Monday, September 23, 2013

Shrewdly Graceful

What are we going to do with this parable?
All of the commentaries I read this week on this parable said something like this, “Good luck preaching on this text.” for years commentators have been wondering what Jesus is getting at with his parable of the dishonest manager.
The great theologian and New Testament professor Rudolf Bultmann called this parable, “The problem child of biblical interpretation.”
I want to say that there is no way for me in this sermon or any sermon to fully get what is going on in this parable.
However, this is also the beauty of the parable.
Far too often the parables of Jesus have been watered down into discernible moral lessons.
We have taken the sting out of Jesus’ parables by assuming always that we know what the lesson is in them.
But parables are supposed to be surprising, and not about common sense.
This parable is wonderful because it stops us from making it an easy moral tale.
This is not to say that it has nothing to say, or that I don’t have anything to say this morning.
It is just to say that we should have to struggle again and again with what the Gospel has to say.
One of the things I want to say this morning is that perhaps this parable is not about some nice moral lesson that we should learn.
It is instead about the grace and mercy of God.

One of the possible keys to this parable is to consider the people that Jesus is addressing in the telling.
We are told that he tells this parable to the disciples.
But we know that there are other people listening in as well.
Back in chapter 15 we are told that Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.
The good religious folks of Jesus day, the Pharisees and scribes, are grumbling because Jesus would dare to associate with just seedy characters.
Last week we heard the parable of the lost sheep as Jesus way of explaining the mercy and grace of God.
Today’s parable is in the same vain.
Think about how you would hear Jesus’ words if you were a tax collector.
It was your job to deal all the time with dishonest wealth.
You did the bidding of the Roman Empire.
You were seen by your neighbors and religious figures as working for the enemy.
But Jesus tells us that even this work in light of God’s grace can have redeeming qualities.
That even outside of religious holy things God’s work can still be done.
In fact, there are gifts that people of this age have that can be used to do God’s work.
It is not about morality but the grace and mercy of God.

Those of us who attempt to live a godly life know how hard this is.
We know that the world we live in is a messy place.
It is filled with good and bad.
It is filled with contradiction, and paradox.

I know that one of my daily struggles is to live the life God would want me to.
To live a life filled with righteousness and justice.
I have learned over the years how hard it is to do this.
When I was in college I saw a documentary about the clothing industry.
Because of NAFTA major clothing companies in the United States were moving jobs to Latin America that didn’t have unions or minimum wage.
The shirt you bought at the Gap for ten dollars cost the company only a dollar to make it.
And of that dollar only pennies went to the workers.
I decided that I was only going to buy clothes that came from companies that paid a living wage.
It has been about twenty years since I have been in Gap store.
But here is what I found out.
It is almost impossible to buy clothes that are not made on the backs of the poor.
Every company does it.

My Dad spent most of his life working for Sears, in fact my grandfather also worked for Sears.
Truth is that Sears also had some pretty shady business dealings.
For example, They would go into a town and buy up all the local shoe places so that the only place to get shoes was in Sears.
A friend once confronted me about Sears, and said something like, “Well if you don’t shop at the Gap then you can’t shop at Sears either.”
What was I to do?
What are we to do?
We live in a capitalist country, we live in a place where the bottom line of business is profit and not people.
How are we to live with integrity as children of light?

The children of light are not as shrewd as the children of this age.
Jesus this morning tells us that shrewdness is not a bad thing when it comes to doing the work of the kingdom.
That is good news, because if we are going to take Jesus seriously, if we are going to try to live as children of the light we need to be shrewd.
The definition of shrewdness is; having or showing an ability to understand things and to make good judgments.

The only way to live a life of faith is to live in God’s grace.
To live a life of faith is not merely to follow the moral rules.
It is not merely to be good people.
It is to understand the world we live and how God interacts with that world.
The God that Jesus teaches us about is not just about the morality and ethics, the God Jesus gives us is about grace.
It is a God who gives us grace to live in a world as morally messy as the one we live in.

Does this let us all off the hook?
Does it mean that we can do whatever we wish?
Because grace calls us back live again in this kingdom.
It sheds light on the world we live and exposes it for what it is.
The system that the shrewd manager finds himself is one of hierarchy based on money, power, and exploitation.
That is the system we live, and it is about rewards and punishment.
The system that Jesus gives us is about a gracious God who has provided for our every need whether we deserve it or not.
It is about a God who deeply understands the human heart and loves us anyway.
To see this is to be able to shrewdly asses the situations we find ourselves.
To be able to see wealth for what it really is, a trap, and not true security.
 To see ourselves for what we are sinners and saints.
To see the world in all of its messiness and still believe that God’s grace shines through.
To see others for what they are beloved children of the same God.

To be shrewd in the kingdom is not to be the Pharisees and Scribes who look down on others because they are not as religious as they are.
To be shrewd in the kingdom is to not look down on ourselves, but to be lifted up by the power of God’s grace.
If we can see the world through the lens of God’s grace then we can be less judgmental of others, we can be more forgiving, we can live without fear, and we can be shrewd in assessing what God is up to in our lives.

The problem with my boycott of certain companies was that often I used it to feel superior to others.
Like I was doing something more holy then all those people buying those clothes.
I still never shop at the GAP.
I still try in my own life to find ways to not fall into the system of consumption and exploitation, but I also am able to put everything in better perspective.
This act alone does not make me superior to others.
I live as everyone else does by the grace of God alone.

May all of us live by God’s grace.
May we be shrewd in dealing with the world, by not falling into the trap of believing that there are somehow us good religious people, and the rest of people living in sin.
In all of it in everything small and big is God’s grace working for our redemption.

Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Find Faith!

I spend a lot of my time looking for things.
Keys, wallet, phone, books I am reading, and papers I need.
For anyone who has ever looked in my office this is no surprise.
Things just seem to go missing in the black hole of my office.
We all can lose things at times.
What happens when we lose faith?
What happens when we can’t seem to tap into that part of us that simply trusts that everything will work out for the best?
What happens when we feel that God is absent from our lives?
How do we find it again?

I was looking this week on websites that give advice about how to find things when we lose them.
I thought that they also might be instructive to how to find faith.
The first thing that all the websites suggested was to stop looking for the thing we lost.
That if you are stressed and trying to find something your body will pull energy away from your ability to concentrate and locate the object and if you simply stop looking and relax it will appear.
I think in our faith life this is excellent advice.
When we lose faith we might think that what we need to do is go looking for it.
To try harder and concentrate more on getting it back.
What Jesus suggests to us in our Gospel this morning is that we don’t need to go looking for it, because God is already out there looking for us.
Jesus tells us that when we are lost God is on the case.

If you have ever been hiking one of the rules about getting lost is to stop.
That if you are lost the best thing to do is to stop and wait for help, because if you keep moving the people looking for you are going to have a harder time finding you.
The same can be said for our faith life.
That if we are so busy running around trying everything to find our faith, perhaps we miss the fact that God is already looking for us.
The best thing to do is to be still, and simply to wait for God to show up.

I know that this goes against what we think is common sense.
When I lose things I always think to myself, “Ok just concentrate harder and you will remember where you left it.”
But it is true the harder I look usually the harder it is to find.
Usually once I give up what I was looking for appears.

Another piece of advice for finding lost things is that it is usually where it is supposed to be.
That most of the time what we are looking for is where we would expect to be.
Looking for your keys and you search every pocket only to realize that you put them in the inner pocket that you didn’t check the first eight million times.
Let me suggest this morning that God is always where God says God will be.
God is always right there with you.
God is always looking for you.
Something horrible happens in our life and we wonder, “Where is God?”
God is right there in the mess with you.
I suppose we feel this way because our idea of God is that he protects us from ever having anything bad happen to us.
Or the idea that if we only are faithful and righteous enough God will not let anything bad come our way.
If only life was so simple.
Instead, the image of God that Jesus paints for us this morning is of God out there in our mess with us.
Jesus gives us a God who stops everything else to sweep the messy floor with us until we are found.
This is different from the God removed from the problems we face, sitting on a puffy cloud somewhere judging and condemning us.
Perhaps some of the issue with us trying to find God is just that we don’t see God the way that Jesus presents God to us.

I currently have three friends under the age of 40 who are dealing with cancer.
They are all at different stages of this disease.
I really don’t know why.
I know that it is really unfair.
These are good people with strong faiths.
What I have noticed however is the way that they are surrounded by God’s love.
One of my friends Sarah Dalzell just found out this summer that she has stage four Stomach cancer.
It really sucks.
But Sarah really like Converse all-star sneakers she has been wearing them for years with all sorts of different colors.
One of our friends came up with the idea that we should all wear Converse sneakers on the days when Sarah has chemo to show our support and then post a picture of us wearing them on Facebook.
Last Friday over one hundred of Sarah’s family and friends posted pictures of them wearing converse sneakers.
There is God right where God would expect God to be.
God is in our loved ones, our friends, and family.
God is in our shoes with us showing love and support.
God is running us down, and making sure we don’t feel alone.
Jesus teaches us that our God walks in our shoes with us down whatever road we find ourselves on at the time.

Another piece of advice in searching for lost things is that often times we are looking right at it.
I have done this so many times.
Often I am staring at the thing I am looking for.
I call in my wife to help me and she simply picks it up and shows it to me.
Often times God is right in front of our noses and we simply don’t see God.
God hasn’t gone anywhere but our perception of things shifted and so we simply feel that we can’t find God.
The key to any spiritual life is to be able to see the world and ourselves as God sees it.
If we feel unworthy to be loved then we often times will project that on to God, but to see ourselves as unloved by God is not see God properly.
The God that Jesus talks about is so concerned about us individually that he leaves the 99 to come and search for us.
That is how much God cares about you that God risks everything to come after you.

Perhaps if we merely were thinking all the time that God was on the lookout for us then we could see better the ways that God is coming after us.
In the middle of life and all of its demands we will be able to see God right there in our mess with us.

One final piece of advice on how to find lost things is to think back.
It is important to retrieve the memory of where you put the lost item in the first place.
Once you do this you can go, “Of course that is where it is.”
And make a beeline for the lost object.
Can we remember all the love that God has given us over the years?
Can we retrieve the memories of those times in our lives when we knew that God was with us?
A starry night, a cozy winter day by the fire, at our wedding, our first communion, our grandparents seventy wedding anniversary party, and most important can we think back to our baptisms.
Can we remember that day when God claimed us as God’s children?
Can we remember the words of Jesus this morning?
“….and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
God goes after us until God finds us.
And then God rejoices.

We lose many things in our lives keys, wallets, books, our health, and even at times friends or other important relationships.
The one thing that we can never lose is God.
Because God is out there looking for us until we are found.
If we can remember that then we can simply be still and know that God is with us in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Hating Church

When I was a teenager I hated Church.
I guess I enjoyed seeing my friends, but in general I thought the whole thing was a waste of my time.
I found it to be boring.
I would have rather slept in, ate brunch, listen to my Motley Crue records, watch football.
I never said it out loud, but I am sure I thought on more than one occasion that I hated my parents for dragging me out of bed and making me go to this awfully boring place.
I don’t think they cared.
Church was just what we did on Sunday morning.
When I would protest that I wanted to do other things.
My parents would ignore me and tell me to get into the car.
Truth is that going to Church cost our family something.
My parents were regular givers, we spent lots of our time and energy at church.
I am sure that we could have done other things with our time, energy, and money.
When I think back on it I see it as simply my parents living out their faith.

Jesus this morning says some pretty shocking words.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciples.”
What are we going to do with such words?
Here we are at the start of Sunday school today is a good day for our congregation.
We all love to see the kids in worship this morning.
We all love to have a busy and active Sunday school.
We all love to have fellowship with one another at our Barbeque.
This message just seems out of place.
Especially in our day when everything in our culture and world tell us that nothing is more important than “family values”.
That the most important thing any of us will ever do is raise kids, or be a partner to someone.
That family is the center of our lives.

I was living in New York during the presidential election of 2004.
That year George W. Bush won another term as president mostly because of people that pollsters were calling, “value voters”.
They were mostly Christians who voted for Bush because he seemed to be defending “family values”.
I don’t know if that is true, but that is what the press was reporting.
The Bishop of the Metro New York Synod went on the radio to be interviewed about this and he reminded the listeners that there are other values in the Bible beside “family values”,
That Jesus was also concerned about lepers, the poor, the sinners, the outcast, the prostitute.
Perhaps part of what we can take away this morning from Jesus words is simply that even though our family and friends are, and should be, important to us they are not the only thing that we should be concerned about.
That sometimes we even have to defy them to serve God and neighbor.

However, I am not sure that really answers the question fully as to why Jesus would use such strong language.
I want to give a two disclaimers about Jesus words.
The first is that Jesus often times uses hyperbole to prove his point.
I like this about Jesus because I often do this too.
Throughout the Gospel Jesus says outrageous things to get our attention and help us see the point.
This is good for us because we often already think we know what will be said in the Bible by Jesus.
We think Jesus is only about making us feel good, or giving us positive affirmations about our lives.
A verse like this will make us stop and think, and question.
Second, the word hate in Jesus time does not have the same connotation that it has today.
When we think of hate we think of a feeling that we have toward something or someone that is negative.
When Jesus uses the word it has nothing to do with how we feel about that person.
The word means to turn away from, to detach oneself from.
Jesus call here is to put God above all else…family, and even life itself.

I am always cautious not to preach about coming to church as the only sign of our commitment to God and neighbor.
I know there are other ways to do both these things that are outside these walls.
I also know that forcing your children to come to church is not easy, and it does not always get the required results.
My story that I share with you this morning is just that, it is my story about me and my family.
I lift it up because I think that it shows the struggle that we face today to be active disciples of Jesus.
My parents had to turn away from me, and detach themselves from what I wanted because that was what they felt called to do.
The kind of hate that I felt toward them and the church was merely the emotional reaction of a teenager.
I want us to see that being a disciple of Jesus does cost us something.

I guess that is what I want us to think about this morning as we start our program year.
Have we thought about the cost?
What does it cost to be a Sunday school teacher?
It means giving up other things that you might want to do in order to be here for the kids, and help them grow in faith.
It means giving up a part of your life for the sake of someone else.
What does it cost to be a kid who comes to Sunday school?
It might mean not sleeping over someone’s house on Saturday, or not playing on a certain sports team.
What does it cost to follow Jesus out of these doors into our daily lives?
It might mean that people will misunderstand our commitments to God and others.
To count the cost is to take stock in what really matters in your life and then to live out those values.
What will it cost to be confirmed, or have first communion?
What will it cost us to go to Bible Study on Wednesday night?
What is it going to cost us?

Jesus gives these words as a warning to those who want to follow him because they saw him heal people, or feed people.
Because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and that means death.
It is interesting that our Gospel today starts with large crowds traveling with him.
I wonder how many stayed on for the rest of the journey?
A couple of weeks ago I preached that Jesus in this part of Luke is always trying to convince people not to follow him because the cost is too high.
Here is another example.

I cannot leave it here this morning.
Because I think about the cost, and any adding up of what is lost versus what is gained has to take into account the entire journey of Jesus.
What about those that stuck it out with Jesus?
What about the women who went to the cross with him, and then who went to the tomb on Easter morning?
Was there some things lost?
But what was gained was even beyond their wildest dreams.

That is what I hope for us at Concordia Lutheran church this program year.
That the journey we take in worship, Sunday school, confirmation, first communion, Bible study, adult forum, outreach to the poor, spreading of the Gospel, will be beyond our wildest dreams.
That when we sit down and count the cost we will see that the journey is well worth it because we have gained so much more than what was lost.
Sure we won’t be able to sleep in our Sunday morning, but we have gained hope, joy, love, and faith from coming here and together discovering the wonderful amazing grace of God.
We will experience in our lives resurrection, healing, and a whole new insight into our selves and the world we live in.
So let us leave knowing that it will cost us something, but it will be worth every penny.