Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Talking about money.

Lectionary passages for Sept. 29. Amos6:1a, 4-7, Ps 146, 1 Tim. 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Talking about money is always touchy. A few years ago, after I preached on passages like these, I had a number of people make comments. For some people, they hadn't heard pastors preach on this topic, they said it was usually the treasurer or some representative from an outside church organization. Others said they thought it was courageous to take it on. Still others thought it should be done more often. Of course there were many quiet people, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them would rather that pastors just keep quiet about matters of wealth. What happens for you? Where do you have discussions about money and it's use?

The lectionary passages this week won't allow us to keep quiet about the use of wealth. They urge us to think deeply about wealth, generosity, contentment, and what sort of importance we place on riches. If we are really honest about what we read in the Bible, we should probably be studying and preaching a whole lot more about these themes! We should be talking about money in our families, with trusted friends, and especially among people of faith. (Just for fun sometime, I'd like to see a 'red letter' edition of the Bible that highlights all the passages talking about poverty and riches!)

We don't like to talk about money because we've convinced ourselves it is a private matter. We hesitate to ask each other what we earn, or spend, or give, or waste, or hoard. There are some good reasons for that, but the extent of our silence also means we are not able to hold each other accountable, it's hard to encourage or support positive changes, and it's hard to know how to help or who needs help, or how to ask for help. Our economy drives all of us and it's hard to handle money whether we think we have too much or too little of it.

One thing that makes me hesitant to preach about the use of wealth is the risk of sending out "guilt trip" kind of signals into our community. Guilt isn't the best motivator for right living and sharing. Love and true caring are far superior, longer lasting, and more joy inducing for the community of believers. I'd rather be in a poorer community that is giving happily and out of love than in a wealthy one that gives out of obligation. (Of course, usually there is a mix of these feelings going on. I hope we strive for and encourage the more joyful direction.)

It's interesting to think about how these scriptures characterize the wealthy. None of them condemn the rich for having money. Amos says; "alas for those who are at ease...and are not grieved". It's okay to have your needs met-but not if you don't care about others. The Psalm says that happiness comes from trusting God. Timothy says that if you have food and clothes, you should be content. That in "eagerness to be rich some have wandered and pierced themselves with many pains." Not all the rich are lost, but some are. In Luke, the rich man is never condemned for being rich. His problem is that he has walked past the poor man every day not even sharing the crumbs that fell from his table. In all the readings, the problem is the focus on self-riches and lack of concern for others.

I am quite intrigued by Luke's encouragement to be content. What does this take? How can we be truly content? Is it easier to be content when you are rich, or poor, or somewhere in between? Once the basic needs are met, like Luke says, I think contentment has a lot more to do with trusting God than anything else. Riches or lack of, health or lack of, life and death, these happen to everyone. Contentment does not happen to everyone, we have to work at it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

You Cannot Serve God and Wealth

Lectionary passages for Sept. 22: Amos 8:4-7, Ps 113, 1 Tim. 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

My Bible has a little introduction about the book of Amos. It says that there had been a time of peace and prosperity for Judah and Israel, but that the prosperity was full of social corruption.

This text is aimed straight at those who take advantage of others in order to increase their wealth. It's scary stuff, because we live in a place of peace and prosperity too. This sounds familiar. Our gap between rich and poor is growing. The text makes us wonder if we value money higher than people, if our good fortune comes as a result of the needy being trampled. Overall, Canada seems to have a pretty good system, but we know that our governments and corporations are certainly not exempt from corruption, and in a democracy, that's our responsibility too! We can't allow our prosperity to make us complacent about what is happening to others.

Psalm 113 continues the theme of God as a champion of the poor, raising them up from the dust. I can't help but think of the prejudice our culture (all of us to some extent at least) that tends to blame poor people for their predicaments. And yes, sometimes people make bad decisions that land them in bad places, however, of the billions of poor people in the world, I'd be willing to bet that it is a very small percentage who deserve their lot. For that matter, I'd also be willing to bet few of the wealthy really deserve it either. I've had every advantage in life, a close family, good education, supportive friends, jobs when I needed them, good health. I don't think I really deserved any of that, I am just fortunate. That puts me into a place of prosperity, a place that is my responsibility to handle well.

A few weeks ago, on my way to an appointment downtown, I met a distraught man limping out to the sidewalk from behind my doctor's building. He told me that the lady building manager had just kicked him out of the alley where he was picking up bottles to sell. She had yelled at him to go get a job. "But I can't work", he said. He showed me his colostomy bag. "I've had surgery, I'm messed up."

I felt badly for him. He had health problems, and I'm guessing mental issues as well. He had been doing what he could, working to get bottles and cans to take to the recycling place for a bit of money. Apparently, in the eyes of the building manager, that doesn't count as real work. She didn't want his sort hanging around in the alley, picking up cans wealthier people were too lazy to recycle themselves. I sympathized with him and gave him the five dollar bill I had so he could get some breakfast. Obviously, I didn't solve his problem, but he helped me see a bit of what he was up against, and hopefully I made his day a bit better.

Spending time this past summer visiting with people at a drop in center, I learned about why people end up on the streets. The stories of abandonment, abuse, mental illness, bad luck, and bad choices really could happen to any of us. Some of these people do manage to pull themselves out of it, if they have some help. Others stay stuck. But now, I can't really blame many of them. I can look at my society and blame it for not caring enough. Sure we have wealth and relative peace. What are we doing with it? Do we really care, or do we think that somehow we deserve more than others do?

The Bible doesn't teach that being wealthy is a crime. Timothy reminds us to pray for leaders and all those in high places, they face many pressures, temptations, and hard decisions, but there are good people there too. They need support, accountability, and prayer. Wealth isn't bad or good in itself, it is getting wealthy on the backs of the poor is sinful. So is not sharing what we have with those who need help.

The last verse in the somewhat confusing Luke passage is a good one. "You cannot serve God and wealth." But we can serve God with our wealth.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

God changes, so we can too!

Lectionary Readings for Sept. 15. Exodus 32:7-14, Ps. 51:1-10, 1Tim. 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

"And the Lord changed his mind..." Ex. 32:14

I love this line! Even God's plans have contingencies and are open to change! The empowering thing is that the change happens because Moses intercedes, his prayers and arguments make a difference to God! It kind of shakes up our complacency about things if we take this story seriously. (And there are other Bible stories where the mind of God is changed too. My favorite is the one about the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. She argues with Jesus and he relents.) One of the things I love the most about these sorts of stories is that they set such a strong example. Too many times people "stick to their guns" instead of gracefully accepting that another position might be the better one. If even God can change, there should be hope for us!

This week the news about Obama's "red-line" and forceful threats have been everywhere in the news. This morning one report talked about the appearance of weakness if Obama would back down or change his mind. What is that!!! Being able to back down, or admit a mistake, or change course in a case like this should be seen as strength, not weakness.

It is, however, so very hard to back down. So often in our statements and actions we burn bridges behind us, making it feel impossible to change.

In Psalm 51, the poet implores God for mercy. To paraphrase him; "God, I deserve the punishment, but please change Your mind about me! Restore me." In the last verses, the poet shifts the focus from himself individually, to include the welfare of his people as well. He wants some wholesome change and isn't shy about asking for it, starting with himself.

The Timothy scripture reminds us of the incredible change that is possible. Paul is the "worst" of sinners, yet God changed him and he becomes an example of God's mercy.

All these scriptures assure us our calls to God are efficacious, that change is possible, and that mercy exists even where it seems impossible.Then the passage in Luke gives us the story of the Lost Sheep. It's not by accident that this story is told to grumblers. The pharisees and scribes were annoyed with the way Jesus extended mercy to sinners, after all, that's not what they deserved. By their unchanging attitudes, (burnt bridges) these leaders couldn't extend mercy, couldn't see the benefits of what Jesus was doing, wouldn't consider new ideas, and were completely resistant to possible change.

When are we the grumblers and resistant to changes God is calling us to make? What changes are we asking of God? And perhaps, as a follow up question, what things are already good and should stay the same?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Coming Home, but Something has Changed!

Lectionary Passages for Sept.8  Deut.30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Sept. 8th will be my first time back in the pulpit since returning from a 4 month sabbatical. It's a coming home after an absence that included significant experiences, some of which will impact how I think and work. The question comes up then, about how I reintegrate into work and share those experiences. How will that sabbatical time, and the changes in me, fit back into First Mennonite?

Philemon is a story of a changed man going home. Onesimus is a runaway slave. (At least that's the assumption of most scholars-there are some disagreements. Whether he is a runaway, or maybe Philemon's estranged brother, it doesn't change that he is going home a different man and he's not sure how he will be received!) Paul says that Onesimus has changed, that he is now a brother in Christ who will be helpful to the church.

Can you imagine how Onesimus felt as he headed home? Perhaps he was constantly checking his pocket to make sure he hadn't lost Paul's letter. He is very unsure of how he will be received. If he is a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights, and maybe expected, to treat him harshly as an example to others. If he is an estranged brother-he could be going home to a lot of awkwardness, and maybe outright painful rejection. In verse18 of the letter, Paul offers to pay for any "wrongs" or debts Onesimus left behind. That sounds ominous, there is likely some bad blood between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul isn't above a little manipulation here to increase Onesimus' chances of being accepted. (If I was Philemon, I might be a little annoyed with Paul!) It's obvious that Onesimus has a powerful advocate in Paul, Paul believes in him and the good of what has changed.Paul is willing to stand up for him.(In verse 22, Paul uses nice words to tell Philemon that he is coming to check up on him!)

Things could go very well for Onesimus, or this could be a disastrous homecoming. Onesimus is courageously (or desperately) going home.Will that be okay or not? Will the changes in him prove to be helpful for his community, or rejected by them?

I definitely do not put my experiences on the level of Onesimus, but his story has helped me to reflect on the idea of coming home different than I left. Being with homeless people and those who work with them was a profound experience, some of my thinking has subtly changed. I need to figure out what to do with that. How do I share my experiences so that I am useful to my community?

There are many people in our church who have had shaping experiences this summer. Some have lost loved ones, some have travelled to new places and met new people. Some have had time to pray and think, or listen to a friend, or read something intriguing. I spoke with a young person who worked at Camp Valaqua all summer and she expressed that there is difficulty in leaving Camp behind and reintegrating into home and school. There are faith learnings and skills that she's developed that are incredibly good (useful!) for our church community. So while she is sad that camp had to end, she looks forward to moving on with what she has gained.

How is each of us changed by our summer experiences? What do we bring back with us that might be useful to the church? Are there things we are worried might not be accepted?  Are we able to be advocates for those among us who have changed, or learned, or are somehow different than they were before? (Or maybe a better question is, are we able to let people change?)