Monday, September 26, 2016

When Good People Do Nothing

"Jesus said, '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.'"
-Luke 16: 19-31

In seminary I took Greek, not Hebrew.  But I did learn one Hebrew word that has always stuck with me. That word is hesed.  There is no simple English translation for it.  Hesed is associated with "loving kindness", "mercy", and "justice."  It is not a mood or something people feel, rather it is something that people do.  It is a way of being, part of God's great dream of shalom for the world.  Hesed underlies so many pieces of Scripture.  The Old Testament prophet Amos used the word more than anyone else, calling the people of Israel to hesed, as so many in the kingdom were living in luxury while the poor were being ignored. Even St. Paul urges Timothy to remind his congregation that they are to live lives of hesed, so that the rich many not lord it over others.  And, of course, there is the Parable of Poor Man Lazarus, where we what hesed can and should look like.   

This is wonderfully unique parable--if for no other reason than the fact that Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus' parables who gets a name.  He sits in squalor outside the gate of the home of a rich man whom tradition would later name Dives, which is Latin for "rich."  Dives lives a life of splendor, clothed in the finest robes and feasting in luxury every single day.  Dives pays no attention to poor Lazarus, and when the two men die Lazarus finds himself in the presence of Father Abraham in paradise, while Dives is tormented in the flames of Gehenna. 

What was Dives' sin?  He hadn't ordered Lazarus removed from his gate.  He hadn't kicked him while he was down.  He hadn't gotten angry when Lazarus ate the crumbs under his table.  He was not deliberately cruel to him.  He had done nothing. But in doing nothing he had sinned against him.  He had denied him hesed, denied him mercy and loving kindness. 

Indeed, Lazarus suffered no injustice from Dives directly; it's not like Lazarus was punished for trying to extort or steal anything from the rich man.  But as that ancient Doctor of the Church, John Chrysostem reminds us in his sermon on this parable, "not only the stealing of others' goods, but also the failure to share one's goods with others is theft and swindle...for the rich hold the goods of the poor, no matter how they have gathered their wealth."  In other words, just because Dives didn't cause Lazarus' plight, he was still responsible for him by virtue of the fact that he had much and Lazarus had nothing.  This is what we call privilege.  He still had an obligation to his fellow human being to show him hesed but he ignored him. 

Artist's depiction of poor man Lazarus and rich man Dives.

Over time, as we hear this parable again and again, Dives sounds like the worst kind of person. We could never be as cold and unfeeling as him, right?  Well, I have. At the intersection of Friendly Ave. and Spring St. in Greensboro, NC (a road I travel each time I head back to Asheboro) I always see someone standing on the corner with a sign:  "homeless vet" , "family needs help," or something like that.  More often than not I drive by, doing nothing.  In my collar, no less. I come up with all kinds of excuses.  I'm not responsible for how this person ended up, right?  How do I know they won't use the money for booze? I can't possibly help every single person I see, right?  Like Dives, I've become so desensitized to the plight of others--it's just "normal" to me--and I'm not moved to act.  Sometimes it happens when I see someone on the street, and sometimes it happens when I read the paper or see a story on the tv news.  I see injustice, and I do nothing.  And that is a sin against my brother and sister. 

Becoming desensitized, we end up believing that we are not responsible for others' pain, resulting in a stance of indifference when it comes to matters of justice. Elie Wiezel, the Holocaust survivor and writer who passed away earlier this year, said:  "The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference."  The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference.  When we stand around and do nothing, when we see injustice occurring, when we see a world where hesed is denied, we allow darkness and evil to take over.  As Dietrich Bonheoffer once wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil, and God will not hold us guiltless."

It is all too easy for us to look upon the plight of others and be silent.  It is easy for us to think we are not responsible, especially when they are not like us:  when they are black, poor, or gay, or hispanic, or Muslim, or a refugee. We come up with those same excuses that I give. It's their own fault, we say.  Or we throw out the entirely bogus claim that "the Bible says to help those who help themselves."  It totally doesn't say that!  Not anywhere!!  As Chrysostem reminds us again, when we see someone who has encountered the shipwrecks of life we are not to judge but to free that person from the bonds of misfortune.  That's Biblical!  Thats what the parable of poor man Lazarus teaches us. That's hesed!  Justice.  Mercy.  Loving kindness.  We ARE responsible! 

We don't intentionally ignore folks in need, but we become so desensitized that we just decide to be indifferent or neutral.   We cannot be indifferent or neutral.  There is an old African proverb that reminds us of this fact: 

If you saw an elephant  stepping on the tail of the mouse, and you said that you were neutral, how do you think the mouse would feel toward you?  

Oh, we say, the elephant must have a good reason.  I don't want to get involved with their dispute.  So we stay neutral.  But there is no such thing as neutral when it comes to matters of injustice.  And elephants keep stepping on mice. Dives keeps ignoring Lazarus.  

We like to think that we live in a world where all lives matter.  We don't.  We never have.  In Jesus' time the lives of folks like poor man Lazarus didn't matter.  The whole reason Lazarus even gets a name in the parable is to illustrate to the audience that, in fact, the poorest of the poor still do matter!  For centuries the lives of women have not mattered, especially in the Church! And in our own country the lives of folks like Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, two black men who were killed last week, have not mattered!  Evil wins when we keep burying our heads in the sand and taking a stance of neutrality.  Evil wins when we do not honor the lives of those who, for so long, have been mistreated, abused, and ignored. Evil wins when we who have plenty choose not to help those who have little, Evil wins when we fail to see that we have privileges--the kinds of privileges that allow us live so comfortably while others live in squalor, or the kind of privilege to walk down the streets of our own neighborhoods without fear of being stopped by someone because they "look suspicious."  Evil wins when those who are the Dives-es of this world continue to ignore the Lazarus-es who are crying from underneath our feet.  All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing. Yes, my fellow wealthy, straight, white Christians, we are responsible to our brothers and sisters!  If we decide we want to live in a world of hesed, of justice and mercy, then we will embrace this responsibility with eagerness and with the love of Jesus in our hearts.  All it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing.

Dives wasn't an evil person.  We are not evil people.  Dives just didn't care. A lotta folks today 
still don't care.  I pray, brothers and sisters, that we will care.  That we will say "No more!" to neutrality
and indifference. I pray we will care enough to create a world of hesed for all of God's people.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Good News from a Dishonest Manager

"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."
-Luke 16: 1-9

So what are we to make of this parable from last Sunday?  It's certainly a hard one.  It's called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, and believe it or not, that manager is the one that we are supposed to emulate--like the folks in Jesus' time we are meant to be able to see ourselves in at least one participant in the parable story, and in this case it's the manager.  How is that possible?  Here is a guy who embezzled money and property, got caught, and decided to get these other debtors involved in the situation by reducing their debt.  It seems like a nice thing this guy did, right?  Actually, by involving the debtors he has now brought them into his own conflict with the boss/master in the story.  So, worst case scenario, the manager--having forgiven some of what these debtors owed--would be in a position to exercise a little judicious blackmail if his boss ends up firing him totally.  He could easily go to these other folks and say, "I forgave these debts, so unless you want me to tell the master, you better do what I say!"  Dishonest and shrewd, indeed. 

Is this really the person Jesus wants us to emulate?  Well, yes and no.  No, Jesus is not trying to tell us that we should embezzle from our employers or blackmail folks.  That's not what's happening here.  What he is telling us, however, is that we can learn from the dishonest manager's attitude, his eagerness to get what he wants. 

In verse 8 Jesus says, "the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light."  What he's saying here is that humanity stops at nothing to get what it wants.  We step all over people, we lie, we cheat, we embezzle.  We do anything and everything to get what we believe we deserve.  So what if humanity were as eager and ingenious in our attempts to attain goodness as we are in our attempt to attain money and comfort?  Certainly we would more be in-line with the purposes for which God intended us. And that is what Jesus is getting at.  It's not the manager's actions that we must emulate, but rather his attitude, his eagerness, and his creativity.  If only we could give as much attention to the things which concern our souls as we do the things that concern our earthly appetites, then maybe we would strengthen our faith in incredible ways.  We've all been there.  Over and over again we will expend countless amounts of time and money and effort on our pleasures, our hobbies, and on the things of this temporal world.  Imagine if we spent that much time and effort on our faith, on our church community, on serving the needs of the community outside our church walls.  Our faith would blossom and grow in abundance if we were able to focus as much on it, as we do on all of the other stuff.  In short, Jesus is telling his audience, and telling us, that we can learn from the dishonest manager's attitude.  You see how eager and ingenious he is in his attempt to attain money and comfort?  What if we were that eager with our faith? 

To have that much enthusiasm and appreciation and creativity for our faith would be something of a miracle.  It was then, and it certainly is now.  We are pulled in so many directions, and we prioritize things in such a way that we make clear what is important to us and what is not.  We'll pull out all the stops to feed our appetites for money, for social standing, for the affections of others.  But what about God?  Where does God fall into our priorities?  I wonder what would happen if we took the enthusiasm and the shrewdness of the dishonest manager and applied it to our lives of faith.  I wonder what would happen if we made knowing and loving God in this place as much of a priority as our appetites for the stuff of this world.  I wonder.

Yeah, this parable is a doozy, and God knows there are so layers to it and so many places that a preacher could go with it.  Check in with this blog in three years and you're almost certainly going to see a different post addressing another layer of this parable!  If we look at it at face value it makes very little sense.  But if we see what Jesus is trying to get at, that we should be as eager about God as the manager is about his money, then we see Good News for us.  So let's be as the dishonest manager, stopping at nothing to get what we want, because what we want is to know God and to make God known.  And that is Good News, indeed.

Monday, September 12, 2016

He's Looking For Us

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "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."
--Luke 15: 1-10

 I lose things all the time.  It's a trait that runs in my family.   Once I lost my high school class ring in an airport restroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I went back and looked for it, nowhere to be found.  Six months later, while sitting in class, I got called to the office and told I had a phone call.  A woman on the other end told me that her boyfriend found a class ring for a Joe Mitchell from Pound High School while working in a paper factory in Madison, Wisconsin.  I was in Virginia.  Unbelievable.  She asked if I wanted it back.  I said sure, and she mailed it.  I still have that ring; in fact, I never wore it again.  I've lost plenty more things in my life that never did turn up, but that story always gives me hope that maybe whatever I've lost might actually get found, if not by me then by someone else. 

My high school class ring, found in a paper factory in Madison, WI.

Any of you ever lost something that precious, something that felt so very important to you?  Have you turned the whole house upside down looking for it?  Did you pray to Saint Anthony to help you find it.  Saint Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost objects, and there's a neat little prayer to him that some of us learned as kids.  Do you know that prayer? 

Dear Saint Anthony, please come around
Something is lost and cannot be found.

St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost objects.

 Do you remember how relieved you felt when you found that for which you were searching, after you had put in so much time, so much energy and effort into finding it?  You know how much that thing meant to you?  Well, that's how much--and then some--that you mean to God!

The two parables that Jesus gives us today are meant to remind us of that fact.  In the first he likens God to a shepherd, who leaves the 99 in the flock to go searching for the one sheep who is lost.  This is the Good Shepherd, of course.  This is the shepherd who heads out into the wilderness, where the hyenas are howl, where the temperature dips below freezing as the sun goes down, and does not come return until that sheep is found.  That's the kind of love that God has for you.  God comes and meets us in the wilderness of our lives, maybe in the form of a dear friend, or even a stranger, and brings us back home. 

Then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about woman who loses a coin and searches the whole house, turns it upside-down until she finds it.  That's God, Jesus says.  And you're the coin.  You're the one God is searching for, you're the one that God rejoices in finding.  Odds are that coin would've been pretty important, would've supplied the woman and her family with a daily meal.  God is like that.  The joy of God, and of all the angels for that matter, when one of God's children is found, is like the joy of a home when a coin which has stood between the family and starvation, has been found.  That's how much you matter to God. 

A children's book rendering of the Parable of the Lost Coin.

Knowing that God loves us, knowing that we matter to God, is sometimes the easy part of all this; after all, we get reminded of that each and every week.  It's something that the Pharisees in Jesus' day understood.  Of course we all matter to God! That's why God desires so much that sinners repent. But what makes these two parables so powerful is not so much the reminder of how much we matter to God, but the fact that God actively searches us out.  This is a radical piece of the Gospel that Jesus gave to the people, a piece that had not heard before.  Sure, God wants sinners to come home, but for God to actively go out into the cold, harsh world to find them?  To turn the whole place upside-down looking for them, looking for you and looking for me? Surely not for you!  Surely not for me!  Surely God would not waste time on folks like us, so broken, so frail, so lost.  If anything, we should be looking for God, not the other way around! But that's what God does. God actively seeks each and every one of us out.

We believe in the seeking love of God because we see that love incarnate in Jesus Christ.  The living embodiment of God, who came to seek and to save that which was lost, who comes to seek after us and who finds us.  Jesus did not wait around for the those sinners and tax collectors to come to his table.  Instead, he went out looking for them, so that he could invite them in, not just to the table, but into a new relationship with him.  Our Lord is not a passive Lord.  

Years ago I was having dinner with a priest and the senior warden of his church.  The priest asked the senior warden, "Where did you and the Lord find each other?"  I chuckled a bit.  This is the kind of thing those evangelicals ask each other, right?  But he was serious, and the senior warden's answer was serious. He told of a time in his life where he was lost and broken beyond repair.  But then Jesus found him, and his life has never been the same since. These two guys understood.  I didn't understand.  They understood that Jesus is out there, actively searching us out, calling us to newness of life, calling us to lives we never thought possible, calling us to changed hearts and changed lives.  I understand now because I have heard many more stories like theirs, and I have seen for my own eyes and experienced myself that Jesus actively seeks us because he loves us that much.   Some of you have had those moments, found Jesus on a beach, found him in a church, or found him in the deepest ditch of your life.  Well, he's still looking for you.  It's not a one-time thing; it isn't like we just meet Jesus, get saved, and are good to go.  No, he is out there every single day, calling us to newness of life.  He'll keep looking for you, and if you keep your eyes and ears and hearts open, you'll find him.  

Jesus, like us, knows the joy of finding something that is precious and beautiful to him.  You are that which is precious and beautiful!  You are more beloved to him that any ring, any object that you hold in your possession.  You are richer to him than gold, as the Psalmist says, sweeter far are you than honey in the comb to Jesus.  Wherever you find yourself today, whatever is going on in your life, know that you mean that much to Jesus.  You mean so much to him that he will stop at nothing to find you!  He's out there.  He's out there in the wildness like the shepherd, he's turning this whole world upside-down like the woman searching for her coin.  He's looking for you, and for me, calling us to repentance, calling us to truly know and experience and share his love, calling us to be found by him again and again and again.