12 October, 2017

Magic Pennies

The gifts of God are greatest when they are shared.  

That's what I was taught as a teen.  I'm a logical person, so the idea of sharing something in order to increase it is nonsensical.  And yet, experience has taught me that logic is not applicable to the working of God.  

Early in our marriage, Dan and I were were confident that we could not afford to give anything but our time and talent to the church or to any other charity.  So we volunteered often and wrote checks to pay off our education debts and quarterly taxes. It seemed we always teetered on the edge of bouncing checks. We ate a lot of 10 cent ramen noodles from Aldi's.  And we were dependent upon food stamps and WIC supplements while our children were young.  

I'm not sure what it was that led us to budget differently.  Once we did, we did not look back.  We made two decisions that changed how we dealt with money. First, we changed the order of priorities in finances: rather than starting by paying the bills, we paid ourselves first by putting a set percentage of each paycheck into an "emergency fund";  and we made our offering to the church the second priority as a tithe that increased over time.  Once these were out of the bank, we paid bills and lived on whatever was left over.  Second, we learned to be choosy in what we purchased; we asked if we really needed something -- and if we would still need it in 2 months -- and then waited the 60 days before we purchased it -- and always paid for it with cash.

The habits we formed made a world of difference for how we live, for our health, and for our marriage.  Money (or rather the lack of money) stopped controlling us.  We learned to appreciate and prefer the things that don't require a purchase.  And, we became addicted to generosity.  There is no logic to this, but the more we give away, the richer our lives have become.  When we practice generosity, we depend more upon God and less upon ourselves; generosity builds and strengthens our faith.

Just as prayer, worship, daily devotional practices, and studying the Bible can enhance our spiritual lives, giving is one of the most significant spiritual exercises Jesus taught.  Well over half of the parables of Jesus deal with possessions and money.  Over 10% of the verses in the gospels are related to money and possissions.  In the New Testament, there are 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith, but over 2000 verses on money an dpossessions.  In other words, Jesus taught that our relationship to money and material wealth determined whether we were at a roadblock or on the path toward faith.  

Jesus teaches that giving is first and foremost a spiritual act and only secondarily a financial act.  In the spiritual practice of giving, our faith informs our giving.  Giving is something we do because of God's goodness to us.  The more we know and trust God, the more freely and graciously we give in every area of our lives.  
The topics of money and giving are often shunned in churches.  I believe, however, that if we are following the lead of Jesus, giving is our most important spiritual exercise.  What we give, why we give, and to whom we give speak volumes about our relationship with God.  

In this stewardship season, I encourage you to look at what your budget says about your relationship with God.  Then make a decision about what you want your relationship with God to look like in your budget.  

May God's peace and joy fill your heart.  


09 October, 2017

An Offensive Gospel.

The script that follows is from the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 8 -- a week after the massacre in Las Vegas.  It is based largely upon the conversation between two colleagues in the PRCL-L listserve, an international group of clergy who preach from the Revised Common Lectionary.  

This particular sermon upset a number of people.  Others found it an "interesting challenge to how [they] think about forgiveness."  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive because it is so inclusive, so extravagant in love, and so broad in its grace.  

Matthew 21:33-46 ..... The Parable of the Absentee Landlord

I’m struggling with what God will do, will say to the man who fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd at a concert in Las Vegas, killing some 60? people and wounding nearly 600 more.

Just before he killed himself, did he regret what he had just done? If so, perhaps, just barely, we might be able to accept that God forgave him.
But what if he didn’t? And, of course, we will never know.

So what if he didn’t? Did God … could God … would God, looking down on the devastation, on the bloodied bodies scattered on the crowd, the terrified survivors huddling behind whatever protection they could find, what would God feel? 
Certainly, the pain of the people below. Certainly, a great sorrow at such loss of life and ability and future. Certainly, the tragedy of the moment must overwhelm even God. Certainly, God’s tears mingled with those below.

According to the news, he was not a religious man. No ties to any particular religion. In our scenario, we’ve already determined that he is not repentant. Standing before God, he shows no remorse, even though showing some such feeling might make his sentence lighter. He simply stands there, no pleading for mercy, no phony tears of regret. He just stands there, waiting for the verdict. Does God extract revenge?

In the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, the landowner exacts revenge for the mistreatment of his servants and the death of his son. Such a response would be appropriate here.

But what if, instead of comparing the landowner to God, the intent of the parable was to contrast the two?* This is what the landowner would do, the human landowner, the landowner who lives by the ways of the world. Landowners in Jesus day were often, as in this parable, absentee landlords, people who might plant a vineyard, prepare it carefully, and then leave it in charge of someone else. The only contact he would have with the farm after that would be to send his servants to collect the rent.

People in Jesus’ day had plenty of experience with absentee landlords. Many of them farmed for them, not managing, but doing the actual farm labor, perhaps even working what had been their own land before they couldn’t pay back the mortgage. And the mortgage interest was always high, deliberately so, intended to make it impossible to repay the loan, allowing the wealthy to expand their land holdings.

Jesus was not telling a parable about God. He was telling a parable about the way the world works, about the way humans treat each other. “This is what you folks do,” he was saying. “This is NOT the way God works.” The tenants who beat the servants and killed the son deserved justice. Any court in the land would consider that to be a capital crime, deserving of equal retribution, with the death penalty the appropriate response.

But John 3:16 tells us something different for God’s response. God loved the world so much … the only begotten Son …

God’s response to the crucifixion? Not the death of the religious leaders who pushed him to Pilate. Not the destruction of Pilate’s palace. Not raining hellfire on Jerusalem.

God’s response was two-fold: the tearing of the curtain in the Temple, the curtain that separated the public part of the Temple from the Holy of Holies, entered only once a year by the very high priest, the dwelling place of God. The curtain torn in two. Torn in grief, as they might have torn their own clothing upon learning of the death of a love one? Torn to let the people in, to remove the veil of separation from the people? Whichever, the tearing of the curtain was not a violent act, not a punishment, not retribution. No violence. No one was harmed.We Christians don’t focus on the tearing of the curtain, because what was more important to us is what happened three days later, the opening of the tomb, the resurrection. Where humans would respond with death, God responded with life. Life everlasting.

For the disciples huddled behind locked doors, no condemnation for abandoning their teacher. Instead, “Peace be with you.” For Peter, who had denied even knowing Jesus, no condemnation. Instead, an assignment, “Feed my sheep.” For Saul, who persecuted the early Followers of the Way, no condemnation. Instead, a name change to Paul and a new vision of the world, a world in which both Jews and Gentiles would work together to bring about the Kingdom.

The human response to the death of the landlord’s son in the vineyard? Death to the tenants. God’s response to the death of the Son? Resurrection and life.So where does this leave the shooter standing in the judgment hall? Certainly he deserves justice. From God, what might he receive?

The man will receive from God what all of us have always received: mercy, forgiveness, and love.

This is the gospel: all have sinned. Christ died for all. All are loved.  ALL.

The question is not so much what God will do, but what I will do. Because the love of God shown in Jesus' death tells me that I am that man.  Yes, quantitatively, his sin is much more obvious. But qualitatively, he and I are the same, cut from the same cloth, stained with the same self-serving rivalry, envy, violence, and fear.

He is no worse than me. He is me— sad, lost, filled with anger and hatred.The cross says that he and I are no different. God loves us equally.

And that's the scandal of the cross. It's why we don't listen to Jesus. Because we want, we need, for that man to be so much worse than us. Because then… we can live with ourselves… because at least we are not that bad.

So how will I respond?

If I— even a little… even if I would just accept in principle, and with reservations… that I am equally loved and equally fall short, like that man… then I am free. I can get over myself. I can just be me …   instead of having to try to be good…     instead of having always to categorize other people as worse than me…   instead of having to worry because I am not as good as other people…   instead of having to fear being rejected…I am just me. God loves me. God gives me life. God will not let me go. God never lets go of anyone.

Or,I can double down on the hate I have for myself.He deserves to die.He must be punished.No one can be forgiven that…

Whenever we say those things, what we are really saying is that, deep in ourselves, buried under the blinders, that this is what we fear—  what we know— to be true about us. And we will never be free. Because we are no different. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If God cannot forgive him, God cannot forgive us…

But what's the point of it all if God lets him off scot-free?

First, God doesn't. There is a great cost. Jesus died, and countless other thousands have died, for and from our sin.

But here's the point:You see, that initial scenario I described might not be quite true. In the presence of God, I think no one will just "stand there waiting" for their verdict. We will meet God and know either great joy— know that we are home at last in the presence of utter goodness, or we will know utter fear. The great danger for us is that we may— still!— even in the presence of God— know only fear and condemnation. 

The longer and harder we fence God out the longer and harder we double down on our self-hatred the longer and harder we make it for us to simply accept the gift of love which has been given to us.

Love God.

Pray for the people killed in Las Vegas, and the many times more killed elsewhere last Sunday.

Pray for that sad, lost man.

And pray that you may know in every fiber of your being that God loves even that man…   so of course God loves you!