Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C] - September 26, 2010 (Luke 16:19-31)

Mark Zuckerberg has been in the news quite a bit this week. For those who might not recognize that name right off the bat, Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook, the online social networking site that now boasts 500 million users worldwide. Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of his internet creation, which allows people to share all kinds of personal information like photos and favorite news stories and imaginary farm equipment with the click of a computer key, Zuckerberg became the world’s youngest billionaire ever when he was only 23 years old. Computer genius, he is only 26 years old now and his net worth is $6.9 billion.

Zuckerberg made the headlines once this week because a quasi-biographical film of Zuckerberg and the genesis of Facebook, called, The Social Network, will hit the theatres nationwide on Friday. I’ve not seen the film, but it chronicles his rise to internet icon status as an undergraduate at Harvard. The subtitle for The Social Network is “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” It is a play on words that, unfortunately, only the Facebook in-crowd will fully appreciate, but the essential meaning is still there for everyone: those who are ambitious in obtaining status and wealth must often trample human relationships in the process. The film apparently does not portray Zuckerberg in a flattering light.

Be that as it may, Zuckerberg also made headlines this week as he announced a grant of $100 million to the impoverished school system of Newark, New Jersey. Citing his desire to see that all children get afforded the same type of education to which he had access as a child, Zuckerberg chose to shower his generosity on the Lazarus of today’s educational system: Newark’s schools have a 50% graduation rate and were declared a “failure” by the state government in 1995. That the same country could produce both a person like Zuckerberg and a school system like Newark’s is a reminder of the disparity of wealth and opportunity that beset all human communities.

No, we do not need Jesus’ lessons to remind us of the world’s haves and have-nots, but we get them anyway, especially in Luke’s gospel. Hardly a chapter goes by where Jesus doesn’t highlight the needs of the poor and oppressed and also draw attention to the excesses of the rich. The song that Mary sings in Luke’s first chapter should tip us off to this theme of poor versus rich. Reflecting on God’s incredible decision to use a young, unmarried virgin as the way for Jesus to come into the world, Mary rejoices, “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” But of all the talk about the fate of the rich and the poor and where they fit into God’s kingdom, this parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke’s 16th chapter makes the point most vividly.

The Pharisees, who are the target audience for this parable, have endured Jesus’ teachings about money for awhile. Described by Luke as people who loved money, the Pharisees begin to mock and ridicule Jesus because he claims that one cannot serve God and wealth. Finally, Jesus resorts to telling a story. Where lessons and rhetoric often fail, simple stories with imaginative characters and dramatic plots often succeed.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
workshop of Domenico Fetti (1618/28)
This rich man was filthy rich. He is often named “Dives” (DYE-veeze) because dives is the Latin word for rich, and therefore the word used in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible for centuries. Dives dressed, for example, only in the best. “Purple and fine linen,” we are told, but we know the names—Oscar de Laurenta, Armani, Hollister. He ate everyday like it was Christmas or Thanksgiving. With the best cooks in the land at his service, no doubt, he never ate leftovers, even though he had them. Some might say that Dives “had it all,” but that would be wrong. That, in fact, was his problem: he felt he didn’t have it all. Once he had some, he realized there was always more, and so his life was built on this vicious circle of acquiring and acquiring…there was, in his view, always more to be had. Clothes, food, influence, Facebook friends…Dives could always use more.

Meanwhile, right out at the entrance to his neighborhood, where he’d practically have to trip over him each day, lay a beggar named Lazarus. If Dives was filthy rich, Lazarus was filthy poor…and I mean filthy. Not only did he have no food or money, but he was stricken with some awful skin disease and had no access to adequate health care, unless you count the dogs who would come and lick his open sores. He would have loved to eat those leftovers from Dives’ five refrigerators, but—alas!—Lazarus was invisible. No one really paid him attention as he sat there in utter anguish. Two people, living together in the same world—sharing the same property, even—but having completely different experiences with life. One is successful, living the high life, and the other is a low-life. Then they both die.

As Jesus tells the story, Lazarus doesn’t even get the luxury of a burial. Nevertheless, angels swoop down to carry him away and lay him comfortably in the bosom of Abraham, where most people would hope to spend eternity in that day and age. Dives gets a burial, but then finds himself in Hades where he gets tormented forever. Ever the opportunist, Dives looks up and says to Abraham (even in death choosing not to address the poor man directly), “Hey, Abe, this place stinks. Why don’t you send ole Lazzy-boy to get me something to drink?” Abraham informs him of the rules: there is a huge, unbridgeable gap between where Lazarus is and where Dives is in Hades and that’s that. No crossing. For any reason. Kind of like the short distance between the mansion and the gate which Dives chose never to cross in his life on earth, right? Abraham goes on to inform him of the reversal of fortune that Jesus has been mentioning throughout his ministry: the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

But that doesn’t stop Dives. He continues to bargain with Abraham, maybe for the first time thinking of someone other than himself. His brothers! Maybe if Lazarus were to go to them from the dead—again, he refuses to dignify Lazarus with a direct request—then his brothers would be warned against the perils of self-indulgence. And that’s where Abraham reminds Dives of what Jesus has been saying the whole time: this business of taking care of the poor and sharing wealthy with others is not a new concept. It has been a central message of God’s word through the prophets since the beginning of Israel’s history. Abraham’s final message to the rich man: even if someone were to rise from the dead, people will still be drawn to money and wealth and power more than they will be drawn to God’s Word. Even if someone were to rise from the dead, people will still be tempted to avert their eyes and their generosity from the Lazaruses who lie in their path.

Earlier this week I was driving out of a Wal-Mart parking lot and got stopped at a red light. There, beside me, on the median, sat what looked to be a homeless man holding up a sign asking for help. He looked dirty and unshaven, some words on his sign were misspelled, and he seemed to be nodding off to sleep, even though it was about lunchtime. I thought to myself, I could give him something now, but all I have is a little cash and he might not use it wisely.

As I pondered what his life might be and its juxtaposition to so many shoppers leaving a mall, I wondered at my own awkwardness at being so close to him. Why my mistrust? Why my shame? Why my judgment? I’m sure it had something to do with sin, but before I could rationalize anything, a car turning into the parking lot just on the other side of him stopped, bringing all traffic behind it to a halt. Down rolled a window and out popped the hand of a driver bearing a fast food bag. He called the homeless man over and handed him what I supposed was a hot meal. At that point the light turned green and I had to drive on, but not before I thanked the driver of the car (in my head, of course) for reminding me, yet again, that someone has risen from the dead.

It’s very easy, even in this country, to think that if someone is poor it somehow their own fault and the resources are there for them to remove themselves from their condition. It’s the stereotypical and unhelpful thought pattern that “God helps those who help themselves.” And this attitude exists not only in our time. Just as disparities of wealth have always existed, so have possible theories for those disparities, no matter how incorrect they may be. In Jesus’ day it was very common to think that if you were poor it was because God had punished you somehow, and that if you were rich, it was because you had done right and God had blessed you.

Yet before we turn these parables of Lazarus and Dives strictly into a lesson on social justice, a lesson on the economics of God’s kingdom, we must remember that Jesus tells this parable primarily to the Pharisees, who are lovers of money. It is Jesus’ sternest warning against the dangers of trying to serve two masters. The desire to have more and more quarantine us from the ability to help others and bring them joy in this life. We do not open our hearts and our gates and our car windows because we earn points with God that way, or because we want the comfort of Abraham’s bosom. We open our hearts and our gates and our car windows and give of our wealth—whatever that may be—because that’s how the world looks now that Jesus is risen Lord.

Maybe the world has always been a tale of the imbalance between the Zuckerbergs and the Newarks, but it mustn’t always be that way now that someone has risen from the dead. People of faith don’t have to fall into the trap of thinking that “this is just the way the world works out,” because we know it isn’t true. It never was, which is what Moses and the prophets were trying to make clear. But it’s especially not true anymore. Jesus has triumphed over all the powers of greed and selfishness, showing us that opening our lives to the Spirit of God makes us truly richer than any amount of money. The story of Lazarus and the rich man isn’t about the ultimate fate of the poor or the rich. If we get stuck on that aspect of the parable we are liable to miss the point. The point has more to do with the world that Jesus’ ministry has come to create, a world where the rich and poor alike are transformed by the gospel and, by the bye, realize their interconnectedness and rejoice in their responsibilities to each other.

This, then, is why Mary calls it good news that the rich and the satisfied, in God’s kingdom, will be sent away empty. This is why the gospel is good for both poor as well as the rich…because under Jesus’ reign even the money-lovers will learn what Lazarus and the rest of the poor already know: that God is our only help. In the end it will not be money, or fame, or a good education, or the right upbringing, or computer ingenuity that gives us the life that really is life. God alone is where we’ll find our hope, and for his vision of a world restored in Jesus we work and pray.

And that, as it turns out, happens to be the meaning of Lazarus’ name. The name Dives might mean “rich man,” but Lazarus, in fact, means, “God is my help” in the language of Jesus’ time. It is an ironic play on words that would not have been lost on the Pharisee audience. Isn’t that a clever piece to the story? The poor man’s name actually means “God helps me.”

As we look out in despair and confusion at the disparities in our world, and as we ponder our own place in it, may we not simply see Lazarus, but perhaps be him, too. In the wondrous light of the resurrection, may the risen Lord Jesus name us “Lazarus”: God is our help.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C] - September 5, 2010 (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33)


That’s the sound I believe you would hear if you were to hold this portion of Luke’s gospel up to your ear. It’s the sound of screeching tires from brakes being applied rather suddenly and forcefully, as when the road you are travelling takes a turn off to the side in another direction without warning.


It’s the sound of hundreds, perhaps thousands—no, make that millions of would-be disciples—stopping in their tracks to get their bearings and possibly re-calculate their route in Jesus’ footsteps. Like listening for the sound of the ocean inside a conch shell, if you hold this particular page of the New Testament—this specific admonition from Jesus--up to your ear, that’s the sound you can make out.

At least, I know I can hear myself hitting the brakes pretty hard when I hear these words about true discipleship. I don’t know about you, but I find myself almost instinctively backpedalling, my hand groping for some spiritual GPS device with which I could investigate possibilities for circumnavigating these unhappy obstacles.

It’s been a wild and interesting ride thus far. The demands of discipleship haven’t been too taxing, yet the rewards have been fairly attractive: the promise of a kingdom fulfilled, good news for the poor, the vision of a world released from captivity to sin! Discipleship has, for the most part, seemed relatively doable. That is, until now…until this point when our leader wheels around mid-step and seemingly lays it all on the line: following will mean, in fact, loving him above all else, carrying a cross, and—gasp!—giving up our possessions. Now it appears more might be asked of us than we originally thought, and if we are to re-prioritize and re-calibrate, it would be best to apply the brakes and think this through.

On the whole, we can’t blame Jesus’ for not letting his followers know what their in for. We can’t claim that this is a bait-and-switch approach to discipleship, and it’s good that honesty is the policy here. Yet, at the same time, doesn’t Jesus know that you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? I mean, what kind of church growth campaign would this be, anyway? We hear stories about the decline of so many mainline churches in America, the dwindling membership numbers of our own denomination, and the rising statistics of those who say they’re unchurched. Wouldn’t it be better to highlight the fun aspects of following the Lord, if Jesus were to wheel around and remind us of the upcoming potluck dinners and the youth group Synod events? Does he really think being so blunt about the costs will make people sign up and follow?

Could you imagine, for instance, if this is how we introduced Henry Waller this morning to the waters of baptism? “Hal and Ally, do you realize what you’re getting Henry into? Do you know you’re signing him up for a good bit of suffering, introducing him to a way of thinking and living that will often have him at odds with the world? Are you prepared for him to learn to love Jesus even more than he will come to love you?? Happy baptism, everybody!”

Yes, perhaps better to downplay these aspects, Jesus, for fear we’ll all apply the brakes, and then never rev the engine up again! Like the Israelites in this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy who stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, looking over the Jordan, hopeful and yet chastened after forty years of wandering, the followers of Jesus face something like a decision at this point: Eeeerrrk! Life…or death. Prosperity…or adversity. Continue to Jerusalem with Jesus…or go back to whatever we were doing before.

Lutherans have long had something of an allergic reaction to anything that smacks of “decision theology”; that is, any understanding of Christian faith which suggests, in any way, that our salvation is dependent on our decision for God. Lutherans have typically chosen to proclaim all this the other way around: that salvation is ultimately based on God’s decision for us, that God never gives up on us, and his love is a free gift offered in the life and death of Jesus Christ who came to suffer and die so that sinners could be reconciled to God. In baptism, we have these promises, never to be revoked, and Christian life is about fashioning an authentic response to those promises. Yes, if there is a decision involved in securing our redemption, we would always choose to stress God’s decision for us so that the message of grace is loud and clear.

And yet, there is a sense in which some type of decision is expected from us at not one but at perhaps several points along the way. There is some need for an acknowledgement on our part, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we will join our meager forces with this kingdom coming. We will, in fact, commence to building that tower that Jesus mentions in his mini-parable. We will commit our armies to the battle. We will submit, that is, to the suffering that comes when standing up for justice and peace, and we’ll strive to view the world and our relationships with Christ at the center.

That’s what Jesus is driving at in his short but direct speech here on the road to Jerusalem. Without mincing his words, Jesus urges anyone who has an interest in being a disciple to weigh first what that means. This discipleship endeavor is not, as it sometimes appears, just another social service organization that goes about doing good here and there. This movement is not, as it often comes across, a club for fellowship and networking, or a historical society that propagates a certain heritage. The community of Jesus’ followers isn’t even about a certain kind of worship, a gathering of people who like to do little religious things together. Rather, Jesus calls real people to a real journey that has real demands.

Incidentally, a book on this particular subject has recently been published which is causing quite a stir in certain Christian circles. A review of it was even run on CNN this week. Entitled Almost Christian, the book is researched and written by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean. In it she posits, rather controversially, that many of the youth in Christian churches these days are not really Christian, having instead developed a “watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.” Furthermore, Dean argues that many “parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.”

To draw her conclusions, Professor Dean undertook hundreds of interviews of active church youth across the country and asked them about their faith, their lives, and what was important to them. She discovered that while they could talk with considerable nuance about subjects like money, sex, and their family relationships, they were surprisingly incoherent when asked to talk about their beliefs. Interestingly, Dean hypothesizes that this watered-down version of Christian faith that youth are receiving and hearing from pastors and parents is largely why youth are drifting away from the mainline churches. They recognize, on some level, that no demand is really made on them, that no challenge is really offered from this type of distant god, just as such a god steers clear of teenagers’ tough questions about life.

I can’t say that I have experienced her findings to be true about the youth I’ve worked with at Epiphany. After all, one of our youth members freely donated the cash gifts she received from her sixteenth birthday party to fund part of the youth group’s servant trip to South Carolina last month. Another one spent the last week of her summer running a day camp for inner city children in her own backyard, without compensation. What I found most interesting about Dean’s conclusions is her answer for teaching about the God we encounter in the gospel today, the God who sends his Son to suffer for our sake. She says that parents “who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.” Such an act might include, for example, turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church or spending a summer abroad working on an agricultural renewal project and then verbally connecting that type of radical decision to the life of faith. ("Author: More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians.” John Blake on CNN.) In other words, it involves taking to heart the words about the rigors of discipleship, and deciding to head forward, deciding to embark, time and again, on that path of grace that God lays out before us in Jesus.

And somewhere along the line, I would say, we learn that it is actually quite worthwhile to follow…that even after we’ve hit the brakes over and over again, we discover that the fun we might be looking for really is found in sharing all that we have with others, in dedicating all our worldly possessions—indeed, our very lives—to the cause of something far greater that our pastime or our own personal glory. Somewhere along the way—and as a Lutheran I would say at innumerable points along the way—we do decide that crossing over Jordan, for all its scariness and all its sacrifices, is still the only path worth taking, the only land worth occupying, for through it we truly enjoy the life God desires for us, a kingdom that is eternal.

And also along the way we discover, to our shock, that it isn’t vinegar Jesus has used to invite us into the life of discipleship. No, my friends, it isn’t vinegar at all, but its far sweeter cousin, wine. With bread and wine, placed out upon a table surrounded by the very fellows who slammed on the brakes in betrayal and denial, Jesus offers his own self and God’s own forgiveness as his eternal pledge of help and salvation. And this gift has been given, it turns out, as a part of a growth campaign: your growth…your growth into a life that is prosperity, a life of radical growth around every bend in the road. It has been given for you, Henry…and for all of us.

One question for us to ponder, as we sit there with our foot on the brake pedal: will we take it?

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.