Monday, September 26, 2016

It's Our Chasm

Luke 16: 19-31
September 25, 2016

It’s easy to understand why Jesus shares this parable.
The Pharisees, it says, are lovers of the law.
They use it to their own ends and to their own benefits.
It also says that they are lovers of money.
They enjoyed the finer things in life
and gave no thought to the throngs of poor people around them.

To be clear, this parable is not a full blown theology
of what happens after death and how salvation works.
It is a parable that says if you only had the law to rely on,
here is what the law would do to you.

So we have an unnamed rich man. He ate well, and he dressed well.
I think he is unnamed because he could be any one of us hearing.
We might say, in our defense, “well I don’t have a life
of obvious consumption, so this parable doesn’t apply to me.”
But expensive food and flashy dressing is not
in itself the problem.

What is the problem is that a poor man,
Lazarus, who does have a name,
has been laying at the unnamed rich man’s gate.
He’s sick, covered in sores and
the best part of Lazarus day was when the dogs
would come and lick them.

Lazarus wished that he could have
some of the rich man’s leftovers,
but obviously, the rich man didn’t care to share.
He didn’t care at all actually, it seems like
he didn’t even notice Lazarus, so he  
didn’t think that this poor man was his problem.

Maybe the unnamed rich man thought that he
was better than the poor people around him.
His comfort was a blessing from God.
And the poor people, they made bad choices,
they didn’t work as hard, they weren’t as smart,
they must have done something wrong
or they wouldn’t be in this position.
“Not my problem”, says the unnamed rich man.

This actually is the problem.
And we don’t have to be rich to have it.
So whether we consider ourselves rich,
or well off, or comfortable, or just getting by
it doesn’t matter, this parable is speaking to us.

So after he died, the unnamed rich man was sent to live in torment
and Lazarus was with the angels and father Abraham.
Which gives everyone else a good clue that
The unnamed rich man’s wealth was not a
God given blessing and a license of superiority at all.
Everyone else, except the unnamed man.
Because even after death he’s still arrogantly oblivious.

And just to prove that he still doesn’t get it,
the man calls over to father Abraham and actually tells
him to send Lazarus over to serve him
and bring him a cold drink.
Abraham tells them man,
“No, we can’t do that.”
And the reason is that
“a huge chasm exists between Lazarus and the man.”
A chasm.
A great gap that can’t be crossed.
That is the problem here.
A chasm between people.

We know about this chasm in our world.
The chasm between people.
Between rich and poor, between people of different races,
The chasm that we inherit, the chasm that we end up making larger.

Even if we’re not one of the conspicuously rich
like this unnamed man,
we have reinforced this chasm between us and others.
Especially those with less,
less money, less security, less privilege, less anything than we have.

We put physical distance between us,
and we put spiritual and mental distance between us too.
“At least we are not like them over there.”
And to keep others at a distance,
we make the chasm larger.
We support or ignore systems and laws that
keep people in lives of debt and fear
and always on the brink of disaster.
We support laws and development that take away housing,
and prevent people from earning a livable wage.

And then we look down on them for their suffering,
for a whole myriad of reasons:
They’re not as sophisticated as us,
or as smart as us, they’re not working as hard,
or making as good choices.
And we act as if their lives don’t matter as much.
Like the Pharisees, we love the law when it serves us.

With our action and inaction, with our apathy
and ignorance, we have created a great chasm.
No matter what our financial status,
we are familiar with the chasm that exists between
Lazarus and this unnamed man.
  
In this country, we are also part of a growing chasm
of race, even though some people try and deny it exists.
This week we seem to have another cascade
of black people being killed by law enforcement
without too much reason beyond fear.
One 13 year old was killed in our own city.

Whether or not we think one or any of these were justified,
the fact is that the African American community is hurting,
they feel under siege, nervous, angry,
afraid for their own lives and the lives of their children
frightened of the people who are there to protect them.
There seems to be no safe place.

Many black people feel like their lives don’t matter
as much to white people or this country.
And when this is expressed,
it’s often quickly shot down with a retort
that “all lives matter”, 
or with blame for the victims,
or with a though that they 
must have deserved it.
Or even a denial that there 
is a problem at all.
This isn’t a way to respond to pain.
Like the Pharisees, 
we love the law when it serves us.

Whatever your thoughts on this issue,
you must admit that a great chasm has grown
between white people and people of color.
People who are privileged by their race,
and people who are penalized by it.

The problem isn’t the privilege in itself, it’s the chasm.
Each generation, each nation, each place
has created and grown their own chasms,
it can’t be blamed on one person,
it’s not one person’s fault,
it’s taken years to build these chasms between people.
But this chasm is a problem.

The point of Jesus parable is to point out this problem.
And the point of this parable is also to say the time
to close our chasms is not later, it’s now.

The unnamed man gets another idea,
he’ll do a good deed –
or his version of a good deed anyway.
He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to go
serve him again and spend his time knocking
on the doors of his family and warn them
of the consequences of this chasm.

Abraham says, “umm.
Let me think about that for a minute. No.
You had all the information,
you should have fixed this chasm before.”

It’s not enough to say now, it doesn’t affect me,
I’m not going to get involved,
or this is too difficult to deal with  
or just pray that God will sort the whole thing out.
This chasm is ours to sort out, here.
This is for those five brothers to figure out.
We all have been given the guidance of Moses and the prophets.
Now is the time to listen and understand those we look down on.
Those we think we’re better than.

Jesus has basically show us the choice,
we can be stiff necked and tough,
and cling to our self-righteousness and say,
“not my problem today”
and just ignore the whole thing.
Or we can realize that we are all one family
and any problem of my brothers and sisters is my problem.

The bad news of this parable is that
The kingdom of God will not recognize our wealth
it does not recognize our privilege,
it does not reward us for being rewarded on earth.
On the contrary, the kingdom loves losers.

So be a loser.
If we happen to have money, wealth, privilege, good looks,
great friends, great luck, the best thing is to give it away.
As Jesus has said in Luke,
“Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required;
and from the one to whom much has been entrusted,
even more will be demanded.
Give up all your possessions.
You can’t serve God and wealth.”

But this chasm is not something we can just throw money at
and have it go away, Like Jesus we empty ourselves by,
eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners,
be seen with the wrong people, listening to the cries of sick,
bringing good news to the poor,
and, if you have access to the banquet,
inviting everyone into the banquet.
Time, understanding, compassion, vulnerability.
Those are the things that heal chasms.

For those of us with any status or wealth or privilege,
the chasm is ours to cross and heal in this world.

And the good news is that
even lovers of the law don’t have to worry.
Jesus has closed the chasm between us and God,
between eternal torment and the angels.
God’s grace is for everyone equally.

In God’s kingdom, we are all God’s children,

not rich or poor, slave or free, black or white.
In God’s kingdom, we are all one family.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Should We Follow the Rules OR Be Faithful?

Luke 16: 1-13
September 18, 2016

Oh my this parable.
This has got to be one of the most confusing parables.
I mean it’s easy figure out what’s going on,
but the message seems contradictory
to things that we assume about Jesus
and our place in the world as Christians
that we doubt our understanding of it.

The story itself is simple to understand:
A manager has been put in charge of his bosses  accounts
he’s been accused of being dishonest
and his boss tells him to clean out his desk
because his pink slip is on its way.

The manager knows he 
isn’t good at manual labor,
and he doesn’t want to be homeless,
so he has a plan. 
Make all the customers happy
and they’ll be nice to him later
and maybe they’ll let him 
sleep on their couch.

So he calls up Henry and says, Henry,
how much do you owe my boss?
and Henry says, 100 bucks.
So the manager says,
“why don’t you just give me 50 
and we’ll call it even?”
and Henry jumps on the 
chance and is very happy.
Then he calls up Doris 
and says how much do you owe?
She owes a hundred bucks too.
He goes, how about 80, can you do that?
She’s like, “Yeah, I can do that right now.”
So, let’s do it and we’ll call it even.

Now, you think that the boss would be pretty angry
because there the manager goes again being dishonest.
But no, the owner of the business applauds the manager
He actually approves.
He says, “that was pretty clever.”

And the first confusing thing is that act is commended by Jesus, he says,
“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”

And the second confusing thing is that Jesus seems to discredit that
statement immediately in the warning in the
next two verses.

“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.
11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,
who will entrust to you the true riches?
12And if you have not been faithful
with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is your own?

So we have the story,
The statement, “make friends by dishonest wealth”
and the warning, “whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much”

Now some people say that the
Warning doesn’t belong because it seems to contradict
the story and the statement.
And some reasonable people say that the
statement doesn’t belong because
Jesus couldn’t be praising a dishonest manager.
And some people say that Jesus never said the parable at all
and just ignore the whole thing.

Our discomfort with this parable
and why it causes so many interpretive gymnastics
 is that we can’t wrap our heads
around the fact that Jesus is praising dishonesty.
Maybe as Christians, we’ve spent so much of our
history teaching each other that to be Christian
is to follow the rules and be good citizens.

So this parable is so consternating because it doesn’t
go along with what we’ve been brought up with as Christians.

I think we have to take Jesus at face value,
We have to say that he said this, because all the proof
we have is that Luke says he said this.
So we have to deal with what he said.

And I have to say, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here.
And I might change my mind next week, but here goes.

In the story, Jesus gives an example
of a manager being “dishonest”
Now he doesn’t rob people, he doesn’t keep the money for himself.
He’s not that kind of dishonest.
What he actually does is he changes the system.

The system is this:
There’s a boss who has a lot of wealth and people borrow,
then they owe.  They actually owe a lot.
Most likely a lot more than they borrowed.
They are in debt. That is their status.
It becomes their identity.

But when the manager came in and forgives debts,
Now their identity is not as a debtor, they are equal.

This is not the way the system is supposed to work.
You can’t just go forgiving debts.
Who will know who owes what?
Who will know who is higher class and lower class?
Now the boss will have nothing to hold over the debtors.
It changed the whole system that drives the world.

Now this actually benefits everyone.
It’s win, win, win.
The people who owed obviously benefit.
The manager benefits, because he will be welcome into
the homes of the people who owed.

And even the boss benefited because now he has $130
that he wouldn’t have had and everyone in town
thinks he’s the greatest guy in the world.

So maybe the most faithful thing to do
was to buck the system, not follow the rules,
and to be dishonest in the eyes of the world.

Now, does Jesus mean to say that we should
embezzle money from our jobs and give it away?
I don’t think so, but what do we have control over?
What has been entrusted to us?

Remember, this is all in response to the fact that
the Pharisees and scribes have been grumbling.
“Why is Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners?”
In other words,
Why is Jesus rewarding people who have so much
repenting and changing to do?
They owe so much because of their life choices.
Shouldn’t he be showing tough love to these people?
Shouldn’t he be telling them all about their sins,
and telling them that he won’t love them until their debts are paid?
If he just goes and eats with them and welcomes them,
that would reward them and they would have no reason to change.
it would buck the whole system which benefits us.

Maybe Jesus is saying the “faithful” way is to buck the system.
Maybe Jesus is saying “honest wealth” is the one where
everyone gets the benefits that God gives and not just
the few privileged ones who have been raised on the ladder of success.

Maybe Jesus is telling us that maintaining
the system is not the honorable way
and treating people with love and kindness is.
Maybe Jesus is telling us that the system is actually “dishonest”
and the “faithful” way is to go around it or change it.

So what has been entrusted to us?
As individuals and as the Church, the body of Christ?
I’ve talked before about Luther Memorial Place
in Washington DC. It’s in the middle of DC in a depressed
neighborhood and like a lot of churches, it was
struggling during the 70’s when members
started to move to the safer suburbs.
Then in 1976 there was a particularly cold
winter and several homeless people died of exposure.

So the pastor, John Steinbruck and maybe the council,
decided to open the doors of the church
and let people sleep inside the church.
Soon there were hundreds of people sleeping all over the building.
That was not part of the system as it was understood.

A friend of ours was actually a part of that church at the time,
and I asked him, did it cause any trouble?
He goes, “oh my gosh yes, there was tons of trouble.”
Lots of members of the church were complaining
council meetings were really tough for a while,
things went missing in the church.
There was no place to have a meeting.
It was real trouble.

But suddenly the church had a mission, a point.
The building served a purpose now,
the neighborhood fell in love with the church in a way it hadn’t.
Everything changed.

Steinbruck told us in a class that he taught that
when the synod asked for the parochial report
for the church-- basically asking if the membership was up to snuff
to get their mission support money from the synod--
he just counted every person that had slept
on their floors for the past year –  675 that’s our membership.
He said, (not in a nice way)
“If those people at the head office didn’t like it, they could lump it”
That was the kind of pastor he was.

Did he follow the rules? Did he go with the system as written?
Did they do things the way you were supposed to do things
in the Lutheran Church in the 1970’s no way.
Did they get into any trouble for bucking the system.
You betcha. From lots of sides.

But was it a faithful use of what had been entrusted to the church? Yes.
Was it in service to God? Obviously.
Did everyone win in this situation?
- The homeless who were previously freezing? Check.
- The congregation that was lacking a clear direction? Check.
- The national church that would come to see Luther place
 as a model of what a church should be? Check.

Maybe the most honest way of dealing with things
is the way that looks crazy and most dishonest to the rest of the world.

The children of this age are more shrewd in
dealing with their own generation than the children of the light.

Are we as Christians so bogged down with doing
the right and proper thing by the rule book that we
sometimes forget  about taking chances for God?

What if the message of this parable is that
Jesus wanted his church to stop clinging to rules and to actually be faithful?
To use the worldly wealth that we have not to keep order,
but to throw things into chaos?

What rules and systems are we clinging to?
What faithful things are we saying, we can’t do
because maybe it breaks the rules as they are?
Because the boss wants it this way?

What if Jesus is asking us to throw your rule book away?
What if Jesus is telling us to stop being responsible and start being faithful?


Is there someone who doesn’t deserve your forgiveness at all?
Is there someone who’s debt to you could never be repaid?
Is there something you feel called to do that doesn’t
meet any of your criterion for worthiness?

What if Jesus is telling us to break our own rules
that we’ve established?

Could we get into trouble?
Sure we could.  Jesus got into plenty of trouble for us.

But as Jesus said, “you cannot serve two masters.”
You cannot serve money, rules or security
and God at the same time.

Jesus is the unjust steward.
He is the shrewd manager.
He knows that the world is not saved by respectability.
Or by rules or doctrine.
The world was saved by breaking those rules
It is saved by love, by grace,
by friendships and relationships.

Salvation came through Jesus,
not through following the system,
Not through counting debts and repayments
and figuring out who was better than who.
Jesus saved all of us by releasing our debts.
By just giving it all away.
Jesus is a crook, robbing the system of its power.
Giving life to those who don’t deserve it.

We were saved by a scoundrel,
a rule-breaker a man who hung
to death between two thieves on a cross.

Jesus was faithful with what was given to him
and in return he gave us true riches.
He knew he could not serve two masters.

For our sake, he chose to serve God.