Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Citius, Altius, Fortius . . . nope, just endure!

     Like many of you, I find myself a little bit more tired than usual.  No, I’m not talking about my trip to Iowa to work on the house there.  I am talking about that wonderful event we call the Olympics.  Yes, like many of you I find myself staying up until midnight watching the events--thank God we live in Central Time, or we would feel even worse.  NBC seems to think that the Olympics are a human interest story interrupted by a couple competitions, but the bigger part of the reason I like to watch them is to watch these fabulous athletes do what they do best on the world’s biggest stage:  Phelps and Ledecky dominating in the pool; Bolt on the straightaway; our men’s and women’s basketball teams; our women’s gymnastic teams, to name a few.  Those of you who have been here for some time are not surprised.  I played football for fourteen years, so there must be a love of sports buried deep within me, right?  And those who are new learned that last month as I tried to beat Federer on a bicycle on that homage to the tour on our bikes at the Y – he may not have been racing me, but I nearly killed myself setting personal bests on trails to barely eek out a win over him.  I married a wife who made it to the select camp for the Field Hockey Olympic team.  If I don’t bring my A game to our contests, she will certainly happily beat me.
     That love of competition, of course, makes me think I could do some of those sports on television.  Right?  I see the nods.  Except for the fear of looking really stupid to our friends and neighbors, who here does not think they could race walk?  Some among us could sail, right?  Anyone here good on horseback?  Badminton?  Ping Pong . . . er, I mean Table Tennis?  Bowling?  Archery?  Air Rifle?  I see some nods.  It’s that mistaken belief that I think I could do some of those events that had me laughing at Bill Murray. . . yet again, this week.  One of my favorite meme’s on Facebook this week has been Murray’s quote that every event ought to have a regular guy or gal competing, just so we couch potatoes can get an idea how hard these competitions are and how elite each of these athletes are.  He’s got a point.  There’s nothing like reality to snap us back from fantasy land!
     One of the other reasons I like watching the Olympics is watching the effort of those who do not get the headlines.  Our athletes are often paid to train.  In many of the other countries, though, they work full time jobs and train around their jobs and family obligations.  They do not expect to medal.  They simply compete for their love of the sport and to test themselves against the best.  For example, there is the Greek marathoner who found out by accident that he made the Olympic team for Greece about a month ago.  He was reading the paper over lunch at his law firm in Athens and saw his name listed as one of Greece’s Olympians.  In the interview I read, he was excited just to be going and racing against the powerful Africans who dominate distance running.  He had no illusions about winning.  He had no illusions about being on the podium.  He did dream of entering the Olympic stadium, though, to the roar of the crowd.
     That brings me, of course, back to our Letter to the Hebrews.  The author has a lesson for the everyman and everywoman within us.  Often times in church, we look upon the heroes of Scripture as if they were superhuman.  Sure, what woman among us wants to go through labor as late in life as Sarah, never mind the nursing, diaper changing, and rearing that go with motherhood?  Who among us would dare to speak to a leader like Moses?  Amos?  Hosea?  We might claim we want to be with Jesus, but how many of us would be thrilled if He appeared to us the way He did Paul or Mary Magdalene or the other disciples?  How would you react if He showed up at your house for dinner with a few of His close friends?
     One of the reasons for Scripture, though, is that it reminds us that our spiritual heroes are men and women just like us.  I know for some of you I have highlighted the faults or weaknesses of our heroes a bit much in my short tenure here, but that has been intentional.  Far too many Adventers have told me they could not possibly do the things that this saint or that saint did.  Far too many Adventers have shared with me those sins, those weaknesses, those character defects which make them unsuitable ambassadors for God.  So, I have tried to remind us of the faults present in all our heroes.  Peter has incredible mountaintop experiences and incredible valleys in His journey with Christ.  We talked briefly last week about Abraham’s and Sarah’s.  This week, the author of Hebrews gives us a quick laundry list:
     Gideon – He argued even more than Moses that he was unsuited to the task that God had given him.
     Rahab – we and the author of Hebrews still refer to her as Rahab the Prostitute.  She is not “Rahab the woman who protected the spies” or “Rahab of Jericho.”  She is still Rahab the Prostitute some three thousand years later!  Guess what she did to earn that moniker.
     Barak – few of us know his story.  He demanded that God send the judge and prophetess Deborah with him to battle.  He had the opportunity to win great glory for God and himself, and he doubted God.  God still used him, but the glory of victory was given to Jael, the wife of Heber.
     Samson – Everyone knows this story, right?  Samson was strong until he let Delilah cut off his hair.  That’s the Sunday School version.  The real version, though, points out that Samson was the right tackle of the football team.  There are sharp people in Scripture; Samson is not confused with them.  He put the “duh” in dummy.  By the end of his story, though, God has gotten through to Samson.  Samson is given back his strength one more time in order that God might be glorified in the destruction of the Philistine temple.
     Jephthah – He won a great victory for Israel over the Ammonites, I think it was, but he made a stupid vow to God that ultimately cost him his daughter.
     David – Let’s forget Bathsheba for this time and focus on God’s pastor.  When God gives David the choice of his family being punished or the people being punished for David’s sin of taking a census, what does the great shepherd of God’s people choose?  That’s right.  He asks that the punishment fall on the flock.
     Samuel – I enjoy Samuel.  First he does not want Saul king, then he grieves for Saul.  At first he feels slighted that Israel wants a king, then God reminds him who really was slighted, and then seems to like the idea of king better than he should.

The author goes on to list the deaths and torture of nameless saints, those who were stoned, those who were sawn in two, those who were imprisoned, those who were beaten, those who lost everything they had.  And the author declares to us and to the first readers and hearers of this letter that the world was not worthy of any of them!  These common folk, whose names have been lost to us in many cases, are praised by the author as being not worthy of this world.  Why?
     The whole section of Hebrews has been concerned with faith.  Last week, we looked at Abraham and Sarah and how their faith was blessed with an incredible covenant by God.  This week, the letter continues with some of the individuals whose faith stands out in Scripture and in life.  And in this week when we are in the midst of Olympic celebration, of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the author reminds you and me that faith is not subject to the rules of this earth.  Faith is not something that can be measured, weighed, calculated like world and Olympic records.  Faith is simply that belief that what God promises will come to be, sometimes despite the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  His only demand is that we get into the race.  His only expectation is that we endure.
     The Olympians have their battle cry higher, stronger, faster!  You and I are told only that we need to endure!  It is a tough thing to endure.  Life is hard.  The world constantly testifies against the wisdom of its creator.  The Enemy of God seeks to convince us that we have to do enough to be worthy of God.  Yet God reminds us and commends to Scripture to the stories of those who simply endured.  And do not think yourself immune to the need for endurance.  How many of us face diseases such as cancer in our lives?  How many of us face privation in our lives?  How many of us face broken relationships in our lives?  How many of us are wounded by our brothers and sisters and pastors in our churches?  And we are all bombarded each and every moment of our lives with “wisdom” that claims supremacy over God’s.  It is no wonder that so many fall away over the course of their lives.  It is no small wonder that the author of Hebrews reminds us that we need to endure.
     In a few moments, Penny will speak to us about the work and ministry of St. Luke’s.  The picture that she will paint is a grim one, because the world around us is grim and dark.  And in the midst of that incredible need, she will explain how St. Luke’s needs money, and talents, and time of those called by God to help fight evil, to be candles in the darkness.  And make no mistake, the evil that she will describe, the need and marginalization to which she speaks as an expert in our midst, is overwhelming.  By worldly standards, you and I, individually and collectively, can really do nothing to combat it.  Adventers like Stewart may bring 500 lbs of food this year, but, like the little boy with a few loaves and a few fish, what is that among so many?  By worldly standards, the monetary resources necessary are simply too great for us to expect to ever conquer the need, but Adventers like Ron and Janice and Jerry and others head down week after week to work at This and That, to raise monetary support for the work of St. Luke’s.  I could go on, but I will let her share that thunder.
     In many ways, you and I are like the Greek marathoner.  When we enter into ministry, we have no real expectation of being another Abraham or Mary or Ruth or Daniel or whoever we admire.  We have no expectation, when we lend our meager resources or talents to the fight against evil, that we will be victorious.  The need is simply too great.  But we fight on.  We run through those walls that appear.  We grit our teeth and put one foot in front of the next.  And that, brothers and sisters, is all that God asks of us.  He asks us to endure.  He values our endurance.  Our labor might go unnoticed by the world which is not worthy of us, but it noticed by our Lord and Savior.  It is often noticed by those around us.  And to each of them, you and I have the opportunity and responsibility of becoming every bit the ambassador of Christ as did Abraham & Sarah, Deborah, Moses, Priscilla, Samson, David, Barak, and countless others.  Our God promises that nothing He purposes is in vain, and our Lord promises that He knows and loves each one of us like a first born son or daughter.  More amazingly, simply by enduring, you and I are promised a crown or garland or medal of victory.  At some point in the future, after we finish this marathon we call life, after we have run over the mountains and through the valleys, through scorching heat and freezing rain, you and I are promised a celebration that will dwarf the experience of our marathon runners.  We will enter the stadium of God’s people to the roars and acclamations of a job well done, if we simply endure.  The higher, stronger, and faster has already been accomplished by our Lord Christ.  We need only to follow in His footsteps and trust that He will make our endurance meaningful, and that, in the end, He will share the glory, His glory, with us and with all who endured in faith to the end of this race we call life.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Yet another sermon on money . . .

     Those of you who have been cringing for most of this summer might be thrilled to know I am leaving the histories and minor prophets, at least for a week.  I’m not sure that I am supposed to be in Luke this week, but I feel like I owe it to the Search Committee and the Vestry.  As I was interviewing, now almost two full years ago, I was asked if I would preach on Stewardship.  I shared with both the Search Committee and the Vestry that this nonsense all grew out of me preaching on Stewardship.  For those of you who do not know, this whole ordination thing began when a priest beat me into running a Stewardship program and preaching on it at church.  To be fair, Dan was not mean.  He was just insistent.  We argued, but I finally agreed.  I learned in those arguments, though, that some priests viewed preaching on Stewardship as tantamount to asking for a raise, or at least keeping one’s job.
     At the time, I was a branch manager of a brokerage office.  I was young, too.  Had I known that could lead to this, I probably would have fought much harder not to run that program and not to give those sermons.  But, one of the redemptions of that experience is that I am as comfortable talking about money as I am anything else in Scripture.  So, I told the Vestry and Search Committee “No problem.  When it comes up, I will preach it.  After all, where and how we spend our money is a clue to our heart and a clue to our relationship with God.”  Ironically, since my arrival, I think an obvious money sermon has come up once.  One single time.  By quirk of the lectionary, our readings have been pointed elsewhere.  It is a shame really.  One of the nuggets of the Holy Cow was that we as a parish have a budget some $400,000 below where it should be, if people told the truth about their income and really believe they are members at Advent.  You’d think God would want me hammering away at that more frequently.  But no.  Even though money is often discussed in Scripture, our readings and my sermons have mostly been elsewhere.
     That, too, might be a gift or at least for the best.  Rather than me going old school broker and brow-beating you about Stewardship, and threatening you with eternal damnation, we have had to spend a lot of time in others areas getting to know one another.  See, you all can laugh.  Visitors might be offended by that idea.  I had a newish member at 8:00 tell me how disappointed he/she was that I finally preached on money.  He/she had been telling friends that he/she had found a preacher who preaches on things other than money.  Now, I have lost my unique standing in his/her eyes.  That’s not to say I have not had lots of individual discussions with parishioners and had some thoughts in Finance Committee and Vestry to share, but we have not been forced to think collectively of financial stewardship much, until today . . .
     The story in Luke begins a pretty normal request.  This is Luke’s second discussion of how material possessions, or the love of them above God, can lead to spiritual danger and even separation from God.  People would ask rabbis to serve as advisers and arbitrators.  It made sense.  If you and a friend were fighting about something, it was best to get a rabbi, an expert in the law, to give advice.  Following the advice of a rabbi was a kind of defense, right?  Standing before the elders or judges, you could claim “Rabii John said this was the way to do it.”  It was a great way to deflect responsibility, and it showed some serious concern on your part that you wanted to do what was right.  Why else seek out a rabbi’s opinion?  What?  You thought modern humans figured out how to dodge, deflect, or shirk responsibility? 
     Of course, the man in question is not seeking an advisor; he is seeking an advocate.  He wants us to hear he is looking for advice, but what he wants is for Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him.  Jesus sees the request for what it is and asks who set him as judge over them.  Worse, and this is where the guy should have really paid attention, Jesus tells the man to be on his guard against all kind of greed, life is not abundance of possessions.
     Luckily for the man, Jesus decides to make a point to the crowd.  He can slink back into the crowd or even slink away.  But Jesus tells the story of the foolish rich man who builds a bigger barn.  Buried in the details of Jesus’ parable are a number of clues that ought to inform us, but that we are likely to miss.  For example, the implication that his barn is too full of grain to be able to store any more would have been scandalous to those who tried to live in accordance with the torah.
     Most of you all know I moved here from Iowa.  I learned more about farming in my time among the farmers there than I would have ever thought possible.  I especially learned a lot about farm economics.  Before moving to Iowa, I had no idea the cost of drying crops.  I also had no idea how dedicated they were to maximizing yields.  Oh, in theory I understood it.  The more crops one grows, the more money one can make.  The less one spends on the crop, the more one makes.  But modern farmers take it to another level.  Many of the tractors are connected to the computers which keep track of the yield in each area of the field.  They know which parts of the field need what kind of fertilizers or nutrients.  It helps them place what is needed where, without wasting what is unneeded somewhere else.  They have even connected their tractors to the satellites to figure out what patterns to use to plant, fertilize, and harvest, and to make sure that no part of the field goes unused.  Some even have an autopilot function, I am told, just to make sure the yield per acre is as high as it can possible get without fear of human error.
     The crowd listening to Jesus, though, would have heard a rebuke of the wealthy man with barns.  We might see nothing wrong with maximizing yields and increasing profits, but Israel was under a different economic system: God’s.  You all certainly remember this from our too-quick travels through Ruth, but God-fearing families were not supposed to harvest the corners of their fields or glean them.  What was left was meant for the poor, the widows and the orphans.  It was God’s way of ensuring that those forgotten by the rest of the world could get enough to eat.  How many obeyed God’s instruction in this?  Human nature being human nature, my guess is that it is much like today.  We know Boaz worked his fields in this manner.  But he was singled out as a righteous man.  There were probably some who really tried to follow God’s instruction; there were probably some who pretended to follow God’s instruction; and there were probably many who chose to ignore God altogether because they were smart businessmen and women.  The man in question has more than he needs.  In fact, his barn is overflowing.  Now, he plots to try and keep even more, rather than letting others share in God’s bounty—that whole love your neighbor as yourself command.
     The next verses remind us that God is far more concerned with the attitude that we have to our possessions than we would ever like to believe.  Five times in three verses, the man is all about the ego, “I.”  Add to that all the “my’s” and the cultural significance of the name of Yahweh, the great I AM, and you can begin to understand the scandal Jesus’ audience would have heard.  In effect, the man has made himself God.  He thinks the bountiful harvest is of his own making, his own planning, his own expertise.  He knows he is the captain of his ship and the master of his domain, so he considers and plots how to ask to give his ultimate gift from God, his soul, rest and relaxation.
     Think of the hubris.  We have talked from time to time of the psyche and the ruah.  When we were conceived God breathed life into us and made us us.  He made Hunter Hunter, Judy Judy, MC MC (like she needs more encouragement), and Brian Brian.  In one sense we are all similar because we are human beings.  In another, though, we are very different.  Each of us has different attitudes, ways of processing, ways of relating to the world.  We describe each other in these attributes, right?  She is a nervous Nellie.  He’s a gentle Ben.  When we call to mind the people in our lives, we think of that uniqueness that makes them who they are.  More amazingly, and in contrast to other religions in the Far East and elsewhere, God tells us we will be us for all eternity.  There’s no anonymity promised.  There’s no subsuming happening in the life to come.  You and I will know each other because we each have different God-breathed psyches.  And this rich man thinks his soul is his own.  God breathed his psyche into him, just like He did for us; and the man has forgotten.  He thinks he can give rest to his soul; he thinks he can provide for his soul.
     Those of us who like to think of Jesus as just a hippie before His time are no doubt disappointed by the judgment part of the parable.  God appears and demands his life.  Our uncomfortableness may start with God’s address of the man as a fool.  After all, he has saved well, he has planted well, and he is looking to the future.  By our modern understanding, the man is anything but foolish.  Of course, fool in the Old Testament refers to anyone who rejects the instruction of God.  It is pretty cut and dried: the wise live as God instructs; the fools reject God’s instruction.  The rich man in this case has become self-centered rather than God-centered.  The result will be doubly crushing.  Not only can he not take his wealth with him in death, despite all his wise planning, but he has also lived a life that, in the end, rejects God’s call for him to love his neighbors as himself.  God gave him an opportunity to be a blessing to the poor and marginalized, and he rejected that opportunity.
     Understand the criticism here.  The story is not so much concerned about the man building a bigger barn, practicing particular farming techniques, planning for the future, and other such behaviors.  The real problem for the man is the attitude.  God gives us everything.  In that sense we are all stewards.  Does the man use the blessings of God to benefit others?  Does he even use the blessing of God to his own benefit?  Of course not.  And he stands condemned because he thought himself the source, the focus, and the provider.
     I said earlier that I have not preached a lot on stewardship since my arrival.  If your ears have only been attuned to “give more money,” such is a true assessment.  But hopefully I have been calling you to think of yourself as a steward in everything, not just wealth.  Those of us who are parents are stewards of our children, right?  Those of us who have been given special talents or unique abilities are called to use those talents and abilities to glorify God, right?  Hopefully, you have heard me challenge you to be good stewards of your time, to be good stewards of God’s wisdom in Scripture, to live in ways that glorifies God in your life so that others may be drawn into His saving embrace.  Our attitude towards wealth is just an area of our lives that serves as a reminder to us and an example to others about our real faith in God.
     To put a positive spin on the possibilities demanded by God, what if the man in question had put out the word, “I have plenty and God has given me a bountiful harvest, take what you need” to those in need in the community?  Can you imagine the response?  Can you imagine the teaching opportunities?  His rich friends might consider him silly or foolish, but he could have redirected them back to God.  How many would have begun a conversation with “what are you thinking?”  The poor would have had an incarnated example of God’s mercy in their lives: Give us this day our daily bread.  No doubt some would have questioned even as they accepted the bounty or blessing.  “Why are you doing this?” 
     In America, we hear fanciful stories of Pay-it-forward, as if a $5 cup of coffee in a Starbucks drive-through is a huge gift.  How much more would we moved by the stories of the wealthy, in thanksgiving to God and all that He has provided to them, were to give away a season of groceries?!  How many of us who own businesses hoard what we make rather than paying our employees a living wage?  Our non-Christian brothers and sisters can claim they are working “within the system.”  You and I know that God calls us to be agents of transformation in the system, or to at least set the example He demands.  This economic system in which we live, for all its good, falls short of the economic system to which God calls us.  We hear stories of how a stranger tips a waitress $500 or $1000 and makes all the difference in the world in his or life that month, paying a medical bill or covering a car repair.  Papers and new stations and now social media will be abuzz by such acts.  But how many of us Christians display the heart of the rich man in this parable by giving a tip of “God saves” or “John 3:16” rather money, knowing that the waiters and waitresses that serve us make $2.85 an hour?  How many of us Christians will do that today, after we have read this passage, heard a sermon condemning the attitude of the rich man, and then headed out to eat after worship?  Heck, how many of us think we know better how to spend God’s money, or know what is wasteful and what is really necessary, than our clergy, our vestries, or our Lord?  I see the squirm on that one.  I told you all that used to be a huge one for me, right?  I came to church once a week for a couple hours, but I knew better than the men and women in leadership of ministries and the church, in my wonderful 20-something wisdom, how my money needed to be spent.  Some of us even cloak ourselves in righteous indignity by highlighting what we know were bad stewardship decisions, in effect claiming that God can redeem death but not waste.  We are often such fools.
     We Christians claim to serve a God who owns everything, who has infinite resources, but we live as if any of His blessings are finite, as if He might run out of whatever it is we value more than Him.  That is the source of God’s address of the man as a fool this morning.  You and I are called to prayerful self-examination or discernment about everything He has given us.  Everything.  Even the wealth He has given us.
     Our attitude at Advent about money is one that needs to be addressed, and that is the point of this parable.  Maybe this parable comes up later in our building relationship because now, some 19 months into this journey together, you know me and can relate to me better than our first or second month.  Part of why the Vestry was worried about whether I would speak about money was the Holy Cow, but part of the reason I am not afraid to speak about money is the Holy Cow.  Each of you who took part in that survey recognize the commitment that was necessary to finish that survey.  I think it fair to assume that everyone who filled out that survey, gave of their time, has a love for Advent.  Part of why I accepted a call to Advent was the possibility of what could be accomplished if Advent grew into the ministry God had already given the parish.  If Advent added no new members, and if every family that filled out the Holy Cow simply tithed, our budget would be between $750,000 and $820,000.  Imagine the impact Advent could make for God’s glory if that were our budget.  Imagine how we could bless those around us, and, in turn, how God might further bless each one of us for being faithful stewards of his resources.  And we don’t need to add a single soul.  To live into that vision, Advent does not need to “grow” numerically, only spiritually.  Of course, if we were living like spiritually mature Christians, as if we were stewards rather than owners of our time, talents, and resources, what do you think would happen to our numbers?  We would add people who hungered for that kind of trust in, that kind of thankfulness for, their heavenly Father.  Those other identified needs, like more volunteers, more whatever, would likely be filled by those coming along side of us in this journey.  We would be a church that lived like it believed the Savior had come and will come again!  We would be a Church of the Advent, indeed!
     I have noticed a bit of squirming today, and I have also seen some looks of “Is he serious?”  I get it.  Read the parable again and again.  Struggle with the parable in prayer this week.  Ask God whether you are supposed to be comforted or afflicted today by this story.  Questions about attitude are always, in the end, very personal.  Pastors and the spiritually mature friends in our life can help guide and teach us, but only we know what’s really in our own hearts.  We are called to test our hearts in how we live, just as we are called to glorify God in everything we do, knowing one day that we, like the foolish rich man in the story today, will stand before God and called to make an accounting of our lives.  Those of us who are wise will claim His Son as our Lord and Savior, but only He and we know whether He truly is.
     What if, in this discernment, you find yourself convinced you have been living the life of the fool?  Remember, the Rabbi who told the story this morning came not to condemn the world but to save it.  He came not to condemn you but to call you into right relationship with your Father in heaven.  Your accounting has already been settled.  On Calvary.  2000 years ago.  All you need to do is repent and to ask God for the grace to live a life that demonstrates you as wise, as one who trusts in His provision, as one who desires only to glorify Him in all that you do.
In His Peace,