Being Formed: sermon by Keith, 10.27.13 Pentecost 23C

Scriptures: 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:9-14

So, who are you in this story?  The Pharisee or the tax collector?  That’s part of the power of the parables, they allow you to step into the shoes of the people involved in the story.   And you know, when I stand in their shoes, I’m really not a big fan of either the Pharisee or the tax collector.  It is easy to point the finger at the Pharisee and say, “Bad guy!”  But I bet you would want him as your neighbor.  He was an upstanding citizen.  We want to be exalted in the eyes of the community like the Pharisee, but we also want to be justified in the eyes of God like the tax collector!

Here’s where my tension with this lays.  In the church, most of the time, a Pharisee-like person would never be scorned; he or she would be exalted.   This guy tithes!  You see his name on little plaques throughout the church and on scholarship funds.  She’s here in worship every Sunday morning.  She teaches Sunday school and is on three important church committees.  He’s serving the church and the world in so many ways.  The church and God are so lucky to have her on their side.  Tax collectors, well they are terrible church members.  Who wants humility when you have to meet a budget and pay the heating bills?  They show up, confess, and then go out living the same life of sin they did before, giving all good church members a bad name.

Do you feel the tension this story creates?  You can almost hear the collective mumblings through the crowd when Jesus finished this parable because it really turned everything upside down.  The one who was despised in the eyes of the community gets justified and the one who has been following the law, doing everything right, even going beyond the bounds of the law with his extra fasting, goes away with nothing, except his own self-justification.

I think it is very easy to fall into thinking ourselves as righteous. We do our duty, confess our sins each Sunday, and put our envelope in the plate as it passes.  We serve the world in so many ways, Hooray for us!  Boo for those who haven’t followed the rules like we have, boo for those who work is detestable.  We live in a world that expects us to size each other up based upon so many things, our looks, our jobs and income, our families, and even our religious affiliation.  It can be hard not to look at some with contempt when they haven’t lived up to the expected standards.

What Jesus is calling us and all believers is to avoid trusting in our own efforts at fulfilling the law to please God.  The Pharisee is doing and trusting, but doing and trusting in the wrong things.  Trust is called for, but not trust in ourselves or in our abilities to keep God’s law.  We can’t totally keep God’s law, but what we can do is trust in God’s mercy and love.  But then also nowhere does Jesus that we can ignore the law.  Following Jesus doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want.  So in some aspects, both the Pharisee and the tax collector got it right.  The Pharisee in following God’s law and the Tax collector in appealing for God’s mercy.  There is a balancing act when it comes to being Christ’s disciples.

We just watched the third video of celebrating the church’s mission [available at the First Presbyterian Church of La Grande, OR Facebook page] and its members and each of the ways that people can live into being fully alive in Christ.  Now, being fully alive in Christ could be its own sermon series.  And even the longest living Christian is trying to live into that calling, that identity.  But the video and the two texts deal we read just scratch the surface with what being alive in Christ can look like.  What you saw was a partial list on the video of what the Reformed/Protestant tradition has regarded as spiritual disciplines over the course of history.  The ones you saw were the easy ones to add a picture to.  There are a lot more that are a little harder to take a picture of, such as chastity or fasting.  But the point is why we do them.  If we are fasting, if we are tithing and giving, if we are confessing, or if we are studying scripture and proclaiming the Gospel to justify ourselves before God or the community, we are creating an island, isolating ourselves from God and the community.  What happens is I live in a ‘me’-centered existence, forcing God and everyone else off my island.  I become more concerned about my own righteousness than even my relationship with God in Christ.  Sadly, what happens in that case is my relationship with God in Christ gets boiled down to a ‘to-do’ list, a ‘to-do’ list that I’m trying to make more impressive than the rest of you in the room.

But if we are doing these practices to be transformed as disciples of the living God, then we will cross bridges, bridges that God in Christ by the Spirit has provided to strengthen our relationship with him and each other.  Our ego, our self-exultation gets knocked out of the way and God in Christ becomes the center of why we do them.  And that is when the Spirit can truly take hold of our heart and transform us.  I wish the parable continued on with how the tax collectors justification, the mercy he received from God, changed him on his walk home.  Tax collectors basically made their living by extortion.  They had a quota they had to collect for the Romans and everything above that was theirs.  And they would use whatever means possible to get as much as possible.  Some of the other stories in scripture of tax collectors, like Levi and Zacchaeus, talk about the radical transformed lives they have when encounter Jesus’ forgiveness.  Levi abandons his collecting, follows Jesus, and throws a great party to celebrate and Zacchaeus promises to repay anyone four times as much as he defrauded them.

So, who are you in the story?  Truth be told, we need to be a little bit of both the Pharisee and the tax collector, humbling ourselves before God but also responding to the love and mercy we receive from God.  My hope is that when you open your Bible to study, you aren’t doing it to check it off the list of the things you think God wants you to do, but you ask the Spirit to make the Word come alive in the pages as you ask, “What is God up to here?  How is Christ calling me to respond?”  When you confess the things you have done and things you have left undone, you don’t immediate plunge back into the world doing the same old same old, but cry out to God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”  and let the Spirit guide you in ways to live afresh in the light of God’s love and mercy.  When you give, don’t compare it what your neighbor has given or not given, but give in response to the priceless and unending love and mercy you have been given in Christ.

Friends, we are no better nor are we any worse than anyone else.  We are all in deep need of the love and mercy that is found in Christ.  If we begin there, his Spirit will free us, free us to respond in ways we can only dream of as we encounter him in Scripture, in prayer, in giving, in singing, in worship, and in our engagement with the community.  His Spirit will free us to be truly alive in him.  Amen.

(Laura’s sermon on this gospel text is here.)

“It’s Just What We Do”: 10.6.13 Pentecost 20C; World Communion Sunday

Scripture Readings: Luke 17:1-10; 2 Tim 1:1-14

Writing this sermon on Friday, I got hungry, so I took a break and walked over to Kneads Bakery.  Sure enough, I received just what I “kneaded”—a little sustenance and inspiration, in a chocolate almond croissant and a conversation. As I broke into the buttery layers, baker Leah Starr told me, “I make my own almond butter. I could have used Nutella, but then you know there’s all sorts of other ingredients. I wanted to keep it simple, just chocolate, almonds, flour, sugar, butter, and a little salt.” Tasting that homemade filling, I appreciated the baker’s craftsmanship, the pursuit of quality, a wholeness and simplicity which actually required extra effort. I get the feeling Leah’s not going to cut corners to make things easier or cheaper. Baking excellent food is just what she does.

“Craftsmanship is doing what you love and doing it right…” writes one author.[i] Another notes, “Craftsmanship…isn’t something that just happens. It requires a great deal of time, patience, and effort… Traditionally, craftsmen developed their skills through apprenticeship to those masters of the craft who came before them.”[ii] Craftsmanship is the passionate pursuit of excellence in which making something excellent is its own reward.

As we attempt to digest Jesus’ teachings this morning, imagine Jesus as the Master craftsman, speaking to his apprentices. But in this case, the craft isn’t something as tangible as a croissant; it is the building-up a particular kind of community, the church, and the subtle craft of person-to-person relationships, in which we share the good news of God in Jesus Christ as we share together the fullness of our lives.

Jesus’ words in Luke 17 sum up a long stretch of teaching, and we have to go back to understand them in context. Remember in Ch.15, the Pharisees and scribes muttering about how Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them?” That complaint launches Jesus into the parables, the lost sheep, lost coin, and the prodigal son, which all reveal God’s extraordinary forgiveness for the least and the lost and question listeners’ attitudes and practices. Then in Ch. 16, Jesus takes on attitudes toward wealth. The conventional understanding, then as now, was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing; poverty was a curse an individual had brought upon him or herself.

But Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus overturns that idea. In the upside-down reign of God, the least, the lost, the poor and the broken-hearted are closer to God’s heart than those with pride in exemplary morality or financial prosperity.

Keep in mind that the Pharisees and scribes listening are upper-middle class leaders in their community, people respected for their religious practice, people of means with resources to share with others. Further, they, like Jesus and his disciples, were Jews, children of Israel, a people who understood themselves to be God’s chosen.  They, among all peoples, had received the Torah, precious instructions on living whole and holy relationships with God, one another, and the land, that they might be a light to the nations.

Now, Jesus is not undoing the Torah. As he says in 16:17, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” Rather, Jesus is the master craftsman, revealing the errors of apprentices and encouraging them to aim for a higher level of craftsmanship. They themselves are far from being the least or the lost; rather, the chosen people, blessed to know God’s ways, are called to be shepherds and seekers of all who do not yet know God’s steadfast love and mercy.

In today’s text, there’s a change. Here, Jesus’ words are addressed to “the disciples,” the whole community of Jesus-apprentices. He is also the “the Lord,” speaking across all generations to the church universal, which is another iteration of God’s chosen people, a people blessed to be a blessing. Here the Master tells all of us apprentices in no uncertain terms, that the gold standard of gospel living, the key to the highest community craftsmanship, is forgiveness.

“Be on your guard!” Jesus says. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive”—not just once, but even seven times a day, as much as is necessary, as seven signifies a complete number.

Wow, these are challenging words. First of all, how many of us readily “rebuke” another disciple who “sins”? I’m guessing many of us associate rebuking with an authoritarian style of religion of which we want no part. We’re Presbyterians, after all! So when we are hurt by someone in our congregation, we’re not likely to rebuke. We’d sooner just sweep it under the rug, pretending nothing happened or just dropping out of the community. If we can’t see it, it can’t hurt us further, we rationalize. The trouble is that avoiding the problem does not allow the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. How many grudges have festered for years in congregations because hurt people refuse to encounter the one who has hurt them?  How many folks have simply dropped out of community rather than do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Jesus warns us there can be no cutting corners on forgiveness. Disciples are apprentice shepherds and seekers, sent out to find the least and the lost. We must live in ways which will not cause them to stumble. And it turns out that one of the biggest causes of stumbling is a community which lacks forgiveness. Andrew Prior puts it this way: “The scandal is not that someone sins and offends me. The scandal is if I do not forgive, and thus cause them in their even weaker faith to stumble…They were never here because of their good behavior! They were here, and they are here, because God loves them.”[iii] For excellence in Christian community, Jesus tells us we must be willing to come face-to-face with members who have hurt us, honestly naming the harm, and accepting and aiding repentance as we forgive again and again.

And so I can certainly understand why the apostles react by saying “Increase our faith!” It seems like we’ll need spectacular supplies of it to live this way! But Jesus disagrees, and tells two parables. Mustard seeds are famously tiny, but that’s all the faith we need to command incredible changes in the landscape. In effect, Jesus is saying, “You have more than enough faith; Any faith at all is enough!” And it turns out that seeking a “bigger and better” faith actually misses the point. That’s what the second parable is about.

Now, I’m uncomfortable with Jesus talking about slavery in such a matter-of-fact way, even though I know it was just part of the social context he lived in. But I think what bugs me more is that I’ve been well-trained to work hard for rewards.  The anticipation of a little treat at the end of the day sometimes gets me through the most laborious parts. And when I get it, I think, “I deserve this for all my hard work!”

But despite the religious training many of us have received, what Jesus is telling us here is that working for rewards fails when it comes to the kingdom of God. There is no need to make our faith bigger and better because, at the end of the day, there will not be an increased reward for working harder and longer.

And, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, this is the good news! We are not accepted and loved and brought near to God because of increased faith; neither is our acceptance by God a reward of our good behavior or stellar worth. We are loved and accepted by God because God has chosen to love and accept us. Nothing more and nothing less is necessary.

Only our joy in experiencing God’s unshakable love can truly motivate us to practice the challenging craft of Christian community. We love and we forgive because we have been forgiven and we are loved. In loving forgiveness, we find our identity and our direction, passionately pursuing excellence which is its own reward. Forgiveness and love are just what we do.

We are freed to a craftsmanship of elegant simplicity: less is more. We can stop working so hard at increasing things, we can stop fretting about our limitations, and we can trust that whatever God provides will be enough. We can stop looking over our shoulders, seeking recognition for our good works, because we are already receiving Christ’s loving forgiveness. We can start looking at all our brothers and sisters with deep compassion for the broken, human persons in whom the Holy Spirit is revealing God’s image. We can work smarter, no longer cutting corners in our hurry to increase, but investing ourselves deeply in relationships right here and now, risking vulnerability, speaking up when we are hurt, and repenting when we find we’ve hurt others, trusting we’ll find forgiveness.

It’s just what we do, we Christians who live with and for one another, not from our own tiny faith but the amazing faith of Jesus Christ, in whom God chose to become the least and the lost, walking the road of human suffering to death on the cross; the faith of Jesus Christ, in whose resurrection God revealed that death cannot vanquish self-giving love.

But as it turns out, when we come in from a hard day of shepherding and seeking the lost, we have a Master who does in fact say, “Come here at once and take your place at the table.” Our Master does not call us “worthless slaves,” but valued friends, and he gives us his own life to nourish us! He gives us his body and his blood, joining us forever, across all space and time, all continents and all cultural differences, joining us in communion with him and everyone who trusts in him.

In that communion, joined to the very life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God in Community, Holy Three in One, we have all the inspiration and sustenance we need to be a people blessed to be a blessing.  It’s just what we do. May it be so, this World Communion Sunday, and forevermore. Come Lord Jesus! Amen.

(An earlier sermon on these passages can be read by clicking here.)

Lost or Found? Sermon by Keith, 9.22.13 Pentecost 18C

(Lay Leader Sondra read scripture: Luke 15:1-7)  

What Sondra just read is called the Parable of the Lost Sheep and it opens chapter 15 from Gospel of Luke.  This chapter has been called “the gospel in the gospel,” as it has at its heart the very essence of the good news Jesus came to proclaim.  And, in very Jesus fashion, he shares this good news by use of parables, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  Fredrick Buechner defines a parable as a small story with a large point.  And I would add a large point about God and God’s Kingdom, and about us, the listeners.  And parables typically have many, many layers of rich meanings, with different understandings of what is being revealed depending on who you are.  But they also allow us to step into the shoes of the ‘other.’  I even think these parables allow us to step into God’s shoes, allowing us to come to a deeper understanding of the nature of God and thus a deeper understanding of our relationship with God and each other.

Now each of these three parables has parallels but each can uniquely stand on its own.  So today we are going to be looking at the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, leaving the Prodigal Son for another Sunday.  There has been a lot more focus on the Prodigal Son in literature, art, and even the movies then there has been the Lost Coin and Lost Sheep.  There’s even a brew house in Pendleton called the Prodigal Son. Las Vegas could possibly be called the city of the lost coin, but the coin and sheep haven’t quite received the same level of focus as the Prodigal Son.  My guess is it is because the prodigal parable has more of an individual focus while the other two have more communal understanding with it.   The numbers are just bigger, as the parables start with 100 sheep, then down to 10 coins, and finally 2 brothers.

Now, let us hear the parable of the lost coin. (Read Luke 15:8-10)

Jesus is surrounded by a mixed bag of followers, the disciples, the Pharisees and the scribes, but also the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and others of less then savory backgrounds.  It has become a crowd of insiders and outsiders and almost immediately the side conversations begin.  “Who invited them?”  “Doesn’t Jesus know these people are sinners?”  The Pharisees and the scribes had a rule about dealing with people like that:  Have no dealings with them!

Jesus hears the conversations and begins to address the growing grumblings in the crowds by talking about the nature of God in terms they could understand, turning the conversation toward things they held as valuable.  He wants people to think about what is most valuable to them.  The shepherd values the health and safety of his flock and the woman values the hard earned money she has scraped and saved for herself and family.

It may be hard to exactly come to an understanding of the value of the sheep and coins since we are separated by 2000 years of tradition and culture.  But I had a lesson on the lost sheep from an old Basque sheepherder in the mountains of Wyoming.  My brother, Dad and I hiked back up into this valley and came across this old Basque in his sheep wagon.  The Basque had come to the states to work sheep and cattle in the lonely, isolated areas of the west, and this man had worked these mountains for most of his life.  Even though he was excited to have some human conversation, he always kept an eye on the sheep that lined the ridges above his camp.  Then with his broken English, he suddenly said, “Someone’s missing.”  The three of us looked up at all the sheep scattered on the ridge and I blurted out, “How can you tell?”  He went on to explain the groupings of the sheep that he watched for and after a bit of time, came to know each and every one.  He could scan the hillside and notice which sheep wasn’t there.  He went on to explain that when a sheep would look up from its grazing and saw another sheep, it would start bleating and catch up to the others.  If it saw no other sheep, many times it would just sit down and quietly wait.  It made no noise so as not to draw any attention to itself from predators.  You could read the anxiety rise in the old man’s face as he got his horse ready to ride the draws and downed timber looking for this one lost sheep.  That sheep had a deep value and worth to him.

But what would be a modern parable equivalent of the lost coin parable?  It’s just a coin, right?  How many of you ladies have lost a diamond out of a wedding ring, or even the entire ring itself?  How many husbands have torn apart a trap on a drain looking for a gem or ring that went down the drain?  It is very possible that Jesus used this image with 10 coins for a reason.  The mark of a married woman was a headdress made of ten silver coins linked together by a chain, and it would be similar to the today’s wedding ring.  It may have been one of these coins that the women had lost, so the search for it would be like searching for a lost diamond from her wedding ring.  For this woman in Palestine, the value of this chain of coins was more than the coins itself.  The headdress was inalienable hers; it couldn’t even be taken from her for payment of debt.

So what Jesus does is make this crowd think of that thing that is most precious in the hearers life and what it would be like to loose it.  Think about it for a moment.  What is most valuable in your life to you?  Now what would it be like to loose it, whether through carelessness or theft?  What would you do?  How long would you seek for it?  My guess is for a long time, until you felt that every possible rock had been overturned and every nook and cranny had been thoroughly explored.  And you continue searching because it feels that part of the whole, part of you, is missing.

And as those who are listening to Jesus are contemplating the thing in life most valuable to them and what they would do to recover what is lost, Jesus tells them that God is like that in his search for them.  God is like the shepherd who values each sheep in the flock, or the woman who accounts for every coin on her headdress.  When one goes missing, God goes into search mode.  God’s nature is love, and love looks like one who goes out and never stops searching because what is lost is priceless in his sight.

But these parables not only talk about the all loving, always seeking nature of God, it also speaks to nature of the one who is lost.  The lost sheep that is curled up, not making a sound out of fear of the predator that might be lurking by cannot aid in its own rescue.  Its rescue is dependant on the diligence of the shepherd.  The lost coin is an inanimate object that cannot shine bright to get the women’s attention, but is only found because of the women’s careful cleaning of the house.  They can only be found.

The Pharisees and scribes would have been flustered at this understanding of God and God’s love for these sinners.  They deserved God’s wrath for who they were.  Maybe if they came crawling to God in confession and self-abasement and prayed for pity, maybe, maybe God would forgive and grant mercy.  But never would they conceive of a God who went out to search for sinners.  One of the things Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees, and even the tax-collectors and prostitutes, is that those on the fringe of the community are necessary and integral to what the community in all its fullness should be.  Until they return, the community is incomplete.  And when they do return, there is cause for celebration.

Now I can’t dispute that the core of each of these parables is an understanding of God searching and finding the lost.  I’ve heard your stories, about the times in your lives you were lost and have had an encounter with the God who dived into thickets to pull you out or the God who crawled into the hole you dug for yourself and lifts you out.  Alleluia and Amen!  But I believe that the God does the searching to restore the lost to their community they were lost from.  It isn’t a search to save per say, but also a search to welcome.  Welcoming is about intimacy and focuses on the community over the individual.  That is why the celebration can take place.  It’s almost as if the finding and saving takes place so celebration can take place.  They go hand-in-hand.  The finding of the one isn’t just for the sake of the one who was lost, but for the sake of the entire community that is now complete and made whole.

These parables call the community to open its doors and rejoice and celebrate.  Sinners and tax collectors gather at the table with Christ?  Rejoice!  Celebrate!  A pew that was empty is now filled with a new face seeking a community to learn what it means to follow Christ together?  Party time!  Laugh!  Hugs of welcome and invitations to a meal all around!  An old familiar face that has been missing for months is back?  Be glad!  Delight in their presence and listen for the story of how God found them.  You never know, God may have found them through the card you sent or the phone call you made.  We can now feast!  Hope and joy has been restored!

Lost or found?  Friends, we are both.  Praise be to the God that finds us and restores us into the household of God.  Because when one is restored, we are all better off for it. Amen.