Sunday, July 31, 2016

“Eulogy for a Falsehood” (Luke 12:13-21)

Many years ago, in a high school journalism class, I had a teacher explain to us about the importance of correcting one’s mistakes when it came to misspelling words in print.  He stated that you either correct the mistakes or keep making them until the reader begins to believe that maybe he or she is actually the one who is spelling the word wrong.  This teacher was basing his statement on the fact that when someone repeats something over and over you tend to believe it.

Even if it’s a lie.

This morning Jesus takes on a falsehood.  It is the idea that wealth, ownership, abundant possessions . . . the one with the most wins . . . and that this is the goal of life . . . that it will produce happiness, meaning, and security.  Jesus takes on this idea . . . this falsehood . . . and proclaims it dead with a fitting eulogy by declaring that this is not being “rich toward God.”

But, wait a minute.  That is not what the society we live in tells us.  No, the society that we live in tells us that the more that we have or own, the more that we stockpile, the more wealth we accumulate, the better off we are.  In such a state of possession and wealth we will discover happiness and meaning in our lives.  This is the “good life” everyone seeks.  At least that is what we are told. Because we have heard it over and over, we have a tendency to believe it . . . even if it is a lie.  This is why this parable makes so many of us who are the followers of Jesus uncomfortable.

Yet, Jesus does not buy into this sense of security . . . this sense of what I would think Jesus would term as being false security.  Please understand that Jesus is not taking on money, wealth, or even material abundance . . . no, what he is talking about is that insatiable drive that turns people inward towards themselves because they feel as if they do not have enough.  And, that until they have enough or more than enough, they are nothing . . . no meaning, no purpose.  Until this is accomplished there is no “good life”.

Jesus debunks this falsehood with a parable that we have heard over and over again in many different forms across the span of our lives.  He tells of a wealthy farmer who—in an abundant year—is suddenly faced with a real, but nice, problem of having to do something with the abundance of grain.  What he decides to do is to tear down his older and smaller barns, build bigger and better ones, and store his grain for a more or less rainy day when he might need it.  Upon completing this task the wealthy farmer declares that he can now take life easy . . . “eat, drink, and be merry” because he has all the bases covered.  Unfortunately, the wealthy farmer learns the hard way that none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.  In the case of this guy, God lets him know that he is a goner.  Then God poses a question: “Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

The good fortune of this farmer has created a problem for him.  The good fortune has changed his focus, or as one commentator said, it “has curved his vision.”  It has curved his vision so that everything that he sees starts and ends with himself.  If one listens closely to the parable . . . listens closely to the conversation that the farmer is having with himself . . . the dominate word that is used is “I”.  It is a very egocentric conversation.  For this reason God declares the farmer a fool.  The farmer has fallen to the falsehood that it is what one has that determines the good life.  This is the exact thing that Jesus warns against.

What is the good life that Jesus speaks about?

The good life that Jesus speaks about is relationships . . . relationships with God and one another.  Over and over again this idea of relationships is emphasized by Jesus in the words that he speaks and the actions that he takes in all four of the gospels.  The good life is about relationships . . . how we relate to God . . . how we relate to one another.  Never does Jesus speak about building abundance of possessions or wealth as a part of seeking out God’s kingdom.

Most of us, if not all of us, know and believe what Jesus says is true.  We would also agree that money cannot buy happiness . . . while at the same time we would sure like to give it a try.  We know that what is important is how we relate to God and one another . . . how we love one another.  Yet, it is difficult when we keep hearing the falsehood over and over again . . . we are enticed and seduced by the message of prosperity and possessions, just as the wealthy farmer was.  It makes living life difficult.  It makes life difficult because we want to take care of ourselves and make sure that we are safe and secure.

Such an attitude doesn’t put much stock into our faith in God . . . God who has stated to us that we will be taken care of . . . provided for . . . loved.  The focus of the farmer was on himself.  In his estimation he had done more than enough to insure his future well-being.  The only one he was concerned with was himself.  He had covered his bases. 

Remember what his problem was?  He had an over-abundance of grain from a great crop.  He didn’t know what he was going to do with it all.  He had other options, but he chose to focus upon himself.  For example, instead of wasting the money to tear down and build bigger and better barns, why couldn’t he have filled up those original barns to the brim.  In the past that had been more than enough to meet his needs.  Then he could have taken what was left over and actually paid those who had helped to make the crop such an overwhelming success . . . he could have rewarded his workers for helping to build his success.  He could have given a share or a tithe of the crop to the local synagogue . . . after all, the scriptures state a tithe of a tenth of everything belongs to God.  He could have taken what was left after rewarding his workers and giving a tithe and given it to the community at large . . . especially those who did not have enough to eat.  He had lots of options, but he chose to only focus on himself.

In order for him to have seen such opportunities, he would have had to have relationships in his life . . . a relationship with others whether they be his workers or the people of the community in which he participated . . . a relationship with God.  His belief in a falsehood, in the end, killed him.

Thus it is that Jesus speaks out against this falsehood.  Speaks out against it because it goes against the whole message that he preaches and teaches about relationships with God and one another.  Relationships are the foundation of the faith Jesus shares . . . relationships bring life, love, mercy, and community.  This is what God wants for us . . . all things that money cannot buy.  Relationships are what matter.  In the end, when we die, no one will speak about what we owned.  No, they will speak about how well we love.  To have love there must be a relationship . . . a relationship between us and God . . . a relationship with others.  Such is a wealth and abundance that brings purpose and meaning to life.  Such is what God will provide if we truly believe and trust. 

May this falsehood rest in peace . . . once and for always.  Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

“Betrayal” (Hosea 1:2-10)

“Et tu, Brute?”

Recognize those words?  They are possibly the most famous three words uttered in literature . . . these words, written by Shakespeare from his play Julius Caesar, have come down through history to mean the ultimate betrayal by one’s closest friend.  The word are spoken in the scene in which the conspirators in the Roman Senate assassinate Caesar.  Among those participating in the killing of Caesar is Brutus, a close friend of Caesar . . . thus the words, “Et tu, Brute?”  Much to Caesar’s surprise even one of his closest friends has stabbed him in the back . . . “Even you, Brutus?”


Such a nasty word that is highlighted by such words as disloyalty . . . unfaithfulness . . . disappointment . . . violation . . . deception.  “Betrayal is the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces a moral and psychological conflict within a relationship between individuals, between organizations or between individuals and organizations”, according to one source.  Or, as Caesar experiences in Shakespeare’s play, it is getting stabbed in the back.  No one enjoys getting stabbed in the back.

No one enjoys being betrayed.  Having said that, I imagine that all of us have stories of being on the short end of being betrayed.  Shoot, I also imagine that we have stories of having been a part of betrayal in our lives.  The bottom line is that all of us understand what the word means and how it affects us . . . it sucks.

Ask God, God will tell you.

Our reading this morning is about betrayal.  This is the story about the prophet Hosea, which is a reflection of God’s story.  Hosea’s turf was the northern kingdom of Israel.  The focus of his preaching was to be on the idolatry of the people and their continued unfaithfulness towards God . . . to preach about their betrayal of God.  This was something that Hosea understood thanks to a marriage that was arranged by God.

As the story goes, God commands Hosea to marry a prostitute . . . not quite the most reasonable or smart thing to do in the eyes of the community . . . sort of made him the laughing stock of the people.  So he married the prostitute named Gomer . . . and they have children . . . three to be exact.  Children that would have a tough road ahead of them in life as they were the children of a prostitute . . . outcasts and pariahs in the community.  Each child’s name represents the brokenness of God’s relationship with the people . . . echoes the betrayal that God feels.  A betrayal that Hosea knows from experience as Gomer leaves him to be with other men.  Hosea understands.  Thus the message of his preaching to the people is simple . . . repent and return to God. 

Return to God . . . that seems to be a prevalent plea throughout the history of Christianity . . . throughout history, period.  That seems to be something we have heard a time or two during this political season and the tumultuous times that we are living in.  We need to return to God.  Are we living in a season of betrayal . . . and, if so, who betrayed whom?

As a follower of Jesus I have attempted to embrace the simple command that he asked upon all of his followers . . . to love the Lord completely, and to love others as we love ourselves.  I have always interpreted that to mean that I need to focus on my relationship with God in a loving and intimate relationship that spins out into relating to others in a like manner.  A simple command, but a difficult one to live up to on a daily basis.  Yet, that is what I believe we are all called to focus on in our lives.  And, I believe that this is the first and most important thing that we can do with our lives . . . everything else comes second.  We are called to “kingdom building.”

The Book of Hosea paints a pretty bleak picture of the people of God in their relationship with God.  Using his own experience of betrayal . . . of having a wife who sleeps around, Hosea points to the people and proclaims to them—for God, “Et tu, Brute?”  As Gomer sleeps with other men, the northern kingdom—Israel, leaves God to dally with other gods.  It is a bleak picture of betrayal and no one enjoys being called a traitor . . . not then or now.  So, Hosea’s message and plea, return to God.

In looking at the world around us . . . listening to all of the rhetoric being thrown around . . . watching the nightly news . . . the word on the street seems to be that we are living in some pretty messed up times that reflect the possibility that humanity has strayed a ways from God . . . a long way from God.  Our time, in the minds of many, is that these are not what God wants.  That humanity has wandered away from God.  That humanity has betrayed God.  I have even heard that the “end is coming.” 

And, who are we to argue?  The similarities are pretty consistent.  It is almost as if we are walking in the shoes of Hosea.  Is there any “good news” to come out of this situation . . . out of this story of Hosea and God’s betrayal?  Of course there is.

Despite the bleakness of the story . . . despite all the pain that is felt in the story . . . there is “good news” . . . there is hope.  And, again, it comes in Hosea’s own story.  That hope is built upon that idiom that we, the faithful, often forget . . . God never gives up on us.  Hosea never gave up on Gomer.  As Hosea offered Gomer a relationship despite her betrayal, so would God for the people of the northern kingdom of Israel.  The constant love of God for the people would prevail.  God would win back the hearts of the people.  As Hosea could not give up on Gomer, neither could God give up on Israel.  This love was too expansive, too broad, for God to give up . . . God would not run away as the people had.  God would stand with them despite their betrayal.

Despite the bleakness of the world we are living in today . . . there is hope.  God will not abandon us despite humanity’s betrayal of God and the ways of God.  God will stick with us.  But . . . we need to return to God.  We need to return to what we have been called to do as the followers of Jesus.  We need to work on our relationship with God . . . to embrace the intimacy of God’s love and grace into our lives . . . to make it our own . . . to realize God’s immense love for us as individuals . . . to be who God created us to be—the children of God.  We need to then allow that love to spill out of us in the relationships we have with others . . . in the relationships we have with each other.  We need to love others as we are loved by God . . . as we love ourselves.  This is the return to God that we need.

That command from Jesus came in a dialogue with someone who was questioning him about the commandments and laws of faith.  The question was, which is the most important.  Jesus told the individual that loving God and others was the most important.  Then, to emphasis just how important these were, Jesus said, that with these two are covered all the laws and words of the prophets.  If you do these, everything else will take care of itself.

Return to God.

That’s it.  That is what we all need to do . . . return to God.  In a world that has betrayed God . . . turned its back on God and others . . . we find hope.  Hope because God does not give up on us . . . because God desires a relationship with us . . . because God loves us.  Paraphrasing God in Hosea 11:8, God declares: “How can I give you up, Israel?  How can I abandon you? . . . My heart will not let me do it!  My love for you is too strong!”

In our times, that is still the “good news”.  Ask Hosea.  Ask God.  They will tell you . . . and, they should know.  Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

“Distractions” (Luke 10:38-42)

“Martha, Martha . . .”

The story of Mary and Martha is a familiar story in my life . . . especially growing up as a kid.  It was one of the few biblical references that my mother used when dealing with siblings and me.  Typically it would be at a time when one of us—typically, me—would be complaining about some chore or task we had been given to do.  For me it usually had to do with cleaning up the kitchen and doing the dishes.  I would complain that it was not fair, and my mother would respond, “You did a good job, Martha.” 

I used to resent that statement.  I resented it because I felt like I was the one who was getting the short end of the stick . . . like I was the one who was being over-burdened . . . the one who was missing out on all the fun everyone else was having while I was in the kitchen busting my butt.  Yeah, I understood where Martha was coming from, and hearing patronizing words of empathy . . . or was it sarcasm . . . did not make it any better.

Martha has a complaint.  A horde of guests show up for dinner.  Someone has to do the work of preparing the meal, so Martha gets right to work.  In the meantime, her sister—Mary—plops herself right at the feet of the guest of honor to listen to what he has to say.  She does not offer to help Martha with the meal preparations.  In Martha’s eyes her sister is slacking off and dumping all the work on Martha.  Is this a legitimate complaint . . . or, is it a case of sibling rivalry?  I imagine it is a combination of both, but the end result is that Martha gets hit with the guilt trip.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”


That had to hurt.  Martha is shot down.  She does all the work and Mary gets the affirmation.  Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Author C.S. Lewis was considered one of the great Christian apologists of the 20th century.  An “apologist” is a “defender” of something, and in Lewis’ case it was a defender of the Christian faith.  He wrote many books that are considered classics of the faith . . . Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves.  He wrote some of the most popular stories on faith as children’s books, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in what is known as The Chronicle of Narnia . . . which have been made into various movies over the generations.  With wisdom, insight, and a bit of humor, he was a defender of the faith.

As I have mentioned before, my favorite C.S. Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters.  It is a book that is set right before the second world war . . . before England has officially entered into the war.  The plot of the book is that a young junior devil is given his first assignment “up there”.  His name is Wormwood.  His assignment is to keep the individual assigned to him from converting over to the “enemy”.  The enemy in this case is Jesus and the Christian faith.  Like anyone starting a new job, there are lots of things that need to be learned, lessons to be grasped, and mistakes to clean up.  It isn’t easy and Wormwood knows it.  Thus he seeks out advice from a senior devil . . . his uncle.  He writes letters to his uncle asking for help.  The book is the responses to Wormwood’s letter with advice on keeping his assigned human from jumping over to the other side.

The sorts of things that Screwtape suggests are things that would divert or distract the human from giving his attention to Jesus and his teachings.  He tells him to get the individual interested in the opposite sex . . . help him to fall in love . . . that would keep him busy for a while.  He tells him to get him involved in a hobby . . . hobbies can become all consuming.  He even tells him to get the individual involved in some cause . . . make him a crusader for something . . . anything that will distract him from the “enemy”.  The bottom line is that Screwtape is telling Wormwood that the key to being successful is to distract the individual from Jesus and his teachings.  If the individual is distracted then he cannot focus on the “enemy” and his ways.  Distraction is the key.

In our story this morning, Martha is distracted.  Jesus tells her she is distracted . . . distracted by all of her worries and her being upset.  Because she is distracted she cannot see the greater good which her sister has chosen to do.  I do not think the words that Jesus spoke made Martha feel any better; no, it probably just added fuel to the fire and made her even more distracted.  In her mind, feeding the guests was the most important thing . . . not sitting around talking.  I imagine that if it had been me, I would have gone back to the kitchen and started banging pots and pans around to let everyone know that I was still there.  But, we do not know how the story ends.  We only know that Jesus tells Martha that she is too distracted to see the greater good in the situation.

What is the “greater good”?

Well, to understand that remark, we need to go back a little further in the story.  Prior to Jesus and his disciples showing up at Mary and Martha’s house, Jesus was confronted by one of the experts of the law.  The expert wanted to know what it was that he must do to inherit eternal life.  Of course, Jesus does not answer the question directly . . . no, he asks the lawyer what the scriptures say.  We all know what the answer is . . . love the Lord with your whole being—heart, soul, strength, and mind; and, to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Jesus tells him he has answered correctly and that if the lawyer did this then eternal life would be his.

But, the lawyer wants to know who his neighbor is.

Jesus tells him the parable of the Good Samaritan . . . how a person is making a trip, gets robbed and beat up, and is left for dead.  Three people come across the beaten man with the first two choosing not to help for various religious and moral reasons.  The third—a Samaritan (not a real popular people with the Jews)—stops and helps the man . . . covers all his expenses until he is healed up and able to continue on.  Jesus asks, which one is the neighbor.

Of course, it is the dreaded and hated Samaritan who is the neighbor much to the chagrin of the lawyer.

In this prelude to our story about Martha, we learn what is the “better thing” . . . it is to focus on relationship . . . relationship between the individual and God . . . relationship between the individual and others.  It is to love the Lord completely and to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Anything less than that is a distraction from doing God’s will.
A shooting in Baton Rouge . . . a shooting in Minneapolis . . . a shooting in Dallas . . . a tragic mauling of lives in a senseless act of violence in France . . . an attempted military coup in Turkey . . . continued terrorist attacks across the world . . . wars raging across the globe.  Are you feeling a little distracted?

A crazy political campaign season that has more plot changes and surprises than any soap opera on television . . . a congress and senate that cannot work together because they want things their way . . . a rise in claims of racism, sexism, and all the –isms of our times.  Are you feeling a little distracted?

Throw into that our everyday worries and concerns . . . the things that create stress in our lives . . . just whether or not we are going to make it another day . . . are you feeling a little distracted?

Sure, we are.  We all are.  And it is these distractions that keep us from focusing on the “better thing” . . . to love God and one another.

Please understand, I am not saying that any of the things I mentioned are not important and deserving of our attention . . . they are important as they point to the greater problem that comes down to relationships.  All of these issues come down to how well we relate to one another . . . how well we listen to, respect, and treat one another . . . how we treat others as we would treat ourselves.  How we would treat ourselves.

Martha was distracted.

The two travelers who refused to help the injured man were distracted.

And, I imagine, that in the end, the lawyer who was questioning Jesus, will be distracted for many reasons from doing the “better thing”.

Jesus tells us that God calls us into relationship . . . relationship with God as individuals . . . relationships with others.  Upon these two calls lie the key to life . . . in the present moment and in the eternal scheme of things.  We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from doing that which we are called to do as the followers of Jesus and as the children of God.  We must focus upon relating through love with God and others.  If we can begin to put that rubric upon everything that we do as individuals and as groups, we can begin to change the world.  We can begin to relate.

There would be no more shootings . . . no more war . . . no more political animosity . . . no more violence . . . no more separation . . . no more hatred.  Sound too simple?  Well, when Martha complained, Jesus told her to celebrate her sister’s choice of choosing the “better thing”.  With the lawyer, Jesus told him to “go and do likewise.”  As the followers of Jesus we have been given our marching orders.  Go forth . . . be safe . . . and, don’t get distracted from what God has called all of us to do.  Amen.