I Didn’t See You

Luke 16.19-31

John Chrysostom is one of the most voluminous of the writers of the early church. He preached in the great Hagia Sophia cathedral before the rulers of Byzantium and his work is both subtle and amazing. It is also very pointed because in his reflection on this story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Chrysostom is quite ready to condemn the rich man. It is not however his wealth that causes Chrysostom’s diapprobation, it is that the man had wealth, saw this man in need, and ignored him day after day, month after month, year after year. Chrysostom in fact, calls him cruel but rather than explain it, I’ll quote:

“For if he had no pity on the man continually laid at his gate, and placed before his eyes, whom every day, once or twice, or oftentimes, as he went in and out, he was obliged to see; (for the man was not placed in a by-way, nor in a hidden and narrow place, but in a spot where the rich man, in his continual coming-in and going-out, was obliged, even if unwilling, to look upon him;) if, therefore, the rich man did not pity him lying there in such suffering, and living in such distress, (and, rather, all his life long in misery because of sickness, and that of the most grievous kind), would he ever have been moved with compassion towards any of the afflicted whom he might casually meet?”

And there’s the sharp point that catches us today. The wealth of the rich man was the power he had to do good. His cruelty was having the power but deciding not to use it for good. The power he had required an open heart and a willing spirit to give life to this man lying at the gate, but he would not. Perhaps he was afraid to get involved or worried about having anything left over if he tried to help. Maybe he was overwhelmed at the very thought of how much would need to be done or he promised himself to do something important later. Maybe he was just too busy to stop. Maybe he just didn’t see anymore.

It’s that last notion that has snagged me all week and (truth to tell) for a lot longer even before that. This is because there are a lot of things in the world which I do not see and a bunch of other things that don’t directly impinge on my life so I ignore them. But doing this, not-seeing and thus ignoring, makes me cruel like the rich man in this parable. My first impulse is to say “that’s not who I am, I’m not like that” but theologically… yep, that’s me.

When a person gets caught being cruel to others, the temptation is to say “that’s not what I’m about” when in point of fact, yes it is because you did it. We try to distance ourselves from our own actions as if they were done by aliens who took over our body. We say things like “I don’t know what came over me” and hope that will be OK. But it isn’t.

In the same way, when we do not see the broken body, the hurt heart in front of us, we’re a lot more like the rich man in this story than we may want to be. When we brush off our African-American sisters and brothers and their legitimate concern for their safety when stopped by the police, we’re like that rich man. When our sisters’ real concern about unequal treatment and the reality of a culture that diminishes rape as “twenty minutes of action” and dismisses accusations with “was she a stripper,” we’re like that rich man. When we meet the concerns of people who worked hard, paid their taxes, and now find themselves with battered bodies and no pension when the mill closed, by telling them ‘tough luck,’ and ‘that was dumb,’ you know what that makes us.

So then, this text invites us to ask our eyes to look again at the people around us. It asks us to consider that there are people in our blind spots. There are the lonely, the addict, and the hundreds of other kinds of people we see each day but may not really “see.”

The rich man knew Lazarus well enough to ask for him by name. We too may know our own Lazarus at the gate, our own people over whom we have been nearly tripping for years but never noticed. So now it is time to start looking, to start seeing who we might be missing. And when we’ve done that work, when we’re sure we’ve seen everyone, that we are actually paying attention to them all, it’s time to pick up “Moses and the Prophets” and look again just to be sure. After all, there are few things as mortifying as having to say “oops, I didn’t see you there.”

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Using Mamon

Luke 16.1-13

As Luther explained it, a god is that thing to which we look for all the good in our life. This interpretation is, therefore, an affront to god (not the true God who rules the heavens, the fake one who rules our society).

This is because I am now going to commit the heresy of pointing out what money actually is (a persistent, easily exchanged store of value: as this video explains using the economy of a video game world that is like yet unlike our own). We treat it as something more, something to rule our life, something that in the gaining, keeping, and using thereof, we visit huge, often unintentional, cruelty on each other.

We endow it with value far beyond what it actually contains, treating it as something to venerate, and folding our lives around it in self destructive ways. For all that the steward in this story is unrighteous and shifty, he knows what money is and uses it appropriately.

In fact, wise, thoughtful (the translators call it “shrewd”) use of the goods of the world is the point of the parable. Don’t believe me? First off, the main character is not a “manager,” he’s an oikonomos, a steward. And what do stewards do? They take care of what is not their own on behalf of another. The wealth he is accused of squandering (the Greek also means “scattering”) is not his own wealth. It belongs to his master.

It never was his wealth in the first place and was never going to become his wealth at some point in the future. He is a steward only. Unlike our own stewardship, where we are tempted to fall into the trap that caught Denethor (who got tired of being steward and decided to be king instead). The steward in this story did not get confused about who owned what. He ruthlessly used his master’s wealth in order to gain the goal he desired.

In fact, the Greek structure means that both verse 4 and verse 9 are parallels. Each one has the exact same structure. They both include a ina clause, translated “so that”which marks the rest of the sentence as a dependent clause (caution, link contains grammar geeking). But after the ina, the next part includes acceptance that what we have will be going away, and then that what is being used is being used to accomplish welcome after what we have is taken away.

Since both verses are exactly parallel, the character is a steward just like us, and the thinking/thoughtfulness of the steward is what’s being applauded, what is this pointing to for our life? A clear-eyed understanding of wealth as a tool to be used to accomplish tasks.

We are used to assuming that wealth is a thing to be piled up in barns, to be stored away for rainy days. Or else we treat it as a thing that marks our own value. The number of ways a misunderstood relationship with money can twist our lives is limited only by our own creativity. The steward however, has not fallen into that trap and Jesus commends that kind of clear thinking for us.

What are we to take from all of this? That our lives are filled with many things which we are called to steward. Therefore, our stewardship has to include treating our money as just as much a tool as any other and thus to use our tools to their fullest.

 

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Money Lovin’

1 Timothy 6.6-19

Inigo Montoya is my favorite biblical scholar because he reminds us of what happens to our certainty when we meet the mystery of God. He encourages us to review such famous “everybody knows it’s in the bible (but it really isn’t)” phrases like “God helps those who help themselves” and the infamous Curse of Ham. Here’s another one but it’s a bit of a “build your own misquotation.”

Take the three words ‘money,’ ‘root,’ and ‘evil’ and tell me what the bible verse they appear in says. Now go back and read what it actually says. Yep, we’ve been saying it wrong for years and years.

Money in itself is not evil, it is in fact a persistent, easily exchangeable, store of value which facilitates barter as Schoolhouse Rock pointed out. What the bible is down on is our love of money, or as the Greek has it love-of-money because it’s just one word to them.

And there’s the crux of this issue: it is the love-of-money, the valuing of our life by our paycheck or bankbook, the sacrificing others for our gain, devaluing others because we have more, and the pathological focus on having and keeping that is a deep root of all kinds of kaka (the Greek word for ‘bad/evil’ used in this verse).

As Gaiman and Pratchett pointed out in ‘Good Omens‘ one of the real powers of evil is in getting us to be cruel to each other. In fact in that book, one of the characters talks about the real power of getting people stuck in a traffic jam so they rant cruelly, act selfishly, and come home to dump bitterness on their family. This kind of evil, though more ‘normal’ and even acceptable than the great, bloody evils we know and hate in this world is, by its very ‘ho hum’ acceptability, a rather great and unnoticed evil. And certainly our love of money leads to us acting in deeply unkind ways toward one another.

There are (at least) two big ways in which love of money leads to human unkindness because there are two parts to this kind of love. The kind of money-love that is built on having a bigger pile than anyone else is, obvious, common, and easy to understand. It’s practically a comedy trope with the person so obsessed with money that they do not see people as anything other than an avenue for making more money.

Even though is obvious, it deserves some consideration, because we have the temptation to see bigger & more = better. This hook is what advertisers use when they pair their products with glamorous stars, trappings of wealth, and the idea that ‘buy more, save more’ is anything other than a sucker play. This is very like the common idea of gluttony, except that this person is a glutton for money.

But as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his ‘Screwtape Letters‘ (Chapter XVII), there is another kind of gluttony, which is just as cruel and exacting while looking like frugality. In the same way, there is a kind of money-loving that, because it does not focus on Big Piles of Money, doesn’t look like money-loving. This is much like the gluttonous character Screwtape describes, who wants their food ‘just so’ or ‘done properly.’ They are willing to pour out anger on others for not ‘getting it right,’ and give out great quantities of condemnation for their ‘giant, greedy portions.’ Hmm, could there be a way money-loving is like this? Yes.

The key is that whether the portion obsessed about is small or great, the obsession is real. We can be money-loving with a tiny checkbook, obsessing about pennies and afraid that even one coin will fall from our clutch fisted hands. This kind of obsession can lead to berating ourselves for not having a ‘big enough’ pile and then grudge our every expense until we become our own jailers and tormentors. Or we can choose the more popular option of obsessing that “everyone else’s is bigger than mine” and all the other keeping up with the Jonses variations society has invented.

Regardless of how we are obsessing, it is the obsession, and the cruelties that come of it, what makes our love-of-money a root of all kinds of evils.

 

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Other Gods

Deuteronomy 30.15-20

It’s not a line we think about much in this (yawn) Old Testament reading. I mean, sure, God seems to be really intense about something but golly, can’t we just get to the Happy Fluffy Jesus part already? This OT thing is Ooooooold and angry, why do we have to listen to it anyway? Um, because it’s important and is part of helping us to choose a real, deep, and true life instead of the half-awake, half-life-mostly-death thingie that’s foisted on us by laziness and advertising?

This makes more sense when we take a look at verse 17. God warns us against having our hearts being turned away (the Hebrew is “scattered”) to serve other gods. This seems like abosolutely no threat whatsoever really, how many gods are there really, and doesn’t showing up in church mean we’re worshipping the true God and not some other? Um, no (but you knew that answer, right?)

The thing is, as Luther put it so very well “That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” In other words, the thing or things to which you look for happiness, the thing your having or not having of which makes your life worthy or worthless is your god. Oh dear.

Just because we do not go to a building and bow down to something, it can still be our god. We may not sacrifice on an particular altar, or put money in a special plate. We may not sing special songs in congregational gatherings filled with candles and incense, but we can still worship something.

In one sense, part of being an addict is making the thing to which one is addicted a god. We sacrifice friends, money, labor, and life in order to keep that thing in our life, considering all those losses as worthwhile in order to keep this thing. In Luther’s words then, it is our god. We are happy when we have it, sad when it is withheld, and we will bend all the energies of our life to get it back if we lose it.

While addiction is an extreme example of this, it is also one we can understand because we can see the way people worship a god that doesn’t look like a beard in the sky. But this broadening of what constitutes a god is also profoundly distrubing because then we have to look at our life and see what gods we worship.

We have to ask  ourselves “what is it in my life that having it makes me happy, not having it makes me sad, and for which I will make any sacrifice?” Is it family, a job, money in the bank, friendship, someone special to love me? Is it being pain free, popular, or having the right body shape? What about our sports teams, our kids’ sports, or even our kids’ success? What is it that we are willing to go to any length in order to get and keep in our life. That is our god.

Note that we can have more than one god. We can have a bunch of things that make our life real, worthy, and worth our living. We have a lot less problem than Jesus said we would in serving two masters, giving each one continuous partial attention and living a half-assed, half-way, half-life. But ultimately, because our multitude of gods distract and distort our living, we’re actually not alive at all.

This at last is the point toward which the text has been pointing all along. God is fully aware of our ability to scatter our life willy nilly over the countryside, choosing all manner of things and people to worship instead of the One Living and True. So we get a warning about whom we choose and why it would be a good idea to look again at the objects of our worship to determine if they are truly worthy of our devotion.

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Being you enough

There’s a popular taunt that floats around in our culture, it runs like this: “What, aren’t you (quality) enough to (action)?” It doesn’t particularly matter what the quality is: man enough, woman enough, brave enough, tall enough, popular enough, pretty enough, the whole point is that we aren’t enough something. But this is a bloody stupid way to look at ourselves.

In order for this sort of taunt to make sense, we have to accept the idea that we are a random concatenation of qualities. Instead of whole beings we would have to be: a pretty, a man, a woman, a brave, a popular, a whatever, a single dimensional quality. Sure, some of those phrases sound at least moderately reasonable, but most of them are rather dumb. Because they are dumb, they point out the shallowness of the taunt. And by pointing out the shallowness, they give us an opportunity to grow deeper into something that is true.

The one quality that is truly a well-rounded you is well, you. The person you live with most intimately and from whom you can flee least easily is… you. Thus, the only quality you need to be “enough” is being you enough.

This is easy to say and harder to do because it includes the challenge of figuring out which of the many possible yous that exist is the Real and True. People have spent a great deal of time, effort, and energy attempting to figure out their One True You with differing levels of success. Part of the challenge though, is that there really isn’t a One True You because you are multi-dimensional.

Trying to reduce all of the impulses, ideas, and stories that make a human being into One True You brings us back to the first problem, namely that it attempts to reduce us down to a single dimension. The you that is you in all your glory is a bundle of contradictions, paradox, and beauty all gathered together within your skin to live and move and have being.

So instead of attempting to dig deep and find the One, try the method of life as an ongoing re-formation. In this model we are always awake to what our whole being is doing and test ideas and actions with the question “does this lead me into life?” By accepting the bundled complexity of life and only testing  whether a thing brings us deeper into real, present living, we become more completely whole. We are thus free of the danger of becoming  Procrustes for ourselves,  attempting to force our whole being into the logical shape created by a single organizing idea. Instead of digging deep and staring silently within in hopes of glimpsing the One True Reality that will reform our being, we live and test and grow.

Certainly there is a Truth, a Good within us which we can profit greatly from discovering and living out. This act of discovery of a profound truth and then living it reorients (converts) our whole way of being (which is why we call it “conversion” in theological speak). These are however, rare breakthroughs, occasional epiphanies that reveal truth, beauty, and newness in us. To rely on them alone and expect that we do not grow until we have them is to ignore so much of the preparation and assimilation work needed to have a deep life.

It’s a little bit like the lady who worked and played in Nashville for twenty years and then became an overnight sensation. If she hadn’t laid the groundwork, struggled with who she was and what her music meant, she probably wouldn’t have been an overnight anything at all. In the same way, our life rarely includes those lightning bolts, it does however include a whole lot of “you enough” moments.

So the real question is “are you ‘you’ enough to be you today?”

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Recapitulating Creation

Ephesians 1.10

This is one of those subtle language things because recapitulation is, if done fairly and well, a big sprawling thing. The word is anakefalia which is from ana “again” and kefalia “head.” Kefalia is also used as the word for chapters in books. It is also the first word of  and kefalapoda the famous “head-feet” of science. Regardless of the particular kind of head meant, anakefalia means recapitulation, re-heading, or ‘getting a head again.’

So what’s the point of that, particularly if “all the cosmos” is getting a head again in Jesus. What is that supposed to even mean? What it means is that, like a good recap, Jesus is going thoroughly through the whole creation.  On a really pushing it but actually still accurate level, he is working through every nook and cranny, through every molecule and mote in order to bring the whole creation into himself.

A recap covers the story thoroughly, touching everything along the way so nothing is missed. In the same way, Jesus is Going through every fragment, corner, and cranny of our life and touching everything, bringing everything into himself. And that is why this verse is so important. It is about God touching our whole life, the parts we are proud of, the parts we are ashamed of, with grace. It is the way God comes into who we are, makes all things beautiful and new, and then draws all that beauty into who God fundamentally is.

Remember, the whole creation is recapitulated in Jesus and Jesus has ascended into the dance of the trinity that is life and joy. Therefore, our half-finished and yet still becoming beautiful lives are also gathered into that holy, heavenly dance.

Take that boring day planner that tells me my life is meaningless!

And like any good Circus Barker, it’s time to say “But wait! There’s more!” Because this is not just some sort of pick up thing, some mindless ‘oh well, I’ve gotta do something’ sort of gathering, it is part of an oikonomia an economy. Before you think that economy is a word about numbers and obscure, dry, math, let me explain.

Oikonomia comes from oikos “house” and nomos “rules/norms.” In other words, the rule, the norm, the way the house runs, is the economy. While on a national scale, house rules seem to be more on the order of rules of thumb or wishful thinking, in a home we have norms and patterns that actually shape us. Plus, when the house is healthy, those norms and patterns lead us toward life. (Yes, I have already covered the way that human lives are so often so very far away from the patterns that lead us to life. In this case, lets assume that God’s house rules, God’s economy does in fact lead into life).

So the work of God is leading into an economy, a way of living that, in the fullness, the completion of time, unfolds into glory. And if that itself were not glorious enough, this plan for the fullness, the coming together in hope takes place in kairos the right season.

The Greeks have two types of time kronos the tick-tock time of a watch dividing the day into precisely equal little slices. The other type of time however, kairos is the time that comes of itself. This is the time that unfolds like a season. It is the time that says “every highway was leading me back to you” and “you saved the best for last.” It’s the time that is a season for beginning and ending, that tells you when it’s time to say goodnight to your friends and go home, that tells you that meal was awesome. Kairos tells the birds to migrate and the flowers to bloom. It sends the salmon up the river and the leaves to turning to crimson fire.

Thus this verse says that God’s action is moving the cosmos into an oikonomia that is building into the fullness of kairos time. Furthermore, in that oikonomia Jesus is touching every single thing and drawing it into himself.

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