SERMON Proper 27 Pentecost 22C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

GOTCHAJob 19:23-27a; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

The “Gotcha Game”

Back in the 1990’s, I was an Associate Buyer at Sears Corporate outside Chicago, and I worked later a Buyer with a major regional retailer.  I was responsible for the assortment planning of multiple product lines for over 800 retail stores.  I negotiated with vendors to create assortments, set pricing, and determine delivery and terms.  It was all a negotiation game of give and take and economic power wielding.  The best buyers were the ones who listened to their vendors’ advice, partnered with them to achieve common goals, and admitted when they were wrong or when they had made mistakes.

The worst buyers were the ones who tried to trip up their vendors, reduce orders when something did not go their way, demand unexpected concessions in order to secure market position, or wield their economic buying power in ways that put their partnerships at risk.  These retail executives failed because their core values were based in the “Gotcha game.” The Gotcha Game is one where one player trips up another through inappropriate power wielding, and that game is similar to the one we hear about in today’s gospel reading.

There was an encounter between a group of Sadducees and Jesus in which the Sadducees asked Jesus a well-crafted and disarming question, about the post resurrection marital status of a woman.  She wound up married to seven brothers, after each one of them had died.  According to Jewish tradition, “if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”

The question was a part of the Sadducees “Gotcha Game” against Jesus.  Like a parking lot conversation after a controversial church meeting or good Sunday sermon, these religious leaders have huddled together for days, cooking up a little scheme to try trip Jesus up and undermine not only Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, but they really wanted to embarrass and defame Jesus, in order to lift themselves up to a level of power and influence in the community.

The Sadducees were blatantly going for a power grab, by thwarting the authority of the young rabbi Jesus.  The heart of today’s gospel is not a theological discourse on marriage in the afterlife but rather, the whole encounter is an example of the potential evil of inappropriate power wielding in community.  The gospel through this encounter, teaches us about out the evils of engaging in the “Gotcha Game.”

Power Grabs

“Why did they want to undermine Jesus,” you may ask.  Because Jesus threatened the perceived importance of that little power-wielding group in the community, those learned and experienced folk who felt threatened by this young upstart teacher.  Rather than engage in relationship building, the Sadducees went after a “power grab” to sustain their long-standing or yet, to better their ongoing influence in the community.

Now some of us may look at this event and say, “Well that just does not happen in churches or in the world today Fr. Eric. We all are beyond that kind of pettiness.”  Really?  Do you watch political news stories these days?  The “Gotcha Game” is happening on both sides of the partisan aisle, and within the aisles themselves.  It also happens every day in our professional lives and yes, it does happen in the church.  Trust me, I have stories about this topic from my days working on diocesan staff, and I can tell you about some incredible “Gotcha Game” situations in churches that ended up in unhealthy conflict.

Now, conflict does happen, and healthy conflict is necessary for us to move forward. Conflict in church is a natural part of growing, changing, and transitioning, but unhealthy conflict is destructive.  When we have differing viewpoints, we often fail to engage in the ancient spiritual practice of discernment with patience, so that reconciliation and peace might abound. There is a communal destructive power in the “Gotcha Game”.  The manipulating, maneuvering, and undermining of the others through the “Gotcha Game” destroys trust, diminishes integrity, and damages Christian relationships.   The “gotcha game” has no place in politics, business, and it definitely has no place in church.

Often, the most intriguing challenge to Christian community today is not buildings and committees.  Our greatest threat is how we deal with the reality of power issues. Most communities of people, who gather in common life together have some formal and informal organizational structures that clearly define responsibilities, outline accountabilities, and sets healthy boundaries around authority and power.  Employing and sharing power in a Christian community is something that has the potential for unimaginable good, but at the same time, if unhealthy “Gotcha Game” power wielding emerges, then there can be cruel destruction to the community.

The problem with the “gotcha game” in the church is that it violates Our Lord’s sacred command to “love your neighbor.”  The unhealthy wielding of power in the Christian community that undermines one’s sister or brother, is what Martin Luther called “a demonic spell cast upon the soul.”(2) Luther described this power wielding as Anfechtung, a German word that as nearly as possible, means doubt, inner turmoil, and pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and many more evil things.  Anfechtung is like blitzkrieg, a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body. (2)  Unhealthy conflict in church, the wielding of power to destroy the other always has devastating results.  The aftermath of such godless power, to accuse, manipulate, and destroy another person for whom Christ died, is quite honestly, the work of Satan and it is evil.  Anytime we choose to engage in the “gotcha game,” Christ is crucified anew and his body, the church, is wounded.”(1)  Thanks be to God, we are not left to our own demise.  Jesus commands us that by loving our neighbor, we discover the remedy for the “Gotcha Game.”

Loving Neighbor

The best way to love our neighbor is to listen to each other, be vulnerable to one another, and learn from one another.  I imagine in the temple that day, had the “religious group” listened with patience, rather than engage in the well planned “gotcha game” strategy, the story we heard would have been much different.  Maybe the religious leaders would have approached Jesus with love and respect. Maybe they would have acknowledged his wisdom and respect the burden he was carrying.  Maybe together they would have dialogued, listened, and supported one another, and taken a chance to be vulnerable speaking truth to one another.

Maybe it would have gone something like this, “Teacher, we just don’t believe in resurrection and your teaching is challenging to us.” Maybe Jesus would have said, “Well, let’s just talk about that for awhile.” Maybe if the story followed this alternative path, the ensuing well-lain trap to undermine Jesus’ authority, thwart his approach, and circumvent his mission would never have happened, especially if the dialogue had begun with mutual respect, integrity, and love.

You see, when we experience conflict, differing ideas, and divergent approaches, it is through healthy vulnerable dialogue that we find the alternative to the “gotcha game.”  Self-examination and a release of our innate desire to destructively wield power and influence, can become the process towards peace, and the end to the power grab. Releasing our own desire for power diffuses and moves us from “Gotcha Game” to a holy practice of reconciliation.

Reconciliation

When disagreements arise among us, we need to abandon power grabs and do some holy listening, asking questions, especially when we experience conflict with a sister or brother.  We need to sit down and talk and ask questions of ourselves like:  (1) “Can I learn something new, (2) “How is this situation calling me to be transformed, (3) “Can I adapt to these changes.”  Here is the best one yet, “Could I be wrong.”  In order for Christian community to shine its light in the world, we must really follow Jesus and learn to be vulnerable to one another.

Jesus faced the “gotcha game” once again in his ministry.  While his body hung near lifeless on that hard cross, bleeding, and broken, the religious ones once again stood pointing fingers, taunting, and possibly thinking, “we gotcha now.”  But Jesus did not succumb to the game.   Like he always does, he turned death in to life, despair into hope, brokenness into restoration.  In beautiful words that still cut to our core today, Jesus fully revealed the depth of God’s love.  We see the vulnerability of God’s love, which is the kind of love God demands we have for one another.  Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  With these brief words from the lips of our dying Lord, Jesus overturned the power game.   Through the cross, the “gotcha game,” inner turmoil, temptation and a lot more bad things, simply lose their power.

The power of Christ and his body the Church, comes not from “tripping each other up,” or trying to wield unhealthy power in the church, which many of us were able to do in our former or current professional lives.  The power of Christian community comes from our ultimate vulnerability to God and each other.  It is in the work of God reconciling the world to Godself, that we are given the hope of reconciliation with each other.   The icon of reconciliation is that beautiful Christian symbol we lift high as we enter this place of grace, and the same one we follow out into the world, knowing we are redeemed, and sent out to love and serve the Lord.

Redemption simply means that in order to experience love, mercy, grace, peace, and reconciliation, we must actually take up the cross of relational vulnerability, and die to the “gotcha games,” our need for self-importance, and the pursuit of communal power struggles that threaten our witness of grace.  It is only when we die to our old self that we have the hope of being are raised to new life in loving community.  Then and only then will our relationships reflect the grace of the “the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.”

REFERENCES

 

 

SERMON 11/3/19 All Saint’s Day, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

allsaintsDaniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Saints: A Motley Crew

If you look closely at the bulletin cover today, you will see an ancient icon for All Saint’s however, I have modified it to include the faces of some modern-day saints.  Those faces are just normal everyday people just like you because, we all are saints believe it or not.  We sometimes think saints as merely those special people we see depicted in ancient icons. However, consider the crew Jesus chose as his first followers.  There was old Peter (the bold and yet, “first to run” disciple), James and John, (the two who wanted seats of honor, over and above their fellow disciples), and Matthew the Tax Collector.  There were many other disreputable followers of Jesus over the centuries, and yes, I am one too.

Jesus seems to call some incredible characters into the Communion of Saints, doesn’t he, just look around you.  His first group of followers, and we the generations who have come on the scene much later, have not been nor are we saints of perfection.  We are both sinners and saints.  Even Mother Theresa, the well-known nun who helped lepers in Calcutta, stated in her memoirs that she had moments of doubt, and failure all along the way.   Saints are scruffy, motley, and imperfect people, who are just trying to get it right, and often short.   Christian community can be pretty messy but in it, find the beautiful and hopeful nature of God’s grace in action.

My favorite bible verse is from the second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians which states, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  Think about grace in those words because it is through the frailty and brokenness of our imperfect “fleshly containers” that God’s abundant grace flows through us and into all the world.

Also, we Christians are like stained glass windows of sainthood, through which the world sees, experiences, and receives God’s bright shining love.  Now, you may hear that as cliché, and think that it sounds like, all we have to do is just let the light shine in us, and our mission is complete.  However, being a saint is a little more difficult than merely sitting still trying to be all holy.  Disciples have to move and do and be like Christ.

All Saint’s Day

Today is the Feast Day of All Saint’s, a principal feast of the Church, and the feast where the Episcopal church remembers the saints, known and unknown.  Today is also one of the holy days denoted as especially appropriate for baptisms.  Today, you will notice some changes in our worship.  In contrast to the Pentecost season, the service music is somewhat more uplifting and celebratory, we will chant portions of the liturgy, and we replace the Nicene Creed with the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.

In addition to liturgical changes, this feast typically is the day Episcopalians make an annual commitment of treasure (as well as our time and talent), and through this commitment, we make our claim as saints, apledge to continue the mission of Christ’s reconciling love, through the ministry of our local branch of the Body of Christ, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church.  Today’s feast day also serves as the renewal of our own stewardship.

This past year, I have encouraged us to recognize God’s generous grace poured out abundantly on us.  Today and in the weeks to come, we are called to tangibly respond in gratitude to God for God’s gifts, by returning a portion of those gifts back to God.  Because we saints follow a heritage of saints that span for over two centuries, those billions of faithful, committed Jesus followers who have shown us the path of discipleship, and now it is our turn to pass on Jesus’ Way of love on to others.  That is not an easy task, but we do have grace.

Saints and Enemies

Jesus commands us saints today to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”   That sure is uncomfortable, challenging, and some pretty high expectations. What?  Wait a minute, you want me to do what?  Jesus is not merely offer us a corny saying that looks impeccable engraved on pewter statues, silicone bracelets, or framed artwork.  Jesus was serious; love your enemies.

Webster defines enemy as, “an individual or a group that is seen as forcefully adverse or threatening.”(2)   In other words, any person that is seen as a threat to our well being is an enemy. You may say, “Fr. Eric, I have no enemies.”  Well, I am sure we all have people who we would rather not spend time with, or folks with whom we disagree, or people who just plain irritate us.  So, our natural response when threatened by folks like this is either to run away or to put up our dukes and fight.  Jesus says that we should resist our natural response of “fight or flight,” to react in opposition to our sinful nature, and choose to respond in love.

“Loving enemies” does not seem possible in this competitive, destroy your opponent, and push your own agenda kind of world we live in today.  Imagine what the political advertisements would be like next year, if the politicians really followed Jesus command to love your enemy.  Maybe they would say, “My opponent is really an honest, committed servant, we just differ on our policies and approaches to government.  I think I want to sit down with her/him and learn more about them.”

Imagine how we might react to folks we might treat our adversaries on social media if we really followed Jesus command to love your enemy.   We see one of our Facebook friend’s posts or we receive a well lubricated email late at night.  In it our opponent has written something negative about us.  On Facebook, we might ignore the post, like it, or post a nasty comment.  We might fire off a fire filled email response, BCC’g all in our inside clan.  However, what if alternatively, we called them on the phone and reminded our acquaintance how much friendship matters to you, regardless of our differences.

Imagine how we might react to people heaping injustices on certain folks in our nation.  What if we really followed Jesus’ command to love our enemy, and rather than publicly making condemning personal attacks on the oppressors for their actions, we would go and stand alongside in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, and show the oppressors that God’s love and grace flows through us

Imagine how we might react when someone in the congregation hurts us, speaks wrongly about us, or simply ignores us.  What if we really followed Jesus’ command to love our enemy, and maybe we we would reach out to that person who is hurting us, and show them a better way, through an outpouring of kindness, compassion, and patience.  In all these modern day examples of “loving our enemy,”  Jesus would tell us that our mission as Christians is to show others the Good News and by so doing, we through God’s grace help convert enemies into friends. We certainly live in a world today that really needs us to be saints every day, even when the truth is that we all both saints and sinners.

Saints in a Changing World

So, being a saint is risky these days, especially in these volatile times in our country.  Now more than ever, we saints need to follow the command of our Lord and love our neighbors. We saints must not participate in our nation’s emerging “like for like,” “eye for an eye,” “destroy the other guy” mentality, because that has nothing to do with love, and honestly, it is not of God.

We saints must enact love with responses that include as the scriptures say, “Doing good, blessing others, and praying for others.”  We must show up in our society, in our neighborhood, and in our church and respond to injustice, racism, and the other plagues that pit one group of God’s people against another.  We saints must bring incredible resilience and commitment to this world by loving one another, addressing our internal conflicts honestly, and working toward reconciling, healing, and restoring from within, so that we can go out into the world, and do the same thing with integrity and love out there.

The truth is this my friends; we are both saints and sinners.  We know in our hearts that we have a great capacity for grace, mercy, and love.  At the same time, we possess the capacity to inflict pain, create harm, and wound one another through our misguided need for power and control.   If can accept this paradox that is within each of us, we will know that we saints and sinners have only hope in Christ. Jesus reminds and lovingly demands that we must resist fear, hate, and division, and just let God transform us so we might “choose love!”  Theologian Warren Carter asserts that in the midst of the challenges of community life, God calls for our best efforts, our “best sainthood efforts, which sums up the divine character (merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked) and the obligation on disciples to imitate this indiscriminate mercy for all.” (1)

Good News for Saints and Sinners

So, what is the Good News for saints and sinners on this All Saint’s Day, in this life comingled with division, pain, uncertainty, and wounded ness?  We saints always have the choice to follow the path of Jesus Christ or not.   We can choose to live each day in self-giving love, returning hatred for grace, war for peace, and division for unity, or we can just let our animal nature take charge and resort to “fight or flight” with those we just do not like.

To the first apostles, those saints of old, Jesus’ left his mission of reconciliation, mercy, grace, and love, and he left it to we 21st century disciples.  We can take up the mantle of the high calling of God if simply, “do good, bless each other, and pray for each other, and live into those baptismal promises each of us will take upon ourselves again in a few minutes.

Sisters and brothers, our example of Christian love is needed in this old world now, more than ever.  We saints and sinners, followers of the Jesus Christ, the choice is ours.  We can choose to have our portrait included in that beautiful icon of sainthood.   With God’s grace, we can take our place among All the Saints who are illuminated by the light of God’s abundant, radical, and overwhelming love.   We all have a job to do we saints and sinners.  We are the only light of God’s grace, the only example of God’s love, and the only gospel the world will be able to hear today and tomorrow. So,  Saints and Sinners, go out today and  Shine your Light, the light of Christ, shine for all the world to see.

1 Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World 28.1 (2008): 13-21. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

SERMON 10-27-19 Pentecost 20C Proper 25 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

dollarSirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6 ; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In God we Trust: The Dollar Bill

Talking about money in church seems to be troublesome for some folks, for some reason, and it may be a little uncomfortable for some.  In the Episcopal Church we are in the middle of the annual giving or stewardship season, and parishes are once again talking about how the gifts God gives us is directly related to the gifts we return to God through our time, talent, and treasure.

Next weekend at St. Monica’s, we will celebrate All Saint’s Day, a Feast Day when we remember or commemorate all saints known and unknown.  It is also, for many parishes like ours, the weekend we will make a commitment, pledging our financial support to continue God’s mission of reconciliation through the ministry of St. Monica’s.  Next weekend is “Pledge Turn In” Saturday and Sunday and we will pledge to God, to offer a generous portion of what God has given us, more specifically,  our Time, Talent, and yes, Our Treasure.  It is a day that reminds us that it is still “In God we Trust.”

We find “In God we Trust”  printed on every denomination of currency we have in America, and the history of its origin is quite interesting.  “During the Cold War era, the … United States sought to distinguish itself from the Soviet Union, which promoted state atheism, and the 84th Congress passed a joint resolution ‘declaring IN GOD WE TRUST the national motto of the United States.’ The same day, President Eisenhower signed into law a requirement that “In God We Trust” be printed on all U.S. currency and coins.” (Wiki)

We have come a long way as a nation since Ike signed that bill into law a few decades ago.   I wonder though, do we Americans still hold in esteem, that motto we find on our treasure today?   Do we trust in God or ourselves?  In less than 30 years, the United States has transformed into a nation where one-quarter (26%) of the populous claims to be religiously unaffiliated, and that was only 8% thirty years ago.  Our commitment to trusting God has diminished in only three decades, and the mission of the church is being challenged by this shift in religiosity.  To remain effective witnesses of grace, we Christians need to ask, do we still believe “In God We Trust,” or has our culture changed us so much, that we believe our national motto to be “In Me I Trust.”

Pride and Humility

The culture of “In Me I Trust” was present in Jesus’ time.  In today’s Gospel reading we hear these words, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  He said, “Two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” These men came to synagogue regularly and participated in the rites of the religious system.  Both men prayed, but both men were wrestling in different ways with their own faith journey, kind of like many of us do today.

Could we be like the Pharisee, who looked at the Tax Collector with condescension?  Maybe we look at the person sitting beside us in church and think, “I sure am glad I am not like old Clara Belle over there who carouses around and lives a life of depravity, she hardly ever comes to church, and she talks about people behind their backs all the time.”  In other words, could we be like the Pharisee who in his prayer to God said, “I am faithful God.  Look at me, look what I do, what I give, and you surely know that I am special to Lord.”

Alternatively, could we be like the Tax Collector, who really does carouse around and lives a life of depravity, hardly ever coming to church, and talking about people behind their backs, but maybe we like him, acknowledges our failures, our need for grace, and we come before God humbled and willing to accept God’s transformation, asking for mercy.

These two men may represent each of us at different stages in our discipleship.  I know I’ve been there myself where like the Pharisee who judged the Tax Collector, I compared myself to others.  Likewise, I have been the Tax Collector a sinner, who really needed God’s grace.  They, like us, are both saint and sinner all at the same time and thus we like them, all need to be transformed and seek right relationships (righteousness).  We need to strive to follow Christ, not because it makes us look good, as if we are posting a “Look at me and what I do” post on Social Media.  Righteousness does not come from us, but only from God.  As David Lores states, “righteousness … is never enough. Why? Because it’s based on our abilities and accomplishments. And we will eventually fall short. Even more, it’s based on comparisons.” (1)

In whom do We Trust?

In his prayer the Pharisee bragged, “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee followed the motto, “In Me I Trust” because the justification he sought before God was based on what he did.  From his pride of accomplishment, his idea of righteousness was all about him and his efforts, not about God’s abundant grace.

The Tax Collector realized he could do nothing to bring about God’s justification to him. The Tax Collector believed in the motto, “In God We Trust. ”  He knew he fell short and missed the mark.  It was only by his admission of his utter dependence he had on God, his own inability to save himself, that he came to know that we “called or counted righteous no matter what we have done simply because God says so.” (1)   The difference between these two people was the fact that they both knew in whom it was they put their trust, but one was in God, and one was in himself.

“IN GOD WE TRUST” is not the arrogant proud religiosity of a nation that believes, “God is on our side,” but a claim that we as a nation, and we as individuals are utterly and humbly dependent upon God’s abundant grace.   C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”   Humility is the opposite of pride.  Karl Barth identifies pride as “the chief sin of the religious person, because it is fundamentally idolatrous it confuses Creator and creation, Giver and gift.”  (3)

Jesus said this about our humility and God’s grace, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”   It is when we acknowledge that all we have, all we are, and all we do are gifts from God, then the answer of in whom do we trust becomes clear.  Then in our utter dependence on God, we respond to that kind of abundant love, returning to God, a portion of those Gifts God gives us.  We become faithful stewards of our Time, Our Talent, and Our Treasure, as a reflection of whom it is we put our trust.

Stewardship

Today’s reading from Syrach reminds us, “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.”   If it is “In God We Trust,” then we know the very breath we breathe is a gift from God.  Our 401K, our home, and even the body we inhabit are all gifts from God over all of which, we are mere stewards, and only for a brief time.

Stewardship is not an annual church fundraising drive through which, we pledge to fund an operating budget each year.  The vestry does make decisions about what ministries we will fund based on several factors, one being the amount of gifts given by God’s people.  However, stewardship is a way of life.  A way through which, we respond to God grace through a returning of the gifts of Time, Talent, and Treasure God has given us.

When we consider our stewardship are we like the Pharisee whose generosity was persuaded by a belief that everything over which he was a steward was stamped with, “In Me I Trust.”  Alternatively, when we consider our stewardship are we like the Tax Collector, whose generosity was persuaded by a belief that everything over which he was a steward was stamped with, “In God We Trust.

Our Stewardship is simply a faithful response to God’s abundant love, through which we offer time for worship and service in ministry, we offer talents to do those things only you have been uniquely gifted to do, and we offer treasure, the tangible symbols of the work we do in the world each and every day.  When we offer these things back to God generously, then we are clearly claiming that in all things, it is always “In God We Trust.”

REFERENCES

SERMON 10-20-19 Pentecost 19C Proper 24 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

justiceGenesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

The Parable: Justice and Persistence

I used to travel quite a bit when I served on the Bishop’s staff.  In five years, I put nearly 130,000 miles on my old Toyota Prius.  Driving that much can be difficult, but it was a great opportunity for some prayer time along the way.  However, I was usually distracted from prayer as I drove, because I knew exactly where every Starbucks was between North Tampa and Marco Island, and I often stopped.  I was distracted from conversations with God, while I listened to a plethora of Audible books, and watched the roadside billboards pass every mile or so.  I used to think, “Roadside signs will one day be completely replaced by social media ads, infomercials, blog posts, or cerebral implants.”  Even so, those signs were for me, both entertaining and informative and often, they were helpful.

While driving down I-75 a few years ago, I saw a bright red and black roadside sign that featured an ad for a local law firm.  It stated, “GET ME JUSTICE!”  When I got home, I was curious about the advertisement, so I checked out the firm’s website, which featured a well-dressed man in a suit, and the caption under his picture that stated, “Justice is not easily granted, it is earned through hard work.” The law firms’ take on how justice works, seems to be similar to the concept of justice we hear about in Jesus’ parable today.

Luke, through Jesus’ teaching, tells us that we are not merely recipients of God’s justice, or mere grace bearers because of some perceived or entitled special status we have in God’s Kingdom, but God’s justice becomes real through our active hard work in persistent prayer. We are justice partners with God, and when hearts align with the heart of God, we join with God as co-conspirators in God’s abundant acts of mercy, healing, restoration, reconciliation, and justice.

“Grant me justice against my opponent,” was the widow’s cry from today’s gospel reading.  She was a widow woman who persistently pleaded for help from a unscrupulous judge and like the billboard on the interstate, she cried, “GET ME JUSTICE!”  Jesus chose a widow as the focus of the parable for a reason.  In ancient eastern cultures, women and children came under the authority and protection of their male patriarch.  If the patriarch died then the widow and orphans were left with no economic support, were most likely homeless and thus, dependent on the charity of the community.  If anyone needed God’s justice, it was this widow.  We do not know exactly what happened that caused her terrible circumstance, but we do know that her persistence was so sharp, that it was as if she literally beat up the unjust judge until he finally answered her plea.  She definitely needed God’s justice, but what does that mean?

Justice: God’s vs. Human

Webster defines justice as “the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.”  This definition of justice is transactional, and it is acts or decision meted out without preference to the individual, but focused on balanced circumstances of fairness and “what is right.”  Theologian James Bruckner asserts, “God’s justice is not simply equilibrium, but restoration. To that end, it involves repentance. God’s transforming grace, mercy, and blessing are intended to flow from this kind of justice.” (1)  He adds, God’s justice “goes beyond strict justice, implying kindness and generosity as justice is done. It means intelligent, loving reflection, and action that restores health and well-being to communities and individuals.” (1) God’s justice is restorative, reconciling, and compassionate and not merely punishment or retribution for crimes or sins committed.

In the parable, Jesus tells us of a system of injustice that was widespread in first century culture, and one personified in a judge who really did not care about others, because he did not fear God, nor did he have respect for people.  The judge was not capable of real compassion, reconciliation, or justice, and the only reason he responded to the widow’s persistent request, was so she would leave him alone.  Jesus used the negative metaphor of the unjust judge as a contrast to the compassionate, reconciliatory, restorative justice of God, a justice that may seem distant or even unfathomable for us especially in the midst of the trying circumstances we often face.

Have you ever felt in your prayer life that you are like the widow?  Have you pleaded with God for help, support, a change of situation, or maybe you sought justice in those times and yet, it seemed like it all fell on deaf ears? I for one have prayed for situational realignments, clarity of discernment, retribution for wrongdoings, all through my incessant pleas to God.  In some cases, the answers did not come, at least the answers I thought I wanted to hear.

Maybe we all have misconstrued this whole intercessory prayer thing a little.  Maybe when we pray incessantly and we do not get the answers we seek, then we decide God is unjust and that God turns a deaf ear to our pleas.  Theologian Dorothy Weaver writes, “Jesus’ message, and that of Luke behind him, is unmistakable: God is a God of justice. And God will not fail to bring that justice into being for God’s chosen ones. Injustice is not the final word.” (3)

What is really going on in this whole intercessor prayer thing we do.  The truth is our pleas to God, and in God’s hearing of our cries in response to our pleas has nothing to do with the idea that when unanswered, God does not want to hear from you nor is “God just too busy for me.”  I believe that when we experience unanswered prayers, God may be waiting for our hearts to align with his, and God is waiting for our prayers to become pleas for God’s justice to abound.  I believe God is often waiting for us to take justice action as a result of our prayers, because we have a part in answered prayers.  We ask, “why does God allow children to go hungry, war atrocities to happen, mass shootings to occur, and all the other atrocities around us?”  The answer may be that through prayer, our hearts may be changed so much that we begin as a common humanity to take action to bring God’s desire for justice to a reality. We have a part in prayer beyond the words.

Praying for Justice

Prayer is a conversation with God, and not a one-sided dialogue in which, we ask and a God responds.  Prayer requires us to listen and to act as well.  Prayer is not petitioning to change God’s mind per se, but it is a dialogue in which we are changed.  Maggi Dawn writes, “Constant prayer shapes the person who prays. Repeated, habitual prayer gradually tests and sifts what you believe is really important, and what is of (fleeting) value.” (2)  Let me explain.

The Latin phrase Lex orandilex credendi  “ is a motto in Christian tradition, which means that prayer and belief are integral to each other and that liturgy is not distinct from theology.”  In other words, the phrase means “Prayer Shapes Believing,” but it also means what we believe shapes how we pray.  We are called to not only pray for God’s justice for ourselves and for others, but by our prayers, we are to be changed so much, that we begin to take action to bring that justice we seek to fruition.  The widow did just that.  She went to the unjust judge and persistently pleaded with him for help.  She took action.

Dawn writes, “We aren’t called to pray passively, hoping that God will change the world on our behalf. Prayer may be the wind at our backs, but sometimes we need to track down the answer in person. As the African proverb says, ‘When you pray, move your feet.’” (2)  Dorothy Weaver adds, “Prayer is no sedentary, cerebral, or even safe activity in the eyes of Jesus or the mind of Luke. Rather prayer is those sturdy audacious perhaps even outrageous acts that go by the name of faith.” (3) God answers prayers, and if we believe that to be true, then through faith we must rely on God to keep God’s promises, hear our cries, and respond.

The “GIVE ME JUSTICE” road sign I saw on I-75 a few years ago is a reminder that people need God to respond, and God needs us to respond ourselves to the cries of those who suffer in this life.  Those who need the mission of the church are people, who are striving to find peace, joy, reconciliation, mercy, and justice, and they are both inside and outside the four walls of St. Monica’s.  Yes, we need to pray for them each day, but God’s mission for justice for all, cannot end with our Godly petitions alone.

Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”   Jesus asks, “does the faith you claim, lead you to trust God, and in your pleas for God to act, will you seek God’s peace, mercy, reconciliation and justice through your own ministry?”  Jesus seems to be posting for us, a big roadside sign along our road of faith.  I think that sign clearly states that for we people of justice who seek God’s justice, “Persistent Prayer in Action is Required.”  So, if we have faith enough to pray persistently about what is really important, and then we act in mission for change from out of those prayers, then our hearts will align with God’s, and it is only then that circumstances will be changed.

So, when the least, lost, and lonely, the outcasts of society knock on our doors relentlessly demanding from us, “Get me Justice,” we followers of Jesus must answer those cries both in prayer and in action.  There are people in our mission field around this church who definitely need our prayers, but they need so much more.   We have children coming to this church every day of the week who need mentors.  We have people in our neighborhood who are hungry and need us to help bring nutritious food to them.  We have multiple ministries going on in this church now, that need ministers in which to serve.

The ministry of this church requires us to cry out to God in prayer, but our witness of God’s grace, demands we make sure that our supplications lead us to act, lead us to serve, and lead us to bring about the Kingdom of God in our very midst.  Now that my friends is something we all can pray about.

 

REFERENCES

(1) Bruckner, James K. “Justice in Scripture.” Ex Auditu, vol. 22, 2006, pp. 1–9.

(2) Dawn, Maggi. “Prayer Acts.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 20, Oct. 2007, p. 19.

(3) Weaver, Dorothy Jean. “Luke 18:1-8.” Interpretation, vol. 56, no. 3, July 2002, pp. 317–319

 

SERMON 10/13/19 Pentecost 18C Proper 23 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

trading places2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Trading Places

Trading Places is a 1983 American comedy film about an upper-crust executive Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and down-and-out street dweller Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) who are the subjects of a bet by successful brokers Mortimer and Randolph Duke.  An employee of the Dukes Winthorpe is framed by the brothers for a crime he didn’t commit, and the Dukes installed the street-smart Valentine in his position.

The rich man became poor, and the poor man became rich, and in the process of a shared tragic experience, they discovered that what divided them was not their wealth, their wits, nor their good fortune, but their indifference, self-absorption, and blindness to the plight of the others.  Winthorpe lived in a prison of being under the thumb of the Dukes who provided him with wealth, comfort, and even a future spouse, but the tragedy was that they controlled his life.  Alternatively, Valentine lived in a prison too; a prison where he had to beg for sustenance, eek out a place to lay his head, and face the tragic circumstances of poverty that controlled his life.  Eventually the two men uncover the Duke’s unethical social experiment, and Winthorpe and Valentine work together to recover and rediscover their lives.

When these two men shared their mutual circumstance, they realized that they had more in common than not, because “misery does indeed love company, and necessity does make for strange bedfellows.” (2)  The two unlikely characters discovered the very essence of community; mutual interdependence.  When they literally traded places; or rather, when they traded the conditions of the other’s existence, the walls that separated them began to crumble and a newfound path of brotherhood opened up for them, despite the societal maladies under which they both suffered.

Healing Deep Wounds

The gospel today is a story about the social illnesses and cultural divides that existed in first century Palestine. First, there was a widespread confusion about the sources, causes, and spread of diseases, which resulted in the separation from community, those people suffering from skin ailments (commonly called leprosy).  The sick and afflicted were treated with disdain and were reviled.  “Instead of intervening to help, people turned the other way and cut off all contact. The patient died a social death much sooner and far worse than physical death.” (c)  Additionally, racial and ethnic differences separated people into different classes as well.  Israelites and Samaritans shared a common ancestry and lineage, however because of the Samaritan religious ideologies and forbidden intermarrying with Gentiles, these two groups treated one another as “less than.”  “Jews considered all Samaritans ritually unclean, and would travel miles out of their way to avoid having any contact with them.” (1)

Today’s gospel is not only a tale of the miraculous physical healing of ten lepers and their resultant full restoration to community.  The story warns us about how we today still stigmatize people because of their differences (real or perceived).  In Luke’s story, an unfortunate skin affliction brought ten people (one from a different ethnic group) together into a community of common suffering, where former divisions faded away. However, when they were all healed together and their skin affliction was restored, some of the group’s hearts remained untouched by their own healing.  The nine Israelites grouped together and traveled to the Temple priests, so they might be restored to the former community they enjoyed, but what about that Samaritan cousin they embraced a few days before?

Scripture tells us, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” Could the Samaritan have gone to the temple with his Jewish cousins and experienced full restoration to community?  Probably not, because society still afflicted him with the social illness, whereas Samaritans and Israelites would never share common connections under the sovereignty of God.

All were healed, and yet a deeper wound remained and “he was, once again, one of those estranged and marginalized others — a Samaritan.” (2) So, the Samaritan returned to the Jewish Rabbi that healed him and praised him.  In so doing, the Samaritan participated in not only the healing the deeper wound, but really became well.  Jesus’ own kindred went on their way, but the Samaritan approached his cousin Israelite rabbi, healed the social divide between their ethnic groups, and broke down the walls of the social malady of indifference.  The Samaritan crossed the boundary of separation between Samaritan and Israelite and traded places with Jesus, and experienced a moment of common healing, dignity, peace, and restoration.   When healed, we must be a part of the bigger picture of healing Jesus has in mind.  We who are healed and restored, must take our place in the process of healing and restoration all of creation, which began with Jesus, and demonstrated by the Samaritan leper.

Social Maladies

The healing story we hear speaks to our social illnesses today, and as Maggie Dawn writes in her article, The Untouchables, she asserts, “Maybe (Jesus) meant that deep-seated human divisions are a much more serious malady than even leprosy—that our souls can be far sicker than our bodies and yet most of us do nothing to heal the breach. Maybe (Jesus) wasn’t commenting on the attitude of the nine who didn’t return as much as on the system that would accept them and reject the Samaritan.
(1)”

In America today, more and more people are being divided up and pigeon holed into social tribes, political cliques, anthropological divisions, and discordant associations based on a misconstrued criteria of worth.  We assign worth to God’s people based on social class, educational opportunity, religious affiliation, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and by economic fortune or misfortune, and then we decide who is in our clique and who is not.  We are blind to the reality that we are all God’s children and all part of the family of God, because we are blinded by our differences. We still use labels,  maybe not “clean and unclean,” but some far worse, to describe our own indifference to others who are not in our clique.

Cliques can be pervasive in churches too.  Webster defines a clique as “a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.”  Even churches participate in dividing people into who is in and who is out.   “Others” can be the newcomer who shows up to a community of faith hoping to find a family that will readily welcome them, appreciate their gifts, and work to engage them in the ministry already taking place.  “Others” can be sisters and brothers in our midst whom we call “different” because of life’s struggles and yet, we fail to welcome them in as equals.  “Others” can be anyone whom we are, for whatever reason, unable to call a sister or brother in Christ.  These divisions have the potential to thwart our witness of the Gospel as ambassadors of Christ.  These divisions will never be overcome, until we can discover shared community, purpose, and common family under the sovereignty of God.  If we can change how we the church treat each other, then we can serve as a witness to the world about how the Kingdom of God can become a reality in the world today.  We all need to be healed from the social malady of divisive existence, which thwarts the Kingdom of God.

Healed for a Purpose

Jesus told his Samaritan cousin who was healed, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”   In other words, “faith in action” is trusting the promises and commandments of God about loving neighbor as yourself, and then leading a life of healing beyond self.    We all need a little faith that God heals our hearts, so we might abandon our indifference to the plight of others.  We all need a little faith that God heals our hearts, so we might be drawn into the tragic circumstances of our sisters and brothers’ lives and become the healers that first healed us, but what is spiritual healing?

“Spiritual healing compels us to search for and acknowledge the Healer, and to discern the vast cosmic scope of the reclamation initiative of which our restoration is but a small part. Having found and discerned, we are to make common cause with that saving enterprise.” (2) In other words, we all need more opportunities to “Trade Places” with each other for a few moments each day, walk in the shoes of the other for a few moments, and share the common experience of life with the other, so we can see things from the other’s perspective.  The Kingdom of God into which we all are called to live today can only be possible when we all (not just those who look like, act like, dress like, or live like the so called insiders) are able to experience mutual wholeness, dignity, justice, and peace.

Jesus said, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” We who are healed are called to go and do something with that healing we have received.  Maggie Dawn asserts, “We are healed not to stay the same, but to live differently, breaking down divisions in society that exclude people because of their nationality, gender, religion or education.” (1)  Sisters and brothers, we need to “Get up, get on our way, because our faith has made us well.  We need to get on our way and take up our ministry of healing, by embracing the common humanity we share with one another, and with everyone outside these four walls.  We need to get on our way and be willing to live a life of “Trading Places” with the least, lost, and lonely, and with everyone whom we come in contact each and every day.

REFERENCES

(1) Dawn, Maggi. “The Untouchables.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 20, Oct. 2007, p. 18.

(2) Nickle, Keith Fullerton. “Ten Lepers Cleansed.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 23, no. 3, Easter 2000, pp. 48–51.

SERMON 10/6/19 Pentecost 17C Proper 22 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

faithHabakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Doubt and Faith

It should not surprise you that I am a liturgical traditionalist and that I love the hymnody and traditions of the Episcopal Church.  I have a little secret to share with you. I do love Christian music that you may not hear played on Sunday mornings, and at one time, I played guitar and drums in a band at the parish that sent us to seminary.  Specifically, I have loved the music by a band called Third Day, and their songs strike a spiritual chord in me, which I cannot explain.

Maybe it is the strong voice of the lead singer, who has been influenced by artists like Rich Mullins, or groups like U2 and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Maybe it is the way the band weaves into their southern rock genre, deeply stirring, spiritually passionate, and emotionally striking lyrics.  Several years ago, I was struggling with my faith, and one night I heard the band’s song “Cry Out to Jesus” for the first time.  It touched emotions in me that I could not explain.  The chorus of the song is:

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing

He’ll meet you wherever you are

Cry out to Jesus.

Yes, in my desperate state that night I cried out to Jesus, and every time I hear that song today, it brings tears to my eyes.  Like me, I bet many of you in this journey of faith have wanted to just walk away and go back to the way life was before.  I bet there have been times that you have wanted to cry out to Jesus, but the answers you hoped for did not come.  Look at us though, here we are today still coming to the church, still seeking answers, still looking for hope, rest, love, grace, and forgiveness.

God has been faithful to us in the dark times, always providing us with just enough faith, to keep us on the path and not allow us to stray too far away.  Nonetheless, we still think having faith is based on NOT having any doubts, about never straying from the path, and never thinking of quitting.  We forget that doubt and uncertainty is at the core of this journey of faith.

Those early disciples had doubts and they struggled to believe Jesus.  Many of them abandoned him when he was arrested.  Only a few were with him at the crucifixion, and even after they saw him raised from the dead, they did not fully believe.  Thanks be to God, something happened in their lives, the power of the Holy Spirit touched them deeply and they let go of what held them back from being vulnerable to the overwhelming power of God’s grace.  We are here today because a rag-tag band of followers decided to have faith even when they felt they only had a speck of faith.

Faith and Trust

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”   Many of us are like them and say, “I sure wish I had more faith,”  but I think we may be confused about what faith really is, and what it is not.  Some think faith is a list of doctrines, practices, or they even believe faith is an affiliation with a religious organization. Webster defines faith as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  Faith is really trusting in God.

Webster defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”  Faith is trusting and having confidence in God.  The Apostle Paul understood what faith really is.  He encouraged young Timothy to live in faith as he did, when he wrote these words, “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”   Thinking of faith as trust, we hear the apostles ask for Jesus’ help this way, “Increase our trust in you.”    So, were they asking Jesus to prove himself, because they really did not fully trust him yet?

I wonder what we all need from Jesus in order for him to increase our trust in him.  Maybe we hope for a miraculous sign to prove his identity.  Maybe we hope he would overthrow the afflictions in our lives to demonstrate what is really possible.  Maybe we trust in ourselves too much, and rely on what we are able to accomplish all alone.  If we must trust in our own abilities then, there is no room to trust the One, in whom all things are possible.  We need to ask ourselves daily, “Do we really trust Jesus all the time, even when doubt creeps in, and when all around us is falling apart?”

Faith in Bad Times; Faith in Good Times

A verse from the song “Cry Out to Jesus” goes like this, “And to all of the people with burdens and pains, keeping you back from your life, you believe that there’s nothing and there is no one, who can make it right.”  It is easy to trust Jesus when all around us is going our way, when we are filled with happiness, and when we are on top of the world, but what about when everything falls apart.  Trusting Jesus is not so easy “for the marriage that’s struggling just to hang on, for the ones who can’t break the addictions and chains, for the widow who struggles with being alone, when you’re lonely and it feels like the whole world is falling on you.”  Trusting Jesus is not easy when unexpected circumstances make careers fade away, when money gets tight and income disappears, when the doctor shares news we did not expect, when we are betrayed by friends or colleagues, when we are ready to give up, when we feel like failures, or when past hurts that we have experienced keep raising their ugly heads.  We need to trust Jesus both in good times and in the bad.  Trust does not come easy, but trust is possible if we decide to break down the walls and barriers that block our hearts to the grace and mercy of Christ.  In our despair, we need to humble ourselves and cry out to the one who is faithful in all things, whose presence will change every circumstance into opportunities for healing and mercy.

The key to trusting Jesus in the bad times is to release our need for control, and to reject the idea that we really are the ones in charge of our lives.  We must seek God’s help in earnest.  In the words of the song I love, “When you’re lonely and it feels like the whole world is falling on you, you just reach out, you just cry out to Jesus.”  In our desperation, in our loss, in our fear, in our hopelessness, we must turn our hearts to the one who is the only one to bring us comfort, because no matter where we find ourselves in this life, “He’ll meet you wherever you are.” Jesus shows up even if the only trust we can muster up is a speck as small as that tiny mustard seed you received on your way into church (tonight) this morning.

Faith of a Mustard Seed

Jesus said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Jesus’ metaphor for the low bar of trust we need is described by the tiniest of seeds.  The mustard seed when planted grows into a wild and wooly bush that overtakes all the ground around it.  That is all we need folks to follow Jesus; just a little trust. We need mustard seed faith because as the Third Day song tells us, when we begin to trust Jesus even through our tears and doubts:

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing

He’ll meet you wherever you are.

I would be lying to you if I were to tell you that I never have doubts, that I never want to give up, and that I stand before you with absolute certainty every day.  The truth is that we all struggle with faith, but our faith is not all up to just us. We need to forget the myth that in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus, we have to accomplish grand acts of service doing everything of which, others expect from us to do.  Remember, there is no holy tally sheet somewhere keeping track of what you do for Jesus.

We need to forget the myth that faith is a life of having no doubts at all and the measure of your discipleship is based on absolute certainty.  Remember, there is no penalty for living in doubt sometimes, especially when everything around you is falling apart. If we really want to be faithful Christians, then we must start somewhere and that somewhere is only trusting Jesus just a little bit.

Each of you received a tiny mustard seed when you came into the sanctuary today.  Some of you may have lost it in the hustle and bustle of the service.  Sometimes we lose our mustard seed faith in the hustle and bustle of life and troubles of life.  Please remember that when you come together with sisters and brothers in the faith, there is always an ample supply of mustard seed faith right here.  So, when we you feel like walking away, when life overwhelms you, when faith seems allusive and far away, just open your heart, grab that little mustard seed of trust, which you should carry with you each day.  In other words, when you have just a mustard seed faith in those dark times of life, you will discover God’s grace, God’s solace and peace that is, when you are allow yourself to “Cry out to Jesus.”

SERMON 9-29-19 Pentecost 16C Proper 21 St. Monica’s

the poorAmos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Dives and Lazarus/Heaven and Hell

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus told a parable about a rich man and poor man whose paths in this life never crossed, but they should have.  The poor man Lazarus lived outside the opulent mansion of Dives and daily begged for the basics of life; the scraps from the rich man’s table.  Dives lived comfortably, worked hard with all his needs met, but was blind and deaf to the condition of the child of God who suffered just outside his gates.

After they both died Dives lived eternity tortured by his earthly indifference to others and his disconnection from the plight of others.  Lazarus lived eternity finally comforted from his sores, relieved of his hunger, and set free from his oppression caused by the disconnection from the abundance of others.  A great chasm of indifference and self-fulfillment separated Dives from Lazarus in the earthly life, and that same chasm remained in the after life.  The idea of heaven and hades is something with which many of us struggle.

Some may think in this parable Jesus is teaching us about God’s justice in the afterlife.  We think he is explaining that we may face punishment for our bad deeds, and reward for our good deeds, but I am not sure that is what he is teaching us.    It is comforting to believe in a harmonious promise of pearly gates, streets of gold, and mansions in the next life, but we are quick to dismiss even the possibility of ongoing sanctification and remorse in that same realm.  We ask, “How could a loving God of grace punish his creatures?”  Like Dives, is there a future condition in our progress toward sanctification, where we deal with our failures and poor choices, where remorse and regret exist. Scripture alludes to such a place, but I think Jesus is talking more about how we should live in this life, without the fear of the future.

Jesus was not dangling over us the promise of bliss for our good deeds and the pain of eternal suffering for the bad deeds we do.  He is not enticing us like a puppy with a treat for the good tricks or with the discipline of a newspaper for the bad, all in order to make us live our lives as he lives, love as he loves, or to care for the least and lonely.  Jesus is reminding us that as sisters and brothers under the grace of God, we are supposed to break down the chasms of indifference that separate us in this life.  Jesus calls us to bring the reality of the Kingdom of God (where equality and justice exist) into this life right here and right now.

Harris wrote, “The rich man doesn’t get it: it is not that he screwed up by not helping Lazarus while they were both alive; rather it is that he could not hear, or did not listen to, Moses and the prophets, who had a lot to say about justice, the poor and those in need.” (2) All around us there are people suffering everyday and some of our neighbors do not have the basics of life, and some lack the opportunities for a better life.  Some of us have a better life and yet, we struggle with depression, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty.  In our own self-focus, we may find ourselves just like Dives with eyes that are blind to other’s plight, and ears that are deaf to their cries.

Poverty Today

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 46.2 million Americans are considered impoverished, with 16.4 million American children younger than eighteen years old and 28 million people 65 and older living in poverty every day.   Geography can exasperate poverty.  For instance, the cost of housing, food, and other basics is much higher in Naples than in Arcadia, Labelle, or Immokalee, so right here in our own backyards there are people working, struggling, and trying to eek out a living, and they struggle to meet the basics needs of life.

On the cover of your bulletin is a modern depiction of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which we hear about in today’s gospel reading.  In the picture, people are busied in their daily lives working, moving about, and feasting and yet, they are oblivious to the plight of the poor woman who is begging for the scraps they have left.          The kneeling woman in the picture could be the homeless man at the corner of I-75 and Immokalee whom we see each day.  She could be the maintenance tech in our community working 40+ hours each week in the hot sun but barely makes enough to buy shoes for her daughter for school.  She also may be the Christian sister or brother sitting beside you right now, whom you may never think is suffering in poverty, a scarcity of life that takes many forms.  Some of us have never known economic poverty, but some of us suffer from another kind of poverty, a poverty of the soul, from which we all need to be saved.

Poverty of the soul exists when the work for our needs (not our wants) and the grace to relieve the suffering of others is disproportional.  For some neighbors who cannot satisfy the basics of life, they become so pre-occupied with survival that they cannot attend to their own spiritual or higher needs.  Alternatively, for some neighbors who abundantly satisfy their own basic needs of life, the abundance becomes the preoccupation and they too become distracted from their own spiritual needs. Poverty of the soul happens when God and other is left by the roadside, for the pursuit of the material needs of life.  Now how would we treat one another if those basic needs were satisfied, and we all were able to attend to the higher needs of: belonging, esteem, self-actualization, and transcendence.  Scholars call this concept “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Jesus calls it loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Poverty and the Soul

The Prophet Amos shows how the poverty of soul pervades society.  He wrote, Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, feel secure on Mount Samaria, lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, eat lambs from the flock calves from the stall; sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, improvise on instruments of music; drink wine from bowls, anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  Joseph was a righteous servant of God, but he experienced ruin and destruction at the hands of his indifferent brothers who turned their backs on him in his time of need.   

            The prophet reminds us that we must not only open our eyes to the poverty around us, but we must allow God to change hearts, so we might work to bring justice and grace to the plight of those around us, to change their circumstances, to bring mercy in the midst of scarcity, love in the midst of pain, and grace into the midst of loss.  We are called to close the chasm between us.

The tragic flaw in (the gospel story today) is not the rich man’s wealth, but the fact that “he suffers from a deep spiritual deafness, an inability to hear and listen to the call for mercy and justice, or even the practical plea for just plain bread and some salve for the sores the dogs lick. His heart is hardened.” (2)

If we are we listening, why are we not responding?

Dives lived in torment of the poverty of the soul both in his earthly life and in the next.  Theologian Frank Honeycutt writes, Dives “was indifferent to the needs of the poor, and that in it becomes a certain sort of hell for those who drown in their own possessions.”(4) In other words, our storehouses often become the idols that place a chasm between us and God, and between each other.

So, when our heart are free to share the abundance God has given us to manage for a time, then as Frank Honeycutt asserts, “We open wide our hands once closed in fear, mistrust, and perhaps indifference—a hellish way to live. And perhaps, for the first time, we see a sister or brother, Lazarus at our gate. Or, as a certain prophet once put it: Jesus at our gate.” (4)

 Resurrection from Poverty

Whether we live with economic or spiritual poverty, we all need to be saved from the destitution of our isolated humanity, and we have hope that God is the God of abundance and not scarcity because we are a resurrection people.   We believe that this life is not the end and so, we must believe the circumstances of scarcity and injustice are not the end.  Mark Harris writes, “Too often we think the resurrection is proof that we Christians are on the right track—that believing in the resurrection is going to make everything come out all right. But don’t be too sure. If our hearts are closed to hearing the cry for justice, mercy and bread, the words of the resurrected One will not be convincing, but convicting. (2)

Paul convicts his young apprentice Timothy to teach believers a new way of life.  He wrote, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

The reality of “True Life” Sisters and brothers is found we realize we need one another, when we realize what it means to be human. Dives “needed Lazarus as much as Lazarus needed (him). The need of Lazarus was for food and clothing and medicine; he needed to be treated as a human being in a human way. The need of (Dives) was not for anything that money could buy; he also needed to know what it means to be human.”(5)   Being human means we commit to follow not the cliché or suggestion,  but the law Christ commands us to live, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

REFERENCES

(1) http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/109074/chapters/Understanding-the-Nature-of-Poverty.aspx

(2) Harris, Mark. “No Way Out.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 25, Sept. 2001, p. 18.

(3) Luti, J.Mary. “Send Lazarus.” The Christian Century, vol. 115, no. 24, Sept. 1998, p. 819

(4) Honeycutt, Frank G. “Hellish Indifference.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 28, no. 4, Pentecost 2005, pp. 40–42.

(5) Huie, Wade P. “Poverty Of Abundance.” Interpretation 22.4 (1968): 403-420.

 

SERMON 9/18/19 Pentecost 15C Proper 20, Naples FL

6108-05874795Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Time and the Shrewd Manager

For nearly 28 years, I have volunteered as a member of CAP (USAF Auxiliary) first as a Cadet at age 15, and now as an adult.  The discipline, organization training, emergency services, aerospace education, and other missions have formed and shaped me, and I received much more from CAP, than I ever gave it.  I am a volunteer Airman and I am amazed at the dedication of the people who serve alongside me. I am a volunteer, but what I do in that blue uniform is not my ministry. I love doing that kind of volunteering, and I always tried to give some time to the organization that is, when my schedule allows it.  Sometimes I wish I could give more time, but it is in my ministry where I find my greatest joy.  My volunteering is very different from ministry, and that is where God calls me to invest the gift of time.

Time is something none of us can gather or save because is not like monetary wealth. It is a gift from God and how we spend our time does matter.  An article in Psychology Today states, “Time is much more valuable than money because you can use your time to make money, but you can’t use money to purchase more time.” (1) The article goes on to say that “Time is the great equalizer… Each day has only 24 hours – nobody has any more than anyone else.” (1)  Time is a gift, and we only have so much, because we all have an expiration date, and time seems to be running out.

Although today’s gospel reading’s theme sounds like it is addressing monetary wealth and how we spend and manage it, if we listen closely, we may glean some wisdom about the wealth of time, and how God expects us to spend and manage it.  Although the parable we hear can be a little confusing, there are some nuggets of truth to be found for we Christians today.

Confused?

A “shrewd manager” was caught mis-appropriating his boss’s wealth.  Rather than fighting the accusations, he spent decided to go spend some time with the boss’s accounts payable clients, working on those relationships for his own future benefit.  The manager invested in those relationships and to sweeten the deal, he wrote off half of each debtor’s debt.   Then there is this the confusing part of the story, which is the master hears about what the manager did, and praises him for undermining his own finances.  “How could the master praise the dishonest manager,” most of us would ask.”  “Is Jesus advocating for dishonesty with our wealth,” we may inquire.

David Mathewson asserts, “Scholars have postulated on socioeconomic grounds that the steward’s actions were not really unjust at all and that he was merely releasing his commission.” (2) In other words, the manager was not stealing from the boss, just lowering his commission rates to garner favor with the debtors.  Other scholars argue, the“steward has acted dishonestly in releasing debts but shrewdly in preparing for his future. “ (2)  “But most interpreters admit, the parable as it stands in its present … context concerns the wise use of possessions.” (2)

           Jesus’ parable did not advocate for deceitful practices in the use of our resources (talent, treasure, and time), but it shows us that we must use the gifts God gives us wisely, and the wise use of God’s gift of time is investing in relationships.

“Triple T” and Relationships

In a Christian Century article, Christine Pohl writes, “Jesus does not commend the managers practices, but rather praises his insight into the connection between resources and relationships.” (3) The shrewd manager did just that, he used his valuable time to cultivate relationships with the debtors.  We can learn something from him (less the embezzlement part).

In other words, we like him, should spend our time in ministry, which is the cultivation of relationships (both with God and each other), and our gift of time is the best investment we can make.   We can buy those we love all the flowers, cards, and trinkets we want, but the best gift we can give others is our time.

I think the shrewd manager in today’s parable actually taught his master something that we Christians need to internalize today.  We need to make spiritually sound choices about how we invest our precious time.   If we divide up that time in such a way that God gets merely the last few minutes before we go to bed, we may be trying to serve the two masters.

Jesus said, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Time is limited and  how we use the gift of time is an indicator of our life’s priorities.  We are not serving God with our time, if God is not get raised up in the distribution list of the minutes, hours, and days of our lives.  We need to ask ourselves this question, “When it comes to the time I spend serving a God in what I do at church or what I do through the church’s mission, am I only a Volunteer or am I a Minister?”

Volunteer or Minister            

Webster defines “volunteer” as a person who (without valuable consideration or legal obligation) undertakes or expresses the willingness to a service.  Sometimes when we volunteer, we choose to use our time in whatever way suits us and other priorities make take precedence.  When we volunteer we can do incredible things like build houses for habitat, fly airplanes to support disaster missions, tutor children, distribute food, or any other work for charity.  Being a volunteer is admirable and it is a fine way to spend our time, but for most of us, volunteering happens only if we can fit it into our busy calendars.  What I am suggesting is that volunteering, and what we do as   members of The Body of Christ, the baptized given spiritual gifts for service (ministry) may be two very different things.  The key may be, for whom are we doing these things.

Writer and theologian Fredrick Buechner offers this definition of ministry (or the place God calls you to).  He says, our ministry “is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”. Another way to look at it is, “where your spiritual gifts and the worlds needs intersect, that is ministry.”

Ministers are motivated to serve because of and in response to the love of Christ, and the work is for Christ.  Ministers are equipped by, empowered by, and called by God to serve in a particular way, based on their unique spiritual gifts.  Ministers make serving a time priority in their lives, and never look at the clock.  Being a minister is a calling from God!

So, I want to challenge us to think differently about the time we give to God in service to God’s mission through the church (internally and externally).  I have been working on encouraging our staff and other ministers to think about church work differently. This past week, I asked our Parish Administrator to change the cover on the Front Office Volunteer binder, and we now call it the, “Office Minister” binder.  A subtle change, but I think it speaks volumes. Let me explain.

I can ask someone to volunteer each week to answer the phone and watch the front desk, or I can ask someone to serve as the first kind voice a caller hears on the phone, and to serve as the face of Christ when someone comes to visit the office and to provide the kind of hospitality Jesus practiced. Do you see the difference? As ministers our focus is grounded in a relationship, our relationship with Christ and with each other serving Christ and each other.

The shrewd manager taught his master a great lesson about what is truly important in this life, and he teaches us as well; our relationships and the time we devote to cultivating them.  So where and how are we going to focus our time investments as ministers of God’s Kingdom?  What will motivate us to answer God’s call on our lives to take our place on Jesus’ mission team as ministers?

So, when you consider God’s gift of time given to you, shift the balance of the spiritual clock and save time, or will you spend it as a minister in God’s kingdom work.  Also, when we refer to the work we do in service to Christ, let’s stop using the word volunteer.  When we speak of what we do as the Body of Christ for God’s glory, and when we answer God’s call let’s make sure we call ourselves what God sees us as, ministers. So, which are you, a volunteer or minister?  My friends, only time will tell.

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativityrulz/200909/time-is-more-valuable-money

(2) Mathewson, David. “The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13): A Reexamination of the Traditional View in Light of Recent Challenges.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 38, no. 1, Mar. 1995, pp. 29–39.

(3) Pohl, Christine D. “Profit and Loss.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 24, Aug. 2001, p. 13

(4) Wells, Samuel. “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, pp. 58–60