Sunday, December 25, 2011

Get Less, Give More (Matthew 6:19-21; 25-33)

Now, the way things operate in business and many other areas of public life is that two different parties work together to find their giving and getting balance.

Think about when you buy something -- your goal is to give the seller the least amount of money in return for the most product, and the seller's goal is to give the least amount of product in return for the most money. That doesn't mean either of you are trying to cheat the other, it just means that you both want to maximize your return. You go out with an idea of how much money you will spend, and an idea of what you want to get for that amount of money. But if the product you want costs more than what you want to spend, you won't buy it. Or you may decide that since you have to spend more money, you will buy a different product that is worth the extra. You won't buy the ultra-cheapie item but you will go to a name brand because the name-brand item will probably last longer.

A seller, on the other hand, has to sell things at prices that cover the cost of making them and bring in a little profit. So if you're selling something, you want to price it high enough that you will make a profit but not so high that no one will buy it. You want to make a quality product or offer an accurate description of what you're selling, of course, but you still want to get the most money for what you have on offer.

Work is the same way. If you employ someone, you certainly want to pay them enough that they want to keep working for you. But you don't want to pay them more than their work is worth or you will go bankrupt. As a worker, I want to give my employer my best efforts in return for what I'm paid. But I don't want to let my job consume all of my life or I'll be giving them too much for what my employer pays me.

We can sometimes translate that way of thinking into Christmas, and in fact if we listen to the different advertisements and sales and stuff like that, we can see it demonstrated very clearly. The secular season that people call "the holidays" is a pretty good example of that. It appeals either to our greed when we talk about what we will get or our insecurity when it tells us we have to buy that particular item or none of our friends will love us anymore.

And of course the actual holiday at the core of all of this is not at all about maximizing our returns. It's about maximizing our giving. It's about how much we give and pays not one bit of attention on how much we get, if we follow God's example. In Jesus, God has offered us everything we need and everything that will make us what we are supposed to be, and he's done that fully aware we have nothing of our own to offer in return.

That idea is at the core of God's solution to the problem of worrying about tomorrow or about how we 'll manage or about what's going to happen next. You have nothing, he says, but what I give you. And I have given you everything that matters. I have given you a relationship with me and the way to make that broken relationship whole. I have given you life and I will give you what you need in that life. If you seek after me and my kingdom, you will see you have what you need -- maybe not the way that you figured on having it, but you'll have it nonetheless.

On this Christmas day, we can see this modeled in Jesus. Remember when Paul talks about Jesus as being equal with God but not counting that as something to grasp, instead laying it all aside and emptying himself to obey God and bring us salvation? He had everything, and he chose to have nothing.

He did this because it was the way to give us -- who have nothing -- everything. If flowers and birds can understand this, perhaps we can learn to as well.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Stress and Fear (Psalm 56:2-4, 10-13; Luke 1:26-38)

When we examine the reasons our lives seem to overwhelm us now more than they ever have, some of the reasons are external -- we agree to take on too much and so we lose the time we would take to rest and recharge, and we also lose our ability to notice and respond to the world around us.

But some of them are more internal, and they play their own role in wearing us out and pushing us towards just existing in life rather than savoring it as God intended. Both the internal and the external sources produce this kind of stress, at levels that cause way more problems than they solve. Some stress, of course, is not only inevitable but even beneficial. The only people without stress are those six feet deep -- everyone else has a little in their lives, and it turns out we sort of need it.

Without any stress, systems will stay at rest. Engines won't move, nothing will happen. Without any stress, we wouldn't deal with our lives. The thought of an upcoming test in school or deadline on a project at work brings a little bit of stress to our lives: Someone's going to evaluate our knowledge of a subject, or someone's going to expect our tasks to be completed. Will we measure up on the evaluation or finish the job adequately? Until we get the grade or our the "Well done" we will stress a little over the outcome.

We face problems when we have too much stress, just like an engine that overloads. Rather than helping us and getting us going, it wears us out. The too-busy schedule feeds our stress, but so does something else, and it's something the Bible tells us God addresses over and over again. In this case, there is a clear biblical guideline as to one way to reduce our stress: Do not be afraid.

That sounds almost too simple to be true, and in any event we might not believe we fear all that much. But if we really examined our lives, we would probably find a lot more fear there than we realized. Or we might find a lot of worry, which is sort of like a more diffused version of fear.

Again, fear is a natural response to certain things and it's healthy in the right places. Almost all living things have fear responses in them that help prepare their bodies to either escape or fight a threat. The pulse speeds up and oxygenates the blood, making the body ready to run away faster or to maintain its pace longer -- or to fight off an attacker. Adrenaline floods the system for the same purpose. We teach children to be alert when they cross the street or alert for the danger posed by someone they don't know. Some of that teaching is designed to help them recognize dangers that might require the body's natural fear response.

Our problem comes when we find ourselves afraid of things that we either shouldn't be afraid of or we can't control. A twenty-four hour news cycle needs things that will make people watch it, so stories are teased in ways that might make us worry about missing something important and harmless things may be blown out of proportion. After all, thunderstorms are gray and white. So why is the heaviest rain shown in red on the radar screen during the "Weather Alert!" -- surely not because we associate red with danger and therefore we're afraid of what we might miss if we don't watch, right?

To oversimplify it a little, fear or worry about things we need to deal with is actually a good thing. But fear or worry about things we can't control or that really aren't all that likely to happen isn't. Fear that a truck will ruin your whole day if you cross the street without looking is useful; fear that a satellite in orbit will fall on your head isn't. The second kind of fear, fear that can't actually help us in any way, creates and adds to our stress because we can't do anything about it.

And to all such fears, God says, "Do not be afraid." His words intend a specific kind of comfort, though. When God tells the people in the Bible and through them, tells us not to be afraid, he does not say that bad things will never happen to us. When God tells parents not to be afraid, he does not mean that their children will never hurt. When he tells us believers not to fear, he does not mean they will never face persecution. He means that in these cases and in all others he will not leave us, no matter what happens. He will not leave us, he will never leave us, in spite of anything that we may undergo.

Mary had to be afraid, not only of the appearance of the angel but of the possible consequences of a pregnancy out of wedlock. In her culture, that could mean death. She definitely believed that God's will would be done through her but she had no ironclad guarantees, no magic potion to whisk her away if she was accused of adultery, no mystic scroll to call on a mighty warrior guardian.

She had only the angel's words that told her not to be afraid, and in the end we have the same thing whether we heard them from an angel or read them in our Bibles or sensed them during prayer.

Do these words matter? Maybe those magic potions or whatever would be a lot more useful to us than a simple promise from God that he will not desert us. When we analyze them, we realize that they don't shield us from bad things happening to us or those we care for. The bad things are just as likely to happen with those words as they are without them. Could the worst still happen, even though God is with us? Yes, it can, because God makes no promises about keeping the worst things away. He didn't keep it away from his own son, so we have no credible reason to believe he'd keep it away from us. The worst thing can still happen.

But to borrow a phrase I've heard in some other sermons, God promises us this: The worst thing is never the last thing. The cross was not the end; the empty tomb awaited. On that we can depend, and it is on that promise we can build lives that are not ruled by fear.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

It's Up to Me? (Luke 10:25-37)

One of the overlooked stories in the tale of the Exodus from Egypt is a little family incident that happened while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, pays a visit and finds Moses seated and hearing disputes. Jethro asks what he's doing, and Moses explains he hears disputes between the people and lets them know what God's statutes say.

"What you are doing is not good," Jethro says, and I leave it up to those with fathers-in-law to decide how much the Bible edited his actual comment. "You will wear yourself out, and the people too." He suggests creating a system of judges for the unimportant cases so that only the biggest deals get brought to Moses as well as teaching the people what God's statutes are so they can decide for themselves sometimes.

There were a lot of upsides to Moses' system. It was consistent: Only one judge, so no different interpretations of the law. It had a single standard. Moses also had authority. As the recognized leader of the people, he had been in charge when they left Egypt and had been seen to be chosen by God for the work. People trusted his judgments would be fair and represent God's direction, so they would abide by them. But there was also a downside: It wouldn't work. There was no way one person could judge every dispute among a group of people this size. Once Moses spent all his time deciding cases, he couldn't lead the people, and the people waiting to have their cases heard couldn't work while they waited.

One of the reasons our modern lives have so much hurry in them is how many times we say "Yes" to things and squeeze our schedules even tighter to give them all space. We might say that if we just said "Yes" to the important things we could ease things up, but the truth is a lot of us already only say "Yes" to the good and important things. We don't really waste time -- because to be honest, we don't have any time to waste in between all of the good and important things we have scheduled. That may make us feel a little better but it doesn't ease things up when it comes to hurrying.

The church can be one of the worst offenders in asking for our time, because most of the things we're asked to or that we volunteer to do are good things and things that need doing. So we don't really lay anything down that we're doing already but just add something new, and get ourselves crammed up.

Which means that when the time comes that we have something we might want to do or need to do, something that's an emergency, we don't have the time for it. The story of the Good Samaritan can be seen that way, if you want to look at it in that light. Jesus doesn't tell us why the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man, but I heard a sermon once that suggested we could think of our own reasons if we like and one of those might be that the two men were just too busy. They were on their way to important appointments and they didn't have the time to waste on an injured man -- who, after all, might have been a lure to get them robbed or who might have been trying some kind of scam or whatnot.

No one is really too busy to help someone injured like that, but it's easy if we've fallen into the hurrying mindset to talk ourselves into the belief that we are. And even if we wouldn't pass by such a great need, always being in a hurry means we might very well pass by one not so obvious but just as important.

The issue is not whether we say "Yes" to everything -- we will say "No" to some things no matter what. The issue is whether or not we will say "No" of our own choosing or because our schedules force us to, and whether or not we will say "Yes" to so much we don't do anything very well.

We may believe we need to do those things to feel good, or that if we don't do them then no one will and they won't get done. Moses probably had some of those same feelings, and I won't speak for whatever you do outside of your church arena, but inside the church I can say that if it's something no one wants to do, then it's something that doesn't need doing. If I become convinced that it would all fall apart without me, then that may be a sign that it's time for it to fall apart.

Because in the end we need to remember what Jethro also told Moses, which was that if God was with him, then the system he set up would work. Because God is at the root of what he was supposed to do and what we are supposed to be doing, and if we rely upon ourselves instead of God, then "what [we] are doing is not good."

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Stop. Look and Listen. (Exodus 20:8-11)

Whatever we have managed to distill in our society to produce our constant state of hurry, we've refined it to the extra-purest form for the time we call "the holidays." Shopping, giving and going to parties, events, and a half-dozen other things invade our already-crammed schedules and make them that much worse. We'd recognize the irony of being almost too busy to notice Christmas -- the exact situation that greeted Jesus' birth -- if we only had the time to do so.

Our real problem comes from the corrosive effect busy-ness has on our lives and our attitudes. We are in a hurry, so we get irritated when people disrupt our hurrying. A slow waitress, a laggard grocery sacker, a pokey highway driver will all send us grumbling for the antacid when we get home because they committed the unpardonable crime of slowing us down when we were in a hurry. Even if, when we pause to think about it, we weren't really in that big of a hurry this time. We just thought we were, because we always are.

Of course we miss things left and right when we hurry like this. We don't see things because we're gazing off into the distance thinking about where we have to be next. We don't listen to people because we're trying to figure out how to end the conversation quickly so we can get to the meeting we're late for. We don't reflect and think about things because we're trying to keep up with the schedules in our heads. Example? A few weeks ago President Obama spoke at the dedication of the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. The news ran a picture of the president standing with the monument site curator and his oldest daughter, who's 13.

Had he not been killed, King could very likely have lived to see the election of the first black president -- something I don't know if he believed even his children would see. And there in front of his statue is that president. Whether you like him or not, he does represent a triumph of King's dream. How will this transformed America affect the lives of the president's daughter and children her age? Her own children, along with every American born after January 2009, will never live in an America that without a black president? How will that make our country's racial picture different? I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone does. I know we took no time to think about it, though, because we were busy with a Kardashian divorce or Michael Jackson's doctor's trial.

I heard a sermon preached on this that made a connection about our hurrying that I hadn't considered before. I'd figured it was just a bad feature of modern life, something that we knew we shouldn't do but which we just couldn't make ourselves quit. But this pastor said that this kind of life is more than just ill-advised. It's a sin.

We tend to think of sin in terms of evil deeds like robbery or murder. But its true character has more to do with "missing the mark" of the way God wants us to live life, to borrow the Greek word's root meaning. And God did not give us the ability to perceive things, to listen to one another and to reflect on the world around us just so we could sacrifice them on the altar of hurrying up.

In fact, God set up a rhythm of life that allows for time to rest and to recoup our energy and strength when he commanded the Sabbath to the Israelites. We can't escape the reality that hurried lives are a lot more likely to be shallow lives, and may even become next to meaningless. Because if we lack the time to rest, to really perceive creation around us and to consider the meaning of the lives we lead, we sure as heck lack the time to spend on our relationship with God.

And that's the ultimate loss in living the hurried life -- an attenuated, strained afterthought kind of relationship with God that isn't a source of strength but just another thing to do stuck in the schedule before we go to sleep or shop for groceries Sunday afternoon.

But a regular Sabbath -- weekly and then maybe even at other times when the batteries get low -- offers us time to connect with God, to listen to him and seek out his guidance and his nourishing spirit. It's as those nourished and rested spirits that we can do God's work more effectively, and we develop the habit of looking and listening for what God wants us to see, undistracted by busy-ness. Look at how Jesus handled the woman who touched his robe.

He's on his way to heal Jairus' daughter, who needs help now. But when the woman with the issue of blood touches his robe he stops and asks who has touched him. Her condition is gone -- Jesus could have simply kept going to Jairus' house and come back to find the woman later if needed and that wouldn't have changed. But he didn't. He stopped and noticed the woman, spoke to her and acknowledged her cure. I think her touch of Jesus' robe cured her, but Jesus' choice to stop and notice her healed her.

He did that because he would not hurry, not when hurrying meant ignoring someone. He modeled that for us, as well as the practice of a Sabbath of drawing apart to pray. If we want to develop our ability to notice people and to connect with them, we too need to develop the habit of the Sabbath, whether it's on Sunday only or other times as well. We need to develop the habit of making time to listen to God, to praise him and pray to him.

Maybe you do have to put that into your schedule, or maybe you can begin to re-think your scheduling practices so that such time is there when you want it. Advent is a good time to do that -- after all, Jesus said he came so that we might have life, an abundant life! Not a hurried one.