Posted by: dacalu | 26 February 2018

Not Accounting but Encounter

This Sunday, I had the honor of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst. We celebrated the second Sunday in Lent.  Here is the sermon I shared.

 

Prayer for the Day

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Genesis 17:1-16 (God gives Abram and Sarai new names and promises they will be the ancestors of nations)

Psalm 22:22-30 (“My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him;”)

Romans 4:13-25 (“Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.”)

Mark 8:31-38 (“those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”)

 

Sermon

What do you value?
Our society teaches us to measure everything.
	We measure our power and influence with dollars and cents.
		I'm willing to bet most of you have at least a rough idea of
			how much money you make each month,
			and how much money you have in the bank.
		We're even willing to ask the question, "how much is she worth?"
			A quick search on the internet reveals that 
Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are each
"worth" between 90 and 110 billion dollars
Mark Zuckerberg is "worth" about 70 billion
Oprah Winfrey is "worth" about 3 billion
and Queen Elizabeth II about half a billion.
			And, while we know that people have more value than
				their financial value, I doubt any of us would bat an eye,
				to hear people described this way.
			I am surprised just how many websites and articles
				I could find on the topic.
			People care about how much money other people have.	
	These days we also measure 
the number of "friends" we have on Facebook,
the number of followers on twitter.
	In academia, it's all about how often our articles are cited,
		the exclusivity of our journals and our universities.
	Even in the church, it comes down to ASA - that's average Sunday attendance -
		pledging units, and annual budget.
None of this is wrong.
	It's good to measure and know.
But…
But we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that the things we measure
	are the only important things.
They are not.
 
What do you value?
It's tough to even think of the right words.
I don't want to stop measuring.
I want to be sure that measuring doesn't get in the way of seeing and doing.
So, here are three suggestions.
1)	Measure different things
2)	Measure quality as well as quantity
3)	Live in hope

First: Measure different things.
	It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that things are worth what we pay for them,
		but we must not count money alone.
	
I have to go to Reno next month for a conference.
It would be false economy to drive instead of flying.
I would save a couple hundred dollars,
but I would spend 2 more days in travel.
	On the other hand, I'll be using jet fuel and creating a bigger carbon footprint.
	
In another example, many restaurants have chosen to use plastic utensils
		instead of washing metal utensils.
	How could it be cheaper to make plastic, inject it into molds, package it,
		ship it, use it once, and then throw it way,
		then to simply wash a fork?
	It has to do with economies of scale (and our cleanliness obsession).
	The point is that there is far more labor involved in plastic,
		but it still costs less, financially.

	It matters what you measure.

	Jesus asks us to think about how we spend our lives,
		our hours and days, but also our freedom and identity.
	What things should we measure?
		Not just dollars per hour.
Our time spent in prayer.
		Our time spent creating joy and enjoying creation.
The number of people we help each day.
		The number of people we like and love and support.
		The strength of our communities.
		The strength of our bond to God and one another.
 
	I could tell you about recent research on happiness.
Time spent with close friends
		is one of the best predictors of personal happiness.
That misses the point, however.
	Personal happiness may not be the most important thing to focus on.

In our drive to maximize personal happiness,
	we are starting to let other things slide,
	things like group identity, stability, and loyalty.
I fear that we are spending too much of our common identity
		to achieve individual goals,
		both in the country and the Episcopal church.
	There is value in sharing ideas about what is real and what is right.

	We must spend some time thinking about sustainable community,
		and what we are willing to sacrifice as individuals,
		in order to have a common life as a group.

	I do not pretend that this is an easy balance to find.
	Personal integrity and group loyalty will always be hard to negotiate.
	I only suggest that we keep both in mind as we make our choices.

	So, if we are to measure things,
		let me suggest hope, faith, and love,
		relationships that invite us into a deeper understanding
		of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.

Second, measure quality as well as quantity.
	Is it better to have 50 friendly acquaintances or 5 close friends?
	Is it better tobe  accepted in a large group
		or beloved in a small one?
	I cannot answer those questions,
		but I think we should be careful how we ask them.

	In academia, it has become popular to measure
		how many students have memorized a list of facts,
		instead of asking how much those facts change their lives.
	I suppose the church works this way on occasion as well.
		It is not enough to teach the Lord's prayer 
and the ten commandments and the creed to our children,
if we do not also pass on love and service.
 
	It is harder to measure real discipleship,
		because all of us disciple differently,
		all of us have different relationships with God.
	Some are called to go, like Abraham and Moses.
	Others are called to stay, like Jesus and John.
	Some are called to speak, like Miriam and Magdalene.
	Others are called to silence, like Mary.
	
	And so, if we are to measure quality as well as quantity,
		let me suggest that we need to cultivate genuine judgement,
		listen with our hearts as well as our minds,
		praying, deliberating, and seeking wisdom.

Third, we must live in hope.
	So often, we start with a list of things we want 
and ask whether we have enough to buy them.
	It might be better to start with a list of things we have
		and ask what God can make of them.
	It's a different perspective.
	It emphasizes opportunity and possibility,
		in place of scarcity and limitation. 
	This is not a philosophy of abundance.
	Sometimes God gives us an abundance; sometimes not.
		Sometimes there really is too little of what we want.
		Sometimes there really is too little of what we need.
		I think it's important to recognize that.
	Then we can be honest with ourselves
		and think clearly about the real cost of our actions.
	A philosophy of hope accepts limitations,
		but focuses on the good that can be done,
		rather than the good that cannot.
	I truly believe that we always have good things we can do,
		righteous things, glorious things, helpful things.
	They are seldom the things we want to do, the things we set out to do.
	They are the good that can be done.
	Let us do it.
 
Abraham and Sarah were promised success, fame, and descendants,
	but I don't think they left Ur because they were opportunists.
Okay, I'll be honest.
	Given the rest of their story, I think they were opportunists.
Still, it was not reckoned righteousness because they were savvy bargainers, 
	good gamblers, or clever entrepreneurs.
It was reckoned righteousness because their relationship with God
	was more important than
	basic calculations about money and opportunity.

If we reduce our religion to law - as many Christians do -
	then we are no more than opportunists.
God sets forth rules and if we follow them to the letter, we get our prize.
I have called this the Vending Machine God
	and, with reference to Heaven and Hell,
	Carrot and Stick Christianity.
If our faith is no more than enlightened self-interest,
	we must admit that we are selfish, but not enlightened.
Worse yet, we must admit that God set up the system in such a way,
	that the church operates in such a way,
	that we raise our children in such a way,
	that they will, ultimately, take care of themselves.
There is no good news there,
	no faith, no hope, no love, and no true religion.
In fact, there is nothing that we could not get far better in a self-help book
	and some behavioral economics.
At best we make heaven a commodity,
	and the obvious choice for any selfish individual if she only has the wit to find it.
Christianity is not that.

Christianity is the opportunity to value something different than the world values,
	to choose quality over quantity,
	and to live in hope.
God offers us suffering and persecution
	because it is better to honestly listen and engage with those we hate -
	and who hate us -
	than it is to live alone.
It is better to spend our lives on love,
	than to bury them in selfishness.
It is better to serve all than to focus on self.
 
What do I value?
	I value people and relationships,
	because life - real life - is lived at the intersection of I and thou.
	Life alone, wealth alone, even knowledge alone
		is nothing but possibility
		until it becomes actuality in the life of others.

Don't worry; there is a place for hermits and introverts.
They can live at the intersection of self and God.
We believe that God, the light and life of the universe,
	is a person: the God of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and Holy Wisdom.
We can have a relationship with that God.

And we can have relationships with generation upon generation
	when we read and write and pray.
You don't need to be an extrovert and evangelist - 
	though I think the Episcopal church could use more of both.
You need to be a disciple of God and a true friend to all you meet.
And none of that makes sense unless you listen.

True love takes curiosity,
	endless joyous openness to the wondrous nature of creation
	and the people in it.
True love is not exhausted by being spread broadly,
	or being unreturned.
	It was never a one-way affair.
True love is participation.

And so, I do not give my life in the expectation that God will replace it 
with something better.
I give my life, because it is in giving that we receive.
They are one action. Openness to God. Openness to neighbor. Even openness to self.

I don't know how to say it better, 
for it is not the wisdom of the world,
and our language really is not built for it.

I can only say that it is not about accounting;
it is about encounter.

This lent, I hope you will take a close look at what you value.
What do you give your life to?
And what is your life that you would be willing to lose it
	in the greater life of Christ -
	in the hope and promise of resurrection?

 

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