“Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase this week. In Luke’s gospel account, the Rich Man is pleading with Abraham to save him from the torments of Hades, and yet Abraham refuses him. His response is that there is a great chasm between those in heaven and those in hell which cannot be crossed. How did this chasm start? According to the gospel reading (Luke 16:19-31), it was because the rich man ignored Lazarus. He ignored his illness. He ignored his begging. He ignored his need. Because Lazarus was essentially invisible to the rich man, the chasm was created.
In seminary I was introduced to the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin American theologian. Guiterrez believed that stories of the gospel highlight Jesus’ relationship with the poor as a way to remind us how to love one another. For Guiterrez, it could be said, the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus should have never existed to begin with, and yet, this is the condition in which we live.
At the 10am service, we will be honoring the ministry of Ed and Patti Browning. When Ed was installed as the 24th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, he said, “There is a pain beyond these cathedral walls which most of us can barely comprehend”. This “pain” is a result of the chasm that we have created between “us” and “them”; the chasm between the privileged and the marginalized, between the hungry and the ones who eat the sumptuous feast, between the visible and the invisible.
When I think about what the Good News is for us in this story of the rich man and Lazarus, it’s that we have a unique opportunity to bridge the chasm that has been created, and possibly prevent future chasms. How do we do this? Supporting ministries such as the Crop Walk, the Warming Shelter and the Emergency Voucher Program. All of these programs serve those who are invisible in our community. We heal the chasm when we volunteer, when we offer prayer, and when we exchange the peace. And when we love one another not because it’s easy, but because it’s our calling as disciples and opens us to the possibility of experiencing God’s love more fully, then we are working to eradicate that pain that Ed spoke about. As Guiterrez explained, “…as church people…an attitude of service presupposes sensitivity to listen to others…[it] inspire[s] us to incarnate the great values of the reign of God in our history”.
I want to end with this prayer today:
God of Abraham, Moses and the prophets, your covenant binds us as sisters and brothers: help us to overcome the scandal of invisibility, the fixed chasm of indifference and to recognize you in the wounded among us; through Jesus Christ, the Builder of Bridges. Amen.
(adapted from Prayers for an Inclusive Church)
For a very brief time in seminary, I worked for a real estate agent. And it sounds cliché, but it’s true…location, location, location…makes all the difference. When it comes to the gospel—context, context, context—can make all the difference in how we read and understand the Good News.
This is probably one of the most difficult parables to unpack. On Wednesday at the lectionary study, all the other pastors around the table decided not to preach on this text, but instead to focus on Jeremiah. They were frustrated by the confusing nature of the story that Jesus tells in chapter 16. I’m no less frustrated and confused by it, but I enjoy puzzles, so I hope you’ll go along with me on this little journey to understanding and making sense of the unjust steward.
So let’s begin with context. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at Jesus teaching those around him about the relationship between discipleship and hospitality. He has been accused of welcoming sinners and eating with them, and not only does he accept these accusations, but he says this unconditional welcome is a reflection of God’s love and graciousness. Luke 16:1-13, our lesson for today, is a lesson on the relationship between discipleship and possessions. Next week’s lesson from Luke is going to skip over verses 14-18 and pick up at verse 19, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. But those four verses that the lectionary skips actually help to frame the context of our verses today…Jesus and the Pharisees are challenging each other on the question of who fulfills the ethical demands of the law. It reads:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.
‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
The little piece at the end about divorce and adultery serve to highlight the question of ethics, the law, and the Kingdom of God. But if you consider those verses before that…that Jesus is saying to the Pharisees that what is important and of value to humans in terms of material goods and possessions is of little concern to God…what is important to God is how we are in relationship with one another.
When we consider this extension of the reading, both the previous chapters and the verses following our text for the day, then it helps us to understand the context that Jesus finds himself in.
While context is important and gives us some insight into the demands of discipleship, it doesn’t completely solve the puzzle presented by this parable. So there’s more work to be done.
What if we considered the parable in parts? We could break the parable down in this way:
Verses 1-8a are the story of the unjust steward being confronted and fired by his manager, his attempt to finagle the books, and then his being commended for acting shrewdly.
Technically, we could end the parable here and while it would leave us feeling unsatisfied because the unjust steward is commended (instead of getting his just desserts), I could preach it that God forgives us even when we do stupid things, or that the Kingdom of God requires us to act with street smarts and not just in line with the law.
But instead, Jesus keeps talking. In verses 10-12, Jesus teaches us to renounce such practices…don’t be foolish and dishonest like the unjust steward. Honesty is the best policy and ethically, the right thing to do. I could preach that too…it’d make for a great stewardship sermon.
But Jesus still isn’t finished. He ends this part of the lesson with: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
It’s not really connected to the parable, but is a moral in its own right…a warning of the danger of money as a rival to God. Again, great stuff for a stewardship sermon.
While this breakdown of the parable might help us to see it in a different way, with all its potential lessons, it doesn’t solve the riddle of this particular set of teachings.
So what if we go back to context? What if we ask the question…what does this story have to do with discipleship, the Kingdom of God, and relationships? We’ve already established that this story is set between other stories of unconditional welcome to the sinner and stranger, and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. So we know that Jesus is teaching us that there is a new “norm” for how relationships between people are to be in the Kingdom of God. And we’ve established over the last couple of weeks as we’ve looked at these stories that we are to use our resources to welcome the stranger and the sinner into the Kingdom. What if this parable, set among grumbling Pharisees, is a continuation of that story about relationships and resources?
How is your relationship with your money? How do you invest your money? How much debt do you have? Is the way you spend money a reflection of your values? How do you spend your money…on the staples (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, bills) or on “other” (vacations, spa days, shopping for pleasure, entertainment)? What charities do you give to? How do these charities reflect your values? How much do you pledge to the church?
At least one of these questions might have made you a little nervous. Somehow we’ve come to live in a culture where money is extremely important—we fear losing it, not having enough of it, and always wanting more. Money equals power in our world. The more you have, the more power, control and sway you have. The louder your voice is. The less you have, the quieter your voice becomes. Yet, how much or how little money you have has nothing to do with God, except in terms of relationship. How do you use your money and your resources as a disciple? How does your money welcome (or not) the stranger and the sinner?
In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon wrote: Where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18). The unjust steward had lost his vision of good business practices, and when he was called on it by his manager, he feared losing everything. He wasn’t concerned with the health of his relationships so much as he was saving face and making sure he had something left in the end. Is this how we’re supposed to act as stewards of God’s gifts?
In the weeks ahead, we’re going to be talking a lot about stewardship. There will be ministry testimonies, letters, bulletin inserts, and reflection questions. There will also be time for you to consider your vision. What does the ministry and mission of St. Mark’s look like? How are we being good stewards of the gifts we’ve been entrusted with? How does our communal money reflect our relationships with one another and the outsider?
Theologian Helen Montgomery Debevoise said, “When we have no idea where we are going, the treasures in front of us are hardly treasures at all; they are simply things, things that have no larger value beyond our own need for them. These things too easily become objects to be used, misused, and manipulated.” This is what had happened to the unjust steward…he had lost his vision, and the treasure was misused and manipulated.
When Jesus told this puzzle of a parable to the Pharisees who were grumbling, he was talking to a group of people who had lost their vision of the kingdom. “They had traded their call to be God’s people to become servant of the treasures of the present day. Controlled by wealth, by money, even complacency, they had blended into society and lost their vision.” (Helen Montgomery Debevoise)
This parable serves to remind us that from time to time, we might lose our vision…we might lose sight of how we are to use God’s gifts to serve our neighbor and our common ministry. However, we are entrusted with the Kingdom of God and all its treasures…not to be buried away or squandered, but to be used reclaim our mission and ministry and our vision of the Kingdom of God.
Inviting God September 15, 2013
On Wednesday, the small group that gathers for Eucharist spent time together praying for the victims, families and friends of those who lost their lives on 9-11 in 2001. The first reading that we shared that morning was from a Jewish man who had composed a liturgy in commemoration of those tragic events. Part of Alden Solovy’s prayer reads:
Blessed are those who have found peace.
Blessed are those without tranquility.
Blessed are those who speak.
Blessed are those who stay silent.
Blessed are those who have healed.
Blessed are those who suffer.
Blessed are those who forgive.
Blessed are those who cannot forgive.
(--Alden Solovy, http://urj.org/worship/prayers/sept11/?syspage=article&item_id=73340)
These petitions have stayed with me through the week. Not only because I can vividly remember the events of that tragic day 12 years ago, but because these are petitions for all of us. Sometimes, we are peaceful, and sometimes we are in states of discomfort. Sometimes, we are able to forgive, and sometimes we cannot. No matter where we find ourselves in life, we are blessed because our God is a God of love.
When we encounter Jesus in the Gospel lesson for today (Luke 15:1-10), the crowds are pressing in on him and he welcomes sinners to eat with him. The fact that the lesson opens with the comment that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling gives us a hint that Jesus is in the midst of an interesting situation.
The translation reads that Jesus is accused of welcoming sinners. In some translations, it says he “seeks out” these folks. Whether Jesus is welcoming or seeking out the undesirables, the point is that Jesus isn’t leaving anyone out and ultimately, that God’s kingdom has no boundaries.
So let’s look at the parables that Jesus tells these grumblers.
The parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin are told in economic terms…Jesus is talking about things of value. He’s trying to get at what’s important to those in powerful positions. What would they do to retrieve lost possessions? How would they respond to having found that which had been lost? I don’t know about you, but if I misplace a check, a $10 bill, or an item that I have deemed “important”, I’ll turn my house, my office and my car upside down to find it! And when I find it, believe me, there is much rejoicing!
When we put God in the place of the Good Shepherd and the woman with the coins, it isn’t tangible economically related objects that have been lost…it’s us. It is the sinner, the unclean, the sick, the fearful, and the widow…all of us…that God rejoices over! God’s nature is to love, and in these parables, that love is acted out through tireless searching, welcoming, and rejoicing.
Sometimes, we behave like the Pharisees and the scribes. We grumble. We grumble about who’s in and who’s out. We grumble about what’s “appropriate”. We grumble when our daily lives are disrupted by the unwelcomed sinner. It’s ok…our grumbling is also part of our spiritual journey of being disciples. And even in our grumbling, we are invited, welcomed, and sought out because we are also lost.
On Thursday, I received a call from the hospital. Two young men were seeking lodging. When they arrived at St. Mark’s, it was obvious they had been on the road a while. Their faces were sunburnt, their packs were heavy, and they hadn’t had a shower in a while. I asked when they’d last had a hot meal…it had been too long. I arranged for lodging and food for these two young men, and off they went, back into the world. For a moment, the three of us had been found.
We all have opportunities to practice our discipleship, our unconditional welcome to those who have been lost. Sometimes we have to get out of the way and admit that we too are among the lost. Jesus understood this probably better than anyone; he understood “the struggle with being lost, the emptiness of being separated, and the struggle to return. Jesus does not turn away from the sinners, but toward the lost, to make a place for them, to welcome them home”. (Helen Montgomery Debevoise)
God’s kingdom is incomplete without each one of us. God’s door of love, forgiveness and restoration is always open and welcoming. And when the lost have been found, let us all join in rejoicing!
Let us pray.
God of the dirtied hands, the wandering feet; you seek out the lost before ever they turn to you: take us with you into the abandoned places to find a new community outside our fortress walls; through Jesus Christ, the Searching One. Amen. (Prayers for an Inclusive Church)
A few months ago, a blog article titled “5 Ways to Be Unsatisfied with your Church” was circulating among my friends. I read it, shared it with others, and then it sat on my desk without much thought. As I was reading through the gospel lesson for today (Luke 14:25-33) and thinking about the whole of Luke 14, it dawned on me how relevant this blog article really is to our understanding of faithful discipleship.
When Jesus called the fishermen, tax collectors, religious zealots, outsiders, women and others to follow him and participate in his ministry, it was a calling to leave life as they knew it behind. To be a disciple of Jesus was a truly life-altering choice. It meant casting aside the fishing nets, turning over tables, washing each other’s feet, and being scrutinized and challenged at almost every turn. To be a disciple in those early centuries wasn’t about going to church every Sunday, but it was about being criticized, ridiculed, ostracized, and sometimes tortured. But it was also about a communal life of prayer, hope, faith and love. And so when we read Jesus telling his friends, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, it just doesn’t have the same impact that it would have to those early Christians. We do not have to endure ridicule and shame to call ourselves Christians. We do not fear death on a cross because of our faith. And believe me, I don’t know if I could endure that kind of anxiety. But because we don’t have the same worries that an early Christian did, Jesus’ teachings about discipleship often lose their impact.
So how can we hear this teaching in a way that might be meaningful and that might challenge us about our ideas of discipleship?
I want to begin with the word “cost”. Theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have written about the cost of discipleship, which for those early Christians, often meant their lives. But for us in 2013, what does “cost” mean? Yes, there are financial implications when we hear the word “cost” and dollar signs and price tags might come to mind. But that’s not really what “cost” means. Theologian Emilie Townes defines cost as “what we give up to acquire, accomplish, maintain, or produce something… [it] requires effort and resources”. To be a disciple means we have to use our resources. To be a disciple requires our effort. To be a disciple means we have to give something up.
According to the blog “5 Ways to Be Unsatisfied with your Church” (www.shaneblackshear.com), which for my purposes I’m going to call “5 ways to not be a disciple”, the number one way is to not participate in the life of the church, but instead be a consumer. To be a disciple is to participate…participate in faith formation, small groups, outreach efforts and leadership. This is one cost of discipleship…that you have to participate. Consumers just show up on Sunday and expect to be entertained. There is no cost to being a consumer. But to be a participant means that you have to put forth effort, use your resources, and give of your time, talent, and treasure.
The second way to not be a disciple, or be unsatisfied with your church, is to criticize the leadership. Now this doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. Jesus’ disciples often questioned his teachings and leadership. Heck, Peter even denied being associated with Jesus. If you agreed with everything I or the vestry did all the time, I’d be a little worried that you had become a consumer. But if you are a participant, if you are being a disciple, then asking questions of clarification and expressing concern are important. The cost here is risk taking and vulnerability. The consumer model, the non-discipleship model, is to have parking lot conversations and engage in gossip.
The third way to be unsatisfied with your church, or not be a disciple, is to avoid contact with other church members (disciples). Again, this is about participation. This doesn’t mean you need to invite everyone in the church directory over for dinner, but if you hear that someone is sick, or you’ve noticed that they don’t get out as much, or they’re having trouble coping with an aging or dying parent, a phone call, a card, or a gentle word can be the healing balm they need in that moment. The cost to you is love, affection and a little bit of time.
According to the blog, the fourth way to be unsatisfied with your church, or to not be a disciple, is to believe that everything should be about you and for you all the time. As Christians, we often don’t like to take responsibility for our egos. We like to think we’re God’s humble servants all the time. But we’re human first and foremost, which means that from time to time, our ego gets in the way. And so, we get into a rut of not liking the hymns that are chosen or the snacks offered a coffee hour. We get annoyed that someone else was asked to take a leadership role, or that a new Eucharistic prayer is used. And in the process of being in this ego driven rut, we end up wearing blinders. We aren’t able to see that someone was offered a chance to connect with God in a new way through a particular hymn or prayer. We aren’t able to see that someone who hadn’t had a chance to have their voice heard is able to lead us in new and exciting directions in our common life together. The cost of letting go of our ego is participating in the strengthening of all of us being called to discipleship in different ways.
And finally, if you want to be unsatisfied with your church, if you want to not be a disciple, then be unhappy about the fact that everything isn’t perfect. To be a disciple means that we accept that life is messy…especially communal life. Each and every one of us come before God with our mess. We come with heartache, sadness, brokenness, and ego. We also come with our joy and gladness. As a result of each of us laying our mess before God, our church and our communal life together as disciples of Jesus is messy. When Jesus says that we can’t be his disciple if we do not give up all our possessions, he isn’t necessarily talking about our money, books, cars and houses. He’s talking about that which possesses us—our drive for success, our judgments, prejudices and hatred, our fears and insecurities, our addictions and our jealousy. We all have possessions…this is part of our mess. The cost is that we bring it before God and ask for the strength, courage and wisdom to participate in a community that is imperfect, but loving, discerning, and engaging.
Discipleship is not easy. It wasn’t easy for those early disciples and it isn’t easy for us. Discipleship is a spiritual journey and it takes time. If at any point anyone feels they have finished this journey, please let me know and we’ll hit the “restart” button. Emilie Townes said, “As disciples, we learn to face life’s challenges and joys with a spirit of love, hope, faith and peace that leads us to an ever deeper spirituality and life of prophetic witness”. I hope that you will continue to walk with me on this journey of being a disciple of Jesus. I hope that you will allow yourself to be transformed and loved by God. I hope that the cost is one you’re willing to pay.
During my time away, I slept a lot, ate too much and enjoyed spending time with friends and family. But I also did a lot of reading. Not only did I *finally* finish the first book in the Game of Thrones series, but I also read Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection”. In Brown’s work, she talks a lot about “Wholehearted Living”. I don’t know if she identifies as a Christian, but I found that her reflections and insights provided me a deeper meaning of Christian living and challenged me to hear Jesus’ words anew. For me, that is one of the joys of reading something new…it informs and changes my perspectives and understandings.
As I was preparing for today, I was struck by a few things in particular from the readings…from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus telling those who had gathered for dinner to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind, and you will be blessed, and from the letter to the Hebrews to “let mutual love continue” and “do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God”. Now perhaps you’re already making the connections between the two readings…basically, love one another, share with one another, invite the traditionally unwelcome and you will be blessed. These are pretty simple instructions for Christian living, and we hear them repeatedly from Jesus and the writers of the New Testament.
But do these simple instructions really challenge us or do we just nod our heads in agreement, then go about our business?
For me, sometimes it’s easier to just nod.
A while back, there was the great Christian marketing craze of WWJD…What Would Jesus Do. It was on tshirts, bracelets, bumper stickers and coffee mugs. You couldn’t get away from it. While I don’t know the specific intention of the folks who developed the WWJD movement, I would like to think that it was a challenge to Christians to think bigger about the way they were living out their calling of discipleship. If someone was hungry, what would Jesus do…feed them. If someone was lonely, what would Jesus do…visit them. You get the point. And while you can still find the WWJD swag in Christian bookstores, most of us have returned to nodding our heads in agreement and going on about our business.
But what if we look at these instructions from Jesus and the New Testament writers through a different lens? What if we started to reflect on the ideas of courage, compassion and connection as a way of understanding our calling to discipleship? What if we asked anew “What Would Jesus Do”?
In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” Brene Brown writes a lot about vulnerability. When we hear the word “vulnerability” we often think of weakness and so it gets tied up in guilt and shame. But Jesus was vulnerable, and we don’t usually think of him as being weak or driven by guilt and shame. If we understand vulnerability as a characteristic that allows us to be fully exposed, fully living in the image of God, then we can start to understand the important roles that courage, compassion and connection can play in our development of Christian living.
Brown defines courage as living in our heart….that it is to speak our truth from the heart, for better or worse. Parker Palmer says that courage is “the center place where all our ways of knowing converge”. When we act and live courageously, when we open ourselves up to those who are in need, when we let mutual love continue, we are being vulnerable, and we are living as disciples. To be courageous is to experience a metanoia…a change of heart…to no longer live for ourselves alone, to no longer hide behind our privileges and boundaries, and instead entertain the angels among us.
Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist and teacher defines compassion as “learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us”. Again, a call to vulnerability. While Chodron probably didn’t have Jesus’ dinner party in mind, imagine how scary it was for the Pharisees and others in power to be told not to sit in places of honor, and to invite in the unclean and unwelcomed. Jesus was preaching a countercultural message and it was terrifying!
Sometimes, we are scared too. It’s hard to be tender and fully open to others. It means our own vulnerabilities might be exposed. How can we be present to someone who has lost everything, knowing that our deepest fear is that we too might lose everything? To be compassionate requires courage and vulnerability. What would Jesus do? He would be generous, honest, and present to those who came to him. When we follow in his way, when we are courageous, compassionate and vulnerable, we are blessed.
And finally, there’s connection. Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”. When Jesus instructs those gathered for the dinner party not to take seats of privilege, when he instructs us to invite the traditionally unwelcomed into our communities, when we are reminded to do good and share what we have, and to let our mutual love continue…these are instructions about connection. When we are truly connected, we are not only strengthened by the relationships we share, we are also at our most vulnerable. And when we are vulnerable in the way Jesus was, then we can give and receive with an open heart.
When Jesus shares a meal with those in his community—his friends, his opponents, and the marginalized—he is giving them a glimpse of the Kingdom. In the Kingdom, there are no boundaries and privileges. In the Kingdom, there is welcome for all and there is a sharing of all God’s blessings. When we go out into the world, may we be mindful of what Jesus did and practice courage, compassion and connection with those we meet. Let our mutual love for God, one another and all creation continue. May we do good and share what we have…that’s what Jesus would do.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.