Saturday, September 24, 2005

This seems to be the website for the British Methodist Women's group. Has a lot of good resources. You can register for free to access everything. tulsa1
The Magnet

Sunday, September 18, 2005

It's not Fair, Sept. 18 Sermon

We live in a culture that has its roots firmly planted in fairness. You get out what you put in—You reap what you sew. Some attribute the economic success of the United States to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” The idea that we are masters of our own ship that was cultivated by the Puritans who arrived in the 17th century. The liberation of the Bible from the priest and into the hands and languages of the laypeople was a powerful force of the Reformation, and it led to strengthened sense of individuality and personal responsibility. Indeed, many scholars say the Enlightenment itself was planted in the enhanced philosophy of the individual, which was a byproduct of the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. A result of the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century was the notion of “individual rights” which led to the democratic revolutions. Individual rights as you know sit on a see saw with individual responsibilities. The balance of the two is an agreed upon notion of fairness.
This scripture passage has chafed me since I was a kid. Perhaps it’s that it gnaws at my modern sensibilities of “fairness.” It’s the same thing with the prodigal son’s brother who sticks around and helps out on the farm, or the other sheep who stay in the fold while the shepherd goes off looking for the lost sheep. I don’t remember being an extremely cynical child, but for some reason I always sided with the person who was seemingly wronged in the parable. Those who showed up first and worked all day DESERVED a better pay than those who showed up and worked an hour in the coolness of the evening. Why would the shepherd leave unattended those 99 sheep who had enough sense NOT to go wandering off? The father who rushed out to welcome back his wayward son who showed him no respect and spent all his inheritance in a binge seemed to be revealing an embarrassing degree of FAVORITISM in my book—his other son stuck by him the entire time and he didn’t get a big party?!
Part of me still wonders what kind of time this hypothetical landowner had the next day when he went out into the town square early in the morning and tried to recruit some workers for his vineyard. He likely wouldn’t have any success rounding people up until 5pm if you ask me! Of course, Jesus mentions no “next day” in his parable.
No—Jesus boldly proclaims the beauty of a God who transcends or perhaps simply pre-dates our concept of fairness or “right and wrong.” The landowner who is recruiting help and paying what he wishes inhabits a story where there is no “next day.” Instead, the generosity that he offers, and in turn the unbelievable grace that his generosity points to in our God has no concern for the “next day” when he may or may not be able to get any help. The generosity and grace is ultimately tied to the present moment. It is found in every breath we take and has no concern for our past or our future. IT is given to us because it is a product of God’s eternal nature.
Jesus continuously reminds us that we are given grace not according to our faithfulness, but according to God’s ever abundant generosity. Though it may offend my sense of right and wrong, Jesus tells us that God’s generosity extends beyond the boundaries of fairness. Is this a welcome word? Is this Good News? It isn’t if we consider Fairness to be God’s chief virtue. Here’s a thought—perhaps our cultural picture of a God who judges us eternally based on the life we lived, or who rewards hard work and lasting faithfulness with all the bounty we can comprehend is simply a byproduct of our fairly young and fairly immature culture. The Gospel lesson tells us of a God who is radically UNFAIR—Our God might be accused of being na├»ve by our worldly standards. The indiscriminating outpouring of grace and love toward all who come with open hands is a beautiful picture—but we would probably call someone who enacted this kind of ethical standard in our day and age an idealist.
Perhaps my problem with this story and the others is my own haughty assumption that I can even identify with the early workers. My concentration on the “fairness” of the passage probably means that I, consciously or not, believe that I am an “early worker” when the reality is that I’m probably showing up at around 4:55 to the market square to look for work. While I may be more prone to grumbling about fairness, I should actually be rejoicing at the undeserved grace I’ve been given.
Perhaps the reality is that we’re all showing up late to put in an hour’s work. In the cultural context in which this Gospel lesson was written, Gentiles would probably have taken comfort to know that even those who had shown up late to the game were given the same reward as those who had been part of the project for so long. The God of Christianity was and is the God of the Hebrews. There was competition between Jewish adherents of Jesus and Gentile adherents of Jesus. In a way, this parable spoke to the early church in a way that still speaks to us today. Those Gentiles who were new to the faith, and thus “late comers” to the vineyard, were given the same reward as those who had practiced the faith of the fathers for their whole life. Matthew gives his auidience a fresh vision of the radical inclusiveness of this God we worship. We aren’t rewarded for how long we’ve believed: There are no company watches given in God’s Kingdom—we are rewarded by God’s grace. God’s grace can’t be quantified into a little grace for you and a much larger portion of grace for you. God’s grace is immeasurable and infinite in every circumstance it is given. We are all recipients of this grace—if we must think in terms of “equal measure” then the story tells us it is an equal measure. But the truth is that it is quantified and multiplied by what we do with it. Jesus also tells the story of the talents, where a landowner gives talents to each of his slaves, and they bring glory to their master based on what they DO with those talents. If we share the grace we are given with others, we multiply that grace in the world, and our master is glorified because of it.
We have such a bad habit of drawing lines around ourselves and between ourselves. There are those of us who are old Christians and new Christians, there are those of us who have “gotten what was coming to us” and there are those of us who are living “charmed lives.” There are insiders and outsiders, latecomers and early risers. Our cultural norms reinforce these lines of distinction and convince us to act in accordance with their rules and laws. But we have a God who refuses to pay attention to such things. God extends grace to every living soul on the face of the earth. There is no contract to sign, there are no hours to put in, there is nothing on this earth that can squeeze out more or less grace than what is being offered us when we draw our first breath. God loves us all to our cores at that moment. We are loved as much at our first moment, without doing a thing about it, as we are loved at our last moment, with a life of service to God behind us. God loves you and me as much as He loves his greatest servants, like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, or John Wesley. God loves you and me as much as he loves our greatest enemies, or those people we believe don’t deserve God’s grace. The story of the generous landowner tells us that God’s love is radically and eternally present and pouring over each of our lives. The story of the talents gives us a deeper perspective in that we realize that we must open our hands and receive God’s outpouring of love. We must be filled and in turn spill over with God’s redeeming love. If we are given God’s grace and talents and then bury them in our hearts for only our consolation and hope, then we are like the workers who bury their talents in the ground, waiting for the master’s return.
If we delight in the grace given us at the end of the day instead of grumbling about God’s generosity—if we take our “earnings” and share them with our neighbors, God’s grace will multiply in the world through us. We will become conduits of God’s grace! Thanks be to God! Amen

Monday, September 05, 2005

Refuge in Waldron

The little town where I am a minister in the hills of western Arkansas recently increased its population by 100 people.

Our town of 3500 people is roughly 75% white and 25% hispanic, but now we also have 100 African americans--all former residents of New Orleans who have come here via the Superdome and Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith. Fort Chaffee was supposed to receive 4000 people, but got 10,000 people, and our ministerial alliance teamed up with some town leaders and readied an old empty nursing home on Friday to receive as many as we could. It was inspiring to see the townspeople respond with such care. As I write this, my wife is down at the nursing home answering the phone--we recently listed the residents of our shelter and have gotten calls from loved ones looking to find them.

One heartbreaking story at our shelter is of an old woman with an eye patch who held her husband's hand as she sat on her roof and he drowned. She's old, and he had helped her up on the roof, but then couldn't get up himself and was lost to the sludgy water. It is not appropriate for the news outlets to be showing bodies floating face down in the waters. She is traumatized and wants to get back to New Orleans so she can be there when and if they find his body so she can bury it.

Lots of the evacuees aren't planning on returning. I was talking to a woman tonight who said she was going to see how they liked it here and perhaps just settle here.

We've organized meals with all the churches preparing and bringing to the shelter. There is a Tyson plant in town that has offered all the chicken we need, and right now my church freezers are full of fresh chicken from right here in town. Wal-Mart is offering $500. If you ask me, they should be giving a lot more than that considering they will probably make quite a bit of profit on all the people buying relief supplies to donate, and all the people who will have to restock their homes. Perhaps the oil companies could donate some gas to the state of Louisiana. (That'll be the day) We're paying $3.10 a gallon here in Waldron, and they don't even have any gas in Louisina. People have to bring enough gas to get down there and back when picking up refugees.
Just thought my readers would like to know. If you'd like to send help, we could use it. Email me if interested.

Hurricane Katrina Sermon

Like most of you, I’ve been consumed with the news coming out of New Orleans this week. A disaster area turned into the unthinkable when the levees broke around that city and engulfed 80% of the city in water, sludge, and chemicals. We’ve all heard the stories of disaster and despair, and today we come together to celebrate the Lord’s day.
When faced with natural disaster, there are numerous theological statements made by our response. Some believe disasters like this are the will of God, designed in the infinite cosmological omnipotent mind to somehow bring about good and faith. Some believe such an occurance has nothing to do with God, but only of human foolishness and neglect. My interpretation of this kind of occurrence is shaped by a theological perspective that strikes the chords of my heart as true: It is called “Process theology.” One of the major tenants of Process theology grows out of the Wesleyan insistence on the “free will of humankind. My interpretation of natural disasters is informed by the idea that God loves us so much that God is willing to abide by our free will to accept God or not. Much like a parent who comes to the realization that her teenager has come to a decision making age, God’s power is manifested in a persuasive pull rather than a coercive push.
The question of “why would God let this happen” does not concern me as much as the question of “would God let me let this happen without doing anything about it?” You see, the question of “why would God let this happen” is a product of our grappling with God’s relationship with a world that has the freedom of choice. If I believed in a God who acted coercively, then the question of why God could do something to stop the suffering and toil we witness in the gulf, in Iraq, or other parts of the world---why God could do something about it but chose not to would be what theologians call an “ontological problem” That is—a “problem with God.” You see, our usual notions of omnipotence or “all knowingness” and perfect love come into conflict when we suffer these moments of crisis and hopelessness.
The idea that “God’s got a plan,” rings hollow in my ears when I hear about newborn babies washed away in the filthy water, or about hordes of people driven to rampage when deprived of food and clean water for 4 or 5 days. It just doesn’t seem to satisfy my despair when I hear about 1000 people trampled and drowned when trying to flee from the rumor of a suicide bomber in Iraq. I can believe that God has a plan, but I don’t think I can believe God intended for those things to happen so that the plan could work itself out. Instead, I believe that God has a vision for the future. God has a great vision and plan, but it involves me taking the cues given me in subtle and sometimes magnanimous ways. God has a plan, but God doesn’t “push” it into existence by manipulating world events. Instead, God responds to the glory and despair that we face with a seed. This seed lures us toward the best possible outcome for our current situation. It is revitalized and renewed with every breath. We must be attentive to God’s whisperings in the silence.
Like Elijah, we must look beyond the storm and the fire, we must be patient to hear God’s voice in the ringing of our ears when the tumult is over. God is asking us to participate in the Creation of a new, better world. God asked Adam to name the animals that God had made. Likewise, God involves us in the creative act. Instead of getting bogged down in the interpretation of God’s supposed “action” in the form of an “act of God,” we are instead called to be a listening people—attuning our ears and eyes to the silent inspiration after the storm. It was not uncommon for God’s people to hear him in the fire or the wind or the thunder. Elijah knew a rich history of his people doing exactly that. Notice that each of the signs he observes in the cave are metahphors for God’s presence that were to be expected. It was as if Elijah was witnessing a highlight reel of God’s presence in the world. But, instead Elijah listens with some creativity. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Elijah listens in the silence. Elijah listens with ears attuned to the persuasive pull of silence. We are called to do the same.
During this week, many of us felt a call to action. We are in the process of responding to the needs of those who are entering our community in a desperate situation. God is calling us to harness the empathy we feel sitting in front of our televisions and direct it into an outpouring of love and compassion for those in our midst. In today’s scriptures, Paul proclaims our purpose as Christians is summed up in the simple commandment to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” He tells us to “owe no debt but the debt to love one another.” He calls this a debt because God first loved us. Even in the midst of our self-obsessiveness, even in the midst of our self-loathing, God loves us to our cores. God knows the depths of our doubts and our fears and our stubbornness and our sinfulness and God loves us without reservations.
It is because of this love that we are compelled to broadcast that love in the world. We owe it to our brothers and sisters to love one another. We owe it to one another because we can love God back with the same disregard to reservation for sin and through our unqualified love for our neighbors. It doesn’t matter to us what kind of people they are simply because it doesn’t matter to God what kind of people we are before God loves us. God loves us in the midst of our sin and struggle.

Paul also tells us to “wake up” to the reality of God’s love in our midst. Paul tells us that our salvation is nearer at hand now than when we first became believers. That is, every moment contains the possiblilty for the renewal and zeal that we first felt when we figured out how to live like Christians. That moment is now, brother and sisters. We are being asked to love like it is a new and novel idea. We are being asked to create possibilities for God’s salvation alongside God. We are being asked to respond to the persuasive pull—we are not being pushed into a pit of predestination.
Last week, Moses heard the call of God from the burning bush to minister to God’s people for God. Moses was awakened to his identity as a liberator and leader of God’s people. He may not have thought he wanted the job, but God laid it at his feet. If we’d read the Romans passage, you would have heard Paul’s message to “outdo one another in showing honor….(read the rest)” Paul gives us a template here for being a church. We are asked to live out the Gospel with such vigor and commitment that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Well church, I don’t know that I even needed to prepare a sermon today: The message that we’ve been hearing from Paul lately rings with crystal clarity for me in our present situation. There are people right down the street who could use our shoulders to help carry their load. They may have arrived here with nothing, but they carry heavy burdens on their back. Let us not shrink from the opportunity to proclaim God’s good news through our actions. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel wherever you go….if you have to, use words.” Let us remember that God’s compassion and grace can shine through us even if we can’t find any meaningful words to say to people experiencing grief like few of us have.
Let us not be “haughty and claim to be wiser than we are.” The images on our news have often shown people behaving in ways that seem disgusting and reprehensible to our comfortable morals. Before we jump to judgment of people based on the reporting of a news media whose common moral compass is “if it bleeds, it leads,” let us instead take a moment to consider the desperation of the people whose tragedy has become our conversation piece.
Imagine everything in your home of sentimental value….see in your mind those wedding albums, your child’s first pair of shoes or his or her baptismal gown. Imagine the family heir looms, the trophies that held memories of pride. Now imagine those things washed away in the muddy filthy water. Imagine your helplessness and despair. Now imagine that the meal you ate before coming to church this morning was unwittingly the last meal you would be able to have before this coming Friday. Imagine the sight of people dying because they could get their medications and having nowhere to put them but out on the sidewalk, only feet away from where you and your children sat, trying to pass away the time.
Perhaps we should have some humility about what depths we might sink to if we were placed in that kind of situation. I don’t know how I would react when faced with such a desperate situation. I would like to hope that I would remain sane and civilized, but if I really try to get inside their skin, I don’t know if I could. Let us face the work of Christ with the same spirit of our Master. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit gives us strength and courage to show the love of God to whomever crosses our path. As we come to the Lord’s table, let us come confessing our sins and looking for the quiet inspiration of God. In the simple elements of bread and wine, we celebrate God’s presence among us. In the simple provisions that we have accumulated for our neighbors, we embrace God’s presence and open the eyes of those in despair to its beauty.