Monday, October 14, 2013

Reflection on Luke 17:11-19

The tenth leper is out there.  If you were to go out into the world of your everyday life and look closely, you would see him or her.  The tenth leper would be the one who is following Jesus and thanking Jesus out in the grocery store, or at the bar, but would never step into a church.  Skeptical?  I assure you that the tenth leper is out there.

I, on the other hand, am not like the tenth leper.  I am a proud member of the other nine lepers.  Well, proud might be overstating it, but when I find that I am lost, when I find that I am in pain and in need of healing, I know exactly where to go.  I go to church.

This past weekend I did exactly that.  After a day of vacationing at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire dressed up like a pirate, walking around with a turkey leg in one hand (biting off huge chunks with the corner of my mouth) and my granddaughter in the other hand (who was also biting off chunks of turkey leg and chewing like an old-time king) I needed some much neglected relaxation and restoration.  So, along with my wife and granddaughter, I went to church.

You must understand, I am up in the pulpit leading all the time, and there are some times in life that I need to be the one to whom the sermon is directed.  Sometimes I need healing.  Sometimes I need to be in the position of asking for forgiveness and receiving those words of assurance, “your sins are forgiven.”  So, I obviously did what I have been told to do since I can remember as a child; I went to church.  I Googled “churches near me,” on my phone, found one that had a nice website, and I went.  My grandmother would have been proud.  I am firmly in the company of the nine lepers.

When the lepers called out to Jesus for healing, Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, and they would be healed.  In the ancient world, showing yourself to the priest would prove that you were no longer sick.  With that clean bill of health, you would no longer need to tell people to stay away.  With that clean bill of health, you would be restored back to your community.  Desperately desiring to hug sons and daughters and eat with old friends, the nine did exactly as they were told by Jesus and went to church.

I have to admit that the church I visited was not exactly the most welcoming of churches.  An usher handed me a bulletin without saying hello.  I sequestered myself in one of the back pews because I had one of those noise boxes that most of us call “a child.”

“Shh, whisper,” I said.

“Ok, Opa, I’ll whisper in church” she shouts.  “Oooo look, look, look, her hair is huge!”  

I was somewhat relieved when nearly everyone in the church fulfilled their God given duty to be quiet, reverent, and keep to themselves during this exchange.  The only problem was that they kept to themselves, before, during, and after worship, and made certain not to say “hello” or “good morning” or “how’s your day” to us visitors.  I will let that lack of hospitality sink in for a second so that you can ask yourself, “Is that the experience of someone who visits my church?” 

Ok, now that you took a brief moment of self-reflection I will continue my reflection, because that is not the point of this reflection.  The point is: even with the lack of basic kindness to a visitor, I still heard the word of God spoken to me, I prayed along with the community to the Lord and expressed the desires of my heart, and the Lord touched me as the soft bread…his body…graced my lips, and the wine…his blood…found its way past my mouth and into my soul.  In that meal, I looked down at myself and found that I was healed.  I was brought back from the dead by Jesus, and sent away to continue my ministry.

You see, the nine lepers did not do anything wrong.  They listened to Jesus, did exactly as they had been told, and went to church.  In doing so, they found their healing.

But, where was the tenth leper?  “Weren’t there ten of us?” they must have asked themselves as they arrived in front of the priest.

Well, the tenth leper was with Jesus.  The tenth leper was with God.  The tenth leper had gone back to cry out, “thank you Jesus!”  The tenth leper would not have felt welcome standing in front of a priest.  He was a foreigner.  He was of a slightly different religion.  He was not a part of this community.  He would not have felt welcomed had he gone to the priest.

I have grown up in the church my whole life, so I am used to the rudeness of church members, but I have seen the faces of those tenth lepers who do stumble in somehow on Sunday mornings.  They try to hide.  They mostly do not feel warm.  They do not feel welcome.  No one sits with them.  No one talks with them.  No one helps them through the church service.  And, if the sermon preached just happens to be one of those destined for the trash bid that always seem to coincide with the day visitors are present, then all hope is lost.  Those tenth lepers try to find a way to escape the horrible experience before the choir director notices them and asks them to join.  “Fresh meat!!!”  

The sad thing about it is: they probably did not find the healing that they were looking for.  It takes a lot of courage to visit someplace new, and it probably takes a lot of pain to motivate someone to do it in the first place.  They are the tenth leper, and they do not feel at home in church or at home in religion, and we look at our empty pews and ask, “Where is the tenth leper?”  “Where are the parents with small children?”  “Where are those in pain?”  “Where are the sinners?”  “Where is the tenth leper?”

Now, I would like to point out: we in church ask, “Where is the tenth leper?” but this is not the question that Jesus asks.  Quite to the contrary, Jesus asks the question, “Where are the other nine?”

You see, Jesus is not bound to the confines of a church building.  Jesus is not bound to the confines and beliefs of any particular group.  Jesus is not bound up in the church.  Yes, Jesus is present in the church, but if you are willing to place a bet on where you will find him on any given day, it would not necessarily be on the church property.  Rather, it would be with those who need a physician.  Jesus said, “I came not for those who are well, but those who are sick.”  Jesus is present, out there, walking around in your daily lives, offering healing and hope outside the walls of an institution.  Jesus is out there and he is asking, “Where are the other nine?” 

So, I ask you, if we are in the church; and Jesus is out in daily life with the people who are hurting; then where should we be looking for Jesus?  We will find Jesus when we see the tenth leper!  

Jesus is with the tenth leper, with the outcast, with the one crying out for healing, with the one who would never feel free to step foot inside the church building.  God is at work out there, and somehow, in some way, our own wholeness as disciples of Christ will be found when we answer Jesus question, “Where are the other nine?” by leaving our confining institutions, by leaving the confining thoughts of our own beliefs, and run up to Jesus and say, “Right here Jesus, we are right here!”  The tenth leper is out there, and so is Jesus, offering healing to all who call out.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reflection on Luke 16:1-13

The story does not make sense, unless…

There once was a man who owned a very profitable communications company and he had two sons who worked for the company.  Both sons knew that one day the company would be split between them, and that they would continue the legacy that their father had built.

The younger son decided one day that he was sick of working for his father’s company, so he asked his father to give him his half of the company right away.  In anguish, but loving his son, the father spent money on lawyers and the extra staff that would be needed to split the company. 

After the split was made, the younger son immediately sold the company for a nice amount to a firm who sold off all the assets, he squandered the money on mansions, women, and the high life; and after two manic years found himself living literally on a drug addict’s couch, eating McDonald’s ketchup packet soup.  Ketchup packets are free after-all. 

Knowing that his father’s mail room employees at least have enough money to buy food, he selfishly set out to apologize his way into an entry-level job.  But, before he even left the lobby of his father’s business to get into the elevator, before he could even offer an apology, his father ran from across the far side of lobby, and grabbed his son in a heartfelt embrace. The father threw a huge company party for the son, and gave the son a vice presidential position in the company.

The older son was furious at his father’s actions.  The board thought the old man was crazy.  The stocks began to plummet as investors feared management problems and another future breakup of the telecommunications giant.  Nothing about the situation made sense.  It did not make sense financially.  It did not make sense practically.  It did not even make sense morally.  And, this story does not make sense, unless…

Across town, the owner of a national grocery chain was getting old and decided to hand the company over to a trusted manager while he retired in peace.  The manager should not have been trusted though.  He embezzled company money, funneling it to personal vacations and beach homes, all under the guise of “charitable giving.” 

It was not long before the owner discovered the thief, and told him he had until the end of the day to pack his things.  While putting books and paper weights in a box, the manager got on the phone and called up a couple of struggling mom and pop grocery store franchisees who borrowed money off of the national parent company, and told them that he had decided to change their loans to interest free loans, and that half of the capital would be forgiven. 

The man could not be a manager at the parent company any longer, but maybe he could at least grace his way into being a store manager and not live on the streets.

When the company owner received two emails of “thank you” from the little mom and pop stores, he stormed down to the manager’s office, threw open the door, took him by the shoulders and gave them a pat.  He commended the dishonest manager for his wise dealings.  He gave a recommendation to one of the mom and pop stores so that the corrupt manager might have a job.

Now you can see this coming: as with the other company, the board was furious and the investors were shaken.  Allegations of golden parachutes were thrown about in the press and the company suffered a tarnished and corrupt reputation.  Nothing about the situation made sense.  It did not make sense financially.  It did not make sense practically.  It did not even make sense morally.  And, this story does not make sense, unless…

These two stories do not make sense in our modern world in any way shape or form if your god is money.  They do not make sense if our goal is to be financially secure in life.  They do not make sense if we fear our financial future.  The only way that these stories make any kind of sense at all is if we give up shaping our lives around money, and instead shape our lives around Christ and what Christ cares about: love of the sinner and the poor.

Making your money squandering son a vice president does not make any sense financially, but the second chance just may turn his life around.  Your own example of living by God’s mercy instead of living by money may be the example of right living that he needs. 

Commending and recommending an embezzling manager who gives away your hard earned money does not make any sense if you care about money, but commending an action that cares for the struggling mom and pop stores out there as much as caring for himself is a baby step in the right direction of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  If your god is money, then you will throw the guy under the train.  But, if your God is the God of forgiveness of the sinner, you will not throw a guy out the door who is taking his first baby steps into repentance.

A lot of people in the world would say a God who welcomes back the squandering son or commends a self-serving pipsqueak of a manager is a pretty stupid God.  It makes no sense financially.  And, they would be right.  But, I ask: “Why would God, the creator of all, need to make money in the first place?”  “Why would God need to store money away in reserves for future use?”  The answer is pretty simple, God does not need money.  God does not serve money. 

God came down to the world, as a human, to serve the sinner.  Christ came to show mercy to the sinner on the cross.  Christ has not gathered up a lot of money, but Christ has gathered up a lot of lost souls.  These are his treasure.  You are his treasure.  And, your sinful neighbors are his treasure.  Christ shapes his life, not around money, but around you and your neighbors.  After-all the saying holds true, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Christ’s heart is in you, not in money.  “No one 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 should then expect that, as a follower of Christ who puts love of the sinner first, you too will not make any sense to family and friends around you.  I know of some teens who did not make any sense to some of their family members when they participated in a 30 hour famine to raise money for the poor.  “Why starve yourself?  What is the point?  It does not make any sense.”  But, their actions made complete sense to those hungry people for whom they starved and raised money. 

Your actions of love may not make sense to others around you, but your actions will make complete sense to those sinners who are loved by you.  In addition, your willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others makes complete sense to God.

There is a man within my area who gave up a good job and good pension to start a ministry to those who are addicted to illegal substances.  His life is not fancy.  He worries about having enough money for gas.  He eats out of the same gardens and off of the same donated meals as the addicted clients who live in the small, rural recovery house. 

With his skills he could be managing a company and saving up for a nice retirement.  It does not make sense, unless the god he follows is not money.  The God he strives to follow is Christ.  And, the addicted clients see that.  They see that they do not have to follow the god of heroin or the god of alcohol.  They see that there is another God who shows mercy, and gives second chances.  They see what true love really looks like; all because a follower of Christ gave up one god for the true God found in Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t make sense, unless…


All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Luke 15:1-10

"All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"
My grandma once taught me, “You are known by who you hang out with.”  The implication of this was, of course, if you ate your school lunch with good and proper people, you also will be known as good and proper.  Then there are the people with whom she would not have me eat lunch: the sinners. 
Yes, of course, we are all sinners and need the forgiveness of God, but this was not the classification of sin that she was talking about.  She was talking about cheats and turncoats and drug users.  You do not sit at the lunch table with them, because if you do, you are considered one of them.
Jesus appears to be making the simple lunchroom error that every Jr. High student of any worth inherently knows to avoid: sitting with the wrong crowd.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  You can almost hear the accusations dripping from their lips.  It is as if Jesus were a criminal himself.  It is as if Jesus himself were to come to no good.  It is as if Jesus might be hauled away by the authorities and executed.  If only the Pharisees and the scribes knew the end of the story.  But, they do not know the end of the story.  They only know that Jesus eats with bad people…with sinners; “tisk, tisk.”  Yes, my grandmother actually said, “tisk, tisk.”
The Pharisees and scribes see the world as good and bad.  They see the world as black and white.  They see the world just as my grandma had taught: good people…sit with them; bad people…do not sit with them.  My grandma also taught that you can marry a rich woman as easily as a poor one.  I did not listen to that gem of advice, but I think that the former sank in a little deeper than I would like to admit.  I think that sometimes I do look out on the world and throw people into categories of good and bad.
For example, at a recent church picnic, I saw a young couple drive up in a pickup truck with their children.  Did you read carefully what I typed?  A couple was driving all of their children around in a pickup truck.  Those children wore no seatbelts, and certainly did not sit in age appropriate (required by law) car seats.  I shook my head in disbelief as they got out of the truck to go play in the park, and continued eating my turkey and mustard sandwich with all of the other good people of the church. 
A little later I looked up to see that the parents had gone off on their own to play basketball while their children were…well…they did not even know where their children were, they were not watching!  Terrible people.  I settled into conversation with those who knew better and promptly forgot about those sinners until the middle of the night when I jumped awake and realized with horror one simple truth: Jesus invites sinners to eat.
I am a pastor!  How could I be so stupid?  I am a Christian!  How could I be so dumb and inconsiderate?  How could it be that I did not invite this sinful family over to eat with us?  The answer is easy really: it is because I saw them simply as that: sinful, hopeless people.  Jesus, on the other hand, did not categorize people this way.  Jesus simply asked, “Are these people lost?”
"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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who [is found and turns his life around] than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 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? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who is found and [turns her life around.]"

The question I ask when I see people is: are they good or bad? 
The question Jesus asks when he sees people is: “Are they lost?”  And, if they are, then they need to be found.
I should have gone and found those children.  I should have gone and found those parents.  I should have invited them to eat with us.  Maybe I did not because I, like the Pharisees and scribes, also am lost.  But, I am certain that I am not alone in being lost.  As theologian David Lose asks:

  • Might the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around hockey games and dance recitals be lost?
  • Might the career minded man or woman who has made moving up the ladder the one and only priority be lost?
  • Might the folks who work jobs they hate just to give their family things they never had be lost?
  • Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement be lost?
  • Might the teen who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost?
  • Might the earnest Christian who is constantly asking whether people have accepted Jesus into their hearts be lost?
  • Might the pastor who sees sin in the world but doesn’t see people in the world be lost?

Being lost is not about good or bad, it is about our relationship with God and one another.  I must admit that as a fellow lost soul I need to hear a sermon just as much as anyone else.  So, I will turn to an old sermon.  It is an old story that I am sure you have heard over the years, but it a sermon that preaches to all of us who are lost, no matter the reason.
A minister had just closed a revival in a huge Midwestern city. He stepped on the train on his way home and found himself seated beside a young man. Just to kind of pass the time away, he tried to start up a conversation. He noticed that he didn't receive an answer. He turned to the young man and said, "Son, I'm a preacher. I'm a minister. I'll be glad to help you any way I can".
And the young man, through his tears, proceeded to tell his story. He said:
"Preacher, two years ago I got so mean at home that my mom and dad couldn't do anything with me. But one day I even went so far as to strike my father with my fist. He told me then, 'Son, I hate to do it. It's going to break your momma's heart. But we want you to just get away from here--just leave this house.'"
"Preacher, I wandered all over this country for the past two years. And then about three weeks ago Jesus found be and I turned my life to Jesus. I wrote Mom and Dad a letter and told them I'd be on this old train. I told them I was coming home."
The preacher said, "Son, that's well and good, but how do you know you're going to be welcome? How do you know that your Mom and Dad will even let you go home?"
The young man said, "Preacher, we've lived beside these old railroad tracks all of my life in a little white house. And out behind the house is a great big old apple tree. And I told my dad in my letter, if I was welcome home and he and my mom could see it in their hearts to forgive me of all the pain and heartache I caused, for Dad to go out there in the backyard and hang a little white rag on top of that tree. And I could see it from the train. And I'd know by that signal that everything was all right."
"Preacher, would you look for me and tell me what you see? I want to go home so bad and I'm so sorry for all the things I've done. Tell me if you see one little teeny white rag on top of that tree."
Well, the old preacher not knowing what to expect wiped the window of that old train off and looked out. And he had a great big smile and said, "Son, you can relax. That apple tree is in full bloom! I never saw so many white rags tied on anything in all of my life. And that's not all. Out under the apple tree I see that grey haired old Mom and Dad standing out there waving a big white bed sheet saying 'Come home son. Welcome home. We love you."

And you know, that's just like God. No matter how we've wasted our lives, no matter how far in sin we've sunk, no matter how lost we get, no matter how many people we have judged and forgotten, when we desire to live another way and cry out, "Jesus, I want to live for you. Forgive me of my sins." you know that Jesus will welcome us home each and every time.


All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Luke 14:25-33

Am I a “hearer” or am I a “follower?” Do I simply listen to Christ's words, or do I allow them to enter my very being, and allow them to send me into action. This question is especially poignant when we hear Jesus' words, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” I guarantee that this family hating text probably is not a part of the mission statement of any Christian family values ministry. Here’s some family values for you, "hate each other…everything will be good!" Then again, many family reunions work as if they took this bible text literally, so maybe this text is not quite as shocking as I first thought.
Seriously, we know that Jesus is exaggerating here to make a point: even family should not get in the way of following Christ. I once heard about a teenager who defied her parents every Sunday morning to go to the youth Sunday School and worship services with a friend, rather than do her family’s usual Sunday morning activities (which did not include church). Her parents grounded the teen every week for defying them, and every Sunday morning she would choose to defy them again by getting up, leaving the house, and going to church to be with the Lord. She sacrificed her social life throughout the week so that she could have a life in the Lord. For her, following Christ was the number one priority in life, and everything else fell in to place under that. But, those are dangerous ideas for today’s world, are they not? Exactly, how often do people choose Christ over and above anything else? Just how often do we sacrifice for the sake of Christ? Do we even know what sacrifice is?
Contrary to popular belief among those who would fault the young, sacrifice is not something that is foreign to our world today. How many families sacrifice time together or a family vacation for the time schedule and demands of a sport? How many grandparents sacrifice their own desires to engage in hobbies or live in a certain location for the sake of their grandchildren? How many mothers sacrifice their entire social lives for the sake of their children? How many men sacrifice their bonds with friends and family to fulfill the requirements of their jobs? How many people sacrifice at work throughout the week so that they can buy a new dress or eat at a nice restaurant on the weekend? We are not a society devoid of sacrifice, quite the opposite. We know what sacrifice means.
Now, I am not going to criticize those who sacrifice for their children’s sports, or sacrifice for the wellbeing of their families through their jobs. We all set our priorities in life. Bringing Jesus’words into today’s language, theologian David Lose tells it this way, “What parent wouldn’t count the cost before signing up for the traveling soccer team and what new employee wouldn’t consider whether she is willing to work every weekend her first year of employment?”
We all know how to consider the cost of sacrifice. Jesus is simply asking us to do the same for him. Jesus says, "follow me," and when we do we sacrifice all else for God and God’s kingdom. When we follow Jesus, we sacrifice all else for the sake of the lowly and the sinner. “Take up the cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “because those who do not take up the cross cannot be my disciples.”
Now, before the “grace police” come and haul me away, I would just like to point out that I am not talking about earning your salvation here. Salvation, like the healing Jesus provides to those who reach out to him in need throughout gospels, is given as a gift. Grace is not earned through sacrifice. God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Lots of people are loved by Jesus and are saved through his name. There is one thing I would like to point out though: Jesus dies on the cross alone. How many of those who were saved took up their crosses and followed him to the end? No followers hung on the cross with him. All I am saying is that being saved by Jesus is not the same as following him. I am not talking about salvation, I am talking about discipleship.
That leads me back to my question, “am I a hearer of Jesus, or am I a follower?” One of the most common responses I get for a lack of participation in the faith life is, “I believe is Jesus and God. I've heard that I’m saved. I really don’t have to hear it over and over again every week. I can be a Christian on the golf course just as well as I can in church.” That is all well and good, but as a seminary professor of mine once responded, “Sure, you can stop and worship Jesus, reading the scripture together with your buddies, and be inspired into action just as easily on the golf course as you can in church on Sunday morning, but you won’t.”
It seems to me that Jesus has called us to do something a little more than simply hear the words of salvation. Yes, they are important. Yes, they are powerful. Yes, you may have them memorized, but being a follower is more than hearing; it is a way of being; it is a way of doing; it is a way of living in Christ. As the number one priority in life, it affects what we sacrifice our money on: a $3 morning coffee for ourselves or a loaf of bread for the poor? As the number one priority in life, it affects what we sacrifice our time for: a vacation at a day spa or helping our neighbor. But, it is even more than just choosing one thing over another. Being a follower of Christ puts into perspective how we spend our time no matter where we are. Christ influences us, no matter where we find ourselves.
I was blown away by two men at a volleyball game a few years ago as I (not quite so accidentally) overheard their entire conversation. One of the men was talking about his struggles as he and his wife went through a messy divorce. The friend listened carefully as volleyballs went whizzing by, and a child spilled popcorn in the bleachers.
Just then, in the middle of the game, in the middle of the crowd, in the middle of the community, the friend stopped the red eyed man by grabbing his hand, and saying, "We need to pray." Quietly, yet confidentially he prayed for his friend and his struggles. I watched that evening as a sporting event turned into church, and the social politeness that puts faith in the closet became second priority as Jesus came down into that place through that prayer.
On that day, the cross was not lonely. Christ is still able to lead his followers to take up the cross and put discipleship first.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.