Sunday, October 6, 2019

Lectionary 27C/ Proper 22

Luke 17:5-10

For all of us who were in school before the internet and search engines like Google, John Bartlett’s “Book of Familiar Quotations” was a standard reference where you could find well-known sayings from Scripture and from poets, authors and politicians. You didn’t have to know the whole quote, just a keyword or phrase or perhaps whose words they were.

Today’s gospel reads a little like an entry in Bartlett’s. The first ten verses of this chapter are a collection of seemingly unrelated sayings of Jesus, first about forgiveness and then about faith and then about servanthood.

Instead of trying to find a thread that connects the different themes, I’m going to focus on verses five and six where Jesus and the disciples are talking about faith.

The disciples have been traveling with Jesus and listening, as we have, to his parables and watching how he responds to the people around him. And after another series of hard teachings, the apostles say to him, “Lord, increase our faith!” They plead with Jesus to add to what’s there or give them more of this thing called faith.

It’s something every one of us probably has said at some point in our lives. “Lord, increase our faith.” Because we fall captive to the lie that the answer to whatever challenge we face is located in being more or having more.

Jesus rebukes the disciples and that way of thinking.

Faith isn’t an object or an asset that can be measured or quantified in ounces or pounds, square feet or acres.

I had the privilege on Friday of listening to Pastor CeCee Mills speak in Durham. Pastor CeCee is the new Associate Director for Evangelical Mission in the North Carolina Synod. And she was talking about ministry in small congregations. Or rather, given that 80% of ELCA congregations now have fewer than 100 people in worship on an average Sunday, she was talking about ministry in our churches today.

And one of the first things she asked us to do was to define the word “small.” I’m going to ask you to do the same thing. Not out loud and I won’t ask you to write it down, but take a minute to think, if you were going to look up the word “small” in Webster’s Dictionary, or on Google, what would it say?

And now, I’m going to ask you to listen, and pay attention to how you react, what emotions you feel and what adjectives come to mind, when you hear the following:

small car              big car

small house         big house

small tumor        big tumor

small church       big church

small group         big group

small debt            big debt

What are the associations you made?

Efficient, nimble, precious, intimate and visible were some of the words we used to describe the small things she named.

Through our conversation with Pastor CeCee, we recognized the lie that says, “bigger is always better.”

With his rebuke, Jesus tells the apostles, “You are worried about the wrong things.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus had described the kingdom of heaven as a mustard seed that was sown into the ground and became a tree where birds could nest. (13:18-19) And here in our gospel text, Jesus describes the power of faith as a mustard seed. (17:6)

In our humanity, we think the kingdom of heaven is more visible when the church is big and boisterous and there are more people in worship, but Jesus says, “Listen, you are paying attention to the wrong things.”

In our humanity, we think faith must be big and boisterous to be any good at all, but often the Spirit of God comes upon us as a breath or even a whisper. (Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 29)

And the Lord says to us, as he did to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”[i]

Faith is surrendering ourselves to God, admitting our weakness and our dependence upon God in all things.

Four times in Luke leading up to this exchange with his apostles, Jesus bore witness to the power of faith active in the lives of the people he meets.

First, he encounters the friends of the man who cut a hole in the roof of a building to lower their paralyzed friend down to him. Luke tells us, “When [Jesus] saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." (Luke 5:20)

Next the centurion whose slave is sick sends friends to Jesus and when he receives the soldier’s message through them, he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And the slave was healed. (Luke 7:9)

Then dining at a Pharisee’s house, Jesus defends a woman who bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with perfume, saying to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (7:38 - 50)

And finally, Jesus is on the street when the woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years touches the hem of his cloak, and he tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace." (8:43-48)

“Faith is putting our trust in God, in life and in death.”[ii]

However, it is important to say out loud that these verses have caused harm at bedsides and in exam rooms and emergency rooms when doctors have explained a difficult diagnosis or condition and someone has responded, “If you have enough faith, they’ll be cured.” Faith isn’t a magic charm or potion that can promise a cure or prevent death.

In Martin Luther’s “Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans”, he writes:

Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.[iii]

When we are afraid, the Good News is that the answer is not found in getting more. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s promise that we have life in Christ and power in the Holy Spirit sustains us and God provides for us all that we need.

Thanks be to God.

[i] 2 Corinthians 12:9
[ii] Bishop Mike Rinehart. https://bishopmike.com/2019/09/29/pentecost-17c-proper-22c-lectionary-27c-october-6-2019/, accessed 10/1/2019.
[iii] Martin Luther. “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.” http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/luther-faith.txt, accessed, 10/5/2019.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lectionary 26C/ Proper 21

Thinking this week about what this parable says to us, I came across a cartoon that shows a smiling robed angel and a man standing on clouds, looking at an elevator clearly marked “up for heaven “and “down for hell” and the man is saying, “Somehow I thought it would be somewhat different.”[i]

The parable begins with a rich man who is richer than anyone can imagine, clothed in “purple and fine linen” and feasting sumptuously or extravagantly every day, not just at Shabbat or on high holy days. In my imagination, I picture Midas who is remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold.

And then Jesus tells us about a second man, a poor man who was laid at the gate of the rich man, at the entrance to his property. In other translations, this man is called a beggar. He was dependent on help from neighbors and community, but we never hear that he received any help from the rich man or anyone else.

All we are told about him is that he has sores that the dogs lick, and we are told his name. He is named Lazarus from the Hebrew el azar which means “God has helped.”

Popular interpretations of this parable often add things that aren’t part of the story. Nothing is said about ritual purity and uncleanliness. Nothing is said about either man’s demeanor. Nothing is said about either man’s piety or religiosity, faith or belief, or righteousness. They’re just two men, one rich and well-fed, one poor and hungry.

However, we know from Scripture that for Torah-observant Jews, and for Christians for that matter, the biblical mandate to care for the poor is clear.
  • In Deuteronomy 15 the people are instructed, “"Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."[ii]
  • In wisdom literature, Proverbs says, “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.[iii] and “2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.”[iv]
  • And the prophets add their two cents, too: Isaiah tells the people, “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;[v] and Zechariah instructs us, “show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;”[vi]
Hearing this parable, we wonder, Why would the rich man ignore Lazarus? Maybe he felt powerless to help, or anxious that he would be taken advantage of. Recognizing our human condition though, it seems as likely that he never saw Lazarus as his responsibility; he either didn’t care what happened to the man or he was blind to the suffering right in front of him, and never even saw the poor man.

Our bewilderment is short-lived.

In the verses that follow we’re told each man dies and come to inhabit Hades, which translates literally as the “unseen place.” Ironically, Lazarus, who was not seen in life, is seen there.

Hades, hell, Sheol or Gehenna are all used in Scripture to describe the place of the dead. The descriptions we have aren’t literal or geographical and our understanding of heaven and hell has changed throughout time. Ancient Israelites believed in a three-tiered world where heaven was above and the dead went to a morally neutral underworld below. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Jews adopted the Hellenistic view of heaven as a place for the saved and hell as a place for the damned.[vii] Many of the familiar and graphic images of hell we might recognize today originated with Dante’s fourteenth century epic poem Divine Comedy and 15th and 16th century paintings of the Last Judgment and these images persist in popular culture today.

This parable describes a completely different place “where the saved and the damned could see each other.”[viii]

When the rich man cries out, it’s clear that the only thing that has changed is his location. His way of thinking is the same as it was in life . While he now sees Lazarus, and even knows his name, he still “others” him, speaking about him, instead of speaking directly to him. The rich man first asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water. And when that fails, he asks him to send Lazarus to his five brothers so that they might be spared the torment that he’s experiencing. He remains blind to the truth that he and Lazarus are both children of Abraham, brothers in God’s sight. [ix]

Even when Abraham tells the rich man there is a chasm that cannot be bridged, he fails to see his own complicity in his fate. His own ignorance and lack of compassion carved out that chasm; it is the same chasm he used in life to separate himself from the poor and the suffering. It is as deep as his fears and disdain, his selfishness and contempt. Now, as theologian Amy-Jill Levine writes, “he will spend eternity seeing what he cannot have”[x] — a wholeness that is only possible in life with God, as part of the kingdom.

This parable reminds us that “God does not play by our rules.”[xi] When we encounter God’s kingdom, it’s going to be different than we imagine, just as God is beyond our knowledge and understanding now. What we know, right now, and what we are taught in the law and by the prophets, is that we have the responsibility to pour out God’s mercy and compassion here and now.

Let us pray…
God of heaven and earth,
Thank you for your mercy and grace that make us Your children and heirs to Your kingdom.
Teach us to see people through Your eyes and to love them as You love them.
Make us compassionate and generous as we go out into the world to share the Good News of your abundant love.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Werner Wejp-Olsen. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/o/otis.asp, accessed 9/28/2019.
[ii] Deuteronomy 15:11
[iii] Proverbs 14:21
[iv] Proverbs 22:1-2
[v] Isaiah 58:7
[vi] Zechariah 7:9-10
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_cosmology, accessed 9/26/2019.
[viii] Amy-Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus. 286.
[ix] Levine, 288.
[x] Levine. 289.
[xi] Levine, 300.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lectionary 25C/ Proper 20

Luke 16:1-15

Hearing the gospel for today, do you think Jesus just wanted to make sure people were listening? I have heard of university professors who add instructions at the end of the syllabus to test whether students read it in its entirety, and in seminary we joked about inserting random text, like lines from a favorite hymn, into our papers, just to see if they were really being read. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells the Pharisees this parable that appears to commend dishonesty.

Maybe Jesus just wanted to make sure he had their attention, but maybe not.

Remember what we know about parables. Sometimes, parables were a way to put two things such as the kingdom of God and a mustard seed or yeast (Luke 13), alongside each other to help us understand them. Other times the parables teach us about the kingdom of God through stories like the Good Samaritan where it’s easy for us to imagine who we are supposed to be in the story. Last week we were reminded that often the parables are there to challenge us or shake us up. And often they surprise us, awakening us to the way God is breaking into our lives and turning the wisdom of the world upside-down or inside-out.

At the time that Luke is writing, around 80 CE, the Romans occupied Palestine, and as the Empire demanded higher taxes, sometimes the rich who lived in the south “rescued” the small farmers in the north, who sold their land and stayed on as tenant farmers. Where once they might have harvested crops that provided food for themselves and their households, now the farmers were planting production crops to be sold to the Romans, and a manager would keep track of what was owed to the landowner.

The parable begins with someone making charges against a manager. We don’t know what he’s done, but the rich man calls him out and accuses him of being dishonest. There’s no denial; instead what we hear is his internal dialogue, or calculations, as he considers his options. And then Jesus tells us that the dishonest man acts quickly, speaking to the tenants and lowering the figures for what they owe.

We can speculate what he was doing. As a manager, he would have earned a commission, so perhaps he reduced their debts by the portion he would have taken. Or maybe he reduced their debts to hurt the landowner, or to ingratiate himself into their lives.  We cannot know his motive. And we don’t need to.

The result is that the tenant farmers have a little bit more for themselves and their households. The manager, who has power because of his position, chooses to use his power, while it lasts, to help others.

Jesus still recognizes the man for what he is, calling him the “dishonest manager” even when the rich man commends him. What is being commended isn’t the manager’s dishonest practices but the steps the man took to address the wrongs he had committed.

This isn’t a parable that obviously works as an allegory for our lives of faith. Featuring a dishonest manager and an opportunistic rich man, we aren’t eager to identity ourselves or God as one of the characters.

But aren’t we all dishonest managers?

Five times between verses 8 and 11, we hear the word “dishonest.” The Greek words are ἀδικίας and ἄδικός which can also be translated as “unrighteous” or “unjust”.  Eugene Peterson who wrote The Message paraphrase of the Bible calls this character a rascal. That sounds about right, I think.

By our nature, apart from Christ, we are dishonest or unrighteous, rascals and scoundrels, captive to sin and to death, self-centered and self-indulgent.

In this parable Jesus contrasts what is dishonest or unrighteous with what is faithful or believing.

But faithfulness and believing are never the result of anything we do – no measure of hard work, earnestness, or ability will achieve them.

As Martin Luther wrote in the explanation of the third article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but [the Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies [or makes righteous] the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.”

It is only through Christ, and the gift of unearned grace – what some might even call dishonest wealth – that each of us is wholly beloved and forgiven. Giving us what is his, Christ makes us children of God and heirs to the kingdom.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, now we are dead to sin and alive to Christ, and as ones who have been brought from death to life, we are instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6)

As instruments of righteousness, we are given the power to intercede on behalf of the suffering, the sick and the poor.

Indeed, in our baptismal covenant we promise to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth”[i] and accept this responsibility to intercede on behalf of others. And we do have power; we have the power of the Holy Spirit acting in our lives and those around us, and we have the power of our voices to engage in difficult conversations; we have the power to use our vote on election day; we have the power to use our time to volunteer or write letters to the editor and congressional representatives.

This parable challenges us to look for the places where we could give up some of our power and wealth so that others might suffer less, despair less and hunger less.

There are ways we do this in our everyday lives, giving out of the abundance we already have:
  • Many of you have donated hotel-size toiletries that we are able to give to people who don’t have anything.
  • I know someone else who never pays with exact change; instead, she rounds up and donates the difference to charity.
  • Scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post where a mother told a story about her son who had asked every day for a week for two of everything he usually took to school for lunch. She had chalked it up to growing pains, figuring the kid must be hungry. And then the boy’s mother got a note from another mother in his class thanking her for providing lunch for her child when she’d been in the hospital.
While these actions may feel small or incidental, they are ways we take steps to lessen the suffering, despair and hunger of others. But after Jesus finished the parable he told his disciples, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much;…” (v. 10)

The Good News we hear today is that God gives us the power to transform the world around us, sharing our inheritance as God’s children and making God’s kingdom present and visible here on earth, if only we will act.

Let us pray…
God of Righteousness,
Thank you for grace and mercy that makes us your children and heirs to Your kingdom and thank you for Your Son Jesus who shows us what Kingdom life looks like here on earth.
Show us ways that we can be instruments of righteousness in our community and world.
Empower us by Your Holy Spirit to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ELCA. 236.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Lectionary24C/ Proper 19

Luke 15:1 - 10 (11-32)

Maybe you remember: last January a three-year old boy was missing for several days in eastern North Carolina. When family members couldn’t find him, they called the police and local, state and federal law enforcement and hundreds of volunteers searched for him, aided by dogs and drones and airplanes. Even here in North Carolina, January weather isn’t hospitable and they were searching in cold temperatures, heavy rain and wind. Happily, after three days of searching, the boy was found, wet, cold and tangled up in some briars in the woods, but alive! Imagine the celebration that took place when he was found!

In today’s gospel Jesus tells three parables about being lost and being found, about searching and about celebrating.

Parables are stories that Jesus told that say something about the character of God or God’s reign or kingdom. The parables compare God and God’s kingdom to the familiar world in which those hearing him lived. So the parables use yeast and bread, widows and shepherds, merchants and rules to explain some aspect of who God is and what it looks like to live as God’s people.

Our lectionary reading only includes two of the three parables Jesus told that day, but I am including the third one because the story is incomplete without it.

Often, like he does today, he asks his audience directly, “Which of you…?” Any “safe” distance we have from his story dissolves with this opening question. He is talking to us!

In the first parable that Jesus tells here, a shepherd has one hundred sheep and one goes missing and the shepherd leaves the 99 to search for the lost one.

In the second one, a woman has ten coins and one goes missing and the woman leaves the 9 to search for the lost one.

And, in the third, a man loses one of his two sons when the young man takes his inheritance and leaves.

Often my first response to these three parables is to identify as one of the lost, and to experience deep gratitude for being found, for knowing God and returning to the Church where I found a community.

And that’s ok, as far as it goes, but as Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt writes, Jesus’ followers would have known that “parables and the tellers of parables were there to prompt them to see the world in a different way, to challenge, and at times to indict.”[i]

Taking another look at these parables, one of my questions is, “What does it mean to be lost?”

One popular interpretation is that the lost are the unrepentant sinners, people who have strayed from the Way of Jesus or even more deliberately refused to follow him.

But as the story of the three-year-old illustrates, sometimes we “become” lost. Our absence is noticed; we are missed by people who love us.

And other times, we experience being lost because we are overwhelmed by circumstances and unsure about what the next step is.

The sheep probably didn’t mean to get separated from the flock, and certainly the coin, which was inanimate, didn’t do anything to get lost. Only the son chose to go away.

And neither the sheep nor the coin repent. We can view the son’s return home as a repentant action, but it’s more likely that he returned because he was confident that his father’s love for him was greater than a desire to hold him accountable.

As I was listening again to these parables, I remembered the Genesis 18 story of Abraham bargaining with God. He stood before the Lord and argued for a city to be saved from destruction if there were fifty, forty, thirty, twenty or even just ten righteous men in it. Eventually, God promised mercy
even if there were just ten.

What we hear in these parables is that God’s mercy reaches even to the one. As a shepherd God leaves the 99, trusting them to protect and provide for each other so that the lost one can be restored to the flock.

As the woman with the missing coin, God lights a lamp, shining it into all the dark corners of the house, all “the places where demons dwell”, sweeping and searching until she finds the one that is lost.

And then in the third story, we see God pictured as a compassionate father who sees the son “while he was still far off” and runs to him to “put his arms around him and [kiss] him”. (v. 20)

With these parables, Jesus challenges us that we should be restless and unsatisfied, as long as there are lost ones.

That doesn’t just mean as long as there are open seats in the pews,
but as long as we have neighbors who are separated from the community because they have been lost in the crowd, overlooked or forgotten;
as long as we have neighbors who are isolated or alone;
as long as we have neighbors who have made mistakes or chosen poorly.

I had the opportunity this week to sit down with Pastor Michael Gullatte who is the executive director of the Cleveland County Rescue Mission and catch up on their work in our community. As most of you know, the rescue mission began with a men’s shelter in the building behind our property and when the men moved to their new building on Buffalo Street, the rescue mission opened the Heart to Heart women’s shelter in the bright yellow building next to us. During our conversation, Pastor Gullatte told me several of the men and women’s stories but one stood out:

A woman in a rehab program in Virginia was told that when the program ended, she would be turned out on the street. The facility gave her phone and internet access and she set to work finding a place where she could go next and get back on her feet. Unlike most of us, she didn’t have a safety net of family members who were waiting for her. When she tried to find a place, she was turned down more than eighty times. Her children were in Rutherfordton and on her last day in the Virginia facility, as she searched for someplace that would put her closer to them, she found Heart to Heart. She called and they said she could come there. And in the time she has been at Heart to Heart, she has accumulated sobriety and been reconciled with her children.

At the end of her long bus ride from Roanoke, she found a community that welcomes her as a beloved child of God, that celebrates her gifts and rejoices with her.

Through the parables, Jesus teaches us that, in faith, the fullness of God is in each of us, but we are not complete as long as there are lost ones.

I hold together both my gratitude for being found
and my conviction that I am God’s hands and feet, responsible for searching, looking and watching with compassion for those who are lost.

In each of these three parables, the lost do not quietly slip into the back pew during worship, or just pick up where they left off. Instead, the shepherd, the woman and the father invite everyone to rejoice with them.

As I thought about the celebrations we have today when we might call friends and neighbors to rejoice with us, I thought first of retirements and graduations, and then weddings or the birth or adoption of a child. All of these are times when we are on the cusp of something new and not yet known. There is anticipation and some uncertainty but there is hope.

When the lost are restored to their places alongside us, in our lives and at our table, we are complete and whole again, and we celebrate even as we look ahead to what is yet unfolding.

Let us pray…
Loving God,
Through Your Son Jesus Christ you give us your kingdom and count as Your children.
Thank you for your abundant love and mercy that searches and finds every last one of us.
Encourage us by Your Holy Spirit and send us out with compassion for the lost – the outcast, the lonely and the grieving;
Bring us to the day that we too can rejoice together at the wholeness of the family of God.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus (p. 4). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Lectionary 23C/ Proper 18

Luke 14:25-33

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus continues to speak hard words as he and the disciples travel toward Jerusalem. But the words he speaks aren’t just to the twelve; it’s not like we’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation in the upper room. Luke reports that Jesus is speaking to large crowds who have been following him, when he turns and says,

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

The scene reminds me of a story my mom tells from her first days in college when a speaker told the assembly of freshmen, “Look to your right and your left, only one of you will graduate.”

Whatever the crowd was feeling, if they hoped to hear encouragement or affirmation, they instead were stung by words of admonition and caution.

It’s important to say out loud that, too often, “carrying your cross” has been taken to mean that one must endure unjust suffering or abuse. Or it has been turned into the lie that says, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Following Jesus never gives anyone permission to abuse us spiritually, emotionally or physically. But faithful discipleship does not put us in a protective bubble where nothing bad can happen. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be overwhelmed by grief or trauma, or suffer depression or anxiety. What it means is that God is present with us, weeps when we weep, and comforts us when we are hurting.

We must learn to hear Jesus’ words differently.

The call to carry the cross is a call to follow Jesus to Calvary or Golgotha, to accept death as the only way to resurrection, to submit to dying with Christ, that we might find life.
It demands that we let go of everything else because if our hands and hearts and minds are full of the stuff of the world, we are not free to carry the cross. In verse 33 Jesus tells the crowds, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his paraphrase called The Message:

Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.

In the book Screwtape Letters CS Lewis introduces us to a highly placed assistant to Satan whose name is “Screwtape”. The book is written as a compilation of letters between Screwtape and his nephew “Wormwood”, an inexperienced demon who is working particularly hard to corrupt one young man. In one of his letters, Screwtape writes:
Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things’. If you can get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point’, you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all – and more amusing. (46)
There is no moderation in Jesus’ words.

The call to discipleship is to choose the life of faith even when it requires sacrifice.
In Deuteronomy as Moses addressed the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan, he told them, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Moses reminded them what their own stories were, including the bondage they had experienced in Egypt, and cautioned them not to succumb to fear as they looked ahead to the Promised Land, but to choose life.

To carry the cross is to choose life.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus gives us examples of people who choose “good things” over following Jesus. They choose to honor their parents or provide for their family; they choose to care responsibly for animals and land; or they choose to finish their work. Clinging to what is good and responsible, they miss out on life with Jesus.

As Christians, to choose life demands that we go beyond simply being good and responsible and commit ourselves to serving God, holding fast to the Way of Jesus, in all that we say and do.

We regularly make commitments to employers, to our families, to groups where we volunteer or whose activities we enjoy. Daily, weekly and monthly, our calendars are filled with our commitments. As Jesus describes, we look at each one and weigh the cost – the time, the money, other opportunities – and we decide which ones are worth it.

So why are we so reluctant to make this commitment – to follow Jesus and let go of everything and everyone that would distract us from serving God?

The challenge to carry our cross and let go of everything else is frightening. And despite our faith,
and the promises we have from God,
and the evidence we have of God’s faithfulness to generations before us, we are afraid. We don’t remember the assurance Jesus gave us in Luke 12 when he said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (v.32)

We only trust Jesus up to a point. It’s easy to trust him on Sunday morning, but then we set apart the other parts of our lives as if they have nothing to do with the Gospel or Jesus. We want God to stay out of how we vote, how we spend the money we’ve earned and how we see other people in the world.

But God wants more than an hour on Sunday mornings and God speaks to every part of who we are, not just the “church-y” or religious parts.

Time and again, we choose the comfort of what is known and familiar, even when it is bondage to sin, which is death,
because it is separation from God.

The Good News is that, time and again,
God forgives us, inviting us again to choose life,
to love God wholly and completely with all of our being.


When we choose life – following Jesus and loving God – we are freed from the burdens of the past and we are freed from fear.
We choose a new thing, not yet revealed, a living future where nothing will be the same.
We choose to enter into the mystery of God’s future for us, trusting in God’s promises.
We open ourselves to transformation and to metamorphosis, trusting that God is at work in us and creating new life.

Let us pray…
Life-giving God,
Thank you for your forgiveness and mercy when we turn from you out of fear or selfishness;
Thank you for the persistent call to follow your Son Jesus in every part of our lives;
By your Holy Spirit, give us courage to answer with all we are and all we have.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Lectionary 22C/ Proper 17

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Hearing this gospel text, a colleague joked that it made her grateful for place cards and I added my own gratitude for round tables!

But all joking aside, Jesus isn’t merely providing etiquette lessons or serving as an event coordinator in today’s gospel. His instructions about where one should sit when you’re invited to a feast, and who should be included when you are doing the inviting are blunt criticisms of the wisdom of the time.

In first century culture, there was a hierarchy to relationships that was not easily breached. Wealthy patrons controlled resources and meted them out to people of lower status based on personal knowledge and favoritism. Brokers, such as temple priests and city officials, mediated the relationships between patrons and those who needed the resources, and therefore had power of their own, power to determine access and to influence the patrons. And then there were the majority of the people, who were dependent upon the generosity of the patrons and the favor of the brokers. They paid for their favor with public professions of loyalty, and criticism would have been whispered or muted altogether.[i]

Also, at this time, the elite were separated physically from “the ‘am ha-’aretz”, the “people of the land” who were the laborers and tradespeople.[ii] The less influence or power you held, the farther from the city center you lived. And the cities had walls and gates that were locked at the end of the day, shutting out people who were undesirable or landless.[iii]

Likewise, table fellowship was designed to “keep out” the wrong sort of people. “Dinners were important social occasions that were used to cement social relations.”[iv] Perhaps the Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner because he believed he was his equal but it’s just as probable that the religious leader wanted to put the outsider in his debt.

Knowingly or not, when the Pharisee invited Jesus to the Sabbath meal, he set the stage for conflict. Jesus had already, on three previous occasions, been criticized for healing people on the Sabbath day, and in the verses that our reading skips, he heals a fourth man; only this time, his opponents are silent.

So now Jesus is there with the Pharisee and his other guests, and just as Jesus wasn’t content to let a hurting human being suffer one day more, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the behavior he witnesses as they gather. He does not hold his tongue out of polite deference to his host. As Martin Luther would say, “He calls a thing what it is.”

The scene Luke describes is one of people scheming and conniving to get to the best seats at the table. As at celebrations you may have seen, the center table was the place of honor and the farther you move out from there, the less importance your seat holds. It’s human nature to want to move in toward the center and toward the position of power.

But Jesus cautions the dinner guests against that compulsion, arguing they should allow others to be seated first, and wait for the host to decide if they should be moved higher.

And he doesn’t stop there. Knowing that each has been invited, and because of their reciprocal relationships, will be expected to host in turn, he tells them whom they should include among their guests, saying,
when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:13-14)
It’s easy for us to dismiss the instructions Jesus gives,
believing we wouldn’t treat people as currency and relationships as bargaining chips or expect loyalty or privilege in return for our generosity.
It’s easy for us to forget how insulated our lives can become and how rarely we encounter people with different backgrounds, social or economic status.
And it’s easy to assume that everyone we know sees the world as we do (or at least they will when they come to their senses!)

But if we think Jesus isn’t talking to us, we miss out on what he is describing, which is the very reign of God:
  • The reign of God that sees a person’s worth comes not from their position, status or wealth, or someone external measure of the person, but from their beloved createdness as a child of God.
  • The reign of God that breaks down walls, crumbles barriers and erases division and replenishes love.
  • The reign of God that is expansive, welcoming and healing because all of us are impoverished when we come before God. Our brokenness may be hidden better than our neighbor’s, but it is vividly displayed to God.
Every time we gather for Holy Communion, we are God’s guests at the heavenly banquet table. God, in divine goodness, flings wide open the doors and tells us to, “Come and feast at the table!”

One of my favorite practices from the School of the Spirit that I completed last year was that as we entered the retreat house, we left our titles at the door. We came into that space just as we were, without our resumés. To willingly empty ourselves and stand apart was a counter-cultural practice in a world that defines me by what I do, what I have, or what others say about me.

We don’t come to the Table seeking honor for ourselves, but seeking mercy. We come humble, stripped of the accomplishments we have and the accolades the world awards. We come hungry for the good gifts God offers us. And we are fed and nourished, and healed, to go out into the world as witnesses to God’s boundless love and mercy.

And then, following Jesus, we are told to extend the divine invitation, especially to those who have been excluded, dismissed or forgotten. We are reminded, as theologian John P. Burgess writes, that “Christ sits at all of our tables, calling us into fellowship with people from beyond our immediate circle.” [v]

Sending us into the world, beyond our comfort and norms, Jesus challenges us to invite others to the table, not to fill seats or make them indebted to us, but so that they would know God’s love and mercy in their lives. We have opportunities in the next few weeks for fellowship and service throughout next weekend’s “God’s Work, Our Hands” activities and in the following weekend’s congregation picnic, so I encourage you to ask,
“Who needs the comfort of knowing God sees and loves them?”
“Who could I invite to come to the table with me?”

Let us pray…
Gracious and welcoming God,
Thank you for hosting a banquet where all are invited and all are fed.
Thank you for your boundless compassion, mercy and love, shown by Your Son Jesus.
Forgive us when we turn in on ourselves and seek our own gains, disregarding the others around us.
By Your Holy Spirit, give us courage to speak up for the poor and dispossessed and to extend a divine welcome to all whom we meet.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Location 1138). Kindle Edition.
[ii] Malina and Rohrbaugh. Kindle Location 6218.
[iii] Malina and Rohrbaugh. Kindle Location 6234.
[iv] Malina and Rohrbaugh. Kindle Locations 6185-6186.
[v] Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Lectionary 21C/ Proper 16

Luke 13:10-17

In today’s gospel the synagogue leader insists that honoring the law of sabbath-keeping is more important than caring for a hurting person in their midst, that healing and an end to long suffering can wait one more day.

And then Jesus addresses not only the leader but the whole crowd who had been listening to his teaching, calling them all hypocrites and showing them how they routinely extend more mercy to their livestock than they are offering to the woman he has healed.


It’s the second time in recent weeks, that Jesus calls the people around him “hypocrites.” And his rebuke stings whenever I hear it.

Imagine being in the audience and feeling the heat rise on your faces as Jesus speaks and you are caught in a completely human moment of wanting to do the “right” thing, the lawful thing, the God-fearing thing, and completely missing the God-loving thing.

Now imagine being the woman at the center of the gospel story. Luke doesn’t tell us a lot about her; she’s introduced as “a woman who was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” (v. 11)

Unlike some of the women who appear in his gospel, we don’t learn her name; we only hear Jesus refer to her as a daughter of Abraham.

We don’t know her age either; I think we often assume she’s an old woman because she is described as being bent over and “crippled for eighteen years” (v. 11) and we imagine someone whose spine has been curved by disease or who suffers from muscle weakness and cannot hold their head up. But it’s possible she was a young woman who suffered since childhood or even infancy.

Without any other description, we have to imagine her appearance. When you are bent over in pain or doubled over by illness, you cannot breathe deeply or stretch your cramped muscles. When you can’t stand up straight, you cannot look another person in the eye or gaze up at a bright blue sky or starry night; your view of the world is limited to what you can see from your waist or abdomen.

She appears at the synagogue when Jesus is teaching, but we don’t know if she was a regular worshiper or if her appearance is rare – maybe she only came that day because she had heard about the miracles that Jesus had done. I think we assume she wouldn’t have been at synagogue frequently because of the stigma one carried when it was believed they were afflicted by an evil spirit; the Jewish laws about ritual cleanliness likely would have forced her into isolation.

But Luke doesn’t say her appearance unsettled the people in the synagogue. Perhaps she had become such a familiar sight that she had faded into the background of the community’s life, becoming invisible to the people around her.

But Jesus, Jesus sees her, he calls her and he heals her.

As much as Jesus’ rebuke stings, I don’t think it was mean-spirited name calling and I don’t think he was wrong. Jesus was calling the people
to live into the whole fullness of their lives with God,
to be vulnerable before God and others, and
to experience God’s healing.


In modern life, hypocrites are people whose actions contradict their words, but more plainly, the Greek word means “performers” or “mask wearers”.

Jesus called the people out because they were wearing masks, pretending to understand and follow the commandments or the Torah, but forgetting his teaching that the greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

Like the people in the crowd that day, many of us wear masks out in the world. We put on the mask of a faithful worshiper but struggle beyond those red doors in our daily lives. We pick and choose which scenes of our lives we will share, like actors on a set.

The woman in the gospel couldn’t hide her affliction. Stigma exists around many modern illnesses including depression, anxiety and addiction. Often discussions about money remain taboo as well and financial stress is hidden. We are quick to answer, “How are you?” with only the most cheerful highlights and hide our burdens from the people in our lives.

The Good News is that God sees us and loves us as we are, without any masks – nothing in our lives is hidden or concealed from God – and God promises healing and restoration.
So, what keeps you bent over?
What weight or burden do you carry?
Is it visible to others, or do you keep it hidden from view?

Luke tells us that Jesus heals the woman, and, “she stood up straight and began praising God.”(v. 13)

As we imagine being the woman in this story, I wonder too what her praise looked and sounded like. It wasn’t muted thanks, whispered softly. Was it shouted hallelujahs, singing or dancing?

We also don’t know what she did when she left the synagogue. Was she like the Gerasene man who went about the city proclaiming what God had done for him. (Luke 8) Or the Samaritan woman at the well who told everyone that Jesus had known everything about her. (John 4)

There’s so much we don’t know about this woman and her story, but she shows us that we are invited into life with God, with each other and with the world and God is active in our lives, seeing us and all that we carry, and helping us live our lives fully. Whatever afflicts us, whatever weighs us down, we are invited to claim our freedom and release and celebrate the grace and peace that God gives us.

Let us pray.
Holy God,
We give you thanks for the presence of Your Son Jesus who sees us and knows us by name.
Relieve our burdens and take away our masks that we may live fully as Your beloved children,
transformed by your grace in our lives.
Help us see the people around us who are vulnerable and give us compassion to love them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.