Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Faith, Mulberry Trees, and Forgiveness

Luke 17:5-10

It's no small thing, it seems to me, to be able to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea: particularly in the way that Jesus describes today --- with no effort at all.  I know this for while there is no mulberry tree in my back yard there are these things which try to pass as trees lining my fence line which probably started out looking like weeds but whose roots have gone deep by now. There is no way I can uproot them so season after season I find myself cutting them off close to the ground.    And yet, Jesus seems to be saying that it wouldn't take much for me to be able to set aside my trusty lobbers.  Only a little faith is required.

And yet I found myself wondering this week about why anyone would want to waste that gift of faith on uprooting a tree.  It seems that if I were given the power to do that, such unexpected power might be put to better use. (To be sure, I do feel differently after a morning of pulling overgrown weeds and cutting back brush...) And so I got curious as to why the disciples were so vehemently begging Jesus to increase their faith.  And I went back a verse or two and discovered that just prior to the disciples' outburst Jesus had been teaching about forgiveness.  What Jesus says there is this:
"And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’"
Seriously.  Now that is something I do need help doing.  That may, in fact, be something worth using up that "faith the size of a mustard seed" on.  And yes, forgiving can seem a whole lot like pulling up a stubborn tree, roots and all, and tossing it into the sea.  It can be that hard.  Which is why, I expect, when the disciples hear Jesus' command to forgive the same person seven times over in a given day, they find themselves begging for help.

Because as you well know, forgiveness can be difficult.  For all the gifts it promises, it is no small thing to let go, to move on, to work at restoration, to begin again.  Forgiving can feel like giving in, like giving up, like forfeiting principle or pride.  Forgiving can mean admitting I, too, was wrong.  And if I'm honest?  I haven't done nearly enough of it.  No, my usual means of living and being is to step away from the one who I perceived wronged me.  All too often I find that if I do not distance myself altogether, I at least build up my defenses enough so as to ensure I won't be hurt again.  Maybe that's why the story I offer now stands out so clearly in my memory.

It was sixteen years ago this past summer.  I had traveled to Philadelphia as a voting member to our Churchwide Assembly.  It was my first such experience where I would not be seated in the visitor section and I was excited to go.  I can remember rising early in the morning all summer long, reading the reams of paper which outlined the business which was before us.  I can remember also looking forward to the fact that I would be rooming with a wonderful friend from seminary --- one whom I had known since day one of Summer Greek.  She and I had been assigned to different regions of the country so we had not seen each other much since graduation and ordination nine years before, but we had kept in touch and hers was a friendship I valued.

On the agenda for that particular assembly was a major ecumenical agreement.  Sitting in the assembly hall on that first night I can remember sensing that something major was afoot when right at the beginning there was debate on the rules of the assembly.  Indeed, if we didn't know it it already, (and apparently even with all my careful preparation, I was one of those caught by surprise), it soon became evident that this assembly was going to hold some drama.  And my old friend and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the question.

Most of that week we didn't see much of each other as we when we weren't in session I expect we were connecting with those who agreed with our differing perspectives.  I know I was.  When the agreement failed to garner its needed 2/3 vote, I was surprised to find myself heartbroken.  My friend and found ourselves together again for a few moments back in our hotel room hurriedly packing up before our trips to the airport.  I am not proud to say that in those moments, exhausted and grieving, I said some things I shouldn't have.  I remember the look of shock and surprise and pain on my friend's face like it was yesterday.

It seems silly now --- to have a friendship put in jeopardy by such as that was -- but at the time?  It didn't seem silly at all.   And it was easy to ignore the rift between us in the months and years to come as, unlike the example Jesus offers now, we were not working and living in the same place.  Still, my heart hurt over it, until finally, one or the other of us sent an email, cracking the door open just a little bit.

It was sometime after that when we were together again that we were both able to admit the other was more right than we could or would before. Indeed, I expect our mutual forgiving found its beginning in our belief that our friendship mattered more. 

It didn't take much.  Not much more than a mustard seed size step in fact and in the end it was easier than uprooting a mulberry tree and tossing it into the sea.  And of so much more value.  We were able to do so because our care for each other was somehow larger and more important than what had severed our friendship for a time.  Sometimes forgiveness happens because of that.   And sometimes forgiveness is offered and shared because that is what we are simply made to do, as Jesus tells his disciples and all of us today.  We do it because we are supposed to do it.  We forgive because we have been forgiven and we who are made to be in relationship with each other --- if we have any hope of staying in relationship with each other --- we must do the same.  Like the slaves who are just doing what they are supposed to do when they serve their master supper, you and I are only doing what "we ought to have done" when we crack the door open and begin to make amends with one another.  And just like with my old friend?  What is behind Jesus' promise today is the certain truth that the relationships we share with one another matter more than whatever would keep us apart.

And it only takes a little faith to get us there.  Sometimes all we have to do is crack open the door.

  • As I think about the disciple's plea today for help with forgiving I find myself thinking of those with whom I have experienced brokenness and have opted for distance instead of healing.  How about you?  What does it mean for us to 'do what we ought to have done' as Jesus says today?
  • Why do you think Jesus says it only takes 'faith the size of a mustard seed' for this to be so?  What does that mean in practical terms? 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

I'd rather hear Jesus' words today as ones not especially meant for you and for me.  And yes, it would be easier to say that you and I, at first glance, are neither the rich man in the story before us now nor are we Lazarus.  To be sure, on the economic scale we are usually measured by, for the most part we probably do fall somewhere in-between.  So at first it would be easy to dismiss Jesus' words as not meant for us. And yet, I haven't really been able to do that for a very long time. This is why:

I was still a student --- living then in a small church apartment in North Minneapolis.  My room-mates and I lived there free of charge, in exchange for opening the building in the morning, checking to be sure the doors were locked at night, a taking a late evening walk through that massive building and glancing into every nook and cranny to be sure no one had made their way in during the day who hadn't also made their way out by nightfall.  Mostly all we encountered were the occasional bats who had been stirred out of their hiding places by the large fans in the church tower in late summer --- but it was also so that now and then a homeless person would find his way into a pew where he hoped to spend the night safe and warm.

For you see, North Minneapolis, then and now, is not the kind of neighborhood most people would probably want their 25 year old daughter living.  Only my folks didn't necessarily know that it was an area marked by poverty and crime and the kind of fear that can live in every heart when both are present.

Only we weren't there most of the time.  We'd get up early and unlock the doors and head across town to school where we would spend the day learning and socializing with others who were preparing to be leaders in the church. And most days?  We'd be getting home long after the neighborhood had settled down.   It was not so different for those who called that church home.  Most of them didn't live within walking distance of that building like their ancestors did.  For the most part, except for the small staff, they were only there on Sunday mornings.  And no, they didn't have a whole lot of connection or commitment to their neighbors.  But they did allow their kitchen to be used on weeknights for a soup kitchen: in an important way ensuring that the hungry were fed.
Even that single important ministry was one I seldom witnessed though, busy as I was.  Most days I would park my car on 22nd Avenue long after that stream of hungry people had made their way past my front door.

Or at least I would have told you then that it was because I was busy.  It would have been truer to say that most of the time I would make sure I didn't arrive home until late.  For you see, I was actually a little afraid of the people who lined up to be fed every night.  My world seldom intersected with theirs and I wasn't all that unhappy on most days to miss that line of children and old people, individuals and entire families who came to have their hunger satisfied.  So when on that rare occasion I did happen to come home a little early, usually I would take a side door in and make my way to our apartment --- avoiding too much contact with those who lived so differently than I.

Only one day this is how it was.  One of the men in line stepped away from the others. He blocked my way to the side door and proceeded to scream at me using words I had seldom, if ever, heard directed my way.  And in that moment I felt a mix of surprise and fear as his outburst forced me to lift up my head and look into his eyes.  And then into my own heart to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.

Now I've told this story a few times before.  Every time I've been surprised at the amount of sympathy I receive from those who've heard it.  Yes, it would be only normal to be afraid in the face of such an encounter. And no, of course, I didn't necessarily do anything wrong which would have deserved such a chastising from a stranger.  But here's the point.  Neither had the rich man in Jesus' parable done something particularly wrong.  At least we don't hear that he did.  Rather his sin was simply one of indifference.  Of turning the other way his whole life long.  Of not feeling and responding to the pain of one over  whom he apparently literally had to step on his way about his business every morning, noon, and night.  His sin was that of allowing himself to be so utterly closed off from all this world God made and the varied people who inhabited it alongside him not to mention his daily opportunity to make a difference in it.  And to be sure, the rich man's sin was reflected in his still seeing  Lazarus as beneath him --- as one whom he could order around --- even after their fates had been sealed  His sin was not in seeing Lazarus as the child of God that he was. His sin was much like mine.

And so I tell you now that I do understand the rich man in Jesus' parable now.  I might even say I have some measure of sympathy for him for I know how easy it is to be too busy to take care of the need that is sitting on my doorstep.  I know what it is to really believe that I don't have what it takes, or that someone else will take care of it, or that such problems are so massive that one person or even a few hundred people can't make much of a difference.  Oh yes, while it might seem easier to hear Jesus' words today as not meant for me, and yet, I already know that to do so would be just one more step towards sealing myself off into a kind of hell of my own making.  One where the needs of others are seen as threats and not as opportunities to live as the whole people of God we were made to be.  The rich man's sin was his indifference.  A long time ago it took a screaming, hungry, homeless person to shake me out of mine.  And yet it is still so that every single day since I find I must intentionally stand still to try to listen and really see the needs of the world with the eyes of Jesus and not my own.  And on many days I find I must ask forgiveness of the One who made us all and loves us all the same, trusting that God will give me yet another chance to live like that is so tomorrow.  And every single day I pray that God will take away my indifference, my fear, or my lack of hope or confidence and help me to live as one who sees and gives and loves in this life right now.

And so over these last couple of days as I've pondered the rich man and Lazarus once more I'm thinking about those who are at my doorstep now--- who, in fact, pass by my office every single day.  I'm thinking now especially of the home health care workers whose employing office is located in the church building where I serve.  It's a steady stream of folks who do hard and important work and who, I know, are not paid nearly enough for what they do.  Oh, I make it a point to say hello, to comment on the weather, to ask a perfunctory 'how are you?'  And yet, I don't know their stories.  I don't even know their names.  Perhaps it says something that I don't have to have someone scream at me to wake me up these many years later.  But I still have a long ways to go before the full meaning and intent of Jesus' teaching today makes its home in my heart.  How about you?

  • I believe the rich man's sin in the story is that of 'indifference.'  Would you describe it in that way or in another?
  • How does this parable speak to you?  Where do you find yourself within it?
  • Is there a 'Lazarus' at your doorstep whose name you don't know?  What does this parable call you to do about that?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What Are We to Make of the Dishonest Manager?

Luke 16:1-13

It is a difficult parable before us now.  If you've read it, of course you already know that.

Indeed, as I  kept returning to Jesus' words over these last several days, I have found myself thinking perhaps this is a sermon illustration gone awry.

Preachers, you know what I mean.  I can't count the number of times I have told a story trying to make a particular point, only to have people leave worship having heard something entirely other than what I was trying to convey.

So I can't help but wonder now if this is what happened here.  Or did Jesus actually say something different than what was actually later recorded?  Was he trying to get something across which was just too complex for his listeners to comprehend and later pass along to us? 

It's hard to say. What I do know is this.  Most weeks I glance through my commentaries and if I'm stuck I might dip into the thoughts of other preachers in their blogs to see if something might spark my imagination. This week? Everywhere I look, everyone agrees that this one is tough.  And then everyone seems to head off in a different direction.  It is tempting to jump to the end of this Gospel reading and simply expand upon one of what appears to be Jesus' explanation of the story before us now.  It wouldn't be so hard to preach on the one verse where Jesus asserts that we can't serve both God and wealth.  In fact, as I look through my old sermon file, I see that's precisely what I've done before.  This time though, the story Jesus tells just won't let go of me.  Even if I don't understand exactly why he tells it... 

And so I read it and I read it again and I keep trying to find a parallel somewhere in my life experience and everything I come up with doesn't seem to quite work.  Even so?  Let me share where my memory has taken me this week --- back to a time when I felt a little like the 'dishonest manager' before us now.

My summer job in college was working the night shift at a local cannery.  I worked pea pack and corn pack both and like a lot of college students, I relied on that work to help put me through college.

During a class my freshman year I learned that the very company which was helping me pay for college expenses was also exploiting workers in Mexico. 

In a very real way at the age of 19 I felt like I was a part of this great wrong.  And yet, this was good work and such opportunities were limited for 19-year-olds.  I struggled greatly with this, believing if I were somehow strong enough I would quit.  But then what?  Not unlike the main character in today's parable I told myself I was not tall enough to de-tassel corn and I was too proud to not work at all. In the end,  I convinced myself that I was only 19 after all and I was on the lowest end of this massive, complex corporation.   More than that, I reasoned that one day when I had more resources, more power, more voice, I would do try to something about this -- that I would try to make right what I knew was so wrong.  I offer this now, not entirely certain that I have followed through with that pledge at all...

Indeed, as I sit with the story Jesus shares today, there is but one thing I know for sure.  Every single one of us does try to serve both God and wealth.  How can we not? Wealth of one sort or another is essential for life -- at least in the world I live in.  And like the manager in the story today our relationship with wealth is complicated.  Sometimes we squander the gifts, to be sure.  At other times, we make it work for us in whatever ways we have to.  And sometimes, like this manager, in some small way we realize that these gifts do put us in relationship with one another and we try to make right what can often be wrong.  But even then, like the manager, our motives may be at least partly self-serving.

So I have to say that I don't think the manager in the story Jesus tells really got it right and I don't really think Jesus is commending him even as he comments on his shrewdness.  And no, I don't really know why Jesus tells this story, but I do know this.  Two thousand years later it is still pressing in on us and is raising important questions about the place of wealth in our lives.  And maybe that alone puts us on a path of repentance and renewal as it forces us to at least examine what we might otherwise take for granted.

A college class did that for me more than thirty years ago.  Whatever else may be true, I have never seen things simply again.   Oh, I expect I get it almost right from time to time.  Often I don't.   Either way, even if I am only asking the questions, somehow I expect that is getting me closer to the place where Jesus is calling us to today.  But even then, at least for me, it all begins and ends in self-examination and repentance and seeking to start anew.  And maybe that is where Jesus finally intended to take us all along.
  1. What do you make of the story Jesus tells today?  What is his point?
  2. What questions does this story raise for you?
  3. Do you see yourself in the manager in the story?  What is that like for you?
  4. How do you think Jesus' statements in verse 10-12 regarding wealth relate to the story of the dishonest manager?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-10

These are familiar images before us now: the shepherd and his sheep, the woman and her coin.  In both examples we are reminded of the persistent love of the seeker.  As I sit with them again I am reminded of a story from early in my childhood.

We were on a week-end camping trip with a group from our congregation at a Lutheran Church Camp a few hours from home.  Some families had brought their tents and campers.  Others were renting space in the nearby cabins.  Meals were communal, with everyone pitching in.  I carry wonderful memories of those annual week-ends for that informal time away was a gift in terms of forming new friendships and cementing old ones.

The story I remember now is one of being lost and found. It was Saturday afternoon and we were playing with others down at the beach.  There were lots of children there and it was clearly no easy task for my folks to keep track of the four of us: ranging between the age of two and a half and six.  Somewhere in the midst of building sand castles almost three year old Sarah took off. In that instant, no one saw her go.

Within moments my mother knew she was not there.  I'll never forget the lifeguard clearing the lake as he and other volunteers walked the edges of the piers looking for her.  I may have been only six, but the fear that gripped me then stays with me still.

It felt like hours but was surely only minutes later that Norma crested the hill, with Sarah in her arms.  My little sister had wandered back to the campsite, weeping as she walked, and Norma, recognizing her as one of the group, scooped her up and carried her back to her mother.  The lost had been found.

Norma became not only a family friend.  She was our church secretary (back when we called them that) at my home congregation for forty years.  Through at least four pastors, forty program years, countless weddings and funerals, and thousands of Sunday bulletins, she answered the phones, kept track of the calendar and held close the secrets of many.  I can remember when I was in confirmation class on Saturday mornings, waiting for my ride home and passing the time watching her as she copied the Sunday bulletin on an old mimeograph machine.  What I especially remember most about that time was that she would listen and answer and go deeper with me about whatever it was we had learned in class that morning.  There are a lot of people whose influence factors into one heeding the call to become a pastor.  Norma was certainly one of those for me.

I know that I am blessed to serve not so far from home for I have the chance sometimes, still, to connect with those I knew when I was young.  I especially knew it this last Saturday morning for Norma's son called me up to ask my thoughts about nursing home options here.  Both of their parents' health are failing and her Alzheimer's Disease, in particular, is making this next move necessary. 

Sunday afternoon I went to see Norma.  I sat down next to her daughter and we visited a while.  I don't know for sure if she really remembered me or not, but her smile was as radiant as it ever was.  Before I left, I asked if I could pray with her.  She placed her hand palm down on the tray table in front of her.  I put my hand on top of hers and her daughter put her hand on top of mine.  I prayed simply and briefly --- asking for God's protection and strength and peace.  When Norma took her hand back, she wiped her eyes for those words had somehow broken through.  She may only have pretended to remember me, but still she knows somehow that God remembers her.  Slowly but surely the disease that is erasing her memory will not finally erase what matters most.  In some ways, she may seem 'lost' to those who have loved her, but she is not lost to God.  I expect, or at least I hope, that in that moment she knew God's persistent love embracing her once more.  'Found' once more, I hope her comprehension of God's tender love for her never leaves her.

  1. What explanation do you have for the fact that often people with dementia and other degenerative brain diseases often still remember the words to hymns and prayers when they seem to remember little else?
  2. What stories of 'lost and found' come to mind when you hear the story of the shepherd and his ship and the woman and her coin?
  3. What do the shepherd and the woman have in common?  Who do you know who demonstrates those characteristics?  What characteristics do they share with God?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Estimating the Cost...

Luke 14:25-33

We do it all the time, of course, perhaps sometimes with a higher level of consciousness than others.  We estimate the cost, weighing one option against another, trying to decide if we have enough or want it enough or need it enough. We do it with our budgets and we do it in our relationships and we do it with our lives.

Jesus offers a couple of examples today.  Everywhere I look this week it seems I see yet another, some more profound than others.

For instance, my attention was captured early in the week when I heard the news story about a subway line in Brooklyn being shut down because of two kittens playing on and near the third rail.  Having dealt with a few kittens in my life, it was certainly entertaining to watch the workers try to corral them!  (If you missed the story, you can find it here.) Think though, with me, about how those in charge of such decisions had to weigh the cost to the commuting schedules of perhaps hundreds of people, not to mention the economic impact, against the lives of a couple of kittens.  As you can imagine, there was all sorts of commentary floating around about this decision in the days to follow as others estimated the cost differently.

Throughout this week, along with all of you,  I have also found myself thinking about how our leaders are estimating the cost of continued diplomacy, calculated strikes, or all out war on Syria.  Regardless of where you stand on this, the process is much the same.  Is there enough?  Enough cause?  Enough weaponry?  Enough political capital or will?  Enough?

And I have been wondering at how this same way of thinking must have played in the story of Antoinette Tuff.  Perhaps you've heard this remarkable story by now of how this woman stayed calm in the face of great danger as she talked down a heavily armed gunman in her school office.  If you haven't yet, take half an hour and listen in on the 911 call. (If you haven't had the chance yet, you can find the link here.)   In those moments fraught with threat and fear, she continued to speak calmly to him, connecting with him on a profoundly human level, resulting in him finally laying down his weapons and giving himself up.  I know she was 'estimating the cost' in that hour --- at one time contemplating the possibility of making a run for it --- but did not, realizing this would put her at even greater risk.

I am more interested, though, in how Antoinette must have been 'estimating the cost' for decades before this, day after day, making one choice over another in order to form the kind of strength and character which would come to bear when she needed it most.  Indeed, this remarkable woman spoke of how she had learned this in church --- specifically, how to 'push through the pain' ---how to stand strong and prevail even in the midst of pain.  No, this does not happen over night, but only after a lifetime of choosing one thing over another:  prayer over going it on one's own, perhaps.  And yes, gathering with others of God's own for worship and mutual instead of opting for any of the other myriad of choices which are always available to us.  Antoinette Tuff's life has not been easy.  I expect she has paid a price for her faith, as Jesus indicates we all will in today's Gospel.  Indeed, I can't help but believe she must have, else she would not have found herself with what she needed in that critical hour just last week.

We do it all the time, estimating the cost as Jesus reminds us now.  We do it when the stakes are high and we do it, too, when the stakes seem not nearly as high but when piled on, day after day, promise to make a difference one way or another.

We do it all the time --- and yes, we are reminded today that we are also called to do this also in our lives of faith.  Knowing that this will cost, too --- in our relationships, perhaps, and also in how we live our lives in relationship to what we own.  We 'estimate the cost', believing, sometimes against all evidence to the contrary, that this choice over another one will somehow make a difference.  Indeed, it seems to me that the big moments when we know it matters are those which build upon all those small decisions along the way --- times when we estimated the cost and perhaps, didn't even know we were doing so.  Or at least we didn't know what a difference it would make one day...

  1. I have often thought that these words of Jesus may not make the faith we hold and follow seem very attractive.  Why does he offer them then? 
  2. I have offered several example of 'estimating the cost' above.  What others would you offer?
  3. What does it mean to 'estimate the cost' in our life of faith?  What does it cost? What difference does it make?