Monday, September 27, 2010

September 26 sermon: The High Life

Pink Floyd song from Dark Side of the Moon. Always loved it. “Money, So they say, is the root of all evil today.” 
We get pretty impressed with money don’t we?  I remember when we used to live in LA, there were a lot more opporunities to be impressed with wealth than there are in most places in the world.  Every once in a while I’d be at a stop light, and a bright colored Lamborgini would roll up next to me.  Wow!  I’d think to myself. 
Sometimes Lara and I would for a cheap date just go driving around in Bel Aire or the Hollywood Hills and go looking at all the spectacular and beautiful multi-million dollar homes.  We’d pretend that we had to choose one to live in on each twisty street we’d drive down.  . 
Money is really easy to love.  If you acquire enough of it, you can trade it for things like Lamborginis and houses in Bel-Aire.  We see on shows like “Cribs” and on commercial for the latest and greatest cars that these are the things we should really be spending our time and effort trying to figure out how to get.  But, as Admrial Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!” 
Experience in FPU over the past few weeks.  Learned about how the love of money is a societal ill that infects most of us and leads us to pretty irrational and bizarre behavior. 
I’ve never been rich, but I’ve tasted what is was like to be rich.  I spent a summer with a friend from Colombia who was very wealthy—I’m talking about multiple homes all over the country that we went to and from accompanied by bodyguards with machine guns and caravans of BMWs.  But, every corner we rounded brought reminders of the disparity between wealth and poverty.  In Columbia, like most of the world, there is not much of a middle class.  There is simply the rich and the poor. 
I thought I was living the “High Life” for sure.  But Paul puts it this way to Timothy—don’t go after wealth thinking that is the High Life.  There is a higher life that we are called to, and anyone who’s willing to give their life can have a piece of it.  You don’t have to be rich or powerful.  You don’t have to be cultured or of good “stock.”  In fact, all of these things make it harder.  Money is tough to part with. 
Our anonymous English parable says it—A fool and his money are quickly parted.  So, hang on to it for dear life, right?  I don’t think so.  I think the parable is true—we foolishly throw our money at all kinds of things: but perhaps the most foolish things we throw our money at are the things that can’t be bought. 
We try to buy respect.  We try to buy admiration.  We try to buy a sense of accomplishment.  We try to buy happiness…love.  This doesn’t work.  We know it doesn’t work, and yet we do it.
When I was in seminary in Los Angeles, I worked at a bookstore called “The Bodhi Tree.”  It was a bookstore that specialized in books and materials from a variety of religions, gurus, and the like.  We sold all kinds of ridiculous contraptions that were supposed to give you more mental balance.  (and trust me, some of the customers who frequented our store could use all the help they could get.)  But one particular evening while I was at the cash register, a lady started piling up books and incense and crystals and all sorts of things for me to ring up. 
          About $400 later, I came to the last item she unabashedly placed on the counter.  I looked at her face to see if there was any trace of irony there—there wasn’t, and so I rang up the $1.50 bumper sticker that said “Simplify.”  And there wasn’t one, but two of those stickers.  I tried not to laugh, and offered to help her to her car with all the merchandise.  She refused, and I noticed that a driver had been waiting at the door who hurried to pick up her bags. 
          Yes, we even try to buy simplicity, don’t we?  I’ve noticed that the magazine “Real Simple” touts simplifying your life, but when I look in it, I just see a bunch of stuff you can buy that has clean lines and looks really modern.  There is a lot of white stuff in “Real Simple.”  What I have learned from owning a white leather couch is how “Not Simple” owning one of those actually is.
          Paul talks about another route to simplicity.  It’s called “being content with what you have.”  I knew a girl in college who thought that “being content” was a negative thing.  She was a driven person who equated “contentment” with “settling for second best.”  The problem for her is that she, as the U2 song goes, “Still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.” 
          But, Paul commends contentment.  He says that there is a “great gain of godliness combined with contentment.”  What is it like to be content?  My experience of it has never felt like “settling.”  Instead, it feels like being in on a secret.  Have you ever had those flashing moments of insight when you notice the intricate beauty of something quite simple and perhaps even overlooked?  I think that is the kind of contentment that draws us closer to God. 
          See, God is there.  God dwells in those moments.  Remember the story of Elijah going up to a cave and listening for God.  The hailfire comes down from the sky, but God is not in the hailfire, and the earth shakes, but God is not in the earthquake, and then a breeze.  And God speaks to Elijah through the breeze in a “still small voice.” 
          Jesus calls his disciples to the upper room and they share a meal as they must have done countless times before.  Except at that meal, he pointed to a simple loaf of bread and a cup of wine and said—this is my body and my blood.  I am in this meal.  Turn your attention to it, and remember me when you do this.
Paul lifting up contentment as a virtue has something to do with our possessions possessing us.  He remarks to Timothy that we are penniless when we come into the world, and we will be penniless when we leave it.  In other words, you never seen a hearse pulling a Uhaul. 
Instead of getting bogged down in the ties that bind us to the earth, we should seek the ties that will bind us to heaven.  Paul says, very memorably, that he “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  We grow into one of those stubborn weeds that just won’t come up.  We’re too occupied with grasping the tangled and expansive underground web of roots that wealth connects us to. 
Since we can take nothing with us, we should invest in hope in this life through the grasping of eternal life.  Paul says, “shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”  Now that’s the high life.  If we’re too busy grasping and grabbing, our hands aren’t free to take hold of the promise. 
In our Old Testament reading today from Jeremiah, we hear the account of what would seem to be a stupid real estate decision by our prophet.   In 588 B.C. during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah found himself imprisoned in the royal palace of  King Zedekiah of Judah. He had been charged with desertion  and treason and insurrection. And on some level, the charges had merit. Jeremiah had been forcefully pleading for Israel to turn from their ways. He saw the gathering storm of Babylon coming from the north. He spoke God's word of judgment and divine condemnation of social injustice and idolatry. So, King Zedekiah had good reason to lock Jeremiah up in the palace. Jeremiah simply didn't tow the royal line.
 But then in Jeremiah 32, with war raging and despair undoubtedly growing, Jeremiah gets a new word from God. And this word is different. This word is in regard to some family business. A plot of family-owned land needs to be purchased. And by the right of redemption, a law found in Leviticus 25 which prevents the loss of family property, Jeremiah's cousin, Hanamel, asks the prophet to buy the family field in Anathoth. It is an absurd request. It is not the time to invest in real estate. It is not the time to invest in the future. It is a time to panic about the present. War is raging. Terror is threatened on all sides. Exile is coming. For Israel the future looks bleak.
But Jeremiah doesn't watch the cable news. Jeremiah doesn't listen to the prophets of doom on talk radio. Jeremiah knows that neither King Zedekiah, nor Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, nor corporate executives or Pentagon officials, none of these really run the world. Jeremiah knows that it is God who runs the world. It is God who gets the final word and God's final word is not destruction. God's final word is never destruction. God's final word is renewal. God's final word is always renewal.
The new Covenant, articulated only a chapter earlier, lays it out clearly:
"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah." (Jeremiah 31: 31).
It won't be like the old one, says God. They didn't get that one. They didn't understand. This time...
"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people...for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more." (Jeremiah 31: 33, 34b)
So, in the spirit and the promise of the future, Jeremiah buys the land; land where houses and fields and vineyards will, yet again, flourish.  Jeremiah invests in hope.  He displays God’s  plans for his people by the way he uses his money. 
          How would your spending habits change if that was your primary objective?  If the money you spent had the potential to communicate God’s great love and redemption for the world, wouldn’t you make these dumb kind of investments too?  If your decisions with money really did have that kind of effect on the world?  Don’t you think?  Look at the front of your bulletin.  Would things be different if you were reminded of Jesus every time you opened your wallet? 
Okay, so not many people use cash anymore?  Well, think if your Mastercard weren’t your Master but instead was a tool of your real eternal master?  You know, “There’s some things money can’t buy, and for everything else” your Master will provide.  What if your Visa card really was everywhere you wanted to be—except the most important one?  And you know, “it pays to Discover” the real life that Christ offers to us.  You really shouldn’t leave home without it. 
One of the most memorable lessons from my high school Sunday school teachers was when my high school Sunday school teacher handed everyone in class a $100 bill.  He did it when were talking about money and it’s grip on us.  He challenged us to think beyond ourselves by trusting us to do something great—like give it away.  I remember the look in his eyes.  He was investing in hope.  When I looked at Benjamin Franklin on the front of that bill, it was as if Jesus was staring at me.  I took the $100 bill to church with me, and I thank God that through my teacher’s lesson in receiving a gift, I learned a lot about giving that day. 
The head of the camping program reported to us this past month at our DMT meeting—Karen was there too.  He told the story about Camp Cavett, a camp that our church provides for children with special needs, some of whom can’t walk or get around very well.  Usually, these kids who are so physically disabled only get to watch their friends go up in the ropes course and cheer them on, but our camps director has always been planning an addition that would even give an opportunity to those with the most crippling conditions. 

He told the story about two young girls who were carried up the stairs inside the climbing tower, and then strapped on to this new swing they’d had installed just this past year.  They would hook them in with harnesses, and then they’d get to go sailing out over the trees.  Randy recalled seeing one girl sailing through the air with her arms outstretched and reported to us that she felt free of her disability for the first time. 
Experience of the High Life—this past week at Bishops’ retreat.  Rapelling and Swing.  Thrilling!  It most likely took some expense to build—and we give it away because that’s what Jesus calls us to do. 

Don’t set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Become rich in good works, “so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Church in Mission

At the end of August, several from our church went to the packing station for the Food Bank in Tulsa.  They got to help out in a fun way (packing boxes on a conveyor that would later be distributed), and had a real sense that they made an impact.  Thanks for shining the light, folks!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

readings for monastics study: Bonhoeffer and the Finkenwalde project

Sermon Texts: Psalm 23 and Luke 15: 1-10

Sermon manuscript:

My kids love playing hide and seek.  It’s so much fun to watch their mischevious faces as they run off to find a place to hide.  Julianna always goes to the same place to hide.  She runs to the corner of our bedroom, giggling the whole way, and then she flops herself down on our long accent pillows, and waits for me to inevitably come into the room saying, “hmm, I wonder where she is?”  First I look in the closet, then I look in the bathroom.  She’s still giggling with delight that she’s fooled me when I start creeping over to the corner saying, “hmm, what’s that sound, is she over here?” 
And she does that thing where she hides her face in the corner when I’m getting closer to make it harder for me to find her.  Isn’t that funny.  We all do it, and we’ve all seen it happen.  Hands over eyes or a face in the corner is an effective hiding place, because obviously the one looking for us can’t see us if we can’t see him, huh? 
          Jesus tells this beautiful idea that rings so frequently throughout scripture, that God is like a shepherd.  He’s been accused by the Pharisees for eating and socializing with sinners.  They thought the holier you were, the further you stayed away from the infecting loose morality of these prostitutes and tax-collectors and fishermen that Jesus called friends. 
So, he goes into this story, relating to the pervasive identity of the Isrealite people as shepherds, and says, who among us, when we lose a sheep in the field, will not leave the other 99 grazing in the pasture and go to look for the other missing one. 
Who among us, right?  Perhaps Jesus shames his audience, because the truth probably is that many of the people there certainly wouldn’t see themselves leaving the other 99 in the field and letting the lost one fend for himself.  That is obviously the case with the Pharisees who are quite content to leave those they considered “lost” in their own “briars” and rough patches.  Israel was a stratified society.  The pure stay away from the impure.  The way they saw it, this was a commandment from God.  And it’s not like they were being mean, there are all sorts of prohibitions and commandments in the law about purity and maintaining purity. 
But Jesus was telling the people that God was up to a new thing. Perhaps God had been up to something other than what the Pharisees thought God was up to all along, and they’d been misinterpreting what this God of theirs held dearest. 
It was okay for the people who heard this story about the lost sheep to not really relate to this foolhardy shepherd, because Jesus wasn’t really talking about us, he was talking about God—and he was talking about himself.  He was talking about this kind of salvation that he was here to offer, and that would be offered through the body of believers who would accept his message . 
So, just in case that shepherd metaphor didn’t sound far fetched enough, he tells a story about a woman who loses a coin and then spends all day cleaning up her house, taking everything apart, looking in all the drawers. 
I can relate to this one too in some ways.  I’ve got this list on the refrigerator and I title the list “I once was lost” in the optimism that one day I’ll be able to scratch through the thing on the list (my sunglasses clip ons, or our other set of keys).  At times, the frustration of not finding those items does prompt me to spend a few moments sticking my hand down in the crack between the cushions on the couch or taking off the air conditioning vents to look.  ButI don’t really spend all that much time before I just think, “well, I’ll most likely find it when I stop looking for it anyway” and then I just write it on the list. 
But I don’t have any “coins” on my “I once was lost” list.  And it’s not that a coin was just worth so much more back in Jesus’ time either.  It’s just a coin, and then the lady turns her house upside down for it!  Then she finds it, so what does she do to celebrate?  Does she just scratch it off the list and have that nice sense of accomplishment?  No—she throws a party! 
The point in both of them is that God is searching. And no matter how unimportant or inconsequential we think we are—God is overjoyed to find us.  One thing that Wesley is trying to get straight is exactly how big God is.  The conversation usually goes something like this: “Is God bigger than the earth?  Yes son, God made the earth, so God is bigger than the earth.  Is God bigger than the sun?  Yes, son, God is bigger than the sun.  Is God big big bigger than the whole universe?  Well, yes son, but God also lives in your heart.  So, God can do anything He wants?  Yes—God can do anything he wants.
          Sometimes we feel the same way, don’t we.  If God is big, big, bigger than the universe, and has all these things going on, then how or why do we amount to anything?  We are the inconsequential coin, lost under the rug. But Jesus says that God is searching even for us.  Even for those people who the pure Pharisees might consider to be inconsequential or unimportant. 
          I talked with some of our church people who are involved in the prayer chain in our church lately.  This is such a vital part of our church’s ministry to the community.  If you want to be involved in it—just take a look at your newsletter to see who is involved, and ask one of the people there to include you.  The people on the prayer chain have often been the ones who have contacted me to inform me that one person or another is sick or in the hospital.  Their willingness to hold a person in prayer and then pass along the concern to others is sometimes how I hear about emergencies or illnesses that I can respond to with pastoral ministry.  This word, pastoral, comes from that idea of God being a shepherd, and that one of our responsibilities as a “pastor” is to be a shepherd—it is to bring to life that identity of God as one who searches out those in need. 
          I spoke with Imogene on the phone about the prayer chain the other day, and she said something really wise—she said, “I think that one of the strengths of the prayer chain is that it give people a real sense of peace that they are being remembered in prayer.” 
          Many of us have been in those kinds of situations where we feel lost or misplaced, even when we are fully aware of exactly where we are.  I can imagine that there’s not many more places where we feel “out of place” than when we are laying there in a hospital bed with a hospital robe not covering us. 
          That’s when we need to know that God is actively seeking us.  We may feel lost, but God wants us to feel found.  We are found, and God rejoices over each of us like that woman finding the coin.  We are in a prolonged state of being found.  If you take that split second of pride and joy upon the discovery of something previously lost to you, that is the way that God feels about us our whole lives through.  We and our needs for security and salvation are not inconsequential or unimportant to God. 
          But, how many of us, even though we know we’ve been found, cover our eyes and live like we are pretending that God doesn’t see us. 
We know, we really know we have been found, but we’re turning our faces away from that loving father with arms outstretched because it’s fun to hide.  We childishly turn our faces away from God because if we don’t acknowledge that God sees us, we can pretend He really doesn’t. 
          Why would we ignore that we’ve been found?  We do—we oftentimes don’t live our lives like we’ve been found.  There will come a day, and hopefully it is before we pass away from this wonderful gift of life, that we will look back on our lives before we acknowledged our Father’s presence and outstretched arms much as we do now looking back on that childlike self putting his nose in the corner and pretending the Searcher of our Hearts wasn’t actually there. 
          But he is—and as soon as we live into that reality that we’ve been found and are cherished as a doting father cherishes his little girl in the same hiding spot she always goes to.  We can live our lives in that embrace.  That can shape our whole existence.  That embrace can give us our ultimate identity.  We are found.  Not a single one of us is forgotten. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Monday, September 06, 2010

Ephesians 2: 14-18
Luke 14: 25-33

Something seems to be going on with the University of Tulsa NPR station, so fortunately, I’ve been getting a stronger signal from the OSU station than usual. And a program that that station carries that I’d not heard before is called “The Takeaway.”

I’m happy to say, I did indeed take away one story that I heard—and I did so because it fused with this scripture passage that we have in the lectionary today.

Men's Doubles - 3rd Round

Rohan Bopanna(IND)[16] /

Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi(PAK)[16]

Taking up tennis raquets, taking up a cross.

Shouldering the hatred and enmity between those two countries, and offering up an alternative.

Counting the costs—they could be assassinated, they could be mocked or scorned by their own people—but instead they make plain their friendship, and even become teammates.

“must hate their own mother and father, brother and sister.” Jesus asks us to expand our notion of family. We are to be aware of a larger family that we all belong to. We are to love the stranger and the enemy as brothers and sisters.

Then Jesus goes into this extended metaphor, most likely poking fun of Herod, who had a penchant for building things to prove his illustriousness to a society that disliked their king. He takes the metaphor of a person building something, but first making sure they have the supplies, or the funds for the supplies, for the whole project before they begin.

This is how the tennis players have approached their game. They have taken the gifts that they have, and they have shouldered the chance of danger or simply embarrassment and ostracizing that they may receive on account of their partnership. Then they lift up a higher ideal to the world.

The two tennis players say that though you might expect that they would be the recipients of hate mail or threats, they have never even heard a cross word from their countrymen for their public friendship. Instead, the two countries are rallying around them, and some are pinning their hopes for lasting peace between these two rival cultures on the atmosphere of colleauguiality and sportsmanship surrounding these two players. They received an at-large bid to participate in the US open, and have won their first round, in part because of the possibilities that exist with this team.

The two are even planning a match between them to take place on the border of India and Pakistan, with the net of the tennis court going right down the border between those two countries.

This is the kind of thing we can do to “Lift high the cross” in our own lives. Lifting high the cross is sometimes a heroic statement to the world that gets lots of recognition. But the cross was a symbol of embarrassment in the Roman world. It was a punishment for common people who got in the way of Rome.

When Jesus was about 10 years old, hundreds of his countrymen were crucified on the same day for participating in a rebellion under a man named Judas. On other occasions, Rome lined the roads that they had built all over the world with the crosses of insurrectionists every 50 or so feet.

The scripture says that Jesus himself was crucified with 2 common thieves. Sometimes lifting up your cross can be through something that we might think of as mundane. Can two tennis players teaming up to be a doubles team be an example of taking up their cross? It can if it is done to promote peace and harmony between two warring cultures.

How can you promote peace and understanding and love of neighbor in your working environment? What are the costs for you by doing so? Social capital, embarrassment? Count the cost of following Jesus, and then put your relationship with Jesus into action in your life. Jesus said, it isn’t enough just to call out “Lord, Lord.” It also matters what you do with that connection to the Lord.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Pastor's Perspective: Of Monks and Men

Sanctuary at St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, MN,
Ever since I was first exposed to Friar Tuck as the beer swilling, happy-go-lucky badger in a monk robe (voiced by Andy Devine)  in Disney’s Robin Hood, I’ve been fascinated with monks.  There is just something alluring about the life of intentional community or solitude, work as a devotional practice, and the ordering of one’s day according to the rhythm of prayer and scripture. 
I’ve had several opportunities to learn and worship among monastic communities.  One of the most formative experiences in my spiritual life was my week long stay with Brother Aidan, a Greek Orthodox hermit monk in Wales.  Aidan is also an iconographer, and he inspired me to later learn that spiritual discipline. 
I’ve also had a couple occasions to spend time with the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN and the nuns of their sister convent in St. Cloud, MN.  St. John’s is where Kathleen Norris (another Protestant enamored with the monastic life) wrote her well known book about that monastic community, The Cloister Walk (available to borrow in our church library with some other books by and about famous monks). 
So, I’d like to share what I have learned with you and hopefully learn something new with you.  Beginning Sept. 12 at 5pm, we’ll begin a 5 part study of monasticism and new monasticism from the Christian Reflections series that we’ve used before.  The study guide is available online at our church website.  We’ll finish the five part study the second week of October, then the following two Sundays, we’ll have field trips that are available for everyone to attend.  The first will be to an afternoon workshop on “new monasticism and intentional community” with Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution and founding member of the “Simple Way” community in Philadelphia.  Shane grew up in the United Methodist Church in Tennessee, and was attracted to the same things about monasticism that I mentioned earlier—except Shane put those interests into action by starting a non-sectarian community of faith committed to Jesus’ command to “sell all your things and give them to the poor, then come and follow me.”  One difference between the Simple Way and traditional monastic communities is that the community incorporates married people and families fully into the community life of the group.  We’ll have a chance to hear from him on Sunday Oct. 17, leaving the church at 1pm, and then if you wish, to spend a few days at Canyon Camp learning from Elaine Heath, who has studied New Monastic groups like The Simple Way around the world and has developed an interesting theology of evangelism (called the Mystical Way of Evangelism) based on what she has learned (she’s a professor at Perkins School of Theology on SMU campus). She and Ray Buckley, a storyteller and specialist in Native American Spirituality are the featured speakers at this year’s Spiritual Formation Seminar hosted by our conference Oct. 17-22.  Spaces are available at the seminar for a discounted price for members of Oklahoma Conference churches at $200.
The following Sunday, Oct. 24, we’ll have a group from the church visit the Benedictine monks at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee.  We’ll leave the church at 2pm, and have a tour of the grounds with the Abbot, and then join the monks at the Vesper’s service at 5pm.  Prepare for some beautiful singing!  All are welcome on both of these field trips, but if you want the most “in-depth” experience, participate in the study beginning Sept. 12.