Monday, October 24, 2016

What's Your Motivation??

"Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.'"
-Luke 18: 9-14

When I was an actor a question that was often asked of me was, "What's your motivation?"  It sounds so cliche, doesn't it?  We laugh at actors when they scratch their heads and ask, "What's my motivation?"  Back in the 90s Sprite even did a commercial poking fun at it.  See for yourself:  

Excuse me!  What's my motivation?!

Funny, huh?  But whenever I was taking on a new part I  needed to get inside the mind and heart of the character.  Why would my character say or do a particular thing at a particular time?  It was important for me to do as an actor.  I suspect it's important for us all to do.  

The world throws so much at us, and we are tempted by a whole host of motivating factors that drive us to do what we do.  We are driven by a competitive motivation--we want to win, get better, be the best at everything we do.  We have to succeed, and so that success becomes our motivation.  This was certainly the case for me during my baseball-playing days.  Competition fuels us, as does a motivation of consumerism.  We gotta get more and more, and so often our desire to do something is fueled by whether or not we end up getting something in return.  Consumerism and competition by lead us to some sort of success--they can help us get the kinds of stuff that we seek in life, like money, jobs, houses, and the like--but ultimately they do not work.  Ultimately they do not fall in-line with how God wants us to live our lives.  That's because they aren't the kinds of motivations that Jesus calls us to have.  

Jesus tells a parable about motivation, which features a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanks that he is not a sinful man, like the tax collector over there.  He prays that God will notice the good things that he has done with his life--the fact that he fasts twice a week, and the fact that he tithes, gives 10 % of his income.  The tax collector, meanwhile, cannot even bring himself to look up to heaven, and all he says to God is, "Be merciful to me."  As Jesus points out at the end of the parable, the tax collector humbled himself, the Pharisee exalted himself, and because we know--as that crowd who heard the parable knew--God sees our motivations, sees the inner workings of our heart, Jesus informs the crowd--and us--to pay attention, because all those who humble themselves will be exalted, and all who exalt themselves will be humbled.

An artist's depiction of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

It has to do with motivation.  What is the Pharisee's motivation?  It's attention.  It's praise. It's self-congratulation. It's a desire to somehow impress God.  "Hey God!  Look at me!  I hope you're paying attention because I'm doing all the things I'm supposed to do, and then some, and look, I'm not at all like this miserable tax collector who extorts money from people.  Nope!  I'm the very best kind of person, so be sure to reward me and keep on blessing me because I'm so good!"  It would be nice if we could say this is an exaggerated way of thinking about our motivations toward God, but we see it still.  There are those of us who tithe like this Pharisee in the story, but it's only because we're told to, not because we want to; in fact, we don't really want to do any of this hard church stuff, but it's what we're supposed to do, so we grit our teeth and bear it.  There are those of us who perform acts of kindness or show up to church just because we somehow think our good works will impress God and get us a cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card, and our motivation then becomes making sure we get to heaven.

But the tax collector's motivation isn't to impress God; after all, he's got nothing he can impress God with. This guy comes to God with his head hung low, weighed down by his sins.  All he wants is a relationship with God, and that's his motivation.  Why does he come to Temple?  Why does he pray?  Because he wants to know God.  He wants to be in a relationship with God.  That is what compels him, and while the story ends at that point I would like to imagine that the tax collector went forth from that moment of prayer and was inspired, motivated, by that relationship to show his faith by his actions.

It's an old, old argument that's been around as long as the Church:  which is better, our faith or our actions?  Are we defined by what we believe or by the works of our hands.  Everyone from Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius in the 5th century to Martin Luther and Erasmus during the Reformation has argued one or the other, and we sometimes find ourselves having the same argument depending on our spiritual background.  Even in this parable it seems clear:  the Pharisee is motivated by actions, the tax collector by faith.  But that's a flawed argument.  It's not one or the other.  If we know anything about Jesus we know he doesn't work very often with duality.  It's a both/and, not an either/or.  It isn't faith OR action, it's faith AND action (or more to the point, faith IN action).  Our faith must be lived out by our works, but our works are meaningless if we do not have that faith, that relationship with God, as our motivation.  The Pharisee lacked that relationship, but the tax collector--sinful person that he was--desired that relationship, which is why he called on God for mercy.  That was his motivation. That should be ours.

It's worth asking ourselves:  what's my motivation?  Why do I come to church?  Is it just to make myself feel better, or is there something deeper?  Do I serve in the church?  Why?  Do I tithe?  If so, why?  What is my motivation for giving something back to God, whether time, talent, or treasure?  Is it so that I will be seen?  Or is it my way of living out my faith, living out my relationship with God?  Am I trying to get that cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card and  make sure I make it into heaven in the next life, or am I motivated to make this life a little more like heaven here and now?  We can write all the checks we want, but that won't bring us a sense of peace and oneness with God.  We can stand up and wear fancy clothes and give fancy sermons all day long, but none of that is going to impress God!  We can try as hard as we want to exalt ourselves, but God is still gonna see us naked, with our sins exposed, and you know what?? God is still gonna love us in spite of them!!

That's the bottom line.  That's the thing the Pharisee in the story didn't really know deep down in his heart. He didn't know he was loved, otherwise he wouldn't have been trying so dang hard to impress God!  You are loved by God, brothers, and sisters, just for who you are.  There isn't anything you can do to change that. There wasn't anything you did to earn it. And there isn't anything you can do to impress God, at least not anymore than God's already impressed with you!  So knowing that fact, what's your motivation?  What is it that compels you to go to God's house, to pray, to serve, and to give?  And how will you live out that motivation, from this moment on?  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Thank you, Jesus!

"On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!' When he saw them, he said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, 'Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?' Then he said to him, 'Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.'"
-Luke 17:  11-19

Always say thank you  That’s what my parents told me, and I suspect that’s what you were taught when you were little.  You should always be gracious.  It’s just common manners, after all.  It seems, though, that we sometimes underestimate how important it is to show our gratitude.  Sometimes we just don't say thank you.

The story of the 10 lepers is a story about gratitude.  These 10 individuals lepers stand far off away from Jesus and raise their voices to him, asking for mercy, or ptiy, depending on your translation.  Rather than keep his distance, which is what the Law allowed, Jesus actually speaks to them and tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.  He doesn’t actually DO anything, but as they head off, they are made clean--perhaps in an instant or over the course of several miles traveled.  The 10 lepers are overjoyed, no doubt thankful to be rid of their disease, but only one of them, a Samaritan, returns to say thank you. 

An artist's depiction of the 10 lepers.

Only one.  The British scholar William Barclay says that there is no story in all the gospels that so poignantly shows the ingratitude of humanity than this one.  So often when we get what we want—or when we get what we think we deserve—we don’t take the gracious road.  I know I’ve done that.  Going through the grocery line, or a paying my bill at a restaurant, I end up, all too often, not saying thank you and showing my appreciation. It could be that I simply think to myself, "Well, it's their job."  Thus, I don't HAVE to say thanks, right?

Maybe that’s what the lepers thought.  Maybe they thought, “Oh, here’s Jesus of Nazareth.  The prophet.  The healer.  It’s his job to make us well.”  Maybe that’s why they didn’t say thank you; well, except the Samaritan.  He understood that one should still show gratitude, no matter what.  

So what compels him to come back to Jesus?  At the end of their encounter Jesus says to the Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well.”  Faith.  The word translated as faith is pistis, and it’s a word that can also be translated as trust.  Your trust as made you well.  This guy trusted Jesus, and I suspect he trusted him not because he perfomed a service for him, but because Jesus met him in a way that no one else had.  Jesus didn't keep his distance the way others did, and Jesus actually spoke to him, while others did not.  Jesus treated him as a human being.  The Law barely acknowledged the unclean lepers as human beings, but Jesus sees the man for who he is.  By calling out to him, Jesus invites him into a relationship, into a new way of living.  And for that, the Samaritan trusts him. As my favorite theologian says in a sermon on this gospel:  pistis, faith, is the life we choose to live into when life seems impossible, when we place the weight of our trust in the goodness and loving kindness that is the center of all reality.  Jesus’s statement that the Samaritan’s faith has made him well is not about belief, not about the idea that if the Samaritan hoped hard enough Jesus would heal him.  Instead, it's about radical trust, the kind of trust that the Samaritan had in Jesus, and that trust leads to a deep sense of gratitude. 

Do we trust Jesus?  True gratitude is rooted in this trust.  We cannot say “Thank you, Jesus!” and mean it with our whole heart if we do not trust Jesus when he invites us into a changed way of being.  From the moment that he came back and said thank you, the Samaritan’s life was changed.  Not only was his skin made clean, but his very soul was made clean.  And that new relationship with Jesus is what compelled him to come back, to show gratitude that was born from pistis, his own trust in Jesus, and Jesus’ trust in him. 

As I drive around Randolph County I can’t help but see these yellow “Thank you, Jesus!” yard signs.  I don’t know where they came from, but I love them!  Some of them are in your yards!  I have no doubt that the folks who have put those signs out are, indeed, thankful to Jesus.  But for what, exactly?  Are they thankful for the stuff Jesus has given them in exchange for their prayers?  Or are they thankful for the relationship that Jesus has called them into?  Are they thankful that he has called them into new ways of being?  Are they thankful that he has saved them, healed them, and made them well?  I wonder what other ways they have shown their gratitude, beyond the yard signs. 

What about us?  Have we had faith and trust in Jesus that has led us to changed lives?  I suspect so, that’s why so many of us go to church, right?  Surely we trust Jesus.  Surely we desire to say thank you to him; after all, the word Eucharist means "thanksgiving," so when we celebrate that sacred meal each week it is, in fact, an act of giving thanks.  But what other ways can we show our gratitude in both our corporate worship and our everyday lives?  What, then, does it look like for us to be gracious?  For some of us that gratitude looks like offering our time to Jesus, just spending time with him in prayer or being with the people he loves.  For some it looks like offering our God-given talents for Jesus’ service, either in church or out there in the world.  Still for others it looks like giving of our treasure and resources, remembering that all we have comes from God, thus we give back in order that those treasures may be used to benefit all of God’s children throughout the world.  There are as many ways to say thanks as there are people who read this blog!  It doesn't matter how we show our thanks, only that we show it.  Somehow, someway.   What does it look like to show such gratitude born of a radical trust and faith in Jesus?

The pistis of the Samaritan made him well.  That is, the faith and trust that he had in Jesus.  The same faith and trust that we have in Jesus has made—and will make—all of us well.  How, then, will we show our gratitude for all the things that he has done—and continues to do—in our lives? How will you say, "Thank you, Jesus!"

Monday, October 3, 2016

Being Still Before the Lord

   "Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; * 
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.

For they shall soon wither like the grass, * 
and like the green grass fade away.

   Put your trust in the Lord and do good; * 
dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

   Take delight in the Lord, * 
and he shall give you your heart's desire.

   Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, * 
and he will bring it to pass.

   He will make your righteousness as clear as the light * 
and your just dealing as the noonday.

   Be still before the Lord * 
and wait patiently for him.

   Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, * 
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

   Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; * 
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

  For evildoers shall be cut off, * 
but those who wait upon the Lord shall possess the land."
--Psalm 37: 1-10

I love the Psalms! Whether we read them together as we do most days or chant them to each other, the Psalms carry so much meaning; they are incredibly rich because they speak to the whole human condition. They’ve got it all.  From joy to anger, from sadness to confusion, no matter what we are feeling, we can always turn to the Psalms to speak for us.

This is certainly true for Psalm 37, which deals with emotions that, I suspect, many of us have wrestled with in recent days, namely fear and worry.  As we look at a world that sometimes seems to be tearing itself apart, how are we supposed to feel?  Last week, of course, was the first presidential debate, and regardless of what side of the aisle you fall on, odds are you were distraught, maybe even angry over the way the candidates responded to one another, and perhaps it heightened your anxiety around the upcoming election. How then are we supposed to feel when we see our leaders act in such a way? The only place to go that makes sense is a place of fear, of deep worry and dread for the future, a place of finger-pointing and blame.  Still, if we take a moment to listen to David, God’s lyricist and poet, whisper these words to us, we may find God offering us something more than fear or dread.

There is Good News in the very first line of Psalm 37, in the first half of the first verse.  “Do not fret yourself because of evil doers.”  Do not fret yourself.  Did you notice that those words occur 3 times in those 10 verses??  It seems God is really trying to tell us something, huh?  Do not fret yourself.  It reminds me of the very first words said by the angels whenever they come to earth in the stories of Scripture.  Remember what those words are:  “Don't be afraid.”  To know God is to know love, and we know that perfect love casts out fear.  So do not be afraid of the things that evil folks are doing.  When you look at the world and cannot understand why it is the way it is, do not fret yourself because if there is any judgment to be given, it will be given by God, not by us.  So all that is left for us to do is delight in the Lord, as the Psalm says, and leave the worry and the blame and the judgment up to God.

How can we possibly do this?  Well, the Psalm tells us to “put your trust in the Lord and do good.”  What does it mean to do good?  It means to take care of the things that we can take care of, to focus on the good that we can do, and to trust God’s power working in us and through us.  Do this, David tells us, and we won’t fret ourselves.  It’s easier said than done, I know—I come from a long line of worriers.  And I’m sure that when David put this Psalm together he was dealing with plenty of worry—perhaps over the physical enemies that were enclosing around him, or the weight of his own sinfulness, or something else entirely.  Still, he knows that if he puts his trust in God, if he focuses on doing good, then God will deal with the rest. 

How, then, do we really put our trust in the Lord?  One way is—and this is my favorite part of the Psalm; I could preach a whole sermon on this one line—“be still before the Lord.”  Be still before the Lord. To be still before the Lord means just that.  It means letting go of our judgments about how we think the world is supposed to be.  To be still before the Lord means to stop for a minute.  Stop the madness of our lives.  Stop running from one thing to the next so frantically.  Stop judging others for the way they lead their lives.  Stop living in fear.  Just stop......and breathe.  Breathe in God’s mercy, breathe out God’s love. Be still.  And just breathe.  Notice your breath.  Breathe in God’s mercy.  Breathe out God’s love.  Be still before the Lord.  Be still.  Let go of the anxiety.  Let go of the fear.  Do not fret yourself.  Just breathe.  Breathe in God’s mercy.  Breathe out God’s love.  This past Sunday the congregation and I a breathing exercise with this in-mind, stopping in the middle of the sermon to just breathe.  

We begin to let go of the fretting, and we begin to truly put our trust in the Lord when we stop, when we’re still, and when we realize that the very breath we breathe is none other than the breath of God. Yes, God is already in us.  So many of us don't know that, or we don't believe it.  But when we believe that fact, our whole perspective begins to change, and we are able to let go.  We spend so much of our time worrying about the outside world that we forget about the world inside us, forget about God inside us.  That worry leads to fretting, and that fretting, as the Psalm says, leads to evil.  Yet when we are still before the Lord and know that Jesus himself resides inside of each of us—scholars call this the ‘cosmic Christ,’ the Jesus that exists in all living things—then we let go of all that negativity and see the world for what it is:  good.  Very good, in fact.  At least, that’s shat God called it.  It can be dark and fearful, it can be strange and confusing, but when we surrender ourselves to the God of love and are still and connect with Jesus inside of us, all the other stuff melts away.  No more fretting. 

So, brothers and sisters, I pray during these anxious times that you will go to a place where you can be still before the Lord.  Maybe you’ll choose a breathing exercise like the one we did, maybe you’ll go out on a lake and sit, or maybe you’ll curl up on your couch with some incense filling your room.  It doesn’t matter how you do it, it just matters that you do it, that you take the time to look deep within you and find God at the very center of your being.  When we do that, we’ll let go of our fretting, of our fear, of our anxieties, and of  judgments. It's cliched, yes, but we must let go and let God. Remember that God’s got this!  God’s got you! God’s got the whole wide world in those loving hands.  All manner of things will be well when we remember that. Be still.  Put your trust in the Lord and do good.  And do not fret.