Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August 28, 2016 - The Sea of God's Love

I want start by talking about an idea out of early Christianity.  Early Christians (up to about the 5th century) were concerned about something called vainglory.  Now we would lump vainglory in with pride or vanity.  They saw vanity primarily about having to do with physical appearance, an overarching concern with beauty or being physically attractive.
                Vainglory had to with getting wrapped up in one’s own achievements or abilities.  It is the urge to have people notice what you have accomplished.  This is one of the reasons that the group of Christians that are known today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers sought solitude in the wilderness.  They didn’t want other people to see them seeking to be holy for fear that they would be acknowledged, praised and become vainglorious.  You have these circular arguments where someone achieves a great sense of humility but then becomes proud about how good they are at being humble and has to relearn humility.
                We do not seem to live in a culture that has a problem with vainglory.  We hear plenty of vainglorious statements like, “I have the best words.”  But even as a pastor when someone tries to pull out the, “I have been a member here for 30 years so you need to listen,” is a form a vainglory.  Pay attention to me and you need to pay more attention to me than someone who has been here a shorter time.  Those who get involved with social media are in many ways set up to be vainglorious.  Look how many friends I have.  Look how many likes that post received.  Look how many people are following me.  Look how many people are paying attention to me.  Vainglory.
                We live in an achievement-centered culture and that creates a problem, a moment of disconnect, as we listen to Jesus.  He keeps telling stories and sharing images that end with a tagline like we heard today, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” or “the last will be first and the first will be last.”  That is not how we live.  In our culture, those who exalt themselves are often exalted by others and those who humble themselves are often ignored as irrelevant. 
                American religion seems to flow in the direction of the culture.  We want a God who forgives and forgets the bad things and mistakes we do but we also want a God who remembers and acknowledges the good things that we do.  We want a God who responds to our good deeds; a God who recognizes our faithful actions that prove our trust.  We want a God whom we can impress in some way.  I’m not sure that this is the God Jesus proclaims.
                To be fair, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about going to pray in your room in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  But that is mostly a passage about praying for the sake of your relationship with God and not so that others will notice you.  I would argue that the acts of prayer, fasting and giving are their own reward (but that is a different sermon).
                This is where a Christian concept of mindfulness comes in.  Two Sundays ago, I mentioned that mindfulness in the Christian tradition is about being aware of the presence of God in any given moment, whatever the circumstance, the idea that we are dwelling in the infinite love of God.  The Christian journey is about becoming more and more aware of that reality, paying attention to that reality.  God’s love is infinite and there is very little that you can do (nothing that you can do) to affect infinity. 
So here is the part we like.  Jesus proclaims a God who does in fact forgive and forget the worst things that you have done.  Imagine that the worst thing you have done in your life is a bucket of red dye that you pour into this infinite sea of God’s love.  When you first pour it in it will be very noticeable, but after a few moments it will be pink cloud.  In a few more moments it will be so dilute that you would never know it is there.  This is the power of real confession and promise of forgiveness.  So often we walk around with our red buckets saying, “I can’t give this to God.  God can’t handle it.”  Even the biggest bucket you have, the biggest mistake you have made, won’t affect the infinite.  I think this part of the message of the crucifixion.  Even the worst things that humanity can do cannot stop the infinite power of life.
But here is the part you won’t like.  Imagine the best thing that you have ever done in your life, your greatest triumph, your gold-star, gold-medal, good doobie moment.  Imagine your most faithful moment.  Imagine the moment when God should pay attention to you and the world you stand up and take notice as a bucket of yellow dye.  Pour that into the infinite sea of God’s love.  For a few moments it will be a pale, yellow cloud and soon it will be as if it were never there.  And we walk around not truly wanting to give that to God because, “Hey.  I deserve some credit here.  I don’t want this to disappear.”
The good news is that you are loved as you are, where you are and who you are:  successes and failures, faithfulness and faithlessness, red buckets and yellow buckets.  All of it dissolves in the great sea of God’s love.  You are loved as you were before you made your first mistake.  You are loved as you were before your first success.  You are loved at a fundamental level that is not dependent on what you have done or failed to do.  The blank canvas on which we paint our lives is love.  The stillness from which our song breaks out is love.  The empty page on which your story is written is love.
When you wake up knowing that you don’t have to earn God’s love today; you don’t have to impress God today; you cannot lose God’s love today, it doesn’t matter where you are seated at the banquet table.  Take the lowest spot, because love will be there.  As you become more aware that the fundamental place where you and God intersect is love, you can’t help but love God and love others because it is who you are at a basic level.
If religion has a task in this day, I think it is to set people free from that achievement-centered life that many of us have been taught is so important.  I think it is our job to release people from the need to be impressive, to be honored or at least to avoid shame.  It is our job to remind one another that our basic purpose, our reason for being, is love.  Pay attention to the love of God that is all around you.  Pay attention and dive in.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

August 20. 2016 - Sermon for the Blessing of the Racers

The Falmouth Road Race is a huge event in our area.  It is a 7.2 mile race involving 13000 runners.  Because the race is held on Sunday morning and ties up a portion of the town, church attendance is low that day.  So we attempted holding a Blessing of the Racers service on the Saturday before.  This is the brief reflection from that day.

Thank you all for being here.  This is an experiment for our congregation so thank you for experimenting with us.  The last time I ran the Falmouth Road Race was about 6 years ago.  My son had just finished 2nd grade.  In the weeks leading up to the race he asked me if I thought I would win.  I told him I would do my best but would be happy if I finished the course in less than an hour.  And I remember that we talked for a little while because he couldn’t quite understand why I would run in a race if I didn’t think I had a chance to win it. 
                I’ve been running on and off since high school.  I have run in several races.  Unfortunately for someone in my profession, many of them are on Sunday mornings these days.  In all that time, I have never won a race.  I have some participation medals and a few old race numbers, but there are no trophies and that I have ever won with the exception of the time I ran a race just after turning forty and was suddenly one of the younger people in a new age class.  I had one race where I was second in my age class.
                I run because I enjoy it.  I like the way it feels to go farther than I have before.  I like the way it feels to push myself.  At least I like it in retrospect.  I have had more than one run where somewhere in the middle there is a part of my brain that says, “Dude, what we are doing is awful.  We could be in bed right now.”  I’m sure we will feel some of that tomorrow.
                At the same time, we have Paul saying, “Run in such a way that you may win.”  Of course, he is talking about the endurance race that we call life.  And in that race we also have moments where we look at ourselves and say, “Dude what we are doing is awful.  Let’s go back to bed.”  Faith, the good news, the promise of Jesus, is what can keep us in the race.  The promise is not that you will win; the promise of Jesus is that you have already won.
                So keep in the race, even if you stumble, even if you stop and walk a bit.  Run the race, knowing it will not always be easy and may sometimes feel awful.  Run the race that you have already won, not because you are faster than everybody else or built for speed, but because Jesus crossed the finish before any of us could get started, and shared his victory with all.  Run the race that you have already won.

August 14, 2016 - Christian Mindfulness

Throughout this year, I have been talking about different images of being a disciple.  It has not been so much about things that we do, but more values that the good news might grow within us.  We have talked about hope and peace, compassion and generosity.  Last month I talked about love, God’s love for us and how it might inspire us to grow in love for God and for others.
                This month I am going to give a couple of sermons on a hazier idea, but one that comes up, especially in Paul’s writings.  It is referred to in a number of ways and by several different words, like endurance, self-control, forbearance, patience, self-awareness.  All of these words fall under the umbrella of what we might call today, mindfulness.   But people get nervous about mindfulness because it sounds too “New Agey” or Buddhist.  Yet if you ask someone to describe what they mean by mindfulness, they are going to use words like patience, self-awareness, endurance and self-control.  The thing is that this concept is a part of many religious traditions.  It is a place where we intersect and often the place where we can start some interesting dialogue, because just about every religious tradition recognizes that part of being human is having a mind with thoughts that disturb us, get us into trouble, and lead us to cause trouble for others around us.  Just about everyone looks at themselves and has a moment when he or she says, “I wish I were more disciplined.  I wish I were less tempted.  I wish I didn’t get so angry.  I wish I were more patient.”  How can my faith help me be a better person?
                This is where traditions even within Christianity start to split.  There are legalistic traditions that say you become a better person by being disciplined.  Avoid the bad stuff and do the good stuff and you will be a better person.   And it is true, discipline is often its own reward.  As we watch the Olympics, we see the result of disciplined lives.  But that is still in the easier said than done area and part of the reason that people say Christians are hypocrites.  Leaders tell the people to be perfect and disciplined and then get caught in imperfection.
                There are other traditions that follow the power of positive thinking movement.  If you trust God then you allow God to do good and amazing things for you.  The extreme is to tell people that God wants to make them wealthy if they prove their trust but the most common and most popular is a message that says that God wants you to reach your greatest potential or have a successful life or have a life of blessing.  This is what happens when you only focus on about a third to a half of the scriptures.  It’s not absolutely wrong, that is, you can find this point of view in the Bible, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  
                Think about the reading from Hebrews, as the author describes the stories of Hebrew scripture.  We hear about the amazing things God has done by faith, the Red Sea story, Joshua and the wall of Jericho, see how God rewards faithfulness.  The list continues in an amazing vein telling of those who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”  If you stop there, you get a message that says, “Good things happen to faithful people. ”
                But then the memories take a turn, “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”  The story is a little more complex.  Being a faithful person can lead to wonderful things, but it can also lead to terrible things, which is kind of the experience of many in the early church.  Often, faith had not made their lives better, but had made them more complicated and more dangerous.  For the first few centuries, being faithful could lead to exclusion, arrest and official punishment.  Faith was not a guarantee that things in life would get better, it was a promise that ultimately things would be better  than you could imagine.  Ultimately, there would be a union with God that was beyond the worst things this life could give.  Even though now we might experience the cross, ultimately, there would be resurrection.
                Finally there are traditions that expand on the idea of union with God, seeing it as something that can be part of this life and not just reserved for the afterlife.  One of the names for our Sunday morning sacrament is Communion which literally means “union with”.  We gather at the table to participate in Christ.  The goal of Christian faith is not proving our trust in God or improving ourselves for God but rather participating in God and the improvement or discipline kind of grows from that union.  As Jesus says, “The good tree bears good fruit.”  The more we take the time to pay attention to God who is with us, the deeper we experience union with the divine, the more deeply we are transformed by faith.
                And this is the particular Christian slant on mindfulness.  While other faiths and philosophies see mindfulness as a matter being focused on the present moment, Christians see mindfulness as being focused on the presence of God in that moment.   It is a growing awareness that God is present in all things and in all circumstances.  We look to Jesus as the ultimate example of someone who was fully aware of God’s presence, fully in union with God.  This leads him to experience and do wonderful things but also to endure terrible things, even death on the cross, while still in that union.  Saint Teresa of Avila described this growth in terms of watering a garden, where the water is the loving presence of God.  When we begin in faith, we experience that love in the work of going to the well and drawing water.  We have moments when we seek out God’s presence and we think we have to work hard to reach those moments.  Sometimes we get so distracted by the work, the technique, the type of rope and bucket, that we forget why we are working.  But as we grow more deeply in faith we come to realize that the loving presence of God is a steady drizzle, constantly watering the garden without our help.    We don’t make it happen; we just don’t notice it.  But when we realize that we are in that loving presence constantly, circumstances don’t really matter.  Success and failure no longer matter in the same way.  They are not a measure of God’s favor.  God’s favor is already upon you and that is what can uplift you in good times but also sustain you during difficult times. 
                Because life is going to happen and it won’t always have a good reason.   This past weekend, I watched far behind as my 15-year-old bounded up a 4000-foot mountain in the White Mountain range.  He was humming to himself, periodically looking back and saying, “How’s it going, Dad?”  It turns out that I am not 20.  And had I lived a more disciplined life I might be in better shape than I am now, but I still would not be 20.  Those 25 years happened and they were not in my control.  And as I have talked to many of you and heard your stories, you have experienced things, good and bad, that were not in your control. 

                Faith is not some magic talisman that wards off bad things and opens us to good things.  Faith is a divine gift that allows us to be aware that we are surrounded by the ultimate good.  No matter what happens; not matter what the circumstances, we are in the loving presence of God.  May you grow more and more mindful of that presence in your lives.

Monday, August 22, 2016

July 24, 2016 - A Reflection on the Greatest Commandment

Jesus listens to the answer of a scribe and responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  In other words, “You are on the right track.” 

                What we have in this interaction is the distinction between faith and religion.  Faith is represented by an attitude of love.  Religion is represented by burnt offerings and sacrifices.  We (thankfully) don’t sacrifice animals or burn much other than candles, but we do have religious actions as part of our faith.  We go to church.  We are encouraged to read the Bible, to pray, to give.  Other religious actions might involve what you eat or will not eat, what you drink or will not drink, words you will say or will not say.

                As a religious leader I have been tempted, sometimes after a long council meeting, sometimes after a too-long discussion about the “frosting” of the cake of faith (bulletin styles, flower choice, organ versus piano) to think on this passage or others like it and say, “See.  We don’t need all this religious stuff.  We just need to learn to love.  Love is the answer.”

                But then I think, nobody in the story condemns the religious practice of the day.  Neither Jesus nor the scribe say stop sacrificing.  They simply say love is more important.  Acts of love are more important to God than religious actions.  In fact, if we think back to the reading from Paul to the Corinthians, where we started this morning, religious actions that are not built on a foundation of love are just noise, a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  As Lutherans we would say that we gather for worship to show love to God who first loved us (John says this too).  We respond to God’s love with our love.  We don’t worship (or do any religious action) so that God will love us, but because God has already loved us.

                When we realize that God has already loved us, we are living in the kingdom of God.  When we are living in love, we are living in the kingdom of God.  Now some might say that we already know this lesson.  We have been teaching it to Sunday school children for generations.  Remember God loves you.  But do we believe it?  That is the question.  Do we believe it matters?  Do we believe it makes a difference?  Or is it just another interesting fact that we carry around with us but doesn’t really touch or shape us, like knowing the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.  (25 mph.  You have to know these things when you are pastor.) 

                “God loves you” is not the weak platitude that it has become.  It is a radical reshaping of the human and God relationship.  Rather than having to constantly prove your love through ritual action, rather than having to live with the uncertainty of your status with God, we begin with the idea that God loves you and now you are free; now you are living in the kingdom.  When you know that God loves you, then you can choose to take on the ritual action, the discipline, the worship, the giving, the study, as a response to that love and as a way of going deeper in that love.  When you know that God loves you, then you can reach out to others in love, knowing that even if you are rejected and rebuffed, there is a love that will not change.  When you are living in the kingdom, you can reach out with acts of love, spreading the good news of that kingdom around you.  When we are living in love, we are living in the kingdom of God.

July 17, 2016 - On Dwelling in God's Love

The story about Martha and Mary is a story about love and it deals with a question that we probably don’t ask enough:  How do you show love for Jesus? 

                Because we are a grace-centered tradition, we talk about God’s love for us.  We sing about Jesus’ love for us.  That is where we start and that is where we should start.  God loves us first.  God loved creation into being.  God loved humanity into being.  God loved you into being and continues to hold you in that love. 

                The good news of grace is the fact that, in this beautiful description of Christ that we hear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, that the one who is before all things and in whom all things hold together, the means through which God reconciled God’s self to all of humanity and all of creation…in this description, we don’t factor much into the equation.  God acts.  God chooses and God chooses reconciliation over separation, renewal over condemnation.  That’s the incredible vision that defines our faith and the good news is we cannot mess it up.  We can choose to ignore it.  We can choose to turn away from it.  If you are like every other human being, you probably make small choices to turn from it every day.  The good news is that it is a constant.  When you turn back (and hopefully you do that a few times every day), it is still there.  God is still reconciled to you even when you are not reconciled to God.  We proclaim that the fundamental attitude that God has toward you is not anger and is not wrath but is love. 

We say this in spite of passages of scripture that talk of weeping and gnashing of teeth; we say this in spite of passages that portray God as harsh and judgmental.  I would suggest that it is a very human impulse to have God dislike the people we dislike and disapprove of the actions of which we disapprove and I would suggest that the authors of scripture were inspired by God but also very human, trying to make sense of God in difficult times, times when their society was not just, times when enemies were near, times when their lives had been devastated.  And still, the balance of scripture presents a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

So how do we respond to that love?  We have been loved by God.  We have been loved through Jesus.  How do we respond in love?  We can use the story of Mary and Martha as a model or at least as a lesson.  You may not like the answer.  A lot of preaching on this text has presented Martha and Mary as representing two different spiritual paths: Martha represents a spirituality based on doing and service, Mary a spirituality based on being and prayer.  In American Christianity we tend to celebrate Martha much more than we celebrate Mary, we acknowledge the people who do things and we try to cultivate people who will do things, and, let’s be honest, sometimes we do that so that we don’t have to do things because we a tired of doing things.

And how can the church function if people aren’t doing things, if pastors aren’t preaching and teachers aren’t teaching, if singers aren’t singing and counters aren’t counting and sweepers aren’t sweeping.  How will the things that need to get done get done if no one is going to step up and do them?  That is Martha’s argument all along.  First let’s get our house in order; first let’s get things done; then we can sit and rest and listen.  It is an argument that I have heard in many congregations and a culture that is lived out in many congregations, measuring people by what they are doing and measuring the church but what we are able to accomplish.

The problem is that Jesus does not praise Martha.  He does not say that Martha and Mary are on two different paths, both of which are equally valid.  If he had then we would be justified in saying, “You contemplative types go sit in the corner and listen quietly and the rest of us are going to get things done for God.”  No, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.  He praises Mary for taking the time to sit and listen.  The way that you show love for Jesus; the way that you show love for God is by taking the time to pay attention to what God is doing and what Christ is saying, to deepen the relationship, to deepen the faith.

Now I could turn this into a commercial for the Still, Small Voice, inviting you to come and be silent on Saturday afternoons and it would be appropriate because I think those who have participated have found that to be a time of deepening.  Yet I also know that contemplative silence doesn’t necessarily connect to everyone.  I think you should try it if you haven’t because you might be surprised.  But with this gospel text, one of the challenges I would give to you is to consider how you will do the work of Mary?    How will you take the time to deepen your faith, deepen the relationship that has been extended to you in Christ?  I can give you some suggestions; I can point you to some resources, but you have to follow through.  This is more than a Sunday morning commitment.  It is the daily work of connection, reminding ourselves to turn back, recommit, rediscover, renew.

But what about all the stuff that needs to get done?  Someone has to teach and preach and count and clean.  Teresa of Avila, the 17th century Spanish contemplative, suggested that “Mary and Martha must combine.”  It is not one path or the other, but our lives become of combination of prayer and service.  But the work of Mary has to come first because the work of Mary is what gives us the “why” behind the work of Martha.  The work of Mary gives us the discernment so that Martha’s work can be meaningful labor and not just busywork that drains us. 

Again and again, congregations create a trap for themselves when they look at other places and what another church is doing and say, “We have to do that to,” never asking, “How did they get started?” or “Why are they doing it?”  Again and again, Christians create a trap for themselves by saying, “I don’t have time to do Mary’s work,” or saying, “Since I can’t pray like a saint, I won’t pray at all.”   Many people find that when they start to do Mary’s work intentionally, it becomes a pleasure and not a chore, because after all what you are doing is taking the time to dwell in God’s love.

And this all gets back to God’s love for us, the grace-filled place where I began.  You, as brilliant and broken and wonderful and weak as you are, cannot mess this up.  The love of God remains constant.   So even if you try to read the Bible and never get out of the garden of Eden, you haven’t messed it up.  Even if your daily prayer practice becomes every other day becomes bi-weekly becomes a quick “Thank you, God,” at bedtime, you haven’t messed it up.  Even if you come to a point in your life where you aren’t sure that God even exists and you come to church out of a mix of habit and a desire for free cake and coffee, you haven’t messed this up, because you can’t.  The love of God is a constant truth.

And the first way we respond to that love is not by making our lives very busy or very difficult, but by sitting at the feet of Christ and paying attention.  Listen to him.  Learn from him.  Be reminded of his love for you.  Then go out and do the good and important things you are called to do.  Then go out and share his love through your words and your actions and your attitude.  Take the time to learn and relearn that you are loved by God, then carry that love into the world.

July 10, 2016 - God's Measure of Success

              One of ways that churches can be divided is how they approach scripture.  Just about every Christian church sees scripture as inspired, though we don’t all agree on what that means.  On one end of the spectrum you will have people who see scripture as essentially divine dictation, whatever the Bible says is what God says.  The Bible is both a reliable historical reference and scientific reference.  On the other hand you will have people who will talk about biblical stories as myths inspired by God’s truth.  The Bible texts are stories written by human authors in a particular time and place that point beyond themselves to a larger truth.  Both ends of the spectrum will say that they believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
                Another way that we are divided has to do with how we interpret Hebrew scripture or the Old Testament writings.  In the 2nd century there was a Christian named Marcion who believed that the God of Jesus and the God of Moses were incompatible.  One God seems to smite people and instructs Israel to kill everybody in Canaan while the other seems to bring people to life.  One God seems to judge people while the other seems to love everybody and asks us to do the same.
                He was not the first nor will he be last to notice this discrepancy.  If you read the text, you will find overlap.  The Hebrew scriptures also present a God who gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  In Matthew, many of Jesus’ stories end with people in the other darkeness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  People with a more mythic or symbolic interpretation of scripture will say that the violent stories of Israel’s foundation are an origin story, looking back to a time of national strength for a nation that had been conquered several times; the stories are products of their time and context.  People who are more literalist might have to wrestle with this a little more or I’ve heard it dismissed with a scholarly version of, “It is what it is.”
                One of the principles that is commonly used by people across the biblical spectrum is that idea that “scripture interprets scripture.”  We don’t all agree on what that means but a general idea is that the Old Testament points toward the New Testament and the New Testament reinterprets (even rejects) some of the ideas of the Old Testament.  Jesus does this blatantly saying “You’ve heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’”
                But you will also run into people who want the whole package to be equally valid, who want to pull some verses out and treat them as gospel simply because they are in the Bible.  Somewhere in the 1980s people in the church began to rediscover some of the Hebrew texts about wealth and success.   We were entering what has become known as the Second Gilded Age.  Reality television of the time was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.  On other channels some of the most popular shows were Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty, stories of the uber-rich.  Imagine reading the passage from Deuteronomy in this context, “You shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil.”  That sounds like being wealthy may well be a side effect of faithfulness.  You can find several passages like this, that point to wealth and success as a reward for faithful action.
                You can find several voices in Hebrew scripture that speak against the idea.  The prophet Amos refers to the wealthy as lazy “cows of Bashan,” speaking with God’s voice to tell wealthy that God rejects their sacrifices and their worship while they take advantage of the poor, that faithfulness has less to do with going to church than loving your neighbor.
                For Christianity, you also have Jesus who at least in part comes like God backpedaling on the whole, success for faithfulness idea, because it hadn’t worked out.  Jesus is ministering to a nation that has been conquered four times in its history and was living with an occupying Roman force and paying taxes to those same Romans.  He ministered primarily to people who were not wealthy or successful but were getting by one difficult day after another.  And the flip side to that prosperity model of faithfulness, that says faithfulness breeds success, is that failure must be my fault.  What have I done to be poor?  What failure of faith has placed me in this situation?  It’s hard to believe the one idea, that faith is rewarded with success, without the other waiting in the wings, telling us that poor people are lazy, that their life is a product of bad choices, that they just need to get their acts together.  And Jesus comes with a different message and a different model of what it means to be faithful.
                The story of the Good Samaritan may be one that we have heard so often that it has lost some of its power.  It is a story about crossing boundaries.  Similar to some of the historic issues of race in our country, Samaritans and Jews were not exactly enemies.  They were two groups living in tension.  They weren’t supposed to kill one another, they just weren’t supposed to have anything to do with one another.  I cannot think about what is going on nationally without thinking about this Samaritan who crossed social boundaries to help another.
                It is also the story of misplaced faith.  It is the story of those who pass by on the other side of the road, the priest and the Levite.  Now maybe they pass by for the same reason that many other people pass by, not wanting to get involved, not wanting life to get complicated.  But they would also have felt subject to a ritual law which stated that touching someone else’s blood or a dead body made you unclean for a time.  The priest couldn’t serve God as a priest during that time.  The Levite would have to exclude himself from learning and teaching in community.   So what does it mean to be faithful to God?  Is to obey the law which was believed  to come from God God’s self?  Or should love and mercy be more important than following what is stated in God’s law?
                Is faith about keeping yourself clean, doing proper ritual actions, living a clean life.  Don’t drink; don’t smoke; don’t dance (because we all know what dancing leads to) or is faith about loving other people?  There is certainly room for a both/and answer to that question.  Personal acts of devotion like worship, prayer, scripture-study and giving do deepen your faith.  But I think Jesus’ challenge is to say that if it is a choice between personal devotion and loving others, love wins.   The acts of personal devotion, deepening one’s faith, are supposed to send us out in love.  If you want know about the faith of a Christian, don’t look at what church they go to or how many chapters of the Bible they read; look at how they love others.  Because if we are reading the scriptures, singing the hymns, saying the prayers and it is not sending us out in love for God, God’s creation and all of God’s children, then we are missing the point.
                If we hear about shootings in Dallas, in Minnesota, in Lousiana, and think, “I am going I keep my own nose clean,” we are missing the point.  If we hear about poverty and hunger and believe our faith has nothing to do with that, we are missing the point.   If we think that this worship happens so we can feel fat and happy in the faith, we are missing the point.

                The good news is that God does want us to be successful.  God does want us to be rich.  God does want to bless us.  God wants to bless us with gifts of love and compassion.  God wants us to be rich in love and mercy.  God wants us to be successful at sharing this love, this mercy and this compassion with the world.