Apocalypse, Now

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Luke 16:19-31

I love dystopian and apocalyptic stories. The Hunger Games, 1984, The Matrix, The Day After Tomorrow, and countless others. They don’t necessarily predict the future; in fact, their purpose is to prevent that kind of future from happening. They serve as warnings, calling us to pay attention to something we might otherwise be ignoring. They warn us to change our ways before it’s too late.

This week I woke up to an incredible headline from Time: “China’s Falling Space Station is Not Going to Hit You on the Head. Unless It Does.” (1)

The basic gist is that, having completed its mission, the Chinese space station is going to fall back to earth within a year or so, and scientists don’t actually know where it’s going to land. It’s  not the first space station to make an uncontrolled fall to earth; both Russia and the United States have also had spacecraft fall uncontrolled to Earth. Years ago, I read a similar article called “Space Junk Keeps Falling on My Head,” which also made me concerned about the “stuff” that we’re putting into the atmosphere that eventually must make reentry.

As my mother says, “Well, I’ll just add that to my list of things to worry about.” Sometimes the things that you forget about can become potentially dangerous.

This is part of what movies and literature — especially of the dystopian kind — help us. They remind us to pay attention.

In reading this news, I thought of the Disney film, Wall-E, that came out a few years ago. In it, the whole human race had evacuated to a space station because our whole planet and the surrounding space had become so polluted with junk and garbage that we had to leave Earth. Humans live on this space station, overweight and addicted to their screens. They don’t even walk around anymore, but are carted around on little hovercraft. Left behind on Earth is a little robot, named Wall-E, whose task is to collect and condense the massive amounts of trash that cover the earth’s surface. Humans hope someday to return to Earth, but at least at the beginning, it doesn’t look hopeful.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but the point of the movie is to warn us of the danger of things we might not otherwise notice — namely, how we’re becoming preoccupied with screens and how we’re covering the earth, and even the space around us, with trash that we’ve got no real plans of dealing with.

You know, like the free-falling Chinese space station. And movies like Wall-E call us to wake up and pay attention.

And as for this parable today? Well, there’s a lot here.

Heaven and hell. Privilege and money. Building walls between us and then and being unable to cross the divide. My pastor friend Kathleen described it as A Christmas Carol: Bible Edition. It’s a warning.

There’s a rich man who’s enjoying life. At his gate there’s another man whose name is Lazarus. The rich man has built a wall around his home, as was customary, to protect his things and his wealth. And Lazarus lay at his gate day after day, longing, Jesus says, to satisfy his incredible hunger with even the rich man’s scraps.

And then the story turns. They both die. Jesus tells us simply that the rich man “died and was buried,” while Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels. Everything good that he couldn’t enjoy in life, God gives him in death.

But that’s not the end of the story.

There was a wall between them in life, and in death, there’s a great chasm between them. Only now it’s the rich man who suffers outside.

The rich man lies in torment while Lazarus is loved and comforted by father Abraham. And the rich man looks up and sees Lazarus by Abraham’s side. And here’s what’s crazy to me that I never noticed until this week: the rich man still wants Lazarus to serve him. He wants Lazarus to dip his finger and quench his thirst, then he wants Lazarus to go and warn his siblings of the coming danger.  The rich man is convinced that if Lazarus returns from the dead, his siblings will be able to avoid this torment, but the ironic thing is that the rich man still doesn’t understand.

And the story ends ominously, with Abraham telling the rich man: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31).

What people seem most obsessed with in passages like this is the idea of heaven and hell. And it’s understandable, as humans, to be concerned with what happens when we die, especially as we all grow older.

But a beloved professor of mine said something years ago that has stuck with me. She was tasked with doing a talk on “New Testament Visions of Heaven” and confessed right at the beginning that she was somewhat at a loss to begin, because the New Testament is not nearly as concerned with where we go when we die as it is with how we treat one another here and now. Even the depictions we have of heaven and hell we have in the New Testament, she suggested, were aimed at changing our behavior now. (3)

It’s not unlike apocalyptic and dystopian literature. It’s not necessarily describing the future. In fact, it’s trying to get us to avoid a future like that. It’s trying to get us to pay attention to something now.

So where do we find ourselves in this story?

Are we the rich man, walking by those in need? Are we Lazarus, ignored by the world but loved by God? Or are we the rich man’s five siblings (the Greek for “brothers,” when it’s plural, can describe both brothers and sisters, like in Spanish)?

Yes.

Some of us are the rich man and his siblings. We put up barriers, physical and emotional, between us and those who have less privilege than us — those who are different than us. We don’t see other people. We ignore and discount their perspectives just so that we stay safe and comfortable, living unproblematic lives in a society that benefits us. We stay safe in our financial security, in our whiteness, in our ivory towers of education, and in countless, countless other ways. We ignore the cries of the needy and the oppressed, daily, and we put up barriers and stick our fingers in our ears while they suffer.

Jesus warns is that that isn’t sustainable. He calls us with this apocalyptic parable to open our eyes and see things as God sees them. To see others as fully human. And to see ourselves as fully human.

Because in our own ways, most of us are also Lazarus, kept outside the walls. We don’t have a lot of political power, or money, or status. We may find ourselves ignored, talked over, or bullied, because we are women, because we are young, because we are old, because we don’t have a lot of money, because we are working class. And Jesus has good news for us: we are loved and called by name, not by the world’s standards of class and privilege, but by the God who created everything we see.

Over the past few months, and long before that, it’s often felt to me like the world is on fire. War, terrorism, racism, problems at home and overseas. It feels like we’re living in one of those dystopian movies. It can lead us all to feel helpless and fearful.

But we have a choice, and we have a God who has promised to be with us “to the end of the age,” which I believe covers whatever apocalypse comes and beyond. This God has called us not to be safe, to see those we might otherwise walk by, to take down our walls and live open to the world’s pain because for a resurrection people, even death is not the end of the story.

As our hymn of the day says, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home.”

There’s no getting around it. Following Jesus is highly unsafe and ultimately leads to death. But death, in Christ, leads to new life. That is the crazy, unsafe, ultimately secure hope of life with Jesus.

And so, let us walk forward with confidence. Let us dare ourselves to see those outside our gates. Let us pay attention and live openly and freely and without fear, knowing that we are each called by name.

The Talmud, the central text of rabbinic Judaism, puts it this way, reflecting the words from Micah that are now, thanks to Barb and Dave, in our narthex:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work,

neither are you free to abandon it.” (4)

So do not be distracted by promises of heaven and terror of hell. Let us not be daunted by the grief that we see around us or the weight that we feel inside or even the threat of space junk falling on our heads someday.

Let us see, now. Let us love, now. And let us be loved, now.

And let us pray and come to the Lord’s table together, now, that we may be the body of Christ for the world, today. Amen.

(1) Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, 22 September 2016, http://time.com/4504892/tiangong-china-space-station/.
(2) Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, 10 October 2011, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2096210,00.html.
(3) Gail R. O’Day, lecture, “New Testament Visions of Heaven,” Holy Trinity Parish, Decatur, GA, 2010.
(4) Shapiro, Wisdom of the Sages, 41. Paraphrase of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s interpretive translation of Rabbi Tarfon’s work on the Pirke Avot 2:20. The text is a commentary on Michah 6:8.

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It’s What You Do

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-2-19-58-pmLuke 16:1-13

There’s a Geico commercial series that I’ve been absolutely loving lately.

Like the one that’s been airing recently where a ship has been taken over by pirates. The captain, with a parrot on his shoulder, and his crew back the captain of the ship that they have taken over towards a wall.

“Let’s feed him to the sharks!” the captain croons as the crew nods in agreement.

“Braaack! Let’s feed him to the sharks!” the captain’s parrot echoes.

“And take all of his gold!” the captain continues, to the crew’s approval.

“Braack! And take all of his gold!” the parrot echoes.
“Braack! And hide it from the crew!” the parrot continues. The crew turns on the captain, and he begins to look uncomfortable.

“Braaack! They’re all morons anyway!” the crew then angrily begins to surround the captain.

“Braaack! And they smell bad too!” 

The captain then tries to get out of this tough spot by saying, “No! I smell bad!” 

The Geico voiceover helpfully supplies, “If you’re a parrot, you repeat things. It’s what you do.”

The whole commercial series is about identity — sometimes, we do things because of who or what we are.

And if you’re the Son of God, you tell mysterious and sometimes confusing parables.

It’s what you do.

This parable we read together confounds even the best interpreters. What you have is Jesus praising a guy who might have been a little dishonest — or was he?

What you’ve got is a manager of a rich man’s wealth who’s accused, at the very beginning of the parable, of “squandering his master’s property.” I think it’s important that we be clear about this: he’s not accused of stealing, exactly. He’s accused of being wasteful and irresponsible. And so, knowing that he’s probably about to be canned, he sits down with the folks that owe his master money and he negotiates with each of them to lower their debts. This way, his master gets paid back at least something, and the manager makes a few friends in business for the future. And Jesus praises him for being smart and creative.
So let’s talk seriously since we’re in an election year: did this guy turn in his tax records?

On the first read, this parable is really confusing, but of course, it’s one of Jesus’s parables. If you’re Jesus, after all, you tell confusing parables. It’s what you do.

The parable is confusing because it seems like this guy is being really dishonest. He’s negotiating with the folks that owe his master money so that they end up paying the master less than they actually owe.

Jesus tells the story like this: “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’”

And this happens another time, and we half expect when the property owner comes on the scene that he’ll have his manager thrown in jail, but he doesn’t. As Jesus puts it, “…his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

`Wait, WHAT?

The dishonest guy gets commended?

If you’re Jesus, you commend the sinners. It’s what you… do?

In our clergy group this week as we discussed this text, one of the pastors who worked in sales for many years suggested that it’s possible, even probable, that the manager gets commended because usually, what something is sold for is actually pretty far over retail, and so maybe what the manager is doing is just getting back the bare minimum that is owed to his master, which of course is far preferable to the master getting nothing.

But I think that the point is this: the manager wasn’t effective. He was accused of squandering property, which, as anyone who’s ever undergone a review knows, might have been true, or it might not have been. But the point is that the manager finds himself up a creek.

And he has two choices. He can cut his losses, go somewhere else, and start again, or he can get creative, forge new relationships, and find a way to springboard himself into the next thing, which I believe is what he does.

And now you’re about to hear me get about as frank about the state of Christianity in America as I’ve ever gotten in a sermon. But I love you and I trust you and I hope that you trust me enough to hear this.

Everywhere, you can hear the funeral dirge of the Church in America. People are ready to bury us. Heck, some days, I am too. I get tired of not seeing my peers in church in the numbers that they were when previous generations were young. And I get so exhausted by the weight of the institution and my worries about how long that institution could viably last.

In short, the Church in the United States of America, like the manager, has found itself up a creek. We’re seen as closed minded and judgmental and rigid and we’ve done a terrible job at public relations, and that has largely contributed to my generation wanting nothing to do with it. And that actually makes me weep on a lot more nights than I want to tell you about.

We’re up a creek, and we, as the universal Church, are being accused of squandering what’s been passed down to us by previous generations. We haven’t kept up with the times. We’ve poured time and resources into things that, for one reason or another, just haven’t panned out.

And who knows whose fault it is. Some of us are pouring untold time and resources into trying to turn this ship around while others can find little to do but complain. And there are some really understandable reasons that we shouldn’t panic: for one thing, we’re just not having as many children as we used to, and we’re busier than ever, which was going to eventually result in a drop in numbers, and that’s really no one’s fault.

But whether it’s you, me, or no one to blame, here we are, and it’s hard to deny that we’re in a bit of a bind. We’re not unlike the dishonest manager — accused of all sorts of things with this sense of impending doom, that things can’t continue the way they’ve been going.

And so, like him, we have a couple of choices.

We can cut our losses, give up, and get out. Each of us has this choice. We can decide that this is no longer worth our time and give up on it, or.

Or we can do what the manager does and we can get wicked creative. We can sit down with people that we’ve previously been dealing with and find new ways of doing things. We can forge new relationships for the future so that no matter what happens, there will be a way forward for us. Because if I didn’t believe there was a way forward, I wouldn’t be standing here.

We’re dealing with a lot right now. We’re dealing with a lot within our community, from anxiety about the future to some of our beloved people being sick or otherwise not well. We worry about ourselves and we worry about each other and what we’ve got to keep confidence in is the fact that each and every one of us is honestly doing the best that we know how.

We’re also dealing with a lot individually. I know how hard each of you tries to commit yourselves to this church, and I see how much love you show each other, and it inspires me to be a better human being.

And so I think that there’s more for us here than the familiar line of “You cannot serve both God and money.” Most of us know that pretty well, and I see how well you know it by how generous you are with not only your money but with your time and with your love.

Things around here may be hard, but I want you to know how much you inspire me. I don’t tell you individually enough. But you give and you do so much for a small church, and you love one another and you get creative and you find ways of doing the impossible all the time. While some churches collapse into fear over keeping their doors open, you continue to get creative, forge new relationships, and find God in new ways and in new places.

Because when you’re a part of the Church of Jesus Christ, you don’t fear death because you know that resurrection is not just a theoretical concept but a promise.  And that makes us not only creative, it makes us brave.

When you’re Our Savior’s people, you keep sticking your neck out and getting creative and trusting in God’s promise and loving one another. And because God keeps showing up, you keep showing up too.

It’s what you do. Amen. 

On Feeling a Little Lost… In Space or Otherwise

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(Streaming on Netflix)

Luke 15:1-10

I had a habit while I was serving as a hospital chaplain serving overnight shifts that I’ve recently rediscovered: watching space documentaries as I’m falling asleep. When I was a chaplain, the space documentaries helped calm my nerves about what may lie ahead in the night by showing me the vastness of the universe. For some reason, reminding me of just how huge the universe is an even better way to get me to sleep than reading constitutional church law (my other cure for insomnia).

Lately, I’ve been watching another one: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos on Netflix. He begins by talking about how long the universe has existed. Save for some religious groups with some strict interpretations of ancient Scriptures, most folks agree that the universe is really, really, really old — some 13.8 billion years old. Now, I know that some folks have different views on science, but personally, I must say that I love science, and to me, it just helps underscore the vastness, wonder, creativity, and sheer incomprehensibility of what and whom we call God, and I think that any of us who believe that “nothing is impossible with God” should have no problem signing off on good science.

As one of my United Methodist colleagues in Alabama, the Reverend Doctor Wesley Wachob once said at our assembly, in his deep Southern drawl, “My friends, good theology sings hallelujah when it hears good science!”

Still, it’s natural to be a little fearful of what we don’t understand, especially when it tells us how big the universe is, or how long it’s been here. It can leave us feeling kind of, well, small and lost.

In Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson lays out the history of the universe as if it were a calendar year. In this analogy, January 1 is the beginning of the universe, and 11:59PM on December 31 represents the present, with all the other dates worked out proportionally over 14 billion years. On this particular scale, each month represents about a billion years. In this scenario, the earth wasn’t even formed until September, and on November 9th, life appeared on earth, and as for any recorded human history? Everyone you’ve ever heard of existed only within the last ten seconds before midnight on December 31.

So if the universe is a calendar year, recorded history exists only within the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve.

What this tells me theologically is that God has been creating for a long, long time. And so, relative to the universe, not to mention God’s own existence, I am tiny, minuscule, a blip in history. One might even say that when I consider all this, it makes me feel — a bit lost.

Of course, you don’t have to have a science-induced existential crisis to feel lost.

Just the other day while running at Dufresne Park in Granby, I was sure I had made my way back to the park from the trails when I rounded a corner and coasted down a hill, only to hear a very large animal huff, stand to its feet, and move away quickly. I thought I’d found the park again, but what I’d really found was a cattle farm.

We get lost all kinds of ways, literally and figuratively: we make a wrong turn. We don’t look at the trail map. We become distracted and lose sight of what’s important. We get addicted to something or become codependent on someone. Our getting lost may result in serious consequences, or it may be a little sneakier — it may just be our losing any sense of purpose in our day to day lives, feeling like our dreams have been left behind, or just generally feeling stagnant. We begin to feel small. Insignificant. Lost.

The images of the parables that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson — especially the one about the lost sheep — are so familiar that we can easily lose their meaning. Paintings of Jesus with the lamb across his shoulders are among some of the most popular. “Leaving the ninety-nine to go and find the one,” for those of us who grew up in church, has been a phrase we’ve been hearing since childhood. This week, I found articles upon articles using the image as a metaphor for addiction recovery, for pastoring, for parenting. The second image Jesus uses today is a little less familiar: the woman who has ten coins and loses one, and COMPLETELY FREAKS OUT, turning the house upside down, until she’s found her lost coin.

These seem pretty straightforward: we get lost, and Jesus finds us.

I could end the sermon right there, but I don’t think that would be helpful to most of you. There’s more here, and we all know that getting lost is often really not as simple as the caveman-esque theology of “we lose, Jesus find.”

The whole episode begins with Jesus chatting with some of the biggest sinners of his day — some of the most outcast, hated people he could find. You know the pharmaceutical CEOs who have come under fire recently for upping their prices for no reason? You now how hated they were for price gouging? That’s about how hated the tax collectors were: they were fellow citizens of the Jewish people who willingly worked for Rome, the oppressive occupying force of Israel, collecting taxes. If that wasn’t bad enough, they were known for overcharging their fellow citizens, ripping them off, and skimming the excess off the top for themselves.

Tax collectors weren’t just your run of the mill “sinners” who maybe got caught in the wrong bed or got caught stealing once or twice. They were known as corrupt, terrible people. They were hated. And that’s who Jesus was hanging out with.

And so, understandably, the Pharisees, the religious folks, have some questions about that. But Luke draws our attention to something: the sinners and tax collectors, he said, were drawing near to Jesus, while the Pharisees, the good church folks of their day, were grumbling about Jesus keeping the wrong company.

Makes me wonder upon re-reading who was actually the most lost in this scenario: the sinners who drew near, or the righteous people who spewed self-righteous negativity?

Either way, Jesus tells three stories, two of which we have here: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and after this, the prodigal son. There are three different lost things here, and fault is assigned to no one: the sheep may have wandered away, but the coin certainly didn’t lose itself, while the prodigal son walked away willingly and willfully from his father.

In the same way, sometimes we find ourselves lost by our own willfulness and wrong choices, like the prodigal son. Other times, we find ourselves lost by circumstances almost or entirely out of our own control, like the coin. Still other times, we find ourselves lost or in a jam with absolutely NO idea how we got there.

And the results are similar too: sometimes we find our own way back to our purpose like the prodigal son. Still other times, like the sheep and the coin, the Holy Spirit grabs us by the scruff of the neck and carries our sorry tails back to camp.

We are each lost and found, over and over again. Lost and found, sinner and saint.

The strange thing about these two stories in particular — the sheep and the coin — is that both of the heroes of the stories (the shepherd and the woman) would have to have been pretty wealthy. To have ten coins, or especially to have one hundred sheep, one would need to be a person of means. And being a person of means sometimes means that you don’t notice when something goes missing: I doubt the woman sat around counting her coins all day, and yet, she notices when one is missing. In the same way, a shepherd may not notice one sheep going missing, and quite frankly, ten out of ten shepherds agree that leaving the whole flock to go after the one little lost lamb is probably not a good business decision. But the shepherd does it anyway, and calls his whole community to rejoice when he finds the sheep.

Part of our fear and insecurity in being lost is not feeling like we are worthwhile. If the universe is vast, and if God created it all, logic says that God probably doesn’t care much for a tiny speck in time like myself, one that will not last even one second on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s calendar of the universe. I am even smaller and more insignificant than one in a hundred sheep.

And yet, the Gospel tells the completely illogical story that each person, each lost sheep, is significant to God. And that each of us, tiny though we are in the grand scheme of the universe, are, somehow, significant to the God who created it all, and that when we find ourselves lost and then found, that vast, immeasurable God actually rejoices with us.

When we leave this place, we, a small church, will go into the world to do work that may, on the grand scheme of things, seem sort of small too. We do so on the fifteen year anniversary of September 11, 2001, a day that rendered us all small in the grand scheme of international politics, religion, and terror. But what we discovered on that day is that the smallest acts of kindness meant everything, and that individuals —- in fire and rescue, law enforcement, and the military — working together could do so much, and that really, though we may be small on the grand scale of it all, we were not insignificant. We all had, and have, a role to play.

And so let us first gather at this table where the vast, incomprehensible God of the universe searches and seeks and finds us all, because we each have a role to play in God’s vast universe. You have people to love, and work to do, not in order to be loved by God, but because you are loved by God, and whether you are lost or not, you are sought, and you are held, and ultimately, over and over until the end of time, we will be thrown over God’s shoulder and carried home. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Maybe He Wasn’t Kidding

Luke 14:25-33

When I was in Alabama this week visiting my parents, I heard a few political commercials, more than one of which referred to “family values.” Now, I don’t know how you feel about the phrase yourself, but I assure you, none of those commercials used this particular quote from Jesus.

Hate your mother and father and wife and children? What?

That’s not family anything, Jesus.

One of the criticisms of the lectionary, our prescribed text for every week, is that it doesn’t deal with the most difficult texts in the Bible.

This is definitely an exception. It’s a hard text.

When faced with these hard words from Jesus, we have two choices: we can posit that maybe Jesus didn’t actually mean hate, or we can assume that he did. Now, the Bible study group last week was curious about the word that gets translated “hate,” so we looked it up, hoping for something other than, well, “hate.” No luck. The Greek is, actually, the word for “detest” and “hate,” and I don’t detect any sarcasm from Jesus here. I don’t think he was kidding.

So — one must hate one’s whole family to be a disciple?

Given this text, it would seem that moody teenagers are the world’s best disciples.

This text gets our hackles up and offends us, because what good person could possibly hate their family members? Looking after one’s family, whether you’re blessed with a blood family or whether you have chosen family, is a high value in our world. Looking after your family is just what’s done.

And look after them we do. Those of you with children: if anything got in the way of you taking care of your kids, or if God forbid anything threatened to hurt your kids, you’d resent — even hate — it for all it’s worth. If someone tried to convince you not to take care of your children, or if a flat tire kept you from picking them up on time, I’ll wager that you’d feel some hot anger and maybe even hatred at whatever was keeping you away from your kids. A parent’s protective love is special, but to some extent, we all feel it. Nothing gets in the way of us caring for our own.

I feel the same way about those that I love. Whether it’s a person or an institution or an inconvenience, I absolutely detest anything that keeps me from caring for the ones I love.

And by the same token, I would do absolutely anything to take care of them — move heaven and earth to save them from pain.

See — I think Jesus is trying to tell us something about the stakes of what we’re talking about here. You know how much you love your family? You know how you sometimes need to take care of them more than you need to eat or sleep, how you’ll sacrifice anything? Yeah.

If you can possibly imagine it, this kingdom of God thing is even bigger, even more all-consuming than that love.

I drove over to Parker’s to get my dog Diego last night. Since she lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, I drove over the Berkshires. Being a history person, I couldn’t help thinking of how during the Revolution, our forefathers in winter dragged stolen British canons across the frozen Hudson River and over the snowy Berkshires to Boston to help win our independence.

Man, I thought to myself. I don’t even like to get up to find the remote control.

I started to wonder if people back then weren’t just more committed to things than they are now. Are we really capable of this all-consuming commitment that Jesus is talking about, with greater pull even than family ties? Maybe we’re just not these days, I thought.

But then I thought about people I know. I thought about teachers, some of whom are in our own congregation, who get up early and stay up late and work hard to make an impact on the lives of young people. Of doctors and nurses and other medical staff who work long hours taking care of all of us when we’re sick or hurt. I thought of the nurses that I knew when I worked at the hospital who would drag themselves into our hospital chapel after a 12 hour shift to pray for their patients or just to sit and enjoy the quiet after all of the chaos. Or sometimes both.

I know people who are so committed to caring for others, giving of themselves for years, that they make dragging cannons over the Berkshires look like a game of four square.

It’s been through my years in the church that I’ve really learned what it means to give your whole self to something. Not only because I love what I do, but because I have the privilege of watching you all do what you do. And I don’t just mean your jobs — I mean everything that God has called you to do. Some of you care for others for a living. Others care for your parents, your children, your siblings, your neighbors. And today, in celebration of Labor Day, we’ll bless the tools of your vocations and we’ll bless your hands as they care for others out in the world.

But none of us can be committed all the time. The truth is that it’s practically impossible, save for a few unique humans, for anyone to be so committed to the Gospel that they actually hate their families rather than let them get in the way.

The truth is that I’m like lightning. I have brilliant flashes of being selfless and fully committed to finding ways of carrying Good News to all people, to showing love to everyone I meet. Sure, there are times when I feel like I’m right where I belong and I can stay up all night and God help anything that gets in the way.

And then it’s gone.

It’s gone and I’m back to my usual kind of selfish ways. Back to being consumed by the day to day — to taking care of only myself and those I love, doing my job, and going home.

And y’all know that it isn’t just me and it’s not just you it’s not just us. We’ve got this problem as a society, too. When a tragedy happens, we move mountains for people we’ve never even met to show love and care, to do good to each other. But then, time passes. Things wear on. We go back to our normal ways of just looking after ourselves and our own.

I’m reading this great book right now called Underground Airlines by author Ben Winters. The story is a good one. It’s set in the United States in today’s society, but it has one very significant twist: the Civil War never happened and slavery is still a reality in four states. And so, instead of the Underground Railroad, it’s the Underground Airlines that liberates and moves former slaves to permanent freedom in Canada. The main character and narrator is a former slave, now free man, whose life in freedom is a complicated one.

He remarks of the world he lives in: 

“Sometimes it’s possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger’s sentence, a green, impossible vision — the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.” (1)

I hear that. Sounds like our world, too. We’re always so close, but so far.

One of my home pastors, Beverly, interprets the “faith like a mustard seed” passage as Jesus being a little big sarcastic — as if Jesus were saying, “You could move mountains if you only had faith like a mustard seed — but you don’t.”

And so Jesus gives his very self to move the mountain of our own self-obsession, of our own salvation, for us.

We could be disciples if we were willing to leave everything and give our whole selves to the Gospel. But we can’t.

The reason that I love being a Lutheran is the concept of Law and Gospel. Law says that we couldn’t ever actually have this kind of commitment.

Gospel says that it’s okay — Jesus gave all of himself instead.

Try as we may, we’re too small for the challenge of discipleship. And so God has to show us how it’s done. Jesus gives his whole self to us — in his life, in his teaching about how we should treat each other, and ultimately, on the cross.

This message that he had was worth his life. 

And every Sunday at this table, while we are all gathered here, he gives his whole self to us in bread and wine, so that just maybe, inspired by his love, we might be inspired to give more glimpses of that world as it’s meant to be, that world that surrounds the world as it is like a mist.

So when Jesus says “hate,” I really do think he meant it. He’s telling us just how high the stakes are. He’s telling us that the cost of this Gospel thing, this kingdom of God thing, this justice for all people thing, is high.

And we can’t do it. So he did.

So he does it for us so that just maybe, little by little, we see glimpses of it in ourselves.

Our Old Testament reading talks about Israel having a choice between life and death.

Over and over, humanity chooses death. We choose to hate each other. We choose to ignore the needy. We choose to not defend the vulnerable. We choose to look out only for ourselves and our own, sometimes even when it means effectively choosing death for others.

War. Crime. Violence. Indifference.

And so God gives God’s own life for us. So that the state of the world does not determine how things will always be. So that there is hope that someday even the death we see in the world today will be swallowed up in victory. And that crazy, far out hope is ours. We didn’t earn it and sometimes I find it hard to believe myself, but it’s done.

And through that, we can see another way.

So let’s gather and bless our hands as we go into the world. Because Martin Luther believed that it wasn’t just clergy who had a call from God — it was everyone. Just as you are mine to care for as pastor, there are people that you are called to love and care for. And so today we gather to bless each other’s ministries in the world, so that through us, the world may be a better place.

Let us bless the hands that go into the world in peace in Christ’s name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Ben Winters, Underground Airlines. New York: Mullholland Books, 2016, p. 158.
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