Friday, December 5, 2008

Does God Want You to Be Rich?

*Read Matthew 6:19-21; 25-33

There once was a rich man who was dying. While on his death bed, he tried to negotiate with God to have God allow him to bring his earthly treasures with him to heaven.

"God, please, I have worked so hard to accumulate all these riches. Can't I bring them along?" "This is very unusual," said God, "but since you have been such a faithful steward, I will allow you to bring one suitcase."

The man immediately had a servant fill a large suitcase with gold bricks. Shortly thereafter, he died. When he arrived at the pearly gates, he was stopped by St. Peter. "I'm sorry sir, but you know the rule -- 'you can't take it with you.' You may enter, but the suitcase has to stay outside."

"But God told me I could bring one suitcase," the man protested.
"Well, if God says it's okay -- but I still need to examine the contents before you enter." St. Peter took the suitcase from the man, opened it, and, looking very puzzled, said to the man, "You brought pavement?"

We have been tacking the tough questions over the past six weeks in an attempt to discern, do our beliefs as progressive Christians fit the stereotype that the culture perceives of us? For the past 11 years of my Christian life my spiritual beliefs have been in constant evolution. And the issue of prosperity has been one of those areas I’ve struggle most with.

A few weeks ago I talked about stumbling blocks – a physical obstacle in our path that trips us up and deters us from our destination. The promotion of a version of Christianity that is premised on the notion that God wants all of his followers to be financially rich is, in my opinion, the greatest of all stumbling blocks.

If we consider the history of prosperity in the church, financial prosperity is a relatively new concept. The fact is, the financial status of Christians through the ages has been fairly representative of the economic level of the society around them. Eking out a living has been most everyone’s primary concern through the history of the church. Until the middle of the last century, Christians were known for being hard working. Our Protestant work ethic “Idle hands were the devil’s playthings” was the rule by which we lived. But in the 1970’s a new kind of theology emerged; God loves you, and He wants you to have lots of money. It was the emergence of the “name it and claim it” gospel.

No the God that this gospel espouses is very, very appealing – after all, how could you resist a God who wants to poor out financial riches upon you? There are countless verses in the Bible to confirm this kind of God. Psalm 50:10 – The Almighty God says to King David, “I own the cattle on a thousand hills.” With all of these assets of the world at his disposal, wouldn’t he likely spread some of it around to his spiritual children? A Time Magazine poll suggested that 61% of Christians believe that God wants them to be prosperous. However, there is a “Catch” – God wants you to make you rich, but you have to get the ball rolling by giving money to him first. Giving so you can get has become the mindset of most Christians. Another Time magazine poll revealed that 31% of Christians surveyed agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

There was a feature story in the Los Angeles Times that exposed these statistics about a prominent prosperity-gospel television ministry; 70% of contributions to the ministry’s $170 million revenue were made by lower-income rural Americans. Think about it. My gripe isn’t against poor Americans who make these donations; those who benefit from the charity in some way. I take issue with the way in which these funds are solicited. Ever listen to the pitch? My grandma faithfully watched these TV Evangelists and the statement that shocked me most was, “If you have been healed or saved or blessed through this ministry, and have not contributed…you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven.”

What is the theology behind the prosperity Gospel? God is a means to an end, not the end in himself. If that is indeed true, then apparently Jesus didn’t know how to work the system. If God wanted everyone to be rich, wouldn’t that at least include his only Son? But Jesus spent his entire life in poverty. What about the disciples? They should have been rewarded for their service to Jesus and God. Did they get it wrong too? What about poor Christians living in Africa, China and other 3rd world countries? Have they missed the boat too? The prosperity gospel has demeaned God to the status of an ATM.

The critical different between the Gospel of Christ, and the prosperity gospel is; Human Independence vs. Divine Dependence. Our independent nature affirms being self-made and self-sufficient; we want to be in control of our own destiny—and when we aren’t…then something has gone wrong and desperately try to correct it through blame or shame. The Bible frequently reminds us to rely on God for our well-being rather than our own ingenuity. The more we acknowledge our divine dependence, the more we appreciate God’s provision.

Jesus’ divine perspective on finances comes from Matthew 6; “Do not store up treasures here on earth, whose moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust can never destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (19-21)

The apostle Paul encouraged the church of Philippi; “Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. God’s peace will guard your hears and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (4:7)

The question of riches should draw us intead to an understanding of living in "Sacred Simplicity." In addition to wanting us to recognize him as our sovereign source for all that we have or need, God also wants us to disengage ourselves from the society pressure to accumulate enough to become self sufficient. God doesn’t want us to be motivated by a quest to possess but rather invites us to live in the context of sacred simplicity.

Jesus is clear, "Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need" (Matthew 6:33). Just what is the Kingdom of God? It is your inner spiritual search for truth. Making your inner relationship with God and others the most important thing above all else will produce the prosperity you need to continue blessings others. Did you really get that? Let me say it again.

"Making your inner relationship with God and others the most important thing above all else will produce the prosperity you need to continue blessings others."

It’s not that money isn’t important; it’s just not to be our focus—ever. Paul summed it up in his letter to the Philippians; “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength. (4:11-13).

The prosperity Gospel renders any notion of suffering or sacrifice for God null and void. The theology of mainstream Christian thought puts God at the center, and we are called to do whatever is necessary for us to serve others in God’s name. Sometimes our financial comfort is the stumbling block that keeps us from putting God in the center of our life. Chances are, financial hardship is a self-correcting way to remind us of who we are, and who our god is.

Does God want you to be rich? Perhaps the answer to that question just might be, IF: If God blesses you financially, he does it so you will be able to help others. And that golden nugget of truth…you can take to the bank! Amen!

Excerpts from Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz's awesome book, "I'm fine with God...It's Christians I Can't Stand" (2008: Harvest House Publishers) www.conversantlife.com

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I Can’t Stand Christians Who Think Science is the Enemy!

* Read Psalm 104:1-5; Romans 14:13


With all the controversary surrounding the Creation vs. Evolution debate over the past 80 years, I wonder if the deeper question on the minds of most fundamentalist Christians isn't really about science – is it good or bad for Church theology?

A little boy comes home from church and asks his father, "Daddy, in Sunday School, I was taught that we came from God but in Public School we are being taught that we are descended from the apes. Daddy, Daddy, which one is it?" Now the Dad who felt pretty uncomfortable when it came to religion vs. science discussions, thought a second and replied, "Well, the answer is very, very simple! My side of the family came from God and your mother's side of the family came from the apes!"

The question that is more often on my mind these days is: Which raises more questions these days - science or religion? Paul cautions us on the issue of being a stumbling block to our brothers and sisters. A stumbling block is a physical obstacle in our path that trips us up and deters us from our destination. In Paul's discussion, a stumbling block obstructs our spiritual journey as well; conceptual obstacles trip us up and deter us from our destination of getting to know God better and better.

Romans 14:13, “live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.”
A spiritual stumbling block can take the form of behavior—good or bad—that throws someone else off.

A short history of Faith & Science
Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century published Summa Theologica which argued that all truth is one, so faith and reason were complementary rather than contradictory. During the Renaissance science advanced by leaps and bounds, and challenged certain assumptions by the church. Galileo was a Catholic but did not believe the earth was the center of the universe, so he was imprisoned. Darwin solidified the misconception that faith and science were incompatible in 1859 with the Origin of Species. His followers saw his theory of natural selection and common descent as a way to remove God as Creator. The result had two possibilities for Christian theologians; to harmonize evolution with creation, or reject the theory altogether, vilify Darwinism and deepen the divide between science and faith. The comes the evolution of Scientific Creationism in late 19th Century by the Seventh Day Adventists. They held three bedrock beliefs; 1) The seven days of creation were 24 hours long; 2) The great flood accounted for the geological changes that make the earth appear old; and 3) The Bible is a sourcebook for science.

The ramifications of scientific creationism movement concluded that there was only one possible interpretation of the biblical account of creation. Science was out to disprove God and the bible. and therefore all scientists are opposed to God. Any Christians who didn’t agree was opposed to Scripture.

What does God really think about all this?
I think first and foremost, God is all about truth – all God’s knowledge and words are both true and the final statement of truth. God is therefore reliable and faithful. This realization should encourage us in the pursuit of knowledge in all areas of the natural and social sciences and the humanities. Whatever the area of our investigation when we discover more truth about the nature of reality, we discover more truth that God already knows. In this sense, we can affirm that “all truth is God’s truth.”

Worldview of the Bible

As far as the ancients knew, the world was flat. There was a bubble surrounding the earth that was full of water. The sky was blue because it was made of water. The firmaments (known universe) was also enclosed within this bubble. When the bubble burst, the flood came and destroyed that worldview. No thinking Christian still believes that. Everone's understanding of science has changed, but God hasn’t - only our understandings have. New scientific understandings are truths that come from God, and therefore teach us more about God.

A theologian (person who studies God) and a scientist (person who studies nature) are both seeking truth. Shouldn’t the God of the world and the Bible be in harmony? Yes, but the conflict arises when we draw absolute conclusions from insufficient evidence. There is a new age emerging where Faith and Science are partners. What is this new consciousness? It is founded in a new worldview and belief in the unity of the Divine; that all living things are sacred and come from the Divine. There can be direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius on February 4, 1962 that began a departure from Western ideology that had oppressed many groups and damaged the Earth. This new ideology is relational, characterized by analytic thinking, intuition, the unity of all life, and the path to knowing.

Scientific knowledge lays the foundation for understanding our culture and our theology. God is now thought of in terms of relationships. Rather than being perceived as material—an old man in the sky—God is understood as power or energy which emerges when relationships are mutual and participatory. God is incarnate – embodied in all of life. We now imagine God as the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” thus imaging a network, a web of connections, a system, a process in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts and in which any part affects the whole. Eastern thought gave us the paradigm long ago – reality is interdependent and neither the self nor anything is solid or permanent, rather constantly in process, affected by and affecting the whole. The Heart Sutra in Buddhism says that “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” If we substitute form for the word matter, and emptiness for energy, then we have a primitive understanding of Einstein’s theory of quantum mechanics, E=MC2.

The incarnation of God becomes the work of Christ in his atonement. Yet the central meaning of that theological concept has been misunderstood. It is "At-one-ment" - when we open ourselves to the present moment, sensing that all we say or do influences what happens around us scientifically and spiritually, we experience the miracle of mindfulness, the loss of our egos and union with all that is. Aware of our interdependence we can let go of our need to be doing and in control…and just trust in being. Then when we return to doing, we can act out of compassion, accepting that we cannot be certain that the effects of our actions will be what we intended, but willing to take responsibility for them, even as we are not attached to their outcome.

Jesus said a new age was coming - the Kingdom of God was at hand. When will we Christians stop resisting it, and start affirming that Science is our partner in the revelation of God?

Excerpts from Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz's awesome book, "I'm fine with God...It's Christians I Can't Stand" (2008: Harvest House Publishers) www.conversantlife.com

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Does God Really Care Who's Right or Left?

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I'm fine with God...but I can't stand Christians who think God is Right or Left!

* Read Matthew 22:15-22; and 7:1-5

This is the last straw! I am so fed up with business as usual in this country. I am tired of politicians telling lies and spreading misinformation. We are just three weeks and two days away from electing new leaders, and a new government…and hopefully it’s going to be someone that agrees with what I believe is right and wrong.

Or…or…perhaps you feel this way? Oh, No! Can you believe the nerve of that guy? Can you believe he wants things to change in this country? What for? As far as I’m concerned, everything is just fine! Sure food, gas and everything is more expensive and my 401k is in the toilet, but at least I don’t live in one of those poor countries. Okay, people seem a bit more stretched and stressed out than usual…but I’m okay! Who needs change?

A-hem! Have you found yourself in front of the T.V. over the past few weeks saying one of those statements? Well, now you know exactly what the Pharisees were feeling…and what Jesus was so fired up about in our text today. Let me give you the specifics: Jesus had stepped on the last nerve of the Pharisees and religious officials by telling a series of parables in which he clearly pointed a finger at them. Jesus told them in clear terms that they were totally off the mark with God and that all those people they considered spiritual rejects, you know…the prostitutes, tax collectors and beggars, were about to inherit the kingdom of God before them. Now because of Jesus' popularity with the crowds, the Pharisees and their allies decided to set a trap for him that would hopefully result in discrediting him and weakening his credibility. And then, they could swoop in and arrest him for treason, and then force Caesar to judge and execute him. This was an ambush by every means. Now talk about “Gotcha Journalism!” This was the ultimate scheme to trick Jesus and make him slip up.

One of the interesting elements to this story is that those who came to entrap Jesus were strange allies indeed. The Pharisees sent their disciples "along with the Herodians". Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians would have absolutely nothing to do with each other and certainly had nothing in common. The Pharisees were purists and separatists who did not like paying the Roman tax, but did so reluctantly. The Herodians who were wealthy and more influential Jews cooperated with the family of Herod and had no problem with paying the tax. These taxes, in fact, were helping to keep the Herod dynasty in power. Then there were the "Zealots" who openly resisted paying the tax and rebelled against Rome at every opportunity.

What the Pharisees and Herodians do have in common is a desire to see Jesus eliminated. Forcing Jesus to answer a question about paying taxes would insure that he would incur someone's wrath. If he says "yes" to the tax, he will anger those who oppose and struggle against submission to Rome. If he says "no" to the tax, he will be subject to a charge of treason. Now these political and religious men were so certain of their position that they had no room for doubt; no idea that they might make fools of themselves.

Have you ever been that way? So overconfident and sure of yourself that it eventually led you to humiliation? Not too long after I got my driver’s license, in fact just a few months, I remember we got our first snowfall of the season. Until I could purchase my own car, Mom and Dad let me drive their 1974 Chevy Nova. Aw…she was beautiful; copper colored with a loud engine. I mean she was built to drag race. Okay…back to the story. So on the morning of this first snowfall I was running late for school. I jumped out of bed, got dressed, gathered my books and ran outside to the car. Six inches of soft snow blanketed my copper beauty…but there was no time. I thought to myself, I’ll just let the wind blow the snow off my car! Nobody will be the wiser. So…like most teenagers at that age, I was convinced that whatever ideas I came up with my own head were the right ideas…sound familiar? So I jump into the driver’s seat, start the engine, and peel out onto the street. Once I got passed through the first stop light I let my baby roar. Ignoring the 35 mph speed limit I pushed her way over 55…and enjoyed the snow flying off of my windows just like I predicted. Well, what I didn’t predict was the sound of a siren growing louder and louder behind. And, you guessed it. I got a ticket for speeding, creating visibility problems for other drivers, and not to mention being really late for school. Once my parents found out, I had to turn over my license and break up with my metal girlfriend for a few months.

Well, it was with that kind of arrogance that Pharisees approached Jesus. And once he answered with those famous words, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Render to God what is God’s” they scampered home with their heads bowed and tail between their legs. Jesus was above their petty squabbles. He understood that earthly government had turned the worship of God into a means of control, defining who was right, both morally and politically…and therefore creating an environment where the citizens competed with each other for political favor. Sound familiar?

Now, aside from the obvious similarities to our modern day political environment, there is a crucial issue in today's story that applies directly to our personal lives and our life together as a church. Jesus' response to those who came to entrap him takes us to two essential spiritual concepts. Now I really encourage to write these down…or at least burn them into your brain, because they are central to our spiritual lives!
* There is no such thing as a "Black & White" world.
* The image of God is the center of our identity and our community.
There is no such thing as a "Black - White" world.
The students of the Pharisees and the Herodians who came to Jesus had a rigid mindset. Things had to be black or white. They had no middle ground. They were of the, "My way or the highway" mentality. Theirs was a rigid judgmental attitude.

They came to Jesus with their minds made up. But it was this inflexibility of spirit and rigid attitude that made them so vulnerable to spiritual disaster. There was no honest exchange of who they were and what they were all about with Jesus. It was simply a set up deal. They came to entrap but they ended up being trapped by their own rigidity. The basic spiritual lesson for us is this: In order to receive, we need to be open. There is no such thing as a black - white world. Jesus' detractors had no room for questions or reflection. They were not open in the least to self-examination. There were "good guys" and "bad guys" and Jesus and his followers were the "bad guys."

Now how can you tell when a person is operating with this rigid, black - white view of the world? The key is in our scripture. You and I have met these people. It’s hard to know whether these folks are interested in genuine give and take -- or are they simply waiting to pounce upon you with their predetermined attitude. A good way to diagnose the condition is with these questions. Are the questions they ask genuine questions? Or are they simply a "set-up"? They are not really asking a question, but launching a probe which intends to open up an opportunity to instruct you, correct you or pontificate about what they believe. Do you know any of these folks? The church is especially vulnerable to them.

It is relatively easy to hide rigidity in religious terms. Here are a few examples of predetermined attitudes and judgments disguised as questions:
* "Don't you think we should have more traditional songs in worship?" Meaning: "I don't like these new songs we're singing."
* "Shouldn't we be a little more selective in our requirements for membership?" Meaning: "I don't care for some of the people who are joining our church."
* "Do you think it's wise to let Mary serve on our church council?"
Meaning: "I don't want Mary to serve on our church council."

You can probably make a long list of similar questions you've heard. And you can do some personal spiritual work by examining whether you use questions to make statements. Trust me. Eliminating these inauthentic questions in our personal and group conversations can change our lives and our life together. When we realize that there is no such thing as a black-white world, we are more fully able to give each other the respect every child of God deserves.

The image of God is the center of our identity and our community. The coin Jesus asks for would seem to be almost incidental to the main theme of the text. Yet, there is a major issue that emerges once the issue of the image on the coin is mentioned. Jesus answer to the phony question is stunning.

"That which bears the image and likeness of the emperor belongs to the emperor. Therefore give the emperors what is the emperor's and give God the things that are God's!"
That which bears the image and likeness of God's should be given to God. They are stunned by his answer and they are seemingly unaware that they themselves demonstrate the point. They are so intently in defining God by their image. Making God in their image is not giving anything to God at all. They are in fact opposing the message and messenger of God. You and I have the image and likeness of God imprinted on our spirit. We belong to God. But God has given us the choice to do the rendering. We may choose to give ourselves to anything we want. And we do, sometimes in ways that are extremely unhealthy. However -- at the end of the day -- when all is said and done, there is a basic principle here. If we wish to avoid the kind of spiritual disaster that befell the Pharisees in the text, there is something we must stay in touch with.

God is always in the conversation. And our own private conversations and public policies should seek to keep that door of dialogue open so that we can continue keeping God in it voluntarily…not by legislating the answers. Does God really care if our beliefs lean to the left or the right? Don’t you think God wants more than anything else to have a relationship with us, regardless of what we think of him or her? When we set ourselves up as the moral authority in our culture, we are acting like the Pharisees. We relate to other much better when we remember that we all are sinners saved by grace. We’re no better than any other person. The only difference between those of us who embrace the person and work of Christ and those who don’t is that we have the power of the Christ consciousness within us, and that gives us the potential to live a life that pleases God.

In the heat of this campaign season, news of a failing economy and rumors of more war in our future, remember that Jesus said he would come back. And Jesus comes back into our lives and our world when we live like Christ; when the consciousness that he came to raise becomes raised in us. How does that happen? By consistently practicing an inward search of your own life and its priorities to regularly renew and refresh the "rendering" of your spirit. Instead of posing the questions to yourself or others, “Am I right or are you wrong?” we need to constantly renew the inner commitment which says, "I am God’s." When we can answer that question, then the choice to lean right or left becomes insignificant. Give to the government what is due the government. But give to God your very self. Then you will become the image of God as shown to us in Christ. Amen!

(Excerpts from “Anatomy of a Spiritual Disaster: III. How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot” from www.lectionarysermons.com/Oct17=99.html – October 17, 1999)
and Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz's awesome book, "I'm fine with God...It's Christians I Can't Stand" (2008: Harvest House Publishers) www.conversantlife.com

Monday, September 29, 2008

Singing Out of Tune


I love this parody of American Idol!

*Then read Matthew 21:23-32.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there were two sisters named Daisy and Maisy; and they just happened to be the neighborhood baby sitters. One evening, a new couple on the block hired the younger sister, Daisy, to baby-sit for their three children. When they returned home, the house was a disaster area. Toys were all over the place, dishes piled up in the kitchen and Daisy was asleep on the couch. The parents didn’t even bother to ask whether or not their children had gotten washed before bed and had brushed their teeth. They could just – tell.

The next morning, however, all three children couldn’t wait to get downstairs and tell their parents what a great time they had had with Daisy. She had played games with them, run races with them, told stories to them and even said prayers with them before they went to bed. But the parents had made up their minds. They would never again use a sitter who left their house in such a mess.

So, the next time they went out, they hired older sister, Maisy, to look after their kids. And when they returned home this time, the house was spotless. The living room was tidy, everything was put away in the kitchen, the children were all in bed sleeping, and there was Maisy sitting at the dining-room table - studying. She reported that the children had been absolute “angels” and that there had been “no” problems. Needless to say, the parents were very pleased with what they found.

However, the next morning, all three of their children wore gloomy expressions on their faces and complained about Maisy who, they said, had yelled at them, used cuss words, made them go to bed early, and then went outside to smoke and talk with her friends all night. “Still,” said the parents to each other, “the house did look great when we got home.”

Now, you know what is bothering Jesus in this week’s gospel, don’t you? He is in Jerusalem at this point. A crowd of people have held an impromptu parade, heralding him as messiah and king. He has marched into the temple and held a one-man protest about the “low-down” business that was going on there. And now, he is continuing to spend time with the very same kind of people who have hung around him throughout his entire ministry – needy, disreputable, poor, notorious people – the kind of people who, if they started to hang out where most Christians go to church - well, let’s face it, they would give those churches a bad name.

So, it’s not that surprising that when Jesus was in the temple preaching, the boys down at temple headquarters pay him a visit, and say, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to teach here?”

They’re mad as heck at Jesus, in other words, and are determined to put a stop to what he is doing once and for all. Jesus is on their turf now and they’re going to read the riot act to him. They want to see his credentials for saying and doing the things he has said and done, things that they consider absolutely inappropriate for any self-respecting rabbi. They want Jesus to put up or shut up. Why, they had had the same problem with that John the Baptist fellow.

Now, Jesus, of course, is up for the challenge. In fact, it seems pretty obvious from the gospels that he never backed down from a point of controversy. So, when challenged by these experts in theology and religious practice, he answers them in typical rabbinical style. He answers their question with a question. “First let me ask you a question. You answer my question and I'll answer yours. About the baptism of John - who authorized it: heaven or humans?"

His question, in other words, was like a sharp scalpel, demanding that his opponents reveal their position on John’s ministry. Of course, to do so would have put them in a no win situation because if they said that John’s ministry had been from God, then they would have had to explain why they didn’t respect what John came to do. If they said John was simply speaking on his own authority, the crowds, who had already proclaimed John as a prophet, would have been furious with them. So they argued and argued among themselves – and conceded that they didn’t know. They are going to keep their cards to themselves; and Jesus, smiling back, says, “I think I will, too.” A very neat, razor-sharp wisecrack to these learned gentlemen, indicating once again that Jesus was nobody’s fool.

But Jesus is not finished with his opponents now that he has them where he wants them. He wants to keep them on the spot. So he tells them a deceptively simple story. A man has two sons. He asks one to go and work for him. That one, in effect, says, “Dad, drop dead.” But, later, he has a change of heart, puts on his boots and gets to work. The man asks his other son to do the same thing. The second son says, “I’ll get right on it!” Hours later, this docile, passive-aggressive fruit of his loins is still lying on the couch watching MTV. “Now, think hard” Jesus says to them, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

The point that Jesus is driving home to them is that these religious, righteous men were nothing more than hypocrites. Like the second son, they appeared to affirm what was right, but didn’t bother doing it in practice. Jesus would rather they be like the first son, who didn’t care about what was right at first, like going to church and acting religious, but in the end did the right thing.

Many people who don’t go to church are like the first son. They are so turned off by the hypocrisy of religious people that they won’t go to church or act respectable. Like those who were regarded as sinners by religious people in Jesus’ day, they don’t conform to conventional religious practice.

And then, just in case, just in case these very clever men might have been in any doubt about what he meant, Jesus nails his point to their foreheads. “The truth is; tax collectors and prostitutes will see God’s kingdom ahead of you. John the Baptist came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn't care enough to change and believe him”

Ouch! That really stings, doesn’t it? And it makes me wonder, just what is the gospel, anyway? I mean if you really think about it, Jesus is slamming not just the religious system of his day, but the religious system of our day also—the Christian church. Just what is the gospel for us, today? Have we gotten it all wrong after all? Have we become exactly what Jesus preached against?

Since beginning my pastorate at Genntown UCC, Journey Church, and now Oak Creek my prayer has always been, “God, I do not want to be a church that is only interested in taking care of itself. I don’t want to believe in the gospel of Christ, but never do anything about it.” And the truth of the gospel of Jesus as presented in our gospel text today is loud and clear. The question Jesus raised in this parable was this: Who are you like—the religious hypocrite or the irreligious righteous? So many religious folk are like the person that sings out of tune. They create both discomfort and humor. And whether these people like it or not, many unchurched and dechurched people find these religious people to be a source of laughter and the kind of unpleasant music they can’t stand to listen to. They can see right through them. Hypocrites make the gospel ridiculous. The good news is no longer good news, but quite frankly is unbelievable.

It is so easy to pay lip service to the gospel of Jesus. It’s so easy to sit in church and say, “Amen, pastor. Preach it!” But never to do anything about it. Easy to declare loyalty to Christ, maybe even to proclaim that you are a Christian, but never to live it with the person next door. And everyone of us can find ourselves doing the exact same thing. Nobody has the corner on hypocrisy.

We can all be guilty of talking about love, understanding deep thoughts about love, waxing eloquent, passionate statements about love – but doing nothing about it. That is what Jesus wants us to hear. If you want the world, this church or even your own life to look different, then stop complaining about it, trying doing something about it. Do you believe the church’s responsibility is to tell our neighborhoods about the good news of Jesus? Or is it to continue our own ideas of religious life? Are we more worried about comfortable seating, and taking care of each other? Or opening our doors to those who have been pushed out by others? If we hold up a spiritual mirror to ourselves, what will we see? People who are singing out of tune? Or people making beautiful melodies of the gospel?

The fact is we are the gospel. And Jesus says, that if your version of the gospel means demanding that people believe the way you believe, or being stingy with your money, or complaining about what’s not right with your church, then you probably won’t like God’s kingdom. And if we really believe, I mean really believe the gospel—then it really isn’t about us, is it? It’s about those outside the church, those who act irreligious. The same ones that Jesus came to liberate and be with. There are lots of congregations out there doing the church the same old way, year after year, only taking care of each other and ignoring their neighbors. And I don’t think there really is a need for one more.

There’s an old saying that I’ve tried to base my pastoral ministry on. Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. If you’re not very comfortable with the way church is and has always been, then good. You are right on track. If you want our church to grow, and be inviting to everyone—no matter who they are, then your behavior will reflect it. To you I say, “Join me.” The gospel is already within you. It’s the good news. And it’s never too late to get saved by it. Amen.(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Just Do It” for September 25, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Law of Gravity

* Read Matthew 20:1-16

I am a fairly recent customer of the American Express Blue credit card. This famous credit card company, know for its prestigious membership, is a symbol of American entrepreneurship. And now it has given middle class folks like me the opportunity to carry such a reputable credit card. Now I must admit my real reason for applying for the card was its promotional program of O% interest for 12 months on balance transfers. I saw this as an opportunity to pay off my credit cards with higher interest rates. It wasn’t necessarily about the reputation of having an American Express card, but about saving money in interest rate payments.

However, as I read the literature that came with my flashy new card, I discovered an interesting statement. The material read: “As an American Express Card member, you automatically go to the Front of the Line for tickets to some of the most popular events in town. As an American Express Card member, you can take advantage of this exclusive service to purchase the best seats in the house to such shows as Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, The Jonas Brothers, Lord of the Dance and any Cincinnati Reds home game. You deserve the best! You deserve to go to the Front of the Line!” - American Express, Front of the Line.

For the first time I now understood first hand the appeal of an American Express card. As a new customer I really did have privileges not afforded to others. In an odd way, I felt like one of the rich people. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The rich are different from you and me.” He was right about that, at least in our country. In 2007 a change in U.S. laws increased the value of assets that a beneficiary may exclude from federal estate taxes - though many states have their own estate taxes. In this change of laws, business owners will be able to pass on qualifying businesses to their heirs. It affects less then one percent of U.S. taxpayers.

“The rich are different from you and me” – no matter where you happen to live. Different from police officers and teachers and people who shop for groceries and buy cars and medicine; because all those people have to wait in line for pay raises and tax cuts that actually mean something. The rich get to go to the front of the line.

So how you interpret the prickly little parable in this week’s gospel depends on your perspective. Early one morning, says Jesus, a landowner heads down to the marketplace and stands there in the spot where people looking for steady work hang out. He hires a handful of them to work on his land and agrees to pay them what amounts to a peasant’s day wage. They all agree and go to work; but, by about nine o’clock that morning, it is clear to the man that he needs more workers. So he heads back to the market and hires some more. At noon he does the same thing. At three in the afternoon he does it again. He brings back more workers with him each time and promises to pay them all ‘. . . whatever is right’. And then, at five in the afternoon, with only a few hours daylight left, the man realizes that he still needs more workers. So he goes back to the same spot, finds some other people standing around doing nothing and says, “Haven’t you got anything better to do? Come on back with me. I’ve got work for you to do.”

Then, quitting time rolls around and everybody lines up to collect their day’s pay. And this, as they say, is where things get interesting. The owner calls his field manager to settle things up and says, “Give everybody their pay . . . ‘beginning with the last and then going to the first’. When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

Yes, you heard that right. When the last to be hired step forward, the manager presses a whole denarius into each of their hands. So…how much is a denarius. Remember last week, when we talked about denarii? Well, classical historians regularly say that in the early Roman Empire the daily wage for a laborer was one denarius. So by today’s standards just consider how much you make in a day, and consider making that for working just one hour. Well, as you can imagine, these workers were flabbergasted. I mean, they had only been there a few short hours. Barely worked up a sweat. But they’re paid a whole day’s pay! They probably gasped so loud that others in line started to strain to see what was going on. This landowner had turned out to be a very generous man indeed!

Now, just try to imagine what the others in line must have been thinking at that point. Scratching their heads and starting to do the math, they must have figured, “Well, if the old coot is going to pay them a whole day’s pay just for cleaning up after the rest of us, imagine what he’s going to pay us!?” You can almost see them rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation. But imagine, if you can, the looks on their faces when they all hold out their hands and discover that they had only received the usual daily wage.

One denarius as well. One denarius for everybody whether you came at dawn and slaved all day or showed up at five just in time to punch the clock. Everybody received the same pay - one denarius. And, of course, when those who had been waiting at the front of the line received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ Then, when the householder reminds them that he has kept his part of the bargain, that he has paid them exactly what they had bargained for and what business is it of theirs what he has paid the others - after all, it was his money, wasn’t it? – you can imagine their reaction. “You don’t begrudge my generosity, do you?” the owner said to them.

“Oh, no, of course we don’t begrudge what you do with your money!!” Just tell us this: whatever happened to fair? Whatever happened to equal pay for equal work? Whatever happened to rewarding most those who deserve it most? I mean, can you blame them? They were there first! What’s wrong with rewarding those who are there first, who make it to the front of the line!? You can bet your bippy they begrudged what the man did!

Now I am sure that you don’t like this parable any more than I do, do you? It’s not fair, is it? We hear stories like it all the time. The people who work hard all their lives and who are passed over for the promotion while some newcomer gets the corner office and the big, new salary. The family members who put out more than anybody else but never get recognized for their efforts while somebody no one even knows gets mentioned in the will. The parents who do everything they can for their kids and barely have enough to live on in retirement while their children live in the lap of luxury. Life isn’t fair a lot of them time and there’s not much we can do about it. So it rubs just a little raw to hear Jesus say that with God things are no different. You’d think God would be able to see who deserves what! You’d think that if anybody could, God could see who was at the front of the line!

It’s interesting when you stop to consider why we find this parable so disturbing. Apparently, we tend to hear it from the perspective of those who locate ourselves at the front of the line. We are the ones who figure we should have gotten into the show first. We are the ones who feel like we’ve gotten the short end of the stick. We are the ones who feel like we’ve been gypped. We are the ones who got up early, worked hard all day, stayed late. Somehow, somebody messed up and started at the wrong end of the line; and if it happens again, well, maybe we just won’t bother showing up for work at all!

Well, I should have warned you about this week’s parable. It’s not only prickly. It’s tricky. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The rich are different from you and me,” but it depends on your perspective, doesn’t it? It depends on how much you think you deserve and how much you think others don’t. But, like it or not, that is where God starts. For reasons we may never know unless we know what it feels like to stand at the end of the line – with nothing to brag about, nothing to bargain with, nothing to prove what we deserve. Even there at the end of the line, it’s darned nigh impossible to understand a love that seems to be so indiscriminate, so embracing, a love that has nothing to do with who we are, a love that has everything to do with who God is.

Well, God’s love is like the law of gravity…no matter whether you deserve it or not, it’s there for you. And if you can really get your bowling ball of a head around that…you’ll score a strike every time in the game we call life!

(From Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “The End of the Line” for September 18, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Footprints of Forgiveness"

* Read Matthew 18:21-35 and then watch this video!

This little girl shows us exactly what Jesus is talking about. And that is what Jesus wants us to get. In fact, of all the things Jesus wants us to get, that is, without doubt, the one thing he wants us to get; and in this week’s gospel it is as if he nails that message once and for all.

We’ve talking over the past couple of months about the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. It is clear to us in this text that he had no romantic illusions about the church. He knew that Christian people, just like everybody else, are subject to the same sins that afflict the human race and that often are enough to blow a church to smithereens. How often have you stood in line at the coffee station, chomping on your donut, and someone dishes to you an entrĂ©e of gossip, bitterness, or judgment about another?

Last week’s gospel started out “if another member of the church sins against you . . .” and in it we heard instructions about how members were to deal with those bitter fights that are so often a part of the Christian life. We are given suggestions on how to settle church fights when people insist on acting badly. It is not something the church does very well at all. And, as if to illustrate why we seem to have such a hard time doing what Jesus commands, Peter steps forward in this week’s passage on a point of clarification. “I hear what you’re saying,” Peter seems to be saying. “Trying to restore fellowship with someone who offends me certainly sounds like the right thing to do, but . . . if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Now, at first blush, Peter is being quite reasonable. Given the reality of human nature, this ‘forgiveness thing’ can become quite problematic, involving us in a seemingly never-ending loop of repentance and pardon. When is enough enough? When is it time to call a statute of limitations on this whole amnesty business? And I know you know what Peter is talking about. Most of us are willing to get burned once in a while, maybe even more than that, depending on who’s doing the burning, but eventually we get tired of one-way relationships, right? When someone lets us down again and again, when a friend or family member keeps giving us the cold shoulder no matter how hard we try to be friendly, we start looking elsewhere, right? I mean, we only have so much energy to go around, right? Only so much to invest until we deplete our savings, right? It may be a crass way to put it, but you know that it’s true. I just know that you do. Nobody enjoys being in a relationship in which one person does all the giving and one person does all the getting. When is enough enough?

The story seems to have been on its way out of Jesus’ mouth before Peter even finished his question; and it is one of the most rip-roaring tales Jesus ever told. The fun begins in the opening scene with a king who keeps good books but somehow manages to end up with an employee who owes him – 10,000 talents. Roughly translated, it would be like a mail-clerk at IBM who was very good at embezzling and ended up owing the boss – a “bazillion dollars”. Jesus is making a point with a sledgehammer and it would have been the first time his audience began to laugh. Nobody would ever be able to pay back such a ridiculously large amount, but when this little con-artist is brought up on the carpet and told that the king is going to take whatever the man has, including his wife and kids, this desperate little man falls to his knees and begs for an extension on his, er, uh - “loan”. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”

Right! Jesus audience would have been laughing and so would the king! Maybe if he worked forty hours a week for the next 150,000 years and bought nothing he might be able to pay what he owed. The little guy is obviously a few bricks short of a load to think his boss would fall for that one! Jesus could be pretty funny when he tried. But what he says next goes for a real belly laugh: because, to this absolutely ridiculous request of the little crook, the king responds with something even more preposterous. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him, and forgave him the debt.” Every last penny of it? You can almost see the looks of astonishment on those who were there. You mean, no threats? No recrimination? No restrictions on employment? No probation? Nothing, said Jesus. Just pure, extravagant forgiveness. The king just cancels the man’s debt and gives him back his life out of the goodness of his royal heart.

“But, then . . .” Jesus says. You thought this story was over. Uh-uh. “But, then,” Jesus says, “only moments after having been given his life back to him on a silver platter, this same employee happens upon an associate of his who owes him – a hundred denarii.” I’ll do the math for you. About a half a million times less than what he had owed the king. And what does this man who has just been forgiven billions do with somebody who owes him peanuts? “. . . seizing him by the throat, he said to him, “Pay me what you owe.”

And when this man fell at his feet and begged for mercy, he wouldn’t even consider it and took him out and threw him into prison until he paid the whole debt. Now, I think you can imagine the reaction this turn of events would have provoked. Why, that little ingrate! Why, the nerve! What a miserable little creep! And you can understand the reaction of the other slaves in this story, can’t you? I know that you can. You can understand the reaction of the king at the end of the story, can’t you? Oh, I know that you can. “And in anger, his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

Sounds like a pretty reasonable sentence, don’t you think? The one who denied forgiveness, was denied it himself. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were Peter, I would have been feeling mighty uncomfortable at that point. I would have been feeling that even good disciples who ask reasonable questions like, “How often should I forgive others when they wrong me?” are missing the point. Because when it comes to forgiveness, somebody has already set me free from a massive load of thoughtlessness and a national debt load of sin. Trying to figure out, in other words, when I should put limits on my willingness to forgive others is simply counting the small change.

But I really think I’ve found the real value in forgiveness. Are you ready for this? Remember the mirror exercise I gave you last week? Anyone try that at home? Well, you are in luck, because I found another worksheet that will help you even more. This “Mirror Exercise” worksheet will help us to see that, we are not human beings having an occasional spiritual experience. Rather we are Spiritual Beings having a human experience. So when you have those conflicts that call you to forgive someone, or to be forgiven by someone, it is the sin of human experience that your spirit nature is wanting to have…so that you can learn forgiveness. I mean…think about it. It turns the tables upside down on what is considered a spiritual experience! Are you ready to learn forgiveness…I mean really learn it so that you can live it? Then follow the footsteps of your own life…and discover the times when you had the opportunity to learn it. When you really understand how it can transform you…then you will never have conflict again…you will embody forgiveness through and through…and you will change everyone around you! Who’s footsteps are you following now?

(Adapted from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Counting the Small Change” for September 11, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Work it Out!

*Read Matthew 16:21-28

In this day and age we are encouraged to never mix religion and politics. In fact, in social circles we are encouraged to never even bring up the topic of religion and politics. Now whether you are liberal or conservative, the topics seem to be intertwined in conversation. I’m excited by the possibility that we won’t have to keep secret our understanding of God, and how our government should reflect the goodness, grace and love of a God who has no enemies. Well…it is a dream.

A few years ago on Thanksgiving I spent an unprecedented dinner with practically every member of my family in the home of one of my relatives. After we had finished our meal…and were unbuckling our belts to breathe a bit easier, we sat down in the large family room and watched the evening news. There was a story about the war in Iraq concerning the bombing of a Moslem mosque in Bagdad by U.S. soldiers. Apparently it was being used by Al Qaeda as a hiding place, yet many civilians had been killed and the Iraqi people were outraged by this display of violence on one of their holy temples. The conversation quickly turned to an analysis of whether this was truly a wrong thing to do. One extended member of the family suggested that Muslims were going to hell anyway, so what’s the problem with killing them?

Well, if you know me even a little at all, you’d know that I can’t let a flippant and prejudiced comment like that go unchallenged. Needless to say, my response was pretty emotional. “Do you really think that Christians should be applauding the death of innocent people, no matter what their religious affiliation?” Of course, I didn’t say it that calmly. Now, no matter what you feel about terrorism, the war in Iraq, or even the Moslem people in general, murder is murder…no matter who commits it or for what reason.

In this week’s gospel, Matthew confronts those same issues to members of the early church who have offended and harmed another. The focus of Matthew’s words is to work out sins against each other by going to the offender directly and seeking reconciliation with the one who had done something wrong against you. He encourages these young Christians NOT to sweep grievances under the carpet. Don’t ignore it or try to pretend it hasn’t happened. But also…don’t let it continue.

For the many who have suffered abuse at the hands of church, had problems of sexual harassment, or sexual imposition, this text has special relevance. The Church’s failure to face the wrongs that were done has led to the necessity of lawsuits in the civil courts. The process outlined in Matthew’s teaching is in the end a compassionate way of living in community. But they are still hard sayings about things that are really hard to confront.

I believe that Jesus is also calling attention to the way in which holding onto or letting go of hostility is an extremely powerful force. We now recognize the way in which the cycle of vengeance in the Middle East is unending; each offense becoming the occasion for more retaliation in an endless quest for revenge and justice. The only way, and I do mean the only way to break this cycle is forgiveness in which the offense is abandoned and let go.

In this interpretation of the text, Jesus is calling the church to notice the way in which his spirit is with them in the process of the trial. Each of us have the power to bind or loose, to let go of offenses against each another and to forgive, even in the midst of painful decisions. Matthew’s gospel was written for a small community, living in a hostile environment. This week’s text is not a legal manual on how to deal with troublemakers. It is more of a vision about how to incorporate God’s loving ways with others. Those of us who know what it means to be forgiven demonstrate our redemption by the way we forgive others. We have no right to nurse grievances, cling to old wounds and resist efforts to bring about reconciliation. Since reconciliation is constantly God’s work among us, so it must constantly be our work as well. And when we fully engage in that work, we might break a sweat.

But I guarantee that loosing a few unwanted conflicts will make you feel much lighter!

When I counsel people who are experiencing difficulty with others I encourage them to engage in a "mirror exerice" to use the next time you encounter such a conflict.

On the left side of the column list every thing about the person or situation that troubles you. For instance, if you are having a conflict with your spouse or partner because they don’t seem to listen to you, then list that issue, “won’t listen” on the left side. If another person intimidates you for some reason, then write the word “intimidating” on the left side. Other words that might describe the conflict situation are; passive aggressive, condescending, controlling, lack of intimacy, always think they are right, etc.

Now, here’s the hard part; on the right side of the column list across from each word a time and situation when you were the same way. Let that sink it a second.

Yes, what I’m saying is that whatever conflict you are having is an opportunity for you to be honest about how you have been the same way to another person. The experience you are having is a “mirror” for yourself. And if you can see the need within yourself for change and forgiveness, then you will not have that conflict any longer. Don’t believe me? Then list “lack of trust” on the left side of the column. Just kidding! I’m telling you that it will work. You just have to “work it out” in your own mind and heart. That’s what Jesus calls us to do. Are you willing to make it work?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Join our online study of "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose"

Sign up now for our online discussion of Eckert Tolle's "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" this week!

One of our basic desires as a spiritual community is to be challenged and engaged in theological study together. While we follow the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, we recognized that many contemporary spiritual thinkers have revealed new insights about the Gospel of Christ. Join us in our own search for Jesus, and dialogue with us about good news to our generation!

Eckert Tolle’s “A New Earth” book/theology study begins September 7th. This theological study is based on the national best-selling book. You may have heard Oprah talk about it…and now you can participate once again.

The course will meet for 10 weeks. In addition to reading the book, resources and items of interest to read and view will be emailed in advance. It will also be online…for those who cannot participate in person. The course if free.

The book is available almost anywhere…discounted prices at Kroger and Wal-Mart and other bookstores for less than $10. Contact Pastor Brice @ revbrice@journeyucc.org if you want to sign up for the online study!

Our study is specifically focused on discerning the revelations in Tolle's book as it relates to our Christian experience. Are these writings compatible with progressive Christian theology? You decide for yourself! This forum is an opportunity to engage your own spiritual journey. It is not a critique of Tolle's work...or the reflections of others.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Footprints in the sand? What if I don't like the beach?

A few years ago a dear friend of mine, Bev Longman, gave me a beautiful tapestry of that famous story, "Footprints in the Sand." I've often reflected on that story, only understanding it's surface interpretation. But now, especially in light of the events of my journey since May earlier this year, it has unvealed a whole new meaning for me. Let me remind you of what it says:


A man had a dream one night. In his dream, he was walking along the beach with the Lord. As they walked, scenes from the man's life flashed across the sky. When he looked down, he saw two sets of footprints etched in the sand; one set belonged to him, the other to the Lord. As they continued to walk, he noticed that, at the saddest and most trying times of his life, there was only one set of footprints in the sand. He asked the Lord, "When I needed you the most, why did you leave me?" "My son, my precious child" replied the Lord, "I would never leave you. During those times of trial and suffering, when you saw one set of footprints...That was when I carried you."

Now the past 3 months have been the longest 3 months of my life! UGH! It has dragged on and on...because, for the first time in a long time, I didn't know what my future was going to be. You see, I'm really good at visioning way out there in the distance. But waiting for things to happen is usually excruciating for me...especially when I no longer have the understanding or resources to imagine that future.


Living in the present moment is one of the hardest things I ever had to learn how to do. And that's exactly why I've been having this experience, according to Eckert Tolle; author of the best selling book, "The Power of Now." I thank God for this book, and his sequel "A New Earth: Discovering your Life's Purpose." It's a pretty cool story on how it came ot me.

Not long after Journey Church closed its doors in Lebanon, I got a job at LaComedia Dinner Theatre filling in for an actor who had to leave. The musical was, West Side Story, and I had a couple of very small roles in which I was only on stage for just a few scenes. The rest of the time I was off stage, in the dressing room waiting...pretty boring job for the most part. I started off passing the time by doing crossword puzzles and word searches. After about a week of this I remembered that another friend of mine, Cathy Montesi, raved about Eckert Tolle's book, "A New Earth." She insisted that I read it. Well, I was determined to take a "break from religion" for a while and resisted reading anything remotely spiritual. But I dropped by the Kroger next door to the theater, and low and behold, there was a discounted copy of Tolle's book on the shelf.

Needless to say I bought it, and started reading. WOW! Talk about an amazing word from God! After I got through the first chapter, I started devouring this book. I didn't just read it while at work waiting for my next cue. I read it at night, in the morning, in the bathroom, sometimes in the car on my way to and from! It touched me in a way that was so amazing, spirit filled and full of the grace and love of God that had called me into the ministry in the first place.

Now I'm not going to tell you everything that was revealed to me; I encourage you to pick it up and find out what that might be for yourself. But it occured to me that if I truly wanted to deepen my relationship with God and finally learn who I am as God's creation, and what my purpose in life is, then I needed to slow way down...and stop DOING all the time...and focus on just BEING in the moment. Through the experiences of the past 3 years...of launching a new and exciting ministry to closing it painfully and abruptly...I began to realize that God doesn't care what I do, where I do it, or how I do it...God just wants me to see Him, and re-see who I am as God's creation in each and every moment of my existence. That my purpose in life is being fully present wherever I am. The doing is just the vehicle for experience...the real learning comes in each moment...in the present now.

Often when life spins out of control, your circumstances are meant to draw your attention to some learning that needs to occur in your soul. Although I don't always recognize what that learning might be, I am beginning to realize that it's in those moments of confusion, chaos or conflict that I need to make time for my own soul growth. I make time by being more intentional with my prayers and meditation. Perhaps I need to read that book on my shelf that I've been holding onto which may reveal the answer that I seek. Attending a certain meeting or workshop may hold the key to unveiling some understanding. Sometimes even a certain song or story will pop into my head for no reason and the words seem to touch you in a way they haven't before. Such was the role of the story I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

I've studied dream interpretation for the past several years under the guidance and nurturing of another dear friend, Amy Pawlus, at the School of Metaphysics in Cincinnati. I use dream interpretation in my pastoral counseling; for a person's dreams reveal what's going on in their subconscious mind. I took a look again at the "Footprints in the Sand" story...and this is what I saw for the first time.

In dream language, a beach represents the actions of the emotions, the area that exists between the conscious and subconsious mind. Feet symbolize a person's spiritual foundation. Whenever feet appear in a dream, it will indicate the dreamer's place of security. The Lord, or the Christ presence, represents the dreamer's inner authority...or the part of one's self that is seeking to fulfill some plan or vision. This story is telling the dreamer that their current experience has been manifested out of their own mind and expressed into their physical world through the emotional level of consciousness. Basically, their physical reality is an emotional response to what they are thinking. The disapointment expressed by the dreamer of being alone on the journey, especially in the midst of confusion, chaos or conflict, is a response to a disconnect with their inner spiritual authority. Calling Jesus your Lord is an act of loyality to the spiritual authority that he represented. The idea that the Lord Jesus, or as I understand it, the Christ Presence within me, could possibly ever leave my side suggests that there is a disconnect with the role of that spiritual authority. Jesus, as the Christ Presence, responds with...I was carrying you.

Here's the good news: I know that on my journey of life, God's ultimate desire is for me to become more compatible with Her. Every step of that journey I am "becoming" who God created me to be. The spark of divinity that dwells within me will never, ever be taken away. It may burn dimly, may even just flicker at times...but it will never be snuffed out. When my emotions suggest that I am misunderstanding my experience, it is the Christ Presence within me that will teach me and sustain me...especially when my spiritual foundation is shaken. We will be carried by the light of God's Presence in times when we don't get it. But the good news is that; if we stay open to the present moment on the journey...we will learn it.

Sometimes you'll see the footprints...sometimes you won't. But that's okay. Stay centered in the present moment, and enjoy the beach anyway!

Blessings on your spiritual journey!
Pastor Brice

P.S. Would you like your dreams interpreted? I'd be happy to help. Just let me know! RevBrice@JourneyUCC.org

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

* Read Matthew 16:13-20

Over the last several years I’ve been particularly interested in reading the writings of authors from the “Historical Jesus” movement; Marcus Borg, Stephen Patterson, John Shelby Spong, and John Crossan, to name a few. For those of you not familiar with the movement, it is basically an empirical exercise in constructing a picture of Jesus solely as a man, and setting aside all narrative in the gospels that depict him as divine. Now this might seem heretical at first, but I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several great writers and speakers engaged in this process, and am constantly amazed at their commitment to accuracy and seach for a real Christianity. They are good, loving and committed Christians who sustain their faith journeys by engaging in deep theological thinking. Seminary often teaches you the skills to do this. Perhaps that’s where the saying originated; seminary will ruin a good preacher. But I must admit, that after several years of engaging in this process for myself, I also came to realize that focusing on only the humanity of Jesus had not lessened my desire to unravel the mysteries of his divinity.

Todays gospel text is one such narrative that I can not easily dismiss. For the gospels record several very pointed, poignant, and powerful questions that Jesus candidly asked those around him. Perhaps the question Jesus asks of Peter in today’s text is the one that intrigues me the most; “Who do you say that I am?” For the Christian, every day we are on this earth is an attempt to answer this question. And how we answer it shows just what place Jesus holds in our lives. That fact is, we have all stood in Peter’s shoes before, and answered that question one way, but revealed our true feelings on the topic with a completely different behavior.

I use to go to my Grandmother’s house for lunch on Sundays, and without fail she has her TV turned to Trinity Broadcasting Network where an evangelist is preaching to an enormous crowd. Growing up Pentecostal I’ve developed a litmus test for “tuning out” these preachers; the louder they scream, the less I listen to them. Sometimes I really doubt whether they really understand the good news of Jesus. Could you imagine Jesus preaching like one of these guys? And you don’t have to be loud and obnoxious to turn the gospel into a message of hate.

In this text, one minute Peter proclaims that Jesus is the messiah, the very Son of God, and the next minute, as we will see next week, he is pulling Jesus aside to tell him just how to act like the messiah. And don’t we do the same? We proclaim Jesus as our messiah in one breath and in the next we are telling Jesus how to save the world. How do we know the real Jesus? There are so many people in history who are mysterious. Who was the real Abraham Lincoln? Do we ever understand a Richard Nixon? For that matter, do we really understand our spouses or our children? I’m not sure I even understand myself. Can we really attempt to know the reality of Jesus, or is it possible to let Jesus speak for himself?

Since I’ve graduated I’ve had to let go of the quest to know the real historical Jesus. Just as the Dalai Lama says there are many paths to the Buddha, there must be many paths to Jesus, but there are some stumbling blocks along the way. The biggest stumbling block for Peter, and for us as well, is that the messiah will end up on a cross. The cross of Christ simply isn’t very user friendly. Being crucified is not the upwardly mobile, successful, self-loving and prudent thing to do in our society. There are no trophies, no book deals, after the cross. The only crown is made of thorns. Why is the cross so central, so necessary to understanding Jesus? Why can’t we just take some of his teachings like the Beatitudes or the Golden Rule and skip the cross. It would be easier, and much more marketable.

But this question that Jesus raises in the text is an important one. In fact it is a vital question for each one of us, designed to put us on the spot and keep us honest. But it is a dangerous question, because it cuts right to the existential core of our revelation of God—and whether Jesus is our response to that revelation.

But before we begin to answer that question for ourselves, I’m interested in why Jesus asked it at all? Why then, at that time and place? According to Matthew the question was first posed to the disciples at the city of Caesarea Philippi. It was a major city north of Galilee near the border of Syria, built by Herod Philip in honour of the emperor Augustus. In ancient times, it had been called Paneas in honour of the god Pan, who had a shrine there. And before that the god Baal had been worshipped there, too. And before that, well, who knows. When Jesus and his disciples visited, there was a shrine for the emperor cult. In other words, it was a place where many of the gods who walk the earth made great claims for themselves and where other people made claims for them, too. This is the setting, according to Matthew, where what happened – happened.

It’s pretty much the same with many people today. People still wonder about him. I wonder about him. Who do people say that he is? Well, I’ve asked a lot of people over the years and gotten a lot of answers. Some say a great moral and political leader like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Some say a great prophet like Mohammed. Still others say a great spiritual teacher to be numbered with the likes of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, or the Dalai Lama.

Some say he was a political revolutionary and enlist him in their cause. Some say he was a capitalist and do the same. There was actually a best selling book several years ago entitled Jesus-CEO. There are those who say he was clearly a socialist, and others who are just as sure that he was a liberal Democrat. These days, many Republicans eagerly claim him as one of their own. Still others say he was but a dreamy idealist with his head in the clouds. Others wonder if he was a real man at all, with a real history, or if he was just a made-up man, the product of human hope, need, and projection.

It’s all very interesting—if sometimes confusing—but it does matter what you think. But the fact is; what you believe about Jesus affects your entire worldview. If you suddenly see Jesus differently, everything changes. Jesus' question, “Who do you say that I am?” is an invitation to take personally and seriously the possibility that maybe we need to see him differently. It is an invitation, to venture beyond the iconic Christs of our popular culture, beyond our church hierarchies, and academic scholarship, and allow ourselves to be confronted by the iconoclastic Jesus of Nazareth; a Jesus with no identifiable face, no particular ethnicity, no specific cultural allegiance. A Jesus who is not of this world.

Jesus’ question is an invitation to take personally and seriously the necessity to stop taking refuge in the answers of others and answer for ourselves. It is an invitation to stand as existentially naked as we are able before the one in whom our existence takes on new meaning.

“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “Blessed are you…. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” It was a self-defining moment for Peter. Through the grace of God he had discovered himself in the presence of the one who disclosed God and revealed the Way of God—the way of love and justice. He spent the rest of his life figuring out what that meant for who he was and how he lived.

“Who do you say that I am?” Naturally, we have to answer for ourselves, and our answers will disclose as much about us as they do about him. My answer? Jesus is the one in whom I am loved, and called to love. Jesus is not a crucified savior, but a living Christ. A Christ living in you, and living in me. My journey of life is about figuring out what that means for who I am and how I live. Who do you say Jesus is?

(Special thanks to some wonderful excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Keeping Quiet About Jesus” for August 21, 2005 – www.fernstone.org, and Daniel B. Clendenin’s essay on “Who Do You Say That I Am?" for August 21, 2005 - www.journeywithjesus.net/index.shtml)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Goin' to the Dogs

*Read Matthew 15:21-28

While I was growing up, my family had a pet dog named Barney. He was a stray we found resting under an old abandoned tractor on the farm where we often went to buy fresh vegetables in the summer. Barney was our most favorite pet. With predominant beagle DNA in his blood, he was a gentle, fun-loving pet that could entertain us for hours in the backyard, endearing us with his fog-horn like howl and his droopy ears and sad puppy dog eyes. But Mom was very firm with her restrictions. Barney had to stay outside during the day. He could not eat table scraps, and he must be walked and washed on a regular basis. After it became evident that Barney suffered from epilepsy, a disease common to many mixed breeds, he was allowed into the house more frequently later in his life; but she was firm on the rule that he could not be fed from the table.

Such began the relationship with my purebred beagle, BJ, short for Barney Junior. She was a gift to my partner on his 35th birthday. And even though her cute puppy looks could melt the iciest heart, we stood firm with the rules. No table scraps, no begging at meals. But BJ knew just what slight degree the rules could be bent; and so before dinner was ready each evening she would take her place right at our feet when dinner was served. A good place to stretch one direction or another to grab whatever stray crumb might fall during the meal!

Then as time went by, the table rules got bent a little more. She was so much a part of us, more and more not just a domestic breed. She understood our speech and we came to understand her much fuller vocabulary of whimper, posture, body language, claw, touch, nudge, stare, ear twitch. And so at breakfast each morning, BJ eventually got a bit of toast and at the end of dinner, a choice bite of meat saved for her from my own plate. If I lingered too long before offering it, I would notice a chin delicately laid on my knee—just a reminder.

She lived heartily for six years, and then suddenly her kidneys began to fail long before she had ever come near old age. Months later, when she lost her appetite for the dog food she had always relished, the rules became irrelevant. Mealtime became an inventory of the refrigerator. Whatever she would eat, she could have: bread, steak, chicken and rice, and dog biscuits at any time of day. When she became too tired to bend and eat from her dish on the floor, then she got it from our hands. And when nothing else appealed any more, we nourished her from an IV. We were determined that she would live if we just kept on trying.

Missing her as we do, I look back now over the six years since her death and realize what happened: gradually she changed my mind about the restrictions we imposed on the way she was fed, and our "table rules" were slowly dissolved and eventually eliminated.

It was another "dog" who changed Jesus’ mind as well. As one of the earliest inhabitants of the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon, the Canaanite was known to be the worst of the lot, a long-hardened pagan, a longtime enemy. And this one, the disciples saw as a real cur: A woman—and an unescorted woman at that, a woman whose undoubtedly shady past must surely have caused the demonic possession in the family; a woman brazen enough to initiate conversation with a man.

Jesus is silent in the face of her. The disciples, however, just wanted to get rid of her, they urge, "Do what she wants, so she’ll get out of our hair." But Jesus responds, "No; I wasn’t sent for her." Then, this "dog" who is satisfied just to be under the table proceeds to change his heart. She is not beholden to the "official rules" or even to Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation, but insists that she and her daughter have a right to healing. She doggedly reminds Jesus that he is not after all servant of the "official religion" or of biblical tradition, but of an uncontrollable Spirit who blows where she will blow, touches whom she will touch, beckons whom she will beckon, heals whom she will heal.

The Jesus we meet before this incident shows partiality to his own people, distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. This Jesus is a problem, if your theology demands perfection in a savior. I too have wrestled with him: precisely because of what He taught us, I shudder at his initial responses. But you know something? In the end, this incident endears him to me more. Here is no brittle, paper-doll Messiah, but one challenged as we are: one who shares our condition and is not ashamed to correct himself. Because just then, Jesus remembers who he is. He comes back to himself in a new way. He admits, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (and of course, it is), that he had been wrong and had his mind changed.

In a sense, it is Jesus’ own awakening that takes him far beyond first-century Palestine’s "honor culture." Jesus does not save face. He is challenged by the woman on his own terms—by her living, pushy faith—to make room for outcast and alien. It’s a profound conversion for him: continue reading in this gospel, and watch how his encounters have a shifted nuance, his stories a new and pronounced bias for the poor and the outsider.

Being a faithful people is all about changing the table rules and getting changed yourself! It’s about who gets to be at the table, and who will be at the table in spite of us; and thereby about the social implications for relations between poor and non-poor, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, pedigrees. It is about a banquet for dogs.

Suddenly the persona of the God enfleshed in Jesus does not only have to do with chosen people. Not only with purebreds—Shelties and Great Danes and German Shorthaired Pointers—but with mongrels. Mutts. Half-breeds and Heinz 57s. The ones that track mud into our sanctuaries and shake pond water all over our doctrine, who hungrily snarf up any little morsel that falls and don’t know how to sit and stay.

The secret we must all discover from outsiders like the Canaanite woman is that if we hold their name up to a mirror, we come face to face with the Holy name. And those we wrote off as "dogs" become revealers of God.

We have five other dogs now, three beagles named Tinker Bell, Riley and Maggie, a Border Collie—German Shepherd mix named Spook, and a feisty Rat Terrier named Buddy. In a lot of ways BJ blazed the way for these puppies; we relentlessly spoil them. And I wonder what it’s like for them to sit at my feet during dinner time. From down there, you can’t see the whole spread, only the rim of a plate, perhaps whatever is lying within a few inches of the edge. It makes you hungry. But with faith, and a good nose, you can imagine the truth: there is more than crumbs there, for a little dog with the temerity to sit close.

As the United Church of Christ we must reach out to members of our community that some may regard as beneath them on the economic ladder of success. Our work with the homeless and low income neighborhoods will bring folks into our church that we might not normally invite into our club. They won’t value our traditions, they won’t idolize our worship space, and they won’t take the gospel at face value. They will be looking for more than crumbs from our table. And we’ll need to be ready to give them the best that we have. It is the kind of thing that must happen to each and every one of us. For even one sharp word or unapproving glance will negate the gospel that we preach. That is not a loving way to live. It is not a truthful way to live either.

We have to turn our priorities around, let go of all our rules, all our contrived distinctions; knowing that what is important is not that they be differentiated from us; but that their lives must be nourished. But we need to turn our criticism onto ourselves. It can be a shock, of course, to realize what we have been doing all along. Our habitual way of camouflaging ourselves has been stripped away. No longer can we make other people responsible for our own shortcomings. We begin to see other people as they really are and ourselves as we really are. We come to our moment of truth the way Jesus came to his.

May the mark of our lives and ministries be this: that we are not too proud to go sit under the table for a bit, listen to the language of the outsider and thereby learn about the feast of the kingdom of God that is to come. Amen.

(Special thanks to some other preachers that helped frame this theology for my experience! Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Projection Withdrawal” for August 14, 2005 – www.fernstone.org, and Gail Ricciuti’s sermon "God of Mongrels"
from December 2, 2001 - www.csec.org/csec/sermon/ricciuti_4509.htm)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

All You Can Eat

*Read Matthew 14:13-21

I have some buffet jokes for you this morning. There was an 85-year-old couple, having been married almost 60 years, found themselves at the Pearly Gates together. They had been in good health the last ten years mainly due to the wife's interest in health food and exercise. So when they reached the gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and bathroom suite, with a Jacuzzi. As they "oohed and aahed," the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. "It's free," Peter replied, "this is Heaven."

Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course that the home backed up to. They would have golfing privileges every day, and each week the course transformed to a new one, representing the great golf courses on Earth. The old man asked, "What are the green fees?" Peter's reply, "This is Heaven, you play for free." Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch, with the cuisines of the world laid out. "How much to eat?" asked the old man. "Don't you understand yet? This is Heaven, it is free!" Peter replied with some exasperation.

"Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?" the old man asked timidly. Peter lectured, "That's the best part; you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat or sick. This is Heaven." With that, the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, "This is all your fault. If it weren't for your bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago!"

Or what about the conversation I overheard last Sunday. Chris was cautioning her son, MacKenzie at the carry in after worship. "Doesn't it embarrass you that people have seen you go up to the buffet table five times?" she asked. "Not a bit," MacKenzie replied. "I just tell them I'm filling up the plate for you!"

And we all might have our own interesting buffet experiences to share. While at the buffet of an Oriental restaurant I was dining in recently, everything was labeled with post-it notes. Everyone was having quite a time trying to figure a particular one out. Instead of the popular Hunan Beef, the sign said Human Beef. Needless to say the pan was still full...

Even in the midst of these laughable moments, the appeal of a buffet is rather obvious. In fact, "Buffet" is a French word that means "Eat until you explode!" It’s that notion of having no limits. No limits, unlimited, all you want—all you can eat. Human beings respond to the notion of no limits very positively.
Sometimes we go to buffets for those glamorous food delicacies we might not normally prepare for ourselves - the “all you can eat” shrimp, the “fresh crab legs”…the sushi bar.

So, what’s a good buffet, if there is such a thing? And secondly—do you really eat that much at a buffet? Food, any food, is the best at first tasting, the first mouthful. After that, only the most extraordinary food gets better. With buffet food, the first mouthful, or the first plateful, maybe okay. After that, it’s a matter of loosening the belt and going back to the lines with the idea that you have to get your money’s worth. At least, that’s what it seems like to me.

The very concept of the buffet seems very American to me somehow, even though the “all you can eat” smorgasbord originated in Scandinavia. Lining up at a stainless steel counter, staring at florescent-lit food; it’s a rather lonely feeling, devoid of the home-cooked experience you get after slaving over a hot stove—all for the benefit of your loved ones. Buffets are more about feeding, than dining. And real dining—I believe—takes a lot more than that. It is a lot of work.

One of the things we have learned in recent years is that it is important when reading the Bible to approach it from different angles. Various avenues lead to different insights. Questions arise that we might not have thought of otherwise. Sometimes it’s even possible to hear something new about a story we thought we understood so well. Take the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, for example. For many years we have thought that this was a miracle story, a story about Jesus’ amazing ability in a difficult situation. Jesus and the disciples have gone off to a deserted place, but a large crowd of people has followed them. Matthew says, five thousand men were there, not counting all the women and children. Jesus feels sorry for them and spends the day curing their many illnesses. Then the sun begins to set, and the disciples begin to worry about how people are going to be fed. That’s the situation.

The other thing to notice about this story is what happens in it. Many people think of this story as a miracle story; but Matthew never uses that word. Somehow we have gotten the idea over the years that Jesus performed some kind of magician’s trick that day, that when he took the loaves and fishes and blessed them that they were multiplied. A supernatural feat, something like rabbits that keep coming out of a hat.

The thing is: that is not what Matthew says. All he says is that everyone had enough to eat and that there was some left over. Furthermore, the emphasis of the whole story is not so much on the people eating but on what happens just before that. The disciples come to Jesus in a panic, apparently concerned about the welfare of the crowd.

. . . the disciples came to him, and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” This exchange between Jesus and his disciples, in other words, seems to be the crux of the story. The disciples think the answer is to send the crowd away so that they might feed themselves. But Jesus’ solution has nothing to do with participating in the dominating mentality of both that era and ours. You’ve heard the popular saying, “God helps those who helps themselves.” But this doesn’t seem to be the gospel message of Jesus.

Instead Jesus determines the available resources, organizes the consumers into groups, pronounces the blessing, and distributes what is at hand. Well, almost. Jesus does not distribute the loaves in this story. He took the loaves. . . gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

What is important to notice in this story is who does feed the crowds. It is not Jesus. It is the disciples. From the diagnosis of the problem to the gathering up of leftovers, the disciples did all the work. The disciples are the ones who symbolize what it means to be like Jesus in the world. They learn how to be that way by doing what they are told. No briefing on how they are to arrange it. No estimate on how it will all turn out. They simply act on orders and discover one whose compassion reaches beyond their wildest dreams.

This was an extremely important story for Matthew’s church. It was not a church the way most of us still think of church; a building to keep up, bazaars to hold, a place where people come to perform rituals and a central authority somewhere downtown. This was a house church, an informal gathering of families in a safe place far from spying eyes. Rich and poor people huddled together in the name of Jesus, attempting to understand and embody the way of Jesus in the world the best way they knew how. They needed each other to survive. None of this modern-day individualism and competitive spirit we worship nowadays both in and out of church. Compassion was required of people in these tiny communities and households. Mercy. You were expected to show it in the face of someone else’s needs. Not an option, but a command of the One they all loved. It’s a matter of following orders.

In fact, that was what the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper came to mean for these people. It was an opportunity to come together and bless what they had, divide it up and distribute it in memory of him who was the compassion of God, making sure that everything was passed around until all had enough. Indeed, it was said of those people in those first churches that people would sell what they didn’t need and give it to others so that no one was in need (Acts 2.45). Just imagine!

That’s why this story from Matthew was so important. It was a reminder of what can happen when we obey Jesus’ order to give away what we have. And those first Christians took it as an order, for they truly believed that.

Heaven starts here, my friends. It starts when we discover the amazing goodness and delight of opening our hearts to anyone who is in need; for love is indeed its own reward. Of course, hell starts here too. For if it is eternal life to love the way Jesus loved anyone in need, it is hell to think that the only person who matters in this world is you.(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Just Following Orders” for July 31, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Meditation Prayer: Imagine yourself sitting before an amazing spread of food—all of your favorite things are there; juicy steaks, hot buttered baked potatoes, creamy macaroni and cheese, cool pasta salads, fresh slices of chilled watermelon, sweet banana cream pies. Now picture some of your favorite things.

Now, imagine in place of that delicious cooking you see the amazing good deeds accomplished by this faith community; caring for the homeless, preparing relief kits for disaster victims, walking in marches for social causes in the community, feeding the community, collecting clothes and groceries for needy families, giving your financial support that contributes to the work of ministry. These things are on God’s buffet. These gifts of time, talent and treasure are the means by which the hurting will be healed, the lonely will be loved, and the hungry will be fed. This is our mandate as followers of the Christ, and when we engage in this kind of service our souls will be satisfied with “all that we can eat.” And that is our gospel truth for today. Amen!