WARNING: THIS PASSAGE MIGHT BE DETRIMENTAL TO YOUR RETIREMENT
Wouldn’t it be helpful if the writers of the Bible would give us bold signs like this before we read sections, if nothing more than to prepare us for what is most likely an uncomfortable read. This passage is one of those uncomfortable reads, especially for the preretirement people. Because at first glance this passage seemingly goes against the very principles of retirement, to save so that you can live comfortably in your retirement. Going deeper into this passage we can see that the warning has very little to do with our retirements and everything to do with our relationship with God.
The Characters that we have in this pericope are Jesus speaking to two brothers who are feuding over their inheritance. Jesus tells this parable that shows a farmer who looks to be a great farmer and business man. In fact he is so good he is able to build and store enough goods to last him well into a long retirement. The problem that the parable shows is that the man in his pursuit to gain his wealth forgot to remember God. And while he attained great wealth and comfort in this world he would not be rightfully prepared for the next.
So the problem that the passage lays out is not a warning about what we store up for our retirement, rather it is about our faithfulness to God, or rather where have we given ourselves over so that we might be able to do work for God. This is the root of what we call Social Justice. While the term Social Justice is loaded with various meanings, in our tradition Social Justice refers to the things we do for others and our world as an expression of faith to God.
When theologians talk about grace and salvation, they do so in terms of a simple fact that God has given us grace, but we have a responsibility that comes with the gift of grace and that is to give back. In fact, one of the great errors of the farmer is the fact that God had given him a talent for caring for the land and raising crops so that he might be able to feed his community. Instead, the farmer used the gifts God gave him for his own greedy agenda.
I wrote my warning at the beginning of the passage to be provocative despite anything else and as you can see from this article the warning is not really accurate. The real warning is both much deeper and more far-reaching. In actuality, the warning should read:
WARNING: THIS PASSAGE REQUIRES YOU TO GIVE AS MUCH AS YOU GET
This week in the Gathering we will explore what it means to be a Child of God. This is a theme that comes up often within the church and is used as a rally point for our identity as Christians. Back to the earliest verses in the Bible, namely the creation story, the creation of the human, whether looking at the first story or the Adam and Eve story, our creation was an expression of love. Moreover, the God asserts himself into our lives in a very parental role.
Think about the story of the “Forbidden Fruit.” Like many child parent relationships, there is a great level of care God gives to Adam and Eve. He created them and allowing them to grow and live, but at the same time he set clear rules. As we can discern from the text, God hopes they will follow them, but also knows, since he gave us free will that they would not, leading to the expulsion and so on.
Throughout the rest of the history of the Hebrew people we see a God who is involved in the lives of His creation. Not like the helicopter parents of this generation, God was involved, but in a way that allowed the people to grow and find their own way. Unfortunately, to God’s displeasure, the people continue to choose and follow paths that are directly opposed to what God wants for us.
This is where the modern church runs into great issues, since in some ways we are expecting God to be more like a modern parent involved in every action and giving us a clear direction. This is not the case, nor has it ever been; God being a benevolent God, he gave us free will so that we could make decisions and follow our own paths. But there is ultimately a choice that we have to make of whether we choose to follow God or follow ourselves.
Interestingly, in the passage that we read this week, we come across the line “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” The Devil in this passage is pointing to a being that is of God’s creation. In fact, the devil is really referring to human kind in that when we choose to Sin we are choosing this world over God’s and therefore divorcing ourselves from God’s family.
When we think of it this way, we begin to realize that when we are born into this world God gives us every tool and every ability we need to be faithful and true to God, but time after time we allow our wants and needs to overcome us. We really do become products of this world, forgetting our divine gifts.
As Children of God, our way back to Him is simple and comes from our faithfulness and devotion. As we learn from the teachings of Christ, God is longing for his lost flock and our way back is to learn to accept God, follow him, and more than anything else to show our love to God by caring for one another.
I don’t think anything makes me happier than a Pizza Tour of Chicago. Unlike much of the rest of the country that tries to emulate a specific type of pizza, almost every restaurant in the city has their own unique twist. From Stuffed to Deep Dish, and flat, it is nothing like you can get anywhere else, well, except for the places that try to copy it! When asked on my flight home eating the cold leftover Giordano’s Stuffed pizza which was my favorite, I could not really answer, since none of them are really comparable to the other.
I think that is what makes a pizza tour of Chicago so much fun is taking time to recognize the uniqueness of each type and appreciate the differences recognizing that whatever each pie lacked, there was something good in its place. Simply put, eating pizza this way for me is a religious experience, a celebration of God’s unique ability to take something so basic and make it special.
I think God does this with us. When looking at the ingredients that make up the individual human we can see that almost everything that makes us up is the same, but with tweaks and though few genetic changes we are all individual, unique and good in God’s eyes.
The fun part of doing this pizza tour as part of my reunion weekend was that when we gathered for the party, and reintroduced ourselves to each other, I could appreciate each unique journey. But it was interesting to see how so much of us grew up in the insane sameness of suburban life, yet we all landed in very different places in our lives, many of us surprising each other with our life choices.
But at the same time, it did not matter who made the most money, or had the most exotic job, I think there was a general happiness of just being together for a brief moment in that community once again. Granted, if we hung a lot out longer or, god-forbid, were forced back into high school together again, this utopian evening would turn very different, but saying that, it was interesting to see how most of us found our way to accentuate our gifts.
In my ministry one of the greatest points of witness has been to see where others shine. One of my greatest frustrations is to see where others live up to something that is not theirs. I saw this too at the reunion where there were those who did not have the job or life where they were happy, living to stay alive, not be alive. In other words, I saw the sadness of some who were living up to something that was not theirs, nor ever could be. Fortunately, this group was very small, but it showed a glimpse of why I like my pizza tour.
When we are true to ourselves, accepting our strengths we can be something exceptional, like Chicago pizza. When we try to be something we are not, we tend to fall flat. When we accept each other in our strengths we can be a grand example of community; when we only look at our weaknesses, we become forever depressed.
The theme for the worship this week is the “Golden Rule.” Nobody really knows who coined the term the Golden Rule, but we know that it has been around for centuries. Most Christians know the Golden Rule to be “love your neighbor as yourself” and is most directly linked to the concluding sections of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where the theme is brought up multiple times. However, it becomes explicit in Matthew 5:43-48, and referred back to in Matthew 7:12 where the culmination of the Ask, See, Knock revelation of salvation “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. ”
On can easily argue that a main focus, if not the main focus of the Sermon on the Mount is a faithful living which is based in love for one-another. I am starting with a quick look at the Sermon on the Mount, before diving into the texts that we are directly working with this week, because most of us know it well and when the golden rule is quoted, it is usually done within that context. However, Matthew is not the first place, nor the most important place in the Bible where the Golden Rule is used.
For the most important place in the Bible to find the Golden rule, we need to go back to the earliest books of the Bible and read Leviticus, yes, Leviticus. Leviticus is one of the most important books of the bible to study and read. On the surface, Leviticus is a book about laws: what is pleasing to God, and what is not. Unfortunately, this is where modern society often stops when it comes to Leviticus.
Leviticus is one of my favorite books because it tells more then any other book in the Old Testament what life was like for an individual and community in the early history of God’s people. Like Paul’s letters one can see the problems that people were facing by what the laws and situations depicted. Now I have to say, a great deal is made about Leviticus over issues of sexuality, and someday I may do a class on that if there is interest, but the real importance of Leviticus is the question of how we can be in community with each other.
In her study of the book of Leviticus, Mary Douglas, a Cultural Anthropologist, pointed to Leviticus 19:18 as the Pinnacle text. In fact, much of her work focuses on how Leviticus 19 is establishing a “holiness code” that is a moral litmus test for communal living. Nevertheless, holding the whole book together is this understanding that love towards one another is the driving force for all the previous and following laws.
In a discussion of her work, Rolf Rendtorff adds the note of interest:
“By the way, it is interesting that in the Gospels it is not only Jesus who combines the quotation from Lev. 19.18, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself, with the Shema Yisrael and the following words, 'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our might' (Deut. 6.5), but according to Luke, the scribe too (Lk. 10.25-28). This shows that in the Jewish tradition that stands behind this story in the Gospels, Leviticus 19 had a very central position.” (Reading Leviticus “A Conversation with Mary Douglas” page 32)
As people of faith, we often seek that which is core and uncompromising. In the modern church, we have made many things core, like specific beliefs on social issues, certain means of dress, individual actions and so on. From the judgments that result from those man-made “core principles” we often become lost to who and what God is calling us to be and do. On Sunday, we will be exploring the golden rule as it was meant to be observed, a core that goes deeper than any issue that may split or divide, a call to live in relationship and community with one another.
As I ran (sprinted) through the airport between my short connections with my 40lbs pack on my back, I could not help but think of how silly I must have looked. When I hunched over, gasping for breath, the gate agent gave a little chuckle and told me that I made it in plenty of time and promptly boarded me onto the plane. As I sat in my seat last night I could not help but think of how foolish that was just to make a plane, especially when they held the plane for an extra 15min for another group that was just arriving.
The things that we do because they seem important often make us look foolish. I can tell you a few embarrassing stories where I put my safety, comfort, and life on the line for menial things like time, appearance, or saving face. Simply think of how many drivers will put themselves in danger to shave a few minutes off their drive. Foolishness!!!
So when I first was introduced to the statement, “being a fool for Christ,” I could not get past my definition of foolishness: Doing silly/stupid things for no legitimate reason. But this is where Paul is making his point, within the context of the Greco-Roman world of self-interest, power, and greed, the Christian life of community and love seem foolish, but are not.
Our Christian foolishness has nothing to do with silly actions for a silly purpose; rather they are methodical actions to further a better understanding of Christ. In fact, the Christian Fool is no Fool at all.
I guess in a real way that is why I felt so foolish in my run from gate to gate in the airport yesterday. I mean, if I was not going to make it, they would have rebooked me. Instead I got to be the spectacle hunched over gasping for air.
As we think towards this Sunday take a look at 1 Corinthians 4:1-13. While the fool line is the part most folks gravitate towards, what Paul is really getting at is how to be an apostle to Christ. So in preparation for Sunday I want to ask you to consider three questions:
1. How am I a fool for Christ.
2. Can I let go of my fears of what others think of me to be faithful to Christ
3. Why do I allow myself to be so foolish in placing such high priorities on the things of this world and not live out a life of foolishness to Christ.
Let's just say that School and I had a Love, hate, despise relationship. Except for Jr. High (6th-8th grade), I loved every aspect of school except for the academics. Academics were not easy for me. From my earliest memories of school, my diction and speech were problematic. Starting in Kindergarten, I was in Speech therapy for hours each week. It was not the normal childhood lisp; rather it was tied to a deeper learning disability where and my mind worked faster than I could communicate, often leading me to have jumbled words and sentences.
This speech impediment was also tied to a deeper processing disability. In other words, there was a disconnect between the way I received information and the way I would disseminate that information. Along with processing issues, a myriad of other complications meant that I always struggled with school.
Interestingly, I could never be branded with the label stupid or slow since I always seemed to be able to come up with the right answers, even though it might have taken me a lot longer to express them.
This drove my teachers nuts, for while they could always see my potential, my learning disabilities were often mistaken for sloppiness or laziness. That is not to say that I was not lazy as a youth, I could find great excuses not to do my homework, as any youth can do. However, when someone would try to cut me a break, I would refuse. I always figured that the only way to learn was to try it until you mastered it, this is why I loved math and science so much.
There were times when a path was laid out in front of me that would have made my life easier. In Junior High, I could have joined the remedial track, but I refused. My concern, along with the teasing that would accompany this, was the fact that I knew I would be bored out of my mind, since most of school already bored me.
I know this choice came to frustrate my counselor who was determined to make me a top-grade student. Nevertheless, as I told her, and other educators along the way, I could care less about the grade and more about what I actually learned. Having a learning disability opened up a whole world that normal thinkers don’t even knows about. I quickly found out that the quickest way for me to learn and retain information was often to go in a different direction than from point A to point B. I like to call it scattered thinking,
My teachers did not like this, but I came to find that I would pick up a whole lot of other things along the way. Moreover, I learned a lot about people and our interaction. Unfortunately, at times, I would often find a tangent of more interest and pursue it, frustrating my teachers to no end. Actually, I blame this learning on my Montessori preschool, but that is another story.
When I graduated from High School, all I knew was that my life was going to be different. Though I did not have a clear image of what I was going to do, I knew that God was showing me direction, which I followed. Knowing that I was never going to be the Top of the class, gave me freedom to explore, and thankfully, that exploration led me to the class that opened my eyes to the call God had been waiting for me. Like a Rosetta Stone, the acceptance of my call brought my excitement and education to a new level and helped me to find that special professor that would work with me to formally work through my disabilities to understand them as a gift from God.
As much as I struggled in School, that struggle brought me to a place where I have achieved almost everything that I have always desired. Interestingly, as I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday, I have also found myself in a place where I am happier than I have ever been, at least in recent memory. Nevertheless, all of this stems from the fact that I do not let my limitations define me, not do I let them get in the way of becoming who God is calling me to be.
I will be honest; every day is hard, each letter, worship prep, everything I write is incredibly difficult and time consuming, but when I finish I can smile and know I have done it for God. What is important is to recognize that there is still so much more to learn about ourselves and about God and the greatest glory in life is to never stop growing and learning.
Yours in Christ,
One of the neat things about Vacation Bible School this week is that the focus was the Lord's Prayer. The Lectionary this week was to be the Golden Rule and in two weeks was going to be the Lord's Prayer, so, we reversed those two Sundays and for worship this Sunday we will be focusing on the Lord's Prayer as well.
This works well, but creates one very important problem: by pulling out the Lord's Prayer from the lectionary progression, we run the risk of seeing it as it is often seen, as an entity all it's own rather than part of a larger story. In this case The Lord's Prayer is really part of a narrative of faithfulness.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, The Lord's Prayer is found within the larger "Sermon on the Mount" series, the great teaching of Jesus concerning righteous living and faithfulness. Following the core message in the petition of the Lord's Prayer is an understanding that our ultimate search in prayer is not what we attain in this world, but ultimately seeking and attaining a right place with God in his.
In Luke, the passage that is the lectionary text and will be focused on more directly this Sunday; the setting of the text is in the midst of a series of lessons between Jesus and his disciples on the issue of discipleship. Sparked by the question from the disciples "How do we Pray?" Jesus responds with a simplified prayer that, though shorter and less poetic, it does not leave anything out from the Matthean text except for the over-abundance of Forgiveness language.
What draws my attention in the Luke version over the Matthew and really sparks an interest for me is the part of the prayer that we currently use debts and debtors for. In Matthew the words used are a derivative of opheilow which can literally be translated as debt for money, but is more likely to denote being in a position that one is able to claim that something is due them.
In the Luke version instead, of using a derivative of the same word for debts/debtors as Matthew uses for both the petition and expectation, the writer uses Amaritas or Sin as the expectation that will result to the same degree that the individual forgives another Opheilonti or Debts.
While many modern scholars have equivocated the definitions to read Sins and Sinners or Trespasses and Trespassers, the action and reaction from God is unmistakable in that we are required to act in the same measure as God. This opens an interesting place to explore, taking either the Matthean or Lukan versions, we are asking God to give us Grace, but only in the same measure that we show to others (think the parable of the unjust king). Though while the Matthean version is focused on material indebtedness, Luke's version brings the reader to a place that connects the spiritual plane with the practical in that the measure by with we show each other grace is the measure that we are asking God to forgive our sins. HOWEVER, there is another big problem in that we have already been assured God’s unconditional Grace and forgiveness of sins. So now we are back to a confused mess.
Granted, that is, unless you take into account a couple of things. First, Matthew's narrative of the Sermon on the Mount is creating an outline for what it means to be a follower of Christ; starting with the Beatitudes, the theme really is that the Cost of Discipleship is your life, and if you are willing to walk completely away from it, then you have not fully accepted it. Now this is not to set up a pious retort, because the Sermon on the Mount would go against that too. Rather, it is to bring a reality to the fact that if we were to keep anything against anyone, we are unable to fully receive the Grace God has given to us.
In Luke, because of the direct teaching of Christ to his disciples as to how they will continue his ministry, the practice of forgiveness he demonstrates through the prayer becomes a witness in its own right. As we, the modern followers and disciples of Christ, apply this to our lives, we witness to the world God’s Grace through our action and lives especially when we forgive a debt and subsequently being a witness to the ways in which God is forgive something much greater, our sins. This witness of forgiveness is a central aspect of how we learn and grow in Christ.
So as you prepare for Sunday, I ask that you take a moment and ask, how hard is it to forgive, especially a debt. Moreover, when you say The Lord's Prayer, do you really mean what you are asking?
Often when we discuss the Bible or look at particular “memory texts” we know them so well we miss part of the story. This week we are going to explore a couple of pericope’s in the Bible, one that in virtually unknown and one that is known by most Christians by heart.
The lesser-known passage is from Jeremiah 29. The section that I am using in the service is from a larger letter to the exiles/slaves in Babylon. The genre of this letter is known to many and is like the letter a mother would send to her homesick child "stick in there, you'll; be home soon!" While this letter is unique to the situation, with the simple changing of certain names and references this letter could be written today or any time in history. Like the homesick child, the “exiles” are restless and wanting their prior lives to be restored.
The theme of exile and enslavement is is a common theme throughout the Hebrew history. Each time there is the promise of restoration, but at the same time there is a loss of individual and corporate faithfulness.
Interestingly, Jeremiah also takes a path that shows a slightly different take on the individual's relationship with God. Much of the Old Testament shows a linear faithfulness. One is faithful within the community and communal practices, but when there is a discrepancy or a moral dilemma within the community, there is some type of mediator: A Prophet, Leader, Chosen Person, etc. who then speaks to God. Sometimes we even see that there is yet another level of an angel that becomes an intercessor between the prophet and God. Here, in an interesting twist, Jeremiah is suggesting an individual relationship with God insofar as the individual is required to seek God and be faithful in order to be made right once more.
In another seemingly divergent twist, Jeremiah states that God is not removed from his people; he knows who and where they are, but is at a distance, suggesting that he is not intimately involved in every aspect of life. This can be a bit problematic for us since some Christian theologies point to an understanding that God is always with us, and subsequently present in every aspect of our lives. This ever-present God is something that results from a repeated promise of Christ and teachings of Paul that God is always with us. But throughout the Hebrew text we continually see a God who goes from intimate involvement to being aloof and seemingly disconnected.
Here is the nuance: God being with us, and God being intimately involved in every action of our lives are two different things. Think back to the example of the homesick child, the parent, as exemplified in the letter has neither forgot, nor abandoned the child; moreover, though disconnected, the parent is with the child if not physically, emotionally and "cosmically." Like the parent who is with their child and always has their back, a good parent cannot be intimately involved in every aspect of their child's life, but they can remain connected and devoted.
There is an important core of this letter that God is still with his people in their “time of trial” though they cannot actively pursue him because of their limitations due to the exile. Hence the promise, well the dual promise, that the Exile will end and that God will restore. Interestingly, the action of restoration is not determinate on God, rather it is that the people will seek God once they emerge from that time.
Granted there is also the underlying assumption that the times of exile are a direct result of the blanket unfaithfulness of the people. But that is yet another week!
The second scripture is one we know very well, often referred to as the “Great Commission.” The primary aspect of the Great Commission is to wrap up the story of Christ and give his followers a direction to follow in their ministry from that point forward. However, when it ends it states “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We could spend a whole series of services on the Great Commission and maybe someday we will, but I wanted to highlight one thing this week that is often overlooked as we discuss, God’s promise of involvement. Obviously the bulk of the discussion of the Great commission is rightly focused on out call to action, but there is also the promise, really covenant with God that out of our faithfulness, God will always be with us. Again, like in Jeremiah, God promises an active and individual relationship with us, but also requires our active participation in that relationship.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 28:20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Next week, we start Vacation Bible School. I cannot tell you how excited I am! In my ministry, I have learned that VBS is my favorite church program. It is where we come together and live out the Great Commandment sharing our love of God and our Faith with the children, and each other.
I am not going to give away the whole week; you will have to come and experience that! However, the theme is desert living, and the mission focus is water. Water is one of the most basic elements of life; in fact, while a person can live without many things, without water one will die fairly quickly.
Living where we do, we know that water is a serious issue for our community, but many in our community also have a false level of comfort and trust that there will always be enough. Though, when we look at communities around the world, we often see that much of the world is in a serious water situation. When we have water we, indulge in it, and when we don’t, we often find it hard to sacrifice it.
I remember when my grandparents moved to Albuquerque in the early eighties. When they moved into their little house with the manicured green lawn, they were told by the realtor that they were living on a huge aquifer that would last a hundred years, plenty of water, even though it was a desert. Unfortunately, too many believed that, and installed lawns that used that resource so much that by the early nineties that hundred years of water was dangerously close to running out. The community had to make hard decisions, and one of the first things to go was the manicured lawns, among other things.
As Americans, even when we are out of water or close to being out of water, somehow we always find a way to survive. Mostly, by cutting back on usage, giving up on some luxuries; but there are many places where even when water is plentiful, it is scarce because it is undrinkable and unsafe.
When I was in Ghana, one of the most remarkable things was watching families that would walk a mile or more to get water, usually only a couple of gallons at a time. To make matters worse, often that water is untreated and can cause serious other problems.
In Genesis, when we read the two creation stories, we are reminded of the fact that when God created us, he gave us a responsibility:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
In the second creation story, the one with Adam and Eve, after creating the Adam, he places him into the garden explaining:
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 
Depending on the traditions used later in the Bible, these two verses become foundational to the stewardship responsibility that we have towards this world. We are called to take care of this gift, and help it to be sustainable. We are never going to be able to care for each other or anything else if we do not begin to think of how we care for the precious resource of water.
Yours in Christ,
Some might say that the only time in history that there was peace in Israel was when David was king. That is not really true, since only for a brief time was Israel unified, and it began to break up soon after it had come together. Israel was the center of the world. It was the major trading post from north to south and east to west. With such prominence, there is no wonder why everyone always wanted it, and even those within its ranks looked to take control.
The story that we have this week is found within the divided kingdom many years after Solomon in the reign of Jehoram. Known to be favored by God, Naaman was an Aramaean military general who was quite successful and posed a great threat to Israel. The story starts when his slave wife encourages Naaman, who has a mild form of leprosy, to seek a cure.
So, with orders, the general makes his way to the court to plead his case to the King. In a slightly comical slant, the King, not really paying attention, takes the letter to be a threat and tears his clothes, a sign of getting ready for war. Nevertheless, Elisha quickly diffuses the situation and asks the king to send the man to him.
When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, Elisha gives a dose of humility, sending a servant with a prescription for the cure. Which did not make Naaman happy. Expecting to have a quick magical cure, Naaman was ready to head home rather than wash in the Jordan as prescribed. At that point the captive girl, his slave wife, pleads with Naaman to follow what the prophet said. With a good logical argument, namely “You’re already here, why not?” He went to the Jordan, washed, and was made new; literally “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
One could do a whole sermon series on this passage, it is so full of good topics. However, thinking of it in terms of healing, which is the primary focus of this passage, it took a lot for Naaman to seek and follow through. One could say that the healing Naaman received was a lesson in being humble and accepting direction he might not have liked.
First, he has to go to a foreign ruler, then is not really even given the time of day by Elisha, and finally has to follow a cryptic prescription. However, once he comes to trust, with the help of his captive, he is not just restored, but made almost anew.
God heals and commands us to go out into the world and heal others. How are you a healing person? What situations around you are in need of healing? How can the church be an agent of healing?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen