Can’t Buy Me Love

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
October 24, 2010 – Ordinary 30 C
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65 2
Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

This week brought forth an abundance of stuff, the likes of which I have never seen, in the Abundance Fest Fundraiser for C.U.P.S. There were several things that I found encouraging and exciting about it. First was the Session’s willingness to support this event. It is a strong sign of leadership that our Session is able to encourage the ministry of other congregations and non-profit organizations, especially those whom we have helped to form and maintain. As we move forward, our hope is to revitalize old partnerships as well. For now, there is a strong resolve to maintain healthy relationships where we are able.

Another thing that encouraged me is the support and involvement of the membership of this congregation. Members helped on every level of this event, as did members of the community, and even clients who have benefited from C.U.P.S.’ ministry in the past. It was especially encouraging to open our doors to ecumenical partnerships. Of course, we do that every week through meals on wheels, but this was an “all available hands on deck” type of event that brings people together in a special way through shared experiences.

I think that is one of the greatest values of our relationship with C.U.P.S., and I believe that is what happens routinely with the baskets upstairs. Last Sunday, Zoe and I went up to help make baskets, and we had a blast! Sue, Jessica, Edna, Zoe, and I learned more about one another by making baskets for complete strangers than we could have in any other event or activity.

Another amazing thing about going through all of the donations for the Abundance Fest and the Christmas basket program is the opportunity of touching things that have memories to them. Some items told stories of love and life and the pursuit of happiness. Some were never important. Some just got old or fell out of use. The sheer volume of stuff that passes through our lives makes it difficult for any of it to have meaning sometimes.

The old Beatles tune says, “I don’t care too much for money, cause money can’t buy me love.” It comes from a social movement of change that suggested that meaning and value were not commodities, and there is a lot of truth in that. I’ve been thinking about this idea while considering this week’s texts, particularly this past Friday morning when I had some time with Sam. He was playing in the carport (some version of Busytown, the Magic School Bus and some other game that he and Zoe cooked up), so I started sweeping the carport.

I suddenly realized that the main reason I was sweeping was not because I wanted a clean carport, rather it was because there was a clear goal and end product in my work. I had to ask myself, “Are love and attention products? Are care, concern, and involvement products? What am I giving my son right now?” I kept sweeping because I wanted to finish, but he interrupted me and asked to go inside. He wanted me to play with him in his “fun room.” that what he calls his room, because that's where his toys are.

Now, I know that, by the standards I am suggesting, independence is a product and loving does not mean smothering. I know that involvement does not mean manipulation or “hovering” over my children’s every move. But it does mean presence. Involvement means that there is a relationship with an active party constantly available, always interested, and always willing to participate in the greater good for the other. I am blessed to say that my parents, grandparents, and in-laws have demonstrated such a presence in my life.

Throughout the Old Testament, the idea of God’s presence is expressed in connection with providence and blessing. Joel is particularly clear about it. Those who have shamed them will be put to shame. Those who have mocked their God as absent will be silenced. In this pre-scientific and tribal context, God is present when things are good for you and for those who worship as you do. We may look at this and call it superstition today, but it was only common sense then. In fact, there could be no other reason for their enslavement than God’s desire to demonstrate God’s presence, power, and providence to the world! Because God is all knowing and all powerful, it was God who brought the invading armies and the plagues of locust and it is God who will provide security and a bountiful harvest.

There is a base assumption here that we tend to gloss over. Did God want hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children to die from sword and famine? Did God’s presence actually leave them like some teenage parent abandoning her child in the street? No! Certainly not!

Reformed theology traditionally chalks this kind of thing up to the mystery of the divine will. Though I do not propose to know the mind of God, I say this is an irresponsible, head-in-the-sand response. As people of the resurrection we know that God is with us in all things. Even though some may disagree about how faithful we have been or whose fault it is that we are in the situation we are in as an aging church, we cannot deny that God is with us! If God can take a broken and abused Hebrew people and demonstrate grace and providence in a new way, then there is no doubt, no mystery, no chance that God will not do the same with us!

As I walk through this building and see relics from our past, the memories proclaim an experience of loving and being loved, the pains of separation, and the joy and peace of being God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. The story of this church is one of faithful people struggling to get it right, however imperfectly.

That’s what makes it hard to choose the character with whom to identify in this parable. For the Jewish audience of the day (Luke was written to a Jewish and Gentile audience) the Pharisee’s prayer was not out of line. He was simply stating the obvious and giving thanks for it. Pharisees were the ones who defined Jewish culture in the face of Roman occupation. They were the pillars of the community, and there might not be such a thing as Judaism without them. Tax Collectors were the opposite. They were the tools for extortion that financed the occupation of Rome.

What mattered to Jesus, and what the author of Luke wants us to know, is their awareness of God’s active presence. What need does a person who always follows the rules have for God, especially when he or she is the one making the rules? How much greater an experience of God can you have than acknowledging the disconnect between God’s active presence and your life? The tax collector gets it. God is God, and he is not. It seems so simple, but how often do we live this way?

The question that remains for me then is this: Are we the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in this parable? I imagine we are each a little of both, and Jesus tips us off to our place in the beginning of the story. He told it to some people who “trusted in themselves” and who “held others with contempt.”

We had a lot of people come through here yesterday. All were greeted with smiles and hospitality, but I’m not sure if any were invited to worship. I confess to you that I found myself torn between a desire to invite and a fear of rejection, but when I looked deeper into the looking glass I found that there were some people I was more excited about inviting than others. I realized that I had become as the Pharisee. I realized that I had become imprisoned by my own sense of who and what it means to be a Christian. I spoke with a CUPS volunteer about this, and she said, “Funny how we wouldn’t worry about the way someone would feel about inviting them to a party, but church?” Paul, himself once a Pharisee, reminds us from prison, “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”

There is little doubt that our strength and freedom come from God. There is little doubt that when we reject God’s providence we put ourselves at risk. There is little doubt that our strength and freedom are given to us to use for God’s glory and not our own. God is in our midst, and we are all given the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God so that we might be truth tellers (prophets) and visionaries (dreamers). And when we are not, the reality of our separation from God’s activity makes us do no less than beat our chests in anguish - not because we fear God’s wrath or absence, but because it is our character to live in God’s presence and to act toward others as we believe God has acted toward us.

Love is a product we cannot buy. We can receive it. We can give it, and the giving of love produces truth. Truth is a product of our love. We cannot make it up, but we can tell others about it. Telling others about truth inspires a vision of a new life. Vision is a product of truth telling. In the Kingdom of God, love, truth, and vision are tangible things that lift us up, sustain us for a life that is truly living, and move us into action in response to God’s grace. Here, in this place, we are experiencing God’s active presence.

I want to invite you into God’s presence now. I’m going to give you just a moment to consider what God may be saying to you today through the word read and proclaimed. In these few moments, I invite you to Practice the Presence of God. Consider in the silent chapel of your heart the word you have received today and the way you might respond with your life as we move forward together…..

May God continue to transform and reform our hearts and minds till our wills are so knit with God’s that there be no distinction. Amen.
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