Monday, August 12, 2013

Count the Stars

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  — Luke 12

     Today's Gospel seems like one short saying right after another… kind of like Jesus is using Twitter.  You know, Twitter... the micro-blogging megatrend that gives users only 140 characters to post a message to anyone following their message feed.
Calvin Coolidge

     The patron saint of Tweeters may be U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, known for the brevity of his answers and responses.  One day, after attending church, Coolidge found himself cornered by a newspaper reporter.

      “What was the sermon about?” the reporter wanted to know.
      “Sin,” replied the president.
      “And what did the preacher have to say about sin?” the reporter pressed.
      “He was against it,” said the President.

     There was a woman invited to a White House dinner who told Calvin Coolidge, “Oh, Mr. President!  I’ve bet all my friends I can get you to say more than three words!”
     He replied simply, "You lose."

     In a few short Twitter bursts, Jesus in today’s Gospel talks about our proper relationship to material things.  A lot of the things that so-called Christians talk about in today’s society Jesus spoke about very little or not at all, but he had a lot to say about money — More than a third of his parables deal with the dilemma of our relationship to material things. 

     So, where is your heart this morning?  Verse 34 says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus invites us to adopt the perspective of eternity.  Practically, that means having a loose hold on our stuff — not letting it have a firm hold on us.

     Jesus talks specifically about giving alms — financial care given directly to the poor and needy.  In contemporary application, alms can show up in varied ways: 
  • Maybe, we won’t be having empty bedrooms in the house. Instead, we’ll be sharing temporary housing with friends and family in need.
  • Perhaps, it will be keeping a to-be-determined charity line in your budget each month and looking for ways to give out the money.
  • Maybe it will be bringing in food for our bins for the needy here at Trinity.
  • You could have quarterly family conversations about what you’re making and deciding together where you’re giving.  
  • You might hold a sale on Craigslist to decrease your possessions in support of someone else’s overdue bills. 
      These are all just outward expressions of an inward reality: Christ-followers see money and possessions as a temporary means to an eternal end.

     Jesus tells us not to be afraid, but he also tells us today to be ready.   He tells us to have our lamps lit so were watching for his return.  The lamps (Greek: luchnos) referred to are small clay lamps. To keep them burning required both effort and resources. The lamps had to be refilled periodically with olive oil to keep them burning; the wicks had to be trimmed occasionally; and the lamps were checked periodically in case the wind blew one out.  It’s not easy to keep your lamps burning… to not being afraid, adopting that perspective of eternity, having a loose hold on material possessions. It’s not easy; it’s work.

     Jesus tells us to be ready, but, ready for what?  The answer is right there in the Gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Two weeks ago in the Gospel reading, Jesus taught his disciples to pray the Kingdom into existence in their lives.  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus is teaching us here to prepare our bodies, our hearts and our lives for the Kingdom of God.  Sometimes that takes a little spiritual exercise.  What would your spiritual exercise regimen look like?  It’s different for each of us.  Some folks need to spend more time in prayer; some folks need to spend less time in prayer and get out there and help people.  Some folks need to get a little more time alone so they can, as one saint put it, waste time with God; other folks need to spend more time with other people hearing their stories instead of worrying so much about their own.  Finding what it takes to be ready for the Kingdom can be different for each one of us.

     The one thing that is the same for each of us is the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t our reward at death, it is the reign of God breaking out in our midst. Right now.  This very moment.  And what would this reign of God look like?  Jesus says it is a reign of daily bread for everyone, it is a Kingdom of forgiveness, and it is a empire of courage in the face of evil.

     So many people have exchanged the certainty of material things for the certainty of what passes as faith, but isn't.  So many people are worried because they have doubts about themselves and doubts about their faith.  Let me tell you, I don’t worry about folks who have doubts about their faith; I worry about folks are absolutely certain about everything.  You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.  Things that are tangible and directly in front of us are much easier to have faith in.  That includes rules and a really long to-do list type of religion, where you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being good enough or checking off enough things on your to-do list... or worse, beating others up. 

     Jesus, however, invites us into the kind of faith Abraham had. It was not based on a to-do list, but rather on believing in the face of doubt.  God does not coerce Abram or offer any new promises or proofs.  Yet in the face of seeming impossibility, Abram puts his whole trust in the Lord and simply believes.  This single act provides a radical understanding of faith as hope born out of the barrenness of the past.

     The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 11, the number one qualification of the folks who had faith all through the thousands and thousands of years of our history were those who felt like they were kind of strangers here on earth. They didn’t quite fit in. They had doubts.  So, do you have doubts?  Do you sometimes feel like a stranger in this world?  Congratulations!  I will tell you, you are the kind of person God seems to be especially fond of.

     Rather than getting too comfortable with this earth and its material possessions it says that these kind of people, “Looked forward to the city that has foundation, whose architect and builder is God.”

     Instead of worrying so much about our own future, our own material possessions, our own doubts, we just keep moving into God’s future.  And day by day, as we live with our doubts, and serve others, and trust by faith, and keep ourselves ready — with our eyes open to see the kingdom of God breaking out all around us — what we frequently discover in “serving” other people, is that God comes to us through the other and serves us.  Our Gospel reading in Luke says that, “he will come and serve them.”  Perhaps at the end of this liturgy instead of the traditional “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”.  Maybe we should be saying, “Go in peace. The Lord serves you.”

     Imagine for a moment what life would be like if we were not afraid; if we were not so bound by material things; if we truly believed the Lord serves us.  We would be a different kind of people.

      There’s a story about the founding of IBM.  In the early days of this company, a decision was made to improve production. Each department head was ordered to turn in three failed projects a year!  Now think what this did for those working in the company. It took away any fear of failure. They were required to fail. How many projects would they need to work on for this quota to be met?  No idea could possibly be ruled out; no one would be ridiculed, everyone would be tapped for talent and ideas.  Production of new technology exploded and turned them into a world-wide company — Big Blue! 

     It makes us realize how much fear we sometimes have in the church.  We’re sometimes far too fearful of failing at things we try.  We’re sometimes too fearful of change… no, not here at Trinity, of course… I've just heard this happens at other congregations.  What if we decided to copy this IBM model, this Gospel model of not being afraid?  What might we achieve to help the kingdom break out in Reno if we weren’t afraid.  And then, if we look at ourselves as a church and none of our projects fail — if everything we do succeeds — maybe all it means is we are being too cautious and we need to try more challenging things. 

     Yes, the world would be different — Reno would be different — if we could just unclench our fists a tiny bit and let go of our fears, if we didn’t have such tight grip on our material things, and if we truly believed that we are the beloved, and God wants to come to us and serves us every bit as much as we want to serve God.

     Abraham stood at night under the stars, much as we do.  And of all the messages he expected to hear from God at ninety-something years of age, I doubt it was, “Congratulations, Abraham, you’re going to have a baby!”  And in the face of all his uncertainties and doubts,  Abraham smiled, and he believed, and then maybe he and God chuckled about it a little bit together.

     If, like Abraham, I can let go just a little bit of all my certainties about what is and is not possible.  If I can let go just a little bit of all the material possessions and worries that weigh me down.  Then maybe I can walk a little more lightly on this earth.  I can breathe little more deeply and easily and take time to look up at the stars.

     And if you do this too, and we both open our hearts to others, the kingdom will truly breakout among us.  And we won’t even be able to count all the people we affect, or the good that is done, or the change in this tired old world. There will be no way to add it up. It’d be impossible… kind of like trying to count the stars.


Parishioners applaud Reno Priest breaking into cars in church parking lot!

     Ten minutes before the Saturday night liturgy, a parishioner rushed in to tell me one of our elderly members had locked her keys in her car and was looking for someone with a coat hanger who might help her get it open. In full alb and stole, I went out, got a hanger from the parish hall, and went to work. Luckily, she had an older Mercedes with those door locks that still have a knob. I was able to fish the coat hanger in through the window, looping it around the lock and popped it. An audience of parishioners who had gathered to watch applauded.  I got her car open in five minutes, and we had five minutes to spare before the service began. 
     The conclusion my flock should have drawn is that, when I was sixteen, my first car was an old Ford Falcon, and I learned to do this because I locked myself out of it numerous times.  I'm not, however, sure that's where they went.  All I know is my parishioners are kind of looking at me a little differently now.