E-Investing: guaranteed ROI

Sermon for Sept 1, 2013, Pentecost +15, 22nd Ordinary, Year C

Luke 14:1, 7–14


On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your

relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The fork goes on the left, the knife goes on the right, and then the spoon, to the right of the knife.   I did not need Jesus to tell me that, I had my mom.


So, did I need Jesus to tell me where to sit at the table or to whom I should send dinner invitations?  The book of Proverbs had already given table seating advice hundreds of years before Jesus, so what’s the point of this text we just read?  Why did Jesus bother with it and why did Luke waste good papyrus on old advice?

Perhaps there are things going on here that are a lot deeper than table seating and guest list advice.  Perhaps Jesus is really getting at deep issues that are crucial for us to hear.  I believe he is.

Jesus and That Table

Of course, on the surface level, it is true that the culture Jesus lived in was an honor-shame culture.  Literally getting the best seat was a point of honor, and being moved out of a good seat really did bring shame.  Everybody knew that.   My brother in law who works in Senegal says that the exact same things go on there today.

But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  First notice the fact that  Jesus is there, unexpectedly, in the home of a Pharisee.  Jesus has already faced stiff opposition from that group according to Luke, some of whom consider him an outright enemy.  But there he is, willing to accept an invitation to eat with them.  While it is true that Jesus considered them misguided about many things, he never wrote them off.  He stayed engaged.  The conversation continued, all the way up to the end.

This is part of the Jesus-way of dealing with enemies.  It is not common today.  We are living in extremely polarized times when genuine dialogue seems rare.  People get shrill, attack each other’s motives and their character.  This may be the way our brains evolved to deal with conflicts as we emerged out of Africa, but we are not primates any longer.  We have choices.

Jesus had real disagreements; he had enemies, but he did not write them off; he stayed engaged.  There he was, at table in a Pharisee’s home on the Sabbath.  Our modern preference to simply perpetuate hostility may make us feel smug and self-satisfied, but it is spiritually immature.  It’s not the Jesus-way.  May we recall that fact, even when the politicians we support use those tactics.



That’s the big picture, now for the details.  Jesus stayed engaged with his enemies, and in that context, he comments about their values. What is at stake in the seating arrangement?  What is at stake in the guest list that is filled out with the goal of return invitations?  At stake is something simple, but profound: ego.  More specifically e-investment: ego-investment.

Here is how ego works: when my sense of being OK about myself comes from a fragile, unstable source, I will always feel threatened and defensive.  And no source of ego-nourishment is weaker than public approval.  Honor and prestige are constantly vulnerable; they can be lost in an instant.  When that is what I am ego-invested in, then I have to be constantly defensive about my public image.  When my ego is invested in status or prestige or superiority, or performance, then the return on investment is guaranteed; guaranteed to be low.

Christian Fundamentals

When Jesus addresses this invested ego situation at the table, he is actually getting at the fundamental building blocks of the Christian life.   The Christian world view turns this whole situation upside down and inside out.  Kingdom values are counter-cultural here.  The Jesus-way looks at the self quite differently.

mask image Image by el_floz on Flickr. Creative Commons License.
mask image Image by el_floz on Flickr. Creative Commons License.

It starts with the understanding that I am not perfect; I make mistakes.  I don’t even live up to my own standards, let alone God’s.  When I fail, I make excuses for myself while judging other people mercilessly.  I come to realize that this too is part of my fallen condition.  I see it, and admit it.

Step one in the  Christian spiritual life is always admitting our own failings.  This is why the message of the coming of the kingdom always starts: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Once we admit that truth, the pressure is off to pretend.  We have no need to hide.

So if spiritual step one is recognizing my own human failings, then step two is acknowledging that if there is any hope at all, it’s got to begin with God’s willingness to embrace sinners like me with mercy.  And that is exactly what God does.

If step one is knowing I’m not perfect and step two is understanding that I’m forgiven by God’s love and mercy, then step three has to be that both of those things are true of you too, and of everybody.  The playing filed is absolutely level.

The Ultimate Round Table


This means that there can only be one possible shape for God’s banquet table: a circle, without head or foot.  There simply are no seats of honor.  And if everyone is invited to the table, then the invitation list is always the same: whoever wants to come, may come.  No exceptions.

If I understand that my ego, my sense of myself is rooted not in the fragility of performance and public approval, but in God’s loving welcome of me, in all of my imperfection, then I am free from the power-game.  If I know that God accepts and loves me, even knowing everything I’m trying to hide from myself and from  others, then I have no need to step on anyone else to feel good about myself.

When we come to know ourselves as people whom God loves, we can stop being ego-invested in being right all the time, in winning, in having control.  We can stop judging and condemning others, and instead, we can extend compassion and understanding.  If we do not feel the need to be self-righteous, we can stop scapegoating bad guys; we can stop the blame-game that produces only losers and never winners.

This is really what God wants: all of God’s children, of all races and conditions,  rich an poor, gay, straight, young, old, conservative and progressives, together at one round table, giving thanks to the one in the center whose mercy and love is infinite and whose welcome is permanent.

How to get there from here: Strategies


This is not the way most people live, and it is not our natural inclination.  We were prepared, by our long evolutionary history, to be vigilant about threats.  Our brains are wired to respond to all threats alike.  Threats to our lives from predators like lions and snakes sets off a defensive, fight or flight response.  This was a survival mechanism that worked for many thousands of years.

The trouble now is that our brains also interpret threats to our sense of well being,  like insults or offenses in the exact same way.  When we feel slighted or challenged, we get angry, defensive, even shrill.  Everything in us seems to work against adopting the Jesus-strategy of mutuality.

It is not enough to learn or even to agree that the Jesus-way of being non-ego-invested in personal honor is right and good.  We need strategies that produce spiritually transforming results; strategies that change our brains.

This is why daily Christian practices are so important.  Without them, we are simply going to be self-serving, best-seat-seeking, neighbor-despising, ego-threatened people.  But with daily practices, especially a daily practice of at least 20 minutes of contemplative prayer can reverse that lizard-brain syndrome.  Now, even neuroscientists see that this strategy is effective.

We can become people of compassion and grace.  We can learn forgiveness and we can be inclusive instead of fearful and defensive.  We can find joy sitting at table with fellow fallible human beings without feeling superior to any of them.  We can find joy in the blessing, of finding our rightful place at a table seated next to, as Jesus said,

“the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  

This is the Jesus-way.

This is our calling.




Atheism and Purpose

Sermon for Aug. 25, 2013, Pentecost + 14, 21st Ordinary C

Luke 13:10-17

 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the


synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Just recently I discovered what my purpose in life is.  Recently something happened that had never happened before, and it changed how I understood my purpose in life.  I will tell you about it in just a minute (and, spoiler alert: it was not a religious experience that revealed my purpose to me), but first I have a question:

Most Christians are Atheists

Are you an atheist?  I hope so.  I was listening to a lecture given recently by one of the outspoken atheists of our day, Sam Harris, who pointed out that most Christians are atheists with respect to the gods of other religions.  So in that sense, I could say that I’m an atheist with respect to lots of other gods, as I’m sure you could too.


This kind of Christian atheism has a long and nobel history.  The early Christians were considered atheists by their friends and neighbors in the Roman Empire.  Most of those people believed in many gods – Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, and there was also, in the days of the New Testament, a growing Emperor cult that put Caesar on the god-list too.  Christians were atheists with respect to all of those gods; they believed there is only one God.

Christians inherited this atheism with respect to other gods from Judaism.  For Jews, Baal, the fertility storm god of the Canaanites was not a real god.  Neither was Shamash the sun god, nor the moon god, nor the gods of the hosts of stars.  Jews knew that only God is God.

Jesus was an Atheist

Jesus was no exception.  Jesus was an atheist with respect to all gods other than the one true God, the God of Abraham whose Hebrew name is “I AM” or Yahweh.

But that’s not all we can say about Jesus’ atheism.  Jesus was an atheist with respect to popular versions of God that people in his time and place believed in.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars, NT Wright, recounts a time when he was a chaplain at Oxford.  He said every year he interviewed each of the incoming freshmen.  Often, he said they would tell him something like “Don’t expect to see much of me, since I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.”


Wright would then ask them to tell him what the god they didn’t believe in was like.  Often they would say the god they did not believe in was like an old angry man in the sky looking down on people, punishing them for being bad.”  Wright would then tell them that he didn’t believe in that god either.  He could have said that he too was an atheist with respect to that kind of God.

Jesus’ Purpose: teaching Torah

I believe that this is exactly what was going on in the story we read from Luke.  Jesus is in the Jewish synagogue, on the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, teaching – which means undoubtably from the Jewish scriptures, or Torah, or what most of us grew up calling the Old Testament.

He knew the scriptures intimately, as we know from his frequent use and deep understanding of them.  He knew about the Sabbath laws forbidding work on God’s day of rest, and he knew all the places where Sabbath is mentioned in the Law and the Prophets.

So what is going on, when, in the middle of his teaching, this poor, bent over lady walks in?  Suddenly Jesus saw a teachable moment.  Luke tell us:


“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Did Jesus get a reaction?  Of course. I think he was actually provoking that reaction; after all, the woman didn’t ask to be healed, nor did anyone else ask him to heal her.  I fact, after 18 years, she was probably resigned to being in that condition for the rest of her life.

But Jesus went out of his way to notice her.  He stopped teaching in mid lesson, took the initiative, addressed her and proclaimed her “set free”.  Jesus had previously healed by spoken word alone, but this time, after his pronouncement, he laid his hands on her.  I think this was part of his lesson: he was reaching out doing something on the Sabbath that he knew would be controversial.

In fact because she had been ill for a long time made it was all the more clear that Jesus was intentionally provoking a controversy.  After 18 years, he could have said “come back tomorrow” and no one would have cried “foul.”  But instead, on that Sabbath day, he reached out and touched her in public.

Teaching about God

What was Jesus doing?  Teaching!  Teaching several things at once that we all need to learn.  He was teaching, first, that he was an atheist with respect to a version of God that was quite popular in his day.  Jesus was an atheist with respect to a the referee kind of God who wears a white and black stripped shirt and a whistle in his mouth, who is simply interested in the rules and who is breaking them.  Jesus did not believe in that god.  Neither should anybody.

Rather, Jesus believed in the God who created each human being, every man, woman, boy and girl, in his own image, in other words, who fathered each one, and  who cares deeply about all of his children.


In fact, going further, God as heavenly Father cares, all the more, for those who are suffering or weak or vulnerable.  He cares about widows and orphans, lepers and hookers, hungry people and sick people; this is what the real God that Jesus believes in cares about.

Sabbath was God’s idea, in order to give these precious children rest from constant work, as if there were no other reason to live.  Sabbath was supposed to be a blessing for people.

How better to teach what the true God is like than by reaching out on this blessed  Sabbath day of rest, and set free this woman from her burdensome condition?  She was, after all, a daughter of Abraham – not just a thirsty donkey.

Teaching about purpose

Did Jesus know in advance that this woman would show up that day?  Or did he simply respond to the opportunity that presented itself to him?   This is something else we learn from this amazing story.   Jesus understood it was part of his purpose to reach out to the woman who showed up in need that day.  By doing that, Jesus was showing us what our purpose is too: to respond as the real God wants us to, to each situation as it happens, in real time.

The kind of God Jesus believed in has a purpose for each one of us which is to be his agents of love and care in real time, as we live, moment by moment.  What is your purpose in life?  If you came here with someone, today that person is part of your purpose in life.  Did you leave anyone at home?  They are part of your purpose.

My purpose in life

I told you that I had recently discovered God’s purpose for my life.  Well here it is; until recently, I did not know that God’s purpose for  my life would include being part of a team of people trying to help a person with a traumatic brain injury.  But Mary (not her real name) showed up, and she became part of God’s purpose for my life.  I had no previous idea that part of my life’s purpose would include phone calls and texts and personal conversations with a person with a traumatic brain injury.  But then she showed up needing help.  Just like that bent over woman showed up while Jesus was getting on with what he had thought was his purpose that day.


Discovering purpose in real time

Sometimes you hear people wondering about their life’s purpose as if it must be grand or global or public to be counted as purposeful.  Where did that idea come from?  God has put all of us on earth for the express purpose of being his agents of love and care for each other.   The real God who is worth believing in is the God who has given us the purpose of extending his love and mercy to the people he brings into our lives, day by day, moment by moment.

God has given us this neighborhood; those fourth and fifth graders who are sent to us by the school for after school tutoring are part of God’s purpose for our life as a church.

God has given each of us this community with its fragile and crucial eco-system; is it not part of our purpose to protect this treasure from degradation?

God has given us this nation, which was, as Abraham Lincoln said,

conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all [people] are created equal.”

Is it not part of our purpose to ensure that equality is experienced by all of us?  Is it not part of our purpose to ensure that the gains made by the civil rights movement 50 years ago are not undermined, and to reverse the erosion of the very voting rights act that facilitated so many of those gains?

Is it not to try to protect our very system of equality that Lincoln spoke of  by an election process that is not entirely undermined by unlimited torrents of dollars?

Is it not our purpose to ask and ask and to keep asking what can be done about poverty in America?

And to keep asking why there are homeless people?

And to ask what the un-employed and under-employed people do when they get sick or injured and need heath care?

Is it to keep asking why disturbed people can still walk into elementary schools with AK47s and 500 rounds of ammunition?

We have many purposes!   Perhaps it starts with limiting the number of hours we spend listening to the people on TV and radio who get paid to keep us fearful, depressed, and defensive.


Perhaps, instead, we need to set aside 20 or more minutes each day to be silently aware of the presence of God in contemplative prayer, restoring our sense of peacefulness and compassion.

Here is our invitation today: to believe in the God that Jesus believed in, and to be atheists, as he was, with respect to the gods of vengeance, score-keeping, judgmentalism and condemnation.  Jesus showed us the God who has a purpose for each one of us: the surprising opportunity to be his instruments of compassion and mercy, every day, moment by moment, in real time.


Sermon After Wild Goose 2013

Lectionary for Ordinary 20, Pentecost +13, August 18, 2013

First, the texts

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved.
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

Luke 12:49-56

[Jesus said:] “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

I had a great time attending the Wild Goose Festival again this year.  The weather was bad – it rained ever day (not fun for me, living in a tent) but everything else was great.  In a world in which participation in organized religious services is in decline, (at least here in the West) it was encouraging to see so many young people enthusiastic about their faith.


This was only the third year this festival has been held in the States, but there were over 2,200 in attendance.  I attended a morning workshop on prayer/meditation held in the “chapel” clearing down at the river bank.  They had set up chairs for 20, but over 60 people showed up – another encouraging sign.  Twice I chose to attend workshops that were already filled beyond capacity before I arrived.

The people who come to the Wild Goose Festival are diverse in many ways, but they share in common a hopeful vision of a future for the church.  Many call this the “Emerging Church” movement.  The church that is emerging in the early years of the 21st Century is different.  She has come through the period of modernism with its emphasis on rationalism, certainty, and its delight in mono-cultures, emerging into the world of postmodernity, with its acceptance of ambiguity, doubt, and diversity.

Ancient-Modern Texts

It is remarkable to me how this situation we find ourselves in is echoed in the texts we have read today.  These texts are hard ones – which fits these difficult times.  But there is hope here, and we need a word of hope today, so let us look at these texts together.

The Hebrew prophet who wrote the poem we read in Isaiah worked with a nature metaphor to convey his or her perspective.  The poem plays with us a bit at first.  We hear it begin as a love song – very similar to the love poetry in the Song of Solomon where the young maiden refers to herself as a vineyard.  Isaiah’s poem begins:


“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard”

The farmer in the poem wants to grow a vine that will produce plump, juicy grapes.  He does everything in his power to help.

“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;”

It sounds like the creation story in which God creates the earth as a lush garden; he has done everything possible to make it perfect.  What he wants most is fruitfulness.  He blesses the first human couple saying,

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”

God, the Victim

Does God get what God wants?  It feels like an odd question to ask, until you realize how frequently in the bible we read that God gets the opposite.  Eden did not stay a perfect garden home to Adam and Eve for long.  The same thing in Isaiah.  The diligent, thoughtful, meticulous farmer expected wine making grapes but the vine, despite his efforts, grew rotten raisins instead.

Over and over again God faithfully provides for his people Israel as the farmer did for the vine, but the outcome is always disappointing – even disastrous.  One of the most difficult bits of theology to want to believe is that God really does allow people to be as bad as they want to be.  He doesn’t magically make bullets into marshmallows or  swords into plowshares.

God is still at it; this is characteristic.  God lets us be as we wish to be, good or bad.  We can be as egotistical, mean and bitter as we want to be; or we can become spiritually mature, experts in forgiveness and love, either way.  God has expectations for us, just as the farmer had for his vineyard, and he has similarly made all the right provisions for our fruitfulness – but he is ready to be the victim of disappointment if that’s what we make him.

God’s Frustrated Goals

What did the farmer in Isaiah’s poem want specifically; and what did he get?

“he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

Injustice, violence, bloodshed, the cries of the victims are the useless rotten raisins Israel produced.  In those ancient, primitive days, the rich got richer, the poor became poorer, and the ethic of neighboring was replace by the Darwinian law of the jungle.  In the end, God allowed Israel to  have what it wanted, with disastrous consequences.


Are We Getting What We Deserve?

Is the church at the dawn of the 21st century in a similar state? Are we now getting what has been coming to us?  Is our present state of decline a natural consequence of abandoning our core values?

We (the church collectively) have for so long, loved playing the power game.  In the past, we were happy to live like country clubs – exclusive memberships, mono-cultures of well-scrubbed, sweet smelling good-people.  No lepers, no lame, no people with known pasts.

Not that long ago we used to shun divorcees, unwed mothers and of course, gay people.  In other words, exactly the type of people Jesus kept company with.  Now, the party is over for that kind of church.  Maybe the church that wants to be as bad as that deserves the fate that follows.

Hope at Wild Goose

But what I saw at the Wild Goose Festival gave me hope that the last word has not yet been spoken.  The church is, after all God’s idea.  There  is a new church emerging, and it is different, and it is exciting.  The Wild Goose is the Gaelic symbol for the Holy Spirit.  It is not a tame little dove, but a free-spirited bird that flies at the beckoning of an unseen instinct.

The church that I see emerging is willing to follow the Spirit in new ways.  The emerging church looks more like a thriving, diverse eco-system than an agribusiness mono-culture.

The new church has discovered the huge hole in the traditional creeds of Christendom that are completely silent about the life and teachings of Jesus.  The emerging church is not willing to say,

“born of the virgin Mary (comma) suffered under Pontius Pilate”

without also saying, in place of a mere comma:

“blessed are the poor in Spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”

Not peace, but a sword

But everyone is not happy about these emerging developments.  Some want the old days so badly they are willing to live with the consequences of decline, even extinction.  This is exactly what Jesus was saying.  If you stand up for something, if you become a threat to old, entrenched power-systems, then expect push-back; expect resistance.  As Jesus asked,

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

There will be people who hear the gospel of radical grace and reject it.  There are people who will disown you in a heartbeat, even if you are in the same family, if you don’t vote with them on election day.  Jesus predicted as much:

“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter…”

In Jesus’ day, one of the dividing issues on the table was the use of violence as a justified means to an end.  The Zealots wanted war with Rome.  Jesus told them it was a fool’s errand.  To live by the sword would be to die by the sword.  Jesus went to his death refusing to lift the sword even in self-defense.  Does God get what God wants?  That strategy got Jesus killed.

Transformation Happens


But “the moral arc of the universe is long, and bends towards justice” as Dr. King quoted.  God redeemed the evil of Jesus’ execution by resurrection.  God is able to make “dry bones breathe” and to “make all things new.”

God can make personal transformations in every one of us who want to become fruitful.  I keep thinking of all those people who came to the river to learn meditative prayer, and all who have come here recently to learn about the slow, steady, transformation that God can make in us, even down to the level of our neurons, when we rest in God’s presence in meditation daily, as a spiritual practice.

And God can, and in fact is, making transformations in his vine, the church.  I saw fruitfulness at the Wild Goose Festival.   I see fruitfulness in many corners of the Presbyterian Church USA, as we become open to being led wherever the Wild Goose Spirit flies.

Discerning the Signs

Jesus concluded this part of the text we read today taking about the weather.

“He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.

He was saying, pay attention; discern the signs.  There is no reason to be caught off guard.  It’s rather a comic coincidence that it rained so much at the Wild Goose Festival this year and that our text today predicts rain.   But we watched the weather reports; we knew what was coming.  I picked up some extra blue tarps, and my tent stayed dry.

I do a good bit of paying attention to the signs in the church and society.  I read a lot of articles, books and blogs.  Nobody has a crystal ball, but nobody needs one.  As Jesus said, the signs are evident if you have open eyes.

What I see is that God is still God.  God is still good.  God still wills our flourishing, our fruitfulness.  God is still capable of transformation, if his people are open to being transformed by the Spirit.  It’s not over until it’s over; and it’s not over yet.  There is a “future with hope” because we are convinced that “If God is for us, who is against us?”  Nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Yes there is resistance: sometimes the Wild Goose flies against the wind.  But she finds her way home.  She flies above fences, walls and borders because they simply aren’t relevant in her world.  Sometimes she flies in a perfectly symmetrical V formation.  But just as often she flies with random, haphazard, disorganization at the edges.  That sounds like the church.  That sounds like my personal life as well, come to think of it.  It’s rather post-modern looking.  Somehow, it works.  I’m in for this emerging flight towards a new looking future of fruitfulness.  You?


The whitewater and slippery rocks of meditation

Think you can’t meditate? Us too! Nobody is “good at it” – everyone has an active brain – but there are easy ways to deal with it, and Amy does a great job of explain them briefly and clearly: have a look:


“But I’m no good at meditating!  I tried it once, and it just didn’t work.  My mind was all over the place.”  I used to think this a LOT when I tried to meditate.  My mind was like a squirrel on speed.  Actually, it still is.  I start out with the very best of intentions and then I wonder what I should wear to church on Sunday, but does it really matter since I’ll have on a robe?  I probably should do laundry, o, but are we out of detergent?  Where’s my Target list?  On my phone.  Where’s my phone?  O, right, I’m meditating.  Dang it, I blew it again.  Where was I?  Should probably just quit.

And that’s just in the first 15 seconds.  What, you too?

Guess what?  No one, and I mean NO ONE is “good” at meditating.  Not ancient desert mothers and fathers of Christian faith. …

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The Secret of a Happy Life

Sermon on Luke 12:13-21 for Pentecost +11 C, August 4, 2013

Luke 12:13-21


Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a

judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and

my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

I received a catalogue advertising books this week.  The titles include:

What on Earth Am I Here For? – a repackaged cover of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, and Who Do You Think You Are?  Others titles, written for the people in this, the richest nation on earth include: You’ll Get Through This, and Soul Detox.  Two more, directed at women: Overextended: and loving most of it,  and Desperate: hope for the mom who needs to breathe.

A newcomer to our culture, reading these titles, would think we were all near psychic despair, unable to answer the most basic questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives, barely making it through the day, and in need of survival advice.   Perhaps they would be correct.

Are We Happy Yet?

We may be the richest nation: are we happy?  Here is a question I ran across this past week: would you rather win the lottery or become a paraplegic?  Sounds like a dumb question, until you learn that actual research on people’s states of happiness reveal that about a year after winning the lottery, the winners report about the same levels of happiness as a sampling of paraplegics.  (see the TED video by Dan Gilbert).

I must make a confession: even after hearing all about the research, even though I can believe that the results are scientifically true, I still don’t really believe I’d be as happy as a paraplegic as I would if I won the lottery.  I have this fantasy that it wouldn’t happen to me, that I would be wise with a sudden windfall, not foolish as so many of the lottery winners seem to be.  I would invest it (after I fixed my roof).  I would put it away for the future.  (Yes, I’m that ridiculous to think I’m a special case).

But isn’t this exactly what the rich fool in Jesus’ parable did?  Put the surplus in the barn?

Trouble with this Text


Yes.  This text is hard to hear.  Hard for me, hard for you, and hard for all kinds of reasons.  First, it seems like the kind of pious nonsense that dreamy-eyed mystics talk about that normal, practical people know is unworkable.  Mystics may not care about money, but the rest of us have bills to pay.

But second, even if we could lay aside the exaggerated aspects of the parable, that is, even if we were not thinking of a filthy-rich person being totally self-absorbed, nevertheless, we all think that his strategy, in general, was actually wise, not foolish.

And the bible does seem to back us up on this.  Didn’t God give Joseph the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream which enabled him to save the country of Egypt from starvation by saving up grain in the lean years?  Was that being a “rich fool”?   In any case, you don’t need a bible verse to tell you what everyone knows: you better save for a rainy day or else you will be caught short-handed.  “Into every life a little rain must fall,” as the song says.

But the deepest reason this text is hard for me is that money really does solve a lot of problems.  There have been plenty of times in my life when I have not had enough.   The first debt I took on was for college tuition.  The second was for emergency car repairs.  Life is expensive.  The fear of not having enough is very real, and it activates very deep and primal parts of our brains.


Psychologists tell us we all have “loss aversion.”  Losing, which we all have done, affects us deeply.  Actually it takes more than double the amount of gain to compensate our brains for the pain we feel of losing money.  If you lose $5 you will not feel OK until you gain an additional $10.  This is not a happy picture.  We are hard-wired to worry about money.

So then, is this teaching of Jesus just pious nonsense?  Or is there something here we need to listen to?  I believe this is powerful, and needed perhaps now more than ever.

A Second Look

First, this is not about saving for a rainy day.  The rich man in the story was already rich, which means he had already made adequate provision for all of his rainy days even before the recent bumper crop was harvested.  He has plenty.  He does not even have the capacity to absorb all of his new surplus.  He has to build bigger barns if he is going to keep it.

How do we relate to this scenario?  Some of us will never have much more than we need to get to the end of the month, and very little stored up for our post-working years.  It’s hard to relate to this rich fool.  We may even feel panic when the subject of money for the future comes up.


But there are others of us who have a lot of resources stored up.  How much is  ever enough?  Why is it that the wealthiest in our country give so little of their incomes to benevolences?  Anxiety about money seems to be a characteristic of shared by both rich and poor.

This is why we all need to hear this teaching.  It cuts to the heart of the issue.  Here is how it starts: People are around Jesus, some recognize his spiritual wisdom and expertise in Torah, the law of Moses, so they approach him as they would a Rabbi with a question.  On the surface, it’s about dividing up an inheritance:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

What did Jesus do and what didn’t Jesus do in reply?  Although the law of Moses has things to say about inheritance procedures, Jesus did not just pull out a verse.  Rather, as he often did, he cut through the surface layer and went right to the heart of the matter.  To Jesus, the question is not fundamentally about inheritance.  It is about what you think the essence of life is.  Jesus answers:

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

What is he saying to the man?  He is saying, in effect, “Your anxiety about inheritance money reveals a deeper issue: you believe that your life and well-being consists in achieving economic security.”


So then, Jesus tells a parable full of exaggeration on all points, to make his point.  An extremely rich man has a bumper crop harvest which gives him what everyone is looking for: sufficient economic resources in order to feel secure.   But listen carefully to the way this rich fool describes his present condition:

‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul (or my self), ‘Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

A life lived in the quest for security based on economics is a self-absorbed life.  How many times did he say “I” and “my”?  He couldn’t even manage to say “…and my family.”  Of course this is also exaggeration, but it is making Jesus’ point.  Seeking ultimate security in economics is soul-poison.

If he thinks this is the way to find a happy, contented life, he has spent his life on a fools errand.  It will not happen.  There no happiness there.  That is not what life is about; solitary self-absorption.  Whether this kind of life comes to an end early, as for the rich fool or late, the end is a tragedy.  A wasted life.  No one to love, no one to receive love from.  “What good are the coins on a dead man’s eyes?” another song asks.  No good, and to no one.

What constitutes a good life?


What does life consist in?  This is exactly the question Jesus is focused on.  From the titles of all those books in the catalogue I just received, you would think that we Americans don’t know!

This is about the oddest situation you could imagine.  The truth is that we all do already know what life consists of. It is a truth that has been proclaimed universally over thousands of years: we are here to love and to be loved, accepting the unchangeable givens of our condition, day by day, moment by moment.

Ask anyone who knows they are dying what is important.  None of them will mention money, possessions, vacations, entertainments or toys, and certainly not ambitions.   They talk about family.  They talk about whom they love the people who love them.  They will have come to terms with their mortality, and put themselves in God’s hands, thankful for each day and each breath as it comes.

What is the secret to happiness?  It is in loving people and knowing that we are loved, in the context of accepting the realities of our finite mortal lives, in real time.  Why does the light of this great truth seem to be such a faint candle in front of the beacon of bank statements and bills?  This is the human condition: that we tend to crave what kills us, and despise as negligible what we most need.  This is the tragedy Jesus came to save us from.

The Alternative

The alternative to this loveless self-absorbed individualism is, as Jesus says, to be “rich towards God”.  The whole Law of Moses could be summed up in what we call “the Jesus Creed”: “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  From start to finish, it’s about love.

Does this influence how we feel about money?  Yes!  Every penny.  All of it is gift.  All the resources we control are given to us as blessings of a generous God who has entrusted us to be faithful stewards.

Being “rich toward God” means valuing as precious what God values as precious.   What he has made is precious to him: people and planet; each other and the world we share.

We live our lives understanding that we are indeed loved: loved by a heavenly Father who cares about us more than we care about ourselves.  And we live knowing that God has given us each other, to love and to be loved by.  God has made us for family, for community, for social cooperation and for bonded commitments.

We never stop with “I” and “my”.  We say “we” and “our” giving love and receiving love, as those who know what the secret to happiness is.