#lazaruslivesmatter

(Sermon 9/25/16)

eugene-carson-blake-arrested-07-04-1963

Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, being arrested during a Civil Rights protest, July 4 1963. Click image above to view video.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”  – Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

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He was living the good life. There wasn’t any question that he’d worked hard in his life, and his hard work had paid off. Now, here he was, at the peak of his life. He had a nice home, good food. He was able to travel, see different and interesting places from time to time. He could afford to wear stylish, up to date clothes, and to get new ones whenever the fashion gurus changed their minds about what was the hot new color or the right width for a necktie. He certainly didn’t consider himself rich; he was just comfortable, even though he knew others considered him rich. Of course, he knew there were plenty of others who didn’t have it nearly as good as he did, but in most cases, he thought to himself, if they’d have just worked as hard as he had, and applied themselves, they’d be doing well, too. After all, our laws set up a level playing field, didn’t they; with all the opportunity out there, if they weren’t successful it was their own fault. And yes, there were some who weren’t physically or mentally able to succeed in life, but that’s what charities are for. Most of the time the unsuccessful ones, the have-nots, were just lazy. They had a poor work ethic; they wouldn’t accept responsibility for their own lives. And what’s worse, they were constantly getting into trouble with the police. If they’d just abide by the law, like good, decent people, half of their problems would disappear overnight. It really is a shame, he thought, as he reached for a second helping of potatoes in what he didn’t realize would be the last meal he’d ever eat, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. That’s just the way life is – always has been, always will be, for all eternity.

Or maybe not, according to Jesus. His story, this parable we heard this morning, was meant as a warning to the people in this world like the rich man in the parable – people who have relative peace, and security, and justice in their lives. Jesus’ warning was that for them to enjoy those things while depriving them to others is clearly not God’s will, and it that was their way, then they needed to change those ways. That was certainly true any time the comfortable were directly harming the have-nots, but it was also true when the harm was indirect, passive, through simple neglect or obliviousness, as was the case in this parable – the comfortable man never did anything directly to Lazarus to hurt him; he just ignored him.  Jesus was saying to his listeners through this story that, to borrow some language from our own time, Lazarus Lives Matter. That any of us who identify more with the comfortable man in the story than we do with poor, sick, homeless Lazarus, have an expectation – a charge – from God to use our money, our minds, our voices, our hearts and hands and feet, to enable all the Lazaruses of our lives to enjoy the same peace, stability, and justice that we do.

The problem of the rich man and Lazarus, the problem of the haves and have-nots is still a big problem; you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. And right now in our country, we’re seeing that problem playing out in terms of haves and have-nots, where the haves are those who have peace, and security, and justice in their lives, and the have-nots, who don’t. And due to the particular history of our country, for us, it’s a problem that’s deeply intertwined with issues of race. Race. The issue that from an actual biological, genetic standpoint means nothing – less than nothing. Really; if you analyzed my DNA, it could very well have more similarities with the DNA of Desmond Tutu than, say, (white male parishioner). Race is not biology; it’s a social construct based solely on a person’s physical appearance. It’s nothing. And yet, in our society, it seems to mean practically everything. Race determines in large part where we’ll live, how we’ll live; where we’ll worship and how we’ll worship. It will determine the quality of the education, and healthcare, and public services we’ll receive. Cutting to the chase, it determines whether we’ll be treated as full and equal citizens, receiving the same Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law that other citizens receive. From a purely secular standpoint, the unfair, unjust, and unequal treatment of members of our society based on race – based merely on their physical appearance – is  unconstitutional . By way of this parable, Jesus tells us it’s unchristian. From a logical standpoint, it’s institutionalized lunacy.

And yet, it goes on and on, day after day, year after year. Our hearts break, yours and mine alike, when we turn on the television or look at the news feed on our phones and we’re subjected to the latest dashcam and youTube videos of yet another police shooting of yet another black man; and CNN plays the video in a continuous, 24/7 loop of violence porn. And we see more city streets filled, day after day, night after night, with protestors crying out for justice – and not just justice regarding the particular incident, the tragedy du jour, but for *real* justice, and peace, and security in all aspects of their lives. Protestors crying out, in essence, “How long, Lord?”, and demanding that we recognize that their lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.

We watch it all, and it makes us wonder what in the world is going on, Why are all these tragedies happening? It’s like the wheels are falling off of our society; why? In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s life was so far removed from the realities of Lazarus’ existence that he just didn’t, couldn’t, fully understand. He couldn’t see that he and Lazarus were living within a system of two completely different sets of realities and possibilities – rules and realities that made it possible for the rich man to enjoy life’s goodness, and that simultaneously made it extremely difficult if not impossible for the Lazaruses of his world to do the same. In this parable, where the rich man doesn’t learn the reality of things, and what God’s desires are, until after he dies, Jesus is telling us that this kind of situation is absolutely unacceptable for us as his followers, as people of the Kingdom of God. It is absolutely unacceptable.

One of the great moral voices of our time, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, has said that we’ve experienced two Reconstructions in our history. These were times when large numbers of people from different races, religions, and other classifications, recognized the problem of the Lazaruses in our society – particularly, the Lazaruses based on race – and they understood that they needed to work together to achieve greater justice and equity for them; to get the nation to live more truly and genuinely into the words and promises of its own founding documents. The first Reconstruction was in the decade or so immediately following the Civil War. The second, Dr. Barber says, ran from 1954, the start of the Civil Rights Movement, until about 1980. In each of these Reconstructions, we, the Church, played a major role in achieving the progress that was made, specifically because we understood Jesus’ meaning in this parable. And now, Dr. Barber suggests that we’re in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, where once again a broad and diverse group of people are coming together to advance justice and equity in our society once again. That’s what we’re witnessing being born, that’s what we’re witnessing unfolding on the television news. And, because we do understand this parable, we, the Church, needs to be a part of this Reconstruction, too, just as we were in the past.

But how do we do that? How do we get our hands around an issue that can seem too big and complex to solve? And, being completely honest, how do we come to terms with the conflicted feelings that all of us, you and me alike, sometimes have when we think about issues of race?

Here at Springdale, we’ve already done some important work. We’ve studied our Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, these incredible historical confessions, part of our denominational Constitution, both of which expand on the message of this parable and make it clear that the work of racial equality and reconciliation is work that God calls us to and expects from us. It isn’t an option for us to ignore it. Next, our upcoming Issues Class is going to have a guest speaker who will tackle this same issue. Then also next month, the Presbytery is sponsoring a workshop on racial reconciliation. It will be held on Saturday, October 22, at Fourth Presbyterian Church. There’s a flyer out in the Gathering Space about the event. I’ll be there, and I hope to see many of you there, too. And in addition to those things, a couple of us are beginning to work on a multiple-part educational offering that will dig deeper into the issue of race in our society; there will be more information about that in the near future.

Those are all good starts, and we should all be a part of them. But one thing that we can’t do is just get together in a big room full of only comfortable white people to sit around and try totalk about the issues of race in our society. I couldn’t imagine a bigger waste of time. I wouldn’t attend another meeting like that myself. We can’t understand the problems faced by other people if we don’t sit and talk with them, truly listening to them, in open, candid, and loving conversations in a mixed, multi-racial setting.

Another thing that we can’t do is leave our work at just the level of talk. Conversation is important, but it’s a means to an end; it isn’t the actual end itself. We need to find ways to turn our talk into positive, constructive action. And I don’t know specifically what that looks like; it may look like something different for each of us. It might be working together with existing community groups working for social justice in our community and society. Most of these groups include a large number of people of faith already; people who understand the meaning of this parable. For some of us, dare I suggest that it might be taking part in non-violent but loud protests calling for social justice improvements, just as we’ve done in the past. .

Whatever we do, it won’t be easy. But there’s a bit of good news here for us because, unlike the rich man in the parable, we know we’re supposed to be doing it. And also unlike him, we actually do have the benefit of someone having been raised from the dead to remind us of this reality, this expectation – and not just to remind us of it, but who remains with us, emboldening and empowering and strengthening us to actually do it.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

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Where You Got Your Shoes At (sermon 9/18/16)

nice-sneakers

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

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A number of years ago my cousin and I were visiting my younger brother, who was living in Atlanta at the time. While we were there, we were doing a little sightseeing downtown, and as we were, we kept getting hit up by panhandlers. It seemed like every fifty feet, someone was hitting us up for money – a dollar here, spare change there, another dollar over there. It was really getting to be a bit much, when at one point a panhandler came up to us and tried to strike up a conversation. We kept trying to get away from him, but he was persistent, following us, and he started telling my cousin, “Hey man, how’s it going? Hey, those are some really nice shoes you got! Yes sir, those are some really nice shoes!” My cousin thanked him, and the guy said, “Yeah, you know, you can’t get a nice pair of shoes like that just anywhere. … Hey, you know what? I bet you I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” We kept trying to get away from him, but he was persistent: “I’ll bet you… I’ll bet you five dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” Now, my cousin knew that he’d bought the shoes at a store in Columbus, and there was no way this guy could know where they came from, so finally, just to shut him up, my cousin said “All right, all right – I’ll take that bet!” And at that, the panhandler said, “You got those shoes… on your feet… on the sidewalk… at the corner of 15th and Peachtree… in Atlanta Georgia! And you know I’m right! Now, you’re a fair man, you gotta pay up, come on, pay up!” And we all laughed, and my cousin gave him the money, because even though he knew he’d been had, it was worth it for the entertainment and the sheer creativity of the guy’s con.

Every time I read this story of the Dishonest Manager, I think about that day in Atlanta, because I think there’s something similar going on here. Sometimes we might scratch our heads wondering why the boss in the story – and by implication, Jesus – might compliment his crooked manager, who was clearly robbing him blind. He was commending him not for the con, but for the ingenuity and creativity behind it.

There’s an interesting theme that runs through the scriptures, Old Testament and New, and that’s the idea of honoring and respecting the “trickster”, and this story is just another example of the theme. The trickster is a person who leverages deception, guile, all the resources available to them, in order to achieve their goals – usually, the goal of obtaining justice from some more powerful oppressor. It shows up in story after story in the scriptures. We don’t have time to list them all here this morning, but I’ll bet that if you thought about it for just a moment or two, you’d remember a number of those stories.

Now, in most of these cases, it’s clear that the trickster actually has the moral high ground, and that they’re being treated unjustly, so it’s easy for us to cheer them on. In this particular story, the trickster – the manager – clearly doesn’t have that same moral high ground, so it’s true, we’re a bit more uneasy about appreciating his ingenuity.

But despite the particular details of the story, I think Jesus’ real point is the same: understand and appreciate the resources that you have available to you, that you’ve been entrusted with, and use them wisely and creatively to achieve your goals. Now I’m sure that Jesus would be the first to point out that those goals should be to further the Kingdom of God, and to live as a member of that Kingdom; and something like the far less honorable goal that the manager in the story had, but the idea is the same.

And yes, this is particularly true when it comes to our financial resources. Jesus drives that point home very clearly in his ultimate punchline in this story, that a person can’t serve both God and money. He’s definitely talking about money here.

But it’s also clear that he isn’t talking only about money. It’s about all that we have at our fingertips, and whether we’re using them to the best of our abilities in order to advance God’s will in this world.

A lot of us often struggle with a deep-seated concern that our lives actually have some meaning beyond ourselves. What’s our place in the grand scheme of things? Do we even matter? From the standpoint of us as followers of Jesus, that’s simply a way of saying that we have a deep-seated need to know whether we’re known and loved by God. I think that a big part of resolving that deep need within us is to recognize the good news embedded in this story. There is some good news in here for us, even if you can only see it sideways, peripherally, in Jesus’ words. That good news is found in the fact that Jesus is saying these things to his disciples, and by extension, to us, from the understanding that we aren’t outsiders trying to earn God’s love – but rather, we’re already insiders. We’re in the club, as it were. That God does indeed love us and accept us. We don’t have to worry about that question; it’s asked and answered. God has told us without question where we got our shoes at – we got our shoes on our feet, in the middle of the street, at the corner of Here-and-Now and Eternity, in the Kingdom of God. And now that we don’t have to stress over that question any more, we’re free to consider how, in a spirit of gratitude, and even joy, we can use the fullness of all that God has provided us with in order to advance this Kingdom that we’re part of.

Holly was a client of my architectural firm, way back in the day. She was a project manager for a large development and construction firm based in New York City; she was based in the company’s Manhattan headquarters. She’d been assigned to be the company’s project manager for a major new development they were involved in in Columbus, a very large project that my firm had a very tiny piece in, but that’s how I met her. Just before this assignment, Holly had managed the complete renovation of Madison Square Garden. She was an extremely knowledgeable, gifted, talented woman in what was, and what remains, a predominantly male environment, and I’ve got to say that I’ve never met anyone who was her professional equal. Holly knew her stuff. She could be as tough as nails; She was hard driving and hard driven. She was fair, but she wasn’t going to put up any unjustified crap from anyone. During the time we worked together, she became one of my favorite and most respected clients. She also became a good friend.

Then, something happened. I don’t know if it was just time for a change for personal reasons, or if it was burnout from working at the fast pace at that rarified level of the industry, or if she just got tired of fighting the challenges of commuting in and out of the city every day. I never wanted to pry, but I always wondered if it was partly because she’d last a close family member in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Whatever the reason, or reasons, she took her life in a different direction. She left the construction world, and she began working with various charities. Coordinating disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Working to help veterans through the Wounded Warriors project. And a number of other extremely worthwhile efforts helping others. And in all of them she used the considerable gifts and talents that God blessed her with, using them with creativity and ingenuity to achieve as much as she possibly could, in order to advance God’s work in the here and now. Holly matters. And whether she knows it or not, she’s also one of my heroes.

What has God gifted you with? What are the skills, the talents, the gifts that you’ve been blessed with? In our Reformed tradition, we believe that we’re *all* called to some form of ministry as God’s people. And those gifts are the resources that God has given us, and wants us to put to good use, in our own personal ministry, whatever that might be – clearly to put them to better use than the dishonest manager did, with just as much determination and creativity.

My friend Holly does what she does with her life because she knows where she got her shoes at. Since we know where we got our shoes at too, let’s all think about how we can best move those shoes down the street, together, as the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

Cat’s in the Cradle (sermon 9/11/16)

 cats-in-the-cradle

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (NRSV)

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That was it – he’d finally had enough. For years, he’d put up with his son’s nonsense, hoping he’d eventually straighten up and come around, but it hadn’t happened – if anything, he’d actually gotten worse. Irresponsible. Lazy. Spending money like a drunken sailor. Out all night, sleep all day, never buckling down and helping with the family business. Why couldn’t he be at least a little bit more like his older, more responsible brother? And now, in the latest of countless arguments, his younger son said, “Why don’t you just give me my share of things here, and I’ll get out of your hair – I’ll leave here and never look back!” And in the heat of the moment, he yelled “If that’s what you want, fine!” So he made arrangements to do just that. He gave the boy the money, turned his back, and walked away. He’d done everything he could; he couldn’t have expected to reasonably do anything more. That was that. As far as he was concerned, he’d washed his hands of the situation. The boy was on his own. As far as he was concerned, the boy was as dead to him as he was to the boy. And that was just fine with him.

But as the years wore on, he realized that it really wasn’t that simple. In spite of himself, his heart ached for his son. With the perception that only time brings, he’d realized that there was plenty enough blame on both sides of their dispute, and even though they were very different people, he recognized that the stubbornness that he saw in the boy that was so frustrating was really just a mirror image of his own. As time wore on, he realized that when the boy left, a piece of himself had died. He’d been diminished by it. The man never felt complete again after the son had left. He’d have done anything to have his son back, and to make amends, to heal the rift between them. But since he didn’t know where the boy was, or if he was even alive at that point, he didn’t see how that would ever happen. So he spent day after day living this painful partial life, wishing that things could be different.

And then that fateful day happened – from out of nowhere, he saw his son walking down the road, headed for the house. He was so excited to see him that he ran out to meet him, yelling out to him, looking like a wild man in all his undignified glory, welcoming him back with open arms, forgiving him for whatever he’d done in the past, and even apologizing for his part in the split. And later on, when his older son criticized him for making such a fool of himself by welcoming this troublemaker back, the old man said that it was like the son had been dead, but had come back to life – and in his heart, he knew that the same thing was just as true about himself.

Today’s gospel text is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. And from the earliest times that we’re taught about it, we’re told that the father in the story represents God. And we then assume that if the father is God, then in the story the father is totally good, and blameless, and his actions are totally honorable – after all, how else could God be? We’re told that the son represents us, and that in Jesus’ time, it would have been a shocking, unthinkable insult for the son to have asked for his inheritance up front, and that that represents how offensive our sin and shortcomings are to God. And we’re told that the wild, undignified, unjustifiable way the father ran out to greet the younger son, and all the things that the father lavishes on the son, represent the full, extravagant, illogical forgiveness and grace that God extends to us. And finally, we’re told that the older son who stands up against the father, and who says that the forgiveness and welcome extended to the older son is inappropriate and uncalled for, represents those of us who get too wound up in moralism and legalism, and who don’t fully appreciate the nature of God’s grace, and who would withhold it from others. That’s the way the parable is usually understood.

But that’s the funny thing about parables – they can often be read and understood in any number of different ways, they’re deliberately ambiguous, and that allows them to speak to any number of different situations, and in different ways. In this case, Jesus doesn’t give us any definitive explanation of some single way that the parable is supposed to be understood. And while the traditional way of understanding the parable is a good one, it does require us to fill some missing blanks in the story, and to make certain assumptions about the characters, in order to get that message. But what if we look at the same parable a different way? What if we fill in the missing details in a slightly different way, and assign different identities to the characters in the story?

What if the father doesn’t represent God, but rather, us – either “us” individually, or collectively, as the church? If the father isn’t God, it’s easier to accept the idea that the father might have been just as much to blame for the friction between him and the younger son, as the son was himself. That makes it easier for us to hear this parable as maybe a message of reconciliation, but not reconciliation between God and us, but rather, between us and us. It makes it easier for us to see that reconciling with one another, and healing old wounds, and apologizing for our own complicity in those situations, even at the cost of our dignity and sense of being completely in the right, is extremely important in God’s eyes.

Is that an equally acceptable way to think about this parable, compared to the way we typically look at it? I think so. I know that the idea of reconciliation was so important to Jesus that at another place in the gospels, in Matthew, he tells his followers that even if they’re in the Temple, standing at the altar and ready to give their offering, and they remember that there’s a rift between them and their brother or sister, that they should stop what they’re doing immediately, leaving their offering right there, and go reconcile with the other person first, before even making the offering – maybe even suggesting that that’s the more pleasing offering to God.. That would certainly make people stare. It would be pretty undignified. And yet, it’s what Jesus recommends. Reconciliation is just that important to God.

I suspect that there isn’t a person here this morning who doesn’t have some kind of rift between themselves and some other family member or friend. Maybe you’re convinced you’re right and they’re wrong. Maybe you recognize that in an argument no one is purely right and no one is purely wrong. Maybe the rift has gone on for so long, you can’t even remember how it all started. Whatever the case, allowing ourselves to hear this parable in this alternative way can lead us to ask some questions of ourselves: How might God be speaking into the issue, into our hearts, to try to make peace, to achieve reconciliation between us and people we’re estranged from? How can we allow our hearts and minds to be open, and to keep our pride in check, to be willing to not just forgive the wrongs of the other person, but also to humbly apologize for the hurt and harm that we’ve caused in the situation?

And how do we do the same thing as the church? There are all sorts of people and groups that the church has hurt over the course of its history. In our last General Assembly, we heard apologies made to Native Americans, who we hurt, and whose cultures we tried to wipe out in the midst of our evangelistic efforts in the past. We heard an apology to those who have suffered sexual abuse perpetrated by Presbyterian church leaders in the past.  And we heard a “statement of regret” offered by the denomination to its LGBT members who have been deeply hurt by denominational theological positions in the past – and while not a full-fledged apology, it was at least a good half-step in the right direction that I hope will become a full apology sometime in the near future.

There are still any number of situations, either as individuals or the church, where we need to follow the lead of the father in the parable, at least the way I painted him earlier. There are rifts that are personal. Familial. Racial. Ethnic. Sexual. Theological. Ideological; even political – how many Facebook friends have you lost during the current presidential campaign?

So where do we start? I suppose first, by being honest with ourselves and admitting that the rift actually exists; sometimes we haven’t even admitted that. Next, by recognizing that we’ve got culpability ourselves, it isn’t all the other person’s fault, and in some cases, it isn’t their fault at all. We need to be willing to apologize for our part in the situation, and to work in concrete ways to fix the harm. Mostly, I think, by recognizing that no matter how hard real reconciliation might seem – and it *is* hard – no matter how unlikely it seems that we’ll be able to pull it off, that it’s what God wants us to do – and that God is willing to help us, transforming us and strengthening us in the ways that can make it possible. After all, if the traditional understanding of this parable is valid, and the father in the story represents God, then we can see that God is more than willing to engage in reconciliation, even when it costs some dignity or the ability to be seen as always right – and if it’s good enough for God to act that way, isn’t it good enough for us?

Thanks be to God.

 

“I’m Supposed to *What*?!!!” (sermon 9/4/16)

puzzled baby

Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.- Luke 14:25-33

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This isn’t going to be a fun sermon – because this really isn’t a feel-good gospel text. You just heard it; Jesus’ words here are pretty unsettling, pretty hard to hear for us. I mean, would Jesus really say that in order to follow him, you have to actually hate your family? Did Jesus really mean it when he said that we couldn’t be his disciples unless we got rid of all our possessions? Was he serious about that?

I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus was using hyperbole, extreme language here, not to be taken literally, but just to emphasize the importance of the point he was making. This becomes obvious if you compare these words to the full spectrum of his teachings across the gospels. Just as one evidence of this is that in another gospel story, Jesus criticized people, condemned people, who wouldn’t use their financial resources to take care of their own family members, saying that that money was set aside as their offering to God, to the synagogue, to the church. He condemned them. So we know he can’t be speaking literally when he says we’re supposed to hate our family and only pay attention to him exclusively. In one sense, we can all breathe easier.

But not *too* easy. Jesus is still making the very serious point that being a follower of his comes with consequences – it comes at a cost. He really does expect our lives to be transformed; he wants us to make his priorities our priorities when it comes to all the other demands for our time, our money, our loyalty. In short, he’s warning his disciples in this passage, and by extension he’s warning us, that following him is going to come at a cost – and he expects us to bear it.

It’s important to recognize that what we’re talking about here isn’t about trying to earn our salvation. Our salvation – or redemption, or reconciliation, or justification, whatever you want to call it – is something that God has given us, solely as an act of God’s love and grace. What Jesus is talking about here is what comes after that – how we’re expected to respond to that gracious act of God. And that’s where things can get tricky.

When we think about this topic of priorities in our lives, one subject that often comes up is the question of why so many kids – especially the kids of churchgoing families; “our” kids – drop out of being part of church. And so many of those conversations run along the lines of, “why doesn’t the church leadership, the pastors and others, come up with some way to get these kids to church?” Well, there’s certainly enough blame to go around for how the church has missed the boat with its youth; pastors that don’t pay attention to them, sessions that won’t establish effective ministries and programs for them, congregations that will just patronize them and not recognize them as full, current members of the church family to be integrated into worship and all aspects of the church. But while that’s all true, to be honest, there’s only a very small, select group of adults who have the authority and ability to rustle some teenager out of bed on a Sunday morning and tell them they’re going to church – and it isn’t the pastor or the session. Sorry, Mom and Dad, a big part of this one’s on you here. Actually, could you imagine how that might play out if we really did make it the church’s responsibility to make sure that happened? Just picture it, you’re sitting at the breakfast table Sunday morning before church, and KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK… “Oh, yeah, hi, it’s just us, the Membership Committee. We’re here to wake up Bobby and make sure he gets to church. It’s OK, we’ll just let ourselves in – he’s upstairs, second door on the left, right?” I suspect we’d probably have a tough time staffing that committee.

Christ has expectations of us, parents and kids alike, if we’re going to call ourselves Jesus’ followers – if we’re going to call ourselves Christian. That’s just part of the deal.

Or what about the issue of extracurricular activities – sports, music, job, whatever it is – cutting into church time, Sunday morning or otherwise? And by “extracurricular,” I’m not just talking about our kids; it’s our stuff too. We’ve got the golf league, the quilting guild, whatever. So many times, before we become part of those activities, we know the conflicts with our faith commitment up front – but how often has this kind of conversation happened? A kid and their parents sit down with the coach and say, “Coach, I’m excited about being playing ball, and I’ll be committed to the team – but you need to know right up front that if practices or games are scheduled on Sunday mornings, I’m going to miss those times – I already have a previous commitment; I need to be in church.”

But… but…it’s a team; we need to depend on each other, we have to be there for each other, all do our part! Yes, exactly. And in this passage from Luke, Jesus is pointing out in very blunt language, that we’re actually already on a team. And we need to depend on one another, we have to be here for each other, we all need to show up and do our part. We need to remember that all of us here are already wearing a jersey that says Team Jesus. When it comes to setting our priorities, why is it that it’s only in the rarest of times when Team Jesus wins the day over Team Almost Anything Else?

Finally, what about the way we prioritize our money? Does the way we prioritize our finances reflect our beliefs? This is an important topic for us right now, as we’re gradually easing into our stewardship season. C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, “Show me a man’s checkbook and I’ll tell you what he really believes,” and I think that’s more than just a little bit true. Christ calls us to use our financial resources in ways that advance him and the Kingdom of God. So are we succeeding at it? Do we bump up our annual pledge a bit? Or do we get the premium leather package and upgraded sound system in the new car we’re getting?

Have we ever stopped to ask ourselves just what we *have* actually given up for our faith? Just what consequences, what costs, we’ve accepted in order to put Christ first in our lives?

Well, look… I know that this morning’s sermon is a bit of a downer. Now you know why I tried to soften the blow this morning by including pictures of cute babies and funny movie lines in the weekly email. I know that this subject, and mentioning some of the specific examples I used to illustrate the issue, can hit close to home for some. It might cause some discomfort, maybe even some resentment, or thinking that I’m trying to scold or play the holier-than-thou card. Please don’t hear it that way. Know that of all the many examples I could have mentioned, I mentioned those particular ones precisely because I’ve failed myself at various times in all of those situations. I’ve been too lax with my own kids in seeing that they get to church. I’ve allowed extracurriculars, those of the kids and my own, to take precedence over worship services and other church functions. I’ve prioritized my finances to benefit my own preferences over what would best serve the Kingdom of God. I’m sad to say that I’ve done it many times, actually. So when I mention these examples this morning, please don’t hear them as if I’m shaking my finger at you or looking down my nose at you. I’m actually sharing them with you as a fellow traveler in the struggle, trying to hear Jesus’ words about making him and the Kingdom of God the first priority, and trying to apply those words better and more fully as time goes on in my own life. If we’re going to be faithful to Christ, we have to periodically examine this part of our discipleship, even if it isn’t the most pleasant topic.

If there’s any saving grace or good news in this passage from Luke, maybe it’s that no one could possibly, perfectly adhere to Jesus’ expectations here – but what matters more than the actual perfection is the journey itself, and making sure that the course we’ve set on that journey is actually getting us closer and closer to the model for discipleship that Jesus has laid out for us.

Thanks be to God.