Monday, September 30, 2013

September 29 Sermon: The Least Confusing Story in the Bible

Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘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. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

There is a song that is sometimes sung as an anthem whenever this particular story comes up in the lectionary, when the church uses it as its scripture lesson for the day. And every time I hear it, I just crack up, because this story seems so depressing, but the song is just so happy. The chorus goes like this: “Dip your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, ‘cause I’m tormented in the flame.”

It is much sillier than the parable that Jesus tells, but my favorite thing about the song is the fact that the rich man doesn’t get it. You know, we spend all this time trying to get rich, but nobody is the butt of more jokes in the stories Jesus tells than the rich man. And here’s a joke for you. A rich man refuses to help a poor man. The poor man dies and goes to Heaven, the rich man dies and goes to Hell, and even THEN the rich man still calls out to the poor man, Lazarus, and bosses him around like a slave. Dip your finger in the water and cool my tongue, ‘cause I’m tormented in the flame.

Here he is burning in torment, and he is trying to boss his way back into comfort, to weasel his way out of Hell by using poor old Lazarus to bring him some water. There is just no convincing some people. I think this story is pretty clear, I mean, I called this the least confusing story in the Bible, but the rich man doesn’t get it. Here is, burning in Hell, and he just doesn’t get it.

A few years ago, Stacey and I were living in a little townhouse community down Lavista towards Tucker, and we had a nice little patio between the garage and the home with a big birch tree and some plants and a bench. On days like today, it was great just to sit and be outside. And one fall, as the leaves started to change and the air started to smell like peace, we decided that what we needed was a hammock chair: a place to sit and read and relax out on our patio. So we went and got a hammock chair and some rope to tie it from a tall branch on the birch tree. And I walked out into the patio area and realized that I had no idea how I was going to get the chair hung. I had plenty of rope, and the branch looked sturdy enough, so I had that going for me, but I didn’t have a ladder tall enough to hang the chair. What I did have was a baseball, so I took the ball and the rope and some duct tape—because there is no better tape for a hair-brained scheme than duct tape--and I fashioned it all together so that I could throw the ball over the branch, unhook the rope, and hang the chair.

And on this particular crisp afternoon, my brother was in town, and he and Stacey stood outside with me and watched me hurl this baseball-and-rope contraption into the air, only to miss every time. I don’t think I have ever seen my wife laugh so hard. She is usually a gracious person, but I looked just ridiculous.

And as I threw the ball in the air, I knocked a little branch off which came down and hit me in the head, but that didn’t stop me, because there is just no convincing some people, and so I kept at it, getting more and more angry as the misses kept coming and the laughing got louder. I stubbornly kept at it UNTIL I threw the ball into the air, lost sight of it in the sun, and did not know where it was going until it landed directly on top of my head.

There is just no convincing some people.

Of course, this parable isn’t just about the rich man’s stubbornness, although as a stubborn people, we have some things to learn. But the root problem is just as important, because if the rich man didn’t get it after he died, he CERTAINLY didn’t get it before he died. And it’s not that the rich man hated Lazarus. He just didn’t notice him, and I mean, that ought not be his fault right? Give the guy a break! Just think of how many things do you and I just not see! There is so much to see, and you can’t notice everything, so we miss some things, and you can’t blame us, really.

There’s this video online of two basketball teams: one dressed in black and one dressed in white. And you are supposed to count the number of times that the team dressed in white passes the basketball. It is called an observation test or something like that. And so the video starts, and you get however many seconds to count the passes. Only once those seconds are over do you hear about the real purpose of the video, and as the video replays again, you realize that as you have been paying attention to the white team passing the basketball, a man dressed in a bear costume has walked straight into the scene and moonwalked out of the video.

When you are looking so intently for one thing, it is easy to miss everything else.

The pastor John Stehdahl tells the story of visiting a young man in a facility for people with severe brain injuries. He says this:

“The young man was agitated and eager to walk, so I joined him as he went from room to room and looked in each room as if he were searching for someone. Eventually we came to a big room that was not in use. At the far end a couple of janitors were at work buffing the floor. I saw that no one was sitting at any of the tables and said to the young man, ‘There’s nobody in here.’

Then, from the other side of the room, came the voice of one of the janitors. ‘What do you mean, nobody? We’re not nobody.’

I don’t recall what lame apology I offered, but I remember the heat rising in my cheeks. I really hadn’t seen those two men, although of course I’d registered that there were janitors at work. My mind was elsewhere.”

It is this way for us with the difficult bits of life. I don’t mean the difficult stuff that happens to us. I mean the difficult stuff that doesn’t happen to us. I know that when you’re in the middle of something difficult, it can seem like a hand in front of your face, like there’s nothing else you can deal with but that one thing. And when tragedies happen, we hunker down, and I think that’s fine. It is a defense mechanism.

The problem is that because we each see things from our own eyes, our own perspective, it isn’t long before we are assuming that I am—that each of us is the center of the universe--and then it can seem like we’re always dealing with something that keeps us from looking around, from seeing what is happening around us.

I’m sure the rich man had a tough time managing all that money, that he was busy dealing with the IRS and watching the markets and all of that. But the fact remains that he missed Lazarus, didn’t see him at all, and as a result, he ended up in Hell, which is almost redundant because I don’t know of any hell worse than being stuck on yourself.

This is what we do. We get so wrapped up in our own business and busy-ness that we miss out on so much else. I don’t care if you are the most learned person alive: all of that learning is merely what the commentator Frank Deford calls “sanctimonious educational claptrap” if you keep your nose in a book and walk right past Lazarus at the gate. And incidentally, let me be clear that keeping your nose in the Bible at the expense of actually seeing God’s people is just as bad as missing them because you are stuck on yourself. Faith is not merely lived out in the head, but in the eyes and the heart, and there are two problems with this kind of blind, sanctimonious faith.

First, we miss out on a potentially life-changing relationship. Though I frequently find myself drawn to people just like me, it is also true that the most life giving relationships I’ve ever come across are with people who are NOT just like me, who bring the gift of a new perspective and who teach me things I did not know.

And second, when we pay so much attention to our own lives that we miss everyone else, we are not doing justice to God’s call to engage the world. I see this all the time in the life of the church, and if I am not careful, I’m prone to it too, prone to step right over the poor person so that I don’t have to ask difficult questions about my own life, about the reasons that I have what I need and others don’t. We like to think in America that it is all related to how hard you work, as if we have the things we have only because we deserve them, but I have had the difficult blessing to lead mission trips and be in ministry with people all over the world, and let me tell you, the hardest working people do not live in houses that look like yours and mine. They frequently live in mud huts, or homes with stick walls, or in squalor, sitting outside the gate of a rich man.

It is not easy to keep your eyes open all the time in this world of ours, and it takes a healthy dose of humility to recognize that it is God who is the center of the universe, not me, and for this reason, I have heard people say that they are just not emotionally equipped to go to the broken places, to see those children who are malnourished, to learn why people are homeless. I will move chairs and cook supper, I will even teach Sunday School; just please don’t ask me to see starving children.

I understand the sentiment—I understand that letting people in, that being vulnerable, can be the hardest thing in life, I mean the very hardest thing—but as much as I understand the sentiment, I also know that it is not good enough. For there are people who have no choice but to be vulnerable: not just emotionally vulnerable but physically vulnerable, nowhere to live, nothing to eat, no one to love them. What a luxury it must be to be able to claim immunity from this holy responsibility because it is simply /. . . too . . . much.

Nowadays, of course, with the internet and globalization and the evening news, it is hard to miss the kind of misery we used to be able to ignore. There’s no question about how many hungry people there are in the world: you can look it up on the computer and get a pretty accurate number. There’s no question what kind of horror comes from disease and terrorism and poverty. We see it on the news all the time. Here it is, right in front of our faces, all the time . . . and yet somehow, we miss it.

Some people call it “compassion fatigue,” the idea that there is so much that needs to be done, so many things that need our attention, that we get quickly overwhelmed and just give up. So much to do, so many problems, and we just sort of shut down, because there is just . . . too . . . much. And it is so much easier to go about our days as if nothing is different, because if we really put the effort into actually opening our eyes, we start to see all kinds of people outside our gates, and the people we thought were invisible start to show up everywhere, and before long, it will seem almost impossible to live life, because Lazarus is everywhere.

It is just too much. If you actually start looking for people, actually start seeing the people we’d rather look straight past, it quickly becomes impossible to live your life as you’ve always lived it. And when people bring our attention to the problems in the world, to the people outside the gate, to the “Lazari,” we act as if they are simply na├»ve, simply don’t understand the way the world works, simply need to stop caring for the least and the lost, because there is too much to do in our normal everyday lives. The poor will always be with us. Perhaps you should stop being distracted by them, we say, and focus on your own broken life.

And still, somehow, those saints show up in the world, calling us to see the people right in front of our faces, the people sitting at our gates yearning for the crumbs that fall from our tables. You’d think that considering how hard it is to just live in the world, they’d give up, but, you know, there’s just no convincing some people.

Monday, September 23, 2013

September 23 Sermon: The Most Confusing Story in the Bible

Luke 16:1-13
16Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And 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. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

Well, we are in a little two week series called the most and least confusing stories in the Bible, and I thought long and hard before I called this week’s scripture lesson the most confusing story in the Bible. I tend to exaggerate a little bit sometimes, you know, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being too ridiculous when I talked about this story as confusing.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, this story isn’t just confusing, it is almost like Jesus told it just to throw us off, just to throw off the Pharisees who were following him around. I guess Jesus doesn’t work like that, but isn’t that exactly the point? When you think you know exactly how Jesus works, he goes off and does something like this, tells a story about how the way to get out of being fired for gross incompetence is to be even more incompetent, to reduce the money and goods that the boss is due without the boss’s permission. The way to get ahead is by being shrewd, by being practical.

Of course, this isn’t a story about business, which is good, because I’d NEVER hire this guy. This is a story about the church, about the kingdom of God, about what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus says that we are supposed to be shrewd, to be practical, to look at things as they are and make the best out of them.

The theologian Lois Malcolm says that “even though he is still a sinner who is looking out for his own interests, [the shrewd manager] models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others.”
Now, let me stop for a minute and say that maybe the problem we have with this story is the word shrewd. Maybe we should go with perspicacious. That’s a word fitting of this story, don’t you think? “The parable of the perspicacious manager.” We think of shrewd people as dishonest folk, people who walk about trying to figure out how to reach into your pocket in order to find a dime to squeeze. And maybe there is some of that here. A lot of study Bibles call this story the story of the dishonest manager, and I don’t think that is quite right. I don’t think the manager sets out to be dishonest. I think he just realizes that he doesn’t live in an ideal world. He can only deal with the cards he’s been dealt, so he needs to do what he can with what he’s got.

The problem is that doing what he can with what he’s got means selling out his boss a little bit. The olive oil guy owes the rich man 100 jugs of olive oil, and the shrewd manager lets him off the hook for half of them. The wheat guy owes him a hundred bales of what, and the shrewd manager writes off twenty. And you’d think that the rich man would be mad, that he would be furious in fact, as the manager had no right to do what he did. But, surprise, surprise! The boss is pleased, for he ends up with more oil and more wheat than he would have ended up with otherwise, because the manager was flexible enough to realize that it is better to live in a practical world, taking stock of how things are and doing what you can, than it is to live in an ideal world in which the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

This does not mean that the rich man came out ahead, of course. He’d paid the oil guy enough for 100 jugs and the wheat vendor enough for a hundred bales, and he ended up with less than he paid for. And so while he got more than he might have otherwise, I am sure it stung a bit to realize that though he’d done everything correctly, he still got the short end of the stick.

And this is precisely Jesus’s point, for it is impossible to shrewdly and faithfully follow Jesus without anybody getting hurt, because following Jesus happens in the real world, which is incidentally where most of us live. There is no ideal world in which we are able to believe what we want and everybody gets along and everybody makes the same sacrifices. That world doesn’t exist. If I am going to be practical with our faith, I’ve got to realize that I don’t have all the money in the world. We don’t have all the time or resources or what have you, and so each of us must follow Jesus from where we are, not where we would like to be.

Maybe this sounds a little harsh, because we’ve come to believe that God blesses those who follow Jesus’s example. Now, I happen to believe this is true in a way, but blessing means something different than operating in an ideal world. One of my favorite quotes is from the excommunicated Catholic theologian Alfred Loisy who said that Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but what arrived was the church. On days when the finances don’t add up or there’s an argument in the church, I remember those words. We’ve got to do what we can with what we’ve got, making difficult decisions when necessary, all in the interest of serving God from where we are, now, for Jesus came preaching the kingdom, and what arrived was the church.

You know, I think it is interesting that the hero of this story is, from the beginning, charged with squandering the boss’s property. And then Jesus talks about how this guy is supposed to be something we’re supposed to emulate, which makes me feel better about the fact that things don’t always go as I plan for them to. Sometimes I am in over my head, which is good, because Jesus shows us that even when things are over your head, there’s a way forward. It is not necessarily easy, and it doesn’t get you all hundred jugs of olive oil and bundles of wheat, or whatever, but if you follow Jesus, you may end up with fifty and eighty, which is better than it could have been. You may hurt the boss’s bottom line, you may hurt his feelings, and you certainly risk even worse. But the blessing of this sort of thing is that it is possible. Maybe not pristinely possible, but practically possible.

So, Jesus says, you've got to get your hands dirty. Now, it doesn't just mean that you've got to do some things that might not be the most fun for you. That may happen now and again, but that's not what Jesus is talking about. Shrewdly following Jesus means that you've got to make some difficult decisions that are going to make some people mad, and for good reason. The business of being a Christian, after all, is not simply about adding belief in Jesus to your life. When you make the difficult decision to follow Jesus, you implicitly make a million other decisions about what you aren't going to follow, and some of those things are deeply good. For instance, there’s no shortage of good things the church can spend its money on: mission, utilities, payroll, facilities, You name it, somebody’s asked me for it.

But following Jesus means that you've got to be shrewd, spending energy and time and money on things that make disciples, not things that make us comfortable, for you cannot serve God and wealth. That’s not easy, but if you start to worry about the efficacy of this sort of thing, find me after the service and I will find you the phone number of the shrewd manager, who had his back up against the wall and managed to be hailed as a hero, by his boss and by Jesus and by two thousand years of Christian preachers trying to figure out what on earth this weird parable means.

It is a weird story, so as I get ready to sit down, let me tell you the redneck way I would tell it if I were in Jesus’s shoes. Maybe this will help.

When the truck gets stuck in the mud, and you get out the rope and the winch and pull it out, you can wash the mud off the truck, but the trenches are still there. They don't easily go away. Slowly, over time, dirt washes back in, but it can take a long time.

The other alternative, I suppose, is to just leave the truck stuck in the mud. Eventually, it, too, will get covered up with mud.

You’d be crazy to do that, but churches all over the country are doing just that: leaving the truck stuck in the mud, content to just leave it where it is and hope that some magical person comes and lifts it out. Jesus promises resurrection, but if the shrewd manager tells me anything, it is that you can’t leave things as they are and expect to get by.

Nobody wants to get stuck, but when it happens, and it happens to everybody at some point, take stock, get out the rope and the winch, and find a way out. I’m not saying it is easy. I am not saying you won’t do some damage along the way, I’m not saying you won’t leave deep ruts for a while. But you do what you have to do.

So, in the life of faith, there’s a choice. You can tell the boss that it wasn’t your fault, that the price of oil has gone up, and it is just out of your control, it is just too hard, and just sort of accept your fate.

Or be shrewd, step out in faith and do the difficult thing, and end up with fifty jugs of oil and eighty bales of wheat more than you would have otherwise. The good news is that if you just throw in a little water and a little salt, and you can make an awful lot of bread out of that kind of arrangement. You can feed an awful lot of people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

September 15 Sermon: You Are Loved

Luke 15: 1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
There’s this scene in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? that I really love. Everett, Pete, and Delmar have escaped from jail and are running from the police, sitting around a fire eating a gopher they’ve roasted for dinner, when they hear singing in the distance, and all these happy people wearing all white walk slowly past them and towards a lake, and once they reach the shore, the people just keep going, making two lines as a minister takes turns baptizing each of them in the lake.
And Everett, who is the leader of the group, looks out over this bucolic scene and says, “Well, I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody’s looking for answers.”
And all of a sudden, Delmar, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, takes off for the shore and jumps straight in the water and makes a bee-line for the minister.
And as he comes up from the water after he has been baptized, Delmar runs back to his friends and says, “Well that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transmissions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward. The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”
Everett says to him, “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?”
And Delmar says, “Well I was lyin'. And the preacher says that that sin's been warshed away too. Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.”
I think about that scene a lot, because it is true that everybody’s lookin’ for answers, and my goodness, if you want answers, we in the church have plenty of them. There is this liturgy we sometimes use, in which the pastor says, “What do you believe?” and the congregation says, “We believe in One God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord,” and so on and so forth, as if such an enormous question like “What do you believe” can be answered by repeating a fifteen-hundred-year old creed, as if those words are enough to contain all the power and majesty of God, as if there is any way to answer that question other than fear and trembling and silence.
We love answers in the church, only it turns out that the most important questions don’t have answers at all. What does it mean that God is love? Well, there’s a question with truth behind it, but I don’t have words big enough to answer it. Where does God live? I can say some things about that, but I can’t tell you exactly.
Or, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Maybe he should have just asked, “Which one of you has a hundred sheep?” and stopped there, because he was talking to Pharisees, the religious teachers, who were just as likely to have a hundred sheep as you and me. There’s a question that does not have an answer, because the whole premise of the question is flawed. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep! I don’t even like wearing wool because it makes me itch!
And yet Jesus does not wait for an answer to the question, because though answers are what the Pharisees are looking for—and so are the rest of us, if we are honest—Jesus didn’t come to bring answers. He came to bring eternal life.
It’s a good thing, too, because if you happened to find an actual shepherd and bring him to that gaggle of Pharisees and ask him the same question, which one of you having a hundred sheep, would leave the ninety-nine and go after the one, the answer would be, “You would have to be CRAZY to do that!”
Who on earth leaves ninety nine percent of the sheep in the WILDERNESS, vulnerable to wolves and everything else, to find one miserable sheep that can’t even stay in line with the rest of the herd? This is crazy!
Nobody does that, because it is ridiculous on its face. And yet, that is the story. There is more rejoicing in Heaven over the one that is found than the ninety-nine who stayed put.
It is ridiculous, and yet it is the story. And I guess I like it in a way, because it makes me feel better about my own neuroses.
You see, I can know where almost everything I own is. I may have almost everything in its right place, my bed made, my books stacked, my keys in hand, my wallet in my back pocket, almost everything where it needs to be, but if I misplace one single, solitary thing, I can’t sleep until I find it.
Does this sound familiar? Good. I didn’t think I was the only one. And, incidentally, this is how God works. Constantly. Relentlessly. Always searching, always looking for you, for me. Always welcoming us home and rejoicing when we are found. Always.
Maybe it sounds like an obvious thing, and maybe you don’t think you need to hear a whole sermon about it, but you should know that you are loved. God loves you. It sounds basic, but it is not, for love is not a feeling, but a relationship.
No matter what you have done, no matter how much you are disappointed by your family, or how much your family is disappointed in you, no matter whether you have nobody left or whether you find yourself lost in a sea of people, no matter no matter, you are loved. God searches you out. God looks and looks and, without fail, God finds you and loves you, even before you realize that you need to be found.
You know, these days, there seem to be so many messages reminding us that we are lost. There is so much newness all around that is easy to feel that way. Take two steps into the internet and there’s no telling what you’ll find. We’ve got devices to keep us from being lost, one of the most popular shows of all time is called Lost. We have the Lost Boys, Lost Mountain, Lost in Space, Lost in Translation, Lost Causes, Lost Decades, Lost civilizations, even the lost years of Jesus. Nobody likes to be lost, but we sure like to talk about it.
And the more you hear it, the more you start to believe it. We’re lost.
If you think that’s bad, just imagine being a poor woman with only ten coins to your name. I don’t know how you can feel more lost than that, except maybe if you lose one of them. That’s part of the humor of the story, you know. This is kind of a joke, because the remarkable thing isn’t that the woman lost a coin. It’s that she was already so low down that she only had ten coins, probably about ten days wages to her name and then she lost ten percent of her life savings in the couch or whatever.
She lost a coin, but she was lost herself, a poor person in a society that didn’t respect the poor, a woman at a time when women were seen as inferior. And yet even in spite of the fact that everyone told her to just give up, everyone had written her off, she kept looking.
She pulled up the couch cushions, of course, took her hip and bumped the couch so she could look underneath it. She looked in every drawer, pulled open the dishwasher, looked in the glovebox in the car, checked the kids’ pockets, and it was nowhere.
And just as she was about to give up, she noticed from the corner of her eye something shiny rolling out her front door, down the walk and into the street.
Well, she followed it of course, this being 10% of all she had, and every time she felt like she was sure she was about to catch it, the coin would roll around a corner, and she’d hurry towards it, only to have it roll around another corner, all through town, and before long, people started following her, some out of curiosity and some because they’d seen a coin roll out their door, too, and so the search party got bigger and bigger, one person at a time, and when someone would catch a the gleam of the rolling coin out of the corner of his eye, somebody would wave, “come on!,” because, well, the more the merrier, and besides, the more of them there were, the more likely they would be to catch the darn thing, which this point had climbed some steps and was bouncing up and down, as if to taunt those who were chasing it.
And by now the whole town was following the coin as it rolled down the street, and the fastest runners among them started gaining on it, and the woman thought to herself, “We might just get it!” when just as the long distance runner from the high school lunged for the coin, it simply stopped. It quit rolling, kind of circled a bit on its outer edge, and just fell, heads up on the concrete.
And everybody stopped, silent. They had all sort of gotten into this kind of thing without thinking, and then when the action stopped, they looked at each other for a moment, not sure of what to do, and a little embarrassed that they’d been caught up in the hubbub.
And the woman, a little hesitantly, walked over and picked up the coin, and as she did, the place went wild. High-fiving everywhere, hugs all around, shouting and laughing and celebration, because what was lost had now been found.
This is the church, my friends, for each of us has lost something, and each of us is a little lost. We’re not the haughty group up on the hill which stands in judgment of everybody else. We are the ones who run alongside, chasing the coin, helping a poor woman recover what was lost, because it is not so much that when you search, you find what you were looking for as much as it is the case that when God is involved, when you search, you are found.
This is the church, the place in which we don’t hide our lost-ness, but we admit it in the presence of God and one another, and we celebrate that while we may be lost together, we are found together by the God who loves each of us individually and all of us together. Forget the business you’ve heard about how we’re sinners in the hands of an angry God. As far as I’m concerned, we’re found coins in the heart of a loving God.
This is who we are called to be, and so don’t be alarmed if you hear shouting and laughing in the distance, for it is probably just God and all the company of angels making a racket in your honor, for as we rejoice in finding one another, the whole company of Heaven rejoices each time we add to our ranks, each time someone who thought being lost means you are not good enough realizes that being lost just means you are human, which puts us in good company, if you ask me.
And what a blessing to find ourselves in the church. What a blessing to be in God’s house, to be held in God’s hands. May this be a place where the work we do and the people we welcome cause God to delight, for oh, how wonderful it is to be loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

September 8 Sermon

Luke 14:25-33
25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Family values. We hear a lot about family values, especially when there’s an election around the corner, but nowhere do we hear more about family values than in the church. I don’t know if you’ve been around the church for long, but the church looooves to talk about family values. There’s a popular Christian radio station here in Atlanta that has billboards all over I-85. Have you seen them? Do you know what they say? They say, “Safe for the whole family,” as if being the church were about being safe more than anything else.
I know that’s probably not all that fair, but seriously, if you are looking for safety, you ought to go someplace else, because following Jesus takes you to all sorts of unsafe places. I will remind you where Jesus’s journey ended, or would have, had it not been for the resurrection. The Bible is nothing if not full of people who serve as a reminder that a life spent in the presence of God is anything but safe. King Herod was swallowed by worms, the army of Gideon was crushed by hailstones, Sisera had a tent peg shoved in his head, Jezebel was trampled by horses, Jesus was crucified, Stephen was stoned, Paul was beheaded, and Judas just split right open.
Safe for the whole family. Ha.
Not all of these Bible characters are heroes, of course, but neither are we. A life spent in the presence of God is anything but safe.
And if you are looking for family values, well, I am not sure this is where you want to look, either. I was glad when I saw that Molly Nuttall had signed up to do the children’s sermon today, because I wasn’t sure exactly how to translate this stuff to a children’s sermon. Then again, if they are anything like I was as a teenager, they don’t need a lesson on hating their parents, or at least being tooootally embarrassed by them.
No, in seriousness, this is hard stuff, and I have to tell you that it is harder for me to read this sort of thing than it is for me to read a story in which Jesus suggests I ought to go sell everything I own and give the money to the poor. I mean, I may not be able to do that, but at least it seems in character. That’s the Jesus I expect, the one who cares for the poor, who wants me to love my family, who expects that I tell the truth in all circumstances and promises to love me, unconditionally, even when I am not quite able to love myself.
That is the Jesus I expect, not the one who 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.” So much for family values.
And yet here we are, trying to make sense of this whole business. Now, having read this story, I would argue that there are three ways we can respond to it. Here’s a chance to, you know, choose your own adventure.
Our first option is to just skip over this part. That happens a lot, and it is especially prudent advice when you are trying to put up billboards that sell your radio station. This business of hating your family does not sell records, at least not Christian ones, so if you are trying to cast the widest net, reach the greatest number of people, then this may be the strategy for you.
Or we could explain this part away. That’s certainly another option, and it has the appeal of being the easiest to deal with. If you ignore it, you’ll find yourself thinking you took the easy way out. But if you explain away the difficult parts of scripture, you end up with a Gospel that is neither particularly difficult nor particularly meaningful. “Oh, Jesus didn’t really mean to hate your family. Jesus would never say that sort of thing. You see, if you look at the Greek, and according to ancient loyalty codes, and the Septuagint says,” and all of that.
The third option, taking this stuff seriously, is the hard one, but it is the most interesting, because it turns out that when Jesus says that we must hate our family, hate even our lives if we are to follow him, he wanted us to actually pay attention. And just as if he knows that we are wondering what he is up to with this business about hating your family, Jesus gives us a story.
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
If you go forward without knowing the cost, you’re liable to turn back halfway through. This is the cost of discipleship. Carrying the cross. Declaring your allegiance to Christ. Going all in.
You know what I think this is all about? I think that maybe Jesus is using strong language—he does that sometimes—but I think this is among the more reasonable things in all of scripture, because life is not a series of choices between good and bad. You don’t have to choose between loving your family and walking through broken glass. You don’t choose between following God and following the devil. These are easy choices, of course.
Faith is much more difficult. It involves choosing between good and better, or more often, it can seem, bad and worse.
Does this resonate with you? It does with me. I am thinking about the times in my own life when the choice was simply not clear, when it seemed like there were simply no good options: only bad and worse.
Do you choose the surgery or the chemotherapy, or forego all treatment and just ride it out as best you can for as long as possible? Do you give your spouse the honest truth, something you know will cut deeply, or do you let him continue on, miserable, knowing that something is wrong, but not just what that something is? Do you put in the extra hours, even at the expense of your family, or do you quit and try to find something else, even if that means suffering the unemployment line?
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
            --Deeply committed to peace
            --Evaluated situation and determined he had to do something.
            --Doing nothing was not an option.
            --“ when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it...Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace."
(Syria: two bad choices)
            --King who takes stock of his troops before going to war
            --Two bad choices
            --Now, I’m not convinced the only two choices are going to war or not going to war.
                        --Rabbi Arthur Waskow, gas masks
                        --I also have trouble with the idea that the way to secure peace is to engage violence. Those two things just seem totally incompatible to me.
            --But regardless of where you land, here is a classic example of what it means to be a Christian.
                        --It is a choice between engaging and not engaging. Each has a high price.
I don’t mean to be glum, but I do think it is important to be honest. If we don’t acknowledge these difficult choices, we might as well start building a tower before we’ve talked to the bank and worked out the financing.
Faith is simply not as black and white as we would like it to be, and if this all seems a little overwhelming, let me assure you that this is not a new problem. In fact, just as Jesus was preaching, this very issue was coming to a head. Jesus was preaching a message that involved taking up your . . . cross, and following . . . him. You can imagine how his disciples’ families must have felt, and even if you don’t know exactly where the journey to the cross is going to lead, it is even worse than, “Mom, dad, I want to be an actor.” Or, I’m dropping out of school to study the art of the tattoo.
And not only does it sound dangerous—it was—but the whole society in Jesus’s day was centered around loyalty to family. You were loyal to your family, not just because it was the right thing to do, but because it was quite literally the only way society stayed afloat. The instant you show loyalty to somebody other than your family, the system that holds everything together gets blown to smithereens. Not only that, but because the family business tended to get passed down from generation to generation, when you left your family to follow a homeless religious zealot like Jesus, you were actually hurting your family’s livelihood. This was a real concern.
I mean, I’ve heard it said in recent years that the family is under attack, and I think there is some truth to that. But it was WORSE in Jesus’s day, and it was Jesus who was doing the attacking! He was calling into question the very thing that was supposed to have your ultimate loyalty. To follow Jesus, he said, required a reprioritizing of even your most basic priorities—even the protection of your own life.
I’m not suggesting you go tell off your spouse, or set fire to the family photos or whatever. But when I read one of the difficult bits of scripture, it does startle me, cause me to sit up and think about just how it is that I am attending to a faith that I claim is my number one priority, my ultimate allegiance.
So I want to leave you with a few questions, and you can go home, or go to lunch, and you can finish the sermon on your own.
What does this kind of thing look like in your own life? If someone you did not know were to spy on you all week except between the hours of ten and twelve on Sunday morning, would they know you were a Christian?  Where is God calling you to be faithful, even when it means making tough choices?
And what about the church? What do these kinds of difficult decisions look like for a church? Are you willing to be faithful at all costs, to change the way you do church, even if it is painful, even if it hurts the ones you love, in order to follow Jesus? For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it, even if it is a good tower, even if it seems like we couldn’t do without it?
I wish I could tell you it is easy. There’s a reason this is one of the toughest of Jesus’s teachings, and it is not just the language he uses. God requires we go all in, to be faithful, sometimes at the expense of what we know and love, sometimes at the expense of whom we know and love.
And yet the promise is that if we do these things, if we take everything we’ve got and heap it upon the altar of Christ,
Jesus will accept us as his disciples,
the kingdom of God will reign,
and the great family of God—even those in the great cloud of witnesses—will cheer us on.
Those are family values the church does well to get behind. IN the name of the creator, Christ, and holy spirit, amen.