Sunday, August 30, 2015

Buy Low, Sell High, Give Always

[Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015.]
I have to tell you that I’m not a close follower of the stock market or financial news in general.  But last week, even I couldn’t help but pay attention to the economic instability in China and its effects on world markets, including ours.  I knew it was generating serious buzz when my 19-year-old son, who’s not exactly a heavy investor, came back from work at Milburn Country Club talking about China and the Dow and what it all might mean for us.
By Tuesday’s news cycle, the wild ride had led to an 11-percent drop in value on U.S. stock indices.  As I read about that on CNN’s website, I came across what I think may be a modern-day icon of American life – maybe an anti-icon, actually, if icons give us windows into heaven.  The article I was reading referenced CNN’s “Fear & Greed Index.”  Yes, that’s right, the Fear & Greed Index.  It’s a composite of indices reflecting market volatility, demand for junk bonds, stock-price strength and breadth, demand for safe havens, put and call options, and market momentum.  I don’t even know what most of those terms mean.  But put them all together, and apparently you get a metric of which emotion is driving the market at the moment – with fear at one end of the dial and greed at the other. 
So, if fear is at one end and greed is at the other, what’s in the middle?  Boredom and ennui?  I’m not sure where I’d want the needle on that dial to point, if these are our options for what drives our economics.  Neither fear nor greed seem like particularly inviting emotional spaces to inhabit.  All of this probably explains why I’m not a broker or a market analyst. 
I don’t mean to make fun of our collective reaction to last week.  A lot of people, and a lot of us in this room, have a lot riding on the success of the market, whether we really understand it or not.  And that’s no less true for the Church than for any other part of American society.  After all, where does the Church Pension Fund invest my pension contributions?  Not in organic berry farms.  And, by the way, where do your pledge payments come from?  Some come directly from stock transactions; others come from income that won’t be there if the stock market isn’t healthy.  So I don’t mean to minimize the fear we feel when the market takes a dive.
And … when that happens, as all the financial advisers said this week, it’s vital that we stop and take a deep breath.  Come on, let’s do it together.  Slowly.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Now, do it again.  Isn’t that better?  Nothing’s changed in the market, or in our personal lives, because we took those deep breaths, but I’ll bet most of our necks and shoulders are looser.
So, where’s the sermon, Fr. John?  What does all this have to do with the Good News of the kingdom of God?
Actually, everything.
Go back to the Old Testament reading we heard today.  Moses, by now a very old man, is standing before the people of God after they’ve wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  They’re about to cross over the Jordan, enter into the promised land, and create a society that was to be all about revealing God’s kingship, God’s authority.  That was God’s whole point in creating Israel – that other peoples around them, worshiping carvings and heavenly bodies, might see and know that this nation of Israel was “a wise and discerning people,” specially blessed with statutes and ordinances written by God’s own hand (Deuteronomy 4:6).  Do not let these things “slip from your mind,” Moses commands the people, but “make them known” – to your children, yes, but also to the rest of the people around you (4:9).  For God’s people are set aside, sanctified as a missionary presence among the nations of the world.
Well, we are the new Israel, God’s missionary people in this time and place.  And being that missionary presence doesn’t exactly jibe with fear and greed.  I don’t recall seeing a “Fear & Greed Index” anywhere in Scripture.  A “Hope & Mercy Index,” absolutely – that’s the index of God’s love, measured in board-feet of a cross.  But a “Fear & Greed Index”?  As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re specifically called to witness against fear and greed as dominant forces in our hearts and in our culture.  The phrase “fear not” appears 62 times in Scripture, and that doesn’t count similar things like “be strong” and “take courage.”1  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  And greed?  Well, in addition to making the list of the seven deadly sins, greed comes up 36 times in Scripture.  If you add “avarice” to that search, you get one more – in Jesus’ vice list from today’s Gospel reading (Mark 7:21-22).  It’s one of the “evil things … that defile a person,” Jesus says (Mark 7:23).  So when it comes to fear and greed, I think we’d have to say Jesus is not a fan.
What would Jesus advocate instead?  Well, taking a deep breath is a good place to start.  But from there, I think he might tell us to remember – to remember who we are.  We are the baptized, and that means more than any other mark of identity that competes for our allegiance.  As baptized people, we are God’s own children.  As baptized people, we are born anew, freed from the bonds of sin and death.  As baptized people, we are the head and the heart and the hands of Jesus Christ today, his body blessed and broken and given for the world he redeemed.  As baptized people, we are inheritors of eternal life.  None of those realities appears on the evening news when the stock market tumbles.  But neither the Chinese economy nor the Fed’s Board of Governors can take these truths away.  Remember who you are.
And after we remember, maybe our next step is to take a small, simple, sacramental stand.  Let me offer you the last thing you came to church expecting this morning – a wealth-management tip from your priest.  You already know the conventional wisdom:  Buy low and sell high, right?  Well, here’s your heavenly wealth-management tip to go along with that:  Buy low, sell high, and give always – especially in times of fear and greed.  No matter which direction the dial is pointing on that Fear & Greed Index, it’s a sign to stop and give away a little something extra to remind ourselves where hope and mercy lie.
It’s a lesson we learned from our partners in Haiti a few years ago.  When we were about to replace the roof on our church, we shared that news in worship during a visit to Maniche.  The people of St. Augustin’s pledged to give us their profits from a day at the market, to help us out with our roof.  Not that they had it to give … but they found the faithfulness to offer it.
Giving something extra won’t solve the world’s problems.  But that small gift – the intentional practice of generosity when everything around you says, “Hold tight” – that “generous act of giving,” as the Letter of James calls it, is a sacrament (James 1:17).  It’s an outward and visible sign of the divine reality, the reign and rule of God, just beyond the sometimes toxic bubble of our worldly fears and sins.  Like dipping your fingers in holy water or taking the body and blood of Christ, your small “generous act of giving” is a way be a doer of the Word in real life.  That small, generous act will remind you who you are and whose you are.  In fact, it will heal your heart because it will remind you, when you’re bound by the world’s ground rules, that you’re actually sealed by the Holy Spirt in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever – that you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, not a prisoner in the kingdom of anxiety.  For we serve a God who leads faithful people to what seems like certain death at the water’s edge, only to pave their way to freedom in a promised land.  We serve a God whose prophets come out of fiery furnaces and lions’ dens, singing songs of victory.  We serve a God who is whipped and nailed to a cross but calmly stares his tormentors down, knowing the empty tomb awaits. 
If God is for us, what shall we fear?  And how much more security do we really think we need?

1.      Blacketer, Larry.  Musings of a Lifetime Bible TeacherWestBow Press, 2013.  203.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The High Dive

[Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 2, celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration and baptizing three children.]
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27).  Now, if you were listening, you know that verse wasn’t in the Gospel reading we just heard.  Instead, it comes just before it in Luke’s story.  “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “there are some here who will not taste death before they see” what the kingship of God, the sovereignty of God, actually looks like.  Keep that thought in mind as we move along this morning. 
We’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and it’s one of those scriptural stories that sort of loses its punch with over-telling.  Many of us have heard it too many times; it’s become commonplace.  But if you happen to be someone who hasn’t heard this story very often – or maybe never heard it before today – I wonder how it strikes you?  
Let’s look at a few key words and phrases.  We’re told Jesus and his three closest disciples go “up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28).  They go away to the place, in Scripture and still today, where people often go when they’re seeking a deep encounter with God – up on the mountaintop.  OK, there’s our setting. 
Then, there’s this phrase:  Jesus’ “face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (9:29).  Clearly, something’s happened up on the mountain, something otherworldly and mysterious. 
Then we hear, “Suddenly … Moses and Elijah were talking to” Jesus, appearing in “glory” (9:30,31).  OK, so a strange situation has just gotten seriously weird, as long-dead religious heroes suddenly appear out of nowhere.  And what they talk about seems strange, too:  Jesus’ upcoming “departure” at Jerusalem – and, even stranger, the word for “departure” in Greek is exodus (9:31).  We’ve heard that before.
Meanwhile, the disciples are drifting in and out of sleep in their meditative state up on the mountain – not sure what’s real and what’s not, not sure whether they ought to do something to make this mystical moment last, like notes scribbled in a dream journal.  Soon enough, it becomes clear they’re not dreaming after all.  A dark cloud comes and overwhelms them, and the disciples are “terrified” as the cloud swallows them up (9:34).  Finally, to freak them out completely, the very voice of God booms from the dark cloud, thundering, “This is my Son, my Chosen, my Beloved; listen to him!” (9:35).  And suddenly, Jesus and the disciples are standing there alone.  I imagine the disciples are looking for somewhere to run. 
This is not a happy little Bible story.  This is a terrifying encounter with the sovereign Lord of the universe.  And it’s made even more terrifying for the disciples as they come to realize that the guy they hang out with, their leader, their teacher, their rabbi – he’s a whole lot more than that, sharing directly in God’s terrifying glory. 
And as they keep reflecting on all this, I imagine it becomes even more confusing still.  God’s voice had thundered, “Listen to him!”  But, you know, Jesus didn’t have anything to say in this story.  No grand proclamations.  Not a single word, actually.  So, Peter and James and John might have wondered, what were we supposed to listen to?
Well, rewind the story a bit.  The last thing Luke describes before this account of the Transfiguration is one of those moments – maybe the supreme moment – of Jesus tellin’ it like it is.  He asks his friends, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18).  And then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” (9:20).  Peter gets the answer right, though he hasn’t really understood it yet.  He says, “You’re ‘the messiah of God’” (9:20) – which for them meant, “You’re the one God has anointed to be king of Israel, the one who will bring back God’s direct rule of our land, just like the good ol’ days of David and Solomon.”  Jesus basically says, “Yes … and no.”  He gives them the deep mystery of messiahship – that being God’s anointed king means he “will undergo great suffering, and be rejected by [the religious leaders], and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22).  And then, he hits his friends in the gut with the mystery they’ll spend their lives trying to live into:  “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (9:23-24)  This truth comes directly from God’s beloved Son.  “Listen to him!” boomed the voice from the cloud.
So, if you’re hearing this story with fresh ears, let me ask:  Are you scared yet?
*    *    *   *
Well, it’s summertime.  These are supposed to be lazy days of relaxing and reading on the beach – or at least cooling off at the local pool.  So every summer, in my mind’s eye, I go back to Meador Park pool in Springfield, Missouri.  Meador Park was about 2 miles from my house growing up; and once I reached the age of emancipation for a kid in Springfield in the 1970s, which was about 10 years old, my parents let me ride my bike to the pool by myself.  It was a different day.  I had no fear, as a boy, going off to the swimming pool by myself – apparently neither did my parents.  So I’d go and swim, maybe meet friends that day, maybe not, but definitely revel in the freedom and relaxation of summer.
One day, I met up with some friends.  And as boys do, we started bragging about what we could do in the water – how long we could hold our breath, how deep we could dive, how far we could swim.  It moved quickly into dares, and the dares moved quickly to the last place I wanted to go: the high dive.
Now, I know this will shock you, but I wasn’t exactly an athlete as a kid.  Nor was I particularly coordinated.  And I hated getting water up my nose.  And I’d never jumped off the high dive.  Ever.  To me, the high dive at Meador Park pool was about 100 feet tall, like a circus scene from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Probably not, actually; but it sure felt that way.
So you know how this story goes.  After the obligatory posturing of 10-year-old boys negotiating a dare, I found myself climbing the ladder up the high dive.  I got to the top.  And I walked slowly out, feeling the board quiver harder and harder the farther out I stepped.  I walked to the end. 
And I stood there.  And I stood there.  And I stood there.  And the longer I stood there, the worse it got.  The longer I stood there, the higher the high dive became.
*    *    *    *
In a few minutes, three babies and their families are going to gather around this tiny pool here in the chancel.  It’s not a very imposing sight, really.  There’s not much water there.  But let me tell you, that water’s got power.  Because in that tiny pool is the water of life … and death … and new life in Christ. 
As newborns, we burst from the womb’s primordial waters, overcoming blood and pain before we even gasp our first breath.  So water is life … but it’s also death.  In these lazy, hazy days of summer, we always hear of boating accidents and drownings; and we know, even if we don’t like to admit it, that the difference between life and death in the water is razor-thin.  So water is death … but it’s also new life.  Soon these three young people, and the adults who’d give their lives for them, will be asked to jump off the high dive into this tiny pool.  The stakes are high because in that water, yes, we do die.  “In it, we are buried with Christ in his death,” as we’ll pray before the baptisms.  But just as surely, and so much more powerfully, “By it, we share in his resurrection.  [And] through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 306)  Rising out of that pool, we are reborn as members of the family of God.  Rising out of that pool, we are washed clean of every stain.  Rising out of that pool, we are clothed in the garments of transcendent glory, like Jesus on the mountaintop; and we are sealed with the oil that’s anointed prophets and kings as we join Jesus as members of his royal priesthood. 
And as we rise from that water, born again, we hear the voice of the risen Lord whose company of disciples we join.  We hear him commission us for service in the reign and rule of God:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” 
As the songwriter Marcus Mumford sings:
In these bodies we will live; in these bodies we will die. 
Where you invest your love, you invest your life. 
Awake my soul –
For you were made to meet your maker.1
As you stand at the end of the high dive, are you ready to take the plunge?  Come on in.  The water’s fine.

1.  Mumford & Sons.  “Awake My Soul.”  Sigh No More.  2009.