Friday, September 24, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

You're fired!

The Shrewd Manager

Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1; Luke 16: 1-13
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
September 19, 2010

You’re fired: the dreaded words everyone fears in today’s economy (or on the ever-popular reality show, “The Apprentice”). These words have the power to send anyone’s life into a tailspin. Back in the 1980’s or ‘90’s people might have joked with their answer to “What are you going to do now?” by responding, “You know, do some gardening, learn Chinese, play some golf, fix up the summer house.” But nowadays no one is laughing. And more often than not, the answer to the question is a dead serious “I don’t know”.

Many of you know what it is like to be laid off, been fired from your job, had to take fewer hours for the same pay, had to quit because persons were making it difficult for you to continue working, or had to leave work to stay home with your children or to take care of an ailing parent or spouse. Maybe you’ve had to leave work for two or more of those reasons. Maybe you’ve been the one who’s had to do the laying off or to fire someone.

Work provides security in so many ways. First, there’s the income. Some jobs pay more than others, but any job pays better than none. And usually, there’s more than just ourselves depending on that income. What we earn today pays not only for what we need but for any past debt and for the future as well. Second, there’s the feeling of pride, of having a place to go, a person to be. For good or ill, our work becomes part of who we are, how we see ourselves. Who would we be without our work? And then there are the benefits that are on a scale much like our salary. Work has become a safety net with some very wide holes that continue to shift under our feet. We worry that one day we’ll slip right through one of them.

This morning’s gospel lesson sounds like a story from the business pages of the newspaper. Someone from management has been taking from the till and making off with it. The owner of the company has heard from others about his manager and plans to fire him. The manager, thinking only of himself and his future, uses the shrewd mind that got him into this mess and ingratiates himself with his boss’s debtors by discounting what they owe the boss. It all makes sense until we get to the end. The boss commends the manager because of his shrewdness. And then Jesus tells the disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

In these days of BP, GM, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Goldman-Sachs and many others we don’t want to hear about how the government is helping them dig their way out of a very big hole. They dug their hole; let them stay there for a while. But just because some folks did something wrong, we can’t write them off as bad people. We’re all a mixed bag of good and bad, of varying degrees. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God; otherwise our world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in.

When we get upset about this dishonest manager being commended for his shrewdness our sense of entitlement kicks in. “I’ve worked hard, been honest, and I don’t get commended.” We sound like the older brother in the parable about the prodigal son, just before this one. God’s grace sounds like cheating, as though some are getting off easy for their sin. The truth is we have all benefited from God’s generosity. The truth is we all have benefited from the ill-gotten gains of others. We all live mostly comfortable lives with enough to eat, a roof over our heads, some money in the bank, and all kinds of material goods in abundance wherever we shop, never mind where they are made, by whom, and at what price to the environment. What Jesus is asking us is: What are you going to do with this grace, with your ill-gotten gains? Keep them or use them toward the eternal home, that is, the kingdom of God?

Jesus came to point a finger, not to blame, but to get us moving. The words “You’re fired” are strangely more compelling to us than “Follow me”, but both carry with them a sense of urgency. Both send us the bold message that it’s time to let go of the way things are and find another way, using the shrewd mind that got us into whatever mess we have found ourselves in.

There once was a man, a very rich man, a millionaire in fact, who came home one day to find out that his wife was ready to leave him. In response to his wife’s wake-up call, he packed up his family in the car and they headed toward Florida. On the way they met up with some friends in Georgia who then introduced the man to Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms. After having lunch with Clarence, the man and his family stayed on the farm for a month. He then sold all that he had, gave it to the poor, and started an organization called Habitat for Humanity. The man was Millard Fuller.

An addict has ruined her marriage, her health, her career, her friendships, and her bank account. But when she walks into a twelve-step program she can start over again, repair the breach she has made between herself and others and God, and make another life out of the dust of her old one.

Pope Benedict XVI has become known for his expensive attire: red Italian leather Prada shoes, Serengeti sunglasses and ermine trimmed capes and hats. Anne Burke, the leader of the review board set up by the U.S. Catholic bishops to oversee their policies on priests accused of pedophilia, has written to the pope suggesting he wear a simple black cassock for the remainder of his papacy to demonstrate penance for the priest sex scandal.

How we spend our money and our lives makes a direct impact on the kingdom of God. I heard it once said that there aren’t any bad people, only bad, sometimes catastrophic decisions. Jesus is telling us that it’s never too late to change our decision, to decide for the kingdom of God rather than for material wealth and our own security.

Are we going to sell all we have and give it to the poor? Probably not. Are we going to give away our possessions and live an aesthetic life? Maybe, maybe not. But maybe our rich God understands. Maybe our God is merciful as well as just even when we give a lame attempt at serving. Maybe God is waiting for us to use our imagination even just a little when it comes to the kingdom of God, that future that’s planned for all of us.

Perhaps we’re not another Millard Fuller or Mother Theresa. But we could begin to do things differently. While we’re buying ourselves new clothes we could be buying new clothes for the thrift shop. Why should the poor get only our hand-me-downs? Instead of trading in the old car we could give it away to a charitable organization. Instead of going out to dinner, we could write a check for the same amount to the food bank. What would happen if we all raised our pledge by just a dollar week? We have about 60 pledging units in this church. You do the math.

Is God disappointed at our half-hearted attempts at discipleship? Maybe. But maybe God looks at our serving the way a teacher looks at a student’s work: some mistakes but that’s 70% of learning. God looks for progress and for learning from our past ways.

God is also shrewd with us. God is no fool. God is willing to accept even our feeble efforts as a sign of our faithfulness rather than nothing at all. God is looking for a goodwill effort; are we with God or not? We are not working our way into the kingdom but then are we willing to go with God’s flow toward that kingdom or are we working against it?

So whatever you’re doing now for God’s kingdom…you’re fired!

Now what are you going to do?

Monday, September 13, 2010

You are here

1 Timothy 1: 1-19; Luke 15: 1-10
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
September 12, 2010

I was never interested in watching the TV series “Lost”. The premise seemed at the least hopeless. A plane flying from Los Angeles to Sydney crashes on a mysterious, remote Pacific island. The survivors learn that they can’t leave the island and that they all are connected in some way. Through a myriad of plot twists and two separate yet also intertwining timelines, the show took its viewers on a wild ride, getting everyone hopelessly lost in the story and its characters. But this week I did watch the final two episodes of the TV series “Lost”, to see how such a hopeless premise could be resolved. And of course, being lost and then found is the scripture theme.

Of the reviews I read, the consensus was a strange mix of euphoria and disappointment. Some comments left by viewers were rather philosophical while many were full of feelings of being taken down a long road, only to be abandoned with no real answers as to why things happened the way they did. Nobody likes to be fooled or waste their time; nobody likes to be lost.

When you think about it, we’re all looking for some real answers, some meaning and purpose to our lives. Why do things happen the way they do? How much do we contribute to our situation and how much of it is out of our control? What is real and what is just an illusion? Are we fools for believing or not? How far off course are we?

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World calls getting lost a spiritual exercise. She writes, “If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course? …[The] skills are the same: managing your panic, marshalling your resources, taking a good look around to see where you are and what this unexpected development might have to offer you.” [1]

Many of us have heard or read other people’s stories of how getting knocked clean off their course gave them an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, and there are countless other everyday heroes that don’t make it into a book or the newspapers. Many of us not in a twelve step program don’t share with each other our stories of being lost because then we’d have to admit we lost our way, that we stumbled off the path or got blown off it, that for a while there we thought we were alone and didn’t know where we were.

The scariest thing about being lost is feeling like you’re not sure you’re going to get found, if you’re ever going to get off the island. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?” When we first wake up to what is really real, we don’t know where we are. We don’t recognize the way home. But eventually, if we can endure and keep ourselves vulnerable to the moment, rescue does come to us.

My first experience of being lost, and I mean spiritually, emotionally, heart-breakingly lost, was when I was twelve. My father had moved out of the house and my parents were going to get a divorce, the shame of which was very keen in 1977. The year before, we had moved to another town. We had also started worshipping at another church not long before that. That meant new school, new people—I couldn’t imagine being more lost. At one particularly low point, I even contemplated suicide. Even though I had believed in God since I was a young child, I felt as though God had abandoned me and left me on some remote island to fend for myself.

For the next three years, through my freshman year in high school, my father moving to North Carolina and getting remarried, to my mother’s boyfriend moving in, I cried and cursed at and pleaded with God. In youth group I began to make new friends and deepen older friendships, including this guy called Jesus, but I still could not imagine that these people, this Jesus, loved me as I was: miserable, shy and a face full of pimples.

In the fall of my sophomore year I had a dream that changed the course of my life. In the dream I am an observer, watching the drama unfold before me. I see a group of men and women seating about a crude wooden table. Outside the makeshift shack I can hear bombs and shelling, automatic weapon fire, and people screaming. I am aware that there is a civil war being fought and that this group of people is an underground movement comprised of both sides to end the war and achieve peace.

As they are discussing and making plans, there is a loud knock at the door. The leader goes to the door, opens it and I see Jesus standing on the threshold. The leader does not recognize him but instead asks how he may help this stranger. Jesus replies that he has come to help them. The leader welcomes Jesus inside, the group makes room for him around the table, and their discussion continues.

Suddenly a woman’s scream is heard right outside the shack. Everyone rushes outside to find one their group has been fatally stabbed. Jesus picks her up and carries her inside. Jesus lays his hands upon her wound and heals her. Then the wound appears on his body and then he too is healed. The people in the group are amazed at this and ask, “Who are you? What’s the meaning of all this?”

The next morning I woke up and I remembered the dream all at once. I had no idea what it meant, so I called my pastor and asked to talk with him. He was aware of what was happening in my family and he knew how unhappy I was. After listening to me tell him about the dream, he said that there was a civil war going on inside of me, between my anger at God and my love of God. I wanted God to help me but I didn’t recognize him. God would send Jesus to heal me but I had to see what God was already doing in my life.

After that, nothing about my life changed. My parents were still divorced; my father still lived in North Carolina. My mother’s boyfriend was still living with us. I still had a face full of pimples. I still felt like a social outcast. What changed was my heart. What happened was that I turned around and started moving toward God. That’s what it means to repent: to have a change of heart, to turn around and face God.

It meant I had to stop blaming God for the way that my life was. I had to learn to accept my life and to put my focus on God and on the love that was coming into my life. And when one does this, indeed God does rejoice.

From that dream I also heard a call to the ministry, and I thought I could see how my life would go from there. Yet every direction I thought my life would take, my life has taken me somewhere else. I didn’t know how long I’d have my father, but I thought it would be longer than 19 years. I thought I would live on the eastern seaboard but I ended up in Ohio. I thought I would work part-time after having my first child but of the almost 19 years I’ve been ordained, I’ve worked about 8 years. When we moved to Monroe I thought it would be temporary; we’ve lived there almost 12 years now. When I became a pastor, I thought I had walked away from my childhood dream of being an artist, yet sometimes I try to use various art forms as a means of getting people to think about their relationship with God.

The apostle Paul certainly didn’t end up where he thought he would. He thought he was on the side of justice and righteousness when he was rousting out Jewish Christians and having them thrown in prison, but then wound up being God’s number one case history for those needing rescue. I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that if it weren’t if Paul, there may not have been a church, yet he started out ensuring there never would be a church.

AIGA National Design Center, Design Journeys: You Are Here

Do any of us end up where we thought we would be? And does that mean we’re lost? Or could it be that we just can’t see where we are? I truly believe that wherever we are, God is; that there is no place we can go where God isn’t. Every time we try to shake God off our trail or think we’ve lost our way, God shows up in any number of surprising, subtle or life-jolting ways to bring us home.

God comes to us in Jesus to say “You are here. And so am I.” It was that truth that saved me when I was fifteen. It is that truth that continues to save me every day. None of us does this alone. Though there are days the premise of our lives may seem hopeless, though we may feel like we’re on a remote island, there are other survivors with us and all of us are connected in some way. What saves us is not getting off the island but realizing that we’re not alone.

It’s no coincidence that the TV series “Lost” ended in a church, a place of community and faith, all of the characters reunited, greeting each other in joy, forgiveness and healing. Whatever has happened to us, whatever we have lived through, wherever we have ended up, it has all brought us to this place and to this time and to this church. We are here and so is God: that mystery that found us, loved us, forgave us, and has been leading us home ever since.

Woodmont UCC Heritage Sunday, 2010

Even those who may feel lost to us, God is there as much as God is here, and God is leading them home too. We read in 1 Timothy that the whole purpose of what we’re about is to simply love and to live a life open to God. And we have also been given a commission to seek out those who feel lost and alone and help them see where they are, free them from their prison, introduce them to an old friend named Jesus, tell them our stories, and listen to theirs. Simply love. Leave your lives open to God. You are here, and so is God.


1. Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2009, p. 72.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Choosing God

Two Roads Diverged by Wilma J. Lopez

Deut. 30: 15-20; Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
Sept. 5, 2010

My oldest daughter has a standard phrase whenever she teases me and pushes my buttons: “I couldn’t resist, Mom!” Then I give her ‘the look’, she laughs at me, and so it goes.

One day I realized that she was making a choice, that we both were, and that we didn’t have to do the same old thing every time. She said, “Oh, I couldn’t resist, Mom!” I replied, “Oh yes you could. There were two paths in front of you. One was rather ordinary and plain, the other bright and shiny as a penny and you chose the bright and shiny one, you did!”

Every day such choices and possibilities exist before us. Some feel like old habits and ruts, others like a warm, comfortable piece of clothing, some like that bright, shiny penny, others seem empty of any kind of thrill or joy. If you think about it, our whole reality is created, moment by moment, by our choices. What we think, what we feel, what we do. What our attitude will be, what kind of mood we’re in, whether or not we’ll be annoyed or just amused by someone’s actions. And from these choices come a myriad of possibilities.

We’re convinced that we’ve been conditioned in some way to respond, to choose the way we always have. We were raised a certain way, with certain values, a mix of good and bad experiences. How can we change the past, we say, as a way of avoiding changing the present. Most of the time, we don’t like knowing that we’re co-creators of our reality. It would mean we would have to take some responsibility for shaping the way things are.

John Calvin, a 16th century theologian and Protestant reformer, believed that before the creation, God predestined the fate of the universe; that some of God’s creation was made for grace and salvation and some of it was not. Yet humankind was also given free will and the choice to reject that saving grace.

In the readings from both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, God’s people are given a choice, between life and death, good and evil, blessings and curses, listening to God’s messenger or ignoring him at their peril. It hardly sounds like free will. Life or death? That sounds like a no brainer! And yet listen to the next verse in the reading from Jeremiah: “But they'll [God’s people] just say, 'Why should we? What's the point? We'll live just the way we've always lived, doom or no doom.”

Fear has never really worked as a coercive to get us to choose the next right thing. It’s also given the God of the Hebrew scriptures a really bad, undeserved rap. Actually, Deuteronomy and Jeremiah were written during and after the Babylonian exile, after the bad choices had been made, after the doom had happened. God’s people, in retrospect, realized that their stubbornness and their unwillingness to be shaped by God led to their destruction. And yet God continues to reach out to God’s people, again and again, offering life, blessing and goodness when we would rather die than surrender.

33 Chilean miners mark a month underground - NPR story

It’s words like surrender, obedience and repentance (change of heart) that make faith leave a bad taste in our mouths. In the words of the poet William Ernest Henley we like to think that we are the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul. We are when it comes to our attitude and our outlook on life; no one can choose that for us unless we give them that power. But resisting God will do us no good. Though we may be able to master our moments, God is the master of all space and time and we do indeed ignore that life-giving wisdom at our peril.

God is the master-potter, an artist working with an ever-changing medium called the creation. God is still discovering how to work with us earthen vessels, still shaping us, still creating us and creating through us. There are still possibilities untold: everlasting peace, the end of hunger, poverty, violence and oppression, a new heaven and a new earth but also destruction, torment, death, extinction. What will we choose? Which path will we take? What do our choices about how we live speak to the God to whom we still need to surrender?

Don Valente, son of Doña Rosa, at the Doña Rosa pottery studio in Oaxaca, Mexico

All it takes is one step: one step toward life, one step toward blessing, one step toward God. In any twelve step program one does not agree to do all twelve steps—just to begin with the first one. And that first step is all about surrender, that God knows better than we do how to end the insanity and how to begin to live. Author and Quaker Parker Palmer wrote that faith is less about taking a big leap and more about taking one more step. It’s all about doing the next right thing, whatever that may be.

What is the next right thing to do, the next step toward God, that you need to take in your life and in your life together? In what ways do you still resist God and God’s desire to be in relationship with you? Though God may not be necessary for a life lived for good, why not live with spiritual companionship that accepts you as you are and yet prods you off yourself? What are some habits, some old ruts that need to be replaced with spiritual practices such as service, study, prayer, and giving?

Our choices shape who we are and whose we are. Will we put ourselves into God’s hands and allow God to mold us and use us or will we resist and grow hard and unmalleable? When we choose God and God’s kingdom of compassion, justice and peace for all, we are shaped into a vessel that can be used toward that kingdom. Every time we choose God, that kingdom becomes more than a possibility. It becomes more and more visible, more and more a reality. And all it takes is just one step, one choice at a time.