A(nother!) Sermon about Wealth and Chasm-Crossing

Standard

Augustana Lutheran Church
25 September 2016 + Lectionary 26C
Luke 16.19-31; 1 Timothy 6.6-19



One of my favorite scenes in the film adaptation of the popular rock musical Rent opens on an impoverished-looking apartment complex in Manhattan’s East Village, where we are introduced to two roommates, Mark and Roger, and their former roommate and friend-turned-landlord, Benny, whose upward marriage and new career in real estate brings the chasm between rich and poor to a head. Benny informs them that he plans to evict the homeless population from a nearby “tent city” to put in a state-of-the-art cyber arts studio.Rent

Plans that their performance artist friend Maureen intends to protest, which brings us to Benny’s point for this meeting: Convince Maureen to cancel her protest, and Mark and Roger can continue living rent-free in their apartment, which they can’t afford otherwise.

Friends betrayed. Relationships broken. Livelihoods and homes threatened. A great chasm has been fixed…

Words we hear, too, from Abraham in this parable from Luke. Words, I imagine, many of us have come to interpret as the “great chasm” between “heaven” and “hell.” Frightful imagery, indeed —  but intended not exactly to scare us into getting our act together with the threat or promise of where will wind up when we die.

I suspect the great chasm Abraham refers to has much more to do with life here and now.

If you feel like we’ve been hearing a lot about money and wealth this past year as we’ve been listening to Luke’s gospel: you’re right. Luke indeed spends a great deal of time on the topic:

In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty.

And in the so-called Sermon on the Plain, Jesus blesses the poor in one breath and pronounces woe on the rich in another.

The outlook for anyone with wealth, it seems, is pretty bleak.

lu16-rch-mn-in-hll-1-173In today’s parable, it seems even worse: Both the rich man, who goes unnamed, and Lazarus, the destitute beggar at his gate, die. Lazarus is taken to rest in “the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is tormented in Hades, the place of the dead. It’s certainly a great reversal from their time on earth, where the rich man feasted sumptuously and where Lazarus’s only company was a pack of dogs.

And it’s a bleak outlook for what looks to be a repentant rich man, as he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living so that they can repent before it’s too late, lest they too wind up in torment in Hades.

But I have to wonder: Is the rich man really repentant? And is it really repentance if his brothers only change their ways to avoid punishment in the afterlife?

Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabi’a writes in one of her well-known poems:

O my Lord, / if I worship you / from fear of hell, burn me in hell. / If I worship you / from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. / But if I worship you / for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face. [1]

Rabi’a turns the notion of a reward-and-punishment system on its head. Heaven is not a place where “good” people go, nor is hell reserved for “bad” people. Whether or not such places even exist is not the point! (That’s another sermon…)

A great chasm has been fixed… implies that there are two polar opposites on either side of that chasm, but it has nothing to do with the afterlife. This parable comes on the heels of last week’s message about the dangers of serving both God and wealth and is addressed to the Pharisees who are subsequently called “lovers of money.”

The first-century world, even more than ours today, had a tremendous wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that kind of chasm acts as an insulated barrier—keeping the destitute beggar Lazarus just outside the gate of the rich man, who probably never even interacted with him. It creates a kind of ignorance of what it’s like on the other side of that chasm.

But again, I have to pause and wonder: Is this really about the rich man’s wealth? After all, there are people with great wealth who do wonderful things. Just this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan announced their plans to donate $3 billion to help combat and even eradicate disease. [2]

So is this really a passage that claims wealth is inherently bad? Or is it more of a indictment of wealth that so insulates, that creates such a chasm, that it blinds those on whom it has a such a tight grip from seeing the suffering of the world around them?

Now, it’s easy for me, as a seminary student straddled with loan debt, and not a whole lot of disposable income, to simply ignore this passage: I’m not wealthy. It doesn’t apply to me. If anything, I should take the place of Lazarus in this parable. Right?

But when I start to think again about the kinds of chasms that exist in our world today, the tables quickly turn—and there I am, right alongside the rich man absorbed by all our stuff.

A professor of mine has put it this way, reflecting on one particular urban context:

When I walk the ‘Magnificent Mile’ in Chicago, with elegant shops on one side and gorgeous flowering boxes stitched down a street crowded with gas-guzzling SUVs on the other, I ‘walk the mile’ with scores of bedraggled and ill-looking people holding out their paper cups close to the doorways where vast amounts of money will be dropped daily (including some of my own bills, which I do not place in all the outstretched, empty cups). I am worried about how inured [how calloused] I seem to be becoming to the pain I see all around me; how adept at barely seeing even the things that are stealing life in sips; numbed by the consumerism…and unable to take action to close the distance between myself and others who are close enough to trip over. [3]

chicago_homeless_920_642_80

It’s not hard to translate that into our context in this city, where we have very real, literal chasms designed to separate “us” and “them.” Think Dodge Street. Or 72nd, or I-680.

A great chasm has been fixed… and it seems impossible to cross. But our text this morning is a wake-up call to see and be opened to our neighbors who suffer injustice.

Chasm-crossing seems impossible until we remember the one who crossed the chasm for us. Christ, who entered into our world, suffered, died, and rose again, all for our sake, and for the sake of saying this is not the way it has to be!

We, who have been freed by the things that trap us and bring ruin and destruction, are so freed to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

God, who gives life to all things, and who so richly provides, invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Here, at this table, every Sunday. Take, eat, live. And be emboldened to go out and cross the great chasm.


[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55267

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/technology/mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-3-billion-pledge-fight-disease.html?_r=0

[3] Kadi Billman, “Practicing Pastoral Care as a Theologian of the Cross”

Overwhelmed: A Sermon for Lectionary 18C / Pentecost 11C

Standard

Augustana Lutheran Church
31 July 2016 + Lectionary 18C
Luke 12.13-21 [22-34]



elections_ahead_sky_0It’s all a little bit overwhelming, isn’t it? This election season, that is. We’ve certainly witnessed a mix of exciting and interesting moments.

One moment in particular caught my attention this past Tuesday as delegates at the Democratic National Convention cast their votes, state by state, for their party’s nominee for president. Jerry Emmett, a 102-year-old delegate from Arizona, herself older than women’s suffrage, proudly announced her state’s votes for the first woman candidate, nominated by a major political party, for President of the United States. It was overwhelming to watch.

Now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a political junkie, and it’s easy for me to become overwhelmed in all the excitement—and anxiety—of an election year.

But even if you don’t share my particular fascination with politics, surely you know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. For better or worse, being alive means having no shortage of things which overwhelm us.

For many of us, it’s technology. It’s hard to imagine any ordinary moment of life without our devices. Sherry Turkle identifies what she calls the “I share therefore I am” principle—the idea that we have come to define ourselves by our digital presence and social media output.

And so, when we don’t have connection, she says, we don’t feel like ourselves, and so, to compensate, we connect more and more—but as we do, we in fact become more isolated, replacing digital connection for the real thing. [1]

I have a hunch the rich man in the parable from today’s gospel reading knows something about being overwhelmed to the point of isolation.

The parable begins: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Good news, right? For this man, not so much. Instead of viewing his surplus as a blessing, he is immediately overwhelmed and frames it as a problem to be solved. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” His solution? Build a bigger barn, and store the crops for himself.

It would seem the rich man in this ancient parable is latching on to a rather timeless phenomenon that finds its expression par excellence in our contemporary culture. Theologian Rob Saler puts it this way:

We are programmed to be “not only consumers, but anxious consumers. Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement [and] future catastrophes… We measure the health of the economy by its ‘growth’ even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully.” [2]

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. Hoarding up stockpiles like the rich man is made to seem like a lucrative opportunity. It means safeguarding ourselves for the future. It means not having to rely on anyone but ourselves.

But of course it can also mean isolating ourselves. For Saler, it’s as though we’re actually able to “purchase distance” from each other and the world around us, a sort of “padding” against any potential threats.

And so the parable ends: The rich man, having stockpiled his possessions, will die, alone. There is no one to answer to God’s question about who will inherit all his stuff.

Still feeling overwhelmed?

Beyond the confines of the lectionary, Jesus immediately continues, “Therefore I tell you…” As if to say, This is the point. Pay attention! “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…” It’s a passage many of us have heard before and could probably quote, or at least paraphrase, from memory.

93388e62e0b749963dec23ee50c25332

Remember too that all this talk about the rich man and his barn, and about ravens and lilies, started with a simple request from someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Did Jesus miss that entirely… or is he making a much more profound point? Hold that thought.

Physicist and theologian Paul Wallace recounts one particularly memorable moment in his introductory astronomy course. He began his standard opening lecture: “Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and healthy vision, one can see at most about 3,000 stars.” He goes on: “And if we were to remove our home planet from under our feet we would see 3,000 more.” [3]

It was this last point that caused one of his students to react first with a look of horror before grinning and explaining, “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before.”

In that moment, Wallace’s student suddenly became aware of his relatively small place within the vastness of the cosmos. Maybe you’ve had one of those moments too, looking up at the stars in the night sky, or standing in awe of some other natural wonder.

Moments like these reorient our perspective and move us from being overwhelmed by the things that distract and isolate us to being overwhelmed by creation—the very creation that Jesus points to: “Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”

As if to say: Look! It’s not just about you. There’s a whole world, a whole universe, out there, and it’s all connected.

Jesus points to a small sliver of the vastness of the cosmos and offers an alternative vision: It’s a vision that reminds us of our radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s certain word of forgiveness. It’s vision that reminds us that we are dependent creatures.  But it’s also a vision that reminds us we are interdependent.

The splendor of creation, the vastness of the cosmos, the radical grace of God. It’s overwhelming.

Rather than isolation, being overwhelmed by these things, to borrow from Saler again, “frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment.” It’s an alternative to the ways we get wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries and concerns.

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, and concludes: “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom.”

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., I have hanging above my desk in my office: “An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

King liked to call the kingdom of God “the Beloved Community.” I like that because it reminds us of the communal nature of that kingdom.

Jesus’s alternative vision to strive for God’s kingdom has to do with building up the Beloved Community.

It’s the community prophetically imagined by Mary where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. It’s a community whose members are “rich toward God,” which starts by being rich toward our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan reminds us.

It’s a community we are welcomed into at our baptism and which continues to be strengthened every week when we gather at this Table. When we take into our hands simple bread and wine, we wield powerful reminders that the Beloved Community proclaims resurrected life in spite of death and abundance in the midst of scarcity.

It’s an overwhelming mystery that proclaims there is enough to go around in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to hoard it, but we  do get to share it freely.


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together

[2] http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-in-year-c

[3] Paul Wallace, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), vii.

What’s the Catch? A Sermon About Costly Grace, Discipleship, and (of course) Threading Needles with Camels

Standard

Grace Lutheran Church
11 October 2015 + Pentecost 20B
Mark 10.17-31


What’s the catch? It’s the question we ask when things just seem too good to be true. After four years of college and almost two years of seminary, I know that the surest way to attract poor students to your event is to offer free food. I’ve certainly taken advantage of my share of those opportunities—but always wondering: So what do I have to sit through, or sign up for, or commit to? What’s the catch?

It’s a question that I imagine was also on the mind of the man we meet in our gospel text today. Surely he had caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry—the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the resuscitations. And we know he’s intentionally seeking Jesus out. When he sees Jesus with the crowds and the children, he goes out of his way, distracted from his journey. There’s a sense of urgency and sincerity to his inquiry: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a fair question, and he’s genuinely curious. What do I have to do to get in on this? Is it too good to be true? What’s the catch?

In response, Jesus is direct. Like a good Jew, he recites to him Torah, God’s law, and specifically the Ten Commandments. Do these things. That’s the catch. And like a good Jew, the man responds, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Check, check, and check! And then Jesus pauses and looks at him, lovingly, before continuing, as if to say, “You really don’t get it, do you? Let me try again.”

See, Jesus didn’t recite back all of the commandments, or even a random assortment. You might recall from the days of confirmation class that there are two “tables,” or subsets, of the Ten Commandments: the first table deals with our relationship to God, and the second deals with our relationship to other people. It’s this second set that Jesus highlights. You might also recall the famous passage a couple chapters later in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.30-31). Jesus effectively summarizes the two tables of the commandments, which is to say that in today’s passage, he effectively tells the rich man, “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus doesn’t discount this man’s keeping of the commandments, but he does tell him he is missing something. What Jesus is getting at is the difference between what we might call following “the letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law.” In other words, the point is not following the commandments for their own sake but for the sake of communal justice. It’s not enough, for instance, to refrain from outright stealing from our neighbor, but, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus makes looking out for our neighbor a prerequisite to discipleship, as if to say, “There’s your catch.” Love your neighbor. Take care of them. Then you’ll know what it means to follow me. But the man is shocked at this and goes away grieving.

image unashamedly stolen from Paul Eldred’s blog, whose excellent sermon on the same text you should also read

Then, following the pattern from last week’s reading, the conversation moves from the public sphere to the private circle of the disciples, where Jesus elaborates: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But the disciples don’t get it either, so he says it again and even adds an intentionally absurd comparison, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And still they don’t get it.

Echoing back to the rich man’s question, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” What’s the catch? And pausing and looking at them in the same way, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What? Another catch?

Perhaps it’s understandable then when Peter, exasperated, declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” What more do you want, Jesus? And then Jesus finally lets in on what his movement is all about: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” This message that Jesus is proclaiming is going to turn things upside-down and inside-out. It’s getting back to the heart of God’s law that is concerned about justice, and it insists on removing those things, like wealth and greed, that get in the way.


So how do we inherit eternal life? What’s the catch? As good Lutherans, we know that there is no catch. Grace alone, right? Well, yes and no. And before you run to Pr. Kevin and accuse the seminary intern of heresy, let me be perfectly clear: We are indeed saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake apart from works. (Did I get that right?) It’s what our Lutheran faith is all about, and for good measure, lest we forget, it’s even posted on a sign on one of our bulletin boards here. But it’s also much more than that.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, famously wrote about the “cost of discipleship.” With a fierce commitment to peace and social justice, Bonhoeffer offered a prophetic critique of the church of his day which had been sold out and corrupted by the Nazi regime, often openly endorsing Hitler’s politics to preserve itself. It ignored state-sanctioned tyranny and the violence being done against the Jews and other minorities at the expense of the gospel they were supposed to be preaching.

For the church of Bonhoeffer’s day, “grace alone” had turned into an excuse to ignore social sin, resulting in a failure to resist injustice. In other words, “grace alone” had turned into “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes:

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. [1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Cheap grace is a misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer claims, of what Luther had in mind when he said we are saved by grace alone. Cheap grace ignores the fact that Luther’s discovery of grace thrust him from the cloister to the world. For Luther, being saved by grace was only half of the point, and its necessary corollary was rooted in the obligation of discipleship. Put plainly: Grace is indeed a welcome word of good news to the sinner, but grace doesn’t just let us sit back in idleness as before, as though nothing has changed. Because of grace and the inbreaking of God’s new reality, everything has changed. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor are lifted up, the outcast are welcomed in, the first are last, the last are first, the humanly impossible is divinely possible.

Costly grace, far from a “one-and-done” occurrence, is a living reality. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, like the rich man and the disciples. Costly grace beckons a life of discipleship, which Bonhoeffer knew all too well. Costly grace drove him from the confines of his comfortable career in academia to the confines of a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer risked his own life for being bold enough to speak out against the gross injustice and corruption he saw going on, and it ultimately cost him his life. Cheap grace lets us acquiesce in the face of injustice; costly grace demands that we call it out.

The life of discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich man and to which he calls each of us is not about following rules for the sake of following rules but for the sake of our neighbor. Like Bonhoeffer knew, discipleship means questioning the status quo when it contradicts God’s will for justice. It means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. It means removing all those obstacles that get in the way. It even means practicing civil disobedience—or is it divine obedience?—when our state’s budget crisis threatens our most vulnerable populations, as our own local Lutheran bishop and countless other people of faith have done in a series of demonstrations this past summer.

faith leaders, with a camel, at a “Moral Monday” rally this summer in protest of the Illinois state budget cuts (photo credit: Tom Gaulke)

So what’s the catch? How do we enter the kingdom of God? Again, let me be perfectly clear: we are saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has freely done for us. But because of Christ’s redeeming work, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not that we’re earning grace, but rather that we’re living in response to it. The kingdom of God is all about justice, and it’s a work in progress to which each of us is called to participate.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 308.