Sunday, October 30, 2016

I will give . . .

Luke 19:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


Poor Zaccaeus.  He started out the day with three strikes against him.  He was a tax collector, and he was rich, and he was short.  He must have been very short indeed if the only way he could see past folks when Jesus went by was to climb a tree.  Even today, in a time when we struggle to accept everyone regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability, and body shape, a person who is exceptionally short gets looked at, and usually not in an admiring way.  In his time, people who were different were outcast and despised.  Zaccaeus was looked down upon because of his stature, yes, but also because of his occupation.  He was a tax collector.   He was chief tax collector.   

Now, when we talk about tax collectors in the ancient world, it would be wrong to equate that with an auditor with the IRS.  As much as we love to hate the IRS - present company excluded, of course - tax collectors in the Roman Empire were hated so much more and greatly feared.  You see, tax collectors didn’t apply for their jobs.  They were appointed by the Emperor or one of his governors from among the wealthy landowners in a province.  They were told what taxes were due for their area and they were responsible for collecting every penny of those taxes.   If, for whatever reason, they could not collect all the taxes that were due, the balance came out of their own pocket.  If they couldn’t pay the total amount, their property and even their families would be sold to make up the difference.  It was not uncommon, therefore, for a tax collector to collect more than the amount due from an individual in order to keep from having to make up the difference that someone else couldn’t pay.  He also had the power to seize property, including people, and selling that property to pay the taxes due if someone couldn’t pay.  So people hated and feared the tax collector.  The Chief Tax Collector was responsible for making sure the taxes due from all the tax collectors below him were paid, meaning his property and family were at even greater risk than those who worked for him.  Chief Tax Collectors, therefore, often required more than the amount due from the other tax collectors.  So he was hated and feared by all the people, including those who worked for him.   And he was short.  Zaccaeus was indeed greatly despised.  

And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  Naturally, the crowd was displeased.  How dare Jesus stay with a tax collector?  And not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector - the worst of the worst, as far as his neighbors were concerned.  And Zaccaeus said, “Lord, I will change.  I will repay any I have defrauded, paying back four times what I took, and I will give half of everything I own to the poor.”   Now remember, if anyone couldn’t pay their taxes, Zaccaeus had to make up the difference.  He was giving away his cushion, the money that was keeping him safe from the loss of everything - his home, his family, even his own freedom.   And Jesus, knowing all of this, reminded the crowd that Zaccaeus, too, tax collector or not, was a child of God, a member of the family of Abraham.  “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  

Last Sunday you all turned in slips of paper that said, “My church makes a difference in my life by…”    I had filled mine out early, so when I got back to the church office on Tuesday morning after having been home sick for an entire week, the first thing I saw on my desk was a slip of paper that said “My church makes a difference in my life by loving me.”  I wrote that before I came down with the nasty yucky stomach crud.  Before I had to keep postponing or cancelling things I really wanted to do with the congregation.  Before I had to stay home in bed on Sunday morning!  Thursday I got the first offer to take my place in the pulpit if I needed to stay home.  People sent messages and asked if I needed anything from the store.  Alan brought me a cinnamon bun.  By Saturday I was getting messages that said, “We’ll handle Sunday. You just get well.”  Can I tell you how loved I felt?  

This week marks the culmination of our Stewardship Campaign for 2017.  Now, I know, and you all know, that one of the main complaints people have about organized religion is, “They’re always asking for money!”  To which I must say, “Guilty as charged.”  Every Sunday we talk about why it’s important to put money in the basket.  We are very careful how we say that, of course, because somehow giving our tithes and offerings to make sure we have lightbulbs to light the sanctuary just doesn’t resonate in our hearts quite the way giving toward feeding the hungry does.  The fact is, however, we do need light bulbs and toilet paper and copy paper.  We do need choir music and candles and the bread and juice for communion.  But when it’s time for Stewardship moments or the annual Stewardship Campaign, we are very careful to talk in terms of mission, not the minutiae of day to day ministry.   Preachers are not fond of preaching on Stewardship, because it feels a bit self serving, you know?  We are terrified that we will be seen as Zaccaeus was seen, a tax collector, money hungry and despised by all.  “Please give generously to pay my salary,” just doesn’t feel right.  But yes, that’s what a Stewardship campaign is about.  It’s about making sure we can pay the bills in the coming year.  But it’s more than that, so much more than that.  What it is really about is commitment.  

The slip of paper this week says “I will give….” and is a one year commitment to work toward the future of First Christian Church.  Never doubt that this is what it is.  It’s not a “here’s how I will help pay the electric bill,” although, it is.  And it’s not a “here’s how I will help  pay for office supplies, although it is.   And it’s not a “here’s how I will help  pay the preacher,” although it is that, too.  What this slip of paper is, in fact, is a commitment to spend the coming year supporting this congregation’s work in the world in every way you know how.  With your money, your time, your talents, and your prayers.  

It’s a commitment to do what the Young Adults did yesterday, getting here at ridiculous in the morning to buy donuts and make breakfast burritos and prepare coffee and set up a table and chairs out front for the Annual Choir Fundraiser, and then hang out there making change and being the face of our congregation till well past noon.  

It’s a commitment to collect canned tomatoes for Selma Cares, and volunteer for Christian Cafe, and spend one Saturday a month booth sitting at a Bringing Broken Neighborhoods  Back To Life Block Party, and fix what’s broken at the church, and sing in the choir, and contribute goodies to pot lucks, and decorate the sanctuary, and clean out dog cages at Second Chance Animal Shelter, and spend 24 hours at the Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and participate in Sunday School, and carry a message of Christ’s love to the women in Federal Prison, and serve at the Table, and help out planning the 100th Birthday party of our building, and hand write birthday cards, and visit the homebound, and take cinnamon buns to your sick pastor, and attend committee meetings, and hang out with our Youth, and play music on fifth Sundays, and pray . . . for all of the above, for our members, for the nation, for the world. It’s a commitment to stand up and do more, as much more as we possible can.   It’s a commitment to give of ourselves, as Jesus commands us to do.    

Jesus reminded the crowd that day he had come, not for those who already were doing all they were supposed to do for God, but for those who were lost; for the sinners, the despised, and the outcast.  Jesus came to heal the sin-sick souls of those who were unloved, unloveable, unlovely, those who felt that God would never accept them, could never love them.  Jesus came to seek out and save the lost.   Jesus commanded that we do the same - feeding the hungry, giving the homeless a place to sleep, healing the sick, comforting the prisoner, reaching out to the poor in funds and in spirit, to the mentally ill, to those who don’t know the loving God we know, to those who live in brokenness.  Our commitment on this day, this Commitment Sunday, is to give all that we can to do the work of our Lord in the world.    Zaccaeus offered half of all he had to the poor, and to pay back whatever he had defrauded others of four times over.  By doing so, Zaccaeus put his family and his own freedom at risk.  We don’t have to do that, exaclty.   We just have to commit our lives to God - our tongues and talents, our gold and silver, our hands and feet, our hearts and souls - our everything.   For just as Jesus came into the world to heal the sick and sinful hearts of the lost, so we, too, are to follow his example.  We are the body of Christ, called to be the hands and feet of our God, the gifts of grace and love He gives to all the people of the earth.   When we go forth from this place today, let us go joyfully, giving our all, so that all may see Jesus in us.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

If I could do one more thing for my church . . . .

Scripture:2 Timothy 3:14-4:5    Common English Bible (CEB)

14 But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. 15 Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. 16 Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

4 I’m giving you this commission in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearance and his kingdom. 2 Preach the word. Be ready to do it whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction. 3 There will come a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. They will collect teachers who say what they want to hear because they are self-centered. 4 They will turn their back on the truth and turn to myths. 5 But you must keep control of yourself in all circumstances. Endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully.


A friend of mine said the other day, “The clock hates me.”  I carefully pointed out that the clock has no feelings at all, and certainly not toward him in particular.  It was much more nearly accurate to say he hated the clock, since it was moving inexorably toward the time when he had to go do something he wasn’t looking forward to doing.  We both laughed at the idea of clocks having emotions.  With that conversation in mind, I really do think that my calendar hates me.  Every week I look at my Disciples planning calendar to see what we are supposed to be recognizing today.  This is a pretty light week, all things considered.  Today is the last Sunday of Light  a Candle for Children.  It is World Food Day.  It is the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.  It is the day of the Spiritual Growth Team meeting.  Nationally, it is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month and Melanoma Awareness & Prevention Month and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Awareness Month and Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Brain Injury Awareness Month and Down Syndrome Awareness Month and Spina Difida Awareness Month and Hispanic Heritage Month and LGBT History Month and . . .  In the church it is Ministerial Appreciation Month and it is Heritage Month, when many congregations have a party to celebrate the history of their church.  And it is Stewardship Month.  How exactly am I supposed to get all of that in one worship service, never mind one sermon?  

In this congregation, although individually we may be paying most attention to one or another of the National Awareness subjects, we are focused on Stewardship Month.  This week each of us received a slip of paper with a statement on it reading:  “If I could do one more thing for my church . . . “   Every one was supposed to think about this and come up with one thing they could do for their church that they are not already doing.   I had some thoughts.

It would be totally great if I could wave my hand and our new building would be in place, ready for worship, with plenty of parking and total access to all parts of the building for everyone.  But I can’t.  
It would be equally great if I could just say Hi! to folks on the street, and they would pour in our doors seeking Jesus, like salmon heading upstream.  But I can’t.

And it would be absolutely awesome if somehow I do the one thing every search committee since the beginning of time has secretly hoped for in a new pastor - attract a couple of dozen young families with children and plenty of time to serve on committees and plenty of disposable income to contribute!   I can’t do that either.  That would be beyond miraculous, as those three things cannot possibly co-exist in the natural order of things.   

So I feel the need to clarify that statement.   Because while it would be great if those seriously improbable things I just mentioned happened, the likelihood is way below slim and fast approaching none.

And some of you already do a lot!  Some are on just about every team or committee.  Some show up at every event.  Some spend hours on Facebook talking about how great this church is. (Not me. I talk about cats.)  Some of you, though, are really busy people in general.  You can’t be on the teams and committees because you have families and jobs and charitable organizations that take up a lot of your time.  You barely have time to breathe.  And all of y’all might be wondering, “What else could I possibly do?”   

What if that statement said, “If I could do one more, small, doable thing for my church . . .”?   How would we think about it then?  What is a small doable thing each of us could do?  Well, of course, that changes from person to person.  I can’t write a great anthem for the choir, but we have several folks here who undoubtedly could.  I can’t do a new video inviting people to come see what we are about here at First Christian, but I can think of several off hand who can.  I can put some coins in the New Church collection box every week. I’m not doing that yet.  I can share my newsletter with people who don’t attend church, and maybe they’ll be interested enough to come visit.  I’m not doing that yet.  I can wander around town wearing a Disciples T-shirt or a chalice pin on my jacket and tell anyone who asks what it means.  I can invite people to come visit us while having that conversation.  I can be friendly to grumpy people while I’m wearing that shirt.  Although generally speaking I’m not a fan of buying clothing just because it has a Christian message or symbol on it, there’s something to be said for wearing our faith like that.  I had a cross attached to the top of the antenna on my old pick up, and my husband used to say that whenever he was tempted to use sign language in traffic he had to remember that the truck was Christian, so he’d better act like one.  

You all know that I like to research things.  If I know of a quote that’s attributed to a person, I like to make sure that person actually said it before using it.  Today I looked up that famous quote by Saint Francis:  “Preach the gospel always.  When necessary, use words.”  It’s not likely he said it in exactly that form, although one of his longer speeches says that it is necessary to preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere and that “All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.”   So, although St. Francis may not have said these specific words in this particular way, I think we might accept the premise as Truth.  Let your actions preach your faith.  Let your actions outside these doors be one more thing you can do for your church.

This letter was written to Timothy, a preacher of the Word.  It is intended to guide him in his path as an evangelist and church planter.  Unlike most of the letters attributed to Paul, it isn’t intended for the people in the pews.  It isn’t addressed to a congregation or a group of congregations in a particular city.  Consider, if you will, the difference between preaching in the congregation on Sunday and being the preacher at a pastor’s conference.  The writer says, “Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction.”  Don’t go out judging and blaming folks.  Talk to them with patience and kindness.  Help them understand what you are teaching.  Keep control of yourself in all circumstances - don’t blow up at them or give up on them just because they don’t understand.  Although these words were intended to teach a preacher, these are also things we can all take to heart.   

“Continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.”   I had a difficult conversation on Facebook the other day.  I had shared something that originated with a group called “After God,” people who had broken away from churches and the beliefs they grew up with.  Some were atheist, some were agnostic, most were Spiritual Not Religious.  I was told I shouldn’t have anything to do with that group, because they weren’t believers.  I responded that I could identify with those people.  That I, too, had broken away from the God they spoke of - the angry, judgmental, punishing God I was taught in my childhood church - and that it took a long time to find out that God is loving, forgiving, merciful and compassionate.  She insisted that there is only One God, who is loving and caring and forgiving and merciful, and that this is what Christians are taught.  Although our conversation went on for some time, and I am not sure I convinced her that I was, in fact, raised in a Christian tradition, it made me think about the things I was taught to believe about God, things which I no longer believe today.   

“Continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.”  I did not find my childhood lessons about God to be convincing.  I was never convinced that God hated everyone who didn’t believe exactly the way I believed.  I was never convinced that God constantly watched me to catch me when I did bad things, and seemingly rejoiced at my sinfulness.  I was never able to reconcile a judgmental, angry God with “Jesus loves me” when God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were all one Triune God.  None of that made sense.   

What I did find convincing is that God is love, and that all of us are God’s beloved children. What I find convincing is that God forgives, that God’s judgment is always tempered with mercy and compassion.  What I find convincing is that God’s greatest desire is for each of us to be the best person we can possibly be.  What I find convincing is that this loving God I now believe in is indeed three in one - Father, Son, and Spirit;  Creator, Word, and Breath;  Maker, Savior and Wisdom.  And that is what I preach.  That is how I try very hard to live.  Preaching the Good News everywhere I go, to everyone I meet, using the words of my mouth or the actions of my life, is one more thing I can do for my church.

May each of us do that one more thing for our church, by reflecting out into the world the God of love we worship and adore.  May each of us go out and preach the Good News, by living the way Jesus would have us live. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

I see generosity in . . . .

Luke 21:1-4 

21 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”


It’s that time of year again!  No, not Fall, although it certainly is that.  The trees in my yard are beginning to change color, the nights are chilly, and the air is filled with the smell of smoke.  And not allergy season, although it is definitely allergy season in the Central Valley.  No, neither of those.  It is Stewardship Season!   Most of us will have received a letter from the church, signed by Janice, letting you know that it is time to consider your giving in the coming year.   Along with that letter, each of us received little slips of paper with a sentence to complete.  Because our overall theme this year is Practice Generosity, all of those sentences are about generosity.  Today’s sentence begins “I see generosity in . . .”   I decided that I would use those sentences as my message titles this month.  

I also decided to go off- lectionary so that I could select scriptures that might best suit the topic.  The story of the widow’s mite has been used to point up the difference between giving what is expected and giving generously for ever.  The widow is lifted up as the epitome of the generous giver, a person to whom helping others is even more important than feeding herself.   She has been used to make us feel a bit guilty about how much we give in comparison to how much we have.  Poor widow.  I bet if she knew how she would be used in sermons all these centuries later, she’d have waited till Jesus and the disciples wandered away before putting her money in the box.  

Last week I mentioned the Privilege Walk April and I participated in at the women’s retreat the other week.  Some of the instructions we were given really made me think about my life experiences, not just at the time of the exercise, but later on as well.  One of them was, “If you have ever been too broke to buy food, take one step backwards.”   I took a step back.  I remembered a time when I was working full time making minimum wage and by the time I paid rent there wasn’t enough for food.  I remembered other times when I had to decide whether to get groceries or gasoline.  I remembered praying for enough money to pay the rent, because I was just a little short since I had been sick and had to buy prescription medications.  I even remembered times when there just wasn’t enough for anything, so I figured it was no worse to be completely broke than almost broke, and spent what little I had.

Maybe the widow was at a similar point in her life.  “This isn’t enough for me to do anything with, not even enough for a night’s shelter or dinner, but maybe it can help someone else.  It’s too late for me.”   We don’t know, of course.  So we usually read it with the understanding that her gift to the Temple was an act of generosity, not one of desperation.  But it could have been . . . we don’t know.

Of course, because we have heard it so many times, we know that the thing about this story of the widow’s mite is that it isn’t directed at the poor, or even those who are getting by ok.  It’s directed at the wealthy people who have everything they need and more, and were giving the bare minimum required by the Temple.  It was a lot of money, don’t get me wrong.  But they were giving only just what they had to give.  There was no generosity in their hearts.  Oh they might donate more to purchase a new gold candlestick, as long as their name is on it.  But to give as much as they can, without fanfare, rather than just what they can get away with?  Perish the thought.  

That’s not to say that we are to think of all wealthy people as greedy.  Many give much more than they are required to give and do it covertly, not asking for recognition, even giving on condition of anonymity.   

At our elders’ meeting last week we talked about Jubilee and giving and churches that spend a fortune on new carpet but nothing on mission, and personal tithing, and wondered if we all gave away everything we had to follow Jesus, who would be there to help the poor?  The context of our conversation was the story of the rich young man whom Jesus told to give away all his possessions.  Who would help if we give everything away is an important question.   

The story of the wealthy young man notwithstanding, Jesus certainly didn’t ask all wealthy folks to give away everything.  Joseph of Arimathea wasn’t asked to give everything away.  Good thing, too, since he was the one whose tomb Jesus was put into after the crucifixion.  Jesus really just wanted everyone to give as much as they could, and to do it with love and joy and generosity in their hearts.  Even our most celebratedly generous billionaires, like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, who give away a lot of money, don’t give away everything.  They still live very well indeed.  In 2012, JK Rowling, who, incidentally became the first woman billionaire in the world from the sale of Harry Potter books, fell off the Forbes list of billionaires in part because of her charitable giving, which that year alone exceeded $160 million. (The other part of the reason was the extremely high taxes she pays in England.) The thing about these wealthy folks, though, is that they believe that giving back is a requirement.  They live by Albert Schweitzer’s motto:  “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”   

Anjeanette Perkins, responding to a discussion on the widow’s mite on Facebook, said, “And what if that story of the widow is a judgement on the institution that would leave a widow in the situation that she only has two coins left? And then take her last coins? Mark 12:40-44. Just before her story in Mark (12:39-40) is this "Beware of the [institutional leaders]... They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." Mark 12:44 -- she put in "all that she had to live on" -- that isn't something to celebrate, now she has nothing. Homeless, hungry, and where are her neighbors that are supposed to be caring for her?”

We’re the neighbors.  If we give away everything, how will we care for her?  Who will care for her?  Well, we won’t.  And we’ll be in the very same boat.  You might think of it as the oxygen mask principle, that Jesse Kearns pointed out in yesterday’s Healthy Boundaries for Clergy class.  At the beginning of any flight, a flight attendant does that required safety drill that most of us pay very little attention to.  At some point we are told that if the cabin loses pressure an oxygen mask will drop down in front of us.  Always put the mask on yourself before trying to help anyone else.  If you run out of air before you can finish getting the mask on the child or elder person next to you, you will both die, and that would be a very bad thing.  Now, Jesse was talking about this in relation to clergy self-care, but the same can be said about generosity.  It makes no sense to give away everything you have to help others, if you are then put in the position of needing similar help yourself.  Rather, live generously.  Take care of your own needs, then help others.  If you have very little in the way of money, be generous with your time, your talents, even your smiles.  

I am in a position to see people practicing generosity all the time.  
I see generosity in the anonymous gifts of food that show up in the donation box at the bottom of the office stairs.
I see generosity every time someone does anything for others with a smile on their face.  
I see generosity in the young man who opened a door for me the other day, and smiled at me.
I see generosity in Vonnie and Marsha giving up their entire Saturday to purchase, prepare and serve food to the clergy who were here yesterday for Healthy Boundaries training.
I see generosity in this congregation opening the building to local help agencies free of charge. 
I see generosity in Janice Baker’s trips to Oregon with dogs from Second Chance.
And in Liz’s work with Christian Cafe.
And in the time Leah spends with the High School Youth.
And in Alan’s sharing his talent at fixing things with pretty much everybody.
And in April teaching me about the history of First Christian Church.
And in Hugh and the Raisin Tooters sharing their music.
And in Pat working at Twice is Nice.
And in Jennifer helping out at the SMART Center.
And in Jordan setting up the sanctuary every Thursday morning.
And in Bonnie making sure we have communion bread.
And in Elmo bringing smiles to faces (even though we pretend to hate his jokes).
And in Alesia bringing in the light to start worship.
And in everyone who shares their voices in the choir or in congregational singing.
And in all the Esther Circle women making sure Selma’s school teachers have Kleenex in their classrooms.

And in . . . help me out here.  Where do you see generosity?  

The thing about living generously is that it benefits everyone.  It benefits the recipient, of course.  But it also benefits the giver.  “Tis better to give than to receive” is absolutely true!  Giving makes our hearts bigger - remember what happened to the Grinch?  Whose heart grew bigger and bigger the more he gave away?  Living generously is an act of love.  It is one of the ways we share God’s love with all of our brothers and sisters.  It is one of the ways we show God just how much we love Him, as well.   

Go out from this place and give generously.  
Go out from this place and live generously.  In so doing, we will change the world. 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

I can do no other

Luke 17:1-5 Common English Bible

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? 8  Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? 9  You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? 10  In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’”

Some of the most annoying things I see on Facebook are the pictures that say something like, If you believe in Jesus, share this pretty picture and God will reward your faith with lots of money! 

I am often tempted to un-friend anyone who posts those things.  I don’t believe God is going to reward me for re-posting an annoying picture on Facebook.   I don’t believe that if I give enough money to the church, or spend enough time doing charity work, or bring enough bodies into the church building, that God will make me to prosper in the ways of the world.  There won’t be cars and big houses and jet planes waiting for me.  Time and time again, Jesus says that money and power and the ways of the world are the very opposite of what we are to aspire to.  And yet, somehow, the prosperity gospel continues to hold sway over our minds.  People become convinced that if they are faithful enough, they will become, if not wealthy, then at least comfortable.  What Jesus says in this passage, however, is “If you have even a teensy itsy bit of faith, you can make this mulberry tree uproot itself and replant itself in the sea” - a place where mulberry tress don’t belong.  Or, as Matthew tells the story, if you had even just that much faith, you could move a mountain.  Nothing would be impossible for you.  I have no idea why anyone would want to make a mulberry tree replant itself in the sea, although I imagine that mountain moving trick would be very welcome to a highway construction crew, but the way we usually preach this is, there is no such thing as a little faith or a lot of faith. There is faith or not faith.   Or, as Yoda said, “Do or not do.  There is no try.”  

Which is also problematic, actually.  If you believe yourself to be faithful, and the things you most earnestly desire don’t happen - does that mean you don’t have enough faith?  When I was in seminary, a classmate’s minister was fired from her job.  She had been diagnosed with Lupus, and even though she prayed and the congregation prayed, the disease was not lifted from her.  They fired her for lack of faith, saying that if she had faith, she would have been healed.  

I am a firm believer that faith will move mountains, but that it would be a good idea to bring a shovel.  I am quite certain that God can make things happen for me, but if I want to pass that final exam, I need to study.  The things that my faith brings me are not the mountain moving, new car winning, all my debt removed kinds of things that so many pray for.  My faith helps me live with a peaceful heart.  My faith tells me that a frightening health issue will be resolved, one way or another.  My faith tells me that no matter what happens, I will be ok.  Even if I lose my job or my home.  Even if I die.  I will be ok.  That kind of faith helps me get through any situation.   And that’s the kind of faith I think Jesus was talking about.  He didn’t promise his followers easy lives.  In fact, he often told them the opposite.  He told them that their faith in God, their dedication to following his teachings, would bring them pain, suffering, even death.  But he promised them - and us - that ultimately, they would be ok.   

I wasn’t entirely certainly how this verse on faith related to the rest of the reading, about serving God.  But I realize that faith is what causes us to serve God. Faith is what lets us stand up for what we believe in. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t still worry about stuff.  I do.  I often find myself doubting an outcome, or worrying unnecessarily.  But when I remind myself that God is in charge, and that no matter what, is is going to be ok, then my heart knows peace and I can move forward into the unknown more excited than afraid.  I think maybe that whole making a mulberry tree grow in the sea thing might be a metaphor for that very difficult task of moving my belief from my head to my heart, where belief becomes faith.  

When I first looked over today’s reading, I wondered a bit what the part about servants had to do with the part about faith.  Servant passages are always a bit difficult to bring into modern life.  Most of us can’t really relate to the concept of having a servant go out to work for us all day and then come inside to cook dinner and serve us our meal, only eating when we are finished.  Most of us don’t have servants.  But we do go out to eat and expect the server to serve us, not sit down and eat with us.   We do go get our cars serviced before a long trip, but we don’t ask the mechanic to come join us on vacation.   We expect that whatever service we receive from anyone in a service position will be done for us without whining or complaining or expecting any special reward from us.   So it is with any faithful servant.  Including us.

In 1517, a priest named Martin Luther wrote 95 theses, statements in opposition to certain practices then current in the Catholic Church.  He sent them to his  Archbishop and is reputed to have posted them to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg - the 16th century equivalent of posting a blog to the internet.   In 1521 at the Diet of Worms (which was not a weird weight loss plan, but a church council specifically called to indict him for heresy!), when asked whether he had written the 95 theses and other books that spoke opposition to the leadership of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther is supposed to have said “Here I stand. I can do no other.”  Although those words do not appear in the official minutes of the council, they have become a significant part of his story, and far be it from me to say that something which may not be historically factual may not nevertheless, be True.  The point is, whether or not he used those specific words, he refused to recant his writings or his opinions.  He stood by his beliefs that the teachings of the Church at that time were wrong - even though he knew that saying this could mean his death.  His intent in publishing those theses was to provoke a conversation.  His intent in publishing those theses was to provoke a change in heart in the leadership, to bring about a return to the ancient values of the Church.  What he provoked was a Reformation.  He was a faithful servant of God, a believer in the teachings of the Christ.  He wasn’t looking for any kind of reward.  He was just looking to do what was right, what God required of him.  
Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day when Christian communities of every kind all over the world share communion, something we in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) do every single Sunday, but some communities do only once a month, or once a year.  Today we celebrate the one thing that we all hold in common - remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Today we come together as one Church, for this one short moment, for this one shared meal.  When we get up from the Table, the fussing and arguing over beliefs and practices will begin again, but for this one moment - we are one.  For this one moment - we share God’s grace with each other.  

Jesus reminded us of God’s commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Not just your friends or family or fellow believers.  All your neighbors.  Even your enemy.  Even the people you disagree with.  Even the people who have hurt you or want to hurt you.  Even the people you don’t trust.  Love them all without judgement or assumptions.  This is the most difficult commandment to follow.  If we follow it faithfully, we can change the world.  I know I cannot change the world on my own, no matter how much faith I have.  But I can strive to follow this extremely difficult commandment.  As a faithful servant of God, I can work to change my own heart, to bring God’s love and grace into the world.  So can we all.  Without expecting reward or special praise.  As Christians, in doing these things we have only done our duty.  We can do no other.