“While There is Yet Movement.” Luke 16:19-31

Whenever I hear or read this parable, what jumps out at me is how many of the characters seem to find themselves “stuck.”

          The Rich man appears to be captive to his own luxurious lifestyle, feasting sumptuously day after day on fine linen.  He is always needing to find the next new delicacy, the next attribute of status and wealth.  He’s stuck!

          We might say, “Well, I could handle being stuck like that!” 

But truth of the matter, having to meet the demands of expectations for the “new” or the “improved” can be a hard task master.  How do you “one up” having a sumptuous feast every day?    

          Lazarus is trapped in his own body and by the limitations of his station in life.  He is a beggar, assigned to a bench outside the rich man’s house in hope of some consideration, but getting nothing but the unwelcome attention of the dogs. He is stuck!

          When death finds both of them, they discover that they are now each “stuck” in their respective places with the roles reversed.   

Suffering is the lot of the rich man after death, as he is in torment in Hades.   

Comfort and security at the “bosom of Abraham” is what Lazarus finds, but even here he is held fast in that mythical place of consolation, not free to go and offer aid.

In a curious way they are both still stuck, each on their respective sides of that great “fixed chasm” that Abraham points out, that neither can cross, even if they want to.

          But is this the point of the parable?  That we’re all stuck wherever we happen to find ourselves?   Stuck with no chance of movement?

          Is there no one who can still move, who can do something before the “chasm is fixed?”

          As it turns out, there is.  

Five brothers of the rich man are still alive.

          Five brothers that we know nothing about except that the rich man is now concerned for them, having seen what his inaction at Lazarus at his gate has wrought as his fate.

          Five brothers who can still listen to Moses and the Prophets.

And just what was it that Moses and the Prophets had to say? They talked about a God who was concerned about hospitality, care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger!

          Five brothers who can still make choices about what they do in this life.

          Five brothers who can still “move or be moved” before the chasm is fixed!

          Since the parable can do no good for Lazarus, or for the Rich Man, it must be for those of us for whom movement is still possible. 

Those “five brothers”, or perhaps for us.

          This is a little piece of apocalyptic literature.  It purposely puts things into stark contrasts and hyperbole so that those who read it, hear it, will have an opportunity to consider their own lives and decide where and how to act.

          As “children of Abraham” who are looking in on this parable, and who can still listen to Moses and the Prophets, and even to the one who has been raised from the dead, it gives us a chance to consider things, and perhaps even examine the looming “Chasms” that exist for us.

          We still have time to amend life, to choose different pathways and to move. The chasm between rich and poor is not yet “fixed” for us.

          Oh, but we sometimes act as though such looming chasms are fixed!

          It doesn’t take too long of looking around in our polarized society to begin to think that we live in a world of what we think are “fixed chasms.”

          There is the chasm that separates the rich from the poor.  

          There is the chasm that separates political parties and political realities.

          The chasm that separates loyalties, and allegiances.

          The chasm that separates ideologies and modes of operation.   “We do things this way, — we don’t do things that way.”

          Families have chasms that separate outlaws from in-laws.

Chasms loom within families and communities that threaten members who walk too close to the edge, threatening to fall into disfavor, out of good graces.

          We know the chasms well! 

They appear to us deep, wide and seemingly fixed, or all too permanent.

          “We’ll never get that one to agree with us…”

          “We’d rather die than give them the time of day…”

          “They will never come around to any other way of thinking…”

          “That is just the way they are, they will never change.”

          We have become experts at seeing and creating chasms because; well because we so often find them comforting in a strange way!

          Chasms let us off the hook for things. 

They are like mythical walls or barriers that promise to keep us safe. 

          We assign people to the other side of the perceived chasm. 

We do it with our judgments of them.

We do it with our inability or unwillingness to listen to them. 

We do it with our desire to hold on to our own comfort, our own privilege, or our own sense of what we think should be “normal.”   

          “This is the way it should be, has always been … at least for me!”

We convince ourselves that such chasms are really good and necessary, because then we never have to bother with or deal with those on the other side.

The parable makes clear that for the rich man, and for Lazarus, the time for “moving” is past.

They are “stuck.”

You are not.

You, (and those five brothers) still have the capacity to do what Moses and the Prophets, what God, and what Jesus calls you to do, which is tomove!

This is what Jesus does consistently in the Gospels.  

Jesus is on the move!

Jesus is reaching across divides!

Jesus appears to want nothing to do with putting chasms in place or acknowledging their existence. 

Brought to the edge of the precipice by his own townspeople, he chooses instead to walk through the midst of the crowd that wants to throw him over the edge showing them that there is another way other than going off the cliff!

          Jesus reaches out to those marginalized, those from whom we would often like to separated, and bids us do the same, reach out to them.

          “Go into the highways and the byways and invite in the poor, the lame, the widowed, the stranger in your midst to the banquet.”

          “When you throw a banquet, do not invite those who you think will invite you back.  Invite instead the poor and the lame….”

          “Remember the Orphan, extend hospitality to those in need.”

          “Pray for your persecutor, love your enemy.”

          See them!  

          You may even know them by name already!

          This is where we so often bump up against our own desire, privilege, and sense of safety in following Jesus.

          Jesus bids us bridge divides, continue to talk with those with whom you disagree.  (Certainly he did this throughout his life with the Pharisees!)

          Jesus with his teaching and with his own example time and again invites us to build bridges, to cross divides, to find ways to honor others, to include the forgotten, the ignored, and the marginalized.

Jesus encourages us to speak well of others, and to accept them as they are and walk with them, changing them and changing ourselves as we walk with them or learn from them, and all of this flies in the face of the comfort that we find in “chasms.”

          It is hard and messy work.

          It invites conflict, calls into question our own deeply held convictions and beliefs, and forces us to stare down sometimes into the abyss of our own fears, our own discomfort with “the other,” and our own reluctance to engage those who are “different” from us.

          We prefer you see, to let the chasm stand.

          And we will, until we get a glimpse of what the future may hold – for us and perhaps for them.

We are meant to be terrified at the prospect of this apocalyptic vision, not so much because this is what God intends to have happen.

No, it is more a matter of what we will let happen because we have refused to move in this life while we can!

The Gospel in this difficult bible story is all about those for whom movement is still possible.

While we live, we can move!

While we live and have breath, we already KNOW the names of those who wait for us to act. 

The Gospel here is all about the movement that we can do, while we can, to follow where Jesus has so led the way.

It is movement that places us all in the bosom of Abraham.  Not just as a future hope, but as a present reality – for all.   Jesus bids us picture the world as he does, a place without fixed chasms. 

“Caught Red Handed” Luke 16:1-13

This parable is hard, and I’m afraid I’m going to make it a lot harder.   

Jesus tells this parable to his own disciples, but it is spoken into the situation of the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners.  

As Jesus begins to do the things that are the mark of the reign of God coming near, those actions clearly collide with the expectations of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and of the way the world in which he lives works.  

It is to the grumbling that Jesus launches into the “parables of the Lost” – The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son and the Older Brother. 

As Jesus tells those parables the assumption is that we as the listeners will be “softened up.”  The Pharisees particularly are to be swayed over to Jesus’ point of view.

          Surely, once they hear about the lost sheep, the lost coin, the Prodigal Son, they too will begin to understand God’s intention!

          “Oh yes, Jesus, now we understand how this Kingdom of God is supposed to work!   

Yes, I am the one lost here or I am the Older Brother who needs to repent!   

I get it Jesus, my bad for grumbling in the first place!”

          And that might play out for us if Jesus hadn’t thrown the bit in the last parable about the older brother refusing the Father’s attention!   

We are never told if the older brother comes to the party, or if he softens in any way.   The subject and outcome for the older brother in the parable is left hanging. 

          So, when Jesus turns now to tell his own Disciples this parable of the Dishonest Steward, the tacit understanding is that he is referencing those Pharisees who do not get it and perhaps never will.  

And so now the question becomes as he turns to his own Disciples, “What will you do when you are caught red handed in your own opposition to me and to the Kingdom I proclaim?”   

What will you do, Disciples, when you are caught on the opposite side of what Jesus proclaims and calls you to be?

          This parable is directed at the Disciples.  Is it therefore a warning?   

          Parables are meant to jar us out of our complacency.   They are not meant to be “figured out” so much as they are meant to make us question, and to ask good questions.

          That’s why this is such a hard parable for us.   

We want to enter into it!  We want to parse out the characters, figure out who is God, who Jesus may be, who we would be, or are supposed to be.  What is commendable about this dishonest steward’s actions?   Are we supposed to be like him?

And, most importantly, we approach the parable looking for the ONE THING that we’re supposed to take away from it, the ONE THING that we are supposed to do, as if a parable was a means of moral teaching to give us a definitive answer.

          But let’s leave all that on the sidelines for now and focus instead on just the situation that Jesus presents, and the conclusion that is reached.

          The situation is that the dishonest steward has been caught red-handed.

          The conclusion that is reached is that you cannot serve two masters, God and wealth.  (“Mammon” as it is sometimes referred to in some translations, which is a kind of a personification of money, wealth, prestige, power, etc.)

What plays out in the parable then is what one person who is caught red handed does in the situation of being caught. 

          We watch him worm, and squirm, and think to himself.  He comes up with a plan that ends up serving him.    

He even gets a commendation in the parable from the rich man for his solution, but what kind of commendation is it really?  

Does it mean you’ve done something “great” in the end, or just that you’ve figured out how to game the system to your own advantage for a change?

          The parable refuses to give us any satisfying answers, and so when you don’t find a satisfying answer in a parable, the parable must be meant to be doing something else.

          It’s making you ask your own hard question.

          What will I do when I’m caught red handed?   

What will you do when you realize that what you’ve said, what you’ve done, what you’ve always held to be true ends up being in opposition to the Kingdom that Jesus has come to proclaim?

          “You will be caught red handed.”  After all. 

          How do we know that?   Because you are only a human, living in this world, trying to follow Jesus as he talks about another way of living and being!

It is simply the case that you are a person with divided loyalties.

You want to serve God, and see this Kingdom that Jesus proclaims come into being!

But bringing it in means that you are often at odds with the way this world works! Seeking the reign of God so often competes with the primary interests of this life, namely watching out for your own self-interests!  

So, when you are caught red handed in opposition to what Jesus comes proclaiming, oh Disciple, what will you do?

          Will you worm and squirm?

          Will you come up with a plan?

          Will you talk yourself into, or out of something?

          Will you try to strike some deal?

          Will you involve others?  Make them complicit with you in what you’ve done?

          Will you act out of mercy?

          Will you act out of self-preservation and self-interest, trying to save your own skin?

          Will you be shrewd, or will you play dumb?

          What will you do when you are caught “red handed?”

          That’s what the parable invites you to consider.   It makes you puzzle over the question, “What is this that I hear about you?”

          That is a terribly uncomfortable position to find oneself in.

          You’ve been there.

          You know what this feels like, in your workplace, in your home, in your family, or in your community.

          The parable invites you to consider what you would do when you find yourself under scrutiny, for you will!

          And then, after telling the parable, Jesus does something else.  He drives to a conclusion.

          “You cannot serve two masters!” 

          And in the broader sense now, this gospel invites you into a deeper consideration of who or what it is that you are actually serving at this moment!

          This is the point of contact that we have with those first Disciples as Jesus continues his march toward Jerusalem.

          We too, will quite often begin to see where Jesus is going with something!

We are than put in the awkward position of wondering if we are willing to go there, to go “that far?”

          We will see this question played out, in each and every one of disciples of Jesus in the Gospels and then in the book of Acts. 

They will all be caught “red handed” at some point in time trying to serve two masters.

          Judas with his hand in the purse, 30 pieces of silver in exchange for a betrayal.

          Peter with his “Lord forbid!” when Jesus starts talking about the way of the Cross.

          James and John will be caught “red handed” seeking positions of power and influence, wanting to sit at the right or the left hand of Jesus in his glory.

          Philip is caught with his skepticism about being able to feed the 5000.  “Two hundred Denarii would not begin to give them all a morsel, where are we to find enough bread?”

          Nathaniel caught with his “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

          Thomas caught in his insistence on seeing Jesus for himself, putting his hand in the mark of the nails, his own hand in Jesus’ side before he believes.

          All of them with their heavy eyelids in the Garden of Gethsemane, when asked by Jesus to pray with him and not being able to watch and wait for even one hour!

          Oh, Disciple, what will you do when you’re caught red handed in your own inability to follow or to trust Jesus? 

What will you do with your own realization that you are standing in opposition to the Kingdom, in your inaction toward your neighbor, or with your disappointment of the Master, or not being able to proclaim the Kingdom of God that Jesus has brought in?

          What will you do? 

For it will happen to you! It happens to all disciples!

          Will you make your own excuses, and try to strike a deal to wiggle out?

          Or, will you come to the same conclusion that each and every one of those disciples had to come to along the way, (except perhaps Judas, or he did too late!)

Will you come to the conclusion that if this Realm of God thing is real, it is finally all about God’s Grace and God’s doing and not about what we try to do on our own.

          Will you finally be pushed all the way back again to those “Parables of the Lost” in such a way that have to throw up your own arms at last and say, “Find me, I can’t do this on my own!”

          Will you finally be pushed back to let go of the Older Brother’s objections and collapse into the Father’s arm because there is no other option left!

YOU Resolve the tension in that parable by doing what everyone hopes and wants the grumbling or objecting one who is caught red-handed to do, come clean and throw yourself into the arms of the loving Father.

          This ‘Reign of God” thing is either all about God’s Grace, God’s love for us, and maybe even God’s commendation to us when we thought we were being shrewd and ended up doing something right, even when we were being scoundrels, — or we’re lost forever!

          This is a hard parable. 

It drives and drives and drives at what we do not want to face!

What we all want to do is to find another way around or out of our predicament, and what we mostly want to do is to try to keep on serving two masters!  

We like our stuff too much, — our cleverness, our abilities, our wealth, our ability to manipulate things, our making of our own choices, our keeping of faith as some “optional” thing, an addenda we can use when we need to, or that we can take up when it is convenient for us or we find it necessary.

          But Jesus is just as insistent that in the end you can’t do that!

          You will love one, and hate the other. 

You will find yourself pulled at constantly so long as you have these divided loyalties!

          This is a hard parable because it makes you ask of yourself, “who am I serving, right now, with this action I am taking, with this insistence of mine, or with this requirement that I make?”

          And, what is even harder about this gospel lesson is that it seems to suggest us that this is not a “one and done” kind of thing. 

The rest of the New Testament, our very lives are about how we will continue to live into this question of who we are following, and who we are serving, every day.

The question “What is this that I hear about you?”  is not one that ever goes away!

Not until the reign of God comes in full.

Not until we collapse in the end into the Father’s arms to at last to hear the final word from God, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

“Which One of You?” Luke 15:1-10

“Which one of you….”    

That’s the phrase that jumped out at me as I looked at these oh, so familiar parables yet again.  

This trilogy of parables from Luke’s Gospel is well known to us as the “Parables of the Lost”… the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. 

We only get the first of those two parables today.

We are told that Jesus tells these parables into the midst of the grumbling Pharisees and scribes who are unhappy with the fact that he eats with the tax collectors and the sinners.

In fact, that is a theme that is particularly strong in Luke’s Gospel.   Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has several encounters with those identified as “sinners.”    

The first is with Levi the Tax collector, whom he then invites to eat with him.

Then while he is eating, there is that woman who enters and anoints his feet with oil, whom he allows to do so, to remain there wiping his feet with her hair.

Later in the Gospe,l Jesus will meet Zaccheus, also a Tax Collector, and he will call him down from his tree so that he can go to his house and eat with him.  

In Luke’s Gospel it seems the world is divided up into two distinctive camps. 

There are “the righteous who have no need for repentance.”  — presumably the Pharisees and scribes who are eating with Jesus all the time anyway.   

And then there are “the sinners in need of repentance,” or “those who are in need of a physician.”   Those folks are often excluded from the community and from connection.

Now, just who inhabits those camps was probably just as difficult to figure out from the outside in Jesus’ day as it is today.    

Figuring out who is “in” and who is “out,” is, after all, an insider’s game! The inhabitants shift depending upon your perspective, your viewpoint, and your particular place in society. Identification is made by those who are on the “inside.”   

 It is doubtful, for instance, that either Levi or Zacchaeus saw themselves as unrighteous or “sinners.” 

They are tax collectors, true, but likely not by choice but rather by situation.  Roman officials appointed the tax collectors in most cases. 

In fact, Zacchaeus will declare his righteousness out loud, insisting on paying back double to any whom he has defrauded.  

If you had wandered into that town, you would not have seen either of these men as “sinners” more than likely.

But to the insider, well everyone knows what they do!    

Everyone knows their situation, their transgression.  Those are just the sort of people with whom you just don’t associate!

To the undying frustration and puzzlement of the Pharisees and Scribes in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does not correct sinners, nor tell them to “go and sin no more”.   Nor does he dismiss them or their actions. 

What he chooses to do instead is to engage with them.  

He eats with them, includes them in his table hospitality or invites them along to where he is invited. 

Which is what prompts my observation about these parables today.

“Which one of you….”   Jesus asks.   “Which one of you would do this?”

The clear answer most of the time is “None of us!”

Which of you would leave the 99 out in the wilderness to go after one lost sheep?  

Not a one of us likely!  Are you crazy?  Leave the 99 to fend for themselves while I go off searching for some straggler?

What woman among you, having lost a coin, would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully?    

Which one of us?  

Likely none of us, even if it’s a fairly significant coin. 

Time is money too!

The coin will probably turn up somewhere, I still have 90% of my original investment, and in these economic times 90% is looking pretty good! 

Cut the losses while you can, and maybe it will show up on its own.  No one would waste the energy costs for lamp oil, let alone foot the bill for the celebration party at the end.

So, I think as Jesus tells the parable he anticipates the answer. 

The answer to the parable’s “Which one of you….”  Is “None of you!”    And that is precisely the point.

None of us would.

God does!

Now, what are you going to do about that, knowing that is what God would do?

See, there are two classic answers to that. 

The first is, “Well, I guess I don’t have to do anything, God is gonna come find me if I’m lost.”  

And that is true!

But, the second truth about that is that what God uses to find the lost in this world now is God’s people! 

Us! 

Jesus’ disciples!

Jesus, you see, tells these parables directly to us in a manner of speaking.  He speaks them into our own proclivity to choose up sides, to make determinations about who is “in” and who is “out” and to let those designations simply stand. 

There are no cut and dry lines clearly visible from the outside, but from the inside… well we know who we would sit down and eat with, and who we would not.

We know who we would invite over to get to know better, and who we would just as soon keep at arm’s length.

We know who it is that ought to be invited to join with us, and who we would rather keep at a safe distance.

That’s the way we are as humans, instinctively.

None of us have as open a table as Jesus does.  

And so it is that Jesus’ actions and his parables challenge us to look at our own table, at our own welcome and at our own kind of distinctions that we make in our society, in our community, and in our congregation.

Jesus does so with a purpose in mind. He knows that his face is set toward Jerusalem and that very soon he will not be in this world to be the one inviting sinners and tax collectors to the table.  

That work will soon fall upon those whom he calls, and upon whom he chooses, and upon those who choose to follow him.  

So, when we hear the words,  “Which one of you…” today, it carries with it another dimension, as do these parables.

It has been said that Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is a little strange.  It talks about leaving the 99 in the wilderness as if there was only one shepherd out there.   

In practice, while the task of shepherding was the lowliest of jobs, it was often done in groups for the sake of fellowship and shared protection. 

We are reminded of how the Angels appeared to the shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night in Luke’s Gospel.  “Let US go and see this thing that has taken place.” They say.

So, look at this parable again with fresh eyes.  It isn’t just one Shepherd out there, but a group of them, and the question now is raised,.. “which one of you…?”   

Which one of you, out of the whole group of you out there, will go out and find that lost one?  

Which one will leave the safety of the group here to go out and find the one who cannot find their own way back?

This is the beginning of our Sunday School year, “rally day” we call it.

We gather people in and send them off to their appointed places, like sheep to their pens, like coins into purses, and like family members back into the household of God.

For those of you who may have come here for the first time, the “outsiders.”   How did you make your way in?  How did you find your way to this table?

Was it the voice of Jesus you heard calling you?

Or was there another voice involved? Maybe someone you are sitting next to, or memory of a family member, an old Sunday School teacher, or kindly member of a previous community who emphasized that you really should go to church?

This is the most radical thing we do on a Sunday morning here. 

We open up the table!

We follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior, who first welcomed people to the table, and sat down to eat with them long before he called them to transform their lives.

This is how we are, we acknowledge. We would rather eat only with those whom we can trust, who fit in, who are like us.  That is our nature.

But this is how Jesus is!

He would rather eat with those normally left out and show them trust, so that they can be brought in once again!

It still causes undying frustration and puzzlement among us all as we try to figure it out, but today we simply are reminded.

 “Which one of you…” 

Knowing that it wouldn’t be our first choice to do it on our own, we look to the example of the great shepherd of the sheep, the sweeper of corners, and the Father who welcomes to show us how it’s done. This who we are to be.  Proclaimers of God’s promise of great joy and rejoicing with all the angels, whenever the table is opened to all. 

“Count the Cost” Luke 14:25-33

Renaissance Festival season will soon be upon us, and so you will see people sporting tights and veils, shouting “Huzzah”, speaking with mock old English accents, and chomping down on Turkey legs – even though the Turkey is an American bird unknown to Europeans in the middle ages.

          All this adult “dress up” is really just about imagining the romantic side of days gone by. 

          No one really wants to go back to the days of bubonic plague, feudal society, medical procedures that had a heavy emphasis on the use of leeches!  We just like the romantic thought of an age of Chivalry, knights in shining armor and damsels in distress.

          That logical disconnect between the way things were, and the harsh realities of what life would have actually been like is what brings us to the heart of the Gospel lesson for today. 

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.”

          Jesus words seem harsh and out of character with the savior who on every other occasion speaks of love. 

What are you saying, Jesus? 

What do you mean when you turn to the crowd and say, “whoever does not hate…cannot be my disciple?”

          Part of the key to understanding this Gospel story is seeing its context.  Jesus is (we are told) addressing the crowds here.

Luke tells us that crowds of people have been following Jesus for a variety of reasons.

Some out of self-interest of what he can do for them.

Some to receive healing or bread. 

Some follow out of a desire to change the world, to rebel against the Romans or religious authority.  

Some are following Jesus out of a sense of blind devotion, in thanks for what he has already done for them, or out of curiosity to see what he will do or say next.  

Now, before we go any further, it is time for the crowds, for you all, to know where this road is taking you. 

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. 

There he will be prepared to lay down his life.  He will lay his life down of his own accord, so now, count that cost for yourselves. 

Do you know what you are in for?  

Do you know what following me will mean?

Seen in that light, this really is an act of love, though couched in harsh and direct words. 

That is the second key to understanding Jesus’ words.  The act of “hating” he talks about is really about despising anything that would get in the way of throwing yourself completely into the task of following, of being “disciple.”  

Before you play “dress-up disciple” and romanticize it for all of its pomp and positives. Before you start something that you may be unable or unwilling to finish, you should count the cost!  

Look clearly at what will stand in your way and see if you’re ready to let go of that person or that thing. Determine what it is that you will be willing to give up! 

The parables told by Jesus are meant to make that point clear, although they may not do so for us because they are somewhat removed from our experience. 

Let me see if I can put them into some perspective.

Who starts a project like a tower in a vineyard, or fields an army for battle?  Only those who have both means and power, who are accustomed to calling the shots and having the positions of power.

To start to build a tower and then discover you haven’t the resources for it, makes you look foolish in the eyes of your neighbors, but it is also an admission that you did not know what you were embarking upon to begin with!  You hadn’t considered all the complications, obstacles, or potential issues.

Count the cost before you start, lest you end up being publicly humiliated!

Worse however, is to be like a king blustering with your neighbor about how you can defeat them with your army and impose your will upon them.  

After all your bragging and posturing, you to come to find out that your neighbor has got twice the army you have, and now you have to placate him for shooting off your mouth! 

Count the cost before you open your mouth and threaten, throwing everyone’s lives into chaos!

But I’m still not sure that these parable reworks get us to where Jesus wants us to be, because we really can’t imagine getting into such positions. 

Surely, we would know better than to start a building project or go off half-cocked bragging and shooting our mouths off at the wrong time?!

So, I have another parable that I like to tell to help us see what Jesus means here, one that helps us get at this matter of “hating” as well as understanding the love with which Jesus issues this challenge to “count the cost” to the crowds.

42 years ago I married Elizabeth Katherine Falksen. 

At that time, we both made promises, vows out of love for each other that forever changed the course of our lives.

In that moment, 42 years ago, we were caught up in the romantic notion of marriage and life together.

We were decked out in all of our finery, and it was fun, but we really had no idea what we were doing, or what we would be in for in the years to come. 

          And yet, at the focal point of the ceremony, as we were playing dress up in our suits and gowns, we were invited to count the cost of what we were about to do by the Pastor.  

Count the cost, will you promise to love each other, to forsake all others, to love and to cherish, to share with each other in sickness and in health, whatever the years may bring?

          Now there is no way we could have known what those promises would entail for us.  In our dress up outfits we dreamed for the best and hoped for the future.  

          As we grew in our marriage relationship, we learned about the cost of things and making promises.  

We learned the cost of some things more easily and less painfully than others.   

          We came to understand the cost of relationship as we had to choose each other over time with friends.  

We learned to “hate” the imposition and interruption of others upon our own precious time together. 

Not that we “hated” anything or anyone in a malicious way.

No, rather we learned that there were some things that were simply not compatible with the keeping of the promises we had made to each other. 

If this relationship, this love between us was going to make it, there were certain things that were going to have to be thrown out, things we liked to “hold on to” which would have to be thrown out, abandoned, or as Jesus said, “hated.”

          We learned to “hate” the things that we did that upset each other, enough to stop doing them.

          We learned to “hate” the feelings or attractions that we felt toward other people enough to never act upon them, to nip them off and toss them out before temptation caused us to jeopardize our relationship.

          With the birth of our children, we learned to “hate” all over again. 

We hated the interruptions and impositions of other people’s values and opinions about parenting so that we could develop our own skills and protect our own vision for what family meant to us.

          We learned how to hate a disease; cancer, enough to fight against it together, tooth and nail, sacrificing other things along the way out of love, for the sake of health and continued relationship.

          There have been a few times through the years, as we reflect back on our relationship, when we have asked the scary question every couple asks.

 “If I had known then, what I know now — If I could have foreseen all the troubles, sacrifices, joys and sorrows in advance, what it all would really cost, would I still have chosen to marry you?”

Thanks be to God, for us that answer has always been “Yes!”  

We have discovered that the love that we have gained for each other over the years, that deep, abiding love that we found together, was worth more than whatever it may have cost us individually or personally along the way.

And that brings us back to this Gospel lesson, and what Jesus is saying to us when he invites us to “count the cost,”, “hate” family, and “give up possessions.”

Discipleship, you see, is finally about falling in love, and growing in that love. 

Discipleship is about entering into such a deep, abiding love of God in Christ Jesus, that it empowers you to follow, serve, and sacrifice along the way for the sake of the Reign of God.   

Discipleship is the kind of love for God and for God’s reign that pushes out whatever would compete for your full attention and commitment to it!

“Count the cost” Jesus says to the crowd today, to us today.

 He does so with that look of love on his face, the love that he has for the crowds and for the disciples he has called, and all those who will come out of the crowd to follow him, and that same look of love that he has for you.   

Just know that following is going to cost you!  

You will have to forsake many things, maybe even the things you think are closest, nearest and dearest to you right now.  Things you thought perhaps you could never imagine living without.  

But, it is all worth it!   

What wouldn’t you be willing to give up for Jesus to be a part of your life?

There was probably never a time when we could afford to play “dress up” as church, or romanticize it, but it has often been done.

It was done in much the same way my wife and I did when we first started out together, never fully seeing from the first blush what it would all mean down the road!

In the same way, I believe we grow into discipleship of Jesus.

We learn to count the cost, and what it costs to follow Jesus anew over and over again, as Jesus’ love continues to challenge us.

Our love for Jesus’ vision of this world makes us hate the way things are right now for some people and for creation itself. 

Perhaps, even hate enough to stop doing the things that are not of God’s reign and vision for this world. “Count the cost”, Jesus says to the crowds and to us, over and over again. 

“Watch Party” Luke 14:1-14

It’s a watch party!  

          The Pharisees are watching Jesus closely. 

          Omitted from the reading this week is yet another “healing on the Sabbath” story, this time the story of the man with dropsy, or as we would identify it, edema. 

The story is likely omitted because it is nearly identical to the healing we had last week of the woman bent over, but I think it sets up all the “watching” being done here.  

Again, Jesus seeks out the man. 

Again, he confronts the Lawyers and Pharisees asking if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.

Again, he reminds them of the provision for animals, “if your ox has fallen into a well.”  There is a sense of urgency to intervene in the suffering of animals, why not on the suffering of the man?

Again, the Pharisees and scribes are silent, shamed by his observation.

So, when they move from the healing of the man over to the table for dinner, some are watching Jesus out of curiosity.  

They have an earnest desire to hear what he has to say next. 

Some are probably looking for places to question his motivations, his actions and his teachings.

Jesus is here at their invitation after all.

Who wouldn’t want to engage in a little stimulating conversation at dinner with someone who makes you think?

          But Jesus is also watching the Pharisees, we are told.   

He is observing how it is that they jostle with one another for position. 

He takes note of the seats that they choose based upon their own expectations of where they ought to sit, what their status is (or should be) in the community, or the positions they believe they hold or should hold.

          Actually, the situation Jesus observes is not that much different from a typical Sunday here or any other place where people gather.

I can usually tell you predictably where people will sit if they are regular in worship. 

The seats are chosen for a variety of reasons. 

Some choose their seats for convenience, access, a sense of habit, or because of the person they sit next to week after week. 

Seats are chosen based one where one can best see, hear, observe or participate.

          We all do that.

          We also have assumptions about seating and value, and we just assume that is the way the world should be ordered.

We pay a little extra at a concert, theater or ball game for “better seats” and we think nothing of that.

          If you watch, you can also learn a great deal also about preferential treatment of individuals.

Who is allowed access to the box seats, the suites and VIP areas at a stadium? 

Who is relegated to the lower places or the “cheap seats?”

We make unconscious assessments of worth, value and place all the time and we think nothing of it.  

It is simply the expectation of how the world works.  Everyone knows that.

Everyone, it appears, but Jesus, who at our “watch party” in the gospel today upends the normal expectations not once, but twice.

          “Don’t assume you know your place.”  Jesus says in so many words.  

          This goes against the grain of our human nature, because we quite often do have a sense of where we ought to be, deserve to be, want to be.

We usually choose the best seats we can grab or have an innate sense that this is “where we belong!”

          Worse yet Jesus then begins to spell out who might be available to be put in those seats of honor that we covet and so often assume are ours — namely the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind.

          It makes us think.

Those are the folks who have no seat at the table usually, not then, and not now.  The powerless, the forgotten, and the dispossessed. 

This is why the gospel is so hard.

Even as we look closely at Jesus, perhaps lovingly, comfortingly, imagining him to be the figure who knocks at our door or who dandles us upon his knee, or who breaks the bread and invite us to partake, we cannot escape the fact that Jesus’ eye is always one that is searching.

He watches!

He watches for those who are neglected and left out.

He invites those we would not normally give a second glance.

He watches for those who have been forgotten, as well as those whom we seem to have forgotten.

His gaze searches and where it falls, it reminds us that Grace is meant to be extended to all.

He watches for what we think, and what we do, what we say, — and then Jesus has this annoying way of inserting these little parables that upend our well-ordered party in this world in order to make us think some more!

The trick in this Gospel that Jesus performs is one of role reversal, and expectation upset.  

Jesus is not here to make the Pharisees feel guilty or to anger them.

He simply makes some observations and challenges. He watches to see how they respond, in fervent hope that they might begin to see something that they are not looking for or have not seen before.

Those things that you enjoy now, that’s all a privilege!

You Pharisees were born into the places where banquets are thrown, and where invitations are extended and where sumptuous feasts are commonplace enough that you come to expect an invitation and to get a reserved seat.

That is privilege.

That is a gift that you have been given.

It is also a gift to which you have the potential to become blind.

That is the way privilege works, after all. It makes you blind even as you are looking at things. 

You may watch the blind, the poor, the lame, the crippled, and give thanks that you aren’t like that.

You might even have regard for their plight, work to ameliorate their suffering, provide services for which they can take advantage and see yourself as a good person doing the work of Jesus in their midst.

But that still might not let you see them as Jesus sees them, as precious in God’s eyes, as worthy of being at the table!   

You may not see them as being worthy of being moved up to the higher place in this world instead of always occupying the bottom, the outskirts, and the fringes.

Can you imagine that?  What would the world look like if those who suffer were invited to a place at the table?

It isn’t until you hear Jesus talk about inviting those with no place at the table to take your place, (the one you think you should have, expect to have,) that you begin to entertain the possibility of how radical God’s grace and reign might be.

You have known this grace, the grace of being at the table and of worth and value and you have come to expect it.

You may have basked in it all your life. 

Your place is not being taken away from you by this invitation that Jesus issues.

You are rather given the freedom and opportunity to give it away, and see what that might feel like.

Might it be a blessing?

          Watching is the point here!

          Watching what you say!

          Watching what you expect!

          Opening your eyes to see the manifold Grace of God being poured out upon all, even and especially upon the ones who are so often left off the invitation list. Eyes are being opened here so that the Pharisees who normally jostle for their seats can begin to see people as Jesus sees them, worthy of a place at God’s table.

          So therefore, watch this week!

          Pay attention to the ones being left out or excluded that you see every day.

Look with new eyes at the ones who are demonized.  The ones you are told not to care about, the ones to be sent away, turned back, locked up, or forgotten about.

          Have eyes to see what is being done to the least, to the widow, to the foreigner in your midst, and consider for just a moment what Jesus might be watching for, pointing your attention toward, challenging you to think about.

          Have the eyes to see who is not being given an invitation to the banquet by this world, and to whom Jesus might wish the invitation be given to “come up higher.”

          Your own privilege and place at the table is a tool that can be used to bring a blessing to others. 

That’s why Jesus hammers away at this Sabbath law.  You know you can do good on the Sabbath, you Pharisees!  Your own interpretations of the law allow ways to do it for the innocent who suffer. 

Why do you not do it?   

          Where might you extend an invitation?  (This is, after all, someone else’s banquet, and what Jesus is watching for from those who invited him is to see who they will invite next!)

          Where might you say, “No, you go first.”

          “Here, take my place.”

          “Let me step back and give you a chance…”

          Each move like that is an invitation to see things as Jesus does, and to act to bring in the Reign of God just a little closer right where you are.

          Here, in this moment, Jesus invites you to just take a look at where you are seated, and where others are, and who is left out.

          Here, at our very own “watch party”, our Lord invites us to consider who we might invite to come sit in our place or to invite to come and sit beside us.          

In such watching, seeing, and doing, would not the party of this world be changed? 

“Set Free and Straightened Out” Luke 13:10-17

I am an accommodating person.  When approached about a need, conflict or criticism, my first instinct is to try to find a compromise that makes “winners” out of everyone involved.

That is not always possible.   

Sometimes such attempts leaves everyone involved feeling a little, shall we say, “bent out of shape?”

We might say, “we bent over backwards” ….to try to please, to solve the problem, to meet their needs or to do something for someone else.

“Bending over backwards.”  — That phrase has really two connotations. 

At its best, it means that we reach in an awkward position.  Like a “limbo” maneuver to get past an obstacle.

At its worst, it means that we contort ourselves and our principles to painful measures for the sake of someone else.

Either way, “bending over backwards” is often an unpleasant place to find oneself.

In today’s Gospel lesson we have a series of events that unfold that curiously all have to do with such “bending.”  

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom we are told in Luke’s Gospel.  He finds himself inclined toward worship on the Sabbath, that is his “bent” we might even say.  

Luke wants to make clear to his Gentile audience that Jesus is rooted in Jewish tradition.  Worship and attention to scripture is a part of his regular rhythm, as is prayer and an emphasis on community.

As Jesus is worshipping in Synagogue, a woman enters who is bent and quite unable to stand up straight.  She has been this way for 18 years, we are told, so she is probably known as a regular in this community.  

There is no mention of her seeking Jesus out.

Rather, she comes to his attention.  

When he sees her, he calls her over, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and then he touches her in such a way that she straightens up, stands, and begins to praise God!

I want to stop there for a second and ask a question of you. 

How did you come in here today if you are with us in worship?  What were you “bent” on?  

Were you bent on hearing some fine church music?  Is that your major reason for being here?  The ability to get caught up in the wonder of tones and exuberance of the  liturgy?  Nothing wrong with that!

Or, were you bent on meeting your friends here?  Reconnecting with people you enjoy seeing on a regular basis.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Community is important!

Were you perhaps bent on coming here out of a sense of obligation, or because you are a “regular?”   It’s Sunday, and so church is the place to which you go, or where your parents take you, or make you go.

Maybe you came today because you have felt the burdens of the world on your shoulder this week.

Perhaps you come “bent over” and weighed down by the cares, worries and concerns that are a part of your life and you are here looking for something to ease your load.  

You may have no particular expectation of things changing in any of that.  You came as usual, hunkering down and hoping you will hear or receive something that will help you as you plod through another week.

I want you to think about that for a moment.

In this Gospel we are given a very clear image.  No matter what you were bent on, or bent over with today, it is Jesus who first notices you! 

Let that just sink in for just a bit.  

Too often we’re bent on trying to get God to take notice of us!

We have a feeling that God isn’t paying much attention to our troubles or to our needs.

But here, in this story, it is clear that it is always Jesus who first sees us!

Jesus then has words to speak to what he sees.  They are peculiar words, particular words.

He does not say, “You are healed” to this woman.   

He says rather, “You are set free…..”

Now I want you to think about that for a moment.  

No matter what you came in here bent on, or bent over with, the words of Jesus to you this day are “You are set free….”  

What would that be like for you?

What is it that you would like to be set free from?

What is it that you would like to be set free to do?

Could you dare to imagine that this is what Jesus has to say to you today? 

You are set free!”  

What would you do with such a word given to you?

 It is an amazing thing that we witness in this Gospel.  Here in the midst of the Synagogue a miracle takes place, a woman that everyone had known for years as the “bent over one” is now standing tall and straight and praising God. 

Could you imagine yourself joining in her praise?   Could you get caught up with her in this moment of release and let her revel in it, join her in it, drop out of the normal orderly progression of worship to just let this moment live and this woman have her moment where she realizes she is free?

Or would you fall more in line with the role of the leader of the Synagogue?

One does have to sympathize with the leader of the Synagogue.    There is a reason why he gets “bent out of shape” by Jesus’ actions.   

“Healing”, strictly speaking was identified as work by the Pharisees and Scribes.  It is an occupational task, something that should properly be done on the other six days of the week. 

The Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest.  Couldn’t Jesus have waited until after sundown, or tomorrow to set this woman free? 

The leader of the Synagogue is trying to maintain a sense of orderliness in an all too chaotic world.  

We’re told in the Gospel that the leader “kept saying to the crowd.”  In other words, this is a not a “one off” comment.  Rather this is a struggle to get things back under control and on track.  The praising of the woman has thrown all the usual order and decorum of worship into disarray!

There is an insistence in his sense of propriety.  

After all, as religious leaders we’ve spent all this time since the Exodus trying to get people to observe Sabbath! 

We fought with Pharaoh to carve out a time to worship!

All the pressures of this world under Roman occupation to keep an Empire running 24/7 pushes relentlessly against any sense of rest!

Sabbath is the ONE LAST THING we have left that makes us unique, distinct, and ordered in our identity as people living in Judea. 

Don’t mess with the Sabbath laws, Jesus!

Yes, Jesus could have waited for another day, sought the woman out later, not upset the flow of synagogue worship, but then strictly speaking, Jesus never was so much interested in simply quietly healing the woman as he appears to be in setting her free. 

That is an action of the moment!  

It’s not just that Jesus has taken notice of the woman, there is a claim made that God has taken notice of her, as a “daughter of Abraham.”  

This is not just healing, this is a claiming of identity, and a release from bondage that echoes back to Exodus event as well.   Here comes a new intervention by God into the events of this world.   The time for being set free is now, and it’s no use protesting it.  God will have it no other way!

          We Lutherans can better imagine ourselves as being right there with the synagogue leader.   

We like our formality, our order, the “everything in the right place” the comfort of the liturgy.

How would we respond to an interruption of this kind?  Would we find a way to work it into the liturgy?  Would we try to put it off to a later time?

Could we dare to hear Jesus’ words in our own tradition saying: “You are set free!”  

Free to move things around.

Free to respond to the needs of the people who have come this day!

Free to straighten and stand and praise, in whatever way God moves you right now.

Would we be o.k. with that?

I don’t think I’m out of line in my interpretation here, because when the Synagogue leaders raise their objection, Jesus blasts back about how they are better at taking care of their livestock than they are at taking care of this woman! 

You can make an exception to the rules to water the oxen when you see they are thirsty or suffering, but can’t you make an exception to set free one bound by Satan for all these years?  You’d rather let them wait another hour, another day?

Jesus shames them, it says! 

Can you imagine that?  

Feel the incredible contrasts of this Gospel story!

A woman set free, praising God.

A Synagogue leader, bending over backwards to try to keep things in line and running according to the rules of the day, at last shamed into acknowledging his own hypocrisy! 

Bending over backwards is indeed an unpleasant place to find oneself! 

What would it look like for Jesus to call us over and set us free?   

It is something for you to ponder, but only for a bit, because the real problem you have is that today, what Jesus does is seek you out and he does touch you!

You are set free!

You are set free from the things that have bent you over and bound you up!  

You are set free from expectations and the old burdens, or wounds!

You are set free to change your posture toward things, change your position, no longer hunched and hunkered down in the expectation of what “has to be!”

This is the promise of the resurrected Lord, who comes, takes notice us our posturing, and moves to set us free and make all things new. 

What will you do when you hear Jesus say to you, “YOU are set free?” How will you respond when you hear him say that to those around you?   

“A Baptism to Accomplish” Luke 12:49-56

We could use a little “back-story” to help us with this Gospel lesson for today, because it tends to be a bit disturbing and troubling to us. 

We like to think of Jesus as a “unifier,” someone who brings people together. 

He floats comfortably from a formal dinner at a Pharisee’s house to talking with a woman at a well, eats with tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes.

Surely, Jesus gets along with everyone!

So when we hear him talk about how he comes to bring division within and among family members, that is unsettling!  

We can usually muck up our own family relationships very well Jesus, thank you!   That’s really not something with which we need your help!   

Many are the children who don’t see eye to eye with their parents.   

Many are the siblings who quarrel amongst each other, who bicker over inheritances, how to run family businesses or what to do with aging parents and shared possessions.

We like to think that Jesus comes to bring peace, so to hear him talk about bringing fire is less than reassuring. 

Do we really need help with that?

This is where a little “back story” to the Gospel is helpful.  

When we read a segment of the story of Jesus in isolation on a given Sunday, we sometimes forget all that went into getting us to this point in the story.

The key to understanding the reading today is to flashback to the baptism of Jesus.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.” Jesus says here.  

We have to go back and look what took place in the events of John the Baptizer and Jesus coming up out of the water.

 John had announced it, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 

 There it is right there from the start of the ministry of Jesus, there is this talk of fire.  An announcement of Jesus as one who will do some separating, winnowing of wheat and chaff, separating out the good from the worthless in this world and in life.

 And if we look at what takes place with Jesus immediately after the baptism, we recognize the confirmation of who he is as God’s beloved Son.  This baptism launches Jesus on a trajectory of conflict with the powers that vie for control in this world.   

Jesus finds himself at odds with Satan, who after being confronted in the temptation in the wilderness ends up not leaving, but simply retreating, looking for an opportune time.    

Jesus butts heads with the hometown crowd over their expectations for him.  Surely you will do for us the wonders we have heard you did in Capernaum!

Jesus finds himself recognized by the demons and spirits that possess in this world, whom he can cast out but who nevertheless still inhabit the world and continue to vex its inhabitants.

Jesus finds himself going toe-to-toe with the religious authorities over interpretation of the scripture, the observance of the law, traditions, and rituals.

Jesus floats in the political background of Judea, gathering large crowds in troublesome Galilee, contributing to the unrest and dis-ease of a countryside chafing under Roman occupation.  

He becomes the specter of “John the Baptist come back to life” for Herod after John’s execution.

Jesus is a would-be Messiah to the Zealots, who are looking for a “King like David” to overthrow the current occupying Roman regime and illegitimate Herodian puppet ruler and put them back in power.

He becomes an eventual nuisance to the Temple and to Jerusalem, as the Chief Priests, Sadducees, Sanhedrin and to Pilate all struggle to understand what he is proclaiming when he talks about a “Kingdom or reign” that is “not of this world” but that threatens their power and authority nonetheless.

Jesus’ “baptism yet to be completed” introduces conflict on many levels, but at the core is this solitary point, one that is mentioned in the words of Simeon all the way back at his presentation in the Temple in Luke’s Gospel.

Old Simeon said, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

When you look into the back story leading up to this lesson, it becomes clear that Jesus is meant to challenge, to reveal the “inner thoughts and workings” of people, and where there is challenge to the status quo, there is conflict!    

Jesus makes us examine things we would rather not be reminded of or with which we would rather not struggle, or to which we would rather turn a blind eye!

Jesus’ presence in this world tends to point out where the points of conflict are between God’s vision for this world, and the status quo.

Jesus does not present you with easy answers, quick fixes, or roadmaps to blissful living.  

No, what the Son of God does in our midst is bring about questions.  

Questions that are age-old, and unresolved. 

Questions that are deeply connected to God’s vision for this world and for God’s people.

Questions that are echoed in the words of the Prophets.  

Jeremiah in our reading today is quick to point out that the “yes men” prophets who are “dreaming” in Jerusalem are deceitful.  

God is a God who comes near, and when God comes near, God tends to expose hypocrisy, and to show where things are out of whack.  

“Is not my word like fire….like a hammer that breaks rock to pieces?”  Jeremiah proclaims.

The prophets are quick to point out what God desires, but they are also often short on the specifics of how exactly to get there.   

“God desires mercy.” They remind us.

“God desires justice.”

“God desires equitable dealings among God’s people.”

But, how do you get there? 

Well, there is no one preferred course of action!  

There is no one “just” form of government above all others. 

There is no one “merciful” type of leadership or action.  

Seeking equitable dealings quite often involves what at first seems terribly inequitable!  It takes seriously considering the plight of the downtrodden, the forgotten, the lowly and lifting them up.

Such pursuit of justice and mercy in this world always end up being a matter of debate and conflict.  Seeking justice, acting mercifully, impinges on those who see no need to change things, those for whom life is really pretty good at the moment.

Pursuit of justice and the execution of mercy only comes about from compromise and from the intersection of actions and ideas.  

Where ideas and actions intersect, there is always conflict!  

God doesn’t pick and choose just one way to accomplish justice or mercy, because the world is awfully good at taking even the best intended of systems and finding a way to abuse, miss-use and corrupt them!

So, here is the “back-story” to this section from Luke’s Gospel.  

The Baptism of Jesus begins to usher in the Reign of God. 

Jesus’ very presence in this world causes friction, debate, and calls into question the status quo and the actions of Empire. 

For, to follow Jesus and to live into the Kingdom that Jesus comes to proclaim, you will often find yourself at odds with all the powers that vie for control in this world!

You will find yourself struggling with uncomfortable questions about your own assumptions, motivations, and desires.

You may find yourself at odds with Satan, and all the temptations to look out for yourself first.     

You may find yourself butting heads with your own hometown crowd over their expectations of how thing should be done or have always been done.  

You may find yourself in the midst of various demons and spirits that still possess in this world.   You are promised by Jesus that you can cast them out, but they will nevertheless still find a way to hang around and re-present themselves anew, in different forms and guises.   

We cast out racism and bigotry in one form, only to finds that it rears its ugly head anew in another form.

You may find yourself going toe-to-toe with others over the interpretation of the scriptures, and the observance of the law, traditions, and rituals. Pushing back at long held traditions with the question, “Does this bring God’s reign near, or are we hiding behind a comfortable mask?”

You may even find yourself floating around in the political background, an eventual nuisance to the neighborhood association, or to City Hall, or to state or national legislators as you undertake proclaiming the kind of justice that is a part of God’s Kingdom.  A justice or mercy that is “not of this world” but that should be or could be if we were but to change some things.

This is the legacy of Jesus, and God’s Kingdom or Reign.  

Not everything is right with this world, and probably never will be.  That is the reason the Son was sent into the world!  Not to condemn, but to challenge and save!

There are some things that we can see, some things that we can predict.  Like signs in the weather we can sense which way the wind is blowing, and what it may bring if allowed so to do.

Like interpreting the signs of wind and sky, Jesus urges us to interpret also the “present time” and to measure it against God’s call for mercy, justice and equality.

If such things are not measuring up to God’s preferred vision for people, then it is time to work for them, speak for them, or speak out against them, or to do what needs to be done. 

There will be conflict in this world, to be sure.

If there is going to be conflict, then let it be the conflict that is born out of living into one’s Baptism!   

This is the “back story” for this Gospel.   Jesus is living into his Baptism, that’s all.  And seeing that, may we do the same.

“Every Moment in Fear is Wasted.” Luke 12;32-40

“Every moment you choose to live in fear is a wasted moment.”  If you take nothing else away from this sermon today, that would be enough.

 As I wrestled with this scripture passage this week, and the recent events in the news, I was struck by how much fear dominates and drives our world right now. 

In the world of politics, fear is brandished as a weapon to motivate and to cajole.  Fear is also about perception as much as reality.  We watched the Speaker of the house take a junket to Taiwan.

From our perspective, it was just a travel opportunity.

From the Chinese perspective, it is the number three in line for the presidency making an official state visit.  

Fear is responded to by display of more things to be afraid of, — military exercises and rockets firing.     

“Be afraid, be very afraid of what the other side is doing, or not doing, or allowing, or planning.”

The 24/7 news cycle picks up every “tragedy du jour” story that has the potential to grab attention and then stokes the furnace of fear and amplifies it.

A whole slew of “ism’s” are bandied about, not as a means of examining their virtues or shortfalls, but rather as labels to be warned against. “That’s socialism!”  “That’s unbridled Capitalism!”  “That’s McCarthyism!” “That’s Racism!” “That’s Sexism!” “That’s Colonialism!”

Insert the “ism” of the moment and do so with urgent enough emphasis and you can instill fear and get reactions.

Every time a nature show displays the wonder and beauty of creation, it has to end with with another cautionary trope of “how all of this is threatened by….”

Parents and grandparents fear for what kind of future that children will have, children worry about the kind of mess they are being left with to clean up, and everyone is fearful of what the “tipping point” might be beyond which there is no return.

With all this swirling fear a part of our everyday lives and experiences, how strange to our ears to hear Jesus say, “Have no fear, little flock…”

Such a phrase might be met by some as Jesus being out of touch with reality, or out of tune with our times. 

Perhaps Jesus really was only concerned about “heavenly things” or “things not of this earth.”

In a world swirling with fear used to motivate, to control, and to shut down action, how are we to hear Jesus aright?

“Every moment you choose to live in fear is a wasted moment.”

The first thing that Jesus is saying here is a word of pure Gospel.   When it comes to ultimate matters, to salvation, and the promised Kingdom of God, don’t sweat it little ones!  That comes to you as pure gift.

It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

The Kingdom or Reign of God is a gift that will be given by God and you will not be denied it. 

This Kingdom “comes of its own accord,” as Luther reminds us in the small catechism.  

We cannot bring it about on our own, or force it to come. 

We may be able to contribute to its breaking in upon this world in as much as we don’t set ourselves in opposition to it, or we do the things that are in harmony with it.

But, we don’t “bring it in.” It is a gift promised by God.

So then, don’t sweat it’s coming, little flock, but by all means do look for it!

We can pray that this reign of God will also come among us, in our lifetime, and we can catch glimpses of God’s work in our lives and in our midst.

We might experience some things that might even allay some of our fears.

It is God’s good pleasure to give it as a gift to us.

It is this matter of God’s “good pleasure” that the rest of the passage focuses on, if you have eyes to see that, (which is admittedly hard when fear is bandied about so widely!)

We read this passage and we hear the “warning” parts.

“Be dressed for action…”

 “have your lamps lit…” 

 “Know this, if the houseowner had known at what time the thief was coming…”

 All of these comments strike us at first as fear inducing. 

We hear them as if God’s intent is to “catch us off guard.”

We hear them as if the times will lull us into complacency, sleep, or inattentiveness.  

Like a driver trying to running on adrenaline, we punch at our leg or sit up straight, or crank up the radio, or open up the windows and determine, (out of fear of falling asleep) to hunker down and power through this life somehow and not be found wanting!

We let the “fear of God” drive us to do things that are neither wise nor fruitful.

We begin to view the world as being filled with thieves and temptations and things to be avoided at all costs.  

We, (perhaps like the Pharisees before us) begin to make our lists of things to avoid, things to do, impose the rules designed to “keep us awake.”    

We need to work harder, live purer, not associate with those kind of people or engage in things we would deem to be unsavory to God, lest we get caught off guard!

In short, we let fear become the driver of our actions!

But Jesus tells us the Kingdom is not gained by such actions, but rather comes as a gift.

So then, how is one to live?

Here is what I see this time in the story Jesus tells, not a God who motivates out of fear, but one who acts out of sheer delight!

“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” 

That’s a picture of a God who is genuinely delighted to find people just doing what they are supposed to do and nothing more.

When God finds you just doing what you are supposed to be doing as a servant, God goes out of God’s own way to reward such actions!

What is that like?

I get the giddy image of Mr. Fezziwig from “A Christmas Carol” who on Christmas Eve has the work stop, the shop swept clean, the work desks pushed to the side and the music and food brought in, — a party set for the workers, not in measure of what they have done leading up to it, but simply in celebration of the day!

Can we have this moment?  This time to celebrate and revel in the goodness of life?

I get the image of my old College banquet manager, who after we had served the President and Board of Regents and they had left the room, would then instruct us to take a break, enjoy the remaining Prime Rib and food while it was still succulent and warm, and celebrate a job well done of serving on behalf of the college.  The clean-up can wait!

Can we have this moment? 

This time of acknowledging that while we had term papers to write, and books to read, and a meal plan that served us standard high-carb cafeteria food, out of thanksgiving for being part of this community we could indeed share in the bounty provided when it was near?

 A few years ago at a previous congregation, I was doing a wedding rehearsal.  Everyone arrived for the rehearsal but the bride. 

We nervously contacted the maid of honor to see what the delay was, and discover that they were at the hospital.  

The bride had been having headaches and now had a particularly bad one.   A few weeks earlier she had been skiing and took a tumble, and the headaches had gotten worse so she went to have it checked out.   Scans revealed a dangerous aneurism that required immediate surgery. 

The next night as the guests arrived expecting to attend a wedding, they were instead met by the Groom and family and sent on to the reception hall where the food that had been ordered was served.

 A celebration was held, not because of a wedding, but because life is resilient and we had something else to celebrate, her successful surgery and recovery!  

The bride was brought in via an I-Pad from her hospital room, head bandaged instead of veiled.  She talked with guests to show that she was all right and that life, while it throws curves from time to time, is better lived without fear.  

The guests may have been expecting a wedding, but what they got instead was a chance to simply be caught doing what they were supposed to be doing all along, — which is to say celebrating the life, the moment, whatever it happened to be!   

Dare we “flip the script” on this Gospel lesson which so often gets manipulated into being about fear?

Dare we choose to see this instead as a story about God’s good pleasure!   

Good pleasure found in God finding God’s people doing simply what they were always meant to be doing, which is living, to loving, caring for one another.  God’s good pleasure is to find us ready to serve, no matter what the hour.

Dare we look at this promise of the Kingdom not as something to be guarding, or on the look-out for, white knuckling through life until Jesus comes? 

Dare we see life instead as an invitation to make the most of this moment, every moment, whatever the moment happens to be!

Does it change the world if we begin to do things not out of fear, but rather out of love     Does it change the world to begin to operate out of the expectation that if God is going to catch us doing something, God would delight in catching us doing what we’re supposed to be doing?

Would it change the world if instead of responding out of fear, we instead embraced life and said, “What would God want me to be doing here?”

 How much fear could we as the people of God remove from this world if we approached our time here not as always being on guard against not doing the “wrong” thing, but rather as wanting to found doing the right thing, caught in the act of being neighbor, or providing for the Master?

What if instead of hiding behind locked doors and grasping at things, and viewing the world as a place full of thieves and “others” against which we would want to bolt the door, we became open to the knock on the door, simply assumed that it must be the Master, Jesus himself coming to meet us?

 Assuming that it is God providing an opportunity for us to receive God, or to learn, or to serve, or to enjoy the “good pleasure” of a God who knocks before entering instead of bursting on the scene unannounced.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of letting fear rule the day and set the agenda for my life.

I choose to live in this moment as one of God knocking with opportunity, in everything that would otherwise be seen as fearful, because every moment I choose to live in fear, is indeed a wasted moment.  

“With Whom are You Talking?” Luke 12:13-21

Who are you talking to?

As part of my Seminary training, I spent a semester as a chaplain at the Anoka State Mental Hospital in Minnesota.  I had an opportunity to meet a wide variety of people with a range of mental and physical conditions.  

I would often find “Arnie”, (which is what I will call him) sitting in the back lounge carrying on a very fine conversation.  

That wouldn’t have been too unusual, except that “Arnie” was the only person in the back lounge when I would walk in.  He was carrying on this fine conversation all by himself. 

(I should say this was in the day before Bluetooth ear sets, now you see people talking to themselves everywhere!)

The conversation would range far and wide.  It would jump from topic to topic quite naturally, and then come back full circle. 

Arnie would gladly engage me in the conversation when I sat down with him as if I were just another person in the room, but if I challenged him on a point, he would most likely dismiss it.

“No, we’ve talked about that,” he’d say.  The “we” (meaning the conversation he was having with himself inside his head.) “We think it’s this way.”  

It did little good to try to bring an outside opinion into Arnie’s conversation.   He much preferred agreeing with himself.

You can’t be too hard on Arnie, because he’s just an amplified example of what we all tend to do.  

Don’t believe me? 

Come on, now, when was the last time you went shopping and debated about the purchase of an item? 

Who were you really talking to?  

Sometimes we talk with our greater expectations of ourselves.  “I really shouldn’t have another pair of shoes, I don’t really need them.”

Sometimes we find ourselves talking with our parents or our significant other.  “Mom and dad would have slept on this kind of purchase before making it.”  

“What will he say/she say, if I walk into the house carrying this?”

Sometimes we hold that conversation with the externals of life.  “Hey, I can afford it.  It’s a quality item, a good buy, and a decent price, why shouldn’t I get it and enjoy it!”

No matter who you think you might be talking to in that moment of decision; you are really just talking to yourself.

And do you know what I have discovered in all my 60+ years of living and holding these kinds of conversations with myself?

I’ve discovered that I can pretty much talk myself into whatever I want!

How about you?

This is the insight we need to bring to this Gospel lesson.   

The man in the crowd approaches Jesus with what at first would seem to be a laudable request.  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

It was not unusual in the time of Jesus for Rabbi’s to be consulted as arbiter in matters of family squabbles, or trade disagreements, to offer a neutral opinion. 

It sounds like a good move to involve an impartial arbiter.   

But on closer examination, that’s not really the what the young man is asking for.

This man who approaches Jesus in the crowd has already decided what should be done! 

He isn’t asking Jesus to mediate his dispute. 

He’s asking Jesus to make his brother pony up to what he has already decided is the best course of action. 

“Bid my brother divide the inheritance with me!”

It’s time to split up the farm and livestock and go our separate ways!

To the man’s request Jesus gives a warning about greed, and then he tells this parable about the rich fool to punctuate it.  

What the parable makes painfully clear is what happens when the only person you are consulting in an important matter is really just yourself!

Take a look again at the circumstances in this Rich Fool’s life.   He is blessed with an abundant crop, and who does he consult about it?

Only Himself!

          There is no thought as to going outside, no checking with the needs of the community, no commentary about how it could be used for the benefit of others!  

He is at such a loss as to what to do with this abundance that comes his way that he never even consults anyone outside of himself about what could be done with it.  

Particularly absent is any conversation with God about it.

And so, he asks himself what he should to do!

And guess what conclusion he draws?  

He undertakes a building program for his own benefit, so that he can take it easy from here on out and enjoy life.

He never questions if this is the right thing to do, the just thing to do.  He is completely confident in his decisions right up until the first outside voice that intrudes upon his conversation with himself.

 The outside voice is that of God, who says, “Fool!”

“Fool, this very night your life is demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Now normally at this point in looking at the text we might be tempted to press a point of personal stewardship, for that is surely here.  What do you do with the abundance of things given to you?  Do you include God in your conversations about what to do with the blessings you have received?

We just had the experience of the Mega-Millions Lottery becoming the “Mega-Billions” and so our media and new outlets have tried to find analogies as to what you could do with the jackpot if one won it.   Those are attempts to put some perspective as to the size of the amounts, so they will tell us how many fancy cars one could purchase, how many vacations one could take, the size of yachts one could buy.

Curiously enough though, when they go on the street and ask people what they would do if they won the lottery, while there is some dreaming of material things, the responses usually turn very quickly to helping others.   “Paying off my kids college, their mortgage, getting my parents a retirement home…”

They “shift” the focus of the conversation from luxuries to necessities, needs, doing for others.

I also want to shift the focus here, not to personal stewardship, but rather to the matter of relationship.  

What prompts the conversation and the parable is really a relationship issue. 

The man and his brother are not seeing eye to eye.  They are in disagreement as to what to do, and so the course of action advocated is to find an amicable route for the parting of ways.  “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!”

At the core, this is a parable about relationship.  

It is about what you do in times of disagreement and the choices that are made.

It is about how decisions will be made, and who you are or will listen to as you make them.

Who are you, who are we talking to as we consider what to do with the blessings we have received, or the difficulties we are having with those who are supposed to be close to us?  

Are our conversations rich in inquiring of God and of our neighbor?    

Are our conversations rich in seeking understanding of the best course of action as it relates to our relationship with others?

Or do our conversations tend toward insisting on our own way, and finding ways to dismiss others?  

Do we listen and consult Jesus as we interact with one another, or do we seek to use God as some justification for the actions for which we have already made up our minds?

The man who came to Jesus asking for the inheritance to be divided had a particular vision for what he wanted to see happen.

The tragedy is that his vision did not include remaining in relationship with anyone else in his family.

So, the Parable Jesus tells opens up the need for one to have deep conversations with someone besides oneself, or similar disaster is sure to befall!

I know that if the only person I’m talking to is myself, well I can talk myself into almost anything, and not necessarily the things that make for life.  

I can talk myself into some very foolish behavior!

So today, I just want to let this phrase haunt and hover over us for a while.

Who are we talking to?   

Who are we listening to?

Are we discerning what God would have us do with the abundance in our lives, not just of things, but also relationships?

Are our conversations around here rich in inquiring of God and of our neighbor, of their need and of our own ability to give?

Are our conversations here ones that seek of Jesus to help us understand our differences, to listen intently, and to seek reconciliation with those who differ from us, or are we asking Jesus to help us cut them loose so we can take what belongs to us and walk away?

Sooner or later the voice of God will break in upon every closed conversation to remind us of our limitations and mortality.  

May we be ready for it when it comes.

May we seek out conversations with God and with our neighbors that will reveal to us what to best do with our abundance that ultimately leads to life.

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray” Luke 11:1-13

“Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” 

On occasion I get the opportunity to observe my grandsons at play.  I listen and watch as they absorb experiences, pick up words and phrases, get lost in books now and more deftly maneuver video game controllers than I ever will! 

So much of learning is simply a matter of observing, mimicking, and repetition.

So, part of me wonders what the disciples learned about prayer just from simply observing Jesus, and whether that seemed to be “enough” for them?  

Clearly, they learned much from accompanying Jesus, but they also seem to express a need to be instructed.  When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they ask to be taught as “John taught his disciples.”

We know that John the Baptizer’s life was one of being set apart from the rest of society out in the wilderness.  

We know he had certain dietary choices, fasting was a part of his regimen, living off the land, eating a prophet’s diet of “locusts and wild honey.”

The “Baptism for repentance” that John practiced had a tactile element, either symbolic of ritual washing or dying and rising through submerging into water. 

These unique “practices,” strange though they may have seemed to outsiders, were nevertheless unique to John and a sign of who he was and what following him would look like.

Similarly, we read in the gospels that the Pharisees had distinctive prayer practices.  They wore ash and sackcloth, prayed loudly on the street corners, calling attention to themselves and their prayers.

So, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to prayer, they are probably looking for similar practices.  What are the actions or the recognizable techniques that will be the “mark” of a follower of Jesus?

When Jesus teaches on prayer, however, he seems to employ no such outward signs or actions.   The direction given is to pray in secret, close the door, wash your face, be going about your regular business. 

Jesus’ teaching on prayer is focused on understanding relationships.

Jesus gives instruction on relationship to his followers.   The teaching on “how to pray” is remarkably less about any techniques than it is about attending to really five aspects of relationship. 

          How one addresses God…

          What one is to look for in the midst of prayer…

          What one is to ask for…

          What is expected by God of one who is lifts up the prayer…

          And finally, what one is to watch out for in this relationship.

The first aspect of prayer is how one addresses God.  “Father, hallowed be your name.”  

Jesus takes two apparently opposite understandings and places them in a dynamic tension.   

You can call God – “daddy” (Abba) – father- because God desires that kind of intimacy.

But, this God whom you are calling “Abba” is also Holy, sanctified, and wholly other from you.

The two ideas are held in tension by this prayer.  

Can we hold these two qualities of God, and our relationship with God in similar tension?  

Can we believe God to be the best possible parent to us always, accepting us no matter what, and also be the one whom we need to hold in awe and reverence?

God is loving, and God is also Holy.  

God exercises authority over us for our own good, but God is also one to whom we can turn to in time of great need because God desires that kind of intimacy with us.  

The second aspect of relationship that Jesus teaches has to do with what to look for when one prays.

One is to look for God’s Kingdom and have a desire for it.  

This is a corrective on seeking only our own self-interest in prayer, focusing only on our own “stuff.” 

God’s Kingdom come.  

Not just what I want, not just what I hope for the future, but rather what God promises, hopes for and intends for this world. 

There is much that God has promised throughout the scriptures about what God’s Kingdom is to be like and how life is shaped in it and by it.

There is much in God’s view of how things are to be ordered that often bumps directly up against what we think should happen, or what would be convenient for us, or in keeping with the way the powers of this world would have things remain. 

So, this petition roots our requests in looking for what God promises and intends, not simply what we would want.  

The third aspect of relationship lifted up in the prayer is about what it is that we can ask for, namely “daily bread.” 

When Luther talked about this petition, he taught that “daily bread” included everything needed for daily life.  Food and clothing, home and family, favorable weather, good government, good neighbors, a good name and work.  

You can pray for all of that, but not just for yourself.  Here there is relationship with neighbor, as the petition is plural.  “Our” daily bread means yours as well your neighbor’s. 

The God who sends the rain on the just and the unjust, who causes the grain to grow and fruit of the vine to prosper is just fine with you asking for what you need – just remember to do so within the context of praying for the same for your neighbor. 

In God’s Kingdom, all are fed, all are loved cared for and all are welcomed.  Let your prayer for daily bread reflect that Kingdom!

A fourth aspect of relationship in the teaching on prayer is attention paid to the reciprocal nature of such relationship. 

The God to whom you pray does indeed expect something from you, and what God expects has to do with your neighbor.

Namely, forgiveness.  

God forgives and has expectation therefore that forgiveness will similarly be granted to those who repent and who seek it, so that relationship can be renewed.

Forgiveness becomes an expectation, not just because God demands something from us but rather because it has to do with how the world is meant to work, and God’s Kingdom!

The ability to forgive is how we find safety and shelter in the presence of one another.  

It is intolerable to live in an environment of suspicion, where grudges are held and trust is absent, blame is ever present and promoted, and where relationship is irreparably broken.  

God will have no part of such a world and will not have us be captive to the kind of bondage that such brokenness perpetuates.

Forgiveness freely given is not just a way of life, it is a way to bring life where otherwise there is only a perpetual cycle of retribution.

The fifth aspect of relationship found in the prayer taught is “do not bring us to the time of trial”, or “a place of temptation.” 

This may be the most perplexing of the things that Jesus teaches us to pray about.   Surely God would not bring us to temptation?

But, here’s the thing, (and we see it in Luke’s Gospel.)   Jesus is given the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and the first thing the gift of the Spirit does is “Lead” him out into the wilderness for the purpose of prayer and fasting – all good things to do! 

What happens when he gets out there?  The devil shows up!

 As it turns out, most of the temptations we experience all have to do with the “good things” that we’ve been given. 

In this part of the prayer, we are reminded what to watch out for!  

Get a raise?  The first thought that enters your mind is usually not, “how can I share more of this with others, how can I help my neighbor?”   

No, the first thought or “temptation” that comes with that blessing given is to think of what you can do with it for yourself!

“Now I can afford…”

The God who blesses you with daily bread, (which is something for which you are encouraged to pray!) also recognizes that with the giving of blessing comes the temptation to use such blessings for one’s own purposes and benefits, — forgetting about God’s Kingdom and the needs of the neighbor!

Not getting any blessings would of course take care of those temptations.  

God, however, will not leave, abandon, or forsake us.  The blessings of this creation come because God is generous beyond imagination, and like a doting “daddy” who sometimes can’t help it, just gives to delight in watching children’s faces light up.

So, in this aspect we are praying for what to watch out for and what to trust in. 

We watch out for miss-use or abuse, being led astray by what we have been given.  

We pray to not forsake God’s kingdom in deference to setting up a kingdom of our own.

“My” stuff, my possessions, my goods and grain, building silos to store up treasures here on earth instead of seeking the welfare of all and bringing in the Kingdom.

We trust that God in giving blessing to us has also given us the wisdom to choose what is good and right, and if not, we pray for correction!  “Lead us not into being tempted by our own schemes and ambitions!”

And, in the midst of attending to the relationship with our blessings and with God, help us to look back up to reminders of the Kingdom, the call to forgive, to restore us to right relationship with God and with one another.

These five aspects, –How one addresses God…

          What one is to look for in the midst of prayer…

          What one is to ask for…

          What is expected by God of the one who is lifting up prayers…

And finally, what one is to watch out for.

It’s all about relationship!

This is what Jesus teaches when his own disciples asked him to teach them to pray. 

May we learn how to attend to relationship with God and with one another in the same way. 

Teach us, Jesus, how to focus on God’s Kingdom and our neighbor, not wanting to just set up a kingdom of our own.