Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Who God Has Helped

Who God Has Helped 

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 
Luke 16:19-31  

Psalm 91, sung with power and drama for us by Gail Thompson, promises that God will provide for the faithful. In the psalm the faithful are described as those who love God, and call on God, will be shown a long life and salvation. It makes you want to sign on the dotted line right here and now. 

When we turn to the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke’s gospel, we notice several things. Lazarus has been shown salvation, and has every comfort at the side of Abraham. But no where in the story is Lazarus described as being faithful or doing good things. All we know is that he was poor, diseased, and ignored by the rich man. 

The rich man, whose name we do not know, is characterized as having had a life of ease on earth. He is dressed in fine clothes. He eats very well. And even from Hades he is trying to order Lazarus around. Did you notice that? “Father Abraham, order Lazarus to fetch me something cool for my burning throat.” A sense of power and privilege dies hard, doesn’t it? 

This all suggests to me, is that being faithful is assessed by how we manage those resources that are ours to control. Those who have no disposable income, have very little expected of them, at least in terms of sharing their earthly goods. Those who live in luxury, have much expected of them. 

A kind and generous man once confessed to me he was often anxious that he might not be doing enough to please God. He acknowledged that he received praise from others for some of the more public things that he did, but was it enough? 

I tried to encourage him. The biblical tithe is 10%. 10% of your time, treasure, and talents are what is considered to be sufficient in the historic understanding of being faithful in our tradition. 

I will be candid with you. When Martha and I were young, designating 10% of our income to the church and charity seemed an impossible dream. As we grew in the faith, and lived among other faithful people, we gradually increased our giving. In time it gave me relief, just as I hoped to give relief to the generous man who asked, “How do I know if I have done enough?” 

The rich man, unable to persuade Abraham to order poor Lazarus to bring him a Pepsi from the fridge, now asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers and warn them about the doom that awaits them unless they change their ways. 

How easy is it for us to hear the call to change our way of life? Do you need to be a hardened sinner, for the call to repentance to be hard to accept? In my own life, I know that change is hard. When confronted, even by caring people I respect, it is hard to change my mind and my perspective. So I suspect that it might be difficult for others, who are hardened sinners like I am, to hear the call to repent. 

Abraham answers that the brothers of the rich man have Moses and the prophets to call them to justice in the eyes of the Lord. If they cannot or will not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not repent - even if Lazarus returns to them from the dead. 

This week I spoke at length with the woman who has been our financial advisor for 30 years. The parent company she works for was exposed this month in a celebrated case of corporate corruption. She told me a little of the pressure she experiences from the corporate offices, and how she and her colleagues marvel at the drive for more profits. “How much is enough?” she wonders. 

This insight from Abraham seems troubling to me. I believe it reveals a likely truth about human nature, could the insulation of comfort make us insensitive to others in our own times? I have seen pictures on the Internet, one from a pastor friend, of church signs that read, “Jesus Returns Soon - Let’s Hope It Is Before the Election.” 

I thought that was humorous, until I read this scripture. If Jesus were to return, in humility and obedience - as we believe he came before; if he came in the dark skin of an actual Middle Eastern man;  would he not be ignored at best, or victimized again by the prevailing political powers that be? If the return of Jesus were in any form other than power, majesty and victory, few hearts would be touched. 

Is it an easier life to live in disease and poverty like Lazarus? Certainly not. That is anything but an easy life. Is it easier to gain your salvation from a life of poverty and illness than from a life of ease and comfort? The scriptures clearly say, “Yes, it is.” 

Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eleazar” - that means “who God has helped,” and this name is an example of what is often called Jesus’ preference for the poor. It is apparent that the compassion of God for those who have little in this world, gets extended in the portion of life where God has total control. 

In the gospel of John, the name Lazarus is attached to a man who is the brother of Martha and Mary. Lazarus is raised from the dead, just before the events of Holy Week. In John’s gospel, the miraculous resurrection does not result in an increase in faith or anyone repenting and changing their ways. That Lazarus event hardens the hearts of the Temple authorities who step up their determination to do away with Jesus. 

The Psalm says that the marks of faithful living are a love of God, and a sincere relationship, where we call upon God to be with us in the challenges of our lives. The promise of salvation and comfort is clearly expressed in Luke’s gospel, in the time after death. This exact promise was repeated by the devil taunting Jesus shortly after his Baptism, during his temptation in the wilderness. 

As a rule, I am not one of those preachers who says that this world does not matter because God will make it all good in the life after this one. I prefer to say that when we live with grace, then God will use us to extend grace to those around us. We then are doubly blessed, accepting the grace intended for us, and having the grace flow through our lives that is intended for others. Living a life of grace, is sufficient good news for me to proclaim. 

Yet once in a while, the scriptures make clear, that life as a child of God, is a life without end. Once in a while, the scriptures call us to claim our place among the saints of God, doing today what saints would do in the here and now, and putting ourselves in line to share with the saints every comfort in eternity. 

So what can we do in the here and now? October is setup to proclaim our role as providing for Lazarus. October 2 is the CROP Walk, where we raise funds for Church World Service to feed needy  children of God near and abroad. Pam, Madeline, Ginny and Jim will be happy to receive your donations. 

On October 15th, the Food Resource Bank has scheduled it’s Harvest celebration, the local expression of Christian farming reaching out to feed others, and share both talent and treasure that might improve the effectiveness of farming in far away places. As a side note, the United Church of Christ collection for Neighbors in Need is being rescheduled for November, so as not to compete with these local ministries. 

We may not feel like we are rich. We may not have multiple sets of purple robes and linen gowns and feast sumptuously every day. But for every one of us who eat 3 meals a day, there are a dozen who may not eat everyday. And Jesus still has a preference for the poor. 

Lazarus, the one who God has helped, was unable to attend today, in order to persuade you to recommit yourselves to helping the poor. I suspect that a poor, dead, man, whose human body was covered in open sores, would not be able to change any hearts today. And yet, the call to justice and generosity is the driving beat of our holy scriptures, this day and every day, world without end, Amen. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Praise God with the Lyre and the Trumpet

Praise God with the Lyre and the Trumpet 
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-5 and Psalm 98:1-9 

On Sunday September 18, we celebrated our Sunday School. We helped the congregation understand that today we are not using a classroom model, but instead making their time a form of worship, being with God and attentive to God. The kids did their worship upstairs, and we blended our worship experience with the experience the kids have each week. 

On Sundays when the kids go downstairs for Sunday School, we have already started the worship time upstairs. After the kids leave, we read the scriptures, just like we did now. The kids have a time where a Bible story is told in story form, but it is the same Bible that we are talking about. 

Upstairs, I talk to the church, like I am doing now. I try to point out some interesting things about the scriptures, and suggest how we might live in ways that make that message come alive in the places we go. 

Downstairs, the kids have a chance to wonder about the story, and wonder about God. Their work time, with crafts or pictures, is a time to think about the God that the story reveals. Their work is a meditation on the story - a form of worship.

The first passage said that there is a time for everything. We know that planting corn happens in the Spring, and harvesting corn takes place in the Fall. There are different seasons for these things to happen. It is just like we wear sandals and shorts in the summer, and hats and winter coats in the winter. 

Our whole lives are like that. We are blessed to have a time when we are kids. Then it seems like we suddenly get to be parents. Then before you know it, we are grandparents. As a matter of fact, I have a brand new grandson son. He was born on Tuesday and his name is Felix. 

That scripture also said there is a time to dance. We do not often dance in worship in this church, but we could. We might do some dance moves today as we do our sing along. 

God loves us all of the time. It makes God happy when we do good things for others, and it makes God happy when we sing and dance for God. 

In the Psalm it said to sing praises to God with the lyre. The lyre is an ancient instrument that was a kind of guitar. The psalm also said to praise God with the trumpet and sounds of the horn. Mr. Dell brought his trumpet this morning and he will play along with one of our songs. 

We are going to make a joyful noise, telling God and each other how good it is to love God, and to have God love us. 

Sometimes in our prayers, we are asking God to make something better, take away a sickness, help someone we love find a good job, bring an end to war. 

I have a special cross that a man made for me. It is strong and smooth. He made it for people who do not feel like they can pray to God with words, especially when they are sad or worried. So he made this so they can just handle it and think about God and their troubles. 

So we can pray in lots of ways. God loves when we think about God. The Bible stories give us lots of different ways to think about God. All of our songs are different ways to think about God. When we spend time together, with God on our minds, the spirit of God is here among us and makes it possible for great things to happen. 

Now we are going to sing. I hope you will look around the room as we are singing. You will see that most of these people know most of these songs. They may not have sung them for a long time, but they stick with you. I think we will all be humming some of these tunes all through the week. What a great way to add to our prayers, humming little songs, all week long. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

Your Mission, Should You Accept It  

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10 

There was a television series from 1966 to 1973 called Mission Impossible. In the opening sequence, the team leader was offered an impossible and dangerous assignment. The closing statement was brief synopsis of the task, with the opportunity to choose not to go forward. 
In the TV series, but not in the series of movies using the same title, the TV series focused on the multiple gifts of the team, as they performed wonderful acts of daring and deception to pull off an elaborate scheme to achieve their common goal. The focus was on the team and their coordination. 
It can be an awkward thing, when we balance the call of the gospel stories, which are so often focused on our personal relationship with God, and the context of the church, where we are gathered together. The church is full of flawed individuals, and often we consider some of our flaws as our personal identity, and press our flaws to give us an advantage in the community of faith. 
In this particular age, the weaknesses and foibles of the church are commonly expressed as reasons to avoid the church entirely. 
As a church pastor I often feel like I am torn between two realities. On the one hand, I love the church. The worship times we spend together are important to me. Listening to sermons, or working for hours on sermons, so often exposes me to God’s truth in ways I would otherwise avoid -if left to my own devices. Then there is the fellowship, and our collective ability to accomplish so much more good than one can make happen on their own. 
But I also believe that the point of going to church is to live a good life. So I try to honor those who are doing good in the community, without the visible benefit of a church or pastor. I also try to comfort those who have gotten hurt by a misbehaving congregation or church member, or worse yet, a pastor who wounded a member by word or deed, and give them forgiveness for withdrawing from the church while they sort out their pain and the best response to the situations that dealt them injury. There is no one, clear, one size fits all answer. 
That might be the unavoidable truth of our age. There is no -one size fits all answer. While many recoil from the layers of sensitivities this time brings with us, we live in a world of sensitivities. We can use food allergies as an example. Some people have specific and often dangerous allergies. Peanuts can often cause harsh reactions. Gluten, dairy, certain peppers, all are able to cause problems for some in the community. 
Food allergies are a good example because we all recognize that the individuals do not choose to have allergic reactions. Many of them spend years of discomfort before a specific test or a change in life pattern reveals the source of their trouble. We can empathize with those who struggle with discomfort where the source is hidden. 
It can be harder to appreciate that gender identity can be a similar struggle for some. It seems so simple and obvious to those of us who have not suffered with those questions. It appears from the outside as not the result of a struggle as much as it is making a choice. We never know what folks around us are dealing with. 
Jesus sat down to eat with tax collectors and other sinners. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors who made a living collecting taxes for the Romans, and keeping a percentage for themselves for their trouble. As much as we dread April 15th, and the elaborate Income Tax system in this country, how much worse would it be if some traitor showed up at your door, with his body guards, and demanded payment. These tax collectors made a choice to collaborate with the enemy. This “so called holy man” Jesus, is enjoying their company and the fancy wine that they were able to buy with our money. 
Few if any of the tax collectors would be able to withstand the judgmental attitudes of the Pharisees, and so they were not welcome in the Temple or the Synagogue. They were excluded from the house of worship, because of the attitudes of the “good people.” 
Many souls today feel as if they would not be welcome in any church, either because they have felt a sense of rejection themselves, or know stories of folks like themselves who have been rejected. In these cases, the walls of the church become a barrier to sharing the good news with sinners. 
I know, it feels odd to say that, but it is true. The church often gets in the way of delivering the good news of forgiveness and welcoming back those who have gone astray. 
The shepherd does not sit amongst the flock and call out to the lamb who has wandered away. The shepherd must actually go out and seek the lost sheep. The woman does not sit at the kitchen table, wishing she had not lost her coin. She has to get up and go all through the house, cleaning in, under, and around all of the furniture, until the coin is found. 
So how can the church respond to this message? The first issue is clearly to be sensitive to visitors, understanding that it is common for folks to expect judgement in a strange church. They may even be more sensitive if they used to be part of the church, but have wandered away sometime ago. Maybe the last pastor bugged them. Maybe they wished for a church with a lot more going on for young people. Maybe they got sick, and then got out of the habit. Maybe they associate the church with a deceased loved one. We need to be very sensitive to folks who come, but are more like visitors than regulars. 
The church is more than a building, it is the community. So wherever you are, the church is there. You can be a welcoming presence. You can create a sense of possibility when you see folks that once were a part of the church. You still need to be very attentive to the issues “as they define them.” You have to initiate a conversation, and then listen as well as you are able. 
Be prepared for people to tell you that they are doing good things in the community, but not feeling the need for being in the church. If it is working for them, bless them for the good that they do. You might invite them to share in any of our projects they might like to take part in. Sometimes the best way into the church community is by participating and showing what you are good at. 
One of the great strengths of this congregation is that you seem to treat your Moderators with respect. I know of churches that by the time a person has served as the Moderator for a couple of years, they are so fatigued by the constant complaining and bickering, they may take years and years before they would become involved in a community event again. 
The biggest culprit is a behavior pattern called triangulation. Person “A” is upset with person “C” over something that was said or done. Often the facts are cloudy, but “A” decided that “C” is responsible and imagines there was some elaborate motivation for this behavior that “A” found objectionable. 
It becomes a problem when “A” refuses to speak to “C”, and tries to manipulate the Moderator “B” to take action to address the injury “A” feels is the result of “C” having it out for them. This kind of behavior can become a regular pattern in some churches and it leads to burnout of the leadership. Many times it is the Moderator, but can just as easily be the pastor. 
We may have been in the church for years, trying to maintain what we believe are high standards of behavior. The call of this gospel message is that it is not important to impose high standards on other people. What is important is to represent forgiveness and a wide welcome. Protecting high standards, is often an excuse for doing what we can to avoid making contact with the pain of those who are suffering. 
In the letter to Timothy, the writer (posing as the apostle Paul) declares that God redeemed the life and soul of this most conspicuous  sinner, in order to give evidence that God’s love is sufficient to redeem and transform even the most belligerent sinner. We are in the life changing business. It is easy to forget that. 
We are busy with our church responsibilities, setting the altar, programming for Sunday School, singing in the choir, we might lose sight of the real goal, which is to praise God, and bring others home with us. 
It is my mission to Union Congregational UCC, to coach and advise you. Most of my work is done among those of you who are active members of the congregation. 
Your mission, is to carry the love and forgiveness of God into the various place you go. Recalling the lost sheep, finding those who may be conspicuous sinners, and offering a kind word to those who are in distress. Your mission is not impossible and you are not alone. Your entire team stands ready to support you. And all of the saints and angels of heaven, are offering you encouragement to be successful. 

As this week opens up before you, remember to praise God, and offer a word of encouragement to those you meet. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word in a cruel world, to open up the possibility of transformation. Amen. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Is the Way of the Cross the Way of Weakness?

Is the Way of the Cross the Way of Weakness?  

Old Testament: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33 

By now those of you who listen to my preaching know a lot about how I regard the scriptures. This Bible is one of the greatest treasures we have. It is the record of faithful people, living their lives, in relationship with an eternal God. It reflects the best and worst of their experiences. It spans centuries of living. 
So each person or community who contributed to the collection of literature we know as the Bible, spoke from their faith, their experience, and their understanding. All of that was limited or bounded by what they were personally capable of. 
Despite those limitations, this is a great and wonderful collection. Some of the greatest minds and giants of faith, have wrestled with these texts, and we have received both the texts, and the history of their interpretation. And we ourselves are limited by what we know, what we have experienced, and what each of our families have taught us to honor. 
I say all of this as we approach the fifteen year anniversary of 9/11/2001, when the US experienced the dramatic violence attributed to political action, that is vastly more common in other parts of the world. While the image of commercial airliners turned into weapons of destruction feels personally threatening, in fact the people of many nations have absorbed this kind of trauma from suicide bombers, and attacks on trains and train stations, and rockets from the air. 
I regret that the USA responded to these attacks with more emotion laden violence, misdirected and erratic, compounding the loss of life and encouraging disrespect for the sanctity of life of all of God’s children. Matching violence with increased violence cannot lead to peace. It is made up of all the wrong stuff. 
The classic text from Deuteronomy tells us that God has laid before us the ways of life and death, admonishing us to “Choose Life.” 
In many interpretations through the ages, this text has been used to say that we only experience violence when we are doing evil. The subtext says that bad things only happen to bad people. If we personally are not evil, then we ought to be able to search among the nation and find someone to blame, for God thinking that we are evil. 
This becomes the basis for “churches” campaigning against gays, and abortion, or anything that they can latch on to - to create an us against them, where “They” are the evil that God is punishing “us” for. 
In the years since 9/11 this has only become more pronounced. The popular tide of this reaction has been compounded many times over. Renowned Christian theologians have been forced by the rhetoric of the day, to defend the Muslim religion, from unthinking fanatics who would segregate and isolate valuable and precious citizens among us, because the public does not understand that fanaticism is not the limited property of any one kind of religion. 
Much of the revulsion to religion of the young people today comes from their rejection of misdirected scapegoating, that appears to be a natural part of “religious types.” Even good and well-meaning folks like you and me, get lumped into the pile of “religious types” that appear to feed on their own private blend of hate and revulsion. We could change our sign out front to say, “We are not like that.” But it would not be believed by the scoffers.
In a variety of ways, the last several weeks have contained the message from Luke’s gospel, that we are not the center of the universe. If we would try to let God be our center, try to approach from with the perspective of the wide love, mercy, and forgiveness, that is God, we put ourselves in position to receive and distribute many blessings from God. 
10 years ago, the mismanagement of home mortgages, precipitated a violent shakedown of our entire economy. When it was all said and done, many were hurt more than others. Those who felt the most pain, were far away from those whose greed created this artificial house of cards. The truly wicked were never indicted or prosecuted. 
Today, we continue to wage war on terrorism, in the most lawless way possible. Unmanned drones carry out death sentences against suspects and their wives and children, without indictments, capture, or the opportunity to present a defense. There have been hundreds of these attacks with thousands killed in the last five years, according to a July 1 report issued by the White House.* We have not only continued the violence, we now perpetuate violence in the same sort of radical and unchecked way that we find so hateful in the terrorists. 
The writers who recorded, edited and preserved the writing of Deuteronomy, from at least 2500 years ago, and the community of Luke, who preserved their favorite stories of Jesus for us, never imagined the elaborate ways we do violence today. 
The scriptures do not break down and detail the complexity of our systems, and where our moral responsibility matches up within these systems. Am I responsible for a drone attack in Libya? Would I be morally responsible if I packed up the explosives in a plant in Ohio for shipment overseas? What is the morality of “just following orders?” 
In my mind, the tacit permission for such attacks rests on our over-emotional reaction to 9/11. We did not then, nor have we since, understood that this attack represents us standing shoulder to shoulder with all people who experience random violence. Our vulnerability to attack marks us as human. Our human pride and elitism have prevented us from developing compassion for others. Our wounded pride has compelled us to strike out in an immature manner.  
The scriptures call us to a higher level of wisdom and understanding. Jesus did not call out dive-bombing angels to destroy the home of the high-priest. I do not believe that the destruction of the Temple and priestly class by the Romans in 70CE, forty years after the crucifixion, was an act of retribution by God, but actually was the way that occupying armies deal with people who continually make trouble. 
We are called to let God and love of neighbor become the center of our perspective. What happens then, when we begin to grow the circle of our responsibility, marked by compassion and not further violence?  
You may want to ask, “But Pastor Chuck, do you not understand that there are radical Muslims?” And I would tell you, “Yes I know there are radical Muslims. I also know that they have killed more Muslims than Westerners, Christian and non-Christian alike. Their radicalism is expressed in religious terms, but does not come from their religion.” 
How do you love a radical? First, we have to know what is at the root of their reaction against civilized society. We may find that a good part of what feeds their fire, are injustices that we have responsibility to stop. It would change the nature of the conflict, if we would return to a rule of law. Capturing, charging, and bringing to trial those who are responsible for violence. 
We would react to ourselves in horror in that light, realizing that the US continues to maintain the torture chamber and lawless prison in Guantanamo. We would have to change our mind as a people, about what it means to live in community, and begin to bring an end to our own lawless violence.   
Jesus says we must take up our cross and follow him. This is not a slogan that would play well in the Presidential Campaign. No candidate would be able to withstand the barrage of insults that would likely be portrayed as weakness. Is the way of the cross the way of weakness? 
In response to the killing of a French Catholic priest Pope Francis said*, “What makes a true witness to Christ is that their suffering imitates Christ’s passion by absorbing violence rather than exciting it or provoking more of it. Christ’s suffering and death - - - was meant rather to show the emptiness of such killing and spell the end of such sacrifices.” 
And the so the question hangs over our heads. Are we willing to learn from Jesus the Christ? Are we followers of the one who speaks for the love and forgiveness of God? Are we even able to understand that carrying our cross, will expose us to ridicule from the right and from the left? Even our Christian brothers and sisters, will regard us as “extreme” and maybe “anti-American.” 
There will be conflicts, when we finally choose to follow Jesus. "Whoever comes to me and (is not ready for conflict between) father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Listen to the admonition, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” or at least the point of view - that you are the very center of creation. Amen.  

* The White House reported US “targeted attacks” were responsible for 2,581 combatants and 161 civilian deaths. 

* Christian Century - August 31, 2016