Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Some look at the chasm that is fixed between the rich and poor of this world, and are motivated to make a difference. Some look at the poor in this world and are glad there is a difference! How do you feel about the chasm between rich and poor? And how does that change you? How do you begin now to live your life?
I am not a big fan of Pearly Gate jokes. I’m probably just a scriptural snob. But some just don’t seem that funny, and others strike me as an abomination to the kingdom and realm of God. But I have to admit, they are popular, and once in a while, they really are humorous. I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of them either. He mainly sticks to parables about the realm of God that reveals the nearness of the kingdom here on earth, in his presence. But Pearly Gate, and heaven and Hades jokes, were also around in Jesus time. And this story today is a riff on that genre. He uses it, not to educate us on what heaven or hell might be like, but to use this popular form for his own purposes.
‘Once upon a time, there was a rich man and a poor man who died, and one went to Hades and the other to Abraham’s bosom,’ might be how jokes like this, started back then. But the way Jesus tells it, it would have been pleasurably scandalous to some, and not funny at all to those “lovers of money” he’s denounces. It was commonly held that, riches and wealth were signs of God’s blessing. And so, a well off and successful person’s reward would be, favor with God in the afterlife, or being carried away by the angels, or going to the bosom of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. While the poor, and those afflicted with incurable disease, would receive their due, basically to die and be buried forever.
So in this parable, Jesus unexpectedly changes things around. Not unlike how this gospel starts out in its first chapter, when Mary discovers that she will be the God-bearer, and so sings her song of God’s greatness, that, “[the LORD] has lifted up the lowly; and has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In like manner, Jesus shakes up his listeners with the parable of how a rich man is sent away to the agony of Hades, and Lazarus, the poor man is lifted up and celebrating at the heavenly banquet with Abraham.
A recent study of attitudes about the Great Recession we’re in, looked at the differences between the rich and poor. They found that, counter intuitively, the rich more often complain about what has happened to them, than the poor and middle class. And so a reporter from NPR’s This American Life went to interview three Wall Street traders that had lost a bunch at the fall of the stock market, but were still millionaires, to find out their attitudes on the Great Recession. They were happy to speak out about how resentful they were of the bailout of Wall Street banks, even though they couldn’t deny that the bailout had saved their jobs. Digging deeper still, it turned out that they believed that the reason they thought they were so deserving was, because they were just smarter than others. They deserved to be rewarded and to succeed because they were specially gifted. As one said, ‘it’s the survival of the fittest!’ In other words, those who come out on top are meant to be there – it’s their just reward. The gods have spoken! Some look at the chasm that is fixed between the rich and poor of this world, and are motivated to make a difference. Some look at the poor in this world and are glad there is a difference!
Of course these are just three relatively inexperienced traders, and don’t represent all of Wall Street. But in a crass way, they represent the views of our society as a whole. Which includes ourselves, to the degree we believe or participate in an economy of competition that tolerates winners and losers, and to the extent that we tend towards tunnel vision, and we don’t want to see that guy lying at our gate covered with sores, because ‘we’ll always have the poor with us’ anyway, the chasm is overwhelming, and s/he probably did something to deserve where they’re at. We may not complain as much as the truly rich, but how do we live out the kingdom and realm of God among us?
Clearly the parable, as Jesus uses it, is not really about the afterlife. It’s about us here and now. And our situation is closest to the five children back at the rich mans house, with gates and chasms we are well familiar with. An open ended question remains. Will the kids wake up? Will they listen to Moses and the prophets? Will we? Jesus shows us the cartoon characterization of heaven and Hades, and a chasm over which no one can pass, after death, and begs us to see ourselves here, before the reversal, where the bridge can still be crossed – where forgiveness is possible and where compassion is our calling, our work, and our joy. “You cannot serve Compassion and the bottom line,” to paraphrase from last week’s gospel. Being faithful to God is being faithful to God’s reign of compassion and mercy, which is not possible to envision if we have capitulated to the ‘bottom line’ mentality of hoarding and squandering, blithely following the god of, ‘the survival of the fittest.’
So, in addition to the role reversal of Lazarus and the rich man, their ways of living before death, come to ‘eternal consequences.’ It is our lives of humble service: showing hope, goodwill, comfort, counsel, aid, and peace, that draw us closest to the bosom of Abraham. Whereas the rich man, who couldn’t help but see Lazarus lying at his very gate, did not even lift a finger to help, even the dogs were more merciful, coming to lick his sores.
Not that Jesus wants us to turn this into a new, hard and fast rule, for how to get to heaven. There is no quid pro quo in the realm of God. But we enjoy the sumptuous feast already when we follow the path Jesus calls us to, the way of compassion and ‘eternal consequences.’ All our joy in serving humbly, like Jesus, comes from beginning again today in following the way of the cross and resurrection. We do it, not because we have to, not even because it seems like the right thing in an unrighteous world, but because we give thanks for all we have, a gift that is multiplied, by our giving it all away again. Humble service rejoices, knowing that it is the invisible things – faith, hope, joy, and love – that are eternal and lasting.
And so, on the one hand, there is the sumptuous feasting of a compassionless squandering partier. On the other hand, there is a sumptuous feasting, celebrating the gift of salvation, forgiveness, and fullness for all. Some look at the poor in this world and are glad there is a difference! We look at the chasm that is fixed between the rich and poor of this world, and are motivated to make a difference.
We are not convinced of the way of compassion, because just anyone has risen from the dead, but we are strengthened and convinced of the way of compassion for the poor, and ‘that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us,’ because the one who came and died on the cross, took on our suffering, sin, and lowly position, has been raised! And now he lives a new life, to give away his body and blood in the bread and wine of the feast that never ends. So, come to the banquet of compassion, forgiveness and joy. There is a place for you at the sumptuous feast!
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Wealth, money, riches! I feel like I should begin my sermon with an apology for the readings today. Especially to any guests who may have just had their worst fears confirmed that the church is always talking about money! To be clear, we follow, as most churches do, the 3 year cycle of appointed readings, so, I don’t pick ‘em, they’re already chosen for us. And, in point of fact, if you page through the Gospels, money is a regularly recurring theme that ranks right up there, and even exceeds most other social issues on Jesus’ agenda. The real rub, I think, is that the church too often uses that to ask for money, for itself. And so I promise to you today, I will not do that. We are bold to ask, you may have noticed, that you consider giving, not to us, but for the cause of ending World Hunger, by using the envelopes provided. But we will not dig into your pockets for ourselves. In fact, we believe at Unity that whoever is a first time guest, should be invited to, not make an offering, but instead to, “save your offering and spend the week noticing all the ways that God blesses you, and then return and give generously, so that the whole world may know God’s love.”
In just such a way, there is a sudden reversal of expectation in the parable about the rich man who had a manager, when, the master “commends the dishonest manager.” We expect he will be outraged, but instead he approves, “because he had acted shrewdly!” Every time I hear this story again, I always wonder, who let this off-beat tale into the bible?! Yet, wiser friends in the faith, then remind me that ‘clever tricksters’ and ‘rogues’ have been popular throughout the sweep of Judao-Christian history. The most popular is probably Jacob, the trickster patriarch, who deceived his father while cheating his brother out of his birthright, and then made off with most of his father-in-law’s flock! And there is the Rabbinic story, which is worth telling again, and which goes like this:
There was once a man who was caught stealing and was ordered by the king to be hanged. On the way to the gallows he said to the governor that, he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him, and he would like to disclose it to the king. He would put a seed of a pomegranate in the ground and through the secret taught to him by his father he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight. The next day the king, accompanied by the high officers of state, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. There the thief dug a hole and said, “This seed must only be put in the ground by a person who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to them. I, being a thief, cannot do it.”
So he turned to a high officer of state who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something which did not belong to him. The treasurer said that dealing with such large sums, he might have entered too much or too little, and even the king admitted that he had kept a necklace of his father’s. The thief then said, “You all are mighty and powerful and lack for nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, while I who have stolen a little, because I was starving, am to be hanged.” Then the king, pleased with the ruse of the thief, pardoned him.
The king, is much like the master in Jesus parable who “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” And so, oddly enough, it follows, “to make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus opens the door to the choice between faithfulness or dishonesty, because even being a little bit of one, means we are choosing that path to a much greater extent for our lives.
Of course, which of us has not been dishonest or taken something not our own, at some point in our lives? We cannot will ourselves to be without fault for a lifetime. But thankfully, the parables’ reversal reorients us to the “property” that we are entrusted with. Whether it be our personal property, our responsibilities at work, or our children, we are given the opportunity to be shrewd in caring for them, just like the dishonest manager was with his Master’s olive groves and wheat fields. Especially when we come to realize whose it is, and who is giving it to us. When we remember that we are managers, and all we have comes not from us, but as a gift from God. All property and possessions, our talents and unique traits, our intellect, and compassion, and our sense of humor, are really a gift and a debt, that we cannot repay to the Creator. We can’t take it with us when we go.
And this is what the dishonest manager grasps so quickly! Faced with the end of his world as he knew it, he instinctively and shrewdly used the gifts he had been entrusted with. And in using his fleeting and transient possessions, he developed good relations with others, who were in the same boat as himself. He made friends with other debtors, instead of cheating them. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
In a very strange way, the dishonest manager shows us how to emulate the grace of God. As God has given us everything we have, ourselves, our time, and our possessions, and there is no way we can repay God, so we too are most alive and fulfilled when we learn to leverage and use our wealth and gifts in sharing, and giving it away to others. The dishonest manager, in making friends by means of dishonest wealth, by reducing the debt of the farmers, one 50% and another 20%, showed mercy and grace. And if all that we have is from God, it makes more sense to share it, than hoard it.
Yesterday, it was Unity’s turn to again serve dinner at Uptown Ministries on Lawrence and Sheridan, and as always, after serving, the servers sit down to eat with the guests! And, as usual, there was enough to invite everyone up for a second helping – all given away as a gift, and labor of love. Not that anyone had to pay for the first helping! But, as one of the recipients brought their second meat loaf sandwich back to the table where I was sitting, she began packing it away in a plastic bag, and admitted rather sheepishly that it was for her spouse who couldn’t make it today. Maybe she felt like it was a bit of dishonest wealth, but it seemed to me that it was a downright shrewd act, a sharing with others. “Whoever is faithful in a very little, is faithful also in much.” And the person thanked us with a wonderfully wry smile.
God gives us our talents and gifts and all we have, and wants us to develop and use them, as best as we are able. Not for our own glory, but to the glory of God. Here at Unity we say that we want God to “change us, so that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us.” Because of the grace and mercy we have received, we can also give heavenly gifts to others.
In an odd way then, it is desirous to become ‘tricksters’ and ‘rogues,’ in sharing all that we have, “that you may be welcomed into the eternal homes.”
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Is your relationship with God based on merit or mercy? What price should we put on the grace of God? Who is righteous enough to earn it? These are the hard questions Jesus asks.
This is not the first time that he is seen with the tax collectors and sinners. It’s not the first time either, that Jesus proclaims he has come to call the lost and outcast, for he often compares himself to a physician who is sent out to the sick, to those who are looking for a healer, all the while reminding his audience that those who are well, have no need of a doctor.
And this is not the first time that people have grumbled about the leadership God provides, in the bible. It goes all the way back to the Exodus when Moses led the people out of Egypt, by the mighty hand of God, through the Red Sea, and they ended up in the desert, lacking for water and food. They grumbled that life was so much better back in Egypt, romanticizing the meals they had under hard labor, as being so fresh and delicious. ‘Oh the leeks and cucumbers we had, why have we been brought here, on this journey?’
Now, in the time of anticipation of a new leader to bring them out of bondage, the Pharisees and Scribes, who have no need of a physician, are jealous of those who are celebrating, banqueting, and being welcomed by this Rabbi-teacher, Jesus. And so they grumble that he should know better. You shouldn’t give away for free what is so costly and precious, this divine healing and mercy! The Pharisees and the Scribes were already righteous persons, Jesus seemed to concede, but they could not, they refused to, celebrate the widening of the circle. If they had a say, they’d just as soon keep others out! Will Jesus be able to change their mind? Will they come and join the joyous banquet that Jesus presides at? Do they see their relationship with God based on merit, or mercy?
Jesus tells these two simple parables in response to the grumbling of the righteous ones. “Which of you,” Jesus asks them, “having a hundred sheep, or having 10 silver coins, if you lose one, does not go after it until you have found it?” Actually, it’s already pretty extravagant for a shepherd to leave the 99 behind and risk losing a whole bunch more of them, just to find the one. While it sounds quite reasonable for the woman to light her lamp, sweep her house, and search carefully for her lost coin. A silver coin, or drachma, was worth about a days wage, and would be very important to her. So the really outlandish idea, I think, is that, the poor shepherd and the poor woman, would invite all their friends and neighbors over to have a party, to celebrate the return of that which was lost. Throwing a banquet would be certainly much more costly than the sheep, or the coin, which were recovered! What is Jesus teaching us? What is all this heavenly celebrating about?
Maybe Jesus just liked the shepherd and the woman because they are compassionate type characters? The shepherd is often an image used in the holy scriptures for the leaders of the people, but by Jesus time they had fallen in stature, had become outsiders, the blue-collar, hard-living, non-church-going, type. And women, who were not supposed to be seen or heard, in Palestinian society, in Luke’s gospel are continually lifted up as examples of faithfulness, and as leaders, who are not confined by human-made rules. That Jesus picks a shepherd and a woman to play the metaphorical part of a compassionate God is exactly what makes the Pharisees and Scribes so grumbly!
But the real winners in these parables are of course, the found ones, the sheep by the shepherd, and the coin by the woman. Sheep are notoriously lost characters, innocent, but given to wandering away. And we like sheep, we don’t get lost on purpose, usually. We go astray, a bit at a time. We go out with the wrong crowd, we try something we shouldn’t that seemed fun at the time, we give in to TV instead of that meeting or volunteer position. We are sheep, who wander away, not on purpose, not all at once, but one bush at a time, as we graze along, until we are suddenly disconnected, lost or isolated, from those who had been our friends, and neighbors, and our life-lines.
Or, we are the silver coin. Maybe we have rolled away inexplicably into the shadows, behind the leg of the coach, or the pew, or simply blended right in with the carpet or linoleum. “We know our own transgressions, and our sin is ever before us,” as the Psalmist says, so we become adept at disguising and hiding it behind a smile or a well phrased retort, blending in with everyone else doing the same. And we can become lost, separated from our brothers and sisters in the faith, and from God, losing hope that we will ever be found. We have become lost right in our own homes, right in our own house of worship.
This past week I was at another ECRA meeting on the Nursing Home situation in Edgewater and the closing of Sommerset earlier this year. It was a follow up to the large and successful gathering we had had with our legislators, nursing home providers, and religious leaders. One woman, who had been working on the issue of improving care in our Nursing Homes for some time, much longer than we at ECRA had, was suddenly hopeful, we found out. She had felt like she was the only one in all of Edgewater who was out there fighting to make a difference. And though she felt committed to her work all that time, she was losing heart that she could go on. She was obviously talented, but it had become a very lonely pursuit, in the face of overwhelming odds. Now this “one” felt as if she had been found, by a large and caring community. And it became a very joyous occasion!
Our God is a God who searches out the lost, who does not let a single one get away! God wants to widen the circle. In fact, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who returns than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. And the celebration and rejoicing, is extravagant, over the top, in comparison to the repentance. Because, the reconciliation, symbolized by the banquet, and meal, is much greater than the status quo which needs no saving. And so the meal has become the sign of God’s coming among us and establishing the new age. God feeds us, and we are overjoyed with grace and love.
Our relationship with God is not based on merit, but on mercy. We all become lost, one bush at a time. And if we are found, saved, based not on our merit, then there can be no grumbling over whomever God chooses to welcome and redeem. The true measure of where the kingdom and realm of God is, is where the people of God are banqueting and rejoicing together, welcoming all the lost ones, and giving thanks. For God is a God of mercy, and finds us, and calls together all our friends and neighbors, for the joyous banquet that has no end, where, we will be satisfied!
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty, and from our savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
How shall we market this wonderful good news of Jesus? What possibly could be the appeal, of following the one who demands so much of us? Doesn’t Jesus know that you catch more flies with honey, and that good marketing sells!
My nephew, that I married last year, Dylan, and his spouse Brooke, know how persuasive good marketing can be. They took one of those vacations where you get a good deal on a condo, if you just take the free tour with the Realtor. It’s all free, just as long as you can say, ‘thanks but no thanks,’ and walk away. Otherwise, you end up, like they did, signing on for a bunch of time-shares. All free today, but you’ll pay down the line, and the clock is ticking! Dylan didn’t know how to say no. He didn’t sit down and estimate the cost, and so, every time he has to tell a family member or friend about it, he gets that ridiculed feeling, like the fellow who couldn’t finish building his spiraling tower!
In this age of marketability, the watch word is, tell the customer what they want to hear – the truth is somewhat less important! Ads become slicker, more attractive, and more entertaining all the time. People, as well as products, are branding themselves, in order to appeal to large crowds. The new teen sensation, Kady Perry’s brand, is all sugary-sweet. Manny Ramirez is the dred-locked, sure-fire, power hitter. Apple, is the innovative leader in all things computerized and downloadable. You can never get enough of them! They make you feel good. They might be swirling in controversy and scandal, but that only makes them hotter. As a distinctive brand, they’re ready to be plucked from the shelf. Their message is wrapped up carefully and attractively, and the last thing they want, is to appear too costly, and push you away!
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus does? Finally, as he becomes so popular that “large crowds are traveling with him,” instead of smiling and waving to them, he wheels around, he turns, and says to them, “none of you can become my disciple, just because you like me, or think I’m the new feel-good sensation! You can only be my follower if you are willing to put me above all other gods in your life.
The Somali born, Canadian artist, K’naan, has been struggling with his popularity recently. Born into the poverty of Mogadishu, 32 years ago, his latest hit song, “Wavin’ Flag,” became the anthem of the World Cup games this year. It doesn’t get much bigger than that! Everyone loved singing the lyric, “They’ll call me freedom just like a wavin’ flag.” But the song is really about K’naan’s personal struggle to find the courage to go on, after a shooting at one of his concerts, some years ago, that left him wounded and 3 band members dead. So K’naan has always prided himself in being a truth-teller. He doesn’t quite fit into the Rap brand of music, or Reggie. He insists he is a-political, but doesn’t shy away from calling it as he sees it.
Before his fame this year, K’naan made quite a splash in 2001, when he was invited to speak at the UN inGeneva for the 50th anniversary of the Commission for Refugee's. Moments before taking the stage, and getting up before the large crowd, he turned, and said to his best friend and band member, Ray Zak, tonight is not the night to entertain, but to speak the truth. That’s not what Ray wanted to hear, who was just there to play. But without mincing words, K’naan went on to move the audience, with his “word piece,” a powerful poem, delivered from his personal experience. "I basically called out the UN for its failed relief mission in Somalia," he said later. Not the expected speech from an invited guest to the UN!
Jesus too, turned, and said to the large crowd, not what they wanted to hear, but the truth that can set us free. Not the slick message that would make him desirable, but what his heavenly parent had called him to proclaim. “If you do not give up all your possessing, none of you can become my disciple.”
What does it take to be a disciple and follower of Jesus these days, in this era of marketability, the digital age of branding yourself, when everyone has a Facebook page? There’s a fine line, of course, between selling yourself truthfully, and selling out. The church is no exception. There are religious workshops to groom your message and make your congregation more acceptable, more marketable, more likeable to the public. As Christianity becomes post-modern, and as our American culture becomes more pluralistic, who we are, is changing rapidly. And churches are encouraged to sell themselves as a brand, without calling people to become disciples. But when does it cross the line? Truth be told, this is not a new dynamic. More than 50 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his “Cost of Discipleship,” warned of selling the Christian message as “cheap-grace”.
In the end, Christianity, like all religions, deals with life and death questions. Unless you give up all your possessing – our addiction to marketing, traveling whimsically from one fleeting feel-good purchase to another, without being grounded in what truly gives us life, to sit down first to the meal that satisfies – until we follow the one, who through the cross and resurrection, brings us new life, you cannot become a disciple of the one who brings the kingdom that has no end!
This is why at Unity we keep coming back to our Core Values and Vision for what God is calling us to be. “We are an urban green space, welcoming everyone!” It doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun at the same time! Even Jesus, with his face set toward Jerusalem and the cross, didn’t forget to take time to celebrate with his followers, in banqueting meals of forgiveness and healing and joy, enacting with them, the peace and freedom of the new age. And so, we are invited to “feed others, as we have already been fed,” with the grace and love of Christ Jesus.
This, is the marketable good news! Turn, and follow me, says Jesus. The more you identify your cross and calling, the more you will find the Jesus who completes you.
Usually, there comes a time when you realize you cannot do it alone, you cannot take it with you, you cannot win with ten thousand, because as soon as you mount an attack, there is an opponent with twenty thousand. Choosing Jesus, choosing life, are the terms of peace that resolve the question of all our possessing!
You can have “the free offer of a time-share condo,” or you can have the free offer of life and salvation. Come to the table and chose life, where the bread and wine are free, and satisfy all our longings.