at least three different preachers. Isaiah One, warned the people of the coming doom and defeat at the hands of Babylon if they refused to change their ways and behave more faithfully. Isaiah Two, reassured the community during the protracted Exile, that God was Still God, and they would one day be restored. Isaiah Three, offered a word of hope to the returning community. In amidst the piles of destruction, and decades of abandonment, the city of Jerusalem could rise from the ashes to praise God. 
Today we read from Isaiah Three, preaching to the community who is seeking to restore the city of Jerusalem. But the prophet is not patting them on the back, and telling them that they are brave and virtuous. No, the prophet is telling them that they must find their sense of identity in serving God by feeding the hungry, caring for the ailing. Success in this endeavor depends on their success as the people of God, not their position as the people of Jerusalem. 
In what might be a simplification for oratorical purposes, Isaiah says to quit using the Sabbath to further your own interests, and give God what God is due. These pressures have existed forever. 
We remember a time before cell phones, when a person was off for the weekend, and the boss would never call. Don’t you feel sorry for the folks who are trying to run a business today? The temptation to let the business consume the bulk of your attention 24/7 has to be overwhelming. Even this pastor with a part-time position, always has a part of his brain focused on those in need of prayer, and how can I use any passing idea as a sermon illustration. 
Do you remember a time when Sunday was a time for large family gatherings? Do you remember visiting parents and grandparents on a Sunday afternoon? Wasn’t it almost always on a Sunday when you saw the out of town cousins? It is far less common today, and we are the poorer for it. 
Bev Anderson recalled her mother teaching her not to pick up a needle and thread to make a repair, or restore a button on a Sunday. We never went quite that far in my house. But we never missed church. We dressed up for church and had to change right away when we got home so the good clothes would last. In my house, as the oldest boy, my clothes were destined to be passed down to Joe, then Terry and then Pat. Since the girls were born next, only a few of my clothes were left for Peter, 16 years my junior. 
I am not longing for the good old days. But I am saying that times change, and expectations change. What used to be normal and usual in the community, is not honored in the same way today. 
So how does a faithful person honor the Sabbath today? In the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is moved to pity for the ailing woman, and cures her. In doing so, he receives the wrath of the leader of the synagogue. 
In Luke’s gospel, we know the he is writing to a predominantly Gentile community. They are struggling with the relationship between the Christians and Jews. What is the right balance? In this part of the gospel, Jesus has turned his attention to helping the disciples to be responsible for their faith. He wants them to seek the spirit of the Sabbath, and avoid getting stuck in the many laws about the Sabbath. 
While this is not the first time Jesus causes a stir by his behavior in the synagogue on the Sabbath, this is the last time in Luke’s gospel that we see Jesus teaching in the synagogue. For Luke’s congregation, this marks a turn in their understanding. Being a follower of Christ, extends the tradition of the Jews, but it is not bounded by the Jewish expression of faith. 
The point then, is that expressions of mercy and justice - marks of the community - are acceptable for the Sabbath. Take time away from pursuing your own interests, and make your relationship with God the centerpiece of the day is how to do the Sabbath. 
But many people work on Sunday. I get it. I worked many years at the power plant. Our customers were so selfish, they wanted the lights to work and air conditioners to run on Sunday. Heck, they even wanted their Christmas tree lights to work on Christmas. Some people have to work on Sunday. 
So what day is your Sabbath? When do you take time off, to think about God, and be attentive to your family? And why would we even bother? 
Isaiah says, that we would be a success as the people of God, we would behave in the ways God has instructed us. We would stop judging the poor, and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick.  
If we would honor the Sabbath, we would be attentive to God. You see, prayer is two way communication. We tell God what is on our hearts, and God directs us as to what God imagines for us to do. We need to leave some brain space, some heart space, some energy, to listen for God and to respond to what God has in mind. 
Our relationship with God is measured in how we relate to each other, and represent our faith in the community. The greatest gift we can share with our wider community is care and attentiveness. The greatest gift we can give the world in anxious times, is the peace of Christ. 
So I want to insert a song, titled “The Pastor Chuck Theme Song,” that addresses the function of relationship within the faith community. This was at the heart of my work at the United Church of Christ in Spring Valley. 

The heart of today’s passage is not that the laws of the Sabbath do not matter. We need the Sabbath. It nourishes and strengthens us. It acts as a compass, helping us to keep aligned. But the Sabbath is not made to test obedience. The Sabbath is about the relationship. 

A principle of community life is to honor the relationship above the task. The carry over from the business world that sneaks into the church, is to become so oriented to the task at hand, we neglect the people we do it with. A sober and dutiful choir may have great discipline, but if they neglect each other, the music lacks the power to change lives and build love. Changing lives requires relationship. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Time Is Fulfilled

The Time is Fulfilled
Epistle: Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2 
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

The Greeks have two words for time: Chronos, which is sequential or clock time, and Kairos, which is the time of a significant event, or the fullness of time, or the time when change is inevitable and almost “must” happen. 
I learned this distinction while I was in seminary, studying Greek, and learning about the end of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was the segregation of the people by ethnic and racial distinctions, and supported by laws imposed by the white minority. It existed legally from 1948 until 1994 in South Africa. 
During the period 1960 to 1983, some 3.5 million blacks were forcibly removed from their homes and resettled in tribal areas. During this resettlement, these individuals were stripped of their citizenship. These actions precipitated international action, including sanctions, and a trade embargo. In 1990, the President, Frederik Willem DeKlerk, began the process of disbanding the laws of Apartheid, and in 1994, Nelson Mandela, a black former political prisoner, was elected President. 
Last Monday, Martha and I were in Springfield, Illinois, for an afternoon meeting. We took the opportunity to visit the Abraham Lincoln Museum. The museum carefully tries to treat the memory of the former President with a practical appreciation of the world he lived in. They present him as a politician, and a man who moved towards the Emancipation Proclamation in incremental steps. It is clearly identified how his actions angered some of being too bold, and angered others, as not being nearly strong enough, even detailing the arguments on both sides.
These are broad political examples of time fulfilled, a Kairos moment, when change seems nearly inevitable. We have all found situations in our lives when we were taken to the point at which we had to make a decision. In those moments, failing to make a clear choice actually “Is” a choice, so you may as well do what is right. 
One of the ways we describe God, is that God is infinite. God was - before there was time. God will be, when time as we know it stops. As humans, it is impossible to imagine infinity. We are bound to a creation with a distinct life-cycle. Our own lives are bounded by the progression of our age and health, which many times becomes bound together. 
We noted that in Luke’s gospel in Chapter 11, the human Jesus turns his attention towards Jerusalem. At this point, he begins to change the tone and content of his preaching. He expects more from the disciples. He wants them to understand his message and make a commitment. The clock is ticking. 
You can have an opinion others do not share, and as long as you do not change your behavior, people can tolerate that. But when you decide to change, to act differently, the people around you will react. There will be distinct pressure for you to “change back.” 
In today’s passage from Jesus, he tells the folks, change is hard, but it is time to “be the change” he is demanding. The community of Luke’s people lived through the Roman action to destroy the Jerusalem Temple, and end the existence of the Temple leaders in the political life of the land. There was a separation of church and state imposed by the occupying army. 
In the period following the destruction of the Temple, the entire nature of Judaism changed from a priestly and sacrificial religion, to a personal religion, advised by teachers/rabbis, and operating outside of the central sphere of political and cultural control. 
The Jews responded with an intense period of reimagining who they were as a people. It was only in this aftermath that the Jews finally decided which of the ancient texts would be given full status as belonging in the Bible. Up to this point, they largely accepted the first five books, the Psalms, the major prophets and some readings. Today, the Protestants accept as the Old Testament what the Jews chose, while the Catholic Bible includes all of the texts that were in an ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. In the New Testament, all of the Old Testament quotations come from the Septuagint. 
While the Jews were in this heightened state of clarifying what it meant to be Jewish, the Christians were debating within their own ranks if to be a Christian was to be an advanced sort of Jew, or something completely different. The larger number of people Luke was writing for - are presumed to be gentiles (not Jewish), and largely ready to be separate from the Jewish faith and customs. But change is sloppy. There is always pressure to “change back.” Change within the confines of a household are especially good at bringing heartache and tears. 
But there are Kairos moments. There are times when the decision is right before you. There are situations when delaying the decision actually “Is” a decision. 
Jesus anticipates the coming confrontation in Jerusalem. The “Baptism by fire” that he is inevitably going to experience, will leave no doubt that he has made a commitment. In fact, the people of Luke’s community either have experienced a wave of persecution of the Christians, or have heard that such things have happened. 
You and I, we know the stories of the faithful people in the Old Testament. We understand, it had to be terrifying to walk into the Red Sea with the water standing up in a wall with the howling chariots of the Pharaoh chasing them from behind. Go forward and maybe die, or stay put and die for sure. 
At times like these I wish I had the resonant voice of Samuel L. Jackson, “What is in your wallet?” What decision will you make today? Are you ready to stand out in your house, in your block, in your school community as a person committed to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly/trusting in God. Can you be a non-anxious presence in tumultuous times, knowing that God is with you? 
You may well face ridicule, when every one else is wringing their hands. When the anxious announce their plans to escape to Canada in November, will you claim to belong to the God of heaven? When those around you announce doom to our whole way of life, can you speak up for the peace of Christ? 
Two US Olympic synchronized divers, David Boudia and Steele Johnson, won their silver medal on Monday 8/8, and each opened their interview by saying. “I have my identity in Christ. Diving is what I do, but it is not who I am. I was prepared to win or lose the contest, knowing that my identity and my friendships are not dependent on my performance.” 
I applaud their ability to articulate their faith in personal terms. I find that they were prepared to let the situation come to them, and let their faith be expressed, even as they enjoyed the fruits of their passion and performance. They did not credit winning to faith, but rather, they credited their peace of mind to their faith. 
This is what we are promoting here. This is an identity rooted in the relationship with God that we have nurtured by our prayer and worship, based on our commitment to justice and service to our neighbors. This is what sets us apart from the anxieties of the culture. These are the values that mean the world - and even eternity - to us. 
You might have been faithfully in these pews for years. At one level, it might seem there is no decision to be made. But today is not at all like yesterday, and tomorrow promises to bring even more change. This time, this day, requires a new articulation of your faith. This is a time when the faithful must let themselves be identified as believers. 
So in these anxious times, are you ready to make a commitment to this Jesus Christ who we bring before you today? Is this the hour where you increase your faithful participation, in service to others, in worship and in fellowship, in education and outreach to the community? Is this your hour to be the change that Jesus asks of his disciples? 

May God bless you with the peace of Christ, and the wisdom - to allow the anxieties of this world, to reinforce your habit of prayer, and dedication to the love of God and neighbor. The preparation time is fulfilled. Amen. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

God Is Still God

God Is Still God  
Old Testament - Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 
Gospel - Luke 12:32-40

In the late 1950’s, I was a boy obsessed by baseball. The New York Yankees were the dominant force in baseball, winning year after year. Betting on the Yankees was considered a sure thing, a low risk commitment. There were many Yankees fans, many of them clinging to the domination. There were also Yankee haters. 
In 1955 there was a Broadway musical called Damn Yankees, which in truth was a retelling of the drama, Faust. It was followed by a movie in 1958, which I saw at home on our tiny black and white TV. It was a remarkable event for a young boy who was very into baseball. 
In brief, it is the story a middle-aged man, who was a fan of the Washington Senators, (as they saying went - “Washington was first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”) he ached to see his team do better. While watching a late night game on TV after his wife had gone to bed, he decided that all the Senators needed was a stud home run hitter to give them the pennant. He would sell his soul to have a home run hitter. 
The devil appears and makes him a deal. The salesman walks away from his solid family life, and becomes the slugger the Senators need. The deal includes an escape clause, that allows him to recant at the last minute to “save his soul.” The drama revolves around the devil working hard to prevent any last minute change of heart. 
The musical got its heat from a provocative dance number by one of the devil’s leading ladies, trying to seduce the young slugger away from his longing for his wife and simple life. Very amazing to me in my sheltered life. 
In the dramatic conclusion, the slugger recants, is restored to his middle-aged self in the midst of a critical at bat, and still hits the game winning home run to beat the Damn Yankees. 
Obsession can be like that. We spend so much time and energy consumed with the details, flexing our emotional selves, anxious about a thousand “what-if” scenarios, that we lose a sense of perspective. In effect, we sell our soul when we let our fascination with that parallel reality consume more of our brain and heart power than it deserves. 
The prophet Isaiah declares God is not fooled when people make a show of piety in the Temple, but their lives are filled with sinful obsession over the power and prestige of human life. When your hands are stained with the blood of those you have cheated on Monday through Friday, do not think for a moment God is impressed with Sunday morning posturing. 
Luke’s gospel message seems more comforting. “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” All right. Luke assures us that we are ok. See, Isaiah was overreacting. Unless - we read Luke’s verses 33 and 34. “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 
So maybe the gospel is a little less comforting. It proclaims that we are servants in the kingdom of God. It treats our precious stuff as gifts for the poor. We are to be watching for the day and the hour that the Christ returns. We are to be focused on the treasures of heaven, and not anxious about the simple things of this world. It may seem pretty easy sitting in here amongst the stained glass windows. 
But have you ever considered it a sin to become so focused, and so desperate about the November election, that it interferes with your sleep? Have you ever been told that permitting yourself to become obsessed by the things of this world, tears you away from prayerful attention to God? If you truly trust in God, what is the actual extent to which you can be anxious about an election - any election? 
Only last week we recognized that great portions of our scriptures detailed life and times when the people of God were either in Exile, or occupied by an invading army, or trying to recover their sense of identity when the occupation had ended. The scriptures seem to assume a world where nation states are in conflict. 
God was still God, when the chosen people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were enslaved in Egypt. God was still God, when the people of Jerusalem were either killed or taken in bondage to Babylon. God was still God, when the new Christian faith in Rome - met secretly in the catacombs beneath the city for their own protection. God was still God when the German Army filled the camps with citizens of Jewish descent. 
I have spent a week or two recently - when I was despondent - as I recognized the reality that the influence of dark money in politics was now so pervasive, there is no clear path available to defeat the demons set loose - by the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision -that has legalized bribing our elected officials. Even the Supreme Court Justices take all-expense paid vacation-bribes. Dark money now controls virtually every state and federal legislature. Both major political parties are held captive by their big money donors. 
Only when I was wrestling with the scriptures in order to proclaim hope from the pulpit on a Sunday morning, did I realize the depth to which I had permitted myself to be distracted. Money is not of itself bad, but it can be the root of all kinds of evil. 
Think for a moment, when you were faced with a situation in your own life that appeared to have no possible resolution, and your faith carried you through. Think or a moment about how God has been active within your own story. Remember that you are a child of God, and God’s love has redeemed your own story. 
Obsession with money and political power is a sin. Obsession with other people’s money and political power is a sin. Faith is the only antidote. Trust in God, can be a hard sell in anxious times. 
No matter what happens in November, God will be God. No matter where our fragile democracy comes to rest on the spinning roulette wheel of influence and public opinion, God will be God, and the only truth worth knowing. 
Do you despair because a relative does not ever go to church, even though they seem to be generous? Encourage their generosity, and try to learn that from them. 
Are you anxious because Sunday church attendance is not what it should be? Me too. But I can only bring you my best songs. I can only declare my love for God. I can only praise those who are here in faithful service. I can only do my best to express that: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. 
Cling to God. Know that God loves to see his children building strong and healthy relationships. Care for each other. Care for your neighbors. Do what you can to be a non-anxious presence in the face of the political diatribe. Trust in the God who has redeemed your story in the past, and trust that God will be faithful in the days ahead. 
We store up treasures in heaven, when we behave as Jesus did. When we listen to those, friend or foe, sinner or saint, and show them God’s good love. We store up treasures in heaven, when we try to remember that our true home is with the Christ, and we are on our own journey to heaven. We store up treasures in heaven when we let the peace of Christ be at the center of our lives. 
If you truly trust in God, what is the actual extent to which you can be anxious about an election - any election - before it becomes a sin? How does one resist the temptations of baseball and the seductress? The true answer can only be worked out in prayer between you and God. And while you are in prayer, the seeds of hope may sprout.  
John Bell is a songwriter and minister of the church of Scotland -and a part of the island community of Iona in the Irish Sea. It is an intentionally progressive Christian community set amongst ancient Celtic ruins where a simple life is celebrated. I have found this song of his to be a treasure, and I used it heavily during the onset of the depression nine years ago, and it remains a source of refuge for me. 
I used it here once, and will use it again in the coming months, as the anxiety around us is bound to increase. I have the lyrics in the bulletin, but it is easy to remember - 
Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger. My love is stronger than your fear. 

Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger. And I have promised, promised to be always near. - Sing it with me - 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Piece of My Mind

A Piece of My Mind 

The temptation in confrontational times is to encounter someone you disagree with - and give them a piece of your mind. You know what I mean, tell them in no uncertain terms that they are wrong, and your own position is not only right, but far superior to their opinion. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I once took great pride in making snarky, sarcastic, cutting remarks. Clearly this is an example of using God given gifts for an unGodly purpose. 
It is not common to label this activity as selfish and put it in the bin marked “Greedy” or “Idolatry.” But it is truly an example of the kind of behavior that defeats relationship. It is like Adam and Eve spraying Roundup in the Garden of Eden. It makes a mockery of God’s good creation. It presents us as judge, jury, and executioner, without pausing to consider the limitations of our knowledge or experience. 
It is easier to dismiss all other opinions with a wave of the hand, than it is to confront often ugly rhetoric with respect for the possible relationship with the speaker. 
There are plenty of examples of ill-mannered and combative statements from both the conservative camp and from the liberal side. It is even more common to attack the character of the principals involved than it is to name the issues of the day and compare and contrast the positions of the candidates and the respective party platforms. 
I am not confused. I know that during the time the scriptures were written there were few if any examples of actual democracy among the nations of the world. In fact, the majority of all of our scriptures, were written from the perspective of people either in captivity and occupied by an invading army, or recently released from a time of capture. The geopolitical world of the scriptures assumes nation states in conflict. 
In Ecclesiastes, the writer tries to use reason and philosophy to sort out the meaning of life. In a practical sense, trying to determine what is real and what is true without relying on faith to determine a starting position often results in an approach we know of as Existential Philosophy. Clearly this ancient text identifies that the roots of this way of thinking are very deep in the human condition. 
He mourns, that if he accumulates great wealth, power and prestige, he could die overnight, and leave it all to some soul who does not understand or appreciate the effort and accomplishment it represents. It could all go to waste in the hands of the unappreciative. 
In the letter to the Colossians, the writer takes on the meaning of life from the perspective of one who has died to the world, and dedicated themselves to living with the mind of Christ Jesus. On one hand, we know it is impossible to live with purity of mind and action. On the other hand, we all have known people who are so gentle, so generous, so compassionate, we understand that it may indeed be possible to live at a much higher level that we have ever known. 
I think that it is interesting that Colossians is a disputed letter of Paul. There are multiple indications that make it likely this letter was written after Paul died. Paul died around the year 60 CE. The city of Collossae was destroyed by an earthquake around the year 60 CE. 
If Colossians was written after Paul’s death, then there is a distinctive poetic air to this text. There is a romantic sense of preaching to the memory of a now expired community, where the specifics of individuals - with their personal quirks and preferred positions - are buried, and the communal ideals of the now deceased fellowship are honored.   
Today we use Ecclesiastes and Colossians as an introduction to the text from the Gospel of Luke. We know that in the flow of Luke’s gospel, Jesus has made his turn towards Jerusalem. He has become much more specific in directing the disciples and expecting them to do more. The tone and tempo of his public ministry is much more focused than in the early chapters, wandering around Galilee 
In this episode, a man asks Jesus to intervene for him with his brother, in distributing the family inheritance. It was a common role for a rabbi to assist families in sorting out priorities, as guided by the scriptures, in structuring the distribution of the inheritance - in order to secure the future health of the family unit and the family’s place in the wider community. Specifically, the real property would typically belong to the oldest son, because if it was divided, the weaker managers of the family may be unable to preserve the capital. 
Clearly, it was an act of honor to Jesus to treat him like a rabbi, and ask him to work in this traditional capacity. Jesus dismisses the task, but claims the opportunity to make a teaching moment for his followers. 
Jesus tells them a story, a parable, to make his point. He does not invest any energy in the inheritance matter that the man found important, but instead, used the opportunity to talk about the very natural, human preoccupation with stuff. “My stuff is better than your stuff. I have more stuff than you have. I am going to protect my stuff, so that I can live in luxury all of my days. My stuff makes me important, and proves just how smart I am.” In the back of my mind I hear the voice of the comic George Carlin, a champion of sarcasm, who had a classic routine devoted to “our stuff.” 
We noticed before - that especially in this portion of Luke’s gospel, where he has stories that are not repeated in Matthew and Mark, Jesus uses the “certain man” as a part of his story telling. 
The “certain man” does not identify if he is Jewish or Gentile. This is important to Luke’s community - who we believe are largely gentile - because it tells them there are no Jewish code words that they may not understand. The story is the story, and does not require having a deep understanding of the Jewish backstory in order to “get it.”  
By using “a certain man” Jesus signals, this applies to all people. This is an important way to understand what matters to God, that does not depend on Jewish ancestors, clean bloodlines, or special cultural class distinctions. This could be anybody, and applies to everybody. 
Importantly, by using the story, we are taking the conversation one step above the sticky details of the day. We are not mocking some individual we disagree with, we are not creating an artificial boundary between us and them, we are not drawing battle lines. We are not looking to create a space for a debate, or rules of engagement; we are appealing to a sense of truth that we might all agree with. 
Jesus uses the image from Ecclesiastes, what if all of our success gathered us great wealth, only to be left to those who do not appreciate what an achievement this is? Is the response to an abundance of food to build bigger barns, or should we be building a bigger table? Do we know what pleases God? Would we make different choice, if we knew what pleases God?  
We opened this time together considering the temptation to give “a piece of our mind” to those that we disagree with. Here are two quick thoughts for the next time such a temptation comes your way. First, are you sure you can spare a piece of your mind? Are you going to have enough left? (I told you I can be sarcastic.) 
Second, does it serve God’s purpose better if you give people a piece of your mind (with its limited capacity), or if you give people a piece of your heart (filled with the infinite love of God)? 

God blesses your story, may you have the wisdom to bless those you meet.