Are we the rich man in The Rich Man & Lazarus?

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. (Read the whole passage)

Is anyone here worried? Did any anyone else take a moment to think as we heard this parable? Am I like the rich man and I don’t know it? Will I end up in Hades because I have a house and a car and RRSPs? These are fair and honest questions. Last week there was confusion about the Master who praises his dishonest manager. But this week things are clear. The rich man is rewarded in this life and punished in the next. Lazarus, the poor man living in front of the rich man’s house was punished in this life and will be rewarded in this next.

Well, let’s think about this. How much makes you rich? Well, if your annual salary is $40,000 a year, you are in the top 5 percent of the worlds richest people. If you make $60,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of the world’s richest people. These can be staggering figures.

If this parable is really about the amount in your bank account, then most Canadians are in deep trouble.

And while this parable is familiar to us, we cannot reduce it to its surface meaning. When Jesus tells a story, there is always more to it than what’s at the surface.

The rich man is more than just a rich person. He is the epitome of wealth and excess. He wears the clothes of kings, the feasts each day like he is at the royal court. He is a caricature more than real person. And Lazarus, he is the poorest soul you have ever seen. Starving at the rich man’s gate and too weak to move. Diseased and unclean. He is so pitiful that even the street dogs take mercy on him.

Yet, something strange happens when Lazarus dies. For you see, normally an unclean sinner like Lazarus should not be taken to heaven, at least according to the religious understanding of his day. The poor and the unclean are unrighteous, and while they are to be cared for in this world, they excluded from the next. But when Lazarus dies, he is carried into heaven by angels, similar to Elijah or Moses, heroes of the Hebrew people. Heaven was reserved for only the most favoured of God.

And something even stranger happens when the rich man dies. Most people in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in an afterlife for the average person. The place you went to when you died was Sheol, the ground, the grave. But the rich man isn’t just buried. He goes to Hades. And Hades is not just generic Hell. No, the rich man winds up in Greek Hell. Gentile Hell. Being buried wasn’t bad enough in the parable, he had to go to the hell of another religion.

And here is where we get to see that this isn’t about what we need to do to get in heaven. Even in Hades, the rich man still doesn’t have clue about what is going on. He cries out to Abraham from gentile hell. And even from hell he maintains his superior attitude. As if poor Lazarus hasn’t suffered enough, the rich man say to Abraham, “Send that poor Lazarus fellow down with a drop of water.”  Here he is in hell, acting like a snooty hotel guest ordering room service. And when Abraham says no, the rich man tries again. He orders a message to his brothers, and still Abraham refuses.

The rich man is the epitome of selfishness. He does not care for the poor on his door step as religious law dictates, he dresses like a king and eats like a king. And even when he is in Gentile hell, he doesn’t give up on his sense of entitlement. The chasm that has been set between Abraham and the rich man is the chasm of self-righteousness.

The chasm of selfishness that we create for ourselves so often keeps us from seeing the world around us. The rich man might be an exaggeration and Lazarus might be an extreme example, but the reality of these feelings and emotions about others, about ourselves, remains the same. Often we get stuck inside ourselves. We cannot see beyond what we are owed, what we believe we deserve and what injustices have been done to us.

And we have a name for this as Lutherans — original sin. We are curved in on ourselves. We try to be like God. We try to save ourselves.

And in the end, we fall short and we fail.

We die.

Its the last few words of the parable that cue us into what Jesus is talking about today.

“Neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead”.

We have heard those words before. The rich man wants Lazarus the ghost to go to warn his brothers of their fate so that they can save themselves. But Jesus is not talking about Lazarus the ghost.

It is not Lazarus who comes to us from the position of the poor in order to save us. It is God in Flesh. It is Christ who comes into our world as the child of peasants, Christ who is a homeless and penniless carpenter, Christ who is put to death as a common criminal.

The rich man is trying to save himself while Lazarus is dead to the world. These two are not really people, but reminders of who we are. That we are in need of salvation. And it is God who is giving up all power and might, to become like us. Christ is born into the muddy, dirty places that we live in, the places of self indulgence, the chasms of superior attitudes, the gates of self-pity and death.  And it is in these places, where God comes near to us.

Whether we are rich or poor, entitled or humble, in the mansion or on the street.

God is turning death into life regardless.

God is licking our wounds of suffering and sin.

God is loving us, even when we do not deserve to be loved.

And God is doing this whether we see it or not

 

God is acting in the world no matter what we are doing. God is making the dead alive, even if we are too busy to notice.  And God isn’t swayed by our righteousness or unrighteousness. God acts out of love, God comes near enough to touch us because we belong to God.

The world is so much more grey, so much more complicated than the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We are all too rich too see others around us. And we are all too poor to do anything to save ourselves. And this parable isn’t about condemning the rich and nor is about the value of being poor.

This parable is about the cross.

The cross where new life begins in the most powerful symbol of death.

The cross where God empties Godself of all power and might to take on human flesh and dies like us.

The cross where God hides in plain sight, where God turns the world on its head and where God reminds us all that it is God alone who saves us.

Will our riches will keep us out of heaven? Yes they will, not even money can pay our way. Will being poor and dead to world make us worthy of salvation. No. Nothing that we do will save ourselves.

God alone saves.

The Dishonest Manager and the Wasteful God

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property….And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;… (Read the whole passage)

As we continue down this rabbit hole of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, we have heard with Jesus doing odd things, dealing with odd people, and telling odd parables. Jesus healed the salve of a conquering centurion earlier this summer, Jesus gave a very Donald Trump-esque speech about a month go about divided family and neighbours against each other, and few weeks ago, was giving dinner party advice. But today, he talks about something that rubs against our North American sense of pragmatism. Wastefulness.

The manger in today’s parable is a squanderer. To squander is to waste. Wastefulness for us is a sin. In our 21st century society we worry very much about wasting anything. Wasting time, money, the environment, and resources. If there is anything we can imagine wasting, we worry about wasting it. To squander is to misuse, to mismanage, to fritter away. But even more so in our go-getter society, it is considered squandering when we fail to seize any opportunity set before us, when we fail to be in control. We worry about all of this. What if we don’t collect what we are owed? What if what we put our time and energy towards something that isn’t full value in return? We worry so much that it bothers us when wastefulness and squandering isn’t punished.

And that’s the trouble of Jesus’ parable today. A lot of the time, it’s hard to make sense of what exactly Jesus is saying, but today he has said something that is just plain crazy.

Jesus’ story starts out a little rocky. It is about a rich man whose property manager is accused of squandering. And of course the manager gets fired. While there is no evidence given of the squandering, the dishonest manager does not dispute the charges. Instead he concocts a scheme to protect himself for when he is tossed out onto the street. He reduces the debt of some of his clients in the hopes they will return the favour of mercy for when he is in need very shortly. And manager gambles on a clever idea because he has nothing to lose. He cannot lose more than his job and he has no other prospects that seem appealing.

Yet when the manager is brought before his master, the Master commends the dishonest manager for his shrewd actions of forgiving the debts. He restores and entrusts the scheming servant once again. The dishonest man is forgiven, all because he acts shrewdly, according to the Master.

This is where everything falls apart for us. This is where we cannot figure out what this parable means. Luke tries his hand at offering an explanation. Try #1, maybe we need to be more like the children of the world, sly and clever. Try #2, maybe this is about making friends at any cost, even dishonest ones. Try #3, this is about trust and servitude. We must be trustworthy to enter the kingdom of God, we must serve only one master. Luke seems just as confused as we are. Be clever, but trustworthy. Be dishonest, but honest.

The confusion is not only Luke’s. The manager himself seems to have no idea that his Master will respond the way he does. This parable defies our notions of right and wrong to the core. Why would the Master commend the selfish and dishonest manager?

The setting of this parable beings to provide a clue. Land was owned by families and clans. Communities relied on each other, by doing business with each other. If one family had to sell their land, a cousin was obligated to buy it. If one family couldn’t make ends meet, relatives were expected to help out. Maintaining relationships with neighbours and friends was not just polite, it was a necessity of life.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Like any small town or rural community or even church community around here.

Things haven’t changed much in two thousand years. Still today, family and land often go hand in hand. Small towns and rural communities have long memories, you can be the new person for decades. The importance of knowing your neighbours goes without saying. You might buy groceries from your next-door neighbour, have a relative as your nurse, vote for your best friend for town council. Everyone is interconnected.

The only way to keep from wasting or squandering your resources is to work together and to help each other out.

And that is the real problem of the parable. Our confusion is about the Master’s response to commend a dishonest manager. To commend selfishness and to restore a squanderer to his job.

We assume that the manager is wasting his Master’s property, that he isn’t putting it to its full potential. Let’s put it this way, the manager is not a friendly corner store owner who lets his customers pay what they can. Instead, he is a squeeze-blood-from-a-stone kind of guy. If you owe 100 barrels, you are going to pay 100. The idea of reducing debt doesn’t come until after the selfish servant is fired from his job.

According to our definition of squandering, by generously forgiving debts and not collecting full value, the manager doesn’t actually waste his master’s property until after he is fired. 

Now, let us step back for a moment. This parable comes along in the Gospel of Luke, right after the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son. It comes right after three parables where God squanders his time, attention and care for the sake of the lost.

God turns the idea of squandering on its head. To God, land, resources and money are squandered when they are hoarded. Holding onto to what you own, collecting full value at any cost… now that is wastefulness to God.

The master doesn’t fire the manager for not producing enough, but for holding on too tight. How opposite of the way we think.

When we first heard this parable today, there was an easily missed cue at the beginning. The first words that are spoken are “There was a rich man”. WE often think that this parable is about the dishonest manager, but it is truly about the generous and self-giving rich man. The rich man who lavishly gives away his time and resources, and his forgiveness.

And the rich man does not commend shrewdness. We are so stuck thinking about what this parable means for us, and what it tells us what we must do and how we must act, that we cannot really see what is happening so simply — forgiveness. We cannot see who it is about — God. God does not praise the servant’s dishonest and shrewd motives but the action of forgiveness. God praises the manager for wise action. God is the rich and forgiving master.

And because God chooses grace and mercy above all, forgiveness abounds. For the servant, the debtors, for us. God squanderingly gives forgiveness away for free.

It is hardwired in our brains, in our bodies, in our very beings that we should take what we can get, that we should make sure we receive 100% value. In our world, a debt of 100 jugs of olive oil would not be reduced to 50, rather we would make sure that when the debt is finally paid it would be 150 in return. A debt of 100 containers of wheat would not be reduced to 80, rather 120 would be paid in return. We are so quick to assume that selfish motivations are being commended, that we cannot see that the rich man praises the shrewd actions of forgiveness, grace and mercy.

This parable, like the ones before about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son, is really about a radical, backwards, upside down God who believes in rejoicing with the found and who believes in the bad business practice of giving away God’s most precious resources for free, of giving away forgiveness, grace and mercy.

While we are busy getting 100% value, God is spending lavishly to save us when all seems lost. And this is the radical business practice of God. God who calls hoarding squandering. God who gathers us all in, by giving God-self away. God who is about forgiveness existing in the world no matter the reason.

And we thought this parable was about waste, but instead it is about the upside economy of the Kingdom of God.

Amen

The Lost Sheep & Lost Coin vs Caring Shepherd & Joyful Woman

Luke 15:1-10

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?…

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?…

Finally, Jesus seems to be laying off the guilt trip this week. For the past couples weeks, Jesus has been giving us a hard time. Two weeks ago he was criticizing our sense of self-importance. Last week it was our holding on to possessions, and how they hold on to us.

Today, we hear two familiar parables. The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. They are connected to a third, the parable of the Prodigal Son, which we heard in Lent. And it is nice to hear something that sounds a little more Jesus-y. A little less Jesus the critic and little more of the feel good Jesus, the hopeful Jesus.

The experience of being lost and being found is something we can all identify with. We have all been lost or have lost something. We have been found or have found something or someone. Being found is a joyful feeling, finding that lost thing is a relief. And as that familiar song says, “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” We are deeply connected in faith to the idea of the lost being found. When Jesus talks about finding lost things, it is something that we feel down in our souls, in the very core of our being.

Jesus is talking to a varied group of listeners. Tax collectors and sinners, or more appropriately, debtors. The people who collected the money and the people who owed the money, along with the Pharisees and scribes, religious authorities. Upon hearing their grumbling about the company that he keeps, Jesus offers these first two of three parables.

A shepherd loses a sheep. One lost from the flock of 100. So he leaves the 99 in order to the find the one. Some might call it dedication, others might say irresponsible. But he finds the sheep and celebrates.

A woman loses one of her coins. A silver coin or day’s wage. She tears apart the house to find it and then throws a party. A lot of effort for just one coin, but she finds it and celebrates.

The point is made. The pharisees and the scribes might be grumbling about the presence of tax collectors and sinners, but lost things, lost people are kind of God’s thing. And yet, the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes does point us to a problem that we often seem to share. No matter how hopeful and feel good Jesus gets, we find reasons to grumble.

The Pharisees and scribes show us our own complicated relationship with the idea and experience of being lost.

I can remember those moments that stick in my memory from childhood. Wandering the aisles of the grocery store or the clothing racks of the department store, when my mother disappeared from sight. I was never lost for more than a few seconds or minutes, but the fear that so quickly sets in can be paralysing. It is the same for being lost in an unfamiliar city, or hiking through the mountains and leaving the trail only being unable to make your way back.

But perhaps, it isn’t just being physically lost. It is losing that job, losing that relationship, losing that sense of freedom because of illness or disability. Or maybe it is just feeling lost in life, unable to gather your sense of self enough to feel grounded and secure.

Being lost is terrifying, unsettling, debilitating. And when we are lost, or when we feel like we have lost out, we are quick to blame those around us. The map maker, or GPS company or city planners. The company we used to work for, the government, the economy, our ex, the disease or accident. Or maybe just the whole world seems to be at fault.

Yet, there has been a strange attitude that our world has been exposed to lately. The attitude that brings us Trump or Brexit or Canadian Values Screening. When others are lost, we are quick to blame the lost for their problems. Those people don’t need to come here and take our jobs. That person should have had the will-power to resist addiction. If he just tried a little harder at work. If she just gave him another chance. If they had taken better care of themselves, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten sick.

When we are lost, it is someone else’s fault. When someone else is lost, it is their own fault.

Being lost is a complicated experience indeed.

Some of your may remember all the way back to Lent and the story of the Prodigal Son. You may remember that the titles of parables are not what Jesus’ named them. The titles are what we, the church over the centuries, have named Jesus’ stories.

And the parable that we call The Prodigal Son is called by another name by the Eastern Orthodox. They call it the parable of the Loving Father.

And how we name the parable shows us which part we think is most important.

The parable of The Prodigal Son is about a spoiled brat of a son who spends his inheritance on partying, only to have to return home, hand in hand. It almost sounds like a cautionary tale!

But the parable of The Loving Father, well that is about a father who welcomes his lost son home with open arms.

Hear the difference?

When these three parables are placed side by side by side, the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Prodigal Son, we see that that the lost things have little to do with each other. It is hard to see the common thread between a sheep, a coin and a son.

Yet, when we compare the Shepherd, the Woman and the Father… each goes and seeks out the lost. The Shepherd leaves the 99 to find the 1. The woman turns her house inside out to find the coin. And the Father runs to greet his son while his son is still far off.

Each goes and seeks the lost. And then when the lost has been found, each celebrates. The Shepherd rejoices with his friends. The Woman throws a party for a coin. The Father slays the fatted calf for his son that was lost and now is found.

We name the parables after the lost things because we think the lost things are the most important parts of the story.

But just maybe Jesus isn’t making a point about what is lost, but instead who does the finding.

Maybe the parables should be named the Caring Shepherd, the Joyful Woman, the Loving Father.

Maybe Jesus is trying to make a point about just who is finding us.

The Pharisees and scribes want to blame the lost for being lost. We have a complicated relationship with the idea of being lost. We would blame everyone and anyone else when we feel lost, but anyone else who is lost has only themselves to blame.

Yet in the midst of misread maps and failing GPS, in the midst of lost jobs, lost loves and lost health… in the midst of all the things and people that are lost in our world.

Jesus is talking about being found.

Jesus is talking about who is doing the finding.

Jesus is talking about how God goes to extraordinary lengths to find lost things and people.

Jesus is talking about all those people that we are quick to label as lost,

tax collectors and sinners,

those who owe debts and those who collect,

those whose maps have led them astray in life,

those who know the loss of brokenness and suffering,

those who have no other place where they belong,

Jesus is talking about how all those people are the ones who God finds.

Jesus is talking about how all those people are us.

And in fact, when Jesus tells these parables again here today, Jesus tell us that no matter how lost we may feel in life, no matter much we focus on the lost things and the lost people, that the point of this story is being found. Jesus tells these parables about God who finds.

Jesus says today, that here, where lost sinners gather together to repent… that here we are the most found we can be.

Because our finding God has found us, in the forgiving words of grace, in the finding waters of baptism, in celebrating feast of bread and wine.

Jesus is telling feel good, hopeful parables today. Parables that we may think are about lost things and lost people. But parables that are really about Caring Shepherds, Joyful Women and Finding Gods.

Church Membership vs. Carrying the Cross

Luke 14:25-33

“…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Read the whole passage)

I remember when I was little and our family visited my grandparents. My grandparents living-room was always in perfect, pristine condition. Everything look new and unused, despite being dated with styles from decades before. Whenever we were in the living room, we had to be exceptionally careful not disrupt anything. No throw pillows could be moved, no dirt could be tracked, no signs of anyone actually being in the living room were allowed. Even as young child, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about – why was it called a living room, if there was no living allowed in it.

Now, as an adult, I understand only a slight bit more the desire to keep one’s possessions in good condition. And I also understand that nice things and children don’t really mix.

Yet, Jesus’s conditions on discipleship today, certainly poke at our materialism. We like our stuff, and Jesus knows it.

For a few weeks now, Jesus has been giving us the gears. Last week Jesus reminded us that we like to sit in the places of honour and send others down the table. Jesus continues the theme of pointing our faults, with his words on discipleship and possessions.

Today’s Gospel lesson has an unusual setting. Normally we pick up with Jesus in the gospels after he has traveled to a new place. But today, Jesus is still on the road. He is somewhere between destinations, with a crowd of people following him. You can almost picture it… Jesus and the disciples, on to their next village or town to preach in. And a large crowd following a short distance behind. From Jesus’s words to the crowds, we can guess that they were complaining. Kind of like the Israelites following Moses through the desert, the crowd is complaining about the journey. “Where are we going?” “When we will get there?” “What can we expect?” “What will we get out of it?” It sounds like the crowds are wondering whether following Jesus was a good idea, they are looking for something out of the deal. They want the benefits of being followers, but so far all they have found is a walk through the desert.

And so after hearing enough complaining, Jesus stops, turns and lays into the whiny followers behind him,

“Look, I didn’t say this would be easy. In fact, I told you that you would have to give up everything. Your homes, your families, your jobs, everything about your lives. If you are going to follow me, that means carrying MY cross.

You say you want to know what the plan is?!?! Yet, how many builders sit down and plan a whole project before beginning to build a tower? None.

You say you want assurances that we are going somewhere worth going to? Yet, how many Kings sit down with an enemy army across the field and say, “Well, looks like we won’t win. Let’s send out the white flag.” None.

If you want to be my followers, you are going to have to give up all the things tying you to your life before now.”

Jesus lays it out plainly for the crowds. They cannot hold on to their lives before and follow Jesus. Jesus knows that no builder can plan a whole project before its started. Think of all those contractors on HGTV who say things like, “Well, you don’t know how much the reno will cost before you open up the walls.” And yet the walls come down in search of show home living rooms and chef’s kitchens and dream master bedrooms. Jesus is calling out those who are grasping for the next new and shiny thing.

Think of all the wars being fought around the world for the sake of money and power. For the soldiers and civilians dying at the hands of kings and rulers who are trying to get or hold on to power. Jesus is calling out those who are clutching with all their might, and at any cost, on to power and control.

And now think of the church, and how we are like those crowds, looking for the things, the possessions that we can hold onto as well. Things like membership, with benefits like a reserved pew, or a key to the building, or eternal salvation.

But here is the thing about possessions. About the stuff we hold on to. The more we try to hold on, the more the stuff holds on to us. The more people want the next new and shiny thing, the more they become slaves to keeping up with the jones, to standing in line for that new iPhone coming out next week, or getting that new car, or having that kitchen renovated again. The more people try to hold on to power, to be in control, to call the shots,the more they must descend into darkness in order to keep power.

And here in the church, the more we see membership, faith and even God as something we have have, that we can own, that we can hold on to… the more it demands. The more weeks we have to keep making appearances to be in good standing. The more time we have to devote to keeping everything going, the traditions and duties and tasks. The more money we have to shovel into a hole that never seems to fill up. When membership and faith and God become possessions, they soon begin to own us, trapping us in a never ending cycle of keep it all afloat.

Jesus says, if you want to be a disciple, you need to give up your possession, give up all the things you are holding on to, because they will ultimately hold on to you and drag you under.

Jesus says, the thing you need to hold on to is the cross. Not your own cross, but his cross.

THE. CROSS.

And again, here is the thing about the cross.

We know that story. We know that Jesus carried the cross to Golgatha. We know that he hauled it up that mountain on Good Friday. But we also know that he stopped carrying the cross, because once he was on the mountain, the cross carried him. The cross held on to him. The cross trapped Jesus, just like all the things that we hold on to eventually do to us.

That is until Easter morning.

And all of sudden the cross that held Jesus on Good Friday, became the cross that holds all of us on Easter morning.

Jesus calls the crowds and calls us to carry the cross, because Jesus knows that we can’t carry the cross, because the cross carries us.

In world full of possessions that will hold on to us and drag us down – power, control, membership, status, new kitchens, pristine living rooms, things.

In our world full of all that, the cross is the only thing that lifts us up.

The cross is the place where the human need to hold on is met by God’s need to give up.

To give up wrath for love.

To give up judgement for mercy.

To give up sin for grace.

To give up death for life.

Jesus calls the crowds and us to give up our possessions, and not to literally empty our bank account and give away all our stuff. But to recognize that the things we hold on, keep us from seeing just what, or just who, is truly carrying us.

Our world will may never give up the quest for what is new and shiny. Our rulers may always be willing to sacrifice people for power.

Yet, God just may be calling the church to give up holding onto membership as something we own, to let faith be something that carries us. To see that the church is not a bottomless trap for energy, time and money.

But rather a community of the faithful.

A community of people who are being carried by Jesus, whose identities are being transformed by being together, who are called to work together to let the world know about this good news of giving up and letting go.

As Jesus calls out these crowds today, Jesus is reminding us of just who is doing carrying. Jesus is reminding us that the cross carries us. That Jesus’ love for the world, Jesus’ grace for sinners, Jesus triumph over death, all found on the cross, are what can truly carry us and lift us up.

Jesus tells the crowds and us today, that it is God, who was the first to give up everything. And that being a disciple, is not about what we carry, but about God who carries us.

The Church is no longer invited to the Party

Luke 14:1, 7-14

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Read the Whole Passage)

Sermon

For most of the summer, we have been hearing the stories of Jesus ministry, dropping in on scenes from his travels, hearing parables and other teachings. Stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer and the Good Samaritan. Last week we heard about the women who was bent over or stopped for 18 years. All Jesus had to do was reach out to touch her and she stood up straight, she was liberated from her condition by Jesus’ compassion.

Today, Jesus in invited by some big whig pharisees to a dinner party. An invite that only important people get. And with all eyes on him, Jesus is sounding a lot like Martha Stewart. Jesus is giving dinner party advice. About where to sit and how to avoid giving offense or being embarrassed. Don’t sit too high so that you aren’t asked to move to a lesser seat. Imagine that drunken and sleazy wedding guest trying to cozy up to the one of the bridesmaids at the head table of a wedding banquet. Not cool, Jesus says. Instead sit below your station. Find a table at the back of the banquet hall, and the bride’s father will come and move you closer to the front, and everyone will see how important you are! You can almost see the headline across a house and home magazine: “Where should you sit at the party?” find out pg. 23.

The only problem with this kind of dinner party advice is that it sounds opportunistic or faux humble coming from Jesus. And isn’t Jesus supposed to promote authentic humility? Sitting low to move high is not humble. Shouldn’t Jesus tell us to sit low and stay low?

These days, proper dinner party etiquette is mostly a niche interest, a vanity for the kind of people who worry about centrepieces, dinnerware settings and chair covers. But 2000 years ago in Hebrew culture, social standing was extremely important and it came to play anytime people gathered together. Each guest would sit according to the station in the community and knowing where you sat at a dinner party was about knowing how to rank yourself in society. And everyone knew where they belonged, on top, on the bottom or in between. And where you stood was a sign how important you were, how much respect you commanded, how you stood in the eyes of the powerful, and even where you stood with God. In fact, your social standing had a lot to do with where you stood with God. The more important you were socially, the more you had earned God’s favour. But perhaps most crucially to today’s story is the effect of honour and shame in Jesus’ world. To be moved down to a lesser place would bring shame upon yourself, and shame would lessen your social standing, and therefore lessen your favour with God. But for a host to seat you below your standing would be shame for the host, so it would be essential for the host to make sure that each guest was given the proper respect and honour due their standing. To be moved into the place of honour, was like being ushered a little closer to the gates of heaven.

The world that Jesus lived in was a little more Downton Abbey than we are used to… We just aren’t as hyper attentive to who are most and least important people in the room.

Still, in many ways our world is full of the same kind of concern for where we stand, and the same ranking of who is in and who is out, who is on the top and who is on the bottom.

Last week, Pastor Stan spoke to us of how the image of this woman bent over, unable to see anyone’s face but only their feet, that this was an image for the church. We are feeling bent over and burdened like this woman. It is a surprising turn for us, for the church. We used to occupying a place a of power and privilege in the world, we used to be seated at the places of honour. We used to host the influential and the powerful in our buildings and communities. Yet, these days we feel like we have been left off the guest-list by the world, or if we are invited to the party, it is to be the court jester. And when it comes to our table, we feel like there are more than enough places, that the few guests who are here, can choose any seat because you can’t offend an empty chair. Our tables feel empty.

However, there is more to Jesus’ dinner party advice than just knowing where to sit. We should realize that we have been guilty of exactly the things he names. When we had the power, we were often guilty of sending people down the table. We made sure that people knew they weren’t good enough for the seats of honour, and we saved the best spots for ourselves. And when people stopped coming to fill the cheap seats, we blamed them for not knowing their place and fulfilling their duty.

And now… now, we have been sent down the table. The world has told the church that we were sitting too high for our station. People are choosing sports, shopping, recreation, or sleeping in, rather than being at church on Sunday mornings. It has been happening for decades. And now as the baby boomers enter retirement, they would rather golf or go the cabin or travel than be in church. Generation Xers don’t trust institutions like us, and would rather build their own communities and their own families. Millennials are tired of the church trying to attract them in with loud music and flashy services, they want a church that wants to honestly deal with their doubts instead of shushing their questions.

Jesus’ advice to us about dinner parties is a lot more than it seems indeed.

But it is Jesus’ next piece of advice that should really get our attention. Dont’ invite those who can repay the favour… instead invite those who cannot.

For as much as the church is guilty of sending people up and down the table, we have also  been generous, we have welcomed strangers like the refugee family that arrived this summer. We have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and opened our doors to our community. We have been a curious mix of generous and concerned with status, we have helped those in need even as we let them know their place was down the table.

But with Jesus’ last piece of advice, he names the thing that we have forgotten. Jesus reminds us that the table is not ours. The food, the chairs, the drinks, the invitations. They were never ours to control.

The table is God’s. And God has invited us to it. God has not invited friends and brothers and relative and rich neighbours. God has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God has invited us. We are the ones who cannot repay the invitation, we have no table, no place, no welcome good enough for God… and yet God’s table, Jesus’ table is always open to us.

And at God’s table each place is the place of honour. There is no moving up or moving down. There is no sitting higher with the risk of being sent down. There is no sitting lower to work our way up. All the places are the same, all are the best, all are open for us. With God, there is simply a place at God’s table. A place for us, each and every one of us.

Jesus’ dinner party advice is more than it seems. And even though the church has not always been the best guest or host, we have a God who is the ultimate host. God is the one who always has a place for us. God is the one who welcomes us to the place of honour. God is the one to whom the table belongs.

So when it seemed like we as a church sat at the place of honour in the glory days, or now when it feels like have been left off the guest list… neither has been the truth. For we have always had a spot at God’s able, a spot no better, and no worse than anyone else.

God’s table has always been open, set and ready for all. Ready for us.

Why people are looking for “Church” in places other than Church

Figuring out what non-churched people are looking for is an agonizing endeavour for most church leaders. Churches everywhere are trying things that will draw in new people. Yet, in some of my more cynical moments, I wonder if churches actually offer anything that most people are looking for.

You have to be pretty deep into the weeds of spiritual exploration to be looking for what a Lutheran church is offering. You have to be interested in a rich tradition, heavy with its history, theology and ritual. You have be interested in the structure, patterns and rhythms of liturgy. You have be interested in a biblical understanding that goes deeper than the Sunday School idea of “good people go to heaven and all the people I don’t like go to hell.”

I have had the sinking feeling for years that in our world of reality TV, streaming music, mindless Facebook scrolling and other intense yet mind numbing forms of media, most people don’t even give a thought to the idea that church, being part of a Christian faith community (especially a declining mainline one), is something that they need in their lives. 

But then the other day I heard something curious on the radio. It was an interview on The Candy Palmater Show on CBC Radio. She was interviewing a superfan of the Tragically Hip (for those that don’t know, the tragically hip is nearing the end of their last tour as lead singer Gord Downie has announced he has terminal brain cancer). Candy asked this superfan what his emotions were going to be like when he attended his last (21st) live concert and he said,

“This is church for me, and this is the last time I get to go.”

I was half listening to the interview at the time and this woke me  up and started my mind racing.

My first thought was, why isn’t church “church” for this man?

But my next more important thought was that maybe people are looking for what church has to offer.

You don’t have to look very far to see that people all around us are flocking to things that bind them together. The Tragically Hip for many Canadians is an exmaple. The Olympics and cheering on athletes from around the world these days are undeniable church-like (not to mention Christ the Reedmer standing above the whole thing). Sports, politics, music fans, etc… people are gathering around shared interests – no, things they believe in – all over the place.

People want to be part of groups that come together around a common belief or common cause. People want to be a part of something bigger than they are, with others who feel and think the same way. People are looking for places to be church all around us.

So why aren’t people finding “church” at church?

American Christians have this expression that I have noticed becoming increasingly common lately. I have seen it on social media, in videos, and while travelling to the US.

When church people experience a group coming together around a common experience (around terrorist attacks or police shootings, for example), and there is an emotional and moving aspect of being together, people will say, “That’s church!” (said with a southern drawl).

This is almost never in reference to actual church.

It is almost as if our desire and need for “church” isn’t found at church.

The world around us (church people) is increasingly not seeing church as a place that does what church is supposed to do. Churches have stopped being places where people can come together under a common cause, a common belief or creed. Churches are less and less places where people are tied together simply because they believe in the same thing.

How did that happen?

Well, I have a theory.

A few months back I wrote about how many churches have become like soccer teams who no longer play soccer, but who simply gather for coffee and donuts. And as members decline, the chief concern has become who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts. So when people are looking to join a soccer team come to us, and we ask them to be in charge of the coffee and donuts, they don’t stick around.

Being focused on coffee and donuts goes deeper than just not playing soccer anymore (or not having that Jesus guy be the centre of our faith communities).

My theory is that the reason so many un-churched, de-churched and even church people are no longer finding “church” at church is that we have made the focus of church ourselves. 

Worrying about who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts, is really a worry about ourselves. What we are really worrying about is who is going to take care of us. Who is going to worry about us. How are we going to keep being us when us is declining.

The problem with worrying about us is that there is no room for people who aren’t us.

Put another way, Tragically Hip fans always have room for more Hip fans. There is always room for more people to cheer on athletes or sports teams, to support politicians and political parties, to be fans of something together. There is room for the whole world to gather around the Olympics.

There SHOULD always be room for another person who wants to follow Jesus with us. But so often churches are looking for people to care about the survival of us instead of following Jesus. And  when us is defined by who is already here rather than the common larger-than-us thing that draws people together, there isn’t room for more us. There isn’t room for more church members when our biggest concern the survival of group that is already exists here.

People are looking for “church” all around us. Faith leaders, church leadership and church people should take more notice. People are looking for experiences and communities that are gathering around something in common, whether it be a band, sports team or political party. They are looking for church as it is supposed to be, being tied together by a common belief in something or someone bigger than us.

But people looking for “church” will not find it in communities whose chief concern is the people who are already there. In fact, you will never find “church” in a group that has already decided that you aren’t part of the group before you even arrive.

Perhaps it is time it for congregations and faith communities to do some soul searching and decide, are we going to be church or are going to be “Church?” Are we going to gather around the group of people that we already are, or around Jesus who calls us to make room for more?


Where do you find “church” in your life? How can churches do “church” better? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Who said it? Jesus or Donald Trump: Olympics Edition

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: (Read the whole passage)

Wow… Jesus is on a roll today. We have been making our way through the teachings, parables and ministry of Jesus for a number of weeks now, and so far we have heard familiar stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer, the Good Samaritan.

Last week things took a turn for the less familiar, but at least Jesus seemed much nicer, ‘Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’

But today we get some of the harshest words Jesus has in the gospel of Luke.

And yes, they make us uncomfortable. Jesus isn’t supposed to speak this way, Jesus is about uniting and bringing people together right? Not about setting people against each other. Jesus sounds almost like Donald Trump with all these talk about division and doom. 

And the difficulty with this passage from Luke is that there isn’t some neat trick of context that explains what Jesus means. It isn’t like the verses before or after explain what Jesus is really talking about. This passage on division comes in a chapter where we are given quote after quote strung together will no real details or information connecting them to each other.

I don’t know about you, but when some gun toting christian on some cable news show quotes this passage as justification for hate, violence, intolerance, and yes, division, it makes me want to curl up and hide under a rock. It is one of those passages from the bible that you almost wish wasn’t there. But it is, and it get used as justification for some Christians to be jerks. “Do you think that I have to bring peace? No, but rather division.” And a lot of embarrassing blowhards claiming to speak on behalf of all Christians say this passage shows that Jesus would be an assault rifle carrying bigot were he to come to today.

And so the question becomes, what do we make of this divisive Jesus? Where does he fit with the loving, compassionate, and caring Jesus that we know?

Of all the places and people who could perhaps offer and explanation to these strong words from Jesus today, it was a late night talk show host talking about the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games that provided me some insight.

In HBO’s John Oliver’s recap of the opening ceremonies, he showed a portion of IOC president Thomas Bach’s speech where he said, ‘In this Olympic world, there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”

Sounds like the usual lofty speeches that get made at Olympic games.

But John Oliver, who was having none of it, replied,

“Okay, that is simply not true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need to have an olympics. The whole reason we do this is to find out, who is better than everyone else, so that we can make them stand higher [cue photo of athletes on a medal podium] than the other people who are not as good as them. Because the point of the games is not to celebrate equality, but individual’s excellence.”

(Language warning)

Cheeky, but he isn’t wrong.

As I have been watching my fair share of olympics this week, I haven’t been spending much time cheering on the athletes destined to come in last. It is the ones who win medals, who come in first, who defeat the rest of the competition who are the focus. Everyone knows who Penny Oleksiak is the week, but does anyone know the name of the Canadians who didn’t place in archery, or shooting, or judo, or race walking, or discus or other sports where our country isn’t competitive?

The Olympics in some measure are a safe way for nations to go to war with other nations without dropping bombs or sending soldiers, they are hardly about equality.

And this is where the Olympics and John Oliver gives us insight into what Jesus says today. 

Sometimes our rhetoric, the fancy words and ideals that people throw about in the name of unity and equality don’t really express or name reality.

The reality is that we are human beings are compelled by conflict. We live to fight, it is in our biology – the reptilian parts of our brains are primed to override rational thought in order to Fight, Flight or Freeze when the opportunity aries. And Jesus know this. Jesus knows that sunshine and roses is not what the world is about. Rather that our world is full to conflict and division and sin and suffering and death. And these things are what catch our attention, these are the things that are the foundation of our established orders, these are the things we use to categorize and understand ourselves and our world.

And so when Jesus, God in flesh, comes to meet humanity on our turf, it has to be in the midst of division, because that is where we live as human beings. You will notice that Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to CAUSE division, but simply that he BRINGS it. Division will follow Jesus wherever he goes, because Jesus is going into the human world.

And Jesus is coming into our world, with a message. A message about God, and God’s love for us, and how God is turning our world upside down.

And Jesus represents a threat. A threat to the established orders, to the conflict and division that we love so much, a threat to making people stand higher than those who are not as good as they are. Because in God’s world everyone is equal, and there wouldn’t be an olympics because the medals and podiums would be not be for the first, but for the last. And those in first would be about as interesting to us as those in last are in our world.

And so today Jesus brings division. And yes it sounds terrible and probably makes us uncomfortable… but it is also what we know. And we are uncomfortable because we realize that Jesus really does know us, and knows that conflict and division is where we live.

But Jesus’ words also make us uncomfortable because they aren’t plastering over our conflict and division, our olympic battles with lofty rhetoric about equality and unity. Jesus words instead tell us that  God is coming into our world, to find us, and this will cause real division. Because God is going to change everything. God is going to change us. Change us with love and compassion, with true equality and true unity. 

God is coming to change us with the good news of Jesus in our world, division and all.

Amen. 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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