Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Can Good Works Count Against Us? 

Epistle: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18   
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14 

When I looked up reassessment on the internet, I was quickly drawn to the process of determining property values for the purpose of calculating the real estate tax. If you want to protest your property tax, it needs to be based on a reevaluation, or reassessment, of the value of the property. You believe that the new assessment will show the current value of the real estate to be lower than the value used in computing your taxes. What is it worth today? 

So I went to a new doctor this week. I find it interesting that there are some medical specialties that are only served by one practice in the entire area around Ottawa. If you are uncomfortable with that office, it is necessary to go out of town. 

One of the things that happens when you start with a doctor who has never seen you - and does not know your story and history, they look at you with fresh eyes. They ask questions you have not been asked before. They make a fresh evaluation based on how you are now, not simply, what has changed recently. 

The sense of being known in some detail by a stranger can be both a little intimidating, and comforting at the same time. If there was any perception that your previous doctor was not being attentive to your questions and complaints, you know that at least initially, a full reassessment is taking place. 

The less comfortable side is that you are what you are, and it is hard to pretend otherwise. I might like to think, “My weight is a little higher than normal.” In truth, my “new normal” weight is higher than what I consider healthy, and it has been that way for several years now. 

The scriptures this morning are familiar. We have heard both of these readings many times. The passage from Timothy often shows up in funerals, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” It seems a word of consolation for those who have demonstrated their faithfulness. 

Good church people like us, often measure faithfulness by the reliability of our partners in the ministry of the church. Can we count on them: on their presence in worship, on their pitching in when we hit the Ham Dinner, can we count on their contribution so we can pay the pastor and negotiate a salary with the new pastor? Are they faithful to the church?  

Now, we realize that faithfulness includes a lot of other stuff, but in the real practical life of the church, we know the marks of faithfulness. In those simple practical ways, we all carry the marks of a good Pharisee. 

When I served on the Prairie Association committee for Authorized Ministers, one of the other members of the committee was a young, newly ordained pastor, who had been raised in the  Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterians are very careful in saying what they mean, and meaning what they say. 

As Presbyterians consider making changes to their rules, they take a good deal of time, often years of study and debate, to consider all of the possible implications. In doing so they create a good written record of the ideas that are being evaluated, and those ideas that are maintained, and those ideas that are discarded. 
When my friend transferred from the Presbyterians to the United Church of Christ, he brought with him - a sensitivity to the written word and the written rules. When he came to the meetings of the committee on ministry - he was very careful to read the text of the Manual on Ministry for the United Church of Christ. He came to call himself our "resident Pharisee". 

He was not making fun of the Pharisees. He was claiming for himself the careful attention to detail, and careful attention to the rules that enable us to be faithful and consistent. While in today's Scripture Jesus finds fault with the Pharisee, he does not find fault with all Pharisees, or find fault with all of us who want to play by the rules. 

The tax collector in the story is an obvious sinner. He makes his living by taking money from the local people handing it over to the occupying army of the Roman empire. We have the opportunity to hear his prayer. His prayer is very simple, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner."

It is very easy for us to settle for the definition of faithfulness that looks like all of the good things the Pharisee pats himself on the back for. It's very easy to see ourselves in that light. This scripture acts as our new doctor, making a fresh assessment of our actual condition at the moment. We are what we are.

When Jesus says that the tax collector goes home justified before the Lord rather than the Pharisee he - is calling all of us Pharisees - to have a change of heart. Our behavior may not be so bad at all. But we need to be aware of our sins, and our need for God's forgiveness. We need to replace our pride in following the rules, with a humble acceptance of the grace God gives. 

If we look back at the words of Paul to Timothy, one of the young men he mentored into being a pastor, he is very clear where are his power comes from. He says, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, the Lord will rescue me from every evil attack.” The humility to recognize the hand of the Lord - even in the good things that we do - maybe especially in the good things that we do, is the key to being righteous in our prayer. 

Jesus has been showing the disciples the signs of faithfulness throughout this whole stretch of the gospel. He has found faithfulness in places that the disciples would never consider looking. He is calling them to change their hearts, approach the Lord God in prayer with honest humility. Not demeaning the good that we do, but crediting to God, the power to do good. Giving glory to God, for the way God’s love fills the world. 

So you are not off the hook. When God gives you disposable income, we should be moving towards that biblical tithe - not for the sake of patting ourselves on the back, but giving thanks to God. We should use spiritual practices - perhaps including fasting - not just to cut a dashing figure, but to help us keep God in the very center of our awareness. 

Most of all, we have to learn from the failures of the duh-ciples, that the marks of faithfulness might well exist in those we believe are sinners, and misinformed. God knows what is in the heart of every creature. We did not receive a commandment to judge those around us. We were commanded to love our neighbors. 

There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that we are loved and made welcome by our generous and loving God for who we are. The bad news is that a poor attitude, an inappropriate amount of self-pride, gets between us and God. The letter to Timothy demonstrates that we are called to run the good race, but to keep it clear - that the glory belongs to God alone. Amen. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Jesus Said "Follow Me!"

Jesus Said "Follow Me!" 

This past Sunday, 10/16/23, was Laity Sunday. My only contribution to worship was to sing in the choir and play my guitar for a couple of hymns. It is a very visual way to reenforce the truth, we are all ministers and are all engaged in leading and supporting each other. 

As a result, I do not have a sermon this week. Instead, I offer this excerpt from the Daily Meditations from Father Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Communication. This message rings true in my heart. I will likely return to this quote in the future. 

"Jesus clearly taught the twelve disciples about surrender, the necessity of suffering, humility, servant leadership, and nonviolence. They resisted him every time, and so he finally had to make the journey himself and tell them, “Follow me!” But Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: “Worship me.” Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything." - Fr. Richard Rohr 10/18/16 

It is not so much about believing the exact right thing. It is not so much about convincing others to believe the right thing. It is about how we treat others. It is about being generous and compassionate. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Marks of Faithfulness

The Marks of Faithfulness  

Old Testament: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7    
Gospel: Luke 17:11-19  

In Luke’s gospel, 10 men, at least we presume they are men, come upon Jesus of Nazareth and his band of disciples as they walked from Galilee towards Samaria on their way to Jerusalem. No doubt the disciples thought Jesus was being reckless, because good Jews avoided Samaria, detouring through the Jordan River Valley. 

But Jesus and friends encounter 10 lepers, sadly keeping their distance, because there was no cure for this disease that marked their skin, so they were required to live away from others, away from their families, and away from their communities. They called out to Jesus, asking for mercy. What did they expect, maybe a handout? A loaf of bread and a jug of wine?  

Jesus showed them mercy. He told them to go to the priest and show themselves to be clean. Once a person was ostracized from the community for a communicable disease, only the priest could restore them to their families and civilization. 9 of the 10, discovering they had been cleansed of the marks on their skin, raced off to the priest. Only one returned to give thanks and praise to God. 

In this portion of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is pressing hard on his followers to demonstrate their faithfulness. Jesus finds a variety of images of faithfulness to be lifted up, but none of those identified as faithful - are “good Jews” or disciples of Christ. In this case, the one who was faithful is both a leper, and a hated Samaritan. And those Samaritans are known to have a wrong understanding of God. 

Here Jesus explains that the faithful, when faced with a radical change in their circumstances, first thank and praise God. At the core of the life of a faithful person is the basic understanding that God is present in good times and bad, and God is always to be praised. Times of change should make us more prayerful, and more aware of God and God’s love. 

Before I went back to school at night to earn a Bachelor’s degree that permitted me to go to seminary, I was a Senior Reactor Operator at the LaSalle County Nuclear Power Station. I worked a rotating shift schedule as an operator, and also had assignments in the Training Department, Scheduling and Planning, and Administration. While some folks felt like it was important to hold on to their place in the organization, I willing accepted a variety of assignments. 

I was one of the initial 60 individuals licensed to operate the new nuclear plant on the Illinois River, south of Marseilles. It took a long time to get to the point of operating the plant. We were the first plant to go on line after the event at Three Mile Island, and TMI followed the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Russia. 

After these celebrated and well known incidents, the kind of training that nuclear plant operators were exposed to - changed dramatically. Originally there were seventeen General Procedures, all of which we were expected to memorize, and we were expected to demonstrate most of those procedures single-handed on a life size simulator, even though we would never be allowed to operate in that manner. 

After these events, our procedures were split between the General Plant Procedures, for normal unit startup and shutdown and other integrated plant events, and the Emergency Procedures. The Emergency Procedures were detailed, multi-page logic charts, where movement between the steps of the chart were driven by plant conditions, IF you have this condition THEN take this action. 

The training and testing of operators on the simulator demanded powerful new computers be brought in, so that complex and multiple failures could be programmed. Some of the problems, if they were diagnosed correctly and quickly, could be resolved without incident. Some problems, escalated despite the best efforts of the Control Room Staff, simulating real life scenarios, or progressive scenarios - designed to require use of the most dramatic and challenging steps included in the Emergency Procedures. 

In doing this training, we saw a lot of commercial airline pilot safety videos. While our equipment problems are totally different than what a pilot would encounter, the human performance issues that resulted in aircraft disasters could easily be replicated by real people in the power plant. The airlines had such detailed documentation from the flight recorders and cockpit recordings, that their successes and failures were available to scrutiny and assessment. 

All of this came to me in a rush, as Martha and I watched the movie “Sully” last week. Sully is the movie about the pilot who landed the commercial airliner on the Hudson River after both of the jet engines completely failed during takeoff, without loss of a single life. 

During the event, and then replayed in both simulator trials, and in the replaying of the cockpit recording, the routine of assessing and reassessing was in evidence. Where are we, what do we have control over, is there any way to get more resources, review our procedure, did we miss anything, and finally the pilot says to the co-pilot before they commit to landing in the water, “Do you have any other ideas?” 

Recently we have bumped into some of the many scriptural references to the time of the Babylonian Exile. The prophet Jeremiah brings up the situation again today. He writes to the senior leaders in Babylon with a word from the Lord God delivered through God’s prophet. “Unpack you bags and plan to stay a while. Get married and have children. Have your children marry. Do not decrease in population.” 

This is not life as usual. The priests are not in the Temple, praying over the sacrifices the people have delivered asking for forgiveness. This is a severely off-normal situation. The Temple is destroyed and the Chosen People are held as slaves far away from home. And the prophet says, be strong, be faithful, God is coming for you, but it will not be soon. In fact, it will take several generations. 

My faith has good days and bad days. At times it feels like a struggle to be faithful more than an hour of so at a time. I raised my kids in the church. They are good people, and great neighbors. Will my faith survive through them and through the lifetime of my grandchildren? I don’t know. I don’t have any control over all of that. 

Where am I? Where am I headed? What do I have control over? Can I get any more resources? 

This is a different time in the life of the faithful. The number of people in any church on any Sunday is a fraction of what it used to be. Churches are closing regularly in the United States, and it is far worse in the greater part of Europe. Will God be faithful to the people of God, when even more people have lost their awareness of the presence of God in their lives? Is the fall off of people participating in the wider church a judgment against our lack of faithfulness? 

Clearly, God can be trusted to be faithful. We can trust God, better than we can trust ourselves. Better than we can trust our local congregation. Better than we can trust our ability to guide our children to be faithful and share that faith with our grandchildren. 

God is faithful through the generations. That message was first evidenced in the story of Moses, called by God to deliver the Chosen People out of Egypt. That Moses story is from the time before written language. It is essentially pre-historic, that is, before things were written down. 

In the circumstances of the Exile, the Jews are confronted with a real life challenge to both their culture and their faith. The prophet gets a message from God, and transmits by way of letter to the leaders of the people now slaves in Babylon. 

In Babylon, the slaves were not treated especially badly. They were not assigned mindless, back-breaking labor. Instead, they were treasured for the gifts of their skill, knowledge and advanced culture. They were employed as skilled workers, and apparently had some ability to move about, congregate, and talk with each other. In fact, when the day comes when they are given permission to return, many will choose to stay in their comfortable life among the Babylonians, rather than take the arduous journey - only to face the task of rebuilding their homes and nation from desolation. 

This morning, we are highlighting God’s faithfulness. God does not lose concentration walking from room to room. God does not forget the faithful, even when they are far away: away from home, away from the faithful community, away from prayer and liturgical participation. God is good all the time, all the time God is good. 

We are tempted to evaluate God’s performance against how we feel and what is important to us. Stockbrokers watch the daily and quarterly performance of individual stocks and market sectors, and make their evaluations. 

Political candidates, agonize over the tiny bits of change that are evidenced in the ever swirling political polls. Day by day and week by week, political campaigns refocus and restructure their use of - time and money and message - in response to the measured perceptions. 

God is faithful through the generations. Our Jewish ancestors in the faith gave power and expression to the timelessness of God, rooted in their very experience.

Jeremiah’s story represents the experience of the faithful community, through the course of generations, in an encounter with the divine. In our generation we are charged to continue to protect the collection of scriptures and continue the tradition of teaching our children: both our faith in God, and the values that God inspires in our living. 

Today we are reminded - that the marks of being faithful - are having God in the center of our lives, and responding to the challenges in life - by thanking God and praising God. We look about at each other, to see if we bear the marks of faithfulness. Could Jesus single us out as a useful example of keeping the love of God in the center of our lives? Might the culture want to push us away, because we are carrying the marks of faithfulness in our lives? We are reminded in times of change - that God is near us and with us. 

So my friends, it is true. A Christian is no longer the epitome of the ideal American. We are in fact counter-cultural. We believe in God and God’s love for all of creation. We are against pollution and for the earth. We care about the poor and the hungry. We want what is best for all people. We honor everyone who loves God, no matter what language they speak, or what tradition feeds their faith. We are marked on our hearts and spirits with mercy and compassion. It is not the way of the world, but it is the way of the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Life Force That Resists Oppression

The Life Force that Resists Oppression 

Psalm 137 
Luke 17:5-10  

This week we have two unpleasant scriptures; one from the Psalms and one from the gospels. We do not often take on unpleasant scriptures on a Sunday morning, but these are a real part of our heritage and part of the treasure that we own. 

There are 150 psalms. They are poems and songs, collected for use in public worship. Tradition credits King David as the author of the Psalms, but this one clearly dates from the time of the Exile in Babylonia, some 400 years after David. 

The Babylonians defeated the Hebrew people in 598, and then again in 587 BCE, the second time destroying the city of Jerusalem and its famous temple of King Solomon. All of those who were educated or skilled as craftsmen were taken to Babylon as slaves. While the flying distance is only 500 miles, walking it would require detouring to avoid mountain passes, and result in a distance of 900 miles. They were a long way from home. 

The Hebrews were held, against their will, in a land far away. When their captors tormented them to “Sing those happy Jewish songs for us,” it rubbed salt into the wounds of the slaves. Verses 1 through 3, comment on life in Babylon. Verses 4 through 6, pledge to never forget their ancient home in Zion. (Zion is the idealized name associated with Jerusalem at its height of power, independence and splendor). The final three verses express real, and genuine, and passionate, anger at their circumstances. 

In the psalm, they direct their anger at their neighbors, the Edomites, who gleefully watched the destruction of Jerusalem. What could be more awful than wishing to get back at the villains by smashing the heads of their infant children? This is genuine passion, railing against injustice and indignity. 

This is not the talk of bullies. This is the passion of victims of great injustice. This is where personal pain clearly identifies its source in social injustice. 

This psalm reminds us that our God can accept true passion. We do not need to sugar-coat our experience for God’s benefit. God can and will be with us, will not abandon us, even in our most angry and passionate moments. God will not turn God’s eyes away from us in our time of need. 

What a contrast we have between this psalm and last week’s Psalm 91, that Gail Thompson sang for us, On Eagle’s Wings. That was literally so uplifting, and a week later we are expressing passion and anger. 

The psalms, taken in their entirety, express the gamut of the human situation. We prefer to have lofty thoughts and aspirations. We prefer to see the glass half full, and look for God’s blessings. However  sometimes, the reality of this world shakes the very core of our being. This is a psalm for that. 

This gospel lesson may not seem any more uplifting or satisfying than the psalm. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus virtually says, “You do not begin to understand what faith is. If your faith was no bigger than a mustard seed, you could change the world.” 

Jesus follows that admonition with nobody’s favorite parable, The Worthless Servant. It is so much nicer to envision ourselves as the apple of God’s eye, pursued by a loving God, hungry to be in relationship with the blessed Creation’s highest life form, us. How much more pleasant is that? And clearly, many Sundays we preach just that message. 

But in this portion of Jesus’ ministry he is getting tough with his disciples. He is expecting more of them as they walk towards Jerusalem and his final days of ministry among them. He paints the picture of the slave working the day in the fields, and the expectation that the servant will go in and fix dinner. 

In the Sunday School class we batted this idea around for a few minutes until finally the women told me, “Hey, this is a lot like real life. You go out and work all afternoon in the yard with your spouse and then you hear, “Well, what’s for dinner?” And then instead of thanks you are more likely to hear, “What is wrong with this? This is not as good as usual.” 

Today’s scriptures are getting real with us. It is normal and real to feel genuine passion and rail against perceived injustice. In fact, a holy anger often gives us the incentive to begin or at least demand, change. And change is hard. And change rarely happens without a true driving force that cannot be resisted. 

The Worthless Servant, does not negate the notion that we are loved by God - so much as remind us that true love is not defined by the honeymoon after the storybook wedding. True love is measured and expressed in the day to day; in the ordinary, in the ongoing commitment. 

Our hope is that faith does not need to overcome reality with power and majesty. Faith, even faith as tiny as a mustard seed, contains the all the elements of real life: that blooms in the cracks of the paved sidewalks, that causes blossoms to appear where there seems no life can possibly exist, the life force that resists oppression. 

Faith survives multiple generations of Exile. In fact, the Babylonian Exile is likely a critical event to the faith of the Jews, the Christians, and even the Muslims.  In recovering from the Exile, the Jews found or replaced the scriptures and stories of the faithful from previous generations. 

The original core of the written scriptures, the Old Testament; which provided both the model and the foundation for our New Testament and even the Qur’an of Mohammed; came to be honored, preserved and collected during the rebuilding after the Exile. 

We wish that life were easier, even though we know blessings are often discovered in times of trial. “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― is how the poet Rumi said it. “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in,” are the words of Leonard Cohen

The scriptures today offer reassurance that we often receive the best blessings when we are most at need. It confirms that wisdom may come when we were wishing for something else; riches, respect, power or influence. And that wisdom, being able to discern the presence and the value of relationships, is a real step toward being close to God. 

Brothers and sisters, we live in anxious times. All around us there are voices filled with doom and tension. We are reminded that the power of God’s love is true love. It is a love that endures - an endurance that survives generations of Exile if need be. 

Today we are strengthened by the sacrament. The presence of God within us is celebrated in the form of bread and wine, the ordinary stuff of our daily meals. It is a meal to strengthen our bodies, and a meal to strengthen our spirits, and a call to be together as a community.  In fact, this is World Communion Sunday, when around the world Christians break the bread and share a prayer for a community. We are a part of that great cloud of witnesses, part of those who have a little faith, and a little faith is all it takes to change the world. Amen. 

Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273), was a 13th-century Persian[1][7] poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic.