Sunday, September 22, 2013

Yes! You Have the Power to Make a Difference

Five years ago, during my summer as a hospital chaplain intern, there was a meal the cafeteria served every other Tuesday that always turned my stomach… They called them chicken strips of fire—breaded chicken tenders caked in red hot pepper…  It’s one of those foods that tastes good in theory, but most definitely not in practice.  I can only describe them as an apocalypse for your esophagus—an all day bout with indigestion, regardless of how much ranch-flavored dipping sauce you would drown them in just to get them down…  What’s worse was that they served this meal to patients.  Could you imagine your first meal after surgery being a mouthful of greasy meat caked in red pepper?

And in these tough economic times, hearing Jesus preach on the subject of money can give us just as much heartburn…

Contrary to what the politicians say, we’re still in the worst economic crisis in nearly a century.  It feels like everyone’s taking our money, while our community keeps losing opportunities for people to earn a living wage.  This makes it hard to listen to Jesus as he challenges the ways in which we use our money, whether we have enough or too little. 

It’s especially hard to listen to Jesus speak about money in a parable that’s as confusing and unusual as the one we hear today…

A manager of a rich man’s money finds himself in hot water with the rich man himself for squandering away his property.  About to be fired for his incompetence, his negligence, his malevolence, or some combination of the three, the manager goes to his master’s debtors, and he reduces their debts. 

To our surprise, the master commends his manager for what he does.  He has made his master’s debtors into his own personal friends—who thus become indebted to him and hopefully will help him out once he’s out of a job.  He used his master’s money to procure a better future for himself.

Now why on earth would Jesus speak a parable like this?—and then commend someone for doing something that you could easily argue is dishonest and immoral?  But there’s something we can learn from this parable about money: you can use it to buy things, but you can also use it to transform bad situations.   In the parable, the exchange of money brings two persons into a relationship of mutual blessing.  That’s what the dishonest manager learns.  The exchange of money makes the debtors and the manager “rich.”

So let me ask you a question: do you consider yourself blessed? 

In many ways, we could all answer “yes” and “no” to that question—regardless of the state of our bank balances or the size of our paychecks.  For many of us, money is the single biggest stressor in life.  There’s unemployment, medical bills, student loans, dwindling retirement savings, rising prices, and an American Dream that is becoming increasingly out of reach.  So often it seems as though there’s far too little money to go around.  But we all have Godly riches—simply because we are baptized into the Body of Christ; forgiven and redeemed by his precious body and blood; sealed with the promise of God’s coming Kingdom.   And God takes care of us.  So even if you’re not rich with money, you are nonetheless rich with the gifts and talents God gave you when God made you.  Living as a disciple of Jesus Christ is simply investing whatever gifts God has given you in your neighbors out of love. 

You can always keep your riches to yourself, monetary or otherwise.  What is a consumer, but someone who devours what is of benefit to him/herself, and throws the rest away?  But what would life be like if we stopped focusing on accumulating and consuming?  What if we broadened our horizon to invest what we have in others as well as ourselves?

This isn’t anything drastic or heroic…  It’s stewardship: using whatever you have to ease your neighbor’s burdens—while perhaps even gaining the wealth of a new relationship with the neighbor you bless.  Communities of Christ are built when we take care of each other; using what we have to meet our neighbor’s needs.  God’s will is that we take care of our neighbors—and that our neighbors take care of us.

This is what our church has done over the last two weekends: we and our neighbors had an abundance of good-quality clothing.  So we brought it to the church.  We gave our time to unpack the bags and sort them out.  Then we opened our doors, and our neighbor’s needs were met.  Many of us got clothing for ourselves.  But the greatest gifts were the people who came into this church; that we served in love.  Our church can’t solve everyone’s problems.  But we can help ease each other’s burdens.

This is what happens when we put God’s gifts to work.  Burdens are eased.  Hurts are healed.  Hope is created.  Relationships bloom and blossom.  Giver and receiver are transformed.  Jesus Christ is known and praised.

So challenge yourself this week to pray for those who are poor—those financially poor or poor of health’ poor of faith, of hope; of loving relationships, or otherwise.  Then let the Spirit inspire you and then empower you to use whatever you have to make things better.  Believe you have the power to make a difference because you are created and saved by God.  In your lives as consumers, use even those transactions to bless the people whose labors produce what you need.  Be a patient customer; a generous tipper; support small businesses; buy fairly-traded merchandise.  Do it because you love Jesus.

Let’s build communities where people take care of each other instead of relying on the government or economic recovery.  Let’s show the world God’s love in the love we give to each other.  Let’s heal and be healed.  Let’s change things.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

New Necks for Stiff-Necked People ~ Exodus 32:1-14 ~ Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the most fun things I’ve ever done was visiting the observation deck at the Empire State Building for the stunning and breath-taking view of the New York City skyline from 102 stories above the ground.  While I was there, I noticed signs warning people against throwing coins or other objects off the tower.  Then I looked down upon a ledge slightly below the deck, and saw that it was littered with coins and other trash.  Common sense would tell anyone that throwing junk off an 102-story building could cause serious harm to the people below—so why on earth would someone do such a thing?

I guess they say “rules are meant to be broken” because that’s exactly what we do.  We can’t help ourselves.  We do really dumb things; we take unnecessary risks, we do onto others as we would never have done to ourselves; we put others in danger—and for what?  The thrill of getting away with it?  Because we can’t resist?  Because it “feels right?”  Because we think we have no other choice?

Why do we wrong when we know what is right? 

This is what happens in our Old Testament reading from Exodus.  God has miraculously liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, and now, they’re in the wilderness.  Moses is their divinely-appointed leader on their journey to the promised land. 

Not too long into their journey, God gives Israel the Ten Commandments through Moses—and the people happily agree to obey.  After all, the commandments weren’t burdensome.  They are a gift from God—so that God’s people may live well with each another, and in relationship to the God who delivered them from slavery.

But there’s a problem—Moses is up on the mountain for an extended period of time.  The people get scared—because their leader is gone.  How will they survive without the man with the direct line to God?  So they go to Aaron; Moses’ brother and right-hand man… They ask him to make for them a god who will lead them the rest of the way through their journey.  Aaron collects the people’s gold, fashions a golden calf, and declares it to be “the god who brought them out of Egypt.”

God sees this—and God is not pleased.  They have violated the first and second commandments: they make an idol, worship it, and call it their God.  They make God into that which God is not—and give the calf the credit for freeing them from slavery. 

In their fear; in their confusion; in their desire to be able to guarantee their own safety and successful sojourn through the wilderness, they refashion God into something they can see, touch, and control…  Why?  Because they had no use for an invisible God; no time to wait for promises to be kept…  So they make a convenient and useful god; one they could manipulate through festivals and sacrifices to act in their favor.  This is what idolatry is.  We make God into what God is not.  It is worshipping gods who exist only to do our will.

We may not worship sacred cows, but we’re all guilty of idolatry.  We act as though we have no need for a God we can’t see; who keeps us waiting; who uses difficult circumstances to discipline us; who works in ways we can’t understand.  We’ll gladly recast the God into a god who’s useful to us—and who gives us what we want because in exchange for our loyalty.  Our priorities take the place of God—and we sacrifice ourselves to them. 

Consider your life—are there idols unto which you sacrifice yourself?  Are you constantly trying to please everybody and become the perfect person?  Do you believe that you’re worth as a person is measured by how hard you work and how successful you are?   Do you run yourself ragged in an insatiable desire to have it all, know it all, and do it all; never to miss out on the best of what’s around?  Or do you seek a life with no difficulties, no challenges, or anything that will take you out of your comfort zone—for fear of failure?

We’re all stiff-necked people—even church-going people like you and me.  We do only what is right for ourselves and expect God to do the same.  And boy, do we make a mess of things  by doing what we know to be wrong.  We can understand why God would want to wipe us out of existence.  But that’s not what God does.   Instead, while we’re scrambling about, worshipping our sacred cows, and our lives crumble into the wreckage of our own making, God finds us.  We, like sheep, go astray—and God seeks us out and finds us.  God’s arms are open even to rebellious people like ourselves.  That’s grace.  For when we are found by God, we are changed.  We repent and we live differently. 

Repentance doesn’t begin with us making a decision to straighten up and fly right.  It begins with God’s arms stretched out to us in love.  When his forgiving, saving grace surrounds us, God gives us the gift of a new life—as well as the faith to believe that God’s way is the better way.  God gives us a new heart—not to mention a new neck—to look beyond the here-and-now, with all its desires and its distractions, to see the God who loves you and even treasures you.

Today, amid the stress and pressures of our busy lives, with the disappointments and heartbreaks, and our heart’s desire for something greater, we need to just stop and be in God’s embrace.  It doesn’t matter how much work you have to do or plans you must  keep; the most important thing you can do today and every day is to just stop running about so that God’s love may embrace you.  Be where you know God can be found.  God knows better than any of us what is truly best.  So trust in his love and promises.  If you sacrifice yourself for anything or anyone else, you’ll forever be broken.  Life is found in God, and a joy-filled life is found in doing God’s will. 

Stop to receive from God a new heart, a new neck—and a new life.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Leaping Into Grace ~ Philemon 1:1-21 ~ Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

On one of the many occasions I’ve been stuck in traffic at the construction zone on Route 28, I noticed a small sticker on the back of a car, in shape a paw print.  It read “who rescued whom?”

I immediately thought of all the people I’ve known who’ve rescued dogs, as well as cats, horses, and even children.  Their adoptions demand tremendous sacrifice and cost, but they never regret their decision.  Usually, they say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.  Perhaps you know one of these people.  Maybe you are one yourself.

The irony is that the adoption is not a one-way street of blessing.  The adoptee and the adopter are blessed by each other.

This is the underlying message in Paul’s letter to Philemon. This book, which happens to be one of the shortest books of the bible, could easily be dismissed as an insignificant correspondence between pastor and parishioner.  But the situation that brought about this letter is anything but insignificant.  This is a matter of life and death.

A man named Philemon and his wife Apphia are close personal friends of the Apostle Paul.  A church meets in their house—so they are probably persons of wealth and status.  But they’re not just wealthy patrons.  Paul praises them as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who do great work for his sake.

But there’s a situation: Philemon and Apphia own a slave by the name of Onesimus who has run away.  We don’t know for certain, but Paul’s words suggest that he’s on the run because he’s stolen from them.  Philemon was perfectly within his legal and socially-acceptable rights to punish him severely for his crimes, even putting him to death.

But Onesimus and Paul met up during Paul’s imprisonment.  During that time, they begin a friendship that was a tremendous blessing to Paul.  They were a gift from God to each other during their times of crisis.

So in love for his friends and the people of their church, Paul decides to share with them this gift of a man.  Lovingly and gently, Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back—and not as a slave, but as a brother; an equal to himself.  Paul is certain that if Philemon does accordingly, his life and relationship with God will be forever transformed for the better.  He’s so certain of this that he offers to do whatever it takes to restore to Philemon whatever Onesimus had taken.  This way, Paul will be blessed, Onesimus will be blessed, Philemon will be blessed, and the church will be blessed.

But Paul’s instructions are still not without tremendous social and economic cost to Philemon and Apphia.  If they forgive Onesimus and release him from slavery, they’re going to be at a tremendous economic disadvantage.  What if Paul can’t make right what Onesimus did wrong?  What is there to keep their other slaves from running away?   Furthermore, what will people say and think about them, if they were to make a slave of equal status to themselves.  They had a lot to lose by doing as Paul believed God would have them do.

We, too, wrestle with the problem of cost as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Never before have we experienced times such as these when we must be so tremendously cost-conscious about everything.  If we’re reluctant to give of anything of ourselves, it’s usually because we fear we may upset the apple cart of comfort and stability in our lives.  We want to obey God—but there’s things we can’t bear to lose and miss out on.  Never before has it been so easy to believe that NOW is not a good time to do God’s will… 

One of the most powerful words in our vocabulary against obeying is the three-letter word BUT.  “I need to pray, BUT I’m tired.”  “I want to give, BUT I’m afraid I won’t have enough left for what I need and want.”  “I need to forgive him/her, BUT I’m still hurt.”  One thing that’s certain is that no matter where we are in life, we’ll always find plenty of reasons NOT to follow Jesus.  It always takes great faith to follow Jesus, because most of the time, obedience will always demand sacrifice.  It takes great faith to believe that God will provide in place of what we surrender.

Yet God knows the strain you’re under right now.  That’s why God calls you into a life of discipleship much the same way as Paul urges Philemon—not with guilt trips and threats, but with a gentle invitation to look past the immediate costs to God keeping promises.  Sacrifice is always a bitter pill to swallow, but faith sees past the immediate cost to act in anticipation of God doing greater things.  Faith trusts God to know better than I do what is best for me and my neighbor. 

We all hunger for the transforming presence of Christ in our lives—so don’t fear what are tiny costs in comparison to greater blessings. 

Don’t be afraid to give up that possession or that job or that interest that’s literally swallowing your life whole…

Don’t put off praying and worshipping and serving and witnessing to others until a time when things aren’t so hectic.

Don’t be afraid to ask for forgiveness from the person you’ve wronged; and certainly don’t withhold your forgiveness even when you’re well within your rights to hate that person.  Love and care for your enemies.  Do good to those who cannot repay you.  Invest what is most valuable to you in Jesus Christ.  Cast aside what pulls your faith down into a rut and let God’s saving grace sweep you up into a new and powerful experience of life. 

Today, the soft and gentle voice of Jesus is calling you to come out of your comfort zone to take some leaps of faith.  That quiet nagging, that holy heartburn—Jesus has something new for you to do and something for you to receive.  Doing God’s will is never easy, but God will ALWAYS help you obey.  Don’t let your fear of tomorrow keep you from trusting God today.  Challenge yourself to do that one thing this week—and see what happens…  Amazing grace is just one leap of faith away…

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Holy Labor Day ~ Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 ~ Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A Holy Labor Day

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost



‘Twas the night before finals, and all through the seminary, all of God’s creatures were stirring and sweating, including yours truly; toiling for what was undoubtedly the hardest class I had in all four years: systematic theology.

The assignment was a fifteen-page paper.  It was 2 a.m.—and I was stuck.  Frantic, I emailed my professor for help.

Almost instantly, he replies to my email.  I’m terrified that my email set off some kind of annoying sound or alarm that tore him out of bed, and that because of me, he was going to be cranky and give me a bad grade.  So the next day, I go and apologize for the poor timing of my email—and I’m amazed by his response.  He thanked me for writing—and goes on to explain that his day begins at 2 a.m.—and ends at about midnight.  With lectures to prepare, papers to grade, and deadlines to meet for the myriad of books and articles he’d been commissioned to write, this is what it took to get his work done.  I later learned that most of my professors kept these extreme hours, functioning on very little sleep—and very many cups of coffee.  Talk about hard work.

Work is the most fundamental means by which person earns their living, as it has been since the dawn of civilization.  But for most people, our work is driven by so much more…

In these United States, there is no singular virtue we celebrate more than hard work.  The promise of our nation is that with enough perspiration and inspiration, the American dream can be yours.  If you work hard, you will succeed in life.  You will enjoy wealth and prosperity.  People will respect and admire you.  Pride and the desire for wealth and riches are powerful motivators behind our work. 

In America, your life is your work.  Like it or not, work defines who you are. 

Yet the work that defines us can also consume us…  Work will always be the biggest source of stress.  And we all know that you can work hard and do good work—but reap very few rewards.

So on this Labor Day weekend, what is the proper place of work in the Christian life?  (And do not limit your thinking about work to merely what you do to earn a paycheck.)  

Not too long ago, a story hit the news of a 21-year-old intern, working for a major national bank.  He is said to have literally worked himself to death, putting in three consecutive 22-hour days to prove himself worthy of a prestigious and lucrative position in the company following his college graduation. 

Is that a driving force behind your work—to prove yourself worthy?  We all work under standards, both real and imagined, that we strive to live up to as employees, as parents, as spouses, as children, as friends; even as people of the church.  Even when it comes to our faith, if there’s ever any doubt about where we’ll be spending eternity, it usually comes from fear that we’ve fallen short of God’s standards due to insufficient good works (as if to forget that we’re saved ONLY by the work of Jesus Christ). 

Dear friends in Christ, it is entirely possible to work ourselves to death, when it comes to our life in Christ.  Your god will be whatever or whoever drives you to work hard, at the expense of your health, your sanity, and your relationship with the God.

What’s God’s Word to us who are weary and bone-tired from so much work and responsibility?  “The LORD is your helper.  Stop being afraid!  What can anyone do to you?”

The most important work, from an eternal perspective, is already done for you.  Christ died so that you will live.  There’s nothing we must prove to God, so why should we kill ourselves trying to prove our worth before others, and especially ourselves?

Yes, there is work to be done—and God designed the world to work that way.  We all have our vocations, and it is through these vocations that we live out our faith in daily life.  But the most important work we do as Christians isn’t really to work at all, but instead to allow the Holy Spirit to do God’s work to you.  Let the Spirit build you up in faith in word and sacrament.  Let the Spirit speak your prayers to God.  Let the Spirit comfort and encourage you through your sisters and brothers in Christ.  STOP and let God do his work—before you begin yours.

God will be your helper as you work.  You’ll have strength, courage, and peace for your labors, especially when they are hard, and you make mistakes, and fail to meet people’s expectations…  You’ll have God right there with you, to guide you when tough decisions have to be made and followed through.  You’ll have the peace of knowing that no matter what happens, God will be there to take care of you.  And that’s not all.

God will transform your work into a sanctuary to be with God.  Imagine that—work as worship to God; and entertaining angels just by doing what you do…  And with God present in your life, the love of money and privilege, and the approval of others won’t mean as much as it might have before.

Every day, we have to make choices in regards to what’s most important to us—because whatever or whoever that is will be the driving force behind our work, and everything we do.  Wouldn’t you want God to be in that position?  You have nothing to prove before God—because the work of eternal importance is done for you.  So live and do your work for the glory of God.  God will be your helper.  Live, breathe, and work upon the labor God has done for you in Jesus Christ.