Saturday, September 24, 2016

“The Love of Money – A Stewardship Sermon” - September 25, 2016

I Timothy 6:12-19

            This is a stewardship sermon, which usually means that we talk about money.  This time it will be about riches and wealth that enter someone’s life when money is not the center of it.  It is a true story, and I’m not even going to change the names because there is nothing that is not public record, and it shows two wonderful people in a very good light.  Their names were Ernie and Desiree (Desi, for short). 

            The two of them grew up in the same neighborhood, went to school together, fell in love as teenagers and (this being one of several miracles in their lives) went on to build a strong and enduring marriage.  Ernie was a housepainter and built up a good, solid business.  Desi went to work for a bank.  They bought a house, the right side of an old twin with a decent sized backyard, which is where Ernie set up a blind for his camera because he enjoyed taking pictures of birds and the occasional squirrel – mostly birds, though.  He won several prizes for his photos and had occasional exhibits in Philadelphia and in Bucks County.  They became very good friends with the people in the other half of the twin, who were about twenty years older and had kids in high school at the time that Desi and Ernie began to have kids of their own.  The two families went in and out of each other’s back doors so much that they eventually took down the fence between the yards to make things simpler.

            Everyone who knew them knew how hard both Desi and Ernie worked, but also that that wasn’t their whole lives.  I led a Sunday School class where Desi was a regular and I can still remember one of the discussions they had when she leaned back in her chair as she picked up a mug of coffee and said, “All I know is that when I get to the end of my life, I probably won’t say, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”  It was the way she said that – a way I cannot reproduce – that set everybody laughing.
“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” [I Timothy 6:17-19]
That was them.  They enjoyed their work, but they loved people, and loved the Lord.

They had two intelligent and kind daughters and not too much later their last child, a son, came along and when he was a toddler he would walk with his mother and sisters to school, which was right next to the church.  And, lest you wonder whether a child can meet God at the altar rail, there was one day when I saw him tug on his mother’s hand on their way home and say, “Go church!  Get bread!”

            “All I know is that when I get to the end of my life, I probably won’t say, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”  That is stewardship of time, using it to raise children to know that they are loved by their parents and by the Lord.  That took the investment of time that did take them away from work occasionally and from overtime always.
“But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” [I Timothy 6:9-10]
They steered clear of that.  Their focus was on leading a good life, not on leading “the good life”.

            Then Ernie, who had been diabetic for a long time, developed kidney problems.  He was advised to seek a donor for a transplant because he was still relatively young.  The strangest thing happened, though.  It turned out that Desi was a compatible donor.  Do you know how rare that is when someone is not a blood relative?  She gave him one of her kidneys, and the operation was a complete success, with no tissue rejection, and his body began to get back to normal.  He was taking bird pictures again and his kids were growing up and all was well until he suddenly developed pancreatic cancer, totally unconnected to his previous condition, and shortly afterward died.

            Desi’s heart broke, but she continued to care for her family with the help of her parents, who were not far away, and of her sister, and of the neighbors next door, who had become family.  It was not always easy for any of them, but they still had each other and they still had their faith.  A good thing they did, too, because five years later a heart attack took Desi away.  That was tragic, with the youngest at that time not yet in high school.  The oldest, though, had just reached legal age to take charge of the household and she could commute to college while living at home with her sister and brother and the ever-present and steady love and presence of the folks next door, which is where they went at the end of each school day until their sister came home. 

It has been about eleven years since all of this took place, and they are all doing well.  I would not be able to say that, though, had Ernie and Desi’s focus – and the focus of the whole, faith-filled group – been on the making of money to the exclusion of the enrichment of their relationships with one another and with God.  How many children whose parents are gone are able to stay put right in their own house?  It’s bad enough to lose parents.  At least they did not at the same time lose their home. Whatever was good in the midst of the tragedy was all because of two people’s instinctive sense of stewardship of both time and money, the way that they held the two in balance, both providing for the family and recognizing that money would never be enough in itself.
“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” [I Timothy 6:6-8]
            There is so much that can go right even when so much is going wrong when priorities have been kept clear.  The way Jesus put it was this (and I think Ernie, with his bird photography, would have appreciated the way he said it):

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  [Matthew 6:25-33]

Saturday, September 17, 2016

“Praying for the Politicians” - September 18, 2016

I Timothy 2:1-7

When I think of “all who are in high positions” right now, I don’t tend to think of “a quiet and peaceable life,” let alone “godliness and dignity”.  I am not going to give you my reasons.  The sad part is that I don’t have to do that.  In fact, I find myself to some degree fighting my urge to spell those reasons out, in part because then I can just unload some of my frustrations about such matters and maybe – just maybe – feel better for however long it is until I turn on the radio in my car or open up the newsfeed on my computer and then it starts all over again.  In fact, I can feel the general blood pressure in this room rising right now as people call the latest offense to mind or quietly fume, “I thought church was one place I could get away from this stuff.”

Let me ask this, though: who needs our prayers most in a situation like this?  All too often the impulse is to pray about someone (which is really praying for ourselves) when we could be praying for that person (which would be about asking for their good).  Might it not be the politicians whose faults and failures are most clearly on display during an election whose needs are at the same time most public?

There is one sense in which it is easy to pray about them.  There’s a line in Fiddler on the Roof where someone runs up to the village rabbi and asks, “Rebbe, is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?” and the rabbi replies loudly, “Yes.  May God bless and keep the Tsar,” then in a low voice, “far away from us.”  There was at least one prayer offered during the convention season onstage, with the cameras rolling, in which the opposing party and its candidate were identified as “the enemy”.[1]  I have no doubt that prayers have been spoken in a similar vein on the other side. 

Is that what God wants?  To be treated as the referee in some sort of prayer smack-down, as if whoever can muster more voices will drown out the prayers of the other side and convince the Lord of their own choice’s rightness?  That isn’t prayer.  That degrades the practice of praying, and it betrays an immense spiritual immaturity on the part of human beings.  And we have all been there.  And we have all prayed that way.  We have just been fortunate enough not to have had national coverage.

There is that middle option that says if I don’t pray about the folks I don’t like, at least I can simply ignore them.  It’s part of the whole project of civility where we learn, “If you cannot say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”  That makes perfect sense in everyday conversation.  But prayer isn’t like everyday chit-chat.  Prayer is a matter of being open and honest with God, and every part of our lives enters into it, with nothing left out.

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone…” [I Timothy 2:1]
“for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [I Timothy 2:2-4]
            What, then, does it mean to pray for them?  It means to pray that they might have the wisdom and insight and all that it takes to work for the common good.  It means that they might be able to create, by what they do, conditions that allow people to

“lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” [I Timothy 2:2] 
It means that we pray for whatever it takes for them to do their jobs well.  In that sense we really are praying for ourselves, too, but also for everyone around us and for the social environment as a whole.

            We can disagree, or politicians can disagree with each other, and still have that goal of the common good in mind.  When that happens, there is actual debate about how to do it instead of name-calling and mudslinging.  Statistics and numbers are examined as measurements and indicators of fact instead of being twisted to support a predetermined position.  Once the battle has begun, though, it’s hard to keep such things in mind.  What politician will ever feel comfortable saying to an opponent, “You may have a point there,” or even, “I think you have part of that right”?  That takes grace, and by “grace” I mean the help of God.

            So here’s where the Church has fallen down on the job.  We have failed to remind politicians and rulers that they do not speak with the voice of God, but that the voice of God, if they listen, will speak to them.  They may not like what they hear, but there is no other voice even worth listening to, not even the polls.  We have failed to explain the difference between “pivoting” and repentance.  We have failed to pray that they might have the gift of humility, the kind of humility that was shown by a Savior who was called a king but chose to ride into Jerusalem not on a warhorse but on a donkey.  (No, that does not mean that Jesus was a Democrat.)  In doing that, we have failed them as people and failed our society.

            We have just passed the fifteenth anniversary of a terrible events that have come to be known by the date 9/11.  Many decisions had to be made in the days and weeks that followed, some of which were good and some of which were bad, and the consequences of it are felt in ways that anyone not born before that day will never understand.  The world feels far more serious, even grim.  One thing that came to the fore during that period, though, was the awareness that there were people who had weighty matters in their hands and that they really needed other people’s prayers upholding them as they tried to find a way through the minefield that is the international scene.  The prayers offered on their behalf and the prayers that they prayed for themselves were sincere and not motivated by ego or the lust for power. 

That is the kind of prayer that should be offered for our leaders, and for the leaders of all nations, at all times.  The 1928 Book of Common Prayer included one such prayer.  The language is old-fashioned, but the meaning is entirely appropriate almost a century later.  If you would, please join your hearts in prayer with me:

“Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

“Being Made an Example” - September 11, 2016

I Timothy 1:12-17

            I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the saying “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future”.  It’s not in the Bible, but it’s a good summary of the passage we heard from I Timothy this morning.  I looked it up and found out it’s a quote from a play by Oscar Wilde, who definitely had a past.  Then again, so did Paul when he wrote, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” [I Timothy 1: 13]  In fact, when Paul first came to faith, the Christians in Damascus didn’t entirely trust his conversion.  He had been headed there to smoke them out and have them arrested and some of them thought it might be a trick.

            This passage isn’t the only one where Paul recounts his experience both before and after his conversion.  Toward the beginning of his letter to the Galatians he tells about how he spent years both learning faith and proving himself faithful before he approached Peter and James back in Jerusalem about starting the missionary work that people identify him with. 
“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.”  [Galatians 1:13-24]
            We sing, “Just As I Am” and it is one of those hymns that when you hear it at the right time and it sinks into your memory, you know it tells the truth.

“Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bid’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.  I come.”   

Do we really get that, though?  God can and does call everyone as they are, not waiting for them to become someone else – although the call itself can and does change a person.  In fact, the ugly stuff that we carry may be exactly what God needs us to use to show that he can do wonders with anyone.

            Remember Moses, out there in the desert, with God calling him from the burning bush?  The reason he was out there was that he had killed an Egyptian soldier and became a fugitive.  And yet, he was exactly the person God could use to speak to Pharaoh because he had grown up in the Pharaoh’s palace, not as one of the enslaved and struggling Hebrews that God would make him lead into freedom.

            Matthew and Zacchaeus were both tax collectors working for the Romans who would put Jesus to death.

            Augustine, one of the greatest Christian theologians, spent over a decade as a Manichaean – sort of the Scientologists of the fifth century.  His mother, Monica, whose prayers and faith he credited with his ultimate conversion to Christianity, had had a severe drinking problem as a teenager and had to quit cold turkey around the age of thirteen.

            C.S. Lewis, one of the most intelligent Christian writers of the twentieth century, whose essays and novels for both adults and children make the faith understandable on many levels, spent years as an agnostic, in part as a reaction to the horrors that he had seen as a soldier in the trenches in World War I.  Six centuries earlier, Francis of Assisi had gone through a similar struggle after being involved in some gory battles.  Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits, had also been a soldier but didn’t have the same regrets.  He did, however, have a leg that was smashed by a cannon ball and went into severe depression about being unable to continue in his military career.

            If you had met any of these people at an early point in their lives, chances are that you would not have said, “Would you mind posing for a picture so that we can get the stained-glass image right?”  It’s possible that the most effective evangelist of the next fifty years is somebody who is more interested in a Sunday morning garage sale or in finding the next dose of heroin than in being in church.

            But if they are to hear about Jesus, and what he can do to transform lives, the most convincing argument that will ever be made is the one that you and I speak from our hearts when we tell them our own experience, whether it’s as dramatic as the ones I’ve mentioned, or as simple as saying, “You know what?  I may not have messed up in any spectacular way, but I have messed up in all the usual ones.  If God can forgive me for the constant – and I do mean constant – sins that are part of my life, then he can and will forgive yours.”  Whether you owe someone $1.00 fifty times or $50.00 one time, it’s all the same.  Either way, Jesus is ready to pay the bill.

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [I Timothy 1:15]
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.  [I Timothy 1:17]

Saturday, September 3, 2016

“Counting on Your Conscience” - September 4, 2016


            My sister used to be treasurer for the ARCO Chemical Workers’ Union and was involved in the contract negotiations.  That kind of thing is confidential and she never shared what went on, but I know it must have been harrowing at times because she always looked exhausted when she got back from those trips.  But on this Labor Day weekend, here’s a situation that makes modern labor relations look easy.

            There was a man who lived in Colossae whose name was Philemon.  Philemon had become a Christian through the preaching of the apostle Paul.  (People who lived there were called Colossians, hence Paul’s letter to the Colossians and his letter to Philemon mention some of the same folks.)  

            Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus (which means “useful”).  Paul was in prison outside Rome, awaiting what he hoped would be trial and release but turned out to be his execution.  While he was there, Onesimus showed up and, like Philemon earlier, came to faith in Christ.  He began to help run errands for Paul and to do things that were necessary for him both to survive and to continue consulting with the churches Paul had organized all over the eastern Mediterranean. 

            Then Paul found out that Onesimus was a fugitive.  He had run away from Philemon.  Now, we all know what happens to runaway slaves, don’t we?  If they aren’t killed immediately, they are returned to their captors, who make an example of them to discourage other slaves from running.  Torture is the beginning and the end is likely death.  The usual method was crucifixion.  (When Jesus was killed that way, the element of humiliation and dehumanization that is part of slavery was supposed to be an element of the execution.)

            If Paul let Onesimus stay, he would be harboring a fugitive and/or receiving stolen goods (the labor of Onesimus).  In Roman terms, he was already suspected of undermining the social order with his strange, new twist on Judaism, and letting Onesimus off the hook would prove that he was a subversive whom the Empire would be better off without.  His treatment of a runaway could throw the whole Jesus Movement into danger.

So if Paul sends Onesimus away, they may all be endangered.  If he denounces him to the authorities as a runaway, Onesimus may not even make it back to Philemon.  If he sends him back, he is betraying not only a human being but also a fellow Christian.

            What to do?

            The one possible solution does not depend on Paul, but on Philemon, who has a power that Paul does not.  He could pardon Onesimus.  It would have been unusual, as if Harriet Tubman had been captured and carried back to Maryland, only to be told it was okay and that she should just turn around and return to Philadelphia.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  But that is what Paul asked.

            He asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus – get this – as a brother.  Then he wanted him freed and sent back to Paul to pick up where he had left off.

            Now, Paul took some steps to encourage this outcome.  He sent this letter with Onesimus, and in it are greetings to others in Colossae to guarantee that it would be read publicly before the fellowship.  In it, he reminds Philemon that he owes him a debt of gratitude as the one who brought them the gospel and respect as an apostle, and pity as a prisoner – especially as a prisoner for the faith.  He puts all of this out there, and does it so that everybody would be hearing it at once.

            Can you imagine the whole, infant church at Colossae turning their eyes on these two people in front of them, the master and the slave, both of them being named as children of God through Christ, being called equal before God?  Can you imagine being there, wondering if this new status was going to alter the relationship between them in a concrete way or not.  Would it make you, also a slave, an equal to Philemon?  Would it make you, a free person, but with nothing to your name but the clothes on your back and a list of debts, the same as a prosperous, respected, educated, influential head-of-household citizen?  Just how radical was this new community going to be?

            Paul knew what he wanted.  Onesimus knew what he wanted.  Philemon may or may not have wanted the same thing, but would he want more than anything to live as a child of God?

            Paul referred to Onesimus as Philemon’s brother.  They had probably heard the story that Jesus had told about a runaway son who returned to his father – the one where the son was a ne’er-do-well, good-for-nothing that they might all have been better off without, but whom the father welcomed back into the family not as a servant, as the prodigal planned to ask, but as a full-fledged son.  The older brother, who had never messed up like that, didn’t really want to recognize him again, and at the end of the story it’s left open what happens, because the father throws a party and tells the older son, who is standing outside and sulking, that he should come in and celebrate, but doesn’t force him.  Jesus left the story open at that point, with the older son deciding what to do.

            Here is Philemon, with all eyes on him, and Paul’s letter saying,
“I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” [Philemon 14-21]
Tell us, Philemon, what that older brother does.  Finish the story that Jesus left open.  Finish it (if you can) the way he would wanted it to end.

            There’s no record of what happened next.  But we do know this: around the year 100 A.D., Ignatius of Antioch, another man awaiting martyrdom, wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus, not too far from Colossae, in which he mentions
“Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him.[1]
            Good for you, Philemon.  Good for you.

[1] Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, chapter 1.