I was visiting a church once that was dealing with a number of simultaneous setbacks and a lot of blame about what had happened and conflict about how to move forward. The minister was an eloquent and dedicated leader. And he was doing his best to press on. And on worship that Sunday he prayed a beautiful version of a prayer that’s not uncommon in churches everywhere. He prayed something like this:
“Yes, Lord, increase our faith! Increase my faith so I can serve you better! Increase the faith of Christians everywhere because we’re nothing without you! Increase the faith of this lost and sinful nation because we’ve left the narrow path of your righteous way! Increase our faith that we might be just a little more worthy of your Gospel! Amen.”
I felt a little bad for my colleague because I’m a minister too and I know how us ministers can think. We get all worked up and worried about the faith. We get to thinking that it’s our job to increase the faith of the congregation, to increase the faith of the Church, or the nation, or the world even. We all do it, us ministers. I do it from time-to-time. If only we just had some more of the good stuff! It’s an understandable mistake. You may not be a minister, but I bet you probably do it too.
I want to be a better person, a better Christian. I want to live a cleaner life. I want to do right by the people I love. If only I had a little more faith. Or If only I had a little more money, then I could be generous with people the way I want to be. If only I had a little more talent, then I could’ve been somebody. If only I had a little more time, then I’d sign up to volunteer, I’d get involved in all the places, in all the causes that need me. If only, if only, if only. How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I had a little more, then—watch out world—you’d really see something! But I don’t, so I can’t and I won’t.”
Whatever you think you’re missing, they’re all variations on this theme, “If I had more, I could do more and I could be more.” When times are tough and life gets hard, we blame the problems we face on the lack of some key ingredient that is preventing us from tackling the problem. And if we internalize that missing ingredient, if what’s missing is inside of us, we start to telling ourselves that any effort we might make would be a big waste of time because I am not made that way. Now the problem isn’t the problem anymore. The problem is that something is missing. Do we feel better? Not really. Now we toss and turn all night thinking about what’s missing. We lie there in the dark, our minds racing, and sometimes we start to pray: “God, do you hear what I’m saying? You want me to make something of myself? You want me to serve you and this world, well, I’m going to need you pony up, Lord. Increase my faith!”
Beloved, the desire to pray for more faith is just a spiritual distraction. When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, he rebuked them! “Increase your faith?! Increase your faith?! Don’t you realize that with just a mustard seed of faith you could uproot a mulberry tree—a tree with roots as deep as its branches are high—and you could make that tree walk all the way down the shore, and you could make that tree plant itself, not in the soil of the earth, but in the salt waters of the sea.” Jesus is telling us again, as he so often does, that a little can go a really long way—further than you can possibly imagine. And the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to proclaim is not the Kingdom of the big, the proud, and the powerful. It is the kingdom of the poor, the humble, and the meek.
Beloved, please hear this before you ever again doubt that you have enough faith to be a good Christian. The Kingdom of God is not the kingdom of somebody’s great faith. It’s the kingdom of the tiniest, littlest, barely worth mentioning bit of faith that changed the whole world—it’s the light shining in the darkness, it’s a baby born in a born, it’s the mustard seed weed that just got lucky and happened to land in the right spot to grow and grow and grow.
So, we don’t pray for more faith. Because asking is the wrong way to get it. Faith is not being doled out by the angels from on high to anybody who asks for it. That’s not the way faith works. Let’s look at the second half of scripture reading this morning. Jesus asks his disciples (and all of us):
Don’t you treat your servants and slaves like garbage? Don’t you expect them to scrape and serve? Don’t you expect them to do it for nothing? And yet you have the audacity to serve God Almighty as if you were owed something for merely doing the right thing. Faith is not transactional. It is not a way of getting ahead. It is not a way to earn favor or avoid disaster. It is not done to earn eternal salvation or your ticket to heaven. Your faith is your commitment, your reliability, your loyalty to the command to serve God and your neighbors.
Faith and commitment are not something you can spend. And they’re not something you can be given. Faith is like a seed. It grows if you plant it. It’s like a muscle. It grows when you use it. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have. What matters is what you DO with the faith you’ve got.
All around the world, the church is reeling. Up north, down south, the coasts, and middle America, progressive and conservative, mainline and evangelical, everyone is reporting the same thing coming back from COVID—fewer people in worship, fewer visitors, less money, old volunteers retiring and not enough new blood to replace them. Too little, too little, too little, too little. If only, if only, if only, if only. But this, Beloved, Glen Ridge Congregational Church, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A little goes a long way! Don’t waste your time wishing for more. What are we going to do with what we’ve got? Are we going to let ourselves tell ourselves a story of scarcity and loss and circumstances beyond our control? Or do we instead believe what Jesus promised us? That all it takes is a mustard seed of faith to make some wild things happen—things nobody’s ever seen before. What are we going to do with the faith we’ve got?
Beloved, you have everything you need! What are you going to do with what you’ve got?
Once, in college, I willingly attended a conference called Business Ethics for Christians. The general thrust of this event was to try and convince us Christian young people that as we left college and entered the business world, we had a responsibility to God to be the most upstanding and shining examples imaginable of honesty, diligence, and industry in our respective fields. We had to make Jesus look good out there!
The lecturer spoke about ten standard, yawn-inducing business principles and after each he provided a short quote from scripture to show us that these were, in fact, Christian principles and they represented how followers of Jesus should behave on the job. Unfortunately, our scripture reading from this morning did not make his list! Now that would have been an interesting lecture! Because (just in case you didn’t believe your ears and your eyes this morning) in our reading Jesus praises a swindler. Instead of praising the rich man who succeeded in business (we must assume) through the application of virtue and hard work, Jesus praises the poor man—a poor man who falls right into the worst stereotypes about poor people. This manager is a lazy, incompetent, selfish, liar. And Jesus holds this poor, broken swindler up! He holds him up while he’s in the act of defrauding his master for his own personal gain and points to him as an example of moral clarity for all of us to follow and learn from. Now, how can that be?
Also in my college years, I worked for a brief time in sales at an outdoor kiosk at Park Street Station on the Boston Red Line right across the street from the church where I heard that lecture on Christian business ethics. There was a man named Sam who sat on an old milk crate at the entrance to the station and sold the Boston Globe and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to the business people commuting in and out of the city. Sam was a little grizzled, he had a very small limp—barely noticeable, and he had a pretty brisk trade selling these papers. When he’d run out of papers for the day, Sam would take off his clean sweatshirt and he’d replace it with this tattered old thing. He’d walk into the Boston Common and with each step toward the park his limp would get more and more pronounced. In the park he’d beg from the tourists and stuff their bills into the pouch full of the wads of money he’d made that day selling his papers.
Riding home from work on the subway one day, a man, presumably homeless, asked me for a dollar. I just turned my head away. He went down the car and I saw someone give him a five-dollar bill. It was Sam.
Now, I was friendly with Sam. People called him the mayor of Park Street Station, so it was hard not to be friendly with him. But every time he’d wave goodbye to me and head off to the Common, I judged him. I knew—for certain—that I was better person than Sam. But now look at us. The kid who sat through Business Ethics for Christians was being given a lesson in the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Sam the swindler. To put it in the language of Jesus from our scripture reading this morning: Sam was faithful with his dishonest wealth and I was faithless with my “honest” wealth.
Well, if you’re anything like me, you don’t plan on robbing or conning anyone and that’s not likely to change no matter what even Jesus says. So, what can these swindlers teach us about Jesus and what he’s actually asking of us non-embezzling types?
First, the parable of the dishonest manager teaches us that Jesus is skeptical of a world divided between a few rich people and the vast majority of poor people who work for them or are indebted to them or both. This reality is not compatible with the values Jesus preaches, teaches, or lives. It is not compatible with the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaims.
Second, Jesus is skeptical of the pious, the righteous, the devout, and the goody two-shoes of this world. He’s skeptical that the people who sit through lectures entitled Business Ethics for Christians and the people who think their goodness and rule-following makes them better than other people will actually, ever—despite talking a big game and loads of good intentions—that they will actually ever do anything for their themselves or for their neighbors that will address the broken and anti-Kingdom-of-God nature of our social-political-religious-economic structure. Because when you buy into this world, according to Jesus, when you benefit from the rules and norms of this world, you are not preparing yourself for the world yet to come, the Kingdom of God.
This is how the swindler becomes the unwitting hero of Jesus’ parable. The swindler (although acting without any lofty intentions) accidentally proclaims the Kingdom of God by forgiving the debts of his master’s debtors. And although the swindler is clearly acting purely out of a need for self-preservation, he still acts with respect to one of the great Biblical truths—that I am my brother’s keeper, that I cannot survive without a community, that we do not belong to ourselves alone, that we are one body of Christ, and we all belong to one another. As Jesus says in our reading this morning, “If you haven’t been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” The dishonest manager is faithless to his master’s wealth and to the rules that protect it, but he is faithful to his master’s debtors, and that, says Jesus, (although achieved accidentally) is the proper loyalty—not to money and to power and to the rules that enforce them, but to God and to people and to the good news.
We also learn again that for Jesus our intentions and our appearances and good social standing and other’s high opinions of us don’t matter. If you think very highly of yourself indeed, and intend to change the world for the better one day, and devote yourself to proper moral reasoning, and have years of theological training, but you don’t have a dollar to spare on the subway, you will never be the hero in one of Jesus’ parables. And if you intend nothing but a bit swindling to save your own be-hind, but in the process you forgive debts, show mercy, and make friends, then you may be closer to the Kingdom of God than all the Children of Light. That is how Jesus sees us. That is how Jesus sees the world.
Jesus’ parables always bring us good news and this one especially is good news for all of us. Have you failed? Have you lost? Have you squandered? Have you been caught? Are you a rascal? A swindler? A liar? A cheat? Do you think you’ll never be able to fix it? Are you afraid that you’ll never find forgiveness or peace? Jesus has a way out: love your neighbors, forgive your debtors, show mercy to those like yourself. Starting right now, right in the middle of the mess and the stress and the chaos, be faithful to other people and you will begin to discover the true riches of Jesus’ way.
When Abraham Lincoln first met Edwin Stanton, they were both lawyers and they were supposed to be working together on the same case. It didn’t go well. Edwin Stanton said about Lincoln (loudly enough to be overheard and recorded in history) “Where did that long-armed creature come from and what can he expect to do in this case?” Lincoln was mortified at being denied a role on the legal team, but he remained in court anyway to listen to Stanton’s argument, and he was gracious enough to remark to friends how greatly he admired Stanton’s oratory skills and his knowledge of the law.
But this did nothing to raise Stanton’s opinion of Lincoln. Throughout the years Stanton lobbed all kinds of insults at the future president. He called Lincoln a clown. He said that explorers were foolish to search for the then-mythical gorilla in Africa when they could easily capture one in Springfield, IL. After Lincoln became president, Stanton publicly called him a baboon and an imbecile and criticized his handling of the Civil War.
And then in the midst of that very conflict, Lincoln (a Republican) called upon Stanton (a prominent democrat) to become his Secretary of War. Lincoln knew that Stanton was opinionated, and stubborn, and not easily liked, but Lincoln did his best to like him anyway, to understand him, and to believe in his human ability to rise up and to share with Lincoln the burden of the hardest job in the world.
Three years later, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton rushed to be by his President’s side. Stanton, not known to be an emotional man, wept beside Lincoln’s unconscious body. And learning of Lincoln’s death the next morning, Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” While Lincoln was laid in state in the White House for his funeral, Stanton was overheard saying, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.” It's incredible what can happen when you don’t give up on people.
In order to not give up on people, you have to understand love in the way that I must assume Lincoln understood love. Love is most often celebrated in our culture as the fireworks that happen when you walk into a party and lock eyes with someone across the room—and you just know, right away, that they’re the one. But love is so much more than an emotion to jazz up a deep, pre-exiting affinity for another person. When a perfect couple falls in love, that’s nice—maybe even beautiful—but it’s not exactly a miracle, is it? But love can do so much more. Because love is patient. Love, like water over a rock, knows how to take its time. Love doesn’t know exactly what the rough rock will look years and years from now, but love has the confidence to know that even the roughest of relationships can be smoothed as long as you don’t turn off the faucet—as long as you don’t give up.
I know what you’re thinking—that it’s worse in our country now than it ever has been. That our opponents are truly evil people. That our discourse has fallen off a cliff. That our culture has regressed. I’ll just remind you that the 1860s and the years that led up to them were a far worse time in American history. A Civil War was being fought—the bloodiest war ever at the time. 2% of the US population died on the battlefield of that war. 4 million Black men, women, and children were held in the brutal bondage of chattel slavery. Abraham Lincoln was the commander and chief of the Union Army and in some sense the blood of hundreds of thousands of people was on his hands. But while Lincoln waged war on the Confederacy, he never gave up on the South. And while he emancipated the slaves, he never gave up on the slaveowners. He was one of the rare people who could balance justice and mercy, war and compassion, boundaries and love. And that is why he belongs to the ages—because Lincoln never gave up on the Union and he never gave up on the people (North or South, slave or free, Republican or Democrat) who made up that union.
Christians don’t give up on people either. We don’t give up on people because God has never and will never give up on us. It’s remarkable to leave 99 sheep alone and unprotected to search for one lost sheep. It’s wasteful to burn more in oil than the value of the little coin you’re looking for. But that’s how God encourages us to love. If we’re too safe in our loving, God asks us to take a risk. If we love prudently, God pushes us toward love foolishly, extravagantly, without counting the cost. If we go to war with someone, God demands we do not cut them out of our hearts or our prayers.
We Christians don’t give up on people. And, ideally, that means we don’t grumble about the fact that all the attention isn’t always on us—the well behaved 99. We don’t complain about the wasted resources of the lamp lit all night long—that’s expensive you know! Because we remember that everybody gets a little lost in the dark from time to time. Don’t you get a little lost every once in a while? If the light is always left on for someone, that means on the night I get lost, it will already be lit for me.
We Christians don’t give up on people. But it’s not easy, you know? Because giving up is so easy to do, you might not even know you’re doing it! You don’t have to say out loud three times, “I give up! I give up! I give up!” There are subtler ways to do it. If someone insults you, just take it personally. If someone disagrees with you, hold a grudge. If someone says something you don’t like, stop listening to them. When the world feels dangerous, stay at home. When church feels hard, stay away. When one sheep gets lost, just tell yourself you’re staying with the 99 because it’s your responsibility to keep them safe too. When one coin gets lost, just tell yourself it’s not worth your time or effort. It’s easy to give up without ever admitting we’ve quit at all. And so we always need to watch ourselves, to check our hearts in prayer, to make sure we’re not checking out on the world, to make sure we don’t give up on people.
Beloved, on this Celebration Sunday, we have so much to celebrate. God has never and will never give up on us. We will never give up on other people. As a church, over the next program year, we are going to pour our resources into seeking lost sheep and celebrating together. We know that love can do amazing things if we just give love a few opportunities and a little time. We are confident that God is with us and we are committed to being with one another.
Perfection is a mirage! We will never be perfect. And we will never all think or act alike. Do we even really want that? It sounds like the beginning of a piece of dystopian fiction. But we have something so much better than all that: We don’t give up on people! And that is a reason to celebrate.
If you go out into the world, you'll find that a lot of people well, maybe not a lot, but a lot more people than just Christians read the Bible. And there's good reason to read the Bible. There is some of the greatest works of literature, amazing stories, incredible theological treatises that have defined Western culture. You know, you think about something like the gospel according to John, I think the majority of people have read it at least once. They know a little bit about that struggle between the light and the darkness there in the beginning, or you think about the Nook of Job and that grand mythological story of the deal between God and the devil, the bet that they play, job's incredible suffering and his endurance, the friends that come along and give him all kinds of bad advice, but he holds on until God comes to give him an answer, and the answer is just another mystery. The story of Jonah being swallowed up by a whale, because he's trying to run away from God's commands. Just these incredible stories. And Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans all about faith and grace that has defined Christian theology on both sides of the issue for hundreds of years.
Not many people who are familiar with the Bible as a work of great literature are familiar with Paul's letter to Philemon. It is a tiny little thing. Nikki read almost the entirety. There's just a few more lines saying goodbye at the end. It's not a great work of literature. There's not some amazing story. There's no theological pronouncements in it. But I think for us as Christians, people who read the Bible on the inside of the faith, there is more to the book of Philemon than there is maybe to some of the other books that are considered to be the great books of the Bible. And the reason for that is that this is a book all about relationship, a letter about relationship, a personal letter from Paul.
The context here is that Paul has been apparently imprisoned at this time. We're not entirely sure about exactly what that means perhaps it was while he was in prison in Rome. We know that he was imprisoned multiple times during his ministry. A friend of his, from some Christian community that he apparently founded or was close to named Philemon has given Paul one of his slaves to serve him while he is in prison in his ministry. Presumably Philemon is a Christian and so is Onesimus. The slave is a Christian. During this time, Paul becomes incredibly close in his relationship to Onesimus and he writes a letter back to Philemon saying, I am sending Onesimus back to you. He's your slave. And I could tell you what to do. I could command you, but I'm not going to do it. I'm going to let you decide to do the right thing. But I want you to free him. I want him to become more than a slave to you. Give him his freedom, let him go. Paul sits in the middle of a relationship between Onesimus the slave and Philemon the slave master, both Christians, both friends to him. And there he is in the midst of it, trying to work out God's will, God's love, God's vision of heaven on earth, and it's not easy to do.
Paul had, was familiar with slavery and he wrote about slavery in some of his letters. Paul wrote this, one of the most incredible lines in the entire Bible, “In Christ, there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free.” In other words, in Christ all of our social distinctions are obliterated. We are equal. We are children of God. And there's no reason that a church shouldn't have members who are male and female, shouldn't have members who are slave and free, shouldn't presumably have leaders and deacons who come from all of these different backgrounds, Jew, and Gentile, all together. He saw this, the church, as a little bit of a vision of what heaven must look like, where all the distinctions are taken away, and we can all be one body of Christ together. But at the same time, Paul wasn't a radical, he wasn't a revolutionary. He wasn't saying let's overthrow the power structure. Let's get rid of the Roman empire, let's end slavery all together and fight to the death until we get what's right. Paul kind of sat in the middle. Paul believed that Christ was coming back and coming back soon. So he didn't necessarily think that the world order was something that needed to be changed. He kind of just said, well, let's just let the world order be and have a spiritual revolution within our churches and within ourselves. So he was kind of in the middle.
But then he writes this letter and this letter isn't a theoretical theological letter. It is a practical letter, a practical explanation of what it is actually like to be a Christian who is in relationship. This letter doesn't answer for us, “What should I, as a Christian, think about slavery? Is slavery, right? Or is slavery wrong?” Instead, it gives us something more. It answers for us, “What must I as a Christian do in relationship to slavery, in relationship to injustice, in relationship to people on two sides of an issue who are in conflict with one another?”
And the answer of Philemon is that a Christian always acts in relationship. That's who we are. It's interesting because we recently had a church council retreat just a few weeks ago as I was coming back from my paternity leave. We put a lot of time into planning and preparing it. It was a two day event for the church council. The first day was a Friday event and it was a time to come together and just sort of have community and eat food together and enjoy one another's company. And we had a few prompts for discussion, and we were talking about how the world had changed in the last three years after COVID and what we had lost and how the church had changed and what our hopes were for the future. And in the course of that amazing Holy Spirit filled conversation, we came to an understanding of ourselves as a church—that we are a church that defines itself by our relationships with one another. And that the most important thing to us as a church is the relationships that we maintain within our community and the relationships that we are growing out into the community around us. And everything else, no matter how amazing the event is, how important the issue or the mission is, what's most important is that we can be together in relationship to one another.
There's a couple of different ways of thinking about relationship. One is a word that we use around here all the time, and you hear it. It's a very Christian word, and it's the word fellowship. Right? We say this all the time, we have a fellowship hour, we have a fellowship hall and we often want to get together just to have fellowship, right? And fellowship is a beautiful part of relating to one another. Fellowship is being together, speaking to one another, listening to someone. And I think fellowship is even more. It's also serving someone, helping someone, being there for someone, being there for someone in their time of need.
And fellowship is really kind of the ground level of a relationship, but there is an aspect of relationship that goes deeper than fellowship. And I think that in Christianity we call that level of relationship communion. Well, fellowship is being together, helping one another, loving one another. Communion is being transformed by one another. It's about opening yourself to someone so completely that you let them change your mind, change your point of view. It's about being so open to someone that you take on their pain as your pain and their dreams as your dreams.
We're going to be having communion up here at the altar in just a few minutes. And a lot of the time we think about communion as my relationship to God, right? I'm gonna come down the aisle, I'm going to get the bread and the juice, and I'm gonna get right with God. I'm gonna be forgiven for my sins. And I'm going to reconnect with my God. And it doesn't matter what's happening with the person behind me in line. And it doesn't matter what happens to the person in front of me in line. But in reality, what this sacrament is about, the sacrament that we're going to do later on in the morning, it's about broken bread and a shared cup. It's about doing something that transforms us from individuals, looking for our personal relationship with God, into a community that is holding one another up, listening to one another, loving one another and letting the Holy Spirit come in between these relationships and transform all of us from a bunch of individuals, into a church, into the body of Christ.
And that's exactly what we see Paul modeling for us in this letter to Philemon. Paul enters into a relationship with Onesimus and he lets that relationship change him. It changes him so much that Paul who said, “Hey, you know, don't worry about slavery. Don't worry about this world too much. It's the spiritual things that matter,” that he wrote this letter to Philemon and said free Onesimus from slavery. And Paul, wasn't afraid to be in relationship to Philemon. He didn't say, well Onesimus is a slave and Philemon is a slave master, therefore I'm only going to be in relationship with Onesimus and I'm done with Philemon because he's a jerk who doesn't do the right thing. He came to him with the same kind of transformative love that Onesimus brought to him.
I think that this is the piece of Christian wisdom and practice that our churches and our wider culture need right now, the understanding that conflict and difference and disagreements do not have to be the end of our relationship or the end of our fellowship. If we let the Holy Spirit in and if we are willing to be changed by God and by our neighbors, then now is the time when communion actually can happen in our world and in our lives. It begins here with us. Are we as a church going to turn aside from our relationships when they make us uncomfortable? Are we going to hold back on giving our opinions because we're afraid that our opinions might offend someone? Are we going to walk away from a community of fellowship out of a desire for a more ideologically, pure community where nobody thinks differently than I do?
Or will we break the bread? Will we share the cup? And will we allow ourselves to be transformed by one another into what God is calling us to be?
Luke 14: 1, 7–14
Well, I think you can all hear in my voice that we had a little cold go through our household this week. It's not COVID so don't worry and I'm feeling much better. But a nice thing about a cold for a preacher: it gives you a little added a little something, right? A little more authority in those rumbling undertones. Listen to me, listen to this voice! This is gravitas. It's the authority in my voice. This is, believe it or not, something that preachers struggle with sometimes. I mean, there is something sort of contradictory, strange about standing up in front of people and preaching and having that spotlight shone on you. And also trying to remember that you're not better than anybody else, right? And it, it doesn't help. Sometimes when you have a voice that people naturally respond to as that voice of authority, you begin to think that maybe the authority comes from inside of you, rather than from somewhere else.
And that's a problem that some preachers can have. A video went viral last week. I don't know if you saw it, but it was a preacher who was scolding his congregation for not buying him a watch—a watch that he wanted. And he was calling them all kinds of names. He was not being very nice to them about it. He was not speaking to them nicely and somebody thought that they would embarrass him, I guess. And they posted this video and it went viral because it wasn't very nice. And I think when that minister went back and watched that video, he probably realized that the way that he was speaking, the way that he was talking about what he wanted and what he expected of the people in his congregation was that he believed that he was better than they were. Now, It's difficult because sometimes a minister's job is, or the job of anyone speaking in public is, to try to get a point across, right, to remind people about our shortcomings that we all share. But sometimes if you do it in a way that insults other people, or that places yourself above them, then it becomes very problematic. You begin to think that you deserve the good things and that these people should provide them to you and you are better than they are.
It's a been difficult I think, in our culture, to think about humility, humbleness. We live in a culture that is so divisive and so divided now, politically and socially between left and right. And there is arrogance on both sides. And I really think it's arrogance that is driving us away from each other. Folks on the right feel like folks on the left don't listen to them, think that they're smarter than them, think that they have all the solutions think that they're making up all kinds of problems that don't exist and think that they're doing it because they think that they're better than everybody else on the right. And sometimes it's true. Sometimes folks on left might think that they're a little bit better than folks on the right, that they don't have to listen to them. And sometimes folks on the left feel that folks on the right think that they are smarter and better than folks on the left. They think that the problems that people on the left care about people on the right are dismissive of, and that they think that sometimes people on the right uphold traditional values in a way that undermines values that people on the left truly care about. And they feel like they're insulted and called snowflakes and told to sit down and stop whining and stop crying. And sometimes it's true. Sometimes that's exactly what's happening.
Arrogance drives this division in our culture, pushes us away from one another—this idea that my side, my opinion is better than yours and that the only way that we're actually going to get to a better place is if we drive one another out, not coming together and figuring it out together, but by beating each other up. And it just drives us apart. I'm here to suggest something that I think is a little bit counterintuitive in our culture. I believe that humility is a prerequisite to kindness. Now kindness seems to be a virtue that is celebrated both on the left and on the right. People do believe in basic human decency and kindness. And yet we see that the left and the right are driving one another,r are separating from one another,r and beating one another up. Why, if they both seem to uphold kindness as a basic human decency that they want to teach their children. Why then?
And I think it has to do with this lack of humility, that is such a part of our politics and such a part of our culture. You may be suspicious of humility and in our culture there is good reason for that. Just listen to how similar, the word “humility” and the word “humiliation” are. We think it's the same kind of thing, but it's not. Humiliation is something that somebody else does to me, without my consent, without my best interests in mind to disempower me, right? That's what it means to be humiliated, to be beaten, to be dismissed, to be thrown out. But humility is something that I choose for myself in order to become the kind of person who never chooses to humiliate another, the kind of person who recognizes and understands that I am no better than anyone else. I do not want to defeat anyone else. I do not want to drive anyone away. I do not want to beat you. I want to live in a difficult but loving relationship with all of you. And the only way that I'm going to get there, the only way that I'm going to get there, that we are going to get there as a culture is through kindness that is founded in a humble understanding of who I am.
So, let's turn to our scripture reading this morning. It seems funny that Jesus is out there giving this tricky social advice to rich and powerful people at a banquet, but he tells them, he says, “Hey when you're throwing a banquet, don't go sit in the place of honor. Because if you go and sit in the place of honor, you may be asked to move down and wouldn't you then be humiliated. Instead, go and seek for yourself the lowest seat, the seat of humility. And you may then be honored by being called up.” Now in our thinking about what humility is and how it works we cannot imagine that anyone would voluntarily seek out the seat of humility for themselves without having some sort of broken self-image. How could you think that that's all you deserve? How could you think that that should be the place for you? The lowest place?! That must be some sort of oppression laid upon you. That can be the only way that you would want to do that. Somebody has told you that you're not good enough for good things that you don't deserve them, that you don't have a right for them. And so out of self-hatred, you go and you just seek the lowest spot for yourself.
And our culture says, instead, if you really love yourself, if you really believe that you're as good as anybody else, then you should believe you deserve the very best things. Of course, you should go for the highest seat for yourselves and you should fight for it and you should earn it for yourself, because aren't you as good as anybody else is? Of course you are! So get out there! And if you get it, good for you, you deserve it because you got it. What we fail to recognize here is that no matter what we may be consciously thinking when we fight for the highest place of honor for ourselves, we are fighting for it. Somebody else has to be underneath us in order for us to put ourselves at the highest seat of honor, right? There has to be a whole bunch of people sitting in all the other seats down the line in order for me to be there. And not everyone can share that high seat of honor with me. That's the way that human hierarchy works, right? Somebody is on top, usually a small number of people. It's why it's a pyramid. It's a small spot on the top and everybody else is down below. And when we actually do get ourselves to the top of the social pyramid, we tend to think, “Well, why not me? I worked hard for it. I'm a good person. I don't believe I'm better than anybody else.” And yet the system that we have participated in suggests that we actually think that we are better than others and that we have a right to fight them for our place above them on the social pyramid.
And this is the problem that Jesus has. This is why he tells this strange little parable. Jesus says, “No, no, no, no, no. Don't hate yourself and go seek the lowest seat. Love yourself and love your neighbor and go and seek the lowest seat. Because when you seek the lowest seat for yourself and only when you seek the lowest seat, the humble seat for yourself, can you really do it in a way that acknowledges that you are better than nobody else, that you do not desire to threaten anybody else's place in this world, and that you desire for everyone to have an equal access to good things, and to honor, and to love every bit as much as you have it. You want it for others. When you fight for the seat of the highest honor, no matter what you may think about others consciously or unconsciously, you're participating in a system that says people lower down on the pyramid are not as deserving, not as good, not as beloved as you are.
When we seek the lowest seat for ourselves, the humble seat, we do it with this mantra in mind, “I am a child of God. I am a child of God. I am a child of God,” no better, no different than anyone else. I choose this humble seat knowing that I am not sufficient unto myself. That's just a fancy way of saying I'm not anything without God. Everything that I am, everything that I have earned, every gift that I have been given comes from God. And so I choose the humble seat. I choose the humble seat, accepting the fact that I am finite. I can't do it all. I am not God. I choose the humble seat and I believe that there is a God, a God who is infinite, a God who gives every good gift, a God who is seeking and searching for me in my smallness, in my recognition that I am just one of God's children. And when that infinite finds me humble and ready, knowing my place among my sisters and brothers and siblings, that is the only way that God can call me up.
And when God calls us up, that is the true honor: to be called up from a place of knowing my position in God's beauty, God's love, God's kingdom here. I am no better than my brothers and sisters wanting only to live in difficult, trying, painful, but loving relationship to all of them. And when we find that place of humility, where we do not think that we're better than the people on the left, the people on the right, that is when God can begin to call us all up together. I don't want to be great in this world. I want to be called up with all of you. I wanna be called up with everybody. The way that I get there, the way that we get there, is by seeking out the humble seat. I am nothing without God. And I choose this seat because I love all of you.
What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of a Christian do I want to be? What kind of a Christian life and Christian witness do I want to express with my day and with the years that are given to me? What kind of a Christian Church do we want to be? What values do we want to lift up? How do we want our community to look? How do we want it to operate? What do we want people to think about us?
These are the kinds of questions that we need to wrestle with as individuals and as a Christian community: What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be, how is God calling us to behave in this world?
Speaking of behavior, I know that you know that I am now a father of two sons—one who is too small to be naughty yet, but another one who is two years old and he's in his terrible-two twos. And it is a struggle with behavior—as any of you have been parents or spent any amount of time with a two-year-old know. One thing that Bonnie and I really work hard to do is to avoid all of the “good boy, bad boy” talk. We don't try and put that on our son, Romey, at all.
I don't want to do good boy, bad boy. I don't tell him he's a bad boy if he's doing something that's driving me crazy, if he's doing something that he shouldn't be doing. And I don't ask him to be a good boy for me, or praise him as a good boy, when he is doing something that's pleasing to me. I feel like he could get hung up on that good boy, bad boy stuff. And instead, I try to focus on his actions, what he's actually doing. So I say, “Oh, that is not safe. We don't do that.” But I don't say, “You're a bad boy for climbing up the bookshelf.” Or I say, “Oh, that's very nice to give your brother a kiss. What a kind thing to do.” But I don't tell him that he's being a good boy.
And I try and avoid that whole pressure of trying to make him put himself into the mold of good boy and bad boy, because in reality, I don't think there's any such thing as a good boy or a bad boy. And many of us, I think get stuck in trying to figure out how we're supposed to be good boys and girls or not. And unfortunately I think that this is something that comes across in Christian faith a lot. When we think about this question, what sort of a Christian am I supposed to be? What kind of a person am I supposed to be? What does Jesus expect of me? What does the gospel expect of me? A lot of people feel, and there is this real cultural sense that a Christian is just supposed to be a good boy or a good girl.
And what does that actually mean? And how limiting is that, right? Because good boys and good girls, usually are what? They're the way mom and dad want them to be at the end of a long, hard day at work, right? So you're being quiet. You're being agreeable. You're not causing any trouble or any commotion in the house. You're just pleasant to be around. You're seen, not heard. Everything you do is cute and sweet and nice. And there's no trouble whatsoever because mom and dad are stressed out and tired and we don't want any trouble. And I think, unfortunately, some of us think that that's what God wants from us—to be good boys and girls. Just keep your nose clean. Don't do anything too disruptive. Don't hurt anybody's feelings. Just be nice. And I think being nice is a dangerous thing to uphold and uplift to our children as the highest Christian ideal.
Now there's nothing wrong with being nice, at least a good part of the time, but that can't be the highest Christian ideal, right? As Christians, we are asked to really struggle with the virtues and figure out how to be a Christian in a world full of conflict and struggle, and in a world where it's not always clear what the right or the wrong thing to do is. And the question is, how does a good boy or a girl step into the strife of this world and make a difference if they're just supposed to be quiet and nice? And I think as Christians, we're called to step into the strife and conflict of this world. And if we're all hung up on being good boys and good girls and having everybody praise us for being nice and for never doing anything unexpected, it's very hard, I think, to live up to what the gospel expects of us.
Luckily we have Jesus here to show us another way. He never really asked us to be good boys or good girls. He asked us to do our best. He asks us to struggle. And Jesus himself must have struggled. Did you hear what he was going through when he was teaching on the Sabbath? “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years.” And right there, Jesus must have heard the question in his own mind: What kind of a person am I going to be? Am I going to be the good boy that everybody wants me to be? Or am I going to do the right thing?
Just imagine the context of what Jesus was dealing with here. He was in public, right? This wasn't the privacy of his own home. He was in the synagogue. He was in his “church.” Everybody was gathered there—all kinds of people. This was a bit of a spectacle. And here he was in a position where I'm sure a lot of the people expected him to honor what scripture said, to honor what the tradition said, to follow the rules, and to not upset anybody because upsetting somebody on the Sabbath in the synagogue would be a real tragedy. Nobody comes to the synagogue to be upset, do they? Nobody comes to church to be all riled up and to leave in turmoil with more questions than they had when they walked in the door. We want simple answers. We want to be reassured that the tradition is right and we don't have to struggle with it. But Jesus says, “No. Sometimes you do have to struggle.”
Jesus was in public. And he was also in view of the authority of the synagogue, right? There was a leader of the synagogue there. We think of Jesus as the authority. But in this context, Jesus was just some guy at the synagogue teaching. And there was an authority figure there watching him teach and expecting him to toe the line. “If you're gonna stand up and speak in my synagogue, you better make sure that you're following what scripture tells us to do and what everybody in here is expecting of our tradition.” But Jesus decided that he wasn't going to do that.
Now I want you to think about the disruption and the conflict that Jesus caused in that synagogue on that day. And I want you to imagine that Jesus was in your church, our church on that day, or a church that you really love, a place where you feel safe, a place that you really invested in. What do you want Jesus to do? Do you want him to break the rules? Do you want him to make people feel kind of bad and get kind of upset? Do you want him to divide the synagogue between the people who say “yes, that was the right thing to do” and the people who say “no, that was the wrong thing to do, and all of a sudden, we recognize that there's a divide here among us and we have to talk it out and we have to feel that there's division in the place that we love, where we all just want to feel unified? Would you want him to seem to go against what scripture and tradition was telling him to do? In public? To cause a spectacle like that? Would you want that to happen in your church, in your holy place, in your religion? It's a tough one. It's a tough question. But Jesus does what he believes is right to do. And he causes a commotion in that synagogue and there is yelling and there are accusations flying and people are being scolded. But Jesus does it.
I think it's important to remember here that Jesus was not throwing the Sabbath out, right? Jesus, wasn't saying the Sabbath is a bunch of garbage. We don't need a Sabbath. I should just be able to do whatever I want on Sabbath. And I don't believe in the rules and I don't believe in tradition and I don't like the Sabbath. So I'm just gonna do what I want and I'm gonna heal on Sabbath. What Jesus says is, I believe in the Sabbath, I observe the Sabbath every seventh day. I keep it holy and I believe that the Sabbath is big enough to hold this woman's healing. I believe that the Sabbath is big enough to hold this woman's healing. Jesus doesn't create conflict and trouble and disruption just to throw the world on its ear, right? Jesus isn't trying to destroy tradition. He's not trying to throw away everything that we hold dear. Jesus is the kind of person (and is calling us to a kind of religion) that sticks its elbows out into tradition and says, you need to get a little bit bigger. There's room here for this. This is a good thing.
Jesus is the one who steps into tradition, and scripture, and people's expectations, and he always, always points to the higher law—the law of love. And he says, “We have to look at this through the eyes of love! In the eyes of love, what is able to be done on the Sabbath? Observe it, keep it holy! But does love make room for this daughter's healing? And Jesus’ answer is yes. Jesus calls us, I think, to the same kind of activity in our lives, right? Jesus is not asking us to be rebels without a cause. Jesus is asking us to be disruptors with love—people who look at the world around us and who look inside of our own church and who stick their elbows out into tradition and expectations and say, love, love, love, make a little more room. Let's make a little more room. It's not always easy to do. But what about the benefit?
This is another important thing to remember about who Jesus is. He's not the kind of person who just does something for no reason. And there is a human being in this story, right? What kind of person is Jesus? What kind of Christian does he want us to be? He is someone who does what is right. He does it in public. He does it in full view of the authorities. He does it with boldness. He does it with authenticity. He is courageous. He is not afraid. He is not afraid to cause disruption or conflict within the congregation or within his world. And he does this while also doing something so simple and beautiful that we can almost miss it. He does it while making sincere, personal, meaningful, transformative, physical contact with another human being that heals them. Sometimes when we stick our elbows out into tradition and expectations and ask for them to make a little more room for love and to make a little more room for someone else, it can transform hearts and it can open the mouths of people who were maybe full of doubt and pain and fear. And it can open their mouths to praise God because God's love made room for them and you were willing to fight for their inclusion and their healing.
What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of Christian do you want to be? What kind of church do we want to be?
The last two weeks I've been preaching to you about prayer and about change. And I think that the opening of our scripture reading this morning is a perfect encapsulation of the messages that have been in the preaching over the last two weeks. The first being, you don't know what you're going to get in this life. Even if you pray, you don't always know what you're going to get. And the second being that nothing in this world lasts forever and that none of the things that make us feel comfortable and safe in this world—our possessions, our money, our prestige, our home, even our relationships—can keep us safe and comfortable forever.
But Jesus says there is something that can keep us happy, meaningful, safe forever. So let's read this, "Do not be afraid, little flock for it is your father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom, sell your possessions and give alms, make purses for yourselves that do not wear out and unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When you come to the realization that nothing in this world is going to last for you forever, except for God, except for faith and hope and love, and that the things and the possessions of this world are all going to go up and down and they're all going to change, when you come to that realization and you stop praying to God to say, "I expect my every prayer to be answered exactly the way that I prayed it. I want to get exactly what I want, because what I want is good and just and fair and necessary. And if I don't get it, I'm going to suffer, and I'm not going to be happy. And I'm going to be in pain," and you start to say to God, "I am willing to accept whatever it is that you are giving, because that is life, and this life is good," it begins to free you. It frees you. And what it frees you to do is to be generous. It frees you not to constantly be grasping at the things of this world and trying to hold onto them as tight as you can because you think that the things of this world are somehow going to save you, that God can give you things that will save you.
But that's not the way that God works. God doesn't give you things to save you. God gives us something else to save us. And so when you realize that the things of this world are not the final answer to the troubles that we live through, to the questions that we have, to the pain that we feel, you become free to live like a disciple of Jesus: to be generous even if you only have a little bit, because you don't need to hold onto it. It frees you to love everybody even if you don't like everybody, because there is enough love to go around. It frees you to act in the service of your neighbors. Why? Because you don't have to be afraid of what it means to lose that time. You don't have to be afraid of what happens if I get in trouble for going on that March? Or what if people don't like me when I speak up about that issue? That's not the stuff that matters. What matters is your relationship to God. That's the foundation. That's everything. So we can be generous and loving and kind.
But still we struggle a little bit. We struggle with God who we believe to be powerful and good, who doesn't seem to answer every prayer in exactly the way that we would hope that every prayer would be answered. And we see this, right? We see that some people pray for very good things, to be healed, and yet they're not healed. To be lifted up out of poverty, and yet they're not lifted up out of poverty. For their children to be safe, and yet, in some cases, their children are not safe the way they want them to be safe, their loved ones are not safe. And this always makes us wonder, what is the character of the God that we love and worship? What is the character of the God we love and worship, who doesn't always seem to give us the fair, or the just, or the right, or the kind thing, even when we pray, even when we ask?
There are a couple of ways that we have answered this question throughout our history, right? One of them is that when things go wrong in your life and you're not getting exactly what you think you deserve, or what's fair, it's because you are being punished for something, right? If you think back long enough, you'll remember some awful thing you did or said, or didn't do that you should have done, some thought you had, some deed you did. And the reason that you are suffering now, even though you're praying for something else in your life is because you're being punished for that thing that you did. It's your own fault. That's the way it works. And this has been a very popular reasoning for suffering throughout all of history. There's one problem with it. And there's a lot of Christians and I think there's a little bit of all of us who kind of believes this, right? We always kind of say to ourselves, when something goes completely wrong, "What did I do to deserve this?" It's sort of just built right into the culture, built right into the psychology. But the problem is Jesus seems to totally reject this idea. When the disciples and Jesus come across a man who has been blind from birth (And the popular opinion at the time was that if you had anything that was wrong with you, it was because you had committed some sort of sin), and the disciples couldn't quite figure out if he had been born blind, what could he have done to deserve it? And so they were arguing amongst one another, "Well, he must have done something even when he was very, very small." And then some of the other disciples must have been saying, "No, I think it was his parents who must have done something to make him blind. That's why he's blind." So they went to Jesus and they said, "Hey, answer this debate for us. Who was the sinner? Was it him or his parents that he was born blind?" And Jesus says, "Ah, forget that. The whole thing is wrong. Nobody had sinned. That's not what this is about." Jesus seems to just step away from the idea that you are being punished and that's why you're suffering.
So then there comes another idea about God that’s very popular, and I'm sure that we all hold this in our hearts as well. And this is the idea that there is some sort of great plan at play in the world. And everything that happens to you and everything that happens in the world, God has ordained that it's going to happen or is allowing it to happen because it is a part of this great master plan. And in the end, everything's going to turn out okay. Even though the world might be burning right now, even though you might be suffering right now, in the end, it's all going to turn out okay. There's a couple of problems with this. One is the issue of free will. We know that we have free will so if God has ordained that something should happen, do I really have free will? But I think the bigger issue is what kind of a God who has the power to step in and stop a tragedy from happening—and that God is all good, we believe that God is good—then why doesn't God step in to stop the tragedy from happening?
What does that mean about God? And a popular answer to this is that, well, God's goodness is different than our human conception of what goodness is, right? And in fact, God is just. And so the fact that there is suffering and pain and tragedy and disaster and injustice in this world, and that God isn't fixing it all for us when we pray for it to be fixed is just because God is just, and in the great picture of justice, it is right for all of us to be suffering through all of these things and it's going to get us to God's justice in the end in some way. But again, that sort of comes back to this idea that we are all suffering because of something that we've done wrong, right? This idea that we are being punished in some sense, or not being healed because of some kind of injustice in our past, or some kind of imperfection within us that we can't do anything about. And that seems to be something that Jesus rejected when he said, "Nobody is being punished for a sin," in this particular instance of the blind man who is born blind.
So what kind of God do we have? What does God ask of us? What does God want from us? Well, in the second part of our scripture reading, I think that Jesus gives us the answer, be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet. If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” Our God is a God who is putting the impetus on us, yeah? God is putting the impetus on us. He is saying to me, and to you, "This is the way the world works. I need you to be ready. I need you to be paying attention. I can't have you giving up. I can't have you losing hope. You need to be as ready as if you are expecting me to rush back into your life at any moment, because even in the midst of disaster, and even in the midst of suffering, I am right at the edges and my kingdom is right there already waiting to respond. And if you are not ready for that, if you have given up because of the hardship and the trials and the suffering and the pain, what will you see?" Well, you won't see anything.
It's our readiness that enables us to see God's action in the world. And it is our readiness that enables us to be God's hands in this world. Be ready, be ready. Watch. God is already at work in this world. And in all the trials and all the difficulties of our lives, none of which are... Not all of them are ever going to be perfectly solved, right? If everything could be perfectly solved, then everything would be perfectly solved by just praying for it and wanting it. And just by it being the right thing. But that is not the way it works. You and I need to be involved. That is the world that God has given us.
And so it's not that prayer isn't answered. I believe that prayer is answered. It's just not answered in the way that we always expect for it to be answered. Because if we are asking for God to give us the things and the comforts in this world, even health and relationships and love or possessions and money, if we are looking for things in this world that will make us more comfortable in this world, that is not how prayer works. But if we are coming to God in prayer to say to God, "I am ready for you to enter into my life, to enter into this struggle, to enter into this difficulty, into these blessings, into these strengths and weaknesses so that I can act for you and for my neighbors" that is when prayer is always answered. That is the prayer that God always responds to exactly the way we hope.
"I will be with you until the end of the age, and you don't know what you're going to get. And the blessings that you have, they might not always be there. And the hardships that you hope will never come in your life may come, but whatever may come, I will be there with you if you are ready for me to be there with you." Now beloved what I'm not saying is I'm not saying that money doesn't matter. I'm not saying that health doesn't matter. I'm not saying that your relationships and your family don't matter. I'm not saying that the things of this world don't matter. I am saying that our faith tells us that there is something that matters more. And in prayer, we connect to that One who matters more. And we say to God, "I am ready. Whatever may come, whatever may come, I am ready."
Well, if you are going to live a good life... and I think most of you want to live a good life. I could tell... look out there, see those faces, I know you want to live a good life. If you want to live a good life, one of the things that you're going to have to struggle with and figure out is: What is my relationship going to be to money and to stuff, to possessions? And this is something that I know that many of you are struggling with in your lives, right now. It is something that we work through our entire life. What is my relationship going to be to this stuff that I want, but that also stresses me out... to this money that I need, but that also causes me all this anxiety. How am I going to relate to that? And Jesus has, I think some very interesting things to say to us about this... very difficult, but very interesting.
Now, one of them of course, is “Don't be greedy.” And that's part of the lesson from our scripture reading this morning, but it's not the whole lesson at all, I don't think. And I'm not going to get too much into “don't be greedy,” because I think for the most part, even though we might struggle a little bit with greed here and there, and even though the world can often struggle mightily with greed, we know that greed is ugly. When we see greed, even when we see it in ourselves, we generally know that it is ugly. We have heard in our culture and in our scripture, and we have been taught since we were children, “do not be greedy.” Share, be fair with other people. We know that greed not only hurts the world around us and people around us, we know that it hurts us.
But Jesus doesn't just say, “Don't be greedy.” Jesus goes further. Jesus says to his closest disciples, when he calls his disciples, he says, if you want to follow me, you have to leave everything behind. Nothing. You have to leave your job behind. You're going to have to leave your family behind. You're going to have to leave all your responsibilities and your hometown behind. You're going to have nothing. And then you are going to come and follow me. And then Jesus took those disciples and he sent them out into the community to preach and to teach the gospel and to heal the sick. And when they were going on this journey, how did he prepare them? He said, you're not going to take anything with you. You will have no staff. You will have no bag. You will have no purse. You will have no money. You're not going to even have a little bit of food or water. You're going to go with the clothes on your back and the sandals on your feet. And that is it.
And we sometimes hear Jesus offering people advice like the rich young man famously in scripture. The rich young man comes to Jesus. He says, Hey, I've lived a good life. I've done everything I'm supposed to do according to the scripture. I still feel like there's something missing though. And Jesus says, oh yeah, you have one more thing that you need to do. Take everything that you have sell it, give all the money away to the poor and then come and follow me.
This sounds like pretty shocking advice to us. And part of the reason it sounds so shocking is because I, and most likely you, do not live this way. We have some things... we've got a staff, we've got a bag, we've got a purse, we've got more than one pair of shoes, we don't exactly live this way. And so it's shocking to us to hear Jesus recommending it so forcefully throughout scripture. And I want to say, I don't think that Jesus expects us to live this way. This is called voluntary poverty. And I think it's a very special calling for very special people. It was a special calling for those disciples and certain followers and for certain people who really want to excel and meet spiritual challenges and grow spiritually in their life. But it is not what everybody in this life is supposed to do. We cannot all live in voluntary poverty, just like we can't all live in celibacy. And we can't all live in constant prayer, continuous prayer. These are very special vows for people who have a special calling and are on a special path in life.
However, I do think that even though this is not a universal calling and it may not be the calling for you or for me, there is a lesson in Jesus constantly reminding us to give things away and to leave things behind. There is a universal message in that teaching that is meant for all of us (even if we don't live in voluntary poverty) that we often miss. And it is a lesson that is deeper, more fundamental, and more important than just, “Don't be greedy.”
Now I want you to take as an example this morning, the landowner in Jesus' parable, the rich landowner. Is this the story of an out of control greed maniac? Does this sound like somebody who's just monstrously greedy and is just the poster child for a greed out of control. This guy's a business owner. He has a bumper crop. He doesn't have any place to store it. So it decides he is going to have bigger barns. And then he's going to be able to live off the proceeds.
Is that greed? I don't know if it is. It sounds a little bit like you or me, right? I mean, if you're a business owner, when the time comes and you have the opportunity, maybe you want to expand your business a little bit. Is that greediness or is that just business? Is that the way the world works? Is wanting to have your golden years be well funded so that you are not suffering, and during that time, when you don't have income coming in, because you're not running your business anymore, is that greedy just to want to have a nest egg that you can rely upon? I don't think that it is.
Can we really say that this landowner is acting immorally by what he is doing? Greed is immoral. This isn't immoral. It's not unethical. We don't even know that this landowner is being uncaring towards other people. Is he so obsessed with his business that he is not loving to his wife or to his children or to his neighbors? Does he not give to charity? Is he somebody who's totally self-obsessed? We don't see that in Jesus's story. That's not the story that Jesus is telling us here. This guy, he's not Ebeneezer Scrooge. He's not some miserable old miser. That's not what we're hearing about here. He's somebody just like you or like me. So yes, of course, don't be greedy, but Jesus is telling us something about ourselves as well. What is he trying to tell us?
Unfortunately, what we sometimes hear that Jesus is trying to tell us in this story, and it makes us quite nervous, is we say this guy, who's not all that different from you or me, the bad man, is super, super greedy. And so God kills him for being greedy, right? If you want bigger barns, God's going to kill you. So don't. Don't tear down your barns and build bigger ones, because that is going to get you the bolt of lightning from heaven. Now, I don't think that's actually the message here. Here's what I think the real message is. And I think you'll hear it in the words.
This is a perfectly average rich man who is making perfectly normal business decisions, but he is relying on his money and his possessions totally and completely to the exclusion of God. And he believes that his wealth and his power and his possessions are going to be able to save him in this life. And just at the moment when he believes that he has made it, and that he is going to be able to savor all of the fruit of his hard labors over the year and becoming someone who is rich and secure, he dies... not because God kills him for building bigger barns, but because everybody dies. Everybody has to leave it all behind at some point.
And then (I love this line) God says to the man, all that stuff that you thought was going to hold you up and protect you, who does it belong to now? Who does it belong to now? I think the lesson here from this parable is that none of us, no matter whether you're rich by luck and accident, or you're poor on purpose, none of us really owns anything at all. And none of us can rely in this life, on our possessions, on our wealth, on our money, however much we may have or not have to keep us going forever. Who owns everything that we have? God does. We are just intermediaries. It's entrusted to us for a short amount of time. And we cannot put our faith in it. Everything is always changing. And there's only one thing that we can rely on.
We think often in this life that, well, if I just had a little bit more, just a little bit more than I have now, then I would be truly happy. And how many times have you thought that in your life? Well, you think it about two weeks after you get whatever you thought was going to make you happy the last time. It always fades. We think if I just had a little bit more money, a little bit more security, well then I would be truly happy. And that happiness always fades. Why? It's because it's the psychology of our human desire. We always want more. And there's always more to want. Whatever level we get to, we always believe that there's something more and we're always disappointed in the end.
And yes, it may be true that having a little more money in this world might make you a little more secure in this world. That is the way that the world works. But you're not always going to be in this world. And at some point, everything that you built up around you in this world to keep you safe, isn't going to be able to keep you safe. That is the nature of our existence. And so who do we rely on?
Jesus has tried to teach us a universal truth in his voluntary poverty that he practices and that he recommends. He's trying to remind us of that universal truth in this parable. And that is that your true happiness can only be found outside of money and possessions. It can only be found outside of this world. It is somewhere in heaven, which as I told the kids this morning is somewhere in here and somewhere out there, a little bit of both. Your true security in this world has to come from beyond this world, your happiness and your meaning must come from beyond because this world is impermanent. It is always changing. It is always going up and down.
As I’m coming back from my paternity leave over the last two weeks, I have been catching up with a lot of you. And I always put some of our older members first, because I feel like they need me most. And frankly, I'll tell you the other reason I do it, is because the older members, the 65+ crowd, is the crowd I feel like that has the most change going on in their lives. If I don't talk to somebody for two weeks, I don't know what situation they're going to be in two weeks later... constant change.
And as I've spoken to many of our older members over the last two weeks, a lot of you are suffering. Some of you have good news, but many of you are dealing with this change... change in life. What about my finances? Who's going to take care of me? Where am I going to live? Now I have to move. I have to go somewhere else. Can I be independent or not? My friends are dying. My friends are moving away. Who's going to be there to take care of me. How am I going to be able to do it? My health is failing. What is wrong with me? Am I going to get better? Or is this it? There's so much change. I want you to know that I see that change. And I see what you all are going through. And as you know, because you're older and wiser than me, I can't fix it. All I can do is sit with you and love you. And remind you of the One who is with you through all of it.
This world is always changing. Our fortunes are always going up and down. Nothing stays the same. Everything we depend on, sooner or later, is going to disappear. And so in this life, we must realize and learn that no matter what, we must found our happiness and our security in God. Everything else in this world is like a little extra bonus to keep us safe and happy and warm and well fed. But the truth, the fundamental truth, is that it has to start with God. But many of us live our lives as if it starts with a paycheck in the bank. And it starts with food on the table and it starts with clothes on my back and it starts with a great career. And then God is the extra thing that I add on at the end of the week, but that doesn't work and that will eventually run out.
We have to found ourselves, our happiness, and our security, on the thing that is greater than any change, greater than any misfortune, greater than anything in this world. We can found our lives on faith, hope, and love. And so when Jesus recommends voluntary poverty to us, the lesson that I think he is offering us, is to live in this life without too much attachment, to work in this life without being attached to that work, to love in this life, to love everybody as if they were our own selves, but not to get attached too much to who we think we are, or who we think that they should be. Live, work, love, lead a good life, but found it all on the One who is greater than all of these things.
Well, it sure is good to be back, and I really mean it. It is wonderful to be back. And I have to just thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to have eight weeks off to help my family adjust to being a family of four with two kids now. And that is a big, big adjustment to make. It's not just a spiritual adjustment becoming a parent for the first time or the second time. It is a logistical adjustment. As many of you know. It is hard work, it is sleepless nights, it is a lot of demands on your time and your attention, but there's also a spiritual adjustment that I think needs to be made every time you welcome a new life into this world.
And for me, that is about understanding and accepting that this little life that you now hold in your hands—that you have fallen totally, madly, wildly in love with—you don't really know what you are going to get. You don't know what you are holding in your hands as you hold that little life in your hands and you bless it. And you scream from the bottom of your heart up into the heavens, "Protect this child. May this child be happy. May this child be healthy. May this child be successful. May this child be kind. May the shadow of pain never cross the door of this child."
And of course you do, because if you didn't, you'd be a lousy parent, but being a mature parent means that you also say, "And I know I don't know what I've got. I don't know what this life will be. I don't know how it will all work itself out. I don't know what's coming. I don't know." Oh, boy. And that's a hard place to be as someone who loves their child and who wants their life to be perfect because we want our kids to have a perfect life, right? We want them to be serious, but funny. Smart, but not full of themselves. We want them to be successful, but also humble. Strong, but also gentle. Spirited, but also respectful and obedient.
We want them to be perfect. We have all these visions in our head of how they're just going to be... They could be a perfect child, but we don't know what we're going to get. And sitting there in my period of adjustment, holding this new little life in my hands, just I don't know, 2, 3, 4 days after the baby was born, the events in Uvalde unfolded—the terrible tragic shooting and massacre of children. And then you really have to remember, I don't know what I am holding. I don't know what the future will bring. I am asking for safety. I am asking you, God, for health. I am asking you for a perfectly unblighted life for this child, but I don't know what's coming.
And none of us do. And then I run into this piece of scripture here that says, "Well," Jesus says, "if you ask, it will be given to you. Ask," this is what it says, "and it shall be given to you." I struggle with that because I actually think that attitude may be just the perfect way to ruin your life. I think it's probably the perfect way to ruin your kids' life as parents. Mature parenting is about realizing you don't know what you are holding in your hands. And all of your dreams and hopes for this child are your dreams and your hopes, but it's not about you. It's about her. It's about him. It's about who God created them to be.
Why should it be about what I want for this child? It's about what God wants for this child. It's about what this child wants for themselves. And so mature parenting is about not asking and getting what you want, but being there to create an environment where this child can discover who she or who he is on their own terms, without your judgment, or you trying to nudge them this way or that way, or to say, "But you are supposed to be this. You're supposed to be this way. You're supposed to be that way. You're supposed to be like me. You're not supposed to be like that." And then support them in the journey of discovering who they are and support them through all the trials and tribulations that may come in this life.
And knowing as a parent that you have to prepare them for trials and tribulations, you cannot say to them, "Well, don't worry. I'm praying to God that everything go perfectly in your life. So you have nothing to worry about. Why don't you just pray that too? And everything will just be peachy keen?" Not many parents would say that to their children because we just know that's not exactly the way the world works. And so when we run into this piece of scripture that says, "Ask and it will be given to you," what does that mean? If I don't get what I want, is there something wrong with me, or if I'm praying for something for my child to be a certain way, or to have certain blessings and they don't get it, is it because there's something wrong with them?
So I want this morning to just push us in a new direction with this piece of scripture. And it does sound like Jesus is saying, "Ask and it will be given to you. You'll get whatever you want." That's what it sounds like. But I want to remind you that Jesus was a preacher and preachers preach the truth. They try to, but they always preach it in context. So I want to give you two different contexts for this parable and this sermon that you hear Jesus preaching.
Now, if you were to hear somebody came up to Jesus and said, "Jesus, look, I'm having some trouble in my life. I really want to win the power ball. That's my goal. It's what I want. I really think it would be what's best for everybody. Like a couple hundred million. I play every week and I haven't won yet. So I really need you to give me some spiritual advice on how to win the lottery." And Jesus said, "Well, ask and it shall be given to you. Everybody who asks, receives." "Oh, thank you, Jesus. So I just need to pray for it and I'll get it?" "Absolutely. That's the lesson you should be taking from this sermon," and off he goes, right? Contextually that would seem to be what Jesus was saying.
But I want you to imagine another context for this sermon. I want you to imagine that Jesus is preaching to a new father who is holding that new life in his hands, and sitting there on the couch and turning on the TV, and the news of Uvalde comes over the airwaves. Or that Jesus is preaching a sermon to someone who has hit rock bottom, who has given up, who has suffered and suffered and suffered, and doesn't know how to ask anymore, doesn't believe that there's any reason to ask for anything good, because all they get are snakes and scorpions, and maybe it's God who's giving me those snakes and scorpions, or maybe because I'm getting snakes and scorpions, it means that God isn't there, that nobody cares, that there is no father or mother watching over my life. The downtrodden, the poor in spirit—when you imagine Jesus preaching that sermon to those folks, to people like me and you who have suffered real hurt in our lives, who have seen real tragedy, who are terrified about a world that seems to be totally out of control and who do not know what to do next (I think we can say that about ourselves and about our culture right now. We do not know what to do next. We do not know exactly how to make things better for our children), then Jesus' sermon is saying, "Don't you dare give up. If you've hit rock bottom, continue to ask, right? If you're terrified and afraid, don't be too afraid to keep seeking, right? If you feel like you're locked out of this life, don't be afraid to keep knocking, because if you ask, it shall be given to you." You don't know what it is. You don't know what you're going to get, but beloved, don't give up. Don't give up.
Pray, seek, ask, move forward, act, do the next right thing with the courage of someone who believes that something good is going to come.
Ah, love, love, love, love. Anybody here ever been in love? You know what it's like. I want to read you a little bit, a famous piece of scripture this morning, to start out with. "If I could speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have love. I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes, all things, endures all things. And now faith, hope, and love abide these three, and the greatest of these is love."
The Bible teaches us that love is the greatest spiritual attribute that we can achieve within ourselves. The greatest attribute that we can pursue in this world. But I saw a lot of hands go up when you all said that you had been in love. When you were in love, did it all sound like that stuff that Paul was talking about? Just the greatest thing ever? Patient and kind and oh, just smooth sailing all the way? No, absolutely not.
We all know that love is complicated and it can be extraordinarily painful at times. It could cause us to do some crazy things. It can lead to some of the worst examples of bad behavior that you have ever read about in the tabloid pages or the Hollywood gossip rags. I mean, love can really do a number on you. The Bible, as it commends love to us, it's not naive. The Bible knows that love can be difficult. That is exactly why Paul says, "Well, let me give you this long laundry list of the things that do describe love." Love is patient and kind. It is not envious. It is not boastful. Because Paul understands that love is hard and that we don't always get it right?
And so, in the resurrection of Easter, that first Easter, is a wonderful moment. Jesus pops into the disciples. They've gone out fishing and Jesus shows up on the shore. He's telling him, "Hey, fish, over there," and they get a bunch of fish. He says, "Hey, come on in." They all come in and Jesus has a fire going. They sit down and they roast their fish together and they do just the most mundane thing you could ever imagine. This is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What do they do? They have breakfast together. Isn't that a wonderful thing?
After they're done with breakfast, Jesus starts asking about love. It's a little bit confusing exactly what's going on here. He asks him three times. In the first time Jesus asks Peter, he phrases it like this, "Do you love me more than all these? Do you love me more than all these other people? Do you love me more than these disciples? Am I number one in your life? You got to love me the most. Do you love me the most? Peter says, "Yeah, I do. I love you. You know I love you. I love you that much."
How would you answer that question? I'm not sure that Jesus just is fully satisfied with Peter's answer. Are you? If He was satisfied with his answer, I think He would've just asked him one time and Jesus would've said, "Yo, I love you the most. I love you more than all these other suckers. Forget about all of them. They're nothing to me. You are everything to me. Don't even think about them. I can be done with them in a minute. I'll give up everything. I'm all for you. You, you are number one. You're my number one passion. You're the only one for me." Well, Jesus would've said, "Well, okay. That sounds pretty good." But that is kind of what Peter says. He says, "Yeah, I love you more than all of them." But Jesus keeps asking him.
There was a time where I was exploring Zen Buddhism and it was a conversation partner to me, well, with my Christian faith. I wanted to learn more about another faith tradition radically different from the Abrahamic tradition. And so, I began to learn and to practice and to meet with Zen Buddhists. One of the things that you do in Zen Buddhism is after you meditate, you might go in and speak with the spiritual master. I would go in and I would sit down. One of the first questions that the spiritual master, the monk or the nun, would ask me is they would point to a bell and they would say, "What is this?" I would say, "Oh good, I got an easy one." I would say, "It's a bell." They would say, "What is this?" I would say, "It's a bell."
They would say, "What is this?" I would say, "It's a bell." And they would say, "I think that's enough for today. Why don't you go back out and meditate tomorrow?" I had not gotten the right answer. It took many months of meditation and listening to talks and participating in the community before eventually I started answering all kinds of things. I was thinking, "Geez, it's a piece of metal that rings. And they would ask me again, "What is it?" I was just coming up with all kinds of philosophical answers and wild answers. They would ask me again and again, "What is it? What is it?"
Finally, one day they asked me, "What is it?" I picked up the little ringer and I rang the bell, and they didn't ask me the question again. Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me more than everybody?" Peter says, "Yes, I love you more than anybody." Jesus, I don't think is happy with that answer. I don't think it's the right answer. I also don't think that the answer, "No, I love everybody more than you," is the right answer. Neither one of them are good answers. Jesus is pointing us to a higher calling and Jesus doesn't want to say to Peter ... He's resurrected Jesus. He's gentle. He doesn't want to say, "No, you got it wrong, you bonehead. You constantly get it wrong." He just gently redirects him. He says, "Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep."
You got to understand poor Peter's perspective here. When the crucifixion happened, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus was arrested and tried and crucified. All during that night, Peter said, "I don't know him. I don't know him. I'm not associated with him. I'm not one of his followers. I never saw the guy before in my life." He realizes that he has betrayed Jesus. He's not there for Him. And so now, Jesus is giving him this opportunity for redemption, and Peter is not going to miss out on this opportunity. So when Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" Peter says, "Yes, I love you more than anything. More than anything. You are number one. You're my everything. I love you. I love you passionately." He's ready to defend Jesus. He's ready to hold on to Jesus and never let go.
But you know, the interesting thing about Jesus is Jesus never asks us to defend him. Frankly, I don't think that Jesus needs us to defend him. Now, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Incarnate One, the Logos who was there before the beginning, through whom everything was created. Jesus doesn't need me or you to defend him to the world. The kind of love that Jesus asks us for is not to defend Him or to stand up for Him, but to imitate Him. That's what Jesus asked us for.
It's understandable that Peter gets it wrong. He thinks, "I ran away from Jesus, and at that crucial moment in His life, I didn't defend Him." But what was really wrong is that he didn't imitate him. When he denied Jesus, he wasn't showing his love. Jesus doesn't ask for defenders. He needs people who can imitate him. And so, when Peter says, "I'm going to love you more than I love anybody else," Jesus says, "Feed my sheep. Imitate me. Put the love that you have for me into action. Put it into action. That's how you love me. And that's what love is. Don't beat people up with me. Imitate me. The love that I have given to you, give it to the world and then you will be my follower."
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations