Sermon for September 29, 2013

Amos 6:1a, 4-7, I Timothy 6:6-19, and Luke 16: 19-31

Ken Groehler shared this story this Tuesday when the offering counters were meeting over coffee. A Lutheran pastor, at a loss to deliver a message to his parishioners about the evils of the modern era, hit on this idea:  He set four jars on the edge of his pulpit, the first containing alcohol, the second cigarette smoke, the third chocolate, and the fourth good clean earth.  Into each jar he dropped an earthworm.  The first worm in alcohol immediately shriveled up and died.  The second in smoke gasped and choked, convulsed and died.  The Third sank into the chocolate, smothered and died. The fourth, sensing the good soil, burrowed happily into it, and thrived. The pastor then asked the congregation what lesson they could draw from his demonstration.  There was no response to his question until an older member in the back row raised a hand and said,” If you drink booze, smoke and eat chocolate, you will never have worms!”

Ken’s story is about what we see in the world around us. It’s about perception or discernment. It’s about how we look at things, what we notice, and what we see. Sometimes the obvious is right before our eyes, but we miss it. The story of the rich man is about such perception or discernment. In the story the rich man fails to see four different things.

The first thing he fails to see is Lazarus sitting by the gate, day after day, in ill health, begging for his food. From the way the story is told, we sense that the rich man passed by Lazarus almost daily. He probably saw Lazarus but was not really aware of him. He did not discern the presence of the poor as he went about his life. As I Timothy, that second reading suggests, this is one of the challenges of living with abundance. Sometimes those in need become invisible to us as we go about our daily lives. We have our own distractions, our own agendas and our own problems that preoccupy us. So we do not really see the people who are in need. We do not notice them. They become part of the landscape or background of our lives. And so something in us slowly dies. So the possibilities for caring for those in need become less likely. Today, we are called to notice, acknowledge and lift up those around us who need our care. We may not always be able to address their needs, especially in these days when the numbers of people needing support are growing. But we are called by the story to see, to notice, to perceive and discern the poor among us.

The second thing he fails to see in the story is that it does not go on forever. Life changes. If we are in a time of good fortune, that will come to an end. If we are suffering, that too will come to an end. Things do not stay the same, they change. The rich man builds a life based on the assumption that he will always have what he has. It is never that way. Neither for him, nor for the poor man at his gate. He does not discern this turning of the great wheel of fortune that is part of human life. He does not notice, not see, and not sense the limitations on both happiness and misery that we experience. He does not notice that things change. The great Hebrew prophets spoken of in this story always spoke of upcoming change. In times of prosperity they warned of coming doom. In times of doom, they declared a time of hope and renewal. This is missed by the man in the story.

The third thing he fails to see is the great balancing, leveling, or restoration that is part of the way things are. In my garden this spring I had high spots and low spots as I dug the soil. (And I had a few worms as well.) By fall, after all the rain and work of the season, the soil had evened itself out. Those high places had become low. Those low places had become higher. That’s how it is, as seasons, years, decades, and centuries pass before the eyes of God. Eventually what should takes place does. Eventually a just balance is found. The rich man does not sense, not see, not discern that his life is part of this balance, this leveling, that gradually and surely happens in all creation.

He does not see, he does not perceive the poor man at his gate, the great circle of fortune that shapes our lives, the great and just balancing of all things through the ages of time. And he finally does not see something else: the word given to him and to all of us, the message of God, the plain words of the prophets, the scriptures that would have given him insight.

He wants the poor man to go back from the dead and warn his brothers. But Abraham replies that they have the word, the scripture, the prophets like Amos this morning who call us to care with compassion and justice. We have not only Amos but all of the law and the prophets, as well as the early writings of the first Christians. And we even have the one risen from the dead, who tells us the same things: that the poor we do not notice are beloved by God, that the assumptions we make that life will always be the same are not true, and that there is a just reckoning as time moves on. We too, sometimes fail to focus on the word, the scripture, the prophets, and  the one risen from the dead reminding us of God’s love for the poor, the sinner, the outcast; reminding us that our suffering and our joy are both subject to change, reminding us that the balance of the universe will be restored.

We all need insight, awareness, discernment, and perception. We need to see the people around us and the nature of human life. We can look at glasses of water and see them half empty or full. We can see or miss the point. We can fail to discern the presence of God in our lives, calling us to be better than we are. Take a look around you. Who is nearby? What is God calling you to do? Amen

Reflection for September 22, 2013

Amos 8:4–7, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, Luke 16:1–13 

I.

     People sometimes wonder about how political the Bible is.  The second reading today from Timothy has political tones. Generally speaking, however, I think the Bible is more concerned about economics than politics. In some ways, the writer of the gospel of Luke may be an economist. Luke has a lot to say about finance, money, and economics. The word economist is a Greek word formed by combining the words oikos for house and nomos for laws. Oikoinomos means the way, the rules that govern the household, the basic economic unit in this ancient culture.

     This parable of the dishonest steward is part of Luke’s economic interest or even agenda. The story attracts our attention. And it should. But did you notice that at the end of the story, Luke has assembled a collection of the recalled sayings of Jesus regarding wealth or money.  The sayings somewhat relate to the story, and they somewhat relate to each other. But each saying or sentence stands alone as an economic principle. It is almost as if they are a collection of financial axioms assembled so that these first Christians would have guidelines for managing their financial affairs. Let’s begin by looking at these four practical economic principles found at the end of the story from Luke. You may want to look again at those closing verses of the gospel reading as printed in your bulletin, while I reword the four economic principles embedded in those verses.

  1. The little details and things matter. (v. 10) Yes, there are big events in our financial lives, but it is in the small everyday decisions and gradual accumulations or losses that the success or failure of a financial enterprise is accomplished. Good management is found in attention to the details. And the small decisions of many have a great impact on an economy.
  2. In financial matters and economies, trust is absolutely critical. (v.11) Now in the church we talk a lot about trust and faith. We have our own church understanding of words like faith, trust and faithfulness. But since in the church we are focused on eternal life and not “manna” as Luke calls it, we often miss how essential trust is in making any economy run. If we did not trust brokers, banks, government security, merchants, managers, vendors, labor, and business, we would not be able to make our economy work. Sometimes that trust is stretched or even violated. And whenever it is, there are substantial economic consequences. Perhaps our economy actually relies on trust as much as the church.
  3. Having financial resources and happiness are related to each other, but they are not the same thing. (v. 12) Luke is complicated on money. He makes it clear that the poor are close to God and that we should care for those in need. He also lifts up the temptations and struggles inherent in wealth. Yet, he has many wealthy men and women present in his stories of Jesus and the book of Acts. And he appreciates the contributions that wealth can make to the well being of others and to the mission. Economic resources are a part of our happiness. But true happiness, or true wealth as he calls it, is found in the human bonds of love, charity, friendship, and concern for those less fortunate. Having financial resources and happiness are related to each other, but they are not the same thing.
  4. As we choose, we need to know our priorities. (v. 13) In financial matters and economics, one is faced with choices. Decisions large and small shape and define our financial lives. And we all know that it is sometimes difficult for prudent men and women to discern what the best choice is. Nevertheless we must choose.  In making choices, we need to know what our priorities are. For Luke, our priority is the way of life and love, to choose God, rather than the accumulation of possessions.

In these sayings of Jesus, Luke’s economic principles are: The little details matter. In economics, trust is critical. Having financial resources and happiness are related to each other, but they are not the same thing.  As we choose, we need to know our priorities, and in the Christian faith that means choosing for life and love.

I would like to lift up how important these principles might have been in a practical way. Ancient sociologists wonder if the first Christians in Luke actually formed an economic unit, an extended household that relied on each its members not only for worship and mutual care in times of illness but also to buy and sell, pooling resources and forming capital for sustainability and projects of service and mission. These were the guiding principles of a group that sustained itself and mission through attention to detail, mutual trust, valuing but not being overcome by their resources, and sticking to their priorities.  All of that is practically still true today.

II.

     Now I would like to add something more to that second principle, the one about trust. Without trust, economic endeavor is not really possible. Everything breaks down. But there is something more to how trust is embedded in the economics of early Christians. For Luke and most of the writers of the Bible, God entrusts us with our possessions and resources. We are literally stewards of what we possess. God trusts us with the abundance of our lives. God trusts us to use that abundance wisely.

Now the economic trust of God in us brings us to Amos, the first reading this morning from a time long before Jesus or Luke. Amos calls for economic justice and the need for limits on the greed that consumes us. Amos lifts up the plight of the poor caused by the greed of the landowners and powerful. He points to their desire to make money at all times. He points to corruption in the market place, the creation of wage slaves, and to living as if the shekel, as if money were God. Amos calls for limits on greed, and a return to justice.

Amos’ call for justice is based on a violation of God’s economic trust in us.  Justice is grounded in God’s economic trust. Fairness and honesty are inherent in the trust that makes any economy work. But this second principle, trust, is expanded by Amos, to include the trust God has in us to care for all the people in the oikos. This is the foundation for religious economic justice.  God trusts us to do the good for the many.

Now how that good is accomplished is open to debate. We may not all agree about the best way to fulfill the economic trust we have been given. But we do have some common sense that we, as stewards, are to care for those in need, that we are to attend to the details, that we are to promote trust and fairness in all financial affairs, that we are to find happiness in things beyond money, and that we are to choose prudently and wisely as we make decisions in our life. In many ways, Luke is not so much about politics. Luke is about economics and how we use the abundance given to us by a trusting God.

III.

      Now, I’d like to finally get to that parable, that story in Luke and how caring for those in need is framed in our society. Like everything else these days, there is a debate going on as to whether caring for those in need is charity or justice. Those on the right who are conservative would say that charity is what is needed. There is some truth to this. Charity or compassion is the most important Christian virtue. We need mercy and compassion to care for those in need.

However, those on the left who are more liberal would say that justice is what is needed: that this is not a matter of charity but a matter of just distribution of wealth in a world that has only widened the gap between the rich and the poor. And there is some truth to this as well. After all, look at the book of Amos this morning. It is a call not for charity but for economic justice.

But the parable of the shrewd steward this morning suggests a third alternative to this old charity or justice debate.  The truth of the parable is this: at the foundation of the economy of trust is not charity nor justice, but something called friendship. What the steward does in the story is make friends by cutting their debts in half. He is not practicing true charity. Nor is he particularly just or even honest. But those friendships he forges are the wisdom of the story. In an ancient economy of multi-leveled trust, friendship is the principle of the parable. And this parable on economic friendship reminds us that we care for those in need out of a sense of friendship, common bond, and mutual support. The shrewd Christians in Luke literally took care of one another, forging those bonds of financial friendship upon which they could build their lives. Friendship matters in economic endeavors. Any woman or man in sales knows it’s the relationships that matter. In caring for those in need, we are at our best when we focus on friendship and our common bond of mutual care.

This approach to caring and sharing is different from charity with its condescending tones. And it is different from the call for justice with its cold stridence. We who are Christian actually want to make friends with those around us, using the resources we have, to bring people into the trusting fellowship of God, and as we do so we build up God’s purpose along the way. We’ll need more of this vision of mutual friendship among all, if we expect to find our way through our broader current economy often marked by debates which never seem to lead to solution.

So, today, with Luke in hand, let us spend the trust of God wisely, observing the guidelines Luke gives us, creating friendship among all, so that we too will have friends who will remind even God that we have cared for the well being of others along life’s way.

Sermon for September 15, 2103

Exodus 32:7–14, 1 Timothy 1:12–17, Luke 15:1–10   

     Last Sunday we had a wonderful outdoor worship at the park followed by a potluck picnic, marking the end of our summer season. Many contributed to the music of that service, including our brass group. As we were setting up for the service, Dan, who plays the trombone, said he felt fortunate to have gotten there on time.  He was sure he would be late. As he was leaving, he went to his dresser top where he keeps his wallet, and it was not there. He frantically searched (as one always does with misplaced wallets) and finally decided to check his pant pockets from earlier in the weekend. Sure enough, he had forgotten to remove his wallet.  The lost was found, and Dan was still feeling that sense of relief when he started to warm up for worship with his trombone.

We are always loosing things: wallets, keys, important papers, books, kitchen utensils, cell phones, and tools. Some of us lose more things than others. Some of us are famous for losing things. But all of us have misplaced our share of items, most of which we find, and some of which are lost forever. There is real anxiety in the moment as we lose things, and then a great sense of relief and joy when the lost is found. This anxiety in the lost and the joy of recovery is the theme of the parables of Jesus this morning, the parable of the lost sheep and coin.

In some ways, perhaps these stories describe our life and times. Our lives may be marked by the search for that which has been lost: not only wallets and keys, but other, deeper things.

Some of those things we have lost are personal and involve health, or relationships, or the quality of life, or income. As we grow older, we grow wiser. But we also lose more and more along the way. Some of those losses create anxiety, fear, grief, sorrow, or anger. We may have wondered about the anger of God in the book of Exodus this morning, but the reading does show God’s intense anxiety, grief, frustration, sorrow, and anger as people are lost along life’s way. God, like all of us, is angry at the loss of loved ones and the good things in life. Our loved ones can cause us grief and in anger we do or say crazy things. As in Exodus, usually if we can talk with a friend, someone like Moses, we settle down.

But what make our time a time of loss are those losses we feel in our society: in our economy, our politics, and our faith.  Many have experienced the loss of economic hope.  So much in the current economy has been lost, especially for those on the edges and even in the middle. Although there has been economic recovery, those good paying jobs that had been the backbone of American confidence are not returning. In many different ways we are underemployed these days. A recent survey indicated that many young people have given up on the possibility of vocational success as a goal. Nearly one in four people young adults now define the American dream as simply being debt-free. Just keeping their head above water is more important to many young people than the dream of owning a home or being successful. Things like retirement, economic stability, and a life as good as their grandparents all seem beyond reach of many who are young, in an economy marked by long stretches of unemployment, student debt, and  marginal jobs that pay too little to make ends meet.

Not only have the young lost the coin of economic hope. Long term unemployment has taken a toll on the confidence of older Americans as well. Before the Great Recession, people out of work for more than six months accounted for less than 1% of the labor force. If you lost a job, you soon found one. The recession has changed this picture. By 2010, the long-term unemployed had quadrupled, accounting for 4.2 percent of the work force. That figure would be 50 percent higher if we added the people who gave up looking for work.

Long-term unemployment is experienced disproportionately by the young, the old, the less educated, and African-American and Latino workers. While older workers are less likely to be laid off than younger workers, they are about half as likely to be rehired. Older workers have seen the largest proportionate increase in unemployment in this downturn. In our current economic situation, the number of unemployed people between ages 50 and 65 has more than doubled.

Millions of workers, young, old, of all ethnic and educational backgrounds have been disconnected from the work force, and possibly even from society. If they are not reconnected, the costs to them and to all of us will be grim. (NY Times, May 12, 2012.) We are searching for that economic coin we lost six or seven years ago.

We may also be searching for the lost coin of our democratic way of life.  A political gridlock formed by a host of forces, a government controlled by special interests, and a disconnect between power and our sense of right, have given us a democracy that no longer seems to work or able to solve problems.  According to Gallup, in the last decade, confidence that the government can find and do the right thing has fallen from 60% to 19%.  Pew research indicates that trust in government is at its lowest point in fifty years.  The United States Congress currently has a 10% positive approval rating. Approval ratings are essentially the same across all political parties. These amazingly low polling ratings are tied for the record low in all of the 38 years that Gallup has been doing public-approval polling. One of the lost coins for which this generation may be searching is the coin of functional and credible democracy.

We may also be searching for the lost coin of our faith tradition, our church.  90 of the 140 congregations in our synod are in numerical decline. St. John’s is in the stable category, and our own affiliation numbers have remained in the 800s over the last decade. However, only a dozen of the 140 congregations in the synod are growing.  Siebert Foundation has now developed an every two year conference for Lutheran congregations in Wisconsin entitled “Change or Die.”

This is part of a national trend for religion in America. All denominations regardless of their political leanings or theology are experiencing decline. And the number of people classified as non-affiliated is the fastest growing group in America. The numbers vary, but at this point perhaps half of America is unaffiliated with any organized religion.  In the young adult category, the number of non affiliated Americans is greatest. It may be the case that only one out of three or four young adults are affiliating with a religious organization. Today we start Sunday Learning Place. Ten years ago there were one million children in Sunday School in the ELCA. Now there are 400,000.

These anxieties of lose and the hope of recovery are the themes of the parables of Jesus this morning, the parable of the lost sheep and coin. These stories describe personal experience as well as our times, as we individually and collectively search for our lost wallets and lives.

Will we find our lost coins?  Our lost jobs, our lost commonweal, our lost faith? It is hard to say. Part of the anxiety of the story is that the outcome is not certain. We do not know whether we will find the wallets, keys, important papers, books, kitchen utensils, cell phones, tools, economy, church, or government that have somehow disappeared.  But I like to think that sometimes loss is actually the first step in finding something new. The anxieties are the first step to a newly discovered joy. The ELCA and all churches will need to go through a period of decline in order to become something new for another generation with a fresh commitment not to preservation but to mission. Our government may need to grind to a halt before we decide to reshape democracy. Our sense of labor may need to be transformed as we grasp new financial realities, new partnerships between labor and business, and new limitations on greed. Loss can be the first step of substantial and significant change. And I am upbeat about all of these things.

But a few things might be helpful from these ancient readings as we approach this time of searching when our anxiety grows, as we seem to lose more and more. First, the anger of the God of Israel in the book of Exodus this morning does show how intense anxiety, grief, and anger can be as people are lost along life’s way. God, like all of us, is angry in loss. In frustration we do crazy things.  As in Exodus, usually if we can talk with a friend, we settle down. We need to talk with one another as we go through anxious times. The simple act of sharing anxiety reduces it. In that conversation, disasters can be avoided, and sometimes the best new idea emerges.

Second, notice that in the reading from Luke there are two parables placed side by side. They seem to us to be the same. And their point is. But they come from two different cultures and economies.  Jesus lived in a pastoral, agricultural economy. The parable of the sheep comes out of that culture. It is an ancient rural Palestine culture in which coins and money would not have been used that much.  Lost sheep make sense in Palestine.

But by the time Luke is written, Christianity has become an urban faith in larger Roman cities. In larger Roman cities no one really knows what a shepherd is. People in cities use money.  Coins matter. The two parables together reflect two different world views that share the same anxieties and joys. To find our lost things again, to redeem ourselves and our world, to really renew ourselves, we will need to work with people who come at things differently from us but still feel the same fears and joys that we do. We need to recover our common identity as seekers of the lost as the first step in our common search for a new commonweal. Some people are sheep people. Some people are coin people. But all people are lost and then found, know anxiety and joy in these stories.

Also in these stories of coins and sheep, remember that this anxiety and then relief shapes a process by which we uncover what is important and what matters. Our darker fears and feelings are windows into what is important. Our joys are thresholds into what matters most.  The next time you are anxious or joyful, ask yourself what that is telling you about what matters.

Also, it may be helpful to remember that sometimes we can get stuck in the negative, in the anxious, in the fearful. Notice how the stories are known as the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. But in both cases, the stories could be known as the parables of the found sheep and the found coin. We sometimes naturally focus on the negative. That’s good for awhile. But we need to get on with the process, complete the parable.

And finally, the stories remind us that our own sense of loss and our own sense of joy are in the hands of God. The parables illustrate not our own hopes and fears, but God’s. God is anxious for us. God wants to be part of our sacred journey. God calls us to work on our lives and also to move beyond ourselves into a new confidence generated by a new reality that can no longer be defined by this world.  With that confidence, that perspective, that sacred vision of the meaning of life, we are able to envision the change around us in different ways.  And as we frantically search for those things we have lost, we may meet a God reminding us that love is on the way.

May this God who seeks us until we are found, who worries about us constantly, who wants us to find our way, be with us whenever we lose things, including our very selves.