Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Complete, Perfect Love

God is love. Period. John made that observation in his first letter (1 John 4:8), and, ever since I learned the difference between simile and metaphor, I’ve been fascinated with that assertion. God is love. Not “God is loving.” Not “God is like a lover.” Not “God loves.” God is love. That’s who he is—not just what he does. It’s a deeper definition than action. It’s property. It’s nature. It’s part of what it means to be God. God is love.

It’s easy to understand that God loves good people—people like us, people whom we deem worthy of God’s love. Sure, of course God loves you and me. We love him back. And that’s the way love works. I love you, and you love me. It’s reciprocal. But that’s not the way God works. God doesn’t just love. God is love. It goes much deeper than that.

Jesus tries to explain it in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-48). “Think about it,” he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Can’t you see that God loves everyone just the same?” That’s a hard premise to accept—that God loves indiscriminately. God doesn’t reserve his love, his favor, his blessing, for those who make him happy. God is love. It pours out all the time. Like the factory line in I Love Lucy, the chocolates just keep coming, whether you can keep up with them or not. So it is with God’s love. Whether you want it or deserve it or accept it or even recognize it, God’s love streams forth in an unrestrained cascade.

But love like that is a dangerous thing. Love detached from evaluation is reckless. Truly unconditional love—love that is offered without any strings attached—opens the giver up to a host of problems. If I love people who are misbehaving, will that only reinforce their bad behavior? If I love bad people as much as good people, does that cheapen my relationship with the ones who love me back? And, if I love the people who reject it, will I constantly feel the sting of that unrequited love? This is too much! No one can live like that. That’s not the way the world works. It’s not right! It’s insane! It’s inhuman!

“'You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

As children of God who recognize the limitless, unconditional, unrestrained love with which we have been loved, we are called to love just as God loves. Jesus isn’t instituting a new ethic. He’s not giving us new rules for religious society. He’s explaining that what it means to be a child of God is to love the way God does. Yes, it’s different, but it’s not new. God is love—yesterday, today, and forever. We do not love others because they deserve it. We do not love them because we want to. We love because God loves us—all of us, always and forever.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

It Only Starts with Easter

In my mind, it’s easy to disassociate the last line of Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 16:19-31) from the rest of the reading. As the parable of Lazarus and the rich man comes to a close, I hear Abraham say to the tormented man, “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” and I think to myself, “Yes, people can be so stubborn that not even the resurrection can sway their hearts!” And then I realize he’s talking about me. Uh oh.

The man is suffering in Hades. He’s in agony. The flames are burning his body, and he sees no hope for redemption. “Please, Father Abraham, send Lazarus back from heaven to warn my brothers to amend their lives so that they don’t end up here with me!” But the amendment of life that the rich man is talking about—the change that he wishes he had made while he was still alive—isn’t believing in Jesus so that one can go to heaven. The message he wants to get through to his family is the importance of taking care of the poor so that one doesn’t go to hell. The tie-in to the resurrection isn’t that the empty tomb becomes the content of faith but that the empty tomb would be proof that God’s word throughout the ages—take care of the poor—should be taken seriously.

This parable isn’t an exhortation to believe in the empty tomb. It’s a reminder to me that being a Christian—believing in the empty tomb—is about more than merely celebrating a resurrection. It’s about letting that resurrection take hold in my life so that I become an instrument of God’s life-giving power. And what does that look like? It looks like the Lazaruses in my life being taken care of.

Don’t ameliorate the power of this parable by dissolving the link between resurrection and social justice. Jesus is taunting us. He’s spurring us on. “If you’re going to believe in the resurrection,” he says, “don’t forget to believe in its power!” We hold the resurrection as the center of our faith and our very raison d’ĂȘtre. But I think we have a tendency to stop there. Being a Christian isn’t as simple or empty as confessing one’s belief in the empty tomb so that one might go to heaven. There’s more to it than that. It starts with Easter, but then it spreads.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Uh Oh! He's Talking to Me!

During Year C of the three-year lectionary, when Luke is the featured gospel account, making it more than three weeks in a row without preaching about rich people is pretty hard. According to Luke, Jesus loved to pick on them, and he’s at it again this week in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). The Track 2 Old Testament reading (Amos 6:1a, 4-7) doesn’t give any relief, and even the Epistle lesson (1 Timothy 6:6-19) contains a specific instruction on how to deal with rich people. So, for the third or fourth or fifth time since Pentecost, I’ll probably be preaching about those of us who live in excess.

There’s something about the Amos reading that brings this particularly close to home.

            Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils…

My bed isn’t made of ivory, but I’m pretty pleased with our mattress and the nicely coordinated sheets under which I sleep every night. And I wouldn’t call my Sunday afternoon nap on the couch “lounging,” but it is a wonderful couch—long enough for me to stretch all the way out on. It’s been a while since I’ve had lamb or veal, but I must confess that there’s a portion of a leg of lamb that I picked up on sale in my refrigerator right now. Most of my singing isn’t to the sound of the harp, and I rarely improvise on instruments of music, but I sing idle songs all day long. I don’t drink copious amounts of red wine, and, when I do, I drink it from glasses rather than bowls, but I like to use those deep, wide-mouthed Burgundy glasses that are bowl-like. I don’t know anyone who anoints himself with oils—fine or not. Some of us use lotion for dry skin, especially now that fall is here. I don’t usually indulge in oils or lotions, but I am pretty particular about my shampoo, which is probably the 21st-century equivalent. So, yeah, Amos is talking to me.

Alas for those of us who live the kind of life I live…but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Working Preacher suggests that “the ruin of Joseph” is a way of saying the entire population of Israel, who, as Seth mentioned yesterday in his sermon, were widely divided by wealth. Some people were super-rich, while many others were struggling to get by. Amos had in his sights the wealth disparity of his community. “The rich get richer, while the poor get screwed,” as a fiery young preacher once preached a long, long time ago. In other words, the prophet Amos is prophesying woes to those who live the lives of rich people while others around them are struggling. If that isn’t a lesson for today, I don’t know what is.

There’s a fine line between rich people like me insulating themselves from the troubles of the poor and rich people like me using their wealth to perpetuate a system of injustice. It starts by wanting to feel secure. The nice car, the nice house, the bed of ivory—they are coveted not simply because for their opulence but for the message of security they portray. And, when we build up for ourselves an unassailable fortress of financial security, we begin to look out at the world from our secure position and see threats. And then we wall ourselves in with even more expressions of security, and, before you know it, every moment of our life is an “us vs. them” experience. Pretty soon, we’re not just distancing ourselves from the poor—we’re taking steps to make sure that their poverty (and our wealth) are inescapable—a great chasm that no one can cross.

Woe to me and woe to you! Woe to those of us who live lives of comfort but ignore the plight of the poor! Woe to those of us whose security depends upon a fence or a moat or a wall or a private school or a summer camp or a gated community or a lake house that no one can cross—in or out. Amos is talking to us. Jesus is, too, but, before we listen to what he says, we need to be sure that we’re ready to listen.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Running Out of People?

I don't normally post on Fridays, but I read something in this morning's local paper that provoked a strong response in me, and I want to share that with this blog.

I read an AP story about a church in Texas that closed its doors for the last time. According to the article, Pleasant View Baptist Church was never the biggest or the best known church in the Bible Belt, but it was a long, steady presence in the Christian community. Finally, it seems that a long, stead period of decline caught up with the congregation. The pastor, Bob Hendley, is quoted as saying that the church "just ran out of people." (You can see the AP brief here.)

Really? Ran out of people?

I'm sure there's more to it than that. I'm sure it's a combination of demographics and cultural shifts. But there's something particularly damning about a pastor saying that his church just ran out of people.

The point I'd like to make isn't that Mr. Hendley should have done anything different. (Again, I don't know his story or his church's story.) Instead, I'd like to say that church leaders--both ordained and lay--like me need to take a hard look at what's going on in the church and world around them to make sure that we never get quoted in the paper saying, "We just ran out of people."

That phrase reminds me of the episode of The Twilight Zone called "Time Enough at Last," in which a banker who loved to read happens to have been in the company vault when a nuclear holocaust takes place. He emerges to discover that his city is an empty shell of its former self, leaving him all the time he wants to read. (For the ironic ending, you'll have to watch the video below.) 

What does it mean to be a church that runs out of people? When our pews are empty and we close our doors for the last time, will it be because the people disappeared or because we let them walk away? What are we going to do to stay relevant to twenty-first century people? Are we just going to stand around and shrug our shoulders, or will we take the people and their needs seriously--enough so to make sure we never end up in the paper like that?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Meek Shall Inherit the Moon

In the daily scripture readings observed in the Episcopal Church (the “Daily Office”), we’ve made it to Matthew 5—the sermon on the mount. Jesus, seeing the crowds, climbs up on a mount, waits for his disciples to come to him, and then begins to teach. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

No politician ever got elected by singling out the poor, meek, hungry, righteous, merciful, pure, and peaceful as their lone constituency. They are, by definition, the powerless, and politicians are, by definition, in positions of power. Jesus chooses to build his message on the premise that weak is strong, that poor is rich, that humble is majestic. That anyone bothered to write that down is remarkable.

I thought that the Internet had everything, and that any question that came through my mind could be answered by the Google. But I can’t find the movie that includes the line “Actually, there’s been a change of plans: the meek shall inherit the moon.” I think it might be a Monty Python movie, but maybe that’s because I’m remembering the scene about the misheard line from the sermon on the mount in The Life of Brian, “Blessed are the cheese-makers.” (Anyone able to help me on this?) Regardless, it’s out there somewhere, and it’s not only funny but telling. We joke about it, but actually it reveals something about what we really think: the meek shall not inherit the earth but whatever’s left over. In fact, a band called Kiss Kiss apparently made an album called “The Meek Shall Inherit What’s Left” in 2009. (The Google told me that.)

Bottom line, we don’t believe Jesus. The Beatitudes, as this series of “Blessed are…” statements is called, are seen as a teaching tool rather than a prediction. As yourself how you hear them. Are they gentle instruction or real prophecy? Is Jesus merely suggesting that we search for peace, or is he defining the future of human existence as reserved for the downtrodden?

Humility, it seems, should be the goal of every preacher. Obscurity should be the hope of every televangelist. If you’re a Christian—and especially if you make a living inviting others to follow Jesus—you should hear these Beatitudes not as a reminder but as instruction. I am neither poor nor poor in spirit. I am certainly not meek. I’d like to be a peacemaker, but I know I’m not. My instincts aren’t merciful, I’ve never been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and my heart is far from pure. Jesus isn’t just asking me to be more like those things. He’s asking me to be those things. We pray the Lord’s Prayer every day. That comes later on in this lengthy sermon. We took that part seriously. Why aren’t these words of Jesus as important to us?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fleeting Mammon for a Permanent Home

Alright, I’m getting closer. Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke16:1-13) is tough, but I’m getting closer to an insight worth preaching. Thanks to Steve Pankey for the back-and-forth about staying on the surface or not. Go read his post. Yes, we do need to dig a little deeper, but not so deep that we lose sight of the parable. Here’s where I am today:

  • A “rich man” (not a term of endearment for Luke’s Jesus) hears his steward is “squandering his property” and fires him, asking for an account of his management.
  • The man panics and begins making underhanded deals with his master’s debtors so that they “may welcome [him] into their homes.”
  • The rich man (not God, not Jesus, not anyone to be admired) praises the steward for his shrewdness.
  • Jesus (although Luke doesn’t give us an indication of when the parable stops and the interpretation starts) points out to his disciples that the children of this age (again, not a term of endearment) are more shrewd than are the children of light (the people we’re supposed to focus on).
  • Jesus gives the confusing instruction “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” as a way of encouraging shrewdness (not dishonesty) and identifying wealth as purely a means to an end.

It’s the last piece, of course, that I’m least sure about. That makes sense since the rest of the parable is easy-going in comparison. For me, the problem parts are “dishonest wealth” and “they may welcome.” What is it about that wealth that is dishonest? And why are those friends (the presumed “they”) the ones doing the welcoming?

I will confess that I looked at the Greek text, which helped me out a little bit. You can read it word-for-word at this link. Notice that the word for “mammon” (mamona) is used as is the word for “unjustness” (adikias). When you read the whole gospel lesson and get to the end—“you cannot serve two masters”—mammon reminds me of serving it as a master. Perhaps the subtle suggestion made by Jesus isn’t to praise the dishonesty but to criticize the mammon.

The dishonest steward shows us the treachery of money/mammon itself. But his real goal is to be received into people’s homes when he can’t afford it anymore. Mammon is temporary. Mammon is transient. Mammon fails (another word from the Greek text). What really matters is getting home safely. The owner (who is likewise bound by the treacherous system of mammon) praises the steward’s shrewdness because he, too, recognizes that mammon isn’t an end in itself but only a means to an end. Jesus’ message to the disciples, therefore, is to let go of an attachment to mammon in this world and, instead, use it as a means to an end; i.e., do whatever it takes to get to the eternal habitations.

The next problem, of course, is the “they.” Who are they? Why are they receiving the crafty disciples into the eternal habitations? I still don’t know. The Greek uses a middle aorist 3rd-person plural form of the verb for “to receive” (dexOntai) and thus implies “they” without telling us who “they” are. Maybe Jesus meant another “they.” Or maybe it really the parallel with the parable is intentionally sloppy. In other words, Jesus says, “Remember that mammon is temporal and fleeting. Like all things, use it purely with heaven in mind—not because you can buy your way into heaven but because heaven is the only thing that lasts.”

Still, I’m not sure about much. I’m not preaching this Sunday, but I’m enjoying struggling with the text. Prayers for all those who are preaching this week.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Preaching Shrewdness

This Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 16:1-13) contains a parable that gives me great trouble. The parable of the dishonest manager is so strange, so confusing, so…wrong!, that I read it and read it and look for a clear answer only to find half-guesses and unconvincing conjectures. Whether you’re preaching on Sunday or simply showing up to hear a sermon, you’d better start preparing now if it’s going to make any sense.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus tells the story of a dishonest manager whose master had discovered his treachery. When an account of his management was demanded by the owner, the manager panicked. “What will I do? I am not strong enough to be a laborer, and I am too arrogant to beg.” After considering his options, he did what many people in a similar position would do—make friends with his master’s creditors by using under-the-table deals to curry favor with them. “What, you owe my master 100 jugs of oil? Make it 50! And you—you owe 100 containers of wheat? Make it 80!” Then, what is surely the manager’s worst nightmare comes true: the master discovers the plot. And then the unthinkable happens. The owner praises the dishonest, deceitful, self-interested manager for his shrewdness.

What? Just in case the disciples missed the point, Jesus finishes by saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Yeah, that’s right. Crazy town. How do we deal with this madness? What do you do with a dishonest manager who neglects his duties in order to provide a golden parachute for himself? You praise him for his cunning. What is the lesson we are supposed to learn from this bizarre parable? Use whatever means necessary to make sure you’ll be taken care of in the end. I can’t wait to hear how the children’s sermon in children’s chapel goes.

Really, though, what’s the point? I think the mistake is trying to read too much into this. The preacher who attempts to cast this parable as Jesus’ prescription for the entire Christian life will find herself or himself in some trouble. The point can’t be that we’re supposed to be dishonest. But it also can’t be a sarcastic or satirical portrayal. I don’t think Luke would have portrayed Jesus telling a parable whose meaning isn’t apparent to the reader. And that’s where I think we should stay—on the surface.

This parable is about doing whatever it takes to get a place in the kingdom. Period. Say no more than that. It’s not about honesty v. dishonest. It’s not about a heartless owner who demands too much interest from those to whom he lends. It’s not about Jesus calling into question the capitalist influences that are taking over first-century Palestine. It’s about kingdom-first living.

Is Jesus being controversial? Sure he is. It’s a parable. It’s supposed to get your attention. Is Jesus saying some things that don’t really make sense? Absolutely he is. It’s a parable. It’s not supposed to be an allegory for discipleship. I believe most parables are like modern art. They are supposed to leave you with a feeling, an impression, without needing to be explained. What’s the point of this parable? That the kingdom is what counts. That nothing else should stand in the way of getting into the kingdom. The construct Jesus uses to convey that message is powerful, but it can be misleading. Stop on the surface. Be amazed that the kingdom is so important that Jesus can even tell a fanstastically strange story about it, but make sure you leave with the impression Jesus wanted you to have.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Who's He Talking To?

When reading this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 15:1-10), don’t forget to whom Jesus is talking.

“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable.”

There were two groups surrounding Jesus. One group—those labeled by Luke as the sinners—was coming because they were welcomed by a popular religious authority in a way they had usually been ignored by the religious elites. The other group—the religious elites—was upset because Jesus was giving so much attention to the people they refused to welcome. Jesus, looking at the disparate crowd of ins and outs, told them these parables.

As yourself two questions: 1) “When I hear this parable, which group do I think of myself belonging to?” and 2) “How would I hear this parable if I thought of myself belonging to the other group?”

Radical inclusion is always nice if you’re standing on the outside, looking for an invitation. But it isn’t so much fun if you’re already at the dance party when the doors are thrown wide open and the masses start streaming in.

The message, I think, is two-fold. In some real sense, all of us are lost and are being sought by the God who loves us. Even though most of the people I see in church on Sunday already have their dance card punched, we are all lost in one way or another. We all need to be found. At the same time, however, we resist the limitlessness of God’s welcome. Grace is wonderful when it’s for me and the people I like. But, when God is searching out the people I’d rather stay hidden, I am threatened. That which makes me feel special—the party that the woman throws for me, the lost coin—loses its shine.

I need both. I need the gospel to remind me that God is searching for me, and I need the gospel to remind me that God is searching for everyone who is lost. As a part of God’s church, how am I reflecting both? How are we reminding the world both that all are sought by God and that it is only through God’s seeking of us—the Church—that we have any identity at all?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Why I Think the Magi Belong on September 11

Which gospel account has your favorite beginning to the story? John is popular with his poetic and mysterious prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” Luke tells all of the back story and gives us the shepherds, the angels, and the manger. Mark skips the whole birth account and begins right with John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance. Matthew opens with a genealogy, a brief account of Joseph’s angel-induced decision to remain married to the pregnant Virgin Mary, and then the rather detailed story that we have as today’s gospel lesson—the tale of the Three Wise Men.

I’ve always loved the wise men. As a child, I liked the fact that they brought really good birthday presents to the baby Jesus. Anyone who brings a box of gold to a birthday party is ok in my book. As I grew older and learned that Epiphany has its own celebration—that the wise men don’t make it to the manger scene until the 12 days of Christmas are over—I became even more fascinated. And, now that I’ve been doing this church-thing professionally for a while, I’m even more struck by their presence in the story, but now my interest is focused on why Matthew bothered to write them into the account at all.

Why did Matthew tell the story of the wise men? Regardless of how you read the bible—whether as a literal historical account or a collection of myths or, more likely, somewhere in between—I think you’d admit that the answer has to be something more than “because that’s how it happened.” Matthew is the only one who mentions the wise men. They feature in his account because they add something to the way he wants us to read the story. Even Luke, with all his detail and backstory, didn’t bother. So why the magi?

Matthew starts with a genealogy. In fact, his opening words are, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” That’s not as memorable as John’s opening line, but it’s just as distinctive. Matthew sets his whole gospel in the context of the Jewish Jewishness of Jesus. He is signaling to the reader that, whatever happens on the ensuing pages (or scroll-equivalent), everything ties back to Jesus’ ancestry and his identity as a descendent of Abraham and David. And, sure enough, Matthew’s gospel account is the one in which Jesus sends out the disciples and says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” Throughout his account, Matthew presents to us a thoroughly Jewish-focused Jesus—at least until the Great Commission at the end, when Jesus finally sends them out to make disciples of all nations.

And that’s why the magi are so important—because they aren’t Jewish. They’re strangers. They’re foreigners. They’re practicers of some weird, forbidden, astrological religion. Yet they show up in a beautiful, God-led, allegorical way. As the age-old name for Epiphany suggests, this was the “manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.” So no matter how exclusive the gospel story might seem—no matter how ethnically focused Jesus’ ministry might be—the reader already gets a glimpse of a bigger picture.

It’s no accident that Matthew uses a popular story to portray the foreigners in the text. How can you not love the magi? Everyone loves that part of the story. But, because we read it so close to Christmas, we miss the chance to celebrate what it really represents: the good news of Jesus Christ is not and cannot be restricted to the few but must be shared with all.

Today happens to be September 11. For the first time in as long as I can remember, there don’t seem to be a lot of documentaries on television, and I haven’t heard of any public remembrances that are planned for today. Maybe that’s because we now have our hands full with Syria. Maybe it’s because we’re tired of reliving the past. Maybe it’s because we’ve become desensitized to the memory of that day and need to be reminded of its horror. Or maybe it’s because we’re moving away from a reliving of the day and its aftermath and toward a deeper, more reflective appreciation for the anniversary itself.

For me, the months after 9/11/01 were confusing. Part of me felt wounded and attacked but unable to identify clearly who it was that had hurt me. Part of me was ready to move on. Part of me was concerned at the heightened sense of American exclusivity and protectionism that manifested itself in the flags that were hung everywhere—especially by store owners who appeared to be of “foreign descent.” Part of me was repulsed by the fact that I started scanning crowds at ballgames or airports or shopping malls, looking for the terrorist among us.

We haven’t added 9/11 to our liturgical calendar. It still seems a little early to do that. But maybe the story of the magi is the perfect gospel lesson for today (a coincidence in the Daily Office). Foreigners from the east are led by God to the site of Jesus’ birth in order to balance the ethno-exclusivity of the gospel story by reminding us that God works in and through people we might never expect to see at the manger.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Accounting, Animal Husbandry, & God

Sometimes I think I should have been an accountant instead of a priest. Luke 15 (the chapter from which Sunday’s gospel lesson comes) is one of the foundational texts for Christianity. It’s a collection of parables of lostness—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (prodigal) son. It seems the success of Jesus’ parables hinges upon the audience’s ability to answer the question, “Which one of you…” in the affirmative. In other words, Jesus says, “Who among you wouldn’t leave the 99 other sheep in search for the lost on?” He asks, “Who wouldn’t stop everything and search for the lost coin and then throw a party when he found it?” As a priest, I feel like I’m supposed to answer the way Jesus wants me to, but I must admit my heart isn’t really in it.

Priest, yes. Accountant, maybe. Shepherd, definitely not. I worked on a small farm one summer, but I never kept sheep. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m almost positive that, if sent out into the wilderness to look for one missing sheep, I’d spend the whole time saying to myself, “Is this sheep really worth it? One sheep? Really? Bleepity-bleeping sheep! It better look sorry when I find it!” After a cursory ten-minute look, I’d likely give up, declare the animal lost forever, and then return to my front porch, willing to pay for the animal myself. Why? It’s not because I don’t like sheep. And it’s not because I’m lazy or self-interested (though that’s part of it). Mainly, it’s because the math doesn’t make sense.

We’re talking about a 1% attrition rate. It’s one sheep out of a heard of one-hundred. The average gestation of a ewe is 146-147 days. (I looked it up.) That’s less than 5 months before TWO new lambs are born. (Again,I looked it up.) Think of all the things that could go wrong with the other ninety-nine while the shepherd is out looking for the one screw-up. Why would he risk it all for that one little sheep? Why does the one matter that much? It’s the one that got lost. Maybe we should let natural selection take its course. Let the coyotes remove the wandering idiot sheep from the breeding stock.

But there’s my real prejudice. And that’s why this parable speaks to me. Maybe God’s seeking out the lost doesn’t really make sense. Maybe these parable aren’t built on the premise that everyone would agree. I need to spend some time this week looking that up. Would a shepherd really leave ninety-nine behind in search of the one? I wouldn’t, but God would. For me, that’s the point. God is the ultimate non-utilitarian. There is zero attrition with God. No one is lost—not even one. God is the great shepherd because, despite having several billion sheep in his sheepfold, God takes time to search for every single one that wanders astray. Sometimes parables are supposed to make sense, and sometimes, like God’s love, they aren’t.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Less than Human?

The tongue is a fire, which no one can tame—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. (From today's NT reading in the Daily Office)

On my newsfeed this morning, I saw this NPR article, which reports that Ariel Castro hanged himself last night. As you’ll see, the article isn’t so much about his death as it is about people’s reactions to the news of his death. I haven’t perused Facebook or Twitter to see it for myself, but the article suggests that social media are full of vitriolic hate-speech for the man who enacted a decade of unspeakable torture upon three women and a daughter. I have no love in my heart for Mr. Castro, but I must admit that phrases like “rest in hell” and “Oops, my sympathy bag appears to be empty” leave me sad, disappointed, and discouraged.

Is it ever acceptable to wish that someone suffers in hell for all eternity? Is someone’s death ever cause for rejoicing? Is the hurt that someone causes—like that produced by Mr. Castro—ever so great that suicide is something we would say is “right” or “deserved?” Do a person’s crimes ever make him so inhuman his death doesn’t even register as the extinguishment of a human life?

What happens to Mr. Castro now? Where is he? Does he go to heaven? Does he go to hell? Will we ever know? Who does the funeral? Who prays for him? Does he have a family? Does anyone care?

This isn’t the first time social media has been used by people to dispute the humanity of another human being, and it won’t be the last. Surely no one will rush to the defense of Mr. Castro, but is any human being truly indefensible? Do social media make it easier to kick a dead man when he’s down? I’m not saying that he deserves the decency that he denied his victims, but will anyone stop to remember that a human being—sinful though he was yet still made in God’s image—was so broken that he chose to end his own life?

I don’t think this blog gets enough views to cause any major controversy, but I still wonder whether I’m asking for trouble. Can I ask these questions—the kind of questions that I think Jesus would ask us—without exacerbating the harm that Mr. Castro caused those women and their community? Can someone point out the patently unchristian, subhuman nature of such online posts without simultaneously devaluing the evil of Mr. Castro’s actions? 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Die Rich or Live Poor?

Just when I think I’ve got the gospel lesson (Luke 14:25-33) figured out, Jesus goes and tacks on a closing sentence like this one and blows everything out of the water: “So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Sure, discipleship is costly, but isn’t that a little extreme?

We’re making our way through some tough sayings of Jesus. Last Sunday, it was the “choose the lowest place” and “invite the poor to dinner” bits of Luke 14. We skipped the parable of the man whose originally invited guests made excuses, forcing him to invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. And now we pull it all together with a reflective teaching that’s supposed to focus our understanding of discipleship into a sound-bite that we can take away. I thought it was going to be “count the cost,” but how can you get through this reading without stumbling over “give up all your possessions?”

Is discipleship costly? Yes. Can I even get my mind around giving up family affiliations if they stand in the way of my discipleship? Yes. Would I use the language “hate father and mother?” No, but I get what Jesus is saying. (He’s on a roll; don’t interrupt him!) Should each of us consider the real cost of discipleship before jumping on board? Absolutely. Saying “yes” to God can lead you into places you didn’t expect (or want) to go. (Just ask any of the disciples who met untimely deaths because of their affiliation with Jesus.) But then we get to the end of the speech, and we expect Jesus to have moved from parabolic speech to literal speech—from exaggeration to clarity—and, instead of something sensible, Jesus says that you have to give up everything.

And so a question: would you rather live poor or die rich? Although I have a solid streak of materialism running through my American veins, I don’t consider myself overly attached to stuff. Still, though, the thought of giving up everything is a little scary. Everything? All that I own? Really? I haven’t thought through this long enough to be sure, but instinctively I think it would be easier for me to die for my faith than to give up everything I have. What about you?

The real point, of course, is to ask ourselves what in our lives stands in the way of discipleship. In my culture, I’d guess that family isn’t as important as possessions. Maybe in another context Jesus’ words get easier as the passage moves along, but, in my world, the thought of owning nothing is terrifying. Doesn’t that suggest that giving it all up is exactly what we’re supposed to do? Counting the cost of discipleship isn’t about making a trade-off. In economics, we decide whether our limited resources should be spent on a diamond ring or a family vacation. But discipleship doesn’t work that way. There is no, “how much is this going to cost me?” There is no, “what else can I afford?” You don’t get to be a Christian if you’re asking yourself how much or how little you’ll have to give up. Discipleship costs everything.

Is there room for anything else? Maybe, but that can’t be part of the decision. Can I be a Christian and own a car? Maybe, but I have to be a Christian first and then figure it out. I have to be willing to hear Jesus telling me to give up everything, which is to say I can’t hold anything back. I’m not sure I counted that cost before I signed up, but maybe I’m supposed to spend every day coming to grips with it.