Sunday, October 26, 2008

I or We -- A Sermon

At the beginning of the month I put up on my office door the question, “What brings you closer to God?”  Several people posted their answers on it.  Someone this week in the office asked me, “So, what brings YOU closer to God?”  It stopped me short.  I had to sit and ponder.  At first, I thought about saying when I’m in the woods.  Or when I’m in my study early in the morning before anyone else is up.  And that’s good.  Being by myself helps me clear my head, put life into perspective -- but it didn’t feel right.

Then it came to me.  I feel closest to God right here.  When I preach and when I distribute communion.  When I’m with you.  When I look into each person’s eyes and maybe I know they’ve had a hard week or a hard year - or that they’ve recently fallen in love or are trying to sort out what to do with their lives.  I feel closest to God when we’re together.

Which is the point of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in today’s gospel.  We cannot know, understand or even please God without community.  As Jesus says, the greatest commandment is to love God with your entire being, and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.  That word “like” in the Greek doesn’t mean “similar”.  It means “made of the same material.”  They are inseparable from each other.

To put it another way, to love God is to love your neighbor.  

Let’s give this a little context.  In the past chapter or so of Matthew, we’ve been seeing this debate going on between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Remember last week how it was the Pharisees and the Herodians who got together to give Jesus a “gotcha” question about taxes?  This week the Herodians have abandoned ship and it’s just the Pharisees.

But they have a good question.  A real stumper.  What’s the greatest law?  Back then, there were 613 laws, and each one was equal in the sight of the Lord, so they taught.  It would be impossible for Jesus to answer this question.  Either he picked one and got everyone mad for saying the others were less important, or he said they were all equal and sounded wishy washy.  Instead, he summarized the ten commandments.

You shall love the Lord your God summarizes the first four commandments.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself summarizes the next six.  So, he gives them two commandments when they ask for one, and then he says, “You cannot separate them.  If you want to understand God and God’s will, you must have them both.”

That’s bad news for a lot of people.  In our world, we like rugged individualists.  We like to keep what we earn because “it’s mine.”  We don’t like sharing.  Same thing as the tax issue in last week’s Gospel.  We can’t be Christians without the community, and we can’t be the community without caring for each other.  

We like to see the world in terms of “I”.  Jesus invites us to see it in terms of “we.”  Not only invites us but commands it.  To follow Jesus means to remember that we belong together.

I am happy to report that the election campaign is almost over.  But there has been a troubling phenomenon in its waning days.  There has been the “real America” fight.  The “elite versus Joe Six-Pack” fight.  It is a splitting of the country but even more than that, it is a way of saying, “I am right, and you don’t count.”  Sadly, we see it on all sides of the campaign to one degree or another.

This egotism, this idea that I count and lesser folks do not -- this is not of Christ.  For Jesus, as he shows today, it is never “I” but always “we.”  As Americans, we would do well to remember that Joe the Plumber and the most elite Ivy League grads belong together because they are of the same community.  Not just America but the community of God’s children.  That’s why Jesus says the two commandments cannot be separated -- to love each other means to love God, and to love God means to love each other.

I could get into the whole meaning of that word “love” -- agape in today’s reading -- but I won’t.  Sometimes you just need to know in your heart what it means.  I know God’s love intimately right here (in my heart) when I stand in the midst of you and wonder how it is that I get to be here.  And especially when I put the host in your hands and say, “The Body of Christ” and look into your eyes.  My heart tells me all I need to know at that point.  We are bound together -- and it is good.  Amen.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Spreading the Wealth -- or -- EeK! Socialism!

I grow tired of the word “socialist.”  I particularly grow weary of it in connection with the presidential election and will be very happy when November 5 rolls around because the word is being thrown around wildly, maliciously and innacurately.

Ever since “Joe the Plumber” became a campaign slogan, the word “socialism” has accompanied it.  As in, “The Joe the Plumbers of the country want to keep their hard-earned money and don’t want the government to take it away in order to ‘spread the wealth.’  After all, spreading the wealth is socialism.”

This is all about taxes, of course.  Joe the Plumber feels that Barack Obama’s tax plan will take away his money.  He doesn’t like the idea of anybody’s taxes being increased because it’s unfair to the folks who earn it.  In fact, he (and John McCain) argue that it’s socialist.  Obama responded with an unfortunate phrase: that it’s not bad to spread the wealth a bit.  But even though he might have chosen his words more carefully, he’s right, and there are problems with Joe’s (and McCain’s) argument.

One, it’s not a tax increase.  Most of what Obama’s increase in revenue will come not from a new tax but from allowing a Bush-era tax give-away to the richest Americans to expire.  In other words, it’s a tax that existed before George W. Bush took power.  One that existed when his very much not-socialist father was president.  

Two, even if it were a new tax, it is not socialism.  Although dictionaries have a hard time defining socialism and note that the word is used to mean anything from anarchy to communism, at its most basic level, it means the community owns and regulates the “means of production, distribution, and exchange.”  Dropping a tax break is not socialism.

Three, while Obama’s health plan (another target for the charge of socialism) does make it easier for people to have and afford health care, it is not state owned and operated.  Too bad.  Those countries (like every other industrialized nation) that have socialized medicing enjoy much better health.

Four, we already “spread the wealth” inasmuch as we have taxes and have for more than a hundred years.  That’s what taxes are meant to do.  We Americans did not object to taxes even in our earliest years.  The Boston Tea Party was not about taxes in general but about a particular tax that was levied in a particular way that made the colonists feel they had been disenfranchised.  They did not object to taxes per se.

Nor should we.  Because paying taxes makes you part of a community.  Communities have always pooled their resources so we could afford to do things that we could never afford to do as individuals.  This is crucial to being human beings.

That’s why Christians do not object to taxes.  Christianity is a WE religion, not an I religion.  Our very nature is to be in community.  We are relational as evidenced by Jesus’ great commandment:  “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Look at the 10 commandments.  After the first four, they are all about being a good neighbor.  That’s community.

I write this as a Christian, and look with dismay at those other supposed Christians who claim we should not spread the wealth.  Jesus taught us to care for each other, to pay our taxes, to live together and seek the best for all.  Taking care of “number 1” is not a Christian value.  Jesus said that even the “gentiles” took care of their families.  To be a Christian means to take care of those who have nothing to offer us.

In short, spreading the wealth is what all taxes are all about, and it sure beats the unChristian practice of concentrating the wealth in the hands of a few, which is what we’ve been doing for the last decade.  Spreading the wealth is also what Christianity is all about, despite those who would make a mockery of Christ by focusing on marginal issues such as homosexuality (about which Jesus said nothing).  So call me a socialist if you will -- I will pay my taxes happily.  But if you want to be more accurate, just call me a Christian.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Joe the Plumber - A Sermon

You know who Joe the Plumber is.  He’s the guy who stopped to talk with Barack Obama while he was campaigning in the neighborhood and told him he’d be paying too much tax under Obama.  Joe then hit the big time during the final presidential debate when he was evoked 26 times.  Then, of course, we couldn’t get enough of him and had to discover his real status as a plumber, his real name and his own tax issues.

Poor Joe.

But his fifteen minutes of fame are just about up, and I suspect he’ll be relieved.  What won’t be over is our grousing over taxes.  It’s never over.  Think Boston Tea Party.  Or think today’s Gospel story.

Now, the issue Joe the Plumber brought up in his question to Barack Obama and in subsequent interviews was the fact that he had to pay taxes at all.  This wasn’t the same issue for the Boston Tea Party where they were upset about a particular tax and how it was instituted.  And it wasn’t the issue that started off our Gospel story.

Here, we have Jesus teaching in the temple when he is confronted by a group of people but not just any group.  The Pharisees and the Herodians hate each other.  The Herodians were Jews who felt that the Romans had run Israel for five centuries and weren’t doing a bad job, so they thought they just paid their taxes and get on with their daily lives.

The Pharisees hated the Romans as occupiers, and although they paid their taxes reluctantly, they complained about it.  But both groups hated Jesus even more, so they banded together to trap him.  The way they did was with a lose-lose question.  By asking Jesus if it was right to pay the Roman tax, they were trying to force him into YES or NO answer.  If Jesus said, “No, don’t pay the tax,” the Herodians would go to Roman officials and have Jesus arrested.

If Jesus said, “Yes, pay the tax,” the Pharisees could say, “He’s an appeaser!  He’s for Rome and not for Israel.”  His credibility would be shot.

Only thing is, they didn’t know Jesus.  He gave neither a yes nor a no.  You might say during this political season, “That’s just like a politician, never answering the question.”  But Jesus saw the trap, and he was not going to fall for it.  So he asked a question of his own.  “Whose image is on the coin?”  Caesars.  

You know, of course, that graven images are idolotry to Jews, so to use such coinage was a bitter pill for them.  You should also know that these coins were important to Caesar.  They were his sign of kingship.  AND, by putting his image on the coin, Caesar was claiming ownership of all his coinage.  By law, it all belonged to him.

Jesus takes all this information and wraps it up neatly into one small statement.  “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  His opponents left, confounded.

Actually, this statement still confounds people.  For example, it raises the question:  “What belongs to God?”  or “What belongs to Caesar / the state / my community?”  In other words, how do I divide up my duties?

In a sense, it’s easy.  What belongs to God is everything.  Nothing exists without God, and nothing can survive without God.  Simple.

Or not.  Because Jesus reminds us that we do not live in a vacuum.  We are not loners.  We are meant to work together, and that means combining our resources to create community.  Back in the 50s, famed biblical scholar William Barclay wrote, “Failure in citizenship is also a failure in Christian duty. … The Christian has a duty to Caesar in return for the priveleges which the rule of Caesar brings to him.”

He talks about roads, schools, police, sewage (I was going to say plumbing but that’s pushing Joe too far).

So the simple point is that we are part of a community -- we are not lone rangers.  Paying our taxes is part of being in the very community that our faith values.  Those who grouse about taxes -- about it being “My Money that THEY are taking from me” are not listening to Jesus.  He says, pay the taxes to be an active participant in your community.  If you’re a citizen, then act like it.

But, he adds, remember your ultimate citizenship.  While the coins may belong to Caesar, and while you belong to an earthly community, in the end, your heart belongs to God.  Joe the Plumber will disappear from the news next week, but the constant struggle over what we owe God goes on.  Jesus doesn’t answer but he trusts us to know.  What we owe to God is our very selves.  Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"What Kind of Celebration?" - A Sermon

I heard a strange report on the radio Friday.  It was the financial show, and each day, depending on how the stock market goes, they either play “We’re in the Money” or “Stormy Weather,” during the opening.  On Friday, however, they came on and said, “We were tempted to play the happy music because the Dow only lost 125 points today.”

Strange celebration, isn’t it?  That’s called a celebration of RELIEF.  

There are all sorts of celebrations in our lives.  If you remember that old movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there’s a scene where there was a run on the bank, and Jimmy Stewart and his new wife are able to save their Savings and Loan but doling out their Honeymoon money to panicked customers.  At the end of the day they have $2 left -- and they do a little dance to celebrate having survived the day.  Better yet, they put those two dollars in a safe and say, “Let’s see if we’ve got any more in the morning.”  Their modest little celebration is on HOPE.  There will be a new day, and it will be better.

There are darker celebrations, too.  When I was an exchange student in Berlin back in the 70s, one of my teachers told me about a huge rally they’d had during World War II at the Olympic Stadium.  It was a giant party, she said.  That was the rally where Josef Goebels asked them if they wanted total war to the end, and the crowd, whipped up into a frenzy, all shouted “Yes!” and “Death to the Allies!” and “No surrender!” and so on.  In was a celebration -- but of defiance and desperation mingled with hatred and fear.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t all that different from the Old Testament reading.  There’s a celebration going on there, too.  There’s a people who are fed up and frightened.  They have been following this Moses guy for who knows how long, and what have they got for it?  They’re lost.  Alive, but lost.  And now he’s up on the mountain with earthquakes and storms going on.  They want someone they can see.

So the pressure Aaron into making a golden calf so they can worship it right there.  The party they have is pure debauchery.  They had their golden calf -- something they could finally control -- and that was all that mattered.  They had given up and sunken into a mentality of “NOTHING MATTERS.”  Their celebration was one of DEFIANCE and at the same time HOPELESSNESS.

Contrast that with the wedding feast.  Weddings are celebrations of life -- and of hope that life goes on.  The strange parable we have about the wedding needs a little explanation, but in the end, it’s about chosing to be part of life.

You know that weddings -- especially royal weddings -- were huge affairs.  This story has the king inviting all the important people -- the chosen people if you will.  They refuse to come, to celebrate with the king.  Some even kill the messengers.  Think about it:  they brushed him off like he didn’t matter, and some even showed outward contempt.  This king face a crisis in his kingdom -- and his response, as Jesus tells it -- was typical.  If you kill the king’s messengers, you face death as a result.  As a side note, he’s reminding the disciples -- his messengers -- that they also will face the same treatment when they bring the gospel.

Then the king does a strange thing.  He goes out and invites pretty much everyone else -- the poor, the unworthy, the unwelcome.  He says, “this is a celebration of life, so let’s see who’ll celebrate.”  And they come.  He’s happy.  The wedding couple is presumably happy.  

Now for the twist.  There’s one guy at the wedding who is not dressed right.  Don’t think that means he’s poor and just can’t afford a good robe.  No, this is different.  Even the other poor came appropriately dressed because there was no need for finery -- only respect of the occasion.  Most of the new attendees were poor but were given time and opportunity to clean up.  Several experts suggest that the host even provided robes for those who did not have them.  By the way, wearing a wedding robe in some middle easter societies is important because they as supposed to protect the new couple from bad luck.  

The host asked him in a kindly manner why he had not robe -- addressed him as “friend,” -- but the man would not speak.  What we have in this case, then, is someone who shows up but has just as much contempt for the celebration as did those who refused to attend.  He tried to turn a celebration of life and joy into one of contempt -- maybe even protest.

But Jesus says that God’s kingdom -- which is what this wedding symbolizes after all -- is a place of joy.  Those who don’t want to come don’t have to.  Those who come but have no interest in participating in that joy -- will not be there for long.  In the celebration that is God’s kingdom, there is not room for defiance, for anger or hatred, for fear mongering. 

Celebrations are funny things, but they can be put into two large categories.

They can be celebrations of despair or frustration -- like the people of Israel or those Germans in World War II.  Or they can be celebrations of hope and life like the wedding feast -- or like Jimmy Stewart.  

Which leaves us with one question.  What kind of celebration does your life trend toward?  Of course, we always have a bit of both in our lives, but we’re talking trends.  Which way do you lean?  I’ll give you a hint about where this church’s direction.  In a few minutes, we’re going to CELEBRATE the Eucharist.  In case anyone needs a reminder, it’s called “The Great Thanksgiving.”  Amen.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pastor Presidential Picks

Amid the hullabaloo of the banking crisis and $700 billion bailout (rescue if you will), on top of the presidential election and the all-Sarah-Palin-all-the-time coverage, you might have missed a few pastors behaving badly.

A week ago Sunday, several pastors told their congregations -- from their pulpits -- whom to vote for. Apparently, some chickened out, but others boldly went forward.

What’s the big deal?  You can’t do that as a representative of the church and still keep your tax-exempt status.  These pastors -- all of whom endorsed John McCain -- said they were defending their first amendment rights to free speech.  They are supported and egged on by the Arizona based Alliance Defense Fund which seeks to eliminate this limitation to churches.

The question is, did they do a good thing or a bad thing?  As a pastor, I believe their actions were unjustifiable for several reasons.  

First, their argument that they were protecting first amendment rights is bogus.  They have the right to say anything they want, they just don’t get to keep their tax-exempt status.  That status, given to churches because in part because most of us can barely keep our doors open in the first place, is a privelege not a right.  Other political organizations pay their taxes.  This also helps protect the separation between church and state, so precious in American society.

Second, and to my mind more important, telling your parishioners how to vote is an abuse.  It’s trading heavenly authority for worldly power.  Telling them that they should only vote one way (and I have seen some who say they are allowed to only vote one way or risk hell’s fire), infantalizes those parishioners.  It tells them that they are unfit to make decisions based on their observations.  It pressures them to pick one side.

Furthermore, it demonizes the other half of the country, and that is unChristian.  Christ neither demonized nor told us whom to vote for.  He looked for the humanity in all and touched us there.  Each person, despite their views, is precious in God’s sight.

Remember this, too.  Many Christian pastors think a vote for John McCain would be immoral, just as many think the same about a vote for Barack Obama.  That means that the church leadership can’t agree who’s right -- so how could we possibly tell others what to do?

By the way, to tell others how they must vote smacks of hubris.  How are we to know that we have chosen correctly?  Over the past few years several parishioners have come to me and said, “I’m a Republican, but I am sorry I voted for Bush.”  Quite a few Democratic parishioners have expressed regret about their votes for Elliot Spitzer.  We are imperfect, and to tell others how to vote assumes greater wisdom than any of us has a right to claim.

Then there are the pastoral considerations.  My parishioners belong to both political parties.  If I were to endorse someone from the pulpit, that alienate those from a different party, especially if I’m telling them that they are not true Christians unless they vote for my guy (thus assuring them that they will vote out of fear, not conviction).  My duty as a pastor is to serve them all in love -- and to preach the greater truths -- that God loves us and expressed his love through Jesus Christ.

So will I be telling my parishioners how to vote?  No.  Period.  Maybe I’ll stick a bumper sticker inside my glove compartment.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Owners or Stewards - A Sermon

Seems like the past few weeks all I talk about is the financial crisis.  Well, everywhere I go, that’s what people are talking about.  $700 billion.  Bailout.  Corruption.  Wall Street’s killing Main Street.  Greed!  But, come on, this is nothing new.

Jesus’ parable about the wicked tenants has all the same elements.  In this parable, you have tenants and an absentee landlord.  When harvest time comes, the lord wants his rent but the tenants want to keep it all.  First they abuse representatives -- the rent collectors, even killing some.  Then, when the lord sends his son (and yes, this is an allusion to Christ as the Son of God), they figure if they get rid of him, then they can keep it all for themselves.

This may sound crazy to you, but in the context of the times, they just might have thought they could get away with it for two reasons.  One is that the law said actual occupation of the land determined possession so that if nobody was there to claim it, the tenants got it.  Second, the landlord was apparently an absentee landlord -- and popular sentiment was always against absentee landlords who seemed to have it all.

In the end, however, Jesus says playing on popular sentiment and playing the rules will not work.  They will come to destruction for their actions.

So, you see, today’s mess and the parable are the same: People in charge of other people’s stuff wanting it for their own.  Break rules, slide by rules watching the letter while ignoring the spirit, miss the big picture, and doing irreparable harm.  

That’s why we have rules and regulations.  That’s why the people of Israel got those ten basic rules for getting along with each other.  So they didn’t kill each other and make their community a nightmare.

But biggest thing isn’t just rules.  It’s knowing who we are.  In the parable, they were stewards - but they wanted to be owners.  Rather than care for the stuff and give back to the lord what was due, they wanted him out.  They wanted it all for themselves and blinded themselves to what is good and right.  They also blinded themselves to the consequences, figuring there’d never be a day of reckoning. Sound familiar?

Paul had a different way of looking at it.  The wealth was all loss, all rubbish -- nothing mattered compared to the grace and joy he found in Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t in accumulating or in playing the rules -- the law did not save him, he discovered, nor did his possessions or his citizenship or his membership in the best society.  Only God’s grace and the righteousness it guided him toward.

 But what’s important for us today is what it says about US.  Right here at St. James’.  What does this say about your life?  My life.  Do we see ourselves as stewards, or are we owner-wannabes?  Not that having a house and car are bad, but do we have this sense of ownership (“it’s MINE and I deserve it”) or of stewardship (“these are temporary things I am using for my good and the good of my community”).  Because, of course, we’re stewards -- put here for only a short time to care for those things and people put in our path while we walk the earth.  God and the earth and all the possessions will be here long after we are gone.

We are stewards, and God intends for us to pay that first fruit -- to show what we’ve done with the things in our charge.  If we’ve been put in charge of little, then perhaps there will be few first fruits, but if it’s a lot, then many.  What we don’t have the right to say is that we get to keep it all or that we owe God nothing.

So let’s ask: what do WE owe to God, the lord of our manors, the lord of our lives?  It’ll be a different answer for each of us, but we have to get past that first mental block -- we are stewards here, not the owners.

Something they seem to have forgotten in the corporate world.  But maybe in the face of crisis, our whole society can think of itself in terms of stewards rather than owners.  I’ll be holding my breath...  Amen.