Monday, September 19, 2016

September 18, 2016 - Joy and Freedom

The story of the dishonest manager can be taken in a number of ways.   It has long been considered problematic because Jesus seems to praise dishonesty.  The servant takes advantage of his position and therefore takes advantage of his employer.  Viewed from a literalistic standpoint, the story raises more questions than it answers.
                Thankfully it is a parable which means that it is not supposed to be taken literally but is trying to teach something that is beyond the story itself.  It is just unclear what exactly that something is.  Some people will say that this is a story challenging the common understanding of the time that material wealth was sign of God’s blessing.  The word “dishonest” is used quite a bit in the translation.  He is a dishonest manager.  If you can’t be faithful with dishonest wealth how can you be faithful with true wealth.  The Greek word translated as dishonest is a word that also means things like unjust, unfair, unrighteous.  I would suggest that in verse 11 it might best be translated as false or fake (“If then you have not been faithful with the fake wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches”).  Because otherwise we can dismiss the text saying, “I earned my wealth.  It is not dishonest wealth.”  I think it might point to the idea that what we consider to be wealth (money and possessions) are in fact false wealth, fake wealth.  Real wealth is the kingdom of God.  The stuff that we put in the offering plate is Monopoly money, important in the context of the game, but worthless outside of it.
                That is one possibility.  Other people will say that this is story about generosity.  The manager represents the employer.  So by cutting people’s debts, he makes the employer look good and generous.  The employer praises the steward for being tricky but also for making him look good.  Then Jesus brings us back and says, “Go and do likewise.”  It’s not so much about using money to make friends as it is that your generosity points back to God.  Your generosity says something about the God you represent.  Be generous as your God is generous.
                I think where I want to focus today as we do our healing rite is freedom and freedom as a source of joy.  The dishonest manager sets people free by changing a few numbers.  He doesn’t even clear the peoples’ debts; he just makes them more manageable.  They are still obligated to the owner, but not to the same degree.  He gives them a taste of freedom and giving people that taste of freedom is a joyful thing.  He is no longer the guy who comes around to remind me of my debts and obligations.  He is the guy who has offered a little bit of freedom.  I like that guy. 
                We could say that the manager is praised for being shrewd or wise because he has also discovered a sense of freedom in the story.  It’s a freedom that comes out of desperation, but the freedom of realizing that these accounts are not his accounts and these debts are not his debts.  In the first scene he was fired and now is just supposed to bring the record book.  So he has this little window of freedom and uses it cunningly and joyfully.
                Now to be clear, this is neither good business practice nor good accounting practice.  The kingdom of heaven is a bad business model if you are trying to make a profit.  One lesson from the story is that our God is a really bad accountant.  Our God keeps forgiving debts, pardoning mistakes and setting us free.  So many of the stories of healing in scripture involve Jesus forgiving sins and setting someone free.  The unclean are made clean.  The Sabbath rules are ignored for the sake of healing.  The dead are raised.  And for those who are not freaked out by rules being broken and debts being forgiven, it is a joyful experience.
                This is another way to talk about joy.  Freedom is joy.  This is why the cross has become a sign of freedom.  Jesus’ death is the ultimate moment of letting go, mistakes forgiven, debts cleared.  Yet it is also an example of what it means to let go.  Jesus denies himself, detaches from all that is considered good and great and successful in this lifetime so that he can show what true greatness, resurrection, means.  We are going to talk more about this next week as we talk about generosity and joy.  Generosity comes from a loose attachment to your stuff and the ability to let go.  But today we are going to have the rite of healing, as a sign pointing to that freedom in the gospel. 

                Some people really like this healing service and find it meaningful.  Some are uncertain as to the point of it.  I see it as a living parable.  We are pointing to a reality beyond our own, an understanding of God beyond what makes sense.  We are pointing toward freedom.  We are taking a stand for freedom in the way that like many of our actions as Christians aren’t necessarily rational, like saying that ancient texts are still relevant, that a handshake conveys peace, that bread and wine can hold the infinite.  This is performance art, a living symbol of the nature of a loving God and the promise of freedom.  This is a community taking a stand for freedom in Christ.  This is a community taking a stand for joy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September 11, 2016 - The Joy of Growing Toward God

I am going to continue talking about joy today.  Keep in mind what I said last week.  If we are talking about joy in the church or joy in the Christian life, we have do more than talk about a feeling.  Feeling joy is wonderful and I am not saying that we should never feel joyful in church.  We could probably do with a lot more of it.  What I am saying is that it is too easy to confuse the feeling of joy with the source of joy.  We don’t worship because it makes us joyful.  We worship God who is the source of joy.  In the story of the golden calf that we heard this morning, the Israelites made a god for themselves that they could see and touch, that made them feel comforted and secure.  And in this story, as problematic as the image of God may be, both the God who wants to smite people and the God who is swayed by the opinions of others, (Think of what the Egyptians will say?)  Moses persuades God not to smite the people basically by reminding God that God promised to be their comfort and security.  In giving themselves the feeling of security, they lose touch with one who is their security.
                So what is joy if not a feeling?  I would say that one way to describe joy in the Christian tradition is the process of growing toward God.  As we talked in groups in Spring and Summer about the future and nature of our congregation, this was a theme that came up more than once, that Christ Lutheran can be a place where people can grow toward God.  The idea first blossomed with a prayer by Saint Francis that the Still, Small Voice group looked at together with the line, “And by your grace alone, may we make our way to you.”  It set up the idea that Christian life is not a conversion moment nor is it accepting a body of knowledge, rather it is a process.  But it is not just the process of us making our way to God.  I couldn’t stand before you as a Lutheran pastor and proclaim that message, saying that if we just work hard at it, we will grow toward God or taking the evangelical route of when we act in faith, God responds.  Francis prefaces his statement with, “By your grace alone.”  It is because God has acted in Christ and continues to act that we can even get the idea of growing toward God in our heads.  It is because the shepherd goes searching for the lost sheep; the woman stops what she is doing to search for a lost coin; it is because that is the nature of our God that we can even think that it might be a good thing to grow toward that God.
                Unfortunately, for many in the Lutheran church, along with other similar traditions, the focus has been holding the right belief rather than growing toward God.  We spent so much of our history trying to prove that we are not Catholics, trying to explain why we are not Baptists, trying to show why we have it right and others have it wrong.  And that was a necessary part of defining our understanding of faith.  If you look at Christian writings starting from Paul through the first few centuries of the church, a lot of time is spent explaining why we don’t practice kosher law, why we don’t worship the gods of the Roman pantheon and why one understanding of the Trinity is superior to other understandings of the Trinity.  For the most part today we look back on those writings and wonder what the big deal was.  Those issues are pretty well resolved for us.
In recent years we have been entering into agreements of partnership with other church bodies such as the Episcopalians and Methodists.  On October 31, Reformation Day, there will be a joint worship service in Sweden led by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.  Our future ancestors will look back at how hard we all tried to define and separate ourselves and wonder what the big deal was.
Yet there is one thing that still shapes the culture of many in the Lutheran church, the concept of works.  There is still this understanding that if you talk about the things people might do, you are taking away from the gift of grace.  If you talk too much about what people might do in the name of the gospel, you are going to undermine the gift of the gospel.  A partial answer to that concern would be to point that there are people in this very congregation who have discovered the joy of doing nothing for the sake of gospel, that doing nothing, being silent and dwelling in the promise of the gospel is a beautiful way to grow toward God.
My broader answer is one that I have said before, faith is a gift, a gracious gift and a beautiful gift.  Growth is a choice.  Growth is what happens when we pay attention to that gift of life in Jesus and try to cultivate it so that it touches every part of who we are.  Growth is what happens when we stop looking at faith in terms of right and wrong and start looking at it as relationship with God.  And growing toward God is joy.  A congregation that intentionally seeks to grow toward God will be a joyful place, not because we have the best music or the best preaching or the best building or the best cake, but because we are engaged together in a process that is by definition joyful.
Yet as I said, this is a choice that each one of us has to make.  As your pastor, I can’t make you or make you want to grow toward God.  You have to do that.  You have to engage in the practices that help you grow.  As your pastor, I can help you.  I can share what I’ve learned about scripture.  I can connect you to other people in the congregation who may have similar interests.  But (dare I say it in a Lutheran community) you have to do the work. 
So I’m going to give you a little homework today.  I want you to go home and think about what you need to help you grow toward God.  More service opportunities.  Study opportunities.  Gathering for prayer.  Parents, please don’t answer for your children but answer for yourself (If you are seeking to grow toward God it will rub off on your children).  Everyone, try to say something other than “I wish Sunday worship were more traditional or less traditional.”  This is really intended to look at ministry beyond Sunday worship.

Now I am giving you homework and I will be sending reminders to you this week and next.  I’m talking about work, but I don’t want to finish there.  I want to close with a final reminder that we are only open to do this work, growing toward God, because the shepherd is looking for the lost sheep and the woman is searching for the lost coin.  We can engage in the work of growth, work that is joy, because in Jesus, God has already done the work that is difficult, the work we could not do ourselves.  We are the lost sheep that has been found.  We are the lost coin that has been uncovered.  May you grow toward the God who finds joy in you in heaven.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

September 4, 2016 - An Introduction to Joy

During the month of September, as we talk about growing as disciples, I want to talk about joy as a marker of faith.  But before I do that I should really talk about what I mean by joy.  In many ways, joy is a difficult thing to define, because what we commonly call joy is something people experience in different ways and receive from different things. 
It is similar when church professionals come and talk about the need for creating joyful and inspiring worship.  What is inspiration?  What does it feel like and what does it look like?  For many people, joyful worship looks like what we see in the megachurches with arms in the air, some people singing but many just caught up in the music of a praise band.  And liturgical purists see that and say, “That is too much like a concert the people aren’t really participating,” but it is hard to argue that the people aren’t inspired and joyful.  If you go to a congregation that is centered on gospel-music, you may find yourself in the midst of people clapping their hands and shouting out and again it is hard to argue that it is not joyful.  If you go to a Lutheran synod assembly, somewhere in the worship there will be a time when a whole bunch of Lutherans sing in four-part harmony, nobody puts their hands in the air or together (because that’s just not what we do. ) but you can see the joy in the expressions of people who are truly moved by the experience of singing, of their voices adding to something much larger than they can do alone.
For me personally, none of those does a whole lot.  I tend to sit through the music so that I can get to the part that gives me personal joy and inspiration.  For me a really well-thought out sermon, where you can tell that the preacher has spent time with the ideas and has been careful with the language, a sermon that is not a 2-minute message with 13 minutes of filler, where you can tell that the preacher didn’t just sit down on Friday and Google “sermon illustrations of joy.”  That is something I find joyful and powerful.  A well-read reading, where you can tell that the reader spent time with the passage, thought about how it might sound, that gives me joy.
Now when I say this, please don’t think that I am saying that there is something wrong with finding joy in a particular form of worship or musical expression.  For the most part, they’re all good and valid, but we respond to them differently.  What I am trying to say is that what makes us feel joyful is subjective, it depends on the person, on how your brain is wired, on your cultural upbringing.  If we get too focused on feeling joyful it can become a great distraction from the source of joy.  A lot of modern worship seems to focus on getting people to feel a certain way, call it joyful or inspired, and then if it fails to deliver the feeling, it fails as worship.  It can easily become worship of the feeling rather than of God who inspires all feeling.  To be clear, we don’t want people feeling bored and depressed, which can be another issue.  But we also need worship that reflects not only the joy of the gospel, but also the challenge of the gospel, and sometimes the joy is found in the challenge.
Today’s gospel is one where the great temptation is to find another reading to preach on.  Jesus talks about what it means to follow him using the language of division and separation.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Now we can discuss about how this might be exaggerated language used in part for effect, but that does not dismiss the message that to follow Jesus is to change how we relate to others.  This was a family-centered culture where you were often identified by your parents and brothers and sisters, God’s favor was shown through your spouse and especially your children.  Jesus implies that to follow him is to step away from that system, that sense of identity, that comfort.
He then goes on to say that, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Again the implication is that following Jesus may not always be comfortable, may take you places you don’t want to go.  Following Jesus comes with a cost which he reiterates in saying, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  The cost of discipleship is everything that we have worked for to this time, everything we have been told is important: all of the plans and all of the goals, all of the certificates and awards, all of the markers of status and significance. 
And we may hear that and say, “There is nothing joyful about this message because I have worked for those things and I deserve those things and who is this Jesus to ask me to set them aside?”  Imagine Jesus walking into your home, looking at your knickknacks on the shelf and declaring, “These are mine.”  He sees your family photos and says, “These are mine.”  He brazenly goes to your file cabinet or desk, pulls out your bank statements and checkbook saying, “This is mine.”  He walks into every room as if he owns the place because, “This is mine,” he says.  This is part of the cost of discipleship, if you belong to Christ, then all your stuff, whatever defines you, belongs to Christ.
So how can we talk about joy when we just lost all of our stuff?  This is the message that Paul gives to Philemon.  As was a common practice in the Roman empire, Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus.  Although the text doesn’t tell us, it has been assumed that Onesimus ran away and somewhere on the run encountered Paul and became a Christian.  Now Paul is sending Onesimus back but tells Philemon that he no longer owns him.  He doesn’t belong to you, but belongs to Christ just as you belong to Christ.  If Onesimus owes you anything remember that you owe Christ everything.
Unfortunately we don’t get Philemon, Part2, where they have to figure out what all this means, but the point is that in Christ the relationship has to change.  As Paul says at another point, there is no longer slave nor free.  We are all owned by Christ yet we are all free in Christ.
The joy in losing all of your stuff is that it no longer has a claim on you.  Jesus takes everything that used to define you and says, “This doesn’t define you anymore.  You are not your house.  You are not your car.  You are not your clothing.  You are not your family.  You are not your stuff.  You are a child of God.  You are a student of Jesus.  You belong to Christ.”  The joy in taking up the cross and following is that you get to let go of all of the distractions and all of the minutia and all of the expectations.  As I said last week, along with letting go of your successes you get to let go of your failures.  Along with letting go of your honor, you get to let go of your shame.

And there is the source of joy; in the death and resurrection of Christ, you have been set free to be who you are, to be who you were meant to be from the very beginning.  You are set free not to feel joy, but to be joy for the world.  You are set free not to feel love, but to be love for all around you.  You are set free not to feel alive, but to be truly alive in Christ.   If that good news makes you want put your hand in the air, sing a song or shout “Hallelujah!” beautiful.  If it makes you want to sing in four-part harmony or sit in silent and reverent awe, beautiful.  If it makes you want to paint a picture or write a poem or look through a microscope, beautiful.  Just make sure you carry this good news out of here, out of this building and into the world.  You have been set free in Christ not to just feel joy for an hour, but to be joy for the world.  Go and live in joy.  Go and be joy.