Sunday, August 25, 2013

“Set Free”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 13: 10-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday after Pentecost, August 25th, 2013

“And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16 NRS)"

Philippe Pozzo di Borgo is a wealthy aristocrat who has everything.  He lives in Paris.  He is owner and producer of a fine French wine.   A Maserati sets in his garage.   People wait on him hand and foot.   He has breakfast in bed.   He gets a massage every day.   But there is only one problem.  Philippe is a paraplegic.  He can’t do anything for himself and has to have help to eat, to get his bath, even to go to the bathroom.  He has to have people helping him 24/7.

One person Phillipe hired to help take care of him came out of a low-income area of Paris, a place filled with all kinds of crime and drugs.   This man was living about as low as a person can.  He had come out of bad situation in Africa and now, due to his lifestyle and poor choices, he had been thrown out of his home.  He had no hope of getting a job, until he answered the advertisement of becoming a care-giver.  He was strong, but he wasn’t really emotionally ready for the job.  He had an ‘attitude’.  He thinks he can do anything.  Phillipe should not have hired him, but since he had gone through several care-givers who could not ‘stomach’ the job, he took a chance on this strong willed man named, Abdel Sellou.  

It is most amazing is what happens next.  The man who was crippled gives this strong man work to do that no one should have to do.   It will either make or break a person who has to give constant and complete care to another person.  It this situation it made Abdel Sellou.   He not only mastered the job, but his work and relationship caring for Phillipe saved his life from crime and drugs.  Even though Phillipe was the crippled man who needed help, it was the ‘strong-man’, Abdel, who was most in need of healing.   When the strong man helped the weak, they both received the healing they needed as cripples in life.   Today, Phillipe and Abdel remain close and live in Morocco. (Based on a true story, made into a documentary and then a film in France entitled, “The Intouchables” http://republicanherald.com/news/2-worlds-collide-in-intouchables-1.1247857).   

THE HEALING WE ALL NEED
The crippled woman in this gospel is also in desperate need of healing and help.   Do you see her struggling to move along?  Luke tells us that she has been crippled for over 18 years and that her body is ‘bent’ out of shape and she is unable to ‘straighten’ up (13: 11).   While Luke does not tell us exactly what happened to her, he does attribute her crippling to a ‘spirit’ that had taken over.   This description might sound strange to those of us today who know about the crippling powers of polio, arthritis, or spinal degeneration.  But Luke wants us to know that the crippling power that took over was mysterious and real.  It was a power that came from outside her, beyond her, and now has her firmly in its grip.   This ‘spirit that had crippled her’ stands for the very personal and emotional side of this woman’s physical infirmity.   It’s a side that medicine and science seldom sees.  It’s the side of the crippled or sick person that asks, “Why is this happening to me?”

Preacher Brent Younger tells about this ‘spiritual’ side of sickness in a biographical sermon he wrote about a woman he named “Kimberly Rush” who was an over-the-top perfectionist in all she did.  She made top grades through school.  She finished both high school and college early.   Then she went to Harvard Law School, where really smart people go.  After graduation, she was invited to be a part of a famous law firm, and the first question she asked was, “How long will it take me to become a partner in the firm?”  The was: “You will have to work no less than 7 years.”  She did.  She always took her work home.  Doing the best at what she did was what she did every day, but it was more than that.  She wanted to be the best.  She took the hardest cases.  She won many of them.  But then, one day she noticed that her back was hurting.  She was in church that day, listening to the pastor talk about how we all need the Sabbath to remind us that we are not gods.  We need something bigger than ourselves to help us be ourselves.  She thought the sermon was good, but she didn’t realize it was for her.  It wasn’t until she went to the doctor with her back and the doctor told her that if she didn’t slow down, take breaks, and take care of herself, she would end up crippled the rest of her life.  Through the doctor, the woman finally heard the preacher’s sermon loud and clear.  She heard him saying, “We all need the healing that only God can give!”  We need not live to work, but we need to work and take time to live.  The Sabbath and our worship of God keeps us from the spirit that can cripple (From Brett Younger’s sermon, “Being Set Free”, at www.lectionaryhomiletics.com, 2013).

I think any of us who are achievers can how any of us can easily become emotional or physical cripples.  The pressures of this world to kill ourselves trying, achieving, winning or striving can be very great.  How many people end up bearing the weight, not only of bad choices, but of bearing the burden of even good, hard, work?  No matter who we are, how good we are, life can cripple us.  The recent death of actor Cory Monteith is an example of someone who looked healthy, was gifted, smart and very lucky on the outside, but was an emotional cripple on the inside.   That’s always the problem with success; you can cover up the healing that you really need.    

RELGION THAT KEEPS PEOPLE CRIPPLED
The woman in Luke’s story is probably a ‘cripple’ at no fault of her own.  But now she’s bent over and can’t straighten up.  So, what does she do, she goes to the synagogue to worship.   That’s something we can all admire about her.   Seeing this woman in worship, in spite of her condition, reminds me of a story about two fishermen out on the lake on Sunday morning.  
One fisherman said the other, “You know, I feel a little guilty about being out here on the water and not in church.   
            The other fisherman answers:  “I know what you mean, but I wouldn’t be in church today anyway”
            “Why’s that?” his friend asks.
            “My wife’s at home sick.”
This woman was sick and crippled, but she went to church anyway.  Maybe she went in hopes of seeing Jesus, having heard that he was a healer.   What is most interesting about this story, as Luke tells us, is that the woman never directly asked Jesus for healing and we are never told anything about her faith.  Some people will think that they don’t receive healing because they don’t have enough faith.  There is no doubt that this woman had faith, or she wouldn’t be here.  But the story does not make any big deal about her faith.  The story also does not make a very big deal about Jesus’ power to heal the woman.  It’s all done in a matter-of-fact way.   Luke says that while Jesus is teaching, this crippled woman appears in the synagogue.   Seeing the woman, Jesus calls her over and announces that she is ‘set free from her ailment’ and he then lays hands on her and she is able to immediately stand up and praises God.   After 18 years of living life bent over, everything is instantly healed. 

You would think that this miraculous ‘healing’ would be the main part of the story, but it’s not.  The climax of the story comes as the religious leaders begin to object to her healing.  We read that they are ‘indignant’ because Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath.  “If people want to be healed, they need to come back another time!”  It is in response to their negativity Jesus names them Hypocrites!  Jesus attempts to reason with these very unreasonable religious leaders: “You take care of your need of your animals on the Sabbath, shouldn’t I take care of the needs of this crippled woman?”   Jesus is determined to point out how their own legalistic, heartless religion would rather have kept the woman crippled for another day, rather than immediate attend to her needs. 

There are people today who take part in such legalistic, heartless and compassionless religion and don’t even realize it.  Some of them claim not to be religious at all.   Christopher Hitchens, the avowed atheist was like that.  His religion was that he did not believe in God and thought no one else should either.  He was so convinced of his own belief, that after he lived a life of compulsive and obsessive chain-smoking, indulging in various things that destroyed his body, he did nothing healthy for himself until the doctors told him he had cancer.  Then he spent his money on all kinds of attempts to save his life, but he could not.  It was too late.  But his faith, we might say, was true to the end.  He did not want anyone to pity him or pray for him.   He was completely convinced of his belief that there was no heaven, no hell, no judgment and no God.  

What Luke’s story tells us is that there is still “religion” in the world that does not want healing on God’s terms.    Some people have a religion that does not believe in God and this keeps people crippled.   But also, in even in the church of Jesus Christ, there are those who would follow their belief, their ideas, their opinions, and their interpretations of the Bible, even at the expense of hurting others and continuing to block the healing of those who have the greatest need.   There are expressions of religion and belief that seems to be just as bent on keeping people crippled; crippled in fear, crippled in anger, crippled in hate, and crippled in despair.    The irony of Luke’s story is that it isn’t only the woman who needed to be ‘straightened out.’  It was the religious belief of many of the religious in Jesus’ day.

In her book, In her book Strength for the Journey  (Jossey-Bass 2002), Diana Butler Bass tells the stories of several congregations that she has been a part of.  Some were quarrelsome, including the one she was a member of while she was a student in seminary.   Many studious people were a part of this congregation.  Many were quite articulate, able to express matters of faith really well in words.  There were several subgroups in this church: some were generational in nature, while others centered on differences with each other over various issues of faith and practice.

Whatever camp people were in, being right, being correct was very important to them. Indeed, at that time it was very important to Diana herself.  She wanted matters of faith and practice to be black and white. One pastor remarked to Diana much later that he had never served another congregation where so many people were obsessed with being certain.   Folks felt that if they were right, then others must certainly be wrong.

Now this was an Episcopal church, that had a newly elected bishop who was making the rounds getting to know the congregations.  When he came to this congregation where everyone insisted on being right, a number of folks in this congregation got ready to challenge him.   As he arrived to visit, these people were primed with questions, which on the surface is fine.   Christians should be able to approach their leaders and raise questions.  But they came with an adversarial stance. The truth was they wanted to catch the bishop making a mistake. Like the religious leaders trying to catch Jesus making a mistake, they wanted to be able to say, "See! We told you he doesn’t believe the right things!"

The bishop got a hostile reception, but he held his own fielding the questions. Then Diana’s husband raised his hand and said, "Bishop Johnson, it says in the book of Timothy that the bishop is to guard the gospel. Sir, listening to you, I cannot discern what you are guarding. Can you tell us, please, exactly what you think the gospel is?" 
Silence. Nobody moved. The bishop didn’t rush to answer. He looked at the questioner, and looked around the room. Then, Diana writes, "he unfolded his arms—which he had held across his chest—and stretched them out so widely that he almost looked like Jesus hanging on the cross. ‘God,’ [the bishop] said deliberately. ‘God loves everybody.’
"’Well, yes,’ [Diana’s husband] started to protest, ‘but…’
‘God loves everybody,’ [the bishop] replied. ‘That’s it.’
‘But…’
‘God loves everybody.’"
It was clear that this answer did not please most of the audience. It sounded wishy-washy. It sounded like "anything goes."  But Diana said herself that she was put to shame.  She wrote, "Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I knew that [the bishop] was right, and I was wrong. God’s only boundary is love...and there, on that day in [the church] parish hall, I began to understand that being right is not faith, and certainty is no substitute for grace."

THIS JESUS WHO CAN STRAIGHTEN US OUT
We need Jesus to point out our blind spots and correct them.
We need Jesus to show us where we need to grow in love.
We need Jesus to straighten us out. 
And he can.  Just like he straightened out the crippled woman and challenged the status quo of the kind of religion that keeps people crippled, Jesus can straighten us out and point out where we need to know and experience God’s love and grace.

“It may be possible theologically to overstate God’s power,” says Jana Childers, “but it’s an interesting theological problem.”  But according to Luke, there is no overstating the God’s love”---a love that desires to bring hope and healing to those who have been crippled by life or, unfortunately, even by the church.  Jana Childers goes on to tell about a little girl living in a rural community.  It was just a few years ago, but it was one of those where driving down the road was like driving back into the thirties.  This little girl lived in a little house and went to a two-room school.  She had loving folks and, from time to time, a good teacher. But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up. She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair hadn’t been there.  By the time she was seven, she knew what the world was. She had heard the phrase, "only a mother could love someone like that" and she understood it.  She had to take her place among the crippled of the world.

One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests. When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams. "Just stand over there by the door," the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room. "I want to test your hearing first. Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say."
"Apple," the teacher said in a low voice.
"Apple," the little girl repeated.
"Man," the teacher said.
"Man," the little girl repeated.
"Banana."
"Banana."
"Okay," the teacher said, "Now a sentence." The child knew that the sentences where usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all. She’d heard you could expect something like, "The sky is blue" or "Are your shoes brown?" Still, she listened very carefully.   So it was that standing with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, "I wish you were my little girl."   It was then that the healing power of love flooded her soul.  (From a sermon by Jana Childers at www.30goodminutes.org)
 Jesus saw in this crippled woman of our text, not a crippled person, but a daughter of Abraham, who was as much a child of God as any son of Abraham.   Now, she has met the God who loves her and wants her healed, no matter what time it is.   In this ‘crippled woman’ we also meet the God who is reaching out to us.  We are children of Abraham too.  God has loved us, no matter what crippling spirit has overtaken us, and his love can set us free, even when there are human or divine ‘limits’ to what can be done.

Are you willing to bring your crippled self to God?   Are you also willing to bring your crippling attitudes to God? 
Lord, when I’m impatient with people and unkind, Lord, straighten me out.  
When I find myself laying blame instead of accepting part of the responsibility, Lord, straighten me out.  
When I find myself growing arrogant, Lord, straighten me out.
When jealousy and pride come creeping in, Lord, straighten me out.
When I find myself keeping a record of someone else’s wrongs, and rejoicing in someone else’s mistakes, Lord, straighten me out.
When I start thinking I can see more clearly than others can, Lord, straighten me out.
When I think I already know it all, Lord, straighten me out.
When my need to be in control is more important than the person that is before me, Lord, straighten me out.
When I think I’ve arrived, that I’m perfected in love, Lord, have mercy. Lord, straighten me out.
Lord, straighten us all out.  It is not always the ones who appear crippled who are crippled the most. (Adapted from Mary Harris Todd’s sermon, “Straightened Out” at www.goodpreacher.com).

I hope that it is not our attitude or our beliefs that block the healing and hope people need in our day.  Luke wants to put all of us in this story, not only those of us who have been crippled by life, but also those of us who have attributed to crippling the souls of others.  Jesus wants to straighten us all out, and he can, if we will answer him, like the woman did, when he ‘calls us over’ to receive the healing that can straighten us out and set us free.  Amen.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

“The Jesus Fire”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 12: 49-59
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 13c, August 18th, 2013

 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!   (Luk 12:49 NRS) "

“In Garrison Keillor's fictional boyhood home of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, air conditioning (A/C) was placed in the same category of suspicion as "dishwashers, automatic transmissions, frozen dinners, and liberal theologians."  As air-conditioning came about, “fire and brimstone” preaching went out the window with the heat.   Jim Somerville writes:  “During the days before Air Conditioning we had lots of it.   Preachers used to face a regular problem with the heat, especially in the South.  Even with the windows up and the funeral home fans flying, a southern summer Sunday morning could sap the attentive powers of an entire congregation.  A wasp bumping lazily across the ceiling would be enough to distract them.  A dramatic pause in the sermon and half of them might drop off to sleep.

Naturally, the preacher began to raise his voice, just to wake them up, and for a while that was enough ("...and MOSES saith unto PHARAOH, 'Let my people GO!'").  But people get used to things, and they eventually got used to loud preaching.  So the preacher began to punctuate his sermon by pounding on the pulpit ("...and MOSES [Bam!] saith unto PHARAOH [Bam!], 'Let my people GO!' [Bam! Bam!]").  But they got used to that, too.  Until finally the preacher had not choice but to preach on matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell ("...CAST them [Bam!] into the FURNACE [Bam! Bam!] of FIRE [Bam! Bam! (and) BAM!!]").  And that worked.  That kept the congregation awake.  And it was in that context that one of the great homiletical punch lines of all time was developed: "You think it's hot NOW!..."

Pastor Somerville continues: “But then along came A/C, and suddenly those same people who had been dozing off before were sitting upright in the pews, wide awake, with eager, attentive expressions on their faces.  As you might imagine that was the end of fire and brimstone preaching, and evidence enough that there is a closer connection to A/C and liberal theology than you might guess.  As Garrison Keillor says about some of the people who move away from Lake Wobegon: ‘They get A/C first thing and crank it up to Cold.  They drape themselves over it.  Then they find a church where God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child's face.”  "They don't want to get sweaty anymore if they can help it." 

JESUS IS THE FIRE THAT DIVIDES
What happened to ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching might be a just little more complicated.   When Jesus says that he has come to “send fire on the earth” and not to ‘bring peace’, but to bring “division” there are plenty of other reasons people don’t want the fire.  

What kind of fire does Jesus bring?   Jesus says, first of all, that he longs to bring a “fire” of ‘division.’   This sounds rather strange, coming from the prince of peace who calls us to be peace makers, doesn’t it?   But when you follow Jesus, and I mean REALLY follow Jesus, with all your heart, soul, and mind, the outcome is not always what you expect.   Yes, of course, the gospel is ‘good news’---the good news of God’s amazing grace, but even ‘good news’ can challenge, bring unanticipated results and cause people hurt.  If you wonder what I mean, compare it with someone who has won the lottery or come into a large sum of money.   We’d like to have that kind of ‘problem’, wouldn’t we?   And at first, it seems like a wonderful blessing---to have all your bills and mortgages paid off and not to ever have to work again.   Then, the tax collectors come, the relatives come, and then all the temptations come with all that money.  Most people who win the lottery do not prove to be able to handle it.  It is a blessing that quickly becomes a burden, and if you are not careful, it can become a curse.

Most of us don’t have to worry about winning the lottery, but we do have to think about what we do with God’s love and grace.   The good news about God’s love is that, first and foremost, we have been given a great blessing.   It is ‘blessing’ that can change our lives.  But this great blessing can also become a challenge to us, and maybe even become a burden—a burden we must bear.  If you still have trouble understanding, consider the story of Jesus’ ministry according to the New Testament.   Jesus goes around healing, helping, caring, and sharing the love of God with outcasts and giving grace to sinners.   That’s the blessing.   But the established, traditional, religious leaders don’t like what he’s doing.  It’s not just that they don’t like people getting a ‘free lunch’, so to speak, but they see Jesus as a threat to their taking own “lunch”.   If you recall, there’s even a gospel story about Jesus getting a young boy to give his ‘lunch’ away.   Thus, in the preaching and ministry of Jesus, in order to receive God’s love, you must also be willing to share.   In order to really ‘share’, you have to let go of some things, like perhaps your control of what happens, or you might have to give up some of your wealth, or even let go of some of your own personal views on things.  This might come as a surprise, but one of the core lessons Jesus was trying to teach the Pharisees is that it’s hard to be ‘right’ all the time and still be a Christian.   Learning that all of us are wrong and sinners was at the heart of the good news.

Well-established people just did not want to do this.  So they turned against Jesus.  They turn against him because his words, deeds, and saving activity upset their own ‘apple cart’---that is, their own understanding of God as it relates to how they are living their lives.    Jesus is a fire-thrower.  He has thrown a whole new understanding of God into the mix of their lives.   He turns everything upside down: The ones who are in, are now out.   The ones who are safe, are now in danger.  The ones who were in danger are now receiving the great blessing of God.   How did such a thing happen?   How did Jesus set the world on fire?   Jesus forgives sins on the spot, which they thought only God could do.  Jesus even shows that those who think they have no sin, are committing some of the worst sins of all.   Jesus also touches the untouchables, which is very risky business not just for Jesus, but for the whole community.  Finally, Jesus heals people even on the Sabbath day, foregoing the traditional, legalistic rules of religion that had been kept for generations.  By doing things like this, Jesus shows that the religion of his day had lost touch with reality.  By following the rule of love rather than the rule of law, Jesus upset everything.  He set the world on fire.  All this radical newness brought confusion, debate, and division.  Everyone thought all the rules were written and could be controlled by their own interpretation of things, but according to Jesus, the spirit of love remained free, liberating, uncontrollable and unconfined by all human conceptions.   The heart of God can’t be controlled by human thoughts and is now burning like a fire, setting ablaze all kinds of debate, division, conflict and strife.  

Has the ‘truth’ of God ever upset your own ‘applecart’?   Has God ever interrupted your life for an “emergency broadcast bulletin” of what you should stop and what you should start doing?  Did you listen, or did you change the channel?   People changed the channel of Jesus.  They silenced him.  They drowned out his words.  They hung him on a cross.  They made sure that they could keep doing what they were doing and would have no interruption.  The truth of Jesus and the truth from Jesus was too radical, too divisive, and too upsetting to how people wanted things to be and to remain.   Jesus view of God and love for sinners was the ‘fire’ people didn’t want burning up the way things already were.  

When Clarence Jordan founded the Koinonia Farm in south Georgia, an interracial Christian community, his attempt to live out his call as a disciple of Jesus and his challenge to a segregated south led to his excommunication (division) from his local church!  As he tells it, "The little country church to which I belonged invited me one summer to hold a revival meeting. They had heard that I had graduated from the Baptist Theological Cemetery-uh, Seminary.  So I accepted, and I preached to those people.  I preached the word of God in south Georgia and I didn't think that I would survive the ordeal.   I thought of how Jesus went back to his little hometown to preach not a revival but just one sermon on Sunday morning and they caught on to what he was saying before he even got to his closing point.  So they took him out to the end of town to dash him over the hill.”  "Well, I expected to be in that dilemma, but I wasn't; much to my amazement, when I got through preaching, these dear ole deacons came by and said, 'That was a sweet sermon, and I wondered where they were during that sermon! They again asked me to preach and again I tried to make it clear.  I supplied for the pastor time and again but somehow I could never make myself be heard.  But gradually, as Koinonia took shape and the word that had been preached to these people became flesh and they could see it, then they caught on.  Not only was I not asked to preach to these people anymore, I was excommunicated, along with all the rest at Koinonia, from the membership of that church.  At last, the sermon had been delivered and understood."  Finally the fire set something ablaze.     (Cited by Dallas Lee, The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan (Association Press, 1972), 32-33.)

JESUS IS THE FIRE THAT BRINGS DISCERNMENT  
The reason the truth of Jesus brings ‘division’ and struggle is because the truth of love brings ‘discernment.’  Discernment is not a word we use, because it scares us.   It’s a word that requires us to think.  It’s a word that challenges our mind and heart.  When Clarence Jordan came to ‘discern’ that God does not just desire ‘civil rights’ but that God desires that we all live in a community where we actually do love and care for each other, such discernment was, and still is, too much for some people.   And we all know that people can’t handle too much truth.  We like the kind of ‘truth’ we can handle, but we don’t like for the ‘truth’ to get a handle on us. 

What kind of ‘discernment’ did Jesus bring that brought so much division among people?   Was it not the ability to discern ‘love’?  At the core of everything Jesus was about, at the very center of all the conflict and division that surrounded Jesus, was the golden rule of love, which says, “Do unto others what you would have them do to you?” (Matt. 7:12).  This was what Jesus was doing with sinners, with outcasts, and with all kinds of people touched by illness and disease, even with those caught up in sin.  If Jesus had not reached out to these folks, they would have had no hope.   The love Jesus was able to discern for them, even while they were still sinners, is exactly what Jesus calls us to discern.   As the apostle Paul himself discerned,   But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRS). Jesus wants us to keep discerning how important it is to love people who don’t and who can’t measure up to God’s rules or laws.  Jesus doesn’t want us to build walls that keep people out, but to tear down walls to let people in.   Jesus did just that as he discerned the need for God’s love that goes beyond law required, not refuting it, but fulfilling it, meaning that love is what God intended all along.  In this way, Jesus discerned God’s truth beyond the specifics of rules, so he could help us all discern what is most important in God’s heart.  To gain the ability to discern how we can ‘love’ strangers and sinners is still what the world needs most today.

I was very thankful for this ability to discern a ‘larger’ perspective when I was in Turkey many years ago.   Our family made a day trip from Greece to visit the ruins of Ephesus.  Immediately after we got off the boat in Turkey, I realized we had stepped into a very different culture when the ‘speaker system’ announced the daily call to Muslim prayer.   Turkey is a ‘secular’ nation, but it’s most basic religious practice is Islam which still dominates daily life.   All this ‘culture shock’ made me feel out of place.  I felt even more nervous when the tour guide on our tour bus asked me what I did.  I was not ashamed of my faith, but I was reluctant to tell him I was a Christian pastor, because I thought he might develop an immediate prejudice against me. 

In that moment, I felt like many people feel must feel when they encounter a world outside of who they are.  I felt alone.  I felt that I would not be understood.  I felt that he would be negative toward my faith in God.   But when I did explain to him that I was a Christian and a pastor, he surprisingly smiled.   He did not argue with me about my faith.   He told me that he was Muslim, but since there was only one God, he declared, that although we may have different religious practices, we worshiped the same God.  I was shocked at his appreciation for my faith.    I was glad that he found a way to fit me into his scheme of faith and belief.  It made me feel safe, respected and accepted.

Such understanding and tolerance of others ought to be one of the most basic rules we need in human life.   We need to be able to love like Jesus loved and we need to rise above our differing views for the sake of love.    This does not mean that we have to agree on everything, see everything eye to eye, but it means we need to learn how to discern the need for love, grace, and understanding, even within our differences.   When Jesus confronted the woman who was caught in adultery, the law required her to be stoned.    Jesus did not agree with her adultery, but he also did not believe that she needed to be stoned.   He did commend her not to sin any more, but he also did not condemn her as a sinner.   Jesus ‘discerned’ love.   But this is what the religious leaders would not do.   They would not ‘tolerate’ anyone who did not measure up.   They wouldn’t tolerate Jesus’ discernment for giving love and grace to the sinner.    They would not entertain any new ideas, new interpretations, or any exceptions to the law at all.   In order to do this, they would have to give up some of their thinking and trust God as the final judge, and they would also have to open themselves up to Jesus’ radical new approach to putting love above the law.  This was too hard for them.   They were not used to entertaining any reasonable ‘exceptions’ at all.  They would not discern love and this is why Jesus said their nation, their religion and their Jerusalem was doomed for coming destruction.

JESUS IS THE FIRE TO DECIDE AND TO ACT
Now we conclude where the fire of Jesus burns really hot, even today.  The truth of Jesus’ fire is this: “If we do not learn discern love in the midst of our own confusing times, we suffer emotional, mental, physical and political destruction.  In order to avoid the ‘fire’ of destruction, we must discern the burning ‘fire’ of love.

In July, ABC News ran a news report about a 21 year-old New Jersey woman, who hired a hit-man to kill her husband.  What she did not know was that the hit-man she was trying to hire was an under-cover agent and their whole discussion was being recorded.   The most shocking part of the interview was not that a woman wanted to kill her husband, but it was the reason she stated for wanting her husband killed.  During the interview, when asked ‘why’ she speaks without tears and in a very settled and secure voice.   She says that her husband is not mistreating her.  She even says that things are going fairly good in their marriage.   So why have him killed?  She says she is not happy in her marriage and that having him killed seems a lot easier than getting a divorce.   It would be better to kill him, she says, because she did not want to worry about the ‘judgment of her family or about breaking his heart.” http://worldnewsviews.com/2013/07/09/video-former-nj-woman-tries-to-hire-hit-man-to-kill-husband-says-its-easier-than-divorce/

Looking into story of such a ‘cold’ heart is like looking into a destructive fire of what happens in people and in a culture that loses the ability to love.   It is a very hot flame full of death and destructiveness.  But there is a flame that burns hotter than this, and it is a flame that Jesus wants to bring on the earth.   It is not the flame of destruction, but it is the purging fire of discerning love.  Let me ask you: Have you ever looked into a fire and found the blue and white flame?   Even hotter than the discerning fire of love is the ‘burning’ desire to decide to act upon and live out the love we have discerned. 

If the culture that surrounded Jesus had one great deficit, it was not only their inability to discern love, but it was also their failure to decide to act upon that love.  This can be seen in the verses that immediately proceed.  In Luke 12: 47, it is the ‘servant’ who “knew what his master wanted” but did not “do what he wanted” who “receives the worst beating.”  Even before that Jesus says, “Blessed in that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” (Luke 12: 43).  But what kind of ‘work’ is Jesus speaking of?  In this parable Jesus is not speaking of employment, hobbies, or everyday chores.  What Jesus is speaking of the ‘burning’ neighbor love which the Good Samaritan had (Luke 10: 25-37).   This was the kind of love than ended in the merciful decision to ‘go and do likewise’; not simple to ‘see’ (discern) and ‘walk by on the other side’ (to decide to do nothing, Lk. 10: 31-32).  The burning fire of Jesus then, and now, is to decide to do the work of love that is before us.  

What does it mean for us to bring the challenging fire of Jesus into our own lives right now, and to decide to do the work of love we need to do?  It can mean many things, can’t it?  Perhaps the most important thing for us, as it was for those Pharisees Jesus’ addressed, is to start by getting our priorities right?  This is most basic ‘fire’ at the heart of our passage.   Jesus’ fire in his own life, accept his own ‘baptism’, which is to do God’s will, no matter the personal cost to him.  His task is to do God’s will, whether it brings peace or division.   If only other people would ‘judge for (themselves) what is right’!  (Lk. 12.57).  If people would only accept the ‘fire’ of discernment and decide to do what is right, they could avoid the destructive ‘fire’ of judgment that is coming to the earth.   What cannot do, according to Jesus’ concluding word, is decide to avoid the fire.  It will come, one way or another.  If we try to avoid what we are supposed to do, then, as Jesus says, we will be thrown in ‘a prison’ and can ‘never get out’ until (we) ‘have paid the last penny.”  The point here is obvious.  It’s practically impossible to pay your fines and dues when you are in prison.  Once you fall into the trap of not doing what you are supposed to do, it is practically impossible to work your way out.  The point is this; that the ‘fire of Jesus’ that calls us to do the hard work of discerning and deciding to do the work of love is nothing compared to the ‘fire’ of judgment that comes when we lose the ability to “judge” and to do “what is right”.

Back in 1961 an English woman named Viv Nicolson won the national Lottery, which would now be equal to something around $12 million dollars.  A big deal was made of the new priority in her life that came with all those riches, to “spend, spend, and spend!”   They even made a musical and film about her winnings and how her life was instantly changed.  But since that time she has been married 5 times, and eventually became a Jehovah’s Witness.  Most recently, Mrs. Nicolson said that now she wishes that she had not had the fortune of winning all that money.  “We had a wild life, and I did enjoy it.  But it drove a wedge between me and Keith.  He was drunk all the time and always out, and we started to fight and drift apart.  One night, when about half the money had gone, Keith was killed after his blue Jaguar skidded across the A1.  Before the money we had nothing, but we loved each other and got on with things.”  (From a sermon by Julie Woods, “Things Above Earthly Things”, in The Expository Times, Vol. 124, No. 10, July 2013, p. 494).  

Did you catch what this woman said?  Before the money came, she and her husband had their priorities right and did what needed to be done.   But when they lost of ‘fire’ of discerning and deciding to do what needed to be done, the fire of judgment came.    The point is this:  If you think the ‘fire’ of Jesus burns hot, trying to get us to discern and decide to do what needs to be done to get our lives in order, perhaps we should think of it like the ‘control burn’ firemen build to create a ‘fire barrier’ to prevent the more destructive fire.  The ‘fire of Jesus’ is to help prevent the flames of judgment from overtaking us and leaving our lives in shambles.  Viv Nicolson is not unique in wishing she had keep the right ‘fire’ burning in her life.   What about you?  Which fire are you going to let burn; the fire that can burn in you, or the fire that will burn you?   Jesus wants us to ‘judge’ what and which fire is right?  Amen.   

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"WHAT GOD CAN DO FOR YOU”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 12: 32-48
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 11c, August 11th, 2013

 "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
----Luke 12:32 (NRSV)

In his commentary on Luke for everyone,  N.T. Wright makes the statement that ‘the modern western world is built on anxiety’….   “You see it on the faces of people hurrying to work.  You see it even more as they travel home, tired but without having solved life’s problems.  The faces are weary, puzzled, living with the unanswerable question as to what it all means.  The world thrives on people setting higher and higher goals for themselves, and each other, so that they worry all day and all year about whether or not they will reach them.  If they do, they will set new ones.  If they don’t, they will feel like they’ve failed.”  Then, Wright asked: “Was this really how we are supposed to live?”

The famous Rabbi, Howard Kushner wrote of this fear more concisely: “I am convinced that it is not the fear of death, of our lives ending that haunts our sleep so much as the fear... that as far as the world is concerned, we might as well never have lived.”      What fear keeps you awake at nights?   Is it the fear of dying, the fear of living, or the fear of never having lived your life like you wished?   

Strangely enough, Dan Clendenin says that his major fear and worry is that he doesn’t worry enough. He says he keeps two cartoons which illustrate his greatest fears and worries.  One sketch pictures a man sitting in his living room with a look of panic on his face. He's dropped his book and his hair stands on end. He's yanked his legs off the floor and onto the chair where he clutches them in his arms. There's a bomb on the floor that someone tossed through his window. Shattered glass litters the floor as the fuse burns down. In the punch line he confesses to his wife: "It's my fault — I wasn't worrying enough."    In another cartoon, one he keeps taped onto the kitchen cabinet, pictures a man in bed late at night. He's sitting up, scribbling on a note pad, and talking on the phone. In the caption he tells his friend, "When I can't sleep, I find that it sometimes helps to get up and jot down my anxieties."  Every square centimeter of the bedroom walls is covered with dozens of scribbled worries — war, recession, killer bees, aging, calories, sex, balding, radon gas, and so on.  Could you imagine keeping all your worries listed on your bedroom wall just so you could look at them as you try to go to sleep?  Could you imagine worrying more just to make sure you worry about everything you need to worry about?

DO NOT BE AFRAID
It may sound like an incredibly strange thing to say in a world like ours, in a time like ours, and in the midst of the moment in which we find right now, but Jesus’ word to us today is “Don’t be afraid?”   It is a word that we find ourselves more needing more and more, especially with the world the way it is, with the way the economy is not going; with the way we are getting ever closer to death; and of course, in the way we have so many more things to worry and be afraid today than ever before.  In spite of all this, Jesus still says to us, “Don’t be afraid!”

Fear really does drive much of our lives, so how do we get a grip on the handle of our life?  How do we overcome the obvious and unobvious fears that haunt and even hunt us down?   When I was in the 9th grade, I recall reading an unforgettable story in English class, “The Most Dangerous Game”.    It was a story that kept your attention because it was filled with so much drama and danger, telling about a sailor who was going to hunt big game down in South American.  But on his way his ship was wrecked and now he was on an island own by a wealthy General, who owns this island where shipwrecks often happen and he likes to capture the sailors and then send them into the jungle with limited supplies so they could be hunted by him like wild animals.  The story is filled with unforgettable images of this sailor being chased by a pack of hunting dogs through the jungles that are already dangerous enough.  

Sometime or other, we all feel like something or someone is out to get us.  Sometime or other we have to deal with dreads and fears that come into our lives.  We might think it’s the government, the IRS, bill collectors, life in general, or maybe even God who is out to get us.  Psychologists say that if you have reoccurring dreams of being chased or running away from something, some subliminal fear in your life needs to be realized, confronted, and dealt with.   Much of our lives can be lived reacting to fears we have, but we’ve never really met face to face.  This makes me wonder what kind of fears Jesus’ disciples were facing when Jesus first spoke these words.  

The world always faces some kind of fear.  In the ancient world it was natural disasters—plagues, earthquakes, floods and windstorms which people believed the gods were bringing on unjust people.   Other times people faced wars due to invading armies which overtook their homelands.  Some of these great wars were religious wars, though most of them were economic or political.  We’ve known terrible wars and disasters in our own lifetime, which may surely bring fear and anxiety to us still today.   One of the greatest fears today, is not what nature can do, not even what God might do, but some of the world’s greatest anxieties and fears are brought upon us through worrying about what will happen through our own human inventions and technologies, most of which have been created for our good, but can fall into the wrong hands.  There is much worry and money put into defending not just from terrorist with bombs, but also from terrorist with brains.  That’s the kind of scary thought which will cause many military and national security leaders to lose sleep tonight.

In Jesus’ own world, we can only image how much more fearful daily life must have been.  Many of Jesus’ hearers hand only enough to live on each day, and there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t have that.   Most people in the biblical world had one spare garment, but not more.  As with most of the world today, that lives on 1 or 2 dollars a day, just one disaster—like the breadwinner becoming sick, injured, could mean complete destitution.   And it was to people just like that, not people who had to worry about luxury cars, investment accounts or hospital bills---people to who probably had much more to worry about that you and I ever have---it is to these people Jesus addresses these words,  “Do not be afraid!”

Anxiety and stress can be a killer.   Carrying around constant fear in our hearts and minds can be very dangerous to us moderns too.   Even in this modern world, with all its increasing technology, we might have even more to worry about, not less.   It’s not that we are in a more dangerous situation than they were, but it’s because we simply know too much and have so much more to lose.  As the old saying, “what you don’t know can hurt you”, but at least you won’t worry yourself sick over it until it does.

“SELL YOUR POSESSIONS”
It is quite surprising, perhaps even alarming to begin to ‘unpack’ what Jesus recommends people do to control their fears and worries.   We will probably not pay much attention to what Jesus recommends either, but if you listen to what he is prescribing for dealing with worry and fear will certainly ‘grab’ our attention.  For the first thing Jesus recommends hits us head on in verse 32, “SELL, SELL, SELL”.  On Wall Street this is normally what people do when they are afraid, who would ever thought “selling your possessions” would rid our fear.

A lot of scholarship hours have been spent trying to understand or water-down what Jesus was saying.  This is certainly a very shocking plan of action, isn’t it?  Will it work?  Will having less make us worry less?  I would say that the answer to this question depends on some other things too.   If you ‘sell’ everything and start living on the street, that would not reduce your anxiety.   If you sell all the things that are causes you so much worry, anxiety, fear and burden, you could discover that Jesus is on to something important.

This is really what Jesus implies.  Earlier in this chapter, Jesus’ concern was not have some possessions, or having enough to live on, but Jesus was concerned about people who think life consists ‘in the abundance of possessions” (12:15).  Underline the word ‘abundance’.  It was not having something that was causing the man in the parable to lose his soul, but it was having too much---so much that he spent most of his time worrying about what had than the time he had to live.   Later on in this text, Jesus tells his disciples ‘not to worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear, for life is more than food and clothing.” (12: 22).  What brings fear, anxiety is not whether or not we will eat or have clothing, but what brings excessive worry and stress is the unnecessary worrying about what kind of food we will eat and what kind of clothing people are wearing.  The world wants you to worry about these things.   Jesus wants you to eat, get dressed and go out and not worry so much about these kinds of things.

I have told you before, that one of most ‘freeing’ times of our lives was when we sold our possessions to become missionaries.  Those six years in Europe were challenging, but also exciting.   As we put our lives into God’s hands, we felt free to do our work, but also to live our lives with a whole different set of priorities.  That was not an easy thing to do, and unfortunately, it came to an end when we had to come back to the States and care for my parents.  Today, some of the fondest memories are that time when all our ‘burdens’ were lifted and we lived our life on prayers, hopes, faith and trust.  We had a great mission agency to work for and they assured us that they would be there for us, and they were.

It is difficult for most of us to let go of all that we have and to live in unlimited trust.  We are so dependent on ‘things’, ‘homes’, assets, and incomes.   This is of course unfortunate, because we miss so much when we fail to trust and risk our lives for love and for life.   Think of what a child will miss if they never let go of the float and learn to swim.   Think of what a young person might miss, if they say to themselves, “I’ll never get married”   Or think of what a young couple might miss if they, out of fear, say that they will ‘never have children”    Think of what a Christian misses, when they hold on too tightly and miss the adventure of journey of following Jesus.  Think of what all kinds of things people miss when they are not willing to take a risk for the sake of something bigger than what they are holding on to.  Sometimes all we need to do is learn to ‘let go’.

“BE DRESSED FOR ACTION” 
There is something more to this Jesus approach toward living.  Not only do we overcome much of our anxiety by reducing our possessions and materialistic worries, but Jesus also tells his disciple to ‘get dressed for action”.   All this follows Jesus’ words about selling our possessions, giving to the poor, and storing treasures in heaven.   The word is to reduce our anxiety about ourselves by getting involved in helping others.

We’ve all heard stories about people who never retire, but use their retirement to learn to work in some area of social work, charity, church, or mission.  I recall hearing about a wealthy woman who retired to Florida, but instead of hitting the shopping malls, golf courses, or recreation areas, she established a ministry to the poor.  Why was she doing this, she was asked by the reporter.   “I not ready to sit down and worry.  There is something to do, and I can’t imagine someone not doing it.”   Again, the point is, that you don’t worry so much about yourself when you are busy helping others.   This is what Jesus means about getting ‘dressed for action’.   There is so much to do, and too little time to spend our days worrying about what we can’t do anything about.  We need to occupy ourselves; not only for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of others.  Every psychologist of counselor in the world will tell you that people deal best with their anxiety by think less about themselves and think more about others.  Get busy.  Take charge.  Go to work.  Be involved.  Find some way to give back and you will overcome all kinds of worries, fears, anxieties, doubts and apprehensions about life.

One of the reasons most adults survive without excessive anxiety is because they have so much to do—going to work, making a living, children to raise, mortgages and bills to pay.  The things we do keep us going and keep us from worrying too much.  But on the two edges of life, worry can build up fast.  Surprisingly, worry and anxiety can build up fast for young people who have too few emotional resources for dealing with their anxiety, or it can overcome those who have lived most of their lives and now worry because they are getting closer to the end.  How do young adults and senior adults best deal with their anxieties: Get dressed for action.  Do something.  Make a difference.  Go out and learn about the world and how you can make a difference; or actually get busy teaching, showing, giving back to others out of the experiences you have had.  A book aimed at high school and college youth says it all: “Just Do Something!”  One of the best ways to deal with your anxiety before it gets to you is to ‘do something’.  

“BE PREPARED FOR THE MASTER WHO IS COMING
The final word from Jesus is be ready.  As a metaphor of readiness, Jesus often uses the image of a bridegroom coming for the wedding feast.  He says we are to be like ‘bridesmaids’ having our lamps lit, being ready to open the door, and being prepared for the bridegroom, whether he comes day or night, even if he comes like a thief.  It’s hard for us moderns to get into this imagery today, but we do understand what it means to be ready, to get our hearts right, to make things right within ourselves and with others, and to prepare ourselves for the future, no matter what comes.

Maybe you heard in the news about the couple who were driving to a Dave Matthews concert in Hersey, PA, when they encountered a man on the road who had a bicycle with a flat-tire.  As they passed the fellow they looked into his face and both said to each other, "Hey, wasn't that Dave Matthews?"  They had to turn around and go back and see.   They did.  It was Dave Matthews, and if it had not been for the couple who passed by and stopped along the road to pick him up, there would have been no concert that night.  To reward the couple, Dave gave them backstage seats, and then took them out to dinner with the whole band.  Wow!  We never know who we might meet along the road.  It's always a good idea to 'stay ready'.

We all know that a day is coming that we all must prepare ourselves for.  We must be ready because it can come like a ‘thief in the night’.  Life is built on this constant unknown that it can be taken from us at any moment.   To ‘prepare’ ourselves for this uncertainty means that we should live each day, as if, it was our last.  That’s not an easy thing to do.   We get so involved and distracted by things.  But Jesus words remind us how important it is to keep our focus, not just on now, but the end that always comes.  It will come whether we are ready or not.  Jesus wants to remind his disciples that they should be ‘prepare’ and be ‘ready’.  The only promise he can make about the future is that the last moment will be ‘unexpected’.  If you are not ready, you will live with all kinds of fear and anxiety.  But if you prepare your heart, keep your soul in shape, and face each day with a prayer and with a heart that is open and ready for God’s will, you can overcome a truck load of fear.  Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

“God’s Portfolio”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 12: 13-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
August 4th, 2013

"Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one's life isn't determined by one's possessions, even when someone is very wealthy." (Luk 12:15 CEB)

As I write this sermon, someone has just one the powerball lottery jackpot of 490.5 Million dollars.  Now, before you get the wrong idea, I didn’t buy a single ticket.   It’s not because I couldn’t use the money.  But I don’t buy lottery tickets because the odds are against it.   I’m not a math major but my Father did show me how to count.  The odds are much better that I would be struck by lightning, or that lightning would strike in the same place, much like that Tornado did which hit Moore, Oklahoma back in May.  If you’re going to bet on something, bet on something like that.  The odds will be much more in your favor.

But most of us, being honest, could use more money. Or at least we think we would know how to use it.  But again, studies that have been done on lottery winners show otherwise.   They say that most people who win the lottery blow the money and end up worse off than before.   This reality is much the same as what Jesus is speaking of in today’s Bible text from Luke.  Jesus says that we should be careful when it comes to ‘greed’ or ‘wealth’ because ‘one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy” (Luke 12:15 CEB).  Wouldn’t we all like to gain enough wealth to prove Jesus wrong?  But I definitely wouldn’t bet on proving Jesus wrong.  You could end up as big a fool as the farmer in this story.

WEALTH CAUSES MIXED UP PRIORITIES
At the very beginning of this story we run straight into how dumb people can get with an encounter with a little ‘free’ money.   You’ve see television shows where money is thrown up into the air and everyone is scrambling to get a piece of it.  Throw out ‘free’ money and everybody goes crazy.  Much the same thing is going on here.   Somebody has died and left money to the sons without giving details about how it should be divided.  The law said that when there was no will, it all goes to the oldest son.  Evidently the oldest son didn’t think the younger sibling knew how to handle the money, so he hasn’t shared the wealth.  Now, when this younger sibling hears that Jesus, a moral teacher has come to town, he seeks out Jesus with this request:  “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  

It is interesting what people will bother Jesus with, but it is even more interesting what Jesus has no time for: stupid people; people who will sacrifice their families, their relationships or their lives for the sake of money and material wealth.  They go after it all and end up losing everything.  Jesus has no time for stupid people like this.  He has no time to help them deal with their intentional manipulation for their own advantage except to warn about what ‘greed’ or ‘hunger for money’ can do to the soul.   Wealth can cause us to get all our priorities mixed up.  It can turn our world upside down in the most negative way.  The hunger for wealth, money or luxuries, can cause even normally sane, good, Christian people to lose their way and get all their priorities mixed up.   If you don’t believe it, just let somebody dangle some ‘free’ money in front of you and see what happens next.  It can happen to any of us.

Can you think of someone whose life has been ruined by greed and ruthless gain?  Most all of us can, and the most notorious in our day is Bernie Madoff, who made off with all kinds of money that belonged to other people so he could build up his own wealth, even while he was lying about building up the wealth of others.  Bernie Madoff ruined his life, his marriage, caused one of sons to commit suicide, and estranged himself from his other son, and not only ruined his reputation and lost his freedom, but he took down the retirement accounts and financial security of many others in the process.  This is what greed can do to people.  This is what greed is doing to this great country as the rich get richer, the poor poorer, while the middle class vanishes.  This is part of why many people hate America, just as many admire us.  Some of those people who hate America are crazy, but others of them have every right.  There are all kinds of greedy people in this country who have gotten rich off of our freedoms and manipulate the goodness of our nation for their own selfish advantage which now threatens the liberty and justice of us all.    “Watch out!” says Jesus.  Greed does crazy things to people.  It can cause us to get our priorities all mixed up.   It can cause us to lose our liberties and our sense of justice.  In spite of what Wall Street says, Greed is not good, because it gets everything all our values mixed up and when that happens, it can destroy our lives and it can end up destroying us.

Tony Campolo, a Baptist pastor and professor from Philadelphia, remembers than in his childhood Halloween was designated as Mischief night.  On that night, neighborhood businesses would brace themselves for all kinds of petty “crimes” at the hands of youth.   Windows were soaped, air let out of tires, trees rolled with toilet paper.   Any annoying mischief an adolescent mind could think of was attempted.  Tony and his best friend devised a brilliant and creative plan.  They decided to break into the basement of a local five-and-dime.  They were not going to rob the place.  Sunday School boys would not do such a thing.  They decided to get into that five-and-dime and change, switch, or mix up the price tags on things.

What do you think it was like the next morning when people came into the store and found radios selling for .25 cents and bobby pins priced at five dollars?    In our world today, could you think about a candy bar costing $5,000 but a gold ring for only $.50.   What about the latest flat screen TV is selling for $1.99 and a can of soup sells for $2,000.   What about a gallon of gas costing as much as a gallon of milk.  Okay, we can all imagine that, because in the real world of inflation, values do change.  Back in 1987, while on a two-week mission trip to Brazil, we watch as a zero was added to the brazilian dollar.  Interestingly, that did make their money worth more, it made it worth less.   You got up one morning and only costs you 1 dollar the day before, now would cost you 10.  It can happen.  It does happen.  It will happen.  Even the book of Revelation pictured a horrible time of changing price tags and inflation, when a living creature cries out: “A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay (Rev 6:6 NRS).  Anyone who remembers buying at .25 cents a gallon and someone else pumping it for you, and you will have to pump yourself at $3.50 a gallon.   Yes, price tags can be switched, and they can change right under our noses.

This happens not only in economics, but it can happen in everything we value or, that is, no longer value.  People used to value not having any major debts, besides their home mortgage, but now the average person is $7,000.   There was a time when people put relationships first, valuing the small things, the things that you can’t buy or sell as the most important.   Some people’s cell phones outlast their marriages today.  And if you want to see how values change, even among Church people, watch how many fill up a sports arena or involve their children in sports, but the churches and children’s activities are in decline even as we speak.  People will value a fad that appears on the Internet, on YouTube for instance, that is only here today and is gone tomorrow, but they pay no attention or have little time or respect for families, churches, or building community, which made their lives possible to begin with.   The price tags have changed in today’s world, and as the Bible attests, ‘the root of all kinds of evil’ is money, that is, ‘greed’.

WEALTH CAN DEVALUE LIFE
Why is money or greed often at the middle of all kinds of ‘evil’, mixing up our values about everything else?
Many years ago, when I was learning the German language, I attended Goethe Institute in Iserlohn, in the western part of Germany.   It’s a very populated area where the Rheine and Rhur rivers come together as they head toward the North Sea.   I was supposed to pick an interesting topic and to interview people on the street.  This would help me develop my language skills.   I stopped one elderly lady.  She looked nice.  I asked her a question that was on my mine: What did you think about Hitler?  I thought that would be an easy question.  The woman turned to me and said,  “I think he was a wonderful leader and if he had won the war, the whole world would be better off!”  I was shocked.  I had to know more.  “What do you mean, lady?   How can you say that Hilter was good?   She answered:  “When Hilter was our leader everyone had a house, a car, an education and a job.  It was the best time of my life.  I wish he was still alive.  I wish things were now like they were for us back then.

Perhaps the worst thing greed does to people in general is that it causes us to devalue human life.  All the way back to Esau in the Old Testament, people have had this tendency to trade what they matters most for the promise a better mess of pottage.   This is what that elderly lady was doing (I need to remind you that most Germans don’t remember Hitler this way).    This is also what the young man who came to Jesus is about to do, as he risks the relationship with his family over the issue of inheritance money.   And this is also what the man is doing in the story Jesus tells about a man who values bigger and better over what matters most.  

In this story Jesus tells is about a successful farmer.  He is already rich and wealthy by most standards, but when an opportunity comes, he tries to get even richer.   Now most of us would not judge this farmer harshly.  He’s seems to be an opportunist.  He is doing what most people do.  He is taking a manageable risk.   He is trying to play the odds.  He is a good businessman just trying to improve his business.  He is trying to enlarge his port-folio and his farm, so what is wrong with that?   Martin Luther King Jr. posed the same kind of question in August, 1967, when he was preaching on this parable before a crowd at Mt Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago.   King preached about ‘why’ Jesus would call this man a fool.  He went on to ask his sermon ‘why Jesus would call anybody a fool?”  That’s not the way we like to think about or remember Jesus.   But he did.  Jesus named him a fool.  (http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/why_jesus_called_a_man_a_fool/.)

In his sermon, King first gives us some surprising reasons Jesus did not call this farmer a fool.  This farmer didn’t make his money dishonestly.   Also, there is nothing that indicates that Jesus called him a fool because he was rich or wealthy.  Jesus warned about the danger of riches, but he did never said having wealth was wrong.   It can be dangerous to your soul, but it’s not wrong.   There is nothing wrong with having a house, a car, nice clothes or a big bank account.   We need houses, cars, good clothes and some of us need a little bigger bank account.  We all know we need physical stuff to exist.  The problem in this parable, says Dr. King, was not that he had money, but this man failed to distinguish between what was necessary and what was not so necessary.    This man, says Dr. King, got the means mixed up with the end, and he made money and wealth the ‘end’ or goal of his life, instead of the means to live, and it ended up devaluing his life.    

With this explanation, Dr. King went on to tell a true story that had just happened.  He preached:  “The other day in Atlanta, the wife of a certain man had an automobile accident. He received a call that the accident had taken place on the expressway. The first question he asked when he received the call: "How much damage did it do to my Cadillac?" He never asked how his wife was doing.  He never asked whether anyone was hurt.  He only asked about his car.  Now that man was a fool, not because he had an automobile, but because he had allowed that automobile to become more significant than another human being.  He wasn’t a fool because he had a Cadillac, he was a fool because he worshiped that Cadillac.  He allowed his car to become more important than his wife or his God.

To keep the proper perspective on life, and to keep the right priorities and values in our lives--the very life God has given us as a gift, Scripture says that we must “seek first the kingdom of God, and then all of those other things—clothes, houses, cars—will be added unto us.”   But the problem is all too many people fail to put first things first.  They don’t keep a sharp line to distinguish between the things of life and the reason for life.  When we get our priorities mixed up we will end up devaluing everything that matters most in life.  We will end up not only devaluing others we should love the most, but we will end up devaluing our own life.

WORTH LESS THAN NOTHING
Because the man in the parable got his priorities mixed up, and because he put the values on the wrong things, this man ended up with less than nothing.  Ending up with nothing is bad enough, but this man ended up with less than nothing.   We read that all his barns were full.  He built bigger barns and filled all those up too.  He even said to himself he had all this ‘stored up’ many years to come.  He said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years.”  He had it made.  He could relax, “eat, drink and be merry.”  But there was only one problem.   The day he got his barns all filled up and sit down to relax, was the very day he died.   That kind of thing does happen.  My neighbor growing up, Roy Austin, worked hard all his life.  He was not a rich man.  He just worked hard every day.  I went to visit his wife many days, but Roy was never home.  He was always working.  Then the day came when day he retired.  He planned to set down and enjoy his retirement.  One of the first things I wanted to do was to go spend some time to get to know “uncle” Roy (He wasn’t my uncle, but we call every neighbor we liked our ‘uncle’.  I wanted to get to know Roy better, but the very same week he sit down to rest, he rested in peace.  Roy sat down and died.

The same kind of thing happened to the man in Jesus story.  He had worked hard and spent years and years of his life building everything up, but now he was going to die.   God was coming for his soul, the story goes.  Now, he would have to leave it all behind.  What would it matter?  Who would get to enjoy all his hard work?   He had stored all this ‘stuff’ on earth, but was not ‘rich toward God’! 

What do you think Jesus meant this: “He was not rich toward God?”   Do you think it could mean something like working all your life, spending all your time trying to get ahead,  keep up with the Joneses or beat the next guy, maybe becoming the wealthy person of means you’ve dreamed about, but then, God forbid, the worst thing happens.  You time comes.  Your number is up.  You die.  You have  a heart attack.  You get killed in a car crash.  A tornado another natural disaster and you end up not only losing what you have accumulated for yourself, but you can also loose the very things God wants you to have, now and forever. 

This is the kind of thing that almost happened to Bob Buford.  He was a successful business man.  Business was the how he spent all his time.  He didn’t have much time for family, friends, or God.  It was all about becoming the best and being a success.  And he built a massive TV cable company.  He was successful beyond his dreams.  But it all came crashing down when his young son accidently drowned in the Rio Grande river.   This rocked Bob’s world hard.   In fact, Bob says in his book “Halftime”, that it changed him from being a person only focused on success and riches, to being a person focused on significance and helping others.  It took the a terrible loss to teach Bob Buford how he should have been living all along.  He finally became the person who stopped living like a fool, and started living like he had some sense. 

This is why Jesus told this story to the young man who wanted Jesus to help him get part of his brother’s inheritance.   Jesus would not be manipulated to stoop and decide on such a short-sighted matter.   Jesus did not come to be a ‘judge’ about who gets to have money, but Jesus came to be the judge over what matters most---how we keep our values and life in perspective, whether we are wealthy or poor.   Jesus told this man not to become a ‘fool’ by worrying about all the wrong things.  Let me tell you what you should worry about.  For asking such a question:  God calls you a fool!

Mark Trotter says that God may be calling us a fool, and to help us, not to hurt us.  Any of us could hear the voice of God speaking to us right now.  He may not speak directly, but he will speak: maybe like a he spoke to me through that man in Olklahoma who opened his door after the Tornado destroyed his home and 13,000 others, saying “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away!”  Or maybe God speaks through the voice of your banker, your teacher, or God will speak through the voice of a doctor who tells you what you thought you would never, ever hear.   Trotter said God recently spoke to a man in Chicago.   The man was just twenty-nine years old. It was in the newspaper some time ago. He was married, and had three kids. All three kids were under five years of age. He is an attorney in Illinois. One day he woke up with a headache. As the day went on, it got more painful. Then he had difficulty seeing. Then he had difficulty walking. He went to the doctor. The doctor said, "You have a brain tumor that will require special surgery right away. If you survive the surgery, then there could be a critical time of recovery for about a year. If you survive that, then each year after that you can be more assured of a full recovery." He made it through the surgery. He made it through that first year. Then he had this interview. A reporter asked him, "Have you learned anything through this?" He said, "Your life is on loan." (From a sermon by Mark Trotter entitled, “A Fool and His Money” at www.sermons.com).

“Our lives are on loan.”  This could me the most important “banking” information you’ll ever need to have to invest your your life in a way that you end up with a life that is worth more than nothing.   Amen!