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Created by: College At Home
Julie and Juanita were sisters but they were completely different. Julie was attractive and attracted to money. Juanita was plain looking and like to help people. Their childhood was a series of fights that culminated when Julie graduated high school. She wanted to go to an expensive private college in another state but her family couldn't afford that. She shamed her parents into taking out a loan for and as soon as she got on campus she immediately began blowing that money. She partied hard and went through thousands of dollars and flunked out of college the first semester. Meanwhile, Juanita plugged away at the community college where she was studying law enforcement. One of her three part time jobs was pulling night guard duty at a local department store. Imagine her surprise at 2 am one morning when she was making her rounds outside the department store and heard a rustling in the trash bin. When Juanita shined her flashlight in there it fell upon the frightened face of her sister Julie. It was like something out of a bad dream.
"What are your doing here?!" Juanita yelled.
"Where am I?" sighed Julie. "Take me home. I wanna go home"
Juanita had to leave her post on duty to drive her sister home in the dead of night. She just knew their mother was going to let Julie have it for being so selfish, for wasting all that money, and flunking out of school. But when Juanita dragged her sister into the house she couldn't believe the tears of joy her mother shed for having Julie back home.
"How could you welcome her home?!" shouted Juanita. "She humiliated our family. She wasted thousands of dollars. She's like a parasite on us!" Mother said, "I know. You're right. And she's also my daughter. Just like you."
Welcome to the Kingdom of God where all are paid equally. It seems so unfair! Is there a deeper lesson here? These are the questions we will consider. We need to get this message because it applies to each one of us. When we understand the truth of this parable it sets us free on the inside. We need to be freed from the prison walls of resentment, bitterness, and gall. When Jesus was hanging on the cross dying of thirst because his fluids were drained he was offered a drink of wine and gall and he refused to drink the gall. Jesus knew the gall of envy would kill him faster than the cross.
If you turn a garbage can upside down and leave it over a flower for weeks the flower will wither and die. It is cut off from its source of life and energy. It festers in darkness and slowly chokes and dies. That is what we do to ourselves when we cover ourselves with the garbage can called gall, bitterness, envy.
We are not talking here about coming to church. Yes, that helps. We come to church and there we are reminded that God loves us and cares for us and wants what is best for us. But what do we do with that knowledge? Does it sink in and take roots? Do we stay connected to source on Monday morning? How about Friday night? We must not place a garbage can over our lives and wither away in darkness. Awaken from your slumber. Stand up and lift that garbage can of gall off of you. As Jesus said to the crippled man who came to him for healing so he says to you: "Get up and walk!" And he did. And so will you.
God does not owe you anything. That is a hard concept to internalize. Your false assumptions about God may trap you inside a garbage can shaped prison of your own illusions about life. Everything in life worth having is a free gift from God to you. The old doctrine gets a bad rap these days but that was the central meaning of Predestination. Predestination was trying to say that God doesn't owe you anything. Certainly, God does not owe you salvation from your own sinfulness, from your own gall. So anyone who is saved by God is saved purely and only because God chooses to do so. Predestination says you cannot achieve your own salvation. That is a free gift that God may grant to you if God so chooses. Today it's different. Predestination is a forgotten creed. We all act like God owes us something. That makes us assume that everyone else owes us something too. We all walk around feeling cheated. This is an odd way to live. It has nothing to do with the Bible or good theology. That is what our text today is trying to get across to us. God does not owe you anything.
But you don't get the message so you feel cheated by other people. You resent your neighbor who has more than you do. She has better health. She is younger. Her children are better at sports. Her dog is cuter than yours. And you hold that against her and envy grows inside you like a cancer. Envy is quite a darling in the beginning. It may even make you feel closer to someone else when you share a secret grudge or resentment against a third party. Such triangulation feels good in the beginning. But envy is a cruel mate over time. Envy won't murder you on the street in cold blood. Like a drug addiction or alcoholism, envy kills more slowly over time. First, it compromises your immune system so your body becomes less able to resist germs and diseases. Then it feeds those germs and diseases so they grow strong within fueled by bitterness and anger. Finally, it kills you, the real you, the Christ in you. You may be still breathing. You may still be walking around. But inside your spirit has died. The Christ in you has been smothered. You have been robbed. You have been killed. Envy will rob you blind. Then it will kill you.
There is a cure for envy. There is something that can stop envy dead in its tracks. The cure for envy is a spirit of gratitude. Such a cure requires repentance.
"Why do you never preach repentance?" asked the preacher.
"It's the only thing I teach," said the Master.
"But I never hear you speak on sorrow for sin."
"Repentance isn't sorrow for the past. The past is dead and isn't worth a moment's grief. repentance is a change of mind, a radically different vision of Reality." (Anthony de Mello, Awakening: Conversations with the Master, p 258)
Jesus, our spiritual master, teaches repentance in his parable from Matthew 20:1-16. Listen to this story.
"God's kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.
"Later, about nine o'clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.
"He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, 'Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?'
"They said, 'Because no one hired us.'
"He told them to go to work in his vineyard.
"When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, 'Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.'
"Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, 'These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.'
"He replied to the one speaking for the rest, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn't we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can't I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?'
"Here it is again," says Jesus, "the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first." (Matthew 20:1-16, The Message)
The Great Reversal we need to seek is to throw off the garbage can of gall that has us trapped inside. Break free from the prison of resentment. The dynamite that will break our prison walls is called gratitude. We have already been given what we need to live gratefully. Listen to this story.
There was a poor Jewish rabbi who lived in the city of Krakow in Poland. His name was Isaac, son of Yekel. He had almost no money. Then one night Isaac, son of Yekel, had an exceptionally vivid dream. He dreamed that underneath a bridge in the city of Warsaw there was a great treasure. The dream was so real that when he woke up, he was troubled. He was all the more troubled when the next night he had exactly the same dream, and again on the third night the very same dream. There was nothing for Isaac to do, but walk to Warsaw and see for himself. When he finally arrived, he saw the bridge just as he had dreamed it. He went underneath to take a look, but he was grabbed by the back of the neck by the captain of the guard who said, "You Jew, what are you doing prowling under this bridge?" Isaac was a simple man who wouldn't lie: "I've dreamed that underneath this bridge there is a treasure and I have traveled many miles to find that treasure." The captain of the guard burst into laughter: "You fool. You traipse over the world because of your dreams. If I were so foolish, I would be lost in the city of Krakow right now, for I also have dreams. For weeks I have dreamed of a voice that came and said, 'In the city of Krakow, in the home of a certain Jew named Isaac son of Yekel, underneath his stove is buried a great treasure.' But imagine that when half the Jews in Krakow are named Isaac and the other half Yekel." He laughed again and sent Isaac home. The son of Yekel quietly made the long journey back to Krakow. Isaac went to his home, moved his stove, and began to dig. There he found a great treasure. With the money he found he paid all his debts and married off his three daughters. With the money that remained he built a synagogue for the praise of God. He found his treasure in the place he had been living all along.
We come to worship to remember that the treasure is here, that we have already been given all that we need to live gratefully. Focus inside and count your blessings. Stop eying others with envy. Envy is a killer. It will not kill the person you envy. It will kill you. Do not resent those whom you deem unworthy but whom God chooses to bless. God is a generous God and is free to bless any and all as God wishes. Dig deep inside your self like Yekel son of Isaac. You will find your hidden treasure within your heart, within your mind, within your soul. Gratitude is the secret treasure that will break you out of your prison of resentment. Envy kills. Gratitude gives life. A grateful spirit is the cure for envy. Repent means change direction. Go in another direction. Follow Jesus in joy and leave your old friend envy behind. You will find you are happier and bring more joy to others.
The story of Isaac son of Yekel comes from William Bausch, Storytelling: Imagination and Faith, Twenty-third Publications: Mystic, Connecticut, 1984, 76-77.
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Where were you and what were you doing ten years ago today on September 11, 2001? We were all caught by surprise. I was walking across the church parking lot headed to my car when a woman told me in an excited voice, "Have you heard the news? Have you heard the news? They're bombing the world trade center!" With a startled expression I said, "No. I hadn't heard that." And got in my car feeling a bit shaken. Turned on the car radio and for the next 45 minutes as I drove to a presbytery committee meeting I listened to the story unfolding in real time.
You remember how the day unfolded. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. An airplane had crashed into it. People were jumping out of windows. Then there was another airplane that flew into the other building. The radio announcers on NPR were at a loss for words. It was all so surreal. The entire nation was gripped by fear and shock. We felt as if we had been snakebitten. We felt the poisoned by hate. The gentle doves had flown away and the hawks ruled the skies above.
Ten years later many questions remain about how the buildings came down and why. Beyond the basic questions of when, where and how is the bigger question which is why? Why did it happen and why did we respond the way we did? The alleged bombers were of Saudi Arabian descent yet the United States government responded by attacking Iraq. One thing we can say for sure is that acts of violence beget acts of violence. The conflict that emerged has been euphemistically called "The War on Terror" as if we could fight a war against a tactic. It is conflict by whatever name you choose. Both 911 and our reading from Romans 14 are about conflict.
We will consider the differences between healthy and unhealthy methods of interaction in the church. There are dangers and there are opportunities for us at this time in our church's life and we will talk about those. In essence, we will talk about the issues addressed in our text today since these are the issues Paul addresses in his letter to the Church in Rome. There were apparently several different Christian groups meeting in Rome. One group thinks its fine to eat meat that has been offered to idols such as the meat regularly sold in their markets. Some say yes and some say no. Regardless of the presenting issue the dynamics of conflict are the same throughout the generations from the early church until today.
Conflict goes all the way to the first story told in the first book of the Bible. You may recall from Genesis the story of how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge and they would become like God. They succumb to the temptation of spiritual pride and that causes God to turn them out of the garden. Spiritual pride is also the sin of the Pharisees that Jesus spoke out so strongly against. The Pharisees were good people. They tithed their money. They knew and taught the scriptures. Where they fell short is that they focused too much on outer manifestations of religion and not enough on the spiritual qualities of love and mercy.
A cursory glimpse at Christian history says we have a disposition toward conflict. Beyond the conflict in the early church we have the sad episode of the Crusades in which Christian mobs raped and pillaged Jewish and Muslim folks in their cities and villages. Then we have the inter-Christian conflicts called the Inquisitions, the last of which concluded less than four generations ago. So conflict has always been a relevant topic and it still is today. A sermon about conflict could be preached in any church in America today and each congregation would feel that the message was pointed directly at them. That is how widespread and common conflict is and always has been.
The question is not whether a congregation will have conflicts or not. The answer to that question is always yes. The question is how a congregation deals with the conflicts they have. Does the congregation have healthy or unhealthy practices when dealing with conflict? Unresolved conflicts can escalate to the point of tearing communities apart. In contrast, mutual forbearance is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed faith. Presbyterians have traditionally dealt with conflict head on and face to face. We show courage by saying what we think out in public. We don't slip anonymous notes under doors to make our point. That is the coward's way. It is not the Presbyterian way. Presbyterians are not cowards. Never have been and never will be.
It was in Minneapolis in 1986 where I first experienced the Presbyterian way of dealing with conflict. I was there as a seminary student representative to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). What amazed me about the gathering of a thousand or so Presbyterians in that convention hall was how the people respectfully but passionately disagreed on topics that ranged from the mundane church matters to apartheid in South Africa. The thousand or so delegates were seated. Standing microphones were dispersed throughout the delegates. When a controversial issue came forward the moderator would allow one person to speak for the issue for 2 minutes maximum and then one person to speak against the issue for 2 minutes maximum. Finally, all the delegates voted and the majority won and they went on the next controversial issue. I saw a lot of passion compressed into a system for expression and resolution that worked. Seeing the Presbyterian way gave me great respect for how we conduct business.
You may have noticed the same debating format when we hosted the presbytery meeting last fall. The controversial issue that day was the ordination of gays and lesbians. Those in favor of the motion lined up on side of the sanctuary. Those opposed on the other side. One by one they came to the microphone and each one gave an impassioned presentation of their view. They each had two minutes to make their presentation. Then time was called on them and they had to sit down. The vote was then taken and the majority ruled and the meeting went on to the next issue. One of the features of the Presbyterian system of public debate is that bullies are not tolerated. Bullies are not tolerated in the Presbyterian system and they will not be tolerated in this church.
Christ expects us in the church to be role models for the community. If the church models unhealthy behaviors such as bullying, let's not act surprised if the recent riots in London and flash mobs in the United States materialize in our city and our neighborhood. Perhaps we should look in the mirror and ask how do we relate to other people in the church? If we can't relate to one another in healthy ways in our local church then what hope do we have for our civilization? The church needs to model healthy relationships and mutual forbearance to the community. Otherwise, we shouldn't be shocked when the flash mobs and riots come home to roost.
During these days when the world seems to be slowing ripping apart at the seams, our faith communities are our best public defense. We've got to get it right in the church or we have very little hope for society. The stakes are very high. Make no mistake about that. The good news is that there is a way forward for the church and our society. When we learn to deal with one another is healthy ways our church will benefit and will our community and the world.
Let's live up to our Presbyterian heritage which includes being open and welcoming and willing to dialogue with people of other faith traditions. In his email last Wednesday, Elliott Gershwin, President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, himself a Jew, wrote about celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary. He says,
"The other day when I was talking about my upcoming 40th anniversary someone said 'boy, I bet you've had a really good 25 years together.' There's a lot of truth to that.
So why have we've kept it going all this time? Here's why.
Even though we are very different people, we share the same core values. And our relationship from the very beginning has been based on those. We believe in honesty so there are no secrets between us. We believe in family so our hearts swell when things are good and burst when things are sad. We believe in community, so we give back to others always reminding ourselves of the many blessings that God has bestowed on us.
And because of the bonds of trust, loyalty and honesty, our relationship has turned to love. It's not the same infatuation we had when we were teenagers, but it still burns today." ("Coming Together to Serve" email from September 6, 2011.)
What keeps us together as Presbyterians is that we share the same core values of mutual respect and forbearance. The biggest value we share is love for God and for one another as children of God. Working out the details of how we live out that love in a Christian community is messy and hard. Thus is our Christian history besotted with both Crusades and Inquisitions. Jesus said how we treat other people is equivalent to how we treat Jesus in his eyes. With that sobering thought in mind, we do well to remember that each of us will be accountable to God not for what our neighbor did or said but for what we do and say. That is a challenging thought for our nation as we consider our response to 911 over the past ten years. On the national and on the personal level, if we hope to receive mercy from God for ourselves, then we will show mercy to others. If we don't care how God will judge us then we are free to bully whomever we wish. And if we are the ones being bullied Jesus invites us to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Somewhere in between the serpents and the doves there is a balance to be found. That balance is the key to our survival as a church and as a nation.