Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mind the Chasm

There is a rich man who’s near death. He’s quite attached to his wealth and he prays that he might be able to take some of it with him when he goes to heaven.

An angel hears his plea and appears to him. "Sorry, but you can't take it with you. That’s the rules." The man begs the angel to speak to God to see if he might bend the rules just this once. 

The angel speaks to God about it and reappears to the rich man, informing him that God has decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man gathers his largest suitcase, fills it with pure gold bars, and places it beside his bed.

That very night, the man dies. When he shows up at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter sees the suitcase and says, "Hold on, you can't bring that in here!"

So the man explains to St. Peter that he has special permission and asks him to verify his story with the Lord. Sure enough, St. Peter checks it out and comes back saying, "You're right. You are allowed one carry-on bag, but I'm supposed to check its contents before letting it through."

St. Peter opens the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and is totally baffled when he sees the gold bars. "You brought pavement?!!!"

We’ve probably all heard stories about someone dying and going to heaven where the rules are nothing like they expected. Often these stories make fun of rich people or lawyers. Apparently, this genre has been around for a long time, because Jesus uses it in Luke 16.

 The two main characters of the story are a rich man and a poor man. The rich man isn’t named, but the poor man is. His name is Lazarus. In all of Jesus’ parables, this is the only person who is ever given a name. He’s not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raises from the dead in John’s gospel. Same name/different guy.

Well, this Lazarus would give anything to eat the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table, so we know that he’s hungry. And we know that he’s not pretty to look at because he’s covered in sores that the dogs are always licking. We also know that he hangs out at the gate to the rich man’s house. So, apparently, there was some kind of a wall surrounding it, and the gate was the only point of entry.

What we don’t know is whether the rich man and Lazarus ever spoke to each other. We don’t read that Lazarus sat at the gate and begged. He was just there. Obviously, the rich man passed by him, and he did nothing to help him. But was he troubled by Lazarus? Did he ever tell him to go away? Did he even see him?

We later learn that he did know who Lazarus was, because when they both die and go on to the next life, the rich man refers to Lazarus by name. But notice that he still doesn’t speak to Lazarus. Instead, he addresses Abraham, also a rich man, someone on his own level. And while the rich man is tormented in Hades, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him. 

“That isn’t gonna happen,” Abraham says. “Remember how during your lifetime you lived the life of luxury while Lazarus got the shaft? Well, now the tables are turned. Now, Lazarus’ lives in comfort while you suffer.” 

Abraham tells the rich man that God is making things right in heaven. But there’s an even greater reason why his fate is sealed. “There is a chasm that has been fixed between us and it can’t be crossed.” 

A chasm has been fixed between us. And here’s the thing about that chasm. It didn’t suddenly appear in the next life. It became deeper and wider every time the rich man passed by Lazarus at his gate and did nothing to help him, every time he failed to show an ounce of mercy, every time he passed Lazarus and held his nose so he wouldn’t smell the foul odor, every time he looked away in disgust. That’s how the chasm became fixed.

It’s hard to read this parable today without thinking about how the chasm between rich and poor in our world is ever with us. Do you remember how our fair city of Charlotte prepared for the Democratic National Convention last summer? We wanted to impress all the big-wigs coming to our town. So, what did we do with the homeless population of Charlotte? We got them off the streets. We relocated them. We shipped them off so none of the people we wanted to impress had to look at them. 

We took the opportunity to pretend like the poor don’t exist. For the most part, we do pretty well at this even when the DNC isn’t in town. We are fairly insulated from the poor and that’s the way we like it. The poor make us uncomfortable and the chasm brings us comfort. Why?

Is it because we believe people are poor because, basically, they deserve to be poor? They haven’t worked hard enough. Or they just don’t care enough. Or they’ve made bad decisions. Or they do bad things. If we’re truly honest, sometimes these judgmental thoughts about the poor cross our minds, even if we’re one of the biggest bleeding heart liberals who ever lived.

While we may pity the poor, it’s hard for us to have mercy on those we suspect could probably choose to do something to make their lives different.

Or, do we distance ourselves from the poor because we can’t deal with the guilt? We feel guilty for having so much while others have so little. We know it’s not fair. We know we have had advantages that many people can only dream of, like a family that gave us a good start in life. We were raised in comfortable homes with solid nutrition and went to good schools. We have the abilities and the opportunities to find jobs that offer us a livable wage. We have been given so much. And our inclination is to cling to it with all our might, rather than share with those who seem to have come out on the short end of the stick. We see the poor and pangs of guilt stab us around the heart.

Or perhaps, when we really look at the poor, we’re aware of the chasm between us and we want to do something to bridge it but the challenges seem too overwhelming. We wonder if our efforts can really make a difference. We know that it’s not just a matter of sharing what we have with others. There are systemic problems that continue to keep the poor in their place. It’s all so complicated that we don’t know where to begin. And so, we ignore the poor because they leave us feeling frustrated and powerless.

There are many reasons for the chasm between us and the poor. That really wasn’t Jesus’ concern in telling this story. Nor did he tell it to scare the hell out of us. He told it so we might change the way we’re living this side of heaven. We’re feasting sumptuously while Lazarus is starving. There are millions of Lazaruses in the world around us all longing for the crumbs that fall from our tables. Of course, most of them remain hidden from our view.

This morning, while I was preaching my sermon, 250 people died of starvation. And the thing that makes this so tragic is that it’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around. There is enough food to feed everyone in the world. And yet, some people are starving while others have way too much. The chasm between rich and poor is something we create through our actions here on earth. And if we don’t change where we stand with the poor, the chasm becomes fixed. 

How you have ever been to London? If you've been there and rode on the subway, what they call the tube, you heard a recorded voice every time you stepped through the door of the train that said, “Mind the gap.” It’s been over ten years since I was in London, but I can still hear the sound of the woman’s voice as all who pass through the door are cautioned to pay attention to the space between the train and the platform lest they fall in. Mind the gap.

  The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a cautionary tale for us to mind something much larger than a gap: a chasm. What if we heard the voice of Jesus saying that every time we climb into our cars that most people in our world couldn’t imagine owning? Mind the chasm. What if we heard the voice of Jesus saying that every time we walk into our homes where most people in our world couldn’t imagine living? Mind the chasm. What if we heard the voice of Jesus saying that every time we enter our walk-in closets jam-packed with more clothes and shoes than we could possibly need? Every time we enter a department store with plastic cards that give us the ability to buy whatever we want? Every time we attend a sporting event or a musical performance where the money we spend on tickets could feed a family of four for a month? Can you imagine the voice of Jesus coming over a giant loudspeaker every time saying, “Mind the chasm.” Would it change us?

In today’s parable, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to change their ways before it’s too late. Abraham denies his request saying, “If they haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

But here’s the thing for us. We do have benefit of someone warning us who has risen from the dead, don’t we? It’s the risen Jesus. He’s been resurrected to a new life that he wants for us, too. That new life is not limited to someday after we die, but it begins for us right here, right now. A key to experiencing it, Jesus says, can be found in how we mind the chasm.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Free Financial Advice for the Filthy Rich (and the filthy middle-class, too)

Warning: This blog gets personal. It’s about one of the most intimate relationships we have in our lives -- our relationship with money.

Whether we love it or hate it, we all have feelings about money. I never feel like I ever have enough of it. When I waste it, I get depressed. Gambling makes me physically ill. When other people rip me off, it incenses me. When I am heavily in debt, I can’t sleep at night. And on those rare occasions when I have a lot of it in the bank, I’m happy, happy, happy.

Well, if you’re like me and you care about money, Luke 16:1-12 is a text you might want to pay attention to because Jesus offers us some free financial advice: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Say what?! Well, it’s the punch-line to the parable he told. And, it’s a hard one.

As the story goes, there is a master who has so much property that he has to hire a manager to take care of it for him. The manager does a terrible job and he gets himself fired. He knows that, without a job, he’s going to end up on the streets, so he devises a plan. Before he hands over the books, he goes to all the people who owe his master money and tells them they can settle their debts for a rock bottom price, much less than they actually owe. As a result, they all think he’s the greatest guy ever, so when his master boots him to the curb, he’s counting on the fact that they’ll feel sorry for him and take care of him. Unethical? Yes. Stupid? No.

Now, if you’re listening to this story for the first time, you can probably predict how it’s going to end. The master is going to find out what his slimy former employee has done and he’s going to go ballistic! But we’re talking about Jesus here, a storyteller famous for his surprising endings. So this is what happens… The master doesn’t blow a gasket. Instead, he is absolutely delighted with his dishonest manager and he praises him for being so shrewd.

“So I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says. Is he telling us to be dishonest in our business practices? A key to understanding what he’s getting at can be found by looking at the larger context of this puzzling parable.

Immediately before this story in Luke, we read the story of the Prodigal Son, a guy who also finds himself in a lot of trouble when he can’t manage his money. He ends up going home to Daddy. And then, immediately after today’s passage, comes the story of two men: one is a rich man who is all decked out in fancy clothes; the other is a poor guy named Lazarus, who is dressed in sores, which apparently taste good to dogs. Lazarus is starving and longs to eat the rich man’s garbage. Well, both men die. Lazarus is carried into Abraham’s bosom. The rich man goes to Hades. Hmmm.

So, if you read today’s parable in context, within Luke, you could conclude that Jesus is saying we should use our dishonest wealth to make friends with the poor so that when we kick the bucket, the poor might just welcome us into eternity. According to Jesus, no one gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.

Exploitation of the poor was a problem in Biblical times. Look again at today’s reading from Amos and you can see it was a practice that goes way back. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘We can’t wait for our next opportunity to cheat the poor out of their money.’” For prophets like Amos, and Jesus, this was an affront to God and they couldn’t stand by and say nothing while blatant exploitation of the poor was taking place.

I read this week about billionaire hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller’s assessment of the Federal Reserve’s current policy of quantitative easing. This lowering of interest rates is good for all Americans, right? Well, when 80% of the stocks and other assets in this country are owned by the top 10%, think about who stands to benefit the most. Druckenmiller says, “This is fantastic for every rich person. This is the biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever.” What do you think Amos and Jesus would have to say about that?

Last week Congress voted to cut 40 billion dollars in food stamps from both the unemployed and the working poor. What do you think Amos and Jesus would have to say about that? Well, I know what they would say, actually. What I really wonder about is why people like us, followers of Jesus, don’t have much to say about the exploitation of the poor? Do we not see it?

Did we not see all the people who never thought they would ever be able to afford a home, and were offered the opportunity in a deal that seemed too good be true, but too good not to pass up? Now they’ll be paying for that decision for the rest of their lives.

Did we not see all the students who didn’t know how they’d ever be able to pay for college until they were offered a student loan that seemed like the answer to their prayers? Then they graduated from school $100,000 in debt. Now they’re financially crippled for most of their adult lives because of a decision they made when they were young and clueless and vulnerable.

Did we not see the people who ended up maxing their credit cards to get through a period of unemployment? They were sure they’d soon be back to work and they’d be able to pay it all off. And after that credit card maxed, they went on to another one. And before they knew it, they were in debt up to their eyeballs and they couldn’t even afford to pay the 30+% interest rate. Really, a 30+% interest rate?

Things haven’t changed much since the days of Amos. And the words of Jesus ring truer than ever.

Of course, it’s easy for us to point fingers at Donald Trump and others in his filthy rich club for exploiting the poor. But when we spend too much time doing that, we miss the larger picture. And in the larger picture, on a global scale, WE are the wealthy. If we have fresh drinking water, a roof over our heads, an automobile, and at least one meal today, we’re wealthy by global standards.

No, we may not consider ourselves filthy rich, but we’re not exactly poor either. So is it possible to be filthy middle-class? If the word filthy bothers you, try using the word from Luke 16: dishonest. And actually, there’s a better translation for the word Jesus uses here. In its original language, the word that’s translated dishonest here was the word for unjust or unfair. And it’s a good descriptor for wealth. Because wealth is always unfair.  

It’s hard to know how to live with that. For example, I think of my own struggle with Wal-Mart. For many years I refused to shop there. Among other things, I detested the way they treated their employees.  Wal-Mart employs more people than any other company in the United States outside of the Federal government, yet the majority of its employees with children live below the poverty line. To me, shopping at Wal-Mart is participating in injustice, exploiting the poor. But, guess what. I was just in Wal-Mart on Friday, and it wasn’t the first time for me within the past year or two. So, what did it for me? What got me to close my eyes to the poor people I’m trampling on every time those magic doors slide apart at Wal-Mart and I enter in? I can tell you in two simple words: prescription drugs. The medicine for my dog Pooky is so cheap at Wal-Mart, why would I buy it anywhere else? My passion for justice only goes so far when it interferes with the relationship I have with money.

Of course, this isn’t the only time I exploit the poor. Whenever I buy something to wear or something to eat and I pride myself on what a great deal I’ve gotten, there’s a very good chance that that great deal for me was a raw deal for someone else.

Wealth is a challenge to us when we try to live justly. At its core, it’s always related to accidents of birth or fate or historical injustice. At the very least, we have to acknowledge that we live on stolen land as the beneficiaries of ethnic cleansing in the past.

Wealth is important to us, and in order to have more of it, we’re all a party to injustices that we’re not proud of. But there is hope in this parable for us. If our money is tainted, we can still use it for good. If we can’t be perfect, we can at least be generous.

Jesus challenges us to consider the relationship we have with money: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

For Jesus, there’s a clear connection between how people handle earthly and spiritual things. So, as people who are way too attached to material wealth, what are we to do? If it’s true that, as Jesus says, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then what hope is there for us?

A story in Luke 19 offers a way. Jesus enters Jericho and goes right over to the wealthiest guy in town, who has by his own admission gotten rich by cheating others. The man’s name is Zaccheus, and in the end, he gives half his money to the poor and repays those he has cheated times four. When Jesus sees what Zaccheus does, he says something astonishing. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Generosity is not in itself salvation, certainly. But generosity IS a sign that one’s heart is right with God.

And so, the good news is that God does save the rich, and there are clear signs when this happens. May it be so with us.





Sunday, September 15, 2013


We all grumble from time-to-time, don’t we? Have you ever paid attention to the kinds of things you tend to grumble about? Specifically, do you ever grumble about THEM? You know, those people who aren’t like us. They don’t do things like us. Or look like us. Or think like us. Who are some of the THEMs that you find yourself grumbling about? Politicians? Welfare mothers? People who don’t speak English? Parents who don’t know how to keep their kids under control in church? Gun owners? People who listen to Rush Limbaugh? That kid in the car next to you who’s blasting hip- hop music filled with profanity? Fundamentalists? Convicted felons? Anyone our military is fighting against? People who drive around in cars with license plates that say: New Jersey?Steelers fans? (I’m sorry, but they’re the worst!) Most of us have some THEMs in our lives who can get us to grumbling.

In the 15th chapter of Luke, there’s a whole lot of grumbling going on. This time it’s the scribes and the Pharisees who are doing the grumbling. And they’re grumbling about THEM, the wrong kind of people.  They don’t like the way Jesus is blurring the boundary between US and THEM.  He’s actually eating and drinking with THEM, something that was reserved for your most intimate circle of friends in that culture, something that was reserved for US.

Well, after Jesus has finally heard enough of their grumbling, he tells them three parables. We have the first two in today’s gospel reading: the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. If we continued to read to the end of chapter 15 we’d learn how Jesus brings it all home with a third parable, the one about the lost son.

Here, let's just focus on the parable of the lost sheep, which is often interpreted by Christians something like this… There is a shepherd and he has 100 sheep. One of them goes astray. That lost sheep is like people who fall away from God. And it’s our job to go out and find them, like the shepherd. We need to get those poor lost sheep in with US so someday they can go to heaven. If they don’t, when they die they’re going straight to hell.

That’s the way the woman who was on my bus tour to the Grand Canyon this summer would explain it. When she found out that one of the men with us was Hindu, she blurted out, “Have you ever thought about becoming a Christian?” “Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “So when you die you can go to heaven with all of us,” she actually said that. To her way of thinking, the whole purpose of being a Christian is so you can be among those who go to heaven. If you’re not a Christian, you’re going to hell. So, this is serious stuff.

What does a theology like that say about a God of love? We really like to hang onto the idea that God loves US. But we’re not so crazy about the idea that God loves THEM. So we decide that until they become like US, they’re lost; they’re doomed to hell.  

Well, folks, that’s not what this parable is about. It’s not about how we need to go out and find the poor lost souls and bring them into the fold. Because it’s not about us at all. It’s about God. And we’re ALL a part of God’s fold. There is no US and THEM with God. All are children of God, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.  No matter how we might label them. No matter what language they speak. No matter what the color of their skin is. No matter whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Pagan, Christian, or religionless. All are included in God’s wide embrace of love. Even those who don’t want to be included. Doesn’t matter. God loves them.

Jesus is saying: “So you’re grumbling because I’m hanging out with the wrong people? Really? Here’s how it works with God. With God, there is not one person who is beyond God’s loving embrace. Not a single one.”

And here’s the zinger… One of the things about parables is that Jesus always puts the zinger at the very end. In this case, with three parables in a row, you need to go to the very end of the very last parable to find it. It’s the story of the older son who is so miffed at his father,  for throwing a party for his good-for-nothing brother who has returned home, that the older son can’t even bring himself to come into the house.  Instead, he stands out in a field and grumbles. “My father welcomes a sinner and eats with him!” Sound familiar?

Yeah, Jesus is talking about the scribes and the Pharisees here, isn’t he? But he’s also addressing any of us who ever grumble about THEM. The sheep, and the coin, and the young son aren’t the only ones who are lost in Luke 15. There may be no one who is as lost at those who grumble about THEM. They’re so lost that they don’t even know they’re lost. And that may be the worst kind of lost there is.

The grumblers are the lost souls who are waiting for a party someday, in the future. And the all-important question that drives their thoughts and actions is, “Who will be invited to this big party and who won’t?” Of course, judgment is pronounced against THEM. Unless they can become more like US, there will be no party for THEM. But here’s the danger in spending our time and energy fretting about them, or trying to convince them that they should become more like us, or fearing them because they threaten us or make us feel uncomfortable and then doing all we can to protect ourselves from THEM. Here’s the problem with that way of thinking… The party isn’t someday in the future. The party has already begun. There’s this ongoing party in the universe, hosted by our extravagant Creator, for all of creation. It’s a celebration of beauty, and adventure, and friendship, deeper understanding, and love… with lots of singing and dancing and laughter and good eats.

How much of your life are you going to waste grumbling about THEM? Let me assure you that God loves us grumblers, too. Lost though we are, we’re also included in God’s loving embrace. But here’s what we need to realize: the more time we spend grumbling about THEM, the more we’re missing out on the best party ever.




Friday, September 6, 2013

I'll tell you what you can do with your phone books

A week ago, I found the annual delivery of telephone books in my front yard. Two thick volumes, one filled with white and the other yellow pages, were enclosed in a tightly secured, white plastic bag. For years now, I have been irritated by these useless bundles that are dumped off at my house with no consideration for the fact that they are about as useless to my life as the tampons I discovered in my bathroom closet ten years after my hysterectomy.  It has been at least that long since I started retrieving telephone numbers on the computer, and in all that time, I’m never once opened a phone book. I suspect I’m not alone. So, why do they continue to distribute these obsolete bundles of paper? I suppose it must have something to do with money. Businesses continue advertising in the yellow pages for reasons that completely elude me in 2013. And so, entire forests are sacrificed for nothing.

Now, I know there are still a handful of people who use telephone books, so I wouldn’t propose that they discontinue printing them. But why can’t they start delivering them only to the people who request them? Or, at least, why can’t I refuse to receive them?
Last year, when they delivered about a dozen phone books to the church, I told the guy who was hauling  them into the office that we didn’t want them and he could take them back. He insisted that he was supposed to deliver them and we had no choice in the matter. We had to receive them.

“But we don’t use them. We don’t want them,” I said.
“Well, what you do with them is up to you,” he told me, as he piled them up on the floor.

One year later, the absurdity of the situation was still gnawing at my brain. So, when I saw the bundle in my front yard last week, I was incensed. I picked it up and deposited it in my recycling can immediately, while muttering words of frustration that I dare not repeat here.

So then, on Labor Day, while I was working in my front yard, a man came driving up the street with a pickup truck loaded down with… phone books! Just like the ones that had been delivered to my house the week before – the ones that never made it into my house.  And I had had enough of this insanity. As he walked up my driveway, I stopped him in his tracks.
“Do you know that someone else already delivered those to my house last week?” He had a puzzled look on his face, but didn’t respond to me. “I didn’t want them then, and I don’t want them now.” Still, he didn’t respond. “So, don’t you leave those at my house. I didn’t ask for them, I don’t want them, and I’ll just throw them away!”

“Ma’am, it’s my job to deliver these. I have to leave them here.”
Yes, the man was simply doing his job. He wasn’t a decision-maker; he just got paid for dropping phone books off at every home. But I had had enough of this insanity.

I got right in his face. “Okay. If you insist on leaving these here, please save me the trouble and just take them around back to my recycle can because that’s where they belong!”

As he backed away and took his books with him, I felt a triumphant surge rushing through my body. It was but a small victory. But sometimes, even a small victory can mean a lot.
The world is out of control and I feel powerless to do anything about it. Violence and injustice and just plain craziness are running rampant. I try to ignore such things as long as I can, but they keep smacking me in the face, taunting me. And the anger I carry day after day slowly boils inside me. So, when I experience something in my little corner of the world that just isn’t right, I can’t hold it in. I may not be able to do anything about voter suppression in North Carolina, or poor children being thrown under the bus because of budget cuts, or an impending military strike on Syria, but I can stop someone from delivering telephone books to my home, by God.

No, it isn’t much. But it’s something.