Sunday, September 26, 2010

Waking up...

Stephen Colbert has my deepest thanks for helping me to find the point of the parable in this week's Lectionary reading. He spoke before a Congressional subcommittee humorously, and in the end passionately, about the plight of migrant workers.

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time-he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He 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.' But 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. Besides 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.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He 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.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

On September 24, a very strange thing happened. The Congressional Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security held hearings, which were televised on C-SPAN, and they asked, of all people, a fictional television character to testify.

Stephen Colbert (which is, by the way, the actor’s real name) plays an opinionated, conservative anchor for a satirical news program on Comedy Central. In the course of producing his program, Colbert worked for one day as a migrant farmhand, picking and packing corn. It was this experience about which the subcommittee wanted him to testify.

Mr. Colbert read a statement, and answered questions, making a solid case in support of legal rights and protections for legally resident migrant farm workers, all while staying in character as an opinionated, largely clueless, wealthy network anchor. If you haven’t seen the video, look it up on YouTube, because it’s quite funny in places.

It was only at the very end, the final question, where things changed.

Representative Judy Chu asked Colbert, “You could work on so many issues. Why are you interested in this issue?” Colbert appeared taken aback, stammered, and broke character. For the first time, he spoke not as his television character, but as himself: “I like telling about people who don’t have any power, and this seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result… y’know, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these my brothers,” and these seem like the least of our brothers right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now because the economy’s so hard… but migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.”

When Jesus spoke in parables, he used scenery, items, situations and characters which were familiar to the people who were listening to his words. There are scholars who believe that our parable this morning is an adaptation of a Jewish folk tale, for example. But Jesus does something in this parable that he does nowhere else, in any parable at any point in any Gospel in the entire New Testament in any translation: he gives one of his characters a name.

Oh, it sounds normal enough, like all of Jesus’ parables. Here’s the rich man, enjoying the fruits of his wealth, while right outside his doors, at the gates of his compound, a sick, starving, forgotten man slumps weakly, wracked with hunger, eaten with sores. But alone among every story Jesus ever told, this poor, suffering man has a name: Lazarus!

Now, I’ve heard a lot of sermons about this parable: I’ve heard preachers who used it as a way to describe the afterlife, for example. Once, I even heard someone suggest that the rich man and Lazarus were actual people that Jesus knew, and that the parable had actually happened.

Those kinds of interpretations frustrate me, because the point of the parable isn’t any of that. The parable isn’t even about money, believe it or not. The point of the parable is found in one small word.

What Stephen Colbert attempted to do, using his celebrity and humor to speak for the powerless, to give a suffering and misused segment of society a face and a name, is admirable, and it should be emulated. Jesus did all of that with one small word: Lazarus. No longer is he a loosely-defined character in a larger story, he is a person, an entity, for us he has flesh.

For us, but, sadly, not for the still-nameless rich man.

Imagine: this rich man would have gone in and out of his house regularly; even if he conducted business in his home, he would have gone to synagogue meetings, would have visited relatives, he would have gone to meet with other powerful people. The point is that he would have walked past Lazarus every day, should have noticed him, should have seen him. What is stunning about this parable isn’t simply that this rich man did not help Lazarus, did not send out a plate of food or offer to have his wounds treated or give him a place to sleep or even some bedding to soften the ground he lay on, it’s that it apparently never crossed the rich man’s mind to do so!

It seems an impossibility, doesn’t it? To, every day of his life, stroll nonchalantly by someone starving to death, huddling in stinking rags, and not even notice! How is this possible? The words he uses when he speaks to father Abraham across the abyss offer us a clue.

Notice that he never addresses Lazarus directly. He speaks to Abraham, and expects Abraham to command Lazarus to act as the rich man’s servant: bring him some water, be his messenger.

Beyond utilizing Lazarus in some way to serve him, for the rich man, Lazarus doesn’t really exist. He has no face, no voice, no name. In this rich man’s world, people exist to be used. To serve, to come and go at his bidding, to fulfill his desires. They are not his equals, not even really human beings. They are tools, objects, things.

In short, the rich man is not dealing with reality. He is disconnected from the world around him. He has lived his life in a fantasy world, where he is the center of the universe, and everything lives and moves and has its being by his power and for his pleasure. And by the way he speaks in his torment, he never wakes up from this terrible dream, even after it’s too late.

I’ve been privileged to know some pretty rich people in my time, folks who are wealthy enough to get their names on buildings, business owners, executives, folks like that. None of these comparatively rich people have acted like the rich man in our parable today. They at least appeared to care about others, they were charitable and engaging, seemed to be committed to helping others, compassionate, all of that.

Having money isn’t the problem. It’s a thing, a tool, in some ways money isn’t even real, it’s nothing more than a set of figures on a balance sheet or a bit of data on a bank’s computer. To say money is the problem, that money is evil or lacks compassion or refuses to give the poor a name, to give the powerless a voice, is a ridiculous statement. It’s like blaming a table for climate change.

We live in a world where, right now, the UN estimates that hunger could be completely eradicated for thirty billion dollars a year. We live in a nation where bonuses to Wall Street executives totaled twenty point three billion dollars in 2009. The problem is not money. The problem is us. Our priorities. Our focus.

The focal point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, like the focal point of the words from our Epistle reading, the letter to Timothy, is a simple, yet razor-sharp, question: what, or who, is the center of our universe?

If the center of our own universe is ourselves, then everything else, and everyone else, including the love of money, becomes a means to an end, and that end is our own self-fulfillment.

I know people who have no more money than I do, yet act like that rich man in the parable. If I’m honest, there are times when I have acted like that rich man in the parable. I ignore the needs of those around me, walk past someone who is hurting because I’m in a hurry, or in a bad mood, or don’t want to be bothered. At those times I am the center of my own universe.

Our readings today call us to abandon our fantasy world, to wake up from the dream where we are the center of the universe. Give the poor a name, yes. Give the powerless a voice, yes. But even they are not the true center of our universe, are they?

The writer of Timothy instructs the young man to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” The center of our universe, the heart of all we pursue, our focal point and foundation, is, and always must be, Jesus Christ.

In Christ, the poor have a name. We all have a name. In Christ, the powerless have a voice. We all have a voice.

It’s as simple as waking up.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Unscrupulous Manager

OK, I admit it, I'm like everyone else who, in sermon prep, looks at the Gospel reading today and shudders. But thanks to the help of William Barclay, Hugh Hollowell, and Chuck Graham, I think it turned out OK.

What do you think? Comments and constructive criticism is always welcome!

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

1 Timothy 2:1-7
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all-this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Luke 16:1-13
Then 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. So 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.' Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then 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.' And 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. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
"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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

And it is the Word of the Lord, even when it’s confusing and difficult to interpret or understand. I’ve heard several preachers say that this Sunday’s Gospel reading makes them wish they’d scheduled a guest preacher. I understand where they’re coming from: it was later than usual when I looked at the Lectionary this week, and I’d been distracted with a trip to Dallas that I’m making tomorrow, and, frankly, when I read it, and knew that the Gospel reading was the one I needed to address, my heart kind of sank. It’s a daunting passage, because Jesus appears to be commending the unjust manager, the man who, like so many on Wall Street who saw trouble looming a couple of years back, busied himself making sure that when he lost his job, he had a “golden parachute” to fall back on.

But it’s a fact that if we run from the parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand, and which seem hard to preach about or teach on, in the end we’ll run from all of Scripture, because there is no part of Scripture which is not intended to challenge us, educate us, make us grow and progress in our faith journey.

Among the things I am grateful for every week as I start to write the sermon are the scholars and commentators who have grappled with Scriptures throughout the years. One of those scholars and commentators is the late William Barclay, Church of Scotland minister and Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow. He is best known to American Christians as the author of the Daily Study Bible, a set of 17 commentaries on the New Testament.

It was Barclay’s work which helped to clarify this parable. You see, in Looking at this parable from the Gospel of Luke, Barclay saw four different lessons. Not the single simple lesson that most of the parables offer, but four unique points. Funny thing is, as I began putting the pieces together, I found that each point Barclay sees points back to a central theme… and each point speaks, in one way or another, to every area of the Christian life, and to every facet of our faith journey.

In verse 8 the lesson is that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. I had a conversation this week with someone about political donations – they were expressing horror at how labor unions were donating millions to various political campaigns, and I pointed out that corporations did the same thing, though usually to the opposing political campaigns. Both seek to have their own agendas, their own self-interests, their own greed addressed through favorable legislation, tax breaks, and preferential treatment when bidding contracts.

We were both, from our perspectives, speaking about how the children of the world act. They are ingenious, careful to grease just the right wheel at just the right time. I mentioned earlier the Wall Street executives who feathered their nests just before the housing bubble burst and the sub-prime mortgage industry became a national crisis. They might well have been the dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable, acting shrewdly to protect their assets and distance themselves from harm when the time came.

What would it be like if the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as child of the world is in his attempt to attain money, comfort, and power?

In verse 9, Barclay sees the lesson as one that says material possessions should be used to cement the friendship. The point is, of course, meant personally, but if we carry over the thread from the last point, about Christians being as eager to attain goodness as Corporate and Organized America are to attain their agendas, can we not apply the point corporately? To all Christian churches, denominations, and believers?

Here’s what I mean: We live, right now, today, in a country where fully twenty percent of our fellow citizens live in poverty. Last year in this country, where one in three people are obese and we throw away something like forty percent of the food we buy, seventeen million children went to bed hungry. Imagine what would happen to this statistic if Christians as a body acted with the eagerness, single-mindedness, and ingenuity of Wall Street, or of the large corporations, or the massive labor unions, in addressing the injustice of hunger and poverty – not looking to whichever administration is in power in Washington for the cure, because we of all people should know the cure doesn’t lie there, but looking to ourselves and our Creator and Redeemer for the answers. We would at once become an unstoppable force for positive and permanent change!

There’s an environmentalist catchphrase that goes, “think globally, act locally.” Barclay says that the lesson of verses 10 and 11 is that a person's way of fulfilling a small task is the best proof of his or her fitness or unfitness for a larger task. If I had hoped that calling on the church to act as a body to address poverty and hunger would get individual Christians, like me, off the hook for acting on our own to attack issues like this, verses ten and eleven dash that hope on the rocks of reality. We can’t leave it to the folks at the Presbytery level or even the General Assembly level. When the Scriptures say to love our neighbor, they mean it actively and personally. We have to do the loving ourselves.

My friend Hugh Hollowell runs an organization called simply “Love Wins,” which ministers to the poor and homeless in Raleigh, North Carolina. I love Hugh, but I don’t like what he says on this subject, because it hits way too close to home for me. He says, “Loving your neighbor presupposes a relationship. It means knowing your neighbor is going through a divorce, that the lady who cleans your office has a mother that is dying, that the man at the end of the street holding a cardboard sign has been outside for three years now, and his name is Brian. In the story we call the Good Samaritan, it meant getting in the ditch to bind the man’s wounds yourself.”

He goes on, “When the average person in the pews can tell you the names of all the Judges on American Idol, or can name all the Glee cast members, but does not know a soul that makes 1/4th their income, I think it is fair to say we have lost our sense of mission as co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus told us the poor would always be with us – but we don’t really want the poor among us – we want someone else to handle that.”

I don’t want that to be true. But I know that, of the seventeen million children that went to bed hungry last year, I am personally acquainted with exactly none. I know this, because if I had known a child who was hungry, I would do everything in my power to feed that child, and I know you would, too.

The idea of fulfilling small tasks in this context means that in order to see the great changes which must take place, we must act in small ways, individual ways. We must love our neighbor, and only then can we expect the rest of the Body to love and act in the same way.

Finally, William Barclay sees the fourth lesson, in verse 13, is that no slave can serve two masters, God and wealth. We know this, we’ve heard it all of our lives. Yet isn’t it easy to believe that what we have is ours, and that the only real way to measure success is by how big our bank account is, how expensive the stuff we own is? Isn’t it easy to get caught up in the race to earn, to buy, to own, to consume?

Another friend, Chuck Graham of Ciloa Ministries, puts it this way: “…I've found the more things change, the more they stay the same. So many [people] run after the things of this world, believing they will bring them happiness.

“They work hard—many hours each day—to get the object of their desire. They sacrifice—often family and friends—to reach a goal that only points them to another. They seek, they study, they plan, they worry—each in his and her own way—to gain fulfillment that is neither full nor filling. They are in such a hurry to have life, they don't notice they're actually missing it.”

Someone once said, “It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you have.” In the context of today’s reading, it’s wanting what you have, and understanding for what purpose we have it. A couple of weeks back, when we were discussing Paul’s letter to Philemon, I said that “no matter what name is on the bill of sale, whoever signs the deed, no matter which name is on the checking account, we really own none of it. It belongs to God, and we are merely caretakers.” We are managers, if I may use that word from today’s Gospel reading.

I’ve applied all of Barclay’s points to a single issue today, it’s true, but when you think of it, the lessons of this difficult parable apply across the board, in ways which affect society, which I’ve concentrated on today, but also in personal ways, and in ways which speak to our individual faith journeys: Be as eager and ingenious as the most savvy of businessmen in addressing whatever issue or need is before us; use the gifts and possessions God has given us to bless one another, to sustain one another and to solidify our relationships, both with each another, and with those who are outside our family or the established church culture; be attentive to everyday responsibilities, including those in the realm of spiritual growth (like Bible study and prayer); and keep our focus on serving the right Master – the One that died for us.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Problem With Grace...

Oh, look, a sermon!

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good."

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

(I will be reading the New Testament Lesson as part of the sermon this morning.)

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.' Just 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.

"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? When 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.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Now, right from the start, I want to go on record as being a big fan of Jesus, so I don’t want what I am about to say throw anyone off: In reading today’s Gospel passage, I can think of several jobs that I would never, ever hire Jesus to do.

First, I would never, ever hire Jesus to be a shepherd. Well, there aren’t many opportunities for shepherds in Birmingham, so let’s make it local and say I would never, ever hire Jesus to be a security guard. Imagine, you have a building where you’re storing a hundred, oh, I don’t know, purebred, AKC-registered, prizewinning dogs valued at thousands of dollars each, and one of them gets away. The last thing you need is for the guy to leave thousands of dollars worth of dogs to go looking for the one that got away!

I also happen to think that Jesus would make a pretty lousy economist. Imagine losing a hundred dollars, finding it, and then inviting all the neighbors to a party that cost three hundred dollars to celebrate!

If a pastor left the pulpit in the middle of the service to go find the one person who overslept and didn’t come to church, or tore the building apart looking for one lost hymnal, he or she would not be pastor for very long, would they?

But then, Jesus isn’t talking about economics, is he? He isn’t talking about proper shepherding techniques, or housekeeping tips either.

The Pharisees and the scribes had noticed how all the sinners were coming to see Jesus, and being welcomed by Jesus, and for them it was proof that Jesus was exactly what they had expected: not at all a righteous man, not at all a holy teacher, and certainly not the expected messiah, but merely a man, and a man as vile as the lowest of tax collectors.

You see, to the Pharisees and the scribes, the way one attained righteousness was by trying to be more righteous. The way one attained purity and holiness was by trying to be more pure and more holy. They had long lists of the things one must do, and the things one must never do, and by extension long lists of people who were righteous and far longer lists of people who were not righteous, and thus could not be fellowshipped with lest they sully the bright gloss of their holiness. Yes, all these lists they kept were important to them, because they were convinced that if one worked diligently and kept the rules precisely and insisted passionately that others do the same, and one did these things long enough and with enough fervency, then God would surely respond favorably!

But the shepherd didn’t attend to the ninety-nine faithful sheep. The shepherd’s full attention, his whole being, was focused on the one who had gone a-wandering.

The woman didn’t give a thought to the nine coins she had. She was obsessed with the one that had gone missing.

In other words, the ones who received God’s grace weren’t the ones who thought they had earned it. The ones who received God’s grace were the ones who needed it.

What’s more, the piousness of the Pharisees and scribes earned them attention, but those who lacked their intensity were not drawn to them. The sinners, the less than, the marginalized, the Other, these were drawn to Jesus… and Jesus was drawn to them.

Do we have lists today? Plenty of people do: there are the folks who think God wants them to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers. They have lists. They have their signs and slogans and websites, but far from drawing new believers, almost everyone who sees them reacts with fear and disgust. There’s the Florida pastor who planned on burning copies of the Koran yesterday. Oh, you know this man has an extensive list. He gained worldwide attention, including the US Department of Defense, but his tiny church of fifty members gained not one new member. And in the end, he didn’t burn a single Koran.

I could go on, and mention the TV preacher who, every time a disaster strikes, be it 9/11 or Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, can refer to his very important and exhaustive list, and with pinpoint accuracy blame the given disaster on the particular sins of a given community, race, or country. He gets attention when he says these things, but to my knowledge convinces no one to respond to God’s loving call for salvation and reconciliation.

I could talk about all the lists that churches have – lists to differentiate a Baptist church from a Methodist church, or a Lutheran church from a Presbyterian church, to say nothing of a Presbyterian-PC(USA) church from a Presbyterian –PCA church… a friend of mine, Ian Richetti, is looking for churches in his area, and he said the other day, “You know the good thing about Doctrinal Statements? They provide me with a tangible excuse why we shouldn't visit.”

The point is that these lists do not make us righteous. I am not saved by being a member of a church. I am not righteous because I stand in a pulpit. That I am acceptable to God in any way, shape or fashion is not at all a function of anything I am or have done. I am an undeserving recipient of God’s grace. And that’s OK, because you are, too.

A few years after Jesus rose from the dead, there was a guy who strove, with all his being, to be pure before God, to be blameless, to be holy, to be about God’s will and God’s will alone. He fully believed that God would be pleased with him if he destroyed this upstart band, these followers of a dead rabbi. God knocked him off of his horse.

Paul learned something that day which changed him, and the church he had wanted to destroy, forever. Hear the Word of the Lord, from First Timothy 1:12-17 –

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

What Paul learned is that you don’t become righteous by trying to be righteous. You don’t become holy by trying to become holy. It is a gift from God. It’s grace. And although Paul may have counted himself among the 99 faithful sheep, God knew he was the one who was lost, and God came looking for him. Make no mistake, there were those in the church who were shocked and even enraged that Paul would become a member of the Body… but the ones who receive God’s grace are not the ones we think deserve it, but, again, the ones who need it.

And that’s the problem with grace, you see. It is undeserved, and is lavished upon the undeserving. It is in fact militant in its desire for the least and the lost! Grace is not concerned with the ninety-nine. Grace must find the one lost sheep. Grace is not content with the nine secure coins. It is compelled to find the one which rolled away.

Grace cannot be earned, but nor is it something that can be simply possessed. It must flow from us. That is its nature. The unfit, the dreadful, the forgotten, the despised, these were the ones drawn to Jesus, not because he had all the rules in perfect order and could tell everyone, in minute detail, where and how they were wrong, but because he dared to break bread with them. To give his time and his attention, his love, and, yes, even his very life for them.

Grace calls upon us to act in that same way – not to be the keepers of the lists, but to be the salt of the earth and the light upon the hill. To break bread with the people no one would be caught dead with. To love the people who richly deserve our hate. To go looking for the lost sheep and the lost coin, and to do it with abandon.

Not because they deserve God’s grace. They don’t. Not because they’ve earned the right to your attention or to God’s salvation. They haven’t. No, God calls upon us to go and sweep in the corners and search high and low and call out in the wilderness because they need God’s grace.

And when you look at it from that perspective, the lists are pretty silly, aren’t they? Because all of these people who need God’s grace are, in that most important respect, exactly like you and I.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Potter's Wheel Still Turns!

I know that writing a sermon is supposed to be hard work. Hours of toil discerning what God is saying to God's people in this particular passage, and so on. And sometimes it's like that for me, honestly.

Not tonight. This one was fun. Comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Jeremiah 18:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or 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? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Philemon 1-21
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, 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-and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The tiny book of Philemon is something of an enigma. While even the most skeptical scholars agree that Paul, indeed, wrote this letter, no one seems to have a grasp on what it’s all about. There are no immediately apparent Christological truths, no sweeping theological statements or doctrinal principals. There is only a letter, written on behalf of a slave, directed to a slave owner and the church which meets in his house.

I’ve heard arguments from people saying that the slave, Onesimus, had been sent to Paul to help him in his captivity; we see this being done in other places in the New Testament, so that isn’t impossible, but I tend to side with those who believe Onesimus to be a runaway slave.

For one thing, Onesimus being an escaped slave helps to explain Paul’s tone in this letter. A counselor I know once told me that the letter to Philemon is an example of “good” manipulation.” I’m not sure there’s any such thing as manipulating someone in a “good” way, but there’s very little question that Paul is exerting emotional and psychological pressure on Philemon throughout this letter. If Onesimus is an escaped slave, then what Paul is arguing is literally a life and death matter.

Living, as we do, in the twenty-first century Western world, the idea of slavery is not only repugnant, but a bit of a mystery as well. Even though slavery still exists today, and we may well be aware of it, it isn’t part of our everyday thinking.

In the ancient world, though, slavery was a way of life. The wealthier people owned slaves, and the poorest of the poor often had no choice but to sell themselves into slavery in order to avoid starving to death. One could hope for eventual freedom; in fact, it was a requirement of Jewish Law that slaves be regularly freed. Sometimes slaves in Rome won their freedom, and sometimes they were able to purchase that freedom. But while they were slaves, make no mistake, they were nothing more than property. They could be bought and sold with the ease of cattle; they could be beaten, starved, worked to death or even crucified with no fear of legal regulation or reprisals for the owners.

Who can blame Onesimus for running away, if that is what he did? Who wouldn’t want to escape the oppression of slavery, the humiliation of being the property of another person? And I hate to say it out loud, but I kind of have a problem with Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon! Why would he put this man, who he calls “my child, my own heart” back to a man who has every legal right, and frankly every societal obligation, to nail him to a cross in his courtyard?

Now, what follows is going to sound a lot like a rabbit trail, but bear with me, because it’s the only way I can think of to get to the answer.

Our Old Testament reading, from the book of Jeremiah, speaks about the nation of Israel, as the covenant people of God, as clay in the potter’s hand. It’s a warning to them, but one of the things I find most interesting is that the potter, when he sees the vessel he’s making spoiled, doesn’t throw out the clay. Rather, he starts over. He reforms the clay. He makes it new.

If the parallel to the Old Testament covenant people are the New Testament covenant people, then the clay thrown on the potter’s wheel is the Church. God began forming this clay during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Our reading today is rightly included in what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus: the things that are difficult to hear, difficult to comprehend, frightening to preach, nearly impossible to follow. Count the cost, because once we decide to follow Jesus, it’s all or it’s nothing. Perhaps the part that speaks loudest to those of us who populate the richest country in the world are his words about possessions: we have none. Everything belongs to God, or nothing does.

And perhaps it is no surprise that, even though the Gospel of Luke was most likely written following Paul’s death, these seem to be the words resonating most within Paul’s spirit as he writes these words to his friend Philemon. John Dominic Crossan asked, concerning the letter to Philemon, “Can Philemon, a Christian, own Onesimus, a Christian?”

Roman law aside, if the answer to Crossan’s question is “no,” then couldn’t Paul have been justified in simply keeping Onesimus there with him? He obviously enjoyed his company, and definitely needed his help. Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” was of much more use to the Apostle than he could ever be to the affluent Philemon.

Yet to keep Onesimus from Philemon would have been robbery. I don’t mean that Paul was stealing Onesimus from Philemon, no, this kind of robbery would have been much more serious. Much more deeply damaging to Philemon’s spiritual health and well-being. Philemon needed to own the knowledge that what he thought he owned, the rights he thought he had, the power he assumed to wield, all of these were nothing in the light and truth of the risen Christ.

Yes, Philemon had rights. Yes, he had the full weight of societal conventions and socially accepted practice and the Roman legal system on his side. Yes, he was merely functioning in the same way everyone else functioned, and had functioned for as long as anyone could remember. But Christ has risen, the potter’s wheel is spinning, and none of that matters anymore.

This is why Paul can write, in the book of Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is why Paul can write to Philemon and ask him to welcome Onesimus as if he were welcoming Paul: to treat Onesimus, in effect, not as a slave but as a beloved and revered and respected Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ! To not merely forgive Onesimus, not merely to free him (though that is an obvious expectation), but to welcome and love him as an equal member of the Body of Christ!

The potter’s wheel is still turning.

Now, understand that the point of Scripture isn’t to make us feel guilty for what we have, not directly. Rather, we are called on to change our attitudes going forward. The point of what Jesus says in our Gospel reading, and the point that Paul is making, forcefully, to Philemon and to us, is that no matter what name is on the bill of sale, whoever signs the deed, no matter which name is on the checking account, we really own none of it. It belongs to God, and we are merely caretakers.

The potter’s wheel is still turning.

Whatever our particular section of society tells us we should think or do, however our circle of influence expects us to act… whoever they tell us to regard above all others and despise more than everyone else, whichever group we’re told we are superior to, the Potter is continuing to wet the clay, forming we who are the people of the New Covenant in to an ever more excellent vessel – the Body of Christ.