Friday, October 28, 2011
Before the 8th inning it was a sloppily played game that would have been an embarrassment during the regular season let alone in the World Series. The World Series is supposed to pit the two best teams in baseball playing the best baseball they can, and they certainly didn't for most of last night's game. A large part of it would have been unwatchable during the regular season. Having five errors alone automatically takes it out of contention as one of the greatest games. And if I had been scoring there would have been six errors, because the "triple" that tied the game in the ninth inning should have been caught.
If Nelson Cruz hadn't been concerned about hitting the wall, which by the way is his MO and he wasn't even close to the wall, he would have caught the ball and the game would have been over. If he had thought "Hey, even if I hit the wall it won't hurt because we will be World Series champions," then the Rangers win. Instead he totally misplayed the ball, which should be an error, and the Cardinals were right back in it.
But along with the five or six errors in the game, the bullpens were also terrible. The only reason the Cardinals kept coming back was because the pitchers kept making terrible mistakes. You can't put a pitch over the plate where it can be driven when you already have two strikes.
I can think of lots of World Series games that were a lot better than this. Game six of the 1986, 1991 and 1992 World Series come to mind. Game seven of the 2001 series, let along games 4 and 5 which both had incredible come from behind victories with two-run homeruns with two outs in the ninth inning. Then there is game one of the 1988 World Series with Kirk Gibson's homerun.
10-9 games are not "great" games. Now some have said that what made it so great was the fact that the score kept going and changing, that the Rangers had and lost the lead five different times, that in fact the score is indicative of a great game. By that standard a Super Bowl that ended 73-70 would also be a great game, which I hardly suspect would be the case.
Now I do have to admit that I had given up on the Cardinals after their three errors and when they were down 7-4, and they deserve credit for coming back. In the lore of baseball this game will live on a for a long time, and it should, but it should not be considered the greatest World Series game ever because it just cannot live up to that moniker.
As exciting as those last three innings were, and as dramatic as they were, in it's entirety a 10-9 game with five errors, or six in my book, and shoddy pitching all around simply cannot upend some of the other incredible World Series games that I have witnessed let alone in the history of the game.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
One day a young polar bear came home from school. Now this is a true story. He went up to his mother and asked “Am I a real polar bear?” His mother said "of course you’re a polar bear." The next day he came home from school and asked his father “am I a real polar bear?” The father assured him that yes he was a real polar bear. But every day for a week the young bear came home and asked his parents the same question, “am I a real polar bear.” Finally, his father couldn’t take it any more and he said “yes, you are a real polar bear. Both your mother and I are real polar bears, your grandparents are all real polar bears, all your relatives are real polar bears, in fact everyone we know are real polar bears so why do you keep asking?” The young polar bear looked at him and said “because I’m freezing.”
Anyone who attends church regularly has probably heard at least one sermon on the prodigal son. It probably had something to do with how God is always grateful to welcome those who have been lost back home, and about God’s overwhelming love for us. But all of the wonderful stories that get told about this parable usually revolve around the younger, prodigal son. But, today I’m going to tackle another aspect of this story which involves the older brother, because one of the messages that I believe Jesus is trying to convey deals with joy.
Now joy is one of those troubling subjects, especially in church. As Christians we are told to do many different things, but probably one of the hardest is to be joyful, and there are many different reasons for this. Much of it rests with the traditions of the church which in many ways have tried to suck as much joy as possible out of the faith. But, in many places in scripture we are told to express our joy about our life and our relationship with God, but I think it is best summed up by the writer of Psalm 100 who tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
A teenage boy approaches his father and asks to borrow the car. “No,” his father says, “not until you cut your hair.” “But,” the son replies indignantly, “Jesus had long hair.” “Your right,” the father says, “Jesus did have long hair, and he also walked everywhere.
As the story begins, the younger brother tells his father that he is dead to him, which is what he does when he demands his inheritance, then proceeds to fritter away everything he has through what would probably best be described as sins of the flesh. Then once he has nothing left, he debases himself by working with pigs, something forbidden for Jews, then he decides to come back home. The older brother certainly must think that the younger brother might be turned away by the father, or at the very least would at least get a severe tongue lashing for what he has done.
Instead what the older brothers finds when he comes out of the fields is that his father is throwing a party for his wastrel of a son. Doesn’t the older brother have the right to be upset? What seems to be most galling to him is not just the younger brother’s prior behavior, but that he seems to be receiving even more than the older brother as a result of his negative behavior. What sort of standard is this setting up? As it turns out, while the younger brother’s lifestyle was inappropriate, the older brother has been approaching his life and relationship with the father inappropriately as well.
Somehow the older brother, in his allegiance and love for his father, has turned his duties and responsibilities into a task and a chore to be undertaken. He even tells the father that he has been obeying all of his commands and because of that has been “working like a slave.” I’m sure this must come as somewhat of a surprise to the father. Certainly the older brother has been working hard, after all he is out in the fields when the younger brother comes home, and he most certainly has been the most obedient son, but there is no indication that the father has ever told him that he must act like a slave or to be so obedient that he loses all sense of joy and pleasure in what he is doing or in his life. This is something that the older son has taken on, not something that is required of him. He wrongly believes that in order to be the good son he must work tirelessly and view everything as a task which must be undertaken, and because of this, he has lost any sense of joy and pleasure which he may have had in his life.
This is very similar to the parable we covered last week of the laborer’s in the vineyard, where those who work twelve hours are paid the same amount as those who only work one hour, and they begin to think that their reward is based upon their labor rather than the generosity of the landowner. The laborers and the older son begins to think that everything they are going to receive, or should receive, is based upon their own work and merit. It is through their own efforts that they are to receive their reward, but the father indicates that his love has nothing to do with what we do, but instead who we are.
On one of John Calvin’s good days, and certainly he could not have been a grump all the time he must have had at least one good day, he said that the sole purpose of our existence is to glorify God. How do we glorify God by looking at everything as drudgery, a task that must be undertaken, or that we are slaves to our responsibilities? How many people here have attended a worship service, and most certainly a church committee meeting, where we have walked out and felt flat because there was no sense of excitement or joy about anything? The gospel literally means the good news, but how often does our news actually look like another job which must be undertaken. Where is our sense of joy about being in the presence and being loved by the father?
After a long, dry sermon, the minister announced that he wished to meet with the church board following the close of the service. The first man to arrive and greet the minister was a total stranger. "You must have misunderstood my announcement,” the minister said. “This is a meeting for the board members.” “I know," the man replied, "but if there is anyone here who was more bored than I was, then I'd like to meet them."
Certainly, the father has already proven his generosity and willingness to see he sons be happy by answering his younger son’s unusual request for his inheritance. He has already shown that he wants his sons to be happy, but the older son does not get the message. He is upset because he sees the fatted calf being given to the younger son when he has not received anything for his hard work. He has not squandered his inheritance, he has not been profligate in his living, he has been the good son, doesn’t he at least deserve something?! As someone in one of my Bible studies so eloquently put it: Shouldn’t the father have at least bought him a box of cheese-its occasionally as a reward? But, instead it is he who is chastised by the father. “Son, you are always with me,” the father says “and all that is mine is yours.” All that is mine is yours.
The fatted calf was available to the older son the entire time, but he became so preoccupied that he missed it. He could have been feasting and enjoying the bounty provided by the father, but instead he thought himself to be a slave. He could have been expressing his joy for everything given to him and available in his life, but instead he rejected it. He could have been taking pleasure in life, but instead he was keeping track of the immoral deeds of his brother.
Originally, the only thing we are told about what the younger son has done is that he wasted the money in dissolute living. It is only once we hear from the older brother that we find out some of the details of what was taking place. The older brother was not content to let his brother go and lead his own life. Instead it appears as if he was tracking his brother’s activities which only added to his resentment and anger; not only about his brother but also about his position in the father’s house. Again, he is like the laborer’s from last week’s parable who have joy in the morning when they receive their jobs, but then in beginning to look around and comparing themselves to others, they begin thinking they are clearly more worthy than the others, and in the it is they who end up getting in trouble and being rebuked. If the older son had focused on himself and his relationship with the father, had enjoyed the joy and benefits that came from living in the house the whole time, then he would not have felt the resentment that he felt.
I once attended a lecture entitled “Why doesn’t God have a sense of humor?” There were many different reasons given as possibilities, one being that by having the power of omniscience God would already know all the punch lines and therefore nothing would be funny. But, rather than saying that God doesn’t have a sense of humor, the person delivering this particular lecture went the opposite way. It is not that God does not have a sense of humor, he said, simply look at the world around us, in particular the platypus, and you’ll see that God must have a sense of humor. Instead it is as Voltaire one remarked “God is comedian who is playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.” I think that hits the nail right on the head. For some reason we have come to believe that in order to be obedient Christians, that in order to inherent eternal life, we need to remove all sense of joy and pleasure from our lives. That we need to be dull, that we need to be worry warts, we need to be a bump on the log that sucks all the excitement out of the air. We have wrongly come to believe that if we express our joy in life, if we express our love of God, in any exciting way that we have gone astray and are no longer doing the right thing.
A man breaks into a house and in the living room he finds a parrot sitting on a perch who keeps saying “Brock, Jesus is watching.” Everywhere he goes, the burglar hears, “Brock, Jesus is watching.” Finally he walks over to the parrot and says “what’s your name?” “Brock, my name is Moses.” “What kind of people would name their parrot Moses?” “Brock, the type of people who would name their rottweiler Jesus.”
The older brother could have been appreciating everything he had in life and giving praise, glory and honor to the father, but instead he was focused on being the good one, the one who didn’t mess up, the one who did all the work, and as a result he turned into the sourpuss, someone without any sense of joy in his life, and therefore he even misses the bounty that surrounds him. He could have had a banquet but he never thought to ask. He could have taken the fatted calf, but he never even considered it. He could have been happy in the father’s house, and he should have been happy, but he pushed all the joy and happiness aside and instead felt like a slave.
God does not want us to view our life or our service to God as drudgery. God wants us to be joyful. God wants us to enjoy our lives, because, in doing so, we follow Calvin’s instruction and glorify God. God is generous in loving, understanding, and compassion. God does not want us to view life as if we were slaves, and one reason we can know this is because we have a sense a humor. We have the ability to laugh, that in and of itself should prove that God wants us to be joyful. Laughing is one the few things that we don’t have to be taught how to do. We have to learn how to walk, or to talk or how to tie our shoes, but everyone knows how to laugh by nature, we don’t have to be taught, and laughing is good for us.
Among other things laughing lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. There is a very simple reason why we say laughter is the best medicine, because it is. Of course, having had a kidney stone last spring, I can also say that dilaudid is pretty good medicine too. But that’s the point, the simple act of laughing releases endorphins into our brains, the same response which comes through the use of narcotics, and this is true even if the laugh is faked. Laughing is also contagious, which is why we have laugh tracks on television shows that aren’t even funny. Children seem to understand this better than adults and they have a joy and zest about life that most adults simply do not have. Children laugh, on average, between 300-400 times a day. Adults laugh, on average, 16 times a day. As we grow and “mature” we inadvertently leave our humor behind.
One day, the Pope dies and he is greated at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter, and is told that he has complete access to heaven and can go anywhere anytime that he likes. “Is there anything you would like to do first?” St. Peter asks. “Well, the Pope says, there is something that I have been puzzling over for a long time and could never find a satisfactory answer in the Vatican’s archives, and so I wonder, is there a library in heaven?” “Of course there is,” St. Peter replies, and so they head off to the library. The Pope spends two years in solitary research, never coming out, never interacting with anyone else, and then one day, people hear a cry of anguish coming from one of the study tables. When people rush over they find the Pope there, with a large book in front of him pointing to one line and crying out “there’s an r! There’s an r! Look, there’s an r. The word is celebrate not celibate!”
God wants us to be joyous, because all that God has is ours already. The fatted calf is ours for the taking. We do not give glory and honor to God by frowning and acting as if we are slaves. We spread the gospel, the good news, by being joyful about our lives, by being joyful about our relationship with God, and by being joyful with each other. We should not be like the older brother who has become so wrapped up in being right, in being the good son, that he has missed the simple pleasures in life. He has rejected the joy not only of his father and brother but also for himself. Instead we must recognize the bounty that is in our lives, take the fatted calf and celebrate, for God is good and generous. Live well, love much and laugh often, and as the psalmist says, make a joyous noise unto the Lord! Thanks be to -size:12.0pt">God sisters and brothers. Amen
Monday, October 17, 2011
Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 20:1-16:
That’s not fair! That’s probably a phrase you’ve heard before, especially if you have kids. Although I’m sure we all said it as kids as well. But that complaint usually led to the very familiar response “who ever said life was fair?” To tell you how unfair life is, the first time I was preaching on this passage I was leading a class on the parables and intentionally set the class up so that we would discuss this the week before I was to preach on it. It was my expectation that we would have quite a bit of conversation and discussion about how unfair this parable was, that those who came first were cheated and that those who were hired last should not have received what they did. In fact I was counting on lots of conversation in order to help me write that sermon. Instead, what I got were 9 people who all thought that while this story may seem unfair on its surface, it is really fair and also reassuring. Leaving me to actually have to work with this passage myself and come up with my own ideas, talk about being unfair!
Today is the seventh part of our 8-part series on the challenges of being a disciple. In the past weeks we have covered the challenge of answering Christ’s call, forgiveness, servant leadership, dealing with money and possessions, loving our neighbor as ourself and inviting others to know Christ. This week’s sermon is a little different than what we have already encountered because in the past the issues that we have talked about as being challenges have really had to do with how we respond to God and what we are called to do as disciples. But this week we will look at the nature of God and how this can pose problems for us as disciples. Next week we will conclude by looking at the issue of joy, which in many ways builds off of what we will cover today.
The owner of a vineyard goes out and meets some workers first thing in the morning. He tells them that he has work for them to do and in return for their day’s labor he will pay them one what is fair for one days labor. These are not skilled workers. In a modern context, these would be the people standing outside Home Depot early in the morning hoping to find someone who needs some work done, and will basically take on anything offered. They are day-laborers who are dependent upon finding work every day in order to barely maintain a subsistence existence, and because of that they would have a sense of joy and elation of having a job for the day. This was a big deal. Maybe they sent someone home to tell their family, or maybe their family would wait for them and when they didn’t show up later in the morning, they would know that work had been found, and there was joy and relief. If you’ve ever been out of work or looking for a new job, you can probably place yourself in their position and feel the elation in having found a job, about not having to worry about how you were going to put food on your families table for at least one more day.
This set up would have been familiar to Jesus’ original listeners as the vast majority of them were probably involved in agricultural pursuits in some way, and the vast majority were also the day laborers and not the landowner. So they would have understood the owner going out to look for help, although it’s possible that this might have been the first thing to mark this story as unusual as it’s more likely that the owner’s manager would have been the one to seek help. The original hearers of this parable would have also known understood what it meant to agree upon the normal day’s wage in return for their labor. But that is where the usual ends.
Normally all the labor that was needed would be hired at the beginning of the day, so for the owner to keep going back to the market would have been strange. And there is no indication that the owner needs more workers. Instead he seems to send them off to the vineyard simply because they are there. One of the interpretations that people will often come up with in trying to show what they think is the unfairness of this parable is to say that the people who get hired late were not there first thing in the morning, because these were the lazy ones who wanted work but didn’t want to work a full day, or who were too busy sleeping to have made it down in time to be hired. But there is no basis for this interpretation, in fact, the workers who are hired at five say that the reason they are being “idle,” which is the owner’s word applied to them, is because no one has hired them. In other words, it appears they have been there all day long looking for work, but as of yet had not received it.
The longer the day goes on the more joyful each group of workers must be to have attained at least some work. Most probably assumed they would never get any work, but yet here is the offer and they go willingly and joyfully. But, they have no idea what they will be paid. The only group who agrees to a wage is those who are hired first, who agree to the standard wage. The next three groups only agree to take on the work for fair payment, and the group hired at five doesn’t agree to any payment they simply go as ordered.
At the end of the day, there are people who have worked 12 hours, 9 hours, 6, 3 and finally 1 hour, and then the owner has them all line up to receive their payment and starts with those who started at the last, and yet they all receive the same amount of pay. The joy of those who have been hired late in the day is only increased when they realize that not only did the find employment, but they have even received a full-days pay. How could they not be excited, but I think we can also sympathize with those who have been working all day.
Here they are having toiled in the fields for 12 hours, and as they see those who have only been there for a short period of time receive a full-days pay, they have to think that they will be receiving more than those who came later, after all they worked more. But then they end up receiving the same amount as those who worked for only one hour. I’m sure we were have all been in a situation where we feel that our compensation has not been equal to the amount of work we have put in, especially in comparison to what others have received. And we are indignant that we have not been properly appreciated and maybe even feel that we have been cheated out of what we consider rightfully ours.
Now one member of this congregation, who shall remain anonymous to protect both the innocent and the guilty, said that one year when one of her children was 5 or 6 she was asked by that child how her Christmas shopping was going. She said it was going fine, to which the child responded, “That’s good because I feel like I was cheated last year”, and they wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. Clearly there were expectations that were not being met, and the child wanted to make sure that they were treated with more respect in regards to the amount of gifts they received. And so it is with those who worked the entire day. They feel they have been slighted, their work and dedication have not been appreciated, and they feel they are owed more than what they receive. But, as the owner reminds them, he is paying them what they had agreed to. He is not cheating them out of anything. They agreed to take the job for a day’s pay, and at the time were glad to take it and glad to have it.
Now the final line of today’s passage, which says “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” would seem to make this the emphasis of this story, but most scholars agree, as do I, that this line is probably not original to the story because this story has little to do with the first being last and the last being first. In fact, all receive exactly the same payment. The people who were there all day are not punished for being there all day, there is in fact no judgment being made about any of them. Instead all made equal in the eyes of the owner. It appears this line was added because the story immediately preceding today’s passage is Matthew’s version of the rich young ruler, which we covered last week in Mark’s gospel, ends with this quote, and then this passage is followed by Jesus telling the disciples that they must be servants. So that line makes sense within the context of what Matthew has going on, but does not make sense with the story. This is a story about “grace and justice” not about rank or sequence.
Johnny Lee Clary is the former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which was one of the largest Klan groups in the country. He was raised in a household in which racism was deep and prevalent, and he continued to spread that hate throughout his adult life, rising through the ranks of the KKK. In 1990, having some doubts about what he was saying, he began returning to church and found that he could not reconcile his beliefs with those of the scripture and so began separating himself from his former organization. In 2009 he was ordained as a minister by the Church of God in Christ. Rev. Johnny Lee Clarry, former imperial wizard of the KKK, is now an ordained minister in the largest African-American denomination in the United States.
But, if you were to do an internet search on Johnny Lee Clarry you will find people on both sides of the debate who don’t like him. You will find white supremacist groups who view him as a traitor to his race who is not to be trusted, and you will also find anti-racism groups and church groups who don’t feel that he can be trusted, that he could never have made the change that he did, that he is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Others would give the sort of answer that those who had been there the whole day, “how dare he receive the same thing we get with everything he’s done? Here he has been making a mess for people for all these years, and now he expects to receive the same thing we get? Who does he think he is?” His recantation is too little too late. He is the man who has wasted the entire day doing other things only to come at the last hour. But God’s response is, “he is my child.”
God never stops seeking out anyone who is willing to answer his call and go to the vineyard. He goes out of his way to keep going, seeking and inviting everyone he can. Now we as the workers expect things to be based on our sense of justice, which views justice as the woman, blindfolded holding the scales which weigh things out, that is our perfect view of justice but that is not God’s view. That is not God’s justice. God’s sense of justice is not blind or dispassionate. God wants to have as many people receiving payment at the end of the day as possible, even those who have come at the last hour. Because for God, justice is always and constantly tempered by grace and justice. Coming to terms with this is one of the challenges of being a disciple of Christ.
The owner is giving the workers exactly what he agreed to pay them, and beyond that they have no right to complain. It is in looking at the others and trying to compare themselves to others that they trouble begins. They forgot the original deal, which the owner upheld. But they want to complain about the owner’s generosity, which they have no grounds to complain about. Clearly the owner is concerned with getting as many people into his vineyard as he possibly can. He doesn’t stop with the first he hires, or even the second group, but instead he keeps making trips into the town up until just an hour before quitting time to hire as many people as he possibly can. That is truly where the owner’s generosity lies, not with the amount of pay he gives to each person.
The problem for the workers who have worked all day is how they respond to those who receive the same amount as they do. That appears to be the unfairness that they see, but in fact they don’t object to the fact that they make the same amount, but instead what they object to is the fact that by receiving the same amount of pay, that they are made “equal.” And that is where the problem is. The owner says that they have no reason to object, that they were paid exactly what they had promised. They had been treated according to what they had agreed to, and the owner could treat the others however he chooses. But it is in looking and comparing themselves to others that they began to feel that they were treated unfairly.
Had they not known what the others were paid they would never had worried about it; had they been paid first and gone on their way before those who came late were paid, then they would have been filled with joy that they had work and had been paid. But it was when they began focusing on others rather than themselves that they run into trouble. In taking the blinders off of their own eyes, in trying to compare themselves to others, they begin complaining about something which they have no right to complain about. As soon as we begin looking around at others and trying to compare ourselves to them, we will inevitably begin to see people either as superior of inferior, and rarely as equals. That is the complaint after all, that the owner had made them equal.
In a passage in Luke, Jesus tells of a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the Temple to pray. The tax collector cannot even raise his eyes to God in prayer, but instead looks down, which is where we get the idea to bow our heads in prayer, and asks for God’s forgiveness for what he has done. But the Pharisee begins looking around at those who are also there praying, and begins focusing on them and says as his prayer, “Thank you Lord for not making me like the tax collector”, and of course we are told by Jesus that it is in fact the tax collector whose prayer is listened to because he is praying correctly. Why? Because the tax collector focuses on himself and his relationship with God, and the Pharisee begins looking around and comparing himself to others and thinks himself better and more righteous, and as a result, he is therefore not. This is the challenge of being a disciple.
William Sloan Coffin, best known as the chaplain of Yale University and then pastor at Riverside Church in New York, said, “Of God's love we can say two things: it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God's love doesn't seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement.
The laborers who came last were just as valued as those who started first. The owner wants to bring as many people into the vineyard as possible and to reward them with grace, and we can’t have more or less grace, grace is given freely and abundantly by God. It is an amazing Grace. It cannot be earned by us, instead it is freely given and we are saved by faith alone. It is not the work that the laborers do in the vineyards which gives them their grace but instead it is in answering the call to go to the vineyard in the first place. Once they have accepted the call, the grace is given to them in equal measure.
Our sense of fairness is also only violated because we are looking around and comparing ourselves to others. If we don’t pay attention to the others coming into the vineyard later and worrying about their reward then we will also not be led to believe that we have created the work and therefore deserve the pay. We are invited to the vineyard the same as everyone else, and it is a gift to us the same as it is to everyone else. It is only by focusing our attention on others, by judging them and claiming that they are unworthy, that they are not our equal, that we have any way to claim unfairness. It is also in losing our focus that leads us to lose the sense of joy that we had when we were first invited, which is what we will focus on next week.
When we compare ourselves to others then envy and jealousy become our operating motives rather than joy and from there we begin to feel a sense of entitlement which we do not have to claim that God is unfair. The nature of God is to invite everyone, and we should be joyful for that because we too have been invited and will be rewarded whether we have answered the call early or late, it matters not. All we need to do is to keep our focus on our invitation from God and let God worry about the rest, for God is gracious, good and all loving, and all are invited to the vineyard. I would like to close with this video, called God and Dog which was written and composed by Wend Francisco and I think it speaks for itself.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 10:17-31:
We are now in week six of our eight-part series on the challenges of being a disciple. We have looked at answering the call to discipleship, forgiveness, loving our neighbor, fulfilling the great commission, and servant leadership. Next week we will cover the nature of God and conclude with what often is seen as something that Christian can’t have, which is joy. But today we look at the issue of money and our possessions.
Now I know that all of you just look forward to the time in which the minister talks about money. I know as you were on vacation this summer you turned to someone you loved and said, “You know what, this fall I really hope we get to hear a lot of sermons about stewardship.” Now obviously I am being facetious and the reason we don’t say that is several fold. The first is that we don’t want to hear about some of the strict teachings the bible has about money, because we don’t know what to do with those teachings, today’s passage included.
The second reason we don’t want to hear about money is because the church has mistakenly reduced financial stewardship down to just being about giving to the church, and that is what most people ever hear from church about their finances, that they should be giving more, which we don’t really always want to hear. But, in reality, giving to the church is only a small portion of what stewardship is about. In three weeks we will begin a sermon series on how we as Christians should be thinking about our money in order to be good stewards, and as I just said, giving is only a small portion of that overall picture. The scriptures have a lot to say about how we relate to our money and our possessions, as well as what we should be doing with them and we ignore them at our own peril.
Today’s passage is most commonly referred to as the story of the rich young ruler, but that title is actually incorrect. It is incorrect because that is a combination of this story from all the synoptic gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is from Matthew that we are told he is young, and Luke tells us that he is a ruler, but Mark only says that he is a man with many possessions. But that is really the key characteristic of what this story is about. As the story begins it is not clear what is going to happen because of how Mark sets it up. The man rushes up to Jesus and kneels before him. There is a sense of urgency and pleading in his approach.
Based upon what has come before in Mark, this has all the makings of a healing story, and in some sense that is what this story is about. This man is looking for healing. He wants to know what it will take to gain eternal life. He says he has been doing what is proscribed in the law, but as it turns out he is unwilling to take the next step. He considers his possessions to be too important to give up and because of that they come between he and God. His relationship with God is impacted because it appears that he is unwilling to put God first. That is really what Jesus is talking about when he says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Certainly not the statement that most people want to hear, and if we do hear it we want it cushioned for us at least a little bit so that it doesn’t seem so harsh, so that we might still have a shot at eternity. I have some good news and some bad news to help us through this. First I’ll start with the bad news.
Over the years, there have been two different rationales that have arisen to help soften this statement about the rich. The first is that it has been said that in ancient cities beside the large gate where people would normally enter and exit the city that there was also a small gate which was just big enough for a person to walk through and this gate was called the “needle’s eye.” If a camel was able to get on its knees and crawl, it might also be able to make it through, and therefore getting a camel through the needle’s eye might not be as impossible as it sounds. This is a view that I’m sure that many of us have heard or read. The problem is that this interpretation does not develop until at least the 9th century and more than likely not until the 15th century, and there is no archeological evidence to support it, regardless of what tour guides will tell you. And I will caution you that if you do go to the Holy Land do not to listen to most things that the tour guides will tell you. I had a professor who worked on the archeological digs in Corinth, and one day he and the head of the excavation decided to take one of the archeological tours and little that they and the other tourists were told were actually true.
The second interpretation often used involves the similarity of the Greek words for camel and rope, and since all of the New Testament was written in Greek this could be possible. Camel in Greek is camelos and rope is camilos. So, the thinking goes, somewhere down the line as the gospel was being copied and recopied someone inadvertently switched the vowels and changed the overall meaning of the story. This certainly seems plausible, but unfortunately, like the first interpretation, I would say that this has come about only as a way to soften the harshness of Jesus’ statement. Jesus often used large juxtapositions of ideas in order to make his statements powerful, as we saw with the parable of the Good Samaritan. He painted word pictures, and which has more impact, seeing a rope going through the eye of a needle or camel? The Talmud, which is a collection of Jewish teachings, uses the analogy of an elephant getting through the eye of a needle. Ultimately any softening we try to do about Jesus, or the Bible’s, view of wealth is self-deceiving.
Another portion of our self-deception on these biblical passages comes from the fact that being rich is sort of subjective. Very few people view themselves as being rich; it’s always someone else who is wealthy. The rich are the people down the street or in the next town over or in the next church over. It is this thinking that causes Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana to claim that it’s hard to feed his family on the 200,000 dollar profit he makes from his business. I know your heart goes out to him and his hardship. Stacey Simpson, a Baptist minister from Georgia, recalls encountering this scripture for the first time while reading in bed when she was seven years old. She says that she became so alarmed that she slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to her parents’ room, where she awakened her mother out of a sound sleep. “Mom,” she whispered urgently, “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!” Her mother’s response was brief and to the point: “We are not rich. Go back to bed.”
But, the simple fact is most of us are far wealthier than this man who approached Jesus. By any standard the people of this country, even most of the poorest ones, are far better off than the majority of the world. Did you know that 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 per day, and an additional 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day? These 4 billion people represent more than half of the world’s population. Last month Forbes released their newest list of the 400 richest Americans. In order to make the list, you had to be worth at least 1 billion, and the cumulative total of those 400 was 1.37 trillion. To give some perspective on this amount of money, the 582 million people who live in the 48 poorest countries have a cumulative net worth of 147 billion. The top five people on Forbes list are worth more 181 billion. Five people have more money that 582 million.
It would take an estimated 6 billion to provide the entire world’s population with basic education, 13 billion to provide basic health care and nutrition, and 30 billion to build the infrastructure necessary to provide everyone in the world with clean water. Yet we as a world community cannot seem to come up with the money. In comparison, in the
Now many of us will probably say that these numbers are comparing apples and oranges, that we have a different standard of living here and we have to spend more just to get by in this society. To a limited degree that is true, but we still look very much like the rich man to the majority of the world. The Bible has something to say about this.
Now for some good news. First, is that while having money and possessions pose a problem they are not necessarily a sin. A lesser known song by Huey Lewis and the News begins “if money is the root of all evil I’d like to be a bad bad man.” Of course, the actual scripture from 1 Timothy says “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” For you see, it is not the money in and of itself that is the problem but how we relate to money, how we relate to possessions, or anything else which can become a god for us, and that is truly the problem. Money is a morally neutral object. It is neither good nor bad in and of itself. The problem becomes in where we place our allegiance and where we give our loyalty. By having things that we are unwilling to give up we invariably replace God as the most important thing in our life and instead they become another god, and that is where the problem lies
The second bit of good news is Jesus’ reaction to the man. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him, and loved him. He loved him! There is not a look of derision or a tone of condemnation coming from Jesus toward this man; instead Jesus’ statement is made from a position of love. Neither Matthew nor Luke contain this little aside, and I think it is significant for Mark’s story and for the concluding statements about eternal life. Jesus does not look down on this man, for he can see that he is really struggling. The man's question about eternal life is not posed as a way to trap Jesus, as many of them are, but instead as a true entreaty into what is needed. He is sincere in his request because again as Mark sets up the passage, this is a story about healing. The man’s soul is hurting and he is looking for the cure.
Unfortunately he is unwilling to take the steps necessary. We are told that upon hearing the solution he was shocked and went away sad for he had many possessions. He was unwilling to separate himself from the things of this world in order to gain eternal life. His identity had become tied up with what he owned and how much he made, and he could not imagine any sense of security without the things in his life. That should be a familiar affirmation of faith because it is also our society’s dominant creed. The accumulation of things, keeping up with the Joneses is the dominant motivating factor in our culture. But that misplaces the focus, it takes our eye off the ball, it takes our attention away from God. And anything which takes our focus away from God is troublesome.
Within Western Protestantism, there has been a strong push that wealth, instead of being a problem, is an indication of God’s blessing. This strain of thought comes out of Calvinism, a 16th century development, which saw, according to Peter Gomes, each person’s “earthly calling as a divine enterprise in which personal industry would be visibly rewarded with material success by God. The harder one worked, the more one achieved; and the more one achieved, the more were the revealed blessings from God.” This belief still has strong emphases today. Joel Osteen, who some of you may know from his books and televised church services, preaches a particular theology known as the gospel of wealth. He believes that there is no need to apologize for or to be ashamed of being wealthy, that wealth indicates that God likes you better than other people. God has specifically chosen you to receive this bounty. In the mid-evil world this idea came to us through the divine right of kings, that is the reason why the king was king and we were not was because God wanted them to be king. So we just need to deal with it, if God wanted us to be rich we would be rich just like rich people so anything they have is because of God. Of course these rules are sort of self-fulfilling and also happen to be written by those who have power and money to start with. Osteen also does not believe that there are any special responsibilities that come with having this wealth. Instead, God has given wealth to us to enjoy and do with as we please. The root problem is that this is just not scriptural.
As those who will be attending my class on the history of Methodism will soon find out, Wesley firmly rejected Calvinism. Instead, Wesley, who always had concern about wealth and the problems that can arise from having wealth, believed that with greater wealth came greater responsibilities, and led to his famous statement “make all you can, save all you can and give all you can.” For those of you who may still think that the gospel of wealth is a good belief, that God clearly rewards those who are in favor, let me make a different analogy on this that might help you change your mind. If God does really reward those who are preferred, then God must really dislike the Cowboys and the Broncos right now, and for those who root for the Chicago Cubs, their 103 years without a World Series title is clearly some sort of judgment. This theology doesn’t seem to look so good from this angle now does it?
Money has the ability to dominate our lives and to change our perspectives and our relationships. It has the ability to make everything a commodity to be bought or sold, and it has the ability to make us believe that we are completely self-sufficient, this may be the biggest issue. When God provides manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, they are commanded not to accumulate anything more than what they need for today, why? Because if they gather more than one days worth than they begin to believe that God is no longer necessary, that they can do it all themselves. The problem in having riches is that our priorities change because our options are increased.
If you ask me why Christianity is on the decline in the Western world, I think that one of the reasons that must be given is that as our standard of living has increased our belief that we need God in our life has simultaneously decreased. The two are connected. Why do we need God when we can have a large screen TV with surround sound and 500 channels to keep us occupied? We are routinely informed that all of our problems will be taken care of; all of our prayers will be answered simply by making the right credit card decision. By answering the simply question “What’s in your wallet?”, and of course answering it the right way, we will be able to achieve the life we’ve always wanted and also be able to avoid the dangers and troubles of life, such as pillaging barbarian hordes. Not feeling good about yourself? Feeling as if there is a void in your life? Simply go out and spend some money, especially money you don’t have, accumulate more things, and that will make you happy. These are the things considered most important by our culture. But, unless you have something about your faith in God in your wallet or in your possessions then there is nothing in there of any absolute importance. These things will never fill the void that can only be filled by God.
What people like Joel Osteen and others are really preaching, in the words of Bishop Will Willimon, is God as cosmic butler, that all we need to do is ring a bell and ask and it will be delivered to us: poof. We might also see this as God as our magic genie. But in this scenario God serves us rather than the other way around. In looking at our own possessions or riches first, or in viewing God simply as a way of getting those things, we often fail to recognize life as a gift and a blessing and instead of loving and sharing with one another we begin to compete, to use and abuse each other. Rather than being children of God, we instead become what we own, know or produce. Those things become where we attain our very sense of being and assurance, and because of this they take our attention and adoration away from God. St. Paul called this “will worship.” The moment we begin to think that we can overcome our sin by the strength of our own will and that we are no longer dependent upon God for anything is the moment when we stop worshipping God and begin worshipping ourselves.
In the scripture reading from Hebrews today we are told that Jesus understands what our life is like. He knows our weaknesses, he knows what it’s like to be tempted, he knows what we face in our life. He knew the situation of the rich young ruler the same as he knows the situation of each and every one of us, and he looks at us with love. But Jesus has also issued his warning that we must be willing to put God first and to put our reliance on God instead of ourselves, to do anything else leads to difficulties. This is the challenge of being a disciple.
Which leads us back to the man’s question, what chance do we have of gaining eternal life? Our chance if we rely on ourselves is non-existent, for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible. It doesn’t matter what’s in our wallet or what’s in our bank account, or what car we drive, or what TV we watch, all of that is absolutely meaningless to God. What is important is our relationship with God and where God sits on our list of priorities, and as the author of Hebrews says, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” for with God all things are possible. Amen.
Monday, October 3, 2011
There is something in our culture about having to deal with feet. In the hierarchy of the medical community, podiatrists, foot doctors, are seen as being at or at least near the bottom. In the clothing industry, those who sell shoes have also been traditionally looked down on as being at the bottom of the selling hierarchy as well. In the ancient world, this wasn’t much different. It was a servant’s responsibility, which can also be read as a slave’s responsibility, to wash people’s feet. This task was seen as being so demeaning, that under Jewish law it was impermissible for a Jewish slave holder to have his slaves, if they were also Jewish, to wash his feet. Moreover, foot washing was simply not something done by anyone with power, money or authority.
While there were such things as paved streets in the Roman Empire, they were rare and would be found only in the bigger more affluent centers. In addition, foot wear consisted primarily of sandals, so between the dirt and waste from homes and from animals, people’s feet would become quite dirty. Imagine walking around in flip flops in your pasture or corral and you’ll begin to get an idea, only there would probably be more waste on the streets then you have in your yards. Understandably dealing with people’s feet and cleaning them would be relegated to those who are low on the social scale, and yet here is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
The foot washing in the gospel of John takes place, as we are told in the first line of today’s passage, when Jesus’ hour had come and as John prepares us for his passion story. In the synoptic gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, as Jesus prepares for his arrest, he and the disciples gather in the upper room for the last supper, where Jesus institutes what we celebrate as Holy Communion. In the synoptic gospels, this happens on the day of Passover. In John’s gospel, however, not only does the meal not take place on the day of Passover, but instead the day before, but Jesus also does not institute the practice that we celebrate as communion. While they are gathered together for a meal, Jesus does not say anything about the bread or the cup, but it is during the course of this meal that Jesus stops and washes the disciples’ feet.
There is no indication given as to why it is done during the meal, as foot washing would normally be done before the meal began, as guests entered the house as a sign of hospitality and welcome. Perhaps, as takes place in the synoptic gospels, James and John, and maybe other disciples, had been arguing about who is the greatest disciple, because they still don’t get it, and so Jesus wants to give them a visible demonstration of how much they don’t get it. But that is merely speculation because John does not tell us that or anything like that, and we can run into significant problems when we try and combine the gospel stories into one as if they all tell exactly the same thing, because they don’t.
Peter of course initially rejects Jesus’ attempt to wash his feet but then relents after Jesus replies that in order to have his share with Jesus he must allow Jesus to wash his feet, but Peter doesn’t truly understand what Jesus is doing. Peter wants the reward that he is promised for going along with the foot washing, and thinks that the cleansing that comes is related to the water. But Jesus message is much greater than that. To be unclean in this relationship is not to be unwashed. Peter does not need to be ritually cleaned, that is to have his entire body washed, instead he needs to be in relationship with Christ to accept what Christ has to offer him and to us. The water of the foot washing is not cleansing the way baptism is cleansing, which is what we are told because presumably Judas also has his feet washed.
But that is what the disciples don’t understand. Here is their leader, their teacher, their rabbi and someone that they understand to be the messiah putting himself on the ground and doing the work relegated to slaves. The garb and the position is that of a servant, so through this act Jesus is demeaning himself, lowering himself below his position, but, and this is one of the cruxes of this passage, the act of hospitality of cleansing their feet is granted only to the prerogative of the host. It is the host who makes the water for washing available and it is the host who makes the servant available for washing, but here Jesus is both host and slave, servant and master, first and last. The teacher or leader could and would expect this type of service from his followers towards him, which is why Peter is so taken aback, because here is Jesus flipping this on its head
It is Christ giving of himself. It is in fact a modeling of what will come on the cross. The verb that John uses when Jesus removes his clothes, is the same verb that is used when Jesus says he is going to lay down his life. The removal of clothing to be the servant, and the laying down of his life for our salvation are the same acts, they are linked. Jesus does not simple say, go out and serve, instead he says go out and give as I have given. We are told to pick up our cross and follow, and that comes with meaning and consequences.
One of my mentors was in a jewelry store one day looking at some crosses, and the sales clerk told her that crosses make great fashion statements, and some days that’s what it feels like. We have forgotten the power of the cross, as Paul says the cross is foolishness to those who don’t believe. There are even churches that have removed the cross from their sanctuaries to attract the unchurched in order to remove what they see as an obstacle for people becoming Christian. But to be a Christian is to claim the cross and to cling to it, we cannot be ashamed of it or to try and wish it away, it is at the heart of our faith. To proclaim Christ as our lord and savior, to pick up our cross means to be prepared to give ourselves sacrificially to the world, sometimes even to the point of death. To wear a cross is not a fashion statement, it is a proclamation to the world that we are in service to God and to the world, that we are picking up our cross daily and carrying it forward.
In the 1980s, Dale Parent was the head of the prison system for the state of Minnesota. As the state was facing severe budget shortfalls, it’s cyclical after all, he was told by the governor that he needed to cut a certain amount of money out of his personnel budget, but he would be the one to decide where the cuts would be made. As Dale agonized over this, and thought of all of the various ways it might be done, he finally came the conclusion that he was the one who should be let go. If his position was eliminated, along with all of the things that went with his position, and the work spread to the three highest people below him, then he wouldn’t have to lay anyone else off. The loss of his job would save everyone else their job, and so he sent his new budget to the governor and fired himself. Don’t we wish more executives might think that way? Dale sacrificed his own position for the sake of others, that is an example of servant leadership.
Being a disciple of Christ is not about being greater than or holier than thou, but instead about humbling ourselves, not only before God, but also before others. To be a disciple of Christ means being a servant to others while also being a leader for them. That is where the true difficulty lies in trying to be both servant and leader. How do we humble ourselves in order to serve others?
Sandra Schneiders has said in reflecting on this passage, that the problem lies in our relationship to the other and how we view them. “As long as we keep others in a relationship of neediness to us,” she says, “our self-esteem is validated, while they long for escape or rebellion.” As long as our relationships are based on power, authority and high and lower positions then we can never properly be servant leaders. Instead she says, it is when we see all those we help as a friend that we “subvert the obligation and the privilege of meeting the needs of others less privileged,” for she says “friendship is the one human relationship based on equality.” In many ways this returns us to the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In order to be in service to the world, just as Christ was and because of what Christ has done, then we need to view those we help, not as people who are below or subordinate to us, but instead as equals. We are not in service to the others, but instead we are in service with them. As Paul also tells us in his letter to the Philippians, Christ “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross,” and that is our example, and it is one of the great challenges of following Christ. Believing the right things is not enough. You must also act on those beliefs. That of course has been a common theme of this series. Being a disciple of Christ means not just accepting Christ’s salvific actions, but in return acting on those beliefs in the world. Jesus does not merely tell the disciples that they need to wash each other’s feet, he demonstrates the practice, and if Jesus can do it then there is no way they can claim that they are too good to return the favor for others, nor can we. This is where we must walk the walk as they say, for we must also follow the practice by humbly.
What we should also see in today’s passage is that not only are we told that we need to be out in the world as servant leaders, that is a response of accepting a relationship with Christ, but that we also need to take time to be taken care of ourselves. So let me illustrate this for you. Now the way we typically have viewed being in service to the world is that we get filled with the Holy Spirit and then we go out someplace and give everything out. And then we have to come back to church and be filled again, and then go dump ourselves again. But that’s not what we are being asked to do. Instead, we should be viewing God’s blessings and grace as always being with us so that they flow out of us into the world. We don’t need to be refilled because when we are accepting Christ’s actions for us, then we should always be overflowing with God’s grace and mercy and love so that it flows out from us to everyone with whom we come into contact.
It is not about having to dump ourselves onto others, or about having to be refilled, but instead about putting ourselves into positions in which God’s grace flows out of us onto others. I have said it before, and I will say it much more, John Wesley said that we are saved by grace, but the only appropriate response to accepting God’s saving actions on our behalf is to act on that in the world. That is what Jesus is telling peter and the other disciples and us. As one commentator said, “the foot washing reveals Jesus’ unfettered love for the disciples, and it is this love that holds the promise of new life for the disciples. The call for the disciples is to allow themselves to be ministered to in this way, to accept Jesus gesture of love fully” and I would add to act on that love, to model Christ for others.
We cannot separate the foot washing from the cross. It is the ultimate claim of servant leadership, it is the lens through which it must be viewed, a lens highlighted for us today through the receiving of communion a reminder of Christ’s offering for us. The cross is directly connected to the table and to the foot washing. The table is full of people in need of Jesus’ love and of God’s forgiveness. There is Peter, who doesn’t get it and will soon deny Jesus, there is Judas, the one who will soon betray him, there is James and John arguing over who will be the greatest and who say that they can drink of the same cup as Jesus, but then are unable to stay awake in the garden and keep watch, and all of the others who will all abandon Jesus in the dark of the night. And yet, there is Jesus, going around one by one and washing their feet. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale said, “We will watch in wonder as Jesus’ response to his inner circle that has disappointed him over and over and over again is not to chastise or scold or punish, but to take a towel and a basin of water and kneel to wash… each one in turn. We will remember that the Communion table is a place where we can come – time and time again – to have our own ugliness lovingly touched and washed clean by Jesus.”
By being washed clean, by accepting Jesus call and responding to the invitation, by breaking bread and sharing the cup together, we open ourselves up to respond in turn to a broken and hurting world, to pick up our crosses and to carry them forward to be both leaders and servants, to be open to the beloved community. In love for us, Christ laid down his life and we are called to be ready to do the same, to love one another as he has loved us. Foot washing is the act of humbling ourselves for others, of being in service to others who are in need, of being willing to do the little things that others don’t want to do, and these are the things which reveal us as being disciples of Christ. These are the challenges of being a disciple. Amen.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Now I applaud them wanting to do something right, but is this really it? I strongly suspect that they are spending more than 4 million dollars on this ad campaign, which really means this is more about them looking like good corporate citizens then actually helping people. (According to Advertising Age, they are #93 in leading national advertisers, spending $343 million in the US))
Here's the other part, by using your credit card (with an average interest rate of 14.88%), you are getting them a tax write off rather than getting a tax write off yourself by making your own donation, while at the same time making them a lot of money that's not doing anything for you.
Now I did some digging to try and find what MasterCard profit was last year, and the best I could come up with was from Wikipedia which has them at a net income of 1.846 billion, on revenues of 5.539 billion (and operating income of 2.757 billion).
If those numbers are correct, that means that MasterCard is donating .002% of net income, or .000072% of revenue, to cancer research. Wow, that's mighty generous of them. I hope they don't get too carried away.
Don't make a donation to MasterCard, instead make your donation directly to the cancer charity of your choice. They and you will be much better served by this arrangement.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
The day after what may have been the greatest day of regular season baseball ever, they had what was probably going to be one of the best pitching match-ups in postseason play, Sabathia versus Verlander. Arguably two of the best pitchers in baseball matching up in a game one, and in a short series game one is huge.
They know a storm is scheduled to come in that night, but do they move the game earlier to make sure it gets played? No. Do they decide to postpone it to tomorrow once they can see an enormous green blob on the radar coming their way? No. What do they do instead? They begin play only to have to call it an inning and a half later, wasting Sabathia and Verlander for both teams, as well as ratings, and changing the entire complexity of the series for everyone.
Now Torre can say he had no idea the storm was going to be this bad, but Yankee players said that it was "stupid" to begin because they were watching the storm on their Ipads before the game and could read the forecast that there would be heavy rain for at least four hours. Perhaps the leadership of MLB does not understand technology or does not even use it. This would not surprise me.
So MLB has wasted a great opportunity to capitalize on the end of the season by messing up what had the potential to be one of their best games of the postseason on day one. Someone once said, "You know that baseball is the greatest game ever, because the owners haven't killed it yet," and I would add, "although they certainly do everything in their power to try."