Sunday, September 22, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 15 - Year C

Luke 16:1-13
                                                          This is NOT a confusing Parable 

Being an “interim” pastor has altered much about the way I see myself and how I approach well as work.  I found myself out of step this week with my fellow pastors.  They were writing and commenting on this Gospel text’s puzzling subject matter.  I found myself brushing aside the series of events and looking more at the conclusion. 

The parable Jesus tells does make a few twists and turns with the potential to confound our thinking on topics of great importance to the children of our age.  But the place Jesus goes is crystal clear for children of every age.

This will be easier to illustrate if your copy of the bible has those headings over the sections.  My study bible does not; my digital bible does.  If you have such headings, maybe you could share the “helpful title” attributed to Luke 16:1-13.  My digital bible has “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

I looked back at my old sermons for this Sunday in the Luke cycle of readings, and in every one I did my best to try to explain how and why Jesus would applaud the dishonest acts of a manager previously accused of squandering his master’s property.

My friend, former campus pastor, now Bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod posted “even a dishonest manager can sometimes do the right thing.”  His very appropriate words of encouragement for each and every one of us.  He wrote to encourage us to look past our shortcomings and merely do what it is that God has put in our hearts and hands the capacity to do.

But, Bishop Girlinghouse was still approaching this passage through the lens of how we come to grips with Jesus seeming to honor an accountant who tells debtors to rewrite the numbers on their accounts. 

While I have every intention of dismissing the details of this exchange, let me dive a bit deeper into what is happening here.  Many if not most biblical scholars say that the manager is doing precisely what we fear he is doing.  He is reducing the amount the debtor will be required to repay the master.  Some, however, wonder if the manager is merely sacrificing his commission.  That the amount agreed to is what the master is expecting, which would explain why the master praises the manager’s actions.

There is a further possibility that the manager was being fair.  Interest, compound interest – these are challenging enough for those of us who can read and do a bit of calculus.  For illiterate dirt-farmers, living in a time before the introduction of the mathematical concept of zero – this was too much.  When they went looking for a loan, all that concerned them were the containers of wheat which would prevent their family from starving.  Any talk of debt and repaying and interest was merely jibber-jabber between my asking and being told whether the loan would be extended.

The wealthy still use such techniques to take advantage of the desperate.  I am referring to the plethora of rent-to-own appliance stores and pay-day lenders.

We need to realize our limited ability to understand exactly what a manager was allowed to do in the days of Jesus before we can draw absolute conclusions about the actions of this manager. 

There is a technical, theological concept which helps us be aware of our tendency to misread what we think are facts.  It is called “The Plain Sense of Scripture.”  Even when we hear references to this concept, we tend to think it tells us – “That’s what it plainly says!”  And “Anyone can read it for themselves.”  But what it actually refers to is an attempt to understand the sense the parable would have meant to the original hearers.  And they are likely to have heard it differently than us.  Our society is oriented toward the wealthy; Jesus’ community was not.  If we do have a list of unforgivable sins, messing with my money is one of them.  So much so, that when we repeat The Lord’s Prayer, we fail to remember that the petition regarding “debtors” looks with disdain upon anyone with capacity to be able to offer a loan, wondering why the exchange is not simply an act of sharing.

This Parable of the Dishonest Manager, trips thoughts and emotions in us which differ from the thoughts and emotions of those living in the first century of the common era. 

Now that I have talked about the subject matter of a parable in which I told you the subject matter was unimportant, let me get to a conclusion.

All of this is told by Jesus as a way of illustrating how crafty and skilled we are in the affairs and dealings of the society and culture in which we live.  Look at the second half of verse 8.  Jesus says: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  “The children of this age,” the children of any age, learn fast and well how to deal and how to manage so as to preserve their place and status.  “Why,” Jesus is asking, “are children of the light slow to understand how they are to deal with the culture and world around them?”

I want to go back to the aforementioned blog post from Bishop Girlinghouse.  He makes a strong point.  He asks his readers (presumably children of light) how we approach our debit and credit sheets.  Do we expect accuracy to the fifth decimal point?  Or do we consider how an hour of our time could change the life and lives of a debtor being held captive by their debt?

“No slave”, (Remember that in Jesus’ time everyone was a slave to someone.  The masters who owned slaves were themselves slaves and servants of the empire.)  “No slave can serve two masters.”  Jesus says.  And it is true.  Who is your master?  And while we recoil at any mention of slavery, one advantage of such imagery is to remind us that a slave’s body and actions and words were as much of their servanthood as is the attitude of their hearts.  To love a master means we think of them in a particular way; it also means we act in a particular way.

“No slave can serve two masters.” 

Let me close where I began – speaking of how being an interim pastor is affecting me.  Having so recently come among you,  I really don’t know the motivation of those gathered here today.  Are we here because we have always come here – this is just what we do?  Are we here to see how this vacancy goes and sticking it out until we see if we like the permanent pastor?  Maybe it is a love and devotion to Pastor Miles.

As an interim, there is so much I don’t know and will never know.  What I do know is that these months are the perfect time to ask significant and deep questions with regard to what Jesus calls true riches.  Now is the perfect time to ask what sort of home you want to live in.  Are you looking toward the homes of those whom you can assist with your worldly actions?  Or the eternal home to which Jesus refers?

The manager in our parable was very good at making sure he would be welcomed into the homes of his fellow children of his age.  He was very good at it.  And most persons are very, very good at it.  Children of the light could learn a few things from them – but only a few things.  Children of the light could learn to be equally focused on our goal and we could make sure every thought, word, and deed moves us closer. 

Children of the light can never learn from the children of this age how to seek and serve and reside in those eternal homes.  We can only learn this from Jesus.                                      


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 14, Year C

Luke 15:1-10 
                                                                          Getting Lost 

I spoke briefly last week about my children – I have three.  They are all grown.  My baby, about whom I am going to tell you more this morning, is now 30.  The story about him I want to tell will horrify some – let me just assure you everything turned out just fine.  I don’t mean to let myself off light in this story, but the other principal character is Sue Rothmeyer, who was just elected the ELCA’s Secretary at the August Churchwide Assembly.

Caleb, my baby, was with me at the ELCA Youth Gathering in St Louis, I think it was 1995 or 96.  I was working the Gathering, so he was just sort of along for the ride.  We were in the Interaction Center, which is this area about the size of five Walmart’s.  There are hundreds of displays and activities; and thousands of kids running around.  Caleb was with Sue.  He was with Sue till he saw something shinny over there, and sort of wondered off.  Frantic; Sue searched.  She found me before she found Caleb.  “I have lost your son.” Was all she could say to me.

Our connections with folks higher up the authority ladder allowed us to gain access to the public address system.  Caleb did not hear the announcement, but some youth leader from Minnesota did.  She approached this little boy near her and asked, “Is your name Caleb?”  When she insisted he come with her, he was a bit indignant – still is to this day.  “I was in the middle of making this really cool shrinky-dink necklace.” he replied. 

The sheep which is lost in today’s Gospel reading was not a child.  But the significance of that sheep to the shepherd may need to be held in very high regard.  Shepherds were held accountable for the sheep under their charge.  Losing one could place the shepherd in peril.  Replacing the lost sheep (which was the common practice) might mean giving up the sheep intended to be his family’s food supply.

While I had some pretty strong assurances that my son would be found – he was after all in the company of 12,000 Lutheran Church Youth and youth leaders - shepherds in and around Jerusalem had little reason for such hope.  Countless ravines and crevices made searching impossible.  Jackals, and wolfs, and unemployed hungry shepherds were everywhere.  The search had to be undertaken; but it was most often futile.

The Gospel text has two such searches.  The other is of a woman who has lost a coin.  Commentators are split as to the relative importance of the one lost coin to this woman.  Is the lost coin 1/10th of her entire life savings?  Or does the fact she has 10 coins lying around, in a house which seems to own, suggest that she is abundantly blessed with many, but still treasures the one.

In both cases, there is a celebration with the lost is found.  And in both instances, the extravagance of the celebration may have exceeded the actual value of that which was initially lost.

In these stories, we are most often inclined to see God in the shepherd or the woman.  It is clear that the celebration is akin to heavenly rejoicing at the return of one who comes once more into the fellowship of God’s people.  This is the conclusion Jesus himself draws in the passage.  But every now and then we need to pause and examine how we are inclined to see things and ask if there is something more here for us to see.

One of the things I would like for us to see is the most common trait shared by my 7-year-old son at the youth gathering, the sheep and the coin.  None of these bear any responsibility for becoming lost.  The reason you hire a shepherd is because sheep have no homing device.  They move from the piece of grass they just ate to the next one they can see.  Coins can roll great distances before they lie flat on their side.  But they don’t jump off the counter on their own, or crawl out of a purse.

Appropriately, then, in these stories Jesus tells, there is no confession, or remorse, or repentance when the sheep or the coin are located.  It wasn’t their failing which had created the crisis.  

We need to be able to hear this truth.  Jesus’ parable needs to imprint on us a pattern of rejoicing when one who was lost is found.  The celebration of the shepherd and the woman have everything to do with their mistakes and no errors can be attributed to the little lamb or the shiny coin. 

This is a very difficult path to follow to its conclusion.  It is upsetting and even disturbing to suggest that if God is the woman who rejoices or the shepherd who carries the lamb back to the fold, then God may also need to be seen as the one who must absorb the guilt associated with their having become lost in the first place.  I am not following this very difficult path to its conclusion in order to blame God; but I do want to preach to who is here today, and those who are here today are more likely to be those whose role it is to receive back the one who was lost.  We need to learn to see them the way God sees them.  And we can never blame them, in the same way that Jesus’ story does not blame them.

And while I am at it – let me go ahead and tell you that I despise referring to persons as “lost”.  I almost have to use the designation in order to keep this sermon from being 45 minutes long.  But if we are going to refer to those who don’t come to church or don’t follow the way of Jesus as “lost”, then let’s make sure we understand they didn’t get that way without a tremendous amount of neglect and mistakes on our part.

The Lord, or God, has appointed shepherds because he knows how easily the sheep wander off.  The Lord, our God, has spoken of his heartbreak when the shepherds fall short.  He is the Good Shepherd.  He has also taught us how to shepherd.  And when we don’t do our job and he is the one who has to go out looking for one of his precious little lambs – heck yeah he hosts a celebration when the one who should have never been allowed to slip away is back where they belong.

I have no interest in blaming God or finding fault with God over those who may have become lost.  I have a deep interest in asserting that those who were appointed to serve as God’s agents may bear some of the guilt and shame when the coin is misplaced.  God is great at taking into himself the failings of others.  The Church isn’t as good at it.  We – the community which bears the name and image of Jesus – are not always standing ready to celebrate the return of the lost sheep/coin.  In far too many instances, we stand and wait for them to acknowledge their transgressions and to confess their failings.  It really bothers me when I begin to think that any such expectations may be rooted in a desire for self-serving affirmation that we were the good child.

Are we that fragile in our relationship with God that we need a wounded and hungry returning sheep look up to us and assure us that we are exactly what Jesus wanted all along?  God forgive us.

You know someone who has become separated from the flock.  You can probably name half a dozen coins which have rolled and rolled and may still be rolling out of sight.  Hear the message in today’s gospel lesson for you.  It is teaching you about a God who takes responsibility for the vulnerable and for the lost.  The Gospel is all about a God who is extremely short on shame and guilt but overflowing with grace and welcome.  Make sure, in all of your interactions, that you model this behavior pattern lifted up by Jesus. 


Sunday, September 8, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Year C

Luke 14:25-33           

                                                                         Gnaw on This
I am still trying to learn the culture of this place.  So tell me, is talking back to the preacher something you do here?  I don’t mean long paragraphs; but one or two or at most three word responses?

I would like to get a few responses this morning.  A few honest (short) responses to how you felt as I was reading Luke 14:25-33.  There are some pretty harsh words here.  Rebellious teenagers may rejoice at the suggestion of no longer living in passive compliance to the instructions of parents, but how do the rest of you feel?  “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

How do you feel, hearing these words of Jesus?

My undergraduate studies were in psychology.  I chose that field with at least the hint in my mind that I would seek professional work in the Church.  Which is to say I still think of psychological things as I share the Gospel.  We know that unless an emerging young adult does place the ways and believes of their parents on a shelf and construct their own belief system they will not have a faith sufficient to face the complexities of adult life.  They may return to many of the same confessions and affirmations, but unless this time of turning and rebuilding happens they will remain in the category of “borrowed belief.”  So, it would seem, Jesus knows his sociology.  Unless this developmental step is taken one can never be the self-guided, self-definitiated persons Jesus hopes us to become.   

But that doesn’t mean we won’t feel somewhat unsettled at Jesus’ words. 

Oh yeah, he also says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Got your attention now – don’t I?  Unless you have already dismissed this as another one of those finger pointing sermons where some sucker in an angel’s robe stands in front of you and talks about something they know nothing about.  Give me just two more minutes of your attention before you dismiss me and move on.

I want to place all of this in the context of another verse of scripture; one that we all read – or sang.  Verse 2, in Psalm 1.  You can refer back to it in your bulletin – we sang it this morning in English.  If you want it in Hebrew, look at the sermon title.

Too often, we hear or allow one sentence or one phrase to stand alone.  It is called proof-texting.  This error is most common among those who have a legalistic way of approaching scripture.  Psalm 1:2 would have us approach scripture differently.  This verse reminds us that our relationship with God and God’s Word is to “meditate” on it; meditate “day and night.”

And if we did read Hebrew, we would realize the inadequacy of translation.  The Hebrew word translated “meditate” is hagah (haw-gaw).  In attempting to understand this word, “to muse” is among the options.  To muse is to think about something which leads to “meditate.”  But hagah also implies to “moan, growl, utter, speak.”  My favorite translation concluded with the encouragement to gnaw on scripture – to chew it repeatedly, perhaps because some sentences and phrases are tough and extremely difficult to swallow.

In too many instances, a verse or phrase is pulled out and set up as some sort of a proof-text.  Some will point to Luke 14 and say, “There!  This is what you must do if you are to be one of Jesus’ disciples.”  Give up your possessions; hate your brothers and sisters!

Hagah on Luke 14 and you start to ask yourself (honestly and privately) where you have placed your emphasis and where are your priorities.  It may be too extreme to ask Jesus’ people if they hate life itself.  But it is reasonable to ask whether we have allowed life to restrict our circle of concern.  Maybe we don’t have to give up all our possessions, but how much we spend on dining out could be held in tension with how much we have given to feed the hungry.

The two examples Jesus uses in this short exchange reinforce rational reasoning over emotional allegiance.  A builder and a king take stock of what they want to do and what resources they will devote to the project.  It is more than social humiliation which might lead to their calling a halt to a course of action.  They allow themselves to realize there is no reason to even try to go there.

It is my hope, my prayer, and my intention, that every one of you will go home this afternoon and struggle with the place God and God’s Word has in your life.  I hope you will gnaw (Hagah) on what you have heard Jesus saying this morning.  And I would love to hear back from you the parts too tough to swallow.  I would also like to hear the benefits and delight which come from being dedicated enough to dig and dig till that morsel of flavor is exposed and enjoyed. 

There are plenty of places where Luke 14 is read and someone will say, “There you have it.”  Maybe you wish this place (and this sermon) was one such place.  As I said, I am still trying to learn the customs and ways of this expression of Jesus’ Church.  Forgive me when I give offense.  None is intended.

As I gnaw on Luke 14, I find myself agreeing with commentator Mitzi Smith when she writes, “I propose that Jesus does not refer to a hate toward family members in the sense of an absence of love.”  Rather, Jesus asks where we find our final security and identity. 

Perhaps like many of you, I took my babies to church when they were only a few weeks old and standing by the baptismal font I asked God to do for them what I could not do for them.  I asked God to guide them and teach them and to help them to experience and come to know the things I want them to learn.  In that exchange I acknowledged that my flesh stands in the way of making such eternal promises.  As I asked God to provide those things for my children I was directing my children to hear God’s Word and find in that Word assurances I am incapable of giving them.

I have gnawed on these verses for years.  And I am still embarrassed when I read the part about giving away possessions.  I bought a camper, just in case I might be able to get away to an occasional NASCAR race.  When I realized most campgrounds at NASCAR tracks don’t have electricity, I bought a 30 amp generator!  So I could have air conditioning!

But I will groan and growl some more this afternoon.  And I will ask myself whether I have come to love my stuff more than I love God. 

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
And they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.


Sunday, September 1, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 12 - First Sunday at St Michael

Luke 14:1, 7-14         

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Hummm..  Sounds a little too much like where we are this morning for any of us to be able to fully concentrate on where Jesus was on that Sabbath day.  I do not have a Christ complex – but I do sense that y’all are watching me – closely – this morning.  And you should.

Last week’s celebration of thirty-one years of service by Pastor Miles made such an impression on each of us that we are all keyed in this morning, and watching to see what is going to happen.  It doesn’t matter what you like or prefer – a part of each of us resists change.  And, is change coming.  I will not the instrument of that change, but I am likely to become the peg on which is hung each encounter with the change.  That’s okay.  This is my role; my call.  And this is the service I am prepared to offer St. Michael Lutheran Church.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Let’s try to take ourselves back to the Sabbath being spoken of in these verses from Luke 14.

Most Lutherans have gotten out of the habit of carrying their Bibles.  This is one old habit which we should have never broken.  Put one on your phone – that allows you to check the scores of the Packers’ game while pretending you are looking up a bible verse.  Turn with me to Luke 14.

If the bible you are looking at has footnotes, you might learn that this is the third visit Jesus makes to the home of a Pharisee.  The other visits are in Luke 7:36-50 and Luke 11:37-43.  These frequent visits to the homes of Pharisees have led some to the conclusion that Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee.  There are a number of hints of this.  Not insignificant among them is the basic realization that the greatest divisions often emerge between those who were once very close.  As the community of Christ unfolds and emerges, there are many encounters in which the way of the Pharisees and the way of Jesus are set in opposition.

If Jesus was a Pharisee, or had at one time been among the Pharisees, but was beginning to split some fine hairs and illuminate other aspects of what it meant to be a child of God – then all eyes would have been on him.  And everyone would watch him closely.  Those who were opposed to any change would watch so that they might condemn him; those who were looking for something different - so they could jump on the bandwagon.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

We want to pretend that the way of Jesus and the ways of the Pharisees would have been easily distinguishable.  We like to tell ourselves that we would have no problem choosing between the direction Jesus moves and the way of those who are so often scorned in our scriptures.  But any ease in doing so may only be an illusion developed over 2,000 years of wagging a finger in the direction of the Pharisees. 

Got a pencil and a blank page in the bulletin?  Write the distinguishing characteristics of a Pharisee in the time of Jesus.  I don’t see pencils moving.  Difficult, isn’t it?  Pharisees, Sadducees, leaders of the synagogue – we have learned not to trust them, but we seldom know much about them and why what they were doing was so antithetical to the message and ministry of Jesus.

Yes, I am going tell you a little about the Pharisees.  Or at least give you my short list of what I have managed to remember about them.

The Pharisees were deeply committed members of the community.  They were not trained rabbis or professional staff.  In many ways they distrusted the teachers and paid staff.  (Remember in John 10 when Jesus said – “The hire hand does not care for the sheep”?) The Pharisees didn’t always trust the professional church leaders.  What the Pharisees did do was study the scriptures.  They would win every round of Bible Bingo.  They knew every rule and commandment found in the scriptures.  As a result, they were tithers.  They are the type of folks stewardship committees dream of.  They showed up on Thursdays to mow the grass, or on Friday to fill up backpacks. 

They were more than casual observers.  In watching Jesus – closely – they knew the significance of each action he took and every word he spoke.  They knew that what he did and what he said was going to have an impact on them, on their lives, and the faith community which they so deeply loved.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Jesus makes the most of the opportunity. 

On any other Sabbath, we would likely focus on Jesus’ observations and comments on seeking seats of honor at this afternoon luncheon.  The topic at hand and the subject matter is important, very important.  But on this particular Sabbath, it might behoove us to spend our time reflecting on the process.

Those good, God-fearing people who identified as Pharisees were intent in their observance of the Laws of Moses.  The verses omitted from today’s reading speak of an encounter much like the one from last week, wherein Jesus heals on a Sabbath and then dares anyone to tell him this is violation of the prohibition to do work on God’s holy day.  The good, God-fearing people who were made up the bulk of this dinner party were painfully aware of how often and in how many ways the Commandments were ignored or broken – by Jesus and by his followers. 

Did anyone use the downtime of my rambling to look at those other two visits of Jesus to the home of a Pharisee?  In Luke 7 Jesus allows himself to be defiled in accepting the anointing of his feet by a woman of ill repute.  In Luke 11, Jesus and his rowdy row friends sit down and start to eat without first observing the purification procedures so carefully laid out in God’s holy book.

Such were the Pharisees.  These were Jesus’ hosts, his friends, his fellow worshippers.  They weren’t bad people, and they certainly were not irreverent people.  I refuse to believe that Jesus was condemning them, even when he points out their desire to sit in the places of honor.  I think he is pleading with them, not to allow their dedication to the commands of God to cause them to forget the purpose for God’s instructions. 

On any other Sunday, we would talk about the poor, and the crippled, and the lame.  Today, I suggest we allow this reading to expose that even in Jesus’ day there was conflict as to what was the main thing.  It has always been a challenge to articulate what is our mission and purpose.  It was in Jesus’ day, and it is for us.

On this particular Sabbath, Luke 14 is an invitation for us to ask what is the main thing – for us.
  • Is the main thing observing all that is commanded? 
  • Is the main thing feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?
  • Is the main thing being right; having all the facts perfectly lined up?
  • Does the main thing involve saying “This is who we are, and you can decide if you want to join us”; or is the main thing inviting others to “come and discover with us who God is calling us to be”? 

These are not simple choices or right and wrong choices.  And they are the same choices faced by the communities of faith in our day.

Luke 14 does not depict a cosmic battle between the wise and the ill-informed.  Luke 14 reminds us that among those seeking to do God’s will there has always been various ways of getting to where we desire to be.  Lovingly, and humbly, and always with the awareness that everyone is one of God’s children, we acknowledge our understandings and wishes.  We offer our experiences and our voices.  And we watch closely our speaking out and speaking up does not offend or diminish the wishes and understandings of others.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”