Pentecost 16 C / Proper 21
September 29, 2019
O, Rock-a My Soul
Not too long after Jesus tells his listeners that they have to choose between serving wealth and serving God because they can’t serve both, he tells the parable we hear today. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus often suggests that money itself isn’t the problem.
Pentecost 16 C / Proper 21 September 29, 2019
Oktoberfest weekend Pastor Susan Henry
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
O, Rock-a My Soul
Not too long after Jesus tells his listeners that they have to choose between serving wealth and serving God because they can’t serve both, he tells the parable we hear today. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus often suggests that money itself isn’t the problem. It’s what people do with their money that might reveal how close or how far they are from what God would have them do with it.
Sharing what we have, seeing that people don’t go hungry, caring for those in need, showing compassion, and living justly reveal a life of loving God and loving our neighbors -- a life that finds us drawn close to God’s heart. On the other hand, clutching what’s “ours” tenaciously or consuming conspicuously day after day while refusing to see or know or help the hungry or hurting people who are practically on our doorsteps reveal a life that keeps God’s desires a theoretically safe distance from our own. A life that keeps God at arm’s length, just beyond a gate, or safely across a chasm. Maybe even a life withheld from God.
In truth, there might as well be a chasm between the rich man in Jesus’ parable and Lazarus, the poor man who lays outside the wealthy one’s gate. The unnamed rich man comes and goes, shops and dines, lives his best life – while Lazarus, hungry, hurting, and seemingly invisible, is hanging by a thread. Lazarus’ name means “God has helped,” but the rich man has certainly not been a channel through whom God is able to help.
When Lazarus dies, he’s “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” It’s actually more than just “being with.” A translation less inclined to censor intimacy might help us picture Lazarus leaning in close and resting against Father Abraham’s chest -- you know, like, “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham . . . .” We might picture a child snuggled up against a loving parent or the intimate moment when, as the King James version puts it, “. . . there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.” Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. O, rock-a my soul.
The rich man, from a great distance, observes this intimacy and calls, “’Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus . . .’ to bring me just a sip of water because it’s beastly hot here, and I’m in agony.” “Send Lazarus,” the rich man asks, as though he is still wealthy and powerful and entitled to be served by someone like the guy he thought had a lot of nerve taking up space outside his gate and spoiling his view of the neighborhood. “Send Lazarus,” the rich man asks – and reveals that he knows that guy by name. He saw him and knew him and withheld what would have helped him, despite knowing what the faith he traced all the way back to Abraham asked of him! “Send Lazarus,” he pleads, apparently still clueless or unrepentant about the chasm he created between his wealth and greed on one side of the gate and Lazarus’ poverty and need on the other side. The chasm he now perceives mirrors the one that was of his own doing – or undoing.
“Father Abraham, send Lazarus . . . at least to my brothers so they don’t end up where I am.” Notice that Abraham hasn’t cut off their relationship – he calls him “Child,” – but he reminds the rich man that his siblings already know how God calls them to live. They don’t need an Ebenezer-Scrooge-story visitation from Lazarus. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham tells him, “so they should listen to them.” “Let them pay attention,” Father Abraham says, “and then let them share what they have, see that people don’t go hungry, care for those in need, show compassion, and live justly. Let their lives and the way they use their money reveal how they love God and love their neighbors. Let them lead lives that draw them close to God’s heart.”
If that sounds like the way we’re called to live, too, perhaps Jesus means for us to identify with neither the rich man nor Lazarus, but with the siblings who can open the gates at their homes, meet those on the other side who are hungry and hurting, and become channels of God’s help for them. Giving Oktoberfest proceeds to Habitat, Ascentria, Wellspring, Calumet, and the Hingham Food Pantry is one way God’s help can come through us. This parable is far less a story about what happens after death and way more a story about what happens while we are still living.
I am consoled in this stark story by the ongoing relationship between the rich man and Abraham, between a child and a father. And I think there is more to this story. There’s an ending that bridges the chasm, that opens the gate, and that creates an intimate, life-giving relationship. Jesus himself builds a bridge right across that chasm. Jesus seeks and finds the lost, and we confess that he even “descended into hell.” Jesus says that he himself is the gate through which all his sheep come safely into the sheepfold.
So, while Lazarus rests on the bosom of Abraham, I imagine the rich man resting on the bosom of Jesus, knowing himself to be so beloved of God that he is in agony over his selfishness and greed, his arrogance and entitlement, his unwillingness to let Lazarus or God into his life. So beloved of God that he pleads, “Help me.” So beloved of God that he lives into the gift of new life that we too receive through the chasm-crossing death and resurrection of Jesus.
O, rock-a my soul.
Pentecost 15 C / Proper 20
September 22, 2019
Compassion and Justice
If you’re still trying to figure out what’s going on in the gospel for today, you’re in good company. Allow me to quote three commentaries on this passage: “Any commentator will tell you that this is a difficult text;”
Pentecost 15 C / Proper 20 September 22, 2019
Amos 8:4-7 Pastor Susan Henry
1 Timothy 2:1-7 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Luke 16:1-13 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Compassion and Justice
If you’re still trying to figure out what’s going on in the gospel for today, you’re in good company. Allow me to quote three commentaries on this passage: “Any commentator will tell you that this is a difficult text;”1 “This parable of the Dishonest Steward is one of the strangest of the strange;”2 and “Commentators routinely remark that the parable of the Dishonest (Corrupt) Manager stands among the most challenging texts in the New Testament, often regarding it as the most perplexing of Jesus’ parables.”3 David Lose, whose wisdom and insight I value, begins a commentary on this passage with a question for pastors: “So what do you think: is it ever okay to tell the congregation that you really have no idea what a passage means?”4 My answer today is, “Yes.” I have no idea what the parable in this passage means, and when I said that in Bible study Thursday, someone responded, “Oh, that makes me feel much better!”
So, instead of trying to preach once again on a parable that seems to baffle even brilliant scholars, today I’m preaching on Amos. It is perhaps a no less challenging text – not because we’ll have no idea what it means, but because we just might understand it -- and we won’t necessarily want to go where it leads us. Amos is proclaiming that what God desires in our relationships and in the marketplace is justice. “Listen up, people,” Amos says, “It’s not fair to put a thumb on the scale so you can charge more than your product is worth. It’s not doing justice to sweep up and sell the grain that falls on the ground instead of leaving it for those who are poor to gather. It goes against God’s intent for the Sabbath when, instead of actually resting, you’re impatiently counting the hours until you can open up shop again and make some more money.” Amos insists that the vulnerable – people who are poor or have no family left or are strangers in the community -- are not be taken advantage of, ignored, or discarded, but instead dealt with justly and cared for so that everyone can thrive. The prophet proclaims that God wants the social and economic order to be marked by compassion, love, and justice. Faithfulness to God and participation in commerce aren’t two separate realms, Amos says. Justice is what love can look like when you go to the market to buy and to sell.
That’s no less true for us today. Many of us consider, as best we can, the impact of our purchases on those who grew or produced what we buy. We drink Fair Trade coffee or we avoid buying cheap clothes that will just get tossed at the end of a season. We might fill our reusable water bottles from the faucet rather than buy bottled water because we’re mindful of the impact of plastics on our planet and we want to be good stewards of the earth. Living out our faith through more-just purchasing and with compassion for coffee farmers, for textile workers who aren’t paid fairly or who have to work in dangerous conditions, and for our planet itself aligns us with God’s own justice and compassion.
Amos, I suspect, would be unimpressed. It’s not that our coffee, clothes, and water decisions are bad in and of themselves, but that they are woefully inadequate to God’s call to live justly and compassionately. Living faithfully gets more challenging when more is asked of us, individually and together. A Reuters poll earlier this year found that almost 70% of Americans want more “aggressive” action on climate change, but only a third would be willing to pay an additional $100 a year toward that.5 Our very human desire for a comfortable life for ourselves keeps us from acknowledging and addressing the impact of our continued present comfort on the future lives of our children and grandchildren, our human and other-than-human neighbors near and far, and the earth itself.
It’s not easy to live justly. As someone said in Bible study on Thursday, “We want what we want and when we want it.” I’ll own that for myself, and you might sheepishly acknowledge it, too. Amos is speaking to us. We are, at the least, complicit in systems that “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” Amos would urge us to advocate and to act for those who are most vulnerable to practices that enrich others at the expense of the poor, the hungry, the powerless, and the planet. Amos’ call to advocacy and action is tempting to ignore or put off because it will cost us something. Maybe not $100, but perhaps it will cost us the time it takes to track down our legislators’ phone numbers and make calls to them for the sake of more just public policies. Or perhaps it will take some planning and cost us some energy to show up for a climate strike march or a Habitat build or even next Saturday’s Oktoberfest. Maybe there will be a cost to speaking up as a person of faith on behalf of immigrants or refugees or the poor or the climate crisis. Surely it will cost us to make do with less of what we want so that others can have more of what they need. We may well feel the sting of the costs we’re called to bear for the sake of living justly and compassionately. As H. L. Mencken once put it, “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.”
A sixteen-year-old from Sweden is boldly and courageously advocating for justice and for compassion, though not necessarily in theological language. No less powerfully than Amos, Greta Thunberg is holding accountable those who trample on the needy and the young and the future of our planet. Since “business as usual” is not really an option in the vast, interconnected, interdependent world in which we live, a different model – a more loving and just model – for buying and selling and living together here on Planet A is necessary. As Christians, our primary identity is as children of God – beloved, baptized people who know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. We know who and whose we are. That deep, confident knowing frees us to respond to prophetic voices and to the daunting task ahead with creativity, courage, humility, persistence, compassion, and a commitment to justice. God will help us, and God is equipping us for the task -- comforting us with God’s promises and confronting us with old and new prophets who call us to live justly and compassionately. Such faithful living will surely lead us out of our “wanting what we want and when we want it” and toward “wanting what God wants and when God wants it.”
In light of the world’s focus on climate issues right now, and especially as the UN Climate Action Summit takes place this week, the bishop of the Metro New York Synod offers this prayer:
“Living God, Maker of all that is, Source of creation, we thank you the unique and precious gift of this earth, so beautifully fashioned and delicately balanced to nurture and sustain life, including our lives. We stand in awe at the wisdom and trust that caused you to welcome us as partners in stewardship and care of creation. May your Spirit, which long ago hovered over the chaos to bring order and peace, inspire us in our commitment to be more faithful and more humble in our relationship with this wonderful planet and all that inhabits it. Bless all tenants of this our home, and strengthen and embolden especially those who advocate for and raise awareness of our place in the dance of creation. May the collective devotion of all your people bring a transformation in our climate change policies, to bring about a future that, at times, only You can see. For we ask these things in faith, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
And let all the people say. . .
- Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” workingpreacher.org
- Alyce McKenzie, “The Dishonest Steward: Reflections on Luke 16:2-8a,” patheos.com
- Greg Carey, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” workingpreacher.org
- David Lose, “Pentecost 18 C: Wealth and Relationships,” posted September 14, 2016 in Dear Partner, davidlose.net
- Valerie Volcovici, “Americans demand climate action (as long as it doesn’t cost much): Reuters poll, March 2019?, reuters.vom
Pentecost 14 C / Proper 19
September 15, 2019
Lost and Found
We Christians are storied people. We know who we are, not in relation to a set of rules or a series of propositions, but in relation to stories. God meets us in stories, especially in the story of Jesus as told by the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Pentecost 14 C / Proper 19 September 15, 2019
Exodus 32:7-14 Pastor Susan Henry
1 Timothy 1:12-17 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Luke 15:1-10 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Lost and Found
We Christians are storied people. We know who we are, not in relation to a set of rules or a series of propositions, but in relation to stories. God meets us in stories, especially in the story of Jesus as told by the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And God meets us in the stories Jesus himself told, like those we heard today about being lost and found. These two and the one that follows it are sometimes called “the lost sheep,” “the lost coin,” and “the lost son,” although Jesus never gave them those titles. He just told the stories.
The writer of Luke tells us that “all the tax collectors and sinners” – all the less-than-acceptable people – “were coming near to listen to [Jesus.]” And “the Pharisees and the scribes” – the more upstanding folks – were grumbling and complaining, not about what Jesus was saying, but about who he was welcoming and who he was eating with. So Jesus told them – told all of them, it seems – some stories. The two parables we hear today are pretty short and pretty familiar. But the more times I read them this week, the more I was surprised and intrigued and blessed by them. See if that’s true for you, too.
Jesus begins by asking his listeners, “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’s lost until he finds it?” Well, let’s think about that. Would someone actually do that? Would we? Would we leave the ninety-nine on their own -- in the wilderness, remember, not safe in some sheepfold – to go out and look for the one that got lost? Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe “it depends.” Practically speaking, it would make no sense at all to do that. Isn’t keeping the ninety-nine safe the reasonable thing to do? Don’t respectable, responsible people expect to write off some business losses now and then? Yes -- but that’s not what this shepherd does. He goes looking for the lost sheep.
Then Jesus says, “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” Not if he finds it. When he finds it. In other words, that lost sheep is going to get found. That shepherd is determined. That sheep can’t get so lost that the shepherd will give up on it. Darkness, danger, distance, the shepherd’s weariness, the sheep’s stupidity – I guess none of that matters.
So -- when the shepherd finds that sheep, he rejoices. His flock has been made whole again. In fact, the shepherd is so full of joy that he wants others to share in it. Reading this, I remembered one of the maintenance guys at Andover Newton who, when I said one day, “Hi, how are you?” replied, “I’m great. If I was any greater, I’d have to have help to enjoy it.” I think “help to enjoy it” is just what the shepherd is looking for, because when he gets home, he invites his friends and neighbors to a party, a feast, a time to rejoice together.
It’s a great little story, isn’t it? The second parable Jesus tells is about a woman who’s desperate to find a coin she has lost. It’s probably a day’s wages that has fallen between the cracks somewhere or somehow gotten lodged out of sight, and this woman is determined to find it. Her house probably has no windows, which is why she lights a lamp, and then she sweeps and “searches carefully until she finds it.” She persists. She doesn’t give up. That coin is not going to stay lost. “Who among you wouldn’t do the same thing?” Jesus asks.
Well, we can probably relate to this if it’s our only set of car keys that are lost, and there’d be plenty of rejoicing when we found them, but, really, are we likely to do as this woman did? To call our friends and neighbors and say, “Come party with me because I am completely ecstatic over finding my car keys”? Hmmm. Would we do that? Might not all this celebration over a coin be a little excessive? The woman in the story seems willing to spend that coin and more on a meal where people can share her joy. She was desperate to find one lost coin, but now she’s likely to spend two. Does that make any sense to you?
Now, here is the surprising – and, I think, confusing -- end of each of these little stories. Jesus says, “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.” And he says, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” But, I ask you, was there any repenting in these stories? There was one sheep and one coin, and no repenting, as far as I can see. The sheep did nothing that contributed to getting itself found. And the coin, needless to say, could do nothing. If there’s any repenting to be done, it could only be done by the shepherd who somehow lost track of one of his sheep and the woman who somehow lost her coin! Everything depended on the shepherd and the woman. Every action was theirs – maybe the repenting, but surely the seeking, the finding, the rejoicing, the inviting, the celebrating with others.
The mood in these stories is one of rejoicing. Nothing implies that the shepherd was merely relieved to have finally found the sheep and had knocked it upside the head to remind it not to wander off again. Or that the woman had said, “Stupid coin! I’ve wasted a whole day looking for you.” There’s just joy. There’s just the kind of joy that just has to be shared.
In telling these stories, what might Jesus want the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees and scribes, and us to know -- not about a sheep and a coin, but about God, whom Jesus portrays here as a shepherd and, remarkably for his time, as a woman?
Judging from these parables, the God Jesus knows intimately doesn’t prioritize common sense. The God Jesus knows intimately is intent on finding the lost – no matter what it takes to do that. And we know what it took for us not to be ultimately lost. It took the cross. The cross gives us a glimpse of God’s inexplicable persistence, grace, and determination to keep finding you and me when we’re lost yet again in some wilderness or another, or when we’ve gotten ourselves wedged into some tight, dark corner.
Not only will God come looking for us, but, Jesus says, God will find us, like the shepherd who found that lost sheep and like the woman who found that lost coin. God will find us, and God will rejoice. It’ll be none of our doing and all of God’s doing that brings us home.
As David Lose writes, “. . .God comes in Jesus searching for all of God’s lost children, and inviting those of us that have been found to do the same. Because when you’re lost, at least according this parable, there’s not much you can do. Jesus doesn’t set out a formula about repenting first, or set down four spiritual rules, or even compose a ‘sinner’s prayer’ for us to recite. I suppose Jesus figures that often you don’t even know you’re lost in the first place. But you do know when you’ve been found. Sometimes, in fact, it’s only when you’re found that you realize you were lost at all. Which means, oddly, that while there’s nothing to do when you’re lost, there are all kinds of things to do once you’ve been found: like tell, share, shout, give thanks – in a word, rejoice. The primary character of the Christian life, from this point of view, isn’t morality, or repentance, or discipline, or obedience, or any of the other hundred things we might suspect. These things are all good, just not primary. What seems to be primary here is joy, the joy that comes from knowing that though you once were lost, you now are found.”
I don’t know about you, but it’s sometimes only when I know I’m found, when I know I’m truly loved, that I can name my lostness, that I can face up to what’s not all that lovable about me. The joy is what lets me acknowledge the sting, the pain I’ve caused God or someone dear to me. That, I think, is what repentance is about – not heartless self-judgment or remorse and guilt that continue to drain our energy, but honesty about ourselves in light of God’s love for us and God’s joy in us so that we can live more fully in that joy.
The tax collectors and sinners wanted to be with Jesus because, in eating with him and just being with him, they felt found, not lost. They felt more whole, not so broken. They felt like they belonged, not like they were unwelcome outsiders. I think they felt God’s own joy in their being found. And they wanted to celebrate.
The Pharisees and the scribes seemed to prize merit over mercy, picturing themselves among the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins that didn’t need to be found. But instead of rejoicing with the shepherd and the woman and their neighbors and friends, they grumbled and complained – perhaps because it didn’t sound like God was throwing a party in heaven for them.
There’s a tax collector and sinner in each of us, and there’s a scribe and Pharisee in each of us, so Jesus’ stories are bound to hit home one way or another at different times. If you’re feeling lost, know that you can never be so lost that God cannot find you. If you’re feeling found, give thanks and share your story about grace and mercy and joy -- and maybe even tell the part of the story that stings. If you’re feeling a tiny bit smug about living a pretty good life, a pretty moral life, do a quick check on the relative balance of grumbling and joy in your life and on what that might reflect.
From now on, as much as possible, I’m just going to tell these stories and not call them anything. The lost sheep and the lost coin are only partly what they’re about. These parables are just as much about the found sheep and the found coin. And, really, at their heart, Jesus tells us, they’re about God, the one who seeks and finds and is so full of joy that God wants us to share in it. May it be so!
Pentecost 13 C / Proper 18
September 8, 2019
Taking Jesus Seriously
In the story just before today’s gospel, Jesus told the religious leaders not to invite their friends or relatives when they hosted a dinner, but instead to ask those who would have been least likely to make their usual guest list – people on the margins of society, people from across Israel’s border, and people who were seldom welcome guests anywhere.
Pentecost 13 C / Proper 18 September 8, 2019
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Pastor Susan Henry
Philemon 1-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Luke 14:25-33 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Taking Jesus Seriously
In the story just before today’s gospel, Jesus told the religious leaders not to invite their friends or relatives when they hosted a dinner, but instead to ask those who would have been least likely to make their usual guest list – people on the margins of society, people from across Israel’s border, and people who were seldom welcome guests anywhere. “Be really, truly, deeply, uncomfortably hospitable,” Jesus said. It was no doubt very annoying.
Now, Jesus is beyond annoying. What he says to the large crowds who are traveling with him is shocking. “You want to be my disciples?” he asks; “Well, you can’t really do that unless you love me more than your family and even your life, unless you carry the cross and follow me, and unless you give up all your possessions.” This is shocking, not just to the people who first heard him say it, but also to us.
If you were a stranger to faith and had wandered in the door this morning wondering what this following-Jesus thing was all about, after you heard this story from Luke’s gospel, you might not stick around for coffee hour. “Oh, thanks, but no thanks,” you might say. Maybe you’d go off and tell people about those Christians at House of Prayer who just heard Jesus ask them to give up everything to follow him. “That would be amazing,’ you might say; “weird, but amazing.” And then you might recall that there were some pretty nice cars out in that parking lot.
Don’t you wish Jesus hadn’t said things like “You cannot be my disciple unless you give away everything you own”?
Even before we get to that part of today’s gospel, we’ve heard Jesus ask his followers to love him more than they love their parents, partners, children, siblings, and even their own life. That’s asking a lot. The translation I chose to read today is tough enough to hear, but the version we would usually use in worship is even tougher. To make his point, Jesus will exaggerate. Really exaggerate. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Now, we know about exaggerating to make a point, like “I’m starving” or “I never get to go first” or “I hate mustard” or “I hate taking out the trash.” It’s easy to get stuck on that word “hate” when Jesus says it, though. But no matter which translation we read, it’s clear that Jesus wants our primary loyalty to be to him, not to anyone or anything else. We can take Jesus seriously without taking him literally. You might remember that, on the cross, Jesus commended his mother to the care of the disciple whom he loved. That was not the act of a dying man who “hated” his family.
Jesus’ radical call to love him more than our families or our own lives confronts us and asks us to struggle with how we’re doing as we travel with Jesus. To be honest, when he says, “Love me more than anyone or anything,” I have to say, “I’m going to need some help with that.” Maybe that’s true for you, too.
In today’s story, Jesus also calls the crowds who are traveling with him to “carry the cross,” which is something we tend to associate with spiritual or physical suffering in our personal lives. However, there is another way we “carry the cross.” In baptism, we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We can’t see that cross on our foreheads, but it’s there, and we carry it into every single part of our life, not just the Sunday morning part. Scholar Alan Culpepper says that, “The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.” It’s about big and little things. When we pack a healthy lunch for our kids and send them out the door saying, “I love you. Have a great day. God bless,” we carry the cross. When we tuck them in at night and trace that baptismal cross on their foreheads when they say their prayers, we carry the cross. With our friends, as we share joys and sorrows and as we love them for who they are -- gifted and flawed like us -- we carry the cross. When we include someone who most often gets left out or advocate for vulnerable people whose voices don’t get heard, we carry the cross. Whatever we do that reflects our love for Jesus and is part of living out our baptism is carrying the cross.
At work or school or where we volunteer, we carry the cross. Writer and pastor David Lose says, “. . . we are invited to take up our cross – that is, have our life shaped by our commitment to the crucified messiah – anywhere, anytime, and doing just about anything.” William Diehl, a Lutheran layperson and businessman who has written a lot about laypeoples’ ministries, tells of being in a conversation with a fellow member of the congregation who was an accountant. Diehl asks this man what God is doing and what he is doing at 10:00 every Sunday morning. The accountant says, “God is being worshipped, and I am worshipping.” And then Diehl asks what God is doing and what he is doing at 10:00 every Tuesday morning. The guy is a little stumped. He says, “Well, I’m in my office meeting with clients or doing somebody’s taxes or working on the company’s books, but I honestly don’t know what God is doing.” Diehl replies, “God is making a more orderly world.”
I love that story because it so vividly points out how our everyday work or study, our Monday to Friday labors, are the very instruments through which God can work. What you do matters to God and makes a difference in the world. David Lose names “voters and volunteers, website managers and temp workers, bus drivers and barbers, students and secretaries, parents and payroll officers,” and he says that “. . .all of these people, when they offer their time, talent and labor to God, are bearing their cross by allowing the whole of their lives to be shaped by their commitment to Christ.”
The last thing Jesus says in our gospel story is that those who follow him will truly be his disciples only when they’ve given up all their possessions. It will cost a lot to follow Jesus, and he asks the crowd to take seriously that cost. It seems to me that, at rock bottom, this is more about our relationship to our possessions – perhaps about our being “possessed” by them – than it is about literally having nothing.
There are people who feel called to live radically simple lives for Jesus’ sake. Francis of Assisi is the first person who comes to mind for me, and I was friends with a priest in South Providence who lived very, very simply – his room had a bed, a little desk, a few books, a dresser, a couple changes of clothes, and a crucifix and an icon of Archbishop Oscar Romero on the wall. When Ray’s colleagues and friends celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination with a party and presents, he soon gave those gifts away because he honestly, truly, deeply knew that, in Christ, he had all he needed.
If you’re anything like me, you find people like Father Teatro both inspiring and guilt-inducing. I think he’d object to both responses and send us all back to the scriptures to read stories about people who did give up everything to follow Jesus and stories about other people who provided for Jesus and his followers or who had homes in which the earliest believers could gather for worship and to share a meal. Earlier in Luke, we read how “[Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women” (including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna) “and,” Luke says, “many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” It’s clear that not everyone who was truly a disciple of Jesus gave up all their possessions.
We may be looking for a way out of what Jesus asks of his followers, but there are no easy work-arounds for us, are there? Fortunately, we Lutherans are pretty good at living with ambiguity and paradox, because that’s where we find ourselves when we seek to be ever more faithful followers of Jesus. Such a perspective keeps us from assuming we know for sure what Jesus meant here or what the Bible means in other places. Living with ambiguity and paradox keeps us humble. It may also help protect us from getting puffed up with pride or falling into despair. Living with ambiguity and paradox honors the complexity of life itself and the challenge of living a life of faith.
Taking Jesus’ admonitions to heart is not the same as taking Jesus’ words literally. I think Jesus fully intended to shock the crowds who were following him, and those shock waves have rippled out into our lives as well. But this story isn’t about hating our families; it’s about learning to love Jesus more than anyone and anything. It’s about living lives shaped by the cross we carry. It’s less about what’s in our closets and our garages than about what’s in our hearts and on our minds. It’s really all about what gets priority in our lives. Jesus wants that to be our love for him, and he wants us to go where that love leads us. Becoming an ever-more-faithful follower of Jesus is less about taking Jesus literally and more about taking Jesus seriously.
When we have to say, “I just can’t do all that Jesus asks,” then we count on the mercy of God. We come hungry and get fed by Jesus. We ask Jesus to keep loving us into loving him more. We meet the mercy of God in Jesus himself, in the annoying and shocking Jesus whose love for us and for the world is life-giving and life-transforming. As together we seek to grow as his friends as followers, I wonder where his love will take us and what it will cost us to follow him. And I pray that, knowing the cost, we will gather our courage, leave behind some of our stuff, travel together, and go wherever Jesus leads us.
Pentecost 12 C / Proper 17
September 1, 2019 The Power of Water
With Hurricane Dorian making its way toward the southeast coast, bringing an expected 10 to 15 inches of rain, potential storm surges of 10 to 15 feet, and threats of major coastal flooding, power outages, disruption, and damage, there’s a weird luxury in reading scripture about water from a safe distance.
Pentecost 12 C / Proper 17 September 1, 2019
Jeremiah 2: 4-13 Pastor Susan Henry
John 4:7-15 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Power of Water
With Hurricane Dorian making its way toward the southeast coast, bringing an expected 10 to 15 inches of rain, potential storm surges of 10 to 15 feet, and threats of major coastal flooding, power outages, disruption, and damage, there’s a weird luxury in reading scripture about water from a safe distance. Language about fountains, wells, and springs doesn’t move anybody here to board up their windows or gather up a week’s worth of supplies or consider going to visit their cousin in North Dakota. But even as we pray for those who may find themselves in the path of Hurricane Dorian’s extraordinarily destructive power, we remember the awesome life-giving power of water that falls gently on our gardens, refreshes us when we’re thirsty, and is essential for the survival of all life on our planet. In both terrifying and commonplace ways, the power of water is revealed.
That may help us see the life-or-death significance of what God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah. God is taking God’s people to court, so to speak, over abandoning God and trying to make it on their own. God claims that, while God is the ever-flowing “fountain of living water,” God’s people choose to depend on what they think they can store up for themselves, even though it’s stagnant stuff that’ll leak out and leave them without what they need in order to really live. God freely, abundantly, generously provides what they need, but they do their own thing – at great cost to them and to the great dismay of God. People, people – what are you thinking?
This is – and isn’t – really about water, of course. Water is an especially powerful metaphor if you live where the water supply isn’t reliable – as was true in Israel and Judah in Jeremiah’s time and in more and more places today. With fresh, flowing water, life flourished in Israel. Without it, crops didn’t grow. People, animals, and the land itself grew parched, and they perished. Anticipating that, common sense would lead you store up rainwater when it was plentiful so you could get through the dry times, and people dug huge cisterns for just that purpose. Cisterns were kind of bell-shaped, narrower at the top, so not too much water would evaporate, and then wider further down. If you dug down into chalk, the water had no way to seep out, but that wasn’t always an option. If you dug out a cistern in other kinds of hard soil or rock, you had to carefully coat the inside with a limestone paste of sorts to keep the water in. Cracks in the cistern walls would let water return to the underground aquifers, which of course would leave you with nothing for your efforts.
That’s pretty much what God tells the people they’ve done. God continually provides what makes for a good, rich, fruitful life together, and they continually say, “Well, thanks, but we have an alternate supply, and we’ve come up with a back-up plan for what we need the most. Just in case.” We have you, but we have cisterns and back-up gods. Just in case.
God is not happy about this. That’s why, Jeremiah says, God is pleading God’s case before the heavens themselves. “So,” God begins, “just for the record, did I do anything wrong? I think not.” God brought God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, sustained them in the wilderness, and brought them into “a plentiful land.” But do the people remember where God was when they needed God? No. And do the religious leaders remind them where God was when they needed God? No. In this new, plentiful land, have God’s people relied on God? No. Instead, they hedge their bets and sign on with whatever gods have ostensibly been responsible for all that abundance. Just in case. God claims that they have abandoned the God who saved them, and decided they could make it on their own -- with a little help from the local gods. Gods that don’t even exist. It really is shocking. It’s downright appalling. It leaves the heavens desolate, surely absolving a faithful God and judging a faithless people.
Despite Jeremiah’s words from the Lord, God’s faithless people continue in their faithless ways, and when the leaders and intellectuals among God’s people are sent into exile after Jerusalem is destroyed by the newly powerful Babylonians, Jeremiah understands exile to be God’s devastating judgment on God’s people. Even their children’s children will suffer the consequences of the people’s faithless way of life. And it will be a long time before Jeremiah’s words from the Lord become words of hope.
It’s a pretty grim story – one that’s re-enacted any time God’s people abandon God and trust in themselves. It’s lived out again whenever God’s saving acts and gracious ways are forgotten or left unspoken by those responsible for leading God’s people, and whenever what’s seemingly powerful and effective elicits a loyalty that rightly belongs only to God.
One thing I’ve become even more convinced of through preaching on the prophets all summer is that God’s prophetic word addressed to people then is addressed to us as well. We too put our trust in what’s not trustworthy. We too are easily seduced by whatever gods seem to promise health or wealth or status or power or a life untouched by struggle, loss, or grief. Such things don’t flow from “the fountain of living water” that renews and sustains our lives and our hope, no matter how little health, wealth, status, and power we have or how much struggle, loss or grief we experience.
Now, without really challenging God’s assessment of human faithlessness despite God’s own faithfulness, I would say that there’s not much nuance in the case God makes. I’ll grant that this side of heaven I’ll never be as faithful as God wants me to me, but I’m not completely faithless. I’m a faith-in-progress, faith-is-at-work-in-me, faith-desiring person, and I suspect that you are, too. To follow the water metaphor, I am thirsty for what flows from that “fountain of living water,” even if I mindlessly walk past it sometimes or if I’m distracted by worry about the world we live in or if I’m more focused on what I can do than what God can do. I want what God is offering – and what Jesus speaks of to the Samaritan woman as “living water.” She asks for that “living water,” even though she doesn’t totally get what Jesus means by his promise that it will “become in [her] a spring of water” – not just a one-time refreshing drink. I want that for all of us so that we can continually be renewed and refreshed by the power of God at work in us.
Really, we can stake a claim on Jesus’ promise because our baptism flows from it. Most of us were baptized with just a little water, and maybe that keeps us from taking seriously the enormity of the gift we’ve been given. I’ve baptized a couple babies and a ten-year-old in the lake at Camp Calumet where you get thoroughly drenched when you’re baptized! Everybody gathered on the shore feels the chill, the joy, and the power of water and God’s word. When I ask you to “remember your baptism,” somebody inevitably says, “But I was just a baby,” so now I say, “Remember that you are baptized!”
When you hear the word of God spoken through Jeremiah, remember that you are baptized – that you belong to God who has made you part of God’s family, that you are beloved of God, that the Holy Spirit has now begun creating faith in you. Remember that you are baptized. You and I – and all of us together -- are not a faithless people. We are a sometimes-more-faithful-than-other-times people who want to be renewed and refreshed by the presence and the promises of God from whom “the fountain of living water” flows.
Martin Luther said that we need real things like bread and wine and water to help us hold onto the promises of God. Maybe we need a little bread and a little wine and a lot of water to remind us of the power of God to feed us and to get us through the cracked, hard, dry places in our lives so that we can be bread for a hungry world and we can be water that is shared with a thirsty world. If we’re not sure we’re really up to such callings, I suggest that we stop underestimating the power of water and God’s word to create faith in somewhat-faithful people like us so that we can become ever-more-faithful people.
Hurricane Dorian can tell us something about the power of water to threaten or destroy. Scripture witnesses to the power of living water to give life and offer hope. Like the Samaritan woman, I want that for myself always -- and I want it for us together, because when we’re not digging cisterns or patching leaks, we’ll be more available to God and to God’s purposes in our very thirsty world.