Quid pro Quo and the Kingdom of God

Preached on 28 August 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year C

Quid pro quo.
Something for something.

It’s human nature.  We want something for our effort or our time or our material gifts.  Even when we volunteer our time, we are often quick to point out that we get so much more out of it than we give.  I mean we wouldn’t want to be seen as fools, right?

It’s pervasive.  Sometimes it seems as if almost everything we do is some kind of an economic transaction.  We go to work and we get a paycheck.  We hope that the paycheck somehow is equivalent to what we gave in return.  But we don’t have to look far to see that there is no equivalency.  And yet, we tend to use that monetary measure to assign value to the people who did the work, to their time, to the work itself.

We go shopping and trade our money for what we want – again, expecting an even trade yet trying to get a “good deal” and at the same time fearing that we paid too much.  I suspect anyone who has ever bought a car has had that feeling.

We worry about quid pro quo in politics.
Are the people elected or appointed to positions of power in government selling influence?
Are large donors buying politicians – especially when they donate to both sides?
Are wealthy politicians buying elections?

On some level, it’s even present in our social relationships.  I’ll wash, you dry.
They sent us a Christmas card last year, we should send them one this year.  It’s our turn to host dinner, the Smith’s invited us last time.

But really, how do you quantify the value of friendship?  Of love or fun?  Of sharing the beauty of a sunset or a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, the safety and freedom to be vulnerable?  How do you place a value on learning or knowledge or wisdom?

As much as we may try, we can’t really.  And when we do, they suddenly become, well, meaningless.  And once friendship or love, or caring or learning lose their meaning, they’re worthless, aren’t they?

I think that is what Jesus is getting at.  A quid pro quo economy has no place in the kingdom of God; no place in our relationships.  His life was all about inviting and welcoming into the presence of God, those whom others (and even they themselves) thought unworthy, undeserving.  They never expected an invitation to the table.  And guess what?  Jesus expects his disciples to do the same!  In fact, God expects everyone to do the same.

Jesus invites them to stop competing, stop counting the costs and benefits, stop comparing and ranking people.  Stop the quid pro quo economy.

If they really want to experience the kingdom of God, they should invite the poor, the sick, the outcast of society to dinner.  At your table.  In your home.  Have a party with people who can never reciprocate.

Try to see them not as society sees them, but as God sees them.  And you know what happens when you do (even if you haven’t invited them to dinner)?  You get a glimpse of how God sees you. And it’s amazing and beautiful and humbling all at the same time.

Now think about this.  What happens when we apply this quid pro quo economy to our theology?
How do we measure love, mercy, forgiveness, grace?
And how would we ever be able to repay God?
What if we don’t measure up?  And what does that say about God?

The kingdom of God is an economy of abundance and blessing.  You don’t have to count the cost because there is plenty for all and then some.
Jesus invites us to live in the kingdom and to welcome others into the kingdom, to share the abundance and blessing of God.

I remember when my daughter got to be too old for Santa Claus.  I told her that now she could be Santa’s helper; filling stockings, passing out presents. Oh what fun she had!  Now she’s all grown up and married.  Her husband didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas so she is having even more fun sharing the joy of Christmas with him.  Buying stocking stuffers, shopping, all the ornaments and decorating and baking.  She’s having a blast.

Now, what might it be like if we could be like that with God’s grace and blessing.
Imagine the freedom that comes from not worrying about status or prestige, of how we measure up compared to our co-workers or classmates or siblings or cousins or in-laws or whoever.  Who has the better job, the bigger paycheck.  Who drives a nicer car; who has the smarter kids…  Imagine being free to simply be God’s beloved child.  And now, imagine seeing others as God sees them.  Imagine the joy of sharing God’s blessing and grace; spreading the kingdom.

Sabbath Freedom

Preached on 21 August 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year C

Sometimes it seems as though under the Puritan work ethic, Sabbath became another form of work; to be endured, not enjoyed.  The focus seemed to be on duty and obligation to God and that meant suffering – spending hours in church, sitting in hard, uncomfortable pews, listening to preachers warning them of evil and hellfire; rather than a focus on rest and refreshment and even delight.  Seriously, how many of you think that “keeping Sabbath” would be an onerous practice?  Sabbath is a gift!

Since two of our readings this morning are about the Sabbath, let’s take a little time to look at it a bit more deeply.  Let’s start in Deuteronomy, chapter 5.  Moses is speaking to the people.  They have been in the desert for 40 years and now it’s time to prepare to enter the promised land.  Moses won’t go with them and so he’s reminding them of what they have experienced, what God has taught them, who they have become as a people, and who they are in relation to God.

He gives them the ten commandments again.  This is how they start – “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.”  When he gets to the fourth commandment, he gives them quite a bit of detail.  There is to be no work for anyone – not your servants or your slaves, men and women, the alien among you, not even the animals are to work.  Everybody gets a day off.  And he goes on, “remember, you were a slave.  This is why the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath.

The people were in had been in Egypt, they made an exodus and are now ready to enter the Promised Land.

In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to the people who have been in exile in Babylon for 70 years.  Their exile is about to end and they will make a second Exodus, returning to the Promised Land.  Remember, the  people he’s talking to are not the same people who left Israel.  That generation has died.  These people are going back to a home they’ve never seen.  Isaiah reminds them of who they are, especially in relation to God.  He reminds them of the privileges and responsibilities that go along with freedom.  They are to do justice – remove the yoke, feed the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted – and to keep Sabbath; keep it with delight and give honor to God.

Sabbath sets them apart as a people.  Everybody gets a day off.  Nobody works – men, women, slave, free, strangers, not even the animals.  Even then, it was counter-cultural.

Sabbath is a declaration of freedom and justice in the face of slavery, oppression, and every kind of bondage.  It is defiance against the powers that seek to own our bodies, our labor, our time.  Sabbath is a time to remind ourselves that ultimately, we all belong to God and we are precious in God’s sight; that God delights in us and we in God.  We would do well to consider what we do on our Sabbath that denies others theirs.  Sabbath is a gift from God – not only of rest but of freedom and justice.

Given that context, let’s look at our gospel for today.

It’s the Sabbath and Jesus is in the synagogue.  He looks around and sees a woman who is disabled.  Bent over double, she hasn’t been able to stand up straight and look someone in the eye or see the sky or even watch where she’s going for nearly two decades.  Jesus frees her from her ailment.  Notice the language used – he doesn’t heal her or cure her; he frees her.

Then the leader of the synagogue challenges him, accusing him of working on the Sabbath.  The woman should have waited and suffered a little while longer.
But it is precisely because it is the Sabbath that Jesus must free her from suffering.  It wasn’t work, it was doing justice, it was freeing her from the bondage of her affliction, freeing her to fully participate in the joy and celebration – the delight – of the Sabbath; enabling her to stand upright and praise God.  Jesus reminds them who she is – she is a daughter of Abraham.  She is fully a member of their community and Sabbath is for her, too.

Which brings me to the topic of disability.  I learned this week that the most un-churched group is people with disabilities.  In part, because many, if not most, churches are set up in such a way that makes it difficult for them to participate; or even get in the building in some cases.  But also, in part because of how passages like this one are often understood.  It’s as if she cannot worship because of her condition.  In fact, she is probably seen as somehow shameful.  Once she is freed, she can worship.  But most people aren’t freed.  They live as they are.

I wonder how her posture affects how she is perceived by others.  People who feel shame often bend over or hide their faces.  This woman was permanently in that posture.  Perhaps people around her subconsciously thought she was shamed.  I can imagine that over time, it would even affect how she viewed herself.

But have you ever thought about disability as a human construct?  We have this unwritten, subconscious set of attributes that we deem to be “normal” and anyone who has some variation from that set, is deemed not normal or disabled.  Of course, in some instances, they are deemed genius or prodigy or talented when they have an abundance of a desirable quality.

But we set up our world based on those norms; from the heights of counters to the size of letters on street signs, to the brightness of lightbulbs, to the height of stair steps.  Virtually everything is designed with norms and averages in mind.  Just think, being confined to a wheelchair is a disability only because our world is set up for people who can walk.  Now we’re not likely to change the norms – but we should be aware that they are of our own making.

Now, let’s think about what norms our worship assumes.  How do our practices or our spaces prevent some people from participating in worship?  How might we make Sabbath a practice of freedom for all people?

Why are You a Christian?

Preached on August 14, 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year C

Why are you a Christian?  The quick answer is, because you were baptized, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever – maybe because you were baptized as a child and had no say in the matter.  Still, something brings you here this morning.

What is it?
Why does being Christian matter in your life?
Why does being part of a community of faith matter?

Even if you’re not Christian, you’re here.  What is it about Christianity that piques your interest enough to get up early on a Sunday morning to come here?

These are important questions to ask ourselves from time to time and we can expect our answers to change as we go through life.  Especially now, though, as you go through this time of transition, I suggest that this is a particularly appropriate time to ask those questions not only individually, but to have that conversation as a community.

Right now, you are discerning who you are as a community, what God is calling you to do or be and the profile committee is gathering that all together and trying to articulate it in the profile.  Reflecting on these questions is part of that discernment.

So, again, Why are you a Christian; why does it matter?  When I was in Sunday school, I thought the answer was so we would go to heaven when we die.

I don’t think Jesus would say that, though.  He said that he came that we may have life; life in abundance.

Now, in this life.  Some have interpreted that to mean a life of abundance and even to be exempt from suffering.  If we do the right things, believe the right things, we will be prosperous and healthy and nothing bad will happen to us.  But it doesn’t work that way.

In their book, Saving Paradise, Rita Brock and Rebecca Palmer point out that for the first thousand years, the church focused on our earthly life – Paradise in this world – rather than on the afterlife.

Wouldn’t it be nice if being Christian were easy; being baptized, going to church on Sunday morning, and pretty much hanging out until Jesus comes again.  Never having to disrupt your life or change or be transformed.

But life in Christ is not without cost.  Jesus also said what we heard today.  “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, but rather division.”

For the Jews of his day, to follow Jesus meant, first of all, to accept him as the Messiah when he wasn’t at all like the Messiah they were expecting – someone great and powerful who would overthrow their Roman rulers and reclaim Palestine for Israel; someone to be a king, like David.

Second, it meant to follow this itinerant rabbi who hung out with the outcast and preached a message of love and forgiveness.  To follow him meant they would do likewise, practice love and forgiveness especially toward those who were different.  This challenged or at least questioned the status quo, not only the religious status quo, but also the social, economic, and political status quo.

The inevitable result of that kind of challenge is conflict and division.  Jesus, I think, is describing the result of following him, rather than his purpose in coming.  The baptism he talks about is his crucifixion.  It is the inevitable consequence of his message and ministry more than it is the purpose for his life.

Jesus came to transform the world, not through power and conquest, but by transforming individual lives; by calling us back to God, showing us a new way to live, a new way to relate to one another and to God.

For the early Christians, following Jesus did, often cause division in their families and relationships; sometimes it cost them their livelihoods or even their lives.

What about us, today?  What does it mean to follow Jesus?  To call oneself a Christian would not cause any raised eyebrows.  But to truly follow Jesus?  It still challenges the status quo and stretches social norms and may not set well with our friends and neighbors and co-workers.

What does it cost you to follow Jesus?  What price would you be willing to pay for the transformed life God offers you through Jesus?

Now, imagine.  Imagine if this community were to gather together each Sunday morning, and perhaps other times, too, to reflect on our lives with Christ.
In whom have we found Christ?  How have we served God in the world?  What challenges or divisions or conflicts have we faced?  Should we do it again?  Should we do something differently?

Imagine if we were to gather together to encourage and to be encouraged by each other as we move through the difficulties of our lives in Christ?  Imagine discerning together:
What is God calling us to do or be next?

Imagine if we came together to be transformed in the depths of our very being and if that transformed our very lives.  Now imagine if we then went out from here and transformed one small piece of our world simply by having been transformed ourselves.

With all that in mind, I ask you again,
Why are you a Christian?
Why does being Christian matter in your life?
Why does being part of a community of faith matter?
What has it cost you?
What price would you be willing to pay?

Communist or Commonwealth?

Preached on 7 August 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year C

When I walk for 4 or 5 hours at a stretch, my mind usually wanders.  I have time to explore ideas more than usual.  Well, this week, when I was walking, I began to wonder.

With the technology and resources that we have available now, how much would everybody have to work to produce enough for everybody – enough food, clean water, housing, clothing, care for the children and the elderly and the disabled, provide good education and health care for everyone.  And I don’t mean just enough food to survive, I mean to be able to eat well; delicious, fresh food, fine dining at times, good wine, you get the idea.  If everyone could fully develop and offer their talents and skills, pursue their passions.

In this world I imagined, some would produce beauty making it available to everyone:  Art, music, sports, dance, theatre, travel, study and research, education that allows us to broaden our horizons and plumb the depths of the body of knowledge and add to it …  all the pursuits that make life good and beautiful.

I wonder, How much would everybody have to work?  And how much leisure time would we have – time to spend with family, friends, neighbors, time to just be?

Of course, I have no idea what the answer is.  But I can imagine that world.

If money is not part of the system, it eliminates at least three major industries that I can think of off the top of my head – freeing those people to work at other pursuits that more directly benefit the community.

If you know that there will always be enough, you don’t have to worry about saving to educate your children or for retirement, or for the proverbial rainy day.  You don’t have to be afraid, because your community will be there for you if you are ever in need; you won’t end up homeless or hungry.

And as my mind went down that path, I thought,
“I sound like a communist!”  But then it occurred to me, I think that’s what the kingdom of God is like.  And no, I’m not saying that God is a communist.

God’s deepest desire is the well-being of the world – of all that God has created, of each and every one of us.  God does not favor one over the other, desiring that one prosper at another’s expense.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  You don’t have to be afraid.  This is God’s promise.

We hear God’s promise to Abram in today’s reading from Genesis, too.  This is the first time God promises Abram that he will have children.  God tells him to look at all the stars in the sky.  His descendants will be as numerous as the stars.  And yet, it will be many, many years before that promise is fulfilled.

When I think about Abram going outside and looking at all the stars, with no light pollution, it reminds me of the story of the rabbi who carries a stone in each pocket.  On the one in his left pocket is written,
“You are but dust and ashes.”  And on the other,
“For you, God created the entire universe.”  Both are true simultaneously.

We marvel at the magnificence of Creation and that we are part of that marvelous creation and it is there for us to use and enjoy.  At the same time, we recognize our own existence within that creation – small, brief, yet eternal.

You are beloved of God, loved beyond measure.
You are unique.
And so is everybody else:
The person sitting next to you, the person at work that drives you nuts, the person who supports the other presidential candidate.

This is where we live – in the waiting between the promise and the fulfillment of the kingdom.

When Wes and I went to New Zealand a few years ago, we went to the local Anglican church.  I noticed that in some of the prayers, it referred to the Commonwealth of God, rather than the kingdom.  To me, that seems like such a good word to describe what I imagine it to be like.  Commonwealth points to the well-being of the whole community.

So, how do we choose to live while we are here, in the waiting between promise and fulfillment?

Jesus reminds the disciples of God’s promise and then immediately invites them to live it.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says.  Let go of your fear.  Loosen your hold on your possessions enough to be generous; to share what you have with those who have less.
How much does fear drive our lives?

Jesus invites them and us to live as if the Commonwealth of God is very near, so near you can touch it, you can visit.  We can imagine it.
What if we choose to live as if it’s already here?

It’s not About You

Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish WA on 31 July 2016
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year C

Sometimes, the message of the gospel seems so obvious we’re tempted to say, “got it” and move on.  I think today’s is one of those.  Of course the obvious message is different for different people.
For example, some of you may be thinking, “Got it, Don’t be greedy or Don’t hoard.”
For others it may be, “Got it, Don’t ask Jesus to take sides in my disputes.”
Or “Got it, wealth is fine as long has I have a right relationship with God.”
Still others may think, “Got it, life is short; you can’t take it with you.”
Or even, “you only live once.”
I saw a post online this week, a picture of a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer.

But are we hearing only what we want to hear – the message that justifies our own choices?  Or will we take the time to hear a more challenging message?

Jesus tells a story, but who is it aimed at?  The brother who asked him to intervene?  Or the other brother?  Or the people gathered there?

I wonder how we would hear this story if it were paired with the story of Joseph in Egypt who interpreted Pharaoh’s dream to mean that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine?  Joseph was a hero because he had the foresight to store the grain from the years of plenty so the people wouldn’t starve during the drought.

In that world – in Jesus’ world – famine was a real danger.  Any number of threats could destroy the crops.  That’s really not a part of our experience here in the US.  When people are hungry, it’s because they don’t have the resources to obtain food, not because there is no food.

In that world, though, it was prudent to store food for the winter or in case crops failed or were destroyed.

For a number of years, I have been intentional about trying to eat fresh, local produce.  Fresh, because it tastes better and I think it’s better for me.  Local because I want to support local farmers and to reduce the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere from shipping food from thousands of miles away when there is food available nearby.  But if I am committed to eating locally grown fruits and vegetables, I’m going to have to compromise on eating fresh.  I have to somehow preserve part of the summer harvest to eat in the winter when there is very little to harvest and the farmers’ markets are closed for the season.

The thing is, how much is enough?  We face that question all the time.
Have I had enough to eat?  But it tastes so good!  Maybe just a little more.
Do I have enough money saved to retire?  How much do I save now?  How long will it have to last?  How much is enough?  How much is too much?

How do we distinguish between prudent stewardship and fearful greed and hoarding?  Are we so worried about having enough tomorrow that we don’t take care of the needs of the world today?

But this gospel is not paired with the Joseph story, it’s paired with this passage from Ecclesiastes lamenting the futility of life.  You work and then you die.  It’s all for nothing.  Even whatever pleasure you have is fleeting.

Reading the two together, I see another message:

It’s not about you.  You’re part of something bigger than yourself.

Did you notice that in the gospel story, the rich man is focused completely on himself?  There is no one else in the picture.  It is the land that produces abundantly, but he then talks to himself, his soul, and decides to build bigger barns to store it, all for himself.  At the end, he is chastised not for hoarding, but for not being rich toward God.  And then he dies and the question is asked, “whose will they be?”

Ecclesiastes answers that question.  “I must leave it to those who come after me – who knows whether they will be wise or foolish.”  “One who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.”

The point is, It’s not about you.  It’s not about the worthiness of those who benefit from your toil.  Just like the land does not consider the rich man’s worthiness when it produces abundantly.  We all benefit from others’ toil, regardless of our worthiness.

The point is, we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.  We’re part of a community that continues after we’re gone.  Joseph stored food not for himself, but in order that the people wouldn’t starve during the drought.

We can take that message into our daily lives – everything you do, every decision you make, every vote you cast.  What would God have you do?

It’s not about you.  It’s not about me.
It’s about my neighbor
It’s about my community.
It’s about the good of the world.
And most important, it’s about the good of those who come after me – from generation to generation.