Monday, September 19, 2016

Reflection on Luke 16:1-13

Think about those old fashioned scales. You know, the ones where on one side you put the object to be weighed (maybe a tomato) onto the suspended plate, and on the other side you put some metal weights so that you can figure out how much the object weighs. Do you remember those? Do you have those old scales clearly in mind?

Good. It is an important image to hold in your imagination in order to understand what this parable is about.

In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) there was a measure of justice that went something like this: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The image being that if someone punched you and knocked out one of your teeth, the extent of the retribution you could have upon them is to knock out one of their teeth.

You were not allowed to knock out two teeth because you were really mad. Just one. A tooth for a tooth.

Imagine those old scales again. The scales have to be weighed equally. God cares that things are brought back to a position of equality.

So, if someone came up to you and stole your coat, thereby tipping the scales of justice in their favor, and they were caught, the judge would make them do one of three things: return the coat, give you another coat of equal value, or make them work off the cost of the coat.

All of these solutions would again balance the scales of justice back to equilibrium. God cares that things are brought back to a position of equality.

For God, this is all about fairness. This is about bringing things back to a state of peace.

It is also about making certain that people do not seek to punish more harshly than was done to them.

“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. And, might I add, “Vengeance is not yours.” No taking out two eyes for the cost of one. An eye for an eye.

This all makes sense. But, I bet you have not ever thought about this in terms of economics. God is clear in the Bible that it is not holy to charge interest to one of your countrymen.

God says in Deuteronomy 23:19-20, “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”

You see, if you cannot knock out two teeth for the price of one when seeking justice, you certainly cannot have two dollars for the price of one when lending money. God says that is not fair. The scales of justice must be equal.

And, God goes even further on this equality with your neighbor thing, “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.”

These economic principles are at play in the parable of the terrible, slimy, shrewd steward.

You see, there was a steward that was handling his master’s financial affairs. In the ancient world, it was common to charge 50% interest on a loan. That, presumably, is what the master has done; lent out money with 50% interest. The steward could add another 20% on top for his own fees. He has, presumably, done that also.

This all goes against God’s sense of justice that demands no interest…in case you did not catch that. But, it is the way of the times, as they say.

This steward has done even worse though, and broken even conventional lending rules and taken more wealth for himself.

When he is caught and his job is at stake, the sly little pipsqueak decides to make friends for himself so that someone might support him (at no interest I might add) as a “brother who has become poor.”

He goes to one and cancels out the 20% interest that is owed to himself as the steward. He goes to another and cancels the original 50% interest that is owed on some jugs of oil to his master.

In order to save his own back end, he just now decides to become holy and tip the scales of justice back to God’s standard of equality.

He is shockingly commended for doing it. But, the acts of forgiveness look good for himself, it shines a light of possibly undeserved holiness on the master, and both are now seen to be in conformity with God’s desires by those in the community.

Is he still a sly little pipsqueak? Yes, of course he is. But, he has taken his first step in living a holy life where the scales are always set equally in the middle.

God is a God of second chances after-all. Just as a younger brother who squanders his father’s wealth is embraced with love and a second chance upon returning, so too this shrewd little jerk is embraced upon his own return.

God does that you know. God embraces those who return to the holy, even if they do not really deserve it.

Maybe, the undeserved love will change things. Maybe the undeserved love will change the steward. Maybe. Maybe not. But, God is willing to take the chance.

One thing is certain though, in the kingdom of God, you cannot love God and money.

If you use your to money to exploit people, especially the poor, God is not going to trust you with anything else! God is love, God is not about making money.

People just cannot get rich off of the misfortune of other people and expect to be entrusted with the love of God, because those actions are not loving.

No interest allowed for the people of God. No exploitation allowed. Only love and forgiveness allowed. Only love and forgiveness.

After-all love and forgiveness is what has been shown to us. On the cross, we are only given a bill of love and forgiveness by Jesus, no interest on the debts of our sin required to be paid in full.

In the least, the people of God are to ask nothing more than what would equal out the scales. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

But, the most holy thing is summed up by Jesus himself, “And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

For God has lent God’s only son to love you, and nothing expected in return.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reflection on Luke 15:1-10

When we worship, we come together as a gathering of the found.

Of course, people have all kinds of reasons why they come to church. Some come because they have friends in the church with whom they like to talk.

Others come out of a deeply rooted sense (fostered by their parents no doubt) that going to church is the right thing to do on Sunday mornings.

Some come because of the amazing preacher; and thus, they go to church elsewhere.

Still others come because they know that sometimes there will be a tasty fellowship meal following the service..

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, because of our own nature, 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 through the word of the Lord.

We are a gathering of sinful, broken people who have been found; we are truly nothing more than that.

I’m going to level with you here; there is nothing great about you. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but the actions of Christians are not necessarily more righteous than the actions of anyone else in this world.

I know an atheist, who was a good friend in college, who made a profound impact on the lives of the poor in Africa through the Peace Corp. She is not a great person because of her involvement with the church. She wants nothing to do with the church. Worshiping the Lord does not necessarily have anything to do with being a good person.

That being said, those of us who do gather on Sunday morning are 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. There are a couple of completely obvious things in our biblical texts that I want to make sure are not overlooked because of the fact that they are so obvious. They may be too obvious, and therefore we miss their important.

The first is that both the sheep and the coin in our parables get lost.

Obvious, right?

One sheep does wander off while the shepherd was directing the herd where to go from behind as shepherds do.

In addition, the woman’s dowry coin (the wealth that was solely hers, and belonged to no one else) did rip off of her headdress and roll into a dark corner in her home. Getting lost is not something to be taken lightly.

One Saturday evening a number of years back, I received an e-mail from someone close to me that read, “Everything is dark, God is no longer in my life.” Getting lost is not something to be taken lightly or quickly glossed over. It is terrifying to roll into a dark corner and not be able to see the light.

As we recall the horrors of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, we also recall the hopelessness that those people in the stairwells of the collapsing Trade Center towers must have felt. We are reminded of the darkness of tragedy. We are reminded of the darkness that can overtake a human soul and cause a person to do unthinkable horror. It is terrifying in the darkness.

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 my friends are not in the dark. Everyone gathered here today has been grasped by the hand of Jesus Christ and thus have been found.

We are a once lost, now found people who also know deeply to our core the second truth that these “lost” 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.

Look at the examples Christ himself uses. The shepherd is no shepherd at all if he loses his master’s sheep. He is an incomplete and worthless shepherd if he lets sheep go missing for too long.

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 literal worth. So, of course, she frantically searches the house to find her lost coin, because in a way, her worth is not complete without the coin.

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, wandering in the dark. God does not miss the fact that a child is missing from the dinner table. Children of God do get lost, and it is not taken lightly. God is not complete unless every last one can be found and drawn back.

God is so passionate about this that God sent God’s only son to lose his life in order that we might be found. God saves us from the darkness, and bring us out of the blackness of sin and fear into the light, because, no matter how hard we try, we cannot find our own way out of the dark corner alone.

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. The Pharisees assumed that they were greater than those low lives. They were wrong.

But, we are also nothing less than the children of God who help to 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 who cannot help but feel the same emptiness and pain that God feels when one of 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 party celebrating their return. We are a church that does not give up in searching and finding because God did not give up on us.

God will not give up until every last child is found.

O, found people of God, I have just one question of you as you leave here today. Who do you know who is lost and who needs to be found? Go, and let them know that starting this day, they are now found.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Reflection on Luke 14:25-33

A number of years back, you probably heard some version of The Hand Song by Nickel Creek on the radio.  Chances are that you heard a pop music version of the song, but the original Nickel Creek bluegrass version is the best. Follow this link if you would like to listen to the song before continuing:

The boy only wanted to give Mother something
And all of her roses had bloomed.
Looking at her as he came rushing in with them
Knowing her roses were doomed,
All she could see were some thorns buried deep
And tears that were cried as she tended his wounds

And she knew it was love      
It was one she could understand 
He was showing his love,
And that's how he hurt his hands.       

There are sacrifices, and then there are sacrifices.  The first type of sacrifice is the common type of sacrifice where you decide to give up a few years of vacation so that you can save up to buy that boat you always wanted.  It is a sacrifice of pleasure in order to get something you desire even more.  There is nothing wrong with this type of sacrifice, but it is not the type of sacrifice we think about when Jesus says, Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Followers of Jesus have a certain type of sacrifice in mind when they talk about taking up the cross.  It is a sacrifice that shapes what it means to be a follower of Christ in the first place.  It is a sacrifice that is not entirely common, so we hang crosses in our places of worship and around our necks so that we cannot forget. 

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  When disciples of Christ hear those words, “carry the cross and follow me,” they think of an act that is done out of love for someone else that costs something.  Like the child who picked roses for his mother because he wanted her to feel loved and wanted her eyes to sparkle with joy, it is a sacrifice that cost him some bloody and scarred hands. 

When disciples of Christ hear the words, “carry the cross and follow me,” they picture a particular sacrifice; the sacrifice of Jesus.

He still remembers that night as child
On his mother's knee
She held him close and she opened her bible
And quietly started to read,
And seeing a picture of Jesus he cried out,
"Momma, he's got some scars just like me."

And he knew it was love      
It was one he could understand 
He was showing his love,
And that's how he hurt his hands.       

When we walk around town and grasp the cross around our necks, we are reminded of a sacrifice done out of love for us that cost something dearly.  How far is Jesus willing to go to show us clearly that love and life always prevail?  The cross. 

As we feel the edges of the cross under our fingers, we are reminded once again what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  It is to be a person who finds life and joy in sacrifice. Because of that, we follow Jesus by loving others enough to sacrifice something of ourselves for their sake. 

Taking up the cross, we are fine getting along without material pleasures so that someone else can have food and shelter…so that someone else can find life. 

Taking up the cross, we defend the weak and help the outsider, even if it means clashing with the ideologies that members of our family hold.  Some of us lose our families so that someone who is scorned by others can feel loved. 

Taking up the cross, we seek to help the person on who everyone else has given up; the lost cause.  We do this not because it is easy (it is not), but because Jesus never gave up on us.  On the cross, Jesus never gave up loving a single one of us. 

As noble as all of that sounds, I must admit that taking up the cross is not easy.  It is painful.  It leaves scars on our hands.  But, as followers of Christ, we take up the cross anyway because these sacrifices are our way of telling Jesus’ story of love and new life.  When we follow Jesus and when we make these Christ-like sacrifices, it is as if we too have found life again, even when we might have lost a bit of our own lives in the process.

Now the boy's grown and moved out on his own
When Uncle Sam comes along.
A foreign affair, but our young men were there
And luck had his number drawn.
It wasn't that long till our hero was gone
He gave to a friend what he learned from the cross.

And they knew it was love      
It was one they could understand 
He was showing his love,
And that's how he hurt his hands.

Grace is not cheap.  It is not a cheaply made toy that is handed out to everyone, but is of such low quality that no one cares when it is lost.  Grace is costly.  It comes with a price: Jesus’ own bloody and scarred hands. 

Grace is a sacrifice.  But, that is what makes it grace.  It is a sacrifice, for our sake.  It shows us that we were worth the purchase.  We were worth the love. 

When we feel that cross beneath our fingers, and are reminded of Jesus’ sacrifice of grace, our eyes cannot help but be opened to see those around us who also need that sort of grace.  So, we lean down and pick up our crosses, because following in ways of sacrifice are how we tell Christ’s story of love.  Following in ways of sacrifice are how we give life to people who have somehow lost their own life.  Sacrificing our hands is always worth the cost.  So I sing:

And they knew it was love      
It was one they could understand 
We were showing God’s love,
And that's how we hurt our hands.