• Beyond Financial Anxiety

    blogpic tithingA sermon preached on Luke 16:1-13 on September 17-18, 2016

    In 1989 I was ordained and moved to Detroit MI for my first call. I was serving an urban congregation and lived in the parsonage or house next door to the church. I was so excited after 4 years of college and 4 years of seminary, to make a real salary. I was going to buy my first car, start paying off student loans, purchase a professional wardrobe,ge t some furniture, and decorate my little house like a real adult.

    I quickly discovered that doing all of these things on a salary of $17,000 was going to be difficult, if not impossible. Even with a parsonage, it was a struggle to meet all my needs on this amount of money; and I became racked with anxiety about not being able to pay my own way.

    To make it worse, before I left seminary, I attended a workshop on tithing—giving 10% of my income back to God through the church for the mission of the Gospel. I couldn’t make it on $17,000, so now how was I going to tithe and live on $15,300? Oh, and did I mention I was getting married the following year? I thought earning a real salary was going to be awesome, but instead I had a higher grade of financial anxiety. You cannot serve God and wealth. What was I going to do?

    In Luke 16:1-13, Jesus tells a parable about a dishonest manager who also seems to have high financial anxiety and worry about not having enough. Unlike a positive parable that shows us how to behave, like the Good Samaritan, this chapter of Luke contains Parables of Judgment—how NOT to behave given our financial anxiety. The Dishonest Manager has been caught squandering his bosses’ income, most likely in finding ways to line his own pockets. Now he’ll be left without a job and no means of livelihood.

    Instead of this crisis leading to repentance and positive behavior, he uses his deceptive and dastardly ways to make friends with other dishonest folk, ensuring someone will help him once he’s cast out on his kiester. Misery loves company, and so does dishonesty and fraud as it turns out.

    Then we come to the very puzzling, vs. 8, where Jesus talks about using dishonesty and the ways of the world to secure a place in “eternal homes.” Something is amiss. We are used to Jesus welcoming the lost into the kingdom of God, but such a welcome causes a transformation from dishonesty to honesty. We hear such a story later in Luke 19, in the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector. His encounter with Jesus causes Zaccheus to return four times what he has stolen, and to give half his income to the poor, NOT to make friends in heaven with continued dishonesty.

    My colleague, Pr. Richard Mueller pointed out to me and I agree with him, that “eternal homes” in vs. 8, is not the best translation. Keeping in mind that Luke is writing to a Greek audience, the word for “homes” could also be translated as “shadows.” Make friends by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal “shadows”—or to hell in other words. A Parable of Judgment. You cannot serve God and wealth. This makes much more sense since the very next parable in Luke 16 is about the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man fails to help the poor, starving Lazarus who begs outside his gate. When they both die, Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell. By positioning these parables together, Luke wants us to know that the rich man will find companions already in the eternal shadows—this crooked manager and his dishonest friends.

    It turns out they’re all in good company when it comes to financial shenanigans.
    • Amos 2 reprimands Israel for “trampling on the needy…practicing deceit with false balances...buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
    • The Pharisees bent the law so they could collect nice fees for things like unlawful divorce.
    • As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are reminded that Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences designed to make money off of Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness.
    • Recently Wells Fargo bank has been in the news for opening unauthorized accounts and charging customers extra fees.
    • Maybe we too, are tempted to live in the financial shadows and fudge just a little bit on our taxes or on our expense account, engaging in shades of dishonesty when our financial anxiety gets the best of us.

    You cannot serve God and wealth. Luke’s parables of judgment in Luke 16 call us to repent of our service to wealth and to instead trust in God to provide all we need and use our resources to help the poor.

    So how do we do this given our real financial anxieties? In 2nd Timothy St. Paul reminds us that there is only ONE God –there is only one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

    Jesus has already paid the price and secured our future –to live within the embrace of God’s love for eternity! Jesus paid this price, not just so we can have peace in death, (and pie in the sky bye and bye), but so that we can have peace in this life here and now, freed from all of our anxieties. Complete trust that God’s hand is in my life—every detail of it—including my budget, is the kind of faith to which God calls us and Jesus Christ won for us.

    There are two spiritual practices that help me manage my finances and my anxiety. I don’t exercise these spiritual practices perfectly, and I need God’s forgiveness and help everyday when I flunk. I’m sure many reading this practice these as well, and I would love to hear your testimony in the comments!

    The first spiritual practice that helps me worship God instead of wealth is gratitude. When I wake up in the morning and I put my feet on the floor for the first time that day, I try to remember to say, “thank you”—one word for each foot on the floor, so that my first thought of the day is to thank God for the gift of life and all that surrounds me before I even stand up.

    This practice led to saying “thank you” to God more frequently throughout the day, and at night when I looked back over my day. Keep a journal by your bedside and write down that for which you are grateful. What new additions can you add each day?

    Over time, I noticed an internal shift when a destitute person asks me for help; the first time this internal shift happened several years ago, I was standing in front of a Thai restaurant in the University City Loop several years ago. A woman asked if I had any change and instead of getting that uncomfortable-guilty-stingy-shameful feeling, I gave her some money, and as I did so, a new thought popped in my head, “God will give me what I need.” It came as a gift of faith; it was not something I generated myself.

    Two weeks ago, I was on my way to Saturday evening worship and I had one of the red bag lunches with me (that the church I serve prepares to give to homeless people). I stopped at the bottom of the exit ramp, and an old gentleman was there with a sign. I told him I didn’t have cash, but I did have some food to eat, and he said, “well if you gave me money, I would buy food with it, so thank you!” Even he practiced the spiritual discipline of gratitude.

    The second spiritual practice is the one I mentioned at the beginning—tithing. Remember that $15,300 I didn’t think I could live on aftter giving my tithe? I was taught in the tithing workshop that when I give God my first fruits—with gratitude—God will provide what I need—not all I want, mind you—but what I need. I confess to you that I did not believe it. I did not trust God to provide what I needed because I had a lot of financial anxiety. But, I thought it was part of my job. So after my first paycheck, I wrote out my 10% check to the church—not as an act of faith—but because I thought I had to.

    A week and a half later, I was out doing my first Communion visits to the homebound. It was a Tuesday and I was on my way to see Gladys Steinheiser, who lived the furthest distance from the church. I looked at my gas gauge and it was below a ¼ of a tank. I was completely out of money and payday wasn’t until that weekend. As I looked at my gas gauge, I thought to myself, “I won’t be able to do any more visits this week since I am almost out of gas and I’m out of money.”

    I arrived at Gladys’s house; we had a lovely visit and shared the Lord’s Supper. She walked me to the door and as I turned to say goodbye to her, she handed me an envelope and said, “Here, this is for gas.”

    I’ve been a tither ever since! I got in the car and I said to God, “Ok, I get it!” and that’s freedom from anxiety!

  • One Powerful Letter

    blogpic letterA Sermon on Philemon preached September 4, 2016

    Anyone who’s been a parent, or loved a child deeply, knows the anguish and the anxiety of releasing your child into the world. Of sending them across the state or across the country to move into the next phase of their life, be it college or their first job.

    I received this kind of concerned letter from a parent a couple of weeks ago—well, actually, it was a message on FB, but in today’s world, that constitutes a letter! A friend in Kansas City wrote and shared that her daughter was moving back to North Carolina for her senior year of college. My friend wondered if she could stay at our house in St. Louis as she traveled across country. We were delighted to help and she is now safely arrived at school and taking classes.

    It’s a letter that most of us have both written and received—seeking the blessing of someone else’s love for our child, and sharing our love for someone else’s child.

    The book of Philemon is also such a letter—a letter written by the Apostle, Paul to Philemon. Paul writes as Onesimus’ Father—not his blood relative—but instead, as his father in the body of Christ, his father in faith who brought the Gospel message to Onesimus. Rather than being sent by mail ahead of time, Onesimus carries this letter in his pocket as he travels from Paul, who was imprisoned in a different town.

    The circumstances of this letter are different from the one my friend sent, because Onesimus is Philemon’s slave. But at its core, this really was the same letter for it carried in the anxiety and anguish of a parent sending her child into the world. Onesimus has left Philemon—we’re not sure why or how—and fled to Paul who is the founder of the Christian community that gathers in Philemon’s house.

    More than a simple night of lodging, this letter carries in it life and death for Onesimus. In the first century, a slave who has left his master and owner without permission, would have been severely punished or even put to death for his transgression (this is part of our own history in this country). Imagine the fear and trembling with which Onesimus traveled—wondering if this short letter in his pocket is sufficient to persuade Philemon to spare his life and not give him the punishment allowed by law.

    In the letter in Onesimus’ pocket, Paul reveals to Philemon that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, and because of this, appeals to Philemon to do away with the owner-slave relationship. Paul encourages Philemon to forego his legal rights as a slave-owner, and instead, to transform their relationship to one of brothers—as equals—in the body of Christ. Paul is asking Philemon to live out his admonition in Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

    “I am sending you my own child,” says, Paul, "'my very heart'—a precious one whom Jesus loves and forgives and saves—so change your thinking Philemon, expand your mind, for when you change how think about Onesimus, you will be freed to behave differently toward him—not as one who commands his behavior, but as one who loves him in Jesus Christ.”

    Paul invites Philemon into the hard spiritual work of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Paul beckons Philemon to leave behind social stratifications and class privileges and instead to live by Galatians 3:28, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

    “Philemon, it’s not enough that you believe in Jesus’ love, forgiveness and power,” says Paul, “Jesus asks you to be his love, forgiveness and power. Let go of your rights and the vengeance or anger that goes with them, and change your behavior, your relationship with, and your treatment of Onesimus.”

    Paul adds, “I could command you to do it—for I am in authority over you, but I want you to choose it through the power of Christ who dwells in you. Can you receive this son of mine, my own child, my own heart, into your home and care for him as your own child rather than a slave?”

    As in so many other passages, Scripture does not give us the satisfaction of telling us the end of the story. What happened? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and love him as a brother in Christ? Did the church gathered in his house, let go of their assumed “right” to decide who is in and who is out, and follow Paul in being transformed by the renewing of their mind in Christ to act out of love and forgiveness?

    The only answer we have is the one we ourselves choose. Paul’s letter asks us if we will forego our societal or class rights and privileges to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s letter asks us to extend the radical hospitality of Christ himself in our relationships, communities and churches. I fear that the very public use of Christianity as a moral club with which to ostracize and demean those we find distasteful or too different is finding more currency today. I fear the politics of hatred spouted by those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians is becoming a more powerful voice than the voice of grace and love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

    My husband Dan, serves a Presbyterian church in a small town. A church member told him the story of a young woman who found herself in a situation like Onesimus. Although covered in tattoos and piercings, she was seeking a loving and forgiving relationship with Jesus, so she visited one of the churches in town. After the worship service, the members of that church literally asked her not to come back. They thought it was their right to decide who was in and who was out.

    But doesn’t she, like Onesimus, have a letter in her pocket? A letter from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.

    And doesn’t every immigrant fleeing war or abuse or sex trafficking or hopelessness have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.

    And doesn’t the gay, lesbian or transgendered student in your family’s school have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.

    And didn’t Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and every other young African American man in this country, whom we have been taught to fear in so many ways, have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.

    Can we expand our thoughts, can we be transformed by the renewing mind of Christ and love them, care for them, help them, with dignity and with agape love?

    Paul makes one final promise in his letter for Onesimus: "If Onesimus owes you anything, any money for labor lost, charge it to me. And when I come back to you, I will pay the price of whatever he owes."

    Paul himself is walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. "I will pay the price myself." Paul is the living example of the love of Christ in action, in real life, in real relationships.

    We hear in Paul’s own transformed heart, the promise of Jesus Christ to all of us. As Bible-believing Christians, Paul calls us to join him and Philemon in relinquishing our rights whether of citizenship or church membership, whether of privilege or class status, and instead, allow Jesus to transform our minds and our lives around the love of Christ who has paid the price for us.

    We can be the Pauls and Philemons of the church today, embodying the love and radical hospitality of Christ himself. For don’t we each have a letter in our pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love her as you would your own child.