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Monday, September 30, 2013

Bridging the Chasm to Seasons of Hope

          One week ago yesterday I was at a retreat. We began our morning with the usual self-introductions; so, we shared our names, where we were from, and all that, and then we were asked to share what our favorite time of year might be. Perhaps it was because we were all aware that the day on which this retreat fell was the last full day of summer, that most of the participants claimed autumn as their favorite season. Interestingly, almost no one claimed summer, and winter –well, you can imagine there were no takers for winter being their favorite season. I fell in with the majority, because fall really is my favorite season, followed closely by spring. I think it’s partially because I see the cycle of life so clearly represented within the cycle of the seasons, and fall and spring point to the hope of things to come.
          This week we certainly felt the beginnings of fall, didn’t we? With nights in the 40s and warm, sunny days, it was easy to believe that autumn had arrived. I have to confess that days like this make scenes from Thomas Kincaid paintings circle ‘round in my head – he so often painted the brilliant colors of fall into his “Paintings of Light,” and last week, I could just feel and smell them coming. I guess you could say that I embrace the fall with a kind of whimsical fondness.
Yet while some may be relieved that the hot days of summer are past, and now embrace the more moderate fall, many face these days not with fanciful thoughts like mine, but rather with dread, knowing that winter is not far behind, with its attendant hardships. While I look with anticipation for the return of color to the trees, note the return of pumpkin scented and flavored – everything in the stores, and witness the evidence of plentiful fall harvests at the farm stands around the area, there are many who search their lean cupboards and see the portent of a long season of hunger and cold ahead.
Even as I breathed in the heartwarming scent of wood-smoke from fireplaces in homes all around my neighborhood on the coolest of evenings last week, there were many layering on as many layers of garments as they could to warm themselves and their children, or searching for sheltered areas outside to make their beds, dread settling deep in their bellies at thoughts of coming months of uncertainty, cold and hunger.
In the midst of these reflections, come this morning’s assigned lectionary texts with a collusion of themes and issues – issues that illustrate the futility of relying on wealth, the reality that there will be an ultimate judgment for all of us, as well as a reminder, that gathering up wealth for ourselves while despising the poor and the outcast and ignoring their plight is a trap that leads to death.
Following Paul’s exhortation to set our hopes on God, who “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,” and “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share….so that [we] may take hold of life that really is life,” we read Luke’s gospel that once again begins, “There was a rich man….” If it seems like we’ve heard that introduction more than once in the past couple of months, it’s because we have, as it seems to be a favorite topic of Luke’s.
While Luke’s gospel clearly illustrates God’s preference for the poor and the outcast time and again, it can make us highly uncomfortable to read these words. Especially when they describe this grand reversal that is in store when God’s ultimate judgment comes. Nowhere does Luke speak to this reality more clearly than in this parable which Jesus addresses to the Pharisees, whom Luke describes as “lovers of money”. These are the same guys who just sneered at and mocked Jesus for his warnings about attachment to wealth in his words following the parable of the dishonest manager.
Interestingly, the word “Pharisee” is descriptive; it means “to turn up the nose against.” And in Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees routinely do just that, don’t they? They turn up their noses against those most in need – the poor, the outcast, and the one who has gone astray. Their habits regarding wealth and hospitality run in direct opposition to the desires God has for how we treat one another, and those who are most in need of care and love, a desire in fact addressed repeatedly by Moses and the prophets. And therein lies the crux of the problem.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
The fact that this man (who is himself nameless) knows the name of Lazarus, means that he can’t claim ignorance – he knew the man’s name. He knew he was there, lying by the gate – actually, thrown by the gate. He made a conscious decision not to help him. His disregard of Lazarus’ poor estate was intentional. He turned up his nose against him – he treated him with the same kind of haughtiness and disregard, even hatred  that “the rich” in Luke’s gospel often display toward the disadvantaged – the kind of treatment that denies the very humanity of another person. Even the dogs, who ate scraps that fell from the table of this man were better treated and better off than Lazarus. But death comes to us all, and it comes equally to Lazarus and the rich man.
It is then, in death, that we see the great reversal that is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God. While Lazarus ends up sharing eternity with Abraham, where he receives comfort and relief and good things, the rich man ends up in Hades, where he is in torment, yet remains in denial of the full extent of his fall – he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to attend to him, to warn his brothers. He wants to be served in death as he was in life, by one he still deems subservient to him.
Paul writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,….” While both the Old Testament and the New teach us that the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love our neighbor, the love of money can distract us from both and replace them in our hearts. The concern here is our relationship to wealth and the chasm that it forms between the rich and the poor as it leads us to believe that money equals worth.
I think that as we each consider this text, we need to ask ourselves where we might see parallels to our own lives? Who do we ignore? Who do we turn our noses up against? I wonder if we are truly honest with ourselves, where do we find the chasm created in our lives? What is our relationship to our wealth, and where do we use it to ease the burden of one who might see the change of seasons as less a part of the cycle of life, and more as a threat to life?
In a reflection on this passage, Mary Simonson Clark wrote,
“The 2012 income gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of U.S. society reached the widest point since 1928 (Associated Press, 09/11/13). What was the economic gap between the parable's rich man and Lazarus? Was it as wide as today's gap?
Whenever economic gaps occur, they spawn physical gaps, including the rich man's gate, discriminatory neighborhood redlining and low-income housing in undesirable sites. As income and location increasingly separate us, we ignore, misunderstand and distrust each other. Our fear of the "other" intensifies; the chasm between us widens and becomes fixed. We do not share comfort of community. Instead, we experience agony of isolation from each other and God. We put ourselves in a "place of torment."
We can bridge chasms we built.” she continues. “We can choose to become aware of people on the other side. We can share our stories with each other. What an awesome God's family reunion!”[1]
As Simonson points out, the love of money and our attachment to it fixes a chasm between our dependence on God, our relationships with other people, and truly living the life that God desires for all God’s children. It is into this agony of isolation that we create for ourselves that Jesus speaks most clearly and most pointedly. While the words and images he uses may shock and confound us, they are meant to awaken us from the complacency of our contentment with the status quo. Because the truth of the matter is that there is much that is at stake here, and Jesus leads the way for us to follow, to bridge the chasm between us. Jesus becomes the way, for those who love him and patterns our lives after him.
I know that it’s not fun to come to church and hear the pastor talk about money. And yet Jesus talked about it all the time because the truth of the matter is that our relationship with money is fraught with danger. And yet, with the appropriate use, sharing and distribution of it, money can do a world of good. It can clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give warmth and shelter, and create bonds of love and care, sharing God’s love and God’s mercy with another. In using our wealth to do all these things, we are also giving witness to and honoring the humanity of another child of God.
Living, dying and rising again, Jesus himself crossed the chasm between heaven and hell. And Jesus invites us to share the same grace and mercy that we ourselves receive with others in our midst. As we gather together, God’s Spirit is among us empowering us, calling to us and encouraging us on in helping to bridge the chasms that still exist between neighborhoods, races, genders, and most especially, between classes.
As the seasons change, as winter draws near, may we be ever more attentive and responsive to the Spirit’s call to breach earthly chasms as we ever give thanks that Christ has crossed the chasm from death into life, for us all. Amen.

[1] From “God Pause” daily online devotional by Luther Seminary,

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Unjust Steward, Or, Sandwiches Anyone?

We celebrated this past Sunday as Youth Sunday, with youth serving in various roles throughout worship services. One of our youth helped write a liturgical drama, embedded within the sermon, and the kids did an awesome job of helping us work with this difficult text. I've left some of the "stage directions" in to help readers visualize how it came together:

The Unjust Steward, Or, Sandwiches Anyone?
PASTOR KAREN: Before we begin the sermon, the youth actually have a quick announcement to make. Sorry I forgot you earlier, guys. You can go ahead now, while I run back to my office to grab something I forgot. It seems to be my day for forgetting things!
ELIZABETH:         Hi! I’m Elizabeth Criss, and I’d like to talk to you for just a moment on behalf of all the youth standing here, and a few who couldn’t make it this morning.
JEANETTE: Yeah – like it’s too early for some people to get out of bed – wish MY parents got THAT memo—
Students around Jeanette giggle and roll their eyes in agreement.
ELIZABETH: (Shooting a look of annoyance to Jeanette) Yes, as I was saying, I am representing the Grace Youth Group with an announcement about an upcoming fundraiser. We’ve been working hard making and trying to sell these sandwiches to support our trips to FreeRide and RoadTrip this year. We really need your support.
BEN: Yeah, so, we have some to sell today, we’re going to be taking orders, and making the sandwiches, and selling them from now until FreeRide.
ELIZABETH:  OR until they are all sold, so that we can all go.
(gestures with hands as if praying/pleading and mouths, “please, please!” – the rest of the youth mimic him/her)
BEN: So, if you have any questions, please contact Matthew or Christopher. Matthew and Chris are two of our senior youth, and Mr. Kevin has put them in charge of keeping track of this fundraiser.
Kevin has been standing off to the side. As he makes his way to the front-center, he gestures with his hands while saying,
KEVIN: Yes, so if you have any questions, about the sandwiches or the fundraiser itself, please call THEM and not ME.
JACK: But wait!........Jack looks all around.
I don’t see them. Where ARE Matthew and Chris? Since they’re in charge, THEY should be here too!
JEANETTE: Right! Like, WE all had to be here, and they’re in charge, so why aren’t THEY here?
All of the youth act like they are looking for Matthew and Chris and grumble
KEVIN: loudly Christopher! Matthew! Yelling  Christopher! Matthew!
Matthew and Chris enter from the sacristy door, shoving food into their mouths and eating quickly.
CHRIS: Mmph?
MATTHEW: Uh, yes?
NEVEN: Are you eating the sandwiches?
JACK: The sandwiches we’ve been working our fingers to the bone to make?
JEANETTE: I’ve been smelling like ham and turkey and pickles for weeks!
BEN: I dream – no, it’s more like a nightmare - that I’m drowning in huge pots of mustard and mayonnaise!
Other youth start grumbling. KEVIN tries shushing them.
NEVEN: You are supposed to be leading us!
JEANETTE: Yeah! But you haven’t given us any direction! You’ve just sat there eating sandwiches! Sandwiches WE all made!
JACK: What a waste!
Youth are ALL muttering, grumbling to themselves and each other, gesturing toward Chris and Matthew, start shoving each other, a couple sit down on the step of the chancel, head in hands.
Our Youth Managers are summoned by Mr. Kevin
KEVIN: (to the congregation) I’m sorry, um, please excuse us for a minute.
Kevin drags Chris and Matthew off to the pulpit side. As he talks to them, the other youth shush each other and very obviously try to listen in.
KEVIN: This is a warning. You guys need to take care of this, but I have to tell you that I am really, really disappointed in you. You get one more shot, or else.
MATTHEW: Or - else what?
KEVIN: Or else you are suspended from Youth Group for not doing your part!
The youth all gasp. Kevin shoots them “a look” then continues on.seniors are supposed to set the example for the younger members.
CHRIS and MATTHEW hang their heads.
KEVIN: If you don’t shape up, Chris, I’ll call the synod and there will be no going to FreeRide for you. Neither one of you will go on RoadTrip in January. And you will not go on any of our outing between now and then. This is serious. I – and they – are counting on you to do your job. Now do it, or you’re out!
KEVIN gives the youth one last look, looks pointedly at Matthew and Chris, then leaves via the pulpit side door.
CHRIS and MATTHEW begin to walk slowly toward the center while talking.
CHRIS: I told you that was a bad idea
MATTHEW: That’s not important! We need to find a way to get in the other kids’ good graces.
CHRIS: You mean, get them on our side so that maybe Kevin will see and stop being mad at us?
MATTHEW: Exactly! But I don’t know what we’ll do…
The youth begin to talk among themselves.
JEANETTE: I’m having a hard time selling all these sandwiches!
JACK: Yeah! Me too!
NEVEN: I still can’t believe we have to sell 10 sandwiches EACH.
CHRIS: I have an idea! Walks over to one of the youth.
CHRIS: Okay, how many sandwiches have you sold?
CHRIS: Okay, we’ll write down that you sold 5.
JEANETTE: Wow! Thanks!
CHRIS turns to JACK.
CHRIS: How many have YOU sold?
JACK: Uh, four.
MATTHEW: (to Chris) Okay, I get it –
MATTHEW: (to JACK)  We’ll write down you sold, (he hesitates, looks at Chris) – seven!
CHRIS nods approvingly, smiles.
MATTHEW and CHRIS go down the line quietly, continuing to do the same for each youth. As they go, youth who have already gotten a break compare notes with each other and high-five each other. This continues while KEVIN reenters the room with PASTOR KAREN behind him. They stand there for a moment while CHRIS and MATTHEW go on, unaware that KEVIN and the PASTOR are watching them.
KEVIN: Christopher! Matthew!
CHRIS and MATTHEW freeze for a moment. They slowly turn to face KEVIN while they say to each other,
CHRIS: Uh oh!
KEVIN: moving toward the boys Bad? Au contrair! Thank you! You’ve done exactly what I asked of you – you showed leadership and you handled this problem on your own.
CHRIS: Thanks? Oh! Um. You’re welcome!?
Youth receive relief from their indebtedness.
MATTHEW: It was all MY idea!
KEVIN: You have truly shown compassion for your fellow youth.
MATTHEW: We did?
CHRIS: Yeah, we know – that’s what we were going for.
JEANETTE: But for the right reasons? Or the wrong reasons?
Kids all start to talk amongst themselves, high-five each other, laugh and playfully shove one another.
PASTOR KAREN Bangs “gavel”.
KEVIN: Turning to look at Karen. Why do I suddenly feel like we’re on trial and you are the judge?
PASTOR: Just trying to restore a little order here. Okay, thank you, Youth of Grace – for, um, your announcement, this would be a good time for you to go back to your seats now.
KEVIN: But wait a minute. Jeanette asked a very good question. A lot of people might question why I might think that what Chris and Matthew did was a good thing.
PASTOR: And what would you say to them?
KEVIN: Well, you know, I got to thinking about it, and what just happened here reminded me a lot about the gospel lesson we just heard.
PASTOR: Really?
KEVIN: Yes, really.
PASTOR: Please, say more.
KEVIN: Well, in the gospel, the manager went through his accounts and he gave all of them a break on what they owed, right? I was reading about this lesson last week. The amounts these people owed were worth like one or two years’ wages for the average worker. One or two YEARS! So he really, REALLY did them a favor –
PASTOR: That’s true,
KEVIN: So when I saw Matthew and Christopher bargaining with the youth and letting them off the hook, I guess I just got carried away. Because it seemed like the same thing, and it felt like I was cast in the role of the rich man. In the story from the gospel, it seemed like he was pleased. And the kids were all stressing out and suddenly they seemed so relieved. So that was a good thing, right?
PASTOR: You’re right Kevin, It does seem a lot like our gospel, doesn’t it?
JEANETTE: Standing. But Pastor Karen, I’m confused.
PASTOR: Why is that, Jeanette?
JEANETTE: Because even though we kids were stressed out, and even though what Chris and Matt did helped us out and made us feel good, it really wasn’t fair when you think about it. And in the gospel, it really isn’t fair what the manager did. The people didn’t pay what they really owed. If you owe somebody something you’re supposed to pay them back in full. It seems to me like cheating. The manager cheated and Matthew and Chris cheated and we all benefitted. That’s not fair. But you’re saying something good happened here and it’s like the gospel. Can you help me out here?
PASTOR: Well, Jeanette, here’s one way to look at it. And remember, it really is just one way to look at it. Parables like this one are designed to make us think, and question, and continually look for parallels on how they might help us to understand how the kingdom of God works. They invite us to really think about how God’s justice looks different, sometimes, from justice the way the world sees it. And to be honest, my friends, this parable is one of the most difficult to try and work with.
But this is how I think we can make sense of it today. In the parable, the debtors owed amounts that were staggering, just like Kevin said. It was unlikely that they would ever be able to pay them off, no matter how hard they tried. Imagine having credit card debt in this day and age, and owing an amount equal or better than one or two years of your income - you would never be able to pay it off. If you’re lucky you might be able to pay the minimum payment due each month – if you’re lucky - but with interest rates growing your debt each month, you become hopeless of ever being able to retire the debt. After all, if you had that kind of money, you wouldn’t have the debt to begin with.
It’s the same way with sin. Sin is our debt, and we all know that no matter how hard we try, we just can’t stop sinning and we can’t pay off our debt. We can’t cancel the debt. We just keep adding to it.
But then Jesus comes along. Jesus does even more than the manager was able to do in this parable, he forgives our debt entirely – no, actually, the truth is that he pays it for us. Jesus pays our debt on the cross, and it is at the foot of the cross, when we come to understand the enormous cost of this gift, and the life-changing relief that it brings, that we begin to understand the truth about grace. Is it expected? No. Is it fair? No way! Does it look anything like the system of checks and balances, what we think of as just, or in any way resemble the way economy works in our world? Not on your life! But that’s how it is in the kingdom of God. God does the most unexpected, unreasonable, unfair thing in the universe, when God sent Jesus to set us free from the indebtedness of our sin.
When Jesus came to set us free, he turned the expectations of the world, especially those having to do with what is fair and what is not, upside down and inside out. Because God loves us enough not to play by our rules. That’s what we call grace. It comes to us freely. Grace comes to us unexpectedly, when we are in over our heads in sin, drowning with it in fact, with our debt multiplying daily, and God frees us from the debt we owe. When God does that our lives are changed and transformed in ways we never thought possible.
When I read the rich man’s response to what seems like the crazy dealings of the manager, I am reminded of God’s words regarding Jesus. “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” I think that one way we can look at this parable and at what happened here today, is to compare the good news of this gospel with the reality of our lives – God’s grace means that no matter who you are, and no matter how hard you are struggling or how deeply you feel your failings, Jesus is always coming to you, standing there beside you, relieving the burden of your sin so that you might live fully into the kingdom of God. Freed from the enormous burden of our sin, we are able to share the good news of God’s grace and mercy with everyone you meet, even, and especially, with those who are deeply indebted to you.
KEVIN: You know, Pastor Karen that reminds me of the movie, Pay It Forward - you know, the one with Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey? Well, in that movie somebody is given a great gift, with no expectation of paying the giver back. Instead they pay the kindness forward - they can gift other people in a chain of random gifts of kindness and I guess, using your word, grace.
PASTOR: Well said, Kevin. Well, I guess the youth had more to tell us about this morning than a simple fund raiser, whether they knew it or not! I think that they have helped us begin to think about God’s love and God’s sense of justice and how much bigger, more surprising, and liberating they really are. Today, I think we can begin by thanking God for paying our debt, for the gift of grace, and for freeing us so that we might “pay it forward” for the Kingdom of God.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013


I've been meaning to start a blog for awhile, after being encouraged by optimistic folks around me, that I really could do this. So, inspired by a morning retreat this weekend, here is my first post, sharing some reflections of the morning......

Today is the last full day of summer. I am spending the morning in retreat, in quiet contemplation and meditation. On a quiet, country road, I strolled across a bridge, morning sun glinting off the water below. I walked past some very old homes - even a schoolhouse from the 1800's. I stopped awhile and stood in the shade of some trees, squirrels scampering and playing above me, running along the outstretched limbs of an ancient maple across the road, making a racket (sounding a lot like a duck). Perhaps it was protesting my intrusion into its neighborhood, the same way I protested each thought that intruded upon my poor attempt at meditation. Make no mistake, I appreciated the opportunity to slow down, to walk in the peaceful surroundings on this beautiful morning. I stood for a very long time, reflecting on the beauty surrounding me, the unknown (to me) history of the area, imagining what it might have been like a hundred or more years ago on this spot. The houses I had passed boasted of their longevity, "Circa 1840", "Build in 1860", "Established in 1848". 

While I stood under those trees, looking out at the peaceful waters of one of the creeks or rivers that traverse this eastern shore area of Maryland, I watched a blue heron perched on a platform planted in the water. What a beautiful creature, so still and drawn into itself. Most of the herons I have seen around here are in flight, necks stretched out before, long legs extended after - or, standing along the shoreline of some body of water, majestic, long legs wading, watchful and purposeful in its stance.But this bird simply sat upon the platform, legs no longer even evident - folded beneath it, neck concealed, head resting between its broad shoulders. Seemingly unconcerned, soaking in the sun, at peace with its surroundings.

It's how I wish I could be - able to rest with my legs folded beneath me, rather than poised to spring up and carry me away at a hint of danger; wings folded, relaxed by my side, rather than waiting to take fight at the slightest provocation, head resting on shoulders broad enough to support it without overwhelming it - willing to simply allow my body soak in the warmth and energy of the sun.

I walked back to the very old chapel which was the setting for our retreat. I sat and opened my bible to the psalms, headed on my way to Psalm 121 or 113 - two of my favorite psalms. But on my way I stumbled across and rested instead upon Psalm 91 - "You who live in the shelter of the Most High...who abide in the shadow of the almighty...will say to the Lord, 'my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust..." Trust and dependence are implicit in these words. Claiming God as a refuge and fortress means that ultimately, it is God in whom I trust - God who will see to my eternal well-being. How good am I in such surrender? Not very good, as it turns out. It is hard enough to depend on those I can see, touch, and physically witness to. How much harder it is to place an even deeper level of trust and dependence on a God I cannot see, feel, or give physical witness to. 

"He will deliver..."
"He will cover..."
"His faithfulness is a shield and a buckler..." 

For now, I will sit in quiet wonder at the immense comfort of these words and the reassurance that it's okay to tuck my legs under, to let my wings fall relaxed, at my side, and simply "abide in the Shadow of the Almighty." For now, I will listen for the small, still breath that fills me when I am empty.For now, I will simply bask in the warmth and promise of these words of comfort, protection, and hope.