Monday, October 29, 2007

Reflection on 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5

Luther was the one who inspired the idea of reformation in us local clergy. But, it was not because of Luther’s greatness. After-all, Luther was just a single monk who taught in a German school for theological education. He was nothing special, unless you would count his ability to swear and drink you under the table. Sure, he had his following, but does not every college professor who is a little off-color. Those professors are always the ones with disciples drooling at their heals. No, we local clergy were not inspired by Luther because of his greatness. Instead, we were inspired because God caused a complete turn around and invigoration of the faith through this one simple, swearing, drinking, short, fat man. We were inspired because of his weakness. And, we thought, if God could use Luther, then God could use us also. God could use us to start a reformation of the faith right here in our little town if God so desired.

I’m not sure what Pastor Bob Martin put in the coffee at his rustic home as we gathered by the lake, but it was invigorating. We were having visions of grandeur for our churches: churches filled to standing room only; churches filled with members who dripped with excitement about sharing God’s love and forgiveness of the sinner with their neighbors; churches filled with people who wanted nothing more than to go out and help their neighbor, fight social ills, seek justice for the forgotten, and fix the plight of the poor. We talked as if we were filled with new wine, it was actually old coffee reheated for a third time, but at that point is there really any difference between the two? With our coffee concentrate for fuel, we were convinced that God could do it. If God could use a slob like Luther, God could use us. “Oh God, reinvigorate your ministry” we prayed together. “Revive your work. Make it spring forth from here and spread throughout the land, and use us simple sinners as your tools to do that.” That was on a Saturday. On Saturday we were excited, on Sunday we preached inspired sermons (all of us heard comments at the door), and then Monday felt like it just had to pop into existence.

Monday is when the questioning began. What were we thinking? More to the point, what were we drinking Pastor Bob? Who do we think we are? We are all just a bunch of hack pastors in the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania. We are not Dr. Robert Schuller with a thriving legacy of a ministry. We are not Rick Warren and haven’t inspired millions with our written words. We are not spiritual powerhouses of the faith. We are just a bunch of rural hack pastors. Why would God choose us anyway?

These feelings were familiar. I have felt them many times before. I felt them for years sitting in the pew before becoming a pastor. Time and time again I would be both inspired by the pastor’s sermon and frightened at the knowledge that I could not possibly be the type of disciple that the pastor was describing. I did not know hardly anything about the bible. How could I do anything productive in the faith? I was scared to talk to other people. How could I share the gospel? Heck, I did not really think that I even understood the good news of God. The pastor was talking to the wrong person in his sermons. I was not discipleship material.

I know that I am not alone here. I have heard similar fears from others sitting in the pews. Most people do not consider themselves spiritual powerhouses, and many are not sure what they would proclaim even if the opportunity blatantly presented itself.

“Chuck, I need the good news man. Tell me the good news. How has the good news affected your life?”

Uhhhh, gee Earl, our church has a great organist…I like that. You would think that after going to church for 40 years I could help you out. I know the phone number of the pastor though. He's a spiritual powerhouse. I am certain that he could help you.”

For years and years many of us have been convinced that we are not good Christians because of our weakness of faith. This has been reinforced by the faith bravado of many powerful spiritual leaders. It seems weird, but sometimes listening to the best preachers out there can actually make a person feel even more inadequate than when they began. “I will never live up to that. They speak so well, so clearly. They are so wise. They know what they are talking about. They are great. And, I’m not.”

But, the amazing secret of the Christian faith is that, our weakness does not matter. Weakness is actually our greatness. Never forget that the cross was the ultimate symbol of shame and weakness in the Roman world, yet Jesus the Christ used it for great things. Weakness is actually our greatness. Listen to these words from Paul, the worst preacher of them all. Remember that people were always falling asleep during his sermons, one even fell out of a window! He must have been terrible. Others were disappointed at his complete lack of wisdom when they spoke to him personally. Listen to this poor man's words, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

You do not have any great words of wisdom to help me better my life? Great. You don’t have any confidence in your spiritual abilities? Perfect! Does sin cling to you like the smell of cow manure? Great! You are perfect for the job of disciple. You are perfect for the job of preaching the good news.

“What are you talking about Pastor Jira? What’s so great about that?”

You don’t know anything. That is not such a bad place to be in your faith, because if you can’t trust in yourself and your own wisdom, then you have no choice but to trust in Jesus the Christ. That is faith. You do know what it is like to feel inadequate. You do know what it is like to not know the answers. You do know what all other people struggling in the world know. But, you know one thing more that they may not. You know what it means to trust Christ because you are not good enough. You trust because you are weak. That is genuine faith. Spiritual powerhouses do not know these things. Spiritual powerhouses have no need of a savior.

Listen to what Paul had to say about this, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God…Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

You are a living gospel waiting to be opened and read by those around you. You are a sin-filled, dirty, and weak spiritual person. But, when you are opened up people will be shocked to discover that you are great precisely because you are weak. You have no choice but to trust in Christ’s love and forgiveness. Your weakness is the very thing that makes you great. God prefers to use sinners like us for the kingdom of God.

God used a man like Bart Campolo. He is a Christian who is under no delusions of grandeur. He knows full well that he sins and cannot save himself. If my memory serves me right, his story goes something like this. While driving a group of city street hardened men to a Christian camp he was quite less than a spiritual powerhouse. Trying to be the men's "spiritual guide" he tried to cover up the fact that he was upset that they were running late, speeding through traffic, and secretly cursing the traffic around him. He did not want the men to see how angry he was at himself for showing up late for the event at the camp. The final breakdown of this "spiritual guide" occurred when the tire of the van blew. When the tire blew, he did too. He started cursing, throwing tire irons, and generally had a major fit in the middle of the highway. The men just stared out the window at their spiritual guide who was uttering some very unspiritual things. Getting back into the van, ashamed of himself, one of the men leaned forward and asked,
"You call yourself a disciple of Christ don't you?"

"Yes," he replied timidly.

“If your are a disciple of Christ and God can use a person like you; than that’s a God I can be a part of. Because of that fit you threw, I know that I would be welcome as a follower also."

So, who knows, maybe God can use us for a reformation of the faith. Who knows? It is up to God. God has done it before. God used the weakness of Luther to cause an explosion in the sharing of the good news in his time. God does use the sinner for reformation. And, at the end of his life, this is all that Luther had to say about what God had accomplished through him:

"Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Writers sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles... We are beggars: this is true."

We are beggars: this is true. It is a very weak position. It is also the one God uses to cause a reformation of the faith.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Reflection on Luke 16:1-13

If you did not understand a single word that Jesus just tried to teach you in that parable of the dishonest manager, and if you zoned out half way through the scripture reading and went to your own private beach in the sun, you are not alone. I’ve struggled with this confusing text for two weeks trying to dredge meaning out of it. Looking to the experts for the answers, I searched bible commentaries. All of them said the same basic thing. Only they used very eloquent and scholarly words to say: “I have no idea what the heck Jesus is talking about.”

So, as we explore this confusion together this morning, let’s start where I always start when I’m lost; we’ll start with something that I understand. And the something that I understand with great authority is how to be a rotten sinful person. So, here we go!

We have a rotten sinful person who could look a lot like me if you need a visual, and could be alive today, and could be the manager of a large business owned by a rich master like Bill Gates or Ted Turner. The manager is entrusted with all the money of the master’s business. The manager is the big shot. So, when he saw the company had purchased nice, sleek, silver pens that wrote just right and made you look like you were someone who signed important things, he didn’t have any problem taking one or two or nine home with him. He’s the manager. And, when someone paid a little extra that was owed to the company, a mere $30 extra, he knew no one would notice such a small amount going into his stomach for lunch. And, when he saw that all the other big managers were buying for a company car the new Bugatti Veyron supercar which can go from zero to 60 in less than 2.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 253 miles per hour; only 300 made with a 10 month waiting list, he knew he would be seen as a real player if he got one. He was under the power of money and what it could do for him and he liked it.

Then the day came when the owner, his rich master, discovered a few holes in his profits. The small 1.4 million dollar hole that the sports car took out might have been it.

“You are fired. Tie up loose ends and be out of here by the end of the week.” The words hummed through the former manager’s defeated soul.

“Shoot, I’m going to lose everything: my house, my sports car, probably my wife and kids, my dog…he won’t even want to be around me I’ll be so depressed, my honor, my respect…dang…the only thing that can pull me out of this mess is to write a song about it, buy a guitar, and become a country singer. ‘I lost my house, my sports car, my wife…’” No, he doesn’t do that, he comes up with a much shrewder plan: he decides that he needs friends, special friends, the ones with an extra room and beer in the cooler for when he is officially discharged from his former life of wealth. And, how is he going to pull it off? He’s going to forgive part of the debt that his soon to be best friends owed his master. “Here, you only have to pay 50% of your bill. Hey, you over there, you only have to pay 80% of your small bill.” In other words, he’s going to build his future doing the exact same thing that got him into trouble in the first place: squandering his master’s profits on himself! I think we call that irony, or just plain idiotic.

Of course, you know what happens next. The master gets wind of this in no time flat (surely from one of the grateful indebted people who fell at his feet and thanked him profusely for his mercy). With dribbles of gratefulness still gleaming on his toes, he strolls determinedly right up into the face of his former manager, and says, “You my friend are a very commendable person, but you’re still fired.”

“Commendable?” Jesus, what are you talking about? “Commendable?” We are supposed to hold up this thieving scoundrel as a role model of faith? Jesus, you’ve been known to bend the rules, no ritual hand washing…eating with sinners…working on the Sabbath…but stealing is a commandment. It is one of the Big Ten. Heck, this guy is so stuck on money that he’s crossing the boundary of the biggest commandment of all, number one: “You shall have no other gods.” Money and God…you can’t have both, don’t you remember Jesus? But, come to think of it, is the guy still crossing that boundary? Wait a second here, maybe Jesus hasn’t gone off of the deep end.

Now, I’m going to propose something here that’s a relatively fresh insight, and I’m not saying that this guy doesn’t have a problem with commandment number one, but it seems to me that the guy has suddenly lost his trust in his money; at least temporarily. All the guy cares about now, after being fired, is having the basics: a place to sleep and some food to eat. Granted, this is still selfish stuff; he still did what he did to save his own backside. But, look at what his selfish actions caused to happen. Because of his selfish actions, the poor were forgiven some of their debt; some as much as 50%. Oh, you didn’t realize he dealt with poor individuals. When money is your god it is hard to see who it affects. I am not poor by any means, but I do understand that 50% forgiveness off of my mortgage would be nothing short of a miracle from God. And, look what else happens here: the shrewd manager may have lost some of the master’s money, but the manager makes a great name in the community for his former master, a former rich man who is now known as a caring and generous rich man. You can’t pay for that sort of publicity.

Probably for the first time in his life, the former manager did something that actually benefited others more than it benefited himself. And, he was commended for it. Of course, it was something small and it was stained with sin and human imperfection, but it was something that benefited others more than it benefited himself.

God can use our stained selves and our selfish actions for great things. God can take selfishness and shape it into justice and food for the poor. God can take selfishness and mold it into a grace so sweet that people sing the praises of God our divine master.

It is true that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Even our finest actions are stained with sin and selfish reasons. Here’s an example. A lot of people express to me that they feel good after helping someone else out.

“Why do you work to help abused children find a safe home when it is such hard work?”
“Someone needs to protect and help heal the child, and it makes me feel good.”

“Why do you serve soup to the poor everyday when you could be out shopping the wonderful nearby stores?”
“The people need fed, and it makes me feel real good.”

That’s fine, those things make me feel good also, but doing something helpful in order to gain a good feeling is still selfish. The selfish act still puts my need to feel good and appreciated before the only one who is good: God, thereby trampling on the first commandment. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. But, Christ is able to take the stained good action from us, wash it clean with forgiveness, and deliver it to the needy as a pure act of grace and love. Thanks be to God alone for that one.

Now, we could worry obsessively about sinning while doing something good for our neighbors, decide not to risk sinning, sit around the house surfing the internet and eating chocolate cream filled tasty cakes, or we could take the dishonest manager’s lead and sin a little. Go ahead and sin a little. Feel good about giving out some of the money that God has entrusted to us, use some talent that God has gifted us, and waste it on any person in need who could really use it. Tell them, “It’s not me you should thank, its God,” when they offer their deepest appreciation. And, invite them to worship so that they can fall down at the feet of the one who really made our selfish, sinful act into an act of divine grace; Jesus Christ.

Go ahead and sin a little for the good of others. The sin staining you and staining your actions has been buried and put to death with Christ. Don’t worry, all the person who is depending on you sees when they look into your eyes and witnesses your loving action is Christ Jesus come down to care for them. They have been remembered. They are loved by God after-all. Thanks be to God.

Go ahead and sin a little for the good of others; God can use a sinner like you for great things. So what if you’re not perfect or not yet ready or not good enough? Still struggling with the same sins you were struggling with when you were 16 or 3? Fine. If God can use someone like the dishonest manager, God can use someone like you. Not careful with the talents and wealth God has given you? That’s fine; spill them all over the place; spill them where the poor may be clothed and fed and the sinner might find much needed forgiveness. Be careless and spill God’s love everywhere. Christ Jesus uses careless sinners like us everyday. Thanks be to God.

Reflection on Luke 15:1-10

During worship, we come together as a gathering of the found. People have all kinds of reasons why they come to church. Some come because they have friends in the church that they like to gab with. Others come out of a deeply rooted sense (fostered by their parents no doubt) that going to church is the right thing to do Sunday mornings. Some come because of the amazing preacher. Still others come because they know that there will be a tasty fellowship treat following the service just up the sidewalk, turn right, up the stairs, and through the red door into the parish house…it starts around 11:15…all are welcome. Of course, there are much nobler reasons for coming to worship, and most of you are no doubt people with a noble reason.

Despite even noble reasons, I would like to make the claim that the true reason that we are gathering here this morning is because we were found. We are a people who, for some reason, have made a habit of getting lost, and miraculously God has come to the rescue. We are a once lost, now found people who get the opportunity to be reassured in the Christian community weekly that God will not forget or forsake us. God has forgiven us. Not even sin or death can keep us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are a once lost, now found people whose famished and hungry souls get to be restored and reenergized with the body and blood of our Lord. We are a gathering of sinful, broken people who have been found. We are truly nothing more than that. We are not great people. Our actions are not necessarily more righteous than anyone else’s. I know an atheist who is making a profound impact on the lives of the poor in Africa through the Peace Corp. She is a good friend. I cannot say that my actions are any greater than hers. That being said, we are also nothing less than the found people of God. We are a people who God has taken the time to find and gather in God’s holy name. That is why we rejoice with God this Sunday morning. We have been found.

Let that truth ring lightly through your souls while we consider something else this morning. There are a couple of completely obvious things in our biblical text from this morning that I want to make sure are not overlooked because of the fact that they are so obvious. The first is that both the sheep and the coin in our parables get lost. One sheep did wander off while the shepherd was encouraging the rest from behind as shepherds do, and the woman’s dowry coin (the wealth that was solely hers, no one else’s) did rip off of her headdress and roll into a dark corner in her home. Getting lost is not something to be taken lightly. As I read the words of a close friend’s e-mail to me late last Saturday evening, “everything is dark, God is no longer in my life,” I knew that getting lost is not something to take lightly. It is terrifying to roll into a dark corner and not be able to see the light. In the darkness you can do nothing but grasp around. Hopefully, “Oh my God please,” hopefully, you will grasp onto something familiar and safe; something that will pull you from the darkness into the light. But, the truth is that you are just as likely to grasp onto something sharp and harmful, or wander further into the deep. When in the dark, the right way and the wrong way look the same. They are both black.

But, you are not in the dark. Everyone gathered here today has been found. We are a once lost, now found people who know deeply to our core the second truth that these two parables reveal to us. Everyone is precious to God. Everyone is worth finding. Might I even be so bold as to say that Christ somehow does not feel complete unless Christ finds everyone who has been lost. I am not saying that Christ is dependent on us. But, I am saying that Christ experiences a loss when we wander away.

Look at the examples Christ himself uses. The shepherd is no shepherd at all if he loses his master’s sheep. He is a worthless shepherd if there are sheep missing.

If you look at the woman who loses her dowry and you will see this aspect of God even stronger. As I said before, a woman’s dowry was her only wealth in the ancient Israelite world. To lose even one coin would be to lose a part of her self. Of course, she frantically searches the house to find her lost coin, because in a very real economic way, her worth is not complete without it.

Shepherds are not complete without all of their sheep. Women of the ancient world were not complete without their entire dowry. Parents are not complete without all of their children. Siblings are not complete without their brother or sister. God is not complete as long as God’s children are lost. God definitely recognizes when a child is missing from the dinner table. Our own parents would be devastated if we didn't show up at the table, so it is not hard to understand how God is not complete unless every last one can be found.

God is so passionate about us that God sent God’s only son to risk his life and find us; to save us from the darkness; to bring us out of the blackness of sin into the light. We are a once lost and now found people; nothing more, but also nothing less. Nothing more, because we are not wonderful and great and perfect; we are simply human. This was the Pharisees mistake when they questioned why tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus. Somehow they made the mistake of seeing themselves as better than other sinners. But, we are also nothing less than the children of God who complete the body of Christ when we are found. God is complete when we are found.

We are a once lost, but now found church. Our foundness and oneness with God does affect us in a very real way. We feel the same emptiness and pain that God feels when God’s children are lost. The loss of a child affects the whole family. The emptiness of that spot at the dinner table compels us, not out of obligation, but out of love to find and search and invite. We are a found church, but that also makes us a finding church. We are a church that searches in the dark areas and reaches out a hand so that people can find the light. We are a church that welcomes the tax collectors and sinners and gladly eats with them at the Lord’s celebration of return. We are a church that does not give up in searching and finding because God does not rest until every last child is found. Who do you know that should not be given up on?