Sunday, September 29, 2013

Flaw, Fault, and Faux Pas Filled Faith

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 17th Chapter

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"  The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

 "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'?  Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!' "

I love the disciples.  For totally the wrong reasons, I admit, but I love them.  I love them because they always seem to mess up and when they mess up it makes me feel better about my discipleship.  It’s schadenfreude... feeling good because, well, at least I’m not as bad as THOSE guys!  I’m far from perfect as a disciple, but at least I never wanted to rain fire on a village who didn’t welcome Jesus or tell Jesus “God forbid you go to Jerusalem!”

So, when I read this lesson I thought right away, (shaking my head and chuckling to myself) you disciples; not even faith the size of a mustard seed!  Who DOESN’T have at least THAT much faith?  But then I didn’t just read the lesson, I HEARD what Jesus was saying.   I heard Jesus say, “If you, Erik, had faith the size of the tiny, minute, minuscule, little, itty bitty size of a mustard seed the YOU'D be able to uproot a tree with your words and plant that tree in the ocean.”  And I thought, “Oh, no!  I can’t do that!  I can’t talk to a tree and get it to uproot itself and then fly over to the ocean and plant itself in the sea.  I can’t do that!  And what’s worse is right now I literally live a block from the ocean... I would only have to make the tree fly like a block and a half to get it to the ocean and I STILL can’t do it!  So my faith too, is smaller than a mustard seed!”

When it comes to seed sized faith, I never thought I had the largest out there, after all the largest seed is the sea coconut which can weigh up to about 90 pounds, but I also never thought I had the smallest seed sized faith either, which would be a rain forest orchid seed that weighs only 1/35,000,000th of an ounce!  I’ve never thought I had the biggest faith out there, but I did always think I had faith at least a little bigger than a mustard seed.  Maybe lima bean sized, or green pea sized, but now I don’t know how big my faith is.... celery seed size, maybe?  lettuce seed?  Maybe it really is only orchid seed sized.  I don’t think there is any way to really know!

And THAT, I think, was exactly what Jesus was trying to do.  When Jesus compared faith to the size of a seed, something people buy and sell as a spice, he was making his first important point about faith.  Faith isn’t like a seed!  It’s not a commodity you can order up by the pound from Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit or anybody else in the market.  In this first part of the parable the disciples thought that they needed to be first filled with faith in order to do the good things that Jesus did out in the world.  With that in mind, they came to Jesus for a faith fill-up.  Jesus let them know that you don’t get faith the same way you pick up a bottle of mustard seed or cumin at the market.

So faith isn’t a commodity.  What is it?  In the last 300 years or so, since the Enlightenment, the most widespread idea of what faith is all about is believing something that is unprovable or unbelievable.  In Jesus’ day though, faith was less about the ability to confess a belief in something unseen and more about a person’s life becoming radically centered in God.  Faith was more about loyalty, allegiance and a radical trust in God that would guide a person’s way of living in the world.  Faith was a trust in God’s love and care so complete there was no room for fear or anxiety.  It was seeing yourself, the people around you and all of creation as God sees them and then living our lives out of that vision.    

In the second part of this parable Jesus let the disciples know that thinking they needed faith BEFORE they went out to do God’s work in the world was wrong as well.  To show them their second wrong-ness, Jesus described a scene where a master and a slave are interacting.  In the story Jesus tells, however, the roles of the master and the slave are reversed and in this story the master serves the slave.  Jesus is trying to get the disciples to understand that their notion that they have to get faith BEFORE they do God’s work out in the world is just as backwards as a master serving a slave.  

It’s as if we’ve sat down at a restaurant table, snapped our fingers and placed our order with the One we’ve assumed is our waiter.  “Would you be good enough to bring me a heaping helping of faith please?  And I’ll have a cocktail while you get that ready.”  The disciples told themselves and I think we tell ourselves, that as soon as God gets here with our faith and we get sufficiently filled up on faith, THEN (and only then) will we be ready to go out into the world and do the things God would like us to do.
Here’s another way to illustrate that same idea....I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.  I don’t know how to play the guitar SO what I would REALLY like is for someone... God, Jesus, the spirit of Les Paul... someone to give me, or increase in me, or fill me up with “talent,” “chops” or even “mad guitar skills”... whatever it is that will allow me to play the guitar and THEN, filled with talent, chops and mad skills, I’ll go do good things in the world like play at church, camps and nursing homes.  But that’s not the way it works, is it?  If I really wanted to increase my ability to play the guitar... if I really wanted “chops” or “talent” or “mad guitar skills” what’s the only way to do that?  Yeah!  I’ve got to go PLAY the guitar!  

Jesus is telling us that if we want to be FULL of faith, if we want to have our lives radically centered in God, the way to do that is to start living it!  To spend our time focusing on the things and the people God is most concerned with in the world... the poor and poverty, the hungry, the lost, the last and the forgotten.  If we want to see our lives filled with faith we need to work at seeing the world and it’s people, their joys, their sadness and all of creation through God’s eyes and live our lives concerned with the same stuff that God is most concerned with.... unconditional love, compassion and justice.  In short, if we want to be full of faith, the way to do that is to go out there and start living faith-FULL-y! 

But what if we don't do it right, or perfectly or make mistakes and end up making things worse?  We need to remember that Jesus sent those first disciples, the ones I love for always being so wrong, out into the world with all of their imperfections perfectly in tact.  Jesus isn’t looking for the perfect or doctrinally correct or ideologically pure... just for the best we can do in each particular moment.  Sometimes what we can do in that moment will be awesome and more often than not, quite short of awesome.  But we cannot allow that to be a reason not to try.  Even if it looks and feels and sounds as clumsy as me trying to learn a new chord on the guitar, Jesus says we need to just go!  Go and live faithfully... feed the hungry in all the ways people are hungry; advocate for justice so the pay for a day’s hard work is actually enough to buy what you need to live; heal the sick in body, mind and spirit; visit those who are in prison in all the ways we humans find ourselves imprisoned ... because it is only in our living as faithfully as we can in the moment... flaws, faults and faux pas included that we will find ourselves filled with faith.  Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

It's Not "Just Lunch"

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 14th Chapter.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

8When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

12He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

He told them a parable.  With those five words Jesus changes everything.  Without those words this would be a nice lesson about how we should really try to have a little humility in our lives; about good manners and the social graces; about not having a big head.  Without those five words this would just be a very nice guide to being charitable and kind to those who are less fortunate.  Without those five words it would be a non-confrontational, non-controversial, easy to preach, easy to hear story that made no waves and ruffled no feathers.  But there they are... He told them a parable... and because this is a parable... the luncheon... it’s not just lunch, the dinner... not really about the evening meal and the banquet Jesus is REALLY talking about doesn’t involve a choice between chicken and fish.  

Jesus used parables to tell folks things that he knew would be hard for them to hear.  He set a hard to hear truth in the middle of a more comfortable, more familiar story like eating lunch or attending a wedding banquet.  That way he could gently invite them into a story and slowly work around to the hard truth they probably wouldn’t have sat still to hear if he had told it to them directly.  

Because that’s the way Jesus’ parables work, they tend to get more challenging the deeper into them you go, so I think we better start like Jesus did, with just a light lunch.  For lunch, Jesus says invite the poor, lame, crippled and blind.  I’m sure you know someone who has had experience with life when the ends don’t meet; where worries about money and bills haunt them in the night.  We all know someone who is fighting a life threatening disease, struggling with an injury, lives with constant pain or battles with the darkness of depression.  

Those are the folks Jesus is concerned with here, but this lunch is a parable, and the harder to hear idea Jesus is trying to communicate here is that we will have trouble living life to the fullest when people around us are having trouble simply living.  Just finding a person who is hungry and paying for them to have a one time meal is good, but it doesn’t meet Jesus’ deeper concern.  Community is his deeper concern and Jesus is challenging us to open ourselves here to new long term seek out those who are hungry or hurting and not just help them find momentary relief, but to make them a part of our everyday lives and work with them to eliminate not just the symptoms of their hurt, but the cause of their pain at the source.  

The flip side of this parable may be even harder for many of us because this parable also challenges us when WE become the ones struggling with bills or pain or darkness to be more open about our pains and fears, our worries and our darkness, to set aside our pride and allow ourselves to be drawn more deeply into other’s lives, to be drawn deeper into community and not to go it alone.

You can see how Jesus works with his parables.  He first invites us into a story... “Hey, it’s just lunch” but then it turns out to be a lot more than “just lunch” and now Jesus is about to draw us even deeper into the story by inviting us to a banquet.  When Jesus talks about banquets and when Jesus specifically talks about wedding banquets in his parables he’s trying to tell us something about the Kingdom of God.  Now, keep in mind, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he isn’t talking about something that happens after we die.  He’s not talking about a place “up there” or “out there” or something that exists only on a spiritual level.  

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he is talking about this world, because the Kingdom of God is here in our everyday, figure out dinner, commute to work, pick up kids and do homework world... he’s talking about changing our world where a relatively few people have much and many, many, many others don’t even come close to having enough into the Kingdom of God.  Do you remember when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray?  Jesus told them, among other things, to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  What Jesus was telling his disciples to pray for and what we pray for every week with that prayer is for that banquet, for God’s Kingdom, to happen here... we’re praying for nothing less than for the whole world to be transformed into heaven on earth.  

The author and Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan describes the Kingdom of God as our world transformed into one of peace, banquet and equality.  While all too often the human way of changing things is done with violence, God’s Kingdom is grown through peace; as we hear in Micah, Isaiah and Joel, God’s desire is for our world to become a place were swords are beaten into plows and spears are turned into pruning hooks.  While the normal human ways of living in the world often leads to great disparities, with a few having way more than they need and many, many, many people struggling with far too little, God’s Kingdom is one of a great banquet, like the one described by Isaiah as a feast with meats rich with marrow and well aged wines strained clear... a world where everyone has enough.  And while our human ways of living all to often offer overwhelming opportunity to a few and put up social and political systems that keep others from ever having a chance, God’s Kingdom moves everyone to a place at the table where everyone has equal worth and status.  

You can see how this sermon would have been a lot easier if Jesus hadn’t, “told them a parable.”  Just the IDEA of the Kingdom of God alone is one that has a tendency, as the saying goes, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  I for one would have loved for Jesus to be a bit less challenging for my interview sermon, but easy was not what Jesus was going for and he’s not quite finished making things all parable-ly and difficult for us either.   

Take a look at the end of this lesson again, remembering that “giving a banquet” is code for changing the world.  Now, who is it that Jesus is having give this banquet?  Jesus says, “When you give a banquet.”  Yup, Jesus says this is our banquet to give... it is our world to change.  At first that might seem overwhelming but it isn’t meant to be.  Jesus isn’t asking us to do this all on our own, but we’re not supposed to wait for God to do it alone either.  God is looking for us to collaborate on this and, as Martin Luther King said 50 years ago, bend the arc of the moral universe slowly toward justice.  

One last food metaphor may just help us understand our part in all of this.  This metaphor comes from the pinnacle of Lutheran stereotypes - the pot luck supper.  With the stereotypical Lutheran pot luck no one person provides the entire banquet.  Each brings their specialty... some bring Jell-O colored to match the season of the church year, others the green bean casseroles, some the fried chicken and others bring brownies, baked goods and bars.  

In the same way, God is challenging us to imagine what would happen if every faith community had it’s own Kingdom of God speciality dish.  If each faith community in the world worked to push just one small piece of our world to work more like the Kingdom of God... Then imagine what would happen if we brought our small, but wonderful pot luck specialties together; shared them with one another and with the world.  Together we could make a banquet.

May all of you... you from Bethany who have been gracious enough to invite me in for the day and you, the folks from Faith, continue to perfect your congregation’s Kingdom of God pot luck specialties.  May you both find that piece of the world you feel called to change from the way it works now, into the way God would have it work.  May you both bend the arc of the universe toward justice and then get together with each other and with other faith communities of all different shapes and sizes and flavors and join your specialties and bend that arc further still until one day we all look up from our meal together and realize our banquet has become the Kingdom of God.  Amen.