The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
We’re in a season when we can literally see God’s abundance. The gardens are still madly casing forth tomatoes and squash, but the leaves are turning to bright red and gold. It’s also a season when, in church, we turn out attention to reflecting on stewardship, as you can see from the piece at the beginning of your bulletin this morning, what it means for us to be the stewards of God’s abundant blessings, and to reflect on the ways in which we choose to share our resources.
So how timely it is that our lectionary directs our attention to Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus.
It’s a fantastical story – much more a fantasy that most of Jesus’ other parables. It challenges us to think about the perils of wealth.
The story concerns a rich man – who , in the parable, has no name – and a poor man who loiters at his gate, Lazarus.
We’re supposed to notice - contrast in their life circumstances:
Eventually, as is the case for all of us when our time comes - both die.
He looks for solace, requesting drop of water, but is informed by Abraham that it is too late – he had his chance - “a chasm has been fixed” that prevents deliverance from his torment.
The story ends on pessimistic note. Even rich man’s hope that his family can learn from his fate will do no good: “if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced” by a messenger from the afterlife.
Jesus’ parable not a cautionary tale about what we need to do to qualify for entrance to heaven – we can put that one aside.
The parable is about our relationships here and now.
Two weeks ago we heard pair of parables of “the lost” whom G wants to restore to relationship – the lost sheep, the lost coin.
The rich man doesn’t know it, but he is lost.
He’s lost not because he is rich, not even primarily because he shows no compassion for Lazarus, suffering at his gate, (though both are true).
The rich man is lost because his wealth prevents him from even seeing Lazarus as a person worthy of his concern, as another child of God. Even from Hades, he sees Lazarus as a servant to attend to his needs.
The “fixed chasm” that separates rich man and Lazarus after death is a chasm that was established in life. Maybe the rich man’s eternal torment is his isolation, his inability to see, to feel for, to respond to the Lazarus’ needs with compassion, because he has been insulated by his wealth.
Wealth and the privilege it provides DO serve to protect us from encounter with the suffering of others;
Likewise, and maybe more importantly, material and social privilege prevent us from knowing our need of God, prevent us from recognizing our need to trust in G, because they provide the illusion that we are in control, and that because of our wealth and our privilege, we are entitled to have things the way we want them.
Conversely, our own pain is often what brings us to know our need for God, and becomes a doorway to learning to truly trust in God’s presence and care. Exposure to others’ suffering, when we can allow ourselves to really encounter it, is so often what transforms us, what shapes in us a response of care and compassion. If we are fortunate, transformation in our consciousness leads to transformation in our behavior.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus bears a striking resemblance to a story from one of the other great faith traditions of the world. The foundational story from the tradition of Buddhism goes this way:
Siddhartha Gautama, the “enlightened one” was born a prince of high caste in Hindu family and sheltered from seeing sufferings of the world. One day drove out from palace to meet his subjects. Saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse. Questioned his driver, who explained the inevitability of aging, disease, & death.
Despite having been offered throne of the kingdom, Siddhartha set out on life of asceticism – self-denial - in search of truth.
Buddhist tradition teaches – and I am inclined to believe it, and not see it as incompatible with my Xn faith – that Siddhartha found enlightenment, found true peace. I think it is not an accident that his journey began with recognition of the suffering of others.
Like the rich man of our parable, he was sheltered from the sufferings of others. Unlike the rich man, he allowed is eyes to be opened to see them. He was lost, but found himself, found the true path, through compassion borne in awareness of the suffering of others.
Another connection that comes to my mind as I continue to process the anti-racism workshop I took part in a week ago, as to do with white privilege.
Our whiteness – for those of us who are white – is the equivalent of the rich man’s wealth. Our racial identity enables us to live without thinking about racial injustice – other than when we choose to do so, just as the rich man’s wealth enabled him to live without worrying about Lazarus, lying hungry and thirsty at his gate. Racial privilege allows us to live without worrying about our sons and husbands and brothers being shot by the police. Like the rich man, we can tell ourselves –“Not my problem”, and when we do, we, too, are lost.
Jesus' parable is not a mandate to sell all that we own, but rather, an invitation to open ourselves to the needs of those at our gates, whether in Franklin County or in our nation or across the world. The scriptures call us to be affected by those in need – to experience the discomfort of considering others’ difficult lives – and to share out of our resources in response.
As Paul instructs Timothy in this morning’s epistle:
As for those who in the present age are rich
(and let’s not kid ourselves: in contrast to so many in the world who are starving, who do not have clean water or basic healthcare, or just treatment in the judicial system, we are rich)
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This part of the lectionary cycle is probably my favorite, as we hear and reflect on Jesus' parables.Indulge me in reviewing what we know about parables as a teaching method:
The story is actually pretty simple: The Steward – a business manager - accused of mismanaging or squandering his master’s property. He is given notice and asked to provide a final accounting for the master before his responsibilities are terminated. Worried about future unemployment, he devises a strategy: He forgives part of each debtor’s debt. When his action becomes known, he is commended by master and keeps his job.
The parable becomes confusing when we hear Jesus’ commentary after he finishes the parable itself: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” – Which is sometimes alternately translated as “worldly wealth” – “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Jesus affirms the actions of steward and concludes with teaching “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Does Jesus support manipulative business practices?
Why has Luke included this story and what does it teach us?
I have a number of thoughts about this parable, rather than an explanation.
1. I think it is a mistake for us to think we need to understand and make sense out of every word that Jesus is reported to have spoken. We cannot assume this or any other gospel texts to be objectively reliable as verbatim accounts of Jesus’ teachings.
The Gospel of Luke took written form somewhere between 60 and 85 CE, some 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. It consists, as do the other gospels, of stories and memories that had been handed down among Jesus’ followers.
Stories are ways to make meaning, and to share meaning: the early church developed and reinforced their faith by organizing and interpreting the received memories of Jesus’ life and teachings. We have faith, in the modern Church, that the Holy Spirit was involved in the process that led to what we receive as the canonical gospels, but Jesus’ teachings have been interpreted nonetheless.
2. We need to ask what the basic concern of the parable is. Is it about wealth and our relationship to money, or is it about forgiveness?
Of course it is about both. Throughout his teachings Jesus takes strong and extreme position about dangers of wealth, but telling this story in context of his growing conflict with other religious leaders, it is equally about forgiveness.
Since more teachings about wealth coming up in the next few weeks, let’s think now about the role of forgiveness in today’s parable.
The parable’s protagonist, the steward or manager draws master’s attention (and approval) by forgiving debts. In forgiving debts, the steward rejects the expectations – even the responsibilities – of accepted & reasonable business practice.
The master, in turn, forgives the steward’s past mismanagement and keeps him on in his position after he learns of the steward’s actions toward his debtors.
1st c. Palestine had notoriously inequitable economic system – wealth was held in the hands of few, and there was no real option for the poor to change their status. The manager in the parable, by forgiving debts, disrupts the system.
We have to ask - When the manager goes back and forgives the debts, is he doing so to benefit himself, or perhaps following his heart in a way he hasn’t previously been able to?
3. It is important not to miss striking parallel between steward and Jesus, which is perhaps why the parable resonated with church. Just as the steward is a rogue, going outside of the boundaries of an accepted economic system,
Jesus is a rogue rabbi, disrupting the accepted system of religious practice.
Religious system relied on ritual sacrifice for divine favor. Jesus, however, came along giving away forgiveness and acceptance without requiring promises or sacrifices, without regard for accepted interpretation of Mosaic Law.
It is this offering of “free grace” that provokes the criticism and opposition of religious authorities.
* * *
This week I had reason to think hard about the limit of forgiveness. I spent Thursday and Friday in Anti-Racism Training provided by National Conference for Community and Justice – organization that supports social justice work through educational and community-building programs.
I have worked at learning about race and racism for decades; even so, I was amazed at the new history I learned in this workshop about the pervasive and deliberate and systemic policies and practices that undergird and perpetuate racial inequality in our nation – not just in the past, and not just in the south.
The hardest part of the workshop, however, was an extended exercise in which white participants spent an hour talking together about the privileges we enjoy and the assumptions we make as white folks, while the POC were in another room talking about their experience as POC. When we returned we did a “fishbowl” exercise in which each group, in turn, sat in an inner circle recapping highlights of what they had discussed while the other group sat in an outer circle listening. When the white folks’ turn came to sit outside the circle and listen, I was in tears at the pain I heard in the stories of my sisters and brothers of color. One young AA woman, in fact, decided that she needed to leave the workshop because she was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and hopeless, after that exercise, in facing the challenges of living as a black woman in white America.
I share this not only because it is in the forefront of my mind as I continue to process what I learned in the workshop, but because it raises for me the devastating question of how forgiveness can exist when such egregious wrongs have been done and so much hurt inflicted, and how relationships can be built against such a backdrop.
How much are we bound to assumptions and formulas about who “deserves” or “is qualified for” God’s grace? How much do we keep tally sheets about who deserves forgiveness, or who needs to be the one to apologize, or to make things right? Who has proven untrustworthy and needs to be avoided?
How can we leave behind assumptions about who deserves favor and instead, spread God’s grace through our lives?
How can we be instruments of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation in our families, our friendships, our workplaces, our church?
As we go forward into this week,
Let us acknowledge where we have caused harm – both by our actions and by our inaction, and let us admit where we need to make amends.
Let us examine the debts we are carrying on our own relational and emotional account books and figure out what we need to do to forgive them.
Let us look for ways to share the grace God has given us.
In Jesus’ name.
Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
In today’s gospel, Jesus is teaching a large crowd as they travel towards Jerusalem. Within the crowd were tax collectors, and individuals known to be sinners. When Jesus heard some Pharisees and scribes grumbling about the company he kept, Jesus offered them a series of three parables:
In the parable of the lost sheep, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to go and find the one that has strayed away. It’s no small risk. After all, while seeking out the lone sheep something could happen to those ninety-nine others that might endanger the lives of the sheep, and the livelihood of the shepherd.
James Rebank, a shepherd in England, describes shepherding in his book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, as well as, actively on Twitter. Rebank writes:
“My job is simple: get around the fields and feed and shepherd the different flocks of ewes--dealing with any issues that arise. First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you; it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: sometimes you can’t win. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work” (p.201).
The shepherd in today’s parable, likely shared a similar outlook. Finding this sheep was simply part of the shepherd’s calling and responsibility. It’s not about the shepherd’s ego, or even the shepherd’s livelihood; it’s about the sheep and the land. Even if the shepherd’s search were to prove unsuccessful, the work of shepherding, of caring for the lost, and the found, is simply part of the job.
When the shepherd in the parable finds his lost sheep, he calls his friends and neighbors, and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6). Finding this lost sheep is a relief, and a joy worthy of celebration. Rebank describes this kind of joy when he writes, “As ever with a farming life, the little triumphs matter, because of the countless failures” (p.160).
This parable is a reminder to the crowd listening to Jesus, and to us, that no one is beyond redemption. Whether we have lost our way, or have been found for a long while, our lives have value and meaning to our God. Not for God’s ego, but because we are each beloved, beautiful, and broken children of God. Sometimes we are going to get lost. Sometimes we are going to muck up our lives and the lives of those around us. And even still, God will come searching after us. Because we are loved beyond measure, even when we lose our way.
In the parable of the lost coin, we see a woman who loses one of the ten silver coins she has in her home, as she lights a lamp and searches high and low until she finds it. This story is interpreted in a couple of ways. One interpretation is that the woman is poor, and finding this coin is essential to her livelihood. Of course she will sweep her home from top to bottom, using what precious and expensive oil might be in her lamp to find the coin. Then when she finds the coin, it is such good news that she calls her friends and neighbors to say, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (15:9).
Another interpretation to this story, and admittedly, the one I prefer, indicates this woman is actually not poor. Indeed, she owns a home, and these ten coins reflect the money she has on hand in her home at that particular moment. Upon the realization that she has lost the coin, she lights her lamp, and sweeps her home high and low until she finds the coin. Using this lens, the woman is not searching out of fear and scarcity, but rather out of our mutual calling to be good stewards of our resources. The woman is ensuring she is a responsible caretaker who wastes nothing.
Both of these stories serve as a reminder that each and every person is a beloved, beautiful, and broken child of God. Each and every one of us here today; each and every person out there; and even, each and every internet troll, criminal, or ‘bad guy’. The good news about the Good News is that it is for everyone.
Which is why at the invitation for Holy Eucharist, Molly and I say every week, “This is God’s table, and all are welcome here. No exceptions.”
We are each of value and worth, even losing our way does not take away this truth. None of us is beyond the reach of our God. When we lose our way, God will turn the light on, and sweep the house to find us. When we’ve lost all hope, God will bare the elements to find us in the wilderness. This is the message Jesus wants the crowd of tax collectors, sinners, families, elderly travelers, Pharisees, scribes, disciples, and all the rest of the travelers to hear.
Yet if we keep digging, these parables hold even more truth for us. The shepherd who puts his care of the sheep and land before himself. The woman who puts her care of her resources before herself. Just as humanity is never beyond redemption, nor is all of creation.
During this season of creation care, the Church is invited to wake up to the ways we have abused our power over the earth. In the beginning, we were called to be stewards of creation, and instead we have become a cancer to creation, draining the earth of its resources and leaving a wasteland in our midst. These parables are an invitation for us to be better caretakers of creation. We have become accustomed to convenience, and often are unwilling or unsure of how to change our customs and behaviors so that creation might begin to heal. Many of us know we need to do something, but are unsure of where to begin.
In the last nine months, the church’s new Green Team has worked to help us navigate ways to help be better stewards of creation. They’ve hosted 100 mile meals, asked us to take creation care pledges, maintain a blog, and on November 10, the Green Team will be leading a discussion of the book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. Our Green Team is here to help us, as we seek to live more intentionally as caretakers of creation. And there are countless other resources in the Pioneer Valley to help us live more intentionally.
We do not have to be overwhelmed into inaction. To do so, would be a choice to remain lost in the wilderness. God has invited us to realize something bigger. We are never too lost for God. Nor is God’s creation too lost to be healed. Not if we work together. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is dining in the home of a prominent Pharisee. All the other guests are pretty curious about Jesus. They’ve heard he has a reputation for eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Even before they sat down to eat, Jesus healed a man with dropsy, in spite of it being the Sabbath.Jesus was captivating, compelling, and yet, he routinely ignored social norms. No one really knew what to make of him.
While most of the guests were vying for seats near the host, Jesus hung back and watched. He then began to address his fellow guests with a parable. When you attend a reception, it’s wise to take the least prominent seat in the room. The seat that is furthest from the host and other guests. If you take the prominent seat, you risk embarrassing yourself and your host, should they need to ask you to move for a more honored guest. Whereas if you take the lowliest seat, your host may honor you by asking you to come and sit with them.
Jesus’ parable about humility is poignant and timeless. Sometimes we become so captivated by a compelling person, suddenly in our midst, that we forget ourselves. Have you ever hung back at a dinner party only to notice a crowd gathered around a prominent person, seemingly hanging on the individual’s every word? We get caught up in the prestige or power the person represents. Some small part of ourselves wants to be glorified, and in that instant we lose sight of building genuine relationships. Instead it becomes about what we stand to gain.
Jesus is suggesting we do something counterintuitive. It’s a matter of asking ourselves when we arrive in those social situations--what would be best for my host? By putting their needs before our desires, we are both practicing humility and loving our host.
Jesus goes a step further by offering his host some feedback. When you invite people to dinner, don’t invite your friends, family, or prominent guests, as they might return your hospitality. Instead, embrace those guests who can never repay you. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In doing so, the host will be blessed by building genuine relationships with those they might never have gotten to know otherwise.
Jesus provided his host, and fellow guests, with a good deal of uncomfortable things to consider. What if we welcome this lesson as an opportunity to explore our own discomfort?
Do you remember November 2016? In the two weeks between Election Day and Thanksgiving Day, I heard the same angst repeated on public radio, in editorials, in the news, and overwhelmingly on social media. How were we to break bread with our family on Thanksgiving Day? The perception, whether it be real or perceived, was that our nation was more divided than ever over the recent election of now President Trump. How would Trump supporters and Clinton supporters ever find anything to talk about, besides the cranberry sauce? For many people, sharing this one meal felt insurmountable and painful. People came up with excuses to change their Thanksgiving plans, so they didn’t have to sit through an uncomfortable meal with their family.
Yet the true damage of that season, was not our anxiety about how to deal with uncomfortable dinner conversation with the family we vehemently disagree with. Rather, it was inviting the darkness in our world to takeover our meal, to drive us away from genuine relationships and the light and blessing that is born there. Because our God is a God of abundant love, and our God values being in genuine relationships above all else. Even with those who we believe voted for the wrong person, whoever that may be for you. This division has pervaded our culture in the years since, and if we buy into it, darkness will continue to grow and further fracture our relationships.
Or, we can choose to sit with the uncomfortable truth that Christ offers us in today’s lesson. We can spend some time reflecting.
If you were to host a meal and invite guests beyond your comfort zone, who would you invite?
Jesus is calling us to turn away from fulfilling our own desires, from spending all our time with people who might improve our social standing or who might repay us. Instead, we are being called to turn our attention towards the needs of creation and our neighbors. The first step we have to take is practicing some humility. We all have gotten caught up with a prominent guest, hanging on there every word. We have all done some networking, hoping the favor might be returned. It’s human, it may even be part of what has made our species evolve so successfully. And, it also works against the dream God has for us.
God calls us to be in genuine relationship with one another and creation. This includes spending time with people we would rather not hang out with, and taking care of our earth by doing things we’d rather not be inconvenienced by, like composting and limiting the meat we eat. The thing we least want to do, the person we least want to break bread with--that is probably where God is calling us to go.
I wonder, what if instead of just imagining such a meal with those who make us uncomfortable, we actually each hosted one? What blessing might come from building genuine relationships?
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