Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 25, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 16

Pentecost 16, 2022
Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

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

We have to guard against going with our immediate gut feeling, hearing this parable.  Because, our initial reading is probably something like this:  If you don’t help poor people, you will end up burning in hell. And there are a whole bunch of signs that that’s not what Jesus is saying here.  We’ll go through this parable in a second, but I want to tell you from the start, the thing to focus on here is the great chasm.  The separation is the thing.  There is indeed a great chasm that has been fixed, because the rich man has fixed it himself.  But let’s start with Hades.

First thing to say, today’s gospel is not a proof for the existence of heaven or hell, because it is a parable.  It is a metaphor, an allegory, a story told for the purpose of telling us something else.  Whatever you get out of this gospel reading today, I implore you not to think that it somehow proves the existence of heaven or hell.  Because it doesn’t; it is a parable.  

Secondly, Hades is from Greek mythology, not the Jewish faith.  The unnamed rich man goes to Hades, which no one listening to Jesus considered to be a real place.  It’s like saying Dorothy and her companions went to the Emerald City.  Not a real place.  For Jesus to say the rich ruler is in Hades tells us that Jesus is not telling a true story about heaven and hell, or trying to describe what happens after death.  Point being: If someone asks you how you know whether heaven and hell exist, do not cite this parable as your proof text, because it is a made-up story, intended to make a different point completely.

So, is this parable a warning to us?  Seems like it, doesn’t it?  But it’s a warning that sounds more like karma than Christianity.  Especially so, given Abraham’s tone.  He blithely says, “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.”  Sounds like karma, right?  Your actions during your lifetime determine what happens after you die?  But I want to point out the passive nature of both men.  Abraham says, “You received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things.”

Neither man has earned anything, which is significant.  The rich man did not earn his riches.  He just has them.  And, just as important, Lazarus did not earn his poverty.  As far as wealth, they have both lived their lives as life handed it to them.  And this is further cemented for Lazarus in the Greek.  The word used is ballw, which means to throw.  Lazarus is passively dumped at the gate of the rich man.  He lacks even the agency to determine where he will beg.  “You received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things.”

And notice the lack of the word “therefore” in what Abraham says.  He doesn’t say BECAUSE you received your good things and Lazarus received evil things, this is where you both ended up.  He doesn’t say as a result of receiving your good and bad things this is how things are.  He just says, “but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”  Like Abraham is just observing the way things were, and the way things are.

So the point Jesus is making in this parable is not that your actions in this life determine what happens to you after you die.  I’m not saying they don’t; I’m just saying that’s not what Jesus is saying here.  Because Hades is not a real place, and neither guy does anything in this parable.  One guy is rich by no effort of his own, and one guy is poor, through no fault of his own.  And now one is suffering and one is being comforted.  And Abraham just seems to sort of shrug it off, right?  Like, “what are ya’ gonna do?”

So to sum up so far, where these men end up is not the result of their actions.  Everything up to this point is just to get us to this point.  And the point is the great chasm.  Their lives on earth, rich and poor, are just there to set the scene for the point Jesus is making.  And it’s all about the chasm.

And now you’re asking, okay, so what is the chasm?  Thanks for asking.  The chasm in this parable is not one of distance.  It’s not a separation of space.  No, the chasm here is in not seeing the value and dignity of other human beings.  You notice, in the set up, Lazarus is thrown at the rich man’s gate, and—as far as we can tell—the rich man doesn’t even notice him.  Doesn’t ever acknowledge him.  The rich man just lives his rich life, and Lazarus lives his poor life.  But the rich man is the only one who could do something about the situation, and he doesn’t.  Lazarus can do nothing except wish for the scraps, but he cannot do anything except sit where he is thrown.  The rich man could make a difference—with even just his scraps—but he doesn’t, because he doesn’t see Lazarus.  There’s the chasm.  The great divide is between those who can see other people and those who cannot.

The rich man views Lazarus as a means to his own ends.  And even that happens only after he dies!  Notice, when he finally does see Lazarus—after they’re both dead—he wants to use him for his own purposes.  He says, “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”  He says, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house” so he can warn my brothers.  The rich man suddenly has one ounce of compassion, but it’s for his own family.  Lazarus is not a person to the rich man, and that’s the chasm.  Not a separation of distance, but a separation of understanding, which not even death can overcome.  Hades is a mythical place, the place where Lazarus only exists to serve the rich man’s needs.  It’s not a real place.  It is a fiction in the mind of the rich man

The chasm is something that cannot be overcome by sending Lazarus around like an errand boy, which is how the rich man views the world.  The rich man is unable to change—even in death, living in his imaginary Hades.  He wants to keep on using actual human beings as pawns to his own ends. 

He would probably think nothing of putting asylum seekers on an airplane under false pretenses, and flying them to another state in order to serve his own needs.  Because they’re not really people, you see; they’re just props.  Poor people are just a thing to be used to get what he wants out of them.  Lazarus only matters when the rich man can use him to get something for himself.  Otherwise, Lazarus is just a desperate man, dumped at the border of his extreme wealth, available to be used as needed for his own purposes.

And that is the great chasm that separates the rich man from Lazarus.  It is not what he did in his earthly life; it is about his continuing inability to see other people as God sees them.  As beloved children of God, made in the image of God.  In our own Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, not to use them to dip their finger in water to cool our tongues.  Not to go warn our brothers about how hard our indifference has made things.

But speaking of Baptism, here is a crucial difference between Lazarus and the rich man:  Lazarus has a name.   Some of you may recall that the Rite of Baptism was commonly called a “Christening.”  And what we now call our first names are sometimes known as our Christian names.  These two things are connected, of course.

In the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, just prior to baptizing the child, the Minister turns to the parents and Godparents and tells them, “Name this child.”  The connection between a first name and being baptized is very strong in the history of the church.  In baptism we are adopted into God’s family and given a name

There is the vague “a rich man,” and there is Lazarus.  Jesus tells this parable about some rich man who goes to his imaginary Hades, and about Lazarus who suffers through life and goes to be with Abraham.  But you know what’s really interesting about Lazarus?  Jesus knows his name.  Lazarus has a name, and Jesus knows it.  He is not a nameless poor guy who died.  He.  Is.  Lazarus.  Jesus knows the name of the one who suffers.  Jesus knows the one who needs help.  Jesus does not know the name of the rich guy who has everything he needs.  But Jesus knows Lazarus, the one in need.

You have been claimed as God’s own in baptism, and sealed with the cross of Christ forever.  Like Lazarus, you have been thrown into the place where you are, whatever that may mean.  You can do nothing to earn salvation, other than rely on the one who can actually save you.  The one who will send angels to carry you into the arms of Abraham.  The one who knows your name.

And that same Jesus comes to meet us today in this meal of bread and wine.  And I know that Jesus will meet us here, because Jesus has promised to be here—every time we gather together—to give us strength for the journey, and healing for our souls, and to remove the chasm that separates us from one another.  You are invited to this meal, because Jesus knows your name.  You and I will be carried into the arms of angels, because Jesus knows our names.  Though there is suffering in this world, we need not be afraid.  Because Jesus knows our names.


Sunday, September 18, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecots 15

Pentecost 15, 2022
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

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

You’re probably tired of me saying, “Oh, now this is a difficult gospel reading.”  My wife says I’m like the boy who cried wolf.  Because now that we have actually come to the hardest reading of the hardest summer of readings, you might not believe me.  On the bright side, when the readings are challenging, I learn a lot.  But then, I feel like I want to tell you a lot.  So I will try to keep myself in check here.

Okay.  First off, there are many different interpretations of what is going on in this parable Jesus tells.  If there were one correct way to view it, we’d all know what that is.  But nobody really knows.  The sort of “moral” of the story at the end does not fit with the parable itself, so most scholars think it just got slipped in there, out of order.  Matthew puts that bit about how you can’t serve both money and God in the Sermon on the Mount.  But Luke puts it here, and, well, it doesn’t fit with the parable Jesus just told.  Who knows?  So, for now,  let’s focus on the parable itself.

It’s probably best to say from the outset that the manager in this parable is what we call a “Christ figure.”  The manager acts in a way that tells us something about Jesus.  Of course, a Christ figure isn’t exactly like Jesus, otherwise that person would be Jesus, and he’s the one telling the story here.  A great example of a Christ figure can be found in “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” by CS Lewis, where the lion Aslan forfeits his life to save Edmund.  A character who tells us something about Jesus, but is not literally Jesus.  And I also want to note upfront that where our translation calls this character a “dishonest manager,” the actual wording in Greek is “The Manager of Injustice,” which helpfully sounds much more like a superhero than a shady businessperson.

Okay.  So, now I just want to point out a bunch of little things that jump out in the text.  First, the word “squandered” shows up here and also in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which happens right before this.  But the Greek word means something more like “scattered,” rather than squandered.  And I think that is important, especially to our 21st century ears.  We tend to hear “squandered” as meaning wasted, whereas the Greek word just means to be spread around.  So in the opening sentence, it should say something like, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was spreading his property around.”  Not wasting—sharing.

For this unauthorized dispersal of the boss’ wealth, the manager is told to give an account of his management, because he cannot be the manager anymore.  In other words, turn in your books; you’re fired.  As we might say:  You are dead to me.  And then the manager wonders to himself what he should do?  He can’t spread around the wealth by digging ditches.  He is too proud to beg.  And since he now can’t raise any money to spread around, he decides to just go out and cancel some debts instead.

He tells the one who owes a hundred jugs of oil to make it 50.  And he tells another who owes a hundred bushels of wheat to make it 80.  Two interesting things here.  It’s not an across the board cut where everything is reduced by half.  For whatever reason, one is reduced by half, and another is reduced by 1/5.  Possibly what we are seeing is equity rather than equality.  Who knows?  But the English major in me can’t help but notice that wheat and oil are two of the ingredients one needs to make bread, which now might make bread more affordable for everyone.  You know, bread ?  Anyway . . .

And then comes the strangest part of all.  After this trickery from the manager, after essentially robbing his boss in order to keep spreading around the wealth, we hear that his master commended the Manager of Injustice because he had acted shrewdly.  He found another way.  He had, in fact, managed the injustice.  And what is the term that we would use for what the manager has done?  Scandalous?  White collar crime?  Embezzling?  We have lots of words for it, but I daresay we would not be inclined to commend him “because he had acted shrewdly.”

And that’s where this story really takes off, I think.  Because we all have our view of morality tied up in knots with our view of Jesus.  We want to think of Jesus as an upstanding example for how to live your life and raise your children.  But that’s only because we’re not really looking at who Jesus is, and how Jesus acts.  He hangs out with the absolute worst people of his day.  He stands up for the oppressed, and breaks all the rules.  He rebels against the religious leaders and politicians to the point that they have him crucified.  He stands before Pontius Pilate and the religious authorities and is told to give an accounting of his management, because he has been distributing love and acceptance with abandon, and can no longer be the manager.  As we might say:  You are dead to me.

Dead manager.  Dead Jesus.  And what does the Manager of Injustice do?  He rises from the dead and forgives the debts of those who cannot pay them on their own.  And, if we’re honest, we are scandalized by this!  People who go into debt are supposed to pay their debts.  Just look at the reactions to a small portion of student debt being forgiven.  Scandalous!  This is not how the world is supposed to work.  In a respectable world, those in debt should stay in debt, those who are fired should stay fired, and those who are dead should remain dead!

But God does not play by the rules of this world.  As St. Augustine once wrote, the cross is the devil’s mousetrap.  What looks like total defeat—Jesus hanging on a cross like a common criminal—turns out to be the pathway to our redemption.  Only after being fired does the Manager of Injustice begin managing that injustice.  Only by going to the grave can Jesus lead us to eternal life.  It is in what looks like defeat that victory over death is won for us.  The mousetrap has been sprung, and the devil has fallen for it!

This parable is hard to understand only because it cuts completely against the grain of how we view the world.  It doesn’t make sense to us because—to be honest—we don’t really understand grace.  Not really.  God is not playing by the rules that we have set up for God.  We want rule breakers to be punished.  We want those in debt to pay those debts.  We want the dead to remain dead.  Because we do not see the world as God sees the world.

There is a bigger plan than what we can imagine.  There is more redemption than we can fathom.  There is more grace than we can stand.  And there is always hope, because we worship this Manager of Injustice, who will break every rule in order to save everyone.  This conniver who wins victory through surrender.  Who brings life out of death.  Who brings redemption to us all.  So come, let us worship him with thanksgiving, because the Manager of Injustice has acted shrewdly on our behalf.


Sunday, September 11, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2022
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

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

Well, by way of fair warning, this sermon is not going where you think it is going.  Or where I expected it to go, for that matter.  Because even though any set of readings comes up for us every three years, sometimes the preacher notices something they didn’t notice before.  And it ends up changing everything they thought about the reading.  Sometimes the Spirit gives a little nudge to look more carefully at the text.  And that’s what happened to me this week, with this gospel lesson.  I noticed one little thing, and everything changed.  So let’s jump in . . . 

The first thing to sort out is that we mustn’t conflate all our shepherds into one person.  Over in John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd (like in the window in our parish hall, with Jesus carrying a sheep over his shoulders).  All my life, I have just sort of reflexively brought that shepherd into this story we just heard, imagining it is Jesus leaving behind the 99 sheep to go find the lost one.  But, it turns out, that is not what is going on here.  And we can see that when we notice the word “repentance” in this reading.

Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells both of these stories (about the lost sheep and the lost coin) in response to something.  As we heard, 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.”  And that’s why Jesus tells them these two parables.  (There’s a third parable after these two about the prodigal son, but we already had that reading during Lent.)  And at the end of each of these parables, Jesus says there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.

And this is where it gets interesting, where I felt the Spirit move this week.  Because just ask yourself, who is repenting in both these stories?  The word for “repent” means to turn around.  So who is repenting?  Not the sheep.  Not the coin.  The sheep has wandered off and is not turning around.  The coin is a coin, so it’s not doing anything except laying wherever the lady accidentally dropped it.  The sheep and coin do not repent, and are therefore not the cause of the rejoicing in heaven.  So who is repenting?

Strange as it is to say, the answer is, the shepherd and the woman are repenting.  Through their carelessness or neglect, they have allowed something very precious to slip beyond their grasp.  The shepherd needs to repent—to turn around—and go find the sheep.  The woman needs to repent—to turn around—and go look for the coin.  And we can see how this fits with the story based on how it starts.

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.”  The Pharisees and the scribes are the ones needing to repent.  Through their carelessness or neglect— just like the shepherd and the woman—they have allowed something very precious to slip beyond their grasp.  They are willing to lose these tax collectors and supposed sinners just like a sheep that has wandered off, or a coin that is lost. 

Jesus is saying that the scribes and the Pharisees need to repent and welcome everyone to the table, these tax collectors and sinners who Jesus welcomes and eats with.  They want to keep the sinners out, but Jesus is telling them there will be rejoicing in heaven if they would turn around, repent, and seek out those they want to exclude.  Jesus is not the shepherd or the woman in these parables; the Pharisees and scribes are.  I told you this wouldn’t go where you and I were expecting!  So then, what about us?  How do we fit into these parables?

Well, more than anything, these two parables are a warning to us.  Or, maybe a reminder to us.  When we find ourselves doing things, or saying things that might drive others away, or keep people out, we need to repent—to turn around—and go find them again.  Just like Jesus, the church needs to be the place that welcomes sinners.  Because that’s what we all are: sinners in need of forgiveness, which is the very thing that binds us together.

At some point, each and every one of us has been the lost sheep or the lost coin in these stories.  Probably more than once!  And maybe we even feel that way right now.  And yet, here we are, gathered together in the presence of God and one another.  Here we are, being the place that welcomes sinners and eats with them.  All are welcome, no exceptions.  I am welcome, and you are welcome, and all the lost sheep and lost coins are welcome.  Because we are sinners who welcome other sinners, and together we turn around, and feast at this heavenly banquet with the One who welcomes sinners . . . and feeds us.  And today, there is rejoicing in heaven.


Sunday, September 4, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2022
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

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

Well, I might as well come out and say it.  I sure wish somebody else were preaching this morning.  But when the readings seem difficult, we just need to try to figure out what’s really going on here.  So, today I’m going to have us look closer at Paul’s letter to Philemon and the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, because I think they’re both telling us a similar thing.

First off though, have you ever seen the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises?  There’s a scene where these prisoners are trying to climb out of a pit.  And each time someone tries, they tie a rope to them, in case they fall making the final jump.  But the rope prevents them from actually making that final jump, and so they always fall.  It’s not until the young character tries it without the rope that he is able to make the final jump to freedom.  The thing that everyone thought was keeping them safe was actually the thing that prevented them from being free.  Keep that story in mind as we move forward here.

In today’s gospel reading, we have to look carefully at a couple of key words and phrases.  And the first of those is the word that gets translated as “hate.”  As we heard, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  This is a case where the chosen word is too extreme for the original Greek word; but there isn’t a substitute in Greek.  The Greek word misw’ in this context means something like, the one not chosen.  Like if you asked whether I wanted coffee or tea and I said, “I will have coffee and hate tea, thanks.”  I don’t despise tea, I just prefer coffee.

So when Jesus says we must hate our families and even our own lives, he is not saying that we should despise them or wish them harm.  He is saying we have to be willing to give those up to become his disciples.  To choose Jesus over all else.  Or, to return to the Batman example, to jump without the rope.  We think the rope gives us security, but it also prevents our being free.

We can see this more clearly in the two examples he gives.  At first blush, these seem like practical advice when it comes to building towers and fighting wars.  Which is our first clue that they are not practical advice about building towers and fighting wars.  Jesus is using these two examples to show us how we normally act.  He’s saying, “Here is how business is usually conducted, and I am anything but business as usual!”  

Both the examples he gives are answers to the question, “What’s in it for me?”  How will I maximize self preservation and avoid embarrassment?  How do I get the largest return on my building investments and retain the most land in a conflict with another nation?  What kind of rope should I tie to myself before I make the dangerous jump to freedom?  Jesus is saying, “You normally make this kind of careful calculation in order to save yourself, but I am telling you that you cannot save yourself.”

And then Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  It’s not a rule or a barrier to being his disciple.  He’s just stating the way things are.  He is not saying, give up all your possessions and then I will let you be my disciple.  No, rather, what he’s saying is that your possessions will prevent you from being my disciple.  The possessions are like the rope in the Batman movie.  You cannot be free unless you “hate” the rope.

And Paul’s letter to Philemon fits nicely with this whole idea.  But from the start, I just need to be clear that the slavery involved here is not necessarily the same as the slavery we imposed on people from Africa at our country’s founding.  We don’t know the details, but it is likely that Onesimus is more like an indentured servant than a kidnapped and abused person.  And that’s important to remember, because it’s not like Paul is sending him back to a cotton plantation in Georgia to be whipped and beaten.

So, Paul writes this letter to Philemon with a very strange tone to it.  It sounds a bit like the grade-school principal offering a kid the chance to admit to having done something wrong.  “You know, George, I could get the other kids to rat you out for breaking the classroom window with a snowball, but I’m giving you a chance to do the right thing, George.”  That’s just a totally hypothetical example from, say, Beech Avenue School in Niagara Falls, NY back in the 1970s.

Paul writes, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”  You know, I’m giving you the chance to do the right thing here, son.  But here’s what I find really interesting about this whole letter.  Paul could easily have just kept Onesimus with him, wherever he is.  He could have commanded Philemon to let Onesimus go by keeping him by his side.  And yet, Paul forsakes, gives up, or “hates” Onesimus so that he might be truly freed by someone else.  There’s the sure win of keeping him safely by Paul's side, but then Onesimus would never actually be truly free.  Only in risking his fate to Philemon can things be put right.  It’s a huge gamble, and yet it’s the only way.

What Paul does is like starting a tower without counting the costs.  It’s like going into battle against an army that will overwhelm you and take your land.  It’s like climbing up out of a pit without a rope.  THAT is the cost of discipleship.  Truly forsaking all and taking up your cross to follow Jesus.

And where does taking up our cross lead us?  Well . . . to death.  All of us face certain death.  Oh, we might subconsciously think we can work around it, by clinging to our youth.  We might obsess over eating better food, getting more exercise, plastic surgery, whatever.  Adopting good habits might help us live longer, sure, but eventually we’re all going to die.  And that’s where it all comes together for us.  

All the things we cling to in this life will be left behind when we die.  All the possessions we have collected, and all the people we love, and even our mortal bodies.  You can’t take it with you.  And all of those things we hold dear are like the rope in the Batman movie.  Like the careful planning before starting to build.  Like holding on to Onesimus rather than sending him back to Philemon.

Because at the grave, none of that stuff matters.  Only Jesus matters.  Only Jesus will reach down into each one of our graves on the last day and pull us up to freedom and resurrection.  All we have to do is let go of everything, and . . . well, in death we have no choice in the matter.  The great equalizer will ensure that we have nothing to hold onto but Jesus.  There is no rope.  We are holding onto Jesus.  And the best news of all is that Jesus is holding onto us.  We need not fear death because we are disciples of the one who has destroyed death.

We have Jesus, and Jesus has us.  And nothing else matters.