Archive for September, 2010

Missing a Wake Up Call

September 27, 2010

When I was a parish priest in the 1980s, I did a second theological degree at the General Seminary in New York. It took four summers and a lot of reading and paper writing in between. In those days, General Seminary, which is located just north of Greenwich Village in an area called Chelsea, was in a pretty tough neighborhood.

It’s now all become quite “gentrified” and the apartments are all co-ops or condos that sell for an incredible amount of money. But in those days one regularly came across homeless people and folks asking for money on the street. One of our Church History professors used to carry a pocket full of one-dollar bills so that, when he ventured out in his clerical collar and black suit, he would have something to give when he would be asked for assistance…as clergy invariably are.

I used to wonder what kind of response my friend would have gotten with his one dollar bills when the needs before him were so obviously much greater than that!

But clearly he wanted to avoid turning people down and appearing to be like the rich man in today’s Gospel “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” but who apparently had walked right by the “poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” (Luke 16:19)

Those very tables get turned in the afterlife when the poor man was rewarded and the rich man punished for his neglect of the poor. I was reminded of Judith’s quote in last Sunday’s sermon that it may be the responsibility of the rich to take care of the poor in this life, so that the poor may take care of the rich in the next! Although in this story a great “chasm has been fixed” forever dividing the poor man from the rich one!  It’s too late in this case. The rich man had “missed his wake up call!”

Certainly it’s clear from the pages of the New Testament that Christians have a responsibility to minister to the poor. In Matthew 25 Jesus makes the point that we will be judged, at least in part, on the principle of “ inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.” And there are least two ways that we can respond to that calling.

One is by direct services to the poor (a “ramped up” version of my old seminary professor passing out one-dollar bills to people on the street). In some ways that’s what our PUNCH churches and Churches United try to do through CareLink, food pantries, and other such programs here in the Quad Cities. Another method is to “get upstream” of the problem…to try to figure out why there are so many poor and hungry people around the world (and even in this rich and prosperous nation) and to try and do something about the causes!

Our church tries to name both of those approaches in something called The Five Marks of Mission” set out in the Anglican Communion’s MISSIO Report of 1999, affirmed by the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, and our own General Convention. It identifies  five challenges in our mission as Christians:

“to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God” ;

“to teach, baptize and nurture new believers”,

“to respond to human need by loving service”,

“to seek to transform unjust structures of society”;

“to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew   the life of the earth”

So, both approaches are found here: “to respond to human need by loving service” and “to seek to transform the unjust structure of society.” Anglicans in Africa and other parts of the “Two-Thirds World” expend a lot of prayer, time and energy on those two aspects of poverty reduction and they challenge us regularly to do the same thing!

Two years ago at the Lambeth Conference I joined 670 Archbishops and Bishops from across the worldwide Anglican Communion in marching through the streets of London passing out copies of something called the “Poverty and Justice Bible.” This is an edition of the Holy Bible which has more than 2,000 passages that speak of God’s attitude to poverty and justice highlighted in bright colors. You literally “cannot miss” the many references!

That was a pretty dramatic gesture and the color-coded Bibles may have been helpful to those who may rarely – or never – open the pages of our Sacred Book.

But we really shouldn’t need such reminders, dear friends. We have Matthew 25. We have today’s story of the rich man and Lazarus. And we have our Epistle today from I Timothy:

“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these…But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For 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…

As for those who in the present age ARE rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainly of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really IS life.” (I Timothy 32 passim)

That’s a “wake up call” for all of us! And I don’t think we even need a “color coded Bible” to know what God is asking of us today!

The Problem with Religious People

September 13, 2010

The problem with “religious people” – like us – is that we can become judgmental. We value our belief in and relationship with God. We treasure the forms of worship and service which we believe have nurtured that relationship. And we just can’t understand why those “other people” don’t join us in all that.

Now that’s OK as long as it simply becomes a motivation to share our faith with others and even seek to persuade them that there is something unique in the Christian faith which might be good for them and make their lives richer and fuller and help them face the difficulties of living (and dying) with greater courage and comfort.

The problem is, our zeal can become judgmental, if we are not careful. And we can pretty quickly turn into people like those Pharisees and scribes in today’s Gospel who criticize Jesus for hanging around with some of those “other people” by saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and (even) eats with them!” (Luke 15)

Or we can find ourselves – like the Psalmist today – calling those “other people” who do not share our faith names. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”—says today’s Psalm…”Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one!” (Psalm 14).  Well, that’s seems a little strong! EVERY ONE is faithless? NO ONE does good? Come now!

Jeremiah can even find a way to put words like that on God’s lips in our First Lesson today. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.” (Jeremiah 4)  Does that sound like the God you have come to know in Jesus Christ?  I don’t think so. And here’s why:

Because Jesus answers those judgmental Pharisees and scribes by telling a little story: “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 neighbors, 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 persons who need no repentance.”

No judgmentalism there, is there? Not even any apparent anger or frustration about that little lamb which wandered off and probably endangered the others when the shepherd went off to look for him. Just joy that what had been lost was now found!

Well, we know at least one person in the earliest days of the Church’s life who knew just exactly how that little lamb must have felt. His name was Saul. And he had been chief among the Pharisees and the scribes and the “holier than thou” religious types so quick to find fault with those who disagreed with him.

So ready was he to condemn the outcasts and sinners with whom Jesus ate that he held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen to death for trying to follow this same Jesus.  So quick was Saul to agree with the Psalmist that those who didn’t seem to believe in God the way he did were “fools” that he dragged Christians out of their house churches and had them arrested.

So ready was he to assume these new Christians were “stupid children” who had no understanding that he was riding toward the city of Damascus to continue his murderous rampage when he was knocked off his horse by a vision of the Risen Christ who said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked ‘who are you, Lord’ and the reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:4-6)

Decades later, this same man, now known as Paul was given credit for these words, “I am (so) grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

“ But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.  But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, make me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (I Timothy1:12 ff)

Dear friends, that is the attitude, the perspective, the self-image Christians are to have! Not to criticize others. Not to call them names and assume the worst in them. Not to be so sure that we are absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong in everything. But – like Paul – to be “grateful.” Grateful that God cared enough about us to leave the ninety-nine, to find us, and to bring us home!

Grateful that he has called us – no matter who we are, or what we may have done in this life – to be disciples and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  Grateful that even though we are sinners (perhaps even, in the words of Paul, “foremost among them”) God is merciful…and patient…and infinitely forgiving. Because “gratitude” is the strongest motivator in the world for a life of genuine commitment and perfect service to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

And just in case you’re having a hard time today thinking of anything to be grateful for, I’d like to close with one of my favorite contemporary prayers right out of our Book of Common Prayer. In fact, I’d like to have you pray it with me. Please turn to page 836 in the Prayer Book…stand…and let’s pray together

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us.  We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship

September 9, 2010

When Susanne and I returned from vacation so that I could officiate at the funeral of our beloved Ann Gardner last week, one kind parishioner asked me at the reception, “Did you know what you were getting into when you agreed to be interim Dean here at Trinity Cathedral?” I think she meant that we have had more than our share of funerals in this parish over the last eight months or so…but, of course, I did ‘know what I was getting into.’

I’ve been ordained for nearly forty years and I know well that parish ministry is not only preparing sermons and presiding at the Eucharist season by season throughout the Church year, but an ongoing cycle of baptisms and weddings and hospital and nursing home calls and, yes, funerals as well for those of our parish family whose earthly sojourn has ended.

On the other hand,  I have sometimes in my life made a commitment to an organization or a committee without first finding out all that would be expected of me, or how much time and energy would need to be expended. Haven’t you ever done that? Well, in today’s Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) Jesus is warning his followers not to make that same mistake if they plan to be committed to him and to his way of life! He’s talking today about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “the cost of discipleship.” The cost of being a follower of Jesus.

To illustrate his point, he uses some practical examples: a construction project which might get launched before anyone got around to estimating the cost of materials and labor. Or the folly of declaring war without estimating the troop strength and fire power necessary to assure victory for the home team. Those would be pretty obvious mistakes (even if we know that they actually do happen in life!) but Jesus does not want his would-be disciples to make one like that as they
consider following him!

And, in today’s Gospel, he talks about putting our faith above even family if necessary; about carrying our crosses; and about prioritizing our relationship with him over material possessions. I think the way Jesus speaks of these things may be, to some extent, examples of what scholars call “Middle Eastern hyperbole.” It’s a sort of style in Arabic languages and in Hebrew to use strong and dramatic language in order to make a point.

You remember Saddam Hussein talking about the “mother of all battles” or some Iranian dictator talking about “destroying the United States” as if either of things were possible or within their reach. Or, more to the point, Jesus himself talking about it being easier for a “camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think it must be that sort of exaggeration Jesus is using when he talks about ‘hating’ one’s “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself.”

He’s clearly making the point that our relationship with God is more important even than family relationships, but surely one who was committed to the Commandment about ‘honoring father and mother’ and once described his mission as bringing “life abundant” to all, cannot literally mean that we should hate our families or our lives.

Similarly, not many of us will be carrying literal crosses to our death as he did (even though Peter and Andrew and perhaps some of the other apostles were indeed crucified for their faithfulness!). And not everyone is called to “give up ALL our possessions” like monks and nuns and missionaries sometimes do. But we are asked to value God above money and to be generous in our giving and our sharing with those who have less than we do.

Now, none of us can know for sure whether we will be equal to the task or whether we will indeed be able to fulfill our commitment to being a disciple. Jesus is not asking for a guarantee of complete faithfulness in advance. If that were the case, perhaps none of us would qualify to be a disciple. But, through these parables and teachings, Jesus is asking us to consider in advance what real commitment to him requires.

If you listen to some televangelists or some mega-church preachers today, you might think they were trying to sell you a car or a kitchen appliance rather than the Christian gospel! In some parts of Africa this is called the “Prosperity Gospel” – just come to Jesus and you’ll be rich and famous! We certainly have our own versions of that in our own country (in fact, we actually exported it!) These charlatans make the gospel sound as easy as possible, as though no real commitment was required. Jesus’ call is far different. He was not looking, and is still not looking, for superficial commitment or a crowd of tagalongs. Instead he asks for our total commitment if we are to become his followers.

I tried to be pretty clear about that in the class of confirmands I prepared earlier in the year. I shared with them The Episcopal Church’s catechism including the part which defines “the duty of all Christians (which) is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” (BCP, 856)

We require all our baptismal candidates and confirmands to commit to the Baptismal Covenant which not only invites belief in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in prayer. To resist evil and confess our sins when we fall into them. To proclaim by our words and the examples of our lives the love of God we’ve experienced in Christ. To look for that Christ in all people, so that we can love our
neighbors as ourselves. And to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. (BCP, 304-305)

Those are lofty goals and we may not attain them perfectly. But we need to be clear about what Jesus asks of us from the get-go. That’s why I tried to emphasize that with our confirmands. That’s why we have over sixty young people in our parish this weekend participating in a Happening weekend where they are learning some of these things.

That’s why we will be launching our new Sunday School program – for children and adults – next Sunday and why I PLEAD with you as parents and godparents and grandparents to make sure that you and your young people are here every Sunday you possibly can be throughout the year!

This is not a casual commitment we are asking you to make, dear friends. We are asking you to be prepared to pay “the cost of discipleship.” There is really nothing more important!