Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bridging the Mega-Chasm

NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference, Fair Hills Resort

Pentecost 17/Year C/Luke 16:19-31

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In verse 26, Father Abraham says to the rich man in torment: “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”

Between the rich man in Hades and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, “a great chasm”—the Greek says: a chasma mega, that is: a wide gorge, a “super- sized” canyon that separates heaven from hell. It cannot be crossed.

Death places you on one side or the other—and there you stay—forever!

Now, there’s an attention-getter if I ever saw one!

It’s an image we will not soon forget—an image, I believe, that helps us unlock what Jesus is driving at here.

For the chasma mega that existed between the rich man and Lazarus didn’t just open up when they died. That chasm, that gorge, that canyon between them existed throughout this story.

In fact, I believe that this mega-chasm spoken of toward the end of the story, is related to three other chasms, three other “divides” that exist in this parable and in our own world as well.

Here’s what I mean:

First, there was the chasm that existed between Lazarus begging at the gate and the rich man stuffing himself daily with fine food. Though they may have been only feet apart at the time, they might as well have been separated by light years—poor, ailing Lazarus with his cardboard hand-scrawled “help wanted” sign and the rich man at his 24-hours-a-day buffet.

Long before they died, Lazarus and the rich man were separated by a wide gulf—the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, between those who can help themselves and those who are helpless.

There’s a way in which death didn’t so much open up the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man—death merely revealed the chasm that had always been there. The parable takes us from seeing this chasm in the way the world pictures such things, to seeing how God views them. It’s a difference in perspective, a difference in “camera-angle” that is revealed at the point of their death.

This same mega-chasma exists in our world, in our day—does it not? It’s said that this chasm between rich and poor not only exists—but that it’s widening, that the “haves” are growing farther and farther distant from the “have-nots,” that many of the world’s troubles arise from the fact that those who can help themselves NEED keep their distance from, need to protect themselves from those who have not.

There is a way to bridge this gap, to close this chasm. It is the way of Jesus, Christ’s own life overflowing that helps us see life is not a zero-sum game, but rather it is life lived in the abundance of God. And I thank God that throughout our synod and our whole church, especially in this unsettled time, “feeding the hungry” is at least one thing we can all do together.

It all starts with noticing, not ignoring, the poor among us. Did you notice how only one character in this parable is named—not the rich man (whose biography surely was listed in the Who’s Who volume of his day)—but Lazarus. Lazarus alone has a name here. He’s not just another faceless, nameless beggar. We’re told who he is. His name is Lazarus which means “God helps.”

The rich man realizes this, the rich man calls the beggar by name—but only after his time has passed, only in death does he come to name the name of the beggar who had been at this door all those years.

In the moment of death, when the rich man finally “gets it”—then, then he also finally starts to care about someone other than himself.

He remembers that he has five brothers, still at home, still alive, still faced with an opportunity that the rich man no longer has. And the rich man—for the first time in the story—expresses concern for someone other than himself.

“Father [Abraham], I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

The rich man imagines that if a poltergeist came back from “the other side” and scared the liver out of his five brothers—sort of like the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting Ebenezer Scrooge—then, then they might turn their lives around and avoid the punishment the rich man was experiencing in Hades.

Sounds like a plan—doesn’t it? And again, if truth be told, there are all sorts of well-meaning Christians who actually buy into the rich man’s way of thinking.

That is: lots of people imagine that faith is chiefly about avoiding hell and heading for heaven, right? And how better to achieve that purpose than to use fear and warning as your primary tools.

“Do you know how hot it is in hell? Have you thought about how long eternity will be? If you don’t make the right choice and get your act together before you die—you’re going to find out, buddy!”

Notice how such preaching, such exhortation focuses on raw self-interest. Save your skin at all costs. Look out for yourself, lest you come to the same place of everlasting fire where the rich man was tormented—longing, longing for just one drop of cool water on his parched tongue.

But Father Abraham, speaking for God I believe, refuses to play along with the rich man’s request. He declines to send Lazarus back to earth to scare the bejeebers out of the rich man’s five brothers. No deal!

In so doing, I believe we see the second mega-chasm in this story. It’s the chasm between thinking that faith is about fear—fear of hellfire, fear motivated by self-interest—and understanding that faith means freedom—freedom from being all bound up in oneself, freedom to live the generous life that children of God live simply because they’re children of a generous God who abundantly gave us his only precious Son to free us from self-interest, to free us to pour out our lives willingly and generously, for others..

“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” Father Abraham replies to the rich man regarding his brothers. The five brothers don’t need a spook from the far side of grave, they’ve got the Bible, right there in their laps. That is to say: they have the Book of Faith, the same Word of God that’s been given to you and to me.

But the rich man isn’t convinced. The rich man strongly suspects that his five brothers aren’t “into” regular worship and Bible study—that being too pedestrian, too tame, too ho-hum.

He says, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The rich man knows his five brothers—he can read them like a book—and he knows that a book will never be enough for them.

They already have the scriptures. What they need is a spectacle. And so he repeats his request: “Please, Father Abraham, send them Lazarus, back from the tomb. Let Lazarus rattle his ghost’s chains in their faces—like the ghost of Jacob Marley confronting Scrooge right in his own bedroom.”

But Father Abraham isn’t buying any of that. Father Abraham recognizes what I’m calling the third mega-chasm here in his story—the chasm, the gorge, the valley between the spectacular, the razzle-dazzle and the sure, steady Word of God.

Father Abraham replies to the rich man, for the final time: “If [your five brothers] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, if they can’t make time for the scriptures they already have--neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’

God could, I suppose, dazzle us daily with pyrotechnics. God could amaze us with spectacles that take our breath away. God could overwhelm us, God could make us see—so that seeing, we’d no longer need to believe.

But our God doesn’t operate that way. Our God moves into our lives in strong, steady ways always, always with a Word that opens us up to believe—to live by faith, not sight.

We have that Word—and even better, this Word has us! It is the same Word that the rich man probably heard in his life—the same Word that his five brothers also had.

It is the Word of God who created an astonishing world of breath-taking abundance, assets upon assets—freely, recklessly given to us, God’s creatures.

It is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ who though he was rich yet for our sakes became poor.

It is the Word of the Spirit who catches us up in God’s tomorrow and makes us and all things new.

If that Word doesn’t do the trick for you and me—nothing else will.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Striking While the Iron is Hot

First Lutheran, Audubon

Installation of Pr. David Beety
September 19, 2010
Luke 16:1-11

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches?

“Strike while the iron is hot.”

Have you ever said that—either to yourself or to someone else?

“Strike while the iron is hot.”

The image goes back to an era when every town had a blacksmith—a man adept at bending iron.

I’m just old enough to remember Floyd Robbens, my little hometown’s blacksmith. Floyd’s welding shop on the edge of town was where all the farmers (like my dad) took their broken farm implement parts for repair.

Sometimes, welding was not enough. Floyd had to fire up his forge and use huge tongs to put the metal part into the fire, heat it up until it was red hot….and then Floyd would take a hammer and strike the iron, bending it, returning it to its proper shape.

Floyd knew when the iron was hot enough, and he sensed when he had to act with speed, accuracy and determination….getting the job done before the metal cooled and hardened.

“Strike while the iron is hot” is a colorful way of saying: “Do something, for goodness’ sake. Don’t dilly-dally. Seize the day! Act while you can, before the moment passes….before the opportunity slips away.”

“Strike while the iron is hot” might have been the motto of the manager here in this peculiar parable from Luke 16.

It really is a strange story--this parable that drives preachers nuts every time it turns up in the Sunday lectionary rotation.

First there’s a rich man who had made loans to all sorts of people. They’d borrowed certain commodities from him, with a promise to return what they borrowed plus some extra oil or some additional wheat, to cover the “finance charges.”

Then there’s the rich man’s manager who, we learn, has been playing fast and loose with his boss’s assets….so recklessly that he gets caught and given the boot.

Such a sad turn of events might have paralyzed another manager, but instead it galvanized this manager. He sizes up his sorry state, and decides on a creative-but-reckless course of action.

Instead of putting his records in order, this shyster shrewdly “cooks the books” to ingratiate himself with those who owed debts to the rich man. “You owe my master 100 jugs of oil? Let’s write off half of that debt—make it fifty jugs of oil instead.”

And here’s where the story really gets interesting: because when the boss finds out how badly his manager has bilked him he commends him for his resolute, imaginative response—his daring shrewdness.

The manager epitomized that old saw, “strike while the iron is hot.” His master praised him for that--rather than calling the cops.

But why? What’s the point here?

At first glance, even Jesus seems to have been unsure about just what this story meant, as he heaped up all sorts of “morals” to the story—spun out various conclusions we might draw.

For my money, though, the first of these possible endings strikes just the right note: “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

So, for our day, what is it that the “children of this age” are so good at?

They’re good at telling their story, marketing their product, and making us want to buy.

• So, Capital One wants to know what’s in our wallets.

• And Geico makes taking out a second mortgage so easy a caveman can do it.

• And Verizon has this geeky guy and his whole network of support staff, who if we just purchase their cellphone package, are going to follow us around, wherever we go.

We know all those advertising campaigns and jingles forward and backward, and they make all that stuff—all that junk—so attractive and irresistible that we just have to have it.

And meanwhile, meanwhile, about the only person who ever mentions Lutherans on the national scene is Garrison Keillor every Saturday about 5 p.m. on National Public Radio. If you’re in the habit of listening to his Prairie Home Companion show, as I do, you may have noticed how all Mr. Keillor has to do is say the word “Lutheran” and the audience chuckles—not because we’re such wacky, edgy folks--but because we epitomize solidity and stability and utterly boring predictability.

We Lutherans have “safe and sensible” down pat. We’ve parlayed sanity and serenity into an art form. We are champions of inertia.

And meanwhile, all around us, persons are dying for some good news, a shred of hope, a word that might set them free and set their feet ‘a marching toward God’s bright future.

But we Lutherans act as if our feet are stuck in cement. We’re like junior high kids at their first dance….everyone standing shyly around the edge of the gym, waiting for someone else to step out on the dance floor and make the first move.

Dear friends, to each of us and to all of us together, I believe that our Lord Jesus has told this crazy parable to get us off our duffs. To learn something from this fraudulent manager—not about financial management—but about sizing up our moment, seizing our day and acting in a risky way for the sake of sharing God’s good news in Jesus Christ.

Goodness knows, we follow the greatest Risk-Taker of them all. Goodness knows Jesus our Lord went way out on a limb—for us!—when he took on our flesh, walked in our shoes, and made himself vulnerable to the worst humanity can dish out—even death on a cross, for us and for our salvation.

Talk about a scheme, a plan, that looked like it had no earthly chance for success!

But it did work, and it continues to work on you and me, this plan of God in Jesus Christ to do whatever it takes to win us for him, to bring us to repentance and newness of life, and to plant God’s kingdom of heaven, right here on earth.

So, how do we read the signs of our times? How do we size up things in our day, our world? We have neighbors who don’t know Jesus—what are we going to do about that? We have friends, even here in our congregation, who have just scratched the surface of the Christian life. How are we going to walk with them, deeper and deeper, into God’s Word and God’s mission?

I can’t tell you just exactly how to do it, though I think you’re taking some steps in the right direction…steps like offering your new “Jam Session with a Punch” and “Jacob’s Well” ministries on Wednesday evening. Giving those sorts of things a try tells me that you good Lutherans of Audubon aren’t stuck, that your feet are not set in cement, that you’re ready to venture out into your mission field with the Good News about Jesus Christ.

And, I truly think, you have taken another good step, by calling Pastor Dave Beety to hang around with you for a while longer. You know he came to you “on waivers,” but now you’ve been bright enough to offer him an open-ended Call. That’s the sort of thing that makes me think you’re pretty bright—you “children of light,” you!

So, this morning, together, we are striking while the iron is hot. We’re putting Pastor Betty in his place as your preacher, your shepherd and your guide…a path-finder toward God’s future in Jesus Christ. He will help you do the most important thing we 21st century Lutherans need to do: to overcome our centuries-long love affair with inertia, to get moving as the people of God….moving to places you may not have been, bearing the gospel where it needs to go.

Pastor Dave brings many good gifts, not the least of which is energy and what I call a “sanctified shrewdness” that will serve you all well.

God bless you as you “seal the deal” on this new partnership. God be with you as you keep your feet moving, following Jesus, the One who calls you and has made you to be children of light.

In the name of Jesus.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Break Out the Champagne!

Goodridge Lutheran Parish—at Faith, Goodridge
September 12, 2010
Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Last month I read a newspaper article* that told a story that haunts me still. It was a story about the puzzling disappearance of many of Japan’s oldest residents.

Japan, you may have heard, has a reputation for being home to some of the oldest people in the world—a testament to the Japanese peoples’ healthier diet and strong commitment to the elderly.

But all that started to unravel last month when police found the mummified body of a man who was thought to be 111 years old. The man’s body was discovered at home, in his bed, where he had died some three decades ago. His 81 year old daughter had kept the death secret all that time in order to keep pocketing the man’s pension checks…..but what was even more disturbing was the fact that no one else seems to have missed the old gentleman.

This bizarre event spurred Japanese officials to go looking for other centenarians…and to their shock and dismay, they were unable to find nearly 300 of their country’s oldest residents. “Missing in action” in one of the world’s most densely-populated nations!

I shared this strange story with a friend the other day….and my friend—who happens to be single—wondered out loud: “What if I died at home? Who would miss me?”

It is a disturbing thought: being forgotten, out of sight-out of mind, lost. If you disappeared, would there be anyone out there looking for you?

The good news here in Luke 15 is that there is always Someone looking for you—whoever you are, wherever you might be, however you got lost, Someone is obsessively seeking you….peering into every nook and cranny, flashlight shining, broom at work, sweeping away any cobwebs that might hide you.

Someone is looking for you, even now. And that Someone is God—the One who created you, the One who died on the Cross for you, the One who made you his own in the water of Holy Baptism. This One is always hunting for you—he will not forget you, never, ever, ever.

Jesus offers two pictures of this obsessed, search-and-rescue God of ours. The first picture is of God the shepherd, crook in hand, trudging everywhere, earnestly seeking out a stray, a lamb that wandered from the safety of the flock. Must find! Must rescue! Must return to the flock!

The second picture Jesus provides of our seek-the-lost God is of a woman, part of her dowry or her life savings having disappeared….a woman on a mission, seeking a coin, turning her humble home upside down, looking over, under, around every piece of furniture…..broom in hand, sweeping away all the debris that might be hiding her treasure.

Someone is on the lookout for you. That’s the implication of these two tiny parables. Someone is obsessed with finding you. Someone will not rest until he finds you.

And it doesn’t even matter how you got lost in the first place.

People get lost every day…by happenstance, by accident, or because someone else led them astray.

And, as if that weren’t bad enough, we also choose to be lost. We get ourselves lost. We deliberately make choices that put us in harm’s way, place us in danger, invite death into our lives.

This is the worst kind of lostness: the lostness of our own choosing. And Jesus had a particular concern for that--the most dreadful kind of lostness.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” is how our gospel lesson begins. It starts as an accusation against Jesus by persons who kept track of such things. Jesus troubled them with his fierce determination to sit with folks who wanted to be lost—sinners, persons curved in on themselves, you and me in our self-chosen lostness—the lostness of going our own way, going away from God, running from all that is good.

Even this worst kind of lostness does not deter the searching shepherd, the frantic housewife, from seeking us out. The shepherd’s crook, the sweeping broom, the floodlight of God’s grace is aimed at us—especially aimed at us when we want to be lost.

Which is why the end of all that searching and seeking is repentance, the coming to our senses, the waking up, the turning from destruction, the return to the freedom of the Father’s house that is repentance.

Here’s just how obsessed the Shepherd is with us. He does not subscribe to the Little Bo Peep philosophy that blithely says: “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” That’s a formula for winding up with a whole pile of dead sheep!

Here’s how obsessed our climb-every-mountain Shepherd, our leave-no-stone-unturned Housewife is: God comes after us, he doesn’t allow us to “make our bed and lie in it,” God does not take our no for an answer—not without a fight, that is.

The goal is repentance, the turning from my way to God’s way with me, the turning from death to life….and that is a good and joyful thing.

Because however we think of repentance, however we’ve been taught about sorrow over sin, asking for forgiveness and resolving to amend our lives...repentance starts, it always starts with the simple act of being found.

And that is something over which we have absolutely no control.

The lost sheep probably was fleeing from its rescuer, or it may have been so injured it couldn’t stand on its own—that’s why it needed to be carried home. And the lost coin—it didn’t suddenly grow legs. It didn’t roll itself out from under the couch, into the light of day to be found.

No. To be found is to experience sheer, gratuitous, overflowing, seeking, saving Love in the flesh. The love of Jesus who went to the Cross and the grave for you and for me. “Love that found me—wondrous thought!—found me when I sought him not.” (ELW #609).

And how can there be anything other than joy—sheer, giddy delight--in such repentance?

I know, I know: we don’t normally link those words—“repentance” and “joy”….but Jesus does, and we will when we take our cues from Jesus.

“Just so I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

However you picture heaven—whether you picture streets paved with gold, crystal fountains, a healing river flowing from the throne of God—or whether you picture a Hallmark greeting card, cartoon heaven of drifting above the clouds, strumming a harp and enjoying eternal idleness…

However you picture heaven—please leave room for this: images of wild, out-of-control feasting and partying. Because Jesus our Lord draws back the curtain here in Luke 15, and he shows us angels doing cartwheels, members of the heavenly host getting tipsy and a little out of control….Jesus reveals to us a wild, noisy party breaking out every time one, just one, lost coin, one lost sheep, one sorry sinner returns, repents, is brought home again.

That’s God’s new math: just one. No “critical mass” is necessary for the hosts of heaven to break out the champagne. All it takes is one, just one sinner found. Just one.

In fact, I think that Jesus doesn’t just tell us about it here in Luke 15. Jesus shows us a glimpse of heaven—Jesus acts out heaven for us in the first verse of this lesson: Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

A little bit of heaven was there, where Jesus was getting close to all the wrong people.

And a little bit of heaven is here this morning in Goodridge as well. It’s a Jesus Party that has brought us out this morning. For good reason many Lutherans call this Rally Day—a time to rally the troops, gather up all the wanderers once again and revel in the fact that the Good Shepherd has found us, God the Fastidious Homemaker has discovered us, God’s dearest treasure, God’s precious flock.

So we’re here for a party. Which means we’re here to give and receive gifts—Bible of all things! Think of them as “homing devices” for our children….divine GPS locators that will help them when they wander off. We return from wherever we’ve been all summer, so that we might sit under the Word that is always seeking us out, so that we might dine with Jesus who just loves rubbing elbows with sinners.

And—here’s what I’m really looking forward to—we’re going to eat together. Because eating together brings us about as close as we can get to heaven-on-earth, with Jesus, in our true home, never more to wander again because we’re found. Found! Found!

In the name of Jesus.


*"Japan, Checking on Its Oldest, Finds Many Gone," by Martin Fackler.   The New York Times, August 14, 2010.