Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pentecost 14C

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in worship where he heals a woman on the Sabbath, a day supposed to be devoted to God. And some church leader got his shorts in a bunch over it.

Sabbath means “seventh” – the seventh day of the week, a day of rest set aside from ordinary days, a day to remember their stories and to pray.

For Jewish folks, that day was and is Saturday. Christians switched it to Sunday to honour the day Jesus rose from the dead.

But whether it’s Saturday or Sunday, the command is the same: Keep the Sabbath holy.

So when preacher Jesus should have stuck to his script and preached what they came to hear, Jesus had the temerity to include healing someone.

“Hey there Jesus, that looks a lot like work to me,” the synagogue leader, probably the council president (sorry Claude) said, “You’ve got six days to do that healing the sick and raising the dead stuff. Today is for worship.”

How would you have answered this synagogue leader? What do to devote yourself to God? How do you honour the Sabbath? How do you keep the sabbath holy?

Well, first of all, we go to church. Well....most of us do. We focus on what God has done and is doing in our lives. We fellowship with other believers. It’s something we do on Sundays.

But some folks, like the church leader in today’s gospel forget that the sabbath wasn’t meant to be a burden, but a joy. That’s why Jesus blasted him after being hassled for not obeying the rules:

 “You hypocrite! Don’t you care for the people and all those in your life that you love and who depend on you? Don’t you care for them even on the Sabbath? So what’s the difference between YOU feeding your family and ME healing this woman?”

The odd thing here is: Jesus wasn’t doing or saying anything radical. He was giving a classic Jewish response. This is what any wise Jewish person would say. 

What’s the 3rd Commandment? “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” And you don’t keep something holy by refusing to touch it with a 16 inch stick. You celebrate it! You refrain from working not because work is so awful that you need a day off every now and then, but because it gets in the way of a good party.

On the Sabbath, Jewish folks would go for a picnic rather than cook up a storm. They would go to worship to sing! And even dance!

Hasidic Jews, the ones with beards and side curls, have a tradition of dancing with the Torah – the law, the first five books of the bible, literally taking up the scrolls of the bible and dancing with them in the aisles, celebrating the gift of God’s Word.

(I thought about giving you a demonstration but I thought that such a display might give you more nightmares than insight into this lesson.)

The ancients believed that you also give your workers, as well as yourselves, a day of recovery – snoozing and relaxing. The Sabbath was the great equalizer. Everyone was supposed to get a rest. It didn’t matter if you were the lowliest grunt or the Big Boss Man. You got a day off. That’s keeping the Sabbath holy.

The synagogue leader didn’t get it. If trying to impose rules on celebrating – gotta do it right, according to the book – you end up with an awfully dull party.

And what’s worse, he forgot that there was a human being involved. This woman had been bent over in pain for 18 years. 18 YEARS! Her pain was old enough to vote! What were you doing 15 years ago? And can you imagine being in such pain that you couldn’t stand up straight for all that time?

But that didn’t matter to the synagogue leader. All that mattered to him was that a law had been broken. A rule had been transgressed. Maybe even a sin had been committed. And Jesus couldn’t believe his ears.

For Jesus, refraining from work on the Sabbath wasn’t about NOT angering the Almighty if you stopped in at the office to check your messages on the way home from church.

The Sabbath was about celebrating what God HAD done and IS doing, so people can be restored and refreshed, so the people around you can be restored and refreshed as well.

This all sounds good. But this is a challenge for me. I've only started taking a full day off. And I've had to find other activities to fill the void left by the absence of work. I've never found it easy to relax.

 Maybe it’s because I grew up in Ontario where the Sabbath day laws were considered quaint. A throwback to a puritanical age when those crabby Presbyterians ran the place for the first couple hundred years. Those laws were irrelevant. Or even economically dangerous, I thought.

I was delighted when the sabbath laws changed. I was in high school, and that meant I could work on weekends and save the weekdays for school and band practice. “Who needs a day off? I’ll be mellow when I’m dead!” I thought. “There’s a great big life to be led!”

Call it a cultural condition.

And I brought that thinking to my work. I chafed at taking days off. Vacations were often more a burden than a blessing. I couldn’t sit still long enough to enjoy the stillness of the sabbath. And I paid a price for that inability to relax. I paid the price of a marriage, for my unwillingness to leave work where it should be left.

But a little while ago, I’ve tried to take Fridays off. Most weeks I succeed. Some weeks I fail. I have trouble filling the void left by the absence of work. Especially since I live where I work.

But I don’t think that a Sabbath can be legislated any more than a celebration can be governed by rules. And I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. Taking a step away from weekly obligations can help us see our lives better, when we’re at a distance. Even if we’re surprised by that distance.

Over the past six weeks or so I have had the privilege of walking with a man in the final stages of cancer. In the hospital he called for a Lutheran pastor, and I was the first one to answer the phone.

I visited him a few times a week, gave him and his ever-present family Holy Communion a couple times, we prayed together, chatted about football, and about life. I learned about where he came from, and his work up north. I enjoyed our visits.

A life-long Lutheran, he wanted to re-connect with his faith. Some cynics might say that it was the knowledge of his expiration date that caused him to ask the BIG questions of Life and Death, and ask for God’s help in a difficult time. But I like to think that it was God calling him home.

Because over the past week, he slide downhill quite quickly. Last Thursday he told me that he could feel himself slipping away. 

And then I got a phone call on Wednesday morning that he had slipped into a coma, and the family was gathering. I had meetings in Edmonton that afternoon, but I went to see him before I went into the city.

And, sure enough, when I saw him, his breathing was laboured, and had the sadly recognizable “rattle” in his lungs that said the end was near. I sat with him for a minute or two. Said a prayer. And left.

I was in a meeting in Edmonton when the call came that he had died. And the family asked if I could come and pray with them and for him.

When I arrived he was in the bed, tubes removed, his eyes were closed. I would say he looked peaceful as he lay there, but he had a mischievous grin on his face.

I prayed with the family, and we commended him to Almighty God. After a short visit, I touched his hand to say “Good-bye” and I left.

I was glad that I didn’t have anything else that night. I don’t know how medical professionals do it, but I needed time to myself after saying Good-bye.

I needed to step back and reflect on what just happened. I needed to think about the man and his life, and what he felt it meant. 

And I needed to stop and think about MY life. Where God is calling me. What do I want MY life to look like. When I’m in his place, will I be happy with what I’ve done with this beautiful gift of life that I’ve been given.

I needed to ask myself the BIG questions of Life and Death. I needed to reconnect with the God who called ME. I needed to rest along the road.

I needed a sabbath. And I needed it to be holy.

‘Now the word of the LORD came to the prophet Jeremiah saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you...”’

Familiar words for many of us. That’s where it all starts, isn’t it? From God’s call, no matter where we begin from.

For Jeremiah, it was the call from the womb. For Peyton, it’s the call from the waters of baptism, where she is joined to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and named and claimed as a child of God.

Peyton is just beginning her journey. And God alone knows where her journey will lead. God alone knows the peaks and valleys, the joys and sadness, the births and deaths, that she will encounter in her years.

But in these waters, and in the life of the church, she’s been given a gift. 

The gift of sabbath that she will take with her. 
The gift that asks her to stop and think about where God is in her life, and celebrate all the wonderful things that God has done. 
The gift that asks her to remember the faith that has been given to her. 
The gift that asks her to stop and ponder the BIG questions of Life and Death.

That same gift that’s been given to everyone here this sabbath day. This sabbath day of rest, of remembrance, of reflection. This sabbath of healing.

May the God of the sabbath fill you with peace, as you remember who you belong to, and may you find rest along your journey, as you walk the path that God has put in front of you.

And may you celebrate all the wonderful things that God has done.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pentecost 12C

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

I don’t know what you hear in this passage, but sometimes such promises increase my blood pressure. Mainly because of the second half of Jesus’ statement where Jesus fleshes out what he means:

“Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

No doubt Jesus is right. We spend money on things that are important to us. Economists tell us that all spending is emotional spending. Heart spending. It’s not rational. It’s a personal expression of our deepest selves. No matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise.

And I’d rather not have Jesus poking around in the most personal areas of my life. I’d rather keep Jesus at a safe distance when it comes to my money. In fact, Martin Luther once said that the last part of a person to be converted is the person’s wallet. And when I look back at my own financial history, I’m uncomfortable with how right he is.

I’m reminded of this passage each month when my credit card bill arrives. I dutifully check each item to make sure that there’s nothing on there that shouldn’t be. Or that I wasn’t charged twice when made me click two times to complete my transaction. I confirm each purchase.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but every so often (more often than I’ll admit in public) I’m surprised by where I’ve put my treasure. I’m staggered by some of the stuff I’ve bought after sober reality kicked in. But I know, at the time, such purchases must have seemed like good ideas.

A subscription to a magazine that I could easily flip through at the library. The extra book that gave me free shipping, but which I might not get around to reading, at least not this year. The organic olive oil in the fancy bottle to class up my kitchen. And a few other items that shall

They were all emotional purchases. I handed over my treasure to where my heart was.

And Jesus clearly tells us where he wants our hearts to be. “Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses form yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Jesus is talking about fear here. The fear that Jesus is talking about is the fear that the stuff we have will be taken from us - stolen or destroyed.

Or worse, that our stuff will take over our lives, and that’s a position that Jesus wants to fill.

Jesus said that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, and the kingdom apparently does not include the things we jam into our garages. The kingdom is everything that which God alone can give us, and which cannot be taken away. It cannot be stolen or destroyed.

Our relationship with the material stuff of life is conflicted at best. After all, most of our purchases keep the economy’s engine humming. My magazine subscription and book purchases provides royalties to the authors and keeps the publishing industry afloat. The organic olive oil helps the farmers and processors make a living, and encourages sustainable agriculture. My purchases were a source of some good.

But that can go too far. We can pay a high price for our accumulations. We neglect our health, our families, and friends.

We may find ourselves in debt, which imperils our economic futures.

We can become defined not by what we produce or what we create, but by what we consume. We can become the product of other peoples’ work.

We spend too much time at our jobs, giving too much of our time and labour to those who may not deserve it, but thinking that we’ll get a worthwhile return.

Retail-therapy blasts endorphins into our pituitary glands providing a momentary sense of well-being and all around grooviness, but that sense of well-being and grooviness evaporates once the bank statement comes at the end of the month, sending us out for another hit.

So what do we do about this over-striving, over work, and over accumulation? What do we do about the trap that many of us find ourselves in? How do we regain a sense of who we are beyond what we buy?

The church says that we can put it on the altar. We can take this morally ambiguous money - the root of all kinds of evil, and the source of so much good - and offer it back to God. And in doing so, our daily work is redeemed. We are freed from the traps that others lay for us. We remember who we really are.

What we are doing, in our offering, is transforming our days from the mere making of a living to the living of a life - God’s life.

Whatever we do for a living, we now do for the glory of God and for service to others. We offer our gifts for the work of Christ’s church. And the work of Christ’s church is the kingdom of the God.

The offering is probably the most counter-cultural act we do as a church. It’s at that moment that we take a stand against the consumerism that tells us that we are what we buy.

When the plate is passed around we put our beliefs into action, the belief that God’s kingdom has come in Jesus.

When the offering is taken our hearts begin to transform from being self-centred to God-centred and other-centred.

It’s a minor sport to make fun of churches who ask for money. And for good reason. Occasionally, I sit down and watch the Miracle Channel re-invent indulgences for today’s troubled consciences as they go about their fund-drive appeal.

And we know of sham-preachers who lie, cheat, and pilfer folks out of their hard-earned paycheques to pay for their air-conditioned dog houses.

Or we hear of the pastor in the $2000 suit who flies around the world by private jet, sharing the message of the poor wandering preacher from Nazareth. There’s a lot to answer for.

But this congregation seems to know in its bones what kingdom work looks like. I see it all around me. I see where your heart is.

I see your heart in our building in how it’s so lovingly maintained. I see your heart in the priority worship has in this church.

I see your heart in the relationships you have with each other, building a strong community in Jesus’ name.

I see your heart in how you so quickly open your wallets to generously meet the needs of those who are hurting, and who ask for our help.

I see your heart in how much of our offering goes out, rather than stays in. To Lutheran Campus Ministry, to Canadian Lutheran World Relief, to the work of the synod and national church, and to other important and life-giving ministries.

The list could go on. This is kingdom work. This is where you place your treasure. This is where your heart is. This is stuff that cannot be stolen or destroyed.

So watch as the plate goes around. You will see the church at its best. You will see a confrontation with the world’s priorities. You will see who you really are, and the hold God has on you. You will see how we take the stuff of our labour and our lives and we give it back to God, for God’s kingdom work.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Indeed, as I look around, I can see that God has given you the kingdom.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Pentecost 11C

“We’re raping the planet!” one fellow bellowed over the loud music.

“I know, it’s terrible!” the other agreed.

You have to realize that these were not crunchy granola tree-hugging, vegan, hippies. These weren’t the ones you’d expect to worry about what’s happening to the earth. This was not what I expected to hear from these guys.

I was sitting between these two fellows in a local public house while watching the Blue Jays lose (again). Two self-described “rig pigs” who were home for a week from the oil patch. They were in a friendly argument about who hated their job more.

But it wasn’t the long hours, the filthy work, or being away from home that bothered them so much.

What bothered them the most about their jobs was what they saw they were doing to the earth.

“It’s awful. The trees are gone. The spills are disgusting and clean up is almost impossible.”

“And you can’t drink the water!”

So I stuck my nose where it didn’t belong, and asked, rather naively, “So if what your job is doing to the earth bothers you so much, why do you keep at it? Why don’t you quit and do something else?”

“The money’s too good,” the one guy replied with the other nodding in agreement.

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” the other guy agreed.

My eyebrows raised.

“Do you want to know how much I make?” he asked me.

“Not really,” I replied.

I really didn’t. I knew that if we went paycheque to paycheque, I’d come out on the much lower end, and I had about 20 years on him.

“I own my own house and I paid for my truck with cash, and I’m only 26,” he said, unprompted. “Where else can I legally make that kind of money at my age?”

“But if your job is bothering you so much that it’s killing your soul, is the money worth it?” I asked.

“I like my toys,” he said.

But I knew that his answer was as much for him as it was for me. It was a question that it looked like he’d asked himself a thousand times, and didn’t like the real answer. So he just took a sip from his drink and turned his attention back to the Blue Jays’ terrible pitching.

In the corporate world they call it “golden handcuffs” meaning that the money is so great that people feel trapped in their jobs, even though they hate every second that they’re there. I don’t know if the oil patch has their own name for it, but I’m sure these guys weren’t alone. In fact, I know that they’re not.

I knew a guy in Lethbridge - a teacher - who went up to Fort McMurray every summer to make money. And he did. Piles of it. But referred to the place as “Hell.”

But the payout, it seemed, was worth it. It was worth sacrificing his time away from home, and enduring long days doing work that was, for him, morally ambiguous, in an environment that he hated.

But this isn’t about the oil patch. Or about the workers who go up there. After all, they’re doing what they have to do. Everyone has to make a living.

This is about all of us. And how we think about our time. And what God wants for us.

It’s in today’s gospel reading that hear...

...someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." 14But Jesus said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 15And he said to them both, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

I don’t know why Jesus balked at this guy wanting to him sort out a disagreement. Especially since Jesus went out his way to present himself as one who had at least as much authority - if not more - than the guys in fancy robes.

It could be Jesus was hesitant to solve this dispute because he couldn’t care less about what their disagreement was about. He wasn’t at all interested in the squabbles of the rich. When most of his listeners barely had enough to feed their kids, this “problem” must have sounded ridiculous. The Real Housewives of Galilee could use a lesson in priorities here.

So Jesus told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'

20But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life could end, you could die. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

It’s easy to zero in on the dangers of riches in this story. But I don’t think that’s the whole story here. At least not the way this story has been commonly understood.

I think, for Jesus, the danger lay in the connection between money and time.

It’s like he’s saying, “You could die tonight. And where will your money be then? Will you be happy that you’ve spent your time building your bank account, while your relationships are flushed down the garburator? Is that REALLY what you want your life to be about?

This is a story about the shortness of time we have on this planet. Even though we have the promise of eternal life, our time above ground matters just as much, if not more than our life in eternity.

And life IS short. I think most of your know that. Especially as you age. I know, for me, the last ten years flew by faster than the previous two. And each year just keeps getting faster and faster. Birthdays seem to be getting closer together each year.

And as I reach the age I am, I’ve become more sensitive to the brevity of earthly life.

I came across an article recently in the business magazine “Inc” entitled “What Every 20-something Worker Needs to Know” or something like that.

And the first item on the list surprised me. The first thing the writer wanted 20-somethings to know just as they’re entering the workforce was, “You will not live forever. You will die some day.”

Jesus’ promise of the resurrection to eternal life notwithstanding, the writer had a good reason to lead with that advice. Most young people have an irrational sense of invincibility and immortality. They have their whole lives in front of them. They do the math and they know that they have more years in front of them than behind them. And they can put off living, grunting in the trenches, building their bank accounts, believing that they can spend their later years doing what they REALLY want to do.

And they believe this despite terrible reminders that this is NOT always the case.

This true in my life. A classmate of mine in grade three died of bone cancer. In high school, a kid just keeled over and stopped breathing during basketball practice. A friend from seminary died of meningitis just shy of her 29th birthday. These stories aren’t unique.

And there are a few examples right in this community that we can point to.

The young highway maintenance worker, 18-years-old, who was killed by the truck that ran the stop sign on Highway 21 outside of Beiseker was on the Lutheran Campus Ministry board as the student representative. He had dreams of becoming a doctor. Now he’s resting in Jesus’ arms. 18-years-old.

And of course, many of you are related to or know the young man, just 27-years-old, who died recently of an asthma attack. A young man with everything in front of him.

We hear stories like this every day. And they break our hearts at the potential that is lost, and we get angry at the gifts that are denied us.

And we are reminded just how easily life can end. That ANY moment could be our last.

That’s why Jesus got angry. People forgot just how short and fragile life is and they were getting stuck in petty disagreements. That was why he was astonished, to the point of being offended by this rich guy’s request. It’s like Jesus wants to bang these guys’ heads together to knock some sense into them.

“Are you kidding me?” Jesus seems to be saying to the brothers, “Your dad just died and THIS is what you’re worried about? Are you REALLY willing to kill your relationship with your brother over money? Do you REALLY want that to be your legacies? Is this REALLY how you want both YOU and your DAD to be remembered?”

For Jesus this wasn’t just a family fight. This spat was indicative of a larger problem. A problem that we still have. A very human problem.

When profits are put before people, that’s a problem.
When human beings are put in service to the economy rather than the other way around, that’s a problem.
When financial growth becomes the baseline for morality, that’s a problem.
When money becomes the engine that drives our lives and our communities, that’s a problem.
When our bank accounts are more important than our families, that’s a problem.

It’s not that Jesus  wassaying that money doesn’t matter. It does. Just try living without it.

But at the end, what will it get us? When we look back at our lives will we despair that we’ve stored up treasures for ourselves but were not rich toward God?

What will we think of our lives? How can we be rich toward God?

Being rich toward God mean being rich in love.
Being rich toward God means being rich in forgiveness.
Being rich toward God means being rich in hope.
Being rich toward God means being rich in peace.
Being rich toward God means being rich in service to others. 
Being rich toward God means being rich in worship, rich in prayer, rich in praise, rich in songs of thankfulness and joy.

These are the riches that endure. These are the riches that you have been given. As I look out into this congregation, I see that you are very wealthy, indeed.

And you ARE rich toward God, because God is rich toward YOU.
YOU are rich in the blessing of life that God has given you.
YOU are rich in the love that you show one another.
YOU are rich in the care that you give others.
YOU are rich in the forgiveness that you offer and receive.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t, also, caught up in the schemes of this world. This doesn’t mean that we always escape the traps that the world lays for us.

It DOES mean that God has shown us a way out, and that God has taken us by the hand, and has led us to a different world, a world right inside this one.

A world where life thrives and death is destroyed.
A world where people, weary from the fight, come together in forgiveness.
A world where love soaks into every stitch of the fabric of your life.

This is the world that God is creating. This the world, that through your baptism, you were born into. This is the world - the new creation - that will, one day, come into its fulness.

So, at the end, when your life is being demanded of you, you can look around you, and see true riches, GOD’s riches. The riches that last forever.

May this be so among us. Amen.