Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fools and their Money (Luke 12:13-21)

The old saying is that a fool and his money are soon parted, meaning that people who make foolish decisions about most things will also make foolish decisions about money. I always wonder about that saying, since it seems like someone who would make such foolish decisions wouldn't have any money to start with. Also, it seems like plenty of rich people do dumb things but are still rich.

Either way, the interesting thing about that old saying when we compare it to this story is that the man in it actually makes kind of a smart decision about his wealth. He makes plans to store his abundance of crops, rather than blow all of it on the first-century Judean equivalent of a Corvette, hair plugs and 25-year-old trophy wife. We call this kind of thing "savings," and it's generally recommended in the case of rainy days. Or very hot ones, so we can pay our electric bill.

But when God speaks to him, we learn he hasn't been wise at all! He's just as much a fool as the fellow down the road anticipating the invention of automobiles and plastic surgery! How can this be? Does God really mean to tell us that saving is not as smart a thing to do as spending? Does Jesus want his listeners to believe that they should drift along with whatever happens instead of planning for the future and whatever problems it might bring?

Well no, I don't think so. When we examine the story and compare it to the conversation Jesus has just before he tells it, we can see another kind of decision operating here that doesn't have as much to do with saving vs. spending as it does with a special kind of investing.

The rich man was wise to store up his excess. But he was foolish to think that his wealth was what really mattered. What did he say after he decided to make his new storage spaces? "Hey, you've got all you need! Take it easy! Life is good!" He invested the meaning of his life in his possessions. Because he had much, he was in good shape and had a good life.

God's message to him reminds him that the things of this life don't give life meaning. Because whether it happens tonight, tomorrow or twenty years from now, this life will end. If we have dedicated it to amassing, storing up and enjoying the things that are in it, then we will have gained nothing, and neither will the world we leave.

There have been countless rich people in the world since money was invented, but the ones we remember are the ones who did something with that wealth for the world around them. Maybe they did it because their wealth comes from the old "ill-gotten gains" and this is the way they ease their consciences. Maybe they did it because they selfishly wanted their names remembered after they were gone and having that name chiseled in stone on a building meant that someone, somewhere, would always know it. Or maybe they did it because they saw their resources as gifts from God which could be used to help make things better for others. Either way, they realized that their wealth -- and the world that contained it -- was not the only thing that mattered in life.

The rich fool didn't understand that. He invested in himself and so when he was gone, all that investment lost its meaning. Jesus said that people who follow him should invest themselves in something larger than their own desires and their own benefit. They should invest themselves in God and try to mold themselves to God's work in the world, or "be rich towards God," as he phrases it.

John Wesley told his followers they should work hard and gain all they could through their work. They should also save all they could. But they should do it in order to increase their ability to offer up the resources God's work in this world needs. So win the lottery. Be the beneficiary of that rich uncle. Work the overtime. Play the market, or whatever it is that you do in order to increase the resources you have here in this life, as long as you do it honestly.

Just don't make the mistake of thinking that it'll matter when you have to leave, and don't make the mistake of ignoring the one relationship that can make everything matter, both now and in the life to come -- the relationship between you and God, made possible through the work of Jesus Christ. Don't allow your life to be like the rich man in the story, to become one that people will remember for just a little while, and then mostly for its meaninglessness, saying after you're gone, "I pity the fool."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Focus (Amos 8:1-12)

We've no idea if the prophet Amos ever delivered the materials in his book at the same time, like a sermon. But if he had, it would have been interesting to watch the people listening to him.

He begins with oracles that proclaim God's judgment on the nations around his own. Then he moves in to Judea, the other kingdom formed when the original kingdom of Israel divided under Solomon's son Rehoboam. Up until this point, our listeners might have been cheering him on. You said it, buddy! Give it to those pagans! Sock it to those wannabes down in Judea! But some of them might have worried, because with each different oracle against a nation, Amos moves in closer and closer to his own nation of Israel. His focus becomes clearer each time, and then whammo! He zeros in on his own land and his own people, and lets them have it for their sins as well.

And you might call the root of their sins a lack of proper focus. As anyone who wears glasses or has used a camera knows, focus measures the clarity of the image we see. Sharply-defined images where we can identify the details are said to be in focus. Fuzzy images where it's hard to tell just what we're looking at are out of focus. Amos lets the people of Israel know their image of themselves as God's people is out of focus and they can't see the details they need to see.

What they do see are their regular observance of religious festivals and ceremonies. Even though they don't have the Temple of Solomon -- it's in Jerusalem, which is in Judea -- they still make sure they fast at the right times, offer the right kinds of sacrifices and hold all the proper religious feasts. But they don't pay any attention to the other parts of the law that talk about how to treat each other. God's people were given the law so they could act like God's people, and that meant practicing just treatment of all people, regardless of their power or economic status, as well as praying and sacrificing at the right times.

And they weren't doing that at all. Even during their religious observances they were thinking about getting back to the business of commerce, buying and selling the same items they were supposed to be thanking God for providing. They were planning how to cut corners and cheat their customers, especially those who already had almost nothing and could least afford to be cheated.

Amos warns them that such practices aren't part of God's people and if they can't see that, they're headed down a road of destruction. They might claim that they're still God's people living up to what God has asked of them because they've got all their religious observances down pat, but Amos tells them they do not see their situation clearly. Their focus is too fuzzy and they don't identify the problems that need fixing.

We Christians may not have as many observances and feasts and festivals as the ancient Israelites, but we can be just as unfocused as they were. It's not hard to find a church that boasts of its facilities but restricts them to members only, or that dumps dollars into its building while dribbling dimes to missions. It's not hard to find a church that proclaims this or that social or political cause on its website but has no plan or time for prayer in its life together.

And it's not hard to find Christians whose attention wanders during their own times of Sunday worship to the things of their weekly lives. I'm lazy, but fortunately I rarely have to look farther than my own mirror. Or to find people who choose their church based on what it can do for them instead of seeking God's direction on whether or not that church is the place where they can best serve him.

In the lens of the cameras we used to use at the newspaper, there was a circle in the center of the viewfinder. It was divided in half, and the way to be sure the image was properly focused was to line the image in the top part up with the image at the bottom. When these central images aligned, then the image was in focus. The key was to make sure that you'd gotten what you wanted to take a picture of at the center of the viewfinder, rather than off to one side.

Following God requires something similar. If we put God off to the side of our worldview we will not be properly focused. Maybe we hold some cause or ideal as more central to our church lives than we do our worship of God. Maybe we look for what God can give us in our relationship with him than what we owe him. Maybe we're even flat-out mean and nasty jerks like the people Amos accuses of stealing and cheating the poor. Whatever it is, we miss our mark even if we're in church every Sunday and singing every song and closing our eyes in every prayer and always having a check (not too big, though) for the offering. Those mean nothing in a life unfocused on God.

The great thing about focusing our lives on God, the way Amos called the Israelites to do, is that those failures, as well as all the others, can be removed from the picture. A failure to focus on God leads to sin, But a focus on God, with God at the center of our lives, brings grace, and grace transforms the imperfections and the blurs into a clear and bright picture of what life and we were always meant to be in God's sight.

Grace, after all, makes beauty out of ugly things.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Whose Neighbor Am I? (Luke 10:25-37)

Sometimes the title gives it all away. With this one, for example, you might think that I'm going to suggest that the point of Jesus' story we call the Good Samaritan was not to answer the question asked him by the teacher of the law, but to get the teacher thinking about how he had things backwards. And you'd be right!

But Luke already gives it away -- first he says the teacher asks his question to test Jesus. I take that to mean that the teacher already knows what he thinks is the answer to his question and wants to see how well this Galilean rabbi knows his law. And then the Galilean rabbi serves up a beauty, by asking the teacher what he knows so the teacher can show off his knowledge! As far as we know, ancient Judean society did not have the concept of the straight man, or the member of a comedy team whose job it was to say things so the funny one could say something funny. But this teacher would have understood it on the spot if he'd ever heard of it.

That's right, Jesus says, when the teacher is done showing how much he's memorized. Do these things and you will live. And here's where the teacher goofs. If he'd just left it at letting Jesus help him show how smart he was, he would have been OK, but now he wants Jesus to help him show everyone how righteous he is, too. Luke says he wants to justify himself, so he asks, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus, although not in so many words, says, "OK, playtime is over and I'm going to take you to school."

He tells the story of a man who tried to walk to Jericho but never made it because he was robbed and beaten. First a priest sees him, crosses over to the other side of the road and walks past. Then a Levite does the same thing. Finally, a Samaritan finds the man, dresses his wounds and takes him someplace where he will be taken care of until he recovers and even pays for his lodging while he recuperates.

We've come to associate the word "Samaritan" with someone who does good. Billy Graham's son Franklin named his helping organization "Samaritan's Purse." Comic book writer Kurt Busiek made the central hero of his Astro City series the Samaritan.

But the Judeans of Jesus' day would not have heard that name that way. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 670 BC, they ran off all the well-to-do and educated folk of the kingdom, and brought in a bunch of folks from everywhere else they'd conquered. Those people had intermarried with the riff-raff left behind and made a group of folks that the Judeans didn't like to start with and liked even less when they came back from Babylon -- the place they'd been run off to -- about 450 BC. You know how, in our day, about the only group it's still OK to insult in public are poor rural folks? If that situation had existed in ancient Judea, they would have said "Samaritan" the way some people today say "trailer trash."

So Jesus told a story about how two respectable fellows, no doubt well thought of in their own communities, had the chance to help a man beaten half to death and they wouldn't even stop to pray for the guy, let alone actually take care of him. Then this Samaritan, a person Judean listeners wouldn't have believed capable of walking without his knuckles dragging the ground, comes by and does exactly the right thing, the thing that the two righteous guys should have done without a lost second!

And it's here that Jesus' answer spins the law teacher's question around. The teacher had asked who his neighbor was. He wanted to know who he was to love in order to obey the commandment. Who was he obligated to? Was it is his family? His literal neighbors, as in the people who lived near him? His community? Other people of his faith? Who, rabbi, do I have to love in order to fulfill the commandment?

But Jesus' story says that's the wrong question. We shouldn't ask who our neighbors are. We should be asking whose neighbor we are. The Samaritan had things the robbery victim didn't, like money to pay for an inn and supplies to treat his wounds and all of the blood he was supposed to have. The robbery victim needed the things the Samaritan had, and their encounter made the neighbor question clear for those who understood what God called them to do.

People who want to follow God should be asking themselves who they can neighbor, instead of trying to figure out who their neighbors are. They should ask, "Who can I help?" instead of "Who do I have to help?"

And that doesn't just refer to material needs. Christians, we say we have been given the grace of God. By that grace our relationship with God is made what it was always supposed to be and we were saved from our sin. Everyone's been given that grace, but we for some reason have the knowledge of how much we needed it. Will we be neighbors to those who don't have that knowledge? Will we show the love of God, available for all, to everyone who needs it (Hint: That means everyone period)? Will the grace of God flow through us or will it get choked off because we're busy seeing if someone meets neighbor criteria?

I've quoted atheist magician Penn Jillette before, who says he understands why Christians want to share the gospel even if he doesn't in the least bit agree with them. In fact, he says he can't really understand those who won't share -- politely, respectfully, appropriately and lovingly, of course -- when they get the chance. "How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?" he asks. I'd tweak it just a bit in light of our story and ask myself this:

How much would I have to hate my neighbor to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? And a follow-up, if I may. Have I been a neighbor to the people I've met? Or just another passer-by?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Allegiance (Galatians 6:7-16)

Did you know that two of the most often-repeated passages in both public and religious life have something in common? We say them both wrong.

The "Pledge of Allegiance" doesn't have a comma between "one nation" and "under God," even though we almost always pause there when we say it. And the Lord's Prayer doesn't have a a comma between "be done" and "on earth" where we find it in Matthew 6:10, even though we almost always pause there when we say that, too. Just some trivia for you.

"Allegiance" is a concept Paul comes at in different ways throughout his letters. Here, he declares his devotion to the cross of Christ. He'll boast of nothing else, no qualifications of his own, no successes he's achieved. He will boast of, rely on and depend solely upon the cross rather than any earthly signs or symbols. His allegiance will be to the cross and the Savior it represents.

On a national holiday celebrating our nation's beginnings, it's worth a moment to examine the idea of allegiance because we focus on it a lot as we remember our country's heritage and history. Its roots lie with the same words that give us "ally" or "allied." We know that an ally is someone who's on our side, and we may remember probably the best-known use of the word described the nations that fought against Germany and Japan in World War II. England, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were the main partners in the Allied Forces.

On a personal level, we usually say "friends" instead of "allies," but some of the concept is the same. Our friends are on our side, or we may say they have our backs if we are dealing with difficulties.

We can be allied with more than one person at a time, even if those people aren't allies with each other. We all have friends who might not get along with other friends we have, and we know our nation counts among our allies nations that aren't allies of each other. Sometimes this can cause disagreements. Perhaps our two friends who don't like each other have an argument. They may ask us to choose sides, which we will probably avoid doing if we can, because we are smart and we choose not to be triangled into their dysfunction.

But if we must, we find ourselves choosing one allegiance over the other, for whatever reasons seem good to us. If we choose our allegiance because we know one friend is right and the other wrong, we do so not because we like one friend more than the other, but because we believe we owe still a third allegiance: To truth itself. We might call that a higher allegiance than the other two.

As Christian citizens of the United States, we owe allegiance to our God as well as to our country. Jesus describes this when he tells his questioners that they should offer Caesar the devotion which is due him and God the devotion which is due him. When those allegiances don't conflict, then we have no problems. But sometimes they do. And then we have to decide which allegiance we will follow, and that will depend on whether or not we understand what allegiance to God truly means.

When we ally with someone, we don't pretend they're perfect. The leaders of the free nations knew Josef Stalin's Russia was not a good place, but they allied with him in order to defeat the Nazis, who were an even worse evil at the time. We have to understand who someone really is in order to be a real ally, though, or else we might call on them for something they can't or won't do.

What Paul is telling us here is that if we understand who God really is, we will declare our first and highest allegiance is to him. Nothing can or will take precedence over him; in any case where there's a conflict between what God calls us to do and what someone else calls us to do, we will take God's side. No friend, family member or country can take God's place if we are declaring true allegiance to and reliance on the cross and the Savior it represents.

In our nation's history, we have seen that show up time and time again. Christian people declared that allegiance to God mandated opposing slavery, even though the laws of our nation permitted it. They declared that allegiance to God mandated equal treatment under the law no matter what the color of a person's skin, even though the laws of some parts of our nation prohibited equal treatment. They opposed those laws and in some cases paid the price with insults, harassment, fines, jail terms and even physical assault and death.

The laws of our nation permit capital punishment, but I believe my allegiance to God doesn't allow me to support that (Has to do with how I treat "the least of these," following Matthew 25 -- topic for another sermon). If I ever serve on a jury in a murder case I'll never vote to impose that punishment even though I could legally do so. Which means I'll be off that kind of a jury pretty quickly, of course.

I would live no other place in this world and would have no other country than this one as my home. But if God's plan of salvation for the world called for this nation to pass from the earth I would call for that too. If I'm going to declare real allegiance to God I can't do anything else.

Today, and hopefully every day, I'm proud of my American heritage and of my nation, and I celebrate both. But today, and hopefully every day, I remember my heritage as a sinner saved by grace, represented in the cross of Christ, and lift that banner higher than any other as I offer thanks for it.