5.29.11 Sermon: “Looking for the unknown God”

Text: Acts 17:22-33

As many of you know, I spent a year living in Scotland. Now Scotland isn’t all that different from the United States compared to many other countries, but there are some definite difference in culture. I experienced some culture shock when I first moved over there. First thing I noticed (which reveals a little something about me): I couldn’t get regular bacon! If I asked for bacon, I got something more like country ham. It was so sad! Second thing I discovered out was that if I happened to mention in the company of any British folks that I needed to change my pants, they would likely assume that meant that I had soiled my underwear rather than understanding me to mean that I wanted to change into a different pair of jeans. Let’s just say that moment of discovery was embarrassing. Then of course there were the other differences in vocabulary and slang. We all spoke English, but we weren’t always speaking the same language! If someone said, let’s go get some tatties they were not talking about tattoos but about eating potatoes. If someone mentioned a kirk, they weren’t talking about Star Trek, they were talking about the church. If, in a conversation, someone said to me, “yer ma!”, they were not, in fact, making a comment about my mother, but telling me that they couldn’t believe what I was saying. Not only was vocabulary different, but there were different social cues and expectations, different ettiquette. There were other things that were different as well, like traffic patterns. They drive on the opposite side of the road and the driver’s side of the car is on the right side. I only tried driving over there a couple of times and then decided that was enough if I wanted to, you know, not wreck. Towns were more defined and lacked the suburban sprawl that we live in. It was very apparent when you reached the edge of the town. The largest grocery store in St. Andrews was about the size of Fas Check, and offered a much slimmer variety than our grocery stores. Coming back home I had to get used to everything super-sized again from Wal-mart, to restaurant meals, to cars. I had to get used to having to drive everywhere again, rather than being able to walk, ride my bike, or take the train.

Needless to say, I underwent something of a culture shock when I moved to Scotland, but also when I moved back home. I had to learn how to understand and navigate in a culture different from the one that I was accustomed to, and today’s story in Acts that follows Paul’s work in Athens underscores this idea. Paul was in the midst of his second missionary journey when he went to Athens, and when he was there, he was likely experiencing a bit of culture shock. Athens was much more cosmopolitan than his home, and it was also a center for religious worship and philosophy. I can only imagine what Paul was thinking as he walked around Athens, as he saw the Parthenon up on the Acropolis, all of the temples, and all of the buildings of learning and philosophy. Athens is often called the seat of Western Civilization. It was here that the great philosophers of Socrates and Aristotle established their schools of learning, it was here that the roots of democracy was born. There really was no place quite like Athens in the ancient world, and even though its prominence had lessened some by the time Paul got there, Athens was still a fairly central city in the ancient world. Paul may have been used to the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, but nothing could have prepared him for Athens. So I imagine that as Paul looked around this city that he had just arrived in that he might have felt a little uncomfortable, a little out of place, a little unsure of everything and everyone that he was seeing.

Have you ever been somewhere where you felt a little out of place? A little unsure of the people there? Wondering how you can talk to people? Many of you who may have grown up in and lived most of your life in the church can feel this sort of discomfort and uncertainty with people who are not a part of the church. You might feel unsure about how to talk or interact with people, especially about the Gospel. For some of you, spending time with people outside of the church might make you feel just as uncomfortable or as uncertain as Paul probably felt when he went to Athens the first time. But Paul was an astute learner and reader of culture, and he wasn’t afraid to engage a culture that was different than his own. Paul wasn’t afraid of this new situation, and he also didn’t try to speak the language and vocabulary of his own culture, knowing that he first needed to find a point of connection with the culture of Athens.

So what did Paul do when he got to Athens? First he went to the synagogue to preach, like he was in the habit of doing. It was a more familiar place, and a place where he could speak using words and terms that he was used to. Paul was a Jew and he knew Jewish customs, practices, and beliefs. There was much less of a cultural barrier at the synagogue. However, soon Paul actually caught the ear of some of the philosophers of Athens who were intrigued by what he had to say on an intellectual and philosophical level, so they invited him to come to the Areopagus to speak and debate with them.

How Paul responds here shows us how he is a good student of culture. He goes to the Areopagus, and as he looks around and sees all of the religious monuments and altars, rather than speaking the language of condemnation and judgment, he looks instead for a point of connection, a way that he can begin to build a platform of good will from the Athenians in order to share the good news. As Paul goes to the Areopagus, he notices one altar in particular: the altar to the unknown god. This altar was present because the Athenians worshipped many gods, and the created this altar to make sure that they weren’t missing anyone. They were trying to cover all of their bases. So as Paul notices this altar and he also notices the importance of religion in Athens, he begins his speech at the Areopagus in this way: ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul, even though he is rightly disturbed by the worship of many false gods, recognizes the opportunity to appeal to the religious and philosophical culture of Athens. He recognizes where God may already be working, and he speaks in a way that already makes sense to the Athenians. Paul can see that the Athenians are already in tuned to the worship and reverence of what they consider to be sacred. While it may be the wrong thing, at least Paul sees that they are at least trying to be on the right track. Knowing this, Paul appeals to these questions of spirituality and he looks for the good that is already there and attempts to build upon it. As he sees the altar to the unknown God, he knows that this is the place to communicate. He has come to tell them about this unknown God that is already recognized, but unknown by the Athenians. Paul has come to help them understand who this unknown God is.

We live in a time and a place that is, in some ways, similar to Athens. Here, in America, while we may not be surrounded by literal altars to multiple gods, but there are two observations that I would make about the larger, dominant culture of America. First: we do have many gods or idols: money, fame, country, youth, beauty, sex, . Second, regardless of what we once may have been, we are not a Christian nation now, but spirituality is still something that many are very open to and seek in less conventional ways. In fact, I want to say a little bit more about this second observation, of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, but not religious. The word “religion” for many has come to be equated not with God, but with institutionalized organizations of faith, like the church. For many, God is not the issue, but the people who claim God through the church. Today, there are many people who are setting up altars to an unknown God. Let me cite a couple of pop culture references:

First, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. He said this in an interview in Time Magazine: “I put the Force in the movie (Star Wars) in order to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’—this is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this and am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have a faith.”

Second, I want to mention Oprah. She is the most recognized spiritual leader of the 21st century in America. (You might questions this, but the reality is, the city of New York asked her to lead the prayer service after 9/11) Oprah Winfrey has said that Jesus can’t possibly be the only way to the truth. When audience members expressed their convictions in Christ, Oprah said that she couldn’t get into a religious argument.

These are just two examples of a culture that affirms “spirituality”, but is wary of “religion.” These are two examples of a culture that is seeking something akin to the Athenians who put up an altar to the unknown god.

Before we give in to the temptation to say “these people just don’t get it”, a more important thing to do is to ask the question: if there are many people in this country on a quest for spiritual fulfillment, why doesn’t anyone seem to want to include the church? Why would George Lucas want to encourage young people to have a faith in God, but not be a part of a religious system? Why would Oprah be considered a spiritual leader to many but not want to talk about religion? Why is there an increasing interest in spirituality but a decline in mainstream church attendance and membership?

I think the biggest answer to these questions is that the church is not viewed as a place of mystery or as a place where one can ask questions and seek truth. Instead, it is often viewed as a stodgy, judgmental, and exclusive institution. And why is this the case? Well, for starters, sometimes the church does actually behave like a stodgy, judgmental, and exclusive institution. But not always. Many churches, including ours, are full of well-intentioned people who seek after God and want others to do the same. So we now come full-circle back to the question of culture and how we engage (or more often, dis-engage) in the world around us. As the church, we so often isolate ourselves from the world. We want to seclude ourselves in order to protect ourselves from false idols, from sin and temptation. The problem is, in doing so, we neglect the great commission, and we end up only paying lip service to wanting to see God’s salvation play out in our communities.

This past Tuesday at Adventures in Missing the Point, which is the new group for young adults to have conversation and study, we talked some about how many Christians seem to be afraid of the world. Brian McLaren wrote in the chapter we read this week, “We want to protect folks from alcoholism and drunkenness, so we tell them not to drink any alcoholic beverage. To protect them from alcohol, we recommend they avoid establishments that serve it. To be on the safe side, we tell them to avoid people who drink alcohol… and to avoid excessive laughter as you’d hear from tipsy people…and in fact to avoid parties in general except boring ones. We want to protect folks from following the crowd and succumbing to peer pressure, so we imply or outright assert that good Christians don’t go to R-rated movies, don’t listen to rap music, or any popular music at all. We discourage them from making non-Christian friends. We approve of them spending all their time in church services, church meetings, church activities—safe rabbit holes, a protective Christian ghetto. We want to protect folks from losing their faith, so we warn them against reading philosophy, from participating in culture and the arts, from dealing with tough questions and controversial issues.” Don’t mishear what I am saying, thinking, “Cindy told me that it was ok to go get drunk!” Or “Cindy told me it doesn’t matter if I listen to music that talks about sex and violence.” That is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that we, as the church, have become so afraid of becoming like the world that we simply retreat from it. We isolate ourselves and pronounce judgment on those outside of the church. No wonder many people do not want to include the church in their quest for spiritual fulfillment!

But what if, for instance, some of us chose to go hang out in bars? Not because we want to get drunk, but because we just hang out with and get to know the people who are already there? Personally speaking, I have had some of the best conversations about God hanging out with people in bars. Why? Because it is one of the few natural social settings where it is accepted and expected that you talk with people you might have only just met, and it is a natural place to hang out with friends. I can’t help but imagine that if Jesus were here today, we would frequently find him hanging out in bars just talking with people.

My question today is, why are we so afraid of the world sometimes? Why do we retreat to our Christian ghetto, as Brian McLaren calls it? I think for many of us, we can just feel a little lost and confused if we get too far outside of our comfort zone, out of the church culture that most of us have known for most of our lives. But today, we need to take a lesson from Paul in Athens. Paul didn’t stay where he was comfortable, or where he felt safe.

How many of you have close friends who are not Christian? How many of you spend time and build relationships regularly with people outside of the church? If you already do this, this is great. But if you only see other Christian friends and stay away from places where people outside of the church are, then you are falling short of the Great Commission. I’m not saying that we, as Christians need to become like the world. In fact, as Christians, we are supposed to stand out. We are supposed to be different. But that doesn’t mean we are supposed to avoid the world. Jesus tells us that we are to be in the world, but not of the world. As Brian McLaren points out, “There are of course, two ways that we can go wrong. Living within our culture as we do, we can accommodate it, be infected with it’s evil, forget our unique identity, and thus become of it as well as in it. That’s obviously tragic. Or we can slide into the opposite and more subtle tragedy: we isolate ourselves. Rather than being servants in our culture, doctors healing sickness, seekers after lost sheep, coins, and sons, we instead become an elitist clique, angry critics, snobs standing above culture, a frightened minority cringing outside of it.” We don’t want to do either of those things. Instead, Jesus wants us to remember our identity as Christians, but also our mission to the world, and he wants us to join him in entering the world to celebrate everything that is good, and to work to transform everything that is not. We can’t do that if we keep ourselves isolated, if we fail to become students of culture.

So how do we follow the command of Jesus and the example of Paul as he engaged the Athenians at the Areopagus? How do we navigate a culture that might be a little different and frightening? How do we deal with the culture shock? There are a couple of ways that we can stay on track. First, we need to live missionally. We need to stay focused on Jesus’ Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations. We need to see every place in our community as the mission field and as a place where people can encounter God. Second, we need to live in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ as we encourage one another on. We also need to ask ourselves the question, am I setting a bad example to them either by my isolation from or conformity to the world? Am I listening to their warnings when I get closer to danger? Third, we need to live without judgment. Is it possible for us to believe the best about others without getting preachy or inquisitory? Can we learn to engage others based upon our common ground and look for the places where God is already working? And finally, we need to live carefully. Sin can be tricky. We need to be aware of our own weaknesses. If you struggle with alcohol, a bar is clearly not a good place to hang out.

As Christians, we walk a path that Jesus said is narrow. When he said this, he was not legitimizing narrow-mindedness: the reality is quite the opposite. To take one more image from Brian McLaren, “If we try to avoid the rattlesnake that is beside the path on the left, we’d better be careful not to edge too far over to the right either, because there’s a crocodile in the bushes there.” Narrow minds can only see dangers on one side of the narrow path. Broad minds can see both. There are people out there who looking for spiritual fulfillment. Let us be like Paul, people who are not afraid leave the comfort of our own familiar Christian culture to proclaim the truth of the unknown God.

4.10.11 Sermon: “Out of the Tomb”

Text: John 11:33-44

When Darick and I went on our honeymoon back in February, we drove up much of the northeast and part of our time was spent on the road in New Jersey. I don’t know if you have ever been to New Jersey, but they have a law that all of their gas stations must be full-service stations. When we had to stop for gas, all we had to do was pull into the station, roll down our window and let the gas station attendant take care of the rest. Then we would roll up the window and be on our merry way. We didn’t even have to get out of the car. Full service operation!

Tonight I am talking about the sin of sloth, or what we might call apathy, and we are going to focus in on spiritual apathy, the great immobilizer of the church. We have become conditioned to view the church and its worship gatherings as something akin to the full-service gas station. We just roll in, stay and our seats and wait to be filled up with whatever: with music, preaching, programs. We, in a sense, come expecting to be serviced. We wait to be filled up by these things, often expecting others to do them: we expect the band to fill us up with good music, the preacher to fill us up with the word of God. We expect to come away from worship with our spiritual needs met. If we do come away from worship with those spiritual needs met, then that is great. But that is not why we are here. A worship service is not about each of us being served, and if we come with the expectation that this worship service is for us, then we are following down the road that leads to spiritual death.

How many of you have ever broken a bone or injured yourself in a way that prevents you from using the muscles in that particular limb? What did you find after you had the cast or brace removed? What did you have to do?

When I was in high school, I dislocated my knee. Sadly, I don’t even have a good story of how I dislocated it. All I did was get out of my car and my knee somehow managed to pop out of joint. I had to wear an immobilizer on my leg for a while as my knee healed, and then when I had to go through physical therapy to get my knee back up to strength again. When you have a cast on your arm or leg and you can’t use the muscles for an extended period, they get weak. They lose muscle mass. They atrophy.

When we come here, expecting to have our needs met met by others, seeing a worship service as being about us, then we, in a sense, are letting our spiritual muscles atrophy, leading us to become immobilized. When this happens, we also become increasingly self-absorbed in what we want so that we can’t even really see that we have become apathetic to God’s call on our lives. Have you ever had a time where you have actually slept too much? I know that I have. And when I sleep too long, I don’t feel alive or invigorated. Instead I just feel like I want to sleep even more. We are reaching a point in the church where we have been sleeping too long. We have come, in large part, to see the church as being about us. Its our place, where we worship God. Sure, in part, the church is a gathering of the people of God in worship. But truly I tell you, the Church with a capital “C” is the body of Christ, broken and redeemed for the world. The church is not here just for the benefit of Christians. It is for the benefit of everyone. I challenge you with this question: how is Jesus Christ good news not just for those who will come to faith in Christ, but for those who may never believe? How can the church be an instrument of good news to all people, regardless of where they are now in their lives or where they may be down the road?

But that question makes things much more difficult and it challenges the church’s sin of apathy. We can no longer just sit on our butts in worship and hope other people show up. We all actually have to get up and do something. Not just pastors, not just the current leaders of the church. In fact, I would say pastors, myself included, have done a great disservice to the church by thinking that we need to have our hands in every project and program a church does. We have done a great disservice in letting people believe that we just need more or better programs to be a better church. We have done a great disservice in not empowering more people in our congregations to lead in worship and to lead in ministry. All of this lends itself to the idea that the church is a place of goods and services that we just come to consume instead of understanding it as a group of people, united in service to the world in the name of and for the sake of Jesus Christ. But now is the time for all of that to change!

Today, we hear the story of Lazarus, dearly loved by Jesus, who has died of an illness. His sisters have laid him to rest in the tomb, as they grieve over his loss. Lazarus has been in there for four days, and his decaying body is really starting to smell the place up. Then Jesus shows up and calls Lazarus forth out of the tomb.

I want to imagine this story now as if Lazarus represents the church. The church, dearly loved by Jesus has been ill for a long time with the disease of spiritual apathy. For many years its muscles have been atrophying as it has been getting weaker and weaker. Finally the church is just so sick and feeble and weak that it dies. The church building has become a tomb, trapped within itself, trapped within its own walls. As the lifeless corpse of the church stays inside the building, things really start to smell. They really start to stink. But then one day, Jesus comes and he weeps that his dearly beloved church has died and is stuck within the tomb of its walls. He knows of the wasting disease that crippled and finally killed the church, and he decides that it is time to call the church forth, out of its tomb so that all can see the glory of God. So Jesus goes up to the church, laying lifeless, stuck inside of its walls and he shouts “People of God! Get up! Get out! You are alive! Get out of your tomb!” So come with me now. It’s time for us to get out of our tomb.

::At this point in the message, we all got up out of our seats and went outside by the wooden cross on the lawn in front of the Grosscup Ave. building::

We are so fortunate to have these buildings that we have. We are so fortunate to come together and worship each week. We are so fortunate to have a church home. But if we think that the church is here for us, then we are missing the point. If we are a part of the church to be served, to be filled up, then we are missing the point. The son of God came not to be served, but to serve. Sometimes, in our worship services, and in the life of our congregation, it is really easy for us to get stuck in the tomb. It is really easy to think that the church is here to serve us. But look around you now. Look at Dunbar. This is what the church exists for. We are the church, and the church exists for the sake of the world, not our own sakes! Each of us here has been created with a purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. This is our neighborhood. We can’t serve our neighbors if we never leave our house. This is not just a job for pastors. This is not just a job for church musicians. This is the responsibility of all Christians.

When Jesus went around preaching, his most common preaching was that “the kingdom of God has come among you! It has come near to you!” How are we proclaiming this good news? How are we a living church for the sake of the world? We may have a building where we gather for worship, but we need to live like a church without a building. We need to get up and wake up to the world around us. We need to look with fresh eyes at the people we meet on a daily basis. We are standing with the cross here in front of us, with houses as the backdrop. This cross needs to become the lens through which we view the whole world. We need to view Dunbar through the lens of this cross.

It’s easy for us to sit in our seats at church and participate in programs that fill us up, but if we are looking only to fill ourselves, then we, as a church, will die from spiritual atrophy and apathy because we will only be focused inwards. We will die, no questions asked. We will die and we will be buried in the tomb of our own walls.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the church to die. I don’t want it to just merely survive either. I want the people of God to live and be a blessing to its communities. I want the church to live and be a bearer of good news to those who may one day believe and to those who might never believe, but one thing is for sure. We must start thinking beyond ourselves and beyond our walls if we want this to happen. Over the coming weeks and months, lets ask God continually to open our eyes our ears and our hearts so that we can hear him as he calls us up out of the tomb and into our community.

1.30.11 Sermon: “The Kingdom Dream”

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

I have recently gotten into the TV show Mad Men. This is a current drama set in the early 1960′s in Manhattan and is based around the life of a man working for a prominent advertising agency. Don Draper lives in a high-powered world where he is always forging a way ahead in business. He seeks after wealth and influence and fulfillment of lust. At the same time, the series paints him as the ultimate success story of realizing the American dream. He has pulled himself out of his poor and shady past to rise to prominence and influence. Don Draper has also gotten a beautiful wife, a nice house in the suburbs, and two kids. But Mad Men also captures the darker side of Don Draper’s “success.” One day, Don Draper’s younger brother reappears in his life. Don has done absolutely everything that he can to leave his poor and shady past behind and will go to all costs to keep it that way. He wants absolutely nothing to do with his little brother, fearing that his reappearance in his life will drag Don down and destroy the life that he has created for himself. When Don is confronted with his brother for the first time, the first words out of Don’s mouth are, “What do you want?” as if his little brother would want nothing more than money or power (since that is what Don himself wants in life). His little brother is taken aback by Don’s question and replies, “I just wanted to see my brother.” All he wanted was a relationship with the brother that he had lost for years. But Don refuses. Instead of welcoming his little brother into his life, or even begrudgingly allowing for his existence, he gets together $3,000, which would be more like $50,000 dollars today, gives it to his brother and tells him to stay out of his life forever. Here’s a spoiler alert: the little brother is dumbfounded and extremely hurt by this response and he kills himself. In this drama, we see a darker side to success, to wealth, to power, and it asks significant questions: To what extent are we willing to go to for these things? What does it cost us to preserve these things once they are “attained”? How much are we willing to do to get what we want? Mad Men paints a picture of the American dream, but it doesn’t sugar-coat it. Today we are going to explore a picture of an alternate dream, and the Scripture doesn’t sugar-coat it either.

What is this alternate dream that Scripture paints for us? Today we heard three different passages from Micah, 1 Corinthians, and Matthew and each of them help us to see not the American dream, but what I would call the “Kingdom dream.” Today, we’ll be looking primarily at the Old Testament passage from Micah. The verses from the prophet Micah provides the framework for us to explore the nature of this kingdom dream. Micah was one of the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament: pretty much, he was a short-winded prophet. His book is only seven chapters long. Micah was preaching at what I would call at the end of the good times and just before his nation fell apart. There had been years of peace and prosperity. During times of prolonged prosperity and peace, people often forget to worship God, and instead begin to worship the things that peace and prosperity might bring about. In Micah’s day, people were getting caught up in keeping up religion for show or duty, but forgetting the heart of what God wanted of them. When Micah preached, it was just before the end of the good times, just before the fall of Israel and Judah. In today’s lesson from Micah, he is playing the role of accuser before Israel, putting them on trial before God for forgetting what God really wants (and not only wants, but requires) from his people. Listen to v. 6-8 again: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah is accusing Israel before God of forgetting the most basic things that God commands: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Today, these three things will provide us the framework for the kingdom dream.

The first of the requirements is to do justice. What is justice? The word, mishpat, means judgment. It means God’s wisdom, God’s law, God’s justice…that there would be fairness, fair play and equity within the human family. Justice, in God’s world, is not penalty-based. It is not retributive. It is ultimately and fundamentally restorative. God created human beings and all of creation to be in harmonious relationship with him and with one another. God’s justice is delivered so that this restoration can be made possible.

In our country, we often hear the phrase, justice is blind. That is the ideal (even if not reality) for our own justice system. It is intended that everyone be judged fairly and equally, regardless of who they are, without taking sides. Justice being blind. That sounds like a nice idea. But throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find that God does take sides. Who does God champion? God consistently chooses to side with the poor, the widow, the orphan. God consistently opts to seek justice for those who are on the margins of society. We call this God’s preferential option for the poor. Does this mean that God does not care about the rich? No, of course it doesn’t. God cares for all of his creatures. But God knows that there are inequalities in the world, which are often at the hands of the rich and powerful, whether they are the ones actively and intentionally inflicting injustice upon those without the power, or if they are simply the ones who allow the current structures to remain in place by not advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable. What God desires is restoration for all people: for both those who are oppressed, and those who do the oppressing.

Do justice. What does it mean that God requires us to do justice? God calls us to side with those God sides with, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to work towards restoring a right relationship between all of God’s people. Sometimes this means speaking up when we see an injustice taking place. Sometimes it means helping someone who is down and out find a job. Sometimes it is empowering someone through the gift of validation and worth. Sometimes it means lobbying for laws to be passed that look to the interests of the marginalized. Sometimes it means becoming aware of how our own wealth or power might be negatively affecting others and being willing to change our own behaviors to correct this. There is no formula for what it means to do justice, and no simple fixes. If justice is about restoration, it often takes complex solutions and a lengthy search for the best course of action. It is not always easy, but it is what God calls us to do if we say that we are his people.

Many of you know that the Bible contains an overarching story that contains a few basic plot points: God creates the world, human beings rebel, God chooses the people of Israel and makes a covenant with them, the people stick to the covenant for a while, people turn away, God pronounces punishment, then God offers grace. Perhaps you also know that in most cases where the people turn away and God pronounces judgment, it is due to the people worshiping false idols. What you may not realize is that almost always a failure to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed is the other accusation paired with worshiping false idols. When we forget who God is, we also forget who our neighbors are. When we forget the restorative justice that God offers to each of us, we forget about seeking justice for those around us. This seeking after justice is the first characteristic of the kingdom dream.

The second characteristic of the kingdom dream is to love kindness, or as some Bible translations put it, to love mercy. Again, like the concept of justice, this takes on a social dimension. Certainly, it can be understood on an individual level, but the sort of mercy that Micah is talking about again is mercy to those who are vulnerable and in greater need. In the Law in the Old Testament, there were specific laws given to the Israelites from God that would help them demonstrate mercy to those who needed it. Two such examples are the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee. The Sabbatical Year had to do with agricultural practices. The early Israelite community was an agrarian community. People planted crops and tended animals. They were farmers as most people were then. God gave a law that said every seventh year, they had to let the land rest. This was in part to help the land stay healthy, and today we have practices like crop rotation that do the same thing. But there was more to it than that. In that seventh year, as the land lay resting, orphans, widows, foreigners, and others who were unable to provide for themselves were to be allowed to glean leftover crops from the resting land. Farmers were not to over-harvest their land so that there would be produce that the poor could glean. This was one example of an act of mercy on the social level. During this same year, there would also be a release of all debts that were owed to prevent those who were already struggling financially from going from bad to worse. Now if that is not a merciful act, then I don’t know what is! Can you even imagine what something like that would look like today? I know that I can’t even fathom it!.The other example that I mentioned was the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee was to occur every fiftieth year, and in this year, all landholdings were to be restored to the original owners. Say a family who was in a bind decided to sell their land to a wealthier neighbor. While this wealthier neighbor would own the land for a time, upon the Year of Jubilee, the ownership of the land would revert to the original family. This helped to maintain a relatively balanced social and class structure. So much poverty today is generational. It is inherited. The Year of Jubilee sought to prevent that sort of thing from happening. This law too, was a law demonstrating mercy. These things sound foreign to our ears, but these are examples of what Micah was talking about when he said that God requires his people to love kindness. God’s people are to seek out ways of demonstrating mercy. We need to begin to imagine ways of demonstrating this kind of mercy in today’s world.

The third characteristic of the kingdom dream is to walk humbly with God. There are two main points from this phrase: we walk first, with humility, and second, with God. In fact, we cannot walk with God unless it is with humility. But let’s look first at the characteristic of humility. A word that is similar to humility is humiliation. Everyone here has probably had a moment in life where they felt totally humiliated. Where they have felt very lowly, where they have wanted to just disappear our of embarrassment. While humility does not take on the connotation of embarrassment, it does take on the quality of lowliness. This does not mean that humility means a self-deprecatory attitude or a low sense of self-worth. All that kind of attitude is is sort of an inverted version of the sin of pride. Instead, the lowliness of humility means a refusal to think of ourselves more highly than we should. It means we are not self-congratulatory. It means we don’t outwardly demonstrate a sense of self-entitlement or inwardly think that we are superior are more deserving than anyone else. God himself exhibits humility, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, Christ, though he was God, did not hold onto that power or consider it something to be exploited. Instead, he humbled himself to become a human being, and not just any human being: a poor, homeless man on the fringe of the powerful Roman empire, who wandered the countryside, and came to face death, even death on a cross. If we look at Christ’s life, we see the humility of God. And if we are to walk with God, we must follow in those same footsteps. So let’s recap: the three characteristics of the kingdom dream, in contrast with the American dream, are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This is no small calling, and it is what God requires of us.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear one of the most famous passages of the New Testament: the beatitudes, which make for a hard-hitting start to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Listen to them again: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These are the words of Jesus himself, the one who exemplified justice, mercy, and humility. We could spend weeks looking at the beatitudes (and we will be looking at them in more detail tonight at The Well worship service if you want more), but they can be summed up in this way: the kingdom of God does not look like the kingdoms of this world. Or to keep continuity with what I have been saying today, the kingdom dream does not look like the American dream. In the kingdom dream, it is those who are weak, vulnerable, lowly, and those who extend hands in compassion towards those who are weak, vulnerable, and lowly who find themselves at the “top.”

So what does this all mean for us today? I have been talking rather abstractly about the concepts of justice, mercy, and humbly walking with God but I haven’t really talked much about us here. What impact does today’s message from the prophet Micah and from Jesus mean for our congregation? What it means is that we need to take a good, hard, look at ourselves as individuals and as a congregation and ask ourselves which dream we are struggling to achieve. It means we need to assess our priorities and compare them to the priorities that God has placed before us in Micah 6:8. It means that we need to look for better ways of pursuing justice and mercy in our community. It means that we need to be walking daily with God so we can be cultivating true humility in our lives rather than false senses of modesty. So I ask you now, which dream are you striving for today?

9.26.10 Sermon: “Manna or Mammon? Pt. 2″

Text: Luke 16:19-31

Last week we heard a story about a shrewd steward who moved from an economy of mammon to manna, where he shifted from the priority of money to the priority of relationships. Last week the story taught us that generosity and relationships are the currency of the kingdom of God. Today we will continue this theme of moving from an economy of mammon to manna as we look at the story about the interaction (or lack thereof) between a rich man and a poor man. This story is perhaps one of the most memorable parables of the New Testament, next to that of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. In today’s story, we find two main characters: Lazarus, and the rich man. Again, we face a sharp word from Jesus and a challenge to reconsider how we use the gifts (financial or otherwise) that God has given us.

Let’s begin by trying to re-imagine what this parable might look like if it were to take place in today’s world. Imagine a man and a woman. They are very wealthy, and they have a big beautiful house in South Hills overlooking Charleston. They wear designer clothes and host frequent dinner parties for their rich friends and drive BMW’s. One night, they decide to go out to celebrate their 30th anniversary at Tidewater Grill. They order multiple dishes of succulent lobster, crab meat, shrimp, blackened salmon. As they eat their scrumptious dinner, dipping the fresh lobster tail into warm melted butter, they think to themselves, oh, this is just so delicious! After an incredibly large amount of food and mouthwatering dessert of cheesecake, the woman says to her husband, “lets go on a walk honey. I am so full and bloated that I just need to walk off some of the calories!” So the couple walks out of Tidewater Grill and starts to walk east. They comment about what a pleasant evening it is, and before they realize it, they start to walk through the plaza. All of a sudden, they notice a homeless man lying on one of the benches just a few feet away from them. He is dirty and smelly and just appears to be all around skuzzy. The man mutters to his wife, “Don’t worry, we’re safe, it isn’t dark yet. He looks old and alone.” The wife replies, “Oh how pitiable. The poor man. Look at those rags, those worn shoes, that smell! Poor soul!” Averting their eyes, they try to walk right past him as if he isn’t even there. The ragged looking man says to them, “Got any spare change for someone like me?” The couple pause for a moment, and the husband says oh so magnanimously, “Sure, here you are,” as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out two quarters. He drops the change into the man’s hands, careful not to touch him, lest he catch some sort of infectious disease. Spontaneously, the rich man asks him, “and what is your name?” “Lazarus” the poor man replies. “My name is Lazarus. God bless you, sir!” “And God bless you too, Lazarus,” says the rich man as he walks away. He and his wife continue their walk feeling good about the meal, good about the encounter with the homeless man, and very good about their generosity.

Now for a dramatic scene change. We are now in hell. The rich man and his wife are trodding through an endless expanse of desert, sweating profusely in their designer clothing. They are absolutely miserable. There isn’t even a drop of water to quench their unbearable thirst. They continue to trudge along, almost faint with exhaustion and weakened by the extreme heat. Then the wife looks ahead, pointing, and says, “what’s that? Do you see trees? A lake?” “Yes, yes you’re right!” the man replies, suddenly perking up a bit. As they approach, they see that there is a big canyon between them and this oasis. So big, in fact, that they can’t even see the bottom of it. The rich man looks closely at the other side and shouts, “Hey, Father Abraham! I recognize that homeless man over there! I think his name is Lazarus! Yeah, I gave him 50 cents once. Can you have him dip his finger in the water and send him over here to touch my dried up tongue with a drip of cool water? I am absolutely parched!” Father Abraham shouts back, “Uhm, yeah, about that….I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but there is sort of this enormous chasm between us. We can’t get over there and you can’t get over here. You’re out of luck, buddy.” The rich man and his wife were so hot, so uncomfortable. He tries to wipe away the sweat that is dripping into his eyes. As he surveys the possible solutions, he realizes that there aren’t any. He starts to think about his brothers and sisters who are still alive, living back in Charleston, and Dunbar, St. Albans and Nitro. He shouts back to Father Abraham, “Well, can you at least send Lazarus back to my brothers and sisters to tell them to take better care of the poor and the oppressed so they don’t end up here, like me?” Father Abraham hollers back, “They have the Bible. They have the Old and New Testament. They know what they need to do. Even a man who was raised from the dead wouldn’t convince them into loving their neighbors the way that they should. Your brothers and sisters have already been given everything they need to know. It is all up to them whether or not they will listen.”

This parable is not about heaven and hell. It isn’t about the evil of money and the blessedness of poverty. Rather, it is a story that demands that we take a good hard look at ourselves and the world around us as we ask the question, “Are we truly living the way that God wants us to? What are we doing for Lazarus?”

God’s care for the poor is a consistent theme throughout the gospel of Luke. It is first established in Mary’s song while Jesus is still in the womb. She says, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their throne but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Ouch! Tough words! As we continue throughout Luke’s gospel, we witness this occurring in multiple places, but perhaps most prominently in today’s story. Here we see Lazarus, the poor man, being filled with good things and we see the rich man with nothing. Well, at least, we see that in the second half of the story.

What is the rich man’s fundamental problem? He is completely blinded to the world around him. Or rather, he chooses to remain blind. It isn’t as if Lazarus is some invisible, imaginary person halfway around the world. He is literally on the rich man’s door step. He is literally smack dab in front of him. And the rich man, who has so much wealth, so much excess, fails to even look twice at Lazarus. I’d say this rich man is definitely living in an economy of mammon. The rich man only considers himself and his wants and desires.

Maybe we aren’t as rich as this rich man. Maybe we don’t have everything that he has. But perhaps the only real difference between us and the rich man is quantitative, not qualitative. The difference lies in the amount of wealth, but not our attitude towards it. As Jesus speaks this parable then and now, he is speaking to an audience that is much more like the rich man than like Lazarus.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, preached many sermons on how Christians should approach money. His most famous sermon on the use of money offers a radical new paradigm for us to consider: it can be summed up in three simple statements: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. On first hearing those words, you might think, that doesn’t sound so radical to me.

But let’s look at each of these three statements in more detail. The first one is, gain all you can. You might be thinking, well, that sounds about right. Make as much money as you are able. Don’t we always enjoy a raise or getting a higher paying job? John Wesley says yes, gain all that you can, but then he puts a whole bunch of qualifiers around it. We are not to gain money at the expense of life or health. We shouldn’t take a job that does more harm to us than good. Life is always more valuable than money. We are to gain all we can without hurting our minds or our souls. In making money (among other things), the ends do not justify the means. If we are engaging in work that is detrimental to our moral character, then we, as Christians, need to reassess our priorities. Finally, the way in which we gain money cannot be at the expense of our neighbors. Here Wesley speaks of something that runs contrary to our capitalist society and the competitive nature of the free market: He says, “We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price. We cannot study to ruin our neighbor’s trade in order to advance our own.” Furthermore, our trade can’t be based on selling something that does harm to our neighbors. In short, Wesley says gain all you can by honest means that does not harm yourself or your neighbor in body, mind or soul. This first one isn’t so bad, and for the most part, we may already be doing a pretty good job with this. The rich man in today’s parable had not come into his wealth necessarily by dishonest means. The story doesn’t tell us, so we don’t know. The problem is not that he has gained money.

The next of Wesley’s principles is where it starts to get a little hairier. Save all you can. This doesn’t mean put all of your money into a trust fund and let it just sit there doing no good to anyone. Rather, what Wesley means here is don’t spend your money on excessive amounts of things. Don’t throw money away on stuff that isn’t really important or that you don’t really need. This is where I start to get a little uncomfortable. I have the problem of money tending to burn a hole in my pocket. If I have a little extra money, I have to do practically all I can to resist going out and spending it on something fun, just because I can and want to. This definitely goes against what Wesley means when he says, save all you can. Wesley advises against spoiling one another. He especially speaks against parents spoiling their children because this contributes to gratifying and further increasing, in his words, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.” The rich man who lived in his house, wearing the fine robes of purple and feasting every day did not exactly save his money. He spent it on rich living for himself and his friends to feed his own desires.

So we have gain all you can, and save all you can, but here’s the real clincher: give all you can. Gaining and saving all you can is nothing if we stop there. Unless we are being good stewards with the gifts entrusted to us by giving all that we are able to the care of others, then gaining and saving by themselves are pointless. We are to use our financial resources to help one another. Generosity is the defining characteristic of living by the economy of manna that last week’s Scripture lesson pointed to. Wesley himself lived what he preached about money, though it took him a while to get there. He had an experience one year at Oxford. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?” That experience may have been a turning point for him, and he began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds. Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.

That is pretty powerful testimony, and I know that I myself feel squarely put in my place. Wesley approached money in a radical way, in a way that was characterized by generosity and framed by his consideration of the other as greater than himself. Wesley is a foil to the character of the rich man in today’s parable. Throughout the Old Testament, we hear in the prophetic writings God’s command for Israel to hear the cry of the needy. He says over and over, do not let their cries fall on deaf ears, or I will not listen to you when you cry out. This is exactly what we are seeing in this story of Lazarus and the rich man. We really aren’t too different from the rich man. What are we doing for Lazarus? How are we using the gifts that God has given us to serve someone other than ourselves?

I, probably like many of you, still find myself stuck in the economy of mammon. I am still stuck in the way of thinking about me and mine. Ultimately this economy of mammon is not even about how much money we have; rather it is about how we think about what “belongs” to us. John Wesley’s motto on the use of money can be summed up as this: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. These three things are to be done with the purpose of serving others, rather than ourselves. These three things are to be done in order to build up the community, our family of faith, and to invite others into that family. If we truly could shift to that perspective on money, what would our life as a congregation look like? What would our witness to the rest of the world look like? I don’t pretend that this is an easy thing to do, or a change that we can make overnight. To move from the economy of mammon to the economy of manna may be difficult and a continual challenge; but this is what God calls us to. John Wesley said, “when I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find its way into my heart.” Maybe it is time for us to ask ourselves this question: what is governing our hearts today? Amen.

9.19.10 Sermon: “Manna or Mammon? Pt. 1”

Text: Luke 16:1-13

I have to admit, when I saw this text from Luke’s gospel pop up as one of today’s lectionary readings, I immediately thought, hmm… let’s see what the other passages are. I’ll pick one of them to preach on! After all, the story from Luke’s gospel is about a subject I would just rather not touch: it’s about money. And not only is it about money, it is also a confusing parable on top of that. So seriously, why not just avoid the trouble of trying to deal with it? The other passages I had to choose from I found to be much more preachable! But as much as I tried to avoid this story of Luke’s, God kept reminding me that it is these tricky and undesirable passages that probably need the most attention. So here I am, about to preach on the most uncomfortable topic and probably what many of us would consider to be the most personal and private: money. The gospel of Luke addresses the issue of wealth and poverty more frequently than any other issue. In fact, Next week, the gospel passage continues with this theme in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, so let’s consider today to be the first of a two part series on money. This isn’t just a call for you to put more money in the offering plate. It’s not just about tithing. These two gospel lessons we will explore actually call us to do something much more difficult and significant than that. So let’s begin with today’s story.

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the more difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables. It is a story that upon first glance, appears to advocate a dishonest use of money. The story begins with a rich man discovering that his steward has not been acting in a way that is financially responsible. We don’t know exactly what he has done. Maybe he has spent his master’s money too freely, maybe he has been stealing out of the petty cash, perhaps he made some book-keeping “errors”. Regardless, the story tells us that this steward has been accused of wasting his master’s goods. So naturally, the rich man fires the steward.

So now the steward is in a difficult position. He’s been accused of wrongdoing, and whether or not those accusations are true or false, he will have those rumors following him around, and now he also has no job, no stability. Like any person in his position, he is worried about his future, so he comes up with a plan. Before word can get out that the steward is no longer employed by the rich man, he goes to each of the people who owe the rich man some money and says, you owe 100? Pay 50 and we’ll call it even. You? 100? Pay 80 and that will do. That’s a smart move on the steward’s part! Those whose debts he lessened will see him as a generous man and will welcome him into their homes in the future. And of course, when the rich man discovers what this steward has done, he is probably not best pleased, but he does commend the steward for thinking on his feet and acting craftily.

So if that is the story, does that mean that Jesus is commending dishonesty? I mean, Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light! Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings!” At first read, that actually sounds like Jesus is saying, use your wealth to make friends! Is this what Jesus is actually saying? What does he mean?

Let’s take a closer look at the steward’s plan to ensure that he still has a future. Up until this point, the steward participates in an economy dictated by gaining and maintaining financial wealth. He is in charge of the rich man’s account. A good steward is one who not only keeps the wealth, but also multiplies it. We are reminded of this in Matthew’s gospel where the master entrusts money to each of his servants. While the master commends each servant who then goes and invests and multiplies the initial amount that was entrusted, the third servant goes and buries the money in the ground, doing nothing with it. This servant is then condemned. So that story reminds us that a good steward is one who multiplies financial wealth. The story today begins with the steward belonging to an economy that is dictated by gaining more and more material wealth. This is his initial priority. However, when he learns that he is about to be fired, his plan indicates a shift in priority. His new plan is not to go out and acquire money so he can live happily on retirement. Instead, he goes out and partially forgives his employer’s debtors of their debts. The steward is certainly not going to come out of this financially well. Instead of being driven by making more money, he offers instead generosity. Why? So that they may welcome him into their homes. What we see here is a shift from money as a priority to relationships.

I am going to rely now on one of my professors from Duke to help me make some more sense of this parable. Sam Wells is a professor of Christian ethics at the Divinity School, and he is also the Dean of Duke Chapel. He has a real knack for making sense out of tricky passages, and has some helpful insight for us today.

Sam Wells says that in this story, we find two different economies that are meeting head on: an economy of scarcity, and an economy of abundance. The rich man’s world is driven by this first economy: the economy where there is concern that there isn’t enough to go around, where one needs to multiply his individual wealth to make sure that he can stay on top. This is an economy motivated by fear, and consequently greed. I have to make sure, that in a world with a limited amount of cake, that I at least get what I deserve on my plate. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of mammon. Mammon is the word used in Luke 16:13 to describe material wealth and greed. The other economy is the one that the steward discovers after he has been fired: the economy of abundance. This is the economy of relationships, of community. When the steward finds his economy up a creek without a paddle, he realizes that it may be time to invest in someone else’s. It may be time to make a shift from thinking about personal financial gain to the wealth that comes through being in relationship with other people. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of manna. Manna was the food that God gave to the Hebrews in the wilderness, and there was always more than they needed. It only dried up when they tried to take more than they needed. The manna was for everyone, and it was freely given by God. Manna is characterized by grace.

In a sermon he preached on this text, Sam Wells sums up this passage in these words: “What happens in scene three of this story is that the manager gives up trying to squeeze people for a living and starts making friends instead. He realizes the friends are more important than the money—or even the job. He moves from mammon to manna, from an economy of scarcity and perpetual anxiety to an economy of abundance and limitless grace.”

So that might all sound good in theory, but what does that actually mean for how we live our lives? We live in a world where we have to make money in order to buy food, have shelter, and provide the appropriate care for our families. If we don’t get a paycheck, we will undoubtedly be facing all kinds of anxieties. Why is this? Because we primarily see ourselves as individuals and individual family units. We must be self-sufficient in taking care of ours and our own. But as Christians we now have a new definition of “ours and our own.” Being a Christian is not just about personal salvation. It’s not something that just happens between me as an individual and God. Being a Christian is about more: it is about being a part of a community called the Body of Christ. In this community, relationship is the priority. In this community, “ours and our own” takes on a new meaning. Or at least, it is supposed to. Unfortunately though, when we become Christians, that doesn’t automatically snap us out of living according to an economy of mammon.

Let me tell you a story about a particular Christian community that thrived not on the economy of mammon, but on the economy of manna. This was a poor community in Jerusalem. They didn’t have a whole lot of financial wealth and most would probably consider them to be living on the margins of society. Most of the people who joined the church did not necessarily have very much money to put in the offering plate, but they became one of the fastest growing churches that the world has seen. Why? Because the people in this community knew how to take care of each other. They weren’t out to gain as much money as they could for themselves and their family; rather, they considered their individual families to be a part of the larger faith family. They were not surrounded by people who just happened to be fellow-congregants, they were surrounded by new brothers and sisters in Christ, and they truly treated one another as such. This faith community shared everything with one another. They pooled their possessions and their wealth together and used it to help out anyone who was in need. They came together for frequent meals and extended generosity to one another. Individuals weren’t afraid of sharing their own resources with others. They weren’t driven by a fear of scarcity.

The community that I just described is the first community of Christian believers we find in Acts 2. Do we really look very similar? What economy is driving us as a Christian community? What today’s parable is suggesting to us is that we, as a community of faith, need to be shrewd. We need to be creative. We need to start thinking about not only our financial wealth in a new way, but one another in a new way as well. To be a Christian means to be a part of community that is characterized by generosity: that lives not by mammon but my manna; a community that lives by an economy not driven by scarcity, but by abundance. This means that we must truly begin to see our brothers and sisters in Christ as true brothers and sisters. It means we have to go beyond the lip service of these labels. Sometimes being a part of a community means we must give generously, forgoing the temptation of the sin of greed. Other times it means we must allow ourselves to receive the generosity of others without letting the sin of pride get in the way. We all face the temptation of self-sufficiency, and this can manifest itself through greed or pride. We may be in a more challenging economic time, this is true. Your own household may be struggling to make ends meet. But if we are to belong to the Body of Christ, then that means that we are no longer alone and we have to relinquish the damaging myth of self-sufficiency. We aren’t supposed to be left to fend for ourselves. Not only does our attitude in general need to be adjusted regarding our own wealth, but we also need to “put our money where our mouth is.” I myself am a chief offender when it comes to this. This is not a task that can or will happen overnight, but I will leave you today with two things: a question and a prayer. First the question: which economy are you living in? The economy of mammon or of manna? And second, a prayer for us all: Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us everything that we have: grant us the grace that we need so that we can honor you with everything that we are, and remember that you have called us to live lives reflecting grace and generosity rather than selfishness and greed. Teach us to be shrewd and faithful stewards who always value relationships above personal wealth. We cannot do this without you. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

8.22.10 Sermon: “The Good Consumer”

Text: Hebrews 12:18-29

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This famous poem by Robert Frost characterizes today’s reading from Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is writing to a community of Jewish Christians that had been around for a couple of generations but was losing some of its zeal, some of its passion. It was a lackluster community of Christians who were not really exemplifying commitment to following Christ. Here, the author of Hebrews is pointing to where two roads are about to diverge, and is inviting them to choose the road less traveled, the one that will make all of the difference.

We, ourselves, are much like the original audience of Hebrews. We too, exist as a church at large where it is easy to have a lackluster approach to faith. It is easy for us to forgo commitment to following Jesus and the difficult task of living together in Christian community, as the Body of Christ. Why is this the case? Why do we so frequently lack not only passion, but cohesion as a community identifiable by conviction of faith and commitment to following Christ?

I want to suggest that one primary reason (though certainly not the only reason) for this revolves around a word found in the last verse of today’s text in Hebrews: consuming. The verse likens God to a consuming fire. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word consume in several different ways: 1) to do away with completely, 2) to spend wastefully, 3) to eat or drink in great quantity, 4) to engage fully, 5) to utilize economic goods, and 6) to waste or burn away.

I will get to talking more specifically about the passage of Hebrews in a little bit, but first I want to focus on the word “consume.” When I first hear this word, I automatically think of the word “consumer.” We live in a consumer-driven society. I don’t need to look much further than my own wallet to see the many receipts that have accumulated there. Among some that I have collected this week: receipts for a new pair of shoes, for a meal from Los Agaves, for a couple of wedding-related purchases, for books, and more. Sometimes I am astonished when I look at the stack of receipts and am struck by how much I consume on a weekly basis. (And my bank account isn’t too fond of it either!) But it’s not just me.

There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago called “What Would Jesus Buy?” This movie is a documentary film that takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to critiquing the commercialization of Christmas in America. The documentary stars the Rev. Billy and his satirical “Church of Stop Shopping”, which challenges the consumer mind-set of our nation. The film opens with these words: “As fall turns to winter across this nation, many millions will converge upon centers of worship, large and small to celebrate and give thanks to a familiar god. He tells us to buy now, and pay later. He tempts us with endless credit as he leads us down the path to eternal debt.” Those opening lines really just say it all. I could go on an endless rant about the problems of our consumer culture, but I think that this fact is already evident. The economic crisis has highlighted our addiction to spending beyond our means. I don’t need to persuade you about how advertisements bombard us with images trying to convince us of things we think we need, or about the great variety of goods that the market provides us with. We can pick and choose from thousands of different things, all catered to our own tastes and desires. We all know that this is the reality of our society. That is not the point of this sermon. What I want to focus on is how our consumer culture affects our life as a community of faith in ways that we may not even be entirely conscious of.

So often, we come to the church as if it is just another thing on the market, competing for our time and investment. So often we ask the question, “what does the church have to offer me in the way of programs and services?” Is it worth my investment of time and money? Sometimes we may even do a subconscious benefit and risk analysis when it comes to participating in the life of the church. “What is the risk of getting involved or giving in this way?” “How will doing this ministry benefit me?” As Christians living in today’s world, we often fall into the temptation of engaging with the community of faith on an ad hoc basis based on individual ‘needs’, rather than as part of a community; we become interested in religious ‘products’ and ‘techniques’ rather than pursuing the deeper meaning and truth of Christianity. And we may not even do these things consciously.

As a youth pastor, this consumer mindset is something that I very much struggle with. My personal gifts are much more in line with leading spiritual formation and in depth Bible study, but more often than not, I feel a bit more like a cruise director or an event planner than a youth pastor (and not a very good event planner at that!). Why is this the case? In part, it is because I am competing for the attention of our youth. The church is treated like just another good on the market, competing for our time, for our investment. I feel the need to make things fun and entertaining, anything I can do to make coming to youth events appealing. It is easy for me to start acting a bit more like a marketer and a bit less like a pastor. How do I even begin to address this problem? It is faulty thinking to treat the church like just another commodity, where we can buy what we want, but leave other aspects sitting on the shelf. The church is not a business; it is not a part of the entertainment industry. The church isn’t ultimately about creating better programs or offering self-help services, even though these are things the church may do. The church is a community of faith, a place where people come together to go on a journey with the person of Jesus Christ.

So now we return to Hebrews. The Hebrews passage begins by reminding its original audience that they have not come to something that can be touched, held, or possessed. They have not come to something tangible. The author of Hebrews contrasts Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion. Mt. Sinai is where the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. As Moses walked back down the mountain to the people, he offered them something that they could see and touch. He held the tablets containing God’s Law in his hands. Yet Mt. Zion is defined as a place, a kingdom, that cannot be shaken. Listen to v. 22: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” Mt. Zion is a place of feasting and celebration. In short, it is a place of community that knows the joy of relationship with God for its own sake, and not for the list of ways that it might meet personal wants or needs. It is about a relationship with the God who asks us to give our whole lives to him. It is about a relationship with the God who is a consuming fire.

So now we are back to this image of God being a consuming fire. This is a powerful image, one that I find to be a bit unsettling to contemplate, as the audience of the letter to the Hebrews found it. This is a scary image for a couple of reasons. First of all, fire burns. If you have ever burned yourself or even touched a hot stove top, you know how painful this can be. It is frightening to think of God in such a way. But perhaps an ever greater reason that the idea of God being a consuming fire is unsettling is because by definition, it infers that God will require our whole selves. There will be nothing that will be kept back or apart. I don’t know about you, but I grapple with that image. What would it mean for God to utterly consume my life, and my whole being? What would that mean for the things that I think I want or need? What will I have to miss out on or give up if I am going to be utterly consumed by God?

But the image of God as a consuming fire is also reassuring. A fire refines, a fire finishes. A few weeks ago when I was on vacation at a family camp with Darick’s family, I spent some time in the craft shop painting a couple of unfinished pieces of pottery. I spent a couple of days painting on the glaze, but when I finished painting, the piecers weren’t finished yet. They had to spend many hours in the kiln, in the fire, in order to finish it. When they came out, they were beautiful and glossy. The refining fire of the kiln was the only way of achieving this final result. Or consider a glass blower or metal worker: in order to do their craft, intense heat is needed to transform a lump of material into a beautiful and well-crafted object. Without a fire, the lump of material will never be able to reach the potential for which it was created.

We in the church, are affected by our surrounding consumer culture. We cannot entirely separate ourselves from it. Our approach to God, to worship, and to discipleship have all been colored by our social context, and in fact, they are not entirely distinguishable from it. We cannot avoid it entirely. Nonetheless, today we still have to ask ourselves whether we are coming to God, seeking him as a commodity to possess, and are we approaching faith as if it is a good to be consumed to fulfill our own wants, or are we recognizing that God is our consuming fire, meant to both purge and transform us wholly, not just in ways that we choose. As the church, we cannot allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation of depicting faith through gimmicks, through anything that is less than inviting and encouraging one another to know and be fully known by God. Christianity is about nothing less than a relationship with God, which is never a commodity. We can never simply pick God off of a sale rack to place on our own shelves, and yet we all face this tendency and temptation at times. Am I saying that capitalism and the free market are bad things? No. They are a part of our culture and through them, we have much. But when the dominant culture we live in begins to color, cloud, and dilute Christianity, we must continually re-evaluate where our own values currently lie.

The original audience of this letter to the Hebrews did not live in a social context all that similar to ours. The values of the surrounding culture do not exactly mirror our own today. Nonetheless, they too, were a community that needed to be challenged to live lives that were more wholly faithful to Jesus Christ. They needed to renew their commitment and passion towards following Jesus on the road of discipleship. In this way, the passage also speaks truth to us. It reminds us that the call to follow Christ is one that demands we give our whole selves to God. When Christianity becomes just another good on the market where we get to pick and choose what we want, we are missing out on the greater joy of following Christ, even when it is down a road we would not expect or choose for ourselves. We are at a place where two roads are diverging. Do we continue down the road of consumer Christianity, where we get to pick and choose what parts of faith we want to take, or do we move down the road less traveled, the one where we allow God to be our consuming fire, transforming and perfecting us as we journey with him? Let’s pick the one that will make all the difference.

6.27.10 Sermon: “Would You?”

Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

A couple of weeks ago at Annual Conference, an invitation was issued to join the bishop in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January. I am envious of those who will be making that journey. I would love to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, see the places that he saw, to imagine the biblical stories in a new way. I had some friends who went to Israel one summer during seminary, and I always eagerly awaited their photoblog so I could see pictures of the places they had been. A trip to the Holy Land: every seminary student and every pastor’s dream. One of these days I will get over there. One of these days I will get over to Jerusalem to see the Temple mount, and the wailing wall. One of these days I will get to walk where Jesus walked, on his way to Jerusalem. For me, it would be a fun and educational trip. But what does it actually mean to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem?

The gospel lesson starts out with a significant statement: Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. He had been hanging around the Sea of Galilee, preaching, doing miracles, and ministering among the people. But now, there is a rather dramatic shift within Luke’s gospel. Today’s gospel lesson marks a transition from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to his journey southward to Jerusalem, where he will stand trial and go to his crucifixion. It marks not only a geographical shift, but a theological shift also, and we are called to experience and understand the magnitude and commitment of true discipleship.

Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. He is looking ahead toward the road of trial and suffering. He is gearing up, preparing, exhibiting determination. In other words, he’s made up his mind and is committed to going where the Father is calling him. Jesus was obedient to the Father in all things, even when the road got tricky, even when his human nature felt like it might have been over-riding his divine nature. Jesus knew where he had to go. He knew what he had to do. The road to Jerusalem was one of suffering. It was a road that championed non-violent resistance over the forces of evil. It was a road that went against the natural human inclinations to places the self above all others. This road to Jerusalem is no easy road to take. And yet, if we are to call ourselves Christians, then that is the road that we must take. Today, we hear the story of several unnamed characters who are unwilling to walk the path of discipleship that Jesus invites them to.

Let’s start by looking at the response of the Samaritans. Jesus sends his disciples on ahead of his way to let them know that he is coming. Yet when Jesus gets to Samaria, he finds that no one is willing to receive him. Why? “Because they saw that he had his face set to Jerusalem.” Perhaps they would have been willing to receive him just weeks before, when he was traveling around, doing miracles, and preaching. Perhaps they would have flocked to see him. After all, it isn’t too hard to follow Jesus when things are good. In this segment of the story, Luke is making the theological statement that the Samaritans know what Jerusalem holds for Jesus, and they do not want to share in any part of that. They don’t want any aspect of discipleship that would be difficult, or inconvenient. James and John get angry that the Samaritans aren’t even willing to receive Jesus and want to call down retribution against them, but Jesus rebukes them. There is no punishment for them, but they still miss out on the journey.

Jesus continues on down the road from Samaria, and a person came up to him, with these eager words: “I will follow you wherever you go!” This response is a familiar one to many of us. We see the way Jesus has been working, we hear the words he preached, and we think, yeah, we can get on board with this! We get excited and enthusiastic, and we may feel bold enough to say to Jesus, yeah, I’ll go wherever you want me to! But we fail to recognize the weight of those words, and the challenge they prompt us to. This first would-be follower had no shortage of enthusiasm. He walked right up to Jesus, completely unprompted and initiated the conversation, thinking Jesus would be totally gung-ho about having this new follower come along with him. And undoubtedly, Jesus would have been thrilled if this person did decide to follow. But Jesus asks him a question to test his mettle, to see if he is really prepared to be a disciple. Jesus basically replies, “this is a difficult path you would be going down: I am a homeless wanderer. You can’t follow me from the comfort of your living room. You will have to give up your luxury, and leave what you know. Are you ready for that?” We get no answer from this first would-be disciple. His enthusiasm quickly turns to silence when he hears Jesus’ response. He didn’t know following Jesus would mean all of that! Maybe it would be best to just back away quietly and pretend like the conversation never happened.

Jesus then meets the second would-be follower. Jesus invites him: Follow me. The second would-be disciple seems willing enough, but only after he can go and bury his dead father. Back in this time, the proper burial of a loved one was an extremely important priority. This was no trivial request. It was totally legitimate of this would-be follower to ask Jesus if he could go and take care of burying his father properly. I have always felt that this response of Jesus is rather harsh. “Let the dead bury the dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Why won’t Jesus let him bury his father? This encounter relays a couple of different things. First of all, it highlights the priority of discipleship over all other priorities. Following Jesus is not mutually exclusive over other priorities in our lives, but as Christians, our primary task is discipleship, of journeying with Christ and learning from him, being transformed by him. Second, this story reminds us of the eternal life that God promises us. This would-be follower has failed to see the promise of resurrection and the privilege of being able to proclaim the kingdom of God, the kingdom that gives life to those who are dying. This would-be disciple has his priorities flip-flopped. His excuse for not following is, as far as excuses go, perhaps one of the most legitimate excuses. He has to care for his family and give his father the honor due him. Family is a priority, Jesus agrees. And yet, the call to discipleship in this story reminds us that Jesus’ command to follow him can go even beyond family boundaries. Sometimes this one still just blows my mind. How on earth could we respond in any way other than that of this would-be disciple in this case? And yet, Jesus still says to us, “Follow me.”

He encounters a third would-be disciple, who says to Jesus, “I’ll come with you, just let me go home and say goodbye to my family and friends.” Again, Jesus’ response seems very harsh. He says, “No, we need to go now. You can’t look both backwards and forwards in the kingdom of God. We need to move ahead. This is urgent.” It seems like a natural response to me for this would-be follower to want to at least be able to say bye to his family and friends, rather than just run off with Jesus without saying anything. But here, Jesus probably knows that if this would-be disciple goes home to his own familiar territory, he will never be able to break out of it. He will never be able to leave. In many ways, it is a now or never situation. It’s hard for us to leave what is comfortable, what is familiar, what may even be loved. Contrast this would-be follower’s response to that of the calling of the first disciples in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus calls out to Peter, and Andrew saying” Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It then says, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him Later that day, Jesus says the same thing to James and John. They respond by leaving the boat and their father in order to follow Jesus. These disciples don’t hesitate, they don’t find excuses. They leave their livelihood, their families, and their obligations in order to follow Jesus. Don’t mistake me for saying that God is calling us to abandon our families or our responsibilities. God does not ask us to be irresponsible of neglectful of that which we have been given. Nonetheless, this story points out the priority of discipleship, and the power of the call to follow Jesus. These first disciples hear the call, and they follow, without excuse, without hesitation. They see their moment, and they take it before it is gone.

This past week at SYC, one of the preachers who happens to be a second degree blackbelt was demonstrating some self-defense techniques as a way of illustrating how we protect ourselves from sin and evil. She had called one girl up to demonstrate how attackers will often attack by grabbing long hair or a ponytail. It is very hard to break away from someone who has you by your hair, and she said this statement which stuck with me: “If they have your head, they have you.” If something has a hold of your mind, it has you. In the case of these would-be disciples, something other than Jesus has their heads. This is not to say that what occupies their mind holds no importance, but it is to say that following Jesus is not their ultimate priority.

In the gospel lesson, we have seen four snapshots of those who could never really be called true disciples of Jesus. Sure, they had met Jesus, they liked him just fine, but they were not prepared to walk the road that Jesus walked. While the circumstances of these would-be followers  may not be universal or apply to each of us, the obstacles to following still often block our way, and the call to discipleship seldom takes priority in our lives over the many obligations and desires that pull us this way and that. So what does it look like to follow him? If this is the story of the would-be disciples, what does a real disciple look like?

We live just down the road from St. Albans. Have you ever heard the story of the saint who the town was named after? Saint Alban lived in the 3rd century in England. He is known as the first British martyr of the Christian faith. Saint Alban was not a Christian when a Christian priest seeking refuge from persecution came to him. Alban took him in, and eventually he was converted and baptized by this priest. However, one day, soldiers came to Alban’s house looking for the priest. Rather than hand over the priest, Alban actually traded clothes and put on the garb of the priest. Alban allowed himself to be arrested in the priest’s place. He was taken before the magistrate, who was furious when he discovered the deception and ordered that Alban receive the punishment intended for the priest, if, in fact Alban had become a Christian. According to tradition, Alban responded by saying, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.” He was then led out and up a hill, where he was beheaded. We may live in a different time and place, and in different circumstances, but Alban was one who was not afraid to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. He wasn’t afraid to set his face to Jerusalem.

When I hear stories like this one of Saint Alban, I can’t help but wonder how I would be in the same situation. Would I have the courage to do what he did? Would I have the conviction of faith to be that kind of witness, to be the kind of disciple who is willing and able to follow Jesus to Jerusalem? On my own, absolutely not. On my own, I would be a coward, I would be selfish, I would be unwilling. The good news is that with God’s grace, we may walk down the road with Jesus. With God’s grace, we too, can set our faces to Jerusalem. But we have to be willing to allow God to transform us. We have to at least be able to say to God, I know I can’t do this on my own. I need you to lead me. I need you to break through those things that hold me back. But even getting to that point can be a challenge.

One of the biggest issues we face in the church today is a watered-down gospel: a gospel that invites us to meet Christ, but doesn’t actually ask us to follow after him. It’s a gospel that says all you need to do is accept Christ as your Savior and show up to church on Sundays without compelling us to go down the deeper path of discipleship. It’s a gospel that maybe gets people in the doors of the church, but then fails to form them into people who actually are Christ-like. We, the modern day church, are a church that is full of would-be disciples.

We may say, Jesus, I want to follow you, I really do. But can’t I just take care of these other things first? Can’t I just deal with my other priorities so I am completely free to follow you? Sure, I’ll follow you wherever you go. But wait, what’s that you say? No, I can’t possibly do that. Maybe I spoke too soon.

We don’t get to put the conditions on our discipleship. We don’t get to say to God, yes, I’ll be your true disciple, but only if I can still have this, this, and this. These would-be disciples never get beyond the hypothetical. So I ask you, are they really disciples? Do you ever get beyond the hypothetical? Do you ever find yourself saying, well, once I retire, I can give my time to God? Or, once my kids get off to college I can commit myself 100% to being a disciple? Or, as soon as I finish high school or college and really become an adult, then I can get serious about following Christ? We are a church full of would-be disciples: you, me, all of us. We are all would-be disciples or one point or another. But we don’t have to be! Jesus gives the command to follow him now. Are we prepared to hear and obey?

This gospel story today is not a story about salvation: it is a story about discipleship. The text does not say that these would-be followers of Jesus were not saved, that they did not receive the grace of God. It is instead a story of discipleship. Jesus doesn’t call down punishment on those who do not receive him. But they miss out on the journey. We never hear about these particular Samaritans or would-be followers again. They have a small cameo in God’s story, but we never even know their names. Do you want to make nameless cameo in God’s story, or do you want to be credited as a main character? It’s up to you. But if there is to be meaning in being a part of this community, the only true meaning comes through going on the journey with Christ together. A church is not a social club, a community center, a social institution. While the church may have aspects to it that remind us of these other things, the church, the Body of Christ in the world, is something entirely unique, and if it is not filled with people who are willing to seek out true discipleship, then it is not really being the church. God will not strike you down because you don’t go on this journey with him. But you miss out on the journey with God. You may be stuck in the village and Jesus has moved on. So I ask you today, are you ready to follow Jesus? Are you ready to walk along side him as his face is set to Jerusalem? It is no easy task, but with the grace of God and with a willing heart, we can walk with him, and the greatest gift of the journey is the company of our Savior.

This last week at SYC I helped out with a covenant group for the days that I was there, and one day, we all worked on writing our life story in six words or less. I had several different ones that I came up with, but my favorite and perhaps most fitting one was this simple prayer that has captured the central struggle of my life: Wherever, whenever, however: help me follow. May this be our prayer to God today. Wherever, whenever,