Sunday, October 27, 2013

Close to the Ground

Luke 18:9-14
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
October 27, 2013
William G. Carter

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

I need to warn you that this story comes only from the Gospel of Luke. Luke is fond of saying, "Everything is going to be turned upside down."

Today’s story sounds kind of like this:

"Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a good person.  The other was bad. The good person came away bad.  The bad person came away good."

Everything gets turned upside down. You can't turn the pages of the Gospel of Luke without hearing a story like this one. Sometimes it shows up when Jesus gives a one-liner: "The first shall be last; the last shall be first." Sometimes it shows up in two one-liners, back-to-back: "Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh."  (6:21b) "Woe to you who laugh, for you will weep and mourn."  (6:25b)
Can you hear the flip-flop pattern?

Sometimes it happens in a story, like the one we heard a few weeks ago. Jesus said,   "Once there were two people -- one was rich, the other was poor. The rich person died and went down to torment. The poor person died and went up to Abraham's bosom" (16:19-31). That's all we know about them:  one was rich, the other was poor. And in the end, there was a great reversal of fortunes.

In Luke, sometimes we will hear this in an Advent song. The mother of Jesus sang these words: "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up those of low degree; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (1:52-53). In church they sound like lilting lyrics, but they have the power to ignite a hundred revolutions.

Luke’s consistent message is, "Thanks to Jesus Christ, everything will be turned upside down." In the final line of today’s text: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

It comes as the punch-line of the story Jesus told: "Once upon a time, two people went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a pious Pharisee. The other was a nasty tax collector." Then everything was turned upside down. By the end of their prayers, the bad person was justified with God. He was “put right.” And the good religious person was . . . well, we don't know what happened to him. He slipped away off the page.

We have to wonder why. Why this great reversal? One person comes out smelling like a rose. . . and the other comes out smelling.  Why? Obviously, it has nothing to do with the kind of life they lead.

After all, the Pharisee was a righteous man. Forget all those stories you've heard about the Pharisees. They were not moustache-twisting villains. No, in the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were religious heroes. They were lay people committed to keeping Jewish faith alive. They were faithful in worship, well-schooled in the scriptures, and deeply concerned about social justice. Listen: every church needs more people like that.

This man is impressive. His piety led him to fast, to abstain from food twice a week to devote himself to prayer. What's more, he tithed his income. He gave ten percent off the top to support God's work. Our office would like to know his address. We want to send him a pledge card. As someone notes, "This Pharisee is the faithful, dependable type (of person) who pays the salaries of ministers so they can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector."[1] He was a good person, a righteous person.

By contrast, you have probably heard about the tax collectors of that time. They were Jewish citizens who collaborated with the Roman Empire. They collected all the imposed taxes that the Empire used to pay for the troops that occupied Jewish towns. The Empire winked and said, “Our collectors can collect as much as they want.” To be a tax collector then was to be a willing participant in a system of institutionalized cruelty. Politically, he was a traitor. Socially, he was a scoundrel. Religiously, he was considered unclean. And all the Jewish people sang, “Mama, don’t your babies grow up to be tax collectors.” They were hated. Despised. Banned from the sanctuary of God!

So what does it mean that this tax collector "went up to the temple to pray?" What kind of person is this? Slipping in the side door, standing in the shadows, trying not to be seen, quietly beating his breast, averting his eyes, mumbling the words of Psalm 51. What kind of person is this? He may have a prayer on his lips, but his life is reprehensible. Can one little prayer get him off the hook? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Is that sufficient to gain him forgiveness? Yes. Jesus says it is enough. That prayer is enough.

But what about the Pharisee’s prayer? I don’t know if you knew this, but it is taken right out of an ancient Jewish prayerbook. The prayer went something like this:

I thank you, O Lord, that you have set my portion with those who sit in
the house of instruction, and not with those who sit on street corners;
for I rise early, and they rise early, but I rise early
for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk;
for I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward
and they labor and do not receive a reward;
for I run and they run; I run to the life of the world to come
and they run straight to the pit of destruction."[2]

He wants God to know that he is doing everything he can to be pure and race toward heaven. But it comes out as if he is saying, “I thank you, O Lord, that I am not like a lot of other people." He stands off by himself and says the sort of thing that many people will still say:

"I thank you, O God, that I don't live in a rundown city like that."
"I thank you that you have given me a better education than others."
"I thank you that I am not a bigot like those people."
“I thank you that, unlike others, my investments have turned out well.”
"I thank you that my marriage is happy."
"I thank you for the color of skin that I received."
"I thank you that I'm not a youngster anymore."

Or more to the point, "I thank you, O God, that I'm better than that man over there." Can you imagine somebody praying like that? Especially in a church? It is intended as a prayer of thanks, but the gratitude seems to misfire. It starts to smell like superiority. And it ignores the hard truth that sooner or later, the field does tend to level out. First becomes last, last becomes first, life seesaws and may level out.

Meanwhile, the tax collecter begs for mercy, because he has come to know that's the only thing he can do. The Pharisee can stand off by himself to say, "Lord, I am glad I'm not like him." But we know better. Don’t we know better?

Remember Linus and Lucy? They were talking one day. Linus said, "Lucy, why are you always so anxious to criticize me?" Lucy replied, "I just think I have a knack for seeing other people's faults." Linus said, "What about your own faults?" Lucy said, "I have a knack for overlooking them."

When he writes about this parable, Eugene Peterson calls this “the tale of two sinners.”  He says both of them are in church. They are both there – the one who believes he belongs there, and the one who isn’t so sure. Gene says, “Churches don’t do a good job of screening the people who show up there,” and all of us can be glad for that. If everybody here knew absolutely everything about everybody else, they would start wondering what kind of God is running the place?

I mean, really: sinners here?

Peterson says they are both sinners. One man is driven to his knees. He knows his life is a disaster. He is incapable of fixing everything that he has messed up. He still needs a job to feed his family, even though the work is questionable at best, and his neighbors hate him. He doesn’t know what to say, other than “God, have mercy on me.” Yep, he’s a sinner.

And then there’s the other one. He is so confident in his own abilities that he really doesn’t need God, because he’s doing it all himself. Remember his prayer? 

I thank you, Lord.
I am not like the others, Lord.
I fast twice a week.
I donate a tenth of my income.

Listen to what he says: I do this, I do that. The I’s have it! It’s all about him, isn’t it? Yep, he’s a sinner, pitiful old arrogant sinner. Perhaps the most pitiful thing of all is that he doesn’t know what he is. He believes he is something better, and therefore he has no need of grace.

This is the only parable that Jesus tells about church behavior. Did you know that? It is the only parable that he actually sets inside a sanctuary. His other tales are of treasures in fields, or seeds planted by a farmer, or glimpses of commerce and family life. But this parable is placed in the house of worship, with the spotlight on two very different people who show up there. The one character who is hungry for the kindness of God is the one who goes away healed. God’s grace for him.

As for the other one – somebody please tell me: why is he there?

Even so, we have to be careful. The temptation for us tax collectors to say, “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like that arrogant Pharisee.” That would also be a terrible thing, because we are more alike than different. All of us! And do you see that sinner over there? Maybe it is you.
The only antidote for any of this is humility. Serious, joyful humility… humility comes from the word for “soil.” We are close to the ground here.

I like the old story that my friend Charles Rice tells. He found it in The New Yorker, I think.

During a recent transit strike in New York, a young man was walking home from work through the park.  It was late and he was alone.  In the middle of his trek he saw someone approaching him on the path.  There was, of course, a spasm of fear. He veered, the stranger veered.  But since they both veered in the same direction, they bumped in passing.

A few moments later the young man realized that this could hardly have been an accident, and felt for his wallet.  It was gone.  Anger triumphed and he turned, caught up with the pickpocket, and demanded the wallet. The man surrendered it.

When he got home, the first thing he saw was his wallet lying on the bed. There was no way of avoiding the truth: he had mugged somebody.[3]

That could have been you - that could have been me - because we are more alike than different.

The Gospel News is what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke: “God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” (6:35). It’s a strange statement when we first hear it, because we don’t think that is the way God should run the world. But that is how Jesus describes the Father: kind, even to though who don’t know it; gracious, even to a world that is no friend of grace.

This is the God we glimpse in Jesus, who, in the moment he is crucified, cries out in prayer, “Father, forgive these clueless human beings.” Our lives, our eternal destinies, depend on that answered prayer.

Let me say it straight: there is grace from God. Forgiving, cleansing, healing grace. It is often ignored, even by religious folk. But it is God’s grace, a complete gift for those who need it most. Grace turns everything upside-down. I’ll say more about that next week.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred Craddock, The Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) p. 211.
[2] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 142
[3] Charles Rice, The Embodied Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) pp. 130-131.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Knocking Until the Door Opens

Luke 18:1-8
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
October 20, 2013
William G. Carter

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
Jesus frequently spoke in parables. It was his preferred way to preach and teach. He would tell a brief story that had some punch in it. Then he would sit back and let the parable do its work. A few people might get the point and smile knowingly. Others would not get it. To them, the parable would sound like an interesting story, perhaps even a little odd. Until people receive ears that hear and hearts that understand, they simply will not get it. Just like the rest of his life and his work, the parables of Jesus reveal and conceal the presence of God's kingdom. They invite us into a whole new world, a world as Jesus sees it. The invitation is there. Our spiritual work is to understand what he's talking about.

But the parable we just heard sounds different from many others. It describes a scene that most of us can readily understand. Jesus said, "Once there was a widow who didn't get satisfaction from the law court. Even though she had to deal with an insensitive judge, she kept knocking at his door. Every day, knock, knock, knock. Every afternoon, knock, knock, knock. Every night, knock, knock, knock. She kept knocking, morning, noon, and night. Eventually she wore down the judge and she got what she wanted."

I think we can picture that scene, don't you? It's a scene that takes shape in a hundred different ways every day.

            "I called last week for an appointment. How can you say he's not in?
                        "This is a Thursday; he never comes in on a Thursday."
            "But I had an appointment."
                        "No, you couldn't have had an appointment. This is a Thursday."
            "Well, I've been trying for days to get through to him."
                        "I'm sorry, but he's a very busy man. You can leave a message."
            "I've been leaving messages for the last two weeks. When can I speak to him?"
                        "Leave a message today, and I'll see that he gets back to you."
            "No, he hasn't gotten back to me yet. What time do you expect him back?"
                        "This is a Thursday. He doesn't come in on a Thursday."
            "When will he be back?"
                        "I told you, this is a Thursday."
            "But I talked to someone two days ago. They set up this appointment."
                        "Well, you didn't talk to me. I wasn't in the office two days ago."
            "Listen, don't you have a record of your own appointments?"
                        "Actually, no. We've had problems with the computer."
            "Can I make another appointment? It's absolutely essential that I talk to him."
                        "No, I'm sorry, we don't set up appointments on Thursdays."
            "Well, I'm going to have to insist . . ."

On and on it goes.  Knock, knock, knock.

We don't need anybody to tell us the meaning of this parable. Here's a woman who had lost her husband. In addition to her grief, she suffered some difficulty at the hand of some opponent. She turned to the legal system for help. According to the Jewish law, the system was inclined in her favor. Widows and orphans got special treatment, since they had no other advocates. So she took her case to court.

Unfortunately, she happened to be assigned the only judge in the world who didn't care about the law. Not only that, he didn't care about God, he didn't care about people, so he certainly didn't care about her. Maybe the only thing he cared about remaining the judge. So the widow started a little campaign of her own. We can assume she knew the law was on her side. So she grew aggressive, even a little bit pushy. She interrupted his golf game to plead her case. She pestered him when he was dining on veal and capers. She banged on his door when he was sound asleep. Knock, knock, knock.

Finally, like a lot of the characters in the parables Jesus tells, the judge had a little conversation with himself. He said, "Self, that lady is wearing me out. I'm going to give her justice, but not because I care about God nor anybody else. No, I'm going to give that widow justice before she gives me a black eye."

Now, we don't need anybody to tell us what this parable is about. But we do need someone to tell us why this is a parable about prayer.

That is Luke's introduction, after all. Before he paints the scene, he has already placed a frame to go around it. Luke says, "Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray."  It joins a number of passages in Luke's gospel that intend to teach us about prayer. Only in Luke do the disciples ask, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus taught them the Lord's Prayer. Another time he said, "Imagine a friend came to you at midnight, begging for bread. What would you do? What would God do?" Then he added, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you will find; (and remember the rest?) knock, and the door shall be opened to you." Jesus taught us to pray with confidence, and honesty, and a clear sense of need.

But he didn't teach us how to annoy God, to wear out God, to get God to give us what we want. On the surface, to call this parable a teaching about prayer is, in my mind, to water down the meaning of prayer. We don't pray to God as if we were widows who kept bothering a judge who tried to ignore us. We pray to a God who knows us, a God who loves us, a God who names us as daughters and sons. We pray to God as an act of trust. As we pray to God, we trust in God. And trust doesn't keep going knock, knock, knock. If you trust somebody, you speak your peace and let it go.

A mother was talking to her teenage son one night.

            "I thought you were going to the homecoming bonfire."
                        "I did. Brian and I were there."
            "When I stopped by I didn't see you."
                        "Well, it started to rain. We stuck around for a while."
            "I was there when it was raining. Where did you go?"
                        "We didn't go anywhere. We stood there in the rain."
            "Then how come I didn't see you?"
                        "Well, we got wet, and Brian's mom said we could have a ride, and . . ."
            "I didn't see Brian's mom there. Where was she standing?"
                        "Well, I don't remember, and we were getting wet, and . . ."

If you trust somebody, you don't keep going knock, knock, knock.

What does all of this knocking have to do with prayer? What does the insistence, the aggressiveness, the hovering, the "in-your-face" attitude, the constant bang, bang, bang - - what does all of that have to do with trust and the life of faith? It's hard for me to make a quick connection. But if there is a connection, it has to do with persistence, with perseverance, with digging in and sticking with it. True faith doesn't have to go knock, knock, knock, because we believe in a God who can be trusted. At the same time, true faith never gives up, never abandons hope, never loses its focus.

Fred Craddock tells about serving his first little church out in the mountains of Tennessee. When he arrived and began his ministry, this rural congregation was having a contest. They were trying to pick appropriate artwork to put behind the pulpit to give a focus to things. Maybe they thought the new minister was already out of focus. Whatever the case, they needed something on the wall. The winner was a little girl, Mr. Hickey's daughter. She had cut out of an old Life magazine a picture of a bulldog, and glued it to a piece of paper, and then written underneath, "Get a bulldog grip on your faith." She won. For weeks, Fred preached beneath that bulldog. For those mountain people, many of whom could not read, many with children of uncertain families, many people unemployed or living in broken-down shacks, that was the picture of faith. Fred says, "I don't care where you are or how tall your steeple, it comes to that."

Faith grabs hold and never lets go. Prayer hangs on and never gives up. And you know as well as I do, that there are a lot of times when you feel like throwing in the towel. You see a lot of institutions that don't seem to work anymore. You see good people who fall to pieces when their loved ones die. You see a society infected by injustice, where wicked people prosper and life seems so unfair. And you really don't know how you can go on believing, much less praying. And maybe that's why Jesus tells this story about a woman who had everything going against her, and yet she kept going knock, knock, knock.

And how striking, too, that Jesus told this parable as part of a speech where he teaching about the kingdom of God. Some Pharisees asked, "Jesus, when is the kingdom of God coming?" And he said, "It's not obvious, but God is already ruling right here." And the disciples interrupted him and said, "Where is the Son of Man to reveal that God is ruling over heaven and earth?" and Jesus said, "That's a dead question." Then he tells this parable: the widow begs for justice, and the judge ignores her. So she keeps begging until finally he breaks down. If that’s how a corrupt judge responds, how much more will a holy God do for all of you?

And yet, when the Son of Man is finally revealed, will he find people who have kept praying, "thy kingdom come"? That's the question, because the prayer of the widow, the prayer for us, is really the prayer, "thy kingdom come."

It takes time to get the prayer right. We pray for a lot of other things. We pray for parking spaces. We pray for good weather. We pray for good grades in school. We pray for a lot of things that in the grand scheme of the universe really don't matter much. It takes time to learn how to really pray. It takes a lot of time and a lot of knocking.

I think of Reynolds Price, a novelist from the south, recently departed. At a medical checkup, he discovered he had cancer. A ten-inch-long tumor was wrapped around his spine. He was never a religious man, but he began to pray. And he said, "I well understood that the vast majority of human prayers get No for an answer, if any answer at all." Yet he kept praying, knocking on every door, rattling every window, pursuing every option. In time, medical care both countered his tumor and took away the use of his legs. The content of his prayers had changed over the course of his illness and healing. At first, he said, prayer was a shameless begging to be made well: "O God, give me my health back." In time, however, his perspective changed. Price began to pray, "O Lord, give me life as long as I have work to do, and work as long as I have life." (A Whole New Life, p. 76)  It took a while, and a lot of knocking, but his prayers changed.

The one thing you have to say about the widow in this story is that she was absolutely sure what she was praying for. Over the course of time, she knew the one thing that really mattered was justice. She wanted a whole new world of fairness and trust and neighborly relationships. That's what she wanted.

Jesus says, "All of you, listen up: won't God grant justice to his people who cry to him day and night? Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (12:32). We trust that. We pray for that. We persevere, and work it through, and try to discover what that means.

"The kingdom of God is among you," said Jesus. "There's a whole new world of justice at hand. And God is going to give it to those who cry to him day and night."

And so, night and day, we pray, "thy kingdom come." Thy kingdom come. In the meantime, Jesus says, "Hang on and keep knocking."

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Grateful Leper

Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013
William G. Carter

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.

Somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, ten people were cured of a skin disease. They kept the Old Testament law by keeping their distance. They recognized Jesus was the Master of mercy. They did what he told them to do: “Go to the priest, just as the Old Testament says, and show him that you have already been cured.”

As they go to do this, they find out they are already cured. Only one of them comes back to say “thank you.” What a strange little detail!

In his little book, The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell asks, “Where are the nine?” Just imagine, he says. You’ve been cured of a disease that segregates you. A dreaded skin disease separated the contaminated from the healthy. Suddenly the disease is gone. So what do you do? Where do you go?

·         Martin Bell imagines one leper was a mother. She ran back to hug one of her children.
·         Another was a literalist. If the Bible said “go see the priest,” he went right to his priest.
·         Another was offended. He expected he had to do something to earn the healing, and Jesus healed him before he could earn it. He was offended.
·         Another was so happy that he forgot to go back and say thanks. (1)  

Like Jesus, anybody can ask, “Where are the nine?” What I want to know is this: what was going on in the one?

Luke says he was a Samaritan. That is a second strange detail. Back then, everybody hated the Samaritans, which is precisely why Jesus made one of those Samaritans the hero of one of his stories, a story that asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water; they did not mix.

When Jesus set out for the final journey to Jerusalem, he sent an advance team into every village. A couple of them stopped in a Samaritan village, and when the townspeople heard Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem, they wanted nothing to do with him. Like oil and water.

Yet Jesus healed this one. He was one of the ten lepers. Jesus did not discriminate in his healing, especially when the illness itself had a discriminating effect. The Jewish Law was clear: if white spots develop on your skin, you are required to withdraw from civilization. If anybody comes near you, you were required to yell, “Unclean! Unclean!” to keep them away.

Here was this man, a leper. No family, no contact. His only community is with nine other people with the same disease, all of them Jews. Normally they would have maintained their racial boundaries, but the only remaining humanity they shared was in their illness.

I have seen that, perhaps you too. Go to the cancer survivor celebration, and these diverse people have something in common. Or parents who meet in the pediatrician’s office; if their kids suffer from the same kind of ear infection, they compare notes and trade cell phone numbers. The same illness can bring people together!

The ten lepers call out for help. When all of them are miraculously healed, it sounds like the old dividing lines return. Nine of them take off, presumably to go see a priest in Jerusalem, to have the healing certified and to be restored to their families. But the Samaritan doesn’t have the same priest; all he has is Jesus.

He turns back to say thanks. Jesus says, “Where are the nine?” I try to imagine what kind of look he had on his face. Was he disappointed that they didn’t come back? Was he bewildered that they didn’t appreciate the gift of getting their lives back? Was he smirking that those obedient Jews were in such a hurry to get to the priest that they severed whatever ties they had forged with their one-time neighbor? We don’t know.

What we do know is that gratitude is a spiritual problem. People who have good things given to them are reluctant to say thanks.

How many of you were forced to write thank you notes by your parents? It reminds me of the back page article that I once read the New Yorker some time back? A middle-aged man remembers Christmas and the days following. He recalls,

Every present under our Christmas tree was just the visible tip of an iceberg of obligation. My mother tracked each package as meticulously as a U.P.S. driver, and her master list haunted my siblings and me for the rest of winter vacation. Bells would be ringing, snow would be falling, our friends would be sliding down our street on brand-new Flexible Flyers - and my sister, my brother, and I would be bent over tear-spattered sheets of stationery, whimpering. (2)

Can you remember such a moment? Enforced Gratitude. It can kill anything that looks like gratitude. I heard about somebody who said to one of her relatives, “If you don't send me a thank you note after I send you a gift, you can't count on getting a gift from me next year." Perhaps she said it to encourage communication throughout the year. But all it did was stir up more resentment. If you are forced to say thank you, why bother saying thank you at all?

All of us know how it is. Gifts are often given with strings attached. My painful recollection is that book of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, the Spoon River Anthology. It's based in the imaginary town of Spoon River, Illinois. Masters goes into the graveyard to read the epitaphs. From the other side of the grave, everybody now tells the truth about their lives. One of those people is a woman named Constance Hately. She explains why two adopted nieces grew up to despise her. Listen:

You praise my self-sacrifice, Spoon River,
In rearing Irene and Mary,
Orphans of my older sister!
And you censure Irene and Mary
For their contempt for me!
But praise not my self-sacrifice,
And censure not their contempt;
I reared them, I cared for them, true enough! - -
But I poisoned my benefactions
With constant reminders of their dependence. (3)

All through their lives, under the guise of generosity, Constance said, "Girls, I took you in when your mother died, and I never want you to forget it. As long as you live beneath her roof, as long as you sit at my table, I want you to remember how much you depend on me." As the years passed, they grew to detest her.

It's nearly impossible to force anybody to feel grateful. Something has to happen inside them. Something more. Maybe that’s why Luke focuses his attention on the grateful Samaritan. He turns back toward Jesus. He praises God with a loud voice. He falls down in worship. He returns to Jesus and gives him eucharist. Or to keep it a verb, the healed man “eucharists” him.

Eucharist is the Greek verb for giving thanks. The root of the word is “charis,” which is the word for grace. Not only that, the prefix “eu” signifies “good.” I think I would like to translate “eucharist” as “grace made good.” Giving thanks is the spiritual response for any gift of God. And how could it be otherwise?

Grace means that God smiles upon us. God gives us gifts of life and faith and healing. God never stops giving good things to us and to the world. That is grace, reflected in God’s continuing generosity. And whenever grace sinks deeply into our lives, the evidence is in our gratitude. The greatest miracle of grace is for anybody to become grateful. This can be the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. As a wise person once said, “I have never known a person grateful who was at the same time small, or mean, or bitter, or greedy, or selfish, or took any pleasure in anybody’s pain. Never.” (4)

It works both ways. Require gratitude and it misfires. Insist on your own independence and gratitude never takes root. The spiritual mystery seems to work in the person who knows how to receive a gift. The way we receive a gift is the revelation of our character.

Somebody does something kind. He looks down at his shoes and murmurs, “You shouldn’t have.” Well, of course, he shouldn’t have, but he did. It’s a gift.

She opens the wrapping paper, smiles knowingly, and declares, “I was expecting this!” That suggests it was perceived as an entitlement. No wonder she forgets to say thank you.

The young lady is surrounded by packages with bright ribbons and bows, and exclaims, “For me?” No, these are for the poor folks in the slum, but we haven’t delivered them yet. She squeals, “for me, for me, for me…” because it is all about her. That is not gratitude.

Genuine gratitude is a spiritual miracle. I think that’s why Luke tells this story. By the time he puts this on paper, the Christ followers have spread into Samaria. There were Samaritans and Jews in the early church. And what they have in common is eucharist – thanks to God for sending Jesus to all of them. In death, he forgives them. In resurrection, he keeps returning to speak and heal.

It seems to me that the virtues of the Christian life are far more subtle than we realize. John Calvin said the chief characteristic of being Christian is not love, or humility, or joy. The chief virtue of the Christian life is gratitude. Calvin said gratitude is even more important than love. Gratitude is the fountain of all service and generosity. Gratitude knows we have been claimed, and rescued, given a new start by the redeeming grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the knowledge of the heart. It saves us.  

Like the lady said to me: "Do you know what I came back to church? I needed to have Someone to thank." Call it eucharist, call it thanks or grace-made-good. I call it the heart of the matter.

Take a few moments today and think over your gift list. Who are the people who have shown you the graciousness of God? When was the last time you said thank you? What better day than the Sabbath, the day given to us for rest, a day to write notes and offer prayers of thanksgiving? God finds so many ways to give us so much, and our call is to say thank you.

You know, I believe Jesus was smiling when the grateful leper came back. Big smile, hearty laugh. The Lord enjoys the kind of faith that saves us – it is faith expressed in gratitude.  For as the mystic said so long ago, “If the only prayer you ever said was thank you, that would be enough.” (Meister Eckhart)

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

 (1) Martin Bell, The Way of the Wolf (New York: Ballantine, 1968) 39-42
(2)  David Owen, "No Thanks," The New Yorker 18 December 1995: 128.
(3) Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (New York: Signet Classic, 1992) 10.
(4)  Fred Craddock, “A Note of Thanks,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 256.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Gaps Between Neighbors

Luke 16:19-31
October 6, 2013
William G. Carter

Some folks regard the parables of Jesus as simple morality tales, as lightweight little stories with a heavenly meaning. But judging by the reaction, they are more explosive than that. Remember that Jesus was killed. He was murdered because he told stories about parents full of aggressive grace, or business owners who cut a break for their unscrupulous managers.

Jesus spoke parables that undermined the social order of life as we know it and he made people angry. He still does, if anybody pays any attention to him. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, he tells a story that proves that life is not fair. Goes like this:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 

He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Life is not fair. There was a rich man and there was a poor man. There you have it; everything else is commentary.

The rich man dressed in purple. Not in plaid or burlap, but in the color of royalty. We have no reason to think he was royalty, but he dressed that way. The color purple was rare and expensive. Purple was worn only by kings and queens … and wannabes.

Not only that, he wore fine linen. One scholar says that’s a technical term, referring to a quality Egyptian cotton.[1] You don’t wear fine linen on top of purple, you wear it underneath. In other words, this guy was so rich that he wore swanky underwear.

And the poor man? How was he covered? He was covered with sores. He was too weak to sit up. Certainly he could not afford to care for himself. The only health care he received was from the neighborhood dogs who showed him affection and applied free salve to his wounds.

Inside the house, the rich man had plenty to eat. He feasted abundantly every day. It says, “every day.” The scholar Ken Bailey says that is the evidence the man was a Sabbath-breaker, never taking a mandated break from extravagance and requiring his servants to make him a banquet when God’s Law required all of them to rest. And every day, he stuffed his stomach.

And the poor man? Nothing to eat. Not even a crumb or a leftover, nothing. It sounds like those high-priced restaurants in Manhattan that toss the throw-away food in the dumpsters and then sprinkle it with lye to keep the homeless people away.

Life is not fair. Anybody doubt that?

This week, parents were panicking in Mississippi because they found out at the last minute that government-funded Head Start programs were shut down. Some of these parents have two or three part-time jobs, the only jobs they could find. They couldn’t take their little kids to work, much less leave them at home, and they needed to show up for those jobs. Meanwhile a congressman was quoted as saying, “Of course I will take a salary, even after voting to shut down the government. I have a nice house with a big mortgage, and I need the money.” [NOTE: after an outcry, this individual did recant...after this sermon was preached.]

Life is not fair. Jesus is not telling us anything that we don’t already know.

But then he tells us about death. The poor man dies and the angels carry him into heaven, where he rests in the arms of Father Abraham. He is held and comforted. The rich man dies, has a funeral (that’s a nice touch), and he ends up in hell. Presumably the flames are burning away his purple and fine linen.

Life was not fair; how about death? Is that fair?

Our perspective depends on where we stand. Some folks see this as a Robin Hood story, pushing us to rob from the rich and give it to the poor. They will quote what Jesus says earlier in this Gospel: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6: 20b, 24)

Of course, wealth, poverty, and the afterlife are not quite that simple. Jesus is not slamming anybody for being rich. According to the Book of Genesis, Father Abraham had been an extremely wealthy man. Scripture says he was “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2) – and he is in heaven. No, money does not keep you out heaven. You can’t take it with you. You have to leave it here. But it doesn’t automatically keep you out. And neither does this parable tell us what we should do. It offers no imperative at all.

Other people would see this as a Jacob Marley story. It’s only October, but do you remember Jacob Marley who we hear about every December? Marley’s Ghost goes to warn stingy old Ebenezer Scrooge: “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” He warns Ebenezer, who doesn’t pay him any attention.

The most curious part of the parable is how the rich man in hell tries to maneuver Father Abraham into helping him out. First of all, he is pretty hot down there, and he wants the poor man to cool him off. The rich man still thinks he’s in charge. That doesn’t work. But then he wants Father Abraham send back Lazarus from the dead to warn his own five brothers about the snares of wealth. Abraham says, “Nope. They already have a Bible that says you shall love your neighbor as much as yourself. If that doesn’t do it, they aren’t going to be motivated by a resurrection.”  

The rich man says, “They need to be warned!” Father Abraham says, “They already have a Bible. That’s the only warning they are going to get.”

Some say this is a Jacob Marley story. Some say it is a Robin Hood story. Anybody care what I think? I think it is a grace story. It is all about grace.

There is the grace that carries a poor man into the arms of heaven. He did not earn it, he could not buy it, and maybe he wasn’t even seeking it. He is weak and cannot save himself, and God rescues him and holds him forever. That is the essence of grace. The person with nothing is given everything. Life damaged him with unfairness, and now he is restored. This is the grace of God. Sooner or later, it is given to those who need it.

What about the rich man? He had grace too. Father Abraham says as much. He calls him “child.” He says, “Child of Abraham, remember that during your lifetime, you received your good things.” Can you hear the grace of that? His wealth, it was a gift of God! I hope you don’t think he earned it. There are a lot of people who work very hard all of their days, and they will never gain what that man had. He has been blessed with riches!

But that old Sabbath Breaker squanders it only on himself. Look at him in his purple robe and his high-priced imported underwear. It’s all about him, to the exclusion of everybody else. Even in death, it’s all about him, hollering from hell, “Send down Lazarus to cool me off!” Wow, he knew his name! But he could never be bothered to invite Lazarus to share in the grace that God had freely given to him. Oh no. He could only hoard it for himself.

Do you know what the problem is with having a lot of money? I mean, it is World Communion Sunday, and globally speaking, everybody here has a lot of money. Do you know the problem with having a lot of money? Money can create gaps between people. Money has the power to splinter families, to the point that they will no longer speak to one another ever again. Money can divide neighbor from neighbor. Money can entice some to hoard it and others to steal it. Money can damage human relationships. Money can insulate people from human needs lying right outside their gate. But it need not be so. There is an alternative, and you know what it is.

I remember the young bride and groom. They saved and saved for their wedding. They had a lot saved for their honeymoon. “Where are you going?” I asked. They said, “Jamaica!” They went off to Jamaica, just married. She was going to get her hair done up in corn rows. They flew down there, and the resort staff said, “No reason to go anywhere; everything you need is on our resort property.” It was a great getaway.

One night after a sumptuous feast, they decided to go for a walk. Strolled out the side gate, down around the bend, and stepped into a settlement of the worst poverty that they had ever seen. He in his purple muscle shirt, she in her corn rows. They saw open sewage in the ditches, tin roof shacks, people with tired eyes looking up at them. A local woman said with a weary smile, “You must have lost your way. Let me show you the way back.”

They came to see me after they returned. Didn’t know what to say. They told me the story. We sat for a bit. Finally she said, “What can we do?” I looked at her and said, “I don’t know; at least, I don’t know yet. But you can pray for God to show you what to do. And you can thank God for showing you what a lot of people ignore.” That’s where it starts.

Because I’ll tell you the truth: the grace of God makes its home in us when our eyes are opened and our hearts are enlarged. And grace is given to be shared.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Ken Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008) 382.