Monday, 30 September 2013

Angels... really?

 Today we celebrate the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. It is a topic that tends to divide people into extremes.  People tend to be obsessed with angels, so they read books about angels and try to communicate with them. If you walk through the New Age section in the bookstore you will find numerous books on angels and tarot cards based on angels. On the other extreme, people place angels into the same category as unicorns, faeries, and leprechauns. To them the idea of angels being real is an offence to rationality and science.
          As we heard from our readings angels are present throughout the Bible, They also appear in the experiences of the saints throughout history. If they are so present in the Bible and throughout the history of the church it is a serious matter to deny their existence. But, we also want to use our minds as we approach the topic of angels and not allow our imagination to fill the void.
          First, I think it is important to just acknowledge that there is an invisible side to our universe. There is a part of reality that we are blind to. Music is passing around us all the time in the form of radio waves. We are completely unaware of this music that is around us all the time unless we have a radio that is able to detect the radio waves and transform them into something we can hear.

There are many other parts of reality that we are blind to. We cannot see ultraviolet or infrared light. There are various kinds of “waves” and radiation passing around us every moment of every day. Everywhere that electricity is flowing there are invisible magnetic fields. We are told by physicists that there are elementary particles like Nutrinos that travel close to the speed of light and pass through us all the time. There is an invisible reality all around us that we are blind to.

          If we think about the depth of the reality we live in, it really isn’t that hard for those with faith to imagine other parts of that reality that we are not able to observe. The Nicene Creed says that God is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. We can detect a certain portion of the unseen universe. With machines we can pick up radio waves, and we can detect infrared and ultraviolet light. Through our technology we have been able to peer into the invisible side of our universe, but what if we are just scraping the surface of the invisible universe? … What aren’t we seeing because our machines just can’t detect it? … The Bible tells us that there are invisible beings that are a part of the invisible universe.  What if the invisible universe includes entities with consciousness like angels? It is not impossible to imagine this given how much we don’t actually perceive about our universe.     
There are occasions when the grace is given to be able to peer into this invisible universe. In Numbers 22 we read about an angel blocking the path of Balaam who was riding his donkey to a place where he could curse the Hebrew people. An invisible angel blocks the road, but the donkey is able to see the angel and turns off the road. Eventually God opens Balaam’s eyes too and he sees the angel blocking the road.
There was another incident with the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 6, where the prophet’s assistant is disturbed when he woke up and saw an army surrounding their camp. “His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:15-17).
We are told that Jacob saw Angels ascending and descending to and from heaven in Gen 28. Jesus says Nathaniel will see a similar vision of angels descending and ascending in the first chapter of John.  
We may not be able to detect this reality with our technology, but there have been countless saints who have dedicated themselves to spiritual training who have come to experience this heavenly reality. They have applied the methods of spirituality and after much dedication and hard work have been graced to experience the reality the Bible tells us about and which other saints have described.  Perhaps it is not unreasonable to trust these spiritual explorers who have experienced these realities.   
          I hope that by considering the invisible side to our universe that we have made belief in angels a little more possible, so now it may be worth considering what angels are. The word “angel” means “messenger”. This is the primary purpose of angels. They deliver messages from God. Angels are not believed to naturally have a material form, though they can take on human form, which is an experience described throughout the Bible. They have free will and are capable of disobeying God, just as humans can. So we are told that there are angels that serve God and angels that rebel against God (often called demons). This is the dragon and his angels described in Revelation chapter 12. Angel committed to God seem to also have a guarding and protecting function as well. Teaching his disciples about Children Jesus says, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt 18:10). This seems to imply that angels look out for children, which is where the idea of guardian angels comes from. Angels seem to have responsibilities to look out for nations, and elements of nature, and even churches.  They are servants of God and they offer Him eternal praise and worship. As servants of God they want to draw people to God through Christ. They are not interested in having the attention of humanity. They certainly don’t want humanity to be obsessed with them to the point Christ is obscured from their minds.
If we were given the grace to see this church in all its depth of reality, I wonder what we would see. What if we could see that invisible side of reality? We would see all the forces, fields, and waves that are passing and fluxing around us. We would see minute particles shooting through our bodies moving at incredible speeds. We might see heavenly beings joining us in worship- (or perhaps we are joining them in worship). We might see angels, the messengers of God, ministering to those of us that are struggling.  We would see them rejoicing when we confess and turn from destructive ways of thinking and acting (Luke 15:10). We would see them lifting up our prayers before God. We would see them strengthening us, just as they strengthened Jesus during his ministry on earth before his death and resurrection (Matt 4:11; Luke 22:43). We would also see them serving Jesus in our midst. 
          If we had the grace to see it, then we would be witness to the Son of God, who promised that he would never leave us, and who promised that wherever two or three of us are gathered that he is here with us. We would see him, not in a book, and not in our imagination, but in the depth of reality. We would see the Son of God before us- dazzling- and if we saw it we wouldn’t have the words to describe it. We would start talking about whiteness and light, and bleach, and clouds, and glory, and voices. And people would be wondering if they can trust what we are saying. Perhaps the universe is more populated than many of us believe. Perhaps God, in his mercy, has provided us with more help than we often admit.

Thank God for the angelic host that dwells in the invisible side of reality, who are so attentive to us, and who are pleased to go about their service invisible, unrecognized, and unthanked.  Amen.     

Monday, 23 September 2013

Luke 16- God and money

Jesus’ parables have a way of sticking with you. It’s as if they have barbs. They roll around in our minds and hearts. There are parts we like about them and parts we don’t like and there are parts we just plain don’t understand. But, eventually, if we spend enough time with them they start to unfold and reveal their purpose.    
There are parts we don’t like about this first parable. The hero is a manager that mismanages his master’s money and then gets fired. When he finds out he’s fired he makes some shifty deals that result in his boss losing more money, but the end result is that because the manager makes these deals people owe him favors.  When he is tossed out of his master’s house he will have people who owe him a favor and who will open their door to him. Then, confusingly, the master praises the manager. Jesus then tells us “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” When we first read these teachings it’s hard to know what to do with them.         
What Jesus seems to be teaching us is not that we should be dishonest and corrupt when dealing with other people’s money.  Rather, Jesus is teaching us to think about the goal and use of money. Money is a resource. It helps us reach a goal. Even a corrupt manager knows this. The manager is about to be fired for misusing his master’s money and he cuts some deals with people who owe his master.  One man owes him nine hundred gallon of olive oil and he makes a deal and cuts his bill in half.  The second man owes one thousand bushels of wheat. The manager makes another deal by cutting 200 bushels off the bill. Effectively he has just put two people into his debt. He has used the resources he was responsible for to build relationships so that when he no longer had any resources to manage he would have a place to stay. The heart of the lesson is this- Jesus says “…use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Jesus is showing us that even corrupt managers sometimes understand something about wealth that we miss. Even a corrupt manager under the right conditions knows to use wealth to build relationships. How much more should the children of God understand this? If the corrupt understand this principle, then shouldn’t the followers of God? Shouldn’t we also use the way we manage our wealth to develop friendships with our neighbors and with God?  If even a scoundrel who is just trying to save his own skin understands this, shouldn’t the followers of Jesus? This manager understood how the wealth he was entrusted with could serve a larger purpose.  We too should see our wealth through this perspective.
The way we use our wealth effects relationships. We can use our wealth to build relationships, or we can use our wealth to seperateus from others.  Later in chapter 16, Jesus uses another parable to explain this. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus teaches us that there are consequences when we use our wealth to separate us from others rather than build relationships as the manager did.  
There are all kinds of questions about how to hear this parable, and it is a parable. It is not a description of a historical event. And as a parable it isn’t necessarily telling us about the afterlife. The main point being taught is that the way we use our money has an effect our relationships with others and also with God. The rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, were separated by the rich man’s use of his wealth. The rich man wants everyone to know how wealthy he is and so he dresses the part. He wears expensive purple robes. He lived in luxury behind a gate that protected his belongings and kept the rabble out. He used his wealth to physically and socially separate himself from Lazarus.  
            Just outside the rich man’s gate is a beggar. Lazarus is not clothed in purple, rather he is covered in sores. He longs to eat the table scraps from the rich man's table, but he is given nothing.  The rich man seems to not notice him. The guard dogs lick his wounds showing more compassion to Lazarus than the rich man. The rich man doesn't abuse or remove Lazazrus from the front of his house, he just ignores him. He pretends he doesn’t exist and uses his wealth to keep them separated.  
            Eventually both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is brought to a place of honour beside Abraham. The rich man is in Hades- the place of the dead- and is suffering. The rich man recognizes the poor beggar Lazarus standing beside Abraham. In death, the way the rich man separated himself from the poor Lazarus persists. The gate he bought with his wealth became a huge chasm that no one could cross. This time, however, he has found himself on the wrong side of the divide.  Interestingly, the rich man still will not speak to Lazarus. The rich man has now become a beggar and begs Abraham, his ancestor, to order Lazarus to give him water. He is not repentant. In fact he is trying to order Lazarus around- as if he was a servant- as if social barriers and class distinctions existed even in death. In life he refused Lazarus human acknowledgement, and this persists in death. The rich man divided himself from poor Lazarus by creating the physical barrier of the gate, but the personal divisions persist as well.
            Abraham speaks with compassion calling the rich man his "dear son". Abraham gets no pleasure from seeing the rich man's suffering. Abraham and Lazarus even seem willing to help the suffering rich man, but there is a great chasm that makes it impossible to cross over to him. This is no mere gate that is easily opened to give the man a drink of water.  
Our apathy towards the poor is challenged by this parable. Poverty causes suffering and we have a compassionate God, who chooses the side of the poor. We serve a God that takes sides. As we read through the Scriptures we see that God has little patience for those who can alleviate the suffering caused by poverty, but don't. Over and over we are warned that wealth is not to be used to divide us from each other. Instead, it is to be used to build relationships.  
In the parable, the rich man wants someone to warn his brothers so they don’t end up like him.  Abraham says that they have Moses and the prophets to teach them and warn them about the consequences of misusing their wealth. This basically is a reference to the Old Testament. So it’s worth looking in the Old Testament to see what it tells us about wealth.  
One message it gives us is that having money is not inherently wrong. Private property is assumed.  The Ten Commandments condemn stealing and coveting, and Israel is encouraged to be generous. So it is not wrong to have 'things'. It is assumed that we will have property and goods.  The Old Testament also promises rewards to people that live rightly. For example, in Proverbs 3:9-10 we read  "Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine".  The Promised Land itself was promised to be a place of prosperity. The people are encouraged to celebrate and have feasts. So wealth in itself is not evil. In fact, it is considered a good thing. …. On the other end of the spectrum, the Old Testament never says that poverty is a good thing. Poverty causes suffering and so it is not what God wants for His people.
            While we do have some rights to our property we are also taught that in essence all that we own really belongs to God. We are managers of the resources that have been given to us. It is a difficult concept for most of us because individual ownership has been emphasized in our culture.  We don't really believe that our bank account, or house, or car, belongs to God. We tend to think that God would be stealing if God drove off in our car. But Deuteronomy 10:14 reminds us, "To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it." 
            We are managers of what God has given us, and we have certain rights as managers when it comes to property. However, the Old Testament teaches that care for the poor overcomes our rights to private property. The Bible teaches that when the people harvested they should not try to harvest too efficiently so that the poor could come and harvest some as well. Our property rights give way under the obligation to care for the poorer and weaker members of society.
            Some of these laws are a bit alien from our world. Most of us don't harvest, and most of our poor are in the inner city. But, the essence of the message still speaks to us. Our own rights to private property must give way to our obligation to help the poor. Wealth cannot be used to divide human beings. Wealth is to be used to build relationships, not to separate people. The rich man was obligated by the Law to help Lazarus, not build a gate to keep him away where he won’t have to see him.
            The Bible also speaks to us about the spiritual dangers of wealth.  Wealth is often associated with a lack of ability to repent, to greed, gluttony, and covetousness. Wealth can become a false god when we trust in it rather than in God- especially when we pursue it as an end in itself. Wealth has the ability to mimic deity by giving us a sense of security, inspiring intense devotion, and by granting a sense of freedom and power.
            There is much more that the Old Testament has to teach us in matters of money and property, but I think we have the overall point. To be religious without any concern for justice or the poor is to live a lie. If we can reject the poor, or ignore the poor, then we cannot embrace God. This is because God chooses to align himself with the poor and oppressed. In Jesus' parable, if the rich man who ignored the poor Lazarus at his front gate had followed the teachings of Moses and the writings of the prophets, then he would have understood that his riches were given to him to manage- they were God's riches. God gave instruction as to how do deal with his wealth. If he followed the teachings of Moses and the Prophets he would have realized God's compassion for the poor and there would have been no surprise that the poor Lazarus was with Abraham in the afterlife. If the rich man was reading the scriptures and taking them seriously there should have been no surprise. He should have known that there would be consequences.
            If we were to find ourselves in this parable, we would most likely be the 5 brothers of the rich man- who he wants to warn. If we follow the teachings of Moses and the Prophets we would see a very clear image of how to deal with our wealth. In the parable, Abraham says these words should be enough.  But, we stand in an even better place in terms of being warned. We have someone who has come back from the dead. We have been given the message from beyond the grave that was denied the 5 brothers in the parable.
            When God took humanity onto Himself, being born as Jesus, he was born to a poor couple out of wedlock, and he was laid in a feeding trough. He was born as a part of a people oppressed by a politically superior Roman Empire. Jesus so identified with the poor that he taught his followers that when the poor are clothed, and fed, that his followers are in fact feeding and clothing him. If Jesus saw himself in the Parable he would be Lazarus, locked out of the rich man's home. By locking Lazarus out, the rich man locked out Jesus, who is the means to his salvation.

Our wealth is to be used to build relationships. We, like the manager in the first parable, are to use our wealth to build relationships so that when the day comes we have built relationships with our neighbor and ultimately with our Lord and so will be welcomes into eternal homes. If we use our wealth to separate us from others we may find that the gate we have built has become an impassible chasm and that we are on the wrong side of it. Wealth is a resource to be used not a god, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” We must make a choice were we will store our treasures- here on earth, or in the eternal reality.  

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Luke 15- Lost and found

In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus speak about things that are lost and the joy of finding those things. A shepherd loses his sheep and a woman loses her coin. Both are overjoyed to find what they had lost.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about things that are lost.  As some of you are aware, last week my car was stolen from behind our house. I went outside on Saturday morning to come to the men’s breakfast and I noticed my car wasn’t where I had parked it. I wondered for a moment if I parked it in front of the house, but no. I came to accept the fact that my car had been stolen along with the children’s car seats and a bunch of tools that were in the trunk.
My mind raced as I tried to figure out how I was going to make all my appointments for the upcoming week, and how was I going to take my children to school. I realized life was going to get logistically challenging. I was also talking to my insurance company and discovered that my car wasn’t covered for theft. So I started getting my bike ready. I made sure the tires were full and that the chain was oiled. I tried to figure out the best way to carry my books and laptop as I rode through the river valley to get to the church and to my meetings for the upcoming week. …  I was starting to realize how much I relied on my car.
The majority of my brain power was spent on these kinds of questions until Monday night when the police called. A condo manager had called to have a mysterious car towed from their parking lot. They checked the license plate and found out that the car was stolen. I was able to pick my car up and, amazingly, it was okay. The only thing stolen was my GPS and a folder of CDs which were mostly Christian teachings and an Audio Bible, which was what was playing as the thief drove away. The car seats and the tools were all still in my trunk. … And there was much rejoicing at the Roth household. … I found my lost sheep. I found my lost coin.
But, when Jesus told these stories he wasn’t really talking about sheep and coins. He was talking about people. In the Gospel reading it says “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]” (Luke 15:1). And it was in relation to these people that Jesus told these parables about the shepherd searching for his lost sheep and the woman searching for her lost coin. Tax collectors were considered traitors. They worked for the Romans by collecting their taxes and made themselves rich by demanding more than what Rome asked for. It would be like living in France during World War 2 and your next door neighbor was getting rich working for the Nazis. Sinners could have been a variety of people, from prostitutes to people who were so poor that they were constantly working to put food on the table and so had little time to study the Bible and the Jewish laws. In the eyes of the religious elite these were nearly hopeless groups of people and it was probably their faithlessness that kept God from rescuing them from Roman oppression.
 Going back to my personal parable about my car, Jesus is speaking about the person who stole my car. He is speaking about the person who feels the need to steal in order to make his way through the world- Who is so desperate that he is willing to risk going to prison to steal a $2000 car- Who steals a car immune to the fact that there are children’s seats in the back of the car. When Jesus is speaking about the lost sheep and the lost coin he is speaking about this person- Someone who exists on the margins of society.
Jesus says that God is like a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, and like a woman looking for her lost coin. This man is God’s man, and he is lost. God is searching for him and there will be great rejoicing in heaven when he finds him. … So, what does it look like when God finds him? It begins with repentance. Repentance is when someone turns from their ways and they recognize the damage they have been causing others.  They feel real emotional pain when they think about the way they have been living, and then they desire to change. Repentance in Greek is metanoia, which means a change of heart and mind. It means to be transformed into a new way of thinking and behaving.  When this kind of transformation happens there is joy in heaven- Like when a shepherd finds his lost sheep- like when a woman finds her lost coin- like when a priest finds his lost car.     
The religious people (Pharisees and scribes) of the day didn’t have much time for lost people like this- tax collectors, thieves, and sinners. And they didn’t really think Jesus should keep company like this. The religious people were those who seemed to have their life together for the most part. They were doing their best to be good people and to be law abiding citizens. For some reason the rag tags were coming to listen to Jesus. This bothered the religious people. Earlier in Luke Jesus responded to their grumbling by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus is saying something similar here. He has come for the lost. … There is a subtle teaching here. Does Jesus have nothing to teach the religious people of his day? Is Jesus not here for them as well? What does Jesus have to teach us who are not thieves, or tax collectors, or prostitutes? Hasn’t Jesus come for us as well?  
So long as the Pharisees and scribes are seduced by their own pride into believing that they are righteous and spiritually healthy Jesus doesn’t have anything for them. It is not until they admit that they are sick that Jesus can offer them healing. It is not until they admit that they are lost that they can be found.
I am just as lost as the person who stole my car. I am just as lacking in holiness as he is. My soul is in need of just as much healing as his. I am in need of being found just as much as that man. When we look for levels of holiness we don’t look at each other and compare ourselves- we look to Jesus to find holiness. It doesn’t work to say “well I’m not a tax collector, or I’m not a thief, or I’m not a murderer, so I’m a righteous person”. The comparison we need to make is with Jesus. We are all living outside Eden. We have all fallen short of what God hoped for our lives. … That’s not a nice message to hear. … We are all lost. We are all sick. That’s what the Pharisees and scribes did not see about themselves. They worked hard to eliminate sin from their lives, but they became proud of their spiritual state and so they looked down on the tax collectors and sinners who came to Jesus. Pride is the root of all spiritual sickness, and it is pride that we are most blind to.           
At least tax collectors and sinners couldn’t pretend to have their lives all together the way the religious people could. This meant that these sinners were more able to receive the healing Jesus was offering. They were able to admit they were sick and so had their hands open to receive the medicine. The prideful will not admit to being sick at all, and so they are not attentive to receiving any cure. The prideful will not admit to being lost and so are not willing to be found.
This is why Jesus tells the religious leaders in Matthew (21:31) “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. The only difference between them and the religious people were that the tax collectors and prostitutes who were coming to Jesus recognized their need for healing and transformation. The religious people were unwilling to admit their sickness.  We all suffer from hearts that are distant from God. We are distracted and addicted. We are lost. … But, there is hope in recognizing that we are all lost. Jesus tells us that it is not we who are searching for God. It is actually God who is searching for us. We are His and he wants to find us. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden we are hiding ourselves from God in the bushes while he is calling our name. We hide because of our fear, and shame, and because we are addicted and obsessed. … But, God is seeking us.          
And when God finds us we find ourselves not in the presence of an annoyed shepherd or a grumpy woman who has been searching all day, instead, we find ourselves in the presence of joy. Joy at finding us. We are so valuable to God that He is filled with Joy when He finds us.  
So how do we respond to this joy? How do we respond to being found?...  Being found means that our lives change so that we start to reflect Jesus more and more. That is really what the church is- it is a hospital where our spiritual sickness is treated and as we are being healed we start to reflect Jesus out into the world. As we become healed we start to look like the people God intended us to be. This is a long process because we are continuously being found. Deeper and deeper parts of ourselves are being found. And deeper and deeper parts of ourselves are being healed.    
            We are continuously offering our lives back to God and God is continuously handing our lives back to us more healed and transformed than before. This is what it means to be good stewards. Stewardship isn’t just about giving up a bit of our money. Stewardship is about putting our lives under God’s care. Stewardship means living as if Christ is your king and the ruler of every area of your life. And we do this not cringing, but realizing that this is the best of all possible situations. To do otherwise would mean trusting some other power more than Christ and that is what it means to be lost.   To trust Christ with our lives is what it means to be found.
May we recognize our deep need for God (regardless of what kind of sinner we are). And may we know in the core of our being that we are worth finding, and that there is joy in heaven each time we are found.  

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The High Cost of Discipleship- Luke 14

“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For some time I have been reflecting on an image that seems to come back to my mind regularly- Is prayer in my life like a spice or a marinade? Do I live my life my way and then sprinkle some spirituality on top of it? Or, do I soak my whole life in prayer so that every piece of it is drenched in spirituality? I hear Jesus’ call on my life and I can feel that he is calling me deeper and deeper into himself. I’m afraid that too often prayer in my life is a spice that rests on top rather than a marinade that penetrates deeply into my soul. So, I strive, and am called to strive for a deeper life with God. I strive for a life that is more and more marinated in God.                 
A German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a book called TheCost of Discipleship.  In that book he says, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What Bonhoeffer is saying is that we can be so overwhelmed by God’s love and mercy that we might be tempted to forget about God’s call on our lives. Cheap grace is when we offer forgiveness without really ever repenting or feeling the pain our sin has caused God and our neighbor.  Cheap grace is taking hold of God’s forgiveness without believing our own sin, or without really acknowledging the cost Christ paid. Many of Jesus’ words are difficult to hear with ears attuned to “cheap grace”.
Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). There are some things we wish Jesus didn’t say, but just ignoring these difficult sayings won’t help us. So, why would Jesus say something like this? Jesus is trying to shock us out of our normal assumptions. We are always in danger if we try to read a passage like this on its own apart from the rest of scripture (e.g. 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Cor 7:12-13; 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Pet 3:1-2). Jesus wants us to have our priorities in correct order. He doesn’t want us to hate our family, especially when he teaches us to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27) and even our enemies (Luke 6:27). Jesus was more full of love than any other human being that ever lived. ... Jesus also placed his love for his Father first. I notice that I am at my best when I place my love for God first, then I find that I love my family more deeply and truly and sacrificially. When I place God first then it is as if God’s love flows through me. If I place my family first, however, then I run the risk of making them an idol. That means I might use them and expect them to have a god-like place in my life. This leads to disappointment and maybe even resentment because it is an impossible role for them to fulfill.  This might seem counter intuitive, but I believe that it is true. I have more love when I focus, first of all, on God. 
This is a hard lesson to hear. It is purposely shocking because Jesus wants us to know that there is a cost to following him. He wants us to offer him everything. He wants us to offer our whole life to be marinated. In so doing our lives will be filled with his flavor. When we offer him everything then he will make it eternal and offer it back to us.
We sometimes focus on the eternal blessings he offers us without speaking about what we are called to offer him. There is a cost. Jesus asks us to consider that cost. He says we shouldn’t even begin if we aren’t ready to pay the price. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?  For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish’“(Luke 14:28-30). He’s saying it’s better to not begin than to begin and not follow through. If we aren’t willing to pay the price, then we shouldn’t start. Following Jesus is more like a marinade, than a spice that rests on top. Just to make it really clear Jesus says, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
This sounds really harsh, but we should also realize that there is a cost to not being his disciples. The cost to not being his disciple is a life offered to the systems of this world rather than to God. The world will not offer our lives back to us blessed with an eternal flavor. The systems of this world will consume our lives and use them up until there is nothing left of them. We have to offer our lives to something. Christ is just asking that we offer our lives to Him. Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We die to the broken systems of the world. We offer ourselves to God so that our lives will have the correct priorities, and we can live a life that is more like the one we were created for.  
When we consider what Christ is asking of us we sometimes get into questions of grace. Grace is what God offers us freely. Grace cannot be earned. Nothing we do can force God to save us. So how does grace work with Jesus’ call to us to carry our cross and offer him everything? How can he demand everything, and give freely?  Bonhoeffer calls this “costly grace”.  Bonhoeffer says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
What Christ offers us is a particular kind of life. That particular kind of life is the grace he offers us. To not enter into that life by offering our lives up to his teachings and Lordship is to not accept his offer of grace. To choose to not live the life he is teaching us is to not accept the grace he is offering us. He is offering us a life filled with his Spirit.  To deny the life he offers is to deny the grace he offers. Bonhoeffer said it this way, “The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.”
These are hard teachings, but we do ourselves no favors by ignoring them. Yes, they are demanding and uncomfortable, but they are also rewarding. The cross ends with resurrection. If he demands much, he offers infinitely more. So let us strive, not to earn, but to live the life he is so graciously offering us.  

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Luke 14- Know your place

I have make a bit of a confession to make. The other day I was driving and I noticed that my lane was ending because of construction, so I turned on my signal light to get into the other lane. I noticed that a corvette was coming up quickly in the lane I was trying to get into. I left my signal light blinking thinking they would slow down and let me into their lane. Well, they didn’t let me in. I had to slow down and get in behind them just as I was coming up the barricade. 
I started to think about the pride of the person driving the Corvette. I imagined how they felt that people should get out of their way and how the normal rules of courtesy don’t apply to them because they drive a fancy car. … Then I noticed something else inside myself. I felt proud to drive my 20 year old Honda, and I felt proud to not be that inconsiderate Corvette driver.
I sometimes feel the same way about this Hummer that parks in the “busses only”, “no idling”, “no stopping” section right outside the front doors of my son’s school. Especially when all the close parking spots are full and the only legal parking is a block away and we walk through a blizzard to get Zander to school. I have had some unholy thoughts about that Hummer driver who feels they can park wherever they want. Ironically, I have also felt proud to not have their pride. Pride is tricky. Pride can latch onto anything that can help us rank ourselves ahead of someone else.
 In the dinner party Jesus was attending it was customary that people would have a rank and would be seated according to their importance. So when they came to the party they wanted to be as close to the important positions as possible. We don’t really do this in our culture, except maybe at wedding receptions.  
On one level Jesus’ advice is just good etiquette when attending such a party. If you sit in an important seat but then someone more important than you shows up you will be embarrassed by your own presumption and will have to move to whatever lower seat is left, which might very well be the lowest seat in the house- which is probably next to the bathroom. … Sit in a less important seat, however, and you will be honoured when the host asks you to move up to a more important seat.  Jesus is repeating ancient wisdom here. In Proverbs 25:6-7 we read “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.”  
Jesus has similar advice for the host of the party. Who we invite to our party can speak to our own pride and desire for position. Are we trying to impress someone by inviting them to our party? Are we trying to earn favors from others by inviting people who will then “owe us one”? Who we invite to our gatherings can be just as much an expression of our pride as our hospitality. Jesus instructs the host to invite those who won’t give you prestige and honour, and who can’t pay you back by inviting you to their party. In Jesus’ day most people lived in villages where their families had lived for generations. Like many small towns everyone knew everyone. So when Jesus told them to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind there were faces and names that came to mind.  
Jesus is teaching more than etiquette here.  Jesus is speaking to that part of us that ranks us above others. That part of us that feels more important than others. Jesus is speaking to our pride. Pride is tricky. It cannot be tamed merely by a rule, though, rules are a good place to start. Make it a rule to go in the longest line at the grocery store. As you practice patience your pride will start to learn that it can’t always get its way. Rules can be good. Take the least important seat and learn to not jockey for position. But, the rule can only take us so far because what will happen is that we will become proud that we took the least important seat. We will be proud that we stood in the longest line in the grocery store. We will, ironically, become proud of our humility. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set those rules for ourselves.  We should. These disciplines open us to be more able to receive God’s grace and transformation. But, we also have to realize the limitations of these kinds of rules. We can become proud of following the rule that is supposed to teach us humility. So these kinds of rules are helpful to a point, but what we truly need is transformation of our heart which will change how we view ourselves and others. This transformation is what Jesus is ultimately aiming at. Jesus doesn’t want people that grudgingly invite the poor to their parties and in frustration take the least important seat. That is a good starting point, but that isn’t the goal. What Jesus truly wants is people who see no difference between people in terms of their worth and so there is no real need to have people seated based on some illusion of importance. What Jesus wants is people who see no difference in the value of people rich or poor, blind or sighted, crippled or athletic, educated or uneducated.
In our world we have been convinced at a very deep level that some people matter more than others- even if we aren’t conscious of that tendency within ourselves. One way to fight that tendency is to do exactly what Jesus says, which is face our fears and take the least important seat, and invite the poor, blind, and crippled to our parties. Living in that discomfort will help us to see the deeper truth about our relationships with other people. We will come to learn that we have a deeper unity that transcends our differences.
I want to give three points of foundational unity between human beings. First, we are all made of mud. The first human being, Adam, was made of the Adamah, the dirt. We are made of atoms that all have their origin in the earth we walk on. We are mud- every one of us. At the end of our earthly lives we are ashes and dust. … But we are also made in the image of God- every one of us. That image is ultimately what gives us worth. There are voices in our world that want to say we are worth something based on what we produce …, and so the poor, the blind, and the crippled are a burden and less valuable. … In the eyes of God, however, it is ultimately the image we bear that gives us value. Regardless of what someone produces, they are made of mud, and made in the image of God. And that is their value.
Second, we have a deep unity emotionally. We all want to be happy and we all want to avoid pain. Everything we do is ultimately about one of these two primary motivations- towards happiness, or away from pain. We go about chasing happiness and running from pain in a variety of ways, but this basic drive is something that unifies us at a very fundamental level.  This fundamental drive is behind drug use and going to university to get a degree and really just about any other action we do. We can do some silly things trying to get at happiness or avoid pain, and those actions can backfire on us, but ultimately we can boil our motivations down to these.   
Third, we have a deep unity in our purpose as human beings. The historic teaching of the church is that human beings are created to love and serve God. We might do that as doctors, or lawyers, or parents, or as friends, or as teachers, or students, or scientists, or janitors, or a myriad of others ways of being in this world. Ultimately, we are living our purpose when we understand whatever we do as a way of loving and serving God. Human beings might not all agree about this, but the church believes that we have unity in our call to love and swerve God. The call is the same on every human life, even if they don’t respond to that call.   

These are some fundamental ways that we are unified as human beings. God does not rank us based on what kind of job we have, or what kind of car we drive, or how much education we have, or what we produce. God sees us not based on beauty, or ability, or nationality. These are powerful ways that humans tend to divide ourselves by, but that is not God’s way. We are all invited to the Lord’s Table through the same baptism. There is one baptism for the rich and the poor, crippled and healthy. It is the same baptism. And when we come to the Lord’s Table we are not sorted by rank and importance. We all come with empty hands regardless of who we are and what we do. And Jesus fills those hands with himself.    
Follow @RevChrisRoth