Flipping the Thank You Scale

Sermon – October 13, 2019  Proper 23, Year C

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Luke 17:11-19

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s Gospel reading features Jesus healing ten lepers.  Leprosy is a disease rarely encountered today, except for some extremely poor areas in the Third World, however it was a scourge for thousands of years of human history.  Leprosy damaged your nerves, skin and eyes, causing you to lose feeling in your hands, feet and other extremities.  Often this resulted in parts of your body falling off.  It was a horrible disease.  Because it was so terrible and since nobody knew a cure, once someone was seen to have leprosy they would be quarantined and made to warn anyone who might approach them to stay away.  They would be reduced to begging as they were cast out of society to die.

In our story, Jesus was approached by ten lepers who called out to him to have pity on them.  Jesus replied by telling them to go show themselves to the priests.  In Jewish law, the priesthood was responsible for determining whether somebody had leprosy or not.  When Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, they knew that they were healed.

Now this healing isn’t the main point of the story.  What comes afterward is.  The ten lepers do indeed go to the priests and they are declared to be free of leprosy.  But only one, and a Samaritan at that, returns to give Jesus thanks.  Jesus responds by saying “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  The main point of this story is gratitude.

When I looked at the commentaries for this passage, I was interested to note that many scholars are puzzled at why this story is placed where it is.  However, when I read the verses immediately preceding this passage, I noticed a very interesting context.  We read these verses last week together, but it is worth hearing again.  Let me read for you two excerpts that set the stage for the healing of the ten lepers.

Earlier in chapter 17, Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”  Jesus is giving context that what he is about to talk about are things that can cause us to lose our way and turn away from God.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?  Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?  Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?  So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Jesus is saying that his disciples should not be expected to be thanked for simply doing what they ought to do.  Jesus uses the example of employees who do what their jobs are.  Doing your job is just what you are expected to do.  You should not expect your employer to shower thanks on you for simply doing it.

Do you see the interesting inversion here as compared to today’s Gospel passage?  Last week we read about Jesus telling his disciples not to expect to be thanked for simply doing what is expected of them, while this week we read about the leper returning to give thanks to Jesus.  The two passages are almost a mirror image of each other.  At root in both of these passages is the proper understanding of who is worthy of praise and thanksgiving.  And it isn’t us.

Taken together, these passages give us valuable lessons in how our attitudes can lead us closer to, or further away from God.  If we think very highly of ourselves, we will expect to be thanked and praised for simply doing our basic duty towards God and each other.  We will become self-focused, perhaps prideful, and forget to properly give thanks to God for what he has done for us.  As I thought about this, I realized how this lesson is extremely relevant for us today.  You see, we live in a culture that has put ourselves and our individual wants on the highest pedestal.  In fact, many studies have shown an astonishing increase in narcissism in our society over the last quarter century.

A 2014 Psychology Today article on this subject states that narcissism “refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others.  People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so…and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the “top,” which is where they think they belong. ..People high on this trait are often unhappy, angry at the world because of the world’s failure to recognize their superiority. They are generally incapable of forming the kinds of deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others that we all need in order to live happy, emotionally secure lives.”  Sounds like a pretty accurate description of our society, doesn’t it?

This trend toward narcissism plays out in our religious thought.  In 2005 two sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, published a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  This book sought to study, analyze and accurately describe the religious and metaphysical beliefs of American young people.  After conducting a wide-ranging study of American youth, including both a wide variety of Christians and non-Christians, the authors identified a belief structure that was very widely held by young people.  In the 15 years since this book came out, many commentators argue that this belief structure is widely held amongst Americans of all ages, not just the young.  Some even have described this belief structure as America’s new civil religion.

The authors called this belief system moralistic therapeutic deism, and they described five principles which characterize it.  I want you to listen to these points carefully because they don’t necessarily deny God or his existence, but they do suggest something very troubling about the relative value we place on ourselves as compared to God.  Here are the five principles:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Let’s think about these principles more closely.  First, the existence of God is not denied.  God is acknowledged as the creator of the world.  Christians can, and often are, influenced by this way of thinking.

Second, God does have some expectations of us, but these expectations sound a lot like our own standards.  God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other.  Who doesn’t think this is a good idea?  Who thinks that they aren’t good, kind or fair?  This makes me think of Seinfeld, one of my all-time favorite comedy shows.  One plot device commonly used in the show involves a personal interaction between one of the characters and someone else while we would get to hear the character’s unspoken thoughts during the interaction.  The characters often would be telling themselves how thoughtful and kind they were, when their actions weren’t really thoughtful or kind at all.  In fact, the thing that made Seinfeld so funny was that we all knew that the characters were really self-centered narcissists who liked to think that they were far more altruistic than they actually were.  Like the Seinfeld characters, we like to think that we are “good, nice and fair” but we really often are not.

Third, we are told that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ourselves.  Come to think of it, this reminds me of Seinfeld also.  The central goal of life is all about us.  So long as we can convince ourselves that we are being good, nice and fair, we can then focus exclusively on ourselves.  This was basically the overarching theme underlying Seinfeld.  Fourth, we are told that God does not need to be involved in our lives except when we need him to resolve a problem for us.  So taking the third and fourth principles together, we can forget about God and focus on ourselves unless we need God to do something for us.

Finally, we are told that good people go to heaven when they die.  Well, we all think we are good, because we all think we are “good, nice and fair” to others.  We all think we are worthy of meriting entrance to heaven.  So, on reflection, I do think that the mindset of moralistic therapeutic deism is narcissistic.  The authors of the study comment that for many Americans “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

Think about it.  These principles do describe the common accepted religious belief system in America today.  We value our own needs and wants over those of anyone else, and we feel entitled to pursue those needs and wants so long as we are good, nice and fair to others.  And the common belief is that we are all basically good and so entitled to heaven. 

I actually don’t think that being good, nice and fair is really a particularly demanding standard.  It doesn’t require us to do anything or get invested in anyone’s lives.  It really is about us keeping out of the lives of others.  We feel entitled to pursue our own self-interest, and we tell God to mind his own business.  We only want God’s involvement when we have a task from him to do.  Divine butler indeed.  On top of it all, we think we deserve the ultimate approval and thank you from God by getting to heaven.

We have really flipped the thank you scales on their head, and this is leading us away from God.  Let’s return to the lessons Jesus has for us in Luke chapter 17.  Jesus tells us not to expect praise and thanksgiving for just doing what is expected of us.  In this, Jesus is telling us two important things.  First, we are here for a purpose and that purpose is not our selfish desires or wants.  Rather, our purpose is to serve God and others.  Being nice, good and fair is woefully incomplete in describing what we are called to do.  We are called to invest ourselves in others lives.  Real love is not always easy or always saying yes or how wonderful others are.  Sometimes love means we must take a risk of offending someone.  Second, serving God and doing what he asks of us is simply what we are expected to do.  Obeying God will not win us God’s thanks, nor does it win us an entry ticket into heaven.

Looking to the story of the healing of the ten lepers, Jesus is telling us that we are like the lepers.  We were suffering from the incurable disease of sin that will cause us to wither and decay and to be cast outside of fellowship with God.  The only way for us to be healed is to join with the ten lepers and cry out “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”  This is the only way that we can be healed from our sin.  If we don’t want God involved in our lives, we are rejecting his cure.  We either accept Jesus and the cure, or we reject Jesus and the cure.  There is no other way.  And when we truly understand this, then we will join with the Samaritan who was cured of his leprosy and return to Jesus and give him thanks.  We give thanks to Jesus because we know how important it is that he is in our lives.

In our Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Namaan.  Namaan was a powerful army general from Syria who came down with leprosy.  On the advice of a young Israelite servant girl, Namaan went to see the prophet Elisha for healing.  Elisha instructed Namaan to wash himself in the Jordan River, but Namaan thought that that would be a humiliation.  You see, Namaan thought very highly of himself, and rather than humble himself before God, he expected God to exalt him as God healed him.  Luckily for Namaan, his servants had more sense than he did, and they convinced him to wash in the Jordan as Elisha had directed.  And Namaan was healed.  Only then did Namaan understand and he went back to thank Elisha and praise God.

Our society today encourages us to be like proud Namaan.  To think that we are supremely important, that the world revolves around our wants, and that God owes us thanks and blessings even as we see him as our divine butler who should only intrude in our lives when we need him to do something for us.  If this is who we are, then we will reject God’s healing, we will reject his cure for our sins, and we will reject God’s call for obedience and service.

Instead led us heed the lessons from Luke chapter 17.  Let us be like the Namaan who heeded the counsel of his servants.  Let us turn away from our pride and hubris and humble ourselves before God and each other.  Let us accept our proper role in our relationship with God.  A role in which we can have no demands on God for blessings or thanks, but in which we can only cry out to God for mercy.  And make no mistake, if we cry out to God, he will hear us, and he will heal us.  And we will be made clean.  And then we will be people who are compelled to give thanks to God in a spirit of humility, like the Samaritan leper who was healed.  Jesus, Master, have pity on us.

Let us pray,Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, giving you thanks and praise and rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.

What Jeremiah’s Field Says About Your Money Management

Sermon – September 29, 2019  Proper 21, Year C

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

We know a former Lutheran minister who currently works as an investment advisor for Thrivent Financial.  We had asked him if he would like to preach today with Barbara being away, but he was not available.  For those of you who don’t know, Thrivent Financial is a Christian financial planning company that will help believers create a financial plan for their lives that reflects their Christian values.  As I read today’s readings, our Lutheran friend would have been an ideal person to hear from today.  But I will do my best to talk to us about how our faith should guide our money management.  All of our passages today speak to this subject, with solid guidelines in understanding how our faith in Jesus ought to inform our attitude toward money and wealth.

Let’s begin with the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel reading.  This is a story about a very rich man who thought very highly of himself and lived in luxury, and a very poor beggar named Lazarus, who lived in the streets outside the rich man’s house.  Eventually both men died, and Lazarus was taken to be with Abraham amongst the saints, while the rich man went to torment in hell.  There is a lot to unpack in this parable, and we’ll look at a few of the lessons to learn.

It is important to note that Jesus is directing his message to rich, religious folk.  This is very clear in the parable.  Throughout history, there have been movements within both Christianity and Judaism that teach that the most important sign that God is blessing you is if he grants you wealth and prosperity.  Today, we call this the Prosperity Gospel movement.  Those who propagate this teaching point to places in the Old Testament where God promises good things to those who obey him.  And so, adherents of this teaching believe that if they are rich and wealthy, it is a sign of God’s blessing on their lives.

On the flip side, they also believe that the poor and downtrodden have only themselves to blame for their predicament because they too would be rich if only they were obedient to God.  Even if we don’t buy into the Prosperity Gospel, this way of thinking is very tempting for those of us that are comfortable financially.  We like to congratulate ourselves for our frugality and wise choices.  At the same time, it is easy for us to look down on the poor as having caused their own misfortune through bad choices or laziness.  And so the temptation for us is to view ourselves as self-sufficient, without any need for God, fully deserving of the fruit of our labors, and without any obligation to care for the needs of others.

This is very much the character of the rich man in today’s parable.  He was focused only on himself.  There are little details in the parable that amplify this impression.  For example, we are told that he wore purple, which, as you may know, is historically a color reserved for royalty.  This man was clearly very self-absorbed.  When this man died, we are told he ended up in hell.  We need to pause a moment and reflect on this.  Hell is not a popular subject in contemporary America.  We like to think that we are all pretty good people and that the only people who go to hell are the people that we really, really dislike.

Well, I believe that hell is real, but it is the state of being for those who are separated from the love and presence of God.  Hell is where we choose to go if we choose to live apart from God.  Or to put it in another way, hell is the place where we go if we are absorbed entirely in ourselves, our own wants, our own desires, and where we reject the love and presence of God.  The rich man in the parable was just such a person.

Look at the rich man’s conversation with Abraham.  The rich man never repents or asks for forgiveness.  He remains focused only on himself, and what he can do to be made more comfortable.  And look at his attitude towards Lazarus.  The rich man wants Abraham to direct Lazarus to act as his servant and to bring him water to comfort him.  The only time that the rich man thinks of anyone else is when he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family so that they can avoid the torments of hell.  Even from his place in hell, the rich man continues in the same attitude that he had on earth – he is looking out for himself and he sees Lazarus only as a tool to be used to do his bidding.

Listen to how Abraham responds to the rich man’s request to warn his family because it is full of meaning.

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Abraham first tells the rich man that his family has the Word of God, and that if they would only actually listen to what God is saying, they would seek a relationship with him and so avoid hell.  But the rich man tells Abraham that his family won’t do that.  Instead, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will surely repent.  But Abraham replies that if they will not listen to God’s word, then neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.  In telling this parable, Jesus was, of course, looking forward to his own death and resurrection. 

Unless we first acknowledge our sinfulness, our inability to save ourselves, and our need for God, the death and resurrection of Jesus will have no meaning for us.  If we don’t think we need a savior, then why would we think it important that Jesus died for our sins?  Here is the catch – if our wealth and riches have made us feel that we are self-sufficient and able to take care of ourselves – thank you very much – than we will no longer see the need for a savior.  This is, I believe, the central message of this parable.  All of us, rich and poor are equally in need of a savior, equally in need of a relationship with God, and are equally called to his service and the service of others.

The passage from 1 Timothy continues this teaching.  Paul is writing this letter to Timothy, who was ministering to the church in Greece.  Timothy was dealing with a number of people in the church, including wealthy adherents to the new faith.  In the portion of his letter that we read today, Paul is giving Timothy advice on how to deal with riches and wealth.  Paul begins by emphasizing the importance of attitude.  He emphasizes the importance of being content with what we have.  Paul grounds this in the foundational reality that applies to every person that has ever lived – “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”  Paul says that as long as we have the necessities of life, we should be content.

Paul tells us that it is actually the desire for wealth that is the problem.  He writes ‘Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  It is our selfish desires that lead us into trouble.  At the root of the love of money and the desire to get rich is self-centeredness and greed.  It is turning away from God and the needs of others to our own desires.

Paul’s advice to Timothy on how to combat greed begins with a person’s attitude.  Paul tells Timothy to “flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”  Paul doesn’t even mention money here.  He knows that if someone pursues righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, then greed will cease to be an issue.  That is because these qualities all assume that you will be putting God first in your life.  This is the key battle for believers, and the only one that really matters.

Once Paul has established the foundational need for believers to put God first in their lives, he turns to practical ways that wealthy believers can live obedient lives.  Paul does not tell rich believers to give away all their money or suggest that possession of riches is evil.  Instead, he focuses on how Christians ought to use their wealth.  He writes “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” 

Paul tells rich believers not to be proud in their wealth or look down on others who are less fortunate.  He tells the rich not to put their hope in wealth, but instead to put their hope in God.  Rich believers are called to the same humility that is called for in all believers.  Rich and poor are both equally in need of Jesus Christ.  Riches will not buy us a relationship with God.  In our politics this week, we have read many allegations of quid pro quo – of politicians offering money and aid to pressure foreign governments to take preferred actions.  Well, wealth and money won’t buy special consideration from God!  There is one path only to God, and that is through Jesus Christ, and the poor and rich stand equal before him.

Rich believers are called to do good to others, to be generous and to share.  In other words, they are to look at the needs of others.  The rich man in the parable that we read earlier didn’t do this.  He was always and only focused on himself and his needs, even after he found himself in hell.  How might this rich man’s eternal destiny have been different had he noticed Lazarus at his gates and sent him leftovers from his sumptuous meals now and again?

And now let us turn to our passage from Jeremiah, in which the prophet Jeremiah buys a field from his cousin.  You are probably wondering what this story can possibly tell us about handling our wealth obediently to God.  As it turns out a lot.  You see, God had told Jeremiah to issue a lot of doom and gloom prophecies against a wicked and corrupt kingdom of Judah.  And the doom and gloom was about to come to pass as the great and mighty army of Babylon had overrun much of the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was about to be attacked.  Everyone knew what was coming.  Judah was about to be conquered by the Babylonians.

And so at this time, Jeremiah’s cousin approached him, probably wanting to raise money so that he could flee to Egypt to escape the coming maelstrom.  His cousin wanted to sell Jeremiah a field that had already been overrun by the Babylonian army.  The Babylonians wouldn’t honor Jeremiah’s deed of ownership.  Only an idiot would have agreed to buy that field.  And yet God told Jeremiah to buy it.  You see God was using Jeremiah once again to show the people of Judah that he would come and redeem the land even from the mighty Babylonians.  And Jeremiah bought the field.

God did redeem the land.  Yes, the Babylonian army did conquer the kingdom of Judah and they exiled the people to Babylon.  But in Jeremiah’s lifetime, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire and the Persian emperor Cyrus restored the Jews to their ancestral land.  In the end, Jeremiah did take possession of his field.  The investment, which every financial advisor ever would have told Jeremiah to run away from, turned out to be a good investment.  And more than that, it was an investment that showed the glory and power of God.

Consider the lesson to us here.  We need to pay attention to what God calls us to invest in, regardless of whether the secular world thinks it is a sound investment.  Investing in God’s purposes will never be wasted.  I think of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Galt today.  If I am a secular investor, I will tell you to walk away.  St. Luke’s has enough money to last another 6 years, ten years tops.  The people are getting older and who knows how much longer it will be a viable congregation?  No, don’t invest there.  Instead, go put your money in a growth industry – maybe opioids or pornography – I hear those bring in nice profits.

Well, God still has plans for St. Luke’s.  Let me tell you, the plight of Jeremiah’s field looked a lot bleaker to Jeremiah, than is the plight of St. Luke’s.  Our God is a God of renewal and restoration.  Even now, I have seen St. Luke’s have a powerful healing influence amongst us and in our community.  That is God at work.  And God is at work all around the world.

Let me conclude by summarizing some of the lessons for us from our readings.  First, the problem is not wealth in of itself, but the love of wealth.  Greed is one of the most powerful and insidious motivators to sinful humanity.  We need to turn our focus on God and not ourselves.  We need to place our wealth, along with the rest of ourselves, at God’s service.  This is the key.   When we develop our financial plans, it is a good thing to plan for our retirement and to make prudent decisions with our money.  But these plans need to be informed by our faith in God and what he calls us to do.

Let me give you an example.  A few years ago, after my brother died, my sisters and I decided to make sure that my parents’ will and affairs were all in order.  I sat down with my dad and he told me that all of their estate would pass to me, my sisters and my brother’s family.  Well, I pushed back to my dad and mom.  I told them that their kids would all be okay, we don’t need the money.  But I pointed out how important their church was to them.  How supportive it had been to them through everything they had been through, how it had become like a family to them, how it had a huge financial need for a new building, how important it was for the Gospel to be preached.  And I successfully talked my parents into taking away half of our inheritance.  Yeah me!  But I was glad, and my sisters agreed.  It was important that my parents reflect their commitment to God and his church. 

Second, those of us blessed with wealth and riches need to embrace humility.  When we see others who are less fortunate, we should not think “well, they wouldn’t be poor if they were more like me.”  Rather we ought to say “there but for the grace of God go I.”  And we should respond to need accordingly.  These are our brothers and sisters in need, and we are called to help them.  There is not just one way to help, but we do need to wrestle with what we can do.  Maybe for some it is giving to a foodbank, maybe for others to come alongside a needy family or individual, maybe for others it is giving to international aid organizations.  As Christians, we should be known for our generosity.

Third, be bold to invest in the work of God.  Our God specializes in giving new life to that which we think is dead or dying.  He is a God of new life, redemption, healing and transformation.  Remember Jeremiah’s field and ask yourself what your field will be?

Finally, when you think about your financial decisions, ask yourself what those decision say about you?  What we spend our money on tells us where we place our value.  What will it be shown that you value?  Does your financial planning reflect God as the priority in your life?  I would encourage each one of us today to think about how our financial decisions, including our wills and trusts, reflect our commitment to God and his church, both locally and around the world.  In whatever way we choose to use the riches that God has given us, let us do so with God’s purposes in mind.  Whatever field God puts in your path to buy, remember the story of Jeremiah.   And buy that field.

Let us pray,Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.