It’s just good business

A sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter: Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

 

The author of the 1st Letter of Peter writes

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

This is exactly what Paul does in Athens. He has seen all the idols around the city, and it upsets him terribly. But, there is also this idol to an unknown god; which is a customary just in case practice (Harrelson). It is an opportunity Paul seizes. He does not shout at the people. He uses their culture, to witness to them (Benoit). Paul recognizes that God is uniquely present in every place, in every human story, so it does not matter the that people worship the unknown god; because it is really God in Jesus. Athens is the home of Socrates, great Universities and Philosophical schools of the Epicureans and the Stoics (Wall). Paul makes use of those customs in shaping his speech. He begins by noting how religious Athenians are; perhaps a bit tongue in cheek (Ellingsen). He quotes Epimenides, and Aratus well-known philosopher-poets (Harrelson). Then he introduces God who is not local, who is not bound to a specific place, who does not require human offerings, and who is the true source of all life (Gaventa and Petersen). Paul emphasizes God’s universal judgment and salvation for all. He welcomes all Athenians into the life giving, life changing presence of God through Jesus Christ. He does all this with the help of the Spirit. So, can you. Here ends the lesson.

Well almost.

 

I think our challenge today is not to defend the source of the hope that is in us. I think today’s challenge is to put the hope that is in us to work. This involves telling the truth about our community locally and globally (Bratt). And the truth I am beginning to see is deeply disturbing.

At Friday Families, we watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Throughout the story, Lord Cutler Beckett makes all kinds of inhuman decisions and actions, from killing Elizabeth’s father, to entrapping, enslaving, betraying, lying to, and blacking mailing most every character he encounters, all in the name of good business. The United States is the leading economic force in the world. We are not merely the largest, we set base standards of right and wrong. As a nation, we are remaking ourselves in the image of “It’s just good business.” We are leading the unmaking of humanity in the name of “It’s just good business.”

A couple of observations. We have commoditized agriculture to the extent that the few corporations who own the patents on seed stock are controlling who plants what. Farmers can no long save back some seed from crops they grew for seeds for next year because they don’t belong to them, they don’t own the patent. It constrains farmers’ prosperity, but it’s just good business.

We have almost completely commoditized university education through student loans. These loans are government guaranteed made to individuals from major financial institutions who sell education as the way to a bright future; which it can be. But These public and private Universities are not accountable for the results; it’s just good business.

There are some changes emerging in University accountability. But, they are cost reduction efforts by the states, not a careful examination of how best to provide education for all the people; it may be another form of its just good business. We have completely lost sight of John Adam’s (our second President) ideal that educating its people is a primary concern of any nation, any government (McCullough). The current trend is to abandon all public education and allow the market to improve a declining education system. Is it good for education? The results are very mixed, as it is for public schools. But we go that way because it is good business.

We have nearly commoditized our health care system. The efforts to make health care available to most Americans are primarily focused on insurance. There is an inspired change to shift the vision of health care from an individual event in a single person that a provider or providers diagnoses and implements a defined protocol to fix toward a system that understands that everything is interconnected when it comes to nurturing good health. You may not know that 50 to 80 percent of health care outcomes have nothing to do with medical providers but is determined by social drivers of health. Can you get back to the doctor, can you get your prescriptions filled, can you get your bandages changed, do you live in standard housing, do you have clean water, can you eat healthy? All these things determine health. There is a move among providers to invest in improving these social drivers. However, as far as I can tell it is limited to large systems with potential saving to fund these investments. More importantly is the complete lack of conversation about the behaviors of pharmaceutical, equipment, and supply businesses in health care They determine the cost of health care, and they are doing so largely without moral consideration. EpiPen’s cost increased ten times in ten years, without any change in medication or mechanics; it was just what the manufacturer believes is good business (Layton).The cost of Daraprim (a 62-year-old highly effective drug that is the standard treatment for a life-threatening parasitic infection) rose from $13.50 to $750 a tablet, (Pollack) because the new owner believed it was justified. Experts believe it is just economics (Seidman). Once again, it’s just good business. True there was dramatic pushback in these cases, and changes were made. But, the troublesome observation is that anyone, any business could ever allow such egregious decisions to be ever considered never mind brought to market.

Recently there has been a lot of conversation about driverless cars and trucks in the news. There has been some conversation about the impact of the potential loss of millions of jobs; taxi drivers, Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, truck drivers and delivery service drivers. Some conversation about guaranteed income for all citizens is popping up as visions of a worker-less artificial intelligence economy dance in our imaginations. But no one, no one is talking about the loss of human interaction. How many stories of a passenger or cab driver helping the other have you heard? How many times have you seen a car or a truck pull over to help a stranded driver? You may remember that in fall of 2015 I was coming home from Little Rock and blew the timing belt in my SUV. I was able to get off the road. I called AAA, they recommended a repair shop and dispatched a wrecker. When the wrecker arrived, I asked the driver if he could get me to a hotel. He looked at the work ticket and then recommend a different repair shop because there was a hotel across the street. In part, the recommendation was made because of the original repair shop’s location. Would a driverless wrecker have been able to do that? Would an AI desk clerk offer a toothbrush as I checked in because she asked how my night was?

There are all sorts of human interactions that advanced technologies and Artificial Intelligence will eliminate. It all may well be good business, but it is remaking humanity. Business has become the forest of idols in which we increasingly live and move and have our being. Paul would be aghast. So, should we. Paul acted, so should we; and Paul is our model.

Paul did not rant against the culture or the many, many idols to numerous gods. We should not blindly rant against technology. I cannot; I use a lot of technology every day. I preach from a tablet, a technology, that is still changing things. What we should do is start the conversation about where is God is all this. How does the business opportunity respect the image of God in the customer? How does the business opportunity reflect the image of God to the customer and the world? Does this inject religion into business and politics? Yes, it does, but Paul’s speech is every bit as political as well as religious, for the worship of the gods was as political as it was religious (Aymer). If we take our faith seriously; if we see the image of God in everyone, and the image is there, no matter how suppressed or hidden, if we are serious about witnessing God’s universal judgement that brings salvation then our religion, our faith must be the foundational value for every thought, word, and deed.

Can we ignore it all this and hope for the best, believing that “it’s just good business” will eventually lead to life nurturing decisions; after all religious based decisions do not have a good history of universally life nurturing? We can; but, at the very end of World’s End Lord Beckett eerily walks through a maelstrom of cannon and musket fire, and flying bits of shattered ship mumbling, “it’s just good business” until he is consumed by erupting flames as his ship The Endeavor explodes. Make of the imagery of searing flames what you will.

Is it difficult and risky to inject religion into business and politics? It is. It was for Paul. Yet Paul spoke, in part, because the other advocate, the Spirit, was with him, every step of the way. You also have an advocate who stands with you and goes with you everywhere. The Spirit is also with you.


 

References

Aymer, Margaret. Commentary on Acts 17:2231. 21 5 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Benoit, Arlette D. being a Witness for the God We Know, Easter 6 (A). 21 5 2017. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Bratt, Doug. Acts 17:22-31. 21 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 21 5 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 21 5 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 21 5 2017.

Layton, Chris Woodyard, and Mary Jo. “Massive price increases on EpiPens raise the alarm.” 22 8 2016. usatoday.com. 20 5 2017. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2016/08/22/two-senators-urge-scrutiny-epipen-price-boost/89129620/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. A Paraclete Kind of Life. 21 5 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Pollack, Andrew. “Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight.” 30 9 20015. NYtimes.com. web. 20 5 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/business/a-huge-overnight-increase-in-a-drugs-price-raises-protests.html?_r=0&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seidman, Bianca. “Drug price increases 5,000 percent overnight.” 21 9 2015. cbsnews.com. 20 5 2017. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/generic-drug-price-increases-5000-percent-overnight/&gt;.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

A Season of Choice

A Sermon for Proper 4: 1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

This is Memorial Day weekend. It is full of opportunities for families and friends to gather and share a meal and good times; to enjoy the plentiful sales merchants have been offering for a week or so. It is time to remember.

My uncle flew B 24s over the south pacific in WWII. My dad served in post-WWII Germany. Larry, customer of mine flew DC 3s over the Himalayas in WWII. The challenge was not just flying over the highest mountains in the world; there were the winds. At times, the throttle would be all back with the nose pointed down, and the plane would be rising. The next minute the throttle would be full on with the nose pointed up, and the plane would be falling. Col. Rogers, one of my acolyte masters was on the first team into Hiroshima. Pat Durkee, Sgt. Major USMC (Retired) was my Field Director when I was working with the Boy Scouts, my first real job after college. Bob Atkins, Sgt. Major US Army (Retired) was a mentor when I was first ordained. David Stout, USMC was my first sales manager. Mark Lemon, a high school classmate, was a swift boat captain in Viet Nam. All these are folks I know, who have in one way or another journeyed with me to this point in my life and made some contribution to who I am.

But on his Memorial Day weekend, there are two others who stand out Mike Michelli, Angie’s father, who was killed in action in Viet Nam. I did not have the honor of asking him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. 1990 his 4-year-old granddaughter cried when we found his name on the Memorial Wall. She cried when she realized she had never known, and would never know her grandfather.

The other, Jimmy Kinsey was wounded in Iraq and lost a leg below the knee. He adjusted well to the prosthetic, often playing pranks with it. Jimmy would carefully place his prosthetic by the door so that you would step on it and go sit across the room. When someone did step on he’d shout “ouch!” Not all adjustment to life went so well. Jimmy struggled and was sent to the Wounded Warriors program. There he fell; he hit his head on and iron bed post and died. His parents, related to a parishioner of mine, were not churched, asked me to preside at his funeral. It is one of the greatest honors ever extended to me. I went to meet his parents, and ended up meeting the Marine honor guard; there were five Marines, I think. I listened as they shared their stories of serving with Jimmy. At some point, one pointed to another of the group said, “He was blown up first, then me, them him and him and him.” All of those marines had been injured by an IED explosion. All of them were the same age as my daughters. I thought to myself “What are we doing for $2 a gallon gas?” Later, as I realized our IRAs and 403b likely had investments in companies that profited from the war in Iraq, or from our armed forces in harm’s way across the world, I thought, “What I am doing?” My thoughts this morning are not about the political legitimacy of war. My thoughts this morning are about choice, our choices as individuals and our choices as a society.

Elijah speaks to all Israel “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” No one spoke a word. Still he insists that they make a choice; believe and follow God or follow Baal; one way or another you have to make a choice. As has been their tendency, most of Israel tried to avoid making a choice. They preferred to hedge their bets; proclaim one god but just in case honor others. Elijah says “Nope – you got to choose.” He does go on to make a rather dramatic argument for God. Nonetheless, the people as individuals and as a society must choose. The effect of divine consuming fire is that Israel chooses to follow God. However, they have made that choice before; at Saini, and crossing into the promised land and here they are choosing again.

Luke’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion is about choice. Centurion is an outsider and official of the oppressing Roman Empire. It would be a close race between Centurions or tax collectors for the most despised. The story reveals several choices the Centurion makes:

  • He chooses to work with the Jews under his watch, in fact, he built a synagogue for them.
  • He chooses to help a sick slave / servant; revealing that his choice to see the servant /slave as more than an expendable commodity.
  • He knows about Jesus, though we don’t know how, and he chooses to invite Jesus to help (Wong).
  • He chooses to recognize the Jewish tradition that coming into a Gentile property would defile Jesus, so he does not demand or even ask him to (Hogan).
  • He chooses to believe that physical proximity is not a necessary ingredient for healing.

Finally, as Jesus notes

  • he chooses to believe,
  • he chooses faith.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians reveals

  • his choice,
  • the choices of competing teachers, and
  • the choices of the members of the church which is where he starts.

Paul’s chooses to launch into a diatribe, there is little of the customary accolades and greetings. The central question is: Do you have to follow Jewish laws and customs to be Christian? We know Paul’s position is “No.” All you have to do is accept Jesus as God’s anointed Christ. In Paul’s absence, some Jews who follow Jesus are teaching “a different gospel.” Note that ‘gospel’ here is not capitalized; it is not the collection of books in scripture we call “The Gospels.” Here ‘gospel’ is the good news about Jesus as our Lord, and provider of salvation. These other teachers are teaching a different gospel, not so much about who Jesus is, but about how you have to behave to be a true believer, which includes following the Jewish traditions and Laws. Like Elijah, Paul is saying you have to make a choice. While not as dramatic as Elijah, he is no less vehement about his beliefs. He is no less ardent in his demand that the church in Galatia choose.

Having to choose is common in the bible. Generally, they can be understood as “Will you choose life or death (Epperly).” One type of choice is simple obedience. The first bad choice was to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). A good early choice was Noah’s choice to build the Ark (Genesis 7).

Another type is which god to follow or pledge allegiance to. In scripture, the choice is God or some other deity. Today the choice is what comes first, God or some other political / economic agenda or ideal (Epperly). What will it mean to choose God in this November’s or any election (Epperly)? Who is Baal today? a political party, a sports team, a social cause, pursuit wealth or power; or simply sleeping in (Ellingsen).

Another choice is who belongs and is included. The Galatians and many early Christians struggled with who is in and who is out. We face the same struggle today. Who can be baptized, who can be confirmed, who can receive communion, who can be ordained? Who belongs is at the core of our struggle with sexuality, race, and who can immigrate. One way to see our choice about who belongs is: Will we choose to accept that God has already chosen, through the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to welcome everyone into God’s presence (West)?

Another choice is how we understand ministry. Abraham’s offers gracious hospitality to three strangers at his camp at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). There is a Jewish notion that hospitality is the basis of all ministry. What do we choose to be the basis of our ministry?

Jesus heals the slave / servant of the centurion because of his owner’s faith. Are we willing to choose to approach Jesus, for ourselves, for our friends, for our enemies (Hogan)?

In many traditions, the season after Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time. One commentator believes it should be Extraordinary Time. Another would prefer we call it the Season of Pentecost because every day holds potential for an encounter with the Spirit (Lewis).

I am pondering this as a season of choice. We can choose the devices and desire of our own hearts. Or, we can choose the Spirit, who, in revealing the divine truth, will guide all our choices as we are learning how to choose Jesus’ teachings in our ministries and all of our daily lives (Wong).


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 4C Center for Excellence in Preaching . 29 5 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Chan, Michael J. Commentary on 1 Kings 18:20-21[22-29] 30-39. 29 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. 29 5 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 5 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. “Proper 4C Center for Excellence in Preaching.” 29 5 2016. Working Preacher.

Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on Luke 7:110. 29 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Back to Reality. 29 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

West, Audrey. Commentary on Galatians 1:112. 29 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Wong, Ada. “God is Much Bigger, Proper 4 (C) – 2016.” 29 5 2016. Sermons that Work.

 

Aimlessly Watch The Clouds, Wiggling Our Toes In The Ground

A sermon for Pentecost; Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, (25-27)

Pentecost is as big a preaching challenge as Christmas and Easter. The readings are the same every year. There is a similar focus every year, the arrival of the Spirt. So this year, I propose that we, regardless of the angelic question, from last week, about staring into the sky. aimlessly watch the clouds. I also propose that we do so after we take our shoes off and wiggle our toes into the ground.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is the publisher of literature for loafers. The goal is to sustain the value of aimlessness. It turns out this is really hard; it is very focused work; it is a burden. So, Gavin took a sabbatical and moved from London to Rome. There he spent his time aimlessly looking at paintings. He noticed that there were always lots of clouds. This caught his attention because there are no clouds in Rome’s skies. This peaked his curiosity, and he just went with it. He started the Cloud Appreciation Society; it has a website, I googled it, it is there and has an intriguing look. You can join its current 40,000 members for $15. The Society’s goal is to get us to look aimlessly skyward.

In June 2006, a member saw an impenetrable shroud of dark clouds looming over town. It was so enormous, so terrible and so strange; that she took a picture of it and posted it on the website. The initial thought was “this is unique.” It turns out it wasn’t really unusual. People posted pictures of similar clouds from Norway, Ontario, Scotland, France and Massachusetts. It also turns out the cloud does not fit into any official cloud formation. The esoteric system for describing unusual clouds is to fit the clouds into the existing map of the sky or set them aside as irrelevant. Gavin named it himself; ‘asperatus’ which he got from Virgil’s description of a rough sea.

asperatus

Gavin pitched the newly named cloud formation to the Royal Meteorological Society. They referred him to World Meteorological Organization. The WMO provided a lengthy description of their archaic system of establishing new cloud types. Nothing has been added since 1953. When Gavin asked “Why?” he was told, “Because 50 or 60 years ago, we got it right.” (Mooallen)

Nothing new in 60 years? Well aimlessly looking into the sky will still provide you with awesome visions and from my practice I expect you will experience something different.

Now to our toes Maria Evans wants us to take our shoes off and feel the ground. Maria’s inspiration come from Exodus (3) when God tells Moses “Remove your shoes, this is holy ground.” In ancient societies and some modern societies, this is a sign of respect. In some ways, when barefooted you are more naked, therefore, humbler before God. Maria got to wondering

what if God’s intent with Moses was not to prove that one has to ingratiate or depersonalize oneself in the presence of the Divine, but [is] a desire on the part of God for us to feel with our own two feet what it feels like to be a little closer to God in a tactile way?

She posits that our tendency is to focus on the distance between God and Moses. It is a false distance. Moses is told to “come no closer” but he cannot get any closer his feet are already intimately touching the holy mountain. He is already as close to God as one can possibly get; the soles of his feet press against the holiness of God’s personal space. Maria ponders when do we stand back from a genuine chance

  • to press against the holiness of God?
  • to intimately encounter the holy?

Where do we hesitate to take our shoes off and feel the presence of the holy (Evans)?

To allow our minds to wander aimlessly, dropping all pretenses and wiggle toes against God’s holiness, is to risk an encounter with the Spirit. Some of those pretenses we think are scriptural. We heard the story of the Tower of Babel when God infuses many languages into human society this morning. God is not out to limit human accomplishments; God is not afraid for the divine self or heaven. God’s concern is what we, in our efforts to be like God, and unbridled by restraints on our inclinations and power, will do to one another (Gaventa and Petersen). On Pentecost, God is not undoing what was done at Babel. Everyone spoke Greek. The gift of the Spirit for native languages is to undermine Rome’s interests in creating a single people through suppression of native languages (Gaventa and Petersen).

Peter’s speech quotes from Joel’s exhortation that in the last days the Spirit will be poured out on all people and that they will prophesy. We tend to believe prophecy is about seeing into the future. And prophecy does use stories of our past to reveal the presence of the Kingdom in the here and now or the future. But what prophecy really does is to tell the truth (Skinner). To speak the truth into an oppressive empire of any form is unsettling. Any encounter with the Spirit will nudge us into the world to speak the truth of God’s Kingdom, and that leaves us uneasy. So yes, we leave our shoes on, and we stay hyperactively engaged with mundane futile activities empire proclaims as necessary.

The wonder of today is that Jesus continues to keep God’s word. He said he would return from the dead after three days, and it was so. He said he would send us another advocate to walk beside us forever, and it is so.

To begin again, I propose we aimlessly watch the clouds. I also propose that we do so after we take our shoes off we wiggle our toes against the holiness of God’s personal space. I further propose we trust the advocate to walk beside us as we speak the truth in proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here and now. I don’t think it will take long to experience a new manifestation of God’s eternal loving presence.

 


 

References

Bratt, Doug. Lectionary Acts 2:1-21. 8 5 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Evans, Maria. Speaking to the Soul: Kick off your shoes. 10 5 2016. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Lectionary Gospel John 14:8-17 (25-27). 8 5 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Spirit Focus. 8 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lundblad, Barbara. Commentary on John 14:817, 8 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Mooallen, Jon. “An improbable tale of how a British maverick harnessed.” New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-amateur-cloud-society-that-sort-of-rattled-the-scientific-community.html?_r=0&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Acts 2:121. 8 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.