Monday, September 26, 2011

Passing the Test

Scripture Texts for Sunday, September 25th:

Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32


When is the last time you were given a pop quiz?

A completely unexpected test to determine what you know, or who you are, or what your values are?

Aren’t surprise tests terrible? Actually, why stop with a surprise. I don’t know anyone who likes to be tested, surprise or not. A friend of mine told me recently about her terrible experience of spending months reading and studying and cramming her head with information so that she might be able to let loose all that knowledge on the one day in which she had to take a bar exam. I like to see the good in everything, but when it comes to tests, I think they are just plain evil.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see Jesus and the temple authorities engaged in a series of dueling pop quizzes. It doesn’t take long to see that the chief priests and elders have a singular motivation behind their questions to Jesus- they hope to trip him up; discredit him; to make a fool of him so that he might go away. But, if there is one thing we know about our savior, its that he always manages to reverse human expectations so that we can experience the last truly coming in first. And so Jesus turns the situation around and asks his own gotcha question- a question that puts the authorities in such a bind that they have to abandon their entire plan so they might retreat and regroup. When they are on the receiving end of a searing, off putting question, they do what we humans always do- they try to squirm their way out of it! They pull the Pharisee equivalent of –“Gotta go, I think my mom’s calling!”

So, if we can draw one thing from the Gospel lesson, its that tests can be used in all kinds of nefarious ways to trip people up. But when we turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we find what on the surface might be the announcement of the single largest test we could ever take- Phillipians 2:12 reads-
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”
Wait, is this an essay question?

I didn’t see this on the syllabus!

Did you get the company memo?

Since when are our performance reviews based on this?

Someone call the union- I thought my contract said that salvation was a gift, not something I had to work out. There must have been some kind of fine print on the contract- darn those lawyers!

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling? What on earth can Paul mean here. In theological circles, I though it was James who seemed to emphasize that we are saved by our works, not Paul! Is our salvation really a product of things we do; or of finding and being able to spit out a really good answer to some test at the pearly gates?

First, let’s affirm that salvation is indeed a gift of God. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley- explained it in this way: Long before we were ever conscious of God, God was working in our lives. That is what we recognize at baptism- that God is already at work in a little child even though that child has no way of understanding God or describing God. In fact, if we read Paul a bit further, he says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you” And so, it is God that acts first (we call this prevenient grace), and it is through that grace that we might respond.

But, isn’t that still kind of scary? Well, yes, it is. If we have some input here, if we have free will, we do have some responsibility. That can be scary. But let me mitigate some of that fear- when we talk salvation, I think we tend to immediately think we are talking about heaven and hell. Now of course, the state of our eternal souls is part of this concept of salvation. However, if we affirm that God is good and faithful, and acknowledge that our understanding of the next life is limited while God’s knowledge is vast, we can trust that the God who is faithful in this life will take care of us in the next.

But salvation is about far, far more than heaven and hell. It is about something far more important then what might happen in the future- its about what is going on in your life now! Salvation is actually a much bigger concept than I think we realize. As always, when we translate Greek into English, we can lose things. The Greek word that is often translated as salvation is “soteria.” Though we translate it as saves, it can also be translated as to heal, to preserve, or to make whole.

I think that last translation of soteria- to make whole- is the crucial one. At some deep level, I think we all recognize that we are imperfect, incomplete people. We recognize that there is something missing in our lives. For some of us, that might be love. For others, its the need for some deep scar to be healed. For even others, its a struggle with addition to alcohol, drugs, pornography, greed, or any other sin we might name. Salvation is God’s way of helping us to fill in that gap in our lives so that we might indeed overcome the many hurts that eat away at our soul. Though Jesus Christ is the one who makes each and every one of us whole, the nature of that hole in our life varies according to the individual. In fact, in his notes on this passage, John Wesley comments that working out our own salvation is about letting each individual aim at their own things. In other words, we have to concentrate and work out our own salvation because what we need God to save us from is unique to each and every one of us. The nature of someone else’s salvation will necessarily look and feel different.

Confronting those holes in our lives, though, is a terrifying process. Indeed, in that sense, let us affirm the truth that confronting those imperfections, that sin, that emptiness that we try to keep under wraps, will always be done with fear and trembling.

I don’t believe in asking you to do anything that I won’t do. So before I ask you to confront your own salvation with fear and trembling, let me share with you a bit of testimony about the frightening way that I continue to ask God to help me work on mine. I’ve stated before that prayer is at times a struggle for me. But I’m not sure that I have always said why. I tend to be someone who operates out of my head. When confronted with a situation, my tendency is to analyze and try to respond logically to the problem at hand rather than responding emotionally. Thus, when someone approaches me with a crisis, in my mind I go into problem solving mode and think about how I can best help, rather than immediately respond emotionally to the person in crisis. Others would probably tend to the emotional needs first and problem solve later. One response is probably not fundamentally superior to the other so long as eventually, both needs are met.
The problem I often struggle with is that I get stuck in my head. I continue to respond to things logically because I’m not always sure how to respond to them emotionally. Part of this is just how God created me- God creates each one of us with strengths and weaknesses- this is part of the uniqueness of who we are. But when we can’t balance our dominant side with our shadow side, it can create a hole in our lives that is difficult to fill. For me, it can translate into a failure to develop authentic, emotionally engaged relationships.

Where this connects to prayer is that at a fundamental level, prayer is about relationship with God. It is less a logical connection than an emotional one. Through work with a spiritual director and several close friends, I have come to see that my problem with relationships in general leads to a problematic relationship with God. I have trouble loving and accepting God’s love, because I struggle with accepting and giving love in many aspects of my life. Again, through the work I’ve been doing on this issue, I’ve discovered that at the heart of this issue is a fear of being hurt; of being rejected; a fear of giving love without ever receiving it. Since this is my fear, opening myself up to that process of risking love, and there for risking rejection, is something that I indeed approach with fear and trembling.
That is, in part, the shape of the hole that is often persistent in my life. That is the salvation that God is indeed helping me to work out. Though it may always be a bit of a struggle for me, the spiritual direction I have received and the healing that God continues in my life has allowed me to see signs of a continued journey toward wholeness on this issue.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, what is the hole in your life?

Where is the place that God needs to bring healing?

What wounds are in need of healing?

What addiction must be tamed?

Our Lord Jesus Christ loves us enough to guide us and to be with us as we confront the issues that tear at our souls. Our creator God knows us intimately in all our glories and flaws, and divine grace enfolds us so that we might be steady as we confront the terror that is the empty spots in our lives. Know this my friends, should we be willing to confront our brokenness, should we seek God to bring us wholeness by helping us to fill the holes in our own lives, we can be assured that God will be present, and God will pass the test. Amen.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Brookside Center needs your help

Some of you may know that I regularly volunteer at the Brookside Center.  The Brookside Center is primarily a food center that serves hundreds of families each month on the westside of Cleveland and in our southwestern suburbs of Parma, Independence, and Seven Hills amongst others.

Last Friday, I went down into the basement storage area and was amazed what I found:

Virtually nothing!  When I was in this basement last spring, all of the pallets were filled with food.  Now they have almost nothing.  And this was even after they received their usual Friday delivery from the Cleveland Food Bank!

When I asked Cathy (the staffer who orders food) about the scarcity, she indicated that food was just getting more and more expensive and that resources are tight.  While they have not yet had to turn people away, I worry how much longer they can keep this up.

Thus, I'm asking for your help!  The Brookside Center is one of the vital safety nets that helps to keep the most vulnerable people in our neighborhoods from starving.  Though Brookside will accept all forms of non-perishable foods, they are completely out of canned fruit and also are in desperate need for one-dish meals.  The Brookside Center is located at 3784 Pearl Rd. Cleveland.  They receive donations Monday-Friday between 8:30-3:00 (come before 2:00 if you need help carrying them in).  If these hours don't work and you can get the items to the church office (216-524-6054), we will make sure they get to the right place.  You can also send checks payable to WSEM-Brookside to the above address.

The prophet Isaiah declared that God desires you to 
"share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?...If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday." (Isaiah 58: 7, 10)
May we respond generously to God's call.

Pastor Jared

Monday, September 19, 2011

How much is enough?

Scripture Texts for Sunday, September 18th:

I love the stories of the Israelites wandering through the desert.  Though some of the stories are hard to believe at times and I don’t know if things happened exactly as they were recorded, I think that there is tremendous truth in the stories.  The motif of wandering through the desert is so apt I think for our modern day spiritual lives.  We feel like we are headed toward some promised thing, something we can’t envision; something that we have never seen but that we believe is beautiful beyond belief; some place we earnestly desire to be but haven’t a clue how to get there.  Is it just me, or do you all find some affinity with the idea that we are wandering through some spiritual desert?
Even better, I think, is the particular wilderness they are wandering through in this story.  Did anyone catch the name?  Sin!  Yes, they are wandering through the desert of Sin, seeking earnestly to follow God but not quite sure where to go.  That’s such an amazing image.  It certainly describes my life!!!!  Even in the midst of the wilderness of Sin, God is still there, still seeking to guide us, still seeking to form us.  In fact, I would argue that it is only through the wilderness of sin that we can become spiritual mature, strengthened to follow God into the promised land that has been proclaimed.  Remember, before Jesus even began his ministry, he spent 40 days wandering in the desert being tempted by Satan.  It is only after having experienced that hunger, thirst, and temptation, that Jesus is ready to begin his ministry.
Of all the desert stories, I think the story of God providing manna in the wilderness is among my favorites.  When we enter into the story, the Israelites realize they have a real problem here.  They have been in the desert for about a month and a half.  They took many provisions with them out of Egypt, but by now their shelves have to be getting pretty bare.  Even worse, they seem to be still wandering!  When they left Egypt, surely they thought it wouldn’t take so long to get to the promised land.  I mean, has any one seen a map of the middle East?  Isn’t Israel right next to Egypt?  Even on foot, I would have thought they’d be there by now.  I guess Moses didn’t have a Garmen.
Anyway, they are wandering in the desert of Sin and they are low on food and water.  So, they begin to complain.  “Hey Moses!  How is this plan working out?  Your promised us freedom, you are giving us death!”  
You have to picture this.  God, through Moses, has just freed the people from 400 years of slavery.  So, they are freed from the Egyptians, the Red Sea has been split, the world’s most powerful army defeated, they are led by a pillar of flame and a cloud of smoke, and yet they still complain that God doesn’t provide enough for them and doesn’t care!  It is literally at the end of chapter 15 when they are saved.  So they made it all the way to chapter 16 before complaining again.
Can you believe the nerve of these people?
Well, yea, duh.  Of course we can believe them, because we are them!  We live in such a prosperous society.  Compared to many people in the world, compared to people throughout the history of the world, we are near the top of the charts in wealth, food, technology, travel, etc.  You would think with the vast abundance and wealth that we have, that we would be tremendously grateful!  And yet, do we exhibit this as a society?  As a people?  Are we as Americans, or we as Christians, known as the most grateful people on earth?  I don’t think so.  Why not?  Let’s hold off on that question and get back to the story.
So, despite all that God has done, the people are grumbling and complaining.  Let’s be honest here-  we would be doing the same thing.  And they do have a real problem-  they face the acute prospect of starving to death in the wilderness.  Here is where God’s unbelievable grace comes in.  
The amazing, stunning thing in this story, is that despite the people’s grumbling, despite their lack of faith, despite their outright rejection of God, God provides.  Their divine liberator does not respond by striking them down, by abandoning them, by doing what might have seemed most natural for a god to do.  I mean, come on, if you were this very powerful being, how long would you put up with these peons?
God is literally giving them bread from heaven.  Even better than that, God provides a mandatory vacation day.  He enforces it by giving more than enough on the 6th day, and making the manna last an extra day, just because he cares so much about them that he wants to give them rest.  Imagine that, a God who leads them out of slavery, who provides food free of charge, and who even gives them paid vacation!  God’s one heck of a boss (or Moses is a really good union negotiator). Money is literally growing on trees here.  And so, when God says, I’m going to give you all this stuff out of thin air, but I need to put a few conditions on it, you’d think the people would be ok with that.  And yet,  the story ends with Moses being upset that the people have broken the few little rules that were set.
So, what was the condition that Moses announced? 
“Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ (Exo 16:16-19, NRSV)
So, no matter what they gathered, they always had just enough.  And the one real condition seems to be that they shouldn’t try to keep their leftovers.  I mean, is that so hard?  And yet, scripture tells us that “they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.”
So, first let’s start, why would God put conditions on this bread?  Why produce something that spoils overnight?  Is God anti-leftover?  Did I miss the thou shalt not doggie bag commandment?
In verse 4, God says that he has put conditions as a test to see whether the people will follow his instructions or not.  So is this just some arbitrary test to see if people will comply?  I don’t think so.  I think God is concerned about a couple things.  God wants to make sure that they eat enough.  If they can store things away, they might be tempted to refrain from eating all they needed so that they can save it for a rainy day.  I think its also to prevent the problem of relative greed.  If the Jones’ begin to store up their manna, they become relatively more wealthy and disrupt this fragile society.  Finally, I think God wanted them to learn to trust.  When they emerged from the desert, they would experience tremendous wealth.  Could they learn to continue to be obedient, even when they had the means to disobey?
This is what I love most about the story-  what happens when they try to sock some away, in direct defiance of what God asked?  God does not strike them down for being insolent, instead the natural consequences of their own action to allowed to take place.  The food that they squirreled away, either because they were cheap, or because they were greedy, or they didn’t trust God, spoiled and became wormy.
What would our reaction to this be?  It would be do apply some American ingenuity, and to figure out how to preserve the manna, rather than accept that it is a fleeting thing that we only need so much of.  We would figure out a way to stockpile, to hoard, so that we wouldn’t have to be reliant on God.  I mean, isn’t that the absolute worst condition, to be reliant on someone else?
We operate and live sometimes like there is never enough.  Despite our relative affluence as a nation, we live in constant fear that there isn’t enough to go around or that others are getting something that they don’t really deserve.  If we thought we truly were overflowing with abundance, would we be so concerned about whether people deserve our help?  It is scarcity speaking when we worry whether someone deserves food stamps, deserves adequate shelter, deserves meaningful employment or meaningful pay.
I don’t think God is going to strike us down because of this propensity toward scarcity.  But, just like with the manna, I think there are some natural consequences coming from our desire to hold on tight to our possessions.  Just as the manna rotted, bread worms and became foul, I think our souls can do the same thing when left with unchecked wealth.  
In an article discussing “What not to do when inheriting wealth,” an financial advisor at ePricefinancial advised that “Inheriting wealth is not all that it’s cracked up to be.”  In fact, he advised that upon receiving inherited wealth, most people experience the following-  grief, guilt, anger, inadequacy, and conflict with their spouse in family.  Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  In talking specifically about anger, the writer comments that
 “anger can arise when someone doesn’t receive as much as they thought they would or that they thought they deserved. They may feel there is an unequal or inequitable distribution among multiple heirs, including siblings. Heirs sometimes measure the benefactor’s love by the size of the inheritance. Ironically, some heirs get angry because they received more than they thought they would, thus questioning why they had to live a financially “deprived” life all these years.”
Measuring their loved one based on the size of their inheritance?  What an awful prospect.  And yet, I can see how it comes to that.  The gift of wealth becomes a curse.  It eats at the soul of the individual and gnaws away at the bonds of family.
Don’t we see this in life?  We could all name our favorite celebrity or rich child whose wealthy life has been the seeds of their destruction.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, for one, acknowledged this problem and said he would not leave his $1.5 billion dollar estate to his children.  “I will give them a start in life but they ain’t going to end up owning [my company].'Instead of funding the high life for his children, Lloyd-Webber wants to put his millions back into the community to help struggling singers and composers.
And thus, the curse becomes a blessing.  Now, there are some who can argue that this type of charity, or welfare or other public aide has the same type of problems associated with it-  money given without necessarily being earned.  I will grant that there are certain risks here.  But note, when the Israelites were faced with starvation in the desert, our God wisely and compassionately fed them rather than insisted they learn their own way.  In some ways, the people were right to tell God you got us into this, help us out.  
Though I would never argue that the poor are all helpless victims that need out pity, the picture we have of the poor as simply being lazy or refusing to work is just as problematic. The reality is that so many people are poor because they are born into poverty.  Is it there fault they were born in a particular neighborhood, under particular circumstances?  Is it their fault they were born black when society had laws and strong social preferences for people born white?  Is it their fault they developed disabilities or medical conditions that prevented them from engaging in useful labor?  Is it this child’s fault that he identifies as gay and thus is turned out on the streets by his parents?
There is a famous statement that says-  Morality begins at 1,500 calories a day.  In other words, if someone can’t get enough food to sustain life, we can hardly expect them to make morally sound choices about how to survive.   God recognizes this- and provides the basics.  And God warns against the rot that happens when people take more than they need.
So, How much is enough?  Let’s acknowledge there are some that do not have enough.  Let us follow our God in seeking to provide sustenance to those who are starving in the desert.  We must of course provide charity, but we also need to work on empowerment programs; need to provide individuals better access to schools and the means to empower themselves.  We need to attack those systems that hold people back from getting enough.
But here’s the flipside to “How much is enough?”-  Too much corrupts us. It poisons our soul.  Too much can be the answer to providing others enough, or it can be the very thing that eats away at our soul.  I don’t think its a coincidence that the church is growing in areas we might call the third world while it declines here.  Let us regain the sense of just how blessed we are.  Let us become grateful for the manna provided.  Let us restore our trust in God so that we might see the true state of the world-  not one of scarcity, but one in which God’s abundance overflows.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Living with an Open Heart

Scripture Texts for Sunday, September 11th

Genesis 27, 33:1-11
Matthew 18:21-35


Once upon a time there were two twin brothers.  Though the boys were twins, as they grew up, they became quite different.  Hairy, the elder brother by a few minutes,  was the king of the outdoors-  he became an expert hunter- nothing could escape his shot.  Heel, however, was a much quieter man and mostly stayed amongst the women in the tents.  
Heel had always been mad that just because his brother had beat him into the world by a few seconds, Hairy would become the head of the family, inherit the bulk of the property and would run the family business.  Thus, he always sought a way to turn the tables on his brother and cheat him out of his inheritance.
Many years later, Hairy and Heel’s father grew old and weak.  On his death bed, Father asked Hairy to go out on one last hunt so that he could eat his favorite meal before he was to die.  Hairy, being the good son, of course rushed right out to fulfill his father’s dying wish.  However, Heel heard that his father was on death’s door step.  Seeing an opportunity to steal his brother’s inheritance once and for all, Heel waited until his brother had left camp.  Knowing his father was blind and addled, Heel proceeded to dress up like his brother Hairy and slipped into his father’s room.
Heel, doing his best impression of Hairy, whispered “Father?”
“Who is it?  Is it Heel or Hairy?”
“Why, its Hairy” Heel said.  I’ve brought you your final meal.  Oh, and I brought the contract signing everything over to me.  Come eat, and give me what is mine.
Father hesitated for a moment.  This didn’t seem like Hairy.  “Are you sure you are Hairy?”  
“Yes, of course father.  Can’t you smell how good this food is?  Surely you are hungry!”
The smell of the food overwhelmed Father’s suspicions and he ate his final meal.  When Heel gave him the contract turning over the family property, Father signed the deed thinking he was doing the right thing.  Heel, with the legal document in hand, slipped out to celebrate his victory.
Meanwhile, Hairy returned home after a successful hunt.  He prepared the game just like his father always loved. He loved his father dearly and knew this would be the last gift he could give.  He was determined that this last meal would be everything his father desired.  After lovingly preparing it, he went to his father’s tent.  
“Dad-  its your firstborn Hairy-  I’ve brought you your meal.”
Father’s eyes snapped open, and he began to shake in rage.  “But, if you are my son Hairy, who was it that I just blessed and gave everything I own to?”
Realization suddenly washed over Hairy.    He knew his brother was treacherous, but, could he really have gone this far?  Did Heel really steel from his father, and from his family, on his dad’s death bed?
“Dad-  isn’t there anything you can do?”
“No, son.  The contract I signed if legal.  Your brother has taken everything.  He is your master then.  If you want to stay with the family, you will have to be his servant.  It will be a hard life-  your brother may treat your cruelly.  But I cannot give you what I don’t have.”
Hairy collapsed in grief and anger.  How could his own brother have done this to him?  He would stay to mourn his dad’s death, but when the opportunity presented himself, he  would strike and kill his evil, treacherous brother.
Now, raise your hand if you have heard that story before?  I’ve taken it directly from scripture and have only adapted it lightly for understanding.  So that we could hear it with new ears, I used the English translations of the brothers’ names, but I bet there is at least a few hear who remember their names in Hebrew.  Can anyone name these brothers?
Yes, Esau (the elder brother) and Jacob (the younger).  I wanted to retell this story because I think we sometimes miss the profound immoral and evil actions that take place.  Because scripture follows the life of Jacob, we tend to see things from his perspective and assume he is the hero in every story.  But clearly, Jacob is the villain in this story.  He cheats, steals, and deceives his own father on his death bed.  Esau loves his father but gets all that he is owed stolen away from him.  
So, the story leaves off with Esau having lost his father, his home, his livelihood, and, in essence, his family.  Put yourselves in his shoes-  how do you feel?  What do you want to do?
Being bitter, seeking revenge, avenging the wrongs done to you-  this seems like the most natural response, right?  I bet every one of us here can describe a time in our lives in which we were tremendously wronged.  We may still be holding considerable anger and bitterness.  And really, who can blame you-  anger and bitterness often serve as a kind of protective shield- keeping you (in theory) from being hurt in the same way again.  We close our hearts off so that no one can tear them apart again.
Today, September 11th 2011, we commemorate a day that was marked by extraordinarily evil acts.  In addition to grief, I think anger and bitterness describe well the dominant emotions felt toward those who had committed, planed, or participated in the act.
It is in such a context that I think we should find today’s lectionary text (Matthew 18:21-35) shocking, perhaps some might even say, offensive.  When Peter asks, Jesus says that we must forgive essentially an unlimited amount of time.  And to make it worse, in the parable that Jesus tells, he indicates that if we don’t forgive, it is us who will be tortured.  Jesus makes no mention of the one who has committed the initial wrong.
By all worldly measures, Jesus seems to be pronouncing something that is fundamentally unjust.  As I was preparing for this week, I was particularly struck that the master in the story turned the person over to be tortured until the debt was paid.  In my notes for this week, I wrote the question-  “Should we interpret this to mean if we don’t forgive, we are going to hell?”  I mean, if this is the pronouncement of a good god, I hate to see what a bad one might say.  
However, further prayer and consideration led me in a different direction.  The torture of the man is directly related to his failure to forgive.  If we try and reconcile this with our view of a loving God, perhaps the torture associated with failing to forgive isn’t hell or something in the next life at all.  Perhaps it is the very real hell in this life that hanging on to that anger and bitterness can evoke.
Have you ever come into contact with someone who is tremendously bitter about something unjust that has happened in their life?  Think of Esau...can you imagine him after the dealings with his brother?  Wouldn’t the natural thing be to grow suspicious of the world, to turn inward, to harden one’s heart against the cruel, cruel world?
This is certainly what Jacob assumes happens.  When later in life he finds that he must cross paths with his brother, he fears for his life.  He fears the confrontation between himself and the man he so throughly wrongs.  Jacob sends gifts and sweet words ahead of him, but who can really expect that to be enough for the man he stole everything from?
A funny thing happens however.  When Jacob meets Esau, he does not find a tortured man.  He does not find a man crippled by his anger and bitterness.  Instead, Esau runs up to his brother, holds him tight, and kisses him.
What an unnatural story!  If we submitted this script as a movie, it would be rejected as too unbelievable-  who could relate?  
Somehow, despite everything, Esau has not collapsed beneath his own anger.  Somehow, Esau has managed to live with an open heart.
So, it is possible that we could do so also?  I am confident everyone here has been grievously wounded by someone else at one time or another.  And certainly, all those over 10 have experienced the collective affront that was the 9/11 attacks.  In response to those attacks, we certainly expressed outrage and anger.  Ten years out, I still think we as a whole continue to carry the bitterness caused by the attacks with us.  I think this has plagued us and has rocked our own faith.  It is only through the angle of bitterness that I can understand how studies show that if a person in the US professes faith in Jesus Christ, they are more likely to be in favor of torture.  How Christ can correlate with torture, absent our bitter anger, I do not know?  Furthermore, our bitterness has lead us to see our Muslim brothers and sisters not as neighbors, but as the enemy.  We have in essence considered them our modern day Samaritans: a despised religious minority in our midst whom we want to have little contact with.
Is it possible, in the face of such bitterness, and in response to such a horrific attack, for us to learn to live with open hearts?
If we are to begin, we must first Acknowledge our anger- then pray for the ability to release it.  In the case of Esau, he would have been within his rights to continue to stoke his anger.  But then, rather then being able to develop his own family and set out on his own life, he would have been forever trapped by the wrong committed against him.  Releasing his anger and coming to forgive his brother was far more about his own ability to live then it was about Jacob’s need for forgiveness.
Admit our own sin.   In the parable, the servant seems to forget he ran up his own debt.  It is rare that when an offense is committed, that the blame rest entirely on one side.  When I would get in a dispute with my brother or sister, my mother would have this nasty process for resolving it.  Even if I was 99% right in the argument, she’d still make me admit the 1% I was wrong.  Confronting our own culpability humbles us and prepares us to forgive the other.
Admit our own forgiveness.  The servant chooses to ignore that he himself was forgiven.  We believe in a God of whom we, or people like us, crucified.  And yet, God used the crucifixion of Jesus to forgive us all.  If God can forgive us the murder of the Messiah, surely we have room to be open to forgiving others.
Forgiveness is not an easy thing.  Reconciliation may not always be possible, but I think we always have to remain open to and strive toward forgiving those who have wronged us.  Not so much because they need it, but because we do.  If we choose to remain mired in our bitterness and despair, we choose a tortured existence that may well be worse then the initial offense.  Let us pray that through the example and aide of our forgiving God, we may, like Esau, learn to live with open hearts.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Claiming All Things for God: Prayer, Discernment and Ritual for Social Change

As fall is arriving, it is time to start back our ““Reading with the Pastor”” series. Each month, I pick a book (that is new to me) to read together to learn more about our faith. We then meet after the end of the month to discuss our reactions to the book. For the month of September, I have selected the book ““Claiming All Things for God: Prayer, Discernment and Ritual for Social Change.”” Especially in light of the studies we have been doing this summer through our Social Issue Forums, I think this book will help us to connect a sense of spirituality with a quest for justice. We will meet on Thursday, October 20th at 7:00 pm to reflect on the book.
“As a Christian social activist, George McClain found himself yearning for a sense of integration between his active life and his spiritual life. At one point, not knowing what spiritual direction really was, he enrolled in a training program for spiritual directors. In the inner dialogue between that course and his social activism, her recognized the importance of a focused spiritual life in augmenting one's social witness.””
“McClain surveyed other social activists and found that they too responded as he once had making decisions in the arena of social witness in terms of what they should do, making personal decisions on the basis of what they discerned that God wanted them to do. This book is McClain's attempt to name this disjuncture in the lives of people of faith, to build on the growing intersection in people's lives of action for justice and the inner journey in the Spirit, and to offer rituals groups can use to begin to be religious together.””

Used copies of the book can be found online for as little as $4.00 with shipping at the following address- hGtLS. There are at least 4 copies in the Ohio public library system. If you need assistance acquiring the books, please let the church office know.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Emerging Ministries Fund

For a church to be healthy and vital, it is imperative that it continues to explore new avenues for ministry both within and beyond the walls of the church.  While new ministries can at times be planned for in the standard budget cycle, the Spirit may move us to react to situations or members of the congregation may be inspired at any point of the year.  Furthermore, when we launch new ministries, it is difficult to know in advance whether they will succeed or fail.  Thus, if we try to budget for them, we are prone to either severely over or under-budgeting a specific item.  
As such, the finance committee has created an Emerging Ministries Fund that will serve as a seed fund for launching new or revitalizing current ministries.  The application process must be simple and flexible enough to encourage experimentation while also encouraging you to engage in prayer, planning and partnering (finding others who will commit to launching the new ministry with you).  Because starting new ministries is difficult and prone to failure, we expect that many of these ministries may be short-lived, but that a few will catch fire and launch our church in new directions.
If you have a ministry idea, just contact Pastor Jared to set up an initial appointment.  He’ll work with you to flesh out your idea and guide you through the (brief) application process.  May the Holy Spirit embolden us to launch our church in new directions to bring new people into the body of Christ.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Saving the economy...and your soul!

I both enjoy and consider it part of my job to constantly be reading magazines and blogs to keep up with trends and conventional wisdom in our culture. As part of this, I came across the article entitled - ““How the Newly Prudent Consumer Is Killing the Economy””. The article argues that one of the largest issues facing the American economy is that ““Today’’s consumers are increasingly likely to pay off credit card bills in full, skip vacations, dine out less, hold off on buying big-ticket items like new cars.”” As a result, our economy is suffering a crisis of demand- not enough people are consuming, so companies lay more employees off which means even more people cannot afford to buy.

Based on my rudimentary understanding of economics, I can’’t argue with the math or the logic. It does seem logical that if we buy less, less is produced and thus less employment will be needed in those industries. While the author does stress that people should not buy what they can’’t afford, I do object to the idea that we have a moral obligation to consume. Do we really need one more influence telling us to buy more stuff? Already, we live in a society where worth is often measured by the size of our houses, newness of our cars, whether we are wearing the most up to date clothes or have the latest form of technology (confession time- that last one almost always gets me). If we add on top of that a moral obligation to buy, I’’m afraid it may overwhelm any resistance we have toward opting out of a crass, materialistic value system. Is there really no choice between a collapsing economy and buying stuff we don’’t need?

The Gospels were written during a time of tremendous economic upheaval. Excavations of the Roman Empire show clear signs of poverty, misery and destitution. The skeletal remains of many inhabitants show that malnutrition and disease were rampant and that most individuals could only eke out a meager living. Archeological digs indicate that the wealthy ruling class in Jerusalem had an astonishing amount of wealth compared to the lot of the farmers in the countryside (sound familiar?). It is in this context that John the Baptist decries the rampant injustice that is occurring all around him. When the crowds ask what they should do about it, John replied "If you have two coats, give one away," he said. "Do the same with your food." (Luke 3:11)

Let’’s return to the question- Is there really no choice between a collapsing economy and buying stuff we don’’t need? John announces a third option- when faced with economic crisis, we are called upon not to hoard or to consume, but to give. Giving is the third option. If we are worried about people having enough to eat in this economy, don’’t buy a rolex- give money to a food shelter. They will certainly spend that money and put it to good use. If you are worried about employment, don’’t buy a new car- donate to a micro-lending organization like Kiva that gives those out of work the opportunity to be entrepreneurial. Give to a friend or a colleague or an organization that will use that money right away to continue to bring about God’’s kingdom on this earth. When you adopt the practice of habitual giving (as opposed to habitual consuming), you’’ll be amazed at the change. It will do more then help stimulate a flagging economy or to change the life of a neighbor in need. It will change you! Rather then clinging to your stuff, you’’ll find the joy that comes in letting go of that which society tells you is valuable. Free of this obsession for things, we’’ll have more time to experience the true happiness that comes from our newly strengthened relationships with our family, our community, and our God. As our values change, we’’ll discover that the kingdom of God was there to be had the whole time. We just needed to get rid of all the stuff that was blocking our view!


Pastor Jared

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sharing Faith, not judgment

One of our lectionary texts for this week is Romans 14:1-12:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
One of the central messages of this text is that we are called to accept that not everyone will believe the same thing as each one of us.  In fact, there is probably no other person in this congregation who believes exactly the same things about God in the same ways that you do.  But, if we are called to respect other's beliefs, does that mean that we should not evangelize?  Couldn't one argue that the simple sharing of one's faith is a violation of respect for the other's belief?

I think there is a middle ground between sharing your personal beliefs and forcing your opinions down someone else's throat.  I believe the most effective way to share faith is within the context of a relationship.  If you do not already know someone, if you haven't already formed a relationship and demonstrated that you care about them for who they are, why on earth should they listen to what you believe?  If there is an individual I do not know, and do not care to invest the time and energy to get to know, how dare I claim to care about what he believes?  If I awkwardly force my faith perspective into an otherwise casual conversation between strangers, I am doing it to satisfy some internal desire rather than out of true love for this other.  It is only when you

I was challenged this morning, however, by a video that seemed to demonstrate another way to share faith without casting judgment.  In the below video, Penn Gillette, who does not believe in God, talks about a positive experience in which he received a bible from a Christian:

Even though this individual (for ease, we'll call him George) did not have a relationship with Mr. Gillette, he was able to evoke a genuine since of caring.  How did he do it?

1.  He prepared for the experience.  George did not approach Gillette the first night, he took the time to go home, acquire a bible, write a personal note, and return to the show a second night.
2.  He waited for an appropriate moment.  Notice that George wasn't pushy, he didn't insist on being seen first.  He patiently waited and allowed the moment to come based on Gillette's needs, not his own.
3.  He sincerely gave a gift with no strings attached.  Mr. Gillette remarks several times that George looked him in the eye, seemed to care genuinely about him, and gave him the bible as a gift without asking for anything in return or demanding acceptance of a set of beliefs.
Now, given that Gillette reaffirmed his atheism, I suppose one could argue that this was a failed evangelism attempt.  I disagree.  Anytime we as Christians can offer faith in love and manage to withhold judgment, I think we've been faithful to Jesus' call to love our neighbor as ourself.  It is only then that we might claim that our tongues are giving praise to God.
h/t: Stuff Christians Like 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Law and Love


In the wee hours of January 5th, 2011, Mark had a problem.  His daughter was about to go into labor, but he was still miles from the hospital.  Rushing to get to the hospital, Mark ran a red light.  He explained that the entire time he was driving, his daughter "Ashley kept saying, 'Dad, you have to get me there NOW...We didn't have much time."  Just 40 minutes after arriving in the hospital, Ashley gave birth to little Breanna in under 40 minutes.
A few weeks after bringing his granddaughter home, Mark received his own little gift-  a photo of his car going through the red light and a a hundred dollar fine.   Mark contested the red light citation given the circumstances. He typed out a brief letter explaining what happened and attached a copy of Breanna's hospital crib card -- "It's A Girl!" -- with the date and time of her arrival.
Much to his surprise, that didn't qualify as an acceptable excuse to the folks at the Photo Safety Division within the Cleveland Clerk of Courts Office. The hearing examiner determined that Mohn did not present "sufficient evidence of mitigating circumstances to overturn this ticket."
Now-  I’d like to see a show of hands, how many of you think he shouldn’t have to pay that ticket?
Of those with your hand up, is there anyone who is arguing that he didn’t actually break the law in running a red light?  Put your hand down if that is why you think he shouldn’t have to pay.
Ok, so, for those of you with your hand still up, can any one explain to me why?  After all, we have clear evidence on camera that he has broken a law.
(The congregation responded a couple of different ways, foremost that the impending birth took priority over the stop light)
So, in other words, we believe there are some circumstances where obeying, or enforcing, the letter of the law should take a back seat to a greater purpose.
We tend to be a culture in which the upholding of law and order is a critically important value.  And yet, there are times in which the majority of us feel that rigidly enforcing those laws in all circumstances would itself be a violation of justice.  Though a black and white mentality toward law and order might be clearer, it would not result in a system with considerably more cruelty and injustice.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he wrestles with the connection between the concepts of love and law.  Now, we often think of the law in terms of regulations and restrictions.  Prohibitions controlling our behavior.  This is certainly the central thrust behind the ten commandments.  9 of the 10 commandments are specifically about things that we ought not do (quick bonus points-  which is the exception?)
Love is generally not thought of in such a mechanical or restrictive way.  However, law and love are not necessarily in conflict either.  Paul indeed argues that the law can be summed up in the concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  
So, does this mean love=law?  Clearly not.  We certainly wouldn’t consider the ticket given to Mark to be a “love note.”  So, there must be some delineation here.  Paul does not argue that upholding the law is the same as loving.  Instead, he is trying to get behind the law, trying to understand the purpose for the law.  Why were we given the law?  What is it’s ultimate purpose?
By declaring that Love is the fulfillment of the law, Paul is pointing to the law’s higher purpose.  It isn’t about the specific prohibitions, about dotting all the i’s and crossing all the ts in the Torah.  The law is supposed to bring about and provide a path toward a people who love one another. And, though he doesn’t state it explicitly here, that law is supposed to be an avenue toward bringing about a love of God also.
But, how does this work?  I mean, I am single, but I’m pretty sure the foundation of a loving relationship is not about rigorously adhering to a rule book.  “But honey, code 352.2 subparagraph b clearly delineates that I have fulfilled my obligation to you.”  No, the core of love is a mutuality contained within a relationship.  For love to exist, a relationship must be formed.
Thus, fulfilling the law is not about following each and every aspect of it.  Love is the fulfilling of the law-  it supersedes the letter of the law, and sometimes, even the spirit.  When they come into conflict, it is love- not law, that is supposed to win out.
What does this look like in concept?  When in doubt, its good to look to Jesus here.  On several occasions, Jesus gets into a conflict with the religious authorities.  He heals someone on the sabbath-  now wait, isn’t that one of the big ten?  Jesus says that clearly it is more important to tend to someone’s aching wounds then it is to remain in reverent prayer on the sabbath.  It is in the breaking of the restriction, even one of the big ten, when love is fulfilled.
But, wouldn’t this lead to anarchy?  I mean, the idea probably appeals to us in concept.  Sure, we want the entire world to be forgiving of ourselves.  But Dave, back there, I’m not so sure I want to be constantly forgiving him.  So, how bout, grace for me, law and order for thee!  Sound good?  
Often times, I think this is how we live it out.  We don’t give others the benefit of the doubt while we bristle when someone reacts negatively to our good intentions.  But, clearly, love does not mean breaking all the laws either.  If I were to steal from you with no other purpose than to turn a profit, I am not setting the foundation for a good relationship.
When faced with seeming conflicts between law and order and love, I think we are obliged to answer the following question-  Does upholding the law here lead to restored love with God?  Does it lead to restored love with neighbor?
Let’s test this out-  and I want to test it out in the arena that I think we struggle with the most as a culture and in our faith-  let’s test this out in the arena of sex.  In the Methodist church, in regards to sex we officially hold to an ethos of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.  Now, there are absolute good reasons to argue in favor of reserving sex for marriage.  We live in a culture of commodification where things and people are constantly used.  When we engage in sex outside of a committed, loving relationship like marriage, we run the risk of using the other person for our own gratification.  If after using the person, we discard them, we have certainly violated the core tenant of building a loving relationship with another person.  This is of course in addition to the very real problems of unintended pregnancy and the proliferation of STDs.
But, let’s use a very real example.  In our legal system, we link considerable benefits to marriage.  Foremost among them is pension and health care benefits that one may obtain through their spouse, even after they have passed away.  I know many widows and widowers have been placed in a scenario where they have lost their spouse but rely on that retirement check or that health plan as a source of sustainment.  If they fall in love and find a new life partner, they would be forced to choose from marrying their new partner and losing that which sustains them, or violating the principle of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.  Here, I believe the upholding of the letter of the law would destroy the opportunity for a loving relationship.  And thus, that loving relationship should take priority.
Now, what are the implications of this?  If we bless sex outside of marriage in this circumstance, are we abandoning the general principal?  No, but we are acknowledging that life is messy.  Law does a lot of good- but a black and white interpretation of it serves neither humanity nor our God.  
So, it is not more law that we seek, but more love.  In God’s divine wisdom- there is a remedy for this conflict- and it is grace.  At the core of who God is, that which is revealed in Jesus Christ, we find a teacher and a savior who earnestly desires a relationship with us.  Our creator loved us so much that we were given a law- a law designed to forge a loving relationship between our God and each other.  A creator who loved us so much that when our violations of the law was harming our relationship, choose to forgive rather than to prosecute us under a law.  A loving Savior who refused to let the law keep us from the ever more divine purpose of love.  Amen.