Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sexy Sadie

Sermon preached March 20, 2011

Texts: Psalm 46 (Hymnal page 780)

Play a bit of The Beatles “Sexy Sadie.” Do any of you know who that song is about? Do any of you remember the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? How about Transcendental Meditation? Beginning in the mid to late 1960s, Eastern forms of meditation became something of interest here in the United States, and in some ways they have remained of interest to many people. The Beatles traveled to India to meet with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to learn meditation. The song is about the Maharishi. The Maharishi came to the United States to teach meditation here, even establishing a university in Iowa.
Why should Eastern meditation have gained a foothold here, in a country where Christian faith is so prevalent, in a country whose roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition run so deep? I am sure there are many reasons for this interest. We are a culture that is attracted to the new, and sometimes even the exotic. Another reason I surmise is that some were looking for a certain experiential dimension to their spirituality that they were not finding in Christian practices. Growing up, “meditation” was never something I heard about in my church.
But, you might be surprised to know that it is there. There is a rich tradition of Christian meditative prayer practices that can be an important part of our prayer lives as Christians. If Transcendental Meditation caught the attention of a number of people in the late 1960 and 1970s, perhaps it is also because the church had neglected some of its own meditative traditions. They are worth recovering.
Yet when I think about this, isn’t meditation an odd fit with an understanding of prayer that sees relationship and transformation at the heart of prayer? That was my sermon last week, that the heart of prayer is found in relationship – deepening one’s relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, and in transformation – being changed by the God whose love we know in Jesus Christ. Where might meditation fit into this understanding of prayer?
Meditation often uses repetition in prayer and that isn’t necessarily the best style of communication. Repeating usually isn’t a good thing in communication. If you have to repeat yourself too many times, you wonder if your partner is listening. Or if you hear your name repeated more than twice, there is usually impatience in the tone. David, DAVID, DAVID!
However, I think models of human communication break down here when we want to discuss communication with God. In her book In God’s Presence, Marjorie Suchocki writes that “God’s guidance… is an insistent whisper” (123). If we want to listen to God, it requires quieting down in a noisy world. It requires close attention in a world where distraction reigns. Prayer as meditation understands this. Prayer as meditation deepens relationship because its foundation is openness to God’s grace. We find a home in that grace in the quiet prayers of meditation. Meditation affirms God’s grace and quiets us. Meditative prayer turns us toward God and tunes us in more deeply to God.
Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing within you” (quoted in Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 59) Henri Nouwen, who quotes Theophan goes on to reflect, “the quiet repetition of a single word can help us descend with the mind into the heart” The Way of the Heart, 64). That’s meditation, that’s meditative prayer – to use words sparingly, repetitively to descend with the mind into the heart and there encounter God in deep and profound ways.
Contemporary Orthodox author, Federica Mathewes-Green, writes this about praying the Jesus Prayer, about which I will say more in a minute: In the process you hone your ability to discern God’s presence. He is already there, of course; we just aren’t very good at perceiving it. Practicing the Jesus Prayer helps you sharpen your ability to “tune into” his presence, just as you would practice your scales to hone your ability to identify musical pitch (The Jesus Prayer, x-xi). The Jesus Prayer is a part of an important prayer tradition within Christian faith, “hesychasm,” from the Greek word “hesychia” meaning “quietness.” It is a tradition of meditation, of contemplative prayer.
So if this sounds interesting, intriguing, how does one begin? The rest of this morning’s sermon is going to be experimental and experiential. You are going to learn some forms of Christian meditation.
Psalm 46:10a: Be still and know that I am God. These simple words can become a wonderful meditative prayer, a prayer of deep gratitude for God and God’s love and grace. Pray the words one at a time forward and backward.
The Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me – was developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine in the early centuries of the Christian faith and the Christian church. It has been practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church since. (Mathewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer, ix). Many have testified to its power, like St. Hesychias the Priest (8th or 9th century): Extreme watchfulness and the Prayer of Jesus Christ, undistracted by thoughts, are the necessary basis for inner vigilance and unfathomable stillness of soul, for the deeps of secret and singular contemplation, for the humility that knows and assesses, for rectitude and love. (The Philokalia, I: 164).
Use of beads. One can use prayer beads with prayers like the Jesus Prayer. The use of prayer beads is found in many traditions, and in both the Catholic rosary tradition and the Orthodox hesychasm tradition. Another wonderful repetitive prayer that works well with something like prayer beads is this: Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace, fill my heart with your love, fill my soul with your joy.
Body prayer: Meditation can use the body instead of or with words. Writing about praying the Jesus Prayer, Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia (14th century) wrote: Do not neglect prostration…. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies (Philokalia, IV: 185). Using our body in prayer is an important meditative technique. I once taught this body prayer, and would like to teach it to you again:
1. Create a sacred space by bringing your hands together in front of you. Be enveloped in silence and peace.
2. Stretch your arms up in praise of God and in gratitude to God for the good gifts of life.
3. Bring your arms down just a bit, forming yourself into a human chalice to receive from God blessings and peace and grace.
4. Cross your arms in front of you, letting God’s grace and peace and love penetrate deeply into your heart and mind and soul. Know that you are loved by God just because you are.
5. Open you arms in service to the world. We are not meant to hoard the good gifts of life, but to share them, to give ourselves to others in love.
6. End with the sacred space stance.

The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation. Meditation, meditative prayer, can enhance relationship and transform our lives. When our lives our different, we can make a difference in the world. Meditative prayer is not the only kind of Christian prayer there is, and is not intended to be the only kind of prayer we pray. Yet it has its place in our lives, in our relationship with God. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Think of this river as a river of God’s grace, God’s peace, God’s love. Think of meditative prayer as allowing yourself to bathe in this river, allowing yourself to float in this river, making God glad. Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Because I Said So

Sermon preached March 13, 2011

Texts: I Thessalonians 5:12-17; Romans 8:26-27; Psalm 42:1-6a

This first part is just for parents. How many of you ever heard your parents say to you, “Because I said so”? And how many of you determined, when you heard that, that you would never use that phrase with your own children? And how many of you have found yourself saying to your child, “Because I said so”? Hey, there are times when it just works!
Our Lenten emphasis this year is prayer. Already I have preached on prayer as we headed into Lent – last week, and as Lent began on Wednesday, and now I begin a specific series of sermons on prayer. I invite and encourage you to read along with others Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, In God’s Presence.
But we could begin all this with a simple question. Why pray? Some might answer, “Because I said so” – the “I” here being God. That seems like a pretty powerful “I.” Why pray – because God tells us to. I Thessalonians 5:17 is read as an imperative, a command, “pray without ceasing.” Pray because God tells you to, end of story.
Let me suggest that this is not a very good reading of I Thessalonians 5:17, which seems much more a word of encouragement and invitation than a commandment, nor does this response to the question “why pray?” reflect a very mature kind of faith. “Why pray?” is a legitimate question. So, too, the question “What is the essence of prayer, what is the heart of prayer?” Let me further suggest that in answering this second question about the heart of prayer, we come pretty close to answering the first.
So what is the heart of prayer? On Wednesday evening I said that prayer was our spiritual breathing, as necessary for the health of our souls as breathing is for the health of our bodies. I believe that to be true, and it gets at the question of the heart of prayer, but does not answer it as completely as it needs to be. When we say that breathing is necessary for the health of our body, we can go deeper and describe the biochemistry of the human body and its need for oxygen and how the body uses oxygen from the atmosphere that it takes in during breathing. When I say that prayer is our spiritual breathing, I have not gone quite as deep. I have not yet described what this does for the soul which keeps it alive and healthy.
So what is the heart of prayer? Two words: relationship and transformation.
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Psalm 42:1-2). At its heart, prayer is about a relationship with God, an on-going relationship with God. When we neglect our relationship with the God who created us in love and for love, something is amiss in our lives. St. Augustine wrote about God, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (Confessions, I.1) It is as if we have this empty place in our souls that only God can find and occupy. Prayer is an acknowledgment of this longing for God, of this place we have for God in our hearts and souls. Prayer is also to come to understand something else Augustine wrote – God thirsts to be thirsted after (quoted in Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 85)
Prayer is about relationship. One of the real gifts of Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, is the emphasis she places on prayer as relationship, as genuine give and take between a God whose very nature is relational and we human beings. Prayer is openness to the God who pervades the universe and therefore ourselves, and … prayer is also this God’s openness to us (18) …. Prayer is the act of bringing our moment-by-moment connectedness to God into our consciousness (33). Prayer is “a dance of the divine presence” (32).
God is in relationship with us, by God’s very nature. God desires that relationship to be more aware, conscious, intentional on our part. God thirsts to be thirsted after. For our part we need that relationship to God because of the God-shaped space in the depth of our lives. Prayer is about this relationship, and here is one more thing. God doesn’t just wait for us to wake up, God actively invites the relationship of prayer. Saint John Climacus described the dynamic in this way: When fire descends into the heart, it revives prayer. And when prayer has arisen and ascended to heaven, then the descent of the fire takes place in the cenacle of the soul. (Zaleskis, Prayer, 143) God’s grace is the fire that comes into our hearts and invites prayer, and as we respond with prayer, that fire of God moves more deeply into the soul. God is so desirous of a deepening relationship with us that God not only initiates that relationship again and again, God even helps us with the language of prayer – God’s “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” Paul tells us.
If relationship is one chamber of the heart of prayer, transformation is the other. Again, Marjorie Suchocki writes wonderfully about this. Prayer also opens us to the possibility of change, with the direction of that change oriented by God’s wisdom relative to us (33)…. Recognition of God can enhance our ability to live lives of peace, justice and beauty (18). When we pray, we should expect to be made different by our praying. In that sense, prayer is risky business. The God who will not leave us alone, will not leave us the same, either. When we open up honestly to God, we may discover wounded places inside, the healing of which will mean change. Connecting with the heart of God may open our hearts in new ways to the hopes and hurts of the world, and we may find that God is inviting us to do something about them. Prayer may not only change us, but the God we encounter in prayer also wants to change the world through us.
Prayer changes us… it leads somewhere specific and is not just an aimless wandering with no discernable purpose in mind. Its purpose is exposure to everything that is in us and the willingness to receive the inevitable changes that come as a result (Ulanovs, Primary Speech, 116). These words about prayer from Ann and Barry Ulanov are another confirmation that transformation is at the heart of prayer. It is an adventure that shapes the adventurer. It is a journey that leaves the explorer changed by what she has met along the way.
Pray without ceasing. It is an invitation to a relationship with God. It is an invitation to be changed, transformed, but the love of God and the God of love. If you are wondering how – read and discuss Marjorie Suchocki’s book and come to worship in the coming week.
To end with, I want to offer a testimony to the heart of prayer. I wrote about it earlier this week on my blog. A couple of weeks ago now, I was meeting with our Board of Ordained Ministry as we interviewed persons for ordination. We meet at a Catholic monastery and retreat center, and our evening worship is shared in their chapel. This particular night, the following passage was read from Colossians: As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do , in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.As I listened to these words, I was looking up at a crucifix at the front of the chapel. The figure of Jesus grabbed my attention in a way that a crucifix never had before. There was Jesus, lightly clothed, yet I knew him to be fully clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love. And there was this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to embrace this Jesus, to offer compassion. I could almost feel myself doing this, that I was helping carry Jesus. There was an oddly wonderful physical sense to all this, but there was more. As I feeling the presence of Jesus in this powerful way, it was as if that presence was becoming part of me, penetrating my being. It did not last long, but it was powerful. Theologically and spiritually I could make sense of all this – in life I want to clothe myself with this Jesus, to let his presence make a difference in who I am. I want to carry Jesus into the world – offering compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.
This was a powerful moment of prayer. It was a moment of grace, a moment of closeness to God in Jesus. It was an important moment along a transformational journey. A relationship was deepened, and I am changed a bit. I am moved more profoundly to seek to embrace the Christ in me and to offer the Christ in me to the world. That is the Christian task for all of us, and prayer is a vital part of that – not because I said so but because you can test it out. Amen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To the Cloud

Sermon preached on Transfiguration Sunday March 6, 2011

Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

What are some of the annual events in your life?
Every year there are things that roll around, and some bring us joy and some we dread. Last Sunday was the Oscars – the Academy Awards, our family enjoys those. I look forward to the opening of the baseball season and the World Series. I enjoy the Super Bowl and the Master’s golf tournament. Birthdays are often fun occasions, birthdays and anniversaries – though I know some birthdays are more difficult to take than others and if you have forgotten anniversaries often enough they are as much about panic as joy. We tend to dread annual events like tax day, or dental check ups or, perhaps physical exams. Every year I get my colon scoped – and this would be a great time for someone to hold up a TMI sign – too much information! Some annual events are painful because they bring with them the memory of a significant loss.
The church, of course, has its share of annual events – Christmas and Easter being among the most well-known and joyous. Confirmation is nice, and we could list others as well. But did you know that for those of us who in our preaching and worship use the ecumenical common lectionary – a three-year cycle of Scripture readings, one text comes up every year just before the beginning of Lent? It is the story of the transfiguration, the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up the mountain, and of their extraordinary experience of him and with him. It is a story about visions and clouds and voices.
And you know, it is an interesting story, but finding something to preach about every year using this story, well, it can be a bit of a challenge. There are a number of directions one can take: one could focus on a theological theme, preaching a Christological sermon about the nature of Jesus as the Christ. Often I have taken the tack of emphasizing the importance of going down the mountain. In our lives we may have some intense religious experiences, perhaps mystical experiences, where God seems closer to us than our own breath or heartbeat. Those experiences matter, but we are not to live as if they are all that matter. We cannot stay up on the mountaintop forever, as Peter seems to want to do. We need to go back down into the everyday life of the world, changed by what we have experienced on the mountain. There are many ways to talk about this, but they all end with the need to go down the mountain.
This year I want to turn that sermon on its head. One of the lessons of the story of the Transfiguration, and of the companion text from Exodus, is our need to go up the mountain, our need to make time and take time out and away to tend to our relationship with God, to nurture our relationship with Jesus. The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain.” Jesus took with him Peter and James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. I believe that God invites us up the mountain today. I believe Jesus wants to take us away for some time. We call this time, “worship.” We call this time “prayer” – our focus for the this morning.
Maybe some of you have seen these ads recently for a Windows computing platform. They end, “To the Cloud.” Apparently this technology lets you find files on your home computer while you are stuck in an airport. This technology lets you cut and paste your photos, so you can still have a wonderful family photo even if some family members were not paying attention when the picture was taken. Some of you have seen the ads. “To the cloud.”
Well, God in Jesus says something similar to us – to the cloud. Come away. Take some time. While this may be time away from other aspects of our lives, it is not an evasion of reality. Cloud computer technology promises to make waiting at airports more fun and interesting. Cloud computer technology promises that you can perfect your family in pictures. Computer technology may want to soften reality for us. Going to the cloud with God moves us more deeply into reality – the reality of our lives, the reality of God.
Barry and Ann Ulanov in their book about prayer entitled Primary Speech, write this: In prayer we say who in fact we are – not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are. Prayer begins with this confession. (1) In prayer we meet our deepest desires, our highest hopes, our darkest fears. In prayer we come clean with ourselves – where we have done well and where we have been wanting. But prayer is not a solo act, it is a relational endeavor. The great Jewish theologian of the last century, Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, The purpose of prayer is to be brought to God’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by [God]…. [ The human task] is not to know God, but to be known to God (The Insecurity of Freedom, 256). I am not sure he has it entirely right, but this is important. When we take time away for God in prayer, we have the opportunity to hear the deepest hopes and cries of our hearts and souls. Coming to know ourselves more deeply in prayer, we discover that there is also the God who wants to know us, who already knows us. Our praying is not crying out in the dark emptiness of night with only the wind to answer. Our praying is to God and with God; it is a response to an invitation to the cloud.
In prayer we come to know ourselves more deeply and we come to know that there is One who listens deeply. Ulanovs: God hears all the voices that speak out of us – our vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising from our hearts, the many voices of which we are not conscious but which cry out eloquently (1). We take time for God not only to speak, but also to know we are heard.
And the God who listens also speaks. Theologian Paul Tillich: No place is excluded from communicating to us a word from the Lord. It is always present and tries to be perceived by us. It is like the air, surrounding us… trying to enter every empty space. Tillich goes on to say: So… is there an empty space in your soul?... Without a soul opened for it, no word from the Lord can be received. Listening with an open soul, keeping an empty space in our inner life, sharpening our spiritual hearing: this is the only thing we can do. (The New Being, 123-124)
Have you left some space in your life to hear and respond to the voice of God – “Come up to me on the mountain”? In prayer we come to know ourselves more deeply and come to know that we are known deeply. In prayer we come to discover that we are listened to, and we find that we can listen to God.
Pay attention. Take time. Pray. I hope one of the ways you will make some time for God this Lent is to be part of our congregational book study of Marjorie Suchocki’s book In God’s Presence. Copies are available. I hope you will consider participating in a reading group with others. Sign-up and you will get an e-mail or phone call about group possibilities. Right now we have three groups, a Wednesday group, a Monday group, and a group that will be meeting starting next week during Faith Forum for three weeks. Chapters 1-3 for next Sunday! Sunday sermons during Lent are also going to focus on prayer, and as a compliment to the book. The book focuses on the what and why of prayer followed by forms of prayer. The sermons will discuss the what and why of prayer and focus on various methods for praying – some overlap and some complimentary material.
Regardless, of whether or not you choose to participate in this particular way of taking time for God, find ways to do it. Yes, we need to know that there will be work to do down the mountain. The love we feel when listened to in prayer is a love that needs to be shared. We do come down the mountain. Yet time on the mountain is not idle time, not wasted time. Without it our hearts can become discouraged in the work of love and justice in the world. Without it, our souls can wither, and our work can become soulless. We need time with God, and the invitation from the God who knows us, listens to us, and has a word for us is always there. To the cloud. Amen.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dollars and Sense

Sermon preached February 27, 2011

Texts: Isaiah 49:8-16a; Matthew 6:24-34

A priest walked into a pub and was indignant to find so many of his parishioners there. He rounded them up and shepherded them into the church. Then he solemnly said, “All those who want to go to heaven, step over here to the left.” Everyone stepped over except one man who stubbornly stood his ground. The priest looked at him fiercely and said, “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” “No,” said the man. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me you don’t want to go to heaven when you die?” “Of course I want to go to heaven when I die. I thought you were going now.” (The Heart of the Enlightened, DeMillo, 16-17).
It is not that unusual for people to try and separate their spiritual life from daily life. Spirituality, for many, has something to do with moments – times of worship or prayer, what our fate after death might be. Then there is the rest of our lives. That kind of separation does not fit well with the spirituality of the Jesus way. Eugene Peterson, pastor, scholar, translator of the Bible (The Message) says that when he is asked about being spiritual he responds by saying: How about starting by loving your husband or your kids? Even for the mystics, moments of rapture and ecstasy are rare ad unexpected. Spirituality is no different from what we have been doing for two thousand years, just by going to church, receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading the scripture rightly. It’s just ordinary stuff. (The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, p. 6)
Ordinary stuff – Jesus connects spirituality with ordinary stuff. We have been following that these past few weeks as we have been reading parts of the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, Jesus says that we are to be perfect as God is perfect – not too ordinary sounding, but when you look at what he says around that we find him talking about dealing with anger and sexuality and desire and intimacy – the stuff of life. But now Jesus is going to get very personal. He is going to talk about money and possessions. He invites us to worry less about what we are going to eat and drink and wear. He warns us – “you cannot serve God and wealth.” There are not many more ordinary things in life than food and clothing and the economic wherewithal to care for those things. Like other desires Jesus has discussed, these are not bad in themselves – the desire to eat, the desire to be clothed, the desire for a measure of economic security, but like other desires he has discussed, we can get it wrong. We can mismanage our anger. We can mishandle our sexual desires. We can muck up our most important relationships. And we can get it wrong when it comes to money. In one translation, verse 32, which we read as “it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things” reads “it is the Gentiles who long for all these things.” Our longing for money can be come inordinate, Jesus is saying. Our relationship to money and wealth can become distorted, getting in the way of a healthy spirituality. I think he is right.
Last month’s Atlantic (January/February 2011) magazine had a fascinating article on the economy. It reported this conversation at a Manhattan dinner party. “If you are going to buy all this stuff, life starts getting really expensive. If you are going to do the NetJet thing and if you are going to have four houses, and you’re going to run four houses, it’s like you start spending some money” Another guest chimed in: “You know, the thing about 20 is 20 is only 10 after taxes.” Those around the table nodded. They were talking about 20 million dollars. It wasn’t quite enough, apparently. In this same article it was noted that the top 25 hedge-fund managers were paid, on average in 2009, more than $1 billion each. Finally in this same article, Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairperson and champion of free market capitalism is cited as worrying that our economy has become “distorted”, with high-income individuals and large corporations and banks recovering nicely while most of the rest of the economy struggling along. Has our relationship with wealth gotten distorted?
Just this past week a former Pennsylvania juvenile court judge was convicted of racketeering in a case that accused him of sending youth offenders to for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in illicit payments from the builder and owner of the lockups. Apparently this judge, and another, took more than $2 million in bribes from the builders of new juvenile detention facilities, after they had conspired to have the public facility closed, and also extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner. The judge filled the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10. According to The Pennsylvania Supreme Court he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea. Did longing for wealth warp a judge?
Tom is a twenty-four year old stock broker and recent business graduate. He shared with his counselor (by the way, this is not someone I am seeing or someone in this church), he shared that when he was twelve he decided that he was going to make a million dollars and retire by the time he was 40. He felt he was right on schedule. Tom is seeing a counselor, though, because he feels he may have some unfinished issues from his childhood, and to placate his wife, who has become distressed by Tom’s occasional outbursts of rage and his extra-marital affairs. As he meets with the counselor, it becomes clear that in his own mind Tom views his wife as an obstacle to his dream of wealth and early retirement. (Miller, How To Want What You Have, 236) Has an inordinate concern for wealth brought a relationship to near ruin?
We can hear these stories and think, “how awful” or “how sad” or “I wish I had to worry about $20 million being only $10.” The truth of the matter is we live in this same society. We breathe the same cultural air, drink the same cultural water, and I think we are influenced by these distorted relationships with money, with wealth. They can affect us, and do affect us. I will only speak for myself. I remember moving back to Duluth and looking for a house and thinking about the kind of house I would have loved to buy. I know the feelings that sometimes arise when I hear about people I knew from high school who have done very well financially – that feeling not of envy, though there may be that, too, but of feeling a little bit less than. I know what it is like to fantasize about the Powerball.
We can’t just take Jesus’ words and look out there to see where a relationship with money, wealth, possessions might be off track. We also need to look in here, peer into our own hearts and minds and souls. The point is not that any desire for economic well-being is wrong. I don’t think Jesus is really saying that we should never be concerned for that part of our lives. There is a little bit of hyperbole in his statements about not worrying about food and clothing, and there is the later passage in the New Testament about “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Jesus is not condemning money, per se, or the search for a modicum of economic security. He is inviting us to be aware of how easily our desires in this area can get carried away, become distorted, thereby distorting our very hearts and souls.
Jesus invites us to be aware and to keep our relationship with money and wealth a healthy one. How? I find the advice offered by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the 1700s, continually helpful. Wesley argued that money in itself was not the problem. He said that some of the rhetoric against money was little more than an “empty rant.” Money is not bad in itself, but our relationship to it could become distorted. Sound familiar? To keep it from becoming distorted, Wesley offers three rules in his sermon “The Use of Money”: (1) gain all you can; (2) save all you can; (3) give all you can. Wesley did add a few stipulations about gain all you can, however. You should gain all you can in ways that are not harmful to your own body and mind and that do not do harm to your neighbor.
Wise advice. Who do you think is better off, the countless lottery winners who just a few years later found themselves broke or bankrupt or fighting with families or the couple in Nova Scotia who won $11 million dollars in the lottery and surprised the world by giving most of it away. Most of us would like that opportunity, but when money comes pouring in like that, most of the stories are not happy. Our relationship with money becomes easily distorted. Jesus invites awareness and caution.
But there is something even deeper here. Perhaps the deepest distortion a skewed relationship with money and wealth can inflict is the equation of one’s worth with one’s wealth. Ask someone in our culture, “What are you worth?’ and the response would move right away to financial assests. It is helpful for us to remember that most of the people listening to Jesus were people just getting by. His audience was primarily Jewish, mostly workers, laborers. The Romans were in charge, and Roman society was a stratified society where wealth and power equaled worth. Jesus’ words seem almost ironic, then. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Many of his listeners probably worried every day about life’s necessities. But then come the remarkable words. Look at the birds – “are you not of more value that they?” Look at the flowers, the lilies, nothing compares to their beauty, and God sees your beauty too!
The only way we can really keep our relationship with our money and our possessions and wealth sane and healthy is to remember who we are – valued people in God’s sight. We fly higher than the birds. We are more beautiful than the lilies. Iin the 49th chapter of Isaiah we read, in the voice of God, these words: Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands (15-16a).
In the story, Hope For the Flowers the only way to keep off the climbing, scratching, gouging caterpillar pillar – which is wonderful symbol of an unhealthy relationship to money and wealth – is to remember that we are butterflies. The way to keep our desires about money and possessions straight is to remember we are God’s beloved people, worth more than the beautiful birds, worth more than the wondrous flowers. We are inscribed on the very palm of God’s hands.
Remembering who we are we may be able to keep both dollars and sense. Amen.