Saturday, September 29, 2007

Talking About God and Money

Proper 20C

Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9:1, Psalm 79: 1 – 9, 1 Timothy 2: 1 - 7, Luke 16: 1 - 13

The Rev. Linda Campbell

Talking about Money and God

So offensive is this parable that St. Augustine is quoted as having said he didn’t believe this could have ever come from the lips of our Lord.

Gil Bailie, a favorite commentator on Luke’s gospel, mostly walks right around Luke 16.

The truth is Luke has Jesus talk about money more than anything else. Far more than sex. While the church may be caught up in the politics of sex, Luke’s Jesus is talking about the far more dangerous subject of money – or mammon – as the old translations say. Jesus says a whole lot, in this Gospel, about our relationship to money and our relationship to God. And what he says appears contradictory. Give it all away.

Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing when you give it away. On the other hand, use it to gain friends and a softer landing when you get the pink slip. Hmmmm…….

Balance perhaps. Maybe it turns out that Jesus didn’t think or teach in terms of black and white. Maybe Jesus was tuned in to the realities of the complexities of life, of the realities of survival in a world that doesn’t look after the welfare of those on the edges. Maybe Jesus wasn’t pure idealist, but was also imminently practical.

So practical in fact, that he taught his friends to look towards the very long view. The verrrry looooong view. Not just the twenty years of retirement – and socking away as much as possible to make those retirement years livable – but the eternal years of eternity with God. Should we invest and save for retirement? For those twenty or thirty years when we are not working? Yes. But Jesus is even more practical than that. He’s got the very long view in mind – and from that perspective, he is adamant about investing in the future, now. While we can. *

How do we invest in the future, in our future, in the future God wants for us? The scriptures don’t tell us exactly what to do. It is impossible really to answer with any certainty that modern day question – what would Jesus do? However, because the Universe has a certain bent, a certain grain, a certain arc, the scriptures do help us learn how to make decisions that help us align ourselves with the same bent, the same arc. We can learn to go with the grain of the Universe rather than go against the grain. Jesus lived in that bent, flowed with the grain of the Universe. God’s life that flowed in and through Jesus followed a certain arc. The scriptures don’t tell us exactly what to do. But walking close to Jesus is one of the very best ways to learn how to look at the various options before us and choose the ways that most closely align us with this arc and bent of the Universe, and

So how do we invest in a future that is going with the grain of the Universe rather than against the grain? In other words, how do we put ourselves in the same stream of goodness and abundance and creativity that is characteristic of Creation?

Let me ask you something. If I asked Miriam and Rebecca and Noah and Liliana and Fred and John and Dorothy and Olivia up here and had them jump up and down and say “I’m hungry. I’m hungry. I’m hungry,” at the top of their lungs, what would your response be? I think it would probably be pretty immediate. Elizabeth and Leslie would run down to Safeway. Elise and Jeff would be up in the kitchen. Diane and Bobbi would put their arms around them and make sure they knew they would be taken care of. And before you know it, we would have fed the children and the others who were hungry. Of course, these are our friends and fellow parishioners. It would be easy to feed them if they came to church that hungry. And they are of a limited number. It would also be fairly practical and within our financial reach to feed them breakfast.

God says look around. ALL the people around you are my children. ALL the people around the world are my children. And a whole lot of them are very hungry. And you are full.

Addressing hunger in some practical way is to go with the grain of the universe. Likewise, addressing lack of shelter is to go with the grain of the universe. Or lack of clean water. Or lack of medical care. Or lack of friendship. Understanding the laws of abundance – that money is meant to flow, that debt is meant to be forgiven, that sins and trespasses are not to be held tightly to one’s heart where they fester and turn into a hotbed of bitterness. Sins and trespasses are meant to be forgiven, to be let go and turned over to God. Resources, any kind of resource, are meant to be circulated, not hoarded.

It was wonderful yesterday to see how resources circulated in the rummage sale. Many of us left with what others of us brought! Many people throughout the community came through these doors and went home thoroughly pleased with their $8 microwave and their $2 Wedgwood china cup to drink tea in. Circulating resources rather than hoarding them means that everyone benefits. St. Alban’s benefited by over $4,000.

The question is – what for? So you can have a safe, comfy place to worship? Or so you can truly invest in God’s future, the future that God has in mind for this community? My conviction is that the future God has in mind for this community is far more audacious, far larger and more out on the edge than quietly admiring the beautiful stained glass windows and the wonders of Rite 1 and Rite 2, and how the candles are lit or not lit on the altar.

In the New York Times this morning, there is an article on a church in Georgia that was dying. Finally, they began to look around and understand the signs of the times – the signals God was sending their way. Their community had changed. It was now home to many immigrants from all over Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. This is a Southern Baptism congregation in the deep south. At a church meeting, one elder stood up and said that if they thought these people were going to be welcomed into this church, they had another thing coming. Well, I would say that this man wasn’t very well invested in his loooong term future. The future with God. Looking at the scriptures, at how Jesus lived, gave this congregation the direction they needed for investing their dwindling resources. Newly named the International church, they opened their doors and welcomed in their neighbors. They compromised in many ways. The music changed. The preaching changed. The food changed – although apparently this was the easiest and most welcome change – since everybody liked everybody else’s food! In the last few years, they have easily tripled in size – but even more, they reflect what heaven actually looks like – as Anglos and Nigerians and Sudanese and Ecuadorians and many others of all ages, worship God together, while also making room for various ethnicities to have their own worship services in their own languages.

In terms of the future, I don’t know what God has in mind for St. Alban’s. What I do know is that St. Alban’s has a gift for food, for welcome, for friendship. What I do know is that there are a lot of people hungry. Hungry for food. Hungry for welcome. Hungry for friendship. Hungry for God.


Diane Bergant, “Money, Money, Money,” America, The National Catholic Weekly, September 13, 2004

Dr. William Long, “A Different Kind of Friendship”

*The Rev. Edward F. Markquart, “Money and Wise Investments for the Future,” Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

The New York Times, Sunday, September 23, 2007

Caring for the Body of God, all Creation

Carbon Conscious Consumer

Just having returned from the Diocese of California clergy conference with Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, many wonderful colleagues, and Bishop Marc, I am encouraged that so many Christians are so deeply committed to the earth and all creation as the Body of Christ, committed to being stewards and caretakers of this beautiful garden home, this fragile island home we call earth. The workshop with Sally Bingham and the Regeneration Project, on specifics that congregations can do to become "cool congregations," places where people learn the skills of caring for creation and sustainable living practices, was most helpful.

What do I do personally? I walk as much as possible. I buy most of my food from local sources. I unplug the few appliances I own when they are not being used. I wear silk and wool to keep warm, waiting for as long as possible before turning on the heat. I get enormous pleasure from listening to the early morning birds, to soaking in the sun as I'm walking to work / church / friends / theater, to laughing deeply and often. I find these pleasures more nourishing and sustaining than the mall.

So, I'm going to post this now, and see if the Carbon Conscious Consumer logo turns up! If it doesn't, you can google Carbon Conscious Consumer and also Eco-Justice Ministries, as well as Interfaith Power and Light - for specifically Christian and faith based take on environmental justice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Until the lost is found

Proper 19C
The Rev. Linda Campbell
Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1: 12- 17; Luke 15: 1 - 10
“Until the lost is found..”

A childhood friend of mine had a picture hanging in her room that is imprinted in my memory. It was a picture of Jesus walking through rugged countryside, off any pathway, with a lamb around his shoulders. The lamb looked so content and safe. My friend and I never talked about this picture – so I don’t know what she thought of it. But I thought that this lamb was one of the luckiest lambs in the world. Not really knowing this parable I didn’t realize that there were 99 other lambs probably wondering where Jesus went to!

When one child heard this morning’s gospel story and was "Would you go after the one lost sheep or stay with the ninety-nine?" the boy quickly responded, "I'd go after the one lost sheep, but I'd take the other ninety-nine with me."

I viscerally understand what this boy was feeling. Am I one of the 99? Am I the lost sheep? Which ever one I am, I want Jesus looking after me. And I don’t know about you, but for me, I really don’t think, 40 years later, that I’ve ever grown out of this feeling.

The little word “until” is enormous. The shepherd continues looking for the lost sheep until the sheep is located and rescued. The woman turns her house inside out until she locates the coin. The non-stop rescue effort, the non-stop searching is all out of proportion to any economic interest in the one sheep or the one coin. Until says that something else is operating here that has nothing to do with cost, or effort. What that something else is – is the absolute value that the shepherd places on that sheep; that the woman places on that coin; that God places on you and me and every other creature on this earth.

You and I are of infinite worth. You and I are worthy of non stop effort to locate us, each one of us, and find us, and carry us home. That is the heart and soul of the Gospel right there. Christ did not stay safe in heaven in infinite glory and beauty and loveliness, but in eternal creativity and generative liveliness, stepped out of heaven, into human form, and came to seek the lost, the lonely, the out of place. There is no falling through the cracks with God.

Of course it is not just you and I that God does this for. It is everyone else as well. Everyone else.

This was highly offensive in Jesus’ day, and it still is in ours. Jesus often concluded his teaching with let those who have ears to hear, hear. Now we find out who had the ears to hear. Not the regular folk, but the people who knew they were on the outside and who knew they had done wrong. Tax collectors were often greedy traitors to their own people, working for the Romans and skimming profit from their impoverished neighbors. “Sinners” cover a wide range of people – from the handicapped and ill and poor, to prostitutes and addicts. The good Pharisees grumbled not because Jesus was present at a dinner with these people. Feeding the hungry was not unknown in Jesus’ day. Giving a dinner for the fringe crowd was an act of mercy. No, the Pharisees grumbled because this holy man didn’t just bless the food and them as charitable folk. He sat down and ate and drank and laughed and talked with the entertainers, the serving women who were there to serve more than food, the hunched over people who drooled…. The people who were supposed to be the objects of charity were instead his friends and companions, and they listened to him eagerly, stretching their meager resources even thinner so that they could take the time off to be wherever he was.

The biblical scholars who pore over the gospels attempting to figure out what Jesus’ actual words were and what was added on later are one hundred percent positive that this open fellowship, this eating and drinking and partying and companionship that went across all social boundaries, was utterly characteristic of Jesus. And that whether or not Jesus told these stories in precisely this way or not, they are entirely accurate about how Jesus lived and what he was about.

The early church might have begun with this kind of ethic, but it didn’t take long for the ways of the world to creep in and begin to alter the characteristics of church life. And I would say, just looking around this morning, that while you and I might have quite a few hidden sins in our background, we are, for the most part, fairly upstanding citizens. Maybe not! Nevertheless, Jesus’ openness and love of all kinds of people is still a challenge. I don’t know about you, but there are some people for whom I have a hard time wondering why Jesus would plow through canyons and brambles and into the cold dark of night to find. But not just that – that all of heaven would party when they were found!

A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.

The truth is that only those who can celebrate God's grace to others can experience that mercy themselves.

But before moving on to others, I want to talk about you and me. Do you really know that all of heaven parties for you? If not, I invite you to let yourself try that on. For some of us that is very hard. All the messages we received were that happiness was not for us. That there was, in fact, something suspect about joy. That hard work and sad repentance were the appropriate things to feel and do in God’s presence. And while Luke does gloss this story with words about repentance, the truth is the lamb knew nothing about repentance. The lost sheep really had nothing to do with being found. Well, maybe some bleating and calling out. Maybe getting so turned around that he eventually got tired and laid down. But the work of repentance is really just about stopping long enough that the shepherd can reach down and pick you up. Can find you and bring you back home. So try on the heaven parties for you idea.

Then I invite you to think of three other people whom you deeply desire to know God’s love and mercy and grace. Picture now, in your mind’s eye and in the warmth of your heart, several people for whom you would love to blow up the balloons and bake the cakes and break out the best champagne and sparkling waters. Pray for them without ceasing. Without giving up. Without ever giving up.

And now I invite you to think of someone for whom you would not want to bake a cake for, or blow up balloons, or in any active way celebrate the fact that God is utterly in love with them too. Ask God’s help to accept that eternal, heavenly and earthly fact of mercy and grace and love for everyone. That you both are feted by the angels. That infinite worth extends to every single human being.

And finally, I invite you to picture yourself, equipped with a strong flashlight and a sturdy broom. Because that’s what entry into the kingdom of heaven gets you! A party. A flashlight for finding the lost in the dark and the gloom. And a broom for sweeping out the cobwebs and the dirt and recovering God’s treasured souls.

You and I aren’t called to be the lost sheep found over and over again. Jesus’ challenge, in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, *"is to join him in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure. Our calling is to discover the joy of finding. We are called to the exquisite care of searching out and the infinite joy of finding. After we have been the lost and the found, we ourselves are to discover the joy of being good shepherds and diligent sweepers."

*Barbara Brown Taylor

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Parish Photo Albums

Proper 17, Year C
Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
The Rev. Linda Campbell

Have any of you moved recently? Isn’t it a trial?! When my family moved out of the family home in Sonoma County, it was amazing what we found! Try undoing your home. You’ll find out that NOTHING disappears! The earring that you thought you’d lost long ago, is still there, behind the bed, just where it fell after you got home from that wild Christmas party five years ago.

Going through a home is like looking through a photo album. Albums of memories and connections and meanings, sometimes rather loosely organized. Parishes are like that, too. As we got ready for the construction of the wheelchair lift to go in, things got moved around, and amazing things were found! Stories of the windows. Stories of the kneeler cushions. Just as the parish was about to make a major new investment in becoming even more hospitable, reminders of past major investments were re-discovered, and their stories came to light once more. Just like these beautiful stained glass windows, and these needlepoint kneeler cushions, all of our belongings have stories that surround them.

The stories fit together – sometimes quite loosely, and sometimes we’re only able to recognize the thread that binds them all together after a long time has passed. But the thread is there – and almost always the thread that binds families and parishes together, as well as individual lives, has to do with love and loyalty, faithfulness and forgiveness.

Today’s epistle is like looking through a congregational photo album. The letter to the Hebrews gives what appear to be random snapshots – of hospitality, prison, marriage, adultery, finance, but they are bound together under the banner of love. “Let mutual love continue,” the writer begins, echoing Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another.”

But how did that congregation turn a broad injunction to love others into actual behavior that led to a measurably, demonstrably different kind of life? What difference did it make to “let mutual love continue”? What difference does it make for us? Where do we begin?

The letter writer began with hospitality, particularly with strangers. At St. Alban's, the injunction to practice hospitality as been taken very literally, as the wheelchair lift has been constructed, the handicapped restrooms have been put in. Just this morning, Jill, with her broken ankle, and Merlyn, with his fourteen pound tank of oxygen, were able to be at the parish breakfast because of this commitment to practical hospitality. When you find yourself wondering about the cost of these projects, know that this isn't just something "nice" that St. Alban's has done, but it has been a carrying out of an injunction from scripture to practice hospitality - especially to those who are impaired, lame or crippled, and frail. The gospel is always costly in one way or another!

This morning’s gospel gives us a clear and discomforting picture of hospitality to strangers, especially to the desperately poor and those on the margins of society. Jesus didn’t talk about handouts. He talked about the more costly path of relationship, of conversation, of kindness that is vulnerable to the realities of being human together.

That’s not easy because poverty isn’t pretty. I worked for many years in a church where lunches were served every day to homeless women and children, and weekly lunches to people who were HIV positive. It was much more comfortable to dish out the food then to get out from behind the counter and sit down to eat with the woman who smelled and the child with the bad manners and the runny nose. But whenever I did, I can testify that something mysteriously new always broke out into my world, and that I wouldn’t want to be without those encounters.

Here’s another snapshot – “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them, those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” We have certainly heard a great deal about torture in the headlines recently. As your priest, I tell you that Christians may never, under any circumstance, be involved in torturing another human being or any creature. In our own parish, Ruthie Marsh has undertaken a ministry of inviting us to write letters for prisoners whom Amnesty International has identified as being tortured because of conscience. Signing a letter at Ruthie’s table during the monthly parish breakfasts is one way that you can “remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them.” You might want to take it one step further, and after signing the letter, remember this person in your daily prayers.

Another photo – this one of marriage. This morning, at the 8:00 service, Merlyn and Barbara Counsel celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. And for those of you who know them, their love and faithfulness to each other continue unabated. They are a living witness to the joy of permanence. The truth is that while there is argument over who can and can not be married, the institution continues to be highly valued. While our commercial culture treats relationships as disposable commodities, marriage is a covenant of mutual love and blessing between persons that points to the everlasting covenant God has made with creation. And fornication? It is such an antique word, isn’t it? In the era of Sex and the City – which I have watched and enjoyed – it is virtually meaningless. But regardless of cultural entertainment standards, the church continues to hold out for the risky, come-what-may vows of permanence. The church also recognizes that as humans, such permanence is not always desirable or feasible. We can be confident however the God never abandons the covenant to be with us forever.

And final double sided snapshots – “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” I love how the scriptures zing right to the heart in such a few words – like all worthwhile pictures do.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. Contentment with what you have and who you are is counter cultural. We hear so many messages that are just the opposite, that attempt to generate need on our part for something more, something different, and something else, to make us happy. And the ever growing array of choices to answer the needs that have been created keeps us very preoccupied! Jeans, internet providers, coffees, cereals, and on and on .... so many daily choices inundate our lives, that some authors say the choices themselves actually create depression! The solution offered to that of course, are choices of an array of medications and there's always another shopping trip!

The good news is that Jesus stepped in to save us from this death trap of preoccupation with self. To help us become content with exactly who we are, at rest, in God. To set us free from having to buy the next best self-help book that promises freedom and happiness.

But what a way Jesus opened to us! Sit in the place with the least honor. Don’t spend your life trying to be invited to the best parties and the “in” gatherings. Open your life and your heart to those who don’t matter; to those who don’t count; to those who are overlooked. Jesus pointed us towards Life by pushing us to the edge of our very human, fundamental fears about not mattering, about being nobody, ultimately really about death.

That is why Christianity is dangerous. Because the cross stands in the center of every avenue by which we try to approach God. This is the pulsating generative truth at the heart of the gospel – you must lose your life in order to save it. Or as the modern theologian, Marcus Borg puts it; “your heart must be hatched open.”

The snapshots contained in the letter to the Hebrew’ show us what a hatched open heart looks like. It is an awakened heart filled with gratitude and contentment and the mystery of joining hands with the prisoners and the poor. It is a lively heart that imitates Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.

This is our family album, bound together by love and faithfulness. It is a series of snapshots of each one of us, out in the world, practicing our religion, letting the Holy Spirit work through the sacraments and the scriptures and our daily encounters with others to break our hearts open so that we do, in truth, let mutual love continue.


The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg

The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz

Peace, Walter Brueggemann

Christian Century, 8/24/04, Living by the Word, Bruce Wollenberg