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Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Do We See? (Luke 16:19-31)

The late Ken Chafin, who was a Baptist professor, minister, and something of a statesman, tells about a friend in college who use to preach a lot in some of the small country churches not far from the campus. Chafin would get a card from his friend saying something like: 35 saved in rival at the Mossy Bottom Baptist Church. Chafin thought that was pretty good since they only had about 25 members. This pricked his curiosity, so one evening he drove out to hear him preach. It was a Friday night and his friend’s sermon that evening was on the Great White Throne Judgment. The text came out of the book of Revelation. The preacher was decked out in white: white suit, white tie, white shirt, white belt, and even white shoes. He thundered from the pulpit that if you didn’t become white as snow through the blood of the lamb you would find yourself literally in one hell of a predicament, a hell of fire and brimstone. Chafin said that he didn’t think he was going to get home that night until the preacher was sure that all 52 people present had decided to purchase fire insurance.

Years ago I remember a youth revival where the evangelist used this story from Luke to preach on hell. If I remember correctly he preached this message each night of the revival. Let me say very clearly, that is not what this story is about. Now, this story does have something to do with the afterlife, but this story is not about where you go when you die or what the afterlife will look like or be like. That’s not what this is about.

One of the major themes of this story, however, that does relate to the afterlife is vindication. This story is not really a parable like Jesus’ other parables, and it’s not unique to Jesus. This story is more of a fable or legend that made its rounds in the ancient world. It pops us in different forms in several different cultures. It can be found in slightly different forms in the writings of several ancient Jewish rabbis. Some scholars think it may have originated in Egypt. So Jesus draws upon a familiar legend, adapts it for his purposes to teach what he wants to teach. And one of the things he wants to emphasize with this story is that there will be vindication for those who have had a really hard life.

Playing on the theme of reversal that Jesus talks about in other places in Luke, the roles of the rich and the poor are reversed. The rich man ends up in misery, whereas the poor man finds comfort by the side of Abraham. Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Their roles are  reversed. The point seems to be that the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden will be vindicated.

There are folks who have in life been dealt a really bad hand. In fact, the whole deck of cards are stacked against them. And I know you are aware of this. School teachers can identify kids who, because of their home life, because of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, they have almost no opportunity to succeed in life.

So, what I am saying that this story is saying and what Jesus is teaching is that God takes notice. The poor and forsaken are not forsaken by God. God will vindicate them. There is more to come. Wrongs will be made right. Justice will prevail. Love will win. The poor will not always be poor. Now, what will that look like? What form will that take? We don’t know. The point here is simply; God will make things right. I believe that.

But the next point is just as important and may be the purpose for Jesus telling it. If God takes notice, then shouldn’t we? The story functions as an indictment on the huge disparity that can develop in societies between the rich and the poor. Much has been said recently about the 1 percent in this country controlling 40 percent of the income, while the number of people living in poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. And this story by Jesus paints the contrast in the most vivid, starkest colors.

The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. He dines at the most expensive restaurants, he dresses in the finest clothes, his gated, luxurious estate is filled with every convenience. The impoverished man at his gate is covered in soars. He has no health care. No hospital will take him in. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. Congress has cut off his food stamps. The rich man is living in the lap of luxury while Lazarus is living in abject poverty.

Maybe you noticed this in the reading, maybe you didn’t: The poor man is named in the story. We know the poor man by name as Lazarus. That’s a significant detail. The very ones who are no-names in society, God names, God gives special consideration and attention. On the other hand, the rich man, who on earth everyone would have known, has no name in the story. You see, their roles and fortunes are reversed. As Jesus says elsewhere, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” This is why Jesus tells his disciples to host dinners and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These are the ones God takes special interest in. God loves everyone, but God gives special attention to the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged. And we see this concern incarnated in the life and teaching of Jesus. And if we are followers of Jesus this must be our concern too, right? This is how Jesus defined his ministry in Luke’s Gospel in terms of Isaiah 61: to bring good news to the poor, to preach freedom for captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free. This was Jesus’ agenda according to Luke.

How did we get so far away from this? Think about it. Just look at the success of present day Christian ministries who actually teach just the opposite. Of course, Jesus and his followers had to contend with such opposition in their day as well.

In Luke 16:14-15 a couple of paragraphs before the story of the rich man and Lazarus Luke says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this (that is, they heard what I talked about last week, what Jesus said about not being able to serve God and money; that money is a rival god, and so forth), and they ridiculed him. (They didn’t like what they heard). So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”

How did they justify themselves? How would this rich man have justified living in conspicuous luxury while the poor man lived in abject poverty? How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wasn’t that difficult. In the Bible there are theologies and counter theologies. There are biblical texts that either directly teach or indirectly suggest that material wealth is the blessing of God and disease and impoverishment is the result of God’s judgment. It’s terrible theology, but you can find it in the Bible.

And it was apparently a popular theology during the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own disciples seem to have been indoctrinated in it and had to unlearn it. Remember in John 9 when Jesus’ disciples stumble upon a man who was blind. They ask Jesus, “Did this man sin or his parents?” They assume his blindness was some form of divine punishment. If there were no biblical texts to support this bad theology of blessing and cursing Joel Osteen and some of his colleagues who share his views about money would not have the largest churches in America. They go to the Bible to support their bad theology and to justify their vast accumulation of money.

The rich man would have no doubt appealed to this theology and these scriptures that promise wealth to the righteous and curses on the unrighteous to justify his lack of response. He could have quoted scriptures to say that Lazarus’s condition was due to the judgment of God, so if he tried to alleviate his poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would be interfering with God’s will. He could have justified his inattention and do-nothing response with scripture. And people still do today. We appeal to the same scriptures. Another way we avoid our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us is by pushing everything into the future. We make salvation about heaven and hell, rather than about healing, wholeness, liberation, and transformation now. In the Gospels salvation is about healing and liberation now and in the future. It starts right now. But by pushing it all into the future, we can avoid caring for the poor now. I can’t recall in the Christianity of my youth one sermon about taking care of the poor. I can’t recall one sermon about Jesus’ agenda as outlined by Luke.

So, there is this bad theology that religious people use to justify themselves. But, there is also a counter theology to this in the Bible that reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. And we can find it all through scripture. We find it in the Law. For example Deut. 15:7-8 reads: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of the towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” (This is the same book that gives us the theology of blessing and cursing).

We also find this counter theology all through the prophets. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . ? 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 . . .” (58:6–7)  

So, bad theology and good theology, religious rationalizations for greed and commands to care for the poor are all part of our sacred tradition. What we need, sisters and brothers, is the wisdom to tell the difference. If we stick with Jesus we should be able to don’t you think?

One aspect to this story that should give us all pause is this: The fate of the rich man is not tied to what he did, but what he didn’t do. So often the prophets announced judgment on those who exploited and took advantage of the poor. But here, the indictment against the rich man is not because of what he did to the poor man; it’s because of what he didn’t do. He didn’t come to his aid. Jesus seems to be saying that to do injustice one doesn’t have to directly exploit the poor. To do injustice one simply has to do nothing to alleviate their poverty. And this hits us all doesn’t it? This makes us all complicit to some degree.

I am reminded of the man who rides a commuter train back and forth to work everyday. The train goes through an extremely impoverished section of the city. When the man first became aware of the desperate plight of the residents there he felt some compassion and thought about how he might invest some resources to help them. But then, you know, life happens. He got caught up in his work, in his family, in his daily routine and responsibilities, in his own agenda, the way we all do, the way I do right? So now when the train takes him by that section of the city, he pulls down the blinds.

That man is me. Maybe that man is you too. Maybe we are all that man. And one could argue quite legitimately I think that we have to do this or we would be inundated with the suffering of the world because there is so much suffering and poverty. And there is some truth in that argument. But here is also where we need to be careful, because it is so easy to excuse ourselves of our responsibility isn’t it? This is a kind of unresolved paradox we have to live with. We have to find some balance.

There is one final point I want to make. I remember the preacher years ago in the youth revival being fixated on the mention in the story of a fixed chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man.  Here’s what I think about that: It’s fixed only as long as we allow it to be fixed. We can break through that chasm anytime. It opens from the inside. And the combination that unlocks the door will always involve some humility, honesty, and contrition. This is what opens our eyes and enlightens us to see. This is what will change us. We can memorize the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Baptist faith and message (take your pick) and we can sing Jesus songs all day and all night but unless we have some honesty, humility, and contrition in our lives none of that will make one bit of difference.

I don’t believe God ever shuts the door and locks it from the outside. If we are willing to walk the path of true repentance then the chasm collapses. God is like the shepherd and the woman in the parables of Luke 15. God searches until God finds. God never gives up. God is like the waiting father in the parable of Luke 15. God runs to meet us on our journey home. And should we find ourselves in the far country today, all we have to do is set our hearts toward home and God will welcome us with open arms. God will come running out to meet us.

O God, we are so grateful, as Paul said so beautifully, that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. There is nothing that can keep us from you, if we would only be humble and honest and contrite. O God, we fail daily and often come short of living out the values of Jesus. Thank you for being patient with us and forgiving us time and time again. Empower us and embolden us to do more, to open our eyes and see those who are hurting and afflicted around us. Help us to find constructive ways to help. In the name of Christ. Amen. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Dethroning the god of money (Luke 16:1-13)

This Jesus story like other stories Jesus tells has a way of shocking us into thoughtful reflection. I love the story of the pastor who called a special meeting to call attention to the run down condition of the church facilities. He began by asking for pledges and he turned first to one of his more prosperous deacons. Brother, ‘so and so,’ would you like to start the pledging.” This deacon responded, “I’ll pledge five dollars.” About that time a piece of plaster fell from the ceiling and thumped this deacon right on the head knocking him to the floor. After he picked himself up and dusted himself off he said, “What I meant to say was that I pledge fifty dollars.” At that moment the pastor looked up toward heaven and shouted, “Hit him again, Lord!” This is a story (as so many of the sayings and stories of Jesus) that has the potential to “hit” us, to give us pause to reflect and to be changed by it. One of the beautiful and yet difficult things about Jesus’ parables is the multiple ways one of his stories can impact us.

A question serious interpreters of the parable ask is: Where does the parable end and the commentary begin? And sometimes, as with this parable, it is difficult to know. Then the next question is: Who is responsible for the commentary? Is this Jesus commenting on his own parable? (which, is probably not very likely because Jesus wanted his hearers to wrestle with the stories on their own.)  So then, is this Luke’s commentary or did the commentary develop as part of the oral tradition, when it was being passed on by word of mouth decades before it was ever written down?

Personally, I think the story ends at 8a, and the commentary that follows in verse 8b – 9 comes from Luke. The next paragraph in vv. 10-13, which also serves as commentary, are individual sayings of Jesus that Luke has strung together. (In Matthew these sayings appear in different contexts).

The reason this story is so unusual and somewhat shocking is that the main character, who is commended, is called by Jesus a dishonest manager. Some interpreters have tried to paint a more positive picture of the manager by suggesting that what he actually eliminated was the interest that had accrued or perhaps the commission he would have received from the transactions. The problem with these explanations is then he wouldn’t really be dishonest would he? If it was just his own losses that he was willing to sustain in exchange for the favorable treatment he would receive by these customers in the future, then there is no reason to call him dishonest.

Jesus calls him a dishonest manager. He falsifies the accounts so that the ones who benefit from his dishonesty will show him hospitality when he is out of work. He’s not concerned about his boss’s profit or loss. He’s concerned about where he is going to sleep and how he is going to live once the master of the estate kicks him out of his house. He says, “I am too weak to dig and too proud to beg; I need to find a way out of this mess.” I’ve been there a time or two in my life, so I can relate to the predicament the manager finds himself in.

Now, even though he is dishonest, Jesus commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus says in verse 8a that the master of the estate commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Then Luke adds commentary beginning in verse 8b, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
Who are the “children of this age”? The “children of this age” are apparently persons who live by (who are motivated and driven by) the values, mores, customs, and standards of the culture in which they live. Luke seems to be suggesting that most folks tend to be quite clever in arranging and securing their future in this world. Now, this is obviously a general observation. Not everyone is so good at it, but that is the goal right? To secure ones place and future in this world. This is what the dishonest manager was trying to do, so after he was thrown out he would have someplace to go to find work and a place to live.

Now let’s be honest. We are all caught up in securing our place and future in this world are we not? Let’s don’t pretend to be more pious than we actually are. I’m caught up in it and you are too. In some measure, we are all children of this age. And we don’t stop being children of this age even when we identify ourselves as children of light – that is, children f the kingdom of God.

We have to be very careful about making too narrow and rigid distinctions in either/or terms. Unfortunately, this is a common religious practice. From an actual life point of view – it’s not that we are one or the other, we are both. We are both children of this age and children of the light.

We desperately need to move beyond the talk of “in” groups and “out” groups as much as we can. I know it’s not possible to do that completely, but we must learn to see that it’s never totally one way or the other; it’s almost always a matter of degree. So the issue is: To what degree are we children of this age and to what degree are we children of the light? That’s the real question. It’s rarely just one way or the other.

Healthy Christianity in particular, and healthy religion in general realizes this and keeps nudging and pushing us beyond our dualisms, beyond our either/or approach. Some distinctions, of course, will always be necessary, but the more inclusive we can be in our approach to other persons and groups the more, I believe, we reflect the inclusive love of God.

So then, as disciples of Jesus we are both children of this age and children of the light. What Luke means when he uses the phrase “children of the light” is that in varying degree Jesus’ followers reflect Jesus’ values and concerns such as his compassion for the sick and the oppressed, his concern for the poor, his love for all people, and his commitment to a just world. If we are living as children of the light we will reflect to one degree or another these values. But we don’t stop being children of this age.

What Luke seems to be suggesting is that we who so identify ourselves as children of the light, as disciples of Jesus, can learn something from those who are living primarily to secure their own well-being and future. (I have no doubt, sisters and brothers, that some children of this age who have no religious affiliation at all care more for the good of others, more for the good of the disadvantaged, more about the common good than many practicing Christians. Another reason to avoid dualistic language. I talked to one last week who commented on an article I wrote for the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He was a very smart, kind, and caring self-professed atheist. In the course of our online conversation I told him that I had more in common with him than most Baptists in my community. It’s true.)

So what can we learn constructively from children of this age? Well, there is probably a great deal we can learn, but if we stick to the parameters set by the parable what we can learn is this: We can learn how to use money to further the agenda and concerns of Jesus, namely, liberating the oppressed, healing the sick and the addicted, setting free those trapped in destructive cycles of poverty and violence, and enlightening people to the grace and love of God. We can learn how to use money to bring hope and healing and redemption to as many folks as we can. To do so, according to Luke, is to invest in “true riches.”  

I find it interesting that Luke calls money “dishonest wealth.” The RSV translates it: “unrighteous mammon.” Mammon is the Greek term employed here, which is a transliteration of the Aramaic term. Money, here, is being referred to as a god. Money has a god-like quality that appeals to our allegiance and devotion. And by calling it “unrighteous” or “dishonest” Luke seems to be suggesting that money is not morally neutral. We tend to think that it is neutral, but Luke suggests otherwise. Luke thinks of money as a rival god that must be dethroned. 

Richard Foster, in his book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life puts it this way: “Money has power out of all proportion to its purchasing power. Because the children of this world understand this, they can use money for noneconomic purposes. And use it they do! Money is used as a weapon to bully people and to keep them in line. Money is used to ‘buy’ prestige and honor. Money is used to enlist the allegiance of others. Money is used to corrupt people . . . Rather than run from money, we are to take it—evil bent and all—and use it for kingdom purposes. We are to be absolutely clear about the venomous nature of money. But rather than reject it we are to conquer it and use it . . . to advance the kingdom of God.” (p. 54) 

What Foster is saying is that when money is subdued and captured and stripped of its power to corrupt, it can then be used for kingdom purposes. Instead of serving money we are called to use money to serve the higher goals of God’s purposes in the world.  

I heard about a pastor who was excited about taking his two visiting nephews to church. The two boys, 6 and 9 had never been to church, and for whatever reason they were not very impressed. When the offering was passed they watched as people put money in the plates. When it finally got to them, the youngest one looked up at his aunt and said, "You mean we gotta pay for this."

Well, it’s not that we gotta pay for it. It’s that we are privileged and empowered and liberated by the Spirit of Christ to use money for kingdom purposes and as a way of making kingdom friends. Luke says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone (and it’s going to be gone, we are not going to take any of it with us), they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Luke is very clear in his Gospel who Jesus’ friends are. Jesus’ friends – those who welcomed him into their lives – are those whom Jesus welcomed to table fellowship – the tax collectors and sinners, the poor and downtrodden, the sick and demonized. Remember a few Sundays back the ones we were told by Jesus to invite to dinner: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
(By the way, if you want to vote for candidates that reflect real, clear Christian values – that is, the values of Jesus – then vote for the candidates who you think will do the most to help the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged among us. Because this is one thing that is very clear in the Gospels that Jesus focused his ministry on the sick and the disadvantaged.)  

In Luke 16:10-13 Luke strings together several teachings which do not actually depend on the parable for their meaning. But the parable becomes the occasion for Luke to gather these sayings that relate to money and possessions.

What is true of money is true of everything we have. We are called to be faithful with all that has been given to us. As disciples of Jesus we are called to give faithful attention to the little things, the frequent and familiar tasks of everyday life, however small or insignificant they may seem. For the little things add up and we should not assume that we can be faithful with major tasks if we are not faithful in the minor ones. By fulfilling our responsibilities in the small areas we are learning how to be trustworthy regardless of the nature or size of the task. And in God’s view of life, size is irrelevant; faithfulness is what matters. Love and compassion are what matters. Being faithful to what the kingdom of God is about is what matters.  

Fred Craddock puts it beautifully, “The realism of these sayings is simply that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and feed the neighbor’s cat.” (p. 192) 

But you know, brothers and sisters, it is precisely in our faithfulness to these small tasks that we demonstrate our faithfulness and trustworthiness as disciples of Jesus. Using our money for kingdom purposes is a vital part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus. But it doesn’t end there. Our faithfulness as disciples of Jesus include all the little things, the small tasks and responsibilities that make up our lives as parents, workers, neighbors, friends, and citizens. 

The final verse in our text sums it all up: We cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and money. You see, our attitude toward and use of money and possessions are spiritual issues. Money matters are spiritual matters; issues regarding money impact our spirituality. So when considering our relationship with God and our discipleship to Christ money does matter — what we think about it, what we do with it, how we spend and invest it. It all matters. 

The comedian Jack Benny who was always 39 years old and a tightwad, in one routine is accosted by a thug who points a gun at him and says, “Your money or your life.” There is silence. The thief says, “Come on. Come on. Your money or your life!” Benny finally responds, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.” It’s a hard decision, because for us it’s never that clear. The allurement and entrapment of money and possessions are very subtle, and we can easily become entangled and ensnared without even realizing it. Because it’s never just about money. It’s about what money can do. It’s about the power, prominence, and prestige money can bring.

How we relate to our money and possessions is an indicator of our faithfulness and trustworthiness as stewards and agents of the kingdom of God. When you think about it, our money is not really our money. We have nothing tied up in houses or cars or property, in a savings or retirement account, in stocks and bonds, or money stashed away in a piggy bank that does not belong to God. It’s all God’s.

What I hear Jesus and Luke saying in this story and the commentary that follows is that shrewdness in the use of our money and possessions - and really, everything else, our abilities, talents, time, everything – should not be solely for the purpose of securing our little kingdoms (which are temporal and fleeting), but for something greater.

We are called to participate in God’s kingdom or as some of us like to call it, God’s kin-dom. God’s kingdom is really God’s kin-dom because it’s about people and relationships and caring for one another and working for the common good in universal household of God. We get to join the Divine Spirit in using whatever has been given to us (in terms of money, ability, and time) to fulfill God’s benevolent and compassionate will for humanity and for creation.

Our good God, help us to recognize the power and god-like influence money has and how we are tempted by it — tempted to use money to secure position or status or honor or power. Give us a desire to use what you have given us to further your cause and do your will in the world — to spread your love and compassion, to work for justice and what is right and good, to serve our sisters and brothers in the human family and to take care of the creation you have placed in our charge. Forgive us, Lord, for giving money or anything else too much attention and devotion, devotion that should go to you and your cause in the world. Show us how to be faithful managers of all that is within our charge.  May we find our security in your love and acceptance so that we can be free to give ourselves and to use our resources to care for the people and causes you deeply care about.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Christians need to be honest about biblical contradictions (especially in the Bible’s different portrayals of God)

Christian leaders and churches need to admit that we have done a poor job in teaching parishioners how to read biblical texts critically. Perhaps Christians wouldn’t believe and do such silly things if they had been taught to read the Bible critically before trying to appropriate it spiritually.

The Revised Common Lectionary on the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost of Year C pairs Exodus 32:7-14 with Luke 15:1-10, providing Christian preachers a wonderful opportunity to talk about the importance of reading the biblical text critically, honestly facing the inconsistencies.
In Exodus 32, Moses goes up to the mountain to talk with God and receive God’s instructions. Meanwhile, the people God brought out of Egypt grow impatient and decide to make an image and worship the image. So God says to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.” God has lost all patience and is ready to consume them.
But Moses intercedes. Moses says, “Now God, let’s step back, take a deep breath and talk about this. You brought these people out of Egypt by your mighty power. Think about what the other nations and peoples will say about you. Your reputation is on the line here. They will say: ‘The God of Israel brought his people out of Egypt so he could wipe them off the face of the earth.’ Think about how that makes you look. And then too, don’t you remember the covenant you made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your servants, and how you promised to multiply them like the stars of the sky and give them the land. Are you going to break your promise, Lord? You really need to think this through.”
In the two parables in Luke 15, God is compared to a shepherd who goes out searching for a lost sheep and a woman who searches for a lost coin, and, in both stories, the search continues until that which is lost is found. And when the lost sheep and the lost coin are found, the one doing the seeking celebrates by throwing a party. In these parables the seeker (representing God) searches “until he/she finds” what is lost. There is no giving up.
What are we to do with these two very different images and portrayals of God? One possibility is to simply ignore the one we don’t like. If you believe in a God of wrath over a God of grace, then you will most likely focus on Exodus 32 and ignore Luke 15. Christians do this sort of thing all the time. When one scripture clashes or contradicts another scripture, a common approach is to simply ignore the scripture we don’t like and say, “Well, it will all make sense one day.” But (and this is important) that’s not being honest with the text, is it? It’s a refusal to face what is. This approach is not only dishonest, it’s not very practical. When we try this in other areas of our life it usually gets us in trouble. Relate to your spouse that way and see how it works for you.
A second approach that is also fairly common among Christians is to rationalize the one we don’t like so that it means something other than what it actually says. At one point in my faith journey I was quite skillful at this. When I learned Hebrew and Greek in seminary I discovered that I could employ some rather fanciful exegesis and convince myself and others that the text means something other than what it actually says. In other words, I would just keep working the text until I would get it to my liking or at least come up with some interpretation that would supposedly resolve the contradiction. The problem here is that it’s really hard to make 2 + 2 equal 5, no matter how brilliant the explanation.
One might try to rationalize Exodus 32 by saying that God was just testing Moses. God wasn’t really going to consume them. But why would God want Moses to think God was going to destroy them? Think how that would negatively influence Moses’ own thinking about and faith in God. And, of course, that is not what the text says. The text says that God changed God’s mind, after having been persuaded by Moses to spare the people.
The only constructive way forward is to be honest with the text and admit that we have two very different portrayals and images of God that cannot simply be ignored or rationalized away. When I read Exodus 32 critically, I realize that this story reflects what the storywriter and the ancient Hebrews who preserved this story believed about God at that time in their history. This is how they imagined God. Unless of course the story was intended to be humorous – a kind of holy irony where Moses acts more like God than God does. I don’t think that is likely, but it is a possibility.
Nevertheless, the portrait of God in Exodus 32 clashes with the portrait of God painted by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. They are both in the Bible, but they do not have equal authority. When you get right down to it, no Christian, even the most conservative Christian, believes the Bible equally. Some parts of the Bible are focused on, and other parts of the Bible are ignored or dismissed in some way. One can be intentional and purposeful about it, or one can be unintentional and haphazard in doing it. But every Christian chooses some scriptures over others.
Disciples of Jesus must always give preference to the Gospels – to the stories about Jesus and the stories Jesus told. We must always give first priority and more authority to those texts that teach us about Jesus and what Jesus taught, believed, and did, than other scriptures. There is a reason the church calendar centers and revolves around the life of Jesus. There is a reason that the Gospel texts occupy center stage in the Lectionary. There is a reason that most Christians confess Jesus as their Lord. So the texts dealing with Jesus should have more authority than all the other texts.
Of course, if we are honest we also have to read the Gospel texts critically as well. That means acknowledging that the Gospel writers sometimes embellished and altered the stories that were passed down to them. And undoubtedly the oral stories were altered and changed as they were passed along decades before they were ever written down, collected, and utilized as a source for the composition of our canonical Gospels.
Reading the Bible honestly and critically helps us to realize that the Bible didn’t float down from heaven on the wings of angels. The Bible came to us through a very human and fallible process. It also provides some boundaries and parameters for making spiritual application of these texts to our lives and faith communities.
This post was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog at

Does God ever give up on a daughter or son? (Exodus 32:7-14; Luke 15:1- 10)

In your worship bulletin I have included a quote by Richard Rohr who points out that biblical texts mirror the nature of human consciousness. He says the Bible “includes within itself passages that develop the prime ideas and passages that fight and resist those very advances.” He says that we might even call it “faith and unfaith.” I would not not call it “unfaith” I would call it unhealthy faith, or bad faith. Both good faith and bad faith, says Rohr, are “locked into the text.” The Bible mirrors or own faith struggles.

In other words, good faith and bad faith are both part of our sacred tradition, which is why it is so important to read a text critically before we read it spiritually. I think it’s time for churches and Christian leaders to admit that we have done a poor job teaching people how to read a biblical text critically. Many Christians have never even attempted it and wouldn’t know how to start. The result has been that we end up believing a lot of contradictory things that do not make much common sense or seem very reasonable.

The pairing of Exodus 32 and Luke 15 in our lectionary readings for this Sunday provide an excellent opportunity for us to consider how to read a biblical text critically. Reading a text critically forces us to question the text and its picture of God and reality. We can’t just assume that the text gives us a truthful, reliable portrait of God. Exodus 32 pictures God in a way that collides with the way God is pictured by Jesus in the stories of Luke 15. If there is one thing I hope you pick up from me is the need to be honest about all things spiritual, especially the Bible. If you can be honest about the Bible, chances are you can -be honest with others and you can be honest with your own soul.

Today, we have a text in Exodus 32 that pictures God one way and a text in Luke 15 that pictures God in a different way. Moses goes up to the mountain to talk with God and receive God’s instructions. Meanwhile, the people God brought out of Egypt grow impatient and decide to make an image of God and worship the image. So God says to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff necked they are” – that is, how stubborn, resistant, and insensitive they are. “Now,” says God to Moses, “let me alone, so that my wrath may burn against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.” God says, “Step aside Moses while I destroy these stiff-necked people, and then I will start over with you, and raise up a better people.” God has lost all patience and is ready to consume them, ready to be rid of them.

But Moses intercedes. Moses says, “Now God, let’s rethink this thing you are about to do. Let’s step back and take a deep breath and talk about this. You brought these people out of Egypt by your mighty power. Think what the other nations and peoples will say about you, God. Your reputation is on the line here. They will say: ‘The God of Israel brought his people out of Egypt so he could wipe them off the face of the earth.’ Think  how that makes you look. And then too, don’t you remember the covenant you made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your servants and how you promised to multiply them like the stars of the sky and give them the land. Are you going to break your promise, Lord? You really need to think this through God.”

Then the storywriter says: “And the Lord changed his mind (some versions read, “repented”) about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Moses convinced God to turn aside his wrath and spare the people. I want to ask you and want you to be honest: Do any of you have a problem with the image of God portrayed in this story? Don’t just assume it has to be true. This is what it means to read a text critically.  Moses has to talk God into being merciful. Moses is more mature than God is in the story.

In the two parables in Luke 15 God is compared to a shepherd who goes out searching for a lost sheep and a woman who searches for a lost coin, and in both stories, the search continues until that which is lost is found. And when the lost sheep and the lost coin are found, the one doing the seeking celebrates by throwing a party.

What are we to do with these two very different images and portrayals of God? One possibility is to simply ignore the one we don’t like. If you believe in a God of wrath over a God of grace, then you will most likely focus on Exodus 32 and ignore Luke 15. Christians do this sort of thing all the time. When one scripture clashes or contradicts another scripture, one approach is to simply ignore the scripture we don’t like and say, “Well, it will all make sense one day.” That’s one very common approach. But, and this is important, that’s not being honest with the text is it? It’s a refusal to face what is. And in other areas of our life that approach always gets us in trouble. Relate to your spouse that way and see how that works for you.

A second approach that is also fairly common among Christians is to rationalize the one we don’t like so that it means something other than what it actually says. By the way, I used to do this a lot, and was quite skillful at it. When I learned Hebrew and Greek in seminary I discovered that I could sometimes engage in some rather fanciful exegesis and convince myself and others that the text means something other than what it actually says. In other words, I would just keep working the text until I would get it to my liking or at least I would come up with some interpretation that would supposedly resolve the contradiction. Now the problem with this approach is that no matter how fanciful our explanations or interpretations 2 + 2 still equals 4. No matter what we do it’s really hard to make 2 + 2 equal 5, no matter how brilliant our explanation.   

One might try to rationalize this story of Moses in Exodus 32 by saying that God was just testing Moses. God was not really going to kill the people he delivered from bondage. But why would God want Moses to think that the God of Israel is the kind of God who would destroy God’s people? And of course, that is not what the text says is it? The text says God changed God’s mind.

In my faith journey I have tried both of those approaches. Now a-days I try to be more honest with the text. And being honest with the text means that I have to admit that there are contradictions, there are different portrayals and images of God that cannot simply be ignored or rationalized away. Being honest with the Bible means I have to face these differences. So I read the biblical text critically before I read the text spiritually. That is, I read the text critically before I try to appropriate and apply the text in some way to help me grow in my spiritual life and become a better person. By the reading the text critically I’m able to set some boundaries and pararmeters that help guide me in the way I spiritually apply and appropriate the text.

When I read Exodus 32 critically I realize that this story reflects what the storywriter and the ancient Hebrews who preserved this story believed about God at that time in their history. This is how they imagined God at that particular time and place in their spiritual journey. (That is, unless the story was intended to be humorous – a kind of holy irony where Moses acts more like God than God does. I don’t think that is likely, and it would be very difficult to argue that position, but it is a possibility.)

Nevertheless, the portrait of God in Exodus 32 clashes with the portrait of God painted by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. They are both in the Bible, but they do not have equal weight. This is really important: they are both in the Bible, but they do not have equal authority. You see, sisters and brothers, we are first of all disciples of Jesus, so we must always give more weight and authority to the texts that deal with Jesus, who we confess as our Lord. When you get right down to it, no Christian, even the most conservative Christian, believes the Bible equally. We may claim to, but we really don’t. There are some parts of the Bible that we clearly give more attention to than other parts. And we all do this. Some scriptures we focus on; some we ignore. We can be intentional and purposeful about it, or we can be unintentional and haphazard in doing it. I choose to be purposeful and intentional. And I hope you will as well.

As a disciple of Jesus I will always give preference to the Gospels – to the stories about Jesus and the stories Jesus told. I will always give first priority and more authority to those texts that teach me about Jesus and what Jesus taught and believed and did, than other scriptures. Of course, if I am honest I have to read the Gospel texts critically as well. And that means that I have to admit that the Gospel writers sometimes embellished and altered the stories that were passed down to them, and no doubt some of the Gospel texts were altered and changed as they were passed down orally decades before they were ever written down, collected, and utilized to compose our Gospels. Reading the Bible honestly and critically helps us to realize that the Bible didn’t float down from heaven on the wings of angels. The Bible came to us through a very human and fallible process.

When I read the stories in Luke 15 I realize that they are consistent with Jesus’s portrayal of God in the Gospels in general and the Gospel of Luke in particular. In Luke 6, Jesus even says that God loves those who are set against God. God loves evil persons as well as good persons. That doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for doing evil. Jesus clearly speaks of judgment in the Gospels. But with Jesus, judgment is a sub-theme under grace. I believe God’s judgment (whatever form it might take) is a means God uses to pursue and find the lost. Grace always has the upper hand. What judgment involves, I am convinced, it is just another means God uses to pursue the lost. The judgment of God is not intended to banish the lost, it is intended to bring them home.  

In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” At the end of these instructions on enemy love Jesus says that when we love like this then we will be like the Most High, we will be like God, because God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Jesus concludes by saying, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” So here we have a God who is kind even to the wicked; whereas in Exodus 32 we have a God who is ready to consume the people he brought out of Egypt and start all over with Moses.

So when we compare these two lectionary texts today it should be fairly clear which one has more authority. I don’t think we should dismiss texts like Exodus 32 at all. I think we should read and study them. If nothing else these texts show us that we are not alone in our struggle to understand and know God. One of things this story does suggest that I believe is very true is that God’s plan is not unalterable. God can be prevailed upon. This is how relationships work. My wife can prevail upon me and alter my plans and vice versa. Such are the dynamics of human relationship. This is also, I believe, the dynamics of the divine-human relationship. So I would say this about Exodus 32: It’s get the character of God wrong; but it gets the dynamics of the divine-human relationship right.

So I read and interpret Exodus 32 through the lens of Jesus. The story of Jesus informs how I read and understand and what I take from the other stories in the Bible There is a reason the church calendar centers and revolves around the life of Jesus. There is a reason that the Gospel texts occupy center stage in the Lectionary readings. There is a reason that as Christians we confess Jesus as Lord. The texts dealing with Jesus have more authority for those of us who are followers of Jesus.

The God of Jesus portrayed in Luke 15 is as persistent and longsuffering and faithful and merciful a God as we will find anywhere. God is like a shepherd who cares so much for the one lost sheep that he defies all common sense and reason and convention and goes on a search, leaving the other sheep in the wilderness. There is nothing said about provision made for the sheep he leaves behind because the point of the story is how much the shepherd cares about the one lost sheep. The same point is made in the parable of the woman who searches for the lost coin. The main point in both stories in Luke 15, I believe, is that the shepherd searches “until he finds” and the same is true for the woman who searches “until she finds.” They search until they find. There’s no quitting. There’s no giving up, no abandoning the search.

So the question is not: Will the seeker find what is lost? That’s never in doubt. The question is: What will the shepherd do when he finds the lost sheep? What will the woman do when she finds the lost coin? The finding is never in jeopardy. They search until they find. And when they find that which was lost they rejoice and host a party to celebrate. What does that say about the God of Jesus, sisters and brothers? Let me ask you sisters and brothers? Would you rather be in relationship with the God of Exodus 32 or the God of Luke 15? In Exodus 32 the question is not: Can I be more like God? The question there is: Can I be more like Moses? Moses is more like the God of Luke 15 than God is in that story. And In Luke 15 I ask: Can I be more like the seeking God? Can I become more committed and caring, more patient and persistent, more gracious and longsuffering? Do I love the lost the way God loves the lost?  

Rarely is there just one way to view a story, so let’s change the angle a bit. These stories not only contain challenge (we are challenged to be like this seeking God); they also contain comfort. Some days I am the one who is lost, who needs to be found. And there are all kinds of ways to be lost. We can be lost in our sins of course, that’s one way. But we can be lost in depression, we can be lost because of dashed dreams, we can be lost in sickness and ill health. We can be lost in a multitude of diverse ways. It doesn’t matter how we are lost, the good news is that the God of Jesus keeps seeking and searching and looking until God finds. God is never going to give up on you! God is never going to let you go! No one has to convince God not to wipe you off the face of the earth. You are in God’s heart forever.

All of us have played “hide-and-seek” as a kid haven’t we? Actually, I have played it a lot with my granddaughters. Do you ever remember hiding so good that no one could find you? They looked and looked, but no one had a clue. You thought, “Ha, they will never be able to find me here.” Then it dawned on you, “No one is going to find me.” So you edged yourself out of that secret place. Maybe you stuck out a foot or a hand or maybe you came all the way out of the shadows, and eventually you were found.

Now sisters and brothers, the good news about the God of Jesus, who is your God and my God, is this: Our God wants to find us ever bit as much as we want and need to be found.

Our good God, I thank you that you are a God who has infinitely more patience and longsuffering and grace than we do; that you never give up on us; that you will keep searching until we are found. Some of us don’t know what we want and we don’t know what we are looking for and we don’t know that we are lost. Some of us don’t yet realize that we are your offspring and in you we live and move and have our existence; we don’t realize that all our indistinct longings are really spiritual longings to be in harmony with the One who is the source of our very existence. Thank you God for pursuing us and tracking us and never letting go of us until we finally realize that you are what we really want and need. And now as we eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus’ self-giving unto death, may we be reminded that his how much you love each of us. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Should we really be like Jesus? Yes and No (Phil. 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33)

Those of you who know me know that I am not one to shy away from challenges. However, if not for lectionary based worship (which I wrote about in my Connections article) I would probably not try to tackle this Sunday’s Gospel reading in a sermon. I would handle it in other contexts but not likely in a preaching context. But here it is, so let’s look at it.  

Can you see why a preacher might want to avoid a passage like this? I thought about titling this sermon: The wild and crazy Jesus. Some commentators label this passage: Jesus’ demands for discipleship. But I wonder: Are these really the demands or conditions for any would be disciple? Jesus says first, hate your family. Then he says, bear your cross. And third, give up all your possessions. If those are the conditions for discipleship then how many of us are disciples?

Now that we are ankle deep, we might as well jump all the way in: What does Jesus mean when he says: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple?” You might remember from last week that I said Jesus was a provocateur. He intentionally said shocking things to give his hearers pause, to knock them back on their heels, and give them a jolt. Well, this is fairly jolting don’t you think? Obviously, he didn’t mean this literally any more than when he said, “If your eye causes offense, then pluck it out.” He didn’t mean for us to take this literally, but he did mean for us to take this seriously. And if we take this seriously, I think we have to admit that Jesus had a much different take on family life than we do. I think we have to be honest about that.

We often use the expression “like Christ” do we not? We talk about being “like Christ.” But let me say rather emphatically that there are ways that you and I will never be like the human Jesus and probably should not aspire to be. Do you remember the slogan “like Mike” when Michael Jordan was something of a phenomenon. Clearly there are ways you and I will never be like Mike nor should we try to be. There are ways you and I will never be like Jesus and probably shouldn’t try to be.

Jesus was a loyal and faithful Hebrew who most likely never entertained the thought of abandoning his Jewish heritage. He clearly had a deep faith and awareness of God and was moved by a vision of the world centered in God’s good and gracious will. He called this God’s kingdom. He was a prophet and a reformer. He confronted, challenged, and critiqued the injustice and unhealthy beliefs and practices within his religious tradition, which got him in a lot of trouble with the establishment and eventually got him killed.

Jesus shared the passion and vision of God for the world in a way that most of us will not. Let’s just admit that. Most of us will never come near experiencing God’s heart and God’s love and God’s passion for the world the way Jesus did. But we can make progress. We can change. We can allow the vision of Jesus to broaden us and expand our commitments and make us more compassionate and intentional in working for God’s justice/righteousness is society and in being agents of God’s mercy.

Jesus is not calling upon his hearers to literally hate their family members, but he is calling them to reevaluate their close and in many ways closed family connections and relationships, so they can broaden their love and interest over a wider network of people.

Matthew’s version of this saying from Jesus eliminates the word “hate.” In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Scripture scholars point out that Matthew’s version is most likely a softening of the more original version that is found in Luke. Clearly, other Christians had difficulty with the word “hate” that Jesus uses in Luke and so they got rid of it. Matthew’s version alters the saying to eliminate the word “hate.” Jesus, once again, is intentionally being shocking and radical, but, and this is important, shocking and radical for the purpose of challenging us and moving us to share more of the heart of God.

One of the major differences between the radical, shocking, and jolting sayings of Jesus and some that we have heard from modern day politicians and public figures is that Jesus wants to challenge us to tear down walls and become more inclusive and expansive in our love and commitments, whereas the radical statements we hear from politicians want us to build walls and become more exclusive. The politicians play on our fears and insecurities. Jesus wants us to be secure enough in God’s love that we can be servants of all people.

In Luke 8:19-21 Luke says that on one occasion Jesus’ mother and his brothers showed up to see him but couldn’t access him because of the crowd. When Jesus was notified of their presence he said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Now, to us that sounds very insensitive doesn’t it? He appears to ignore his own family and then he says, “Here is my true family, those who do the will of God.” Why is that? I believe Jesus had become so deeply immersed in God’s passion that he really did see the human family as his sisters and brothers. We talk about it, but we don’t feel it and know it the way Jesus did. We put our own families first right? We take care of our personal families before we take care of anyone else? It’s the natural thing to do. It’s common sense. It’s just what we do. We can easily argue it’s what we should do right? Well, Jesus apparently didn’t think or feel that way. And the reason he uses such shocking language is to get us to think about how God looks at and feels about the world, so that perhaps we will begin to share a larger vision and experience a more inclusive love.

And it is quite easy for a greater love to be misconstrued and misinterpreted. If we would respond to our own immediate family the way Jesus did in the story I just referenced, our family and friends would question our decency and maybe even our sanity. But the heart of Jesus beats to the tune of a different drummer. His vision and love was much wider and deeper and more inclusive than ours.

It is important to remember too, that in the context of Jesus’ work and mission he did indeed call some followers to relinquish their family responsibilities and join his little wandering band of rag-tag disciples to share in his work of proclaiming the kingdom of God – that is, God’s vision and will for the world. Remember the account of Jesus calling James and John. In Mark’s account they leave their father in the boat holding the fishing nets as they trot out after Jesus, and their poor father is most likely wondering how he would carry on the family business without his two sons.

Jesus also called some followers to actually relinquish all their possessions. He told the rich young official who wanted to enter more fully into the life of God to sell everything he owned and then join his traveling band of disciples. Jesus certainly didn’t tell everyone to do this, but he did tell some. Luke tells us, though, that there were some wealthy women followers who clearly didn’t relinquish their possessions, because they helped finance Jesus’ mission. In Luke 8:2-3 Luke mentions several women who accompanied Jesus and the Twelve for at least some of his travels and Luke says that these women “provided for them out of their resources.” They didn’t give up their possessions, they helped finance the mission. And there were other times when Jesus healed someone and the one healed wanted to cut ties and follow Jesus and Jesus sent the one he healed back into his or her own community to be a witness to God’s grace in that community among his or her own family and friends.

We (me and you) are not going to cut family ties and we are not likely to relinquish all our possessions. That’s pretty much a mainstay don’t you think? That’s not happening. Jesus himself was single and unencumbered. Most of us have obligations and responsibilities to family, and our calling is not to sever ties and relinquish responsibilities but rather, to fulfill them faithfully.

You see, sisters and brothers, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s not either/or. The question is: Am I becoming more? That’s the issue. Am I growing and becoming more inclusive than I am now? Am I developing a greater interest and concern and commitment beyond my own family or group? Am I open to seeing from a wider angle with a broader lens? Can I break away enough from my little story long enough to engage in a larger story or at least to see that my little story is part of something much greater and larger? I am pretty sure that our little group that went to Zambia are seeing life right now from a wider angle and a broader lens.

The radical gospel of Jesus is about inclusion and love for all and being servants of all, and that can be very difficult to hold on to and tricky to navigate given the challenging situations and circumstances of our lives. We have an example of this in Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Philemon is one of the seven undisputed letters attributed to Paul. No scholar questions Paul’s authorship. Apparently Philemon was a wealthy Roman landowner who owned slaves and under Paul’s ministry was converted to Christianity. Onesimus was a slave that had fled the household of Philemon, who somehow connects with Paul and also becomes a Christian. Onesimus obviously shared his story with Paul, and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter.

We know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians what his social vision for God’s new creation, God’s kingdom, involved. He proclaimed that when one clothes oneself with Christ, that is, when one becomes a follower of Christ and comes to share God’s vision for the world then everything changes. We adopt a new vision. And what is God’s vision according to Paul? It’s this: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s in Galatians 3:28 in a context where Paul mentions baptism, and many interpreters think this new social vision was proclaimed as part of the baptismal ceremony. All social and gender divisions that promote inequality are eradicated in God’s new creation. Let the walls come down. How about that for a campaign slogan: Let the walls come down! And instead of chanting USA, USA! maybe we could chant: God’s new world! God’s new world! Let the walls come down! We can see how different God’s agenda is from popular and cultural agendas that are usually fear motivated and born out of the culture’s angst, the culture’s anxiety and insecurity.

So Philemon the slave owner is now a Christian and Onesimus the slave is now a Christian, and Paul is sending him back to Philemon. He tells Philemon to forgive Onesimus, and though Paul doesn’t come right out and say this, he uses some tack here, but he does some serious arm twisting to convince Philemon that the Christian thing to do is release Onesimus and grant him his freedom. Implementing God’s social vision of oneness and equality in a culture structured on the basis of inequality in a patriarchal, oppressive society can be really challenging and tricky to navigate.

I love what Paul says to Philemon when he says in verse 8 and 9: “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love . . .” I could command you to release Onesimus, Philemon, as your spiritual father, but I will appeal to you on the basis of love. Love, sweet love. That’s what we all need and that’s what God gives and that’s what God’s kingdom, God’s new creation is all about. And Love, Love with a capital L because that is really the essence of God – God is love says the writer of 1 John - Love will always meet us where we are to lure us and entice us to be more and better and larger in love and grace than we are now.  

Coming back to Luke 14 and these radical sayings of Jesus one commentator that I draw from quite a bit says this: “A complete change of priorities is required of all would be disciples of Jesus. No part time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.” Well, I am going to take exception to that comment by an otherwise very reliable commentator. I will grant that for some particular callings that maybe true, but I don’t think that’s how God relates to us. God relates to us in love and I believe God meets us where we are. It’s not all or nothing. God never leaves us or gives up on us and I believe God is constantly trying to move us, lure us, draw us into a deeper sense of what God’s family is, and a wider involvement in God’s will to bring peace and justice to this earth.

So, I am learning to not be too critical of others or myself. The late Fred Craddock tells of a neighbor he used to live by who would often ask him about some movie. She would say, “I’ve noticed such-and-such movie is on right now. Have you seen it? And sometimes Fred would say, “Yes, how about you?” And she would come back. “Oh, I don’t think Christians should go to the movies.” Some people live to get these kind of jabs in don’t they? They toss out the bait so they can get a critical word in. I am learning, sisters and brothers, not to jab so much, and not just at others, but also at myself.

I know that there are some ways I will never be like Jesus, and to be frank sisters and brother, I’m not sure I should aspire to be. So I am not going to beat myself up over my failures to be like Jesus, and I’m certainly not going to beat you up over it either. I’m not your judge and you are not mine. But we are all one in Christ, and we must learn how to accept and love one another with the love of God.

I will leave you (and me) with this question: What is it that I can do (maybe it’s a prayer that I can pray or some practice I can engage in or service I can render) that might help me to be more in tune with, more aligned with the deeper, wider, expansive, unconditional love of God that was so beautifully and definitively embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus?

Our good God, you know and we know there are ways we will never be like Jesus, but that shouldn’t cause us to throw in the towel. For there are many ways we can and need to grow, to become more – more compassionate, more inclusive, more gracious, more generous, more giving – and not just to our family and friends, but to those outside those circles as well. Help us to share more of your heart and love and to realize that no one has an inside track – we are all your children and we are all loved with an eternal love. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

God’s Upside-Down, Inside-Out Kingdom (A sermon from Luke 14:1, 7-14)

Why did Jesus teach the way he did? Why did he tell stories and say provocative, even shocking things to give his hearers pause? Remember, Jesus’ culture was an oral culture and most of his hearers would not have been able to read and write. His sayings were designed to be memorable – so they would not be easily forgotten. They were intended to shake things up and knock his hearers off their heels so that they would be open to seeing God and the world and their place in it differently.

We all know all too well how we are influenced and shaped by the mores, values, customs, and practices of our culture. We are all to some degree children of our culure. None of us escape the influence and impact of our culture – for good or bad. And our culture has a way of putting us asleep spiritually. Business as usual and common speech will not jar us awake. We need a jolt. Jesus’ words and deeds were designed to be jolting.

Jesus zeroed in on common assumptions and practices that he felt were in conflict with the values and ethics of God’s kingdom. In this first passage in our Gospel text for today Jesus takes on the almost universal human desire and quest for position, place, and power. Jesus says,

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” Then comes the conclusion: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke calls this a parable, but it isn’t really a parable in the way that we normally think of parables. Clearly, the term parable could be applied to almost anything meant to serve  as an illustration of God’s will and way. This is not a story, but rather more like wise council where Jesus is basically drawing upon wisdom teaching from his own religious tradition. The wise teacher of the book of Proverbs offers similar advice. He says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov. 25:6-7). This is basically what Jesus is saying here isn’t it? I’m sure Jesus had this instruction from Proverbs in mind when he framed the advice we read here in Luke. This is wise council.

But is that it? Just good advice? Jesus is certainly not laying out a strategy for acquiring honor is he? I’m pretty sure Jesus is not saying: You need to be humble so you will be exalted. The host may invite you to a place of honor or he may not, that is the prerogative of the host. Jesus, of course, would have no interest in providing any kind of strategy for gaining honor. When the disciples were caught arguing about who should be the greatest among them, Jesus tore into them and told them they were acting like tyrants and rulers who pursue lordship  over others. He reminded them that as his disciples they were called to be servants – and not just servants of people they liked, or people who would reward them or honor them or recognize their service. Oh no, Jesus told them that they were called to be servants of all. And here in the next paragraph of the Lukan text it becomes clear who the “all” includes -  “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

This teaching of Jesus calls to mind a story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time years ago when he was pastoring in Tennessee. There was a girl about seven years old who came for Sunday School, and sometimes her parents let her stay for worship. Her parents had moved from New Jersey with the new chemical plant. They were both upwardly mobile and very ambitious, and didn’t see any need for church.

On Saturday nights her parents hosted parties at their house as part of the upwardly mobile thing to do. They made sure they invited the right people – the people at the top of the chain. But almost every Sunday this beautiful little girl was in church.

One Sunday morning Craddock looked out and noticed that her parents were with her. And then after the sermon, at the close of the service, when an invitation to discipleship was extended, Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad came to the front and confessed commitment to Christ, which caught Fred by total surprise. Afterward Fred asked, “What prompted this commitment?”

They said, “Well, we had a party last night again, and it got a little loud and we woke up our daughter. She trotted downstairs to about the third step.  When she saw that we were eating and drinking, she said rather loudly so all could hear, ‘Can I say the blessing?’ Then she just rattled off, ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Good night, everybody.’ Then she trotted back upstairs to her bed. Well, someone said, ‘Oh, it’s late, it’s time to go.’ Someone else said, ‘We’ve stayed too long.’ Within two minutes the room was empty.”

They told Fred that as they began cleaning up, picking up crumpled napkins and spilled peanuts and half sandwiches, and taking empty glasses on trays to the kitchen, mom and dad met with trays in hand at the kitchen sink. They looked at each other, and dad expressed to mom what both were thinking. He said, “Where do we think we’re going?” They came to the startling realization, maybe for the first time, that they were investing in the wrong things – that they were focusing on, being caught up with the wrong things.

Wisdom like Jesus shares here is designed to get us to pause and ask these kind of questions of ourselves: Where are we going? What are we looking for? What’s are real purpose? There really isn’t anything too radical here, but the conclusion strikes a theme that reverberates throughout Luke’s Gospel: the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted. A reversal is coming. Things will be turned upside down and inside out.

This theme is introduced my Mary in her Song of Praise at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Mary sings in the past tense. She imagines God’s kingdom as something already implemented. She says, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Things will be not as they are because God is going to turn the world upside-down and inside-out. Jesus imagines an alternative world. This is not business as usual. And in this world the lowly are exalted and the hungry are fed. The powerful are brought down and there is a level playing field.

This first passage prepares us for next passage/paragraph that is somewhat shocking. Jesus says: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, [And why is that?] in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” [And we might ask, What’s so bad about that?]

Depending on how you view your relatives, this could be your favorite verse in the Bible. Jesus is intentionally being provocative here, like when he says, “Sell all your possessions, and give to the poor.” Or when he says, “If your hand causes offense, then cut it off.” We would no more cut off our hand than we would stop sharing meals with our friends and relatives. Jesus, of course, is making a point. And what is that point?

Jesus says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus says invite the poor, because they cannot repay you.

Earlier in this Gospel Jesus says, according to Luke, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s important to understand that in this beatitude Jesus is not saying it’s a good thing to be poor, nor is Jesus suggesting that being poor meets some meritorious condition for living in the kingdom of God. It is unfortunate that we tend to read Luke’s, “Blessed are you who are poor” in light of Matthew’s version which reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We tend to read Luke in light of Matthew as if being poor in spirit is a good thing. I have read it that way myself, but I am now convinced sisters and brothers that I have been reading into it what is not there. To be poor in spirit is basically to be crushed in spirit. Of course, one can be crushed in spirit without actually being economically poor, but how often are the economically poor crushed in spirit. Poverty is crippling. And of course, the lame and crippled are mentioned along with the poor because so often the poor are the ones who end up crippled in other ways as well - physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. 

When Jesus says that the poor are blessed he is not saying that the poor have an advantage. For some reason I used to think that. They are clearly disadvantaged, and this is why they are blessed. This is why Jesus gives them special attention. It’s not because there is merit in being poor; just the opposite. It’s because they face such hardships and challenges and are often victims of systemic injustice that they are given special attention and focus from Jesus. Of all people the poor need friends and advocates and allies who will stand with them and for them, because they so often are made to feel as if they are the reproach of society.  

In a June article in the New York Times by op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof, Kristof noted that the US has reinstated a broad system of debtors’ prisons in recent years in effect making it a crime to be poor. He points out that impoverished defendants have nothing to give and that the system disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, leaving them with an overhang of debt which is crippling and crushing.

He offers Amanda Goleman, age 29, as an example. She grew up in a meth house and began taking illegal drugs at age 12. Her education came to a halt in the ninth grade when she became pregnant. For a time, she and her daughter were homeless. But now Goleman has turned herself around. She has had no offenses for almost four years and has been drug-free for three. She has held a steady job and even been promoted, but she is a single mom and struggles to pay old fines while raising her three children, ages 2, 10, and 13. Goleman says, “It’s either feed my kids or pay the fines, but if I don’t pay then I get a warrant.” Four times she has been arrested and jailed for a few days for being behind in her payments; each time, this created havoc with her children and posed challenges for keeping a job. This is how our society punishes and stigmatizes the poor. Will a secular society care for the poor? Listen to all our politicians running for office. It’s always about the middle-class, but never about the poor.

This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” This is why Jesus tells us to host parties for the poor. This is why Jesus says invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Because God loves them and cares about them. They are as loved by God as any one of us. And because they have special issues and needs and because they are so often demeaned and diminished and beaten down by society, they have a special place in God’s heart. They are especially endeared to God and those who share the heart and passion of God.

We all know how poverty can be and often is a self-perpetuating cycle. Sociologists and psychologists tell us that the factors contributing to this are often very complex. We will never sort it all out, but we should know that the system is rigged against them, making it that much harder to break free. It is not our place to judge. It is our place to care – to do what we can. It is our place to be their advocates. It is our place to encourage and empower. It is our place to care, because God cares so much. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to feast at the table. They are our sisters and brothers. We share the same Divine Father and Mother, the same Holy Spirit, the same connection to the Divine Reality who is the source of all life. We are at one with them. They are family. God doesn’t call them failures. God calls them daughters and sons.

So sisters and brothers, what do we call them? Do we share the heart and passion of God? Do we stand with Jesus or against Jesus? If we stand against the poor, we stand against Jesus. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus. Invite the poor, says Jesus. For such are the ways of God’s upside-down, inside-out kingdom.

Our good God, create in us a desire to know and share your passion for those who are the most vulnerable and who face a distinct disadvantage. Fill our hearts with your compassion. Keep us from judgment. And help us to discern and reject the critical attitudes and prejudices and animosity that is often directed toward the disadvantaged by people in power and society in general. Raise up kind, generous, just, and compassionate officials, judges, police officers, business leaders, and others in power to help bring mercy and justice into a system that favors money, power, and position. Help us to be authentic followers of Jesus. Amen.