Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pastor vs. Prophet

During the long season after Pentecost, the New Testament lesson, which typically follows an independent progression through the Christian canonical letters, is not chosen to coordinate with the other lessons. Every once in a while, a connection can be seen--perhaps forced by the preacher. This week, though, it is as if the authors of the lectionary had a tremendous collision in mind from the very beginning. In Luke 16, we have Jesus depicting the rich man's torment in Hades while the once-poor Lazarus snuggles into Abraham's bosom, but, in 1 Timothy 6, we have Paul taking a far more moderated approach: "As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty..." To this preacher, it sounds like the difference between a pastor and a prophet.

Jesus tells us to sell everything that we have. Jesus tells us that we cannot worship God and wealth. Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven. Paul, on the other hand, warns those who are rich in this age not to be haughty, not to put their hope in earthly riches, to be rich not only in wealth but also in good works, and to share some of what they have. After spending these summer weeks in Luke, hearing Jesus decry the half-hearted commitment of one person after another, Paul seems to be taking it easy--perhaps even undermining what Jesus would have said. Paul sounds a lot more like a preacher who is worried that his words could upset his flock and the money they have promised to give him.

I've long held that Jesus would have made a lousy rector, and this is one of the major reasons why. Jesus the prophet chose a prophet's life. He had no where to lay his head. He slipped out of trouble more than once. Whenever he visited a synagogue, at least someone was disappointed, if not outraged, in what he said or what he did. His independence gave him the ability to tear into the establishment with full force. Paul, however, needed that establishment to fund his mission and support the church in Jerusalem. Jesus could say things that made people angry and then walk on to the next town, but Paul had built deep, personal relationships with these churches, and he consider himself their long-term pastor. Was Jesus callous and insensitive? Was Paul cowardly and self-serving? No and no. But it reminds me that context is everything.

What will I preach this Sunday? Will I let Jesus' insistence that the kingdom of God be a reality in which everyone has enough leave everyone squirming in his pew? Or will I let Paul's gentler instruction lead the day because we are beginning a capital campaign, and our parish needs the establishment to support the effort? Actually, those aren't as mutually exclusive as they seem, and the extremes with which I've depicted the messages of Jesus and Paul deny their real intent. Jesus wasn't interested in shaming the rich. He wanted transformation in their lives and preached it the best that he could. Paul wanted the same thing--not merely the financial support of his patrons but that they, too, would be transformed into faithful disciples of Jesus. He, likewise, preached that the best that he could. Hopefully the congregation can tell that this is a struggle for the preacher and that it's supposed to be a struggle for all of us. That's the only way we'll be transformed together.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Polluted Applicant Pool

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you want to become a priest or a deacon, you have to go through a long process. In our diocese, it starts with a conversation with your rector that lasts for at least six months. Typically, I tell interested people that we will need to speak together for a year before moving ahead with any of the other steps. Eventually, I'll pull in a small committee of parishioners who can join me in discerning whether the individual is called by God to serve the church as an ordained person. If they all agree, then we approach the vestry and then the bishop. Once we meet with the bishop, the process has less to do with the individual and more to do with the church. Does the church also discern that this person is called by God to ordained ministry? There are committee interviews, retreats, internships, medical and psychological evaluations, background checks, peer evaluations, and a whole lot of scrutiny. If the person is approved for seminary training, there are another three years of academic, spiritual, and social evaluation before ordination. And through it all--four or five or six years of discernment---any big misstep like a DUI or a divorce or a red flag on a background check is likely to delay if not derail the whole process.

The process for becoming a disciple is the exact opposite. "As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up and followed him" (Matthew:9:9-13). And, because of that, we all have hope.

None of Jesus' disciples came from the religious elites or the well educated. They were fishermen and menders of nets. They were ordinary, working-class people. But Matthew was exceptional. As a tax collector, he wasn't a rough-cut, blue-collar guy who didn't fit in at the synagogue's Annual Bazaar. He was a traitor. He was a criminal. He was a greedy extortionist who made his living by supporting the unholy Roman occupiers by forcing his countrymen to pay taxes to those who oppressed them. Every coin he collected had the emperor's image engraved on it, which meant his entire life was a violation of the third commandment. We don't really know anything about what sort of tax collector Matthew was, and we don't need to know. He was a tax collector, and that says it all. Like a pedophile or a drug dealer, we don't need to know how he conducted his nefarious business. He was, by definition, beyond hope. He had sold his soul to the devil, and the devil wasn't going to give it back.

And Jesus, as he was walking along, saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth and said, “Follow me.” Jesus didn’t run into him at the grocery store. He didn’t encounter him walking along the street or sitting at a café or heading into synagogue. Jesus saw him sitting in the seat of his sin, and still he said, “Follow me.” This wasn’t an accident. This is the one whom Jesus wanted because this is the one who needed Jesus. “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” he explained to those who questioned his choice. Jesus knew that becoming a disciple isn’t a reward for holiness. It is hope for the sinful. It is healing for the broken. It is transformation for the one who has no other path to redemption. It is our calling. It is our future.

Jesus said, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. You don’t have to be a saint in order to follow Jesus. In fact, saints need not apply. Those who are well don’t need a physician. Those who are righteous don’t need redeeming. But those of us who need forgiveness, those of us who need God’s help, we are the ones whom Jesus is calling. He is speaking to us. He is speaking to you. “Come, follow me,” he beckons. Will you respond to his invitation? Will you get up and leave your sin behind and follow the one who can lead you back to God?

The Good Life

On Monday, I wrote about the danger of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 16:19-31). It's easy to hear this compelling story and think that Jesus is calling us to treat the poor with dignity and redistribute our wealth so that everyone has what she or he needs in this life. All of that is true, of course. Jesus is calling us to do those things. But he isn't telling us that the path to heaven is as simple as giving our riches away. The parable's conclusion reveals that belief in the one who has risen from the dead is the necessary antecedent. Jesus' resurrection is confirmation that his description of kingdom life is a true depiction of God's kingdom and that the only way we will get there is by following him.

In my sermon preparation, I don't want to lose sight of that important premise--that this gospel lesson is about following Jesus into the kingdom--but I do want to dwell a little more seriously in the implications of that kingdom life for rich people like me and like every single person who calls St. John's home. (Yes, we're all rich, and I'm willing to bet that every single one of the few dozen people who read this post are rich, too. Even the "poorest" person among us is still rich by Jesus' standards and by the world's standards, so let's all start by agreeing that Jesus isn't telling us this parable because we're a bunch of Lazaruses. Fair enough?) In short, I think this parable reminds us that, while we won't get to heaven simply by giving all of our riches away, we also can't get there unless we do.

Focus on the rich man's exchange with Abraham. "Have mercy on me!" he cries out. "Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames!" Even from the place of torment, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an instrument for his own comfort. Abraham responds, "Sorry, pal, but it's too late. You had good things in your lifetime, and Lazarus had evil things, and now the roles have been reversed." That's classic Lucan role-reversal messianic theology. Then Abraham makes an eschatological assertion: "Plus, a great chasm has been fixed between us, and no one can cross it." There is something decidedly final about death, and our opportunity to participate in God's kingdom comes not in the next life but in this one. Then, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them to change their lives before they, too, wind up in hell, but Abraham responds, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." In other words, Jesus' ministry is a continuation of the Torah, and those who cannot see that following Jesus is God's vision for his people wouldn't even be convinced by the resurrection.

So what does that mean for us? It means we'd better take the resurrection of Jesus for what it is: proof that Jesus' description of the kingdom is God's vision for our lives and for the world. It means that rich people like me don't get to heaven because we haven't understood what following Jesus into the kingdom really means. It means that every sumptuous meal I enjoy and every fine linen garment I put on while hungry, naked, homeless people struggle to survive is a sign of my exclusion from the kingdom. That's not because rich people don't belong in God's kingdom. It's because those who belong in God's kingdom can't stand the thought of being rich while other people suffer.

Let the scales fall from our eyes. Do we believe in Jesus? Do we believe that he was raised from the dead? Do we believe that he has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father? If we really believed all of that--if we believed that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus makes any difference at all--then we wouldn't live in a world where the rich are getting richer while the poor barely survive. We wouldn't vote for a candidate who promises to champion the middle class. We would support only those who work tirelessly for the poorest among us. If we believed in the power of Jesus--if the hope of the resurrection had taken hold in our hearts--we wouldn't wait until this life is over to notice whether this life resembles the kingdom Jesus ushered in.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Good Story

This post also appears as the cover article in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, please click here.

Right now in the Daily Office, the Old Testament lesson is from the Book of Esther. Although we read more or less a chapter each day, I feel a great temptation to read ahead and finish the story before the lectionary gets to the end. The story of Esther is a compelling tale of jealousy, irony, and justice. Each chapter ends with a major plot point hanging in the balance, and, like a child to whom a parent reads at bedtime, the reader wants to peek ahead and see what will come next. It does not matter that I have read the book before and know what is coming. I still cannot wait to see what will happen on the next page.

I suppose that my impatience should not surprise me. In the Jewish tradition, the entire Book of Esther is read aloud each year on the day of Purim, a spring festival that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the plot of wicked Haman. As recounted in the story, Haman sought to have all the children of Abraham exterminated, but God intervened through Esther, a Jewish woman who had become a wife and queen of the hapless King Ahasuerus and whose bravery and cunning became the instruments of God’s salvation. Like any good story, it is worth reading again and again even though the outcome is already well known.

As the people of God, we have been telling the same story over and over for more generations than we can count. Abraham rescued Lot and his family from certain destruction. Joseph enabled his brothers to survive a famine in Egypt. Moses led God’s people from slavery into freedom. Joshua led God’s people from the wilderness into a new homeland. David reminded his people to trust in God’s victory. Daniel remained faithful until God delivered his people from exile. Judah Maccabee galvanized a rebellion that purged God’s land from Seleucid oppression. Whenever it seems that the light God has given to his people will be extinguished, God intervenes and enables the story of salvation to be told yet again.

We are a part of God’s great story of deliverance. At the Easter Vigil, after the fire has been kindled and the Paschal candle has been lit, the presider says to the congregation, “Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.” As the various chapters from the story of salvation are read, we are asked to consider how our collective story, the outcome of which is already known, will continue to unfold in our lives. We know that the death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s guarantee that nothing can interfere with his plan to save us from all that threatens us—even death itself—but, still, we tell that same story again and again because it is a story we need to hear.

As a people of faith, we pray repeatedly for deliverance, and we hope that God’s salvation will be made manifest in our lives. In times of trouble, we look for signs that God’s promise is real. Sometimes they are easy to see—a near-miss on the interstate, a clear PET scan, an improbable reconciliation—but other times God’s saving work is hidden from us—rising floodwaters, a crushing betrayal, a devastating knock at the door. In those moments, we need to tell and retell the story of salvation more than ever because, even though the outcome of God’s story is certain, the path that we will take to get there is not. We need remembrances of hope and trust and faith to sustain us when those are the very things that we cannot grasp. Even the Book of Esther, which leaves no doubt that God’s is acting to save his people, never mentions God by name. Instead, the reader is invited to search for God’s hand behind it all—both in the narrative of Esther and in the lives of those who read it.

What chapter in the story of salvation resonates with you? Is it Noah and the flood? Is it Isaac and Abraham? Is it the parting of the Red Sea or the Valley of Dry Bones? Is it another story for scripture, or is it a story from your own life? Remember that, when it comes to salvation, your story is not your own. Salvation history is a history for the whole world—even all of creation. Remember also, however, that your own life’s narrative is a thread that is being woven into God’s tapestry of salvation and that the fabric’s image is still taking shape ahead of us. We may not be able to see the whole picture take place, but we know what it will look like when everything is finished. We know how this story ends, but we tell it anyway.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Simple Message, Difficult Grace

Several of my friends bemoaned yesterday's difficult gospel passage (Luke 16:1-13) in which Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager. I didn't have to preach, so I had the luxury of listening to a good sermon instead of trying to craft one. As I look at the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Luke 16:19-31), however, I think it may be even more difficult but for the opposite reason. The parable of the dishonest manager uses a difficult package (dishonesty) to convey a simple message (prioritization of the kingdom), but the parable of Lazarus and the rich man uses a package that is so simple and straightforward (be nice to poor people) that it's very difficult to find the gospel message of grace hidden in this Lucan morality tale.

What is the point of this parable? As Father Abraham explained to the rich man, "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony." It's tempting to stop there. That's the part of the story that hooks us. How many poor people have we passed by? How many beggars have we turned down? Borrowing from Amos, don't we "lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on [our] couches" while the homeless in our communities sleep in shelters, on park benches, under overpasses, and in the woods behind the grocery store? Don't we hear Jesus' parable and think, "I don't want to end up in hell like the rich man. I'd better start being nice to poor people."

But that isn't the gospel. That isn't grace. That's a fruitless, hopeless, faithless pursuit that leads straight to that same place of torment where the rich man yearns for even a finger-dip of cool water.

PLEASE, dear preacher, don't confuse "be nice to poor people" with "believe in the one who has risen from the dead." It's so deliciously tempting to climb into the pulpit and remind your congregation that Jesus loved poor people, so we should too. And that's true: we should. But that's not what this gospel lesson is about. That's confusing the description for the prescription. Don't forget the foundation of the gospel. Our hope does not lie in our actions. Our hope lies in Jesus and his victory over sin and death. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man isn't designed to call us to acts of charity. It's to remind us that life in God's kingdom is qualitatively different from the life we experience here on earth and that those who follow Jesus live in a different reality.

Let the closing lines of the parable speak for themselves: "...If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Don't shy away from this half of the parable because some have used it to espouse an anti-Semitic message. Absolutely, we should reject such a mischaracterization of the Christian story, and that isn't the point of the parable either. The point is that those who believe in the one who has been raised from the dead are those who understand that the good life is not found on earth but in the life that waits for us. Those who believe in Jesus understand that participating in God's kingdom means forsaking all of our earthly possessions in pursuit of God's vision for this world. Those who have their hope in the resurrection know that Lazarus' poverty gives him unfettered access to God's table while the rich man's riches are a hurdle he cannot climb on his own. This is where the parable finds its real identity as a message of grace. Our hope is in the one who has risen from the dead--not in our riches nor in giving those riches away.

Look for the hard message of grace buried within this parable of works. Actually, it isn't that hard to find, but you have to let go of an easy, pre-packaged sermon to get there. But it's worth it. Don't forget: works can't get us to heaven any faster than riches can.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Governed by Rules or Principles?

Since we're a Track 2 parish that reads an Old Testament lesson that is linked thematically with the Gospel lesson, I find it easy to preach on that theme without appealing explicitly to the OT text. This week, however, Amos sticks out. Maybe it's because I'm teaching a Sunday-morning class on Lamentations and its shocking, heart-breaking portrayal of what happens when God's prophets are ignored, but I can't let Amos 8:4-7 go by without spending some time letting the prophet speak directly to me.

Amos was an advocate for the poor. He called out the wealthy and powerful for their predatory practices: "Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land..." But it's his take on the religious observances of those poor-tramplers that gets my attention. Revealing their true motives, he writes that they say, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?" He goes on to clarify that they aren't just interested in getting back to business once the festivals are over. They're eager because their trading is an opportunity for defrauding those who cannot defend themselves: "We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." This is the kind of damning criticism that belongs in a Cohen brothers' movie--a picture of humanity so dark it's hard to comprehend.

Basically, Amos paints a picture of religious observance that has lost all ties to the religion it supposedly represents. Here are traders who rightly suspend their practices during the sabbath and during the new moon festivals but who jump at the chance to begin them again so that they can cheat their fellow Israelites. Why bother? Why insist on the dignity of keeping religious rules if they're only forestalling your unholy behavior?

The rules governing sabbath observance have to do, of course, with creation. All of the effort it takes to prepare for a day with absolutely no work is a way of instilling into a person their identity as created by God, who rested on the seventh day. But it's more than that. It's also a way of preserving the integrity of every human being. Even the slaves were not to work on the sabbath. Those who had the luxury of fine living were forced to recognize that those who worked for them also got a day of rest--their household help was suspended on the sabbath. This was a unifying, equalizing practice. Those who would observe it but immediately return to the practice of cheating the poor aren't just missing the point; they're essentially rejecting the purpose behind it in the first place.

The Chick-fil-A practice of being closed on Sunday only honors God if its employees are paid enough to take a day off--a living wage that enables a day of rest. Clergy who encourage congregations to come to church on Sunday can only honor God if they also practice weekly worship apart from the Sunday-morning performance for which they are paid. Those of us who make a pledge to a church are only honoring God if we allow the poor to infiltrate our hearts, and the congregations that accept that money are only honoring God if they understand that money is not for themselves but for the needs of the world. Anyone who claims to follow Christ is only honoring God if that discipleship has as much to do with the life of Christ--a life spent among tax collectors and sinners--as it does with maintaining the habits of a religion.

The rules of life and the rules of our religion are helpful only insofar as they point us back to the principles that really matter. What are the principles for which Jesus died? Are those the principles that undergird our lives, or are we missing the mark. WWAS? What would Amos say?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ends and Means

The term "home economics" is redundant. Who knew? The word "economics" comes from the Greek word "οἰκονομία," which is literally the combination of the words "οἶκος" (home) and "νόμος" (law). Effectively, it means "household management" or "stewardship." Economics, therefore, are about the home. It's about managing what you have on hand. When politicians talk about "the economy," what they're really talking about is stewardship. How are we managing what we have at our disposal? This concept of stewardship runs through Sunday's parable of the dishonest manager, and the teaching Jesus offers through it depends upon our ability to see that thread.

Most modern English translations (ESV, NRSV, NIV, CEV, CEB) of Luke 16:1-13 use the words "manager" and "management" to describe what is going on. If you go back to the KJV, however, you see that the issue is one of stewardship: "And [the rich man] called [the steward], and said unto him, 'How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.'" I think that we implicitly understand that managing something is being a steward of it, but, once that is made explicit, this confusing parable begins to take shape.

Facing his termination, the steward/manager calls in his master's debtors and gives them a deep under-the-table discount on their bills, hoping that they would return the favor and receive him into their homes. Notice, of course, that the Greek word for home is "οἶκος," so the thread continues. There's irony here. The man was a poor manager of his master's house so that he could be accepted into the houses of others.

The part of the parable that surprised the hearers came next. The master found the dishonest steward and praised him for his shrewdness--his prudence or practical wisdom. Like so many parables (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Wedding banquet), the surprise draws the audience into the teaching. No master would praise his steward for lining his own pockets. So what's Jesus' point? What's the real teaching of this passage?

Jesus says to his disciples, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." As Seth Olson pointed out earlier this week, these "eternal homes" are not "οἶκος." They are "αἰωνίους σκηνή" or "everlasting booths." The NRSV does us a great disservice by translating it as if it were the same sort of dwelling that the steward is hoping to enter. It's not. these tents or booths or tabernacles are the dwellings that Peter hoped to build for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus on the Transfiguration mount. It is the true dwelling place for God that the author of Hebrews uses to contrast the earthly tabernacle of the Temple and the heavenly tabernacle that Christ makes accessible to us. We may not want to camp out in a tent for all eternity, but, when it comes to imagining a heavenly dwelling, that's what we are invited to see.

So what does all of this mean? The house-manager failed in his house-management of his master's house. So he cut a dishonest deal to get himself a new house. Jesus urges his disciples to act likewise, but he tells them to use that same dishonest wealth to make friends not with the hopes of attaining an earthly house but a heavenly dwelling. This is a stewardship of earthly resources with a heavenly goal--a different end. In certain circumstances, we say that the ends justify the means, and, in this case, the goal of the kingdom is the only thing that matters.

The gospel lesson concludes with Jesus' most famous exhortation about money: "You cannot serve God and wealth." The dishonest steward used his master's resources to achieve an earthly goal. And, given his master's commendation, it would seem that he was successful. Jesus tells us to use those same resources to achieve a heavenly goal. If we're going to be successful, we have to be just as shrewd--just as practically wise. Stewardship is about serving a master. It's about planning for a future home. Will it be one on earth or one in heaven? The wealth is described as "dishonest" or, literally, "unrighteous." Will the "unrighteous Mammon" becomes a means for the kingdom, or will the "unrighteous Mammon" become the end in itself? It's one or the other. Which will it be?