Sunday, January 10, 2010

Keeping Watch

Matthew 26:38b "Stay here and keep watch with me."

Over New Year's I was visiting friends in Florida and, as you know if you've been watching the news, Florida has been having record cold temperatures. New Year's morning began with forty-degree temperatures and pouring rain, starting about 5:30 am and lasting all morning. So we got up late, felt lazy, and figured we'd shower and get dressed sometime after the Rose Bowl parade.

Then Dorothy said, "I just saw a dog." Understand that the home I was visiting is out in the middle of nowhere. You drive until the pavement turns to dirt and the dirt turns into their front yard. A dog out there meant a lost dog. It was about 9:30 am, it was still pouring and miserable and cold. I went out on the porch.

Shortly, she came around the corner--a chocolate lab, soaked through and acting as if she had been shoed away from a number of other homes, perhaps with force. But I could see she had a collar and tags, and after some persistence, she came to me. It took awhile, but I managed to get her up on the porch and got the information off her tags. Dorothy called while I stayed with the dog. Her name was Hershey, and her owner was out driving around looking for her when we called. She would come soon.

And so we waited. We got a towel and dried her off and fed her a bit of leftover steak from the night before. We looked down the road and we waited and we watched until Hershey's owner came to claim her. Then, having added "muddy wet dog" to my personal scent, I finally took a shower just in time for the parade.

Waiting with Hershey reminded me how frequently simply sitting and waiting with someone is the best form of ministry. When we sit with someone who has a loved one in surgery; when we keep vigil at the bedside of someone in their last hours; when we visit someone whose house has been empty of company far too long--what can seem like time doing nothing is actually time being Christ for others, being God with skin on.

That's all Jesus wanted during those last few hours before his arrest and death--someone to sit and watch with him. The disciples fell asleep and failed that simple request three times. We often fail as much or more. But with each new day and each new year, there is a chance to get it right--a chance to be there for the frightened, the lost, the wet and the cold. A chance to make a call, to get a towel, and to wait and watch until the One we wait for comes.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Keeping the Faith Alive

Judges 2:10 "Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel."

"Anne Robertson!" I turned around at the large reception to see the man who had been my homeroom teacher in the seventh grade. "I thought about you just this morning," he said. "I was looking through old faculty pictures for tonight's celebration and I saw your parents' pictures. I remember you came a year early. Seventh grade and only 11 years old, but smart as a whip. 1970."

I was stunned. I knew many of my teachers very, very well. With parents on the high school faculty for their entire careers, my teachers were often friends of the family as well, and there are many I count as friends today. But my 7th grade homeroom teacher was not on that list. I don't remember even seeing him after I left middle school. But here he was at the 75th anniversary celebration of the founding of Coventry High School remembering me, the year I was in his class, and even my age.

It was an evening of such memories: The best principal on the planet, Jim DiPrete (pictured with me here), who talked about my mother's amazing skills and reliability as a colleague. The oh-so-patient Chemistry teacher and Student Council Advisor who was first taught by my father before he came to teach me. The teachers and students gone but not forgotten. The teacher who had never met me but who was consistently beaten by my father in ping pong.

Those people are why I went--to remember who I was and where I came from. To be among those who carry memories and perspectives of both me and my parents that I can get in no other way. To remember that our school motto was "Ad astra per aspera," "To the stars through difficulty," and to realize how true that was and is.

We all have our own memories, but it takes a community to keep them alive and vibrant. And of course there are those like my mother whose mind and memories have been taken from her. It is the job of her community to remember for her, just as we remember for and with each other. And memories were passed along. The most recent graduates were there along with a woman from the very first graduating class of 1935. We heard about her class and about the classes of the 40's, 50's and every decade since. Our own experiences were reinforced and given meaning and our memories were expanded both forward and backward--putting our lives in a greater context of shared community.

The Bible is full of places where God has people set up markers to hold the memory of events. Sometimes it was a physical marker, like a pile of stones or a special altar. Sometimes it was a festival like Passover or Pentecost. Sometimes it was the instruction to keep telling future generations, as in Deuteronomy 6:4ff where God instructs that the command to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, be said every morning and every evening and taught to all children. And of course there is the Bible itself, with scores of authors wanting to be sure that events and people and principles were remembered in certain ways.

The above passage from Judges stunned me when I first read it. How was it possible that a generation grew up that "did not know the Lord?" It was a catastrophic failure of community memory. For whatever reasons, a generation stopped sharing their memories, or shared them only with themselves and not with new generations. We know from the Bible itself that there were long stretches of time when the festivals were not celebrated and nobody even knew the Torah existed.

As our culture both inside and outside the church goes through a paradigm shift, it would be all too easy to allow another generation to grow up that "did not know the Lord." That doesn't mean our traditions can't change, but it does mean that if the pile of stones that used to mark an event has crumbled, the stones should not be tossed but should be reformed into something new. We are the keepers of the faith memory, both for those who have set it aside or had it beaten out of them, and for those just being born who do not know.

We need to gather to remember the stories and the people and our own "Ad astra per aspera," which might be translated to faith as "Take up your cross and follow me." When people return to faith communities they should be filled with the memories of why they came, not with flashbacks of why they left. We must help each other remember who and whose we are.

At the anniversary party I learned that my beloved principal was on Facebook and the minute I got home I sent him a friend request. Our churches should inspire us to do the same with Jesus. Rekindle the memory. Share the stories. Teach the children.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Save the Frogs

Isaiah 55:8 “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord."

I accidentally broke a frog the other day. The frog in question had hopped himself right up to my sunroom door, and I didn’t see him. The door opens out and when I opened it to let the dog out, the frog’s leg got caught under the door. He managed to free himself, but the leg was no longer doing what it should and he kept falling over, hopping sideways, or generally having issues. By the next day he was hopping a bit better around the yard, learning to compensate for a leg that didn’t work properly, and I thought maybe he’d make it. Perhaps he did make it, but the next morning my cat threw up a frog on the carpet, so I have my doubts.

For reasons known only to my peculiar brain chemistry, my lack of watchfulness in opening the door and the resulting injury made me think of the way we sometimes open the Bible. We open its pages with force and purpose, like God gave it to us solely to support our own agendas. We open it callously, throwing around its phrases without really listening to some of them or noticing that we have just torn the leg off of someone who had been hovering close by. We open it arrogantly, thinking that its contents are indisputably clear, and that those who view it differently are at best wrong and at worst outside of God’s mercy. We open it thinking that it is our book, rather than God’s book, our word rather than the Word of the Lord. In the name of the Bible, we wound others made in the image of God, leaving them vulnerable to other predators.

This has been on my mind because on July 5 I was out preaching for the Massachusetts Bible Society and delivered my “stump sermon” to some folks on Cape Cod. The essence of the sermon is the core MBS philosophy, “taking the Bible seriously but not literally.” Since we are now on Twitter, I came home and tweeted that message.

By the next morning my video introduction to MBS, which has been on our website over a year, was posted on a fundamentalist website and I was declared to be an enemy of the Gospel. The video on YouTube as of this morning has received 1086 hits with people calling me unchristian as well as others lending their support. As I told the folks at our anniversary dinner, I haven’t had such great publicity since Fred Phelps preached about me and called me Jezebel.

But the debate is not a minor one, or something to engage simply for sport. When I preached that “stump sermon” on Cape Cod, I got the same reaction that I have in other places—an outpouring of gratitude and a new enthusiasm for reading a book that many of those listening had put away on a shelf long ago.

When I give people permission to read the Bible in its historical context and with their brain in gear instead of swallowing every detail whole, they come up to me afterwards and tell me of the ways they were wounded by those who threw open the Bible without regard for those nearby--those who claimed absolute knowledge of the ways and truth of God and then used that “sword of the spirit” to cut them down. They tell me of being afraid of the Bible because of those who threatened hell if they should question a passage or interpretation. Last I checked God was the judge and not human beings.

We see through a glass, darkly Paul says. All of us. God warns through Isaiah that God neither thinks nor acts like we do (no exceptions for those who take the Bible literally). When we open the Bible, we should do so reverently, gingerly, prayerfully, humbly, and with all the faculties of reason and sense that God gave us. When we do that, no innocent creatures will be torn apart and our own faith will be both deepened and blessed. In the meantime, those of us at the Massachusetts Bible Society are working to develop some doorstoppers, so fewer lives are hobbled by those who unwittingly forget that God’s ways and thoughts are not ours.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Bible, A Lamp, and A GPS

Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

To begin with, just a bit of information about this Psalm in case you are ever on Jeopardy and there’s a Bible question about Psalm 119. With 176 verses, it is the longest of the Psalms. It is also known as an “alphabet" or "acrostic" Psalm, meaning that every eight-verse section begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

There are eight other Psalms that are written this way, each with a differing number of verses per letter. For this reason and because Psalm 119 focuses on the importance of keeping God’s law, it is often used to train Jewish children in the Hebrew alphabet. “I’ll take The Bible for 500, Alex.” Now you’re prepared.

But what I really wanted to talk about was last week, when I put my handy-dandy GPS on my dashboard to head to the church where I was preaching. Those of you who know me know that I can get lost in my own backyard, so the invention of the GPS instantly took the stress out of trips for me. No longer do I have to try to read directions and drive at the same time. If I go the wrong way, my lovely GPS figures out where I am, says “recalculating” without a hint of criticism for my error, and gives me a new way to get there.

Last week, however, I discovered a flaw. It apparently is not smart enough to know about bike races. I was an hour away from home and almost to my destination, when I saw the flashing lights up ahead. Bicycles flew by but the nice officer stopped me and told me that the road was closed and I would have to go another way. I asked my little dashboard friend what to do about it, but it was silent. It was up to me to make a choice and then it would give me maps and directions based on the road I was on.

Some people seem to believe that the Bible shows only one road that must be followed at all costs—a road that can be followed to its completion if you just figure out how to do it correctly. But I think this verse from Psalm 119 (made famous by Amy Grant’s song) teaches us that it’s not quite so simple. The Bible is like a lamp. It shows what is beneath our feet so we can take our next steps. That lamp might show a flat, firm path. It might show a rocky ascent, a slippery slope, or a path so covered in brambles that it is impassable. It might show us a crossroads with several paths to choose from. It is then up to us to decide what steps and what path to take.

When we make a choice, the lamp continues to show us what lies in front of us, just as my GPS always shows me a map of my immediate area. But lamps and GPS devices don’t make your decisions for you. They simply give you a clearer idea of what you get if you go a certain way. The Bible is no different. God does not take away our freedom to choose the way we will follow. God simply makes sure that we always have a light for our path.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Naboth's Vineyard

1 Kings 21:15 “As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, "Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead."

I was out preaching this morning in one of the Bible Society’s partner churches, where I highlighted our willingness to address questions anybody might have about the Bible. A man came up to me during coffee hour saying that he wanted to take me up on that with a question that had bugged him for some time. “You know that story about the vineyard?” he asked. My mind raced through a whole pile of biblical vineyard stories. “The king gets the vineyard and I don’t understand why,” he continued. “And there’s something about dogs.”

We finally figured out that he was talking about the story in 1 Kings 21 where King Ahab and Queen Jezebel take the vineyard of one of their subjects named Naboth. First they offer to buy the vineyard, but Naboth would like to keep his vineyard and declines their offer. So they kill him and take it. The prophet Elijah finds out and brings the word of the Lord to Ahab and Jezebel, predicting their own demise will result in their dead bodies being left unburied so that wild dogs will eat them. A lovely lunch-time story.

The man asking the question was troubled that within the pages of Scripture was a story where an evil king took away both the life and the property of a good man. Even though Ahab and Jezebel bore the condemnation of God, as he saw it they still benefited from the vineyard and in some sense got away with it.

His question was two fold. On the one hand is the question asked by most of us at some time or another and that is captured best by Jeremiah when he says to God: “Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1) I’m not especially qualified to answer that question, since I often have it myself. But this man’s issue seemed to be more specifically that this was a story in the Bible, which to him meant that it was an example of how things should be. But the bad guy won, so how could it be in the Bible?

That’s actually a common misperception, so I thought I would address it. The Bible is not a picture of life the way it should be. The Bible is a picture of how life is and always has been. What makes it special is that it is the story of how God has worked and is working within the history of what is to try to teach us to make it what God intended it to be from the beginning. So the Bible tells us the stories not just of the good people, and not just of the people who are trying to be faithful but mess up. It tells us also of the jerks and the mean and vile people and shows us exactly how they harm the innocent. Then it brings along prophets like Elijah who speak for God in condemning the evil that has been done. Ultimately it brings the story of Jesus, who shows us how to live faithfully in a world where the wicked often do prosper.

In the story of Jesus we see what all the other stories have been for. They show us God at work within human history, teaching and rebuking, pulling and shaping, to try to mold a troubled world into something resembling the Kingdom of God.

In our world today things are no different. Kings steal the vineyards of their citizens. Bernie Madoffs steal your retirement. Wall Street steals your home and laughs all the way to the bank. The wicked too often prosper and the righteous too often get hit by a bus. And God continues to respond just as God always has—by calling on God’s people to fix it and raise up our children in a different way. Easter night Jesus appeared to his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit into them and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21) Empowered by God’s spirit, fixing the world so that the wicked no longer prosper is our job now.

The Bible is not all sweetness and light. It shows the world with all its flaws. It also teaches us what to do about it.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Fair Balance

2 Corinthians 8:13-14a “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”

Friday night I was at an event co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society and the Boston Faith and Justice Network. It was called “The Gratitude Economy” and featured three people who told about the ways they have adjusted their lives to increase their giving for the poor.

One woman explained that she has joined with a group of thirty other women who all pledge to give 1% of their income (over and above their tithe) to a cause they would select jointly. That group gives $35,000 - $40,000 per year, living frugal lives to enable their giving. The next speaker was moved by a photographer’s exhibit of 70 orphans to render those photographs as oil paintings. He painted 70 oil portraits and sold them for $70 each, money that was contributed to services for orphans. More than that, each purchaser was required to pledge $70 per year for the remaining years of his or her life to that same cause. All 70 were sold and so he painted another 70.

The third speaker, a well-paid technology executive, told of his family’s decision to live on the income of the average American household and to give the rest away. When they began, that average income was $38,000. Today it is closer to $50,000, but he makes $200,000. They give away about $150,000 per year, and live in a poor area of one of California’s poorest cities to make ends meet. They find themselves in ministry in many ways in that setting, from leading Bible studies for gang members to taking neighbor children to school.

The most notable thing about the evening, however, was not the stories of any of the speakers. It was the audience. We were in a room at a local Lutheran church with about 80 chairs set up. Not only was every chair filled, but people lined every wall and were jammed in so tightly that some couldn’t even get in the door and strained to listen from outside. This to hear about how to live simply and give more. But (as they say in cheap advertising) wait! There’s more! Not only was the crowd spilling out the door, I was one of only about 5 or 6 people in the room over 30. That’s right, it was young people, many of whom have joined economic accountability groups themselves through the work of Boston Faith and Justice in order to address the concern Paul speaks about above—the “question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” When the third speaker cited a Bible passage, about a third of the young people there pulled out Bibles.

As I sat there in the midst of this sea of young faces, I thought of the many, many churches that have trouble attracting people under 60, let alone under 30. In fact, even churches with healthy numbers of 30-50 year olds have significant gaps in under 30. “What do they want?” our committees moan, often spiraling down into conflicts about whether or not to change the worship style. While worship styles are not unimportant, Friday night’s event taught me that the under-30 crowd wants relevance. The world they are inheriting is spiraling out of control and it will be up to them to right it. They organized in massive numbers to bring change to government, and they are taking seriously the need to live balanced and just economic lives. Maybe there wasn’t a bigger over-30 crowd because we might feel too threatened. We make too much.

The Bible has much to say on this topic. In fact, if you cut out all the economic passages in Scripture, you would be left with tatters. The passage above is just part of two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians that Paul devotes to urging the churches across Asia Minor to support an offering for the poor of Jerusalem. While his goal is specific to the time, his urging is straight from the prophets. There is abundance in God’s economy. God has created a world where there is enough for everyone. But if some of us keep more than our fair share, others will experience scarcity. While we have seen through history that legislating that balance leads to abuse, the way of God is different. These two chapters in 2 Corinthians are where you find Paul’s famous statement, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)

Our economic crisis has already caused great pain. But it also provides great opportunity for people of faith to get back to our roots in God’s economics. It is up to each of us to figure out “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” We need the help of our religious leaders and institutions both to learn what that means and to have the courage to live it out. Our young people, at least, are hungry for it.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Spreading the Wealth

Matt. 19:21-24 Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

One of the things still sticking in my craw from the presidential campaign is the way that “spreading the wealth” suddenly became code for evil socialism. Aside from the fact that “socialist” was used as a smear when every other developed nation but ours has some form of socialized medicine, the “spreading the wealth” contempt hit me well beyond any political preferences. When Obama raised that concept to “Joe the Plumber,” he was not speaking from his inner socialist. He was merely voicing what his Christian faith had taught him.

Spreading the wealth is nothing more than the Golden Rule applied to economics. Do to others what you would have them do to you. It could equally be seen as an economic consequence of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If the notion of the wealthy sharing resources with those who have less were some obscure part of the Bible, then I could understand why so many might have thought the concept came from some political philosophy. But in both the Old and the New Testaments, such a notion is front and center. Jesus talks more about the use of money and possessions than anything else except the Kingdom of God. And if you read the opening chapters of the book of Acts you will see that the immediate result of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Yes, they spread the wealth around.

Of course that experiment didn’t last a long time. While God tells us in no uncertain terms that sharing resources is the way God’s people are to live, we resist it mightily. It is much easier on both our wallets and our consciences if we pretend that spreading the wealth is some discredited form of government practiced by less discerning nations. But in order to do that, you will have to chop out huge sections of Scripture. The Gospels and the Prophets would be in tatters.

The passage I quoted above is in the story of the Rich Young Ruler, who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. He told Jesus that he already kept all of the commandments, and Jesus seems to have believed him. Notice that Jesus is so impressed with him that he invites him to take the final step and become a disciple. “Then come, follow me.” This is the only story in the Gospels of a disciple that refused the call. The fishermen gave it all up. The tax collector who authored this Gospel gave it all up. But the Rich Young Ruler just couldn’t do it. He came seeking eternal life but when he learned obtaining it and following Jesus would involve “spreading the wealth,” he “went away sad.”

It is not surprising that those with great wealth, or even those with moderate wealth, would resist giving it away. It is not surprising that we would do all in our power to name the concept something else, so that we could pretend that Jesus has nothing to do with our economic lives, either individually or collectively. We want our money and our Jesus, too. But that’s not the way it works. In the Kingdom of God you can only receive if you give.

With the economy of greed collapsing around us, it is time for Christians to reclaim Kingdom economics and to talk openly in our churches about the teachings of the Bible regarding money and possessions. It is time for Christians to stop wanting to be popular and to stand up for the ideas of the One we claim to follow. When a fellow Christian takes such a stand, allowing others to condemn it as “socialism” while we stand silently by is tantamount to being ashamed of the Gospel. I’m not saying it’s easy. Nothing Jesus asks of us is easy. But according to Jesus, it leads to eternal life.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008


Joshua 1:7 “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.”

I was watching a news anchor during one of the days in the past couple of weeks that the Dow was falling off the face of the earth. It was after the congressional rescue package had been passed and the commentators were asking each other why that seemed to have little effect on the market. One person noted that it was fear that had gotten out of control. The anchor then asked a question that hit me between the eyes, “How do you turn around fear?” she asked.

The question hit me because it illustrated that, like with the issue of the greed that got us here, we have left the realm of policy discussion. “How do you turn around fear?” is a psychological and theological question. Once fear takes hold, you can’t legislate your way out of it. Fear moves behavior out of the purely rational realm and into the realm of spirit. In biblical terms, we have “sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7) and now the whirlwind is pretty scary. “How do you turn around fear?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since hearing the question, and my mind naturally jumped to one of my favorite biblical passages: 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” That’s the short answer. Fear is a gaping hole that threatens to suck us into its vacuum. We eliminate it, not by trying to hang on to other things in order to resist the pull, but by picking up a shovel and filling the hole with love. The trouble with the short answer is that it’s pretty vague and easily misunderstood. How do you love the Dow Jones? What does it mean to love in an economic meltdown? That’s where I think Joshua comes in.

Rev. Peter Gomes in his new book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus says, “The opposite of fear is not courage, but compassion.” He then references the same 1 John passage above. I basically agree, but I would like to tweak that a bit more. I think courage actually is compassion. I think courage is the form love takes in the face of fear. Courage happens when someone stops running from a threat and turns to face it for the sake of love. Courage happens when a father runs back into a burning building to save his child. Courage happens when a Marine goes into enemy territory for the love of country or to retrieve the body of a comrade. Courage happened when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat for the love of justice. Courage happened when Bobby Kennedy ignored law enforcement advice the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination and spoke to the African Americans of Indianapolis for the love of peace. Courage happens when a woman faces down breast cancer for the love of life or when anyone faces death filled with the love for family and friends and looking to the love of God in that great unknown. When we meet fear with compassion, we call it courage.

So what does that look like in our economic crisis? Think about it. Greed is often a form of fear. We hoard money or possessions when at some level we fear that we will not have enough. Greed is also a lack of compassion for others. When we keep more than our share of wealth (which is one way to look at debt), we fence off God’s resources from others. The prophet Micah says this quite plainly, “Will you rob God?” Our greed over decades has robbed God and God’s poorer children and now, in the end, it is robbing us as well.

Now is the time for courage, which means living the economy of God for the love of God and humanity. It means living within our means and giving excess to others—not because it is forced on us, but out of compassion. In times when our fear tells us to close our fists tightly, we open them and honestly look at what’s there. In Massachusetts we are about to vote on a ballot provision to eliminate the state income tax. Our economic fears make that sound appealing, but the movement in the churches calls for compassion for those whose services will be eliminated without that revenue: the elderly, the disabled, the children, the poor. The church calls for courage in the vote…to eliminate the fear of taxes by arousing loving compassion for others.

Joshua cautioned the Israelites that it would take courage to act in accordance with the Law of Moses (which had huge economic implications), but that such courage would lead to success. It is no different now. Taking the courageous steps to show compassion for others in hard economic times will turn around the fear and restore hope. When economists say we are sinking because of fear, that is a challenge that people and communities of faith are uniquely suited to address. May we have the courage to do so.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Facing Up

Philippians 4:12 “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Of the seven deadly sins, the only one that has appeared regularly in the headlines is lust. Now, in our current financial crisis, another of the deadlies is grabbing all the attention. Greed. Nobody is questioning that greed is the underlying factor in all of our financial woes. And I mean nobody. Democrats and Republicans agree. Business owners and blue collar workers acknowledge it’s true. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor all recognize that we are in this fix because of greed.

While I’m as upset as anybody that we are where we are and that nobody was apparently minding the store, I am pleased that the topic of greed is grabbing headlines. Jesus talked more about issues surrounding money and possessions than about any other topic outside of the Kingdom of God. To me that’s a sure-fire indication of where Jesus thought our spiritual danger lies. I have been convinced for many years that greed is our national sin and have railed in both my preaching and my writing that our neurotic obsession with issues like gay marriage has been an attempt to avoid facing up to what’s really killing us.

The desperately sad thing is that it’s not just killing us. Our greed is taking down the innocent in other countries as well as in our own. The financial crisis caused by our greed needs a solution, and I’ve come to think that the bailout is the lesser of two evils. But we need to do more than solve the crisis. We don’t just need a bailout. We need repentance.

Repentance, of course, is not just saying we’re sorry. In its biblical context it means to turn around and actually go in a different direction. Repentance is not about what we say so much as how we prove our words by our actions. While it’s natural to turn and point our fingers at the enormous greed evident on Wall Street, each of us needs to face the role that greed plays in our day-to-day lives. And then we have to repent. Turn around. Change.

That’s where these words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians come in. In order to curb our greed, we need to learn to be content with what we have, even if it’s not as much as my neighbor. Anyone who has lived the life of keeping up with the Joneses can tell you that you never do catch them. The Joneses always have more and will make you feel small by comparison, even if you live like a king compared to most of the rest of the world. Paul, on the other hand, says he has learned the secret of how to be content even when he has so little that he goes hungry. Verse 13 gives us a window into that secret, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Our greatest resource is not our material assets but the power of God within us. It’s wind power, renewed by the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit. It’s the power of a little boy willing to share his lunch of loaves and fishes with 5,000 people. It’s the power of leading through service and of dying in order to gain eternal life.

These next years are not going to be easy, no matter what the final bailout plan looks like. But we have an opportunity in this crisis to build a foundation for our country on a rock instead of shifting sand. Each of us can learn to be content with what we have. During the Great Depression people learned that lesson and we have come to call them “the greatest generation.” Contentment led to service. The sharing of hardship led to empathy for the poor and a willingness to create policies to help all Americans dig out.

We have the opportunity now to be the next “greatest generation,” not just for America but for the world. We can do it through Christ who strengthens us.

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