Monday, August 2, 2010

Keeping our feet on the ground while our heads are in the clouds

Scripture Texts for August 1st, 2010.

Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21


Sam was walking through his village when he came across a large crowd. He was in a hurry to get home, but it seemed every which way he turned the crowd blocked his path. Curious as to why a crowd was gathered in this normally sleepy village, he asked a woman on the outskirts what all the commotion was about.

She replied- “I heard that there is a famous preacher in town. He and his followers are known for their generosity, wisdom and healing powers. I’m trying to get close enough to hear him speak.”

Sam grew excited by the news. What fortune for him to have stumbled across such an important man! He began to push his way through the crowd to get to the front. As he was pushing, he heard people in the crowd discussing what the man had said.

One woman excitedly proclaimed- “He has revealed to us the secret of prayer. He has taught us how we are to pray to our God, and explained that if we are persistent, God will answer.” Sam knew he must obtain this knowledge. He pushed further.

A man excitedly yelled- “Did you see that? Ever since I was born, I haven’t been able to speak. I have struggled my whole life, always misunderstood and unable to communicate my feelings. This Jesus healed me. I know the religious authorities think he is from the devil, but I am proof that he is from God.” Sam grew even more excited. Surely this Jesus was a powerful man sent directly from God. I must get to the front of the crowd.

Sam pushed and shoved, no one could slow him down. He stepped over a child who had fallen; he scratched and clawed his away through a crowd that just would not give way. Though he couldn’t see Jesus, he was finally close enough to hear him.

“"I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God's love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.” Sam laughed aloud. He had never heard the Pharisees spoken to in that way. He had little use for religion and thus was happy someone had finally told off these sanctimonious leaders.

Sam had finally pushed is way to the front of the crowd. He saw that Jesus’ followers were becoming frightened by the threats of the Pharisees. Jesus responded by saying- “Do not be afraid. When they drag you into their meeting places, or into police courts and before judges, don't worry about defending yourselves—what you'll say or how you'll say it. The right words will be there. The Holy Spirit will give you the right words when the time comes."

The crowd roared. The tension had built to a crescendo. Jesus had revealed that God would come down to earth and help all those that followed him. God’s spirit would be upon them and God would be with them. They were elated by the news; no longer afraid.

Suddenly, Sam cried out. “Everyone be quiet! Shut up! Jesus, you must listen to me. I want your advice. Tell everyone to be quiet.” The Pharisees, the disciples, the crowd all looked aghast at the Sam. He continued- “My brother took something and I want it back.”

Really. Are you kidding me? He sees Jesus heal; sees him cast out demons; he knows he is of God, and he hears the news that God’s Spirit is coming to be amongst them, and when Sam gets the attention, he whines about some family dispute. How incredible! How strange! How….selfish.

The parable of the rich fool is likely one we are all familiar with. We know the story of the man who selfishly stores up his riches only to die. It is an important story about hoarding money and was one of John Wesley’s favorites. It indeed is a scathing parable that should cause us all to consider how we use our money. But, I think sometimes we skip right over the man, the one I’ve called Sam, who is the occasion for the story. The man asks about a dispute regarding inheritance. Now, based on the context, most scholars will tell you that the brother requesting the division of the inheritance would be seen as greedy - the brother would be trying acquire for his own personal possession a share of the family inheritance.” 1 So, not only is Sam interrupting this important speech by Jesus and insisting on attention to his personal matter, he’s trying to get Jesus to help him cheat.

So, if you stumbled face to face with Jesus today, would you do better? I certainly hope so. I do think so. But sometimes I wonder. Perhaps Sam didn’t quite know what was going on. He may have heard Jesus, he may have seen what Jesus was doing, but perhaps he was so caught up in the day-to-day aspects of his life that it just went over his head. Maybe he didn’t quite grasp the gravity of what was going on; maybe he didn’t quite get whom Jesus was. Now, if we consider the situation in that light, I’m afraid I might not do so well.

You see, all too often I think we get caught up in the individual things that are going on in our lives and we fail to see the bigger picture. We rush to meet all our obligations, we worry about the bills we have to pay (often for the purchase of things we don’t really need), we get wrapped up in the minor details of everyday life. None of these things are wrong individually. But there is also something seductive about them. When we rush through life preoccupied with our own interests, the world around us can become a blur.

You see, the story from Luke today is about greed, but it’s not just about greed. It’s also about selfishness. Its about getting so caught up in the daily petty disputes that you can fail to see the ways in which God maybe working all around you. And often, it can be about making decisions with only your interests in mind, and not that of the wider community.

I think we can see this happening in many places in our country. All too often we see it in our political discourse. Whenever the subject of taxes, health care, immigration, frankly any subject, comes up, the discourse seems to revolve around what am I going to get out of it. How will I be affected? Or, we practice a form of tribalism where we think only in terms of our nations interests. The question is not what serves the interests of all people, but how can my nation remain on top and in power.

We as Christians have to do better. We have got to figure out ways in which we can make decisions about important matters in our country while moving beyond personal or even at times national self interest.

Of course, we are not unique in this struggle. The people of Corinth struggled also. Even though they were new Christians excited by the prospect of following Jesus Christ, they found it difficult to maintain the enthusiasm and drive that they had first had. Where at the beginning they may have been focused on their new lives and identities, they quickly became mired in fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. All of these began to affect the community and drag them away from the good work. The community, which had been strong, began to dissolve as fights broke out about different understandings of God. In the words of Paul, their minds began to be set on earthly things instead of heavenly things. He urged them to return their focus to the heavens.

I’ll admit that I struggle with how to balance this at times. I certainly understand Paul’s admonition against concentrating on earthly things. But, I’ve also seen distortion occur by those who purport to only focus on heavenly things. There are some, while sincere in their beliefs and worship of God, who seem bent on escaping the world. Instead of focusing on how they can change the world in the present to benefit all of God’s creation, they withdrawal and yearn for they day in which they can be removed from it all. In a way, this can be just as selfish as the man who stored all his grains in the barn. The focus is not on being generous and loving to one’s neighbor; it’s on their own personal assurance of securing their future in the life to come. There must be some middle ground. To turn a phrase, there must be a way to keep one’s head in the clouds while also keeping one’s feet on the ground.

How many of you have ever used a compus? It can be invaluable if you are trying to find your way through the woods. Since the compus always knows the way north, it can help you make your way though the wilderness even when you can’t see very far in front of you. It doesn’t matter how hot, cold, or difficult the terrain; it is independent of your present condition and always continues to point the same way. But, simply following the compus with no regards to your surroundings is bound to get you hurt. Hiking through the woods you will always encounter obstacles. You may find a raging river in your path; a cliff that you cannot climb down; a patch of briars that will tear up your skin. Thus, despite the fact that the compus points the general direction, you must adapt to your surroundings if you are to find the true path to lead you out of harms way.

So, what is our compus in Christianity? We as Methodists have declared that we essentially have four cardinal directions that help us to navigate our faith. First and foremost, our true north if you will, is scripture. It is in scripture that we learn of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the unyielding nature of God’s love for creation, and the stunning news that the Kingdom of God is bursting forth hear on this earth. Despite its primacy, though, we have wisely noted that there are three other points of direction that help to lead us in our decision-making. The second is tradition- our ancestors sought out the will of God in their lives also- we are foolish if we assume they can provide us no guidance. The third- reason. God has created us with minds that help us to sort through the probabilities and determine what is the most logical course of action. We fail to use our God-given gifts if we fail to use reason. Lastly, experience. We all have witnessed a great variety of things that has taught us the ways of God in the world. We only truly know hunger if we have ourselves been hungry or have witnessed people starve. We know God not simply because of doctrine, but because we have experienced God’s presence in our lives.

These four points can help to guide us on our way. When we use them, we’ll gain a wider perspective on life. It won’t simply be about my personal self-interest, but we might actively seek the wider work of God in all of creation. It is then when we may be stripped of our old selves- the pettiness, the narrowness, the judgment, the selfishness- and may instead be renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator. We may become the people we were created to be. May we seek out the way.

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