Friday, July 30, 2010


Pentecost 10, Lectionary 18,

TEXTS: Luke 12:13-21

"Who is the Rich Man?"

My father liked the story of the pastor who had one particular church member who was, how can I say it?, a less than "model" Christian.

After a while, the pastor began to put pointed remarks in his sermons, aimed directly at this particular man's faults and failures.

And every Sunday the man would come out of the church with a big smile on his face and he shake the pastor's hand and say, "Boy, Reverend, you sure told'em this morning."

And the pastor grew more and more frustrated until one Sunday in the dead of winter when there was a huge snow storm and only he and the man showed up for church. At first the pastor thought of canceling service but then he realized, "Hey, this morning he'll have to know who I'm talking about."

And so he unloaded, with both barrels, all the accumulated points he had been making about this particular sinner's sins, shortcomings and all-around general sorriness.

And the man came out the door; shook his hand with a big grin and said, "Boy, you sure told'em this morning Preacher. Too bad they weren't here to hear it!"

It is a problem, a spiritual disease, a theological fallacy we all fall victim to on occasion; the failure to recognize ourselves in the mirror of God's Word

For example, our Gospel lesson this morning.

How many of us thought that the words aimed at the rich man were aimed at us?

How many of us think of ourselves as rich?

Not I, and not many of you either, I'm sure. It's hard to think of ourselves as rich in this country right now.

I got my quarterly pension statement this week; I've lost money again, It's still not back to where it was two years ago; and that retirement date is within sight for me now. And I'm making a lot less money than I was two years ago too

Some years ago Economist Robert Heilbroner came up with a little mental exercise to help us see what life is like for one and a half billion people in the world; one and a half BILLION, that's a 1,500 million of God's beloved children living in what the World Bank calls "extreme poverty."

1 - Take all the furniture out of your home, except one table and a couple of chairs. Use a blanket and pads for a bed.

2 - Take away all of clothing except each person's oldest dress, pants, shirt, blouse, and coat. Only one pair of shoes per person.

3 -- Empty the pantry, the refrigerator and the freezer of all food except for a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, and a few potatoes, some onions and some dried beans.

4 - Dismantle the bathroom, shut off the running water, and remove all the electrical wiring in your house.

5 - Take away the house itself and move the family into the tool shed.

6 - Move out of your neighborhood into a ghetto of makeshift buildings and mud streets.

7 - Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and get rid of all your books. This is no great loss, since none of you can read anyway.

8 - Get rid of TVs, cell phones, computers and all other electronic gizmos. Leave one radio for the entire community.

9 - Move the nearest hospital or clinic to a day's walk away. Replace the doctor with a midwife.

10 - Throw away all your bankbooks, stock certificates, pension plans, and insurance policies. Your family has $10 of cash hidden in a coffee can.

11 -Give yourselves a few acres to grow crops on which you earn $500 a year. Pay a third of that in rent and 10% to loan sharks.

12 - Lop 25 years off your life expectancy.
(Robert Heilbroner, The Great Ascent, Chapter 2, numbers updated for inflation by me)

Let's be quiet and think about this for a minute. One and a half BILLION people in the world live like that.

All of us in this room and most of us in this country are the rich people in the world, and it is as rich people that we must listen to Jesus today.

As the text begins, Jesus is out and about, teaching and preaching. Someone in the crowd calls out and asks him to settle a family dispute about inheritance.

Well, actually, he doesn't ask him; he tells Jesus what he wants him to do and what he wants him to say.

"Hey Jesus, Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!"
He wants to use Jesus to give religious credibility to his own greediness.

Jesus refuses to be drawn into this family matter and instead warns the man and the crowd (and us), against the dangers of desire, the menace of materialism:

"One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Then Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man who just keeps on getting richer.

He already has barns, and his barns are already full, and now he has all this other grain. What is he to do with it? He has more than most people, more than he needs. What to do?

Well, he decides to build more barns. He decides to stake his future on the accumulation of more stuff. By tearing down his old barns and cashing in his CDs, he refinances and builds new and bigger barns and now he is set!

NT Professor Wm. Barclay says: For the rich man, it's all about me. Listen to the pronouns in vs. 17-19. (Read) I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, I, my. The Greek for I is ego. Ego, ego, my, ego, ego, my, ego, my, ego, my. (The Daily Study Bible)

The Rich man thinks he's got it made, then God comes to him and says,

‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

The old comedian Jack Benny established a character who was famously tight and cheap. He had a routine where he is held up by a robber demanding, "Your money or your life."

Benny stands there, arms folded, fingers drumming his cheek, for several seconds.

The robber demands, "I said your money or your life; well?

Benny puts his arms out in exasperation, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

Sometimes we are like that. We seem caught between the demands of our money or our life, our eternal life.

Jesus repeatedly told us you can't serve both; but one can serve God through the use of one's money.

Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us. And God's judgment of us will have little to do with what we have and everything to do with what we have done with it.

God has given us what we have, not for ourselves, but for the benefit of the community and for hospitality to strangers.

This is true, whether we are talking about our personal, individual goods, or the goods we hold in common as a congregation, as the church.

In his parable, Jesus reminds us that we shall all die someday; it is not a question of if, only of when and how.

And at the inevitable moment of our death, all of our accumulated possessions will be worthless to us.

As Billy Graham once said, "I have never seen a hearse with a U-Haul behind it."

As a matter of fact, our possessions could be worse than worthless to us.

If the care and maintenance of our stuff has diverted us from the care and maintenance of our souls, the very things we cherish in this life will have been that which has ruined us for eternity.

As Jesus said, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

God has made us a part of the rich people of this world. God has placed in our hands all that we are and all that we have.

And the question for us today is essentially the same one the robber posed to Jack Benny:

"Your money or your life." Your eternal life, your soul life, your life with God.

Another way to put it is this: Will you serve God by serving the poor, or will you serve yourself?

Amen and amen.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

July 25, Pentecost 9, Lectionary 17

July 25, 2010, Pentecost 9, Lectionary 17

(A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Johnson City, TN)

Luke 11:1-13

True story. Heard it on the Paul Harvey radio show a few years ago.

Three year old goes with his mother to the grocery store. As they started in the door, Mom says to son, “Now, you’re not going to get any chocolate chip cookies, so don’t even ask."

She puts him in the child’s seat and off they go up and down the aisles. He's doing just fine until they get to the cookie session. When he saw the familiar packages, he says, “Mom, can I have some chocolate chip cookies?

I told you not to even ask.

They continue up and down the aisles, but, like always, they backtrack looking for a few things and wind up in the cookie aisle again.

Mom, can I have some Chocolate Chip cookies?

Finally, they arrive at the checkout. Junior is an experienced shopper. He knows this is his last chance. He stands up in the seat and shouts.

Everyone in the checkout area stares, then laughs, then applauds. And then, while Mom watches with mouth agape, 23 shoppers go and buy her little boy his Chocolate Chip cookies, 23 boxes of them.

What was it Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given?”

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking with his followers about prayer.

First he teaches them what we call the LORD’S PRAYER.

Then he tells them a weird story about bothering your neighbors in the middle of the night.

He finishes up by urging them to keep at it with prayer; to search, to knock, to ask!

As the story begins, Jesus has been praying while the disciples wait for him. When he has finished, they ask him to teach them to pray.

They have noticed that John the Baptist has taught his disciples to pray, and they want Jesus to get with the program and to teach them this secret knowledge as well. And so he does. But the prayer he taught them is probably not exactly what they had in mind.

Of course, it is impossible for us to get inside their heads and know for sure, but they probably wanted to learn the secrets to POWERFUL prayer, the kind of prayer that changes things, fixes things, gets you things you want, like Chocolate Chip Cookies.

But instead of getting a prayer that changes things OUT THERE, in the external world which they hoped to control with God’s help;

Jesus teaches them a prayer that changes things IN HERE, inside our hearts and minds and souls.

Martin Luther once said that to be a SINNER is to be BENT, to be CROOKED, to be TWISTED in upon ourselves.

The root of sinfulness begins in selfishness; in looking at the world as a place to get MY needs met, MY life straightened out, MY career, MY enjoyment, MY fulfillment, MY future, MY happiness.

But the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray is not MY prayer, it is OUR prayer, directed to OUR father, and it is not a prayer aimed at getting what I want.

Instead, it is designed to turn us away from our wants toward what GOD wants.

It is in praying this prayer that we become the people God made us to be, wants us to be in Jesus Christ.

The Lord’s Prayer is a powerful prayer, and it’s power lies in its ability to mold us into a Christlike shape.

As we pray and meditate upon this prayer throughout our lives, we discover that it constantly pulls us away from our focus upon ourselves and then bends us in a new direction; in the direction of loving God and serving others.

Having taught his disciples a basic prayer, Jesus drives home its lesson with the story about the grouchy neighbor and the noisy friend.

Remember; a parable does not operate on a one-to-one, this represents that, basis.

The neighbor is not God and beating on doors in the middle of the night is not prayer.

Jesus’ point is to be persistent in prayer; you’re not afraid of your friends, don’t be afraid of God. Ask for what you want.

Remember, Jesus didn’t say anything about going to a stranger in the middle of the night to ask for food.

He said to go to a neighbor, a friend, someone with whom you have a relationship; someone you know and who knows you!

The point of prayer is to talk with God, to be in relationship with God, to move your heart and mind and soul into cooperation with God in loving and serving the world.

The Rev. Leslie Weatherhead was a famous British Methodist preacher of about 50 years ago. He used to tell the story of his neighbor’s children, Tommy and Suzy.

They lived in the English countryside, and Tommy loved to trap rabbits. Suzy was very unhappy about this and every day begged her big brother to stop being so cruel to the rabbits, but Tommy laughed her off and continued to run proudly into the kitchen with his trapped and skinned rabbits held high.

One night, their mother heard Suzy praying:Dear God, please stop Tommy from trapping rabbits. Please don’t let them get trapped. They can’t They Won’t! Amen.

Mom was a little worried about this prayer. She was afraid her little girl would be disappointed when God didn’t stop Tommy’s traps from working. She was afraid of her daughter losing faith because of unanswered prayer. She said to Suzy,How can you be so sure that God won’t let the rabbits be trapped?


Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that we should pray so often, and so regularly, and so persistently that we become as familiar with God as we are our neighbors and friends.

And it is within that relationship and familiarity that God changes our lives, unbends us from selfishness and evil and turns us in the direction of love and goodness.

And as a result of having our lives changed by God, we find ourselves empowered to change the world.

We embrace Christ as the way of salvation for ourselves and discover that we have become a part of the way of salvation for those around us.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pentecost 7, July 11, 2020

(A sermon preached at Christus Victor Lutheran Church Ocean Springs, Mississippi)
Luke 10:25-37

A few years ago I heard Pastor Jack Hayford of the Church of the Way in Van Nuys CA tell a story about his grandson Kyle. At the time Kyle was 9 years old.

Kyle had recently lost a baby tooth. In the Hayford household, the tooth fairy pays a dollar per tooth.

That night, when the Tooth Fairy reached under Kyle’s pillow to recover the tooth and leave a dollar, he found not the tooth but a note from Kyle. The note read:

Dear Tooth Fairy,
I am holding my tooth for ransom.
The fee will be $20. I am doing this for three reasons:
1) I have had this tooth longer than any other and I am very fond of it.
2) It is bigger than the other teeth.
3) It has silver in it.
Signed Kyle

In the morning Kyle found underneath his pillow, not a $20 bill, but this note:

Dear Kyle, Enjoy your tooth. Signed, The Tooth Fairy.

I thought of this story when I read verse 29 in our Gospel Lesson, "but wanting to justify himself, he (the lawyer) . . ."

Since my son is beginning his first year at UNC law School in about a month, I'll go easier on the lawyer than I usually do when this text comes up and admit that self-justification is not a technique unique to lawyers, we all do it, don't we?

We twist and turn and reason and opine and try to find a way to make what we want to be the truth look for all the world like the truth. We seek, over and over again, with each other and with God, to justify ourselves.

We treat the almighty like some Supreme Tooth Fairy in the sky and then we attempt to convince this Supreme Tooth Fairy that we deserve whatever good treatment we are asking for.

And the Gospel is none of it works and none of it is necessary. God loves us just the way we are. God also loves us too much to let us stay that way. And God wants to use each of us as Divine agents of Holy Love, reaching out to the world with open hands and generous spirits. That is the Gospel; which does not include either service area limitations or a negotiation of terms.

In our Gospel the lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?"

What he wanted to know was, "What are the legal and ethical limits on my charity? Who does God expect me to help when I see them in trouble?"

But Jesus turns the lawyer's question upside down with the story of the Good Samaritan.

Instead of who am I required to help? Jesus answers with a story that says, "God's help and love for you will come from unexpected, and often unwelcome, sources."

I think we all get the fact that Jesus' first Century Jewish listeners would have expected the Priest and the Levite, (or the Pastor and the Deacon in modern church terms), to help the man in the ditch and were disappointed when they didn't.

What I am afraid we often don't grasp is what a shock it was for the rescuer to turn out to be a Samaritan. This story has made the word Samaritan into symbol of selfless generosity and care for the stranger. We have Samaritan hospitals, and if you travel the roads as much as I do, you will often see stickers on RV's proclaiming the driver to be a member of "The Good Sam Club," pledged to help other travelers on their journeys.

But to Jesus' listeners, a Samaritan was none of these things. He was a hated enemy, an apostate, a heretic, a foul worshiper of the wrong God, an unclean person. When Jesus introduces him to the story you should think "Snidely Whiplash," with long mustache, top hat and cape, the stereotypical villain whom the crowd boos and hisses when he comes on stage. That's how they felt about Samaritans. And this hated, evil, despised person is the hero of Jesus' story.

Instead of telling the Lawyer whom he had to help, Jesus shook things up by telling him that his true neighbor, the one who would help him, could be the person he least expected it from.

When the lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was, he was trying to define, to negotiate, the limits of his own love toward others.

Jesus turned this backwards by establishing a love ethic that has no limits, and that does not play by our rules of who's in and who's out.

This story goes beyond our relationships with each other, beyond who we are to help and from whom we can expect help. It moves past all that into our relationship with God.

The man in the ditch had acted foolishly by traveling alone on a dangerous road. He did not deserve help.

If he could have chosen his helper, he would have chosen either the priest or the Levite, people who had a duty to help him.

But no, he was helped by a Samaritan, who helped him willingly, freely, graciously, lovingly, without judgment or any expectation of pay back.

We, you and I, we are the person in the ditch, and God is the Good Samaritan.

About 20 years ago the New York Times ran a story about a man who went to Times Square with two $60 tickets for the play "The Real Thing."

His wife was sick and he couldn't go so he stood outside the box office trying to give them away to people in line to buy tickets. No takers.

After a warm cup of coffee and some meditation, he came back, offered them for $100 apiece and sold them immediately.

We are like that with God. Deep down, most of us don't want God's hand-out of love, we don't want God's generous offer. We want to deserve it, we want to earn it, but the truth is, we can't. We really can't. We are the one in the ditch. We are the wounded and foolish one, the one helpless and in need of help and healing.

The question, "Who is my neighbor?" is really the second question the Lawyer posed in this lesson. The first was, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus responded by pointing him to the Scriptures and the man gave the right answer, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself."

And Jesus said, "That's right, you got it."

And right here is where the lawyer fell in the ditch.

See, he didn't blink an eye at the monumental idea of devoting his entire existence to loving God. Isn't that what "all your heart, soul, strength and mind," implies; total and complete commitment.

If you give all that over to God, there isn't much room left for TV or baseball of gardening or dating or whatever. But, apparently, the lawyer was okay with that demand. My all; for God!

It's the neighbor business that bothers the lawyer. Perhaps this is because it is easier to get caught not loving your neighbor than it is to get caught not loving God.

It's pretty obvious to everyone if you fail to feed the hungry or clothe the naked; but who's going to notice if you don't pray or read your Bible enough?

The man is guilty of the companion sins of pride and ingratitude. He believes he is capable of pleasing God through his own actions and he is therefore not grateful to God for God's love and grace.

He does not admit either his own need or God's action to save, and so he has the audacity to raise the question, "About whom am I required to care?"

The Gospel is; if you get part one: God has loved me so much and so freely that all I can do is love him in return,

Then part two: the way to show my love to God is to love everybody else the way God has loved me; comes naturally. So, what is the answer to the question:

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Simple: Swallow your pride and realize: God has already given eternal life to you.

Our calling today is to live in that love, to reach out to others with that love, to be that love in the world for the sake of Jesus the Christ who gave himself for us.

Amen and amen.