Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Living the Life



This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 9/25 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text is 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
 
Have you ever had a conversation with someone that started out like this, “Jim, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you in so long.” Jim replies, “I’m living the dream!” Sometimes it seems to mean the respondent is doing great. Other times I’ve heard people say this in a sarcastic way because they’re in a very hard place. I would like to make one small change to that statement so that it says, "I'm living the life."

At first glance, we think it's obvious that this passage is about stewardship; and it is. But it is about so much more. There is a little phrase at the very end of the passage that I cannot shake. Every time I read this passage it hits me again and again: “…take hold of the life that really is life,”(v. 19b). What does that mean? Does it mean that those who are going their own way, not following Jesus, are missing out on something? It seems to me that there is a false life being offered to people, one that claims we will be happy and fulfilled if we only make enough money to own all the really cool things. We've all heard the expression, "He who has the most toys wins." After all, God wouldn’t want to deny us now, would he?

I have some questions about this "life that really is life." First of all, what is it? How do we get this life? What good does such life do us? Once we have this life, what do we do with it?

What is this life? It is life in Christ. It is connected to the "treasure of a good foundation." One stores up heavenly treasure because it will last for an eternity. Riches stored up on earth are fleeting and can disappear at any moment. For example, a stock market crash, a devastating fire or death.

Life in Christ is something available, accessible and something people of faith can take hold of. It is not beyond us or out of reach. In the midst of worldly temptations such as endless toys, never growing old, wealth and security, we can experience our joy in God's call to live a life in Christ which manifests signs of mutual love and compassion, justice and kindness, from beginning to end, secure in all that God will bring about at the right time.

First Timothy contrasts our desire to accumulate earthly wealth that can disappear in a second with the Christian focus of accumulating heavenly wealth that will last for eternity. "Godliness with contentment" becomes the aim of our life pursuit. It is connected with contentment because of the capacity to be satisfied with what is ours instead of being driven to possess what isn't ours. Contentment is something that is difficult to live. When I'm in the parsonage and looking out towards Lake Chautauqua, and I see boats out there, I admit I think, wouldn't it be nice to have a boat? And then I think, wouldn't it be interesting to have Ray drive it? Those of you with boats probably struggle with other things that produce envy in your life. If we were never envious, I don't think we would be human. When we live our life in Christ, we confess our envy to God, receive his forgiveness and move on.

We come into this life with nothing and we leave this life with nothing. We've all heard the phrase, "You can't take it with you." We collect riches, possessions and decorations along the way. In reality, there's only so much you can stuff into a coffin, and even less when you're cremated. According to Paul, all we really need is food and clothing.

There is a verse in this passage that is often misquoted. We hear people say, "money is the root of all evil," but that is a misquote. The verse correctly reads, "the love of money is a root of ... all... evil" (v. 9). It is our insatiable desire for money and the toys it buys that is the cause of all evil. Money in itself is not evil. It's when money becomes our god that it becomes evil.

If God has blessed us with riches in this life, this passage instructs us to not be haughty. We must remember that our good fortune is a direct result of God's favor on us and has nothing to do with anything we have done. We are urged to rely on God, who is the source of all we have (v. 17). Riches are positive if we do good works, are "generous, and ready to share" (v. 18). If we use our possessions wisely, we find ourselves engaged in doing good. Our motive for doing this is to lay "a good foundation for eternity" (v. 19).

How do we obtain our life in Christ? There is nothing we can do to obtain it. It is a gift from God, freely offered by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God makes us his own through our baptism. As we read God's word, we learn more and more about God's love and how he sent Jesus to redeem us from sin and the distractions of this world.

What good does life in Christ do us? Life in Christ, is a different kind of riches. We are not consumed by the riches and things of this world. The life of Christ in us turns our entire world upside down. Paradigms of our life shift. Some are destroyed. Paul writes that "there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment" (v. 6). The life of Christ in us makes us godly.

It's interesting that Paul uses the word "gain" to describe the good life in Christ. He also writes about financial gain throughout this passage. Material gain seems wonderful at first, but after a while, you only want more.  We never have enough. But then the great gain Paul speaks of is something that is not a fleeting emotion, but something we have for eternity.

We don't have to worry about our stocks sliding, the devaluation of the dollar, how many Rolls Royces we drive or how many mansions we own. Our gain in life in Christ is eternally in the black; giving us the ability to live life in a way that is beyond all of our expectations. Paul says that "God ... richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (v. 17)

Once we have accepted our life in Christ, what do we do with it? We need to share this life. It's funny how easily and quickly we tell everyone when we have gotten a great deal on something. We can hardly keep quiet about it; posting it on Facebook and telling everyone who will listen. We want them to know how they too can get a good deal.

But why are we so timid about sharing what God has done, is doing and will do in our lives and in the lives of all believers? I know this isn't easy to do and I have to confess that even for me, a trained pastor, I have my timid moments.

One of the reasons for the growth of some of the larger churches is because part of the DNA of the worshippers is sharing their faith with others. It is easy to find ways to take something said in church and use it as a means of gently sharing the gospel. We do a great job in this congregation of inviting others to join us at church and sharing with others.

But a part of learning to share is also learning how to listen to those who you are sharing with. You need to be able to hear and understand the context of where the person you are sharing with is coming from.

While living in Palestine, I learned the art of listening to those of a different religion. I learned about Islam from Muslim university students and as a result, they were curious about Christianity. This made it easier to explain what our faith was about. If we are open, God will provide opportunities to share the life of Christ with those who are not yet following him.

Accepting God's gift of a life in Christ, is what today's second reading is all about. We are God's children because God gives us life. I challenge all of us (myself included) to look for ways to share this wonderful and abundant life we've been given. We live in a world full of hurt that sorely needs to hear about the abundance and generosity of our God. Let's not keep God's good news of his heavenly riches to ourselves.

Amen.

You Gotta Serve Somebody

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 9/18. The scripture text is Luke 16:1-13.

What in the world is Jesus talking about in today’s parable? There is nothing easy to understand about it.     

                                        
Is this an early example of a debt settlement offer? How ideal for our culture of consumers who are overspent, overextended, and stretched beyond reason. We’ve probably all heard the ads on the radio or TV. “Call 1-800-BYE-DEBT and let us deal with your creditors.” They make it sound so easy. However, we all know there are no easy fixes and that if it sounds too good to be true, then it is. Money issues are complicated.

Why does Jesus tell this story? Is Jesus praising dishonesty and rewarding the “self-serving shenanigans of a [sleazy] employee?” (Sharron Blezard) The manager doesn’t do folks in, but he is determined to secure his future by means of his master’s wealth. This guy really has nerve.

One thing that all Jesus’ parables have in common is that they are meant to startle us and grab our attention. That is certainly the case with today’s parable. But this parable differs from many of Jesus’ other parables. It is not an allegory in which God is represented as one character and the other characters of the parable symbolize someone else. Today’s parable is drawn from first century everyday life. It’s taken for granted how the world works.

Are you clueless about the meaning of this parable? Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone! Luke had four different interpretations that followed it: 1. The children of light need to act more shrewdly, 2. Christians should make friends by dishonest wealth, 3. If we’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust us with the true riches?, and 4 is we cannot serve two masters. Was Luke confused about the meaning of the parable or does the meaning vary according to the needs of those hearing the parable? 

Is there an overall theme in today’s gospel reading? The 16th chapter of Luke is devoted to teaching about possessions. 

Jesus tells us right away that the rich man’s manager is dishonest. Isn’t it curious that Jesus can say something good about a person like that? A person with unsavory ways, may still exhibit commendable qualities of love of family, generosity, and loyalty. As Martin Luther wrote, we are simultaneously saints and sinners.
What I find most puzzling about this parable is how the dishonest manager’s cleverness in saving his own skin is an example for Jesus’ disciples and for us. The manager uses the rich man’s wealth in such a way that turns the existing order of things upside down. Such reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear in Luke. The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up, the proud are scattered, the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty.

The disciples can learn something from the clever manager. Rather than being a victim, the manager turned a bad situation into one that benefited not only him, but others as well. 

Relationships have been changed. By reducing people’s debts, the manager created a new paradigm of relationships that is no longer based on the business affiliation between lenders and debtors, but transformed into the reciprocal relationships of friends. The manager was a man of the world who worked and thought diligently to protect his interest. 

Jesus’ interpretation of this parable is that his disciples are to handle possessions in order to gain, not lose one’s eternal home. What we do in this life matters. What if everyone had the same level of commitment to God’s kingdom as they do to work or hobbies? What would happen if we use our ingenuity for sharing the gospel with the world as this manager used his to get out of manual labor or begging?

The last few verses of today’s gospel reading teach faithfulness even in small things. Our behavior in small matters indicates what we would do in matters of great importance. Jesus argues from lesser to greater.

Then, there’s a sudden shift. The focus becomes all or nothing. This is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel. Living in the kingdom of God means giving up all other commitments, including that of economic security.

Whom do we worship and serve? We cannot serve both God and wealth. Do you hear the echoes of the first commandment? We can only have one God.

As Jesus’ disciples, we occupy two spaces at the same time—the world and the kingdom of God which we experience now, but not yet fully. 

The heart of the issue is how we can be good stewards. What we have is not our own, but rather gracious gifts from the Father’s hand. How are we going to use those gifts to benefit the world around us?      

Amen. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Let's Party!

This is the sermon I preached On Sunday, 9/11 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The gospel text was Luke 15:1-10.


There are all kinds of ways of being lost. Any of you that know me very well, know that I have a poor sense of direction. Maps don’t help me. I easily get lost. To me, one of the greatest inventions ever is the GPS. I know that if I mess up and miss a turn, Garmin will still get me where I need to go…at least most of the time.

There is a song that wonderfully describes our life at times. It's called "This is the Stuff."

I lost my keys in the great unknown
And call me please 'cause I can't find my phone

This is the stuff that drives me crazy
This is the stuff that's getting to me lately
In the middle of my little mess
I forget how big I'm blessed
This is the stuff that gets under my skin
But I've gotta trust You know exactly what You're doing
Might not be what I would choose
But this the stuff You use.
(Francesca Battistelli)


Losing our keys, phone or other objects happens to the best of us. When we are distracted, this happens all too easily. Getting lost when one is going somewhere is not something sinful. Neither is losing an object like a coin or your wallet or your keys. In fact, the thought is laughable. The sheep and the coin are not guilty of wrongdoing. They’re just lost. If there is any guilt, the shepherd and widow might be considered careless.

At the time of Jesus, shepherds were considered undesirable members of society. They had acquired a bad reputation of being shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings. Shepherding was listed as a despised trade by rabbis along with camel drivers, sailors, gamblers with dice, fabric dyers and yes, tax collectors.

These words of Jesus sound innocent enough, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” (v. 4). His listeners would have thought, “Wow. A hundred sheep! I’d like to own a hundred sheep.”  

Now Jesus creates a problem, "And losing one of them ..." The owner would not be watching a hundred sheep. He would have hired a shepherd, so … HAVING a hundred sheep did NOT mean OWNING a hundred sheep; it meant LOOKING AFTER someone else's hundred sheep - it meant being a shepherd. Jesus had set them up.    

It would be like one of us asking, "Which one of you, having a hundred dumpsters (not to own and make money from, but to dive into searching for garbage to live on)..." (David Ewart). Jesus was accused of associating with unclean nobodies, now Jesus is asking his accusers to imagine themselves as part of an unclean profession.

At first it may seem normal for the shepherd to go look for the lost sheep. After all, it is his responsibility. But think about the 99 sheep. The story doesn’t say they were left with another shepherd. They may have been left alone in the wilderness with no protection or shelter. They were possibly at risk. What was the shepherd thinking? He was risking a lot for the sake of one silly sheep who wandered off.

Then when the shepherd finds the sheep he gathers the flock, heads home, calls his friends and has a celebration because he found the 1 sheep. This is hardly normal, ordinary behavior.

In essence, the point of the first parable is that Jesus is telling us that God is like a despised shepherd who is extravagant about the well-being of every single one of his charges. God is a shepherd who will risk losing everything for the sake of finding one. That is cause for celebration!

The two parables share a number of similarities. The story line moves from what the main character has, to its loss, recovery and restoration and the party that follows. God is represented in the first parable as a shepherd and in the second as a widow.
 
The widow had 10 coins instead of 100 sheep and she lost one of the coins. Each coin was worth a day’s wage. Her coins may have been her meager savings or could have been her dowry. One coin may not have been that much for someone who was rich. But for someone who was poor, that one coin meant everything.  The point is the widow’s search was for the seemingly insignificant. One like the poor widow would tirelessly search for the smallest amount she may have lost. Like the shepherd, when she recovered the coin, she threw a party.

Both parables end with a statement about repentance, which cannot be the point of the parables. Neither sheep nor coins are capable of repentance. Rather than calling sinners to repentance, the parables are calling the righteous to join the party.

Where do we see ourselves in these stories? It may vary. Even as followers of Jesus, we may feel lost at times. Do our problems seem too insignificant for us to bother God? Church is the place for all of us who feel lost. All we have to do is acknowledge our being lost to God. Remember any time anyone turns toward God for any reason, God throws one heck of a party.

God has been so merciful to us. Can we extend this mercy to others? Often we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. However, this is not the way God expects us to act. God expects us to be as merciful and welcoming to others as He has been to us. And then he wants us to throw a party when we welcome someone new in our midst. The key to this entire passage is the phrase, “Rejoice with me!” The words rejoice and joy are sprinkled throughout these parables.

God is inviting us to a party. Let’s rejoice with God for everyone he finds and brings our way. The party and feasting continue after our service. All are welcome!
Amen!


Google Images

Thursday, September 8, 2016

No Small Print

This is the message I shared with the folks at St.Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches on Sunday, 9/4. The gospel text is Luke 14:25-33. 


Have any of you ever joined a book club, cd club or dvd club or another organization without reading all the fine print first? It can be difficult to figure out exactly what is expected in order to get the great bargains. After a while you realize how much money you have to spend in order to save. That wasn’t made clear in the ads, was it? 

Unlike slick advertising agencies or those who proclaim a cross-less faith, Jesus clearly spelled out the cost of being his disciple. There was no small print or hidden fees. Please don’t misunderstand; our salvation is a free gift of God and we can do nothing to deserve it. Jesus was talking about the lives of those who are truly his followers. This is about how we are to live out our lives of faith.


At times, Jesus was like a rock star. People followed him like groupies of today. The crowd was enthusiastic—and unaware that he was going to Jerusalem to the cross. Jesus was speaking to a group of people that started following him not to the people he had called to a life of discipleship. These were people who had decided on their own to follow Jesus. 

By turning to address these hasty volunteers, Jesus emphasized the importance of what he was going to say. Jesus’ told the crowd,  “Think about what you’re doing and where I’m going and what that will take, then decide if you’re willing to go with me all the way. 

When we read Jesus’ criteria for discipleship how many of us think, “Really Jesus?” You’ve got to be kidding! Jesus pulls no punches. Woven throughout the fabric of today’s gospel are the words  “if one does not…one cannot be my disciple.” 


The first does not is hating one’s family. Isn’t that over the top? What did Jesus mean? To hate is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away from or to detach oneself from. It has none of the emotion our culture attaches to the phrase, “I hate you!” 


In Luke’s world, high cultural value was placed upon the family network. It was paramount to everything. Jesus says disciples must disavow their primary allegiance to their family. 

As we can imagine, families would certainly disapprove of Jesus’ instructions. Such a commitment would detract from family responsibilities. Every family member was needed to work in the family business. Remember that Jesus and his disciples were an itinerant band. The disciples had to be willing to leave home and family and travel from village to village to proclaim the gospel. So, if someone wanted to follow Jesus and it created a conflict in the family, what would that person choose to do? 


The second does not is actually a have to. One has to carry his or her cross. We often hear people talk about pain and illness or some problem in their lives being the “cross I have to bear.” Carrying one’s cross has nothing to do with any of that. Carrying the cross is something we do voluntarily as a result of our commitment to Jesus Christ. It requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus (R. Alan Culpepper, Luke). However, Jesus did not say that simply by being one of his followers life was going to be peachy keen or without difficulty. If Jesus had to go through suffering and pain, it stands to reason that we will have to go through this as well. 


The third does not is nothing new, but rather a summary of the cost of discipleship. Jesus said, “...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33 NRS). Now this is going too far. How can we live like that? Jesus was telling the crowd to say good-bye or bid farewell to all they have.



Jesus’ challenge was not one of ignoring your family or having to live like a destitute pauper. The issue is whatever will stand in the way of wholehearted devotion to Jesus is a problem.



On what basis do we make our decisions? Pastor Mark Davis puts the cost of discipleship very bluntly when he says:



It may mean living in that “dangerous neighborhood” or attending a less achieving school, because a gracious presence is needed there...It may mean unpopular choices despite the protests of one’s family...That kind of choosing...has to be cast in the strongest language possible, because we will domesticate the gospel and make it a matter of enhancing ourselves and our families until we hear this kind of extreme language and let it shake us. (Mark Davis, leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com)



This whole gospel passage has stressed what makes us unable to be Jesus’ disciples. Jesus doesn’t make it easy. We need to know what we’re getting into before jumping in feet first. It will cost us everything. Jesus is showing us how impossible it is with just our own abilities to be faithful followers. When we confess, “I can’t,” then we can be open for God’s “I can.” 


Theologian R. Alan Culpepper summarizes things this way:


The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would be disciples. No part-time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.  (R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, 294)



Let us pray using a prayer written by St. Ignatius: 


Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, 


my memory, my understanding


and my entire will,


All I have and call my own.




You have given all to me.


To you, Lord, I return it.




Everything is yours; do with it what you will.


Give me only your love and your grace.


That is enough for me. Amen.
 

Comic strip

No Small Print

This is the message I shared with the folks at St.Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches on Sunday, 9/4. The gospel text is Luke 14:25-33. 


Have any of you ever joined a book club, cd club or dvd club or another organization without reading all the fine print first? It can be difficult to figure out exactly what is expected in order to get the great bargains. After a while you realize how much money you have to spend in order to save. That wasn’t made clear in the ads, was it? 

Unlike slick advertising agencies or those who proclaim a cross-less faith, Jesus clearly spelled out the cost of being his disciple. There was no small print or hidden fees. Please don’t misunderstand; our salvation is a free gift of God and we can do nothing to deserve it. Jesus was talking about the lives of those who are truly his followers. This is about how we are to live out our lives of faith.


At times, Jesus was like a rock star. People followed him like groupies of today. The crowd was enthusiastic—and unaware that he was going to Jerusalem to the cross. Jesus was speaking to a group of people that started following him not to the people he had called to a life of discipleship. These were people who had decided on their own to follow Jesus. 

By turning to address these hasty volunteers, Jesus emphasized the importance of what he was going to say. Jesus’ told the crowd,  “Think about what you’re doing and where I’m going and what that will take, then decide if you’re willing to go with me all the way. 

When we read Jesus’ criteria for discipleship how many of us think, “Really Jesus?” You’ve got to be kidding! Jesus pulls no punches. Woven throughout the fabric of today’s gospel are the words  “if one does not…one cannot be my disciple.” 


The first does not is hating one’s family. Isn’t that over the top? What did Jesus mean? To hate is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away from or to detach oneself from. It has none of the emotion our culture attaches to the phrase, “I hate you!” 


In Luke’s world, high cultural value was placed upon the family network. It was paramount to everything. Jesus says disciples must disavow their primary allegiance to their family. 

As we can imagine, families would certainly disapprove of Jesus’ instructions. Such a commitment would detract from family responsibilities. Every family member was needed to work in the family business. Remember that Jesus and his disciples were an itinerant band. The disciples had to be willing to leave home and family and travel from village to village to proclaim the gospel. So, if someone wanted to follow Jesus and it created a conflict in the family, what would that person choose to do? 


The second does not is actually a have to. One has to carry his or her cross. We often hear people talk about pain and illness or some problem in their lives being the “cross I have to bear.” Carrying one’s cross has nothing to do with any of that. Carrying the cross is something we do voluntarily as a result of our commitment to Jesus Christ. It requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus (R. Alan Culpepper, Luke). However, Jesus did not say that simply by being one of his followers life was going to be peachy keen or without difficulty. If Jesus had to go through suffering and pain, it stands to reason that we will have to go through this as well. 


The third does not is nothing new, but rather a summary of the cost of discipleship. Jesus said, “...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33 NRS). Now this is going too far. How can we live like that? Jesus was telling the crowd to say good-bye or bid farewell to all they have.



Jesus’ challenge was not one of ignoring your family or having to live like a destitute pauper. The issue is whatever will stand in the way of wholehearted devotion to Jesus is a problem.



On what basis do we make our decisions? Pastor Mark Davis puts the cost of discipleship very bluntly when he says:



It may mean living in that “dangerous neighborhood” or attending a less achieving school, because a gracious presence is needed there...It may mean unpopular choices despite the protests of one’s family...That kind of choosing...has to be cast in the strongest language possible, because we will domesticate the gospel and make it a matter of enhancing ourselves and our families until we hear this kind of extreme language and let it shake us. (Mark Davis, leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com)



This whole gospel passage has stressed what makes us unable to be Jesus’ disciples. Jesus doesn’t make it easy. We need to know what we’re getting into before jumping in feet first. It will cost us everything. Jesus is showing us how impossible it is with just our own abilities to be faithful followers. When we confess, “I can’t,” then we can be open for God’s “I can.” 


Theologian R. Alan Culpepper summarizes things this way:


The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would be disciples. No part-time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.  (R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, 294)



Let us pray using a prayer written by St. Ignatius: 


Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, 


my memory, my understanding


and my entire will,


All I have and call my own.




You have given all to me.


To you, Lord, I return it.




Everything is yours; do with it what you will.


Give me only your love and your grace.


That is enough for me. Amen.