Friday, September 27, 2013


This Sunday's sermon will be from Jeremiah and focus on the special concerns of the local congregation. But the last time I spoke on these propers, I used the Gospel text on Lazarus and Dives to consider a Christian view of immigration. Since immigration is before the House of Representatives, I want to share these thoughts from three years ago.

Faith does not happen in a vacuum.
It happens in the mix and muddle of human life.
As Robert Frost said,
            “Earth is the right place for love.
            I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
So faith happens in our actual lives,
            our private lives and our public affairs alike.
But both our private lives and public affairs
            are driven by forces other than faith.

This past week the bishops of the Episcopal Church
            have been struggling to sort out the place of faith
            in the national debate over immigration.
That debate is driven by quite different forces.
The non-faith principles, which are not necessarily bad  --  just secular --
             are in head to head conflict.

On the one hand, we have free market capitalism
            which most Americans believe in.
Since the rise of capitalism in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries,
            it has depended on a freely mobile labor force
                        – people able to go where the jobs are.
Serfs had to be able to leave the rural manors
            to go to urban factories to make the economy work.

On the other side, we also believe in nationalism.
Nations define themselves with borders
            and protect the wealth inside the borders
                        from those on the outside.
The Dominican Republic where there are jobs
             guards its borders against Haitians
                        who come there for work.
The same thing happens in France, Ecuador,
            and numerous nations.

One could interject facts and statistics to argue
            for one side or the other
                        on the immigration debate.
But facts are the business of economists and sociologists.
Certainly, people ought to learn the facts.
But the Church is here to teach faith,  
            to uphold spiritual and moral values     
            which are the framework for what we do with the facts.

The voice of faith in the immigration debate is bigger than one issue.
It speaks to our whole way of being in the world.
So faith cannot say anything about immigration
            that does not also say something about          
            how we live our lives as congregations and as individuals
                        in our families, our friendships, and our daily work.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
It does not say how the rich man got rich. It doesn’t matter.
It does not say how Lazarus became poor. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is the wall the rich man built to keep Lazarus out.
Lazarus longed “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
But the wall kept him out.

In the next life, Lazarus was comforted in heaven.
The rich man was tormented in Hades.
We don’t know why the rich man was tormented in Hades.
It doesn’t say it was for his callous disregard of Lazarus.
That might be  -- it but we don’t know.

What we do know is that the rich man wanted Lazarus
            to come give him some relief, to show him some mercy.
 But Lazarus could not do it.
He could not come to the rich man’s aid
            because “a great chasm had been fixed between them.”

The unspoken point is that it was the rich man
            who had fixed the great chasm, built the wall,
                        locked the gate.
Now he found himself on the wrong side of it.

This Gospel lesson could say something about immigration.
Or it could tell us about the gated communities
            in which so many of us live. I do.
Or it could say something about the walls of righteous rules
            we use to hoard our own moral superiority
                        from the folks on the outside.

There is a spiritual problem that keeps building walls.
It built the Berlin Wall.
It built the Great Walls of China and Peru.
It built Hadrian’s Wall to keep barbarians out of the Roman Empire.
You can look at them now and see it isn’t a successful track record
            that keeps us erecting walls.

It’s something inside us.
It’s the same spiritual problem that builds walls around human hearts
            to protect us from the vulnerability
                        of caring too much about too many.
Jesus keeps saying all through Luke
            that we can build our walls,
            but there is no guarantee which side of the wall
                        we will wake up on tomorrow.

Life is a terribly uncertain proposition with lots of ups and downs.
Shakespeare said that in most of his plays.
Frank Sinatra said it in one of his classics:
            “That’s life. That’s what all the people say.
            You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.
            But I know I’m gonna change that tune
            When I’m back on top in June.
            I said, ‘That’s life.’”

The spiritual problem that builds walls
            is our notion that we can stop all that upping and downing.
We think we can build a wall to keep the workers out or the jobs in.
We think we can build a wall around our families
            to make them little islands of wholesome tranquility
                        in cities beset by crime, poverty, and addiction.
But the walls don’t work.
Life is life and life moves no matter how hard
            we try to wall it in or wall it out.

The moral of the story in Luke
            is that walls imprison us.
They cut us off from each other
            and we need each other.
The stranger is the unknown part of ourselves.
We cannot wall out risk without walling out blessing.

To open the gates of our  hearts is to risk
            caring too much for too many.
I don’t know what we ought to do about any public policy.
Others know more about economics and such.

But I do know that as long as we have walls around our hearts
            we will keep building them around our nation
                        and our neighborhoods.
We will wall ourselves in and wall life out.

We began by quoting Robert Frost,
            “Earth’s the right place for love . . . .”
He also said,
            “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .
            Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
            What I was walling in or walling out,
            And to whom I was like to give offense.
            Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .”

Monday, September 9, 2013

To Spend Thyself Nor Count The Cost

“So let the love of Jesus come and set thy soul ablaze
to give and give, and give again what God hath given thee;
to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously
the God who gave all words that are, and all that are to be.”[i]

The context of Paul’s letter to Philemon is slavery.
That offensive context makes it hard for us
to even read the letter,  
much less find something helpful in it.
Thankfully, Paul is trying to set one slave free.
That helps.
But he doesn’t say what we want him to say.
Paul doesn’t say slavery is wrong.
As a Jew, the descendant of slaves,
he knows slavery was wrong.
As a Christian, who had written “for freedom Christ
         has set us free,”
he knows slavery was wrong.
But he doesn’t say that.

He says in passing, he could as an apostle order Philemon
         to do the right thing.
But he does something else.
He says, “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
There is a lot of love going on here.
Paul loves Christ, Philemon, and the slave Onesimus.
Paul believes Philemon loves Christ and himself.

He invites Philemon to stretch his love a little further,
         to stretch if far enough to include someone
outside his normal circle of concern – a slave.
But love is costly.
Love is action, not just feeling.
Stretching his love is going to cost Philemon something.
But it’s also going to bless Philemon beyond anything
         he can imagine.

So what’s the cost?
Philemon has already given the use of his house
         for the Church in Colossae.
He has already contributed substantially
to fund Paul’s missionary ventures.
Now Paul is asking him to contribute Onesimus.
To us, Onesimus is a person.
But if we dare put ourselves in Philemon’s shoes,
         if we look at the world through the first century
                  moral lenses that Philemon wore,
                  Onesimus was an asset.

He was wealth.
Onesimus was about $10,000 to $12,000.
It took a lot of gall to ask for that kind of a gift.
But Paul asks it. He asks it out of love.
Love for Onesimus. Love for Christ.
And yes, love for Philemon. How is that?
How does hitting someone up for a major gift
         express love?
Let me tell you a story.

Methodist pastor J. Cliff Clifford
took his wife fishing on their honeymoon.
Pastor Cliff and his bride were in a boat on an Arkansas lake.
He liked fishing and he was also showing off for his new wife.
So he tied a 3-hook lure to his line and cast it into the water.
After awhile, he hooked a huge bass that put up a fight.

Cliff was determined to catch that bass.
He was going to possess it, to dominate it, own it,
show it off as a prize.
His whole will was focused on getting that fish.

Finally, he jerked the rod so that the big fish flopped
         into the boat.
It landed on his lap and in an instant,
         one hook was stuck firmly in the fish’s jaw
         and the other hook stuck just as firmly in Cliff’s thigh.
Every time the fish flopped, blood spurted.

For Pastor Clifford, it was a moment of conversion.
Until that point in the story, he had desperately wanted
to possess that bass.
But, when he was hooked himself and the blood was spurting,
the very thing he had sought  
to possess now possessed him
     and all he wanted was to get rid of it.
Eventually, he painfully tore the fish lose and threw it back.

That’s how it is with wealth.
Having wealth would be just fine it that’s what happened.
The problem is, the wealth has us.
What we set out to possess, possesses us.

Our possessions hold us back from God
         and from our brothers and sisters.
That’s why Jesus says in today’s gospel lesson
         that anyone who want to be his disciple
         must let go of all his possessions, not 10%, all.
Philemon’s stuckness in wealth
         even made him keep a Christian brother in bondage.

George Washington had a similar problem.
He wanted to emancipate his slaves.
Partly he wanted to emancipate them because it was right.
But mostly, it was that the economics of agriculture
had changed so his slaves
were now costing him more than he could afford.
But Martha and the family just would not hear
         of his giving up the family’s slaves.
So, like Pastor Cliff, George was stuck.
It kind of makes you wonder who was possessing whom.
So George took the sneaky way out and freed the slaves
         in his will.

Our attachment to our so-called possessions
         is a spiritual trap and we are all stuck in it.
The more we have, the more stuck we get.
Rich Americans give away just over 2% of their income.
Poor people give away just over 4%.
The poor are twice as generous as the rich,
         because the grip of financial need
                  is not so tight as financial attachment.

In this letter, Paul genuinely wants something good for Onesimus,
         his freedom.
He wants something good for Christ, another missionary.
But he also wants something good for Philemon.
Paul knows the problem isn’t greed.
Fear is the glue that sticks us to our possessions.
He wants Philemon to know the peace that comes
         when faith triumphs over fear.

Paul wants spiritual freedom for Philemon
         as much as he wants legal freedom for Onesimus.
In that freedom, Paul imagines Philemon and Onesimus
         enjoying a new relationship, brother to brother,
         not master to slave.
Make no mistake, our attachment to wealth
         shapes, constrains, and impairs
                  our relationships with people.

So Paul makes the ask.
He does not lay a moral duty on Philemon.
He doesn’t tell him what he should do.
Instead he appeals on the basis of love.

He prays that Philemon will “perceive all the good we may do
         for Christ.”
So I wonder: what do you perceive
that this church doing for Christ?
What might this church do for Christ?

I am assuming that Jesus has saved you from the pit
just like he’s saved me.
I don’t just mean some bad fate after we die.
Jesus has saved me with miracle, grace, and inspiration,
         with hope and courage that were not my own,
again and again, from having my life fall apart.
I am sure as I am standing here, he’s done the same for you
         and he will do it again.

So, with that in mind,
        what do you suppose gladdens the heart of Jesus?
Do you think he might care about the baptisms of children
         regardless of their ethnicity?
Do the gifts you send to Gibson Middle School
         matter to him?
Does your music lift his spirit?
When a lonely person is welcomed, visited, and befriended,
         does Jesus smile?

What does this church do that gladdens the heart of Christ?
What might it do?
And if you saw your gifts doing God’s merciful will in the world,
         might that set you free from a little of what possesses you?
Might the love of Jesus entice you to live a little more
         by faith and less by fear?
If you were in Philemon’s shoes,
if Paul wrote to you asking for a gift of $12,000
         to gladden the heart of Jesus through the ministry
                  of this congregation, what would you do?

[i] Morning Song. Hymnal 9