Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wallets

Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22

How many of you brought a wallet to church today?
Why did you bring it?

I carry my own wallet because it has my driver’s license.  And cash. And credit cards. And insurance cards, receipts, and of course some Calvary gift cards.
 All that stuff provides a certain security when I leave my house – an ability to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities – that’s the cash and the credit cards and the gift cards. It’s also a symbol of a safety net (the insurance cards) and a guarantee of identity – that driver’s license stands between me and becoming “Jane Doe.”

I like my wallet, and I depend on it.
So, like the Pharisees and Herodians who set out to trap Jesus, I’d have had it with me in the Temple. Which is actually sacrilegious, unlike bringing your wallet to church.
You see, when the Pharisees produced a Roman coin inside the Temple, where Jesus is teaching, a coin with a picture of the emperor and an inscription calling him “divine,” they’re violating their own interpretation of the commandment against idolatry. There was a whole system of currency exchange in the Temple Court just to make sure that sacrilegious Roman money didn’t come in to the holy spaces of God’s worship.
Oops.

It just goes to show how dependent we can become on the things that are the emperor’s – the things like money, rules, and security that tie us to a secular system, a world run by self-interest and profit and certainty and personal power.
That’s what’s in your wallet.
It’s what’s in mine.

Jesus points out to the religious leaders – and to us – that it’s in the emperor’s interest to provide us with symbols of power and identity and security.  If we feel confident and comfortable and like we belong, we don’t rock the boat.
And Jesus agrees that it’s fine to pay our taxes and stay out of trouble with the emperor. But it gets really, really easy to depend on those things that ultimately belong to the emperor – not to you, yourself, or to God.
And that’s dangerous. Deeply, insidiously dangerous to our hearts and souls. Because getting dependent on the emperor begins to make us belong to the emperor, and that is certain to divide us from God, whether we want it to or not.

It happened to Israel in the wilderness. They wanted something more manageable and stable and visible than God to depend on, so they made a golden calf.   And though God was persuaded not to wipe them out for the sin of idolatry, God does decide to get some distance from the people. God tells Moses to take those people away to the promised land without God.  Their tendency to demand security from someone or something other than God made it too likely God would have to destroy them on the way, so God won’t hang out with them.

The Israelites didn’t much like getting kicked out by God. (Would you?)  So Moses pleads with God to stay with the people – not just to take care of them at arm’s length, but to be present, as noticeably there as the person next to you.  That’s the conversation we overheard today in our story from Exodus.
Don’t abandon us, Moses says, or we’ll lose everything that makes us special. The only thing that matters about us is that we belong to you, God.  And God does agree to go with the people.

And then Moses asks for the wallet.
Moses asks for the kind of tangible assurance from God that the emperor – in the form of the finance industry and the state of Illinois – is so fond of giving us.  Concrete tokens of relationship and power.
He doesn’t get it from God.  Instead, God offers Moses a quick peek at God’s back. 
That’s a profound experience of glory, but it’s also a profound experience of the way we can’t catch up to and hold on to God, of how we can’t control our relationship with God, or the way it affects us.

God tells Moses we can’t have God the way we have the empire.  But we have the goodness of creation which surrounds us, the tradition and the personal experiences that describe God to us, and God’s unpredictable generosity.
All of them things we receive and cannot hold. Enjoy, but don’t control. Utterly present, but not dependable.
That’s what it means to belong to God. To live with love and gratitude, but not status and security. And that’s what Jesus is telling us to do.

Remember what belongs to the emperor: Rules and power and comfort and status and most of all, security. 
Give that back to the emperor.
Because otherwise you become dependent on the emperor, and you belong to the emperor. But what Moses said is still true now: the thing that makes us special, the thing that gives us life, is when we belong to God.

So pay your taxes. Use your cash and your credit cards for gas and groceries and possessions and payments and treats.  Buy your legally mandated car insurance, carry your driver’s license.
But don’t ever get to depend on that. Because that makes it way too easy to forget that you – every bit of you, heart and body and soul – belong to God. And God’s presence isn’t secure, it’s just glorious.  It’s not comfortable, it’s just necessary. It’s not manageable, it’s just generous.

I could preach today that you should throw away your wallet.  But I don’t really want to have to bail you out of jail for driving without a license. So instead, let’s try to teach ourselves to trust God the way the emperor needs us to depend on our wallets.

Try praying with your wallet in hand - before you leave the house for the day, or when you’re coming home at night. Hold your wallet and pray to God that using these tools of empire, these symbols of power and status and anxiety, will help you lean even more on the presence of God.

Or make a new habit.  Every time you take out your wallet, or pay your taxes, or order something online, add a habit of stopping to notice a particular part of the goodness of God’s creation: tasty and healthful food, a person you love, the beauty of sunset, the scent of rain….

Measure the time you spend on bill paying and shopping and keeping your finances and insurance straight.  Take an equal amount of time for prayer – by singing holy music, using your creative gifts, reading the Bible, or breathing meditation.
Keep the balance, then tilt it toward God.

Whatever it takes, DO it.
Practice your awareness of God’s presence, because the emperor will make himself felt without help.  Practice your risky trust in God, because the empire makes it so easy to depend on idols.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  We’re going to anyway.  But never, ever, give to the emperor what is God’s – your heart, your soul, your self.




Sunday, October 12, 2014

God's Way

Exodus 32:1-14, Matthew 22:1-14

What an awful story Jesus tells today.
It starts out with happy news: a prince’s wedding. But when the day arrives, the guests blow it off.  Some invitees even go so far as to kill the messenger. (Overreacting much?)  The king’s reaction is swift and violent:  He sends the army and destroys the city of the rebellious guests.

Meantime, the feast is quite ready – I imagine it sitting over sterno cans in an empty hall – so the king sends out to invite anyone and everyone, “good and bad,” from the streets. The party goes on, and this ought to be a happy enough ending.  But Matthew tells us Jesus wasn’t done there.

The king is mingling with his oddly assorted guests when he discovers one who hasn’t bothered to follow the dress code (and if everyone there was surprised off the street into a party, you have to imagine that if only one hasn’t dressed right, then it’s been pretty easy to do.) So when this guest won’t answer why he didn’t wear wedding garments, the king has him thrown out – not just out of the banquet hall, but into utter damnation.

This story is a nasty, illogical mess of insults and inhospitality and overreaction.
And Jesus says God’s kingdom is like this?
Yuck.

But sometimes God-life is like that.  It starts off with good news – acceptance, welcome, abundance, love, a new identity among God’s people, new self-respect.  But then happily ever after is more complicated than it looks. Sometimes all that love and abundance doesn’t actually solve the problems you find yourself in.  Sometimes the struggle you brought to God gets worse instead of better. Or you just get bored.

You find yourself waiting
and waiting
and waiting:
for the Messiah to show up, for prayer to be answered, for other people to come to your party, for that mountain-top feeling or joyful certainty that those folks advertising God’s kingdom seem to have, but you just don’t feel.
And waiting stinks.
Because all too often, it can feel like you’ve been blown off, ignored, or abandoned. And you really don’t want to feel that way about God.

That’s where the golden calf comes from in the wilderness, you know.  It doesn’t come from greed or deliberate idolatry.  It comes from the people’s feeling that they’d been duped and abandoned. 
They’d gambled their lives on this God who called them out of slavery, they’d committed themselves to God’s commandments, and God’s promised to guide and protect and love them, and they’re still stuck endlessly in this wilderness, waiting and waiting for guidance and freedom and security and any further sign from God.

Have you ever felt like that, even just a little?
Like God is great and all, but faith just isn’t the primary thing in my life – it’s not urgent right now, and there’s a lot of other critical stuff to focus on.

I’ve felt it.
God’s time can work that way – long periods on our clock or calendar when nothing’s really happening.  God’s not demanding much, the kingdom hasn’t come, it all feels kind of back-burner-ish.
So there’s more emotional urgency, more stability and reward, in focusing on family matters or work challenges or financial security.

It’s natural to feel that way.
But when we act on it, we’ve built ourselves a golden calf.
Or we’ve blown off the wedding invitation without even realizing it.
And that has dramatically dangerous consequences.
That king in Jesus’ story destroys cities and pitches people into “outer darkness” when he’s dissed. God disowns the people in the wilderness and offers to destroy them.

It turns out that we can’t have it both ways.
Our spiritual history is pretty clear on this: We’re invited – over and over, and without limit or preconditions – to have it God’s way: love, abundance, radical welcome, deep and holy intimacy with God. 
But to have it God’s way, we have to let go of having it our way – having predictability and security, a sense of control, and our own choice of priorities.

God’s time isn’t our time.  While the people are feeling bored and abandoned after endless days in the wilderness, God is working swiftly and intently with Moses on plans for how to build God a way to be physically present with those people. 
And God is flexible.  The king doesn’t take an initial brush-off for rejection. He sends a tantalizing, welcoming description of the feast to the first folks who ignore him, hoping they can still be persuaded. In fact, he wants to throw this party so badly he invites the good, the bad, the unexpected and the unprepared to a sumptuous feast.
But that doesn’t mean God’s okay with our temptation to have it our way when God’s way isn’t convenient or comfortable for us.

The world you and I live in – even the church around us – tends to advertise the false idea that we can have it both ways.  That relationship with God – instead of requiring us to leap off a cliff with trust – instead can provide predictability, a secure place in the world, mainstream comfort, direct guidance when we want it and easy freedom when we want that. 
But it’s not true.

Being God’s people is a much, much, more intense, risky, fantastic and festive thing than it looks in contemporary Lombard. We can’t show up on our own terms, prepared to taste-test the banquet, but not wholeheartedly committed to the party.  We need to show up dressed – outside and in – for action and joy, even if we think we’ll be bored.
We can’t trust God only when there’s not much at risk  Those are our terms. God insists that we have to risk everything and lean into that trust when we’re lost and alone and insecure and everything is at stake.

Our world makes it easy to feel like we can have it both ways. But when we live as though we can, we all lose.
Faith left on the back burner dries up. 
Being too cautious with joy – your own or other peoples – hardens your heart.
Letting work or family concerns set the terms by which you feel secure makes it harder to trust God when those things fail.
And when any of that happens, God’s heart breaks at losing you.

To live God’s way takes tremendous patience and hope and loving vulnerability. But God will keep inviting us to the feast; expecting us to commit ourselves to God’s party.

So see what happens for a week or a month if you consciously and repeatedly try to pull God’s love and generosity into the center of all those things that clamor for your attention – email, family, work, school, groceries and chores. 
See what happens when you insist on trusting God on something even when it would be easier to just do it yourself.

Parties – feasts and joy and abundance – truly are a risky business.  But God really, really wants you at this one. 
Are you coming?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Positively Unfair

Matthew 20:1-16

How many of you had to learn the hard way that life just isn’t fair?
(If there’s an easy way, I haven’t heard of it.)

After you learned that, did you hold out hope that at least God is fair, and heaven should be? 
Then how do you feel about the story Jesus told today?
The kingdom of heaven is like a businessman who hires day laborers – some first thing in the morning, at an agreed-upon basic wage, and others throughout the day with a verbal promise to pay “whatever’s right.”  He hires the last of them a bare hour before the workday ends. Then he pays them off – latecomers first – at the full day’s wage.  No bonus or acknowledgement for the early birds or hardest workers, which – not surprisingly – leads to complaint and protest.
Show of hands:  fair?  not fair?

If this story doesn’t make you cranky, confused, or just uncomfortable in some way, then you’re probably not listening seriously.
      
It certainly made us uncomfortable when we read this story in our Vestry bible study on Tuesday, but it got noticeably easier when we began to speculate that this is Jesus’ assurance that God won’t treat the deathbed conversions and late bloomers in Christianity any differently than those who’ve been dedicated followers of Christ all their lives. 
Phew.

“It’s a good thing it’s about salvation and not money,” said Ken Pardue, “because if it’s about money it’s not fair.”
He’s right.
Except, of course, that it actually is about money. And it’s not meant to be fair.

Jesus talks about money all the time.  More than he talks about morals, divorce, worship practices, or even sheep. And the money is never just a metaphor.  And it’s almost never fair.

If this parable made you uncomfortable, then your gut reaction is absolutely right:
God is not fair.
And expecting God to be “fair” just sets us up for disappointment. The kingdom of God won’t be fair, either. So Jesus may be trying to upset us enough to shift our assumptions.

Listen to it again:
A businessman (you know, stereotypically level-headed, focused on the bottom line) goes out to hire day laborers. He makes a sensible contract with some and puts them to work.
Then all day long, he goes back out looking for people who haven’t found work. Whatever time he finds them – morning, midday, last minute – he promises to pay them something appropriate, and sets them to work. Then he publicly demonstrates that he’s paying the last-minuters a full day’s wage, the same as his contract with the early birds.
He has to know he’s going to annoy the first workers. 
He has to know he’s going to shock everyone and that word is going to get around.

He’s not being fair, and he’s not simply being generous.
He’s being provocatively, aggressively, generous.

And that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like: In-your-face generosity to those who definitely don’t earn it. 

That’s definitely what God is like.  Our scripture is filled with human wrestling with God’s benefits to the unworthy. And righteous complaint about good things happening to “bad people” is as familiar to you and me today as it would be to Jesus first disciples in Jerusalem under Roman occupation.

Ken Pardue and the Vestry were right about something that matters in this story – it tells us something about salvation that we can be glad about.  It’s well worth remembering that God is proactively generous to those of us who don’t earn our own salvation (Me, for example.  Maybe you?)
But it will also be worth remembering that God doesn’t hesitate to demonstrate that generosity when it’s unfair to us, too.

It’s not fair that my adorable foster nephew and niece become such a holy, joyful, life-giving part of our family – and then get abruptly pulled away to live with biological parents after their foster family has spent love, sweat, tears and years on them.
Giving loving, healthy, grace-filled children to their biological parents who come late to nurturing is wonderfully, aggressively, generous on God’s part, and God doesn’t hide that provocation from the all-day laborers like my sister-in-law, when the parting breaks her heart.

God is like that. Heaven is like that.  
Illogical, sometimes heart-wrenching, generous acts of God that just aren’t fair.
And God is inviting us to find a way to love it, because the reign of God on earth is going to be full of it.
In fact, I think that provocative generosity might even be our job – yours and mine – in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

Think about it.
What would it be like to give out second chances to people who didn’t earn them?
To give from your treasure – time, labor, love, money and hard-won skill – to people who don’t especially deserve it?
And to do it as visibly as you can. (Yep, that’s the part that makes me most nervous.  It might upset those people who’ve earned or waited for or expected my attention and skill, and that’s never fun.)

Most of us gathered here aren’t small business owners with the opportunity to overpay our employees on a regular basis.

But you can over-tip a restaurant server who’s clearly having a rough day and didn’t give you their best.

You can give time and heart, by going over to the PADS parking lot or the library on a Tuesday or Wednesday and listening – really listening, nothing else – to the story and life of someone who is probably buried under all the negative assumptions made about the homeless.

You might defend some generally disrespected group that’s done nothing for you – used-car salesmen, prostitutes, Congress – in a conversation, and plant a more forgiving and understanding spirit among your friends or family.

You can find other ways to be irrationally generous.  The opportunities abound – our world is full of people who don’t seem to have earned love or grace or daily bread.
So try it, at least once. Really try it, take the risk of provocative generosity, and see what it’s like to live, for a moment at least, in the kingdom of God on earth.

It will never be fair.
But we’ll never earn it, either.
So irrational, aggressive generosity may just be the best way to go.