Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, July 24, 2022

YEAR C 2022, pentecost 7

Pentecost 7, 2022
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Man, I really love these readings today.  Well, except for that long-winded one from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  But as I already told you a couple weeks ago, I have a complicated relationship with Paul and his letters.  So let’s start with the first reading, from Genesis.

When we read from the first book of the Bible, I think it’s helpful to remember that God is actually new to being God.  We don’t know if there is life on other planets; all we know from scripture is that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The Garden of Eden is God’s first experience with having people.  Human beings are learning what it is like to be God’s people, but God is also learning what it is like to have “a people.”  Strange as it is to say, God has never done this before.  And there are plenty of times in scripture where you can sort of see God saying, “Well, it never occurred to me they’d need a rule about that!”  And then God makes a rule.

So, throughout Genesis, God is learning what it means to have a people, and people are learning what it means to be God’s people.  And that’s good to keep in mind when we hear today’s reading.  As we heard, Abraham goes before God and asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”  And I don’t know about you, but I would expect God to respond, “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that?”  I mean, the arrogance of him!  But then Abraham starts into what sounds like a bargaining negotiation, to our ears.  

What if there are 50 righteous?  How about 45?  Or 40?  Do I hear 30?  Anyone for 20?  How about 10?  And then I’m thinking, wow, that Abraham is one clever fellow!  Got God to spare the city by chipping away at the righteousness threshold until all he needs is 10 righteous people.  Way to go Abraham!  You got God to be merciful with your shameless persistence and arrogance!

But here’s the thing.  What if this is not a story about Abraham persuading God to be merciful?  What if, instead, this is a story about God getting Abraham to understand the wideness of God’s mercy?  Not that Abraham is a super clever negotiator, but rather that God is waiting for Abraham to catch up?  Approach this reading by imagining God wondering, “How can I get Abraham to understand the breadth of my mercy?  How can I get Abraham to know that I want everyone to live?”  Well, it changes everything.

Because here’s a subtle little shift that you might not even have noticed.    Abraham is looking to convince God not to destroy the city.  He’s probing to find the minimum number of righteous people in order to save the town from destruction.  He asks, if there are fifty righteous in the city, will you spare it from destruction?  And God answers, if there are fifty righteous, “I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”  Arrogant upstart Abraham is aiming for the bare minimum of physical preservation, and God immediately goes way beyond that and announces absolute forgivenessTo everybody!  Abraham wants mere survival, and God ratchets it up to a blanket forgiveness.  God’s mercy is way beyond what Abraham could ask or imagine.

Abraham speaks to God with shameless arrogance and receives unmerited mercy and forgiveness, which connects perfectly to the reading from Luke.  But let’s start with the mini-parable that Jesus offers.  Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight asking for 3 loaves of bread to put before an unexpected guest.  And the friend answers from inside that he is already in bed, and he cannot get up and give you anything.  However, “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  We have to break down that sentence a little.

Essentially, the friend would not help solely on the basis of friendship.  Wow.  Some friend, right?  But then, “because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  Now, “persistence” is a really bad choice of words here.  Because the original word means something more like shamelessness, arrogance, or impudence.  Shameless arrogance is what we’re talking about.  The friend would not help out of friendship, but because of the absolute arrogance of the request, he will give him whatever he needs.  It’s the audacity that does it, not the relationship.

Now let’s take a side road to look at the Lord’s Prayer.  We have the familiar wording from our prayer book, which we’ve all memorized long ago.  That version sort of lines up with what Jesus says in Matthew.  In today’s wording, from Luke, it’s a little different.  However, in both versions of the Lord’s Prayer, something really jumps out at me today.  Once you get past the opening bit, the petitions in this prayer are essentially demands we are making.  You could imagine them with exclamation points after them.  Give us this day our daily bread!  Forgive us our trespasses!  Lead us not into temptation!  Deliver us from evil!

What might we call the audacity of making these demands from God?  Shameless arrogance?  Impudence?  A whole lotta nerve?  If there’s one theme that connects these two readings today, it is that we should actually approach God with audacity.  Which we are completely uncomfortable doing, at least consciously.  Or, you could put it another way: we do not have because we do not ask.

In this reading, Jesus tells his disciples what they need to do is to seek, to knock, to ask.  Not to wait around to be asked to ask.  An interesting thing about the prayers we use in worship each week is that they also have this same sort of audacious tone.  If we are going to pray to the Creator of all that is, we might as well go for broke, right?  And we do!  Give us world peace.  Make our clergy preach your true and lively word.  Heal the sick.  Give us wisdom.  Protect the environment.  Give us strength.  Though we might not be conscious of it, our prayers are audacious!  Shamelessly audacious!

As Jesus said about the friend who was sleeping, “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his "persistence" (his audacity, his shameless boldness) he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  Whatever he needs.  My friends, we know that God knows our needs before we know to ask.  And as we saw today, it is our shameless arrogance in asking that prompts God’s response, which is always beyond what we can ask or imagine.  Go for broke in our asking.  God knows what is good for us, and God promises to respond to our prayers.  May we always remember to boldly ask of the one from whom all good things come.  And may our prayers be shameless in their audacity!


Sunday, July 10, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 5

Pentecost 5, 2022
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Good Samaritan.  You’ve heard this story before.  There are so many things one can say about this gospel reading from Luke.  Three years ago, when this story came up, I focused on the connection to the Confession, where we admit that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.  Meaning, if that’s what Jesus says we need to do in order to have life, then we are unable to do it on our own.  And that’s why we need Jesus.

And this year, I want to focus on getting the right people in the right place in this story.  First thing, the guy who comes to Jesus is a lawyer.  But he’s not a lawyer like you and I think of lawyers.  He’s a student of the law, an expert in the law, but it’s the Law of Moses we’re talking about, not the Ohio Revised Code.  He’s a scholar, more than a lawyer.  He’s trying to gain insight from Jesus, not trap him in some technicality.  But, more specifically, we’re told he is trying to “justify himself.”  That’s an important phrase in this story.  The scholar is trying to justify himself.

So this lawyer, wanting to justify himself—or perhaps not wanting to accidentally love someone he doesn’t have to—asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  That is, whom exactly am I supposed to be loving?  Skips right over the first part about loving God, and tries to get a narrower reading on what Jesus means by “neighbor.”  And then, of course, Jesus tells the story that we call “The Good Samaritan.”

Although we do not know much about the Samaritans, there is one thing we do know about them.  The Jewish people hated them.  Samaritans were half-breeds.  They worshipped on the wrong mountain, setting up their Temple somewhere other than Jerusalem.  The Jewish people saw the Samaritans as unclean, backward heretics . . . The lowest of the low.

So the guy in the story is going down from Jerusalem (that is, returning from where the Jewish Temple is located), and he is beaten and robbed and left for dead.  Along come two representatives of the Law, probably coming from that same Temple:  a Priest and a Levite.  Under the system that the lawyer has been studying, these two would be expected to help.  Love God and love your neighbor; that’s the Law.  So the Law should save the guy, see?  And here are a couple of people who personify the Law.  If the Law can save the poor wretch, well, here comes his Cavalry!

And what does the Law do?  What do the heroes of the Law do?  They cross to the other side.  They avoid the man completely.  They leave him to die in his misery.  The Law cannot save him.

And so, Jesus introduces the third person approaching the man.  The lawyer would be expecting maybe a Judge, or a Scribe, or a Pharisee.  Someone of high religious stature to save the man.  And instead, Jesus sends . . . Wait for it . . . A Samaritan!  The scum of the earth, at your service, sir.  Whereas the righteous, upstanding men cross to the other side of the street, the lowly Samaritan “came near him.”

The Samaritan saw this victim as a human being, worthy of love and support, and, “when he saw him, he was moved with pity.”  The Priest and the Levite cross to the other side of the road so they do not have to see the man.  They shut their eyes.  They avoid their neighbor so they don’t have to love him.  Love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself . . . Unless you can cross to the other side of the street, in which case, definitely do that instead.

And Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  No getting around this one.  But notice what Jesus has done here.  The Lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  And after telling the story, Jesus asks him, “Who was a neighbor to the man?”  The Lawyer is not the Samaritan; the Lawyer is the man in the ditch, the one in need of a neighbor.  You and I are the ones in the ditch.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, this is not a morality tale about how you can help your neighbor.  The Good Samaritan is not a story about us being kind to other people.  Because--just like the lawyer--we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves.  Not on our own.  In a matter of minutes you and I are going to admit that in the Confession:  We have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves--the two things you must do to inherit eternal life.  

The point is that the Law is not going to save you.  The Law crosses the street and leaves you for dead.  Since you cannot love God with your whole heart, and you cannot love your neighbor as yourself, you cannot follow the Law, and therefore you cannot inherit eternal life.  End of story.  Amen.

How’s that for a gospel story?  Awful right?  It’s awful because I’ve just walked us down the path of trying to get us to justify ourselves, as the lawyer was doing.  

And that’s why you and I are left dying in a ditch, beaten and robbed and left for dead.  Jesus asks the lawyer which character was a neighbor to the injured man, and the lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.”  That is, the Samaritan.  Jesus says, “Go and do likewise and you will live,” which the lawyer and we are unable to do.  Yes, the Good Samaritan saves the victim, but we are not Good Samaritans.  But the good news is, we have a Good Samaritan.

And so this is where it’s important to ask ourselves:  Who was that masked Samaritan?  Who can possibly save the one dying in the ditch?  Who is it that binds up the wounds of the hurting?  Who makes the lame walk and brings redemption to those who are dead in sin?  Who is this who offers oil and wine and pays the debt we owe?

If you and I are the ones lying beaten and robbed in the ditch, then who is the Samaritan?  The Samaritan is the one who is rejected by his own people.  Hated enough to be strung up on a cross.  You see how this story turns, don’t you?  Jesus is the rejected one who saves you and me from the power of death in our lives.

You and I are not the Samaritan.  You and I are the ones lying in the ditch, unable to save ourselves.  We think the law will save us.  You know, follow the rules, try a little harder, be kind to our elders, eat lots of vegetables.  But when we need salvation and new life, the law crosses to the other side of the street.  It cajoles and condemns, and demands good behavior from us, but the Law does not save.  

But along comes this despised one, the one who lives outside the Law.  The very stone that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone.  Along comes the one who is reviled and condemned and cast out . . . And he picks up the injured, binds up the wounded, wipes away the tears, and pays for our redemption.

And more than that, when we are beaten down and broken and rejected, he meets us where we are, in this place.  He comes to us in the meal at this altar, offering himself in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  You and I do not find salvation in loving God and our neighbor.  Because.  We.  Can’t.  Not on our own.

No, instead we find salvation in trusting the one who saves us from death and the grave, the one who does not cross to the other side of the street, but meets us where we are, right here, right now.  And, being strengthened by this meal, and confident of those promises, we go out into the world proclaiming the good news of what God has done for all people.  And, in that joy, and with God’s help, we just might find that—despite ourselves—we do end up loving God with our whole hearts, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  All because the Good Samaritan has come near to us.  Because we are loved, we too might love our neighbors, just as Jesus loves our neighbors.


Sunday, July 3, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 4

Pentecost 4, 2022
Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Such interesting readings this morning.  Especially in light of what is happening in our country these days.  For instance, that first reading from Isaiah, talking about breast milk, as we are still experiencing a baby formula shortage.  Hits a little too close to home for many parents I’m sure.

But I love that we get this nurturing aspect of God so clearly laid out in this passage.  To those just returned from exile, God gives comfort just “as a mother comforts her child.”  Plus, we all just learned the word “dandled.”  I think we naturally default to God being angry and powerful with a beard and lightning bolts.  (But, as I’ve told you many times, that’s not our God; that’s Zeus.)  And in this reading we hear nothing but comfort and care and consolation.  We would do well to hold on to this imagery when times are tough.  Which it seems they always are these days.

And now on to Paul.  As I’ve mentioned before, every Tuesday I meet with a group of clergy online to talk through the readings for the coming Sunday.  We read each lesson and then discuss it.  By this point I have a certain reputation for being the anti-Paul member of the group.  After someone reads the Epistle, I typically unmute to say, “I hate this reading.”  Sometimes people push back and tell me what’s good about it, and sometimes people say, “Yeah, me too.”  But I now I have become known as the guy who doesn’t like Paul.

And so today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians . . . well, as I say, I’m not the biggest fan of Paul’s letters.  He often says things that are too easily taken to mean something else.  Or, worse, people read his advice to a specific group of people in a specific circumstance at a specific time, and then declare that it is true for all people in all circumstances.  For example, his warning to the Corinthians that women should be silent in church was written to a specific group of people about a specific group of women in a specific parish at a specific time.  He was not writing to you and me.

So in the start of today’s reading, Paul writes, For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor's work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.  That passage can be read—and in fact, often is read—as being a sort of Ben Franklin admonishment of laziness and the need for self sufficiency and hard work.  But it could also just as easily be read as a Eugene Debbs socialist argument against CEO’s living off the sweat of the workers who actually produce the goods.  With Paul, your starting framework often determines what you think he is saying.  And that is why I’m not Paul’s biggest fan.  Sorry Paul.

However, the part about circumcision is important, and helps explain the Ben Franklin/Eugene Debbs portion.  The setup here is that Paul is trying to bring peace between the Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity.  The Jewish folks are saying the Gentiles need to be circumcised because that’s what the Law of Moses says.  But Paul writes, Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.  Like, they want to brag that they made you follow the Law, even when they themselves do not follow the Law.  In that context, Paul saying, “everyone must carry their own load” comes across less like “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and more like, “Mind your own beeswax!”  So, in this rare case, I agree with Paul!

And the idea of forcing our beliefs on others leads nicely into today’s gospel reading, from Luke.  But first, remember last week’s gospel?  Jesus and his disciples are walking past a Samaritan town, and James and John ask Jesus if he’d like them to burn it to the ground.  James and John’s idea of spreading the good news is to call down fire upon their enemies.  Talk about forcing your beliefs on others!  Well in today’s reading, which comes right after that, Jesus offers a different method of spreading the good news.

As we heard, Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs, and his instructions run to other extreme from James and John and their fiery vengeance on those with different views.  Jesus doesn’t equip them for a holy war where the gospel is forced.  In fact, he de-equips them, so they must depend fully on the one who is sending them, and the ones to whom they are sent.  Rather than offering them overwhelming destructive power, he removes power completely, and sends them out as “lambs among wolves.”

And it’s interesting that he doesn’t give them any content or material beyond “peace.”  There is no catechism, no discipleship workbook, no copies of “The Purpose Driven Life.”  Just . . . peace.  Remember how Luke’s gospel starts?  With the birth of Jesus?  And what do the angels sing when they announce that this baby has been born?  “Glory to God in heaven, and peace to God’s people on earth.”

It is baked in from the beginning that Jesus would bring peace, rather than fiery destruction.  That Jesus would save through surrender and persuasion, rather than dominance and force.  There are many Christians in our country right now fiercely arguing for forcing Christianity on our fellow citizens and . . . well, I’ll just say it again, Jesus saves through surrender and persuasion, not through dominance and force.  James and John and their fiery destruction belong with Zeus, not Jesus Christ.

But let’s look at that phrase from Jesus about peace.  He says,  “And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person.”  The actual phrase used here is “child of peace.”  It’s not just a peaceful person.  It suggests a person who personifies peace, who is born of peace.  It’s not in their actions or attitude; it is who they are.  Children of peace.  Jesus tells his disciples to go out and gather the children of peace.  The ones who desire and pursue peace.

Jesus saves through surrender and persuasion, rather than dominance and force.  Look at the instructions he gives to those he sends out.  “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.”  Whatever they provide?  Can you even imagine?  What if I stayed with somebody and they ate peas every night and drank decaf coffee in the morning?  Or, given that those around Jesus were all Jewish, what if the hosts were serving pork and non-kosher foods?  The disciples certainly aren’t ordering out for pizza after the hosts go to bed.  This is some serious surrender and persuasion.

Rather than forcefully grabbing the levers of power, Jesus offers instead absolute vulnerability to spread the good news.  It’s safe to say we have a hard time accepting this as an effective strategy.  And yet, it is what Jesus tells them to do.  Not our will, but your will be done.  Not fiery dominance, but peace and persuasion.

And then here’s a surprising thing.  Jesus tells them to “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you’.”  And, when a town rejects you, say to them, “Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near’.”  Whether they are welcomed or rejected, the kingdom of God has come near.  Which means, the welcome or rejection have nothing to do with whether the kingdom of God has come near.  You can do nothing to bring it nor reject it:  The kingdom of God is here!

However we react when the peace of God comes to us, the kingdom of God has already come near.  Our acceptance or rejection of it do not matter.  God’s kingdom still comes to us.  As the angels sang at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in heaven, and peace to God’s people on earth.”  Their song means that Jesus has been born, that God walks among us, that peace is with us, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Come, Lord Jesus, and bring us your peace.