Sunday, September 29, 2013

Less? More? (Matthew 6:19-21, 25, 33)

Sometimes we unbalance our lives because we're feeling driven by something -- by schedules, by anxiety and worry, by the stress our routine puts on us. But sometimes, we unbalance them because we're chasing something. Usually it's money, but just about anything that we can want or try to acquire will sit comfortably in that seat.

Our culture has sort of trained us away from the idea of greed, by connecting it to obvious evildoers like Montgomery Burns or Gordon Gekko. Cartoonish villains who ruin lives or threaten to destroy the world's supply of albacore tuna are greedy, you see, which is why they will do those horrible things in order to ill-get their gains. You and I would never threaten harmless fish or sell off a manufacturing facility to raise stock prices, so we're OK.

I wonder if we are, though. At its core, this conception of greed says that we will do things we shouldn't to get what we want. And when we phrase it like that, we can see greed in a whole lot of things that would never make a good Oliver Stone or James Bond movie, but which can do just as much damage to us and unbalance our lives just as easily.

Why would we do those things, though? Why would we spend more than we have in order to get a bigger house or a newer car or more expensive clothes, computers, TVs, furniture, phones, whatever. No one would rationally make a decision to go into more debt than they could repay for something that they might not be able to sell for enough to pay off that debt if worst came to worst. So why do it?

We can see the answer in almost any commercial. Because having this thing -- whatever it is -- will make us happy or make our lives fulfilled. Because having a fat retirement account will keep us safe when we no longer work. Because it's our "dream house." We know intellectually that those things aren't completely true. Every young man who sees an Axe Body Wash commercial knows he will not have the best-looking women of the town pursuing him uncontrollably -- and the agency who made the ad knows that too, because they intend to get you to buy the product while laughing at the absurdity of the ad. But the over-the-top suggestion conceals the message that maybe a couple of them will respond better than they do right now. And your life, you loser non-Axe Body Wash-user, will not be complete until you have those ladies responding to your choice of soap.

Except the message is not only ridiculous, it's a lie. Being respectful and attentive will do a lot more than a special soap -- although some kind of soap is probably a good idea -- to win fair hand. And a "dream house" that soaks up every bit of income just to keep even with the payments and forces a family to buy on credit necessities like food and clothing is no dream at all. It's a nightmare.

The Bible has a label for these kinds of things we use to make us happy or feel secure and fulfilled. It calls them idols. An idol isn't necessarily a golden statue of a calf -- it's anything on which you or I depend for something that we should really only depend on God for. And when we worship these idols -- which is what depending on them for happiness and fulfillment and security really means -- we will do irrational things for them, like spending more money that we make or have to acquire them.

Worshiping God can lead to similar behavior that looks irrational too. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, considered the ten percent tithe the starting point for his giving. He worked throughout his life to spend less on himself so he could give more to others, and by his last few years he was living on ten percent of his income and giving ninety percent of it away. He was asked how he could do that and he would rely on these passages from Matthew as his guide. He sought first the kingdom of God, and relied on God who knew what he needed for those things that he needed.

We might say, well, it's easy to give away 90 percent of your income when you get housed by the people who have you come preach and your home base has a kind of dorm for its preachers that they let you stay at and where someone who works for the movement cooks for you and makes sure your place is taken care of. But Wesley would point out that he didn't give away more money until he found himself no longer needing the money for those other things.

Because God, he might say, provided them through the ministry of all those other people who desired to serve Him by serving their church.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Whom Should I Fear? (Psalm 56:2-4, 10-13)

When we find ourselves in a constantly hurried-up world, we will probably also find ourselves undergoing a lot of stress, and probably some anxiety as well. The irony is that proper amounts of anxiety and stress are necessary for our lives, but when we worry and stress more than we should, we create problems for ourselves, and find that we're living lives outside of God's design and rhythm.

Anxiety roots in fear, and fear is a biological response to an unknown potential danger or to a known danger. When we fear something, like a bump in the night, then our bodies get ready to combat the danger or run away, and the quicker heart rate, heightened alertness and tension we feel is a part of that. If we didn't fear anything, then we would be in trouble. We first learned to look both ways when we crossed the street because we were taught to be a little fearful of oncoming cars. As we grew up, we realized we just needed to be cautious instead of afraid, because our experience trained us to remember to look both ways.

We need a little stress in our lives as well. Stress makes systems work and it motivates us to do things. If I'm in school, knowing that I have a test coming up is a stress-producer. But that's good, because without that deadline, I might not study the subject I'm supposed to be learning. Project deadlines at work also create stress, but that helps us get our part of the task done and not let other people down.

If we over-stress, though, then we actually reduce our ability to work and get things done. An end-of-the-week deadline gets me moving on my task, but someone breathing down my neck every day about what I've done so far not only distracts me, it makes my work poorer.

A life in balance has fear, and it has stress. But it doesn't have too much of them, or have them in the wrong contexts. God designed us with a fear-response to protect ourselves and a stress response to motivate us, but when either of those things runs out of control, we start living lives outside of that design. Of course, there are diagnosed illnesses and mental health conditions that feature constant anxiety or constant stress. If that's you, then professional help of some kind, whether from a counselor or medication, is the best way to try to restore your balance. But many people struggle with stress and anxiety without a medical or mental health problem. What does God say to us?

At first glance, it seems like God's response is not all that reassuring. God, speaking through the prophets or sometimes directly, frequently addresses fear: He says, "Do not be afraid."

Well, that's helpful -- maybe. Any ideas, Lord, on just why I shouldn't be afraid? I mean, there's some stuff going on in the world that makes me a little nervous. Sure, some if it's fed by news channels that make everything sound like doomsday in order to get me to pay attention, and sure some of it's probably never going to happen, but have you got some tips on that not fearing thing?

God's response: I will be with you. It may not sound like much still, but it's the same response Moses got when he wondered about going to see Pharaoh, it's the same response the prophets got when they wondered why they got picked to be God's mouthpieces, and it's the same trust Jesus had and imparted to his followers, and it's the same reality in which Paul rejoiced while he was in prison.

It's what our parents told us when we faced our imagined fears of monsters under the bed or in the closet -- fears that may have been real to us but which they, in their greater experience and wisdom, knew to be unfounded.

And that may be a way of seeing these fears and stressors we face -- as things that seem big to us but which are known by God to be much less bothersome than we believe. Yes, our fears are real, not imaginary like the monsters in the closet, but God reminds us that they can't do the worst thing imaginable, which is to separate us from him. In Jesus, he reminds us that even death itself can't divide us from him. 

Do we believe God is God, and overcomes everything that would keep us away from him, even our own selfishness, pride and sin? If that's what we believe, then that's what we can lean on when we face fears, anxieties and stress. We may have to remind ourselves of that reality, and we may have to do it often. I do. But if it's the reality by which we operate, then we can say, along with the psalmist, "The Lord is my light and salvation -- whom shall I fear?"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Do it All? (Exodus 18:13-26)

Most of us find a lot of comfort in taking on an entire task by ourselves. It will be done the way we think it needs to be done. We can make sure it's all being handled. Nothing left out.

BUT, as we find out, if we do that for every responsibility we have, then we wind up stressed out and with schedules crammed full of events and activities that totally depend on us. We are responsible to many people about completing the things we've said we will do, and we have the additional stress of knowing we don't want to let people down who are depending on us.

It's then we need to listen to the wisdom of Jethro (a phrase that, ever since Paul Henning created The Beverley Hillbillies, has been uttered but rarely, I would imagine). He sees his son-in-law Moses doing something very similar to what I have just described when he judges matters among the people. Every dispute comes to Moses, with the people lined up outside his tent.

True, as God's leader he is called the nabi, which means mouthpiece or speaker for God. But I don't believe that God had this particular arrangement in mind, and Jethro doesn't either. He lays it out for Moses: "What you are doing is not good." You may imagine whatever father-in-law-type embellishments you wish on that statement. Jethro suggests that Moses divide the task up among trustworthy deputies who can judge the smaller matters themselves, and then save his energy for the bigger matters as well as other aspects of leading the people.

In this exchange, we see not only that God does not call us to do everything ourselves, we get a sense as to why he doesn't do that. For one, we wear ourselves out, just as Jethro said. For another, it leaves us unable to say yes to important tasks that God may call on us to do that we hadn't planned on. If we have crammed our waking hours with activity from end to end, then any new task means abandoning an existing one. And if they're all important, that means that we will leave something important undone in order to answer this new important call.

Imagine with me that the first two men who see the injured victim in Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan were not just unwilling to help him because they didn't care enough. Imagine that they were busy men, with meetings to attend in Jericho and they couldn't delay their journeys long enough to help the stranger, exposing themselves to his blood and the ritual uncleanness that accompanied it. Imagine that they had said yes to many good things, and because they had, they could not say yes to the vital need that was right in front of them.

Isn't that the way it's likely to happen for us? We might bypass someone in need of help not because we're put off by them, but because we just don't have the time. We don't have the time to listen to a friend who needs to share a hurt because we have to get somewhere. We don't have time to pray with someone because we have a project we have to get done right now.

So even if the things we say yes to are all good -- and I imagine for many of us, they are -- we still find ourselves needing to let some of them go. God has called many people -- and there are probably some folks around somewhere who will pick up on some of the things we lay down.

My cousin's daughter said yes this past summer to a mission trip to Honduras -- which meant saying no to quite a few other things. She said yes to spending time on trip fund-raisers and no to some free weekends. She said yes to long plane rides and no air conditioning and a lot of other hardships for a brief few days, because she said no to hanging out with her friends and sunning by her grandparents' pool. None of the things she said no to were bad. They're ordinary and even fun, and they're a big part of a young person's life. But had she not said no to them, she would not have been able to say yes to God's call to minister with some very poor people and to be a part of helping them.

If we don't allow some times of saying "No" to wedge some space into our lives, then when God calls us we will find ourselves answering, "Here I am, Lord. But I'm too busy. Send someone else."

Sunday, September 01, 2013

"Dear Rabbi" (Luke 14:1, 4-17)

The following is a reprint of the manuscript from a previous time I preached this sermon. I am drawing some similar ideas this Sunday. The original can be found here.

 Well, what an interesting little pair of parables. Jesus all of a sudden takes time out from teaching about the kingdom of God and about the good news to become an advice columnist.

“Dear Rabbi: When I go to a dinner party, I never know where to sit. Can you help me? Signed, Dopey Dinnerguest.”

“Dear Dopey: Well, don’t take the best seat. Take the worst one until the host comes and tells you to come sit closer to him.”

Now, our culture has different ideas about public shaming and honor than Jesus’ culture did. They considered public humiliation at a dinner – especially the kind where you had to give up your seat to someone else — a much bigger deal than we would. We would think this a minor embarrassment and maybe a good story to tell on ourselves. They would not.

The host would sit the person he most wanted to honor to his immediate right, and then the next to his immediate left, and so on. We might have a head table at an important banquet, but we tend to not care much about it after that.

In fact, we often prefer the seats away from the head table and near the door. They’re closer to the bathroom, closer to the exit if the speaker is boring and closer to the bar – which is a big deal for some folks. Especially if the speaker is boring.

But if I went to such a dinner in Jesus’ time, I would have to judge how important the host thought I was and seat myself by that. So I would have to know everything about all the other guests and a bunch of other stuff that would pretty much keep me from enjoying myself because of all the worrying I’d be doing.

Jesus offers this bit of wisdom for several reasons. One, it’s what rabbis did. Teachers said wise things that people who followed them were supposed to listen to and follow to improve their own lives and act more wisely. The book of Proverbs is a collection of these kinds of sayings.

This may be one of the few saying of Jesus most Christians obey, as it happens. Look at the pews on any Sunday morning and see which ones are empty and which ones are full of people waiting for Jesus to say, “Friend, go up higher.”

We’ll get to his other reasons in a minute. First, let’s look at our second letter.

“Dear Rabbi: I want to give a dinner and invite a bunch of people, and my planner wants to know where to send the invitations. Who should be on my guest list? Signed, Confused at the Caterers.”

“Dear Confused: You should invite a lot of people who can’t invite you back. That way you won’t get paid back for your hospitality.”

Here Jesus wants to get his listeners to understand real giving requires offering something for nothing.

We don’t have to scratch our heads too much to see the connection between this idea and the grace through which God offers our salvation, do we? Jesus certainly offered himself for us though he knew how imperfect a job we would do of offering anything back.

And that’s one way I see these two parables operating for us today. Jesus wants us to see in them a certain way to live. We live that way when we make grace the operating guide and principle of our lives.

Our world teaches us one way to live: We give what we get. We give to those who can give back and ignore the rest. We reward those who treat us well and punish those who don’t. If we’re strong enough, we take what we want, and if we’re not, we try some other way.

But Jesus commands us to live differently. We don’t operate our lives according to a balance sheet, where we make sure what comes in is at least as much as goes out or more. We are to operate according to the idea of grace.

And in that way of living, we don’t seek honor for ourselves, as would a dinnerguest who took the prime seat. We acknowledge that any honor we receive is the free gift of God and accept it gratefully.

We don’t think of how our gift to someone will end up benefiting us, but rather of giving to someone who truly needs it.

I sometimes see it as Jesus asking us to live like this so we can get used to grace – it’s unfamiliar to us, after all. But it is his way, it is the way. The Kingdom of God he proclaims operates this way.

And one day, God willing, so will we.