Sunday, November 10, 2019

Hard Questions - Luke 20:27-38

This passage is a passage of hard questions. And as we read this passage today, this is just one question we have as we walk away from this passage. It is the question of every widow as she stands by the grave of her husband. It is the question every widower when he finds that the lady he has sat next to a Bingo all these year is not only a lot of fun to be with but had really pretty eyes, and thinks to himself maybe, just maybe I can try this marriage thing again. What does marriage look like when we come to heaven? In many ways by extension, it is the question every child has when the inevitable happens and most assuredly the question of every parent in the unimaginable occurs. What does family look like or mean in Heaven.
When we find ourselves in these situations 99% of the time we can find solace in scripture and comfort in the words of Jesus, but in this passage and its mirror passages in Matthew and Mark, the passage seems to hold answers we don’t like. This passage is full of hard questions not only about eternity but about how eternity touches our lives here and now.  So many hard questions arise from this passage, and I am not sure I have answers for them all.
As we come to this passage the first question which needs to be answered is, “What is a Sadducee?” Well, they were priests therefore Levites; a subset of priests whose main duties were to take care of the temple. As temple priests they were thought of as ranking higher than other priests. They also had internal and international political duties one of which was serving on the Sanhedrin. Thy also tended to fight with Pharisees over differences of belief mainly revolving around purity and inheritance rights. They adhered only to the Torah and rejected the idea of the afterlife which means they did not believe there were any rewards or penalties after death. This put utmost importance on living rightly in this life, for God now. The only way you lived on was by making name for yourself through children who would carry on your line and remember you once you were gone. 
The Sadducees rejected the belief in resurrection of the dead, which was a central tenet believed by Pharisees and by Early Christians. Furthermore, the Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the Torah as the sole source of divine authority. They were generally well off individuals who not only held a lot of the wealth but also the power 1st century Jewish society. The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the hegemony of the Sadducees in Judean society.
The Pharisees on the other hand came from the all echelons of society, believing that closeness to God was not determined by birth, but that those who could become teachers and scholars of the Scriptures was open to anyone who studied the law and applied it. They taught not only the Torah as Holy Scriptures, but also the writings, and the prophets; the books we would consider the Old Testament. They also found in the oral interpretations of scripture which had been handed down through the generations. They adhered to an idea that the holiness of God was not confined to the temple but God desired to sanctify all aspects of life. The holiness of God could be brought to all places, to all people. There is no part of our lives, no matter how mundane, which could not be sanctified and made holy by God. (Perhaps we Nazarenes are close to the Pharisees – at least in this belief- than we realize.) They believed in the afterlife. What a person did here; how they lived and whether or not the way they lived aligned with God had eternal consequences. We do not merely live on in the lives of our children and how they remember us, but be we literally live on experiencing the consequences of our lives in a living eternity.
So why do the Sadducees come to Jesus and ask Jesus this question?  What is their motivation? It is pretty simple really. They were trying to verbally trap and poke holes in Jesus’ theology. But why?  Well you might find this surprising, Jesus was a Pharisee. It is not all that surprising really, most of Jesus’ theology and teachings we in line with Pharisaical belief. The points of conflict are minor. This is one of the reasons they were always around. He was one of them. They cared about what he taught. The instances where they disagree mattered to them and they wanted Jesus to “toe the party line,” so to speak.
In many ways we divorce Jesus from the very groups and people to whom he belonged. In our minds we often pit Jesus against the Jews. But Jesus was a Jew. He was raised Jewish; he went to synagogue on Saturdays. He knew the Torah, celebrated all the holidays set by God in the scriptures and he even when to Jerusalem for Passover. In the same way Jesus was also a Pharisee. His general theology and beliefs aligned with theirs. He taught many of the same things they taught. When Jesus was correcting these people, it was not so much that he was confronting the opposition, but that he was lovingly correcting his own. Working to bring people he loved and cared about into a proper understanding of God and what our relationship with God can be.
 As a Pharisee Jesus held many of the theological beliefs that were the rubbing points between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. So when the Sadducees come to Jesus in this passage, they are coming to him as a member of the opposing party. They want to trap Jesus verbally; to show silly it is to think that people will be raised from the dead. So they tell this story about a woman who ends up married to seven brothers wondering, when she is resurrected, who will she be married to?
But the first question before we move on to the question the Sadducees are ask, we should probably answer a different question, “What Levirate marriage is?” It served two purposes in Jewish society. First of all, it allowed for a man to live on in his heirs, for his name to be carried on, to be remembered. If you have children they will tell your story they will remember you. Most people at that time believed that if you were remembered, if your children and you’re your children’s children told your stories, your life had meaning and value after you are dead. If you had sons your family line continued and you would be remembered in their genealogies as your family would go on.
Secondly, levirate marriage was a needed social construct in a society where women had no agency of their own. It served as protection for the widow, ensuring that she would have a male provider responsible for them. This was a positive in a society where women are not allowed self-sufficiency and must rely on men to provide, especially in societies where women are seen as under the authority, dependent on, in servitude, and/or possessions of their husbands. Having children enabled the inheritance of land, which offered security and status. A levirate marriage might only occur if a man died childless.
Our next question then is, are the Sadducees really concerned about women and what their eternal plight might be, if the resurrection is really a thing?  No they are not concerned about women. Nor are they even concerned about this (hypothetical) woman!  They are concerned about to whom she belonged. She was ultimately the property of a man. Women were property. What they are actually asking, if the resurrection is a real thing, which husband gets to claim her in the resurrection?  Who gets her for all eternity?  She is merely a belonging, an asset, part of the “wealth” one of these men could claim for eternity. Perhaps you can’t take your stuff with you into the eternal kingdom, but since it is populated by people you could take the ones who are yours with you. But she is only one woman. Which one of the seven men gets to claim her as theirs for eternity? After all, a woman can’t be married to seven men (even if a man could be married to seven women).
When we come to this passage the question most of us what to know, “Is Jesus telling us that we will not be married in heaven?” Because if there is no marriage in Heaven, “Will we get to be families in Heaven?” “Will we not be connected to those we love in eternity?” “Will God separate me from Mike in the life to come?” “Will our children know us?” “Will my father still be my father?” “Will all of us live disconnected from the love and affection we know in this life?”  The short answer is, “No, that is not what Jesus is saying”
God will not separate us from our loved ones. But what that looks like in the afterlife is something we do not know, as long as we are on this side of eternity. All I can say with any confidence is that life in the world to come will be as different from life here and now as life in the womb was different from the life we now know.  I can also assure you that this passage and this discussion, which Jesus is having with the Sadducees here is not answering this question. The Sadducees were not wanting to know the nature of familial relationships, whether that be our true love who passed before we did, or those of our children or parents, in the world to come. When Jesus gives his answer that is not the question he is answering.
We know this because real question the Sadducees are asking is own of ownership, “If there is a resurrection, in which we all live on, who does this woman ultimately belong to. . . for eternity?” (can I just say all my modern sesiblities, say “Ewww.” This is a bunch of men standing around discussing the eternal fate and ownership of a woman – hypothetical she may be) So what is Jesus’ answer? He says, “she does not BELONG to any of them!” Jesus frees this woman from the societal need for her to bear a son in this life, and her enslavement to these men in the life to come. (Hallelujah! She is her own woman!) This woman does not BELONG to any human being not here on earth and definitely not in God’s eternal kingdom. She is her own person, she does not belong to any of them and she will not belong to any of them in the world to come.
When Jesus says, “No one will be marry or be given in marriage”, what he is saying is, “No one will take another in marriage and no one will be given to another.” No one will be taken or given. Paul said something similar, In Christ Jesus, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.” We are set free in Jesus Christ, set free from the bondage of sin, and set free from the brokenness sin has brought into our societies and systems. No one belongs to anyone else, not now, not ever; not in this life and not in the time of the Resurrection.
Jesus is actually telling them. “Wrong question!” The Sadducees cannot trick Jesus with this question because the very premise of it is wrong. The resurrected life is just like this life only unimaginably better and it is not at all like this life because the ways in which it exceeds what we know and how we think about life, are nearly incomprehensible. The resurrected life is life as it should be, if we lived in a whole and holy world. It is life without sin, without brokenness. It is a life lived without economic disparities, without the harm we experience at the hands of others. Life lived in unbroken communion with God. Where we get to really know and understand what it means when Genesis says they walked with God in the cool of the evening. It is life lived as we can only imagine. It is life lived in ways we could never imagine.
Now don’t get me wrong just because we no one belong to us, that does not mean that we do not find belonging in Christ and in Christ’s church. At the end of the passage Jesus tells us who we truly belong to.  God is the God of the living, in the end, after the resurrected, we will all live again. God is the God of all. This passage is about to whom we belong. Jesus tells us, when it comes down to what really matters we cannot be possessed by one another. Yet we find belonging in God, in God’s people, together with one another, belong together.
We like to stake our claim on one another. We say, “This is Brenda, she is my mother.” “This is Drew, he lives in our basement.” Explaining our connections to each other is not inherently wrong, but generally speaking we do not know how to speak of those connections with our exerting a sort of belonging over that person. In a world which continually seeks to possess and own everything around us, this is just another way of exerting our dominance over even those we love and care about the most. Jesus says these ideas of dominance and possession do not matter in eternity. This woman does not belong to any of these men. We do not belong to anyone who seeks to dominate and possess us, nor does anyone belong to us. We do not get to own anyone in Heaven. We are all our own human beings so to speak.
I say, “So to speak,” because although, we do not ultimately belong to one another. To whom do we belong does matter, in eternity? Because in the end belonging to God is what really matters. All life is God’s but do we belong to God? Have we lived lives which exemplify God’s holiness, righteousness and justice in this world? Have we given all of who we are, all we ever hope to be and who ever we may one day become over to God? Have we lived lives of Holy excellence; seeking to bring God’s redemption and holiness in to all the place we live. Have we allowed God not just to sanctify all aspects of our lives, all we do, all we say, all our actions and our interactions? Jesus sides steps the Sadducees debate about the resurrection and asks a more important question, “Do we belong to God?”

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Being Saints: An All Saints Sunday Sermon - Luke 19:1-10


“Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. . .”

         I can still hear my father singing this well-known Sunday School song to me and to hundreds of Sunday School children down through the years.
By all accounts my father was truly a man of God, a saint. I am biased. I am his daughter. But others seem to think so as well. At his funeral someone had arranged for people to post stories on a wall, about how my father’s faith had made an impact on their lives. Story after, story, life after life he had touched. There were too many to read, it was nearly over whelming. At the viewing people waited in a line that was over 2 ½ hours long to pay their final respects to him and to us, his family. He lived a life which exemplified Christ’s love in all things. His faith was an example to all he met and served to encourage many to walk closer to God and to follow Christ in their own lives. Kids he taught in Sunday School, Caravans, or youth quizzing, have grown to be pastors, missionaries, teachers, and doctors; you name it, faithful men and women of God. You all met him, you knew his warm heart and his generous spirit. I do not believe there is anyone who ever met him who did experience the love of Christ in his actions and his words.
It may or may not surprise you that my father related to Zacchaeus in a lot of ways. My father was short of stature as well and my father, like Zacchaeus remembered a life of which he was not at all proud, before he met Jesus. Some of us come to know and follow Christ early in our lives, we cannot speak much about the lives we lived prior to coming to faith. All we knew were the sins of a child still finding their way in the world.  But others lived quite a bit, were adults, made choices which shaped their lives in ways that were not always positive. My father came to Christ in his mid-twenties, which is not old but he had done quite a bit of “living.”
Obviously I was not acquainted with the man my father was before that fateful day when my mother decided they were going to go to the revival she had seen advertised.  I know very little about what kind of person he was prior to that day, but I know a few things. Upon learning my father had lived in Germany when he was first in the military, I asked him to teach me some German, he told me the only German he knew was the kind of German a young man learns in a bar and was inappropriate to share with me. I know my parents lived together for at least a year before they got married. I know he was rough in high school and prone to fighting. I can still remember him saying, “You messed with one of the Henson boys, you messed with all of them.” Which is just another way of saying he settled things with his fist and not his words. At this point I think it would be suffice to say, he was not entirely proud of who he was prior to coming to know Jesus.
Zacchaeus, prior to his encounter with Jesus that day, was also not an ideal citizen either. He was not only a tax collector, but he was the chief tax collector. In our system taxes are set up by the government and are based on how much you make in any given year and some formula. Being a world without turbo tax and tax accountants to figure out the formula, in the first century, the tax system was a little less sophisticated. Each tax collector was expected to collect a certain amount from the people in their jurisdiction. A tax collector was not bound to only collect the amount he needed to turn into his superior, so they often collected more than what was needed, as a sort of surcharge. Zacchaeus had managed to get very rich off this “surcharge.”
As you can imagine nobody liked a tax collector. Not only were they not known to be the most honest of men, collecting more taxes than was required of them, but they were a constant reminder to the Jewish people that they were subject to Roman rule, were not their own nation and were essentially not free. Needless to say, they were not the most popular people in town. They were considered sinners simply because of their occupation. They were not allowed in the temple or the synagogue. They were considered to be on par with thieves, gamblers and dishonest herdsmen. They were deemed to be unredeemable by the law of Moses. There was nothing for them. Even when they did their job fairly, they were still despised and hated.
We don’t know why Zacchaeus wanted so desperately to see Jesus that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree, but he did. He is there in the tree when Jesus sees him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house. People in the crowd don’t like this. Of all the people Jesus could choose to go home with, he chooses the tax collector, not only is he a sinner, but he’s an unpopular sinner, the kind of sinner nobody likes, and nobody wants to be around. Not a single person there would choose to go home with him. Zacchaeus is unworthy of their company, why would Jesus decide Zacchaeus is worthy of his company? There are so many more worthy people all around him, but Jesus goes out of his way to call the tax collector down out of the tree and invites himself home with him. Zacchaeus hurries down from the tree and welcomes Jesus into his home. Meanwhile the people are upset, because Jesus has shown favor to the tax collector! What is Jesus doing?
But while they are grumbling something amazing is going on in the tax collector’s house and in his heart. After his time with Jesus he declares he will give away half his possessions to the poor, and he will restore to those whom he defrauded, he will return to them four times what he took from them. And apparently he is not doing this simply because he wants to impress Jesus, but because he has truly had a change of heart, because Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus chooses to change his actions because Jesus has changed his heart.
Jesus reminds us that he came to seek and save the lost. This lost one has been found. The shepherd went looking for him, found him in a tree and by going home with him was able to bring him home.
The story of Zacchaeus tells us two things. First it tells us that no one is beyond the reach of Jesus. There is no person whose sins are so awful, who is so far gone that they are beyond the seeking eyes of the Good Shepherd when he goes searching. It does not matter what they have done, does not matter how bad, or how many people they have harmed. It does not matter if nobody likes them, if everybody has given up on them, or if not a single person is willing to give them a chance. Jesus wants to seek and save everybody who is lost.
The lost woman searched the whole house, sweeping all the corners, lit a lamp, and looked carefully until each one was found. Jesus does not desire for a single person to remain lost. Jesus is seeking everyone, all of them, each and every single one. No one is too far gone, no one is too bad or deemed unworthy. The fact is none of us are “worthy”, none of us are “good enough” but Jesus loves all of us and desires for each of us to come, desires for each of us to believe, to be in relationship with us. Jesus wants us all to come to him, allow him change our lives, so that we too can reflect the love, the mercy, the forgiveness, goodness and the holiness of God in our own lives.    
The other thing we can know is, Zacchaeus’ story is a saint’s story. Zacchaeus’ life was changed. His life was transformed. He became a follower of Jesus Christ. This is his story and it is the story of all saints. They once were lost but now are found. Jesus changed and transformed each and every one of their lives. They were no longer who we once were.
This is the story of each of the people we honored this morning. Jesus touched them. Their lives were transformed. Their life, their ministry, their faith, their witness has touched the lives around them. The light of Christ shone forth from within them. Their lives, their actions, their words, pointed others, pointed US to Jesus Christ, their faith increased our faith. Many of them were champions of Jesus Christ, super heroes of the faith. Their lives are a testament to this fact and we follow them as they followed Christ because we could see how Jesus had changed their lives and we too want to be transformed into Christ’s image just as they were.
But their stories are the same as Zacchaeus’ they once were lost but now they are found. It is the story of my father. This is why my father saw himself in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s story was my father’s story and my father’s story is really everyone’s story. No matter who we were before we came to Christ. No matter what we have done, our story is the same. We once were lost and now we are found.
The same is true for all Christians; for all saints of the Church. No matter how much we look up to someone else’s faith, their knowledge of the Bible, their ability to live the love of Christ in all they do; no matter how holy they seem, no matter how perfectly they exemplify the life of a true believer, no matter how clear their reflection of God appears to be, their story is the same, the same as Zacchaeus’, the same as my Dad’s, the same as sister Beckles or sister Warrick, the same as JoAnn’s or Lucille’s. They once were lost and now they are found.
All who believe are like Zacchaeus in this way and all who believe are saints. The key is we have to live like Jesus, to look to Jesus as our example of what a life totally committed to God looks like, to see Jesus as the person into whom God is daily transforming us. We are daily becoming saints. As we live lives committed to Christ, as we continue to allow ourselves to be made holy, wholly giving ourselves to God so that we can reflect the character of God in this world, so that we can be Jesus here and now, we are being transformed into saints.  
Our faith is the faith the next generation looks to show them what it looks like to be Christ. No matter how much we feel we might fail, no matter how much we might hope nobody is following our example of what it looks like to be a believer, someone is. These is always someone newer in the faith, or someone who does not yet believe who knows we are a Christian, who sees who we are and sees our life as an example of what it means to be a believer. As we remember and honor the lives of all those to whom we look as examples of Christlikeness lived on earth, we too much live as they lived knowing we are the saints others look to, to point them toward Christ. Let us all be lights that lead others to Jesus.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Being Holy - Luke 18:9-14

I once came across a blog in which a woman who shared her experiences of being a kindergarten teacher for an extremely conservative church run elementary school.  She described each of the children in her class and gave them cute little names.  There was H20 who always had to wash his hands after EVERYTHING.   There was Diva who always needed to be the center of attention and there was Christian.  She was the little girl who always volunteered to pray and whose every first answer was Jesus, God or sins.  At one point she describes prayer time.  Every day they circled up to pray and each child was asked to pray.  Many of the kids would pray for their parents, their siblings, their animals or someone they knew who was ill. Christian’s prayer went something like this:
“God help H2O he is making funny faces during writing time. I don’t like that.  I asks him to stop. He said he woulds but he still does it.  God that is lying and you hates liars.  Can you tell him that you hates liars? Then he will stop lying and stop making the faces.  I alsos don’t like his shoes, get him new ones.  The ones have holes in them and I can sees his socks and they are brown.  Amen.”
She would do this with each of the kids in her class, cataloguing for God all the things they did wrong and what she did not like about them.  In many ways her very childish prayer was very similar to the Pharisee’s prayer in this passage.
He is thankful that he lives right and acts right and by all measuring mechanisms he knows, is right with God.  This little girl knows what a “good little girl” looks like and acts like.  I am sure someone has told her that “good little girls” respect other people when they ask things of them.  Good little girls don’t lie and lying is telling someone something that is not true.  Telling someone you will do something and not doing it is lying.  And I am sure her mother, in good faith, told her that “good girls” dress nicely and wear clean clothes.  She is working hard to live the way a “good girl” should.  She is struggling to be good and live good and look good and she wants God to see that others are not trying as hard as she is and that others are failing where she does not.  She feels secure in knowing that she is living and being the “good girl” God wants her to be.  But we can all see that on some very fundamental level, she is missing what it means to be a “good girl, “ not to mention what it means to pray.
So we Jesus tells us about the Pharisee. We have heard enough Bible stories to know from the moment we hear about this Pharisee that he is not going to be our hero. Also, I think you have heard enough of my sermons, over the years to know that I am going to tell you, the Pharisees are the good, Bible believing Church going, holiness folk of their day, which means whenever see a Pharisee in the gospels, we should be asking ourselves, “How is this person like us? How am I like this Pharisee?”
Since we know that we are going to need to identify with this praying Pharisee, let us begin by looking at what he did right.   Like most people, although he does get things pretty wrong, he does not get it all wrong. This man desires to live right to live out God’s laws in his life. He is clearly working, striving, struggling  to live right, to do the right things, to be the person he believes God is call in him to be. He is thankful that is able to live the way God has called him to live. The working and the striving are commendable. Not only that, he knows he can’t do this on his own, and thanks God for being able to live right. Because a part from the grace of God we cannot live right in our own strength. It is because of God that anyone is able to live right, to live out God’s holiness in this world. It is in God’s strength that we are able to be who God calls any of us to be.  
Thanking God for his ability to be the person he believes God wants him to be is not where this Pharisee goes wrong. Where he goes wrong is when he compares himself to those around him. Comparing ourselves to other rarely if ever goes right, but it goes especially goes wrong when we do so, to make ourselves feel better than those around us. This man looks around sees the tax collector, who has also come to pray, and sees him as someone he deems to be less than himself and uses that man to make himself fee superior. The Pharisee looks at his life, his effort to live right, his struggle to be the person of God he knows God desires for him to be and not only sees himself as worthy but sees himself as more than worthy, as worthier.
Meanwhile there is another man, who has also come to pray, a tax collector. The tax collector is standing off to the side. Where the Pharisee in his self-assured boldness had placed himself front and center, so he can be sure to be seen, the tax-collector has found a quiet place off to the side, where he might not be noticed and might even go unseen. As he prays he won’t even lift his eyes toward heaven. He knows he has not been who God has called him to be. He knows he has failed and takes on a posture of humility and contrition. He knows just as clearly as the Pharisee does where he stands when it comes to living according Gods laws, statues and commands and due to his understanding of his own sinful actions does not approach God with any kind of confidence. When he prays, he asks God to be merciful, because he knows he is a sinner. His prayer is short and sweet and to the point. He knows he has failed at being the person God has called him to be and asks for God’s mercy. 
Each of these men comes to God in prayer. The purpose of the Pharisee’s prayer to thank God for what a great guy he is and in some ways to make sure God know how great he is; to make sure God has noticed that he is working hard to do all the right things and be the kind of person believes needs to be. He also wants to make sure God realizes that he is doing it better than those around him. He is surrounded by people who are failing to live right, who lives do not exemplify God’s character, people who are clearly not doing what is required of them in God’s law and is doing better than all of them.
Meanwhile the purpose of the tax collector’s prayer is to ask God for mercy, for forgiveness. He is letting God know that he knows who he is. He knows what he has done and what he has failed to do and he is coming before God with nothing and asking for nothing more than mercy.
Both finish their prayers and they walk away. Then Jesus tells us about the state of their beings when they walk away. The tax collector was not right with God when he entered the sanctuary. He was a sinner. He had failed at being who God called him to be.  He knows this and he asked for mercy and forgiveness. He prayed a sinner’s prayer, and walked away a righteous man. The Pharisee on the other can into the temple, having lived a righteous life, he strove in all things to do what was required of him, like us (more times than we would like to say), he clearly does somethings he should not have done. The two greatest commandments are to love God with all of who you are and to love your neighbor. We can only conclude, if this is the way he is willing to talk to God about his “neighbor” in prayer, and fails so miserably here in the sanctuary of God, at loving his neighbor, that he is not so good at all the other times, in all the other places.  He walks away unjustified, unforgiven. He did not see that he was in need of God’s forgiveness, and mercy. He does not ask for it and therefore does not receive it. He prayed a righteous person’s prayer walks away a sinner.
I already told us that we are more like this Pharisee than we would like to admit. We can tell ourselves we would never do what this man did. We never pray like that. We don’t think about others like that. But, Jesus tells us a story about a “good”, “God fearing” person, who is working and striving to all the right things and that is who I, would like to think I am. So I am pretty sure he is talking about me, and my guess is that this is true of you as well, so Jesus must be talk to you to.  We are doing it.  We are living it.  We are here in God’s sanctuary on a Sunday morning.  We are God’s chosen, the people of God, the Church, we are the Pharisees.
As “good Christians” is so easy to get caught up in WHO we are.  What we are doing.  We strive, we struggle, we work, we read our Bibles, we pray, we give to the poor, we donate to Hope’s Cradle, we volunteer at church and in our communities, we participate in all the serving activities of this congregation with a faithful heart seeking for God to shape and change us.  But we do not really allow God to shape and change us.  Because we are not willing to see HOW God needs to shape and change us.
This Pharisee obviously struggles with pride, seeing himself as better than others.  He sees his own righteous struggle, and all he can see is how he has succeeded in doing all the things he sees as the things God would want him to do.  He is doing all the things a good Christian does.  He sees his life and he knows how he measures up. He is good with God.  He is living right, being right, and doing right.  He is righteous.  He is “a good girl” like the sweet dear kindergarten prayers I told you about and he just like that little girl is painfully aware how those around him are not “good girls.”
This passage is about more than just pride.  Although I do suspect many of us could use a little less of it at times, esp. when it comes to our own righteousness. We are good “Christians” we know this passage.  We know its admonitions to not look down on others, so what do we do? We add that to the list of things to “not” do so we can be good Christians.  Always speak kindly of others. Check. Never look down on others, even when they are not as good at following Jesus as we are. Check. Never think more highly of our selves because we are good, holy, sanctified Nazarenes, who love God and everyone around us just like we should, unlike those Baptists and especially not like those Methodists (God help them as their denominations struggles right now). Check.
Some Christians make humility a cloak they wear with pride. This is bigger than pride.  This is knowing we are always in need of God’s mercy. Always knowing where we stand with God, and that we are always at God’s mercy. God is merciful and God will forgive, but we have to know we need it; we have to know that God is offering it to us, even us.  Even when we are doing it all right, we still stand before God receiving God’s amazing, beautiful mercy.  We are receiving mercy, constantly, always; it is being poured down upon us at all times. We all need it and we all receive it, if we are willing to ask; willing to admit our need of it; willing, even in our righteousness, to humble ourselves before God.
So here is the thing.  This is what is hard for us good holy, sanctified Nazarenes who are not supposed to believe that we sin in thought word and deed every day.  We Nazarenes know that God has called us to live holy lives of Christian love and perfection.  We know that God does not call us to an untenable life.  But that God enables us; empowers us to be holy; to love fully and to be the people God is calling us to be.  But even in our holiness, we too approach God humbly knowing that we live in the constant flow of God’s mercy.  We are not righteous because of our great effort.  We are not righteous because we have struggled and strived for holy perfection.  We are the people God has called us to be because of the grace and mercy of God.
We all come into God’s presence knowing we need to pray, “Be merciful to me a sinner.”  We all need to remember, we are living in God’s mercy, we are swimming in it.  We all need it; we all rely on it so that we can be the holy people God is calling us to be. So we can be the loving people God wants us to be; so we can be the holy people God expects us to be.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Widow and the Judge and Us: Luke 18:1-8

Luke 18:1-8 
Jesus tells us a parable. About a Judge and a Widow.
The Gospel writer begins by telling us Jesus told a parable about how to pray and not give up. Now, I don’t know about you, but as I have been working through the gospel of Luke this year, I have noticed that what seems to be the main point at the beginning of a parable is always really the point. Most parables are not so straight forward for us to be able to interpret the intention from the beginning.
Sometimes forget what it means for something to be a parable. Images of lost sheep, women making bread dough, and farmers planting seeds, might lull us to believe these are nice stories, with a simple point. Often times we think of parables as things which can be summed up in a child’s coloring picture, or can be presented simply on a felt board with minimal attention to details, but when it comes to parable the meaning is often in the details. We can only really come to understand the hard truths Jesus is attempting to teach us when we really pay attention. This is because parables were not simple morality tales presenting simple ideas which could be half-listened to and easily understood. They were storied that were on the edge, just a bit avant-garde. Nobody does what they are supposed to be doing. Father runs after wayward sons and masters invite people from the street to the banquet. These stories are told to make us think, they turn normal convention on its head and never end the way they are supposed to. So when the Gospel writer says, Jesus told a parable to teach them to pray and never give up, know there is more to the story than just that. 
So let’s look at this parable closely.  Who are our characters? We have the Judge, and the woman. That seems pretty straight forward. So we have this judge, but he is not just any judge, the first thing we are told is that this particular judge, neither fears God, nor has any respect for people. He has no respect for God or God’s laws, most notably, in this instance, would be any laws which told the people of God how to treat widows. This is a short hand way of saying that this man did not care about the laws of God, or the laws of the land. It is also another way for Jesus to let his audience know this is the kind of person who does not follow what he calls the greatest commandments, to love God and to love others. This judge, he does neither. He is in it for himself. He is a self-serving, selfish man and we can only assume when it comes to his judgments, his judgments are those which benefit himself; he serve his own needs.
This kind self-serving nature is not highly sought after in most human beings, but it is particularly poor set of traits to have in a judge who is supposed to settle disputes, right wrongs, make sure the community is run fairly and that everyone is properly taken care of.  We can only assume that this particular judge is not a very good judge at all.
Then we have the widow. A widow, at this time and place in history, would have been totally reliant upon others for her existence. As a widow she had no husband to take care of her, and would more likely than not, she had small children who depended upon her, and she had no way to provide for them. God gave instructions about how widows were to be cared for and not neglected. Extended family were to provide for them, the community was supposed to have safe guards, such as leaving the edges of your field un-reaped, so that a woman would never be completely without a way to feed herself and her children. Not only did women have no way to provide for themselves but they were not allowed to speak at all in court, so others were to be advocates for her. Apparently this particular widow had no one who was willing to speak for her in court. Her father was probably dead, she had no brothers. There was no one who could seek the justice she deserved on her behalf. She is forced to find other means to seek justice from the judge.
So she comes to him seeking to be heard. But she does not come to him once or twice; scripture tells she keeps coming to him. The image we get is that she is incessant, unrelenting; persistent is the word we like to use. She does not pause, she does not give up.  She just keeps coming demanding justice from this judge.
But it is more than “justice” she is seeking, the word used in the original language actually stronger than “justice.” The word here is closer to recompense or vengeance; she wants her adversary punished, to have to pay the price for his/her misdeeds. This is the kind of thing a person demands when terrible damage has been done. She has been abused, misused. Someone has repeatedly taken advantage of her, and it is no small thing. She needs a good judge, a fair judge, one who believes in righteousness and requiring people to pay the consequences for thier misdeeds. She needs a judge who is willing to step in and not only make the person stop, but force her/him to repay her for what was done to her, and dole out a just punishment to assure that this person can never do this to her (or others like her again.)  But there is no just judger in this community there is just this judge. He does not care about justice for her or for anybody for that matter.
She is hopeless, she is alone, she has no one to speak for her, and no one to defend her. She is at her wits end. So she is continually coming to this man seeking justice in the face of a dominant opponent. She is not coming quietly or kindly. She does not come to him with her head bowed and her eyes down cast to meekly beg that he do what is right by her. She comes with eyes blazing, with her voice raised, with her fist in the air, ready to do battle to fight for what she deserves.
Now let’s face it this is not the image of helplessness and hopelessness to which we are most drawn. We don’t like it when people raise their voices too loud. We don’t like it when someone, especially a woman, speaks with fire in her eyes, and venom in her words. We especially don’t like it when there is anger and rage behind that fire. But the image Jesus is painting is of a woman will to fight, her way out of the corner she is in. She is a caged warrior, with her voice and her fists raised.
Her adversary is misusing her in some way and her only hope is this dishonest, self-serving, judge who cares nothing about the law, cares nothing about God and therefore what the Torah says about taking care of and defending the widows; who cares nothing about other people or what others in their community think. So there is no social pressure to do the right thing, so that others will think highly of him. He is only in it for himself and she has nothing to offer. So she pesters him, night and day. She comes at him with all her anger, all her frustration, all her pent up aggression and rage.
And it works. The judge is afraid of her. He is literally afraid her. The Greek says he gives in least she punches him in the face and gives him a black eye. I am serious the word here, it is a boxing term, which means just that; the act punching somebody in the face and giving them a black eye. He thinks she will do him bodily harm. So in the end giving her justice and retribution is in his best interest, out of a sense self-preservation.
And least this parable is too transparent, too easily understood, Jesus then compares God to the judge. Except, God the GOOD judge. God is not like the judge.  If even the unjust judge would give the widow the vengeance, the justice, the retribution she deserves, don’t you think God is better than that. God will give the widow her justice, not because she badgers, or comes with her fists raises, but because God is always on the side of the righteous. God is righteous and will do what is righteous. So widows who come to God seeking justice will get the justice they deserve.
So when it comes to praying, we can assume God is just, and fair. If the judge in the parable who has no respect for God, the laws of God or other people, what they think or the laws of the land, will eventually relent and give into the widow’s cry for justice, won’t God, who is GOOD, be much more willing to answer your prayers, to give you the justice you deserve? God is good and gracious and desires to answer your prayers
That is a nice thing to say about God and not at all untrue. Somewhat unsatisfying?
          When looking at the introduction and the decision to choose the unjust judge as a primary character we can say perhaps that God is more than Good but God is JUST. 
Even the unjust judge is moved to justice when the widow pursues him and pesters him.  God is not like the unjust judge, god is good. God will actively pursue justice for those who have been wronged. God is on the side of those who are abused, misused, tormented and broken down by others, by our society, by the unjust systems which surround us every day. God is just, God is righteousness and it is God’s desire to bring justice and righteousness into the lives, to societies, to systems where justice and righteousness are lacking.
If the unjust judge will hear the widow’s cry for justice won’t God also hear our cries?  When we feel that the injustice in the world around us is too much; when we see our own lives and the lives of those around torn to pieces; when we are abused, when those around us are misused, when people are disallowed from speaking out for themselves, we can cry out to God in our distress and keep crying out to God, knowing that God too desires justice in our world. And we don’t have to be pretty about it. We can cry out in our anger. We can come to God with our voices raised, with pain in our voices, with fire in our eyes, with our fists raised ready to fight for what is right. That is comforting.  Even as we see the injustice in our lives and in our world, we can know that God hears our cries for justice and can be confident that, in time, God’s justice will prevail. God is always seeking justice, and recompense. It is God’s desire that all wrongs will be set right, that justice and righteousness will be restored to all the earth; THAT is what it means when we say Jesus came to bring redemption to all. The salvation Jesus brings if not only for us, and for our spiritual lives, but it is for our whole beings, for our wholes lives. It is salvation for you and me; for society and for the whole world. God will not stop, bringing justice and righteousness until all things are set right; till God’s kingdom reigns in all thing, till God’s will is done on all the earth, as it is done in Heaven.
This brings us to the final sentence in this passage, Jesus ends by asking the question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus tells this parable about this horrible judge and this angry widow and then looks up at his disciples, at all those who have gathered around him, listening to him, trying to figure out what in the world is he trying to tell them. God is a heathen judge. God listens to loud vengeful women. He looks them all straight in the eye and he says, “Will I find faith here on earth?”
This is a question for the community. Not for the judge, not for the widow. It is a question for us, for the people of God everywhere. Jesus asks this question of his audience. He poses it to all those listening to this parable, to all those who had gathered there that particular day and all of us who are leaning in close to listen, all these centuries later.  Jesus asks us, when he returns, “Will he find faith, among us?”
Where justice is required where will we be? Will the “widow” be by herself crying for justice, or will we join her in her plea. Will we stand beside her, amplify her cry, so it will be heard. Will we work, so that she can be set free from her oppression, will we be advocates for justice. Or will we stand by while she fights against an unjust system, where her voice cannot be heard?  Will we tsk and shake our heads at her fury and tell her to calm down. Tell her that her yelling is hard to hear, that her anger makes her wrong? The rage within her is ungodly and unseemly. A woman in her position can’t afford to raise her fist, to fight so hard. She is doing more damage to her cause than good. Sshh, calm down, be still. Will allow ourselves to step aside from her plight, to turn a blind eye and ignore he pain, her suffering? Will stand with the unjust system in our complacence? Will we be more like the unjust judge, who does not care about her or plight? Or will we join God in God’s work to bring justice? Will we cry out with her? Will we raise our voices, raise our fists, and allow her anger to fuel he fires of justice within us?
Will we join with God, as God seeks to bring justice to the widows who are all around us? You see, this is not about will God join us in our search for justice for ourselves and for others, but will we join God as God works to bring justice to our world;  to all those who suffer from injustice.  We should be persistent in this, BECAUSE God is a God who is ALREADY seeking justice and we should join God’s persistent pursuit. We should be as persistent about is as this woman, because God is.
Three ways to understand this passage, three things we can walk away with this today.
One tells us God is good and that we should expect goodness form God. We should pray for the things we want and keep on praying, expecting God to hear our pleas and answer our prayers. Pray and keep on praying, to never give up, to continually seek God. It tells us that it is ok to come to God in our anger.  We can yell at God, scream at God. We don’t have to be quiet, nice, and demure with God. We can come to God with all our raw, loud, unseemly emotions and know that it is Ok. God is not turned off by it. God will not look away because we cried to hard, screamed too loud, or spoke out in our anger and our rage. (Or our hurt or our fear, our loneliness, or whatever real emotion with which we might cry out to god) That is one way to understand this passage and it is not wrong.
We could also walk about from this passage knowing that God is just and that we should expect justice from God. God will work and is working to right the wrongs all around us. God is always at work bring restoration to all the broken places in this world. We can rest assured that God’s salvation is bigger and broader than perhaps we previous believed. God is seeking to bring salvation to all those who are beaten down, torn apart, abused, disused and thrown out. God is working to bring redemption to all the dark places of this world. God not only  wants to restore lives, but to bring restoration, to the broken systems in our world God is seeking bring justice into our societies, to bring righteousness into the fabric of our nation, of all nations. God’s redemption, God’s righteous is international. God’s plan for redemption is global. God is seeking to set right all the wrongs, in all the places where humans are hurting, abandoned, and broken by systems, by movement, by agencies and by one another, where ever they are.
Finally this passage informs us about who God is, shows us the heart of a Good, Loving, Just God. It does not tell merely tell   us what we can expect from God, it invites us to join with God in what God is doing in this world.  Jesus is holding out his hand and saying, “I hear you; I understand your plea, because my heart is already there. Join me and we will seek this together.”  Jesus is calling us to stand with the widow, and with all those who need justice, whose voices cannot be heard as they cry for vengeance, for the wrongs committed against them to be made right, who are ignored when recompense is needed. Just says, stand with me, join with me. I am the a just judge and I will work for the good of all who are wronged, you can be the community who surrounds these who are broken and beat down, you can stand with the ones who are abused and misused, who are ignored and cast aside, you can be a part of the people of God who speak out on behalf of the voiceless, who raise join in their plea and make known the plight of those who would otherwise go unseen. Join with me, because this is the work I am doing. Will I find faith among you?
Let us join together; knowing that as we do so, we are joining with God to bring justice into our world.  We are still called to pray, we are still called to persistence but we are also called to action.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Luke 17:5-10 - Living Faithfully

Luke 17:5-10
This morning’s passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus to, “Increase our faith!  This simple phrase can be heard at least two ways.
I want more! - A plea for something worth having.
Give me more! - A demand for something valuable.
I am not sure the disciples motivation here. Are they are begging Jesus to give them more of something they feel they are lacking like a runner who has just finished a long race begging for water? Or are they are making a demand of Jesus, like a child demanding more sweets.
But either way, whether it is water or sweets, I am not sure this is good or valid question for the disciples to be asking Jesus. Faith is not quantitative. Faith is not a thing; like apples that you can have more of. It is not something you can grasp a hold of, or gather together. It is not something you can own, not something you can hold in your hand and therefore have in your possession. It cannot be measured; it does not have mass or volume, a cup of faith, a cubic liter of faith, a ten pound bag of premium quality faith. So how do you quantify something you can’t count? How do you know how much you have. If you cannot determine how much you have, how do you know if you have more. . . or less? Does faith even work that way?
Can faith be doled out in easy portion sizes until you feel you have enough, or withheld; each person rationed only to the amount they deserve, or  to which they are entitled. Yet the here the disciples are coming to Jesus, “Increase our faith.”
Jesus by passes any questions about whether this is even possible and tell them, a mustard seed of faith can command a mulberry tree get up and move into the sea. Now a mustard seed is small. It is inconsequential. In fact people in the Middle East did not like mustard seeds, they were like dandelion seeds, you don’t plant them; you don’t spread them around. Nobody wants a yard full of dandelions and nobody wants a yard full of mustard bushes. But if you have a despised mustard seed, a tiny yet unwanted dandelion seed of faith, trees can move to the sea.
Removing a tree is hard. Have you ever tried to remove a tree or even a stump from a yard? It takes a lot of force to uproot a tree. A healthy tree does not simply come out of the ground easily. So what uproots trees?  Tornados, hurricanes, high winds, powerful storms, people with machinery, with trucks, cables and wenches.
Do you remember when we had the bushes removed from in front of the church? It took several men, and a wench attached to a truck, all day to take out four bushes. It takes a powerful force to move a tree. Faith is that kind of powerful force. But it is not simply the force it takes to uproot a tree, but faith has that kind of force, the kind of power that can cause a tree to transplant itself . . . into the ocean.
When Jesus is confronted by the disciples asking him to give them more faith, he basically sidesteps the question and tells them if they had even a small amount of faith they could command trees to transplant themselves. Faith is destructive. Is scary!  The disciples ask for more faith and Jesus says a mustard seed of faith can result in uprooted trees. And the disciples, they are for more of this!  Do they really know what they are asking for?
We think of faith as what we believe. What we think about who Jesus is. How we understand the Word of God. What we see our as purpose as Christians. We know it is vital to our understanding of what it means to be people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, but what is faith what does it mean for us to have faith?
Faith is a force with which to rekon, it is wild; it is violent; it is powerful; it is a storm; it has the power of a giant piece of machinery and the ability to get things to act in disunity with their nature. It is untamed power! And the disciples want more!
Because the disciples (just like us) have a hard time getting it, Jesus moves on and tells them a parable about faith.
At the end of the day, after working and toiling and laboring all day long, what are the roles of a master and a servant?  Does the master see the hard labored servant, see the sweat from a days work, sees aching shoulders, and tired limbs and says, here sit down, let me go get you some water, wait here while I make you a fine dinner? Does the master serve the servant? 
No, the master sits down, rests and asks the servant to go get the food. The master waits and relaxes while the servant continues to toil to prepare a meal and serves the master. Then when the meal is over, the master pushes, the chair out from the table, leaves the dishes and the cleaning to the servant, falls into bed tired from the day’s labor, comfortable  and full with food and sleeps while the servant clears up the dishes and cleans up from the meal.
Does the servant work hoping to be praised?   Does the servant work looking for a reward?  No, the servant just does the work of a servant, not for a prize, not for a good word, or a reward. The servant does the work expected of servant. Why, because that is what servants do.
As we are looking at this passage we need to determine, who is the master?  Who is the servant? Who are we in this situation, are we masters or servants? What would it mean if we were the master? What would it mean for us to be the servant? Most importantly, this is a parable Jesus told to teach the disciples about faith; what is Jesus telling us about faith? What does this mean for us?
Jesus says faith is a servant obeying the master. Doing the work expected of the servant, not for reward, a prize, or for praise, but because that is what a servant does.
Faith is about knowing who we are. We are not the master. We are not the ones who do the ordering. We are the ones who are doing what we are ordered to do.
          Faith is not something we can possess, it is who we are. Faith is not a commodity; it is a way of life. And if faith is being a servant, is it something the disciples really want more of?
Knowing that we are servants, going back to the mulberry tree, are we the ones who get to order things around? Who is the one who tells others what to do what where to go. I am not sure that is us.
It is important for us to know who we are! 
We are the servants, doing what we are told, we are not the Master. That means that we are not the one doing the ordering, telling anything to do anything. It we are not the ones who are telling others what to do and where to do then having faith, being faithful means that We are not the commander of mulberry trees, we are the ones doing what is expected of us, we the ones who do what is told. We are the commanded not the commanders, we are the mulberry tree.
Faith is going where we are told. It is uprooting ourselves when we are told to be uprooted, going where we are told to go. Faith is obedience. Faith is being a follower of Christ not a commander of the world around us.
When we live out lives of faith, we can be mulberry trees, who uproot themselves and live in the ocean. Through faith we have the power and the ability to be trees uprooted. Trees transplanted. We can be trees living in the ocean. Now the ocean is not the most tenable place for a tree. Last time I checked mulberry trees simply don’t grow in the ocean. But faith not only gives us the ability to be uprooted to be transplanted but to survive we would otherwise believe impossible.
That is pretty amazing!  Faith is doing scary things, doing things that seem impossible. Faith means being a mulberry tree in the ocean, against all odds, against all logic, living in the ocean, surviving, growing, and thriving in a nigh impossible situation. It is exciting; it is scary. It is amazing; it is miraculous!
But what does the servant do?  Is that exciting?
Is that amazing?  It might be cool to be a mulberry tree living in the ocean, but is it as cool to be a servant preparing a meal, doing what you are told, cleaning up at the end of the day?
 By comparison, the idea of being a mulberry tree who is able to live, and thrive in the ocean is much more appealing than being a servant. Nobody wants to be servant, doing the mundane day to day tasks in the master’s house. But that is also what faith is. Faith is being the mulberry tree, AND faith is being a servant, doing the work of the household; preparing dinner, serving food. Doing what needs to be done, because it needs to be done. It is not glamorous or courageous it is just being who you are called to be, doing what you are called to do.
Faith is doing what the master is telling us to do; doing the work God sets before you; doing the will of God, doing the work of God. Having more faith is not about telling the mulberry tree what to do, it is about us BEING the mulberry tree, going where God tell us to go, living where God tells us to live. If we have faith like a mustard seed, we will be a mulberry tree which when told to by God, will pick itself up, uproot itself from the soil, where it lives and thrives, and then go to live in the sea, trusting God knows what God is doing. Doing it because the master says that is what we should do. Not doing it to gain a prize, or for the desire of a reward, a word of praise, or even for the hope of Heaven, but doing it because faith is obedience and because we love Jesus, because we want to be the who God is calling us to be. It may be scary it may seem destructive, but doing it anyway, because that is what we do, because we trust, we obey.
We do this trusting we will not die; we will not be swept away by the sea. We do it, knowing we will be planted there and God in asking us to do the impossible will make the impossible happen. We will live in the sea, trusting we will breathe the salt water, as we once breathed the fresh air, we will bask in the waves as we once basked in the light of the sun, and we will survive, thrive.  We will live and we will live abundantly!
Faith like this is not as appealing, living this kind of faith is not how we usually envision faith. We want the kind of faith, which allows us to be the ones telling mulberry trees what to do. We want to be the master who tells the servants what to do. We want to be the ones who tame the wild force, who wield the unimaginable power. Who command the wind and the waves. We like to be in control and there is a particular kind of appeal to having that kind power.
In many ways Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ Give us more faith, add to our faith, whether it be a demand or a plea, is, “Be careful what you ask for! It might not be what you want.”  You want more faith, it may be destructive and powerful. You want more faith, it may be wild and untamed. You want more faith, it is about being a servant and not a master, it is the power to do what you are told, it is the power to be told to do impossible things and doing them, it is not the power to tell things to do impossible things and have them do them. It is also the power to do mundane things, simply doing the day to day work and ministry of God. Loving God and loving neighbor, simply being who God is calling you to be, each day, in the mundane, everyday places of life.
We want more faith to mean that we get to tell things to do impossible things and for them to then do it. We want to be the master, who tells servants what to do, and where to go. We want the privilege, to thank, or not thank, to praise or not praise those who do their duty for us. But that is not who we are, that is not what it means to have more faith.
We are mulberry trees, we are servants. When we have “more faith,” we will go where God tells us to go, even if it is hard, arduous or even seems impossible. When we have “more faith,” we will be servants doing the mundane, tedious, unrewarding daily tasks of living lives as God’s people, being the people God calls us to be, in our work places, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, walking our dogs, and at the grocery store. Not doing it for the prize, the reward, for hope of Heaven or even the fear of Hell, but because that is what it means to be a person of faith, a child of God, that is what it means to be the person God created for us to be.
So in the end the question really is Do we really want to have more faith?