A Guy A Girl A Serpent and A Deity

Originally performed July 15, 2016 at Bar Church, held at The Kelsey Theater, and sponsored by Holy Spirit Lutheran in Juno FL.  I’ll post about all the fun craziness that is Bar Church soon, promise.  Enjoy!

During Bar Church artist Kirsten George painted her impression of the message, her final artwork is below.  More of Kirsten’s work can be found online at Five Second Skate Gear. Thanks Kirsten!

Original painting, completed during message by artist Kirsten George.
Painting by Kirsten George.

Shut up & Dance: REMIX

Songs can be remixed, sermons can too.  I originally prepared the Shut up and Dance message over a year ago for my home congregation, St. Michael.  The message today was done for my internship congregation, Holy Spirit, and features new personal narrative, new scripture passages (Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2: 1-8, 12-18), a new video, and a reworked open and close.  Either listen or read below.  Enjoy!

Family dance
Do you like to dance? Boy, I sure do. Many cherished memories during my past 41 years on this earth involve dancing through the most important moments of life.

When Kathi and I married 15 years ago, our first dance was to UB40s version of the song Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. You know that one, at least many of you should, it’s a classic. And apologies to the Elvis fans out there, Elvis recorded it first, tho UB40 recorded it best. We picked that song, Kathi and I, and that version, because that’s what was playing in the background during our first kiss, way back when, twenty one years ago, in the Spring of 1995. We were in a gazebo near college in Valparaiso Indiana, it had begun to rain ever so softly. As we leaned in for that first kiss that song echoed in our heads. Kathi and I wanted to bring that moment, and that song, with us into our first dance, and into our marriage for years to come. So far so good.

These days our favorite dance moments involve our kids. When you have a two-year old and a six year old, and they start to get crazy at home, doing all those things young kids can do like yelling, fighting over toys, basically running around with their heads cut off, putting on some music, and having a family dance, acts as a magic elixir to soothe the savage beasts that sometimes go by the name of Hannah and Graham. Within moments of putting on that first tune, all that youthful energy is focused and transformed, into joyful dance.

Hannah is a spinner most often, elegant and carefree, flowing to the music, sometimes with mom or dad, sometimes solo, moving with ease right alongside the music. Graham is more of a jumper, and a head banger, my guess is when he gets to college he’ll enjoy some hard rock, alternative rock or perhaps some heavy metal. And when he goes to concerts he may well hop into the mosh pit and join the fracas, just like his daddy did, back in the day.

For our entire family, music, and the dance it encourages, serves as a release, from our daily cares, from our anxious moments, into a place of motion, of peace, of life.

This concept of motion, and the life it brings is part of scripture from the very beginning. In the creation story found in Genesis 1, verse two, the Spirit of God moved over the waters, before God separated the darkness and the light. Other translations say it a little differently, that the Spirit of God hovered, swept over, or came like a mighty wind. In each, the takeaway is the same: motion precedes life.

Ezekiel’s Dance
The passage from Ezekiel 37, the story of bringing dry bones to life, is another one of those moments where motion precedes life. The translation we’re using today, the Message, says it like this:

“GOD grabbed me. GOD’s Spirit took me up and led me around a lot of bones! There were bones all over, bleached by the sun. God’s Spirit said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O GOD, only you know.” 4 The Spirit said to me, “Prophesy over these bones: ‘Dry bones, listen to the Message of GOD!’”

5-6 And then God told the dry bones, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am GOD!”

And that’s exactly what happens. Ezekiel prophesies over the bones and God moves, putting bone to bone, attaching bones with sinews, putting meat on those bones, covering it all with a new coat of skin. And then God’s Spirit breathes into those bones, bringing life out of death. Re-creating what had been horribly, horribly broken. Taking stillness and finality and moving it into a place of motion. Making it possible for God’s people to dance, once again.

“God grabbed me”, scripture says.  “God’s Spirit took me up and led me”. It almost reminds me of a middle school prom, with boys sheepishly on one side of the room, and girls on the other. And in the middle of all that awkwardness, hope and expectation, God’s Spirit grabs you, takes you, and leads you into the dance. Hold on to that thought, of being grabbed, and led by the Spirit, we’ll come back to that a bit later.

The Apostle’s Dance
Our text from Acts 2 is another one of those moments where the Spirit’s motion precedes life. Many of those gathered in the upper room that day had traveled, worshiped, served, performed miracles right alongside Jesus for three years. And then, over the course of six weeks, they experienced his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. At that point Jesus was no longer with them, at least in bodily form.

Imagine what those gathered there that day might have been thinking. Where did he go? When will he return? What should we do now? If I were there I’d likely be afraid, not knowing what to do next.

Then, in the midst of all those unknowns, an amazing thing happened. A roar of wind entered the room, and flames of fire danced over each person, filling them with the Holy Spirit. Those gathered spoke in new languages, be they Jew or Roman or Greek, and were understood by everyone, regardless of their native tongue. When the Spirit moved that day it broke down the walls that divided them, and us: walls of language, of ethnicity, of nationality, of religious differences, and birthed the Christian church in its place.

The Holy Spirit was in motion that day, in a big way, taking these early Christ-followers from a place of uncertainty, and of fear, and moving them into joy, into motion. From there the apostles went out into the surrounding countryside, teaching people all Christ had taught them. The apostles were guided out into the world that day by the Spirit, to bring this new hope, new life, and new motion to all of creation. That same Spirit continues to move in our world today.

What amazes me about all of these Holy Spirit stories is how the Spirit shows up, in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected of ways. Before creation was even created, the Spirit was there, moving over the waters. In the midst of a valley of dry bones, the Spirit was there, breathing new life into what had been long since dead. In the upper room, among uncertainty and fear, the Spirit moved again, bringing with it joy, unity, and purpose.

In my own life, the Spirit moved, unexpectedly, last Spring, and it totally caught me off guard. I’d like to share a little bit about that experience, and what it now means to me.

Personal Dance
The day started out normally enough; I found myself in traffic, driving to work. My work at the time was the role of a chaplain intern, as part of CPE, or clinical pastoral education. As a chaplain intern my job was to visit with people on hospice, and provide spiritual care for clients nearing death. CPE is another one of those seminary requirements designed to crack you open, to immerse you in new experiences, and to help you process your own baggage, before becoming a pastor and helping people to overcome theirs. And yes, you all have baggage, everyone does, it’s part of the gig.

Anyhow, there I was, driving to a chaplains meeting, and listening to the secular, FM radio. I remember hearing the song, Shut up and Dance, by the group Walk the Moon, starting to play. You may be familiar with this one as well; it was pretty much the most popular song out there last summer.

At the time of this personal epiphany I’d heard the song a few times before, and remembered liking it, but something in this particular moment struck me in a new way.
In this song I now heard the Holy Spirit, and understood a major depressive episode I’d had a few years ago, and saw it in a new light. The song hit me hard enough that I sat there, in the car, driving on the Turnpike, and was moved to tears.

It may sound strange, but I’d like to share with you what these lyrics now mean to me. To take this journey into new meaning I’d like you consider a Holy Spirit calling us away from our baggage, our brokenness and towards a new walk, or perhaps a dance, with the divine.
We’ll go through the lyrics line by line.

In this story the Holy Spirit is feminine. In Hebrew the word for spirit (ruach) is feminine. Some view the Spirit in masculine terms, or with no gender at all, and that’s just fine. But in this story, to fit with these song lyrics we’ll consider a feminine Holy Spirit. Song lyrics will also be shown on the screen to help you follow along.

The song begins (lyrics are in bold): Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me. When hearing this I’m reminded of when I was agonizing over whether to keep my job in corporate America. At the time I was absolutely miserable, in a downward spiral of a depressive fog, and needed release. Don’t you dare look back the Spirit beckons, just keep your eyes on me, she says. We’re going somewhere new.

This conversation with the Holy Spirit continues: I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me! This is so typical. I want to follow Christ, I want to be led by the Spirit to new and exciting places, but my selfishness, my brokenness, well, it still takes the lead. Look, there I go again, trying to tell the Holy Spirit how to do her thing. It’s like when Jacob wrestles the angel to get his blessing. I want that blessing, but I want it my way. You’re holding back, I say to the Holy Spirit, give me that blessing! She corrects me, directly, yet elegantly, Shut up and dance! Shut up and dance with me!

The song moves from conversation to realization: This woman is my destiny, She said oh oh oh, Shut up and dance with me! We’re being led by the Holy Spirit. Not just to dance with the divine. But to leave our pride, our selfishness, our sense of control. To leave all that, to push it aside, and to dance, letting the Holy Spirit take the lead. That’s no easy thing, we’ll need frequent reminders to drop our perceived need for control. And to Shut up. To be at peace with following. To dance with the Spirit.

The lyrics then take me to another time of personal darkness:  We were victims of the night, the chemical, physical, kryptonite. Helpless to the bass and faded light. Have you ever found yourself a victim of the night, tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep? Lying awake, not able to find the peace of a full night’s rest?

While in my dark fog of depression I sure had this problem. Sleep was elusive. I felt like a victim, suffering, and in mental anguish. I felt alone. But the Holy Spirit suggests otherwise. *We* were victims of the night, she says. WE. We are not alone.

The chemical and physical effects of depression are inescapable. Depression is commonly linked to low levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood, memory, appetite and sleep. That’s pretty important stuff. Too little serotonin can’t help but have physical effects, like not being able to sleep. And withdrawing from friends and family. At the time this was my world.

The kryptonite reference is a curious one. Kryptonite is the radioactive element that takes away all of Superman’s powers, making him weak and vulnerable. This is not unlike the effects of depression, which for a time took away anything I’d call a semblance of life.
But that all sounds very dark and horrible; and there is more to the story than that. I’m reminded again that *we* were victims of the night. Me and the Holy Spirit. Having some all-nighters, hanging out together. Perhaps the chemical effects of depression, the effects that drew me away from certain things, were drawing me toward something new. Like this offer to dance.

The lyrics then find fate is in play: Oh we were born to get together, born to get together.  We are all born in a fallen, broken state. Separated from God from the beginning. Trying to find our way back into the Garden of Eden, back to relationship with our Creator. But how? Jesus paid that price, covering our brokenness and faulty nature, restoring us to newness of life. What now? We dance. We dance into the world around us with our new dance partner, the Holy Spirit. Why yes, it’s beginning to make some sense to me, we *were* born to get together, each of us, finding new life as we dance with the Spirit.

Perhaps this is the right time to begin, the song suggests: She took my arm, I don’t know how it happened. We took the floor.  Finally, the dance has begun! It’s the Spirit that reaches out, taking your arm, leading you into the world. Do you know how it happens? I can’t say that I do. I do know this: the more I let her lead, the more adventure there is. The more fulfilling life becomes.

The lyrics then offer a reminder: She said: Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me, I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me!  My takeaway from her reminder? There will always, always, ALWAYS be that voice in your head that wants you to take the reins back. To take the lead. To ignore the Holy Spirit, and do things your way. But we know, each of us, what happens when we try and play God. Nothing overly good. Shut up, the Holy Spirit says. Dance with me!

The story then ends with a look ahead: Deep in her eyes, I think I see the future. I realize this is my last chance.  Dancing with the Spirit is a very intimate, personal thing. And when you do it, your future will change. You will see it differently. You will never be quite the same. And while I don’t think this is my last chance to dance with the Spirit it’s a good chance. And an opportunity I don’t plan to pass up.

You’ve heard stories from scripture, a few personal stories too, but what about you? What about you? To help you answer that question I’d like play a video that uses this song, Shut Up and Dance, in a super fun way. In it you’ll see 88 different dance scenes from various movies; you’ll likely recognize a lot of them. As you watch, and listen to the lyrics, meditate on what this dance with the Spirit may mean.

Do you like to dance?  Boy, the Holy Spirit sure does.  When she asks you to dance, to be her partner, will you stand up, and follow her to the dance floor?  And if you do, will you let her lead?  Shut up and dance, the Spirit whispers.  Dance with me.  Amen.

Finding God in All Things

A message about you, your Creator, and finding relationship with God in the midst of a busy, busy world.  Read on, or listen, below.

Childhood Prayers
Good morning! Today we’re closing out a June sermon series on prayer, Pastor Frank gave the first two messages earlier this month. Now my childhood memories aren’t nearly as good as his, so I can’t recite favorite prayers from growing up. Can’t do that in English and definitely can’t recite prayers like he can in German. But Kathi and I have two small children, Hannah is six and Graham is two. You might have seen them running around on some Sundays out on the patio. There’s something about raising kids that brings prayer back into the center of life, at least for us, in new and wonderful ways.

These days, our family prayers are most frequent, and most animated over dinner; Hannah just loves to pray, she asks to all the time. We recorded her giving a prayer the other day, and it sounded a little like this:

Dear God, thank you for a wonderful day, God,
and I hope you have a nice day, God,
and I really am excited for summer camp tomorrow,
and I hope everyone else has a good day too. Amen!

And at that point, after Hannah has prayed, our entire family raises our hands to the heavens and shout, together, AMEN! You should hear Graham, man that two-year-old can really belt it out, such fun. AMEN!

Did you hear how Hannah approaches prayer? First she gives thanks to God. Then she expresses hope, that God would have a nice day. Next she shares excitement for the future – summer camp was right on the horizon. She wanted God to know how happy she was about that. And she closes with a prayer for everyone, that they, too, would have a good day. A good day just like she just had, and that she hoped to have again.

Hearing my daughter, who just finished kindergarten, throw down a prayer like that, it melts a daddy’s heart.

When it’s Graham’s turn, and again he’s just a toddler, prayer takes on a different form. His go-to prayer these days is the Superman prayer. Have any of you heard that one? This one is a song, sung to the Superman theme, of course, and goes something like this…

Thank you Goddddddd,
For giving us foooooodddddd,
Thank you Goddddddd,
For giving us foooooodddddd,
And our daaiiillllyyyy bread,
That we maaaaaayyyy be fed
Thank you God!
For giving us foooooooooood.

Isn’t that great? In it we give thanks to God for giving us sustenance, for food, for daily bread. It’s a simple thing, this prayer, and for a two-year-old it’s an early reminder that there is more to our existence than what is in front of us. It’s an intro into the very nature of God; that God cares for us, and meets our most basic needs.

Later at night, when the crazy fun of dinnertime has waned, our prayers take a different, quieter form. At her birth our oldest child, Hannah, was gifted this little Precious Moments angel. Most every night for the past six years, after bedtime stories are complete, Kathi or I will press the belly button of the angel with Hannah, which gets the angle talking and recite this prayer together –

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
May angels watch me through the night,
And keep me in their blessed sight.

It’s an important ritual for Hannah at this point. And if we forget to say the prayer she’ll remind us, making sure we’ve located the angel and pressed that button so we can pray together. There is no getting to sleep for her without that prayer. This, too, is a simple prayer, a request for the Lord to keep us safe as we sleep, under the watch of angels until the new day dawns. The budding faith of children, in all its simplicity, is a beautiful thing; Kathi and I continue to be blessed to see, appreciate and enjoy our kids as they express faith like a child.

When prayer gets tough
But what happens to our prayer life as we age? When life gets busier? More complicated? When responsibilities increase? When we worry about more than how much fun we’ll have the next day of summer camp? As we grow and develop into adults, our prayer life too needs to grow, and evolve, from the faith of a child into a mature, adult faith. But that’s easier said than done.

And then there’s our scripture reading from today, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In chapter 5, beginning with verse 16 Paul gives all sorts of excellent advice to the early Christian community, encouraging us to always be joyful. And to be thankful in all circumstances. And to hold on to what is good. But there’s a really tough one, in this text, at least for me. Never stop praying.

Never stop praying? You might be thinking to yourself, but Pastor Ryan, how does one even do that? I have a spouse, and kids, a job, and friends, you know, I’m busy. I have a life. And that certainly is the reality for most of us. Think about all the various moments in life. The notion of constant prayer, in the middle of everything seems, well, impossible. For example, when it’s Sunday afternoon, and the Chicago Bears are playing the Green Bay Packers, and da Bears score the winning touchdown as time expires, well, my mind, by default, is all about football. And not so much about prayer.

If your intern pastor is honest, really honest, he’ll tell you prayer isn’t exactly one of his super strong spiritual gifts. As part of the process to get ordained there are a lot of steps, you’re asked to do a lot of things. One of the areas our Synod – that’s the local governing body for Lutheran churches – asked me to work on a couple years ago was my piety. That’s a loaded word, piety, I had to look it up, it means “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations.”

I do like talking about beer a lot – and that’s a quick plug for the next Bar Church on Friday, July 15 at the Kelsey Theater, doors open at 6pm – so maybe with all this beer talk the synod figured, well, this kid needs to work on his piety, heh.

To do that I went and spoke to a spiritual director last year for some insight. “So my synod said I need to work on piety,” I told her. “What do you recommend?” She responded with a question of her own, “well, how do you pray?” “I don’t view prayer the way a lot of people do,” I replied. “Prayer, for me, is more of a constant conversation with God, trying to open myself up to what God is calling me to see, to do, throughout the day.” My spiritual director didn’t know quite what to make of that at the time, and we agreed to meet again and revisit our talk of piety and prayer.

When we got together next, she greeted me excitedly, saying, “I really thought about what you said, and have something that I’d like you to try.”

What she shared with me is the Daily Examen, which is an evening reflection on your day. St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuit order of Catholics about 500 years ago noticed that the Christians of his day, just like people today, just like you and I, were busy. And not able to pray often throughout the day. So he developed and encouraged those in his community to add structured prayer to their daily routine.

What I’d like to do is lead you through this Daily Examen, as an example of a spiritual exercise, right here, this morning. The Examen takes 10-15 minutes, not too much time – we’ll be a bit quicker this morning. The examen serves as a prayerful reflection on the day that has just closed. And helps prepare you for a peaceful night’s sleep, and gets you ready for the new day that is to come.

The first step in the examen is to find a quiet place. In your home that may be your favorite chair, or with legs folded, sitting on a yoga mat. Personally I have a sofa that is wonderful to use for this. You want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. If you find yourself snoring, or end up with drool on your face, well, it might be best to find a new spot.

But here, in the sanctuary our options are a bit less flexible than at home, so we’ll go through the exercise right here in your seat. The examine is typically done at night, tho since we’re still early in the day reflect on yesterday and anything that has happened this morning. After describing each part of the prayer we’ll have some silence, about 15 seconds for you to reflect. I know, this may seem odd, and that’s ok. We’re practicing something new. So take a deep breath and relax.

If you could, bow your head, and close your eyes as we begin. This is just you and God, together, nothing else.

The Examen
First, identify a moment of gratitude. Name one moment you are grateful for today. Remember how you felt in that moment. Notice those feelings and simply be grateful for them, knowing that all gifts come from God.

Next, ask for freedom. We long for freedom from the things that often trip us up, distract us, or bias our judgements. Pray that the Holy Spirit give you vision to be free, truly free, of those things. Pray this so we can see events in our life as they are, not how we’d like them to be. Or even how we experience them to be.

Then, review your day. Try to recall the events of this day, almost as if you were watching a movie. What happened when you woke up, visited with friends, or traveled to church? Who did you encounter? Notice your feelings – positive and negative, throughout the day. Reflect on these significant moments. These are the events God is trying to tell you more about. Examine these significant moments more deeply.

Finally, talk with God. Tell God anything that is on your mind. You might express gratitude. Or ask for forgiveness. Or look for God’s help for a particular trouble. This is your time to be with God, who already knows your needs. Our prayer exist to change us, not to change God. This is our moment to be proactive in seeing who God most wants us to be. The examen then closes with a familiar prayer; some people like to say the Lord ’s Prayer to close out the exercise. You may now open your eyes.

You’ll find, if you incorporate this prayer into your daily evening routine, that, over time, you’ll begin to see the presence of God more often. And see God in the big moments of your day, the small moments, and everything in between. My experience has been this awareness, of God’s presence, will begin to change how you see yourself, how you see others, how you see our communities, and how you see God active in the world around us.

Perhaps that is why this daily examen is also called the prayer for Finding God in All Things. This takes us back to Paul’s lofty, seemingly impossible, challenge that we never stop praying. But if we see God, truly see God, present with us, at all times in our day, perhaps this ideal, to never stop praying, is not so impossible. For when God is in all things, when we notice God all around us, and stay in constant conversation with our divine Creator, our very life becomes the prayer. Amen.

St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Ignatius of Loyola
Parable of Rich Fool

I Pity The Fool

A stewardship sermon, based on  Luke 12:13-21 and  Genesis 41 that features the likes of Pharaoh, Joseph, a rich man,and Mr. T.  Yes, Mr. T.  Enjoy!

I’d like to confess something to you. Pastor Frank and I meet each week, for about an hour. These meetings probably aren’t too different from most business meetings; we plan out the coming weeks and months, discuss current priorities, and coordinate resources to get the job done. In this case the job may be a little different that most, planning is for things like preaching, pastoral visits and upcoming baptisms. We also talk theology, on occasion, I suppose that isn’t too surprising either.

About six months ago I added something to our meeting agenda, an opening confession. Each week I’ll confess whatever it is that’s been in my head or on my heart recently, things like jealousy, stubbornness or pride. It’s been healthy for me, I think, and as the say goes confession is good for the soul. I definitely believe that.
The confession I have for you is this: I had no interest in delivering a stewardship sermon during internship. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

When I arrived in August and heard the typical Fall stewardship drive would be postponed until the Spring, to make room for our strategic planning process, I breathed a sigh of relief. And then figured the boss would want to take the lead on the Spring stewardship series anyways. And yet here I am, your intern pastor, standing in front of you today, getting ready to talk about money. Surprise, surprise.

If you’re anything like me, when you run across pledge drives on PBS or NPR, well, you change the channel. And then wait a few days or a week until the pledge drive is over before heading back. If you were here last Sunday, and heard Pastor Frank kick off the Awesome God, Awesome Community campaign, and you came back this week, well you’re already doing better than me. You didn’t change the channel. You may have also gotten a stewardship letter in the mail this week from us. And still, you didn’t change the channel, you’re here. Thank you for staying tuned.

And it was a good sermon, last week, from Pastor Frank, which makes it really hard to follow. I won’t try to top it, can’t, even if I tried. My only hope is to give you another perspective, another way to look at your finances, your Creator, the world around you, and how they all connect. So here we go, my first stewardship message. Hopefully it isn’t too terribly, horribly awful.

Good News
I’ve got good news for you. Really good news. You’re rich. Did you know that? Maybe some of you already knew. You might already agree that you’re rich, right off the bat. You’ve done well, have made some plans, set some financial goals, and met many of them. Life has been good for you. Good job. Well met.

But perhaps you find yourself thinking, WHAT? I’m not rich! You should see my bank account! I’m barely making it. Still, for most of you here, well, like it or not, you’re rich. What, you don’t agree? You look at your neighbors, see all they have, and think, there is no way you could be rich? Well, maybe we need to take a wider view of what we have. Wider than Juno, Jupiter, and the Gardens. Wider than Palm Beach County. Wider than South Florida. Wider than Florida. Wider than the United States. So how do you stack up, when your neighbors include the entire world?

The website, Global Rich List, can tell you just how rich you are when compared to your international neighbors. Just type in your annual income, or enter an estimate of your net worth, and this website will tell you.

• So if you make twenty thousand a year, congratulations, your income puts you in the top 3.65% of wealth globally. To frame that a little differently, making ten dollars an hour, working full time, for forty hours a week will net you twenty thousand dollars a year. Now America has higher costs of living than many places, that’s true, and I recognize that if you’re earning twenty thousand a year making ends meet can be difficult. But, globally speaking, our planet has 7.4 billion people on it. And if you make 20k a year you make more money than 7.2 billion of them. Globally speaking, you’re doing pretty well.
• If you earn a little more, and make the grand sum of twenty-five thousand a year, that puts you in the top 2 percent of earners in the world.
• This may sound crazy, but if you make a little more than that, and make thirty-two thousand four hundred dollars a year, well, you’re in the top 1% of income globally. Remember that Wall Street movement a couple of years ago? The one called We Are The 99%? That was a U.S. phenomenon. But if it were done globally, at that level, with your annual income of thirty-two thousand four hundred dollars a year, well, then those 99% are talking about you. You, are the 1%.
• If you make a bit higher than that, forty-three thousand two hundred, in this area you’re kind of typical. That’s the median annual income for people living in Juno, Jupiter, North Palm Beach, and Lake Park. So for you, earning forty-three thousand two hundred dollars a year you’re kind of average locally. But globally you’re doing really, really well. You’re in the top 0.4% of wage earners globally. You, also, are a 1 percenter.
• And if you make 80 thousand a year you’re in the top 0.1% of wealth globally, even more impressive. In a random sample of 1,000 people, you would be the wealthiest. There are only about six million people in the world that make as much or more than you, at $80,000 a year. Only six million people in the world. Out of 7.4 BILLION. Six million people is about as many people as live in all of South Florida, in three counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. Imagine, all of the people in the world that make $80,000 or more a year could live in South Florida. In just three counties in the US.

So congratulations, maybe not to all of you, but to most of you. In a very real way most of you are rich. Some of you, are extremely, extremely rich. In terms of how long you’ll live, your access to healthcare, and financial stability for you and your family it is really, really good news.

Even your intern pastor, making $1,400 a month, or about 17 thousand a year, would be considered by many, at least from a global perspective, to be rich.

Troubling News
But I’ve got some troubling news for you too, fellow rich person, and it comes from our gospel reading today in Luke 12.

Here we see Jesus, teaching in a crowd, a fairly common setting in scripture. Someone says to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus responds with a question, asking, what makes you think it’s my job to be a judge for you?”

If you were asked to help with a family inheritance squabble, well, you might say something similar. Perhaps also saying, hey, that’s not my job. Or, if you were feeling helpful maybe you’d pull up the contact list on your phone and recommend a good attorney that specializes in that sort of thing.

But Jesus, sensing a teachable moment, returns his attention to the crowd, and offers some wisdom. Protect yourself against greed, he says. Jesus continues, telling those gathered that life is not defined by what you have. Even when you have a lot.

Life is not defined by what you have. Even when you have a lot. That’s great advice, by any standard. But wait, there’s more, to this story. Jesus was not done with this teachable moment.

He then launches into the story of a rich man, a farmer, who found himself with a terrific crop. With such a great crop the man now had a problem. The crop was so big, so grand, that his barn was not big enough for the harvest. “Ah, I’ve got it”, the rich man says. “Here is what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather all my crops in this bigger barn. And then I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made! You can retire! So kick back, take it easy and have the time of your life!”

Now I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like a pretty smart plan. Work hard, do well, increase your holdings, save, and then retire in style. This is the kind of advice you’d expect from a skilled financial advisor like Suzy Orman or Dave Ramsey. It kind of sounds like the American dream.

But then the plot twist. God shows up, in this parable from Jesus, and has something to say to this rich farmer. “Fool! Tonite you die!” Ouch! I can almost picture Mr. T – that’s the popular actor from the 80s tv show The A Team – with his trademark Mohawk, extend his index finger, pointing it this rich farmer and saying his most famous line, “I pity the fool!” Now God doesn’t kill this rich farmer, it was just his time to go. And after all the effort this farmer put into storing those bumper crops, ironically it’s his time to go. And he can’t take it with him. But still, that’s strong language right? Especially when it’s from a parable Jesus tells. And a word that’s spoken by God. God just called this rich man a fool. Wait a second…we’re rich, right? At least many of us. Did God just call us all fools? Hold on to that thought for a little bit.

Pharaoh and Joseph
There’s another story in scripture about storing a bumper crop, you may have heard it, and that’s in Genesis chapter 41. In this story Pharaoh has a dream, is troubled by it, and none of the wise men in his court could interpret it. Getting desperate, Pharaoh calls in a Hebrew slave named Joseph, who had gained a reputation for accurately interpreting dreams. After describing this dream Joseph replies that it is beyond his power to interpret it, but that God can tell Pharaoh the meaning. The dream interpretation turns out to be fairly straight forward, and it’s all about feast and famine. Seven years of bumper crops, Joseph says, followed by seven years of drought. And to get through the drought Joseph recommends collecting a fifth of the crop each year, and then putting that crop in Pharaohs’ massive storehouses. Sensing God was speaking through Joseph, Pharaoh gives Joseph all the resources he needs to put that plan into action.

And for the next fourteen years, the first seven with bumper crops, the next seven with severe drought, that’s exactly what happens. In the bumper crop years, a portion is put away in the storehouses. In the drought years, when the people cry out for food, Joseph opens up those storehouses and distributes grain to anyone in Egypt who asked. In this way this story has a happy ending; God’s people are cared for.

Two Stories
So what do you make of these two stories? Both are about storing bumper crops. And we’ve got some rich people in both stories; scripture tells us that Pharaoh, Joseph, and the rich fool are all very well off. But in one story the bumper crops are a good thing. In the other story, not so much. I noticed a couple of other tidbits in these stories that might impact how we look at them as well.

In the Genesis story it was God’s idea to store the bumper crops, born of a vision from Pharaoh, and interpreted by Joseph. In the Luke parable it was man’s idea.

In the Genesis story the bumper crops served a higher purpose, to feed an entire people throughout the land. In the Luke parable, the crops were for the good of the man, for himself only.

God’s fingerprints are all over the Genesis story, from giving Pharaoh the dream, to providing Joseph the interpretation, to guiding Pharaoh to put God’s plan in motion. God isn’t even part of the Luke parable, at least until the very end. Instead it’s all about the man, his ideas, his work, his patting himself on the back for a job well done. I think God pities, truly pities, that fool.

Mr. T and Coffee
While we’re talking Mr. T, here’s another trait of his you might be familiar with. He’s famous for wearing huge gold chains around his neck. He started doing this when he worked as a bouncer in his 20s, and became known for it, and kept up that look, for decades. Mr. T estimates that the gold he wears daily is worth about three hundred thousand dollars.

But then, when helping cleanup New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in 2005, he gave up virtually all his gold. Mr. T is quoted as saying “as a Christian, when I saw other people lose their lives, and land and property, I felt it would be wrong before God to continue wearing my gold. I felt it would be insensitive to the people who lost everything, so I stopped wearing my gold.”

Now for the Awesome God, Awesome Community campaign no one is going to ask you to sell all your gold. And honestly, if you have three hundred thousand dollars of gold chains like Mr. T had, wear it some Sunday. I’d like to take a selfie with you. That’d be kind of fun.

But, this campaign, for you, might require some sacrifice. If you’re a fan of Starbucks, what if you gave up one coffee, at 4 bucks a pop, each week, and reinvested that right here, at Holy Spirit Lutheran? That would come out to $208 for the year, or $312 over the 18 months of this campaign. If one person from each of the 500 families in this church did that it would come out to $156,000 dollars. That’s almost half of the $330,000 we’re looking to raise. And it’s only drinking one less coffee, per household, per week.

Tho if you’re more of a Dunkin Donuts person like I am, with their two dollar coffee you’d have to give up two cups of it per week for the same impact. Which honestly just makes Dunkin Donuts customers smarter than Starbucks customers, it tastes better anyways…a sermon for some other time.

So be rich, there’s no shame in that. But be a certain kind of rich.

Be like Pharaoh. Dream big dreams. Keep God in the middle of those dreams.
Be like Joseph. Work to make God’s dreams a reality. God used him mightily.
And when the time comes, open the silos of your bumper crop. Or wear a little less gold. Or drink a little less coffee, and give, joyfully, for the betterment of those around you.

For when you do, for our awesome God, and for this awesome community, you, my friend, will be blessed. Amen.

Parable of Rich Fool


Show Me The Way

Today’s message centers on the story of Saul on the road to Damascus as found in Acts 9:1-20, with a spattering of Fleetwood Mac, the movie Sliding Doors, and Peter Frampton thrown in for good measure.  Enjoy!


You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way

If you don’t recognize those words spoken, you may recognize them sung, it’s a very catchy tune.

The song Go Your Own Way is one of several hit singles by Fleetwood Mac on their 1977 album, Rumours.  Rumours was critically acclaimed and popular: it won the Grammy for album of the year, and went on to sell over 40 million copies. That puts it in the top ten of album sales of all time, right up there with the likes of Michael Jackson, the Eagles and Pink Floyd.

Rumours was also featured on an episode of the TV series Glee a few years ago. I remember watching that episode with my wife, falling in love with the songs all over again, and seeing the lead character, Will Schuster, pull the album from his personal record collection, and play it for his students, in hopes of encouraging them to sing some of the songs. Within minutes of watching that episode I hopped over to my laptop and purchased a used copy of the album, on vinyl, a record. Suddenly I just had to have that album in my collection too.

And yes, my wife and I still have, and use, our record player on occasion. There is just something special to me, about listening to music on an old-school record player. Perhaps, at least in that regard, we go our own way as well.

The reading from Acts today tells the story of someone definitely going their own way, Saul, of Tarsus. Before the events we heard about in Acts 9, Saul has a pretty bad reputation. Saul’s one burning desire as a young man was to find and jail, and sometimes kill, early converts to Christianity. In Acts 7 we hear the story of Stephen, the first martyr in Luke’s depiction of the early church in Jerusalem, who was stoned to death by an angry mob. Some of the people who watched the stoning put their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. It was a sign of respect, of importance. This Saul was a pretty central character in the effort to squash out the spread of the Jesus movement in those early years.

In modern terms, at best, you might label Saul a religious zealot. At worst, considering the nature of what he was up to, perhaps a terrorist. Labels or no labels, based on his actions, Saul was no role model any of us would aspire to be like.

Today we find Saul on a mission to see the high priest. Saul is hoping to convince local synagogues, to allow him to arrest these early Christ-followers, and take them back to Damascus, in chains. At the time the term Christianity wasn’t used. The label Christian was not common. Instead, the term followers of the Way was used to describe people drawn to this early Jesus movement. Not followers of “A” Way. Followers of THE Way.  And Saul was hoping to collect this next batch of followers of the Way and haul them off in chains.

But then, on the road to Damascus, something happened. As Saul approached the city, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. Likely in shock, he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?” Looking to understand what was going on, Saul then asks “Who are you, lord?”

The voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up, go to the city, and await instructions.” Saul then gets up off the ground, realizes he is blind, and asks his companions to take him to Damascus. And there he waits, blind, fasting for three days. Not eating or drinking, just praying, awaiting what was to come.

There is another main character in our text today, Ananias. He is described as a believer; he too had a vision where the Lord spoke to him, calling him by name, “Ananias!” In this vision Ananias is given some marching orders of his own: go to this street, to that house, ask for a man named Saul. “I have shown Saul a vision of his own,” the Lord says. “And told him you were coming, to lay hands on him, to give him sight.”

When Ananias heard this, well, he wasn’t exactly thrilled. “But Lord,” Ananias retorts, “this Saul has done terrible things to believers! And he can arrest those who call on your name!” I can’t say I blame Ananias for this response, this mission sounds like a dangerous one.

The Lord would have none of that. “Go!”, the Lord says. “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to kings, to Israel, to Greeks, to the world.” Perhaps not wanting to argue more, Ananias chooses to listen to the Lord, gets up, and finds Saul. He then lays his hands on Saul, saying “regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul, now healed, gets up, and is baptized.

Sliding Doors
Thinking about this story of Saul and Ananias I can’t help but be reminded of a movie from the 1990s, Sliding Doors. In it, the main character, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, either catches a train, or doesn’t. It’s those sliding doors of the train that either let her in the train, or keep her out, stuck at the station. The film alternates between these two parallel universes, outlining how important this one moment in time, of train catching, is for her. As the movie unfolds you see how whether she catches the train impacts what she does for her next job and who she falls in love with. Eventually it becomes a matter of life or death for her. It’s fascinating to see how these two parallel universes play out next to each other, scene by scene.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we don’t have parallel universes like that playing out in our reading today. It’s just one narrative, some action, some drama, a conclusion. But what we do have is a train catching moment. Actually two of them. One for Saul; one for Ananias.

After hearing the voice of the risen Christ, after finding himself now blind, Saul had a decision to make. Would he listen to this voice, the voice of Jesus, who asked him to travel to Damascus and wait for the Lord? Or would he pull a Jonah, turn around, and go in the exact opposite direction? Said differently, would he catch that train, to Damascus? Or, in Fleetwood Mac style, would Saul continue to go his own way?

Ananias has a similar moment, a similar choice. He too, heard the voice of the risen Christ, and it asked him to do something. Go see a man with a reputation for violence against your kind. Lay hands on this man, heal him. Would Ananias heed this voice, to go, to heal? To gift Saul the Holy Spirit, to baptize him? To help launch Saul’s evangelistic world tour? Or, would Ananias go his own way, leaving Saul blind, and waiting for a train that would never arrive? These two men had some important decisions to make. Decisions that have shaped how we view faith for almost two millennia.

We know the end to this story. Both Saul and Ananias chose not to go their own way, but instead followed THE Way. But I think it’s worth talking about what was at stake here.

After Acts 9 Saul is often referred to in scripture as Paul. This experience, on the road, changed him, so much so that the author of Acts uses a new name for him. His choice to follow THE Way netted him a new identity.

There was also something rather novel about Paul, he was both a Jew and a Roman citizen. He used this dual identity to minister to both Jewish and Roman audiences. His choice to follow the THE WAY allowed him to spread the Good News in ways and places that others simply couldn’t. He was the right man for the job.

Paul is credited with writing up to fourteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. That’s a big chunk! In his book called Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, best-selling author A.N. Wilson concludes that, “Christianity, without Paul, is literally nothing.” Let me repeat that: “Christianity, without Paul, is literally nothing.” That’s a powerful and provocative statement about the importance of this one person on the birth and expansion of Christianity in our world. Had Paul and Ananias not caught that train, had they gone their own way, we likely wouldn’t be sitting in a worship service here today. Human history, and our understanding of the divine, would not be the same.

Show Me The Way
So what happened to Saul and Ananias? Here’s one way to look at it. Initially they were singing some Fleetwood Mac, some ancient form of you can go your own way was bouncing around their subconscious. Then they had a change of heart, and a change of tune. Instead of Fleetwood Mac their tune now sounded a little more like Peter Frampton. More like his song Show me the way. Oh, won’t you show me the way, everyday.

Going our own way is a natural, very human thing to do. We want what’s best for ourselves and our families, or at least what we think is best. We can go our own way, we really can. That option is always out there. And it has been, ever since the very beginning. Adam and Eve had that option, to eat, or not eat the fruit.

But what do we miss out on when we do go our own way? There are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world, or roughly a third of the world’s population. Imagine what would be possible if we changed our tune too, from going our own way to asking to be shown the way. Jesus fed 5,000, miraculous. How many can we feed, in the name of Christ? When you go not on your own way, but follow the way, just about anything is possible. In the name of Christ we can give sight to the blind, heal the sick, feed the hungry, love our neighbors, both here and abroad, as ourselves. When we follow the way we do no less than change the world, living into the promises of our salvation.

You can go your own way. You really can. But once you’ve walked with the risen Christ, and experienced what that’s like, why would you want to? Lord, I’m tired of going my own way. Lord, won’t you show me, show us, THE Way, everyday. Amen.