Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Blessed Christmas to All - Christmas Eve 2010 - Luke 2:1-3

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their towns to be registered.  (Lk. 2:1-3)
In a particular time, at a particular place, under the rule of a particular monarch, the following event took place: a census, a registration.  It was decreed, says Luke, and, in one very curt and short sentence we are told that all went to their towns to be registered.  All went, all did what they were told to do, no questions asked.  The dictator speaks and the people respond.  They had better, for things sometimes go badly for those who don’t follow orders.  It seems to me that we 21st century Christians too often tend to read these opening verses as a kind of introduction to the “real” story that comes later – the part about the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph.  But this evening I would like to focus on these first three verses because I think they are key to our understanding the story of Christmas.  These 3 verses not only set the Christmas story in a very specific historical time, but they also set the context.  And that context is darkness – deep darkness, to use the phrase from Isaiah – that context is oppression, domination and violence; that context is Pax Romana, the peace of Rome which is achieved and enforced with brutal efficiency.
Octavian Caesar Augustus – Emperor of the mighty Roman empire, oppressor of Israel – voted by the Roman Senate to divine status – so he was considered son of god, the lord, the king of kings, lord of lords and prince of peace; this lord had ordered a census because he wanted to know how many people are in his realm, who they are, where they live, how much do they earn, how much tax can they pay, what do they do and who among them might be conscripted to serve in the Roman army.
Contrary to the popular notion, this was no quiet, gentle night in Bethlehem.  This was a harsh night – a village bursting with unhappy people who had been forced to submit to the Roman census against their wills; a people who desperately hated the Romans and wanted them out of Palastine once and for all; and people who had become accustomed to official violence as an administrative technique.  Into this environment arrive a young man and his even younger very pregnant wife who too had been forced to travel against their wills to a village far from their own homes.  As we approach the manger on this Christmas night we are invited to open our eyes and ears and hearts so that we can hear a story that is ultimately not about shepherds or angels or animals or mangers – but is rather a story about darkness; a story about human sinfulness, human self-centeredness and a story about a God who loves us so much that rather than see us destroy ourselves this God chooses to intervene.  But not with thunder and lightning, or with power and might – but our God chooses to intervene by being born as a human child to a poor teenage mother who is in a strange and hostile place after having traveled by donkey several days to get there, even though she was 8 to 9 months pregnant, all because the oppressor wants to find out about her husband Joseph and allows no exceptions.  
Arriving finally in crowded and unhappy Bethlehem, Mary had probably already started having labor pains and so she and Joseph searched fruitlessly for a place for her to give birth and a place for them to rest.  Finally they settle into a cave located in the foothills that surround Bethlehem.  The local farmers and shepherds used these caves as a place to shelter their animals.  It is there that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, attended by Joseph and a few animals.  All of these events, Luke tells us, take place under the thumb of the divine Caesar, known as the August One – the great lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace, the savior, god incarnate – or so he was proclaimed; this ruler who possessed all power and might and strength.
Isn’t it curious then that the next thing that happens in this amazing story is that God’s messengers appear to a group of outcasts, society's losers, the despised shepherds and tell them that if they really want to see God incarnate, if they really want to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, if they really want to see God, then they should go, look for and find a particular, dirty, smelly cave and look inside it for a small, weak, helpless infant laying in a feed troth.  There in that manger they will find the true Savior, the Messiah – the true Lord of Lords, King of Kings and Prince of Peace – there in that infant is God incarnate.  In the midst of the squalor, surrounded by the weak and powerless, surrounded by the suffering and the lonely, the hungry and abused, surrounded by ordinary sinful human beings – there is God incarnate – there is God’s Son.  What a contrast – Caesar and Jesus.  It is not an accident that Luke has set up this contrast between the temporal powers of Caesar who brings peace and security through violence; and who brings oppression in the name of justice – with God, incarnate in Jesus who brings true peace, shalom, well-being through weakness and openness and love and grace.  As he narrates this story Luke is looking all of us in the eye asking us a simple question – where do you stand this night?  Do you stand at the altar of Caesar or beside the manger of Jesus?  Where is your ultimate trust placed – in the power and glory of Caesar or in the weakness and love of Jesus? 
The hopes and fears of all the years are met and addressed and absorbed – not by Caesar, not even by the angels – but inside that cave in the silence and the darkness by the infant Jesus.  Our Christmas hope is not in jingle bells or holly or mistletoe or Santa – our Christmas hope is in a God who loves us so much that he enters our world in order to enter into the experience of being human; a God who enters into suffering and joy, pain and misery; a God who is born into a world of darkness and oppression and violence; a God who alone brings peace and wholeness and freedom and grace and love – to all.
Many years ago Professor Lynn Harold Hough was riding on a train reading Greek tragedies and as he read he came across the story of a god who fell in love with a maiden and came to earth to visit her.  But the god found that she had been in an accident and was lying besides the road in a pool of blood.  The god was repulsed at the sight of blood and immediately winged his way back to Mt. Olympus where he could contemplate the human condition at a safe distance.  Here was a god who was afraid of human suffering.  Professor Hough, writing about this many years later, said that as he looked out of the train window watching the telephone poles pass he couldn't help but  notice that they were in the form of crosses and he was struck by the contrast: between tthe contrast he story of the god who is afraid of the human experience and all that it entails including suffering and death, and the story of our God who enters into the depth of the human experience which includes suffering and death. 
The 2nd verse of one of my favorite Christmas Carols goes like this: Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.  Our God is not afraid of human suffering, he’s been there; our God is not afraid of blood, he’s shed some himself – for us.
This is what the Christmas story is about – God comes to us, is born into our world and will die on a cross for us so that he might defeat these powers of death and darkness through his rising again on Easter.  The proclamation of Christmas – For unto you is born this day… a Savior who is Christ the Lord – and the Word is made flesh and dwells among us!  - This proclamation reaches its climax and completion on the cross of Good Friday and in the empty tomb of Easter.  I hope and pray that in the midst of all of the hustle and bustle of Christmas tonight and tomorrow each of you will take a moment to pause besides your crèche and look at the baby Jesus laying in the manger and remember it is for you that Christ is come, for whom he dies and for whom he is raised.
This is the Jesus from my crèche – notice something – it is shaped like a cross.  This is the gift of Christmas!  Have a blessed Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advent IV – Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine – Sermon Thoughts on Matthew 1:18-25

Read the text - here: Matthew 1:18-25

Advent IV – Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine – Sermon Thoughts on Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph lieber, Joseph mein, Hilf mir wiegen mein Kindelein
Joseph dearest, Joseph mine, help me cradle this child of mine….
To Listen to a beautiful setting and performance of this carol by Quire Cleveland click....

            Some of us might recognize this old German carol.  It is one of the few carols that actually name Mary’s husband Joseph, but don’t let that fool you.  The carol is ultimately not about Joseph.  After the first two verses Joseph disappears like he always does (the first two verses are a dialog between Mary and Joseph).  Joseph is perhaps the most neglected character in the traditional crèche.  Every Christmas we celebrate Mary and the shepherds and the angels and the wise men and through it all Joseph is the silent character who sits quietly, out of the way, besides the crèche. 

            This is because the story of Christmas we hear told year after year is taken primarily from the Gospel of St. Luke (with the 3 wise men from Matthew 2 added for good measure).  And in Luke, Joseph is a peripheral character.  But the Gospel of St. Matthew is different.  For Matthew Joseph is the central character, and Mary is the secondary character.  Matthew has spent the first 17 verses of chapter one establishing Jesus’ linage to Father Abraham and King David – through Joseph. And then the birth narrative itself is all about Joseph as are the episodes following the birth where Joseph has a series of dreams that inspire him to act to protect the baby Jesus by travelling to Egypt. 

            So what do we know about Joseph from the few verses that appear in Matthew and Luke about him.  The information is sparse, but what is there is important:
1.     Joseph is a carpenter (making farm equipment) and is originally from Bethlehem.
2.     Joseph is of the house of Jesse – which makes him a relative of King David and of course of Father Abraham.
3.     Joseph is probably older than Mary by at least 10 years.  It was highly unusual for working class men to marry girls their own age.  (Mary is probably between 12 and 14).
4.     Joseph begins the narrative engaged or betrothed to Mary.  This tells us that Joseph was a devout 1st century Jew who followed the laws and traditions of his faith.  The betrothal period was one year, during which time the bride lived with her parents while they finished assembling the dowry.  During this time the couple was technically married, but not permitted to be alone together – no physical intimacy between them would have been allowed. 
5.     Joseph is a righteous man.  When Mary turns up pregnant he resolves to do the right thing and put her away quietly.  This could have been a fatal condition for Mary. 
6.     Joseph is open to God’s direction.  Joseph has a series of dreams that reveal some of what God is up to, and despite the counter-cultural, counter-traditional nature of the instructions, Joseph does not question the Holy Spirit and acts in each case as he is instructed.  This is really the key to understanding Joseph.  Joseph is willing to act as he is led by the spirit – without fanfare and without anguish.

Finally note that in Matthew, Joseph names the baby Jesus – which in Hebrew is Joshua and which means “God Saves.”  And in case the choice of the name prompts the question – “how does God save?”  Matthew has an answer for that as well – “He shall be called Immanuel – God with us!”  God saves through God’s presence, by entering into the darkness of human experience and bringing the light of God’s love and grace into the darkness.  And this is a deep darkness indeed – go on and read the 2nd chapter of Matthew - (click here for Matthew 2)  and what do we find there – political intrigue, deceit, murder, suffering, pain, grief – deep darkness!  It is into this darkness that the baby Jesus Immanuel is born. 

The words of the refrain the carol mentioned above are as follows:
He came among us at Christmastide, at Christmastide, in Bethlehem.
Men shall bring Him from far and wide Love’s diadem:
Jesus, Jesus, Lo, he comes and love and saves and frees us!

Amen – Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent II - Excuses, Excuses - St. Matthew 3:1-12

Take the opportunity to read the text - St. Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist is certainly a colorful kind of guy.  For some he was an embarrassment.  For others he was offensive and a threat.  But for everyone who heard him his message rang true: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near at hand.”
Repent! What does this word mean?  The Greek word that stands behind this English word is the word: metanoia – and it literally means to turn around and go in a different direction.  The English word itself comes from a French word – repense – which means to re-think.  John’s call to those who heard (and hear) his message is for them to look at their lives; to take stock of their relationships with God and with others and to re-think the priorities they have set, the choices they have made and they way they are in relationship with God; and then, aided by the Holy Spirit, to confess, receive absolution and to turn around and go in another direction. The essence of John’s teaching is this: The Kingdom of God is come into our midst, as a child of God you are a citizen of the Kingdom and you are called to act like one.  Do you?
No wonder Herodias wanted John’s head.  Who among us wants to hear that the priorities we have set and the choices we have made and the way we have chosen to live our lives is not responsible or responsive to our calling to be Children of God?  I don’t.  I am very comfortable, thank you very much, John!  I don’t want to re-think and I don’t want to go in any other directions from the one I am already on.  Besides, I have Abraham as my father, Christ as my savior, I have done all these wonderful things in the past and I am important?  Doesn’t all that count for something?!?
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our Father… God can raise children of Abraham from these very stones!” 
At the time of John and Jesus, one’s identity as a child of Abraham was very, very important.  Matthew even acknowledges this in the first verse of chapter 1 as he begins the Genealogy with the affirmation that Jesus was a Son of Abraham.  But then, we come to chapter 3 and John knocks that support away.  It doesn’t matter, says John.  Once we have become a follower of Christ, once we have become a citizen of the Kingdom then all of those things with which we prop ourselves up have lost their meaning.  What matters is how we act and how we respond to God’s call.
Advent is a time of waiting – we anticipate and wait for the remembrance of the birth of Christ at Christmas; and we anticipate and wait for that day when Christ will come again and bring the fullness of the Kingdom into being.  At the moment, the kingdom has come into our midst but it is incomplete and our call is to be about the work of the kingdom.  And the work of the kingdom consists of this: allowing the love and grace of Christ to flow through us.  We cannot do this on our own.  We need the help of the Holy Spirit to guide us and to open our hearts.  We need to repent – to re-think our relationships with God and others and then allow the Spirit to turn us around and move us in some new and different directions. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent I - Family Connections - St. Matthew 1:1-17

Advent is a time of waiting and a time of hope. During Advent we anticipate the birth of the Messiah, Jesus who is to be born at Christmas and bring the Kingdom of God into our midst. Advent is also a time when we look forward to that day when Christ will come again and bring the Kingdom of God into our midst in its fullness. But who is this Jesus? Where does he come from?

These are questions were very important to early Christian communities and for this reason Matthew begins his Gospel with the answers to these question by providing a genealogy. Now, the bible has lots of genealogies – especially the Old Testament (Luke includes one too, but in Luke it is like a footnote to the Baptism of Jesus – see Luke chapter 3). The book of 1st Chronicles, for example, begins with 9 long chapters of genealogy. These genealogies can be tedious, which anyone who has tried to read through even 1 of these 9 chapters in I Chronicles will affirm. But Matthew’s genealogy is different. For one thing he places it right at the beginning of the Gospel so that it serves as a kind of prologue. And like any good prologue this one includes some very important information, not only about who Jesus is and where he came from, but also it anticipates the ministry priorities of this Jesus who is the Messiah.

Take a moment to read through the text - St. Matthew 1:1-17

The first point – Jesus is descended from King David and King Solomon. So Jesus is from the House of David and consequently he is the authentic King of Israel. This is not a secondary issue. Remember, as we were reminded in our lesson from last week, that Jesus’ claim of Kingship is one of the charges that prompts Pilate to crucify Jesus. Any claim to Kingship is also a denial and an affront to the Roman Emperor – which was a capital offense. Jesus is truly the “King of the Jews.”

Second – Jesus is descended from Abraham, so he is fully Jewish. There have been in the history of Christianity, and there even continues today, to be misguided efforts to claim that Jesus is not really Jewish (going all the way back to Marcion in the 2nd & 3rd centuries). But Matthew will have none of it. Right in verse 1 of this Gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is a son of Abraham. Jesus is fully Jewish.

Third – Jesus is also descended from Gentiles and from people whose lives are not exactly models of faithfulness. There are five women listed in this genealogy (the 5th one is Mary). That in and of itself is unusual.  Does Matthew include Sarah, or Rachel or Hannah or one of those Old Testament women who are notable as begin faithful to God? No, those are not the women Matthew includes. The women we meet in this passage are: Tamar (verse 3), Rahab (verse 5), Ruth (verse 5) and Bathsheba (verse 6 – listed as “the wife of Uriah.) Who are these women? Tamar played the harlot with Judah is a seamy and sexy story found in Genesis 38; Rahab was the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies (Joshua 2); Ruth was a Gentile who seduced Boaz (all of Ruth); and Bathsheba was the married woman with whom David committed adultery and which also led him to murder her husband (II Samuel 11) - she was also a player in the bloody events which surrounded the succession of Solomon to the throne following David's death. All these women have sin and darkness in their pasts and all were forgiven and were followers of God (just like us!).   Not only that but two of them are Gentiles (Ruth and Rahab).

What does this mean? Jesus the Messiah is the King, who comes to us unlike any other King. He comes into the midst of a world of sin and darkness and he redeems it from within. Jesus, the Christ, is the Savior of the world – beginning with the Jews he reaches out to all peoples of all times and all backgrounds. For in Christ, as Paul says in Galatians – “There is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile)… slave nor free… male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

Finally this Prologue/Genealogy is a proclamation that in Christ, God is making a new beginning – a new Genesis. If it were a movie perhaps the Gospel of Matthew might be known as Genesis II. For in Christ we have a new start, a new beginning. Forgiveness and grace come into our midst and God, through Jesus, is now with us in a new and unique way. The Kingdom has come into our midst and we celebrate this and wait with hopeful expectation for that day when Christ will come and bring the Kingdom into our midst in its fullness. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Sacraments - Penance

Reflections from the Pastor – Pastor S. Blake Duncan
…and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ (St. Matthew 1:23b)
For the last few months I have used this space to discuss what it means that we are a Sacramental church.  Last month I discussed the central and formal Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Through Holy Baptism we are brought into community and become a part of God’s family and through regular (weekly) participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion we are fed, strengthened and nourished with God’s presence and empowered for our ministry in the world.  These two Sacraments are the foundation of our Christian life and ministry.  But the Roman Catholic Church holds traditionally to seven Sacraments, and this was the case during Luther’s time as well.  What about the other 5?
The seven traditional Sacraments of the church are: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance (or Confession and Absolution) and Extreme Unction (or Last Rites).  Now, I think it is important to understand exactly what Luther’s position on these is.  He did not throw them all out, as is sometimes assumed.  He re-defined or re-classified them.  Luther determined that a formal Sacrament of the church needed two things – the Word of God plus a natural Element.  The only two that fit this narrow definition are Baptism (Word + Water) and Holy Communion (Word + Bread & Wine).  Luther actually agonized over this because he wanted to keep Penance (Individual Confession and Absolution) but could not find a way to do it.  So he reluctantly re-classified it as a Sacramental action of the church, but one which he felt was very important and one which he wanted people to participate in on a regular basis.  This is why in the Small Catechism there is a section on Penance (Look in your copy at the very end – there is a section on “The Office of the Keys” and on “Confession.”).  We have gotten away from this.  In confirmation materials little to no time is spent on this part of the Catechism.  It is seen as “too Catholic,” by some or as something which is for many uncomfortable, to say the least.
This is unfortunate, for the opportunity to confess our Sin (and our sins) is a very important part of Christian discipline.  Mental health experts will tell you that we all tend to hold things in, to deny, to ignore to internalize and that this is very unhealthy.  Individual confession is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves, a chance for catharsis and an opportunity to come to grips with things in our lives.  It is also the opportunity to hear again the words of absolution – the promise of forgiveness.  Not in a cheap way that just shrugs and says ok, no problem you are forgiven.  But it is a word which takes seriously our failings and is the first step towards reconciliation and healing. 
Penance or Confession is a Sacramental action of the church, meaning that we experience God’s love and grace and presence through it.  Luther links Penance to Baptism.  The promise that is spoken in the words of absolution is the promise which is given to us as part of our Baptismal Covenant.  Which again is why Baptism is so important and why we regularly need to remember our Baptism.
I will not be scheduling times for Individual Confession and Absolution, however, an order for this is included in the Occasional Services book and it is available to anyone who feels a need for it.  It is also fully confidential. In the same way the other Sacramental actions of Marriage, Ordination, Confirmation and Last Rites are also available.  We do not consider them “Sacraments” but they are Sacramental in that they are all linked to Baptism and through each we experience God’s love and grace and presence.  Next month I will talk about the others, focusing on Last Rites.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Feast of All Saints – Luke 6:20-31 – Called to be a Saint

The Feast of All Saints – Luke 6 – Called to be a Saint
…and so with the church on earth, all creation and the host of heaven,
we praise your name and join their unending hymn…..

Those words, which are spoken each time we celebrate Holy Communion, prepare us for the celebration of the gift of the Sacrament by reminding us that we are joining with the Saints of the past and the Saints of the present at the heavenly Banquet table.  As we kneel at the rail we are there at table with the entire host of the Saints of every age.  What an amazing gift to us this is.  And like many of God’s gifts, this is one that is easy for us to loose sight of.
Think about it for a minute – who are your favorite saints?  One of the apostles, St. Paul, St. Francis, Martin Luther?  Or perhaps it is someone more recent – someone famous, or even someone who was important to you in your life as you grew and learned the faith – a parent or grandparent, a Sunday School teacher or pastor, a teacher or a coach.  Maybe this person is still alive, or maybe this person has joined the host of the Saints who now sit at the Lord’s banquet table.  But on this day – The Feast of All Saints – we have the opportunity to remember and honor the memory of these Saints; we have been given the gift of being able to celebrate the witness of the Saints of all ages who have impacted our lives in one way or another.
So then, what is a Saint?  Simply put, a Saint is a follower of Jesus.  That’s all.  We all know that, right?  We hear that repeated each year.  Perhaps the most popular All Saint’s children’s sermon is the one I used last year = kids, I am going to introduce you to a saint this morning and then you pull out the mirror and they see themselves.  Who me – yes you!  You are a Saint.  We sometimes think of Saints as being folks who lived only in the past, who had a special relationship with God, or who were particularly holy.  But this Festival reminds us that one does not need to be canonized in order to claim the title of Saint – we are all Saints.  And we stand with those Saints of all ages – those both who are well-known and those are not.  And with them we share these characteristics: we are all followers of Jesus, we have all been brought into God’s family through Baptism and we are all sinners who have been saved by God’s grace.  A Saint is a follower of Jesus.
That leads us then to the question of calling.  What is the calling of the Saints?  What is our calling?  Or in other words, to what tasks has God called us?  To answer this question we turn this morning to our Gospel text from St. Luke.


This is in many ways a hard reading.  It sounds a little familiar in places because it is a lot like the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, but it is different from Matthew.  Luke is particularly interested in the issues of poverty and wealth and power and weakness.  If you read through the Gospel of Luke you will find that this Gospel is constantly returning to this issue.  In Chapter 1, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth and when she gets there she sings a beautiful song – My Soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour….. eventually she sings these words: God has filled the hungry with things and sent the rich away empty, Gode has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.  Later in chapter 4, Jesus goes into the synagogue to preach his first sermon – the text he chooses is from the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. There are parables and any number of other teachings which also lift up this theme.
And then we come to this text with its blessings and woes.  These scripture texts are frankly uncomfortable, or they should be.  We live in what is probably the richest nation in the world in a world where the majority of the population lives in terrible poverty.  We cannot then just shrug off these words of Jesus, or spiritualize them.  These words are directed at us – the Saints.  So what is Jesus saying?  This teaching of Jesus is saying that God has special concern for those who struggle, for those who are poor, for those who are grieving, for those who are hungry, for those who are weak.  God holds those who are dispossessed in a special place in God’s heart.  And Luke also reminds us that those who take advantage of those who are struggling, those who benefit at the expense of others are only deepening their own alienation from God and others.
How does this then relate to our task as Saints; to our calling to follow Jesus?  This text from Luke provides a vision of ministry. Those who are Saints are called to find ways of reaching out to heal the rifts that divide people, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, to comfort those who mourn; in short, to be the presence of Christ in the midst of a needy world.  This is not as easy as it sounds, because sometimes it means standing up against powers and special interests.  There are many who benefit from human suffering and misery and from maintaining divisions among people.  We are called to oppose them, and to stand with those who suffer.  This is what it means to be a Saint.  This may seem overwhelming, too much for us to deal with – but this is our calling.
There is a Haitian proverb that essentially says that once you have climbed one mountain, there will be another mountain to climb, and another after that and another after that.  That life gives us a series of mountains to climb one after another.  In other words, once you overcome one hurdle there will be another and another. But that it is in these hurdles and in the task of dealing with them and overcoming them that one finds the presence of God.  God is found on the mountains as we endeavor to climb them.  You can count on it.  Whatever life puts in our way we can be assured that God is there in the midst of the experience, in the midst of the struggle.  And, returning to Luke, then as we struggle to find ways of bridging divides between peoples, of feeding, providing healing, comfort and so on – God is there with us.  And when we fail, when we give up or when we are tempted to put our own interests above those of the community, when we reject others – God is there to help us see and to forgive and give us the strength and wisdom to move forward.
So what is the calling of the Saints?  To live in a way that reflects God’s love and grace and care for the dispossessed; and to be the presence of Christ in the midst of a hurting and needy world.  To support ministries that accomplish this and always seek after finding new ways of reaching out and caring for others.
Finally, where are we Saints bound?  We are bound for the Banquet Table of our Lord – where we will sit with all the Saints of every age and feast at the table of the Lord.  And to encourage us along the way – God will give us a little preview this morning; a foretaste of the Feast to come!  So - Saints – come and feast at the table of the Lord!  And there receive the Spiritual nourishment that you will need to strengthen and empower you to accept your calling to live like a Saint!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reformation Sunday – “No Password Needed”

As our society has become more and more technologically based I have found that I am constantly being asked to create and remember new passwords. Almost everything we do online requires a password. We have passwords for our email accounts, bank accounts, credit card accounts, online stores and merchants, social networking sites and on and on. Now, if we could use one password for everything then it would be no problem, but we can’t. Each site has its own requirements and these requirements are placed there for good reason: in order to limit access, to us alone. So that no one else has access to our accounts, we then have to remember so many different and sometimes complex passwords and this is also why we may have to change them from time to time.

Of course the idea of a password as a digital key is relatively recent. But having special knowledge or even special status or completing a special action in order to limit access to something is not new at all. This has be a part of our history going to back to ancient times. And it is not just civic or personal management things to which these conditions are applied, they have also been applied to relationships and especially to our relationship with God. Stretching all the way back to Old Testament times we find that people have a hard time accepting the idea of God’s love and grace as being a free and unconditional gift with no passwords needed. So we find leaders like David and Solomon limiting access to God by requiring people to come to the Jerusalem temple, which itself is compartmentalized to provide different kind of access to different kinds of people. So, if you want to experience God’s presence you now have to go to the temple. The Gospels are also filled with conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of the day because Jesus keeps saying – No Passwords Needed. But the Pharisees keep pointing to this and that and eventually Jesus is crucified because he is not willing to go along with the need for limiting access to God. But as Jesus breathes his last breath, the veil of the temple is torn and in three days the tomb is empty. God again repeats loudly and clearly: No Passwords Needed!

In Luther’s time, the Medieval church also created limits to God’s presence, love and grace. You must do these works, act like this, think like this! Luther points to the Gospels and Paul and repeats – No Passwords Needed! God’s love and grace are free and unconditionally given to all. In our own time there are so many voices that would impose limits on access to God. We hear things like: If you are really a Christian, if you are really saved then – you will believe this, you will act like this, you will think like this, vote like this, hold these positions, only go to these churches, and on and on and on. Like the experience of being online, the number of passwords which are needed is limited only by one’s imagination. The Gospels make it clear that No Passwords are Needed when it comes to access to God! God’s love and grace and forgiveness and presence are available to all – without condition. And the call to follow in response (not as a condition) is itself a gift of grace.

So on this Reformation weekend we again are reminded by Luther that God’s love and grace is free and available to us all, without condition – No Passwords Needed!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"On God's Side" - Sermon for Proper 25C - Luke 18:9-14

If you wish to read the parable you can find it: HERE! St. Luke 18:9-14

On God’s Side
Charles arrived early for church on that rainy October Sunday morning.  He was always a little early for church.  He liked to be early.  He was committed to coming to worship and he was there every week, without fail.  He had been a member for a long time.  He and his wife had been married in this church, they raised their children in this church.  He had also been an active member, serving on council and participating in lots of other activities over the years.  Charles was a good man.  He strove to do what was right and to live a Christian life.  And so, on this rainy Sunday morning he and his wife slipped into their favorite pew to wait for the service to begin.
Zeke had also been a member for a number of years, but had not always been very regular in his worship attendance.  In fact, this particular Sunday was the first Sunday he had been in church for some time.  But on this day he felt compelled to come.  He was alone.  He and his wife were separated and he was now living alone.  His children were also grown, but he didn’t get along with them very well.  There was something else that was bothering Zeke on this Sunday morning.  He knew that come Monday he might be getting fired from his job.  Money had been tight in this economic crunch and he had “borrowed” some petty cash from work.  He had planned to pay it back, but hadn’t been able to.  He knew he had done wrong; he knew it was his fault that his family was broken.  So, here he was – on a Sunday morning, slipping into a pew almost un-noticed.
But he was noticed.  Charles noticed him immediately.  Charles had heard about all of the goings-on at the place where Zeke worked; he had heard rumors about other things too.  So, he was surprised to see Zeke and maybe a little angry too.  “Does he think coming to church will fix all of these problems?”  Charles found himself scoffing at Zeke, and not a little offended at his presence.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…”  the Pastor began the service with the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.  Almost by rote the men followed the service in their bulletin.  “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires know and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse…… “
Charles’ mind began to wander.  “No secrets are hid, yeah Zeke, you better watch out.  You can’t pretend you are all righteous here.  God knows your heart.  God can see through you.  God knows who the righteous and good people are and who the fakes and sinners are.  Thank God, I have spent my life living a Christian life.”
“…. Let us take a few moments for self-examination….. most merciful God, We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves….”  Charles spoke the words automatically, but his mind was still elsewhere, he thought of that Facebook conversation he had participated in where he had made it clear that on that particular moral issue he was on God’s side, and that those who argued with him had chosen to oppose God; he thought about that conversation with his neighbor where he had “witnessed” to the prevalence of sin in the world and how he was certain that all of the problems in the country, the community and the church were all because of sin.  Other people’s sin – people like Zeke.  “… We have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, for the sake of your Son have mercy on us, forgive us, renew us and lead us, so that we might delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name…. “  “I am on God’s side,” mused Charles as he lifted his head and looked at the Pastor for the words of absolution.
Zeke could hardly stand, the words of the confession had weighed heavily on his spirit and he felt like he needed to sit, so he braced himself with one hand on the pew in front of him.  “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” he kept repeating over and over again in his mind as he felt tears well up in his eyes.  He could not look at the Pastor and simply listened with his head bowed, “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake, God forgives you all your sins….”  Forgiveness, me?  Is it possible?  Is it possible to heal the broken relationships in his family and what about the consequences for stealing?  Well, all of that was still there.  But, as the organist began the first hymn he could raise his eyes and smile, he felt a burden gone.  Forgiveness is the first step.  And as Charles opened his hymnal all he could think about was, why can’t that organist play the hymns faster!
So which of these men do you identify with?  The Pharisee or the Tax Collector?  Charles or Zeke?  Or Charlotte and Zoe?  The characters are male but they represent all of us.  Perhaps, we see some of ourselves in both of them?  This well-known parable is timeless in the way it represents two ways of approaching God: the Pharisee who is a little too proud of his righteousness and the tax collector who is well aware of his failings.  It is easy for us to scoff at the one and lift up the other as a role model.  But before we do this, it would be a good thing for us to take a moment and reconsider some details of this parable.
First, as easy as it is to turn these two characters into stock characters we need to try to resist that.  Casting the Pharisee as the bad guy and the Tax Collector as the good guy is just too simple.  Let’s look at these characters – first the Pharisee.  Jesus is always butting heads with the Pharisees in the Gospels.  The Pharisees were an important group in Israel at this time.  In fact after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 by the Romans, the Pharisees were the only group to survive and they are the ancestors of today’s Rabbinic Judaism.  And the reason – the Pharisees lifted up and focused their lives and faith and tradition on Torah.  And they interpreted the Torah in a very strict manner.  But make no mistake, they were good men, they were honorable men, they were righteous men.  The problem with this particular Pharisee is not his righteousness.  It is his self-righteousness.  Count the “I” statements in his little speech: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  He is a good guy, but his righteousness has turned into self-righteousness; his completely admirable and honorable way of life has turned into his elevating himself above others and thus his relationships with others and even with God are threatened.
Now the Tax Collector: we like the Tax Collector.  As we listen to this parable we are perhaps reminded of Zacheaus, the short, head Tax Collector who climbs a tree and then gives all of his wealth away in response to Jesus; or Matthew the Tax Collector who leaves his booth to follow Jesus and become a disciple. But, we need to be careful that we are not too overly disposed towards seeing the tax collector as the good guy.  He wasn’t.  Tax Collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupiers.  And in order to fund the occupation the Romans needed to collect money from the population.  So, they employed these volunteers who would collect the taxes and the deal was that they had to submit a certain amount to Rome, but whatever else they collected above and beyond what was expected and required they got to keep.  That is what Zacheaus is so rich and why he is so hated.  The Tax Collector is a swindler, a cheat, one who uses the law and any other method he can to get money out of people, especially those who are workers and farmers and those who are poor and struggling. 
Jesus tells us that in the end the Tax Collector was justified or made right with God, because of his humility and honesty.  In other words, the Tax Collector was the one who left the Temple on the path to having his relationships with God and others restored, and not the Pharisee.  Why?  It is the Tax Collector who recognizes that his life is filled with broken relationships – with God, with others.  The Pharisee does not see this.  He is so proud of himself that he can’t see that his pride about being on God’s side has actually distanced him from God and that he is now guilty of placing himself in God’s place and presuming that he knows the mind of God.  This parable is not only about humility, it is also about honesty and relationship.  In the end, the possibility that is held out is the possibility of healed relationships.
So which one are you?  Which character do you identify with?  And does it make any difference? Self-righteousness is a problem in our society and it is a problem many of us struggle with.  Self-righteousness is a problem which divides us, which separates us from each other and from God.  This parable is a call to repentance and a call to look at ourselves honestly.  God offers to us forgiveness and relationship, but accepting this is only the first step.  Then the hard work of rebuilding our relationships begins.  Repentance is the first step towards the restoration of relationship; Forgiveness is a promise of God’s presence with us through the process of restoration.  
Charles and Zeke stayed through the service and participated.  When it finally came time for Holy Communion by some quirk of the ushers they found themselves kneeling next to each other at the altar rail.  “The body of Christ, given for You.”  “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Given and shed FOR YOU.  In those words we have the power and promise of God’s love and grace;  FOR YOU Jesus has given Himself so that you might live a new life, forgiven and renewed, and in relationship with God and with others.
As they got up from kneeling on that particular morning Zeke stumbled a little and Charles reached out to keep him from falling.  They exchanged warm smiles and returned to their pews.  Forgiven, renewed, gifted, loved – they had both been touched by the gracious presence of Christ. 


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Persistence Pays - St. Luke 18:1-8 - Proper 24C

If you wish to read the parable you can find it - HERE - St. Luke 18:1-8

This past week I watched some of the “God in America” series on PBS’ “American Experience.” If you have not seen any of this go to their website and watch it – FIND IT HERE!! This series is a series of vignettes from the history of the lives and events that have shaped the development of religious thought and experience in the USA. One of the stories that I found particularly captivating was the story of Anne Hutchinson. Anne was a puritan living in Massachusetts. The puritans had come from England to escape persecution and to be able to worship freely, but they had fallen into the same kind of trap so that life in the puritan villages was just as oppressive and strict as life in England, if not more so. In this context Anne started women’s bible studies and she began quietly and later not so quietly challenging both the theology and the male leadership of the colony. In particular Anne was lifting up issues of grace. This did not sit well and so she was tried before the governor (John Winthrop) and eventually she and her family were exiled. They were exiled for the principals of freedom of religious thought and practice, principals that eventually find their way into the US constitution (1st Amendment). Between Anne’s trial and the ratification of the constitution there are about 150 years. It didn’t happen overnight and Anne, unfortunately, never got to see it. But the principals for which she prayed, and struggled and suffered prevailed.

This brings us to the parable of the Unjust Judge. Every so often Jesus tells a parable which is odd and difficult to understand. Such is the case I think with the parable of the Unjust Judge. But also like many of Jesus’ parables this on is also rich in meaning.

The first point to be made about this parable is that we must avoid the mistake of equating the judge with God. Jesus is not drawing this parallel at all and it is a mistake to presume this. Jesus is drawing a comparison: If even an unjust and corrupt and greedy judge will be swayed to do the right thing with persistence then how much more will God, who is just and loving, be inclined to hear and answer your prayers! The key is not to give up, not to get discouraged, but to keep praying and to continue to pray fervently.

This parable is set within a discussion between Jesus and his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom has come into the world through Jesus, the Son of God, but it has not yet come in all its fullness. The Kingdom is already and not yet! We as disciples of the Kingdom have a calling to work so that others might experience the already of the Kingdom in their lives, where the not yet seems to dominate. In this context then it is easy to get discouraged, it is easy to look around and see only the not yet and give up. The parable is a call to keep your eyes firmly fixed on Christ, to recognize that the Kingdom has come into our midst, but it is still incomplete. But we are to be like the widow in this parable, constantly knocking at the gates of heaven with our prayers; lifting up our concerns, calling for justice, caring for those in need constantly.

To this end there are three main points that can be derived from this parable: 1. The parable encourages us to not be afraid to tackle difficult issues with confidence. 2. The parable cautions us not to expect immediate results. 3. The parable assures us that God’s justice will prevail in the end.

Of these three points I think that the 2nd is probably the most challenging for us. We live in a society that is not very patient. We are a people who like to have things happen, now – instant gratification. We don’t want to wait and if we don’t see an immediate answer to our prayers we tend to give up and figure that they are not working; or we just take matters into our own hands and try to force the issue. Neither of these is faithful or appropriate. We are rather called to be persistent in prayer, recognizing that God’s ways are not our ways and that God’s time is not our time.

Anne Hutchinson’s prayers were answered, but not in the time she may have expected. Nevertheless, God did bring transformation to this land. Anne was faithful and persistent – just like the widow. And, just like the widow in the parable, she was vindicated in the end.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Deserve It!

I Deserve It!  - Some Reflections on II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 / St. Luke 17:11-19

There is a current TV ad for a car rental company which has a well dressed young executive walking through an airport talking and going out to the parking lot.  When he gets there he picks a nice car, looks at the camera and says: "I deserve it?"  I always want to yell at the screen - "Why?"  Why do you deserve this car, why do you think you "deserve" anything? This seems to be a theme in our society - entitlement.  We think we "deserve" this and that, and lots of money and a nicer house than we can afford and a fancy car and a pretty generic family and no debt or illness or anything else.  And when hard times hit, then we get angry - "it isn't fair; I don't deserve this!"  We get angry with our job, or politicians or with God because things aren't for us the way they are supposed to be.  Or we find others to scapegoat - it's those politicians, the president, the free-loading poor, the immigrants, anyone and everyone who is different than us.  It is their fault that things are this bad, and doggone it, I don't deserve this!
In our readings for today the Old Testament and the Gospel stories are very similar.  Both stories recount a healing, but at the core of both stories lay issues of gratitude and grace.   In our Old Testament story we hear of a wealthy and powerful general who is suffering from a skin disease.  This is a man of entitlement and his behavior displays this "I deserve it" attitude throughout the story.  When he finally stands in front of the tent (cave?) of the Prophet and receives his instructions he throws a fit because he wasn’t received appropriately.  The prophet didn’t even come out to meet him directly and simply sends a message to him: go wash in the Jordan River seven times.  What is the deal?  Naaman was expecting a little more attention.  Maybe the prophet could at least make a sacrifice and come out and do a dance and some hocus pocus.  Namaan didn’t deserve this!  And he is just about ready to go away in a huff when his servants (tactfully) prevail upon him to just give it a try, go and follow the prophet’s instructions.  He does so (reluctantly) and he is healed.  He is healed, not because he deserves it.  He is healed because of the grace of God – only!  Finally he recognizes this and returns to the prophet to offer thanks to God (and maybe an apology?).
In the story from Luke, Jesus, like Elisha, heals in a very quiet unobtrusive way.  In this story there are 10 lepers.  When they realize they have been healed they all run off to get started on their new life.  Life has been hard up until now, and they didn't deserve that, so now they are entitled to get on with their lives.  So, all run away in excitement.  All, that is, but one – one of the men returns to Jesus to say Thank you.  And we learn from Jesus that while they were all healed, it is only this one who has been made completely whole, this one who has received salvation.  Why, because it is only this one who has room for gratitude, and thus only this one who has faith.
Is it possible to have faith without gratitude?  I suppose it depends on how you define faith.  If faith is just a list of propositions that you believe or if faith is a mental attitude towards certain events or things then perhaps it is possible.  But that is not how faith is defined in the bible.  In the bible faith is manifest in action.  One doesn’t just believe a list of things in the bible, faith is demonstrated by the way one lives and the way one acts.  The disciples all demonstrate their lack of faith when they run and hide when Jesus is arrested; the women followers of Jesus demonstrate their strong faith in their willingness to stand vigil at the cross and care for the body and go to the tomb.  Faith is action, and gratitude is an important part of faith.  It is the part that gives faith life, or a spark or even a sparkle.
These stories today call us to faith and gratitude!  Thank you Lord for all that you have given to me; thank you Lord that despite the fact that even though I do not deserve it you nevertheless love me and have reached out to me in grace and love and that you continue to stand with me throughout everything.  These stories encourage us to take stock of what it is that we are grateful for and then to take the time to give thanks.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Singin' The Blues - Some Thoughts on Habakkuk for Proper 22C

The Blues are a distinctive musical expression that emerged from the African-American experience of slavery and reconstruction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries here in our country. The form is simple – we can all write a blues verse: 1. Identify a basic situation you want to express from your life’s experience (usually based on a hardship of some sort). 2. State the situation in a line of 13 beats – example: I was with you, baby, when you didn’t have a dime. 3. Repeat. 4. State the complaint (lament - how it directly affects you) in 14 beats – example: Now since you got plenty money, you’re gone now all the time. This example is by the great blues singer Besse Smith. And you can go on and on and on. This particular blues has a number of verses and by the end of it all she has gone from lament to resolution; from the complaining that he is a no good bum to resolving to dump him!

We talk about “singing the blues” when things are not going well. And usually it is a way of expressing that things are not going well and that these things have got us down. Even if we don’t go to the extent of actually writing or composing a blues song we have all “sung” the blues at some time or another when things have not been going well.

The prophet Habakkuk is certainly one who knows how to “sing the blues.” Things are not good for him and the people of Judah. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help…. All around him he sees violence and injustice. Those in authority are only interested in their own agendas so that they and their friends can get rich and maintain their power. Those in power pervert justice, abuse the poor and powerless. And not only that, but over the horizon looms a great threat: Babylon. And in the midst of all of this, God, YHWH, where are you? Why do you remain silent? Why do you allow such horrid things to happen?!?

We are not used to such blunt talk directed at God. But this is part of the Old Testament tradition of lament. We can find many examples of this kind of blunt talk in the Psalms (the most well-known example is Psalm 22, which Jesus spoke from the cross). The Hebrews are not afraid to confront God and this is what Habakkuk does. And after he finishes his complaint, his lament – the first verse of his blues – he states that he will take up his place on the ramparts and watch and wait for an answer. This is extraordinary. He is willing to wait for an answer. In instant gratification world the image of the prophet Habakkuk standing in the watchtower waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting until he receives a word from the Lord is a profound image for me and it tells me that 1st – God has a timetable that is different than mine and 2nd – that God will answer in due course.

At the end of it all, God does respond and states clearly that out of death will come resurrection; that justice will sweep away injustice; that peace or shalom will bloom everywhere and that the love of God will triumph. This is the proclamation of the cross. God is working to bring this about and it will happen – not in ways we expect or on our time timetable – but God will accomplish it. The mustard seed of the Kingdom of God is planted and is growing in our midst - even if we can't always see it. And in the meantime? Hear the closing words of the book: Habakkuk writes: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. Amen! (Actually, read 3:17-19 – it is a powerful and beautiful statement of faith). No matter what I will continue to live my life faithfully as a follower of Jesus and will look to God with thanksgiving and praise!

Suggested reading - the entirety of the Prophet Habakkuk - 1:1 to 3:19
Bibliography: Why Habakkuk? By Don Gowan
Statue below by Donatello

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sacraments -The Foundation: Baptism and Holy Communion

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (St. Matthew 28:20b)
            With these words the Gospel of St. Matthew’s comes to an end.  We began this Gospel with the proclamation of the birth of “Emmanuel” – God with us; and we end with these words from the risen Jesus which conclude the great commission.  Jesus says – remember (make present in your life) that I am with you always!  What an amazing promise.  In the Judaism of Jesus’ time access to God was limited to the temple and to gain access to God’s presence one had to come to the temple and offer a sacrifice and offering.  But in Jesus - because of the crucifixion and resurrection, this access is opened up.  The risen Jesus is with us now and always and because of this God’s presence is always available.  What an amazing gift.  But one that we need to remind ourselves of on a regular basis, for I think it is too easy for us to take this gift for granted.  Out of this concern come the Sacraments of the church.
            The word Sacramentum is a Latin term used to designate an object which represented the presence of the Emperor with the Legions of Roman soldiers.  It was a pole with an eagle on top and with colored streamers attached.  This “sacrament” indicated to the troops that the Emperor was with them in battle.  If this object fell then this meant that they had been abandoned.  Later the church took over the word Sacrament and redefined it to indicate something through which people could experience God’s presence in a central and profound way.  The Mediaeval church designated 7 Sacraments.  Martin Luther pared those down to two: Baptism and Holy Communion.
            For Luther a formal Sacrament needed two things: a physical element and the Word of God.  These two things in combination came together to provide a formal experience of God’s presence.  So in Baptism – water + God’s Word (see Matthew 28:19) – God brings us into community, we take on the name and story of Christ as we are symbolically drowned and raised again (Romans 6:4).  In Holy Communion we celebrate God’s presence and receive the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins and are spiritually strengthened and nourished through our taking the bread & wine: bread & wine + God’s Word (I Corinthians 11:23-26 - and all 4 Gospels!). 
            Baptism and Holy Communion are the two foundational Sacraments of our life in Christ.  We need to regularly remind ourselves of our Baptism and weekly receive the Spiritual nourishment of Holy Communion.  Luther suggested that every time we encounter water it should remind us of our Baptism and that we should dip our hands into water in the morning upon rising and in the evening before going to bed, make the sign of the cross and give thanks that through our Baptism we are a part of God’s family.  This is why we leave the Font out after a Baptism so that you can dip your hands in the water, make the sign of the cross and remember your Baptism.  Occasionally, on certain Sundays (like All Saints and the Baptism of Jesus and others) we will use the longer Affirmation of Baptism which includes a sprinkling of water.  This is all to help us deepen our faith by remembering – getting us in touch with the moment when we were adopted into the family of God and when we took on the name of Christ: Our Baptism.
            The bread and wine of Holy Communion are "For You!"  And the celebration of Holy Communion is both an essential part of our worship and of our lives as Christian disciples.  Through the regular reception of Holy Communion we are spiritually strengthened and nourished for service in Christ’s name; we are sent forth to bear the presence of Christ to those whom we encounter – in other words – we are sent forth to be a Sacramental presence of Christ in the midst of the world.  This is why the regular celebration of Holy Communion is essential and why we at Peace celebrate it every week.  Admission to the table is open, as it should be, because it is the Lord's Table - not the pastor's or Peace's or the ELCA's - it is the Lord's.  All who have been Baptized are welcomed to the table and this includes children.  There is a tradition in our church to have children go through First Communion instruction when they are in the 3rd/4th grade.  It is important to note that this is not a condition or a prerequisite - it is an opportunity to help the children deepen their respect for the Sacrament before they commune for the first time.  God's Grace is operative and central here as it is in Baptism.  Just as there is no condition that children understand and affirm their faith before they are Baptized, there is no condition of understanding before admission to Holy Communion.  It is the Spirit which gives understanding in both cases - our calling is to offer the gifts of God in Water, Bread and Wine.   
            And so, Baptism and Holy Communion are the foundational Sacraments of our Christian discipleship.  But what about those other 5 Medieaval Sacraments and what does it mean that we are a “Sacramental presence” in the midst of the world?  We will continue next month to look at these and other questions. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rich and Poor – Some Thoughts on Luke 16:19-31

You can read the Gospel text for Ordinary 26C - St. Luke 16:19-31 - HERE!
Our Gospel text for today is a hard text, especially for those of us who live in the 1st world.  The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus clearly sets out for us God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  This is a theme which is particularly prevalent in the Gospel of Luke.  Take note of these examples:  Mary’s Song from Luke 1:53 - …He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…”  From Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:18 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”  The “Blessings and Woes” from the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke 6:20-26 – “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry…” 
And this Sunday we come to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus where Jesus makes the same point.  And, let’s be clear, Jesus is not spiritualizing poverty in Luke. The Gospel is clearly talking about the economically poor and rich.  In short, he is talking about us, and we are on the rich man’s side of this story.  But we are not rich, we might protest.  Well, I suppose that depends on what scale you use to judge that.  The fact is that those of us living in the United States are much better off than millions others around the world.  I found this really interesting web site called – The Global Rich List.  When you go there you simply enter your income into the box and it tells you, in comparison to the rest of the world, how many in the world are richer than you and how many are poorer.  I did it and discovered that I am in the top 97% of the richest people in the world; and that I am the 58,252,719th richest person in the world.  I encourage you to stop by there and try it out.
So what does this mean for us?  First, we need to remember that, as we confess weekly, “we are captive to Sin (I actually prefer the old LBW wording: We are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves…).  Our wealth is a sin and a stumbling block for us.  But, we are forgiven and saved by Grace!  And being saved by the grace of God calls us to respond to God’s gift, not by going along as usual living a wasteful and indulgent lifestyle, but to take stock of our resources, and how we use them and how we live.  How do we use the blessings which God has given to us? 
Lastly this parable raises another issue which I think is particularly important.  The rich man feasts sumptuously, Lazarus begs at the door.  Now, the rich man in this parable is never mean, or cruel to poor Lazarus; he does not do anything to make Lazarus’ life harder.  The rich man ignores Lazarus.  For the rich man, the beggar Lazarus is invisible; the rich man pays no attention to his plight; the rich man is apathetic.  This is an issue for us as well, isn’t it?  How many of us are like the rich man in this way?  Ignoring the plight of those in need around us or, worse, coming up with all kinds of reasons why those who are poor are not worthy of our consideration.  Whether it is the images of the poor and starving in different places in the world or those who struggle here in our own community, it is easy for us to become hardened or de-sensitized to their plight.  This parable calls upon us to be aware of this and recognize that we do have a responsibility to care for and reach out in different ways to those who are in need.  
See also Dylan Lectionary Blog for this Sunday -