Sunday, September 29, 2013

a parable of separation, not heaven and hell

A parable of separation 092913
Think back to that psalm today.  Isn’t it beautiful?
I imagine the rich man in today’s story would have thought it lovely….protected, cared for etc…I am soooo blessed
I imagine the beggar Lazarus would have thought it a joke.  Where’s my protection and care?  Seems like I’m cursed.
It seems unfair, doesn’t it.
Yet in Jesus’ day fairness wouldn’t have entered into the picture.  As Jesus began to tell the story…..a rich man….and a beggar….his listeners would have been nodding their heads, and said, yeah that’s the way it is….this rich man is wealthy therefore he’s been favoured by God, he’s a good guy, and the poor guy – well, he must be a sinner, because the poor are cursed.   It says so in scripture.  It’s right there in Deuteronomy
And that’s just how life was then; in Jesus’ day there was no ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’, or making money as a rung on the social class ladder.  The chasm, the gap, was already permanent in everyone’s eyes.  But the story doesn’t end there, for God’s eyes see differently.
So Jesus continues…the rich man dies and is stuck in the place of the dead, and the beggar ends up ‘gathered to his ancestors’. 
(BTW this is not a cinematic preview about heaven and hell—later centuries read that into the story to suit the church’s own purposes but that’s another sermon—it’s about separation, even among the people of God—a parable set in the context of Jewish faith, but addressed to early Christians to challenge their and now maybe our, assumptions also)
This is a shocking reversal of expectations, challenge to assumptions, it would have been even antagonistic to cultural mores of Jesus’ listeners.   You mean I can’t appeal to my religious heritage?  that traditional beliefs are wrong?   What about where it says in the Bible….you know, Moses and the prophets and all that.
Well, yes, if you pick and choose how you live out the beliefs and the scriptures.  The common interpretation of scripture that the rich are those blessed by God and the poor those who are cursed, is set on its tail by Jesus.  The whole idea of who’s in and who’s out is up for grabs.
It’s another kin-dom parable that takes what we think scripture says, and the ways we interpret it, and exposes it for the self- and social-preservation tool we’ve made it.   Jesus, if we look back a few verses, tells this story as response to the Pharisees, the good religious folk just like us, who objected to his last parable about the dishonest steward.*remember how that went over last week?)
We can find just about anything we want in scripture; I do it just by standing here speaking!
And Jesus keeps changing the interpretation in front of our eyes. For God’s eyes see differently.
 With this story Jesus turns scripture upside down and makes them remember OTHER sacred texts about caring for the poor lifting then up in fact---Jesus comes down on the side of the ‘cursed’.  Wow.
Is it that different today?  What we have in the way of wealth, or possessions, or don’t have, defines us in our own eyes, in the eyes of others and society in general.  The gaps aren’t just financial, but when they are, they become geographic as they did in this parable….. Our possessions affect our sight so that we don’t really have to see the beggar at our gate; we separate ourselves into nicer communities.  And when we do come across a Lazarus, how well do we see?
Nate story/Linda’s story
I wish I had really seen HIM, the person…it was a missed opportunity to practice love and noticing
And for both of us it was too late.  The distinctions we make are the ever-widening chasm that separates God’s children—between rich and poor, but also within the church as well as between  classes, and even, God forgive us, between faiths.
It seems like a sad and damning story. Is there no hope?  Well, although our bible story ends there, there is ‘the rest of the story’ that happens now, as we hear it today, in our divided, intentionally separated world.
God’s eyes see differently—scripture is full of a God who sees, who feels compassion, and who acts.  God has more hope, more grace, more bridgebuilding capability than father Abraham, who thought nothing, not even a miracle of resurrection, would make any difference. 
Because we have Jesus, a resurrected from the dead witness to that dramatic alternative vision of God’s.  Don’t we?
It makes a difference to us that Jesus was raised from the dead, and we become the messengers the rich man longed for, the carriers of drops of water across the gap, the feeders of those who’d love crumbs from our sumptuous feasts…..   But do we?
Remember how the U.S. and 188 other countries set Millenium Goals?   One was to eradicate extreme poverty by 2015—that’s coming up pretty fast.  There’s a lot of chasm crossing still to do.
There is some good news….In the last 20 yrs child mortality has dropped almost by half—some of God’s people are crossing the chasm one small act at a time.  But still, every 4 seconds someone dies of starvation.  For an awful lot of us, the resurrection of Jesus hasn’t changed us one whit; the grace and compassion of God we take for granted for ourselves alone…we have failed to see our sisters and brothers in God’s family across the chasm or outside the gate, so we have failed to enter into community with them and chosen to remain in isolation.
God asks us, do you see what I see?  Do you see your own abundance?  Your isolation?
Do you see the beggar, let alone his sores or the dogs’ saliva?
Do you see the chasm, the separation—do you see it as permanent and preferred duality?  Or an opportunity for bridge-building?
The cross, and the empty tomb, offer us a bridge, excuse the pun, to cross over……to bring a message to those who need to hear of Moses and the prophets and Jesus, the word of hope, and who can bring water, literally and spiritually, to a thirsty world.
I believe that the God of scripture who sees the gap, feels the separation, and acts to bring relief and reconciliation, also seeks to close the gap that seems so permanent to our biased eyes. 
Will we take up the challenge?  Will we see as God sees, and act on it?  Can we see with the eyes of God, the eyes of compassion?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

this is a parable of the kin-dom?

A parable of the kin-dom? 092213
Luke 16:1-13

This is probably one of the most outrageous parables Jesus tells!  And it falls on my Sunday!  All week, with everyone who talked about it, it evoked high energy and criticism!
So, I thought, this would be a good Sunday for a hymn sing.
Then I discovered that Theva has lots of thoughts on this text…let him preach.   That didn’t work either.
Every time this story comes around, people are appalled that dishonesty could be commended by Jesus.
Now any time a text evokes such energy in me, I have to ask why?  And I don’t usually like the answer, so I warn you now, this isn’t just a tough text for the preacher….
I am not going to deal with the last few verses, which are probably later additions that try to give some palatable ethical wisdom, but just with the parable, one of a series Luke strings together.  The one just before is commonly called the Prodigal Son,  and the one after (tune in next week) about a rich man and a poor man…..all three have to do with wealth, money – another reason maybe we don’t like the story, cos preachers aren’t supposed to talk about money! That’s messin’ with the sacred cow.

So back to the energy evoked by the parable, and what it raises for my life…..first,it confronts me with how two-faced I am.
Robin Hood is also a story about ill=gotten wealth.  But he’s a folk hero.   The CIA, the FBI, the NSA - maybe even the UMC all have questionable tactics, but we don’t get upset with them cos they’re supposedly on our side.  We turn a blind eye to all sorts of dishonesties, then get offended by this parable.    Wall Street bigwigs line their own pockets and get away with it.  In fact, this servant in the story might be called Bernie Madoff!

You see, we cannot stand outside any of Jesus’ parables.  We’re invited in to see what this story evokes deep within us, how it holds up a mirror for us.  And rather than ‘explain’ the parable, I invited myself, and now you, into its mystery….to ask questions that may not have answers, but which may raise more questions and thus challenge our faith journey, maybe even deepen it.  That’s all I’m going to do…ask questions, and give you some pause for thought.
First, some questions from the servant’s behavior…..although there is no mention of proof that he was in fact lining his own pockets at the householder’s expense, he doesn’t bother to deny it or justify it. Are there areas in my life where God is confronting me with a sin? With some misuse of God’s resources? …….think about it....
as in much of life today, reciprocal hospitality was the order of the day: you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.  Do we only deal with people and situations who can do us a favor back?  Are we concerned only with what we can get out of something?.......think about it......
the servant’s next move is to give serious thought to his situation, and moves quickly to turn a bad situation into one that is better for everyone.   Wait a minute, better for everyone?   Yes.  The debtors get a deal, he gets security, and the business owner looks good.  How?  Because in an honor/shame based society, 1. Cheating should have ended with the servant being imprisoned, so we learn the owner is merciful, and 2. When the owner doesn’t challenge this second cheating,  his reputation as noble and generous goes up--the debtors are grateful for the apparent generosity of the owner.   So the question for my faith journey becomes, how do I reflect the owner of my resources, the one I serve?  Do I, do we as a congregation, reflect the mercy and generosity of God?  Does my behavior damage or enhance the reputation of our ‘master’?   
Christianity isn't much of a reflection and so gets a bad rap these days—even the pope finally figured out why.  Because we’ve become a religion, and no longer a movement of Jesus followers. In the kin-dom of God, mercy is trumps.  And we don’t like it.
While we’re busy condemning the servant for bad behavior, the owner can even see something good in this cheat.  Could it be that God’s economics are about radical and ridiculous generosity rather than accumulation for self?.....think about it.....

And this condemning I do of the cheat…. I have to ask myself, who do I treat as if they had no redemptive value?   Are there people I can see no good in, and rebel against the idea that God sees people differently? .....
I wonder if this isn’t one of those situations when wisdom comes from an unwelcome direction…..even what one writer I read this week calls a “tainted source”. The frightening thing about this story is that whether the end result is “fair” or not is  irrelevant...if entry into the kin-dom of God was based on worth, who’d get in?......
It is a fact of faith life, mine anyway, that the people I least affirm are the ones who most challenge my image of God and the kin-dom. I am always having to re=think who God loves.
 That’s more than enough questions for our souls this week.  Here’s a couple of conclusions I’ve come to—you can work on your own this week!.
the shrewdness commended by the owner confronts the disciples, the children of light Luke calls us, the pious and prayerful who look like followers of, with this:
 the world is pretty shrewd, you need to be as well. Even the street smart understand forgiveness and grace, so must you.
 It might not be the ‘right thing’ the servant does in this story, but the moral thing is to serve the poor, lift the burdens of those deep in debt or in sin (isn’t that the Jesus way?)
      be generous where it is in your power,                                                                    use what you have to bring about the desired goal of the kin-dom

I read some stats this week: most americans have no savings for old age; 49% of American children live below the poverty line, and many elderly have to make regular choices between food and rent.
What are we doing about that?  Our resources aren’t just money; we also have voting power, voices to raise for justice, hands that can write letters, bodies that can prepare and share meals for the deeply burdened.
While we, the children of light of the text, the pious and the prayerful, are appalled at the book-keeping issues, God is busy commending the reckless, radical rogue.  

We have so tamed Jesus into OUR image, that we’ve forgotten how outrageous he was, and is.
In one web resource this week, I was hit by the idea that the servant here is a Christ figure:
The unjust steward is a Christ-figure because he is a rogue, a rebrobate like Jesus (who shows us that) grace doesn’t come to the world through respectability.  Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it has no truck with the grace that works by death and losing.  Jesus was not respectable.  He broke the rules, consorted with villains and outcasts, and died as a criminal.  By refusing to be respectable, Jesus catches those who are condemned by the respectable.  He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead…..You don’t like that? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order?   Of course it does….that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus.
Wow.  And ouch.
 Think about it....

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Mystery in the sacred stories (Theva)

       Grace and peace are already ours for we belong to the family of Jesus the Christ. A description that I like best about the bible: it is a book of sacred stories. We will consider briefly three stories from Luke Ch.15 and examine its mystery. What is a mystery? According to Webster dictionary, a mystery is something incomprehensible by nature. Any event concealed or unexplained, if it evokes excitement, awe and curiosity, it is a mystery. We have seen mystery movies. We have read mystery novels. We have enjoyed mystery meals. We have received mystery gifts. I am asking you today as to why we can’t conceive God as a mystery. Whenever I receive an e-mail from your Pastor she would say at the end, “may the force be with you”. I thought about that expression many times ever since I came to Fairport. We have been conditioned to think of God in an anthropomorphic way; God as a caring, loving and a giving person. Here is a reference to a saint and a sage from the Indian subcontinent by the name Tagore who conceives God as a mystery. Tagore received the Nobel Prize for English literature about 65 years ago.
 He said when the leaf smiles it becomes a flower and when the flower worships it becomes a fruit. Tagore didn’t need the botanical terms of germination and cross pollination to explain how God is at work. Another well-known mystery novelist of our time was Agatha Christy, who wrote some great stories on British crimes and she died about 50 years ago. Her second husband was an archeologist by the name Sir Lord Mallowan.  When someone asked her what it was like being married to an archeologist she responded “it’s wonderful for the older I get the more interested he is in me”.
      In the story of the shepherd and his flock of 100 sheep, after the whole day of wandering the valleys and the mountains suddenly he realized there was a missing sheep. So he took a big risk left behind the 99 and ran tirelessly and searched in every nook and cranny. On finding the staggering and the stranded sheep, he celebrated the event with a party. What a mystery it is for a shepherd risking his life and searching for a dumb sheep. Sheep by nature are prone to get lost no matter where they are. And so are we. The Psalmist says (Psalm 8) we are made a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor. What has happened to our glorious status? Perhaps day by day and year by year we are losing it. Have we made our marvelous world a mess? The number of homicides and genocides and suicides are ever on the increase. When I go to bed in the night I hope and pray that a war will not erupt in the morrow.
 Whether Iran or Syria, what affects one country in the world affects all of us. Our population of this country is only about 3% of that of the entire world. It is a very insignificant number in proportion. The prison population however is about 20% of the prison population of the entire world. And that number is incredible. Friends! Human beings no matter where they are have a tendency to get lost all the time. I have already said God is a mystery and now I say any search, especially God’s search for the lost is a mystery.
        Dr. Luke in this story is inviting my attention to appreciate a smelly shepherded. This shepherd has a divine loving nature. This shepherd did not belong to the cream of the society in Israel. His name never appeared on the headlines of the Jerusalem post. He was a marginalized working class poor man. What stands out of this shepherd is that he never gave up on searching for a lost sheep.
          Twenty years ago I watched a TV interview between Barbra Walters and Maya Angelo. At some point in the interview Barbra asked that nationally known poet and Professor: Aren’t you a Christian? And she replied “I’m taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is “Already”? It seems to me a lifelong endeavor to try to live the life of a Christian. It is in the search itself that one find ecstasy”. Any search is a mystery.
         Now in the story of the woman, her loss could be a piece of jewelry from a necklace that her husband gave her at marriage. In that culture the loss of that coin was significant enough to feel one’s demoralization. In her case her dignity and her worth are all under question now. She needs to find that coin as soon as possible. In order to regain respectability she must wear that necklace again. So she sweeps the house, lights the lamp and dispels the darkness. On finding that missing piece she invites the whole community for a party. As a second class human being in that ancient patriarchal Jewish society this celebration is important to her for with that lost coin she has gone through shame and humiliation.
       The prodigal son’s story is the third one in this chapter. Friends in all the three stories there is a reference to joy in heaven or joy in the presence of the angels of the Lord over the repentant sinner. After four decades of studying and reflecting on the words of the gospels and the teachings of Jesus I can tell you now, Jesus came not to tell us who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, but rather to open us to the possibilities of experiencing the abundant life here on earth. We are earthly bound human beings but we seem to have a heavenly bound focus. There is a hymn by Fredrick Faber which should bring home my point. There is wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there is a kindness of God’s justice which is more than liberty. (No.121)
Someone said that one of the most tragic sentences in English literature is that they lived happily ever after. I started my message with a reference to an Indian poet Tagore and I want to conclude this with a reference to an Indian born English poet. In the last verse of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Prodigal Son”, the younger son leaves home again with utter disappointment. And listen to the words of the poet:
 “I am leaving Pater. Good bye to you!
  God bless you mother, I will write to you..
  I wouldn’t be impolite to you,
  but, Brother, you are a hound!” Amen!

Monday, September 09, 2013

Counting the Cost

Counting the cost 090813
Psalm 139; Luke 14:25-33
Tough text—large crowd following: can you imagine what happened to the size of that crowd after he says this!  Fear of preaching this—it’s uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine Jesus asking this of us.  Even if it’s hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point), it’s still shocking to me. And after all, as it says in a book called “Under the Overpass” by Mike Yankowski: “regular church attenders come to worship to feel good, not be hit with the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, the threatening.”
Leads me to ask tough questions:  take up? Turn my back on? give up? It’s not Lent is it?                                                                Which in turn leads me to a tough observation: Today’s Church offers cheap grace.  We have lulled ourselves into a nice religion called Christianity, and long forgotten radical discipleship as a way of life.  Part of my task on our DCOM is to read papers of young applicants for ordained ministry.   This week I read one who said, I wonder if Christians really want to be disciples? Discipleship can be dangerous and dirty and full of rejection.                                                                     Many of us will remember Bonhoeffer’s book “Cost of Discipleship” where he used the metaphor of grace sold at the public market, where consumers  get something that doesn’t cost them much.  And cheap grace leads to a cheap Jesus. Ouch.
Brings me back to the tough text: cost of following Jesus. Clearly although God’s grace is absolutely free, living it out, which is what we’re called to do once we have that grace, isn’t cheap.  It costs us, just like it cost Jesus.  It wasn’t cheap for him to heal and suffer, to confront the systems of power that distort the faith, to live out of a deep spirituality, to love so much he’d “carry another’s burden of sin and forgive” (Preaching Peace website)—and he calls us to do the same!    That’s what it means to live the way of Jesus: to give up, to let go, to turn things around.  In a world of instant gratification Jesus asks for sacrifice?  Yes why not?   many of us are already sacrificing:      we give up weekends for travel soccer,                                                 sacrifice church for football tryouts,                                                                      forget family time for career climbing                                                                    give up relationships for income.  
Why?  Because they’re important to us.  We sacrifice according to our priorities.                                                                                                           Christian discipleship calls for the same.                                                               Like anything else worth doing, the abundant meaningful life of discipleship takes time, commitment, energy, yes, sacrifice.  We’re called to give it our best, our all.                                                                                                                           Jesus asks us this morning to look at the big picture of our life-family, work, finances, time management.                                                                                       And it has to lead to changed priorities  - the                                                               reason for our priorities is meaning—if it’s important to us, we will make sacrifices
Way of Jesus also costs like other priorities because it also offers meaning, depth, as some of us have indeed found:                                                                                 the cost it takes to be here while an unsupportive family stays home and laughs at you, because the depth of community support sustains us, or                                                                                                                                the cost of bringing unwilling teenagers to church and youth programming because we want them to have a chance to become more whole, well rounded adults                    the sacrifice it is to be involved with time-taking ministries, 
the day by day deepening of our prayer lives to sustain us on this tough way.                                                                                  
 If it’s meaningful, it becomes a priority, and it costs. So Jesus asks, and expects, greater things of me: cut loose, and find your true self, your ID, as a follower, an apprentice, of the Jesus way.  That’s our true identity and calling.  The way of Jesus, bringing about the kin-dom of God here and now, has to be THE priority that affects all the others—like our wheel image.   The Way isn’t just one spoke, it’s the axle that turns them all.
And it’s a way, not a location, it’s a process not a place.  We’re called to be disciples/student followers/apprentices in a way of living, a life of following – continuous present participles
…following something more radical, more meaningful, more whole-making, more intentional, than anything else we can do, so that it will impact and deepen everything else we can do
So what:  choose next step— Next steps on the journey may be different for each of us.  This tough text tells us that only honest self-examination, or family examination, or budget or calendar examination, will move us forward even one step.
                      ask yourself some (or even just one) of the tough questions.                      What priority inspires all the others?
what do I need to give up,                                                        
 or take up,                                                                                   
or turn my back on                                                                             
 in order to reorder my priorities into God’s way?                           
And what if WE, fumc, asked those questions of each team, each ministry? How might we move from a place of cheap grace to full life as disciples?
Do I have what it takes? No.  Do you?  No, but together, with each other, together with the God of psalm 139 who knows us inside out and outside in, who loves us and calls us into the depth and height of full abundant life, yes we can!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Social Holiness Team comments on Syrian conflict

From our Annual Conference Social Holiness Team
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9, NRSV)
The Social Holiness Team is tasked by the annual conference with guiding churches and members as they seek to live out the Social Principles in their everyday lives.
We are greatly concerned with the escalating violence in Syria and urge our government, working alongside the international community, to redouble its diplomatic efforts to bring an end to this conflict. Peacemaking is hard work, requiring great effort and resolve. Obstacles intervene, persistence and compromise are needed. We hope and pray that this work will continue in earnest.
There are allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against their own citizens. We abhor the use of chemical weapons by any party, in any circumstance. In response to these attacks, the United States is considering military intervention as a possible next step, with or without support from the international community.
Our Social Principles, found in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, affirm our belief that “war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” They go on to state that “the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.” (Book of Discipline, ¶165C)
We strongly urge our government to refrain from military action in Syria and redouble their diplomatic efforts, in partnership with our allies in the region and around the world. Once we have entered the fray – once lives have been lost as a result of direct American military action – we will be drawn inextricably further into the conflict and our menu of diplomatic options will narrow sharply. Most of all, our intervention may move the conflict even further away from peaceful resolution and towards greater violence, chaos, and loss of life.
We ask the churches and members of the Upper New York Annual conference to make their voices heard on this pressing issue. Contact the President ( or (202) 456-1111) and your members of Congress (, Senator Gillibrand at (202) 224-4451, Senator Schumer at (202) 224-6542) and urge them to press ahead with diplomacy and not engage militarily in the conflict in Syria. Let us be peacemakers.