Mercy on trial


Sermon for September 29th, 2019


Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31


Now we all know that Jesus is a storyteller. Jesus is a teacher, and one of the most important ways he teaches is by telling stories. We call his stories parables. They are short stories that are meant to make a point or to teach us something.


Well today we get a doozey. In today’s gospel Jesus tell a story about a man in hell.


That’s right.

The same Jesus who said to the woman caught in adultery “neither do I condemn you,”

the same Jesus who said “judge not, let ye be judged,”

the same Jesus who said “in my father’s house there are many mansions,”

the same Jesus who said to the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise,”

the same Jesus who taught us to pray saying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,”

this same Jesus who teaches us about love, and redemption and the power of forgiveness and who offers us the promise of eternal life and a heavenly kingdom, this Jesus is talking about a man in hell today.


The man Jesus was talking about was a rich man. He had had fine robes, the best food. But all those comforts are gone now. Now he’s in agony. He begs for mercy. He needs help, but help is too far away. He calls out to father Abraham who is way off in the distance, caring for and feeding this poor man that he recognizes as someone that used to sit outside his gate. And he begs Abraham to send this poor man named Lazarus down to help him and show him some mercy. And in Jesus’s story Abraham says, “no, he can’t get to you.” Jesus is telling a story about a man that begs for mercy from a God figure, and a father figure, from Abraham, and doesn’t get it. Now it’s understandable if you are scratching your head and thinking that this isn’t the kind of story you like to hear Jesus telling. We don’t like to think of people suffering and condemned to hell. We don’t like to think of people begging for mercy and coming away empty handed. Surely if we believe in a God of forgiveness and mercy then this story Jesus is telling will make us a little uncomfortable, that is, until we realize that maybe Jesus isn’t telling this story to make us question the mercy of God; maybe he is telling it to make us question our own mercy. It’s not God’s mercy that is on trial in this story, it is our own.


And then you get more uncomfortable. Because you start to wonder about all the times you had the opportunity to show someone mercy and failed. Don’t think it doesn’t happen every day, to all of us. We have the opportunity to show someone kindness and mercy, and we don’t do it. It makes us uncomfortable. We find ways to avoid it. We make it someone else’s job; someone else’s problem. Or maybe we will say that it is the government’s problem to deal with. How many times in the name of mercy do we put up barriers between ourselves and people that actually need mercy.


You know you have to pay attention when Jesus is telling stories to what details he adds and what details he leaves out.


For instance, in all of Jesus’s parables, in every story he told throughout the gospels, he never gives his characters names. It is always a certain king, a manager, a merchant, a priest, a Pharisee, a widow, a rich man…he always uses generic terms for his characters, except for one time. Right here where he talks about a poor man named Lazarus who is carried away by angels to be with Abraham and to eat at his table. Even the rich man in this story has no name. But the poor man…he has a name. He might not have had much of an identity to the rest of the world; to the rest of the world he might have just been some bum on the corner, but to Jesus he has a name. He is known by God, even if the rest of the world passed him by.


Here’s another little detail that would be easy to miss: All Lazarus wanted was the scraps. He wasn’t looking for wealth or riches or revolution; he wasn’t trying to change the social order, or take the rich man’s robes….he just wanted the extra food that fell from the man’s table. The rich man couldn’t say that he didn’t have the ability to help this man. The help that this man needed was laying on his floor amongst his trash. If the rich man had treated Lazarus half as well as he treated his own dogs it would have been something. Even the neighborhood dogs had more compassion. The problem was not the rich man’s ability.


So what was his problem? Was he never told about the importance of recognizing the humanity of others? Had he never heard of the mercy of God? Was God’s will that we should care about what happens to others never made clear to him? No, it had been. He had heard the warnings of Prophets like Amos. He knew the Psalms that sang of God’s mercy, he knew the law that commanded the love of and care for his neighbor. So what was his problem?


And then, when the rich man cries out for help, why does he think it is Lazarus’s job to come and help him when he couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger to help Lazarus in this world. Why does he think, even in the bowels of hell, that Lazarus is supposed to be at his beckj and call to serve him and his family? Why does he expect more compassion than he shows?


Or maybe that’s the problem. This man is expecting more compassion than he is showing. Just like we expect more forgiveness from God than we are willing to show, despite the fact that we are always praying for God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Well maybe we are getting our wish. Maybe God is forgiving us, exactly the way that we are forgiving others. Just like the rich man is getting just as much mercy as he was willing to show.


Now mind you, I don’t think that we actually do get what we deserve in life. I am sure that God’s mercy and forgiveness are infinitely greater than ours, but then I have to remember that this parable isn’t about God’s mercy, it is about ours.


One more little detail that Jesus leaves out: Abraham says to the rich man that there is this huge chasm that is fixed between Lazarus and you. This huge division has been created and we can’t get to you and you can’t get to us. Jesus in his story says that a chasm has been fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, and this chasm is the reason why the rich man suffers, but what Jesus doesn’t say…is who put it there.


I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t God.

Where your power comes from


Sermon for Sunday, September 22nd, 2019


Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Money is power.


It is power to pay your bills. It is power to buy food. It is power to go where you want. It is power to rest when you feel like resting. It is power to build what you want to build. It is power to buy what you want to buy. It is power to be independent.


Money is power.


You can do things with money. Money can give you confidence. Money can give you security. And money can disappear overnight.


I think of the stories of the Wall street bankers, who in a matter of hours in October of 1929, saw almost everything they had wiped out. All of their power, their influence, their security, their future, gone. It had all just been ink on paper in the end. Just numbers in someone’s ledger, that with the scratch of a pencil are crossed out of the banker’s book of life.


Now Will Rodgers famously quipped that in New York people had to stand in line to jump out of windows. The real truth was less dramatic and even less funny. There wasn’t quite the immediate rash of suicides on the day of the stock market crash that is often reported, but in the days and years to come, the despair over losing everything did lead to an increase in people taking their lives. They had nothing left to hold on to.


Growing up I used to chat with my grandparents about what it was like for them growing up during the Great Depression. But as sharecroppers in rural South Georgia, they never had anything to begin with, so this stock market crash in far away New York didn’t really change their lives much, at least not directly. The only stock they owned was livestock. They didn’t even own the land they lived on.


What they had they worked for. The only financial growth they could hope for was the cotton or the corn growing in the field, and even that was almost totally dependent on forces outside their control. A dry summer could spell ruin.


Now money was power for them too, but much like the power supplied by the Rural Electrification Administration, it was not power that you could depend upon. I can remember that it never took much more than a gentle breeze for my Aunt Ollie’s lights to go out, and that was less than 20 years ago. Electricity was great, and if you had it, it sure made life easier, but you still had to know how to survive without it. You couldn’t put your faith in it. The same was true with money.


Money was great, money was helpful. You could do things with money, but you couldn’t depend upon it always being there. You had to know how to survive without it.


The problem with money is that it seduces you into thinking that it is dependable and that you have more power than you actually have. It makes you think that you can live completely independently of others. It makes you think that you have control over your future. And when you realize that you can use money and power to get more money and power, oh that is a scary day indeed. Because it is so easy to tilt the scales isn’t it?


It doesn’t take much for us to realize we can use other people to get more money and power. I used to work in management; I know what it’s like to be told to be told to increase productivity while cutting 20% out of my budget. It isn’t easy. Someone eventually has to pay…and then sometimes you wondered where the money was really going.


Sometimes we knowingly make unfair decisions to get more money; sometimes we don’t know and don’t want to know. Does it matter who makes my shoes or how they are treated or what their life is like? Should I care about where my food comes from or who grows it? And what about all these companies that want to exploit my desire to do the right thing by charging me twice as much for something just for slapping the label “ethical” or “organic” on it? Every trip to the grocery store you are caught between an ethical and an economic dilemma: you only have so much money to spend, but righteousness doesn’t come cheap. You can’t save the world and save money at the same time. So what do you do? Which eggs do you buy?


And then you realize you are falling into the same trap again…thinking that money will save you. But we can’t buy the world out of the situation it is in. Money just doesn’t have that much power. Money doesn’t last. Money is not eternal. In fact, money has a pretty short life, and so does the power that money brings with it.


The dishonest manager in Jesus’s parable today learned this the hard way. He thought he was sitting pretty with his little scam until he was caught out, and his power evaporated pretty quickly. He realized then that he wasn’t quite as independent as he once thought. He needed his neighbors. He needed family and friends. He needed relationships. All this time he had been focused on the money, but it was the relationships that really mattered. Not just the relationship with those working under him, but his relationship with his master as well. That was where his security really was, not in the money.


Today’s gospel lesson will probably leave us with plenty of questions, but what comes across loud and clear at the end is that God and wealth are not the same thing. You are either serving one or you are serving the other.


Now the Bible was written long before we talked about all the economic isms: capitalism, communism, socialism, those are only things we have been talking about for the last couple hundred years. So the scriptures aren’t really concerned with endorsing whatever your preferred ism is. What we find in scripture is a call for a radical reorientation in our lives away from the powers and principalities of this world and toward the power of God. Where we get our power fron and what we do with it, that is what scripture is concerned with.  Power is not necessarily a bad thing in the Bible, God has power, and we are told to pray for our Kings and those in authority over us. We all have some degree of power in this world, even though it may not feel like it sometimes. It is not the amount of power that we have that matters, it is where that power comes from and what we do with it. And likewise, money isn’t necessarily bad; rich people are not necessarily forsaken, Jesus hangs out with them too, but he does observe closely where people store their treasures, because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


What matters to Jesus is where you get your power from, and what you do with it. Is your power, your strength and your hope resting on what is in your wallet or is it coming from someplace deeper? If your power comes from your money, well have fun with it while it lasts, but watch out. Judgment day may come sooner than you think.


But if your power comes from God and the strength of the relationships in your life, then you are blessed. Because you have power that will never fade away. You have power that no depression or economic downturn can take from you. If you have that kind of power, then you can survive when the wind blows and the lights go out. And when you have that kind of power, you will really know just how much money is worth and what things in this world are worth working for.


You can have money and be saved, but don’t think for a second that it is the money that is doing the saving. Money doesn’t have that kind of power. Only God does. But of course, it’s always tricky to remember that when we are trying to decide which one to hold on to.

Beauty is an act of rebellion against an ugly world.


Sermon for Sunday, September 8th, 2019


Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33


Well as General MacArthur said after he waded on shore in the Philippines: I have returned!


After a summer of either academic study or the various adventures of my sabbatical, I am back home and back in the pulpit. Of course, I was here last week, but we were still on our summer schedule, so it wasn’t quite back to life as usual. But we are back now in full force, all of us, returned from our various travels and diversions this summer, and hopefully ready to meet the coming program year with renewed passion and energy.


And our gift from God on this Sunday, the Sunday of our collective return, our “welcome back Sunday” is this charming gospel passage, wherein our Lord Jesus Christ says:


Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.


So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


Sweet no?


Of course, I am being facetious. There is nothing charming about that passage. It is one of Jesus’s challenging, hard statements that people really struggle with.


Isn’t honoring our fathers and mothers a commandment? Shouldn’t church be a place where families are strengthened and supported?


And I am not going to even get into the whole idea of giving up our possessions….yet.


These are some hard words that Jesus has to offer his would-be followers. And if you only want Jesus for comfort, and not conviction, then his words today are going to be a real challenge.


I mentioned General MacArthur because when I think of someone making a grand return the picture of him standing knee deep in the water on the beach in the Pacific comes to mind. When I think of that image of General MacArthur, which I’m sure most of you are familiar with, wading on shore in the Philippines, it seems triumphant and victorious and encouraging, but I have to remind myself of what he was returning to: he was wading into a war-zone. There were bullets in the air, there was a battle going on; things weren’t going exactly to plan, his boat got stuck, which is why he had to jump into the water. Maybe he was supremely confident that the war would be won, but he also knew that at any moment it could cost him, or any one of his soldiers, everything. Returning isn’t always easy.


So as we return to our regular life of worship here on our “welcome back Sunday,” perhaps it is fitting that Jesus has some harsh, challenging words for us. Because we too are returning to a war zone…and I am not talking about the up-coming friendship fair and the bomb of stuff that has been dropped on the parish hall. No, this is a spiritual war zone and the front line of the battle is within each and every one of us. It is true when we are out in the world, but it is especially true here.


I saw a post online last week, it was a picture of a gorgeous chasuble, much like the one I am wearing, and it said something like “beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world.” I loved that thought. There is so much God-given beauty in our world, there is much man-made beauty, but I don’t have to tell you all that there is so much ugliness in it too. And the ugliness is insidious. It sucks us in before we know it. If you have ever gotten into a comments argument with someone online you know how fast it can happen. Even in person, it is almost impossible to have reasonable, rational debates anymore because we all get sucked in to these ugly emotional responses so quickly.


There is a battlefield within each one of us. Ugliness creeps into our soul. It affects how we treat God’s creation, how we treat each other and even what we see when we look into the mirror.


But beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world. Trying to live a beautiful life, trying to offer God worship that is sincere and beautiful, trying to treat others in a way that acknowledges the God-given beauty within them…these things are acts of rebellion in a world that would love to drag us down into despair and ugliness.


As Christians, we believe in the Resurrection. We believe that the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has already won this war. We believe that forgiveness has defeated sin; that life has defeated death; that beauty has defeated ugliness. The ultimate end to the last battle may be settled, but for each one of us, the daily battles still go on. The enemy doesn’t want us to know that Jesus has already won the war between good and evil. So the enemy distracts us, and discourages us, hoping that we will lose the nerve, the will or the energy to keep fighting; hoping that we will settle for something that is less than God. And sadly, many do.


Last week the Episcopal Church released its Sunday attendance figures from the past year, and I can tell you that they aren’t good. Now our parish is growing, and our diocese is holding steady too, we are bucking the trend, but for many places the numbers are extremely troubling. Now I can give a more extended analysis of the various reasons for decline; and I would be the first to point out the many mistakes made by church leadership, but still, we aren’t alone in this decline. In fact, almost across the board churches everywhere, of every denomination, are seeing decreased attendance. The real sad fact, is that people aren’t leaving to go to another church, they are leaving church altogether.


I do understand the temptation sometimes. Because Church isn’t easy. Following Jesus is not easy. Sometimes his words sting. He challenges our assumptions. He calls us out on our own hypocrisy, and then he tells us to do things that we simply don’t want to do. Finally, Jesus sums it all up by saying something like what he says this morning: following me must be more important to you than anything else on earth, anything else. More than your money, your life, your friends, your political affiliation, even your parents. I have to mean more.


So as tempting as it would be for me to find another career, or to do something else on Sunday morning, here I am. I keep coming back, because, ultimately, I believe this story we tell about Jesus to be true, and filing in behind him in this rebellion against ugliness is more important to me that a few more dollars in my pocket, a few more hours of sleep on Sunday and a few less headaches with plumbing issues and miss-sent emails.


And here you are, fighting many of the same battles. By now, some of your friends and family and co-workers may have decided that the cost of following Jesus is too great; that the battles aren’t worth fighting. I understand and I sympathize, but I’m not ready to give up the fight, and I’m guessing neither are you.

This story we tell about death and resurrection, sin and redemption, God’s good creation and the new heaven and earth, the new kingdom that he is creating; it is a beautiful story. I believe it is a true story. and beauty and truth are still worth fighting for. Beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world.