Monday, September 27, 2010

The Rich Man's story

(A sermon on Luke 16:19-31 given at All Saints' Littleton on 9/26/2010)

When Jesus offers us two characters in a story that appear to be in opposite places, it is only natural to want to compare them.

One could conclude from comparing the fates of the two men in today’s story, that it is better to be poor than rich in this life, because those who are poor now will be rich in the heavenly life (and vice versa).

This is a message that has at times been confirmed and misused by the Church. For example, there were those in the church of the Middle Ages that used this passage in this way to appease the masses who were poor. The leaders in the Church said, “Your reward will be in heaven”. This of course helped maintain the current division of power and wealth, which the church benefited from.

I’m not sure how common of a message this is today in the various Christian churches in America. It seems that many churches today favor a different message of misuse: suggesting that prosperity is actually a sign of God’s favor, in comparison to not having (an equally destructive message).

I’m currently of the belief that comparison of the two men is not the point of the story.

Sure, it LOOKS like a “rich man, poor man” story, but in truth, it is a “rich man, Lazarus” story, which makes me hear it a little differently.

The poor man named Lazarus is a fictional character in the parable, and should not be confused with the more familiar Lazarus of John’s Gospel: the brother of Martha and Mary that is raised from the dead by Jesus.

What might be rather significant is not just that he’s named Lazarus, but the fact that he is named at all. This is the only time where Jesus names one of the characters in his parables.

I find that a telling feature of the story. Perhaps it suggests that God knows this man because of his poor situation, and is loved by name.

What might be of greater significance is that the rich man in the story knows Lazarus by name. In fact, I think this is a major part of the story, because in truth, I don’t think this is really a story of comparison between two people. This is the rich man’s story. The point of the parable lies with him.

Lazarus means “God is my help.” By naming the poor man Lazarus, Jesus is saying that, of course, Lazarus is cared for by God. It is a given in the story. In one of his earliest teaching, Jesus said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20). The truth of that has not changed.

It is the rich man’s attitude and actions (or lack there of) that is the focus of this story this morning.

There is great description of detail given of the two men. The dramatic contrast set up in the story that creates a vivid picture.

“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 sudden reversal of fortune brought about in their deaths is a significant piece of this story, but I think it is more about this life then it is a suggestion of what the afterlife is like.

In Hades, where (The rich man ) 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.”

This is not to be understood as an accurate picture of hell, but to establish that the rich man knows EXACTLY who Lazarus is. He knows him by name. Lazarus’ plight during life was not unknown to the rich man. The rich man simply chose not to care.

It is this not caring, not his wealth, that condemns the rich man of the story.

Penny Nixon writes:

Luke clearly tells us that this parable was given to “lovers of money” (in verse 14), so it was a direct message to them. Apparently Jesus wanted to reveal through this story that they loved their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their clothes more than compassion, and their extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry.” (In Feasting on the Word, Year C., Vol. 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., 2010, p. 119.)

What perhaps is even more damning is that the rich man still sees himself above Lazarus. Despite this clear reversal of fortune…despite Lazarus literally being above him in heaven…the rich man still sees Lazarus as less then him. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Make him serve me. While he speaks to Abraham with respect, he speaks of Lazarus as if he isn’t there, and as if he has no a right or ability to speak for himself. Even with wealth reversed, the no longer rich man sees himself as a more important human being than Lazarus.

The story reveals an assumed self-worth that is often found when people have wealth and power over others. The danger here is very real: then, as well as today.

Fortunately, compassion, not fear, is the point of the story.

We are called to see each other as God sees us: equal, unique, and beloved. We are called to awareness and interaction with one another. And, I believe, we are called to do what we can to share the abundance of what we have been given with each other. For after all, everything...and everyone...belongs to God.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Dishonest Story

A sermon on Luke 16:1-14, preached at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 9/19/2010)

I’m going to be upfront with you all this morning: I don’t understand this parable.

I’m in good company: the general consensus from all of the theologians, scholars and preachers is that no one really understands what this parable means.

Sure, there are theories, hunches and guesses…there are some interesting lines of thought here and there…but what it boils down to is that this passage is a difficult one, and no one knows for certain why Jesus told this particular parable, except for Jesus himself.

Now, you might think that we can tell its meaning by what Jesus says after the story. But it’s not that simple...

Here’s the way Gospel writing works: Jesus told these parables during his lifetime. Then, some years later, the Gospel writers, in addition to recording them, attempted to make sense of the parables for their audience. They have Jesus “explain” the parables, which means the Gospel writers tell us what they believe Jesus meant by putting words into his mouth.

This morning’s parable likely ended with the words:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.”

(This reflects the opinion of the Jesus Seminar, found in The Five Gospels: What did Jesus really say? The search for the authentic words of Jesus.)

Luke then starts sharing what HE believes Jesus means:

“…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

Gospel writers never share their thoughts by having themselves speak in their stories. Instead, they always put their thoughts in someone else’s voice, usually Jesus’, to effectively tell the story. Remember, they weren’t taking dictation…they were later trying to make sense of it all.

This isn’t meant to be deceptive; this is the accepted technique of writing the account of someone’s life in the first century.

It not only serves the 1st century Christians well, it usually helps us make sense of what Jesus is trying to convey in his parables.

Only this time, it’s very unsatisfying. I cannot imagine that many of us enjoy hearing a scoundrel like this dishonest manager receive Jesus’ praise. This doesn’t give the same “good feeling” that the story before it does (the prodigal son and the forgiving father).

In truth, I don’t think Luke, our Gospel writer, really gets this story either. Look at his continued attempts to explain it:

"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"

I imagine that Luke, like me, and many others, didn’t feel very good with the conclusion of this parable, and keeps trying to say a little more to make sense of it all.
Luke then turns to another technique: taking Jesus’ spoken words from elsewhere to help explain the parable:

“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.’”

Matthew records this saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel of Thomas includes it as well.

Luke takes this general saying of Jesus and places it in the context of a specific parable to help with the explanation. This also, is done with some frequency.

This is not a critique of the Gospel of Luke: it is to his credit that he includes this tough parable of Jesus, found nowhere else in any Gospel. It is, however, a perfect example to illustrate the reality that Jesus challenged those listening to him…then, and today…with some difficult and complex stories and teachings.

Furthermore, I would be very skeptical of anyone who tells you that the meaning of Jesus’ parables and teachings are simple and straightforward. Most of Jesus’ words can be understood in more than one way (that what, in part, makes them so powerful). Anyone who insists “this is the right way to understand Jesus” just might be more unsure than you realize…

Having said all of this, I’m going to offer a possibility for this parable.

Who might this parable is aimed at? Think about it: who are the managers of the time? Could it be the Pharisees (who, we are told in the verse after this account, heard all of this and ridiculed Jesus.) Have they been dishonest in their jobs of overseeing the spiritual health of the community, focused on what is right and not money? Yeah, that fits.

Who could be the rich man be? Perhaps it’s not a stretch to see the rich man of the story as someone with authority over the dishonest Pharisees (God? Jesus? Even the Romans perhaps…the “rich man” doesn’t have to be good.) Whoever the rich man is, it’s clear that the manager is about to be exposed. “Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

So the manager, the Pharisee, is about to be out of a job. What is he to do?

He goes out and makes some deals that go outside the lines, cutting the amount that people owe his master. His motivation is self serving. His hope is to produce favor with those whose debts are forgiven, so that he might be sheltered.

Surprisingly, the rich man is pleased with this result: commending the manager for his shrewdness.

I had to look this up in the dictionary: I hear shrewdness with negative connotation, and sure enough, its archaic meanings are malicious, bad, and shrewish. But its real meaning is astute or sharp in practical manners; marked by cleverness and perceptiveness.

It is ironic, but in this moment of panic, the manager accused of squandering property does a good job managing: building relationship with people, forgiving some debt, getting some return for the one he represents, and not personally getting money in return. By practically using what talents he has, he actually serves everyone, and the rich man sees potential in his manager.

Perhaps this is the point: we all still have an opportunity. Do what you’re good at, what you do well, and conduct yourself like your relationships with others matter. Even if your motivation is initially self-serving, in this way you can find a path to serve.

So, be shrewd in the good way, “astute or sharp in practical manners; marked by cleverness and perceptiveness.” Look honestly at what you’re good at, what you have to offer, and then use those things to build relationships with others.

Perhaps some of this speaks to you, but if you are to take anything from this text, it should be the good news that ALL IS NOT SETTLED. This parable, like all of Jesus’ parables, is not some bitter pill to simply swallow and wait passively for an effect.

I believe that Jesus told these parables in part because that no simple answer would stand for time, in the hope that these parables would continuously require our reflection. Your thoughts on the story matter; and your understanding of the parable may be challenged not only by further study, but by hearing the thoughts of others.

So: what do you think this parable is about?

“I don’t know” isn’t a bad answer, so long as it’s not the end of your search.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Blog delayed due to Vacation

Just returned from a week vacation to Washington DC and Ocean Beach, MD. We had a great time.

A major highlight was attending a vigil at noon at the Washington National Cathedral on September 11th.

Will blog on it Monday, after I've caught up at church!!!


Monday, September 6, 2010

First on hate, then on Paul

(A sermon preached on Luke 14:25-33 and Paul's letter to Philemon, given at All Saints Littleton on 9/5/2010)

“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."

When Jesus drops an “H-bomb”, a preacher is compelled to respond...

I want to talk about today’s Epistle reading, but I have to first address the Gospel. It’s not okay to take a chance that someone will leave with the idea that Jesus says it’s necessary and desired for people to hate others.

There are various thoughts concerning this text. Some believe that hate is a poor translation into English from the Aramaic. Some think that these are Luke’s words, not Jesus’. Some scholars believe “hate” means “love less than”, while others link the statement to the conflicts we have when truth confronts love.

I’m not sure of any of this, but I firmly that Jesus is not saying to hate your mother, father, spouse, children. siblings, or life itself.

The key for me, is the word “possessions”, at the end of the passage.

Look closely again at the list: parents, wife, children, siblings, and life. What’s missing? The husband, the father. Technically in the first century, the head of the household possesses the rest.

What I think Jesus is saying that even while our society values certain possessions as signs of blessings, the pursuit of them is morally bankrupt. It’s bound to fail, and it’s not the road of discipleship.

Emille Towns writes:

“In the process of becoming living disciples, we must, as Jesus states, also learn to give up all of our possessions---our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more---and follow the way of Jesus, as we place ourselves on an ever-treading potter’s wheel to examine our thoughts, words and actions. These possessions keep us further and further from the Christlike walk to which Jesus invites us in discipleship.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David Bartlettand Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, 2010, p. 46)

Now that I’ve done my duty concerning this morning’s Gospel, I now wish to turn to perhaps Jesus’ most influential disciple of all time: Paul.

(Not you Deacon Paul, the Epistle writer.)

Here’s a quick rhetorical question: do you still even remember this morning’s Epistle reading?

Certainly it would have been trumped by the Gospel this morning, but it’s my observations that most Episcopalians have a special scale concerning Paul’s Epistles.

There are the “greatest hits”: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:7)

There are the benign passages that often seem to ramble, but no harm, no foul.

And then there are the passages that make you wince, that have been used to beat good people up through the centuries.

Paul is problematic for so many of us who hear his words regularly in church. As we hear these excerpts of his letters, many of us our bound to wonder if Paul is the most dour man in history. People must think. “How can this devoted man be so out of touch with Jesus’ message?”

It is easy to dismiss someone whose commentary on particular practices, like women speaking in worship, comes from 2000 years ago. There are, in fact, many things in his letters that can now be easily disregarded, because frankly, the particulars do not concern us.

But before some of you get angry with me for daring to say such a thing, let me tell you why you can safely dismiss certain conclusions in Paul’s letters without dismissing Paul.

Communal living is not easy: especially in times of persecution, newness, and uncertainty. There are lots of things that caused great strife and tension, sometimes even trivial things. Division threatened not just the way of life, but also invited higher authority...namely, the clamp down.

So these young Christian communities looked to Paul: a dynamic, compelling personally that spoke with passion and authority concerning Jesus. They wrote letters, or sent messengers, or had someone observe what was happening, and looked to Paul for guidance.

All of Paul’s letters are responses to what was happening. They are one side of a correspondence. What we have are Paul’s attempts to help a fragile group of people to stay united in trying times.

Retired Episcopal Priest Gray Temple writes:

“Few of us bother to notice that Paul’s first letter to Corinth replies to a stupid letter they have written to him (1 Cor. 7:1), that it is a party in Corinth, not Paul himself, that wants to veil women, or that they, not Paul, wants to hush women in church.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, 2010, p. 40)

What we get as a whole from Paul’s letters are thoughtful responses to the challenges of first century Christian living. In Paul’s responses, there are great insights, there are moments of brilliance, and truth be told, there are accounts of petty fights, compromises, and disappointments.

Thankfully, Paul weaves his foundational understandings into his letters: “There is no longer Jew and Greek, there is no longer slave of free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) This seems to be the ideal, and trumps when Paul chooses a more conventional opinion on a particular controversy.

Still, it’s hard to get to know Paul: the things he is called to respond to limit our picture of the person.

This morning’s letter to Philemon, however, is an exception. It is a short letter: we heard all but the last four lines of the letter this morning.

What makes the letter so critical in our understanding of Paul is that it is not a response to someone else’s letter. Instead, it is a letter from Paul to an individual concerning a situation Paul is directly connected to.

Paul writes to Philemon, a man of some power and wealth, concerning a slave named Onesimus. Both men have become Christians, in at least some part thanks to Paul.

There are some sketchy details that will never be known for sure. We do not know how things came about: Onesimus could have originally been sent by Philemon to help Paul in prison. Onesimus may have run away from Philemon. It’s even possible he stole more than himself.

We also cannot tell for sure what Paul is asking for. Paul may be asking for Philemon to allow Onesimus to return to his slave position without punishment. Paul may be asking for Onesimus to be allowed to return to assisting Paul. Or, Paul may be pleading for Onesimus’ freedom from slavery.

Regardless of the unknown details, what we have here is a thoughtful, compelling, and very human letter from Paul that shows a glimpse of who he really was.

Instead of my telling you this morning what this letter means, it is my request this morning that you get to know the Paul behind this morning’s letter. Observe Paul’s hand in righting relationships. See his concern for both Onesimus and Philemon, and discern what he hopes for them. Consider what Paul is teaching about power and dominance, and what it has to say to us in today’s world.

What does Paul mean when he says of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.” Or when he hopes of Philemon, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”

If you have questions about details, by all means ask me, or read what other people have written.

Then tell me what you think, in conversation, by email, through Facebook or the blog.

I’ll do my best to collect and share what we all come up with: and perhaps together we can see Paul in new light.

I’ll send you off with these words from Gray Temple:

“It is way past time for conservative Christians to recognize Paul’s profound challenge to our (juvenile) moralizing aimed at other people. He would have none of it.

It is also way past time for progressive Christians to recognize that Paul is far out ahead of us---and is not only braver than we are but more loving.

Paul is God’s gift to us. It is time we make his acquaintance and risk taking him up on his dares.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, 2010, p. 42)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Welcome Kami -- the furry, yellow, HIV-positive Muppet!

Nigeria Sesame Street Wanted to share this article!!!

Nigerian ‘Sesame Street’ to feature health,

nutrition and gender equality

From Sep 2nd, 2010 11:56 AM EST by Todd Summers

The people that put together “Sesame Street” and Jim Henson’s “The Muppets Show” have been working to create a version in Nigeria called “Sesame Square.” They announced that the show will include an HIV-positive girl named Kami –- news reports describe her as ‘furry and yellow.’

Given that more than 40 percent of Nigeria’s 150 million people are under the age of 14, this Muppet is a great way to reduce stigma around living with HIV and inform kids (and their parents) about the disease.

Kami’s not new – she was introduced in 2002 to South African viewers, and has appeared across the world, including with former President Clinton.

And you may remember that there was quite a buzz in the U.S. about this, with several politicians threatening to cut funding for PBS if they brought Kami in (I wonder if this was because of the sad immigration ban that Congress imposed on HIV-positive people that was only recently lifted. Let’s hope that we’ve become more enlightened since then.

A preaching challenge...

It's hard to ignore this when it's your Sunday Gospel text:

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.
(Luke 14:25-27)

I think, however, I just might do that. The Epistle is Paul's letter to Philemon. This is a rather unique letter. Most of Paul's letters are replies to the early Christian communities. Most people (including myself) forget that Paul is responding to other peoples' concerns, and delicately working in things that he thinks is important. So you get these letters that sometimes are maddening in their apparent focus on things that mean little to us today.

The letter to Philemon, in my opinion, brings out the best of Paul because we see what is really important to him: the relationship that Christians are supposed to have with each other.

As one who often cringes at our lectionary's excerpts of Paul, I don't want to miss this opportunity to transform the way we usually think of Paul.

So, can I ignore this Gospel??? Any thoughts???