“Convince Me!” – September 25, 2016

“Convince Me!”

September 25, 2016 – Year C – 19th Sunday of Creation

Lazarus slid along the white stone into the sunlight, rubbing his hands as he went.  “Brrr,” he said.  “No gloves.  I sure wish I had some gloves.”  The wall glistened against the clear blue sky.  He squinted as he looked out at the black asphalt parking lot.  Shiny new cars and SUV’s lined up in neat rows.  Lazarus tipped his head back against the wall as the muffled sound of singing broke through the silence of the morning.  Then the carillon sounded the end of the service.  Lazarus placed his hat at the end of the stump where his right leg used to be.  He winced and rubbed his stomach.

The parishioners exited the Sunday worship looking happy and self-satisfied.  They walked past Lazarus in their Sunday best, caught up in conversation, slipping on gloves, and adjusting outerwear.  One man briefly looked at Lazarus and then looked away.  A little girl pulled on her mother’s arm and looked distressed to see Lazarus in such a condition.  “Don’t worry,” said the mother, “our church helps these people.  Hurry up now, we’ll be late for brunch.”  A small boy pointed to the beggar.  His father muttered, “He’s an alcoholic.  If we give him money, he’ll only get drunk.”  Another whispered to her friend, “He’s mentally ill.  That’s why he’s homeless.”  And another said, “Did he cough?  Be careful, he probably has that incurable form of TB.”  A man said to his teenager, “I don’t mind helping the poor.  I just don’t want to see them.”  The dark demons of indifference fled out of their mouths to harden the hearts of these children.  They marched by.  None looked Lazarus in the eye.

When all had left, the doors closed and the parking lot emptied, Lazarus looked in his hat.  50 cents, said Lazarus to himself, “the veteran’s not doing well today.”

Lazarus rubbed his stomach, leaned his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

“Lazarus, Lazarus, wake up,” said the short Native woman who now stood beside him.

“Jesus, you scared me!  I thought everyone was gone.” Said Lazarus.

“Oh, Lazarus, you know I wouldn’t leave you.  But those people, they have hearts of stone,” she said.

Lazarus shook his head.

“Come, Lazarus,” she said, holding out her hand for him to grasp and haul himself up.  She handed him his cane.

“Brunch,” she said, and then laughed, “let me take you to brunch.”

“Oh, thank you, Jesus, thank you Jesus.” Said Lazarus, as he looked down at the white stone building that was receding far, far below. (Bruce J. Ackerson)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the lesser known parables in scripture.  It is full of contrasts and reversals.  The poor man is named, while the rich man is not.  The rich man is dressed in purple, while the poor man is “dressed in” sores.  The rich man feasts sumptuously, while Lazarus, looking up, longs to be satisfied with what falls from the table.  The rich man has a proper burial, while Lazarus is carried away by the angels.  By the end of the story, Lazarus, the poor man, is looking down from heaven, and the rich man is the one looking up, begging.

Jesus tells this story to those who were “lovers of money.”   By telling this story Jesus revealed that they loved their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their clothes more than compassion, and their extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry.  Perhaps Jesus had been a guest at one of the listener’s homes and had witnessed a scene similar to the one with which he begins his parable. 

There are many uncomfortable questions before us as we explore one of the harshest readings in Scripture.  We hear it as a cry for justice.  It is why we donate food to our food cupboard so that when the hungry come to our doors we can help with small food hampers.  It is why I service on your behalf on the “Downtown Churches for Social Justice” committee, where we are securing housing for the homeless and coordinating initiatives for those in need.  It is why we have the mitten tree every Advent, so that mittens, hats, and scarves are collected for those who are cold.  That is why we write letters to release prisoners of conscience on “write in” days.  We support groups like The David Suzuki Foundation or Grandmothers for Africa. 

It is a cry for justice in our personal lives as well.  We are challenged to look at our spending practices. Do we shop at places that sell fair trade?  Do we try to buy Canadian made products?  Do we act local and think global?  Do we live simply, so that others may simply live? 

The parable is a difficult one to hear.  It is particularly so for us in our context here in Penticton.  We have abundance.  For us to hear the words of transformation and true faith calls for us to step away from privilege and plenty.  I know for myself that is a difficult challenge.  In Luke 18 Jesus compares it to getting a camel through a needle’s eye.  It is that hard.  But, it is something that we are to pray and meditate and work towards. 

   The riches of the world are held by approximately 20% of the population.  This is called the “Pareto Principle.”  Perhaps you know it as the 80-20 rule.  80% of the world’s poorest people are exploited by 20% of the world’s richest people.  This 80-20 rule applies well to the story that we are exploring today.  The hope and promise that Jesus announces is for Lazarus and all the others who know struggles, pain and fear.  The redemption that Jesus proclaims is for all the Lazarus’s who suffer because of health problems, grief and feeling lost.  The faith that Jesus declares is for all the Lazarus’s who experience loneliness, disenfranchisement from family, and brokenness of spirit.  And that is 80% of the world’s people.  Perhaps you recognize yourself.  Too often we see Lazarus as someone other.  Yet, at times he is you and I.

As we hear this parable we find ourselves relating to Lazarus, The Rich Man, and the 5 brothers.  Oh sure, we are not rich enough to be constantly garbed in in finest fabrics and eating a diet of scrumptious foods – but rich we are compared to 80% of the world.  And true enough, we don’t have to beg for our next meal and we have adequate clothes to keep us warm in the winter.  Perhaps we most identify with the 5 brothers.  They had heard Moses read.  They heard Torah’s requirements and responsibilities to the poor, and presumably not allowed themselves to be changed by what they knew. God says, in essence, “There really isn’t anything more I can do to help them.”  It’s interesting that the rich man is still willing to use Lazarus in the servant role in which he was accustomed to seeing him, rather than going himself. 

Newspapers love “rags to riches” stories in which a person sleeping in a car one day ends up in a penthouse the next.  Stories of such remarkable reversals help nurture the illusion that anyone can succeed in our society.  But reality is far more complex.  Today, we have encountered a story which is less dramatic that the headlines of a newspaper but far more revealing of God’s character.  We who are brothers and sisters to the rich man are called to hear the law and prophets.  Will we resist the status quo or will we care for the homeless on our streets and thereby become part of God’s remarkable reversal?  May it be so.  Amen.

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“Me! Change?” – September 11, 2016

“Me!  Change?”

September 11, 2016 – Year C – 17th Sunday in Creation

As a child, had you ever been lost?  Perhaps you wandered away from your Mom on a trip to the supermarket.  Or maybe you took a wrong turn on the path back from the lake on summer vacation.  Do you remember what that felt like?  All alone, not knowing which way to turn?  Do you remember thinking about what your parents might be thinking about as they frantically searched for you?  Do you recall what it meant to be found, when at last you were discovered, and claimed, and embraced?

Something like that has happened to each of us.  God in Jesus beat a path to our door.  God went out looking for us and didn’t stop until we were found. 

Long ago, Jesus was hosting a dinner and the guest list certainly was surprising.  There were tax collectors, social out-casts, and other folk of questionable repute as his chosen guests.   As you can imagine he drew significant criticism for his choice of guests.  Jesus brought together the 2 extremes.  He chose people who were exploiting and those who were exploited.   He says, “If we’re going to find the kindom, you 2 have to spend some time together.”  This isn’t just, “Oh my, you are lost and we are saving you.”  Instead, this is “we are trying to build something completely different.  Do you get it?” 

As you can imagine, the community leaders were astonished.  In response to the criticism Jesus replies by telling 2 parables.  In the parable of the lost sheep, 99 sheep are left in order that the shepherd, which is a symbol of God, can find the 1 lost sheep.  Each and every one of the sheep is important.  No one is expendable.

A year ago I watched a shepherd, a boarder collie and a flock of sheep work in perfect harmony.  The shepherd would use hand signals and whistle to the collie to herd the flock and off the collie would run.  Herding sheep is an art form, where every sheep is accounted for and the collie skillfully keeps track of each and every precious sheep.  To lose even one precious sheep would be a loss in income and a breakdown in the flock.  The shepherd would be devastated.  We can imagine the shepherd directing the collie to keep an eye on the remaining 99 while searching for the lost 1.  Falling on craggy hillsides and stumbling into invisible holes are all too common on the hilly terrain of the Middle East.  But what joy in finding the lost sheep. 

In Palestine the mark of a married woman was a headdress made of 10 silver coins, linked by a silver chain.  The lost chain in the 2nd  parable may have come from such a headdress.  It would not be difficult to lose a coin in a Palestinian peasant’s home which was very dark, lit only by 1 small circular window.  The floor was beaten earth covered with dried reeds.  Looking for the lost coin would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  But the woman, again a symbol for God, would not give up, persisting until it was found.  Neither sheep nor coin do anything.  Salvation is God’s action – God’s gift of acceptance and love.  God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  This is not a God who withdraws when we do wrong, but one who actively seeks us.  When the coin and sheep are found, the joy is so profound that others are called to share it.  The joy of being loved and accepted calls us to love and accept others.

A colleague tells the story about her 3 year old nephew who was lost for 5 hours.  He was finally found sitting beside the creek.  His fist question was, “Where did my house go?”  He didn’t have a sense that he had wandered, but that somehow his house had moved away from him.  Perhaps that is how some of us feel about the church.  We have been loyal to the church for decades but now feel alienated. With all the changes, the church seems to have moved away from what it once was.  We yearn for younger people.  We want to sing our favourite hymns.  We seek sermons that comfort rather than confront.  Oh – if only the church could stay like it was in the glory days.

William Willimon, a noted theologian defines Christians as “those who once were lost, who have now been found.”  We who call ourselves Christian are all too aware that we have been lost and have struggled to follow the path of faithfulness.  We have failed to act justly when it is so much easier to take shortcuts.  We have made purchases that fail to uphold principles of equality and fair work practices.  We have hesitated to turn our lives completely over to God’s way of love, compassion and gentleness.  But – even though we once were lost, we have now been found.

It was a hot summer day, and a friend and her youngest daughter decided to do a jigsaw puzzle down in the rec-room where it was cooler.  They worked on the puzzle all afternoon, and it came together quite nicely.  It had been a good time.

But there was 1 piece missing.  Almost in the middle.  When you looked at the picture in the puzzle, that missing piece stuck out like a sore thumb.  They looked all over, but couldn’t find that missing piece.

Several weeks later in her own room upstairs, while looking for something else, the daughter found the missing piece.  She came racing out of her room with a whoop and a holler, and the 2 of them rushed downstairs to put that piece in.  “That was the most important piece,” she said.  “Now the picture is complete.”

Friends, the lost is found.  And each one of us are the important piece.  Our broken hearts are restored.  Our missing ache deep in our soul is filled with God’s delight.  God constantly seeks us and draws us close to the Divine heart.  Accept the embrace of the Holy One and know that you are forever redeemed!  Amen.

“Give It Your All” – September 4, 2016

“Give It Your All”

September 4, 2016 – Year C – 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Season of Creation)

“You oughta warn people,” a friend said.  The pair were drinking coffee late one night after an angry, frightening meeting.  We were on the board of what we hoped would become a home for abused children.  A house had been leased but the neighbours were hardly inclined to hospitality.  The meeting with the neighbourhood had been angry.  Over cups of coffee we wondered why we bothered.  “If it was up to me,” he said, “I’d shelve the whole project and walk away from it.  Problem is,” he chuckled, “I don’t know how to walk away from Christ.  You oughta warn people,” he said, “how much it’s gonna cost ‘em to be a Christian.”

The friend had not grown up in the church.  He first walked into an Anglican Church because they had lunch Wednesdays during Lent and the church was next to his law office.  He came for a bowl of soup, and here he was investing his time, money and legal skills to secure a home for abused children, and as a reward, enduring abuse himself.  “You oughta warn people,” he said.

The cost of discipleship is complete surrender to Jesus and a willingness to put God first, above all else.  But why does Jesus choose such harsh volatile rhetoric to make this point?  Perhaps it is because he noticed what we all know deep down – that family-of-origin issues can mess up all of our best plans for authentic living.  Family power dynamics are subtle and even dangerous, largely because they happen on a subconscious level.  Add to that the societal expectation of family harmony, and you have a recipe for dysfunction.

Jesus is all about truth-telling and todays gospel text is some of his best material.  He speaks the hardest truth of all – that even the people we are closest to us can hold us back from achieving our best potential.

The writer of todays gospel uses a common idiom suggesting it is not how we feel about our families and lives, but rather how we reorganize our lives and what we have ourselves focused on in our identity as Christ’s people that matters.  So whether we love or hate our families really is of little consequence, but how we act on those feelings – now that is where Jesus has something to say.  We are being challenged to put God’s way of extravagant love – radical justice – unceasing compassion; ahead of bitterness, anger, loyalty, or convenience towards one’s family.  Our new identity is as a follower of Christ’s way.

Likely you are now saying to yourself, but Laura – family is what is most important to me.  And I get you.  Family is important.  But not to the extent that we make our family into a God.  I watch some folk twist and turn their lives into such contortions seeking to put family first, that there is no time, energy, or opportunity to serve God with joy and abandon.  I see children hauled kilometers upon kilometers to hockey games, ballet practices, and music lessons – leaving no time for any spiritual practices.  It is these same children who lack the resources and spiritual depth to counter the temptations of peers and society.  They barely know their families outside of the hockey rink, ballet studio or musical academy.  Their experience of God is limited to swearing.  And putting the needs of others first does not even reach consciousness.

A young woman, active in our United Church Young Adult Ministries Council some years ago, told her minister that when she became active in a large city’s fellowship group for single adults becoming more and more involved through that group in ministries with the homeless, dispossessed, and impoverished, she discovered within herself a longing for the God she had never known.  As she tried to share her seeking and journey with her parents, they shrugged it off with complete distain for her activities.  Not only did they scoff at her compassion for the voiceless and the powerless, they also ridiculed the way she now spent her weekends and Sunday mornings.  She said that it was as if she herself had become a mirror which was held up to her family.  They could not bear what they saw of their own empty lives, and so they turned on her instead.

The sayings on the cost of discipleship are addressed to the large crowds following Jesus.  He was on the road to Jerusalem, aware of mounting tension, and travelling with many who did not realize the implications of following him on that path.  The saying about “carrying your cross” reminds us that both the story teller and listeners know the outcome of the story and are aware of what this might mean for those who choose to be his disciples.

Jesus’ followers are told they must hate their family if they want to come with him.  The Greek word that is translated as “hate” is miseo.  It does not carry a sense of anger or hostility but rather is an indication of priority.  If a choice has to be made between discipleship and possessions, Jesus‘ followers must be prepared to let their attachments go.  Like the examples of the tower-builder and the king going to war, the saying about family is about considering the demands of discipleship before making the commitment.  Jesus wants those who would journey with him to give heart and soul to the enterprise.

So, what does giving our heart and soul to Jesus look like for us today?  Is it tithing our time as well as our money?  That would mean we commit at least 10% of our time to doing the outreach, visiting, and mission of Christ.  Phone calls to the ill and hurting, letters of comfort, serving on committees and council, sharing skills in concrete ways are all opportunities to put Jesus first.  Knitting prayer shawls, taking time in prayer and meditation, helping Pat out in Sunday School, singing in the choir, assisting in Care Facility services, and giving time assisting our refugee family are all ways of carrying Christ’s cross. 

Our lection ends with the strong statement: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  I think what Jesus was saying was that possessions cannot become more important than our faith and our willingness to do everything we can faithfully serving him.  Such possessions include family.

You folk have been hearing way too much about my upcoming move.  But – today I want to tell you about how much stuff I have that I didn’t really realize.  I live by the one in, one out policy.  So, if I buy or receive 1 item, I give away 1 item.  However, as I have been sorting and packing, I have been astounded by how much extra stuff I don’t regularly use.  Now that I am actually packing, I am taking a look at each item and saying to myself, “Do I use it regularly?  Do I love it?  Do I have a place to store it?”  If I can answer ‘Yes’ to all three questions, then it gets packed.  If not, it is put in the Care Closet bag.  So far I believe I have made 12 big trips to the Care Closet!  And Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” 

We have explored a scripture text that is challenging.  It calls into question our values, priorities and commitments.  How we spend our energy, time and resources are probed.  Our very faith and how we live it out is queried.  Before us is a large cross that we are challenged to carry.  For some of us, it feels mighty uncomfortable.  Our family and friends circle around us, and we wonder what place they are to have in our lives.  Should they be front and centre as they are now, or should Christ be the one who is very central. 

I leave you with difficult challenges to ponder.  May God grant you wisdom in your discernment.  May Christ guide you in picking up his cross.  May the Holy Spirit prod you to act courageously.  Amen.