Monday, February 28, 2011

Straddling the Fence

Matthew 6: 24-34

I wish I knew how to preach this text.

Sometimes, when you read the Bible, it just seems so clear what the lesson is—love one another. Love God. Don’t judge others lest you be judged. Easily said, not so easily done, I know, I have trouble with that too, but it’s not so hard to say what God is actually saying to us.

But this text is hard for a different reason. Don’t worry? God will take care of it all? Easily said, but then you look around and see people who are living lives that, compared to yours, are terrible. They’re hungry, they’re suffering or in great pain, they don’t have sufficient clothing or housing, and you think to yourself, God sure doesn’t seem to be taking care of them. The lilies of the field are a little better off, it seems, when you compare them with the people living under tarps on the sides of muddy hills during hurricanes in Haiti.

So, I have to go to people who are wiser than me. And they point to the first verse of the text, the one I almost dropped because it didn’t seem relevant, but it turns out to be the key to the whole thing.

When you are serving mammon, or wealth, you make certain choices. You wish to protect your possessions. You put your wealth onto barns, and then put those barns into barns. You put electric fences around those barns, and dig moats outside the fences, and put piranha and alligators in the moats.

But now, you’re having to pay for two sets of anti-termite treatment, one for each set of barns. You have a whopping electric bill from the fence, you have to pay, feed, and house a guy to ride around the fence to make sure it’s in good order, and have to replace the wire and the posts when they rot or rust. You have to feed the fish and the gators, and you have to buy stuff to put into the water to kill mosquitoes.

So who’s serving who here? Seems to me the wealth in those barns are now starting to call the shots. Seems to me that you’re working awful hard to maintain a bunch of bags of coin.

And it isn’t giving back.

There’s stewardship, and then there is slavery, and wealth doesn’t give back.

Now, imagine what happens when you serve God with that kind of energy and care. We’re guided by the Bible in how to serve God, the words of Jesus give us the clues we need. Love God, and love your neighbor. Wealth sitting in bags of money stays silent. God says go out into the world and serve it.

Now, in our modern life, there are certain things required of us. Car insurance both to help us pay for the times we have damaged someone else’s mode of transport, and to pay for our own, which is so necessary to our basic way of life in this modern world. Warm clothing because we live in a cold climate. Housing and heat for the same reason. All of these things are necessary, and it’s reasonable to expect that we provide for ourselves to the best of our ability, without to much infringement on the rights of those around us to live safely.

It’s a long way, however, from enough wood to burn each winter to cutting down the whole forest. It’s a long way from warm clothing to a $1000 coat. It’s a long way from safe transportation to buying a car because of the status of the badge on the hood. It’s a long way from safe, adequate housing to having arches, columns, pillars and fountains.

This isn’t to say that you should go overly Spartan, either—buying the cheapest thing because it is the cheapest, whether it addresses your needs not-that’s still worshipping wealth, it’s still a showy display. No; good quality stuff, made and expected to last and taken care of well is a stronger witness than buying either showy expensive stuff or cheaply made, disposable stuff.

Jesus, when he says these things, is not talking with his head in the clouds. He is human too, he understands that we do have material needs. He also understands that not all of us get to go to the sea and pick the required tax out of the fishes’ mouth.

No, his point is that worry can block our relationship with God the same as anything else, and his words to his disciples, his audience on that mountain, and really, to us too, is that we are god’s children, and if we act as if we are God’s children, are sensible, industrious, and generous, as we are called to be, we need not worry about all of these things.

Those folks sitting on the muddy hillside in Haiti during the hurricane are no less God’s children than we are—their plight is not evidence of their somehow being less children of God than we are. If anything, in this interconnected world, we should perhaps think about what our society has done to force them into a place where rain and earthquake impacts their life so harshly. If we are God’s children, and they are God’s children, then we are family, are we not?

How do we treat family?

This is why I don’t know how to preach this text. I worry too. I don’t know how I, as an ordinary American, affect people around the world. I can’t stand up here in this pulpit and say “you’re a sinner, repent!”, because I am one, too.

I straddle that fence between God and wealth, as we all do. God help us all, God guide us all, God forgive us all.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jesus-Shaped Foundation

1 Corinthians 3: 10-23

This morning’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth is an extension of the more familiar “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth” passage that comes immediate before this one. He’s continuing on in that vein of thought, but changing his metaphor from agricultural to architectural.

He says “No one can lay another foundation other than the one that has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ.” To Paul, his teachings to the Corinthian church (and every where else he went) are Christ centered, and anyone who seeks to follow Christ, and listens to teachers, can measure the quality of the teaching by that one yardstick—how is it about Jesus?

When Paul says “so, whether someone builds with precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown”, he’s not referring to the quality o the building materials. He’s referring to whether the walls that are built are load bearing. When he says “they will be revealed with fire,” I don’t think he literally means that they will be tested with a torch. You’d think that precious stones would be pretty fire resistant, and wood and hay would be terrible, but what do we mostly use for building houses? Wood. I’ve seen plans for houses, made of hay bales that are highly insulated and warm in the winter, and I am sure there are allowances made for their flammability, or e3l;se they wouldn’t meet code, you know?

No he doesn’t mean the quality of the materials, he means how they are used. If precious stones are what you have, then use them well. If hay is what you have, then use it well. The foundation, Jesus Christ, is sufficient to support and hold any sort of material, as long as you stay on the foundation.

The old Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay takes the metaphor of building materials to mean that everyone has a different level of ability with regard to intellectual worldly wisdom. Some people love the world ideas, and have the ability to entertain ideas different from their own with no danger of disturbing their faith. Others prefer to stay to what is proven, sure, and simple, and do not care to entertain ideas at all.

I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself which are the precious stones and which is the hay!

People approach their faith in different ways, and Paul seems to say here that they are none better than the other. Precious stones are just as good s hay. What matters is how they test out under duress, how they do when the engineers get hold of them.

Barclay develops his thought further in this passage by saying that yes, each of these ways of thinking, these building materials, found in every congregation on earth, can be useful, but what happens so often is that one way of thinking or another often becomes full of itself, and begins to believe itself better than others. To extend the metaphor, precious stones may indeed be fireproof, but bricks of such small size take a lot of mortar, and the whole enterprise is very expensive. Building with Gold or silver would e less expensive, but are very soft metals, not load bearing, and melt in heat. Building with wood, or straw would be much cheaper, and are much more stable, but are the most flammable materials Paul lists.

Barclay makes the connection in his own mind that the metaphor Paul is using refers to the problem of intellectual wisdom, the Greek worship of the power of the mind, and that somehow, competing wisdoms, brought from different schools of thought, are infecting the congregation and causing dissention. We see it in Paul’s previous passage, when he talks about people claiming their faith derived from him, or Apollos, or other preachers who have come through. The sin of pride has arrived in Corinth, and everyone believes their own ideas are superior.

What matters, according to Paul, is how the building conforms to the original foundation—however it looks, in whatever way it fills space, as the architects say, does it stay true to the foundation? Is it Jesus shaped?

We have the same struggles here, today. Some of us here want to express our faith the way we hear it in Christian radio, from Focus on the Family, and from TV preachers. Others of us reach backwards historically, to John Wesley and Francis Asbury, who was the first great preacher of the Methodist way of salvation in America. Or they reach back to read the teachings of Martin Luther or John Calvin, or forward to Billy Graham or Martin Marty, or John Dominic Crossan. Others of us want to just rely on our own understandings of the Bibles we read, and consider the thoughts of others to be suspect. And others just don’t know what to think, and feel pushed and pulled in many directions.

Paul does not say that Apollos’ preachings are best. He does not claim his own are. He’s saying that however you came to the faith, from Apollos, from Cephas, from him, or some other route, fine. What matters is whether your style of faith is Jesus-shaped. Does it conform to the foundation that Jesus laid? Do your actions show the love of Christ for the world and all its peoples? If it doesn’t, then that part will be burned away, no matter what you built it with.

For me, there’s a implicit understanding here. The best buildings, the most beautiful ones, are the ones that are mixtures of all of the building materials available. Wood, hay, precious stones, gold silver—can you imagine a building made with all of them? How solid that will be? And if it is on a stone foundation, how long it would last?

Folks, the best churches are ones in which the congregations are kaleidoscopes, are mixtures of many materials, none of whom believe that theirs is the sole best way. As long as its Jesus shaped, as long as it’s solid, it’s beautiful.

Claim your tradition. We are a United Methodist church, founded in the doctrine of salvation not as a one time event, but as an ongoing journey, from birth to death, never out of the grip of God’s grace. This is who we are, no matter what precious metal the walls shine with. If your faith is deepened and informed by Third Day or Skillet, good. If it is built up by U2, good. If it is strengthened by Bill Gaither, good. If it is fortified by Bach and Mozart, good. They were and are still held in the hands of God’s grace, too.

Let us all live in houses with foundations built on Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

“You Have Heard That it Was Said”

Matthew 5: 21-37

Preached Feb. 13, 2011 in the Center Moreland Charge

This week’s gospel lesson, continuing in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, is a text than many preachers like to avoid. There are many reasons for this—they don’t want to be seen as making themselves out to be morally superior, because maybe they’ve made some of the mistakes mentioned in this portion. Maybe they have had a divorce themselves, and don’t have the emotional energy to try to explain why. Rather than be seen as a hypocrite, they avoid it all together. Maybe they don’t want to have someone come to them and complain that they were embarrassed to have to explain to their children what adultery was.
The problem with that is, then, that the only time these texts are talked about are when used as a weapon. In divorces, especially in contentious ones, the accusation of adultery is the nuclear bomb of the legal world, in some ways more powerful than abuse.
Well, I do not feel that scripture is to ever be used as a weapon. I just don’t believe that a proper use of Scripture is to cause division, dissention, and hurt. Jesus may have come to bring not peace but a sword in some areas, but I sincerely do not believe he came to cause pain to people who are already hurting.
So I took this text on this week more than anything to find out what is said about these texts, by people wiser than I am. I wanted to find the Jesus I know and love in these hard passages.
Think about the three instances we read of the phrase “You have Heard it said”: Don’t be angry; Don’t commit adultery; don’t swear. He speaks more in depth about each case, but we can use these as three areas of discussion.
“You have heard that it was said”, Don’t be angry-and under that, don’t insult your brother and sister, don’t call anyone a fool, leave your offering at the altar until you have reconciled with them, and settle out of court.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible not to be angry sometimes. You see on TV or read in the paper about another shooting death, and you realize that it happened in the next township over. It’s reported that there was an argument between lovers, and both died because of it. Anger was the root cause of the actions that one person took, and he (allegedly) chose an action that was irreversible. So you can see that anger is dangerous, and you might think that Jesus is right to say that you should never be angry.
But what else are you to feel when the phone bill is almost double for the same amount of calls you made last month? How else are you to feel when the doctors can’t find what’s wrong, and this is your third time in the hospital? How else are you to feel when someone scratches the paint on your car with their shopping cart?
If Jesus was fully human, as we claim as a church, then Jesus knew what anger felt like. I can even point to a story from the Bible—when he cleared the temple of the corrupt moneychangers.
So, Is Jesus really saying here that we are not to ever be angry? That seems to be a little impossible, doesn’t it? What then are we to do?
“You have heard that it was said that you shall not commit adultery.” Then Jesus goes and describes adultery as something that far above and beyond what we’ve always known as adultery. In our world, his definition meddles in most of pop culture. So much of what we experience in our daily lives, from music to TV shows to commercials, (especially commercials) uses this very concept, the physical attractiveness of half the human species for the other half. And Jesus says essentially the first time you say that Katie Couric is kinda cute, you need to take your eyes out. The first time you say that Tim McGraw has a nice smile, pluck out your eyes.
We understand what adultery is. It is the breaking of a marriage vow in a very specific way by one partner or the other. When we pledge to be married, we pledge that we will forsake all others, and adultery is saying I forsake most others. I don’t think I pledged to Donna when we were married that I wouldn’t think occasionally that one of the women on Friends had a nice smile.
Scripture is silent on whether Jesus ever felt someone was cute, but what we do know is that he saw value for the Kingdom in both men and women, and saw them both as Children of God. We do know that Paul knew strong women who were witnesses to the faith. They seem to have been able to operate among all of the children of God, seeing the spark of God within each, and seeing their utility to God’s purpose. It was not adulterous for Paul to praise Priscilla and Eunice.
Divorce is a hard thing. Verse 32 is where most people grab hold of this text and swings it like a sword. But in this world, don’t you believe it to be true that as on commentator puts it: “the dynamics of some marriages are realm resistant, and that the purposes of the realm may be better served by freeing the couple to live into other relationships?”
Every marriage has issues. There are always negotiations, there are always compromises, each partner in the marriage changes a lot over a period of time. Not every partner is as flexible as God intends for the living of a good life together, and perhaps some marriages were agreed to under the wrong assumptions. Some marriages just need to end. I’m not saying that marriage needs to be a fluid, temporary institution at all. I am saying that we all know people who are probably better off without each other, and to stay together is to cause themselves and their children greater damage.
“You have heard that it was said that you should not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” What does it mean to swear? Apparently Jesus is not talking about cussing here. What he’s talking about is the concept of saying,” I swear that I will get this job done.”, or “I swear that I will never go into this town.” The key here is verse 36, when Jesus says that you cannot change the color of the hair on your head by swearing-it’s just not in your power. It is God’s alone. He is saying here that trying to exercise power, even when you are trying to be a person of integrity by doing so, promising to do something, by swearing to do it, oversteps the boundaries between humans and God. He says that you should only say yes, or no, and then let it be. Let your actions, with God’s help, be the evidence of your integrity. If you were to swear, say, on something of God, like the temple, or earth, or heaven, then fail, then what witness is that?
Jesus, in speaking of these passages, is making one point three different ways. We are, to the best of our abilities, never to take actions that destroy, invalidate, or damage the vows and relationships we have with our fellow human beings. Some of those vows and pledges are serious and deep, like marriage; others are the day to day workings of living a human life, like feelings of anger, or the need to keep a sense of integrity in your life. He goes over the top to make the point, sometimes, but the point is still made. You have, as a follower of Jesus Christ, a certain responsibility to manage and marshal the ordinary feelings of human life in a way that gives glory to God. Don’t make vows you can’t keep. If you have made vows, do what is necessary to either fulfill them, or withdraw from them honorably. Express anger and other human feelings in Godly ways-neither tamp them down, nor express them uncontrollably.
This is what I think Jesus is saying, because I read Jesus as the proclaimer of God’s grace and love, and God is a loving God. Jesus speaks with great exaggeration to make a simple, sober point-honor relationships in all ways, because in honoring your relationships, you give honor and witness to God.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Salt and Light

Matthew 5: 13-20

Preached on Feb 6, 2011 in the Center Moreland Charge.

“You are the Salt of the Earth, but if that salt has lost its flavor, then it’s not got much in it’s favor. . . “

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the musical “Godspell”. I think that it was the high water mark of the “Jesus Freak” movement of the 60’s and early 70’s, a creative presentation of the Gospel of Matthew told through upbeat music, magic tricks, and actors dressed as hippies, in makeup that suggested clowns. Jesus was in full whiteface, but with a Superman shirt. The original show made it to Broadway, and a movie was made of it, as well. I read now that there is a Broadway revival of it in the works, and it may open this spring or summer.

My dad directed the show when he taught high school, and I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. So I remember a lot of the songs. I can’t hear this chunk of Scripture without hearing the song that goes with it!

So, I’ve heard this phrase for years, but until this week, I didn’t have a very exact sense of what it meant. I knew it was complimentary, but I didn’t know what it was complimentary of. It means good folk. It means “people of great kindness, reliability, or honesty”. It means people of value. Roman soldiers were paid often in a portion of salt called a salarium, so to be “worth your salt” is to have earned your pay. We even get the word salary from salarium.

To be the salt of the earth is to be of value to your community. This week, we’ve learned yet again the value of salt for a community, with salt being dumped on the roads and sidewalks, haven’t we? To be the salt of the earth doesn’t mean rich, it doesn’t mean poor, though now we sort of hear it in conjunction with lower middle class, hard working types. Jesus, I think, means to ask his disciples if they are of value to the Kingdom of God, here. If the salt has lost its taste, it has lost its value. If salt has lost its taste, it is useless.

Akin to this is Jesus’ second image, the light of the world. Who would put a lit candle or oil lamp under a bushel? Aside from the obvious fire hazard, why light a lamp if the light is blocked, and the darkness is not overcome?

The light of God comes from the spark of God that is within us all. As I said a couple of weeks ago, when we become aware of all that has been done for us by God, in the actions and choices of Jesus Christ while he was on earth, and also in the presence and actions of the Holy Spirit who is with us at every moment; when we realize just all that God has done, our natural humble response is gratitude, and we act in ways that show our gratitude, and when we are seen this way, the light of the world has shined. The salt of the earth has been tasted.

Our witness to the love of God for this world is not in the radio stations we listen to, it isn’t in the bumper stickers we put on our cars. It is in the actions we take, the choices we make, the love we show for our fellow human beings. People who are salt of the earth do not judge others and purse their lips; Neither do salt of the earth people do whatever the culture is doing at that moment. Salt of the earth people show love and hospitality to their fellow human beings-people who are light of the world people care, but are humble enough not to ostracize others for their choices.

Salt of the earth people understand other peoples’ choices—they may have concerns about gas drilling, but they understand why people sign leases and take living wage jobs in a new and bustling industry during a tough economy. Salt of the earth people don’t take drugs or drink to drunkenness themselves, but they are aware enough of the hardness of life that they understand how someone else went down that road. Light of the world people may have political opinions of their own, but understand that there are reasonable people who may disagree. That doesn’t make them socialists or somehow less American.

Our saltiness is based in our resemblance to Jesus. The wattage of our light is based in how we seek to emulate Christ. When Jesus came to a well in a public place and saw the woman who seems to have had relationships with every man available, counting 5 husbands, and not married to the current man she’s with, number 6, he doesn’t shy away, or whisper to his friends behind his hands. He also doesn’t go stand in line to be number 7. He acknowledges the light in that woman’s soul, he acknowledges the presence of God in her being, and therefore acknowledges her humanity. He looks her in the eye.

Who was the guy with salt in the story of the man beaten by robbers and left for dead by the side of the road? The Samaritan.

Who was the person with salt when the sick man is lowered through the roof into Jesus’ presence? The guys who loved their friend so much they carried him to the house, and thought creatively when the crowd was too large.

Who is salt of the earth today? They’re easy to find—they are the people who shovel out their neighbors’ sidewalks when they’re ill or frail. They’re the people who volunteer for the fire department. They are the people who bring food to church to feed the hungry. They’re the people who visit shut-ins and the infirm, they’re the people who coach, lead Scouting programs. They teach, they heal, they speak out on behalf of others.

Having fun while doing these things is just a bonus, by the way, like that guy in the Maxwell House commercial, who drinks his cup of coffee and then goes out and snowblows the whole town.

So, it’s apparently true that salt can lose it’s saltiness. Chemically, I don’t think that’s true, because the Sodium atom would have to de-bond from the Chlorine atom, but Jesus isn’t teaching chemistry here. He’s teaching discipleship. If you can lose your saltiness, I think you can probably also gain it.

Everyone’s a little salty. Everybody is a little shiny with God’s light within them.

In your life, how can you become saltier? How can you become shinier? How can you become someone of great kindness, reliability, or honesty? How can you be of value to your community; not just your church community but to the community as a whole?

How can you be the salt of the earth for the world this week?