Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for October, 2014

Money, Religion, and Politics—Oh My!

Matthew 22:15-22

Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!

But in this case, it’s money and religion and politics—oh my!

Yes, that’s right. It’s time to talk about these SCARY things. It IS almost Halloween, after all.
Let’s talk about money, first, which leads to politics, which leads to religion!

Jesus of Nazareth probably wouldn’t be invited to anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, because apparently he really liked talking about money. He talked about it a LOT. A whole lot more, in fact, than he ever talked about sexual orientation—or sex in general.

Oh wait—he didn’t talk about sex.

But money—well…

Money and taxes were reality in the 1st and 2nd Century for the people of Israel and Palestine. Some may argue that things have not changed much. Well, I will beg to differ, because it was different back then and over there in that part of the world. Let’s give culture and history it’s due here; let’s look at money and taxes in this particular context.

Jews like Jesus in first century Palestine paid numerous taxes: They paid temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, and even more. But the “tax” that Jesus is asked about in this particular story is the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome. This tax supported the Roman occupation of Israel.

Um, sad, no? The Romans occupied Israel [not their land], but Israelis had to pay taxes to their oppressors.

But of course, as in every situation, some sided with the oppressors.

There were Jewish folk put in power by the Romans and they benefited from the occupation. So obviously, they supported the tax.

One more layer to it: those who were religiously devout [think about the Pharisees] had to pay this Imperial tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius; this picture was a proclamation of his divinity; having the coin itself would mean breaking the first two Commandments of Mosaic Law. So by paying this tax, the religious leaders were in fact honoring Caesar as a god. Obviously, the temple authorities were ultra-sensitive about this issue. And then Jesus started making them more sensitive about, it because…

Jesus taught that the Roman imperial system left out certain people.

Jesus said that the last should actually be first in God’s world. He told a story just before this episode about a wedding reception hosted by a king. Many rich people and dignitaries were invited, but they ignored the invitation. In the end, the king ended up inviting anyone he could find even from the streets, and they filled his banquet hall.

The injustice of the social systems mixed with the apathy of the religious leaders had put things out of balance.

But the Pharisees could not see that in Jesus’ message, for they were far too worried about, you guessed it—

Money, religion, and politics…oh my!

So they asked Jesus a trap question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? No good way to answer that.

So Jesus asked them a question.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.
Whose face is on the coin, and whose title?

How quickly the Pharisees produced said coin which was a symbol of Roman oppression and a sure sign that these very religious leaders were actually compliant in this unjust system. They eagerly showed Jesus the coin and told him that it was the Emperor’s face on it.

And while they considered the sad irony of all this and held tightly to the Emperor’s coin, Jesus quipped:

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.

This was Jesus asking them to wake up and notice that they were contributing to the injustice. None of their religious piety mattered, because it was empty. They cared more about the coin with the face on it; they cared more about their precious religious laws than they cared about the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the forgotten.

So who were they? Were they Caesar’s subjects, or God’s children?

It’s a sharp question—and one we often avoid.

Because political affiliations [or lack thereof] tend to be very personal; we don’t like to talk about it. But many remain very loyal to said affiliations. And the way we spend and earn money is nobody’s business, we say. But meanwhile, we often measure ourselves [and others] by how much money we have or how many material possessions we own.

And then there’s religion. We say we don’t want politics or money mixed in with religion. But sadly, many churches are full of poisonous politics and gossip and people vying for control; churches even favor certain people who have more money and listen less to those with very little money.

So like the Pharisees, we often miss the point.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, religion, and politics. They are part of life. We should not fear such things.

But they cannot be how we define ourselves.

Who are we? Are we subjects in an empire, loyalists to faces on a coin? Are we limited by our material wealth and boxed in by politics?

Or, are we children, created equally with the capacity to love and to show mercy, and to be impartial as the Creator is?

I’ve always felt that faith communities ought to inspire this kind of positive identity in people. Faith communities should be teaching and telling people that they are created in the image of God and all equal—with gifts to share, with purpose and potential; with the tools to love and to make a difference.

Churches [and people in general, for that matter] should never define people by their politics, religion, or how much money they have.

Instead, what if the coins with the faces on them did not matter so much to us? What if our religious and political affiliations also mattered less?

What if our behavior—how we live our lives and how we treat people, mattered the most?

The Pharisees are meant to be examples. We are supposed to walk in their shoes. Because like them, many of us have found ourselves getting too caught up in the politics of power, the pursuit of material wealth, and the imperialism of religion.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are members of churches only because their parents forced them to go or because it’s the status quo or merely because a particular church aligns with their political or social worldviews.

But I think that more and more people in this world want to commit only to things that make a real social impact in the world. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds want to find something like a spark or a light within themselves. And they want to join their light with others to make an even brighter one.

So friends, let money, religion, and politics, be what they are. Don’t let them define you.

Instead, be defined by the beauty and light given to all living creatures. Be defined by how you love and care for others.



Philippians 4

All life is suffering.

This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.

And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.

Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.


So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?

He wrote:
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.

Really, Paul?

What would you know about suffering anyway?

Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.

Okay, maybe I’m listening…..

Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.

It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.

First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.

Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.

Allow me to explain.

All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”

“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”

It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.

It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.

Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.

Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.

We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.

Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.

Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.

And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.

I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.

white_lotus_flowerThe lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.

Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.

The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.

They are always expecting to eventually bloom.

I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.

That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.

If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.

Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.

It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.

Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.

Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.

And that’s okay.

Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?

Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?

No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.

But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.

Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.

May you find contentment.

Open-Ended Possibilities

Matthew 21:23-32

I was in the church office last Sunday facilitating a wedding planning meeting when one of the children from the church burst in the room. He politely stopped in the doorway, though, and asked me a question:

Is there a door that leads to outside?

doors.jpegLet me explain how the office is set up. I was sitting at my desk facing the doorway through which this kid entered. Behind me [and to the left of the desk] is another door that does indeed lead outside.

That door was closed.

The kid was actually staring at that particular door that leads outside when he asked me the question.
Is there a door that leads outside?

Now listen–he could have just entered the office and then, without hesitation, he could have gone to that other door and opened it.

But he didn’t. Why?

Two reasons, I think.
First, the door was closed. He wasn’t sure that this door would lead to where he wanted to go. So he hesitated.

And second, he gave authority to me. Even though he already saw a possible “way out” he wanted to check with me first. He knows me; I think he trusts me as someone who will not hurt him or lead him astray; and, quite possibly another adult may have told him that I have some sort of authority. Whatever the case, he wanted to ask me first if this door was the right one.

He gave me authority.

We need to talk about authority.

Authority is power, but…

Power itself is something someone or something can have.

A great white shark’s bite is powerful.
The rays of the sun are powerful.
Chia seed is powerful in its nutrition. Other foods are powerful antioxidants.

But authority is something totally different.

Authority is not something you have.

Authority is power given to you or given by you.

If someone has authority over you, that is because you gave him/her that authority.
Likewise if you have authority over someone or something, it is not innate; it was given to you.

We often associate authority with someone “above” us.
But authority can also be given by those who are considered “below.”

This is important to understand because Jesus and the chief priests of the temple were discussing authority. The priests wanted Jesus to explain himself. What he was teaching and doing did not fit into their dogma or temple system. So they tried to make him look bad.

By what authority are you doing these things; who gave you this authority?
It was a trap question.

If Jesus said that God gave him the authority, then that would be blasphemy.
If Jesus said that certain people gave him the authority, then the priests would be able to negate that with their temple authority.
Of course, Jesus sensed the trap and didn’t answer. He asked them a question.

Where did John get his authority?
After all, John and Jesus were inextricably connected.
John the prophet prepared the way for Jesus.
There was no way the chief priests would recognize John’s authority as being from God.
Neither would the priests acknowledge John as having authority among the people.
That would take away the chief priests’ authority.

They weren’t going to give that up!

And so they copped out. They avoided the question to save face.
We don’t know.

And then Jesus tells a parable.
One son says: Sure, dad, I’ll help out!
And then he didn’t help.

Another son says: No thanks dad, I won’t help.
But in the end, he does.

So this connects nicely with the questions about authority.
The son who says I won’t help but then does help is like all those people considered to be outside the temple, not religious enough, incapable of obeying the law.
The son who says I’ll help but then does not is like all those so-called religious people who claim authority and holiness and then continually break the religious laws they claim to follow.

I cannot tell you how many people I have met who look uber-religious on the outside and present themselves that way, as church insiders. They have no trouble criticizing others for their lack of faith or how they live their lives. But they don’t follow through on their religious commitments any more than others do. They treat people badly. They are not seeking spiritual growth. It’s hypocrisy.

And I’ve known lots of people who are non-religious and considered “outside” the church. They don’t present themselves as Christians—or at least are not in your face about it. But they follow through on their commitments; they are helpful, caring, actively growing in their spirituality.

Once again, with the questions about authority and in this Matthew parable, Jesus is inviting us to consider that things are not as they seem.

And the book is not written.
The future is open.
There are endless possibilities to change your mind and your life.
All the pointless arguments of the past about who is more religious can go away if we let them.

If we stop giving authority to them.

The invitation is to let go of the past and to embrace an open future.
And don’t assume for one moment that if you identify as a Christian or go to church that you are not in the shoes of the stubborn chief priests. Many times, those who clearly identify themselves as religious struggle the most with letting go of the past or letting go of dogmas that claim authority.

But to Jesus, this is all a waste of time and a supreme limitation on our lives.

For we allow so many people to have authority over us.
We allow them to hurt us; to tell us we don’t matter; to make us feel that our lifestyle is wrong; we allow them to make us feel guilty if we don’t pray or think or believe like they do; we allow them to lord over us and keep us from healing, reconciliation, and an open future.

This is why Jesus mentions “tax collectors” and “prostitutes”—not because they are somehow “worse” people—but because society considered them “outside” of God’s grace and yet somehow they were the ones so eager to embrace that grace and walk forward into a promising future.

So whatever shoes you find yourselves filling today—the shoes of the chief priests, or the prostitutes, or the tax collectors—you are all invited to move.

To change your mind about your past so that it does not cement your future.
All the things that people have said to you.
All the ways you’ve been conditioned to believe this or that.
All the hurt, the suffering, abuse, the deceit, the manipulation.

You are invited to not give these things or these people authority.

Not anymore!

Look, it’s not easy to do this and to let go of the past. It’s comfortable to stay there.
But the Jesus of scripture is not as concerned with the past and certainly does not give it any authority—so why should we?

There’s no period at the end of our sentence; it is a comma.
We can change our minds.
We can change our perspectives.
We can change our experience of life.
We can be refreshed, healed, and strengthened.

So friends, ask yourselves:
To whom and to what do you give authority?

If the authority you have given to people and to things has made you feel heavy, or controlled, or limited, or lesser—it’s time to rethink it.

Instead, take this with you:

Wherever we are in life, whoever we are—we are invited to see our lives as open.
We are invited to reconcile, heal, and restore.

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