24 September 2010

Greed is Good?

When I was sixteen I saw a movie that had a profound impact on my life: Oliver Stone's Wall Street.  Michael Douglas plays Gordon Gecko, a billionaire Wall Street tycoon whose life had everything.  When I left the cinema, I wanted to be Gordon Gecko.  It was only later, after watching the film again from a more worldly perspective did I understand the movie's point.  Despite what Gordon Gecko famously said, greed is not good.  Greed makes people into small, shallow individuals who do not understand how money can be used to bless others.  Tomorrow night I'll see the Wall Street sequel, again starring Michael Douglas as Gecko.  I wonder how it will impact me at age 39?

My life turned out to be so radically different that I imagined it would be after seeing Wall Street.  I did not earn an MBA, did not become a millionaire by age 22.  I became a youth director, a teacher, and a pastor-- not exactly careers with huge earning potential!  Yet my life has more depth and meaning than I could have thought of in high school.  The things I dreamed of turned out to be an illusion; the things I never dreamed about (family, faith, a growing relationship with God) continue to shape me in profound ways.  Such is the process of growth-- we learn what is ultimately important and what is not.

The subtitle of the Wall Street sequel is Money Never Sleeps.  I hear that and I immediately think of the Psalms: "He who keeps Israel will neither sleep nor slumber" (Psalm 121:4).  Money never sleeps.  God never sleeps.  Money is God.  Uh-oh.  Well for many people, it's true.  I wish we could only confine such thoughts to the movies, but we know better.  Others believe if we have enough faith God will reward us by making us rich.  Another way of saying "Greed is good."

A popular Sunday school lesson for children is the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 19).  Kids like it because he was short and had to climb a tree to see Jesus.  Look at the story closer and we see that Zacchaeus was rich but was searching for something more-- and when he heard Jesus was close he even climbed the tree to get a look.  Jesus stopped and said, "Zacchaeus, I must come to your home for dinner tonight."  Why?  Why must Jesus go to his house-- this man who routinely lied, cheated, and collaborated with the Roman occupiers?  We don't know their conversation, but we can guess what was said by Zacchaeus' next words: "I will give half of my money to the poor, and whatever I have stolen I will repay times four."  Jesus replied, "Today salvation has come to this house!"  Jesus went to dinner that night with Zacchaeus-- remember: "I must come..." Why?  Because this was a man who agreed with Gecko: "Greed is good"-- until he learned the truth and found salvation.

How we deal with money says much about our relationship with God.  If we are generous with money, then it shows that we believe in a God of abundance.  If we are selfish with it, then we believe in a God of scarcity.  How are you using your blessings to bless others?  How do you respond to the grace you have received?  Jesus wants our hearts and our lives.  Sometimes money/greed gets in the way, with disastrous results.  Let's use what we have to change a life for Jesus Christ!

Ultimately God had better and different plans for my life, trading in my Wall Street suits for a clergy robe.  The sixteen year old tycoon-to-be never materialized.  And I am thankful!  I mean, who needs a fleet of Ferraris, anyway, right?  Right??  Gecko was wrong: greed is not good.  God is good!  All the time!

17 September 2010

Obey Your Thirst!

It is a well-known fact that I do not care for the month of August-- too hot.  But at least we expect that.  My least favorite month of the year is September, even though it marks the beginning of football season and the opening of the State Fair of Texas.  Every day in September, and sometimes several times each day, I look up the 10-day forecast, expecting to see that first cold front on the horizon.  And every day I am disappointed.  I am in need of refreshment from hot weather!

You know what it feels like to need refreshment-- that cold drink after yard work; that well-deserved vacation; the laughter of children after a stressful day.  We have that sense of being parched-- needing something that is not quite there-- and when the need is fulfilled all we can express is, "Aaaaaagh!"  Do you remember the old iced tea commercials of people falling backward into a pool?  That's what I mean.  Refreshment.

Thirst comes in physical, spiritual, and emotional forms.  The physical part is fairly easy to address.  Go to the nearest water fountain.  The others are more difficult.  Sometimes we feel thirsty but do not know where to go.  For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate source of refreshment!  Read the scripture below: the story of Jesus offering the woman a drink of living water.  Not the stuff from her well, but real, everlasting refreshment through relationship with him.  The beginning of that relationship involves water-- our baptism-- but after that moment how do we satisfy our thirst for God?

The best way is by regular worship attendance.  We come to worship not because we want to hear great music or preaching, and not because we want to see friends and make relationships.  All of those things flow from the source of living water-- a relationship with Jesus.  We come to worship to give thanks to God for the life-saving, life-changing grace we have received-- real refreshment.  We come to empty ourselves in praise so that God will fill us up again.  As Psalm 23 says, "My cup overflows!"  This is why regular, weekly worship attendance is vital to spiritual growth.  When we only drink for the water of God every now and then we become more and more parched.

This Sunday we'll begin an exciting new sermon series called "Who Do You Say That I AM?" the question Jesus asked the disciples.  If we do not know who Jesus is, how can he fill us with love and grace?  The series will be based on the "I AM" sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of John.  Here's an outline:

September 19: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
September 26: "I am the Good Shepherd."
October 3: "I am the Bread of Life."
October 10: "I am the Light of the World."
October 17: "I am the Vine, you are the branches."
October 31: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."
Sprite had a great slogan a few years ago: "Obey your thirst."  Let's make a commitment to do just that over the next six weeks.  Obey your thirst for Jesus.  Admit that like the woman at the well, you too are thirsting for something.  Maybe you've tried more that a few ways to quench that thirst but nothing has quite worked yet.  Commit to attend worship every Sunday through October and hear the comforting, challenging, life giving and saving words of Jesus as he tells us who he is-- and invites us to deeper, more meaningful relationship with him.  Obey your thirst!  By the end of October we should have welcomed that first cold front to Prosper.  If not, I'll be in real need of refreshment!

See you Sunday.  And next Sunday.  And the one after that.  And...

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink'. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?' (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me a drink", you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.' The woman said to him, 'Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?' Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.' The woman said to him, 'Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.'

10 September 2010

Remembering September 11

Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of us will never forget where we were at the moment we learned our nation was under attack. Like many of you, I was watching the Today Show with Christy in our apartment in Dallas when the second plane hit World Trade Center. As I drove to the church where I served as Associate Pastor, Oak Lawn UMC, I listened on the radio intently for more news. The shock and horror of that day was compounded for me especially. We had just discovered the day before, September 10, 2001, that Christy was pregnant with James. In the midst of such fear and suffering, I felt more than a little guilty that our family was celebrating. It didn't seem fair.

At the church a TV was on in Wyndal's office, our Business Manager. We searched the internet for faster news. We sent emails out to the congregation, urging them wherever they were to pray for victims, their families, and for the nation. We organized a prayer vigil for that evening, then followed up with a prayer service that Friday, September 14. I was to be the preacher that day, but to a full Sanctuary the best words of comfort I could find were from our sacred scriptures, mostly Psalms of lament, where the writer pours his heart out to God in the midst of profound suffering.

So it was with a profound sense of disgust that I watched and read reports pouring in from Florida about a church whose pastor scheduled an "International Koran Burning Day" for tomorrow, the anniversary of September 11. Despite appeals from President Obama, General Petraeus, leaders from around the world, as well as Christian, Muslim, and leaders of others faiths, the pastor refused to change his stance. How outrageous to exploit a day filled with national grief, mourning, and remembrance to further one's own personal agenda. And to do so in the name of Jesus Christ.

In the midst of evil, rampant suffering, our own need for recognition, and our mistaking ideology for theology, there is a profound sense of the presence of God. Many people were afraid that day, and tomorrow will bring those emotions back to the surface. Rightfully so. Wherever September 11, 2001 is commemorated tomorrow in ways that reflect the graciousness and goodness of God, there will be healing. When we observe the day as a way of spreading hate and mistrust of others
we dishonor the memory and grief of those who died and lost loved ones.

Last week we began a study of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. He begins the book thinking of some of our basic instincts-- food, survival, etc. He says when we see someone in trouble, two basic instincts begin to struggle within us-- the instinct to look the other way (self-preservation) and the instinct to help. He says only when a third voice intervenes and says, "Act on the second choice!" will we do it. Think of firefighters facing the WTC towers. Somehow they overcame the instinct of self-preservation and ran into the buildings to help others. That voice-- call it conscience, a sense of duty, whatever-- leads us straight to the heart of God. It is that voice that makes people inherently good and not evil, despite our inclination to sin.

It now appears that the pastor's publicity stunt of burning the holy book of a billion people worldwide has been canceled, but we won't know until tomorrow. Others will gather out of love in many places for solemn reflection, to express thanksgiving for freedom, to honor those lost in New York, Washington D.C., and over Pennsylvania. And many of us will devote some time individually to remember that day nine years ago and pray for a better future: one without war, suffering, hatred, and evil.

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our lives and our land with your healing love. Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance, and to bow to one another in real forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

United Methodist Book of Worship, #482