Friday, September 26, 2014

I'm Pastor Erik, and I Approve This Message!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 21st Chapter

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. 

My name is Pastor Erik, and I approve this message.  Have you seen the nasty, ugly tactics?  Can you believe the bold faced lies?  Have you seen the way they whip a crowd into a frenzy?  I know pastors aren’t supposed to comment on politics but I don’t care what anyone thinks about it anymore, I’m just going to say it out loud…the Chief Priests and the Pharisees are both just HORRIBLE!  

The names have changed since Jesus confronted the political leaders of his day but the tactics, blind party loyalty, the hatred and blind certainty that I’m right and you’re wrong hasn’t changed that much, has it?  In Jesus’ day these two groups were less religious groups than they were political parties.  The Chief Priests KNEW they were right.  They had LOTS of power.  They had LOTS of money and they knew that anyone else in power would be a disaster (especially for their wallets).  The Pharisees, on the other hand, KNEW with fanatical, fundamentalist, certainty that four more years of Chief Priests in office meant the spiritual doom of the nation and eternal separation from God.  They KNEW, that only by forcing the people to follow their strict, fundamentalist reading of scripture could the country ever hope to escape total destruction. 

These guys H-A-T-E-D each other!  They made the Maine governor’s race look like a love fest!  Now, normally these two parties NEVER agreed on anything.  Normally they were more gridlocked than Congress!  NORMALLY they NEVER reached across the aisle for any reason, but when Jesus came to town for the last time, a miracle occurred!  Getting rid of Jesus was the ONE change they could ALL believe in!  They may have fought over WHAT they hated most about Jesus, but they totally agreed they hated him and he had to go!  

Jesus was a threat to them because over and over again Jesus pushed an agenda of radical change that threatened them directly!  Jesus kept saying that the rich and powerful would be cast down and kicked out and the powerless and poor would rise into a place of power and abundance.  Those words threatened those wealthy, powerful politicians then, for the same reason those sorts of words threaten so many politicians today… those politicians WERE the rich and powerful!  So, on the only issue on which they could agree, they confronted Jesus and asked him “by what authority do you teach like this.”  Their hope was to trip him up, get a juicy sound bite, put together a nasty attack ad and send this Jesus guy to a quick political (and actual) death!  

When Jesus dodged their trap they weren’t happy.  But worse than that, Jesus told them a parable that made the traditionalist, powerful and wealthy Priests and the ultra conservative, super pious, fundamentalist Pharisees shake with anger.  Jesus told them this story about the two sons, where one SAID he would get right to work but didn’t, and the other defied his father in public, saying he wouldn’t work... but then actually went out into the field and worked.  

What Jesus was telling them in this parable is that there are only two things God cares about: Are you gonna DO IT?  Or are you just going to TALK about it?  Jesus was telling them, and us, that to God, what you have, how you look, even what you say... REALLY doesn’t matter compared to the one thing that does REALLY matter and that is whether or not you believe!  Now, here’s where we need a brief, but critically important, moment to talk about what it means to “believe.” These days, “believing” has come to mean something that happens up here in our noggins.  It’s agreeing to some impossible-to-prove ideas up here in our heads... it means signing a statement of faith or checking a list of boxes.  In Jesus’ day, THAT wasn’t believing... that was just GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE!  Back in Jesus’ day, believing was something you did, not so much with your head and your mouth but with your feet, your hands and your life.  Believing in Jesus’ day was following a certain path and living that particular way in the world.

That’s why, when Jesus asked those politicians about believing John, they knew he wasn’t asking them if they thought John’s ideas were right.  He was asking them if they had taken up a John the Baptist way of living their lives and of course they hadn’t and that meant they were trapped.  John the Baptist was the third rail of Palestinian politics… the politicians hated John but the people loved him.  So with one little parable Jesus had just reminded all the regular people that both the Chief Priests and Pharisees were ALL and ONLY about smooth talk, looking good, being seen in the right crowd and making the right gestures.  They were all SHOW.   In one little parable, Jesus had told them they had it all wrong.  Salvation…being with God at the final banquet, going to heaven, having a meaning-filled life or however want to describe it…NONE of that depends on having certain ideas straight in your head.  THE ONLY thing that God cares about is are we living a Jesus kind of life or not.  Are we GO or are we just SHOW?

So what does a Jesus kind of life look like?  It looks like loving God by appreciating and caring for the gifts we’ve been given, and living our lives in self-giving service to the people around us.  It’s a life lived for the other before the self.  It’s a life of generosity and compassion that brings healing, wholeness and life to everyone around you whether they deserve it or not; whether they'll appreciate it or not; whether they'll thank you for it or not.  The Jesus Way of living is to GO and live THAT kind of life and in living that way we are promised that we will experience a real life, an abundant life and an eternal life.    So you can see why the politicians hated it.  A Jesus life is all about the GOING and DOING for others and those politician’s whole lives were all and only about the TALK and the SHOW for themselves.    

I do have a little sympathy for the Chief Priests and Pharisees.  The Jesus Way, after all, is HARD!  It means feeding the hungry AND asking why people are hungry.  The Jesus way means caring for the poor, but more than that, it means asking why people can work 40 hours, make good choices and still not make ends meet.  It means being generous and compassionate, but it means more than that.  It means changing the world so that everyone has enough... enough food, shelter, self worth and dignity.  That’s what living the Jesus way really looks like and THAT is HARD.  Harder still is the fact that Jesus asks you and me that same question... will we live the Jesus way or not?  The Jesus way of living is HARD but it comes with the promise of a real life, a meaning filled life, an eternal and abundant life for the world.  The other way just doesn’t.  So what will it be?  Will we be all TALK and SHOW or are we ready to WALK and GO?  Amen. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

You Can't Always Get What You Want

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 20th Chapter

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I want to leave a lot of the sermon time to talk, but I think we should look at this parable first... just for a couple of minutes... because I suspect it’s not a coincidence it came up for today.  You know the story.  The vineyard owner has work to be done and first hires workers at the daily rate, which is one denarius.  It’s a daily, living wage... what a person needed to pay rent and all their bills and eat well for one day.  The second bunch is hired for whatever is “right” and the others he just sends out into the field without any talk about pay including those that came at “the eleventh hour” which sounds way more ominous than 5 o’clock in the afternoon which is what “the eleventh hour” really means.  This vineyard owner hires EVERYONE he can find to get the grapes to the crusher.

At pay time, the landowner pays the last to start working first and everyone gets a denarius.  The trouble is, of course, it doesn’t seem fair.  The people who started work at 6 a.m. and worked right through the hottest part of the day get the same as the people that worked for just one hour starting at 5 in the afternoon.  The crazy thing this parable is telling us is that THIS vineyard owner doesn’t care about doing what's “fair!”    

He didn’t give the people who worked for twelve hours any extra.  He gave them just what they needed for that day, one denarius.  He also didn’t give the others what they deserved, which by the world’s standards would have been a fraction of a denarius.  He gave them what they needed, one denarius, the means to live one more day.  In the same way God gave manna in the wilderness, the vineyard owner gave just what was needed to live.  God, it turns out, doesn’t give us what we deserve.  God doesn’t give us what’s fair.  God gives us exactly what we need.   

That idea that God isn’t “fair” and that folks won’t get what they deserve at the “end of the day” up in heaven is hard enough for most folks to swallow but it gets harder.  You and I are called, remember, to work with God to make “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven”... we pray for that all the time!  That means that you and I are called to give our neighbors in this world not what they “deserve” and not what is “fair” but to make sure they get exactly what they need... regardless of what they’ve done or not done to earn it or deserve it.  

You might not think that would ever work, but God is so sure it does work that he sent His Son to bring the world, not what it “deserved” or what was “fair” but just what it needed... and what the world needs is LIFE and that is exactly what Jesus brought to the world... even though none of us have, or ever will, be able do enough to earn it or deserve it the gift is ours.  God’s call for each of us, then, is to treat our neighbors in the same way God treats us.  Giving our neighbors not what they “deserve” or what is “fair” but just what they need.  I’ll be the first to admit that’s not the way the world works.  The question for us is what are we going to do about it?  Amen. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

4.8 BILLION Dollars

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents
was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Way back in the day, my dad would go to the Delft Theater in Escanaba, Michigan for a quarter!  For that quarter he’d get to watch the cartoon, the serial AND the feature!  Back in my day, we’d go to the Palm Theater in Shalimar, Florida and it cost $2.50 and the cartoon and serial were gone.  NOW, when we go to the movies it’s $8.50 a piece and that doesn’t include the mortgage you need to take out for popcorn and a soda!  What you can buy for a buck has sure changed over the years and even though Jesus didn’t have movies, we can still translate the money from Jesus’ day into what that money would buy in dollars for us today.  In this parable the guy owed the King 10,000 Talents.  Now, you probably haven’t exchanged Talents for dollars lately but earlier this week, I plugged in the calculator and did the math for you! 

From the Bible we know a denarius was worth a day’s work for a field worker.  So, to keep the math easy, let’s say that’s ten bucks an hour, for eight hours… so a denarius is worth about 80 bucks today.  Now, it takes 6,000 denarii to make one Talent.  So, translated into US dollars, the guy in this story owed the king... 4.8 BILLION dollars!.  That’s billion with a “B”. That amount of cash could buy you about 50 new Airbus A320 airplanes like JetBlue flies.  With that amount of money you could buy yourself one Nimitz class aircraft carrier or you could buy the New England Patriots AND the Red Sox AND the Bruins AND the Celtics all of them together!  In short, this guy owed not just a lot of money, and not just a huge amount of money, but this guy owed literally an impossibly, ridiculously, gigantically huge, bankrupt-an-entire-country, amount of money!  The point that Jesus was trying to make by using this ridiculously gigantic amount of debt was to remind us that what we owe God is also a ridiculously, gigantically huge amount and just like that man, we can never, ever, EVER, E-V-E-R hope to pay it off.  

So what did this guy spend the biblical equivalent of 4.8 billion dollars on?  Did he blow it on something crazy?  I found a picture of Saudi Prince Waleed’s Mercedes on the internet which said it was covered in diamonds.  The internet said the car is worth 4.8 billion dollars (it's really covered with crystals not diamonds and it's not really worth that much but it's still crazy expensive), so maybe he bought something even crazier than that car!  Maybe he did something horrible with it, like finance terrorist groups.  But maybe he did something amazing with it!  Maybe he set up orphanages all over the world or fed every hungry person in a whole country or maybe he pledged it in the ALS ice bucket challenge.  

Don't you want to know?  It’s a CRAZY amount of money, so I just want to know what a person would spend that money on, but did you notice... the king in the story DIDN’T want to know... he didn’t even seem to care!  There’s no third degree, no wagging of fingers, no required credit counseling…NOTHING.  The king didn’t care about anything except for the man.  That’s just incredible to me!  If someone borrowed a hundred bucks from me and told me they couldn’t pay it back, the first thing I’d ask is “what did you do with it?” but the king didn’t care... and that’s EXACTLY how God is with you and with me.  What we’ve done or what we haven’t done, never comes up.  

What happened in this story is that the King had compassion.  The King loved the person more than the King loved balancing the books.  So the King chose to die to the idea that he would ever see that money again and that is what God has done for us.  Through God’s unconditional love, compassion and unlimited generosity, God died in Christ to the idea of getting us to pay back what we owe and set us free.  God simply sends us on our way, out into the world no questions asked.  To God, our debt completely died with Jesus on the cross.  To the king, the servant’s debt is dead to him, even a 4.8 billion dollar sized debt.  

It is amazing that we have been forgiven SO MUCH.  But Jesus knew we’d have trouble turning around and passing on that complete level of forgiveness to others.  We’re just like that forgiven servant… even though the King died to our unimaginable debt, we have trouble dying to the idea of getting even for what we are owed.  We put limits and rules on how much grace, compassion or generosity we feel that WE can afford to measure out to our neighbors.  After all, if we gave that completely, then they wouldn’t learn their lesson.  They wouldn’t be personally responsible and pay their debts and pull themselves up by their boot straps.  That’s how we do it, isn’t it?  We’re happy and thankful to have received God’s unlimited, unconditional, 4.8 billion dollars worth of forgiveness, love and compassion but we have trouble passing it on in the same, unlimited and unconditional way.  We’re compassionate, but we’re compassionate with conditions.  We forgive, but we forgive with footnotes.   We give abundantly, but with an asterisk.  

We justify it by saying its good stewardship or it’s what the other person really needs.  But what Jesus is telling us here is that if we only give partial forgiveness or if we give compassion with conditions then WE will never be completely free.  That’s right, our freedom is linked directly with how much we are willing to give away.  Only Jesus’ complete death led to full freedom and life for the world.  Only complete forgiveness and compassion led to complete freedom both for the King and the servant.  When the servant later on was unforgiving, and not compassionate he became a captive again, never free and even tortured for the rest of his life.    

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  That’s all well and good for church stuff like sins, but it isn’t the way the world works.  If that’s what you’re thinking, then you’re right.  The world doesn’t work that way (and to be honest the Church doesn’t work that way either) and that’s because the world (and the Church) are broken.  They are not as God wants them to be.  But as Christians, our call is to work with God to make the world work in God’s way and we do that by each of us working towards giving generously without an asterisk, being compassionate without conditions, and showing the world what it's like to live in the true freedom that only comes when we die to ourselves and live first for God and our neighbor.  

The truth Jesus is telling us is absolutely backwards from the way the world works.  But, one look at the news will remind you that the way the world currently works is horrible.  Our job as Christians is nothing less than to change the way the world works... to pass on the outrageous love, grace and generosity we have already received from God because God knows, that only when we decide to die to our need to balance the books and "get even" will we be able to rise to the new, real, abundant and eternal life God created us all to have.  Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

God is NOT a Coke Machine!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter

‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two
others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

I have a personal relationship where blessings fall from above and through those blessings I am wonderfully refreshed.  Those blessings only come, in this relationship, through my offerings and they only come when my giving is in the full amount which has been written.  When I try to get away with giving less... less that what is written... there is no blessing.  In fact, like a neon sign flashing at me, I know right away I have not given enough.  If what I offer is unclean or is marked up or is not crisp and pure and straight it is rejected and again, I receive no blessing.  BUT, when I dig deeply, when I give the proper amount and my offering is pure and clean and straight, then literally within a second, I can hear my blessing coming and then it arrives!  What comes from above is a blessing that is incredibly refreshing, like water in the desert... only SO much sweeter!  It dances within me and rouses my body and mind!  I simply LOVE the relationship I have with the Coke machine in the ferry terminal in Rockland! 

Now, there are some who would argue that this is exactly how their relationship with God works as well.  They say that if you tithe... if you give 10% of your income to the church, and your gift is given with a pure heart, unwrinkled and free from black marks, then God will send you a blessing from above.  But think for a moment what that says about your place and God’s place in this relationship.  It says that YOU are in control.  It says that YOU are in charge and that YOU have the ability to manipulate God by following some kind of magic formula.  It says that a human can MAKE God do something for them.  Is that really how God works?  Can God be manipulated by humans with proper prayers, beliefs, rituals and offerings, and if done correctly a blessing is DESERVED?  Does God really work like the Coke machine in the Rockland ferry terminal? 

You may have gathered that I’m not a fan of this way of looking at God.  It suggests that blessings and gifts from God only come after we do something to put some sort of cosmic god-machine into motion.  It is a horrible illusion that God works like a vending machine... that we each succeed or fail, live or die based solely on how well we, as individual humans can manipulate God.  It is a terrible misreading of Scripture to say that those who follow the correct formula, say the right prayers and give the right gifts are blessed and God is required to robotically send a blessing down the chute when the right buttons are pushed while those who do not follow the right formula, don’t say the right prayers or don’t give the right offering have failed... their inability to do it right, is seen as sin and therefore they deserve not to be blessed.  Those who imagine that each of us is only responsible for ourselves and that we get what we deserve based on how well we each manipulate God like a vending machine have fooled themselves.  The technical churchy word for this is "idolatry"... and the idol they are worshiping is the one they see when they look in the mirror.  

That sort of selfishness and that lack of concern for others is at the heart of the “wickedness” that Ezekiel was talking about in today’s first lesson.  That focus on the self and our own comforts and preferences is exactly what the Psalmist asks God to help us “turn our eyes from beholding”.  That selfish desire to gain power, wealth and control at the expense of our neighbors is what Paul was warning us of in the passage from Romans and that worship of self, that isolation from others, and that obsession with what “I” want is EXACTLY the sin that Jesus told the disciples will destroy a community when it is ignored.  

In Christianity we are called to give, but if you are giving to manipulate God, you are doing Christianity wrong.  As Christians we give to remind ourselves that everything we have... EVERYTHING WE HAVE is not our own.  Try breathing ONLY with the air that YOU have made yourself!  We give to say "thanks"!  In the Hebrew Scriptures the amount of giving they thought would help us remember that everything we have is a gift from God and to give thanks was 10%... a tithe.  It was meant to be an amount that you would feel.  It was meant to be something you would miss and when you missed it, THAT feeling would help you remember that everything you have comes from God.  It was meant to be a reminder to be thankful, but not be so much that it took away your ability to live.  

In today’s world, with a level of income inequality that makes the Roman Empire seem like a charitable institution, the percentage that people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or the Kochs would have to give in order to feel it pinch would be MUCH, MUCH, MUCH higher than 10%.  In the same way, the percentage that a widow living on $600 a month has to give to feel it pinch would be MUCH, MUCH, MUCH less than 10%.  If you want to give a real tithe, then give an amount that pinches you into remembering that none of it was yours to begin with, whatever that percentage turns out to be.  If you can give an amount without much thought, without really missing it, without it pinching you into remembering to be thankful, then it’s probably time to bump up your giving until it pinches more like a tithe.  

The other reason we Christians are called to give is that we are called to, as Paul writes, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  We are called as Christians to give mostly because Jesus was all about giving and we, as Christians, are called to follow the leader!  Following Jesus in the giving department quickly gets even more “pinchy” than even tithing when you think about exactly how much Jesus gave.  As Christians, if we haven’t yet given EVERYTHING including our lives, as Jesus did, then there is still more we are called to give.  But remember... we follow Jesus by walking TOWARD a destination one step at a time, not by suddenly BEING THERE all at once.  Following Jesus in our giving, means giving more of ourselves over time, throughout our lives.... more time in prayer and study, more time in service, advocacy and worship and more of our money for the benefit of the whole world all toward the goal of giving all of ourselves like Jesus did.  

Our culture has changed the notion of sin, wickedness and falsehood to become some kind of individual moral naughtiness that’s just between an us and God.  But “Sin” is really putting our own desires, comforts and preferences before our neighbor’s needs.  “Wickedness” is manipulating the ways the world works for our own benefit at the expense of our neighbors, the poor and the oppressed and “Falsehood” is telling ourselves and the world that we are in control and then acting like we have the power to manipulate God.   

May none of us be tempted to reduce God to a vending machine.  May each of us work toward giving as Christ gave and may each of us remember that we were created to be in community the Body of Christ drawing one another continually closer, loving one another and treating those who become self absorbed and forget about their neighbors exactly like Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors by inviting them even closer, to eat with us here at God's table and to join us as fellow disciples.  Amen.