Health-to-Go

 sermon on Luke 17:11-19 and 2nd Kings 5:1-3,7-15c

 

What are we doing here? Where do we go from here? And where do we place ourselves in this reading? It makes a difference for our expectations of what is happening here.

These stories of course don’t directly fit our dividing lines as transferable to our setting. There’s the place of institutional religion, where priests operate and prayers and gratitude and devotion may be offered and things can be set right.

But Jesus is not in the place of religion. Neither was the prophet Elisha. So the people in these stories looking for healing didn’t go to the institution. They didn’t go to the priests. Even though we usually consider this our place of institutional religion, that might not be the equivalent encounter in the stories.

To make it one notch more complex, the church is not our parallel institution, by and large. Our place of medical healing—our institution—is the hospital or clinic. And the priests of the institution to pronounce who is well are the doctors or nurses. But, again, the story doesn’t have healing from the institutionalized professionals. It has Jesus.

That points us back here. Maybe we can ignore church as institution, and not focus on the so-called religious professionals (which is part of why I try to come across as pretty unprofessional). Maybe this is the place to bump into Jesus and be surprised by an unexpected word of blessing and healing.

Before we hear that word of blessing and healing, though, let’s pay attention to what we’re listening for. Neither Elisha nor Jesus has a stethoscope or MRI machine. They prescribe neither surgery nor pills. That’s not what Jesus needed to diagnose as the way to get healthy.

I’m going to try to draw a foggy line here by saying Jesus shows God is not most concerned about your illness or disease; God is most concerned about you. That’s a tough contrast because in many cases a sickness or health problem feels like the biggest worry, the thing you’d most like to have addressed or resolved.

In this distinction, it’s not that Jesus is ignoring or doesn’t care about your illness. But he doesn’t treat it in isolation or as superseding everything else.

In faith, we recognize health and healing as a matter of wholeness, not a matter of cure. Jesus isn’t isolating illness as if that’s all there is to you, as if what’s wrong has taken over everything about you. It’s not just treating an injury or removing germs or patching up parts. You’re not the sum of your vital signs or test results. Jesus is addressing the whole of you. He’s not saving you just from a single thing; he’s saving you for life.

I have heard some of you say while you’re sick that you don’t only want to be treated as sick, don’t want to be identified only by cancer, don’t want to be known for the problem, don’t want your relationships restricted to revolving around receiving for a small set of needs.

That’s what this sense of wholeness is about from God in Jesus, that you may have life and have it abundantly. It’s more than a doctor checking on a surgical follow-up. It’s how all of your life goes.

I know some health problems can be all-consuming, and our culture tries convincing us to expect we ought to be totally cured, and that’s what’s right. We do pray for those specifics, for direct relief, for successful procedures. We celebrate fine-tuned laparoscopic skill attending to the precise details, the science and wisdom for better alleviating pains and hurts.

But even when you’re not sick, it fosters such a narrow view of health and life—that food is only for balancing nutrients and counting calories, that exercise is for cardiovascular gain, that you need the right amount of this and not too much of that, and have to follow the rules and you’ll keep yourself right and then be fortunate enough to stay alive.

But this Jesus-model of fullness of life is sometimes embodied for us by those who can’t be cured, whose ailment may never change, who may even end up dying (just as all of us eventually will), but who are still vibrantly engaging life and know who they are.

Again, to draw a distinction: this isn’t about putting on a happy face even when you’re miserable and feeling rotten. It’s not about pretending nothing’s wrong. Our God of compassion is suffering with you. When things aren’t going well, I cry with you. That is our community responding with assistance, just as Sarah Key mentioned, so much that she wouldn’t wish away her ankle injury.

That also leads us to note that not everything is ever wrong. There is more to life, and there will be still more to come. Even in the worst, you are beloved by God and held by God and sustained in God’s promise. You are worthwhile to community. You are you.

The ten lepers in the story had a very particular version of this. Sure, their skin disease was problematic. But it may not have been all that much physical suffering. It may have been itchy ringworm or flaky psoriasis, which qualified among these skin diseases in this category.

The larger issue was that they were identified and entirely confined by the term “leprosy.” They had no other interaction with society besides being defined as lepers. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t live in town. They couldn’t go up to others and have a conversation. They had to call out from a distance with the disparaging yell, “Unclean! Unclean!” Imagine being required to claim that awful label for yourself! Being defined as wrong. They were quarantined from life’s goodness.

The healing, the wholeness, the salvation, the restoration from Jesus, then, is more than fresh unblemished skin. It’s the opportunity to interact in life and in relationships. This, and not mere remediation of medical maladies, is God’s intention.

That’s highlighted further that this is the God of all creation. So certainly the search for healing and wholeness won’t stop at national boundaries or be limited to the preferred insiders, but is exemplified by expanding to include enemy Syrian generals and heretical Samaritans, those who would be rejected as having no business receiving good from God or knowing God or praising God. Jesus’ mission will not allow anybody to be left out. It includes the the ill and immigrants, the unfaithful and the unkind, the proudly pretentious and the desperate and unknowing. We are all held in God’s intention for abundant life.

So God meets us sometimes not with showiness or miracles. It turns out miracles are too small for this big purpose. God comes with remarkable restoration and reassurance, with words of blessing and healing. This isn’t the fancy latest expensive technocratic highly-researched procedure. It can be a simple unspectacular washing in water, maybe like the small splash of this font that incorporates you by baptism into this caring community. Maybe it’s the spoken reminder that—of course!—God in Christ wants fullness of life for you, that just as it’s not ultimately dependent on your genes or your physical regimen or your attitude or your insurance plan, neither is it allotted in proportion to your faith. Your abundant God lavishes this gift of life on you and all creation. It may later be the whispering word that wakes you from the big nap, calling you into a new day of life, even beyond the grave, calling you to come out, blown along by the Spirit into a fresh breath of air.

Today it’s simply in the word “Go.” You have come today to this place not for medical diagnosis, not for small miracles, but to find an encounter with Jesus, to see how he addresses you and your needs. And his word is “Go.” Go back to life. Go live. Go be in relationships. Go into the world. Go away from the confines of culture and the limiting sense of illness. Go away from the identity that you did it wrong, that you need to do something else, that you should be different. Go. Just go and be. Go and do what you will. Go live in the world. Go experience God’s intentions.

Nine of the lepers heard that commission and they went, went off to live at last. One remained to supplement it with some praise and thanks to Jesus.

At this point, you too can listen to Jesus, sending you back into life. For some, that may be enough, that you got what you came for, and you can go on your way today and live. I mean that as an honest offer, for sure. Others may need more time, to give thanks or to pray and encounter Jesus and interact with God about illness and health and wholeness and life. Whichever is right for you today is what’s right.

I realize there’s a risk 90% of you might get up now and leave, that you listen to Jesus and Go. But finishing the service—the institutional rule-following with a religious professional—isn’t what’s important. It’s not the point. Just as we’re not here for minute medical management, we’re also not here for the religious institution. All this is always only in service of life, so that you can know God’s work is that you and all people and all creation may live.

So you can stay. Or, in the words of our commission from Jesus, you can “get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

 

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Youth-led Global Climate Strike interfaith rally

In my religious tradition, Jesus says “Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them.”

Today, the children are coming.
They are coming out from school.
They’re coming from around the state.
They’re coming from around the world.
They’re coming up East Wash.
They’re coming on strike.
They’re coming to make their voices heard.
They’re coming to confront our fairly ignorant and greenwashing power company,
and coming to confront a governor steeped in education who in this instance has yet to recognize their youthful value and validity.
They’re coming with strength.
They’re coming with courage.
They’re coming with audacity.
They’re coming to change the future.
The children are coming to help us all.

As Jesus suggested, let’s not hinder them.
Let the children come.

Though Jesus didn’t and I don’t mean it as a put down, some of the youth involved in this day might not prefer to be called children. That’s because there’s still a notion in society that children should be kept in their place, that they don’t have the standing we adults do, that we’ll take care of business, that we know better.

Well, these youth today are saying we don’t know better. Or maybe more clearly that we know plenty and haven’t done anything about it. It’s not business as usual.

Jesus says don’t hinder the children, but that’s what we’ve been up to. We’ve hindered them by not paying attention. We hinder them by not paying attention to their future or their children’s future on this planet we’re leaving them. With our fossil fuel pollution, we are reducing the potential for their lives and for any life to flourish. Not only hindering, we are contributing to death, an enormous cost for our cheap present.

If we consider ourselves protectors of children, we’ve just about blown it. If we claim to want to keep our children safe, we’re falling down on the job. If we say we want them to succeed in life, we’re actively obstructing that pathway.

70618276_10156662548288785_5465442362010370048_nInstead, they’re picking up the pieces and taking care of us. They are the responsible ones. They are the faithful ones. As our house burns, they sound the alarm and act like it’s an emergency. In this moment, that’s our source of hope, and so Jesus is exactly right: let the children come.

Jesus also spoke of scary times, of destruction and devastation. He talked of natural disasters and conflicts and hunger and war. He spoke of darkened skies and when powers will topple. He didn’t say it to make is desperate or focus on the negative. It was a warning to put the powers on notice.

We’re at that kind of moment now, of so much apparently bad news. We watch it happen around us in so many headlines and sometimes in our own backyards. Jesus says this is just the beginning and tells us to keep awake.

We’re here because we’re awake.
We look to the children, the youth, because they’re awake.
We know the hour is late because we’re awake.
We watch it happen with open eyes because we’re awake.
We know the ripples and far effects because we’re awake.
We are reasonable and realistic and we’re awake.
We are eager for action because we’re awake.

Maybe you’re here today because, like me, you’re often scared of what this beginning is. It’s already so dreadful that I fear it getting any worse, and it stands to get a lot worse. I know it’s mostly not affecting me. But it is hitting the vulnerable already—the young, the poor, people who don’t look like me or live like me, and millions of other species. The whole world is shaking.

And this could be the beginning of the end. Or it may mean that this shaking world will shake up things and topple those power structures, that the death of some of that old will give birth and give rise to new life. It’s the 11th hour, 11 years remaining for meaningful action. Time is short, so we’d better not be asleep on the job. We need to be awake.

So we don’t shut our eyes to this reality. We don’t look only with fearful eyes. We gaze wide awake at the difficult present with visions of the vibrant hopeful future. We’re going to be part no longer of hindering, but now enjoy the role of fostering life across this big beautiful world. We look even with joy in our eyes, knowing this can be fun, that we’re in it together, that life is the best. We’re here today and we’re going to keep awake.

A better future is on the way. Let the children come.

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Dishonest Mammon

 sermon on Luke 16:1-13

This is almost the kind of Bible reading I like. I appreciate when there’s difficulty and we really have to wrestle with it to find some good news from God for our lives. I particularly dislike readings that become simple lessons, like that we should be nice to each other.

I say I almost really like it because even with trying to wring out stray drops of God’s goodness, this remains confusing and obscure. Liberation theologian and historian Justo Gonzalez nicely summarized:

It is not uncommon to see on our church windows portrayals of a father receiving a son who had strayed [which was the story just before this], or of a sower spreading seed, or of a Samaritan helping the [person] by the roadside. But I have never seen a window depicting a man with a sly look, saying to another, ‘Falsify the bill, make it less than it really is.’ Yet it is precisely this sort of man that the parable turns into an example…a man who is undoubtedly a scoundrel; and yet it praises him and his wisdom!*

That idea of a sly scoundrel in stained glass rejuvenates some of my fondness for this odd parable. Again, anything that smacks of too much holier-than-thou piety doesn’t get traction with me, but finding a down-and-dirty God tussling through the real muck of our lives is exactly what we need. We’re in trouble and God isn’t much help if God can’t operate in shady deals or keeps God’s hands clean from the sly scoundrels and remains removed from fraud and other suspicious economics.

And this is definitely economics. The actual Greek word for this manager is economist. A direct explanation from that word is that he keeps the household in order. This economist, however, may not have been keeping very good order. It’s said he squandered the resources. Maybe he was an old-time embezzler or the new model of self-serving capitalist.

Or maybe he was actually doing things right and the accusations against him were false. This is still the place of vulnerability: the boss has power to fire the workers. Without some sort of union muscle or labor law, there’s little protection for those underdogs. Positions are terminated without cause. Whole plants are shuttered at the whims of the stock market or of CEOs. Boards redirect funds. Prejudice plays into performance reviews and people are scorned.

Whether or not the guy in the story was actually squandering the property, the master decided to get rid of him. In this ancient case, the relationship was even more fraught and dangerous because the employee was a slave, which we’d quickly say doesn’t provide ideally supportive conditions.

This desperate and so-called dishonest manager decides to reach out to his peers. He knows others who are in dire circumstances as well. These peasant farmers and laborers were indebted and maybe indentured to this master. It’s estimated that in that time and place 35-40% of agrarian produce had to be given over in fees and taxes.

And even though it was directly prohibited by biblical law, still one writer observed that “Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land.”** Perhaps that’s also economically familiar?

This manager knew these people could hardly afford to live. He knew it because his was that uncomfortable position of having to collect from them, to reach deep into their threadbare pockets and demand what they owed.

He offers a startling reversal of that. Nobody knows what the numbers mean, why he reduces 450 gallons of olive oil and 75 bushels of wheat, why the manager took ½ off one and 20% off the other.

It may be the similar value of 500 denarii, equivalent to a pretty unpayable debt of 500 days’ wages, maybe even owed by a whole hungry village barely scraping by.

It may be that he was eliminating the hidden interest, in which case the master’s praise could’ve been putting on a show of gratitude for paying attention to the law of God and of the land.

It may simply be that those amounts were all they could afford to pay. In that case, it could’ve been that the master’s compliment meant it was shrewd to get cash-in-hand versus a lingering IOU.

Or maybe the master just observes it was a clever plan to get on somebody’s good side, but it’s not a compliment and fires him anyway.

The place of the master and what is resolved in the story remain confusing.

For one thing, it’s worth noting that the Gospel of Luke is always on the side of the poor, the side of slaves, the side of the dispossessed. The constant refrain is forgiveness of debts, reversals of fortunes. The righteous are those who support the poor, and justice means sharing.

But here is a strange twist where the manager is called dishonest, a word that can also be translated unrighteous or unjust. Is the manager “unjust” for breaking down the abusive economic system, but following God’s justice? Jesus’ mother Mary sings before his birth how the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty, how God’s arm scatters the haughty. That word scattered is the same word in today’s reading for squandered. But was the manager’s squandering that he dispersed and redistributed his master’s wealth to others? In the end, did this manager manage not to squander and scatter but to gather and support?

Then there’s the capper line. Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth—or unjust mammon—so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Is he being sarcastic: “Sure, go ahead and make friends with cheats and see how well it helps you in the end”? Is it a comment on subverting an already corrupt economic system? Is the suggestion to make friends an emphasis on community instead of exploitation for selfish gain? Does Jesus just like sly scoundrels?

I know that’s a lot of thoughts, a lot to sort through. And we ask, so what?

Certainly we can feel the relief, the surprise, the amazing grace of debt forgiveness. You may know burdens of student loans or bad mortgages, of regrettable credit card purchases. You can almost certainly feel the emotional weight of indebted feelings, of not being able to repay somebody and not being good enough to earn your way back to an equal standing, even if it’s just because of a small kindness or your thinking you don’t measure up. We shouldn’t forget developing nations saddled with loans from the International Monetary Fund where they can’t even pay the interest with 100% of their GDP.

Jesus may commend subverting those systems, to offer surprising forgiveness, to be part of the reversal of debt structure, to shock others with generosity. He knew the manager was in a risky place and there is an element in this story of sabotaging the dominant structure for a new form of justice. With conniving grace, Jesus will make friends with the sly scoundrels. And Jesus longs for that relief for you, especially when things are desperate.

 

mammon

Mammon, from The Infernal Dictionary,
by Louis Le Breton, 1863

Without direct clarity from the story, or the emphatic insistence of Amos, we do have the final sentence: you can’t serve God and Mammon. It’s more helpful to keep that old word than to try to translate in money or wealth. Mammon is connected to a Hebrew word for profit and becomes its own god.

So we may realize that worshipping our God cannot be equated with bowing down to profit. Whatever this story is of cheating and tricking and trying to come out with friends while eliminating debts, in the end a structure that is built on profit is proclaimed by Jesus to be in direct opposition to our God.

This, of course, implicates our economy immensely. We’re sometimes convinced that the purpose of life is making more money and that equates success or failure. We are living in the reality of a system built around profit. Workers suffer because the system is built around cutting costs to maximize profits. Families falter because student loans are more about profit than about education and potential. Nations linger in hunger because of interest and debt. Even our identities are subjected to marketing that tells us we’re not good so that a profit can be made by selling us products allegedly to improve. The #GlobalClimateStrike led by youth on Friday is exactly caused because quarterly profits of fossil fuel companies and shareholders have been seen as more important than life on this planet.

It is clear and easy to see the sin, to see that such reckless selfishness is not God’s way. If our pursuit is profit, is the bottom line, we are serving Mammon and not devoted to God and not following Jesus.

But when you’re indentured to the rich landowners, what are you going to do about it? How do you get away from oil companies and bosses and corporations that lock you in to an economic structure of subservient debt?

Jesus says you can begin being faithful in very small things. That’s something.

The challenge we have today is that this system is big and mean.

The blessing you may wrestle from today is that our down and dirty God is invested in overturning the rotten corrupt selfish system. “The captive to release, to teach the way of life and peace, it is a Christ-like thing” (ELW 686). And even when it doesn’t go as God intends, still from the beginning to the end, this is God’s creation, God’s world, God’s kingdom. We are living in God’s economy, God’s household, not fending for ourselves, but held in God’s trust fund of life.

 

 

* Justo Gonzalez, Luke, p190-191

** Barbara Rossing at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982

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Finder Keeper

meditative reflections on Luke 15:1-10 and Exodus 32:7-14

 

“They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.”

The sad assessment comes from our first reading, which is going to give us the story of the golden calf. It’s set at the base of Mount Sinai. God had just done powerful miracles with conviction on behalf of the people, announcing God’s people should be free from slavery, and trying to force the government to stop abusing these resident aliens, then finally busting through the armed forces and bursting past impenetrable barriers. God parted the Red Sea. They were free but hungry, so God gave bread from heaven. They were roaming without direction, so God called Moses to give commandments and order.

While Moses is up on the mountain, a mountain shrouded in fire and smoke with thunder rolling and the trumpet blast, right there under that very visible and convincing presence, the people nevertheless grow skeptical. He’s gone. So they turn away. Quickly turning aside, they look for something else. They gather their jewelry and have Moses’s brother make a cow. In theatrics that would have been as ludicrous then as now, they start genuflecting and prostrating and bowing down to this gilded graven image and saying “O, this shiny little toy we just made saved us from Pharaoh!”

Yup, pretty foolish. Somebody should’ve elbowed them and said, Uh, the real God is right up there on the mountain, see? Don’t you think God might notice and get a little peeved? A little bit of credit for all the hard work seems well-deserved. Or at least wait until God’s back is turned before mocking so blatantly.

Again, with melodramatic theatrics in the story, we might tend to shake our heads at the dolts. We at least have the good sense not to go ga-ga over a gold calf. The golden goose that grabs our gander is usually less flamboyant. We’d like to belittle those ancient people for treating something they just created as if it were the thing that had saved them, as if what they manufactured were better than they were, while we throw our devotions and attentions all sorts of directions and offer ourselves to all manner of silly things.

But I don’t want to bother enumerating where our wealth or our praise or inventions or time or interest goes. I just want to highlight that we find ourselves in the same result as the story.

They were at the foot of Mount Sinai, divine pyrotechnics blazing away over their heads, blisters of salvation still on their feet, Passover supper still winding its way through their lower GI tract just as they were winding tracks through the wilderness. But they forgot. They turned away. God seemed absent, and God’s goodness seemed distant.

It probably shouldn’t have. But it did. So they looked elsewhere. They looked to Moses’s brother. They looked to a lump of gold. They looked to a new party. They weren’t awful people. They weren’t trying to be idolatrous or blasphemous. They weren’t wanting to get it wrong. They didn’t intend to create a false new god or stray from their religion or forget goodness. They maybe should’ve known better. But they didn’t.

So God responds by sending Moses to preach to them, to call them back, to remind them of the relationship.

We gather here, reminded of the relationship, to have God’s goodness preached to us again. Our attentions and devotions have been elsewhere. It isn’t our repentant religiosity that restores us. It isn’t that we are so contrite, that we pray our way back into grace, that we bow even more heartily to the correct God. Our “Kyrie eleison” is understanding for ourselves that we are quick to turn. And then we sing the glory of God who welcomes us back with joy.

 

 

Sinful sheep and repentant coins. Odd characters, these.

If you’re like me, a first reaction to these lost parables may be a perturbed disappointment. I guess I place myself with the flock of 99 sheep and wonder why there isn’t joy in the presence of the angels of God over me.

Of course that’s self-justifying and a presumptuous view of myself. In the end, there really are no 99 sheep. There is only the one sheep, repeated at least 100 instances. We learned that from the gathering at the base of Mount Sinai, turning so quickly astray, following our appetites and our desires and losing track of the God who would seek always to save and bless us.

Though even that is not quite the right picture. That still leaves us to blame, feeling guilty that we couldn’t keep focus. Or maybe we get argumentative that the other things weren’t just idle distractions but were worth our attention and dedication. We may either be filled with regret, feeling that we’ve done too much wrong. Or we may resent if we’re told to repent.

But that doesn’t match these odd characters Jesus sets in front of us. As Emmy Kegler reminds us in her book titled for this passage, the coin didn’t do anything wrong to get lost. The sheep is just being a sheep.* If we’re identifying with these odd characters, it really isn’t about repentance as feeling regret. It’s not that we did something bad. About the only detail we have to hold onto is about relationship and about separation. If we can’t say it was a particularly sinful coin or especially evil sheep, if we can’t say why they got lost, if we can’t say whether the shepherd God or the homeowner God should’ve kept closer track, we don’t know. All we know is that she wants them back. She wants the separation to end, to be in relationship with you, to have you near.

This is a God who goes on the hunt for you, sweeping into every dark and dirty corner, a God down on her hands and knees to push aside the dust bunnies and questions of how good a housekeeper she is to begin with, persevering after you, a God even born into this messy world to come find you.

As complex as it is, as easy as it is to find yourself lost over and over again, still our statement of faith will recognize your glimmering feeling that you want to be found.

And though I believe this God is so persistent that she’ll find you wherever you are and will not let you remain lost, still I would also say that here in church is maybe the best and easiest place to be found. It’s here that you again and again have the promise that God loves you, is looking for you, won’t let you remain lost.

 

 

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Some grumbling people think that that would shame Jesus, would be an indicator that he’s doing something wrong. They were trying to keep pure, to follow not only etiquette but also the way they allegedly could be closer to God. It involved details not only of who but of how, how was the food prepared, in what. It came with lots of risk of contamination and loss of holiness, especially from those who should’ve been kept out. But here Jesus flagrantly was disregarding the health code and putting himself on the wrong side of his religion.

But Jesus wasn’t ashamed. Of course, that’s exactly where he wants to be. Some people say that any time you try to draw a line of who is in or to put up a fence, Jesus is going to be on the other side. Jesus exactly wants to welcome and eat with sinners.

This table we’re turning to now was originally set by Jesus on the night he was betrayed. It was for his betrayer. It was for the closest friend who would shortly deny three times even knowing him. It’s for those who would flee when their faith turned to fear.

This meal he set was recalling the meal on the night before Moses led those people into the wilderness, commemorating God’s relationship with a people who wanted not only to be free from slavery but often even from God and each other. Of course Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. That’s exactly the kind of God we have.

The best thing you can do, then, as we gather at this table is to find yourself among the sinners. Don’t draw the line that would claim you’re so good that you wouldn’t have a place at this banquet of sinners, this feast for finding the lost and bringing us back in together, even the grumblers. Jesus wants to eat with you. He’s been on the hunt to find you, to bring you back, even over and over, to keep you in God’s goodness and eternal embrace.

“When she has found you, she calls friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me.’” That’s what’s happening here at this table. Our God has found you, welcomes you, and she wants us all to rejoice at this party feast that you’ve been found again.

 

* One Coin Found, p2-4

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Prosperous Labors?

sermon on Psalm 112

 

I’ll admit I didn’t like this Psalm to start, and was disappointed it was the final one in our Psummer of Psalms.

At first, I thought it was offering false assurances and guarantees, trying to sell a bill of goods. I was reading it to declare that if you believe in God enough, you’ll be rewarded with descendants, wealth, riches, triumph. Put in a little supernatural dedication to get utterly this-worldly possessions. I don’t believe that’s true, even if it markets well.

I was further disgusted when I discovered there’s a book called “The Psalm 112 Promise: 8 Keys to Becoming Stable and Prosperous.” Yuck. Hinting what might be inside those pages, it says the author is quote “gifted with a strong apostolic anointing.” If the dubious theological language weren’t enough, the guy also has a weekly Christian television show! I know I’m letting my arrogance and condescension show, but c’mon. The back of the book asserts that “this step-by-step guide will help you achieve not just wholeness in your relationships, finances, and health, but also restoration in your heart and soul.”

Now, I recognize that as much as I’m deeply skeptical of such things, it has appeal. I don’t want to be so dismissive as to ignore that somebody may have arrived here today wondering about material rewards for devotion, whether God responds to prayers to help in relationships, finances, and health, just as the book alleges. It’s a big proposition.

Yet any time there’s an If…Then statement about you and God, I get alarmed. Like the divine butler Emily preached about last week, who comes to respond to your requests, this subverts God’s will and action to your own. It makes God’s love and blessing conditional and dependent on you and your behavior. It negates any sense of a promise from God—and that God always keeps promises is pretty much my basic definition of who God is for you.

This book takes Psalm 112 and tries to discern 8 steps, 8 “if…then” statements, such as “If we fear God, then our lives will be blessed. If we worship God through obedience, then we will have generational blessing. If we intimately know the God we serve, then we will have more than enough.”

One church-speak phrase for such sentiments is “prosperity gospel.” Hawked by the sort of preachers who have toothy grins and drive (or are driven) around in luxury sedans, this claims the main focus of the good news, the driving purpose of God, is to make some people rich. And faith is then proven or showed off in being wealthy.

Such a concept would read this Psalm to mean that if you’re righteous, then you’ll be rewarded with the materials gains our world is constantly striving after. One commentary I read this week pointed out that if it actually worked that way with automatic compensation, righteousness might be more universally pursued.*

Yet even more than testing a bank account’s alignment with faithful dedication, the notion of God rewarding you with prosperity is given the lie most quickly simply by looking at Jesus, the embodiment of God’s will. When we want to know what God is like and how God acts, we look at Jesus. And Jesus is, of course, well-known for his nice white teeth and riding around in a luxury sedan. Wrong! He didn’t even ride a luxury donkey. The opposite of being blessed with wealth, Jesus was homeless, scorned, poor, and killed. How’s that for a vision of God’s blessing active in our world? Not so much the prosperity gospel.

When I went back with that sense of God through the lens of Jesus, I actually discovered the Psalm was closer to our Christian identity and further from the well-dentured limo-riders, and then I began to appreciate the Psalm more.

For our usual cultural sense, prosperity comes not from obedience, but it’s wickedness that pays. The cheats, the schemers, the liars, the selfish are the ones who get ahead, at least in our society’s definitions of who is winning and who is behind. We’re even told that greed is good, that the admirable ones are the cutthroat hedge fund billionaires or CEOs who manage to cut ends by mistreating their employees.

But this Psalm doesn’t actually establish the bottom line as a balance, as gross income, as net worth, with power over others. Instead, the focal point is those who deal generously and lend and act justly. Offering no interest loans is not a get-rich-quick scheme in the framework of our economy.

In fact, it’s probably better to remove this from our categories of economy altogether. We’re warped into thinking it’s all always about money. But this is really about relationships, about interpersonal interactions, about how we respond to people and their needs. This Psalm isn’t a handbook on shortcuts to financial independence, but rather commends dealing well with each other.

It reminds us that that is what offers security. We aren’t kept safe by taller walls and bigger guns and meaner attitudes gnashing teeth. Just the reverse, anger will proliferate the evil tidings and prompt fear and in the end prove futile. In the words of Jesus, those who take the sword will die by the sword. But if rage is defused, if it’s not a retaliatory environment, if it’s not about aggression over others, if it’s about cooperative relationships, then that clearly reduces fear that somebody is out to get you.

Again, that’s not modeled much in our world of border disputes and zero-sum bellicosity, where fear is marketed to us and most of our systems are structured around what you lack.

So what would convince you to give up pursuing that path, chasing the wind, rushing from discontent to discontent, always feeling the lack and fleeing fear?

Well, this Psalm is working to convince you. It proclaims that God’s way is with this generous living, the sustenance of relationships. You may come to church not so much with the questions of whether there’s a way to connive God into giving you wealth and a bigger house. Even with lingering yearning, you may not be quite convinced that there are 8 simple steps to God fixing your relationships and ensuring your health.

But I suspect you may well be like me, that you need this opportunity to be reminded that this way of living is good and right, that it is worthwhile, since generous living in relationships takes dedication and some courage.

When the cries of the world fight against a vision of charity and kindness and peace, when fear lurks in every decision, and when you’re worried about whether you have enough, whether you’ll get by, whether your kids will match the model of success, this needs some reassurance.

This is God’s way, God’s goodness, God’s freely given abundance that is every breath and every heartbeat and every bite of food and all our existence. This is the care and virtue God intends for us and from us. And so it is worthwhile to live this way.

It is especially worth considering on this Labor Day weekend. We most often think of labor as something to avoid. We consider work as a contrast to rest. We conceive of jobs as a way to make money, and often little more, and yet we define ourselves by that role and not by other relationships.

But this reminds us that God’s blessing extends in all the areas of our life, and our vocations are callings from God and callings on behalf of these relationships.

So instead of thinking how we fill our days or what our obligations are or what makes the most money, we are invited to consider how we extend God’s love and generosity, where our roles aren’t just for selfish gain, but serve to benefit others and extend security and delight.

We’re accustomed to see that in our offerings and donations as doing good for others. But it’s perhaps most in our families, where our deepest relationships are intended to foster life for each other. Such holy living isn’t by any means restricted to professions such as mine, nor the volunteering that you do in this place. God’s love and blessing radiate into all the places of your life and all aspects of your days, so that it may extend also to others, as you are blessed to be a blessing.

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3160

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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm 82pride

I’m glad that this Psalm happened to show up today.

Let me set the stage for that:

A lectionary is a set of readings. This Psalm appointed for this day is listed in a set of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle with some origin in the ecumenical movement of the 1960’s, eventually giving rise to this version in 1994. It is used in lots of mainline Protestant churches, like some Lutheran and UCC, plus Episcopalian and Presbyterian, a few United Methodists and more. It’s also fairly close to the Catholic lectionary. So lots of us might be hearing a specific Bible reading on a certain day.

As we are amid a Psummer of Psalms, and as we prepared to celebrate Pride Sunday as the MCC, I was eager to discover what the Revised Common Lectionary had assigned for today. Would the passage fit? Would it be able to relate in any way? After all, if we randomly open the Bible and point at a page, we’re likely to end up without much spiritual insight. It could be an instruction about an ox or a verse about Egyptians or telling of destruction. Or lots of general praise for God’s goodness. So what would make us expect a coincidence of some Psalm having something to say on Pride Sunday?

This question is important because the most frequent way the church has looked for the Bible to say something about or to people who are LGBTQ has been to go through this big mixed book and pick out seven little verses that probably aren’t even talking about the same thing we are and then to begin issuing condemnations. We could just as well find lots in the Gospels where Jesus is close friends with other men, he even kisses them, and refers to Lazarus as the one whom he loved. We might as well claim gay Jesus as definitive instead of the condemnation passages. It would have at least as much to say to our current context. And there’s plenty where Jesus redefines gender roles and stereotypes and sees that divide as more fluid than fixed, and we could say he was an early proponent sympathetic to transgender issues.

Partly, then, a lectionary restricts me from picking and choosing to reinforce my view, skewing a message from God. Given today’s random Psalm, not chosen particularly for Pride Sunday, not cherry-picked as pro or con, it’s an interesting opportunity to ask what a broader overall biblical message might be.

With that question in mind, I was surprised and delighted that Psalm 82 really does seem to speak to today. To start, this Psalm declares God as a God of justice. That’s the criterion, and failing to do justice is judged as ungodly, as not-right. God doesn’t want us on the side of evil, and the good side is declared by God as being “fair to the poor and to orphans,” working to establish life for “the helpless and everyone in need” and offering deliverance to “the weak and homeless.”

For an easy point of contrast, the acting director of the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration Services rather notoriously decreed this week that the poem on the Statue of Liberty needed an adjustment, that it should say “Give me your tired, your poor…who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

But God’s voice in the Psalm will not make such distinctions. It doesn’t tell to rescue the weak and homeless, orphaned unaccompanied minor as long as they have proper documentation and can prove their asylum case and jump through legal loopholes. It doesn’t say to help the helpless as long as they look like you and talk like you and share your religion. It restricts no timespan on assistance. It doesn’t ask one in need to prove their worth; it’s a given.

Our current national wrongdoing and injustice becomes still more apparent, since the last verse of the Psalm is directed as God’s judgment on the nations. God has explicitly judged that as misbehavior, as miscarriage of responsibility: those with authority have not done what they were called to do.

Another note on authority in this Psalm: Following much of the ancient world, this Psalm talks about a divine council, or literally a congregation of heavenly beings. As we think “waitasecond! the Bible is monotheistic!” other gods showing up probably throws us off. Some interpreters say these heavenly beings are more like angels. Others see it with a common early belief that each nation had a god. In this Psalm, the God of Hebrews stands at the center of their gathering with the most moral authority, pointing out that others had failed in their duty.

If you don’t like to picture our God like Zeus with a Greek pantheon, aren’t sure about a heavenly courtroom, and don’t like this notion of other gods or whatever, still you can picture any unseen forces that are beyond our control, ruling over us. There’s often something invisible to wondering where wickedness comes from.

And it’s always helpful to remember that a god is wherever we most put our trust. We continue to have other gods exerting their authority in our lives because we give allegiance to money or to laws, to national identity or in-groups, to popular culture and healthiness and to our own selves, claiming our own abilities and desires as the highest authority.

But in any of those cases, when it has called astray from defending the poor and assisting the vulnerable and working to establish a system that is on their side, when we fall captive to self-interests or to dominant ideologies, when the powerful get their way while the hurting are abandoned, this Psalm declares God’s strong judgment against it, warning that the very foundations of the earth are at risk and God’s intention for creation is threatened with collapse. But God declares judgment that those false gods will fall. Whatever immortality they had, whatever seemed to be godlike power will die. In one of the terms of our time, God essentially says there’s no such thing as “too big to fail.” This is a strong call to justice.

With that, I want to return to the emphasis that this Psalm was assigned for this calendar date. Not quite the randomness of flipping to any page, but this is what the Bible happens to be saying to us today, the voice of God being spoken, and asking to be applied into our lives, our context, including for Pride Sunday.

I would also pause to highlight that this is a more primary voice of scripture and of God than if we went on the hunt for seven little snippets reinforcing someone’s homophobia. To imagine that that perspective speaks for God or is what the Bible has to say in relation to LGBTQ lives is a gross warping of this more prevalent message that calls for justice and says God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable.

To be clear, that is part of why as a congregation we join our voices to God’s voice on this Sunday. It’s why I—as a straight, white, American-born, cisgender male—offer my presence, knowing still much too often, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in whatever way are threatened in our nation, facing injustices of losing jobs and housing, maybe risk life itself, living with unequal treatment, unfair opportunity, unkind interactions, and unjust pressures. If we follow our God, if we recognize God as the central moral authority and the judge, who created and holds the fate of the world, then we are called to stand on the side of justice, against persecutions, and together with these siblings, to be part of the work of “delivering them from the powerful hands of heartless people.” That is the life our God intends for all of us to be living together. Anything less won’t suffice. We’re clearly not there yet. There’s work to do.

But there’s another part of this Pride Sunday that doesn’t directly fit into the Psalm, that I want to keep inviting us into. That is celebration. The Hebrews reading reminds us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, that many of our ancestors in this faithful journey continue to encourage us, to lead us to persevere, as we follow Jesus the pioneer. In this long view, we’ll get there together. They aren’t left out, and neither will we be. We’ve come this far by faith, and our weary feet will come to the place for which our parents sighed (ELW 841).

And so we, with good reason both in looking back and looking forward today, gather in celebration. This year is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which makes it also the 49th anniversary of the first pride events. In faithful memorial, we might mark as martyrs for the cause, sacrificing saints who gave us steps forward to guide us on in progress.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the MCC. And we celebrate that for half of that existence, our congregations have been officially welcoming, striving for justice, witnessing to the world, celebrating that the image of God is equally and uniquely in each of us, that none of us is removed from God’s blessing, God’s effort for life. Since 1995, we have been continuing to practice more and more how we can be authentically the people God created us to be and is calling us to be. In 1995 there were only five open and affirming UCC congregations in the state. In 1995, Advent preceded any other congregations in this synod by a decade in becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. We have been and continue to be witnesses to God’s goodness, in our lives and for the sake of the world. This is to be celebrated, and we can be proud. We join in living with pride.

 

Psalm 82               Contemporary English Version

When all of the other gods have come together,
the Lord God judges them and says:
“How long will you keep judging unfairly and defending evil people?
Be fair to the poor and to orphans.
Make it right for the helpless and everyone in need.
Rescue the weak and homeless,
deliver them from the powerful hands of heartless people.
“None of you know or understand a thing.
You live in darkness, while the foundations of the earth tremble.
I, the Most High God, say that all of you are gods
and also my own children, all of you.
But you will die, just like mortals, including powerful rulers.”
Do something, God! Judge the nations of the earth; they belong to you.

 

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