Thursday, November 30, 2017

Two Answers!

In our life of faith we sometimes tend to want to make everything about one answer.
And a life of faith is really about holding two things together at the same time.
It is about being OK with things that seem to contradict each other.
On a weekly basis I see the complexities of life, and how those complexities need more than one answer.
Our readings for today, and last week give us a great example of this.

As you can imagine there is always someone in our congregation dealing with something.
We always have someone in a life changing circumstance.
Someone who has cancer, someone who is dying, someone who is realizes that their life is changing too quickly.
We have people dealing with marital problems, people getting divorced, or just not able to cope.
And these are the big problems.
I am not even talking about the daily difficulty we face of trying to get it all done or balancing lots of things all the time.
In times like these it is good to know that God is seated on the throne.
That everything under heaven is in God’s hands.
That God is at work in our lives in ways we can’t know or see.
It is good to know that Jesus is in the heavenly places, that he is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
It is good to know that our current problems or suffering is only temporary.
It is good to know that we can take all of the burdens of our heart and lay them down, because God is in charge.

I know that this year I have needed to remind myself of this on several occasions.
To say to myself, “it almost doesn’t matter who is president, or who is in congress.”
God is really in charge.
As a person of faith we have to laugh at the whole thing sometimes.
All these people who think they are so important, and that what they do somehow matters.
I hope you can see through it.
I hope you can see through any elected official who wants to us to believe that what somehow matters in this world is what political team you want to win.
As if the rules that men and women make here on earth can compare to the power and majesty of God.
It is good to know that God is in charge, even though we can’t always see it.

We have a hope that is above all the things we face in this life.
“With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
We have to know that God that is above all things.
It is of great comfort to us in times of difficulty.
When we are dying, sick, broken, and lost it is good to know that God is ruler of all things.

This is exactly what our reading from Ephesians tells us this morning.
That we shouldn’t worry too much what happens in this world, because God is really in charge and not us.
Not even the people who think that they are powerful.
Only the God we know through Jesus Christ.

As great as that answer is it is incomplete, because God is not just above us.
God is also here now, in this place.
In the world we live.
God is active and alive.
God is moving all the time.
God calls us who are alive to not be aloof about what happens around us.
But God calls us to care for the other people that walk this earth too.
To care for those that are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison.
God calls to help those people in our path that are right here and now.
That even amongst us it is not enough to just pray and hope for the best.
The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel demands of us action, and accountability.
“Let your light shine.”
It does matter who is being mistreated because of political decisions that are being made.

This section of Matthew’s Gospel is actually not even about us.
It is about the nations.
The Greek word that is used there is the one that is used for Gentiles.
It is not about Jews, or Jewish Christians, but the world.
The empire too is judged by God, and is judged based upon how well they treat the hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick, and those in prison.
In other words God cares about what happens right here on this earth.
God cares about how we treat others.
God cares about what laws we pass, and how those laws care about others.

I know that we don’t want to talk about this.
I know that we don’t want to hear it.
But what am I supposed to tell you this morning?
Read the text, and tell me how do you wiggle out of it?
I know people will say, “But this is about individuals’?
OK, how are you doing with it?
When was the last time you went to a prison to visit someone?
When was the last time you welcomed a stranger?

And again if the Bible was only this Gospel reading we all might be in trouble.
If the Bible only said one thing we wouldn’t be able to stand.
And it wouldn’t be able to so richly help us.
The Bible says more than one thing, because God is bigger than one thing.
And today we have both.
We have the God who is above it all.
And the God who gets down into the mud with us, and asks us to care for unlovable people.

We need both things.
Because sometimes in our lives we need to be comforted and reminded that it will all be OK.
But we also sometimes need to be reminded that there is work to do.
We need reminding that we get to participate in God’s redemptive work.

Maybe this is made even clearer because we just spent a whole day giving thanks.
Giving thanks for mundane things, our families, friends, food, a roof over our heads, our health, the jobs we get to do.
We are reminded in those times that God is in everything, and everything good comes from God’s gracious hands.
And because of that we are reminded that not everyone has those things.
Not everyone has a great family, or loyal friends.
Not everyone has a job, let alone one they like.
Not everyone has a roof over their heads or more food then they can possibly eat.
It leads us to action to want to help, to want to share.

So on this Thanks giving weekend let us keep those two truths in creative tension.
Let us remember that the “Lord is our God, and we the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of God’s hand.”
And because of that we have much to share with the thirsty, hungry, naked, stranger, and those in prison.
So that all the nations, and all the people, will know that God is great and the ruler above all things!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Getting Arrested for Faith

I want to warn everyone that I plan to get arrested in 2018.
Not for doing anything bad like robbing a gas station, but for hopefully bringing attention to something in our country that needs to be talked about more.
It is the gap that continues to grow between the rich and the poor.
I have cared about this issue for a while now.
I have talked about it from this pulpit on several occasions.
It really came to my attention when I was asked to join with a group of leaders here in Concord to talk about this issue in the last presidential campaign.
Putnam’s book gives data on how this problem continues to grow in America, how this gap is eroding the American dream.
It is making almost impossible for poor kids to raise out of poverty.
My sermon this morning is not really about this issue, but I bring it up because our texts for today is about using your gifts for God’s kingdom.
It is about taking what God has given and not burying it in the dirt, but using those gifts to advance God’s mission.

I want you to know that getting arrested is not a comfortable idea for me.
Speaking out on issues that are controversial is not my favorite thing to do.
I would much rather come here every week and tell you over and over how much God loves and cares for you.
I would like for you every week to think to yourselves, “Wow pastor Jon really helped me overcome this or that problem I am facing.”
I am like all of you, I want people to think well of me.
I want to get along with people.
But more and more I am searching my own actions.
And I can’t but help think that I am not doing all I can with the gifts God has given me.

What I want to ask you this morning is are you?
That is essentially what the our Gospel this morning asks of us.
What are we doing with God’s gifts?
Which person are you in this parable?
Are you one of the people that takes what God has given and multiplies it.
Uses what you have, your money, your time, your talent, your life, to benefit others?
Or are you like the person that buries their gifts in the dirt?
Are you afraid?
Afraid of what will happen to your money?
Are you afraid of what people will say about you?
Are you afraid to lose your prestige in the world?

What is interesting to me about our Gospel this morning is that the person that hid the money did so because they were afraid of the master.
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.”
Fear holds us back from doing so many things.
Fear that we will not be loved.
Fear that we will not have enough.
Fear that we will fail.
Fear that we are not good enough.
Our faith in God’s love and grace is supposed to free us from this fear.
It is supposed to let us go so that we can act for the good of our neighbor.

What does it look like to not have fear about our money?
I suppose that most of you are like me.
In our household we generally live paycheck to paycheck.
Don’t get me wrong.
We have plenty of money to live a good life.
We have money to pay all our bills and left over to have fun.
But if either my wife or I didn’t get paid for a week we would be in trouble.
But what if that wasn’t our main concern.
What if we lived as if we were truly free from the worry of it all?
Perhaps we would be more generous.
We would give more away.
But I would suggest I am like many of you.
I do worry.
I worry about paying for college.
I worry about retirement.
I worry about paying of my student loans.
I worry about my kids having a good life.
I worry about our congregation doing well.
I worry that we have enough to have a ministry.
I worry that we will fight with each other and damage this great ministry.

This is why I am going to get arrested.
Because I trust that God is not harsh and angry.
I trust that God has given me all these gift so that I can do something with them.
So I can use them to make this world a little nicer for someone else.
It will be my faith in action.

I am a big believer in acts of rebellion against the world we live in.
I know families that don’t buy Christmas presents so they can give away money to others.
I know people that don’t shop at certain stores, because they don’t like the way employees are treated.
I know people that don’t watch movies about war, because they don’t want to glorify violence.
Those are just a couple of examples.
All of those things are ways that we take our faith and put it into action.
We take what God has given us and use it for the benefit of someone else.
Because the truth is that slowly this world eats away at us.
It slowly, most of the time without us noticing, takes away our spiritual selves.
It replaces it with fear.
We end up giving up the gifts of God for some material comfort.

Today is stewardship Sunday.
And I want you to notice that we are not talking about you giving more money to the Church.
I gave up a couple of years ago on that sermon.
What we are talking about is more important to me.
We are talking about you using what God has given to live out your faith.
To not see God as harsh and angry, but a God who is generous, gracious, and loving to you so that you can be that for others.
Don’t be afraid.
Don’t bury your talents in the dirt.
Live boldly, live generously.
Give of what God has given to you.
Resist the world’s message that what matters most is your happiness, safety, and comfort.
Find ways to trust in God’s message of grace to you, and live it out.
That is what being a steward is all about.
It is about taking what God gives you and increasing its value, by giving it away to others.

Isn’t that what we all try to do with our kids?
Don’t we want them to have a better life than we did?
I am getting arrested in 2018 because I don’t just want that for my kids, I want it for everyone’s kids.
I want my kids to have a better life not materially, but spiritually.
I want them to trust that they can take risks for others.

I am not going to end by asking you to get arrested.
My path is not your path.
But I am asking today for you to use the gifts that God has given to resist the world, to live for others, to live generously, to live out the faith that God has given you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What Happens When A Pastor Walks Into a Hospital?

This week one of our members was having surgery.
I went to the hospital to pray with her before her surgery.
I was told by the front desk to go to this certain waiting room.
I was there on official business so I was wearing my collar and a black suit.
When I walked into the waiting room a woman said to her daughter.
“Is that a priest? That freaks me out.”
She said it loud enough for me to hear it, so I said, “Don’t worry I am not here for you.”
We all laughed.

I wonder if this will be our reaction when Jesus comes again.
I know that all of you would have a much different reaction when I come to see you in the hospital.
People find it comforting.
They want me to come and see them, to pray with them.
In fact, if I didn’t come you might be upset.
But people that don’t know me or that don’t go to Church, or that don’t understand religion their reaction is one of horror.
Maybe she reacted that way because she only sees a priest when it is time to die.

I know that when I did my hospital chaplaincy in seminary I would sometimes get that reaction from people.
The chaplain is here that must mean that someone is dead.
People don’t call the chaplain for good things.

Our Gospel for this morning is about what we expect when Jesus comes again.
Will we be prepared?
Will we be scared?
Will we rejoice?

I think we should back up one space.
And just say the obvious thing; many of us don’t believe that Jesus is coming back.
Or at least we don’t live like that could really happen any time soon.
This is not part of the Christian doctrine that we take seriously.
Is that good?
I think it is in the sense that we simply don’t know when it is going to happen.
Jesus told us this many times, including in Matthew’s Gospel right before the one we have today.
Since we don’t know when, and since we don’t have any control over it, there is something to be said for going about our lives.
To live as Jesus calls us to live.
I heard a lecture by a woman who used to be a Pentecostalist.
She was talking about why pentacostalist don’t care about the environment.
She said that they don’t care because in their theology God is going to come and blow up the earth anyway and it is going to happen soon.
Why take care of something God is just going to destroy.
I understand this argument.
It is the same one I give for not making the bed.
Why make the bed I am going to get right back in it and mess it up in a couple of hours.
So maybe there is a danger in over emphasizing that Jesus is coming back.

On the other hand, what does it look like to live as if we expect Jesus to be here tomorrow?
What are the implications for our moral choices?
What are the implications for how we treat each other?
Distancing ourselves too far from this Christian doctrine may lead to laziness on our part, as if what we do doesn’t matter at all.
As if God doesn’t care about the world we live in, or the people that are in it.
Having a sense of God’s coming gives us urgency to our actions.

But most of us simply don’t think about this that often.
Because why should we care?
Here is why it is important, how we see the end of time says a lot about how we think of God right now.
If you think of God as really angry and out for revenge then that god is going to show up mad.
That God is going to destroy this sinful place we live, and all the sinful people in it.

But if your God is loving and caring, if your God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, then when God shows up it is a wonderful and glorious thing.
It is a renewing of the world that cries in labor pains.
It is a time of no more tears or hurt.

What does this Gospel say about God and what Jesus return looks like?
First thing is that the bridesmaids wait for a party.
The image of marriage feast is an image of joy.
The bridesmaids are waiting in an expectation of joy.
They are not anxious about it.
Because they sleep before the groom arrives.
Isn’t that what we wait for and hope for?
Are we not waiting now in expectant joy of the marriage feast that has no end?
Are we not waiting for God to come and right all the wrongs, end all the suffering and hurt?

What about the end of the parable?
It comes off as really mean for the Lord to shut out the foolish bridesmaids.
I think we can say that there is preparation that comes before the party.
The ending of this parable would have been a surprise to the people reading it.
Weddings were open occasions to everyone in a community.
To have a closed door would not have been common.
The community that Matthew wrote his Gospel to is growing weary of waiting for Jesus.
They have begun to slack off in their love of the Gospel.
Can’t we say the same about us?
Are we not like Matthew’s community?
As the Gospel ages its message sometimes looses the radical nature.
We lose our passion for what Jesus is calling us to do.
We forget to prepare ourselves for Jesus to come again.
We forget the oil to light our lamps.
And our light doesn’t shine.
We hide it under a basket, because we have forgotten the goodness of God.
We forget that God is gracious to us.
We become like the woman in the waiting room.
And in doing we become afraid of God instead of God’s companion and friend.

The question that I think is at the heart of our faith life is this.
Do I experience joy when I think about Jesus?
Do I experience a genuine good feeling about following Jesus?
Does my faith energies me to love and care for others?
When I think of Jesus I think of my salvation.
I think of all the times I have needed my faith in really dark times.
And I think of all the times Jesus has come through for me.
And I want to share it with others.
I want them to have that joy.

If we don’t know Jesus, if we become complacent about our faith, about the Good News of Jesus Christ, it is as if our lights go out.
It is as if the door is shut, and we can’t get back in.

So today let your light shine.
Care for the least of these.
Love those who you struggle to love.
Prepare your hearts for the joy of the Lord, because Jesus is coming again.
Will we be ready for that moment?
Will we be joyful that the bridegroom returns?
Live today as if Jesus is returning.