Thursday, September 22, 2011

Who's Calling?

From time to time people ask me how to be sure that something is God's will. How do you know when it is God's voice calling amidst the competing priorities? Plenty of people have weighed in on this idea for centuries. In fact, I would say that is the very question that encouraged the writers of the Gospel and the selection of the sacred texts that make up the scriptures. Yet there are plenty of circumstances that don't seem to mesh with a literal reading of the Bible, and there are even passages that seem to contradict.

In Paul's letter to the church in Rome we find discouragement for legalism, and Jesus' primary adversaries in the Gospels are not the Romans but the scribes and Pharisees. It seems that God has always known that we are bound to seek definitive standards that we can use to our own advantage, so the tension between definitive guidance and invitation to respond to grace remains throughout religious and non-religious Christian practices.

So then, how do we respond to God's grace? How do we know what is God's will? Some time ago I was given a suggestion to consider the question of God's will in terms of calling. Many people describe a sense of calling in terms of a longing or passion for something that they feel benefits God. Experience has taught me that there is more to it than that. For me, calling has been a threefold process. First is the awareness of a need or an urge to be involved in something bigger than myself. Second is the independent acknowledgement by someone else that I might have gifts and skills to meet that particular need. Third is the opportunity to respond to the particular need through the confirmation of others and their invitation for my involvement.

Admittedly, I have not always gotten it right. But even when I have not been as faithful to this process as I could be, God has always been faithful to me. The point is to seek checks and balances and to be open to the movement of God's Holy Spirit rather than trying to direct or determine what I believe God wants based on my particular situation.

At the end of the day it comes down to benefit and glorification. Who does it benefit, and whom does it glorify? That is not to say that we do not benefit from following God, but it is to say that we do not benefit in the way we expect or want. It is to say that God's will is going to be done whether I participate in it or not, and I would rather be a part of something bigger than myself than constantly struggling to make myself into something bigger than I am.

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."
Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Freeloaders

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
September 18, 2011 - Ordinary (26A)
Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Freeloaders - now that’s a term I don’t hear very often in this age of political correctness, and for good reason, too! It’s a term that assumes a certain defective quality in a particular group of people. Come to think of it, calling a group of people “freeloaders” is a pretty polarizing term. It is “us vs. them” language that puts the user in the driver seat and assumes that “they” are to blame for the problem, because their is no “we.”

Although it’s a term that has been around for a while, it has always had an interesting relationship with commerce and free trade. The term actually originates from the shipping industry. A captain would contract laborers, promising payment for when the ship was full. Then he would sail away without paying - leaving them no way to catch him.

In the 1950’s and early 60’s the term “freeloader” was given a new life through the Red Skelton character, Freddie the Freeloader. Freddie was a hobo clown who seemed to be the eternal optimist, and though he was quite opposed to working, he was always willing to share what he had. Freddy the Freeloader was a person of abundance, and things always seemed to work out for him.

In some ways, I think Freddie illustrates the core issue of the scriptures today. These scriptures are filled with complaints and unfair results. They are filled with bizarre expectations and promises to particular people who are not like us in any way, shape, or form - and that makes it hard to receive any of it as something that means something to me and to you.

Yet here we are, the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, Miriam, Paul, and Lydia - all men and women of faith! Here we are as a people of God trying to find our way through the wilderness of life and sometimes we cannot help but wish for the glory days of the past.

No matter how bad it was, we can always point to the good and say that is how it was done! That is how it ought to be done.

But Moses reframes the discussion and says, “Look - if you want to complain, don’t talk to me. Talk to God.” Then God does indeed speak, and God does indeed test them.

God tests them. I don’t like that. I don’t like to think of God as the Divine Schoolmarm waiting for me to fail. The Hebrew text here literally translated says, “That I may prove them, whether they will walk in my way or not.”

God was proving, testing, determining the will of the people by offering abundance. There are two things that I think are interesting in the part that follows. The first is that the quail were delivered, but they weren’t served up on a plate. The other is that the Mana was not even recognized.

So often I am concerned over things that feel like life and death until I realize that God’s grace is all around and ever present. So often I am concerned over what is fair or right or just until I am confronted with the fact that I am giving answers to the wrong questions.

Yesterday I was confronted in this way during Sam’s first soccer game. After finding that our team had no coach I agreed to step into the breach. We only had one practice before our first game, and most of these kids have never played before. Our opponents, on the other hand, had three practices prior to the game and half of them had played together before.

So, we were shut out. It was a fair game, by the rules - but it was not fair by the matching of teams. At the end of the game, parents and siblings from both teams formed a London-bridges style “Spirit Tunnel” for all of the kids to run through. Seeing the children move through the tunnel I realized that it wasn’t about how fair the game was. It was about the opportunity to play.

Of course it is easy to say that about a child’s game, but what about real problems? What about the fact that resources are limited and we live in a world that is concerned with winning and survival?

Jesus has the answer for us in this maddening parable about laborers in the vineyard - some working all day, some working most of the day, and some only a few hours. Then each is paid the same, starting with the ones who did the least work! And when the ones who did the most work complained, the Landowner said, “The way I spend my money is not up to you!” And that’s the Kingdom of God, right?

The Kingdom of God is simply not fair. It is not about being fair. It is about grace. It is about grace and the opportunity to respond. Still, it’s hard to get around our beliefs about merit - about earning your keep. The problem with focusing on what we think should be done is that it doesn’t just place us in the shoes of the grumbling laborers; it becomes an attempt to take the role of the Landowner.

The Kingdom of God is like a Landowner. And this Landowner is more concerned about invitation than equity. This Landowner comes to me and to you and says, “I don’t care what you have been doing, but you are welcome here. I have a job for you.” This Landowner is seeking you and me out every day from sun up to sundown, offering us the chance to work and be fulfilled. This Landlord is seeking you and me out and saying, “There is enough.” And when we become concerned over what is fair and what we should give and what we should withhold, this Landlord is saying, “Whose stuff do you think all of this is to begin with?”

Now some would push this parable to say that Jesus wants us to behave one way or another. Some would say it meets with one political agenda or another. I would say that Jesus was not concerned with politics or even with ethics. Jesus was concerned with faithfulness. Jesus was concerned with our ability to trust in God’s providence. Jesus was concerned with our ability help others see the abundance of God’s grace and to find ways to respond to it together!

Jesus knew that the Kingdom of Heaven is not something that exists far away like Never, Never Land. Jesus knew that the Kingdom of Heaven is experienced here and now in the difficulty of life together, and because of that, we are all a little bit of a Freeloader. None of us deserves God’s love. None of us can earn God’s invitation. All of us are given the opportunity to receive, and none of us are expected to pay.

You know, Red Skelton was known to say this:

I get asked all the time; Where did you get the idea for Freddie the Freeloader, and who is Freddie really?

Well, I guess you might say that Freddie the Freeloader is a little bit of you, and a little bit of me, a little bit of all of us, you know.

He’s found out what love means. He knows the value of time. He knows that time is a glutton. We say we don’t have time to do this or do that. There’s plenty of time. The trick is to apply it. The greatest disease in the world today is procrastination.

And Freddie knows about all these things. And so do you.

[Freddie’s] nice to everybody because he was taught that [people are] made in God’s image. He’s never met God in person and the next fella just might be him.

I would say that Freddie is a little bit of all of us.”

And all of us are simply invited to respond to God’s grace, and we are simply expecting Christ to be exalted in our lives. May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Never Forget

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
September 11, 2011 – Ordinary (24 A)
Psalm 23
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 18:21-35

“Never forget!” These are two words that have taken on a whole new meaning in our country in the last ten years. It seems unlikely that anyone ever could forget a tragedy like the attacks of September 11, 2011, yet there are still so many stories longing to be told. Even so, the admonition by itself raises questions for me.

What is it that we must remember and why? Is it the fact that some warped individuals with sin sick souls were manipulated by cowards to crash planes into buildings? Is it the fact that the relative peace and prosperity of our United States was challenged by an outside force that we used to think of as weak and fearful in our presence? Is it the stories of ordinary people becoming extraordinary heroes in the face of tragedy?

Yes. All of these things must be remembered, but why? We remember to honor the dead and to give a sense of purpose and meaning to senseless violence. We remember because it helps us to appreciate our limitations. And we remember because the attacks of September 11, 2001 are a part of the fiber of our being. Our memories hold a shared experiential knowledge that effects the care we offer our children, the way we treat strangers, and 
our understanding of what it means to follow God.

The really important thing about shared memories, though, is the way by which they define us as a people.  Of course our tendency is to remember the glory days and the good things without considering the bad. I do not mean to suggest that there was anything glorious about these attacks. Nor do I mean to dismiss the efforts of those who have given their lives since then.

What I am saying is that focusing on the attacks from every camera angle possible and every gory detail can be paralyzing – and often is. So we must remember the events of September 11, but we must not become trapped in the pain and fear of that terrible day. We must not let the pain and the fear of that day dictate what we are able to do and to say in response to the opportunities of the present.

I believe that is the central message to the scripture lessons we have for today. Never forget that you have been loved beyond reason. Never forget that God is at work in the world in and through you. Never forget that God is with you in tragedy and in triumph.

It would be easy to ask if we have, at times, forgotten these things over the last ten years. It would be easy to say that we have forgotten, or even dismissed, Paul’s promise that God will avenge us in the end. It would be even easier to compare the number of innocent civilians who died on September 11 with those who have died as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For that matter it would be easy to compare the losses of children in poverty or those sold into slavery and bondage. It would be easy to compare the number of people who die homeless in our nation and to ask why is one tragedy worse than the other. But of course, human tragedy and suffering are never easy.

I think that is why Jesus tells Peter to be so forgiving. Not just seven times, but seventy times seven - in other words, never forget to forgive! Now, I’ll admit that there are some problems here right off. First off, Jesus is talking to Peter about “a brother” who sins. Second, how on earth are we expected to forgive something so terrible as the September 11 attacks? And beyond that, the king Jesus refers to in the parable seems to be the one who is owed the most, or at least his forgiveness seems greater. Is the slave really the one we find the most common ground with?

Here’s the thing that I think trumps all of those concerns. The King’s response to the slave is to torture him until the debt is paid. So the real motivation that Jesus is offering here is not to become debt free, but to be relieved from torture!

The real motivation for me to forgive is not to release someone else – it is to release me! Over and over again in my life I have come to this same conclusion. When I refuse to forgive, when I respond to hatred or bitterness with equal force, then I become what I am fighting against.

I think that is why this passage in Romans is so important to us today, even though it seems impossible to believe in or to follow.  It exists to remind us who we are, and where we place our trust. This command to be loving, and to be a blessing to even those that hurt us, seems to shout, “Never forget that I am God!”

Of course, the question that is still left open here is the question of evil. Do we not still have a responsibility in restraining evil? Isn’t it just as important to remember the bad things so that we can keep them from happening again? Doesn’t forgiveness, in some way, equal permission?

In light of today’s texts I think the answer to all of these questions is yes. Yes, we have a responsibility to restrain evil, but we can only overcome it with good. For those who place their trust in human strength alone will find themselves in a position of weakness.  Yes, it is only through our memory of God’s activity during tragedy that we can have hope to overcome the next time we face it - for calamity falls on the just and the wicked alike. And finally, yes, forgiveness does equal permission – but not for the bad things that have happened. Forgiveness only offers permission to move forward without being controlled by the past.

And so as we gather together across this land in bands of bleeding hearts and artists, pro war hawks and peace-nic doves, activists and proponents of the status quo, and even members of differing faiths and nationalities, we must never forget that we have the greatest power of all in the ability to forgive. We must never forget that the events of the past are not the force that shapes and determines our future. It is nothing other than the very presence of God in our midst urging us to forgive as we have been forgiven, to become free from the prison of resentment, and to witness to a perfect love that casts out fear and darkness through the light of Christ! And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!

Affect or Effect

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
September 4, 2011 – Ordinary (23A)
Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

[My wife, Treva, served as lay reader on this day two days after our 11th wedding anniversary.] I am reminded today of the first time Treva and I led worship together as husband and wife. It was shortly after our wedding at the church I grew up in, John Knox Presbyterian in Marietta, GA. It was a lovely service, and I greeted the congregation with no small amount of pride – introducing my bride as liturgist. After the service she graciously whispered in my ear, “You do realize that you introduced me as Treva Lewis, right?”

Oh, the effects of love. Love holds you accountable. Love affects your actions. Love is at the core of our being, like a rock thrown into the abyss and creating ripples that flow through eternity. Love is the only debt worth owing someone, for love is the only currency that pays for itself.

Paul has just finished telling the church in Rome that governance is a good thing, no matter what. “Pay your taxes. Do what you are told, and don’t complain,” says Paul. Now, we have to remember that during Paul’s day, Roman occupation was certainly oppressive, but they generally allowed the Jews to manage and order their own society. Christians were still seen as a sect of Judaism, and Paul did not want the Roman government to see followers of Jesus as a group of troublemakers.

So Paul tells the church and its members not to be indebted to anyone, unless it is the debt of love. And apparently, the debt of love is owed to – everyone! Paul says to love your neighbor as yourself. I think that is one of the most confrontational statements in the Bible. Love my neighbor as I love myself? I have to feel as responsible for the basic needs of food clothing and shelter for others as I do for myself? Beyond the basics, I have to offer the same level of comfort for others that I offer to myself?

Now, bear in mind that Paul is offering no critique of any governmental or political system here. He wrote these things when the rule of law was that might makes right. Political processes and representative forms of government were beginning to form, but counsels were always driven by coalitions and allegiances. Isn’t it so nice that all of that has changed?

No, Paul was not concerned about governmental systems. He was concerned about the government of the heart. He was concerned about timing and the opportunities that might just be missed if the church did not wake up and step into the light of day! “Put on the armor of light,” Paul says!

Funny thing about light – it reveals things held secret in the shadows. So the protection, the effect, the result of our armor is…vulnerability. Yes. When we put on Christ we become vulnerable. We become more open to change. We become more likely to be affected by the concerns of others. Things that use to feel like they satisfied our desires no longer do, because our need has become less connected with the self and more connected with the other.

Now, this may sound very idealistic to some. It may seem improbable and impractical to assume that each of us could or should shoulder the responsibility of the needs of others. After all, this country was founded on an ethic of self-determination and hard work. Why should that change?

Again, Paul is not suggesting that people should not be responsible for themselves. Instead he is stating that following Christ into the light of day means that we cannot turn aside from the needs of others. Believe it or not, there are even new trends of business models based on this very idea.

The following is an example from the website for a shoe company called Tom’s: In 2006, American traveler Blake Mycoskie befriended children in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet. Wanting to help, he created TOMS, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need. One for One. Blake returned to Argentina with a group of family, friends and staff later that year with 10,000 pairs of shoes made possible by TOMS customers.

Why Shoes? Many children in developing countries grow up barefoot. Whether at play, doing chores or going to school, these children are at risk of: catching soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet; getting cuts and sores that  are dangerous when wounds become infected; and many times children can't attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of their uniform.

As of September of 2010, TOMS customers have distributed 1,000,000 shoes in 23 countries.
That is a pretty amazing example of how one person of means has created a system to help others who are without resources. That type of attitude and spirit certainly needs to be applauded, but it doesn’t let us off the hook. We need heroes of faith to encourage and inspire us, but without our action our appreciation of others is simply self-gratifying entertainment.

The question I am left with, after hearing about someone who inspires me, is a question of affect or effect. What is the effect of the love I have seen expressed? What is the product? How does this love affect me? What does it make me want to do?

According to Matthew, love makes us hold each other accountable. Love makes us respect each other enough to challenge one another privately and confidentially. Not only that, love drives us to seek agreement between the church and those who have made choices that have separated them from us.

On the surface, this passage seems pretty straightforward. A church member sins, and so you confront him or her. If that member still persists, go get a friend and do it again. If she or he still persists, treat that person like an outsider. While those are the words of God, I do not believe the practice of judgment and division to be the Word of God – the divine Logos, the living, breathing presence of the grace and mercy of God.

That’s why I believe there is more to it than what’s on the surface. Matthew’s audience was Jewish. They knew the sin being referred to as it is described in the Levitical code. They knew and understood that sin was not just an action, but an orientation.  Sin has to do with our motivation. Are we motivated by malice or kindness, self-interest or mutual concern? Not only that, sin was not simply something done by one person, it was something you could not walk by without becoming responsible for it.  Leviticus 19:17 even says, “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself,” and verse 18 tells us once more that we are to, “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

And there’s one more thing. Matthew was a tax collector. So, for Matthew to write the story of Jesus and for Jesus to say, “Treat them like the tax collectors,” begs the question, “How did Jesus treat the tax collectors?” Apparently he treated them like he treats you and me – with love and forgiveness.

Now, so far we have heard the call to love our neighbor as ourselves. We’ve heard the call to become vulnerable so that we can become more able to see our connection to the needs of others. And we have heard the expectation of holding one another accountable, always remembering to love as we have been loved. Remember how I said that loving was like throwing a rock into the abyss and watching the ripples flow? Well, this is the part where Jesus shows up with the biggest rock of all – and he places it in your hands.

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be let loose in heaven.

And now we begin to see the effects of the amazing and wonderful love that has been offered by Jesus. The effect of God’s love is that everyone becomes a person of value to you because you are able to see that everyone has the same value to God. The effect of love is that you realize that another person’s loss is your loss. The effect of love is that you realize that there are people who feel estranged from the church, and that it is our responsibility now to demonstrate to them that we are a community of grace, mercy, and peace that is incomplete without them. The effect of love is the realization that our actions have eternal consequences, and that we can begin to experience eternity here and now!

The effect of love is to be called to this table to be reminded again and again that you are God’s beloved, and so are they. How this will affect you and your relationships with others I can only begin to imagine, but I look forward to what is yet to come. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen. Amen. And again I say Amen!