Monday, July 25, 2016

The Rich Fool

When I was growing up, I was forbidden to call someone "a fool".  My mother had a very literal interpretation of the Bible and there is a verse in the King James Bible that says "...whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."  (Matt. 5:22)  So, if we called anyone a fool, we would get called onto the carpet and have to repent because it is there in plain red type (Jesus' very words) that anyone who calls someone else "a fool" is in danger of hell fire.  My mother wanted to be sure that I did not go to hell for the words I said so she was the word censor in our house.

I strayed away from her literal interpretation of the Bible and in modern times have occasionally used the word "fool" to describe someone.  I normally do not use that word directly to the fool I intend to label but behind his or her back as I talk about them to someone else (another sin I rack up).  The reference to someone as being a "fool" or "foolish" seems to describe someone's lack of common sense and misunderstanding of a situation or the world in general.  I think that if we use the word cautiously and do not do it to someone's face or hearing then perhaps the use of the word "fool" is acceptable in a non-King James' world.

Besides God, God's-self uses the word to describe a human in our Gospel lesson for next Sunday from Luke 12.  Jesus tells the parable about "The Rich Fool" (see there is it again, Jesus using the word this time) in response to a request from someone that Jesus order a brother to give another brother what he deserves from an inheritance.  Jesus does not do what the person requests but instead tells him a parable about a rich farmer who had so many possessions that he had nowhere to store them all so he decided to tear down his barns and build larger barns so as to store all he had.  Then, he congratulated himself on all he had and told himself to take it easy and eat, drink, and be merry.

God's voice is heard in the parable and God (again) calls the man a fool and says that he will face the judgment and then what will happen to all of his possessions.  Whose will they be after he is gone?

This parable is not about the danger of having riches.  It is not about being rich versus being poor.  It is about values and generosity and making right choices when it comes to possessions.  Jesus and the Early Church were supported by people of all income levels, rich and poor.  Sometimes, a wealthy person would host Jesus at a meal.  Sometimes wealthy people allowed Church services to be held in their homes as the Early Church emerged.  Jesus valued all persons and did not preach against people having wealth.  He taught against people being self-centered and not sharing with others who have little.

The rich farmer was a fool because he thought only of himself and never of anyone else.  He did not even think of those who worked for him who grew the crops and built the barns.  He most likely had slave labor and considered them his property also.  So, he thought all he had was because of his own doing and he could benefit from all of his possessions and take it easy on his forever retirement plan.  What he forgot was that he would not live forever.  He would one day die and then who would benefit from what he owned?

Giving away part of what we own is part of what it means to be a good steward of what we have.  We have all been abundantly blessed beyond our capabilities.  We have been given good health, strength in our bodies to accomplish our tasks, and a support group of friends and relatives to cheer us on to great things.  What we have accomplished is in part due to all these benefits so it is only natural to return part of what we have to bless others who have little.  We do this in many ways--through our church as we give our tithes and offerings, through charitable organizations, and through reaching out to those in need whom we recognize in the world around us.

Thank God for those who have generous hearts and who give so that others will be blessed.  When we keep all we have so that only we benefit from our blessings, we turn inward.  When we share what we have, we turn outward and toward God.

John Wesley urged his followers to "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can."  Words to live by both in his time and in the world in which we live.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Bother to Pray?

That is a question many people ask as they try to sort out what prayer is and how prayer works and does prayer actually do anything for anyone.  Is God really concerned with what goes on in our lives or is God just the "watch-maker God" as some have said in the past, creating the product and then standing by to see what happens as it works?  That question has been pondered through the centuries and, as is true with many faith issues, it seems to be a matter of faith.  Do you believe in a God who cares about humans and desires to act on behalf of humans or do you not believe at all or believe that God is but God does not really care?

That is part of why the Gospel lection for this next Sunday is so important.  It contains the prayer that many of us say weekly in worship, the prayer we call "The Lord's Prayer".  It also contains a short teaching story, perhaps you can even call it a parable, and a teaching passage about the nature and character of God.

Jesus was involved in his own prayer time when his disciples asked him to "...teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples."  (Luke 11:1)  What follows through verse 4 is what we call The Lord's Prayer, containing all of it except the conclusion that was added later by the Church during its history.
Each phrase of The Lord's Prayer deserves its own sermon or posting but suffice it to say that many consider it to be a complete summation of the needs of the one doing the praying and an opening of one to God's will for one's life.  Praising God, asking for one's daily needs to be met, asking for forgiveness as one attempts to forgive others, and asking for God's guidance to avoid the many trials of life are petitions that touch each part of human life.  Then to pray the parts that are not found in Luke's Gospel add even more meaning to the pray we say together in worship weekly.  "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven" opens the one praying to the completion of God's intent in both the life of the pray-er and the world in general.

Then Jesus tells a story about a man who has settled down for the night with his household when suddenly a friend knocks on his door asking for food.  The drowsy sleeper at first tries to tell the seeker to go away giving him the reason that everyone is already in bed.  The friend will not be deterred though, needing some bread to offer a guest so as not to be rude.  Jesus concludes that even if a person will not grant the request of a friend simply because one is a friend, the person will grant the request so as not to be bothered further.

Then, Jesus teaches his disciples to ask for what they need.  God will give them what they need because God is good, as earthly parents should be, giving good gifts to children such as fish or eggs and not bad things such as scorpions or snakes.  Jesus concludes that if earthly parents can give good gifts to their children, then why should humans think that God would not give good gifts to God's children.  He sums up the passage with idea that God is always willing to give what is needed through the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans.

So, if one believes that God exists and one believes that God is good to humans and wants them to have what is good for them, then why shouldn't humans ask God for what they need, relying on God's wisdom to grant requests according to God's will and intent?  (Remember in the Lord's Prayer--"thy kingdom come, thy will be done...")  Prayer is the thing we do when we want to include God in our lives after we have done all we can do and seem to be at the end of our own resources, so we pray and ask God to intervene.  Perhaps Jesus is teaching that a relationship exists between humans and God much like the relationship between parent and child and that relationship includes the giving of good gifts between parent and child.  The relationship should be enough reason to talk to God even as we talk with humans with whom we have a relationship.

God does not promise to give humans everything they ask for.  God promises to give humans what they need for daily living.  What we think we need and what we actually need to survive creates a giant chasm that often blocks our relationship with God.  Even when we think what we needs is best for us or others for whom we pray, God seems to know best what we need.  Trusting God to act according to our needs may be the biggest test of faith in an invisible God for it involves giving control over to another and humans rarely like doing that.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Keeping a Balance

"Marsha, Marsha, Marsha..."  Most of us remember that chant of a name from the television program The Brady Bunch.  Poor Marsha was always getting into a pickle and sometimes out of frustration someone would say her name repeatedly and with a certain tone.  It seems that when one's name is said in a certain fashion that it carries more meaning or weight, such as when a parent uses a child's first and middle name to call them.  That often means that someone is in hot water.

Jesus loved to visit with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  They lived at Bethany, only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, but it must have seemed light years away from the noise and confusion of the big city to Jesus.  He could simply be their friend and could sit with his feet up and enjoy socializing with people who accepted him for who he was.

The Gospel lesson for next Sunday from Luke 10 has a vignette of a visit from Jesus to the home of his friends.  The two sisters were in the house tending to the needs of Jesus and perhaps preparing a meal for him.  Lazarus is not mentioned in this story.  Perhaps he was gone on a journey or taking care of chores somewhere away from home.

The story says that Martha is busy with the many tasks that needed to be done so that Jesus could be properly entertained.  Perhaps she was cleaning or cooking a meal.  Her sister, Mary, however was simply sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him talk.  The text does not tell the content of the conversation.  Maybe he was telling her stories about his ministry or just talking about life in general as two friends often do.  Martha noticed that Mary was not helping her in the chores that needed to be done and complained to Jesus about it.

"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to help me."

Jesus, instead of coming to Martha's rescue, gently challenges her thinking.  Here comes the repeating of her name as he does it..."Martha, Martha..."  We do not know the tone of Jesus' voice but I can imagine that he is weary from his ministry and perhaps there is a slight weariness in the way he addresses her.  " are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of one on thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."  (Luke 10:41-42)

Jesus was trying to tell Martha that she had been busily working around the house making sure that everything was perfect for Jesus as the honored guest she thought he was.  She wanted to be sure that all of his needs were met and that everything was to his liking.  Jesus, however, wanted only one thing--to rest and sit and talk with his friends.  Whatever they ate and whatever the house looked like was not important to him.  His relationship with these friends and the opportunity to be with them was much more important than those extraneous factors.

Can't you just sense Martha's despair after hearing these words of Jesus?  She had expected him to come to her rescue and command Mary to get into high gear and help with the chores.  Instead, he defended what Mary had chosen to do and commended her for sitting with him and talking.  Mary was giving her full attention to her friend and also did not care about other factors.  She simply wanted to be with her friend whom she loved so much.

The example of the two sisters in this story are a metaphor for life for many of us.  We have to have a balanced life, full of activity to take care of the chores of life but also must include times of simply sitting and resting and meditating on what is needed to give us emotional and spiritual strength.  There is a reason we have a Sabbath built into our week each seven days.  God chose to be busy in the task of creation but then rested the final day to admire what he had created.  God commanded the people of Israel to follow the same pattern as they lived their lives.  To this day, devout Jews set aside the seventh day of the week as a day of rest and worship and being with family.  It is too bad that many Christians have decided that their Sabbath is not needed and instead they can spend it busily doing chores or activities that they can do any other day of the week.

Sunday is the day of rest for Christians because they honor the resurrection of Jesus and follow in the pattern of early Christians who met on the first day of the week instead of the seventh because Jesus rose from the day early on Sunday morning.  Sunday just has a different feel about it.  It is as if nature and even society are inviting all to pause and rest and worship on this day.  People need rest, and reflection and community...all these are found in gathering with others on the day of worship set aside by Christians.

Many in society today say they do not need to go to church in order to be Christians.  Even members of churches neglect to go to church because they do not feel the need to be with other Christians regularly on the day of worship.  Perhaps Jesus would say their name gently, wearily, admonishing them with love, the way he always does, guiding them into reconsidering so that they can be refreshed, renewed, and encouraged in spirit by being part of something much larger than themselves that they cannot find anywhere else in the world around them.

"Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)