Friday, September 30, 2016

Year C, Proper 23, Luke 17:11-19, Recognizing Health

"Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him."

This may seem like a preposterous suggestion, but its what came to me as I re-read this familiar story of the cleansing of the 10 lepers.  

Over my years in ministry I have almost always preached on this text because it was the appointed text for the Day of Thanksgiving.  And of course, if you are preaching on Thanksgiving you cannot avoid the "moral of the story" about the one who was grateful and returned to give thanks while the nine, did not.  I really got tired trying to preach around that theme.  Really tired.

And then as I read the text today, one thing struck me.  What if the other nine simply did not recognize that they were healed???  It says of this Samaritan that "he saw that he was healed".  Nothing else is mentioned about the others, though.  

Common sense would say that a leper would surely know that they were healed.  Wouldn't they?

But part of my thoughts center around so many conditions, even in my own life, that it is simply not all that clear when you are healed and when you are not.  And to take it a step further, it takes faith to believe that indeed, you have been healed.

My own struggle is with being bipolar.  Against the backdrop of a disease that is chronic, there is this pesky little question of health.  I'll always be bipolar, but does it make sense to talk about being "healed" and "healthy" even though I remain bipolar?  And would I know it when I saw it?  Or would it take faith to believe it?

I'm not alone in this.  Many a cancer patient, for example, has had doubts about whether remission meant cure, and has struggled with whether or not they dared to believe that the cancer was gone.  

Its hard to be totally grateful when doubts remain.  

But its also hard to be healthy amid those same doubts.

"Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

Perhaps it takes more to be healthy than simply a cure.  Perhaps health also requires faith.  If we continue to live our lives believing we are ill, then we are ill.  

But does believing one IS healthy, actually contribute to that health???   There's a question for you.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Year C, Proper 22, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, No Shame

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.

For some it was simply too much to bear.  An embarrassment.  Our Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had, after decades of study, decided that gay and lesbian persons, even those in lifelong committed relationships (there were no legal marriages at the time) could serve openly as pastors in our denomination.  

The truth is that gay and lesbian persons have served faithfully as pastors of this Church for a long time.  They did so under two rubrics.  One was a 'don't ask, don't tell' rubric, which welcomed the service of gay and lesbian pastors, as long as we didn't know they were gay or lesbian.  The second rubric was simply put that they could serve as long as they didn't love anyone.  

Now things were  changing.  I had one colleague in particular who, at the  synod assembly following the decision, related how he was simply embarrassed and ashamed to be part of this Church.  In his mind, homosexuality was simply so sinful that to allow gay and lesbian pastors to serve openly in this Church was simply beyond belief.  How could we be so foolish?  How could we abandon the scriptures?  Deep shame is what he felt, enough so that he chose to leave this Church in which he grew up and had served for nearly thirty years as a pastor.  

We acknowledge that there are a variety of convictions out there with respect to homosexuality.  Some are convinced it is sinful.  Some not.  

But when has sinfulness ever precluded one from serving as a pastor?  "There is no one who is righteous, no not even one", Paul writes.  Not even one.  Therefore, we're kinda stuck with sinners serving as ministers of the Gospel.

But sinners that are called with a holy calling, not according to their works, but according to God's own purpose and grace.  

Paul, even while he was still breathing threats against the Church, was called with a holy calling.  It's not as though God waited until Paul had repented and reformed his life before calling him.  Paul's call came as he was on the road to Damascus, intent on rounding up all the Christians there.  But God saw something in Paul and called him into the service of the very Church he was trying to destroy.  

Do not be ashamed then about the Gospel.  For all of us, rely on the Gospel as the power of God to save us.  No one, all, and nothing.  No one is righteous.  All are saved by grace.  And nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Paul learned this, and shared it with us.

And its nothing to be ashamed about.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Year C, Proper 22, Psalm 137, Curse You, Red Baron!

"Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!"

So the Israelites had an issue with the Babylonians.  They had been captured.  They were in exile.  They suffered greatly.  They were angry.  And so they wrote this Psalm that we now have in the Bible.

The Lutheran Book of Worship, our previous hymnal, omitted this Psalm from its pages.  We skipped right from 136 to 138.  It was censored out.  Something seemed incredibly wrong about including a Psalm in  worship that spoke about bashing, or dashing, babies against a rock.  

Yet, in another way, the fact that this Psalm is included in the Bible says something about God, and, wait for it, his grace.  

First, a couple observations.  Clearly the author of the Psalm was overcome with anger toward Israel's captors, the Babylonians, and the slavery which they were being subjected to by the Babylonians.  The tipping point in the Psalm was the taunting by the Babylonians, expecting their slaves to entertain them with the songs of Zion, even while they were captive in a foreign land.  It was salt on an open festering wound.

But also, this Psalm is an indirect cursing directed at God.  The Prophets of Israel had made clear that the Babylonian exile was more than just a tragic episode in Israel's history.  It was seen as a judgment by God of the unfaithfulness of the nation.  And so in saying "Curse you, Babylonians!" the Israelites were also saying "Curse you, God?" for bringing this judgment upon us.

Which is where God's grace comes in.

God allows for us to cry out in our  anguish and anger, even against him.  And he listens.  He not only allows it.  Tolerates it.  But it would seem, he welcomes the honesty and forthrightness.  And he answers.

God's judgment happened.  But his deliverance also followed.  Cyrus was called in from the east and Israel returned home.  

Psalm 137 is the precursor to Isaiah 40:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord 's hand
double for all her sins.

Perhaps, when everything is said and done, the truth is simply this, that God invites our honesty, even if that involves feelings of rage, more than he demands our politeness.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Year C, Proper 21, Luke 16.19-21, We are beggars. . .

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen

“We are beggars.  This is true.”
These were the last words of Martin Luther, as he died February 18th, in 1546.
He had worked tirelessly as a reformer of the Church.
He had written volumes about the Gospel.
His preaching was powerful.
In addition to all that he did for the Church, his legacy also includes having set the stage for the independence of Germany and its emergence as a modern state.  He is Germany’s “George Washington”, its founding father.
He translated the scripture into German, and in so doing established the norm for the German language for generations to come.
To this day, Protestant and Catholic Church’s alike owe a huge debt to Martin Luther for his articulating of the Gospel. 
All this said,
When he came to the end of his life, his last words were simply “We are beggars.   This is true.”

Paul writes to Timothy:
we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

The thing about recognizing that we have nothing, is that then everything becomes a gracious gift of God.
We are beggars.  This is true.

The readings for today are particularly challenging for rich people.
Amos warns those that are at ease in Zion, that they will be the first to go into exile.
In our Psalm we hear about the God
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

Paul writes to Timothy that
the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,

And if that isn’t enough to make us squirm at bit, we have the story of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel lesson. 
Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 

Are you rich, or are you poor?

Actually, most of us would identify ourselves as being middle class.  We look at the world around us, and see that there are some who have far more than we do, and some far less.  We are somewhere in the middle.
Early on in my life when I was a self employed woodworker I received a commission to do a couple of desks for a German couple that had a summer home in Gig Harbor, where I lived.
I felt like the beggar at their table.
As I dealt with them, I became increasingly aware that these were no ordinary folk.  What I learned about them is that they were from the aristocratic class from Europe, “old money”, with worldwide holdings.
I had a friend who owned the lumber yard that I did business with who related a story about this couple, Erivan and Helga.  As prominent business people in Gig Harbor, George and his wife Pat had gotten to know them, and one day were invited out to their place to enjoy an afternoon relaxing by their pool. 
At one point in the afternoon, Helga turned to Erivan and said “Isn’t it lovely being in Gig Harbor, where we can just enjoy ourselves socializing with the peasants.”
True story.
I found out later that the Haubs were listed in Fortune 500’s top ten of the world’s most wealthy people.  Billionaires, many times over. 
And I felt quite poor, needless to say.

And yet, I am rich.
I traveled to Russia a couple of times to visit a sister congregation that my congregation in Sandpoint supported.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russians experienced great financial hardship.
They had very little.
Most of them had a flat, a small apartment in the city that was part of the public housing that was a left over from the communist era, and in addition to that they had a garden plot in the country where they could raise much of their food.  An average income for a family might be $100 a month.  Somehow, they managed.
But even more heart wrenching were the beggars that would gather around any public place.  Many of these beggars were veterans of the Soviet’s involvement in Afghanistan, and often had lost limbs, and were severely handicapped.  But if being a beggar was not bad enough, they were also subject to their “pimp”, or “protector” as they were known.  These pimps, or protectors, would oversee a bunch of beggars, making sure they got to their begging spots, and making sure no one robbed them.  In exchange, the pimps took much of what the beggars received.
Prostitution was also rampant. 
Karla had accompanied me on my second trip there.  I was blown away by being propositioned three times before it was even breakfast time, our first day there.  Beautiful young girls, willing to sell themselves to an American tourist, because they could earn more in fifteen minutes doing that, than they could in a month or more of regular work. 
I bought a book at one museum.  $125.  I didn’t even think about how this must have struck our Russian hosts.  Here I was, so rich that I could without even a serious thought purchase a book that cost more than they earned in a month. 

So when I listen to these biblical texts dealing with poverty and wealth, I ask myself, “Am I rich?  Or am I poor?”  Where do I fit into these pictures?

My mother and father-in-law traveled to Germany to visit some of their relatives there.  One of those visits was particularly striking.  These cousins had lived a good life and had good jobs as professionals.  But when Karl and Becky visited their home, they were struck by how simple it was, and how little they had.  Just a small apartment, simply furnished. 
What they learned was that this couple, and their families had lost everything in the War.  What they decided during the post war era, was that never again would they devote their selves to accumulating stuff that could be taken from them in a moment.  As a result, rather than gathering “things” all around themselves, they chose rather to travel.  Their point was that no one could take their memories from them, so the devoted themselves to “making memories”.
We are beggars.  This is true.
If you think that you are rich, remember that you brought nothing into this world, and you can bring nothing out of it. 
But, if you think that you are poor, consider all that God has blessed you with. 

We are beggars, this is true,
But beggars that have been richly blessed at the Lord ’s Table.

Spiritually, this is even more true.
We are studying the book of Romans in our adult class.
Three statements from Romans lay out the Gospel message:
No one.
And Nothing.
No one is righteous, no, not even one.  None of us is rich with respect to righteousness.
All are justified by God’s grace, as a gift.  Once we realize our spiritual poverty, we open ourselves to recognize how richly blessed we are by God’s grace.
And nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
No one.
And Nothing.
And that, my dear friends, is sufficient.

Sufficient, yet it’s a hard lesson to learn.
In my own life there have been three unwelcome teachers that have helped me learn.
The failure of my health.
The risk of losing everything I’d worked so hard to accumulate.
And being confronted with my own sinfulness.
Until I came to be aware of how impoverished I was, I was simply not able to see how richly blessed I was by God’s grace. 
I had to realize that “I once was lost” in order to appreciate that I “now am found”, I had to be blinded, in order to see, to quote from that dear hymn, Amazing Grace. 
To put it differently, forgiveness means nothing until we become aware that we actually need forgivening.
Having a savior in meaningless, unless of course, we actually realize that we need saving. 
We are beggars.  This is true.
And richly blessed by God’s grace and mercy.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Year C, Proper 20, 1 Timothy 2.1-7, Praying for the President

"First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."  1 Timothy 2:1

"Preserve our nation in justice and honor, that we may lead a peaceable life of integrity.  Grant health and favor to all who bear office in our land especially to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State, and all those who make, administer, and judge our laws and help them to serve this people according to your holy will."  (Lutheran Book of Worship, page 52)

This is one of the petitions of "The Prayer of the Church" that used to be offered every Sunday in our congregations.  If I recall correctly from my youth, the variation used at that time specifically named the President and the Governor.  There is something to be said for this discipline of prayer that the Church used to observe.

Today, I miss that discipline.  I fear our partisan politics have crept into our worship such that to even offer prayers for the President by name would be considered a political statement and unwelcome.  Worse yet is a sentiment that causes us to be hesitant at times to pray for the "health and favor" of the President, and that he/she might "serve this people according to your will".  This is true, I believe, of both sides of the isle.  Liberals are likely to be as hesitant to offer prayers for Donald Trump, as conservatives will be to offer prayers for Hillary Clinton.  

Shame on us.  

The historical backdrop of the early Christian Church was that of persecution from the State.  Imagine the early Christians following this mandate from 1 Timothy and lifting up the Emperor Nero in the midst of the first persecutions of the Christians.  There would have been a self serving motive:  We pray for them, that WE may lead a quiet and peaceable life. .  ."  And we might add, not be subject to death by lions in the coliseum.

That said, I wonder if one of the most important public ministries that we have as a Church is the prayers we offer on behalf of our President and our nation.  And yes, I believe that even the  most conservative among us should pray fervently for President Obama, as the most liberal among us should have prayed for President Bush.  

It is for the sake of the office that they hold, that we lift them up in prayer, not because of our agreement or disagreement with their political positions.  In offering our prayers, we do so remembering also Paul's word to the Romans:  "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God."  There are Presidents, because it is in accord with his will and by his institution.  They serve a divine purpose.  And our prayers are that they may be effective in carrying out that purpose.

In this Spirit, our prayers should be that each President be as effective in office as they can possibly be, for the sake of the nation, without regard to our personal political positions.  This runs entirely counter to the partisan politics of today, where every effort is made to thwart and impede the work of an opposing party President.  And again, I am convinced this is true of both sides of the isle.  

We are in an election year and many across our land despair regarding the choices.  For the Christian this concern ought to motivate us to be even more fervent in prayer on behalf of whomever is elected.  Again, it is our ministry to pray that they may "serve this people according to your holy will".  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Year C, Proper 21, Amos 6. 1a, 4-7, Luke 16.19-31, The Great Chasm

A USA student went to Brazil as a foreign exchange student.  One of her first lessons was about the vast disparity between the rich and the  poor in Rio de Janeiro.  She had learned about the poor in Latin America, and particularly about the slums in Rio-- though her host family would never have considered taking her there.  She was aware that her host family was well to do, but she had no clue how rich they were.  That is until one day it was announced that they would go shopping that weekend.  She expected that they'd simply head into town.  To her amazement, they went instead to the airport where they boarded their private jet and flew to Paris for an overnight shopping spree.  Such is the disparity that exists, the chasm between the rich and the poor.

In the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to travel twice to Russia.  As an outsider looking in, one of the most immediate impressions was that this was a land of priceless treasurers, and incredible poverty.  Historic palaces bear witness to the incredible wealth of years past, in contrast to the serfdom of the masses.  The communist era sought to equalize the wealth distribution in the country, but in truth did little to improve the lot of the common person.  And in the post-communist era the vast majority exist on little to nothing, while the new rich (the Russian mafia) rival the world's wealthiest.  One passes by beggars in the street to enter museums filled with Rembrandts and Picassos.  Such is the disparity that exists, the chasm between the rich and the poor.

In our own country the gap is widening.  Politicians talk about the 1%.  Major corporations such as Monsanto dominate world markets.  I had the opportunity once to do a commission for a German couple who had a summer place in Gig Harbor, where I was a "starving artist" woodworker.  At the time this couple was in the Forbes top ten of the wealthiest people in the world.  They had just acquired the A & P Grocery stores, and considered it to be a good tax right off.  I still am amazed to think about the time when Erivan and Helga Haub stood in my living room as we finalized a deal on what would be my largest commission.  The wealthiest of the wealthy in my modest home.  Quotable quote:  They had invited a prominent Gig Harbor businessman and his wife for an afternoon of relaxing by their pool.  Helga turned to Erivan during the course of the conversation and said, "Isn't it great being in Gig Harbor where we can thoroughly enjoy ourselves socializing with the peasants."
Such is the disparity that exists, the chasm between the rich and the poor.

But just when I become convinced of my own poverty, I remember a visit from our friends in Russia.  Our congregation had paid for their way to come and spend a few weeks with us.  As they walked into our home for a meal one evening they simply exclaimed, "Yet another palace!"

The Bible doesn't take lightly this chasm between the rich and the poor.  One of the most radical concepts was for a year of Jubilee.  Every 50 years wealth and land would be redistributed and all would be equal again.  It probably was never observed.  

Amos declares that the exile awaits for the wealthiest in Judah who are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.  And in our Gospel lesson, we have Lazarus and the rich man, each with their differing lots in life, but who will find in the life to come that their fortune has been reversed.  Does God care that much about economic justice and equality?  

Acts gives us an account of a great economic experiment of the early church.  "All who believed were together and had all things in common;  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."  One must wonder how widespread this situation was, and how long it endured.  Probably only for "one brief, but shining moment. . ."

Last week's Gospel declared emphatically:  "You cannot serve God and wealth."  Liberation Theology emerged from Latin America to claim and emphasize the Gospel as "Good News for the Poor", but understandably, with the exception of a few "bleeding heart liberals", it gained little traction in the North.  

The uncomfortable and inconvenient reality is that if we listen to the prophets, or Jesus, we cannot ignore the concern expressed for the poor.  There is an 800# Gorilla in the room.  The question is:  Is that Gorilla the dominant power of the rich over the poor that will continue for all time?  Or the hand of God that will act with retribution against the rich and in favor of the poor?

This text should make us uncomfortable.  Or perhaps hopeful.  It all depends.  But if we believe the witness of how God has acted historically, and that God will continue to act, we best be prepared for the possibility that redemption may affect economic injustice and oppression.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

YEAR C, PROPER 20, LUKE 16:1-13, Goldman Sachs and the Gospel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
This text provokes one question within me that I’d love to ask Jesus:
                Please, pray tell, what on earth did you mean?
Commending the dishonest steward for being even more dishonest and self serving is not the stuff of good old Gospel preaching.  I’ve always struggled with this text, and am again today.
Having said that, what stands out for me in this reading is the verse:
                “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
The dictionary defines shrewdness as follows:
“Having or showing sharp powers of judgment, astute.”
It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that we have much to learn from others.  We simply do not have a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to carrying out our mission.  One of the things I am becoming more and more convinced of as time goes on is that we could learn a lot from the business world.  “This is no way to run a business” is a statement many a business person has thought when they’ve dealt with the Church.  And many a pastor would respond to that statement by declaring that this is a Church, not a business. 
But Jesus says: “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
Could Jesus be telling us that there are “best practices” in the business world that we could learn from, and should learn from, if we are to be more effective in carrying out our mission?
What can we learn from business?
What are the principles that guide businesses, and how might those same principles help us in our mission?
I did a Google search on business principles and one of the first items that came up was from Goldman Sachs, the global investment banking firm.  In recent years investment bankers have epitomized what many would consider “dishonest wealth”, but before we dismiss them, let’s look at their business principles and ask ourselves if there is anything we could learn from them.
Goldman sach’s Business principles:
Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.
For the church the big question is who is the client whose interests always come first.  Here there is a blunt fact to consider:  The most important persons in a dying congregation are the long time members, the core group.  Every decision must meet their interests, and requires their approval.
In growing congregations, the most important people are the ones we have yet to reach.  I attended a mega Church once and was struck by their philosophy.  Everything they did Sunday morning was done with the first time visitor in mind.  Period.
If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.
What Goldman Sachs is saying here is that at their core, as bankers, they are to be faithful stewards of all that is entrusted to them.
Profitability is critical to achieving superior returns, building our capital, and attracting and keeping our best people. Significant employee stock ownership aligns the interests of our employees and our shareholders.
A business’s success is in delivering results.  Are we achieving the results we set out to achieve, which for a business is profitability.  As a church we have a mission and purpose.  Are we willing to be held accountable to that mission?
We have an uncompromising determination to achieve excellence in everything we undertake. Though we may be involved in a wide variety and heavy volume of activity, we would, if it came to a choice, rather be best than biggest.
An uncompromising determination to achieve excellence.  Does God deserve anything less than our best?  Too often we settle for mediocrity, because, for example, we think “their heart is in the right place”.  Besides, to be uncompromising in our determination just doesn’t seem to fit with our nature as a Church.
While recognizing that the old way may still be the best way, we constantly strive to find a better solution to a client’s problems. We pride ourselves on having pioneered many of the practices and techniques that have become standard in the industry.
The Church is typically not at the cutting edge of innovation.  We have a tendency to believe that if it worked a generation ago, it will work today.  But the world is changing, and changing times require new approaches.
Although our activities are measured in billions of dollars, we select our people one by one. In a service business, we know that without the best people, we cannot be the best firm.
As a Church, rather than recruiting the best person for every job, our tendency is to accept whoever might volunteer, regardless of their abilities and gifts.  This is true even with respect to our pastors. 
Advancement depends on merit and we have yet to find the limits to the responsibility our best people are able to assume. For us to be successful, our men and women must reflect the diversity of the communities and cultures in which we operate. That means we must attract, retain and motivate people from many backgrounds and perspectives. Being diverse is not optional; it is what we must be.
Diversity is not being politically correct, it is essential to the mission.  Being diverse means that there will be a variety of gifts to meet the demand of our work together.
While individual creativity is always encouraged, we have found that team effort often produces the best results. We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients.
Paul put it this way:  “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 
We think that this is an important part of our success.
Do we try harder?  Are we dedicated to do our best?  How often would we use the words “intense effort” to describe our work together?
We want to be big enough to undertake the largest project that any of our clients could contemplate, yet small enough to maintain the loyalty, the intimacy and the esprit de corps that we all treasure and that contribute greatly to our success.
Sometimes it is easy to focus on how small we are as an organization.  What is often overlooked is the tremendous amount of resources we have as a Church, if we see ourselves as part of the larger body of Christ.
We know that the world of finance will not stand still and that complacency can lead to extinction.
When people say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious” what they generally mean is that the Church is not meeting their needs.  As Lutherans, our core message was framed in response to the needs and questions of people 500 years ago.  Do we know what people hunger for today????
To breach a confidence or to use confidential information improperly or carelessly would be unthinkable.
This is a basic issue of trust.  It should be a no brainer. 
However, we must always be fair competitors and must never denigrate other firms.
As an organization you will either grow by reaching out to new people, or decline.  You cannot stay the same.  If we don’t reach out to others, others will. 
We expect our people to maintain high ethical standards in everything they do, both in their work for the firm and in their personal lives.
We are in the forgiveness business.  We recognize people’s failures, and on behalf of Christ, declare God’s pardon.  That said, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Jesus calls us to live with integrity and honesty and the highest ethical standard of all, loving one another as he first loved us.

So there you have it.  Fourteen Principles that guide the work of Goldman Sachs, an investment banking firm.  A number of questions come to mind:
1.       Are you surprised at all by the depth and breadth of these guiding principles of a major corporation in our country? 
2.       Can we admit that a major financial firm like Goldman Sachs, is “shrewder” in its dealings with the world than we are as a Church?  That their success is directly related to the astuteness of their judgments?
And finally,
3.       Can we recognize and admit that there are many things we can learn from a business such as Goldman Sachs?
I believe that we have a much more important mission than simply turning a profit for our investors.  To be servants of Christ Jesus is to be part of a mission to bring life and salvation to the whole world.  That is the treasure that has been entrusted to us.  We are stewards of the Gospel.  It’s a sacred trust.
There’s one word that is not mentioned in today’s Gospel lesson that perhaps should be:  Humility.
Can we be humble enough to learn from others those things that might make us more effective disciples of Jesus Christ?  That, I believe, is exactly what Jesus is encouraging us to do.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Year C, Proper 20, Luke 16.1-13, Shrewdness and Unrighteous Mammon

Please, pray tell, what on earth did you mean?

This would be my question for Jesus that this text provokes.  Commending the dishonest steward for being even more dishonest and self serving is not the stuff of good old Gospel preaching.  I've always struggled with this text, and am again today.  Some thoughts:

Shrewd:  "Having or showing sharp powers of judgment; astute."

Is Jesus calling on us to learn from the world 'best practices'.  An observation:  This is no way to run a business!  These words ring true for most of our congregations.  To put it differently, if businesses were no more effective at what they do, than the Church often is in what it does, the business would quickly be bankrupt.  

Know your market.  Know your message.  Invite (advertise) your business.  Deliver what you promise.  Keep ahead of the curve.  Innovate.  Efficient use of resources.  Avoid waste.  How many basic business principles would greatly enhance the Church's effectiveness if we simply applied to our mission, what is common  place in the world.

We Give thee but thine own,
whate'er the gift may be.
All that we have is thine alone,
A trust O Lord from thee.

Whatever we might make of the dishonest stewards motives and management, one point that comes through is that he was playing with the Master's  money.  And so are we.  If there is any truth to this wonderful hymn it is this, that all we have is God's and it is only entrusted to us to manage as stewards.  The gifts I give, the car I bought, all this is part of my stewardship.  

And finally, money is only a means to an end, not the end itself.  What we have been given is to be used to accomplish something.  Our wealth is to be used in the service to God, it is not to be the god we serve.  "You cannot serve God and wealth."  

Perhaps the best that comes from this text is not the answers that it offers, but the questions surrounding stewardship that it raises.  Can we wrestle faithfully with those questions and live our lives in the midst of the struggle.  What is so offensive about the dishonest steward?  And what does that say about our own stewardship.  What is to be commended.

Even to address the question of  stewardship at all, is to achieve something.  It's not ours folks.  And whate'er we do, we are to seek to be faithful.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Year C, Proper 19, September 11, 2-16, Would that there were no heroes

Would that there were no heroes
No soldier’s cross,
Or martyr’s loss,
Or liberating feat.
Would that there were no heroes
Answering the call
With valor, courage, grit.
Would that there were no heroes
No vengeance sought
Or justice served
Or battle cry called out.
Would that there were no heroes
                Men, women
Freedom’s best
Giving us their all.

A clear blue sky.
A day unfolds,
Like none we’ve ever seen.
One plane
Two planes
Three planes
They flew, they crashed, and took their toll
As day turned into night.
Smoke billowed
Concrete crumbled
Steel twisted and collapsed.

People ran
While others jumped.
The faithful said their prayers.

First responders charged right in
Against the flood
Of frightened, anxious, folk.
They ran and climbed,
                Into the fray,
                Without a thought of flight.

Upon their foreheads, healing oil,
                A gift from Father, friend.
Anointed for their chosen task,
                They march onward toward their end.
There they died
                With those they tried
                So valiantly to save.
Crumbled concrete,
Twisted carnage, rubble, piled high—
A tomb for one and all.

By a placid pool,
Their names now writ
A silent witness to their plight.

Would that there were no heroes
No soldier’s cross,
Or martyr’s loss,
Or liberating feat.
Would that there were no heroes
Answering the call
With valor, courage, grit.
Would that there were no heroes
No vengeance sought
Or justice served
Or battle cry called out.
Would that there were no heroes
                Men, women
Freedom’s best
Giving us their all.

Ships sailed forth
And fighters launched
As a new breed joined the fight.
Shock and Awe the battle cry
Liberating force.
They fought, they died,
For freedom’s cause
tenfold their sacrifice.
Nations fell, first one, then two
Casualties of the cause.
Nowhere to hide
For they would not abide
By the terrorist’s gruesome law.

A noose,
A bullet,
Justice served.

Flag draped coffins
                Returning home
                To mother, wife, and child.
Heroes one, heroes all.
Yet still no satisfaction wrought
For the victim’s lonesome cry
And a nation’s tears that linger here and will until the end.

Would that there were no heroes
No soldier’s cross,
Or martyr’s loss,
Or liberating feat.
Would that there were no heroes
Answering the call
With valor, courage, grit.
Would that there were no heroes
No vengeance sought
Or justice served
Or battle cry called out.
Would that there were no heroes
                Men, women
Freedom’s best
Giving us their all.

Would that there were no heroes,
Save one, that one,
Who alone was born to die.

His blood alone,
Could redeem and save,
A broken, troubled world.
No vengeance here,
Or justice there,
But forgiveness, grace, and love.
A call to live,
A call to love,
A call to let it go.
‘Tis in his hands,
We find our hope,
Hands that the nails pierced.
From a stone hewed tomb
He bid us come,
With him, to life,
A clear blue sky.
A day unfolds,
Like none we’ve ever seen.
Empty grave,
Open tomb,
And final victory.
And from the garden walks the One,
Whose life alone could save
Each one of us, from our dark selves, and warring madness craved.

Would that there were no heroes.
Save one, that one,

And peace.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Year C, Proper 19, Psalm 51, Luke 15:1-10, "Yep, we're THAT motley crew"

Its probably the angriest I've ever been in a congregational meeting.  

We were discussing the ELCA's decision to allow LGBTQ people in committed relationships to serve as pastors in our Church.  Hot button topic.  What provoked my anger was when a woman, having just cited Romans 1:26-27 as definitive proof that homosexuality was sinful, asked me what the Biblical basis for the ELCA's decision was.  

What followed was an incredibly forceful presentation of Paul's full argument and presentation of the Gospel from Romans 1:16 through 8:38 & 39.  From "noone who is righteous" to nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  What provoked my anger was the assertion that because something/someone was sinful, it somehow precluded them from service in the Church.  My own sinfulness was probably on full display as I came out with both barrels blazing.  

It was a difficult time for our Church as many people chose to leave the Church as a result of the change of  policy that welcomed gay & lesbians in committed relationships into the ministry of the Church.  And some of the people who stayed were somewhat embarrassed by the decision.  It was seen as a great liability.  We all, in some way, find ourselves seeking to discern our response to such a bold action by our church.

The art of ministry is in taking what is a liability, and turning it into your greatest asset.

And so I find myself, now serving in a new parish, wanting to do just that.  We have one of those reader boards out by the road.  I'd love to start posting things on it like "Yep, we're that Church who welcomes all, and we mean all."

Currently, I've been greatly impacted by my experience in AA.  It's a most inclusive fellowship.  "The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking."  From pastor to prostitute they come.  Some sober, some drunk, they come.  Some never have a drink again, others are in and out of the rooms over the course of a lifetime.  But they come.  And everyone is welcome.  We have a common problem, and there is a common solution.  "My name is Dave, and I am an alcoholic."  

I wonder if the Church ought to be a bit more like AA in that regard.  The only requirement for membership is a desire to grow spiritually.  Or the only requirement for membership is a desire to be forgiven.  

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me."
When we hear that Jesus welcomes sinners do we think of others, or ourselves?  When we hear David's prayer "Create in me a clean heart, O God." are we thinking of others, or ourselves?  The answer in both cases should be both.  We have a common problem and there is a common solution.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are saved by the God's grace.

What part of the word "all" do we not understand?  

No one is righteous, no, not even one.
What part of the word no one, do we not understand?

And nothing can separate us from the love of God.
What part of the word "Nothing" do we not understand?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Year C, Proper 18, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, “Choices”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
Choices matter.
Choices have consequences.
And to not make a choice, is to choose.
Moses puts before the people of Israel, in the strongest terms possible, the choice that was before them.

“Choose Life!” was his admonition.
Of course the alternative is to choose death.
Underlying that choice is both a promise, and a warning.

It goes without saying that we are more comfortable listening to a promise.  Promises are good.  Make the right choice and wonderful things will happen.  We especially like the second part of that sentence:  “wonderful things will happen”.  “The Lord will bless you” Moses says.  We’d like to leave it like that.

What we often overlook is the first part of that sentence.
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

If you obey –
If you make the right choices –
Then you will be blessed.
Choices, you see, matter.
They have consequences.
And we bear some responsibility.

Take, for example, the fourth commandment that God gave us:
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

This commandment is not about children obeying their parents, though that may be what we think about when we hear it.  This commandment is about how we take care of the elderly.  Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.  God promises a long life, if we honor our parents.

The flip side of that is the warning about what will happen if we don’t honor our parents.  Our own lives will be impacted when we are old.  Choices have consequences.

It’s not that God is hell bent on punishing us if we make the wrong choice.  God warns us of the consequences of making the wrong choice.

Let’s fast forward from ancient Israel to today. 
How do we honor our parents and care for them in their old age?  And what difference does that make?  And how will the choices we make today, affect our lives tomorrow when we are old?

Now, I’m going to tell you what you all know.  There are two major issues facing everyone as they grow old.  The first is how will they survive financially, when they are no longer capable of working?  And the second is how will they be cared for as they face the health issues that always come with old age?

Do you realize, that our answer to these questions is specifically related to the fourth commandment, and honoring our fathers and mothers?  God cares about these things.

To begin with, we have sought to address these issues as a society in two primary ways:  we have “Social Security” and “Medicare”, and if needed, “Medicaid”.
You know the basics:
We all pay into Social Security so that each of us will in turn receive at least a bare minimum income during our retirement years and into our old age. 
And likewise, all of us pay into Medicare and Medicaid so that as we age, we too will be able to receive the medical care that is needed.

On the surface, it would appear that we have “honored our fathers and mothers” by providing for these two basic needs.  But anyone who listens to the news knows that there are also problems.
We are making choices that will have consequences.

One of the choices that we are making, for example, is whether we raise taxes to pay for the increased cost of health care for the elderly, or simply reduce the benefits.

I learned a bit about this when the congregation I served in Sandpoint built Luther Park, a senior housing facility.  One of my dreams was that we’d be able to offer the best in senior care for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.  And then the painful reality set in.
What I discovered was that there were two major problems facing our residents.

The first was finding a doctor.
We had many residents who moved to Sandpoint from out of the area, and of course, when they got here they had to find a primary care physician.  The problem is that many of the primary care physicians in Sandpoint simply could not accept anymore Medicare patients.  It’s not because they didn’t like old people. The problem is that Medicare does not reimburse doctors enough to pay for the care that seniors require.  Doctors, as a result, can only allow a certain percentage of their patients to be Medicare patients, otherwise they will go bankrupt.  I have a friend who did go bankrupt because he could not turn away the elderly.

Second problem:  The high cost of care for assisted living and nursing homes is beyond what many seniors can afford.  The average cost of assisted living is between $3,000 to $3,500 a month, and if one needs nursing home care, you can easily double or triple that.  After a few years, what assets a person has are often gone, and then they are reliant on Medicaid.

But, there is a problem with Medicaid.  The amount Medicaid reimburses is not sufficient to cover the cost of providing that care.  Luther Park, for example, can only afford to have a few residents on Medicaid.  Otherwise it would have to shut its doors.
And so what happens to our fathers and mothers?
That’s the question.

Now what is the point of all this?
The point is:
Choices matter.
Choices have consequences.
And to not make a choice, is to choose.
Moses puts before the people of Israel, in the strongest terms possible, the choice that was before them.
“Choose Life!” was his admonition.
Of course the alternative is to choose death.

It would be nice if God would simply make everything right, regardless what choice we make, but it simply doesn’t work out that way.  The choices we make have consequences.
And God, in his love, warns us of the consequences.

God, you see, loves us enough that he would like to spare us the pain of dealing with the consequences that come from poor choices, and so warns us.  It’s not that he wants to punish us.  It’s that he doesn’t want us to suffer.  And so he puts the choice before us, and hopes that we will choose life.

There are all sorts of examples of choices that we will make that will have consequences.
Many of our young people are concerned about things such as Global Warming.  They, you see, strangely enough, are concerned about what the world we live in will be like in 50 years, because, unlike many of us, they will actually be alive in 50 years. 

It is easy to say that this is a political issue and to frame it in the differences between liberal and conservative politics.  Actually, it has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.

Either the oceans are warming, or they are not.  It doesn’t matter if you are democrat or republican.
Either the ice on the polar ice caps is melting, or it is not.  It doesn’t matter whether you are liberal or conservative.
Either the weather patterns throughout the world are changing or they are not.  It doesn’t matter whether you live in a democracy, or a communist nation.
And either the choices we are making are having an impact on this, or they are not.

The reason scientists are warning us about global warming is that they actually stick a thermometer in the ocean and measure the temperature.  Novel thought.
The question that drives many of our young people crazy is whether we are willing to take responsibility for our actions, or not.

When God puts before us a choice, are we willing to base our actions on the promises he offers, and heed the warnings he gives? 

A number of years ago, I received a very personal warning.  I share it because it gets to the point of this whole matter.  I was going through a very deep depression, and my doctor was understandably concerned.  Suicide is too often the tragic outcome of depression, and so the doctor had a warning for me.  “The likelihood of dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound is much higher if you actually have a gun.”

His point was that my choices, at that time in my life, might make the difference between living and dying. 
Make the right choice was his admonition.
Choose life!  God says.
Choose life, and surprisingly enough, you will live.
One of the gifts God gives us is freedom.
We have the freedom to choose. 
And our choices make a difference.
We are not the helpless victims of fate. 

God gives us his law to guide us in making the right choices so that we might live a good and blessed life.  But in the end, the choice is ours.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”