Saturday, January 27, 2018

Year B, Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18.15-20, Mark 1.21-28, By What Authority?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
I studied philosophy during my undergraduate work.
Philosophy, by definition means: “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline”.
To put it differently, philosophy’s primary question is “what is truth?”
As a student of philosophy one of my favorite passages, and one of the most ‘philosophical’ passages in all of scripture, is the interchange between Pontius Pilate and Jesus.
Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"
What is truth?
We have a crisis of truth in our world today.
We simply do not know what is true and what is not.
And there is no criterion for establishing truth that is accepted by everyone in our society.
Who are the trusted sources for truth?
Who can you believe?
Remember when we had trusted sources?
Walter Cronkite, for example.
Fifty years ago, Walter Cronkite was considered the most trusted man in America.
Of course, he was the anchorman for the CBS Evening News, and when Cronkite said it, people believed it.
Today it is different.
We have no Walter Cronkite.
Instead we live in an information age, but none of the information we have at our disposal is universally accepted as truth.
Everything is subjective.
We are torn between two extremes.
At one end of the spectrum, there is the tendency to believe anything you hear and read.
At the other end of the spectrum, is the conviction that you cannot believe anything.
There is no Walter Cronkite.
Instead we have a mishmash of news sources that have not been able to separate their presentation of the news from partisan alliances.
Conservatives love Fox News.
Liberals love MSNBC or CNN.
Sean Hannity or Anderson Cooper.
                Who will it be?
Neither one is Walter Cronkite.  That is, neither one has won the trust of the nation. 
Donald Trump has coined the phrase “Fake News”.
On the one hand, there is news out there that is in fact fake, some of it intentionally so.
But on the other hand, just because the news reported is not favorable to the president does not mean its “fake”. 
All of this leaves us asking Pontius Pilate’s question “what is truth?”

This crisis of truth is part of our life as a Church as well.
Who do we trust to speak the truth?
In our lesson from Deuteronomy, the Lord said:
 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”
Who are the prophets among us that are called to speak the Word of God.
Well, one answer to that is our pastors.
As pastors, we are held accountable to the Word of God.  Its part of the promises we make at ordination.  Failure to preach and teach in accordance with God’s Word is one of the things that can result in our being removed from the roster of ordained pastors through the disciplinary practices of the Church.

Can you trust me to speak the Truth.  Or any pastor?
The Lord says in Deuteronomy that it is the responsibility of the people to heed the word that the “prophet” is called to speak.
Further, it says that if the “prophet” speaks any other word than the Word of God, that prophet shall die.
We are accountable to God’s Word.  That’s the message here.
And yet the question remains, “what is the truth of God’s Word?”
Twenty Seven years ago I preached on this text, saying that both pastors and congregations were accountable to the Word of God, the pastor to speak it, and the congregation to heed it.
One of my parishioners was absolutely livid.
“How dare you use the pulpit to promote your own opinion?” was the essence of her objection.
How dare you suggest that the word you speak is God’s word. 
When I tried to clarify that my point was that we were all accountable to God’s Word, she still objected because interpreting God’s Word is all very subjective.  You can find passages within it to back up many different positions, and to claim any sort of authority is suspect.
Of course there is some truth to what she said.
The reason we have so many different denominations is that each one believes that they have interpreted the scripture truthfully, though they all disagree to one extent or another with each other about what that truth is. 

Jesus came into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught.
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Jesus said to Philip:
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
And in response to Pontius Pilate he said:
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  
Jesus spoke the truth, and died on the cross because of it. 
You see, we are not the first generation that has not wanted to hear the truth, and who has resisted it when it is spoken.
The problem is that when Jesus speaks the truth, he not only speaks the truth about God and God’s holiness, but also the truth about us and our sinfulness.  And that we don’t want to hear.
We’d rather believe that Jesus would come to us and tell us what we want to believe about ourselves.
We’d like Jesus to agree with us.
And when he doesn’t, we don’t recognize him. 
One of the ironies of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is recognized for who he was by only the centurion who crucified him and watched him die, and by the unclean spirits who he cast out.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
It belongs to Jesus.
Even the demons and unclean spirits recognize this and obey his word.
Do we need another Walter Cronkite, or will Jesus do?
And if Jesus IS the truth, who IS Jesus?
The two most important questions we in the Church should ask ourselves are:
“What would Jesus do?”
And “What is Jesus saying to us?”
That seems so straight forward, so obvious, and yet, apparently harder than it seems.
Today we will be having our congregational meeting.
When I think back over the course of my thirty years in the parish, I recall congregational meeting after congregational meeting.
Some were great.
Some were horrendous.  Really ugly.
It’s a mixed bag.
But there is one congregational meeting that never occurred, which I continue to long for. 
I’d love to be part of a congregational meeting where everyone was committed to only one thing, and that is determining what Jesus would have us do.
We will look at a budget today, but will we ask the question:  “Is this what Jesus would do?”
To be honest, when I and the council prepared and approved the budget we are going to present to you, we probably spent more time asking the question “What can we afford?” than the more important question “What would Jesus do?”
And when we consider the future of our congregation are our decisions based on what we are willing to do, or what Jesus would have us do?
Our congregation’s constitution states:
All power in the Church belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ, its head. All actions of this congregation are to be carried out under his rule and authority.
Nice sentiment, but do those words carry any weight?
One of the most interesting things about our Church, and many Churches in this country, is that we are organized on democratic principles.  We vote. 
But if all power and authority in the Church belongs to Jesus, what is needed is not a vote, but discernment.
Once we discern Christ’s will, there is no vote necessary.
“What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
The question for us, always, is “will we obey him?”

Friday, January 19, 2018

Year B, Epiphany 3, Jonah 3.1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20 Of Jonah, Fishing, and the Unexpected Catch

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Jonah is quite the character, and perhaps the greatest preacher of all time for with a sermon just eight words long he saved a great city, Nineveh. 
I mean really, think about it.  Think about it.
God called Jonah to go warn the Nineveh about the judgment that was to come upon their city.
Now Nineveh was the arch enemy of Israel at the time, and quite frankly, there was nothing Jonah would have desired more than to be able to sit back and watch God destroy Nineveh like he had previously destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
What better outcome could there be than that the wicked people of Nineveh be destroyed.
And so rather than go to Nineveh, Jonah resolved to head the opposite direction, to Tarshish, in Spain.  And we shouldn’t miss the geographical point here, Jonah fled in the opposite direction to the farthest known part of the world.
And then, as you know, came the storm, and the fish.
God was not content to let Jonah off the hook from his mission, and intervened.  A great storm arose, putting the ship in peril, and Jonah, realizing it was all his fault had the sailors cast him overboard to appease God’s anger.
At this point, Jonah probably figured that he’d die, and perhaps even that his death was preferable to fulfilling God’s call to go to Nineveh.
But then God went fishing.
Sending a great fish, God scooped Jonah up out of the waters, and the fish carried Jonah in its belly back to Israel, and there deposited him safely upon the shore.
Take two.
Jonah went.
And then this reluctant preacher spoke the Word:  "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
What happens next is the true miracle of the book of Jonah.  The fish, nah, that was no big deal.  What was big was that upon hearing the word Jonah spoke all of Nineveh repented in the hope of saving themselves.  The King said:
“Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
So Jonah was pissed.
"O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Then God turned his attention to Jonah.
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Sometimes, in God’s incredible grace, we are surprised and things do not work out as we expect. 
I reminded of a experience that I had one year when I was out hunting. 
I was walking along a game trail looking for deer, when I saw some motion ahead, and an animal coming toward me.  I waited for it to come out into the clear, so I could identify it, and specifically was looking to see the tail. 
But instead of the white tail of a deer, what I saw was the long tail of a cougar.
Momentarily, we stood face to face, the cougar and I, and having identified each other the cougar took off through the woods.  I, knowing that deer avoid cougars, realized that there was little reason to continue hunting and turned around and headed back the way I came.
What surprised me was that on the way out, I crossed the cougar’s tracks a half dozen or more times.
I was aware, that I was being stalked by the cougar.
I, the hunter, had become the hunted.
This is what happened to Jonah.
Rolls reversed.
He was sent to proclaim God’s word to the Ninevites, and instead, it was he that heard God’s word proclaimed to him.
He was sent to save the Ninevites from their sin, and in the end it was Jonah that was saved from his own sin.
When he did go, he proclaimed a word of law and judgment, warning Nineveh of the impending destruction.
But in the end, God acted with grace and mercy, not only toward Nineveh, but also toward Jonah.
The Book of Jonah, is not so much about the Ninevite’s conversion, than it is about God’s attempt to save and convert Jonah.
There’s a second message in all of this.
It’s about fishing.
I love the image from the Gospel lesson, about our being called to follow Jesus.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
This is the thing.
You cast your nets, or line into the water, but you have no control over what bites.
Another story from my hunting and fishing days.
One evening I went out to fish near Thompson Falls and was specifically fishing for bass.  I got a bite, and what ensued was a long battle as I proceeded to hall it in.
When the fish came up next to the shore, a huge mouth emerged from the water and I realized this was no bass, but a large Northern Pike.  The largest fish I’d ever caught.  38 ½ inches long, 18 pounds.
When we cast our nets, we do so not knowing what the catch will be.
Jonah was caught off guard by God’s grace and mercy, and more than anything else, he did not want God’s grace and mercy to extend to his enemies, the Ninevites.
But they heard the word, and repented.
We, like Jonah, are called to bring the word of God to the world in which we live.
And we have our own hopes and expectations about who we will “catch”.
I can tell you that congregations are quite specific in their hopes for who they’d like to reach with the Gospel.
Every congregation I have served has expressed a deep desire to reach young families with children, for nothing speaks to them more of congregational vitality than to have all sorts of young folks, with children, in church.
Kennon Callahan, a church consultant, talked about one congregation he consulted with in St. Petersburg, Florida.
They had gone to great length to reach out to the young families in their community.  They had even built a gymnasium hoping that people would be attracted to the activities they could promote there.
But no one came.
Callahan observed that in St. Petersburg, the people moving into the community and looking for a church were not thirty years old, with children.  They were 65 and looking for a place to retire.
What the congregation ended up doing, was to start offering programs in their new gymnasium, designed for the seniors in their community, and then they grew. 
I had a similar experience in Sandpoint.  People wanted to see many new young families come.  But Sandpoint is a retirement community.  Two thirds of the people who move there, do so to retire.  “Young families” are sixty five years old.
So we built a senior housing community.
But more so than just a specific demographic, the Gospel tends to reach those who most need it.
Jonah was convinced of Nineveh’s wickedness, yet they were the ones who heard God’s word and were forgiven.
This is the problem the Church wrestles with.
You see, the Gospel of God’s grace and mercy, of the forgiveness of sins, tends to attract sinners.
And we are not sure of what to do with the sinners it attracts.
We proclaim the word of forgiveness, and sinners receive it even though we’d prefer that the righteous come.  That’s our nature.
Our church has struggled with this, particularly with respect to the controversy over gay and lesbian people in the Church. 
So we proclaim the Gospel.
But what do we do when our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are the ones who hear the Word and respond?  Do we say, “No, not you!”
The same can be said of any number of groups.
The poor.  The outcast.  The foreigner.  People who are too old, and people who are too young.
Kennon Callahan also speaks about one principle that comes into play far too often.
“Birds of a feather flock together.”
We tend to want to reach out to people just like us, and we don’t know what to do with people that aren’t just like us.
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Who is welcome?
That’s the question I continually ask myself, and challenge congregations with.
Who is really welcome? 
Congregations tend to have signs and mission statements saying that “all are welcome” when in truth, only “some are welcome.”
For example, would an undocumented person be welcome here?
That’s a hard one for us today.  If illegal immigrants did show up at our door we’d likely have to debate calling the authorities or not, wouldn’t we.
They are perhaps, the Ninevites in our midst.
And perhaps, of all people in our communities, they especially need to hear about the unconditional love of God and his grace and mercy. 
This is the thing:  Those we have the hardest time welcoming, are often the one’s we are most called to welcome, because the very thing that makes them unwelcome, is the reason why they so desperately need to hear the message of the Gospel.
One final story, this one from AA.
Early on in AA, a question arose.  Now in AA they publicly proclaim that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.
But one evening, a big, black, transvestite man showed up at the meeting.
“What do we do?” was the question they asked when they called the headquarters and spoke will Bill W., the founder.
“Well, does he desire to stop drinking?”
“Then you have to let him in.”
I’ve often thought and wished we could have the same attitude in the church.
When someone shows up at our congregation, the only question we ask is “do they desire God’s forgiveness?”
“Well, then, sinners though they be, you’ve got to let them in.”
One final thought.  Remember how I said that the real message of the book of Jonah is not what Jonah said to the Ninevites, but what God said to Jonah?
Well, the thing about accepting the unacceptable is that we learn something about ourselves.
When we embrace sinners with the grace and mercy of God we are reminded that it was that same grace and mercy that embraced us.
For we all come to this place as outcasts in need of forgiveness.  And there is a place at the table, for all.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Year B, Epiphany 2, John 1.43-51, Come & See

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“In my career, what I've always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome. I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say "Me too" again.”
It has been described as a “Stirring Speech”, these words of Oprah Winfrey delivered at the Golden Globe Awards this last week.
Inspiring.  Moving.  Hopeful.
“A new day is on the horizon!”
No sooner than those words had been spoken, social media erupted with two other words:
Oprah, 2020.
We long as a people to be inspired.
Donald Trump got elected because his message:
“Make America Great Again” inspired people.

And before him Barack Obama was elected on the basis of his message:
“Change we can believe in.”

And Ronald Reagan famously shared a simple message of hope to the nation when he said:
“It’s morning in America.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of modern American politics is that we are quick to turn to those who have inspired and entertained us, and asked them to lead us.
Ronald Reagan was an actor.
Trump’s fame was built on a reality TV show, the Apprentice.
And now Oprah, both an actor and a talk show host inspires people to think of her as a potential candidate for president.
It probably should be no surprise that in this day and age when our lives as a nation so often revolve around the media, that professionals from the entertainment industry are the one’s capable of carrying the messages that inspire us.
We crave inspiration.
One might think that competence and qualifications would be the most important criteria for a person to be elected President.
I’m saying “No.”  It’s the ability to inspire.
One example of this is that President Obama was given the Nobel Peace prize, basically before he had done anything.  It was given purely on the basis of the message he shared that inspired not only Americans, but the world. 
Jimmy Carter had been given the Nobel Peace prize as well.  But he was honored for having negotiated the Camp David Accord, which ended the hostility between Egypt and Israel, a peace which endures even to this day.
That’s actually an accomplishment.  Not just an inspiration.
There is a hunger in America to be inspired.
A craving.
A deep longing within our souls.

And so we are quick to anoint the next great communicator, to carry the message that inspires us.
Our modern day messiahs.

John the Baptist introduced Jesus with the simple words:
"Look, here is the Lamb of God!"
Israel, even more so than us, was longing for hope and inspiration.
For almost 800 years, 800 years mind you, Israel had been overrun by one foreign power after another.
They remember the former times of the glory of the Kingdom of David, and his son, Solomon, and they longed for the day that the Kingdom would be restored.
They had their own slogan:
“Make Israel Great Again”
There were many would be Messiahs that arose in Israel, and all of them disappointed in the end.
But the hope remained.

"Look, here is the Lamb of God!"
“Lamb of God.”
A Messianic title.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is introduced as the “Lamb of God”, and then at the end of the Gospel, he is crucified at the hour that the Passover Lambs were sacrificed in the Temple.
This sets the context for understanding the Messiah’s role in the deliverance of Israel from their bondage.
It would be the sacrifice of the Lamb that set them free.
But that was not the message that inspired.  All of Israel hoped for a Messiah that would be victorious over their enemies, not one that would die under Pontius Pilate.
But Jesus would be a Messiah like no other.
What we don’t know from the text is just what inspired those who would become Jesus’ disciples.
All we know at this point is that John introduced him as the “Lamb of God” and Jesus called his disciples with two simple words:  “Follow me.”
Phillip declared then:  "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."
Nathaniel replied:
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
And then, another invitation:  “Come and see.”
Come and see.

“Follow Me.”
Isn’t this the basic message of every Presidential campaign.
Ronald Reagan said “Follow me.”
Bush said “Follow me.”
Clinton said “Follow me.”
Bush said “Follow me.”
Obama said “Follow me.”
Trump said “Follow me.”
And perhaps, now, Oprah is saying “Follow me.”
Each one offered us promises, promises intended to inspire.
But none of them were, or are, the Messiah.
We know that.  That’s why we are here.  We sing a different song.
“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
No merit of my own I claim,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.”
Sinking sand.
I don’t have to tell you that Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama, and Trump are not the Messiah, nor will Oprah or anyone else be.
We are here because we believe that "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."
“A new day is on the horizon!”
Make America Great Again
“Change we can believe in.”
It’s morning in America.”

Jesus had a different message:
“The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
This we believe.  This is our hope.  This is the promise that inspires us.
It is Jesus, and only Jesus.
It all seems so simple, and yet it is not.
You see, when Jesus says “Follow me” he has something completely different in mind than the peace, prosperity and happiness promised by the would be messiahs of this world.
“Follow me”, he said.  And we want to know where.
He is talking about the way of the cross, the way of love, self sacrificial love, for the sake of the other.
It is Jesus, this we know.
But are we willing to say to the world, so eager and longing for something, someone to believe in, someone that inspires them, “Come and See.”
Come and see Jesus, of Nazareth.
One of the first things I said to you as a congregation is that it is not enough to be a welcoming congregation, we have to be an inviting congregation.
If Jesus is truly the Messiah, we need to answer the call to follow him, and then invite people to “come and see”.
Come and see the One who loves you.
Come and see the One who has redeemed you.
Come and see the One who invites you to die with him, that we might also live with him.
"Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
Come and see a day full of grace.
Oh day full of grace that now we see appearing on earth’s horizon, bring light from our God that we may be Replete in his joy this season. God, shine for us now in this dark place; Your name on our hearts emblazon.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Year B, Epiphany, Matthew 2.1-12, Psalm 72.10-14, Beggars

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

May all kings bow down before him, and all the nations do him service.
For the king delivers the poor who cry out in distress, the oppressed, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the lowly and poor, and preserves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their lives, and precious is their blood in his sight.

In the Gospel of John it is written:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.  .  .

Epiphany is the day we remember the Wisemen coming from afar to pay homage to the Christ child, born in Bethlehem.
It’s remarkable in its contrasts.
Foreigners sought out the one born to be King of the Jews so that they might pay him homage.
While Herod, the King of the Jews, also sought him, that he might kill him.
“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

One of the reasons that the story of the Wisemen was so important to the early church was that it anticipated what happened to Jesus and who was to follow him.
At the manger were the shepherds, the poor, and the Wisemen, foreigners.
Following Jesus’ resurrection the Gospel spread, but not among his own people.
The Church in Jerusalem, by all historical counts, quickly faded from the scene.
It was Paul’s mission to the Gentiles that resulted in the growth of the Church.
Jesus, born King of the Jews, the Messiah, and yet of all the people, the Jews did not accept him.  That is a simple historical fact.
Our Psalm points to another factor, that the poor and oppressed have a favored status in God’s sight, and for that reason, it is often those outcast by society that have embraced the message of Jesus more than others.
This message of Jesus, as Good News to the poor, is reflected in Mary’s song, the Magnificat:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.
The rich and the powerful have often had trouble with Jesus.  And if they don’t, it’s probably that they are not listening.

And now, fast forward to today.
Pope Francis is an interesting leader.
One of the most intriguing dimensions of his leadership is that he is the first Pope from Latin America and his perspective shows it.
He charged right into the fray of the Presidential elections last year with his admonition to build bridges, not walls.  His words were far more popular, I imagine, in Mexico that in the USA.
Pope Francis is adored by the world’s poor and oppressed.  Not so much by the rich and powerful.
Some would say that Pope Francis has been too political, and that his politics are too closely aligned with Latin American perspectives, which of course is his background.
There is another possibility.
It could be that he is in tune with a dimension of Jesus’ message that simply is not as popular with the rich and powerful, nations such as our own.
This is the thing though, it’s not just that Pope Francis is a renegade Christian from a third world country, whose message should be tamed by the Christians in the more established part of the Church.
Pope Francis represents a global trend in that the center of Christianity is no longer in Europe and North America, where it historically has been, but rather south of the Equator.
There are over twice as many Christians in Africa as there are in the United States.
The same can be said of Latin America.
Meanwhile in Europe and North America the Church is in a major decline. 
Jesus said something that should make us uncomfortable.
"Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
When I consider these words of Jesus, and think about how it is in Africa and Latin America that Christianity is flourishing, I wonder if he’s speaking directly to us as a nation.
Can we be both rich and Christian?
Or will our wealth as a nation lead us away from Christianity?
And if so, why?

One reason maybe that we have simply become so distracted by our own lives. 
Our prosperity has allowed us to fill our lives with so many things, so much activity, that there is less and less time for Jesus.
I’ve noticed this in a very specific way over the course of my ministry.
Confirmation classes.
When do you schedule confirmation classes?
There was a time when Wednesday nights were set apart by the school districts across the nation as “church night”, and that’s when we’d have confirmation classes.
That has largely fallen by the wayside.
Now, today, it is a challenge to find an opening in the schedule for youth activities.
Even Sunday mornings are filled with soccer games, or swimming meets, and other such activities.
In my first parish I was humored by one of our parents who asked me in all seriousness why we didn’t have our kids in the swim team.  Now the swim team involved traveling all over the state to meets, every weekend throughout the summer.  It didn’t even occur to them that I, as a pastor, couldn’t do that.
Have we in our society, simply become too busy for Jesus?
Life has become a distraction from things spiritual.
Of that I am quite convinced.
Even devout Christians have a difficult time making regular worship a priority.
In contrast to this, I remember a story told by Dr. David Preus regarding the Church in Africa.  People would journey, most often by foot, from miles around to attend church on Sundays.  And having made that journey, their expectation was that they would spend the whole day worshipping.
He even related the story of one man, born without legs, who walked on his hands to church. 
I think about that.  In contrast to that, there is the “wisdom” that has been shared with us regarding our evangelism efforts.
In evaluating our congregation, one of the conclusions as to why we are not growing is that all of the growth in our area is in Liberty Lake, and people will simply not cross over the freeway and the river to go to church. 
Africans walk ten miles or so to go to church.  We’re concerned about driving across the freeway.

But there is another reason, more important, which explains why the Gospel is so important to the poor and the oppressed, and not so much to the rich and powerful.
I believe Martin Luther said it best in his last words spoken before he died.
“We are beggars, it is true.”
Beggars are not popular in our country.
I have to admit my own prejudice against them.
I don’t stop to give a hand out to those who are almost always present at the freeway off ramps in downtown Spokane.
They're drug addicts.  Drunks.  And all sorts of other derogatory thoughts come across my mind.
I felt a bit different when I encountered beggars in Russia. 
But even then, I’d been told that they were pimped out, meaning that because of their disability they had been put their to collect donations which were then turned over to their “protector”, their pimp, who profited from their misfortune.
So I didn’t give.
WE are beggars, this is true.
This is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Martin Luther.
We have nothing.  We are totally dependent on the grace of God shown us in Christ Jesus. 
It’s a handout to the unworthy.
And this is probably why, it is so hard for the wealthy to fully embrace the Gospel.  We are too self reliant.  We can take care of ourselves.
How many Americans are capable of truly believing that “We are beggars, this is true”?
And yet, before God, we have nothing.
We stand, side by side, with the poorest of the poor in the world, dependent on the riches of God’s grace, not our own.
It may be easier, for the poor and oppressed to accept the grace of God for they recognize they need it. 
It is hard for us to accept a gift because we don’t often have the experience of really needing it.
I know for myself that the hardest thing I have ever had to do is admit that I needed help, that I couldn’t do it myself.
It’s hard to accept Jesus as your savior if you do not recognize your own need for saving. 
Maybe this is why Africa has embraced Christianity.
After all, isn’t that a continent that has been continually dependent on aid and assistance from others?  I mean, think of all the famines and strife that continent has experienced.
They have learned to accept a gift in the process.
And perhaps, more than anything else, that’s what we can learn from them.
“We are beggars, this is true.”
May all kings bow down before him, and all the nations do him service.
For the king delivers the poor who cry out in distress, the oppressed, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the lowly and poor, and preserves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their lives, and precious is their blood in his sight.