August 23, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 16

Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34: 15-22; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; John 6: 56- 69


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Who do we serve?

That’s not meant to be a rhetorical question.  Really, who or what things do people serve?

As the variety of the answers suggests, we serve many different things. There is a lot out there in the world that is competing for our time, for our allegiance, for our service.

And in the midst of all those things (our families, our relationships, our obligations, our guilt, our addictions) – in the midst of all that, we find God. Does God demand that we be obedient and serve? Does God say to us “you owe me twenty hours this week!” I don’t believe God does.

But there is clearly a choice we make everyday about our priorities, what we will serve. This is a timeless part of the human condition. The story we hear in the book of Joshua this morning, is the story of a line being drawn in the sand, where a decision needs to be made. Joshua asks the Hebrew people, “who are you going to serve? Are you going to serve God? OR are you going to serve something else?” Joshua asks this question as he is nearing the end of his life.

He grew up following Moses’ leadership, helping to deliver the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. As Moses grew older, and eventually died himself, Joshua was the heir, the next leader of the Hebrews, who would lead them into Israel. Today, we draw near to the end of the story, and Joshua, near death, tells the people “Hey you have a really important choice to make. If you are unwilling to serve God, then you need to figure out who you are going to serve, and then Joshua quoted the ancient Hebrew prophet Bob Dylan, who said “you gotta serve somebody.” You have to serve something.

This is a choice we all make – but it’s not a choice that we make once in our lives and then it’s like (phew!) “glad we got that over with – now we can go back to living our regular lives.” This question Joshua asks – that is a question we answer every day. Sometimes we are aware we are answering it, other times I think we answer it unconsciously. But it doesn’t matter, because either way – this question – who are we going to serve – is at the center of who we are. 

For a long time if I were asked that question, the answer I would give is “God, of course!” But the reality was that was mostly a lie, because what I was really interested in serving was my own ego. That’s what I wanted to serve because I wanted to be liked, I wanted people to think I was successful, funny, that I had it all together. Which of course was a lie.  I did not then, and do not now, have everything together.  

I learned that if my answer to Joshua’s question was “myself” meaning I am going to go out today and look out for myself first, others second, and God last, then that is a very effective recipe for a spiritual nightmare. I believe that deep down inside a person who serves themselves first (and regrettably, I can speak from personal experience) there is a deep sadness that is cleverly hidden by false happiness, and by silent shame. Conversely, the person who answers “I will serve God” alternatively, is not promised an easy life, or a life of comfort. But they are promised a life of integrity, a life that is spiritually uplifted and strong.  

In the mean time, as you consider Joshua’s question of “who are you going to serve: God, self, paycheck, stock market, fear…” what will help you most is your prayers. Pray to God everyday asking for God’s direction. Ask God to help you answer that question everyday with the answer that brings life and vitality and wholeness and health, and that is answer is God.  

To choose to serve God means offering ourselves to other people in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortable, are sometimes inconvenient, and to be vulnerable in wondering if we are even doing the right thing.  In spite of all that, think in your own lives, you own families, your own jobs, how would they be different if you choose God’s service instead of serving selfish ambition, comparing yourself to others, or just acquiring more things?  That’s not easy to do – but make no mistake, nowhere in the Bible does it ever say serving God is easy or convenient.  But honestly, what is worth having that comes easy or conveniently?

Take a Post It note, write on it this question: “Who am I going to serve today?”  Put it somewhere – your car, your wallet, a mirror, refrigerator. Anywhere you will see it.  This is the most important question in our lives, and how we answer it determines not only our quality of life, but also our capacity to love and be loved. AMEN.

October 26, 2014

Pentecost – Proper 25

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12; Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Matthew 23: 34-46


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning tells the final moments of Moses’ life,where he dies just before the Hebrew people finally enter the land promised to them by God.

The fact that Moses dies before entering the Promised Land is very significant. Here is Moses, the most successful Hebrew leader up to that point – he followed God’s call to liberate the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt, he spent forty years of his life in the desert with the Hebrew people. That’s almost forty years of non-stop complaining he had to listen to. 

Yet, Moses is not allowed to enter – he can only look at it from a distance atop a mountain. All that he has worked for - everything he has done – and it doesn’t seem that he gets to enjoy the fruit of his labor, by watching his people enter the land God promised them.

Many years ago I watched a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly create intricate designs out of multi-colored sand on the floor of a museum. The patterns were beautiful in their detail. I learned that these circular designs are called mandalas. A week or so later I returned to the museum where I saw the monks working. I was excited to see the final and completed work of art. It would be a magnificent sight, I told myself. When I arrived, the monks, and the mandala they so tirelessly worked on, were gone. 

A curator at the museum explained to me that mandalas were not created to be permanent. After the monks finished, after all those hours of detailed work, the sand thy arranged with such focus, dexterity, and effort, was swept away. “What do you mean they sweep it all away?” I asked. The curator patiently explained that what matters with the mandala is not its beauty, but rather its creation, and release.

We tend to see God’s prevention of Moses’ entering the Promised Land as unfortunate. I have learned to see it differently, as an act of God’s mercy. Moses’ God-given purpose was not to arrive there, it was the journey itself. That was his job. 

Was it all for nothing? All those days in the wilderness, the building of the tabernacle, the great tent that contained the Ark of the Covenant within it, the establishment of the priesthood - - all of this Moses oversaw. Of course it wasn’t. Upon the top of that mountain, near his death, Moses released all he had worked for, all the people, their religion; he released it like the sand of the mandala, into the air. What an act of mercy! Moses wasn’t punished by God – he was freed.

Much of our life is spent in pursuits we will not likely be privileged to see the results of. 

Our lives, even when we reach the end, will still be incomplete. This is not a tragedy. It is holy; indeed it is holy to not see the fruit of our labor. Because then we entrust our work to God in faith, as Moses did. And when we let go of what we do, when we release it, it becomes God’s work – and it is there that new life always begins. AMEN.


October 19, 2014

Pentecost Proper 24

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 


Today's scripture lessons say a number of things about IMAGE. Image is something most of us care about inone way or another, and it seems we begin caring about image from an early age. Variously, we concern ourselveswith our physical image, our professional image, ourimage in the mirror, the image our house portrays in the neighborhood, the image of our family that our childrenproject, the image our children project of US as parents,and our image as decent folk. In all these examples, theimage of concern is self-image.

Moses, in the reading from Exodus, is seeking an imageof God. Moses has obeyed God's command to lead thepeople out of Egypt and is now needing some assistancein managing them. Recall that earlier in the story of Moses, he encountered an image of God in a burningbush, so perhaps this particular quest on the part of Moses is understandable. Moses and God are engaging in conversation. God: “I know you by name and you havefound favor in my sight.” Now that is an image we would all desire.

Moses essentially is discerning what is it that God wantshim to do next. Although he understands that God hasfound favor with him and that God has promised to bewith him, Moses seeks a SIGN - a physical IMAGE sohe can know without any doubt that God is keeping hisword. But God says, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest. You cannot see my face, and when I have passed by, I'll take away my hand that has covered you and you shall see my back.” What sort ofimage is that?

Now to the Gospel lesson. When the Pharisees, in yetanother of their attempts to trap Jesus with his ownwords, ask him if it was lawful for them to pay taxesto the emperor. Jesus holds a coin and looks at theimage stamped on it. The inscription on the coin required for the tax reads: Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”). The people of Jesus' time were expected to worship the emperor, who held himself to be divine. Ourown coins and paper money contain images - images ofdead presidents and founders of our nation. Today, the people whose images are on our coins are not worshiped, yet in many ways the metal and the paper on which theyappear certainly are worshiped. In answer to the question posed by the Pharisees, Jesus said, “Render unto the emperor that which is theemperor's and render unto God that which is God's.”

So, what kind of image is Jesus portraying or creatingfor us with his response? Some have interpreted thispassage to mean that things spiritual and things earthlyor commonplace are total opposites, one being “good” and the other “bad.” I am inclined to believe there ismore to this image than that.

Recently I was at a gathering where one of the speakerswas head of a management district near here. His jobis to work with businesses in the interest of economicdevelopment in a specific geographic area. His area,as is usually the case, is in transition and is becominggentrified, not unlike the Heights. The speaker citeda number of financial statistics reflecting increasedrecent investment and profits; new businesses created,and influx of certain desirable population segments.Then, he reported on the low rent apartments thathad been demolished and the new mega-mansionsbeing built. Cluttered, dingy little shops had beenrazed and replaced by fancy upscale retail centers.

Much has been accomplished through the efforts ofthis man's organization and he was quite proud of theirachievements. In truth, the area does have an imagemuch more pleasing to the eye than was the case just afew years ago.

Now, his audience was primarily clergy representing anumber of faith groups and religious organizations of longstanding in his area. Their churches must be benefittingfrom an increase in attendance and financial offerings.Yet, immediately the question was raised, "Well, are youaddressing the needs of these displaced people?" Are youincluding plans for low-cost housing and small businessloans or other means for family businesses to continue?Who and where is the voice of those who have been heremany years or who cannot afford to leave?

You see, image can be complex. If the image ofthe neighborhood is gleaming brick and mortar andbeautifully manicured lawns, and yet those who perhapscreated and sustained the neighborhood for many years,who labor and service the neighborhood are forced outand cannot find even modest shelter and are forced tolive in food deserts; if small family businesses are forcedto close because of increased taxation or influx of highend corporate merchants and unemployment figuresrise sharply - then what is the reality behind the image?

Heads or tails? Face of God or God's back?We live in the real, solid, brick and mortar, down anddirty, noisy world that is filled with images of violence,poverty, cruelty, sickness, and evil. That same world isalso filled with images of love and kindness, generosity,and beauty - and it is filled with the Holy Spirit. We maynot see God's face, but we surely see where God hasbeen.Paul was pleased with the image the Thessalonians projected. He wrote, "We know, brothers and sisters,beloved by God, that he has chosen you because theGospel message came not only in word, but in powerand in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. Serve aliving and true God." Paul urged the Thessalonians tobe an example to others of the love of Christ and of thetruth of the Gospel. And he could see that, in spite ofpersecution, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit andknew joy.

We, like Moses and the Thessalonians, we have a Godwho is very much alive and who has promised to bepresent with us always. This God of ours made us in hisimage, then came to us appearing in a human image,to reconcile us to himself when we had repeatedlyand foolishly ignored his love, his promises and hiscommandments. When discouraged, impatient, orstruggling through difficult periods, Moses' people soughta concrete image to follow, and, absent one familiarto them, invented one to follow, to worship and adore.Remember the golden calf. And perhaps that could besaid of modern man as well as of the Hebrew people- perhaps of us. We have silver coin and green paperidols and a plethora of daily reminders and seductivemessages of how these gods will bring us happiness.

Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland:One day Alicecame to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in atree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do youwant to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Aliceanswered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

As I mentioned, image can be a complicated matter.Living as the image of God we were created to be, neednot be either/or. By God's grace we each have gifts;some of wealth, some of time, others of various talents,and knowledge. Paul exhorts us to be examples toothers: examples of this living God who favors us andknows our names.

But How?

Just like Moses, we must enter into conversation withGod and discern the path/road God has prepared for us. Ifirmly believe God equips the willing. I firmly believe theHoly Spirit will, if asked, guide each and every one of usto the way we are to use our images of dead presidentsand all our other gifts and sometime idols, not only forour own well-being, but also for the furtherance of thekingdom of our living God. We can use them to be thevoice of those who have no voice and to support theministries of those who walk among the least of them.

So - Where do you want to go? What example, whatimage of God do people see when they see you? Areyou one who calls on the Lord, acts with steadfast beliefthat your prayers will be answered - in God's time and inGod's mercy and grace? What kind of example are we?What image are we projecting?