Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sermon: Isolation or Mutuality

Luke 16:19-31

So earlier in the worship we played clips of some of the most famous songs about money. And right after that we read a parable from Jesus about Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man we are told wears purple and fine linen, and feasts luxuriously every day. His home is large enough he has a gated yard. We learn near the end that he has a father and five brothers. From all appearances this man has it all going for him. He is connected, he has a home, he has family.

And then we are introduced to Lazarus. A man who appears to be completely alone, whose only companions are the street dogs, who is hungry enough to eat crumbs from another’s table. He presumably has no family to take him in and help him. He seems completely isolated, so much so that none of us would want to trade places with him.

Now, it is easy to think, especially since we put the parable after songs about money, that what Jesus is talking about is the rich man’s wealth, that Jesus is saying that being rich is wrong; but actually that is not what Jesus is saying at all. If wealth prevents us from getting into heaven, then Abraham wouldn’t be the one meeting Lazarus because he was a very wealthy man. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, “The parable’s key theological concern is not the rich man’s wealth (many of Jesus’ followers were wealthy) but the fact that his wealth inhibits his compassion, isolates him from seeing the needs of others, and prevents him from recognizing Lazarus as his neighbour.”[1]

In other words, when we read the parable, we think that it is Lazarus who is isolated and alone in this life, but the irony is that the rich man is really the one who is isolated. He has hidden himself away behind his gate. He has cut himself off from others by simply becoming blind to their needs. His wealth has actually separated himself from the rest of humanity, and it is the state of his heart that Jesus is critiquing.

But wealth is not the only thing that can isolate us in this way.

Our prejudices, our experiences, our hurts, our values, these also can get in the way of our seeing the needs of others and having compassion. Growing up, one of my favorite comic strips was Garfield – you know the fat cat that loves lasagna, that hates Monday’s and lives for naps. One cold winter night Garfield looks out the window and sees Odie the Dog peering through the window. Garfield thinks to himself: This is horrible. Here I am in the comfort of a warm house, well fed, and there is Odie outside begging to get in, cold and hungry. I can't stand it anymore. I just can't stand it. So at that he goes over to the window…and closes the curtains.[2]

Now I realize that Garfield is just a comic strip character, so analyzing him is a little strange. But why does he close the curtains on Odie? It isn’t because Garfield is rich and Odie poor. More likely it is that Garfield doesn’t like Odie, or dogs in general, or that he is a cat and only thinks about himself. Likewise, there are lots of reasons that we close the curtains and refuse to see the needs of others. It may be that we don’t like a certain person, or that a type or person makes us uncomfortable. Whatever the reason – the end result is that we isolate ourselves, and cut ourselves off from others by closing the curtains.

Let me be really controversial here. I think one of the reasons that racial tensions are so high right now is that many people have closed their curtains to the problems and difficulties of being black in our society. White people don’t even see it. We don’t want to see it. And we refuse to even try to understand. We have isolated ourselves from each other to the point where we aren’t listening.

So, what’s so bad about that?

What’s the problem with ignoring other people and their problems?

In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s isolation is so great, that even after death he is cut off from everyone else. Now he no longer has the comforts of his money to fall back on. He is completely alone. In fact, it is so bad that even when he is alone, and he sees Lazarus from a distance, he doesn’t celebrate at seeing an old acquaintance, he doesn’t look to make a personal connection or to establish a relationship in his loneliness. He only thinks about his own thirst, about the heat, about his own discomfort. He only sees Lazarus as a means for meeting those needs. He only cares about what Lazarus might do for him. There is no sense of equality here, no compassion, no sense of connection. Lazarus might as well be a vending machine serving Mountain Dew, that’s how much the rich man cares about Lazarus’ humanity. And while we may not want to admit it, there is a problem when we only see others as a means of meeting our needs.

Interestingly and perhaps paradoxically, the things that prevent us from recognizing the needs of others, often say a great deal about our own needs that are not being met. In other words, the rich man is unable to see Lazarus’ needs because the rich man himself has needs that aren’t being addressed. These are harder to see, but if you think about it what are the needs of the rich man? [pause] What does he fail to see about himself?

It is the very thing that I have been talking about -- I would suggest that he is blind to his own need for interactions with others – he sees himself as self-sufficient. Like many in our world he is a rugged individualist. He thinks he can do it all by himself. That he doesn’t need other people. Relationships are unnecessary. He is quite fine on his own.

But it is also absolutely false. We are increasingly aware in our global economy, that we are mutually dependent upon each other. We depend upon thousands of people each and every day. The person who planted our food, who picked it, who processed it. The person who wove our fabrics, who sewed the clothes, who sold it to us at the store. The person who paved our roads, the one who installed our electric lines. The person who assembled our car, the miner that brought out the iron to make the steel. Our parents, our teachers, the many individuals that have shaped our lives and helped us to grow into the people we are today. The doctors that help our kids when they are sick, that staff the hospitals, that perform surgeries!

When we admit that we are mutually dependent upon others, this allows us to open up and admit our needs to others, and in many cases helps us to see their needs as well. That’s mutuality – realizing that our lives are intertwined and inseparable. It is different from codependence where we are so needy that it is unhealthy. Rather it is a healthy admission that isolation is impossible, and that each of us contributes to the lives of others.

When I confess that I need other people even to have the food to eat that meal that is in front of me, then I can open my eyes to the needs of others who may not have that meal in front of them. I should look at their situation and say, “Somewhere, something failed. A connection was missed, and they are hungry.”

Or we can go deeper, if I can confess that I have a deep need to love and to be loved. If I am willing to see that I have a desire for others to treat me with respect, to listen to me, to care about my health and well-being. Then it only makes sense that others have that need too – and I have a part to play in making that happen. I can be the one that listens, that respects, that cares for my neighbor – which is exactly what the rich man in the parable fails to do.

What Jesus is teaching us is that God is a God of mutuality in relationships. We lean on each other, we lift up each other. None of us walks this life alone – not even the Lazarus’ of the world who seem to only have the dogs for companions. Thus the example of the cross – God lifts us up, allows us to lean on God, when it seems like no one else is there for us. And in return God trusts us as the agents of the good news, the missionaries of compassion, and the distributers of that grace that God has shown. So the relationship goes both ways – God lifts us, and we work for God.

Our parable suggests that all relationships should be like that, where there is a sense that each individual is important, is filled with the Holy Spirit, and has something to offer, that we are only really human when our hearts are open to one another. If the rich man could have seen that, then he would not have suffered such isolation, and would not have been cut off in the afterlife, and Lazarus would have found mercy and hope in this life.

So it isn’t the money that Jesus is saying is the problem, like he often suggests, it is our hearts that are the problem, our hearts that need the help – and thankfully he comes to help show us the better way. Opening the curtains, seeing our neighbor, showing compassion.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2016
[2] ChristianGlobe Illustrations by Brett Blair

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Sermon from 9/18/2016 -- Praying for Everyone

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Let me begin by saying that some of you may find parts of this sermon political and parts of it may be uncomfortable. And there are very good reasons for that – the original bible text is itself political, and the implications of what the author is saying would make many people uncomfortable.

The good news is that this year has been an exciting and deeply annoying election process. Now you may be saying to yourself, “That’s good news?” Yes it is, at least when it comes to understanding this passage, because it will have greater meaning for us than it might at other times.

Let’s get all historical. Paul, or someone writing on his behalf, is writing to a group of Christians and he says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Now at first that sounds pretty tame. But remember, these Christians are not living in a time when the leaders are even remotely Christian. In fact, the emperor has demanded that people treat him as a god, that they bow down before his statue and pray to him. That’s idolatry – worshiping something other than God, and so Christians and Jews refused to do so. But when they refused, they were arrested, tortured and often killed in quite barbaric ways.

So imagine that you live in a place and time like that. Where you are forced to go into a temple, bow down and worship an emperor – if you don’t, you know that at the very least you will be put in prison. And here is Paul, telling you pray for emperor. Doesn’t that make you a bit uncomfortable? Isn’t there a part of you that says, “No! I don’t want to pray for this person! I will not pray for someone who wants me jailed or killed!”

Of course, what Paul is doing is actually quite clever. He is suggesting that instead of praying to the emperor, they pray for him. Whether they like him or not, in fact, whether he is at all godly or not, he deserves their prayers. Everyone deserves prayer – even the worst of us. So Paul suggests, when you go to the temple, carefully word your prayers so that the soldiers think you are praying to the emperor, but when in fact you are simply praying for the emperor. It is really quite smart. But that doesn’t mean it was easy for people to do. They still had to get past their feelings about the emperor in order to pray for him. They had to lay aside the friends and family that may have been arrested, they had to swallow their anger, and pray for someone they didn’t like.

That’s why I think that this passage might come at a good time for us right now. People are pretty polarized politically right now. We have very strong feelings about the candidates for president. I bet that most of us have pretty negative feelings about one of the candidates or all of them. But here is the thing, Paul suggests that no matter what our feelings about the candidate – that individual deserves our prayers. So you can see why I said that the sermon might seem political and it may make us uncomfortable. But it isn’t particularly supporting one party or the other – rather Paul is telling us to do something that we might not like doing – pray for all our leaders, even the ones that set themselves up as gods, or put us in prison, or torture us, or even kill our family and friends.
That being said, What should they pray for the emperor?

I mean, there are lots of ways you can pray for someone. You can pray that they have great health, that everything they do succeeds, or you can pray that they fall and break a leg, or that they are hit by a runaway chariot and killed. But I am guessing that if you are in front of a group of soldiers and pray that the emperor is hit by a runaway chariot and killed that they would arrest you on the spot.
Paul makes a little more subtle suggestion. They should pray for the emperor so that we can lead quiet and peaceful lives in godliness and dignity. In other words, we should pray that they would be good and wise leaders. Which when you think about it is a great prayer. It only makes sense that we should be praying for our leaders, even the ones we don’t like by asking God that they would be good and wise leaders that lead in a way that brings a good quality of life to all of us.

Paul then reminds us that God wants all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. Notice that he does not say that we should pray that the emperor be saved or come to knowledge of the God, once again the soldiers would probably arrest us if we did that.

Of course, we aren’t facing arrest for praying if we pray that one of our elected officials would come to be saved or the knowledge of God. But – here is the thing, praying that assumes that we know what God alone knows –what is in the heart of that leader. Far too often I hear people saying that this leader or that leader isn’t really a Christian, and then they suggest that our country would be a better place if he or she were. The fact is, being a Christian does not automatically make you a good leader, or even make you act particularly Christian. Look at history and you can find plenty of absolutely rotten leaders who were Christian.

Rather he suggests that we pray in a more practical way. He reminds us that Christ came to set all people free – so our prayers are that the leader leads in such a way that all might be free through Christ. Our prayers are about the practical and everyday decisions that the leader makes – for that wisdom from God that brings goodness to the lives of those that leader leads.

So on the political side of things, when you are looking at presidential candidates, what Paul is saying is pray for the practical way they affect us, don’t pray that bad things happen to them; and pray that they would gain wisdom that would enable all of us to live quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and dignity. That is a great prayer.

But let’s move this past politics for a moment. This concept does not just apply to our presidents and politicians. It also applies to our bosses, our neighbors, our exes and anyone that just plain may annoy us. As tempting as it might be to pray that our boss would be fired, or our neighbor be attacked by a rabid squirrel, that is not the approach that Paul suggests.

We are to pray that they would allow us to live our lives in quiet and peace, and that all might find the freedom of Christ. And I like that. If our boss would allow us to do that, if our neighbor would allow us to do that, if our ex would allow us to do that, then those people would be a lot easier to live with.
He has given us a great model that we can use to be in prayer for anyone, whether we like the person or not, it is a fitting prayer.

Hmm. I just had a sudden thought. I realized that the person that usually causes me the most grief in my life, is me. Usually when I have trouble it is because I have made a dumb decision. So maybe I ought to be using this prayer on myself! “God, help me to live in way that I may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” I like it! I think I will have to use it. See that’s not political, it is just plain practical advice on how to deal with my biggest opponent – myself! When I was thinking about this sermon originally, that thought never even occurred to me. Love it!

So to summarize. In this time of political turmoil, we should be praying for all of our leaders, whether we like them or not. In fact, we should be praying for all people, whether we like them or not. And we can even pray for ourselves. “Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”