Sunday, October 19, 2014

19th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 24A: The One About Money

19th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 24A October 19, 2014 Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." It sounds so simple doesn’t it! Jesus is once again embroiled in debate with the religious authorities of the day. They send some disciples to try to trap him asking him about paying taxes. But note that this discussion isn’t about just paying any old taxes. This issue is about the fact that in addition to all the other taxes the Jews had to pay, they also were required to pay a tax to their Roman occupiers in order to support the occupation. This was an ongoing debate in that time—did faithful Jews pay their taxes with a coin with a false god upon it or did they defy the Roman government and break the law. Jesus’s answer stuns his interrogators: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." We know it is not that simple, don’t we? Every single day of our adult lives we are challenge to wrestle with this question as people of faith and followers of Jesus. What belongs to whom? If we dig a little deeper, we might go so far as to ask in the context of this piece of scripture, what of our currency bears God’s image and should be given to God? In scripture, Jesus talks about money more than any other subject except the kingdom of God and there is a reason for that. That reason is just as true for us today as it was 2,000 years ago. It is because “your view of money is the chief spiritual issue in your life.”i (silence) Today I invite you to embark with me on a journey examining this chief spiritual issue in your life, your relationship with money. I have a series of 7 questions that I’m going to ask you today. These questions were originally posed by the late Rev. Dr. Thomas H. Carson, who then served as the Executive for Stewardship of the Episcopal Church, and they are written about in the article "Spirituality and Money: 7 Questions that Saved my Spiritual Life" by Bruce Rockwell. 1. “Do you ever worry about money? … about having enough? … about keeping what you have?” 2. “Do you sometimes envy what others have earned, have inherited, or have been able to do because of money they have and you don’t?” 3. “Do you ever get anxious about what inflation has done to depreciate your savings and your preparation for retirement?” 4. “Do you ever equate your value as a person with what you earn?” 5. “Is bill-paying stressful for you?” 6. “Has money ever been the source of an argument or misunderstanding with a loved one?” 7. “Do you ever spend more time thinking about money in any one day than you do in prayer?” Rockwell writes, “After posing these questions, Dr. Carson said the following: ‘If you have answered ‘yes’ to some of these questions, you may be having an affair with money. And this affair is buying your soul, taking away your freedom, paralyzing your creativity, debilitating your peace of mind, destroying friendships, breaking up your marriage, destroying your freedom in Christ, and threatening your very salvation.’”i I would be very surprised if there is a single person in this room who did not answer yes to at least one of those questions. (I know in my heart of hearts, I answer yes to many of them.) So what do we do? How do we better navigate the ongoing discernment of what belongs to God in our daily lives? I invite you to join me in an exercise this week. As Episcopalians, we pray what we believe and we believe what we pray. We have two different statements that we say or sing every week when the offering plate is brought forward. At the early service it is “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” At the late service, we sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” Both of these statements are our statements about what belongs to God. We say or sing them every Sunday, and yet, how often do we think of them after we leave this place? As we pray and reflect upon how we might begin to ask God to heal this unhealthy affair that each of us has with money that serves as an impediment in our relationship to God, the exercise that I challenge you to take on this week is simple. Every time you encounter money in your daily life (in the checkout line at the grocery store, when you pay a bill online, when you take a couple of dollars out of your wallet to pay for a cup of coffee, when you are standing in a department store deciding whether or not to purchase something), then say (or sing) your statement of belief to yourself: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” Is your choice of how you are spending your money something that you are proud to offer to God? Or is it something of which you are ashamed? That’s a pretty good indication of how you might choose. This exercise also works for the time that you spend in prayer about how much to pledge to the church for the coming year. Is your choice of what you are giving to the church something that you are proud to offer God? Or are you doing it out of different motives—guilt, blackmail, or even inattention, giving whatever you happen to have left in your pocket…Give until it feels good is advice that someone once gave me. If it doesn’t feel good or joyous or life giving, then go back and go through the questions at the beginning of this sermon again. Your view of money is the chief spiritual issue in your life. All that we have been given comes from God, and how we use it, how we spend it is detrimental in our relationship with God. In closing, let us pray the collect for the Right Use of God's Gifts (BCP p 827). Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. i. Spirituality and Money: Seven Questions that Saved My Spiritual Life By Bruce Rockwell.

The Story about Jack and Humility

Last Sunday, I was preaching about the way of humility, and I included an extemporaneous story about my 6 year old son Jack. At the 8:00 service, I became very emotional in the telling. As one man was walking out of church, he looked at me kindly and said, "I suspect there is more to that story about Jack. I think you should write it, and I would very much like to see it when you do." I was taken aback by his insight, and I agreed to try. Sometimes, I have a nice, tidy sermon written and God intervenes in my life in ways that make the gospel very real, very challenging, both wonderfully and painfully revealing and convicting. In those moments, I may feel called/compelled to take the leap of faith and include my messy faith moment in my nice tidy sermon. Last Sunday was one of those moments. Saturday night was a horrid time for Jack and me. He was acting terribly defiant at the Saturday night service. I had to call him out during the sermon, and I had to physically remove him from the service during the Creed. At home, I threatened to "take away everything he loved" iff he ever acted that way at chuch again (not one of my finer parenting moments, I admit). I was certainly feeling the stress of months of single parenting, of taking a kid to church when he really didn't want to go, of living into my own expectations (and some of others?) that the priest's family is/must be beyond reproach. I put Jack to bed that night after a long snuggle, and I slept with all these issues still simmering. The morning started off, with another snuggle, but it quickly dissolved as we were rushing to leave and Jack refused to wear the clothes I had put out for him. In fact, he had on his most casual shorts, a t-shirt, and his nasty, old yellow crocs. We proceeded to fight and negotiate until I had him in khaki pants, a polo shirt, and his church shoes. But it was not easy nor pleasant. We continued to argue all the way to church--about how he was stuck in his brand new video game and about how he wanted to buy a new one (rather than try harder and get through the part where he was stuck). Our arguing intensified as I fussed that he couldn't go through life walking away from difficult things, and as we puled into the church parking lot, I was so angry and frustrated. He was too. We both made it angrily into the church, and I went angrily on my way to prepare for the service. I was being the altar after a few minutes had passed, checking that everything was there, and Jack approached me. He wrapped his little arms around my legs as I was standing there, so I knelt down in front of him, on his level, right there behind the altar. He transferred his arms to hug around my neck, leaned in and whispered, "I'm sorry." I was stunned! I replied with a hug of my own and the words, "I'm sorry, too." He then went on his merry little way. As I stood in the pulpit preaching about humility, I knew that I had to share this story about how one little boy's humility taught me more about the way of humility that I was trying to preach than any other experience or thing that I had read or learned. And I fought back the tears int he pulpit as I told about how my 6 year old taught me how humility can truly bring about reconciliation, even in the most conflicted situations. Over and over again, I am thankful for the ways that God speaks to me through the little ones, the vulnerable, the children, the pets, and the poor.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

18th Sunday after Pentecost-Proper 23A: On Family Feuds

18th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 23A October 12, 2014 Even amidst all the joy and celebration and new life in this place over the last couple of weeks, I have really struggled in one area of my life. That has been in watching, from afar, as my beloved General Seminary holds a very messy, very public fight between the faculty (many of whom taught me and helped form and shape me as a priest) and the dean, who was a friend and classmate of mine and the board (many of whom I also know and respect). A couple of weeks ago, 8 faculty went on strike and refused to continue teaching or worshipping in the chapel until they could have a meeting with certain members of the board. Their letter stated that they were unable to continue to work with the dean. The board interpreted their letter as letters of resignation and has since discontinued their pay and their health insurance. It has been a very public, very nasty fight with articles written about it in Huff Post, NY Times, and countless blog postings in church circles. Everybody and their brother has an opinion about what is going on at General; most are very vocal about picking sides. What is, perhaps, most painful to me, is the very public nature of this family fight. Imagine that kind of public scrutiny if you were to have a fight with your spouse or partner, your child, your best friend! It would be untenable. Our gospel reading for today, yet another challenging parable, is another example of this very public, very nasty family fight. In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is in the temple, and he is very intentionally ruffling the feathers of the religious authorities. His parables are drawing lines in the sand between those who are in and those who are out, and he is telling those who think they are in, that is not the case. In the community to which Matthew is writing, there is also a great deal of family fighting going on. Matthew’s community, which is primarily Jewish, is trying to find its way in and among its Jewish tradition, and we see some of the drama and conflict that is going on in the community at that time coming out as a part of the agenda of this particular series of parables. Also, there is the way that Christians have used this parable over the years to promote anti-semitism—another public family feud that has lasted across the centuries. Then there is yet another family feud going on in the church in Phillippi that Paul addresses in our epistle reading for today. He writes of two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who are embroiled in some conflict, and he asks that they be “of the same mind.” And he asks a particular person, whom he calls his “loyal companion” to help them work out their differences. I will confess that it has been difficult for me to find the good news in the midst of all these stories of conflict this week. But then I ran across an alternate reading of the parable in Matthew’ gospel for today. Some scholars posit that Jesus’s and Matthew’s listeners to this parable would know immediately that the story refers to an actual earthly king, one of the Herods, who attacked Jerusalem in an attempt to seize power from its rightful ruler, so that the original listeners would never equate the king in the parable with God, as some of our modern interpretations are wont to do. These scholars also posit that the comparison with the Kingdom of God comes in the form of the ill-dressed wedding guest (who is a figure similar to the suffering servant figure depicted in Isaiah) who is mistreated terrible by the harsh king/earthly authorities and does not speak once in his own defense. I’m not particularly satisfied with this interpretation of the parable, but because we read it in the context of Philippians today, at whose heart we know dwells that beautiful, ancient hymn to Christ, I think it does give us a glimpse of good news. The hymn to Christ that is found at the heart of Philippians was our epistle reading two weeks ago: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. This ancient hymn to Christ that is the heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians celebrates and reminds us of Christ’s self-emptying, Christ’s way of humility. And it reminds us that as his disciples, we are called to emulate it, to put on the garb of humility, to walk the way of self-emptying love. Now, we all know good and well that when we are embroiled in family fights (or arguments of any kind), then humility is that last posture that most of us adopt. It is completely self-defeating. And yet, that may very well be what this parable is telling us that the Kingdom of God calls us to. More and more people in the life of the church, in the life of families, in the life of institutions, get mad and leave. My dear ones, that is not the way of Jesus. Bearing with one another, walking the way of Jesus Christ, means putting on the garb of humility, staying at the table with the one with whom we disagree. It means accepting Paul’s invitation to let our gentleness (rather than our righteousness) be shown. I invite you to reflect upon whether there is a conflict in your family, your work, your church or otherwise, in which you are embroiled where God is calling you to walk the way of discipleship by following Jesus’s way of humility? If this question makes you feel a nudge of discomfort, then I urge you to spend some time with the hymn to Christ in Philippians this week—it’s chapter 2 verses 1-13 --and pray that God may help you follow this way set forth by Jesus. Let us pray. Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.