Stories Jesus Told: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

Once upon a time there lived a very rich man.  He was so rich that he only wore the finest bespoke robes colored with only the most expensive of dyes, and all the tailors clamored to be the one who made them.  He was so rich that he ate seven-course meals, not just on special occasions but every day, prepared by chefs schooled in the most modern techniques and laden with expensive spices.  There were always leftovers from all that food, but the rich man never ate leftovers.  He was so rich that one room in his house was the size of most other people’s houses, and of course he had many possessions in his house to protect, which he did with heavy, hand-wrought gates that a servant had to open.

Some looked upon this man and his great riches and said that he must be a very good man for God to have rewarded him like this.  They knew that the Scriptures said that “With [wisdom] [come] riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity” (Proverbs 8:18); that “the Lord will take delight in prospering you…when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees” (Deuteronomy 30:9-10); that “the Lord delights in the prosperity of his servant” (Psalm 35:27). They thought he must be a man who was very righteous.

Some looked upon this man and his wealth and said that he must be a very bad man to have acquired all this money and all these possessions.  They knew that there were warnings in Scripture for those who exploited the poor for their own gain, who “bought the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6).  They knew that the Scriptures said not to trust too much in wealth (Psalm 49), and here was a man who clearly trusted in his wealth.  They thought he must be a man who was very wicked.

But the truth was the rich man was neither very righteous or very wicked.  All things considered, he was what we might call a fairly decent guy.  He loved his family, and was hospitable to his friends.  He was generally honest.  He employed a lot of people to make all those robes and cook all those meals, and he didn’t treat them badly.  He was a patron of the arts and humanities.  That sort of thing.

Nearby, there lived a very poor man.  When I say nearby, I mean in the dusty street just outside those heavy, hand-wrought gates.  The poor man’s name was Lazarus, which means “God helps,” but no one ever helped Lazarus.  Lazarus was so poor you could see his ribs because he didn’t have anything to eat.  He was so poor he didn’t have any way to dress the sores that covered his body.  He was so poor that all he could do was lie outside the rich man’s gates and hope for some scrap of leftover food that he never got.

Some people looked upon Lazarus and said he must be a very bad man to have deserved this punishment from God.  They said that God was a just God and that bad people got what was coming to them.  They could quote Scripture for this, too—Psalm 1, Psalm 37, Psalm 92.  They said that if God ordains prosperity for those who follow his commandments, he must ordain poverty for those who disobey.  They said that it is laziness and idleness that lead to poverty.

Some looked upon Lazarus and said he must be very blessed, for they knew from Scripture that God draws near to the poor, and they figured God must be very near to Lazarus.  “Blessed are the poor,” they had heard someone say, but Lazarus thought that was an odd sort of blessing.

The truth was that Lazarus, like the rich man, was neither very bad nor very good, and he certainly didn’t feel very blessed.

The rich man and Lazarus lived very nearby to each other, but they lived in very different worlds.

But death, they say, is the great equalizer, and as all people do, both the rich man and Lazarus died.  Only, they weren’t very equal even in death, for the rich man had an extravagant funeral complete with professional mourners, as the rich people did in those days, and Lazarus – well, if he was buried at all, it was certainly unceremoniously.

But after that, everything changed.

Lazarus, the poor man, was lifted on the wings of angels and brought to be with Abraham, the father of his faith.  He reclined on Abraham’s bosom, like the disciple Jesus loved would later do with Jesus at the Last Supper, at the feast that God sets for all of God’s people at the end of days.  After years of starving for scraps, poor Lazarus got a feast of his own, better than any feast the rich man had ever known.

The rich man was brought to a place of suffering where flames licked at his skin, and all he could do was hope for a drop of water to provide some relief, but the water never came.  It was worse suffering than Lazarus ever experienced on that dusty street.

If they could have known what became of the rich man and Lazarus, surely there would have been some people who nodded knowingly.  They could have seen this coming.  They knew, after all, that the Kingdom of God tends to turn things on their head.  “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” a woman of God named Mary once sang, echoing her ancestor Hannah in the Jewish Scriptures.  And that certain teacher who said “Blessed are the poor,” also followed it up with “Woe to you who are rich.”  Woe, indeed, to the rich man.  Of course, it would be a hard choice for any of us to make, if it is indeed our choice, whether we’d rather be like Lazarus in this life or the rich man in the next.

Still others would have said that it didn’t seem fair.  The rich man, after all, wasn’t so different from you or from me, even if he was much richer.  He was a decent fellow who never hurt anyone, including Lazarus.  His sin, if we can call it that, was one of those treacherous sins of omission.  He wasn’t mean to Lazarus.  He just ignored him.  He just looked past him.  Perhaps once in a while he wished that such a poor man wouldn’t lie right outside his gate – property values, you know, and there was a kind of stench when the rich man walked by, and sometimes it made things hard with the neighbors, and there was the question of security. But in what he considered an act of benign neglect, the rich man let him be.  After a while, Lazarus became almost invisible to him.

But anyway, it’s not like it was the rich man’s job to singlehandedly end poverty and suffering in Jerusalem, or anything like that.  He couldn’t have, even if he wanted to.  He was very rich, but he wasn’t that rich, and besides, it wasn’t just about a redistribution of wealth; structural changes were needed to make things better for people like Lazarus.  The rich man was just one person.

Still, Lazarus was at his gate, and he didn’t have to singlehandedly end poverty to just notice Lazarus.

Fair or not, their fates were what they were.  There was a great chasm between them – but then, there always had been, right?

From the flames the rich man looked up and saw poor Lazarus feasting with Abraham, just as the rich man imagined he himself would someday do.  “Father Abraham,” he called – for he was a child of Abraham too – “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, just to ease my suffering a little bit.”

Does it make things better or worse that he knew Lazarus’s name?  Is it a mitigating factor, proof that he didn’t ignore the poor man quite as much as his fate would imply?  Or does it make it worse that the rich man knew who he was – not just a poor man, but Lazarus – and still stepped over him every single day as he came and went from his gates?  Is it better for the rich to live a life where they don’t encounter the poor at all – or a life where they ignore the ones that they do?

Father Abraham just sadly shook his head and said “Child” – for this man was his child – “It doesn’t work like that.”

This is what you chose, he said, in not quite so many words.  You got riches in that life.  Lazarus gets them in this one.

Besides, it’s not possible to cross between these two places and besides, it didn’t exactly strengthen his case that he still spoke of Lazarus in the third person, about him rather than to him.

Still, a person wonders, if it had been possible, would Lazarus have done it?  Would you, if you were in his place?

“Father Abraham,” cried the rich man, “then send Lazarus to my five brothers, to warn them, so that they don’t end up like me.”

But Father Abraham smiled ruefully.  “Your brothers have what they need,” he said.  They have read the Torah.  They have heard the prophets proclaimed in the synagogue.  They know the words of Deuteronomy 15:  “I command you to be openhanded to toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  They knew the words of Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast I ask of you…to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?”

What more could the brothers need to hear to change their minds and, perhaps, not ignore those in need outside their own gates?

“No, but surely,” said the rich man, “surely if someone came back from the dead to tell them…”

But if they didn’t listen to Moses and Isaiah, why would they listen to Lazarus?  Why, in fact, would they listen to Jesus?

Some might say that if Lazarus had gone then everything might have been different.  The words we read in the Scriptures can become just words, after all, blessings and commands we stop really hearing after a while, things we justify away when they’re not convenient for us, or they don’t fit in with our worldview.   And the same words can be so ambiguous, sometimes, with one verse saying one thing and one passage saying another.  Who among us hasn’t just wished for a clear message from God to knock us over the head and tell us exactly what God’s will for our lives is, now?  Surely we, and they, would have our eyes and ears open if that really came to pass.

But some might say that those signs from God we always wish for are even more subject to doubt than the words we learned in Sunday School or read in Bible Study or hear proclaimed from the pulpit.  Some might say that it’s not that we don’t know how God wants us to respond to others in need – it’s that too often we just don’t want to do it, no matter how the message comes, no matter the ultimate consequences.

I suppose the end of the story, then, is up to us.  What is the fate of the rich man’s five brothers?

Will they see the poor neighbors who live so close to them?

Will they see the ones who live far away?

Will the words they know in their hearts be enough?

Will they be willing to give up some riches and security in this life lest the tables be turned in the next?

Will they accept the grace God offers them to live differently?

Will they?

Will we?

 

[With thanks and credit to Amy Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus for several of the questions asked in this sermon.]

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Stories Jesus Told: The Two Debtors

 

Scripture: Luke 7:36-47

Sometimes when Jesus tells a story, he tells it in general, to crowds that have gathered to hear him preach.  Sometimes, though, his stories have an occasion, and are meant to make a point to a specific person in a specific context.  This is one of those stories.

The occasion is a dinner party at the house of a man named Simon the Pharisee.  That isn’t really his name, of course.  He is just Simon, and he is a Pharisee, a member of a Jewish sect that emphasized following religious law to a tee.  Jesus – especially as Luke tells it – doesn’t hold the Pharisees in very high regard.  Still, he does go over to Simon’s house for dinner.  We all know that Jesus liked to hang out with the socially questionable, but here we are reminded that he also sometimes hung out with the pillars of the community – when they would have him.  And sometimes they did have him, whether out of genuine hospitality or morbid curiosity.

But Simon the Pharisee is not a hero in this story.

On this night at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, the table is richly set, the pillars of the community are gathered, and Jesus has just taken his place at the table, reclining – as they did in those days – when a woman walks in, and silence falls over the crowd, and all heads turn toward her.  It isn’t that she crashed the party.  Dinner parties in Jesus’ day weren’t the private events that they usually are now.  So it’s not that a woman walks in, it’s that this woman walks in.

Because this woman is a sinner.  And everybody knows.

Don’t you want to know what she did?  Oh, but we can guess.  What kind of thing tends to get women labeled as “sinful,” anyway?  I don’t mean just in those days.

It would have been one thing if she was just there to get a look, if she had kept well enough to herself.  Then all the heads would slowly turn back away and the conversation would gradually resume, and this woman would remain on the fringes in more ways than one.  Certainly that’s what Simon is hoping. Instead, with all eyes on her, she begins to cry.  The people stare. Then, impulsively, she falls down by Jesus and lets her tears wash over his feet, and she shakes her long hair loose and – still crying – wipes the tears away.  By now mouths are slightly agape as she kisses his feet over and over.  Finally she takes an expensive bottle of perfume that she has brought, opens it, and begins to pour.

At this point Simon the Pharisee is no doubt pretty embarrassed, this scarlet woman making a spectacle of herself at HIS dinner party.  And there Jesus is, just going with the program.  Defensively, Simon mutters to himself.  If this guy who I invited to MY dinner party was really a prophet, he says – which I doubted from the beginning, then this wouldn’t be happening at MY dinner party, because he’d know what the rest of us know, that this is a dirty woman making a scene at MY dinner party. 

Did he mention it was HIS dinner party?

Jesus turns and looks right at him.  “What was that?” Jesus asks innocently, but in such a way that you know he knows.

“Oh—nothing!” Simon the Pharisee says, surprised and a little confused, because he didn’t think he had spoken out loud.

“Simon,” Jesus says, sitting up a little, never withdrawing his gaze, “let me tell you a little story.”

This is the story Jesus told.

Once upon a time there was a creditor with two debtors.  One owed him the equivalent of fifty days’ worth of wages – let’s say $3000, if you make a little above minimum wage.  The other, more unlucky, one owed him $30,000.  His debt had been amassing interest for quite some time, you see.  But neither one of them could pay.  So instead of breaking their knees, the creditor forgave both their debts – the $3000, and the $30,000, and they all lived happily ever after.

“Uh huh,” says Simon the Pharisee.

He has a couple questions, you see.  Simon has respect for the letter of the law, and people who borrow money willingly sign onto certain terms that they should be held to.  Whether it’s foreign aid we’re talking about, or a subprime mortgage, or $150,000 for a master’s degree in fine arts, or turning in your car title for a 300% interest loan because that’s your only way to make rent this month, the fact that you will have to pay they money back is no secret.  People, he thinks, should stop living beyond their means.

As for the creditor, what kind of precedent would it set to just let these two debtors off the hook?  Then wouldn’t everyone just borrow money from you knowing they wouldn’t actually have to pay it back?

Sure, there might be some good reasons to forgive debt.  Like maybe if it was a service loan, and you’ve completed your time in the nonprofit sector, fulfilling the terms of your agreement.  Or maybe a business might settle for a lower amount, with the thought that it’s better to get paid something than nothing at all.  Even then they should probably throw in some sort of financial accountability class that you have to complete, to assure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.

But show me a creditor who forgives loans just because the borrower is going to default and I’ll show you a creditor who isn’t going to stay in business for long.

So says Simon the Pharisee – I imagine, at least.

But that’s not where Jesus is going with this story – what the creditor should or shouldn’t do isn’t really the point.  The creditor’s decisions are not ours to question.  Right or wrong, the debts are forgiven.

So which one, asks Jesus, do you think was more grateful?  Which one loved that creditor more?

“Well,” says Simon the Pharisee, “I guess the one who owed $30,000.”

“Exactly,” says Jesus, and Simon furrows his brow, not quite sure what his point is.

Unlike with some parables, here Jesus will spell it out for him.

“You see this woman here?” he asks.  Well, of course Simon does.  Everyone saw that woman.

It turns out that even though she was a party crasher, she was a better host than Simon the Pharisee, because even though he invited Jesus over, he didn’t kiss him or offer him water to wash his feet or anoint his head with oil.  These were standard gestures of hospitality, like offering to take someone’s coat, perhaps, or asking what they would like to drink.  Jesus is Simon’s guest, but again, it might not be an invitation issued out of genuine hospitality.

But this sinner of a woman refuses to keep Jesus at arm’s length.  He wants a kiss?  She has thousands.  Dirty feet?  She has tears enough for washing.  Anointing oil?  Only the most expensive, poured with abandon from an alabaster jar.

It turns out it’s not really about money at all.

Simon the Pharisee is an upstanding citizen, and he doesn’t owe anything to Jesus or to anyone.

But this woman knows that out of all the people at that party, one can tell her her sins are forgiven, and that they don’t have to define her anymore.  And she owes him her life.

Do you see yourself in the story now, Simon?  You look at this woman and you see a debt to God and society that can’t be paid back, but what Jesus sees is divine possibility.

Have you ever experienced grace like that?

In October of 2012, I got in a car accident.  It was my fault.  I was pulling into a parking space at the Williamsburg Target on a Friday morning, and somehow, I hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and ended up sailing over the curb and the grassy strip in front of me, hitting a moving car on the other side, and then swerving into a tree.  I still don’t entirely know what happened, but as I told my parents, if it had happened to one of them I would have said it was maybe time to take their keys away.  (For those of you who have ever been in a car with me, I assure you it had never happened before, nor has it happened since, and the dent in my car door is only from the concrete pole next to my parking space at my old apartment building.)  Luckily no one was hurt.  I still get a little nauseous thinking about how much worse it could have been.

I got out of my car and the woman in the other car got out of hers.

“I’m SO sorry,” I said, preparing myself for her reaction.  Would she yell?  Cry?  Stand there in shock?

Instead, she stood with me and pleasantly made small talk while we waited for the police.  “What do you do?” she said, and I told her, and instead of making a snide remark about the example I was setting for my congregation, she said, “Oh, my parents go to that church!”

Actually, it turned out later that her insurance guy was our Chair of Trustees.  That’s not really what you want, but, in any case, it was all my fault and I was so upset, and this woman who I could have really hurt was so nice to me.  I actually wrote her a thank you note later.  It seemed like so much more grace than I deserved.

In June of 2013, just before I moved to Arlington, I got in a car accident.  That year was a bad year for car accidents, but this one was not my fault.  I was innocently driving home from church one day when a woman made a left turn right into me, sending my car across another lane of traffic and leaving my bumper in its wake.  My car was totaled.  Again, though, luckily, no one was hurt.

The woman got out of her car, visibly upset.  “I’ve never been in an accident before,” she said.

But I had.  And because I had, I knew what I was supposed to do.  “It’s happened to me,” I told her, and I stood and made small talk with her while we waited for the police.

I like to think that even if that first car accident hadn’t happened, I still would have been nice to the woman who caused the second.  I’m not a monster, after all.  But the truth is I might not have been that nice.  I don’t think I would have yelled or tried to make her feel worse than she did.  But I doubt I would have cared about making her feel better.  Except – I owed it to someone to.

I couldn’t pay her back, so I had to pay it forward instead.

That’s not always how it works, of course.  Jesus tells another story, this one in Matthew 18, about a man who owed money to a king.  This man, also, was going to default, and this king, also, forgave his debt.  But there was second man who owed money to the first, and after getting let off the hook, the first man went and demanded that the second man pay up.  When he couldn’t, he had him thrown into prison.  The king, you can imagine, was not happy.

Simon, the question isn’t whether God forgives.  The question is, do you know that you are one of the debtors?  And if so, what will you do with that?

Because with God, there is no $3000 and $30,000.  There is only human brokenness and divine wholeness.  There is only sin and salvation, and I don’t think God is up there counting pennies.  And if only you knew what a debtor you were, maybe everything would be different.

One night a woman crashed a dinner party, and all eyes turned toward her, and what they saw was a sinner.  All, that is, except one. Jesus looked at her and saw all the divine possibility of a forgiven life lived in love and gratitude.  A life of generosity, and hospitality, and forgiving the debts of who wronged her – maybe even a certain Pharisee.

All the perfume in the world couldn’t repay her debt.  So, instead, she’d live life paying it forward.

 

 

 

 

Stories Jesus Told: The Lost Son

Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

Once upon a time there was a man with two sons.  The older son was your typical older child.  He was the responsible one, the rule follower, the hard worker.  He got good grades and obeyed his father and saved his money and he always went to church.  It wasn’t always fun, but it was what he was supposed to do, so he did it.  He knew that eventually, life would reward him for this.  He was, after all, the first born and thus the primary heir to his father’s estate, which someone had to oversee and maintain and invest.

How many of you are older siblings?  Do you recognize yourselves at all in this man’s older son?  I do.  In fact, I have a lot of sympathy for many of the Bible’s older siblings.  First there is Cain.  Granted he doesn’t turn out to be a great guy, but to fair, God accepted his younger brother’s offering over his for no apparent reason.  Then there is Ishmael, cast out into the desert simply because God’s promise and covenant are reserved for the miracle child born late in his parents’ life.  And there is Esau, tricked out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing by not just his brother but by his mom.  And there are all of King David’s brothers, passed over for the role of king simply because they looked the part just a little too much.

I get it: God loves an underdog, and I think that is great – in theory.  But when we hear that this man had two sons, we older siblings know to brace ourselves for what is next.

The younger son was your typical younger son.  He was the baby of the family, spoiled and indulged.  He was the one who could get away with anything due to his charm, so he got into trouble and relied on other people to clean up his mess.  He thought that life was for living and, after all, you can’t take it with you.  He thought his older brother needed to lighten up a little.

How many of you are youngest children?  Does this sound familiar?  Of course, stereotypes aren’t necessarily fair or even necessarily true.  Even though I come across as a pretty textbook oldest child, my younger brother never got into trouble, and now he has an MBA and is very intentional about spending his money.  Even if there’s sometimes a little bit of truth to the whole responsible/spoiled stereotype, this is clearly an extreme case.  But in this story, the shoe does fit.

Younger siblings, the Bible loves you.  So when we hear that this man had two sons, we expect things to go well for you.

But of course, it doesn’t, at first.

It seems the younger son was getting claustrophobic.  Surely life had more to offer than was to be found right there on his father’s estate, where he had grown up.  Surely it was time for him to spread his wings, to see the world, to go and find himself.

It’s perfectly possible that his brother felt this way, too, but of course, he would never say so.  He had a duty to his father, and an inheritance to protect.

But the younger son wasn’t so concerned about that.  And his father was apparently a fairly wealthy man, so there was no reason why he shouldn’t go live a little.  So, somewhat boldly, he asked his father for his share of the inheritance early.  And his father obligingly sold off his stocks and gave it to him.

But wait a minute.  Why does the father say yes? It would be one thing if his son really needed it – if it was, for example, to go back to school, or put a down payment on a house, or pay off some medical bills. But that’s not what it was for, and presumably his father had some idea that that was the case. What kind of father just liquefies his assets and hands them over when he knows his son is going to waste them on something stupid?

Though we know this story as that of the prodigal son – prodigal meaning excessive and wasteful – is it possible, as some have suggested, that this is actually the story of a prodigal father?

Can you imagine the older brother’s brain exploding when he realizes this is how the conversation has gone down?  Oh well, he must think, this will all implode soon enough, and then I’ll tell them all I told you so.  Then, dutifully, if a little bitterly, he went back to work at his white collar desk job, knowing that if nothing else, the moral high ground was his.

So the younger son took his money and invested it all in a low-risk, diversified portfolio.  Just kidding! That’s what his brother would have done.  The younger son bought a ticket to some exotic place like let’s say Vegas, or maybe some resort town in Mexico, and proceeded to drink and gamble the rest of it away.  Maybe, Mike-Tyson-style, he bought some tigers.  Even then, it couldn’t have been a surprise how it all turned out.  The money ran out, the tigers got sold off, and all of a sudden there he is, in an unfamiliar place without any real social connections or any sort of resume, or a work visa, and no place to turn.

One thing’s for sure, he was definitely not going to go home and see the disappointment on his father’s face.  And he for sure wasn’t going to hear his brother tell him I told you so.

He managed to find an under-the-table job.  It didn’t even pay minimum wage and the work conditions were terrible, but of course there was no one to report them to.  Most days he fed himself with food he found in the trash outside restaurants.  It was basically the worst way this story could have gone. And yet – once you’ve made that many bad decisions, sometimes it’s harder than those on the outside might think to start making good ones again.

Until you hit rock bottom, and then sometimes, you have to.

One day this son woke up and thought, “The people who work for my father have it better than this,” and all of a sudden, even showing his face at home again didn’t seem quite as bad as the hell he was living.  So he quit his terrible job and hitched a ride toward home, rehearsing his speech all the way:  I’m sorry I asked for my inheritance early.  I’m sorry I wasted all your money.  Let me make it up to you.  Let me work for you.

But wait a minute.  How sorry was he, really?  If life had continued to go his way, do you think he ever would have stopped and thought, hey, my dad’s getting older, maybe I should be helping take care of him?  Or even, wow, I’ve really been given a lot in life – and from those to whom much is given, much is expected, so time to turn it around?  Was this real repentance?  Or was his change of heart perhaps just a different kind of selfish?  Did it matter?

Apparently not.  He barely got a chance to say his speech out loud.  As soon as his father saw him walking up the street from the nearest bus stop, dirty and disheveled and defeated looking, he ran out the door and wrapped him in a big, tearful hug.  He didn’t need an apology.  He didn’t care about what kind of repentance this was.  His beloved son was home.  This calls for a celebration!  the father said, then he told him to go take a shower and put some clean clothes on, some nice ones that the father had bought for him, just in case.  He cranked up some music and popped open the most expensive bottle of champagne he had been saving in the wine cellar, and he invited all their friends and neighbors over for dinner.

But wait a minute.  Here we are back to the prodigal father.  Isn’t it pretty irresponsible to take his son back just like that?  Shouldn’t there at least be some setting of conditions to make sure it doesn’t happen again – just for the son’s own good, I mean?  Don’t we want to make sure that he understands what he has done?  Again – what kind of parent would do that?

And as for the son – did his father’s joyful welcome spur him to shape up and get it together, after he returned home?  Again – did it matter?

Meanwhile, working from his office upstairs, the older brother heard the music and the sounds of friends gathering.  This, in fact, I think, is my favorite part of the story: not only did the older brother not get a party thrown for him, it seems he wasn’t even invited to this one.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a fellow oldest sibling, but, one can see his point.

He’s done everything right, with the expectation that life – and surely his father, especially – would reward him for it.  It’s not that he’s asking for special treatment.  He’s just asking for the same treatment.  After all, that’s only fair, right?

But does it matter?

His father, though, won’t be deterred by his complaining.  Your brother was dead, he said, but is alive again!  He was lost, but now is found!

His father must know more than we’d think about what went down in the far country.  But since the father or landowner often represents God in the stories Jesus tells, that is maybe not a surprise.

So we have the story of the Prodigal Son, an irresponsible and wasteful son welcomed home by a wastefully generous and loving father.  But wait a minute.  As Luke tells it, this parable is actually the third in a set of three.  The first is the story of a shepherd tending a hundred sheep who lost one and left the other ninety-nine to go find it.  The second is of a woman who lost a silver coin and scoured and cleaned and searched her whole house until she found it.  In both stories, there is much rejoicing.  Lost sheep, lost coin – maybe this third story is better called the Lost Son, and if so – are we really sure which son is lost?

Is it the one who takes his inheritance and throws it away on things that would make respectable people raise their eyebrows and ends up hitting rock bottom in a very recognizable way?

Or is it the one who did what everyone expected of him, but didn’t find any joy in it?  The one who would rather say “I told you so” than “Welcome home?”

Is it the one who needed forgiveness, or the one who begrudged it?

The line in this story that most speaks to me is the one I skipped over as I told it before: where, after the older son complains that he never got a party, his father responds, “My son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”

All that I have is yours.

Isn’t that enough?

The older son isn’t the one who lacked his father’s blessing – he just never missed out on it in the first place.

Maybe he felt like he missed out on something.  He didn’t get to have that carefree youth.  He didn’t have any good stories to tell.  He didn’t get to shirk his duty and just worry about himself for a while.

I had a good friend in seminary who had a bit of a past and he would tell us stories sometimes, including one of a night that began in Atlanta and ended up unintentionally in Tijuana, Mexico.  I told him one time, “I wish I had a story like that.”

He just said, “No, you don’t.”

He didn’t win anything by having a past like that, and I didn’t lose anything by not.

The point is not, of course, simply that virtue is its own reward, which sounds exactly like the kind of story that the religious leaders Jesus always looked askance at would tell.  The point is, or at least may be – since parables are better left as stories for us to chew on than reduced to a simple moral- that a life lived in an economy of grace is its own reward – whether we are the father, welcoming someone back into our lives without calling them to account for how they have wronged us, or the younger son, so clearly in need of a second chance – or the older son, grateful for the blessings that have always been his and happy his brother can share in them once again.

“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, “than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

But wait a minute.  Who is righteous?  Who is in need of repentance?  Is it the one everyone recognizes as sinful, or the one no one does?

Or does it matter?

Younger son, older son; wise or not wise, fair or not fair – the story is the same; our father’s house of grace and blessing is open to all of us.

Called to Be

 

Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17

When I was baptized, when I was eight years old, I’m not sure I understood it at the time as a call to ministry.  In fact, I think a lot of us don’t.  My senior pastor at my previous church was fond of a story where he once baptized a baby, and then the whole very large family who was there for the occasion left right after, in the middle of the service, to make it to their celebratory lunch at the county club.  I’m going to wager a guess that this family wasn’t thinking too hard about the call this ceremony placed on their baby’s life, and theirs as they raised her, but the truth is a lot of us are probably there with them.  We baptize because it seems like the right thing to do, or very possibly out of a fear that this is something God requires, and perhaps don’t give much thought to what it’s supposed to mean for the rest of someone’s life.

But among other things, baptism represents a new beginning, which makes it appropriate to this time of year.  It is dying to sin and rising again to live in this world in a new kind of way, a way we call ministry, with a little m.

It was a new beginning for Jesus, too.  That day he showed up on the banks of the Jordan River, much to the surprise of John the Baptist, who had been preaching that someone was coming who was greater than him, winnowing fork in hand to separate the wheat from the chaff, and who would baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  All these other Joe Schmoes are there getting baptized by John, and all of a sudden Jesus shows up, and gets in line.

And John says, uhhhhhh….

He is perplexed by this in the way the disciples later would be when Jesus washed their feet, because it seems odd for the lesser one to baptize the greater one.  But Jesus tells him it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.”

Like all of us, or perhaps for us, Jesus needs a way to mark this new beginning.  From here he will begin his preaching, telling the stories of God that invite people into the story.  From here he will begin calling people to repentance and rebirth.  From here he will begin to cast out demons and heal, from here he will begin to make waves, performing miracles on the Sabbath and associating with the socially questionable and calling the religious leaders out on their hypocrisy.  You can see why he couldn’t go from just being some guy from Nazareth to being Jesus as we know him just like that, without some sort of sign, without some sort of formal break from the past and commission for the future.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus was baptized, Jesus saw the heavens opened, kind of like how the prophet Ezekiel saw the heavens opened when God started giving him visions, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came down, and then a voice for everyone standing around to hear: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

For me, if not for John the Baptist, this is actually the more surprising part of the story.

I took a personality test once called the Enneagram and got the result called The Achiever, which is pretty much the kind of person who tries really hard to adapt and succeed in any different context so that will people will like and think highly of them.  Like every personality type, this one can be a blessing or a curse, but what it does mean is that when I hear these words booming down from heaven, “with whom I am well pleased,” my first thought is, but this dude hasn’t even done anything yet.

I mean, I know he is Jesus.  But, pleased with what, exactly?

He hasn’t started preaching yet.  He hasn’t started a tally of the people who have repented and followed him.  He hasn’t yet healed anyone or cast out any demons or won any fights with religious leaders.  To me it seems more appropriate that God would express God’s pleasure after Jesus has earned it a little—and in fact, God does, later in the event we call the Transfiguration, just before Jesus begins his final journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  But this is several years before that, and so it seems I am forced to reckon with the fact that God’s pleasure in God’s Son is based on something more basic, more primary than what Jesus has accomplished as the Son of God.

The Common English Bible translation, I found out in my reading this week, puts it a little differently: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”  The notes at the bottom suggest a different translation still: “He is my favorite.”  I actually really like that: He is my favorite.

I realized that before, when I have read this passage, I have read this last line as prescriptive: I should also do the kinds of things that will make God well pleased with me.  Remember—that’s my personality!  Only it doesn’t really say that, and when I read the translation “I find happiness in him,” or “He is my favorite,” it begins to become clear how wrong I’ve been, because those things don’t sound earned at all.  They sound more like the way I feel now that Evelyn is here, because, you know, she can’t do that much yet, at least not much that there is to approve or disapprove of.  And yet I find pure delight in her – not because she is good at being a baby, but simply because she is mine, my beloved. I love watching her grow and learn new things, like how to hold her head up, and how to grasp part of my shirt in her hand, and how to make new noises.  I find happiness in her, in those things.

The story about Jesus’ baptism isn’t on the face of it a story about any of us, and probably we should all be careful about writing ourselves into Jesus’ place in Scripture, but then I think on some level it is a story for us, as God’s children, who begin our Christian life and ministry in baptism.  And I admit that I find it both comforting and unsettling to think that God might feel the same way about me—comforting because maybe I don’t have to try quite so hard for God’s approval as I always think I do, and unsettling because I’m not sure I know how to live in a world where that is the case.  Can I dare to believe that God finds happiness in me from the very beginning of my story?

And yet it still doesn’t seem right to leave things there, with God’s simple and unconditional pleasure in Jesus and all of us.  It is good that the story begins that way, but again, there is still a lot to the story.  “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason,” writes Isaiah, in the passage this voice from heaven echoes, which we heard in today’s call to worship.  This is, after all, the beginning of a new thing.  Baptism does place a claim on Jesus, to fulfill the reality of who he is and who God has intended him to be.  And baptism does come with a claim on all of us.

In baptism we receive our call to take our place in the Body of Christ, putting our particular gifts to work for God’s purposes.  In baptism we promise to resist evil and oppression and injustice in whatever form they might take in the world around us, and that puts us to work.  In baptism, there is work we are called to do.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the work we are called to do.  I spent years formally thinking about the particular work of ministry that God called me to, writing papers on it, answering interview questions about it – and I keep thinking and praying about it, how that call has grown and changed and where it is leading me today.  I think about the work we are called to do as a church, as this collection of baptized people who call ourselves the Body of Christ.  And I think also about the fact that God does not just call clergypeople but each one of us, to teaching or nursing or academia or diplomacy or governance or whatever our particular life purpose may be.

What does God have for us to do, separately or together, so that in the end God will say of us, “With them I am well pleased?”

I still happen to think that’s a pretty good question, but like I said, it’s missing something, too, if God’s pleasure in us is based on something more basic and primary than that.  Maybe it’s the case that we, in church at least, focus a lot on the things God calls us to do—and forget about who God calls us to be.

The Spirit that appeared to Jesus out of heaven at his baptism is the same Spirit we believe is made available to us in a new way at our baptism, the same Spirit whose fruits, as Paul describes them in Galatians, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23.)  Those things are a lot more basic than what particular role I am supposed to play in the Body of Christ, or what my particular mission and ministry is—and they are, I believe, part of our first and primary call as Christians.

I think back to the very brief time after graduating from seminary that I worked at Staples, which was a job I hated wholeheartedly.  I can barely go into a Staples anymore without feeling just a touch of PTSD. It was a time in my life when I really felt like life was going nowhere, like I wasn’t doing anything meaningful or fulfilling any sort of destiny or doing anything that corresponded to a call God had placed on my life.

But every morning during the time I worked there I woke up and I tried really hard to remind myself, “Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord, and not as unto people” (Colossians 3:22).  It’s one of those Bible verses that is actually way better taken out of context, because if you put it back in context, you realize it comes right after the sentence “Slaves, obey your masters.”  Nevertheless, it was helpful to me at the time, because to me it was a reminder that even at Staples I could practice seeing the image of God in people, and treat them with kindness and dignity.  Even at Staples—perhaps especially at Staples—I could practice patience.  Even at Staples I could make those small, faithful everyday choices that we all have to make no matter who we are or what we do.  Even at Staples if I tried really hard, maybe I could find joy.  I’m not saying I always did, but I believe that I could have.

In fact, even now that I am doing something with my life that I do find meaningful and fulfilling, something I believe I am called to do, I still have to remind myself that I am first and foremost called to  those same things – that I am first and foremost called to a certain way of being in the world.

Because I wasn’t called into ministry when I began working in churches.  I was called to ministry when I was 8 years old, in my baptism.  That’s when I was called to let the Holy Spirit work in my life for the good of this world that God loves so much.  That’s when I was called to be the kind of person who treats all of God’s people with dignity, who isn’t too good to serve, who stands up for the poor, who is willing to take risks and sacrifice for what’s right, who forgives people freely and tries really hard to love my enemies, who stays in love with God.

I am not saying I am that person all or most of the time, but I do believe that they are my, and our, first call to ministry – to be, as we say, God’s people in the world.

These are the things I hope God will continue to find pleasure and happiness and delight in as my story progresses – no matter how it unfolds.

Today we will have the chance to remember our own baptisms.  For those of you who were baptized as infants, this may not be a literal remembrance, but we remember together, as the church, that you are part of the Body of Christ.  Maybe some of you have never been baptized, and that doesn’t make God’s love for you any less, but this a chance to experience God’s invitation to a new beginning as one of God’s people in the world.  For all of you, this is a chance to remember that God’s happiness and delight in you comes first in the story—but also that in baptism you are called to a new way of being in the world.

A new beginning, a new way of being—a journey we set out on over and over again.

 

 

The Things It’s Always Time For

 

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Matthew 25:31-46

It’s been a long time since I haven’t done something fun for New Year’s Eve, even if it was nothing fancy.  Even last time New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday and I had to be at church early the next morning, I went to a gathering at a friend’s house and left just after the ball dropped.  So last night as we opened a bag of Tostitos at home, I washed some dishes, and we went to bed around 11:30, it was clear something had changed.

Of course, a lot has changed for Jon and me in the past year, now that we have a three-month-old.  We used to pride ourselves on being the kind of people who traveled the world.  This year we didn’t even it make it on our annual trip to West Virginia with friends.  These days instead of going cool, interesting places and doing cool, interesting things, we spend most of the time we’re not at work at home in our house in the suburbs, feeding and attempting to entertain a baby.

It’s bittersweet, as the turning of seasons usually is.  For the most part it also feels right, for this time in my life, for now.  It feels like now is the season for this.

Turn, turn, turn.

The times and seasons of our lives don’t always correspond to calendar years, of course, but there is a very human hope that a new calendar year will mean a new season, in one way or another, which is why this song of the seasons shows up as the Old Testament lectionary reading for New Year’s Eve or Day, which just so happens to fall on a Sunday this year.  It’s also the most famous passage of Ecclesiastes (thanks in part to the Byrds?) Fun fact: this song of the seasons is the only place Ecclesiastes shows up in the lectionary at all, which is probably why most of you don’t know it that well, even if you’ve been going to church for a long time.  That’s kind of a shame, so you should remind me to talk more about the rest of it sometime.

This passage, though, is a beautiful, poetic passage, and that’s why we love it, and it speaks to the passage of time and seasons and eras, which is befitting of a new year.   As you may or may not have noticed, it does kind of lend a different feel to the new year than we are accustomed to feeling.  By the time December of any year rolls around, most of us are looking for a clean break of some sort.  Hope springs eternal that the year to come will mean healthier eating, regular gym attendance, better social or romantic prospects, new jobs, new opportunities, fewer celebrity deaths (at least, of the ones that we like), and maybe world peace.  Somehow flipping the page on a calendar (even virtually) allows us to believe those things for at least a little while.

I remember one winter sometime around the new year sitting down to coffee with a friend who had been working in banking in New York City for a couple years already at that point, and looking for a way out for almost as long.  We talked about her thoughts for the future: would she look for another job in a different but related field, go back for her MBA, or try to take advantage of an opportunity her company had to work in London?  One thing was for sure – as she sat across the table from me, she said, “This is the year something changes.”

Wouldn’t we all like to believe that – whatever that means for us right now.  This is the year something changes.

Ecclesiastes, though, is a book based on the premise that nothing ever changes, not really.  “There is nothing new under the sun,” the author writes.  “The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north, round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns (1:6).”  Meanwhile we humans are born, and we die, and we dance, and we mourn, and we build up and we break down and we wage war and, if we are lucky, we create peace again.  Each of these things has its time and its season, and one gives way to another, over and over.

There’s maybe something beautiful and comforting in that, in the way it relativizes all the things that seem so big to us at the time, and reminds us that there is something bigger still than the seasons of our human lives—but still, but it does run counter to our cultural idea of each new year being a clean slate abounding with possibilities.  It does also seems to run counter to our Christian hope that God is at work doing a new thing, that God is making all things new, that God can redeem things, and people and situations, and not just let the pendulum swing.  That’s one of the reasons why I believe the Bible is best read in conversation with itself, because sometimes we get some pretty different perspectives, and we are left with the tension there, and that is what draws us into the conversation ourselves.

Maybe both can be true: that God and God’s purposes are bigger than 2016, or 2017, and the resolutions we make; and still that God is doing new things, and that God can make us new, too.

Perhaps there is a time for believing that now, at the precipice of 2017, we are entering into a new season, and that it’s one that will take us from sorrow to hope and mourning to dancing and from tearing down to building up.  This poem does hold open that hopeful possibility, that things will not always be what they are now, just as they are not now what they once were.  For everything, a time and a season.

The question is, what will 2017 be a time for?

That brings me to our other reading of the day, Matthew 25, also from the lectionary for New Year’s Eve or Day.  It’s another perennial favorite, the parable of the sheep and the goats (which, by the way, has also made it into musical pop culture, if any of you are fans of the band Cake.)  It’s the story where Jesus invites us to serve him by serving the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned—and, in fact, tells us that exactly this is what we will ultimately be judged according to—rather than any particular belief we profess, how much we went to church or how many hours we prayed each day.  (Which is not to dismiss any of those things!)

This is a passage that has always challenged me because I think, well, sure, I have fed some hungry people.  I’ve volunteered at AFAC, bagging produce, and I’ve bought lunch for the occasional person in need I met on the street, and I even once spearheaded a CROP Walk, a fundraiser for Church World Service, which addresses hunger and other issues on a global scale.  I’ve also passed up the opportunity to feed a lot of hungry people in my lifetime.  I’ve welcomed the stranger: I’ve taught English as a second language and, you know, made the occasional effort to talk to the new person at social gatherings, but there have also been times when I’ve been too shy or too comfortable in my own group or context to venture out of it much, and there are an awful lot of refugees in this world I could probably be advocating more strongly for.  Oh, was that you, Jesus?

To be honest I’m really not sure whether, come Judgment Day, I’ll be standing in line with the sheep or with the goats.

In some ways this question has nothing to do with the new year, and actually when I first saw that it was one of the lectionary readings for today, it made me go, hmmm.  I can see why we would read Ecclesiastes on New Year’s Day.  But Matthew 25 has nothing to do with the passage of time, or newness.  There are any number of New Testament texts that do – like 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation,” or Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new”– but this one does not.

Instead, it’s a story that gets us back to the basics of living out our faith, as Jesus reminds us that ultimately, what matters is not a number on the scale or our relationship or employment status or even our religious cred, but whether or not we feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner.

And here I think is another good reason to read the Bible in conversation with itself – because when I read Matthew next to Ecclesiastes, I think, of course, these are the things it is always time for.

The seasons may come and the seasons may go and they may bring with them all those things that the author of Ecclesiastes mentions – war and peace and sowing and harvesting and being silent and speaking up and laughing and weeping and birth and death – but it’s always time to feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner.

Like I said, I don’t always know whether I’m a sheep or a goat, and I’m guessing few of us are standing in the same line all the time.  But this new year can be a time for all of us to resolve to be a little more sheep-like and a little less goat-like, with God’s help.  For a lot of reasons, this seems like an especially good year to think a little harder about standing on the side of the vulnerable – because we believe that we see the face of Jesus especially in the needy and vulnerable and forgotten, those we sometimes refer to as “the least of these.”  In fact, I think we are going to spend Lent this year focusing more closely on this passage and each piece of it in particular.

What is 2017 a time for?  Hopefully, more of the things it’s always time for – the things that will bring us face to face with Jesus.