Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Unsettling New

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
03.12.2017; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  John 3:1-17

Y’all know I like new things.  

I like the latest and shiniest, the cutting edge, the most sparkling and exciting, the objects that most radiate that new car smell.  Particularly if they are actually a new car.  Every new technological gadget, packed with doodads and gizmos and gimcrackery?  They’re like catnip to the seven year old boy who still dwells within this much, much older body.

And so, as a lifelong player of video games, who earned his spurs playing Space Invaders and Pitfall on a well-used Atari 2600, I’d prepared myself to throw in with the latest innovation in gaming:  Virtual Reality.  I’d sampled the headsets, and marveled at how radically this new tech changed the experience of gaming.  No longer were you staring at a screen.  Instead, you were in the game, as a perfectly rendered three-dimensional virtual world took shape around you.  You could be actually in the cockpit of a starfighter, at the helm of a futuristic battle-tank, or in the driver’s seat of a Group B Rally car.  

You can say, I am Batman, and looking around at what appears to be Arkham Asylum, it will seem to be true.

I tried it, and it was amazing, and I was bedazzled and certain: this is the next wave.   This is unlike any other experience I’ve had before.  I blogged about it, and wrote an excited article about it for a radical Mennonite magazine in Manitoba.  Because what’s more new and cutting edge than writing an article about VR gaming for a radical Mennonite magazine in Manitoba?

For Christmakkah in my household, I was surely going to get myself a set of VR goggles and controllers for my Playstation, settling into my basement, ready to encounter a new era of gaming.

Only, well, when they came out, they were the new and the latest and the greatest, and were snapped up immediately. I'd missed my chance, and I didn’t feel like paying twice the price to an opportunistic gaming scalper.  So I waited.  This was a good thing.

Because reviews started coming in, and something peculiar began to surface, something I’d noticed when I played.  The sense of immersion is so real that your visual cortex and your inner ear are telling your brain two entirely different things.  You’re sitting on a comfy sofa, says your inner ear.  You’re performing a reverse Immelman in a P-38 Lightning, say your eyes.  These two things do not line up, and this does not end well.  This new reality makes you nauseous.  Meaning, actually nauseous.  In a recent review of DIRT, one of my favorite driving games, at the International Gamers Network site, six out of seven reviewers felt sick after playing for fifteen minutes.  If I want to feel carsick, I don’t need to spend five hundred dollars for the privilege.  

New things, really new things, can often feel just as unsettling.  They don’t jibe with what we know, and rattle our sense of self, and leave us feeling dizzy and off balance.

Like poor, struggling Nicodemus.

We read his story, and there’s a tendency to go clucking and shaking our heads at him.  You get to meet Jesus, we might say, and yet you still don’t get it?  How do you not get it?  He must be thickheaded.  He must be easily confused, as he fumbles and stumbles about trying to grasp the message of this strange man from Nazareth.

We listen to him as he struggles to find his footing, bobbing about like he’s lost his equilibrium.  C’mon, Nick.  Get it together.

But standing at our point of imagined comfort with the message of Jesus, we may not grasp how deeply unsettling this encounter is, this encounter with the new.

What Nicodemus is experiencing is existential nausea, the yawning chasm between what he knew to be true and a reality that jarred and twisted against what he was certain was real.

What he would have known was the fundamental goodness of his tradition, of an ancient covenant with God that went back

Like him, we so easily get confused around change.  What are the changes that matter?  What do they even look like?  How do we find our balance, that place where we still know who we are relative to a different way of being?

Nicodemus struggles with this, as the strange man he’d heard of demanded his attention.  He wants to talk with him, but can’t do so in public without destroying his reputation.

There, in the night, the discussion they have is a remarkably rich conversation, as the baffled Pharisee asks question after question of Jesus, and Jesus responds.  None of it makes sense to him, and yet it does, and yet it doesn’t.

How can you be born if you’ve already been born?  How is that even possible?  What does it mean that we should be born "from above," or born "from heaven."  And if we are to be "born of water and the Spirit,” what does that mean?  The words are familiar from the ritual and tradition of Judaism, but they seem to point to something else.   Jesus talks, and the more he talks, the more his furtive night visitor becomes even dizzier.  

These words conveyed in John’s Gospel have a specific theological meaning, one that resonates with all of Christ's other teachings about the change he is bringing us. The birth that Christ describes has to do with what is "above," which in the context of John's Gospel indicates a connection with something of God.  It is a reality that has not yet happened, a state of being that is not yet a part of the world we inhabit.  Yet it is a reality that has happened, that is happening, right now in the moment.

This should be existentially unsettling, if we’re listening to it carefully.  It is meant to sound simple, to be composed of simple words that seem to make sense but then also don’t.

That, I think, is the key to Nicodemus's struggle.  He is desperately trying to imagine the story as being a repetition, a reiteration of the things that he already knows.  Jesus, on the other hand, is trying to kick him loose from that understanding.  God’s spirit shakes us loose from those old patterns of being, it is...when we encounter it...genuinely unsettling.  

Being born from above means being born into a reality...a sense of your own self...that you have not yet inhabited.  You don’t yet know what that is.  You’ve not ever experienced it.

The challenge we face is that we expect...with Nicodemus...that we will be able to just truck along as we have before as we stand in encounter with the Gospel.  We do not bring with us the same set of expectations.  But we have our own traditions...our love of wealth, our infatuation with power, our idolizing of self-interest.  We have our own traditions...the deep old lie of race, the strange violence of nation...which are unsettled by Jesus just as surely as those of any Pharisee.

When we hear the message of Jesus, a grace that is deep and simple and confounding, it should have that effect...not physically, but on the whole of our self-understanding.  

Until that moment, we have not yet really begun to be born from above, from that reality that represents the Reign of God that Jesus calls us towards.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.


The Unit of Analysis

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 03.05.2017

Scripture Lesson:  Romans 5:12-19

Nothing makes life easier than categorical thinking.  It’s one of the things that human beings do well, and we do it almost without thinking.

These assumptions are based on a set of general sociocultural categories, which I use to interpret and make sense of the world around me.  We used to use them to quickly assess our world.  We understood that plants that looked a certain way were likely in an edible category.  This was useful.  Or, when encountering a strange animal for the first time, we could assess it relative to a prior knowledge base.  Large?  Check.  Forward facing eyes?  Clearly a hunter.  Large, sharp teeth and claws?  Definitely a hunter.  Moving slowly towards me in a coiled crouch like it’s ready to spring?  Perhaps it’s time to aaaaargh.

Categorical thinking can be helpful, because it lets you make quick survival decisions.

But it can also be problematic.  Because as we group other human beings into neatly definable categories, we stop seeing them as persons.  They become a proxy for another encounter, perhaps, a stand in for someone else we have known rather than someone completely unique.  Or they become representatives of a set, defined more by the features of that set than they are by their own characteristics as a person.  We encounter them, and what we see is not that person, but a set of characteristics that we believe tell us...already...everything we need to know.  

It is convenient, it is easy, but it is the heart of human bias.  Just because a person reminds us of someone else, or seems to bear the features of a particular subset of human being, that doesn’t mean that we are right in applying those labels to our view of that person.

Take, for example, an article in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, which highlighted the work of a group of researchers considering how to eliminate subliminal racial bias among AirBnB hosts.  AirBnb is a recent business, in which individuals who own a home open it up to paying guests.  What’s been found is that there’s significant evidence of racial bias in whether or not a host chooses to accept a guest, as hosts use pictures and even the names of their guests to come to quick...and often racially biased...decisions about who to host.  

Researchers from Indiana University and Michigan University conducted a study in which those hosts were presented with a series of names, each of potential guests.  Some of those names were what the researchers considered “white,” and others “black.”  What they found was that bias was clear and present, with a twenty percent increase in the denial rate for “black” names, when the name was the only real indicator.  They also found that if there was more information...either a generic good review of a guest or a bad review of a guest...the bias disappeared.  Once a host saw that guest as more of an individual, as a person and not representative of a category, they acted on relevant rather than irrelevant data.  The study was both grim...in that it showed bigotry to still be a potent force in our culture...and hopeful, in that it showed that it can be wiped away once we view each person for who they actually are.

The unit of analysis, as we consider the moral integrity...the goodness...of the human beings we encounter, should be no more and no less than the reality of that person.  

We should not judge all people together, or based on assumptions that derive from a prior experience.  This, I think, we can all agree upon.

So from that shared assumption, what in the Sam Hill are we supposed to do with this little section in Romans?

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is the high water mark of Paul’s theology.  It’s written to a church that he did not personally know, and so he...well...he’s showing off a little bit.  Bringing his A game, to demonstrate to a group of strangers that, yes, in fact, he did know what he was talking about.

It’s the scriptural equivalent of a job interview for that position that would totally be a step up, or that first date with a girl you’ve been crushing on for the last six months.  No pressure.  None.

What Paul produced in his letter to Rome has helped shape Christian theology for the last several thousand years, and much of that...like the idea that what matters is God’s grace, that we have no right to look down on others no matter how much it might make us feel righteous, or that the very heart of the Christian ethical path is love...is pretty easy to grok to.  But here, well, here in this passage I tend to wrestle a little bit, because Paul is at the point of presenting his assumption about the nature of human brokenness.

Why are human beings all unworthy?  Because of Adam.  Meaning, every single person, everywhere, is culpable for that one time when this one guy snuck some food God had asked him not to eat.  

To be honest, I’ve always wrestled with this as a point of theology, particularly if we understand sin…”Original sin”...as deriving from the single action of a single individual.  Meaning, as we read through this densely worded, circuitous bit of Greco-Roman rhetoric, that there is the assumption that every human person can be viewed through the lenses of a single act of disobedience.

How does that work, exactly?  It has always felt, if read a certain way, that there’s an unfairness to the assumption that every soul should be held accountable for the actions of a single other.  It feels, frankly, unfair.

My actions should have no impact on how you are judged.  Your actions, being your own, should not reflect on me, if I can have no influence over them.

Yet here we have what...on one reading...seems like a desperately unfair bias against individual persons, and it is persons...not categories, not groupings...that are the fundamental moral unit of analysis.   

When we read through the prophets, we hear that it is persons who are judged for what they do.  Speaking with the voice and authority of God, Ezekiel and Jeremiah essentially say, no, that way of thinking has nothing to do with the way God works.
When we hear the stories of the life of Jesus, we hear that he refused to let bias against persons take precedence over their response to his message.  It didn’t matter if you were a leper or a prostitute, a tax-collector or a Syrophonecian or an officer in the foreign army that was occupying Judah.  He treated everyone as a person, to be judged on their own merits.  The individual was the unit of analysis.
This seems in rather significant tension with Romans 5.   
How to resolve this?  Can it be resolved?  I tend to find my peace with the idea of the Fall by understanding Adam as signifying all of humankind.   Because the name adam, in Hebrew...which the Jewish Paul with his rabbinic training would have known...means “creature of earth.”   He is life, drawn from the dust and dirt and soil.   I view the story of the Fall as an archetypal expression of our universal human resistance to God's grace and our calling to care for one another, a reminder that we are both mortal and imperfect.  
This last Wednesday, we started our Lenten journey by reminding ourselves that we are all creatures of dust and ashes, that every human being is made of the stuff of earth, and to it we shall return.
That knowledge is meant to humble us, and to remind us to stand against the biases and bigotries that we use to divide ourselves from others.  That is the point of this season of discipline, the point of the path of Jesus.  Every soul we encounter stands on equal ground, and that...that is the reason we treat every person with honor and respect.
Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Mountaintop

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 02.26.17

Scripture Lesson:  Exodus 24:12-18

Years ago, in the rolling green hill country of Wales, I went for a hike.  I was in seventh grade, out on a multi-day middle school field trip, and the country impossibly lush, and we were on a day hike.  Meaning, all day, from morning till the first dimming of dusk.  The goal...a craggy, rocky outcropping overlooking a valley, a valley that was striated with streams and fields, ponds and lakes.  

It took nearly four hours to reach the summit, as the little group of twelve and thirteen year olds splashed along muddy trails and clambered over rocks, following paths where we could find them.  We’d scraggle across fields, clambering over cattle gates and wandering through fields where the cows would eye the chattering, jabbering gaggle of loud young primates with faint suspicion.   It was probably our accents.  

It was exciting, and even though the 4G signal was terrible out there in the wilds, no one complained about it, it being 1981 and all.  

We did what you used to do, back when the netmind wasn’t constantly present.  We talked.  We laughed.  And we took it in, the day a misty cool mix of clouds, interspersed with occasional bursts of sun.  

As we came within five minutes of the summit, a thousand feet above the valley floor, there was a long way around and a short way.  The long way, a technical path.  The short way, a rocky cliff face covered in dense gorse and bracken.  I and a few others went the short way, clambering hand over hand, clinging to the growth on side of the face for the last twenty meters like fetal kangaroos wriggling upward towards their mother’s pouch.

“Don’t fall,” said one of our teachers, before looking away and continuing up the path.  It was 1981.  Things were different.

At the top of the crag, we could look out over the valley.  The sky had cleared, and the day was beautiful.  There, set out before us, our whole day’s hike, every path, every stream, every field and tree laid out like like a meticulously designed diorama.  It was the memory of the hike we had just taken, and a reminder of just how far we had to go, our whole day, laid out in a single vision.

It’s hard not to be drawn to high places, to those points where you can look out over the world and see it as it is.

It’s the appeal of the mountaintop, the grand vista, the vantage point where the muddle all around you fades away and the scope and scale of things becomes clear.  You’re on the top of the world, and below you, you can see the interconnection of things.

Those moments can change us.  Shift our vision.  

Here on this Transfiguration Sunday, we find ourselves on the mountaintop.  It’s the story of Exodus, and we are deep into the tale of the flight of the people of Israel from Egypt.   They’re out of slavery, and Pharaoh’s armies have done drownded in pursuit.  Into the wilderness they’ve gone, eating manna and quail, fighting off attackers.  It’s been a difficult journey.  So, of course, they’ve been complaining constantly, bickering and kvetching right up to the foot of Mount Sinai.

When we get to that mountain, the whole flow of the story changes.  It’s no longer just a journey through the wilderness.  it’s about the receiving of God’s instructions on how to live, both in the land of the promise and wherever the Jewish people might find themselves.  Moses heads up onto Mount Sinai, alone, where he encounters his Maker in a cloud of mystery.  

The Ten Commandments are received, and the covenant with Israel is sealed, a covenant that begins with the calling of Moses and that has its fruition up on the mountain top, right there on the cusp of earth and heaven.

It’s a straightforward set of principles that Moses brings back down with him, a set of instructions that tell us how to stand in relationship to our Creator, and how to stand in relationship with one another.  Or, as Jesus summarized them:  Love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

They’re not some lofty, distant abstraction, one that has nothing to do with the reality of existence.    Those commandments, affirmed in their intent by Jesus, give us that mountaintop view of our lives.

We need those high places, those spaces in our existence where we can look out across the span of our lives and get some sense of where we stand relative to the purpose God has for all of us.  

It’s the primary challenge we face as we move from day to day to day in our lives, as we check one expectation against the next, just happily bopping along until one day we bop right out of this mortal coil.

It’s so easy to be shortsighted, to look to this moment and not see where you have been and what tomorrow might bring.  It’s so easy to play small ball, to be so consumed by the demands of our anxious immediacy that we are constantly in a state of reaction to whatever it is we are encountering.

That has always been a challenge for humankind.  The challenges of day to day survival make it difficult to stop and take stock of where we stand.  If you’re struggling to make bricks for Pharaoh, it’s a little hard to take time off for a brickmaker’s sabbatical.

The demands of our net-age culture reinforce this.

If we never stop, never look out to see where we are and where we’re headed, never allowing ourselves to catch our breath and really grasp the why of what we’re doing.

That, in large part, is the reason for the season that begins this upcoming Wednesday.  We start the season of Lent, a time set aside as different, a mountaintop time when we can consider the paths of our lives against the paths of discipleship.

We can look down at that diorama, considering where we have been, and ask ourselves: is this the journey of faith?  Are we living by the standards of compassion and justice that Jesus places before us?

From that, our questioning needs to to stir us to action, action that we can reinforce in this season of discipleship.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.








Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Never Enough Time

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 09.18.2017

Scripture Lesson:  John 3: 13-17

LISTEN TO SERMON AUDIO HERE:

It seems like there’s never enough time.

I’m reminded of that every time I get yet another recommendation for a book to read.  “Hey, this one’s awesome,” a friend will say, and I make a mental note of yet another book I’m not going to ever quite find the time to get to, a literary holding pattern that starts looking more and more like the Library of Congress as the year go by.

There’s never enough time.

I’m reminded of that every time Facebook is geeking out about a new superhero movie that’s about to come out, which seems about seventeen times a year, and I realize that I just can’t even begin to keep up.  I’m reminded of that every time someone recommends that I binge watch some new show that is supposed to be the most amazing thing ever.

I’m reminded of that whenever I look at my growing hutch of of book bunnies.  You know, book bunnies, those ideas you have about a manuscript that you’d love to write.  Oh, what a great idea, you think, and you jot it down.  I currently have nine nonfiction book bunnies, twelve novel bunnies, and a dozen short story bunnies just waiting for me to sit down and get them done.

It’s reached the point that when my muse whispers another story idea into my head, I roll my eyes.  Oh, c’mon.  Why don’t you try writing one of those yourself for a change?

I’m reminded of it when I consider just how quickly my own youth swept away, how quickly the grey slipped into my beard, how just a blink of an eye ago two little boys were curled up on the sofa with my wife for storytime at night.  Was that enough time?  It seems like it wasn’t enough time.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was?  If life just went on, forever and ever and ever, and you could do everything you’ve ever wanted?

Here, today, in a strikingly familiar passage of the Gospel of John, Jesus gets into talking about the life eternal.  Twice in this short passage, we hear it: the end result, hope and goal of Jesus is ...in the Greek in which John’s Gospel was written: the zoen aionion.  Zoe, meaning life.  Aionion, from the same word that gives us aeon.  A life of all the ages.

We hear that, in our busyness, and It’s easy for us to grasp on to that as something that might come in handy.  Eternal life!  I could finally get everything done!   Surely the house would finally get painted if I were given ten to the five hundredth power years to get it done.  

Here, the grasping part of my soul tends to welcome the idea of the life eternal as an endless quantity, a simple layering on year upon year until they stack all the way to infinity.  But then I reflect upon it, and I’m not quite sure that wouldn’t be simply horrific.

Because an endless infinite span of years is meaningless if that time is not used well.

In fact, the human capacity to misuse time, to take what moments have been given us and to pour them into meaninglessness goes deep.  It’s not that we don’t have enough life, not that the quantity of time given to us is inadequate.  It’s that we take so much of what we’ve been given and make it nothing.

We fritter time away on nothingness, dithering away hour upon hour on things that do not deepen us or give us joy.

It’s easy to blame this tendency on the endless cavalcade of distractions served up by this net era.  Give me ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, and how much of that am I going to spend on Facebook watching music fail videos or playing Battlefield?  How much will be spent Snapchatting out conversations that are consigned to instant oblivion?  Surely, surely we modern humans have become so easily diverted from anything of meaning that we’d squander all of infinity if given half the chance.

I was thinking about this when for some reason I providentially encountered something on Facebook this week.  It was put out by one of those algorithms that tries to hook you into clicking through something on Facebook.  Here, a kitten video!  Watch kitten videos!  More videos!

It was, out of nowhere, a link about Seneca.  Not the creek or the road or the watershed that makes up much of this county.  Not the Native American people from upstate New York.  They didn’t call themselves the Seneca, anyway.  They were the Onondaga, whose largest town was Osininka.

What Facebook pitched me this week was an essay by Seneca the Younger, a Roman stoic philosopher who taught and wrote from Rome at the time of Jesus.  Seneca was known as one of the wisest men of his era, who mingled insight with his skill as a writer and public thinker.  His one mistake: because of his success, he was roped into being the teacher and tutor for the young emperor.  The new boy god-king, Nero, had been born into power.  Nero was strangely charismatic, wildly popular with the masses for his antics, more an entertainer than anything else, an embarrassment to the elites in power in Rome.

Nero was utterly charming and just as equally unreliable.  Seneca was brought in to tame him, and for a while, he did.  Seneca was Nero’s favorite teacher, right up until Nero became convinced Seneca had been part of a conspiracy against him.  Nero, like all powerful men of appetite and impulsiveness, wasn’t the safest person to be around.  Things did not end well for Seneca.

The essay Seneca wrote was entitled “On the Shortness of Life,” which something you probably think about a great deal when you’re in close proximity to a man who can have you killed any time he wants.

The heart of Seneca’s essay is simple.  Human beings, for the most part, are given enough time to live life well.  We have the opportunity to find our purpose.  We have the opportunity to do what it is we were made to do.  There will be time enough.

He’s making this argument, remember, in a culture where the average human lifespan was 35.  That might seem a whole bunch when you’re sixteen.  But it feels like almost nothing now.

The reason we feel so lost, Seneca suggests, isn’t that we don’t have enough time.  It is that we waste our time.  We worry about things.  We chase after unattainable wealth or prestige.  We run in circles.  We chew over the past.  We allow ourselves to be battered by the whims and desires of others, caught in a cycle of anxious expectation that consumes us.  As he puts it:

The part of life we actually live is very small.  All the rest of our existence is not life, but merely time.

And in that bit of ancient insight, I think, there is a key to the life that Jesus is promising.  

How much can one do with a life?  If we look to Jesus, Jesus who didn’t even make it to that oh so short thirty five years?  There is something of an answer.  Eternal life is life lived to God’s purpose, where attention is given to our places of giftedness, where compassion and encouragement are allowed not simply to be something we’ll get around to, but part of our now.

Eternal life isn’t a question of quantity of life.  It’s a question of quality of life, a quality of life that encompasses not just some endless time in the future, but this time as well.

Used wisely and compassionately and well, there is time enough for that life.

May that be so, for you and for me,

AMEN










The One That Is Lost

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
09.11.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 15:1-10

LISTEN TO SERMON AUDIO HERE:

I seem to have misplaced one of my children.  The evidence is strong.

These last couple of weeks, I’ll wander through the house, and passing that bedroom find it still neatly kempt.  The downstairs sofa, unoccupied.  The upstairs bathroom sink, devoid of beard trimmings.

There’s a missing kid.  Haven’t seen him in weeks.

I know he’s somewhere in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  But I’m not particularly stressed about it, although that was once not the case.

I remember that feeling, when they vanish.  You wander into IKEA with Child A and Child B.  Child A noodles about as you wander through the maze of oddly named cheap objects, the Huurvissmurkl leather sofas and the Leifmoosen hatracks and multicolored Nurp sock storage boxes.  You are, as best you can tell, heading the the right direction, as you fiddle with the pencils and checklists and storemaps.  It’s a good thing you’ve decided to go with the man-to-man approach to child coverage, because Child A is noodling about aimlessly, struggling to track along with you as you drift through the pseudoScandinavian plywood.

And then your spouse surfaces, and Child B is not with them.  “I thought you had them.”  “No, you had them.”

There’s a moment of panic so intense it borders on sublime, a great wallop of adrenaline and full on stress hormone production.  Your senses are heightened and sharpened, and the flow of time itself seems to slow.  You look around, wildly, but all you see is Huurvissmurlk leather sofas and Leifmoosen hatracks and multicolored Nurp sock storage boxes.

Every part of your being is turned towards that goal: find the missing one.  And sure, you’ve got a replacement child, who appears completely unphased by the sudden disappearance of their sibling.  But you don’t care.

You chase after them until they are found.

Our culture doesn’t value the lost.  We are, after all, a society that values winning and winners, and people that are lost don’t fit into that category.  It’s easy to assume that this is because things have gotten worse over human history, that we’re at a place of degradation, that a century of crass industrial consumerism has left our souls empty and uncaring.  If we lose a set of earbuds, we just order another pair on Amazon.

We feel, it seems, increasingly the same way about other souls.  

But then again, as we listen to Jesus this morning, maybe things aren’t so different from how they were back in the day.  Human beings have always struggled to know that matters, what is truly important.  Jesus, of course, knew that there were people like that in his own time.  That’s particularly true when it comes to understanding the importance of our relationships with others.

As he taught a crowd that had gathered around him, he could hear people in groups around the edge of the crowd muttering and complaining about him under their breath.  And not just him.  More significantly, they were annoyed that Jesus didn’t seem to understand who was important.  Look at this rabble! Look at this mess...they’re the dregs of humanity! These people aren’t worth anyone’s time...I can’t believe he even bothers with them.

The ones who grumbled against him were the educated and the elite. The Pharisees were the literate suburbanites of first century Judea, the ones who read and studied the law. The scribes worked for the court of the king and in the households of the rich, managing their affairs and keeping track of their business. Pharisees and scribes did well. They had possessions, all that they needed.

So when Jesus told his parable of the lost sheep to describe how earnestly God seeks out those who are broken and lost in this life, he knew those mutterers would be unable to hear.  Shepherds, on the other hand, would understand exactly what Jesus was talking about.  But shepherds were poor Galilean trash, and the mutterers didn’t do field work. Pharisees didn’t gather their flocks by night. They paid people to do that for them. Lost sheep? Who cares about one lost sheep? I’ve still got the 99...and I was planning on ordering a new one from isheep.com anyway. Why bother with that worthless thing? My time is more valuable than that.  The ROI just isn’t there.

Then Jesus tells another little story, a story that only appears in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew tells the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14, but doesn’t give us this next one. Why? Why the difference between Matthew and Luke?  Remember, Luke’s gospel was put together to be heard by an educated and elite audience of early Christians, and so its author wanted to make absolutely sure that they heard the next thing that Jesus said...because Luke’s readers were dangerously similar to the whisperers who sat around the outskirts of the gathered crowd.

I can hear him raising his voice, pitching it out out over the heads of the outcasts and tax collectors around him and towards the well-dressed little group beyond..making sure that they heard, making sure that they saw his eyes on them. Then he tells a story of a coin. Say...you had a stack of ten one hundred dollar bills.  A hundred bucks is close to what a drachma would be worth today, eight hours of work from a day laborer. Enough to be real money, something you can relate to. And you knew you had $1,000, it was right there the last time you counted it, but when you counted it up again, you came up fifty bucks short. You’re going to tear the house apart looking for that bill, now, aren’t you?

But Jesus wasn’t talking about sheep, and he wasn’t talking about the value of cash. He’s trying to get it through the thick skulls of human beings just how deeply God values each and every one of us, and how deeply God wants us to understand the goodness that God intends for us.

Jesus saw that we struggle to see the value that God sees, and that the richer and more powerful we become, the harder that struggle becomes. As you gather wealth and position in society, it isn’t just that you stop caring quite so much about things. It also begins to color your relationships with other human beings.   You start seeing them as means to an end, valued for what they can do for you.  You give up on them.

The Pharisees and the scribes were sure that they were righteous, sure that they were chosen, sure that they were important. They were equally sure that those who had less, who didn’t measure up, who deserved less...the shepherds and the sinners and the tax collectors...they were just less important to God. We are the chosen! We are the saved! God just loves us more.

That was the trap of self-righteousness they’d fallen into, and it’s a trap that clamps shut on any number of Christians today. Our wealth makes the wealth of those scribes look like the allowance you might give to a five year old.  

The temptation is there..strongly there for all of us...to succumb to the same selfishness that consumed the Pharisees. You look out into the world and you see it everywhere, the willingness to cast people aside, to discard them, to see them as somehow of less worth than ourselves.

What Jesus asks us to remember, this morning as every morning, is that we share a little bit of that anticipatory joy in heaven at the possibility that what was once lost will be found.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

Dispossessed

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
09.03.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 14: 25-33

LISTEN TO SERMON AUDIO HERE:

Oh, Jesus.  Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Some weeks, that pattern of reading we call the lectionary serves up something easy on the soul.  Jesus, telling us to love one another.  Paul, talking about loving one another.

Love sermons are always easier.  Love is a many splendored thing.  Love lifts us up where we belong!  All you need is love!  

But easy doesn’t come most weeks.  Jesus is, well, he’s not easy, most of the time.  This passage from Luke this morning just hits hard, from the first gut punch about hating your family to the two hard tales about being an unprepared fool to the finishing blow about our possessions.  

None of them are easy to hear, but it’s that last one, that last moment from Luke’s remembrance, it’s that which hung with me this week, that echoes through my consciousness.

I think it’s because possessiveness is such a radical part of what our culture pours into us, such an integral part of how we are asked to value ourselves and our world.  We are taught to see ourselves as an agglomeration of things, as a collection of objects, our happiness defined by the things we consume.  Possessions possess us, just as surely as if we were a little girl with a bad complexion and an usually flexible neck living in a Georgetown brownstone.

And so I sat in air conditioned comfort in my comfortable suburban rambler streaming internet radio over my fiber optic line, staring wordless at this very laptop, my motorcycle sitting outside of my double glazed bay window.  I hear Jesus say:  “You cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.”  How to understand this?  How can I, who have so much, understand my commitment to Jesus when he’s giving me this as a baseline?

This week as I meditated on this difficult story of the life of Jesus, I fished around in my soul for other stories that might make sense of this

Because we are creatures of narrative.  Stories stick with you, clinging to your consciousness, shaping and forming who you are and your understanding of life.

Those stories go back a ways.  I remember reading Sam and the Firefly as a little kid, that old P.D. Eastman book about the adventures of Sam the owl and Gus the firefly.  That story taught me the power of words, I think, their magic as they hang in the air.

I remember losing an entire  week one summer reading the Lord of the Rings saga, which shaped my understanding of the insidious human hunger for power.  I was in fourth grade when I read it, and we were at my grandparents house in Athens, Georgia.  I’m not sure I would have remembered to eat that week, if it hadn’t been for Grandmother’s tendency to stock the house before our arrival with entire cases of Coca Cola and multiple boxes of Count Chocula.

And from when I was older, I remember a book from a class at the University of Virginia that helped me understand the impact of possessions.  It was called Fantasy and Social Value, and it was a legendary gut, the kind of class that’s pretty much a guaranteed A.  You read classic sci fi and fantasy, and then talked about how those stories illuminated social issues.  

I didn’t actually ever take that class, mostly because I think I would have been faintly embarrassed to tell my parents about it.  You’re taking what?  

But I read every one of the books that was assigned, because, well, they might have been left lying around my fraternity house.  One of the stories that hung with me was a classic 1974 novel by Ursula K Le Guin.  The Dispossessed, it was called, a story about a man named Shevek.  He was a scientist who lived on Annares, a stark utopian world.  Annares was a colony of anarchists who had fled Urras, their earth-like homeworld, with the intent of creating a perfect world where everyone has given up their possessions.  Nothing is owned by anyone, nothing at all.  In fact, the very idea of having possessions is viewed as an affront to the philosophy of Annares.

Which makes it...well...completely imperfect, because the people who live on that world still somehow manage to have all of the same flaws.  They may not own anything, but they are perfectly capable of harboring resentments.  They may live austere lives on their near-desert planet, but they still were capable of violence and distrust.

Their lack of possessions didn’t make them any less self-interested.  We can be dispossessed, yet still possessed with the desire to force our will on others.  We can live with nothing, yet still have the hunger for control that shatters human life.  That desire goes deep in us, deeper than the things we own, deeper than the stuff around us.

If we want to commit ourselves to the radical path of compassion taught by Jesus, that desire needs to be let go, and that’s particularly hard for us.  It would also have been particularly hard for Luke’s audience to hear this message.

From the style, language, and emphases of Luke’s Gospel, we can tell that it was written for an audience that would have had issues with possessions.

It’s written in the form of a classical Greco-Roman history, which wasn’t quite history as we tend to understand it.  We often make the mistake of approaching history like a sequence of dates and facts, a collection of flash card datapoints.  In the ancient world, history was first and foremost storytelling, to be mixed with poetry and adventure and song.   Meaning, ancient history was less like a textbook, and more like Hamilton or Jesus Christ Superstar.

It uses sophisticated language written for an audience that was used to reading.  Reading itself was a rarity in the ancient world, a luxury for the powerful and the privileged.  That this was a story meant to be read made the inclusion of this passage even more pointed.  Here, every soul who was a member of Luke’s community would have felt challenged as we feel challenged.

As, frankly, they would have throughout Luke’s Gospel.  Because it was written by and for the privileged and the comfortable, you might think Luke would steer away from saying anything uncomfortable.  

It’s exactly the opposite.  Luke’s gospel makes a point of retaining every part of the oral and written traditions about Jesus that talked about wealth.  Luke, more than all of the other Gospels, talks about the perils of wealth, power, and social position, because that was the primary challenge of the spirit facing Luke’s readers.

It’s easy, in a position of wealth, to take that wealth for granted, to take the things you own and the stuff around you as a mark of your holiness.  Clearly, Jesus must love me, because I have so many nice things!

This is balderdash.
Possessiveness is utterly alien to any Christian who wants to walk the path of Jesus. The desire to acquire is meaningless to those who yearn most deeply for God.
Of all of my spiritual teachers, it was CS Lewises’ master George McDonald who most firmly challenged the life possessive.  McDonald was a storyteller, who wrote strange and dream-like fairy tales.  He was the pastor of a couple of small Congregationalist churches, and wrote novels to provide for his wife and nine children.  Meaning, he wasn’t someone who had a lot of stuff.  From his hard, practical Scots mysticism, he pushed hard against the impact of being captive to what we imagine we own:
The man who for consciousness of well-being depends on anything but life, the life essential, is a slave...
and:
But it is not the rich man only who is under the dominion of things; they too are slaves who, having no money, are unhappy from the lack of it.
and, here sounding remarkably like a Scottish Yoda:
If it be things that slay you, what matter whether things you have, or things you have not?
The mystic renounces desire for power in all of its forms, be they economic or coercive. That possessiveness simply ceases to seem meaningful. The unsatisfied, ever-empty hunger of the consumer is unknown and unwanted. That doesn't mean living a joyless, stale, or austere life. It simply means a different way of standing in relation to creation, one that is far richer and more abundant. As MacDonald puts it:
He who has God, has all things, after the fashion in which He who made them has them.
Next to the touch of a breeze, or the smell of the honeysuckle, or the laughter of your children, or the bright moon on a clear Spring evening, the cloying cornucopia of consumerism seems a rather empty nothing.
Like the Gospel itself, none of these things are our possession.  
Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN