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. Dr. Molly Scherm
Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most well-know and most beloved psalm in the Bible. It is written by an unknown ancient poet to remind us that in our hardest times we are not alone.
It has been a particularly difficult week in this community. After months and years of observing the epidemic of gun violence that has reached into schools, public gatherings and places of worship, as well as in the privacy of homes, where anger bubbles up and overflows, this week the violence has come close, with the shooting death of Meaghan Burns, a member of this parish.
Some of you knew Meaghan. Many of you know Carolyn. Regardless, the news of this senseless act of violence has impacted all of us. It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written. Its text speaks to the deepest places in us.
I’ve seen the depth to which this psalm speaks to us in an experience I’ve had more than once, and I know Heather, Ann, and Jane have, as well. Sometimes when visiting a person who is gravely ill - even near death - who has been unresponsive, when I have begun praying Psalm 23, their lips move in silent accompaniment. They know those words, and the words matter, and they join me from somewhere far away, praying those words.
Psalm 23’s words and images are deeply reassuring in their promise of G’s presence & guidance in our time of need.
4th Sunday of Easter known as “Good Shepherd Sunday – a tradition that originally came from Roman Catholic tradition, that has been adopted by the Episcopal Church with our adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary.
It always includes Jesus’ discourse from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, in which he asserts that he is the good shepherd:
-whose sheep know his name and follow him
-who are given eternal life
On 4th Easter, the “Good Shepherd Gospel” always accompanied by Ps 23. We are accustomed to reading Ps 23 on its own, but in its placement in Book of Psalms, it is a partner and companion-piece to the preceding - Ps 22. Ps 22 is Psalm of lament, even of anguish – we read it in 2 Lent, after the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, and again on Good Friday.
Its themes are of great suffering and hopelessness.
Ps 22 opens with words that are particularly familiar to us because Jesus spoke them on the cross. He was reciting a psalm that was very real to him.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Ps 22 comes from times of deep despair in history of Hebrew people, when hope did seem to be gone but they cried out to God for relief and redemption.
Ps 23, then, is not just a random expression of appreciation of God’s guiding presence, but it is the answer to Ps 22 – an acknowledgement of having been saved from deepest pain and despair by the Lord who is my Shepherd.
The image of God as Shepherd runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures; when J spoke of himself as shepherd, he was building on an established metaphor in the tradition of his faith. Here are some examples:
Ps 95 : We are the people of G’s pasture and the sheep of his hand
Prophet Ezekiel writes: thus says the Lord God: As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
And from the Prophet Isaiah: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
These passages must have resonated with the people of Israel, including Jesus’ contemporaries because they knew about the work of herding of sheep and goats as a major form of livelihood: sheep were source of food, a necessity for Temple sacrifice, and their wool was a staple for clothing and blankets
Because sheep were important in their world, both contemporaries of Psalmist and hearers of Jesus and John knew the importance of Shepherds.
It may not be flattering to our sensibilities to be likened to sheep, but whether we like it or not, there is truth in the analogy.
Sheep are vulnerable – vulnerable because they are not very bright. They need a leader: without one, will wander, including walking into danger.
Sheep are prone to get lost, to get caught in brambles. They need to be led to water; they can’t find it on their own. Further, sheep will only drink from still water, not from briskly running stream.
The rod and staff referred to in the psalm are essential tools: the staff (or shepherd’s crook, a replica of which carried by our Bishops,) has hook for grabbing the neck or leg to rescue a sheep caught in thicket or to capture fleeing sheep.
The rod is heavy straight pole to used to prod sheep when driving them from behind OR to ward off predators.
God our Shepherd cares for us, as Jesus says at end of today’s Gospel, that we may have eternal life.
God provides those green pastures and still waters that we need, and allows us rest in the midst of violence and discord that fill our world:
-God allows our souls to be restored when we are exhausted and worn out by the cares, the sorrows and difficulties of life.
-The Lord our Shepherd does not remove from our lives the things that terrify and trouble us: we still walk through the Valley of the shadow of death.
-We still live in the presence of those who would harm us
But God the Shepherd is by our side, allowing us to live and thrive DESPITE the presence of those things that threaten and sometimes destroy our peace.
God’s care for us is such that God’s goodness and mercy follow us –
In Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, he says it this way: God’s beauty and love chase after us
All the days of our lives.
Today you may hear Psalm 23 in a place of knowing God’s loving presence. I encourage you to pray your gratitude.
You may encounter the psalm today while walking in the shadow of death – from a burden you carry or sorrow you bear. Pray that sorrow – offering it to God, that God will help you in bearing it.
You may hear the Psalm, today, from a place of uncertainty or confusion. That uncertainty can be offered in prayer, as well, that the strong hand and guiding staff of the Shepherd will bring you rest.
For the love, the guidance and comfort of the Holy One, the Shepherd, thanks be to God, today and always.Amen.
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