Monday, September 12, 2016

The Missing Piece

Luke 15:1-10

Suppose you are carrying around one hundred $10 bills, and you notice that one of them is missing. So you drop your wallet with $990 in it, and go racing off in search of your missing $10. You find it, and go home waving it triumphantly, calling all your neighbors (or perhaps, you post it on Instagram and text everyone you know) to come party with you tonight, because you found your $10.

You laughed, didn’t you? It’s foolish to make all that fuss about $10, and especially to abandon nearly $1000 in search of a mere one percent of the cash.
But if that’s a story about repentance, I’m even more lost.

Just so, Jesus tells us, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
It’s ridiculous to think that a ten-dollar bill represents a repentant sinner. Cash can’t repent. Neither do sheep, in the original Jesus story, and Jesus knows that.

But Jesus tells this story of the shepherd abandoning the many to find one lost sheep, and a woman who abandons her necessary daily work or much needed rest to find – right now! – the ten percent of her savings that she’s misplaced.
Luke tells us that this is about sinners, Pharisees, and repentance;
and we are left to find the relationship, the connection that makes nonsense into the truth at the heart of our relationship with God.

What the stories today have in common is extravagant: the abandonment of everything else in the pursuit of one thing missing, and the insistent celebration when the missing is found.
But why all that fuss for one little thing?

Often, in the gospels, in the absurd logic of God, what matters is completion, as if that one thing – one sheep, one coin – is the last piece of a puzzle. While you can see the picture with one piece, one pixel missing, that little random hole is frustrating, haunting, and finding the missing piece and putting it – completing the puzzle – provides a satisfaction all out of proportion to the work or the rational value involved.

Wholeness matters.
Its absence is what keeps us awake at night.
It’s what we lose when someone dear to us dies.
It’s what allows us to move on from tasks and relationships when we have to let go.

And wholeness, completion, is the defining goal in God’s relationship with us. Scripture is full of stories about how God has been seeking the wholeness of creation and humanity above all else, from the very moment of our beginning.

And that’s where Jesus’ stories about the sheep and the cash began today, too. The Pharisees – the ones most faithful and careful about our righteousness and God’s – complain that Jesus is damaging God’s righteousness by welcoming and eating with sinners, with people who don’t belong to God’s community, because they care only for themselves.
And Jesus tells them stories about missing pieces and completion.

It seems that those people –the ones who obviously have no use for God, those people, the ones who disrupt and even hurt the community – those people are part of the whole of the Kingdom of God.

And God is so serious about that wholeness that Jesus will welcome them, eat with them, treat them as family, even while they are still sinners, still so focused on their own advantage that they don’t care about the community, and just as incapable of repentance as a $10 bill or a sheep.

That’s a shock for the Pharisees, and a shock for us when we apply that sense of completeness not so much to tax-collectors as to our own century’s betrayers of the community good:
terrorists, Congress (more particularly, the politicians of the “other party”), corporate executives who ship jobs overseas, or quadruple the cost of a life-saving epi pen; protestors who snarl traffic or seem to question our national values, or police who break their our trust.

To imagine that God welcomes, that Jesus seeks out those people, before they repent  – even if they never repent! – to imagine that neither heaven when we encounter it, nor God’s reign on earth, is complete without those people, unchanged, is messy and a little bit offensive.

But it begins to make sense if repentance is about completion. About finding the missing parts in our community, in our work, our families, our selves – even the ugly, awkward missing parts –and celebrating the finding.

It is definitely the work of repentance to seek wholeness.
And seeking the wholeness of our community sometimes requires sacrifice, requires letting go of the good we’d like to hold on to.

Elsewhere in the gospel stories Jesus encounters a rich young man: a man who has kept all the commandments since childhood, a man with all the signs of God’s favor, but incomplete.
“What must I do to receive eternal life?” he asks.
“There is only one thing you are missing,” Jesus answers: “Sell all that you have; give the money to the poor, and come follow me.”

One thing missing. But that one thing is a transformation.
Let go of the much that you have in pursuit of the one thing you’re missing. Put the wholeness of the community ahead of yourself, and come, follow me.

What would Jesus tell you, us, is the one thing lacking, between us and wholeness, eternal life?

Who are the people who don’t seem to fit here, but without whom we cannot be complete?
It might be color, or physical handicap, or sexuality – the obvious divisions in our culture – that separates us from the people our community is missing, but it might also be political opinion, activism, behaviors that threaten our own sense of righteousness and security.

This may be a particularly important question today, this week, as we remember, and grieve, and reflect on the changes in our world, in our definitions and expectations of wholeness, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
It might be a particularly good time to ask ourselves: What do we have to let go of to welcome those missing people to the table without insisting that they change to fit in?

And ask yourself: what is the part of your life that keeps you from following Jesus with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength?
It might be a part of you that you have denied, because it’s uncomfortable, and doesn’t fit.
Or it might be that your missing piece is hiding behind something you want to hold on to.
What do you have to let go to embrace that missing piece?

That’s repentance.
Pursuit of the one, small, missing thing, because it is not a small thing, it is the only thing that matters, when it makes the difference between wholeness and wrongness; between integrity and brokenness.

And that – the foolish, glorious, commitment to the pursuit of wholeness – produces overwhelming joy in heaven, and delight in the heart of the God who brought us into the kingdom, into eternal life, before we were ever ready, or repentant, or whole.


Monday, September 5, 2016

Counting the Cost

Luke 14:25-33

Imagine one of your friends saying to you: “Oh, you’ve got to come to my church. It’s amazing!
They teach you to hate your family; to hate your parents, your kids, your spouse – to hate your life! It’s transformed me into a totally new person, you’ve got to try it!”

Makes you want to join right up, doesn’t it?  No?
Or is your friend crazy?
At the very least, your hypothetical friend is putting out one heck of a mixed message, with this bubbling enthusiasm for family hatred and an apparent death wish.

I mean, really, who wants to join a church that’s all about hating everyone, killing yourself, being made fun of, and giving up on success and accomplishment?
Not even in my most everything-hating teenage moments did I want to join a group that would advertise themselves like that.

And yet, that is exactly the message Jesus is pushing today – and not even to his inner circle, who’ve gotten at least a little used to all his talk of self-denial and disruption. This is a public advertising pitch to the curious crowds, the religious “seekers” or visitors, who’ve come to see what’s up with this Jesus movement.

It’s not a church-growth strategy, to say the least, and it’s not a message I’m going to approve for the sign outside or the front page of Calvary’s website.

We can’t afford that.
I mean, we have a hard enough time with evangelism when it means telling people about Jesus who loves generously and teaches us to love others, Jesus who proclaims and gives abundant life, Jesus who heals us when the world mocks us, and lends strength when we’ve been rejected.

I will bet real money that there’s not one person in this room who wants to try to sell family hatred, a death wish, and ridicule as a transformative religious experience. That’s not going to “grow the church.”

Sometimes it seems like Jesus is our greatest liability as a church, as well as our greatest asset. He’s actively trying to drive people away today, and he’s rejecting and insulting one of the things we’ve gotten used to thinking of as a core “Christian value” – loving and respecting your family.

The first century crowds must have reacted to this much the same way twenty-first century crowds are reacting to Colin Kaepernick sitting for the national anthem: quick offense at the way this pushes the buttons of our comfortable allegiance to good and trustworthy values, spirited but confused defenses of what “freedom” or “love” really mean, and a persistent discomfort with the way that somehow, some of these things that seem wrong are right… but several real “rights” are still making things wrong.

It’s messy. And it gets more so.
Although Jesus sets out to explain something we’ve heard before – that no one can become his disciple without carrying the cross, without giving away all our possessions – his examples seem a little contradictory.

Think through your commitment to discipleship, he tells us, because otherwise you’ll be like this guy who ran out of money in the middle of a building project, and people made fun of him.
But everyone in his first audience – like many of you – knows that a cross is an even better guarantee of mockery, taunting, and shame than an unfinished building project.

Think through the consequences of following me, he warns, because if you don’t you’ll be like a king who fielded a totally outnumbered army and got slaughtered.
But a cross is going to get you killed even more certainly than two-to-one odds in an even fight.

Even his advice about carefully considering the cost, asking seriously if you can afford this, suggests a completely opposite mindset to his insistence that you have to give up everything – every bit of your money and possessions – to be a disciple.
No one can rationally “afford” that.

What a mess.
If he were in preaching class or marketing, we’d send him right back to the drawing board, and be shaking our heads.

But this is classic Jesus, after all: Contradictions R Us.
God is human; last is first; death is life…

And there might be something to his contradictions today, too.

One biblical scholar tries to redeem this mixed message of Jesus’ by suggesting that his stories of the tower-builder and war-cost-counting king are actually assurances to us that GOD didn’t dive into this salvation project without a cost analysis, and that God has made sure of the resources to complete it, to see us through.

That’s good news, all right, because it was just as evident to Jesus’ first audience as it could be to any of us that it’s going to take quite a lot in the way of miracle and divine intervention to save this messed up world.
And as for some of those people I know I mean for US  well, God’s going to need to have a pretty big salvation budget, and unlimited patience.

Come to think of it, when you look at the history of our salvation, God has a lot more resemblance to a builder who plunges in to the project knowing it can never be completed
than to a rational homeowner who holds off on tearing out the kitchen until there’s enough in the budget to actually put a new one in.

And that suggests to me that Jesus’ messages today are mixed on purpose. That to be a disciple absolutely requires knowing the cost – knowing it means a loss of identity, and security, and even of all those respectable things we’ve come to think of as “good Christian values,” knowing there’s a pretty good chance it could kill us, even now, if we go all in – and making the whole commitment knowing that our resources will come up short.
We’ll fail.

You and I – like the curious first-century crowds Jesus said all this to, like even the tight circle of apostles at the resurrection – you and I cannot complete the task. We can never fully accomplish the work of following Jesus, of becoming that completely one with God.
Can’t finish the task of saving the world before we die.

We’ll fail.
But because we counted the cost, knew the demands and the value of what we’re plunging into, we may just complete ourselves by giving every bit of these selves to the unfinished and unfinishable work of eternal life.

It’s not a church-growth strategy, and it may never make sense as an invitation into the Jesus movement, but it matters in a way beyond sense.

The messages God presents are often going to seem mixed, as we encounter them not only in the church but in the choices of our weekday lives.
Being with Jesus – being like Jesus – always means being prepared for the impossible; and asks us to commit ourselves, ready to fail, so that God can succeed beyond our hope or expectation.

Because that transformation, mixed up and incomplete as it will always be, is exactly what God counts, when God gives it all for us.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What Is Set Before You

Galatians 6: 1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


When I fly, I carry on. I make sure that my entire trip will fit in an overhead-compliant wheelie suitcase, and in a backpack under the seat in front of me, and I will not let those possessions out of my hands or my sight the whole trip.

This has nothing to do with checked bag fees. I’ve been doing this a lot longer than the airlines decided it was good business practice to nickel and dime the living daylights out of the traveling public. No, I strategize and lift heavy burdens and cling to my bag because I’m afraid the airline is going to lose it. And then I will be wherever I go without My Stuff.

It feels like it’s about independence for me. Not having to rely on strangers, being in control of my own destiny, and my own shampoo.

So Jesus’ instructions to his disciples today haunt me. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals….”
No luggage, and no wallet to purchase an extra shirt when the airline loses your bag.
It’s not like Jesus doesn’t know this is terrifying.  He’s right up front about sending these disciples out “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Everything about this is a conscious, deliberate, act of vulnerability.
Oh, ick.

I mean, vulnerability is what we’re taught to avoid. It’s what politicians campaign against. (Successful politicians, anyway.) Let’s make our country safer. Let’s guarantee jobs. Elect me and nothing bad will ever happen to you (only to the other people).

It doesn’t actually work.
No politician seems to have been able to protect us the way we want to be protected. The beautiful young parents, the loving generous souls killed in the midst of their work and recreation in Istanbul, and Orlando, and so many other places tell us that.
Every economic crisis, from the Great Depression to the Housing Bubble to the Brexit market mess tell us that.

But we try, and we act as if we believe it, anyway.
When we go out into foreign territory, we’re warned to lock our car doors and roll up the windows, to hide our wallets, not to trust. Protect yourself. (If you don’t you can’t help others,) we’re told.

Vulnerability is hard, and hard to desire, even if you’ve been taught that it’s a spiritual virtue.
And it is.
Jesus is all over it. Jesus is dramatically vulnerable.
Not just in the crucifixion, but over and over – spending all his time on the road, risking the wrath of the religious authorities at every turn, risking having the crowd turn on him at any time,
risking hospitality all the time. Pretty much every time we see Jesus in Luke’s gospel, he’s eating someone else’s food at someone else’s house. Just as he tells his disciples to do today:

“Eat what is set before you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide…. Do not move about from house to house.”
You can’t go looking for something better, and you don’t get to leave until your hosts are ready for you to leave.

For me it triggers the same kind of anxieties as losing my luggage.
What if I don’t like the food? How will I take care of myself if they don’t do it right?
What if I don’t like the people? How can I depend on anyone that much?

One commentator I read this week talked about feeling similar things, reading this story, until she heard from a young man who’d grown up on the principle of “eat what is set before you,” not just in his own home, but in the many meals his father’s congregation had put before him.
This was a rural congregation, where many people had to rely on whatever they could kill or catch to put food on the table, even for company.  It wasn’t a question of whether you liked spinach, but of not even quite knowing what you were eating.

I’m a picky eater, though I’ve tried not to be.  And this viscerally reminds me that receiving hospitality can be as much of a challenge, as full of vulnerability, as offering it. Sometimes more.

Now, I know Jesus isn’t telling people with celiac disease or serious food allergies to eat things that can kill them, but he is telling, say, vegetarians to eat meat as a good guest and gospel messenger, or middle-class Americans to eat squirrel and snake. 
His disciples are being sent out into foreign territory, where some of their hosts will know nothing about the “right”, holy and faithful ways to plan and prepare food.  They’ll have to give up their lifelong personal – even religiously mandated – morality and expectations about food lest it get in the way of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ instructions, and that young man’s story, remind me that receiving hospitality can actually be a gift from the guest to the host, that although we may – subconsciously at least - think of hospitality and welcome as things that the established, comfortable, and secure can offer to those who have less, we can and should receive hospitality from those who are more vulnerable than we feel, or who are our enemies.
And we can give the gift of peace – a gift that grows and deepens – by accepting that hospitality.

Paul makes the other side of that case in his letter to the church in Galatia, telling the Jewish Christians – who are the “hosts” of the community, welcoming Gentiles into their faith – that they don’t get to choose the terms on which they offer welcome.  That in Christ, in the Kingdom of God, you have to accept and welcome things that challenge our sense of righteousness, of rightness, and learn to see them as godly, too.

Paul insists that freedom is not being able to do whatever we want – or get other people to do what we want – but that freedom is a mutual interdependence:
the freedom to rely on one another,
the freedom to be vulnerable,
the freedom to lose our image of ourselves, in favor of sharing in the image of God with people who are not like us and will change us in ways we can’t plan for.

As we pray for and celebrate our nation this weekend, what would it be like to apply these principles to our sense of nation, patriotism, self?

To think of ourselves as the Galatians, welcoming people who definitely do not do this thing right, and who might even be dangerous to our comfort and identity, and who are certainly going to change our community if we let them in – and trusting God and one another that the new nation, the new community of grace, that arises will be stronger, freer, and more worthy of trust.

Our own founding national story, after all, is about how strangers came to this land, bringing dramatic and even dangerous differences to the inhabitants, and how from that disruption a nation that that inspires freedom around the world was born.

Or how would it be, now, to imagine ourselves as always receiving hospitality, from our nation, from the land itself, from one another, from the folks who post strange things on Facebook or who disagree with us on the right path for our country?
How would it be if, accepting what is set before us, we learn to trust that what is strange to us will not only nourish our bodies, but form the strong bonds of table fellowship that build strangers into family.

It’s a failure of that imagination that seems to have lead to Brexit, to Orlando, to so many other painful and divisive experiences in our world.
But still, that vulnerable hospitality and guest-ship keeps popping up, too – stories of Muslims inviting a local LGBT community to a Ramadan meal, of people opening their homes and hearts to strangers in the midst of loss and grief and division.
Stories about how even now, the Kingdom of God comes near.

And it’s worth remembering, too, that even when Jesus instructs his disciples to wipe the merest dust of a place from their feet, when their mission of peace, hospitality, mutuality, vulnerability, and trust fails, they are still to remind that town – themselves, us – that the Kingdom of God has come near.

It’s worth remembering that when we open the door – even when we fail, even in spite of us – the Kingdom of God has come near.