Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Shrewdly Spiritual 
Luke 16:1-13 
September 18, 2016[1]

This has to be one of the most confusing parables that Jesus told! Every time I read it, it leaves me asking “Really!” I am not alone in this. The Wednesday morning Clergy Group that I meet with had the same reaction.
It seems out of place coming from Jesus, who came to preach “good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). Elsewhere in the Gospel according to Luke, we read words such as:
·      “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20).
·      ... do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it… But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:29, 31).
·      “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Then we read these words from todays lesson: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8).
Is this the same Jesus who told the rich young ruler “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)?
It almost looks as though Jesus was praising the dishonesty of the shrewd manager. It almost seems like someone accidently hit the “delete” button and left out a sentence or two.
I look forward to the day when I can see Jesus face to face and ask Him what he meant by all this. That does not mean, of course, that I won’t keep working in the meantime to figure it out!
Let’s start with some things that we can certainly agree with.
First, let’s point out that Jesus is talking here to his disciples. (Luke 16:1). He is talking to the people who have been following Him, who heard Jesus speak His message of giving up everything to follow Jesus, and who knew that Jesus practiced what He preached. This was not a message of evangelism directed to first-time listeners but a message of faithfulness directed to those who already were following Him.
We also find a notion that we are accountable for how we have used the gifts God has entrusted to us. In the parable, the rich man tells the manager to “Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.” (Luke 16:2).
There also is a clear notion that our money can get in the way of our relationship with God. Jesus says it very clearly in verse 13: “You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13).
But what are we to make of Jesus appearing to commend the dishonest manager who acted so shrewdly?
At one level, it seems that Jesus is telling us that we need to be very wise in dealing with our money. Stewardship matters. We have been given many gifts, and Jesus reminds us that “from everyone who has been given much, much more will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48). Certainly, in the parable of the talents, Jesus commends those servants who have invested widely and multiplied the funds entrusted to them; but to the servant who buried his funds and had no return on investment, Jesus offered pretty harsh judgment. For the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 12:26).
As a pastor, I dread the days that I have to talk about money. It’s so much easier to talk about loving your neighbor and about the Good Shepherd who seeks out His lost sheep. But when the preacher begins to talk about money, there is a feeling that he has crossed the line from preaching into meddling.
But Jesus doesn’t shy away from the topic. He knows the human heart, and he knows that the things we possess all too often possess us. That’s why He tells the rich young ruler in Chapter 18 that he lacked one thing—that he needed to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Then he will have treasure in heaven. (Luke 18:22).
But Jesus still expects us, whether in our money matters or in our spiritual matters, to use our heads, to be smart about what we are doing. The word that we read as “shrewd” also can be translated as “clever.” Jesus wants us to keep on our toes in our business affairs. After all, we are not working for our own profit; we are engaged in the work of the kingdom of God!
At this point, let me put in a short commercial for the workshop that we will offer following this service. The Rev. Stephen Clark is the president of the Virginia United Methodist Foundation. He will offer to us some suggestions about how we can be smarter about our money—about how we can find ways both to protect our own financial security while we are living and to offer gifts to God’s kingdom when we are gone. He will be giving suggestions about how we can be wise stewards of the gifts God has given us—using Jesus’s word, Steve will be telling us how we can be “shrewd” in ways that can help Cunningham Church but also provide for our own needs.
But as important as it is for us to be smart in our giving, I think that if we leave today’s parable at this level, we are missing the most important point that Jesus has to say in this story.
I believe that Jesus was using this extreme example of the ways that people aggressively watch out for their financial security to say something about the extreme measures we should be taking to watch out for our spiritual security.

I think Jesus is warning us against the temptation to grow soft and lazy in our spiritual journey. He is warning us against the notion that the spiritual journey is a way to coast through life; rather, He is inviting us to keep on guard.
Jesus is calling us to wake up, to stand on our tiptoes, keeping our eyes open, aggressively looking for ways to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Jesus is calling us away from business as usual; He is calling us to move on to something different, to a radical way of discipleship. He is calling us to let God transform our lives so that the things that used to be so important to us fade away as we leave them behind.  He is calling us to a radical conversion when He tells us “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33). Jesus is telling us that when we make the kingdom of God the most important thing in our lives, we will spare no energy, spare no area in our lives, to find that which matters most to us.
There was a time that I thought religion should be respectable and comfortable, that it was about being nice; that it was about confessing our sins, saying the right prayers, and living the right way so that we can go to heaven when we die. Make no mistake--Christianity does proclaim those things. But if that is the only way we see our religious journey, then we are missing the best that Christianity has to offer.
When an expert in the law asked Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus turned the question around and asked the expert what is written in the law, the expert replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These are action words describing an extreme way of living and loving. In today’s parable, Jesus makes it clear that we are to live and love with all our minds as well as all our hearts.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a Service of Celebration on the assignment of Sharma Lewis as the resident bishop of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. I had read her biography before; I knew that she had a reputation for evangelism. But I had no idea of the energy, enthusiasm, and passion that she puts into her work. She called on all of us to come alive in the power of the Holy Spirit. She echoes the call to begin on our knees, as her predecessor Bishop Cho urged us to do. But she then follows that with a call to work, to preach, to proclaim, to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If the Virginia Conference can adopt her passion and enthusiasm for the Gospel, I promise you that the Virginia Conference will look very different from the church that it is today. No more business as usual!
That is the message that I find in this parable today. Let’s not be content with business as usual in our spiritual journey.
The translation by Eugene Peterson puts verses 8 and 9 of today’s lesson this way:
The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”[2]
I want to live my life as one who is shrewdly spiritual. Will you join me?

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Luke 16:8-9 in Eugene Peterson, THE MESSAGE. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Luke 15:1-10 
September 11, 2016[1]

“I once was lost but now am found...”[2] We sing those words and we speak about our salvation from our human perspective—from the perspective of those who were lost and found our way home. This morning, our Gospel Lesson this morning shows another side to the issue.

Luke 15 contains three parables that Jesus told after religious leaders criticized him for eating with sinners. The last parable is the story of the Prodigal Son. We spoke about that parable a few months ago. This morning, we will concentrate mostly on the first two. We typically refer to these stories as the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It seems to me, though, that by using these titles, we lose perspective on the reason Jesus told these stories in the first place.

Jesus did not tell these stories to emphasize the “lostness” of the sheep, the coin, or the youngest son. He told us these stories to give us a peek at how salvation looks from God's perspective--about the effort God has undertaken to find the lost and to restore them into community. They are about the community of heaven celebrating the restoration of God’s children.

Take the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). It was lost, to be sure, but it was lost through no fault of its own; yet it was still lost. And that coin could do nothing to help or hinder the process of becoming found. It just remained where it was until someone or something led to its movement, further concealment or discovery.

Then there is the sheep (Luke 15:4-7). Was the sheep responsible for its own "lostness?" We might assume that the sheep wandered off on its own, although we really don't know that. Could it have been a weaker sheep that had tired in its journey and could move no further? Could it have been sick and weak? Could it have been an expectant mother sheep carrying the gift of new lambs waiting to be born, but as a result couldn't keep up with the rest of the flock?

Or could this have been a rogue sheep that simply had a mind of its own?

Jesus doesn't get into those issues in today’s Lesson, and perhaps He ignores them for a reason. Could it be that for the purposes of the point He was making, it just doesn't matter why the sheep were lost? Could it be that he simply grieves our "lostness" and refuses to rest until we have been found? Could it be that it doesn't matter so much how we got lost—that what matters most is that Jesus and all of heaven celebrate when we have been found.

In the story that follows--that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)—things get a bit more complicated. The younger son is responsible for his own decision to leave home. Reconciliation with his father does not take place until the son repents, turns around, and returns home. The older son is filled with resentment when a big party is thrown for the returning wayward brother. There is human participation in the story from all sides. And yet the invitation to celebrate remains. Both brothers are invited to the party, even though both have been lost in their own personal ways. Even here, Jesus does not engage in sacred finger-pointing. He focuses instead on a father who calls for celebration, and who even encourages a resentful older brother to come join the party.

We focus so much, and understandably so, on the human side of this mystery we call salvation. We focus on our sin, our need for repentance, our coming to faith, our discipleship, and our eternal life with God. Certainly, it is a big deal for us. But the Good News of the Gospel is not primarily about us; it’s about God—the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This Gospel invites us to consider for just a moment the event of salvation from God's point of view.

God made us to be in relationship with Him--God made us with love. That very act of creation is why we proclaim that we are Children of God. And although many of us were raised on a legalistic notion of sin--breaking the law of God--that legalistic notion only captures part of the point. The devastating thing about sin is not just that we broke the law, but that in doing so we also broke the relationship for which we were made.

Many times we talk about salvation in legal terms--"Jesus paid the debt," "He took our punishment," and "He redeemed us." Make no mistake, there are important truths in those descriptions. I have grown to see, however, that those words focus on the mechanics, the "how" of salvation rather than the deeper question of why. Out of love, God has made us, and out of love, God has reached out to us to bring us back into relationship with Him. That is why God took on human form and showed us how to live, how to love, how to love even when the ones we love turn their backs on us. How to keep on loving when it hurts so much that it kills us. Then, through the resurrection, God shows us that not even death itself can overcome the power of God's love.

In short, God invites us home and shows us the way. We no longer need to be lost. That is a reason to celebrate!

The Gospel tells us that when a sinner comes to repentance, when people like you and me find redemption, the angels in heaven rejoice. In more human terms, they have a party.

I invite you to let this truth sink in: that God loves you and takes joy in your salvation. After all, God has a huge stake in seeing us come into relationship with Him. He made us. He loves us. He hurts when we hurt. He weeps when we fall short of the possibilities that He designed into our lives. And when we come home, when we are restored into our relationship with God, then God celebrates!

Through the centuries, Christians have come to think of the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup as a celebration of our redemption. It is not only a somber moment for us to remember Christ's sacrifice; it also is a time to recognize that God celebrates in our homecoming. Holy Communion is a time of joy!

When I was in college, Pastor Jack was the pastor of the college church I attended. Pastor Jack often referred to Holy Communion as "God's Party." At the time, I thought that he was just offering us a kinder, gentler way of thinking of Communion; I didn't really get the significance of what he was saying. The older I get, the more I learning to see how important it is to God that we are reconciled in our relationship with Him. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV).

Despite our brokenness, the God who makes us still loves us, and still calls out to us, inviting us to come home. This is reason to celebrate!

This morning, as you come forward to receive the bread and the cup, I pray that you will know this simple but profound truth: God loves you! (1 John 4:10). I pray that you will be reconciled to God, that you will experience the liberation of being set free from the sin and brokenness that separate us from God, and that you will celebrate the Good News—in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven.

And maybe, just maybe, the angels in heaven will be giving each other high fives in celebration that you and I have come home.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 378.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Angels Among Us 
Hebrews 13:1-7 
August 28, 2016[1]

I. Introduction
Our theme verse for this morning could have been a message on Twitter in 140 characters or less (137 to be exact): “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV) We could simply add a hashtag—maybe something like #angelsamongus—but that would throw us over the 140 character limit. One of the problems that I find in using Twitter is that there is just not enough space within 140 characters to fully deal with the nuances and questions that come up—questions for which the answers aren’t always that clear cut.
I suspect that some of you may have felt that way last Sunday when leaving our Worship Service and discovering outside that some people you didn’t know were seeking financial help. How should Christians respond to requests for help from people we don’t know, especially when we are unsure about their real motives?
II Biblical Teachings about Strangers
Against this backdrop, the biblical direction from our First Lesson this morning is clear. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2).
To our ears, this sounds like a theological sound bite or a Twitter post, in 140 characters or less. To some, it may even have a tone reminiscent of letters from your mother when you first go away from home, reminding you to eat a good breakfast and to sort the darks from the whites when you do laundry.
To the Jewish readers of this letter in the first century, this simple injunction was more than just a moralizing, finger-wagging point in a sermon that was already too long. This statement used a short-hand reference to Jewish history that all Jews at that time would have known and instantly related to. Sort of like referring in our day and age to a reference to George Washington and the cherry tree. Even though most people assume that George Washington did not really cut down the proverbial cherry tree, the very mention of it connects Washington with the idea of honesty, that he couldn’t tell a lie and neither should we.
Most Jews of the day would have immediately remembered the story of Abraham and Sarah and the visit they received from three strangers. You can read about it in Genesis Chapter 18.  Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men—strangers—standing near him. Immediately, Abraham offered them hospitality in a manner that was fitting for the culture and custom of the day. He brought water so they could wash their feet. He had some bread brought to them, butchered and prepared a calf for a meal, stood by them while they ate, and he gave them an opportunity to rest under a nearby tree. Abraham saw it as an honor that these strangers had come to him. Abraham referred to himself as their “servant.” (Genesis 18:5).
It wasn’t long before Abraham learned that these were not ordinary travelers. One told Abraham that Sarah would bear a son. Sarah overheard the conversation and laughed—she was well past the age for bearing children. I don’t think she would have laughed if she knew who was speaking, for it was the Lord who spoke those words, and that the other two strangers were angels, messengers from God.
But the idea of “angels among them” wasn’t the only reason that a Jewish audience would connect with those words. They knew the problems of being strangers in a strange land because the history of the Jewish people has been story of a people on the move. The history of the Jewish people was a history of migration and the Jewish people often found themselves to be the strangers. Abraham himself had left the land of his fathers in search of the land that God had promised to him.
A few generations later, the Children of Israel found themselves living in Egypt, first because they were seeking food in the middle of a famine, and then involuntarily because they were enslaved in Egypt.
When the Lord delivered the Children of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, they began a 40-year long journey. Once again, they were aliens, traveling towards the land that God had promised them.
As the Children of Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses instructed them to remember where they came from. When presenting their offerings to the Lord, they were to remember: “My father was a wandering Aramean…”  (Deuteronomy 26:5).
In other words, the Jewish people were to remember that they too have been strangers, aliens, and they had received hospitality. So also they should provide hospitality to others.
Jesus made the stakes even greater. He told us that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome the Son of Man; we welcome Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus says
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in …
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in …’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40).

III. Problems
All of this sounds fine, at least in theory. It gets more difficult in real life. At least it does for me. Based on the comments I received from some of you concerning our visitors last week, I know that I am not alone. For much of this past week, I have wrestled with questions about how I responded to the people I didn’t know showing up and asking for help.
There is the tension between the call of Jesus to help the poor, the stranger, the “least of these” on the one hand, and the need to be a faithful steward of the funds that have been entrusted to me—whether those funds are my own or the Church’s.
Last week I saw so many red flags that suggested our visitors might not be all that they appeared to be. It seemed too “coincidental” that a family from some other country of origin might just happen to show up in Fluvanna at the end of our service at a time when they knew that those who worshiped had just sung the Lord’s songs, had just prayed, had just heard the Word proclaimed. It seemed too obvious a play on the heartstrings of God’s people.
And yet, I really believe that all of us, including the strangers among us, are Children of God and loved by God, even though all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God loves the strangers among us, too. None of us deserve God’s love.
There just was not enough time last Sunday morning to get all the facts, to properly assess the situation. It just so happened that last Sunday was packed to the hilt with a funeral service, a Habitat for Humanity event, and a church meeting all after the morning Worship Service. Yes, it was a busy enough day that I was not able to sit down with our guests, to listen to them, I didn’t even get their names. I wrestle with the reality that real needs don’t always wait until it is convenient for us to thoroughly evaluate them.
So as I continued to wrestle, I dug into my wallet and pulled out some cash, trying to determine in an instant how much would be too much (after all, I was suspicious) and yet would be compassionate enough, just in case the needs of these guests were real. My motives were some mixed combination of wanting to feel good that I didn’t turn them away but not wanting to give away the store.
IV. The Response of Jesus
Jesus didn’t seem to wrestle with these issues. Just a few weeks ago, we talked about the Parable of the Good Samaritan—the storied response that Jesus gave to a lawyer who, when faced with the command to “love your neighbor as yourself, asked, “Who is my neighbor?” After telling about the three responses of the people who passed by, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor to the victim lying in the street. When the lawyer responded, “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus said “God and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37).
But Jesus didn’t simply tell stories. Jesus gave himself as the example to show us how to respond to the needs of others. While I am debating inside my head about whether these visitors “deserved” our help, I remember that Jesus gave everything for me—He gave His life for me—when I didn’t deserve it. In the words of St. Paul, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8). Paul exhorts us to “let this same mind be in [us] that also was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5).
V. Application
If the goal I am to be reaching for is to have that same mind of Jesus, I find that I have a long way to go. I suspect that I have company—friends traveling on the same spiritual journey, friends who join with me, who join with none other than St. Paul, who acknowledged, “not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12, 14).
My goal is to love in the way that Jesus loved—not because I want to earn God’s love, but because God has loved me even though I didn’t and I don’t deserve it. “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
I you share my concern about how we as the people of God can share with others the love we don’t deserve but we have received anyway, I invite you to join in a conversation. I would like to suggest that we meet next Sunday after the worship service to continue the conversation on this tough issue. As you can see, there are not easy answers.
But there is a promise, a promise that the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4). In fact, we just might discover Him, together with his angels, walking and living among us.
May it be so!

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.