Monday, September 30, 2013

Are you stepping over anyone?

     Our reading in Luke takes us to some places about which many disciples are uncomfortable to speak.  The parable, which is known as the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, offers much grist for the mill.  Is Hell real?  Is Hell really eternal?  Is Hell about fire & brimstone or is it about eternal separation from God?  How can a loving, merciful God allow an eternal Hell to exist?  Is the human heart really that hard?  If I am wealthy, how much am I called to share in order to be sure I am on the right side of this parable?  Is it applicable in my life?  These are just a few questions some will be pondering in churches in light of this parable.  Is is a parable, I must confess, which often pops into my mind as I meet with “Not Today” or “Not Yet” individuals when it come to their faith.
     The parable contains some interesting details that are worth noticing.  Can you think of the name of another character in the parables recorded by Luke?  No?  Have no fear, there are no other characters in Luke’s record given a name.  The name, which comes from El-azar, literally means “God has helped.”  Given his earthly condition, we and those who heard the parable when Jesus walked the earth might well wonder how God has helped Lazarus if he is starving and covered in sores.  It makes sense, though, when we think about it.  God reminds us over and over, and especially in the torah (Moses) and the prophets that He loves the widow and the orphan.  How often do we read in Scripture about God’s power and wisdom and then His love for those least important in society?  It would make perfect sense, then, that the rich man’s name would be forgotten by the world while the poor man’s name is remembered.
     Did you know your mother or grandmother was right?  It is best to have on good, clean underwear in case you are in an accident.  Seriously, though, the rich man’s description includes his undergarments.  His life is so good that he has the best undergarments.  Not only does he feast sumptuously every day, but he wears underwear that does not chafe or ride up!
     Do you remember the significance of dogs licking the sores of Lazarus?  We have talked over the last seven years about the fact that Spot or Fido does not really exist.  Dogs tended to run in packs.  They tended to be wild.  As such, they scrounged for food wherever they could find it.  That meant they were scavengers.  That means, brothers and sisters, they ate the flesh of dead animals.  Those of you who sat through our Bible Study on Deuteronomy might well be putting the dots together.  If the dogs, presumed eaters of dead flesh, touch Lazarus, then he is ceremoniously unclean.  That is correct.  Lazarus’ condition is such that, even if he had the strength, he could not go to synagogue without first going through the rites of purification.  He is an outcast.  He is unclean.
     And yet where does he reside in the second part of our story?  The NIV translates the Greek “at the side of Abraham.”  Literally, the Greek means “at the bosom of Abraham.”  One of the commentators I read praised the translation of the NIV (and others like it) because it helps eliminate the confusion of the readers and hearers.  How could a man hold another to his bosom or breast?  It is a phrase which connotes a nursing mother in the eyes of many.  Seeing as how we are just a few verses removed from the story of the Loving Father and Prodigal Son, I don’t know that there is really any confusion.  There are illustrations of the Loving Father holding the Prodigal Son to his chest.  It is certainly a phrase which recognizes great love and tenderness and security.  It is certainly an image that God uses in His description of His love for Israel.  Even Jesus will use an image of a mother hen and her chicks when He enters Jerusalem for the last time.  It is an intimacy for which many of us long.
     And notice the relationship between the torah and the prophets and Christ.  By the end of the parable, the rich man has figured out that he missed his opportunity.  He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house, that his five brothers might be warned.  Abraham demurs stating that the rich man’s brothers have Moses and the prophets.  The rich man continues pleading.  In effect, he argues that his brothers need a supernatural sign.  Like the Pharisees and others in Jesus’ audience, they want miraculous signs which they believe will convince them of the truth that God is active and redeeming the world.  Abraham responds that if they reject the torah and the prophets, then even a dead man rising from the dead will not convince them.
     The allusion to Christ’s death and Resurrection is unmistakable.  We sometimes forget a couple of the truths stated by Abraham, and so we do well to remind ourselves of them.  First, works of power do not guarantee faith.  Far too often I hear things like “If God would only do” this or that and “and then I would believe.”  The problem, of course, is that He often does those things and people still do not believe.  And it is not that they are particularly different from others of those who reject Christ.  Think of Israel and crossing the Sea.  Water was on the right and on the left.  The Egyptian chariots were destroyed.  Did they all worship God as they should?  Did that miracle stir up their faith?  No.  A few weeks ago we read about Elijah and his battle with the priests of Baal.  Naturally the Lord’s use of power caused all Israel, and especially Ahab and Jezebel to come to faith, right?
     The second teaching here reminds us of the relationship between the torah and the prophets and the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So often people will try and create a false dichotomy in Scripture.  It is not their fault because someone mistaught from the pulpit, but you have likely heard these expressions.  “We are part of a people under grace; those in the Old Testament were a people of the Law.”  The inference is that the torah and the message of the prophets was not an expression of God’s grace.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  God sent prophets to teach His chosen people and to speak with His voice.  Even Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, is calling Israel to repent and return to the Lord.  When people listen, God often relents--think Jonah with the enemy of Israel.  But even when they do not listen, the prophet gives meaning to the activity of the day.  Want to know why Philistines or the Babylonians are winning, if we are God’s people?  More importantly, the prophets often contain a message of hope for the Remnant.  Even in the midst of horrible judgment, God will preserve a Remnant that His purposes will be fulfilled in Israel.  No matter the scheming of the rich and the powerful, God will see His plan fulfilled--In Christ!  And the torah reminds us what it means to be a person in intimate communion with a holy, righteous, just God.  Why, do you think, does Jesus turn so often to the prophets or to the torah to explain His actions?  He is not abolishing them.  Quite the contrary, He is fulfilling them.  The judgment poured out on the people in the Old Testament will be poured out on Him.  In full.  The grace expressed in the prophets and the torah will be incarnated in Him.  In full.  The torah, the prophets, and the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus are all intertwined.  We cannot believe in Jesus and reject the torah.  We cannot accept the prophets and reject Jesus.  They are all the core of God’s Gospel to Israel and to the rest of the world--He loves us and longs for us to spend eternity with Him!
     And while these details are interesting, of significantly more importance is the message.  You and I are called to be heralds, ambassadors, of His grace and love in this world.  Through our baptism we have died to self and have been raised to life in Him, or so we proclaim each time we gather around the fount.  Yet how many of us are like the rich man?  How many of us step over others in our life.  You know those “step overs” about whom I speak.  In many cases, your initial conversations with them lead them to church to speak with me.  I call them “Not Yet” or “Not Today” because that is their answer to the question of faith.  We all know those of whom I speak.  We work with them.  We play cards with them.  We drink beer with them.  We play softball with them.  We like and comment on their posts on Facebook.  We love them because they are in our families.  And yet, even knowing this parable given by Jesus and their destination if they do not claim Him as Lord, we keep silent.  We do not, in love and as winsomely as possible, proclaim His Gospel.  We lack the impetus that should be instilled in us, if we accept this parable as a teaching of Jesus.
     Please understand, I understand this to be a challenging subject.  Those in our lives who wish to put off deciding about their faith stand in very good company, indeed.  Their patron saint would be none other that the great Augustine of Hippo.  St. Augustine, in his autobiography, wrote how he often asked God to wait until tomorrow to save him.  He was too busy whoring or partying to want to be saved.  But his mother kept praying and gently nagging.  And God took that partier and reshaped him into a man who is, arguably, one of the greatest influences on the Western Church.  And Scripture is full of other “characters” who would seem to be beneath God’s favor; yet God reshapes them and guides them to remarkable accomplishments in His Name!  David as a boy will kill Goliath, a championed who terrified the adults and professional soldiers in Israel.  As an adult, and despite all his sins, God will establish David as king.  Better still, though David would no doubt proclaim that he is unworthy of such a descendant, his offspring will be none other than Jesus -- and His rule will be eternal.  Paul consented to the murder of Stephen; yet look what God did with him.  Jonah, as I mentioned earlier, will flee God’s mercy because he does not want it shared with the residents of Nineveh.  After a period of fleeing and reflection, though, Jonah will preach the message given by God and see the residents repent.  A Moabite woman, Ruth, will be grafted into His covenant and our Lord’s family tree!  You can probably think of dozens of examples.  God excels in redeeming those whom the world believes unredeemable and using them to His honor and His glory in ways they or we could never imagine.  Knowing that, you and I ought to recognize the worth of every individual we encounter, the image in which they were created!
     In some respects, we do well.  In many cases we are quite good at getting the names and the stories of those whom we serve.  Other churches would be put off by Judy rejecting their gift of a new coat.  We know what her threadbare coat represents; just as we know part of the “why” she is homeless.  The coat that she wears is the last gift she ever received from her husband.  It’s value to her is symbolic; it certainly does not keep her very warm; hopefully, as she wears it in the summer, it does not cause her to overheat.  And yes, she could choose to scratch out a living, but somewhere along the way she lost hope.  The death of her husband was a crushing blow.  And she still cannot find it within herself to believe that God can conquer all things, especially the death of her husband.  She cannot yet believe that she is worthy of His love; just as she cannot accept that she deserves to live her life absent her husband.  It is a tragic story.  Other names, just like names in Scripture, remind us of other stories.  Ray (horseradish man); Archie; Becca the “prostitute;” Benny “the pimp;” Big Paul -- they are not just names to many of us.  They are people with stories, people whom we have served, and people to whom we minister that they might find themselves on the good side of that chasm described by Jesus in today’s lesson from Luke.
     In other respects, though, we do not do well.  No doubt when I began naming those in our lives who try to put off making a decision about Christ, somebody or somebodies in your life popped into your mind.  We fear being dubbed “Jesus freaks” by our peers.  We don’t want to seem too pushy about our faith.  The world convinces us that, while “our truth” works for us, we need to be respectful of the “truth” of others and let it work for them.  We worry we might get “defriended” on Facebook, if we bring what God has taught into a discussion.  Brothers and sisters, when you ignore those opportunities to proclaim the Gospel to others in your life, you are like the rich man in today’s parable.  You are stepping over them in their time of need.
     Notice another detail in our parable today.  The rich man knew Lazarus and his need.  When he espies Lazarus at the bosom of Abraham, he does not ask Abraham to send that man he stepped over with some water.  He asks Abraham to send Lazarus.  Lazarus was not a stranger to the rich man; he was simply beneath the rich man’s care and concern.  You and I are called to be concerned for all, especially those with whom we have relationships.
     Understand, I am not asking you to be talking about Jesus every second of every day.  I am not asking you to hang out on a street corner holding a sign that says “Repent or die.”  Hang out at the water cooler and gripe about your fantasy football team or your favorite team’s inept QB.  Continue to send e-mails to your priest mocking him, good naturedly of course, for his team’s woeful performance against da Bears.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with hitting a pub with some co-workers.  It is great to get together with loved ones and share a meal.  The stepping over only occurs when a conversation turns to something that pulls at your conscience.  We all know that feeling.  We sometimes know that we should say something, but we pull back.  Worse, we know that some behavior or things ought not be said or done, and we do them anyway.  And when we do or say or not say the things we should, we often step over others.  Those lost opportunities nag at us because we know we are to demonstrate and to speak of His love; we know we are to speak of and to demonstrate His mercy.  We know we are called to be the Good Samaritan in the lives of those whom we meet; yet, too often, we choose the follow the steps of the rich man in today’s parable.
     Brothers and sisters, the parable today begins to remind us of the stakes for which we are engaged.  As we begin to wind down this church year, it is not surprising that we will be reminded again that there will one day be a Day of the Lord, that we and all whom we encounter will one day face God.  The Gospel News is that He has made it possible for all who accept His Son as Lord to spend eternity with Abraham and Lazarus and all the Saints at the great Wedding Feast He has promised.  But, if nobody is inviting, if nobody is telling people, how will they hear?  How will they know of His love and His invitation?  That is where you and I come into this story of salvation history.  It is our job, as uniquely imaged after His glory that we all are, to issue those invitations and to share that wonderful, amazingly glorious news! It is our Lord’s desire that none find themselves on the wrong side of the chasm described today.
     But notice that chasm and the consequence of sin.  The hardness of heart expressed in life by the rich man is expressed even in light of eternity.  Even in death, the rich man believes Lazarus is beneath him.  He would never think to ask Father Abraham to serve him; but he does not hesitate to ask Abraham to send Lazarus with water or to his brothers.  The attitude forged in life is reflected in death and for all eternity.  Even were that not the case, Abraham laments that no one from his side could cross over, even if they wanted.  The time for choosing one’s eternal experience is on this side of the grave.  And, hear me well, putting off a decision is the same as making a decision.  Not choosing to follow Him is to refuse Him.
     What if, upon reflecting on this parable, you find yourself in a position like the rich man’s five brothers?  What if sitting here today you find yourself wrestling like Jacob?  With what are you wrestling?  Do you believe that you are not called to share the Good News of God in Christ through word and deed?  Do you believe that you are somehow lower than those whom God has always redeemed and restored to great use in His kingdom?  Do you simply reject these words today as those of Jesus?  Whatever it is with which you are wrestling, the Good News is that you can still make a choice.  Unlike the rich man who refused to submit to God and live as called, you and I can repent and ask God for the grace to live a life that glorifies Him.  He takes all comers, and He gives no preference to those saved early in the day over those whom come right before quitting time.  No matter where we are, no matter how we have lived our life to this point, we can repent and ask for the grace to attune our service and ministry to the well-being of others.
     What if you rightly discern that you have more in common with the rich man than you previously thought?  It still is not too late.  Chances are, those who are your true friends choose to be friends with you simply because of the hope that is within you.  So often, when they come into my office at your invitation, they begin by stating how they admire how you face adversity.  Even when you have been avoiding a conversation, you have still been preaching a sermon through your actions and your hope.  The next step, truthfully, is not a giant leap.  You can draw on shared experiences and explain the hope that is within you.  And because you lived as you now speak, many will accept your words as true, or at least worthy of their consideration.  So, ask God for another chance or three.  I am certain that He will give you far more!
     And what of hell?  Is it real?  Is it terrible?  Whether it is an eternal fire or simply an eternal exclusion which leads to the gnashing of teeth, it does not seem to matter.  The rich man undeniably is tormented by his existence in Hell, whether it is eternal separation and observation of the Feast or a tormenting fire.  The parable, however, is told by Jesus; so we can be sure that Hell is real.  Jesus consistently teaches and acts as if demons and Hell and spiritual warfare are real.  We would do well to remember how He treats them as we engage in relationships with others.  Aside from that fact, though, consider yet what Jesus must experience in Luke’s account.  He will experience betrayal, abandonment by his closest friends, mocking, flaying, punching, more ridicule, the certainty of looming death, the cross, the emotional pain of watching loved ones watch Him die, even more ridicule by the crowd and mocking by those crucified with Him, and finally death.  How terrible must that eternity be for those who reject God that His Son would come down voluntarily and bear all that for our sakes?  You and I and all whom we encounter were so loved by God that He condescended from His glory to experience that horrific end.  What kind of love must He have for you, for me, for Lazarus, for the rich man, and for all whom we encounter!  Whatever Hell is that He saves us from, we can bet, based on His death, that it is horrific.  Given that, and His command to love and serve others in His name, how can we not be impelled so to do?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pray for everyone, even kings and the rich . . .

     I know that those of you new to St. Alban’s in the last three years, plus a number of those who have been here forever will wish I took the opportunity to preach on Luke 16.  It is a very challenging passage when taken on its own.  As I have mentioned in years past, I believe we need always to remember that it follows immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Loving Father or the Resentful Older Brother or whatever your favorite name of the preceding parable is.  But, we as a body are committed to focusing on our own discipleship, on what it means to try and be a good follower of Christ.  And Paul, who is writing one of those whom he mentored in the faith, provides us with interesting instruction this week.

     I say interesting because the lesson might cause a bit of a spiritual wedgie this week.  I shared with the 8am service that, were I in Paul’s position and writing a letter to St. Alban’s, I would hope it would resemble his letter to the Philippians.  As a body we do a marvelous job feeding those in hunger around us; we reach out to battered women and their children in ways that humble our surrounding neighbors; we took on the seemingly Everest of challenges in human slavery; we opened our doors to some serious riff-raft in our community; we have done a fair job for some years balancing the needs of predators and the needs of children, making sure that practices are in place to limit the temptations of the former and the danger to the latter; we have served as a host for serious political debate and discussion; many of us have chosen to meet others suffering from those diseases or events which so terrified us, that we might remind them of God’s promises of deliverance even from death--I could go on and on.  But like some of Paul’s letter and the Lord speaking in Revelations, “I have this against you, St. Alban’s--you are not welcoming of the rich and powerful.”

     I see by the squirms there are a few who want to jump in and argue with me.  Trust me, like 8am, you will have a chance after the service, if you still disagree.  Please, though, do not start your conversation with “the rich just don’t have the same problems as us and cannot understand us.”  At least pretend like you listened to this sermon and considered whether it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

     I will say that this was a difficult sermon to give for lack of specific illustrations.  All the effective illustrations about which I could think were pastoral in nature.  I could tell you all about four recent conversations I have had with some rich and powerful in our community and their experiences with you as a body, but I feel like I would be betraying them.  Plus, I have invited the two that are unchurched to give us another try and one who is suffering from addiction to give the Marquette Group a try.  I would hate for them to run into a buzz saw of apologies or of “you misunderstood me/us” justifications.  And, yet, Paul’s instruction is clear.  We need to pray for the powerful, pray for them.  Why?

The truth of the matter is that the rich and powerful have the same emotional baggage as do the poor and downtrodden.  As few of us would consider ourselves rich and powerful, this might seem a strange statement.  But underneath the clothes, there is very little difference between the rich and the poor.  Take away the bank accounts, and the rich and poor are more alike than different.  And under the discerning gaze of a righteous, holy God, we are all, rich and poor, in need of salvation.  So why does Paul instruct us to pray for the rich and the powerful?

     They need our prayers.  I am not talking about bs, going through the motions, lip service prayers.  They really need God’s grace in their lives.  Have you ever heard a President, regardless of political party, ever stand before a Christian group and say “you guys are wasting your time praying for me.”  Ever?  Even those Presidents whose political views with which we disagree covet our prayers.  Why do you think that is?  The truth of the matter is that Presidents are not equipped to make the decisions required of them.  I cannot remember if it was Clinton or Bush, but I loved what he said about the need for wisdom in office.  The interview went along the lines of being a candidate one day and then being responsible for the death of soldiers the next day.  My guess is that every President has felt the weight of that particular responsibility.  It is an easy thing to be a candidate and have a great idea for how to deal with chemical attacks in Syria.  It is a great thing to live in hypotheticalville and know the “perfect solution.”  But the President has to weigh the consequences.  Who’s life is more valuable, the soldiers or the innocent victims?  If great responsibility comes with great power, can we sit idly by and watch innocents suffer and die?  And what if we escalate?  Can we do that without causing World War 3?  Are we certain Syria won’t attack Israel?  Are we certain Israel, if attacked, will not retaliate, thus drawing other Arab nations into conflict?  And what of those fleeing?  What is in the best interest of the refugees?  And no matter your favorite President, the one you desperately wish was President today, he has faced that same problem.  Bush had Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Clinton had Al-Queda and Rwanda.  Bush had Kuwait.  Reagan had Libya, Iran, and Grenada (boy, that one seems out of place in this list).  Carter had Iran.  Kennedy had Cuba.  We could go on and on, and these are just the public ones off the top of our head.  How many top secret ones were there?  And each action or inaction had a cost.  That’s why the Presidents need our prayers.  Lives are literally in their hands.  If they say “go there,” people go and people die.  Harder still, if they say, “stay here,” people often still die.  Tell me, what man or woman has the wisdom to foresee the consequences of their decisions without God’s guidance?  If you find him or her, let me know.  I might be able to support that person in a run for office.

     Sitting here you might be thinking That’s all fine for politicians and Presidents and people like that, Father, but it does not apply to bosses.  Part of this, you will have to take on faith.  Trust me.  When I say that my conversations with them are not that different from my conversations with you, I am not lying.  They worry whether they can be loved for themselves.  They worry what people would think of them if they really knew them.  They fear death.  They fear diseases.  They worry about their kids.  They worry about their jobs or companies.  They wonder if they might not be the target of violence because they have had to make decisions which hurt other people.  And, not surprisingly, other people tend not to have a sympathetic ear.  How many times have we heard something to the effect of “Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes being miserable a lot easier?”  They hear those statements, too, and their hearts break just a bit.  They feel that much more lonely because the world thinks they ought to be good, ought to be happy.

     Think of the decisions your boss or owner must make just about profitability and employment.  Yes, there are people who don’t care what happens to those beneath them, but are there really that many in the Quad Cities?  Do you really think that your boss or owner, if he or she had to fire you, would feel good about firing you?  Do you really think that bosses or owners enjoy layoffs?  Donald Trump may glorify firing people, but most bosses and owners are human beings.  Most want to be liked.  Most want to believe they are good people.  Heck, most have hired you in the first place, and invested in your training.  You think they want to acknowledge their mistake in hiring you or send you packing so you can put those new skills they gave you to work for a competitor?  Do you really think them that evil?  Then why in the hell did you agree to work for them in the first place?  And, in the case of bigger companies, each boss has to do his or her job.  If they do not meet their bosses expectation, guess who feels the axe then?  Owners have a bit more discretion, but even they have bills to pay.  At what point do they need to make cut backs in their own lives or in their companies?  It is difficult to discern.  That’s just one reason why Paul says we should pray for them.

     No, our bosses, the so-called rich and powerful, are just like us.  In fact, the challenge to their salvation, according to Jesus, is more difficult.  Those of us who are truly poor and truly powerless are stripped of the notion that we control anything.  The rich can be seduced by the Enemy of God into believing that they are special or deserving, or that they really control their lives and are in no way in need of a Savior.  Why do you think Jesus says a rich person getting into heaven is like a camel going through the eye of a needle?  And where do they go for understanding, for sympathy, for guidance, for wisdom?  Admit weakness to a boss or colleague?  Yeah, that helps one on the corporate ladder?  Go to an employee or someone beneath them?  How does one make sure the weakness is not exploited?

     Which brings us all back to Paul’s instruction and the purpose of that instruction.  Why do we pray?  Sometimes, we pray because we want God to act.  But, if we have been properly instructed about prayer, we know we sometimes we pray because we recognize that we need to be changed.  I spoke last week about the need for us to engage in meaningful relationships.  Apparently, this caught some of you by surprise.  If we engage in meaningful relationships, it limits the number of relationships we can have, right?  That is certainly antithetical to the Facebook gospel where people think their worth is equal to the number of friends or the number of likes or comments.  What you and I are called to do on behalf of the Lord, however, is to testify to those around you about His love for them and us, about His mercy, about His salvation offered through Christ’s atoning work, and about His power to redeem all things in our life.  These are not superficial “how is the weather” discussions.  These are the discussions which cause us to bare our souls and to see the bare souls of others that the light of Christ might shine forth in all our lives.  It is hard to have a meaningful relationship with too many people.  Such relationships can only grow where we are in frequent contact.  And aside from our families and chosen friends, is there another group with whom we are in contact more than our co-workers and bosses?  Most of us spend 40-70 hours a week with them!  Who better than us to represent God to them?  But, just as we have to get to know Him better through discipleship and worship, we need to get to know them better, too!  And, they in turn, need to get to know us better as well!  What better way for us to begin to show our care or concern for them than by praying for them, earnestly praying for their needs?  You know why that works so well?  When we pray earnestly for them, we allow the Holy Spirit to begin to work in our hearts.  We begin to see the boss as the Lord sees him or her, we begin to hear their voice as our Lord hears them, and we begin to understand their motivations and fears as our Lord understands them.  In a significant way, we are reshaped by the intercessions we offer on behalf of others.

     Keep in mind this cannot be forced, it cannot be hurried.  These are often very slow to develop.  Why did you not abandon hope at the death of a loved one?  How did you face cancer without losing it?  How did you ever survive the teen years as a parent?  How do you parent grandchildren?  Why is there hope and joy in your life?  Over time, such questions begin to be verbalized.  Over time, hopefully, the boss begins to see how the Christian reacts to the events in life and asks for an accounting.  Alternatively, if we are praying earnestly, and pointing out the Lord’s provision when He does act, they begin to recognize we are not like everyone else offering them a hug with a dagger in the back.  Over time, and with God’s grace, they come to realize the only relationship that matters, the only relationship that saves, is the one they can have with God through Christ, and that a relationship with Him means a relationship with others who call Him Lord.  And then, like we discussed last week, there’s more partying in heaven!

     Brothers and sisters, I said a harsh word at the beginning of this sermon today.  Understand, just as our Lord does not condemn us neither do I.  For those mistakes and sins in all our lives, He has already paid the price in full.  We are, however, working on discipleship as a body.  So, in response to that effort, I want you each to begin to consider Paul’s instruction seriously.  In your prayers this week, take the time to pray for your boss or your owner.  If you work for a Christian boss, give thanks to God for placing a brother or sister above you as your taskmaster or episcopos, to use church language, and ask God to bless him or her or your company, that others might be drawn to Him.  If you do not know your boss’ faith, pray for their needs and for holy conversations.  Who knows, maybe asking your boss if there is anything for which he or she could use prayer will be the first step in a meaningful relationship!  But pray for them.  Seriously pray for them.  And make note to yourself whether it is them changing or your perception of them.

     What if you have no boss?  Well, I don’t know if you have noticed, but our politicians could sure use a lot of prayer.  Certainly our President needs them.  All the members of Congress need them.  And, lest ye forget, you have this priest.  He may not be rich and he may not be powerful; but trust me, he sins as if he were rich and powerful, as if you all need THAT reminder.  Maybe it is your parent.  Maybe it is a teacher.  Give God a few moments of silence in your prayer life, and He will remind you of those in authority in your life who need your prayers.  And then commit yourself to praying for whomever that is.  What happens may change you and them.  And, who knows, your effort and your faithfulness, working in concert with God’s grace, might provoke another celebration among the angels in heaven . . . 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Meaningful relationships and a joyful people . . .

     As I was reflecting and praying for sermons this week, I was drawn to a couple big discussions I had this week with people outside this parish.  As I shared at Sybil’s funeral, for today I wanted to focus on the outflow or fruit of abiding or grace or discipleship or whatever we want to call it when we are working on our relationship with God in Christ.  It was best reflected in a conversation I had with Archie down at the Community Meal.  Archie, for those of you who help there from time to time, is the man who looks like John the Baptist has stepped out of the Bible and onto the streets in Davenport.  His hair is always wild and way out.  His clothes are usually too big, like he needs a camel hair tunic and a belt.  And, like a good prophet, sometimes he is more understandable than at other times.  This past Wednesday, he was easy to understand.
     As I was pouring chocolate milk, he gave me the “yo, Padre” that made me think he wanted milk.  It turned out he wanted to talk.  “Padre, do you think the Trinity was present in the beginning of creation.”
     “Of course, but why do you ask, Archie?”
     “Well, I started reading my Bible again and I noticed that God says ‘Let us make man in our image.’  I started wondering.  To whom is God speaking?  And who is the we in the ‘us’?”
      I laughed, but told him I found his logic unassailable.
     “Cool.  I just wondered.  After all, if God is unchangeable, He must have been Trinity long before Jesus and Pentecost, right?”
     “Can I ask you another question then?”
     “Sure,” I responded.
     “Do you think the sacrificial system of the Old Testament taught the Jews and others about the need for blood and life to atone for sin?  I guess, putting it another way, do you think we maybe do not understand the sacrifice of Christ because we can’t really appreciate the need for blood to wash us of our sins?  If we still sacrificed, maybe we would better understand what He really did for us?”
     I admit I had to look at Archie again.  The Trinity question comes up with parishioners  and unchurched from time to time.  That last question, though, I have only heard posited by Old Testament scholars.  So I asked Archie, “What exactly have you been reading, Archie?”
     “I told you, Padre, I started reading in Genesis and have made it all the way to Numbers.  It’s going to take me a while, but I’ll get through it.”
     “Well, Archie, I think you are right about us not understanding what Christ has done for us.  I think we have sanitized the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  We forget the mocking and the beating.  We certainly seem not to understand the bruises and blood.  And how can you and I ever understand the sense of loss on the cross?  The ones He came to save make sure He gets nailed up there.”
     “Yeah, I hear you.  It’s like that movie with that crazy guy who nailed Him to the cross.”
     “Mel Gibson?” I supplied.
     “Yeah.  I remember when his movie came out, people were grossed out and offended by it.  I’m betting after reading Leviticus he might have been more right than he knew.  If every time we sinned we slaughtered a goat or a sheep or an ox or wrung the necks of birds, we might realize how much blood it takes to cleanse us.”
     “Maybe, Archie.  It sure would make my job a lot different.”
     “I bet.  Can I ask you one last question, then, Padre?”
     “Can I stop you?”
     He laughed.  “Probably not.  How do you think the Day of Judgment works?”
     “What do you mean?”
     “How does it work, do you think?”
     “Well, Archie, I think His Second Coming will be one of those experiences upon which we will look back and it will make total sense, but before then, we are just guessing.”  Unfortunately, he did not take control of the conversation, so I continued.  “As to the mechanics of the day, I just hope I am sorted into the good side.  I’m not too concerned trying to figure out how it all works or when.”
     “Don’t you have a theory like those preachers on television or in books?”
     “Not really.  Two wiser pastors than me reminded me that predicting the events described in Revelation is fraught with danger.  Prophecy usually makes more sense in our past than in the future, so I am content to live as if He is returning tomorrow, but willing to be surprised by how it all goes down.”
     “You know, Padre.  You are the first clergy never to give me a theory.”
     “Sorry, Archie, but I just don’t know.  I know it’s important to some people, but it just isn’t to me.”
     “Don’t apologize, Padre.  I wasn’t making fun of you or anything.  I am just amazed you don’t have a theory.  Most padres want to impress us by pretending to know something.  You’re just like ‘dude, I’ve no clue, and I’m going to be surprised with you.’”
     I laughed.
     It was then that the guy next to Archie decided to speak up.  “I’m so glad I’m a Mormon and don’t have to worry about figuring these things out.”
     Somebody new had Archie’s attention.  “Man, I am so sorry that someone fed you such a bunch of bull that you bought that Mormon crap.”
     “What?” said Archie’s new focus.
     “Have you never really considered your faith?” he began.  He proceeded to give a winsome defense and explanation of the faith.  His new interlocutor was, by no means, as well versed in his faith as Archie was in ours.  What struck me most about Archie’s explanation was the joy in his voice.  Never once did he put down the man for placing his faith in the wrong god.  Never once did he tell the poor man he was condemned to hell for not being a Christian.  Every time he posed a question, he did so certain that the man had been lied to or misrepresented about God’s love for him.
     When the man responded, “Man, you are really excited about your faith, aren’t you?” and Archie responded “How could I not be?!” I knew they were in for a fun time.
     Our Gospel lesson today in Luke points to the ultimate fruit of our faith.  Yes, as disciples of Christ we can talk in terms of obedience and ministry and service and other words, but the ultimate fruit of all that is found in Christ’s description of heaven and in the shepherd’s discovery of the lost sheep and the woman’s location of the lost coin.  The shepherd, the woman, their friends, and the entire heavenly host are described as rejoicing.  We can all relate to the parables.  In my family, we will spend a long time looking for the remote rather than getting up and changing the channels manually.  And, boy, when we find that lost remote, there is that wonderful “Aha! I found it!”  Similarly, my wife is the keeper of all important documents.  Some are more valuable than silver.  It’s unfair what we do to her, but when she finds that document for which she has been searching, there is much rejoicing on her part!  You can all relate to that joy.  Vern knows it when he realizes that he did not flush his keys down the commode again.  Nicole realizes it when her beloved Cornhuskers win ballgames.  Charlie ought to realize it every moment of every day when he is telling off color jokes and not getting nuked by God or giving marital advice and not getting punched in the mouth by Sherry.  George and Jason realize it when a beer turns out perfectly.  Marshall when he realizes he has time for one more cigarette before services start; Robin when she looks at the Order of Worship on Sunday and realizes it is the same as it was before she hit print on the computer.  You are all laughing, and some of you are praying I don’t name your moments.
     Why are we not, though, this joyful more of the time?  Why are we so grim-faced?  If we know, if we truly know in our hearts that we have been redeemed, why are we not laughing more?  You and I are constantly engaged in reaching the lost for His honor and His glory.  You and I are always seeking to bring others into this huge family He calls the Church.  Why is it we are so serious all the time?  Why is it we have such a tough time seeing past what afflicts us and focusing on the fact that we are found?
     Is there an urgency to our mission?  You bet.  Is our mission one of life and death?  Eternally so.  But the good news, as Archie reminded his new friend Wednesday night, is that the work for our eternal lives has been done for us!  We don’t have to do the heavy lifting.  We don’t have to do the hard work.  Christ has already accomplished our salvation, if we will simply claim Him as Lord.  How can we not be happy at that?  How can we not rejoice?  Better still, you and I and everyone in the Church has the opportunity not just to impact another life, but the wider Body and even heaven itself!  Imagine, you or me, through our work in the name of Christ here in Davenport, can impact not just the one to whom we are reaching out, but the rest of the Body that hears our story, and even the angels in heaven.  Some in the world “want to make a difference” in the world.  You and I have been given an opportunity to make a difference not just in this world, but in heaven itself!  How cool is that?!
     How do we do this?  How do we bring joy to heaven and earth?  By engaging the lost in meaningful relationships.  So many of our brothers and sisters take the call to be “in but not of the world” to disengage from the world.  The shepherd goes searching in the wilderness for one sheep; the lady scrubs her home from top to bottom looking for a single coin.  Jesus came looking for me and for you, and that search led Him eventually to the Cross.  We are called to be working and searching in the world for the lost, but with our focus on the eternal.  Each one of us has been uniquely equipped; each one of us has been through a unique set of circumstances which make us the perfect heralds of His grace.  Like Archie, we should be focused on the hope and promises He has made to each one of us.  For many people in the world who are lost, YOU will be the best sermon they ever see.  How do you face disease and death?  How do you face questions of provision?  How do you face conflict?  How do you face life?  Are you the grim-faced, determined, have-no-fun sort?  Or are you the one overjoyed by what He has worked for you and a blessing to those around you?  The Creator of heaven and earth, the One who fashioned you and me, has tasked us with the job of searching for the Lost on His behalf?  And, brothers and sisters, hear me well: chances are, the very thing which you were praying I would not mention a few minutes ago about your particular joys, is one of those experiences which our Lord will gladly use to begin to forge a relationship between you and the lost.  After all, He is all about rejoicing!  That’s the promise of the Wedding Feast!  What better way than to start with the little joys in our lives, little joys which point to the joy of our salvation and to that celebration He has planned for all eternity.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Gospel in the chiasmus . . .

     Every now and again, I find myself agreeing with my undergraduate and seminary professors that we would all do well to read Greek.  It an agreement which usually passes from my mind fairly quickly, possibly by the time I encounter my next aorist participle that I stare at uncomprehendingly.  While I love things old and classic, foreign languages are not one of my gifts.  When seminary professors would remark that we would be speaking Hebrew and Greek in heaven (they are the blessed languages after all), I would be the wise “you know what” in the back of the class remarking that I would be condemned to an eternity of pantomiming.  I do, however, understand their point.  Sometimes “things” are lost in translation.  It can be a sense; it can be an idiom; and it can be an intertwining, such as we have this week.
     The letter to Philemon is the shortest book in the Bible.  If you are new to St. Alban’s, you may have heard it mentioned around here.  Our human trafficking ministry was originally known as “Onesimus’ Heart.”  It seemed appropriate to those involved in the beginning for us to turn for God in this letter for guidance.  The subject is clearly slavery.  Better still, the outcome is fantastic.  Onesimus, we think, goes from being a slave to being a brother in Christ.  He goes from being a man who would run from those who would enslave and punish him to being a man now truly useful, as his name suggests, for the spread of the Gospel in Colosse.  Our hope in the beginning was that those whom we rescued would not only help law enforcement put away the bad guys, but that they would also help us reach more slaves and so begin to turn the tide in the fight against the evil of slavery.
     That all being said, I wanted to focus this week on the chiasmus of verse 5, as I think it reminds us grammatically of a theological and transformation truth of which we should always be reminded.  It is that truth upon which Paul will ask Philemon to accept his slave without punishment.  It is that truth upon which Paul will base his instruction to Onesimus to return to his former owner.  And it is that truth which should always ground our own ministries to those in our daily life and work.
     What is a chiasmus?  Simply put, a chiasmus is a grammatical device in which clauses or words are related to each other through reversal structures, the sum of which combine to make a larger point.  Such a description seems very complicated.  It is hard to define these devices, but you are familiar with them.  Webster gives the example from Goldsmith “to stop too fearful, and too faint to go.”  My classics professor resorted to Ovid to give an example, “I flee those who chase me, and I chase those who flee me.”  Shakespeare lovers among us might remember Macbeth, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”  Politicians might remember “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”  Those of us with smaller children might even sing one from time to time, “I am stuck on Band-Aid, and Band-Aid’s stuck on me.”  I see a nod or three.  Many of you recognize some of those more familiar in the world.
     The one in the letter today occurs in verse 5.  Translated literally, the verse should read “the love and the faith which you have for the Lord and unto all the saints.”  What should a disciple have?  Faith in the Lord and love toward all the saints.  Remember, love in the ANE was not some emotion.  Love in Scripture can best be described as a commitment rather than a simple emotion.  Emotions can come and go; a commitment, however, endures.  Our love is meant to reflect dimly the love, hesed, of our Lord.  God is steadfast in His commitment to us.  No matter how much we try to sever that love He has for us, He is still committed to redeeming us.  Marriage vows do not ask us to have warm, fuzzy feelings to our prospective bride or groom.  Instead, we vow to remain committed “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . until we are parted by death.”  As disciples of Christ, you and I are called to be committed to those others who claim Christ is Lord.
     Does that mean I have to like every single other Christian?  I suppose we do not have to like everyone, but we are required by God to be committed to everyone’s well-being.  Jesus teaches that hating is the same as killing, so we definitely never allowed to hate.  But being committed to someone’s well-being is certainly possible.  We should want everyone to be in right relationship with God.  That means we want everyone to know that they have been redeemed through the atoning work of Christ and offered a place of honor at the Great Wedding Feast He is preparing.  Better still, we want everyone to know we are not alone in this journey we call life.  Certainly Jesus is with us even to the end of the age.  But you and I are united by our faith in Christ with brothers and sisters who span time and place, language and race, and every other manner in which we might think to distinguish ourselves from others.  All those who claim Christ as Lord are first-born sons and first-born daughters.  There are no second or third or fourth borns.  There are no middle children.  We are all the same because we all serve the same Lord!  We are all, to use Paul’s language this morning, His prisoner, bound in chains of love.  We know that nothing, no scheme or plot will ever remove us from the saving hand of Christ.
     And it is that faith in Christ which informs and intertwines our commitments to others.  Think about our healing service today.  We will pray for healing for all those in need.  True, some will come forward for anointing, but we will be praying for all in need of Christ’s healing touch.  We will pray for our brothers and sisters in Nzara, Swaziland, and Brechin.  Even though we may not ever meet those brothers and sister on this side of the grave, we will ask God to care for them, to comfort them, to provide for their needs (their daily bread), and to send His Spirit to bless them.  We will pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We will pray for their protection, not because we know them, but because we know that our Lord will use their faithfulness to increase His kingdom.  We will pray for our politicians, not because we are in the opposing party and want them to switch sides.  No, we will pray that God will give them right answers for the welfare of our land, our state, or our city.  We will lift up our soldiers, again not because we know them all, but because we recognize the sacrifices they make.  We will pray for those whom we serve, those for whom we should be serving but do not yet recognize we should be serving, those who are addicted, even those who root for the wrong NFL team today, not necessarily because we like them or agree with them on everything.  We pray for them because our faith is intertwined with that commitment we call love.  Our faith impels us to support them in their time of trial.  And we know that our prayers can, to use the language of the Psalm today, cause God to change His mind and act to bless those whose needs we know.
     And here is the rub, as written by Paul:  we cannot have true love without faith in Christ.  Neither can we claim Christ as Lord through faith and not have love toward all the saints.  One cannot claim to be a “Christian” and sit idly by as the world impacts those around us.  One cannot claim to be a Christian and not be motivated to commit to the saints around us.  There is no “me, myself, and the Bible” Christianity.  Even the hermits in the early Church discerned their callings in community.  Their intercessions were part of the work of the body, and both the individuals and the bodies recognized them as such!
     It is a warning which ought to give us all a spiritual wedgie of sorts.  We can all identify in our lives those times when we have ignored our callings.  As Episcopalians, we joke about “Episcopal vacation.”  How many of our brothers and sisters place golf, or sleeping, or camping, or whatever else above God between Memorial Day and Labor Day?  Our response oftentimes is not one of caring for their relationship with their Father in heaven but one of humor.  How many of our brothers and sisters, well brothers mostly, place the NFL above God for the next five months?  How many of us will cross the street to avoid the homeless, cover our ears to mute the cries for help, cover our eyes so that we cannot see the need around us?  How many of us joyfully give God our leftovers of time or talents or treasures; yet we claim to want nothing more than for Him to save us a position of honor at that Feast He has planned?  We excel, sometimes, in relating to God on our terms.  Paul reminds us this day of our Lord’s terms: If you believe in Me, you will love all, you will commit yourself to the well-being of all.
     In truth, Paul’s letter and request set up an amazing opportunity of reconciliation.  Imagine in the ANE a slave willingly returning to a slave owner and that slave owner willingly sparing the slave!  It would have been an incomprehensible miracle in the life of the community of believers.  But they would have understood its significance and been able to speak of it to those not yet a member of their faith community.  “You think rising from the dead is cool?  You should have seen what happened between this slave and his owner!”  We in the church like to think in modern America that we are some sort of association.  We come together when our schedules commit, and God should be proud of us for giving Him some time.  In truth, you and I are all slaves of the Lord.  As we continue to grow in faith, our eyes and our hearts and our wills are being remade, transformed, as He would have us.  The end result is that faith in Him creates commitment to those around us in each one of us.  Anything else is not really of Him.
     Sitting here today, brothers and sisters, some of us may have heard the Holy Spirit convict us of our attempts to separate faith in Christ from love of the saints.  If so, I do not intend us to go away sad or despondent.  In fact, the contrary is possible!  He went willingly to the cross knowing we would do this.  Such was His love for each one of us, however, that He went willingly, committed to us when we least deserved such loyalty from HIm.  And even better, all He asks is that we repent and ask for the grace to better love Him and serve others in this life.  Who knows?  Maybe it will be your repentance and transformed heart that will cause this community of faith to say to those around us “You think rising from the dead was impressive?  You should see what He did in his/her/my life!”

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hagar and the dentist . . .

     We will call her “Hagar.”  Hagar walked into my office, shutting the door behind and covered her mouth as she spoke.  “Fr. Brian?  I need help.  I spoke with one of the ladies at DHS who has helped me, and she suggested you.  I guess you guys do weird things for people.”
     I laughed a bit and acknowledged that we have met some strange needs the last several years.
     So she proceeded to tell me her story.  “All of this, I guess, is my fault.  I understand if you won’t help, but I feel like you need to know the true story.  I got hooked on drugs in high school.  Instead of hitting the books, I was smoking, snorting, and injecting whatever I could get my hands on.  I paid for the drugs by whoring myself, I guess you would call it, stealing, and sometimes working a real job.  I don’t know if you have ever suffered from addiction, but my next high became my whole focus.  Where could I score it?  How was I gonna get it?  You know?”
     I nodded my understanding.
     “Anyway, I focused so much on my drugs that I didn’t pay attention to much else.  My family pretty much disowned me.  My bosses would get tired of me missing work and fired me.  Decent guys, you know, the ones we should marry, might go out with me once or twice, but once they learned about my addiction, they checked out.  So, I ended up dating a bunch of addicts, too.  Some of those guys would be pissed if we couldn’t score, like it was my fault.  Anyway, between not brushing my teeth and getting smacked around a good bit, I’ve lost all but a few teeth.”
     In truth, she is now in the single digits for teeth.  So I asked what I could do to help her.
     “Well, I’m clean now.  I go to Narc-Anon.  I have a job.  I’m trying really hard to stay on the right track, you understand.  Anyway, it is hard to get someone to hire you when you look like this.”  She dropped her hand and tried gamely to smile.  “Anyway, I am eligible for the I-CARE or CAC, whatever they call it.”  She was referring to the dental care the state offers for the indigent.  “What I need is two things.  I need an x-ray of this side of my mouth.  And I need a referral for the program from a real dentist.  This lady at DHS thought for some reason that you might know a dentist who might help because your church helps battered women and prostitutes.  If you could speak to one of them for me.  I’d really like to try and get in that program and keep, you know, making things better.  Maybe I can get new teeth and a new job and, you know, sort of make something with my life.”
     “I told her I would do my best.  I couldn’t promise anything.  I had no Discretionary Funds right now, so I would be dependent upon dental goodwill.”  She looked crestfallen.  “It’s not fatal news,” I continued.  “I just need a dentist who might be willing to do this for you now and wait for me to get some funds later this month.”
     “You think anyone would do that?  For real?”
     “There are some good men and women around here.  I can think of a couple right off the bat.  I hate to impose upon them, but this is important.  I’ll do my best.”
     She burst into tears.  “Are you kidding me?  Just like that, you’re going to pester a dentist about helping me.  Why?  Didn’t you listen to my story?  Don’t you know who I am?  What I have done?  Why would you do something like this so, so, so easily?”
     “You want the real answer or the nice answer?”
     She thought for a second and then said “the real.”
     “God is all about our futures, our futures with Him.  You ever heard the story of the Prodigal daughter?”  She shook her head.  So I told her the story of the Prodigal son except made him a daughter.  When I got to the “And do you know what the Father did when he saw that daughter coming back up the road to home?”
     “Man, I bet he was pissed at her for spending all her money on clothes and drugs.  You know he gave her a good beating.”
     “He told his servants to prepare a feast.  The daughter who was gone had come home, and everyone was going to celebrate it.”
     “What’s that got to do with me?”
     “Well, Hagar, I look at you and see you somewhere between slopping the hogs and getting back home.  I’m not quite sure where you are in that story, and there is a lot that could have happened between those two points.  But you’ve gotten sober.  You have asked for help.  You have started trying to reclaim the life that you so freely wasted.”  She continued to sob.  “I look at your teeth the way God looks at you and your heart.  I know, from dealing with women and bad men how men use facial beatings to put down women.  These evil men want women to think they are ugly and worthless, that they are getting what they deserve.  You are in a pastor’s office in a house of God, and still you are trying to cover your mouth, as if I or God haven’t seen much worse.  And here’s the lie you have believed for some time now -- you think no one, but especially God, could ever love you if they knew you.”
     She wavered between sobbing and trying to speak.
     “How can I ever repay Him or you?”
     “You can’t.  It’s called grace.  And we in the Church all live under it, or at least we are supposed to live under it.  Some days, we do better than others.  But then we repent and ask Him for grace to try and do a better job of honoring him.”
     “Doesn’t He ever get tired of us failing or whining?”
     “I don’t think He thinks of it as whining or failing when we recognize our sins or weakness.  I think, more than anything else, He just wants us to be like that girl in the story that I just shared.  He wants us to realize we are His and that He wants nothing but the best for us.”
     “That seems too easy,” she answered.
     I agreed.  “Yes and no.  It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we need His grace in our lives, that we cannot fix our problems ourselves.  It’s kinda like that dental work you may have to experience.  You can’t correct it yourself.  It may hurt a bit.  But in the end, if the dentists do a good job, you’ll have a wonderful smile.  He’s wanting to do the same for every bit of us, both our appearances and our hearts.”
     We sat in silence for a few moments.
     “You think God really wants to do all this for me?” she asked.
     ‘For all of us, Hagar.  For all of us.  Now, let’s see if I can get a hold of Dr. Jim or someone else to help us . . . “