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Tuesday, August 30 2016
Lutheran churches are all alike.
OK, let me rephrase. They aren’t ALL alike, in all aspects, of course. But in one particular aspect, I think it’s fair to say that, except for a few exceptions, they are all alike.
What is that aspect, you may ask? Anyone want to wager a guess…?
It’s our sitting arrangement. Oh, I don’t mean what we sit in, because I’ve worked in churches with pews, with chairs, with pillows on the floor. And I don’t mean the seating layout, because I’ve worked in churches with a semi-circle of pews like ours, but also churches with rows of pews facing forward, or chairs in a full circle or oval, or chairs in rows facing each other.
I mean where we sit. No one ever wants to sit in the first few rows, no matter how the seating is laid out! It gives me a complex. Do I smell? Do I sweat a lot? Do I spit? Is it like Sea World—the first few rows may get wet?
I was wondering about this interesting phenomenon of everyone sitting in the back at church when I read our Gospel reading from Luke chapter 14.
To the status-obsessed Pharisees, or the religious leaders during Jesus’ time, where you sit during a meal is a huge deal. They would jockey into position, wanting to sit as close to the host as possible, in the places of honor. Quick, get those honor spots! They’re going fast!
But Jesus tells them—when you’re invited to a banquet, don’t sit in the places of honor right away. Because, what if the host tells you that you’re taking someone else’s seat, who is more important than you?? Then you are embarrassed and have to move to a lower seat. And then everyone there knows you aren’t as important as you think you are. It’s like a very embarrassing game of musical chairs.
Instead, Jesus says to take a lower seat right away, so that the host can say “friend, move up higher” and then you will be moved to a more important and honorable seat.
Well, I’m so glad all of you took Jesus’ words to heart! You are living out exactly what Jesus said! That’s why you don’t sit in the front, right? You want to be invited to move to the places of honor.
Well, here is your invitation. “Friends, move up higher!” Come on down and sit here up front in the places of honor, Anyone? Anyone? Well, it was worth a try.
As is usually the case with Jesus’ stories and teachings, his reason for speaking really isn’t about seating arrangements. He just uses that to make his point. What he is really talking about is being humble. Humility. He ends his teaching on where to sit with a line some of you may have heard before: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Being humble. It’s a virtue we value much of the time, right? Whenever we meet a famous person who is “real”, or someone who is very gifted and “real” or not stuck on themselves, we usually say, “they’re so humble!” Or the opposite—if someone thinks too highly of themselves, we usually say “they need to be taken down a peg or two, or “they should eat some humble pie!”
I used to watch the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch—it was based on the old comic book character. And the episodes usually had Sabrina try to fix something in her life using magic, and things go awry, and then her aunts usually help get her out of trouble using counter magic. Although it was highly predictable, I enjoyed watching to see what hijinks would ensue whenever Sabrina cast a spell.
Well I remember one episode when Sabrina was sick of doing things well and not getting credit for it. People either wouldn’t notice, or someone else would get the credit. Anyone relate to that?? So she cast a spell to be recognized for the things she did well.
So this spell started out OK at first. People thanked her more, people praised her more. But of course the spell gets out of hand, and eventually the whole school is shut down for an award ceremony—in which Sabrina is given all the awards! It’s too much, so she calls in her aunts to help.
And what made me laugh was the antidote to her spell was actually eating a literal piece of magic humble pie. Her aunts hand her the piece of pie with a fork, and she takes a bite. “Ew, that tastes awful!” she exclaimed. One of her aunts replied, “Humility doesn’t always taste good.”
Being humble and eating that humble pie doesn’t always taste good for us, either. We like to think we are good at things—and we are! But being humble is the way to go, as Jesus says. Thinking too highly of yourself means you’ll probably be taken down a peg or two. But if you’re more realistic about your gifts, and do what you do well without lording it over anyone else, then you are living more in line with what God wants.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. After taking about the importance of humility while attending a banquet, he transitions into talking about what to do when hosting a banquet.
Jesus says: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Does this mean we should never invite family or friends over, and go out and get people off the street instead? Probably not—Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. He is telling the Pharisees that rather than always inviting people that can give them something in return, they should also invite those people who can’t give anything in return, the people who are on the fringes of society. Jesus is telling them to engage in radical hospitality.
And really, humility and hospitality are linked. In order to be a host, you have to be somewhat humble—in that, you are putting others’ needs before your own. I mean, if you have people over for dinner, you aren’t going to pour yourself a glass of wine and not offer any to your guests! You would offer them some wine first, and after they are served THEN you pour yourself some wine.
Some people don’t get this memo in other aspects of their life, though. When I was on internship in the Albany area, my supervising pastor and I noticed that there was one particular traffic light right down the road from the church that people consistently ran the red light, many seconds after the light changed. We thought maybe there was a delay with the lights. So we actually timed them. He sat in his car at a bank on one side of the light, and I stood at the Taco Bell on the other side of the light (that’s not sketchy at all!)—and together we figured out that no, there was no delay. People were just running the red light all the time, for many seconds—even though it was a green light on the other side and the people going the opposite direction were waiting to go.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve ran a few red lights in my time. But when people do it consistently, over and over again, they are basically saying their time and travels are more important than yours. Not very humble or hospitable.
Now before you chalk it up to those mean people in Albany, I would like to offer an example here in Western NY. We have this thing where, when you need to turn, you wait until the person going straight is almost right to you, AND THEN YOU TURN IN FRONT OF THEM. You know what I’m talking about! Even in a snowstorm, people do the Western NY turn thing. And it must cover all of Western NY, because people not only do it here in the Buffalo area—they also do it in the Jamestown area, where I served before I came here. It’s a Western NY epidemic!! So, I would say that humility and hospitality is most definitely NOT valued—at least in driving!
Jesus is saying that we are called to be both humble by not deeming ourselves overly important, and hospitable to those who society has deemed unimportant. Being important in our world is very different than being important in God’s kingdom. God says everyone is of value and important. Our world does not. Our world has hierarchies based on net worth, race, gender, sexuality, etc.
But Jesus tells us that through humility and hospitality, we are important to him. Jesus is the ultimate host, humble and welcoming to all people.
In fact, Jesus was SO humble and SO hospitable to us all that he took it to the extreme-- he died for us. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, chapter 2 that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Our God is a God who humbled himself to the point of dying on the cross so that we would be welcomed into God’s kingdom, no matter what. Talk about humility and hospitality!
So Jesus calls to us in his humility and hospitality, calls us to follow him, to be his hands and feet, to humble ourselves and show others hospitality in his name. We are invited to be a part of Jesus’ welcome to all people as we ourselves welcome all people. Jesus calls us to be humble and welcome and love everyone, no matter what our world tells us about importance and hierarchies and self-worth.
And THAT is the most honorable seat of all. Amen?
Tuesday, August 23 2016
Every once in awhile when I finish reading the Gospel lesson for the weekend, it is a challenge for me to say with a straight face, “And this, my friends, is the Good News – it is the Gospel of the Lord.”
This does not sound like the Jesus that we know. At least, not the Jesus that we want to hear from, and learn more about. This is the same Jesus who – just last week – said to us, “Have no fear little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Just a few verses earlier. Same chapter. Same crowd. Say what?
Ok. If you’re as confused as I am – and quite frankly – I was very tempted this week to preach on the reading from Hebrews that is also assigned for this weekend instead – but if you’re scratching your head over just what in the world Jesus is talking about here – well – so am I. This is what we might call one of the hard sayings of Jesus.
So let’s take a look – first of all – what Jesus means when he says, “I have come to bring fire on the earth.” Then we’ll look at what he’s talking about when he says he did not come to bring peace, but division.
It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus meant when he talks about fire here. Fire is often used to refer to judgment. But fire is also what we see happening on the day of Pentecost. That was the day when the disciples were all together in one place – the Holy Spirit came upon them – they began speaking in different languages – AND tongues of fire appeared over their heads.
But fire can also be used to refine things. For instance, fire is used to separate metals from the rocks that they are found in. Fire is a refining tool.
So I would like to suggest that when Jesus talks about bringing fire on the earth – it is a fire of judgment – AND it is a refiner’s fire – AND that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. Are you still with me?
Let me share with you a story that might help illustrate what I’m talking about here. “Loren was only fourteen years old when he entered a life of petty crime. By the time he was seventeen he had become one of the regulars in the county juvenile justice system. At eighteen, the judge gave him a choice: enter the army or do hard time in a state penitentiary. He volunteered for the army and was sent to Vietnam. It was at the height of that bloody conflict. He was assigned to a ‘graves unit’ where he worked to identify, tag, and then ship the bodies of young men killed in battle. The judge hoped military service would discipline him. It didn't. When he returned to his hometown, he was even more troubled. In Southeast Asia, he compounded his alcohol problem by taking illegal drugs. With this new addiction, his life of crime took a leap into an abyss. This one-time juvenile delinquent started doing armed robbery.”
“One night he and a friend held up a liquor store. The clerk managed to notify police and the car chase was on. Loren admits that he considered using the gun he had with him to shoot it out with police. A guardian angel must have whispered the right words in his ear that night. He and the friend decided to surrender.”
“The judge sentenced Loren to the state prison at Joliet. He had plenty of experience in county jail and the local juvenile detention center. He was tough. He thought he knew how to do hard time. It would not bother him, he thought. Unfortunately, he didn't know Joliet. His years there were experienced as being burned alive at the stake. Loren paid his debt to society and his first job as a free man was as the church custodian. The congregation frequently used that position as a ministry. Loren quickly proved that he had learned his lesson. His first day on the job he walked up two flights of steps to give a quarter to the church treasurer that he found in the coin return of the soda pop machine. He was indeed an honest man.”
“Loren was never shy about giving his testimonial. When he came home from Vietnam, he was angry and bitter. He didn't believe in anyone or anything. He knew he was traveling the road to self-destruction and that was fine with him. Then his life was turned around. It was no revival preacher who issued an altar call. There was no gentle voice of God urging him to come to Jesus. It was, however, no less the presence of God – a theophany in fire. As Loren described it, ‘I was in Joliet only for three weeks when enough terrible things happened to me at the hands of other inmates that I said to myself, ‘I will never, ever do anything that will get me into a place like this again.’’”
“His life straightened out. He married and had a family. He established himself as a responsible citizen and then was able to go on and get a much better job than the one at the church. Criminal justice critics will tell you it doesn't happen nearly often enough. But with Loren, the fire that rained down on his life punished him for his foolish choices and then that fire began to purify him and make him a better man.”
Every one of us here has a story to tell. Maybe not as dramatic as Loren’s, but I suspect we all could tell a story – or stories – where the Lord acted or intervened in our lives. And maybe at the time it had the element of judgment – or maybe it felt like a refiner’s fire. I don’t know.
But then we’re just going about our business – and the Lord gets our attention – somehow, some way. And we know – we know – that the Lord has gotten our attention.
I remember a time when I was a freshman in college. And you know – when you’re in college – living in a dorm – you never know what your hall mates might do. One day a bunch of them picked me up and threw me into the shower. It’s just one of those kinds of things that bored, adolescent teenage boys do when you’re in college. And I certainly wasn’t the first one to be thrown in. In fact, I may have been one of the ones who had helped throw somebody else into the shower some weeks earlier. It was so long ago, I just don’t remember.
But here’s the thing. I hate – I absolutely hate the feel of wet clothes. So I got a little angry – actually more than just a little – at the guys who threw me into the shower. I lashed out at them. And I learned a lesson that day that I have never forgotten. Later on that day my RA – a man who would eventually become a Roman Catholic priest – wisely told me that I needed to get my temper under control. I was 18 years old, but I’ve never forgotten that. Oh, I still get angry sometimes – but rarely, rarely have I ever let my temper get away from me again. What my RA said to me that day I guess you could say – was both a word of judgment – and a refiner’s fire.
Now that might not sound like a big thing, but as I look back over my life – it was a growing moment. One among many. As I said, I would think – I would hope – that all of you would have at least one story to tell of a time when you recognized a need to change. It might even have been painful – but the Holy Spirit entered into your life – either through another person – or an event – or in an alone moment – and you felt the need to get rid of something that was dragging you down. Like a refiner’s fire clearing away some impurity.
Well – that’s one of the hard sayings of Jesus today. And although I usually try to stay away from making more than one point in a sermon – I do need to deal with something else that Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.
Maybe you caught the part where he said he came to bring division. Not peace, division. Family member against family member. Mother against daughter. Father against son. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law – that doesn’t really happen, does it? But did anybody catch that? Yeah. I thought so. So I can’t really gloss over that one, can I!
Listen! This is related to what we’ve just been talking about. If the fire that Jesus is talking about is a fire of judging that acts as a refiner’s fire – well then – you are well on your way to becoming a new woman – a new man – the person that I believe God wants you and me to be.
But not everyone may be as delighted about your transformation as you are. The Scriptures tell us that if anyone be in Christ – the person is a new creation. That’s what happens when Christ comes into our lives. That’s what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives to bring about change. We call this change becoming more and more like Christ. Again – the Christ-likeness that you hear me talking about all the time.
And in the days of the early church – when Christians were in a minority – becoming a Christian often brought with it persecution. In the early years of the church, being a Christian just might get you thrown into jail – or worse – being fed to the lions if you know what I mean. New Christians often were shunned by their own family members as well. Does this help to understand what Jesus meant when he said that there would be division? Family member against family member?
And you know – even though most of us have it good today – Christianity in the United States is still respected in most circles today. At least we are not being imprisoned or worse for being Christ followers. Although that is not true everywhere in the world today. Try being a Christina in Saudi Arabia – or China – or the most challenging country on earth to live as a Christian – North Korea. Not to mention what happens in Isis controlled territory.
But even in our own country it can be a challenge for some. A husband who teases – or criticizes his wife – or a wife her husband – for putting faith into action simply by coming here for worship. Family members making fun of other members for being one of those “Jesus freaks.” Hey! It happens.
Look! If you still believe that Christianity is all about making us feel good about ourselves – and quite frankly – I hope you leave here today feeling good. But being here today is more than just me wanting you to feel good when you leave. I want you to know that the fire Jesus is talking about – the fire that I hope is touching you at this very moment – is a fire that leads to real change. Transformation. And like a refiner’s fire – sometimes this life transformation can hurt. It can be painful – asking us to let go of something that we really don’t want to let go of. So the question is – do you really want that fire?
Well – I know that what we have heard today are some hard sayings of Jesus. I trust I have brought at least some clarification. But if not – if you have questions about anything I have said – or about anything you have heard here today – or maybe you wouldn’t mind telling of a time when you got your life turned around – or had what you might call a Holy Spirit moment – I’m going to be in the coffeehouse after worship. I’ll meet with anybody who wants to meet as a group to pursue whatever questions or thoughts may have come to you while listening here today. This is important stuff!
And let me tell you why. If we let Him – Jesus through the person and the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit can make a difference. So let me encourage you to be open to that fire – that life-changing, refiner’s fire. Open your heart that God in Jesus Christ will make a difference in your life.
Hey! You know something? Maybe – maybe this IS Good News after all. Amen
Monday, August 22 2016
OK. Imagine this. You’re in church. That shouldn’t be hard to imagine!
And while you’re here, you notice that there is a woman who has a bad back, and has had a bad back for 18 years. She’s bent over. And this guy calls her over, touches her shoulders gently, and immediately she is able to stand up straight. She’s ecstatic.
And then pandemonium ensues. One of the leaders of the church says that this man shouldn’t have healed her and helped her right now, because this is the day we should be worshiping God and not doing other things.
But the guy who healed her replies-- we give our pets food and water on the day we come to church, so why shouldn’t we help this woman, who’s been disabled for 18 years?? And everyone realizes this guy is right, and they all go on with their worship, excited for what God is doing.
This is pretty much what happens in our reading for the Gospel of Luke that we just read, with a bit of updating to make sense to us today.
It’s easy to get caught up in the argument at the end of the story, about healing on the Sabbath Day. Watching conflict between people is like seeing car wreck. You know it’s terrible, but you just can’t look away. That’s why reality TV shows are so successful. It gives us a view into peoples’ drama and conflict. In fact, this story would be great for reality TV! Anyone want to pitch it to one of the networks…?
Well, anyway, it’s easy to focus on the argument, for sure. And that is a big part of the story.
But as I read what is happening here, I realized there was a bit more to the beginning of the story than first meets the eye. We’ve got this disabled woman, who’s been bent over for almost two decades. That’s a long time to be bent over.
And being bent over means that your perspective of the world is different than other peoples’. If she cranes her neck, what’s she looking at…? Yeah, the ground. But if she leaves her neck the way that is most comfortable, what is she looking at…? Yeah, herself.
Because of her disability, she is literally curved in on herself. All she can see, without putting herself under more pressure and pain, is herself.
We may not be bent over like that woman, but we as human beings sure do curve in on ourselves a lot. We focus on what WE need, what WE want. We can only see ourselves, and nothing else.
Some of this is how we are shaped in our culture—we are a culture based on individualism. We are expected to be independent and self-reliant, to make a way for ourselves and do what we need to do, for ourselves. None of that is bad in itself, but when taken to the next level, it can promote focusing only on oneself and no one else.
It’s not just our culture, though. Just being human means that we have the tendency to do this. We can be selfish. We are actually born with the tendency to focus only on ourselves. I mean, who is more selfish than a baby? They need to be fed, need to be changed, need to be held—and they don’t care if you’re sleeping, need to use the bathroom, nothing. What they need in that moment is most important!
And sometimes, we fall into how we were as infants, as adults. I don’t mean we wail like a banshee when we need changing, or wake people up to get us what we need. But what we do is put our needs and wants before everyone else’s, even if someone’s else’s needs and wants should be more important in that moment. We all do it at some point. It can be easy to fall into that pattern, so it happens more and more often. And we can become like that woman, only able to see ourselves. We are curved in on ourselves, unable to see anything else but us.
Two friends met for dinner at a restaurant. Each requested filet of sole, and after catching up with one another, the waiter came back with their order. Two pieces of fish, a large and a small, were on the same platter. One of the friends proceeded to serve her friend. Placing the small piece on a plate, she handed it across the table. "Well, you certainly do have nerve!" exclaimed her friend.
"What's troubling you?" asked the other. "Look what you've done," she answered. "You've given me the little piece and kept the big one for yourself." "How would you have done it?" the woman asked. The friend replied, "If I were serving, I would have given you the big piece." "Well," replied the woman, "I've got it, haven't I?" And they both laughed.
I like this story, because the outcome is what it would have been anyway, regardless of who was serving the fish. But the deeper part of the story is that the woman who took the bigger filet is only able to care about her want in that moment of having more fish. She is unable to entertain the idea of giving the bigger filet to someone else. It’s about her. She is curved in on herself, seeing herself and no one else. And we can all relate to doing that in our lives sometimes.
But the woman in our Bible story doesn’t stay bent over forever. Jesus is there, in the synagogue, the place of worship, and he touches her and she is able to stand up straight for the first time in 18 years. The phrase “she stood up straight” is actually translated closer to the original Greek “she was straightened up.” Jesus is the one who straightened her up. She couldn’t do it herself.
And when she’s straightened up by Jesus, and can stand up, her perspective changes. Before, when she was curved in on herself, she could only see herself. But when she’s straightened up, what can she see…? Jesus and the other people there. Her perspective goes from just herself to Jesus and the people around her.
The healing Jesus did for her wasn’t just about straightening her back, although that was a big deal. It was about widening her perspective. It was about taking her from only being able to see herself, to being able to see Jesus and others. Being curved in on herself was not how Jesus wanted her to live her life. He wanted her to be able to see him and see the world.
We don’t hear anything about this woman after her encounter with Jesus, but you can bet she lived her life completely differently—being able to see around her, being able to see God and the people around her—must have made her life very different.
Jesus does this for us, too. When we have the tendency to curve in on ourselves, and only focus on what we need and want, he straightens us up so we can see him and see others. Because it’s not just about us. It’s about seeing the risen Jesus in our world and seeing others. It’s about serving God and serving others. God didn’t create us to just look in and focus on ourselves. We are created to worship and serve God by serving the people that God has created.
The people in our story aren’t immediately excited about the woman getting a different perspective. They are so focused on the rules that are set, that they can’t see right away what a big deal this is. In fact, they themselves are curved in on what they deem important. Sometimes it is the people who are good church goers who have a hard time seeing a wider perspective! We all fall into it sometimes.
But Jesus straightens them out, too. He takes their curved in perspective and straightens it out. He makes them realize that healing a woman on the day of worship isn’t a bad thing—it’s a great thing. And what was their reaction…? They start rejoicing at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing. Their perspective went from curved in, to seeing Jesus and the outside world. They saw Jesus acting in their midst and they were excited.
And that’s what happens when Jesus takes us from being curved in to straightened up—we get excited! We see things we didn’t see before. We see Jesus, doing amazing things in our lives and in the lives of others. We see other people, and notice how we can help them and be an encouragement to them. We live our lives the way God intends for us to live—seeing Jesus and seeing others.
When that women was straightened up by Jesus, she immediately began praising God. And when the people around her were straightened up from their closed in perspective, they rejoiced in the great things Jesus was doing. They knew instinctively that God was doing amazing things by changing their perspectives and they were bursting to celebrate!
Jesus is constantly straightening us up and changing our perspective so we can see him and others—let’s celebrate that! Let’s praise Jesus, since he is helping us to focus on him and others! Let’s rejoice in knowing that Jesus is straightening us up from being curved in on ourselves, and making us more of who God wants us to be! Amen?
Monday, August 08 2016
When I was in college at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, we had a Halloween tradition called Haunted Halls. Every year, students would decorate the basement hallways in the freshman dorms. And the local elementary school students would dress up, travel through the Haunted Hallways, get candy, and in general have a good old Halloween time.
Since my dorm room was in the basement of Prosser Hall my freshman year, I was recruited to be the person to jump out from behind a pillar and scare the older kids. I didn’t have a costume on or anything (apparently I’m scary-looking on my own!), but I did wear all black to blend in with the garbage bag- covered walls.
The thing was, we had to have a system in place for me to know whether to jump out or not, because we didn’t want the younger kids getting too scared. So we had someone be the monitor at the start of the hallway, who would run down to me as the group would be entering, to let me know what age the kids were. If they were 3rd-5th grade, it was go time. If they were younger than 3rd grade, I would just stand out in the open and wave with a big smile on my face, and tell them “Happy Halloween.”
So this system worked really well for the first hour. I scared some 4th graders, some 3rd graders, and waved to a whole lot of 1st graders and 2nd graders. Then the monitor ran to me, really excited. “We’ve got a group of 5th graders coming! Get ready to scare them!” “Oh good,” I thought. “These kids are the oldest we’ve got. I’m REALLY gonna scare them!”
So I’m behind my pillar, listening. I hear the group of kids get closer and closer. As I hear them get right next to the pillar, I jump out, make a scary face, and yell as loud as I can.
And in front of me are—a group of Kindergarteners. The kid in the front of the pack starts sobbing and howling immediately. The rest of the kids freak out. Some start crying, some start screaming. One kid turned and ran back down the hall away from me, screaming and crying the whole way.
Their teacher came running, trying to figure out what happened. I apologized profusely, trying to explain that the monitor had told me it was a group of 5th graders, and that I would NEVER have done that had I known it was Kindergarteners. She gave me the “death look” and led her kids out of the hallway.
I probably scarred those kids for life. I’ll bet there’s currently a 19-year old, because that’s how old he’d be now-- who’s in counseling, and he’s like, “Well it all started in Kindergarten when this woman scared the bejeepers out of me…”
Making kids cry is no longer a hobby of mine, don’t worry. But it did make me wonder about the whole concept of haunted houses. Some people absolutely LOVE them. Just like some people LOVE horror movies. Anyone here like haunted houses or horror movies…? It’s a badge of honor to get through those scary things, without acting like a Kindergartener, running down the hall screaming for the teacher. Some people really like to get scared like that, in those controlled settings.
But even if some people like getting scared from movies and haunted houses, in our regular lives we don’t like getting scared at all. In fact, we are afraid of a lot of things in our lives. And what we are afraid of can affect how we live our lives, and how we make decisions.
I gave an unofficial survey on Facebook this week about what people are afraid of. I just posted on my status, “Question I’m asking you all, for my sermon this weekend: What are you afraid of?” I expected a few answers, mostly some basic responses. What I got was over 80 responses, and some were really deep.
There were the normal creepy-crawly answers— many people said snakes, spiders, bees, raccoons, rodents, bugs, flying cockroaches, scorpions. Someone even said zombies.
And the answers got profound very quickly. Many people said death, or the act of dying. Many said dementia, or the deterioration of mind or body because of age. Many said failure, or hurting their loved ones or letting them down. Some said financial hardship, and debt. Many said they feared their loved ones dying, especially children and spouses. Many said they feared being alone or unloved, or dying alone with no one to grieve for them. Many said not having meaning in their life, or not making a difference scares them. Many people said they fear having a debilitating illness—or health problems in general. Many said they feared for the state of our world today, and our country’s election process.
And the fears got very personal. Someone said they were afraid that their brother would die before they were able to reconcile with him. Someone said that they are scared that their cat ran away because they weren’t a good enough cat parent. I had two people message me privately to say that they were worried that they would or already had passed on a mental illness that they themselves had, to their children. Someone private messaged me to say that he was specifically scared of voicing his own opinion in a public forum, because people are quick ridicule and bash others, especially when the person speaking is on the margins of society.
Although we live our lives as if we are confident, the truth is, we fear a lot of things. Many of those deep fears that people said on Facebook are universal. How many of you heard at least one of your own fears in the ones people mentioned…? Yeah. We are all afraid of the unknown, of the future, of death or illness or being unloved. Fear is a part of being human.
That’s why we hear in the Bible over and over this important message from God, “Do not be afraid.” We hear this in our Old Testament reading in Genesis 15. God tells Abram, soon to be Abraham: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Why was Abram afraid? He was scared that he wouldn’t have a child, an heir to his family. But God shows him all the stars in the night sky, and tells him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Which is true, because WE are all descendants of Abraham. “Do not be afraid.” God says, “I’ve got this under control.”
And Jesus starts our Gospel text from Luke 12 with those same words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” What were his disciples afraid of? They were worried about having enough, having their needs met. If you were here last week, you heard Jesus’ story of the Rich Fool, who saved up a ton of food and a ton of things—only to die and not be able to enjoy any of them. Jesus tells the disciples not to worry, because God will provide us what we need. “Do not be afraid” Jesus tells them. God has got this under control.
God tells us not to be afraid, because God is in control. God’s promise for us is that God will always be with us, and give us what we need. We don’t have to be afraid—because God’s got our backs.
This past week, I was diagnosed with yet another rare disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS for short. This basically means that I’m unable to be upright for long periods of time because my nervous system is unable to regulate my blood pressure and heart rate. Standing or sitting for a while makes me sick—my heart rate goes through the roof and my blood pressure drops-- and I sometimes almost faint. There is no cure, and doctors don’t really understand the illness very well. I’m on a high sodium diet and high fluids to try to regulate my blood volume and blood flow, and I get to wear these really fashionable compression stockings. So if you see me having to sit down, or greet people on a stool, or chug some water, or take a salt pill or eat a salty snack, you’ll know why. And-- I will be starting 3 months of cardiac rehab, which, if you know anything about rehab, I’m sure will be a complete blast and I will love every minute. Not.
I am terrified. I am scared of cardiac rehab, that it’ll hurt and make me feel worse. I am scared that the rehab won’t work, and that I will be chronically ill for the rest of my life, as some people who have POTS are. I am terrified that my health issues will continue to put a hold on or even end my dreams of having children. I am scared of what the rest of my life will be like, having two rare chronic illnesses that doctors don’t really understand and have no real cure for.
I was drowning in my own fear this week when one of my husband Will’s co-workers wives, Maureen, who also has POTS, talked with me. She said when she’s afraid and having a bad health day, she reminds herself of God’s promises. She gave me Psalm 103:2-4, “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
And she prayed for me on the spot, over the phone, asking that God remind me of God’s promises for my life. She has since messaged me on Facebook frequently, sending me Scripture passages that have helped her and that remind her of God’s love and mercy and healing.
It was Maureen who reminded me of God’s promises and that helped my fear. No matter what happens with my health, I know that God loves me and is with me. I know that we have a God who knows what physical suffering is—Jesus suffered extreme pain and death on the cross, so that we could live free of our sin. I know that God promises to be with me and to provide what I need.
“Do not be afraid.”
The message from God is clear. We all have fears. But God tells us “do not be afraid”. God promises to be with us, to love us, to save us, to provide what we need to live the life that God wants for us. We don’t have to be paralyzed by our fears. God is in control.
And we hear about God’s ultimate promise for us at the end of our Gospel text—that Jesus is coming again, at an unexpected hour. That Jesus will come and bring the new heaven and the new earth, that we hear about at the end of the Book of Revelation. And when that happens, there will be no more crying, no more pain, no more illness. The world will be as it should be. We only see glimpses of this now, but when Jesus comes again our world will be perfect, with God at the center and everyone whole and worshiping God.
We don’t have to be afraid, because God promises to be with us no matter what—and promises that death and pain and failure and illness and things that can hurt us do not have the last word. We will see the day that our Savior Jesus Christ returns and we will live with him forever and ever.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” May we be reminded of this promise from God, every day, every hour, every minute of our lives. Amen?
Monday, August 01 2016
A couple of months ago, a young man asked me, “Pastor, do you have any brothers or sisters?” And I said, “Yes, I have an older brother and a younger sister.”
“Well,” he said, “which of you would you say was the most successful?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. Now, I knew – at least I think I knew – what that young man was asking. Which of you – you or your siblings – has been the most successful, either in your career, or in the accumulation of wealth? Quite frankly, I don’t really know. If we’re measuring on a wealth scale – I really don’t know. I mean, all three of us are cheap – I mean frugal. The Milleville kids were taught to be savers. And quite frankly, I never felt that any of the three of us were ever in competition with the others on the wealth and success scale.
All three of us have enjoyed our careers. I’ve enjoyed mine. Both of them. The first one – I started my working life as a computer programmer analyst, Did that for 12 years. I enjoyed it, but was not passionate about it. But the second one – oh man! I love what I do. As your pastor – I love what I do. SO yes – if success can be described as feeling fulfilled in what you do – feeling content in who you are – in having an abundance of loving family and friends in your life – then yeah, I guess I would say I am a success. It all depends on what it is you’re measuring, wouldn’t you agree?
I’m here to tell you today that there are many ways to measure success. And I’m going to suggest that there are essentially two ways. The first way is the way of the world –the yardstick that the world uses to tell us whether or not we’re a success. Money. Wealth. Possessions. Fame.
The other is the yardstick that Jesus uses. One is temporary. One is eternal. One satisfies. One does not. One makes people become self-centered. The other does not. Can you guess which yardstick I’m going to encourage us to use today?
This is why one of my favorite movies is the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the two ways of measuring success can be illustrated on the one hand by Mr. Potter – who, in terms of how the world measures success was wealthy. He was very wealthy – the wealthiest man in the county – but very unhappy and very lonely – never satisfied. Always wanting more. But he was never a happy man.
George Bailey, on the other hand – was not wealthy in terms of how the world measures success. His car was old and falling apart. His house was old, and drafty, and leaked when it rained. If you know the story – George despairs about the life he is living. But he is rescued by the angel Clarence – who gives him a gift – the gift of seeing what life would have been like if he had never been born. And what he discovers is that what he thought was just an ordinary life was not quite so ordinary after all. He was able to see the impact he made – the good that he had done for others – and how bad things were for his family and friends when he was not there to make a difference.
And at the end of the story – we are left with this line, “No man – no one – is a failure who has friends.” And remember the toast his brother Harry makes at the end? “To my brother George – the richest man in town!” Gets me every time. What George didn’t know – what George didn’t understand until the very end – is that the life he had always wanted – the life he really wanted – was the life he already had. And it was indeed a wonderful life.
Folks – can we talk today about your life? About the life you’ve always wanted? Can we talk about success? And dreams? And goals? And ambitions?
Listen! I’m a big believer in setting goals. Following your dreams. Some people call it, “Following your bliss.” Finding success and having ambitions – these can be a good thing.
But if you’re measuring success – pursuing your ambitions according to what the world says you should do – you know – the accumulation of more and more ….”stuff” – the accumulation of more and more money – simply for the sake of having more and more – if that’s the kind of life you’ve always wanted – let me tell you – it might not bring you the joy and happiness you want.
And that’s why Jesus tells the parable that he is telling us today. Now usually the punch line of Jesus’ parables comes at the end. But this one has it right at the beginning. And here it is: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Did you catch that? Beware of all greed.
Someone once asked oil baron John D. Rockefeller – probably the wealthiest man in the world over a hundred years ago – “Mr. Rockefeller – how much money does a person need before he’s truly happy?” Rockefeller’s response – famously – was, “Always just a little bit more that what he already has.”
If that’s the case – if that’s what the world is telling you – always try to get just a little bit more – then you and I will never be happy – because we will always need a little bit more than what we already have. Anybody else see the irony in that?
Listen! Can we be honest with ourselves? Can I be honest – can I be blunt with you? “Of course, Pastor. Aren’t you always?” I am a man who wrestles with the problem of greed. There I said it. And having said that – I can’t say that this is true for everyone here today – although I suspect that it is – don’t we all wrestle with greed – at least if not now – at one time in our lives or another? If there has ever been a time in your life when you were not satisfied – if you’re not happy now with what you have – if there has ever been a time in your life – or if that time is now – when you’ve wanted just a little bit more than what you have – then be honest with yourself – and with God – and admit that one of the things that you struggle with – is greed. Now please understand. If you struggle with greed, that does not make you a bad person. I just don’t want to see it controlling your life. Or mine either.
So – let me tell you what my remedy to greed is. I have learned that the key to overcoming greed is to practice being generous. And I am not afraid to tell you that I tithe my income at 15%. I give back to the work of the Lord here at Zion, 15% of my income. When I first started here 25 years ago – I was tithing at 10%. And when I mentioned that in a sermon on stewardship my first year here – it got back to me that an elderly woman said to someone, “If he can afford to give 10%, then we’re paying him too much.” Well – she’s no longer with us – so I can tell that story.
Now – please – this is not a sermon about tithing. Please don’t hear in this that Pastor Randy wants us to give more. No. I mean – if you want to you can. But – If you are honest with yourself – and you find yourself wrestling with greed – then I offer the practice of generosity as one way to overcome the problem of greed. Especially if you’re giving nothing – and you are not in a financial hardship situation – then I want to suggest to you today that you take an honest look at yourself – and ask yourself whether or not your life is being governed by greed – or by generosity.
Well, you heard me read to you this parable that Jesus tells. The Lord calls the man – a man whom the world would look up to and call a success – a fool. One of the reasons the Lord calls the man a fool is that he lived his life for himself. He lived his life as though God did not exist. In both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 you’ll find these words: “The fool – says in his heart – there is no God.”
The man was a fool. He lived as though God did not exist. He allowed greed to rule his life. He allowed his greed to define who he was. He allowed his greed to make him focus in on himself and only himself. He cared nothing for others – and he was not rich towards God. Whether he believed in God or not I do not know. But this much we can say. He lived his life as though God did not exist. And so the Lord calls him a fool.
Our other reading from Colossians has this to say. Listen. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And a little further on it warns against being greedy – in fact it says that greed is idolatry. Greed – or perhaps the object of our greed – is an idol.
So if you find that you are accumulating wealth, and wanting more and more stuff – simply for the sake of having more and more – if that’s the kind of life you want to live – I can tell you that that is probably not the thing that is going to bring joy to your life – because you’ll never be satisfied. In fact, the Scriptures call that kind of attitude an idol – a substitute for the true God. And I would not be doing my job if I did not tell you that.
Listen! There is nothing wrong with having money – even having lots and lots of money – as long as having money does not become our god. Monetary wealth can be a good thing when used wisely on behalf of God and others. When it comes to making investments – if you understand stocks, bonds, and mutual funds – if you can tolerate the risks involved – go for it. I do. But let me tell you right here and now that the best investment that we can make is in the Kingdom of God. Earthly wealth is temporary and uncertain. The only future that is certain is God’s future.
In all my years, I have never lacked for a thing. And thereby I have learned to be content. And grateful. I am thankful for my family. I am thankful for the people I love and who love me. I am thankful for all of you. All of you. Even that elderly woman who thought I was being paid too much so many years ago.
As I let go of my greed – I find that I truly am living the life I have always wanted. And I want to tell you today – that the best life you could possibly lead – is to focus on your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Learn from Him what it means – I know this is counterintuitive – but learn what it means to be rich towards God by being rich towards others. By putting the needs of others ahead of your own. The happiest – the most joy filled people I know – are those who put others first.
I want to thank Floyd Sykes for reminding me of this awhile back. If you want to live the life you’ve always wanted – if what you really want in life is joy – then take that word joy – take the letters in the word joy – j – o – y – and let them stand for Jesus – Others – You! In that order. Jesus first! Others second! You last!
When you and I learn that simple formula – listen – first it will help us to overcome greed – and second – it will show us how to live the life we truly want. The joy-filled life. And whether you are rich or poor in terms of the way the world measures wealth – when we learn what it means to put Jesus first – others second – and ourselves last – you will find what it truly means to be rich. Why – you might even call yourself a success! Again – there are no guarantees – but let me tell you this. I know of no better way to live than this.
Jesus tells us in John 10:10 “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The abundant life that Jesus wants for us? According to Martin Luther it means having, “ food and clothing, home and family,…, money and possessions; a pious spouse and good children, …, godly and faithful rulers, good government; seasonable weather, peace and health, order and honor; true friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” In other words – love, joy, peace and contentment.
Now – doesn’t THAT sound like the life you’ve always wanted? Amen