Rethinking Attitudes

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ptarjan/2662782645/ Licenced under Creative Commons

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ ptarjan/2662782645/ Licenced under Creative Commons

This is the second installment of a series on stewardship based on Matthew 22:15-22, which focuses on money and our attitudes about how and why we share our money.

Last week focused on the story of the wedding feast and the ways in which we might or might not respond to God’s invitation to participate in the life and work of the faith community. There are many aspects of our participation but one of the most important is the attitude that we bring to our faith community.

The story today begins with Jesus and the disciples in the temple. Jesus is approached by some Pharisees who ask whether or not they should pay taxes. Jesus responds by challenging them about the very fact that they have Roman coins within the temple precinct—something prohibited. Then he asks whose image is on the coin. Of course it has the image of the emperor. And then we have a fairly well-known line from scripture: “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God the things that belong to God.” These words become the crux of the matter.

What belongs to the emperor, and by extension, the world and what belongs to God? We don’t have an emperor but we do have a Canadian government that prints money with images of various historic figures and Canadian images and symbols. We might then say that the money is only good for secular activities and has no place in a church. Some folks might even be uncomfortable with the idea of talking about money in church. But money, whether it is Roman coins or Canadian dollars is at the center of many choices that we make. You might think the hottest topic in the Bible is love or Heaven but, actually, the most common topic in the Bible has to do with money and possessions. In the NRSV love is used 791 times and heaven is used 863. Verses about possessions and money? At least 2000. In order to be faithful to the gospel story we need to talk about money.

Within the congregation there is great diversity of income and wealth. This conversation is not intended to shame anyone but there may be some discomfort. Sometimes the things that make us the most uncomfortable are the things we have the most to learn from or about.

One of the questions this story raises is about what belongs to God and what belongs to the secular world. One of the places to begin this conversation goes back to the creation stories. God created the world and everything in it. If we start with this assumption, everything—including our money—belongs to God and we are simply being stewards of whatever has been entrusted to us. In that sense, the money isn’t ours to give. It already belongs to God.

But Jesus makes the distinction between what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God. Within Jesus’ context, much like our own, we recognize that taxes are a part of our existence and a part of where the money we have access to ends up. Paying taxes is an obligation towards whatever country you happen to live in. Choosing to support a faith community is a choice.

The story also requires that we decide who is in control of us and our money. By distinguishing between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar, Jesus is also asking people to think about who is in control of their lives and their choices. Caesar doesn’t really care about the people, only the money. God cares about the people and their lives and Jesus is inviting people to choose God over Caesar.

Everything belongs to God but we are stewards or managers of particular pieces of God’s creation. A portion of that is our money. So in our lives we have many things that demand our money: food, mortgage or rent, heat, power, water—some basic necessities. Once we are able to make these ends meet we have some choices to make.

Do we take a trip somewhere? Do we travel to visit family? Do we buy a second home or a fancy car? These are all choices but where is God in the midst of our choices. These are choices that primarily benefit us and immediate families.

But taken within a Biblical context, the choices about money and how we use it are much more complex. Scripture over and over again reminds us to care for the people on the fringes of our society. It reminds us to work at levelling the inequalities that we find in our society. Scripture reminds us that our money is not ours but God’s.

We have an opportunity to look around the world and see all the places where God’s work is being done by many different organizations and individuals and support that work financially. As a church, we invite people to support the work and ministry that happens here. And as church we need to be aware of the same pitfalls as individuals. It is easy to get caught in worrying about ourselves and our organization and forget that what we have is not ours, but God’s. We need to spend our money in ways that support the ministry and work of the church because it is God’s ministry.

We support God’s ministry because we think the work God is doing through various organizations in the world makes a difference. We support God’s ministry not because we have to but because we want to.

Each year my spouse and I spend some time talking about what organizations we want to support and we set those gifts up as automatic withdrawals from our bank account so that they become a priority. The gifts we make to various organizations doing God’s work in the world are as important to us as food, mortgage payments, heat and water. It is a choice that we make because we hold as one of our core values that what we have is not ours but God’s. We are responsible for how the money we have access to is used in the world. St. Andrew’s and the Mission and Service Fund of the United Church are only two examples of where our money ends up.

In Biblical reference, there is a term called a tithe which is generally understood as 10% of a person’s income. The idea is that 10% is set aside and returned to God. Historically, this might be equated with a church tax. I’m not suggesting that each person should turn over 10% of your income to the church but I would suggest it is important to decide what portion of income will be set aside for God’s work—whether it is through this congregation, the Mission and Service fund or other organizations whose work in the world you value. Choose to do this not because you must or even because you should but because you understand that God is at work in the world and sharing our financial resources allows us to be part of God’s work in the world.

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Come to the banquet!

A stewardship reflection based on the parable of the wedding feast as told in Matthew 22:1-14.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rajput_wedding_feast.jpg Licenced under creative commons.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Rajput_ wedding_feast.jpg Licenced under creative commons.

When I was planning ahead, I saw that the story of the wedding feast was in the lectionary and thought, “O good, the wedding feast. I can work with that.” I reread this story last week and thought, “O, it’s that story of the wedding feast.”

In Luke’s version, people are invited, they don’t come and so others are invited off the street to the banquet. This version of the story from Matthew is violent and disturbing.

This is a parable. It is a story that Jesus told to make a point and, as with many parables, the intended meaning is not always clear and there are several different ideas about the point of this parable.

In this version, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who is giving a wedding feast for his son, the prince. The king sent out the first batch of invitations and got a whole bunch of RSVP’s from people saying they couldn’t come. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that an invitation from the king is such a low priority? I think, for most of us, an invitation from someone as important as the king would trump just about everything else in our lives.

So the king sent the invitations again to the same people. This wasn’t just a mark the date invitation but an invitation describing the extravagance and fuss that was being made for this wedding. And again, the response was negative. The guests went off to farm, to run their businesses. They just weren’t interested in attending. But another group of guests got really upset and were actually violent in their negative response. They beat and killed some of the king’s slaves.

What is it about these invitations that caused such a negative response? Sometimes when we receive an invitation we just can’t be bothered. It doesn’t interest us for some reason and so we might just ignore it. Sometimes we receive an invitation and there are real reasons why we don’t think we can participate: work or family commitments, the cost, the time. Sometimes an invitation might even feel like an intrusion, one more obligation that we don’t feel we can afford from our time, our energy, our money. These violent guests may have been feeling something along these lines: “I already pay the king my taxes. I work hard. My servants and slaves work hard to pay the king and then the king uses my money to throw this extravagant feast. Now the king expects me to take time away from my business concerns, (a wedding went on for seven days) spend money so I have appropriate clothing to wear to a royal wedding and arrive at the wedding the finest gift. I’ve already given enough to the king and I’m not going to do anymore.” The invitees feel that the king is demanding too much of them and so the invitees kill the slaves that issue the invitation.

The king responds in kind with violence and sends the army into the city, the city that he rules, and kills the invitees who chose not to attend the banquet. This whole thing seems to be getting out of hand. Violence over an invitation to a wedding? Perhaps the king looks around and realizes that he can’t trust and can’t depend on these people and so he has them killed. He feels betrayed by the people he thought were loyal to him.

If the king can’t depend on this group of people he might as well get rid of them and gather a different group of people who will want to participate in celebrating with him and his family and that maybe are more reliable. It is interesting that this group was all the business people, the wealthy and well connected. They got the first invitation, chose to respond in the negative and their lives ended violently in death.

Then the king says to the slaves, “Go out into the city and bring back everyone you can find.” The slaves weren’t looking for the most worthy, the ones with the biggest bank account, the ones with the most skills, the ones with the most connections. The slaves were looking for—and inviting—everyone to the banquet. The king’s banquet has always been a prestigious event and only the crème de la crème get to attend but they turned up their noses at the king. Now the people who would never even dream of attending the banquet are receiving invitations.

And not only that—the people who were above them in the city have been killed. Their bosses, the people who took their money, took advantage of them have all been killed. This wedding feast might be even more of a celebration. There are no distinctions and the playing field has just been levelled.

So everyone dresses up and goes to this feast. There is lots of food. The alcohol is flowing freely. There is dancing and music. It’s quite a party and then the king arrives. And in amongst all the finery of the wedding feast is one person still dressed in rags. The king sees this person and has them tossed out into the street.

I imagine there’s an awkward silence for a few minutes while everyone tries to figure out what just happened before the king commands that the party continue.

And finally, Jesus closes the story by saying, “Many are called but few are chosen.”

So when we think about this story in terms of our faith and our lives as a church community, where do you see yourself?

Are you the king, wanting to offer something amazing to friends and family only to have them reject the invitation? For those of us who gather regularly, this community is important, the time nurtures ours relationship with God and we want others to have the experience of God in their lives.

Maybe you feel like one of the people who are invited to the feast but turn down the invitation? God already demands too much time, too much energy, too much of our money so an excuse not to show up: I’m tired, I want to travel, enjoy the lake, my family, my work (insert your own reason here) prevents us from coming to the feast that is being offered.

Maybe you feel like the slaves, going out and inviting people: we need someone to help with…we need someone to donate to….There’s lots to be done here, come and help, come and participate, share your time, energy and resources. Not only will you help us but you will be part of God’s family and part of this community. And often in this role, people respond by saying “no”. Sometimes the “no” is simply disheartening. Sometimes the “no” can be threatening or hurtful and feel like rejection.

Then there are the soldiers being sent out to purge the city of all the people who seem to be worthy but can’t be bothered to show up. Perhaps you see your role as getting rid of all the excess. Perhaps you want to remove the people who don’t show up from the house groups and mailing lists. They’ve been invited, they can’t be bothered so let’s just get rid of them and carry on.

Then there are the other people of the city. Maybe you would love to go to the banquet. Maybe you would love to offer your gifts and skills to the church community but we don’t seem to need your particular skills, no one has ever invited you or maybe it just seems like there isn’t space because the “worthy ones” already have everything covered. Here’s an invitation: come to the banquet. You are invited to be part of a community that celebrates Jesus’ life on earth. The invitation is always there but you have to decide whether or not to accept.

And finally, you can turn up at the feast and still not really participate. You can come to the feast just say you’ve been but if you don’t embrace the experience of the feast, you’ve missed the point and you miss out on the best aspects. So, like the person without the proper clothes, if you just turn up but don’t embrace the community, don’t get into the spirit of what the Holy Spirit is doing here at St. Andrew’s then you don’t get the full benefit of the feast that is being offered. While no one is going to throw you out, like in the story, you miss out on the abundance of what is being offered.

God offers us a feast and we have an opportunity to make some choices about how we respond to that invitation. We all have a bit of each of these characters in us. And how we respond to God’s invitation changes throughout of lives, and, sometimes even from day to day.

The next 5 weeks we are focussing on Celebrating Stewardship. Stewardship is about everything that we are and everything that we do. Stewardship includes choices about how we use our time, our energy, our money, our relationships. As we focus on stewardship we need to ask ourselves how we are going to respond to the invitation. We also need to reflect on where we see ourselves in this story. The story gets at the heart of our attitudes about ourselves, how we see ourselves in relation to our congregation and give us opportunities to reflect on what attitude or behavior we might need to change in ourselves so that God’s spirit can work more fully through us as we enjoy the feast that God is preparing for us in community.

I invite you to reflect on your commitments of time, talents, energy, gifts, skills and finances to see where God is calling you to participate in the life and work of the church. Come to the banquet.

I will not fear.

This is a reflection on Psalm 23 for the times in which we live.

The Lord is my shepherd: I’ve often wondered about the imagery of the shepherd and the sheep in scripture. Shepherds and sheep are not particularly common in our part of the world but would have been very common in the ancient world and still are in certain parts of the globe. But if sheep and shepherds are so uncommon here, why is it that this psalm is so powerful for so many people?

Perhaps it has something to do with the sense of a sheep’s vulnerability. Even if we don’t know a lot about sheep we can get a sense that they are more vulnerable than many other livestock that we keep. Cows are big and heavy. Goats have the ability to climb their way out of a sticky situation. Horses are fast. Pigs are fierce. Llamas are used to guard other livestock. But how are sheep able to protect themselves? Maybe we love this psalm because we can relate to the sheep’s vulnerability and the sense that we cannot survive in the wilderness of life on our own.

I shall not want. You would think a shepherd and protector would provide everything that we need and yet we often find that we want more—whether it’s having more stuff or a having our spiritual and emotional needs met. The psalm speaks to us of our own sense of lack in our lives and sometimes it is hard to be content.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; What if the green pastures are no longer green? What if the green pastures have been destroyed. This psalm is often portrayed as one of contentment and resting and there is something valuable about resting from our labours and consuming. But how do we rest when we see in the world death and destruction around us. The challenge with this is that it is easy to cross over into complacency where we simply live in the status quo without analyzing it or without working for a better world.

He restores my soul. Taking a step back from my work, from consuming does actually restore my soul. Taking a pause to meditate or pray grounds me and renews my spirit. It is counter-intuitive though because the times that are most busy or stressful are the times we need those pauses and also, I find, the times when I am least likely to take the pause to pray. Claudia Horwitz in “the Spiritual Activist”[1] writes about the ways in which our activities of justice making become part of our spiritual practice, a way of praying. Sometimes the pauses are a way of praying but sometimes living faithfully in our actions is a way of praying. We need to pay attention to which one is needed in any given moment.

He leads me in right paths* for his name’s sake. Sometimes the places God leads us are the places we least want to go. We can think about Jesus walking his path that led to the cross. He didn’t want to go but had a sense that his example would serve a larger purpose in God’s work. We see Malala, who just received the Nobel Peace Prize, advocating for girls’ education because it is the right thing to do. By doing so she places herself in danger from others who also claim to be faithful. Being faithful is not always a safe or easy path to walk.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; Lately the world seems a very dark place. We see and hear reports of ISIS attacks and massacres. We see Ebola spreading quickly and killing thousands of people. We might wonder where God is in the midst of this dark valley. We might feel alone and helpless and unable to do anything to change these situations. God doesn’t take away the evil that is in the world but God can and does work through humans to change situations. Sometimes God works through us and sometimes God works through others. The threats to us seem real but the writer of the psalm maintains that they will not live in fear.

for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. In literal terms the staff is the shepherds crook used to scare away predators and rescue the sheep from tight places but the staff is also a symbol of rule. And so in the face of evil we can turn to God’s law, God’s rule as a way of finding our way through dark valleys.

Timothy Simpson, a teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, writing after the Boston Marathon Bombing suggest that “If our first impulse is fear in the face of terror, our second impulse is vengeance” So it becomes easy to move from fear to a place where violence becomes the way to respond. When we look at what’s happening with ISIS, we are responding with violence from a place of fear. He goes on to say that the writer of the psalm moves away from violence to a “more thoughtful process which integrates the faith tradition instead of [relegating the response] into the secular sphere, as is so typical in our own society.” He says that a moment of quiet reflection and trust in God’s presence “creates a space that opens up prospects for personal and social transformation, including that of the enemy.”

Mohamed Huque of the Tessellate Institute was interviewed on the CBC’s, The Current, a couple weeks ago. He talked about how one of the ways to prevent young Canadian Muslims from joining ISIS is to put this conversation in the context of faith. Within a Muslim faith, this means talking about the actions of ISIS as sinful. But what about our own response? Are we able to pause and resist our temptation to fear so that the response that comes is one that is faithful instead of just vengeance filled?

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; We often think of enemies being beyond ourselves but what if the enemy lies within? What if the real enemies in our lives are not the shadowy face of a young ISIS warrior but what if the real enemy is our own fear and our own insecurity? We are the vulnerable sheep, worried for our own well-being and fear is sometimes the easiest response. It is also the response which holds us hostage, keeps us from responding faithfully and prevents us from asking difficult questions of ourselves. And at the table of our fear, God is present and provides a support and a path to walk that leads us in the right ways, because they are God’s ways. Rob McCoy of the United Methodist Church reflects on this psalm and what happens when someone eats alone. As an introvert he enjoys eating alone in a restaurant. It is a time for introspection and reading. But at that table, alone, sometimes it is easier to see the enemies within. Sometimes it raises questions and issues about ourselves that we don’t want to see. That pausing at the stream God provides may also take us to those places we don’t want to go and maybe that is why sometimes it is so hard to stop and rest.

you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. God is at the table. God welcomes us. God nourishes us. God sustains us. God gives us pause and refreshment.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, God’s love follows us wherever we are and when we have a sense of God’s presence, life is good. Even though the world may seem to be disintegrating around us, God’s presence can calm and soothe.
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. We trust in God’s presence in this world. This is God’s home.

[1].  Claudia Horwitz, The Spiritual Activist: Practices to Transform Your Life, Your Work, and Your World (New York: Penguin Compass, 2002)

Start over Again? and Again?

This reflection is the final installment of four reflections on the story of Noah’s ark. This part focuses on Genesis 8:20-9:17.

We have seen God the destroyer come to remove evil from the world. We have seen God the sustainer save a handful of humans and other creatures. We have watched in horror as the earth is destroyed and we have waited with the creatures on the boat to see what will come next.

Here we find Noah and his family have left the ark. The creatures have been released into this new world. It is a new world—a chance for everyone, including God to start over again. There are phrases throughout this passage that take us back to the creation story. Phrases like “Be fruitful and multiply.” “Fill the earth.” “Every animal, into your hand they are delivered.” So there is a sense here of a new beginning and yet not much has changed.

God seems to affirm that the ability for evil and for hurt lies within all humans. God will never again harm the earth because of humans and yet, the creatures of the earth will be afraid of us. They are being delivered into the hands of humans. What we do with them is a choice: Do we treat the creatures of the earth with respect and compassion or resources to be used? Even through God will not curse the earth again, perhaps by how we live, we humans may be a curse to the earth and the other creatures.

According to the story, God sent the flood (which may or may not be the case) to destroy the evil humans. If we follow where the story leads us, W. Lee Humphreys suggests that nothing has changed and that the whole experience of trying to rid the earth of violence is futile.[1] God learns from this experience that humans contain the capacity for good and evil and there is nothing that God can do about it.

Walter Brueggemann writes that nothing “about humankind has [changed]… What has changed is God. God has made a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart.”[2] God has realized that, for better or for worse, humans are created in God’s image and that it is sometimes an imperfect image…one in which we are perfectly human.

God has to figure out how to live with the humans created in God’s image and this is where the covenant comes in. Covenant is a binding relationship which carries expectations and commitments. In this passage, God is creating a covenant with the entire creation never to destroy again by a flood. God’s side of the covenant seems to be a commitment to steadfastness and to living with us humans. Noah remains silent in the passage. There is no verbal commitment to this covenant on Noah’s part. Does Noah remain silent because he knows that he will not be able to live up to the expectations? If the flood was supposed to cleanse the evil from the world perhaps Noah already realizes that it didn’t work. Rather than break a covenant he remains silent. The silence also means that in each time and place, humans make the covenant they most need to make. God’s covenant may last an eternity but perhaps the human covenant needs to change for each time and place as we recognize particular needs around us.

But that silence on Noah’s part doesn’t prevent God from making a covenant. Brueggemann writes that “there may be death and destruction….These are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God.”[3] These things occur but they are not “of” God because God’s love and compassion for the earth trumps anger and rejection.

I am drawn to rainbows by their colour and the ways in which they remind me of this story: a sign of God’s promises to all of us. But a rainbow is also in the shape of a bow—a weapon. Weapons have the potential to destroy and hurt but in this case, the bow remains undrawn as sign that God has won a victory over the inclination to punish.[4]

So, where does the Noah story lead us? It leads us to a place where we can trust God’s presence in the midst of the chaos of our lives and world. God’s love is not one of destruction and punishment but a love in which God chooses compassion, second and third chances, opportunities for us to start again and again until we get it right. The Noah story reminds us that the covenant God makes is not with humans alone but with the entire creation and that it is not God that destroys creation but often humans that do the destroying.

We live in a time where there so many ways humans are impacting and destroying creation. Perhaps Noah’s silence is an opening for us to make our own covenant with God. What commitments and expectations will you place on yourself in your relationship with God? What commitments and expectations will you place on yourself in your relationship with creation?

It is an opening for us to choose life for the creation. God has chosen life through the covenant of the rainbow and now it is our turn to make a similar covenant: a covenant to stand with creation—not apart from or over the creation but connected and whole. The flood is an opportunity to begin again. And we are at another moment in time when we can begin again. What will we choose to do with that moment and that covenant?

[1]. W. Lee Humphreys The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 70.

[2]. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 83.

[3]. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 84.

[4].  Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 84.