Monday, October 25, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

God Loves Us All (Unfinished Sermon)

I am so happy this week! We have an easy one!! YEAH! A nice easy to understand gospel reading. Not even a lot of interpretation to be done. Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good! Just be nice and humble and everything will be a-ok! I like scriptures like this. I don’t have to think too much about them and neither do you! We can just sit back and pat ourselves on the back and be oh so proud of how humble we are. We aren’t like that nasty, self-serving Pharisee. We are not all kinds of self-righteous. We can thank God that we are not like other people.

Yes, we could feel that, but you know, if we listened to ourselves, we really aren’t that much different than the Pharisee. The Pharisee is praising himself on how righteous he is and how he keeps all the laws. The Pharisee is praising himself on how he is just so much better than the tax collector. The Pharisee is just lifting himself up, telling the whole world how wonderful he is.

But we can get into a similar situation by thinking we are just so much better than everyone else because we are just so humble. I have heard it once described as “conspicuous non-consumption.” We look at ourselves as being so much better by what we don’t have. Or I have heard people in churches get into “I was a worse sinner than you” competitions. If we look at this parable as just a platitude to be humble, we can get into all kinds of weird behavior. These must be something more here than just a simple exhortation to not think too highly of oneself.

Humm…Maybe this is not as simple as it would appear to be!

If we think about it, everything the Pharisee was saying was most likely true. I am sure he did fast twice a week. I am sure he did tithe. I am sure the Pharisee was of upstanding character; he was a righteous man. The Pharisee was not lying when he said all of these things. So the problem Jesus had with the Pharisee was not his truthfulness, it was something else.

The tax collector was also being truthful. We are not going to whitewash him and make him into something he was not. The tax collector was, truly, a sinner. So, again, the difference cannot be made on their truthfulness. They both were being truthful.

Maybe it was repentance! Was the tax collector repentant and the Pharisee not? We know that the Pharisee doesn’t seem to think there is any need for repentance; why should he? According to his standards and his laws, he hasn’t done anything worthy of repentance. But if we look, the tax collector does not repent either! We are not told that the tax collector says, “I’m sorry” or “I will try to do better.” The tax collector shows no sign of repentance. So repentance cannot be the thing that separates the two men praying in the temple.

Well, you probably have it figured out by now; the difference is that Pharisee does not see any need for God in his life. The Pharisee sees his place in life as his own doing. He has the good things in life because he has been righteous and has followed the law. Now the tax collector, he has no illusions; he doesn’t even approach the temple, he just throws himself down and begs for forgiveness. The tax collector just begs for mercy. The tax collector makes no pretense of being righteous. He doesn’t even promise to be righteous in the future. All he does is realizes his place in life and realizes that he needs God’s mercy.

The Pharisee doesn’t realize that his need for mercy. The Pharisee cannot even look at the tax collector and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The Pharisee does not see that his life could be any other way than the way HE made it. According to the Pharisee, everything he has he deserves; he earned it. According to the Pharisee, he has no need to be thankful because he is just getting paid back for his righteousness.

But the tax collector sees his need for mercy. The tax collector does not make any assumption about his state of being. The tax collector is desperate for mercy. The tax collector realizes that any blessings that he has in his life are all a gift from God. Where the tax collector shows true dependence on God, the Pharisee just appears smug.

The Pharisee divides people up into two groups, those who are righteous, like himself, and the immoral people like the tax collector. Although the Pharisee says “Thanks,” it is more a perfunctory sort of “thanks.” He really doesn’t see that his life and all he has is a gift. He just sees it as part of his own righteousness. He sees all he has as being due to him; not a gift at all. He sees himself and others as righteous and deserving, and the others as immoral and therefore undeserving of what they have.

But the truth is that neither man is deserving of the gifts they have been blessed with. And justification is not from our recognition of the gifts, but our recognition of our need for God’s mercy! God does not see the divisions that the Pharisee is making. God does not see us as primarily righteous or immoral. God sees us as God’s children and wants us to look to God for our daily needs. It is in our recognition of our need for God’s mercy that we find our true humanity. It is in our recognition that all of us need God’s mercy that removes the divisions that separate us and move us into our own little worlds.

In the adult class on Wednesday night, we are reading the book, The Great Divorce. In this book, by C. S. Lewis, Hell is populated by people who are totally separated from each other. They can create what they want just by thinking it. There is no reason to need anyone else. And it is this belief in self-sufficiency that keeps the people in the book out of Heaven. It is not supposed righteousness or immorality of the person that keeps them out of Heaven, it boils down to the person’s realization that they NEED God. Those that realize they need God are justified; those who feel self righteous are allowed to return to their own little Hells.

Can we ever move beyond our need for self-righteousness? Can we ever see ourselves as gifted from God while totally dependent upon God? Can we ever move beyond our need to separate ourselves into “Us” and “Them” groups? Into “Me” and “Them” groups? “God loves me” and “God doesn’t love you” groups? Truthfully, I don’t think we ever can. I think it is part of being human to divide people up into “Us” and “Them.”

But God is asking us to just rely on God.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Its A Trust Thing Pentecost 21

Proper 24C

I was thinking about the concept of trust. What do you trust? If you think about it, we go through our life trusting a lot of things. We trust that the architects did a good job in designing this building. We trust that the materials used to make the ceiling will hold up and not come crashing down upon us. We trust that our car breaks will work and we trust that the other guy’s brakes will also work. We trust a lot of things will happen to keep us safe.

To go through live we HAVE to trust in a lot of things. But what about people? Can we get through life without trusting people? And if we do trust people, who are the people that we trust? Now this is no little question! We may say we trust our spouse. We may say we trust our coworkers. We may say we trust our children or our parents. We may say we trust our fellow congregants. We may say this, but do we really trust these people? We may be willing to trust people with little thing, but are we willing to trust others with the things we consider to be important? Are we willing to trust, or do we want to do it ourselves to make sure it is done the way WE want it to be done.

I think we are willing to trust up to a point, but when things get really serious, we want to do things ourselves. We want to make sure that it gets done the way we want it done. Small things, we are ok with letting others do, but the big things we want to control; we don’t want to be at the mercy of the faults and foibles of others. Although we may say we trust people, I find we usually want to make sure that things are done our way. This is the way of our world. We live in the world of the Lone Ranger. But God did not put us in the world to go it alone; God put us here to be part of community. God put us here to be among believers. God put us here to trust in God.

Do we really trust God?

In our first reading this morning, we have the story of Jacob. We may remember some things about Jacob: He was the second born of twins. He traded a bowl of stew to receive the birthright from his older brother Esau. And finally, he tricked his dying father, Isaac, into giving the blessing to him,, the younger brother, instead of giving it to Esau, the one to whom it rightly belonged.

Jacob didn’t trust that God would be with him. He wanted to make sure he got the blessing, he wanted to make sure he got the birthright. He would scheme and trick to make sure he got the best.

As you could guess, all of this trickery caused problems in Jacob’s life. Matter of fact, Jacob’s name was a constant reminder of his treachery. You see, the name Jacob means “The Supplanter;” he supplanted his brother’s birthright and he supplanted his brother’s blessing. And as we begin the Genesis reading for today, Jacob is returning home after fleeing twenty years earlier after securing Esau’s birthright.

In the reading, Jacob has prayed that God would give him deliverance from Esau after Jacob heard that Esau was going to meet him along with 400 men. I find it interesting that it is only when faced with an almost impossible problem does Jacob finally reach out to God. When Jacob has no way of tricking his way out of something, then he goes to God. In response to Jacob’s prayer, God sends an angel.

Why doesn’t God just make things better for Jacob? Why all of thise wrestling? Jacob had to struggle with God. Jacob had to hold God to God’s word. Jacob had to rely on God instead of relying on his own trickery. And when Jacob relied on God, when Jacob struggled with God, well, first off, his name was changed. It was changed from Jacob, “The Supplanter,” to Israel, which means “One Who Strives With God.” And then Israel receives a blessing. We are not told exactly what the blessing was, but we know that Israel’s meeting with Esau ends in reconciliation and we also know that Israel will become the father of nations. So Israel is blessed, not through trickery or deception, but through holding God to God’s promise.

In our gospel reading, we learn more of what it means to trust in God.

It would be easy to just write this parable off as a call to nag God. We could see the widow as someone who just keeps nagging until those around become so tired that they give in. But that would be to forget about the judge.

The judges of Biblical times were to defend widows. Widows had no power in the community so it was the mandate of the judges to see that they were cared for. But this judge did not care. He had no fear of what would happen to him so he couldn’t have cared less if he defended the widow or not. It was only when the widow had annoyed the judge enough that the judge finally gives the widow justice.

However, God is not some unjust judge. God cares deeply about the widow and the orphan. God cares deeply about the poor and the homeless. God cares deeply about you and about me. And because God cares, we do not need to badger God.


We are to remain faithful. We are to put our trust into God. We need to remember that Jesus tells us that this parable shows us that we are to pray and not give up. When God seems slow in responding, we are to remember that it is not that God is unjust or God is slow. When God seems to be far away, we are to wait faithfully and prayerfully. We can wrestle with God, but in the end, we need to maintain our persistence in faith.

Often people will twist the parable of the widow and the unjust judge to point the finger when prayers do not seem to be answered. People will say that the man dies of the heart attack because he did not pray enough. Or they might say that the woman has not found a job because she is not faithful enough. But that is not what the parable is saying. The parable is giving us insight into a loving God, not a petty god.

Jacob had something to learn as he wrestled with the angel. He had to learn that what he could grasp for himself through trickery and deceit were so much less than God had planned for him. He had to learn that in relying solely on God was the way to be truly blessed. And it was through the struggle that the blessing came.

We may not know what we have to learn. We may not know what blessings may come. But we are invited to struggle with our feelings of being abandoned. We are invited to wrestle with God and hold God accountable to God’s promise of love and forgiveness. We are to struggle but we are also to remain faithful. This struggle is not easy. My own personal experience tells me that there will be times when God seems distant and faithfulness is difficult. But even when God seems far we are to still remain faithful. We are to remain prayerful. We are to trust.

God wants to give us blessing. God wants us to rely on him. God wants us to remain faithful even when times are difficult. It is not easy to continue when the world looks like it is against us, but we need to remember that the widow, in the face of injustice, continued to plead her case and ask for justice. When times are difficult, we need to remain faithful and it is when we struggle through the difficulties that God shows us the blessings.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Better Living Through Chemistry

Yep, I am back on antidepressants.  And yes, it is a good thing.  Moods were getting all over the place.  I was having trouble just functioning.  I wasn't all for going back on drugs, but I could not function without them.  So, I am back being chemically managed.  And you know, that is not a bad thing!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Being Well Pentecost 20 Proper 23C

Luke 17:11-19

You know, I have read this story many times. I can tell you the general gist of the story. But when I read it this time, I thought of something different. I usually focus on the whole ten-were-healed-but-only-one-was-grateful-enough-to-come-back aspect of the story. That take on the story has served me well for the past three cycles of the lectionary. But when I read it this time, something totally different jumped out at me.

What jumped out at me this time was what Jesus said to the one leper that came back; Jesus said that the faith of this leper had made him well. This really made me stop and think. I thought all ten were made well. Isn’t that what we would say? They were all made clean, they were all sent to the priests to be inspected, they all had their disease removed, so, we would assume, they were all made well! Or at lest that is the way I have read it for MANY years. But this does not seem to be the case. This is NOT what Jesus says. Jesus makes the distinction. We are told by the writer of the Gospel that all ten were made clean, but Jesus tells us that only one was made well.

So I had to wonder: What was the difference between being made clean and being made well?

I always assumed that being made clean was the equivalent of being well. It seemed like a logical assumption. Being made clean returned you to the community. The lepers were outcasts from those around them. They were banished from being among others and had to keep to themselves. By being made clean, they were returned to society and were able to get back to their normal lives. Wouldn’t you think that being back in the good graces of society the equivalent of being well? I guess I have thought that for years. But then it struck me: Why would there be a need to tell this one specific person that he was well?

It all has to do with that one particular leper coming back and thanking Jesus. There was something in coming back and thanking Jesus that resulted in this man being proclaimed “well.”

Now there was also something that was thrown in that often just slips past us. We are told that this man was a Samaritan. Hearing this, we should start thinking all kinds of things. Samaritans were the most disgusting people of Biblical time. The Samaritans were the grossest of the gross. Good Jews would not EVER associate with a Samaritan. So it should come as quite a shock that out of all the lepers, it was the Samaritan who was proclaimed well.

So, what is it about being a Samaritan and coming back and throwing yourself at Jesus’ feet that makes a person move beyond clean to actually being well?

I think it has something to do with awareness. The Samaritan was aware that he had been made clean and that he had nothing to do with it. The Samaritan knew the immensity of being outside of the community and then what it meant to be brought back into the community. If we think about it, the Samaritan was doubly outcast; he was outcast because he was a Samaritan and then outcast from the Samaritans because he was a Leper!

We can probably assume that for this guy, life has been pretty hard. He could not take a whole lot of things for granted. I would be willing to bet that in the group of ten lepers, he was probably the lowest man on the totem pole. So he was grateful for anything he got! And since he received so very little, what he did receive he realized was a gift and did not just assume that is was his due. There was not a whole lot of entitlement in him.

It would seem that one of our biggest problems is that we have grown up with a sense of entitlement. We feel we are entitled to our world, we are entitled to our comforts, we are entitled to worship when, where, and how we want. This sense of entitlement creates within us a sense of complacency. And with that complacency, we really cannot be said to be well.

We have been given the gift of life and forgiveness through Christ. That gift was made manifest in our baptism and continues to be strengthened when we gather at the table. We have been made Clean by Christ but are we really well? Do we see the gift of life and forgiveness we receive to be truly a gift or do we see it as our just reward for being good people?

I believe that God gives us all gifts. I believe those gifts are given freely. I believe that God gives us gifts to do with as we please and to use as our freewill dictates. And like the nine lepers that did not return, I believe that God will not take our gifts from us, even if we are not thankful for them. I can use my gifts for the glory of God or I can use them to serve myself. You can use your gifts in the service of God or in the service of yourself. Either way, God gave you gifts and talents and will not take them away. However, I do believe that God asks more of us than to just take the gifts that we have been given and to run with them. I believe that God wishes us to acknowledge what has been given and to place ourselves at his feet in worship and thanksgiving. And when we place ourselves before Christ, it is then that we are truly made well. It is then that we are brought into more than just a right relationship with society, but are brought back into relationship with our Lord and maker. It is when we are truly thankful and humble before God that we find our place in the world.

Christ has made us clean, but are we well? Do we have the faith to acknowledge the gifts we have been given and to place ourselves before God? Do we have the faith, the courage, and the humility to be sincerely thankful for the gifts we have been given? This is the challenge that is placed before us. This is the challenge that is placed before our society. This is the challenge that can make us more than clean, but can actually make us well.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Meaning in the message

I was at a meeting yesterday when the question was brough up:  Why do we have more people at our AA meetings than we have at our church services? GOOD QUESTION!

One answer is that the AA stories change lives.  I feel it is a bit of conviction on me as a pastor and us as Christians that this could be true.  Does our story no longer change lives?  If so, why not?  Have we become complacent in our faith?  Does it even matter?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Free Flowing Axiety?

I truly have to ask what I am doing here. Whenever I think about going to church, I start to panic. I do not want to set foot in the place. There is a sense of dread that comes over me. I go into avoidant mode.

For the most part, I care about the people here. Even the ones who are a pain I wish no ill-will. Truly, I don’t! But I still do not want to come into the office and deal with the stress of this place.

Maybe it is me; maybe the stress I am feeling is all in my head. I don’t know. I do know that I spend the majority of my time not wanting to be here instead of looking forward to being around my congregation. All I want to do is escape. I don’t want to do anything because it is going to cause a problem. But yet these people are looking to me to lead. But when I do lead I get nothing (it seems) but resistance.

Of course, I know that this is all natural. I know that people will resist. I know that no matter what I do, someone is going to have something to say. I know this. But I still am too thin-skinned to deal with it. The “Rose-Colored Glasses” part of me just can’t understand how all of this can be seen in any other manner. I all just makes sense!

I am also saddened by peoples’ theologies. All that I see are people being held captive to their idea of a vengeful and hateful god. All the “haves” and “musts” that are involved. What ever happened to “gift” and “love?” Where is the caring and concern? How can these people believe in a God that is so petty? If this is what they are viewing as God, then I can understand how come the church isn’t growing.

But still, the fundamentalist churches are presenting an even pettier god and they are growing exponentially! Either it is the “Entertaining Ourselves to Death” or it is the “We are better than them because we are SOOOOO good.” Or, maybe God is just an artifact of our neuroanatomy and that is all there is to it.

Write It Plain Pentecost 19 Proper 22C

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 

Have you ever really paid attention to the billboards along the roads? You are probably saying to yourself, “What a stupid question! Of course I have seen the billboards along the roads; how could I miss them?” But that is not what I asked. I asked if you paid attention to them.

Some billboards are really easy to see, really easy to read. They are printed in large letters and the message is brief and to the point. Other billboards are messy with too much printing, too small of print, and indistinct pictures. There is billboard like this on the corner of Rogers Rd and Main St. I had to drive by that one a few times before I could even figure out what they were trying to sell. When the message is that muddy, that indistinct… Well, I know that if the message is that difficult to comprehend, I tend to give up rather than try to figure out what the message is saying.

But there is something to be said about clarity of message and ease of understanding. When you want to get the message to the people, knowing what you are trying to say, and saying it as clearly as possible are your best bets. And although I’m guessing there probably weren’t billboards in the desert during Biblical times, God seems to be giving us some lessons in how to get our message out there. And even though the message is from the past, we still have something that we can learn from our Old Testament reading for today.

The prophet Habakkuk tells us that there is still a vision for the appointed time. God still has a vision, even if we think it is delayed, it is occurring and it is occurring in God’s time. God’s vision is so much bigger than our vision and God’s vision will not be delayed. It occurs when it is needed. We may feel that the vision is late, or that the vision is not occurring at the right time. We may feel that we have lost the vision or God has taken the vision from our community. We may feel this, but that is because we are looking with our limited sight. God’s vision is still there; as the scriptures say, “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surly come, it will not delay.”

But what is this vision of God? What are we supposed to write plain? What are we supposed to be writing so it can be read by a runner? What is the vision God is supposed to be giving us?

Sometimes I think we make this vision too difficult. We are like the advertisers who what to put too much on the billboards. We want to say everything. We want to put it all out there. But that is not what we are told to do. We are to make the message plain! Plain enough so that drivers, flying by at 75 MPH can comprehend it! Plain enough to make an impact on the hustle and bustle of the world.

Last week, I asked you to really think about why you are here, in this place, on this morning. I asked you to consider why you come back week after week. And I asked you what you had to give to the Kingdom of God. In looking at your responses, one of the things that kept jumping out was the feeling of mission and outreach that has been a part of this congregation since its establishment. This seems to be the message that we are given to write. But sadly, this is the message that seems to be missing. This is the message that we are forgetting.

What is our message? What are we saying as a congregation? Even though it appears that God is telling us that our message is mission and outreach, that message seems to have become lost from public view. It is still in our hearts, God has not taken it away, but it is not written plainly for the runner to read. We don’t seem to be out there spreading the message. Even though God appears to be making it plain to our hearts, we seem to be getting sidetracked.

What so often happens is that the messages of the world are more plain then the message we are trying to send. I remember a small town near where I grew up. Everyone knew about the purple house on the bend in the road. What most people didn’t know was that right across from the purple house was a restaurant. The purple house was much more plain to see than the restaurant and therefore, people remembered the house, even though the restaurant had a large, lighted sign out in front of it. The message the house was sending, which was “Look At Me!” was so much more plain than the message of the restaurant. So therefore, the people remembered the house, and totally ignored the restaurant.

We have a similar situation here. We have a school across the street from us that writes all kinds of messages plainly. When someone drives down the road, they are not looking at us; they are looking at the school. Maybe we should paint the church purple! People would remember us!

But all kidding aside, how do we make the message plain? How do we make the message more memorable and more important than the messages the world is sending out? The world is sending out some pretty strong messages and if we want to make the message known, we need to be sure of the message we are sending out. We need to know the message so well that we can spread it in as plain a way as possible. We need to spread the news of God’s love in as easy a way as possible.

Now, I have been speaking about message as if it is something that we just set out there like a sign in the front yard and hope that people see it and understand it. And that IS one aspect of making the message plain. But there was also the aspect of MAKING the message known. The reason why the message needed to be read by the runner was because the runner was going from community to community spreading the news. TVs and radios didn’t exist, so if you wanted to get the message to the people, YOU had to bring the message to the people. You or your apostle (the word “apostle” is Greek for “messenger”) would have to be sure the message was spread to those who needed to hear it. As I said, there were no billboards in the desert so getting the message out was very important. And if you wanted to make sure the people knew, you sent a messenger out to the people.

So we need to get our message out and we need to be the ones bringing the message to the people. We need to be out running in the world and spreading the message of Christ’s love. We need to be about spreading the message of God. God has a vision for us; God has a vision for the world. And although this vision may seem to be tarrying, it will surely come. It will not delay. We may fear that the vision will pass us by, but what God has promised, God will see through. God has put the message of mission and outreach onto our heart. God has let us know that this is the vision and that this vision will not fail. God has given us the message, and now calls us to bring it to the world.