Sunday, August 21, 2016

Phil Kniss: To walk unbent

"This is a story full of love...You are set free"
Luke 13:10-17; Isaiah 58:9b-14

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I wonder what picture you saw
    when you heard the Gospel story.

Maybe you’re not one to see a vivid image
    when you hear a story told.
But even if that’s not normal for you,
    I’ll bet—at least if you were listening
        to the story today from Luke 13—
        I’ll bet this time you saw something.
    Because this story is written to evoke a picture.

It describes, three times, what this woman looked like
    that Jesus met and healed in the synagogue.
    She was crippled, Luke said, for 18 years.
    She was bent over, Luke said.
    She was quite unable to stand up straight, Luke said.

And then Jesus called her over.
    Called her over.
    Did not go to where she was,
        but asked this bent over woman
        to get off her seat in the synagogue,
            and walk over to where he was.

We’ve all known persons with similar conditions.
    Some of you may deal with it yourself.

In the most severe cases,
    just observing it engenders sympathy.
It’s a picture of pain and struggle,
    not to be able to stand up straight, to walk bent.
    It often requires some equipment to help the person walk.

We understand, mostly, what causes this.
    It’s a spinal condition called kyphosis.

Some persons with the condition, can,
    by putting forth immense effort and energy,
    stand up straighter, at least momentarily.
        But they cannot sustain that.

    Anymore than you or I can hold our arms out straight
        for more than a few minutes.
    Soon, we are worn out with the energy required
        to keep going against the force of gravity.

I say all this to help us grasp the kind of ailment
    this woman truly suffered from,
    before Jesus touched her and freed her.

The Gospel writer, of course, doesn’t diagnose her condition
    as a chronic spinal kyphosis, as we might.
He describes her as
    “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”

I won’t try to explain exactly what that means,
    because I don’t know.
I do know the world view of the Gospel writer
    included an understanding that the spirit world
        played an active and interactive role with the physical world.
    And I’m inclined to think that we modern westerners
        generally have an underdeveloped view of the spiritual realm.
    But I’ll let it go at that, except to say . . .

I think this woman’s physical condition
    had to have a profound impact on her spirit,
        her mind, her emotions,
        her relationships, her way of looking at the world.

Imagine if you can,
    living for 18 years without naturally being able to make eye contact,
        looking down at the ground,
        being unable to constantly survey your physical surroundings.
    You might have read how posture can impact emotions & attitude.

Experts suggest that simply striking a confident pose—
    shoulders back, hands on hips, chin tilted up—
    and holding it for three minutes,
        can have a profound impact
        on how confidently you think and act.
    They suggest you strike such a pose for a few minutes,
        before going into an important job interview, for example.

        Don’t know how well that works.
        I haven’t done a job interview for 20 years now.

But can you at least imagine how your whole being
    would be shaped by 18 years of being bent over,
        unable to stand straight?

    Can you grasp how that would profoundly impact
        the way you feel about the world?
        how you see your place in that world?
        how you might wonder if you even belong?

    This was a deeply burdened woman
        that Jesus met in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
    Deeply burdened. With multiple burdens.
        Her physical posture was, in all likelihood,
            a symbol for her whole life and way of being in the world.
        She was weighed down.
            Pushed down not only by gravity,
                but by the way others treated her,
                and by the way she saw herself.

    This is not pure speculation on my part.
        Yes, I know a chronic physical ailment
            does not always define one’s life.
        But the Gospel account specifically describes this ailment
            in terms of oppression.
            She was not only physically bent.
                She had a spirit that bent her.
                Whatever that means, exactly,
                I don’t think I’m speculating
                    to say she was bent over, and burdened,
                    in more ways than one.
_____________________

And then Jesus met her.
    Jesus, the one who saw things differently than those around him.
        Not only could he see the world
            in ways this woman wasn’t able to see.
        He saw it in ways that other able-bodied, strong-spirited
            people around him were not able to see,
                or at least were not willing to see.

    This is a wonderfully-told story,
        that puts all the tension and conflict that surrounded Jesus
            directly into focus.

    Here Jesus was, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath,
        all eyes on him,
        all ears on him who already had a reputation
            for being a rabbi who saw things slant,
                who acted slant,
                who didn’t seem to value protocol.

    And the first thing to notice in this story,
        is that Jesus noticed the bent-over woman.
    This is significant,
        in that there is typically a segregation of men and women
            in Jewish worship.
        The temple had a physical and visual barrier,
            and so do orthodox synagogues, to this day.

    Further, not only did Jesus notice and take heed of her condition,
        he called her over to him.
        Presumably, he was in the position of the teacher,
            near the center,
            all the men gathered around.
        And Jesus asked this bent-over woman to get up,
            and walk over to him.
        Whether I’m entirely accurate, I don’t know,
            but my mental picture has this woman
                slowly hobbling toward Jesus,
                the crowd of men parting to let her through,
                until her interaction with Jesus is at the center,
                purposely being put on display by Jesus.

    His words were simple, and to the point.
        “You are set free,” he declared.
    His words were a performative speech act.
        That is, his words not only described a reality.
        They changed the reality they were describing.
    Upon his words, the woman straightened her back,
        stood upright,
        looked Jesus in the eyes,
        and gave praise to God.

    And from the other rabbis and synagogue leaders,
        Jesus got the reaction he expected,
            and maybe even, hoped for.
    I think Jesus wanted not only to cure this woman of her oppression.
        He wanted to see his people,
            his own community of religious leaders,
            cured of their tendency to oppress.

    The reaction was that the synagogue leaders
        shifted immediately into damage control.
    In their indignation over Jesus clearly breaking Sabbath law,
        they didn’t even address Jesus.
        They addressed the crowd of worshippers:
            “Look people,” they said.
                “There are six days for work.
                    So come and be healed on those days,
                    not on the Sabbath.”

    In other words,
        rather than confront Jesus directly,
        they took out their frustration on the people
            who were there hoping for Jesus to free them, too.

    But Jesus didn’t play their game.
    He didn’t continue the passive-aggressive indirect communication.
    He turned to the leaders directly.
        “You hypocrites!
            You are trying to prevent this woman, and anyone else,
                from being freed of their bondage on the Sabbath.
            Your treat your own donkeys with more compassion.
                When they are tied up on the Sabbath,
                    you untie them, and set them free to find water.
            But this woman, tied up by Satan for 18 years,
                you object to her being set free on the Sabbath?”

    And Luke ends his story with these words,
        “When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated,
            but the people were delighted
            with all the wonderful things he was doing.”
_____________________

For Jesus, this is the measure of what is lawful and right:
    Does it set people free?
    Does it allow persons the freedom
        to live the life they were created to live?
    Or does it add to the weight they are carrying?

I suggest that is still good criteria for discernment.

The prophet Isaiah seemed to point in the same direction,
    in the O.T. passage we heard today.

Isaiah challenged Israel to “remove the yoke from among you.”
    Remove the yoke!
        Take that instrument intended for a beast of burden,
            that instrument that forces the wearer to bend at the neck,
            and get rid of it.
    And what is this yoke, according to Isaiah?
        It is the “pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil.”

A spirit of condemnation is not of the Spirit of God.
    Rather, God’s agenda is to free us all to be and become
        the persons we were created to be and become.
    Read through Isaiah 58,
        and look for those words that describe
            the yoke that burdens and oppresses,
        and look for those words that describe
            what frees and satisfies.
        It’s all through the passage.

        And, Isaiah addresses the issue of the Sabbath itself,
            the very concern that tripped up the synagogue leaders
                in Jesus’ day.
        The Sabbath, Isaiah reminded,
            was a cause for delight
                and (quote) “riding on the heights of the earth.”
                Talk about freedom!  Riding on the heights!
        The Sabbath is expressly not for
            serving your own interests,
            or going your own way.
        It is to be lived outwardly, and joyfully—
            exactly as Jesus was living it,
                by freeing people of their burdens on the Sabbath.

    God is pleased when we live in a way that honors
        our created purpose.
        And of course, discovering that purpose
            is a lifelong process of discernment.
        We won’t always agree what freedom should look like.
            And that produces some struggle as we figure it out.

    But God is still all about helping us walk unbent,
        unburdened by the condemnation of others,
        or any condemnation we heap on ourselves.
_____________________

May these scriptures speak freedom to us today, as well.
    Because, Lord knows, we are bound, in many ways.
        Many of us, though physically we stand upright,
            we are walking through life bent over,
            burdened,
            weighed down by a spirit of condemnation
                that is not of God.

    I venture to say,
        we are living in a season of greater burdens than usual,
        more condemnation than is good for our spirits.

    Maybe we are not personally being condemned,
        or condemning ourselves,
        but we are swimming in a sea of condemnation.

    It may be our loved ones or dear friends who are being condemned.
    It may be a political cause or religious conviction
        we are passionate about, that is now under fire.
    It may be a group of people we are passionate about supporting—
        immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ persons,
        “Black Lives Matter” movement, or others.
    The condemnation we feel may be indirect.
        When inflammatory things are said
            about certain people or causes we care about,
            we end up carrying that burden ourselves,
                sometimes without even telling anyone.
        I confess that it is a daily discipline for me—
            and I am not always successful—
            to lay down my burdens,
                and bear what is mine to bear,
                and not bear what is not mine.

    Even apart from burdens that result from condemnation,
        there are so many other burdens weighing us down
            as a church, as a nation, as a world.

    We can barely get our minds around the lives lost,
        and the massive loss of property
            in the flooding in Louisiana,
                that will never be able to be recovered
                either by insurance or government aid.
    There are families who lost entire homes and all their belongings,
        and may get $10,000 . . . or less . . . in total relief.
    The utter devastation of the California wildfires overwhelms us.
    The chaos and violence in the Middle East and Africa.
    The millions of refugees and displaced peoples.
        These are also burdens we carry with us,
            to varying degrees,
            and they add to our heaviness, our despair.

    And then on the personal front,
        we have a whole other level of burdens—
            relationships strained or broken or abusive,
            chronic or terminal illness—our own, our loved ones,
            the continuing darkness of grief and all that goes with it,
            material loss or financial distress,
            loneliness and isolation,
            or something entirely different.
_____________________

I simply want to name and acknowledge
    that no one here is removed from the impact
        of burdens we carry,
            our own,
            or on behalf of others.
And I want to name and acknowledge
    that many are here this morning bent over
        with the weight of it all.
    That many of us are not far removed
        from the experience of the woman in Luke 13,
        who Jesus noticed, and called, and freed.

Jesus also calls you, to come over, and be set free.
    It’s what God wants for you.

So I conclude by inviting the other pastors to join me at the front,
    and for Virginia to come, play some healing, freeing music.

Any of you are invited to come for prayer,
    and anointing with oil, if you desire.
    Bring whatever burdens you are carrying—
        whether they are your own burdens,
            or you carry them on behalf of another.
        whether the burdens are personal or communal or global
            if you are bent over, and need prayer
            for the freedom to walk unbent,
                you are invited to come,
                and we will have a brief prayer with you.

Come as you as willing and able.

—Phil Kniss, August 21, 2016

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Phil Kniss: Intrepid trust

This is a story full of love...Faith beyond sight
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

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As I think back on my journey as a preacher over 33 years,
    I remember preaching in other times of national distress,
        when we were going through things,
            as a nation, as a church, as a people,
        that gripped us, alarmed us, saddened us, angered us.

I stood before a congregation in Gainesville, Florida,
    at the height of the nuclear arms race in the 80s,
    and preached the Gospel of Peace.

I preached—or at least made a valiant attempt to preach—
    the Good News in the face of all kinds of
        national and global crises and wars and tragedies . . .
    the US invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
    the Beirut bombing that killed 241 American Marines,
    global famines,
    the rise of AIDS,
    the Iran-Contra scandal,
    the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion,
    the Exxon Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon oil spills,
    Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, Katrina, and Ike,
    the Persian Gulf War,
    the LA riots of 92,
    the Branch Davidian standoff, and mass killings,
    the storm of the century in ‘93 that killed 300,
    the Oklahoma city bombing
    the 1995 heat wave that killed 750 in Chicago.

And then I arrived at Park View 20 years ago.
And I’ve stood here in this spot, trying to bring good news to you
    in light of airplanes being bombed in flight,
    the start of more wars,
    the tragedy of 9/11,
    Columbine, VA Tech massacre, countless school shootings,
    another Space Shuttle disaster,
    devastating tsunamis and earthquakes,
    the housing collapse and global financial crisis,
    and more, and more.

Always, it seemed, it wasn’t too much of a stretch
    for me to say in those sermons, “Yes, things are bad,
        but it’s not the end of the world.”
I could say, and would say, “God is with us.”
    “Redemption is at hand.”
    “We, the church, are stewards of the Gospel of Reconciliation.”
And it sounded believable.

Something is different today.
    I’m not saying things are worse overall, today,
        than they were during these other global crises and catastrophes,
        and wars, and other human evildoing.

The human race has always been prone to do evil,
    to be destructive, to injure each other in epic proportions.
    That’s not new.

What’s new, it feels to me,
    is a deeper level of despair and hopelessness,
    a broader level of populist rage,
    and for many of us, an insidious emotional numbness to it all.

From the painful conflicts and injuries
    we inflict on each other in the church,
    to the truly shameful state of our national politics,
    to racial injustices,
    to sexualized violence,
    to mass shootings and reliance on guns,
    to the rapid rise of global terrorism . . .

    Any of these, by themselves, creates a crisis.
    But when one piles on another and another and another,
        we have a situation that to this preacher of the Good News,
        seems unprecedented, at least in my lifetime.

I now am forced to wonder.
    Can I be believed anymore, when I stand here and say,
        “Take courage, God is with us.”
    Do my words sound cheap,
        when I preach the Gospel of reconciliation and restoration
            and salvation and deliverance?

There are many who look at the horrific global terrorism,
    climate change,
    a shifting moral landscape,
    the breaking of relationships in the church,
    and the prospect of a Trump presidency,
    (or the prospect of a Clinton presidency),
        and conclude that our world really is falling apart,
        and there’s nothing we can do about it,
        and it’s just going to be awful beyond description.

    People are seriously trying to map out an exit strategy.

        In the 60s, it was “Where have all the flowers gone?”
        Today, it’s “Where has all the trust gone?”
_____________________

These are the kind of times that lead us into temptation.
    We are tempted to speak, or behave, or interact with people,
        in ways we couldn’t have imagined doing 10 or 20 years ago.
    We are tempted to escape, in one form or another.
        And religion becomes the perfect escape vehicle.
        Especially when one of the core teachings of the religion
            is about another world to come—
            that this world is fading away,
            to be replaced by something better.

Christians have always been tempted to escape.
    That, in itself, is not new.
    I remember the era in our church, the church of my childhood,
        when the end times, and the rapture, was all the rage.
    It was preached from the pulpit,
        and reinforced by slick, and scary, Christian movies,
            that urged us all to be ready
                for Jesus to come and whisk us away.
            Being ready,
                pretty much meant having prayed the sinners’ prayer.

    That was also an era of global and national ferment—
        Vietnam War, race riots, a sexual revolution.
    The idea of being whisked away into spiritual safety,
        was pretty attractive to evangelical Christians like us.

    But that focus on the end times, on the ultimate fix
        for this broken world,
        was also roundly criticized,
            looked down on by Christians with a social conscience,
            by those who believed
                Jesus wanted us to make this world a better place.

    And that divide has stayed with us in the church ever since.
        It’s taken different forms.
        It’s modified itself along the way.

    But there are still these two tendencies, two leanings.
     On the one hand,
        some Christians look toward our future with God in heaven
            as the way to face the ills of this world.
    On the other hand,
        some Christians disparage that as spiritual escapism,
            and instead resolve to maximize the capacity
                of human good will
                to build a beloved community here and now.

    I readily admit I’ve usually been drawn to the second option.
        I have tended to think there is something inherently suspect
            about Christians talking so much about heaven,
            that the real and pressing needs of this world
                don’t seem to demand our attention.

But let’s take a moment to think about this,
    without taking sides.
    Try to reflect, as objectively as we can,
        on the implications, in this life, for taking one side, or the other.

    Does it follow naturally,
        that persons who put their hope
            in a future where God puts everything right,
        will by nature be less involved in doing good now,
            in working for positive social change in this world?
    And does it follow naturally,
        that persons who put their trust
            in the human capacity for good,
        will actually be more personally involved
            in bringing about the social change they believe is possible?

    What are the actual results for our lives now,
        from leaning in one direction, or the other?
_____________________

Let’s start by turning to today’s scripture readings—
        especially Genesis and Hebrews.

We only read part of Hebrews 11,
    but the whole chapter is a catalogue of stories of the faithful.
Over and over the writer says,
    “By faith, so-and-so did such-and-such.”
        By faith, Abel gave an offering that pleased God . . .
            by faith, Noah built an ark,
            by faith, Abraham obeyed God
                and set out for a place not knowing where he was going,
            by faith, Abraham and Sarah gave birth in their old age,
            by faith, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses,
                the whole people of Israel,
                Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah,
                David, and Samuel and the prophets . . .
                all did things significant for God’s purposes.
    Their stories are only briefly told,
        sometimes only mentioned, with a one-line summary.

    But if we took the time to look at each one, one-by-one,
        and review the stories behind the names,
        we would be amazed.
    This is not a hall of fame for holy people.
        It wouldn’t take much digging to prove that point.
    This is a hall of fame for people who acted in faith.

All of them were called,
    either directly, by the voice of God,
    or through a prophet or prophetess of God,
    to undertake some act that advanced the purposes of God,
        and that to do so appeared at best, foolish,
            and at worst, suicidal.
        But certainly dangerous, and highly unlikely to succeed.

    They were not acting strategically,
        because they thought through in advance,
        what would work to make the world a better place.

    No. They simply were shown to have believed God,
        when God said, “This is what I’m going to do,
            and I want you to participate.”

    They had intrepid trust in God’s future.
        That is, they trusted, without fear, without trepidation.

    And all the deeds of this roster of heroes
        did nothing to advance their own personal interests or agenda.
    In fact, they were usually asked to set aside their plans and agenda,
        and undertake dangerous work for the purposes of God,
        to act in the interest of God and God’s people.

Whether the request was to build a boat on dry land,
    or pull up tent stakes and move to a yet-unknown destination,
    or give up life in the palace, and join forces with the slaves,
    or give shelter to foreigners preparing to attack their city,
         . . . or, you name it . . .
    they acted on faith,
        on trust that God had something in mind they could not yet see.

    And that very blind faith in a future yet unrevealed,
        is what empowered them to be intrepid,
            to act courageously, in the present.

We may wish to criticize, as escapist theology,
    those who are investing in some future that God is working on,
    but what do our scriptures say about the actions of Abraham,
        who shaped the life and faith and character of a whole nation?
    Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived as if he were a foreigner,
        a temporary resident,
        a sojourner.
    He looked toward a city with foundations.
        Even while he chose to live in tents.
    And it says this not just about Abraham,
        but about the whole roster of faithful heroes,
        the movers and shakers of the people of Israel.
    It says, “All of these died in faith
        without having received the promises,
            but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
        They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners . . .
            [because] they were seeking a homeland.
            They desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

Think about that!
The spiritual posture of the most effective change agents in scripture,
    is the very posture we criticize as withdrawing or escaping:
    “This world is not my home. I’m only passing through.”

Now, I’m not saying that people who focus on heaven all the time,
    can’t have their head in the clouds,
        and be overlooking positive things they could be doing now.
    But we certainly can’t assume they do have their head in the clouds.

Having a future in which to place our hope,
    can actually equip us,
        give us great spiritual energy and wherewithal,
    to actively engage this world and help it begin to look like
        the future we hope for.
_____________________

In a sermon this past spring, I read a paraphrase from Scott Hoezee,
    a Christian Reformed pastor, preacher, and author,
    who wrote about the relationship between hope and action.
Let me repeat it here, because it fits. He wrote,

Hope is what got Mother Theresa to bathe the putrid flesh of lepers in Calcutta. Hope is what made Martin Luther King and others walk across the bridge in Selma. Hope is what let Nelson Mandela get out of his prison bed every morning. Hope is what moves every volunteer in a soup kitchen to ladle out bowls of chicken and rice . . . It is not the hopeless who establish hospices and Ebola clinics in Africa, or stand in the breach when rival drug gangs threaten to shoot up neighborhoods, or boldly stand up to power. It is the hope-FULL who do all that, precisely because even now they serve a risen Savior, who even now has all the power to accomplish what will fully come.
I also was recently reading the Herald Press book,
    Rewilding the Way, by Todd Wynward.
    He told about the founder of Outward Bound movement,
        Kurt Hahn, who grew up as a Jew in Germany,
            in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power.
        Hahn spent some time in prison,
            before being forced to flee to Britain.
        He was a harsh critic of society that produced adults who were
            sedentary spectators,
            restless, but without purpose and hope.
        He later converted to Christianity,
            and became a member of the Church of England,
            and developed a philosophy of education that formed souls.

    Hahn wrote, and I quote,
        “I regard it as the foremost task of education,
            to ensure the survival of these qualities:
                an enterprising curiosity,
                an undefeatable spirit,
                tenacity in pursuit,
                readiness for sensible self denial,
                and above all, compassion.”

As I look at that list,
    I see a list of the fruits of Christian hope.
    If we believe, truly believe,
        that God is working for
            the salvation and restoration and redemption of the world,
        and that we have been invited to partner with God in this project,
            wouldn’t such a belief
            naturally produce Christians with these characteristics?

    And isn’t such a collection of Christians, living in community,
        in the kind of world we inhabit today,
        exactly what we need to defeat
            the sense of despair and hopelessness that abounds
                in the world and in the church?
    Don’t we need more radical and hopeful followers of Jesus,
        who embody an enterprising curiosity,
            an undefeatable spirit,
            tenacity in pursuit,
            readiness for sensible self denial,
            and above all, compassion.”

    The kind of world we hear being trumpeted . . . pun intended . . .
        a world where we live in fear and resentment of the other,
        where we take advantage of the weak to secure our strength,
        where we dehumanize the other,
            (which is happening all over the political spectrum,
                by the way, not just by one side)
        that kind of world will not survive for long,
        when the church is doing its job of being the church,
            of being an alternative community,
            operating by a Jesus-shaped political identity,
            living in present hope of the Kingdom of God,
                which, like Jesus said, is near us now.

Is there any defensible reason why we should despair,
    when we worship the resurrected Jesus?

I can’t think of one.
I can only think of reasons to go out of this place full of hope,
    having been reminded of God’s power to turn death into life.
I can only think of reasons to reach out in compassion
    to all souls who are struggling,
    and to be messengers of hope
        who live with an intrepid trust in God’s future.

—Phil Kniss, August 7, 2016

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Set your hearts and minds on things above

This is a story full of love
Psalm 49:1-12; Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14, 2:18-23; Luke 12:13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

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    A quote I saw recently said, “Show me your checkbook and I will tell you what you believe”.  It was on the back cover of a book I am reading, called, Money and Faith: the search for enough.
    How do we ever know when we have enough?  And who decides?  Our relationship with and use of money reveals a great deal about our values.  The lifestyle we choose, the cars we drive, our home, how we dress, where we go on vacations and how often, the stores where we shop, what schools our children attend, ....all of these things and more, make statements about what is important to us, how we spend our money and what we value most.
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    Our scripture texts for today all have something to tell us, teach us, remind us about wealth, greed, God and even death!  (Sounds pretty grim and sobering.  And it can be, but it doesn’t have to be)
    Covetousness was a widespread problem in the early church.  Is it any less of a problem today?  To covet: “to desire or crave enviously that which belongs to another.”  Greed...also a problem.  Greed: “a desire to acquire more than one needs or deserves”.

    The problem lies not in wealth itself...money isn’t a bad thing, but the problem is in the way we often orient our lives around the acquisition of it. Too often it controls our very lives.  Wealth disorients people in their relationship to God and often in how they relate to others.  Our thoughts and opinions about money, create tension and lead to heated arguments in many marriages, and between parent and children.  We disagree on how much we think we need, on how much to spend or what to spend it on.  We disagree on how much to save, invest or give away.

    So what do we see in our lectionary texts for today?
1.)  Psalm 49:1-12 - We heard part of this in our opening call to worship.  It is a wisdom psalm and a teaching psalm.  It is addressed to people everywhere, rich and poor, persons of every economic scale and status.  Apparently those who were poor and powerless lived in fear of the rich and powerful. Sounds familiar.  The psalmist reassures them that death is the great equalizer.   In the end, we all die! It levels everything and everyone out.  Knowing that, it still doesn’t make life easy here on earth for many who are poor and powerless. But no matter how much real estate one owns or how large a bank account one has, none of it goes with us.  The LORD rules the world; the rich and powerful do not!  Death is inevitable and wealth is all transitory.  We can’t buy our way out of dying.

2.)  Our Ecc. passage...we hear of a teacher who is lamenting the unfairness of life.  Toil is meaningless...all is vapor..a chasing after the wind!  Is it worth it all...what you are doing day after day?  Nothing makes sense.  Dos this sound familiar?  We put our heart and soul and body into our work/career, but what happens?  Well, we can’t take it with us.  When we die, we turn it over to someone else who will have control over it and determine what to do with it.  And you know what, that person who inherits it might be a fool!  It might be a person who cares nothing about what you worked hard to accomplish throughout your entire life.  That person may be one of your very own children!  We leave it all behind us.

3.)  Luke 12:13-21 We hear of a man who was having a problem with his brother about the family inheritance and he wanted Jesus to get involved, to settle the matter, but Jesus didn’t fall for that.  And in that interaction, Jesus reminds or warns the man and the crowd about greed!  But if they didn’t really get the message, Jesus proceeds to tell them a parable.  They have a second chance to learn the lesson!
    The rich farmer who has a bumper crop doesn’t have room to store his surplus of grain.  What to do?  He comes up with a plan...a rather self serving plan.  Tear down the old barns and build bigger ones, then he will have plenty of room for the grain and, actually for all of his goods!  Problem solved and he can retire, relax, go on a cruise.  He is set for a lifetime, or so he thinks.  Jesus says, “You fool!  Tonight you die and who will get all of your stuff?”

Peterson’s The Message says for the last verse, “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”  This man lives for himself, talks to himself, plans for himself and even congratulates himself.  In the end his possessions are worth nothing.  They are all treasures turned toward self, stored in bigger barns, with the doors closed.  No plan to redistribute and share the surplus
       
    Three years ago when these texts came up in the lectionary cycle, I also preached on them and John and I happened to be building, for real, a bigger ‘barn’ in a corner of our back yard.  Well, let me clarify that...it was a storage shed replacing one that was about the size of a walk in closet.  It was old, rotting, and little creatures sometimes crawled underneath it.  It was time to replace it.  And we did.  It is serving us well.  We felt totally justified in doing this, ...building something simple, useful and modest.  After all, we have no basement, a small one car garage, little storage space in the house and it seemed the right thing to do.  But I know that even as I was preparing for that sermon 3 years ago, I had to stop and think about what we were doing, knowing how easy it is to slip into a way of thinking whereby we can justify doing most anything we want to, without giving it a great deal of thought and discernment. We want to enlarge/remodel the kitchen, finish off the family room, add another garage, update our computer and all the rest of our technology.  We are convinced there is nothing wrong with any of this.

    Hoarding, collecting, storing, accumulating, updating...it is so easy to get caught up in this.  When we crave more and get more, we often end up putting these things in the place of God in our lives and disregard the needs of others.  One person wrote:  “We say we want only enough but no one knows how much is enough until one has too much.”

4.)  Col. 3:1-11   In Colossians we are reminded that since we are made alive in Christ, raised with Christ, as Christians we need to set our hearts and our minds on things above, on things that Christ is doing, not earthly things or things that society around us pressures us into thinking are important and needed.  Our old self died and those old practices of an earthly nature, like greed, should have died with it.  God is to be the center of our life.  Christ alone matters.  Not wealth, but God.  Unfortunately, too many of us in our Western materialistic society are bent on chasing money and building bigger barns.  It afflicts most of us in some way.  Greed is seductive and controlling.  It can pull us away from God.  Too often wealth creates a false sense of security.  We feel we no longer really need God.

    In the book I referred to at the beginning, Money and Faith, a search for enough, one of the contributors, Killian Noe, wrote an article called “The Ultimate Question; Where is my security?”  The author has lived in many intentional communities around the world and has learned much from that experience.  She lived in D.C. and was a member for many years of the Church of the Savior.
She relates her own early experiences of tithing and then proportionate giving and shares some excellent practical advice given to her by Gordon Cosby when she had a young family and was trying to balance their own needs with the needs of the larger human family.  Cosby counseled her to take time with her husband and discuss openly and honestly their needs for housing, food, clothing and medical needs, but also to include needs for recreation , vacation and occasional treats.  After determining your family’s financial need, put a cap on that need.  Adjustments would need to be made as the family grew and unexpected and expected expenses would be planned for, but within reason put a cap on your needs.  “If you do not you will never be free.  Faster than your income rises, what you think you will need will rise.  The need for more will always be two steps ahead of what you earn.  You will never feel free enough to share financial resources with the poor and you will not know the joy of giving.” (Gordon Cosby)

    Killian Noe writes that when she received that advice she had no idea the power of the compulsion to want more.  Letting go of more money, and its buying power can be hard.
    “We in the United States live in a culture addicted to the pursuit of more.  The compulsion to consume is an unrelenting force.  We cannot on our own hear an alternative, more life-giving message.  I have discovered I must stay planted in the soil of authentic community if I am to have any chance of breaking free from my compulsion to seek more and more of what will never satisfy my deepest longing.  In the context of authentic community, I grow more free of what I ‘possess’ and begin to view money as a resource, like all resources, to be used for the purpose of building up the whole community, the entire human family, not just my own biological family.” (p. 167)

    She includes some other important insights that are helpful ,..like encouraging us to practice being in authentic relationships with some individual or group of people who suffer under the weight of poverty.  Real relationships have the power to transform.
    Along with building relationships with the poor, and sharing resources, we begin to see how we also need to confront systems and work for justice.  We may not always see change in systems and laws, but in the process of working in ways we can, we discover we are being transformed. 
    As we take some of these steps, we see that things are shifting for us.  Our hearts and minds are being transformed and we begin to find balance in our life.
    Elton Trueblood, in his book Confronting Christ,, wrote:
Christ does not say that is it impossible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.  Instead, he says that it is difficult.  Part of the difficulty arises from the sense of security, with lack of need, which often marks the person of wealth.  Security is itself a barrier to spiritual growth.  The broken and needy are far closer to the Kingdom than are those who feel adequate and successful.  God reaches us more easily when there is a crack in our armor.”  (p, 171 of Money and Faith: a search for enough.)

    If we are serious about living this new life with Christ, then we need to act like it.  As The Message states in Col. 3:1:
     “Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is.”


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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Park View Youth: Reflections on service trip to Atlanta

This is a story full of love
Isaiah 58:6-12

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Several of our high school youth reflect on their recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to serve for one week with DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection).

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Grace and Yugo: From the slums of Jakarta to the New Jerusalem

This is a story full of love
Revelation 21:1-6

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Guest speakers Grace and Yugo share from Revelation 21:1-6, and reflect on their work and relationships in Indonesia. 

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Struggling with Tough Questions

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 10:25-37

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The story of the Good Samaritan, from the gospel of Luke. is familiar to many of us. We know it, we read it to our kids and grandchildren, we tell it, we teach it, we act it out in dramas!

It could be described as an ‘example story’, that is, it shows us how to live and be and act in our lives as people of faith. We are called to be imitators of Christ and to show love, care for others. Only one of the 3 men, the helpful Samaritan, acted compassionately. God and Do likewise! An example story, so we should pay attention.



But is that it? The challenge for any of us in using a very familiar story like this, especially preachers preparing a sermon, is to read it through fresh eyes, to ask new questions, to probe different angles. Is there anything at all that “afflicts” us, challenges us, or intrudes into our thinking that we didn’t see before?



Let’s step back, look at a slightly bigger context and get the fuller story. It starts with a lawyer, an expert in the law, asking Jesus the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text states he is testing Jesus. Maybe he is just being bold and wanting to get right down to the deeper stuff, not shallow thought and theology, but what really is important. Jesus responds to the question with his own question, turning it back to the lawyer. “What is written in the Law?” Jesus asks. “How do you interpret it, understand it?”

The lawyer gives an A+ answer...he is right on. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus replies, “That is correct. Do this and you will live.”



But the lawyer seems to need more, maybe further clarification, and so asks another question? “And who is my neighbor?” ahhh..tough question! “How much love are we talking about Jesus?’, he might be thinking. Let’s get specific. Where can I draw the line? There are lines, aren’t there? This can’t be totally open ended and without some limits and boundaries, can it?”

As a lawyer he might have been interested in more dialogue and discussion on this matter, wanting to know the finer points of responsible neighborliness. Instead Jesus tells a story!

The man walking down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho gets beaten, robbed, stripped of his clothes and left to die. A priest and Levite, one at a time, come by and pass on the other side. When the 3rd man comes along, a Samaritan, he came where the man was, he drew close, and felt great pity. He bandaged the wounds, anointed them with oil and wine, put him on his donkey, took him to the inn, where he cared for him, paid the innkeeper and promised to return.

“Which of the three was a neighbor to the man beaten?” Jesus asks the lawyer. “The one who showed mercy” he replies.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Do this...do this!!!



Do this. Draw close. Show mercy. Extend kindness. ( The story,..... we know it, we read it, we tell it, we teach it, but do we live it?) Live out your theology in hands on care for other people. Get down on your knees. Get dirty, maybe even bloody, and bind the wounds. Don’t just Think love. Do it!

We may need to do something that makes us feel uncomfortable, or is inconvenient or puts us out of our comfort zone. It may be something major and time consuming or relatively small and a simple act of kindness.



(Example: tell stories of helping Ben and family move to Asheville, NC. Include hospitality and kindness shown by staff person at Lutheran Church, allowing us to come in and use restrooms, offering cold glasses of lemonade to kids, playground for them, etc. Also kindness/welcoming from their neighbor, who brought hot meal from Boston Market, plenty of food, a real feast, including a bottle of wine, as we were in state of chaos of unpacking and had not food or anything in house!!)



We ‘get it’, don’t we? We must do the same. It’s an ‘example’ story. At one level, this is the main point of the story, but is this enough? Might there be something else that is ‘afflicting’ us, even intruding into our thoughts that hasn’t before?



Two tough questions emerge!...



1.) In our context today, Who is our neighbor?



2.) Where do we find ourselves in this story? Does the story change depending on where we locate ourselves within it? 
 

Let’s look at that first “tough” question. Who is our neighbor? In the parable, during Jesus’ time, the ‘neighbor’ is the ‘other’, that is the enemy. The third man who came along and finally did something to help the beaten man was a Samaritan. There was bitter tension between Jews and Samaritans. The two groups disagreed about everything that mattered...how they interpreted the Scriptures, where and how to worship and honor God, they avoided social contact with each other as much as possible. They really hated each other, so for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of the story, must have been shocking to those hearing this story in the first century. Absolutely shocking! It was a scandal. You just didn’t put the word ‘good’ along with Samaritan!



So in our contemporary lives, who is ‘the Samaritan? who is the last person on earth we would want to have save our lives or be deemed the ‘good guy’? Might it be someone who is at the other end of the spectrum politically, you know....the staunch conservative Republican, or the liberal Democrat? Could it actually be a person on our block who has strong beliefs on abortion or the death penalty and makes it known? Is the ‘other’ for us today, the gay couple who rent our apartment, or the person who comes to us for a job with a known police record or is a registered sex offender? And what about the recent immigrants that settle in our communities and work in our factories and fields and food service, some accused of “taking ‘our’ jobs”? Yet are we willing to do that work when we need a job?



The enmity between the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day was real. The differences were real and not easily negotiated; each was fully convinced that the other was wrong. Sounds familiar....I hear that today regarding our discussion and debates on same-gender issues. Faithful Christians studying the Bible using the same texts and coming to different understandings on issues of the day, each fully convinced that the other is wrong.

So when Jesus deemed the Samaritan ‘good’, it was radical, risky and probably stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to think ‘outside the box’, to dream of a different kind of kingdom, to put aside the history they knew, the prejudices they carried, the hatred that was buried deep. He asked them to leave room for the divine, for God to work and for the possibility that old ways and ideas might need to be altered and even transformed.



So how would you answer the tough question, “Who is your neighbor?



Let’s look at the second tough question.

Where do we find ourselves in the story?

Where do you locate yourself?



Do we find ourselves identifying with the ‘religious leaders’? Many of us are in some of those roles? Do we find ourselves busy, preoccupied, doing ‘good’ work in the church, in ministries, in institutions, and most days can’t find the time, the energy to add one thing more? When needs arise, how do we weigh whether we get involved? When do we pass on by? and then sometimes feel guilty. How do we protect ourselves from taking on too many things and trying to solve and fix things and people? What are our limits? Are we like the lawyer who asks the question, Who is my neighbor? and wanting to know if there are some boundaries, some limits, some guidelines? Do we sometimes respond to needs that become more than we can handle, becoming overwhelming and then feeling trapped?



(Ex. I confess I have frequently felt like the priest who walked on by, especially when I receive calls at the office from someone in need, especially when it is close to 5pm and I am ready to leave the office after some stressful work, and I debated whether to answer the phone, but did, then found out I was listening to a person recount their situation and knowing I somehow had to respond with ??? money, pledge of payment, compassionate listening ear, or sorry, can’t help. What to do??)



Do we find ourselves identifying with the good Samaritan? offering what we can, mercy, compassion, support, money, food,.... On good days, maybe we see ourselves in that person, hoping we can in some way, large or small make a difference. Maybe it is enough to ‘draw near’ to the needy and not to pass by on the other side. Maybe we need to go where the need is, to draw close, to see, to bend down, to touch, to listen, to anoint, to carry, to be present! Maybe on some days, that is enough. We are not expected to carry the whole load, to fix all the parts that are broken in people’s lives. God is already at work and we find ways to join in that work, however we can.



Do we ever locate ourselves in the story, in the beaten and bloody man, dying on the road, or lying in the ditch? We don’t know his religious belief, or profession or social status. He is just beaten, bloody, broken, vulnerable and in desperate need. Have we ever been in that place? some of us have, maybe physically, emotionally, spiritually broken, grateful to anyone, anyone at all who will show mercy and kindness and compassion. All divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappear. Maybe this is more than an ‘example story’. You know, go and do likewise, like the good Samaritan. Maybe this is a ‘reversal story! When you think of yourself as the one lying in the ditch, bloody and bruised, it isn’t important if you have the same beliefs or faith, or sexual preferences or political views. What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy, love, compassion, before you die. You may not have ever experienced that kind of desperation, maybe some of you have. It won’t matter if you interpret scripture the same way or like the person, or agree with her views. All that matters will be that someone is there to reach out and pull you up and hold you together. And you might have to swallow your pride and grab hold of a hand you thought you would never touch or a person you would never speak to, or the person you can barely tolerate!



Who is your neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who turns things on end, reverses things, the usual categories no longer apply, and suddenly you might see the hand reaching out is the ‘other’ and it shocks you, for in that person you see the face of God. “Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ and teaches you and me the real meaning of ‘Good’.

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