Sunday, November 19, 2017

“Enough” (Luke 17:11-19)

In the dusk of the evening this past Friday, I drove over to Cooney Dam in the hope that I would be able to get some wonderful pictures with my camera.  For the most part, I didn’t have much luck.  I saw the usual suspects . . . lots and lots of deer and geese; but nothing spectacular.  Having driven two-thirds of the way around the lake, I pulled into a camping area to turn around.  Just as I was about to make a turn I saw a flash of white.  It landed on a fence post.

Of course I stopped my car.  I had to see what it was.  It was a pretty bird that was gray, then black, then white.  At first I thought it was a Clark’s Nutcracker . . . but, it was too small.  So, I whipped out my camera and started taking pictures.  Amazingly, it let me take quite a few pictures before it tired of me and flew off.  

I didn’t know what it was, but I was certain I would figure it out when I got home.  All I knew was that it was something I had never seen before and it was a strikingly beautiful bird.  All I could utter at that moment was “thank you.”  I had been blessed.

Well, it turns out that the bird was a Northern Shrike.  The Northern Shrike is a bird that is uncommon and fairly rare in this area.  It is a hunter that feeds itself on small birds and rodents.  Upon learning this, once again, all I could say was, “Wow!  Thanks!”

It was pretty nice to receive a blessing at the end of a tough couple of weeks.  With my job at the university I have been on the road eight out of ten days . . . lots of miles . . . and, lots of kids . . . looking in their ears and testing their hearing.  It was nice to receive an unexpected gift.  And, it was nice to be able to acknowledge that gift.

We are entering into the season of Thanksgiving . . . a season when we are encouraged to be thankful.  But, it is tough to be thankful when we are constantly worrying about life and the world around us.  There seems to be plenty to worry about whether it is as a nation, state, community, or even family.  We are living in some pretty worrisome times.  We might do better with a little moaning, groaning, and complaining . . . good ol’ biblical lamenting, than lifting up thanks.  But, we are called to giving thanks . . . thanksgiving.

It is something we should consider, especially in light of our scripture reading this morning.

As with many of the stories in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus encounters a group of outsiders . . . ten lepers.  These ten individuals called out to Jesus to heal them of their leprosy.  From a distance, Jesus heals them and tells them to go to the local priest to be declared healed.  And, they went . . . except for one.  One of the men, seeing that he was healed, returned to Jesus, threw himself at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him profusely.  

Now, in this story, there are a couple of things taking place.  First, there is the healing . . . Jesus said that they were healed and they were healed.  By sending them to the local priest this would be confirmed . . . and, the ten did exactly what they were told to do.  They did nothing wrong and they still received the blessing.  But, it was only one who recognized the immensity of the blessings . . . only one who returned to give thanks for the blessing he had received.  Now, remember, the other nine had done nothing wrong.  They did exactly what they were told to do.

Second, the man who returns to give thanks . . . well, he is blessed a second time.  True, like the other nine he was blessed with healing, but this time he receives something deeper . . . he receives wholeness . . . he is saved.  He received the blessing that comes from recognizing blessing and giving thanks--the blessing, that is, of wholeness and salvation.  This guy got the whole picture, and for getting the whole picture he discovers the wholeness and holiness that comes with complete intimacy with the Holy.

It is powerful to not only receive a blessing, but to also acknowledge it . . . to name it and give thanks for it.  Think about those moments when you have felt that power.

Last Sunday, as I sat back and watched our choir and others sing and fellowship with the residents at two care facilities . . . to see the residents singing along, laughing, talking . . . I was blessed in a powerful moment of hospitality, and all I could do was to say, “Thank you.”

On Friday evening, as I drove around, the sun was setting on the mountains . . . the clouds were vibrant in color . . . and, soaring in the air, playing in the wind currents, was a solitary Bald Eagle . . . looping and playing in glorious sky.  Again, I was blessed . . . and, all I could say was, “Thank you.”

At our first soup supper and discussion a few weeks ago, I sat there listening to conversations, enjoying the laughter, relishing the food . . . and just looking around at those who were gathered there . . . and, I was blessed.  In that blessing, all I could utter was, “Thank you.”

According to one biblical commentator, “Thanksgiving is like that.  It springs from perception--our ability to recognize blessing--and articulation--giving expression, no matter how inadequate it may seem at the time, or our gratitude for that blessing.  And every time these two are combined--sight and word--giving thanks actually grants a second blessing.”

Gratitude--giving thanks--is huge.  It draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself . . . into the presence of God . . . into the Holy.  It frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagine.

Which brings us back to that tenth leper . . . the one who came back.  This was a man with many strikes against himself.  Not only was he an outside because of his leprosy, he was also an outsider because he was a Samaritan.  In his healing he realized that he was more than leper or a Samaritan . . . he realized that he had been acknowledge as a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as he was.  With his words, Jesus affirms this, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

The world is full of blessing and challenges . . . which will we focus on?  True, there are times for lamenting . . . but, given the day and age we live in, maybe we need to remember the tenth leper.

The 14th century German theologian, Meister Eckhart reminds us, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  May we become a people of giving thanks . . . a people of wholeness and holiness.  Amen.    

Monday, November 13, 2017

"Witness" (Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25)

One of the things that I enjoy and appreciate about our fellowship time after worship is listening to the conversations about Joliet.  Especially those conversations that recall the community's past.  I enjoy hearing the stories that are told about the "old timers" who helped to establish this community, this area, and even this church.  I appreciate the knowledge that is shared by the two Bobs--Hull and Jensen, that is . . . the tidbits shared by Nellie and Anne . . . and, all the juicy memories of others who are gathered around the table.  And, I appreciate the fact that they have stepped into the role as "witness" to this community and its journey as a community.  This is a big role, and an important role, because they are telling our story as a community.

A community's story important because it presents to those listening the foundation of that community . . . it's beliefs, morals, and who they are as a community.  Through their past they learn from where they have come, how that makes them who they are in the present, and points them in a direction to go in the future.  They hear of the struggles and the celebrations, the victories and defeats to be the people they are.  Through the stories the listener begins to understand the intricate weaving of the threads that hold the community together.  And, through the stories, the storyteller keeps the story alive as he or she passes it on to the next generation.  The storytellers bear witness to what was, is, and is yet to come . . . they bear witness to being.

Our scripture reading this morning comes after a long journey by God's people . . . 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with many frustrations and doubts.  A hard 40 years . . . and, now they stand on the brink of fulfillment of their dreams and hopes . . . a land of their own.  Gone are those older generations . . . gone is Moses.  Standing before them is Joshua, the one chosen to lead them into the Promised Land.  Standing before the people he tells them a story . . . a story of their past. . . and, of their future.      The story Joshua tells the people goes back to their roots . . . to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . to their captivity in Egypt . . . to their wandering in the wilderness.  He tells them of their loyalty and disloyalty to the God who made it all possible . . . how this God has made it all possible and brought them to this point.  It is their story . . . their journey . . . and now it is time for them to claim it as he challenges them to serve God and only God.

Joshua challenges the people with these words: "Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living."      With no hesitation, Joshua then declares his loyalty, and sets the challenge: "But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."        The people are quick to give lip service to Joshua's challenge, more or less saying, "Yea, yea, yea . . . God is our God."  Joshua then warns them that God is a jealous God who does not take kindly to lip service . . . so, watch out.  But the people assure Joshua that they are not giving lip service to God . . .they promise that they will serve the Lord.  Then Joshua said, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord."      

"Yes, we are witnesses," they replied.  

With those words a covenant was declared.  Joshua shared with them the foundation of the story . . . the laws and decrees of what it means to serve the Lord . . . how they are to live their lives in faith with God.  In proclaiming themselves witnesses they have picked up the mantle of being tellers of the story . . . their story.  With their proclamation they add a new chapter to the story.  It is now their responsibility to keep the story alive . . . to pass it on from one person to another, from one generation to another.  Only they can do it.      We, too, are called to be witnesses of the faith journey . . . of the community of faith.  On that day that we declared our faith to God through Jesus Christ, we declared ourselves to be witnesses to his story as it is lived out through our lives.  We declared our acceptance to be witnesses when we proclaimed our faith in God through Jesus, and with that came the responsibility to tell the story.

Now, don't panic.  This does not mean that you have to become a Bible scholar, though that is okay if you want too . . .no, we have those individuals who are somewhat competent in that role--we have Bible scholars, theologians, ministers, elders, deacons.  But it is good to have at least a Sunday school understanding of the story from which you can fall back on.  The story is too big, for just one person to know it all.  Shoot, all the people who stood there listening to Joshua tell the story did not know all of the story, if any of the story.       But, they did know the story as it involved them and their relationship with God.  And, that is where they begin their story . . . their witness of the story.  They tell the story of their faith journey . . . how they came to know God . . . their frustrations and hopes . . . their victories and defeats.  With their stories they witness the presence of a living God who is full of love and grace . . . a living God of love and grace that they can trace all the way back.  In this they witness their faith and the faith of those who came before them.

One of the coolest things that I stumbled across years ago is something that is called a "story quilt".  A story quilt is simply a quilt in which the blocks that it is made up of tell a story.  A lot of these quilts were made by slaves years and years ago to be able to share the stories with future generations . . . some were biblical, some personal.  But as the quilts were passed down through the generations, so were the stories.      That is how I see our role as witnesses in this story today.  I see each of us as furnishing a block--our story of faith--to a majestic quilt being sown.  Each block or story is different, but each is necessary, in telling the story.  And, running through each of the blocks . . . each of the stories . . . is the thread that holds it all together as the greatest story ever told.  That thread is the living God of grace and love.  That thread binds it all together as a story of love.  Together we are the witnesses to that story . . . together we make the quilt to pass on.

As the followers of Jesus we have declared with Joshua and our ancestors of the faith before us, that as for ourselves and our households that we will serve the Lord.  We have declared this before God and others, but more importantly before ourselves and God.  The responsibility falls upon each and every one of us to become storytellers of the faith . . . to share our stories.  The future depends upon us.  Go forth and share the story as you know it . . . the thread will bring it all together.  Amen.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Separation of Religion and Faith” (Matthew 23:1-12)

You have probably heard it before, but “you can put lipstick on a pig, and it is still a pig.”  Variations of the saying go all the way back to the mid-16th century when the famous proverb was, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”  No matter when or how the proverb was stated, the meaning was the same . . . no matter how much you attempt to dress something or someone up, they are still whatever they are.  

This understanding of portraying one’s self as something other than what one really manifests is easily older than the “pig with lipstick” proverb.  I am pretty sure that is what Jesus is implying in his words this morning when he states this about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels of their prayer shawls long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues, they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Jesus might as well had said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.”

In our reading this morning Jesus pronounces a pretty scathing commentary on the so-called important people of the Jewish society . . . the teachers of the law and Pharisees.  Mincing no words, Jesus is saying that these people and the image that they project out to others is nothing more than “lipstick on a pig”.

In this passage Jesus is confronting an old conflict between what one says and what one does.  He bluntly proclaims that these teachers of the law and Pharisees “. . . do not practice what they preach.”    There is no congruency between their words and their actions.  What they teach and preach is nowhere close to what they do in their daily lives.

I would define “religion” as a belief system that most of us carry around in our minds . . . a set of rules, mandates, and standards about what we believe.  It is a “head” thing.  I would define “faith” was the actions that one takes on behalf of those beliefs we carry around in our heads.  Faith is a heart thing that dictates action . . . it is the way that we actually live our lives.  For example, we don’t only believe in love, we live in love with our actions showing that love to others.  It is more than words, it is action.

The teachers of the law and Pharisees separated their “religion” from their “faith”.  The words that they taught and preached . . . as sound as they were . . . were nothing when it came to the way that they lived their lives.  They put on a good show, and that was all that it was . . . a pig in lipstick.

And, everyone knew it.

I do not think that Jesus is saying anything that the people were not already thinking.  He just said it out loud so that everybody could hear it . . . including the teachers of the law and Pharisees.  He pointed out the hypocrisy of the whole matter . . . specifically stating the demand of these leaders for the people to practice what they taught and preached.  Jesus had no problem with what they taught or preached . . . he had a problem with the fact that they did not live up to what they taught and preached.  They practiced religion, but did not have faith.

To this Jesus was the angriest and most disappointed . . . to burden others with a religion that they themselves were not even willing to practice themselves.  Jesus tells those who are listening to him, “. . . do not practice what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”    

As we can see from our reading this morning, this problem of pigs running around in lipstick is nothing new.  Yet, we seem to be living in an age in which there seems to be an abundance of pigs running around in lipstick.  Though this is not something new, maybe we are just more aware of it thanks to the age of technology.  It seems to be everywhere thanks to newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and social media we find on our phones and computers.  There does not seem to be any realm that is not touched by this separation of religion and faith . . . we see it with celebrities, politicians, athletes, actors, media moguls, and even within the “church” itself.  It seems as if there is a not a day in which we don’t learn about some new pig with lipstick . . . that we learn about someone whose image and words do not jive with his or her life actions.

With each new report . . . with each new individual charged with this hypocrisy . . . we shake our heads in disappointment, sadness, and disbelief.  These are the people we admire . . . the people we trust . . . the people we hold in esteem . . . the people, who deep down inside us we want to be like.  They have been caught in a lie . . . their words do not stack up to their actions.  Their actions betray them.

I guess, in a way, this is a wake up call to all of us.  It is a wake up call for us to consider our own lives . . . to consider the words that we speak . . . to consider the actions we take.  Are they one and the same?  Or, are they incongruent?  Are our actions betraying our words?

Well, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, I think that we have all separated our religion from our faith at certain points in our lives.  I think that it is only human nature that this happens.  And, I think that it is good to remind ourselves to consider our words and actions every so often to keep ourselves on track.  That is what Jesus is telling us this morning in our reading, “. . . do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  

The journey of faith is a movement from the head to the heart . . . and, from the heart one lives out his or her life.  The journey of faith is a movement from words to action . . . the words that are spoken are lived out in such a way that in reality, no words are needed.  The journey of faith is a melding of religion and action until it becomes faith.  With faith, no words are needed . . . it is just the way that one lives life.

So, as I have been saying, it is good for us to consider whether or not we are living up to the words we proclaim as the followers of Jesus . . . that our actions are not betraying our words.  Thus if we proclaim that we love all people . . . well, we better love all people.  If we proclaim that all are welcome in this building and at this table . . . then we better be making room for everybody.  In other words, we better not be dressing up our words with fancy lipstick and projecting an image; no, we better be living up to the words we speak and say that we believe.  Trust me, people know a pig even when it has lipstick on.  We do not want to be betrayed by our actions.  The hymn tells us that others will know that we are the followers of Jesus by the way that we love . . . not by the words that we speak.

Now, remember, Jesus is just saying . . .  because it is something Jesus is saying, we should consider it.  Let us be a people of action, not words.  May we continue to strive to be a people of faith, not a people of religion.  Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

“Beware the Caricature of Faith” (Matthew 22:34-46)

Take a moment to close your eyes.  Empty your mind of whatever it is that you are thinking about.  Take a deep breath . . . now, who pops into your mind when you think of the person in your life who is the most like Jesus?

Think about it . . . and, keep that image or person’s name in your mind.

The person who pops into my mind is not a person I think most people would consider as being someone who is like Jesus.  He is a rough looking character . . . he wore rumpled and disheveled clothing . . . a grizzly beard and hair that looked like it had never seen a comb and was three weeks overdue for a haircut . . . every-so-often he used a swear word . . . he smoked like a smokestack . . . he didn’t know his bible, and never graced the doorway of a church.  He was a rough character.  He was a longs ways off of being what most of us would consider as being Christ-like . . . as someone we consider to be like Jesus.

Bob, was his name.  He was the custodian at one of the elementary schools I attended while I was growing up.  He was an intimidating figure, and yet at the same time he was one of the most beloved people in all the school.  He was kind . . . he was caring . . . respectful . . . and, he treated everyone as if they were the only person in the whole world.  He had time to speak to the kid who was alone and crying on the playground.  He probably bought thousands of school lunches for those kids who were hungry.  He provided gifts of clothing for those kids who had nothing.  He would pause in his work and actually play in the games.  He would be there when a kid needed reassurance.  He was beloved by all the children and adults alike . . . he was someone who treated others as if they were the most beloved person in the world . . . he made people feel as if they were loved.

Each and every time that I do this little exercise of imagining the person in my life who is the most like Jesus . . . Bob keeps popping up.  And, each and every time, I cringe.  I cringe because the rational part of me screams out that Bob cannot be the image of the person who is the most like Jesus . . . he is too crude . . . too rough . . . too much the opposite of what I have been told over and over a follower of Jesus should be like.  Come on!  He doesn’t know his bible . . . he doesn’t go to church . . . he cusses . . . he is dirty . . . he is rough.  

It happens each and every time.

And, then, I am reminded by the Spirit to beware the “caricature of faith”.  A caricature is an exaggerated and ludicrous image or description of someone or something . . . in this case, someone who is faithful . . . someone who is a follower of Jesus.  In my mind I have a certain image of what I think is a faithful person . . . what a follower of Jesus looks and acts like.  In that image I picture a follower of Jesus--the true person of faith--as someone who is clean cut, wears respectful clothing, doesn’t cuss, knows his or her bible, and always goes to church . . . the “have bible, will travel” sort of person.  Nothing like Bob.

How does the person who popped into your mind stack up to the rational understanding you have of what is Christ-like?

Beware the caricature of faith!

In our scripture reading this morning we see Jesus being questioned . . . being challenged.  The Sadducees and Pharisees  want to know from Jesus what is the “greatest commandment in the Law?”   And, of course, being the good followers of Jesus we are, we know the answer.  Jesus responded: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Love God . . . love others.  Upon this everything else is based.  We can all agree with this; and, yet, when we think in our minds what makes up a person of faith--a follower of Jesus, this might be far down our list and understanding of what person of faith is and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Nowhere in Jesus’ response does he say that one must know his or her scripture by each and every verse or its punctuation--he does not say anywhere that being faithful has to do with how well one knows his or her bible.  Nowhere does Jesus say anything about one’s physical appearance, the clothes that are worn, or anything about cussing.  Nowhere does Jesus say anything about how often a person goes to church, a bible study, or a potluck dinner.  He doesn’t mention prayer.  He doesn’t throw in communion.  He does none of that . . . instead he focuses on how one acts in is or her life.

In Jesus’ mind his true follower is not known by the words that he or she speaks or how well he or she knows the bible . . . whether or not the individual goes to church on a regular basis.  What is important to Jesus is how well the individual loves God and others.  For Jesus it comes down to two things . . . two simple things . . . how one’s relationship is with God, and how one loves others.  Jesus does not buy into the caricature of faith . . . Jesus wants to see action.  Jesus wants to see how life is lived.

How one lives his or her live reflects how Christ-like, how much they are like Jesus.

That is it.

Straight out of the mouth of Jesus himself.

And, yet, we get hung up on the “caricature of faith”.  

Beware the caricature of faith!

Let us not get hung up on images of faith.  Let us not get hung up on the words of faith.  Instead let us look at the actions . . . the way that people live.  This is what counts.  How well do we and others love God?  How well do we love others?  Remember, actions trump all else.  Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

That is it.

There was no argument from the Sadducees or Pharisees.

Jesus erased the “caricature of faith” . . . shouldn’t we?  In the end, others will know our faith through the love we share . . . not the caricature we are told.  Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

“The Ambiguity of Faith” (Exodus 33:12-23)

Years ago I had a sort of political epiphany.  I don’t remember which it election it was, but I do remember that one of the big themes of the candidates in the election was “family values”.  It seemed that every time a candidate from whichever party expounded on running a campaign on “family values”, there would be a loud cheer from the crowd . . . after all, who doesn’t believe in “family values”.  I know that it caught my attention, but then I started thinking about it . . . “family values”.

Whose “family values” were the candidates running on?

Were the candidates running on the “family values” that my wife and I embraced?  Or were they running on the “family values” of the family down the street that seemed to be constantly in an uproar with yelling and screaming every night spilling out of their house?  Or were they talking about the family down the other side of the street . . . the ones who had been married several times, had kids in each marriage, and a person needed a program just to know which kids belonged to which parents?  Or were they talking about the single mother who was working two jobs and trying her darnedest to keep the family intact?  Which “family values” were they actually running on?

That was my epiphany . . . “family values” does not mean the same thing to every person . . . each person has his or her own understanding of what “family values” means.  Politicians just hope that most people don’t get beyond the impact of the phrase and really think about what it is that they are promising . . . they just want the vote.  They project an image of something you want to believe, but that first moment when they step beyond that image . . . well, we are floored.  We are floored because we thought we knew the individual . . . and, obviously, we did not.  That is the ambiguity of politics.

Ambiguity is at the center of our scripture reading this morning.  One dictionary defined ambiguity as “the quality of being open to more than one interpretation.”  One of the synonyms for ambiguity is “uncertainty” . . . and, I think that is a good understanding of the word.  

God and Moses have been through a lot together.  They have faced Pharaoh and worked the exit of the people from captivity in Egypt.  They have wandered around the wilderness and endured the constant whining of the people.  They have faced a crisis in which the people turned against God . . . angered God . . . and, Moses pleads for their lives.  Together they have seen the highs, and experienced the lows.  They have grown close . . . become friends.  Now, Moses pushes the boundaries of that friendship by wanting to know the core essence of who God is . . . to have God completely open to him . . . to know God in the most intimate way.  Moses says to God: “Now show me your glory.”

Moses wants to know God.

Does this sound familiar . . . a sort of deja vu?  Didn’t Moses want God to tell him God’s name in their earliest encounter?  And, didn’t God answer Moses in a cryptic manner by telling Moses that God’s names was “YHWH” (YahWeh) . . . meaning “I am who I am”?  Sure it does!  But, now Moses thinks that because he and God had been through so much together, that God would be willing to reveal it all.

God’s response?  Ambiguity.

God says to Moses: “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.  When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”  

As one commentator put it: “The power of the passage is in fact found in its ambiguity.  Moses’ specific requests to see God’s ways and God’s glory are rebuffed, and all he, and we, are allowed to see is God’s . . . whatever!  Wake?  Train? After?  So it is with this God.  YHWH is holy and other and fleet and is not to be seen so easily or readily or clearly.”  In other words, God is who God is . . . whatever glimpse any of us is afforded . . . God is a mystery.  Just when we seem to think that we know and understand God, God goes and throws us a curveball . . . and, we feel as if we are starting all over once again.

I think that it is human nature to think that everyone is the same . . . that we all act and think the same way; but, the truth is we are all different.  We act differently . . . we think differently.  We are all unique and special creations created in the image of God . . . we are different.  Yet, we think that everyone is just like us because we live in the same community, belong to the same clubs, and go to the same church.  But that just isn’t true . . . that is not reality.  Reality is that we are all different . . . if we were all the same . . . well, then . . . we sure wouldn’t have so many arguments, disagreements, and fights.  Life would be pretty harmonious.

I don’t think that it takes a degree in rocket science to look around us and see that there is not too much harmony in our world and existence today.  We are not the same.  We do not act the same.  We do not think the same.  We are all different.  And, when we are honest with ourselves, and take serious stock in our lives, we have to admit that there is a lot of ambiguity in our lives . . . there is a lot of uncertainty.  

When it comes to life there is just a lot of uncertainty.

And, so it is with faith.

What is faith?  For some faith is reading your bible, saying your prayers, and going to church each Sunday morning.  For others it is belonging to a fellowship or bible study group.  For others it is standing up to injustice, seeking peace, and seeking what is believed to be God’s will.  And, for others it is going off to some beautiful place in God’s creation and sitting in the awesomeness of God.  And, the odds are, each of you could add your own understanding of what it means to be a person of faith . . . and, you would all be right.  Faith manifests itself differently in each and every one of us . . . after all, God created us unique and special unto ourselves.

This creates ambiguity.

We all want to believe that every person thinks like we do . . . is going to act like we act . . . is going to be like us.  And, rarely, do we ever experience that.  Instead we experience ambiguity . . . uncertainty, and this creates frustration.  Frustration because we want others to be like us . . . to think like us . . . to act like us.  But, they don’t.

There is no cure for ambiguity.  But, there is a process in dealing with ambiguity . . . of dealing with uncertainty . . . of dealing with the mystery.  That process is dialogue . . . dialogue with that which is creating the ambiguity and uncertainty in our lives.  Think about it . . . through dialogue we are able to ask questions, listen, and come to some sort of understanding that opens up for us new possibilities . . . new relationships . . . and, new understanding of who we are, who God is, and who others are.  Through dialogue we grow.

Ambiguity . . . uncertainty . . . is okay.  It is necessary if we are to fully grow into who we are.  We may never completely know whatever it is that is creating the feelings of ambiguity or uncertainty, but we will be that much closer if we take the time to dialogue.

Moses did not ever come to completely know God in all of God’s glory, but he did come to realize that the presence of God was always with him in ways that he understood . . . and, in ways that were a complete mystery to him.  And, so it is with each of us.

May we bless our fellow sojourners in the journey of faith . . . each on his or her own journey . . . realizing that our paths are towards the same goal, but are not the same.  May we bless our fellow sojourners with dialogue and openness to their experience of God.  May we find peace in the ambiguity of faith . . . in the mystery of what it means to love God completely and to love others.  May we find what we are looking for.  Amen.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"The Stubbornness of Idol Worship” (Exodus 32:1-14)

“I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people.  Now leave me along so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them,” said the Lord to Moses upon catching the people in the act of idol worshipping.  Apparently, it does not pay to make God angry.

According to the dictionary, “idolatry literally means the worship of an idol, also known as a cult image, in the form of a physical image, such as a statue or icon.  In Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism, idolatry connotes the worship of something or someone other than God as if it were God.”  In more simplistic terms, idolatry “is putting something above God in our affections.”  The people in our reading this morning were caught red-handedly worshipping idols . . . and, this did not make God a happy camper.

You all know the story . . . Moses is up on Mount Sinai talking with God.  He is gone a little too long and the people become anxious in his absence . . . they fear the worse.  They ask for some new leadership . . . some new gods . . . anything that will relieve their anxiety.  Aaron bows down to their demands and builds an altar, creates an idol—a calf made out of gold—offers sacrifices to it and holds a celebration to install this “new god” as their “god”.  Moreover, the people buy it and throw quite a shindig.  God gets wind of it and it does not make God happy . . . no, it makes God quite angry.  Angry enough to want to wipe out each and every one of the people for their corruption . . . their fickleness . . . their stubbornness . . . and, the fact that they were turncoats. 

In the strictest and literal sense of the definition of idolatry, the people were worshipping an idol; in the most simplistic terms, they had put something else before God in their affections.  God’s reaction?  Wipe them out.

I guess we should be thankful that probably none of us is idol worshippers . . . that none of us have constructed idols and strewn them about our yards and homes to worship . . . or at least I hope we are not.  I think that the issue of idolatry and the worshipping of idols is not as “black and white” as it once was.  I think that there has been a gradual expansion of idolatry that radiates outwards into many shades of gray making it difficult to call it what it is . . . it is more subtle . . . and, I think that many of us walk a fine line when it comes to idolatry . . . especially as a society and as the human race.

How is this possible?  Well, as I said, the idolatry we are witnessing is not in the strictest sense of the word, but in the more subtle.  We might not have golden calves, but we have our idols.  Jesus extolled his followers to do two things . . . to love the Lord completely and to love others.  It was all about the relationship between the individual and God, the individual and others.  Upon this, Jesus stated, that all the laws and teachings of the prophets were laid.  Whenever something replaces these relationships . . . whenever something becomes more important than these relationships . . . then we are slipping into the realm of idolatry.  This is idolatry in its simplest form . . .

. . . and, it is all around us.

Popularity, wealth, influence, success, power, sex . . . these are some of the subtle idols we worship in our society today.  We see it in the advertisements . . . we see it in the media. A sociologist once remarked that where the most resources, time, and energies are invested is where you find the heart.  And, where the lies one finds where one’s worship and affection lie.  Remember, where the affection is that is where the loyalty is when it comes to idolatry . . . what comes first.  Whatever it is, it is not God nor others.

Whenever something supplants the relationship with God and others . . . well, God is not happy. 
God was not happy with the people in our scripture reading this morning.  God was quite angry.  Angry enough to want to destroy them all for their stubbornness to worship idols . . . anger is a mask that hides the true feelings of the one who is angry.  I imagine that God was frustrated and hurt by the actions of the people to quickly abandon God and create their own gods to be relationship with.  But, whatever the case, thanks to Moses’ quick thinking and actions, he reasoned with God to spare the people . . . to let them live.  Disappointed, God did not give up on the people . . . and, apparently still hasn’t.

You would think that after all of these thousands of years . . . the human race . . . God’s children, would have gotten it by now.  That they would have figured it out by now, especially after Jesus even told them . . . that it comes down to relationships . . . relationships between the individual and God, the individual and others.  We hear it a lot, but in practice it is seems to be quite the opposite . . . there is a lot of lip service going on.  So, why are we so stubborn?  Why are we such a stiff-necked people?  Why are we so persistent in buying into the worship of idols?

I wonder . . . I wonder in the fact that when it comes to the pursuit of all those other idols--popularity, wealth, influence, success, power, and sex—they have all come up empty in their promises; yet, we stubbornly believe.  We believe that if only we can emulate our idols . . . be like our idols . . . we will have attained all that makes sense and brings purpose to life.  Yet, we know better.
In the meantime, our relationship with God falters . . . our relationship with others falters.  Our affections have shifted away from that which gives life to the hollowness of that which is nothing more than an illusion.  In doing this we fail God, others, and ourselves.

From our reading this morning we should beware . . . we should beware the idols, golden or elusive, that pull us out of our relationships with God and others.  Beware that movement away from loving God and others.  Though the idols of our day are not made of precious metal and seem more elusive, we still have a means of evaluating ourselves when it comes to idol worshipping.  We only have to ask ourselves, where are all the resources of our time, energy, and wealth going?  Are they going to strengthen our relationships with God and others, or are they going to things and people that pull us away from them?  Where we put our investments is where we put our hearts.  This is the question we must constantly be asking ourselves when it comes to idolatry.

From the very beginning, for God it has been about relationships . . . the relationship that God has with each of us as individuals . . . the relationship that we have with others.  This is what matters to God.  This is what Jesus taught.  As we look around our individual lives . . . our corporate lives . . . our lives as a nation . . . and, our lives as the children of God; are our relationships with God and others our number one priority?  If not, what then is the problem?  Have we replaced God with the pursuit of idle idols?

We are not the first to be caught up in this issue, nor will we be the last.  I think that there has not been a generation since the time when our scripture reading took place that God did not have the opportunity to speak those words: “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people.  Now leave me along so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  Thank goodness, God is a God of grace and love, and not wrath.  Amen.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

“Follow Through” (Matthew 21:23-32)

If you have played sports or watched sports . . . you have heard the phrase, “follow through.”  Even if you have not played or watched sports, you have probably heard that phrase in association with getting a job or task done.  In sports--especially in throwing and hitting, “follow through” is important because that is where all the power comes from.  In everything else, “follow through” means getting the job or task finished to completion.  In any case, “follow through” is important . . . especially in the context of our scripture reading this morning.

Consider the case of the two brothers who are asked by their father to go and work in the family vineyard.  The first son, refuses . . . but, he later changes his mind and goes to work in the vineyard.  The second son agrees to go and work in the vineyard, but then he sloughs it off and does nothing.  Then Jesus poses the question to his audience, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

Jesus’ audience at this point probably includes his disciples . . . and, it includes the chief priests and elders who had challenged Jesus prior to this parable.  Remember the challenge?  The chief priests and elders wanted to know “By what authority are you doing these things.  And who gave you this authority?”  Remember that challenge?  Remember how Jesus responded by asking them his own question about where the authority of John the Baptist came . . . was it from heaven or from men?  In responding to their challenge, Jesus tells them that if they can answer his question, he will tell them by whose authority he has to do his ministry, preaching, and teaching.

Of course they can’t . . . they can’t answer the question because it is a “no win” situation for the chief priests and elders.  If they say John’s authority was from heaven . . . well, then, why didn’t they believe him?  If they say it is from men . . . well, that would upset the people because they believed that he was a prophet.  Either way that the chief priests and elders answered Jesus’ question would put them between a rock and a hard place.  Thus it is that they claim ignorance . . . “We don’t know.”

Because they don’t answer the question, neither does Jesus answer theirs . . . but, instead he tells them a parable . . . the parable of the two brothers asked to work by their father.

At the end or the parable, Jesus poses another question to the chief priests and elders . . . remember the question?  “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

This time the chief priests and elders do not hold a confab to determine how they will respond.  No, this time they respond quickly and with great confidence in their answer.  They tell Jesus that it was the first son who did the will of his father.

It always amazes me how Jesus’ foes always seem to step right into a public rebuke.  The chief priests and elders would have fared better if they had claimed ignorance one more time . . . but, no, they were pretty sure that they knew the answer to this question, and that Jesus would give them a gold star for their answer.  Needless to say, they did not get a gold star.  Instead they received a pretty scathing rebuke.

Jesus wants to know . . . why, then, didn’t you follow through?

Therein is the problem with the second son.  Though he answered his father in a way that his father wanted him to answer, he did not do the work.  It was all lip service.  There was no “follow through”.  On the other hand, the son who had refused to work, but then went to the vineyards to work . . . well, his actions spoke volumes to his father.  He “followed through.”

Apparently “follow through” is pretty important in the eyes of Jesus.  In the estimation of Jesus, those in control . . . the chief priests and elders . . . did not “follow through”.  They were all lip service . . . all words, no action.

Jesus doesn’t like lip service when it comes to those who claim to be his followers.  Jesus wants the words that his followers speak to match up to the actions that they take.  Jesus expects “follow through”.  

If a follower of Jesus proclaims that he or she loves all people . . . well, they better love all people . . . and, not just on Sunday morning between ten and eleven o’clock.

If a follower believes that all are welcomed into God’s family . . . well, they better be ready to set up more chairs at the table . . . and, they better be ready to receive people that they never imagined they would ever associate with.

If a follower believes in peace and justice . . . then they better live their lives in such a way that peace and justice is the end product.

If a follower believes that outreach is an important part of one’s faith . . . then he or she better be ready to move beyond mere contributions to the offering plate and to actually put one’s self in the presence of those who need help.

Jesus does not want right answers when it comes to faith . . . Jesus wants right action.  Jesus wants the words of the followers to be congruent with the actions that they take.  Jesus does not want his followers to only say it . . . Jesus wants his followers to do it.  Anything less is not to “follow through”.  

One of the spiritual exercises that helps people understand their own faith comes from a simple question: Who in this reading do you identify with?  The choice we make, when we use this practice, reveals a lot of about our own faith.  In this parable of the two brothers . . . which brother do you identify with?  Now, remember, be honest with your answer.  Are you the one who refuses to work, but ends up working anyways . . . or, are you the brother who says he will work but never does?

No matter what you anwer . . . may you discover the power of “following through”.  In the “follow through” comes the blessing . . . and, the power.  Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

“A Matter of Timing” (Matthew 20:1-16)

One of the places my father was stationed while I was growing up was the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  It was probably my favorite base that he was ever stationed at as it set tuck up in the foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains.  It was a wonderful playground for any kid who loved the outdoors.  Not far from the house we lived in were what we kids referred to as “the woods”.  It was a forest filled with trails, a stream, and a few ponds . . . it was here that the neighborhood kids found their escape.

One winter, when I was around ten or eleven years old, several of us neighborhood kids decided to go exploring in “the woods” after a snowstorm.  Everything was covered in a blanket of snow . . . everything, including a beaver pond that we frequented on the stream.  It was getting late and everyone was in hurry to get home before we got into trouble for being late.  So, the quickest way home was to go across the pond . . . the frozen pond.

First across the pond was the oldest and biggest kid--Butchy.  Softly and tenderly he tip-toed across the pond . . . no, problem.  Next up was his brother, Mikey, who figured that since his older and bigger brother got across with no issues he would have none either.  He walked and slid across with no problems.  Next up was me.  Two had made it across with no problems, so I thought I would have no problems . . .

. . . well, so much for that!

I was halfway across the pond when we all started hearing a cracking sound.  As I looked down I could see cracks radiating out from under my feet . . . and, a loud boom and swoosh.  If fell right through the ice.  Icy cold water up to my chest . . . it took my breath away.  Of course Butchy and Mikey took off running . . . not so much to get help, but because they knew that if their parents found out that they had cross a frozen pond they would kill them.  

Luckily I was able to find enough leverage to pull myself out of the hole in the ice and crawl across the rest of the pond.  Then I slowly took my frozen self home. After the shock wore off my parents, and they saw that I was okay, I then got lambasted for doing something as stupid as walking across a frozen pond . . . I could have drowned . . . I could have gotten hypothermia . . . and, the one that hurt the most, I could have died.  Embarrassed, but not quite humiliated to the utmost, the final blow came when I had to strip down, get naked, and discover that I had several leeches on by body.  

The lesson learned?  That it was a matter of timing.  If I hadn’t been such a nice guy . . . well, I would have been the first one across the pond.  Then Mikey would have been the one to fall through the ice and get the leeches!

But, that was my life growing up as a kid . . . poor timing.  My creed as a kid growing up was that song from Hee Haw: “Gloom, despair, excessive misery . . . if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

Timing seems to be everything.  Alanis Morissette speaks to this in her song, Ironic:
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice you just didn’t take
Who would’ve thought, it figures

It all comes down to timing.  

Ask the guys who are complaining in the parable Jesus is telling.  It seems early one morning they are given the opportunity to do some work for a local landowner in his vineyard.  The guy told him he would pay them a denarius for a day’s worth of work.  So, they took the job and went to work.  Throughout the day the landowner goes out and makes the same offer to others to go work in his vineyards.  Then, at the end of the day, he gathers all the workers to be paid.

The landowner first pays those who were hired last and worked the least . . . he gave to them a denarius.  Then with the next group and the next, he did the same thing . . . paid them all a denarius.  Then he got to the original group . . . the ones who had worked the whole day . . . and, he paid them a denarius.  

Needless to say, this group was not happy . . . they had a bone to pick with the landowner.  They complained that it was not fair that they--those who had worked longer and harder than all the others, got paid the same as those who had hardly worked.  As far as they were concerned, they should have been paid more . . . or at least those who came later should have gotten less.  Wah, wah, wah.

The landowner responded: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have a right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

As I read this, I thought to myself, “Welcome to my club buddy!”

The problem in this parable is one of timing . . . and, a misunderstanding about fairness, especially when it comes in the form of grace.  All the workers, no matter what time they started to work, got paid the same amount.  Now, in our day and age, if this happened today, those who worked the longest got paid a smaller wage per hour than those who barely worked.  This does not seem fair. Therein lies the rub . . . especially when we deal with the parable in the light of modern economics.  

But, we are not interpreting this parable through modern economics.  No, we are interpreting this parable through the lenses of God’s grace . . . grace that is the same for any of the faithful no matter when they claimed it.  In that regard, it seems like a pretty good deal no matter when you jump into the game.  At least that is how we, the followers of Jesus, should understand it.

Or so it would seem.  The truth is, whether we are willing to admit it or not, is that it just does not seem fair that those who stumble into grace later in the game get the same reward as those who have been playing or working since the very beginning.  I know a lot of good Christians who have a hard time with this . . . for them this does not seem fair.  The rewards of being faithful should be dallied out according to the longevity of one’s journey with God . . . the longer, the greater the reward.  This mindset explains why lots of the faithful have a hard time in accepting what is called a “foxhole confession or conversion”.

It is upsetting that some downright, dastardly, scumbag who has spent all of his or her life wallowing in the throes of the sinful life can get on his or her knees, ask for forgiveness, and seek a relationship with God through Jesus . . . and, then be rewarded with the same set of dishes the life-long faithful received years ago.  It just does not seem fair!

In this day and age . . . in the cultural and societal norms that we are living in . . . it is not fair.  Fortunately, God’s ways are not our ways . . . and, God’s grace goes beyond our human perception.  Besides that, I don’t think God really cares what our opinion about the fairness of grace is when it come to how God doles it out.  After all, as Jesus quoted the landowner in the parable: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”   If you replace the word “money” with the word “grace” then you have God perspective on it all.  Imagine what a wonderful world this could be if we were all as graceful as God is.

God does not ask us who is worthy of grace and who is not.  That is a decision that God is going to make by God’s own self . . . and, God doesn’t need our help.  Grace is God’s gift to give.  There is no good or bad timing when it comes to God’s grace . . . there is only grace.  In the end, that is what is important . . . God’s grace.  God does not care when it happens . . . God only cares that it happens.  In the end, it is only God’s understanding of grace that matters.  We should thank God for that.

May we all live the grace of God in our lives so that others too receive the gift we know.  Amen.