Powerless over anxiety

teeth-grinding

I suspect it would have happened no matter what career path I’d followed, but since my ordination to the priesthood 8+ years ago, I’ve been diagnosed with three medical ailments with stress markers.  I’m honestly not sure what there is in my life to be so stressed about.  I have a solid family, a good job in a good church, and, by and large, things are good.  And yet, my body reacts as if I’m making multi-million dollar decisions on a regular basis; like I’m a brain surgeon working on Stephen Hawking; or the guy who decided to give RGIII another chance.

I am, like most modern Americans, powerless over anxiety.  It is as much a personal issue as it is a societal one.  Yesterday, for example, I spent some time in an outpatient surgery waiting room.  As is the cultural expectation, there was a TV hanging on the wall with one of the 24 hour news networks playing at a reasonable volume.  As I sat there listening to talking heads discuss the Presidential election, I realized that the 24 hour news cycle is designed to make us addicted. They create stress, even when there is none to be had, and let our bodies do its thing.  Eventually, we become so addicted to the cortisol reaction, we can’t look away.  As the 12 Step community would say, we are powerless over anxiety.

The Collect for Proper 20 hits that powerlessness head on.  We ask God to “grant us not to be anxious about earthly things,” but we can’t stop there.  As the old joke goes, you can pray to God to win the lottery all you want, but you have to buy a ticket to have a chance.  We can pray for an end to our anxiety, but part of that prayer has to be about changing our own behaviors as well.  Can we turn off the TV?  Can we step away from the balance sheet?  Can we stop focusing on those things which we cannot change, and instead take the initiative to move the needle where we can?  Can we, in the midst of things that are passing away, turn our focus to things heavenly?

Ask any addict, it is easier said than done, but perhaps this Sunday can be a start.  Maybe I can take this prayer more seriously this week, and begin the process of being set free from my stress and be made alive again in God.

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Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

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So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.

A Parable About Talents?

In Year C’s Parable Season, we don’t have the chance to hear the Parable of the Talents from Luke 19.  It is Matthew’s version that instead gets airtime in Year A.  Perhaps you recall the story of a master who gives three of his slaves portions of his wealth to watch over while his is on an extended trip.  To the first, he gives five talents – roughly 100 years worth of wages.  To the second, he gives two talents, and to the third slave, he gave one talent.  Upon his return, the first slaves returns ten talents; the second, four; while the third simply gives back the one talent to his master.  The Parable of the Talents isn’t really about money.  In fact, it is pretty convenient that the monetary unity is called a talent because that seems to be what it’s really about.  How are you using the gifts God has given you to the glory of God?

I’m beginning to think the Parable of the Unjust Steward is similarly about talents.  The story begins with Jesus introducing us to a rich man and his manager.  The manager is known to be squandering the rich man’s property.  Squander is an interesting word.  The only other time I hear that word used is in relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.  It means to scatter, to throw to the wind, or to winnow.  It is the opposite of “to gather together.”  It wasn’t that his man was simply a bad manager, but he was wasteful with his master’s wealth.  His defining characteristic was that of a squanderer.

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Squanderer put this song in my head

When the manager finds out that he is going to be fired, he doesn’t panic, but instead he does what he does best.  He uses his skills at squandering his master’s goods to put himself in the best possible position once he is no longer employed.  He uses his talent, icky as it may be, to the best of his ability to further his own best interests.  When the rich man praises him for his shrewdness, we are shocked.  When Jesus suggests his followers should do likewise, we get squirmy and look for another text to preach, but what if this story is a parable about talents?  What if Jesus is encouraging us to use the gifts we have, to the best of our abilities, to further God’s best interests?  Preachers should preach for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Bankers should manage funds for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Lawyers should practice law for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Cashiers should engage customers for the up-building of the Kingdom.  No matter what gifts and talents we have, they should be put to use with shrewdness, for the up-building of the Kingdom.

God or Money

multitasking

Parable Season continues with a doozy of a parable this week.  As I said in yesterday’s sermon, Jesus’ parables aren’t fables: we can’t just pick them up 2,000 years later and find a universal truth in them.  This is especially true this Sunday, as we are forced to deal with what might be the trickiest of Jesus’ parables, “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

The story begins with an abrupt scene change.  After three parables directed to the Pharisees and scribes who had been grumbling about Jesus’ tendency to hangout with sinners and tax collectors, Luke tells us that this parable is told only to the Disciples.  Most preachers might wish it had stayed there, but alas, it is in Luke’s Gospel and assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary.  I’ll get to the details of the parable later in the week, but what has my attention this morning is what many preachers will likely focus on when they punt this Sunday.

After telling a very strange story, Jesus summarizes the lesson to be learned by talking about honesty and dishonesty.  He ends with perhaps his most famous saying about money: a topic he dealt with in 11 of his 39 parables and in 1 out of every 7 verses in Luke’s Gospel (Source).

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

What is interesting about this pithy quote is that Jesus assumes we are going to be slaves to one or the other.  Yes, I said “slaves” because that’s what the Greek word means.  We are either going to be slaves to money and the stuff, power, and prestige that goes along with it, or we are going to be set free from that bondage to be devoted fully to God’s will for our lives.  You simply cannot do both.  You cannot have two masters.  There will come a time, sooner rather than later, when you will be forced to pledge your allegiance to one over the other.  It might be a work decision: will I choose the honest path and lose money or not?  It might be a family finances decision: will I give to the church instead of buying that new toy I really want, but ultimately don’t really need?  It might be a lifestyle decision: will I work 80 weeks to accumulate wealth for the family I never see to spend?  These are choices that we all have to make at one time or another.  You cannot do both. You cannot be a slave to money and be faithful to God.  Which will you choose?