Sunday, April 15, 2012

Money Money Money Money...MONEY! (Psalm 112)

The combination of election-year speechmaking and economic uncertainty pushes money matters to the forefront of most Americans' consciousness, and Christians are no different. But money is really just a tool, a shorthand way of trading something we have for something we want. Why does it cause so many problems for our lives of faith?

Probably for the same reason other things can cause problems for lives of faith -- a tendency to push God out of the center of those lives and replace him with something else. In this case, with money. Its value as a tool makes it very easy to rely on it for things that Christian people are supposed to leave to God to provide, most especially our satisfaction and our security in life.

At least in the U.S., we're very often told that our satisfaction depends on the purchase of new, bigger and better stuff. Some of the housing market slump in recent years came from people who shouldn't have been lent any money at all, but some also comes from people who borrowed more than they could afford in order to get a bigger house than they needed or one in a nicer, pricier neighborhood. In a race to have the latest gadgets, the "right" kind of car and so on, people spend almost everything they make and in some cases more. They do this because many of us have become convinced that the purchase of any or all of those things will somehow satisfy us and make our lives good.

But when money gets tight and economic conditions iffy, we may find ourselves unable to afford those extras that we have come to depend on to fufill us, which leaves us feeling dissatisfied about our lives. Even more, it can leave us wondering if we can afford the basics of life anymore, and that creates more worry.

In that sense, money is like any other idol we create -- it will let us down at some point. It can't take God's place because it isn't God.

The biblical view of satisfaction and security rests it on something entirely different -- obedience to God and generosity of giving, a little like what Psalm 112 describes. When I was reflecting on this idea, I wondered a little bit about why generosity can do so much more to offer us peace, satisfaction and security than the idea of acquiring things can.

I think one reason is that we become much more aware of what we have whenever we give to someone who has less. The Occupy protests last fall often referred to the "one percent," meaning the wealthiest Americans, but anyone who knows anything about the world outside our borders knows just by being born in the U.S. people are already well on their way to being a part of the world's one percent. People below the official poverty line in the U.S. own television sets, cell phones, cars and even homes that only the richest people in many third world countries own.

If we are people of any empathy at all, we have to step back from our complaints when we hear about the lives of others with so much less and reflect on what we do have. And it seems very often that unless it's being said to that strange aunt who bought you socks for Christmas, the phrase "Thank you" brings a lot more joy than does a concern about what to buy.

And another, I think, is that generosity costs so much less. Ask someone how much money they would have to have in order to feel safe or secure about the future. Even 20 years ago they might have said "a million dollars." Today, that amount would be a lot higher. You might be OK with a billion dollars, if only because you could buy a big boat to live on and sail away with your money if things got strange.

My local mega-discount-grocery story has an off-brand of cereal that sells for a dollar a box. Now five dollars wouldn't make anyone feel safe about the next five minutes and would barely pick up a gallon and a half of gasoline. But it would provide a week's worth of breakfasts for a family if it was used to buy cereal that was donated to a food pantry.

The Bible doesn't say there's anything wrong with money, because when it's used properly there isn't anything wrong with money. It only becomes a stumbling block in our faith lives when we try to make it something it's not -- a foundation for our safety and security.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

So He Told Them This Parable, Part 6 (Luke 15:1-3; 11-32)

Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. These sermons will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.

 And so, having welcomed his son, the father throws a feast. Although the meal is the central feature of this gathering, there's a lot more to it than we might think of if we were trying to picture this event happening today.

First off, this whole fatted calf business is a really big deal -- doctors today of course recommend we don't eat that much fat and we usually trim it off the cuts of meat that we do eat, simply because we have so much of it in our modern diets. First century middle eastern diets, on the other hand, didn't always include meat and when they did, that meat was probably a little bit tougher than what we're used to. Since cattle, sheep and goats were sources of many things other than just meat, they weren't raised to be eaten and the ones that usually made it to the table were the ones that had died of natural causes. If your burgers came only from old cows, you'd probably be pretty excited over the chance to eat one made from a fatted calf, raised for the slaughter.

Second, this was not simply a feast for the household, but for the whole village. A fatted calf was going to provide a lot of meat, and the overjoyed father wants to include everyone in the party. Usually these kinds of things were reserved for festivals or harvest celebrations, so an unexpected feast would be a great time for everyone. And we see that, with music and dancing singled out as the older son's clues that something is going on at home. People who live in smaller towns that still have a focus on agriculture might understand this sort of feast a little better, thinking of it as something like a 4th of July picnic -- a great meal, but not only a meal as there are a whole lot of other things going on during the day as well.

All three of the parables Jesus tells in this setting have celebrations at the end. The shepherd found his sheep and the woman found her coin, and here the father has his son returned to him. And all of them call their friends together to share their joy.

Remember, Jesus wants his listeners to understand the heavenly response to the recovery of one who was thought to be lost. "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance," he says. Yes, he wants the legalists and the religious leaders to understand that their pride in their own righteousness and their disdain for those who don't share it is wrong, but he also wants the tax collectors and sinners to hear a call to come home, and a promise of a joy-filled return that waits for them.

In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller suggests that we, as followers of Christ, have been given a preview of the feast or a hint of it. Through communion with God in prayer and in feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit, we have had a touch of the wonder that is to come when we are in the presence of the Lord face to face for all eternity.

So shouldn't we be changed by that taste, he asks? Shouldn't we, knowing what is to come, feel secure in the knowledge that God loves us and welcomes us? And shouldn't that change show up in the way we live our lives? Who, knowing that the great feast awaits us at the end, could feel like his world has ended when the stock market takes a hit? Who, knowing the welcome in the household of God that awaits us at the end, could feel like her world has ended because people have said untrue and unkind things about her?

We can follow that up just a little, too. Remember how the older brother wouldn't come in to the feast? If he'd really been the righteous son he claimed to be, if he'd really been right in relationship with his father, would he have passed up a chance to help his father celebrate the return of a lost son? Jesus seems to want to tell his non-tax-collector listeners that their strict adherence to propriety and the letter of every last law is not the sign of their righteousness. The sign of their righteousness would be their rejoicing at the welcoming of those who have gone away!

In that culture, the oldest son helped the father look out for, protect and care for the family. The first two parables have the shepherd search for his sheep and the woman hunt for her coin, and the the third should have had the oldest son go to retrieve his brother. according to what a truly righteous son would do. But he didn't. And, Jesus seems to say to the scribes and Pharisees, neither do you.

But we have an older brother in Jesus who does seek us out when we have wandered, and does try to persuade us to return home. And in communion, he gave us a reminder of the feast that is to come, a feast he himself prepares and serves so we can respond with joy and join him in seeking out the lost who have wandered. Not to condemn, not to scorn -- but to persuade to come join us in the feast of the Lord.