Seriously?

sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Going on vacation doesn’t vacate you from my thoughts. I continue to think about work, to pray for your concerns, to have you on my mind nearly as much as when I’m here. Maybe somebody would say that’s wrong or not healthy, but that’s how I am and how I serve as your pastor. I can’t and don’t want to get away from that, to vacate you.

This Bible reading was also on my mind while I was away. Another time, I had been in Utah National Parks and the Badlands and got to reflect on them when I came back. That was much preferable to this, where my association on vacation was maybe most directly in a poor somber woman who appeared to be Native American, standing like so many others in Albuquerque at a stoplight with a sign. Hers said, “I hope you will have a good day.” Acacia reached out our car window and gave her one of our granola bars.

This is not a very easy reading to carry around these weeks, both hefty and risky. It indicts me. A question that feels like it matters most is: how seriously do we take this?

It could be read as a direct description: two men died and Jesus describes what happened to them.

Beyond that, it can be taken literally to be telling what it is like afterdeath, in the afterlife, the two places a person can go, or maybe be sent, for the rest of eternity, one apparently a place of tender comfort and security and community and the other of awful abandonment and pain and burning.

Though neither of these places have the familiar names but are instead called the bosom of Abraham and Hades, still we probably have already put them into our standard mental framework of heaven and hell.

There we might already have a first breakdown in how seriously we take this. I suspect we wouldn’t find this sentiment much at play here. I’d be surprised if we had many takers on judgment condemning to a hell of everlasting punishment. Some may have decided against anything beyond this life at all. The keenness, I know, isn’t for my proclamation of God’s final victory in the endtimes resurrection to life in a renewed creation in this world. I would suspect the most typical thought would be that we all go to heaven when we die.

That might begin to move us from theological topography to moral mapmaking. We want to take out of this story not a predestined, predetermined outcome of where people end up, but how you get where you want to go. If this story is not only describing the fate and locale of two men, but holds potential meaning for adjusting your trajectory, you might be eager to know what you have to do to get where you want to go.

In spite of presumptions of people going to heaven when they die, even so it winds up twisted with ethics: that you have to be a good person, right? In facing death, we seem mostly in that camp, looking back assessing a life well-lived, recounting good done. That may serve as satisfaction for passing muster and accounting well on a tally sheet.

That also shows we’re far from times where pure belief had bearing on that. Though plenty of billboards on my trip asserted the need to accept Jesus and call on his name, taking this story seriously doesn’t include that, does it? The central requirement has moved from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, from believing rightly to acting rightly, not that a person was in the right religious denomination or believed the right things or had spiritual practices to get to heaven. There’s nothing here about worship attendance or devotion to God. If you came here to prove that and score points, I guess you can set it aside.

Maybe instead you set yourself to earn it by being a good person, however you’d usually define that. A next step in taking the story seriously involves categorizing ourselves. I’d suspect many of us by comparison relate more to the rich man than poor Lazarus. So by this parable, a definition of being good might relate to sharing, that if you have more, you should give some way. Maybe we extrapolate that the rich one could’ve invited Lazarus to supper or something.

If we’re counting our good actions, I can remind you that this week we send out first quarter benevolence checks. Besides the good here, 15% of all the money you give gets redistributed to support the mission of the church and do larger good, especially for Lazaruses most in need. This does a bit to help immigrants, the homeless, those with mental illnesses, those in jail and those getting out of jail, the elderly, those facing disasters, the hungry, historically marginalized people, hurting creatures, people in desperate poverty of all sorts, and more. Besides the other ways that you try to help, to be a good person, try to remedy the plight of the poor, to do your part in working for a solution, your offering dollars strive for this good.

But this isn’t just feel-good. We must be aware we can always do more. Yet in assessing or placing ourselves, we should also realize that in our current American situation, almost none of us is the rich man. To rank our standing, it’s really easy to hear this being a story about Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump or hedge fund billionaires with private jets. We can readily point out that they’re doing it wrong, that their wealth is blinding them to the reality of the world, that they shouldn’t be so selfish. And that very accurately and honestly is the problem.* When the richest 1% own more than the lowest 80%, that is a problem. That is wrong. There is no way to call this a Christian nation when that sort of inequality grows further and further entrenched, when even the so-called middle class becomes Lazarus, when the superrich don’t just ignore Lazarus but actively and every day make life more impossible for him, for her, for us.

So we should notice this is systemic. It has to change, or it won’t matter how good we try to be. As we keep trying to stretch our incomes and as belts get tighter and tighter for almost everybody, we have less discretionary income. We end up struggling to feed ourselves, to afford our own houses, to take care of our own families, much less having anything to give away. That is a worsening truth.

We’re largely shielded from it here, but churches clearly are among those suffering. Churches are having to close their doors—not just to the good they wanted to offer communities but to shut down totally—because members couldn’t afford to pay a pastor, to keep things running. That isn’t only from declining attendance, but also about wealth inequality and available personal resources and when it’s difficult to live.

So as the church encountering this story at this point in history, we have to consider radical redistribution of wealth. We have to be part of working against systemic injustices. This can involve lobbying and taxes and global solidarity.

But continuing to take this story seriously isn’t just hard big picture anti-imperial finance. It’s also about Lazarus. The rich man knew Lazarus, knows him by name! This has a human face on it. It’s not only about changing systems. It’s not only about supporting organizations. As they say: this time…it’s personal.

If we take it seriously, this is about your relationships, or relationships you should have. It’s about working across divisions of economic disparities. In the smallest way, it’s handing a granola bar to the woman in New Mexico. Better would be not to drive on but to interrupt my vacation plans to get to know her. Or maybe I shouldn’t go on vacation at all, since I also have the sense of knowing right here in our midst people who need help, help I and we can offer, with whom I should be in relationship, where this story might be making demands of me.

Again, though, the story might not be. I don’t say that to let myself off the hook or avoid my shame or guilt, but to keep taking the story seriously. See, the ethical insistence seems a little lacking. It’s not so basic as a lesson in sharing or a warning. It doesn’t have the directive Jesus later gives that following him involves selling everything and giving the money to the poor.

Mostly this portrays simple reversals. One who had plenty of good is left with not good, and one who lacked almost everything is finally and forever treated to the good. We’re not either haves or have-nots, but have-nows or have-laters. That’s something, but not that great of a resolution for the meantime. It has been used as pie in the sky pathetic pious assurances for those who have been left out: life may not be great but it’ll be better later. You just need to die first! That doesn’t sound like a fun wait.

But in the story, that reversal is all there is. It says the rich won’t change, won’t listen. I don’t know exactly what to do with that, but that’s taking the story seriously. There’s no point in lecturing you to try harder, to share more, because it won’t convince you anyway. Even if one were raised from the dead and Jesus could be here now in these very words I’m speaking, it wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t make a difference. I don’t say that for resignation to let things stay the way they are. It makes me sad, even about myself. But maybe he says it that way because it’s accurate.

So in the end, all there is is to keep repeating the message. With or without your assistance, you have a God who favors those in need, who knows and calls them by name, who strives for them and embraces them, has a preferential option for the poor. This isn’t a new story, isn’t a surprise we hear today. It is the same God from the beginning of the Bible to the end, throughout history. Jesus’ first words in this Gospel declared “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” His first beatitude was “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” His mother sang before his birthday of God who “fills the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

Whether you take it with the mystical vision of the bosom of Abraham today or take it with the modern economic statistical analyses of revolutions for those who got excluded and forced to eke out a living, this is the ongoing proclamation that God will leave nobody out, that all shall see salvation, that this good news cannot be hoarded, that it especially seeks out those who need it most. That’s what Jesus is up to. That’s what God’s Spirit is still doing here and now, with or without us. That’s the big picture for eternity, and the personal importance for you.

But you already knew that, so you can do with it what you want.

 

* This video shows some of what was on my mind with this “faceless” portion of wealth inequality.

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Jesus is a Chicken

sermon on Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

 

It’s Lent. You asked for repentance.

Well, here you go: repent or die. That’s how Jesus seems to start today.

Those of you in House Church groups may notice I skipped these verses for your discussion, worrying it was more than you were looking to bite off for your first gatherings.

Yet I’d say it’s good news, even if it sounds like bad news, backed up by worse news.

The bad news is that there are irrational accidents. If Jesus has insight into some divine explanation, he’s not sharing it. People are killed unjustly, die by accident. If we go on the hunt for meaning in the ins and outs of life, the good and bad that strikes us, it can be inexplicable.

Sometimes we do know. Sometimes breaking the law results in suffering punishments. Sometimes we don’t exercise and end up with health effects. It’s not that there’s absolutely no cause and effect in our universe.

But neither can it explain everything. You might exercise lots and still wind up sick. You might not have done anything wrong that led to you getting into an accident. You might even be trying to show your devotion to God, like those people in the example offering their sacrifices, who still got murdered.

In that way, 39 years ago next week, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying the Words of Institution at the communion table. There’s no explaining that he was a bad person. Maybe the opposite, this past year Pope Francis officially named him a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. So we can’t write off his death by what he did wrong, unless we say that it was intentionally provoking military death squads by standing up for the poor.

But we might also be Lutheran enough to realize that’s not quite our view of saints. Oscar wasn’t really better than us. It’s not about miracle workers or extreme holiness. It’s not that God works more through some special people. In clear evidence, St. Oscar wasn’t so much better that he should’ve been spared suffering an untimely death.

That’s the worse news, maybe: you’re not better. That’s behind the question asked of Jesus. They may have wanted to alleviate their self-concern by disparaging the unfortunate, to say that they got slaughtered or smushed because they deserved it, that death may have been calamitous but it wasn’t unworthy or uncalled for.

But Jesus says they were no worse sinners than those who asked the question. You might have hoped if you tried a little harder you could get on God’s good side and avoid the sudden surprises of disaster. But that’s not how this works, Jesus says. That may be the worse news: that you can’t prevent the bad news, can’t stop all accidents by improving your moral character.

It’s pertinent because it keeps happening, with almost exact parallels in headline tragedies this past week. Airplanes crash. Worshippers in a mosque are gunned down. It’s senseless and fear-inducing. And you can’t escape by thinking you’re better.

Then Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” He even reiterates it, repeats it. He says we’re not worse sinners and can’t do anything to spare ourselves the loss, but nevertheless we would die the same way unless we repent. So is he just rubbing it in? Your sin isn’t worse and there’s nothing you can do to avoid death. So repentance doesn’t spare you. So what does Jesus mean?

In my relentless wrestling to find good news, here’s what I want to do with that: the word “repent” is the Greek work “metanoia.” Sara got us started in noticing it’s about turning around. So it’s not really about regretting your sin or feeling bad you’re bad. But it is about how you live now. Metanoia literally means to rethink, to change your mind. Part of it is in our verse we’re holding from Romans for this season: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). Our mind is changed from what it was, transformed in and to Jesus.

See, our mind is usually made up on how the world works. We think that it’s about trying to be good and being rewarded for it, or being punished when we’re bad. We look at effects and go on the hunt for a cause. Not only that, but our minds are made up that long life is our goal, that health is a default state not a rare privilege, that accumulation of resources and the pursuit of ease is the right way to live. Conformed to this world, we’ve got our minds pretty well set that things should work that way.

But with minds changed in Jesus, we look at and live in the world differently. We don’t need to think how we can get ahead or compete or beat others. We don’t have to equate something bad inevitably as a punishment. We don’t regard life as an entitlement instead of each moment as a gift. We don’t even think that this life is all there is of life.

Finding ourselves in that holy mindset fits Jesus’ gardening example: a fig tree is not bearing fruit. In our cost-benefit analysis, the tree is taking up space and wasting resources, failing to produce anything good, so we want to cut it down. Our landowner methods exactly match what we just had to discard as not God’s perspective. We just heard that God doesn’t cut us down, doesn’t wipe us out, doesn’t annihilate us or murder us or pull the plug because of our misbehavior.

Instead, this patience of God demands, “Give it time. I’ll keep working on it.” We may not like that, not prefer it. It wouldn’t be our mindset. And just as we can’t answer why God doesn’t punish the evildoers or selectively cause calamity to smite some, we can’t answer why God wouldn’t intervene more directly for the good. Why would God be patient? Why would God dawdle with spreading manure? Why put up with something that isn’t doing what you want? Yet here we glimpse God’s methods of cultivation, of adding some fertilizer, of gradual soil improvement, of wait and see and hope. Again, metanoia, repentance willing to set aside your own convinced perspective, instead enables you to think the way God does, with mind transformed in Jesus.

Caveat: I realize I’m pursuing one path here. There may be times Jesus would, indeed, declare that if something doesn’t change, it’s all over. It comes to mind immediately for abusive relationships. But I’d say we’re apt in lots of instances to come up with quick solutions that are drastic and antagonistic and aren’t about escaping hurt but trying to find retribution and fight fire with fire.

That worry is framed in the end of the reading. King Herod threatens Jesus, the rotten ruler is out to kill him. Our minds would say to strike back at the empire. But Jesus is chicken. God the Mother, as a hen thinks first about love. She is about putting herself in harm’s way, a sacrifice that averts the destruction on you, nonviolent retaliation. It’s power that saves life without trying to take it at the expense of other life.

To be clear, Jesus could’ve said he would attack the fox like a lion, the king of the jungle. We look for Jesus to kick some bad guy butt. Jesus the lumberjack with the clear-cutting spiritual chainsaw. Back to that God who tips towers and flicks airplanes to get at the sinners.

You know, I get really sick of how often we refer to God as “Almighty,” because we inevitably figure God’s a fierce warrior. But God is the Almighty Chicken, desiring to hold us under her protective wing, never giving up on that way of life.

“How often I’ve wished to gather you,” Jesus exclaims, “but you were not willing!” Not willing, since we’ve got our minds made up not on being vulnerable chicks but on being foxy, gnashing our teeth, wanting to bite back. We know what’s right and want to fight evil. We’re ready for the immediate answer. We want Oscar Romero to use his power as archbishop to arm the masses and lead the righteous warfare. We don’t want him to say prayers, to use his voice not for rallying but for old words in worship.

But then it might be time for some metanoia. The God of patience is working today and tomorrow, spreading manure to fertilize your work and your life, continuing to be a chicken, with compassion and seeking care and not vying violently, even overlooking wrong in service of the greater good and life. In the face of sin and fruitless trees and tragic accidents, even when it seems there’s no way to change anything, when it seems mostly hopeless, right up to death, when the fox kills the chicken and the lamb of God is slain, still Jesus is working today and tomorrow.

And on the third day? Well, on the third day he rose again. He’s going to complete his work. He’s going to Jerusalem, but Easter’s coming. It’s amazing, but if you can wrap your mind around that, that’s all the good news you need to know.

 

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Way Out

a sermon on Luke 9:28-45

 

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. A rather particular word, transfiguration, and one that we have zero occasion to use outside of this story.

Interestingly, the Greek word would be more familiar than this englished-up Latin version. The Greek original is metamorphosis. That one you do use other places, like for the monarch caterpillars we raise and release from church as transformed butterflies.

But just as I’m getting you familiar with the Greek word and concept in this story, I’m going to take it away. Mark and Matthew say metamorphosis, translated as transfiguration. But Luke’s version of the story, if you give a careful look, doesn’t include that word.

Instead there’s another Greek word that you’ll know plenty well in English. When Jesus is talking about his departure, which he was soon to accomplish at Jerusalem, that word for departure or way out is exodus. That’s a term you know from…? The Bible! The book of Exodus! God’s people being liberated from slavery in Egypt, release from captivity, deliverance, salvation through the parted Red Sea waves.

It may hint that this is less personal transformation in Luke’s Gospel and more communal deliverance. But for the divine discussion of this exodus, let’s wait a moment while we notice some other aspects.

This story of a dazzling glowy shiny Jesus marks the end of our season of Epiphany, a season about showing forth the identity of Jesus. We may say that this story gives his full, true identity, that when we look at Jesus, we are seeing God. That was even in our Prayer of the Day, that his face shows us God’s glory.

This vision appears to be certainly a big deal. Indeed, it may even be more stunning than Easter; at the end of the Gospel on the Emmaus Road, two disciples are walking along with resurrected Jesus who is talking about entering his glory, but he must look fairly normal then, because they sure aren’t exclaiming “Holy Moses and Great Gallopin’ Elijah, you’re all glowy and shiny and dazzling and quite a heavenly sight!” In other words, even on Easter, Jesus doesn’t look this good. Maybe it’s because he just stepped out of his grave and had been through a rough few days. Though we ought to say it’s impossible, there’s something in this story that is more marvelous than resurrection.

This is so spectacular, so majestic, so otherworldly, so overwhelming that Peter doesn’t know what to do about it. I like the line where it declares essentially “He blathered on incoherently, because he didn’t know what he was talking about.” As if to reinforce that, God kind of interrupts him with a voice coming out of the enveloping cloud.

st john transfig

illumination from the Saint John’s Bible

It makes some sense that Peter didn’t have a clue, though, because we can’t possibly either. Your bulletin picture is one representation, but really how would we begin to describe or portray what this is with Jesus? It’s more than movie magic. It’s beyond us.

The best we might say is this is a vision, maybe even like in a dream (including the stuff about being asleep or awake). It fits with our religious pursuits and hopes, for a grand revelatory vision, to be able to see God’s glory, to discuss our big questions face-to-face, to have it all bright and clear, to have a voice from heaven tell us what we need to know.

With much more we could ponder or consider, that’s the first half the story.

And I’d say the second part is another type of where we go looking for God’s glorious presence. It’s a showy story, full of dramatic action, the phenomenal power of the Holy Spirit over demonic unclean spirits, of a boy receiving a miracle and a family restored. When other options had failed, Jesus showed up and fixed the situation. There’s miraculous healing, and a sense of good triumphing over bad, that we’d cheer for, just as we’d hope. Indeed, afterward it says everybody was astounded and talking with amazement about God’s greatness.

Again, much more that could be pondered there, but to step back:
We’ve got two big aspects of where we go looking for God with high expectations and yearning, with major flamboyance and anticipation for the Creator of the universe, healer of our every ill, savior of the world, potentate of all potential. We’ve got a vision and a miracle. Both longings seem to pan out in amazing, remarkable ways, exceeding any possible desires.

But the thing is that Jesus doesn’t really seem to point to either of those things. They’re there. Maybe they tell us something about him, reveal for us a connection to God. But Jesus isn’t focused on marquee marvelous mind-blowing displays of splendor.

As the crowd is still all abuzz with hubbub about the miracle, Jesus quietly points someplace very unexpected. This is sort of as if somebody in a luxurious gown walking out on the red carpet with an Oscar trophy from the Academy Awards last Sunday had said, “Pardon me, I’m going to catch a cab for my shift volunteering at the nursing home.” Or like an athlete about to be sprayed with champagne after the championship quietly ducking out saying, “I’ve gotta go make supper for my kids.”

But Jesus is a notch more. He’s just performed wonders of two sorts, godly stuff, a big deal, front page news in the old Palestinian papers, if they’d had them, or trending on ancient Twitter.

But instead of basking in that fame, while the crowds are still roaring their approval, Jesus does a 180 and quietly mutters, “Let these words sink into your ears: [I am] going to be betrayed into human hands.” Not so much of God conquering all. Instead of acclamation and applause that celebrated God’s work in healing and restoration, this part is met with confusion, lack of understanding, with concealed meaning instead of revelation, and so little perception of what he was talking about as to leave them afraid. Betrayal?!

And yet this is also the same thing that started the story up on the mountain top in the first part. Before Peter wakes up and begins babbling on in excitement about the dazzling light show, actually the conversation was less glorious than we’d expect. The heavenly messengers, Moses and Elijah, not only the epitome characters of the Hebrew scriptures but two people in Jewish belief who were said not to have died, these two who came directly with God’s authority, were talking with Jesus about his departure, his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

That sounds like it could be a grand finale, a last big performance. But this conversation is about putting God’s stamp on Jesus heading toward betrayal, arrest, conviction, execution, death. His departure is the cross. He is set on going to Jerusalem to die.

Both the first and second part of this reading today point us to that. There may be voices that speak to us from the clouds and visionary moments and the so-called mountain-top experiences, but they are not the clearest place to look for God. There may be miracles, healing from injury and the deepest longings of a family for restoration, more amazing than the community could expect, and those may be our clearest yearnings and places we want God to be working. That is what we think of power and might. But those rare phenomena are not the clearest place to look for God.

To look for God, we look to the vulnerability of the cross. We look to Jesus’ death in Jerusalem. That is the central revelation. And we may not like it. It may not follow our expectations. It may leave us babbling or confused or afraid. It may even leave us dejected that we didn’t get more, didn’t get our money’s worth. We may have wanted bigger and better and the typical glitz and eminent reputation. We may think of Lent as a sullen sidestory from the main show. But instead, even now and always, we look to the cross.

And that brings us back to the word exodus. Jesus discusses the exodus in Jerusalem. On a cross, departing from life in this world, is how God chooses to release us from captivity, to free us from bondage, to proclaim liberty, to deliver us from all that would enslave us. That is the way out. That is what brings salvation, from all evil forces, from the power of empire, from what would threaten community, from our own false hopes as well as from our failings and fear and desperation. A way out.

We aren’t only waiting for the flashy or fabulous moments for God to show up. It’s not only with things seem hunky dory, but through our confusion and captivity, through our struggles and sorrows. That is also where God’s saving work in Jesus is present, leading through death to glorious new life. That his death conquers death is what makes it glorious. And so in every moment we can shout, sing, praise God unending with our Alleluias, now and forever.

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