Monday, October 15, 2018

THERE'S A HOLE IN YOUR BUCKET, DEAR LIZA, A HOLE


The rich young man in our Gospel story
            Is a good guy – an especially good guy –
 because he practices his religion faithfully
He asks Jesus for guidance 
about what else he needs to do. 

But Jesus invites him to something better.
To understand what’s at stake here,
            we need to get clear on the three styles of religion.

Style one is consumer religion.
In consumer religion, we think of ourselves as customers.
We prefer our religion this way or that way.
We prefer incense or praise music or fiery sermons 
         or smart sermon or nice sermons with a cute story.
Religion is just like  our sports team,
           the movies we like to watch
            or our flavor of coffee.
I'll have a mainline Protestant latte 
            with one shot of charismatic espresso

It’s a preference.
What is your religious preference? 
the hospital admissions form asks.
In consumer religion, we sit in judgment on our church.
Is the priest doing things to suit us?
If so, we’ll show up and support the church.
If we don’t like it, we are leaving
            because, as customers, 
            we can take our business elsewhere.

Style two is transactional religion.
We want something for ourselves.
Maybe its forgiveness of our sins, life after death,
            or just the strength to carry on.
We need something God has to offer.
In exchange, we will pay what we think God charges.
We may pay by believing the right ideas, 
joining the right church,
            or restricting our speech, diet, or entertainment habits.
We may differ over what we want from God.
We may differ over what we think God charges.
But we agree religion is a quid pro quo deal
tit for tat, to get something from God.
That was the rich young man’s kind of religion.
He was after eternal life and wanted to know the price.

Jesus wasn’t playing either one of those games.
He had no interest in entertaining religious consumers. 
His hard teachings ran them off first thing
            earlier in the gospel story.
Now he is coming up against transactional religion
            and he isn’t going for that either
because the things we get from God, the blessings,
                        are not for sale.
God doesn’t give us blessings as a wage.
Blessings are grace. 
Blessings are God’s free gift out of love, 
            boundless, unconditional love. 

Jesus starts out to dismiss the young man 
and his transactional religion.
He says, Go home and read the rule book.
But then Jesus sees the guy is serious.
So he invites him to something better, 
the third way, the true approach to Christian life.

The young man does not need to do anything 
to earn God’s blessing.
His problem is there’s a hole in his bucket
            so no amount of blessing will fulfill him.
He, himself, is broken, or more accurately, incomplete.
Jesus offers him a chance to become whole,
            fully human, fully himself.
But the way to wholeness is a paradox. 
It defies human logic.
Just as death is the way to resurrection,
            to become whole we give ourselves away. 

Here’s the reason people get frustrated with religion.
We all come to religion to get our needs met.
That’s what it’s about, getting our needs met.
 But there’s a Catch 22: we can never get our needs met 
            as long as we are trying to get our needs met.
That agenda is the hole in our bucket.
Once we forget about our needs and give ourselves
            to the service of others, our needs take care of themselves.

The young man isn’t evil.
He is just trying to take care of himself, his needs.
He clings to his wealth because it’s his security. 
Giving it away would be casting himself on God’s mercy,
giving himself to God.

That, brothers and sisters, is the Christian faith.
Jesus didn’t say follow your bliss. 
He said take up your cross. 

That isn’t consumer religion.
It isn’t a transaction religion.
It’s dying to self to find life in Christ.
Paul said, I have died. I have been crucified with Christ.
And yet I live. I am alive in the Resurrected Christ.

Jesus said, Whoever tries to save his life will lose it.
            But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 
Faith is trusting that paradox which makes sense 
            only because of God’s boundless love. 

Following Jesus sets us at odds with our culture.
We march to the beat of a different drum.
The ways of the world teach us a different kind of life.
But in Isaiah, God says, 
            My thoughts are not your thoughts; 
            nor my ways, your ways,
            for as the heavens are higher than the earth,
            so are my ways higher than your ways, 
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Let’s look at the ways, the basic values, of where we live.
Nevada’sper capita personal income is in the middle third of the nation. 
But our per capita charitable giving is dead last.
What does that tell you?
The whole world lives in fear and scarcity mentality;
            but Nevada has fear and scarcity mentality on steroids.

Stewardship, pledging and giving to our Church,
            funds important mission and caring ministry.
But that’s a secondary benefit.
The main point of pledging and giving to the Church
            is to set our souls free.
We think we have possessions,
            but because of fear and scarcity, 
            those so-called possessions actually have hold of us.

 Now this isn’t fund raising.
Fundraising is alright and sometimes it needs doing,
            but this isn’t about that. 
If I were fund raising, I’d talk in the language of the world.
I’d try to persuade you that the mission is worth your support
            and how good your gift will make you feel.
I would promise to publicly praise you and give you credit.
I’d do some consumer religion and some transaction religion.
That’s the way to raise money.

But this is different.
It’s about your soul.
It’s about how you get yourself free and become whole.
It’s about giving yourself away
in gratitude and faith.

We don’t give to buy influence or get credit.
We don’t give to get something.
We give to say thank you for what we’ve already received,
which is all that we are and all that we have
given at the cost of the precious blood of Jesus.
Our gift is an act of faith.
We trust God to supply our needs.
We give to  open up a space in ourselves 
where Christ can make a home.

So I put before you the invitation 
            Jesus offered the rich young man.
Take a chance on Jesus. 
Make a pledge then pray for God to help you pay it. 
Don’t trust your bank account. Trust your Savior.

My shuttle driver the other day had found a church he liked.
Then they asked him to pledge and he was out of there.
He said that’s not what he went to church for. 
If you want consumer religion, if you are a spiritual customer,
            this kind of religion isn’t for you.
Jesus isn’t for you.

But if you want to become whole, 
if you want to live generously 
in faith and gratitude, this is how you do it. 

A pledge won’t change your life all at once.
It’s a push up, an exercise – a spiritual exercise --
maybe not a leap of faith but a little hop of faith. 
Practice faith and watch it grow 
            as little by little you get yourself free and become whole.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

EYEBALL TO EYEBALL CHRISTIANITY: THE NT'S NOVEL APPROACH TO CONFLICT

Our Gospel lesson is about relationships in the Church.  
That’s also the main subject of all the Epistles.
The new Church had not mastered playing well with others.
So Paul spent about 10% of his adult life converting people to Jesus,
         and 90% keeping the followers of Jesus from killing each other.

So what can we learn from today’s Gospel lesson?
The first thing is that people rubbing up against each other
         in unpleasant ways is nothing new.
It was right there at the beginning.
Even good God-loving people don’t tend to get along.

The second thing is that working with those conflicts
         is not a sideshow in the mission.
It’s the main action.
Most of the New Testament is about how to be a community,
how to weave our differences, our quirks, and out idiosyncrasies
into the Body of Christ.
Going off by ourselves to study, pray, or meditate
         can help us calm down and get some perspective.
We need to do that once in awhile.
But the main action in Christian spirituality is a group process.
We shape our souls in the process of working out our relationships
         with each other.

This is for my money the best quote in the history of Christian spirituality.
It’s from St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics of all time.
We think of mystics off on a hill all by themselves,
talking to Jesus all the livelong day.
But listen to what St. John said:
         “God has so ordained to sanctify us
through the frail instrumentality of each other.”//

We don’t become holy through fasting and prayer alone, not even primarily.
The main place our souls get reshaped to look like Jesus, is right here
in our relationships with each other.

That’s why our central act of worship is Holy Communion.
No one can do Holy Communion by himself.
I can do the whole worship service by myself
         right up to the point where I step behind the altar and say,
         “The Lord be with you.”
Then if nobody says “And also with you,” that’s as far as I can go.
I can’t make Jesus out of bread and wine by myself -- it takes you.

The New Testament is first and foremost about how to live
         and grow in holiness together.
If we actually try to live the New Testament in our relationships,
         it will hurt like hell but create a little bit of heaven in each day.
That hymn to love in First Corinthians isn’t about romance.
It’s about our relationships right here in the Church.

But let’s start with the basics in today’s Gospel lesson.
Somebody in the Church is doing you wrong.
They’ve said something or done something that hurts you,
         makes you mad, makes you feel ashamed.
Something about them is a burr under your saddle.
So what are you likely to do about that?
The way of the world is to tell a third party about it,
         get somebody on your side, gossip about your enemy,
         form an alliance, undercut their position in the group.
All very strategic, all very sneaky, all very destructive to the community.
I’ve done it – and I bet some of you have too.

But look what the Bible says.
If someone has sinned against you,
         talk to him about it – face-to-face – eyeball-to-eyeball.
I tell you folks, this Christianity ain’t easy.
Bad mouthing people behind their backs is so much easier.

But the Bible says,
“Don’t talk about somebody before you talk to him.”
If you are going to blow hot steam on somebody,
         at least blow it on the person you’re mad at
         instead of some innocent bystander.
Just imagine living by the rule:
         I won’t say anything about somebody
         that I haven’t already said to his face.

I don’t know that I could keep to that all the time.
But if I tried, if I managed to do it even half the time,
         it would make two big changes in my language.
It would make me say a lot less bad stuff about people
         and it would make me say more hard honest stuff to people.
I’d have to grow myself a backbone to do that.
And I’d wind up looking considerably more like Jesus.

But it doesn’t stop there.
Suppose I talk to this person and we don’t patch it up.
Suppose they push back and we wind up mad as ever.
What’s the way of the world?
We pull back to our own corner to sulk and fume,
         and probably now we start lining people up,
         telling them our side of the story, getting allies.



But what does the Bible say?
We don’t go line up allies.
We line up a mediator.
We get someone to go with us to help us have
         the conversation with our enemy.

Now that’s risky.
It’s risky because the mediator is going to hear both sides.
We don’t know what they’ll think.
And their goal isn’t to vindicate us.
It’s to patch up the relationship, and that almost always takes
         some bending on both sides.
We might have to bend a bit.

You see what I’m saying.
This Christian relationship business takes a stronger character
         than most of us have to start out with.
But Church exists to give us a chance to practice,
         to exercise our characters until they grow strong.
In the Church, we practice this kind of relationship
         so we can learn to treat everyone that way.
We act differently in the world and that’s how we change it.
Changing the world starts with the spiritual discipline of Christian
         behavior right here in Church.

But friends, in my line of work, I see a lot of Church  
         and I gotta tell you: a lot of folks don’t use
                  even the basic social skills with each other in Church
                  that they’d use in business.
 A lot of folks regress when they come to Church.
That means they act worse here than they would on the street.

Maybe they think they can get away with more here
         because we’re supposed to forgive them.
But if Church is a place
         where any sort of self-centered infantile nonsense is allowed,
         then the Church doesn’t make us people better.
It’s makes us worse.
If we wanted the Episcopal Church in Nevada
         to seriously go about the business of changing lives,
         the very best thing we could do is for each congregation
                  to spend a couple of evenings or a weekend
                  hammering out the ground rules
for how they are going to treat each other.
The Alban Institute provides a handy little booklet on how to do it.

But if that’s too much, we could start with just step one
         in today’s Gospel lesson.
If we’ve got a beef with somebody in the Church,
         we talk to him before we talk about him.
That means talk to him face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball.
Don’t send him an e-mail.
I can’t tell you how much damage I see done by Church e-mails.
E-mail is for practical details, not relationship issues.


 Don’t leave him a hit and run voice mail message.
You got something hard to say, say it the hard way – in person.
Christian communication is up close and personal.
It’s like Communion. It is Communion.

It ain’t easy. Not by a long shot.
It’s the way of the cross.
But it’s the only way to holiness.
It’s the only way because
         “God has so ordained to sanctify us

         through the frail instrumentality of each other.”