Sunday, February 27, 2011

Epiphany 8A

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus makes it seem so easy; so cut and dried.

No doubt Jesus was right. Serving God and wealth is impossible because they demand two very different things from us. God puts us on a mission for the healing of the nations, for justice, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

What does money ask us to do? I think it’s different for everyone. God puts us in a common mission. Money pulls us inward.

What is money to you? What’s your relationship with it?

For some, it’s just a number on a bank statement. They receive it in the mail, open it up, make sure that the number hasn’t gone below zero, and throw the paper in the recycle bin.

For others, it’s a game. How much can I accumulate? How can I make the number go higher and higher?

Still others fear money. They get a knot in their stomach every time they go to the bank. Money - or lack of money - represents judgment on their lives.

Another group equates money with life and status. Others with self-expression.

One financial self-help book said that money is a tool, nothing more and nothing less. Money helps us get stuff. It’s the means by which we transact with others.

But I agree with the guy who said that money is energy. It represent possibility. He said that people freak out if you burn a 5 dollar bill because all the possible uses of that five dollars is lost forever. It’s wasted energy.

We Christians have a difficult relationship with money. Many of us don’t like to talk about it. Some think it’s unspiritual to discuss such earthly matters.

We’re uncomfortable with money-talk in church because money is so personal. How spend our money tells us a lot about ourselves and what our priorities are. As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there you heart is also.”

I’m always suspicious of some of my Christian friends who are hostile towards those who have money. One colleague of mine was celebrating Canada’s recession and slow recovery because she believes that a market-based economy is idolatry; that large corporations are destroying communities and hurting the earth.

That the capitalistic impulse is born from sinful greed, that economic self-interest only hurts the poor and most vulnerable in our society. That if you have money, it means that you’ve taken more than your fair share. That if you’ve feasted on good food, it means you’ve taken the food out of someone else’s hungry mouth.

You can’t serve to masters.

I used to think that way. Until I got a job and ventured out beyond the safe group-think of seminary pub nights.

I’d like to ask my friend if she’d change her tune when the bad economy starts affecting her community. When people lose their jobs they don’t have anything left over for the offering plate, which makes it harder to pay her salary. And I’m guessing her friends at the bank won’t accept her sanctimonious theologizing in lieu of a mortgage payment.

Whether we like it or not, we’re caught in Jesus’ trap. Our lives are so intertwined that we are forced to serve two masters.

After I got a job (this one) and started connecting with people from a vast array of economic backgrounds, I began to wonder if we’re thinking about Jesus’ words the wrong way. Jesus isn’t accusing rich folks of worshipping money. He’s challenging ALL of us in how we think about wealth.

I’ve met rich folks who are extraordinarily generous. Not just because they can be, but because they want to be. They see their wealth as a positive energy that they can share with others.

And I’ve met folks of moderate and limited means who are tight-fisted, who worry about every nickel they spend, whose lives revolve around their bank account, and who judge others according their own miserly, selfish standards. The master they serve is clear.

For example, I recently met someone who said that she NEVER bought something unless it was 80 to 90 percent off the regular price. She would spend the day hunting down bargains, or demanding the rock-bottom price.

On what seems like ultra-careful stewardship of her resources can easily devolve into a worship of money, a fear of scarcity. She may be saving a lot of money, but she’s also spending a lot of time. And money is a renewable resource. Time is not.

We assume that rich folks serve the god of wealth, and that the rest of us are immune to the idolatry of money.

Yes, there are classic cigar-chomping capitalists who, from their private island vacation homes in the Caribbean, deny medicine to cancer stricken children in developing countries. They serve one master. But they don’t define everyone who has money.

After all, if that is the standard, then everyone here stands guilty, no matter your economic situation. As much as I joke about how much money I don’t make, I know that I am one of the richest people in the world, percentage-wise. The overwhelming majority of people in the world live on a fraction of what I make.

And when I remember how rich I really am, I feel tremendously grateful. And I feel a sense of obligation to share what I have with those who have much less. Not just in terms of money. But in my labour and my time, so that more people can share in what God has some abundantly provided for us.

Serving the god of wealth means is to serve a god of scarcity. Serving the god of mammon says that we don’t trust the God of abundance; that we don’t believe that the God who made heaven and earth supplies all that we need.

Of course, I’m not talking about being reckless with what God has given us. Of course we know there are Christians on the OTHER end of the spectrum who say that our job is to use up all the resources of the earth because God is just going to destroy the planet anyway. And if we don’t pillage the planet, then we’re being disobedient to God’s call to “subdue” the earth.

Economically self-serving biblical interpretations aside, serving the God of abundance means being careful stewards of what God has provided for us. It means making sure that people everywhere can share in what God has given us, and that future generations will be able to enjoy the fruits of creation.

Serving the God of abundance means being generous with all that we have, because we serve a God who is generous with everything God has created for us to you.

We are generous because God is generous. We share our abundance rather than scarcity because God is a God of abundance. We serve a God who delights in providing for the world, who celebrates life, and who rejoices in generosity.

That’s why no one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

God feed the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. God makes it rain on the just and unjust because the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign of justice, mercy, forgiveness, and abundance, has come among us.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Epiphany 7A

Those of us who’ve been around the church long enough have probably forgotten the punch that this passage from the gospel packs. Some of these phrases have made their way into peoples’ everyday language.

“Turn the other cheek.”

“Go the extra mile.”

“Love your enemy.”

But if we take Jesus’ commands seriously, we might worry that we’d become a first class doormat.

If someone punches me in the face, I’d probably hit them right back. I wouldn’t point to the other side of my face and say, “missed a spot.”

If someone hijacked my car, I wouldn’t drive them to the border. I

f someone sues me, they better have a good lawyer because I’m going to protect what is mine.

And I have enemies for a reason. Loving them is not one of them. Especially since they don’t have my best interest in mind.

And then comes the command that puts all the others in their place:

“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That’s were we REALLY run into trouble. Perfection, especially for us Lutherans, is not a spiritual value. Perfection is a burden. Grace is a gift.

But I think a better way of saying it is “Be HOLY, as your heavenly Father is holy.”

While that may not sound much better than “be perfect.” When we think of “holy people” we think of super spiritual people who walk just a couple inches off of the ground, people who live a life of prayer, who exude serenity and peace. And most of us know we are not that person.

But, “holiness” according to the bible means being set apart. It means being different, unique, distinct.

So, you could translate this passage as “Be unique, just as your heavenly Father is unique.” Or be set apart, separate, just as your heavenly Father is set apart and separate.”

One of the charges some of our evangelical friends have laid on us mainline churches is that we are “too close” to the culture, that there’s nothing unique about us as Christians to distinguish us from the rest of society, that we’re no different than the Rotary Club, except that we meet at an inconvenient time.

I hear this all the time. That Lutherans and other mainline Christians, such as Anglicans, Presbyterians, and United Churches, have compromised their moral standards to ingratiate themselves to a secular world, and have watered down their theology to make it palatable for mass consumption.

Those charges are usually laid by Christians who seem to delight in stirring up trouble, often operating out of a robust persecution complex. If they’re not being passing moral judgment on others to the point of being hated, then they’re not doing their jobs as Christians. And since we’re not hated like they are (or perceived that they are), then we’re clearly not as Christian as they are.

They’re not completely wrong. But it’s not that we’ve sold out to culture, we’ve just been part of it for so long that we’ve forgotten how to be a minority. And we take from the culture and use it for gospel purposes.

Lutherans, and other historic state churches, had become cozy with the culture. By definition, that’s what a state church is and does. A state church blesses national ambitions.

And we’ve carried that tradition across the pond to Canada. While this is changing, clergy still are called upon to bless whatever the culture deems “good.”

And, Lutheran and mainline clergy, including myself, are schooled in secular counseling theory, which carries with it, certain moral assumptions about human behaviour.

Even the language we use about being an “inclusive” church comes from the social sciences and not from the bible (which is one of the reasons I don’t use that word).

Our organizational structure is borrowed from a model frequently used in the 1970’s and 80’s by non-profit organizations. We’re deeply invested in the surrounding culture.

But Evangelicals and other Christians who criticize us for being too close to the culture need to relieve themselves of the logs in their own eyes before pointing out the speck in ours. Many of these churches are expert marketers, using secular business models to draw a crowd. They preach while waving iPads rather than bibles, and use latest technology to create multi-media worship experiences. They the culture’s tools to get peoples’ attention. The tools then become the message.

At best, these mega-churches that could be mistaken for shopping malls tells the visitor, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing new for you here. Being a Christian is just like every other part of your life.”

At worst, these churches bless peoples’ consumer impulses, turning faith into a consumer choice, pulling them further away from the poor man from Nazareth. These churches may have strong moral stands, but their message gets lost in their medium.

My intent isn’t to trash these churches. That would make me a first rate hypocrite. (but what else is new?) My aim is to point out that ALL churches cozy up to the culture - or at least the part they’re comfortable with. No church is exempt.

I think our inability to disengage from culture shows us how hard it is to be a Christian. It reveals just how difficult it is to be different, just as our heavenly Father is different. It’s tough to be separate, set apart, just as our heavenly Father is separate, and set apart.

But separate and set apart for what? And how can we be separate and set apart?

I think the answer lies hidden in the text.

It’s obvious. Of course, people aren’t going to offer the other side of their face to be smacked. Of course people aren’t going to give more than asked of them. Of course, people aren’t going to go the extra mile for someone who is oppressing them. Of course, people aren’t going to love their enemies.

But Jesus did. And he gave his listeners tools to live set apart from others.

Back then, if someone hit you on the right cheek, they had to use the back of their hand, which was usually a punishment for slaves. But to hit you on your left, they’d have to use an open hand, which was considered low class behaviour. To hit you on your left would lead to public embarrassment.

And people would usually have only two garments. If they gave their enemy both of them, you’d be naked. And your enemy would be shamed for requiring you to go without clothes.

And Roman soldiers were only allowed to require people to carry their packs for one mile. If someone carried the solider’s pack an extra mile, that person would embarrass the soldier and probably get him into trouble.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Jesus was giving his listeners tools for resisting those who were oppressing them. He was providing a different way of dealing with their enemies. He gave peaceful solutions to conflict. He was teaching them how to be set apart.

While Jesus doesn’t provide a solution to every oppressive encounter, he’s pretty clear about what it means to be different.

When the world lashes out in anger, you respond in love. When others demean you, you have creative solutions to maintain your dignity.

You will not let other peoples’ destructive behaviour turn you into your enemies. You will not become who they are.

Your behaviour will be different because you ARE different. You are God’s holy temple, whose foundation is God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

You are a people of mercy and love. You are a people of peace and justice. You are a people of forgiveness and freedom.

You are a people chosen to be set apart to be a light to the world. Your lives bear witness to the love God has for the world and everyone and everything in it.

You are a resurrection people whose eyes are fixed on God’s new horizon, where all sorrow, pain, and suffering is transformed into abundant life for all.

You may not know this about yourself. You may not see this in yourself. But you are tomorrow’s people because that’s who God has made you.

You are God’s holy temple, where the Lord, the giver of Life dwells. You shine with the light of God’s glory, where the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus radiates love in a world so often devoid of hope.

You are all these things because that’s who Christ is. And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Epiphany 6A

Anger, adultery, divorce, lying. In a few small verses Jesus brings out the big guns, and isn’t afraid to use them.

The crowd knew their bibles, and they knew the commandments. And here, it looks like Jesus is ADDING to what they already observed. Jesus was piling additional obligations on people already struggling to get through their days.

The commandment says “Do not murder.” For most of us, that’s easy enough to obey. But Jesus turns up the volume on his listeners and says, Don’t just NOT murder. But don’t get angry either, especially with another believer. You can’t worship God if you’re angry with a brother or sister.

Don’t commit adultery. Okay. We get that. We’re supposed to have one partner for the rest of our lives. And then Jesus dials up God’s demands. Don’t even LOOK at another person with lust. So, good-bye advertising industry. Sterling-Cooper needs to close their doors. Don Draper is out of a job.

Jesus then lays out the proper procedure for divorce, as expressed in scripture, only to place greater demands on people trying to get out of a bad marriage. The only grounds for divorce is marital unfaithfulness, he says. Irreconcilable differences? Irrelevant. Abuse or mental cruelty? Hardly deserves a mention. And if you divorce your partner and she remarries, you’re causing her to commit adultery.

Don’t lie. Or in Ten Commandments parlance, don’t bear false witness. In other words, don’t tell stories about your neighbors. Don’t gossip. Don’t massage the truth about another person just to make them look bad. We get it. That’s what we learned in confirmation when we studied the commandments.

But then he cranks it up a notch. He says, don’t just NOT bear false witness, don’t even swear an oath. Just say “yes” or “no” if someone asks you a question. Anything more than that comes from that guy in the red pajamas brandishing a pitchfork.

Sorry, folks, these are the rules. Thanks for playing.

I was tempted to acknowledge the difficulty of this text, then move on to preach from the easier Old Testament reading. This is one of the harder passages of scripture to bundle our brains around. It seems like Jesus is more interested in placing barbed-wire fences around our moral behaviour than setting us free with the good news of the Kingdom of God.

After reading this passage, I can only say with irony that “This is the good news of Jesus Christ” because I don’t find any gospel relief for my anxiously sinful soul. All I find is burden piled upon burden, rather than grace heaped upon grace, as the bible promises.

I would guess the same is for you. Who HASN’T committed at least one of the sins that Jesus identifies? Who HASN’T perpetrated one of these crimes?

Gotten angry? Burnt your bridges with someone close to you? Killed a friendship? Then have the temerity to come to church without repairing the relationship? Then, sorry, no soup for you.

Have you ever put a poster of half-naked women on your wall? Have your pupils dialated over Justin Bieber or Michael Buble, or the Old Spice guy? Ever felt a slight tingle over the server who brought you your lunch? Then, sorry, it’s to the back of the line for you.

Have you ever been divorced and re-married? Has your former spouse? How about your current spouse? This is a sin I’m consciously committing as I preach. If or when Rebekah gets remarried, I’m causing her to commit adultery, which causes me to sin. If you’re in the same boat as I am, I guess we’ll go down together on the same sinking ship.

I think we can ignore the last one because it doesn’t really apply to church folks, does it? Good church people don’t ever gossip, do they? Christians let peoples’ behaviour speak for itself. We observe without comment, don’t we? BUT, on the off chance that you have shared a small story, or’ve been party to a tiny smidgen of gossip, then, sorry, you better stock up on aloe vera.

That’s certainly what it sounds like Jesus is saying. But if that’s true, heaven is going to be a pretty empty place.

And if THAT’S true then there must be something else happening in this passage. Jesus isn’t interested in an uninhabited heaven. His job is to fill heaven, not empty it. He was sent to gather people to God, to set them free, to show them God’s way of living, not to push them away from God and into eternal torment.

And here, Jesus is doing exactly what he was sent here to do. If you look closely, you’ll notice one thread running through this passage, even throughout the whole sermon on the mount. And, perhaps, through the entire bible.

This passage isn’t about governing our moral behaviour. This passage is about creating strong, deep, life-giving relationships.

Jesus knows that most of us don’t murder, but we all destroy important relationships. He says that reconciling with those from whom we’re estranged is just as important as worship. That’s why, in the communion liturgy, we share the peace before the offering. We say “peace” to those around us before we place put offering on the altar.

Some churches, especially in the Mennonite tradition, require more than a ritual gesture, but a real, true reconciliation between two estranged people before they’re allowed to give their offering.

Jesus set strict parameters around divorce to protect women. In the culture he was preaching to, men could divorce women on a whim, leaving them homeless and forced to beg to provide for themselves and their children. And also, by saying that those who look lustfully at a women de-humanizes her. He was telling the men to treat women as fellow human beings, and not as sex objects. He wanted to encourage deeply human relationships, not utilitarian partnerships.

And he had a problem with oaths because it assumes peoples’ basic dishonesty. Let your be yes and your no be no. That turns the assumption on its head and assumes peoples’ basic honesty. If you are his follower, of course you’re honest. That’s who you are because that’s who he is.

Is it still impossible to live up to Jesus’ standards?


But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus wants from us. This isn’t a list of behaviours to obey as much as a description of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s gracious presence in the world, God’s vision of mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace, let loose in our lives. The Kingdom of God isn’t a far away ideal or a heavenly promise of a perfect afterlife.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus, and his reconciling work in us and in the world. We treat others with love and respect because that’s who Jesus is. We seek peace among enemies because that’s what Jesus did in us and for us.

As baptized people of God, joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Kingdom of Heaven is who we are, and who we are becoming.

We still get angry. We still break off important relationships. We still are unfaithful and we still manipulate others for our own selfish ends. We still hurt one another.

But God does not. God is working within us so that this Kingdom that is alive in Jesus will also be alive in us.

The Kingdom of Heaven is about life, not death. The Kingdom of Heaven is mercy and forgiveness, not judgement and condemnation. The kingdom of Heaven is freedom, not constraint. The kingdom of Heaven is living in God’s new tomorrow, not in slavish obedience to a human past.

The Kingdom of Heaven, this Kingdom of life, of love, of mercy, of peace, of forgiveness, and justice reigns in our lives, transforming us from the inside out, so that we can bear witness to the one who is making everything new.

The Kingdom of Heaven is drawing us in to live in the freedom that God wants for us and all God’s people, and indeed, the whole world, so that - together, with Christians of every time and every place - we can grow into the fulness of who God wants us to be.

May this be so among us. Amen.