Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Motivation


Today is an exciting day in the life of our congregation, as we give thanks to God for the life of Al Pheiffur (and his twin brother Elmer). Al has become what a friend of mine once told me that he aspired to become – a centenarian! Thinking about all that Al has lived through is a little overwhelming, and I imagine there are some parts that he may wish to forget just as there are many memories to cherish and hold dear.

One thing that Al can certainly teach us is that life is full of changing priorities. What matters to a boy of 10 is not the same as that of a man of 22. Likewise the things matter to a woman of 22 are not the same as a woman of 65. All of us, in turn, are motivated by different passions and priorities. Sometimes we have so many tugging at us that we may not even know what it is that matters most other than hitting the snooze alarm – one more time.

Certainly we all have goals and responsibilities – or at least obligations – that pull us out of bed in the morning. But have you stopped recently to consider what it is that truly motivates you? What is the fire in your bones that you need to let out lest it consume you?

I’ve heard it said that on the most basic level, we are motivated by either hope or fear. That’s not to say that we are always one or the other. But unless we take time to consider our motivations, and the things that trigger us into action, we can certainly end up with a pattern that is based in one or the other. It’s pretty clear that the current political climate and much of our media are the result of fears that have been cultivated and nursed over a long period of time.

I could point fingers like many others are doing, but I think that misses the point of the real motivating factor – powerlessness. So many of the expressions we see of bigotry and hatred (both real and assumed) are simply the result of people feeling powerless. No matter how many bombs we drop or drone strikes we make, our enemies seem to only be encouraged. Although employment rates have increased, quality of living has not caught up to where it left off before the recession in many parts of the country. And in our anxiety we look for someone to blame and for someone to fix this mess that we are in.

We look to our past and make heroes from former leaders whose very successes and failures are what put us where we are. We look to our future and ask, “Who will save us?” And in the mean time we hear reports about unabashed expressions of racism that we have not heard in at least a generation.

So, what hope can a day like today give us? What wisdom can we find in scripture? What motivation for living can we glean from this hour on this day? The most obvious answer is the perspective of time. Time together gives us experiences to hold onto and to set up as channel markers for those yet to come this way.

These shared memories are important. They inform our values and they help us set expectations. But one thing that time also teaches is that hope is not based in the past. Just as the Prophet Isaiah raises the specter of waves crashing on the chariots that chased the Israelites from Egypt, he says, “Fuget-about-it. Watch what comes next.”

Likewise, Paul tells us that righteousness has nothing to do with what we have done or thought or felt or believed. Righteousness is what happens when we – whether by chance or intent – get caught up in what God is doing. It is when we become involved in something beyond ourselves – something liberating and life giving like streams in the desert!

You may not realize it, but I see members of this congregation getting caught up in streams like these all the time. Sometimes I see it in simple conversations where you express care for one another. Sometimes it is in concrete actions like the youth packing pallets of food at FoodNet last month or counting our 525th pair of shoes for Soles4Souls. I’ve seen it in the conversations about Meals on Wheels and even in the care you’ve taken in the Spring clean up to make God’s property a place of hospitality and welcome.

And in the midst of our busy-ness, striving for the goal of dying and rising with Christ, we have this story about Mary using the ointment (that was purchased to bury her brother) on the feet of Jesus. This story seems as an interruption to us. There’s no clever segue. They were eating. Martha was serving the food. And Mary just steps in and wastes this perfectly good nard on his feet. Judas wants to know how this action took place without a vote and why wasn’t the money used for the poor (and we’re told that he’s really just mad because he’s a scoundrel and a thief). And Jesus comforts Mary by saying that she is in the right and the poor will always be there.

And herein lies the tension that shall ever be known as the conflict between padding the pews and serving the poor. According to John Calvin’s commentary on John, Jesus was not dismissing the poor. He was not saying, “Well poverty is just a part of life.” No, Jesus was instead noting that Mary’s choice to honor him was extraordinary because she was motivated by worshiping God.

Mary knew that for saving Lazerus’ life, Jesus’ life was in danger. She knew that Jesus had revealed the heart of God – having authority over life itself – and that he would reveal even more in the days ahead. And likewise when Jesus said, “the poor will always be with us.” he was making the way clear to worship God through acts of charity and concern.

And that, dear friends, is at the heart of the gospel for us today. Our motivation, our chief end, the fire in our bones, must be nothing less than the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ! And that hope is what calls us together, not just as a group of believers but as a people who invite others into the life giving work that God is doing through us!

In the words of Peter L. Steinke, a prolific writer on church systems, “The purpose of the local church is not primarily to be one's church home or extended family, though it can be at times. And it is not to survive by obtaining more people for its support base. Its purpose is to invite people to be part of the true mission of the church. Reception into the church is only a threshold to involvement in its mission. The task of the church is not to accumulate attendees. The church is a school for developing agents of the new creation from among those who are the beneficiaries of God's grace.”

You and I, beloved of God, are beneficiaries of God’s grace. There is no denying that! Let us continue to find hope and meaning and purpose in our expectation that just as God loves us, God loves them – and so must we. And in so doing, rivers will pour forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

You know, Isaiah said that even the wild animals and the jackals would honor God, but the people God set apart would praise God. May it be that we do more than honor God. May it be that we praise God in ways that are life giving and sustaining – in ways that offer hope and empower those who are truly oppressed – and to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Love Is Never Wasted


“Is love ever wasted?” That question was asked in a discussion about this week’s texts on the Pulpit Fiction podcast. It was asked in relation to the parable of the prodigal son, but I think it is an important interpretive idea for all of our readings today. Each passage celebrates the abundance of God’s providence in different ways, and at the core of it all is a celebration of God’s never failing love for us. Of course, when we see ourselves as the recipients of grace and mercy we typically do not think of God’s love as having been wasted. How could we?

Yet when we think about those whom we find hard to love, those who take advantage of others, and those who do not seem to meet our standards of responsibility it gets a little harder not to think of God’s love as wasteful. Or maybe it’s not the love that’s wasteful. Maybe it’s the missed opportunities to be loved and to accept grace and mercy that we lament.

That is, after all, the point of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. Through his words to them he urges us to be – to live and act as though we are – reconciled to God. He wants us to know that God has taken away the barriers that would keep us from living God centered lives. He wants us to understand that because of Jesus we can begin to see things in a new way, not according to a human point of view but according to God’s point of view. 


I can’t read this passage without thinking of “God’s eye” crafts and summer camp. I once spent a whole summer reflecting on this passage from I Corinthians every day in between river runs and hiking trips. I remember looking for all the larva in the river that spend one portion of their life in one form under water and then burst into a new form and a new life outside of the water. Everything that had nurtured them became foreign. Everything that had threatened them became natural and life giving.

At the time, it seemed to me that this level of conversion was the essence of Christian faith. I could look at my own life and see how things had changed over time. Yet I still had a feeling that there was something missing. Eventually, I came to realize that the “something” that was missing was that I was still putting the story into human terms. I was still viewing the story as my story instead of God’s story.

For God created the larva and the insect and every other creeping thing that creeps, and God’s reconciling love goes beyond the stages and phases of our lives. And God’s transforming love is not a one time thing, but it works on us constantly like a sculptor chipping away everything that is not in keeping with the desired image. God’s love is, in fact, the very substance of our being, and God is actively seeking to be reconciled with all of creation.

And we are an integral part of what God is doing. In fact Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for God. So, for goodness sake, be reconciled to God! And just how do we do that? Well, according to Paul, it begins with how we view each other. We must not look at each other from a human perspective. We must see one another as God sees us.

That’s why the parable of the prodigal is so important to this message of reconciliation – it helps us to see as God sees. Often we think of this story as a demonstration of how lavishly God loves us – and there’s no escaping that – but today I’ve asked you to think about who is the most wasteful in this parable and which character do you identify with the most.

The young son is wasteful in his disregard for his family and his home. He is the epitome of self-centeredness. He is the quintessential spoiled brat. The father is wasteful in his lavish welcome, even running out to greet the son and throwing off all sense of dignity and pride. I love the father for this. I love that he doesn’t even answer his son’s confession and immediately calls for his care. The older brother is wasteful in his solitude, shutting himself off from joy and choosing resentment over reunion. But even more so, he has been wasteful of the time that he has had with his father.

Now, it’s important to remember that Jesus told this parable in response to the Pharisees’ complaints that he was eating with tax collectors and sinners. I can’t help but wonder what they thought. Probably it was something like, “Is he just trying to make us mad? That kid did everything wrong that could be wrong. Why did he tell us a story about a terrible father?”

And, if we are honest with ourselves, there is a part of us that may think the same thing. I asked you earlier to think about who you identify with the most, but for most of us it is the elder brother. There may be times when we have squandered our resources. We have become a nation of debtors, and many of us are known as “credit poor”. But no, most of us have never been so far down as to look to the food trough – even though many in our community are food insecure.

Whether we are in the top 1% or the roughly 50% living in the middle, most of us can feel morally justified in saying, “I got mine and you need to work for yours.” Yet, in the economy of the Kingdom of God things often get flipped upside down. The son who has treated his father like he was dead is received as returning from the dead! The father who should disown his son has claimed him and called him “son.” And not only that but he pleads with the older brother to come in and celebrate.

I think the most difficult part about this parable is that the oldest son seems to have a legitimate claim. “How dare this son of yours”, he says, “get away with all of this when I work like a slave for you?”

Oh how easy it is to think of our work, our families, even some of our friendships as burdens that enslave us rather than part of the providence of God. At least that’s what it can look like from a human point of view. Yet God has given us these relationships and responsibilities because they are opportunities to experience grace and mercy and forgiveness.

That’s not so bad when you get to receive it, but it can leave you longing when you’re the one that has to give it. The truth of the matter is that grace and mercy are not really yours or mine to give. It’s more that we pass it on from God.

My daughter and I were talking the other day about how difficult it can be to love when you’re angry, and I told her about a waiter in one of the restaurants I managed in another life. He was a sold out Christian, and the most genuine believer on my staff. He was also really bad at ringing things up on the register. I had to fix at least three checks of his every shift. At one point my frustration must have been obvious because every time he came to me after that he would just say, “You’re going to have to find a new way to love me.”

And so the father says to the eldest son, “This brother of yours is still your brother. He isn’t dead, and now we have a new opportunity to love him.” And more than that, this story lets us know that when we find ourselves looking in from the outside, it’s not just because we are worried that those people are going to get our stuff. It’s because God’s grace to others can call us to question whether or not God’s love is still for us.

At least that’s what Henri Nouwen realized when he sat at the foot of Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal son. Nouwen was a spiritual leader who turned from a career in academia to live in a community of people with special needs. He’s probably the last person you would expect to struggle with the idea of God’s love being for him, yet in The Return of The Prodigal he wrote:

”For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.

Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by God?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home."

And our home is found in God’s embrace, and we celebrate it together around this table today. Just as the Israelites celebrated the passover of God, we celebrate the passover of Christ. For we are both in the midst of the wilderness of Lent and living in response to the resurrection of Christ.

God is longing to bring you home; will you stay outside of the banquet hall or will you name the one in need as your next of kin and celebrate with him or her? Will you accept the one that feels unworthy? Will you love like the father? Will you be reconciled to God so that God’s reconciliation can work through you? It seems like a pretty big risk, I know. But, don’t worry. Love is never wasted. In fact, it’s kind of like energy. It never really gets created or destroyed; it just changes form. May God’s never ending love transform you and me this day that we might become the righteousness of God. And to God be the glory for that. Now and always, Amen!

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Mind. Blown.

Mind Blown [poof] – that’s what we sometimes say when we hear or see something that changes the way we understand the world around us. Marketing companies like to use this phrase to tell you that they have the answer that you’ve just never thought of, and it is available for low monthly installments and terrible interest rates.
 
 


Fangirls and fanboys – that’s a term for people who are relatively obsessed with something like a book series, a movie, or a brand – like to use “Mind. Blown.” when there is some new insight that changes the way they understand the thing they adore.



For those of us who are fans of scripture, and even more so of God’s self-revelation through Jesus, I think that we have received some fairly mind blowing texts today! The passage from Isaiah reads like some socialist manifesto (How does one buy food without money, anyway?). And then we have this oddly grumpy sounding Jesus who seems to be capitalizing on fear like certain politicians and news media outlets that we know. While these things may be problematic, I don’t think that they are particularly prophetic, or mind blowing.

No, the mind blowing aspect of the gospel today is found in the call of Jesus for our repentance, because it may not mean what you think it means. But first let’s back it up to the beginning. What do we know about the tragedies that are being described? Well, not much. There are no other records of these events outside of Luke’s Gospel. Still, scholars assume that these were real events that someone wanted Jesus to help make sense of.

The first event is translated a little oddly in the NRSV. Looking at a few other translations, like the Common English Version, you find that what has happened is that Pilate murdered some Jews while they were in the act of making a sacrifice to God. This really only tells us two things. The first is that Pilot really was a bad, bad man. Even though some accounts portray him as morally conflicted over the death of Jesus, this man is concerned with one thing – power. The second is that there is evil in the world, and having faith does not mean that you are untouchable.

Maybe those that shared the news were looking for sympathy or for condemnation of the oppressor. Maybe they were hoping this would be a rallying point for Jesus to start acting more like the Messiah they were wanting him to be. Maybe Jesus would finally take action or tell them to rise up! After all, these were Galileans, and so was Jesus.

But Jesus has a way of flipping the tables on people. Instead of fueling the fires against Pilot he asks a simple question, “Do you think this happened because they were more sinful than you? Well, you had better repent or else your fate will be the same as theirs.”

And as their minds began to rumble he delivered the follow up shot. Apparently there was some other accident where some folks in Jerusalem (origin unspecified – it was a cosmopolitan city) were going about their business – possibly getting some water from the Pool of Saloam – when a tower fell and crushed them. It was a completely random accident, and people died. “But,” he told them, “unless you repent your fate will be the same as theirs.”

Then he followed all that up with a parable about a stubborn fig tree that wouldn’t produce any fruit and a gardener that argrees to fertilize it and give it one more chance. But we’re left never knowing what happened. Instead we have the threat of the axe and the hope of manure.

Now, if this sounds a little more like John the Baptizer than Jesus, that’s because John used the same analogy in Luke 3. In his call for baptism he said, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” and “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

As scary as that may sound, I think there is yet a lot of hope in the words of John and of Jesus. The first thing to note is that Jesus is telling us very clearly that tragedy is not the same thing as judgement. Terrible things happen because people do bad things to each other when they are more concerned with power and control than they are with faith and hope. Each of us can easily get caught up in our own bloodletting over the simplest of issues when we feel threatened. And for that we must repent.

Terrible things also happen because of the limitations of physical existence. In the prophetic words of John Hughes, “Screws fall out all the time. The world’s an imperfect place.[1]” And if we do not face up to the need to change our hearts and minds, then we may face a pointless death. But the real question is, have we lived a pointless life?

The challenge of repentance is not simply a call to own up to how bad we have been. In fact, many scholars argue that the word “metanoia” – which we translate as “repent” – should actually be translated (as it is in the Common English Version) as “change your hearts and lives.” Or, more literally, it should be “change your mind.”

The change in our minds and hearts gets put into action in our lives, if we are to bear any fruit at all. The change in our hearts and minds is not a one-time thing, either. A fruit bearing plant continues to bear fruit in season, and we are no different. And while there are certainly things that we can and must do to change our hearts and lives, the parable of the gardener reminds us that sometimes we need an outside influence to feed us and bring us into full bloom. And sometimes that means that we need to be humbled by some fertilizer.

Let me be clear in saying that God does not cause tragedy, but it is through God that even the worst this life can dish out can be used to help us bear fruit. I am here reminded of a parable I thought I would never tell in church. But the story goes that a young robin decided that it did not want to fly South for the winter. It stayed on its perch in a tree on a farm until it nearly froze and fell to the ground. A cow happens to be nearby, and suddenly the bird found itself in a warm pile of manure. Delighted to be alive – the bird sang for all its might, only to be scooped out by the barn cat and devoured.

The moral of the story is that not everyone who covers you in manure is your enemy. Not everyone who rescues you is your friend, and if you are covered in manure and happy to be alive just keep it to yourself. In terms of scripture, I would say it this way; “Tragedy is not a result of God’s judgement. Sometimes we need manure to help us grow, and just because we have not been cut down does not mean that we are bearing fruit.”

And the fruit that Jesus wants us to bear is a changed mind and heart that are expressed in a changed life. Yes, we will become aware of our shortcomings, but repentance is not a movement toward despair. It is a movement toward joy. In fact, it redefines the things that make us joyful! Our souls leap when we become aware of God’s activity and God’s providence. All of life becomes like the banquet described by Isaiah – the banquet held by a new king to cancel all debts and demonstrate unity.

This banquet was promised to those Jews in Babylon who would soon return to Jerusalem. And just as it was a symbol of what they might expect under a new king, so it is a symbol for us as we look to Christ to provide what we need.

Maybe we need more time in order to bear fruit that demonstrates a true change of hearts and minds. Maybe we need the fertilizer of hardship and the experience of grace and mercy in order to become more gracious and merciful. Tragedies certainly still befall us. All the isms and phobias are alive and well: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. Healthcare has become more about politics and profit margins than actually caring for anyone. But the question and the consequence of the parable of the fig tree remains. Will we bear fruit? Will we bear fruit in our life together? Will we bear fruit in our lives apart?

This goes hand in hand with the basic question that we continue to ask ourselves in this congregation. And that is, “What is our particular prophetic voice in this community?”

Yet I think we have also been answering that question as we continue to develop creative opportunities to grow in faith, as we strengthen ministry partnerships in our presbytery, and as we lift up and partner with other ministries in our community.

For we are a not just a place, but we are a people who are experiencing, exploring, and expressing God’s love together. Let us not let that become limited to what we do and say in these four walls. Let us let our minds be blown by the promise of God and the invitation of Jesus in such a way that our hearts and lives are changed again, and again, and again. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

[1] Bender, “The Breakfast Club”