Friday, June 30, 2017

Parables For The 4th Of July

One of my mentors in ministry seemed to have a knack for always singing "O God Of Earth And Altar" when there was a national crisis.  I once asked him how he managed that since I knew that he planned his services way ahead of time.  His response was, "There's always a crisis, I just set my schedule."  I say that because I did not originally expect this week's sermon on the two parables found in Luke 12:13-21 and Luke 16:19-31.  These parables are often called "The Rich Fool" and "The Rich Man and Lazarus."

I have been preaching this series on the parables and a few weeks ago moved their order around because I wanted one of the parables to match the Baby Dedication service we were doing.  In doing so, these two parables wound up on the 4th of July weekend.  Further proof, if it is needed, that God has a sense of humor.

These two parables hold an uncomfortable mirror up to those of us living in America, whether we explore them personally or as a nation. 

In the first, Jesus tells the story of a man whose isolation is so extreme that he only talks to himself.  His ponderings over what to do with his increasing wealth are peppered with the phrases, "my grain," "my barns," "my soul."  This in a culture (that of the Middle East in Jesus' day) in which no one made decisions without consultation with neighbors and long discussion.  Also in a Torah culture this kind of agricultural windfall would be expected to be used to assist the neighbor who was struggling.  But this man has no thoughts at all along either of those lines.  His entire monologue is a study in narcissism.  And God's response is, "This night your life is required of you."  The Greek word used for "required" or "demanded" is one usually related to the calling in of a debt payment.  Our lives are on loan.  We do not own them.  Our wealth is on loan.  The bounty of our nation is on loan.  We will be required to give all of them back and to make some account of what we've done with them.

In the second parable, Jesus describes this attitude as it gets acted out in interpersonal relationships...up close and personal.  The rich man has no name.  He is often called "Dives," but this is just Latin for "rich man."  He wears his purple (an expensive cloth) every day.  And the fact that he is also described as "dressed in linen" is a reference to undergarments.  Jesus is saying, "even his underwear was expensive stuff."  (I will leave you to make your own connections to Donald Trump here, but believe me, I'm making them as well).

There's this poor man.  A beggar.  A sick beggar. His name is Lazarus.  Every day he is laid at the rich man's gate in hopes that this rich man will be stirred to pity and offer some help.  It doesn't happen.  In fact, the only compassion shown to Lazarus is from the semi-wild dogs who come and lick his sores like he was one of them.  All the while, the rich man is feasting away.  Every day has to be a sumptuous meal.  Lazarus would settle for the scraps; but there are none.

Then they both die. Lazarus is "carried by angels" to the honored place "in the bosom of Abraham."  The rich man "dies and is buried."  Short, brutal.  The rich man wakes up stripped of all the things that used to matter to him, that he based his life on, that he worshipped.  No purple, no fancy underwear, no sumptuous meals.  And, he is told by Abraham, separated from Abraham and Lazarus by a huge gulf that no one could cross, even if they wanted to.

I got to asking myself where that gulf came from.  Here is my answer:  The rich man dug that gulf. He dug it everyday that he ignored Lazarus.  He is like Marley in A Christmas Carol saying, "I wear the chains I forged in life."  And the gulf is there because, even in death, the rich man cannot see Lazarus as anything but a means to an end: "send Lazarus to quench my thirst," "send Lazarus to warn my brothers."  It is a gulf of his own creation.  It is also notable that the rich man knew Lazarus' name.  This wasn't someone who was a stranger to him.  He knew who he was.  And still he ignored his needs.

How like us is this? As Congress fights over a health care bill and the uninsured struggle with medical needs.  As food insecurity mounts while we have the capacity to ensure that no one in this country goes hungry.  As companies, like the Rich Fool, focus on the "bigger barns" of "maintaining" rather than curing illnesses.  And, like the Rich Man, we know exactly who the needy are lying outside our gate.  The gulf between us in our richness and the poor (both in our country and abroad) and God (notice where Abraham is) is deep and broad and we have dug it ourselves.

These are Judgement Parables.  They remind us that all we have as a nation is on loan.  One day, perhaps very soon, the debt will be called.  Maybe not in an apocalyptic Second Coming scenario.  But in a national crisis that could destroy the nation that we claim to love.

I do love my country....but I am not proud of it right now.  Beyond the stupid tweets and the narcissism of Donald Trump, I am not proud of how we deal with the poor and the hungry and those who are without adequate health care.  I love my country enough to say, "This is wrong and God will judge us."

So where is the Gospel.  Where is the Good News.  It lies in the fact that we CAN change.  We can look into the mirror of these parables and, with some shame, fix what is wrong.  We can share the bounty rather than focus on "storing up" so that a chosen few can "eat, drink and be merry."  "We can reach out to those "laid at our gate" and provide care.  We can start filling in the gulf we're digging before it is too late.  These parables are not a Gospel of "there, there" but of "get off your ass."  The Good News is that we have a God who loves us enough to show us where we are failing.  Failing one another, failing God, failing our better selves.

Perhaps there are no better parables for us on this 4th of July.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The "Good Samaritan" Revisited

Next to the parable of the Prodigal Sons, this is probably the best known of Jesus' parables.  It's name has been borrowed for a number of caring endeavors from hospitals to substance abuse treatment programs; from evangelical relief organizations to suicide prevention hotlines.

One thing that is consistently true about any appropriate use of the story's name is that the story itself, and the work of any organization that borrows it, happens not in places that are "high and lifted up," but down in the nitty gritty world of blood and violence and political turmoil and bigotry.  For that is where this story takes place.

The famous preacher, George Buttrick, described it as beginning in a theological controversy and ending in a description of “first aid by the side of the road”.  It arises, he said, in a question of eternal life and works out to a payment for room and board at a hotel.  His words echo the truth that the Gospel is always lived "by the side of the road" where the world's wounded lie bleeding, broken and left for dead.  We forget this at our peril.  For if we cannot understand and see it here, how will we truly understand it anywhere else?  Or, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, "If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?"

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho drops 3000 feet in altitude over approximately 18 miles.  The switchbacks through the hot, limestone rocks made great opportunities for bandits who lived in the caves to use for ambush.  These bandits were often  peasants who had lost their land to the elite money lenders who all feared, and the sympathy of many of Jesus' listeners would have been with them.

The namelessness of the man wounded.  We know nothing about him.  The robbers have stolen any and everything that might give us a clue.  Rich/poor, young/old, color, language, we only know that he was robbed and wounded.  

In the Torah “map” or hierarchy of people, priests and Levites head the purity list.  A Samaritan wouldn’t even make the list.

The priest and Levite would avoid contact with a naked and presumably dead body.  A priest could touch a corpse only to bury immediate family.  And, the fact that the man is naked makes figuring out his social status difficult.

The Samaritan, traveling back and forth in Judean territory may well have been a trader, which was a despised occupation.  This is suggested by the fact that he had oil, wine, and considerable funds.  Many traders were wealthy, having grown rich at the expense of others.

Inns were notoriously dirty and dangerous and run by persons whose public status was below even that of traders.  Only people without family or social connections would ever risk staying at a public inn.  The Greek word used here is pandokeion.  The word is only used once in the NT, in this parable.  It is different from the “room in the inn” at Jesus birth which is actually translated better as “guest room” and that is used in that story and in the Last Supper where it is translated “upper room.”

Both the victim and the Samaritan would have been despised people who didn’t elicit much sympathy from Jesus’ listeners.

But this is where Jesus tells the Torah expert, and us, that "love of neighbor as ourselves" gets lived out.  This is made more ironic by the fact that one of the major disputes between Jews and Samaritans was over the observance of the laws of Torah.

Jesus is asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  His response thrusts His listeners into the hot, sweaty work of living and "gospel-ing" in places where many of us would rather not go.  Jesus forces us to see that "love of neighbor" does not always occur among the clean, the deeply spiritual (as in "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual"), or the socially acceptable.  Sometimes, Jesus says, it is happening among those we reject and are repulsed by.

One of the things that Jesus' parables did, and continue to do, is that their open ended form leaves us with challenges to our own lives and questions that aren't answered.  The question for us is what does "go and do likewise" look like in our lives and in our day and time?  What do risky compassion and mercy look like on our streets, our neighborhoods, our nation?  Will we find a way to carry the wounded, left for dead to safety and help?  Or will we, like the priest and Levite, pass by on the other side?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Like Father, Like Son

Father's Day, the shooting of Congressmen in Del Ray, a burning building in London....and this week's passages from John 5:19-24 and 3:1-21.  Try making THOSE fit together.

I've been thinking about my own father a lot lately.  For better or ill, much of who I am is the result of the family I grew up in.  And I spent my childhood wanting to be "just like my Daddy."  I am, in many ways, very much like him.  I love to sing.  He had a beautiful baritone voice.  I have a temper that I've spent much of my life trying to tame.  He could go into a frightening rage.  I also remember him as being the parent who rocked me and sang to me in a gooseneck rocker in our family living room; my twin brother and I perched on either side of his lap.  I remember the songs to this day: Ride Tenderfoot Ride was an old cowboy song about learning from the "old range riders at your side": and Danny Boy can still bring tears to my eyes even as it did when I lead folks in singing it at his funeral.  I remember the two of us, my father and I, singing it to my two daughters when they were both under 4 and we were visiting him in S.C.

Jesus has no qualms about saying how much He wants to be like His Abba, His Daddy.  In fact, in John 5, he draws a picture that probably looked to His listeners a lot like a parable.  It would have created in their mind a picture of a young boy, apprenticed to his father to learn the trade that had been handed down from generation to generation.  Jesus says, "I only do what I see the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise."(John 5:19)  You can see the young boy watching and imitating every move the father makes.

That means that all the compassion, all the healing, all the refusing to judge, that Jesus is doing, He is doing because He learned it from the Father.  In fact, in 5:22, Jesus says that the Father has given the "Judgement Division" of the Family Business to the Son....and guess what?  Jesus spends a lot of time talking about NOT bringing people under judgement.

Jesus is living out in flesh and blood what He has seen the Father doing in cosmic terms.  What Jesus did is a direct reflection of the nature of the Father.  This is what God is like.

Then we look at John 3.  We're told we must be "born again."  This is a phrase that has been heard and misheard, used and abused.  That is, in part, because the Greek word anothen conveys two meanings: "born anew" and "born from above."  To be "born anew" is to risk giving up all the privilege of one's social class in that culture (it was given to you at birth); but it was also to become "born from above," to be born from the realm of God-to belong to that realm, to become a veritable child of God.

This is a risk for us as well.  Because many of us rest in places of privilege.  And we're pretty comfortable with how things are.

But if we are going to "see the Kingdom" (and please notice that this is the only time that John's Gospel mentions the Kingdom-unlike the other Gospels that talk about it a lot), we have to be "born from above."  We have to, like Jesus, become apprenticed to the Father.

Suddenly, fires in London and shootings in Del Ray take on a different perspective.  What do "children born from above" who are "apprenticed to the Father" do in the circumstances.  What does it mean when we look at these tragedies; look back at Jesus, and through Him to the Father; and say, "I want to be just like my Daddy?"

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Slavery and Throwaways

My first encounter with slavery real active alive slavery was in my sophomore year of high school. I didn't have the words then to call it slavery but that's what it was and it came complete with brutality and murder

The church I grew up in had a very active, mission oriented, youth program.  It was involved in running Vacation Bible School in some of the migrant camps whose workers picked the summer peach crop in the various orchards in Spartanburg County.

Spartanburg County is peach country and every year the migrants would  work their way up from Florida.  Many of the migrant crews that I had contact with originated in Pompano Beach.  A Crew Boss (who usually had a bus or two) would recruit a crew to work their way north.  He would loan them money for food, front them what they needed to make the trip.  They would move north picking crops all the way to New York before returning to Florida in the fall.  The problem was that the picker was always in debt to the Crew Boss.  Pickers, male and female, whole families, would work all season long and end up with little or nothing to show at the end of the season.

I remember one Crew Boss in particular who would come out and talk with us and tell us how happy he was that we were there running Vacation Bible schools for the children of his workers. There really weren't that many children connected to his crew.  Most of his crew as late teen, early twenties young men.  I remember this particular Boss as being a large, muscular man who talked quietly, but often talked about violence (how to hide a razor blade between your fingers so that if you slapped someone, you would cut them seriously).
About five years later, when I was in college, I followed the news as they began digging up the ground around that migrant camp. They found some six bodies buried there. Young men mostly who had attempted to leave his crew. And since he needed them to make money (he had set up contracts to pick crops) when they tried to leave he killed them.

What you had was a situation that very much resembles the relationship between some prostitutes and their pimp. The pimp makes the prostitute indebted to him and forces her or him to work off that debt on the street. In this case, the debt was being worked off in the peach orchards through long hours of back-breaking labor with little food and poor living conditions. Trying to leave could get you killed.


Over the years, I have become interested in situations that, by any other name, constitute slavery.  The Black Codes in the South that forced blacks to stay in towns and work for minimal wages, denying them the opportunities to start businesses or move north to better jobs.  The coal mine companies that kept miners in perpetual debt and paid them with company script that could only be used at the company store.  A mill culture that in some (admittedly not all) situations followed the same pattern as the mines.  Brutal labor, frequent violence, the use of child labor.  These have all been part of the American story.  My father's mother, a petite woman, was shorter than I was by the time I was in the second grade.  She was naturally short, but she was permanently bent from working over a weaving loom in a South Carolina cotton mill....Slavery?  In those cases where it wasn't; it was the next best thing.

And now?

An OJP Fact Sheet states:

According to these data, 82 percent of reported human trafficking incidents in the United States between January 2008 and June 2010 involved allegations of sex trafficking; labor trafficking accounted for 11 percent of incidents; and other or unknown forms of human trafficking made up the remaining 7 percent."

You can find more information about Labor Trafficking at  Vulnerable populations are frequently targeted by traffickers.  Immigration status, recruitment debt, isolation, poverty, and the absence of strong labor protections in this country are some of the things that can lead to labor trafficking.

Then there is human sex trafficking.  Add to the vulnerable populations mentioned above, the population of runaway adolescents and children.  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported in 2014 that 1 in 5 runaways are at risk for forced sexual exploitation.  This is an increase from the 1 in 6 represented in their previous report.  The estimated number of youth at risk for child trafficking is upwards of 350,000.

By any other name this is Slavery.

Only in the last few years have we in the clinical/therapeutic community begun to explore the mental health issues that arise from being enslaved, trafficked, sold or traded like an animal, then tossed aside, abandoned, or murdered when your use runs out.

Which brings me to my involvement with the play Forsaken Angels. You can say that the play is brutal; the language is raw and obscene; the sexual content runs right up to the line.  And you would be absolutely correct.  Then why, you might ask, would you put this play up in a church?  And why would you, a pastor, take a role in this play?  And not just any role, but a violent, sadistic, psychopathic, gender bending pimp.

Now I could skirt the question and say that I love theatre (which I do), that we have a great setting at our church (which we do), and that playing this role is a way for me to let aggressive emotions out in a safe and creative way (which it is).  But that would not be the real answer.

Here is the truth, at least as it is for me:

In over thirty years as a therapist and a pastor, I have personally known, treated, or pastored victims of every form of the modern slavery we now call "human trafficking" (as though we were selling cigarettes from N.C. in N.Y.).  This includes the horrible slavery of being forced to fight as a "child soldier."  I have seen the damage done to the soul and spirit of the victims of modern slavery.

I cannot say it any clearer, and I will not deny the reality, THIS IS A JESUS ISSUE.  The One that I claim as my Savior and whom I believe was God with skin on....this One who came that all of us might have life in all it's fullness.....I believe this One demands that we see the enslaved around us as brothers and sisters in need of freedom.  We shame the name of Christian when we ignore this horror that goes on around us; in our own nation, our towns, our neighborhoods. We need to pray that God will open our eyes to be able to that we can act; so that we can be the Body of Christ around this issue.

So if I can help, even a little, to raise the awareness about human trafficking (in all it's forms) by helping provide a place for the production and by playing a gender bending pimp...if one person goes out of one performance with open eyes and an awareness that helps one victim of slavery escape and find help.....then hand me my wig, slap on my make-up, strap on my heels and point me toward the will have been worth it....and, for me, it will be in service of the Jesus I seek to follow.