Tag: wealth

Bring Out the Treasure

Romans 8:26-39lk19_11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In today’s readings, I hear people asking, “What is the Kingdom like, Jesus? Tell us!”

And he thinks about this… and decides to take the old treasure of their daily lives, and the old treasure of their sacred scripture, and polish it up to be the new treasure for their present and futures.

Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is like a weed someone purposefully planted. It is the smallest of seeds, but nothing can kill that weed off. You’ve heard in the Torah of the cedars of Lebanon and how the birds make their nests in the temple? I tell you birds bless weeds with their nests.

All you who have considered yourself a weed? God blesses you. All you who feel excluded from fine places and fine company? God seeks you out. The kingdom belongs not to the elite, but to everyone.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You’ve heard in the Torah how it is morally impure, morally questionable. Like mold. Like sinners. The kingdom is like yeast a woman takes and mixes it all through her flour. And the flour is leavened. It rises.

All you who the world says are sinners, outcasts, and impure – God needs you. You are what is going to bring life, bring growth, to all the world. The kingdom of God is made of sinners.

And the kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Which someone accidentally finds. They never were looking at all! With joy, that someone goes and sells everything they have – their house, their home, their wealth, their ties – to buy that field where the treasure is hidden.

All you who accidentally find God, in a time of trial or in a time of peace, at home or at war, a relationship with God is worth changing all your plans over. You never meant to become Christian, never meant to be one of those faith types… but now that you’ve had a taste, it’s okay to risk more. With joy, God won’t let you down.

And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. An educated business person, who knows just what they are seeking. They have a system, they have a plan, and they work diligently. Upon finding a pearl of great value, that merchant sells everything and buys the pearl.

All you who purposefully find God, studying texts and attending church – a relationship with God is worth all your work and troubles. You, too, can risk all you have built up to build a relationship with God and will not be let down.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and catches up fish of every kind. Good fish. Bad fish. Fish who just need a little tender loving care and fish who refuse to be gathered in by Love even when every chance is given. And only at the end of the age are they separated. Until then, they’re all welcomed in and gathered.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is thrown wide to everyone and anyone. Those who have led good lives and those who have led bad lives. Those who repent and those who refuse. Only after all are gathered in will the righteous -those who wish to live in love with each other and with God- and the evil -those who wish to live at odds with God and hate each other- be separated. Then there will be peace.

So do you understand?

If so, then you are commissioned to bring out the new treasure out of these old words.

Do you get what the kingdom of God is like?

If so, you should be able to take your own old treasure, polish it up, and bring it out anew.

If so, you should be able to think of your own parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like for you.

A parable doesn’t perfectly fit. It is LIKE something. So an orange is not an apple, but it is LIKE an apple. It is a fruit, it is round, it grows on a tree. But they are not the same.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t a net or merchant or weed. But it is LIKE these things in some way. Or like how these things relate to other things.

So, how would you explain what heaven is like to others now-a-days?

Maybe…

The kingdom of heaven is like a line with no order. This is how Meredith (Vosburg) Bazzoli of Chicago explains what the kingdom is like for her. She witnessed a line all out of order, with this family mingling into that one, and people just milling about with no line. They were all Hispanic, and standing near a church with a sign that said, “los pasaportes.” Passport help was being given out here. No one grumbled as people moved in and out of the group; no police kept the line carefully in a row. There was no rope, no tickets, no different reward for those who came early or those who came late. Everyone got the same help. And they waited with joy. She writes, “The kingdom of God is like this, a line with no rules, a line that offends the righteous, those who’ve been in line for a while doing the right thing.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/09/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-line-with-no-order/))

Or maybe the kingdom is like a squeaky hamster wheel. Author Addie Zierman thinks so. Before you get upset – she doesn’t mean futile – as in going no where. That is the limits of parables! They’re not literal, and not perfect. They’re examples to try to get at something unspoken.

So go with Zierman and me with a moment… Have you, or any of your kids or grandkids had a hamster? The wheel squeaks, and squeaks, and squeaks as they run on it all the time. Dinner time the squeak begins. Bed time it continues. Midnight potty and guess what you hear — two in the morning and you roll over and you hear… squeak! Squeak! Squeak! She writes, “The hamster wheel squeak, squeak, squeaks, and it occurs to me that the Kingdom of God has been at work all this time — that when I am asleep, when I am distracted, when I am unaware, it is still turning, turning, turning — God at work, always, in the world he created… That we wake into a Kingdom that is always already happening.” God, and God’s in breaking into our world, never stops. Whether waking or sleeping, God is aware and present. ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/15/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-squeaky-hamster-wheel/))

Organists Gayl Wright says the kingdom of God, for her, is like an unexpected polka. One Sunday while she was playing the new church organ, her finger slipped on the buttons during the prayers. She thought she had the organ set back to a proper classical piano… but instead, when she pressed the first chord, the piano began to play a polka beat and rattle off drums with each press of a key. She writes, “In our church services we pray the same prayers and sing the same responses every week. If we are not careful in that routine, we might just go through the motions not even thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we need a wake up call, like a blast of the unfamiliar.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/29/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-surprise-during-church/))

And, sometimes, we need the unexpected polka to remind us God’s love is not based on perfection. If only perfect people make it to heaven, heaven is an empty place.

For Paul, the kingdom of heaven is a deep sigh. A holy, sacred sigh – the kind that we do when we don’t even know how to begin to pray. The kind we do when our dearest loves have deep pains and we wish we could alleviate them. The deep sigh we have, internally, when we ache head to toe and there is not enough time. Or too much time. That deep sigh when we know we need God, but have no idea in what way. The Spirit prays.

And when we are sleeping, the Spirit prays. And when we are distracted, the Spirit prays. And when we are spoken against, charged with crimes we did or didn’t commit, condemned, know hardship, peril, distress, persecution, poverty, war, sickness – when anything and when everything tries to break our faith in God…

That deep sigh and whisper inside of us keeps praying. The Spirit keeps us tightly. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The kingdom is an internal and eternal sigh, breath, whisper, connecting us with God forever.

So bring out the treasure of your hearts, of your sacred stories, of your experiences – polish it up – and present it anew to one another! Tell each other – where do you see the kingdom of heaven? What is it like for you?

Amen.

Advertisements

Humble Pie

humble-pie-final-dribbbleHebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is always heading towards food, eating, or just having left food. Ever noticed that? Luke centers his retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection all around food!

You think it’s kind of weird, but we do the same thing. Birthdays have – birthday cake. Weddings? Usually a wedding feast and wedding cake. 4th of July cookouts, and halloween candy. Christmas cookies. Someone dies? We want to send their family flowers and… food. You know what starts this week? The Millersport Sweetcorn Festival celebrating… food!

Sabbath dinners are like Sunday dinners – a bigger affair than the normal meals during the week. And, who a person ate with and where they sat and their table manners all meant a lot.

Again, we do this today. There are Donor Dinners. Special big dinners with overpriced chicken to raise money. Being present there is the important part. You’re being seen (and sometimes entertained) for giving the money. And if you get an invite from a someone famous for a supper? Don’t people say: “Wow, what an honor!”

Weddings are some of my favorite places to watch people jostle over their food. There is a head table with a bride and a groom – and to their left and right the rest of the Bridal party. They usually have nicer glasses than everyone else, and get served food first. Sometimes their own cake separate from everyone else’s. Sitting near this head table are the “Guests of Honor.” Parents, siblings, friends who are special but not quite special enough to sit at the head table… From there, aunts and uncles, and so forth. In the very back of the room – the awkward people who had to be invited but the bride and groom don’t really want to see. And every couple who has noisy kids. By the time the table way in the back gets served, the meal is cold, the dessert mostly gone, and the bridal party on the dance floor.

So picture a well known man like a senator is hosting a special dinner for THE Jesus – the man of the hour. And like at a wedding, everyone who comes jostles and bumps around for the best seat near the front. And there are people tsking and shaking their heads if someone takes a seat near the front who isn’t important enough. Did you see he just took the last seat? Now the senator’s wife has to sit in the back! Scandalous! Does he think he’s more important than the senator or his wife?!

Jesus watches all of this, and decides even though he’s the special guest, the man everyone is here to listen to and speak with, he’s going to go sit in the dark corner with the awkward people.

Now, everyone at the head table can’t see or hear him as well, and the people who just barely got an invite are sitting with him themselves! All the honor in the room has been reversed.

Back there at the rickety table with mismatched utensils, Jesus tells the people, “When you get invited to dinner, don’t go fighting and scrambling for the best seat. Not only is it embarrassing when the host has to tell you to give up your seat for someone else, but you get honor when the host asks you to come up closer. Also, remember… the first will be last and the last will be first. True honor, true glory, doesn’t come from other humans. It comes from God. And God doesn’t care how many fancy meals you’ve been invited to. God cares how you treated others.”

Then Jesus turned to the host – who had to be so red in the face. And he tells the host, “When you host a dinner, don’t go inviting your family and friends and people of power.” In other words, everyone this host had invited. “These people might repay you the kindness. Instead, invite people who’ve never had the opportunity to eat this kind of a meal. Invite those who can’t repay you. Invite the outcasts and you’ll be blessed. Remember: the first will be last and the last will be first.”

When I think about this, I think about the Catholic social worker Dorothy Day who wrote, “I firmly believe our salvation depends on the poor.”

Think on that a moment.

Our salvation… depends on the poor.

She argues that Christ said whatever we do, or don’t do, to the least of others is what we do, or don’t do, to Christ Christ’s self. The last will be first because how we have treated the last, how they have encountered us, is how Christ will judge us.

If the poor have never seen us, never been invited into our homes, never came to our celebration dinners and received welcoming arms and radical hospitality… will Christ say then, too, on the day we stand before God face to face: “I’ve never seen you before.”

And although Day speaks of the poor, Jesus speaks of those who are outcast – people decent church folk would never be seen around. It’s they, Jesus says, who don’t need to jostle for a position closer to God. God is WITH the outcasts. It’s us, we, who need to get closer to the outcasts to be closer to the blessings of God.

This reminds me of my mother saying to me, “Love the unlovable, Whitney, they’re the ones who need love the most.”

Welcome the inhospitable, children of God, they need the hospitality the most.

Feed the hungry, children of God, they need the food more than the sated.

Give alms, money, to the poor, children of God, they need money the most.

And do random acts of kindness to strangers, for by doing so, you may just help an angel.

Vanities of Vanities

auction_bySheltonReality.jpgEcclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Have you been to an auction? I used to go all the time with my dad. It was our daddy-daughter bonding time. I remember this one auction very well: it took up the entire farmhouse yard, went into the barnyard, and into the two barns AND the house. There were tables of tools, boxes upon boxes of pots and pans, antique furniture around every corner, and enough holiday decorations to decorate the White House. The front lawn had a long line of folding tables divided into lots — lot 1, lot 2, — and so forth. Whatever was in your half of the folding table is what you were bidding upon.

I stood at the head of one of the tables and looked in the boxes. It was photo albums. Book after book of black and white photos; book after book of Polaroids; and Christmas cards with photos and address books with photos. About half were carefully labeled ‘Danny’s First Christmas’ ‘Hannah and Chuck’ ‘Whitehall, 1960’ and so forth. Weddings. Birthdays. Picnics. Men ready for war. Women holding little babies. Kids in bathing suits.

I suddenly realized a woman, an elderly woman, had died. We were rifling through her possessions. Soon we would be taking some, giving her family or her medical bills money, and then all she owned would scattered across the state.

These weren’t extra dishes. These were the dishes she ate with every day.

This table she had toast at, and fed her children.

These were the clothes she washed, wore, repaired, for decades.

And here, these photos in my hands, this is her nice cursive handwriting detail the people she loved. What would be done with the photos now? No one here even knows who Danny or Hannah or Chuck are. Would the buyer throw the photos away and reuse the antique albums? Who collects old color out of focus Polaroids? Why didn’t the family take these?

… Maybe she doesn’t … didn’t… have any living family left.

The auctioneer began his fast pelt of questions and calls and the people around me began to nod their heads or flick their little paper numbers. But I was lost in thought looking at that stack of albums. It made me begin to wonder about this dead woman I’d never met, and, what it will be like when I am the dead woman some day. What will I leave behind when I die?

Another death. Nuns and monks have their own private rooms although they share a big house. A UCC minister told this story of her aunt who was a nun. One of the nuns passed away, and, eventually, the sisters needed to clean out the deceased’s room. When they opened the door to her bedroom, they found it was completely stuffed with things: maps and books, little nicknacks and silk flowers, photos and paintings and everything you can name — all piled into that little room. I think it must have looked like my closet when I was a kid: one of those ‘Open Only If You Dare’ situations. It took days to clean and clear out.

Later, the minister’s aunt herself was diagonsed with incurable cancer. The minister was called by her aunt to come visit. When she got there, her aunt handed her treasures: her favorite painting, little ceramic cats the two played with, and pictures the minister had made her aunt when the minister was a little girl. The minister knew her aunt treasured these things, and was so surprised she was parting with them. But the aunt was adament, “I know you’ll treasure these like I do. Take them.”

When the aunt died, the sisters gathered one day to clear out her room. They found it was completely empty but for its bed, nightstand, and dresser. The aunt had given away everything.

The minister realized then that STUFF is for the living. We can’t take it with us at all. By giving away things, the aunt had seen all the people she loved one last time before passing away. She knew what true wealth is, and how to share it.

The writer of Ecclesiasties sets out to learn what is true wealth. He wants to know: what brings lasting happiness? What brings lasting joy? What is worthwhile to do? How should one spend their life?

And in woe, he finds that most things we do are meaningless in the big picture of the world. Every joy and every meaning is fleeting, is a vanity, a puff of smoke or is dust in the wind. Like cleaning the house, or weeding the garden, our toils never end and just seem to come to nothing.

He writes that if we work really hard and build up something to pass on to our kids: wealth, a furnished house, a business, or even photo albums labeled and organized… we have no guarantee what they’re going to do with those things. They might not appreciate the money and blow through it. Or they may not want to live where we have the house. Maybe they don’t want to work the business. Maybe they don’t want the photo albums.

Yet we want to have lives that MEAN something. If we can’t trust even our own kids to pass on our mark, our stamp, our memory, on the world, what can we do? Is life a vainity? Is life meaningless?

The Teacher in Ecclessiasties struggles with this. In the end, he concludes that the truest meanings of life we mortals can’t know. God alone knows. So, while we are living, live well: relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy time with your family and friends. Whatever you do, do with joy. Obey God and the commandments, for whatever life is, (a test? a dream? a proving grounds? a place to learn?) and whatever death is, we can ask God once we have passed away. What is certain is, he writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.”

Our second reading echos, refers back to, Ecclesiasties. Did you hear it?

A man has come to Jesus and said, “Tell me brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” You see, each son was entitled to some of their father’s wealth when their father died. Usually Rabbis could step in and use scripture to chastize the greedy one not sharing.

But Jesus turns the tables, and warns everyone: don’t be greedy at all! Sure, this boy deserves his share by the law… but the real issue is that greed — greed of the older brother and younger brother — is tearing the family apart. One’s life does not consistent in the abundance of possessions. What you own isn’t who you are.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen torn apart when somebody dies. My own included. Countless. Theft during funerals; hiding or changing wills; hiding possessions; changing locks; lawyers and police and decades of hurt feelings. Over what? Possessions. Jesus reminds us that who is right and who is wrong in these situations isn’t going to make us happy. Getting a laywer or a judge or pastor to say, “You’re right!” doesn’t knit the family back together again. Guard against all kinds of greed. It tears us apart.

Then Jesus tells the story that echoes Ecclesiasties. He says a rich man had land that made him even richer. He had so many crops they didn’t all fit in his barn. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, like the teacher of Ecclesiasties, he chose to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. However, the Teacher told us to enjoy time with our family and friends, and to honor and obey God. He also told us that wealth is meaningless. The rich man chose to hoard his wealth all to himself. He didn’t share it with family and friends. He didn’t honor and obey God by sharing with the stranger and the needy. And God called the man a fool, and that the man was going to die that very night. “All the things you prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil was in vain. All that hoarding was in vain. The man didn’t need barns of food after he died. So who owned them now?

Greed tears us apart. Clinging to poscessions tears us apart.

Poccess your poccessions. Don’t be poccessed by pocessions.

When you store up treasures, store them up for God- not yourself! Store up good deeds, good memories, fun times, prayers, times of comfort and sollace, times of generosity, times of worship; store up heavenly treasures. Store up love for others — and share that love abundantly.

The treasures we hoard for ourselves all alone, without others enjoying or God invited, these we lose.

The Teacher writes in chapter 5 of Ecclesiasties:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
This too is a grievous evil:
As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

Wealth – financial stability – comes and goes. Work – what we do to survive – should never consume our whole lives. Our lives are meant for more than labor. No matter if you have no income, a fixed income, make $30,000 a year, or 50, or 100, or a billion dollars a year… you always will think you could use a bit more. So instead of worrying about money, enjoy what you do have – and share it with others. In the sharing we find we all have enough to go around.

Jesus economics are like garden economics. This week I have so many cucumbers I beg you to take some and use them. Next week, you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll beg me to take some and use some. By sharing, we all have richer summers, richer relationships, and richer lives. We store up in heaven our love for one another.

When we apply this to money, it means that some years of your life you’ll have more income than you need. Then is the time to share, because in later times of your life, you’ll not have enough. And there is no shame in taking tomatoes or cucumbers. There is no shame in taking offered finanical assistance.

For while one has more money than they need, another has more time, another has more skills in gardening or cooking, another has abundant repair skills, and another abundant stories. We each are blessed with more wealth than we can ever count. And together, when we share it, we always are an extrememly blessed community.

Where is your treasure? Stored somewhere fading and passing away; or stored in our heavenly home? Amen.

Treasured Treasures

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Whatever happened to the magi’s gifts?

Walk and think with me on this.

Some magi — likely priests of Zoroasterism — came to Jesus with treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Two were prophesized by Isaiah — the wealth of kings and the scent of a deity used in temple worship. But the third gift, myrrh, is unique. It is the scent used to anoint the dead. All three gifts are expensive and rare.

I don’t know how and why they picked their gifts. Maybe the gold is for the king, the frankincense for the services praying for the new king, and the myrrh for the king who died — since there can only be one king at a time over a county.

However it is, they take some of their wealth and they begin to follow a star to see over which country it appeared. The county happens to be Judea, whose capital is Jerusalem. But, as we know, King Herod is still alive and none of his sons have taken the throne as a new king. Yet the magi are certain there is a new king in this land, this land of the Jews, somewhere. So they keep seeking and following the star.

We know eventually they find Mary and Jesus in a house – maybe this is Jesus’ childhood home and Joseph is off working for the day. Toddler Jesus is there and these foreign priests bow to the boy and present their treasures to him. Our Epiphany, our realization, is that Jesus is both God and mortal; both king and sacrifice; both judgment and forgiveness.

But then the magi head home, avoiding Herod (or Herod Jr. We’re not really sure what year the magi came to Jesus.)

So have you, like me, ever wondered what happened to that treasure? I mean, does this treasure go towards buying carpenter equipment? Does it get stolen? Is it buried somewhere? Was it passed down in the family or help fund Jesus’ adult ministry?

As an adult, Jesus spoke about treasure. Our Lord tells us (Matt. 6:19) “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…” Was Jesus speaking out of personal experience? The precious oils and saps of frankincense and myrrh decayed and the boxes rusted and their cloth was moth ate and thieves took the gold. Maybe that’s what happened to the treasure.

There’s lots of stories outside of the Bible people have made up about what happened to these gifts from the wise men. Some said it helped them flee to Egypt, some say it started Jesus’ adult ministry, and one old story says it was stolen from Jesus by the very same thieves he was later crucified with.

In truth, we don’t know what happened.

But not knowing is kind of the definition of treasure…

Treasures are a pile of riches– usually ancient — and usually considered once lost and forgotten until discovered. I mean, we don’t say a bank is holding treasure… it has money. A set and counted amount of money. But we tell stories that a dragon has a treasure trove, and we mean a dragon has an unknown large amount of gold and gems, precious things we can’t even name, all which the world thought was forgot but now is found under said dragon.

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is all about finding that unknown lost sum, the excitement, the mystery, and bringing the wealth back into the world.

Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights is all about learning the magic password – open sesame – and finding all the stolen treasures hidden in the secret cave – and how he takes these out and uses them.

Treasures are what we value, stored up, ferreted away, what was lost and is now found and returned to the world.

So since the magi brought Jesus treasure… and it was lost… doesn’t that mean we can find it again?

Like a treasure map with a big x to mark the spot, they had a big star to mark the spot they left their treasure. So maybe it’s just a matter of picking the right star and following it… but what if it was a star that wasn’t always there – it was just there a little while? Like a comet or an asteroid?

Or what if Matthew was trying to tell us a story with a deeper meaning rather than trying to give us a map to coins and perfumes?

I mean, later in Matthew, Jesus’ whole saying on treasure is: “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth no rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

Maybe the wise men are a foreshadow, a hint, at what later Matthew wanted us to remember about Jesus: Jesus didn’t value monetary wealth and the treasures of the earth. Jesus valued the treasures of heaven. Treasures like prayer, helping each other, being honest, loving each other and loving God.

Treasures that we can find, and give to the world, over and over again.

Or maybe, we’re to understand that the wise men went and put their treasure where their heart was. Jesus, their heart, is who they gave their treasures to. Herod, meanwhile, kept his treasures to himself and so kept his heart to himself. He only loved himself. The wise men were wise, and knew to love God.

See, I have heard before that we are the heart of Christ. And we are Jesus’ treasure. And since we are Jesus’ treasure, and his heart, Jesus stores us with himself in heaven. Safe and secure.

The reverse is this: When Jesus is our treasure, our hearts are with Jesus. So that we are encircled by Christ, surrounded by love, like treasure inside a protective chest.

When I think of my own heart, my heart is a treasure trove. A hoard of treasures. It is my wealth. In it is love and memories, loyalty and laughter, people, family, friends, pets, and places; and my God.

Sadly, however, even the treasure that normal moths and rust and thieves can’t take still can slip away like sand through my fingers. Time makes some memories fade, and like a thief in the night, some of my favorite places have been stolen for urban sprawl. Family, friends, pets… they all pass away.

So what do I do?

I think Jesus’ answer is still the best. Entrust him with this heart of treasure. Pray. Tell God our favorite memories, our favorite places. Tell God of our love for family and friends. Tell God our gratitude for loyal pets and good jokes. Trust God to take all of our treasures and store them in heaven where they cannot degrade, cannot fade, cannot be stolen or fall apart.

Treasures get lost… and found… lost and found. We might lose our treasured treasures on this earth, but those we entrust to God shall always be findable.

One day, what will you find waiting for you stored away in heaven? What stories, what memories, what loves, what joys, what prayers have you tucked away?

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC Baltimore, Ohio, 12-3-2016

Do we have enough to share?

1 Kings 17:8-16

Mark 12:38-44

Ask and ye shall receive!
Give and it will be given back to you!
Plant a seed and watch your blessings grow!
There are laws of faith called a blessing pact, where God returns your donations to you sevenfold!
Positively confess what you want and God will give it to his faithful!
Speak the word of faith and turn your one-dollar bills into twenty-dollar bills!
Let us raise our seeds over our heads as we pray aloud what God will give us in return for our payment.

Such things have been spoken by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and Bruce Wilkinson. You may also know the names Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Benny Hinn, or Eddie Long.

They preach a gospel known as Prosperity Theology. They preach the key to wealth is God. With enough faith, with enough gifts to the church to demonstrate this faith, God will gift in return for your financial contribution cures from cancer, give you economic wealth, send true love, or give you anything else the heart desires.

And yes, there are scriptures that support this thinking.

In Jesus’ time, this same thinking was taught in the synagogues and temple. Why is John Doe rich? Because God favors him. God gave him that money. Why is Bob So-and-So poor? Because he displeased God, and God cursed him.

In the book of Job, Job’s friends tell him the same thing. Clearly you lost God’s favor, clearly you are cursed, because you must have cursed God. If you were a good person, if you worked harder, if you had better morals, you wouldn’t be so poor.

Yet Job is adamant he never did a thing wrong against God and yet Job lost everything… We, the readers, know Job is telling the truth.

… and the book of Ecclesiastes… “The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.” Ecclesiastes says where wealth and poverty land is due to time and chance… it is meaningless, senseless, and not based on the moral worth of a person.

Against the prosperity gospel’s message that wealth is a sigh of God’s favor is the entire New Testament about Jesus, the very incarnation of God, who is born poor, lives poor, and dies poor. And his disciples, who he told to become poor. And Paul, who suffered and suffered and died… imprisoned and poor.

That sweet easy life Prosperity Gospel preachers teach us is not the life Jesus demonstrates. The bible never says an easy life can be earned, and in fact says being Christian is choosing a narrow way — a way not wide and comfortable. But a tight, hard, ragged path. The Bible says Jesus died to make us one, atone us, with God. Died to have a victory over death… it never says he died to take away poverty and make us rich.

In fact, Jesus said the poor will always be.

Today, we are given two readings… similar readings… both about widows who believe, who have faith in God, and who give up all they own. One from the old testament, and one from the new…

In 1 Kings, there is a great drought going on. Years without rain. Israel says it is because Kind Ahab has turned to worship Baal with his wife Jezebel. Their Canaanite neighbors say it is because Baal has died, but will be resurrected eventually. The prophet Elijah has said the rain will return when the Israelites return to the God of Abraham.

But that’s a very unpopular message. It’s against the king.

So Elijah is hiding out in a wadi, a wet ravine. Here, God has been sending him food from ravens. Ravens are considered really unclean to the Israelites. But these unclean birds are doing God’s will and sustaining Elijah. However, eventually, even the wadi goes dry. So Elijah travels on when he hears the word of God.

God tells him to ask an unclean, destitute widow from the neighboring capital city for food. It’s like the ravens weren’t bad enough — now Elijah has to go stoop to the level of asking unclean women, a poor woman, who worships Baal, to share her food.

Are you ready to ask for the only piece of moldy bread from the unwashed hand of a homeless drug dealer who worships Satan?

This is kind of what God asks of Elijah. Asks him to identify with this level of humbleness with other humans.

And Elijah is this faithful.

The widow, when she hears the stranger’s request, says she doesn’t have enough food to bake bread. In fact, she and her son are starving. When they finish this last cake of corn meal, she says there is no more food and they will die. The famine from the drought will be the end of her and her child.

Elijah hears the word of God again, who promises the corn meal and the oil the widow has will not run out until God — not Baal — makes it rain. And God — not Baal — will be feeding Elijah, the widow, and her son.

The woman strangely agrees. Perhaps she thought she has nothing left to lose. She and her son are going to die, what does it matter if she risks sharing their last tiny meal with a stranger? This foreign man and his foreign god at least offer a little hope that this meal will not be their last.

When Elijah takes a risk, and the woman takes a risk, the miracle God promises occurs, and the two adults and little boy survive the famine. Surely this is evidence supporting the Prosperity Gospel, right? Enough risk, enough faith, and things will always turn out alright.

… but the woman never confesses she believes in God. She never converts. She actually curses Elijah and our god later, and still! Still God blesses her by resurrecting her son when Elijah prays for such. This woman begins as a worshipper of Baal and ends as a worshipper of Baal… yet God’s blessing comes to her.

God’s love doesn’t seem to be limited to only the faithful.

Our second widow story comes from Mark. In this reading, Jesus warns his disciples against rich people who make huge donations to charity, even as they make their riches and profit off of the very people the charity helps. It’s a bit like cigarette companies donating money to a hospital for a new lung cancer wing (complete with their logo and complementary cigarettes in each patient take-home bag.) Or like Wal-Mart offering free “how to apply for food stamps” programs to its employees rather than offering a living wage or full-time hours with benefits. Or a big Prosperity Gospel church educating how to become financially stable while saying one can only be financially wealthy if a person buys their expensive holy oil or makes big donations to the church.

The good deed — donating to a hospital, offering education, ministering — is over shadowed by the fact the good deed wouldn’t be as desperately needed if the deed doer wasn’t MAKING or making worse the bad situation these charity cases are in!

In the story, Jesus is watching people come and leave coins in a donation box at the temple. People he has chastised, the wealthy, come and leave a large sum of coins… but what they leave is only some of what they own. They give a percentage of the money they have gained.

Then a widow, a person with no income, and dependent on charity to survive, comes and leaves all she has. She trusts God, trusts the temple, and now is completely broke.

Jesus points her out to his disciples. She has given more than everyone else. We understand she has given 100% while the others gave .05% or at max, 10%…. even though the rich gave more money, what they gave is a less percentage of what they own compared to the widow.

But what is Jesus meant even more in his comment than simple percentage math?

What if he meant this woman has given all her hopes and dreams to the temple? She is all in. She feels compelled to give the last money to feed herself and her children to the church.

And yet, nearby, stands the affluent church and community leaders, who give a little portion of their income, and reap lots of praise. You know — get their name on the wall for their contribution and get on TV where they say ‘I am wealthy because I am faithful to God!’

Is their .05% faithful more faithful than the widow’s 100%?

Why is she still poor if wealth is a matter of God’s faithfulness?

Where did the wealth of the scribes and religious leaders come from? Work, yes… but also inheritance, and rich relatives, luck of birth and chance good deals, but also donations and gifts. The money given to the temple. And the assets they ‘devoured’ from the widows, the congregation members, who trusted them to guide their lives.

Widows needed a man to manage their legal affairs. Many of us need someone to help us with finances. And just as it was in Jesus’ time, so it is today – some people get rich by ripping off, stealing from, the elderly. Tricking the average person. Some claim to be good hearted and helpful even as they help themselves to eating up all the savings of an duped man or woman.

I see this happening today! Some Prosperity Gospel churches preach that if a person simply gives enough to God through the church, ANYTHING that person prays for will happen. It just takes faith! If your cancer doesn’t go away, if your debt doesn’t go away, if true love doesn’t appear… it isn’t because God or the church have failed you, it is because you haven’t demonstrated enough faith. Give more. Believe more. Pray more. Buy more.

Recently, I read about a woman who was dying of cancer. She trusted so much in the messages of Prosperity Gospel that she gave all her income, went into great debt, praying and trying to demonstrate her faith that God would cure her. She even began to skip chemo treatments to maintain her big donations. Her daughter said, “Right up to the end, mom was writing in her diary how she knew God would cure her if she could just give a few more dollars and believe a bit more.”

… No.

No.

God’s favor cannot be bought!

Richness and poverty are not from blessings and curses.

We follow the god who was born in a barn to an unwed mother, raised by a day laborer step-dad, lived in a tiny no-horse town in an impoverished occupied Middle Eastern country. We follow a god who had no place to rest his head, who was cursed, spat on, betrayed. A god who went through a kangaroo court and was dealt injustice, and then killed through capital punishment in a public and brutal way.

Our God never promised us a rose garden. Our God promises us companionship in the awfulness of life and in the beauty of life. Our God promises us that one day, God God’s self will dry our tears and feast with us. Our God promises us that we and God together can make this world a better place.

We Christians are given an incredible responsibility – we don’t just have to donate to the poor, and to our churches, and to one another… for there will always be need. No — we have to destroy the systems that cause poverty, destroy the churches that harm people, and sit in the dirt with each other when the storms hit. We have to speak truth to power, even when that makes us unpopular. We have to protest injustices even when that means we have to give up the power those injustices give us. We have to be like Christ, be like Jesus… and not take the easy route, the easy explanation, for wealth inequality.

Do we have enough to give? It depends on who you ask and why they are giving. If you’re giving to earn God’s blessing — stop. You already have the blessing of God’s love. If you’re giving to help others with no expectation of return — continue. Such is how to live Christian. If you are giving out of your wealth to be seen — stop. You are harming God’s work. If you are giving out of your heart for the mission of God — continue. Whatever you give large or small God will use. — and money is just one type of gift. The most important gift you can give at all if the gift of a loving life.

In the words of Amy Pectol, the wealthy in the past and those of today “actually give less than those who have middle or lower incomes… those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy! Jesus is NOT endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is… and challenging US to see the structures that allows this to continue. [So!] What can WE DO to make society and… our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?”

Go out. Be bold. Speak truth. Live like Christ. Throw some money changers and other hypocrites out. Let’s make a world where no one is down to their last two pennies while others sit on mounds of gold. Let’s make the kindom of God now and no one has too much or too little! Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, 11-8-15

Possessed!

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

Have you heard George Carlin’s act “A place for my stuff?”

It goes a bit like this:

I would have been out here a little bit sooner…
…but they gave me the wrong dressing room…
…and I couldn’t find any place to put my stuff.
And I don’t know how you are…
…but I need a place to put my stuff.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing back there…
…just trying to find a place for my stuff.
You know how important that is, that’s the whole…
…that’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it?
Trying to find a place for your stuff.
That’s all your house is…
…your house is just a place for your stuff.
If you didn’t have so much […] stuff…
…you wouldn’t need a house.
You could just walk around all the time.
That’s all your house is, it’s a pile of stuff…
…with a cover on it.
You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down…
…and you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff.
Everybody’s got their own pile of stuff.

And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up.
Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.
They always take the good stuff.
They don’t bother with that […] you’re saving.
Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.
They’re looking for the good stuff.

That’s all your house is, it’s a place to keep your stuff…
…while you go out and get more stuff.
Now, sometimes, sometimes you gotta move…
…you gotta get a bigger house.
Why? Too much stuff.
You’ve gotta move all your stuff…
…and maybe put some of your stuff in storage.
Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keeping…
…an eye on your stuff.

[…]

Now, now, sometimes you go on vacation…
…you gotta bring some of your stuff with you.
You can’t bring all your stuff, just the stuff you really like…
…the stuff that fits you well that month.
Let’s say you’re gonna go to Honolulu…
…you’re gonna go all the way to Honolulu you gotta…
…take two big bags of stuff…
…plus your carry on stuff, plus the stuff in your pockets.
You get all the way to Honolulu and you get in your hotel room…
…and you start to put away your stuff…
…that’s the first thing you do in a hotel room…
…is put away your stuff.
Now I’ll put some stuff in here, put some stuff down there…
…here’s another place some stuff here…
…I’ll put some stuff overthere.
You put your stuff overthere, I’m putting my stuff over here.
Here’s another place for some stuff.
Hey, we got more places than we’ve got stuff.
We’re gonna have to buy more stuff.

And you put all your stuff away, and you know that you’re…
…thousands of miles from home, and you don’t quite feel…
…at ease, but you know that you must be okay because you do have…
…some of your stuff with you.
And you relax in Honolulu on that basis.

That’s when your friend from Maui calls and says “Hey…
…why don’t you come overto Maui forthe weekend…
…spend a couple of nights over here?”
[…]
Now what stuff do you bring?
Right, you’ve gotta bring an even smaller version…
…of your stuff…
…just enough stuff for a weekend on Maui.
And you get over, and you are really spread out now…
…you’ve got [stuff] all over the world.
You’ve got stuff at home, stuff in storage, stuff in Honolulu…
…stuff in Maui, stuff in your pockets…
…supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain.
But you get over to your friend’s house in Maui…
…and they give you a little place to sleep…
…and there’s a little window ledge…
…or some kind of a small shelf…
…and there’s not much room on it but it’s okay…
…’cause you don’t have much stuff now.
And you put what stuff you do have up there…
…you put your imported French toenail clippers…
…your odor eaters with the 45 day guarantee…
…your cinnamon flavored dental floss…
…and your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you know you’re a long way from home…
…you know that you must be okay because you do have…
…your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you relax in Maui on that basis.
That’s when your friend says…
…hey, I think tonight we’ll go to the other side of the island…
…stay at my friend’s house overnight.
[…]
Now what do you bring?
Now you just bring the things you know you’re gonna need…
…money, keys, comb, wallet, lighter, hankie, pens… […]
Think of Carlin’s words — “that’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff.”

Protecting it from rain and weather.

Guarding it from robbers.

Paying others to guard your items.

And accumulating more and more stuff all around the world, and then finding a place for it.

Carlin is so extremely funny because he speaks truth to us in a way we hadn’t heard it before. We’ve heard Jesus’ message about stuff too often for it to really hit home – so Carlin repeats it in a new way. But it’s the same old story!

Who is possessing whom? Do you have possessions or are you possessed?

The young man who comes to Jesus is a good young man. He’s following the Torah very diligently. He comes to Jesus not to catch Jesus in a word trap, like so many others, nor to ask for a healing – no, he wants to know, how can he inherit eternal life?

Jesus tells him to follow the commandments of God. The young man says he already is doing so.

“Jesus looked at him, LOVED him, and said ‘You lack one thing… sell what you own and follow me.'”

And the poor man goes away in grief. In sorrow and agony “because he had many possessions.”

We always assume the man doesn’t sell everything and follow Jesus because he leaves in sorrow. But the text doesn’t say that. Perhaps the man left in grief and sorrow because he HAD SO MUCH STUFF! So much to sell, to organize, so much to say goodbye to… but maybe, someday, he did get released from his possessions and followed Christ.

I am guilty of being possessed by possessions. Some of them I’m holding on to because you know, I might need that some day or I think I’ll get around to fixing them. It’s half a can of paint, but you know, the moment I donate it to the ReStore, to Habitat for Humanity, is the day I’m going to need just a little dab of paint. And yeah, I have two sweepers – the old one just needs a new belt rotor. I’ll fix it some day. It’s only been broke… for four years. So there it is, in my closet.

Other things I’m holding on to because they are fond memories or are just cool. I’ve got my kindergarten coloring book and I smile when I see it. It means nothing to everyone but me. It’s marks on big bold pages from some kid. But to me, it’s days sitting at my aunt’s house and great-grandma’s. There’s also a stack of wedding invitations from all my friends who have gotten married.

And the cool things — like this magnifier glass that folds into a leather case — but I digress. I hold on to all of this. I move it, from this apartment to that, and now to a home. I haven’t used any of these in years — almost decades — and yet they stay on.

Stuff.

I think, I feel like if I get rid of the stuff, I also get rid of the memory.

It’s like, I don’t want to throw away my key to those memories by throwing away the invite or the book. So I carry them on. I don’t want to forget Katie’s wedding or lunch at Great-Grandma’s. I don’t want to lose that special feeling I have when I think about those times.

And yet — here, I just recalled to you those memories without the items physically in my hand. I can access those memories without a physical key. I don’t need the old coloring book or wedding invite to remember, to feel the emotions, to smile…

… If Jesus had told me to sell all I own, give the money to the poor, and follow him… I would go away grieving too. Even if I eventually did just that – it would feel like Jesus had asked me to give up all my memories.

… and that is not at all what Christ is asking.

Christ is asking that we own possessions, rather than being owned by them.

Asking that we hold on to our items with lose hands, so that we share what we have easily and quickly.

Asking us to not be the person in Carlin’s skit who feels stretched thin with stuff all over, but to be a disciple of Christ who owns only what they can possess and use… nothing that possesses them and uses them.

If I donate my paint to Habitat and find I need a dabble, I bet one of my neighbors has some I can borrow. I can rely on my community. If I asked my community, I bet someone even has the part for the sweeper or wants mine for parts.

Jesus comes preaching freedom to the captives. He preached freedom to this captive rich young man — freedom from stuff — but the freedom price was so heavy. It was the weight of houses and storage units, stuffed garages and boxes. And fear.

Jesus especially preaches freedom to the richest nations, such as ourselves. Freedom from bigger houses and places to store stuff, freedom from going into debt for more stuff and more places to put stuff, freedom from fretting over what stuff to buy this upcoming Christmas season. We have more than we ever will need already.

We have but to hold on to our stuff more loosely.

And to not fear letting go.

To trust.

To follow.

Jesus speaks to us in this rich nation specifically today. “How hard it is for Americans to enter the kingdom of God! It’s as hard as driving a F150 through the eye of a needle. Impossible – but for the grace of God.”

And why us specifically? Because the more stuff you have, the richer you are, the harder it is to share. The harder it is to let go. The harder it is to freely follow Jesus rather than to be labored with, burdened with, caring for, organizing, working to afford, and housing stuff.

Stuff is stuff, I think Jesus would say. Stuff doesn’t matter.

People do.

Don’t ignore people for stuff.

For the kindom of God is made out of people… not forks and spoons, houses and cars, clothes and books. The kindom is people.

All this stuff you’ll leave behind. What you take is what’s in you. Memories. Relationships. Loves. Invest in those, not more stuff.

Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio 10-11-15