Monday, October 27, 2008

Never since has there arisen anyone like you . . .

     This was a strange and busy week. It was strange in the sense that there were some unusual events occurring here. Among the most unusual were some of the conversations. Far too many people, I later reflected, wanted to argue with me whether they had been "stamped" like the denarius in God's image. To be sure, not everyone put it in those terms, but it was an attitude beneath the surface of a number of conversations this week. "I know God can use anybody, Father, but I have this particular sin. . ." "I know God can redeem all things, but you see, Father, I have done some really bad things in my life." Believe it or not, some of the stories were rather mundane. I know everyone thinks that their particular sin makes them particularly unlovable (and unique!), but the truth is that each one of us has more than a few sins of which we are ashamed. And, as God goes to great lengths to remind us, all sin, from white lie to murder to idolatry, makes us unlovable in His eyes. We are only made acceptable in His eyes through Christ's redemptive work.

     Our reading from Deuteronomy reminds of us of the significance of sin in our lives and the view with which God has of it and us and of the view with which we human beings should have of God and of themselves. Much of the book of Deuteronomy reminds us of our offenses against God. And much of the instruction (torah) even mitigates against the sin that God knows is present. For 33+ chapters of Deuteronomy, God reminds Israel (His people) and us (His people) that what makes them and us special is nothing intrinsic of ourselves. Rather, it is the One who has chosen each one of us that makes us (Israel) special. Yet, in the midst of this reminder we are also given an important teaching: God must remind us of the dignity of all human beings while guarding against the pride of human beings. We seem to understand the need for guarding against our pride, but often we seem to forget about the dignity with which we were created. God, I think drives home this point in our Old Testament reading this week.

     "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses." No one who follows in God's salvation history is like Moses. Moses is unique. Indeed, he will only be surpassed by the Son of God as a prophet for God's people. Similarly, though, you and I are unique! Never again will there be anyone like you or like me. Though the Scriptures spend a great deal of time reminding us of our sins, there are within its texts a number of reminders of the dignity with which He expects us to treat one another. Beginning with the book of Genesis, each one of us is reminded that we were created in His image. Our sins may blur the image a bit, but each of us was created in His image. And from that point forward, from time to time, God reminds us of that essential truth. Statements like "You were wondrously fashioned" and "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you" are scattered throughout the Bible. Even Deuteronomy, throughout its instructions which deal with a number issues regarding the poor, reminds us of the dignity with which we are called to recognize in the weak, the victim, and the outcast.  And what a wonderful teaching! God knows each and every one of us by name. He knows the hairs on our heads. He knows our doubts, our fears, our needs. He knows things about us that even we do not know. That is how much He loves each one of us. He even knows how much we needed His Son to save us. Even during those last temptations on the cross, when we tempted Him to come down with the words "if You are the Son of God, save yourself," He chose to stay and make our salvation possible. Though the pain must have been unimaginable, and though He knew that you and I would come along later and act as if we did not believe in Him, still He loved each one of us enough to stay and make reconciliation with our Father in heaven possible. And now He is preparing that place for each one of us before He comes again! For all eternity, you will be you because you are unique in God's eyes.

     So often we think that we are not special, that we are ordinary, that we would not be missed. Others get more credit at work. Others are more famous athletes or students at school. Still others get to choose spouses from more prospective suitors. We see ourselves as bland and uninspiring. We forget that we were created in His image. Yet God sent someone on His behalf to call each one of us to Him. Perhaps it was a parent, a teacher, another loved one, a pastor, or a total stranger. The fact remains that He sent someone to teach us about His love for each one of us. You mattered that much to Him, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. And you and I no doubt think of that person or those persons as true princes or true princesses in His kingdom. Better still, He reminds you and me that we are unique in His salvation history. No one will ever arise in God's people who is like you! And just as He used ordinary people to reach you with His saving Gospel, He may well use you to reach someone else for His kingdom! God loves what we think of as ordinary. Remember, He came as a infant, not as a king! He came as a servant, not as a Lord. If ordinariness is good enough for Him, who are we that we should disperage how He has fashioned us?

     Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about sin. Yes, we should rightly be concerned about it and our attitudes towards it. But every so often, as we and He guard against our pride, we need to remember the value He places on human dignity and upon us. There are no ordinary sons and daughters of our Father in heaven. Each son and daughter is unique in His eyes. Never since has there arisen anyone in God's people who is like you! Thanks and glory be to God!


Thursday, October 23, 2008

A green shoot in the field . . .

     I often complain that I spend a lot of time tilling the soil, spreading the manure, and watering His crops and seldom ever getting to harvest.  Sometimes, though, He feeds me when I need it most.  Today was one of those wonderful examples.  I had just talked to a priest in the diocese whose loved one had been diagnosed with cancer.  We had chatted for a bit longer than I had intended.  Then the phone rang . . .

     "Who have you been talking to all this time?" the voice asked.  I knew the voice, so I gave the answer and the why.  "I'm sorry, Father, I had no right to intrude.  I was just making conversation," she said.  I told her I understood and asked what I could do for her today.  She wanted to know if I could find another needy family for a unit from Angel Food if she gave a gift of one.  I asked if she had someone in mind.  "No, no, nothing like that.  You might not remember, but you helped me get started in Angel Food Ministries over a year ago.  I was one of those people you gifted a unit to help bridge that first month.  I have done it every month since.  This will be my last month on food stamps.  And what I have on the card, I do not need.  I thought maybe this would be a good way to thank God for the blessing you and your church gave me.  And maybe someone else will find the same hope I have found."

     Just like that, on a cold, rainy day in Iowa, He burst in!  Sometimes, as that fellow priest and I were talking, our Lord can seem like a horrible boss.  We are dragged away from family, He seldom lets us see the big picture of all that He has us doing or has planned for us, and far too many of those whom He has called us to serve never seem to appreciate the work we do in His name.  Yet, every now and again, at times which seem random, He lets us see that His kingdom is coming closer, that some hearts are being transformed in His name.  Sometimes, He needs to remind us that He is good, all of the time.  All we really need to do is labor faithfully in His fields.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whose image do you bear?

     I was struck this week as I was watching Evan Almighty of how the secular world sometimes understands God better than His people. For those that have not seen Evan Almighty, I would say that it is worth the rent. It is a silly, predictable movie, but it has a serious theological side to it as well. Without spoiling the details for those who have not seen the movie, Evan is instructed by God to build an ark. Evan questions whether such an activity out to be done, questions his sanity, and even questions God. At one point in the arguments, God reminds Evan that we often overlook his love in many of the stories of the Bible. And, as Evan's defenses are nearly broken down, God reminds him that he loves him. "No matter what happens to you, I always love you," God declares to Evan before Evan embraces the task at hand. If you know Steve Carroll, you know that there is a very funny side to the shenanigans. But there are also some serious consequences. Evan's family thinks he is nuts, his closest friends and advisers think he is nuts, the neighbors think he is nuts, his co-workers think he is nuts, journalists think he is nuts, and even the emergency responders think he is nuts -- though, admittedly, the presence of so many animals give some of the characters pause. The cost to Evan of obeying God is a loss of reputation, prestige, and even financial security. And yet, because God has promised, Evan knows that there is more. Just when things seem to have played out as the world has expected, Evan remembers that God loves him. "There must be more."

     Our reading from Matthew this week ought to have comforted us in the same way. Matthew's story is about the denarius and whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees and Herodians think they have trapped Jesus. If Jesus says that it is lawful, the common people will hate Him. If Jesus says not to pay the taxes, the very temple elites whom Jesus has been condemning for the past chapter or two will be able to turn Him over to the Romans for inciting treason. Understandably, these two groups that hate each other think they have outsmarted the bumpkin from Nazareth. Yet look at the details.

     The God of the universe, the Lord of all has to bum a denarius from the crowd. Can you imagine? In this day and age where the market meltdown, the housing bubble and the looming economic recession are at the forefront of every newspaper, magazine, and television newscast, the God Incarnate Man Divine has to ask for a denarius? It seems absurd. Yet Jesus always calls upon all of us to be careful of the emphasis which we placed upon money. Over and over again He reminds us that God loves us and will care for us as a good Father. We may not get what we want, but Jesus promises that our Father in Heaven will give us what we need! What better example to us is there than to live His life faithfully trusting that God would provide for all His needs, even when He needs a coin to teach us?

     Then Jesus asks about the coin. "Who's image is this?" You and I are used to coins with the inscription "in God we trust." Roman citizens were used to a picture of Caesar and their own inscription. The coin that Jesus held up for all to see like had Tiberius' image and said something like "Caesar Tiberius, Augustus, Son of the deified Augustus, Chief Priest." Those in Jesus' audience answer Him that it is Caesar's Jesus then tells them to "give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." The word apodate is often translated as give, or render, or pay. But the word is very specific. It means to give back, implying that something has been given in the first place. And such a translation makes sense in light of Jesus' teaching. Those in the crowd have enjoyed the fruits of Caesar's reign. Caesar's army protects the people, Caesar's aqueducts have provided water, and Caesar's roads have made transportation and trade much easier. In short, in some ways, all have benefitted from Caesar's reign. Caesar has done these things, Caesar has paid for these things, Caesar's coin has even made it possible for those in Jesus' audience to purchase goods or transportation or services. So Jesus' answer seems profound. But is is even better than we realize.

     Jesus goes on to state that we should all "give back to God the things that are God's." That same little word, apodate, supplies the verb for the second half of Jesus' teaching. Give back. Jesus has had the crowd looking at an image and inscription of Caesar. He has told them to give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar. Now He instructs them to give back to God the things that are God's. What in their life bears an image of God? In a short quick answer, Jesus reminds each in the audience that they were created in the image and likeness of God! What should they be giving back to God, then? Their very lives! Just as Caesar has stamped metal with his image and has expected it to be returned to him in tribute, God has stamped each of us with His image and expects us to give ourselves back to Him. Perhaps now we know why the Herodians and Pharisees went away amazed.

     Similarly, you and I should be amazed. God has stamped each of us in His image. And, He has told each of us, as he told Moses in this week's OT reading or Evan in the movie, that He loves each one of us. No matter how bad things seem, no matter how poorly we act, no matter how often we fail Him, He loves us still; and He will not fail us! Even when we look stupid like Evan doing his "dance," God is right there loving us. How do we know? He sent His Son to teach us and to reconcile us to Him. He loved each one of us enough to die for us, to pay the penalty for all our sins, and to call us back into right relationship with Him, even though we have rejected Him over and over. And He did all this not because He was required to, but because He wanted to, because He loved each one of us.

     What does He ask in return for such a gift, for such a love? Everything and nothing. God has given us our lives and expects us to give our lives back to Him. From our perspective, He has asked for everything. Yet, what of anything that we have is truly ours? Nothing. Everything belongs to the Creator. Over and over He reminds us that we are His stewards. He gives us treasure, time, talents, and lives which are to be used to serve Him. All these resources that He gives us are supposed to be used to draw the world to Him, to His saving Gospel, to His stretched out arms of love. And so often, we forget that simple truth claim. So often, we forget that we are stewards and act as if we were the lord. The Pharisees and Herodians went away amazed because they were confronted with a reminder of their place in His creation, and they were unwilling to submit to Him. You and I ought to be amazed but drawn to Him. Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians of our story this weekend, you and I can look back on the miracle of the empty tomb and the confirmation of the Ascension and have faith that Jesus is who He said He was. And, better still, He has asked each one of us to bear His image in a dark, lonely, and often hopeless world, reminding all those whom we meet that they, too, were created in His image.

     Every day, you and I are involved in any number of transactions.  Some involve the purchase of goods or services, others involve the exchange of ideas, and still others involve the exchange of love.  The other person in the exchange can be the worker at Wal-Mart, a co-worker, a school friend, a family member, a bill collector, even a stranger; the possibilities are limitless!  The image that we have of ourselves often dictates how we go about those interchanges and exchanges.  Do you go about the world believing that you make your own image, your own self worth, your own value?  Or do you remember that it is in His image that both you and the other were created and so try lovingly to draw him or her into the arms of their true Father, the One who refines all our images and makes us worthy to be loved by Him?


Monday, October 13, 2008

What to wear

     I had to chuckle at God's timing for this week's readings. As a couple dozen members of our House of Deputies and House of Bishops for General Convention 2009 debated the meaning of Jesus' statement in John about being the way, the truth, and the light, we get Jesus' third parable of judgment on the Temple elites in Matthew's Gospel. The parable is a familiar story. The king of a land throws a wedding feast for his son. When the citizens are invited, some ignore the invitation, others act as if they have better things to be doing, and still others decide to kill the kings messengers. The king is enraged. He sends his troops and destroys the murderers and their towns towns. Then he says to his slave to invite everyone to the feast that has been prepared. The wedding hall ends up filled with guests. But one guest sticks out like a sore thumb. One guest has eschewed the wedding robe provided by the host. One guest has decided to trust in his own apparel. The king is once again incensed. He has the guest bound and tossed into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

     I came to the conclusion early in the week that the purported leaders in our church, who were arguing over whether it is more important to live as Christ commanded or simply to identify themselves as His believers, must not have had to preach this week. How else can one explain their fixation on a false dichotomy between ontology (who are we) and praxis (what we do)? Matthew's Gospel spoke right into the midst of their debates, and yet they lacked ears and eyes to hear God's message. Of course, such selfishness is not too surprising. How often do we ignore the clothing with which our Father in heaven has clothed us in exchange for garments of our own choosing and our own creation.

     This message was driven home by my so-called secular voices this past week. One of my guilty pleasures, as many already know, are science fiction movies and books. I broke down last week and purchased Ironman. Without spoiling the details for those who might want to watch the movie later, the hero, (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) of the movie, Tony Stark, spends a great deal of time and energy trying to develop an amazing suit. It must protect him against bullets, explosions, extreme temperatures and any other number threats. Plus, it is armed. And, lest we forget, what good is a superhero is he cannot fly? Stark spends a great deal of his time, energy and fortune after an epiphanic vision of sorts in his attempt to combat evil in the world. Of course, it is a suit of his creation, and, for all the good he can do with it, it still does not function as it should. And, sometimes when damaged, it can be awfully hard to remove.

     I also managed to watch Sex and the City which had an interesting subplot or two. The wedding dress, for Carrie, determined everything. The dress designed the size of the wedding party, the number of people invited, the headpiece, and everything else. And, in the midst of this party being created to match the dress, the viewers are given an important lesson in forgiveness. Miranda's husband has committed a horrible sin against her. Miranda, ever the strong-willed lawyer, knows just what to do. She throws the bum out. Then, later, when she commits a sin against Carrie, she asks Carrie why she will not forgive her. Carrie asks why she should expect to be forgiven when she cannot forgive her soon-to-be ex.

     Two movies, two interesting comments on human nature which coincide with this week's readings about a proper wedding robe. So often, you and I are like Stark. Sometimes, we try to craft our own clothing, trusting that we will be able to clothe ourselves in a righteousness of our own making. We trust that our best will be good enough for God. At other times, however, we fall prey to the idols of the world like Carrie and allow them to dictate what "we wear." Perhaps we adorn ourselves with the trappings of wealth, maybe we feel called to surround ourselves with friends from a particular social clique, we might even feel called by the world to reject the wedding robe offer by our Father in heaven because of its perceived shortcomings (we suffer when we wear it, it is not quite as fancy, etc). Whatever the reason, far too often we reject God's intended robe for us. Neither of these choices ends well in Jesus' story.

     One of the unfortunate comments in the parable is the king's judgment on such people. Those who reject his invitation and those who refuse to wear his robe are cast out and destroyed. Imagine, Jesus tells us another story about judgment. And the judgment is all about the leaders' rejection of God's invitation and about how individuals respond to that invitation to the feast. The fact of the matter is that His feast has been prepared, and He has crafted us all robes of righteousness, if only we will accept His invitation and His offer of salvation through Christ. All other clothing is insufficient in God's eyes. Only the robes washed in the blood of the Lamb will cleanse us, and the object of our desire ought to be that wonderful communion feast with Him for all eternity. As the author of Ecclesiastes will often note, all else is a vanity, a chasing after the wind.

     What is your attitude to your clothing? Do you spend a great deal of time picking out the perfect outfit? Or, are you more likely to throw something together in the dark as you head out to face life? Far too often, those of us in Christian circles forget that we wear His robe over all our clothes. We forget that our identity is intimately tied to Him, and we forget that our actions bring honor or dishonor to our Lord.  How we dress testifies to the world where we place ourselves.  When we wear His robe, we can accomplish miracles in His name.  When we dress in anything else, we often lead or drive others astray.

     The fact is that each of us, as well as everyone we meet, is offered an invitation to God's banquet? God has also made it clear that acceptance of His invitation requires a faith in His beloved Son. But, as Paul would say, faith without works is dead. When we claim to clothe ourselves in Christ's righteousness, we should be about His work. We should be feeding His people, clothing His people, loving His people in as many ways as we can each conceive. Similarly, all these works must be done with an eye to the need to "go and invite everyone whom we find" to His feast. Feeding a hungry person without offering the testimony of Christ only prolongs their dying. Granting a thirsty person a drink while withholding the living water of Christ only prolongs their spiritual dehydration and eventual death.  Clothing the needy while withholding the Gospel only leaves them in the outer darkness, isolated and apart from their heavenly Father. Who we are is defined by what we do, and what we do is defined by who we are. We are not called to an identity without any action, and we are not called to any action without His identity!

     One of the challenges of the parables of Jesus is that we are able to find ourselves in the story. Sometimes, we may not like who we think we are. Are we like Stark or the one who rejected the host's robe in the story today, trusting in our own worth and righteousness? Are we perhaps like those others invited earlier who went about their own business rather than accepting His invitation to the feast? Do we, like the leaders whom Jesus criticizes in this parable, trust that who we are will ensure our ability to get into the feast at a time of our own choosing rather than when He calls? The wonderful Gospel is that, still, He calls us. Despite our terrible wardrobe selections, despite our efforts to wear styles not appropriate to His people, still, He offers to clothe us! All He asks is that we accept His offer. He will take care of all the details and all the accessories. We need only to accept the invitation.  He will prepare a feast for us the likes of which this world will never know, and He will make us each worthy to attend to such a gathering.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Thank you, Charlie

     A couple weeks ago, Bishop Scarfe commented what a fun parish I seemed to have.  I know Bishop Scarfe feels one of his gifts of the Spirit is discernment, so I took the compliment and observation the way he meant it.  Sometimes, in the midst of the pastoral messes we all deal in, it is hard to remember just how good a church one can be privileged in which to serve.  Such is my current situation, and the bishop's observation proved true.

     Sunday, after church was over, a visitor came and asked me for help with food.  We have a bit of history with this lady and her family.  They moved here without a plan, without a job, and without a place to land.  Her boyfriend was "being forced" to leave their previous state because of the vindictive "ex."  Naturally, the two adults made no plans without considering the effect that such actions might have upon the children.  But, ours is to trust that He will redeem all things.

     I had helped her get started in Angel Food, but she had decided to drop out.  I had helped her meet with a landlord who seemed awfully defensive in the presence of a member of the clergy, but she had eschewed any gains to her benefit for some short term gains.  She had come to me needing help with other parts of her life.  And Sunday, she had dropped in for the second half of church.

    As I finished dealing with everything and everybody after church, I went into the library.  Charlie was there changing clothes to help unload the semi of pumpkins which were running 28 hours late.  I remarked to Charlie that I hated to meet with this lady.  Charlie asked why.  He listened to me bitch about how she seems to reject every chance to be helped, how she seems oblivious to the harm she is causing the children, how the man she has chosen for herself seems to be oblivious to the needs of both herself and the kids, and a few other gripes.  Charlie asked why I was in such a bad mood.  I told him because she was wasting our help.  We sure don't have an excess of resources that we can waste them on people who do not want to help themselves.  And, in as lovingly a manner as possible, Charlie commented that he was glad Jesus did not share my attitude.  Just like that, I had been punched in the nose.

     Charlie asked me if we had some food.  I told him we did.  Charlie said that one of the things he took from our trips to Cedar Rapids a couple years ago was my willingness to let God decide where to spend our resources.  If anyone had need, and we had resources, I took that to mean that I should help.  If we had no resources, all I could do was offer a prayer.  Charlie reminded me that if God did not want me to help this lady, He would have steered others here first.  He did not; so He must have a plan for her.  To think that Charlie, who regaled me with tales of his colonoscopies and 20 year marriage (not to the same woman, mind you) anniversary in the wee hours before dawn as we traveled to Cedar Rapids to pick up food to feed the hungry, would have listened to me and used my own words to convict me.  I groused my thanks to Charlie, grabbed a box, filled it, and took it out to her in the parish hall.  Had Charlie not just given me my spiritual wedgie a couple minutes earlier, I might have exploded when she complained that there was too much food and she really did not want to have to carry it home.  I told her that others had needs and she could leave some of it if she desired.  Needless to say, she let none of it.

     Bishop Scarfe was spot-on when he said I had a great church.  He had laughed that no one had been appointed his shepherd during his visit.  When he visited, we did not care if he sat with the wardens or the "crazy aunt/uncle" that everyone tries to save him from in other parishes.  Many had remarked how sorry that they were he had missed the water wars -- some because they wanted to see him at play, others because they wanted to get him (and all because we found a cool purple water pistol).  And while the parish does not stand on too many high liturgical practices, they have some but were more than willing to follow his lead.  And, when the priest needs a good dressing down, they are more than willing to do that too.

     As I was sharing the story with the Roses and Thorn Bible Study this morning, a couple remarked that I should be proud of Charlie's, and Jan's, and Julie's, and Robin's, and Larry's (and the list went on and on) reactions when I needed some good counseling.  But, for some reason, they were pleased how I took their admonishments.  Unlike some clergy in their past, I did not respond with anger or "how dare he/she's".  And better still, I was willing to share that story with them.  Some clergy might be afraid that their authority might be undermined by admitting their mistakes.  I laughed.  I never wanted this.  I did everything I could to avoid it.  Bishop Scarfe knows I probably did a fair amount to try and sabotage the process.  Yet, through it all, He would not be thwarted.  How could I be so blase about my shortcomings?  Trust me I am not.  I detest failure, especially in myself.

     Yet, I shared with them an image which has stuck in my mind since early in seminary.  I may have read it in one of Eugene Peterson's books, maybe Gavin or Les or Leander or Grant had said it.  Maybe God had simply spoken it into my head to deal with my ego.  Pastoring, I told them, is hard when the shepherd is really no different from the sheep.  Most of the time, I am like them:  selfish, focused on my own needs, railing against God for His unwillingness to act in my benefit, and other such sins.  Like them, I need to be led to those green pastures and holy city.  Mercifully, from time to time, He allows me to stand on two legs and look where I am going.  It may be the briefest of glances, and I will not see all the briars and ridges and pitfalls, but I will know the general direction in which I and the flock He has given to my care should be headed.  My thought, my hope and prayer, is that others get that glance from time to time and help me keep His flock from veering too far of course.

     Of course, the lady's response to our offer is no different from many people's response to Christ's offer of salvation.  We get so focused upon what we want, that we become unwilling to do what He wants.  He would embrace us, and we put it off.  He wants to end our loneliness, and we are determined to make our own plans.  He gave up so much; and we act as if it was no bid deal when He became man and suffered for our sake on the cross.  Unlike me and the rest of us, He did all that knowing how we would act.  Is there a greater love?  I just pray that our visitor is granted those eyes to perceive, ears to hear, and heart to understand what He has had us do in His name and to join us on that wonderful pilgrimage where the sheep must sometimes lead the pastor.


Monday, October 6, 2008

$700 billion

     Sometimes, I have to wonder at God’s timing and His sense of humor. While we are in the midst of what could become perhaps the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, our Wednesday evening Bible study, which has been on the book of Deuteronomy for nearly the past two years, was forced to confront God’s teaching on interest in chapter 23. Keep in mind, the group selected this study nearly two years ago, and we progressed at a speed which made this teaching and discussion come up right in the midst of when our government is considering a $700 billion bailout of the financial industry. Coincidence? Godincidence? “What is going on” “Does God have anything to say about the crisis?” “What should I be doing, selling or buying” And “How can we speak into this mess when talking to our neighbors ad co-workers?” are just a few of the questions being asked. Add to that my background in the markets, and a number of parishioners simply want to know whether they should panic or not.

     Without getting into the specifics of parishioner’s finances, most should be discussing their current holdings with a trusted financial planner or investment representative. A trusted representative or planner knows your goals, your situation, your risk tolerance, and other such information that you have provided over the years. He or she should be able to help guide you through this turbulence.

     So, in a nutshell, what is going on? Basically, many of the big banks and money houses bought the mortgages that were written during the recent housing boom. As foreclosures have increased, more houses have come on the market. More selling than buying drives prices down. A house that may have been worth $700,000 a couple years ago may now only be worth $550,000. Little money down was required to purchase the homes, so homeowners find themselves upside down on their homes. In other words, people may owe more on the houses than they are currently worth. Some are simply choosing to walk away from the homes leaving the banks holding a mortgage with no hope of it being paid off in full.

     Complicating the problem is the fact that many houses were bought with adjustable mortgages which were initially low, with the idea that once the house appreciated enough it would either be refinanced under a traditional fixed mortgage or simply sold with the seller pocketing the profits before the adjustable rate ever reset. As a result, many banks and other money houses find themselves owning the mortgages on properties that are no longer worth the note, with mortgage holders who cannot meet the rising mortgage payment. What to do?

     Finally, derivatives are once again contributing to some of our economic problems. And just what, exactly are derivatives? Although this is admittedly a bit of an oversimplification, companies have placed bets. Companies have bet whether interest rates will go up or down, whether other companies will go out of business, and even on the risk exposure that companies may have in the event of natural disasters. Other companies have placed bets that companies would survive, that interest rates would do the opposite, or that the other companies have no risk. It would be akin to the betting that goes on around the Super Bowl when people bet on everything from the winner to the points scored to the coin flip. Unlike with Super Bowl bets, however, nobody has checked to see whether the companies placing the bets have the assets necessary to cover the bet if they are wrong. Some companies allegedly have bought and sold derivatives worth hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars, with little more than $100 or $200 million in net assets. That means that if they bet wrong, they cannot pay their debts. Meanwhile, the companies who bet against them and ending up winning are discovering that the debtor companies cannot “pay off the bets” and that the won assets are worthless.

     The problems being discussed on the nightly news and in Congress might seem a bit remote to us. Here in Iowa, the falloff has not been nearly dramatic as it has been in other parts of the country, but that primarily is because we did not experience the recent runup in housing prices that was common in California, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Miami, Charlotte, and other boom markets around the country. In many of those markets, the housing market appreciation far exceeded historic norms. Entire economies and industries came to depend upon the housing boom, and its collapse has affected everything from municipal funding to job employment. This buying and selling of houses became so ubiquitous that television shows such as “Flip that House” have garnered wide audiences, and new businesses such as “house stagers” have been developed to meet the needs of the housing boom. On paper, trillions of dollars in wealth were created, and a lot of it was spent rather than saved. The wealth generated during this recent boom kept the consumer spending high which, in turn, kept the economy chugging along. Now, as the housing bubble has burst, billions in losses may be created, and the economy may be grinding to a halt.

     I say these losses may be created as no one knows how far prices will fall. The $700 billion plan recently put forth by the government assumed that the foreclosure rate would be double that of the Great Depression and that the mortgages would be worth approximately 65 cents on the dollar (in other words, a house worth $1 million a couple years ago will bottom out around $650,000). If those two assumptions were to prove correct, taxpayers would actually make 10-12% on the $700 billion outlay, nearly paying for the recent AIG bailout.

     Why the need for the outlay? Quite simply, no bank really knows how bad the mortgages held by other banks really are. As a result, banks are refusing to lend to other banks. Complicating that problem, no one is willing to provide capital to banks and other lenders because they cannot assess the value of many of these distressed mortgages. Banks are hoarding cash. Investors are hoarding cash. Liquidity has dried up. Mortgages cannot be closed; student loans are unavailable; big ticket items such as cars are harder to purchase.
Regulators, the Presidential Administration, and the Congress have all come to realize that cash must be put back into the system. If the government buys $700 billion in questionable assets, that frees the banks and financial institutions of the uncertainty currently hindering their business and allows banks and other financial institution to get back to loaning, investing, and making money. What does this have to do with Deuteronomy and how can Christians speak into such an environment?

     I will not presume to catch everyone up on nearly two years worth of study, but Deuteronomy provides us with a second instruction, torah, from God (Israel decided it did not want to follow the Lord into the Promised Land the first time it stood on the banks of the Jordan). Deuteronomy both reminds us of God’s ideal and attempts to mitigate the consequences of sin in the world. God’s offer to Israel was sincere. If Israel kept His instructions, He would have blessed them; Israel chose to ignore His instructions and received, instead, His curse: expulsion from the Land. Among the instructions given to Israel was that there would be no charging of any interest on loans. To make sure Israel understood what God was saying, interest was prohibited in Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37, and Deuteronomy 23:19-20. Some modern translations may say excessive or exoribitant or greedy interest. The Hebrew simply says any. God’s people were not to charge God’s people any interest. Indeed, not charging interest is declared a sign of rightousness in the Psalms, in Proverbs, and in Ezekiel. The principle behind this instruction is that humanity will often embrace any opportunity for exploitation. In other words, when we have an opportunity to take advantage of another human being, we will. In these passages, God is saying that the hard-hearted are not allowed to profit during hard times on the backs of the less fortunate. Hard times will occur; God’s people will react to those times in a way befitting a people who call Him Lord and Abba. The poor in the midst of His people will be protected from exploitation.

     You and I, sitting in Davenport, may well wonder, given the importance of interest-credit relationships in the “free market economy” in which we live, how we can speak into this credit crisis. Indeed, you and I may well feel powerless and exploited as this situation and proposed solution seem to be focused on other parts of our country. $700 bilion is so much money that all of us here combined will not earn that much money in our lifetimes combined. How can Church change the culture?

     First, we would do well to remember our roots. It is only recently that the Church has embraced the idea that interest was morally acceptable. Clearly, God had other ideas. God’s people were not allowed to charge God’s people any interest. This idea of dining out, buying bigscreen televisions, beer -- if one is a college student, and other amenities on credit cards goes against the way He taught His people to live. Paying off those $26,000 credit card bills through refinances of houses (increasing ones debt) is against His instruction. How might the credit-interest relationship of our church members be changed if we committed to living within our means and paying cash for all our purchases?

     Second, the society into which this instruction was placed was forbidden to charge interest and commanded to help a neighbor in need. A community could keep such an ethic only if it was confident that the Lord was the Lord of everything. So often, you and I may act as if God is only God on Sunday mornings. So often, you and I buy into the idea that the “market” is in control. A trillion dollars was wiped out last Monday because the “market” went down, as if that explains the fear that was at play when the House voted down the proposed bailout bill. But we, as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven, are called to remember that He is in charge of every inch of the universe and every second of time. There is no time, there is no place when we are beyond His reach. What if we, as He has called us to do, responded to the needs of our fellow brothers and sisters in the way that He has called us? We might be tempted to think that we could not accomplish much, but here at St. Alban’s we have made a difference in the lives of parishioners affected by the summer floods, have made a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Swaziland by providing them with clean drinking water, have made a difference in the lives of those around us hungering for food, have made a difference in providing for the needs of abused ladies and their children, have made a difference giving our change to vaccinate the youth in Tanzania, and have made a difference in the lives of young girls trying to find a safe place in which to give birth. We are by no means rich; and we have not loaned them this help “with interest!” We have responded to need in our midst by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Are we in any way impoverished for our actions? Has God not blessed us for our actions? Or are we, as so many of us note, living in the midst of the “loaves and fishes.” And see how our community notices. Like the Romans who noticed the Christians (“see how they love one another”), people notice what we do, ask us why we do it, and often go away muttering that they wish they shared our faith! Finally, since the people of God were not allowed to charge interest and since they were commanded to render aid, there existed a legal and moral imperative to help another in need when the instructions of Deuteronomy were followed. It was a much different economy; quite unlike the economy we have experienced the past few days. The papers and press have reported that banks and other money institutions have refused to loan money to one another and that LIBOR rates (rates charged between banks) have surged as a result. If God’s instructions were followed, what would life look like? Would we be hoarding cash as many banks are now? Or would we instead be encouraged to loan to another brother or sister in need. If one lived with the understanding that he or she was commanded to help and one could not charge interest, there is simply no reason to hoard. The whole community living under God's instruction has an moral imperative to help those in their midst in need. And such an understanding was commanded throughout the entirety of the torah. Slaves had to be freed every seventh year and “garlanded” with flocks and crops; the hungry were allowed to feed in the fields, the crops lay fallow every seventh year and for two years every 49th and 50th year, and the widows and orphans were cared for in accordance with the Lord’s heart. Because they were commanded to be aided, God’s people in need had no reason to look outside God’s people for help; and, because they could not make more money loaning their money anywhere else, God’s people with money had no reason to hoard their cash.

     What does such a life look like, lived in modern times? What if we as landlords cared for properties as if our beloved family members were going to live in our houses or apartments? What if, when one among us was stricken with a disaster such as a tornado or serious medical need, we stepped in and helped as much as we were able? What are some other ways in which those with resources might care for His chosen people in our midst?

     And what of the needy? We need to discern whether we really need what we think we need. Perhaps, if we are always in financial difficulties, we are not being good stewards. Perhaps, our perceived needs are really wants. Sure, the newest, hottest truck is awesome to drive and show to our buddies, but does it get us to work any better than a 2004 compact? Yes, a 55-inch high def plasma screen is great for watching games or soaps, but do we really need the television dominating our conversations even more? Eating out is sure convenient, but do we get our bang for the buck? We need to learn to live within our means, trusting that our Lord will provide for our needs and our emergencies as He has for His people all throughout history.

     Reading this and considering the dollars and forces arrayed against us, one might be tempted to consider that I have lost my senses. The money is too much; the need is so great. We cannot change the way the world works. I am reminded, however, of a discussion with the roses a few Thursdays back. We were considering how we should respond when we are ill-treated and trust that vengeance will be the Lord's, just as He has promised. A couple of ladies, at nearly the same time, reminded all of us present of the Amish response to the schoolhouse massacre from a year ago. Rather than seeking the death of the sick man who killed their children, the Amish set out to pray for and to forgive him for the evil he had brought into their peaceful lives. For a couple news cycles, the world remarked at that “turn the other cheek” mentality. Pundits and talking heads asked, “How can they forgive him?” And the spokespeople for the Amish responded that their Lord had first forgiven them. The world was stunned. Christ was again a stumbling block to the world!

     Similarly, the past few weeks have seen us reading part of the Exodus story in which the people of Israel complain about the provision of the Lord. They hunger, and against all likelihood, the Lord provides manna and quail. Imagine, former slaves get to eat meat every day! Then, filled in their bellies, they thirst. And God brings forth a spring of water from the flint stone in the desert to provide drink for His people. God always provides for His people abundantly. Why should we think that He cannot provide for us today?

     Would it be easy to live as He has instructed us? No. Certainly people would think that Christians have lost there minds and seek to take advantage of us. The world would smile at us and nod its head accordingly as it tried to reach around us and fleece our pockets. Yet, if it is God’s plan, can the world really prevail? The same Lord who created all that is, the same Lord who sent His Son to redeem us, the same Lord who raised that Son on the third day is the same Lord who commands a different economy? If He thinks it would work, who are we to argue? If our lives and our times are truly in His hands, why not our wallets, or checkbooks, our 401k’s and our trust as well?