Weekly E-news for Sept. 20th

The weekly e-news is here!  092017

This week’s edition includes “Save the Date” information for upcoming events such as the 9th Annual Women of the Word Dessert Auction and Potluck and the Adult & Family Dinner activities for October and November (it’s time for the Dinner Theatre)!
Check out the information regarding ongoing Bible studies as well as the Missions outreach.

2017-09-03 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 7/8

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 7/8

Rev.  Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, September 3rd, 2017

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I want to tell you that I have it all together but then I would also have to tell you that I’m lying to you.  I had a sermon for this morning.  It was done on Thursday as is my usual practice is in the drawer; it’s soaking; it’s ready to go; but right now it’s in that blue folder over on the chair by where I was sitting because I woke this morning at 3:30 AM and the word of the Lord came to me.  That ever happened to you?  I’m hesitant to tell you that because often times when people say the word of the Lord came to them they want you to elevate them.  I actually want to dig a pit and let you stand around the edge and looked down.  If you don’t like it you can just kick the dirt in but please don’t.  In fact I feel a little awkward standing.  Can we have this removed?

The sermon for today is on this text and it’s a nice long sermon not for a communion Sunday.  It’s a sermon for when we want to look at the whole picture.  It is a sermon for Sunday when we want to really engage deeply in the fullness of this awesome text, this gospel within the gospel.

So what was on my mind at 3:30 this morning was a particular point of the text and I thought we might talk about that today; reflect on that; think about that.  Before we get to that though — I want to tell you — it is getting harder to be a Christian these days.  When I was a kid, it seemed like everybody pretty much got along and the church was the church and we all went to church and we all got along together and everybody knew their role and people did nice things for nice people and it seemed to make a difference, at least that was the word that came back.  The problems keep getting bigger.  Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and I can see farther than I could when I was a kid.  We have Hurricane Harvey and what are we going to do to help with rebuilding Houston?  One of the things that I wanted to share with you — you probably saw this, it was on Facebook — but just in case you have got good sense and don’t look at Facebook:

Watching hurricane Harvey destruction and rescues, I’m struck by one thought: Cajuns have flooded in with boats to help Texans.  White men are loading black men and women into their boats.  Black men are jumping out of their boats to help Hispanic families gather coolers of personal belongings that are floating away.  Asian women and white women are working together in help stations.  This is the real America.  These are everyday people who have gotten up off their butts and moved to do something.  Hate groups and media running from town to town creating a false sense of oppression and hate don’t represent this country.  They’re not trying to better our country.  People loading their boats and spending their own money to travel hundreds of miles to risk their own lives, pulling people they’ve never met and would never meet from homes they will never be able to afford are the true picture of who we are.  Why is it that we witness this kind of support among strangers over and over in disaster situations and still allow such a small group with a loud voice to keep the divide alive that actually does not exist among the majority?

That was well said.

What are we going to do about Hurricane Harvey?  Perhaps the first thing were going to do is let it speak to us about what kind of people we are.  It is going to draw out of us things that we had forgotten were in us like sacrificial compassion.

What I’m going to talk about in our text this morning is that moment in the younger son’s life.  He is in the far country; he told his father what he wanted and to his surprise, his Dad said fine: half the property, half of the resources; they are yours.  Steve’s right, you better be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.  I don’t know if you understand what an offense it is when you’re younger son asks for half the property that includes half of the family land.  He sells it and goes.

But we are not talking about that; we are talking about that moment in the far country where the structures we have put in place for our own benefit.  He told his Dad what he wanted to have happen.  We don’t know if he bid farewell to his brother.  We don’t even know if he has a mother.  All of those are shut out of his view and he’s now on the far country.  He had everything he wanted; he got it.  We catch up to him and he’s feeding pigs; working for a foreigner in a nation and a country and that’s far from home.  It is at that moment when he is sitting there and we have chosen to define it as a moment of repentance when he comes to himself, repentance.  The Greek word is metanoeó.  But that was not the word in the text, so that’s not what happens; that’s not the story.  He was not repentance in that moment in the far country because the word is nous.  Nous is a great Greek word if you’re with Aristotle and you’re looking for your eyes to be opened and a new way to become visible to you.  Aristotle taught about the unseen third way.  You got your position; I’ve got my position; the unseen third way is what we are seeking.  That’s what Congress looks like when it actually works.

That’s not what happens in this text; it is not that high.  The boy’s eyes don’t go BING.  The boy’s eyes open just a little bit and in this situation the word nous in Greek has to do with seeking to make your own situation better.  There is no higher thinking there.  It is simply looking around going, how do I get out of this?  The text reads: he came to himself.  We know what happens because we paid attention in Scripture to other time when the main character of the story has only one conversation partner and that is himself.  In Luke chapter 12 God calls just such a person a fool.  When your only conversation partner is yourself; be careful about thinking your eyes are open.  The ability of the mind to reflect on one’s own situation; the capacity to want to improve one’s own situation; to come into a new awareness — that is what nous means.  But in this case it is not seeking a better way for anyone but himself.  He definitely did not consult with his father or his brother.  His eyes are open just enough for him to see that he is in the wrong place.

We know both of these things because as he begins to walk home he begins fabricating a lie.  It is the same lie — word for word — that Pharaoh speaks to Moses back in the 10th chapter of Exodus when he wants the plagues off his back.  It’s the same lie that Jimmy Swaggart told on national TV from his preaching center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1988 when he wanted the auditors out of his books and he thought if he confessed to sex crimes that would make that happen.  I have sinned before the Lord and before you.  But it’s a lie and we probably don’t want to follow this boy or you don’t really want to follow anyone whose response to misery is lying; though it’s tempting.

There is a lot of lying going on in the folks most offended by the ways of Jesus.  The scribes and Pharisees and their little profit scheme.  It is not little; it was quite profitable to keep single women dependent on them for functioning in that culture.  Jesus says; beware of the scribes; beware of the Pharisees.  They deplete the resources of widows; they devour the houses, beware.  Jesus said: beware of the lies.  The cultural religion in that day had spent a whole lot of time cherry-picking Scripture and stringing it together to raise up home folk on the backs of immigrant workers.  When Jesus challenged those lies in Luke 4 they tried to run him off a cliff.  The high priests, the Sanhedrin, and the lies they had concocted to defend their understanding of their profit margin, wrapping it in patriotism and nationalism.  That’s why we call it a kangaroo court when they arrested Jesus and brought him before Pilate.  It was lies.  Be careful about following people who lie.  The structures that they have put in place for their own benefit are challenged by the simple decency of Jesus.  So we don’t want to follow this younger son in our text today but we certainly do want to learn from him.  We want to watch him because his eyes are beginning to open just a little, just enough to know I’m going to head for home.  I think it would be better near my father.

That’s the text for today.  I think the question that is before us is: in what way do your eyes need to be opened?  Where are you being misled?  Where do you believe a structure that you’ve built that is going to come down?  What structures have you put in place for your own benefit; didn’t bother to consult with others; to sort out or strategize or work with people who have skin in the game with you; that has brought unexpected outcomes?  In what way do we need our eyes to be open?  There is one other character in the story and you know who it is; we read about it; it is the older brother.  We need to guard against what he did too.  Well I’m right so how dare you, I’m right.  I stayed; I’m loyal; I’m faithful to the ways with which we are familiar.  I don’t need to work with anyone either because I’m right.  What’s most surprising as we get to the end of the story is that the invitation for both brothers is to come into the house and be together.

You might be lost; that might be you and you got to have your eyes opened.  You might never have left but you to have to have your eyes opened to see that there are others in the house and they might be right too.  Jesus is redefining what it means to repent.  It used to mean — until he redefined it in this text – it used to mean, I’m so sorry, I feel so bad.  Do I feel bad enough to get your sorrow on me?  OK, I’ll cry more, have I convince you yet?  Jesus is redefining it as that personal realization that we are lost and we need to be found.  We like sheep have gone astray.  We like sheep go astray.  Well that’s it.  Where is it that you need your eyes open?  How is it that you are lost and need to be found?  I’m going to leave it there and we are going to have communion and we all get to come to the table of the Lord and see what Jesus will do in us.

2017-08-27 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 6/8

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 6/8

Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 27th, 2017

Luke 19:1-10

I want to say if you were not here last week you might want to go find last week’s sermon on the website.  I think it makes sense and it will help today makes sense.  Last week we discovered that Zacchaeus is really a study in the power of what fear can do in a life.  Zacchaeus saw himself as small and rationalize cheating and lying and grabbing material wealth.  He has been ostracized and tolerated in his own community.  We noticed last week that Zacchaeus was so alone and how the loneliness and lack of conversation partners had led him to a place of rebellion.  I just don’t care what people think about me.  I’m going to risk public humiliation and go up that tree.  Fear drives destructive behavior, and in this case it is a grown man behaving like a small boy.

Jesus intervenes; comes to find Zacchaeus in the tree; goes with Zacchaeus to his home and he says something to Zacchaeus.  We don’t know what it is but it is what Zacchaeus needed and it changed his life.  That is a moment for us to ponder and it can only be a moment because we can’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus, but what we can wonder is what would it take for our lives to be changed profoundly?  What would Jesus have to say to us for us to go OH and walk a new way?  It had to be very profound.  But suddenly in that moment for Zacchaeus things make sense in a way they never have before and he is moved to say: I will give half of my wealth to the poor and Lord, if I have overcharged anyone on their taxes I will pay them back four times over.  Something for us to respond again to think about ourselves as we ponder the gospel; how do we resolve the fear in our lives?

Well in this case for Zacchaeus it’s worked out the economic inequality in your life.  It’s kind of funny because the definition of unrighteousness has to do with hoarding the gifts of the king; thinking that we deserve them while our neighbors have nothing.  So something about doing away with the vast disparity and isolation brought about by deception that separates those who have from those who do not.  Do away with that.  Something about that comes when Jesus says to us what we need to hear.  And in that moment for Zacchaeus his soul is whole and his first thought is giving.  I think that’s a sign that our soul has become whole; the thought of being generous comes easy to us.

Life stops being me versus you or us versus them and their becomes some urgency about just being us.  I would go as far as to say the surest sign of the whole soul is a need to reconcile disparity and the need to give generously.  That’s what we learned last week and so far it sounds good but here’s the problem with this story; we don’t know how it ends.  Give away half and pay back four times over any money gotten by cheating.  That’s a lot of cash.  What is Zacchaeus going to do?

There’s been no mention here yet of the family of Zacchaeus, perhaps a wife and some kids who have become accustomed to living high-on-the-hog because Dad is wealthy.  A little bit later in the day when Zacchaeus gets back into his corner cubicle at the tax collector’s office and he tries to sit back and that’s not comfortable and he gets over his desk and oh God, how am I going to do this?  The bookkeeper in him takes over.  How am I going to pull this off?  I said half to the poor, do I count all of my land and my business holdings or is this just what’s in the savings account or just my liquid assets.  Paying back four times, you know, that’s a lot of people to track down.  That’s a lot of scratch and it’s going to  be humiliating.  What will Zacchaeus do — and more importantly — what must we do?

Jesus did say salvation has come to this home today.  What must we do for salvation to come to us?  Thank you to the Fundamentalist influence in our cultural church and a poor translation decision made in 1854 and this text has come to mean – well — Zacchaeus is going to write a big enough check and now he is going to heaven.  Hurray, get out the horns, shout, sing, dance, andlet’s have a party.  The point of thousands of sermons through the years is that Jesus saved Zacchaeus from going to hell by bringing him into a conversion moment through a conversation that they had and the presumption is that Zacchaeus will follow through on his word.  That’s what gets him into heaven.  There is just one little problem.

Righteousness?  Zacchaeus would get himself saved by writing a big enough check.  If you’re trying to run a ministry of money that works for you.  And if you’re trying to buy an airplane as a pastor that really works for you.  Zacchaeus justifies himself by writing a check.  If you really want to do that I’m not going to stop you, I suppose.  But that’s not the message of this text because that’s not the message of the gospel.  We have read a lot of passages through the course of going through Luke that warn against — not subtly, directly — warn against justifying yourself.  That is a misread of this text.  It does violence to the text and it also leaves out the question that we have to ask.  What if Zacchaeus doesn’t pull it off?  What if Zacchaeus doesn’t follow through on his word?  What if he only gives 49.873% to the poor.  And what if he miscalculates the balance of his investment account and there’s been a payoff; you follow me?  What if he doesn’t quite get to half?  What if he cannot find everyone that he’s cheat?  What if he doesn’t find everyone that he’s cheated, will he be out of heaven?  To use the images of our cultural church will Saint Peter meet him at the gate and say 48.6%.  It’s really a misread of the story and I’d like to rescue this story from Fundamentalism and a poor translation choice.

The Greek word in the text that is the problem is the Greek word that we translate as salvation.  Salvation has come to this home today.  The Greek word is sótéri or sótéria.  A much better translation would be: wellness has come to this home today or healing has come to this home today or wholeness has come to this home today.  That’s what happened in Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus was made whole.  In Zacchaeus we catch a glimpse of the fruit of what it looks like to be made whole in the presence of Christ.  I will give; giving is a sign of wholeness, generosity times four with a mindful thoughts about how our actions affect the good of others.  It’s amazing to me that when Zacchaeus’ soul is healed, his first thoughts are: all those people I cheated; I got to put the money back in their hands.  What happened is that Zacchaeus in that moment came to a place where he was finally willing to die to what he used to be.  Die to accumulating enough so that he could be enough because he was a man of small stature.  Because he is freed in dying to what he used to be, to think things he never would’ve thought before when he was trying to protect all that cash he grabbed; Zacchaeus becomes the resurrection.  The fact is that Zacchaeus is changed and how he thinks about his money and it will affect his family as it affects his coworkers and the folks he’s cheated and his neighbors and how they see him if he follows through.

So what happens to Zacchaeus; does he follow through?  I’ll be honest with you, I can’t quite get to a place where I believe he does.  Zacchaeus is a dishonest bookkeeper.  Zacchaeus is a wheeler dealer and when he was talking to Jesus he used the protective if: if I have deceived anyone, I will pay.  The question that we are really asking here is did Zacchaeus managed to become respectable?  The point of the story, a point that a lot of church folk would like to gloss over and gussied up is that God’s wonderful grace cannot come to us through our respectability.  Respectability only values life and success in winning and getting and grabbing and having and possessing and measuring up and being deserving of God’s love.  It’s a terrible place to be; thinking we are deserving and thinking we have to maintain being deserving and thinking others have to be deserving before they can receive God’s grace.  Terrible demands terrible demands that makes us sweat.  It makes us sweat trying to think about what we need to do next and we get the to-do list going in our head and it wakes us up in the morning and it keeps us up at night.  What we have to do next so we can be respectable people so we can get ourselves into heaven?

Let something go awry; let the market turn and our company downsize; let the management think that they need to go a different route and we get laid off.  Let there be an accident and it’s our child that’s injured on the freeway.  Let there be an illness in our parents; we can’t reach respectability.  What did I do God to bring this on myself?  That’s the conversation that comes when we are dealing with respectability.  It’s a terrible conversation.  It’s the wrong conversation.  But we follow a Jesus who refuses to be respectable.  Maybe that’s what I should be shouting today.  We follow Jesus who declines to be respectable.  Remember how the people grumbled against him for being the guest of this notorious sinner.  That is not the first time that grumbled against him.  He broke the Sabbath and they grumbled; he gave food to people on the holy day and they grumbled; he consorted with lepers and adulterers and tax collectors and people with demons and losers of all kinds.  Jesus declines to be respectable.

That is the reason that the forces of respectability got rid of Jesus.  Here in this story we can see why Jesus refuses to be respectable.  Jesus declines to be respectable so that he could catch people that respectability terrifies and condemns.  The story is not really about Zacchaeus we learn a lot; we see ourselves.  But the story is really about Jesus and how far he is willing to come to find us and not so that we can clean ourselves up and have our act together and finally stand in the temple, and pray prayers of gratitude and how good we finally become; got our act together; I’m with you, God; I’m on your side; I’m good enough now.  No we are not worthy to come to Jesus and tell him much of anything.  Jesus comes to us — profound theological point right there — we don’t bring ourselves to Jesus.  Jesus comes to us in whatever place of desperation we’ve gotten ourselves up into so that we might know the wideness of God’s mercy; so that we can live lives where we can tell the truth about who we are.  We don’t have to lie.  We know our need for grace.  Or as Jesus said to his disciples: what I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax in the presence of God.  Don’t be preoccupied with earning or getting so that you can respond to God’s gift.

People who don’t know God and God’s ways fuss over stuff like getting and earning themselves into the kingdom and they never will.  Open yourself to God’s way.  What we see in Zacchaeus is actual spiritual transformation.  I know there are a lot of people who use the word spiritual and it was the most perfect thing that they communicate so clearly is: they have no idea what they’re talking about.  Spirituality is some mystery?  No it is not.  Spirituality is difficult to understand?  No it is really not.  In Zacchaeus we get a incredibly clear picture of a spiritual transformation.  He is simply someone who woke up, not someone who accomplished anything.  The full biblical gospel message is about awakening to what is; not accomplishing something you cannot accomplish.  The spiritual journey is realizing that you are loved, not perfecting yourself to be lovable.  You cannot get yourself there into the presence of God.  You can only be where you are in the presence of God who comes to you.  Did you hear that?  You cannot get there.  You can only be here.

But for some reason the idea that we are already granted access to God as a gift and we are loved by God while we are still screwing up our lives.  We don’t have to get ourselves good enough.  It’s too hard to believe; it’s too good to be true.  Our ego takes over and our bookkeeper in our head that keeps track of good deeds and bad deeds and what we think needs to happen and how to be respectable takes over.  Our lives become our theology; our relationship with God on our terms becomes about achievement and attainment.  We can’t live up to our own expectations and we can go through half of our life despairing about the equation we put in place.  It doesn’t work.  In Zacchaeus, we see the beautiful alternative for all of us who like to make grand promises, but it is iffy whether we are going to follow through.  Only the humble and the unassuming can receive God’s love and grace because it affirms more about God than it does about us.

We just thought we were going to stop through church today on our way to somewhere else and from a distance hear a few words that Jesus spoke and make us feel better a little bit about our respectable lives.  But he found us on the ladder we have been trying to climb and he said: you come down from there, today I’m coming to where you reside.  Now we’ve had an encounter with Jesus and he has invited us to die with him.  On the other side of that death is not a respectable life where we have our act together with accolades and approval.  On the other side of that death is simple reliance on God for everything.  Will you die to what you used to be?  For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.

 

2017-08-20 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 5/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 5/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 20th, 2017

Luke 19:1-10

You have been on my mind and in my heart. This has been a difficult week beginning with events in Charlotte, moving through the politicized news, the attack in Barcelona and then the mudslide in Sierra Leone. I can only imagine how hard it was for you to go through this week. Hearing things come out of people’s mouths that you never thought a person in 21st-century America would say. Seeing things with your eyes that you never thought you’d see. Trying to be instruments of peace and healing; trying to stand for what is right and just; trying to be a voice of hope where hope is difficult to find. I wonder if you are weary of the burden you carry.

I’ve been thinking about you and I’ve been praying for you because I do know you; I know the kind of people you are. I know the way that you are careful in how you listen and process and carefully choose words when you respond. I’m reminded of the story of Esther; words from the story of Esther that perhaps everything that you have experienced up until now God has used to prepare you for just such a time as this. But that does not make your calling or your life easy. So I say to you, be courageous and be brave; focus solely on the strength of God’s love; be strong in grace. The apostle Paul got it right; life is hard. The only thing we have that makes a bit of difference is choosing in those moments to be a presence of love. Loving one another changes the worst of situations; it disassembles systems of control and destruction and know that you are not alone as you lead. God is with you. God’s spirit will guide you. Trust God. Trust one another, your church. Pray for one another and encourage one another. You have much wisdom and you are people of great faith. I do believe you have been prepared for such a time as this and that God will strengthen you.

Our text today is an old one that we learned in Sunday school, mostly by singing: Zacchaeus was a wee little man. We stop with the song and we miss the point of the text. I’m going to your house today. I’m going to your house today. End of the song. I think there’s more there. Not that we shouldn’t sing that song with our children. Let them learn that; we will save the rest to teach them when they are a little bit older and they can rebel like we do against the message of this text. We understand this text in the same way that we understand hummingbirds consume eight times their body weight every day. We hear it but we don’t know how to process that because that’s so far outside our realm of experience that we just hear words and they move right on through. We miss the fine nuances of this text and so it doesn’t change our lives. And you know that’s the way you measure whether you are hearing the gospel or not; does it change your life? That’s when you know you have heard the gospel; it changes your life. But you better be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. God changed my life.

From a simple read of the text we know some things about Zacchaeus. We know he is short in comparison to other men. We know he’s in the tax collecting business and he has power over others. We know that he has accumulated wealth. We know he did so by cheating others and we know that people don’t like him and grumble against him and resent his presence in their midst. We put all this together; the picture is not hard to see. We have a man who feels less in comparison to others. So he has dedicated his life to dominating his field. He’s become a man of influence and he does so by rationalizing dishonesty against others. I am not enough so I have to get enough so that I can be enough. He’s going to get what he deserves by cheating his neighbors.

We also know from a simple reading of the text that there is a parade going on. The other men in the community have come out to meet and greet and elbow fight to walk next to this stranger to their town, Jesus. This is in the midst of the shame culture of the Middle East. It’s a lot like the shame culture in America; think high water pants in junior high. You are a conformist because you’re terrified of being called out for what you’re scared of about you. It is like me in this midsection that keeps coming even though I try to stop eating. It’s a genetic gift, but please don’t notice it. It is a shame culture. Some of you are saying: yeah, I got that too. Thanks Dad!

It is a shame culture but in this situation it is a fight going on about who’s got the most power and who can swing the best deal with strangers that come to town and who can make them feel welcome and who can get something out of them and so it’s a fight of elbowing your way up next to the stranger and walking and talking and touring and making them sure to know that you’re the big man in town. Zacchaeus has been shamed. Every one of the men in that community are in competition with one another. Smiles mask gritted teeth. The fear of losing out, the fear of getting behind, the fear of being seen as less, the fear of being labeled as weak and a failure and stupid, the fear of not having enough. This fear fills you with anxiety. The fear simmers and boils and steams and that steam builds pressure and it drives you. It is a fear that also soaks you in a cold sweat. Hard work and smart work and good work and luck only get you so far. You are kind of sure who your friends are as the elbows are moving. The easiest way to form an alliance with someone is to find someone beneath both of you to kick farther down the ladder. Anyone who is different will do.

In this case it is the man who is short. It is an easy way to direct unresolved anger; identify the undesirable, the outsider, you know: better him than you, right? This is power and fear is a shame culture. Just as an aside, we saw this exact situation in this country in the Reconstruction Years following the Civil War. Poor white farmers in the South and poor black farmers in the South in the sharecropping culture really suffered together under money-grubbing policies benefiting rich white people in the South and the North. Historians tell us that poor white farmers and poor black farmers were identical in their situation and if they had united in their efforts they would have been a staggering political power. They very well might have been able to change their situation. But the rich white folk sowed the seeds of racial discord and made it just enough better for the poor white farmers. They said: at least you are not as bad off as those black guys over there. You know, if you make any noise about your situation, things could get a whole lot worse for you. The easiest alliance to form is to find somebody just down the ladder and kick them because they’re different. It’s an easy way to get unresolved anger directed; identify the undesirable, the outsider; better him than you.

I’ve been spending this week pondering if that’s the situation that we are looking at coming to a head, a boil, in Charlottesville, in Boston. One of those young men that they interview seem to be between jobs; seem to not have held much of a job; seem to be unemployed or underemployed. Young men stuck in dead-end jobs; young men stuck in no job; labor has either gone offshore and become highly specialized. What we see in them — I wonder — unresolved anger building to a frothy expression of kicking. We will not be replaced is what they chanted; fear of being replaced.

Eighty-four years ago it happened in the fading days of the Weimar Republic in what became Germany. After years of tremendous struggle trying to make war reparations and dealing with high unemployment and hyperinflation, a whole generation of men became disconnected from their dignity. They became hostile and looking for resolution. They found a voice in one Adolf Hitler who helped them to find a source of blame for their anger. Unbearable pain was transferred onto that which is different. The Jew became the Jewish problem. You have to make sense when you’re angry and you got a scapegoat. The easiest alliance to form is to kick anyone who is down, who is different. Always better if you can find somebody beneath you. It’s an easy way to direct unresolved anger, identify the undesirables, the outsiders; better them than you. That’s exactly what this is about.

Just as an aside, if you want to address racism in this country: deal with the economics of lost humiliated young people who cannot find decent jobs. There is not really a lot of question in my mind about why Jesus said do not be afraid. More than anything else it is because fear drives destructive behavior. Fear is in each of us; it is like a hole in our soul. What will you use to fill the hole in your soul? That was one of Zacchaeus problems. He’s trying to use money as a bandage to fill the hole in his soul and all that money brings to him is filling the hole in his soul. You don’t have to look very far to find a lot of people like Zacchaeus who accumulate wealth by cheating others. They consume like hummingbirds multiple times more than we would ever know what to do with. So how much do you need? When you’re working to get enough, so that you can be enough, so that you can feel safe and big and invincible; how much do you need? Just an estimate; what you think? Actually, I think you know the answer to that question, you can never have enough power and influence that comes with wealth and purchase power and name recognition related to monetary value and conversational sway. You can never have enough to satiate the hunger and quiet your fear.

There is a something else that we know about Zacchaeus from a simple read of the text; it is his other problem. The text tells us he is alone; he has no friends; he’s isolated; he has no conversation partners and we can surmise that he is lonely. If he had a friend or two he never would have climbed the tree and risk being seen which is humiliating, which is embarrassing, a grown man, an adult does not climb a tree. If he is seeing he will be humiliated. A simple friend would’ve done a couple of things for Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus said: hey I got an idea, I’m short, I can’t see Jesus. I think I’m going to climb a Sycamore tree so I can get an eyeball on him. A friend would’ve said: are you out of your head? Are you crazy? You are a grown man. You are going to fall out of that tree. You’re going to land on your head in the dirt and you’re going to die right in front of the strange man walking through our town. Or you are going to be seen by one of those jerks that have been razzing you all these years, which might not kill you but it’s going to make you wish you were dead. A friend might say: hey, let us get a couple of boards together at the market and we will build a little box; put it on the ground right beside me and you can stand on that box and put your hand on my shoulder and then you will be able to see. No one’s going to notice.

Zacchaeus is alone; he has no friends and he is to the point of desperation that overrides fear of embarrassment. He says to himself, screw it; I’m climbing the tree; I don’t care who sees me. He’s been ostracized by his community and he’s trying to fill the hole in his soul by acquiring enough material wealth. Do you have any idea how many lies you have to maintain to be successful at deception? It must’ve been exhausting for him and we don’t have to add anything to the text to know that Zacchaeus bears enough weight to wear down any of us. Jesus sets him free! We don’t know what Jesus said exactly to help Zacchaeus round the corner and let go of his fear, but it was very good, very good; I’m sure. It was exactly what Zacchaeus needed. Maybe when Jesus was walking into Zacchaeus’ home. Zacchaeus said to Jesus yet. Thank you for coming to my house but I know I’m a loser at life and I know God doesn’t like me. Jesus says to him, who told you that? Is that those guys who were walking with me on the street. Are they the ones that told you that God cares about success in the world and monetary wealth, yeah? Then I think Jesus said something like this: all the fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if your clothes are in the latest fashion, there is far more to your inner life and your value than the food you put in your mouth and the outer appearance that you offer to others by the clothes you wear. Look at the ravens, they are free and unfettered and not tied down to a job. They are carefree in the care of God. You count far more in the eyes of God than they do.

Is anyone by fussing in front of the mirror gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t do that, if you worrying can’t do that, then why are you fussing? Walk in the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t worry about their appearance. The ten best dressed men and women in this nation look shabby alongside of them. And if God gives such attention to wildflowers — most of them which will never be seen by others — don’t you think that God will attend to you and take pride in you and do God’s best through you? What I’m trying to do here Zacchaeus is to get you to relax and not be so preoccupied with getting so that you can respond to God giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things. Zacchaeus open youself to God’s way. You will find all of your everyday human needs will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out, God wants to give you the kingdom. Zacchaeus be generous; give to the poor; invest in the bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank that can’t be robbed, a bank that you can count on. It is obvious isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, that’s the place you most want to be and that’s the place you will end up being. I think that’s what Jesus said to Zacchaeus.

Actually, I got those words from back in the 12th chapter of Luke when Jesus was talking about money and fear and what drives a life. And you know what; it works! Zacchaeus gets it; Zacchaeus is set free from his fear and his drives and his cold sweat and in that moment his life feels in balance for the first time. What does he do? Well he does the same thing we all do when our lives are changed; he starts to talk. He says, I will give half of my wealth to the poor. If I have overcharged people I’m going to pay them back four times over. Wow. Zacchaeus hit the nail on the head and this is where I got the idea for what I said before about solving racial division problems. This is one insight this text offers on the way to the point; when you’re living in fear of your neighbor, work out economic inequality; do away with the vast disparity and the isolation brought about by deceptive people on the top. When we stop using money to fill the hole in our soul; then giving becomes easy. Giving becomes an opportunity for us to find joy. Joy is a function of being surprised and in this case, our willingness to be surprised that the life change that our money can bring for others. Look at Zacchaeus, if he does what he says; if he gives have to the poor and pays back four times over, there is going to be nothing to separate him from his neighbors. It will stop being him and them. It stops being us and them. It becomes just us. Use wealth to lift people and much of the conflict will dissipate.

Zacchaeus in that moment saw clearly the way of the kingdom, how to be big in the eyes of God. Something to learn, something to ponder but the story isn’t over yet. This is where we are going to stop today. We are going to sing a hymn and go outside and drink coffee and talk to each other. Make some new friends. Find someone you don’t know and make sure they know how welcome they are here. Be the awesome, generous, gracious people that God has made you to be. Next week we will see what happens to Zacchaeus..

2017-08-13 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 4/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 4/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 13th, 2017

Matthew 4:12-23

Ah, they are over there. I’m a little disorganized this morning and I apologize for that. I don’t do the lecturing Dad very well and I kind of learned through the years that you pastor like you parent; you do! As you know that I don’t do the yelling part very well. Put my hands on the hips; I do not do that very well. My kids know that if I’m really angry at them my voice gets really really quiet. What I’m most thrilled about; I should not say thrilled because this is not the time for that. I’m proud to be the pastor of the church where I didn’t really have to say what I said. You all knew that. I wanted you to know that your pastor has your back and theologically we do have a responsibility.

I want to tell you about an old friend of mine. I have known him for a long time. We went to college together and it’s been kind of interesting to watch him through the years. He grew up in the Methodist Church and in about 2002 he made a rather sudden lurch to the right. He became engaged with Evangelical Christianity and he joined a Fundamentalist Christian Church. He picked up the Bible and hit the street; he became a street preacher for a while. He bragged that he was in a Bible study of some kind every night of the week. It was about 2008 that he made a trip to the West Coast to visit his sister. She’s a few years older than we are; he took two weeks at a seaside retreat with a theme something along the lines of self-discovery. When he came back all of his talk was about astral projection and natural healing and out-of-body experiences and some other ideas that we would’ve put in a folder labeled New Age Idealism.

About a year ago I heard that he was working for the Democratic Party in California. Rumor has it that he’s about to run for public office and that he didn’t quite get it done last year so we’ll see where that goes. Other people have been telling him that: well, whether you run or not, politics has become your new religion. He’s totally wrapped up in political matters. He is one of those people that are always posting about politics. In fact, I’ve had to un-follow him because I just… Do you have friends like that? It’s like the needle got stuck in the groove. For you younger people we used to have what was called records. I don’t know if you can get the needle stuck in a CD. For you younger people we used to have what were called CDs.

He’s what I would call a searcher. Ten years or twenty years before we were kids they were called it: going off to find yourself. But I would just call him a searcher. His interests seem to last about five or six years. He’s really excited about something. He wants to tell everybody about it at the beginning and he gets involved in and he gets engaged in it and through about year three or four he’s engaged in it and in years five and six he’s petering out looking for his next leap.

I remember reading the book a few years back called A Nation of Seekers. That’s who we are, the author said. I don’t remember who wrote it. The basic premise was we were all looking for something and we have a great sense of accomplishment when we find that something, that place. We are a nation on the move. It seems like everyone’s going somewhere for some reason. Some of us are on a very excited journey like my old friend and some of us are on a more reserved schedule. A few years back on public television there was a distinguished scholar, his name was Houston Smith. He did a survey of the world’s greatest religions and called his program: The Long Search.

I remember when I was a boy back in the 1970s our church participated with many others in a nationwide program of evangelism. As I recall, the program was called — I was a kid at the time, so please forgive me if I’m wrong — it was called: I Found It, the I Found It Program. As part of the program bumper stickers were given out after church on a table as people walked out. The bumper sticker said what else: I Found It. The idea was you would put that on your car and it was a way of pronouncing to the world that you had found something and they should ask you about it. The implication was that we had found Jesus. And in a nation of searching people, anyone who is able to stand up and proclaim: at last I found what I was looking for; they would be able to draw something of the crowd. That was the premise behind the I Found It Program. We were all seekers.

I certainly find this idea of being on a journey to be a major characteristic of my college years. I seemed to be searching a lot and I watched a lot of kids through the years go to college and they do searching and they are trying to figure out what they think. From what I can tell, college students have this notion that the important thing is to be on a journey. They don’t seem to have a sense of destination necessarily. In fact among college students, anybody that wants to stand up and say: I found it, I got the answers, would be shouted down within about thirty seconds and it would be pretty clear you don’t know what you were talking about.

In the late 1980s I remember at ASU going over to the Memorial Union to take in a local businessman’s lecture given to about two-hundred students entitled: My Five Years with a Zen Master. There were about two-hundred of us were there and we listened in rapt attention for about two hours taking notes and nodding in agreement as he talked about the joys of Zen Buddhism. The next week on the same Wednesday night series I went back and I listen to a graduate student talk about: My Semester in a Benedictine Monastery. Again there were about two-hundred students who filled the hall and we sat in rapt attention for just over an hour taking notes and nodding in agreement and points of insight brought a little bit of applause. Here is the thing! It was the same people; all two-hundred of us were there for both of them. We all just came back next week to take in a little bit more and we nodded in agreement and we didn’t seem to notice the fact that Benedictines and Buddhism don’t really agree; don’t really line up; don’t really have a lot of connecting points except sitting.

We are all looking for something; we are a nation of searchers. And although intellectual curiosity is good and although the Christian Gospels all depict Jesus as inviting people to be on a journey with him. This image of our long search, our groping for God is not the biblical message. That’s not how the Bible tells it. Let me summarize the biblical message, what the Bible says is happening; the Bible does not tell a story about our long search for God. In fact it’s an amazing account of the extraordinary length to which God will go in search of us.

You will notice this if you read the Christmas story carefully. Hardly anyone in the Christmas narrative was looking for God. They were searching for something more meaningful in their life. They were not really looking for deeper significance, though true, old Elizabeth and old Zachariah, they were looking to get pregnant but that was about it. Zachariah was going through the motions down at the temple and things start to happen. Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise people, they weren’t really looking for much of anything. I suspect most of them were poor and on the bottom of the economic ladder; they were simply trying to survive. They were searching for daily bread. There were searching for: how do we navigate an occupation force that uses fear and intimidation and terror to control us. The Magi, yeah they were on a search, they were following a star looking for a king. But they were portrayed in the biblical account has those who don’t know where to look, and they naïvely go and asking King Herod where they should look and John begins with the stirring first chapter of his gospel by talking about people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light.

That’s probably a good way to characterize our search. We are those who when we search we don’t really pull off anything except groping in the dark. The first Christmas is not a story about how we found God but rather an amazing account of how God found us. The story continues: here is Jesus, and hardly ever does anyone looking at Jesus and freely say: hey this guy is just what I’ve been looking for, here is the teaching that I’ve been waiting to hear. In fact seem to do almost anything to avoid Jesus and his teaching. And in John the people who hear his teaching suddenly find themselves quite capable of kneeling down and picking up rocks in the move to kill Jesus. Not just once in John 8 but also a second time in John 10. They tried to corral Jesus, contained Jesus, so they can stone Jesus. He walked out of them on his way.

But Jesus is intrusive and he is resourceful and he is relentless in reaching out to people. That’s how the Bible tells it. I recall the time that he met a little man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is the one who climbed up in the Sycamore tree to get a birds-eye view as Jesus walked by, but the birds-eye view became eye-to-eye when Jesus stopped and said: you come down, I’m going to your house for dinner. That is not what Zacchaeus wanted and Zacchaeus climbed down from the tree and Jesus climbed into Zacchaeus’ life. Jesus intruded giving Zacchaeus some very important revelations. At the end of the story Zacchaeus’ life has a sigh of relief in it as he says: I no longer have to try to be good enough for the people who criticize me. I no longer have to accumulate wealth so that someday they’ll see me as a big man.

At the end of Jesus’ story the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, two disciples of walking away from Jerusalem, but walking away, probably trying to move away from where the violence happened; the horrible events of the last week when Jesus was arrested and tried in a kangaroo court and crucified. They are walking away and then in their midst a stranger appears and walks with them: step-by-step, talks with them, teaches them, and it is in the breaking of bread that they discovered that this is Jesus who came among them and they go back the way that they came.

Jesus told a story about a shepherd who goes and beats the bushes and goes to great lengths to find lost sheep. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a woman who rips her house apart searching from top to bottom and every crevice until she finds one lost coin. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a father who when his son leaves home in an angry tantrum, the father waits and watches and goes and stands at the end of the driveway and then runs to meet his son before the boy can find his way home. There is in Jesus this reaching, his constant seeking, and this searching us out, a long, relentless search. It’s not our search; it’s God’s search for us. It seems that the main requirement for getting found by Jesus is to be lost.

The main requirement for the light suddenly comes on is that you are in the dark. The pathway to joy and comfort in Christ is where you are scared out of your mind and your heart and your gut. That’s what it means when we say Jesus is our Savior who seeks out and saves the lost. I expect this goes against the grain with which we have become comfortable through the years. But we are here because we are searching for something that your life is rich and rewarding in many ways, but in other ways was kind of a flatness and an expectedness about your life, a drone-ness, a boredom about your life. So you come to church, hoping that something will be said, that something will spark in a hymn that will help you in your search. But that’s not the way the Bible tells it.

According to Scripture you are here because you had been sought out, even summoned, even called, you been bothered, a finger got into you and started working on you. You are here because God reached in, Jesus crawled in and you were enticed, you were wooed, you were allured to be here. When you hear stories about the long search, that is God’s long search for you. I hope it conditions you to pay attention, to notice those little coincidences in your life, those strange happenings where things come together in odd ways, and advise those thoughts that you find that you have actual difficulty putting into the context of other thoughts. Perhaps this is all part of God’s continuing attempts to entice you because we have a tendency to bed down with darkness. We have a propensity to look in all of the wrong places and want all of the wrong things. We have a tendency to get what we want and then go to God and want God’s blessing on what we have. We seek out voices that tell us what we want to hear.

You do understand that our God could never leave us to our own devices. If we were left to our own devices, God Almighty is not the God which we would find. This God came among us. Pitched tent with us; as the gospel of John puts it, went camping with us. Christianity is not about discovery; Christianity is not about self-discovery; Christianity is not about divine discovery. It’s about revelation! Revelation is when the lights go on and all we see and what has been seen cannot be unseen. The self-disclosure of God makes our relationship with God possible. So keep looking. Keep looking over your shoulder as you go through your week. Keep being attentive and noticing strange little things, odd glorious things that happen to you. The search is over. God is with you; you have been found and that is very good news.

2017-08-06 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 3/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 3/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 6th, 2017

Luke 10:25-37

A couple of you have asked me: hey we moved the furniture around here, what’s going on? What I really want to say is you are lucky we haven’t flipped it around so we face that way, and this is the balcony. I want you to come to church every week expecting something different happens here. Oops. Well, I just spilled that’s different.

There was a workshop I went to fairly recently. There were about 30 of us and we were asked to name one thing we do fairly well or do really well and I had to say: I’m a pretty good thinker. If you give me a few minutes and you are patient with me, I can understand just about anything. I get my brain around a lot of things. Two things can’t seem to understand is the stock market and the attraction of reality TV. Those elude me. Figuring things out gives me the same kind of thrill that I imagine my fly-fishing grandfather got when he was able to pull a big rainbow trout out of a stream in Colorado. Some of you have that same relationship with math. Some of you get really excited when you talk about math and it’s almost like you don’t understand the rest of us are hearing: tooooooooo. That is how it is for me and figuring things out. I’ll run, my mind will try follow, and my mind will try to keep up and I know people toooooooo. That’s how we are. Some of us are that way about science. Some of us are that way about figuring out children and how to best teach children. Some of us are that way about organizing and administrating so that things happen.

I remember in seminary, I spent a lot of afternoons in my study carrel and on into the evening; I would miss dinner. In my library study carrel reading and trying to understand and comprehend and get my brain around really hard theologians like Karl Barth’s work on the dual nature of Christ. I remember that night because I was in my study carrel till about 11 o’clock. I kept reading what Karl Barth was saying and not comprehending it; not getting it. Then about the ninth time through something clicked and I finally got it. And I mean I really got it. I had to go outside and dance. Now I’m a good thinker. I am not good at dancing so we won’t go there.

I feel that same excitement about the art of preaching. To look deep into a biblical text and wake up a tired language and set trapped images free; so that it positively gleams with the meaning that was originally intended. I’m ready to dance. The most perfect sermon is still just an exercise in talking and hearing. Apparently the world could not care less about what you say — really — until you translate what you say and what you think into action. That seems to be something that is understood by the Good Samaritan in our story today. He is the heretic outcast who actually is a better religious person than the religious people. I’ll be frank with you: the task of helping strangers, given the number of people who need help, the overwhelming impossibility of solving everyone’s problems; I really don’t understand the Good Samaritan.

The one in the story that I really understand is the lawyer who asks the question and brings Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. This lawyer is above all a smart person, a thinker, a well-trained mind. He’s logical but he’s also imaginative, creative, he can make sound connections between seemingly unrelated details and he can root out inconsistencies and impracticalities. He’s a thinker and I understand his thinking. I understand this guy. He’s concerned with the law, if not justice necessarily. He is concerned with drawing a line between right and wrong and good and bad. And because he is following Jesus around the lawyer in the story is also a person who is hungry for God. He has come to wonder if he’s missing something. It might be why he became a teacher of the law, a lawyer, searching to know the law. How do I organize my life so that it is worth living? The question he brings to Jesus is just that: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

He is not the first person to ask that question. Who does not want that? Who does not want to live a life with meaning that you really don’t want to end? We come to think that eternal life means heaven, somewhere in the sweet by and by, the jackpot at the end of the rainbow/ But not if you listen to Jesus; if you listen to Jesus; the jackpot is now. Eternal life means enjoying the life and the breadth and the depth and the sweetness of life that comes when we live an eternal life; now, right this minute! The kingdom of God is at hand. But how do we get that? What must we do to experience that kind of life teacher. He said what must I do to inherit eternal life? The lawyer wants someone to hand him the key. He wants the answer to come from outside of him. But Jesus wants this lawyer to discover it for himself and so in good rabbinic form Jesus answers the question with a question of his own. What is written in the law? Jesus asked this man; what do you read their? This educated, intelligent, intellectual lawyer answers beautifully. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.

It’s one of those answers that makes the hair on your arm stand up and makes your skin get that prickly feeling. It is so beautiful and right and profound. Jesus tells him: you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live. Or did it sound more like this you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live CLUNK! You know what to do now; go do it. CLUNK! Why CLUNK? Because the lawyer is thinking about all of the people he passes every day as he goes about his business: people sitting on steps and stoops and sleeping on sidewalks and drinking in doorways. He thinks about the morning headlines in the paper that morning about injured and ill people. He thinks about all the people on his books that cannot pay him. He thinks about the daily mail that brings pleas for conscience: send money for abuse children, send money for injured veterans, and send money for this organization or that organization — the victims of a dozen deadly diseases. He thinks about all the people who can’t pay for the advice they’ve received. He thinks about all the people who need a little bit of free advice.

Do this and you will live — yeah right. Do this and I’ll die of exhaustion. Most of us are pretty hard on the lawyer because we are moving past him. Most of us are the lawyer. We look at him as if he doesn’t get it and we are passing judgment on ourselves because we don’t get it. He is us. If we listen to the lawyer, we will find ourselves. We will probably say what the lawyer says. Desiring to justify himself he asked Jesus to define his terms: and who is my neighbor, he asks, hoping for a little bit to help, a little bit of wiggle room, hoping Jesus might limit his liability so that he might have a prayer of meeting this responsibility. Who is my neighbor he asked. But what he’s really asking is, who is not my neighbor? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Who is my neighbor – actually — who’s not my neighbor? Who can I set outside my area of concern and still feel good. He wants to discuss this issue; explore it with Jesus; expose the problems inherent until it all become so complicated that he can do nothing. We do the same thing. Watch this lawyer; he’s us. We stall, doing anything simple by complicating the matter so that we can finally just throw up our hands and say well it’s so poorly defined; it’s so impractical; how can we even hope to do this?

I have friends with whom I do this from time to time, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed. We go to lunch together. We stack up all the evidence we can find that homelessness is really an insoluble problem and having as much to do with addiction and poor choices and mental health and illiteracy and the government programs trying to solve it as it does with anything else that we might do. How can we hope to even get a handle on this? So we just talk ourselves out of doing anything. We compare our experience and we say things like, well, if we are honest, there’s as many no account poor people as there are no account rich people and if there’s no real connection between goodness and money then why not have money? Poor people with money lose it very quickly we say. Giving it away might make you feel better, but the chances that it really changes someone’s life that is slim. Again, the real problems are outside of our purview to affect and so why do anything. We talk ourselves out of it again. If you’re having a hard time following these arguments — please understand — that’s the point. These arguments are designed not to make things clearer or to resolve an issue, but to convolute the issue and to muddle things so completely that it becomes impossible to do anything.

These arguments are designed to make you feel as if you really are insightful about the issue and that, well, your heart is in the right place and I can prove by talking about it quite intelligently that I know a lot. The thinking and understanding is really the issue. That’s one way this practice of using complexity of a viewpoint as a way of keeping “doing” at arm’s length. There is another way that we use just as readily. We talk ourselves into doing nothing. It is a little more insidious. It happens when we lose ourselves into ourselves and the complexity of our busy lives and the time demands that pull on us and we are subject to this and that and we all know we have to run just to keep up and we don’t keep up and we feel like we are falling further behind and we really don’t even have time for everything that we have to do to stay afloat and families and children and responsibilities and bills to pay and jobs to perform and everywhere we have to be to get our kids raise properly and let alone thinking about people who well, God love him, probably make poor decisions and that’s what put them in that place in the first place. I’m sorry you just can’t be responsible for all of them. I just can’t do it all. I’m busy. There I said it; are you happy now?

Jesus just doesn’t cooperate with that conversation. We, the lawyer, wants to talk about love and how complicated it is to be open to everyone all the time. Really, can’t Jesus make his instructions a little bit easier to follow? Give me something I can manage like defining who my neighbor is exactly? Jesus knows he is a thinking man and so he tells him the story you’ve heard many times about how it does not matter what we think, what we believe, what we understand, what we know, what we feel and what we say about love. The only thing that matters is what we do about love and how that doing brings life. After Jesus tells the story he lets the lawyer answer his own question: which of these three says Jesus, the two religious types who crossed the road to avoid getting involved or the heretic outsider who took care of the beaten man. Which of these three is the neighbor? The lawyer is a smart cookie and he is very clear that he saw himself in the story Jesus told as one of the two religious types who was too busy moving down the road. We might consider that they didn’t stop for reasons of morality but I don’t read it that way. I read they were too busy being busy. It doesn’t matter why because they passed by and did nothing.

Which of these three do you think proved to be the neighbor to the man who had taken the beating? It’s a set up. Of course there’s only one simple answer to that question, the one the lawyer again gives with great eloquence: the one who showed mercy; the one who did something. Jesus says go and do likewise and you will have a life worth living. You may notice that’s not really an answer to the question the lawyer asked. The question the lawyer asked was who is my neighbor? But the question Jesus answers is: whose neighbor are you? The answer is: anyone’s, everyone’s. Jesus declines to limit the commandment to love and lets the lawyer decide how he will act. One thing is for sure in this text. What Jesus is calling him/us to do is not a leap in our thinking, not a great realization, not a new understanding or knowledge or an emotion or a clear idea. It simply doing; showing mercy; being a neighbor; doing love. This is a sermon about not confusing knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking and saying with actually loving, doing.

The story that follows this one, however, is a little confusing. It’s Mary and Martha there in the home. Martha sits at the feet of Jesus. Mary is trying to get the kitchen and everything cleaned up and she’s doing all the work. Martha is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening. Mary is doing everything out of love and Jesus praises Martha who is sitting at his feet listening. How do we sort that meaning out? Well the point of both of these stories is putting God first in our lives, putting God in front of our busy-ness, in front of our schedule; God first, sometimes to help, sometimes to sit. It’s fine to work. It’s fine to be busy at times but when that is all you are, how can God get a word in edge wise? It’s fine to think and to talk and to be frustrated and feel overwhelmed. But when talk is all we do, how can God fit a word in edge wise? Then we, together with the lawyer to whom Jesus is talking, we see ourselves as so busy, so involved, so overcommitted that it freezes us and we cannot even think about doing one more thing. And so we scurry down the road not even noticing the guys on the sidewalk, not even noticing the women on the corner. We are neighbor to no one.

It seems to me that the first task of loving is to simplify our existence so that we can simply notice an opportunity when it’s in front of us. What if the daily bread that we’ve been given — on a day like today — is enough for two? We might be a little hungry but one other person got fed. What if being a good neighbor is what leads to the fullness of life that you never want to end? What if living that kind of a life where you’ve always got a minute to help, always got a minute to hand a dollar to, always got a minute to… It fills you with joy like catching fish in a stream. To do love in this story and in our lives is to find our way out of thoughts that we have put in place that defeats our desired to do something.

No, we cannot solve homelessness. No, you alone are not going to save every child that has leukemia. No, you cannot send enough money to solve every problem you get in the mail. No, you cannot volunteer enough time to solve everyone’s problem. No, you cannot mentor every kid in the neighborhood. What if you just took care of the problem that was right in front of you? What if the Good Samaritan is good because on that particular day he engaged creatively the one problem that was right in front of him? What if we did that and all he did was a little more than the minimum. The minimum would’ve been stop, care for the man, bless him, tend his wounds and leaving him by the side of the road. That’s the minimum that is required in Jewish law. He took him to an inn, he enrolled him in the end, and he paid for care; a little more than is expected.

Most days nothing happens but some days; what if we spent ten minutes talking with that lonely neighbor whose wife died last month? What if we make it our opportunity to take a meal to a young Mom down the street who just had surgery? What if we see it as an opportunity that when in our work group the conversation turns into Islam-a-phobia we intervene and say: guys knock it off, that’s nonsense? What if we look as an opportunity to buy a sandwich for the man we see every day on the corner looking for something? What we see is an opportunity when we come out of the grocery store to get out our jumper cables and help someone get there car start? How do we love when the opportunity presents itself each day? You know what it means to do love because you have been the recipient of someone’s love. But remember, knowing the right answer does not change a thing. Whose neighbor are you? Go and do love.

2017-07-30 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 2/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 2/7

Rev.   Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 30th, 2017

Mark 10:17-31

We are looking at texts that we know, we have heard, they are familiar to us.  We are looking at them again to see what we have not seen in them; what do they tell us about ourselves.  Most of us know the story of the rich young ruler probably because we don’t like it.  Although we may not know, Mark is the only one who suggests that he is rich.  Matthew is the only one who says he is a young and Luke is the only one who called him a ruler.  But the fact that this young rich ruler shows up in all three of the Synoptic Gospels is a pretty good indication that his story is true; although we do wish that he had never shown up at all.  Because in him we have one of the hardest sayings in the Bible: go sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.  Mark does not say right off that the man is rich but you could tell, not because he has good manners and falls on his knees in front of Jesus but because he addresses Jesus so grandly and uses the right words for upper social tiers.  Good teacher.  You can tell he’s rich because of the question he asks: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

This is an individual who is not burdened with questions of survival like: where can I find a job and how do I feed my family.  This man does not have to spend his time trying to make ends meet.  He is able to pursue the good life to come, secure in his existence.  Because that’s one of the things that will foment in his day not as if it was gotten unfairly if if you acquired money in that day through cheating or through lying or being mean, it was no better than poison for those who had it.  But if you acquired a bit more than your neighbor honest means like inheritance then it was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and you were one of God’s chosen.  Bestowing wealth on people was understood as the way God set you free from the daily grind.  Your responsibility then was to serve the Lord.  That was the understanding of the society of the day.  So this man approaches Jesus, he’s got money in his pocket, he has no shame about his great possessions and if anything in his mind, the number of digits to the left of the decimal point where his credentials, the very thing that gave him the right to approach Jesus and asked the question.

Jesus is not impressed.  He looks down at the man kneeling before him and he sees someone who is clearly above average and wants to stay that way; someone who wants to achieve as much in heaven as he is achieved on earth; someone who is willing to do whatever is required of him to add eternal life to the possessions he carries.  Maybe the man hopes that Jesus will say to him: buy a pair of shoes for everyone: man, woman and child in all of Judea and the man will say well that’s costly but I’ll do it.  Better yet, throw all of your dust covers on your furniture and put stuff in storage, lock up the house, leave it all behind and come follow me, accompany me on my travels.  He maybe hoping Jesus will say that.  He is an extraordinary man, and he wants an extraordinary assignment.  Unfortunately Jesus does not cooperate.  Jesus says: you know the commandments and Jesus reels off about half of them.  Do this.  Do not do that.  Do this.  Do not do this.  Honor your father and mother.  Any first grader could list that list; it is one of the most important things of childhood if you’re a young Jewish male or woman is knowing the Ten Commandments and keeping them.  This man wants to do something to earn his way in.  So Jesus has just told him you earn your way in by doing the same thing as everyone else.  That man did not want to hear that.  He doesn’t see himself like everyone else.

Teacher I’ve kept all of these things since my youth.  In that moment Jesus loves him.  We can’t hear the tone but there’s something in this text that tells us that he did not say those words pompously or impatiently.  He must’ve said those words like a confession.  I’ve kept the law all my life which is how I know it is not enough.  I have amassed great wealth which is how I know it’s not enough.  He is saying I am a rich man.  I am rich in things and rich in respectability and I’m rich in obedience to the law which is how I know none of those things is enough to give me the life that I want.  What must I do to inherit eternal life, the kind of life worth living forever?  The text tells us, Jesus loves him.  This man is ripe, he’s ready for God and he has come to the end of what he can do for himself.  He’s come to the end of what society can do for him.  Jesus looks at him; Jesus loves him; Jesus recognizes him as a seeker; someone who is kept God’s word; someone who is kept his own word; someone who has translated his beliefs into a genuine obedience of the heart of God; someone who knows there is more and who knows to go looking for it.

But Jesus does more than look at the man.  He also looks into him.  Jesus is a physician making a diagnosis.  He looks inside of him to see what is the matter?  What is the right medicine that will heal you?  Jesus looks at him with as much compassion as he looked at anyone who was blind or deaf or paralyzed.  Jesus was aching to make him whole.  And then of course Jesus chose his words carefully, said to the man: you lack one thing.  I’m sure the man’s heart begins to spin in joy of finally hearing what it is I got to do to inherit eternal life.  Whatever it is I will do it.  Whatever it costs I will pay it.  Whatever it requires of this young man he will do it.  He will anything for this extra prize of eternal life in his pocket.  Only the words of Jesus turn out to not be a matter of addition but of subtraction: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor you will have treasure in heaven, and then come, follow me.  It is a rich prescription for a rich man; designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, a hulk that keeps banging into the doorframe of the doorway into the presence of God.  Jesus offers him an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven, so that is treasure will be drawing interest inside of that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it.

It is a dare.  Jesus didn’t say I dare you but it was a dare to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all of those words that have described him up until now: wealthy and committed and gritty and cultured and responsible and educated and powerful and obedient and good — to trade them all in on one radically different word, free.

It seems to me that we Christians mangle this story in two different ways.  First, when we act like it’s not about money.  It is!  And second by acting as if it were only about money.  It is about money and as far as Jesus is concerned money is a lot like nuclear power, it is able to do a lot of good in the world but only within strongly built and carefully regulated corridors.  Most of us don’t do well handling money.  We get contaminated by its power and we contaminate others as we wield it carelessly.  We want it too desperately and we use it too manipulatively.  We believe in money too fiercely and we defend it too cruelly.  Every now and then someone manages to use money well.  But Jesus tells us the odds of that are about as good as they are of pressing a camel through a microchip.  The story of the rich young ruler is a story about money.  It’s not only about money.  If it were that might be good news for us because then we could put together build up our treasury and buy our way into heaven.  You know the deal: cash in our chips and we buy our tickets, we put them in our pocket.  But you know that’s not the deal.  None of us earns eternal life no matter what we do.  We can keep the Commandments until we are blue in the face.  We can sign our paycheck over to our favorite charity.  We can rattle our tin cups on the street for supper money without earning a place of God’s banquet table because the kingdom of God is not for sale.

The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their wealth.  The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift given to whomever God pleases for whatever reasons please God.  The catch is you have to be free to receive the gift.  You cannot be otherwise engaged.  You can’t be tied up right now.  You can’t be too tied down.  You can’t be too occupied.  You can’t accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it because they are clutching your possessions.  You can’t make or it is all of your rooms are already full.  And you can’t follow if you are not free to go.  That’s why the rich young ruler went away so sorrowful because all at once he understood that he was not free.  His wealth was supposed to make him free, but kneeling in front of Jesus he understood all at once that that is not so.  Jesus is painfully clear give up what defines you, what defines your life and follow me.  Put God first and follow me.  The rich guy can’t do that.

He is the only person in the whole Gospel of Mark who walks away from an invitation to follow Jesus.  He is the only wounded individual who declines healing.  Not being rich and important and powerful scared him more than the bondage of his wealth.  He could not believe that the opposite of rich might not be poor.  The opposite of rich is free.  Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and he said how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.  They were amazed at his words — absolutely astonished by them —  Mark tells us.  Jesus was challenging the social order of the day turning it upside down, taking their understanding of where God was in their midst and turning it upside down.  Jesus stated clearly that wealth is not God’s gift.  Those who rode through the gates of Jerusalem on golden litters would find their handlebars stuck on the gates of God’s kingdom.  So will all of us who cannot leave things behind.  The thing I can’t figure out about this text is why the disciples were so amazed.  Two of them had left their fishing business behind.  Two more of them had left their fishing boat and the father behind.  Another one of them had left behind an incredibly lucrative career collecting taxes to follow Jesus.  All of them had walked away from something not because it was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple; it was more like a consequence, really.  He called; they followed; stuff got left behind.  Not because stuff was bad but because it was heavy and in the way.  Not because they had to but because they wanted to.  He called and nothing else in the entire world seemed all that important anymore.

Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives and so it was no big heroic thing to follow him.  He set them free.  That’s all!  It was not their achievements, it was his gift.  So who can be saved?  Well, who is brave enough to be free?  This is actually my favorite part of the text because everything up until now tells me that I’ve missed out because I’m pretty good at making excuses and talking myself out of this text and I’m too hardheaded and too grippy to let go.  I am the rich man in the story and there’s no way that I can save myself.  Fortunately, we have the big mouth of the group, Peter, and I guess if you say enough words you can eventually say the right ones.  I think these are the right ones.  I don’t think these are Peter’s words; I think it is a gift from the spirit.  Peter poses the question, the right question, then who of us can be saved?  And the right question hasn’t changed in all of these years, and neither has the answer,

Jesus said for us it is impossible, but not God.  For God all things are possible.  We follow a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point do we have enough and at what point have we crossed over into selfishness.  We have a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point our acquisition of wealth and material goods and collecting stuff became a hindrance to our discipleship.  All things are possible through God, through our relationship with God, including the answers to those questions.  The apostle Paul picked up on this and he summarized it this way, you are saved by God’s grace.  This salvation is God’s gift to you; it is not something you possessed; it is not something you have done of which you can be proud.  Instead, you are God’s accomplishment.  You are created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  Your life in God, doing God’s good thing is the way of God’s kingdom.  Peace and blessings to you.  No not peace and blessings.  The struggles of life to you as you practice God’s way.

 

2017-07-23 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 1/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 1/7

Rev.  Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 23, 2017

John 4:5-42

You are — I’m sure — acquainted with the notion of echo.  If you ever been in a place and you notice that there is an echo and you slow your voice and you wait for it to come back.  You shout ECHO and see if it comes back to you.  Yeah, shout it child!  A wave goes out and if you are lucky a wave will come back again and again.  There’s a hearing and a re-hearing.

Our text today is an ancient story.  It is not original to this passage.  It’s an echo of the ancestors, our ancients.  It is also biblical comedy; it’s also irony; it’s also a love story; but mostly it’s a very old story.  A stranger comes to Jacob’s well at high noon.  The part we left out is Jesus did not have to go that way.  He took the long way to go through the land of Samaria.  That’s not the shortest route.  It’s not as-the-crow-flies from where he was to where he was going.  At this well he meets a woman who has come to draw water.  He is thirsty, she is thirsty and there is a forbidden interaction between them.  It’s not the way things were done.

The original hearers of this recanting, this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman must have wondered to themselves: am I standing on familiar ground?  This story sounds familiar.  And as I told you in the past, there is nothing new in the New Testament.  This scene and the characters in it would have awakened resonance of another story that happened beside a well, a romance lodged deep in the memory of the community.  Genesis 29 tells us the story of Jacob, the sojourner, the lonely boy coming to the well at high noon and he beholds his kinswoman Rachel.  Genesis adds dryly to the story: and her father sheep.  Just as aside, if we want to talk about problems in our biblical text, this is one of them that you would mention a woman and sheep in the same sentence.  But back to our story in the story of Jacob and Rachel, boy meets girl, boy kisses girl.  What happens is he waters her father’s sheep and then kisses Rachel and he weeps aloud.  It tells us how lonely he was and she kisses him back and there is a little bit a romance there, a little bit of chase and with a huge assist from Leah, they create a family of tribes, children of Israel, they save the nation from destruction.  That’s the way a love story is supposed to go.  Somebody saves somebody but we are not exactly sure who saved who.  Did Jacob save Rachel or did Rachel save Jacob? Or did the sheep save them all?  We are not really sure because it’s all there in the story.  That’s the way a love story is supposed to go.

In John’s version of the story — of course — it takes a little bit of a different turn.  There is no sheep really — not the shearing kind – there are Samaritans and they need to be watered too.  But in this conversation at the well it takes a while to get to the sheep, the Samaritans.  There are some sharply spoken words at the side of the well and the conversation assumes the character of a confrontation, a fight that is charged with significance much greater than romance or making babies.  He is a teacher from above brimming with heavenly insight.  She is a woman of the world and she has now become hardened to the jokes that are told about her in the village.  Like Jesus, she is thirsty but she thirsts for something she cannot name.  What could these two at the well have in common to talk about?  Yet they are talking.  Isn’t it ironic — don’t you think — two levels of understanding thirst here as well as a gulf between them?  The poor woman, just from the community she grew up in; just from the images she has, she has no idea how she thirsts.  And there’s a certain comic hopelessness to her attempt to comprehend and argue with what this man is saying to her.

In the midst of the story there are those of us too, who are invited to hear this, who struggle with our own blindness and try to sort out what this text is saying.  We are genuinely seeking from our darkness some sense of light.  We are thirsty but can’t quite say for what.  It is the sort of irony that causes us false starts in life.  We chase after anybody with a good word because surely they know what they’re talking about and it takes us a long time to find out they may not.  We chase after anybody with a crowd around them because obviously you’re saying something good and we find out that nine out of ten people is not a good predictor that they have something we need.  We chase after something that tastes good and then we find out later on that it has other effects on us that we don’t really want.  We thirst, we hunger but eventually a path to understanding opens and we have to talk our way through it like this woman at the well had to talk her way through her argument with Jesus.

But when he offers her living water she begins to get an inkling that something is happening here, but she scoffs at him and says: you don’t even have a bucket.  That’s biblical comedy right there.  But when she hears of water welling up to eternal life, suddenly the comedy is no longer important.  The arguments are no longer in her and she says: sir, give me this water.  Then the comic relief comes to an abrupt end with a slap on your face statement of: go, call your husband.  What do you say to Jesus when this isn’t even your fifth husband and you’re not even married to the man you are living.

Without the awkward details of this woman’s sexual history, all we have is a menial dialogue about truth and enlightenment.  It’s just a nice head conversation.  We could pass it by be none the worse.  But with these details of this woman’s sexual history, we have a reality check that grabs us all and saves our lives.  Let us be very clear about the tone of the text; Jesus is not judging her; Jesus is not slut-shaming her.  That is the read of our cultural religion and its stunning obsession with controlling female genitalia.  Let’s get even clearer here.  Female genitalia do not become looser from intercourse.  No more than male genitalia become smaller from intercourse.  This is just silly.  But again, it is our cultural religion and their obsession with the physical body.  It is silly and Jesus is not silly.

The tension of the text remains.  What’s happening here is Jesus is offering up comment on the culture, out of which this woman came.  It’s not all that different from the culture in which he came in the first century Palestine.  A woman had no rights, no voice.  So out of necessity this particular woman had attached herself to men.  She may have loved them but it was an issue of necessity, either you have a man or you have nothing and you had nowhere.  You tried to find somebody to take you in and a whole lot of women couldn’t and ended up prostitutes just trying to survive.

The story of Jesus and this woman of Samaria turns out to be a love story after all.  For only someone who knows you for who you really are — in your situation as it is — and loves you as you really are and not as you pretend to be.  This is the beauty of this text.  This woman is fully known and she is fully loved as she is; where she is.  If Jesus was slut-shaming her, he would’ve given her instructions: you go home and dump that guy and get out.  He said none of that.  He was simply observing her life.  Only one who loves you can look at your past without blinking.  And when something we regard as shameful, when something we regard as regrettable, when something that has a hold on us gets brushed by the love of God, about all we can say is thank you.  And we are set free.  The water in our dry and barren souls, the water begins to come.  We Christians know a lot about love, not make-believe nonsense love, real love.  I look at you and see you for exactly who you are love.  Because of this text, because he told me everything I ever did; all of it!

Like our Samaritans sister, we tried to believe, we struggle with what to believe.  We were looking for a list on how to believe.  Nine things, I believe all of them!  Because we turned belief into a twenty-first century word having to do with intellectual awareness and that we ascribe to anything you say about Jesus.  That is not what belief meant in the first century.  Belief in the first century — that beautiful Greek word pisto — simply meant what is important to you becomes important to me.  If I believe in you, what is important to you becomes important to me.  So to believe in Jesus means what is important to Jesus becomes important to me.  But we don’t really hear that because our cultural religion doesn’t tell us that; our culture religion is all in the head.  And so we get comfortable with words that sound religious, but we don’t connect them to a relationship with Jesus.  We talk about salvation as a nation, but mostly that means buckets of money we can take to the bank.  We have elevated listening to ourselves into an art form but we don’t bother listening to the one who can tell us everything we’ve done.  We’ve elevated television watching to a binge form but we don’t watch the one who shows us the way to God’s kingdom.  We make family a substitute for salvation as if the church had never heard of God’s family.  And most of all, we love ourselves so much that we invest in technology that we are sure is going to make our life fulfilling because we are connected to one another.  But we overlook our connection or lack of connection to the one who finds his way to us in the heat of the day.

We are surely comical people.  We might expect that the conclusion of this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman to be that Jesus accompanies her into the village: to advocate for her, to validate her, to speak on her behalf.  But that’s not what happens.  He tells her: you go, you go, you tell, you use your voice.  What better gift is there to someone who has no voice: go; tell; use your voice.  We attach ourselves to God and our voice finds resonance.  That’s the way to know if the water welling up in us is living water because our voice will find resonance and were no longer content to be dry in a barren land.  We must speak up and change our world, our village.  This is a commentary on what it means to be loved too.  Do our relationships increase our voice, our resonance?  Are we heard for what we are saying?  Do they deepen the timber of our voice or do they undercut us.  Do they talk over us?  Do they ignore us and walk away?

This is where it gets a little bit weird in the text.  We might expect that the giver of voice and water, our hero in the story, to ride off on a white horse, in view of the few baffled Samaritans like a prophet or like a Greek hero; victorious in life, only to later be taken into heaven.  But instead, this one from above chooses to submit to the foolishness of the cross.  He moves out of this story and down the road and he becomes silent as the suffering servant.  He gives voice to you, but he becomes silent, a failure in the eyes of the world.  With unbearable irony, this keeper of living water will say to Roman and Jewish spectators: I thirst.  Chew on that for an afternoon.  Jesus says: I thirst.  And once he is dead, he is poked in the side and outflows blood and water.

I think that’s the best evidence that this is a love story.  We are not quite sure where it begins and we are not sure where it ends and there are too many levels happening in this passage and connections to make and meanings to comprehend and double entendres and ironic twists; to many of them for me — or I think anyone else — to offer a final word about its meaning.  But we must latch on and we must start talking about this passage in our lives because that’s the ending of all three of these stories — you do know that — the story from Genesis 29 Jacob and Rachel.  Tell your children and grandchildren and all the nations of the world what God has done through you.  To the woman at the well, go and tell!  He told me everything I had ever done.  To disciples trying to figure out what to do next after Jesus’ body has disappeared and then reappeared to them, go and tell, make disciples.  In all honesty I think maybe the best way for me to end today is to just stop talking and to let you pick up the conversation inside of you and let you pick up the conversation with one another and talk about living water welling up in you.

 

2017-07-16 Billy Joel’s Bad Song 2/2

Billy Joel’s Bad Song 2/2

Jonathan Massey, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 16th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8

We all grow up with a set of expectations and rules.

Sometimes they are just presented as family rules. You know, Go to bed on time, read one chapter from your book, and then turn out the light; Eat your vegetables; Do your homework before you turn on the TV or play videogames; Be back in the house by 11:00.

Sometimes, they are presented as societal rules: Don’t smoke (at least within a public building, within 25 feet of a restaurant, or whatever); Don’t drink alcohol before you’re 21, always hang onto your drink at parties, and don’t drink and drive; Always recycle; Obey the speed limit; Use a condom; Pay your bills on time; Don’t rip the tag off of a mattress; Don’t eat GMO food; Don’t vote for Republicans; Don’t vote for Democrats.

Sometimes, they’re presented as school rules: Don’t sag your pants; Don’t wear low-cut spaghetti-strap tops; Don’t play with your cell phone in class; Study for your tests; Do your homework on time; Don’t smoke weed in the bathroom. (If I could be allowed an aside here, let me just say, as a high school teacher, that these are all perfectly reasonable, AWESOME rules, and they should be chiseled in stone for all time!)

Sometimes, they are presented as the rules of God: Don’t murder; Don’t steal; Don’t commit adultery or be promiscuous with sex; Read your Bible; Go to church; Pay your tithe.

Often, for children, “the rules” of family, society, school, and God become conflated, because, for a kid, they all seem to come from ULTIMATE AUTHORITY. Complying with the rules and meeting the expectations demonstrates honor and respect, and brings rewards; disobeying the rules brings punishment.

In the past, at least some parents, including my own, got a little bit carried away with this. My paternal family line had been Methodist about as long as there was such a thing in the United States, but when my dad married my mom, he got sucked into her small denomination, which was an offshoot of the Methodism—part of what was called the Holiness Movement. Both of my parents were already wounded from their families-of-origin, and this religious affiliation exacerbated their worst tendencies. Although this sounds strange to most people now, I was raised in an environment where the worst sins were smoking, drinking, dancing, playing cards, and going to movies—things which aren’t even listed as sins in the Bible, but which had become mortal sins in this church, due to the cultural environment in which it had developed. I was taught that God was kind of like Santa Claus—always watching to see if I was naughty or nice, and always prepared to “strike you down” (a phrase actually used by my dad)and send you to Hell, where you would burn in a literal lake of fire forever. I grew up terrified of God—always trying to please him, but never sure I’d done enough; never sure if I’d met the requirements to go to Heaven. Finally, when I was just 13 years old, I found a good reason to chuck Christianity and God in order to escape from this terror. Six years before Billy Joel’s song became a hit, I declared to my parents:

            I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright

I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home

I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life

Go ahead with your own life leave me alone.

Now, I don’t believe that rules and expectations are a bad thing. Time may prove that some are ridiculous, but I think time also proves that some just make sense. Families, society, schools, and—of course!—God provide many rules and expectations that, if followed, will tend to provide us with longer, more prosperous, happier lives.

I don’t think I need to dwell on prohibitions against murdering, stealing, and raping. While ISIS might embrace these activities, I don’t think any of us are going to insist on our right to do such.

Let me instead mention a couple things which, in my experience as a high school teacher over the past 13 years in our cultural context, just make sense. First, an expectation that is not biblical and is decidedly not a LAW OF GOD: Don’t play with your cell phone in class. Although texting was a bit of a problem in the early 2000s, the advent of smartphones has turned a bit of a nuisance into an epidemic of screen addiction which inhibits learning in school and contributes to leading many students straight to failure. Second, an expectation and a general rule of thumb which involves a bit of the Law of God, used to involve societal expectations (but not so much anymore), and involves the expectation of many families (but, is tragically not taught by many families). It’s what’s called “The Success Sequence.” Here it is: (1) Graduate from high school; (2) Get a job; (3) Get married; (4) Have children. Some people insert “Graduate from college or trade school” right after the first step, but it’s still the same basic sequence. If you omit any of these steps (like graduating from school), or do them in a different order (such as having children before you get married or get a job), your chances of ending up in poverty skyrocket. And that problem tends to repeat itself generationally.

This is one area where Billy Joel’s song becomes very bad. I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright. No, you’re not! I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home. I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life/ Go ahead with your own life leave me alone. Okay, this is your life, but is it not okay for your parents, or your teachers, or your country, or GOD to care about you? Do you honestly believe that life doesn’t bring its rewards and punishments? When you have wrecked your life, will you be happy that everyone just let you go your own way with no instruction, no rules, no consequences—before you repeated the mistakes that people have been making FOREVER.

Okay, enough of dealing with people in general. Let’s move to Christian people specifically (and, to some degree, I guess, to Jewish people, because our reading today is from Micah, which is part of the Jewish Scriptures).

First, I think it’s wise for parents to distinguish between the Law of God and family rules. Of course, family rules should include the Law of God, but a lot of them just have to do with our current cultural context, which includes neighborhood, preferences, etc. Make sure kids know the difference. Don’t confuse practical things with ultimate things, and don’t turn God into Santa or an overzealous cop.

Second, be careful about confusing church rules with the Law of God. Church rules vary from culture to culture, and we shouldn’t try to turn time bound rules into eternal rules. Most people have no idea that John Wesley’s General Rules are still—technically, crazily—obligatory for Methodists, but almost no church member has even heard of them. Some, such as attending upon . . . The public worship of God still make sense, and most people come to church. Others, such as avoiding evil of every kind . . . such as . . . buying or selling slaves don’t have too much to do with American Methodists today (though breaking that rule led Methodists to disaster in the 1840s and helped lead the entire country to catastrophe in the 1860s—and it might actually be a helpful rule in some places in the world today). Another, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men seems, at least to me, like something which we should still be doing every day.

Third, I think we should be very careful about “biblical rules,” or declaring that “THE BIBLE SAYS!” without considering where the rule is located in the Bible. The early church had a humongous controversy over whether non-Jewish people (you know, people like Greeks and Romans in that time, and most of us now) should be required to observe ALL of the laws listed in the Old Testament; laws which had been expanded even farther by the rabbis, much as case law grew out of The Constitution in the United States. Some church leaders thought that they should have to. Others, such as the Apostle Paul, seemed to think that they expressed God’s will for the Jewish people (and he himself was observant), but that they should not be incumbent on gentile Christians. Eventually, at the Jerusalem Conference, which you can read about in Acts 15, church leaders sided with Paul. In Acts 15:19-21, James says, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” And, that was that. Now, that decision itself is 2,000 years old, and I can tell by the look on some of your faces that it could use a little bit of explanation, but that’s beyond our scope this morning. The bottom line is this: Not every rule or law in the Bible applies to Christians today.

So, where does that leave us?

It doesn’t leave us in a lawless situation; it doesn’t leave us without expectations from God. What we DO in our lives matters! According to Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” And, in 2 Corinthians 5:10, the Apostle Paul says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” Belief is not the only thing which matters. At the end of the day, what we have actually DONE is what matters. You may have heard that actions speak louder than words. Jesus and Paul understood that principle. And, at the end of the day, I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life/ Go ahead with your own live and leave me alone is a hell of a way to lead your life, and any church which allows its members to boldly walk down that path isn’t doing its job.

I’ve always liked what Lieutenant Dan said to Forrest Gump and Bubba when they were choppered in to his base camp: Look, it’s pretty basic here. You stick with me, you learn from the guys who’ve been in country awhile, you’ll be right. There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks, cushion, sole, O.D. green. Try and keep your feet dry when we’re out humpin’. I want you boys to remember to change your socks wherever we stop.”

It seems to me that Micah 6:8 gives us a good basic rule of life—a rule which can make the difference between a live Christian and a dead Christian—which lots of other things flow out of, depending on the times, our cultural situation, and the rest of the stuff I’ve been talking about this morning. I’m going to quote it from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation:

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,

what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,

be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—

            take God seriously.

2017-07-09 1 of 2 on Billy Joel’s Bad Song

 

1 of 2 on Billy Joel’s Bad Song

Pastor  Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church. July 9th, 2017

Romans 11:1-2a; 29-32

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, Sunday in the middle of July.  Humidity has come and is seeping into our being and it will bring rain.  Today is a humidity of a sermon.  I want this to be a sermon that doesn’t shock you.  We had a few of those.  It is not really a difficult text to understand.  These is a sermon that I wanted you to hear and take home and ponder and let it seep down in between the cracks and the crevices of your thought system because we are going to talk about anti-Semitism today.  That is what this text is about; we need to talk about our anti-Semitism; we have to talk as Christians,

I’m not going to be talking about much Jewish history, although that’s an interesting subject in and of itself.  We can talk about the settlement of the Gaza Strip and the mistreatment of Palestinians by the Jewish community.  I’m not going to be talking about modern day Jewish Arab Christian relations.  That’s a conversation in and of itself.  It has ties to the Seven Day War which was fought in response to the Holocaust; which has ties to the Lutheran anti-Semitism of the late 1800s; which has ties to Catholic anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages which includes the Inquisition and witch trials in which Jews were pretty much wiped out in Europe; which has ties to the Crusades where the Pope sanctioned killings and attempts to recapture the Holy Land from the Arab occupants and took it in battles starting in the 600s.  In the eyes of Christians and Arabs the Jews were free game for killing.  We cannot sort this out.  From the beginning the Jews and the Christians have a hard time

You look at the Middle East and you start studying the history and you find – I don’t even know how to get a handle on this.  What is interesting for me though is if I listen to someone who’s informed on it who happens to be Jewish, they talk from the perspective: they did this to us, they did this to us, they did this to us, so therefore we are justified in doing what we are doing back to them.  Then you listen to someone from the Palestinian conversation and their conversations: they did this to us, they did this to us, and their grandfather did this to my grandfather, and so we are justified.  I’m not sure how to sort that out and I’m not sure Christians should.  That’s not really what I want to talk about today.  Christians and Arabs and Jews have had a hard time and the difficulty seems to be around land except when it’s not around land it’s around power and who has it and our desire to demonize our enemy.  They are wrong in their interpretation of Scripture and we are right and we are absolututely right.  It gets deep and it goes long back.  And when it not land its power, when its not power its superiority, …

In many cultures, many different times, many different places have had a hard time with Judaism.  The question at the core of that is: how is it that these simple people prosper almost any place almost any time?  Within the Torah their community takes care of one another.  They have rather strict laws of how they act toward and with one another; rather high expectations of behavior; rather unique ways of raising children as a community; rather unique devotion to their deity as opposed to the many cultures who are committed to freedom and liberty and money or royalty as the backbone of their existence.  Judaism seems to hold onto their relationship with God as their defining factor; unlike a lot of Christians in our cultural religion who makes really good Americans with a little bit of Christianity sprinkled on top.  A lot of cultures have asked: why do these Jews prosper and our people — whoever our people are — do not?  Therefore the Jews must be liars and cheats and unpatriotic.  There is actual scriptural foundation for this misunderstanding and every year around Easter we engage in it.  We don’t even know we are engaging in it but if somebody calls it out we might see it.  This is how we are complicit in a long terrible history of persecuting Jews.  Even now to many pastors, to many church leaders without hesitation and without much thought pronounce that Jews are hell bound.  A lot more who may not say that Jews are hell bound but they still when asked about the Jews hesitate and hem and haw or are silent.

Every holy week we read scriptures that say the Jews did this the Jews did that to Jesus.  We might quench our faith and hate the Jews; when really we might want to let a chill run down our spine because we are a lot like them in ways that we don’t even understand.  When the Holocaust came this was the number one by far argument the Germans used for the destruction of the Jews: they killed Jesus.  That is a Jewish problem, let’s just kill them.  Despite the fact that Jesus and all his followers and apostles that came later; every one of them was Jewish.  Holy week has become an occasion for the persecution of Jews.  The question of our relationship to Judaism is really not all that difficult unless you have an agenda: like land or theology of politics or money.  These things tend to confuse the issue; these things tend to toss things up in the air.  Having an agenda makes you ask questions that are irrelevant; which you have an agenda is what you want.

In today’s Scripture lesson Paul expresses great sorrow and grief and despair at the growing separation between his people, the Jews, and the developing congregations of the church: Jews and Gentiles.  Evidently someone in the church at Rome with an agenda asked the question: who is right?  Has God rejected his people?  As God now in Jesus rejected the Jews?  And Paul says, by no means; we are all Jewish.  Paul says when God makes a promise God keeps that promise: to Abraham and Moses and all of the prophets of the Old Testament, God promised again and again to preserve the Jews; to preserve Israel as a light to nations, as a sign of the faithfulness of God.  If God does not keep God’s promises to the Jews then God’s promises to us, the Gentiles, would be nullified.

The first thing I would tell you as your pastor; we need the Jews because the promises of God to the Jews are the basis upon which we base our trust in the promises of Jesus.  We are related to Judaism in a way that differs from our relationship to any other faith.  The Old Testament is not a meaningless collection of irrelevant ancient writings.  There is no way to understand Jesus without contemplating the Old Testament.  I’ll tell you, there’s nothing new in the New Testament, there is nothing new in the New Testament.  If you find a story in the New Testament and it enthralls you and engages you, just go look in the Old Testament and I’ll bet you will find it told before.  The story of the father and the two sons, the younger son says to Dad: give me the money, I’m going to the far country.  The older son is not happy.  There is a question of reconciliation.  Dad I’m coming home now; Dad runs to meet the boy; Dad says kill the fatted calf put a ring on his finger, put shoes on his feet, put a robe on him and let’s have a party.  The older son says: all you’ve ever given me and my friends is goat meat.  Now where in the Old Testament is there a story about a gracious father trying to be reconciliatory with his two sons?  It involves rings and shoes and robes and goat meat.  Anybody?  It is the story of Jacob and Esau.  It’s the story of Jacob and Esau retold in the New Testament.  There is nothing new in the New Testament,

There is no way to understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament.  Our New Testament is so firmly grounded in the Old Testament; we cannot even interpret or understand what the New Testament is saying without referencing the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is also our good news, the good news fulfilled in Jesus is the good news we hear preached in the New Testament.  Every year the choir sings about the messages of the Old Testament coming to bear on us in the New Testament in the presence of Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany and he was arrested and he was imprisoned.  In 1943 he wrote these words: “my thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like the Hebrew Scriptures and no wonder.  I have been reading it much more than the New Testament for these last few months.  It is only now that I know how far beyond description is the name of God that I can utter the name of Jesus Christ.  It is only when one loves life and earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world.  It is only when we submit to the law that we can speak of God’s grace.  I don’t believe it is Christian to want to get into the New Testament to soon and to directly.”

It may be true that we need the Jews.  But it’s also true that the Jews may not want us.  It is painful to realize how many Jews view the Christian church with great pain, a lot of bitterness and very little trust.  Our cross has become to them a symbol of horribly twisted and transformed sin of anti-Semitism.  It is a sign of torture against God’s very own people.  When Jews look at the cross some of them look at us with a great deal of bitterness.  Their bitterness is a testimony — if we will listen — to the tragic infidelity of our Christian church.  Specifically, a twisting of Scripture that separates, that disengages Christianity from its Jewish history.  It writes Judaism out of the equation.  Rabbi — I got to pronounce this right — Eliezer Berkovitz a few years ago was asked what Jews would like from Christians.  His response was: keep your hands off of us and our children; that’s all.  These are painful words to hear but they are words that we must hear for our own good.

The Jews remind us of a sad terrible history of wrongs against Jews and we don’t really like to be reminded of our sins.  It is painful to be reminded that some of the same hateful feelings from the actions that led the Gentile Romans to crucify Jesus have led fellow Christians to persecute Jews.  I think that rather than deny that history, we have to ponder our thoughts and our interpretations of Scripture, we have to repent.  Repent here is that humble listening and putting out of our mind the idea that we are right to the exclusion of everyone else.  This is where the church has an opportunity to soar; when the church is not all the same kind of people and there are many languages, there are many colors, when there are many different ways of seeing things.  I told you before, that’s one of my points of pride about this church — pride is dangerous — but I love the fact that we have people of all different stripes here.  We have people of all different colors; we have people of all different languages.  We talk; we are the church; we are the church at its best.

We also have to go — and perhaps this is the reason I’m preaching this sermon — we have to regard as suspect those voices that would divide us from one another.  That would say to us: well, you are real Christians and they are Jews.  That proclaims the Jews as deserving of persecution and suffering, that identified them as enemies of God.  We have to hold those voices suspect.  My personal position is: stop listening to them.  That is dangerous conversation that divides, separates; it removes what is not ours to remove.  I think we have to admit, if we are to be Christians following Christ, that we have tragically by our sin against Judaism forfeited our responsibility, our right to convert the Jews.  Christ did call us to go into the world and make disciples, absolutely.  But if Jews are going to come to the understanding that Jesus is their Redeemer, then it will have to be from people other than us because our traditions have so betrayed our Redeemer for just over 2000 years; the persecution, the in-difference and the complicity and violence against Jews.  If we want to do anything for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Jews, then we might urge them to be faithful to the religion of their tradition.  We might urge them by respecting them.  We might let them get to know us; that our Christianity rests firmly on their traditions of Judaism.

We might open doors and invite to Easter celebrations and be very intentional about words we choose.  We might be open to Seder invitations from our Jewish friends and go into their homes with open hearts, ready to listen and to learn what they might teach us about our God.  The image that I have in my mind of our problem with Judaism is of the swimming pool in Lime Springs Iowa where I learned to swim.  On this end of the swimming pool, it starts here and you can wade in, you just walking in the water and it’s around your ankles.  And then on that end it gets down all the way to 15 feet deep.  That’s where the diving tank is.  About 3 feet deep there is a rope and you can’t go past that rope unless you passed the intermediate swimming class.  And then at seven foot deep, you can’t get past that rope unless you passed the next swimming class.  I remember being in the shallow end of the pool, so wanting to go there.  We are Christians and we pretend that this is the pool and we pretend that we can swim; when we get where it is deep; we are going down.  The depth of Judaism enriches and enlivens our relationship to Judaism and to God.

That is the great miracle that’s so astounded Paul.  It is best I think to think of ourselves as honorary Jews.  We have been adopted into a family that we didn’t know was ours.  That’s the miracle that astounded Paul when it came time for bringing Gentiles into the church.  That God’s grace and salvation have been extended to the Gentiles too.  We are the Gentiles.  I know, that is something we need to think about because Jesus saw himself as coming for the Jews.  We have to celebrate our adoption.  And as we celebrate our adoption into the family of Christ, our attempt to respond faithfully to the salvation that is come to us in Jesus, we need to be careful that we don’t act in any way that denigrates God’s people, the Jews.  The good news is that despite our sin God has not rejected us.  Despite centuries of horrible unparalleled injustice toward Jews, they continue.  The good news of that is that the promises of God continue; the promises of God are trustworthy; and there’s nothing better that we can say in the church than thanks be to God.  Amen.