The path to joy

In my last homily I focused on the idea of a savior and I asked you to wrestle with the idea of what you might need saving from. Symbolically we need saving from the darkness, whatever that may mean for you. Over the past month we have been using the idea of light as a symbol for God and we have explored the meaning of light in our own faith as we have lit the advent wreath and talked about the symbolism of light in our lives. These activities culminated with the lighting of the Christ Candle, which symbolizes the arrival of the long-awaited savior, who brings joy to the world. For many people it is easy to feel joyous during the Christmas season, there are many reminders for them of the joy that they have in their lives, but there are also many people who struggle to see “the light in the darkness”, who struggle to find a source of joy. They may feel alone or abandoned; they may feel as though they are stuck in an impossible situation. For some these situations look like poverty or homelessness; for some it is a struggle with substance abuse; for some it appears as depression or anxiety; and for others it may simply seem like their life has no purpose. Regardless of the reasons, the good news is that Jesus, the light of the world, the Word that became flesh and lived among us, has provided a path to joy.

In The Message, which is contemporary rendering of the bible, Eugene Peterson says “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” What would it look like if God moved into your neighborhood? I can remember living in at least seven different neighborhoods in my life, all of them different, and I struggle to think why God would have moved into any of them. None of them were ever dangerous, I was never surrounded by abject poverty, and I can’t remember ever feeling like my neighbors were in great need, so why would God even need to come there? Well, arguably God needs to be everywhere, because God’s saving presence has little to do with any of the struggles we can perceive. God is not going to end poverty and crime; God is not going to fix our annoying neighbors, not because God can’t, but because these things are human problems that we have created by the collective choices we have made. Jesus did not come to live among us to end these human problems, he came to show us that if we make better choices then these problems will go away on their own. God’s saving grace, in the form of the teachings of Jesus and the ever-present Holy Spirit, can and does provide us with a path to joy, but that path is neither straight nor easy. I have often spoken of the need to put God first in our lives, which does not mean that we need to spend our lives in isolated prayer, instead it means that we need to embrace the Holy Spirit and mimic the life of Jesus as best we can because I have news for us all, God already lives in all of our neighborhoods, because God lives in us. Jesus was the word made flesh and within that flesh resided the wisdom of the God life. That wisdom has been passed to us through scripture and to ensure that we are able to understand it God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us interpret and act on that wisdom; but in order to do so we have to be willing participants, which is why we need a savior. We need a savior to help us make better choices so that we can live God centered lives. If every person, and I mean every person, chose to live the God centered life as Jesus did. If every person chose to live as we have been called to, then most, if not all, of the problems that lead to the struggle to find joy would disappear.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, the likelihood of every person choosing to lead a God centered life is slim to none, so then why bother? Well, everyone needs to answer that question for themselves, but for me it is simple. Embracing the God life and striving to place God at the center of all that I do has led to the healing of many wounds and it has given me the strength to hope that others will also find the healing power of God. Through God, I have overcome many things, I have emerged from some very dark places and I have found joy in my life and that joy is what pushes me to help God forge a better world. The path to joy is long, it is difficult, and it requires a great deal of effort. It requires that we embrace our role as active participants in the God life, it requires us to be the eyes and ears and hands of God. I think that Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century Spanish nun, put it best when she said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  By embracing the God life, by being the body of Christ, we are all capable of helping God bring change to the world. Sometimes that change will be small and we won’t be able to detect and sometimes it will be so profound that we will be awestruck, the degree of change is irrelevant because measuring our effectiveness is a human thing, not a God thing, our job is to just be willing participants in the process. Amen

bethlehem-clipart-joseph-trip-19

The Gospel today is a very familiar one, Joseph is getting ready to quietly dump his girlfriend because she is pregnant and he isn’t the father, but before he does it he has a dream in which an angel tells him it’s God’s baby who is going to be the promised savior and he needs to raise it. I can tell you that scholars have a field day with this passage, but I will not bore you with the details of that because there is a far more important message in this story that I believe are worth spending some time on, namely, God’s work often upsets comfortable social conventions.

Under 1st century Jewish law, Joseph had every right to kick Mary to the side in a very public and shameful way, but he didn’t plan to do that, he planned to quietly dissolve their relationship and move on, which speaks volumes about Joseph’s humility and gentleness as a person and as a son of God. As nothing with God is an accident, it should not be a surprise that God would choose such a person to be the caretaker of the messiah. Joseph, who was clearly a faithful man, was ready and able to provide a good home for Mary, but the fact that she was pregnant had the potential to ruin him socially, which doesn’t just mean his status, it could mean his livelihood. Their community would not have batted an eye at them parting ways over Mary’s pregnancy, but Joseph didn’t do that. Instead, because God asked him to, Joseph stayed with Mary and he adopted Jesus as his own, and he turned his world upside down to love and protect a tiny little baby. Joseph’s actions were not typical, they were rooted in a quiet trust in God, who had asked Joseph to upset his social norms and the amazing thing is that he did it, he trusted that God would have his back and based on that he stayed with Mary and together they raised their family.

As we move towards Christmas, we are going to be tempted to proclaim that the savior has come, but before we do so we should be asking ourselves a very important question, which is why do we need a savior? When Isaiah foretold of the virgin birth of Emmanuel the Israelites were in the midst of their captivity in Babylon; when Mary and Joseph were upsetting social norms their home was under the control of the Roman Empire and a Jewish monarch who was more concerned with his own power than protecting his own people from the Romans; and when Matthew reminded his readers of Isaiah’s words he did so approximately 70 years after the birth of Jesus when the Israelites were under the direct control of a Roman governor. There is a very clear need for the hope that someone will save them in all these situations, but what do we need saving from? We do not live in captivity, we are not slaves to a foreign power, we are not forced to live under the rule of a foreign governor; so why then are we getting ready to shout for joy that the savior, the messiah, that Emmanuel has come? I think that if we dig deep and if we ask ourselves some tough questions; questions that will be difficult to answer, questions that may lead to a need for change in our lives, then we will understand why we need a savior.

The most profound and difficult question I was ever asked was asked within the context of a discernment group. Everyone at the daylong seminar was trying to figure out what God was calling them to do with their lives. So, we sat in groups of three and within our group we each took turns doing one of three jobs, timekeeper, question asker and responder. When it was my turn to be the responder, I was asked the same question as everyone else and after I answered it, the same question was asked again and again, and again, and again, until the time had expired. Every time the question was asked, I found myself digging deeper and deeper for my responses. My initial response was superficial and rehearsed; my second response was less rehearsed, and by the 4th or 5th time responding my responses were beginning to become genuine and far more God centered. The experience was profound and even though it was more than four years ago I can still recall the joy and sense of relief I realized what God was asking of me. The question that changed my life was, what do you want? There was no other context given, just what do you want? By the time you answer this question for the 4th time within three minutes you will find that the thing that you want most in life may not actually be what you initially thought, that was certainly true for me.

The question for today is, why do we need a savior? Well, I needed a savior to help me figure out my purpose and with the help of The Trinity, to make the changes in my life that are necessary to fulfill that purpose, which is to treat every human being with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This is a lofty goal, it goes against the social conventions of our time, which pressures us to compete to be the best at everything and is probably an impossible goal to achieve; but I believe it is the goal that my savior came to give me, so when Christmas arrives I will praise God for giving me the gift of Jesus, who has taught me that no matter how much pressure I may feel to focus my energy on my own desires, there is only one desire that truly matters and that is the desire to share Gods love with the entire world, which does not come from out there, it comes from the Holy Spirit, who resides in here. Joseph chose to follow the path God put before him, instead of what society expected of him, he chose God over self, and that is the key to understanding why we need a savior. Jesus, Emmanuel, represents a way of being that changes lives, but that change will only come if we willingly and consciously participate in the process and put God first. Amen.

Expectant preparation

1298662The readings today point us to the need to be prepared, which is fitting as Advent is a season of expectant preparation, not of the birth of the messiah, but of his return. It is an annual reminder that we must be prepared for Jesus to show up on our doorstep at any moment; but what does it really mean to be prepared for his return? Is it even possible to prepare for such an event? Per usual, I have no real idea how to answer my own questions, and I suspect that they may not be the questions we should be asking because we know that Jesus, who was and is God incarnate, is already here in the form of the Holy Spirit, and the season of Advent is meant to be a season in which we remind ourselves of the things we already know. Much of the scripture chosen for advent is apocalyptic, which means that something will be revealed, it has nothing to do with the end of the world. Will there be a day when Jesus will return and sit in judgment of humanity? Maybe, I don’t know; frankly I don’t really think it matters. What does matter is that we are prepared to see God when we wake up in the morning; when we leave our house to go to work; when we stop to buy a cup of caffeine; when we greet our co-workers; when we sit at the lunch table; when we stop for groceries on the way home; and before we go to sleep. If we are not able to recognize the presence of God in these instances, then we can’t call ourselves ready to do Gods work in the world, because until we can see God moving in our own lives and in the lives of the people we see every day, we will not be ready to see God in the faces and actions of the perfect stranger, nor would we be able to recognize Jesus if he was walking down the street because he is not likely to look like the pictures from the 70’s.

The Presiding Bishop says that “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus”, which is a simple way to reference the commandment to Love both God and our neighbors. I don’t know about you, but when I love someone I think about them all the time.  I think about how they are; I think about what they might be doing; I think about what they might be feeling; and I wonder about how much they might love me in return. In our relationship with God, as revealed through scripture, we know that God loves us 100%; God loves us so much that there are no words in any language that could possibly help us understand what God’s love means. Nothing we can ever imagine could remotely come close to explaining God’s love for us; yet, we try to do so and sometimes even claim to understand it; we also claim to understand what it means to be ready, but we will never be ready? We will never fully understand God’s love for us; we will never be fully ready for the return of Jesus; and we will never be fully ready to do as God as commanded us to do; but, that should not trouble us, because when Jesus told us to Love God and neighbor he said it knowing that we would fail, probably most of the time. Accepting that God  loves us, in spite of our failures, is the first step in being ready for God’s active presence in our lives. The second step is accepting that loving our neighbor means loving them in spite of their flaws, and the best part of this step is that we never have to do it alone, because God’s holy presence in the form of the Holy Spirit is ready, willing and able to do the work, with us, through us and even for us, if we just let it.

Advent reminds me that faith is not passive; it reminds me to think about my own love for God; to reflect on whether or not I actively think about God and our relationship, just like I do when I think about my grandparents, my parents, my wife, my children, and my friends. It reminds me to remember that God is not only found in church, God is not only found in the hearts of the people who gather on Sunday morning. God is and has been in the heart of every human being that has ever and will ever exist. While we struggle to prepare ourselves to embrace God’s loving presence, it is also our responsibility, as people of faith, to help others prepare themselves to do the same by being a witness to God’s love in the world.

As we enter our season of expectant preparation, I encourage you to take the time to reflect on God’s presence in your life. Think about whether you are aware of God’s loving presence and reflect on whether you think of God in the same way that you think of your loved ones. We must be ready, for the son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour and we do not know the form he will take. He may look like the pictures, he may look like one of us, she may look like the little girl who is hugging her father so tight he can’t breathe, they may look like the homeless under the bridge. The form Jesus will take upon their return is not important, what is important is the need to prepare ourselves to see and accept God’s presence in every person, beginning with ourselves.

Life throws us challenges

2000px-triquetra-circle-interlaced.svg

Jesus is once again faced with a challenge from yet another group of Jews who are trying to poke holes in what he is teaching. The people in question have already carefully considered the teachings of Jesus and have rejected them, they have rejected the idea of resurrection being possible, they deny the existence of spirits, and they refuse to give any credence to oral tradition. They instead emphasize the importance of the written law, specifically the Torah, which is the law as written and passed to them by Moses. The Sadducees were living what they believed to be a God centered life and they were not ready to accept that God may be calling them in a different direction, which is why they were testing Jesus. Jesus never once denied the law of Moses as being important, but he does push us to realize and accept that there is far more to the God life than following the rules.

One of the hardest aspects of being a person of faith is accepting that the ways of God are not the ways of humanity and this is exactly what Jesus is saying to the Sadducees. Jesus calls us, he asks us, he pushes us to live a resurrected life, which does not mean he is pushing us to follow the rules so that we can go to heaven, it means we need to wake up and accept that the resurrection is not a promise for the future, it is now, it is right here. Luke’s Jesus said that the lowliest of the society would be considered “like angels and children of God, being children of the resurrection.” He does not mean that someday, because they lived a hard life and followed all the rules, they will get to go to heaven where every day will be like their first visit to Disney World. What he has revealed to us is that in a post resurrection world there is no sociopolitical stratification, there is no oppression, there is no subjugation of women, there is no dehumanization; in a resurrection world human rules do not apply.

Every year I show a film to my students about the Spanish American War and during one of the early scenes one of the main characters is arguing with his father about his decision to volunteer to go to war, in response his father says “Life is not Honor and Polo. Life is hunger. Life is anger. Life is pain and dirt. Your grandfather knew life. He didn’t recommend it. That’s why we’re rich” Now I don’t agree with the entire sentiment of this statement, but I do agree with the heart of what he is telling his son, life is not about human made things, it is not about looking honorable in the eyes of your friends and family and no matter what your socioeconomic status is, life does involve hunger, and anger, and pain, and dirt; and I believe it is safe to assume that none of us would hold up those aspects of life as worth writing home about and because of the promise of the resurrection we don’t have to. The resurrection provides us hope that the world can be different, that the world can be redeemed, that the world can be healed and we don’t have to wait until we die to experience it, in fact we are supposed to help reveal it. The purpose of the God life is to assist in the revealing of the kingdom of God to ourselves and to the world, it is not to hope and pray that we will someday get to go to heaven; but revealing the kingdom is hard, it is hard because everywhere we look we see brokenness and we see people who have rejected God or who at least don’t know how to approach God. How can we possibly share the good news of the resurrection with people who don’t want to hear it, how can we possibly change the minds of so many people to see that the kingdom of God is here? The truth is that we cannot change their minds, but God can. Although God can only do that if we allow the Holy Spirit to work through our words and actions. There are times though, that life throws us challenges that test our ability to be faithful to the God life.

This past week I received word that a former student of mine is struggling. Her 2-year-old son has been diagnosed with leukemia and is undergoing intensive treatment at Baystate Children’s Hospital. After he receives a treatment he must remain at the hospital until his immune system recovers enough for him to go home, which can take weeks, so he has been spending up to 30 days at a time in the hospital and because of this, his mother has had to quit her job to be with him and is now struggling to buy food because she wants to make sure she has enough gas to drive to the hospital every day to be with him. I am heartbroken that this little boy must endure such horrors and that his parents must endure the pain of watching their child suffer and I wonder in the face of such pain, and anger, and hunger, how I can possibly share with them the good news and hope of the resurrection? And if I did, why would they even listen to me or anyone else for that matter?

A part of living a God centered life is accepting that we do not understand everything and trusting that God will find a way. Claiming to know the will of God is what the Sadducees were doing by clinging to the law. Jesus’s response to them teaches us that clinging to human thinking does nothing more than separate us from God and deny the power of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of every person. The rules tell us to love God and to love our neighbor, but how do we do that? For me personally I am wondering how I can love my student and her family in such a way that lets them know that God is with them? I don’t know the answer to my question, but what I do know, is that we must trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide our words and actions and that as long as we keep God at the center of our lives, through prayer, through the study of scripture, and through service to the people of the world the Holy Spirit will find a way to reveal the kingdom and the good news of the resurrection.

We have to pray

When my oldest son was about three, we went to Staples to buy a few things, and when we got into the store, I grabbed a basket because we were only there for one or two items. Well, he wanted a cart because he wanted to sit in the big part, and I told him no. His response was to drop to the ground and start crying. So here I am in the front of Staples, customers and employees are watching us, likely wondering what I did to my kid to make him scream and probably hoping that I would make it stop as soon as possible. I had a choice to make, do I give in and grab a cart, or do I stick to my guns. Well, in a calm voice and in a normal tone I said, “when you are done, I will be over there” and I walked away. I noticed a smirk on one of the employees faces as I began to walk away and within two seconds my son stopped screaming, got up, and followed me down the aisle.

Sometimes, possibly most of the time, we put a great deal of energy into the things that we think are the most important, but truly it is only about our ego. Religious Scholar Huston Smith once wrote that “when the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not pander to its desires.” What Smith is saying is that the purpose of religion, the purpose of having a relationship with God, is to center our attention on the kingdom, on God’s plans and not on the things that we desire.

The purpose of prayer, as hinted at by Jesus’ parable, is to assist us in the reorientation process. The woman in the parable consistently asks for justice and she eventually receives it, but let’s be careful here, the message is not that we will get what we want if we ask for it on a regular basis, it is not that if we annoy God enough he will give in. The message is that justice, God’s justice, the kingdom of God will come about when we decentralize our ego and replace it with a God driven life. When we openly, regularly, and sincerely pray we are entering a conversation with God and with ourselves that can help us decenter our ego and reorient our focus onto more important things. The purpose of the parable is to teach us the importance of praying with regularity with the expectation that justice will come, in time, not to teach us that we will get what we want through prayer.

There is a very important concept, that relates to prayer, in the passage from Jeremiah for today. Jeremiah, speaking for God, says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”  Jeremiah is speaking of the new covenant between God and the people which is based on an internal relationship as opposed to an external set of laws, meaning it is a covenant that we live into, instead of a set of rules that we need to live up to. In order to live into the covenant, we need to place God at the center of our lives instead of placing ourselves there. We do that by reading scripture to help us understand what a God centered life looks like, praying to God for guidance when we are not sure what to do; for strength when we are overwhelmed; for forgiveness when we focus on our own ego; and for comfort when we feel alone.

So far I have talked about how we tend to pay a great deal of attention to ourselves, the importance of making prayer a central part of our lives, and the idea that God has made a covenant with us by placing the law in our hearts, but what I haven’t talked about is what this all means.

As I indicated with my opening story, we tend to focus on the things that we want beginning at a very young age. Our entire culture is centered around the idea of individual desire, which means that our children learn from a very early age that the world revolves around them. There was a time when the church taught that the earth was at the center of the universe because humans are the most important part of creation, but that idea has not only been disproven by science, it has been rejected by theologians. In addition to stressing the importance of individual control, our culture has morphed into a society that expects things to happen immediately. Immediacy and control have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, they are human creations and distractions. The new covenant, written within our hearts, is simple; but in order to understand it and live into it we need to cultivate it and we do that by studying scripture and praying. Prayer is a conversation with God, it is not a laundry list of wants and desires. When we pray for God to intervene in the world we are, as Huston Smith said, turning the church into a service station, we are passing off all responsibility for the current state of the world to others, other people or even God; we are assuming that we have played no role in either creating or sustaining the injustices that are preventing our realization of the kingdom of God. When we pray or as I like to say Talk to God, we need to put aside our ego and instead offer thanksgivings for the blessings that exist in the world, so that we can learn to recognize those blessings as they arrive and not only after they have passed; we should ask God for forgiveness for assuming that they are going to fix the messes that we have made; we should offer the things we know to be injustices, but not with the idea that God will snap their fingers and fix it, but as a part of our understanding that in naming those injustices we are beginning to walk down the path of ending them; and once we have done that we must take the time to listen for a response, knowing that we may not like the answer. It is through our conversations with God that the Holy Spirit is able to awaken the law that has been placed in our hearts which are the seeds that can grow into a desire to love God and to love of each other as much as we love ourselves.

I will end by giving one example. Eighty percent of the world’s population survives on $2 per day, which they use to pay for food, housing, schooling and other necessities of life. Clearly this is an injustice, but is it an injustice because there are not enough resources to go around or is it an injustice because too many people are not willing to share the resources they have? Let’s assume we want to be like the woman in the parable and we want this injustice to be corrected, how should we pray about it? Should we say, Dear God, your people are suffering, please be merciful and help them? Or should we maybe say Dear God, we thank you and praise you for creating the earth to sustain life, so that we would never need to feel hunger, yet so many of your people are forced to go without the food you have provided, help us to understand why this injustice exists and lend us your strength, through the Holy Spirit, to proclaim our love for you and for one another as we work to ensure that all of your people are cared for, as you intended? The answer is hopefully obvious, but the reality of the injustices that exist in the world are not. Prayer is only one aspect of a Christian life, but it is a vital one. If we truly want to restore God’s kingdom, which simply put means a world without injustice, then we have to change our behaviors; we have to let go of our self-centered desires; we have to stop believing that just because we ask, God is going to make it all better, and instead accept that the world is filled with injustice because we continually reject God’s call to love both God and others as much as we love ourselves. Praying and doing so often, is the first step towards repairing the damage we have done to creation because it is through prayer that we can gain the assistance of the Holy Spirit in setting aside our ego. So, pray, pray for forgiveness, pray for assistance, pray that the Holy Spirit will help you understand God’s call for you.

 

We need to say thank you

Like so many American’s I like to turn to Facebook, which is of course the ultimate source of all wisdom, to find inspiration. A few months ago, I saw a meme that quoted Christian author Max Lucado. It said, “what if you woke up in the morning and had only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” This idea shocked me and frankly scared me, what if that did happen? This ide makes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus even more difficult to listen to than normal, particularly if we enjoy a lifestyle of comforts. The initial meaning of this parable is quite clear, the wealthy will be tormented in hell and the poor will go straight to heaven, but is that really the message? If it is then I imagine that all of us may be feeling a little uncomfortable right now, but the good news is that, like all parables, there is hope. The rich man had everything he could ever want, good food, great friends, a huge house; but in the end, what was he left with? He was left with an eternity of torment, because he had no faith. He had no sense of gratitude for the life that he had, so when he entered death, he was given only what he had thanked God for the day before, which was nothing. The rich man was so self-absorbed that he only cared for one thing and that was himself. I think that he likely suffered from the old adage that money corrupts, meaning that we can become so wrapped up in our success that we can forget that not everyone is as successful as you and that your success may have in fact come at the expense of someone else. I am sure that the rich man had servants and workers, he probably even had slaves. Did he ever thank his wine steward or his cook or his field hands, let alone God? I am guessing no. The rich man fell far short of what it means to be a follower of Christ Jesus, he fell far short of loving his neighbor and he clearly did not love God.

Jesus said that there are two great commandments, love your neighbors, and love God. Loving God involves regular and open communication with God, it requires us to trust God and recognize the importance of allowing our spiritual lives to guide our earthly lives. It is in this area that I believe most of us, like the rich man, fall short and thus risk a similar fate. The reason the rich man went to hell is not because he was rich, but because he allowed his wealth and power, not his faith, to be the dominant influence in his life.

Living a faith centered life is hard. For many, going to church, buying a raffle ticket at the holiday fair, or even putting a check in the collection plate is easy, but those things do not make us Christians and they are very possibly things that the rich man did. Walking through the world with humility, sharing what we have out of gratitude, and asking for forgiveness when we don’t do those things is what marks us as followers of Jesus Christ. I think that for many people there is a chasm between the things that they do and their faith and what I mean by that is there is no connection between their actions and their relationship with God. Simply going to church or buying a raffle ticket is not faith, it may be a sign that a person supports the idea of God, it may mean that they are attempting to play the part as best they know how, but is what they are doing faith? Faith requires more than lip service; it requires more than feel good actions because a sad commercial, news story, or meme moves you to donate; it requires commitment. It requires a commitment to a life of sacrifice. It requires that we sacrifice things that may very well give us joy, so that we will have time to study scripture and time to talk to God. I have yet to meet a person, bishops included, that has not struggled with making time for God. We lead such busy lives that the idea of stopping for even five minutes to say thank you is not even on our radar, we might even think “God knows I am thankful, why do I have to say it?”. Claiming we are too busy, or that we don’t know how to pray, are nothing but excuses. I am convinced that the rich man never made time for God, even though God was literally begging for scraps on his front step, because he was too busy distracting himself with life, and because of that he is forever separated from God’s love, he is stuck staring across a great chasm for the rest of eternity knowing that it is too late for him, it is too late to give God gratitude for all that he had in life; it is too late to ask forgiveness for ignoring God. The moral of this story is not that we are all going to hell because we have a bunch of stuff; the moral is that we need to not ignore God, we need to heed the teachings of Jesus; we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves; we need to love God with every fiber of our being; we need to say thank you; and we need to make the time to do it every day.

 

We must to go to them

When we belong to an organization for a long time, we inevitably come across a phenomenon that is pervasive in most, if not all, human organizations and that is insular or isolated thinking. In the church, our thinking can become so isolated that we will only look for certain things when we engage with scripture. In Luke’s gospel we heard the importance of looking for the one lost sheep and the one lost coin and our well-trained minds probably took us right to the most obvious conclusion, which is that God will not leave one person behind. Well, that is true, but I also think that it misses the mark. According to G. Penny Nixon, the issue Luke is putting before us has nothing to do with God’s willingness to redeem the one lost soul, instead we need to focus on the very beginning of the passage where the Pharisees and the Scribes, aka the insiders, are grumbling because outsiders are moving into what they believe is their territory. The parables we heard today are tools used by Jesus to point out that the grumbler’s thinking is wrong and that they need to repent. The Pharisees and the scribes, who are the temple insiders, are clearly uncomfortable with the idea that outsiders, namely the tax collectors and sinners, are being welcomed into their territory. The temple insiders know exactly what the tax collectors and sinners need to do in order to fit in and they have never shied away from letting everyone, and especially Jesus, know when they are wrong, so why then do they appear to be uncomfortable now? The answer is likely that they are more comfortable correcting the behavior of people who are already a part of their world, than the people they never interact with. The sinners and the tax collectors have never been welcomed by the temple insiders, instead they have been ignored or shunned. Jesus’s parables are calling for the insiders to change their thinking about the outsiders, he is calling them to focus their attention on the people they think are lost and beyond help, instead of the people they think they can save. The people who follow the rules of the temple are the insiders and when they stray from the rules they can easily be brought back into the fold, but the sinners and tax collectors are considered beyond help and therefore not worth their time.

How often do we recoil at the sight of someone that doesn’t fit our definition of an insider? I see it every day in my profession. Teenagers come in many shapes and sizes and with a wide variety of skills and abilities. I have noticed an increase in anxiety among students and a tendency among staff to assume that the kids are simply overreacting or using their illness as an excuse. In other cases I have seen both students and staff assume that because a student avoids doing their school work they must not be able to do it, or that they are stupid, when the reality is that they are students who have suffered trauma in their home life, and that trauma is inhibiting their ability to focus and learn. Both examples reflect the concept Luke is exploring in his gospel. People who are on the “inside track”, the people who can function within the boundaries laid out by the institution are considered normal and worth everyone’s time and the people who are different, who are seen as outsiders or possibly even threats to the way things are supposed to be are either ignored or labeled. This attitude stems from several things, but I think the primary cause is that they are perceived as a threat. When we achieve a certain level of comfort in our lives and in the institutions that we belong to, we tend to want to guard the status quo. In the school setting staff members do not know how to accommodate students with high anxiety levels or students with a great deal of trauma, so they react by dismissing the student’s needs and try to fit them into their traditional view of a student behavior and ability. Don’t miss understand me, none of my colleagues want anything but the best for their students, but sometimes it is easier to give lip service to the desire to help everyone than it is to do it. I have no doubt that every teacher wants to help every student succeed, but the reality of doing it is a very different prospect. I think the same is true for the church. We all seem to be comfortable with the idea that everyone deserves God’s love as well as our own, that is after all what Christianity is all about is it not? However, how often do we extend our love of neighbor to people outside the church doors? How often do we openly and actively engage with people who look lost? How many people, that we know don’t attend church, do we talk to about God? In the parables of the lost sheep and coin Luke is not only telling us that God will not abandon anyone, he is also telling us that we need to change our thinking, we need to repent and ensure that we are not becoming so complacent that we allow others to become lost. I know it is far easier to talk about saving the lost than it is to welcome them into our midst’s, but that is what we must do. We must change our thinking and instead of waiting for the lost to come through the church doors so that we can welcome them into the fold in a safe and comfortable environment, we need to meet them where they are and bring them home, one at a time. To do that we first need to go where they are, like the shepherd we need to be willing to travel into the wilderness in search of their lost sheep and like the woman and her silver we need to be willing to turn our comfy lives upside down to find the one missing coin. Our willingness to ignore the parts of the world that seem scary or different; our willingness to ignore the trauma and anxiety of our young people; and our complacency in our belief that people will find God on their own is parallel to the scribes and pharisees belief that the sinners and tax collectors don’t belong anywhere near the temple. If God’s kingdom is going to thrive then we must stop talking about the lost and go look for them. Amen.