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Monday, November 11, 2019

Storms and Stillness

Psalm 46        Reformation 2019

Since the beginning of the history of cinema, film studios around the world have loved to make disaster films. In the last two or three decades with advancements in technology and computer assisted graphics and images, they have become that much more terrifying for all their realism.
On the big screen we have witnessed volcanoes and tornadoes, hurricanes and floods,  tsumamis and earthquakes. There have been deep impact events, meteors and asteroids crashing into the earth. All of these present lots of chaos and fodder for drama and for having your pants scared right off you. That’s the point. Events like these are terrifying, all the more so because there is nothing you can really do to stop it or control it. Here’s what I mean (video, scene from Twister, of twin sister tornados rising out of the water, cows flying past, and truck spun around helplessly - the image of the chaos from which we cannot free ourselves).
Aside from cows flying around, the scene depicts the chaos that exists in the middle of the storm--a particular type of storm to be sure--a tornado. But to me the deafening noise, the menace of the various elements of the twister, and the helplessness of the people in the scene--as well as their awe--are those elements that in real life are the cause of so much grief in life. 
Whether you look upon that scene as illustrative of what the inside of a tornado might be like (spoiler alert: I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't even begin to get it), or whether we view it as metaphor for the non-meteorological storms we witness and endure, I think we can agree that as over-the-top as that scene seemed as a dramatic event, that movie scene in so many ways describes how life in this world can be experienced. There are literal and figurative storms in our lives and in our world. I think about the times in my own life that I felt the absolute fear and fragility of being trapped in a swirling, malevolent storm in which I felt so small and incapable of changing the course of the storm or its destructiveness. 
I often feel like that when I survey the events taking shape in our world today and mourn the lack of humanity in our church family; or weep for the children who are growing up in a world deprived of safety or hope for the inheritance of a stable and healthy planet. 
I feel sorrow for the vast numbers of people suffering in the world today and for the increasing polarization occurring with so many of the world's societies-that distracts us from taking the meaningful steps to alleviate suffering and provide a good life for most of the world's citizens.
The author of Psalm 46 understood and named both the awesome power and creative genius of God, and the destructive elements that create havoc and heartache everyday.
This psalm is a favorite for many people because throughout the psalm, despite the chaos and destruction evident in the vivid details contained within it there is the insistence on the part of the author that no matter what befalls us, God is present, active, a real help, a refuge, our strength. It's a word of gospel we need to hear when we are faced with the reality of deep pain and suffering in and of the world.
This psalm spoke so deeply to Luther of God’s steadfast presence and mercy, God’s never-failing activity even in the midst of the worst troubles of our lives, that he based the hymn we sing this morning – that great Lutheran ballad “A Mighty Fortress” as we do every year on Reformation Sunday.
As we read through the psalm, what we observe in the first section is a movement between the dark forces of the created world resulting in vast brokenness. The brokenness is named and described, with vivid words that place you right there in the midst of the storm just as these disadter movies place the viewer right in the middle of the calamity; but the, God's presence in the midst of the fray is lifted up:
The earth is moved and shaken all the way from the tops of the mountains to the deepest parts of the sea with all the attendant devastation and destruction you can image, yet the psalmist declares that God is in the midst of it, a very present help in trouble.
As the trouble intensifies and affects not only the natural world but relationships between people and nations, still God is there. Despite the raging of nations and shaking of kingdoms, God speaks, and all that melts away.
The psalmist wrote this psalm during a time of the conquest and destruction and exile of Israel, when the entire world as the people of Israel had known it had been turned upside down, when nothing was as it should be. It was a time of great national and religious tragedy and suffering, yet the psalm declares God's faithfulness amid the upheaval. Yet even in the midst of that trouble, God is there. God is working. God is present. God is acting.
Martin Luther wrote the hymn during a time of upheaval in the world that tore all the established structures asunder. The church, especially, the center of Luther’s world, seemed to be under attack from dark forces that were leading it down dark and dangerous roads.
Where the church went, the nations followed. Life was hard. Vast numbers of people were overcome by poverty, disease, and death. Luther himself, who tried so, so hard to do the right thing yet faced deep opposition from inside and outside himself – who even had a price on his head - found in this psalm the confident voice of affirmation in God’s still presence.
Nothing was as it should be in his world and his concern for the church was great. So he wrote, among so many writings, the words of this wonderful hymn, based on the psalm. It is a song not only of praise and worship, but, just as the words of the psalm itself, written 2,000 years before, also a song of defiance; no matter what troubles and forces rise up, God is with us, protecting, rescuing, and preserving God's beloved people.
Our world today is no less broken. We face the devastation of the created world as nature still afflicts us with earthquake, storm and flood. We face the reality that some of those acts of nature are now intensified through our own sinful waste of resources and poisoning of the earth.
Nations continue to rage as wars rage and turn once vibrant cities and towns into graveyards and rubble. Violence transforms streets into rivers of blood and creates human refuse – refugees who turned away again and again with no safe place to rest, as Jesus himself was once turned away.
Our relationship with the creation is broken and our relationship with one another is marked by the sin that has always destroyed the bond between human beings – greed, lust, hunger for power, and disregarding the needs of the vulnerable and poor.
When we look around the world today, with our deep divisions and the horrific ways in which humans treat one another, with wars and threats of wars always on the horizon, with our persistent tendencies toward bigotry and entrenchment in systemic sin, we might be tempted to lose heart and lose faith.
Yet the good news persists. "Be still and know that I am God!" The creator commands. "The Lord of hosts is with us." it is declared. This persistent, present God is still acting. We need not fear even when the world around us is flailing and crumbling.
"Be still and know that I am God!" In the midst of troubling circumstances, some of which are even mentioned in the other lessons this morning, while the psalm points out and acknowledges the reality of our struggles and calamity without glossing over it, still it declares unequivocally that God still lives.
"Be still and know that I am God!" God, who is the source of our strength, God, who is never-failing.
God continues to be the refuge and strength for all the fearsome events, days, and nights of our lives.The Good News comes to us through God's eternal Word, spoken before the birth of Christ. Then proclaiming the Word of God among us - Jesus Christ, who came to free us from the sins we can never deny or break away from on our own: "Be still and know that I Am God!" 
Good news, indeed.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Fool and His Money

Luke 12:13-21
            It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the antics of Scrooge McDuck, the uncle of Huey, Dewey and Lewey, whose antics make us chuckle as he struggles and strives and comes up with ever-more ridiculous schemes in his effort to guard his vast store of gold coin and paper money. Those antics are good for a few laughs, but I wonder how McDuck’s hyperbolic hold on his money parallels our own tight grip of entitlement to the riches we accrue?
            As I stand before you this morning, my friends, I know that there is nothing that we, collectively, like talking about less about than money – at least in church. Truth be told, I, too,  get squirmy when the topic of money comes up in the lectionary, mostly because I know most of you get squirmy when it comes up in the pastor’s sermon.
And yet it is the one thing that Jesus talks about almost more than any other thing in the Gospels. If not always money per se, certainly our relationship with wealth and the impact that relationship has on everything else, especially how we relate to God and our discipleship in Christ Jesus.
            For all kinds of reasons, here in church we would much rather hear and talk about things that are relatively abstract and non-threatening – things like hope, love, peace, and joy. Those are great things to talk about. They are faith-related matters that make us feel good, and, since they are closely aligned with so much our experience with Jesus, we wonder why we need to talk about anything else.
And yet, while there are several ways to approach this text, they all point toward the money. Back when the movie, “All the President’s Men” was released, a line credited to one of the characters was, “Follow the money.” It is a phrase that entered a certain portion of our lexicon; it presumes that if you follow the money, you will find the source of corruption.
As we look at this text today we could say, “follow the money,” too – because the reason that Jesus so often talks about money and possessions is that there is something about material riches that distorts our view and changes us. It makes us defensive, suspicious of others, and self-protective. There is something about material wealth that makes it hard for us to hear the Gospel in all its risky, scandalous, radically reorienting glory, as good news.           
Then, we have passages like this morning’s, that push us to think about how we budget, plan, tithe and spend our money. What is our relationship to money, and how does it line up with our relationship to God? What does it mean to live, as Jesus says, “rich toward God”?
            Jesus continually challenges attitudes and behaviors and daily living and in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable, because they bump up against our modus operandi. Jesus calls his disciples to stretch and grow, when we would rather just be left alone and contented. We want to be comfortable and comforted, not challenged by our faith. Which makes me wonder if that is not part of the problem that Jesus addresses in our texts today.
In the verses from Luke’s gospel that lead up to our story today, Jesus was engaged in sometimes heated exchanges with Pharisees, scribes and lawyers. Jesus points out the inconsistencies between their professed righteousness and the way they actually live.
He shine a light on ways that, while patting themselves on their backs for being such good and holy Jews, they pass by opportunities to live justly, show mercy, and share the love of God that are at the core of the Law. 
Then a man comes to Jesus and asks him to mediate a dispute he is having with his brother over the family inheritance. He wants his fair share. Jesus doesn’t give in to his request but instead, uses this opportunity to address the topic of greed.
To a crowd that has gathered, to the Pharisees, scribes and lawyers challenging him, and to us today, Jesus then tells this parable.   In it, a man seems to be doing nothing more than preparing wisely for retirement, but Jesus uses the illustration to talk about greed, and then issues a warning, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Rich toward God? What exactly does that mean?
Is it an allusion toward tithing? Was the man not taking enough of his riches and giving them to the synagogue for the work of God to be done? Is that the problem? Is it a commentary on the man’s depending on his own ability to care for himself and not trusting enough in God? Or is it a statement by Jesus that those things that get us all tied up in knots are not the things about which Jesus concerns himself?
I mean really, in the big picture of things, many of the problems we concern ourselves with don’t matter. And, when you have all of eternity as your backdrop, it certainly changes your perspective.
The man went to Jesus for arbitration. He just wanted fairness. We, too, are often concerned about fairness in life. We, too, want to know that we receive a fair shake. But fairness of the kind that troubled the man and often troubles us, that of material equanimity, doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ concern. For Jesus knows that he will give us all we really need, through the cross.
Perhaps the man was as worried for his future as we, too, are concerned about our retirement years, or the kids’ college tuitions, or the maintenance of our homes and properties. Again, Jesus sees things differently.
It begins to feel a bit like Jesus just doesn’t get it.
But here’s the thing: while you and I see in part, Jesus sees the whole. While you and I are concerned primarily for our own temporal survival, Jesus sees an eternity stretched out before us. While you and I become mired in details and problems of our lives, the status of which takes center stage and overwhelm us, Jesus sees into the depth of our hearts and is concerned about our spiritual status.
While I am tied to the secular aspects of my life, Jesus is concerned with the sacred. It’s like Jesus is saying, “At the end of all earthly existence, where will these things be? God is waiting for you, why are you not generous with yourself in godly things? Why are you not rich toward God – focused on God – careful in your relationship with God – building up your relationship with God?”
In the original man’s question, is indication that this conflict with his brother is embittering his heart. His brother is only an obstacle between himself and what he truly wants. This tarnishes their relationship. Who do we see as obstacles rather than people in our world, when contemplating the gifts God has given us?
In the parable, the rich man is drowning in his own self-centeredness. What is his inner dialogue like? Everything is focused on “Me, myself, and I”. He neglects his human connection and has no need for God. His relationships are tarnished. They are beside the point.
God has generously provided him the means to amass the resources that now burden him. God has enabled him to accrue the means to care not only for himself but scores of others. Yet, he neither considers that reality nor acknowledges the source of his blessing. Like Scrooge McDuck, he is willfully absorbed in his material wealth and all it can do for him. He has no need for God. But then God comes along, with a view of the long game and says, “You fool. Your game is up. This very night your life is being demanded of you. Now, what?”
When Jesus concludes his lesson here with his allusion of being “rich toward God,” he is inviting us into that radical reorienting of our lives that Jesus is all about – “radical” because it is not minor, it is not unimportant or inconsequential. This radical reorientation is essential to the Christian life.
God has given us more than we could ever ask for or desire. The children who attend VBS this week will hear about that as they are contemplating the galaxies and planets and the infinite creative genius of our God.
So, perhaps being “rich toward God” is truly living with an awareness of God’s wonderful creative work. Maybe it involves being absorbed in living in a way that acknowledges that it is not “about us” at all, and that the goal of life is not the acquisition of material wealth but living every day mindful that in Jesus, God has given us all we will ever truly need.
Perhaps living “rich toward God” means guarding against greed; a willingness to see ourselves as beloved of God and therefore rich in the most important way possible – eternally in relationship with the divine.
In this radically reorienting relationship, perhaps being “rich toward God” means acknowledging that even our hard-earned carefully preserved wealth comes from God and belongs to God.
Living rich toward God could mean deepening our relationships, prioritizing our human interconnectedness over our technological connectedness, and our human bonds over our personal gain or the bonds of asset management.
Living rich toward God could mean spending more time mindfully connecting with the divine and discovering the riches of deep and abiding relationship with Jesus.
What would we do differently if we knew that tonight our very lives would be demanded of us? How and with whom would we desire to spend our final hours?


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Powerless, Distracted and Frenzied Without Jesus

Luke 10:38-42
The year our daughter Victoria made her Confirmation, Hurricane Floyd arrived just ahead of the company we were expecting, three days before the worship service and family celebration to mark this milestone in her faith life.
As with every milestone in the lives of our children, friends and family had been invited to the house the help us celebrate. That meant that I was already in prep mode to offer hospitality not only to those who would join us for dinner on Sunday, but also for those who were traveling from out of state to stay with us for a few days.
The hurricane arrived full-strength on Thursday. Our power went out sometime Wednesday night, and by Saturday morning, it was still out. Those who had traveled to see us were getting to know each other real well, since no power also meant no running water.
Finally, early Saturday afternoon I made the decision that there was no way, even if the power came back on in the next hour or two, that I could be ready to entertain the next day.
It was not possible to have the house cleaned, shopping done (we had lost a lot of our food from refrigerators and freezers which would now need to be cleaned out), food prep completed, etc. – especially since we were expected at the church in a couple of hours for rehearsal and dinner.
Fortunately, a local restaurant was able to accommodate us, and we were just moved our party there for the next day. That allowed me to put off the mad cleaning that would take place once the power came back, on which it finally did that night. It also released me from the burden of  shopping, food prep and serving, and that led to the greatest gift of all: I was able to visit with our guests and enjoy them in a way that I couldn’t have done if I’d been kept busy with all the usual hostessing duties the day of Victoria’s Confirmation. I think some of you can probably understand what a relief that was, and how that new learning has influenced my party prep. I still go a little crazy preparing for entertaining, but I am also determined to be able to it in such a way that I am allowed the ability to spend more time with guest than I have before.
Something like that – the frenzy – happens when Jesus comes to visit in the home of some friends, sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. While Jesus hangs out in the living room discussing the weighty matters of life in the kingdom of God, Martha slaves away – possibly for hours.
Hospitality is a big thing in the region of Palestine Jesus and his friends called home. Martha is worried about getting everything just right, to honor her guests and to bring honor to her home. So, she worries:
·         Will the meat burn if she can’t watch it while at the same time peeling the vegetables and steaming the rice?
·         Has the wine breathed sufficiently?
·         Since extra people tend to follow where Jesus goes and some of those might be tempted to just “drop in” for dinner, is there enough food?
·         Are all the food groups covered?
            Martha’s anxiety over getting every detail right causes her to get a little snappish. After all, she has been left alone to tend to all these things, while there are perfectly good hands attached to that sister of hers who should be helping her with these things. They always prep and serve the food together when there are guests at their dinner table.
            Finally, her patience worn thin, Martha appeals not to her brother, who is “the man of the house”, and not even directly to her sister, who is sitting right there. No. She goes straight to Jesus, who she knows to be compassionate and caring and always watching out for the underdog. And today in her estimation, she is definitely the underdog. So, she complains to him. Since those are his calling cards, she figures he’ll stand up for her, and make her sister help her out.
            Well, Jesus doesn’t follow the expected script (when does Jesus ever)? He doesn’t take the underdog’s side, he doesn’t chastise Mary, nor does he whisper in her ear, “it’s alright, go help your sister now. There will be time to talk later.”
Instead, Jesus seems to ignore the fact that Mary’s ability to sit freely at his feet has disadvantaged her sister.
Instead, he seems to indicate the real problem lies in Martha’s behavior and not Mary’s. While Martha’s burdensome sense of obligation actually had deeply ingrained cultural roots that she did not ask for, Jesus didn’t confront the larger society as part of the problem either.  So, what gives?
            Perhaps it is choice. For, each and ever day, every hour of the day, we all have a million choices to make regarding how we spend our time, what we focus our energies on, and so many other things. Martha allows her sense of obligation and the burdens she has accepted, to control her choice to miss time with Jesus as opposed to focusing on what are daily obligations.  
            Now to be fair, of course, we should acknowledge that the systems and structures of culture and society surely created expectations, thrust on Martha. It is those that cause Martha excessive distraction and worry when truly, the most important thing in that moment  is that Jesus is in her house! Jesus is there with them, and what a gift that is!
Jesus points out that Martha’s bondage to all those expectations has kept her from benefi

ting from the one true thing in the world that is life-giving.
Responding to those demands is a choice, and, Jesus says, Mary has chosen a different and better way.
So, Mary and Martha are sisters, living in community with each other, a system in which cooperation is essential. And Jesus isn’t messing with that. Nor is he taking sides.
He is not favoring word over deed, worship over service or study over hospitality. Because the thing is, life together requires all these things.
But here is the thing that Jesus is pointing out to Martha – and to us – today; there is one thing that is the best thing that amidst all of the other things we are called to or are responsible for, cannot be let go, shoved aside not forgotten. And the story is about choosing that one thing, the best thing, and forsaking everything else for its sake.
The story is an endorsement by Jesus to be single-minded about that one thing; to be passionate and focused on that one thing – focus on Jesus.
Pastor Debie Thomas points out that the best thing is the single, mind-blowing treasure that Jesus offers us. “Jesus’ most evocative parables,” Thomas writes. “…..all point in this same direction. The pearl of great price. The buried treasure in the field. The lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. Christianity is not about balance; it is about extravagance. It’s not about being reasonable; it’s about being wildly, madly, and deeply in love with Jesus.”
I wonder if you’ve ever been in love, totally head-over-heels in love with another person? If so, perhaps you remember the burning desire to spend every moment with that person; to talk to him or her incessantly; to hear that voice that fills your heart with joy.
Perhaps you remember or imagine, that when you were so deeply, passionately in love, nothing else really mattered as much as that person and your relationship with her or him.
If you have never been in that kind of relationship perhaps you have dreamt about it – perhaps you still do. That kind of passion and devotion is a costly thing. It is all-encompassing. It messes with your routines, your assumptions about life, and the priorities that make up your life.
Devotion to Jesus creates the same need for change, and for focus on Jesus.
Like many of us, Martha perhaps assumed she could invite Jesus into her life, but then carry on life as usual. Perhaps she assumed she could maintain control and the status quo over all the other things in her life, compartmentalizing them.
Perhaps she thought she could love Jesus but keep everything else the same, but then Jesus comes along and – snap! All her expectations are turned upside down too, and Jesus teaches her something about the cost of discipleship.
Mary, on the other hand, recognized that Jesus’ presence in her house required a radical shift. A wholehearted surrender was necessary, where every thought, action, decision and priority was rearranged according to this passion, this love, this relationship, because Jesus was no ordinary friend, no ordinary guest.
The work will always be there, but Jesus insists that every good thing must begin with him. It must begin with us at the feet of Jesus eagerly and earnestly seeking his teaching, his wisdom, his strength, and his blessing.
Jesus names Martha’s problem not as her devotion to her chores, but the fact that she was worried and distracted by many things. Those words – worried and distracted – indicate the ways we become fragmented and torn when we focus on things not of Jesus.
In her distraction, Martha couldn’t appreciate Jesus’ presence or learn from him, she couldn’t be fed with his wisdom and love. All she could do was question his compassion and care for her, “Lord, don’t you care?”
When we are unable to focus on Jesus, we become just as fragmented and torn. Other things in our lives take on a magnitude of meaning that is unhealthy, and impossible when we focus on Jesus.
Jesus knows that we, like Martha, like Mary, long to be whole. We long to delight in Jesus words, to sit at his feet and soak him in. We long for the healing and wholeness that comes from him yet all too often, distracted and worried by the other things we have to do and the other things in our live, we fail to truly focus and devote our attention on him. We make the choice to turn away; we choose the distractions.
Jesus invites us to sit at his feet, to seek passionate embrace with him - the “better thing” that he offers us – himself. Jesus invites us and he invited Martha to accept him as soothing balm, as the source of transforming peace, mercy, and love.
Jesus offers us so much and we need to passionately connect with Jesus; to be so attuned to him that it is his company and his presence that we seek in the quiet. Jesus offers himself as balm for healing, as bread for the journey, as wine for vigorously living in his discipleship.
Jesus invites us to immerse ourselves in the better thing as well. What will our answer be? Please pray with me.
O Lord Jesus, we long to sit at your feet and learn from you, yet we often get confused, distracted and worried over the many other voices and things that call for our attention. Help us to seek, follow, and cling to the “better way” – passionate life in and through you. Bless us in the work you call us to, so that we might find it a balm for communion with you, the bread of life. Grant us blessed awareness of your presence in life.