Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for September, 2014

Generosity Cannot be Measured

Matthew 20:1-16

I have mentioned before that four-year-olds ask the most questions…and constantly. Their brains are built to ask questions, and so they do. As we get older, though, for some reason, we ask less questions.

And sadly, many of us stop asking questions altogether.

But let’s not do that as we read scripture. Let’s ask questions!
Since today is a “parable” day, asking questions becomes even more important. So here we go…

In your opinion, what is justice?

Think about it. Come up with examples or your own definition.

Now, in your perspective, what is generosity?

Now that you’ve thought about it, let’s compare notes.

For me, justice is fairness and equity.

An example: I believe that all people deserve to have food to eat, a place to live, and safety. Justice, then, would be when all people have access to these basic needs—regardless of what needs to happen in order for that to be so.

And now, generosity.

In my perspective, generosity is sharing what one has.

An example: my friend has a garden with some kale growing in it. He shares the kale with me and others. We don’t pay him for it, he just shares it. Generosity.

How did our definitions and examples compare?

And-nowA parable of Jesus of Nazareth from the Gospel of Matthew.

A landowner, some workers.
And generosity redefined.
And justice turned on its head.

This parable story is similar to the story of the prodigal son, isn’t it?
It redefines “fairness” and exposes an immeasurable generosity.

In the prodigal son story, the dad shows generosity to the younger son.
In this story, the landowner shows generosity to workers who only labor for a short time.

Of course, in both stories, someone isn’t happy about the generosity.

The older son in the prodigal story is ticked off. He stayed and was loyal to his dad, worked hard, and didn’t squander his dad’s money. The younger son wasted his dad’s resources and messed up. The older son is mad.

In the other story, the workers who labor the whole day are ticked off, too. They stayed the whole time working the land and were paid a day’s wage. The other workers only labored for a few hours and were also paid the same. The all-day workers are mad.

Seems that both the older son and the all-day workers wanted justice—or at least justice as they defined it.

Look at what the landowner in the story asks the workers who are mad:

Are you envious because I am generous?

Again, questions are important.
The landowner’s question is a translation of an idiom in Greek.

The question should be: Is your eye evil because I am good?

In this Greek-speaking culture, the “evil eye” signifies an issue within a human being. Jesus said that the eye was the lamp of the body. If the eye was healthy, the body was full of light. It seems that in this story, the evil eye is the opposite of generosity. Perhaps greed or jealousy.[1]

Imagine if the all-day workers in the story had reacted differently? What if they would have said: We got what we deserved—a day’s pay. And as for these other workers who labored less time than we did—good for them, too. We ourselves are not hurt by the landowner’s generosity, and besides—apparently, the landowner has plenty to spread around.

But that’s not how they responded.

And that’s probably good, because this is the real world.

Most of us react most of the time like the all-day workers.
We want justice [at least our definition of it].

We prefer our justice over someone else’s generosity.

So the point of the parable, at least for me, is to change the question.

The question that we should not be asking is: who deserves this and that, and who doesn’t.

The questions we could be asking are: when and where do I catch a glimpse of generosity without limits? When and where have I experienced this generosity in my life? When and where can I participate in that generosity in the lives of others?

Because let’s be honest: justice is basically a joke.

A lot of people living in the U.S. have jobs and homes and food to eat.
And yet, the world we live in includes all kinds of unfairness for workers and especially immigrants from other countries who come here because of violence, political oppression, poverty, or manipulation.

What is “fair” when there are migrant workers who cut grass and trim hedges; fill assembly lines at factories; clean bathrooms and office complexes; wash dishes at restaurants, all the while looking over their shoulders and receiving the lowest wages?

These workers in service industries are fueling the banks, corporations, and companies of our Western society. They labor so that our technology-obsessed countries can get the newest phone, computer, or TV—or so we can eat any kind of food at any time of day and in a moment. So we argue about minimum wage increases; meanwhile, workers cannot earn above the poverty line while working 2-3 jobs. But if we all work and receive pay accordingly, isn’t that fair? Isn’t that justice?

No, it’s not.

In a just world, things would be better than they actually are, and for everyone, right?

The Jesus of Matthew does not ignore the unjust nature of the world.
Some who deserve a full day’s wage do not get it.
Others who deserve the same actually receive a TON more than they should.

This is why the world is out of balance.

And so, the last need to be first and the first need to be last.
Everyone needs to return to balance.

But that will take a serious overhaul!

We’re not given a solution in the parable, but we are given a hint.
Generosity without limits.

The landowner, who obviously represents God, shows generosity without measure. Everyone gets a full day’s wage—regardless of where they started or ended up. Anyone disadvantaged still receives the same opportunities as those who began with advantages. Wow, can you imagine if this actually were true in the world?

If there were equity, for every person, regardless of where and how she/he grew up?

This type of great generosity of the landowner [God] seems so beyond our human capabilities, right?
However, maybe generosity holds to the key to justice.

Because I admit to having experiences in my own life in which someone showed me generosity that was too big to understand. I didn’t even ask for help or support, but I received it and so much so, that it overwhelmed me. That handful of people appeared in my life and then disappeared. They did not ask for anything in return. They just gave to me—whether it was money, or time, or kindness, or some talent that they could pass on. I cannot measure their generosity.

It changed me.

And I’ll never pay them back.

So I have and will pay it forward.

This is where, to me, generosity spills over into justice.
When generosity is not measured or controlled it can have a ripple effect.

When someone is the recipient of true generosity, that generosity spills over and out of that person and into the lives of others.
And generosity can bring balance.

Friends, we can spend our whole lives making a list of the crap that people have done to us or said about us, or the ways that society has hurt us, etc., etc. We can try to “measure” justice and come up with what is “right” and “wrong” and who deserves this or that.

But it will just cause us more suffering.

Generosity, though, isn’t measured.
It’s not limited.
And it can spill over into justice.

We started with questions; I end with one:

Will generosity flow out of you into justice?

[1] Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies, Messiah College, Grantham, PA, Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

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Living on the Dry Ground

EXODUS 14:15-16; 19-22  

I grew up in Indiana and Iowa. Tornadoes happen there.

tornadoI remember one day in the summer when I was a kid. I was walking home; this was in Indiana. The weather was so strange. Everything was eerily calm. It was like listening to music really, really loud and then someone pulls the plug and it all goes silent all of a sudden. It’s weird. No wind, no sound, nothing. Storm clouds did not appear on the horizon; it didn’t smell like rain. There was absolutely nothing that would serve as a warning sign for extreme weather. The sky was a beautiful orange color and then it almost looked purple? Did I mention how calm it was?

But then, as I got about halfway home, the wind picked up. It wasn’t gradual either. From one moment of calm, things got crazy in a second. Leaves and branches and debris started blowing behind, in front—all around me. I shielded my face and covered my eyes…

And I started to run.

That’s what we did in the Midwest when the eerie calm turned into a malevolent, strong wind. You don’t look back; you don’t take your time; while the sirens blare, you just run to the nearest place. I made it home. The winds got worse and a funnel cloud formed a few miles away. It’s amazing to see such a thing if you are looking at it from a distance. It’s beautiful. It’s short-lived.

Tornadoes, for the most part, last less than 10 minutes. That’s it.

Some tornadoes only last for a few seconds and then they’re gone.

But in a short time, a lot can happen.

Consider my former front porch in Iowa. The entire thing was lifted off by a tornado. Ask the farmers who discover farm equipment miles away from where they left it.

Weather is really not something we can control, right? Sadly, though, some are trying to control it with chemicals and other things. Perhaps one of our most fatal human mistakes is when we try to control nature. It always ends badly, doesn’t it?

Just ask the great Pharaoh of Egypt–perhaps Ramses II [and thousands of ancient Egyptians]–the ones mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Insects, plagues, strong weather, and parting seas bombarded them. This is the Exodus story, a tale rich with natural images, but also a story that displays a two-sided, yin and yang theme. Nature can act beautifully and protectively. But on the other hand, that beauty can turn ugly and the protection can turn to destruction.

Moses and the Israelites, seeking to escape slavery and Egypt, cross the Red Sea because Moses lifts up his staff and the waters part for the Israelites. They cross unharmed, but the Egyptians, in hot pursuit, do not make it. The once-dry land spills over with raging waters and they all drown. The Israelites win and the Egyptians lose.

Even as the Israelites journey on to the Jordan River, they see the floating Egyptian corpses in the water.

There is a cloud by day and fire by night.

There is dry ground and there is flood.

There is a great escape from slavery, but then a famine.

There’s a heck of a lot more to this story than meets the eye, don’t you think?

For example, most Christians know that the New Testament contains Gospels [4 of them made it into what we call the canon]. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John passed the test and are printed in the various translations of the Bible. These Gospels tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but they do so in different ways. Each one adds and subtracts details and inserts different viewpoints about the same stories.

The same goes for the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Genesis, we get more than one perspective about how the earth, sky, waters, animals and plants were created. We also get different points of view about how man and woman came to be. And in Exodus, we have varied perspectives, too.

How, you ask?

Well, just like in the NT, the OT books were not all written by just one author. Books like Exodus are compilations of different writers with different perspectives. Oral traditions got handed down and were added into the mix.

This particular Moses and Pharaoh story is told in three different ways.

The first version, and most likely the earliest version, is often called the Song of Moses; it appears in Exodus 15. It is a retelling of the Red Sea event in the form of a poem.

The second version appears in selected verses of Exodus 14.
This is considered a non-priestly version. A nice summary of this second version is provided by my OT professor from Princeton, Dr. Dennis Olson:

1. The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites

 2. The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)

 3. Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned

 That version is dated much earlier than the third and final version, called a priestly version. This third version, also selected verses of chapter 14, could be summarized as such [again, thanks, Dr. Olson]:

1. The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD

 2. The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide

 3. A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides

 4. The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side

 5. After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians

 Okay, why does this matter?

Because there is always more than one perspective to the story.

There is always more than one way to look at life.

Sometimes we are walking on dry ground and we feel like we’re being overwhelmed with floods of water.
Other times we may be inundated with rain and feel that we’re in a desert.

Sometimes a cloud can be wonderful. It can bring rain that sustains crops and provides sustenance. It cleans. It refreshes.
But other times clouds hide things from our vision. Literally, they “cloud” our path. They can also signal an upcoming, destructive storm.

A victory for some people means a loss for others.
Life for some means death for others.

We’re meant to live in this tension of duality the yin and yang [light and dark].

Creation and new beginnings are like that.

Yahweh creates something new.
People are invited to start over again.

They are asked to let go and to walk forward.

But it is not easy to do.
There will painful changes that people must make.

Letting go is really, really hard.
Complaining is really, really easy.

We all crave the “greener grass” on the other side of the fence, but when it comes time to do what is necessary to make a significant change in our lives, we lose our enthusiasm all of a sudden.

Walk on dry ground?

Maybe not…

But that’s just it.
We have to let go and walk forward if we are to create and refresh.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Egyptians in the story [or any oppressors for that matter] and try to keep the status quo going, refuse change—at any cost. We are capable of enslaving ourselves and enslaving others.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Israelites did, and complain that the grass is always greener and that our current situation is always worse than somebody else’s.

When we don’t let go to let newness come, we drown in our stubbornness.

So the story invites all of us.

Let go.
Walk forward.
Live on the dry ground.

Live in the tension.

We are invited to see each day of our lives as an opportunity to be refreshed, re-created, and propelled forward.

After all, we cannot control the weather of life. And remember, weather changes pretty quickly.

Will we embrace the dry ground?

 

Alarming Love

Romans 13:8-11a

Matthew 18:15-20

Sell your crap.

Pay your debt.

Do what you love.

This was the title of Adam Baker’s TED TALK in 2011—the story of how his family moved away from being the “typical” debt-laden U.S. family trapped by the next thing to buy to a family that envisioned freedom from that debt and then took the necessary steps to truly be free.

Let’s listen to a bit.

Adam argues that most of us live a life based on a script.

And we did not write that script—someone else did, or perhaps even a government, or a company, or an institution wrote that script for us.

The script, sadly, can become our life.

And that script involves debt.

debtFinancially, many people in the world are born into debt. Those who are fortunate enough to be born into a family without debt have a better chance, but even so, they often accumulate debt of their own. It piles up, because we follow the script of what we are supposed to buy, what is the next “logical” step in our relationships, when to get the house with the yard, the new car, and where to send our kids to college.

But is this really freedom?

I don’t think so—not if we’re following someone else’s script.

Not if we’re buying things because we think we need them or because that celebrity or that commercial told us to.

Not if we’re moving from one life decision to the next without actually reflecting on those decisions because…

We’re just following someone else’s script for our lives.

So I want to talk about debt; obviously, so far we have been talking about the financial kind of debt, because that will help us in the rest of this discussion.

In order to understand relationship debt, we first have to understand financial debt.

I include two Bible passages—one from Matthew [words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth] and the other from Romans [Paul’s letter to the Roman church] to help us honestly reflect and hopefully act.

First, Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew’s discussion about debt is based on human relationships and Torah Law. The Torah is the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Matthew’s debt discussion, the author includes references to Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Jesus of Matthew is concerned about how people treat each other. There was [and is] conflict between humans. How do we deal with such conflict?

The root of said human conflicts is a problem—which happens to be a problematic word—and that word is sin.

Not enough time to break down just how misunderstood this word is. So let’s just stick to Matthew’s view.

Sin isn’t about morality but more about missing the mark. Sin is a failure to be human—as we are created to be.

So when two people fight about something, talk behind each other’s back, hurt one another—this is sin or missing the mark showing itself. And there is no prayer, or physical offering at the altar, or religious duty that one can do to solve such conflicts. Notice here that it is completely up to the humans themselves to work this out. There is no mediator-priest.

The first step is to confront the other person directly. Honesty and direct communication come first. The goal of the confrontation, however, is to prove who is “right” or “wrong” but to reconcile. The goal is reconciliation and thus the direct confrontation is motivated by love.

Jesus concludes the relationship debt teaching with this:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Just in case we weren’t paying attention, we have the ball in our court.

Whatever we hold onto, we carry with us.

Any debts we have weigh us down.
If we keep others in debt to us, they are weighed down.

But if we choose to lose our own personal debts and release the debts of others, there is great freedom for all.

But clearly, Jesus leaves it up to us.
If two or more of us AGREE on earth, it will be done.

Do we agree to forgive the debts of others?

Do we agree to clear our lives of the debt that weighs us down?

————————————————————————————————

And now to Paul and his letter to the Roman church—a church under an empire and in great debt.

Time to WAKE UP!

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Paul flips things around: owe no one [including Rome] any THING.

But love one another.

Loving fulfills the law.

Then he lists some of the commandments [back to the Torah again, like in Matthew] but adds an emphasis that was Jesus’ teaching:
Any can be summed up in this word,
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The reasoning?
Love does not harm another person.
So love does indeed fulfill all the law.

If you don’t harm people, you won’t break commandments.
You only owe one thing this to the world and all its creatures—love.

And we are invited to wake up to this reality every day.

It’s not a script; it’s not predictable; it’s not popular; it’s not mainstream; it won’t be easy; it will be risky; love is like that when it’s actually lived out.

It’s like theologian Karl Barth once wrote:
Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.

Friends, owe nothing to empires, institutions, companies, things, and even people! Don’t allow debt of any kind to weigh down your life and your humanity.

True freedom is letting go of any debts that exist.
And in true freedom you will learn how to love.

When the Fire Burns, Remove Your Sandals!

Exodus 3:1-7; 11-15  

ganeshastatueFriday marked the beginning of the Ganesha Festival for Hindus around the world. Ganesh Chaturthi festival honors Lord Ganesh[a], the form or deity that represents intellect and wisdom.

The son of goddess Parvati, Ganesh is identified by his elephant head.

The festival is 10 days of music, drums, prayers, dancing, and food.

We are fortunate enough to live 5 minutes from Bharatiya Temple and Cultural Center in Chalfont, PA where one of the biggest Ganesha festivals in the U.S. takes place.

Here are some pictures:

ganesha1 ganeshaband ganeshabanners ganeshaThrone

We had a wonderful experience and felt very welcomed.

One of the dynamics of Hindu spiritual practice involves removing one’s shoes before entering a temple.

keep-calm-and-remove-your-shoesWhy remove your shoes? A few reasons.

One is sanitary: taking off one’s shoes helps to limit the amount of dust and dirt that accumulates in the carpet strands or on tiled floors. Important for people with dust allergies [like me], but also important for everybody; it keeps things cleaner. Second reason: there is a different “feel” when you take off your shoes upon entering someone’s home, temple, or any particular space. It is more comfortable; your feet are free to breathe and move about.

There is, at least for me, some sacredness that we claim when we remove our shoes. Whatever we accumulated on the outside, we are leaving it there; we are entering a new space, and it’s different. There just might be a chance for renewal; we just might find something we were looking for.

And, when everyone takes off their shoes, it’s a great equalizer.

Whatever cool or fancy shoes you were wearing are gone.
Showing feet is being vulnerable.

We are all the same.

Perhaps this resonates with you; perhaps it does not. There must be something to it, though, because countless cultures around the world remove their shoes. And as in Bharatiya Hindu temple, people all over the world remove their shoes before entering their sacred space of meditation, prayer, or worship. Some see this as a sign of respect or veneration for the spiritual act. Some see it as merely ritual. Many do it in their homes as well, because the go less to a temple and consider their home to be a place of prayer and worship. So the home is a temple. And they take their shoes off before entering it.

In Middle-Eastern culture, the removing of shoes was and is also important. People of the ancient world in Israel and Palestine would take it a step further and even wash their feet upon entering a home.

But what happens if you’re still outside and you need to remove your shoes?

That’s what happened to Moses.

He was doing the shepherd thing, minding his own business in the shadow of Mount Horeb, when…FLASH!

A flame of fire burst out of a nearby bush!

The fire blazed, but the bush didn’t burn up.

Now that’s weird…
Moses turned his head in fear, because, well, it was FREAKY.

And then the bush talks to him.
Moses! Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals. You are standing on holy ground.

Okay…

Most likely, Moses did as we was told and took off his sandals.
He stood on the ground. The earth. He felt the good soil between his toes and under his feet. He was grounded in nature. He was standing barefoot on the ground, watching the fireworks show happening in a random bush in the shadow of Mount Horeb.

What about the sheep? Did they freak out and baaaahhhh their way out of this situation? Seriously, what about the sheep?

ScaredSheepLessWe’re left in suspense about the poor sheep, but as for Moses, he’s invited to Yahweh’s house, and the shoes had to come off!

Moses was vulnerable. He could not cover up or hide. He was exposed.

And yet somehow that bush did not burn up completely. Maybe this fire would not lead to his demise after all? Maybe he should not be afraid of it?

And then the voice speaks again and says:
I AM.

Not just “I am a freaky, burning bush” but “I am the One you pray to, and are confused about, and are afraid to name…”

I AM.

Moses is more frightened by the voice than the fire. He turns away.

But the voice isn’t finished.
I have seen the misery of people. I have heard their cries. I know how they suffer…

The voice couldn’t be all that bad if it had so much empathy, right?
But then the voice asked Moses to do something.
And it was more than just removing his sandals.
He had to act in justice; he had to organize people to stand up against oppression; he had put his sandals back on and journey a long way…

How?
Who am I?

Notice the switching of words from I AM to AM I
Moses felt inadequate.

But the voice said:
I’ll be with you.

Not enough for Moses, apparently. He was worried about what people would think. They will have questions and doubts; they’ll want details. So what should I tell them? What’s your name, oh voice from the burning bush?

Duh, said the voice.
I already told you.
I AM is short for, well—I AM. It’s enough.

What a story, right friends?
It’s a metaphor. Understand that.

It’s the only way to learn something from it and be inspired by it.

The story is about vulnerability, a fire that should burn in all of us, and the leaving behind of the past in order to live in the present.

Moses’ symbolic action of removing his sandals signifies an end to one journey and the beginning of another. Moses has to let go of his attachments. He has to let go of fear, of misconceptions about God; he has to let go of the identity he gave himself [or others gave to him]. He stands on the solid, beautiful soil of earth and is grounded in his true humanity. He doesn’t need to put up a false front; there is no pretense or appearance here.

But the bush burns with fire. It is anger and sadness, an empathetic response to the awful things we do to each other and to creation. We harm, we compete, we steal land and food, we push down, destroy, and isolate. Injustice is everywhere. People suffer. This should burn in all of us.

If the fire doesn’t burn, we are ignoring it. We are suppressing the flames. We are turning away from the truth. Because like Moses, we are sometimes afraid to face injustice. We are sometimes unwilling to admit that things are out of balance; we are scared to confront the imbalance and injustice inside ourselves.

So you must remove your shoes.

You must be vulnerable.

You must look in the mirror and ask how you treat other people and the good earth.

We must ask. Are we destroyers? Are we oppressors? Are we harming and hurting? Are we ignoring?

And without our shoes, the sacred earth claims us.
We feel the soil beneath us and in between our toes.
We feel a foundation.

Friends, don’t ignore the fire burning in the world and all around you.
Don’t ignore the suffering; don’t hide from uncomfortable things.

Remove your shoes.
Be vulnerable.
Shed pretense.

Leave behind the heaviness of the past.
Get ready to walk forward.

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