The Chasm at the Gate

Sermon for Pentecost +19, 26th Ordinary Year C, on Luke 16:19-31, September 29, 2013

Luke 16:19-31

[Jesus said:] “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.'”

I heard someone joking about having a “scratch and sniff” bible.  Believe me, if there were ever such a thing, we would not be scratching and sniffing this

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story.  At least not poor Lazarus.  He is a homeless person to begin with.  And then there are those open sores that the dogs are licking.

Yes, we may be tempted to scratch and sniff the lavish banquet going on inside the gate (Luke referred to it as “extravagant”)  – that would probably get our mouths watering – but outside the gate, it would smell disgusting.  Luke doesn’t mention flies swarming around, but it’s hard not to imagine them there.

The Disgust Mechanism

We turn away from things that disgust us, like rancid  meat rotting vegetation.  We feel nauseous driving behind the garbage truck, on a warm day.

We are told that this disgust mechanism we have is an adaptive advantage that we evolved.  It increases our chances of survival if we stay away from nature’s rotting bacteria farms, like carcasses, corpses and spoiled milk.

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It’s hard to look at the ugliness of poverty.  It’s natural to be disgusted by the  smells and flies that go with it.  When was the last time you saw a picture of one of those poor African children with flies on their faces that neither they nor their mothers bothered to bat away?  Did you feel compassion or revulsion, or maybe a combination?  Nevertheless, you didn’t want the camera to stay on that scene too long.

It’s hard to hear this parable of Jesus.  Lazarus is not sentimentalized at all.  He is not a sight we want to look at.  In this respect, we sympathize with the man who ignored him as he lay there at the gate surrounded by mangy dogs.

Disgust and Family

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There is of course one enormous exception to this disgust response.  We do not feel the same about our family members.

When our children were babies, we cared for them.  Sometimes they did not smell so good.  Sometimes they got sick and we had to clean it up.  We were not offended by their sores, even their blood.  Family love is stronger than disgust.

And so it is amazing to look at how family membership forms such an important part of the fabric of this story.

Now, of course the rich man is not named, so we don’t know his tribe or his family.  Lazarus is only given a first name, so there is no reason to connect the two of them.  They are not family.  You could say they are separated by a chasm at that gate.

But in this fantasy afterlife parable, one of the realistic elements is that family is important.  Most of the specifics of the parable – the way the rich man goes to a place of torment, the way he can see Lazarus across the chasm, the conversation with the long-dead Abraham, is all pure fantasy (in fact, common stock fantasy – this “reversal of fortunes” kind of story was not unique nor original to Jesus).

Abraham and his kin

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But did we notice what the rich man called Abraham?  He called him “father Abraham.”  The rich man was kin to Abraham – a descendant; part of the Abrahamic family.  He thought Abraham would have sympathy for his own family.  He says,

“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

And father Abraham accepts the title. He replies, calling the rich man his child:

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things;”

There are family ties here, but there is also a problem.  The family ties are not strong enough now to undo the harm that has been done.  Not even father Abraham can help his errant child at this point: the chasm is too wide.  There is no crossing it.

Family Concerns, Family Heirlooms

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But family remains a top-level concern.  The rich man, it turns out, has his own living family to worry about.  He has brothers.  He cares about them.  He does not want his own family to have to endure his fate.

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

Abraham makes a reply that again brings up family relationships.  The rich man’s brothers have something unique to the family of Abraham, the Jews.  They have Torah.  They have the words of Moses, and the prophets.  Only Jewish people share that gift.  They even celebrate that fact in religious poetry.  Psalms 147 praises God saying,

“He has not dealt thus with any other people; they do not know his ordinances. Praise the LORD!”

So, this family of Abraham is a unique family that alone celebrates the wonderful gift of Torah as a treasured family inheritance.

Moses and the Prophets

And that is precisely the problem here.  Father Abraham knows that this part of the family has held their precious inheritance of Torah in utter contempt.  They have disregarded its message.  Let us remind ourselves of what is going through Abraham’s mind at this point in  the story.  He is recalling the words of Moses and the prophets.

From Moses, in Deuteronomy, for example out of dozens, maybe hundreds of such verses is this:

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”   (Deut. 24:17-18)

And from the prophets, one example among so many like it:

“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— 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)

Father Abraham’s family were all connected.  They shared a common history: they had been all poor, miserable, desperate slaves in Egypt, and together, they were redeemed.  Moses led them to become a free people – a connected family of former slaves.

This family then received the Torah from Moses.  It told them to practice justice, and to show special concern for those family members who were in greater need, like widows, orphans, and resident non-citizens.   Of course; that’s how you treat family.

And when they didn’t treat family like family, prophets like Amos came and held their feet to the fire.  To “trample the head of the poor into the dust” and to “push the afflicted out of the way” was to court the wrath of God.  It’s a serious thing to refuse to treat family like family.  To treat family like objects instead of as subjects.  To treat family no better than slaves.  To treat them as if they lived on the other side of a chasm of indifference.

Send a Servant

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So, with great concern for his family, his brothers still alive, the rich man tugs on Father Abraham’s sense of family duty, asking him to send a message of warning.

But there in Hades, the rich man shows his true colors again, as he did on earth.  He has made a fatal mistake.  He has not acknowledged and treated poor Lazarus as family.

In fact he views Lazarus as a slave.  The rich man is thirsty; he appeals to Abraham:

“send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

Yes, “send Lazarus” – since he should serve me, even here and now.  (!)

Family or not, Abraham declines.

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

Moses and the prophets had told that rich  man that Lazarus was his brother.  He treated him with disgust in life, and wanted to treat him like a slave in death.  His brothers were up there ignoring Moses and the prophets too.  They would meet the same fate.

Us, God, and our Family

We all help our families.  We nurse our children, we feed, house, clothe and give generous gifts to them as they grow.  We worry about them.  Their needs are our needs.   We grieve for them when they suffer; we advise them, coach them, pray for them, and sometimes we come to their rescue.  We would do anything for them.  They are family.   This is hard-wired in us.

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This is exactly how our heavenly Father looks at his children.  This is how he feels about us.  This is how he cares for all his children.  Or picturing God as Isaiah does, this is how She looks down with compassion at the child She is nursing.  This is the Good News.

Question: what human being on this planet is not God’s concern?  Whom does God look away from in disgust?  Whose cries do not move him?  The cries of Canadians?  Estonians?  The French?  The English? The Irish?  What about Mexicans or Guatemalans?  Japanese?  Chinese? Lebanese? Syrians?  Saudis?  Libyans?  Kenyans?  Sudanese?

What does it mean to confess God as the creed says, “Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”?  If every creature under the sky he made is formed in his image, male and female, who are we not kin to?  Who can we overlook at the gate?  Whose sores are not our children’s sores?  Whose danger is not our brother’s danger?

Being the Brothers

Who are we, in this story?  We are not Lazarus in the dust, but we don’t think of ourselves as the callous rich man either, do we?  I think Jesus would not have expected his original audience to identify with either of these characters.  Rather, we, like the rich man’s brothers, are still alive, still in possession of Moses and the prophets.  We know God as our Creator, and therefore our Father.

That means Lazarus is family.  And every Lazarus is family.  Their hunger is our concern.  Their sores are our problem.  They are family.

What would it mean to live among a large group of Christians who all took this to heart?  What would the world look like if we American Christians saw family in the faces of all the people of the world?  What would we do differently if we had our eyes open to the God and God’s family that the rich man was blind to?   What is God calling us to do and be for our family – for God’s family?

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The Right Way

I have been to worship services that gave me goose-bumps and chills down my spine; a real sense of connection with

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the Spirit of the Divine; God-moments.  And I’ve been to worship that left me bored, sleepy, or even angry.  And I’ve experienced a lot that fit in some vague in-between psychic space.  So now I know about the “right way” to do worship.  There isn’t one.

Continue reading “The Right Way”

Forgive us our Debts

Sermon on Luke 16:1–13  for Pentecost +18, 25th Ordinary, C Sept. 22, 2013

Luke 16:1–13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.

“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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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

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other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Forgive us our Debts

I never would have bought my home in Daphne in 2005 had I known what was going to happen to the housing market in 2008.  I think finally the market value of my home getting is closer to the amount I still owe, but it has been a scary eight  years.  And I’m in much better shape than thousands of people in this country.

But, we do not know the future, right?  So we make decisions to the best of our ability with the information available at the time.  This was my first home purchase.  When I tell the story of buying my first home, the crash of 2008 is part of the story.

Stories told, after the fall

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How different a story sounds when you tell it, looking back from long afterwards.  Especially if things have changed significantly in the mean time.  Can you imagine hearing a story of a person going to work in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 if nothing had happened that day?  Most of the stories would have been boring.  Just another pretty September work day in New York.

But when you tell a person’s story of going to work that day, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it’s the story of the last day in her life.  It becomes entirely different.  What would she have done differently had she known?

The Bible’s looking-back stories

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Most of the stories in the bible are told from the standpoint of looking back long after things have significantly changed.  We read a bit of Jeremiah’s gut-wrenching lament for the state of his people.  Jeremiah and most of the Old Testament was put into the form we have it looking back after the debacle of 587 BCE.  The Babylonian Empire conquered the Jews, exporting the survivors across the Mesopotamian desert to Babylon where they lived as exiles.  How different the story is of Israel, of king David and of Solomon in all his glory , looking back after Babylon.

Luke too, writes his story of the ministry of Jesus looking back after 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the temple and razed the city of Jerusalem.   They crushed an attempted Jewish independence revolt that had started four years earlier.  According to the ancient historian Josephus, over 1,100,000 Jews died in the conflict.  The city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground, thousands and thousands of Jewish survivors were enslaved.

Imagine how it sounds to Luke’s community to hear a story of a rich Palestinian land owner and his devious manager, looking back after the whole estate, if real, would have, by then, become a blackened ruin?  Most likely both the manager and owner would be dead, or enslaved;  probably at minimum, impoverished.   All the accumulation, all the accounting, all the strategizing and dirty deals would now seem pathetic; it would be like a person speaking of worrying about what he was going to order for lunch in the tower on the morning of 9/11.

The Puzzle of this text

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This text we read from Luke has puzzled interpreters like almost no other.  A manager who is about to get fired for squandering his boss’ assets does a bunch of dirty deals, it appears (there are different ways you can understand what he did), to make sure that when he gets the sack, he would have people who owed him favors and would welcome him into their homes.  His master finds out about his shenanigans, and instead of getting angry and punishing him, congratulates him for being “shrewd”.

Jesus seems to hold up this devious and deceitful manager as an example for us to follow, which seems, at best, odd.  Then Jesus compares good guys and bad guys, children of light and children of darkness, and says the bad guys are smarter about money than the good guys are – again seemingly reinforcing the devious manager’s actions.

Finally the text concludes with the famous caution: a person cannot serve two masters, God and wealth.  One always wins and the other looses.

What’s going on here?  Biblical scholars tell us that Luke has put together a number of originally separate sayings of Jesus, including the parable of the rich man and his manager, because they are all linked by the common subject of money.    Jesus talks a lot about money.  It’s important to him.  But this combination has left us scratching our heads about how to understand these sayings in this present form, all joined together.

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There is one piece of information that helps a lot that we don’t catch in English.  Twice we read about how money is used to obtain a welcome into “homes.”  First, the devious manager makes sure he gets welcomed in to people’s homes by making them owe him a favor: he has reduced their debts to the rich man by half!

Next, Jesus says to his disciples:

“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.”

But the word he used is not “homes” like the manager wants to be welcomed into, but rather “tents.”  Tents are for people on the move, like pilgrims, or nomads; not settled, landed people.  It’s as if Jesus is saying, make sure your use of money now will suit you when conditions have significantly changed and people are living in tents.

Seeing it coming

Did Jesus foresee the disastrous Jewish revolt of AD 66?  Sure he did, but it didn’t take prophetic powers to do that.  There had already been attempted revolts that didn’t amount to much within his lifetime.  He knew many people were planning for a showdown with Rome.  In fact several times he predicted that it would end in catastrophe, as, of course, it did.

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So, if you see disaster coming, and no one (or not many) are heeding your warnings, you look at things differently.  You see people going about their daily lives consumed with matters of the marketplace as if it were all going to last forever.  All the buying and selling, the hoarding and deal-making, all the moral compromises and self-interested manipulations were going to look quite different in just a few short years.

In such circumstances, Jesus would say, “Don’t get into bed with money.  She is not a lover who can save you when the swords start flashing.”

Your whole relationship to your money has to change when you can imagine a future in which it makes no difference that you used to have a lot of it.

How differently the rich man and the manager would have acted, had they known what was coming.  But we do not know the future, right?  So we make decisions to the best of our ability with the information available at the time.   Or?

The Certain Future

This is where this story of the long-distant past becomes very relevant.  We are in the same position as the manager and the rich man.  Why?  Because war or no war, there is a predictable, certain future coming that is going to change everything, and when it comes, what we own, the assets we control now, our net worth and all of our present “stuff” will be meaningless.

None of us lives forever, and we can’t take any of it with us.  This is the future that is coming for all of us.  It is predictable.  One hundred percent certain.

How will we look back on our present lives from that perspective?  What will we have spent our emotional energy on?  What will we have invested our time and money in?  How will it look from that future vantage point?

This text leads us to ask serious question about ourselves and our relationship to our money.  Who is boss?  Which master is making the decisions?

What we can afford in America

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Here in America, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, we give an average of 2% of our incomes to charities of all kinds, religious and non-religious including education, the arts, causes we support, and research.  So, on average, we Americans think we need to keep 98% for ourselves.

In this rich country, we are constantly being told what we can and cannot afford.  We are told we cannot afford health care for everyone.  We cannot afford food stamps for the poor.  We cannot afford wages that real people can actually live on.

We are told by some that the church and private charities, which only gets a fraction of that average 2% of charitable giving, should take care of all of these needs for the poor, for the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed.

What will this all look like from the future?  From the other side of the gravestone?      Will we ever open our eyes to that perspective?

Maybe there is hope for us yet.  There have been a couple of incidents recently that make me hopeful that this is true.  Perhaps some of us are starting to see through this mirage that money will save us.

The Homeless man and the Backpack

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The first one was about that homeless man in Boston who found a backpack containing $42,000 in cash and travelers checks.  What would you do?  He found a policeman and turned it all over to him.  When news of this got out, people created a fund for this man and donations started streaming in.  The fund now has over $100,000 in it.

The homeless man had values that told him Mammon was not going to save him.  People heard the story, and wanted to assert a big “Yes!” affirmation.  Maybe we are starting to get it.

The DQ Employee and the Blind Man

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I just heard about another incident like it.  At a Dairy Queen in Minnesota, a  worker, nineteen-year-old Joey Prusak, watched as a visually impaired man dropped a $20 bill on the floor.  A person noticed it and picked it up and slipped it into her purse.  When she got to the counter to be served, Joey  said no, he was not going to serve her until she returned the money.  She refused.  It was her money now, she said, along with saying some choice words.

Joey asked her to leave, and then went over and took a $20 bill from his own pocket and gave it to the man who had lost it.    He did not know anyone saw him do that, but someone did, and wrote it up on a social media website (Reddit).  It went viral.  Eventually the story filtered up to Warren Buffett whose company owns DQ.  He has personally congratulated Joey.  Other people have given him anonymous donations for his good deed.   One offered to buy him a DQ franchise to run.

Neither the homeless man nor Joey, the DQ employee had any idea they would be rewarded at all for what they did.  But they did it because they had gotten it that “a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions,” as Jesus taught.  They were operating out of a vision of the world that knew that money is not god, and not to be served.  I think these two people are deeply free people, authentically human, not in bondage to a god called Mammon.

And the people who responded to them were saying,  “You did the right thing.  Greed is not good.  Money is not god.”  Someday in the future, we will all know that truth for certain.  May we know it now, that we too might live in the joyful release of knowing the truth that sets us free.

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There are Worse things to be than Lost

Sermon on Luke 15:1-1, for  Pentecost + 17, 24th Ordinary C, September 15, 2013,

Luke 15:1-10

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.   2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow

[sorry, Hungarian friends, but for everybody else, this is not too helpful]
[sorry, Hungarian friends, but for everybody else, this is not too helpful]
welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  3 So he told them this parable:  4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?   5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.   6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’   7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.   8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?   9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’   10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

There is that moment when you realize that what you expected to see is not what you are seeing, and it means you are not where you thought you were, and you realize that you do not know where you are.  Suddenly your brain goes into full alert.  Instantly it starts firing questions: What happened?  Where was I when I last knew where I was?  Should I go back or is there a way to get back on the path from here?

I would love to see a brain scan of a person in the exact moment that she or he discovers they are lost.  That moment feels terrible.  Often times it comes either with bad words coming out of your mouth, or a great mental effort to stop them. I’m sure the scan would show a flood of activity in the amygdala; instant fear.  Stress hormones pour into the bloodstream.  Not good.

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I live in the Lake Forest subdivision in Daphne.  On a map, the streets look like a bowl of spaghetti.  People have been known to wander, circling around illogical loops and cul-de-sacs for years before being rescued (small joke).  My street even confuses GPS devices (not a joke).   When I’m giving directions to my house, as soon as I mention “Lake Forest” people always have this look on their faces: dread.  The human brain can picture the future state of being lost, and the brain reacts, even when it hasn’t happened yet.

Worse than being lost

But there are worse things to be than lost.  It’s much worse to be lost and not know it.  This is why parents of toddlers have to be so careful.  I just read a woman describing how a two year old toddler in her family wandered off when no one was looking, and just kept walking and walking, for a whole mile.  It never occurred to her to turn around after a while when she didn’t reach home as expected.  She just kept walking, not realizing that she was getting further and further away.  A friendly neighborhood grocer recognized her, so that story had a happy ending. (the story is told by Kathryn Matthews Huey in “Sermon Seeds” UCC lectionary reflections, available here)

Jesus’ Entourage of Lost Souls

Jesus was surrounded by people who had figured out that they were lost.  They were people with a past.  They had done things; they had reputations, maybe even tattoos they didn’t remember getting.  They had memories they wished they didn’t have.

Somehow, these lost folks had that moment of epiphany and had realized they were lost.  Somehow they finally got it that further progress in the same direction was only getting them further and further lost, so an about-face was in order.  They had met Jesus; everything changed.

Sheep and Coins: Getting Found

How did they reach this lost-realization condition?  I love the way Jesus tells the stories of lostness; he uses a sheep and a coin as examples.  How do they get found?

People who know sheep tell us that when threatened or fearful, they tend to hide quietly, hoping not to be seen or heard by potential predators.  It’s the rolly-polly bug method of avoiding danger.

Similarly, the coin just sits there in the darkness, of course, what else can a coin do?  In both cases, neither the coin nor the sheep cry out.  They don’t contribute to being found, they are simply found.  It is the action of the searcher that matters: the shepherd who combs the hillsides and the lady with the lamp and the broom.  These are stories about God’s grace at work, taking the initiative, not waiting for preconditions to be met.

But although there are no preconditions, no action that the lost ones need to take, nevertheless, they do recognize that they are lost.  If not the sheep or the coin, at least the real people who Jesus welcomed to his table and whom he included recognized their lostness.

Do we?

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Permission to land?

I would like to share a story that Walker Percy tells in his book “Lost in the Cosmos.”  It is set in the year 2050.  It begins,

“A starship from earth is traveling in the galaxy, its mission to establish communication with extraterrestrial intelligences and civilizations.”

It arrives in orbit around the planet Proxima Centauri or PC3.  The earthlings request permission to land, but before permission is given, they must answer the questions that the inhabitants of PC3 put to them.

They have to say which kind of consciousness earthlings possess.  They give three possible answers.  To be quite brief, they are: 1) innocent; 2)  innocence lost, but not knowing it; and 3) lost, but knowing it, and asking for help.

Clearly, all the playing of roles, being phony, lying, cheating, stealing and killing on earth proves that innocence has been lost, but the question remains, do the earthlings realize it?   The PC3 people say, “Have you asked for help?”  meaning, not self-help, but help from outside?  The earthlings admit that they have not.  So they are told, “Permission [to land] denied. Please resume your mission or return.”  They are considered dangerous: lost but not knowing it.

Here’s the thing: there were two groups of people that Luke puts onstage with Jesus in this scene.  One of them has gotten it that they are lost souls, and that God has found them.  They are the ones causing all the joy in heaven.

When the Good Shepherd found them quivering under a bush, they didn’t run; they let him scoop them up and sling them over his shoulders and carry them back home.

But there was the other group there that day too.  They were not happy at what was happening.  To them, lost souls were getting what was coming to them.  Lost people like “tax collectors and sinners” had no place at the same table with the not-lost people, in their minds.

Wrong-Destination Lostness

There are a couple of ways of being lost.  One way is that you don’t know where you are anymore, like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost folks Jesus welcomed to his table.  The other way of being lost is to have no idea where you are going because you have mistaken your destination.   This is the lostness of “the Pharisees and the scribes.”  This is a profound and tragic kind of lostness.

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People who have mistaken the destination still think they are on the right path.  And they are willing to put in a lot of effort to make progress getting down the road.  But having lost sight of the destination, no amount of diligence is going to help.

Our Destination?

What are we doing here?  Have we lost sight of the destination?  I am tragically aware that there are lots of church people who think that the point of all of this church-stuff we do is to save us from the anger of a wrathful God.  They think the destination we are after is being saved from God.  This is tragic and deeply mistaken.

How do we know?  As always, we rely on Jesus to set us straight about God.  What is the Great Seeker after?  He is the lady with the light and the broom – why?  To find coins to crush?  He is the searching shepherd – after what?  A lamb to skin?  No!  God is the seeker whose goal is redemption, not retribution.  He and all of heaven has a belly laugh when the lost ones are found and returned.

The only people not laughing in this text are the ones looking down their noses at the others.  The ones who don’t get it that they too are lost, because they don’t see the destination.  They think the destination is a grade A on a performance test.  They don’t get it that A is for All, and that the destination is that all of Gods’s lost souls will gather at his table.

They should have known better.

We will never know for sure if this was in Jesus’ mind or not, but there is a fascinating mention of a lost lamb in the Hebrew bible.  It shows up at the oddest possible place.  It’s the last line of the longest Psalm.  Psalm 119 has 176 verses, all in praise of the Torah; the law of God.  Over and over God is praised for giving us ordinances, precepts and statutes.  The law is a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105).

But out of nowhere, after 175 verses of praise, the Psalm writer recognizes a problem.  Even after all of those laws, he is still lost; a lost sheep.  He prays to God:

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant”  (Psalm 119:176)

The Table Destination

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The final destination was never a legal score card, it is a community, gathered around a table.  A community with one thing in common – we know we were all lost, and all have been fond by the Great Seeker, the Good Shepherd, the Lady with the lamp and broom; by God’s grace, by Love.

The call to us lost and found people today is to embrace the destination that Jesus is leading us to: a destination of joy around the table of the foundlings.

There are so many people who feel alienated from that table.  The church for many years, has looked a lot more like those grumbling scribes than the happy lost  and found lambs.  Let those days be over and done with.

Let us join Jesus on his mission to find and welcome every lost soul.  But this is going to have serious implications.  To welcome someone to the table means we care about them.  We cannot sit down beside a homeless person and not care that she is homeless.  We cannot sit at table with a child having trouble in school and not care.  We cannot look the other way if people are sick and cannot get to a doctor, or cannot afford medicine.  Only severely lost people could look the other way without caring.

Some of us are closer to that final destination than others.  Let this text be a cause of great joy: we know where we are going.   We know who has found us.  We have experienced God’s seeking, God’s finding, God’s mercy, and we know when this part of life is over, we will be in a place of joy and goodness.  However many days, weeks, months or years we have left, let us be a part of Jesus mission of finding and restoring.

Let us pray for lost souls around us.  Let us use our resources to give a hand up to lost souls.  And let us advocate in every way we can; let us be the voices for those whose voice is silenced, “the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien” among us, “the least of these brothers of mine” as Jesus taught us.  And let us rejoice that we will one day sit beside them, at table, rejoicing that we too were lost, and have been found.

 

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Being able to say, “It was worth it all!”

Sermon for Pentecost + 16, 23rd Ordinary C  September 8, 2013, on Luke 14:25-33

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

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Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Being able to say, “It was worth it all!”

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I have heard winning olympic athletes talk about how difficult their years of training and self-denial were, but then looking at their medal say, “but it was worth it all.”

I have heard women discussing a difficult pregnancy and delivery but then looking at their beautiful baby say “but it was worth it all.”

I know musicians who are willing to deny themselves, spending countless hours in practice, but who, after a successful performance, will say “it was worth it all.”

Yes and No

We all have an awareness that there is often a price, even a high price, to be paid in order to achieve something important.   Often the price involves saying “no” to the easier path, “no” to the broad way that the majority are taking, in order to say “yes” to the narrow path, the road less traveled, that makes all the difference.

Jesus was not shy about the “no” his path required people to say.  Saying “yes” to the Jesus way, he knew, would mean saying “no” to other ways.

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This is to be expected.  Although you may not hear it in modern weddings anymore, since it is common for couples these days to make up their own vows, the traditional vow was not shy about the “no” that was being said along with the “yes” of the “I do.”

The minister would address each in turn asking  “Will you love, honor, comfort, and cherish him/her from this day forward, and forsaking all others, keeping only unto him/her for as long as you both shall live?”  The “I do” included the promise to forsake all others as much as the promise to love, honor and cherish.

This is the “I do” that Jesus was asking for; it included “forsaking all others.”  He believed it was would be worth it all.

The Unlikely Dream

Why?  Jesus had a dream; he called it the Kingdom of God.  It changed how he looked at everything.  For example, Jesus was able to look around at his rag-tag band of hill-country Galilean followers, out on the back water of the Roman empire, most of them living at the margins, without electricity, running water, or even a decent education, and still dream God’s creation dream for them; the Kingdom dream.

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Jesus was able to look at people like Simon, with all his impulsiveness and limited understanding, and call him Peter, the rock.  That’s called dreaming God’s dream for Peter.  That Rock would eventually be the rock God’s Church was built upon, as unlikely as that looked at the start.

Jesus was able to look at all of his disciples and see them as the people who would accept the invitation to sit at God’s banquet in the Kingdom of God, welcomed, and welcoming each other as equals, loved by God and by each other, forgiven, healed, restored, a brand new kind of family, feasting together as the prophets had foretold.    Jesus could dream God’s dream for them.

But that was an unlikely dream.  It still is.  The fulfillment of the dream of the kingdom of God comes after the struggle, after the pain, after the many “no’s” and the forsaking’s of all others.  There is always a cross involved.

But it is worth it!  The kingdom Jesus dreamed of is so much bigger and brighter, so much more satisfying, even delightful, than any other possible alternative, it is worth any price.

The Old Dream and how it Died

Jesus’s kingdom dream is, admittedly, unlikely.  It is not the common dream.

We are fifty years from the dogs and water cannons, the beatings and bombings of the civil rights movement.  Many people suffered.  Some gave their lives.  It divided families.  It split churches.  But now, the dream of a community of people “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal” is so much closer to being realized, the victims of those brutal days say, “it was worth it.”

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In history class we learned about the waves of immigrants that came to our country from Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  There was a predictable pattern that they experienced: early years of discrimination, even persecution, and then eventual integration into American culture.

It is almost inconceivable to imagine now, but anti-Italian sentiment was so high in 1891 that 11 men were yanked from their cells and lynched just down the road in New Orleans.

In 1844, anti-Irish and therefore anti-Catholic feelings in Philadelphia culminated in a riot which left 15 people dead.

The same story has been repeated as wave after wave of immigrants came to this country, Poles, Czechs, Chinese, Japanese.  First they were despised, feared, hated, and discriminated against.  Then later, like now, we look back and don’t even remember the bad old days.  They seem absurd.  How could we have been so ignorant?  So small minded?

Here is what I want to say: how could we have had a vision, a dream for our country that was so narrow, dark, and small?  How could we not get it that these people would enrich us; would build us into what we are now?

What kind of dream did they have back then, of America without Italians, or Irish, or Poles, and all the others?   Wouldn’t we all like to go back to their era in a time machine and say things like: “Hey guys! Your dream of a Western-European-descendants-only America is myopic. Get over it.”  “Hey people!  Your dream of a Protestant-only America is  impoverished. It will not save you.”   “Hey you all, your dream of a world in which everybody is the same is a pathetic, sad, self-defeating dream.  Grow up!”

This is exactly what Jesus was facing in his day.  We could rephrase his words something like this:

“Hey people: your dream of an ethnically pure state for religiously pure people is doomed.  It’s going to get a lot of people killed.  And it will fail anyway.  Give it up.  Even if your family disagrees.  Even if it means risking everything on a wider vision, a better dream.”

The Cost of the Dream

Consider the cost of what you are doing, Jesus warned.  He gave two illustrations.   First the one about building a tower.  You better know what it will cost before you start.  It sounds like banal advice until you ask this question: in those days, who built towers?  People like King Herod, master of the biggest building project of a generation.

Herod built ego-towers for himself as he rebuilt the temple and his palace.  But had he considered the cost?  Did he not know how upset the marginalized, impoverished population was about it?  He built towers, but they didn’t last very long.   He had not calculated the cost correctly

The second illustration is about considering the cost of war. Again, common sense, until you ask, “Who was considering going to war?  This one was aimed at the revolutionary Jewish zealots.   Jesus was asking them, “Do you have any idea what it means to go up against Rome?  Are you kidding?  Have you considered the cost of your revolutionary pretensions?”   They had not.  Rome crushed them mercilessly.  It didn’t have to happen.

The Good Dream

Jesus had an entirely alternative vision.  It was big, beautiful, open and sustaining.  Full disclosure:  I am in love with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom.  I am completely taken by a dream as big as Jesus’ dream for humanity.  I have bitten the hook of God’s creation dream for the world God made and that God loves.

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I am a total sucker for the vision of the lion and lamb lying down together without the threat of violence between them.  I am totally seduced by the image of a lavish banquet table around which are seated all the poor and powerless of all the nations of all times and places, laughing together, singing together, drinking well-aged wines together (as the prophet Isaiah pictured it).  God’s creation dream, Jesus’ kingdom dream has captured my imagination, and I cannot let go.

This dream is huge, because this dream is, in essence, simply good.  I would be willing to die for this dream.

But here is where it gets difficult.  It’s easy to say “I would die for that dream” because statements like that are grandiose.  They make me feel heroic.

How much harder it is to say, “I would be willing to shut up and listen to others, for that dream.”

How much more challenging it is to say, “I would be willing to re-consider my long-held prejudices, opinions and conclusions for the sake of that dream.”

How unlikely and nearly impossible would it be to say, “I would be willing to re-examine my emotional reactions,

  • my disgust-response to things that are unfamiliar and different;
  • my natural resistance to new ideas, for the sake of that dream.”

This is where Jesus comes and says,

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“”Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”

Because “cannot be my disciple” means, “does not share my dream.”

It’s not a “should” statement.

It’s an “is” statement.

Jesus is inviting us to reject small, dark, ultimately unhelpful and sad versions of life in favor of his good dream of the kingdom of God, the culmination of God’s creation dream for humanity.

The fact that some people still want the small, diseased dream means that there will be opposition; there will be struggle; there will be many “no’s” that must be said.    There will be things to forsake.

“No” must be said

  • to injustice, even when it is codified in civil codes,
  • to discrimination, even if everyone is complicit
  • to greed, even if it’s the engine of our economy
  • to apathy,
  • to xenophobia,
  • to homophobia,
  • to materialism
  • and to our fixation on violence.

“No” must be said

  • to ego,
  • to self-righteousness,
  • to judgmentalism,
  • to the silly notion that I must be right and I must win.

This is so that “Yes” can be said

  • to Love,
  • to justice,
  • to true freedom,
  • to solidarity,
  • to community,
  • and to God’s good dream of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

This is Jesus’ stark invitation.  It is not all rainbows and unicorns.

It is as serious as terrorism and lynch mobs.

As serious as good reputations and social approval.

As serious as our ultimate purpose for being here.

And as hopeful as the life we were created for; life in the Kingdom of God.

Friends, believe the good news: the Kingdom of God is at hand; and it is worth it!

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