Monday, November 13, 2017

Is it Ever Too Late?

I Thess. 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

               I would like to invite you to think of an experience you’ve had in which you were simply too late.  It could be a time, perhaps, when you made your decision to attend something too late to get tickets or to RSVP, or signed up for something past the date to enroll or showed up late to meet someone and the person you were meeting had given up on you and left.  Maybe you forgot to pay a bill and then found it after the due date.  It’s part of the human experience that we are sometimes late for things.  We miss deadlines or fail to meet deadlines.  There just simply are times when we’ve put something off, forgotten about something that needed to be done, or took longer to complete something, assuming it would not take as much time as it did, and as a result we are too late.   
               Most of the time these aren’t big important things and so it may have been hard for you to even remember, in this moment that I’m asking you to do so, a time when you were too late. 
               However there are situations in which being late or being unprepared in a timely way is serious, or really problematic. I think about my friend, “Susan”, who had been estranged from her father for years. In her late teens she became very angry with him and cut him off as soon as she was able to leave the house. However, after some time had passed, she worked through her childhood challenges and had finally come to a place where she was at peace with her past, where she remembered the good things her father had done and had enough compassion to understand the mistakes he made.  More importantly, she saw her own mistakes and she came to a place where she was ready to reconcile, to reach out, to apologize, to make amends and to create a new relationship with her father.  It took a long time to get there, but once she finally did, she still found that finding the time to reach out to her father was difficult.   She found herself postponing the reconnection in the name of busy schedules and more immediate concerns.  But it was during that time, a time when she was ready to reconcile but simply hadn’t done it yet when she got the news that her father had had a heart attack and had passed away.  That “being too late” was one she could not fix. 
               I think of a parishioner who a week before his death informed me that he had a burden he needed to confess, but that he wasn’t ready to do it.  While opportunities were offered, he never got to a place where he was ready before he became unable to talk or share.  I can only hope that his soul was at peace in the end. But I could not make him confess what he felt he needed to share, and time passed him by.
               I have another friend who in a rage said some things to a person she deeply loved and cared for.  Her apology was too late. She could not take back what she said, and she could not fix what had been done.  Her sense of what to say, her timing with her apology, her realization of what needed to happen to make the situation as whole, peaceful and healing as possible – all of it came too late.  I remember still another friend who had broken up with a man she had deeply loved.  When she came to the realization that her reasons were small, were trivial, and that this was the man she wanted to spend her life with, it was too late and he had found someone else.
               Personally, I find that the things I regret the most about my life are the opportunities I failed to  take until it was too late, as well as the wisdom about relationships, things that should have been said, could have been said, or might have been expressed differently, that also came too late.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about being too late, ”You can never do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” 
               Friday at Faith and Film night we watched “Pieces of April” - a movie about the healing and reconciliation in a very broken, dysfunctional family.  As we reflected on the movie afterwards, I thought about the fact that the mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer allowed the family members to make the very important decisions to reconcile.  But many people’s deaths are sudden – car accidents, heart attacks, or other.  We don’t know when these things will take someone we love.  If we aren’t diligent about healing our relationships, sometimes our efforts simply ARE too late.
               As Christians, as people of faith, passages like today’s from Matthew call us to be prepared in a further way, to be ready, and to be on time, to “bring enough oil with us that if the bridegroom comes later than we expect, we still have enough oil to meet him with lamps lit.”  This means putting our spiritual concerns above our worldly concerns, our busyness, our activities at all times. We do not know when we will be called to declare and stand up for our values, when we will be called upon to demonstrate who it is that we really serve. Is it God and the values of our faith that tell us that our primary concern must be about loving God above all and loving everyone we encounter as ourselves?  Or is it the world and the values of our society which tell us to care for ourselves and our own before thinking of others, that say, “go for that luxury because you deserve it?”  Are we ready for the day when we are confronted and forced to make our faith commitments clear by the choices that we make?  When we may be surprised by having to choose between God, faith, and love for others; or the world asking us to do something that is ‘wrong’ by the standards of love and care that our God calls us to uphold, that hurts others, that is a betrayal of our faith?  Most often we won’t even know we have declared ourselves until after the fact. It may be in hind-sight that we see when that moment came and went.  Are we prepared for it?
When it comes to spiritual matters, “being too late” can have great consequences.  If we fail to engage God in a meaningful way that creates in us wholeness and connection, we risk being too late – of missing out on the most important parts of this journey that we are given, of the depth of connections to life, each other, ourselves and God that we could have. The parable tells us that in waiting to connect with God, with Love until it is too late, we risk the possibility of being unknown to God.  And failing to be known by God is the greatest loss we can experience. 
               The reality is that we will probably have such moments.  And as the human beings that we are, my guess is that sometimes we will find, after the fact, that we have not acted in a way that honestly reflects values of love, compassion and faith, that we have chosen for the values of the world instead, that we have not chosen intimacy with God, not chosen to be known by God, have been unprepared in meeting God, but instead have walked and lived in a way that is contrary to the faith beliefs we espouse.
               So where, then, is the Good News in this?  I asked Jasmyn, about three years ago, as I was working on this parable for another sermon what she thought of this parable. She told me that she thought if the wise bridesmaids had been really wise they would have encouraged the bridegroom to give the others a second chance because it was not really their fault that they are foolish. I found great hope in her words, because they show a level of compassion for others that God shows us again and again. God is the God of love, of forgiveness, and of second chances.  We are given the opportunities, even when we mess up, to try again to work out our relationships with God.  When we mess up with God, God does forgive.  When we are too late, God does give us chances again and again to be faithful, to be connected to God, to be prepared to be in relationship with God. As the God character in Joan of Arcadia put it, “The question is what are you going to do now?  That’s what I’m all about – your next chance to do the right thing.  That’s how you know I am who I am.  That’s how you shall know me from all others.  What are you going to do now?  Every new decision is a chance to do the right thing.  You don’t get that from the other side…  It’s all about what you do next.” 
               Additionally, we, too, are called in all things to forgive, both the other and ourselves, when we are ‘too late’ and when others are “too late”.  And, we are given the amazing gift of being invited to learn from our mistakes.  Connie Shultz said, “If we can’t remember the wrong turns, we’re bound to get lost again.”  “Our mistakes and failures connect us to others in profound ways that our successes and conquests never will.  It’s in the moments of humility, when we have no choice but to see our own foibles and missteps, that the seed of compassion takes root in our hearts….I regret how often I hurt others when I was so sure some wrongs were beyond forgiving – until I committed them myself.” Just as God does not set a deadline for us, we are called to not set deadlines for others, but to accept and invite reconciliation and healing whenever it is offered, whenever it comes. That is good news both for us and for those we love.
               I do not believe that God sets limits or a time line on when you can turn to God. But still, God wants us to choose God now for our own sakes. Do we want to miss the wedding?  Do we want to miss out on knowing the God of celebration and of life and of love who is amazing and grace-filled and faithful and awesome?  When we are not prepared, when we are late, we miss out on those opportunities. We miss out on that closeness and wholeness and wondrous support. 
               Will God give us another chance? Of course. Will we mess up? We do, again and again.  But personally, I’m going to work hard to be ready, to not be late, to be present with God at all times.  Because I don’t want to miss the party and have to wait for the next chance. I don’t want the angst of being out in the cold waiting, while others are inside celebrating with the bridegroom. I don’t want the bridegroom saying to me, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” And I don’t want that for anyone else, either. 
               I want to end with a poem that to me sums up the hope that is in today’s lesson.  It was written by Charles Peguy who is a French poet.  He wrote,
“When grace doesn’t come straight, it comes bent.
When it doesn’t come from above, it comes from below.
When it doesn’t come from the center, it comes from the circumference.
We may finish a way we never began, but we shall finish.
This age, this land, this people, this world, will get there along a road they never set out on.” 
And that is good news indeed.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

What is Love?

      I've found myself thinking about love a great deal lately.  We all want to be loved deeply and unconditionally.  But what does that mean?  When I think of love in its purest form, I really value the definition of Scott Peck who says something along the lines of "to love someone is to want and to work for that person's highest good."  I value that definition of love because it is all about the person who is being loved.  It is focused on them: on what is best for them.  It is deeply caring, deeply concerned, deeply empathetic as it requires really knowing the other, really seeing the other, and really valuing the other as the unique person that they are.  We all want to be loved this way: for ourselves.  We want to be appreciated, we want to be cherished.  We want to be seen and understood, to be the focus of someone's attention and affection.
      I believe most parents strive to love their children in this way: to love them for exactly who they are, to want what is best for them, and to work for their highest good. When we hear about parents rejecting their children, for whatever reason, we recognize it for the tragedy and travesty that it is.  We know those parents are not fulfilling their job as unconditionally loving care-givers.  And we see the devastation that results in the suicides and chronic depression that far too often follows parental rejection.  When parental love happens the way it is supposed to, we know it to be the truest and deepest form of love.
       We also envision this kind of love coming from the Divine, from God, whatever we understand that to be.  This love is a selfless, and unconditional caring for the other.  From God we expect that love to see us fully for who we are, to know us completely, and especially, to understand and accept and value us exactly as we are.  That is the ultimate in love.  And when we talk about being called by faith to love one another, this is the kind of love of which we speak.  We are mandated to see, care and have compassion for each other, expecting and wanting nothing in return, even as we work for the highest good of the other.
      But there are other ways in which we usually use the word "love" that I think require a different word altogether.  We often use the word "love" in relationship to romantic attachments, for example.  But this kind of love is not unconditional, and it is far from selfless.  It is a kind of "love" that wants, hopes and expects to be returned.  It is a "love" that is seeking something for the self, a kind of barter-love in which I will care for you if and when you care for me.  And at the point at which you stop caring for me, I will do everything I can to stop caring for you in return because this kind of love feels pain when it is not returned in the same way.  This thing we call love is a desire for something for ourselves - an intimacy, a connection and a care from the other.  It is motivated by self-interest and a yearning for closeness.  It is limited by circumstances and qualified by a trade in affection that we hope will be even.  It is everything the kind of love we hope for from God or from parents is not.  We often idolize this kind of love.  But less and less do I see this as ideal.  Yes, we need relationships.  Yes, we need mutuality.  Yes, we need intimacy.  But is this love?  Not the way I understand it.  Not the way we are called to offer it.  
      The same is true of friendships.  Most friendships require a mutuality, a give and take, a trading of affections for them to be considered "loving".  "Love" in a friendship is conditional upon trust, mutuality and commonalities. But again, this is not "Love" the way we are called to give it.
      I believe all of the deepest spiritual leaders model the first, ideal love for us, but since I am most familiar with Jesus, I will point out some of the ways in which he did this, calling us to do the same.
      First of all, he never demanded that someone change before loving or caring for them.  He loved them and that allowed some people to change, but the love, the unconditional love, always came first.  He prevented the stoning of the woman caught in adultery before inviting her to change.  He offered healing water to the woman at the well before telling her her past history.  He offered to eat with Zacchaeus without reservation or comment and Zacchaeus chose to change as a result.  He healed the ten lepers, even though only one returned to give thanks.  Again and again, he offered care and love unconditionally and fully.  That love was so great and so transformative that it invited people to grow, but it never insisted on it.
     Second, he offered the care that wanted the highest good for everyone, even those trying to hurt him.  He never refused to respond to the pharisees, he never turned against the soldiers who arrested him with violence, he ate in the homes of friends and foes alike.  He was always willing to engage people, wherever they came from on the political or theological or social spectrum because he wanted the highest good for all people, all of them - even when they were seeking to destroy him.
     Third, that care, that work towards the highest good took many forms, depending on the one in front of him.  Some needed healing.  Others needed lessons.  Some needed acceptance and saving from the wrath and rage of others (the woman who washed his feet with tears, the woman caught in adultery).  Whatever the person in front of him needed, he worked for their highest good in offering that.
      We know the result of this.  In return for his Love, those who "loved" him best offered the second kind of love: they wanted more from him than was possible.  He was constantly being pursued when he went off to pray, he was constantly being sought after, even when he needed time to himself.  Judas tried to push him into the actions that Judas wanted and ended up betraying him instead.  People did not see him for who he was, they did not offer him care for who he was, they could not Love him with the kind of love he offered to them.  Offering real Love back to God, or to the world seemed and seems an impossibility for most people.  And still, we are called to love with the ideal love that we have seen demonstrated.
      I have said to many people that I never knew what it was to love until I became a parent.  I am so grateful for the experience of that kind of deep, unconditional caring because it reminds me that I am to strive to love everyone with that same kind of "I will do what is best for you no matter how you feel about me" way.  Being a parent has been practice for me in loving others who sometimes don't want that love, sometimes don't return it, sometimes push it away in angry ways.  It showed me what unconditional, full love really looks like.  It also holds up to me a mirror for those times when I am failing to love in this way but instead am seeking an emotional trade with someone else instead.  Again, we do all need that kind of intimacy and mutual relationships as well.  But that is not Love.  For me, I hope to grow more loving towards all people, even those who are enemies and even those from whom I want that mutual intimacy and emotional trade.  It is a journey, it is a learning.  But it is worth the effort.  For as Jesus said of the one leper who did return to give thanks - it is in that return that he was truly healed.  It is in the Loving that we truly experience the gifts of Love.  It is in the true unconditional caring that we come to meet the Divine.  It is in giving Love that we come to know Love.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints and Stewardship

Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Today I have the daunting task of talking to you about both Stewardship and All Saints Day. But while these may not seem connected, stewardship is not just a giving forward, it is also a celebration of what has been, an honoring of the past.
The Ephesians passage tells us that we were chosen in Christ.  We can rest assured that the Saints were chosen in Christ.  We can feel safe in the assurance that our loved ones still exist in some form, that they are with God, that our love for them still matters, and their love for us still continues.  When we are in grief, as many in this congregation are this year, these words can seem a little hollow, perhaps. We miss them.  And while the promise that they still exist in some form helps, while being assured that they are now at rest with God can help, it doesn’t always ease our grief. 
As I thought about the fact that on All Saint’s Day we are called to honor those who went before, I realized that we honor them as much for our sake as for theirs.  Taking the time to celebrate and remember those who have shared with us their time, their wisdom, their presence - helps us to grieve with grace, to celebrate their lives, even as we mourn our own losses, to reflect on the legacies that they’ve left us and that have made us who we are today.    
We honor their memories by sharing with others stories of their lives.  We honor their memories by praying about them, or talking to God about them.  We honor their memories by spending time looking at their pictures, at things they’ve made or things they’ve created, by remembering them.  But there is more.
One of the ways we honor the memories of the Saints is by maintaining practices and rituals that were important to them…such as going to church and giving to church. The saints, the ones who have passed, understood that faith is not just a statement about what we believe.  It is an action, it is about doing, much more than believing.  You show what matters to you by what you do with your time, your energy, your money, your talents, your gifts.  That means that we honor the Saints not only by following in a tradition of generosity, but by giving of our time, our energy, and our talents as well.  There is something that every person here can do.  Every person here can contribute in some way: writing cards, knitting scarves, coming to bible study, inviting your friends to come to an event at church: the concerts, the studies, Sunday worship.  Stewardship then is following through on all of this: it is about committing our lives with our time, energy, talents, and resources - all of which is an expression of faith but also an honoring of our tradition, our history, and the Saints that have gone before us as well.
That doesn’t mean that giving is easy for any of us.  We live in a culture where we are expected to get more and gain more.  We often rank ourselves by the wealth we can demonstrate and we socialize with those in the same socio-economic sphere.  What we perceive to be our need often grows to fit our incomes or to even exceed them.  We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to change this, especially in a culture that celebrates wealth. 
A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.
            "Not very long," answered the Mexican. 
            "But then, why didn't you stay out longer and catch more?" asked the American. 
            The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.
The American asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" 
"I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life." 
The American interrupted, "I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat."
"And after that?" asked the Mexican. 
"With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise." 
"How long would that take?" asked the Mexican. 
"Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years," replied the American. 
"And after that?" 
"Afterwards? Well my friend, that's when it gets really interesting," answered the American, laughing. "When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!" 
"Millions? Really? And after that?" asked the Mexican. 
"After that you'll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends." 
How much life do we miss in our quest to become richer?  In our quest to gain more for ourselves and our families?  We know that the most generous people, again with time as well as with money, are often those who start with the least amount of money; and that those who share the least are those with the most money and time to do the sharing.  We also know that studies show there is NO increase in happiness associated with an increase in wealth.  What we think will make our lives fuller and more meaningful doesn’t.  Instead, the one thing that tends to be the best indicator of human happiness is a person’s generosity, with giving, and with caring for and serving others.  That is something that people of previous generations often understood much better than we ourselves can.  And, on death beds, the biggest regret that is always expressed is not spending more time giving meaningful service and time to those people and needs that we care the most about.
            One of my house-mates from college lives as a Catholic worker volunteer.  This means that she lives in a community of other volunteers who open their house to the poor in their community.  They feed them, house them, living in community together.  She is married with children and still lives in this community.  While I struggle to find the money to send my children to lessons so that they might have a full education, her children have the fullest education possible, living with and serving God’s people in community.  She has found God’s wealth to be far greater than that of material wealth and security.   She lives in God’s kingdom and she does it every day.
            I think about Rick Warren, the pastor of the megachurch, Saddleback in Southern CA.  When his books hit the best seller list and he started raking in the money, he had to make some serious decisions about what he would be doing with it.  He wrote, “sometimes learning to deal with the good is harder (than dealing with the challenges in life). For instance, this past year, all of a sudden, when the book sold 15 million copies, it made me instantly very wealthy.   It also brought a lot of notoriety that I had never had to deal with before. I don't think God gives you money or notoriety for your own ego or for you to live a life of ease. So I began to ask God what He wanted me to do with this money, notoriety and influence. He gave me two different passages that helped me decide what to do, II Corinthians 9 and Psalm 72.   First, in spite of all the money coming in, we would not change our lifestyle one bit.. We made no major purchases.  Second, about midway through last year, I stopped taking a salary from the church.   Third, we set up foundations to fund an initiative we call The Peace Plan to plant churches, equip leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation.   Fourth, I added up all that the church had paid me in the 24 years since I started the church, and I gave it all back. It was liberating to be able to serve God for free.   We need to ask ourselves: Am I going to live for possessions? Popularity?   Am I going to be driven by pressures? Guilt? Bitterness? Materialism? Or am I going to be driven by God's purposes?   When I get up in the morning, I sit on the side of my bed and say, God, if I don't get anything else done today, I want to know You more and love You better.. God didn't put me on earth just to fulfill a to-do list. (God) is more interested in what I am than what I do.”
Many people come to church for what Church can give them.  Instead, maybe we should pick a church by what church needs us.  It should be a two way street.  No church will be perfect, and that is part of the challenge.  Same is true of the Saints that went before.  None of them are perfect, but we sometimes feel the church should be perfect and until we find one that is, we won’t commit.  We don’t honor our loved ones by making them into people they really weren’t.  We don’t honor who they really were by remembering only the good stuff.  And we don’t honor the tradition of the church by insisting it be perfect, or that it serve us if we are not giving back every bit as much as we hope to get from the church.  It is in giving that we receive. 
I think about the description of heaven and hell that I have shared with you before: in hell, you walk in and see a banquet table filled with foods, but everyone’s elbows are locked.  Each person struggled to feed himself, fighting against the fact that each one cannot bend his or her arms to bring the food into his or her mouth.  In heaven the situation looks very similar: a table filled with food, people surrounding the table with elbows locked.  However in heaven everyone is feeding each other.
            Stewardship, choosing to give of our resources and to give with generosity, is a statement of trust in God, a statement that we know that our real wealth comes from our connections with God and to God’s people.  It is an offering to the church and to one another the foods on the banquet table, trusting that we will be fed in turn.  It is an honoring of all we have loved and all we continue to love as we celebrate the generosity of the Saints by being generous in turn, by sharing with one another our time, our experiences, our wisdom, our energy, and our monetary gifts.
            The words of the hymn we will be singing later, “we give thee but thine own” is one of the truest statements of our faith.  The money, the talents, the gifts and resources we have are not ours.  They are on loan to us from God…but as scripture tells us, “from those who have much, much will be expected.”
            We are blessed.  And today as we remember the Saints who have passed on, we remember that their presence in our lives was a great blessing and their memories continue to be a blessing.  We honor those memories by striving to give as much as they gave us, of all that we have and all that we are.  Amen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reformation - Big Time

Jeremiah 31: 27-34
John 8:31-36

Today we celebrate the 500th year of the beginning of the Reformation.  This sermon will be unusual in that it will focus more, therefore, on church history.  As you know, Martin Luther is known as the father of the reformation, though his work of reformation was continued by John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingly whom we name as the Presbyterian Founding Fathers.  Most years on Reformation Sunday I therefore have focused more on Calvin and Zwingly but because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, today I will focus more on Martin Luther and what was happening that began the Reformation 500 years ago.
Martin Luther’s was not the first attempt at reformation within the Catholic Church.  Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe all made significant efforts at confronting problems in the Church.  However, Martin Luther took advantage of the newly available Gutenberg printing press and with that at his disposal, he was much more successful where others had not been able to make significant strides in either changing the church or creating a new church movement. Martin Luther was a prolific writer and he used the printing press to quickly disseminate religious materials to the people. Luther had been a Augustinian Monk and a lecturer at the University in Wittenberg.  And his publication of his 95 theses was not for the purpose of starting his own break off denomination, but rather it was simply an attempt to reform the Catholic Church.  However, he was excommunicated in 1521 at the Diet of Worms.  After his excommunication, he translated the Bible into German (before that it had only been in Latin and therefore only the priests were able to read it). 
Martin Luther’s main issue with the Roman Catholic Church, as you may have read in the 95 Theses, was the sale of indulgences, which basically were “get out of purgatory with payment for sins” cards.   Luther stated, in particular, that the Pope had no authority over purgatory, could not grant people “get out of purgatory” tickets, and certainly could not SELL them.  That was his primary gripe.  However, he also confronted the idea of saints as people to whom we should pray in place of God.  He felt very strongly that this was not a biblical concept in any way.  As the reformation continued, there were several key points that he emphasized.  First, that it was the Bible and not tradition that should inform spiritual practices, or as we say it, “scripture alone”.  Second, that we find our salvation through our faith and not through works, hence, “faith alone”.  And third that salvation comes only from God through grace, not by anything we can do and certainly not by someone else speaking on our behalf, praying on our behalf or selling us a way into eternal life, (in other words, he challenged the idea of praying to specific Saints for them to advocate to God for us, confessing our sins to a priest rather than directly to God, and again, the priestly ability to grant people access to heaven) hence, “grace alone.”  These are the main points of the protestant reformation, though there were many other points made along the way. Since purgatory is not a biblical concept that was tossed out.  As I said before, the idea of saints was rejected by the protestants except in the global sense that all who die in the faith become the saints of God.  “The priesthood of all believers” meant that all of us are able to have personal and direct relationships with God.  We are also all able to read scriptures in our own languages and with our own interpretations.  Other issues that were important to Luther included a confrontation of the Catholic devotion to Mary, as well as the mandate for clerical celibacy.  More importantly, he presented a different idea in what constituted sacraments (as you know we only have two: baptism and communion), and what the sacraments really are (for example, do the communion elements become the literal physical body and blood of Christ or not), as well as whether or not they are considered necessary for salvation.  The reason we only have communion in most Presbyterian Churches once a month was a statement, for example, against the Catholic idea that it was necessary to take communion to clean yourself of sin so that you had to have it as close to death as possible.  For most Protestants, it is a celebration of community and the Church, it is a way to remember all that God has done for us, and most importantly, it is a way of participating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it is not necessary for salvation.  He confronted and challenged ideas about censure and excommunication, challenged practices of Christianity’s involvement in secular laws, and continued to challenge the authority of the Pope in many matters.  He also challenged which books of the bible would be considered “scripture” and as you know, protestants have fewer books than Catholics as a result.  Luther decided that what should be considered “canon” would be determined by practice, or what had been used most frequently and liturgically, theology and politics. 
Many of the issues that divided the Catholic and Protestant churches continue to do so: Protestants still do not focus on Mary, we do not pray to saints, we do not follow a Pope or even hold our pastors with too much authority, we still only have a few sacraments and our understanding of those sacraments remains different, we don’t believe in purgatory, we still stick to the three key phrases of the Protestant Reformation, “Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone.” 
        At the same time, as you know, these differences have become much less important than they once were.  For example, the idea of “faith alone” has been tempered by most Protestants with the understanding that if you really and deeply believe in the words Jesus gave us, works will be part of your faith.  As the book of James in our scriptures says so very articulately, “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.  It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear.  Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?...  As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.”  As a result of these statements in the book of James, Luther actually did not want to continue to include the book of James in the Canon.  He felt very strongly that our actions have nothing to do with salvation and so found these words offensive.  But, the people prevailed on this.  The book of James was very much in use and he was unable to strike it from the Canon.
Additionally, the problem that Martin Luther was most concerned about, that began the whole Reformation, naming the selling of indulgences, is no longer practiced in the Catholic church either.  The Catholic Church additionally now uses lay leadership to a much greater degree, recognizing that all of us have a call, and Bibles are translated into many languages and read in the native languages of the people in almost all congregations.   I think one of the greatest changes recently is that we are now working together, across denominations, more and more.  We no longer see those differences with the same sense of importance that we had before.
There were many results of the Protestant Reformation.  It led to a series of religious wars that culminated in the thirty years war which killed between 25-40% of the entire population of Germany between 1618 and 1648.  While many believe the Reformation ended in 1648 with the passing of the Peace of Westphalia (which declared that each prince could determine the religion of its own state but also allowed Christians of different denominations to continue to practice their own faith in peace), many others say it never ended since we continue to have different Christian denominations and splinters within all of those denominations continue.   Scholars credit the Protestant reformation as being the catalyst for a higher literacy rate, lower gender gap in school enrollment, higher school enrollment, more pro-market and pro-work attitudes, among other things.  In the negative, Witch Burnings were more common and witch hunts more active in communities that were torn between Catholic and Protestant believers.
While Luther was the founder of the Reformation, as you know, the forefathers of the Presbyterian Church: Calvin, Zwingly and later, Knox, took the reformation further even than Luther.  One of the phrases of our denomination is “reformed and always reforming” or “reformed and always being reformed” depending on the translation.  We believe that God is always at work among us, guiding us forward into new and deeper understandings as well as into change.  But we also know that change is hard, change is not comfortable, and if it is not intentional decision to move forward, the church will stumble. 
       Diana Butler Bass wrote, “Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. …In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion. After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest?  Yourself?”
       Bruce Epperly put it this way, “Reformation faith is forward, rather than backward-looking, evolving rather than static, at home in this world, rather than in a previous age or a heavenly realm.”
       But the unfortunate truth is that Protestant Churches have become “stuck” as well, in large part because we ARE the dominant religion, the religion of our culture.  Christianity began as a movement against the status quo: challenging the system that oppressed many and lifted up a few.  But now we are the dominant group, and that means we are part of the system that is oppressive.  So, as Diana Butler Bass wrote, do we protest ourselves? 
     Change is hard.  And we are not keeping “at home in this world rather than a previous age” with a great deal of success.  As a result, there is a new movement “out” of the Protestant Church just as in the Protestant reformation, there was a large movement out of the Catholic Church.  You know this, I’ve mentioned it before, you see it within your own families as your own children or your children’s children no longer value church or go to church.  And what is interesting is that they are right on schedule.  There has been some kind of major Reformation of the church every 500 years and as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we are right on schedule for another one. What will that look like?  We know, we trust that God is simply doing a new thing, but we do not yet know what that will look like. 
     In the face of all of this, what is important to take away?  Perhaps what is most important is what has always been and what always is most important: that our identity, worth, and well-being should not determined by our successes and failures, by our actions, by our virtuous living, even, but by God's gift of loving us into being.  It is, therefore, our relationships with God that matter.  We could argue theology and we could argue about how we do worship, what we emphasize, what the sacraments mean, who should have authority and who shouldn’t.  We could grieve the changing, diminishing Church, as I know many of us do.  And we could look forward towards where and how the Church will be newly reformed, what it will look like and how we will move forward. But I think all of these things are not ultimately that important.  What matters again is the relationship.  And as far as Church goes, the question should always be, when we come to see who Jesus is, does it matter to us, does it affect us? Are we changed in our encounter with the living Christ, are we challenged, moved by our presence in this place.  And if we aren’t, what is Church about?  What is the purpose in coming here if it does not change us and strengthen us to be the people God calls us to be in the world?  And perhaps what is of bigger question to us today as we reflect and remember the Reformation, what would make this place, now, a place that inspires growth, change and movement?  What reforms need to happen within the Church, big C and within this congregation, little c, that would make this a place of growing deeper in our relationships with God and in our commitments to live lives that challenge systems that oppress, that help people who are suffering, that change the world?  I encourage you to  think about this because in our fellowship hall we have sheets up that I would like to invite you to write on about Reformation – what do you value about who we are, both as Christians and part of the big Church, and as members of this little congregation.  But additionally, what changes, reforms, protests need to continue to happen in the large church; and what changes, reforms, protests need to happen within this congregation.
        Are we willing to let go of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and instead to be open to the path Jesus wants us to go, to follow in the way, in the path of a man who ends up dead before he ends up resurrected?  Does our faith, does our encounter with the living Christ make a difference for us?  The question on Reformation Sunday is: are we willing to give up what is comfortable and easy as a church to follow Jesus?  Are we willing to step out to hear what the people of God, God’s children, all of God’s people really need to experience God’s love, God’s grace and God’s presence in this place at this time?
That is the question that we are constantly called to ask as we continue to seek to be a church that is reformed and always reforming.  Amen.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Failure to Listen

Exodus 33:12-23
Matthew 22:15-22

               “Just listen”.  These are words we hear said, they are words we do say, often when we are simply in disagreement with another person.  And there is truth in them.  Sometimes when we are sure our opinion is right, we simply cannot hear any other view point.  When we know what we believe, we don’t bother to put ourselves in another’s position to hear how they see things or view things.  When we are certain we are right, why would be take the time to try to understand an opposing view?  Why would we even bother to listen?   I know I am guilty of failing to listen or seriously consider a differing view point at times, even when I try to be open-minded.  There are certain ideas that simply won’t get a hearing when run by me.  We simply fail to listen at times. 
In the children’s movie, “Brave” there is a wonderful scene about a mother and her teenage daughter.  They have just had a terrible argument, and the scene moves back and forth between each of them as they discuss the argument, separately, each with someone else.  It is a wonderful scene as each practices or envisions a conversation with the other.  But what is most relevant to today is that each one is certain that the other is simply failing to listen.  And as they practice what they will say to each other when they are next together, the scene moves back and forth between each saying repeatedly to the other, “if you would just listen!”  “I think you would understand if you could just listen!” 
               This is a familiar conversation, I think, that parents and teens experience.  Each has their own view point, and they either truly don’t listen to one another, or they are accused of not listening because they continue in their own opinions even when they do.  But as with the movie, Brave, in which the entire plot is centered around both the mother and daughter’s failures to listen, to respect or to even try to understand the opposing views, similarly, when we fail to listen, fail to hear, we tear rips in our relationships with others, we block true intimacy by blocking our ability to truly understand one another.  We can learn to disagree while still listening and helping others know that we hear and understand them, but this takes work, it takes effort.  And most of the time I think we simply choose not to really listen.
               So then when we look at the scriptures lessons for today, we can relate to the conversations that we hear, first between Moses and God, and second between Jesus and the Pharisees.  In the Exodus passage, God promises Moses that he will go with him to help him lead the people.  But Moses either doesn’t listen or doesn’t trust what God is saying.  Because right after God has promised, “I’ll go myself and I’ll help you,” Moses jumps in with “If you won’t go ….”  .  And even after God promises to do exactly what Moses has asked again, Moses pushes, “Well, show me your presence.”  He pushes and pushes, not hearing what God is agreeing to do, and failing to trust what God is saying.
               Then we come to the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about taxes is one in a long line of questions that they have asked him with the purpose of entrapping Jesus.  They know that if Jesus answers that they shouldn’t pay this tax, he will be accused of sedition.  They also know that if he says that they should pay the taxes, he will enrage many of his followers on religious grounds because he will be going against the religious laws of the time.  They ask him a question that they believe he can’t win as they try to undermine him in any way they can.  They continually ask him questions, this one just being the last in a series, whose sole purpose is to discredit him with the people.  But the point here is that they are so focused on trying to knock him down, that they, too, are unable to listen, unable to hear what he is telling them again and again, with every sentence, with every statement, with everything that he does.  They have an agenda, and nothing will dissuade them from that.  Their ears are simply closed to any new information, to any new vision, to anything that might challenge or change the mission they have set for themselves to discredit Jesus.
               It would seem every effort God made to get Moses to listen was met with resistance.  And it seems that nothing Jesus did could help the Pharisees to hear.  What helps us to hear?  When we are entrenched in our opinions and our beliefs to the point that we are unable to listen, to be open even to God’s movement or message among us, what moves us from that place to one of hearing? 
Sometimes, someone says something that can catch us in a way that nothing else has.  I’ve shared with you before about the movie, “The Color of Fear” which is a documentary about a weekend retreat for men on the subject of racism.  I shared it in the context of opening our eyes, of seeing.  Hearing is the same: it is hard, and we are called to do it, so I’m choosing to share the story again.  Men of all backgrounds and ethnicities came to participate in this conversation about racial prejudice.  They made a commitment to be open in their conversations, to trust one another, to explore the topic of racism.  But there was one white man who quickly became the center of the conversation.  He kept insisting that there was no longer any racism in this country and that the men who were sharing their experiences of racial prejudice, were in fact, just blaming others for their problems.  Some of the men of color, having heard these accusations, left the conversation saying that it was not their job to change this man, that his ignorance made him not worth their time.  But most of the men stayed with the white man, sharing stories, telling of their own experiences.  They stayed steadfast in their commitment to justice, and their commitment to care for this one man, even in the face of his anger, his denial, his rudeness, his accusations and his blame.  They calmly and consistently shared their stories with him while he continued to say that they were hurt, ignored, passed over, and much, much worse because of their flaws, not because of racism.  But despite their care, despite their calm and simply presence, despite the stories they told again and again, this man simply could not hear them.  And nothing they did was impacting that block to listening.  Finally, towards the end of the weekend, the leader of the retreat turned to this white man and said, “What would it mean for you if the stories you are hearing are true?  What would it mean for you if we really have experienced the racial prejudice, hatred and discrimination that we are sharing with you?”
This question caught the man off guard.  He became very quiet, for the first time all weekend as he reflected on these words.  Finally, he said, very slowly, very quietly, “It would mean that the world is not as beautiful as I need to believe that it is.”  He began to cry as he continued, “and it would mean that I was part of the problem.” For this man, a question helped him to listen.  He was caught by a moment that surprised him.
But we know that it can take even more for people to learn how to listen.  Sometimes it takes “hitting bottom” for us to be able to hear, to listen and to change.   It takes experience to change.  We know that this is true with people with addictions.  Often people cannot make the choice to hear what others are telling him or her about having an addiction and needing to do something about it until they hit some kind of bottom – become so ill they have to change, or lose their jobs, or lose a relationship.  The same is true for all of us who are stuck in a place where we are unwilling to listen, even when what we might learn could make our lives better, more full.  In the movie, “Brave” which I shared about at the beginning, it took a trauma that threatened to destroy their family for both mother and daughter to finally listen and hear one another.  It literally would have been the end of life for the mother if she had not listened, and the daughter would have lost her mom if she had not listened.  While it is a story, a movie, it reflects the truth that listening is hard.  And sometimes we just would rather not do it.  For many people, prejudice of any kind – against people of different cultural backgrounds, races, ethnicities, LGBTQ folk, people of different religions – the prejudice is not overcome until we really know someone in the category of those we would dismiss: a son or a daughter or a family member is often the most able to help us change because they are people we love already.  But we also know the experience of changing our opinions, of growing, is hard; and sometimes very painful.
A rabbi lived in a rural area with his son. As the boy grew, he began to take walks each day in the woods around their home. The rabbi thought it was good for him to explore on his own in order to build his self-confidence. He noticed, though, that the boy was gone longer and longer each day. The rabbi began to worry that his son was straying too far and might get lost or encounter danger. The next morning, he talked to him about his concern. "I've noticed how much time you are spending in the woods," the rabbi said. "What do you do there?"
"Oh," said the lad, "I go into the woods to listen for the voice of God."
"Ah," smiled the Rabbi, "that is a good thing, but don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"
The boy pondered a moment and then replied, "Yes, Father, but I am not the same everywhere."
There is life in the listening.  There is healing in listening.  Finding the best way for each of us to listen is vital. There is depth in being willing to strive for understanding of another view point.  For Moses, listening to God would have created in him a sense of peace, comfort, dimmed the anxiety, given him a strength in continuing even when the people turned against him at times.  Eventually Moses did listen, despite the challenges that posed for him, and so he was able to fulfill his call to the people, to do the work God gave him to do and to exit in peace.  But it took time, time that could have brought him peace sooner.  For the Pharisees, their failure to listen meant they missed out on God right there with them.  The Pharisees were the legal faith authorities of the day, the legal leaders, the church authorities.  And yet these men, these people who had dedicated their lives to God’s law missed out on God’s presence right there with them.  I can’t think of a greater tragedy for these people than to miss out on the very thing they were striving to be part of their whole lives.  We know that for some, even hitting bottom won’t be enough to help them to change, to grow, to move.
I also want to state the obvious here, that listening does not mean agreeing.  We can listen and still come out with very different opinions and very different understandings.  However, taking the time to listen, to say to someone, “This is what I am hearing you say…”, taking time to repeat in your own words what the other is saying and only then stating your own opinion – these are choices to listen, to be in relationship, to build bridges, and deepen communication. These are choices that state that the relationship is more important than the disagreements, and it can be a huge step towards reconciliation and healing.
Where, then is the Good News in that?  We see in both of these Biblical stories that God continued to be loving and faithful, even when the people wouldn’t listen.  God remained faithful to Moses, responded to Moses, gave Moses what he wanted, even when Moses was challenging God, even when Moses was unwilling to listen.  God remained steadfast.  The tender compassion that God has for God’s children continued no matter what.   Jesus similarly does not refuse to talk to the Pharisees.  He does not ignore their question even.  He stays engaged with them, even in his anger, even as he realizes that he is being set up.  He continues to be present and he continues to try to show them a better way.  He speaks to them in a manner they don’t expect, turning the question around  in a way that might, just might, jar them into actually hearing him.  He says, give to God what is God and to Caesar what is Caesars.  And he leaves it to them to figure out what that means.  He tries to engage their higher thinking and their higher listening for a deeper answer.  What does it mean?  Caesar’s face is on the coin, but ultimately doesn’t everything, including Caesar, belong to God?  Jesus throws it back as a question, as a challenge for the Pharisees.  What really belongs to God?  What really belongs to Caesar?  Who is ultimately the one in charge of everything? 

This passage is not meant to answer the question of taxes for us.  Instead, it is a story about Jesus, and therefore about God.  It tells us that even in those hard questions, those things we struggle to understand, God chooses to be present with us.  It tells us that we are called to think through things by listening with open ears.  It calls us to be present and to engage further with our questions, our thoughts, our hopes, our doubts, and ultimately all that we are.  To listen.  And when we can’t listen, to rest in the love of a very patient and very present God who will wait for us to be able to listen, and will still be talking when we are able to open our ears.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


     I've read a number of articles recently that have been talking about the ageist culture that we live in here in the United States.  Youth is considered the ideal.  Part of our definition of beauty includes having gray-less or white-less full heads of hair; smooth, unwrinkled and spotless skin; tight, flab-less, droop-less, and hair-free bodies; and perfectly white and straight teeth.  People who are older have a much harder time getting jobs, they are treated with less respect, and at some point they can even start to be almost invisible.  The needs and issues of the elderly are mostly pushed under the rug, hidden away.  Additionally, the images we have of older people on TV are mostly of people past their usefulness, past their meaning, past being contributing members of society.  If we do see them active, they are usually golfing with other older people; not volunteering, working, or giving back to the society, and certainly not teaching or mentoring or working with younger folk.We celebrate and idolize our youth.
     This is especially true for women.  My 17 year old took a drama class over the summer in which they actually spent time looking at what ages and what percentages of women and men are hired for differing acting roles.  Men, they found, tend to be hired for more jobs as they age, up to a point.  Women have, almost without exception, about a 5 year period in which they are highly sought after, after which they 'age out' and are no longer hired, especially for key and prominent acting roles.  The same is true in the church: older men's experience is valued, but without exception my female pastor friends are finding they "age out" at about 50 in terms of being able to get a new pastoring job.  The ads on TV mostly aim to make women look younger.  Men, with the exception of a culture that pushes for full heads of hair, do not need to pretend to be younger than they are by changing their bodies to look younger. 
      Again, there is article after article out there about this problem.  I don't need to repeat them all.  We know it to be true.  We no longer value the wisdom of age, the old images of the "wise woman" are no longer prevalent (though we still have a few of the wizened older man), and a huge portion of the advertisements we see focus on ways to make us look younger for longer, to try to hold on to our youth rather than to age with grace and even joy.
       Instead of repeating what we know, what I want to talk about is the change we need to make to confront this.  It will take courage and it will take intentionality to do so.  But I believe one of the ways we can fight this is to actively, publicly and with commitment and intentionality step into our own aging with delight and pride, rather than with despair and shame.  That means a number of things:
     1. Refusing to dye our hair when it starts to become white or gray, but instead choosing to see the different colors for the beauty, the variety, the signs of experience that they are.
     2. Stopping spending large amounts of money on "anti-wrinkle creams", botox treatments, anti-cellulite treatments and instead seeing every wrinkle, scar and age mark as the medals of having really lived.
     3. Sharing our age with a sense of pride and acceptance rather than shame. 
     4.  Talking about the joys and gifts, as well as the struggles and pains of aging, not in hushed whispers but in open conversations, both with others who are our own ages, as well as with younger folk. 
      5. Talking to potential employers about the gifts we've gained through experience and with the wisdom of our age. 
      6. Refusing to become stuck in our ideas and mind-sets as we age, but using the time we've been given to continue to learn and grow, striving to become better human beings. 
      7.  Seeing ourselves as mentors for younger folk and not being afraid to offer our wisdom, knowledge and advice.  Acknowledging to the world that we really do grow with time, we mature and learn through experience.
      8.  Be willing to turn to folk older than ourselves for advice, mentoring and wisdom: practice valuing the aging as well as the elderly and model that valuing for others.
       I know there are many other ways and I would love to hear your thoughts about them.
       I also understand that this is not easy to do within a culture that actively fights against aging and does not value our elderly.  I know this from my own experience.  The other day I pulled my hair back into a pony-tail and my son responded with "That makes you look older."  Without even thinking about it, I said, "Well, that's too bad," and I removed the pony-tail. 
        Fortunately, I've been talking about ageism with my kids and my eldest daughter called me on my response right away.  "Why is it too bad?" she asked.  "Isn't it a good thing to celebrate looking older? Isn't that what you are teaching us?  That you are okay with the growing gray?  That you celebrate the wrinkles and signs of age?"   
        "You are right.  There is that loud voice of culture still in my head and in my life, even as I fight against it.  Thank you for the reminder.  I need to step back into my intentionality of aging with grace and joy."  I put the pony-tail back in my hair.  But I could not deny that there was still a part of me struggling with the idea that I'm looking older.  It remains a part of me that I have to intentionally confront, regularly.
         I look forward to hearing your ideas about confronting ageism.  I look forward to seeing the ways in which we, together, can change a culture back to one that values the wisdom and experience that time give.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Winning Points by Being Mean?

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew 21:33-46

As I read through today’s passages, I was struck with the idea that sometimes people think that in being mean to other people or catty behind their backs, or expressing hate towards some people, somehow we end up more united with others.  We can “bond” over our criticisms of others, bond over our hatred of others, connect with some people by making someone else a common enemy.  I look at this passage from Exodus in which the people have been led out of slavery by Moses, have come to him for food and water; and God, through Moses, has provided.  Moses has done an amazing work through this people and as we read the scriptures we recognize the great leadership of Moses.  And yet, when Moses goes off for a time to pray, to recuperate, to reconnect with God, the people take the opportunity of his absence to bond with one another AGAINST him.  They wanted him to be everything for them, they wanted him to be perfect, to have infinite energy for them, to not need time away.  They wanted him to lead them into the promised land, into comfort, maybe even into a kind of luxury.  He can’t do that first because he is a human being and second because it isn’t God’s time yet, there are other things that must happen before they are led into the promised land.  But for all these reasons, for his failure to give them everything they want and because he has taken some time away from them to pray, to reground himself in God, the people feel he has failed them and they quickly turn against him.  “As for this man, Moses, we don’t have a CLUE what has happened to him. …so make for us gods who can lead us, instead.”  And his brother, Aaron, did NOT defend him, but joined them, doing what they asked him to do, my guess is so that he could remain a part of them, too, bonded together AGAINST his own brother, Moses.  I also think he was afraid of their angry wagging tongues and felt that if he stood up for his brother, he would just become the next victim of their attacks and critiques.
It was not only that they bonded with each other in their criticism and rejection of Moses, they also somehow believed that in that criticism and rejection of someone else, they would get more, that this would enable them to walk away with something better than what they would have had had they stuck with Moses and had they continued to follow in God’s way.  They thought that instead of this human person, Moses, they could get gods who would then lead them, made from the rings and gold objects that the people had.  Gods had to be better than Moses, right?  Moses had led them out of slavery.  Moses had made sure they had food and water.  But it wasn’t enough.  They wanted more.  They wanted more.  And it was easy to vilify Moses, to critique him, thinking that this would then get them that more.
Then we come to the gospel passages.  And in the first one we read of people invited to a wedding party who felt they had better things to do.  But again, they didn’t simply say “No, we don’t want to come”.  They joined together, grabbed the servants who had invited them to the party, abused them and killed them.  And we have to ask, what were they thinking?  Did they really believe there would be no consequence for this behavior?  That the king who invited them wouldn’t get angry and seek retribution for their killing of his servants?  But again, they seemed to believe that they would be closer to each other, more bonded with one another and maybe even somehow “get more” as they developed a common enemy.
In the second gospel passage I read for today it is even clearer that this is what is going on.  When the servants come to collect what is owed to the landowner, they kill the servants.  So the landowner sends more servants whom they also kill.  When the son comes they say to each other, “This is the heir.  Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.”  What kind of thinking is that?  That somehow if you kill all those the landowner cares about that he will then leave to you everything he has?!  From a distance, from our perspective, we can see that this is absolutely crazy thinking.  We can see clearly that those with that kind of thinking won’t survive long enough to inherit anything, but will be utterly destroyed by the landowner.  We see this, from the safe distance of reading about it in a story.  But what about in our own lives?
In our own personal lives, don’t we put down, criticize, condemn and sometimes even seek to destroy, at least emotionally, some people to other people?  And as we join together in criticizing other people, don’t we somehow feel more connected to those we are talking to?  Don’t we somehow believe that if we share a common critique against other people that we will be closer and more united with those with whom we share that criticism?  Don’t we sometimes even create friendships, build relationships over common complaints against someone else?  Sometimes I think we even believe that we will be more fully or thoroughly respected by those with whom we are bonding when we have a common critique of someone else, a common judgment, and especially a common enemy. 
Some time ago I was over at the house of friends when the husband in the couple received a text from a mutual friend.  His response in seeing the text was, “Oh no.  Not again!  These people are always texting us.  I’m just going to ignore it.”  His wife joined in on the conversation and critique, “Yeah.  We ignore his texts a lot but they don’t seem to get the message!”  They looked to me for my support, clearly hoping I would join in on this conversation, to agree with them for their decision to put down and fail to respond to this friend. To agree with them about how annoying our mutual friend was.  And again, perhaps the thinking was that we would then have this “bond” over being annoyed by this other friend.  But I found myself instead very upset by their comments.  I found myself wondering, and asking, “when you don’t respond right away to my texts then is it because you are feeling the same way towards me?  Annoyed?  Bothered? Are the two of you having this same conversation about me behind my back when I text?”  Of course they were quick to tell me, “Oh no!  That’s different!” But that conversation rang in my head from then on when a text I sent was not answered.
I have another friend who, when I am with her, is often criticizing her best friend, complaining about her best friend.  I understand that my friend may need to work out some of her annoyance or anxiety at times with her best friend.  But again, whenever she does this, whenever she criticizes her best friend to me, I cannot help but wonder what she is saying about me, who is not nearly as close to her, when I am not around. 
How many of you receive forwarded emails that express hatred towards groups of people? Christians are called to be “known by their love” but sometimes even the most well-meaning people seem to get caught up in hating behavior and my sense is that this is easier to do when they feel bonded with others in a crusade, even when it is a crusade of judgment or hatred.  Jesus is very clear that we are not supposed to judge and that instead we are called to love even our enemies.  Jesus is very clear that we will be known by how compassionate and caring and merciful and grace-filled and loving we are.  And the hate behavior of people who say they are Christian, especially when their hating is done in the name of God, tends to do absolutely the opposite of what they intend.  It does not win friends or convince people of any quality or ability to self-reflect.  It loses them respect, again, especially from those who are self-reflective, who are caring, who are seeing people.  Unfortunately, it also encourages people to lose respect for Christianity on the whole.  They are not spreading the Good News with judging condemning behavior.  They are not demonstrating a belief in a loving God who embraces the outcast, heals the wounded, and calls us to do the same.  They are turning people against Jesus, while missing Jesus’ message of love completely.
Not that any of us are completely beyond this behavior of trying to bond with one another by critiquing others.  While on a retreat one weekend, I kept receiving phone calls and texts from someone who knew I was on retreat and yet continued to demand my attention, and I found myself quick to criticize that person to those I was with.  I received an email right before writing this sermon, containing an article attacking someone that I quickly answered with “yep, I agree” without pausing to consider what I was doing.  We do this. Judging others gives us something to talk about.  Condemning others gives us something to complain about.  Being critical gives us a chance to “vent”. Criticizing others helps us to think through what we believe about certain issues or behaviors so that we can act differently, and behave according to our true principles and values.
But behaving that way is also, ultimately, against what God would have us do.  When we are judging others, we are failing to remember that Jesus said it was the one without sin who is called to cast the stones and that is not one of us.  We are failing to remember that it is God’s own children we are condemning since we are all God’s children.  When we are bonding in our animosity towards anyone else, we are failing to love our enemies.  And I think we have to ask how God must feel about that. 
The people I trust the most and the people I respect the most tend to be those who choose not to engage in this kind of behavior.  One of the things I love the absolute most about David is first that he is not a catty person, and that second, he calls me on it when I am.  And I respect this in him for so many reasons.  First, seeing that he refuses to gossip negatively about others, I am less concerned about him doing the same to me.  Second, all those who act in loving ways towards all people are so much easier to respect as people truly doing their best to follow in Jesus’ way. 
I want to clarify something here.  I’m not saying that we agree with everybody or everything.  There is room for disagreement, and when we see injustice, we are called to confront it.  Always.  But this is not the same as judging people, or talking maliciously about people.  It is not the same as gossip.  Denouncing unkind, unjust and unloving behavior is also not the same as judging people and condemning people.  We are called to stand up against unjust and unloving behavior.  We are not called to call people names, to attack individuals or to be hateful towards anyone, no matter how much we disagree with them.

But the Good News in this remains that when we fail to be faithful, when we do choose to be critical, God still is with us, God still provides.  In the Exodus story, while God was angry that the people had forsaken both Moses and God, God did not loose wrath on the people but still loved them, still provided for them, still cared for them.  The Good News also is that this God who loves us is ultimately the judge as well as the one who offers us grace.  It isn’t up to us to judge.  It isn’t up to us to critique.  But when we fail to remember that, even then, the choice of who deserves critique is up to God and not us.  We are freed.  Freed to love.  Freed to live in God’s grace.  Freed to be known as Christians, by the love that God calls us to exhibit.  Thanks be to God.