A Nightmare on Lazarus' Street



Inspired by Luke 16:19-31

This is probably one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. Maybe it’s because no other Gospel writer shares it, only Luke does. Maybe it’s because of all of the parables in all of the Gospels, this is the only one that has a character that is named. Or maybe it’s the vivid imagery. For me, it’s because it is so darn eerie! I mean, every time I read this I think, is this a parable or someone’s nightmare? Well, whatever it is, it helps with the sermon writing. Partly because of the rich images that Jesus uses, but also because it’s a difficult one for most of us to read and allow to sink into our hearts, if we are really listening to it. But before we get into all that, let’s take a look at the actual parable.

Now since we are reading through the Gospel of Luke this summer and fall, this parable comes right after last week’s reading, where Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and money. So, Jesus is technically still on the topic of money and wealth when he launches into this parable. And you may remember that I preached on the tension between this world, and God’s vision of the world, that we sometimes call the kingdom. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the differences between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen, not just fashionable but expensive clothing. On the other hand, Lazarus is clothed in sores. The rich man regularly enjoys fine dining. Lazarus was left to dream about crumbs falling from the rich man’s table.

The rich man was used to having people wait on him. However, Lazarus had to be content being cared for by the local street dogs. The rich man is not given a name but interestingly, he knows the name of the poor man outside his gate, Lazarus, proving that this wasn’t an oversight, it wasn’t as though he just didn’t see him outside his gate. He saw him, he even knew his name. And then the most equitable thing in the story happens to them. They both die. And that’s where the equal ground ends.

The unnamed rich man dies, is buried, and goes to the place of the dead to be tormented in flames, and Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side. Oh how the tide turns. And let me just pause a moment a give you a quick reminder about parables. They are stories. They are not meant to be taken literally, and so are not windows into any kind of reality. And most importantly, no one parable can give us a complete picture of anything. They are very limited and should be treated as such, because it is very easy to take a parable, just like any analogy or metaphor, too far—but back to our story. Where were we, oh yeah, the rich man is being barbecued alive and Lazarus is with his new best friend Abe.

Then comes the eeriest part of this whole story, and it’s not the sore licking dogs, I actually think that’s kind of endearing, but maybe only a dog lover would get that, or maybe just your weird pastor. The eeriest part for me is the fact that they can communicate with one another! People from both sides, the place of the dead, and wherever Abe is, can talk to each other! I mean, that’s not just eerie, but how awkward would that be! Imagine looking down and seeing that uncle—you know who I’m talking about, we all have that uncle—and being like, “Hey down there, we all tried to warn you but you wouldn’t stopped talking long enough to listen to us!” Yeah, awkward!

But what really caught my eye this time, was the chasm, the great chasm between these two places. Another way to translate that might be abyss, or gulf, or even canyon. So think of the American River Canyon in Auburn’s backyard, but with no bridge, no trails or roads to the bottom, and Abraham and Lazarus are on the top and we are on the bottom.

That’s right, we are on the bottom looking up. Jesus didn’t tell us this story for us to identify with Lazarus, he told us this story for us to identify with the unnamed rich man, in the hope that we will then change course. Much in the same way Ebeneezer Scrooge does at the end of A Christmas Carol. Think of this parable as a nightmare of a possible future that the ghost of Christmas future has given us. But remember, don’t take it too literally—we don’t take our nightmares literally do we?

So how do we change course? How do we wake up from this nightmare and what then do we do with the rest of our baptismal lives? My mind returns to that great chasm, the great chasms that we experience in our world. And the many people who fall into them. My mind turns to the vivid images from this past week of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man whose car had stalled in the middle of the road, who was gunned down by a police officer. One more child of God fallen into the great chasm of racism.

But not just him, no, because you see the great chasm will take anyone, the great chasm is not prejudiced, the great chasm is not biased, the great chasm will welcome anyone to its depths. The great chasm didn’t just swallow Terence Crutcher that day but it also took that officer Betty Shelby, who has been charged with first-degree manslaughter; and though Terence Crutcher is dead, her life too will never be the same again.

And my mind also turns to all those children of God who have committed suicide because they lived in a world that couldn’t accept them for who they were, for being born into the LGBTQ community, fallen into the great chasm of homophobia. And the great chasm didn’t just take them but it takes all those who treated them unfairly, all those who treated them with malice, they will have to live with that the rest of their lives because the great chasm is not prejudiced, is not biased, and it will welcome anyone into its depths.

And my mind also turns to all those children of God who have fell victim to rape, who have fallen into the great chasm of sexism and misogyny. And that great chasm doesn’t just take the rape victim but it also takes their families, the rapists and their families, and the children growing up in those families where the cycle of violence against women continues, why because the great chasm is not prejudiced, is not biased, it will welcome all into its depths.

And my mind turns to all those of other religions in our society who have to endure so much more than just childish intolerance but have to endure hate and violence just because they happen to be born into a family who calls God by another name. More children of God fallen into the great chasm of Islamophobia, Antisemitism, or some other xenophobia. And once again it’s not just the victims who fall into the great chasm but all involved, all who participate, all who participate in these cycles of hate—because the great chasm is not prejudiced, is not biased, and will welcome all to its deathly depths.

I could give you more examples but I will stop there. And it’s not just the victims and the perpetrators that fall into the great chasms of this world but it’s all of us. When one of us falls into the great chasms of this world we all fall into it! But we rarely see it that way, and there’s the problem. As we sit in the comfort of our homes and watch these vivid images on our big screen TV’s and see people falling, do we feel the ground beneath our feet fall out from under us too? When we scroll through our social media feeds and see the vivid images of our fellow human beings falling, do we brace ourselves for impact? When the rich man saw Lazarus outside his house, day in and day out, falling into the great chasm of poverty, did his stomach growl?

The good news of this story is that it’s just a nightmare. The good news of this story is that we can wake up each and every day and choose to decide to make this world a better place by taking a deep hard look into ourselves and into our world and allow ourselves to be changed, to be transformed, to be made new by the Word of God that is Jesus Christ. The good news of this story is that it doesn’t have to end with any great chasms in this world—but that’s up to us. And the best news is this, in the next world there is no great chasm, it has been filled, it has been made level, with the love and mercy of Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

I'm Jesus, and I'm an addict.



Inspired by Luke 16:1-13

Not too long ago I told you a sermon on money was in your near future. Well, here we are. I may have told you I was eager to do this. I may have even told you I was chomping at the bit to preach about money! Why? Because I fully believe that how we handle our money, is a spiritual discipline. How we handle our money is just as important, just as spiritual, as anything else we do on our faith journeys—just as spiritual as praying, as feeding people at the Gathering Inn, as singing your favorite hymn, as coming to the table to be nourished, as reading scripture, as being kind to a stranger, as inviting someone to come and see what we do and experience here at Bethlehem.

But we humans, especially us American humans, because this isn’t the case in all cultures, we don’t like to talk about money very much do we? When people have plenty of it, they’d just rather keep that on the qt. And when times are tough, some of us go to great lengths to try and hide that. Until I became a pastor at the age of 38, my wife and I spent all of our adult years well below the poverty line. And you would not believe the lengths we would go, to hide that from our children. But, in their own way, they knew. Even though they would have never articulated it this way—they would have never said they were poor—in their own way, they knew. I’m not sure if keeping that from them was the wisest thing to do, maybe it’s just part of the silly things we humans do when it comes to money. Only time will tell.

What I do know is this. We pastors, are not doing our congregations any favors by not talking, teaching, preaching, about money. Again, what we do with our money, is a spiritual discipline. And therefore, it’s a worship ritual of ours. When you place your offering in that offering plate as it goes around, that is an act of worship. I mean, if you think about it, we could collect your offerings in any number of ways right? We could have you mail them in. We could say from now on all offerings need to be in electronic form. Or we could do like many non-denominational churches do, like one that my family and I visited one time, and just leave a basket at the back of the church for you to drop your offering in. But no, as Lutherans we believe that the very act of giving, is an act of worship, because it is a spiritual discipline.

And make no mistake, the moment at which we take our offering during the worship service is very deliberate, very intentional. We Lutherans also like to have a reason for every little thing we do. And when we don’t have a reason we’ll make one! But you didn’t hear that from me. But think about when in the service we take an offering. It’s sandwiched between the Gospel reading and the table, between the proclamation of the Word made flesh, and our communion with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the son of the living God.

It is after the Gospel reading and the sermon as if to say, now that you have heard the Word of God, made flesh in God’s son Jesus, the gospel, the good news, and have been transformed by it, will you respond to it? The hope is that you will respond with your time, and your talents, and now, in this moment with your treasure. We even use the word treasure to avoid using the word money. Oh we silly humans! And when we drop our offering into that plate it’s our way of saying yes! We will respond. And this is how. We are fully committed to the good news that has been proclaimed today. And we are all in!

And it’s also just before we go up to the table, to commune with our God and with one another. And we bring our offerings up with the bread and wine? Why? Because we know that something amazing happens here. Ordinary people are transformed. Hearts are opened. Lives are changed. Ordinary bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and are consumed by us so that we can be the body and blood of Christ out in the world beyond these four walls. And likewise, we bring our offerings of money up—ordinary paper, ink, metal coins—as if to say, here you go God, more ordinary things for you to transform into an abundance of love and grace like only you can, through the work of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, through us.

Our Gospel story today is another strange one. At face value it sounded like Jesus was giving us some illegal financial advice! I’m not sure if I’d hire Jesus as my financial advisor! But that is exactly the point of this story! Jesus wouldn’t want you to hire him as your financial advisor, because Jesus lives by different rules than this world, Jesus operates by different principles than this world, Jesus has different motivations than this world does. If you were to hire Jesus as your financial advisor, you would have nothing left by the end of the day, nothing, you would have given it all away, because Jesus can’t control his mercy and grace. He’s addicted to giving it all away. He’s like a gambling addict in a casino. He just can’t help it.

But Jesus isn’t constrained by this world. Jesus is the ruler of the cosmos! We are not. And though some day we will get to join him in the next world, we are still here. And that’s what this story is all about—the tension between this world and the next, between this world’s constraints, and the kingdom’s abundant grace and mercy. And Jesus knows that we need to know how to live in this world, be successful in this world, be wise and cunning in this world, especially with our money, that’s why he tells this strange story and commends the dishonest manager. The manager gets it! The manager knows how to play the silly games of this world, knows how to be successful in this world, even at the expense of his integrity.

Is Jesus advocating these dishonest practices? No, he’s simply saying that we have a responsibility, an obligation even, to figure out this world, because our job, and when I say job I mean that in every sense of the word, our job, as followers of Christ is not just to be successful here in this world and let that be the end of it, but to use our successes, no matter how small, even ten dollars at a time, to bring about the kingdom of God, every chance we get—to continue that transforming work of God, outside this place, into the world, transforming it into the place of peace, love, mercy, that we experience here, inside these four walls. For which we say, thanks be to God. Amen.

King Kong vs Jesus



Inspired by Luke 15:1-10

So, for those of you who have not picked up on this yet, I’m an introvert. I know, I know, this seems like a strange occupation for an introvert right!? However, I think there are just as many introverts as there are extroverts among us clergy. In fact, I suspect, there are may be more introverts among us clergy but I’m not aware of any research on this. There is a lot of misinformation about introverts though. Many assume we always want to be alone. Or that we are anti-social. Or that we are always quiet and reserved.

Those who know me and my fellow introverts best know that this is not the case. I love spending time with people, quality time. But I also enjoy socializing with people I don’t know well…yet, I just need different parameters around that kind of socializing. And those closest to me, know that I am anything but quiet and reserved. If that were true my family would not be telling me to shut up all the time!

However, to be fair, I don’t like any more attention on myself than is required. If I don’t have to be in the spotlight, I’ll let others be there. If I don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room, I’ll let others be that. I think that’s why Pastor Casey and I make such a great team. Take for instance, the different way we both enter a room. When Pastor Casey walks in, he announces himself! When I see that I think, wow, I wish I could do that! That thought usually occurs while my eyes are rolling but that’s beside the point! Or as another example, the different way we announced our upcoming birthday’s. I think he started telling people at least two months in advance. I first mentioned it publically, well right now, three days after my birthday!

But if I’m brutally honest with myself, it’s not that I don’t want any attention. If I’m brutally honest with myself, I realize that I thrive on it as much as anyone else, and I know when I’m not getting any attention, because I can get a little salty about it when that happens. I may not realize it right away but at some point I’ll wonder why I’m in such a bad mood, why am I being so short with people, why am I arguing with my family so much? Oh, because I’m not getting enough attention, I’m feeling lonely, I’m feeling abandoned, as I look behind me with my mind’s eye and see all the destruction in my path, like a King Kong sized baby throwing a temper tantrum in a crowded city. That may sound like a gross exaggeration but feel free to ask my family how accurate that mental image is. On second thought, please don’t.

Ok, so why all this talk about seeking attention? Since the beginning of summer we have been reading through the Gospel of Luke, and we’ll continue to do so, chapter by chapter, right through the fall. And when we started this I urged you to keep one thing in mind, that Luke is taking us on a deliberate path, to Jerusalem, to the cross. And that every story he shares with us, should be read in the shadow of Jesus death. So the question behind every single story that Luke shares with is, what does it look like to follow a crucified God? Please continue to keep that in mind. So, today we have this story that includes a parable about a lost sheep and a lost coin. But what I really want to address is what caused Jesus to tell this parable in the first place.

Luke begins this story by saying, “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” [gasp] Gasp! Let’s try that again together this time! This man welcomes sinners and eats with them! [gasp] Remember, that would have been your reaction if you were reading this two thousand years ago. But I don’t want to focus as much on why Jesus continually welcomed and ate with “sinners.” I want to focus on the salty Pharisees and legal experts. Why are they so bent out of shape over this? Well, for a few reasons. On the surface they think Jesus is just plain wrong. They believe that Jesus is on the wrong track , that he is leading people astray.

But deeper than that, they saw Jesus taking not only their people away from them but attention away from them. And they say a movement happening, right before their eyes, and for the first time, they were the ones being left out. They were the ones feeling like they were on the sidelines. And though they would never say this, they were the ones feeling alone, and abandoned. And that got me thinking about our own faith journeys, our own personal lives, and even as a nation.

Those times when we feel left out, abandoned, lost, alone. Maybe it’s when our family is so busy that we don’t even notice when someone is feeling left out, because as we all know we can feel very lonely in a crowded room. Or maybe there’s a new family member and they’re getting all the attention. Or maybe at the death of a loved one, when we feel that no one can do or say anything to make it better.

Those are examples from our personal lives but I also think we can experience this as a nation as well. Today we remember the 15th anniversary of the horrific events of 9/11—one of the loneliest days in our nation’s history, in spite of all the attention we got that day, expressed in questions like, where was our security? Who is safe? Where can we turn to now? Where was God? How do I raise my children now, in this fast changing world? And these questions seem to rear their ugly head with each and every tragedy that our nation faces: in each mass shooting, gang violence, police violence, domestic violence, natural disaster, hate crime, every time we as a nation feel abandoned by…fill-in-the-blank.

And even in our own faith communities, in the place you’d least expect it, we can often times feel abandoned. When we see new programs and events that are starting that don’t really include us. When we see the church go in a direction that we are having a hard time getting on board with. When we see certain groups getting a lot of attention and others are not. When the pastor hasn’t asked me yet to go for coffee or lunch.

In our own welcoming, loving community there are still moments when we feel abandoned or lost or out of place. How do we respond to those moments? How do we react? Will we be like a King Kong sized baby leaving a wake of destruction behind our temper tantrum? Will we be like the Pharisees and legal experts from our story who end up taking a dark turn, assisting Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross?

Or will we listen to this parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin and let it sink into our hearts? I think we assume too quickly that this parable was for the benefit of the sinners with whom Jesus was welcoming and dining with. I wonder, I wonder if Jesus told this story for those Pharisees and legal experts who were feeling left out, who were watching their fellow believers go in a direction they could not follow? I wonder, if the lost sheep and the lost coin is them, is all of us.

And this was Jesus’ way of saying, I see you. I have not forgotten you. I have not abandoned you. And even when you cannot follow, even when you walk away from me, even when my people abandon you, I will never stop searching for you. God will look in every ravine, behind every bush, in every dark cave, under each and every rug and table, behind the refrigerator and wherever the dust bunnies of life collect. And I will not be distracted says the Lord. You will always have my undivided attention. And the best news? God is a fairly good multitasker. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Jesus Trump?

Inspired by Luke 14:25-33

Is it just me, or does Jesus kind of sound like Donald Trump at the beginning of our Gospel lesson? “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple”? Are you kidding me Jesus? What were you thinking? And why wasn’t there someone in the crowd that spoke up and said, “Jesus! You realize we’re gonna have to preach on this someday right?” I mean, come on, you’re killing me here! In my house growing up, the word hate was a bad word. Maybe not up there with the F word but pretty near! So whenever I encounter it in scripture it makes me cringe a little. But to hear Jesus use it, and in this context, is downright upsetting.

So I tried to wiggle our way out of this one. I immediately checked the Greek. What word is Jesus using here for “hate?” Could it be translated another way? Because I checked at least a dozen different translations, even translations for children and they all use the word hate. So it wasn’t looking good. So it turns out that there is another English word option…detest. “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t detest father and mother, spouse and children” etc. I’m not sure which one is worse! So, it was back to the drawing board. Why would Jesus use that horrible word! Could it be that he was just trying to get a rise out of people?

Donald Trump is accused of this all the time. Sometimes I think he doesn’t even believe the things he says. People tell me I’m giving him too much grace by saying that but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I can. And if that’s the case, if Trump says some of the things he says just to get a rise out of people, it’s working! He’s very good at it! It gets people’s attention! It turns heads! It gets him lots of air time on both Fox News and MSNBC! So, was this the game that Jesus was playing in this Gospel reading? I’m OK with saying yes! And guess what, it worked! Two thousand years later, some random Mexican-American pastor in Auburn CA is spending half of his sermon discussing why Jesus used the word hate!

Did Jesus really believe that we should hate our parents or siblings or spouse and children? Of course not! Just consider the source and you’ll see that doesn’t fit anything else that Jesus taught. He was trying to bring attention to what may be the most important lesson of his ministry, aside from loving your neighbor as yourself. And that lesson is this: If you’re going to decide to follow Jesus, you better get your affairs in order. “Get your affairs in order.” That probably sounds like a strange phrase in this context but it shouldn’t. Usually when we say to get our affairs in order it means that death is on the horizon, and that there are things we need to get done before it finally comes. And that’s exactly what it means in this context too.

And if the rest of this sermon feels like it is directed right at you Emily, on this, the day you become a baptized child of God, trust me when I say, it’s not, it’s for every baptized child of God in this room. It just may feel that way. So, what do we believe about baptism? Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that baptism “signifies that the old person in us, with all sins and evil desires, is to be drowned and die, through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live.” And St. Paul wrote in Romans 6 that “we were buried together with him, through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead…we too can walk in newness of life. If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.”

When you decide to follow Jesus, you better get your affairs in order. Because it’s not all new life and resurrection, but it’s death and burial too—and it’s a daily challenge, not a once and done kind of deal. There’s a cost to following Jesus. If following Jesus is easy for us than we’re doing something wrong. I met a rabbi once when I lived in Alabama, that sounds like the beginning of a joke or a country song, but anyway, I met a rabbi once when I lived in Alabama.

It was at a panel discussion at the University of Alabama, and someone asked him about how one becomes Jewish if they’re not born into it. He said, the first thing I tell people that ask me that is, why would you want to become Jewish! Don’t do it! This is hard! And he was dead serious! The praying, the worship, the laws, the food restrictions, the clothing restrictions, the Hebrew! Why would you want all of that?

We all laughed but I think he hit on something that we’ve lost in our faith. Following Jesus is hard work! I can think of many life decisions and situations that would have been so much easier without Jesus in my ear reminding me of the right thing to do! “Love, love, love…yada, yada, yada.” OK Jesus. I hear you! Can you give me a little wiggle room for crying out loud! “No!” Jesus says. And you know why? Because the enemy, isn’t going to give you any! And I’ll let you define enemy—If you want to call it satan, ok. Evil? Fine. Temptation? Great. Human nature? Go for it. Whatever you wanna call it, the enemy isn’t going to give you any wiggle room. “So how can I?” Jesus says.

Jesus is serious about this faith business. Jesus is serious about the cost of following him? Dead serious. Pun intended. And Jesus doesn’t want you to be surprised by that. He urges us to calculate the cost first. Be prepared. Because we don’t want Emily, or Lena and Ayden who were baptized at the beginning of the summer, or any of us baptized children of God to come to us some day in the future and say, “What the hell (literally!) Bethlehem? I thought everything was going to be a cake walk after my baptism!” I wish that were true, I wish I could tell you all that.

But here’s what I can tell you. You are not alone. God goes with you. God will journey with you and God will do that in at least these two ways. One, the Holy Spirit will journey with you. And the second way, is hinted at in the first sentence of our Gospel reading today—in the “large crowds” that travel with Jesus. Look around at the people in this room. Seriously! Look around. Luke is talking about you! God journeys with all of you baptized children of God, through the crowds, through you, through each other. That’s why I can confidently say, that though the journey may be rough, you may need to fasten your seatbelts, Jesus may say a few crazy things along the way, but you are never alone. You are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.