Lectionary Sermon on Luke 16:19–31 for 26th Ordinary C, Sept. 26, 2010

Luke 16:19–31

Convinced?

Do you remember the first time, probably when you were a child, that you saw a little

By greenyqueeny463

bird that had fallen from the nest?  Do you remember that feeling you had?  You immediately felt compassion.   And if the bird was still alive, you wanted to carefully pick it up and put it back in the nest (maybe that was when Mom or Dad told you that the scent of your touch would make the mother bird reject it, so it wouldn’t help to put it back.  Some problems cannot be fixed).  Nevertheless, you felt compassion for the bird’s suffering.

Compassion, empathy: these are God-given; gifts from our Creator; a way we are bonded to each other emotionally.  We identify with suffering, and so we want it to stop.

We can be cynical about a politician who claims to “feel our pain,” but “feeling each other’s pain” makes us human.  In fact it is deeply human to look at another person and imagine that I would feel the same pain as he does; I would suffer as she does if it were happening to me.

Imagination

Imagination is at the heart of our empathy and compassion.  We see suffering and imagine that we are the victim.  We imagine ourselves as the Haitian person buried alive in a dark air-pocket of a collapsed building.  We see our family trying to get by and pay bills after Dad’s company collapses and he has no job, or when mom gets sick, cannot work, and the medical bill start to mushroom.  We see ourselves hungry, or out of gas, or abandoned; we imagine, and we feel compassion.  It is a Gif of God.

Compassion joins us together in a community.  We care for each other and know that when we need caring, there will be others around to care for us.  We were meant to live in community with each other.   We are people who were created to live together in a fruitful Garden.  It was “not good for man to be alone,” so God gave Eve to Adam; the original community was born.

The corrupted community

But humans, created to be free, freely chose to do wrong, and the consequences followed

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immediately.  Adam blamed Eve for the temptation – and community was corrupted.  Ever after that moment of disruption we have all longed to live in that garden of perfect harmony with each other, but we have known nothing that even comes close, save for brief episodes here and there.

Quickly in the story, we read that Cain killed his brother Abel.  Human community devolved from harmony to horror within a generation.  God intended the Garden, we made it a Golgotha – the place of the victim’s skull.

The mystery that I am unable to understand is the mystery of mercy: why God would still care about us, after what we had become is beyond me.  But it must be “a family thing” – or something like “a family thing.”  Parents visit prisons to see their sons or daughters behind bars – no matter what they have done, they don’t stop being family.  Maybe that is something like the reason our heavenly Father keeps after us, longing for the day when we will return to him and live as we were created to live, fully human, fully alive to him and to each other.

We feel compassion when we see suffering because we were made that way.  It is an inherited family trait.  We get it from God our Father.  He heard the cries of his children who were suffering in slavery under Pharaoh, and it moved him with compassion.  He called Moses, and through him God delivered the children of Israel out of the house of bondage to the Empire.

Moses

Moses then taught the people how God, their Father, their Creator intended them to

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live.  He gave him a vision of a community, bonded by covenant, who would worship the One true God and care, compassionately for each other –  after all they were all on level ground, all doubly equal: equal because all of them had been slaves; equal because all of them had been made in God’s image.  Therefore they were all equally deserving of compassion and care from each other.

Here is what Moses taught:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.  9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.  10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”   Deut. 15:7-11

That was the vision of Moses for the community.  They were a covenant community of compassion.

The Prophets

Of course free people are free to be bad as well as good, and so the people frequently,

compassion

conveniently forgot the Torah of Moses.  Still, the mystery of God’s mercy was such that he did not abandon us.  He sent prophets to call the people back to obedience.  Here is Amos speaking at a time when the instructions of Moses were being ignored:

Thus says the LORD:

For three transgressions of Israel,

and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;

because they sell the righteous for silver,

and the needy for a pair of sandals—

7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,

and push the afflicted out of the way;  – Amos 2:6-7

What should God do when the people he made in his image to live in covenanted community with each other instead use each other, abuse each other, take advantage of each other and profit from the misery of each other?

Well, certainly he cannot, and will not accept worship in that situation!  How could a person pretend to love God the Father while causing the Father’s children to suffer?  What should God do when, at the same time, they fast and sacrifice?

5 Will you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the LORD?

6    Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke, …

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?    – Isaiah 58:5-7

The New Testament takes Moses and the Prophets and sums it up in one sentence:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  – 1 John 3:17

What would it take for us to be convinced?  Just like the rich man, we have Moses who taught us how to live as a covenant-community of caring and compassion.  We also have the prophets warning us of dire consequences if we don’t practice communal compassion.  Today, we even have what the rich man didn’t: someone who came back from the dead; Jesus.

Jesus

What did Jesus add to Moses and the prophets?  He told us a parable: there was a rich man who lived behind a gate, dressed like a king and eating sumptuously every day.  He filled his belly to his heart’s content, but that heart was tiny, hard, and totally empty of the one thing essential: imaginative compassion.  He must have seen – must have had to step over Lazarus daily; must have had to shoo away the sore-licking dogs as he came and went.

He had no imagination that enabled him to feel Lazarus’ hunger as his hunger.  He could not imagine that the pain of Lazarus’ sores felt like pain he had ever known.  He could not imagine Lazarus and himself as equals: equally created in God’s image, equally rescued, equally objects of God’s mercy.  He could not imagine that they were both members of a covenant community.  He had no compassion on Lazarus.

Everybody has imagination: perhaps the rich man imagined that Lazarus did something to deserve his fate.  Perhaps he imagined Lazarus the drunk, Lazarus the  sloth, Lazarus the con-man.  Perhaps he imagined that Lazarus was just a problem you couldn’t fix.  Who knows?

Imagining God

What he did not imagine was God, the Fatherly Creator of all, as God, the judge of all, the knower of all, the notice-er of all.   He did not imagine God, whose eye is on the sparrow, who feels compassion for every little bird like Lazarus who falls out of the nest.

He did not imagine that God notices the little birds that get born to addicted, single

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mothers through no choice or fault of their own.  He did not imagine that God looks with compassion on the little birds that grow up without anyone turning off the TV and saying “time to get your homework done.”  He could not imagine that God was watching as he stepped over Lazarus, resenting the inconvenience, without a fleeting thought about how God might have put Lazarus there as a means to his own redemption.  He missed it all.

He missed it all during his life on earth.  After death, the parable pictures the fanciful scene of a conversation the rich man has from his place of torment with Abraham; a place from which his perspective has changed.  He understands that it is too late for himself – his choices have been made – but he has relatives he wants to save.  Perhaps Abraham would be willing to treat Lazarus as a lower-class delivery boy to run and deliver a warning from beyond the grave to his similarly compassionless family.  Abraham gets the last word in the parable:

29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30  He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Well, someone has risen from the dead.  Are we convinced?

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Lectionary Sermon on Luke 16:1-13, Ordinary 25C, Sept 19, 2010

Luke 16:1–13

What’s the Big Deal?

By remaxcondos

Just as in life, so too in the bible, and especially in the teachings of Jesus, some things are completely clear, and other things are not.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” is completely clear.  Not at all easy, but clear.  The text we just read, is not.

What does it mean? Jesus tells a story of a dishonest manager who acts in a totally self-serving manner (if not a duplicitous manner) and then Jesus says:

9 I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

How could that dishonest manager be a model for us of anything positive at all?  What does it mean to make friends by using dishonest wealth?  Why would a good person ever do that?  And if you did, how could it ever get you a welcome into “eternal homes?”  So, this is one of those unclear, ambiguous, if not opaque teachings of Jesus.  I guess we should top off these questions with one last one: what in the world does this have to do with us today?

It might surprise you, but as we look closely at this teaching of Jesus, we will see that it fits our time and place remarkably, and that we need to hear its message.

Starting with God

Let’s start with this most basic fact about ourselves: we are here now because of God.   We sense that this material world is not the only world.  On some days it is overwhelmingly clear to us, and on other days it is just in the faint background, but either way, we understand that God is real and present.  On our best days, we long to get closer to God, to listen to his voice, to be directed and guided by him, to experience his presence all around us.

Perhaps on other days we would just as soon have him leave us alone to do our own

By ChuckLentine

thing; his demands seem onerous, his awareness of us invasive.  But when we are thinking clearly, we cannot help but love him.  Look what God has blessed us with!  It is amazing that he loves creatures like us – but he does.

God is our perfect Father – he looks at us, his children that way.  Remember how you felt about your children when they were little?  You wanted to teach them how to live well.  You wanted them to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering – certainly to avoid brining it on themselves.  You wanted them to learn to love, to give love, to make a difference in the world.    Our heavenly Father wants no less for us.

This odd parable that Jesus told about the dishonest manager is one example of God’s good guidance to us, his children.  That’s how we look at all of Jesus’ teachings; they are God’s Fatherly instructions so that his children can live well, avoid unnecessary pain, and learn to live the life of the beloved.   So, what does God want us to learn today?

Clarifications: commissions and exaggerations

First, some basic clarifications.  The rich man in the story is an absentee landowner who has an authorized managing agent handling his business.  There are some strict rules the agent must observe – he has to make a profit for the owner of course; but the managing agent has lots of latitude.  It’s like commission sales; whatever the manager can get above the owner’s set profit is his to keep.

Of course there are limits; extortion was not legal.  The amounts in this story are absurdly huge; exaggerated for effect. A hundred jugs of oil; that’s 900 gallons! A hundred  containers of wheat; that’s over 100 bushels!

When the agent is about to lose his job he rushes around and tells the debtors to re-write their IOU’s, cutting their bills down by 20-50% – again, exaggeration.  If what he is doing is eliminating his commission from the total, that’s way too much.  But we are hearing a story, not reading a legal brief.  We get it: the manager made lots of friends in the village by giving away his own percentage – very shrewd.

Knowing the power of money

Nevertheless, the manager lost his job because of dishonesty – something he did was dishonest that had nothing to do with writing off his commissions – it was something he had been caught doing dishonestly before – but we are not told what, other than that he “squandered his property.”

So the landowner hears about how his dishonest manager has arranged things so that everybody loves him now, and congratulates his shrewdness.  The dishonest manager knows the power of money to get what you want.  The landowner and the agent both know that world well.  The “children of this world” are clear about the power of money – maybe even more clear than Jesus’ followers?

Irony: what can money buy?

Jesus wants his followers to be just as informed about the power of money as the people in his story, so now he make his point.

9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Okay, a bit more clarification: “dishonest wealth” is the modern way to translate words that mean literally “Mammon of unrighteousness.”  This does not mean “ill-gotten gain” but rather something like “corrupting cash.”  Money frequently corrupts people – always has, always will (there are no new ideas).

So what does it mean when Jesus tells us to “make friends” by means of the cash that  often corrupts people so that they will welcome us “into eternal homes”?  Be serious!  No amount of cash buy you a room in an “eternal home.”  Everybody hearing Jesus suggesting that they should use cold, hard, cash to buy their way into heaven would have had one of those ironic grins on their faces.  Yes, we get it; be smart about the power of money – know it’s power and its limitations.  It’s not going to save you!

Money: powerful, powerless, and dangerous

This is what God our Heavenly Father wants to teach his children, us, to spare us

By kko910

from a world of self-inflicted pain.  Money is powerful – maybe more than we even know – but ridiculously limp and impossibly helpless at achieving what we want the most: to be in God’s presence.  Put money in its place, along with the riding lawnmower and the automobile; great tools, powerful in their own way – but you don’t go riding them into heaven.

There is more.  Money is like the mower and the car in another way; it can hurt you, it can kill you.  It is dangerous.

Leo Tolstoy is said to have asserted that every person has a price, it’s just that some  set a price too high for the devil to pay it.  Perhaps the opposite is also true: that for some, robbing a bank is out of the question, but cheating a little, hoarding a little, falsifying a little bit feels OK.  Jesus said that there is a relationship between how faithful and honest we are with “a very little” and how much we can be trusted with “much.”

10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

The material-spiritual relationship

Money is dangerous; like addictive drugs: a little becomes a lot in a hurry.  But it’s even more complex than that.  Just as there is a relationship between a little and a lot of money, so too there is  a profound relationship between money and God.  That’s how powerful money is: there is a link between our economic lives and our spiritual lives.  Jesus says it this way:

11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

Here is that “dishonest wealth” phrase again – and here too it is literally “mammon of unrighteousness” which, remember, means something like “corrupting cash.”  If we cannot be faithful with our cash, how will God entrust us with the “true thing” – true riches – with spiritual life?   So then, it is true after all; there is a direct connection between our economic decisions and practices and our spiritual lives.

A question of faithfulness and control

Notice that the question at issue is not whether we are honest, it is a question of  “faithfulness.”  If we are not “faithful” with corruptible cash, Jesus asks, how will we be entrusted with spiritual life?

What does it mean to be faithful economically?  The consequences are serious; we had

By revrobinson4wotm

better get this one right.  The answer is in the next thing Jesus says.  It is the question of control.  Who decides where the money goes?  Who is master and who is slave?

13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This is not a should-statement; this is fact-statement.  It is not that we should not try to serve both money and God, it is that it is an impossibility.   Just like you cannot be married and single at the same time, so you cannot be a servant of God and money at the same time.

“You gotta serve somebody” – Dylan

Did you catch the assumption here?  We will serve – it is only a question of whom: God or money.  Nobody walks free.  Everyone is at the mercy of one or the other.  Either money is setting your agenda, telling you what is important and what not, determining what is right and wrong for you, or God is.  There is no possible “and” here.  It’s one or the other.  Money is that powerful: it is in direct competition with God for your heart.

So we have gone from the ambiguous and unclear to the crystal clear.   We have gone from an odd story of a fired manager who knew the power of money and did some bizarre things to vouchsafe his future, to a clear, either-or statement about God vs. money.

Personal responsibility remains

But there is more that is uncertain.  How much money should you spend on yourself and how much should you give away?  When have you done enough?  How does living on a fixed income change things?  How do you account for investment income and its fluctuations?

Of course everyone is personally responsible to answer these questions before God.  No one can tell you.  Some guidelines, however, may be helpful.

If you have income, the biblical standard is the tithe – that means 10%.  I know for a fact that a person can live on 90% of his/her income and give away 10% without missing it.  Presbyterians give, on average less than 2%.  That’s because we are all living so close to the poverty line, right?

Well if not, then what is the reason?  I think it’s spiritual.   Sorry, but what else could it be?  Who is being served when we, the prosperous, spend 98% of our incomes on ourselves: God or money?

If you are retired, then think about your total spending.  How much do you spend each year – on everything: from food, clothes, utilities, insurance, medical, to restaurants, gifts, entertainment and travel.  Take 10% of that number as a bench-mark for giving.  It’s the same principle.  You can live on 90% and never miss the 10%.

Love is why

By victornlaura

I wonder if anyone here is feeling defensive?  People often feel defensive when the topic of money comes up.  When do we bring it up in church?  Exactly when Jesus brings it up.  What do we say about money?  Only what Jesus says about it.  Money is a power – a dangerous power.  It has the power to be an alternative master; an alternative god.

God, our heavenly Father, love us, his children so much that he wants to help us avoid a world of unnecessary pain.  Money has probably caused more pain and suffering  than just about anything else on earth.  God loves us!  He would hate us to suffer under the tyranny of money, and so has given us this teaching to help us be free to serve him instead.

Lectionary Sermon on Luke 15:1–10 for 24th Ordinary C, Sept. 12, 2010

Luke 15:1–10

Looking Lost

We have all seen a little child in the moment when she discovers that she is lost.  Herexpression changes from mild boredom or distraction to self-consciousness; the day-dream she was having vanishes and suddenly she sees herself in the store or on the sidewalk, not holding a hand of anybody, not knowing where mommy is, having no idea in which direction to go – standing there dazed and confused – just before the terror-feeling emerges and the panic overwhelms her.

We have all been in her shoes, we know that feeling.  Probably that childhood terror at being lost is the source of that quick jab in the gut we feel, even as adults, as we suddenly snap back from mind-wandering and (for those of us who do not have a GPS for help) realize that this road is not the right one; nothing is familiar; we’ve made a mistake; we are at least for this moment, lost.

Lost in the Cosmos

I don’t know if there is one single feeling

that seems to capture the essence of the human condition better than the sensation of being lost.  Lostness is not only an external condition, we feel lost from our inner selves as well.  Walker Percy’s book “Lost in the Cosmos” asks us why we are surprised at how we look in a mirror or a photo?  Why is it so hard to “be yourself”?  What does it even mean?

The recently concluded TV series “Lost” had over 15 million viewers every week.  Somehow the setting captured many of our imaginations; we identified with plight of the characters.  There they were, living as lost ones, marooned on an island after crashing into it with people they don’t know and didn’t choose, not even grasping who they themselves were in their lives before the crash.  Lostness is not our chosen state, but is the essence of our condition.

Parables of Lostness

I wanted to start with the feeling of lostness because the texts we read from Luke’s gospel are about lostness.  A shepherd with 100 sheep learns that one has been lost; a woman who had ten coins notices that one is lost.  There is a third story of lostness which follows these two – the story of the lost son, which we refer to as the story of the “Prodigal Son”.  Luke put them all three together, and they do fit together, but the story of the Prodigal Son is so rich all by itself that we save it for its own Sunday.  Today we will look at these two parables of lostness, the lost sheep and the lost coin.

In one sense, these are about as plain and obvious as parables can be: the one who lost

"Lost"

something searches for it, finds it, then rejoices.  So too God rejoices when one  person who has been lost is restored.  The shepherd finds the sheep and rejoices, the lady finds the coin and rejoices; how much more joy must God feel when a lost person is found and restored?

But let us not be so quick to move on.  There is a depth of teaching here that we all need to plumb together; we will see that this text is for us, today, and that we need its message.

The Company You Keep

First, as we slow down to notice the details of these parables, we pay attention to the setting.  As Jesus continues his long journey from Galilee down to Judah, towards Jerusalem, he encounters various people.  Some are sympathetic; Luke tells us that

1 all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”

Others oppose him, looking for ways to undermine his popularity.

2 “ And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus gives opponents plenty of ammunition to use against him, welcoming people like “tax collectors” – notoriously corrupt extortionists whose job it was to fleece people of small means to finance their Roman oppressors.

Jesus welcomed “sinners” in general – who were they?  Unspecified people, perhaps, who simply did not bother themselves with trying to keep the Law of Moses.

Ate with them?!

Jesus not only “welcomed” such people into his company, he went so far as to share meals with them; remember this is the ancient world: sharing a meal is sharing a life-source.  In many ways you are not just “known by the company you keep,” rather, sharing a meal means that you are the company you keep.

Luke lets us hear the reaction to Jesus’ welcoming and his table fellowship:

2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling

Since we have slowed down we can note that “grumbling” was the characteristic speech of the Israelites in the wilderness – where they were, shall we say, “lost” for 40 years?

Jesus’ Sleight-of-Hand

And slowed down as we are, now we can pay attention to the sleight-of-hand that Jesus has just accomplished.  “Tax collectors” are not like coins that accidentally rolled into a dark corner after slipping between the fingers.  “Sinners” are not like little sheep that stray off absent-mindedly without an inner compass.  Being lost is an accident.  How can Jesus expect anyone to think of “tax collectors and sinners,” people who willfully, repeatedly, purposefully do what is wrong as merely “lost”?

Lost sheep need finding; lost coins need finding.  Tax collectors need to be tarred and feathered, right?  And “sinners” may need a whip, or a jail – or worse, don’t they?

Unless perhaps Jesus has a lot more insight into the nature of evil than we do.

Who would “choose” evil?

Nothing is more “obvious” to us than that evil is most often chosen behavior.  We like to say to each other, along with singer Sufjan Stevens, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes; I’ve made a lot of mistakes” – because “mistakes” sound so accidental.  “Oops; was that your foot I just stepped on?  Sorry; my mistake.”  But in truth, like Adam and Eve, we reach for the apple because we want to taste it, not because the serpent had overwhelming arguments nor that it held a gun to our heads.  We choose evil.

People choose to shortcut safety precautions out on the oil drilling rig when money is at stake, never mind for the moment the risk to lives, the environment and livelihood of thousands.  That’s not an accident.

People choose to sell financial “securities” knowing that they are full of worthless debt, regardless of who will get left holding the bag after they take their commissions. That’s not an accident.

And people fly planes full of people into buildings full of people in order to kill as many as possible, and that is not an accident.

People do all kinds of things: sell drugs, pull triggers, put down falsified numbers, deceive, distort, discriminate, lie, abuse, abandon, all on purpose.  (Is that the end of the story?  Is that all there is to say about evil in the world?)

Smug Joy

So, let us continu on with the story from Luke: he repentance part.  Yes, it’s great when “sinners”repent.”  Yes, as Jesus suggested, it should indeed be a cause for rejoicing among God and all the angels when one of these purposeful, intentional sinners wakes up, has a “moment of clarity” looks at themselves and says, “you horrible person!”   It is cause for joy when you hear them say to themselves “Better come clean now and admit the truth!  Better grovel and wear the “woe is me” shame-face for all to see.  Wear the scarlet letter around town; why not?  You deserve it!”  It feels so good to hear someone else say they were wrong!  Who doesn’t rejoice at repentance?

All that joy is somehow different if the person repenting was merely lost, like an ignorant sheep or a rolling coin.

Evil Choices of the Lost Souls

Why do we choose evil?  Isn’t it because we are indeed lost?  If we could see the whole picture, the helicopter view of the world and our place in it; if we could see where we had come from and where we were going – if we could see our lives, in other words, not from down at knee-level where the toddler cannot find mommy, but from God’s view – where we are never lost, then we might see:

  • we didn’t need to take the short-cut, falsify the form, put a thumb on the scale, sell bad for good, or harden our  hearts to the appeal; that God would have provided or helped us to live with less;
  • we didn’t need to take revenge; that God would have accomplished justice;
  • we didn’t need the escape-chemicals; that God could help us through that horrible dark feeling
  • that every fear-based evil choice comes from our own lostness.

And if we could understand ourselves as lost people in need of finding, perhaps we could begin to look at other people as lost souls too.  If our evil choices come from our perception that we are not going to get what we need any other way, in other words, from fear of being vulnerable, unprotected, lost, perhaps others share that terror too.

Gods view of the Island of the Lost Ones

Perhaps if we understood, from God’s view, that we are all in this together, like the people on the island in “Lost”, we would be willing to “eat with tax collectors and sinners” because we understood that lots of their chosen behavior has its ultimate roots in their lostness; that many evils come from vain, ridiculous,  even hurtful attempts to find mommy in a world that feel so menacingly  vacant.

At the root of Jesus’ willingness to eat with “tax collectors and sinners” was not moral confusion.  His openness was not from ignorance of the evilness of evil nor from softness about it.  Rather he understood evil as lostness, and set out to be a finder.

In or Out?

In the end of the story, the lost people who recognized their own lostness and were willing to repent, to turn around and go another way, to be found by the Shepherd, to be swept up by the Lady, got to sit with each other at a table of rejoicing.  By contrast, the ones who were not willing to think of themselves as lost nor to accept other lost souls end the story out in the grumbling wilderness, where lostness is lostness indeed.

Lectionary Sermon for 23rd Ordinary C on Luke 14:25-33, Sept. 5, 2010

Luke 14:25-33

Price + Hidden Cost = Real Price

When I was young, my parents would watch the evening news on a black and white TVfrom one of 3 major networks.  In the car we had AM radio which gave the news on the hour – and gave “the rest of the story” (remember Paul Harvey?).   If you wanted to look at prices on Wall Street you had to get the paper, read very small print, and know how to interpret the little 3 letter corporation abbreviations.  Now there is cable TV, 24 hour news networks, FM, and more news than anybody can absorb.

But now, in addition to normal news about nations, sports, and disasters, we have something unheard of 40 years ago: business news on TV and radio.  We have entire programs devoted to the economy.  There is evidently an endless stream of experts who know exactly why what happened yesterday happened (though not so many can tell you much about tomorrow).

Hidden costs?

We are now inundated with information about prices, wages, markets, tax rates and on and on.   It seems that the more you know, the more you need to know, and the more you know you don’t know.  Now we are told that in addition to the obvious costs of things, there are hidden costs that must be uncovered and considered.

For example, the cost of Iraq war.  Now that combat operations have ended, does anyone know how much the war cost?  The Wall Street Journal reported that

“All told, the war in Iraq cost more than $700 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.” (source: Wall Street Journal September 2, 2010 available on line here).

But that is just the dollar cost and only the dollar costs for the actual war.  The hidden costs to consider would take into account the more than 4,400 American men and women for whom the war cost their lives, and the cost to their husbands and wives, their parents and children.  Hidden costs would have to include the over 70,000 who have been injured, many severely, and the long-term effects of war trauma on returned soldiers and their families.  Of course the cost should take into account Iraqis in all these categories, not just Americans(!).

The same is true for everything.  How much are the hidden costs of imprisoning someone? or of capital punishment (the way we practice it here)?  How much does obesity cost, or  smoking?  How much does drug abuse cost us all?  What is the hidden cost of bad schools, or of teenage pregnancy, or of environmental pollution?

If we are thinking of hidden costs, we need to consider the hidden costs of cost-savings gone bad as well.  What is the hidden cost of buying a poorly made car?  What is the cost of insufficient health insurance?  What is the cost of a cheap house in a hurricane zone?  There are many times when the attempt to avoid costs backfires.  We may save money on the bridge we build today, and live to regret it tomorrow.

Jesus’ Cost Calculations

Jesus was cost-conscious.  As he looked at the crowds of people he encountered as he journeyed from his home base of Galilee in the North down to Jerusalem, he could see that they had been doing some calculating too.  The problem was, he could see that they had been making some basic math mistakes.   There were obvious costs that they were pretty good at calculating, but there were hidden costs that they were either willfully blind to or really couldn’t see.

In this context Jesus discuss cost-accounting.  He chooses to begin the discussion with some intense language.  First he speaks of hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself”  If that were not shocking enough, he then says,

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

All this is supposed to be a prelude to sober cost accounting: calculating whether you have enough in the bank to actually finish the tower before you being to build it, or whether  you can win the war before you start it.

Why all the language of love or hate, either-or, all or nothing, black or white?  Clearly he believed the stakes were high.  Accounting can have life or death consequences.  We need to look into this text to see what it means.

Family Values

We hear a lot about family values these days.  This text sits uncomfortably in the pro-family cheering section.   What could have made Jesus say such things about hating your own family?

Civil war does this.  It split families in our war between the states; brother againstbrother, father against son.  Civil wars always do.  There are those who join the opposition and those who fight for the status-quo.  The same was coming  in Jesus’ day – he could see it (as could almost everyone willing to look).

So yes; if it came to war, you’d have to choose.  Sometimes  your family may choose wrongly – if they do, you will have a hard choice to make.  What if your family joins the large band-wagon advocating violent rebellion?  What if they think war with Rome will solve their problems?

Jesus saw the people mis-calculating that the way of violent rebellion would be affordable.  He foresaw, however, that the costs would be incalculable.  The very objective of the war – to have security; to live on their land, conduct their business free from outside intrusion – is exactly what the war would destroy.  “War with Rome is not the way to make your possessions safe, it’s the way to lose them all,” Jesus was saying.  If that’s what your family wants and demands of you – well, you have to choose.

This was the first time, but it would not be the last time that a solid majority opinion, the consensus view, the “party-line” perspective that had won the day was diametrically counter to the way Jesus was teaching.  Majorities can be wrong; self-destructively wrong, even as the notes of their “impending victory” song are  ringing and the flags are waving; ask Germany.  Ask Japan.  Ask Italy.

What does it cost to follow Jesus?  There have been times and there will be times when the cost of following Jesus is precisely the one named by consensus herd as it punishes nay-sayers for being traitors.  Triumphalists can be quite touchy; they can be quick with crosses.  It has happened before; why should it not happen again?

The costs of the alternative?

If following the way of violent rebellion is too costly, what about the alternative?  What about the way of following Jesus?  Was it free of cost?

Jesus spoke in dark terms of taking up ones own cross as the cost of following his way.  Why would anyone do that?  If cost-calculation was the subject of the day, a cross was about as high a price as you could imagine.  What benefit could possibly justify that investment?

At this point in the discussion usually someone points out that this cannot possibly mean what it says about crosses and all – it’s just exaggeration for effect.  Right?

Sometimes you get catalogues in the mail that have hundreds of products –  from backscratchers to foot massagers, from slippers to fleece blankets.  It’s all very cheap stuff of poor quality.

Question: is the kingdom of God cheap?  Is it a discount offer?  Is it a single-serving of forgiveness and a ticket to heaven for the small price of a bit of Sunday time and a few bucks off the top each month?

What do you get for your investment in the Kingdom, and what do you lose if you decline the offer?

The price of hope

Most of us were here yesterday for a Memorial Service.  We call these services “Witness to the Resurrection.” Why?  Because we are not like those who have no hope, those for whom this life is all there is.  How much is hope worth?  Alternatively, what is the  hidden cost of hopelessness?  How much is it worth to have a community of people around you when you are at the end of your earthly life, who love you, who visit you, who encourage you right up to the end?  On the other hand, what is the hidden cost of loneliness?

The Call Today

Jesus is calling us to consider the cost of following him   But he is also challenging us to consider the cost of not following – including the hidden costs.

What if following Jesus today means that we must resist pressure to do what the herd thinks is best?  What if the herd even includes our own families?  What if the herd wants to listen to the economics news all day, every day, until maximizing personal wealth becomes the end-all goal of life?

What if market analysis is all that is heard by the herd, and there is never the sound of pain, the cry of the widow, the orphan or the stranger, the moaning of the crippled, the blind and the lame?

What if following Jesus to Jerusalem means rejecting the notion of national exceptionalism and violent nationalism?  What if following Jesus means self-denial, self-sacrifice, and cross-bearing?  What if the herd on the TV and the radio is rushing towards the cliff, and all the while mocking and deriding everyone who refuses to join the race to the edge?

But what if the cost of not following Jesus is even greater, the damage deeper, the consequences less imaginable?   Best to get the pencil out, sit down with the calculator, and pay attention to hidden costs.

Count the cost; both ways.