Sunday, September 25, 2016

"We Have Only Done What We Ought to Have Done"

Luke 17:5-10

I offered this image of my dad in a sermon more than twenty years ago now. It was a precious memory of me at the age of five and him carrying me gently in his arms when I was sick. I cannot now remember the particular text this recollection spoke to then. But I do remember him learning that I had spoken of this. I remember the befuddled look on his face. And I well remember his words,
"But Janet. That's just what a Dad does."
And of course he was right. In a perfect world --- and it is so that my childhood was a sheltered and good one --- that is just what dads do. Such tender care is simply a reflection of who they are. And at the time and also those many years later, to him, recognition or thanks were entirely unnecessary.

It seems to me it is precisely this sort of core identity that Jesus speaks of today when he uses a slave as an example of what it is to do what one does because that is who one is.

Now it is so that from my vantage point today, I rather wish Jesus had chosen another way to make his point. Indeed, I well remember sitting in a class a few years ago. I had chosen to write a a paper about the Philippians hymn where Paul speaks of taking the 'form of a slave (or a servant) even as Jesus did.' (Philippians 1:27-2:11) It was, in fact, the first time I would have the opportunity to learn among others whose racial identity was different from my own. There were, in fact, some in the room whose ancestors had been slaves. As you might expect, they heard Paul's words entirely different than I did. I offer this now as a sort of corrective to receiving these words glibly. Indeed, in the days to come I hope to check in with a colleague who, no doubt, will instinctively hear Jesus here in Luke's Gospel in an entirely different way than I ever can or will. Perhaps you might consider doing the same.

And yet, for all my wishing it different, I get Jesus' point. He is using a social construct of his time and it would have rung true in the ears of his first listeners. It was expected that people who held certain stations did certain things because of 'who' they were. It was a mark of their identity. And as a result, thanks were entirely unnecessary.

And so what is the point for us today? Is it, do you think, that you and I are also to behave as slaves to this world and to do so because this is simply who we are? And if that is the case, what exactly might that look like? In the words offered in today's Gospel, we are not told. And yet, Jesus has been giving content to this for months by now as Luke has told the story:
  • Indeed, might being who we are as followers of Jesus look like loving one's enemies doing good to those who hate us/ blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us? (Luke 6:27-28)
  • Might it mean being merciful and showing forgiveness? (Luke 6:36-37)
  • Might it mean being agents of healing and life? (Luke 7:1-17)
  • Might it look like indiscriminately scattering seed (you fill in the blank as to what that seed might grow) and letting our light shine in all ways on all days? (Luke 7:1-18)
  • Might it mean being sent out with a word of peace like lambs in the midst of wolves? (Luke 10:1-12)
  • And oh, might this mean picking up one's cross as Jesus did? (Luke 14:25-33)

Again and again, Jesus paints pictures of things which behave as what they are. He speaks of things not human like salt (Luke 14:34) and fig trees (Luke 6:43-45)  and yeast (Luke 13:20-21) which simply do what they do because of what they are and today he offers us an example using human beings who we are somehow to emulate. As Jesus did. Even as Jesus did.

I don't know that I will ever get to the point where like my dad in his role as "Dad," I am genuinely surprised to even be thanked for being and behaving as who I am as a follower of Jesus. But that certainly is Jesus' call today.

And yet, even knowing I am not, we are not, there yet, still I yearn for the day when all of us followers of Jesus more and more simply live like that is who we are, "doing only what we ought to have done." Don't you?

  • How do you find yourself thinking about the social construct of slavery which Jesus uses as an  illustration today? How will that "preach" in your context? (Who might you talk with who might hear it differently than you do?) Is there a way to redeem it? 
  • I have offered some examples of 'content' from Luke's Gospel in terms of what it means for us to 'do what we ought to have done.' What would you add?
  • Paul's words in Philippians 1:27-2:11 offers an image of what it is to live as a slave as Jesus did. Although not one of our readings this week, it does help me to think more deeply about it. Is it helpful to you? Why or why not?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"God is My Help": Seeing Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

It seems to me that in the story before us now, the sin of the rich man begins here: He did not see Lazarus. Or at least he did not see him as more than an extension of himself and his own needs --- particularly at the end. For if he had seen him for all that he was: once an infant and a boy, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather. If he had seen him as one with hopes and hurts, dreams and disappointments. If he had seen him as one beloved by God, then perhaps this story would have ended differently.

Only it appears that though their paths crossed --- perhaps as much as every day or more --- the rich man never even saw him at all.

I hear this story and I am deeply aware that on any given day it speaks of me. And no, I am not Lazarus. I am so much more like the rich man before us now. At the same time, I know I have been on both sides of the not seeing and not being seen.

Indeed, it was more than a decade ago now. I was at the airport --- although time has erased for me my memory of which one. I do remember that I was on my way home and the journey which I was on the last leg of had been a long one. Jet lag had caught up with me and I was walking bleary eyed, just trying to put one foot in front of the other as I made my way to my connecting gate. My carry on bag was rolling behind me.

I did not see her, truly I did not. In fact, I had no idea that my carry on bag had rolled over her foot until with eyes flashing she loudly (and rightly so) called my attention to it. I turned to look into the face of a dark skinned woman. And though on that very long day I do not believe my intrusion on her space (and her foot) had anything to do with my not seeing her because of her race, that was not how she experienced it. I could see this on her face. All I knew to do then was apologize --- which I did --- and move on.

I did not see her. And while exhaustion was my excuse that day, I do manage to pile on the excuses on other days as well. Exhaustion always works, of course. Or busyness. Or just not knowing or remembering to look for what is, in actuality, right in front of me --- or right around the corner if I am at all willing to look.

I experienced a bit of this 'not being seen' from the other side a few weeks back. I had taken my mother to an eye appointment. We were sitting in the waiting room. I was turned towards her, visiting quietly, when I was interrupted by the woman sitting across from me. She was looking at us with delight in her eyes, but one did not have to look hard to see the sadness just below the surface.

"Is this your mother?" she asked me.

"She is," I replied.

"Oh," she said, "I thought so. You remind me of my sister with our mother. Mom died last year."

She went on to share her name and spoke of all of her siblings. And what a hard year it had been. Honestly, though, while I felt for her, I was relieved that she got called quickly back for her own appointment, for never once in our exchange did she acknowledge my mother at all --- except as one to talk about. Yes, she saw her, but it seemed she only saw her as an extension of or as a reminder of her own loss. Not as the remarkable person she is. This became evident as she directed all of her conversation at me. And it made me uncomfortable. (If it had gone on much longer, I would have found a way to pull my mother into the conversation. I will be sure to do so next time, for I hope to be more ready.)

Too, too often, others are simply invisible to us. As a stranger in an airport was to me once many years ago. As my mother essentially was to the woman who sat across from us in a doctor's waiting room a few weeks back.  As Lazarus was to the rich man --- and no doubt to countless others --- as he sat and begged at the gate. The name "Lazarus" actually means "God is my help." And without a doubt, in the end God was the only help Lazarus had.

Only the parable which is ours today is meant to speak to us the truth that this is not how it is meant to be. Jesus teaches today that all of our lives are caught up with one another in ways that have consequences now and consequences into eternity. And if I see. If I truly see the other? Perhaps that can be the start of living in a way that acknowledges the truth that we all belong to one another. In this life. Right now. Indeed, I pray it may be so.

  • In a couple of weeks, several congregations in my community will be learning the practice "Dwelling in the World." This practice enables us to see and engage people we might not normally see at all. You can find out more about this practice at  Church Innovations.
  • Would you agree that the rich man's sin begins with his not even seeing Lazarus at all? Why or why not?
  • When have you not seen another? How was that oversight brought to your attention? And what did you do about it?  When did you 'see' another? And what did that 'seeing' lead to?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Yin Yoga and the Power of Parable

Luke 16:1-13

I tried out Yin Yoga this afternoon.

Now many of you have heard me speak of my experience of yoga before. I am, perhaps, the most physically inflexible person you know. Yoga is always hard. It always hurts. Still, I keep returning to it because the stretching, the posing, the breathing, opens something up in me and I wind up leaving more calm and centered than before.

So I tried Yin Yoga this afternoon. It's a lot like other yoga only you hold the poses longer. (In our case today, for beginners, we only held them for three minutes. I cannot imagine what it would be to hold them for up to twenty minutes or more as the more experienced do.) At least part of the point, of course, while one is holding the pose, is to pay attention to where it stretches. To where it hurts. And, as always, to breathe into or through the stretch or the pain.

And so I cannot help but wonder now if we might also think about living with the parables of Jesus in much the same way.

Indeed, Amy Jill Levine reminds us her chapter, "The Power of Disturbing Stories" in Short Stories by Jesus that the stories Jesus tells are meant to 'provoke, challenge, and inspire.' Moreover, she goes on to say,
Jesus knew that the best teaching concerning how to live, and live abundantly, comes not from spoon-fed data or an answer sheet. Instead, it comes from narratives that remind us of what we already know, but are resistant to recall. It comes from stories that prompt us to draw our own conclusions and as the same time force us to realize that our answers may well be contingent, or leaps of faith, or traps. It comes from stories that community members can share with each other, with each of us assessing the conclusions others draw, and so reassessing our own.
The parables, if we take them seriously not as answers but as invitations, can continue to inform our lives, even as our lives continue to open up the parables to new readings. (p. 275)
It is so, of course, that many of the parables can be summarized in a simple platitude --- although they may be over simplified even then, to be sure. The parable before us now is not one of them. This is why I find myself thinking of my recent experience with Yin Yoga and wondering if the odd story Jesus tells us now is not one we should ever try to repeat in a sentence or two, but is meant to be held close to us and inform us and our living and our receiving the gifts of God in a way a more simple teaching could not. For this is what a parable does by its very definition. It is meant to be laid alongside our lives, our experiences, our old ways of thinking and to offer wisdom or inspire insight which otherwise might be entirely inaccessible.

Now surely, one of the hardest aspects of this particular teaching of Jesus is that he appears to be holding up dishonest manipulation and self serving behavior as something to be emulated. Like you, I cannot any other example like it in all of Jesus' teaching. Indeed, if you are trying to figure out how to preach this parable this week, I imagine you have already combed every commentary on your shelf and every on-line reflection to see if you can find anyone, anywhere, who knows what to make of this story. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if even the one who first put ink to scroll recording this parable was grasping at straws as he followed the story with these platitudes about faithfulness in a little and a lot, two masters, and God and wealth, for these don't even seem to apply.

And so as I have forced myself to lay this parable alongside my life in these last days--- holding the pose, if you will --- I have found myself extremely uncomfortable. This is so, I expect, in part because the main character is entirely unsavory. First he is wasteful. Then he is conniving. And through it all he is entirely self serving. His behavior here runs contrary everything I have been taught to be and do. And yet, if I am honest, I expect my discomfort runs deeper than that. For you see, when I "hold the pose" for a while, I realize that I, too, can be much like the steward before us now.
  • For yes, I have been known to be wasteful. And yes, while sometimes that wastefulness is known only to the eyes and heart of God, it is no less so for others not recognizing it
  • Yes, I can be conniving and self serving. I have been known to plot and plan in order to ensure my own future.
  • And  yes, even the good I seek to do (as perhaps the manager sought to do in lowering the obligations of his master's debtors) can be tainted by my own mixed motives.
  • And yes, oh yes, these are so far more often than I would want anyone else to know.
Oh yes, as I have pressed this parable against my own experience this week I cannot help but wonder if the rich man in the story might actually be God and if I am, in fact, the dishonest manager. Indeed, this understanding being so, I cannot help but think of the times when my motives have been mixed, at best, and when somehow by the gift and grace of God my behavior still winds up reflecting well on God. For this is so. In the time of Jesus a wasteful manager would have reflected poorly on the honor of his employer. At least, in the end, the manager's mercy with his master's debtors would have raised his master's esteem in the eyes of those who were indebted to him. And whatever else is so? Isn't the rich man, in fact, merciful in the end? Doesn't the rich man take even the mixed gifts his manager has to offer and forgive, or understand, or perhaps even make good out of them?

I know this analogy isn't perfect, but it's the best I have today. Indeed, perhaps if nothing else, as I "hold the pose" with this parable, I am driven to a posture of repentance and gratitude to God who always manages to 'make good' out of my paltry gifts. And who always gives another chance. Like the rich man does today.

Of course, it's entirely possible that if in the spirit of "Yin Yoga I continue to 'hold the pose' --- pressing this odd story against myself and taking note of where it stretches me or where it 'hurts,' that I will come to an entirely different conclusion in the end. I wonder where you will end up if you do the same. What do you think?

  • I have not spoken with anyone yet who really likes the characters in this parable. What is your initial take on this odd story Jesus tells today?
  • Does it make sense to think of the 'rich man' as God and you and me as the dishonest manager? Why or why not?
  • The practice of "Yin Yoga" --- holding a pose for a particular period of time --- might be one way of thinking about how we are to interact with the parables of Jesus.  What do you think? Or would you offer another?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Getting Lost and Getting Found: Joy in the Presence of the Angels!

Luke 15:1-10

I hate getting lost. For others it may be an adventure, I know, but I am one who is thrown into a state of panic when I do not recognize my surroundings. Or when I recognize my surroundings but know they are not where I am supposed to be. Indeed, I am profoundly grateful for the gift of GPS on my phone which hardly ever lets me down --- although it is also so that from time to time the maps in cyber space have not yet caught up with reality on the ground and more than once this fool proof tool for preventing getting lost has also let me down.

There is getting lost and there is getting really lost, of course. I have been lost --- unable to find where I am going. And I have been 'lost,' all the while knowing exactly where I am. And yet, it is so that as often as not, the 'getting found again' is not always met with the kind of joy we hear about in the examples Jesus offers today. I would offer one such example now.

I was eight years old and in the third grade. It was a day in October. I was new enough to this classroom that the teacher did not really know me yet. I was not so new that I had not already learned the consequences for certain infractions.

We were outside for afternoon recess. My sister, Martha's, 2nd grade class also happened to be on the playground at the same time and I was playing with her. This is, by the way, the only time I can remember this being so. Perhaps because of what happened next.

And so it was that I was away from my classmates and I did not see my teacher standing at her designated spot on the playground with one hand raised to signal it was time to go back inside. I did not see the other eight year old's form a single file line and follow her up the fire escape stairs and back inside for a Social Studies lesson. (Yes, these 47 years later I still remember that.) For some reason, though, I quickly sensed something was wrong. I looked up from our play and scanned the children remaining on the playground and realized my class was gone. I scampered to the stairs and ran up them as quickly as I could and I found myself peering through the window of the fire door that locks when you go out and which will not open without a key and I saw my classmates taking off their jackets and hanging them on their designated hooks. My teacher saw me. And she told the other children not to let me in.

True story.

And so I sat at the top of those stairs and considered my options.
  • I could walk around to the front of the building and make may way inside the other way. However, just a week before two little boys had made the same mistake and when they tried that our teacher simply shooed them outside to wait until she was good and ready to let them in. 
  • I could certainly walk on home, but then I would have to explain to my mother how I had managed to get locked out. I knew it was my 'fault.' I felt foolish and ashamed. And I did not want her to know.
  • Or I could just sit and wait.
And so I did. Just sit and wait, that is. For a good long hour I sat and waited until the school day was done and finally the door was opened to me so that I could come back in where I was kept after school to complete the lesson I had missed.

It was a profoundly shaming experience for me. And while I shake my head at this teacher's methods, this is also so: I learned my lesson. I was never late again.

Now through it all, of course, I knew exactly where I was. I was perched at the top of the fire escape outside the third grade classroom at Lincoln School on South Main Street in Rochelle. Even so, I was "lost." I was away from where I belonged.  

My getting lost started with my getting separated from the flock --- from my fellow third graders. My attention got distracted a little bit at a time and pretty soon there was no getting back to where I belonged on my own. 

One might say I was something like the one sheep who slowly eats his way away from the rest of the flock. She is looking down --- only focused on the food that is before her. She doesn't mean to get separated, for sheep, in fact, are born with a 'herd' instinct and they will never do this on purpose. But all of a sudden, she looks up and all the rest are gone. And the only way she can get back to where she belongs is if the shepherd comes after her.

In the same way in the story I offer now, the only way I could get back to where I belonged was if someone else opened the door.

Here is what I love about the stories before us now: They speak the certain truth that it is God's action that saves us and not our own. Like the lost sheep and the lost coin you and I simply cannot 'get found' all on our own. We cannot open the door ourselves. They speak vividly to God's intent always to rescue the lost.  They offer a marvelous picture of heaven --- all those angels throwing a party when the one who was lost is found again. And yes, they stand in sharp relief to what we too often experience in this world now. Which is part of what may make such as this so very hard to imagine. It is also what makes us so very grateful for the amazing gifts of God.
  • We have all been lost from time to time. All of us. By God's grace and gift we are found over and over again. Too often our experiences in this life, in this world, are not grace filled. Too often they look too much like what I experienced in the third grade so long ago. What stories would you offer which are similar to mine? Do you have stories which stand in contrast to the one I offer today?
  • Can you recall being lost in such a way that the only way you could 'get found' was by someone else's action? How does your experience compare to the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin?
  • Who are the 'lost' among us who we are called to welcome and rejoice in like the shepherd, the woman, and the very angels of God?  How do the words of Jesus speak to you and/or to your context now?