Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's not About What's In Your Wallet ( And it is)

How many of you remember the VISA credit card commercial “What’s in your wallet?” My favorites involved the marauding Vikings on holiday, but they all ended with a bellowing question- “What’s in YOUR wallet?” I think of it whenever I hear this gospel lesson. Because what’s in our wallets is close to us, and important to us. As the Pharisees are being tested by Jesus as much as they thought they were testing him. But what exactly is Jesus really getting at when he tells them to hand him a coin and then tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s?

The short answer is “I don’t know for sure.” But I do think we have Caesars in our lives too.  And by that I mean whatever occupies us and controls us.

The Pharisees and God’s people lived in an occupied land. They were taken over by the Romans who brought their laws, their army and their money. Literally the answer to what’s in their wallet is money that had a picture of Caesar on it and proclaimed he was the Son of God. So much for the people who say they will have no other gods before the Lord. Claiming allegiance to the Lord was seemingly an impossible dilemma. They were allowed to worship their God as long as they also worshipped Caesar. And it seems they are caught and yet, they have no trouble even in the temple of handing Jesus that coin. The one they tell others they can’t have in the temple and must exchange for temple money for a price. They have a lot of those Caesar coins and they’re not sharing. And they have no trouble going to the occupying leaders about Jesus. Their words about God and their actions have gotten pretty disconnected. Frankly, they’ve spent an awful lot of time cozying up to the very thing that threatens them.

We are not occupied in the same way, but we are also living in a system that demands much it seems. However we answer the question of what occupies us affects our decision making, how we see the world, and tells where we place our hope. Often it is in our wallet. Even though our money boldly says “In God We Trust” on it.

But I wonder if anyone has looked at those words when you’re buying something, or before you spend money. Does anyone stop and look at those words “ In God We Trust” and ask if this decision lives that out? Anyone? Me neither.

With credit cards and electronic purchases becoming the norm kids today perhaps no longer will even see those words. They won’t even cross our minds.

We’re all far more likely to pay attention to the words of the brands we are loyal to. Now advertisers have gone beyond trying to convince us of a brand- it’s about creating a whole community. There are Nike people. And I-phone people. There are Weis shoppers and Redners shoppers. There are whole systems based upon these loyalties- there are even loyalty cards. And while some offer us a deal here and there, they are mainly just tracking what we buy to get us to buy more of what it seems we can’t do without. I keep waiting for my loyalty to Turkey Hill really give me the better gas discount. They tell me to keep spending. Getting us to cozy up to their system and treat the connections as real. To be the thing we want most. But they’re not real connections.

What’s in our wallet says a lot. It says not only what we are loyal to, but I think it says where we place our hope. That’s why retail therapy is a thing. For those of you who don’t know, that’s shopping at a favorite place to feel better. The next product is bound to make a difference until maybe we do realize that VISA really does own us. There’s even a spoof on the Viking commercial where the person realizes how much they owe and the Vikings come back and smash it all.

The truth in this is that there is an obvious tension in life between how to live a life of faith in the world and how to live in the culture of our world. How to live without letting the culture own us.

And I wonder if maybe the real question Jesus was asking the Pharisees and us is, whether we think the pull of the culture is so strong we don’t even try?

Maybe we begin to think it’s too much to ask how faith shapes our decisions in life about spending and saving and giving. That’s a place of no hope in the end. Yet Jesus says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.  Which may be a way of reminding us how our coins and our cards do not define us.

Because God does. We belong to God.

Jesus invites and even demands us to engage these words we say about God and ourselves- to speak of our Lord in terms of a real living relationship. And a source of hope. Because while God wants all of us, the good news is that God first says- you are mine. It’s a promise not a threat.

Words that are intended to reassure us that we are more than our money and don’t have to live in fear of having it all.

Perhaps now more than ever these are words of community and comfort and direction we need to hear. That our hope is not limited to what we can buy. That we can live in faith that God loves us, provides for us and saves us and we can believe there is a future and hope. Now more than ever as we look at our world and feel powerless we can be a community that continues to gather together around what is real- God’s love and promise today and forever in Christ’s work of the cross. That’s our hope. And it’s real.

In a few weeks, we will be gathering for our annual meeting, and voting upon a plan for how we will carry out ministry in the coming year. The time honored term is called a budget. And it often feels that our thoughts about bills and coins are the only way we see this process. But I want to suggest we view it as a statement of trust in God and as a statement of hope.

That the choices we make in our commitment will be based upon our trust in God so that we can support it financially. And that the choice we make in shaping ministry will be based upon what we believe God is calling us to do, not only what we feel used to doing.

Because we’re liberated by God from the weight of whatever feels like it occupies us. We are liberated! And our primary response is to say thank you! Thank God! And trust God’s providing as we carry out the gospel for others. So they can feel liberated and thankful too.

And this is who we CAN be because God claims us, loves us and empowers us to respond.


Let us pray- Lord God, sometimes we are unsure about how we can respond to your calling. Help us to surrender ourselves, and be thankful because we are yours, and to trust that you love us and provide for us, so that we can break free from what holds us back and share of ourselves for the sake of your world.

In Jesus’ name. Amen

 PS- here's the Vikings!


Monday, October 13, 2014

This is the Good Stuff

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, in the name of the Triune God. I bring you greetings from your sisters and brothers at Holy Spirit as we give thanks for the privilege of sharing in ministry with you for the sake of the gospel here in Reading. This afternoon we will share in the CROP walk for hunger, but today especially I want to lift up and share our gratitude for a way you support our ministry over the years that ties in to our readings for today.

At Holy Spirit, we have an afterschool ministry called the Doves Nest, which provides a free meal, tutoring, literacy assistance and fun for 40-80 kids three days a week. Most of the time we are grateful for the meals we receive from the Kids Café program of the Greater Berks Food Bank, but a few times a year we are blessed by a feast when members from here at Nativity lovingly prepare and deliver a special meal that takes the place of the usual food.

I can assure you, that when the kids, especially the older ones, get wind of the fact that a meal is coming from Nativity, that good news spreads like wildfire! Poor Shirleen has to plan her arrival so she’s not mobbed by the kids. News of a meal from Nativity is like the proclamation of a feast! The kids go around and make sure everyone knows the news- “you gotta be here- this is the GOOD stuff!”

While I am sure that no one is thinking of well aged wines (God forbid!) or fatted calves, it is indeed a great meal. One that invites our kids into something different- knowing that great preparations were made, for them, and the taste of that great meal lingers in their memories and speaks love. And for some of our kids this meal sustains them in the midst of places that don’t seem all that great or maybe even loving. And that’s where our readings come in.

Admittedly, it’s hard to overlook the intensity of the language in the gospel this day, which doesn’t seem all that loving either. But it’s helpful to remember this is a parable. A story told to show a truth. Not told to show that the story is fact.

And I’d like to suggest that at this point in the gospel as Jesus has been sparring with the leaders for some time about who he is and what he’s about and it’s helpful to see that the strong images are intended to get attention about a truth about God’s power and purpose. Because you don’t want to miss out on what God’s up to. It’s a message humanity often misses.

All our readings this day call to mind the tensions of the world but they also point to God’s providing in the midst of it. In exile and strife, and struggle and confusion, there are these meals. Spoken of to a people in exile, to a church in conflict, to those beset by enemies, and those who weren’t expected to be included. There are these great meals.

In different ways, we ourselves know what makes for a great meal in our lives. It can be a great meal just because the ingredients are exquisite and the chef talented. It can also be a great meal to be with family or a special day. Or maybe you’ve been hungry for a long time and you finally get to eat. Maybe you’ve been sick and unable to taste or take in food, but now you can. Maybe you’ve been in a place of dark shadows, of loneliness or loss, staring at an empty chair, but today an empty chair is filled with a dinner companion- and that’s a great meal. Perhaps you’ve been at odds with someone but now there is a peace at the table. All of those are great meals, are they not?

Even our psalm this day lifts up a feast, however unlikely.

Psalm 23 is the most well known passage of Scripture in much of the world. We probably all know it well. After we hear the Lord is our shepherd and we are led by still waters and to green pastures, but before forever with God, there it is. “You prepare a table before me even in the presence of my enemies.” Even when we’re surrounded by struggles whether they are people or emotions. This is gospel for us in all kinds of times and places.

I heard it this past week as one of my colleagues told a story as a Vietnam vet of being in a watchtower on a hill with a few guys, eating lots of C-rations, and being pretty isolated. But occasionally they’d get mail. And on Christmas Eve he got a package from his fiancée.

Inside was a canned pheasant. I didn’t even know you could put a pheasant in a can. Canned pheasant and mandarin oranges and popcorn. An odd feast. And way too much for one person but those cans had to be eaten as soon as opened. So he and his fellow soldiers there in that tower surrounded by shots most of the time, had a feast, one he still calls one the best ever- as the shots stopped for a awhile, and there was a feast on Christmas Eve.

From those cans came a feast that spoke of the love of his fiancée, the protection of God and the goodness of something unexpected and abundant.

This is what our Scripture shows us- not only the goodness and power of the food, but of the provider who continually prepares and invites. Our God continually lovingly prepares for and invites those who long for it, and those who don’t get it. Those who will savor it and those who will dismiss it. Even in places and times we can’t expect-God provides a feast, prepares a table and says “Come.”

And Jesus asks, “Do you really want to miss out on grace?”

God is feeding us too. Again this day-in the midst of our busy-ness and our challenges. Our frailties and doubts. Dark places and short-comings. There’s a great meal here that offers the power to sustain us today- it is a feast and celebration!

And so, we’re invited to take all those other things that fill our hearts and minds, and are maybe even distracting us now and STOP.

Stop what we’re about and be fed with good things. Good things that will be carried in our hearts and minds so we can so as Paul encourages- think on these things. Think on the truth and honor of what God offers, the pure grace and wonder worthy of praise-

the things God gives, that are stronger than enemies, and dark places and prison cells. Because the God of peace meets us in this meal and is with us. And it starts here.

In order to be the church that shares good news, I think we must first stand in that grace and take it in again. And the best part is that we’re invited!  To be lovingly fed by Christ and strengthened to walk in God’s world and to love others- to share as the kids would say, the news of the good stuff!

This is the invitation- so Come and be fed.  AMEN


Monday, October 6, 2014

Crazy Love

How many of you are familiar with Albert Einstein’s definition of “insanity?” Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Our first dog helped us experience this. Every day when the postal carrier would come to deliver mail, the dog would go nuts, and bark her head off, and sounded like given the chance would have attacked the person just delivering messages through the mail slot. From the dog’s perspective she was a success- every day some stranger came and tried to put stuff in our door and she barked and the person left. That’s not insanity.

Insanity was what we did. Every day we would chastise the dog for that behavior and tell her not to do it. And it never changed. You’d think that since we provided her a safe and comfortable home and good food, and she always cornered the best spot in a nice fluffy bed. You would think that she’d listen. But every day, the postal carrier would appear, and the dog had the same response. Because to our dog, “This is MY HOUSE!” And she was in charge.

Our dog was not exhibiting insanity- we were. For thinking that on a different day or with a different person the result would be different. And we could have given up on the dog but we didn’t. Because we loved the dog. And thankfully she never “got” that person who came and shoved mail through the slot in our front door.

But insanity, that act of doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is perhaps the best way I know to describe what we see in the vineyard lessons today. Stories of wild grapes and tenants run amok, and the actions of the owner of the vineyard. (Thanks David Lose!)

The owner has labored to create a vineyard, tilling soil, planting lovingly, setting everything in order for the best and most abundantly possible harvest, and then gives the care of the vineyard over to other. In Isaiah we hear that it all goes wild from there and the temptation is tear it all down. But in the gospel, we hear about the tenants in a different way. And as far as we know in most respects they have been good tenants and have cared for the place. They’ve been given a place to live and a job to do- bring in the harvest. And presumably they’ve been given a promise that some of the harvest will be theirs as their pay, but of course the rest goes to the one who owned the land and who created the vineyard. And the harvest has come!

But now they look around and they see that harvest and they just don’t want to share. They’ve worked hard day after day for an owner who isn’t really around. They’ve put themselves into it and it doesn’t seem right that most of this goes to someone else.

So when the landowner sends servants to collect, they don’t receive grapes of joy in the harvest. Instead, to borrow the phrase from John Steinbeck, they meet with grapes of wrath. In wrath and anger those poor servants are abused or killed. Because the tenants have decided that this is MY PLACE!

Here’s where the insanity starts.

The owner could do as we would at this point, send in police or soldiers and take this by force. But instead, the owner sends more servants! Who sadly meet the same result. And that’s crazy! Why would the owner put so much at stake to risk a different result? More grapes of wrath. And frankly now the tenants are feeling the battle surge.

So then it really gets crazy, because the owner says, “I’ll send my son. They’ll listen to him. They’ll show respect, and recognize his authority, after all they have had a job and a place and are getting cared for.”

And we know how it ends. More wrath and killing.

The question isn’t really so much why did the tenants act that way- we sadly expect it. The stories in our world and our lives tell us this.

The question is, “why did the owner act that way??”

Why would anyone try to live in the framework of a relationship over and over when it is clear that it’s so one-sided?

That’s just crazy.

Today’s parable was told by Jesus to the leaders of the temple to show them who they were- those who rejected over and over the messengers of God. And while it’s a story about them and about how they would go on to reject even the Son, none of us should be under the impression we would be any different.

When so often we find in our own lives, ways we reject God’s call upon us to care for the vineyard, for those who show up in it, or to listen to God. When it is easy to respond to others not with love but with wrath. To call upon force rather than tend relationships.

Our news and our own stories tell us this is true. And in the end so much of what we’re given we are sure is OURS, because we’ve been tending it, we hardly think at all about who else might have a stake.

We can do a fine job of serving up grapes of wrath. That’s not the gospel.

Sometimes we have to work harder to see what the good news is.

The bigger and more important part of the parable however is what we know of God. It’s the story of one who lovingly arranged a place for us to live and to work and to grow, and who despite all our rejections and possessiveness, and even our violence and spite, continues to send not only messengers but to send the Son.

This side of the cross we know just how crazy this love God has for us really is. Christ on the cross is the ultimate message, that takes our wrath and made of it, our salvation.

If God responded towards any of us as we deserve, there would be wrath and destruction indeed. How unexpectedly graciously instead,

God persists over and over in a relationship with us, however one-sided, and while it is indeed the height of insanity, it is the best demonstration of crazy love we’ll ever see.

The grapes in the end are not grapes of wrath, they are grapes of mercy and forgiveness and love.

And this day again we will taste them. We’ll come because God invites us and we’ll receive the body and blood of Christ who died at our hand, but for us. So today, maybe, we’ll taste these grapes and maybe linger over it, and savor that taste that for us is the taste of love and mercy for each of us and for all of us.

And then maybe remember that of all the things we clamor to possess, or to know, the sweetest and best is God’s crazy love for us all.

** thanks to David Lose, and Sharron Blezard for the inspiration