Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bridging the chasm: Rich and poor, law and gospel

Luke 16:19-31

One of the hardest parts of preaching is trying to give you appropriate context to the scripture we are reading. Most of you haven’t studied the Gospel of Luke extensively—maybe you have done a Bible study on it—or maybe you’ve never read a word from Luke’s Gospel apart from Sunday mornings at church. It’s hard enough if you read the Bible every day to piece together the context, let alone if you never read it at all. But no matter what you know you need to know this: Context matters. You wouldn’t pick up a copy of Gone with the Wind, read a paragraph, and imagine you’ve got the picture. So how much more important is it with the Bible? We need to constantly be wondering: Where is Jesus in his ministry? Who is he talking to? Where has he been… where is he going? Is this story part of a bigger series of stories?
These are important questions to ask, because Jesus was not the brothers Grimm or Aesop. Their stories were distinct and universal; you can pick up a single Aesop fable and easily understand the moral. On the other hand, Jesus’ parables were specific and contextual. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan immediately after being rejected by the Samaritans. He points to Jerusalem immediately following the Transfiguration, saying that Jerusalem is where something big is going to go down. The context helps us to understand the meaning; everything after the Transfiguration is downhill to the cross and everything should be read accordingly.
One last example of contextual reading for you: In our men’s Tuesday morning Bible Study leading up to Lent we read through the book of Romans. Romans is the perfect example of a book that has to be read in whole; if you read it in part you will miss the point. If you read verses from anywhere in the first few chapters of Romans it is easy to see that Paul’s purpose in writing this book must be to convict people and strengthen the importance of the law. However, if you read anywhere from about chapter 8 on in the book of Romans it’s easy to see that Paul wrote Romans to obliterate the law. If you read all of it you will find something infinitely more interesting: Paul laid out the importance of the law to give weight to our sinfulness. Then he obliterated the law under grace’s power. But you cannot get there from reading only a single passage.
So it is with readings like today’s. The rich man and Lazarus: A parable of Jesus that, if we’re honest with ourselves, should scare us half to death, especially when read on its own. This parable better get us thinking, “What does it mean to be rich?” How much money does it take to be rich?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Life is unfair... but not how you're thinking

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks. Now that’s a great question. In fact, it’s about time, because that’s the question—in various forms—that I get asked more than any other. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people seem to get much worse than they deserve? Why do some get better? Where is the justice? This is the most direct Jesus gets in dealing with this question, so this is a good time to perk up and listen, because I’m willing to bet that this is a question you care about.

    Intuitively, we like karma. The idea that people who do bad will end up getting bad in return somewhere down the line is a very attractive one to us. Likewise, the idea that if we are good God will reward us for being good is also attractive. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be how this life often works—good people suffer; some people are rewarded for sins like pride and covetousness and gluttony and lust. God has a plan for history—we can understand that—but individually things are not always so clear. We don’t always get what we deserve. So, if the reason you are being good is because you believe God will reward you with a good things then you might want to find another plan. You have to look no further than the apostles, martyred for their faith one by one after Jesus, to see that the reward for following Jesus is not the type of throne we might like; it looks a lot more like a cross.

    So if not karma, then what? And if we’re not rewarded with good things in this life, then what? And if grace is true, then what? We should be wrestling with all of this; we should be pondering it; because in this mess of brokenness and unfairness that we find in this world the important question is not “Is it fair?” because we know it’s not. Cancer in children, car accidents, war, poverty, a baby born with AIDS—none of these can be blamed for their actions; we can’t imagine they did this to themselves—but even if we start to think about people who have brought their ruin on themselves so often it’s not always clear how in control they really are. There’s the person who is otherwise wonderful but has a problem with alcohol, or the person who has a great heart but whose head is affected terribly by mental illness. Others can’t understand social cues. People are influenced by everything from their body chemistry to their families to traumatic experiences in their past. We all make choices, but our choices are not as all-powerful as we want to believe they are. We are free, but we are also captive.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A man was going down from Jerusalem

Luke 10:25-37

The Samaritans rejected Jesus. That’s what I wanted you to remember from last Wednesday if you were here for the Ash Wednesday service. The Samaritans rejected Jesus. So, when Jesus is asked “Who is my neighbor?” you might be surprised at the answer he gives. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” he began, a classic-storytelling trope. Who is the man? It doesn’t matter. What matters is this: “He fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead”—which, as we know from The Princess Bride, is not completely dead but it’s on the way there. Two holy figures pass him by—a priest and a Levite, who was a temple elder. These are the religious guys; the guys who should know what it means to be a neighbor. Hint: They don’t score well here.
            So it is that a Samaritan passed by and the rest is history. The funny thing is that Jesus is just telling a story, right? It’s a parable. He could be using anyone as an example; it could have been the priest who stopped, or it could have been a different sort of outsider who was righteous—a tax collector might seem a likely choice. But no, Jesus told the story of the “good” Samaritan; a member of the tribe who just rejected him. It’s not just that the Samaritans were disliked by everyone—by Romans for being too Jewish and by Jews for being not Jewish enough—they also made a choice to not receive Jesus in their town. If it’s not their heritage that matters and not their choices either, then what does matter?
            All that matters is the present actions of the Samaritan; not his antecedents, not his relatives, and not his past either. You’ll notice that Jesus’ commands are present-tense. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no past that will disqualify you from doing this in the present; there is no status, like that of being a priest, which will excuse you from the obligation right now. We are judged not by our past or our future but by our right now.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The virtue of just showing up

Luke 9:21-36

            “Now about eight days after these sayings…” begins our Gospel account today from Luke, which begs the question: “What sayings?” Which begs the answer: Important sayings. Really important ones. Just before this scene that we now call the Transfiguration Jesus has just finished telling the disciples two very important things. 1) He is going to be betrayed, die, and rise again, and 2) To be his follower you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow him. The disciples hear but do not understand—a common trend for this lot. Peter, who typically represents the church (since he is the “rock” on which Jesus says his church will be built), doesn’t get it. This suggests, at least to my mind, that the church, too, is bound to not get it. This makes me sad and also gives me hope, because I often see the church not getting it.
            When the church (Peter) goes up the mountain with Jesus and sees him transfigured white the church fails to follow through as Jesus wants. The scripture says that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep. It’s clear that Peter is the ringleader here—it’s “Peter and his companions;” not the “three disciples.” So this is not about the disciples—it’s about the church; about what the church does and what the church does not do. The answer is: the church builds dwellings. It marks sacred spaces. It remembers important events. It even, to some extent, tries to re-create them. Peter exemplifies all this with his initial response, telling Jesus they should be building houses of worship on that space.
            But this is not what Jesus wants—not exactly. The church is not supposed to build first, it’s not even supposed to remember first; it’s supposed to do something harder: From God’s voice from the clouds in verse 35: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The church is supposed to listen to Jesus. If we listen we will hear the hard words; we’ll hear Jesus say “I’m going to be betrayed and I’m going to die.” We’ll hear the challenge of discipleship, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow.” And we’ll also hear the good news: “Three days later I will rise.” But first we have to listen. As Jesus says in the story immediately following this one: “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying…” (Luke 9:44f)
            I can resonate with Peter on that mountain. I have memories of great places, great times, and great people in my life. I’ve felt God at work in me in very specific places that now mean something extra special to me. Whenever I have the occasion to make a pilgrimage to those places I take that opportunity to reconnect with a place that has made me who I am, but those places and those feelings are only any good if they urge me to listen not for voices from the past but for a God who speaks to me in the present, who is challenging and changing me right now. Jesus was obviously there with Peter on that mountain so it’s easy for us, who stand so far on the other side of history, to be critical of Peter. What’s harder is for us to see is that this God who stood with Peter is standing with us just the same today, speaking just as critically today, and commanding us again to listen: “Let these words sink into your ears!”
            If there is anything good I say it is Christ speaking through me; if there is anything wrong I say it is me believing with my little head that I can say it better. This is the path to discipleship: Denying ourselves, giving up the credit to God, because, frankly, God created it all anyway; taking up our crosses, enduring actual hardship—not small inconveniences but actual suffering—and following. It’s hard to follow through on this and a shrine alone will only help a little. The church is the people, after all, and not the building, and the church must be willing to let God do what God will do; not what we expect or want God to do with us. That is denying ourselves. That is taking up our cross.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Manage your expectations

Luke 7:18-35

When Kate and I were going through pre-marital counseling one of the pieces of advice we were given was to manage our expectations. It’s such good wisdom for marriage that I pass it on to every couple I counsel now. Manage your expectations: What does that mean? It means coming to an understanding of what one another expect, which can only be done through good communication. It means checking in with one another to listen and understand what your spouse expects. Then, it means bargaining with one another about how to come to expectations that you share. Managing expectations requires talking, sharing, and, above all, listening to one another. This is a recipe for a healthy marriage. Couples that fall apart often struggle communicating their expectations with one another; they wait in vain for their partner to pick up hints without ever truly sharing them, or they share them but one or both of them refuses to listen.
Managing expectations is key to healthy relationships with one another, and, based on what Jesus says in today’s reading, it also seems a critical part of a healthy relationship with God. In order to have faith in the God who is real we have to get to know Jesus for who he really was and is (and not who we want Jesus to be). In order to understand do this we have to listen to him. We have to read scripture like this and remove what we want to hear, instead listening for what Jesus is saying. If we want to have a healthy relationship with God it starts with understanding who God is and who God is not. It requires us to understand when we are worshiping God and when we have crafted God in our own, human image.
This is not as easy as it seems, because even in the Gospels Jesus is constantly misunderstood. In today’s reading he questions the people, “What have you come to see? A prophet? More than a prophet?”
He begs the question: “Who do you think I am?”
He’s looking for a confession of faith. He’s looking for a profession that he is the son of God, the Messiah. But the people are silent. It says in verse 29 that they “acknowledged the justice of God,” which is miles better than the Pharisees and the tax collectors, but acknowledging God’s justice and confessing who Jesus is are far from the same. Lots of people confess God’s justice, but do they know Jesus? So, Jesus concludes with a jarring critique of the people of an entire generation, comparing them to children in the marketplace who do not understand what it is they are looking for. They didn’t like John the Baptist because he was too much of a recluse; now they don’t like Jesus because he is not reclusive enough. The only person, at the end of the day, who will satisfy the people’s desired messiah is themselves. Nobody is happy with anything on offer.
Do you know people like this?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Slaves, masters, and where we stand

Luke 7:1-17
            Today I want to talk about the first healing from the first reading. Not the obvious choice to talk about perhaps because the second healing is about resurrection and Lord, do we need a promise of resurrection in our lives these days. I do promise we’ll get there; I just want to start in the beginning. And the reason I feel compelled to talk about the first story is because of the matter of this centurion, because there is something about this encounter between the centurion and Jesus that is baffling and brilliant.
            The story goes like this. A centurion has a slave that is deathly ill, and he hears that Jesus is coming to town. He has heard the stories about this Jesus—healing other sick folks throughout the countryside. So he sends an envoy to Jesus, asking him if he might heal his slave. Then, after the envoy tells Jesus about the sick slave and asks him to come, the centurion himself appears. And so begins a very interesting exchange. The centurion tells Jesus not to bother going all the way to his house. In fact, the centurion explains that he didn’t even want to so burden Jesus with his presence and this is why he assumedly sent his envoy in the first place. Apparently the centurion is as concerned with making sure that Jesus is not put to too much trouble as he is with his slave being healed. For this reason I can only assume that the centurion is Norwegian. The centurion goes so far as to explain to Jesus that he knows precisely what it is that Jesus is going through, because he, too, has people above and under him. All he hopes is that Jesus issues a simple command. He (the centurion) expects nothing more than that.
            We might pause there for a moment, because if you set this stage for me and I’d never read this story before I’m not sure what I would expect Jesus to say. I could really see it going a couple of different ways. Is Jesus going to admonish the centurion for not coming to him in the first place? Is he going to go all the way to the centurion’s house all the same? Is this going to be a story of judgment?
            I expect everybody alongside Jesus was holding their breath and chewing their fingernails all the same. I mean, centurions are Roman soldiers and, sure, this one apparently helped the people to build the synagogue in town, so he was friendly with the Jews, but the question remains: Is this centurion’s behavior appropriate in the presence of Jesus?
            The answer, apparently, is yes. In fact, the scripture says that “when Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’” (Luke 7:9). This response begs the question, “What, particularly, is it that the centurion did that Jesus understood to be so faithful?” Was it sending an envoy? Was it coming himself? Was it doing both? No, it can’t be any of that, because Jesus responds not to his appearance but to his words. So, what about those words, then? What is it that the centurion says this that is so faithful? Let’s listen closely: He says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go,' and he goes, and to another, "Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it” (Luke 7:6b-8).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Our children, our idols

"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).
There are many commandments in scripture that are difficult--nay, impossible--to follow. "Love the Lord your God with all your soul, strength, and might, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). Good luck getting that one perfectly right! It is verses like those that led Paul in his letter to the Romans to conclude that the purpose of the law is to condemn us and drive us to Jesus--that we cannot, in fact, get the law right, so the law cannot make us any more holy (cf. Romans 3:19-20). This has always made sense to me not only because it is what Paul says but also because it follows from Jesus' teaching as well, e.g. following the story of the rich man and the famous camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle parable, the disciples ask Jesus, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus responds "For mortals it is impossible but for God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

So, on some philosophical level the hardest commandment is always the first one, because we don't ever get past that one. But most of us do not live like the first commandment is all there is. Instead, we seek out more specific commandments--commandments that apply more directly to our lives--which brings me to the commandment that I've been wrestling with for the better part of the last year--the commandment from Luke 14:26, quoted above.

Now, again philosophically, the hardest part of the scripture above is undoubtedly taking up our cross and following. That's something few of us are really willing to do, and none of us will do it perfectly. But we all know those aren't the hardest practical words in this passage. For most of us the hardest practical words are the bold words: "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." This verse is so offensive to us, so backwards to our usual way of thinking, that people either A) ignore it, or B) explain it away. I've heard the explanation that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, which may be true but it doesn't excuse us from trying to understand what he's saying, and I've heard these verses softened, as they are in the New Living Translation, which reads, "If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison--your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even your own life." The "by comparison" part is nowhere in the Greek and is a wishful-thinking on the part of the translators.

Let's be honest: We are offended that Jesus tells us to hate our families. We just are.