Sunday, September 29, 2013

What Don't We See?

Luke 16:19-31
September 29, 2013

            Hear these words from a rather famous ghost story. 
            Scrooge fell upon his knees and clasped his hands before his face. 
            “Mercy!” he said.  “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?” 
            “Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
            “I do,” said Scrooge.  “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
            “It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.  It is doomed to wander through the world – oh woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
            Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.
            “You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling.  “Tell me why?”
            “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.  Is its pattern strange to you?”
            Scrooge trembled more and more. 
            “Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have labored on it since.  It is a ponderous chain!”
            Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.
            “Jacob,” he said, imploringly.  “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more.  Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”
            “I have none to give,” the Ghost replied.  “It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.  Nor can I tell you what I would.  A very little more is all permitted to me.  I cannot rest.  I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.  My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!” from A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.

            Many, if not most, of Charles Dickens’ stories were inspired by the inequity of the English class system and the misery of the poor.  Not only did he see this inequity in the society in which he lived, this inequity was played out in his own life as well.  It does not take a great intellectual leap, then, to see the motivation for “A Christmas Carol.”    
            Whenever I read this passage from Luke I can’t help but think about this scene between Scrooge and Marley.  Scrooge, for whatever reason, is being given a chance to redeem himself, change his ways.  Marley’s visit is the opening of the door between the living and the dead that gives Scrooge that opportunity.  The ghostly visit from Marley and the following three ghosts opened his eyes before it was too late. 
However for the rich man in this parable, it was too late.  He and Ebenezer Scrooge share a few things in common.  They were both rich; albeit the rich man in our parable lived his wealth.  His was a rich, sumptuous, extravagant life, while Scrooge’s was small and miserly.  They both had vivid examples of poverty living at their very doors.  Lazarus was a man starving to death, living outside the rich man’s gate.  He would have gladly taken crumbs from the rich man’s table.  But the only attention given to his physical condition came from the dogs that licked his sores. Bob Cratchitt worked in Scrooge’s cold, cramped office every day.  Had Scrooge really looked at him, he would have seen Bob’s poverty.  But he didn’t; not until the timely visits from Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas.  This is where the two stories diverge. 
In our passage the rich man and Lazarus both die.  All the comforts and solace that Lazarus never received in life, he now receives at Father Abraham’s side.  The rich man went to Hades and was tormented.  But he could look up and see Lazarus.  So he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to him, to dip his finger in water and give him some relief from the terrible flames.  But Abraham refuses.  He tells him, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 
The rich man begs Abraham yet again to send Lazarus, I guess in ghostly form, to his house to warn his five brothers.  Maybe they can be saved from this torment.  Abraham reminds the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets.  They’ve been warned.  They should already know all of this.  The rich man pleads again, saying that if someone from the dead comes back to warn them, they’ll repent.   Father Abraham tells the rich man that if his five brothers won’t listen to the words of Moses and the prophets, then a spirit from the dead will not convince them either.
            In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens decided that a ghostly visitation, actually four of them, could convince a mean, miserly, miserable old man named Ebenezer Scrooge to turn his heart and change his future.  Lucky for literature and for us that he did.  His ghosts remind us, at least at Christmas, that there are others far less fortunate and far more in need than we may ever be.  It is a powerful tale.  But Luke’s gospel reminds us of the same fact at every season, at every turning of the year.  His words bear the real power.
            Jesus tells this parable in response to the Pharisees who ridiculed his words about wealth because they loved it.         It is a parable that tells of great reversal, the predominant theme in Luke.  With the coming of the kingdom, with the intersecting of the divine and the everyday, what is low shall be made high, what is high shall be made low.  What is rich shall become poor and what is poor shall become rich.  One who feasts in one life shall suffer in the next.  And so it goes with Lazarus and the rich man.  They literally switch places.  It is an abrupt shift from the parable we heard last week.  If that parable was utterly confusing, this one seems to make too much sense.  Take care of those around you now, or else you’ll pay for it later.
            Yet the Pharisees were probably not alone in their thinking about wealth.  They were operating under the belief that if one was wealthy that person was in great favor with God.  There are passages in the Old Testament that attribute wealth and good fortune, worldly success and prosperity to God.  If one is wealthy and well-fed, successful and thriving, then one is obviously receiving God’s blessings. 
            Jesus turns this belief on its head.  Certainly as many passages as there are that can be interpreted this way, there are also passages that state very clearly how the poor, the homeless, the transient, the unloved are to be cared for.  The rich man may have lived it up when he was alive, but his fortune is reversed upon his death.  And poor Lazarus, who suffered so in this life, is finally being cared for in the shelter of Abraham’s arms.
            Being wealthy may be a circumstance of good birth, good planning and just plain good luck, but that doesn’t mean that it is a blessing.  Paired with this passage from Luke is our lesson from I Timothy warning about the dangers of riches.  Longing for riches leads us into many a temptation.  It is in this passage that we read the famous maxim, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  I’ve seen this adage cross-stitched and embroidered in a variety of ways in a variety of homes and other places.  I never thought about it much, other than it’s a good quote from the Bible.  But as much as those handcrafted works of art were visual aids to staying the course of faith, and reminders that our greed is never very far from us, I find it interesting that people generally stop with these words.  They never complete the sentence as it is in our text.  “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
            In our eagerness to be rich.  I don’t know that I’m particularly eager to be rich, but I’m not eager to be poor either.  But no matter how broke, I believe myself to be, I am not poor.  I have so much more than so many others.  I have a car, a home, too many clothes for my closet, regular meals and the kids and I are drowning in our technological gadgets.  But I forget that.  Not only do I forget that I am far from being poor myself, I don’t see the depth of the poverty around me.  I sort of see it.  As I said last week, we in this congregation, in this neighborhood have a clear view of the poverty all around us.  But even with that, I don’t see, really see, what it is to be poor. 
            I think that’s another similarity between the rich man of this parable and Scrooge.  Neither of them saw the poverty that literally lay at their doorstep.  Maybe the real truth is that neither of them wanted to see.  Because once we see something, once the blinders come off, it’s hard to go back to being blind. 
              What don’t we see?  Who don’t we see?  Do we see the growing chasm between rich and poor, not only in this country, but around the world?  Do we see the desperate circumstances in which so many, too many people live?  What don’t we see? 
            I don’t want to be that rich man who finds out in death what he should have been doing in life.  I don’t want to be Ebenezer Scrooge who needs a night of ghosts to wake me up to the life that is in front of me.
            I don’t want any eagerness I may have to be rich to blind me to the needs of the poor right around me.  I want to work towards building up the kingdom, not just my bank account.  And I never want to forget that it is caring for the poor, ministering to the sick, and loving the unlovable that we come face-to-face with the living Christ.  I suspect that’s what I don’t see the most – the living Christ in the least of these.  But as we share the blessings of our lives with others, as we give from what we have been given, our eyes are opened.  May the God of mercy, grace and love open our eyes and our hearts to those who are right at our doorsteps, praying to be seen.  May God open our eyes to what we do not see.  Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

Dickens, Charles, "A Christmas Carol".  First published in 1843.  Published in 1986 by Bantam Books.

Friday, September 27, 2013

From Here to There

            I think my son forgot he was 12 this morning.  Lately he’s been setting his alarm so he can get up early and get going for the day.  This is a nice gesture, but so far it hasn’t worked.  The alarm sounds, he turns it off and goes back to sleep until I wake him up.  But this morning was different.  His alarm rang.  I heard him turn it off, and the next sound I heard was his feet hitting the floor.  A second later he climbed into bed with me, said, “Momma,” and went right back to sleep.

            It’s not my intent to embarrass my son by telling this story.  I doubt he was really even awake when he came into my room.  When he was little, this was a much more common occurrence.  Snuggling with mom was an expectation, not a surprise.  However at 12 he’s outgrown this.  He is well on his way into adolescence, soon to join his sister in the joyful realm of teenager.

            Oh let’s be honest.  What is so joyful about being a teenager?  Words like adolescence, puberty, and even teenager, don’t adequately describe what these years are like. The term I’m going to use is “Straits of Doom.”  Being a teenager – and as I’m discovering, being a parent of a teenager – means that more often than not you are navigating the Straits of Doom, with periodic stops at the Cliffs of Insanity.  Thank you to The Princess Bride for that particular name.  It’s not that there aren’t good times when you’re in full throttle adolescence.  There are.  While I detested Junior High (I’m old enough to remember when it was Junior High, not Middle School), High School was a better experience.  The older I got, the better it got.  I can’t claim that I became fully comfortable in my own skin until college (okay grad school, okay I’m still working on it).  But every moment of my own adolescence wasn’t terrible.  But it was hard.  I wanted to be an adult and treated as such.  I wanted the privileges of adulthood without the responsibility.  I wanted to use all of the clich├ęs available, to be free to be me, spread my wings, fly, soar, until it got hard or scary.  Then I wanted to race right back to the safety of my parents, childhood and letting somebody else take care of me.  I write this knowing how lucky I was to have that safety net to fall back on.  Many don’t.

            I guess that is the real challenge of this time, and why adolescence feels more like traveling seasick than (insert snarky tone here) a journey of discovery into the delights of growing up.  Not only is your body suddenly a pinball machine of hormonal fluctuations; you’re also walking a thin, wildly shaky line between childhood and adulthood.  You want one but are reluctant to completely abandon the other.  Leaving childhood may be as much an occasion for grief as any other loss. 

            I know I’m not the first person to come to this realization about adolescence.  I'm sure I'm just articulating what others have already said.  However, I thought I was fairly well prepared to be a parent of teenagers.  After all, I was a teenager.  I remember.  But what I didn’t understand was the shock I feel at how quickly my children are changing.  Obviously all of life is change, but the changes I'm seeing now seem dramatically different from the changes I witnessed when they were little.  The changes of adolescence seem to be happening at a deeper level than when they were learning to talk and walk, read and ride a bike.  Author Anne Lamott, in writing about her son Sam’s experience navigating the Straits of Doom, said that when he would be in the throes of teenager-itis (my term), he didn’t seem like the person she knew as Sam at all.  So she called that person Phil, and she’d deal with Phil until Sam returned. * *

            My children are changing.  They are figuring out the world on their own terms.  They’re seeing through lenses that are distinctively their own.  Yes, those lenses are influenced by their parents and larger families, friends and experiences; but they are still forging a path that’s theirs and theirs alone.  I know that this is absolutely necessary.  I know that my job as a parent is not to make the path easier because I can’t, but to give them whatever guidance they’ll accept as they make their way.  What I didn’t expect was the helplessness.  Now I get my parents’ worry and frustration with me.  They knew that they had to do everything they could to teach me, but they couldn’t fully protect me.  They could see the rocks and heartaches and setbacks that lay in wait along those straits, but they were helpless to prevent me from crashing into them.  I see them too.  I also know my children will crash against them. They’ll hurt and be hurt.  They'll fail.  They'll encounter obstacles they didn't expect.  They’ll fall and will have to find a way to get back up.  But all of this has to happen in their own way.  I have to accept that their way won’t always be mine.  I’ll treasure moments like this morning, a moment when I can still see the precious children they were.  But along with the worry and frustration that comes with teenagers, I’m also going to be hopeful.  I'm going to look to the future, their future, with expectation.  From the moment each of them were born, they were unique, amazing, wonderful little beings.  Someday, sooner than I'd like, I'll look up and see that they've become unique, amazing, wonderful adults.   

** In the spirit of Anne Lamott, I’ve decided to call my kids’ alter egos Tallulah and Spike.  I don’t know why.  The names just work. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Luke 16:1-13
September 22, 2013

            One of the ways that I would start discussions in my Intro to Ethics class was to show episodes from television shows that highlighted an ethical choice or an aspect of a moral theory we were learning. One show that I turned to was my favorite British comedy, "The Vicar of Dibley." 
            An episode that I found particularly helpful when it came to discussing Moral Relativism and the question of ends justifying the means was The Window and the Weather.  The premise of this episode is that a stormy night in village of Dibley results in the stained glass window of the church being destroyed by a lightning-struck tree branch.  The parish council, their version of the session, faces the challenge of wanting to replace the window but finding that the cost to do so is exorbitant -- 11,000 British pounds.  The council doesn't see how the money can be raised, but the Vicar gives a rousing speech about finding a way to raise the money.  Acting on a suggestion from one of the council members, she decides to find a wealthy business person to sponsor the church and cover the cost of the window.
            This sounds straightforward, but from the first moment the idea is conceived the Vicar lies in order to make the plan happen. 
            When she asks the council chair, David Horton, for the names and numbers of his richest associates, he refuses.  So she lies to his son, Hugo, saying that his dad asked him to give her the names and numbers.
            She does try to go the honesty route with her first phone call, but the business person at the other end turns her down immediately, as well as offering a suggestion as to where she can put her request.  So, looking at the picture of Jesus which hangs over her desk, the Vicar confesses to him that she is going to have to fib but it's for a very good cause. On the next phone call she tells the business man, Daniel Frobisher, that she is part of a start-up investment company.  She wrangles a lunch with him, then shows up for the meeting in her clerical collar throwing the poor man for the proverbial loop.  She apologizes for lying to him, but still manages to get him to commit to sponsoring the new window.
            The twist in all this is that from the beginning of the episode the viewer learns that a terrible earthquake has happened in Chile.  After the Vicar has secured the money from the wealthy man a second earthquake strikes.  It exacts a terrible cost in life and worsens an already devastated area.  The Vicar is visibly moved by this and takes down a number for donations.
            Yet it is not until the end of the episode that we learn how devious the Vicar has actually been. Once the new window is installed, the council and Daniel gather for the great unveiling.  Before the cover is taken off the window, the Vicar thanks Daniel for his generosity and tells everyone that that he has pledged that any money not spent on the window can go to the earthquake recovery fund.  So without further ado, Daniel pulls the covering off and ... it's clear glass.  Nothing stained about it.  It cost about 500 pounds, meaning that over 10,000 pounds will go to help the earthquake victims.  The Vicar confesses that had she gone ahead and gotten the stained glass, whenever she looked at the window she would have only seen the children from the earthquake. The response to her decision was not anger or outrage, not even from Daniel.  The council admired her decision.  David, the council chair and her toughest opponent, proclaimed it a good decision.  Through the new clear glass they could see the beautiful sunset and the rolling hills of the countryside.  As one council member put it, after all, what's better than a view of God's own creation? 
            All's well that ends well, right?  But let's review the "fibs" the Vicar told to get to this happy ending.  She lied to Hugo to get the numbers.  She lied to Daniel to get an appointment.  She lied by omission to everyone by making the decision to replace the window with clear glass.  But what started out as a good cause for the church became something that contributed to a much greater cause of helping people in another land recover from a devastating earthquake. 
            I know that this is an imperfect illustration into the passage we have from Luke. In spite of her fibs, the Vicar's motivation from the beginning was good; good for her church, good for others; while the dishonest manager does what he does because his dishonesty was found out. Had the master never heard about how the manager was mishandling the master's money, maybe the manager would have just kept on living the way he was?  But the master did hear and he called the manager on the carpet for it.  The manager, knowing the jig was up and realizing that he wasn't strong enough to dig ditches and too proud to beg, decides to make friends so that when he was dismissed he would secure a place where he would be welcomed.  So he goes to the people who owe debts to the master and reduces them.  "You owe this much?  Cut it in half."
            When the master finds out what the manager has done, you'd think he would be in even greater trouble.  But no, the master commends him. The manager has acted shrewdly.  That's a good thing.  Then Jesus says some of his most confusing words ever, "And I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." 
            Right about now is probably when you get the reason for my peculiar title, "Huh?"  As I told some members on Friday, this was the most appropriate and bulletin friendly of all the responses I had to this passage.  The response to the managers actions by the master and certainly Jesus' response to them seems counter-intuitive to everything we think about discipleship.  Dishonesty, even though it is used to do something good, is still dishonesty.  But in this passage the dishonesty and quick thinking of the manager is praised.  Even though there's no reason to believe that the manager was acting out of anything but self-interest, the way he deals with the situation he finds himself in is not condemned but lifted up as an example.  Huh?!
            In the last few verses Luke's Jesus seems to be explaining why he thinks this dishonest manager's actions are praiseworthy. But quite frankly, the explanations leave me more confused than ever.  If you're faithful in a little, you're faithful in much.  If you're dishonest in a little, you're dishonest in much. If you can't be trusted to do the right thing with someone else's wealth, how can you be entrusted to do the right thing with what you've been given?  It culminates with these words.  A slave cannot serve two masters.  You'll love one and hate the other.  You cannot serve both God and wealth. 
            Another way to translate the word that is used for "shrewdly" is "worldly."  The dishonest manager was worldly in how he dealt with his situation.  Again, this seems counter-intuitive.  Aren't we as believers supposed to be in this world but not of this world?  Aren't we supposed to stay outside of all that is considered "worldly," because we have been taught to believe that "worldly" is wrong or bad or tainted?  But here's the thing, we are in this world.  And in small ways and large, the world is in us.  We live in a world where money matters.  Maybe it's wrong that it does, but it does.  Will any of us upon leaving here today repudiate what wealth we have?  Will we sell all that we have and trust that we'll be taken care of?  No.  We won't.  Because even if we don't have firsthand experience with being homeless, we have a ringside view of it don't we? Homelessness and poverty isn't glamorous or spiritual. It's hard.  It's dangerous.  It's suffering.  So I doubt that any of us would gladly surrender all of our wealth.  I wouldn't.  But perhaps the point that Jesus was trying to get across was not that being dishonest was okay, but that when it comes to wealth we have to be realistic, not idealistic.  The dishonest manager was praised for his shrewdness, his worldliness.  What does it mean, then, for us to be worldly when it comes to wealth? 
            Maybe what it means is that we have to recognize that we are going to be thrust into situation after situation where we have to make a decision.  Are we going to serve wealth?  Or are we going to use whatever wealth we have to serve God?  As a dear friend of mine put it, in the end the manager used wealth to build relationship.  Are we enslaved to wealth or do we find a way to use our wealth to build up the kingdom?  Do we use our wealth to further relationship, with others and with God?  It becomes a question of stewardship.  How do we use our wealth to serve God?
            The question I express in my title is still there.  I'm not sure that I'll ever fully understand or grasp the meaning of this parable and the explanation Jesus gives.  But I do believe that the discussion of wealth has to begin here, in the church, the place where we like to talk about it the least.  Yet it seems that one thing we might glean from this passage is that not talking about it, not being realistic, even worldly about it, is not serving God.  It's not building up the kingdom.  It's not creating relationship.  Perhaps when it comes to wealth, we must be shrewd in how we use it in order for the gospel to be proclaimed and God's kingdom to be realized.  So confused as we may be, let us trust that God is working to guide us even through our confusion.  And let all God's children say, "Amen."